On our second day, we woke up early for our train to Florence. Well, James woke up early and I was just hitting my sleep stride from being up with jetlag from 12-2. But, this train ticket had an actual reservation that we needed to keep. Plus, we were meeting our Italian friends at 12:30 so we needed to get our touring done before then.
How do we have Italian friends, you ask? Well, in my language learning I happened to connect through conversationexchange.com with an elementary school teacher in Florence, Daniela. Last year when I told her we were flying into Florence, she insisted on picking us up at the airport. She and her husband, Roberto, then took us to dinner that evening in Fiesole and drove us around a bit. It is still one of my favorite memories in Italy. All I can say is that Daniela and Roberto outdid themselves this time, but I will get to that in a bit.
Back to the train to Florence! It was a fast train, so we were there by 7:40 which is really early in Italy. We made our way to the Duomo because James wanted to climb the dome. It is over 550 steps, and my feet and body already felt like they had taken a beating. I didn't need to add killing myself via dome climb to my bucket list. So, James climbed and I took my time touring the Piazza del Duomo with no crowds. I was the only one looking at the baptistery doors which are normally 5 people deep. I got clear, uninterrupted photos of Giotto's bell tower and the facade. Then, I attended Mass in the Duomo which happened to be the cantor's Mass which meant the monks and priests sang. Their voices bounced off the walls and echoed like angels. With the glorious painting above me on the dome of the angels in heaven, it felt otherworldly. Another plus? No regular tourists are allowed in that early, only worshipers, so I had the place mostly to myself. It's a real treat to be in one of the top 5 largest churches in Christendom practically alone.
James and I met back up; photos of his climb are forthcoming when we get home. He claims it was better than he had expected, and was a true highlight. After, we made our way to the Museum of the Duomo which holds all of the art and treasures that had previously had been in the church, but were removed after the church flooded or when they began to worry about the elements harming the art. There are several Donatello statues, a heartbreaking Michaelangelo, and the real doors to the Baptistry.
Back on the brink of the Renaissance in the early 1400's, Florence held a competition to see who would design the Baptistry doors. Lorenzo Ghiberti stunned the committee with his use of perspective, something which had really not existed previously in art, and won the commission. His competitor, Brunelleschi, would go on to design the first dome since ancient times for the Duomo. Ghiberti's final set of panels for the doors are intricate bronze depictions of Biblical scenes. When Michaelangelo saw them, he declared them fit to hang on the "gates of paradise", which they are now known as. The real ones are mind boggling. Each of the 16 panels tells full Biblical stories using perspective to place different events in the foreground etc. They must be seen to be believed.
Next up was the Basilica di San Lorenzo and the Medici Chapels. The Medici were the most important ruling family Florence ever had. They commissioned all the most famous Renaissance art, produced two crappy Popes who inspired reformation, and put Florence on the map. This church, designed by Brunelleschi, was their home parish and the chapels, their burial place. Michaelangelo designed the chapels and sculpted pieces for their tombs. I know you expect me to say it was amazing, but I finally found some fault with Michaelangelo. I have trouble believing this guy ever saw a naked woman. His females are so unreal from breasts even Playboy would reject for their fake nature and man arms with oversized muscles and protruding veins. One has rolls of fat on her stomach with a clearly defined six pack above. Sorry Mike; we gals are not just boys with boobs. The men were fantastic as always, and the clothed ladies were just fine (he does a great female face). The chapel was definitely worth seeing, as was the church.
We had no other museums or churches on the itinerary, so we decided to head over to my favorite square in Italy, Piazza Della Signoria, for some down time. Crowded with people and sculpture, this square never disappoints. As we lounged among Perseus' Medea and the Rape of the Sabines, music floated in the air from a folk player, and I treasured a perfect Italian moment. One gelato stop later, it was time to meet Daniela and Roberto for what, we didn't know, but we would not be disappointed.
When we saw our friends, we were greeted with Italian style kisses and were quickly whisked away to lunch. Our lunch consisted of a light pasta with tomato sauce, tortellini ragu, and fried seafood. Our friends refused to let us pay, and we were off to a small town for gelato and coffee. Roberto then decided that we needed a tour of Tuscany, and what followed was an itinerary we could have never pulled off on our own. We drove into little hill towns and villages, sometimes only pausing for a few photos of old church or a quick stroll in the piazza. Roberto introduced us to the friends he had in each town, ans well as some Tuscan sweets. The culmination of the day was Montereggione, then San Gimignano, which now has my vote for most beautiful town on earth.
At the end of the day, we were invited back to their house for a home cooked Italian meal and feasted on pasta, about seven different kinds of cheeses and Prosecco. Finally, they took us to the train station and saw us off. I think they must be the most kind people in Italy. They went over and beyond what even most family members would do when relatives come to town for someone they had met once. Today, we felt more like Italians than tourists.