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Chanting Monks Wrap Up Florence

[Florence, Italy]

Today was my last full day in Florence –  I am staying here through Tuesday of next week, but I am taking side trips for the rest of my stay here. I checked out the last few attractions I had not been to but I also did a couple of things today that were distinctly Florentine – and those were much more enjoyable; may I even say, divine.

I first headed back to Santa Maria del Fiore, or the Duomo as it is more commonly known. I had been in the clock tower but I hadn’t been inside the cathedral itself. I heard it’s underwhelming, but I had to check it out. This gothic cathedral has the third longest nave in Christendom. The church’s neo-Gothic facade from the 1870s is covered with pink, green and white Tuscan marble.

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Many of the church’s great art is actually stored in its museum, which is unfortunately closed for renovations until November 2015.

The cathedral is most famous for Brunelleschi’s magnificent dome. It was the first Renaissance dome and a model for domes to follow. It was also the biggest dome to be built in Italy since the Pantheon in Rome. As pretty is as it is on the outside, the church is rather underwhelming inside, and so it didn’t take me long to take a good look. I did check out the crypt, which had tombs and the remains of the church that was built here before the Duomo.

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My next stop was the Church of Santa Maria Novella near the train station. This 13th century Dominican church is rich in art – there are crucifixes by Giotto and Brunelleschi, as well as a fresco called The Trinity by Masaccio (he also painted some of the frescoes in the Brancacci church, which I checked out on my first day here). The outside of the church is a very pretty mix of different styles.

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The church was great, but I was more excited to check out the Farmacia di Santa Maria Novella just a block away. This perfumery has long been run by the Dominicans of the church – it started as an herb garden for the monks. Well known for its top quality products, it’s as Florentine as it can get. You pick up a product list at the front, then meander among several rooms to check out the products, which range from hair and body care to perfumes, teas and liqueurs. At each counter, your purchases gets encoded in a card, which you then bring to the check out desk. This makes shopping here dangerously easy, as you don’t have to carry anything around!!! This was a very unique experience and I was very happy I did it. I am keeping mum about any shopping that may or may not have occurred.

The last two major attractions that I had not visited were the two residences of the Medicci – their former one (Palazzo Vecchio) and their later one (Pitti Palace).

Pitti palace was originally the home of a Florentine banker named Pitti, but was bought by the Medicci in the 15th century. Later on, it served as a home base for Napoleon and even later, briefly as the principal palace of the newly elected king of united Italy, who then donated it to the state. The palace is enormous; its main attraction is the Palatine Gallery, which has the second largest Raphael collection – the Vatican beats it by one.

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There are a few other museums in the palace as well as two gardens – the Boboli and Bardini gardens.

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Boboli gardens

This palace is so big that it’s hard to tour everything. I chose to take a peek at the Boboli gardens, which were gorgeous, the Costume gallery, which appealed to my sense of fashion, and of course the Palatine Gallery, which I found overwhelming and really poorly signed. As I walked from one ornate room to another, I got lost in walls sagging with masterpieces.

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Costume gallery at the Pitti palace

I got a break in the Royal apartments, where Pitti’s rulers lived in the 18th and 19th century. Only a few of the 14 rooms are open at any one time, but each features a different color and time period. This is where you really get a feel for the splendor that the Pittis lived in.

Outside of Pitti Palace, I had my first (and so far only) taste of the tourist traps that this city is full of. I wanted to take a break before walking into Pitti, so I ordered an espresso at a cafe just across the street. It was 1 EUR while standing at the counter. As soon as I tried to go outside with it though, the gal at the counter said it’s more expensive to sit outside. How much more expensive? How about four times! Yes, she said it’s 4 EUR if I want to sit at a table outside with it. I asked her for a to go cup instead, poured my espresso in it and sat at the Pitti Palace steps taking my break and wishing I knew how to curse in Italian.

By the time I was done with Pitti, Sarah was done with Italian school. We grabbed some pizza at Gusta pizza, then sat on the steps of the church nearby and ate and drank wine and people watched, very much like many other tourists and local were doing. Sitting on the steps of a church/monument with a loved one and most likely with food/drink/cigarette in hand is what one does here! It is so simple but oh, so satisfying! A slower, simpler life more focused on connecting with each other is what I miss the most about Europe.

In the afternoon, we visited Palazzo Vecchio, which was one of the few things in Florence Sarah had not done yet. This castle-like fortress has a 300-foot spire that dominates the square.

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In Renaissance times, it was the town hall until 1540 when Cosimo I de Medici, the second duke of Florence, made it his primary residence. The guy redid the whole thing and put his name in every single room somehow.

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We got to tour the lavish apartments and go up the clock tower. We found out why it was closed the afternoon before – they were installing a couple of pieces in the palace by American artist Jeff Koons. We saw one of his pieces in front of the palace and one inside one of the royal apartments. We climbed the 418 steps to the top of the clock tower, and once again enjoyed great views of Florence. Seeing the city from above does not get old, and I echo Sara’s sentiment that it’s nice to get out the narrow streets of the city and get some breathing room.

In the evening, we went to another high point on the South side of the Arno with great views of the city – Piazzale Michelangelo. But first, we went into San Miniato church, just a little bit above the square. According to legend, the martyred St. Minias was beheaded on the banks of the Arno in AD 250. He picked up his head, walked here, where he died and was buried. In the 11th century, the church was built to house his remains. The facade of the church is classic Florentine Romanesque. Besides the beautiful frescoes inside, the highlight of the visit was the evening vesper service (sunset evening prayer service) of Gregorian chants performed by the monks of the church. It was a wonderful meditative experience, which allowed me to intimately experience this medieval space at its full potential. It is another distinctively Florentine experience I will never forget.

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The sun was setting as we walked back down into town, and we snapped some photos of the city with the last light of the day withering away.

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Tourists at Piazzale Michelangelo get ready to take photos of the sunset

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We opted for aperitivo today instead of dinner, and Sarah picked a place in the square of the Brancacci chapel. We sat outside overlooking the square, drank a couple of spritzes, ate a few bites and people watched. And the people watching was fantastic – everyone around us was Italian. There are very few things that will give you a better glimpse at the culture of a nation than sitting in a place that locals frequent and simply observing.

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