As the birthplace of the Renaissance, Florence possesses masterpieces of art and architecture. Reminders of glorious past of the city can be seen at every turn – whether you are admiring magnificent artwork in a museum, walking through the fabled piazzas or scanning the skyline from high atop an ancient ball tower. The quieter side of Florence lies on the south bank of the Arno River. You must cross over the Ponte Vecchio, which just take a short walk to the Pitti Palace, to reach it.
Built for the wealthy merchant Luca Pitti and later sold to the Medici family, who ruled Florence for nearly 400 years, the Pitti houses five museums. The Galleria Palatina displays hundreds of 16th and 17th-century masterpieces once belonging to the Medicis. The Raphael collection is exceptional. A modern art gallery includes Italian paintings ranging from Neoclassic to Impressionist. Additional museums highlight historical fashions, silver, furnishings and carriages.
Behind the Pitti Palace, the elegantly landscaped Boboli Gardens spread over expanses of lawn graced with fountains and statuary. Footpaths lead to hidden grottoes.
As a grand finale visitors often catch a taxi up the hill to the Piazzale Michangelo for a glorious view overlooking the red-tile rooftops of Florence. One of the city’s two copies of Michangelo’s ‘David’ stands in the centre of the Piazzale, this one in bronze.
In the movie Field of dreams, a mysterious voice says, “If you build it, he will come.” In Pisa, they bulldozed the Field of Miracles – the Campo dei Miracoli – and they are coming. By the thousands. No mystery though, just lots to see.
Pisa’s thoughtful designers have conveniently bundled most of its top attractions on the campo. There’s the Leaning Tower, of course, seemingly eager to careen earthward but reasonably stable for the moment.
The tower is only a miracle. Another is the dazzling cathedral, a fine-art wonderland housing Giovanni Pisano’s ornate pulpit and swath of Gothic reliefs. There’s also a baptistery, whose acoustics are said to hold a snug note for minutes. No rap demos, please. Next door is the Campo Santo, an elongated white walled cemetery built by the crusaders in the 12th century, now housing stone coffins and frescoes. Across the street, the Museo delle Sinopie displays masterly preliminary sketches for frescoes, which were discovered after World War II. The Museo dell’Opera del Duomo, behind the tower, sports works by Pisano and Guardi, as well as area archaeological finds.
Just below the Piazzale Michelangelo is one of Florence’s most fragrant enclaves, the Giardino dell’Iris, or Iris Garden. The garden is home to some 2,500 varieties of flower that has been the symbol of Florence since 1251 and that is even displayed on the city’s coat of arms.
The iris blooms for only about a month each year between May and June; in May, the annual International iris Competition elicits bulbs from all over the world to be judged by an international jury.
The Greeks were the first to cultivate the purple, violet scented flowers; they planted them on women’s graves in the hope that the messenger goddess Iris, embodiment of the rainbow, would lead the women’s soul to the Elysian Fields.
Visitors who arrive before May or after June can still enjoy the fragrance of the Florentine iris in a variety of commercial perfumes.