Firenze known in English as Florence had a tremendous influence throughout Europe between 1300 to 1500 but its legacy transcends time.
Train to Firenze S.M.N.:
As our journey through Italia continues, we leave Rome behind and purchase a Eurail pass that would take us from Rome to Florence and then to Venice.
We arrive by train at the Firenze Santa María Novella station in Florence after a 3 hr ride on the regional train or you can be there in an hour and a half through the high speed train. Please note that on the electronic departure board, you will see the Firenze Santa María Novella station appear as Firenze S.M.N.
This train station is small and easy to navigate so there were not any hurdles to find the exit. Once outside, we were lucky enough to find our accommodation just a five minute walk from the train station. We stayed at the Palazzo Vecchio Hotel Florence for 3 nights and earned 6,000 miles on American Airlines by booking it through RocketMiles.
Within the city itself, you can walk to all the major tourist sites, most of them are found within a 30 minutes radius which also gives you the opportunity to soak in as much of the daily life in Firenze as you can.
As it was the winter season during our visit to Firenze, we only stayed here for 3 days but I would definitely recommend staying here at least a week to fully explore the city and its surroundings.
On our first night, we went out to find a place to eat and just walked toward the Ponte Vecchio to see the bridge reflecting different colors from a huge reflector lamps on each side of it ... and so we started:
Within the building itself, you will find an indoor market that it is just a huge indoor foodcourt hosting local cuisine. We played by the rule of heading to the food booth that had the longest line and/or looked popular amongst the attendees; so we decided on one that was serving some sort of burger-like meal.
We stood in line just to find out that first we needed to pay for our order at a specific cashier booth who upon payment would then give you a receipt that you would present at your chosen food booth to get served. So we complied and got our burgers just to later find out that we had been in line for not too long to be served a well-seasoned tripe on a bun. Hmmmm!
Our next stop by just following the crowd ended up being ...
We did come back the following morning to explore the baptistery, and make and way up to experience amazing panoramic views from the duomo and the Giotto tower; but reality sunk in when we arrived at the Cathedral Santa Maria del Fiore (free entrance) the following day just to know that we needed to purchase our solo or combo ticket (15 euros) to all facilities at a different location (ticket office) behind the cathedral.
As we made our way around the cathedral we were just so surprised to see the long queues to get into Giotto's bell tower that we decided to start with the Duomo. The Duomo is slightly taller than the adjacent Giotto's Campanile with 463 steps but with a gradual ascend as you get to stop where the duomo begins to admire the cathedral below and the wall paintings that cover the duomo from within.
... this is the Campanile by Giotto. Here you can see the queue to get in during the day as well as another photo I took of this bell tower in the afternoon as soon as the fog sets in.
Sadly and after almost four hours of waiting, we finally made it to the entrance to the cathedral from a different side door from which once inside, you will scan your ticket to enter the staircase that will take you to the top of the duomo.
Once at the top and due to the early nightfall during the wintertime in Florence, these were my panoramic views of the city plus a photo of the korean and two korean-australians that we met on our way up to the duomo and back. For reference, it is not even 5pm.
So as we continued en route to the Ponte Vecchio, we came across ...
... and we finally made it to:
On our way back to our hotel, we stopped by ...
The Palazzo Vecchio is surrounded by several pieces of art and within at the Hall of the Five Hundred or Salone dei Cinquecento you will find a mural paintings by Giorgio Vasari as well as other very important masterpieces of the renaissance era.
To conclude, I would like to suggest you are aware of the Stendhal syndrome as you visit Firenze and its overwhelming cultural and artistic beauty seen throughout museums, churches, vendors and even food.
Nonetheless, do budget some time to go to Trattoria Le Massacce on Via del Proconsolo which opens for dinner at 7 p.m. but beware that it is a well-reviewed trattoria by both locals and visitors so you may have to wait for 30 min or so depending on the demand of that day to be seated. Once inside, it's a small but cozy atmosphere you experience as you enjoy their specialty which is the Bistecca alla Fiorentina or Florentine-style steak which is sold for 500 g minimum with increments of 100 g and it's cut from a larger slab of meat and cooked medium-rare.
My sister and I ordered one bistecca all fiorentina of 600 g for each one of us accompanied by a house bottle of chianti. It's was ... to die for!
To us, my sister and I, taking a stroll through the Via dei Fori Imperiali brought us to Il Colosseo. I must mention that we did not have an itinerary to follow whatsoever, as we had an idea of what to do and see, but we would first and foremost, go with the flow.
In short, our visit to this new wonder of the modern world was short as we merely walked around the outside of it. Why? Well, we arrived there a bit after 3:30pm and the ticket booth was closed. Nonetheless, Il Colosseo left us awe-stricken!
A seagull's view of Il Foro Romano
Il Foro Romano was yet another location we didn't visit; let's say it was due to time constraints and poor planning that otherwise would have allowed us extra time to go frolicking around this location.
Instead, we took a detour at the Altare della Patria also known as Il Vitorriano.
To the right of this emblematic building/sanctuary [do check out their change of guard in front of the tomb of the unknown Italian soldier], you will pass some small ruins and then come across to a set of stairs.
These stairs will lead you to the Capitoline Hill (previously one of the seven hills of Roma). At the top you will encounter the Piazza del Campidoglio - a master design credited to Michelangelo.
My sister and I raced up the stairs, absorbed its magnificence and tried to envision Michelangelo's piazza (engraved here by Etienne Dupérec) while also admiring the replica statue of Marcus Aurelius as well as that of some of the statues of pagan gods that are said to have been donated by a Pope to rid the Vatican of such idols.
Next stop ... Il Altare della Patria
For some amazing views from above, continue to the nearby Basilica di Santa María in Ara Coeli, enter and as you go through, admire it, check out the relics they safe keep and then exit to then line up patiently to pay €7 to take the lift/glass elevator up to admire great views of the Roman Forum, il Colosseo, Piazza Venezia as well as the rest of Roma.
The vistas from above:
Il Vaticano in Christmastime!
December 2015 marks the beginning of the Anno Santo della Misericordia. Although we were not part of any pilgrimage, we did attend mass on St. Peter's Square on Christmas eve.
We didn't see the Pope other than by means of the Jumbotron but I was completely ecstatic to had been able to get into the square.
We later on found out that some yellow-card invitations were handed out earlier if you wanted to enter the Basilica itself during the Christmas eve mass. So do check in advance or ask for these invitations if you are in the Vatican City during this time of the year.
That same night we were told that the Pope makes an appearance the following day around noon to bless those who are in attendance. Therefore, we came to the square one more time to get a closer look at the Pope!
La Bocca della Verità
One day, as my sister and I were having lunch at a restaurant near the Piazza di Spagna, we met a young couple from Bilbao, Spain who amongst their recommendations to us, told us not to miss this site. Although my sister was not keenly interested (mainly due to an hour wait in the cold), I did queue and finally got this photo. Beware: You will only be allowed one photo per person.
Legend has it that this Mouth of Truth is a lie detector and will bite off your hand if you dare so introduce it in its mouth.
Later on as I did my research on this site, I did find out that it had been made popular by means of Hollywood's movie Roman Holiday featuring Audrey Hepburn and Gregory Peck. Moreover, the church which hosts the Mouth of Truth - Basilica di Santa María in Cosmedin - also hosts as a relic, the skull of St. Valentine as well as one of Roma's oldest Medieval chapels, sacristy and oratory plus the tallest medieval tower bell of Roma.
The Pantheon & Bernini
The famous Pantheon is highly regarded as the best preserved building from the Roman era. Other than the burial site of Italy's two first kings; moreover, the sarcophagus containing the bones and ashes of the famous artist Raphael.
What did intrigue me were the following:
As you continue your way within the vicinity and just a few meters beyond the Pantheon, you will encounter the Piazza della Minerva.
At this piazza, you will see its most famous landmark; that is, Bernini's Elephant and Obelisk.
My fascination with this sculpture has to do with how Dalí used it as reference for some of his paintings.
A trip to Rome is not complete without visiting the piazzas.
In this section, I did not take a picture of the Piazza di Spagna as the staircases were currently been repaired and thus, not worthy of a photo. The same would go for many other piazzas which I did not photographed.
... but here, to your left Piazza Navona and to your right, the Fontana di Trevi - the world's most famous fountain - was recently (Nov. 2015) reopened after some major restoration. We were very lucky to have visited in Dec. 2015!