Heavenly Florence and the Road to Hell

Ijust had the most divine ravioli in butter and sage sauce, followed by a coconut gelato that feels like pure sin.

I love Italy! I’m in Florence now, a Renaissance city in Tuscany brimming with art galleries, museums, statues with taut marble butts, interesting architecture and original paintings in bathrooms.

It’s beautiful and artsy here – the whole city centre, like Rome, is an open-air museum. I’m feeling inspired to study the history of art and even to start painting! I saw the fake David in the Piazza della Signorina, but I can’t bear the line-ups to see the real thing.

To my uneducated eye, he looks just as chiselled in the piazza as he would in a crowded museum.

I’m staying near the train station, and just getting here (with the usual getting-lost detour) was fun! I love the clickety-clack of my little suitcase on cobblestone, passing trattorias, wine bars, gelato shops, cafés and torture dungeons (yes, I counted TWO on my way here … I’m hoping this is a city-wide tourist thing, and not just limited to my neighbourhood).

I arrived at dusk and was instantly charmed by the pinkish sky over the piazza and the smell of garlic in the air.

My hotel room was a little sketchy at first: flimsy door and suspicious CSI-style splatters on the wall beside the bed, and when I had a shower, the whole room flooded. But I have a great view of Tuscan terracotta roofs from my bathroom window, and the staff is awesome.

I was sold when they brought me homemade crema di limoncello while I worked on my blog in the lobby!

I spent an entire morning exploring the Uffizi Gallery, an art museum with a variety of Roman stone art, 13th-century paintings so old they look modern, many Renaissance works and loads of marble statues.

The crowd-pleasers were the famous and familiar pieces by Michelangelo, Botticelli, Raphael and Leonardo da Vinci (my son will think I hung out with the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles!).

There is a strong Christian theme, some mythology, battles and war, and portraits of very serious people.

What I found most interesting were the backgrounds and the props that gave a glimpse into life at that time: landscapes, books, servants, instruments, tools, jewellery, clothing and the crazy mustaches.

I arrived at the Uffizi early and did the circuit in reverse, so while the first two-thirds of my visit were relatively relaxing, the last bit had me considering pulling the fire alarm just to scatter the crowd (I didn’t).

It’s hard to reflect upon and absorb a piece when you’re getting jostled around. Luckily, there are breathtaking works all over the place in Florence.

Some of the lesser-known churches are free of tourists, but full of beautiful paintings, sculptures and architecture. They’re easy to find – just leave the guidebook in the hotel room and start walking!

Thunder woke me the other morning. It was great: dark sky, violent rain and heat. I went out and had a salty napoli pizza and an espresso under an awning, and watched the rain bounce off the cobblestone. Beautiful!

That night, I had dinner by candlelight in a piazza by the cathedral, on an old wooden bench with vines overhead and a checkered tablecloth. All so fitting – until they started blaring American dance music!

So I had my romantic dinner alone listening to I Know You Want Me by Pitbull.

Florence redeemed herself later on, with live opera in a piazza by the river; it was very moving and better suited to my surroundings!

I decided to escape the city one morning. Armed with a camera and a credit card, I went to the railway station and took the next train out. I got out in Viareggio on the coast.

I wandered down the beach for a while, stepping over a few large jellyfish washed up on shore. It was pretty empty. Just me, a few families and some bored lifeguards playing soccer with the kids.

After lunch (a processed pasta dish, but at least it was reheated in an Italian microwave … that must earn it some taste points?), I got back on the train and headed to Lucca, a medieval walled city.

There are several cathedrals and churches here, which surprised me because it’s so small, it’s contained within walls, and each church is so large that it could easily have accommodated all inhabitants. But I guess more is more when you’ve got popes to impress.

Most religious buildings I have seen in Italy so far have been elaborately decorated, really “over the top”: gold everywhere, marble, exquisite paintings and sculptures.

But in Lucca, I saw churches with bare walls and ceilings. Some extravagance, of course, but not splashed in it. The exposed bricks made it seem colder, more austere, more ancient, more real.

Lucca is perfect for exploring. It’s full of those winding cobblestone alleys I love so much. Lots of surprises here, like huge banana trees (in Tuscany!), live piano in the piazza, and the mummified body of a 13th-century saint in a chapel (I wasn’t expecting THAT when I rounded the corner!).

In the same church, there is a glass box displaying the bones of another saint.

But my biggest discovery in Tuscany? I found the road to Hell! It intersects with Purgatory Lane. It’s in Florence, and it’s paved with cobblestone, not good intentions as I’d been led to believe.

Fortunately, there is a Wrong Way sign, just in case. And should you miss the warning and venture down there anyway, you’ll find the Gucci store at the end.

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