Frommer's EasyGuide to Rome, Florence and Venice 2017 - Stephen Keeling, Melanie Renzulli, Donald Strachan (2016)
7. DAY TRIPS FROM FLORENCE
By Donald Strachan
Florence is the capital of the region of Tuscany and the hub of its transport network. It is within easy day-trip reach of several of the region’s top sights, meaning you do not have to switch your accommodation base to see the highlights of central Italy.
70km (43 miles) S of Florence
Siena is a uniquely preserved medieval city. Viewed from the summit of the Palazzo Pubblico’s tower, its sea of roof tiles and red brick blends into a labyrinth of steep, twisting stone alleys. This cityscape hides dozens of Gothic palaces and pastry shops galore, longstanding neighborhood rivalries, and painted altarpieces of unsurpassed elegance.
Founded as a Roman colony by Emperor Augustus (see p. 25), the city enjoyed its heyday in the 13th and 14th centuries; in 1270, Sienese merchants established the Council of Nine, an oligarchy that ruled over Siena’s greatest republican era, when civic projects and artistic prowess reached their heights. Artists like Duccio di Buoninsegna, Simone Martini, and the Lorenzetti brothers invented a distinctive Sienese art, a highly developed Gothic style that was an artistic foil to the emerging Florentine Renaissance. Then in 1348, a plague known as the “Black Death” hit the city, killing perhaps three-quarters of its 100,000 population, destroying the social fabric and devastating the economy. Siena never recovered, and much of it has barely changed since.
GETTING THERE The bus is more convenient than the train, because Siena’s rail station is way outside of town. Siena Mobilità/BusItalia (www.sienamobilita.it) runs express (rapida; 75 min.) and slower buses (ordinaria; 95 min.) from Florence’s main bus station to Siena’s Piazza Gramsci. It costs 8€ each way, and there is no need to reserve ahead. Buses run at least hourly in the morning. Try not to make the trip on a Sunday, when the bus service is much reduced. The last bus back usually departs at 8:45pm (but check ahead).
If you have a car, there’s a fast road direct from Florence (it has no route number; follow the green or blue signs toward Siena), or take the scenic route, down the Chiantigiana wine road, the SS222. But the bus makes more sense for a day trip.
Siena’s Piazza del Campo and Palazzo Pubblico.
VISITOR INFORMATION The tourist office is inside Santa Maria della Scala, at Piazza del Duomo 1 (www.enjoysiena.it; 0577-280-551). April through October, it is open daily from 9:30am to 6pm. Winter hours are Monday to Friday 10:30am to 4:30pm, Saturday and Sunday 10:30am to 6:30pm.
PARKING Siena’s most convenient parking lots (www.sienaparcheggi.com; 0577-228-711) charge between 1.50€ and 2€ per hour. All lots are well marked, with locations just outside the city gates.
Be prepared for one seriously busy day (and even then you can’t see it all). Several stepped alleys lead down into Piazza del Campo (“Il Campo”) , arguably the most beautiful piazza in Italy. Crafted like a sloping scallop shell, the Campo was first laid out in the 1100s on the former site of the Roman forum. The herringbone brick pavement is divided by white marble lines into nine sections representing the city’s medieval ruling body, the Council of Nine.
Overlooking the Campo, the crenellated town hall, the Palazzo Pubblico (built 1297-1310) is the city’s (maybe all of Tuscany’s) finest Gothic palace, and the Museo Civico ( 0577-292-226) inside is home to Siena’s best artworks. Frescoed on the wall of the Sala del Mappamondo is Simone Martini’s 1315 “Maestà” , following the city’s tradition of honoring the Virgin Mary (by tradition, she is Siena’s holy protector). Next door, in the Sala della Pace, Ambrogio Lorenzetti covered the walls in his “Allegories of Good and Bad Government” (1338), full of details of medieval Sienese life and painted to provide encouragement to the city’s governing body, which met inside the room. The museum is open daily from 10am to 6pm (mid-March to October until 7pm). Admission costs 9€, 8€ for students and seniors ages 65 and over, free for children ages 10 and under.
Having seen Siena’s civic heart, visit the religious monuments of Piazza del Duomo (www.operaduomo.siena.it; 0577-286-300) on a single ticket: The Opa Si Pass costs 13€ and is sold from the Museo dell’Opera (see below). Siena’s Duomo is stuffed with art treasures, including Bernini’s Cappella Chigi (1659) and the Libreria Piccolomini , frescoed in 1507 with scenes from the life of Sienese Pope Pius II, by Pinturicchio. If you are visiting between mid-August and October, you will find the cathedral’s floor uncovered; it’s 59 etched and inlaid marble panels created between 1372 and 1547 by Siena’s top artists, including Domenico di Bartolo, Matteo di Giovanni, Pinturicchio, and especially Domenico Beccafumi. (Admission is 2€ more during this period.) The Battistero (Baptistery) has a baptismal font (1417-30) with gilded brass panels cast by the foremost Sienese and Florentine sculptors of the early Renaissance, including Jacopo della Quercia, Lorenzo Ghiberti, and Donatello. Inside the Museo dell’Opera del Duomo is Duccio di Buoninsegna’s 1311 “Maestà” , Siena’s most precious work of art. It shows the Virgin and Child in majesty, adored by a litany of saints including St. Paul (holding the sword) and St. John the Baptist (pointing at Jesus and wearing animal skins). From the museum, climb to the top of the Facciatone for the best view in Siena, over the rooftops and down into the Campo. Opening hours for most of the Duomo sights are 10:30am to 5:30pm, although it stretches to 6 or 7pm in summer. The cathedral is closed to visitors on Sunday mornings.
Mosaic floors in the Duomo.
You also just about have time for Santa Maria della Scala (www.santamariadellascala.com; 0577-534-571), opposite the cathedral. An “old hospital” might not sound too enticing, but this huge building has treasures hidden away in its eerie corridors. The Pellegrinaio was frescoed in the 1440s with sometimes grisly scenes of life in this medieval hospital. The Old Sacristy has an even more gruesome “Massacre of the Innocents” , painted in 1482 by Matteo di Giovanni. Also here is the spooky oratory where Sienese St. Catherine used to pray during the night; Bambimus, where art is displayed at child’s-eye height; and the city’s National Archaeological Museum on the labyrinthine lower floor. It costs 9€ (13€ with the Museo Civico), 8€ students and seniors ages 65 and over. Summer opening hours are 10:30am to 6:30pm; November through March it closes at 4:30pm and all-day Tuesday. It’s always much less busy than other sites in the city—and we have no idea why.
Where to Eat
Sienese cooking is rustic and simple, and makes liberal use of meat from the local Cinta Senese breed of pig. L’Osteria , Via de’ Rossi 81 ( 0577-287-592), does a mean line in local grilled meats, including veal and Cinta. Main courses range from 9€ to 21€. It is closed Sunday evenings. At the Osteria del Gusto , Via dei Fusari 13 (www.osteriadelgusto.it; 0577-271-076), pasta dishes are a great value and served in filling portions. Think pici (hand-rolled, fat spaghetti) served with a ragù of Cinta and porcini mushrooms for around the 10€ mark. A buffet lunch is served from 12:15 to 2:30pm Monday to Saturday at Morbidi , Via Banchi di Sopra 75 (www.morbidi.com; 0577-280-268). Expect the likes of porcini risotto, roast pork, and sliced artichokes, all freshly prepared. It costs 12€, including water, an excellent value.
If you prefer a sandwich to a sit-down meal, walk around the back of the Palazzo Pubblico to Gino Cacino di Angelo , Piazza del Mercato 31 ( 0577-223-076). Sublime offerings include aged pecorino cheese, Tuscan salami, anchovies, and pretty much anything else that can go on bread or a tasting platter, all carefully sourced. It closes at 3:30pm weekdays, 8pm on weekends, and for 3 weeks in August. The best gelato in the city is churned at Kopa Kabana , Via de’ Rossi 52 (www.gelateriakopakabana.it; 0577-223-744); it’s open daily from mid-February through November, 11am to midnight.
76km (47 miles) W of Florence
On a grassy lawn wedged into the northwest corner of the city walls, medieval Pisans created one of the most dramatic (and now most photographed) squares in the world. Dubbed the Campo dei Miracoli (or “Field of Miracles”), Piazza del Duomo contains an array of elegant buildings that heralded the Pisan-Romanesque style—including the Torre Pendente, better known as the Leaning Tower of Pisa.
The city has its roots long before the Tower went up, as a seaside settlement around 1,000 B.C. that was expanded into a naval trading port by the Romans in the 2nd century B.C. By the 11th century, Pisa had grown into one of Europe’s most powerful maritime republics. Its extensive trading in the Middle East helped import Arab ideas—decorative and scientific—to Italy. In 1284, Pisa’s battle fleet was destroyed by Genoa at Meloria, off Livorno, a staggering defeat that allowed the Genoese to take control of the Tyrrhenian Sea and forced Pisa’s long slide into twilight. Florence took control in 1406, and despite a few minor rebellions, Florence stayed in charge until Italian unification in the 1860s.
Pisa’a Campo dei Miracoli, with the Leaning Tower.
GETTING THERE From Florence’s Santa Maria Novella station, around 50 daily trains make the trip (45-80 min.; 8.40€) to Pisa Centrale station. The last fast connection back to Florence departs around 10:30pm, but check www.trenitalia.com for timetable updates.
There’s also a Florence-Pisa fast, direct, and (for now) free road—the so-called FI-PI-LI—along the Arno valley. Journey time is usually around 11⁄4 hours, subject to traffic.
VISITOR INFORMATION The main tourist office is at Piazza Vittorio Emanuele II 16 (www.pisaunicaterra.it; 050-42-291). It is open Monday to Friday 9:30am to 12:30pm, Saturday and Sunday 10am to 1pm. Another info office in Piazza del Duomo ( 050-550-100) is open daily 9:30am to 5:30pm.
GETTING AROUND It is a long walk from the main station to the major sights. CPT (www.pisa.cttnord.it) runs the city’s buses. The LAM Rossa bus departs from outside the station (opposite the NH hotel) to near the Tower. Buy tickets from the station newsstand.
PARKING Much of central Pisa is a controlled traffic zone. However, there is ample street and garage parking (including at Via Cammeo 51) within sight of the Tower. Take loose change for street meters, which range from 1.25€ to 2€ per hour.
The Campo dei Miracoli is your main destination in Pisa, and its monuments are linked on a combo ticket. The cathedral is free, but you must still get a ticket to reserve an admission time. Any other single admission is 5€; any two sites costs 7€. To access everything except the Leaning Tower costs 8€. (Children 9 and under enter everything except the Tower for free.) Admission to the Leaning Tower is separate; anyone under 18 must be accompanied by an adult; children 8 and under are not allowed in the tower. It costs 18€ (no discounts); you should reserve up to 20 days ahead of arrival in peak season or if you are on a tight schedule. Admission to the Tower is via timed half-hour slots. To book a slot at the Leaning Tower, visit the website at www.opapisa.it. The main ticket offices are behind the Tower and Duomo, on the north edge of the piazza, and inside the Museo delle Sinopie: If you have no Tower reservation, head to one of them immediately to book for later in the day.
First, spend a moment looking at the layout of Piazza del Duomo: A hidden part of the square’s appeal is its spatial geometry. If you take an aerial photo of the square and draw connect-the-dot lines between the centers, doors, and other focal points, you’ll come up with all sorts of perfect triangles and tangential lines of mathematical grace.
So, why does the Leaning Tower lean? The main problem—and the bane of local engineers for 8 centuries—is that you can’t stack that much heavy marble on shifting subsoil and keep it all upright. Building began in 1173 under Guglielmo and Bonnano Pisano, who also cast the Duomo’s doors (see below). They reached the third level in 1185 when they noticed a lean, at that point only about 3.8cm (11⁄2 in.). Work stopped until 1275, under Giovanni di Simone. He tried to correct the tilt by curving the structure back toward the perpendicular, giving the tower its slight banana shape. In 1284, work stopped yet again. In 1360, Tommaso di Andrea da Pontedera capped it off at about 51m (167 ft.) with a vaguely Gothic belfry.
Elsewhere on the piazza, the Battistero (Baptistery) has a carved stone pulpit by Nicola Pisano (1255-60), which is perhaps his masterpiece and the prototype for a series he and his son Giovanni carried out over the years (the last is in Pisa’s Duomo; the others in Pistoia and in Siena’s cathedral). Heavily influenced by classical works, Nicola’s high-relief panels (a synopsis of Christ’s life) include pagan gods converted to Christianity as Madonnas and saints.
Buscheto, the architect who laid the Cathedral’s first stone in 1063, kicked off a new era in art by building what was to become the model for the Pisan-Romanesque style. All the key elements are here on the facade , designed and built by Buscheto’s successor, Rainaldo: alternating light and dark banding, rounded blind arches with Moorish-inspired lozenges at the top and colored marble inlay designs, and Lombard-style open galleries of mismatched columns stacked to make the facade much higher than the church roof. The main door is one of three cast by students of Giambologna after a 1595 fire destroyed the originals. On the back of the right transept, across from the bell tower, is a 2008 cast of the bronze Door of San Ranieri (the last original door survives in the Museo dell’Opera collection and was cast by Bonnano Pisano in 1180). Inside the Cathedral, on the north side of the nave, is Giovanni Pisano’s masterpiece pulpit (1302-11)—it’s the last of the Pisano pulpits and, along with the one in Pistoia, the greatest.
The walls of the Camposanto , or cemetery, were once covered with important 14th- and 15th-century frescoes by Taddeo Gaddi, Spinello Aretino, and Benozzo Gozzoli, among others. On July 27, 1944, however, American warplanes launched an attack against the city (which was still in German hands) and the Camposanto was accidentally bombed. The most fascinating panel to survive the bombing is the 1341 “Triumph of Death” , attributed to Florentine Buonamico Buffalmacco.
Where to Eat
If you want a genuine taste of Pisa, get away from the crowds around the Tower. Head south on Via Santa Maria as far as Piazza Cavalotti, then along Via dei Mille into Piazza dei Cavalieri. Continue through this vast, polygonal square to the center of the “real” city—it is less than 10 minutes’ walk away. At Osteria dei Cavalieri , Via San Frediano 16 (www.osteriacavalieri.pisa.it; 050-580-858), there are plenty of grilled meats, fresh fish, and traditional Pisan dishes like rabbit stewed with oregano. Main courses range from 10€ to 18€. Osteria dei Cavalieri is closed Saturday at lunchtime, all-day Sunday, and for 3 weeks in August. Just across the River Arno, you’ll find a great value Pisan lunch (plus pizza) at La Taverna di Pulcinella , Via Garofani 10 ( 050-520-2704). It costs 10€ for 2 courses, which may be the likes of spelt with garbanzo beans and porcini mushrooms followed by a rustic pork steak with garlic and rosemary. It’s closed Sunday and Monday.
For pizza or cecina (warm garbanzo-bean flour flatbread) and a cold beer, stop at Il Montino , Vicolo del Monte 1 (www.pizzeriailmontino.com; 050-598-695), a slice spot often busy with students.
52km (32 miles) SW of Florence
The scene that hits you when you pass through the Porta San Giovanni gate, inside the walls of San Gimignano, is otherworldly. The thoroughly medieval center is peppered with the tall towers that have made San Gimignano delle Belle Torri (“of the beautiful towers”) the poster child for Italian hill towns everywhere. There were at one time around 70 of the things spiking the sky above this little village, yet only a dozen or so remain. The towers started rising in the bad old days of the 1200s, partly to defend against outside invaders but mostly as command centers for San Gimignano’s warring families. Several successive waves of the plague that swept through (1348, 1464, and 1631 were especially bad) caused the economy—based on textiles and hosting pilgrims traveling the Via Francigena to Rome—to crumble. San Gimignano slowly became a provincial backwater. By the time tourism began picking up in the 19th century, visitors found a preserved medieval village of decaying stone towers.
Piazza della Cisterna, San Gimignano.
GETTING THERE As with Siena, your best bet is the bus. From Florence’s main bus station, Siena Mobilità/BusItalia (www.sienamobilita.it) runs buses for most of the day. It is a 50-minute journey to Poggibonsi, and many of the services are timed to meet the connection to San Gimignano (a further 20-25 min.). Buy through-tickets for the whole journey in Florence (7€). The last bus back to Florence usually departs around 8:30pm, but check ahead. Try not to make the day trip on a Sunday, when the bus service is much reduced.
Arriving by car, take the Poggibonsi Nord exit off the Florence-Siena highway or the SS2. San Gimignano is 12km (71⁄2 miles) from Poggibonsi, through very pretty country.
VISITOR INFORMATION The friendly tourist office is at Piazza Duomo 1 (www.sangimignano.com; 0577-940-008). It’s open daily March through October from 10am to 1pm and 3 to 7pm, and November through February from 10am to 1pm and 2 to 6pm.
PARKING The town is surrounded by well-signposted car parks. The farthest from the town, P1 is the cheapest (1.50€ per hour; 6€ for full day). Drive right up to the town gate, drop any passengers, then return to park—it is a stiff uphill walk of 7 to 10 minutes back.
Exploring San Gimignano
Anchoring the town at the top of Via San Giovanni are its two interlocking triangular piazze: Piazza della Cisterna , centered on a 1237 well, and Piazza del Duomo, flanked by the city’s main church and civic palace. It is easy to find them: From any direction, just keep walking uphill.
The town’s key art site is the Collegiata , Piazza del Duomo (www.duomosangimignano.it; 0577-286-300). The right wall of this collegiate church was frescoed from 1333 to 1341—most likely by Lippo Memmi—with three levels of New Testament scenes (22 in all) on the life and Passion of Christ. In 1367, Bartolo di Fredi frescoed the left wall with 26 scenes from the Old Testament, and Taddeo di Bartolo provided a “Last Judgment” peppered with gruesome details (just above and left of the main door) in 1410.
In 1468, Giuliano da Maiano built the Cappella di Santa Fina off the right aisle, and his brother Benedetto carved the relief panels for the altar. Florentine Renaissance painter Domenico Ghirlandaio decorated the tiny chapel’s walls with some of his finest, airiest works: In 1475, he frescoed two scenes summing up the life of Santa Fina, a local girl who, although never officially canonized, is one of San Gimignano’s patron saints. Admission to the Collegiata costs 4€, 2€ ages 6 to 17. Hours are April through October Monday to Friday 10am to 7:30pm, Saturday 10am to 5:30pm, and Sunday 12:30 to 7:30pm. November to March it’s open Monday to Saturday, 10am to 5pm, Sunday 12:30 to 5pm. It is closed altogether in the second half of November and the second half of January.
The town’s small Museo Civico e Pinacoteca (Civic Art Museum) , Piazza del Duomo 2 (www.sangimignanomusei.it; 0577-286-300), inside the Palazzo del Popolo, houses a “Maestà” (1317) by Sienese painter Lippo Memmi, and some unique and rather racy medieval “wedding night” frescoes by Lippo’s father, Memmo di Filippuccio. Admission costs 6€. The same ticket gets you up the tallest tower still standing, the Torre Grossa . From 54m (175 ft.) up, you can gaze for miles across hills and grapevines. The museum and tower are open daily 9:30am to 7pm April through September, 11am to 5:30pm November to February, and 10am to 5:30pm in March and October.
At Sant Agostino, Piazza Sant’Agostino ( 0577-907-012), Florentine painter Benozzo Gozzoli spent 2 years frescoing the choir behind the main altar floor-to-ceiling with scenes rich in architectural detail from the “Life of St. Augustine” . The church keeps changeable hours, but is generally open daily from 10am to noon and 3 to 7pm (Nov-Mar it closes at 6pm; Jan-Mar it’s also closed Mon mornings). Admission is free.
Where to Eat
The best restaurant for a flying visit is Chiribiri , Piazzetta della Madonna 1 (www.ristorantechiribiri.it; 0577-941-948), because it is open all day so you can dine early before heading for the bus or car parks. It is a small place, with a simple, well-executed menu of Italian and Tuscan classics such as lasagna, osso buco, or wild boar stew. Main courses are priced fairly—a welcome change from many spots—at 8€ to 13€. No credit cards.
The town’s essential foodie stop isn’t a restaurant, however, but the Gelateria Dondoli “di Piazza” , Piazza della Cisterna 4 (www.gelateriadipiazza.com; 0577-942-244), for creative combinations like raspberry and rosemary (it works) and the signature crema di Santa Fina, made with saffron and pinenuts.