Frommer's EasyGuide to Rome, Florence and Venice (2015)
DAY TRIPS FROM FLORENCE
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 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 medieval city of brick. Viewed from the summit of the Palazzo Pubblico’s tower, its sea of roof tiles blends into a landscape 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. 17), the city enjoyed its heyday in the 13th and 14th centuries; Sienese merchants established in 1270 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, Simone Martini, and the Lorenzetti brothers invented a distinctive Sienese art style, a highly developed Gothicism 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 the population, destroying the social fabric, and devastating the economy. Siena never recovered, and much of it has barely changed since.
The bus is much more convenient than the train, because Siena’s rail station is way outside of town. Siena Mobilità/SITA (www.tiemmespa.it) run express (rapida; 75 min.) and slower buses (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 of time. 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 around 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.
The tourist office, where you can get a useless free map or pay .50€ for a useful one, is inside Santa Maria della Scala, at Piazza del Duomo 1 (www.terresiena.it; 0577-280-551). It is open daily from 9:30am to 6:30pm.
Siena parking (www.sienaparcheggi.com; 0577-228-711) lots charge between .50€ and 2€ per hour, most at the top end of that scale. All lots are well signposted, with locations just inside city gates.
Be prepared for 1 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 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 (she is Siena’s traditional 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 (until 7pm Mar 16-Oct). Admission costs 8€, 4.50€ students and seniors ages 65 and over.
Having seen Siena’s civic heart, visit the religious monuments of Piazza del Duomo (www.operaduomo.siena.it) on a single ticket: The OPA SI Pass costs 12€ and is sold from booths in the piazza. 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 August and October, you will find the cathedral’s floor uncovered; it is a mosaic of 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. 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, which used to sit on the cathedral’s high altar. 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 inside 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 Piazza del 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.
You 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. Downstairs is the spooky oratory where Sienese St. Catherine used to pray (and stay) 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. Admission costs 6€ (10€ during temporary exhibitions), 4€ students and seniors ages 65 and over. Opening hours are 10:30am to 6:30pm. It’s usually much quieter than other places in the city—and we have no idea why.
Where to Dine
Sienese cooking is rustic and simple, and makes liberal use of sweet 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 8€ to 21€. It is closed Sundays. At the Osteria del Gusto , Via dei Fusari 9 ( 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 9€ mark.
If you prefer a sandwich to a sit-down meal, Gino Cacino , Piazza del Mercato 31 (www.ginocacinosiena.it; 0577-223-076), is the place to head for aged pecorino cheese, Tuscan salami, anchovies, and pretty much everything else. It closes at 2:30pm, all day on Sundays, and for 3 weeks in August. The best gelato in the city is made at Kopa Kabana , Via de’ Rossi 52 (www.gelateriakopakabana.it; 0577-223-744).
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 small rebellions, Florence stayed in charge until Italian unification in the 1860s.
From Florence’s Santa Maria Novella station, around 50 daily trains make the trip (60-90 min.) to Pisa Centrale station. The last fast connection back to Florence departs around 10:30pm, but do 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.
The main tourist office is at Piazza Vittorio Emanuele II 16 (www.pisaunicaterra.it; 050-42-291). It is open daily 10am to 1pm, and also Monday through Friday from 2 to 4pm.
It is a long walk from the station to the sights. CPT (www.cpt.pisa.it; 050-884-111 or 199-120-150 in Italy) runs the city’s buses. No. 4 and the LAM Rossa bus run from outside the station to near the Tower. Buy tickets from the station newsstand.
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 the meters, which range 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. Any other single admission is 5€; any two sites costs 7€. To access everything except the Leaning Tower costs 9€. (Children 9 and under enter everything except the Tower for free.) Admission to the Leaning Tower is separate, and is reserved for visitors ages 8 and over; anyone ages 17 and under must be accompanied by an adult. It costs 18€ (no discounts); you should reserve ahead of arrival in peak season or if you are on a tight schedule. Admission to the Tower is via timed half-hour slots. For more information and to book a slot at the Leaning Tower, visit the website at www.opapisa.it. The main ticket office is behind the Tower and Duomo, on the north edge of the piazza: If you have no Tower reservation, head there 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 other two are 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 bombed. The most fascinating panel to survive the bombing is the 1341 “Triumph of Death” , attributed to Florentine Buonamico Buffalmacco.
Where to Dine
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 a 10-minute walk away. At Osteria dei Cavalieri , Via San Frediano 16 (www.osteriacavalieri.pisa.it; 050-580-858), there’s plenty of grilled meats, fresh fish daily, and traditional Pisan dishes like rabbit stewed with oregano. Main courses range 10€ to 14€. Osteria dei Cavalieri is closed on Saturday lunchtime, all-day Sunday, and for 3 weeks in August. Just across the River Arno, at Da Cucciolo , Vicolo Rosselmini 9 (www.trattoriadacucciolo.it; 050-26-086), you’ll find local people tucking into dishes using local ingredients such as cuttlefish and Tuscan pulses—and paying local prices. Main courses range 8€ to 13€. It is closed on Sunday evenings.
For pizza or cecina (warm garbanzo-bean flour flatbread), call in at Il Montino, Vicolo del Monte ( 050-598-695), a slice stop 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 thoroughly medieval. The center is peppered with the tall towers that have made San Gimignanodelle 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 spires 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 an economy based on textiles and hosting pilgrims traveling the Via Francigena 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 towers.
As with Siena, your best bet is the bus. From Florence’s main bus station, Siena Mobilità/SITA (www.tiemmespa.it) run 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 25 min.). Buy through-tickets for the whole journey in Florence. The last bus back to Florence usually departs around 8pm, 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.
The friendly tourist office is at Piazza Duomo 1 (www.sangimignano.com; 0577-940-008). It’s open daily March through October from 9am to 1pm and 3 to 7pm, and November through February from 9am to 1pm and 2 to 6pm.
The town is surrounded by well signposted car parks. The furthest from the town, P1 is the cheapest (1.50€ per hr.; 6€ max. 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 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 ( 0577-990-312), 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 see for miles. The museum and tower are open daily 9:30am to 7pm April through September, 11am to 5:30pm otherwise.
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 is open daily from 7am to noon and 3 to 7pm (closes 6pm Nov-Mar). Admission is free.
Where to Dine
Best restaurant for a flying visit is Chiribiri , Piazzetta della Madonna 1 ( 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 12€. No credit cards. For a more snacklike meal try diVinorum, Via degli Innocenti 5 (www.divinorumwinebar.com; 0577-907-192): wines by the glass, and bruschettone (large bruschettas; 5€-9€) loaded with topping combos, such as provolone cheese, ham, and radicchio (bitter purple leaves).
The town’s essential foodie stop isn’t a restaurant at all, 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.