Love Renaissance Art, Markets, Food and Fashion? Florence Has It All

People often ask me what my favorite Italian city is. Although I love them all for their unique aspects, I have to say that Florence is the one that completely captures my heart and soul. 

Florence, Firenze!
Florence, Firenze!

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Florence has its own vocabulary for the eye. It is a city that the Italians call an insieme, an all-of-it-together kind of place. It is the birthplace of the Renaissance and has the best Renaissance art in Europe. Florence is unbeatable for some of the very finest food, fashion, and street markets. Not to mention unrivaled gelato and superlative people watching.

The Mercato Centrale
The Mercato Centrale 

Shopping is a full-time occupation in Florence. Inside the Mercato Centrale (Central Market) you will find everything imaginable. The huge iron and glass covered building is full of enticing food, colorful produce, generous free samples, pasta-making, eateries, meat counters, and gigantic stacks of pulled pork sold in a bun for a pittance. Rub elbows with the locals and visit this elegant Florentine market. Hours are Mon-Sat 7:00-14:00, closed Sun year around.

San Lorenzo Market
San Lorenzo Market

Surrounding the Church of San Lorenzo is Florence’s spacious open-air market. Leather is a popular item, from clothing to purses to boots. Here the prices are soft, so you can use your bargaining skills. Located between the Duomo and train station, the hours are daily from 9:00 to 19:00.

Pantomime Looking Human Statues
Pantomime-Looking Human Statues

There are plenty of these pantomimists around. Actually, they are quite impressive with their ability to stand absolutely still for hours. Kids especially love these guys, and flock around them along with the birds. Occasionally the statue will acknowledge its admirers with a glance and a nod, but don’t count on it.

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Medieval Wall

On the other side of the Arno River and up to the Michelangelo Park  viewpoint, the hilly landscape reveals a long portion of the old medieval wall that encompassed the city at one time. Invaders from all directions found it pretty difficult to scale those walls and penetrate into the city. Florence remained fairly well protected throughout its earlier history. The walk up to Michelangelo Park Viewpoint  is well worth it, and also provides vast views of Florence, giving opportunities for great photo taking. Nighttime is spellbinding.

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San Miniato Church

Behind Michelangelo Park Viewpoint is this classic 12th century Florentine Romanesque church, stately in its green and white marble facade. One of the oldest churches in town, highlights within the church are the glazed terra-cotta panels on the ceiling by Luca delle Robbia, an exquisite Renaissance chapel, and radiantly preserved frescoes in the upstairs sacristy, showing scenes from the life of St. Benedict (painted 1350 by a follower of Giotto.) I loved these paintings, and spent a lot of time in this room. Behind the building outside is the oldest graveyard I have ever seen. It’s full of life-size statues dancing, crying, sporting wings, little children laughing, and so on. I found it very interesting to walk through, but I don’t recommend a night-time stroll.

Florence is very multi-layered, and although I have seen a lot I know that I’ve barely scratched the surface. There are magnificent churches, museums and other historical venues that are Florence’s landmarks and not to be missed. Florence beacons me to return time and again, with each visit an entirely new adventure.

“And it was this…..that beckons us back: not any particular building or painting or statue or piazza or bridge; not even the whole unrivaled array of works of art. It is the city itself–the city understood as a self; as a whole, a miraculously developed design.”

R.W.B. Lewis “The City of Florence.”

 

Naple’s Secret Below the Chaos

Working my way down the vibrant street markets of Napoli just recently was mind-boggling. Scooters roared and car horns impatiently pierced the air. Throngs of people clogged the medieval arteries of the city, pressed in to look over and purchase their products from busy shopkeepers. Store windows behind them displayed rows of hanging tripe, lamb, and prosciutto, as well as mouth-watering bakery items and slices of pizza for a euro.

In a crowded intersection where two streets meet is Piazza San Gaetano. It was here that I found something I least expected in the heart of this bazaar world. Standing in front of me towered an old basilica. San Lorenzo Maggiore was a sight to behold.

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This handsome thirteenth century Gothic church was built on top of a previously existing city hall by the Franciscan order in Naples during the lifetime of its founder, St. Francis of Assisi. Evidentially, Charles I of Anjou decided to build his fortress, Maschio Angioino, where the Franciscans had an existing church. Charles compensated them by providing this site for the present church of San Lorenzo Maggiore.

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What is surprising and not noticeable until you enter the building is that it is also a monastery as well as a museum. The museum takes up three floors and gives a history of the area around San Lorenzo beginning with classical archaeology.

But the most astonishing part of all are the remains of an original Greco-Roman market that was excavated over a period of 25 years and has been opened to the public since 1992. Located in the middle of the historical center that began as the Greek-Roman city of Neapolis (new city), this market is one of only a couple of large-scale Greek-Roman sites excavated in the downtown area. For those of you who love ancient Rome, you won’t want to miss this.

Very close by is the Napoli Sottoterranea, the Napoli underground which is seen only by tours, but this is not part of San Lorenzo’s underground.

The following photos were taken while I explored the area. It truly is a rare experience of stepping back in time, from the old earthy smell to the uneven stone streets and arches. However, it requires patience and some imagination to figure out just what you are looking at. There are no tour guides or audio guides, and most of the information is posted in Italian. What was labeled or partially described I have identified below the photos.

Once an outdoor street lining the doorway to small shops. Once an outdoor street lining the doorway to small shops. This is the original street level of the ancient city of Neapolis.

Both a Greek (Agora) and Roman (Macellum) marketplace are the main discoveries that lay below the church. Dating from the sixth to the first century B.C., these streets are perfectly preserved underneath present-day bustling Napoli. Built into layers of volcanic ash and rock called tufa, these ruins are remarkably well-preserved.

Stairway leading up from the road and old arches with shops between them.
This covered space was a market area, and shows seven interconnected rooms, with barrel vaults pierced by skylights to draw in air and sunlight.

Small shops, called tabernae, line the roads and each one has a skylight of sorts. They would be dank, dark and creepy without them.

In these shops it is possible to notice selling counters and wall-niches for the storage and display of various articles. Fascinating….

This a laundrette where clothes were scrubbed clean.
This is a laundrette where clothes were scrubbed clean.

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A ‘tintoria’ was a shop to dye fabric
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Possibly a well of sorts….I just know it is very deep!
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One of many small shops with tables and storage underneath, that lined the ancient streets. Notice the ‘skylight.’
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More tables with storage underneath

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A ‘fornaio’ was a bakery. Imagine all the business they must have had!

Once you are ready to return to the surface, a stairwell leads you up to a courtyard, which is the 14th-century cloister of the church of San Lorenzo Maggiore. Outside the cloister and back into the streets of Naples, it seems inconceivable that below all the surrounding congestion and frenetic activity lay a still, silent world that once was a bustling marketplace of its own.

The Street Markets of Naples

Napoli is a maze of narrow cobbled streets that would challenge any map guru. But if you are bold enough to let yourself get lost for a short time, the hubbub of the early morning street markets will most certainly entertain you. Fish mongers energetically display their fresh catch of the day while the shopkeeper next to him fiddles with purses, scarves, souvenirs, and various odds and ends. The magic is in your bargaining techniques and the ability to walk away. Most often you will be called back and your offer accepted. Shoes and wallets, watches and toys, clothing and umbrellas. The list is endless.

These photos I randomly took one morning as I made my way through tight winding streets with vendors setting up their products to sell.The smell of bakeries turning out croissants and rolls came and went on the cool morning air. Napoli was waking up, and about to begin its daily commotion, some would say craziness, of another day.

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Setting up a fish market

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Fish market display

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More yet….the display grows larger

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No shortage of food items

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Prosciutto in a store window

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What a ham! Silly face…..

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Fruits and veggies

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Three cans of vino rosso for a euro! Unbelievable…..wonder how it tastes….

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Sunglasses and you name it’s

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Craw dads? Not sure, but fascinating!

The markets are colorful, varied and bargainville. After working your way down a maze or two, stop at a shop for pizza, Napoli style. A simply unforgettable delight.

What else did I find in these narrow medieval mazes? Hard to believe, but true.
More to come, so stay tuned!