This summer we had a fantastic six night holiday in Tuscany. You might have read an earlier post, Siena: A Postcard from the Ledge that told the story of our first ever experience of The Palio, but today’s post is a photo diary of our few days in Florence.

Fuelled by tales from friends who absolutely adore the region and go back each year, I was keen to get a little slice of the Italian action and wanted to learn more about the city that some say is the most beautiful city in Italy.

We love city breaks and normally go to Europe for a 2-3 night stay; once we even went to New York for two nights (my fault), which was obviously not long enough!

However, heading to Tuscany I wanted to cover some ground to see if there were particular places we would go back to for a longer period of time, so a trip was planned that would take in Pisa, Florence and Siena. You can’t fly into Florence from Bristol so we flew into Pisa on a Friday, stayed overnight and then caught the train to Florence, which is really easy to do, for a two night stay.

Put simply, Florence is gorgeous. A real jewel of a city, bursting with history and beautiful buildings to look at. You can literally walk around for days admiring the view – it is the birthplace of the Renaissance after all and known to be one of the great art cities of Europe. The Uffizi Gallery, a must-do, houses some of the greatest paintings and art in the world and, as for eating, well you’ve come to the right place, there’s somewhere to stop, eat and drink on every street. All under the warmth of the Tuscan sun.

First off, let me share details of the boutique hotel we stayed in with you.  In the heart of the city, The Antica Torre di Via TornaBuoni No 1 is one of the nicest hotels we have stayed in. I chose it because the rooms looked lovely and it was centrally located, but the real pull is its 360° terrace overlooking the city. It’s just fabulous.

From here we enjoyed our morning coffee, taking in the hustle and bustle of early morning commuters, and late night drinks (they have an honest bar) while listening to the street musicians below. It really was fab, as was our room and the breakfast, which was served buffet-style and offered everything needed for a hungry traveller and could be enjoyed on an outdoor terrace under the morning sun.

This week’s post is picture-led so I’ll let the photos do the rest of the talking, but I’ll finish here with my top three suggestions on what to do in Florence, which I would thoroughly recommend:

  1. Take a bike tour on your 1st day – it’s a great way to see the city with an expert guide, who knows their way around and is happy to share their knowledge. It also means you get your bearing real quick. Our tour was three hours of fun and ended with gelato!  You don’t need to be a fantastic cyclist or super fit to enjoy the tour.
  2. Book tickets to the Uffizi in advance – it houses the world’s greatest collection of Italian Renaissance paintings not to be missed, but the queue is long and it’s very hot outside. You can buy before you leave here and allow around three hours to enjoy the gallery, which is enough to see the key pieces.  There’s a nice outdoor cafe here too.
  3. Mooch around the narrow streets and sniff out great places to eat and drink or buy yourself a huge gelato  (they only come in one size, don’t they?) and walk along the River Arno towards the shop-lined Ponte Vecchio. The bridge is a tourist trap, but you do get some great opportunities to take beautiful pics.

Our friends go to Tuscany every year and absolutely rave about it. So when it came to booking this year’s summer excursion I was eager to add it into the mix of possible destinations. Which is how I came to find myself standing on a plank, 12 ft in the air, holding on to the ledge of a first floor window this August.

 

We don’t really like to go on package holidays (when I say we, I mean me, SP, doesn’t really get involved in holiday bookings) as we, okay I, prefer to travel around a bit so that we can see more of the country.

 

SP wasn’t keen on the idea of Tuscany at first. “I was thinking that we’d go on more of a beach holiday”, he said, but after a 15 minute period of ‘time out’ he came round and I booked two return tickets to Pisa and dug out my copy of the Rough Guide to Italy.

 

San Gimignano, Tuscany

San Gimignano, Tuscany

 

Pictures of lush green rolling hills, carafes of Chianti and oodles of fresh pasta in mind-blowing sauces aside I couldn’t help thinking of the opening scenes in Quantam of Solace. You know the one where 007 chases a villain through the alleyways of Siena while the world famous Palio di Siena is in full swing. It seemed like a good idea to merge the two.

 

The Palio is a cultural event that has been taking place on the cobbled streets of the Piazza Del Campo since the 11th century. Horses are ridden bare-back by jockeys wearing bright Colors representing the 17 contrades, or city wards of Siena. The event and celebrations surrounding it last a few days, but the race itself lasts just 75 seconds on average.

 

There are two Palio events held each year, one in July and one in August, and our trip coincided with the second event. We arrived on the Saturday having spent a fantastic few days in Florence and checked in to our hotel for the weekend. Il Chiostro del Carmine is a really lovely hotel with charming and helpful staff. It is close to the Piazza Del Campo and was formerly a 13th century convent. This does mean there isn’t a lift, but it was fine for our needs.

 

The practice run for the Siena Palio takes place on the Saturday, but unfortunately it was raining and was called off. Rain stopping play isn’t that great in Siena, it’s quite small and with around 60,000 visitors in town for the big event, you are jostling for a bar stool!

 

Lucky for us, we had found Vivace, which had pulled us in earlier with its street sign promising a beautiful view. We weren’t disappointed, so we went back there and settled in for the evening.  The food here is delicious, the setting is stunning and the service is excellent. If you ever go to Siena, I thoroughly recommend it.

 

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Unfortunately, it was more of the same the next day and in between showers we managed to do a little sight-seeing. By early Sunday evening, the day of the race, we joined the throng of people gathered in the Piazza del Campo to learn that it wasn’t going to happen. Luckily for us we still had one more day in Siena and thankfully on the Monday the skies cleared and The Palio was good to go.

 

During my research I had come across this Daily Telegraph article and had bought tickets ahead of arriving in Siena – you can buy them when you are there if you want. You can watch The Palio from the cordoned off area in the centre of the Piazza for free, but at just 5ft 3 1/2 inches that’s not really an option for me and I did really want to see it. I had bought standing tickets in one of the grandstands and from the pictures it looked like it offered the perfect view.

 

Palio, Siena

 

It did, we had a fabulous view of the race, as you can see from these pictures, but what I hadn’t realised is that instead of being at the bottom of the grandstand and standing on the floor, we were guided towards the top of the grandstand, above people seated, to stand on top of the stand itself. There was nothing in front of us to hold on to (never would have passed health and safety) and along with the pre-race procession we were stood there for around 2 1/5 hours.

 

palio, siena

 

I did try to relax on the plank – there was a woman older than me up there and she seemed okay with it – but I’m obviously a wuss and was stiff as a board and gripped on to a first floor window ledge for dear life.

 

It was a long old wait clinging to the ledge, but once the procession was over and the horses drew up to the starting line, the thrill of the race was worth the wait. It was electrifying. My pulses haven’t raced that much since they used to hold power boat races in Bristol docks.

 

Palio, Siena

 

Mind you, I wasn’t the only one on edge that night. As I said the race is over super quick, and once the first horse had crossed the winning line men and boys climbed over the safety barricades and started jostling for a fight. Nothing serious broke out and I’m sure it’s just Italian machismo and the rivalry that’s been going on for centuries, but still, there was a lot squaring up going on. Perhaps it was all part of the show?  At that point the ledge was the best place to be!

 

If you are ever in Siena at the time of The Palio races, do go.  It’s wonderful to watch and brilliant fun to join in the celebrations. Just make sure you book yourself a seat.

 

Gail x