We arrived back from Florence Sunday afternoon after 8 days of art, architecture, and good food. It was my first time in Florence, J.’s third, but with her last trip 15 years ago and with a school group a lot of it was like a new experience for both of us.

Practical details. We flew Air France though CDG, managed to make both connections (both of them absurdly tight, in retrospect), though our baggage missed the connection on the way home. We enjoyed Air France — they’re comfortable, decent food, free wine, good audio-video system. In Florence we stayed at Hotel Perseo, a 3-star hotel located on the third and fourth (i.e., fourth and fifth) floors of a standard-issue old Florence building (with elevator retrofit) located on a major commercial street about half a block from the Duomo (location, location, and location…). It’s also conveniently close to the train station while being far enough away from the station not to absorb any of the latter’s somewhat sketchy atmosphere. It is a recent renovation, and really about everything you could ask for in a mid-priced hotel: New World efficiency (the manager is Australian) combined with a bit of Old World charm. Clean modern rooms, comfortable beds, soundproof doors and windows, friendly staff, etc., etc. Breakfast is included in the price, as is a pre-dinner “happy drink” between the hours of 6 and 8.

February is a great time to visit Florence. It’s a bit chilly — too cold to be able to rely on being able to eat outside — but the obvious upside is that the overwhelming tourist throngs have not yet arrived. Which is not to say there are no tourists — the pedestrian areas near the Duomo and the Uffizi are well-populated, and there’s already a bit of a crowd most times at the Uffizi — but the city is not overwhelmed by tourists in the way it is reputed to be between the months of March and November. We were able to get into all the museums with ease (the Uffizi with the aid of a membership — see below) and we experienced real crowding problems only at the blockbuster pieces in the Uffizi. That said, J. got about half-an-hour all to herself with the Botticellis by waiting until right before closing on a midweek day.

For the museums we bought a family membership to the Amici degli Uffizi, which got us unlimited admission to all the museums run by the Florence museums organization for 100 Euros. Practically speaking, that means most of the museums, except those run by church organizations (e.g., the Opere del Duomo). Difficult to identify highlights, really — I am a paintings person and naturally had a special thing for the Uffizi, which is a beautiful space to boot. The Palatine Gallery at the Pitti Palace was perhaps the most frustrating space — a baroque-Neoclassical space filled to the gills with paintings ranging from the truly great to the embarassingly indifferent. I suppose it’s of some historical interest — being essentially a record of Medici collections and commissions — but some of the paintings are clearly of more than historical interest (e.g.,Titian, Raphael) and are really not well-served by their environment. (My favourite room in the building was one that was hastily redecorated with tastefully neutral beige temporary walls and where they hung some of the Old Masters that were normally located in a different room that was in the process of restoration.) I also loved both the Bargello and the Museo San Marco both for their spaces and the contents thereof, and we were both very impressed with the recently reopened and newly redesigned Opere del Duomo museum.  (It sometimes seems like about half of Florence is either in the process of being restored, is just about to be restored, or has just finished being restored.)

We made a few days trips outside Florence. Our hotel reservation came with a day trip to Chianti and Siena (an off-season freebie, I think), a fun day that included a quick stop at the old walled hamlet of Montereggioni, lunch and wine-tasting at an organic wine-balsamic-olive oil-etc farm operation together with great views of the region, and an unfortunately rain-soaked foray into Siena itself. We spent our last full day, a much sunnier one, taking in the sights of Fiesole and enjoying a leisurely lunch in its main square.

We also ate and drank in Florence, but that’s a different post.