An À La Carte Kind of Town – Florence, Italy, Europe

Have money – lots of it and spend a great deal of it.

No joke. Getting to Florence (more properly Firenze) is expensive, any way you slice it. Even rail travel on a Eurail pass will oblige you to shell out about $30.00 on top of the price of your pass for reservations on the one-way train. Trenitalia train tickets requires them. The alternative to paying – standing or sitting in a train corridor for three and a half hours – is no fun. (There was a rail strike while we were in Florence. On the way back to Innsbruck, all reservations were cancelled; we wound up sitting in the corridor for the entire ride).

From anywhere outside Italy, for example, from Innsbruck through the Brenner Pass by way of Bolzano, one of the shortest routes, price starts at 65€, about $85.00; planes run about the same price, so do car rentals.

Getting there is only the beginning of your expenditures. Even a form of transport as humbly plebian as a three-day bus pass is 12 euros ($15.00). Expect to drop at least that much per ride if you want to get around in a taxi. I recommend it. Coming from Austria to Italy was a shock – from an utterly transparent and predictable system that a child could decipher to a system which is so jumbled and labyrinthine, that even native Florentines know only the routes they need to get to and from work. Buy a bus pass only if you have to, and keep your fingers crossed. (I’d tell you to buy a map, but they don’t make bus maps in Florence.)

Admission to the large museums will cost you $15.00; make a reservation two days in advance, or you WILL stand in line for at least four hours at both the Accademia and the Uffizi, that is, should you manage to get in at all. If you leave without seeing the Uffizi, the Bargello and the Accademia, why were you in Florence in the first place?

The smaller museums, basilicas and palaces are cheaper; $7.50 per person. In other cities this price would be reasonable, but in a city like Florence, where there are at least 20 sites no one should miss, cost starts to add up.

There are no freebies in Florence. Unlike many other European cities, Florence does not have a city card you can buy for admission to museums and transportation for 48 or 72 hours, no discounts for students or the elderly at attractions or lodgings. One price fits all. Pay as you go. Florence is an a la carte kind of town.

Lodging matches this sort of “You’ll pay for it, so we’ll charge for it” philosophy. A room in an albergo dorm, lodging with four to twelve strangers and a communal bathroom in the hall, starts at 20 euros per night. The most expensive rooms in the city (prices are publicly available) in the high season are as high as 2,000 euros a night.

There are hidden costs as well. Don't, for example, go into a higher-priced restaurant without inquiring if they have a “seating charge” (two to five euros per person), on top of their mandatory service charge. Plan to spend at least six euros a day on water; you’ll need a minimum of three liters to replace what you lose in the heat. It isn't cheap. If you’re not used to moving around in blazing heat with no air conditioning as a respite, wear comfortable shoes that cover as little of your feet as possible (think Tevas or Crocs), light colored clothing in summer weight fabric and sunblock. Trust me, my parents are ethnically Indian, and even I wear SPF 30 in Italy.)

That said, few cities have more in the way of art, history and the fascination which springs from the marriage of power and beauty (that is, the Medici legacy) to recommend them. With a one euro map, even someone as congenitally lacking in a sense of direction as I, can find her way around Firenze’s twisting, winding alleys and cockeyed streets on foot.

Cellini’s Perseus, which stands in the open air in the Piazza della Signorina, was worth every bit of the aggravation and heartbreak it took to get to Florence (in my case a great deal). It is utterly overwhelming. There were at least ten other experiences about which I could say the same thing – the tombs of my boys Galileo and Macchiavelli in Santa Croce, for instance, or the exquisite della Robbia altar that stands in the same place, or Ghiberti’s ethereally, blindingly beautiful Baptistery doors.

One moment stood alone amongst all these glories: the Basilica di San Lorenzo, the personal crypt of Cosimo di Giovanni de'Medici (he's buried before its main altar). It contains the Medici family chapel (the Sagrestia Vecchia, designed by Brunelleschi). In it are the tombs of members of the Medici family and the monumental stone (not the grave) of Cosimo de'Medici, Pater Patriae – placed by his grandson Lorenzo, under an enormous elevated plinth so that all who see it, in seeking to read the inscription, must bow before the memorial.

On the ceiling above the chancel, Leon Battista Alberti painted in a deep and glorious blue a map of the constellations; their shapes and stars gilded onto the lapis background. It is a picture of the night sky above Florence, exactly as it appeared on July 4, 1442 – a precise drawing of the sky, painted when the Ottomans were ill-tempered upstarts irritating the Byzantine Empire founded by Constantine; when Columbus had yet to conceive the idea of flattering Isabella, for the very good reason that neither had yet been born; when the church at San Lorenzo had already been named, sited and consecrated for eleven hundred years.

Everything was prickling as I stared: my scalp, my neck, my arms, my eyes – from being open too long. I could not stop looking. No matter what you spend to get there, or spend while you’re there, Florence is worth it. Still, bring lots of money.

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