Day 1. Our first day in Florence

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Piazza della Signorina
We took an early morning flight from London Stansted airport to Pisa from where we caught a train into Florence’s Santa Maria Novella station.  It’s easy to transfer from Pisa airport to the train as the railway station is just outside the Arrivals Hall.  Rail tickets are cheap in Italy and there is no need to book in advance.  The journey into Florence takes less than an hour and soon we were entering the apartment we’d booked for the next few days which was a stones throw from the cathedral.
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Our balcony in Florence

Our accommodation, the Palazzo dei Ciompi apartment was located in an historic 19th century building.  We were fortunate to have a large, private roof terrace as the building only seemed to have two, so this would be nice to sit out on during our stay. 

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Our apartment in Florence

 Soon we were ready to start exploring and our first stop was the Duomo (cathedral) with its magnificent 15th century terracotta tiled cupola, believed to be the largest masonry dome in the world.  There was a short queue to enter the cathedral but this moved quickly, entrance to the main church is free but other areas such as the Belltower are chargeable.  After admiring the stunning interior we headed off to the nearby Piazza della Signoria (the main square) dominated by the splendid Palazzo Vecchio (town hall).   The square is large and full of life, we enjoyed afternoon tea in one of the cafes surrounding the square, sitting awhile sipping our drinks and people watching.

Continuing, we arrived at the picturesque Ponte Vecchio, the oldest of the bridges that cross the River Arno.  The original wooden bridge was washed away in floods and its replacement was built in 1345.

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Ponte Vecchio
It’s lined with tourist shops and was crowded with sightseers but viewed from a little further along the river it’s a delight.

Day 2. Exploring Florence

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A hilltop view of Florence
Looking at our guidebook, we decided to start our day with a walk as it was a bright, sunny morning.  Our walk,  starting from the cathedral,  crossed the River Arno by the Ponte alle Grazie bridge.  This is the next bridge along from Ponte Vecchio and is a perfect location for viewing the old bridge away from the hordes of tourists.  Photos taken, the path continues through a rose garden then rises steeply to the Piazzale Michelangelo, a photographer’s paradise.  There are stunning views looking out over the city walls of the Duomo and river.  The square itself isn’t noteworthy,  it’s really a car parking area for the viewpoint, with a few vans selling drinks and souvenirs.

The best views were still to come, from the square we clambered up the steep flight of stone steps to the Basilica de San Miniato al Monte and stood on the church steps a panorama of Florence with the Tuscan hills beyond is there to behold.  Remnants of the city walls that once surrounded the city can also be seen.

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The Basilicia do San Miniato
After resting a little following the steep climb, and taking photos of the beautiful city below,  we looked inside the Romanesque church built during the 11th century.  The walk from the cathedral took 30 minutes including photo stops, and covered  2.5 km.  If the weather is clear,  the walk is to be recommended for the spectacular views.

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The Roman Walls
Retracing our steps back down to the city centre, we made our way to the Mercato Centrale on Via dell’Ariento,  it’s the main indoor food market in Florence.  The exterior of the building wasn’t what I was expecting,  lacking in architectural charm, but it makes up for it internally.  The stalls are a coruucopia of colour, stall holders taking pride in their displays of cheese, hams, olives, fruit and vegetables. The counters are a feast of colour with pyramids of fresh produce waiting to be sold to locals and photographed by tourists like me.  We bought some local cheese, Parma ham, olive bread and fruit and returned to our apartment with the makings of a delicious lunch.

Later,  we walked the short distance to the Uffizi Gallery where we joined a lengthy queue which snaked its way around the beautiful old building.  We thought we would never reach the entrance, but eventually we did,  and were rewarded with the opportunity to view the largest collection of Renaissance art in the world.  It would take too long to view the entire collection so we studied the gallery brochure and visited the rooms of particular interest.  We stayed in the gallery about three hours but to see everything would take about a day.

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Italian hams in the central market
Although it would have been interesting to also visit the Galleria dell’Academia which contains Michelangelo’s David we decided to save this for a future visit to Florence.

Day 3. The Tuscan hill town of Lucca

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The entrance to Lucca
Today’s plan was to take the train to Lucca in the heart of the Tuscan countryside.  It’s easy to get there from Florence and Lucca’s railway station is conveniently located just outside the city walls.  Strolling through the stone arch of San Colombano, the Romanesque San Martino cathedral was in front of us, so we took a look inside.

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The cathedral
Exploring further, we came to Lucca’s main street Via Fillungi, constructed in Roman times, it’s very narrow with traditional shops interspersed with medieval towers.  Leading from here is Piazza Napoleone, a vast square which was created in the style of large squares in France during the period of French occupation.   There wasn’t much activity in Lucca today so we continued on to the Piazza dell’Amfiteatro which is the central square and focal point of the town.  The piazza was constructed on the site of a former amphitheatre.  Some original features remain and the ancient remains are still visible today.  The colourful piazza was sympathetically restored in 1830 and is surrounded by cafes and small shops.  It was lovely here so we decided to eat lunch out on the terrace of one of the small cafes.

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The former amphitheatre, Luca
 Finally, to walk off our hearty lunch we took a walk along the city walls which have been well maintained over the years and provide good views of the Tuscan countryside from their ramparts.

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Walking along the Roman walls
The walls stretch for 4Km and the top has been transformed into a sort of park promenade, covered in grass and lined with trees to provide shade. It appears popular with walkers, joggers and cyclists as it is sufficiently wide to accommodate all activities.

After our pleasant walk we returned to Florence for the evening.

Day 4. Viewing Florence from the hilltop town of Fiesole

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Main square, Fiesole
Our final day in Florence and we woke to rain showers.  Not to be deterred we walked to the Santa Novella railway station and caught a No.7 bus to the small Tuscan hilltop town of Fiesole.  It is simple to get there as buses leave every 30 minutes and the scenic, uphill journey takes only 20 minutes.

We alighted from the bus in the main square and after collecting a walking map from the tourist information office we followed a hiking trail up to the Monastery of San Francisco.  It’s a fairly steep climb but we are rewarded with some fine views from the hilltop.  Retracing our steps back to the main square we took a look at the beautiful Roman amphitheatre and baths, then nearby the stunning Villa Medici.     Back in the village centre we enjoyed cappuccinos in one of the small cafes surrounding the square.  It was very tranquil sitting there away from the hordes of tourists in the nearby city of Florence.

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The River Arno
We took the bus back to the city centre and walked along the banks of the River Arno, crossing over the Ponte Vecchio which is seemingly always crowded with tourists.   On the far side of the river we visited the Pitti Palace (Palazzo Pitti) an elaborate Romanesque palace,  formerly the residence of the grand Dukes of Tuscany and later the home of the King of Italy and now a fine arts museum.   Adjacent to the palace lies the Boboli Gardens, one of the earliest examples of Italian gardens with fountains.

We had dinner in the city centre and then gathered together our belongings in readiness for our departure  in the morning.

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The Pitti Palace

Day 5. A visit to Pisa

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Pisa, Tuscany
The four days we spent in Florence flew by but we managed to see most of the main sights and some of the many art treasures in this beautiful city.    We checked out of our apartment after breakfast and headed back to the railway station for the one hour journey to Pisa, which is located in the north of Tuscany.  It’s a few years since we last visited Pisa but as our return flight to the UK wasn’t until the evening, we decided it was a good opportunity to take another look.
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Pisa, Tuscany
It was a sunny morning as we wandered along the River Arno admiring the sandstone buildings overlooking the riverside.  Crossing the river over the town’s main bridge we visited the UNESCO World Heritage Piazza Miracole (Cathedral Square) and spent some time admiring the famous Leaning Tower, The Duomo, Baptistry and Campo Santo.  It didn’t seem as crowded as on our previous visit which was an added bonus.
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The Market Hall, Pisa
After leaving the Leaning Tower, we explored the narrow, cobbled lanes that took us to the main square.  Here we viewed some of the beautiful Rennaissance university buildings ‘Normale de Pisa’ with their ornate marble statues.  We had ample time for a meal in one of the local restaurants before returning to the airport by train in good time for our flight back to London Stansted.