Towns / Cities Visited: 148
Countries Visited: 26
Steps Taken Today: 18,047
Steps Taken Around the World: 3,787,263
Rising at a reasonable time, we headed down to indulge in one of the rare buffet breakfasts we had access to on our trip. Despite arriving around an hour before the buffet closed, the pickings were a little slim, with some items no longer available. Although we were not destined to have pancakes, there was an almost comical amount of cakes on offer. I’m all for cake, I mean I made it my career, but cramming slice after slice into my face and calling it breakfast seemed like an irresponsible move, so I settled for one slice and a few pastries alongside some fruit, yoghurt, and cereal. Powered by carbs, we packed up our things, checked out, bundled our belongings into the boot of the car, and headed back into the city on foot.
Given that our arrival in San Marino had been swathed in fog and waning sunlight, we hoped to get a little sightseeing in before we moved onto our next destination. Although not as thick as the previous day, the mist had lingered and it would seem that admiring the famous view down from the city was not on the agenda. Still, we headed over to the city walls and followed the road up and up until we reached the first of the three towers which dot it. They age from between the 11th and 15th centuries and are so important to this place that they are depicted on both the country’s flag and its coat of arms. The view may not have been crystal clear, but there was something mystical about the way the fog wrapped around the aging stones, lending mystery to the capital of this tiny republic which has existed since 301 AD when Saint Marinus, the saint who lends his name to the country, founded an independent monastic community on this very peak. As a result, San Marino lays claim to being the oldest constitutional republic in the world; an impressive feat for a nation which only covers 61 square kilometres.
We had a booking to make later in the afternoon, and thus were on a bit of a tight schedule, so, instead of paying to visit the interior of the tower, we decided to simply continue our walk along the walls, admiring the architecture and otherworldliness of the landscape. Moving onwards, off the souvenir stall dotted main road and down the narrow stone path towards the second tower, the breeze decided to bestow us a gift, and parted the cloud cover. As momentary as it may have been, we were blessed with a brief glimpse of the rolling hills, and towns below; an eventuality we were more than thankful for.
The path continues, weeding out the less adventurous visitors the further you traverse, and as you nip round the back of the cliff-perched second tower the path becomes all the more entrancing. The old style lanterns, bright holly berries, ivy covered stone, and relentless mist made it feel as though we were about to find ourselves not in San Marino, but in Narnia; as though if we waited a few minutes Tumnus would arrive all red scarf and goat hooves, or the white witch would trundle past and offer us some turkish delight. It was a scene which made me wish, for a thousandth time on this trip, that I could paint or draw. It was the kind of scene that inspires art in the souls of even the least artistic among us.
The path winds downhill a little after this point, passing slowly eroding stone benches and tables doused in moss, until reaching the lower third tower, after which we doubled back to the beating heart of the city. Our walk may have only taken an hour or so, but it was a most relaxing way to appreciate the beauty San Marino before bidding it farewell.
Alas, new places called, and it was just past 11am when we hopped in the car once more, trundling back down the mountain, whilst living out a scenario we knew would happen sooner or later; accidentally taking a roundabout in the wrong direction. As used to driving on the right as we were becoming, it was at turns that muscle memory felt the need to take over. Grimacing our way through being honked at, frantically waving our apology, and counting our good luck that the roundabout was wide enough for two cars to pass, we breathed our hearts back to a normal pace and drove on.
So where was our adventure taking us? The beautiful city of Florence, of course. Now, despite the fact that it is west of San Marino, in a rather amusing twist, it was actually faster for us to head back up to Bologna, then follow the main highway to Florence. With only one quick stop during the three-hour drive to fill up on petrol and grab a less than inspiring, and cold centred toasted sandwich from the rest stop, we eventually arrived in Scandicci, a suburb to the west of the city in which we would be staying. Checking into our Airbnb, our non-English speaking host welcomed us and communicated all we needed to know through the powers of talk to text Google translation. Time ticking by, we quickly sorted ourselves out, grabbed the three tram tickets our host had kindly provided us for free, and scurried off to grab the tram into the heart of Florence.
Cramming ourselves on board with the crush of other travellers, our journey began. A journey which would be dominated by the kerfuffle of ticket inspectors attempting to check tickets when there was barely enough room to breathe, and concluded with them having a rather intimidating screaming match with a pair of Asian tourists who didn’t have a valid ticket. With both parties trying to communicate in broken English, and the inspectors demanding passports from the travellers, even though they didn’t have their passports on them, the situation only escalated to the point one of the male inspectors was forcefully grabbing the arm of the elderly Asian lady. On the other side of the tram and non-fluent in either of the parties first language, I felt completely helpless watching the whole scenario play out. I’m not sure what I would have been able to do to help anyway though; even the native Italian speakers were unable to de-escalate things and convince the inspectors to stop being aggressive. By the time we reached our stop, the fray was still in effect, and I still don’t quite know why the inspectors didn’t just make them get off at the next stop and give them a fine.
A little frazzled by our tram journey, we poured out at the main tram stop on this side of Florence with the majority of other commuters. Now, we knew that Florence was a massive tourist hub, but I’m not sure we were quite prepared for just how many people were thrumming through the streets. Unfortunately, we had a booking to make by 4pm, and we were on the opposite side of the city to our destination. With our time restriction and adrenaline fuelling us, we waded through the crowds, ducking and weaving between picturesque buildings we had no time to truly appreciate yet. Our determination payed off though, and we arrived at Palazzo Vecchio with twenty minutes to spare. Although the palace, which now stands as a museum, is open seven days, we were there to join the ‘secret passages tour’ they only run in English a couple of days a week, and this was our only chance to join it during our stay. Once again, planning played out in our favour, and with booking confirmation in hand we were able to skip past the snaking ticket line and pick ours up from the information desk.
Tottering over to the meeting area for the tour, it wasn’t long before our guide arrived, and we, along with the other seven members of the small group tour were on our way. Led through a small, inconspicuous door, we found ourselves in a narrow room between the inner and outer walls of the palace empty of all but a bright red hooded cloak hung on a dressmakers mannequin. It was here our education on the history of this place began. Palazzo Vecchio, or Old Palace in English, is the rather extravagant town hall of Florence. It was originally called Palazzo della Signoria, when it was constructed by the Signoria of Florence, the governmental body which used to rule over the city when it was a republic back in 1299. The bright red cloak at the far end is actually a replica of those worn by the Priori: the members of the Signoria who were elected for two month terms by the ever democratic system of pulling names out of a bag. Yeah, not even kidding on that. Its name changed several times during its long history, as the government structure changed over time, until it was left with its current name after the Medici duke who ruled the city at the time moved his residence to Palazzo Pitti, thus making this palace the ‘old’ palace in the 16th century. For a brief period in the 19th century, when Florence temporarily became the capital of Italy, this palace was the seat of the government, and although it still holds the offices of the Mayor and is the seat of the city council, it runs mainly as a museum now.
As with most of Europe’s history, times were turbulent for rulers and aristocracy in the middle ages, when killing the right people could increase your standing and power exceptionally, and sieges were a very real threat. Unsurprisingly, as a result, many palaces include secret passages in their design, in order for the rich and powerful to escape should their residences come under attack. Palazzo Vecchio is no exception, and this small room connects to the Stairway of the Duke of Athens which leads down to a plain door out to the street. This stairway was added to palace in the 14th century for this exact reason, and our guide left us for a moment to unlock the door, so she could lead us out to the street here; a street which now stands as a wide thoroughfare, but was once a non-descript alley down which to escape undetected.
Now, I’m not usually one to bother mentioning the quirks of the people we found amongst our tour groups, but there was a fifty-something year old Statesider couple who were quite possibly the most stereotypical US tourists we’d ever seen; all rotund bellies, unnecessarily loud voices, and an innate need to talk to everyone and touch everything. Keeping that in mind it should come as not surprise to you to know that they felt the need to say ‘WOW!’ and ‘THAT’S SO COOL!’ over the top of the guide as she spoke, and waddled over to touch the cloak as soon as the guide had stepped away. It was almost amusing to see the differences in social culture, as we three and the Swedish couple in the group had the same look of pained reservation whilst observing our American cousins.
Moving on, we headed up a tight spiral staircase, weaving though windowless passages until we finally came to the most interesting destination in the tour; the Studiolo of Francesco I. This small but ornate barrel vaulted room was commissioned by Francesco I, a Medici family member who was the Grand Duke of Tuscany in the 16th century. The ceiling is plastered in stunning paintings depicting naked, voluptuous woman and equally as unclad cherubs, although there is special tape helping to protect a number of cracks which have appeared in the vaulting. At either end of the barrel sit portraits of the Duke and his wife looking down over all within. The main point of interest in this room is not the ceiling however, but the paintings which cover the walls. The upper images may simply be stunning depictions of mythological and religious scenes or depictions of trades, but the lower images of the same sway are actually attached to the doors of the inbuilt cabinets. This room was not simply a quiet place of seclusion for an introverted and somewhat socially awkward monarch, but was also an elaborate cabinet of curiosities. Now, the exotic objects which once filled these cabinets are long since lost, but historians venture to assume that hints about each cabinets contents lay in their artworks. For example: behind a painting depicting mythological scenes of medicine, there might once have been medical apparatus.
Ascending the narrow stairs behind a hidden door in the wall, we were then led up to, the Tesoretto di Cosimo I, Francesco I’s father’s own hidden room. This little gem, although less slathered in art, seems like a much more preferable sanctuary, with its small window to allow in natural light, and gorgeous carved wooden wall panels. It’s a level of eccentricity that seems almost fictional nowadays, but in a way I kind of love it. Showing your secret room to those you wish to impress is so much more thought out than rich people today simply showing off the newest sports car or designer handbag.
At this point, our guide led us out to public domain and into the largest and most noteworthy room in the palace, the Salone dei Cinquecento. This massive hall, which was built at the end of the 15th century, is actually the largest room in the whole of Italy, and when you walk in and look up at the 18 high metre ceiling donned entirely with skillful paintings in gilded frames, it’s hard not to feel small. Where the ceiling displays images themed around the Medici family, the walls are home to massive depictions of military victories by Florentine forces. In a snide move, each painting is placed on the wall facing the direction in which the victory was made. Around the edges of the room stand a large collection of Roman statues, including six which depict the labours of Hercules. As impressive as the sculptures are in their depiction of movement and emotion, it is hard not be distracted purely by the amount of rippling muscles and genitalia on display.
After having some time to gawk at the room, our guide led us to the mezzanine above the stage area of the room, not only to get a view down over the room, and a closer look at the ceiling art, but to take us through a very ‘staff only’ looking door and up into the roof space. Art and adornment are all well and good, but there is something truly worthy of awe and admiration in the incredibly engineered roof supports. The roof is actually built in two parts; the first structure holds up the roof, and the lower trusses are actually there to support the enormous weight of the ceiling art and the frames around them. Given that this system was built in the 16th century, long before computers and easily equatable engineering projections, it is all the more impressive that it has stayed structurally sound all this time.
Our tour of the hidden corners of Palazzo Vecchio was at an end, but that didn’t mean our visit was, and we took the next hour or so to wander around of our own volition through room after room of extravagance, with heads tilted towards the ceilings so often I’m surprised we didn’t trip over. In the end though, there was one room which stood out above all the rest in sheer wantability, and that is the Hall of Geographical Maps. Its walls are donned with stunning framed maps, and at its centre stands a giant 16th century globe. I could have spent hours in there, spotting place names I recognised in countries which no longer exist, border lines which have changed countless times between then and now, and yet another globe which completely omits the existence of my home country.
By the time we finally made our way back outside, night had fallen, and we took a quiet moment to admire the exterior of this place, with its off-centre clock tower and row of painted coats of arms along the top. From top to bottom, inside and out, volumous hall to claustrophobic hidden stairwell, this palace really is a treasure.
Our stomachs were rumbling, and we still needed to buy groceries and make dinner before we’d get to eat, so to give us strength we managed to fit in a daily gelato, even though we were back in the realm of overpriced and too-often disappointing tourist products. Following that, a painless tram ride ferried us home for a quiet night in.
As my brain is wont to do, it took leave to ponder a random topic for the evening: the evolution of governments over time. Florence has seen numerous different ruling systems come and go, and Palazzo Vecchio has held each of them for centuries. From the Priori running their impossibly short two month terms, to its hereditary rule by the Medici family, to its current place within the democratic republic of Italy. As I thought about how many types of rule we the human race have tried over the millennia, and the pros and cons of each system, I had to wonder whether we will ever come to a consensus about the most effective and productive governmental system. Time has shown that extremes are never sustainable. Dictatorships, no matter how benevolent, strip people of their ability to participate in the running of their home countries and eventually lead to civil unrest and, more often than not, revolution. Absolute monarchies worked in a time when the majority of the population lacked the education required to understand the intricacies of diplomacy, and were easy to manipulate and control; however, without a feeling of control and power amongst the people, and no system of accountability for the ruler, civil unrest usually followed, and thus constitutional monarchies were born. Communism seems like a great idea on paper, but when you add human greed it loses its community and equality facade and generally just ends up as a dictatorship run by a self-serving leader or political party. Socialism seems like the most fair system, until people feel ripped off when everyone gets the same, despite differences in work levels and skills. On the other hand, Capitalism is made to seem like it provides the most opportunity to create and grow a better life through hard work, but fails to care for the vulnerable and underprivileged in our communities; keeping the poor members of the community poor, while exponentially growing the wealth of the already wealthy.
As with most things in life, it would seem that a balance between the extremes offers the most hope for us. We will only find contentment and growth as a society when there is both opportunity to improve our own lives and a communal system which collectively supports those who need it most. We need to be led by benevolent leaders who can be held accountable by the people, and the people need to be empowered and included in the making of decisions which shape their lives, their country, and their future. Will we ever find the perfect system? Probably not. As long as mankind chooses money and power over compassion and empathy, and until we find the balance between freedom and responsibility, our systems will remain flawed and our race will remain discontent.