South of the Arno
Florence’s Piazza Porta Romana, Pitti Palace, Ponte Vecchio
Sixty per cent of the world’s art treasures, says UNESCO, will be found in Italy. A fair proportion of them are scattered in the view ahead of you when you enter Florence by road through the Oltrarno (‘south of the Arno’) district. Approaching from Bologna, Pisa, Siena or Rome, come off the autostrada at Firenze Certosa and 6 km towards the city bear right in Piazza Porta Romana. In a few moments the famous Pitti Palace is beside you, and the Ponte Vecchio, the Arno’s covered bridge, the only one not destroyed in the Second World War, is down the slope ahead of you.
Central Florence is pedestrianized and main routes around it, especially the Lungarno or riverside drives, are congested even outside the tourist season. The city, of course, is eminently a place for strolling in, but you are advised to use the car parks south of the river or north of the historic centre.
In the area covered by this walk there are numerous hotels and pensioni in the middle range. Museums and monuments abound, every church contains treasured pictures, statues, mosaics or relics. The State museums open am daily except Mon. Other opening times vary: Firenze Turismo at Via Manzoni 16 provides current timetables (www.firenzeturismo.it).
Start: Lungarno Serristori – see map. From here walk or take the bus to Piazza Poggi and Porta San Niccolo (14thC gate-tower, restored) and up the ramp or zigzag road to Piazzale Michelangelo, a renowned viewpoint. The monument incorporates replicas in bronze of five of the Michelangelo originals. About 1 km above the piazzale stands the 11 th-13thC Romanesque gem of San Miniato al Monte with its beautiful green-and-white facade and some important della Robbia terracottas inside.
Hearty walkers can take the skyline route from here, west along Viale Galileo and Viale Machiavelli to Porta Romana, rejoining the walk at the Boboli gardens; it is also a bus route (5 km). The shorter way, panoramic in parts, is down Via del Monte to Porta San Miniato, another gate in the old city wall, and left on Via di Belvedere to a third gate, Porta San Giorgio, and the big star-shaped fortress of Belvedere. Its outlook does not belie its name, but the fort’s main function nowadays is to be an exhibition centre – contemporary arts, antiques, Italian fashions, science and engineering (see www.fortedibelvedere.it).
A gate beside Forte di Belvedere admits you to the Boboli Gardens, Florence’s principal public park. They are a series of more or less formal gardens, lined by winding paths, with statuary, fountains, lakes and grottoes extensive and well-maintained but always looking at least to British eyes as though they need a few days under the sprinkler. You may picnic here. One exit takes you into the 15thC Pitti Palace, a royal residence 1866-1871, now one of Italy’s great art galleries, especially for portraits, silver, tapestries and plasterwork. Old Masters are represented too and there is a large modern art collection.
Coming out of the Pitti you could descend Via de’ Guicciardini and end your walk at the Ponte Vecchio. A worthwhile extension, however, is at hand. Cross Piazza dei Pitti and follow Strucciolo dei Pitti to Santo Spirito. The church was one of Brunelleschi’s last works but finished by another hand (1444) and inside it has Fra Filippo Lippi’s Madonna. Press on by Via Sant’ Agostino and Via Santa Monaca to the Carmine church whose Brancacci chapel, newly visitable after long and costly renovation, displays the stunning frescoes of Masolino and Masaccio. The latter, a country boy from the upper Arno region, afterwards the enfant terrible of artistic Florence, died in mysterious circumstances soon after leaving Florence in 1428 with this job unfinished. He was only 27.
Cross Piazza del Carmine (it has one of the city’s few capacious car parks) and turn right on to Borgo San Frediano to Via di Santo Spirito and Borgo San Jacopo, streets lined with handsome old palazzi. Just ahead of you is Ponte Vecchio and the inner city.