Pippa and I have at last fulfilled a promise to ourselves and last month completed 72 hours of epic florentine tourism, miraculously unrushed and almost devoid of queuing. Here’s me in the Baptistery, spiritual heart of the city, indicating to where I cleaned the walls of oil-impregnated floodwaters, 52 years ago. In early 1967 I and two friends, David Punter and Norman Hamilton, 17 years-olds at the end of our schooling, went to Florence to join a motley crew gathering to put the stricken city back on its feet after the devastating flood of November 1966.
We were known as Angeli del Fango — Angels of the Mud. We worked to prepare priceless books from the Biblioteca Nazionale (National Library) for rebinding. My final task was to be locked away alone in the Baptistery — spiritual heart of Tuscany — to clean the oil-impregnated water from the marble interior walls, using solvent and a ‘face pack’ of gypsum. And this is the Baptistery during the flood, with the heating oil in the water clearly visible.
But we were lucky, since we only arrived in early January, by which time the clouds had lifted, and the weather was mostly crisp sunny and dry. And that luck blessed our recent short visit. The problem to resolve now is how to enjoy a wonderful city almost under siege from tourism. Here are some tips:
Tip 1: prebook and plan. In 1967 we worked in the Forte Belvedere every morning, had coffee overlooking the city as the midday bells struck, then strolled down to the Uffizi and used our free pass to visit no more than two or three rooms a day. We had the place virtually to ourselves.
So I was ready to give up on our prebooked slot on Sunday, having heard of jostling and selfie stick forests like the Uccello Battle of San Romano lances, but thanks to downgraded expectations (and classy air conditioning) I suppressed my natural impatience and had a great time. The gallery is of course unmissable. We even had a couple of uninterrupted minutes in front of the Birth of Venus.
Tip 2: stay in the Oltrarno (over the river). Here there’s cheaper better eating out, it’s more authentic, relaxed, and above all there are green spaces and views. The Boboli Gardens entrance ticket gets you into the Bardini gardens as well, which give you the classic city view – with added wisteria.
Tip 3: walk. We fitted in a dozen top sites in 72hrs, all within 20 mins of our base. Unmissable of these were the Brancacci Chapel – for which you must book, The Bargello -amazingly quiet considering the riches within, and the rebuilt Duomo museum. Our only failures; too late to book the climb up the dome (but I climbed the campanile), and the queue for the cathedral was 500m too long.
On the last morning we had time for Santa Croce, where the floods rose to 5 metres, and where I had cleared out cellars. Symbol of the ’66 flood is the Cimabue Crucifix, now hanging safely above that height.
It was a special time, long anticipated.