Florence was the second leg of our recent trip to Italy. Angelina and I had spent five days in Rome along with several million other Americans visiting most of Rome’s famous attractions. We enjoyed great Bernini sculpture at the Borghese Gallery and discovered ancient Rome at the Coliseum and Palatine Hill. We stood in the Sistine Chapel awestruck by the art on the ceiling and on the wall behind the alter. Later, we toured St. Peters Basilica and then wandered through St. Peters Square, both exactly like we had seen countless times on TV only much bigger and far grander.
But Florence was different. While crowded for sure, it wasn’t as frantic as Rome. Where we took cabs and public transportation to get around in Rome, we found Florence to be very walkable. We walked everywhere – to museums, restaurants, down to the Arno River over Ponte Vecchio to the Pitti Palace – all an easy stroll from our hotel.
We did, however, need a cab to get to Piazzale Michelangelo located on the other side of the Arno atop a hill with a stunning view of Florence’s terra cotta skyline dominated by the massive Duomo. Piazzale Michelangelo features impressive copies of Michelangelo’s famous statues including a full-sized replica of “David.” But this is not why we went. The real reason was the Giardino della Rose, a rose garden tucked in below the top of the hill, out of sight and even the cab driver was unaware of its existence.
While the piazzale was packed with tourists, a stone’s throw away the Giardino della Rose was almost empty when we arrived. It sits on the side of a rather steep hill surrounded by old buildings and trees. Like other rose gardens we saw in Italy, the roses were not planted in beds, per se, but each bush planted individually surrounded by lawn. I wondered about this as it struck me as wasting space. Was it a design feature or was it the only way to plant a garden on the side of a hill and not have it wash away?
The paths were a combination of cobblestones and field stones traversing the hill allowing complete access to the roses and the large bronze statuary placed throughout the garden. These big quirky bronzes were created by Belgian surrealist Jean-Michel Folon and add a uniqueness that makes this rose garden special. I’m not crazy about surreal anything but these bronzes looked just right in this setting and I was even okay with a piece titled “Chat”, a large slumbering cat in the middle of the garden. I’m not crazy about chats either.
It was mid-May and the garden was in full bloom. A mature bush of Paul’s Himalayan Musk was espaliered nicely along a stucco wall along with a row of New Dawns as we walked in. Quite a few David Austin varieties as well as other modern roses were planted along the hill as was a single plant of viridiflora, the ugly Green Rose, which was a waste of space. On the other hand, I also found several bushes of Crested Moss with fresh pungent moss-like growth on the calyx, a variety that I don’t often see at home. Each plant in the garden was properly labeled which impressed me as many municipal gardens lack this important detail.
We sat and people-watched for awhile which included a young bride and groom posing for their wedding photos, obediently following directions of a no-nonsense photographer.
The sun was getting hot signaling that it was time to leave. So we headed back up to the top of the piazzale to catch another cab. This meant a very long climb up some very steep stairs. So steep that we almost hired a Sherpa to help us get to the top. But we made it back to the old city and went to an intimate trattoria that we had discovered the night before and split a fabulous gluten-free pizza and a bottle of Chianti, a decadent treat in the middle of the afternoon.
In many ways Florence with its deep Renaissance roots was more enjoyable than Rome. The scale was much smaller, the crowds seemed less unbearable; the nights were quieter; the gelato was better; and even the bad wine was good.