09 October 2006

Florence - One of Italy's tourism icons

Ponte Vecchio
I was in Florence last week for a few days on business/pleasure. My first time there. It is a lovely city and it's hardly surprising it has been such an influential and iconic destination for so many visitors over the centuries.Ponte Vecchio

You'd think all those visitors would be spread out over the centuries but most of them seem to have congregated in the months of Sept/Oct 2006! It was heaving in the 'honeypots' - around the Uffizzi palace, the Ponte Vecchio and the Pitti Palace. I was surprised. This is very much 'shoulder season' when Europeans are back at work and their children at school, but of course this is a different market. The vast majority of visitors were either older students on class trips or retired couples, and for the local tourist industry Sept is peak season.

Roman AmphitheatreTo get away from the crowds, I and a colleague caught a bus up to Fiesole in the hills overlooking the city, where we explored the Etruscan and Roman ruins including an amphitheatre and baths. Not that we came away very enlightened, the vast majority of visitors to the site were English or American yet there was no English-language signage on the site or in the museum of artifacts - just one half-hearted A4 sheet and some guidebooks you could buy in the shop. Useless!

While the Uffizzi gallery itself was hot and overwhelmingly crowded, the Vasarian Corridor, was most certainly not.

While I was in Italy, the Prime Minister, Romano Prodi, delivered his proposed budget to parliament which included a provision for urban councils to set a tourist tax (up to 5 euros per visitor per day) to support their tourism infrastructure. One of the cities that might take advantage of the new tax is Florence. You can recognise the use it might be put to in the Vasarian Corridor - one of Florence's most important historic buildings and notoriously impossible to visit.

Vasarian Corridor interiorThe 1km medieval corridor was built above the streets and over the old bridge (Ponte Vecchio) to give the Medicis a private passage between their palaces on either side of the river. Along its length there are 6-700 priceless paintings so any visitor who is allowed in (eg academics) has to be accompanied by a gallery official at all times. The trouble is, the main galleries of the Uffizzi are so busy, they just don't have the staff.

Guide in Vasarian CorridorSo it really was a bit special for a small group of us, with our guide (appropriately named Giovanni Guidetti!), to be able to walk the Vasarian Corridor from the Uffizzi Palace to the Boboli Gardens in the Pitti Palace (.mp3).

You're going to ask, 'how did we get in?' Well, largely down to our hotel (Hotel Bernini Palace next door to the Uffizzi) and a little bit of luck I think.

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