Tuesday, 12 February 2019

Open gardens day in Florence: Cortili e Giardini Aperti a Firenze

As my faithful readers will remember, I am an enthusiast for the formal gardens of Tuscany, especially those of the larger villas of Tuscany. I therefore always look forward to Open gardens day in Florence (Cortili e Giardini Aperti a Firenze) which in 2019, takes place on 19 May, when the private gardens of Florence are open to the public. In 2018, I took the opportunity to visit some gardens in the Oltrarno which I either hadn't seen before at all or only a long time ago.

The one I want to describe in some detail is the Giardino San Francesco di Paola which extends upwards and away from the former home of Harry Brewster, "the last of the cosmopolites of Florence". Brewster, a descendent of William Brewster of the Mayflower, was also the grandson, on his mother's side, of the German sculptor Adolf von Hildebrandt, whose studio occupied part of the former Minimite convent of San Francesco di Paola. The convent is located at the foot of Bellosguardo, the beautiful hill that dominates the Oltrarno. It was an evocative experience for me to walk up Via Villani to the circular Piazza San Francesco di Paola. Although there are 19 C and modern buildings on two sides of the piazza, the old church and the wall and gate of the convent are still there, just as described by Brewster. The main structure was long ago divided up into apartments and, alas, the building is looking much the worse for wear. Indeed, so are some of the remaining Hildebrandt sculptures standing in the loggia at the back of the villa.

Villa of San Francesco di Paola
The loggia of the Villa of San Francesco di Paola - much in need of some restoration
However, the garden is beautifully kept up, as is the hay shed (fienile) which Brewster converted into a neat, strangely English-looking, cottage covered in roses and surrounded by a small lawn, where he himself lived in frugal simplicity writing his books. One continues up a series of irregular steps to Brewster's beloved belvedere from which there is a beautiful view of Florence, which because of its lower altitude, is almost more beautiful than the vista from the top of Bellosguardo.

Giardino San Francesco di Paola
View of Florence from the belvedere in the Giardino San Francesco di Paola
Next I walked to entrance of the Giardini Torrigiani not far from the Pitti palace. I have often passed the fine iron gates of these gardens - little did I know that there are 17 acres of gardens hidden behind the walls in the centre of the Oltrarno. In fact, the Torrigiani gardens are the largest private gardens within city limits in all Europe.

Torrigiani gardens in Florence, Italy
A view of a small part of the Torrigiani Gardens, In Florence
The Torrigiani gardens were originally planted by the founder of the Italian Botanical Society, the oldest such society, and the garden still has an uncommonly wide variety of trees, especially exotic species, in keeping with its 19 C “English Landscape” style. The gardens were designed at the height of the Romantic movement in the early 19 C, forming an idyllic oasis of green around the original 16 C villa. The garden hosts rare tree species, wide English-style lawns, herb and vegetables gardens, sculpted lions, a beautifully restored greenhouse and remains of the city walls built under Cosimo I in 1544. The layout of the garden is also profoundly symbolic and I strongly advise visiting it with a good Tuscan garden guide book in hand.

Giardino Torrigiani a Firenze
The astronomical tower in the Torrigiani gardens
Last but not least, I visited that exquisite jewel of a garden, the Giardino Corsi Annalena, nearby on via Romana. This garden is located on land formerly owned by the monastery of San Vincenzo which was founded in around 1441 by Countess Anna Elena (Annalena) Malatesta. During the long struggle for supremacy between Florence and Sienna, the area was dominated by the fortifications created by Cosimo I de’ Medici, including an underground passage that until this day connects the Boboli, Corsi and Torrigiani gardens. Following the destruction of the fortifications in 1571, the area was left abandoned for many years. In 1790, the Marquis Tommaso Corsi purchased the land, then known as the "Moors’ Garden", and the architect Giuseppe Manetti designed what can be considered the first English garden in Florence. It was completed during the years 1801 to 1810. If you have the chance to visit this beautiful garden, please don't miss it.

Giardino Corsi Annalena in Florence
The Giardino Corsi Annalena in Florence

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Monday, 11 February 2019

How to get from the airport to central Florence

Many first time visitors to Tuscany ask me how to get from the airport to central Florence. And of course I have to ask them to specify which airport. Florence is served mainly by Pisa Airport (Aeroporto Galileo Galilei - code PSA) and to a lesser extent by its own small Florence Airport (Aeroporto Amerigo Vespucci, often known as Peretola - code FLR). I have heard but cannot confirm that sometimes long distance passengers have tickets specifying Florence as the destination when in fact they will land at Pisa. Be sure to check that and to check whether subsequent ground transport is included.

The Pisamover light railway from Pisa Airport to Pisa central railway station.
The Pisamover light railway from Pisa Airport to Pisa central railway station.

There are three different ways to travel from Pisa Airport to Florence - by train, by bus or by taxi

By train: The new, fast and fully automatic PisaMover light rail runs from Pisa Airport to Pisa Central Railway Station every 5/8 minutes every day, from 6 a.m. to midnight, and the journey takes 5 mins. The airport stop is in via Pier Giorgio Ballini, 40 m from the Passenger Terminal, and it arrives at platform 14 in the Pisa railway station. It has an intermediate stop at San Giusto/Aurelia station, where you’ll find two parking areas with about 1,400 spaces, open 24 hours a day, every day.

By bus: the notoriously unreliable Terravision bus is apparently still running and when there is no issue with traffic it is slightly faster than by train (around 70 minutes) and a ticket costs about 5 - 10 euros. Return and children's tickets cost less. Terravision bus timetables here. [Note March 2017 - Terravision is not running currently and their booking form yields "Not available". It is unclear whether or not this is permanent.]

Other bus services from Pisa Airport to Florence are Autostradale and Sky Bus Lines Caronna (the latter with multiple stops en route).

The choice between train and bus will very likely depend on the next train departure time but, taking traffic problems and comfort into account, along with the new PisaMover, my recommendation is to take the train.

There are other bus services from Pisa Airport to Lucca, Siena, Montecatini, Pistoia and Prato.

Beware of gypsy and other pickpockets when there is a scrum during boarding of the Terravision bus.

By taxi: A metered taxi will cost you about 150 euros or more because you have to pay the driver to return empty (that's included in the meter reading - the driver doesn't double the displayed price). There are also fixed-fare NCC minibuses that can be reserved in advance. This latter option costs about the same as a taxi base rate but the drivers are usually more familiar with country accommodations and so provide a good option if your have several people, a lot of luggage and will be staying in the country. Both people and baggage will cost extra with a taxi. NCC drivers can be booked for times when trains, buses and rental car offices are not active. Finally, you can rent a car, but do not try to drive it into central Florence (or Pisa, for that matter) where there are camera-patrolled limited traffic zones and fines aplenty.

Florence airport
Florence airport

There are three different ways to travel from Florence airport to central Florence.

By tram: Florence's new T2 tram route, which opened to the public at 2:30pm on 11 February 2019. The new line operates between piazza dell'Unità Italiana (main railway station - SMN) and Florence Airport.

By bus: Florence airport is only 4 km from the Florence city centre and the orange ATAF Volainbus bus shuttle takes about 20 minutes, runs every half an hour and costs about 5 euros. It leaves from the SITA bus station near the SMN railway station and from near the taxi rank at the station itself. Departures from city centre are every 30 min from 5.30 am to 8.00 pm, then after every hour up until 11.00 pm. Check timetable details on the ATAF website.

By taxi: A metered taxi has a fixed price for trips to the airport (currently 20 euros), takes 15 minutes and is obviously a good choice if you are 3 or 4 people and/or want to leave directly from your hotel. Picking up and dropping off your rental car at the airport is generally a good idea because you avoid the limited traffic zones in the city centre.

A taxi will cost 20 Euros, plus 1 Euro for each piece of luggage (maximum 5 Euros). There is also a 2 Euro supplement for Sunday service and a 3.20 Euro supplement for night service (22:00 to 6:00). Consequently, the "break-even" point for using the airport bus is 3 or 4 passengers traveling together.

Some recommended fixed-fare NCC minibus drivers.

Getting around in Tuscany.

Warnings regarding limited traffic zones in Tuscany.

Recommended vacation accommodation in Chianti towns, villages and countryside.

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