Firenze, Piazza del Duomo (Day 2)

photo: "The David" is very commonly on sale at tourist tat shops

Multi-hued Davids for sale in a tourist tat shop.

The B&B room is large (at least by European standards), very high ceilinged (which is actually a bit strange feeling for me), and incredibly quiet. The breakfast they served was ... okay. I found the toaster particularly fascinating: you press a plunger to turn it on, but when it pops it doesn't move the toast up: you have to lift out a metal frame, one for each piece, that has a handle that sticks out above the toaster. But that's not all that makes this toaster special: it never visibly heats up, although it does get hot. And because it's not really all that hot ... it takes a long time and produces something closer in consistency to melba toast than what we think of as "toast." Makes it hard to butter because the bread doesn't hold any heat once it's been dehydrated. But yogurt and cereal, and tea and coffee.

My first destination of the morning was The Accademia, the home of what's known as "The David." I found some of my Bologna-detour companions in the timed entrance line (as opposed to the "wait-it-out" line, which was much longer and is known to last several hours). Their tour guide was very helpful, and said you really do want to get the timed entrance ticket online, "then print it out or bring it on your phone." I don't have access to a printer and I left my phone behind as it's no better than a boat anchor here ... except for online tickets, which is really big here. Who knew! So I'll deal with that tomorrow.

Up next was the intensely popular Piazza del Duomo. I found out where to buy tickets for the main attractions: the dome, the Campanile, The Baptistery, Santa Reparata, and the Museo dell'Opera del Duomo - all one ticket, €15 (valid for 48 hours). "Duomo" means literally "Cathedral," but it took me a while to figure that out because it's close to the English word "dome" and here, the Duomo is inseparable from Brunelleschi's massive dome that tops the Duomo. Entrance to the Duomo itself is free.

My first choice of places to visit was to climb the dome itself, before I'd gone into the church. I'd already noticed that the timed entry line to the Dome was a lot shorter than the other line ... so I used the machine at the ticket office to say "I want to go in at 10:30" (it was already 10:25). In fact I got in around 11:00, but spent my time in line well by chatting with a couple guys who live near Nottingham in England, and three Torontonians. And - despite the wait - we did get in very much faster than the other line. The Dome climb is (if the Rough Guide is correct) 463 steps. Narrow twisty steps, half of which are also the way back down so you keep having to squeeze over for people coming the other way. But half way to the top you get to do a semi-circle around the inside base of the dome to look at Giorgio Vasari and Federico Zuccari's "The Last Judgement" which includes many images of Heaven ... but the ones of Hell are rather more eye-catching. This is, you'll understand, a very, very big painting as the dome is 45 metres across. And then it's back to the stairs, up more twists and turns to the outside top of the dome and fine views over the whole city of Firenze. The only thing of the same height anywhere near is The Campanile, which stands right next to the Duomo. On the way back down you do another half-turn around the inside of the dome - this time about 10 metres higher than last time.

I wanted to see the inside of the church whose dome I'd just climbed, so the Duomo was the next stop. There's a 5-10 minute wait to get in at mid-day. Large parts of the church are out of reach to visitors, who follow a U-shaped track in the side door at the front, down to the altar, and then up the centre and out the central doors. It's a massive and mostly empty place, with the Dome probably being the most impressive feature. I would have loved to see the chapels at the sides and back, but those were off the tour.

Near the exit is a set of stairs going down. I assumed that was to a crypt, and it is, but only sort of. Excavations down there have turned up foundations to a previous church (Santa Reparata), including tile flooring dating back well over 1000 years and a number of tombs they hadn't even known existed.

Surprisingly, there was no line for the Baptistery. It's an octagonal building, and the oldest building in the city: it used to be the main cathedral. The marble cladding that matches the Duomo and Campanile is newer. The interior of the roof is nearly as spectacular as the dome, although not quite so large: it's tiled with religious stories, but about 50% of the tiling is gold (at least in colour - I don't know if it's the real thing or not ... the effect is certainly impressive). I sat down and relaxed - and of course took photos.

The outside of the Baptistery has some great works of art on it: the south doors by Andrea Pisano tell the story of St. John the Baptist in 28 panels, but it's Lorenzo Ghiberti's east doors that are even more famous. They're called "The Gates of Paradise" and they're fantastic. Although ... the ones on the Baptistery are copies, the real ones are in the Museo (coming up shortly). But I've loved those doors for years and years: Grace Cathedral in San Francisco has a copy too (photo), and it's great stuff - so I was really looking forward to seeing the real thing.

It just struck me that Rodin's "The Gates of Hell", another favourite sculpture of mine, was very likely riffing on Ghiberti's "Gates of Paradise." Wikipedia confirms this - cool.

Then I went and did what my own planning notes instructed me not to do: I climbed The Campanile in the same day as the Duomo since the Duomo hadn't had any lasting effects. The Rough Guide says the Campanile is 414 steps - although I think you end up slightly higher in the air. Again, narrow stairs, and everyone coming down is using the same ones as the people going up. The Rough Guide was correct about another thing: the view from the Campanile is slightly better, simply because it includes the Duomo. It was fun working out what things are from up there when I haven't been to most of them: I spotted Palazzo Pitti (it's gigantic and pretty obvious). What's surprisingly hard to find is the Arno River: it's well hidden by the buildings that line its shores, even though it's only 10 or 12 blocks from the Campanile.

I moved on to the Museo dell'Opera del Duomo, which holds a great deal of the art that used to live in (and more often "on") the Duomo, and also some from the Campanile(?) and the Baptistery. The highlights are "The Gates of Paradise" and Michelangelo's "Pieta" (he did four "Pietas" in his life - my favourite is still the one in St. Peter's in Rome, possibly my favourite sculpture by anyone). This particular one includes him: (the old man at the back). But the whole place is great, I was in there three and a half hours.

By the time I exited, I was in need of dinner. So I went to Yellow Bar, where I got a very good ham and gorgonzola calzone, a glass of Chianti, and eventually a Millefoglie (similar to the French Mille-feuille). It was a good way to end the day.

A couple things that are very common in Firenze (and not related ... I think). The smell of leather, because there's handbag, belt, and/or jacket stores every single block - in this weather, they usually have their door open. And guys in camouflage with machine guns - often seen standing near military grade SUVs with snorkels. Both of these things are commoner in the centre of town, but a couple of the soldiers are stationed, 24x7, half a block from my B&B guarding an entire barricaded block - that turns out to contain the American embassy.

photo: there are an amazing variety of leather vendors outside the Central Market

Belts (and more belts) for sale near the central market.