Hot, crowded, but still beautiful. When logistical issues caused us to reroute further into Italy than north from Turin to Dijon, France, Florence seemed a good choice. I was a veteran of trips to central Italy, Jan had never been to Tuscany, and I hoped to finally get to Siena. We did all that and more, but in searing heat and with more tourists than we ever want to see again!

As if to make up for the loss of eastern France, Jan booked a long stay at the Hotel Bircherelli, right on a lovely old section of the Arno, and steps away from the fashionable Via Tuornaboni -- the street of Fendi, Gucci, Prada, and so many more. The cab from Santa Novella Stazione took us down crowded, narrow streets until we could not go any further. We landed in front of a tiny church in an even tinier square.

Our room had a quiet view of the facade of this ancient church -- Santi Apostoli e Biago (Holy Apostles and St Blaze; for you Catholic school grads out there, recall having our throats blessed on St Blaze Day) -- one of the oldest in Florence. The square is Piazza del Limbo, at Via Apostoli, byi one entrance of our hotel. (I joked that we were between the apostles and limbo.) Families that once shared Florence leadership with the likes of the Alighieris and the Medicis had homes in the vicinity and their members are buried in the tiny church.

Toward the end of our stay, we finally found the church open and empty. It had been built between the 9th and 11th C. Among the old artwork and religious objects (a Vasari painting, a Della Robbia tabernacle!) is the "Fire Holder," an elaborate bronze and copper piece from the 1200s-1300s in a locked cabinet. It holds two stones from the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem brought back from the First Crusade. The stones are -- get this --- taken to the Duomo (Florence's cathedral with Brunelleschi's magnificent dome) every year where a spark from the stones lights the Easter fire. Wow. And there it all was: no fee, no security, no Covid pass needed.

The hotel faced the Arno, between the Ponte Vecchio (where the gold markets still are) and the Ponte Santa Trinita, within an easy walk, except for the crowds, of the Uffizi Galleries and, further north, the Duomo, Baptistry, San Lorenzo, and more. We could also easily walk in the other direction to the train station to get tourist info, tour Santa Maria Novella, and eat at the Mercato Centrale. Outside, the small leather goods vendors cover the streets. Inside, it's now a covered dining galleria with everything from homemade pizza slices to bruschetta with white truffles, to bistecca Fiorentina, mortadella sandwiches, wine, beer, pasta, pastries.

I pushed a bit too hard, wanting Jan to see all the important art and sculpture in this heart of the Renaissance, but it was overwhelming for us to do it all in 10 days, plus take day trips to Pisa and Siena. But we found several wonderful restaurants and a music venue that took the edge off. And, I think he can now recognize a Raphael at a distance.

We were within blocks, sometimes steps, of the Arno, Via dei Tornabuoni (start of the couture district), the Galleria Uffizi, Piazza and Palazzo della Signoria, and of course the area around the Duomo. There was some prep for an event or photo shoot with greenery and palm trees at the side of the cathedral.

On our way to dinner and a concert one night, we stopped in Piazza Santa Trinita, near our hotel (our favorite restaurant was Parione, on Via del Parione, off this piazza that starts Via dei Tornabuoni--but not that night), we came upon two sets of street musicians. Lovely strings on a warm night in Florence. The men's piece sounded almost Celtic.

After that, we had a long walk, without a place for dinner on the way (we misheard the hotel suggestion, apparently) to the Teatro Maggio, a modern concert hall on the edge of the city. Riccardo Muti and one of his orchestras was playing several works dedicated to Dante (it was the 700th anniversary of the Florentine poet's death). What luck! The theater had a cafe with substantial salads, hot dishes and desserts--plus wine, of course. And an outdoor patio!

The musical pieces were stunning--one using a small but mighty chorus, the Verdi I think; one was modern. All took their themes from various verses of The Divine Comedy. Again, a long walk home; we hoped someone in a limo would take pity on us as we left the theater. While we waited to see if taxis would show up, Jan wanted to go backstage as a Chicagoan to greet the maestro. Alas, too long a wait. Since there were no buses easy to find, and we weren't sure about ride shares, we walked all the way back. Crowds were gone and the walk along the Arno under a purple blue sky with gold and amber buildings lit on either side of us was a romantic way to end a long day.