Coming Soon: An Online Course on the Borgia Family.

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I’m very pleased to announce that I will be leading a course on “The history of the Borgias” over on medievalcourses.com and it will be starting very soon!

Keep an eye out for more information over on medievalcourses, their facebook page and of course right here on the blog!

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The One Million Step Challenge

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Today’s post isn’t history related at all, but please indulge me for a moment.

As many of you know, I suffer from Type 1 Diabetes. I can clearly remember the day I was diagnosed – I was at school and we were watching Oliver Twist. All of a sudden I felt seriously unwell, worse than I’d been feeling for the past few weeks (honestly, I’d felt so poorly for weeks) and next thing I know, I’m projectile vomiting all over my classmates. My Nana came to pick me up from school and then she and my Mum took me to the Doctor – he took one look at me, curled up on the bench in the waiting room – and told Mum and Nana to get me to the hospital straight away. His own daughter had Type 1 so he knew what he was seeing. Whilst I was in A&E I remember asking for chicken soup – chicken soup fixes everything when you’re ill – and they put a drip in my arm, telling me it was chicken soup. In fact it was insulin – and that stopped me from losing my life. Because the reality is, if I hadn’t gone to hospital that day then the likelihood is that I wouldn’t be here right now. That was 21 years ago – like nearly every Type 1 diabetic I went through a phase of rebellion. I wanted to be normal, so I stopped testing my sugars and taking my insulin just so I could be like my friends. I know now that those years, mainly my years at uni, were full of stupidity. I wasn’t looking after myself because I wanted to be like everyone else. These days, though, I look after myself. I test my blood sugars and wear an insulin pump. My years of rebellion have led to some complications but I get on with things. Diabetes is a part of me. And I’ve learned over the past 21 years that although it’s with me 24/7, 365 days a year, it doesn’t control me. I control it.

So when I was browsing Facebook the other day, I saw a post by Diabetes UK about the 1 Million Step Challenge and I immediately signed up for it. Diabetes UK is a fantastic charity that gives help and support to those with both Type 1 and Type 2 diabetes – they also offer help and support to families. I remember back when they were the British Diabetic Association, we held a charity event for them which did really well (until the guy who did the music demanded a really high fee!). This charity gives the help and support that sufferers need – for them, there is no distinction about what type is the worst type of diabetes. Instead they help everyone. Instead they raise money to research treatments for this awful chronic illness.

Between 1st July and 30th September I will be walking ONE MILLION steps to raise money for Diabetes UK. This works out as over 10,000 steps every single day for three whole months – and it’s all for charity. If you can sponsor me for this epic challenge, I’d be so grateful. Please dig deep, every little helps.

If you’d like to sponsor me, you can do so at my JustGiving page.

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Florence Day 4 – Santa Maria Novella & Homeward Bound

It was with a heavy heart that we woke up early on 12 May and got our packing done. We had to be checked out of the apartment by 10am and given as our flight wasn’t until 6.15pm, we had a lot of time so kill. So we decided we would head to Santa Maria Novella for the morning, before catching the train to Pisa airport.

Unfortunately for us, our Firenze Card’s had expired by the time we got to Santa Maria Novella, but given as the entrance fee was only 5 euros we couldn’t really complain – especially not when we walked in and saw the size of the place. Historically, it was the first great basilica to be built in Florence, right above an old dominican Church also named Santa Maria. The ‘Novella’ actually means new.

One of the first things you see upon walking in is Giotto’s beautiful crucifix.

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Giotto’s crucifix, Santa Maria Novella. Photo by me.

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Santa Maria Novella. Photo by me

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Santa Maria Novella. Photo by me

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Santa Maria Novella. Photo by me

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Jesus in a box, Santa Maria Novella. Photo by me

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Beautiful frescoes in Santa Maria Novella. Photo by me.

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Gorgeous stained glass windows, Santa Maria Novella. Photo by me

A walk around the complex took us through some utterly stunning cloisters and chapels – even through a chapel of the dead where I found a person with the last name Moris and, for anyone interested in the Assassins Creed series, Auditore da Firenze!

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Cloisters, Santa Maria Novella. Photo by me.

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Santa Maria Novella. Photo by me.

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Information on the Cloister of the Dead. Photo by me

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Cloister of the Dead. Santa Maria Novella. Photo by me.

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Santa Maria Novella. Photo by me

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Cloister of the Dead. Santa Maria Novella. Photo by me

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Detail of a grave on the floor of the Chapter House, Santa Maria Novella. Photo by me

The basilica also houses a sweet little museum absolutely stuffed full of artefacts relating to Santa Maria Novella.

Following on from our pleasant few hours wandering around this beautiful Church we headed for some lunch and ended up grabbing a lovely gelato from a gelateria in the piazza. Unfortunately there was a rather pushy man wandering about trying to force his wares upon people – I’ll only say that his sales pitch is terrible and I’d be surprised if he made any money whatsoever!

Then it was time to get on the train and head to the airport before heading home, faced with delays at the airport and the world’s most expensive beer. We had an absolutely amazing time in Florence and it’s somewhere I will most definitely visit again. In fact, I can see us retiring to a lovely little villa in the Tuscan countryside one day.

We can only dream eh?

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Florence Day 3 – Uffizi Galleries, Palazzo Medici & Duomo Museum

For our final full day, we wanted to make the absolute most of our remaining time in the beautiful city of Florence. So yet again we were up at the crack of sparrows before heading out to the Uffizi Galleries. We’d seen the size of the queues on our first day so it was our aim to get there for opening – we were in the building for about twenty past eight in the morning. And it was wonderful.

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Main corridor of the Uffizi

The galleries lead you around rooms filled with art of some of the best Renaissance painters and beyond. On the second floor you walk through galleries of the early Renaissance, through to Botticelli and Michelangelo – I was honestly in heaven. When you move to the first floor there are works by later Renaissance artists as well as the famous Seventeenth Century artist Caravaggio.

I’ll say it now though – if I ever see another Madonna and Child fresco for as long as I live, I will scream. There were HUNDREDS of them. Literally everywhere. I’ve even started having nightmares about them…okay so that’s an exaggeration, but still.

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The first of many. Photo by me.

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Photo by me

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Photo by me

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Photo by me

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Photo by me

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Photo by me

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Photo by me

There were a few rooms that had me squeaking for joy. The moment I saw Federico da Montefeltro’s portrait from afar, I tore off to get a closer look. In the very same room was a portrait of Galeazzo Maria Sforza as well!

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Federico da Montefeltro. He had himself painted this way so people wouldn’t see his missing right eye. Portrait by Piero della Francesca. Photo by me.

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Galeazzo Maria Sforza, who was assassinated in 1476. Portrait by Piero Benci. Photo by me.

And then there were the Botticelli rooms with two of the artist’s most famous works on display. I can’t even begin to describe to you what it was like standing in front of both the Primavera and the Birth of Venus – the only words that really come to mind are ‘awe inspiring’. And whilst up close you could really see how Simonetta Vespucci popped up in his works over and over again.

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Birth of Venus by Sandro Botticelli. Photo by me

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Birth of Venus detail. Photo by me.

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Man holding a coin by Sandro Botticelli. Photo by me.

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Sandro Botticelli. Photo by me.

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Primavera detail. Photo by me.

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Primavera. Photo by me.

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Primavera by Sandro Botticelli. Photo by me

Other delights that we saw included statues that looked like they were dancing, a portrait of Martin Luther, Cosimo de’ Medici and Pope Julius II!

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Photo by me

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Photo by me

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Photo by me

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Martin Luther. Photo by me

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Cosimo de’ Medici by Jacopo Pontormo. Photo by me.

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Pope Julius II by Raphael. Photo by me.

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Detail of Pope Julius II by Raphael. Photo by me.

After a good three and a half hours or so in the Uffizi, we took a wander back to the apartment for lunch before heading back out to the Palazzo Medici. This Palazzo is somewhere I had wanted to see from the moment I began to read about the Medici family and stepping inside those walls for the first time was amazing. Some of the upper floor was closed off so we didn’t get to see all of it – we did get to have a look around their displays relating to the floods and a few of their other display pieces, as well as the absolutely stunning Chapel of the Magi.

The moment we walked into that little chapel I stopped dead in my tracks. Inside I was surrounded by some of the most beautiful frescoes in the world, painted by Benozzo Gozzoli, frescoes which truly show the wealth of the Medici family. In it you see the Magi travelling towards their final destination of the new-born Jesus. The frescoes are full to bursting with the celebrities of the time, noblemen who ruled their various cities including Sigismondo Pandolfo Malatesta and Galeazzo Maria Sforza. You also have the prominent figures of Giovanni di Bicci de’ Medici and Cosimo de’ Medici, all of whom are following the three magi. It is said that the face of the Young King, Caspar, is possibly a portrait based upon a young Lorenzo the Magnificent. One of the other Magi is traditionally said to be Joseph of Constantinople.

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Palazzo Medici. Photo by me

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Palazzo Medici. Photo by me

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Palazzo Medici. Photo by me

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Procession of the Magi, Palazzo Medici. Photo by me.

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Chapel of the Magi, Palazzo Medici. Photo by me.

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Detail of the Young King, Procession of the Magi. Photo by me.

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Detail of Giovanni di Bicci de’ Medi & Cosimo de’ Medici in the Procession of the Magi. Photo by me.

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Chandelier in the rooms added by the Riccardi family, Palazzo Medici. Photo by me

Our last stop for the day was the Cathedral museum, located behind Santa Maria del Fiore. Thankfully the tickets we had gotten with our Duomo tour package lasted for 48 hours so we had plenty of time to go and see it – on the way around the Piazza del Duomo we considered going up Giotto’s bell tour…but then we saw the queue so decided to carry on around to the museum. After all those steps the day before, it was definitely for the best!

The museum is located over three floors, with a little terrace at the very top from which you can view the Duomo. And as it says on the tin, it’s a museum of everything to do with the Cathedral – within it you can see original statues from the facade, models of each facade through the ages as well as the sort of building apparatus that would have been used when Brunelleschi built the Duomo. There was also an absolutely stunning silver altar from the Baptistery that shows the life of Saint John the Baptist. I’d definitely recommend swinging into this museum if you visit the Duomo, as there is SO much more to learn about that stunning piece of architecture, some of which can really only be learned within these walls.

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Doors of Paradise by Ghiberti. Photo by me

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Scary looking Jesus, Cathedral Museum. Photo by me.

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Michelangelo’s Pieta, Cathedral Museum. Photo by me.

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Brunelleschi’s death mask, Cathedral Museum. Photo by me.

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Cathedral Museum. Photo by me.

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Detail of the Baptistery altar, Cathedral Museum. Photo by me.

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Baptistery altar. Photo by me.

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View of the Duomo from Brunelleschi’s terrace at the Cathedral Museum. Photo by me.

Dinner that evening was a lovely affair at the Ristorante Accademia, the very first restaurant that we visited when we arrived in Florence. Yet again I was absolutely amazed at their service and their food was just brilliant. Afterwards, full of great wine and amazing food, we went across the piazza to have one last look at San Marco before heading back to the apartment. The next day we would be homeward bound, but not before squeezing in one last place of historical interest – Santa Maria Novella.

 

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See you soon, San Marco. Photo by me.

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Florence Day 2 – San Marco, San Lorenzo & Santa Maria del Fiore tour.

Day 2 in Florence began early. And when I say early I mean we were up and out of the door by 6.15am so we could take advantage of there being no crowds in the Piazza della Signoria. The previous evening we had decided that we would head back to the Piazza so we could film a little vlog of me in front of Savonarola’s execution monument talking about the fateful day in which he lost his life. It’ll be posted both here and on my youtube channel once it’s been properly edited. Once done, we headed back to the apartment for some breakfast.

The plan for our second day in Florence was to visit San Marco and San Lorenzo in the morning before taking part in a guided tour of Santa Maria del Fiore in the afternoon. So an incredibly busy day! We were at San Marco for opening time – and the moment we stepped foot through those doors my excitement knew no bounds. This convent was one of the main reasons I had come to Florence as it was the place where Girolamo Savonarola lived and worked, and where he was arrested in 1498 before his brutal torture and execution.

The convent, now of course a museum, was incredibly quiet when we arrived and for that I was extremely grateful. We knew it would pick up later on in the morning so our first job was to head up to see Savonarola’s cell before the crowds. And I was in awe.

Just outside the little cell is a monument to the infamous friar, topped with a lifelike bust of the man himself. There are also medallions that were struck during his lifetime on display, and above the door is a little sign that states the room belonged to the one time Prior of San Marco.

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Savonarola’s monument, San Marco. Photo by M.Bryan

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Me and the monument, San Marco. Photo by M.Bryan

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Detail of Savonarola’s monument, San Marco. Photo by M.Bryan.

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Me stood in front of relics once belonging to Savonarola and the infamous painting of his execution. Photo by M.Bryan

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Savonarola’s execution, San Marco. Photo by M.Bryan

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Savonarola’s cell. Photo by M.Bryan

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Portrait of Girolamo Savonarola. Photo by M.Bryan

After spending a fair amount of time within the cell, I reluctantly agreed that it was about time to look around the rest of San Marco. A leisurely stroll around the monk’s cells allowed us to see Fra Angelico’s beautiful frescoes that had been painted on the walls. We also had a look around the display set up in what was once the library – it was in here that Savonarola addressed his fellow monks during the Siege of San Marco before his arrest. Now, there is a display of beautifully illuminated books as well as a little display on how the illuminations were carried out.

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Library of San Marco. Photo by me.

Just down the corridor from the library is a set of cells that once belonged to Cosimo de’ Medici, also known as Cosimo the Elder. These were his own private rooms within a religious house that he did a lot of work for – he commissioned Michelozzo to completely redesign the place and put thousands of ducats into the place. The cell was his own personal retreat within the peaceful confines of the Dominican friary.

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Photo by me

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Photo by me

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Interior of Cosimo de’ Medici’s cell. Photo by me

After a very pleasant few hours wandering around San Marco we headed to San Lorenzo, Church of the Medici family. Our walk took us right by the Palazzo Medici, where we would be visiting on the following day.

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Exterior of San Lorenzo. Photo by me.

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Interior of San Lorenzo. Photo by me

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Ceiling of San Lorenzo, showing the Medici coat of arms. Photo by me

I found San Lorenzo to be an incredibly peaceful place, the simplicity of the blues that decorated the walls was so calming. And yet again, it wasn’t busy. There were no massive queues to get in (like what we had seen at the Uffizi the previous day) and the tourists that were inside were so spread out that it really felt as if there was no one there.

Our ticket included entry to the crypt below the church, the crypt that famously holds the tombs of the artist Donatello as well as Cosimo the Elder. Following a quick walk around the church we headed into the cloister (absolutely stunning) and down into the little crypt. There’s a small museum room within the crypt holding some of the treasures of San Lorenzo – beautiful reliquaries holding relics of Saints and beautiful crucifixes that must be worth an absolute fortune. The next room holds the very understated tomb of Donatello. And in that room is a locked gate, behind which you can view the tomb of Cosimo the Elder, his body held within a column.

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Tomb of Donatello, San Lorenzo. Photo by me (slightly blurry as my camera doesn’t seem to enjoy taking pictures in low-level light)

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Tomb of Cosimo the Elder, San Lorenzo. Photo by me.

After finishing at San Lorenzo, we headed back to the apartment for lunch and a bit of a rest as we’d be climbing to the top of the Duomo that afternoon. I, for my sins, ended up falling asleep after going to lay down and rest my very sore feet!

I’d paid for a VIP tour of the Duomo months before and was really excited about getting to head up Brunelleschi’s infamous cupola. We met our tour guide at 2.30pm and headed outside into the blazing heat – we began outside the Santa Maria del Fiore where the tour guide gave us a brief history of the magnificent cathedral, explaining how it had been built over the original church of Santa Reparata and giving us a brief introduction to Giotto’s bell tower. We then headed inside, completely skipping the lines.

Santa Maria del Fiore’s interior is absolutely breathtaking. From the moment you step foot inside it, you feel so incredibly small and I truly think that was what those who designed and built the cathedral wanted. They wanted you to feel small in comparison to God. Everything about the interior exudes symbolism, from the clock upon the inner wall of the facade (It measures time in hours after sunset), to the differing colour of marble upon the floor, the frescoes and the stained glass windows.

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Outside view of Santa Maria del Fiore. Photo by me.

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Giotto’s bell tower. Photo by me.

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Interior of Santa Maria del Fiore. Photo by me.

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Detail of the marble flooring. Photo by me.

Our tour took us down into the excavations beneath Santa Maria del Fiore where we were able to see much of what had been uncovered from Santa Reparata as well as the remains of paving slabs and tombs from the old cathedral. Following the excavations we were taken back upstairs where we got our first glimpse of the stunning frescoes that cover the inside of the cupola – the dome, designed by Filippo Brunelleschi, still holds its secrets even today. Brunelleschi wrote down nothing, keeping his plans entirely within his own head. His argument, when asked how he would complete his work if he wouldn’t tell anyone, was that if he told them how to build the dome then they would be able to do it too. The Last Judgement frescoes painted around the inner dome were designed by Vasari and started in 1568.

Before beginning the monumental climb up the Duomo, we were taken behind the choir and stood in front of the very room that Lorenzo the Magnificent escaped into after the murder of his brother in 1478. It was a moment that stopped me in my tracks, having read about and written about the Pazzi Conspiracy. To think that just behind me, Giuliano de’ Medici had been stabbed to death and his corpse left on the floor whilst just in front of me was the very room that Lorenzo had escaped into in order to save his life.

Then the climb began. 150 steps up was our first stop where we got to go out onto the terraces, part of the Cathedral that isn’t open for tourists. And the moment I stepped out there, I could see why. To get onto the main terrace you have to squeeze through a tiny little gap and there are no safety rails whatsoever. One wrong step and you’d be a goner! Still, it was worth it. The views from the terraces alone were absolutely stunning.

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VIP Duomo tour. Photo by me

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VIP Duomo tour. Photo by me

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View of the dome from the closed terraces. Photo by me.

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View from the closed terraces. Photo by me

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View from the closed terraces. Photo by me

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View from the closed terraces. Photo by me

The closed terraces were the last part of the tour. After that we were free to climb up the rest of the way (over 300 more steps!!!) or go down as we saw fit. We, of course, decided to head up. Let me tell you, going up was a lot less scary than coming down. But going up we got to see Vasari’s frescoes up close as well as the intricate brickwork of Brunelleschi’s dome. It was a strange experience, walking between the two domes in corridors that had been built for the original workmen. But at the same time it was beyond my wildest dreams. Brunelleschi’s work on the dome was the work of an absolute genius – his use of herringbone brick work can be clearly seen as you make your way up towards the lantern, and it is utterly breathtaking. Sadly, he didn’t live to see the completion of his work. But I think he would be proud to know that his beautiful dome has become a symbol of Florence.

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Closer view of Vasari’s frescoes. Slightly blurred photo due to poor lighting. Photo by me.

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Closer view of Vasari’s frescoes. Slightly blurred photo due to poor lighting. Photo by me.

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View from the very top of the lantern. Photo by me.

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View from the very top of the lantern. Photo by me.

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View from the very top of the lantern. Photo by me.

Getting down was my least favourite part and it definitely took me a lot longer than it did getting up there! Still, by the time it was done I was so very proud of myself. Extreme heights bother me a lot, especially where steep stairs are concerned. But I’d done it. And it was time to celebrate with a nice dinner!

After walking across to the other side of the Ponte Vecchio, we decided that we may as well try one of the restaurants by our apartment. Sadly, it was a mistake going here. Despite rave reviews the service was shockingly poor and incredibly slow. And the food wasn’t even all that great! Baked stuff rabbit…whatever it was stuffed with tasted really weird and gave me some terrible heartburn! Not somewhere we’ll be going back to.

The step count at the end of the day totted up to well over 25,000…that’s well over ten miles! We certainly slept well!

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