Mechanical problems with our Cinquina car (the brakes went going down a mountain road, giving us a somewhat traumatic experience and necessitating a new brake pump and ganasce – or brake blocks) have prevented us from arriving at our home in Longoio on the day we’d planned. This is, clearly an unfortunate situation but less so if the nearest place to visit, while waiting for spare parts, is that cradle of the renaissance, Florence. Imagine if you’d broken down near Milton Keynes, for example!
Florence is, anyway, particularly car-unfriendly and the only proper way to visit its heart is on foot and by public transport.
The new tramway connecting the suburb of Scandicci to the railway station is the ideal way to start a visit to this sublime city. You can park the car free of charge at the end of the line and, for only Euro 1.20, reach the start of your Florence walking tour in around half-an-hour.
Many stations on the line are named after famous painters and the whole journey is full of interest. (Incidentally, many tram – and bus-drivers too – are women. Notice, too, they drive on the left).
Once in Florence, if you are tired of walking about, there is a sightseeing bus trip laid on by the ATAF bus company. No, it isn’t on those tourist-trap, open-top, double-deckers which, anyway, can’t get anywhere near the main part of the historic centre because of their size and restrictions. The sightseeing is, in this case, achieved by using the standard city bus service. Little electric buses on lines C2 and C3 will take you right into the heart of the city. The drivers may often have a tough time negotiating the narrow mediaeval streets, teeming with pedestrians and illegally-parked cars, but they do so with élan and it is real fun to take a ride on the tiny ecologically-friendly buses.
ATAF, the Florence bus company, has truly gone to town with its services to the public. The majority of bus stops, which are all individually named just like tube stations, have electronic display boards giving information about the expected waiting times for the next buses and information web sites. You can even buy a ticket, if you don’t have one, by sending an SMS to ATAF – a good idea if there isn’t time to get one (from selected outlets like tobacconists – displaying the T sign – bars etc.) since bus inspectors take their job seriously, and fines for not having a ticket, or not validating one (you validate a ticket by having it time-stamped on a yellow machine in the bus), start from Euros 50.
Electronic travel cards can also be purchased, which you wave in front of a sensor on each bus.
The majority of tickets cost the same price since they work on the timed principle – each ticket is valid for ninety minutes, regardless of the number of buses you take within that period – no nonsense with “zone”, “peak times” and “fare stage” complications such as you get on systems like London Transport.
Finally, local transport is a relatively fast and efficient way of moving around Florence since there are dedicated bus lanes and the driver doesn’t have to stop ages at each bus stop to collect fares from boarding passengers (at often great personal risk since money is on board) ,as in that antiquated system still used in London, as each passenger is expected to have bought a ticket before boarding any bus or tram. (As one driver said to me “I’m paid to be a bus driver, not a conductor or a ticket inspector.”)
Of course, the system does have its flaws which you must watch out for – the most obvious one being that there is always a last bus back to your place of stay and, sometimes, it departs well before the time you’d like to leave your show, exhibition or restaurant. But few things can be absolutely perfect in this world, including ATAF itself.