On a scorching hot summer morning in Florence, we decided to make the most of the proximity of the hills and headed out for a family day trip to Pratolino.
Our accommodation was in the area of Florence called ‘le cure’, a great neighbourhood just at the footsteps of the Florentine hills and Fiesole, and since it was my first day driving in Italy, after a long time in Ireland, we decided to stay nearby. We chose one of the many places our hosts had recommended: the Medicean park of Pratolino aka Villa Demidoff.
We heard about this park from out home exchange hosts: parents of two young children and Florence natives, they believed Pratolino would make a day trip for us and recommended to go looking for the giant the park is famous for. Intrigued, we followed their advice and embarked on the adventure.
[box] Some fact about Villa Demidoff and its giant:
The villa is located in Pratolino, a short drive out of Florence along la Via Bolognese, accessible from neighbourhood le cure. Access to the park is free and free parking is available in front of the main entrance, on the other side of the road (the parking is shared with the one of the adventure park, more visible sign posted than the Pratolino estate). A map of the estate is available, free of charge, at the entrance kiosk and the gate attendants are friendly and willing to share info about the accessibility of the estate.[/box]
A map of the estate is available, free of charge, at the entrance kiosk and the gate attendants are friendly and willing to share info about the accessibility of the estate.[/box]
The park can be easily visited with children and is equipped with a nice cafe and a playground[/box]
On our way to the stone giant of Pratolino
We went to Pratolino on a hot July morning, during the hottest day of one of the hottest moths Florence had seen, we were told, in over a decade. Entering our black car felt like entering an oven: with the windows fully down, the glaring sun in our eyes and an urgent desire for some shade, we headed up via Bolognese.
Via Bolognese takes its name from its destination: Bologna. The blue and white signals showing 130 km to Bologna made us imagine a long, wide road, not dissimilar to the fast Italian autostrade, but we were mistaken: via Bolognese is a small, winding road, climbing up with tortuous bends between exposed brick walls.
The road is truly charming and, if you are a passenger, you can make the most of the stunning view over Florence that eventually opens up in front of you, revealing a marble and red tiled scenery dotted with the shapes of the main city landmarks.
Alas, the same cannot be said if you are the driver. The Florentines commuting to work didn’t seem to appreciate my cautious approach to the mountain hairpins and had no problem telling me: they beeped and shouted at me, making sure I knew I was well and truly pissing them off!
Glancing at the view was out of the question: my eyes were glued to the road until, twenty stressful minutes later, we got to our destination.
It was with a mix of road rage and embarrassment (as a Roman, I’m not exactly a paragon of tranquility behind the wheel) that I parked in front of the villa’s entrance, but it all faded when my feet were on solid ground again and the majestic gate opened for us, showing the long winding road into the estate.
If you are considering driving in Italy and are wondering if you should, you might want to have a look at my post ‘driving it Italy, should you dare?’ (the short answer is yes, you should, despite what I said above!)
Family day trip to Pratolino: highlights
Parco Mediceo di Pratolino dates back to the Sixteenth century when Francesco I de’ Medici put architect Buontalenti in charge of designing the estate and transforming it into a ‘fairy-tale holiday residence’ for Bianca Cappello.
The work of Buontalenti hasn’t completely survived the centuries and the villa as we see it now is considerably different from what it would have been at the time, but we it is still possible to see some of its most significant elements.
Il colosso dell’appennino, the giant
The most interesting element of the garden is the so-called ‘Colosso dell’Appennino’ (the Appennine Colossus). This is an incredible sculpture representing a giant leaning over a pond of water. The gentle giant has features that resemble and old man and its long beard and hunched shoulders make him flawlessly blend into the rest of the garden, making him at the same time an imposing and a discreet presence.
The colossus was originally part of a bigger complex, that included a hypogeum and caves and water games, now lost. The giant made a strong impression on us adults: my husband was mesmerized by it and labelled it ‘probably the most impressive thing he had ever seen’ – not a sentence you hear him say often!
But despite our awe, the giant failed to impress the children. We thought its majestic size and the many stories we came up with to make it interesting for them, would capture their imagination, but its lack of movement made it only mildly appealing to them, the mastery that building such a character must have implied probably lost on very young minds.
After the giant, the viali crisscrossing the countryside brought us to other, interesting parts of the estate: the old post, the paggeria, the caves and the so-called big aviary, originally a small wood with nets to enclose rare birds then converted into a pool (the aviary was moved to the Boboli gardens).
All of these buildings have been subject to huge changes, with the exception of the chapel, built by Buontalenti and still stands in its original form. I loved the chapel and, in an unexpected way, it made think of some architecture I have seen in parts of India (Ranthambore National Park, Rajasthan – you’ll think the heat must have gotten to me in that moment, but I promise there are similarities!).
Lost in my daydream about India, I almost imagined elephants to roam freely around Pratolino: I happened to mentions that to the kids and, like magic, the lack of interest showed for the giant was picked by a ‘spot the imaginary elephant’ game.
We walked around the estate for about half an hour, but despite the beauty of the place the heat made us and the kids cranky, so soon we headed for the cafeteria, just beside the chapel.
The power station of Pratolino
Out of aesthetic sync with the rest of the park but nonetheless and interesting addition to the park is a little power stationThis peculiar looking object sits in the middle of the countryside and its odd looks were like a magnet for the kids: they would not get away from it and asked us such a high number of questions I believe they might have set a new record for inquisitiveness!
The cafeteria is a very pleasant stop, much needed in the unusual and relentless heat: it has cold drinks, simple snacks like schiacciata and salads and a big plus for a family: a playground, just in front!
The cafeteria is beautiful and elegant, with and understated atmosphere, which is in tune with the vibe of the whole estate.
It was a welcome, shaded stop and we regained our strength sipping fresh juices. The cafeteria is also the place where we learned that the estate is the location for beautiful summer festivals and cultural events.
We rested there and then headed back to the car. The villa is truly beautiful and, on a less hot day, definitely worth a longer exploration. But apart from the giant and the playground, there was little to grab the attention of the kids, so we decided to cut the visit short and head to one of the many Florence’s family-friendly pools
When approaching the car, in the dusty car park, I had a moment of dread and wished I didn’t have to get on the road again. But as soon as I touched the pedal and zoomed along the road, no one was beeping at me: it seemed like a little bit of practice had made me again an Italian diver, worthy of being on the road even by local standards! The feeling, and the wonderful view now opening up in front of me marked the end of a good day.