Ah, Florence! How to even describe you. The blooming heart of the Renaissance. Home to some of the greatest artworks of all time. Central base of the Medici political dynasty. Not to mention the dreamy vistas, mouthwatering gelato, and romantic Arno river. We’d finally made it to Bella Italia!
Our train ride from Thonon-Les-Bains took us through Switzerland, the Alps, and Milan on its way to Florence. We gazed out the window, mesmerized, as the tracks wove us in and out of deep valleys. Despite being midday, it felt like we were in perpetual twilight as the sun was hidden behind the towering mountains. This produced a gradient light effect of gold, pink, and blue. Finally reaching Italy, we watched as the architecture changed. Terracotta roofs, plastered walls, and tall, arched windows. Our train stopped for quite a while at the first station in Italy, and we soon found out that cause personified in the two officials coming through to check passports. On our way again, the train circumnavigated large, placid lakes covered in thick blankets of mist. Small islands were more building than land, and with all the pink and blue light, looked like elaborately decorated cakes with church spire toppings.
After arriving at the central station in Florence, we dragged out bags across the river to our small AirBNB, conveniently located outside the most touristy areas. The apartment was located on a side street, and we entered the building and climbed a set of narrow, dark stone steps. We were staying with a local, Cosimo, who was working nights that week. He had an elderly cat that meowed at us a lot, in the most good-natured way possible. After a chilly first night, he showed us how to work the heater, and our stay there was quite pleasant. We didn’t see Cosimo too much because of his work schedule, but we were chuffed to see that the dinners he always prepared to eat at work was indeed pasta.
On our first morning, we wandered to the Duomo, perhaps the most iconic building in Florence and the heart of tourist heaven. The dome towers over everything, and is a great reference point to figuring out where you are in the city. The cathedral is officially Cattedrale di Santa Maria del Fiore, but everyone just calls it the Duomo. Construction started in the 13th century, and plans for the dome were recorded but the technology wasn’t available to actually build it to be structurally sound. Enter Filippo Brunelleschi, a brilliant architect and sculptor, who studied the Pantheon in Rome for ideas and successfully completed the Florence cathedral’s dome in the 15th century. Thanks again, Romans! Oddly enough, the gothic-revival facade of the cathedral is relatively modern, being added in the 19th century. It felt eerily familiar – in fact, the whole city center did. If you’ve ever played the video game Assassin’s Creed II, you’ll probably be incredibly familiar with Florence as that is where it takes place. The developers do stunning job at recreating the city in the 15th century, as well as craftily imparting a lot of historical information on the player. In any case, we were here in person. We enjoyed breakfast a few blocks away from the real Duomo, and had our first encounter with Italian espresso.
Italian coffee is famously delicious, and shockingly cheap. The average price is about one euro for an espresso, and often we’d see it sold for less outside the cities. Espressos are the norm, and most Italians will order one and drink it at the bar standing up, chatting to other locals then continuing on with their morning. Cappuccinos or other drinks with milk are available, but are usually only had in the morning. The Italians believe it’s bad for digestion to have milk after meals, especially if that meal is tomato-based. Coffee drinks aren’t really made “to-go”, either. Since espressos are so small, it’s a bit silly to get a to-go cup. In cities, however, Italians are accommodating tourists. Usually when we asked for “un cafe”, we’d get a hesitant “americano?” which means a black coffee like we’re used to in the States. We’d shake our heads and insist “no, un cafe normale”, which is an espresso. We want to experience Italy, not try to make it like home! In any case, the drip coffee is pretty bad. Italians rarely if ever drink it themselves. Instead, they are experts at using the espresso machines, so I’ll get my perfect cappuccinos and espressos while I can! We found ourselves frequenting coffee shops all throughout our touring days. Luckily, a shot of espresso has less caffeine than a cup of coffee, so we didn’t feel that bad. We were also heartened to hear that Starbucks really doesn’t have much of a chance at making inroads into Italy. Sure, there are Starbucks locations in some university campuses to accommodate American students (seriously), but the Italian culture of pure espressos is deeply ingrained and won’t be replaced by sugary milk drinks anytime soon.
Caffeine and pastries pumping through our veins, we went to take care of a rather important errand before getting our touring on. Unlike most EU countries, Italy does not accept US driver’s licenses. You must have an International Driver’s Permit to drive as a foreigner in Italy. IDPs are easy to get in the United States – you can apply for one at a AAA office, and for $20 you can have one in minutes. As we would be driving in Sicily in a few days, we definitely needed one in case we got stopped. Despite months of planning and research, guess what the one thing we forgot to do before we left was? You got it – get our IDPs. Once overseas, it’s a nightmare to get them. You have to mail your documentation and photos back to the US, then wait for your IDP to arrive in the mail at your foreign destination. Forget fast-tracking the process if you don’t feel like spending several hundred dollars for faster delivery. After some good old “panic research”, Clayton found a loophole wherein you can get an official translation of your US license into Italian, and that should work fine if stopped by officials. The English Language Institute located in Florence was fairly reputable, and for 50 euros we were able to drop of Clayton’s license and have it translated in about an hour. The translation was a packet of several papers, stamped and notarized. The Italians love their stamps!
Pressing errand complete, we relaxed into the flow of Florence. We meandered back to the Duomo to start some sightseeing. The cobbled streets were small, many without any sidewalks, seemingly unchanged from the Renaissance itself. The shops provided some of the best window displays I’d seen in Europe so far, with dazzling jewels and artsy fashions catching the eye. I was a bit intimidated by the amount of stunning gorgeous Italians walking around, many in high heels and boasting perfectly coiffed hair. I felt rather tatty in my wrinkled suitcase clothes. Luckily, we learned that we were visiting Florence during their biggest fashion show of the year, so I told myself that they were all models and thus, exceptions, not the rule. This made me feel feel marginally better. We ate lunch in what we thought was a tiny little restaurant a block from the Duomo, but as we would discover in Italian cities, looks are very deceiving. What look like tiny restaurants are in fact quite large, since you go in and down some stairs and end up in a converted wine cellar that can seat several dozen. The pasta, naturally, was delicious. The wine was delicious but cheap, or so I thought. The further south in Italy we got, the cheaper the delicious wine became, but I’m getting ahead of myself. In any case, we were looking forward to more delicious Italian meals.
Back outside, we popped our headphones in to listen to our trusty Rick Steves audio walking tours. He took us around central Florence and gave us the history of the most famous buildings and squares. Florence’s history is rich and complicated, and there is no way I’d be able to cover a fraction of it. We let the information wash over us as we went inside the Cathedral itself. It was large and spacious, but it was clear that the real claim to fame was the outside. We next went down one of the main pedestrian stretches in the city center, Via dei Calzaiuoli, admiring the confectionery and piles of gelato in the window displays before arriving at the church Orsanmichele. The church was simple compared to others we’ve seen before, as it was a re-purposed grain market. You could still see the holes in the walls for distributing grain. However, the guild-sponsored statues adorning the outside hinted at a forthcoming Renaissance. Statues by Donatello and Brunelleschi demonstrated mastery of perspective so the subjects looked as if they had normal proportions when viewed from the ground, and they looked more natural in their relaxed contrapposto poses as opposed to the stick straight medieval portraits. Next was the Piazza della Signoria and Palazzo Vecchio. The Piazza was a large, open square teeming with tourists, a large fountain of Neptune undergoing restoration, and the site of the burning of Savonarola. Savonarola was a radical preacher in the 15th century whose condemnation of clerical corruption and calls for Christian renewal led to book burnings and destruction of secular art. Popular opinion turned against him, and he was burned himself. The Loggia del Lanzi borders the square as well, a stage-like construction with wide arches that currently houses such statues as the Medici Lions and The Rape of the Sabine Women. Palazzo Vecchio itself, Florence’s town hall, is perhaps best recognized from the outside by its asymmetrical facade. The clock tower is right of center, as it was incorporated from an older tower on that site.
A few more steps through the courtyard of the Uffizi gallery, and we were at the banks of the Arno. Ponte Vecchio, the famous covered bridge over the river, is perhaps better viewed from up or downriver. The bridge itself is bursting with tourists, and every shop is a jewelry shop. Every. One. They all sell similar sorts of product as well, clearly geared towards tourists. Unfortunately, they seem to be catering to the more affluent tourists, so we were content to simply admire the handiwork without making any purchases. As night fell, the streets were illuminated with strings of light crossing back and forth. Perhaps they were specially installed for the fashion show, or that is how Florence always looks at night. Back in the city center, Clayton did like the Italians do and bought some really nice leather shoes to blend in with the locals. The Italians sure know how to stitch a sole with soul.
For breakfast the next morning, we popped in to a small coffee bar we’d visited the afternoon before. The barista remembered us, which was touching considering how many tourists must pop in. I suspect it has something to do with Clayton’s hair, but I can’t be sure. His coworker made espresso drinks like it was an art form, and the pastries weren’t bad either. Italian pastries are slightly different than French pastries, we were to find. While French pastries are buttery, fluffy, and flaky, Italian pastries are made with more sugar in the dough, so are browner and relatively sturdy. Italian pastries usually have some sort of filling in them, whether it’s jam, cream, or chocolate. We would have breakfast at his place every morning while in Florence, and despite the language barrier, the barista was always happy to see us and we him. In any case, as demonstrated when a tourist came in to order an espresso to go, eye rolls prove universal.
Fortified with caffeine and sugar, we went to spend the morning at the Uffizi Gallery. Being January, we were in Florence during the off-season, so tickets were cheaper than normal, and we had absolutely no line. Typically during the tourist season, you need to reserve tickets ahead of time and get a specific time slot for entry, but we never had to deal with any of that hassle. Our relief of being in Italy during the off-season would become a running theme for our entire time in the country. Not only did we get cheaper tickets at some main attractions, but we had little to no lines at most of the sites and museums, with far fewer crowds. Seeing what crowds were there in the off-season anyways, we couldn’t imagine what special hell it would be during the height of tourist season. Yes, Italy in the summertime heat is supposed to be romantic and quintessential – but in reality, it must be brutally miserable, just a crush of sweaty arms and legs, views of statues blocked by someone’s iPhone camera. We would never recommend going to Italy at any other time than during the off-season. But I digress.
The Uffizi Gallery is an art museum in the heart of Florence, between the Palazzo Vecchio and Ponte Vecchio. It’s one of the most visited art museums in the world, and we can see why. We wandered through the halls and encountered the most famous works of art that we never dreamed of seeing in person, and they were simply breathtaking. Having taken art history in high school, I found myself surrounded by paintings and statues I’d studied in detail years before. Sandro Botticelli is one of my all-time favorite painters, and to see his Birth of Venus and Primavera in the same line of sight almost moved me to tears. Added bonus, they were a lot bigger than I thought they were! Not only was the art worth looking at in the Gallery, but the views out the windows were as well. On the second floor of the museum on one end of the building, large windows gave excellent views over the Arno River and the Ponte Vecchio. You could even see the private passageway the Medici family built to get from their offices in Palazzo Vecchio and Uffizi to their home on the other side of the river, built over the rooftops.
Before we left the Gallery, we saw an open exhibition on Leonardo da Vinci. We walked in, and to our amazement, da Vinci’s actual codex pages were on display. We peered at his actual handwriting, carefully preserved behind glass and standing up so we could see both sides. As if it wasn’t already obvious, his notes made it clear he was a genius well before his time. Heck, even before our own time. Notes scribbled in the margins were the beginnings of new machine designs, and nearby animated displays showed some of them come to life. Calculations and observations were crammed into these pages to an unbelievable level. We managed to snap a picture or two before an attendant told us no pictures, and I privately grumbled about how it would be easier if they had a sign that said “no pictures” to save us the embarrassment, but I suppose that would put someone out of a job.
After the shuffling museum tourist walk, it felt good to stretch our legs for a walk across the city. Florence is incredibly walkable, and all the main sites are within twenty minutes of each other. Still, by the time we got to our next destination we were famished, so we stopped in a restaurant for lunch. The restaurant sign boasted freshly made pasta, which tempted us enough to go in. It was easily the best pasta we had in Italy while eating out at a restaurant. Fresh pasta makes all the difference – it’s like a three dimensional flavor that goes beyond just the sauces and herbs. It would be criminal to write about Italy and not go into detail about pasta, but I’ll save that for our time in Sicily, where we explored pasta like never before.
Next was the Galleria del’Academia, a nondescript building several blocks from the Duomo that houses one of the most recognized statues in the entire world. Michelangelo’s David. Again, being the off-season, we had discounted tickets and no line to get in. The museum was small, but packed a powerful visual punch. From the ticket counter, we walked in, turned left, then right again, and we were looking down a short gallery lined with Michelangelo sculptures down to David himself, radiant at the end of the hall under a domed ceiling. The space was clearly built for him. Approaching the statue, it soon became apparent just how large David actually is. Reading about his height is not quite the same as seeing it in person. We circumnavigated the statue, taking in the incredible attention to detail and smoothness of the muscles. There is a reason this statue is so famous – it probably is one of the most impressive statues I’ve ever seen. There is something inspiring and frankly, jaw-dropping about it. Clayton and I meandered between the behemoth and Michelangelo’s other works, unfinished sculptures that seemed to be people clawing their way out of stone. The room next door held hundreds of art student projects, aspiring sculptors mimicking the greats for a grade. It was heartening to see that the tradition lives on, though we were curious as to how they can recreate the sculptures. The explanatory video provided by the museum apparently explained it, but the English translation was so poor we were still confused. The museum didn’t hold much else except an exhibit on musical instruments through history, which was interesting, but we were happiest with the real star of the show, David.
Our penultimate day in Florence led us to the Medici Chapels. Located as part of the Basilica of San Lorenzo, both Brunelleschi and Michelangelo were involved in building parts of it at different times. Their purpose? To celebrate the all-powerful Medici family, who de facto ruled Florence in the latter half of the 15th century, and to serve as the resting place for several prominent members of the family. A veritable political dynasty, this banking family vigorously supported the advancement of the arts, and some say it’s thanks to them we had the Italian Renaissance. The family produced staggeringly wealthy merchants, royalty, even several Popes. They weren’t messing around. The Medici Chapels were certainly an indication of their influence – the crypt housed numerous treasures, and the cathedral itself was massive and inlaid with colorful stone designs. The New Sacristy, designed by Michelangelo, held the mausoleum to Lorenzo de Medici, also known as Lorenzo the Magnificent. Michelangelo’s statues in the sacristy were so enormous, they had to be installed before the sacristy was finished.
Famished, we wandered the streets and ended up at a tiny hole-in-the-wall joint for some average paninis. This is a good example of the quandary of the hungry tourist. In places like Florence, Paris, London, or Rome, visitors are inundated with places to eat. Anything in the tourist bloc is overpriced, but even outside the touristy areas, how do you know what restaurant is a good one? In Italy, restaurant owners and servers would call out to us and try to entice us to come inside, and we couldn’t look at any menu posted outdoors without being approached. It was overwhelming, especially on empty stomachs. I wish I had some foolproof tip on how to find a good place to eat in a foreign locale, but I don’t. I just know what we try and do – look for where the locals eat, or somewhere that has a smaller menu that’s more focused. Even better, places without menus that have plates of the day based on what the chefs got at the market are choice. This was more common in Italy, but still rare. The best restaurants we’ve ended up at were more often than not recommended by newfound friends in the area. Only occasionally would luck alone lead us to that perfect meal, but hey, it just makes those perfect bites all the more memorable.
On our last day in Florence, we were at a bit of a loss as to what to do. We wanted to enjoy the city, but had already seen the major sites. My thought was to climb the dome of the cathedral for good views of the city, but it cost money, and as Clayton isn’t keen on heights, I’d probably be doing it alone. Our host, Cosimo, suggested we instead walk up to the Piazzale Michelangelo, a hill on the other side of the river from the Duomo with fantastic views of the entire city. Actually, he suggested we take a bus, but as we’re used to walking quite a long ways with a dog in the Alps, we eschewed public transport and set out on foot.
The banks of the Oltrarno, or the south side of the Arno river, were considerably less crowded and just as picturesque as the touristy side. We felt like we were stealing a glimpse of the real Florence, where locals hustled to work, grabbed an espresso at their local coffee bar, or caught up with neighbors in the street. Some of the buildings were impressively painted, and as we approached one such building, I was immediately mesmerized by a clock in the window. This was the workshop and gallery of the artist Alessandro Dari Gioielli, and it was like walking into a dream. Stepping inside, we were surrounded by ticking clocks of masterful, whimsical design. Massive clocks four to five feet high, and some just the size of my palm. They were exceedingly intricate, and the gears and mechanisms not only kept time but created folding and unfolding designs as they ticked away. The entire gallery was decorated in a magical surrealist fashion, with dark painted walls, crystal lights, plants, and numerous displays. These other displays showed sets of rings, grouped by themes such as love, lust, greed, etc. It would have been easy for the workshop to appear kitschy and over-the-top, but instead, the whole effect was so artfully done it made us feel like we were under a spell ourselves. It all strongly reminded me of one of my favorite novels, The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern. Here’s an excerpt:
“The finished clock is resplendent. At first glance it is simply a clock, a rather large black clock with a white face and a silver pendulum. Well crafted, obviously, with intricately carved woodwork edges and a perfectly painted face, but just a clock.
But that is before it is wound. Before it begins to tick, the pendulum swinging steadily and evenly. Then, then it becomes something else.
The changes are slow. First, the color changes in the face, shifts from white to grey, and then there are clouds that float across it, disappearing when they reach the opposite side. Meanwhile, bits of the body of the clock expand and contract, like pieces of a puzzle. As though the clock is falling apart, slowly and gracefully.
All of this takes hours.
The face of the clock becomes a darker grey, and then black, with twinkling stars where numbers had been previously. The body of the clock, which has been methodically turning itself inside out and expanding, is now entirely subtle shades of white and grey. And it is not just pieces, it is figures and objects, perfectly carved flowers and planets and tiny books with actual paper pages that turn. There is a silver dragon that curls around part of the now visible clockwork, a tiny princess in a carved tower who paces in distress, awaiting an absent prince. Teapots that pour into teacups and minuscule curls of steam that rise from them as the seconds tick. Wrapped presents open. Small cats chase small dogs. An entire game of chess is played.
At the center, where a cuckoo bird would live in a more traditional timepiece, is the juggler. Dress in harlequin style with a grey mask, he juggles shiny silver balls that correspond to each hour. As the clock chimes, another ball joins the rest until at midnight he juggles twelve balls in a complex pattern. After midnight, the clock begins once more to fold in upon itself. The face lightens and the cloud returns. The number of juggled balls decreases until the juggler himself vanishes.
By noon it is a clock again, and no longer a dream.”
Erin Morgenstern, The Night Circus
Slightly dazed and dreamy, we exited the workshop and continued on up Via di San Niccolò. Climbing numerous steps, we made it to the Piazzale Michelangelo. The square was dedicated to Michelangelo, hence the name, and had a reproduction of David standing proudly in the center. The piazzale was mostly empty, despite a clear blue sky and stunning views over the city. Several vendors sat shivering as they half-heartedly tried to hawk their wares. Across the valley, we could see the old medieval walls of the city, and out into the Tuscan countryside. We continued on up to a church at the very top of the hill. We then took an alternate route back down the hill through winding alleys and side streets, and got pleasantly lost down several dead-ends near a large park. Not a bad way to spend a morning. Finding our way back down to the Arno, we had lunch at Il Ristoro dei Perditempo, a restaurant directly on the south bank itself, with great views up and down the Arno and the Uffizi across the river. That was easily my favorite restaurant in Florence, and it’s a shame we didn’t find it until our last meal out.
Our final frontier in Florence was doing laundry. We gathered up all our dirty clothes and trooped down to the nearest laundromat. I was impressed by how technologically advanced laundromats have become. The machines had instructions in Italian and English, and vending machines sold packets of detergent and fabric softener for those who needed it. We stuck in some euros, and I of course opted to get fabric softener, which promptly got stuck in the vending machine coils. As that was our last euro, we could only afford eight minutes of drying time. I was duly embarrassed as we hung all our slightly damp laundry around our tiny AirBNB room, suffering strong flashbacks of our closet-like hotel room in Oslo.
Honestly, Florence is my favorite city in Italy, and is a top contender for my favorite city in Europe. It is overflowing with art, history, culture, and charm. I can’t imagine the horrid tourist crowds in summer, but there is also more to Florence than just the touristy areas in the center. I know I glossed over an absurd amount of art that we saw and history that we learned, but there is far too much. It’s a city that needs to be visited again and again, and digested slowly, like a nice plate of pasta and glass of red wine. With the delicious flavors of Florence tasted, it was time for the madness that is Rome!