As I sit down to write on my blog about our visit to Florence, I’m trying hard not to make it sound like a Wikipedia article. As a history geek, I love the facts, dates and events that make up the timeline of a city. But much like IQ and blood pressure scores do not define who we are as people, dates and facts can’t adequately describe a city, particularly this one. I struggle to write “from the heart”, but I’ll make the attempt. Here goes.
I’ll admit it; I underestimated Florence. When we planned this trip, we didn’t consider it a destination. Our plan was to use Florence as a central point for different day trips into Tuscany. We didn’t even schedule a tour in the city like we did elsewhere. Treating Florence as a place merely to sleep, eat and shower did it a gross disservice. Well folks, that crunching sound you hear is me chowing down on some serious crow. Florence is definitely a destination.
The first thing I noticed when our train arrived in the city was how much smaller it is than Milan. While the Milan city central was extraordinary, large swaths of banal industrial areas surround the “old city” of Milan. Driving into Milan from the airport, the two words that popped in my head were “New Jersey”. Florence is cut from a different cloth. If Milan is the fashion capital of Italy, Florence is its artistic soul. Clean streets, little graffiti, busy but not rushed; Florence’s rhythm is more fluid than Milan or Rome. Right outside the city was the hills, villages and vineyards of Tuscany. Milan dominates its surrounding countryside; Florence lives in harmonious coexistence.
Impressions of Florence
Our home away from home was the excellent Hotel L’Orologio. Situated next to the Piazza Santa Maria Novella, the hotel is strategically located for short walks to most of Florence’s historical sites, shopping and excellent restaurants. Our hotel room had a clear view of the piazza where we watched musicians playing to attentive audiences in the shadows of the Basilica de Santa Maria Novella, a medieval church and convent dating back to the 1400s.
Our initial foray into the we discovered much of Florence’s city center is closed to car traffic. This, along with the fact the city is roughly a third of the size of Milan, made walking the best way to explore this Mecca of Italian Renaissance.
TripAdvisor can describe all the city attractions far better than I, but here are a few of my personal “must-sees”.
Obviously Florence’s Cathedral (Il Duomo di Firenze) and the Giotto Bell Tower are visual symbols of Florence and some of the earliest representatives of the Italian Renaissance style, although much of the cathedral is Italian Romanesque. The Duomo has an impressive interior, both in size and artistry. For much of history the cathedral was the largest in the world, and the architectural design to support a structure of this magnitude is awe-inspiring. Just outside the main entrance of the cathedral, built squarely in the middle of the Piazza del Duomo, is the Baptistry of St. John. This octagonal structure is one of the oldest buildings in Florence, dating back to the 11th century. Together these three structures are a visual reminder of a time when Florence’s power and influence rivalled other powerful Italian city-states of Venice, Milan and Genoa.
Another place I found fascinating was the Ponte Vecchio. Spanning the Arno River, Ponte Vecchio ( “Old Bridge”) is famous for the shops built on the actual bridge. While this was common back in the Middle Ages, Ponte Vecchio is one of the few remaining bridges of this type left in existence. There are several good spots on the bridge that provide excellent views of the bridges over the Arno and to the hills of Tuscany in the distance. Now it is a pedastrian bridge and often packed with tourists, it is easy to picture this bridge back in its Medieval history a main thoroughfare of the influentual city.
Things that stood out to me about Florence
Wine: The primary reason I wanted to go to Tuscany was to try their many wine varietals. Known for Chianti, Tuscany also has many other excellent wines, including Brunello, Venaccia, Vin Santo and many outstanding Super Tuscan blends. As the major city in the region, great wine flows into Florence like water in the Arno under the Ponte Vecchio. Due to a bad back I was on meds where I wasn’t “supposed” to drink alcohol; the Florentine doctor I visited merely asked that I “try to limit to 3 glasses a day”. I would have nominated this fellow for a Nobel Prize in Medicine if I could.
Florence at Night: Since we had tours most days of our visit, it limited our city sightseeing to when we got back to the city. As a result, we did a lot of our exploring after dark. If Paris is the “City of Light”, then Florence is the “City of Night”. Lights in the streets and over the bridges of the Arno give the place a translucent glow. While we didn’t experience any of the city’s “night life”, we discovered Florence was more alive at night.
While for me, Rome was less than the sum of its parts, Florence exceeded its calculations in so many ways. It is the feast of Tuscany; its ingredients of culture, style, pace, good food, great wine, history and art combine to create a savory meal for even the most discerning palate. Of all the cities we visited in our Italy trip, Florence is the one place I am the most eager to visit again. And I hope I will sometime soon.