Portraits of Florence

This trip was taken in October 2014, back when I still had braces and was in the final throes of a relationship. I concluded, and still conclude, that Florence is my favourite city, but I can’t help but wonder if it would have been possible to be more positive about it were I able to enjoy more of the food and wasn’t overcome with crippling anxiety.

Few (large) city centres are so successful at maintaining one style as Florence. As with much of Italy, UNESCO has had a large hand in this, but I am currently writing this from another UNESCO World Heritage City which keeps its history alive at the water’s edge but as the city arches back it makes way for the dreaded modern buildings. Within the ersatz city walls Florence still has the feel of a Renaissance city, albeit one where people now shop at Zara. Being able to imagine yourself within a location in its past is the sign of a sensitive city, and this is Florence in droves. As a future city, this is debatable, and hopefully it won’t just fester as a tourist enclave.

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Smell the bloodbath of the past

Which is what it may already be becoming. This was the first time that I ever saw selfie sticks. Ah, sweet simpler times. My mother nearly bought one for me but I declined and have continued declining ever since.

It is difficult to get really immersed in Italian Florence as the language that you hear clang through the streets the most is English, specifically American English, with either drunk teenagers on tour shouting their excitement or coachloads of retired folks hollering so that they can hear each other. Nigh on all Florentines speak English. They must make a killing from us unsuspecting tourists (ice cream spend below: €20):

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After a tiring and stressful journey to our apartment – this was my first “vacation” vacation in several years and I had not yet developed my groove – I fell in love with Florence on the first night. A lovely romantic view for a meander with your mother. The rain came hard and fast as it was to do every night. Glorious sunshine in the day followed by thunderstorms at night is a happy way for the weather to be. We ducked into the pizza place where the cast of Jersey Shore worked during their time in Florence. On reflection, MTV may have wanted to send them to a more party party city.

My Florence fact, and one of my favourite facts in general, is that Cosimo de’Medici built a secret tunnel (the Vasari Corridor) from the Palazzo Vecchio, through the Uffizi, across the Ponte Vecchio and to his home at the Palazzo Pitti across the Arno as he thought that he would be killed if he were to walk the streets. Ah to be so powerful and paranoid.

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My first church love. This church, which I did not and do not know the name of, just off the via de’Tornabuoni had an church service going on inside, the sounds of which drew us in. Behind a thick curtain was possibly the most beautiful church I had seen to date (but not since). The light streaming in, the smell of incense, the glorious decorations, and the sounds of the choir then the service left me mesmerised and close to tears. Churches make me want to cry. We would visit again at the end of the week and be less enamoured, but one never forgets their first love. And this success gave us the confidence to march into every single church that we passed in the city.

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Past the crowds of tourists there were a number of uniquely Italian gems in the city. Much like other big tourist cities, it would appear that the older generation are the lifeblood of the city’s inhabitants. It would be a shame if this well were to dry up.

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Our first day in Oltrarno the churches were closed but we happened upon a market. Mother always loved looking around markets but I did not, something which I have since learned the error of my ways about. To feel the real buzz of a city, the marketplace is still one of the best places to go, although again this is for the older generation rather than the young, who prefer to shop online. Still, old can equal authentic.

The marketplace hubub proves too much for some people. If you snooze on the job, you may be losing custom. As long as you are having a good time, all is well. As mother and I sat down to eat a panini and drink some water, an Italian man swirling a glass of wine (and himself) came up to us and declared “agua? No, no, no. Vino! Si! Vino!”

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Views abound as you walk the steep walks of Oltrarno up to the gaudy fake David. If you don’t fancy the walk, there is ample coach parking and the drive will give you time to reflect on how you say no to life (my life is wandering around steep streets). The churches which lie even higher are solemnly beautiful and among the oldest in the city. Toilets here are very expensive indeed.

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A quick bus ride away (and buses are very cheap) is Fiesole, a small town in the hills with exceptional views to the city and across the Tuscan countryside. There are three walks to be taken, and you can also go off the beaten track and get incredibly lost. The mixed feelings of awe of nature and fearful that you  may be stuck there is an alarming thrill, mixed with frustration. The food is good, the people slightly less friendly to tourists, the churches more desolate, and the monasteries higher per capita.

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The biggest pit of the trip was the horrendous insect bites. Florence is very buggy. We went to a pharmacist who said he spoke very little English but knew “hydrocortisone”. Science is a transnational language.

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For all the splendor of the Catholic church, museums and shopping streets, begging was still rife. There was something quite poignant about people begging in the site of an old orphanage/hospital for the poor. Place is a very powerful thing, and people’s souls are always drawn to their rightful home.

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Florentines are a fashionable folk. Aside from New York, and I mean the main shopping drags of Manhattan, Florence is the most fashionable city that I have been to. Not many tattoos there either.

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Siena is definitely worth the visit. The choice is between Siena and Lucca and I am pleased with our decision, having never since gone to Lucca. Mother preferred Florence as Siena was “too medieval”, and the steepness began to perturb her in parts. A number of monasteries and nunneries can be happened upon as you walk down the side streets, and a friendly nun plied us with literature about the saint to whom the church was dedicated to. I’m sure she wanted a greater donation than she had received.

If you go during the palio, be warned that you won’t be able to get much sightseeing done, but you will witness quite the spectacle. We didn’t see the palio, but I have seen a film about it which is pretty much the same thing. While a big square, when empty it still doesn’t seem big enough to house a horse race. Ah, the madness of the Italians.

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Italians like eating alone al fresco. We were very hungry but still took over half an hour to find a place. The main square is overpriced, pizza would have hurt my brace, and nothing else was shouting to me. Suddenly we found a cafeteria, had three types of pasta and were ready to breath deep and take in this beautiful town in the hills again.

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Main tourist stretches make me sad too. Anywhere can be a place for quiet reflection

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All roads lead to Duomo. The symbol of Florence and rightly so. The scale and detailing of Florence’s cathedral is rivalled only by a handful of religious buildings. In terms of urban planning, few sit so comfortably within the landscape and meld so naturally into the landscape, even as it billows skywards. Soak up that history and imagine yourself in a rich family with a prince brother and cardinal other brother; sister is either in the nunnery or married off to a political ally. You will never see her again but will become firm pen pals.

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Wedding photos on a bridge? Wedding photos on a bridge. The best bridges are any bridge that is not the Ponte Vecchio, a cankerous vendor up close but a wonderful feat of building and design from afar.

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Our first gelato was a rip off but we soon learned the ways of gelato. Our final gelato in Florence remains the best that I have ever eaten. I’m sure I will be able to find it again. “My happy place”. #BasicBasicBitch We are a gelato family.

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Florence is fabulous, but Pisa is a letdown. Aside from the leaning tower, the rest of the city feels very much like visiting Rochester or another town which has one or two historical landmarks and little else. It is better than Rochester in that it has an airport at least. I am glad we waited until the last day to visit Pisa otherwise disappointment may have set in early and marred our trip. Conversely, maybe had we seen it earlier it would have been more exciting as Florence wouldn’t yet be drilled into our brain with its beauty. If you are to go, head straight to and from the tower/duomo, take a few pictures then get the next bus out. Of course, in Pisa, as in life, always grab that extra gelato.

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