After some beautiful hiking in the Dolomites, we headed south, to the heart of Italy, where a special surprise awaited us in Florence. Like many others, Italy has always topped the list of places my brother wanted to visit and, similarly, was the one country outside of the U.S. that my mom was really keen to see. After completing his MBA this spring, my brother decided to treat himself to his two-week dream Italian holiday, and also to invite my parents along. Thus, the whole clan headed to Europe for a little autumn getaway. Lucky for us, the timing was perfect for us to join them for a portion of their travels.
Being a pretty pricey city, we decided to only spend a couple of nights in Florence before meeting up with the family. From a number of relatives and fellow travelers we’ve talked with, Florence seems to be one of those cities that everyone falls in love with – be it the rustic terracotta roofs, the renowned Renaissance art, the robust red wines, or the smaller city feel. So I’ll just go ahead and get this out of the way now… we did not love Florence (insert collective gasp from all readers here). While there were definitely some beautiful things to see, there were simply too many other tourists milling around a fairly small city center, and I think my biggest problem was that I just felt claustrophobic the whole time we were there.
That said, here are some highlights of a few of our favorite Florentine attractions. Perhaps the most impressive, and likely the most visited sight in the city, is the Duomo di Firenze (Florence Cathedral, Cathedral of Saint Mary of the Flowers). With construction beginning in 1296, the ornately-patterned Gothic church bursts from a sea of diminutive, russet-hued buildings, its burgundy dome soaring some 115 meters (376 feet) above the city. Though much less elaborate than its façade, the interior of the cathedral is also quite lovely, the focal point obviously being the enormous dome, adorned with Giorgio Vasari’s 1570s fresco of the Last Judgment (later completed by Federico Zuccari & Giovanni Balducci). While admission to the cathedral is free, we ultimately opted to purchase a ticket (15 € each) that allowed entrance to the Battistero di San Giovanni (Baptistery of Saint John) and the crypts, as well as a climb up both Giotto’s Bell Tower and central dome. Surprisingly, the bell tower is not much shorter than the dome (414 and 463 stairs, respectively), and both offer some pretty spectacular views of the city. Additionally, a plexiglass-enclosed catwalk around the dome’s internal perimeter allows for a unique and detailed perspective of the impressive frescoes. We were also quite taken with the interior of the baptistery, whose octagonal ceiling was embellished with incredible, shimmering gold mosaics dating back to the 13th century.
Walking around the city, I think the area we most enjoyed was the picturesque Piazza della Signoria, a large square adjacent to the towering stone rampart of the Palazzo Vecchio. Across from the palace, a display of Renaissance figures adorned the entrance to the Loggia dei Lanzi, an open-air portico linked to the Uffizi Gallery. Seeming curiously out of place amongst all the timeless art, an enormous, gilded turtle was being jockeyed across the center of the square. After doing a bit of investigation, we learned that the bronze sculpture (Searching for Utopia) has been on display only since April of this year, as part of an exhibit by Belgian artist Jan Fabre. Apparently the turtle is a symbol of the Medici family (an adjacent statue pays tribute to Cosimo I), and is also said to symbolize the Latin adage that ‘slow and steady wins the race.’ A similarly gleaming Fabre sculpture just around the corner depicted a man stretching skyward with a large, golden ruler in his outstretched hands. The piece is titled The Man Who Measures the Clouds, and supposedly embodies the idea that size is relative (the modern statue is dwarfed by towering Renaissance sculptures). Admittedly, I had to chuckle childishly that the man wielding a measuring stick was encircled by unclothed male forms, their genitals splayed prominently before him.
Perhaps our favorite memory from Florence, though, was at the Piazzale Michelangelo later that afternoon. After enjoying the Piazza della Signoria’s eclectic collection of artwork, we headed south for a quick stroll along the Arno River. We crossed the city’s famed Ponte Vecchio, a stocky bridge lined with dozens of gold and jewelry shops, and hopped in and out of hole-in-the-wall pasticcerias on the other side of the river. We had arrived in Florence the previous day, and had been tootling around the cobblestone streets for 24 hours, awaiting a reunion with my family that second evening, after they arrived in the city. Earlier that afternoon, I’d bet Stephan that we’d run into them randomly in the city, but he suggested the city was just too large for such a chance encounter. I insistently disagreed, but as the day pressed on, I began to think I had been incorrect. As the warm sun sank lower in the sky, we finally headed to the Piazzale Michelangelo, a viewpoint atop a small hill, to take in a panoramic vista of the city, aglow in the late afternoon sunlight.
The view was, in fact, quite lovely, with the large dome of the Florence Cathedral dominating the skyline. As I peered along the stone wall to my right, I noticed a guy in a white baseball cap leaning over the edge, and thought to myself, ‘hey, that looks a lot like my brother.’ Figuring Stephan would call me crazy, I turned away in silence and snapped a few more photographs. As we then turned to leave, deciding we’d start the walk to my family’s hotel in the city center, a man in a bright orange Harley Davidson shirt caught my eye. I excitedly whacked Stephan’s arm and exclaimed, ‘hey… my family’s over there!’ Somehow, I managed to sneak over to the group without them noticing, and tapped my mother on the shoulder, much to her disbelief. After having his wallet stolen in Rome a week earlier, I had been tempted to mischievously reach into my dad’s pocket, but ultimately opted for a more discreet greeting, fearing I may well be the recipient of a broken nose. Needless to say, even without the more inspired approach, they were sufficiently surprised, and it was great to finally meet up after nine months overseas. Just a couple hours later, our group expanded once more as we met up with my brother’s friends for some sunset drinks at their hotel’s rooftop terrace, followed by a delicious dinner of homemade pasta and red wine at a nearby trattoria. Saluti, Firenze! To good food, good wine, and some long-anticipated family time after months on the road.