I’ve heard Florence dismissively described as “Renaissance Disneyland” for her abundance of color, beauty and summer crowds, but you’d be hard pressed to find a greater concentration of important and incredible works of art anywhere else in the world. Practically everything in sight is authentic and interesting and significant, which is far more than can be said about any corporate amusement park. Also, there’s not a wine bar on every block in Disneyland.
The train from Rome to Florence passes through the Tuscan countryside of rolling golden hills, acres of olive groves and countless vineyards. It’s like traveling through a movie backdrop so beautiful it looks fake. The trip takes about an hour and a half, most of which I spent with my nose on the window, and by the time we reached the station I was anxious to get out and start exploring. Upon checking in to the hotel, I heaved my suitcase into my room, rode the tiny shuddering elevator down to the lobby and started walking.
I took my time wandering the streets towards the city center, soaking up the sights, peering in every window and generally enjoying the feeling of being in a city I had always dreamed of visiting. After a time I turned a corner and was suddenly presented with my first view of the Basilica di Santa Maria del Fiore, commonly known as the Duomo. Dominating the Florentine skyline with her unsurpassed brick dome and her facade of white, pink and green marble, she’s a marvel of engineering and beauty in perfect harmony. That first glimpse literally took my breath away. The closer I got, the more incredible she became and from that moment on I was completely and utterly in love with Florence. She was a good fit for me from the start, and I honestly haven’t been the same since.
With a blue sky overhead and buildings every shade of yellow, tan, orange and red, Florence is easy on the eyes. Everything looks perfectly balanced. There’s also a pleasant fragrance to the city that’s difficult to describe. During the day you certainly notice the exhaust of the buses and cars, but by evening she takes on the scent of her many restaurants, cafes and gelaterias as well as the smell of warm soapy water after the street sweepers have drifted by. It’s wonderful, really, but my love for her makes it difficult to be objective about her perfume. On the other hand, everyone I’ve traveled with has noticed this too, so perhaps I’m not all that biased.
It’s difficult not to find something interesting on nearly all of her streets, and there’s nothing like the knowledge that any moment you can turn a corner and find a shop or cafe that you’ll talk about for the rest of your life. That’s certainly true for the tiny sandwich shop I Fratellini (Via dei Cimatori, 38/r), a literal hole in the wall that makes tasty pulled pork sandwiches. When we stumbled upon it there was a line of people waiting to place their orders, and any time you see a line of locals it’s best to queue up too and find out later what you’re waiting for. The shop is only wide enough for the two brothers who own it; one takes your order and pours your wine and the other hands you your sandwich. Attached to the building on the wall next to the shop are racks with numbers on them, which we learned was a clever place to set your wine while you feast on your sandwich. There are no seats, and you eat standing in the middle of the alley, but it couldn’t possibly be more charming.
Florence is a walking city, which means you can usually get everywhere you want to go on foot. Your feet might be sore and tired when you get back to the hotel, but hopefully you’ve invested in a good pair of footwear that won’t let you down. Only local Italian women can get away with walking cobblestone streets in fashionable shoes. They might occasionally trip and fall, but they do it with style and panache, while the rest of us are going to go down like a safe hitting the pavement. It can be a real dignity-free moment if it happens to you, so don‘t let it. Spend good money on good shoes and you’ll be able to see a lot more, trust me.
There’s more of Florence still to come. I hope you’ll stay tuned!
Matt Grigsby is a Redding native who has learned how to tell the difference between fresh gelato and machine-made. He owns a beautiful imaginary six-room villa in the hills above Florence, as well as a very real cottage on the west side of town. By day he’s a computer analyst toiling for the public good and he dreams of one day owning a robot servant. Matt only uses the fancy ketchup.
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