Since I had just read a book on the Medici family, I was especially thrilled to visit Florence again. It’s always more interesting to visit a city when you know some quirky little intricacies that you can impress people with. And unless there is something seriously wrong with you, you have to love Florence. Each time I visit this gem of a city my love for it escalates. If you have even the slightest interest in the arts, Florence oozes culture from every side street and piazza. You can’t help but feel the presence of past greatness from the minute you arrive. And if you have the time (and some money), you can see more great works of art in Florence than you can probably handle at once. (In fact, one should be careful of contracting Stendhal Syndrome which according to Wikipedia is “a psychosomatic illness that causes rapid heartbeat, dizziness, confusion, and even hallucinations when an individual is exposed to art, usually when the art is particularly beautiful or a large amount of art is in a single place.”) I believe I’ve had something akin to this feeling in the Vatican. If I see one more painting of Jesus…
Finally on my third trip to the city, I got to visit one of the preeminent art museums in the world, the Uffizi. My other trips had taken place in the summer when approximately 1.7 billion people descend on Florence and the wait to go standby into the Uffizi is usually about five hours (no joke). In November the crowds are decidedly smaller (though the city is still full of tourists) and we were able to walk right into the museum. The museum immediately overloads your senses. Just walking down the halls that lead to the galleries you are hit with hundreds of sculptures, murals, and portraits. You might come for the Boticelli, but I guarantee that you, like me, will find yourself standing stock-still and speechless in front of a painting that you’ve never heard of before.
A five minute walk from the Uffizi and you’re at the Basilica di Santa Maria del Fiore, one of the most impressive cathedrals in the world. Although the entry is free, the most striking part of the cathedral is the outside. First, it is enormous beyond comprehension. Second, the entire structure is covered in white, pink, and green marble that defies description (and amateur photography).
Another short walk and you’re crossing the Ponte Vecchio over the river Arno where you should head immediately for the Piazzale Michaelangelo. Do you want to take a postcard-worthy picture of Florence? Do you want to get a picture of the entire cathedral? Then you have to observe the unparalleled views of the city from this square. If you walk just a little further up the hill to the Basilica di San Miniato al Monte, you can see the city from an even higher vantage point. We did go inside the church, but as it was Sunday and the services had just finished, we cut our visit short as we saw several people being embraced by the white-robed priests. How do you decline a hug from a priest? It was better to just extract ourselves from the situation and take some more pictures outside.
One of the best things to do in Florence is just try to get lost. Although it’s fairly impossible with such imposing landmarks, it’s fun to just wander the streets and see what comes up. I can’t say for sure, but I believe that we saw every piazza within five miles of our apartment.
The only thing wrong with our time in Florence was that I constantly felt under-dressed. Italy is such a fashion-conscious country that it was hard not to feel like I stood out a bit in my North Face pants, worn out zippy, and hiking boots. To make matters worse, I seem to have developed an extreme hot-blooded condition that creates the need for me to wear tank tops and sandals when everyone else is wearing winter coats, scarves, and boots. This elicited comments from many a well-meaning store clerk who was concerned about my health.
And it’s just those kind of well-meaning people that make Florence so comfortable. We didn’t encounter a single person who wasn’t astonishingly accommodating whether they spoke English or not. (More often than not they did). Are you lost? Just ask someone—anyone. Can’t figure out how the damn key to the apartment opens the door? Someone on the street will come along and do it for you. Need something to eat? The person behind the counter will be more than happy to list every kind of sandwich or flavor of gelato that she has in stock even though you probably could have figured it out yourself.
Ah…gelato. When we walked into the first gelateria that we encountered in Florence, I was, as usual, overwhelmed by the selection. So I decided to just go with my instincts and try something simple—chocolate. The woman behind the counter handed me what looked like a tiny shovel topped with a sample. As she passed it to me she said pointedly, “It’s dark chocolate. There’s no milk chocolate in it.”
She said “milk chocolate” as if she had taken a bite of some and was spitting it out. I emptied the contents of the spoon into my mouth and I believe I got that look on my face that everyone says I get when I eat really good chocolate. That look like I’m dreaming and I’m not really focused on reality. “Oh my God that’s good.” I muttered.
The woman behind the counter just shook her head with a knowing look on her face. I got a large cup of it and proceeded to gorge myself silly.
One has to be very careful when selecting gelato. Many ice creams will say that they are gelato, but they are imposters. Regular ice cream has air pumped into it. The cheaper the ice cream, the more air it will probably have. Gelato is so dense because of its lack of air. This lack of air means that you get a dense substance that is so creamy, velvety, sumptuous, and luscious that it is like consuming ambrosia, and by ambrosia I mean the food of the Gods, not that nasty Cool Whip fruit salad crap.
We could have stayed in Florence indefinitely, but we did have to keep moving west if we were going to make it to Madrid for our flight to Argentina. But where do you go from Florence? It’s best not to think too hard about it. Let’s just sit down and enjoy a nice little dinner at “home”…