Why not Milan? Or Rome? Or Naples?
I didn’t want to be in a big chaotic city. I wanted a place where I could walk everywhere, a place well contained in a small area with no need to flit around on a subway or bus to get to where I want to go. I’m not a big city person, after all.
So, in my jet lagged, sleep-deprived state, I found myself walking through the streets of Florence at sunset, carrying the two small backpacks that made up the full extent of my luggage.
And I was not disappointed.
Florence sits in north central Italy, along the Arno River. The old part of the city, the part with narrow, winding streets and cobblestone pavers, straddles the river. But this is a very walkable city. No need to hop on a metro or navigate bus schedules to get around. During the day, especially sunny, warm early autumn days, the old town is a hive of tourism. I found an AirBnB on the less busy, west side of the river, near a quiet piazza, a good 10-minute walk from the most popular places that hum with the feet of thousands of tourists each day.
Most people visit a city like Florence with a list. If you read any other blog post about Florence, I can almost guarantee you will find a list of five or ten or fifteen things you must do or see in the city. I looked at all of those posts before I left home, and then I let myself drop into the travel mode that I love most: aimless wandering, with occasional stops on a park bench to eat gelato (or whatever the local specialty might be). In a place like this, where there is so much to see, I needed to leave the FOMO (Fear Of Missing Out) behind.
Florence was was the birthplace of the Renaissance: a new way of thinking about the world that led to rapid innovations in art and science. It was the home of Michelangelo and DaVinci and Galileo – figures who changed the world. Or, at least, 16th century Italy. But their influence rippled outward and still hold our attention today. That may be part of what attracted me to this city. I wasn’t necessarily interested in seeing specific pieces of art. As someone who has never studied art history, I always feel like I have a lot of homework to do before I can actually appreciate what I’m seeing. But the cultural changes that moved in waves through Europe during the Renaissance intrigue me. I feel like we are in need of a global cultural revolution on par with that of the Renaissance today. Or perhaps something much bigger than that: a global awakening to a better understanding of humanity’s role on Earth. How do we make that happen? (I have no answers here, I’m just putting the question out there.)
I didn’t expect to be overwhelmed by all the hoops you have to jump through to see the most famous pieces of Renaissance art. There are online ticket-hawkers for everything, all guaranteeing ‘timed-entry’ or ‘skip-the-line’ (which just means you pay extra to stand in line with the other people who paid to ‘skip the line’). It felt like too much work to go see the famed Uffizi Gallery and it’s masterpieces. There’s so much to see in Florence without actually paying to enter a museum. But it wasn’t really about the money. I also still have a bit of pandemic PTSD, so I’m happy to skip confined spaces packed with people.
I did make a couple of exceptions to my desire to avoid crowds. I booked a one-hour tour with a guide to visit Michelangelo’s David. One hour seemed like a tolerable enough window of time to be in a museum. And the guide (who I found on Airbnb) was able to help me appreciate what was looking at, share stories that I didn’t have to spend time reading, and direct me precisely to the most interesting details that I would have missed completely if I had been viewing on my own.
The thing that struck me most about seeing the David, other than the fact that maybe a thousand other people were there to see him at the same time, was David’s pensive stare. He’s calculating his next move. And he has been doing this for well over 500 years. Maybe that’s what brings people to see him – the human emotion that comes right through the stone, something that transcends time and culture, and even our individual differences. That was the mastery of Michelangelo. The gallery, however, was truly packed, and pandemic agitations worked on me so much that I did not linger when my tour was over.
I also visited the Basilica of Santa Croce. This church is popular on the tourist trail for the tomb of Michelangelo. But I went to see Galileo, the father of modern physical science. It felt a bit at odds for me to see the tomb of someone who basically designed the scientific method – whose observations about the world eventually changed everything – buried in a church that radiates patriarchy and power. But I learned later that they didn’t move his body into the church until nearly 100 years after he died, and that he spent the last part of his life under house arrest for making claims against the teachings of the church. Still, this is the man whose observations served as the foundation for studies that ultimately undermined the power of the church. Such a clear example of how the things we do today may not actually have influence until well after we’re gone – and then they might change the world.
Beyond those brief forays into main touristy sights, there are a number of moments during my time in Florence that have been indelibly etched into my memory:
I will remember that moment I crossed the Arno for the first time, as I made my way from the train station to my AirBnB. Peach-colored clouds reflected on the dark river water, above lemon and rose-tinged buildings in early evening light, and I had that first real thrill of having just arrived some place so different from my normal life.
There was that first taste of gelato, at a tiny gelateria in a quiet piazza near the old city walls.
I can still taste the linguini and anchovy pasta offered up by my Airbnb host after my arrival. We sat in her garden dining area, swatting mosquitos, and sipping the organic red wine she bought at the farmer’s market earlier that day while chatting with the young couple renting her other room for the night.
There was the long walk that woke up my legs and took me past the old city walls and up into the hills on the west side of the Arno River. I followed a road that ran around the back side of the famed Boboli Gardens, past villas hidden among olive groves and vineyards and ridge tops lined with cypress trees overlooking the city below. The road wound back to Piazzale Michelangelo, with it’s panoramic view of the river surrounded by red roofs and the remaining gray medieval towers of the city. How good it felt to stretch my legs at the edge of Tuscan countryside.
I ate dinner one night at a vegetarian restaurant on the piazza near my Airbnb, where I began chatting with the German-Brazilian couple sitting next to me. We bonded while trying to solve the world’s problems over roasted mushrooms, pasta with pesto, and eggplant parmesan as the sky turned purple.
I am so grateful for the afternoon I spent learning watercolor technique at the terrace of a library in central Florence, where we had a perfect view of the Duomo. I also loved it because my feet were sore and blistered from two very long days of walking, and this gave me a chance to sit for three hours while immersing myself in an activity that seems so hard to initiate at home.
Finally, I will remember walking into the neighborhood pasticceria, Boun Amici, on my fourth morning in Florence. The barista took one look at me and asked, “Cappuccino d’soia?” Soy cappuccino. I had been ordering that every morning along with a chocolate croissant from the tiny but busy pasticceria. I would eat them outside at the little pink tables lining the street behind a small barrier (clearly a pandemic installation). I’d sit at the little table as the sun moved out from behind the buildings down the street to shine right in my face. I was hoping that would help reset my circadian rhythm, and move the hands of my body clock to align with the sun’s position in the sky.
On this morning, three elderly men sat at a table nearby, becoming very animated while sharing gossip. A woman passed by with her dog and began chatting with the lady smoking a cigarette a couple of tables down. Another woman approached them carrying a grocery bag from the shop down the street – they exchange a few pleasantries and she moved along.
These slices of every day, ordinary life in another land invigorate me, and help remind me how much we all have in common. Having the time to experience them reminds me why I don’t have a must-see list.