I have just spent a lovely four days in Florence, which is a city I have so often heard people gush over that I went with sky-high expectations of being utterly blown away by its beauty and charm. As always, the arrival in any foreign city begins with disorientation, navigation through questionable train/bus/airport neighbourhood surroundings, and regret at having packed so much stuff you probably won’t need as you hulk your suitcase along thronged streets, sweating profusely. However, Florence manages to assuage most of these inconveniences by having a beautiful train station – a lovely piece of modern architecture – and though it’s surrounded by an unpleasant road, within moments you emerge from a small and slightly seedy side street into a spacious, elegant piazza, presided over by the gorgeous church of Santa Maria Novella, which has a small garden to the side with cypress trees, a facade of coloured marble and a general unruffled air of being comfortably and peaceably settled in its own corner of paradise. The piazza is ringed with genteel, shuttered-windowed buildings, and our hotel was one of them. Within moments we had relieved ourselves of our cases and were relaxing in our room, which had a direct view of the church and made us feel very cosmopolitan.
Once recovered from our journey, we set off to explore, doing a leisurely lap of the city to take in the main sights. We first of all stopped at Santa Maria Novella to take in the gorgeous interior decoration of the church, and enjoy its peaceful, shady cloisters. It’s not on the main tourist trail, but is definitely worth a visit, with some work of significant Renaissance artists to be found inside. Once we had fully drunk in the beauty of the church, we went back out into the ochre coloured streets of the city, which all lead to the Duomo. Its famous dome loomed up before us from unexpected corners until we come out onto its surrounding piazza and had our breath taken away both by its size and its incredible beauty. I had seen pictures of it, of course, but to see it in the flesh is something else entirely. The coloured marble, the red-roofed dome, the slim tower of the campanile and the perfectly preserved carvings are like nothing else I have ever seen, and I couldn’t tear my eyes away. I can’t even begin to imagine what the travellers of the past must have made of it – no wonder Florence was such a key site on the Grand Tour. Once we’d had a good walk round the Duomo, we went off to see the Signoria, which used to house the government of Florence, and then through the colonnade of the Uffizi Gallery down to the banks of the Arno and across the Ponte Vecchio. The Ponte Vecchio is lined with jewellery shops, which provide fantastic window shopping opportunities – I tried on a beautiful necklace that turned out to be 6,000 euros – obviously I made a hasty exit! – as well as gorgeous views out to the surrounding Tuscan hills. On the other side of the Ponte Vecchio we enjoyed looking in the small independent shops selling handmade marbled papers, before walking up to see the grand Medici palazzo, the Palazzo Pitti. By this time we were starving and tired out, so we headed off to a pizza restaurant to rest our weary feet and fill our stomachs before an early night in preparation for the following day’s adventures!
We had booked in advance to visit the Duomo and the Uffizi – this is highly recommended to anyone thinking of taking the trip, as the queues can get very long. Climbing up the Campanile early in the morning afforded us a fantastic view over the city, and the Duomo’s Baptistry is a stunning work of art, with amazing Byzantine style decoration. The Duomo itself was nothing much to look at inside, apparently – I wouldn’t know as I was prevented from entering by a male security guard who decided my knee-length dress was too short – as a man wearing shorts far shorter than my dress was allowed to walk in ahead of me. This made me so furious that I refused to buy a scarf to cover my perfectly decent legs with and instead waited outside while my friend went in to see the church. My feminist anger still seething, we then went off to see the Signoria, which is a beautiful building with fabulous, ornate state rooms and a very nice art collection, as well as a fantastic tower that can be climbed for impressive views of the Duomo. After lunch and a nice relax in our hotel, we went off to the Uffizi to see the many famous works of Renaissance art found inside, such as Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus, before hiking it up the hillside on the other side of the city to enjoy the pretty rose garden and the lovely views of Florence nestled amidst the surrounding Tuscan hills.
Our final full day in Florence saw us starting early at the Palazzo Pitti, which is beautiful inside, with gorgeous, mainly 18th century interiors, and an impressive artwork collection. However, the main draw of the palazzo (in my opinion) is its extensive gardens, which are a real oasis in the city and offer magnificent views across the countryside. The palazzo was definitely my favourite place we visited, and I could have stayed in its rose garden, looking out at the green expanse of Tuscany all day, but we had much more to see! After lunch and a quick rest stop, we went off to visit the Santa Croce, which is Florence’s Westminster Abbey, housing the tombs of many of Italy’s greatest names, such as Dante, Michelangelo and Galileo, and has gorgeous frescoes by every famous Renaissance painter imaginable. We then went off for a walk and came across the Botanical Gardens, which aren’t extensive but are a nice spot for a stroll, before heading back into town for another rest and then our final dinner.
I had a wonderful time in Florence – it’s a beautiful city that is small enough to easily walk around, and yet just big enough to keep containing plenty of lovely surprises as you wend your way through its streets. The architecture is certainly not as impressive as that of Rome, but when seen from a height, the red roofs cupped in the verdant palm of the surrounding countryside are a truly magnificent sight. I’m glad I’ve finally seen this little gem, and it’s now made me desperate to see more of Italy!