So what happens when after a millennium of Dark Ages, plagues and constant invasions humanity craves to breathe again? … I guess there would be a need for a Rebirth. And if you add into the equation the most powerful family in the world who just so happened to be in the same time and space with the likes of Da Vinci, Michelangelo, Bruneleschi and actually most of the brilliant minds that ever walked the Earth … well, you get FLORENCE! I admit this might be a rather simplistic way to view the Renaissance but nonetheless the leading city of Tuscany will forever bask in the glory of having generated 7 centuries ago the artistic, cultural and social equivalent of a Big-Bang. What forces of nature worked to choose this exact spot for the new spark of creation, still remains unclear – for me at least – but no other city in the World can take ownership of a mental disorder caused by exposure to its artistic beauty. Although not officially recognized by leading mental health manuals, some people will vow that the “Stendhal Syndrome” is real and Florentine hospitals are accustomed with tourists claiming dizziness and confusion after “ingesting” too much of the local splendours.
So … 3 Julys ago, armed with very high expectations and a handful of mood stabilizers to counteract the Stendhal Syndrome ( 🙂 joking … there were just some aspirins for a mild cold I had) we packed our bags for a 4-day city break to Florence! Arriving late by train from Venice, we weren’t hoping for much more that first day, but still
we rushed to the pretty hotel we booked – just by the Arno river – we checked-in and off we went into the city. Eventually small narrow streets gave way to a square … and what a place that was … “Piazza della Signoria” … a testament to the legacy of the Medicis and a masterpiece of a Renaissance square, gracefully guarded by the scrutinous gaze of the David. (Today a well executed replica stands in the piazza, while the original statue of Michelangelo is safely guarded from nature’s tantrums in Galleria dell’accademia). Between the proudly rising Palazzo Vecchio on our right, the statue packed Loggia dei Lanzi on our left and a beautiful outdoors violin concert that was played in the Piazza, it did take us a couple of minutes to take in that exquisite atmosphere and regain our focus.
We were there for a reason, as we pre-booked online our “Firenze Card” and one of the late pick-up locations was Palazzo Vecchio. So, once that first Florentine impact settled down, we went in. As we entered, we were warmly invited to attend the last tour of the Palace. We normally don’t do guided tours because, although very informative, we like to set our own pace – linger more on what catches our interest and browse quicker through others. Yet, that evening, as it was late, there were no other options still open anyway, so we decided to go. Little did we know that it would turn out to be an unexpected delight. Not only was the Palazzo itself a remarkable place to visit boasting an impressive collection of artworks but also the wonderful guide and the evening views towards Florence from the balconies were absolutely stunning. So, if you’re ever in Florence, check-out the evening tour of Palazzo Vecchio … it’s surprisingly empty at that time, compared with the chaos it sees throughout the day, and it actually manages to immerse you in the bygone era of the Medicis.
Dinner in Piazza Signoria (not the best food but we really enjoyed the public concert) and a midnight stroll on the shores of Arno ended an evening we thought sacrificed with commuting but which actually turned out an amazing introduction to Florence.
4 incredible days of Florence followed after this awesome debut, but as I try to keep these posts always within a 10 minutes-top reading time, I won’t go through every thing we did. So, minding the time and your eyes 🙂 , let me just go through the top three things I loved most about this place.
Atypically for my way of travelling, I was very touristy in this trip so I won’t have much off-the-beaten path tips to share. I biblically followed the “virgin’s guide to Florence”, crossing off the list all the sights I have been dreaming of seeing with my very own eyes for a long time. So, let me kick-start things with Santa Maria del Fiore Cathedral (that’s to call the “Duomo” by its official name 🙂 ).
The first thing that will strike you when in Florence is that almost all major landmarks are in a a maximum of 20 minutes walking distance from the other, all set in the pedestrianized historic center of the city – so you will be going past the Duomo at least a couple of times during your stay. I have wanted to see this grand cathedral for a long time for two special reasons. First, there’s the facade … and what a facade that is! Although added much later (in the 19th century) by Emilio De Fabris, it blends so well with the building itself that you could swear it’s been there all along. Entirely done in red, green and white marble with beautiful geometrical shapes and exquisite fine details, its no wonder many critics have considered it excessive. Excessive or not … it is amazing to behold and no picture I had ever seen could truly do it justice. Secondly, very few movements can actually pinpoint the very first physical creation that sparked up the entire revolution. In the case of the Renaissance though, many experts will say that Brunelleschi’s Dome for the Florence Cathedral is actually that one architectural masterpiece that triggered the tidal wave of change that was to sweep across Europe for the next two hundred years. So, mix the visual appeal of its facade with the historic relevance of its dome and you get my number 1 pick for Florence sightseeing. In all honesty, once inside, the cathedral didn’t strike me as being anything jaw-dropping. That’s not to say it isn’t beautiful but (with the exception of the dome seen from the inside – which is truly remarkable) it didn’t feel particularly memorable, especially in comparison with the neighboring Basilica din Santa Croce … or maybe it was the huge number of people inside that killed the mood … 🙁
And that leads me to my next top choice: the Temple of the Italian Glories (aka the Basilica of Santa Croce). Smaller and “Franciscanly” simple in design, yet subtly elegant and majestic, Santa Croce proudly preserves the beautiful tombs of some of the World’s greatest! Michelangelo, Galileo Galilei, Machiavelli and Rossini safely rest in their eternal sleep under the archways of the basilica. For the traveler accustomed to the dark, smoke stained classical Gothic cathedrals or the gilded and opulent baroque basilicas, Santa
Croce will look much more like a promenade among the funerary monuments of historic celebrities rather than a place of worship. You just have to look towards its beautiful altar and you’re instantly remembered of the solemnity due to this place. Another great feature of this complex is the adjacent convent that offers a sweet view toward an interior medieval garden and the austere yet beautiful Cappella dei Pazzi, also by Brunelleschi. Much more tranquil – although not entirely empty but definitely less populated with visitors – I enjoyed the better part of an afternoon exploring Santa Croce, charging up my batteries depleted by hours of sightseeing and the blistering Tuscan sun.
I won’t dream of going through the Uffizi Gallery and Pitti Palace here. Beautiful as they may be, much like Le Louvre, Prado or any other major museum in the world, their collections are so rich and extensive that it would take at least and entire post just to browse through their most important highlights (which we are thinking of doing … eventually 🙂 ). So, skipping these two quintessential stops for a well rounded first trip to Florence I am reaching the third place I think should not be missed: Palazzo del Bargello
This former barracks proves once and for all that size doesn’t always matter 🙂 Much more demure than the more popular Uffizi and Pitti, Bargello is a beautiful art museum and a real homage to the Renaissance. Sometimes forgotten by travelers (especially by those who have a short stay in Florence), Bargello is in my opinion a museum that should not be missed. At the end of the day, just a few museums around the world can claim bragging rights of displaying so many artworks signed by powerhouse names like Michelangelo, Donatello, Giambologna and other masters.
Displayed in an interior courtyard and across two upper levels, the smaller size of this place gives the visitor a much more relaxed pace of enjoying the collection. Free from suffocating crowds and the exhaustion of crossing miles and miles of art packed corridors, Bargello is a wonderful and enriching way of spending a couple of hours. Eventually you will reach the Consiglio Hall guarding the very famous bronze statue of David by Donatello. Some people totally adore this sculpture while others find it very unassuming. I guess in the end it is a matter of artistic tastes but let’s give Caesar what belongs to Ceaser … It is was the very first nude male statue created since antiquity so it truly embodies the spirit of the Renaissance genius, stepping out of the shadows of medieval conventions and away from the Church’s grip on art standards, proclaiming the Human as a perfect creation in itself.
These were my top three “not-to-be-missed” picks for Florence. Still, it doesn’t feel fair not to add an honorary mention. If you eventually want to step away from the time-trapped and museum packed center of Florence and into a more laid-back part of the city that is home to present-day Florentines, just cross Ponte Vecchio and step into Oltrarno neighborhood. Give yourself an evening to walk the pretty streets, admire the small workshops of the locals and just breath a less touristic air than on the other side of the river. Top it all with an exquisite dinner (or at least a coffee if you would like to keep it on a budget) at La Loggia restaurant and bask in the exceptional views of Florence at dusk that you get from here all the way to Piazzale Michelangelo.
This concludes my short incursion into this unique UNESCO World Heritage Site. Monumental without being flashy, historic yet relatable, small and in the same time larger than life … that’s the Florence I felt! A city that delighted my senses, stirred-up my imagination, surpassed even my highest expectations and proved it truly stands as a legacy to humanity’s resilience and ability to rise again even out of its darkest of times.
If you are interested in Florence you can also check out our Top DOs and DON’Ts and our Photo Diary.
If you have visited Florence, let us know what you personally liked (and even what you didn’t like so much) about it and if you haven’t yet, still let us know what you dream of seeing here. We love to get to know you so don’t be shy and leave a reply 🙂
We hope you liked our Florence presentation and until next time: Happy Lives and Joyful Journeys everyone!