Firenze is my favorite city in Italy! That sentence has been waiting on my tongue since I first visited the Tuscan capital with my sister and her boyfriend two weeks ago. I kept it to myself because I was afraid to jinx my affinity to the city with a premature declaration of it being my favorite. I reasoned that there was a lot more Italy to see. I would be naïve to award this distinction so early into my stay. Plus, I knew I would be going back with Kevin shortly after. I didn’t want my enthusiastic proclamation to set unattainable expectations for our vacation nor did I want to spoil any surprises for my otherwise unsuspecting husband. So, I practiced restraint, my secret bouncing off the roof of my mouth like a handful of pop rocks. The follow-up visit would determine if I could spit it out or swallow it whole. Now, having just returned from my second visit to the enchanting renaissance city, I am confident that my first impression was right on the mark.
I never formulated a list of qualities I expected to find in “my favorite city in Italy”. But, now that I know Florence is it, I can work backwards to do so. To start, there’s the city’s undeniable beauty. Whether strolling along a walkway in search of gelato or observing the night skyline from the Piazzale di Michelangelo on the other side of the water, the Florence sights of are consistently pleasing. (And especially so this Christmas season thanks to all the holiday lighting!) The streets leading through the city are narrow, many accessible only to pedestrian traffic. The buildings lining them are home to shops, apartments, restaurants, hotels, and business offices. Each is attractive in it’s own right, with the understated charm of typical Italian construction. I appreciated the combination of tall buildings and narrow roadways that constituted the city’s maze-like distribution of streets. Together, these elements made it nearly impossible to see what was coming from more than a block away. So, when I rounded a corner to find the streets opening up into a magnificent piazza, it was always a grand surprise. Between Piazza della Signoria, Piazza Santa Croce, Piazza della Repubblicca, and many others positioned throughout the city, this happened quite often. Of course, never to quite the same effect as when the streets opened up to the Piazza del Duomo…
As is always the case in Italian cities, all streets lead to Il Duomo. And Florence is no exception. If you are walking on the North side of the Ponte Vecchio bridge, you are bound to end up in the piazza that houses the trio of: the Basilica di Santa Maria del Fiore, the Campanile Tower, and the Baptistry. The Basilica is a monstrosity of white, pink, and green marble capped by its signature and proportionately large dome. The dome was designed and added over a century after the construction on the cathedral began. As such, the completed project bears influence from both Gothic and Renaissance eras and stands, consequently, as a magnificent display of architectural ingenuity. If the sheer size of Florence’s Duomo is not enough to take your breath away, then the intricacy of its design should do the trick. The walls are adorned with an abundance of life-like sculptures and windows accented by tediously-detailed columns. Together, it’s size and detailing makes the cathedral one of the most impressive in Italy, if not the world. It is no wonder that so many of history’s most established sculptors and artists thrived in this renaissance inspired metropolis.
Beyond the city’s obvious wow-factor in the external beauty department, Florence maintains a friendly and cultured personality. This is probably my favorite aspect to my Florentine favoritism. Because, in the end, I love Italian culture. That’s not to say Kevin and I didn’t rush at the opportunity to have a breakfast sandwich and Café Americana for breakfast one morning. Can you blame us? We’ve lived three months sans-bagel, and, though we have been embracing the traditional brioche and capucchino version of the morning meal, it was a treat to have a small bite of American cuisine in Italy. So, yes, I appreciate the fact that Florence is a big city and so it affords us a wider range dining options. However, it’s only once in three months that I crave random samplings from home like salad dressing, barbecue chicken, or, apparently, bagels. Generally speaking, I am more excited about experiencing Italian culture during my stay. Which brings me back to my argument of why I love Florence. While newsstands sold copies of popular magazines in English and one random corner diner served American comfort food, the city maintained traditional Italian culture. I guess I didn’t expect to get the same feel in a large city that I get in the Valpellice region of Italy. Despite this preconception, I was pleasantly surprised to see how customers were greeted by name in Florence’s café bars we visited. Menus were listed in at most two languages. And, while many residents spoke English, they were patient and appreciative when we tried to speak Italian. The city was confident and proud of its heritage, but not to the point of arrogance. Though tourists and students from study-abroad programs flood the streets almost year-round, the feel of Florence is unaffected by the tourist climate. It is, in that regard, a very liveable Italian city!
Perhaps in relation to its culturally inspired atmosphere, Florence also has an impressive assortment of activities for its visitors. Museums, gardens, palaces that were once homes for wealthy families in the city, all containing beautiful collections of art history. Prior to visiting Florence, reference to Leonardo, Raphael, Donatello, and Michelangelo would have conjured up images of the Ninja Turtles… the quartet of crime-fighters that loved pizza and were trained by a terrifyingly oversized rat named Splinter. Now, having been to the city and three of its museums, the combination of names will not lead to a digression on Splinter’s resemblance to the woodland creature that attacks Wesley in The Princess Bride. Instead, I will think of Donatello’s David, the first bronze sculpture featuring a nude subject in the renaissance period. Or, more likely, Michelangelo’s marble sculpture of the biblical hero. Or maybe I will remember Da Vinci’s Adoration of the Magi, or one of Raphael’s portraits. Any afterthought awarded to the turtle clan will be to wonder why there were only four in the crew. There should have been a Boticelli or Lippi or even a Radici in the bunch. Four names are not enough to characterize a whole Renaissance worth’s of artists. I never considered myself particularly knowledgeable in the arena of art history, but having seen so many beautiful pieces in the very city where some of them were produced, I have a new appreciation for their significance. It was truly inspiring.
So, there. That is why I think Florence has earned the very prestigious distinction as “Sarah’s Favorite City in Italy”. (I am sure the Uffizi Gallery and surrounding museums will be clamoring for a plaque that bears mention of this noteworthy accolade.) I am not denying the possibility that in my future travels through Italy, I might encounter a more beautiful, more culturally-stimulating or more activity-laden city. In fact, Venice would be one to challenge the Florence in the beauty category. And any village in the Valpellice region could compete with Florence with regards to providing a backdrop for Italian culture. And, in terms of museums and sights, I have no doubt that Rome will be a contender for the third of my criteria. But, in the end, I would be hard-pressed to find a place that better incorporates all three elements than my Toscana citta. Call me a renaissance girl, but I think Firenze is the city for me.
|Reflection of the Duomo and Campanile Tower in a puddle|
|Inside of the Dome|
|Fountain in the Piazza Della Signoria|
|Gold doors on the Baptistry|
|View from the Duomo|
|View at Sunset of the Campanile Tower from the Duomo|
|Looking over the Arno River at the other side of Florence|
|Night skyline of the city from the Piazzale di Michelangelo|