You remember the scene in the film...
The soundtrack starts with Puccini's 'Sogno di Doretta',, the shutters are thrown open, and the audience sees the magnificent cityscape of Florence for the first time. The tangerine octagonal dome of the Duomo floats above the terracotta roofs, Italian voices can be heard below, and the whole vista is bathed in warm sunshine.
Everyone in that darkened cinema then swears that they will visit Florence one day....
Well, everybody does. Florence copes with enormous hordes in the summer, and each person comes away with a feeling of satisfaction in visiting one of the great repositories of culture in the world. The words "Florence" and "Renaissance" are synonymous. No other place on earth has had such an exceptional flowering of the arts. Some of the most important artists that ever lived graced the narrow dark streets of Firenze—Da Vinci, Raphael, Botticelli. It has been beguiling cultured Anglo-Saxons since the 17th century. Those on the grand tour visited the 'City of the Lily'. After all, it was de rigeur for the completion of one's education in the 19/18th centuries. If you have 'A Room with a View' fantasies, then this is the city to come to…
And those cinematic views are still there. The best has to be from Piazza Michelangelo, where you get the entire breath of the Arno valley and sweep of the rooftops. But every street turning will bring an exciting vista—a statue in a piazza, a bell tower looming over the river, the chatter in a café, and the wide, green Arno, complimented by the caramel and sandy coloured medieval buildings along its length. Of course, you will have to share all this beauty with thousands of others, and in the height of summer, queuing to get into the Duomo and Uffizi will be mandatory. But no way should Florence be a chore. The minute the patience begins to wear thin when the next tour party treads on your toes or the heat and crowds get too much—then pull up a chair in a cafe and order a Negroni. After all, you are in one of the most beautiful cities in the world. Why get stressed?
Most people arrive at the Stazione Santa Maria Novella, which is a great barn of a station northwest of the city centre. From here, it is a short walk across the road to the rear of the Santa Maria Novella church. Most of central Florence is pedestrianised, allowing visitors to move from piazza to piazza unmolested by speeding lambrettas. From the stazione, it is a walk down the Via dei Banchi to the Piazza del Duomo. If you were in any doubt that you are in a city, rather than a tourist attraction, then the Via dei Banchi will prove it. All human life moves through this—harassed tourists, beggars, shoppers, salesmen, and carabinieri, and proof that Florence is no different from anywhere else is evident in the road works, noise, and car fumes. Finally, as you pass all the souvenir shops, pizzerias, and postcard vendors, you open up into the magnificent Piazza del Duomo.
It’s the colour that strikes you first. This is not the heavy stone of the northern European cathedrals—this is a mosaic of green, white, red, and brown. Its bulk is colossal—it engulfs the entire piazza. In fact, in many ways, it is too imposing—it reminded me, when I caught a sideways view of it from the south, of a B-movie giant blob slowly moving through the streets of Florence. But this is the monster all the tourists want to see. There was an American couple on the train back who were on a cruise of the Mediterranean and were taking the train from the port of Viarreggio—they only had one hour in Florence before they had to head back, and guess what they made sure they saw?
If you can take a breath before entering the Duomo, take a look upwards at the facade. As your eyes move upwards, they will take in the mass of florid detail and bas reliefs. As if that wasn't enough, the Campanile stands next door, and that really is exceptional. The detail of the carving is gorgeous, with horizontal bands of green, white, and pink inlay. A few metres to the west is the inverted bowl of the Baptistery of San Giovanni. This is second on most people’s wish lists, and yes, you are right—the exterior is encased entirely by green marble. They must have had money to burn. It's famous for its engraved golden doors, with Ghiberti's eastern doors being the most lauded. The queue to enter the building blocked the view of the doors when we were there, but we were able to glimpse the golden carvings. I especially liked the Fall of Jericho, with its toppling tower in the bottom right-hand corner.
One queue worth joining is the queue for the Duomo interior. Like at Santa Croce, all ladies with bare shoulders are given paper ponchos that rustle in the echoing confines of the cathedral. And it’s this interior, once you get through the doors, which tends to get the majority of prose written about it for all the wrong reasons. Guidebooks call it bare and talk of "disappointment" for first-time visitors. But, contrary Mary that I am, I rather liked it. It is a massive barn-like space which stretches for a hundred feet into the air. The walls are rather bare, with just ancient candelabra to please the eye, but as you move into the centre, you notice that everyone is looking up. And high above you are the frescoes adorning the inside of Brunescelli's famous dome. The eye can only just make out swirling cherubs and scenes from the Bible. This is the Duomo's true highlight. If you can, go downstairs and see his tomb. He is tucked away in a cave-like room, with a simple stone plinth. When I looked at his tomb, I was reminded of the epitaph of another famous English architect that says, "If you wish my monument, look around you."
The Ponte Vecchio
Without even knowing it, most visitors’ feet lead them lemming-like towards the Arno. Armed with a gelato, they are drawn to the wide green river by hypnotic forces beyond their control. The 'Old Bridge' is pretty impressive. As you approach, the river is obscured except for a brown ramp leading up the caramel stone of the bridge. The bridge is pedestrianised, and as you move across, I was amazed how wide it was and how it could accommodate all the tourists. The memory of being nearly crushed to death on the Rialto in Venice was still vivid. This was wide enough to accommodate much traffic, and just like the Rialto, it was lined with artisan shops, selling not the tacky glassware from the lagoon city but glittery silverware. Each medieval house housed a jewelry shop, and millions of euros’ worth of silver and gold wares glittered back at me. But that seemed to fit the image of Florence; gone are the old tanneries and slaughterhouses that used to be on this bridge, and conspicuous consumption is more in vogue.
In the middle is a small loggia and statue. This is where the tourist hordes stop to gaze at the views up and downstream. And those medieval houses are still there, their overhanging eaves being kept up by brackets, their brown stonework showing up against the blue sky. There were many bridges like the Ponte Vecchio in medieval times, where home and workshop shared the same space. The most famous of these has to be London Bridge, which was much bigger and longer, but as the nursery rhyme says, "it fell down," and the Ponte Vecchio is one of the few remaining bridges with houses left in the world. And for that, we are grateful.
And as we walked east along Oltrano to the Ponte Trinity, I kept thinking how lucky we were that the Ponte Vecchio was still standing. The buildings on the southern end looked medieval, but I knew them to be reconstructed fakes. The originals were blown up by retreating Nazis in 1944. I've seen pictures of either end blocked by rubble, which didn't slow the Allies as they crossed the Arno when the river level fell. But to stand on one of the bridges in Florence and gaze west at the Ponte Vecchio is one of thoseviews of Italy.
You know the one. The one you saw in the darkened cinema that inspired you to come to Florence in the first place...