Before I traveled to Florence, I wasn't aware that it had become one of the most popular European getaways for Americans, especially for couples and groups. Nestled in the cradle of the Tuscan hills, this city of light, good food and tiny medieval streets has a history as extraordinary as its beauty. Florence is the birthplace of the Renaissance, secularism, liberalism, rationalism and the pagan world.
When I visited the city two years ago, I saw many of the same medieval streets that Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci and the poet Shelley once traveled. The narrow streets, sheltered from the noonday sun by the close proximity of buildings, have sidewalks barely a yard wide. Strolling along these intimate byways can be a hazardous endeavor: At any moment a motor scooter can zip up behind you. Because of this, it's best to keep from daydreaming when you marvel at the 15th century doors, the historic cobblestones beneath your feet, the religious mosaics or icons encased below the second story windows, or that worn plaque above a door describing a famous 16th century occupant.
Where Florence's small streets splinter into myriad pathways, you may come out onto Piazza Della Signoria, the city's main square, and find large numbers of locals and tourists mixing together. There are so many merchants from West Africa, Algiers and Morocco hawking their wares that sometimes you forget you are in Italy. Florence, in fact, has one of the best wholesale markets for leather goods -- designer wallets for $15, leather knapsacks for $60 that would go for $500 in New York or Philadelphia. The street markets also offer tapestries, jeweled wristwatches with humble "Timex" prices. This is a bargain hunter's paradise.
One afternoon, the owner of a leather store practically pulled me into his shop to show me a variety of garments. When I told him I was an American journalist writing about Florence, he assured me I'd get 70 per cent off the retail price of any coat in the house. Unfortunately, this budget-conscious traveler had to shelve these cloth works of art.
"Don't worry, the offer will be good the entire time you're here," he insisted. "Think about it -- we never do this for anybody." Some shop keepers really know how to make a tourist feel special.
I told the shopkeeper about a good pair of dress shoes I'd left behind in a Milan hotel room, and then about how I'd been traveling with two friends from Philadelphia, first to Paris, but then by myself to Florence because my married couple companions had to hurry back to the States. "My friends ditched me," I joked, "although they couldn't help it. Now I have to learn to be a solitary traveler."
Which isn't easy, let me tell you.
My home base was the Hotel Londra, an almost elegant four-star hotel situated in the heart of the city (and just a few yards from the train station, Santa Maria Novella) that, like most Italian hotels, didn't have an ironing board or iron, so if you wanted your clothes pressed you had to send them out to be dry cleaned. This is true in almost every Italian hotel, except perhaps the Hilton chain.
"But I don't need dry cleaning, sir!" I told the Londra desk clerk, "My clothes are very clean, they just need an iron." "We have no irons here," the clerk said. "Would you like dry cleaning?" At seven dollars per item, that would mean 40 dollars just to get rid of the wrinkles on my all cotton travel wardrobe. I suddenly understood the value of polyester. "No thank you," I said. My plan was to hand press my clothes with warm water and then hang them in the bathroom to dry. I made do with wearing a suitcase wrinkled shirt to the city's main cathedral, Santa Maria del Fiore, or the "Duomo," built in the 13th century but constructed on the site of a 7th century church, Santa Reparata. The cathedral's massive pink, white and green marble exterior lords over Florence like an occupying army. Considered one of the finest examples of Renaissance architecture, it has a dome designed by Brunelleschi that for some reason made me think of multicolored taffy. On the wide cathedral plaza, groups of Moroccan kids sold a variety of trinkets. On that first afternoon, I bought a toy wooden train from a boy who told me he had just arrived in the city with his family from Algiers.
The famous cathedral is a cavernous space with a surprisingly stark interior, reminiscent of soaring but "empty" Catholic Church architectural styles after Vatican II. "A super Spartan structure," I thought, "Take away the few mosaics and the simple altar, and you have a mosque." The long line of tourists that assembled on a downstairs staircase suggested a basement catacomb crypt filled with skeletal saints or relics, but that was not the case at all. The touristy draw was a small book and souvenir shop, and a bad one at that.
A small city by any standard, Florence's boundaries can be walked in 45 minutes, about the time it takes to walk from Girard Avenue into Bridesburg. That walk would include a stroll along the Arno River (where you'll get a good view of the rowers and the Tuscan hills) but where your only challenge will be navigating the huge throngs of tourists -- camera-laden Japanese, ice cream cone licking Americans and student contingents the size of small villages -- as you cross the Ponte Vecchio bridge into the city's other side. I have never seen so many tourists anywhere on the globe.
A Disneyland-style effect permeates the whole of Florence, and on the Ponte Vecchio, the only thing missing are caricatures of Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck. The elbow-clashing crowds forced me to beat a hasty retreat into a number of museums where I saw reliquaries, each one more elaborate than the next. In a way I began to understand why my friends, who had been to Florence many times, had no great desire to revisit it.
While walking through the city, I was often almost sideswiped by buses and those bee buzzing motor scooters that seemed to scrape the edges of the sidewalks. Other times, I'd do a fast U-turn when I'd spot yet another tourist group with its flag-toting guide. But escaping madcap buses and tourists is easy when you have museums, cafes and shops that Florence offers in abundance.
The Piazzali degli Uffizi is the city's most complete Italian painting gallery. It has paintings by Giotto, Paolo Uccello, Botticelli and Michelangelo. The museum is much bigger than it looks; one can spend an entire afternoon not only contemplating the works of art, but enjoying the spectacular views from the windows. Much of the Uffizi collection was enriched by members of the Medici family.
I visited a small museums like the Valencia a Firenze (Palazzo Medici Riccardi, Via Cavour), which offers a selection of religious panel paintings from the early Renaissance. Here, I spent a serene hour before rejoining the parade of tourists outside. And then, of course, there were the rows and rows of reliquaries, some of them virtual small golden palaces containing the bones of saints I've never heard of. While there's a lot of Catholic stuff in Florence, there's also a beautiful Orthodox cathedral that's much more decorated on the inside than Santa Maria del Fiore. .
My friends had warned me that many Italian museums open and close sporadically throughout the day. Often I would go to a museum only to find it closed even though I'd been assured by the Landro desk clerk that it would be open. Or the reverse would be true. It was hard for me to understand such a lackadaisical attitude. How can anyone, especially tourist groups, plan tours when the moment they arrive at the museum there's an "Out to Lunch" sign posted on the door?
A serene, almost mystical quiet descends on the city about midday as the light patterns mellow into an incredible orangey hue. This is when you're likely to find locals basking like lizards in the midday sun. It's a transcendental time that makes you happy that you are in Italy, even if traveling alone. As I soaked in the golden light (and wanted to become a lizard myself), I understood the "why" behind all those "Out to Lunch" signs.
Nightlife in Florence can be a wild affair, ranging from the sedate cafes to boisterous bars and clubs like Irish Pub (where half the occupants are East Indian) The Dublin Bar (only a few Irish) and the Hot Pot. Party-hardy teens and young people jam the tiny streets carrying beer or cocktails from bar to bar (it's legal in Florence to drink in the street), often blocking pedestrian traffic.
Good restaurants are easy to find in this city of good food, bread and charming Chianti. I found many medium-priced places near my hotel and the vicinity of the train station. For a mere 16 euros, one can enjoy authentic Italian cuisine that many Italian American restaurants can only dream to duplicate: sumptuous pasta, breads and delectable red table wines that will make you want to prolong your dinner for hours, even if dining alone, as I did night after night.
Of course, not speaking Italian, I had to keep to myself during my five day visit. While it is theoretically possible to start conversations in restaurants and cafes, that's much harder to do when most of the people there are coupled or part of a group. My usual pastime was to walk the city in the middle of the night, when most of the tourists were in bed. It was then that I got to say a few words to some of the Algerians, who spoke broken English, or go over to the cathedral square where I'd watch the gypsy fortune tellers tell fortunes (under a full moon) to random customers. Florence is also an edgy city when it comes to romance. Couples thought nothing of stretching out over the cathedral steps, or cuddling up under old archways
Scenes like this would be shocking in Philadelphia. I didn't spot many drifter types or homeless people, such as I did when I traveled to Vienna. In Vienna, the homeless congregate by the main train station, where they tend to line up in rows like a chorus line and beg for money all at once. The police do not chase the homeless away; apparently the train station area is known as a "free zone." (My Austrian guide told me that the beautiful Vienna opera house where Beethoven once worked is built over a series of tunnels where the city's heroin addicts hang out).
In Vienna, I once gave a panhandler some change, but after counting the money the panhandler told me it wasn't enough. "Enough for what?" I said to him, shocked at his attitude. "I just arrived here from America." When I told him I didn't have any more change, he followed me for a block or two, forcing me to seek temporary refuse in a hotel lobby until the coast was clear. Years ago when I went to Paris for the first time, I was walking in the Right Bank district when a passerby stopped alongside me and gestured as he picked up a large gold coin on the ground. Holding it up to my face, he insisted that I had dropped it. "I did?" I said to him in total astonishment, inspecting the stunning gold piece. "That's funny. I just arrived from America and haven't exchanged my money yet." His ruse, of course, was to make personal contact so that he could then con me into taking the coin "for free," after which something even stranger and more unexpected would happen. I didn't hang around to find out what.
When I left Florence and took the train to Rome on the last leg of my journey, I ran into several beggars near the Trevi Fountain. After tossing three coins in the fountain (as instructed by that famous Hollywood movie), I wondered at what point the beggars waded into the pool to pocket the coins.
The Trevi Fountain area was filled with many North African and Moroccan kids selling a variety of trinkets. I wasn't buying, however, although the mood at the fountain was giddy and quite contagious. In many ways, it's probably the happiest place on earth. I attributed that to the vortex of foaming splashing water running down the façade of the largest Baroque fountain in Rome.
I ended my Italian journey with a walk around the ancient Coliseum. I circled it three times, running my hands along the ancient stones while thinking of all the emperors who had passed through the grand entranceway to the roar of the crowds.
But you can't walk around the Coliseum three times without becoming slightly disorientated, so after my third time around I lost my bearings completely, and had to take a taxi back to my hotel.