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Finding Your Feet in
On a scale of one to ten, the Duomo in Florence scores a resounding eleven for sheer in-your-face impact. Turn out of any side street into Piazza del Duomo and you’re suddenly confronted with this ornate confection of pink, green and white marble embellished with geometric carvings, angelic figures, and sculpted foliage.
I first visited Florence as a student, eager to try out my A-level Italian on the unsuspecting natives who – it must be said - proved infinitely more receptive than the Parisians were to my French. Now, more than two decades later, I was making a long overdue return. But would the city live up to my rose-tinted memories?
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The cathedral certainly got me off to a good start. Even when you know what to expect, it’s still awesome in its audacity. Beside the sparkling façade of the Duomo, Giotto’s belltower stands aloofly apart yet seamlessly blended into the whole over-the-top picture. In front, the octagonal baptistery completes the harmonious trio. Meet them head on and you can hardly see where one starts and another ends.
The instant plus point about Florence is that the architecture of the city centre hardly changes. There’s a constant feeling that you’ve stepped into a Renaissance timewarp with grand palazzos, life-size statues, and crenellated turrets at every turn. There’s little scope for new build here, the only clue to time passing being the changing fashions in cars and clothes. But an ongoing programme of restoration meant that many buildings actually looked better than I remembered them, even if some of my favourites were shrouded in scaffolding.
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The history of Florence goes back to the first century BC when the city was founded by the Romans, but the Florence we enjoy today is largely down to a family of bankers - the Medicis - who came to power in the 15th century and went on to become Grand Dukes of Tuscany.
Under their patronage, Florence became famous throughout Europe as the centre of the Renaissance, a rebirth of art, literature and learning. The family was succeeded in the 18th century by the Grand Dukes of Lorraine, who governed until 1860, five years before Florence was appointed first capital of the newly formed Kingdom of Italy.
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You can certainly tick off the main sites of this compact city in a day, but the Florentine treasures are so densely packed that you could equally easily spend a day on just one small area. Hub of the town in the Renaissance – and today - was Piazza della Signoria, a paved square dominated by the lofty, crenellated tower of the Palazzo Vecchio or town hall. Beside the main entrance stands a copy of Michelangelo’s famous David, the original now on display in the Accademia gallery.
There are statues everywhere you look, most of them nude males and all of them posing like crazy. Take in the haughty gaze and rippling thighs of Ammannati’s Neptune, poised above a vibrant equestrian fountain, then linger a while beneath the Loggia della Signoria to take in Perseus, Hercules, and friends. Only the Medicis would think of constructing such an elegant vaulted building to house their favourite marble men.
Stretching away from the square in a U-shape towards the Arno is the Uffizzi, commissioned from Georgio Vasari in 1560 by Cosimo I de’Medici to house the administrative offices, or uffizzi, of the duchy. Within 20 years, the upper floor had been turned into an art gallery and today it’s a must-see for international art lovers. Wear flat shoes and light layers as the rooms can get very warm.
You could overdose here on Renaissance artists - Uccello and Giotto, Raphael, Titian and Caravaggio – so if time is limited, concentrate on a few main works like Botticelli’s Primavera and Michelangelo’s Holy Family. I remembered strolling the exhibits at leisure but modern queues can be legendary, so book ahead for a timed ticket and fast track entrance (+39 055 294 883).
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Five years after designing the offices, Vasari linked the Uffizzi with the Medici’s new residence across the river, building a first-floor corridor beside the Arno and over the shops of the Ponte Vecchio. The only Florentine bridge to survive World War II, this iconic monument is lined with goldsmith’s shops and tourists – unless you can visit before breakfast – but it’s still worth squeezing through the crowds to watch the sun set over the Arno.
Today, self-portraits of artists from across the world gaze down on those lucky enough to stroll the Vasari Corridor. Open by appointment only, it’s an oasis of calm after the crowds of the main gallery, as well as offering a unique high level view through barred windows onto the Ponte Vecchio.
The Vasari Corridor emerges through an unremarkable door into the Boboli Gardens that surround the Pitti Palace. Queues are short here compared to the Uffizzi, but the collections are no less interesting – more interesting, in fact, if you like a broader range of exhibits. One ticket gives admission to the Palatine Gallery, Royal Apartments and Modern Art Gallery (€8.50); a second buys entrance to the Boboli Gardens, Silver Museum, Costume Gallery and Porcelain Museum (€8). Allow several hours to take them all in.
Nearby, on a much smaller scale, is Casa Guidi, the former home of English poets Robert and Elisabeth Barrett Browning, and now owned by Eton College. Stop too in the pleasant square of Piazza Santo Spirito where an unusual wall-mounted bronze memorial commemorates dead partisans.
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Cross Santa Trinita bridge for good views of the Ponte Vecchio, before heading up Via dei Tornabuoni, home to high fashion and designer labels. Prices are lower than in Britain, but I remembered a bargains of a different kind at the famous outdoor markets.
Biggest and best is the street market around San Lorenzo church where stalls are permanently piled with quality leather ware, fashion accessories and handicrafts. I picked up pashminas for €7 each; silk ties at 5 for €20; and a leather backpack for €30, plus necklaces of Murano glass beads for as little as €3 each. You’ll find a smaller selection between the carved pillars of the Mercato Nuovo just off Piazza della Signoria - don’t forget to rub the nose of the lifesize bronze boar for good luck!
San Lorenzo church was the favoured church of the Medicis, location for countless baptisms and weddings, state occasions and funerals. With architecture by Brunelleschi, interior design by Donatello, and Medici tombs by Michelangelo, it offers an embarrassment of riches, not to mention quiet cloisters for contemplation.
Brunelleschi also designed the dome on the cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore but whilst the interior is mind-boggling cavernous, the nave is empty and, to me, not worth a long wait. Santa Maria Novella near the station, however, is packed with interest including a ‘mini Duomo’ altar in coloured marble, and a fabulous series of frescoes by Ghirlandaio depicting Biblical stories in 15th century Florentine settings.
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You need more than one visit to take in all the fabulous Florentine churches. Try San Marco with its cloisters and works by Fra’Angelico; the Italian Gothic splendour of Santa Croce; or the Romanesque basilica of San Miniato al Monte. The same is true of the city’s many museums. Buy a good guide book before you travel and draw up a wish-list, remembering that many close on Mondays.
leave time just to wander at will and watch the world go by from a café
terrace. Florence may be a living art museum, but you don’t have to
spend all your time in galleries to enjoy the atmosphere of this unique
Strike off too boldly and you’ll be contemplating cardiac arrest before the first mezzanine. But it’s a single track stairway with double file traffic, so there are frequent pauses to let others pass and take a welcome breather. Just take your time, a bottle of water, and camera.
The view unfolds at every turn of the stairs, until finally you are gazing out over the cloisters of San Lorenzo and the cafes of Piazza della Republica, the tower of the Palazzo Vecchio and the hillside villas beyond.
Florence had proved every bit as good as I remembered it. More tourists, perhaps. A tad more commercial. But a unique city that never fails to captivate. Time after time after time.
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