A visit to Florence would have to be a wonderful experience any time of the year. For me it was Christmas, and one of my best ever. Fewer tourists, no queues, soft winter sun, cheaper accommodation, and the best excuse in the world to spend hours on end inside shopping and feeding my soul made for a buon Natale!
How do I put it into words? The place is a feast in every sense, full of treasures of the Renaissance combined with modern passionate Italian culture and style.
My first taste was of the shopping. Deciding I had to have leather gloves (a Florentine specialty) to wear in the Northern winter I wandered through the cobbled streets, along the famous Ponte Vecchio (built in 1345, you can almost imagine the ancient ruling family of Medici walking across it between their magnificent palaces – all of which you can admire as a tourist today). Studded with jewelry stores, boutiques full of quality leather goods in every imaginable hue and design, the shopping precincts are a treat.
Even buying gloves here is an art form; from being fitted while resting your elbow on a velvet cushion to choosing the fabric, colour and design. I went for pale blue fur-lined leather ones, purple ones, black suede…And then there were handbags to match – calf skin, black patent. Followed by shoes – funky casuals, elegant work shoes, patent loafers. All that shopping is tiring, so regular breaks for the best ever espresso in a standing bar – and maybe a panini or two, or maybe a wonderful Florentine cake or the specialty of nearby Sienna – a rich slice of Panforte was a must…And even though it was winter, gelato was everywhere. After one bite, I knew why.
Now well accessorized and fed, I hit the galleries and museums. The Uffizi is a must – at least once in a lifetime. It houses a magnificent collection of art, once the private collection of the Medici, and is the oldest art gallery in the world. Michelangelo’s famous statue of David draws huge international crowds, and stepping along the corridor of the Galleria dell’Accademia towards the gigantic masterpiece in marble, it is little wonder why. David, like the city he has been exhibited in for 500 years, takes your breath away.
For me, choosing what to see while in town was the hardest part, as there is an entire smorgasbord of museums and artworks on offer in Florence. Next I opted for the Palazzo Vecchio, a short stroll in the sunshine across the river Arno. Not quite my taste with a ‘makeover’ Napoleon Bonaparte style, but still fascinating and the gardens on the hillside beyond are something else. Mental note – return in summer to see the Boboli gardens (and of course stock up on summer shoes, bags, etc!)
Just outside this massive gallery complex I stopped for lunch. A simple meal of gnocci alla gorgonzola e riccola. Well, Italian blue cheese and rocket are two of my favourite things in life already, but this wonderful, authentic meal in a place crowded with local families for their Sunday lunch and espressos took it to a whole new level. And the price – a pretty cool 7euros. After a month in London I was even more impressed!
I decided to walk off my gorgonzola in the Tuscan hills. After quarter of an hour I was in another world, gazing at rows of vines, olive groves, scattered villas and family homes across the hillsides surrounding Florence. Leaning over a stone wall listening to the bells of a local church chime, just distant in the mist, I felt I had been transported in time and place. This is an idyllic part of the world. I imagined it in spring and summer as I wound my way back through the side streets to the city.
The massive Duomo catherdral lies at the heart of Florence. Built in 1300s, it is a masterpiece to this day in pink, green and white local marble, intricate and imposing, its terracotta dome instantly reminiscent of Room with a View; the very image of Florence. On Christmas Eve I joined the locals at midnight mass in the Duomo. Not being religious, I worshiped the wonder of all that had created this place. I celebrated being there and embraced the Italians who grabbed hold of me and each other to wish for Peace in the world. It was a happy crowd who teamed out onto the square in search of gelato, prosecco and panettone to toast the coming day.
Two days later I reluctantly boarded my bus to the airport. A tall dark handsome – and yes crazy – Italian driver escorted me and one other to the airport, singing all the way to the radio like a budding tenor – and all for the very reasonable price of around A$8. One last espresso at the airport, a stop at the customs counter to claim back the tax on all leather goods I proudly carried home, and it was arrivederci Firenze. But I hope not for long. I’ll be back to the galleries, the gastronomic experiences, the beauty of the landscape and the jewel-studded city and the passionate Italians (including lots of very good looking men!) Oh, and did I mention the shopping?
Written by: Amanda Livingstone