After Rome, we hopped on a train and made our way to Florence. The train ride was quiet and cannoli filled and we quickly arrived in the city and found our apartment, conveniently located a block away from the Duomo. Once we’d settled we began exploring, admiring the sepia toned beauty that appeared round every corner of the luxuriously wide streets. Having had nothing but pizza and pasta for quite awhile we hunted down some alternatives for dinner. We found ourselves in a traditional Florentine trattoria and, seated under hanging proscuitto and shelves full of Chianti, we tucked into ribollita soup and tomato stew. Over dinner, we watched as older gentleman ate their quiet evening meals at shared tables, going through liters of wine and more courses of food than I could count. Once we’d finished we gestured our thanks to the waiter, picked up our daily gelato fix, and wandered around the Duomo at nightfall, soaking in the marble monster while buskers filled the piazza with music. I’m sure it would have been horribly romantic had I not been talking Chris’ ear off with my continuous rating of all the gelato we’d tried and my repetitive manifesto about how important it was that we continue to eat a cone everyday.
The next day we woke bright and early, a tried and tested trend by this point, to see the inside of the Duomo. It was much plainer than the cathedrals we had seen in Rome but, as we quickly learned, this was Florence’s way of proving their elegance and assuring the rest of Italy at the time that they were not like their ostentatious Roman counterparts. I must say I love a good information pamphlet. The inside of the cathedral was bare and intimidating, and the ceilings seemed so impossibly high that it gave you a sense of vertigo simply by looking up at the beams. We left the Duomo with a promise to return the next day to conquer the near 500 stairs to get to the top. With a farmer’s market always calling our name, Chris and I made our way to Mercato Centrale to ogle at all the produce and to sample as much food as we could. Although I’d been determined to try as many regional dishes as possible, the fuzzy appearance of tripe and the very present intestinal villi caused a dip in my confidence and neither one of us could bring ourselves to try it. We did however buy and quickly devour some amazing pastries from one of the bakery stalls. The market itself is in a stunning covered building, bedaubed in some amazing illustrations and clearly a harmonious mix of old and new. Despite it being a cloudy day we decided to walk to the other side of the river and climb the hill up to Piazzale Michelangelo, which reportedly had some of the nicest views of Florence. We walked over the Ponte Vecchio, weaving our way over the medieval closed-spandrel arches until we arrived at the top of the hill. Although it was a bit too misty to make out all the details of the city below, the view was well worth the hike up. On our way back down we stumbled upon Giardino delle Rose, a hidden rose garden I’d read about but had never thought we’d be able to find. Although it was a bit early to see anything in full bloom, we did find a small Japanese garden hidden towards the bottom of the garden wall. We promptly sat ourselves under the archway, enjoying the peace and avoiding the rain that was slowly beginning to fall. Not wanting to eat dinner just yet, we opted to explore the Biblioteca Oblate, a large library located a few blocks behind the Duomo, known for having a great café at the top. Libraries are always some of my favourite spaces but this one certainly had one of the nicest views I’ve seen. We grabbed some espresso, which Chris will not be having again any time soon, and stood on the ledge, enjoying the back view of the Duomo as the sun began to sink behind the bell tower. When hunger called we made our way to All’Antico Vinaio, which was recommended to us by the owner of our airbnb. The shop was a small counter covered in meats, spreads, cheeses and the largest porchetta you can imagine. The whole room smelled of basil and garlic, and the noise from the shouting back and forth of orders was dizzying. The people working there were very kind, and incredibly patient considering our non existent Italian mixed with excitable gesticulations. They gave us oversized samples of their house spreads and much appreciated advice as to what toppings would be best with what. The end result was what Chris deemed “a sandwich so good it actually makes me angry”. Rocket, basil, mushroom spread, truffles, and porchetta all sandwiched between a Florentine focaccia. I could tell you all about the various historical theories on Tuscan bread and why it doesn’t contain any salt, but I’ll spare you the history lesson and instead just say that it was a perfect carrier for the perfect sandwiches. (In case your interested many believe that the particular brand of bread was born it was due to a stopped salt shipment from Pisa during a Middle Ages battle).
The following day we arose bright and early, determined to climb all 463 steps to the top of the Duomo. It definitely wasn’t the most fun ever but I’m very thankful that we got up early and beat the crowds, as the narrow stone staircases would have been far more difficult had their been even more people. The views from the top were as breathtaking as you can imagine, and Chris and I spent a good while up there, pointing out all the places we’d visited and all the places we were still interested in walking towards. Included in our tickets to climb the Duomo was entry into the Baptistery, Duomo museum, and the Bell tower. We opted to do the baptistery first, a visit that was considerably educational thanks to a very well written pamphlet given out at the door. I really appreciated all the work that had gone into the educational material, and it was clear that the city of Florence took much pride in their monuments and the mammoth meeting of art and religion that were on continuous display.
Next came the Museo dell’ Opera del Duomo, which was really fantastic and allowed us to see Lorenzo Ghiberti’s doors for the Baptistery up close and personal. I had always thought that they were on the actual Baptistery outside but it turns out those are just stand ins and the real ones are safely inside the museum, away from the elements and potential vandals. They are staggering up close and almost seem as though they can’t quite be real. The entire museum was full of very interesting facts and films about the architectural feat that is the Duomo, along with information about the design and building of the structured dome. There’s also so much amazing sculptures and art that you’re not quite sure what to focus on. That being said, one that definitely stood out was Michelangelo’s The Deposition. As one of Michelangelo’s final pieces it was startling to see it up close and to possibly stare into the sculpted eyes of the mercurial artist himself, as there’s a lot of evidence that suggests that Michelangelo carved his own face into the male figure depicted towards the back. There’s a lot of mystery that surrounds this particular piece, as art historians are not in agreement on what its actually portraying. Some believe it is a pieta while others believe it is a deposition or an entombment or even a combination of the three. Michelangelo dramatically tried to destroy the piece, for reasons that are also debated by historians, which somehow brings a new layer of mystery to the sculpture. It was really marvelous and I clearly geeked out pretty hard.
We finished at the museum around midday and set off to find Farmaceutica di Santa Maria Novella, the oldest operating pharmacy in the world. Set up in the 1200’s by Dominican monks, the pharmacy still uses the some of the original recipes for tonics, medications and pomades, which are all housed in a beautiful and cavernous building covered in ornate gilding and walnut cabinetry. From there we went out to hunt down the best bakery in Florence and happily it did not disappoint. The bakery was known for its biscotti so we willingly grabbed a bag and a small bottle of sweet wine, as the Florentines dip their biscotti into alcohol rather than coffee and it’s incredibly civilized. After purchasing the requisite sweets, we went back to the market to grab some food from a stall we’d had our eye on from the day before. We grabbed some fresh pasta, which you could watch being made in the kitchen behind the glass window, and enjoyed it standing up at the counter. Chris had lemon ravioli with pesto and I had speck and artichoke ravioli with olive oil and parmesan. It was truly the stuff of dreams. After the carbohydrate filled feast, we ventured up to the top level of the market for some coffee, or in Chris’ case the most ridiculous looking iced coffee served in a martini glass. I could feel the cool and judgmental eyes of the espresso-sipping people around us as we giggled over our novice caffeine order. That night we returned to Chris’ sandwich place of choice and ate our dinner sitting in the Piazza della Signoria, listening to the street performers and watching the sun nip around the corners of the Palazzo Vecchio. We ended the evening as we did most while we were away, slowly shuffling our tired feet back inside, devouring our daily gelato in the process.
The next day we continued our routine and woke up as early as possible, eager to beat the crowds to the bell tower. Thankfully we were in luck, and were fortunate enough to have a small trickling of people ahead of us as we scaled the increasingly claustrophobic steps up to the top, all 414 of them. The views afforded by the climb were well worth the breathlessness and being able to look out onto the Duomo offered a truly stunning and unique view of the city and her landmarks. Feeling rather tired by the end of our morning, and smug at the sight of the line for the tower after we climbed down, we headed off to the market once more. We grabbed a variety of baked goods and planted ourselves down in a piazza to enjoy the amiable sunshine. Fueled by flour, we weaved our way through new directions of streets, poking our head into whatever shops caught our fancy along the way. Our last day was low key and relaxed, and ended with porchetta sandwiches again because Chris was obsessed and saddened at the thought of potentially never having them again. We carried our picnic to the water and sat along the river to watch the sunset over Ponte Vecchio, desperate to absorb as much of Florence as possible before heading out to Venice the next morning.