The cradle of the renaissance, Florence’s MAGNETISM and romance pull you in from the first stroll along the banks of the river Arno. Amongst narrow terracotta-hued streets and VAST art museums, one becomes enamoured with its culture and HISTORY, while learning the art of dolce far niente, or the SWEETNESS of nothing.
I finally reach the end of the scarped staircase, and find myself high above Florence, the second most-visited city in Europe. It’s hard to tell at the steps of the church of San Miniato al Monte, where the usual crowds have dissipated, giving way to zesty local chatter. The city’s rolling hills are dipped in the afternoon mist and the outlines of the Duomo and Ponte Vecchio seem saturated by a golden light. The church itself, with its scenic green and white marble façade, looks more like an impeccably-crafted movie set, than an actual construction from the XIII century. Pine trees outgrow the grounds of the basilica, scenting the air and giving the impression I’m somewhere in the Tuscan countryside, rather than Oltrarno, the south bank of the River Arno.
For a city of its historic magnitude, Firenze is surprisingly compact, like an antique travel trunk that opens to secret drawers and pieces that lift or extend away from it. Every street I cross, and every building façade I photograph, is imbued with the intricacies of its past as one of Italy’s wealthiest city-states ruled by the Medici family.
It was during Lorenzo Il Magnifico’s period that the city became the cradle of renaissance idolised by humanists; the golden age of European intellect and culture. Artists from Michelangelo to Botticelli thrived under the patronage of wealthy Florentine merchant families, paving the way for the museums and gallerias that overwhelm the city today.
A morning in Firenze should begin with a stroll along the river, crossing across the city’s many bridges from one quarter to another. The vendors on the Ponte Vecchio are beginning to set up their stands, and the cobblestone streets still echo my steps as I walk towards the Cattedrale di Santa Maria del Fiore, the imposing gothic structure that Florence is known for.
When I turn the corner, I sigh deeply. A familiar sigh that comes when I venture to a new place, not exactly knowing where I’m going until I get there, my heart confirming I’ve arrived. A masterpiece lay before my eyes. Polychrome marble panels in various shades of green and pink dominate every inch of the façade, while the stately size of the structure surprises in its magnitude. Where expectations typically lead to disenchantment, the cathedral held its magnetism long after leaving my sight.
Treading the 414 steps to the top of Giotto’s Bell Tower not only makes the copious amounts of gelato warranted, but also provides the perfect Florentine cityscape. There are slanted terracotta roofs and narrow cobblestone roads. Laundry hangs on rooftops and windows and balconies. It is the Brunelleschi’s Dome that dominates my eye view, though. Once the largest dome in the world, today it’s as harmoniously proportioned as it is iconic of the city, exalting the Florentine skyline as ever.
But to only visit Santa Maria del Fiore is to miss out on the artistic magnetism of the city, and its enduring spirit of the rebirth. The Basilica di Santa Maria Novella is chronologically the first of its type in Florence, its symmetrical marble façade completed in 1490 and financed by wealthy Florentine families. In the Basilica di Santa Croce lie the memorials to Michelangelo, Galileo, and Machiavelli, their spirit forever carved out in gilded limestone among frescoes by Gaddi and Giotto. I also visit Ognissanti, a small church settled in the namesake piazza at the end of a street overflowing with antique stores. Its baroque front, crammed between ordinary Florentine buildings, gives way to a densely-decorated interior that is almost vertigo-inducing. Every wall is covered with frescoes—including Ghirlandaio’s version of The Last Supper which likely influenced Leonardo da Vinci’s later work in Milan—and yet it remains unusually intimate.
On my way to the Oltrarno, whose name means “beyond the Arno,” I am also on a quest for the perfect gelato. If there is one thing more glorious than strolling across the narrow streets of this city, with Vespas propped up against peach coloured pillars and locals savouring bittersweet espressos on the street, it’s doing so with a homemade ice cream in hand. I stumble upon the Gelateria Santa Trinita, a Wes Anderson-style pink store that stands unassuming at the bank of the river. Two quintessentially Florentine women exit it, Ferragamo purses and pistachio cones at hand. I am sold.
An hour, and a blissful amble among the Palazzo Pitti’s renaissance courtyards and the deliciously opulent Palatine gallery, later, I am standing in one of the dozens of allées in the Biboli Gardens. This vast Florentine park remarkably treads the balance between nature and architecture. There is an open garden framed by wide gravel avenues and an amphitheatre, with an expansive view of the city. There is the breathtaking Viottolone, a large boulevard lined with cypress trees and statues, and bosquets along the side, that opens to the square dell’Isolotto. There are rose-lined alleys that lead to grottos and nymphaeums that seem natural occurrences, rather than man-made constructions.
When the sun shines at its brightest, or at dusk, most Florentines head to their nearest piazza. And so, I make my way to Santo Spirito, the social nucleus of the south bank. It is while taking my second sip of sangiovese in the vibrant square—laced with panini shops, laid-back bars and traditional osterias, with young locals loudly consorting on the steps of the Basilica—that I savour the dolce far niente, the inimitable Italian mentality of pleasure for pleasure’s sake. The sweetness of nothing has never tasted this good.
A GUIDE TO OLTRARNO
To see: Giardini di Biboli, Palazzo Pitti, Basilica di San Miniato al Monte, Piazzale Michelangelo, Forte di Belvedere.
To eat: Osteria Santo Spirito, Il Santo Bevitore, Pitti Gola, Lo Sprone Vinaino, Il Santino, La Carraia, Le Volpi e l’Uva.
A GUIDE TO THE NORTH BANK
To see: Cattedrale di Santa Maria del Fiore, Palazzo Vecchio, Uffizi Gallery, Basilica di San Lorenzo, Basilica di Santa Croce, Basilica di Santa Maria Novella, Ognissanti and Piazza Santa Trinità.
To eat: Trattoria Sostanza, Trattoria Gargani, Il Cibreo, Trattoria Cesarino, Perche No!, All’Antico Vinaio and Trattoria Mario.
To shop: Officina Profumo Farmaceutica di Santa Maria Novella, Mercato Centrale, Gucci, Echo.
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