The Best of Europe: Florence

For 21 days, Rick and I are tour members on one of his own tours: the Best of Europe. We’re trying to combine vacation with quality control and research. And it’s going great! Join us as we traipse from the Netherlands to Germany, Austria to Italy, and Switzerland to France with a terrific tour guide and 26 wonderful fellow tour members.

After you've seen Michelangelo's David, what's next on your list of things to do in Florence?

After you’ve seen Michelangelo’s David, what’s next on your list of things to do in Florence?

If you’ve ever visited Florence or if you have Florence on your bucket list, your top ten things to see and do probably include seeing Michelangelo’s David, visiting the duomo (cathedral) and possibly climbing Brunelleschi’s dome or Giotto’s bell tower, crossing the Ponte Vecchio, and touring the Uffizzi Gallery. But what else does one do in Florence?

Lots.

It just takes time, some stamina, and lots of openness to experience fascinating Florence. I’m all for sightseeing, especially when paired with historical and society context to better understand a culture, but building lasting memories and allowing yourself to fall in love with a place requires more that ticking off a list of obligatory things to see. Do the things that aren’t on your list. Treat yourself to a cultural adventure just by doing the minutia of daily life in a city that’s been a seat of vibrant life for centuries, and let yourself see the ordinary with new eyes.

Rick takes a moment to appreciate the public gallery of sculptures tucked into Giotto's bell tower.

Rick takes a moment to appreciate the public gallery of sculptures tucked into Giotto’s bell tower.

Just walking from the duomo or cathedral to the Piazza della Signoria, you can transport yourself into the mind of a Medieval Florentine and imagine how impressed you would be by virtual art gallery that surrounds you. The facade of the church, which wasn’t completed until the 19th century, could have you meditating for hours on anything from the Holy Family to construction skills and artistic style to cheap labor. And while you may be impressed by the height and sturdiness of Giotto’s tower, take a minute to just look at the statues that adorn it. It doesn’t cost you a thing, but it can give you a better appreciation of the notion that art is for everyone.

This marble tabernacle is a gem waiting to be discovered by you inside the Orsanmichele Church.

This marble tabernacle is a gem waiting to be discovered by you inside the Orsanmichele Church.

For years, I’ve walked by the Orsanmichele Church of the Guilds, admiring this former granary-turned-church’s craft and trade guilds-sponsored (rather than the church-sponsored) sculptures that embellished the facade niches (now copies take their place). But I had never taken the time to actually visit it. Stepping inside for the first time, I felt I had been robbing myself of a precious jewel for all these years. While most of the walls are bare, practically gloomy, the ceiling is a celestial festival of saints. And when walk to right of the entryway, you’ll feast your eyes on the most delicate, intricate, and ornate tabernacle you may ever see. The carved marble twists, turns, points, and curves its way around an icon image of the Mary and Jesus, creating a perfect shelter for Blessed Mother and Child.

The flags of Florence, Italy, and the European Union adorn the facade of the Palazzo Vecchio on the Piazza della Signoria.

The flags of Florence, Italy, and the European Union adorn the facade of the Palazzo Vecchio on the Piazza della Signoria.

Fake David's shadow.

Fake David’s shadow.

At the Piazza della Signoria, I embraced the idea of appreciating the details. The Florentine, Italian, and European Union flags flutter, furl and unfurl in the wind in virtual unison, and I wonder how much of that of harmony exists within the political entities themselves. Rather than take pictures of Fake David, I admire how his shadow shifts, darkens, and nearly disappears along the wall in the late afternoon light of a soon-to-be-setting sun. And a medallion embedded in the cut stones of the piazza remind all visitors who choose to look (and who can decipher some Italian) that the nemesis of the Medici family–Dominican friar Savonarola–was burned on that very spot after overplaying his hand as a theocrat, suffering the same fate as those he had condemned for “moral transgressions.”

This medallion on the Piazza della Signoria marks where Dominican friar Savonarola was burned.

This medallion on the Piazza della Signoria marks where Dominican friar Savonarola was burned.

Mmmm...truffles.

Mmmm…truffles.

Back across town at the Mercato Centrale, I followed some locals as they went to their favorite market stalls. They picked the finest olive oil and sniffed the local truffles. They joked with fishmongers, asked advice about the ripest vegetables, and eyeballed which slices of wild boar they would be serving their family tonight.

Wild boar, anyone? It's delicious.

Wild boar, anyone? It’s delicious.

This is just one half of the vast upper floor of the Mercato Centrale.

This is just one section of the vast upper floor of the Mercato Centrale.

One floor up, the new food hall was abuzz with locals, study abroad students, and travelers alike. I had to see what all the commotion was about. The renovation of the 19th-century market hall’s upper floor has brought a rebirth, a renaissance if you will, of gastronomy and community pride. You could wander all afternoon inhaling and consuming the aromatic dishes, testing all of the libations, or taking a cooking class. It’s a celebration of food and beverage, and it seems like everyone wants to join the party.

Sunset on the Arno River in Florence.

Sunset on the Arno River in Florence.

Criss-crossing the city once more, I cross the Ponte Vecchio to the Oltrarno, the other side of the river. With little time to explore the artisan shops, I choose instead to take in the sunset on slightly hidden spot along the river. I’m one of five people there, and with an unobstructed view of the Ponte Vecchio to my right and a orange-yellow popsicle sun melting into the distant horizon, I think to myself, “What a perfect day in Florence this has been.”

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