What must Florence have been like during the city’s Age of Enlightenment. Brunelleschi was constructing his ground-breaking dome that would soon perch high above the city’s red brick skyline, presiding over the people with steadfast assurance and monumental beauty. How must it have felt to wander through the rabbit warren of brooding Medieval alleyways, to then emerge from the shadows into the sun-drenched embrace of Piazza della Signoria, to suddenly be confronted by the lightness and purity of Michelangelo’s imposing marble sculpture of David. David, the symbol of the Republic of Florence, was prominently resided in all his naked glory. I suspect, not nearly as chaotic as it feels today. Assuredly there would be no wave of tourists, no slew of eager, wide-eyed sightseers trapsing haphazardly behind an umbrella wielding tour guide. Yet despite the throngs of holidaymakers that wash into the city each summer, eager to tick off their list of Must-See places, David still enthrals, albeit a facsimile, reminding us today that Florence is as utterly breathtaking now, perhaps more so, than she ever was.
Nothing can compare to the first time you enter the Piazza del Duomo; gazing upwards, open-mouthed, and dumbfounded, at the elaborate pastel pink, green, and stark white marble used to create a kaleidoscope of form and colour on the façade of the Cattedrale di Santa Maria del Fiore, Florence’s magnificent Gothic cathedral. Or, with camera clutched firmly to your chest, the first time you wove your way upwards, past the city’s gloriously pungent Rose Garden at the height of bloom, to Piazzale Michelangelo. Observing the city sprawled out before you in perfect harmony with the enveloping Tuscan countryside, you witness one of the most breathtaking panoramas created by human hands, Florence from above.
“This is the fairest picture on our planet, the most enchanting to look upon, the most satisfying to the eye and the spirit. To see the sun sink down, drowned on his pink and purple and golden floods, and overwhelm Florence with tides of colour that make all the sharp lines dim and faint and turn the solid city to a city of dreams, is a sight to stir the coldest nature, and make a sympathetic one drunk with ecstasy.”
-Mark Twain, American writer
Though, as wondrous as these virginal travel experiences may be, there is something truly liberating about travelling to a destination, especially a city with its multitude of monuments and definitive icons, for the second, or even third visit. Time seems to lose all sense of urgency. You permit yourself to wander aimlessly, pausing here and there when the mood strikes, simply to marvel at the seemingly insignificant details that escaped your gaze the first time. You notice the way the colours on the weather worn buildings fade from sunburnt peach to a familiar shade that is now barely there, as though someone had slowly poured the creamiest milk into a batch of juicy, ripe fruit, diluting the mix, and reducing the intensity by half. There’s no need to make haste, you have been here before.
“Among the four old bridges that span the river, the Ponte Vecchio, that bridge which is covered with the shops of jewelers and goldsmiths, is a most enchanting feature in the scene. The space of one house, in the center, being left open, the view beyond, is shown as in a frame; and that precious glimpse of sky, and water, and rich buildings, shining so quietly among the huddled roofs and gables on the bridge, is exquisite”.
-Charles Dickens, English writer and social critic
When I visited Florence for the first time, almost ten years ago, I remember feeling completely overwhelmed. Despite our early autumn arrival, the heat of a tenacious summer still emanated relentlessly from the cobbled streets, and the heaving mass of bodies only added to the sticky atmosphere. Like good tourists, mum and I followed the obligatory path; we joined queues that ribboned their way indiscriminately past great, stoic sculptures carved fluidly from just a single piece of marble, watching with amusement as disinterested parties, rather than glancing around to admire the surrounding outdoor museum that accompanied them in their wait, moaned without breath at the wasting of their precious time. We traversed the hallowed halls of the Uffizi Gallery, stark in the realisation that we stood only mere inches from some of the greatest painters in Renaissance history. In grand succession came the informed brushstrokes of Giotto, Caravaggio, and Piero della Francesco, accompanying us on our pilgrimage to see the very best.
Now, with my sister-in-law living only a stone’s throw from Florence, up in the gentle Tuscan hills that slope away from the city, I have an unwavering excuse to return. This will be my third visit, and I have very little agenda, other than to spend time with family and to saturate myself with enough Italian sun to last me through another foreboding English winter.
Dan suggests hiring bicycles in order to explore the city which sounds ideal considering the scorching conditions. Some of my greatest holiday memories are bicycling through historic centres, wind in my hair and enjoying the freedom of this mode of age-old transport. There is something magical about riding a bike through an Italian town; pretending to appear as one of the locals, with that nonchalant confidence that Italian cyclists seem so naturally to possess.
After downloading the appropriate E-bike App, we pick up our orange bicycles from beside the local supermarket, and after a cursory pedal around the carpark we set off into il centro storico. At first, the experience seems rather daunting as the absence of bikeways into Florence means immersing with the local traffic. Dan’s long legs make cycling a breeze, but my height challenged shanks barely skim the bitumen, making sudden turns a rather unwelcome comedy of errors. I begin to enjoy some semblance of confidence and the ensuing breeze is most welcome. Dressed in what I think of as elegantly practical bicycling attire, together with my dark features and Italian made sandals I start to feel like I might be blending in. Just as I feel some assurance of composure, a gorgeous Florentine woman glides past, resplendent in her too-short-for-bicycling dress and gravity-defying wedges, not a bead of perspiration clinging to her perfectly tousled tresses. I admit not defeat, for if she can do it then so must I.
As the buildings begin to morph from balcony-clad apartment blocks, harmoniously adorned with a rainbow of geraniums, into elegant 16th century palazzi, a bikeway suddenly appears like a cool lake upon a once barren desert scene. Within the safe confines of my new enveloping lane, I sense my confidence soar to dizzying new heights. I pass by chic Italians, some peddling the same lurid orange bikes as ours, and I even manage to zip by a couple of tourists who look more awkward than I, taking secret comfort in their rather silly flailing ways.
My new found poise on the bike allows me to enjoy my surroundings and I marvel at the architecture and piazzas we pass. The antiquity of the city today belies the fact that Florence was conceived during the height of a modernist revolution, at a time when the Renaissance period cultivated a new direction in art, knowledge, and culture. The rediscovery of classical philosophy, literature, and art, as well as new discoveries in travel, invention, and style prompted expanding ideas and innovations which became integral to the evolution of society.
Though, dazzling as the Florentine scenery is, my stomach begins to grumble, and all thoughts of art and culture begin to give way to thoughts of food. For the last few years, the city has seen a kind of new awakening, a mini renaissance of sorts. Young Florentines, eager to embrace an international and more contemporary way of living and dining have invigorated the flavours of Italy and Florence with a freshness that embodies their international outlook. While still fortifying links with their past new menus have also honoured the quality and provenance of local produce and ingredients.
Of course, no one has a passion and taste for coffee quite like the Italians – except, perhaps, for the Australians. Italy may have its quintessential espresso and cappuccino, yet we Aussies have quite proudly bestowed upon the world the almighty Flat White. Like a warm embrace from your Italian nonna, the Flat White is a rich and creamy concoction that so perfectly bridges the gap between the potent it’ll-put-hairs-on-your-chest-espresso and the light and fluffy delicacy that epitomises the morning-only-cappuccino. Not too heavy, not too light, and, when made by your local hipster barista, hopefully just right. When I heard through the proverbial grapevine from fellow Australian expat and cookbook author Emiko Davies that Florence was now home to the city’s first breakfast/brunch establishment, and that it was owned and operated by an Australian/Italian-American couple, well, my curiosity was piqued.
Melaleuca, named after the native species of tea-trees that grow in abundance along the coastal region in my home state of Queensland, is an unfussy, light and airy café perfectly perched along the banks of the river Arno in Santa Croce, just a stone’s throw from the city’s monumental cathedral, yet in a peaceful world of its own. With a delicious menu consisting of Aussie favourites like smashed avocado and poached eggs smattered liberally with pomegranate seeds and lightly toasted sesame kernels it guarantees patronage. Though Australian at heart, Melaleuca, like its expat owners, has a very international sensibility with its tasty version of handmade naan bread topped with eggs, coconut sambal, and fresh vegetable slaw, all spritzed with a squeeze of fresh lime. The excellent coffee uses fair-trade beans that are hand roasted in Florence and sourced from small farms from around the world, from Brazil to Kenya. It is top-notch and brewed to perfection by the warm bilingual staff. With a counter brimming with freshly baked pastries, and no capacity left to indulge, we went back for seconds the next day!
We pushed on but by mid-afternoon the heat of the city caused a languorous stupor, not only for us but everyone else it seemed. Families huddled desperately in any available shade while children feverishly licked their melting gelati, half of which ended up in tiny pastel pools on the scorching sidewalk. Oblivious young lovers, with thoughts only for each other, languished on centuries old steps taking shelter from the harsh Tuscan sun in the sliver of a shadow provided by the towering marble statue.
Finally admitting defeat and wilting in the heat, we bid addio to our trusty two-wheeled steeds and make hast for the cool embrace of the Boboli Gardens. Known as the city’s ‘green lung’ the park hosts centuries-old oak trees, sculptures, and fountains and offers peaceful shelter from the relentless Florentine sun in summer. Also to be enjoyed during Autumn when the ever-changing foliage entrances, in Spring as the perfume of blooming flowers embraces and in winter when the sharp scent of citrus infuses the crisp air. The gardens are adjacent to the Pitti Palace, that magnificent palazzo built for the Pitti family in 1457, and designed by Filippo Brunelleschi, architect of Florence’s celebrated dome. This outdoor sculpture park whose ‘green architecture’ was to become the inspiration for the grandest formal gardens of Europe, including France’s infamous Versailles, was commenced in the 15th century by the Borgolo family. The gardens were later purchased by the Medici, one of the wealthiest families in Italy, whose patronage of the arts and architecture in Florence during the 15th and 16th centuries was fundamental in the birth of the Renaissance period.
One of the most breathtaking features of the gardens are the many grotti found scattered throughout the space. The distinctive Buontalenti Grotto, presiding in the far north of the gardens, has origins linked to the construction of the ancient aqueduct flowing from the Ginevra spring, whose construction began in 1551 for the purposes of supplying water first to the Boboli Gardens and then to Palazzo Vecchio. The first room is home to a pastoral scene of stalactites, stalagmites, sponge-like rocks, and the mosaic of marble and red porphyry created by artist Piero Mati. At the base of the two side walls are two aqua basins which would have reflected the sculptures above, adding to the surreal and mystical atmosphere that bestows on the grotto its otherworldly allure.
Today, thanks largely in part to the Medici family, who opened the park to the public in 1766, the gardens are a tranquil oasis in a city whose ancient, cobbled streets are pounded each year by more than 16 million visitors. Though hardly a hidden sanctuary, the vast green expanse, due to its magnificent scale, still retains a sense of regal, old-world charm, and it is relatively effortless to find a little patch of serenity to take shelter from the sun, which we do so with much ardour.
After a sufficient rest and much needed recuperation in the shade we find our now-familiar orange bicycles and commence our journey homeward bound. Feeling more like seasoned locals than flailing tourists, we navigate the gentle slope up towards Fiesole and return to the welcoming stone villa amongst the grapevines that we call home for the next few days.