From Venice, we arrived in Florence in the middle of the day. Like other cities, our first priority was to find our lodging. Following a pattern that had proven to work well for us, we had emailed and reserved a room a couple days in advance at a place called Soggiorno Alessandra. It was 54 euros for a room with A/C, a little snack-like breakfast, and a private bathroom located just outside the room.
The walk to Soggiorno Alessandra from the train station wasn’t very far, but it did take us past a few interesting sites and required us to cross the Arno river. When we arrived, we disovered that Soggiorno Alessandra was in a big old apartment building. It was run by Alessandra herself and had four nice rooms.
After settling in we asked Alessandra if she knew of any way we could get tickets to Florence’s most important art galleries, the Academia (home of Michelangelo’s David) and the Uffizi Gallery (housing works by the major Renaissance masters). Apparently these museums have very long lines and it’s highly advised that visitors make reservations beforehand. Unfortunately, we didn’t know how difficult it could be to get in to these places until a day or two before we arrived in Florence, and the reservations are sometimes (including this time) booked up months in advance.
As a result, we were worried that we wouldn’t have time to make it to Florence’s major sites. However, we told Alessandra our situation and she went to make some phone calls. A few minutes later she came back with times and confirmation numbers for our reservations the next day. I don’t know how she did it, but we were impressed, and very grateful. It also reminded us yet again how the places we chose to stay in could often make or break a city.
With our museum reservations taken care of, we headed out into the city to look around. We saw the famous Duomo (Basilica di Santa Maria del Fiore), with its influential dome by Brunelleschi, the Palazzo Vecchio, the exterior of the Uffizi Gallery, and a lot of other buildings tucked away on narrow, arching streets.
As we walked around, I became fascinated at how Florence is not a beautiful city in the way that, say, Paris or Venice are beautiful. Its buildings, for example, tend to be hulking instead of elegant. The Medici Palace is a good example of this: it’s a huge, fortified-looking box lacking the external opulence of other palaces, as well as the storybook romance of earlier castles. The Palazzo Vecchio was the same way and looked rough and utilitarian compared to some of the other places we’ve seen.
I don’t say this to suggest that Florence is in anyway less appealing than other cities, and in fact in many ways I enjoyed it more than places like Paris or (later) Rome. However, as the epicenter of the Renaissance, the general aesthetic surprised me (which I know mostly just illustrates my relative ignorance when it comes to art and history).
The result of Florence’s roughness was that it felt more lived in than other places. Whereas some cities we visited felt like a cross between museums and amusement parks at times, the streets in Florence (except the pedestrian only areas) always had some Vespa zipping by and nearly hitting us. Several of the places we ate at also had bulletin boards filled with homemade, Italian advertisements from students wanting to sublet their apartments. It was a reminder that people actually lived in the areas we were visiting and that they were going about the daily lives.
Toward the end of the evening, we headed up to the Belvedere Fort, which sits above the city and has amazing views. There, we ate dinner on some steps while watching the sunset over Florence. It was the quintessential Florentine image, with a hot sun varnishing the city’s brick buildings yellow. And while individual buildings in Florence may be more interesting than they are gorgeous, the over all effect from up above is very impressive.