Dusty and weary after after our day trip to Siena and beyond, we arrived in the narrow streets of Florence during what must have been their rush hour. In the ninety seconds we double-parked on the Lungarno degli Acciaiuoli to unload our bags, we were met with a hail of unfriendly hand gestures and honking horns. Better not to annoy the Florentines if you can help it: home to the conquering Medicis and birthplace of the Renaissance, Florence is too busy fulfilling its destiny to stop for a pair of bumbling tourists.
Our hotel was just steps away from the Ponte Vecchio and overlooked the River Arno, so we quickly unpacked and set out to discover the city.
Poring over maps before our trip, I imagined the Arno as a majestic surge of water coursing through the city. So I was surprised when I peered over the edge and saw a silent, still, sickly-green pond. I’m not the only one. A few days later I started reading Mark Twain’s The Innocents Abroad, and discovered that Twain’s impression of the Arno back in the 1860’s matched mine in 2015. Of the Arno, he said:
“It is a great historical creek with four feet in the channel and some scows floating around. I would be a very plausible river if they would pump some water into it.”
Exactly. And you will remember that Twain, a former river boat pilot knew of what he spoke. He went on to say:
“They all call it a river, and they honestly think it is a river, do these dark and bloody Florentines. They even help out the delusion by building bridges over it. I do not see why they are too good to wade.”
It’s hard to believe that as recently as 1966 the unpredictable Arno roared over its banks in Florence, killing forty people and destroying or damaging millions of rare books and artworks in its path.
After dinner, we joined the crush of tourists that crowded the Ponte Vecchio. The rabbit warren of shops that line the bridge were closed, but plenty of crowds remained to be entertained by singers and banjo players and puppeteers all competing for the tourists’ euros. Strolling through the nearby streets, we learned that gelaterias are as prominent in Florence as Starbucks in the U.S. Now there’s a reason to move!
Evening is a good time to discover Florence. The Piazza della Signoria and Piazza del Duomo are less choked with tourists at night, and it is easier to imagine that these are the same cobblestones where Dante Alighieri strode, where Savonarola’s bonfires of the vanities burned and where Michelangelo apprenticed as an artist.
The grandeur of Santa Maria del Fiore and Brunelleschi’s duomo are especially evident at night, when you can stand before them without being jostled by the crowd or accosted by the hordes of selfie-stick vendors.
It was a joy to wake up the next morning, and not just because the treasures of Florence awaited us. In Italy, it is always about the food, and our hotel, Portrait Firenze, offered one of the most tempting breakfast spreads of our trip.
Resisting the urge to nap after breakfast, we set out to discover Florence by day. Next post: The Uffizi and beyond.