for my florence ragazzi

Here’s another story from my feature writing class.  It’s a travel story that I wrote about my beloved Florence.  Enjoy, ragazzi!


I remember the first time I saw the Duomo.  Squished between baggage and friends, I was being jostled along in a tiny taxi on the way to our apartment from the surprisingly small airport.  Swerving and veering down tiny cobblestone alleys, the driver made a sharp right turn, and there it was: the gargantuan cathedral.  Il Duomo di Firenze.  I’m not sure if it was our shock at its size or the momentum of the weaving Alfa Romeo, but our faces were plastered against the window.  I was entranced.  Then it hit.  Here I am.  Here I am in Florence, Italy.

It is the City of Art, of Dante, of leather vendors and gelaterias.  “Firenze” in Italian, Florence is a metropolis in an otherwise vineyard-coated rural landscape.  One thousand years ago, it birthed the Renaissance, and the minds that followed have altered the course of human history.  The Medici family. Leonardo da Vinci.  Michelangelo.  Botticelli.  Machiavelli.  All created in, were inspired by and learned from the brilliance of Florence.  Years ago they lived “la bella vita,” the beautiful life, here, and for the next five months, so would I.

Today this city is a vibrant juxtaposition of old world Tuscany and bustling Europe. There are trattorie, cafes, enotecas, ristorantes and McDonalds.  Tour guides rattle off fun facts and stories in broken English to camera-bearing travelers on double-decker red buses.  Vespas zip down tight cobblestone alleys, precariously close to the leather coattails of pedestrians.  The sidewalks are often the size of oversized curbs, leading to the awkward dilemma of who steps down into the street, risking both life and limb for the sake of good manners.

I remember the first time I felt like a local in Florence.  It was not when the barista at News Café knew my order before I placed it. Or when I learned to accept the frequent appliance mishaps in our tiny, 400-year-old apartment.  Or when I had a fluent conversation with the attractive Italian man who sold us chicken at the Mercato Centrale.  He had dark hair and even darker eyes.  A half dozen American girls would melt every time he smiled and said “ciao.”  The greeting rolled off his lips like butter.

No, I felt at home in Florence the first time I walked back to my little apartment by myself without looking at my brightly labeled Rick Steves map.  My usual commute to class involved walking in a Madeline-like straight line.  One-by-one we scurried like a procession of ducks through the early morning streets, tripping on loose stones and drawing the attention of the Italians that looked at us curiously.  So maybe when I did finally muster the courage to brave the route home alone, I wandered down the wrong alley once or twice.  The streets never seemed to make sense.  Via de’ Benci.  Via Guiseppe Verdi.  Via Fiesolana.  Same road, same foot-grabbing cobblestones, completely unrelated names.

But Florence is more than narrow streets and leering Italian men, wooing with a baritone “ciao bella” and corner-of-the-mouth smile.  It is the Renaissance and Michelangelo’s David, a piece of sculpture that will captivate you.  The veins in his arms, the curve of his back, the subtle grip of his right hand around a pebble and the piercing gaze of his marble eyes embody unparalled focus and strength.  His perfection is only attainable by purchasing a T-shirt, apron or pair of boxers.

David, along with the numerous museums and historical sites, draws thousands of visitors to Florence every year.  In fact, many tourists come down with an ailment known as “Florence syndrome.”  The overwhelming beauty and splendor of the city’s art causes dizziness and fainting.  The glory of Botticelli’s “Venus” has literally taken away the breath of many awestruck visitors.

However, the beauty of Florence is found in more places than the Accademia or the Uffizi, two of  the city’s famed art museums.  The city itself is a work of art.  Hike the winding trail up to the Piazzale Michelangelo and absorb a view that will steal your heart as well as your breath.  Hundreds of terra cotta roofs cluster before your eyes, painting a sea of rust orange amidst the deep green of the Tuscan hillside beyond.  The Duomo dominates the horizon with its enormous warm-hued tiled dome, pristine white marble façade and adjacent bell tower.  The dusty brown tower of the Palazzo Vecchio points to Florence’s former center of government and the piazza that hosted my favorite street musician every night.

Continue your visual tour south and rest your eyes on the Fiume Arno, the river that splits Florence in half, separating the historic center from the Oltrarno, the neighborhoods where the “real” Florentines live.  The Arno was my favorite part of this Tuscan landscape.  Sometimes it would be still as glass, perfectly reflecting the 500-year-old golden-hued buildings that lined its banks.  The bridges are the brushstrokes that unite each half of the canvas.  They have seen revolt, prosperity and even a flood that has left its mark as shoulder-high water lines throughout the city.

The most notable of these bridges is the Ponte Vecchio, made famous by its tightly packed jewelry shops and the secret passageway used by the Medici family during their reign over Florence.  Every year, thousands of tourists gawk their way across this suspension of gems and gold.  If you want to break the bank, buy your souvenirs here.  Mere glass separated my entranced eyes and the classic cameo ring that I had sought after for years.  I caved.

If you do manage to make it across this narrow passage of dazzling temptation, you will be mere blocks from the lushest part of Florence: the Boboli Gardens.  This grand maze of immaculately trimmed hedges, bubbling fountains and marble sculptures merits the adoration of master gardeners around the world.  Glimpses of the city peek over rows of neat trees consumed in a brush of emerald foliage.  Minced pebble trails logically wind their way through this mixture of organized forests and open, manicured lawns dotted with tiny white flowers.

I love Florence, not for its Renaissance architecture that captivates historians and artists alike or the splendor of the Ponte Vecchio or the Eden-like paradise of the Bobli Gardens.  I love Firenze for its muted, yet vibrantly colorful frescoes that brought life to dull plaster walls.  The five-euro cup of my favorite gelato.  The warm glow of the sunset reflecting off the Arno and the rich hue it poured upon the city.  The necessity for sharp Parmigiano Reggiano cheese on every dish.  The picturesque carousel in the Piazza della Repubblica that we finally rode on our last night.  The superior sparkling of Italian prosecco to French champagne.  I loved Florence because it was home.  In a world so foreign, yet on the same planet, this Tuscan gem was home.



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