[…Florence , Italy April 17, 2011…]
I arrived in Florence at 4:30 in the afternoon after a 70-minute bus ride from Pisa. Immediately the phrase “under the Tuscan sun” came to mind. Rolling hills dotted with slender cyprus trees, bright blue, cloudless skies topped off with 70-degree weather. The popularity of this Italian city was made clear to me by the amount of people I saw loitering around as we pulled up into Santa Maria Novella station. I feel safe in numbers so I can’t complain.
My travel agent – Google Earth, led me directly to the hotel without fail, although with the many narrow alleys in Florence, I can understand how one can easily get disoriented. Still, this is nothing compared to the maze in Venice. With my luggage safely ensconced in my hotel room, I stepped out and made my way towards the Duomo, passing through the busy outdoor market of San Lorenzo where the smell of distinct Italian leather filled the air, joining the aroma wafting off the windows of pizzerias and trattorias. At one point, I lost a glimpse of the cathedral’s dome I had been following through the roofline, when suddenly the late afternoon bells of Giotto’s campanile chimed. This was what it must’ve been like in the 14th century – it was a travel back in time! So I followed that sound instead, and sure enough, I found myself in Piazza del Duomo in no time.
I’ve seen the Duomo before on my first trip to Florence 3 years ago, so I did not feel the need to stop and marvel alongside the hundreds of tourists in the piazza. Still, in the corner of my eye, I can detect its beauty and its unmistakable presence. The Italians are amazing artisans, and a visit to any Italian city leaves me impressed.
I rounded the corner of the Duomo to check the queue for the bell tower, but seeing that it was not something I wanted to do today, I proceeded down the street of Via dei Calzaiuoli. That took me to the famous Piazza della Signoria – the focal point of the Florentine Republic where Tuscany’s most impressive town hall, the Palazzo Vecchio, still stands. You are quickly transported to the great Renaissance age in this public square – it’s another automatic time-travel.
If you want to see great art by the masters, Florence is, without a doubt, one of the places to go. There’s a replica of Michelangelo’s David, gleaming in all its white naked glory, on the steps of the city hall, while the real one stands high on a pedestal, safe at the Accademia. David’s head looks out to the direction of the Loggia dei Lanzi – an open-air gallery showcasing great sculptures from the best artists, and it’s free to enjoy!
People were everywhere! Although the city square is mostly pedestrian, people traffic is just as worse. A 5-minute walk can take up to 10 with all that maneuvering around gelato-licking window-shopping tourists. Not easy to walk on these uneven streets either. It did not get better after I crossed the Uffizi gallery heading towards the Ponte Vecchio. It’s like lovers’ paradise over there: couples snuggled up by the riverbank, golden late afternoon light kissing their faces and the lips they kiss each other with. This boundary is marked by 3 chain-linked barriers filled with hundreds of padlocks. There’s an interesting story behind these locks which I’ve heard many times before in Rome, Paris, Cologne, and more: Lovers believe that by ‘locking their love’ and throwing the key into the river, they will eternally be bonded together. Whoever thought up that story must be a locksmith, and a wealthy one by now.
Ponte Vecchio was expectedly crowded: sightseers, window-shoppers, illegal vendors. I did not hang around; I merely wanted to get a feel of the city and check where things were, as is always my agenda on the first hour or so of every trip. So I made my way down the Mercato Nuovo to visit Porcellino, the Italian pig – literally. It was nearing 6 p.m. and vendors were getting ready to close down shop. Still the famous lucky pig got his snout rubbed and all the attention he wanted. For a bronze pig, he looked adorable even for a vegetarian. But what another disappointment! – just like David in the neighboring piazza, this one’s also a fake. The real Porcellino is safely sheltered in the new Museo Bardini. With all these non-authentic Italian pieces around, I’m starting to doubt “genuine Italian leather.”
When it was almost that time, I walked towards the hill of Piazalle Michelangelo to join more people who were already there awaiting the grand event of the day – sunset. I have great appreciation for cities who enjoy simple pleasures like watching the sunset, sitting in outdoor cafes, people-watching, walking their dogs etc. It makes you feel at home instantly.
I just realized I have not had food for several hours, so I found the perfect place: an outdoor terrazza overlooking the city panorama. The view was fantastic: the bridges of the Arno, the Duomo, the Palazzos – there’s my photograph right there. My dinner, sadly, was not as memorable, although the hot chocolate came close to rivaling my favorite Spanish chocolate.
There were more people on the top level of the hill, even photographers with their tripods already marking their spots on the balcony. I like being in the presence of photographers (as long as they leave me alone); again, safety in numbers. My decision to stay on the lower level of the hill was based on having only an 85 prime as my longest lens – it worked, but obviously it was not as versatile as a telephoto. Although I had hoped for a dramatic sunset, I knew that with a cloudless sky, the best I could get was a perfect circle of a sun and a city awashed in orange light. That’s exactly what I got. And still a beautiful sunset for couples who are just out there to enjoy it, but for a photographer, it could’ve been better. It always could have been better.
Back downhill, I made an impromptu decision to shoot twilight at the Basilica of Santa Croce since it was on my route. I did not have time to scout the location beforehand, and that turned out to be a mistake. I arrived there only to find a massive stage set up in front of it. That was of course a disappointment, not to mention, a waste of precious time. My contingent plan was to run to Piazza della Signoria, only a few blocks down the road. So with the remaining light that I had, the Fountain of Neptune filled the last few frames of my camera. Twilight seemed unusually short tonight and I wonder where it went – it felt like it was gone before I even got my shot.
Still a pleasant evening regardless. I enjoyed the stroll back to the hotel, although I had circled aimlessly for a few minutes trying to find it. The absence of the day market had thrown me off. No worries, I’m here safe, looking forward to an even better day tomorrow in Siena.