Panoramic delight

Panoramic delight

Panoramic delight

Florence in Italy — the birthplace of Renaissance, may have been home to an impressive posse of history’s smartest men where Michelangelo to Galileo, Dante, Machiavelli to Amerigo Vespucci were all famous locals, adding to that, Leonardo Da Vinci. Him being long dead, one had to submit to the charms of another Leonardo — the owner of the hostel I boarded at in Florence called Leonardo’s House.  I may not agree with the Malaysian med-students who thought Leonardo was ‘so cute’. In fact, his smugness was a touch annoying. Especially when he tutted at my request for bicycles to rent. “No, no,” said Leonardo of the sing-song voice. “Florence is a city you see on foot.” he convinced me. 

All that travelling alone in treacherous Europe had by now given me an obstinacy which wouldn’t let an Italian hostel-owner tell me what to do. Paris had taught me that a bicycle is a boon to young travelers when on their own. Leonardo finally gave up with an exasperated “You’ll see tomorrow,” when I persisted and told him somewhat snootily that I’d done my research. I can’t say it wasn’t disconcerting to find out from an unusually cheerful Leonardo the next morning that I had landed in Florence exactly on the day the tourist city closes down — a Monday. I wasn’t here to dwell in galleries anyway. The idea was to get a feel of the city. So I set out on foot, straight to Basilica di Santa Maria del Fiore, the magnificent cathedral in the heart of Florence. 

Il Duomo (as a city’s main cathedral, which Basilica di Santa Maria del Fiore is to Florence, is called) is, in spite of its imposing size and opulence, rather strange. With its white and green marble facade and rotund dome, Il Duomo is unlike the more austere geometric architecture of other famous churches in Europe. You would easily mistake its architectural style, as my illiterate eye did, for having Islamic influences while it is actually Gothic.  Commissioned in the 13th century, Il Duomo like most of Europe’s churches, has seen modifications through centuries. Its lovely interiors aside, the dome is the piece de resistance. It takes visiting only a couple of churches in Italy to realise that you haven’t seen it all until you’ve huffed and panted your way through standard narrow spiral stairways to the dome. The view from on top of the Dome is priceless. But that is a given. The sparkling river Arno, the many bridges across it, and the rest of the city against a beautiful clear sky on a cold February morning are not the only reasons the 400-step climb is worth taxing your lungs. Add to this, the chance of having insightful conversation with absolute strangers, if conversation is your thing, which it is to some of us.

City has much to offer

From there, I strolled over to Palazzo Vecchio, the town hall of Florence — a largish palace, part museum, part administrative office with lovely painted ceilings and chambers dedicated to Roman gods. There was no looking at Michelangelo’s David for me, thanks to Galleria dell’academia being closed on the day. There was no gaping at the exhibits of the world famous Uffizi gallery either.

I had to be content with the most famous David imitation in Piazza Della Signoria — a renowned copy installed in an open air exhibition space. The piazza is a square with fountains and sculptures where school groups hang out in front of Palazzo Vecchio. Where angsty (ahem, good looking) young writers work on manuscripts, where a cone of rich chocolate gelato is perfect company for people-watching. 

You can pass by Piazza Repubblica, haggle over fashionable leather bags at street-side shops or even venture into one of the many haute fashion stores lined right next to medieval monuments. This part of Florence is evidently older. Narrow cobblestone paths allow only for bicycles to aid transportation. Motor vehicles are rare and inconspicuous. Naturally, you would want to get a glimpse of the other side. Ponte Vecchio, which I chose to walk on is the oldest bridge of Florence and has quaint, old fashioned jewellery and souvenir stores on either side. What do you know — pearls and gold, diamonds apart, make for very good friends too.

Crossing over to the left bank, you find little eateries and callous souvenir vendors who while brushing off your bargaining, will in consolation compliment you with a “Si Bella”. Here was the modern side to Florence. Where buses whizzed past on wide roads; where infamous advertisements for a popular clothing brand urged one to ‘Be Stupid’ — advice that would make the most famous of Florence’s sons choke, roll over and die.  
Resisting the temptation that fabulously modern cafes overlooking the river offered, I headed to my next stop, Piazzalle Michelangelo — the famous square on top of a hill, which offers picture postcard views of the city. I walked up a steep, tree-filled pathway bathed in filtered sunlight, to the top and was presented a panoramic view of the city. The Duomo stood out triumphantly; all other buildings are tiny matchboxes in comparison; the Arno leads your eyes to faraway hills, looking prim against the clear blue sky.

A steady breeze welcomed the cyclists, us tourists, joggers, and a Chinese marriage party. A fellow tourist apologetically asked me to take a photo of his, as he posed on his bike against the picture perfect view. He cycled off in a hurry before I could stop him and play my newly assumed walking-evangelist role. Leonardo was right after all. Florence must be taken in slowly; one enlightening step at a time.