After the chaos of Napoli and Rome, we were ready for a change of pace. Florence was the perfect choice. We stayed just outside the city in a gorgeous Airbnb apartment and the first time we made the 20-minute walk down the hill past fields and trees, we marvelled at the refreshing peace and quiet.
Passing through the city walls was like being transported back in time – there were no flashing signs, no tacky advertisements, just old world charm. The streets were cobbled and the buildings were made of stone. I felt out of place in my practical denim shorts and runners. I wished I was wearing a floaty dress and leather sandals instead.
The tale of the gelati
We stopped at the first gelati store we came to, eager to add another classic element to this Italian dream. A huge variety of flavours was piled into glistening mountains of colour on the counter, and we struggled to make a selection. Finally, we gave our orders and tried not to drool as the lady scooped it into waffle cones. I was thinking about how refreshing and delicious my gelati would taste when the lady’s voice cut through the haze.
“13 euros,” she said.
I looked at the 10 euro note that I was already holding out to give her and from which I had fully expected change.
“Oh,” I said, confused. “Oh ok, just a second,” as I rummaged in my purse for some coins.
We walked away, stunned.
“Thirteen Euros! We exclaimed to each other again and again. Thirteen Euros!”
We agreed that this had better be the best damn gelati ever made, and we took our first taste. Well, I can’t lie, it actually was the BEST damn gelati ever made. It tasted like real fruit, intensified. There were whole cherries hidden beneath the creamy surface that released bursts of juicy flavour when you least expected it. It was absolutely heavenly. But still, thirteen Euros!
Bloody tourists (not us!)
We wandered on, gelati in hand (and sometimes on nose), through an expansive square, down a winding, shop-lined street and came to a bridge where hundreds of people were congregating. There were large tour groups huddled around their guides’ raised umbrellas, couples holding hands as they peered through the windows of numerous jewellery shops and women dragging their husbands into dress shops to watch them try on floaty, pastel-coloured dresses. Mostly though, there were people taking photos of the gorgeous view from the bridge. As we neared the heart of the city, the crowds became thicker and thicker; a dense mass that had to be burrowed through.
We dug through to the centre and found ourselves staring up at the huge cathedral, known as Florence’s Duomo. I tipped my head back and let my eyes open wide to take it in. I have seen many cathedrals over the years, and they are generally made of stone. But the Duomo was striped like a candy cane; green and white marble giving it a totally unique appearance.
The main tower of the Duomo was closed that night, but we bought our tickets and came back the next morning to join the queue. After standing in line for 20 minutes without taking a single step forward, I went to investigate. I followed the queue for what seemed like miles around the outside of the building, and when I found the front, was told that the wait time was likely to be two hours. We gave up and decided to come back later in the day.
We walked all around the town, me stopping in shops to gaze longingly at dresses I couldn’t afford and Richard hovering awkwardly in the doorways. We inspected many leather wallets to see if they met Richard’s high standards for a replacement to his ripped one. None of them did. We ate salami and zucchini paninis for lunch and then took a chance on a different gelati store, thinking it couldn’t possibly be as expensive as the last place. To our amazement, it was 13 Euros again! Thirteen Euros!
Our lucky day
After spending the afternoon in the peaceful Boboli Gardens, where we found green lawns and marble fountains overlooking the city, we returned to the Duomo to see if the queue had become shorter. We were surprised to find that there was no queue, and we rushed to the door, only to be told that the tower had closed early for the day. Crestfallen, we let out disappointed sighs.
“Can we use our tickets tomorrow, then?” I asked the guard.
“Oh, you have tickets?” he asked. “Go in, go in!”
We were ushered through the door, which was quickly shut behind us. Looking at each other, bewildered, we shrugged and grinned. We were in, and there was no one else around! We began climbing, stamping up step after step, heads down and hands skimming the walls of the narrow spiral passageway that went up and up and up.
It was worth the effort. Staggering through the opening at the top and out onto the balcony, we panted happily as we took in the dazzling view of Florence that lay below us. An American guy high fived us as we tried to catch our breath. “You made it!” he grinned at us. “Now take a load off and enjoy!”
Enjoy, we did. It doesn’t matter how many times you look down on this beautiful old city, you never get tired of it. The buildings are cream or pale yellow, and every single one (I mean it – every single one!) of them has a red-tiled rooftop. This sea of red rooftops, broken only by the green of tall fir trees, is like something out of a fairy tale. The best part though, was that there was hardly anyone up there. We were free to gaze wherever we wanted, without being jostled and elbowed.
We had dinner (more pasta – definitely living the Italian dream!) and then walked up a hill (my legs were getting very weary by this stage) to Piazzale Michelangelo. We had been told that watching the sunset from this vantage point is a must-do when visiting Florence. Apparently many people had been given the same advice, because the place was packed.
I sat alone amongst a throng of kissing couples while my brother went off and took a million photos. The river shined gold and the sky lit up with clouds of pink and slivers of red that changed before my eyes. I tried to ignore the soundtrack of wet, sucking noises provided by the couples around me and wondered if maybe one day I would be lucky enough to find someone (other than my brother!) to enjoy sunsets with. The sun sank lower and the colours deepened, streaking through the sky like flames. For now, I decided, I was happy just to experience it.