Florence, Italy has seduced art lovers for over five centuries with her impressive collection of works by Renaissance artists such as Leonardo, Michelangelo, Raphael, and Giotto. The influx of visitors is so great, that each year the 4 lakh residents are outnumbered by twenty-five to one. Just recently, the cobble stone streets of the city centre have been turned into a traffic-free area, furthering its status as a shrine.
Historians too are fascinated by the Renaissance phenomenon, the extraordinarily rich flowering of minds all in a short space of time, in a small area, advancing not just art, but architecture, poetry, literature and science. The spark was lit with the help of Florence's immense banking wealth and enlightened ruling families such as the Medici. It was around the same time that the astronomer and mathematician Galileo became the proponent of the Copernican theory that the earth spins around the sun, rather than being the centre of the universe. Dante, the famous poet wrote The Divine Comedy and Inferno, and in fact the Italian spoken throughout Italy was later fashioned after Dante's poetic style. Not least of all, Gelato (ice cream) was invented in Florence.
Historic Heart of Florence
Each Italian city typically clusters around three piazzi, or squares -- the religious square, the political square and the market square. In the central San Giovani and Santa Croce neighbourhoods I paid customary homage to the massive marble Cathedral, Santa Maria del Fiore, with its Duomo, visible for miles in the surrounding countryside. Finished around 1436, this was the calling card of the Florentines, bigger and better than the ones afforded by their envious neighbours from Pisa, Sienna and Venice. Nearby, the market square has vendors selling leather goods by day and the place turns into a restaurant and bar by night. Steps away is the wide open, statue laden Piazza della Signoria, where the politicians presided. Lines of people wind around the Uffizzi Gallery which holds much of Florence's art collection.
Little has changed in the last five hundred years, from the red tiled rooftops, the crafts shops, the cobbled stones underfoot to the tall towers adjoining villas and palaces built for security. Freshly plucked zucchini and aubergine are sold in the markets, and tripe (cow offal) sandwiches are still eaten by the locals. Wine and olive oil flows in from the neighbouring farms. Monks and nuns breeze about, contrasting with skimpily clad summer tourists. The main bridge, Ponte Vecchio remains a favoured spot, with its jewellery laden shops, picturesque views of the Arno River and lively musicians at night.
Oltrarno, across the Arno
Crossing the Arno River to the south, and walking along Via di Santo Spirito and the district of San Frediano, the neighbourhoods have a more laid back feel. Locals walk their dogs and run errands on bicycles. This is where the newest night clubs and bars are a beacon to the younger set.
While visitors seek out even more art at Pitti Palace and explore the vast Boboli Gardens, the quieter and more rewarding walk is along the river with a climb up to the church of San Miniato and Piazzale Michelangelo. This is the place to enjoy the most breathtaking views of Florence and the peaceful Tuscan hills beyond.