While I’ve always considered myself a city person (I’ve never quite recovered from my first year of college, which was spent living in dorm in a pig farming community where the “nightlife” consisted of going to the Timmy’s in Steinbach), I’ve never loved big cities. I guess my small village/farming ancestry goes too deep to be ever completely rooted out of my system. Traveling has convinced me and Josh that we prefer to pay homage to cities for a day, but then escape again to small towns or even smaller communities. A city has never been as beautiful, as engaging, or as connected to me as nature is.
Which was why I was astonished when the city of Florence first took my breath away, and then captured my heart.
Florence is a piccolo grande città, a little big city. It is the ancient stronghold of the Medici family, the great patrons of the Renaissance who supported (politically and financially) the careers of the artists, scientists, theologians, economists, and architects who inspired a new culture of awareness and knowledge (read more about the House of Medici). Modern beliefs of science nerds being “uncool” would have been laughable during this time: a classy night out included demonstrations of scientific principles (such as the “electric soirées” that literally shocked attendees), and scientific instruments were symbols of culture and social status. Are you starting to see why I love the Renaissance?
This revolutionary perspective of treating science and art with equal reverence has created in Florence an incomparable tapestry of elegance and innovation that is visible even today in the graceful lines of the bridges, the talent of the street musicians, and the overwhelming number of geniuses and inventions birthed in this duchy (including Donatello, Botticelli, Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, Galileo, and Dante, to name just a few).
We arrived in Florence and commenced the quest of tracking down our hostel. Josh is a travel agent extraordinaire, and put the wifi in his Gillam apartment to good use by finding us the absolute cheapest accommodations in the absolute best locations. However, these accommodations are generally not the ones known by information booths, so we are usually left to our own crafty devices in tracking them down. At first, we thought our Florence quest would be the most straightforward yet – we made our way directly to the street, traced the numbers down… and found ourselves at the entrance to a 4-star hotel. While I wanted to trust Josh’s travel agent prowess, I was a bit skeptical that two scruffy backpackers would even be allowed in the lobby of such a place, let alone afford to spend a week there. One bemused conversation with the receptionist and several phone calls later, the mystery was solved, kind of. Our hostel was not actually a hostel, but a dorm room in a language school located in the same building as the hotel.
Clean and spacious, with lovely staff and an incredible location, Iris Florentina, aka Sprachcaffe Language School, was by far the most amazing place we have stayed. Our only complaint is that we didn’t know it was a language school, otherwise we would have absolutely stayed longer and taken an Italian language course!
Walking a mere five minutes around the corner brought us to il Duomo, a gorgeous Florence cathedral containing the largest masonry dome on earth.
Five minutes around the other corner brought us to Ponte Vecchio, the “Old Bridge,” the only bridge in Florence to survive the WWII bombing raids. It is also the only bridge to contain not only houses and shops, but also a secret passageway built in 1565 above the shops on the bridge. The Corridoio Vasariano (Vasari Corridor) allowed the Medici family to safely travel from the Uffizi to the Palazzo Pitti on the other side of the river Arno without running into any of their subjects. It also connected to the private Medici balcony entrance of their church, Santa Felicita, one of the oldest churches in Florence.
We learned about this and other gems of Florentine history from Pierro, an elderly gentleman who saw us trying to take a selfie on Vecchio and offered to take our picture. He then began enumerating points of interest and the history behind them, keeping us mesmerized by his stories for the next half hour. “This is my city and I love my city!” he declared, and this love was evident in the passion and generosity with which he shared his city with us, two strangers. Florence became alive to us through Pierro’s stories. Both the beautiful, as he proudly gestured to the green cradle of hills surrounding the city that prevented urban sprawl, and the terrible. As he pointed out the Corridoio Vasariano, I jumped in with a tidbit I had heard about treasures being hid in that same passageway to protect them from the WWII bombing. Suddenly, Pierro’s face went grim. “The war… That is a different story, a terrible story.” For Pierro was there during the bombing, a child who remembered only the terrible fear of the bombs and the Nazi soldiers who filled his lovely town.
As the sun was setting, Pierro sketched out our route for the rest of the day (“You must go to this church, it is 1000 years old, and the maker of Pinocchio is buried there!”) and gave us a handshake goodbye, which quickly turned to exuberant kisses on both cheeks for both of us. His obvious delight at finding people who wanted to love his city as much as he did was only matched by our delight at finding someone willing to let us see their beloved home through their eyes, which, after all, was our whole hope for this trip .
And then a different part of Florence that equally took our breath away: The Food.
Shout out to Kaya: We thank you, from the bottom of our stomachs, for introducing us to this place.