In Italy we took the travel exploration approach we almost never take–near aimless wandering. I am a big fan of planning for trips, and one of my favorite ways to plan them is to compile all the sights to see on a custom Google map. From museums and viewpoints to shopping and restaurants, my thoughtfully curated Google maps have made our trips to Paris, Vienna, and London, extra fun and efficient. One of the best reasons the maps work is that they highlight the neighborhoods we want to explore and make it easier to match sightseeing, shopping, and eating in one area and one day.
My approach for Florence, however, was completely different. We knew we would only have one day in Florence, along with several hours driving there and back. Since this was clearly not enough time to see everything, we decided to go just with the flow and see what we saw. I had a few select sights on my list to cover, but otherwise it was an exercise in wandering. David and the Uffizi Gallery will just have to wait for our return trip. You can see from the map of our walking route below (thanks Martin!) that we really did meander (a full 10 km). Click on the map to get the full picture of our route. We were experts at going on the same streets multiple times.
The first adventure of the day was to park in Florence. The major problem with driving in Italy, besides the crazy Italian drivers, is the ZTL. The Zona a traffico limitato stands for the limited traffic zones in most Italian cities (and villages) that restrict traffic entering the city centers. This doesn’t only mean that parking is restricted, but that if you happen to pass a certain sign heading into town you are in the ZTL and, without being in the proper city registration system , a street camera will photograph your plates and you will receive an approximately 150 Euro ticket up to one year later.
Let me just say that trying to avoid the ZTL in a village is one thing, but in Florence the stress took several years off my life and I’m still not sure we succeeded. (We are pretty confident, but who can really say.) It isn’t like you can just stop on a street and turn around in 6 crisscrossing lanes of traffic to avoid it. So, once we secured a spot in a parking garage near the train station I was pretty happy to just be on foot.
From there we walked into the center of town to the only must-see for the day–the Duomo. Florence’s Basilica di Santa Maria del Fiore by Brunnelleschi is truly a sight to behold.
We took the winding stairs up to the top of the dome slowly and enjoyed the views of the amazing fresco of “The Last Judgment” lining its interior. The painting took more than 13 years to finish and was a sight to behold not only because of the location and detail, but also because so many of the figures were grotesque and lizard-like. From the balcony, we climbed straight up inside the dome to the top. As you can see below, we were literally sandwiched between the roof and the ceiling bent over as the stairs curved up. I’m not scared of heights or claustrophobic but it was still a little uncomfortable.
Once we reached the top, it was totally worth it. The spring morning was sunny, gorgeous, and clear and the view was spectacular.
After trekking back down to the cobbled square, we headed off towards the river with stops along the way at the direction of Martin (who plays tour guide only with his best British accent). We stopped at an amazing handmade marbled paper and bookbinding shop, selected more balsamic (vinegar and glaze) to take home, walked along the river and the Ponte Vecchio bridge, and had a delicious lunch.
After lunch we walked into the Maria Santa Novella neighborhood to find a chocolate shop on Martin’s wishlist and the 400 year old perfumery Officina Profumo-Farmaceutica di Santa Maria Novella. Martin left with some chocolate bars and truffles, and I found some wonderful rose water to take home.
Mid-afternoon the tour became less fun for me as I succumbed to a major spring allergy attack, the likes of which I haven’t had since my childhood days of playing in the brush near my dad’s RC car track. All I could do was sneeze, whine, and trail in Martin’s footsteps as he led us towards gelato and the artisan leather makers at Sculo del Cuoio. I’m not sure whether it was old city dust or pollen from the few trees we passed, but I was miserable. Gelato helped, but at that point our feet were in any case tired so we trekked back to the car to make our way home. It actually took several days of ocean air, and a couple of weeks of wheezing, before I got myself back. But now that I have, I am already ready to head back to Florence, with an amped up allergy prevention regiment, for a full weekend of further exploration. The city was beautiful, the people so friendly, the food delicious, and the atmosphere pleasantly laid back for a city of its size.