I was rather on the sad side when I realised that the day we docked in Tuscany would be a very chilly one. I’d wanted to go to Florence for months since we’d begun docking regularly at its closest port city of Livorno, but work timings had always prevented me from getting too far away from the ship for fear of being late back. And now, my one day I’d get to explore was blighted by temperatures that were practically Baltic, and a sky that was icy-white with clouds. What a tragedy. I could barely feel my fingers, my cheeks felt as if they had actual pins being jabbed into them, and it was all round not an ideal day for strolling about in the open air. BUT. A lack of sunshine does nothing to dull down the beauty of this city, and even when I was prevented with the challenge of having literally three hours to explore, I just had to bite the bullet and make the most of it anyway…and to someone who hates winter, I found it surprisingly easy to go ahead and appreciate this place regardless!
Florence, Renaissance Central Station, Please mind the gap
Although Florence had already been around for a while, the 15th and 16th centuries were really when the city began to shine, and it was here that the Italian Renaissance was kick-started. Florentine banks- run by the Medici family, who ended up ruling the city as well as its coffers- provided credit to royalty across Europe, and as a result Florence became hugely wealthy. The Medici family were pretty flash with their cash and doled money out left right and centre in support of the arts and science; it was pretty much down to their financial backing that people like Leonardo Da Vinci, Michaelangelo, Donatello and Galileo Galilei were able to thrive. The centre of the city looks very similar to the way it did back in its heyday, filled with marble palaces, sculptures, and churches.
In fact. It’s considered to be such a beautiful place, filled with such amazing artwork, that Florence even has a psychosomatic disorder named after it. In the late 1800s, a French author by the name of Stendhal arrived in the Tuscan capital and was so blown away by the art surrounding him that he experienced palpitations and a feeling of faintness. Nowadays the term for this feeling during the viewing of art is known as Stendhal Syndrome, or Florence Syndrome. True story.
For a different kind of souvenir…go down the paper route!
I was partly enticed in to the shop I visited by the smell of paper, which might be considered a bit odd, but I LOVE IT. It was also partly because I was already contracting frostbite after a mere twenty minutes in the chilly air and was in need of shelter to protect myself from death. You know how it.
If you’re heading to Florence, then know this my lovely pals! When hunting for souvenirs, don’t go for a bog standard snow globe or magnet- head to a paper shop instead! Although the technique of marbling paper didn’t originate in Florence, there was a real trend throughout Italy for it back in the day and the city is now one of the few places in the world where this colourful artisan craft has lived on. There are paper shops galore selling traditional Florentine marble paper and leather-bound notebooks all around the city centre, and I highly recommend y to check them out for a hit of stationery-smelling.
Related: 4 Days in Venice
That big old Duomo
Florence’s Cathedral, or Duomo as is the actual Italian term, is otherwise known as the Duomo Santa Maria Del Fiore. The size and sheer spectacle of this building is full on extraordinary- a 3D puzzle of white, pink and green marble, inlaid with intricate carvings and statues gazing down at the people milling around on the square beneath them. The dome of the cathedral was designed by a competition winner with no architectural training named Filippo Brunelleschi. Young Filippo convinced everyone that he knew how to build the ginormous domed roof- which even these days would be quite the challenge- despite the fact that at the time he in actual fact had absolutely no idea- and then went on to invent the technology needed to construct it. Well. What a clever fellow, I do declare!
On the freezing cold January morning that I finally got to Florence, there were already tonnes of passers-by strolling about in the winter-in-the-Mediterranean uniform of black and brown punctuated with the odd fur coat or hat. Rounding the corner from the narrow side street onto the square and being greeted with the stunning structure with its separate bell tower all in pink and green against the white sky, was rather darn tooting spectacular.
Roll up and ride!
Time was really of the essence, and the essence was dwindling rapidly. In the few hours we had in the city, we’d mostly strolled around, attempting to warm up slightly first in the paper shop and secondly in a restaurant by the Duomo. And we all know the golden rule of exploring anywhere: don’t eat next to a tourist hotspot.
Well, we were so freezing and hungry and lacking time that we headed on into the restaurant anyway, knowing full well that this was dangerous territory. Our mediocre-and-slightly-overpriced meals were still a welcome source of energy if I’m honest.
We headed towards the Piazza Della Repubblica, which once upon a time was home to the Roman Forum, then later became the city’s ghetto. These days it’s mostly just a beautiful big square, however for me the crowning glory of the Piazza is it’s antique carousel. This tiny rotating gem has been run by the Picci family for the last four generations, sitting pretty with plumed horses in the square from November till May every single year. I’ve always thought there was something magical about carousels, ever since the days of ‘The Roundabout Stop’ on Playdays, but there’s surely something extra-special about an entire family of carousel-guardians.
Related: Two Days in Rome
Ponte Vecchio- Bridge of Shops!
Before long we’d made it to the River Arno. Forget the Bridge of Sighs in Venice; this bridge over the is packed full of jewellers. Back in the Medieval days, shop-lined bridges like this one were all the rage, and I’d first heard about them in a book called Perfume: The Story of a Murderer. A very strange lad with a heightened sense of smell named Grenouille begins working for a perfumer whose shop is located on a very similar bridge to the Ponte Vecchio; however Grenouille’s Bridge is located in Paris. Good lad. The majority of these old bridges have been destroyed and replaced over the years, but the Ponte Vecchio in Florence has stood the test of time. If it wasn’t for the signage in some of the shop windows, and the amount of people on phones, and you could walk along this bridge and forget you were even in the 21st Century.
‘Perfume’ plays a big part in the history of the Ponte Vecchio, too. Back in the time of the Medici, the bridge was home to butchers shops galore, which as you might imagine didn’t give off a great scent. Particularly on a scorching summer day. The Medici family got a bit sick of the pungent aromas as they walked back and forth across the river, and decided that something needed to be done. They turned out all the butchers, and declared that henceforth only jewellers were allowed to set up shop on the Ponte Vecchio. So there you have it- the cobbled street of the Ponte Vecchio is to this day home to only gold and jewellery merchants, and no longer is there a bad smell to be sniffed.
Don’t get me wrong: I would have loved to have more time to explore this beautiful city, but one of the downsides to ship life is the fact that you’re always clock-watching when away from your boat-home. Even so, it was easy to stroll around and get a feel for Florence regardless; we may not have had the hours you need to get further from the centre or to go and view some of the city’s famed works of art, but one of my favourite things to do when I first visit a place is just to stroll around and observe it. Call me crazy/boring/odd but I’d take this over a tour bus any day!
Related: The Art of Getting Lost
Before you visit Florence
- To get from Livorno to Florence takes just over an hour (depending on which train you take; the stopping service takes about an hour and a half)
- The train ticket from Livorno to Florence costs €9.90 each way.
- Firenze Santa Maria Novella is the city’s main train station, and from here you’ll be within a walkable distance to the centre of the city.
- If you’re arriving in by cruise ship at Livorno port then there are bound to be shore excursions from Livorno to Florence…but you’re guaranteed to get more time to explore the city if you go under your own steam, via train.
- I love Girl in Florence’s blog, telling tales of life as an American living in Florence, and giving tips on where to go and things to do. When I make it back (hopefully in sunnier times and with more time on my hands), I’ll definitely head here beforehand, to see what’s going on and most importantly where to eat. To avoid any more mildly mundane dishes next to the cathedral, ya know!?