SOME places are intimidating to visit because there is just so much to see and experience. Italy is one of those places.
Geographically on the smaller side of things, especially compared to the giant landmass that is Australia, Italy more than makes up for what it lacks in size with what it has to offer in culture, scenery, gastronomy – I could go on. But then you probably already knew all of this, Italy is not a hard sell. I planned my trip with an unreasonable fear that if I didn’t do it all, I was going to miss out on something amazing.
If you only have an opportunity for a short break, and Italy is on your to-do list, then I would suggest a few days in Florence to get a feel for what Italy is all about. The breath-taking first lady of Tuscany, Florence is nestled quietly amongst the rolling hills and sun-drenched vineyards of the surrounding Italian countryside. Much calmer than her hectic cousin Rome, Florence somehow manages to combine gorgeous architecture, couture shopping streets, hustle-bustle markets, galleries crammed with classics, and amazing culinary experiences, without the frantic pace of some of the big tourist cities.
Art expert or not, one gallery will be on your must-see list in Florence. It is the Galleria dell’Accademia, home to the stunning David, a man-mountain carved from a single slab of marble by the Italian master Michelangelo. There are various life size replicas of David sprinkled around Florence, but they pale in comparison to the real deal. If you’re in town anytime around peak season you’ll probably have to queue, but he’s worth it.
Plus the dell’Accademia is home to some other great art – when I visited they also had some Andy Warhol and Picasso works on show as part of a temporary exhibit. The street artists in Florence are at another level too, and you can even commission some of them to paint something of your choice while you wait, for a reasonable price – beats taking home just another tacky souvenir.
Stop for a shop
If shopping is your thing, you will be in heaven in Florence. The cobbled streets and piazzas are home to all the usual European high street suspects, but it’s the markets that really set Florence apart. Some run every day, like the San Lorenzo Market and the Porcellino Market, while some only run at weekends or monthly. I was lucky enough to time my stay with a monthly antique market , Mercato di Santo Spirito, which had everything for sale from vintage clothes, to hand-painted ceramics and porcelain, home-cooked Italian goodies to antique furniture. Most of the markets also carry an array of leather-goods, with everything from bags to belts to bookmarks. You should be able to pick up a guide to the Florentine markets complete with map from where you’re staying or at information points.
A bike getaway
Being at the door-step of the Tuscan countryside means that you must get out and see it. There are many options available from Florence, including Fiat, Vespa, even horseback, but in my opinion the best way is by bike. Though Tuscany is rather hilly, it is a sublime way to soak in your surroundings at your (somewhat) leisure. Italian drivers are extremely considerate to cyclists, with cycling a national sport in Italy, so don’t be alarmed by all the beeps and horns as you pedal away – drivers are just letting you know that they’re there. You can do lovely day trips from central Florence which include a winery tour, wine-tasting and lunch – check out www.ibikeflorence.com/index.php for details.
After all that hard work on the bike, an Italian feast is in order. I had some amazing food in Florence, but the stand out was Za-Za Trattoria (www.trattoriazaza.it). It always seemed to be packed but the night we ventured in they squeezed us in no problem. Florentine delicacies include massive sizzling steaks served for two, or spaghetti alla carbonara with wild boar instead of the usual bacon, all washed down with Chianti Classico. And after all that uphill cycling, some tiramisu or torta di ricotta (Italian cheesecake) to finish off is almost compulsory.
To really experience the magic of Florence, be sure to visit Ponte Vecchio bridge just before sunset. I was told that the butchers of Florence once peddled their wares on this bridge, but at the end of the day they would throw all the left-overs into the river below, creating what must have been an ungodly smell. In 1539 the Grand Duke of Tuscany, Ferdinand I de’ Medici, decided that this really wasn’t contributing to the ambience of such a lovely location. The butchers were ousted, and replaced with jewellers, a much more luxurious alternative. Today the bridge is still teeming with jewellery shops, and thankfully the scent of rotting meat no longer fills the air.
The Ponte Vecchio bridge was the only bridge in Florence not to be destroyed by the Germans during their World War II retreat in 1944, and rumour has it that this was because of Hitler’s specific command for it to remain. Whatever the reason, once you’ve watched the sun go down over the Arno, you’ll be so very glad that the bridge did survive.
A gelato a day…
I’ll leave you with one final word about Florence. Gelato. I made it my mission to have a gelato a day while in Italy, and I’m proud to say that not only did I complete this mission, some days I even managed two. Though I hardly made a dent in the flavours on offer, one Florentine specialty you should try is pine nut gelato, it’s curiously wonderful, and will leave you wanting more.
Just like Florence herself.