Florence: Cultural Heart of Italy

Florence: Centre of Art and Culture (with great food and drink)

Sunset over the river - definitely worth experiencing!

Sunset view from Ponte Vecchio.

The first thing to know about Florence is that the wonderful chocolate treats that take their name from the town are really only a winter thing. We were there in August, so didn’t have Florentines in Florence. We did however meet some wonderful Florentines, especially those who were our local guides and were clearly so very proud of the town’s incredible history. Truly a centre of art and culture, Florence left me feeling like the world was full of beauty created by the wonders of human endeavour.
Mystery Pastries to try in Florence

Mystery pastries to try in Florence – we didn't meet any we didn't like!

If you haven’t already tried this in Italy, the joys of having coffee standing up at the bar cannot be underestimated. Our favourite place was in the main square, opposite the copy of David. First you approach the till and order and pay for your coffees, then you go to the bar and give the barista your receipt. As we flew into Italy I started thinking about how to order coffee in Italy, as we had come from Poland and I had learnt the appropriate phrases for simple food ordering in Polish. After a moment’s thought I realised that all the words we use for coffee are already the Italian ones, so you’re set! The only problem is with ordering a latte – you’ll have to order a café latte, otherwise you’ll just get a glass of milk (and also some confused looks). Although in the centre of Florence everyone working in hospitality speaks beautiful English, so if you plan to stick to the centre you will have no trouble anywhere. Locals will also apologise to you, in near-perfect English, for their terrible English, to which I usually replied that their English beat my Italian by a very long way! With eight days we had a good opportunity to work our way through the local cafes. Didn’t find any bad ones. I’m lactose intolerant but the Italian gelato shops also make a wide variety of wonderful sorbets, including chocolate sorbet. I always feel like chocolate sorbet is cheating, as chocolate seems like it should have lactose in it, but it must be lactose free as I ate it nearly every day and it never made me ill. I also carried lactase with me so I could sample the local delights. Like many others, I found that Italian food in Italy is much less cheesy than the Australian equivalents, so I was able to use the lactase fairly regularly to try various pasta dishes and pastries. The pasta carbonara I had at our last lunch in Florence inspired me to make a lactose free version as the Italian method involves very little cheese and therefore there is very little to substitute.

Uffizzi, Palazzo Vecchio and Galleria dell'Accademia

Historically, the big family in Florence was the Medici, and you can see their mark everywhere. They collected art for centuries and their most wonderful act, to my art-lovers heart, was the donation by the last Medici of the entire collection to the people of Florence. This has kept the collection together and well-cared for, with many local citizens able to pursue careers as guides and the revenue from tourists allowing the continual restoration that such a collection requires. In a full 8-hour day of solid art-viewing in which we took in the Uffizi, Palazzo Vecchio and Galleria d’Academia, there were countless jaw-dropping moments both in the wonder of seeing paintings and sculptures that are so much a part of cultural history and in the incredible vividness and high definition of real life. Yes I did just say the ‘high definition’ of real life. Nothing beats seeing these glorious products of human endeavour in real life. The real stunner for me was David. Both because of his beauty of the incredible story of his creator. Michelangelo knew at 8 that he was born to be a sculptor and though reluctant to paint he took an apprecticeship as a painter (at 8) knowing that it was the only way to work towards becoming a sculptor. This preference for sculpture and request from others for painting continued throughout his life (see the Sistine Chapel ceiling and wall). Michelangelo’s choice to carve David before his encounter with Goliath and his incredible rendering of the expression of grim determination in the eyes of a young man who knows he is facing a monumentally difficult task are both phenomenal. This is perhaps the greatest piece of sculpture that has ever been or will ever be – no parent these days would push a child so hard as Michelangelo was pushed at such a young age. And even with such talent he douted his work, as can be seen in the sonnet he wrote towards the end of his life which you can find in the Duomo Museum.

Duomo and Duomo Musem

No picture could do it justice, but this is how it looked as I walked around it eating gelato.

Duomo by Night: No picture could do it justice, but this is how it looked as I walked around it eating gelato.

Not least in gorgeous things to visit in Florence is the Duomo itself. We decided to walk through the main square on our way to our Air B n B and stood, jaws dropping, for about 10 minutes when we arrived due to the stunning marble work on the outside of the cathedral. Unlike the basilicas of Rome, the inside of Florence’s cathedral is not as richly decorated as the outside. However, the outside is so lovely that it seemed to draw us there every day for some reason or another. We would have a gelato and walk around it, or have a coffee and look at it, or simply wander through in search of a restaurant for dinner. Finally on the last day we went into some of the buildings and especially enjoyed the mosaics in the baptistry as well as the wonderful video of the history of the construction of the dome which can be viewed in the Duomo Museum. There are many other delights in Florence – wonderful leather shops, excellent steak restaurants, small trattoria where the tradition of limoncello after dinner has not been lost, the river at dusk from Ponte Vecchio, the gardens of Palazzo Pitti, cobbled streets, ancient buildings, tiny pastry shops and the list could go on forever. Suffice to say it is worth a good explore and I'll definitely be going back. See you there for an espresso at the bar?

Ness Nimmo

Like the rest of my family I was bitten hard and early by the travel bug. My parents met at a backpackers, my older brothers disappeared into the great wide world of travel as soon as they were 18 and I followed in due course. I relish both the wonder of new countries and cultures and the rugged outdoors of my own backyard. From working on a farm in rural Argentina to tasting peaty whiskies on Islay, in Scotland, I’m keen to try it all.