When you wander through the streets of Florence, it’s easy to imagine you’ll run into Renaissance noblemen on horseback, preceded by courtiers and trumpeters and ladies in long, ornate gowns.
Crossbow-wielding guards en route to the Basilica of Santa Croce.
But a fertile imagination wasn’t necessary when I arrived in Florence last Friday. It was a major holiday in the city, the feast day of San Giovanni. Hundreds of costumed men and women, including a Lorenzo de Medici-look-a-like on a brown stallion, and a cadre of fierce-looking guards wielding cross-bows, marched from the Duomo to the Basilica of Santa Croce.
The plaza in front of the 800-year-old church had been transformed into a dirt field, where bare-chested athletes were playing an ancient form of soccer. Tickets for the match sold out months ago, but it was fun to watch the procession and to hear the roars of thousands of passionate fans. That night, the celebration continued with an hour-long fireworks display, which we watched from a perch along the Arno River in front of the famed Ponte Vecchio.
Parading in the Duomo.
I’ve been to Florence before, but never in the middle of the summer tourist season, and I was worried it would be too hot and crowded. But while the sun was strong, the humidity didn’t reach Florida levels, and refreshing breezes wafted down the narrow streets. It was delightfully cool at night.
Here I am on my hotel’s balcony, with the duomo and city hall in the background.
The city was definitely mobbed with tourists, some of whom had that glazed “we’re here to have fun if it kills us” look of families in Disney World. I tried to avoid the crowds by starting early. I was the first one in line when Santa Croce reopened after the soccer match on Saturday morning. Because I had forgotten my Florence guidebook, I asked an English woman who had one if she could direct me to the Giotto frescos.
“Oh, you’re in Santa Croce without a Baedeker?” she asked me, smiling. I knew that was a reference to an incident in E.M. Forrester’s A Room With a View, involving a tourist without a guide book. “Yes, call me Miss Honeychurch,” I replied, referring to the character in question. The lady seemed impressed with my literary knowledge. Of course, I didn’t tell her I had loaded A Room With a View into my Kindle, and had read it on the train to Florence the day before!
The crowds made crossing the Ponte Vecchio and moving through the Duomo area slow going. But a couple of blocks away from the main action, it was blissfully quiet. And you no longer have to worry about getting hit by a Vespa or a car on most streets, since the center of town is primarily a pedestrian-only zone now.
A copy of David in front of the Piazza della Signoria.
At the Uffizi Gallery, a two-hour long line of people without reservations snaked around the building. Luckily, a month ago I went online to book guided tours with Art Viva, a wonderful Florence walking-tour company. Our group of about 15 waited only a few minutes to get in. The wait was even shorter later on Saturday when we took an Art Viva tour of the Accademia, the home of Michelangelo’s David. Encountering a monumental work of art like that, even on a repeat visit, was an almost spiritual experience for me.
But in Florence, eating can be an almost spiritual experience, too. During the hot afternoons, I took frequent breaks at the amazing gelaterias, where mounds of that rich Italian ice cream beckon you in a rainbow of colors. At the legendary Vivoli’s, the family has been making ice cream since the 1930s, and the taste and texture made it worth waiting in line for. I also loved the equally famous Gelateria Caribe, where the loaded-with-fruit-pulp wild berry was a creamy masterpiece.
As for dinner, we asked around for some off-the-tourist-track restaurants, and had a delightful meal the first night at Buca Mario, a convivial trattoria near the Piazza Santa Maria Novella. Operated in a warren of rooms in a cellar, the restaurant didn’t open until 7:30 p.m. About 30 people, mostly Florentines who appeared to be regulars, were waiting at the door, but we had no trouble getting a table. The next night, I had a savory veal scallopini at Angiolino’s, where we were one of only two American couples. At one point, a fellow in Renaissance attire wandered in and started delivering a spirited monologue. The Italians around us laughed and applauded when he finished.
“Oh, he’s a friend of mine, a student,” the owner explained. “He asked me if he could perform some of Dante’s Divine Comedy, and I said, ‘Sure, why not?’”
When we finished dinner around 10:30 p.m., we wandered toward the piazza in front of the Pitti Palace. The vast space was filled with thousands listening to a rock band and wandering from trattoria to wine bar to gelateria. We then moved to the streets surrounding the San Spirito basilica, which was similarly jammed with people, dancing to loud, raucous music in one intersection, listening to mellower jazz a little further on. The crowd was a heady, happy mix of young and old, straight and gay, Italian and foreign. La dolce vita, indeed!