Finding Our Way in Florence
By Lesley Sauls Frederikson
I'd never seen a bathroom with such a tiny shower in it, and I wasn't quite sure about the closet-sized kitchen that was three steep marble steps down from the rest of the apartment. But marble floors, arched ceilings and worn stone stairs intriguingly recalled the apartment's period as a monastery for the thousand-year-old church next door. And when our young host pulled open the wooden shutters and glass doors onto the balcony overlooking the Arno River in Florence, I knew we had booked the right place.
From that balcony my husband and I enjoyed our morning pastries, afternoon coffees and evening wines overlooking the Arno. Our view from the south bank of the river meant we were always shaded and looking out at the warm Tuscan sun shining on everything around us. Beneath us, boaters and paddleboarders rowed up and down the Arno. To our right were crowds swarming the Ponte Vecchio, snapping selfies and shopping for jewelry. And to our left were even more visitors on the Ponte Santa Trinita with their cameras aimed back toward Florence's oldest and most famous bridge.
The nearly 700-year-old Ponte Vecchio is, indeed, very photo-worthy. The only bridge in Florence to survive the retreating German army's destruction at the end of World War II, images of it are splashed on souvenirs as the standard bearer of Florence. Along the length of the bridge, an elevated walkway remains that once connected the royal Palazzo Pitti with Palazzo Vecchio through what is now the famed Uffizzi Gallery.
The nearly kilometer-long Corridoio Vasariano was built in 1565, when Grand Duke Cosimo I de'Medici wanted to move between his two palaces privately elevated above his subjects. Thirty years later, the smell of butchers and tanners plying their wares on the bridge became too much for his son, who decreed that only jewelers and goldsmiths could operate there. The decree still stands, and now almost 50 tiny shops line the bridge with sparkling wares in their windows that lure tourists from around the world.
With only three days to explore the city, our historic home base allowed us access to all we needed. Shops, cafes, wine-tasting and wandering were all within a few steps of our heavy wooden front door. We braced for crowds as we wandered across Ponte Vecchio to the Uffizi Gallery, so we were delighted to find manageable groups moving through corridors of marble statues between which stone benches welcomed the weary. The gallery's app for our phones enabled us to listen and read about many of the most famous paintings and sculptures for a fraction of the cost of a guide.
So much history and art -- even these magnificent pieces -- can be overwhelming in one day. It was time to find refreshment in a place where we could absorb all we had taken in. Fortunately, Piazza Della Signoria is just steps away. There we shared gelato and admired the Loggia dei Lanzi, an open-air sculpture gallery that once held public ceremonies but now is home to impressive bronze and marble statues more than 700 years old.
The next day we stayed on the south side of the Arno and walked to the Palazzo Pitti, the palace that served to prove the Medici power in Tuscany when it was purchased in the 1500s. Originally built in the 1400s for a local banker, the palace changed hands several times over the centuries and also served as the residence of the Habsburg-Lorraines. It became home for the new king of Italy from 1865 to1871 when the country's capital was briefly moved to Florence after unification.
Royalty and wealth course through the Palazzo Pitti. Each room has an intricately designed ceiling with countless paintings by myriad masters. We came early in the day and found ourselves alone in several of the rooms to wander among paintings and sculptures. Part of the palazzo's tourism success lies in its excellent planning. Museums on different floors house art and treasures in separate areas so that guests can apportion their time.
And if the indoor treasures are not enough, the garden behind the palace is equally breathtaking. We saved it for the third day of our tour so that we would have time to really soak it up. Families with picnics and couples on blankets found dappled sunlight in quiet spots. We wandered up Boboli Hill and down through the gardens, marveling at the grottoes, statues and fountains. The Medicis created this first Italian garden in a manicured style that would be replicated for centuries, and subsequent inhabitants of the palazzo expanded upon it, each adding their own touch.