Late last January, I found myself dragging a battered suitcase, filled with too many books and not enough clothes, across the uneven cobbled streets of the Oltrarno – the humble and underappreciated southern half of Florence where I was to live for the next five weeks.
All I knew before arriving was that Florence was a city in Italy that wasn’t Rome, and that it had something to do with the Renaissance. What I had expected from the Italian climate was not there; instead the rain had followed me from London. I had no plans, I had no contacts, and I spoke no Italian. The fact that the whole trip wasn’t a disaster still surprises me to this day.
I rented a room from an eccentric Italian lady named Francesca who loved The Big Bang Theory and became very concerned whenever she ran out of tea, correctly recognising it as the lifeblood of the British. Every morning I grabbed breakfast from the Piazza Santo Spirito market on the way to my Italian class. The ciabatta sandwiches were interesting: they were too cold to be comfortably consumed as they were, yet the owners would give you a disapproving look at the request of heating them up. Rightfully so, too, for the lettuce because soggy, the cheese melted, and the entire slice collapsed to a mush. I spent my afternoons running to the Piazzale Michelangelo – the steep climb is totally worth it for the view. At night, one can see the entirety of Florence lit up in golden lights. At the centre of the panorama, the famous Duomo di Firenze designed by Arnolfo di Cambio in the late Medieval Ages stood out as heraldry of Gothic architecture. Such evenings were spent admiring the serene essence of the City of the Arts away from the pushing and shouting of the millions of tourist that flock here weekly. I would also spend many an evening reading on the banks of the river Arno, eating gelato and taking endless photographs. The gentle sound of the current would rush pass me in the freshness of the Mediterranean evening.
Despite the language barriers, I was welcomed by fellow travellers and locals alike. On the evening of my 19th birthday a mismatched group of Italians and international students took me to a bar overlooking Brunelleschi’s Dome, followed by a trip to the secret ledges below the Ponte Santa Trìnita. As you sit there, looking out over the river towards the Ponte Vecchio, you feel as though you are floating in space. The scene is especially atmospheric at night, when the water looks completely pitch black and reflects the lights of the rows of buildings from either side. The experience is quite unsettling but mesmerizing at the same time.
It was in Florence that I finally caved and downloaded Instagram. Everything about this city is beautiful – the architecture, the light, the people, and even the graffiti. Art is unavoidable. The Uffizi and the Galleria dell’Accademia need no recommendation, but museums like the Bargello and the Alinari National Museum of Photography are often overlooked. The Florentines have a wonderful habit of cultural amalgamation: the Libreria Café la Cite manages to be a bar, café, library, art gallery, and music venue all at once. There is also the Oblate Library – Florence’s answer to the Rad Cam – where you can enjoy both literature and aperitivo in the roof garden alongside chattering Italian students.
Florence is an unpretentious, bright colour-burst of a city; it is my happy place.