The beautiful city of Florence, or Firenze in Italian, is one of my favorite cities in the world. The varied architecture, lovely landscapes, grand palazzi, shopping (the leather here is renowned), and excellent food make this place unforgettable. The first time I went was on a group tour, just after I graduated from college. Our time was limited but we had a nice introduction to Florence. However, I longed to go back and really explore the ancient streets. The second time I went, that's exactly what I did. I planned a week in Florence, completely by myself. It was the off season so there were hardly any tourists and I had the pick of any table and every restaurant.
On my first day in Florence, I arrived early in the morning and checked into my bed & breakfast which was on the south side of the River Arno. After dropping my bags, I headed out across the Ponte Vecchio with absolutely no agenda. I just love days like that, where I can meander the streets and let intuition guide me! My first stop was a cafe on the Piazza della Signoria, just opposite the Palazzo Vecchio. I was the only person in the entire cafe, save the perfectly dressed staff (at least six 20-something Italian men who looked like they'd just stepped out of a fashion magazine). Once I finished my espresso and croissant, I headed across the piazza toward the palazzo.
The Palazzo Vecchio dates back to 1299 AD and resembles more of a fortress than a palace. Of course, in those days, palaces needed to be secure and defensible. The tall tower, a later edition, has two cells, one of which imprisoned Cosimo de' Medici (the elder) in 1435 AD. Once inside the palazzo, one is overwhelmed by the Salone dei Cinquecento, a very large imposing chamber which was commissioned in 1494 by Friar Savonarola who replaced the Medici family after their exile as the spiritual leader of the Republic, and wanted the palace to be the seat of the Consiglio Maggiore which consisted of 500 members. The walls are covered in enormous frescoes that depict battles and military victories by Florence over Pisa and Siena.
I spent a couple of hours touring the apartments of the palace, much of the time in silence as there were only a handful of people in the entire place. I decided to climb the stairs of the tower all the way to the top, often pausing to take in the different views of the city through small windows cut out of the stone. It was a clear day so I spent a fair amount of time on the roof of the tower, admiring the terra cotta roofs below and distant hills that stretched to the horizon on all four sides.
Once I climbed down, I left the Palazzo Vecchio and wandered the streets again. Passing the Duomo, which I'd toured on my first trip to Florence, I eventually found myself at the doors of the Palazzo Medici. This renaissance palace was built for Cosimo de' Medici between 1444 and 1484 AD. One of my favorite parts of this palace is the open colonnaded court that is the center of the palazzo. It has a Roman feel, yet is distinctly Florentine as well. Inside the palace, one room in particular took my breath away. The Galleria di Luca Giordano's ceiling is covered in mythological frescoes that draw you in and captivate your imagination. I spent hours in this room, gazing at the frescoes and taking in every detail.
After all this sightseeing, I'd worked up quite the appetite, so I headed to the Piazza della Repubblica to one of my favorite spots to eat, Caffe Concerto Paszkowski. With live music, an outdoor table near a fire, and a view of the square (ideal for people watching), I spent the rest of the evening consuming several courses as well as copious amounts of wine and grappa. The staff here is fantastic and every time I go back, they remember me and are so kind.
Retracing my steps, past the Duomo and across the Ponte Vecchio with its shut-up shops, I finally made it back to my bed & breakfast for a much needed night of rest.