FIND YOUR OWN FLORENCE

Both the gleam
and grime

Florence: the city of David, of the Medici Family, of Machiavelli, of gardens, the Spanish Steps, of gelato, Botticelli and the Arrival of Venus.

Florence is gorgeous and It’s no wonder the city is feeling the bane of tourism.

Everyone wants to escape their modern concrete apartments and suburban sameness for a taste of the Renaissance. But beauty, perhaps more than fear, is a huge motivator. Where else can you wander within a 1km radius of some of the most iconic masterpieces in the Western world? But, when stepping into the historic centre of Florence and the predominant accents that you hear are North American, you know you’ve left the real world and have walked into a theme park.

A walk through the market and you’ll pass East Indian vendors selling identical purses, belts and wallets while Americans haggle in their mid-western accents for souvenirs for their kids back home. Further along the cobblestone street and you’ll come across the jewel of Florence—the beautiful red, white and green marbled Duomo. Tourists of every nationality are taking selfies (us included!) while men in military uniforms roam around observing, keeping the streets clear of Roma and refugees, who as a result, are out of sight.

A walk to the back of the Duomo and one gets a sense of keeping up appearances: the facade gleams, while the back of this jewel is faded, bruised and abandoned by tourists. But that’s what we’re here for—the gleam not the grime.

Admittedly, my last trip to Florence I was overwhelmed by Roma, keeping heavy guard of my wallet, but this time I felt at ease snapping pictures and admiring the detail of the marble. I know these feelings are problematic and without commenting on the state of Italian politics, you can’t help but wonder where the Roma and refugees are? Much of our overall experience of Italy was without the presence of these figures that so animated my experience of this country only a few years ago.

Politics aside, once you leave the Duomo you’ll come to the main shopping thoroughfare where we look for a bottle of water. Florence is under a heatwave and every picture we take of ourselves is of us sweating: sweating beside the Duomo,  sweating beside this fountain and that sculpture. We find a bottle of water but have been told the cost is €4. This is the reality: streets and patios are packed and it’s rare to find a place to linger let alone quench thirst, without paying an exorbitant fee. Thankfully, I’m traveling with the world’s most resourceful person and we find ourselves in a grocery store picking out cheap eats before heading to Piazza di Santa Maria Novella for an alfresco dinner. We admire the magnificent view of the Basilica of Santa Maria Novella and watch while the people dotting our views are in varying degrees of ‘tourism’: a beautiful Dutch couple with long legs and blonde hair on a private bike tour; two parents painfully trying to get their dressed-up toddler to pose gracefully in front of the church; groups of Spanish families mingling about; a bus of tourists unloading with their DSLRs into the very expensive hotel that overlooks the Piazza; and a Russian girl throwing up into the beautiful gardens that have been gated off from wandering feet but not projectile vomit. It’s a beautiful, comical and authentic site!

We’re staying at an AirBNB that is 15 minutes by tram (or 45 minute walk) from the city centre in the Rifredi District. This district is connected to the historic centre by the newly opened tram line, which makes for an easy and pleasant commute. The streetscape also makes for a quaint stroll, where you pass Tabacchi’s, restaurants, Gelateria’s, cafes and public parks where locals are buzzing about. It seems that Florence has wisely invested some of its tourism dollars into public infrastructure, which I’m always a fan of!

Having lost 4lbs from 40 degree heat, we decided to spend our next day at the community pool—a 2-minute walk from our AirBNB. We paid our € 7 (each) entrance fee at the tiki hut and walked into Piscina Pogetto. Piscina Pogetto is divided into sections: the pool and the surrounding dry-off zone; the grassy knoll where people are tanning; the sit-in cinema; and the bar where they sell beer, Aperol spritz and calzones. We walk into the gated pool, then go to grab two deck chairs but are told they cost an additional € 3 each. Even outside the tourist zone, we still experience the famous Italian money grab. We set our towels on the scorching hot tiled floor and jump into the pool with our swim caps on (the only rule in Italy!). On one end are families with young kids playing in the pool while on the opposite end are teenagers hanging on the edge of the pool, laughing and looking around. The sight of Andrew and I, two slightly burned giants (compared to Italians anyway, who constantly ask if we’re Germans) wearing Speedos, causes a few suspicious looks—the tourists have infiltrated the local piscina! While we weren’t able to get tickets to the Uffizzi, we did see Botticelli’s Venus necking with Michelangelo’s David!

We stay at the pool for a few hours during the height of the afternoon heat, enjoying a cold beer and bitter Aperol spritz on the cheap plastic chairs that are melting into deformity. Once things cool off a bit, we pick up an inexpensive bottle of wine, some dinner, and head off to Piazzale Michelangelo for the best view of Florence. Despite the breathy and sweaty climb to the top, the place is packed: big buses loading and unloading tourists, people with selfie sticks jostling each other for the best selfie spot, and East Indian men selling fake Prada hand bags and … selfie sticks. When I last came to Florence I remember this spot being out of the way enough that there were only a handful of people hanging out. I figured this would be a great romantic spot for our alfresco dinner but it looks like everyone had the same idea. So, Andrew and I descend the steps that are left alone by the crowd and have our al fresco dinner on a long forgotten stone bench that overlooks the road where all the tour buses are coming and going. Our tip: the further you descend, fewer and fewer people will be obstructing your romance, your view, and your selfie moment. Just keep going!

Finishing up our bottle of red wine and our melting Milka chocolate bar, we take the long and pleasant evening stroll to our AirBNB. Closer to home we notice a group of fashionable local gays sashaying ahead of us—so we pursue. Unknowingly, they lead us to a park where people are unfurling blankets and exchanging those hello-kisses that Italians are so warmly regarded for. They are settling down in front of a screen that is in the middle of two pop-up stalls: one selling beer and wine, the other selling slices of pizza.

We settle in on the hill beside of group of millennials and watch romances blossom and friendships form to a backdrop of an Italian horror movie that has no English subtitles: la dolce vita, indeed!