Florence

My favourite thing about Italy is that lots of creepy looking Italian guys always try and chat up my girlfriend; after that it’s probably all the beautiful architecture and art. Florence was the latest stop on our venture d’italia and it delivered on both counts. 

We (Aimee and I) weren’t heading to Florence alone, we were going with our friends we’d met in Greece last summer. We bonded over a week spent drinking too much and generally swanning around the Med. We had turned a children’s card game, UNO, into a ruthless and very effective drinking game, a ritual we took up most nights. All-inclusive holidays are great a place to make new friends- especially ones willing to help you with drink runs from the bar to your room. 

We flew into Pisa airport (as most people do) and took a coach into Florence. We were staying in an apartment just on the outskirts of town, about a twenty minute walk to most of the sites, an impressive building with a staircase as grand as any. Our first stop was the local supermarket, where we quickly stocked up on food and alcohol. I was pleased to see the Italians were familiar with my old friend Johnny Walker, and even happier to see they charged less for his company. It felt like there was an obligation to recreate the fun vibes from those Greek summer nights, and that was always going to require a deck of UNO cards and significant amount of Whisky. Given that we arrived in the afternoon and the drive from Pisa to Florence takes over an hour, our first day was as much about re-familiarising ourselves with old friends as it was making new ones.

It was a pretty uneventful first night apart from the fact that the toilet, through no fault of our own (honest), was completely blocked. It reminded me of that scene from Dumb and Dumber, minus the laxatives. You know you're in trouble when you're shouting ‘flush you bastard!’ at a toilet. We had to call the homeowner the next day, and despite our best efforts to convince her that it must have already been broken before we arrived, the whole thing felt pretty awkward. It ended with a massive truck parked up outside the clearing the pipes of the entire building. All told it probably cost her far more than we paid for our stay, but shit happens I guess.

Given the relative time constraints of weekend trips, they require a degree of preplanning and organisation. Luckily Florence feels much more compact than Rome and the ‘must see’ tourist destinations are easier to choose (that’s probably a grand understatement and we undoubtedly missed out on lots of hidden secrets). We had decided on three of the most popular as a template for the weekend; Ponte Vecchio, Il Duomo and the Uffizi gallery.

Ponte Vecchio is one of the poster boys of Florence travel guides. It’s a great place to take a picture, and you’re guaranteed to meet lots of other tourists there taking the exact same photo as you. You can compare them on Instagram later on. Rumour has it, when the Germans were destroying every bridge along the Arno during the Second World War, Ponte Vecchio was the only one they spared. Apparently it was because Hitler was taken aback by its beauty during his 1938 visit, and during the barrage he sent a special message declaring it remain untouched. It’s hard to think of many things you have in common with Adolf Hitler, but a mutual appreciation for Ponte Vecchio and its spectacular view is apparently one. I wonder if he took one of those pictures as well, him and Mussolini arm in arm? The bridge also has a statue of Florence born sculptor Benvenuto Cellini on it. He’s somewhat of a local celebrity, and probably the most famous artist from the area. I found out afterwards it’s also meant to be a water fountain but it wasn’t working that day because of damaged pipes. The guys were probably too busy seeing to our toilet to fix it.

 Hitler & Mussolini on Ponte Vecchio, circa 1938.

Hitler & Mussolini on Ponte Vecchio, circa 1938.

It’s hard to know where to look in Florence. Everything you pass looks like it has some historic backstory, rich in culture. And it probably has. The Piazza Della Signoria is a prime example of this. It’s the square just off Ponte Vecchio and the Uffizi. You’re surrounded by naked men and a lot of them definitely work out. You certainly know where to look here by the way, and it’s reassuring to see that those famous Italian sculptors were modest men. But yeah, it’s easy to pass the copy of Michaelangelo’s David or Bandinelli’s Hercules pretty unassumingly as there’s no shortage of medieval craft here. In fact, as you walk anywhere in Florence you sense that you’re experiencing something special, but something more than just a bridge or a piazza, it’s a collective of fine Italian design (is there any other type of Italian design?) And this feeling is duly confirmed when you view the city from above, from the top of Il Duomo.

Il Duomo, or Cattedrale di Santa Maria is the grandest of all Florence’s churches. There are 463 steps to the peak of Brunelleschi’s dome, but the panoramic vista waiting for you is worth each one. It’s hard to describe the view you from the top and sometimes a picture does a better job than words ever can:

 Florence from above.

Florence from above.

One American guy behind us did actually manage to find words to greet the occasion and he summoned the voice of Drake to describe our situation ‘started from the bottom now we here’. That felt surprisingly satisfying after the half an hour ascent actually.

That night we headed back into town for a tour of Firenze’s bars. We only made it to two in the end, drinks at the apartment beforehand probably went on longer than required. The first was a shisha bar, never a good place for an asthmatic, and the second a small but fun place called Monkey bar. I think we had planned to stop at various others and I’m not sure what quite happened, but it didn’t matter much, we were all content with the company. One thing I always find on a night out is that there’s never a shortage of Italian guys paying Aimee some romantic gesture, they don’t care if you’re holding hands. They’re romantic and who can blame them, they’re surrounded by it. Besides, it’s probably a good thing that somebody tells Aimee she’s beautiful now and again.

For all that talk of time restrictions and preplanning we were late to the Uffizi the next day, but our pre-booked tickets meant we jumped the queue – nobody ever plans for hangovers. The Uffizi is packed with various famous artwork from lots of famous artists. As naive as it sounds, there’s almost too much to see. At least too much for one visit anyway. We could have probably done with an audioguide or something which took us on some structured tour. Nonetheless, seeing Botocelli’s Birth of Venus alone is enough to satisfy the visit.

An Italian friend had insisted the best thing about Florence was its Steak. The best in Italy, he said. Apparently it’s because of Florence’s Tuscan surroundings, something you appreciate when you journey in from Pisa, which make for the ideal grazing land. We went to a place called Perseus on the recommendation of the homeowner. It was authentic and the best around, she said.

They were both right.

Firstly, the owners spoke little English and the menu was entirely in Italian, always a good sign. Second, when I ordered a whisky (double of course), the waiter had little understanding of the single/double shot measurements. I was brought a large wine glass full, ideal. And thirdly, the mens bathroom was plastered with various exotic pornographic images, that Italian Romance again! This was a particularly happy coincidence given the oversized nature of my drink.

They didn’t ask how we wanted our cut cooked, their judgement was always going to better than ours. It came out accordingly rare and was probably the best I’ve ever had. I would reiterate my friends insistence on experiencing Florence’s steak and the homeowners recommendation of Perseus. 

 The Perseus cut.

The Perseus cut.

On the stumble home that night I tried to conjure up some brief moment of reflection. I’d been taken away by all the art and architecture Florence had gifted me over the past couple of days and I was trying to figure out what my contribution to this art-clad city had been. But, quite predictably, the oversized whisky had rendered my thoughts both frivolous and short lived.

The piss artist perhaps?