I was in a tiny cafe in one of the arched stone niches housing the many tiny shops that surround San Lorenzo in the middle of Florence. Or Firenze. I was drinking coffee, eating a warm muffin and writing in a plain notebook with a black pen.*
Florence is beautiful, a little severe and mostly very elegant in a self-conscious sort of way. Like so many medieval towns, it seems to be made for getting creatively lost in. The streets are narrow and shadowed by the cliff-like facades of the many palazzos. The roads tend to weave and intersect sinuously rather than the jumble and tangle of Nice’s old city or the pre-Great Fire City of London (I remember it well).
It’s warm here, almost muggy, in fact. But the natives are swaddled in scarves and puffa jackets and I feel quite the barbarian Northerner.
I’ve visited a big city library, cunningly distributed over three floors of a rambling palazzo centred on a damp green courtyard filled with weathered sculptures and an old tall ash. Modernist doors and gates merge into the worn stones and yellow plaster seamlessly. On the wide roof terrace that occupies the whole right side of the building, students and workers are sitting out doors, reading, talking and smoking. Florence is a university town and a European University at that and the library corridors and hallways are full of many languages besides Italian.
The Ponto Vecchio, an ancient Bridge linking the east and west halves of the city, is a bit more flash than the elegant Renaissance matron the rest of the city ostensibly offers. The bridge itself is like a medieval shopping mall built across a river, though instead of the original butchers, the modern day occupants of the shops and stalls sell gold and coral trinkets. One shop has probably denuded an entire barrier reef of red coral. Three tall archways in the centre provide spectacular views of the densely built-up river banks and of the River Arno, in full flood and brown with sediment washed down from the mountains. It’s crowded and full of courting couples asking you to take their picture. The city council might want to consider polite signs suggesting the Italian equivalent of “Get a room.”
A monastery, 800 years of crumbling accretion, has been reduced to a dark, lofty chapel attended by four worshippers and a lone Dominican nun. It is a Baroque space but the austere, Italian kind of Baroque depending on well timed, tasteful flourishes rather than to the garish architectural wedding cake the term evokes in English. Or do I mean its Classical and Classically beautiful?
The streets are crowded with school children, shoppers and bicycles and there are streets upon streets full of bookshops. I have yet to see a MacDonalds. This is a literate society that knows how to eat.
There are policemens with guns. This always makes a Brit jump.
I tried to visit the Uffizi but the staff are on strike. In fact, all the museums are shut due to strike action so after I finish my coffee I walk some more.
I am in Italy, off the map, off the Net and alone for two hours and I love it.
The palazzo – them again – may present a stern face to the world but each one is built slightly differently, reflecting hundreds of years of palace dwellers and changing fashions in palaces. It could be the details of the windows, the shading of the plaster on the facade, the size and pitch of the eaves or the coats of arms discreetly embedded here and there. They are coloured for August, not for the grey muddled sky of today. Huge arches open into their depths like massive caves. I claim the privilege of the ignorant tourist and wander into a few. I find myself in banks, more libraries, residences and building sites. Behind the facades, there are gardens and jumbles of improvised buildings, terraces and roof gardens, and yet more improvising. It looks like the underside of Florence has been a work-in-progress for eight hundred years. It’s where people actually live. The other main buildings are churches. Church and monastery building was a kind of competitive sport in medieval times.
Women police officers in long black coats and white helmets shaped like old-fashioned firemen’s helmets. Newspaper stands, a square full of scooters. Streets of shoemakers, leather shops and toy shops signalled by Pinocchio and (in one case) a full-sized wooden model of a motorcycle. The narrow side streets are packed with artisans, tiny boutiques, carpenters and paper makers.
No-one rocks white dreads and piercings like an Italian girl in green shot-silk leggings.
I get lost, resort to Google Maps and find my way back to our hotel, eight guest rooms on the first floor of a 19th century office block. The staircases seem to float in mid-air from the side-on perspective of the next flight down. It’s homely and welcoming, barring the enormous ceilings, plaster mouldings and massively dignified furniture of dark wood. I text supermum and tell her I want us to live here. She agrees. This is probably impractical for the the school run.
Today, I’ve been working and this evening, Italian colleagues will take us to dinner.
Tomorrow, I’m back in London.
I do so love an adventure.
*You’re right. I probably was feeling very pleased with myself. Well, that doesn’t happen very often.