Falling for Florence
Beauty is everywhere in this Italian city. Sometimes it just takes a while to find it.
By Ambrose Clancy
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, May 23, 2004; Page P01
Before you go to Florence, people who have been there will inevitably say, "Oh, Florence is beautiful." You won't be the first to wonder upon arriving what they're talking about. Aldous Huxley couldn't wait to split, writing to his brother that the place was "a third-rate provincial town," and D.H. Lawrence was equally blunt. "I don't much like the place; never did." Dylan Thomas thought it was "a grueling museum," and Dostoevsky went absolutely nuts in Florence, entering the Uffizi and then immediately running wild-eyed out to the street. Totally off his head, he forgot that he was the great champion of suffering humanity, being nasty to waiters to the point where one man said, "Don't you realize that I'm a human being, too?"
Of course Lawrence and the Russian master are two of the bigger cranks in literature, and Dylan Thomas was sick from Chianti -- but still, you might wonder at first what the fuss is about. The Duomo and Giotto's bell tower are jaw-dropping in their gaudy marble, the Baptistery an example of the school of design whose manifesto is that a thing worth doing is worth overdoing. But beautiful?
Looking to the heights surrounding the city, you might wish to be up there and not down in the dun-colored town walking in hive-like streets swarming with mopeds driven by maniacs. (It's no accident that "Vespa" in Italian means "wasp.") But relax, take it slow -- an easy thing to do here, since despite immediate impressions, Florence is one of the more comfortable Italian cities. The old maxim about the impossibility of getting a bad meal in Italy stands true, and also, if you're willing to pay in the mid-price range of hotels, it's difficult to be shipwrecked in dreadful accommodations.
The capital of the Renaissance is the most welcoming of any Italian city to English speakers. This is due to the Anglo-American invasion of Florence in the latter part of the 19th century and the beginnings of the 20th, when aesthetes, fed up with the clunky pomposity of Victorian art and mores, dreary winters, hideous fashion and ghastly food, came to rediscover the lightness, color and sensuality of the Italian Renaissance. In the early 20th century, there were roughly 500,000 residents of Florence, and one in five were either Brits or Yanks. (Besides the lofty ideals of culture, it was also dirt cheap to live there.)
The tradition continues today, with dozens of American and British universities having satellite campuses in Florence.
Once you've decided to stay and not harangue your travel agent long distance, take a second look at the maniacal mopeds. First, a tip on how to avoid being run down or getting freaked by the demonic bikes. In the narrow medieval byways it's often necessary to abandon the crowded sidewalks and take to the street. Your first experience of this can cause panic as you hear the idiot whine of mopeds bearing down on you. But just keep walking in a straight line, don't look back (because for sure they're gaining on you), and they will pass you. Pass you in a blur, but they will pass. We live in hope.
When you start to think, hey, it must be a serious blast to buzz around on one of those things, then you've made peace with the place. The moped in many ways represents the spirit of Florence, which is the spirit of the adventurous young, dating to the time of Lorenzo the Magnificent. Look closely and that spirit will attach itself to you, no matter what your age, if you'll let it.
An example: a young woman hanging around outside an art school in a 15th-century building on a narrow street, talking to a friend, backpack slung over her shoulder. Seeing a garbage truck coming down the street making periodic stops, and realizing that once it passes her she'll be stuck behind it, she quickly double-kisses her friend, shouts "Ciao!" and jumps on her moped at the curb like a circus bareback rider, kicks it into gear before the seat of her stretch jeans touches the saddle, cranks the accelerator wide open and is gone in a gray mist of smoke, leaving only the admiring smile of the driver of the truck, which has just missed her, and the joyful shout of his colleague, hand on heart, beseeching the beautiful rider to come back to them.
You have time before going blind and crippling your feet in the museums, so take a tall seat in the back room of Mariano's on Via Parione and linger over a plate of cheeses, dried fruits and nuts, sweet and sour mustard dip, and a glass of wine. You'll be remembered when you go back, which you will.
Wander the flower, food and clothing market of Sant'Ambrogio (a stand-up guy, from all accounts) and then go to the antiques and flea market on Piazza dei Ciompi nearby. Have coffee in even the most dubious cafe with a jam-stuffed doughnut, and you'll stare at your cup and think: I've never had coffee until this moment.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company
A boater glides along the Arno in Florence.