“Four Nights in Florence (with a slice of Pisa)” Part Three
12 minute read
Previously in Part Two of “Four Nights in Florence (with a slice of Pisa)” – A train journey continued, being responsible for a Japanese lady, worrying about said responsibility, meeting my responsibility (hurrah), seeing the duomo for the first time, porn (sort of), great food, good wine, a big bad ass of a thunderstorm, dark truffle tasted lovely, dark truffle turned out to be bad for me, my hugely monstrous and totally bulbous bottom lip, damn it I have an allergy
DAY TWO – Thursday
It had taken me a while to fall back to sleep as my mind stayed wide awake, forcing me to imagine horrible images of my big bulbous lip growing even bigger and even more bulbous. But at some point I’d managed to fight the images away and had finally drifted off to sleep.
As I awoke the following morning I could see the sun streaming in through the blinds and I lay on my back looking up at the ceiling. My heart began to pound again as I lay wondering whether or not the swelling had gone down. I felt too scared to check, but eventually I managed to get myself out of bed, walk over to the bathroom, and then approach the mirror with my head down, looking at the floor.
I took a deep breath, started repeating a positive anti-lip-swelling mantra to myself, and then slowly looked up and into the mirror.
It was a miracle! The lump had disappeared completely!
I felt a surge of energy flow through my body and I was overcome by feelings of excitement and relief. I didn’t need to find a doctor. I wasn’t ill. I was smiling from ear to ear. And now I could go out and enjoy Florence on this bright and beautiful day.
Following breakfast at the hotel, I started wandering the streets with no real game plan. I’d got an idea of the things that I wanted to see but I was approaching this trip with a very laid-back attitude; I’d see what I’d see, and as long as I enjoyed myself and got to relax then that was all that mattered.
But one thing that I certainly had to do was to climb to the very top of Brunelleschi’s dome, and so I found my way to the ticket office and bought a 15 Euro ticket which gave me access to the museum, the Cupola (dome), and the Campanile (bell tower). Thankfully I didn’t have to queue too long and just fifteen minutes later I found myself inside the duomo and my journey up to the top of the cupola began.
This was a journey that would take me up 463 steep and narrow steps.
Thankfully there was an incredibly dramatic stop off at about the half way point when the stairs opened up into the dome itself, where a narrow walkway ran around the inside of the internal wall. Anybody who suffers from a fear of heights would be likely to struggle a little at this point, but the walk is perfectly safe and the sight that awaits you is more than worth it. I challenge anybody to not be blown away by how dramatic this particular moment is.
The sense of scale is epic with the inside of the cathedral feeling somewhat cavernous, but the true gem here is when you look up towards the ceiling and first cast your eyes upon The Last Judgement.
Before entering the dome I knew absolutely nothing about this breathtaking fresco that lay upon the inside of the octagonal shaped ceiling, but as my eyes scanned over demonic images that emphasised pain and suffering and with the angels that looked down from above, was this scene depicting heaven and hell? And with the imagery of naked humans laying on the ground pleading, and while other souls were being led up into the clouds by angels, were they pleading their way into heaven so as not to suffer the torments of hell? I have absolutely no understanding when it comes to religious art, but there’s no doubt that this moment had left me speechless.
Moving out of the way of the other visitors that were edging along the narrow walkway, I positioned myself so that I could take everything in without being disturbed. For twenty minutes I stood in silence and observed everything around me; the scale, the beauty, the height, the colours, the people, and believe it or not, the smell. Yes, you read that right, and there is absolutely no way of putting this into words, but the inside of the Cattedrale di Santa Maria del Fiore carries an intoxicating fragrance that is so vivid that I’ve not been able to forget it since.
And this reminds me of the scene in the movie Good Will Hunting when Sean (Robin Williams) is talking to Will (Matt Damon) about being in the Sistine Chapel. Will is a supremely intellectual young man who knows so much about the world, science, and politics, but everything that he knows has all come from books and he’s never even left his hometown. And so Sean begins to challenge him upon this principal and refers to what his understanding of art would be, stating that he may know about the Sistine Chapel, but that he could have absolutely no understanding of what it feels like to actually be there and to be looking up at that beautiful ceiling.
Life, and the world, is not a spectator sport. We have to be in the game, we have to be playing, and we have to give it our heart and our soul.
This is the realisation that hit me on this beautiful Thursday morning in October. I could read every book about the duomo and watch every documentary about Florence, but nothing could compare to actually being stood upon this walkway with the floor of the cathedral being many, many, many metres below my feet. Nothing could compare to having all of my senses being right here in this moment. The world was carrying on as normal outside of these walls, but for me there was nothing else other than this.
I continued on towards the roof of the dome and as I got higher and higher, the passageways became narrower and much more dramatic. It felt like I was moving through secret passageways that I wasn’t supposed to be in, and I couldn’t help but feel a little bit like a real life Indiana Jones, but minus the hat and a movie deal.
The floor beneath my feet began to curve as I had quite clearly started climbing up the inside of the dome itself.
Finding myself at the bottom of a set of steps, I looked up and could see daylight. This was it. I’d made it to the roof.
After climbing those final steps my face was suddenly bathed in the warm sunshine of late morning. With my eyes still adjusting to the brightness I moved towards the railings and looked out across the orange rooftops of Florence. The campanile was right in front of me and I was surrounded by a 360 degree panorama of this beautiful city complete with an incredible backdrop of lush Tuscan hills. I’d made it.
I completed one circuit of the walkway before returning back towards the campanile, and as if by fate the bells began to chime. It was exactly midday.
As I stood taking this all in I got to thinking about how important it is to be kind to people and how even the smallest of gestures can make a huge difference. On my walk around the top of the dome I’d encountered several people who were either alone and struggling to take a decent photo of themselves, or couples who were only able to take pictures of one another.
I stopped for each person and offered to take photos; the couples who had been getting frustrated were now smiling and hugging, and the solo travellers who were initially looking disappointed were now excited about the picture they could proudly show their family and friends. And at breakfast that morning I just happened to see the young Japanese lady from the train. Could you believe it? Out of all the hotels in Florence she was staying at the same one as me and was having breakfast just three tables away from mine. We’d made eye contact but we never spoke; instead we just nodded and gave each other a knowing smile.
Don’t ever under-estimate the power of your actions, and of the impact that comes from your interactions. The world really can be a small place and although it’s important to give without any expectations of receiving, there’s no doubt that good deeds can always come back to you. And likewise, if you conduct yourself in a negative way, or are rude or spiteful, you have no idea when that could come back to you either.
It’s so easy to fall into the mindset of believing that the little things don’t really make a difference, but believe me, they do. We often look at the world through cynical eyes and believe that nothing can change, but I believe with all my heart that if each and every person could just treat the people they encounter with kindness and respect, then it truly could have a profound effect upon us all.
Maybe it’s true that one person cannot change the world single-handedly, but one person does have the power to initiate change. Be that person.
And just as Lao Tzu once told us that a journey of a thousand miles begins with one single step, massive change can be achieved if each and every one of us puts in a little bit of effort. It can be as simple as smiling, saying thank you, looking people in the eyes, listening, holding the door open for people, being a courteous driver, asking people if they are okay, paying compliments, and being considerate of other people with the things that you do.
Have you ever had one of those days where everything seemed to go wrong, but then somebody just happened to look at you and smile and say hello? How good did that feel?
Have you ever been stuck at a junction in your car for what feels like forever, but then one driver slowed down and allowed you to pull out? How much gratitude did you feel for that one considerate driver?
And have you ever had one of those days where everything seemed to be getting too much, and then one person asked you if you were okay and then actually listened to you?
It sounds so easy, it sounds so obvious, and it sounds so, well, simple. And do you know what? It is.
The small things make a huge difference.
Back out on the streets of Florence I began to wander casually through the narrow and bustling alleyways. I was mesmerised by the architecture that surrounded me, and then all of a sudden the cosy embrace of the buildings let go of me as I found myself walking out into the open expanse of the Piazza della Signoria.
This L-shaped square looked really familiar to me and at first I wasn’t sure why, but as I turned a corner I suddenly understood why. Standing with my mouth wide open I looked up at what stood before me, and then I quietly uttered those few words.
“Bowels in or bowels out?”
And just at that moment an older gentleman walked past me and looked at me with a very confused and perhaps even slightly scared expression. Maybe I hadn’t said that as quietly as I thought I had.
Directly in front of me was the imposing sight of the Palazzo Vecchio. This ancient city hall of Florence is a symbol of, well, look it up yourself. Let’s face it, if you really want to know the nitty-gritty then you can just Google it and check out the basics on Wikipedia. You’ve not come here for details, you’ve come here for the story.
I looked around me and saw other people staring at the same building that I was and realised that we were all probably thinking very different things. The lady to my left was probably thinking, wow, this is beautiful, what an impressive sight – okay, I really need an espresso. The man to my right was probably thinking, wow, what a symbol of power, there is so much history to this place – okay, I really need to find a toilet.
As for me, I was just looking up and imagining Inspector Pazzi swinging from the balcony with his intestines splattered on the ground in front of me, and with the half-visible figure of Hannibal Lecter stood back in the shadows. I found myself wanting to shout, Run Dr Lecter! They’re coming to get you!
Oh, how the mind works; or more appropriately, how my mind works.
I was starting to get a little peckish and was feeling the need to move away from the crowds, and so after walking past the Uffizi gallery, and then along a bridge that took me over the river Arno, I found myself a nice spot outside a pretty little eatery.
A waiter wandered over to greet me and then handed me a menu. After running my eyes over the mouth-watering options I decided to bypass the typical dishes and look for the chef’s specials. And when I gave the waiter my order he seemed delighted at my choice. I ordered myself a Theresianer red beer and then sat back to enjoy the peace and quiet.
Half an hour later I’d finished eating a beautiful chef’s smoked salmon salad and was finding my way down my second beer. I was so relaxed that I could have stayed there for the whole afternoon looking around at all the wonderfully coloured buildings, enjoying views of the river, and people-watching. It was a gorgeous little spot and I didn’t want to leave.
I picked up my beer, ready to take another sip, but as I tipped my head back something caught my attention from above. Stepping out onto one of the balconies was a naked fat guy who leaned onto the railings and smoked a cigarette with everything hanging out. And I mean EVERYTHING.
He had no shame.
The moment was ruined.
I gulped down the rest of the beer, paid my bill, and then got up and walked away briskly with my eyes aimed firmly towards the pavement.
Walking up the hillside on the ‘other’ side of Florence was a challenge in the heat of the afternoon, and so I cannot even begin to imagine how challenging it must be in the height of summer. And once I reached a long set of steps they just never seemed to end, but the pay off was worth it as I found myself on the Piazzale Michelangelo. The views were incredible.
If you’ve ever seen those picture postcard shots of the duomo set in amongst the rooftops of Florence with the river lining the foreground, well this is where that photo was taken.
There’s no doubt that it’s a city that is heaving with tourism and in all honesty I really don’t think I could ever visit in the height of summer. I’ve heard too many stories about the sheer number of people and I know it’s something that I wouldn’t want to deal with. I’d get irritated, and sooner or later I’d lose my temper and either throw somebody in the river, or throw myself in the river; or perhaps both. An October weekday is perfect for me, and to be away from the crowds and to be looking at the city from a comfortable distance gave me an entirely new perspective of this Tuscan gem.
This was the moment when I officially fell in love with Florence.
I stood leaning against the railings and began to take it all in. I could see the Palazzo Vecchio and the iconic Ponte Vecchio that crossed the river Arno which flowed by lazily. The sun was starting to set and from this distance the coloured roof of Brunelleschi’s dome glowed vibrantly in beautiful shades of red and orange. It was a majestic sight.
And then I caught sight of the campanile. I had an idea.
Rushing down the hill and against the crowds, I began to make my way back towards the centre of Florence. As much as I loved being at the Piazzale Michelangelo, it was clear that this is where the crowds gather to watch the sunset. Although I’d be happy to finish another day that way, I didn’t want my first full day to end amongst a huge group of tourists.
I pushed on against the crowds as the time ticked away and the sun lowered in the sky. The buildings that faced the sunset glowed brilliantly as the ‘golden hour’ lived up to its name. I kept on moving forwards and I twisted and turned as I squeezed my way through the narrow streets. And then I was there, at the base of the campanile.
I looked upwards and knew that a challenge lay ahead of me. The sun was starting to plummet in the sky and the beautiful bell tower shone dramatically before my eyes.
After getting my ticket scanned I shot straight for the stairs and politely fought my way through the visitors that were descending the stairs. As they were coming down, I was going up.
Reaching the first open tier of the campanile I could begin to see the rooftops but was well aware that I had a long way to go yet. And so I pushed on.
My heart pounded with excitement as I bounded my way up more stairs. Finding my way to yet another open tier I looked around in confusion as I tried to spot the entranceway for the next set of stairs.
I found them, and then I continued upwards.
My legs were tired from all the walking that I’d been doing and the temperature began to sap my energy, but my body provided me with a much needed squirt of adrenaline as I drew closer towards the top of the tower.
There were more stairs, more people, and even more panting and sweating. I moved onwards and upwards, and then I arrived at the top of the campanile just as the bells began to chime.
I moved towards the edge of the tower and gripped onto the railings as I looked out over the rooftops. At this magical time of day the views were breathtaking with the Tuscan hillside providing the perfect backdrop for my first Florentine sunset.
And then I looked over my shoulder and saw the huge rooftop of the duomo roaring in shades of bright orange and a deep flaming red. I smiled, turned back around, and then closed my eyes and allowed the sun to warm my face while I listened to the bells continuing to chime.
Opening my eyes once more I stood in amazement as the afternoon gave way to evening and the sun melted into the horizon, providing a dramatic hue of warm colours in the sky and turning the hillside into a beautiful silhouette.
I stood back and smiled.
If the views from the Piazzale Michelangelo allowed me to fall in love with Florence, it was sunset at the Campanile di Giotto where Florence truly took my heart.
Click here to read Part Four of “Four Nights in Florence (with a slice of Pisa)”
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