When you think of Italian culture, what comes to mind? Maybe a huge family sitting around a table, laughing, drinking wine and enjoying a pasta or pizza dinner? Somewhere, gelati fits in there, too. It’s not just food that makes the scene. It’s brothers, sisters, cousins, grandparents. In Italy, it’s all about family. And in Florence, for us, it was about family that we had never met before.
Cassie’s grandfather passed away when she was a baby, so she didn’t have the opportunity to meet many relatives on his side of the family when she was young. But, lo and behold, while planning our trip, we discovered that tucked away in the Tuscan hills near Livorno, is Cassie’s cousin, Patti. (Well, she’s not literally tucked away or her first cousin, but let’s not get hung up on technicalities.) Not only has Patti lived in Italy for 17 years, but she is also a licensed tour guide in Florence and a contributor for the dining section in travel books. Jackpot!
Florence became the best of both worlds for us – exploring a new place, but feeling right at home.
As you walk out of the train station in Florence, you immediately realize that you’re in a special place. The streets are quaint and cobble-stoned – turn the corner and you find yourself at a loss for words when you catch a glimpse of the magnificent Basilica di Santa Maria del Fiore, or Il Duomo. The dome was our first stop, and stop we did. If Paris is the City of Lights, Florence is the City of Lines. Get ready to stand in a lot of them. You only need one ticket for the entire complex, but each different part has its own line. And its own wait.
The nearest place to grab your ticket is a small opening sandwiched between two restaurants about 300 feet west of the Duomo. The opening is marked with the number 7. There are other places to buy a ticket, but this is the easiest.
After waiting in our first line for one hour, we were finally on our way to the top of the dome. And by on “our way,” we mean, preparing to climb the 463 steps to the top. At some point, as we climbed past stair number 267, we thought to ourselves, “Aren’t we on vacation? Why are we torturing ourselves?” You will have this same thought. Don’t let it discourage you. When you get to the top, you realize every step was worth it.
The dome holds a special place in Cassie’s heart. Seven years ago she climbed it the first time and realized she is terrified of heights. To those who know Cassie very well, this seems ridiculous. She was a diver. She used to dive off of platforms 10 meter (33 feet in the air) and plummet into the water without thinking twice. But, as she entered the first vantage point inside the dome – a view near the ceiling that both shows the beautiful paintings plastered on the inside of the dome and the depth of the structure below – an overwhelming feeling came over her. Death was imminenent…
Obviously it wasn’t. The 3-4 foot wide pathway around the inside of the dome has a railing and is closed in with protective glass. But, fear has the amazing ability to make even the calmest person want to cry and curl up into a ball. She managed to survive the first time, pushing herself mentally and physically and making it to the top. But with this newly realized fear, she vowed that upon returning to the Duomo, she’d not only walk to the top, but she would conquer her horror of heights.
If you haven’t realized this by now, if you have a fear of heights, it may not be a good idea to climb the dome.
But, since it was on her list of fears to conquer, for Cassie, it was a must-do. This time around, she rocked the climb and even went to the edge of the railing at the top to soak in the amazing 365 degree view of Florence. It truly is amazing.
After climbing down, the cathedral next door (another line to get in) is the perfect next stop. You actually see it for a minute on the trip down from the dome. But the entrance is a different one.
And then we did something crazy. As if ascending and descending 926 steps wasn’t enough, we decided to climb Giotto’s Campanile, otherwise known as the bell tower, too. That’s another 414 steps each way. But, this is a great alternative for people who have problems with heights because there are different levels and views in the tower. It’s easy to gauge whether or not you feel comfortable enough to ascend to the next level. At the top, this view is also amazing. This is also the best view of the dome.
Florence is a very concentrated city. So, it was easy to reach the Palazzo Vecchio, where the replica of Michelanglo’s “David” towers over the tourists. After that, the Ponte Vecchio is a short walk away. Take some time to admire the high-end shops on Florence’s famous bridge, then walk up to the next bridge along the river, look back, and take in the entire beauty of the bridge and the river. Cue Kodak moment.
To end our long StairMaster workout du jour, Cassie finally got to meet her cousin, Patti and her husband, Martino. Back at their home in the Livorno countryside, we walked down memory lane and had something that is few a far between for most travelers: a home-cooked, family meal. It was a special opportunity to make up for lost time. And, it also happily completed the image of la famiglia in Italy. Their six dogs were a wonderful addition to the family.
Patti knows the ins and outs of being a tourist in Florence. Two of the major attractions are the Uffizi (Botticelli’s “The Birth of Venus”) and the Accademia (with the real “David”). They are both worth a visit, but reservations are recommended. Even after making the recommendations, you must wait in line to get your tickets. Then, after getting your tickets, you wait in another line to get into the Uffizi. Sounds a little crazy, doesn’t it?
We were able to skip the lines with the help of Patti, but we were lucky. If you plan to see both, 1) make reservations and 2) don’t schedule them too close to each other. Split them so you can see Uffizi in the morning and Accademia in the afternoon, or even better, spread it out over two days. Factor in time for standing in lines. Twice. Both galleries are worth seeing, but it’s easy to get overwhelmed quickly with all of the art work. Take your time.
There’s so much to see in Florence. The markets offer items for all kinds of shoppers. And when you get hungry, there are tons of restaurants to choose from. It’s hard to compete with a home-cooked meal, but it’ll come pretty close.
Home is where the heart is. We’d like to think that we left a bit of our heart in Florence with our new family. With la famigilia.
Want to join our famiglia? Click here and be our third cousins, twice removed.