I’m not sure that I can adequately relay the abundance of beauty that I encountered in Florence. It exceeded my expectations in every way imaginable. After learning that I had arrived to class a full week early, I booked the most spontaneous trip of my life to visit my hometown friends in Italy. With less than 12 hours before my flight’s departure, I wasn’t allowed to check any complimentary baggage. After skimming through RyanAir’s notoriously strict policies, I determined to play it safe rather than sorry and packed my belongings into my backpack so as not to exceed the weight or size parameters. Subsequently, I lived out of my well-loved Herschel backpack–an impressive feat for someone who loves clothing as much as I do–for the duration of that week. (*Update* You can in fact bring one carryon suitcase and one personal item for RyanAir flights, so long as they do not exceed the size specifications.)
Another forfeiture for the ridiculously good deals with RyanAir is that flight times and airport locations are not always the most convenient. I actually flew into Milan Bergamo, a couple hours outside of Florence, as it was the only Italian airport out of which RyanAir was operating. The sun was only beginning to rise by the time I landed in Milan. Positive externality from this adventure: I learned to use the bus and high-speed train in a completely foreign language. I pulled into the Santa Maria Novella, Firenze train station before realizing that it was veiled in a light dusting of snow. Suffice it to say, as a kid from California, that I was woefully unprepared for one of the coldest weeks of my life. I had just departed the train when Grant, a high school friend of mine and enabler of this endeavor, reached out to me wondering whether I’d made it. I was pleasantly surprised to learn that he was only a 10 minute walk away from me. “Fa molto freddo. It’s the caffe,” he said, verbatim. My phone died within blocks of reaching him, so I started employing the help of strangers and asking where “Fa Molto Freddo” was located. It wasn’t until a kind and multilingual shopkeeper pointed out to me that “fa molto freddo” literally translates to “it is cold outside.” “It’s an affirmation, not a location,” she clarified through hardly contained laughter. I spent the better part of 15 minutes screaming, “Fa molto freddo!” at confused Italians before this lovely women directed me to one (of many) caffes in the near vicinity. Lo and behold, Grant was sitting in the window of said caffe. Communication between the two of us has never been our forte, but I’m still incredibly thankful to have had a familiar face in such a far away place. This minor mishap certainly lent to a humorous start of my stay.
Florence is geographically condensed into a very walkable city. My hometown homie and fabulous host, Natalie, lives in a centrally located apartment by the Duomo, the world’s fourth largest cathedral. It’s a remarkable structure, built in the traditional Gothic style of the 13th century, that took two centuries to officially complete. As the birthplace of the Renaissance, Florence is not only a city that values art but more importantly a place where artists flourish. It’s evident on the streets and firmly entrenched in the architecture. The food here is absolutely beyond praise. One of my favorite meals was down the street from the apartment at an unassuming sandwich shop called Pane e Toscana (“Tuscan Bread”). The sandwiches are served on giant traditional tuscan flatbreads called schiacciatta, and they have an entire section of their menu dedicated to vegetarian options. Other standouts were Gusta Pizzeria, where your pizza is made right before your eyes in a wood-fired oven, and Trattoria Zá Zá, where we ate at the recommendation of our epicurean friend, Hanna. I had the best chocolate and gelato of my life at Venchi (the dark chocolate with almond paste and hazelnut filing) and Rivareno Gelateria, respectively. We also spent an entire afternoon wandering through the crowded stalls of Mercato Centrale and ruminating our many lunch options at the second-floor food court.
One of my favorite excursions was hiking to the top of Piazzale Michelangelo, a vantage point that provides an unobscured view of the entire city, at sunset. There’s a basilica at the very top, San Miniota al Monte, with a neatly kempt cemetery on its grounds. Photos simply cannot do this place justice. The Galleria del Costume in Boboli Gardens was also among the most stunning sights I visited. It’s an entire institute occupying the Palazzina della Meridiana of Pitti Palace and dedicated to fashion from the 18th century through the present. One of my favorite exhibits displayed famous wedding dresses, illustrating the changing style throughout the decades from 1910 to 1980. I was particularly fixated on a beautiful beaded gown designed by Norman Hartnell, a dress designer for Queen Elizabeth I and her two daughters, and worn by Lady Ethel Sykes in 1937. Perhaps the most striking thought that these attractions inspired is that European history dates back so much further than our own American history, offering a glimpse into the lives of people who lived far before our own existence.
What a marvelous thought that so many people before me enjoyed this beautiful city and all that it has to offer. It’s a feast for the mind as well as the eyes. I will cherish the memories from the time that I spent here, and I’m returning home with an optimistic outlook and reinvigorated sense of adventure.