By Claire vd Heever Jan 22, 2007

An earthy rainbow of suede belts hung from rows of open air market stalls, iron railings groaned under the weight of plush leather jackets. Wallets were fanned out on display: classic black, brown ostrich leather, warm beige, all tagged with the outline of a splayed cow’s hide, “Genuine Leather” stamped in gold on each.

Tourists stroked potential purchases, humming and haring to impartial companions. Faces solemnly examined the goods, a few pairs of eyes glinted like kids’ in a sweet shop. The scent of leather wafted pleasantly between the shoppers and I recalled the words of a tour guide from my first visit to the city. “Don’t be fooled by the soft, supple feel of imitation leather, or the leather mark they copy onto fakes,” he warned. “And, whatever you do, when the salesperson assures you that genuine leather has leather’s genuine smell, don’t be fooled by the can of spray on leather that the thing’s been hosed down with either.”

Our journey to the city had been tiresome. Europe’s efficient train system faded into memory as a series of announcements left us running between platforms while the elusive departure point of our onward train was established. We arrived at the next junction to discover that our connection had been delayed by an hour. Iain passed the time napping on a waiting room’s bench. A further hour’s delay was announced.

I phoned my mother, who was immediately excited by the thought of Florence. “Ooh, you’re so lucky,” she said, bored in Cape Town on a wintry Saturday afternoon. “I wish I could go to all those lovely markets again,” remembering a visit to the city a few years ago. I tried to feel “lucky” or excited, but it just didn’t happen. A week in Italy and I was already nonchalant. Venice’s beauty seemed a lot further than a few days away, and my clashes with several Italians had made the appeal of Italy difficult to feel. I already dreaded the tourist treatment that I knew was inevitable in Florence.

Italy, for many, conjures gorgeous Tuscan countryside, Renaissance magnificence, prosciutto topped pizzas, fresh pasta and passions that coax the imagination. To float down the canals of Venice, to wander the same Florentine cobbles as the masters of a European rebirth is a fantasy for most. Mine had been fulfilled at eighteen when I sashayed through the country’s tourist hotspots, devouring their charms in complete wonderment. Michelangelo’s sculpture of David was real, as were the other masterpieces I marvelled at. My entire school art career came alive in two days and, with a belly full of pizza, gelato in hand, I relished being a tourist. I felt utterly privileged to be in Europe’s historical heart, to have a chance to see what me and millions of others had only heard and dreamed about.

Our train screeched to a halt, three hours late, and I alighted, head-on into relentless drizzle. Iain and I scurried through the city, trying to fathom one of Lonely Planet’s typically disproportionate maps. We had booked the city’s last two affordable beds, at Hotel Veneto, which we located half an hour later.

The lobby was crammed with backpackers and their backpacks. A short bearded man was dealing with them, slowly. I was simply too hungry and irritable to imitate patience, so we walked to the end of the street and filled up on €3 shawarmas.

A lady from Hotel Veneto was available to show us to our “hotel room” on our return. She led us out the hotel’s front door, down the street, and stopped at a large unmarked door. Heaving our packs up the darkened stairwell, we passed the cage of metal that enclosed the elevator – now out of action, along with the stairwell’s lights.

We watched as our room became a glorified dorm, of sorts. A fourth bed was crammed in, and a table and TV moved out past us as we stood in the passage with our luggage. It was peak season in Florence, and that meant taking this room or nothing, and the hotel staff knew it. A grunt was produced by our roomie, with whom Iain would be fighting for nose space that night in the tiny gap between their beds.

Standing at the counter of an internet café, having connected our laptop for an hour, we waited to pay. I had the cash ready, €3 for the hour. The price was printed on the company’s door and various print-outs stuck on its walls. In fact, upon arriving, Iain had confirmed their charges, out of habit. “€6,” the man behind the counter said, not looking up, “It’s a laptop.”

Had this been an isolated incident, I would have paid the money and walked away. But this was simply the final straw. From the reinventing of grocery prices in the Cinque Terre, to the €9 internet charges in Venice (per hour, that is), I had begun to deeply resent our treatment as fools, fools so desperate for a taste of Italy that we’d pay any price for it. Indeed, I had come to their marvellous country to gawk at art, to walk down streets that reeked of history, to taste the charisma that allures so many. I had paid for every service that I used, at the quoted rate. I was willing to pay triple a native’s price to enter a museum, or even a church. I conceded to have “tourist” rubbed in my face every time I neglected to walk twenty minutes from a tourist trap to buy water for less than wine. But I would not mindlessly agree to pay more for an internet connection that my own laptop had accessed, without their machines and without their electricity.

But the man behind the counter wouldn’t relent, and, on principle, neither would I. We argued. I informed him that I wasn’t stupid, he denied confirming the price and it reached a petty “yes – no” stage. Iain made a garbled reference to the tourist police and the man went silent. I slammed the €3 down on the counter and left.

Incapable of appreciating anything Italian, we went straight to the closest Irish pub. The Joshua Tree’s “happy hour is actually five hours,” the Lonely Planet thoughtfully informed us, “which means plenty of posturing patrons who know more about ‘feigning sin’ than Sinn Fein.”

So at 5 o’clock, with four hours of “happy hour” left, we sat ourselves in the wooden, cavernous little pub. There was an impressive array of beers on tap: something we had grown to miss since leaving the British Isles. We went for the Irish brews – two that were new to us, both exceeding 7% ABV. The rain pattered down outside and we talked nostalgically of cosy English pubs, and our homely pub life in Farnham, now so far behind.

A group of black-clad youths occupied a booth in a raised section beside us. Heavy chains dangled from belt loops, skull adorned t-shirts attempted a statement. Only their mouths moved, as they murmured to each other, voices drowned out by the blare of rock music that seeped through the room.

A waifish figure in a pinstriped mini skirt bustled between the group and the door, a crisply cut black fringe framing her perfect porcelain face. She reappeared pushing a wheelchair with whom we took to be her younger sister in it, barely sixteen.

The group greeted the disabled girl warmly and she beamed, but her eyes battled to focus. The blue-black dye on her hair was identical to her sister’s, and she too wore the black uniform, boots dangling off the footrests of her wheelchair. Her eyes were streaked with dark eyeliner, but as she gazed distractedly around the room, I was sure it was not her who had applied it. Her sister was never far from her side, wheeling her from person to person in the room. I wondered about this young girl, an anomaly adopted by this clan of imitable exclusivity.

Beer number three, and we began chatting to the people at the table beside us. Assuming, that they, too, were visitors to Florence, we started predictably, and asked where they were from. The red head in the centre hesitated before answering. “Here – we live here,” as though this was ridiculously obvious. Given her American accent, it wasn’t.

“Spain” and “Argentina” the other two divulged. Iain and I took this as a cue to recount our Spanish antics, going into raptures over what a wonderful country it was. Having warmed up a bit, we made another attempt at conversation with the red head. “So, where are you originally from?” Iain endeavoured. But she was a lost cause and fervently avoided the question. We wondered why we had feigned interest in her brutally obvious origin.


We awoke the next morning, dry mouthed and headachy. The hotel’s “Continental Breakfast” was a few pieces of packaged Melba toast, apricot jam and watery un-Italian coffee with skin-covered milk. I dragged my body up the stairs and fetched the foil Nutella segments we’d stashed from previous hotel breakfasts, hoping that their sugary richness might ease the pounding of my head.

The Duomo was a fifteen minute walk away, through the winding cobbles of medieval Florence. We wriggled through the masses, and stood staring at its colossal door of bronze intricacies, demonic and divine. Green, white and red marble adorn the cathedral’s magnificent, if excessive, façade.

A masterpiece attributed to a handful of celebrated artists, it was Brunelleschi who designed the enormous octagonal dome. The first of its kind since antiquity, it remains the largest brick dome in existence. Rome’s Pantheon provided Bruneschelli’s inspiration, and only its circular, masonry dome rivals the size of the Duomo’s.

It was Sunday, so entrance was prohibited until the cathedral’s evening service at 6 o’ clock, which we decided to attend.

Aimlessly walking through a city is so often rewarding – one can grasp its beauty, stumble across well-kept secrets, and witness people going about their ordinary lives. Iain, being particularly adept at getting lost, took the lead, and I followed.

A couple strolled leisurely up the same tarred hill as us; she clip-clopped along in heels and he held her hand, a cream coloured jersey draped carefully over his shoulders. Huffing and puffing, we overtook them, and continued up the hill.

The road wound past tall narrow houses, wrought iron lanterns protruded from their ivy strewn walls. It seemed we had entered one of the city’s more affluent residential areas. The incline continued, and I chugged slowly behind, Iain elusively insistent on our route. We reached the entrance to Forte di Belvedere and climbed the steps that led inside the walls of the fort. There, beneath us, Florence presented herself in her entirety.

The mountains in the distance were indigo streaks, speckled with clumps of deep green that framed the tiny terracotta roofs scattered through the cityscape. The Duomo stood in the centre, the terracotta of its dome dominating the skyline. Winding through the picture was the River Arno, steely grey.

Weary from our walk back to the centre, we deemed espresso crucial to staying awake during an hour of church, in Italian, and sufficiently perked up, returned to the Duomo.

Shoulders and knees covered, we were ushered toward the rows of chairs that stretched almost halfway down the Duomo’s 153 metres. Second row from the back seemed safest. The cathedral can accommodate 30 000, but no more than 300 had arrived for mass that evening.

A white haired little man stood at the pulpit, and announced (in English) that the service would be beginning shortly. He beckoned for people to come forward and fill the foremost seats, but none of the other tourists in our vicinity budged. He smiled sweetly, and made another plea. Nothing. The awkwardness was too much to bear, so we stood up quietly and crept forward through the central aisle. Delighted, the priest’s arms gestured further and further forward, and before we knew it, we had been ushered into the foremost enclosure that lay beneath the dome, surrounding the pulpit.

Another priest commenced the service. We had a prime position for staring up at the dome, painted by generations of Renaissance masters. The frescoes are based on The Last Judgement and constitute 3600 square metres of painted surface.

The dome was the last feature of the Duomo to be completed, in 1436, after several competitions for the commission. Upon completion, the dome’s conical roof was crowned with a gilt copper ball and cross using one of Da Vinci’s hoisting machines. It truly is a work of the Renaissance’s zenith.

The organ resonated eerily through the cathedral’s expanse, and everyone stood for a hymn. Lip synching along wasn’t anything new to me, but after casually following the congregation’s lead in sitting, halfway down I realised, in horror, that they had gone to kneel. Iain and I straightened back to the level of the standing prayers, awkwardly watching for everyone’s next move.

This came as a response to the minister’s words, which automatically sent people shaking hands with and kissing everyone in their immediate vicinity. Nobody kissed us.

Feeling adequately sanctified, we went for an apertivo – the ubiquitous Italian tradition of free snacks with your early evening drinks. I sipped sprizze’s – a quenching aperitif of sparkling wine, soda and a bitter red mixer, like Campari, often served with a tasty green olive. Apertivo had become our pleasant (and particularly economical) pre-dinner habit.


Six in the morning, and I crept into our prefabricated shower room, trying not to wake our snoring room mates. Not-strong-enough coffee left us sleepily walking through the deserted Florentine streets, keen beans on our way to beat the Uffizi’s notorious queue.

The Piazza della Signoria was at its most glorious – empty and silent. The crisp air invigorated me, as my mind became alert to the fact that we had made it out of bed at a record breaking hour. A replica of Michelangelo’s David stood on its pedestal, unobstructed by the daytime hoards, taking a break from the unrelenting photography his reputation as “Most Famous Sculpture in the Western World” had earned him.

We approached the Uffizi and noticed smugly that we were first to arrive. The early rising had paid off, I thought gleefully, as we moved towards the entrance. The door was closed, which didn’t surprise me, as the museum only officially opened in fifteen minutes time. But there, beside the door, was a sign, which I read with incredulity:

Tue- Sun: 8:15am-6:50pm
Last entrance 6:05pm

I searched for “Monday” or “Mon,” dread creeping through my body. Despite Monday being the most common day on which museums close throughout Europe, we had managed to forget when it actually mattered.

We walked solemnly through the Piazza, berating ourselves for being such scatterbrained tourists. This decided our fate. We would have to stay in Florence for another day, and make another attempt at the Uffizi tomorrow. Feeling the rare luxury of time that was now in surplus, we drank cappuccinos and began a leisurely day of wandering.

Having crossed the Arno at Ponte Vecchio – the only bridge to survive WWII’s bombing – we drifted through Oltrarno, the charming area, literally “beyond the Arno.” The bridge was originally occupied by butchers, but the wonderfully dilapidated homes that line it now house gold and silversmiths. The Medici’s gave preference to this trade, over noisy, smelly butcheries, when they built a passage over the bridge, linking two of the city’s palaces.


Fifty or so people already flanked the Uffizi at quarter to eight the next morning, and we joined the queue. Shortly after the doors were opened, we were granted entry and made our way through the metal detectors inside.

Four hours later, we emerged, comprehending little more than the sheer volume of its collection. We had a train to catch. All roads led to Rome, that day.

The queue had snaked all along the building and onto the Arno’s banks by the time we exited. A group of African men sold an assortment of handbags from a cloth spread out on the pavement. A few of them patrolled the queue, each with about thirty bags squeezed onto their arms. The waiting time was an estimated three hours, and I watched as more people trickled onto the end of the queue.

We returned to our hotel to collect our luggage, taking a route through Florence’s older streets. The sun shone softly through the clouds as we wove our way through the bustle. The city was alive. People were beginning their long lunch breaks at sunny tables. Crisp linen and wicker chairs invited other diners. Paintings of Italian scenes had been lined up along the street. Tourists browsed. And many more were on their way that day, on their way to walk through the Renaissance.

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3 Responses to “Florence”

  1. Heather says:

    Well done on sorting out the man behind the counter at the internet cafe. He obviously did not know what he was dealing with, silly man! I have in my mind, accurate or not, a very clear picture of that interchange.

    I can also imagine your faces as you crept reluctantly down the central aisle of the Duomo to the foremost enclosure. At least this would have prevented you from once again leaving in mid-service! I'm sorry nobody kissed you …

    I love your articles.

  2. William says:

    The leather thing brings back memories of a trip to Italy in my teens. My 'genuine' leather belt and the wallet and purse I bought for my parents lasted about three weeks!

    Another lovely article and I also can't help but wonder about the young girl in the wheelchair with the dedicated 'sister'.

    I look forward to reading about Rome.

  3. Buddy says:

    What a wonderful site! Your narrative skills are quite evident here, and, after having read your bio, I urge you to continue your journalism aspirations. Press on, brother.

    I'm linking you.

    - Bud from USA

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