Before all you lovers of Italian culture build your own big bonfire and set me alight as a modern-day Savonarola, let me explain. No doubt Florence deserves its reputation as a must-see destination, particularly for travelers discovering the beauties of Italy for the first time. And I’m not suggesting you avoid the city altogether. See it at least once, and in detail. After all, where else will you find such a beautiful and memorable setting? Graced with splendid architecture, unrivaled art collections, sculpture, fascinating history, and, of course, Brunelleschi’s dome, it’s the “Cradle of the Renaissance,” right?
But unless you are lucky enough to visit in the true off-season, Florence also suffers from overwhelming crowds of tourists, streets congested with hawkers of the cheapest gew-gaws and knock-offs, limitless opportunities to eat run-of-the-mill food in restaurants where you will hear pretty much any language except Italian, and enough silver- or gilt-covered mimes posing as Dante to make you feel you’re in your own personal Inferno.
And then there’s the traffic. If you have a rental car, beware. The ring road which circles the old town is a congested mess of automobiles, tourist buses, local transport and zipping motor scooters guaranteed to put your teeth on edge. Woe to the driver who misses the turn to enter the city center and is forced to repeat the massive loop. Pity the driver who encounters an accident scene where one huge tourist bus has sideswiped another. The passengers sit forlornly in their seats. The drivers gesticulate wildly, assessing the blame at the top of their lungs. The traffic police wander about, cigarettes in hand, quietly sharing their versions of the incident with each other. And meanwhile, all lanes are fouled with scarcely moving traffic. One car at a time slips by the scene, and there is no apparent effort to clear the path or move things along.
You finally make it through the gap. Then there before you flows the Arno River, and look…there!…the Ponte Vecchio, and the campanile towering over the Piazza della Signoria which you so desperately wish to reach…but once again you are drawn hopelessly into that river of traffic to repeat the vast circumnavigation of the city.
And Heaven help you if you forgot to take a toilet break before you entered this particular circle of Hell…
Because even should you venture off the ring road and enter the labyrinthine streets of the city, don’t expect to find a parking space (or a public restroom). You’ll circle hopelessly, delving here and there into side streets in a valiant effort to find some space, any space, which can handle your compact car. Perhaps after a half-hour or more you’ll be blessed by the Florentine gods and manage to park.
Now you can fight the crowds of international tourists, pass the sidewalk displays of fake Gucci and Louis Vuitton, flinch at the boorish behavior of so many fellow travelers. I suggest keeping your eyes focused upwards, admiring the architecture, shutting your ears to the raucous melee, and finding a quiet space within yourself to sense the beauty of your surroundings.
The solution: Overnight in the central city. Talk with your hotel reception about lesser-frequented places to find authentic Tuscan fare. Leave your rental car in a parking garage and use your feet or public transport. And lose yourself in a museum or two during the daylight hours. Then explore the city by night when the crowds have dispersed.
You might just find yourself–cup of gelato* in hand–drawn to an otherwise quiet side street to stop before a crowded bar. Inside, patrons pay rapt attention to the remarkable singer whose voice brought you there, his rich tenor coming from the heart. And opening yours.
And perhaps you won’t hate Florence quite as much.
* Check out Grom gelato, all-natural and of highest quality ingredients: Via del Campanile, to the right of the Duomo.
Copyright 2013 Patrick W. O’Bryon