Towns / Cities Visited: 148
Countries Visited: 26
Steps Taken Today: 18,777
Steps Taken Around the World: 3,822,362
It was to be an earlier morning than usual today because we had booked an attraction for 10am, and, as such, we were up, fed, and on the tram in no time. Being that it was our third day of exploring Florence, finding our way to the square we were searching for was simple enough; besides, we were going to see something that is honestly almost impossible to miss, the Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore. This mammoth church sits right in the centre of this historic city: its biblical beating heart, if you will. Clad in an impressive swathe of white, green, and pink marble, and topped with a huge red-brick tiled, octagonal dome, this monument to God is certainly one of the more ostentatious we’d seen.
Construction of the cathedral began all the way back in 1296 and wasn’t completed until 1436, but I guess, as they say, good things come to those who wait. That being said, I always find it a bit sad that the architect who first planned the building never got to see his idea come to fruition. Like so many others, this church was built atop the foundations of a far older one from the 5th century, which was crumbling from age and needed to be replaced in order to better serve the growing population. Although the structure itself was finished in 1436, the decoration of the exterior was ongoing until 1887 when the marble facade was finally completed. It may have taken almost 600 years to complete, but boy does it make a visual impact. There is something about its presence which inspires reverence, if not for God, at the very least for the thousands of hands who put it together.
Circling around it, gawping, we eventually came to join the queue we were searching for; the one which allows access up the 463 steps to Brunelleschi’s dome, so named after the architect who managed to find a way to build the damn thing. There was an inordinate amount of people trying to spruik tickets to the tower to tourists, but given the fact that we had pre-purchased ours months ago, we ignored them completely. Also, besides from seeming like a scam, I can’t quite figure out why they were proposing their tickets to people already standing in the queue.
Anyway, moving on, it wasn’t long before 10am rolled around and our time slot was being called forward. We ducked in the side entrance, went through the rigors of the security check, and were soon ascending the first part of the journey up. This section proved to be a challenge, especially for our first jaunt of the morning, with the steps being unusually high. By the time we reached the first small room, which houses a number of impressive replicas of biblical statues which adorn the church, our legs were hating us. Disregarding their protests though, we continued, and eventually reached the inner balcony which runs around the base of the dome’s interior. Aside from giving a sweeping view down into the transept, it gives a truly unique view of the breathtaking artwork which adorns the ceiling. So often frescoes are only viewable from a distance, the intense details and artistic prowess lost somewhat in the journey from art to viewer, but here, mere metres from it, I was floored to say the least. The painting, which took eleven years to complete, depicts the Last Judgement through a series of layers, and is lit almost ethereally by the circular windows in the domes barrel, as well as the octagonal opening at its apex. The lowest level depicts hell, complete with countless naked figures being tortured mercilessly by demons; think flaying, poking with sticks, etc. The next layer depicts earth, with almost as many naked people, as well as a good amount of death imagery. From here on up it is depictions of virtues, kings, saints, Christ, Mary, and a fair smattering of angels and cherubs, all of whom are perched on clouds amidst a heavenly blue sky.
Intelligently, there are signs reminding visitors to keep moving, and despite wanting to continue admiring the dome, it was time to venture to its exterior. Another stint of claustrophobic stairs, and we were stepping out into the warm morning sun to an spectacular view of Florence. Like all good historic European cities, it is a sea of romantic red-brick rooftops, yielding to more modern buildings in the distance, and mountains along the horizon. From amidst the sea pokes the towers of some of the city’s other landmarks, including Palazzo Vecchio’s signature clock tower. Even this high up, the detailed decoration of the church continues, with delicate stonework, meaning no matter where you look there is a feast for the eyes.
Unfortunately, we could not linger all day, and we made the long journey back down; afterall, there were plenty of other eager guests waiting to bask in the glory we now stood in. Unlike the cathedral in Milan, we were not delivered into the church but rather outside, and thus we had to wander round to the front to join the queue for entrance into the church interior. Given that this is one of the only free attractions in the city, it was unsurprising to find the line was quite long, but it moved swiftly, and with plenty of external ornamentation to occupy us, the half hour wait wasn’t all that tiresome.
Now, the first thing that hits you when you finally make it inside, it how sparse the space is. So many European churches are filled wall to wall with centuries worth of art and accoutrements, and yet Florence’s cathedral is much more restrained. That’s not to say there is no art here: a number of paintings and monuments adorn the clean, whitewashed walls; the windows, although few and far between, are beautifully stained; the floor, much like the exterior, is covered entirely in marble; and the altar is not gaudy but provides a venerable place around which to centre worship. In contrast to the subtle beauty of the place, much of the seating is, sadly, made up of singular chairs that look like they were pulled from a slapdash convention centre instead of the more traditional pews closer to the chancel. Despite feeling a bit scant, the under-adornment only serves to highlight the domes impressive fresco, and the other noteworthy feature which sits above the main entrance, a massive clock. I know, I know, a clock is just a clock, but this one is actually rather unique. Built in the 15th century, this one handed clock displays Italian time, an old 24 hour time measurement used until the 18th century which had the 24th hour fall at sunset, and is one of the only examples which still exists and is in full working order.
In the crypt under the cathedral, we found an interesting collection of remains from the church of Santa Reparata, the church which once stood on this sight. If nothing else, it is worth a visit just to see the remnants of the mosaic floor, from symmetrical geometric shapes, to a beautiful peacock, as well as a number of tomb capstones.
The cathedral is not the only site in the square here, and upon leaving we walked across to one of the city’s oldest buildings, the Baptistry of Saint John. Its exterior matches with its white and green marble, but its bones date back to 1059 when construction began. It may look like its twin across the way on the outside, but the interior is far more elaborate. Passing through its incredible bronze doors made up of panels of biblical scenes, into the somewhat dark centre, your eyes fly immediately from the modest baptismal font up to the ceiling. Made of painted and gilded tiles, the massive mosaic work covering the dome also depicts the Last Judgement, and is equally as breathtaking. Small and crowded, we didn’t linger long, but it didn’t take that much time to realise why famed names such as Dante and numerous members of the Medici family were baptised here.
Needing a break to rest our eyes and feed our stomachs, we nipped around the corner to grab some quick lunch from a hole in the wall sandwich place we had seen a gaggle of locals swarming around the day before. Today the crowd was gone, probably because it was a workday, and we gambled on the fact that its local popularity was probably well founded. It was a perfect example of doing a small menu of simple items, but doing it well. After picking our sandwiches from the menu, they were quickly slapped together and we were digging in within minutes. Boar salami and butter, spicy calabrese and cream cheese, roast pork and mushroom, all tucked in fresh, warm bread; as I took a bite from each of them I was in a kind of heaven you can’t make a temple for. My tastebuds might have been distracted, but I could literally feel the memory forming with every mouthful.
More than satiated, and wishing we had endured the line of the sandwich shop the previous day, we headed to our next cathedral related sight, the Museo dell’Opera del Duomo. This museum, which used to function as the workshop to oversee the construction of the cathedral in the 13th century, serves as a refuge in which to store precious artworks from the church, the baptistry, and the bell tower, especially the outside statues, and protect them from pollution and degradation over time. It was fascinating to be able to come face to face with statues which would otherwise have been too far away to see in detail if they had remained mounted to the outer facade of the church. Two of the most noteworthy pieces here are actually not statues though, but rather the original sets of bronze doors from the north and east sides of the baptistry. Brought here and restored after 500 years of exposure, it is amazing to see them in the kind of glory they would have stood in when they were first made by Lorenzo Ghiberti. When you take the time to really take in the intricacy of the panels its hard not to be in awe. The north doors consist of 28 panels depicting the life of Christ as well as the four evangelists and four saints; and the east doors, dubbed the Gates of Paradise, which took 27 years to complete, consist of ten panels depicting scenes from the Old Testament.
Alongside the countless statues there are also quite a few reliquaries, as well as relief carvings from the bell tower showing different occupations from stonemason to scholar, gilded crosses, and a number of models and tools used in the conceptualisation and construction of the cathedral, which neatly round off the collection. I was also impressed to see that the museum offers tactile exhibits so that visually impaired guests can still experience the art. There is access to a rooftop terrace here as well, which offered us a quiet place to admire a different perspective of the church dome and process all we had just seen.
By now, our legs had forgiven us for the morning’s stairs, and so we decided to treat them to a visit to the final matching building which makes up the complex in the cathedral square; Giotto’s campanile, the city’s bell tower which dates back to the 14th century. Once again dressed in matching marble, this narrow and empty centred structure reaches almost 85 metres tall, and we were, for reasons beyond hindsight’s comprehension, going to climb it. Luckily the trek up is broken by a number of midway levels where you can catch a different glimpse of the city, until you finally squeeze out of a tiny opening to the upper level. Now, much like how its far more fun to climb places which give you a view of the Eiffel Tower than it is to climb the tower itself, it was far more rewarding to be given a spectacular view of the cathedral’s dome than it was to look down from it. From this point of view, the dome’s structural feat can be appreciated far more than it can from ground level. Honestly, if you were only going to climb one monument in Florence, let it be this one.
With all of our sightseeing done and dusted, there was one little scavenger hunt we had planned to fit in; the hunt for a new leather jacket for me. You see, when my mum first visited Florence some five years ago, she had bought me a one as a gift, and after almost constant usage, my love of it was starting to show. As such, and with my birthday having just passed, I was on the prowl to find a replacement. Leading us to the store she had found by original jacket, we three entered, but after trying on one after another, I just couldn’t find one that looked anywhere near as good. Disappointed, we left, but a wander around the main streets, and popping into a number of other stores, we finally found one. The main problem is that I have broad shoulders, and finding a jacket to fit them but which I am not otherwise swimming in, it nigh on impossible. Eventually, taking into account the fact that my indulgence of food on this trip had left me a good few kilos heavier than my norm, I made the decision to settle for a design I liked which fitted my shoulders and which I would get altered when I returned to my normal life and normal weight. First world problems, I know. On the upside my mum found a jacket for herself in the same store; a stunning, reversible, long red suede jacket that suited her to a tee. The service from the shop assistant was impeccable, and we settled on a price reduction of over €100 for buying two jackets, as well as them agreeing to take up the sleeves of my mum’s jacket on the spot and emboss our initials on the inside of each.
With a little time to spare while the alterations were made, we did the rounds in the hope of finally finding a good gelato on our third attempt. In the end, we came to a unanimous decision on a shop, and, finally, we were devouring what this country is famous for, unparalleled culinary delights. After climbing 57 flights of stairs, according to my Fitbit, I think it was well deserved.
Picking up our jackets, we bid a fond farewell to this beautiful city, for tomorrow we would be moving on. As I lay in bed that night, I couldn’t help but think about how food orientated my memories often are. Ever since I was a child, if a moment wasn’t stored in my emotional memory or my photographic memory, it was likely stored alongside my memories of food, especially many of the ones from my early years. Whether this is due to my deep-seated love of food which led me to a career in the kitchen, or perhaps because my sense of taste is closely linked to how I personally process and store memories, the result is the same.
My mum has always joked that if I can’t remember what we were doing on a certain day, all you have to do was tell me what we ate and I’d remember, and I know that today will, without question, be one of those days. Decades from now, someone will ask me what I remember of Florence and those sandwiches will spring to mind. It will start with the texture and warmth of the bread, and the saltiness of the meat; then my mind will zoom out and I will be standing in that cobbled street between my partner and my mum, and my emotional memory will fill me with nostalgic joy; and with one last snap of a synapsis my photographic memory with gift me with the silhouette of the cathedral as it was on that day, its dome peaking up above the buildings. When those I love are no longer here, it comforts me to know that I need only search for flavours to find them again.