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Florence: land of art and culture

Jonathan van Bilsen



June 1, 2014

Florence: land of art and culture

When one thinks of a city, often a feeling or mood becomes associated with it. Paris for example is considered the city of love, whereas London brings to mind fashion, New York is theatre and so on, but when it comes to art and museums there are none other than the Italian renaissance city of Florence.

Nestled on the banks of the Arno River, Florence has long been the cultural capital of Europe. I recently came back from my third visit to this spectacular city and must admit that this stay, like the previous, was as if I had never been before. I was surrounded by artistic splendour and expected Michelangelo to greet me at any moment.

Prior to visiting Florence you should know that there are no automobiles allowed in the downtown part of the old city. Even taxis need special permits and parking is unheard of. If you are doing a driving holiday, arrange for a hotel on the outskirts of town or leave your car far away and take a taxi to your downtown hotel. I stayed at the Hotel De La Ville, located on the main shopping street and within walking distance from anything worth seeing in Florence. Another point to note is that hotels in Italian cities charge a city tax upon checkout. The tax is anywhere from 3 to 5 Euros per person, per night.

Now enough of the housekeeping rules, let's get down to sightseeing in this beautiful city. The first stop is the Cathedral of St. Mary (Santa Maria del Fiore). It is the 4th largest cathedral in the world and not to be missed. When you arrive at the square beside the church, find an outdoor cafe (there are many of them), order an espresso and just take in the sheer magnitude of the place. You will be amazed at the attention paid to detail on the facade. Give it a minute and you will begin to notice the artists sitting on stools, painting different views of this architectural marvel.

Begin your walk and go to the front, but prior to entering, check out the doors on the “Gates to Paradise" across the street, which all had to pass through and become baptized before entering the Cathedral. They are covered in gilded bronze carvings of scenes from the Old Testament. Like most churches in Europe the inside is elaborate and somewhat ostentatious and, whether you are religious or not, one has to appreciate the time, effort, sweat and tears that went onto the building of this Cathedral.

My next stop was the Uffizi Gallery Museum. It is important that you arrange for tickets a day or two ahead of time. This is the case in most museums in Italy; otherwise you will face a lengthy lineup, if in fact you get in at all. I find audio guides to be very useful when touring these establishments, as you can pick and choose what you want to view. Tour guides, although knowledgeable, can be hard to hear, even with earphones, but more importantly, you are herded with a large group. I appreciate art, but I am no connoisseur and when I get bored of looking at a piece I want to move on and not be stuck in an assembly. The audio guide allows you to do just that.

It does not take long before you feel tears well up in your eyes as you suddenly stand face to face with Botticelli’s ‘Birth of Venus’, as the sheer beauty of her emerging from the sea shell mesmerizes you. Paintings by da Vinci, Michelangelo and my personal favourite, Ruben, come to life before your eyes. My intent was to stay a couple of hours, but suddenly it seemed a day would not even break the surface.

Eventually I had to leave, as there was lots of Florence just waiting for me to explore. I made my way along the Arno River to the famous Ponte Vecchio Bridge. Crossing it can be difficult, as both sides of the bridge are lined with jewellery shops (mostly gold and silver). People are everywhere and the excitement is buzzing, but keep your purses and cameras close. Although I experienced no problems, the area can be a haven for pick pockets. 

As you cross the bridge the shops continue endlessly along the street. If you are looking for jewellery and can't find it in Florence, there’s a good chance you don't need it. Another wonderful product the city is known for is fine leather goods. The San Lorenzo market, located by the San Lorenzo Church near Duomo (again within walking distance), has souvenirs, trinkets and leather goods. I was looking for a new leather jacket and checked the place out early in the day. I saw the one I wanted and bartered a little, but the seller would not meet my price, so I left, only to return just before they closed. I managed to get the jacket I wanted for the price I wanted, which turned out to be about a third of what it would cost in Toronto.

My next stop was the Accademia Gallery known for many things, but most famously for Michelangelo’s towering statue of David. The audio guide takes you to several different rooms, all excellent in their own right. They act as a lead up to the world renowned sculpture. No matter what anyone tells you, there is no photo or video which does this piece of art justice. When you see the veins in the hands and the muscles under the skin you expect it to come alive at any moment. 

The statue stands in the centre of a rotunda (it has to, as it is 5.17 metres (17 ft.) high) and dwarfs tourists walking around it, with its soft, ominous features. Benches are lined around the rotunda, for you to sit and admire the work. Because of its sheer size, Michelangelo was concerned the head and torso would look out of proportion when viewed from the floor. He therefore sculpted the head and shoulders much larger and out of perspective, but when viewed from the bottom, they look exactly as they should. The hands and arms are also enlarged to make everything appear the proper size. 

The sculpture of David is created from one piece of marble. Halfway during the 3 years it took to carve, a local bishop told Michelangelo that he made his sculpting look extremely simple, and asked what his secret was?. Michelangelo replied, 'The statue of David rests within the marble. I look until I see it and I begin to chip away the excess stone. What is left is the statue, which was inside all the time.

Before you leave Florence be sure to get a ride to the top of Piazzale Michelangelo (Michelangelo Square). The view is unbelievable and you can see the entire city, made up mostly of red rooftops and lots of greenery. Be sure to wear a hat and sunscreen if you go in the summer months, as Italy, especially on top of this vista, can be extremely hot. You may feel energetic and decide to walk up, but I would suggest you save your energy and, if you want to walk, do it on the way down. It takes about 45 minutes but is much easier than walking up. 

Florence is spectacular and a week may not be enough (of course I find that everywhere I go), make a list of everything you want to see and just… go.

Jonathan van Bilsen’s photosNtravel TV show can be watched on RogersTV and YouTube. To follow Jonathan’s travel adventures visit

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