I was lucky enough to live for three months in Florence (or Firenze), Italy a couple of years previously and every time it is middle of April I keep thinking about this beautiful, wonderful city, my favourite in the whole world. The city is really the cradle of the Renaissance, and it has practically remained unchanged from the Middle Ages, ensuring that each visit is one of a kind cultural and historical experience. Dante Alighieri (poet), Leonardo da Vinci (painter), Niccolò Machiavelli (philosopher), Galileo Galilei (physicist), Giovanni Boccaccio (writer), Filippo Brunelleschi (architect) and Donatello (sculptor) were all born in Florence or in its environs, among many other famous people. It is also a city of beautiful Catholic churches: Santa Maria Novella, Santa Croce and San Lorenzo, to name just a few, and the sites of natural beauty around the city (such as Fiesole hills) are also worth visiting and appreciating. Everybody knows about the landmark sites of the city – The Duomo, Piazza della Signoria, Palazzo Vecchio, The Uffizi, Ponte Vecchio and Palazzo Pitti, and, in this post, I would like to share some of my favourite, slightly off-the-beaten-path locations in Florence. All photos on this post are mine (though, at that time, I had a very terrible camera).
I. Casa di Dante (Dante House) (Museum)
It is rumoured that this was the house of Dante Alighieri, famous Italian poet, best known for his Divine Comedy . Now it is a three-floors museum dedicated to the times, life and work of Dante. Nearby, is also a little thirteen century church – Santa Margerita de’ Cerchi, where it is said that Dante first caught sight of his beloved Beatrice, a noblewoman. Some of Dante’s poems reflect the passion he felt for Beatrice, lifetime passion that was never consummated since both married other people (some even say that they met only twice in their lifetime). Even though the church is very simple and small, it is actually worth visiting because it contains tombs of Beatrice’s family and a number of interesting paintings. It even has a basket where people leave letters with their “love” prayers.
II. Spedale degli Innocenti (Hospital of the Innocents)
This historical building is situated in a beautiful square – Piazza della Santissima Annunziata. It was the first orphanage in Europe, opened in 1444, and it now houses the offices of the United Nations Children’s Fund. The most distinguishable feature of this building is blue “terracotta roundels” on Brunelleschi’s colonnade that show babies wrapped in bands. These were added to this building by Andrea della Robbia in 1487. The whole building and the square has this one of a kind, even eerie, atmosphere because of its historical and social importance, and the building even still has a rotating stone on which mothers left their unwanted children while ringing the bell and disappearing.
III. Giardino delle Rose (Rose Garden)
Most people will not have this site in the Oltrarno district on their city itinerary when visiting, but it really is a hidden gem which is worth visiting in Florence. It is not only a beautiful rose garden (it is rumoured to contain more than one thousand rose specimens), it is also full of unusual sculptures and there are hidden unexpected marvels to discover. The garden also offers stunning views on Florence as a whole since it is located on elevation just below the Piazzale Michelangelo. This garden was designed by Guiseppe Poggi in 1865, and among donations is the Japanese Shorai oasis, donated by architect Yasuo Kitayama, as well as some Jean-Michel Folon’s sculptures.
IV. Giardino di Boboli (Boboli Gardens )
These Gardens, situated in front of the Palazzo Pitti, were constructed in 1550 for the Medici, once the most powerful ruling family in Tuscany whose dominance lasted from 1397, when they established the Medici Bank, to the eighteen century. It is suggested that the name of the gardens “Boboli” is a corruption of the name “Bogoli”, a family from whom the land was brought to construct the Gardens. The Boboli Gardens are very large, and touring them is one of a kind experience since there is always something unexpected or hidden to discover at every corner, be it an eccentric sculpture or a hidden grotto. There are avenues dotted with interesting statues, a lake, fountains (such as the Neptune Fountain) and interesting vegetation.
Some tips for a visit:
All state museums in Italy are free on the first Sunday in the off season months, which means the first Sunday in the month of October, November, December, January, February and March. This can be worth knowing. The queues to large museums, such as the Uffizi, may be horrifyingly long on these days (some people wake up at 3 a.m. and already queue by 4 a.m. in the morning), but smaller ones and even Galleria dell’ Accademia, where you can see the famous statue of David by Michelangelo, do not have very long queues on these Sunday days.
The Fiesole commune of Florence, which is a fifteen minute bus drive from the city centre, is worth visiting for its natural beauty and also for the Roman Amphitheatre which is found there.
In term of things to buy, there are great prices on Chianti and pasta, and reasonably-priced leather goods are to be found on leather markets in the centre of the city, including leather-bound notebooks, belts, shoes and jackets. My favourite stationery shop was, needless to say, Il Papiro (there are a number in the city), and the most wonderful souvenir shop to visit in Florence is, undoubtedly, Signum – address: Lungarno degli Archibusieri, 14R, Firenze (there are also two other locations).