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A City with a View

Florence, Italy

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Florence, along with Rome and Venice, is one of the three cultural pearls of Italy. Sitting at the heart of the Tuscany region, and functioning as its capital, this ancient city has been through a lot over the years: yet it has endured, and along the rocky road has picked up probably more treasures than any other single city on earth.

There are several places that are absolute musts for Florence visitors. One of the best places to start is the Ponte Vecchio – ‘The Old Bridge’. And this is one bridge that sure deserves its name. First built by the Romans when the city was founded as a settlement for old soldiers in the first century AD, the bridge has existed in several incarnations since then, but remains solid on its ancient Roman foundations, which have barely budged an inch in two thousand years, despite all the depredations of floods, earthquake, and, more recently, Second World War bombs and shells. The bridge isn’t just any old structure designed to get you from one side of the River Arno to another, either: it’s almost a village to itself. Built up on either side of the roadway as it crosses the water are multiple storys of medieval shops, most of which are still in use today.

When you’ve taken in the Ponte Vecchio – there are several great views of it from the nearby grassy banks of the river – you can stroll into the center of the city. The whole of Florence is dominated by the Duomo (cathedral), whose mighty dome towers above the city. Although the architecture of this most graceful of churches was something of a team effort, the dome was the exclusive work of the great Florentine architect Fillippo Brunelleschi, who coordinated its building in the fifteenth century, as the whole cathedral was being topped off. Brunelleschi has to work had to get his fellow architects and the Florence city authorities to believe that his construction would actually remain standing. By the standards of the day it seems incredibly poorly supported by the surrounding masonry, and, if you stand beneath it in the interior of the cathedral, it can almost seem to be floating above you in space. At the time Church domes were traditionally built over a supporting wooden frame gantry which supported the structure as it rose. When a dome was completed, the scaffolding would be gingerly taken away and everyone would stand at a safe distance with their fingers crossed hoping it didn’t collapse. Brunelleschi’s idea was different: rather than using this method he decided to build the support into the structure itself, using the natural strengths of the bricks in its construction. His scheme, to build a dome out of spiraling layers of bricks, met with much skepticism. But it worked; and, like the Ponte Vecchio, the great dome has survived centuries of every kind of trouble that man and nature can cause.

Head out from the cathedral into the Piazza della Signoria, the central square of the old city of Florence. In the far corner you will see the Uffizi palace. The Uffizi was built in the sixteenth century on the orders of Cosimo di Medici, one of the great Medici family that dominated Florentine politics for the best part of four hundred years. It wasn’t intended to be a palace in which to live (in Italian, ‘palazzo’ can mean any grand building), but rather an administrative center for the local judiciary. That’s how it gets its name, which sounds a little less glamorous when translated into English: ‘The Offices’.

There aren’t many lawyers hanging around the Uffizi these days, as it has for many years been the home of one of the world’s greatest art galleries. Just about every Renaissance artist you can think of is represented in the Uffizi: Michelangelo, Caravaggio, Leonardo, Botticelli, Dürer, and some of the paintings and sculpture on show are among the most famous in the world. The price of admission alone is worth it to see Botticelli’s Venus. Be warned, though: on any given day you’ll not be the only person in Florence who’s set on looking around the Uffizi. In the height of summer the queues can be very long indeed.

If you feel like a little relaxation after some heavy culture-bashing, there is a good supply of bars and cafés within easy reach of the Piazza della Signoria. A stiff espresso and maybe a piece of one of the fantastic light, crumbly cakes for which the city is famous re just the tonic after staring at all those phenomenal works of art.

Don’t for a minute doubt that the exertion has been worth it, though: This is one city that has more to offer than you could realistically hope to cover in a long lifetime.

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