In fact, I’m not afraid to say that I even hate Florence.
Go ahead, tell me I’m crazy. Tell me how wrong and ignorant I am. Lecture me about how I should give Florence another chance.
It all will be for naught, however, as my mind is made up. After two separate visits to Florence, five years apart, I can firmly and definitively state: I will never go back.
I made my very first trip to Italy in 2006 at the age of 32. That means I’d had plenty of time to figure out what parts of Italy I wanted to see most and, at that time, Florence was at the top of the list. After all, it is the birthplace of the Renaissance and its historic center has been designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Such significance and distinction is why I wanted to visit Florence more than any other place in Italy on my first trip to the Motherland. Perhaps it was due to my extraordinarily high expectations, but Florence let me down. I was there with my sister, Felicia, in early October. We booked and stayed at a hostel just a few blocks from the Duomo. The hostel and its employees were great; we have no complaints there. But the city itself was disappointing; it just didn’t feel very… Italian.
Now, when I travel, I travel to seek out the authentic. I travel to become immersed in unfamiliar cultures via language and cuisine. I experienced very little of that in Florence (aside from the couple of outstanding meals we did enjoy). Walking through the streets of Florence, I rarely heard Italian being spoken. The throngs of tourists were unbearable. The groups of drunk American college students were embarrassing (and I’m American so I can say that). Everything was way more expensive than in any other Italian town or city we visited. After pleasantly enriching experiences in places like Assisi and even Venice, Florence was just miserable.
I know; you’re probably wondering, “How could Florence – home to David and other significant works of art – be miserable?” With only four days in Florence, my sister and I decided ahead of time that we would not spend all of our time waiting in line to get into the museums and galleries. If the lines were bearable, fine. But if the wait was hours-long, we’d have to skip it. That’s what ended up happening, except for Galleria dell’Accademia. I wasn’t going to finally get to Florence and not get in to see David. Luckily, I’d found out about a service that allows visitors to buy tickets and reserve entrance times in advance, so as to bypass the long queues. It was worth the few extra Euros, but a similar service is not something I’d want to spend money on for the other museums and galleries in the city.
Almost five years later, I was back in Tuscany, staying at a villa in a small Tuscan town about an hour away from Florence. This time I was there with my husband, our then-two-year-old daughter, and my mother. We spent our days visiting towns such as San Gimignano and Pienza, and then someone in our party suggested going to Florence. I objected at first but then thought it might be nice for my husband and my mother to see the city (this was their first time in Italy). I also hoped that I would have a much different experience than the first time I was there. Both my husband and my mother now will tell you that they wish to never return to Florence. They, too, were turned off by the crowds, the lines, and the prices. We couldn’t get out of the city quickly enough. As for my experience, I found it to be even more crowded and more miserable the second time around. It was challenging, also, trying to navigate a stroller through the hordes of people. Never again, I vowed.
All this being said, Florence does have some redeeming qualities. I do have a few fond memories from my two trips to Florence, mainly involving the Duomo, or Cattedrale di Santa Maria del Fiore. I didn’t expect to react the way I did when I first saw it back in 2006. Here is an excerpt from a post I wrote on my original blog about the first time I caught sight of the Duomo:
I read in my Lonely Planet guidebook that when people first lay eyes on the Duomo in Florence, they are stopped dead in their tracks. They are so awed by the sheer size and grandeur that they are left speechless and motionless. Upon reading this, I thought to myself, “Yeah sure. It’s just a big church. That won’t happen to me when I see it.”
It happened to me.
Felicia and I were busy talking and not really paying attention to where we were when, all of a sudden, we rounded a corner. I happened to look up and caught a glimpse of just a sliver of the Duomo. I stopped dead in my tracks, mouth hung wide open. Goose bumps rippled up and down my bare flesh. I was in awe. My words and pictures could never do justice to this amazing and magnificent structure.
Felicia and I went inside the cathedral later on and lit candles in memory of our grandmother who had passed away six years prior (we were there on her birthday). It was a special, touching moment for us. When I visited again in 2011, I brought my mom inside the cathedral so she and I could again light candles in my grandmother’s – her mother’s – memory. No matter how much I dislike Florence, I will always cherish the memory of witnessing my mother overcome with emotion as she lovingly remembered her own mother.
Another Florence favorite of mine is Ponte Vecchio. It’s visually stunning and architecturally fascinating. Here’s what I wrote about Ponte Vecchio after my first visit:
It is the only bridge to have survived German bomb attacks during World War II. Some stories claim that Ponte Vecchio was spared as a result of Hitler’s direct orders not to destroy it; the beauty of the bridge supposedly captivated Hitler himself. Felicia and I spent a lot of time on and around Ponte Vecchio, and up and down the banks of the Arno. It is quite a picturesque area but I felt compelled to stay there probably because of all of the history it contains.
Piazza della Repubblica is nice, too, but Felicia and I were harassed by and recipients of unwanted advances from unsavory men each time we walked through there. One night, two men even followed us as we walked back to our hostel. It was the only time we felt unsafe and uncomfortable anywhere in Italy. Luckily, we were able to lose the two creeps before we got to the hostel.
Florence is a fine city. It just isn’t for me. I appreciate the history, the art, and the beauty. But the crowds ruin it for me. Unless someone offers to show me around in such a way that I don’t have to deal with hordes of people and long lines, I probably won’t ever make another trip to Florence in my life. The rest of the world can enjoy it without me.
Have you been to Florence? What do you think of the city? Have you visited another city or place that turned out to be a complete disappointment?