Four years ago I found myself in one of the most romanticized cities on the planet – Florence, Italy. The Renaissance, the Duomo, Da Vinci, the city is a cornucopia of dreamy images and special moments all waiting to be discovered. That’s the promise at least. When I finally did visit this city for the first time, I was anything but enchanted. In fact, I left not really liking the city at all. Travel is an intensely personal experience and what one person may love, someone else may hate. There’s no right or wrong and it’s usually dependent on us, our feelings and emotions and not the places we visit. I think that’s what happened to me in Florence the first time. I was in a bad mood, it was cold and rainy and all I wanted was to be somewhere warm, curled up with a book and a steaming cup of coffee. That’s one of many reasons why I was happy to see that Livorno, the closest cruise port to Florence, was included on the Azamara Club Cruises voyage I joined around the Western Mediterranean. I knew that a second visit would help me determine whether or not I liked Florence, especially since the ship docked overnight, giving us two days and plenty of time to explore. I am working with Azamara to help share the various aspects of the travel experience that make them different from most others, and as such I have been compensated for my time. As always though, all thoughts and opinions – good and otherwise – are entirely my own, and that’s certainly the case when sharing my experiences exploring Florence for the second time.
Seeing is Believing
How you decide to visit any new city matters, whether it’s on your own, with a guide or by joining a walking tour. Luckily, joining one of the Azamara-offered excursions that day allowed me to do all three. The drive from Livorno to Florence was an easy one, and spending some quiet time admiring the rolling Tuscan countryside was the perfect start to a day in one of Italy’s most beautiful regions. I’ve been on a lot of cruises and as such, have joined my fair share of excursions over the years. I like how Azamara constructs their outings though, even guided tours don’t feel guided, instead it’s a more free-flowing and immersive experience. That was certainly the case in Florence where the plan was to have some time with our local guide for the day as she shared with us some of the city’s most important sights, before letting us loose to discover Florence on our own.
There’s a lot to love about Florence, I can’t deny that. Many of the images we have of Italy all come from this timeless city, from Michelangelo’s David to the elaborate façades of the massive Duomo and Baptistery. The museum had loosened the rules since my last visit to see David, most likely bending to the fact that they can’t control cell-phone usage. I was thankful for that, for the opportunity to not only see what is honestly one of the world’s most incredible sculptures, but to try to capture some of its essence on film as well. I’m not normally an art guy, but David is different. He looks as if he could spring to life at any moment, creating a sense of wonder and awe in those lucky enough to stand in his presence. But no photo can do it justice, not really, just as no photo can do justice to any of the city’s most impressive sights to be honest. But we explored them all, from a panoramic view of the city to the congested square surrounding the city’s Cathedral, our guide for the morning did indeed show us the city’s most impressive monuments, but it wasn’t until I explored on my own that I started to gradually change my mind about the city.
Prosciutto & Gelato
Earlier on the walking tour our guide led us through a small alleyway behind the Uffizi Gallery onto a longer street and immediately I saw it. A massive line that seemed to stretch forever. I was curious what famous museum or monument was there, I wanted to know what they were all waiting to experience, so I asked the guide. She smiled and said, “It’s TripAdvisor’s fault, they’re waiting for a sandwich.” Yup, that’s right, in the super chic and stylish Florence, the most popular restaurants among tourists are the many Panini shops that line the streets, but especially along the Via dei Neri. It started with one or two of the very old and very established sandwich shops, or paninoteca, but quickly spread. Seeing the massive lines, new shops opened creating what is now a Panini Row of sorts in the middle of Florence. I’m not one to sit down for a multi-course lunch and since sandwiches are my favorite food, I knew I had to try one for myself. Once our guide let us loose for the afternoon, I practically ran back to the paninotecas and secured my spot in line, curious to see what the fuss was all about. The sandwich is simple really, any selection of meats, cheeses or veggies are served on fresh and massive hunks of crusty focaccia bread. I went with the classic, prosciutto with cheese and taking my sandwich to a nearby cathedral, I sat there on the steps enjoying one of the best lunches I’ve ever had. Sure, it was touristy but it was also tasty and fun, the perfect antidote to my ambivalence about the city.
That was just the start of course. With an eye on the time, I set off to get as lost as possible, an easy feat for me to achieve to be honest. As a result I explored sleepy side streets I’d never otherwise visit, getting a chance to escape from the tourists for just a few moments and to start the process of learning more about Florence. And for the most part, my strategy worked. Picking up a gelato for the walk, I ambled about with no clear mission in mind, I just wanted to experience the city. Having the opportunity to get to know a new city so personally is critical on any trip, and it made all the difference on my Azamara-led immersion of the city.
Looking back at my time spent exploring Florence, I can’t say that I’ve completely changed my mind about the city. I still don’t quite understand why millions seem to have fallen in love with it, especially when Italy has so many other cities that I think are honestly better. But I no longer hate it, I no longer want to avoid it. No, instead I have learned to respect what Florence has to offer and what makes it appealing. Incredible art, the cathedrals, the food and the quiet moments are all reasons to admire the city, and I’d say that’s the best term for how I feel. Admiration, thankfulness for what it has given the world over the years – this is how my opinion is still in the process of changing in regards to Florence. A lot of this has to do with how I chose to experience it a second time. Instead of flailing about on my own, having a local guide share with us what she loves most about her city made all the difference. I felt better connected to Florence than I had previously; I felt a greater level of immersion. Local experiences are key when we travel, how we get to know any new place. Sure, we have to see the famous museums and monuments, but we also need to go wherever the wind takes us, letting our own individual interests and curiosities lead the way. That was the theme of the entire Azamara cruise to be honest, perhaps best seen in Tuscany.