It must have been the third time I had come across the unassuming facade of a small church, white columns illuminated at night in a dim yellow glow and reaching up to a plain second level with modest belltower on top. It appeared at the junction of a darkened alley and small cobblestone road, wedged in among terraces of apartment blocks and surrounded by a few parked cars and more parked mopeds. It was an unspectacular scene in a city such as Florence, and clearly there were very few tourists who had ventured down this particular street. Yet somehow I had ended up here three times, seeking a way out of the tangle of alleys and streets to the solace of my hotel bed.
It had all started off so well, arriving in the city centre on an impressively fast train from Milan, just in time for lunch off the giant square of Piazza Signoria. Around the corner, my budget hotel room sat behind a huge wooden door and up five flights of stairs but it was amenable and comfortable, albeit with what is likely the world’s smallest shower. Freshly showered, I loved walking down those stairs and out of that door into a tiny alley that funnelled onto the grand piazza, with decadent statues and imposing arcades around the fortress-like towers of the Palazzo Vecchio. From here and down alongside the Uffizi Gallery, with its never-ending queues, I came out onto the River Arno, and to my right, the ramshackle arrangement of buildings that line the Ponte Vecchio drew me along.
Things seemed to worsen with the onset of a thunderstorm and though I hastily and successfully retraced my steps, the atmospherics had changed. Rather than cleansing and refreshing, the rain left a residue of water, channelling the hot summer dirt of a city into pools and leaving a gritty film across its cobblestones. The darkness of clouds and the howl of winds created a doomsday of Dantean proportions, where it seemed only a matter of time before arches would crash to the ground and the earth would open up and swallow the array of sculptures congregating in every square. And out of this darkness came a new hell, an army of revitalised mosquitoes, hungry and thirsty for blood.
It was into this post-apocalyptic environment that I returned after dark, only to find I may have been over-egging the scene, as the rain had passed, the lights were still on and people had returned to the streets in pursuit of a heavenly combination of food, music, art, and animated conversation. I was ready for a quieter night and content just to seek a bite to eat; any music, art or animated conversation would be a secondary outcome. A modest goal, but one with just enough vagueness to prove my undoing.
I don’t get lost very often. I mean proper lost, like I don’t know where the hell I am or where I am supposed to go. Typically I have this in-built radar that can orient my position, the direction in which to head, and the way to get there. Even a few minor diversions and detours generally become easily rectified. But on this night indecisiveness about what to eat and the setting in which to do it said hello to the labyrinthine streets and alleys of Florence to prove a frustrating concoction. My complacency to not take a map or read where to eat first or to just settle for the first option compounded this. And while there was an initial sense of excitement and discovery about losing yourself in the city, by the end I was footsore and sweaty and hungry and mosquito-bitten.
Now, I can hear you saying that surely there are many places to eat in Florence. I can hear you loud and clear. Indeed, if I was to head left or right, north or south, I would be guaranteed some pizza or a bowl of pasta or a juicy hunk of Bistecca alla Fiorentina. The issue was finding somewhere that most closely resembled the idealised image I had in my head, the concept that best met my needs: quiet but with bustle, tucked away in some quaint little alley but not far from the main tourist drags, a place that was reasonably priced and, importantly, a spot where you wouldn’t feel too much of a loser for being there on your own while others dined on spaghetti like a couple of trampy dogs in a cartoon. Significantly, the fact that I wasn’t in a pasta or pizza mood didn’t help one bit.
The night now turns into a blur, one street looking like the next, rows of mopeds cluttering the kerbs, buildings tightly clumped next to and on top of each other. Amongst them the occasional grander building decorated with neat columns and fancy cornice work would be memorable landmarks from which to navigate, but here they are ten a penny. Each of these streets seems to flush out onto a small piazza, where five others shoot off, like the legs of some grubby Italian insect. The disorientation is palpable, only occasional guidance provided by the giant glowing beacon of the Duomo, which is never in the direction in which you thought it should logically be. The river is somewhere, and eventually I come across it, and can backtrack along its banks to my hotel room. For dinner, two hours later, some takeaway tagliatelle from the tacky restaurant five doors down.
For the rest of my stay in Florence I decided to take a map in my back pocket. It turns out you can still embrace the pleasures of ambling aimlessly around the streets while having a destination in mind (and occasionally checking a map to ensure you are on course). The glimpses of Duomo on the first night cemented my desire to explore this centrepiece further. Towering over the rest of the city it should be fairly easy to find, though the constricted density of the streets mean you can approach the square in which it sits without a sighting until the very last moment. Where a laneway takes a sudden jolt to the left or right, as if it had wholly shifted five metres in an earthquake, a glimpse of the Duomo almost magically emerges in the gap of air between window shutters and washing.
Having located the huge cathedral without incident, further steps took me on a breathtaking climb to the top of its belltower. And while my heart rate slowed and breathing recovered, I was taken away by the expansive view over the city. From this godly vantage you can understand how easy it is to lose yourself in the melange of terracotta roofs and earthy brickwork. Streets appear to disappear, with only major thoroughfares visible, radiating out from the larger piazzas in perfectly straight slices. There is a strident hum of business thrust upwards from those streets and I can see the tops of heads clustering and flowing in all directions, some of which are no doubt getting lost.
From this height I can also see beyond the packed cityscape that jams its way along to the north bank of the Arno. Across the other side, hills rise and buildings begin to scatter, marking a more gentrified, palatial part of town. This is where the rich people would have gathered and set down their extravagance in showy mansions and gilded villas and trigonometric gardens. Here there is the perfect opportunity to lose yourself in a different type of Florence, a manicured Florence that is perched on the doorstep of the Tuscan countryside.
Across this side of the river the behemoth of Palazzo Pitti is eclipsed by the grandiose Boboli Gardens which spread from its back door. A route into the gardens was typically not the easiest to find, an indistinct hole in a brick wall leading me into a rambling paradise of manicured lawns and fountain embellished ponds, unkempt meadows and leafy woods. The gardens are a great place in which to lose oneself, to take a breather from the manic buzz of life to the north of the Arno. In fact, you may emerge atop a hill and forget you are in Florence altogether, casting an eye south and east over rambling olive groves and cypress pine perforated by the odd beige and sienna villa. A Tuscan landscape with the pomp of a city behind it.
The ticket to Boboli Gardens also includes entry to another, smaller breathing space nearby: Bardini Gardens. I don’t think so many people make it here which, to me, makes it even better. I am not sure why fewer visitors come here. It’s certainly less grand than Boboli and if you are pushed for time I suppose you may skip the opportunity, wary of garden fatigue. Naturally it’s not very well signposted so some people may get lost on the way and give up. I almost did the same, but retraced my steps, took a different turn which did not seem logical and then found the entrance which just looked like the front door of a posh house.
Within, the gardens are less manicured, woody and leafier and dotted with an assortment of faded terracotta pots and crumbling walls. It’s more difficult to get lost, which on this trip is starting to sound like a blessing. A main path zigzags its way back down to river level, stopping off on the way at a weatherworn terrace offering some of the best views of the city. Those infamous city streets, a crammed conglomerate of buildings whose blanket of roofs is penetrated by the spires, towers and domes of all the major sights, glowing in the afternoon sun. Those streets into which you again spill and navigate with increasing mastery. No need for a map again, happily lost.