Since arriving here, I’ve been asked many times what I think of Florence, both by curious friends back home and by city-proud locals. There’s no doubt that I love Florence, and I fill my reply with various clichés: the food is delicious, the culture second-to-none, the people so welcoming. Although this answer is hardly untrue and represents my experiences closely enough, I now recite it without a second thought, without even the briefest examination of my specific emotions. Perhaps it’s time to step back and probe more closely my reactions to Florence. Sight, smell, taste, touch, hearing: every morning when I step outside, Florence bombards all my senses at once.
Even now when I walk past Santa Maria del Fiore on my way to work, I do a double take: Do my eyes deceive me? There is something mirage-like about the way in which the flat, marble façade of the cathedral rises suddenly from the ground, glistening white, pink and green, monumental and intricate, with sculptures of prophets and popes looking benevolently down from their niches. I feel dwarfed, and in the best possible way.
Having spent a year studying History of Art at university, I have pored over hundreds of photographs of Florence’s best-loved art in the hope of understanding their visual effect. Entering a room in a gallery or turning a street corner and seeing one of these works in real life, in the flesh, is—and I hate to use such a hackneyed word—emotional. Not only do I immediately get a sense of scale, texture and colour, I actually experience the painting, sculpture or building in question. My day-to-day landscape is populated by the art of my academic dreams, and it’s all slightly surreal.
In fact, it can sometimes get too much. After six hours in the Uffizi one day, drinking in the blues, reds, greens and burnished golds, repeatedly awestruck when faced with each new Giotto, Leonardo or Botticelli, I suddenly felt quite dazed, almost numb. The place is humming with hundreds of years of human creativity, and it’s exhausting to behold.
The unparalleled feeling of early-morning sun warming my back and a gentle breeze rustling my hair, the soothing chill of ice-cream, the welcome blast of a cold shower after a long day. Granted, these are clichés, but they are also some of my favourite things about Florence. Perhaps, when handled with care, clichés are alright; after all, they must have come about because they express a general truth, a feeling many people share.
My days in Florence see a constant battle between the hotness of the sun and the coolness of the shade. The heat is sometimes so ferocious, so unremitting, so enervating. Yet I know that I’m going to miss it, and miss even more the excuse it presents to lounge under a tree in the Boboli Gardens or to lie on the crisp, cool sheets of my bed with a good book.
When I pop into my favourite gelateria on my way home in the late afternoon, I am hit by a delicious chocolate scent so strong I can almost taste it. I even step into the shop when I can’t afford a gelato, just for that wonderful whiff.
As I sit in my little room in the evenings, the enticing aromas of my landlady’s cooking float through the window. Sometimes pungent and tangy, sometimes sweet and delicate, these fantastic smells are unlike anything in England.
I wax lyrical about Florence’s food to anyone who will listen. But what makes it so special to me? Real mozzarella is an absolute revelation: here it actually has a taste as well as a lovely moist fleshy texture. The same goes for Florentine tomatoes. And the coffee! I’ve traded in my usual afternoon tea for a bittersweet shot of caffè macchiato, and I couldn’t be happier.
I love sitting and soaking up the hubbub of central Florence: the chimes of the campanile, the clatter of shutters, the shouts of vendors at the Mercato Centrale. But my favourite sound has been the Italian language.
While at first, conversations with my long-suffering landlady were somewhat stilted, now we chat away for ages; I still make mistakes, but now have the confidence to attempt to express myself. I love being able to catch snippets of conversation between locals and take delight in hearing someone use an idiom I’ve just learnt.
Florence is a sensory cocktail: to be appreciated to the full, it must be absorbed through sight, touch, smell, taste and hearing—all combined. Yet only by separating them can I start to articulate my first impressions of this city. And if I ever feel myself becoming desensitised to Florence, if I ever walk past Santa Maria del Fiore without a second glance or swallow a caffè without savouring its taste, I can look back at this record of my initial excitement and remember why Florence is one of my favourite places, in every sense.