Ask people what’s their favourite thing about the city and many will tell you “getting lost”.
There is something exhilarating about wandering the cobblestone streets and seeing where they take you, sure (or hopeful) to emerge from some seemingly commonplace alley into a dramatic piazza with masterpieces peering at you from every edifice. Now, possibly more than any time of the year, you will be rewarded for taking time to become a fully-fledged urban explorer.
With the rise of urban life in Paris during the industrial era, Charles Baudelaire, and subsequently Walter Benjamin, philosophized that the flâneur is a figure who wanders through boulevards, peers in shop windows and ambles about passageways. This roaming character is no clueless passer-by; they are keen observers, honing in on the minutiae, studying the city. Sensible to surroundings, the flâneur is affected by what they experience. The notion of “unfamiliarizing” is essential to the practice. The view is that when you’re lost somewhere, you go out of your way to pay attention to visual cues, making them something significant. Italians are particularly adept at the process of walking for walking’s sake, perhaps without being aware of it. The time-honoured tradition of the passeggiata would make Baudelaire proud.
You thought there was just one way to get lost in a city? Guy Debord offers us détournement, or rerouting, and the concept of the dérive. Situationists developed on the dérive’s goals, which are to study the terrain (psychogeography) and the emotional disorientation that is experienced on being lost, but pleasantly so. Essentially it boils down to drifting. And where better to meander than the Renaissance city? With its layers of history, the memories overlaid and embedded within the very fabric of the place, it is a kind of reverie city. The dreamlike mixes with magic when fairy lights are added, blending with the hushed whispers, excitable shouts and endless chatter as year after year of Florentines and Florence-lovers amble the streets looking for gifts for loved ones and seeking out the festive decorations.
For my own festive flâneur-ing/dérive-inspired excursion, I made it my goal to allow my mind to subconsciously lead me (aimlessly but not pointlessly) throughout the centre, seeing how the lights of the city altered and shaped my soul-searching direction drifting. Starting from The Florentine offices near piazza Santa Maria Novella, I was coaxed by the crowds towards via de’ Tornabuoni and its giant bauble that has seemingly crashed to the cobbles. The opulence of the lavish lights twinkling stylishly gave a pep to my step and I happily carried on towards the 16th-century Mercato del Porcellino, with the city emblem of the lily proudly lighting up the historic streets. With via dei Calzaiuoli’s starry baubles shimmering and via del Corso’s Christmas pudding-like decorations adorning my trail, I was quite jollily soaking up the festive spirit, casting aside any urges to grumble about the hordes of people blocking my path, using it instead as an opportunity to revel in the tiny fragments of the city mosaic. Admittedly, I wasn’t lost, but I was letting my mind create the route rather than consciously seeking out certain spots. Whether they are stars, baubles, parcels or icicles, they imbue the city with a kind of magic, drawing and enchanting me the way they do many fellow strollers, even slowing down the frazzled commuter, forcing them to engage with the sparkle dancing overhead.
In a world of mass media, the reign of the ego and our eyes constantly glued to screens, it is more important now than ever to stop. Look up. And appreciate the simple beauty of light. My rule? Leave your phone at home. I’ll grant you a notebook and pen to jot down your personal flâneur-ing philosophies, but really the activity is best experienced with the least amount of distraction possible. There are those who disagree with me and many apps have been created to make urban wandering more social. If that sounds like more your thing, there are plenty of active communities of psychogeographers who record their thoughts and feelings while exploring spaces. Whichever way you choose to make your personal map of the city, the experience is bound to grant you an enhanced, more profound perspective on the spaces and places of Florence.
I decided on the title of this article before I knew where it would take me and, equally, that is what the definition of flâneur-ing really is: putting on your shoes, closing the door behind you and wandering until some part of your curiosity-filled soul is satisfied.
LOST (AND FOUND)
Embrace your inner psychogeographer without ever truly getting lost with these four urban exploration apps, if you really can’t let go of your phone.
The Dérive Urban Exploration App gets you lost and allows you to share the experience with others
Serendipitor is designed for you to enter a starting point and destination, and “displaces” you from an efficient route
Random GPS is a route-muddler that engages you in a never-ending journey
Drift asks users to look for something others might not have noticed and then upload it to the app