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Saturday, March 28, 2015

A Visit to Florence - the City of my Dreams

Dr. Nihal D Amerasekera

I have always wanted to visit Florence having read about its history as a teenager. Almost five decades later came my chance to fulfil my dream. After the winter snow and storms spring must be the best time to see central Europe. I chose my time well to visit Florence in May last year with my friend and colleague Fida, an effervescent Jordanian. There were flowers in great abundance and the trees appeared a brighter green with the new foliage for the year. The people seemed happy to greet the warmth of the spring sunshine. 

Florence means flower. I couldn’t have described its beauty any better.  The city lies in the middle of the Italian peninsula and is the capital of the region of Tuscany. It is a city of half a million people living mostly by the Arno river.  We arrived at the sleepy Vespucci airport on a  warm Thursday afternoon. Despite the lack of urgency to process our papers and send us on our way there were plenty of smiles and politeness to make up for it. We arrived at the Grand Majestic Hotel which was neither grand nor majestic. But it was cosy and comfortable and the service was prompt and proper. 

The city was founded by the Romans in the first century B.C. After the excesses and decadence of the barbaric ages its resurgence began between the 11th and 15th centuries. The Medici family ruled Tuscany from the 15th century and transformed the city to its present glory in art, culture, politics and economic power. In 1860 Tuscany became part of the Kingdom of Italy.  Florence remained its capital and became the summer retreat and playground for the rich and famous European aristocracy.  

The survival of so many fine Gothic and Renaissance buildings is part of Tuscany’s immense appeal.  The shape of arches, doorways and windows give a clue to its style and when it was built. Tuscany has been at the forefront of the artistic revolution and record the transition from the stylised charm of medieval art to the pristine beauty of the Renaissance. The Medici family were responsible for commissioning some of the great works of Renaissance art and are remembered with much affection by the Florentines. 

The best sights of the city can be seen by foot as they are encompassed within a small area. The Cathedral forms the focal point to this historic city. Its eight sided Dome was designed by Brunelleschi. The sheer beauty and size of the frescoes on the interior of the dome took my breath away. The door on the east side of the baptistery was named by Michaelangelo as the Gate of Paradise and contains the detailed carvings from the Old Testament. There are numerous galleries and museums to vet the appetite of the occasional tourist and the seasoned connoisseur. My favourite  was the Uffizi. It was completed in 1580 as an office building but later assigned to display the Medici art treasures and is the oldest gallery in the world. There are ancient Greek and Roman sculptures and a vast collection of art from Gothic to High Renaissance. It took us a whole day to absorb the beauty of this marvellous treasure and would have taken us a lot longer if we allowed our emotions to take control. Botticelli’s Birth of Venus, Leonardo Da Vinci’s Annunciation, Michaelangelo’s  The Holy Family, Raphael’s Madonna of the Goldfinch and the many works of Rubens, Van Dyke, Caravaggio and Rembrandt kept us busy and focussed. The sensuous painting of Venus of Urbino by Titian was my special favourite for its sheer artistic brilliance although it was condemned at the time for portraying a Goddess in such an immodest pose. 

Florence is a treasure trove of history art and sculpture. To appreciate its elegance one requires diligence energy and enthusiasm. Fida dealt with our flight plans  in his own inimitable relaxed style and I  took over the controls on the ground. There were times when the whole effort seemed overwhelming. When our enthusiasm failed we took to the Florentine cuisine. Fida is an orthodox Muslim and he looked for a menu without pork and alcohol. The many types of pasta and pizzas cooked in virgin olive oil suited him well. I kept to a cholesterol filled western carnivorous diet with lavish amounts of red wine to wash it down. I tossed a coin whether to refuse the brandy at the end. Fortunately my hotel was just a stones throw away from the gourmet restaurants. Fida most generously took part in the inebriated discussions about my jaundiced and light-hearted view of the world. I left the restaurant having solved the human problems that were fomenting since the beginning of time. 

The river Arno runs through the city. In the summer it is reduced to a trickle and its pollution rises  to unacceptable level. Its most famous bridge is the Ponte Vecchio. There are many goldsmiths at work here exhibiting their wares in the shops on the bridge. Built in 1345 it survived World War II. The bridge is specially attractive at sunset viewed from the embankment. The Gothic church of Santa Maria Novella  contains some of the most important works of art in Florence. The church has a marvellous fa├žade of inlaid marble.  

The local economy depends on tourism and industries like textiles, jewellery pharmaceuticals, glass and ceramics. Much of the jewellery is still produced in the Ponte Vecchio to be sold all over Europe. The Boboli gardens are not to be missed. It is an excellent example of Renaissance landscape architecture formerly owned by the Medici family. Its hedges with geometric patterns and the tall cypress trees show an unusual but pleasing contrast of shapes and sizes. 

In the Academy Gallery the most famous sculpture is Michaelangelo’s David (1501). He is the person of David and Goliath fame. The anatomical detail of the sculpture is absolutely stunning. The size and proportions of this work of art shows his brilliance and genius. 

We walked the length and breadth of the city many times over absorbing the atmosphere and appreciating its ambience. By the end of the week the bricks and mortar made us claustrophobic and we decided to take a short bus ride to the Piazzale Michaelangelo at the edge of the city to get a panoramic view of Florence and the river Arno. That was indeed a breath of fresh air!! 

The public transport in Florence is good, clean, cheap and punctual. I did not see the massive traffic jams. There were no rows of vehicle standing still behind traffic lights spewing toxic emissions. The scooters and motor cycles were seen in great numbers zigzagging their way past pedestrians. We never saw the blue haze of pollution common in the big cities. The main train station opposite the Santa Maria Novella church is modern and computerised. I realised how cheap it is to travel by train compared to London.

During our stay we had remarkable good weather. The days were hot but not humid and the nights were warm enough for people to gather in the squares of the city centre to wine and dine and also listen to classical and popular music played by buskers and local bands. The Florentines seem to enjoy a wonderfully relaxed outdoor lifestyle. Many of them spoke English and were helpful. I never saw the infamous Latin temper. 

Florence exhibits unparalleled beauty and sophistication. There was no let up in the sheer richness we saw and experienced. A week would be the minimum time required to appreciate its vast treasures and the extraordinary beauty of its lush green countryside. We left the city with a sack full of pleasant memories and a heavy heart.

We took the return flight to London from Pisa which was an hours train journey from Florence. The trip past olive groves and vast acres of vineyards was a treat and gave us a cross section of life in Tuscany.  Some lived in small shacks in screaming poverty whilst others lived in plush palaces. Five thousand years of civilisation, religion, democracy, socialism, communism and even the European Union have failed to change this. We live in such an iniquitous world.  

The sheer physical sensation of being in Florence is powerful and exhilarating. Its splendour and its enduring charm will remain a magnet for travellers for centuries to come.


  1. Thanks for sharing your memorable visit to a place of culture and beauty. It makes me wonder about what we mean by progress when history reveals places like this which display advanced cultures of a bygone era. You paint a lovely picture with words but I would have still liked to have seen some photographs which you undoubtedly took.

  2. Mahen, ciao a tutti
    Thanks. I did take many photos - there was some digital malfunction and I lost the images. As you know photography is not allowed in the museums and Galleries. I did think of inserting some from the internet but then there is the issue of copyright etc. So I am afraid all I could do was to paint a picture with words. It is most certainly one of those "must see" places in the world.

  3. Thanks! And you are author of this 'brilliant, genius' of an article. You verbally transported us to beautiful Florence. We enjoyed the views and the magic of the land you describe. Thanks again!
    from Zita

  4. Thanks Zita for your kind comments. As always your encouragement helps us all to keep the Blog alive. We look forward to hearing your music that has transported us to those happy years in SL.

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