Florence is situated in a river valley. The Arno River cuts east-west through the city. The neighborhood south of the Arno is the Oltrarno (“beyond the Arno”). On this side, the hills rise quickly from the banks. North of the river, where the main part of the city lies, the land is flat. In the summer that flat part is like a giant frying pan whose edges are the surrounding green hills dotted with trees and houses. With temperatures usually above 95 degrees by 9 a.m., humidity around 50%, and virtually no breeze or vegetation to cool things off, it is hot.
The heat made our first days in Florence a lot harder than we thought they would be. Our main priority was to avoid the heat, followed a close second by avoiding the tourists. Add to this situation our instinct to make our money last, and we found we weren’t really going to see the sights (we hadn’t yet discovered there are tons of wonderful things here that can be seen for free). Our apartment was no respite. We kept the windows closed most of the time to keep out the mosquitoes. We sweated out our days in the apartment studying Italian on our computer, reading, and watching bad Italian television. In the early evenings I would go for a run along the Arno and Melanie would do yoga in the apartment. She joked it was like doing yoga in a sauna (aka Bikram yoga). We needed an escape.
Our Lonely Planet book has been our guide on this trip, so we looked for ideas of what to see outside of the city center. South of the Arno is Piazzale Michelangelo, which affords excellent views of the city, according to the book. You climb up a steep and winding hill to find the piazzale crowded with many tourists and souvenir peddlers, but they do not compromise the view. You get a 180-degree view of Florence.
A bit farther south and higher up sits the Chiesa di San Miniato al Monte, a Romanesque church whose construction began in the 11th Century. That looked like just our spot. We wanted a sunset view of Florence, so we headed out after dinner. As we ascended the green slopes above Piazzale Michelangelo, the air cooled.
Despite the throngs who make the uphill trek to Piazzale Michelangelo, few people feel like walking ten minutes further uphill to get to San Miniato. We were glad they don’t. Only a few other couples were there. The church was closed, so we sat on the steps overlooking the city and watched the sunset. The air was cool, the view spectacular. We could see all of Florence: the Duomo, the Palazzo Vecchio, the bridges spanning the Arno. After the sun had set, the bells of San Miniato pealed over the Arno to the city, the bells of the Duomo returning their call. As we were experiencing sights and sounds countless people have experienced for centuries, one thought came to my mind: we have arrived in Florence.
Copyright Axel Schwarz