In my experience, I’ve found that the best way to get to know a city is just simply through wandering the streets and letting my feet lead the way. It is through this practice that I generally find hidden bookstores, delicious foods, beautiful cathedrals, unexpected views, or fascinating sculptures. This is how it was when I first explored the street of Florence, Italy during my semester abroad. I was swept up in a haze of wonder and excitement of being on my own in a new, exciting city with so much history, culture, and art around every corner.
Stepping out of my apartment I was only a few feet from Piazza della Annunziata that was a broad, open space with an equestrian statue of Ferdinando I surrounded by two fountains. The buildings surrounding it had high arches and steps filled with people just enjoying the day. Stepping into the square, the energy of the city was palpable. It was early in the morning but the people were teeming with life, walking across the cobblestone streets to get to work or running errands. However, in contrast to my home in New York, Florence’s morning rush was much more calm and collected. Even on my leisurely stroll, I found myself walking much faster than the locals who actually had destinations when I did not. I was so used to the fast paced attitude of New York that I was taken aback by this go with the flow frame of mind. I will admit that it would take me quite a bit of time to learn slow down.
From the piazza I could see a peak of Il Duomo di Firenze, the main cathedral in Florence, down the block. The streets were thin and lined with apartments and shops in shades of yellow and orange. The cobblestone streets acted almost as a runway to the main event, the magic of the main cathedral. The architecture of the Duomo is remarkable. It is mostly known for its iconic red dome and that surely popped the most to me at first. However, the closer I got to it, the better the view of the intricate carvings and designs in the façade and walls of the church. The time, patience, and attention to detail used to create such an elaborate building truly blows my mind to marvel on. I wandered around the cathedral taking in every detail I could. I could see carvings of the apostles and Mary with the baby Jesus, religious paintings, and complex designs. The colors of white, green, and red interlaced together all throughout the building offering structure and uniformity. It is one of those buildings that need to be seen to fully understand the magnitude of it.
The plaza it lives in is filled with shops and cafes so I stopped in one for a much-needed cappuccino to energize me for the rest of the day. My first taste of Italian coffee would convert me into a coffee addict. Since that cappuccino, my appreciation of high quality coffee truly blossomed. It was foamy deliciousness and my spirits were high as I sipped on the drink. I sat and watched Italian residents rush in for a quick espresso at the bar before work. I watched as tourists walked in and out for a quick pastry. I watched as older locals sat and read the paper while drinking their morning brew. I noticed I was starting to slow down and could feel myself falling in love with this city already.
After the caffeine boost, I continued onward, walking through street after street. I passed butchers, cafes, grocery stores, street art, and quaint houses. The smell of freshly baked breads wafted through the air. Laughter from teenagers drifted on the wind. I stumbled into unique thrift stores and antique shops marveling at every item as if it had its own story to tell of this city. My hands felt compelled to touch the hand carved trinkets and feel the authentic leather products. I was trying to take in Florence through all my senses. I wandered past more plazas, statues, and cathedrals each with their own style and architecture. I even stumbled upon the San Lorenzo Market, an indoor and outdoor food and goods market. The outdoors sections offered Italian leather goods, scarves, touristy trinkets, and jewelry. The indoor section offered fresh produce, spices, pastas, sauces, nuts, meats, fish, and other provisions. I watched locals buy their groceries for the week, people negotiating prices, workers creating handmade pasta, and butchers chopping up beef. I felt like I was a part of this new world. I was far across the ocean from my home but I was beginning to feel a sense of community all around me. The vibe was intoxicating.
Walking on and on, I came to the Arno River and couldn’t take my eyes off the view. The city surrounded the river on both sides with a few bridges that connected both sides. The main bridge, the Ponte Vecchio, was unlike anything I had seen before. Lined with buildings that are actually shops offering tourists jewelry, clothes and leather products, it was filled with people. While it was a bit over crowded, that first day, it was the perfect place to sit for a while. I perched up on the ledge and watched the people cross, take pictures, and shop. I had found myself in a whirlwind of sightseeing that day and it was necessary to stop to reflect. Sitting there I was able to truly appreciate the fact I had just arrived in a new city and would be completely independent for the next few months. I had so many adventures ahead of me that I could feel even then. The marvels of the European world were unfolding before me and in that moment, among the flurry of tourists, I was so ready to see what the next moment would bring.