Florence: Unbearably Touristy

Duomo, Florence
Duomo, Florence

August 23 – 26, 2007

Photo set on Flickr

After a miserable week in London and Paris, we spent an uneventful but mostly insomniac night on a train to Florence. The most memorable event was probably after hearing our 4 countries over 17 days itinerary, our friendly French female cabin-mates totally ridiculed at our attempt to do something so foolish. Not to defend our naiveté, but even four days turned out to be too long for Florence. To be fair, I did spend a week in Florence in 2000 and loved the town, but I was reluctant to visit again because I really did not know what else was there to do. I wished for a longer stay in France, but gave in to my girlfriend’s wish for Florence.

Even so, after a week of sogginess and general uncomfortable weather in London and Paris, the suffocating summer heat in Italy I remembered so deeply couldn’t be more appealing at this point. Unfortunately, we were not greeted by the suffocating Italian summer heat when we took our first steps out of the train; instead it was the same damn drizzle like freaking London and Paris. Where is the sun in Europe!? Heat waves swept across Europe the past few summers, and this year it is incessant rain. The weather is getting wackier every year.

We pulled ourselves together and arrived at our B&B just across from the Bargello Museum. We greeted our host, who was from Montreal and settled in Florence after marrying an Italian. We quickly unloaded our stuff and kicked off the third leg of our trip with Bargello Museum. What happened the rest of the morning was a quick museum visit, an overpriced crappy lunch, and a tropical-like heavy pouring that left us with no choice but to retreat to our room and take a long nap.

Waking up to a ray of sunlight shining through our red curtain was the highlight of our trip till that point, which was kind of sad in a way. Perfect time to climb the Duomo, so we quickly got to the main square. We chose to climb the bell tower instead of the dome of the Duomo like most others because a panoramic view without the iconic dome would be pointless. The climb up the stairs was easy, and the view was just as wonderful as seven years ago. Everything was basked under the sun, casting an orange-yellow hue over the entire cityscape.

Pardon the cliché, but it really was a magical afternoon. The entire town lit up by the setting sun, and every buildings seemed to be radiating warmth from the walls and roofs. From Ponte Vecchio, we saw the sun disappeared into the Arno River, and for a change, being among hordes of other tourists didn’t diminish our appreciation of the moment.

We did all the standard must-sees like the Uffizi and the Accademia over the next day and a half. We blew our budget and tried some restaurants and had our share of gelato. At the end, we just couldn’t seem to be able to enjoy Florence. It was not because of the weather, as the sun did return for good. It just felt like, after the first afternoon, we had already seen the very best side of the town, and almost inevitably the mood couldn’t be sustained over the next couple days. Despite the huge amount of tourist money pouring in, a surprising amount of buildings in slightly off-the-beaten path areas are in complete despair.

When I touched on this subject of crumbling buildings with my B&B host, she mentioned that’s common across Florence because many landlords aren’t keen to put in the money for repair. She shared her own difficulty in convincing her landlord to lend her the current unit.

“The properties in the historic core of Florence are all owned by just a several families, which has been passed along for generations. All of my friends live outside of the old town, because everything is more expensive here and nobody can find available units. For some reasons, those big families have no intention to lease their properties in these prime tourist locations, and they just let these empty buildings to sit there. They are wealthy enough, and they don’t want to be bothered by the maintenance. So most buildings you see out there are actually empty, and it is kind of like a ghost town in low season because the locals don’t live here.”

“It took us a great effort to convince my landlord to rent us the two units we have now. She just didn’t want to bother. When we finally got the approval, the place had no water pipe and no electricity, since it had not been in use for a century. I am happy with how things turn out, but being a North American, it took me a long time to get over the fact that most Italian won’t be able to buy their own homes. You just have to rent for life.”

Worst, the historic centre is catered solely to tourists where everything is overpriced, the food (especially the gelato) mostly disappointing and the crowd smothering. I could tolerate the crowd more if I were being served and charged reasonably, but even comparing to my last visit I were surprised to see how the quality of the service sector had deteriorated. Service, no matter the venue, be it restaurant or public transport, was almost non-existent. The price tags would be barely tolerable if they were in USD, and totally outrageous in Euro.

Florence is still a beautiful town with an iconic cityscape and legendary art pieces like David and Birth of Venus, and I am fortunate to have been there twice. I also can’t help but feel the city’s best day is long behind it.

Note: After reading about this, I don’t feel as bad about the expensive meals we had in Florence.

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