Florence was ludicrously relaxing for a number of reasons. For one, the heat was similar to Rome’s, generating a laziness that allowed for quality slacking. For another, our hostel was unparalleled in terms of luxury: it had arctic, full-blast central A/C, free internet, free breakfast, single beds (no bunks!), spacious, pristine bathrooms. As though being this pampered was not enough, every night they served free pitchers of sangria and a “snack,” which one night amounted to a free dinner, and the next was slices of watermelon and plums soaking in ice water. I think maybe they have now upgraded and have nubile Italian youths to serve you peeled grapes.
Part of the relaxation came from a mixture of attraction fatigue and cheapness. Especially after Rome, we were not as keen to be running from every end of the city to see the next Big Thing. For that matter, many of Florence’s Big Things charged obscene entry fees, including the churches, which in other cities and countries had at least attempted to maintain a semblance of dignity through large, prominent, though mostly voluntary donation boxes. We still hit up the main attractions like the Duomo and Ponte Vecchio, especially whenever we found something free (really, walking around Florence is the biggest attraction anyway, and they haven’t found a way to charge you for that. Yet.).
One thing we could not pass up: the Uffizi Gallery. Enormous and sure to contain countless wonders of art, we eagerly queued in the obnoxiously long line. Boiling hot, I left the line for a while to pick up some over-priced bottles of water at a market off Ponte Vecchio (warning if you travel continental Europe: learn the local word for “sparkling” or “carbonated,” as you will find that water not all that refreshing to your delicate North American tongues). As we stood in line patiently, an elderly gypsy woman staggered up to us and muttered some rapid Italian, shaking a cup at us. I could not tell whether she wanted money or some of the water we were prominently carrying, but I didn’t want to dump water into her cup and wet her currency if she was after the former, so we tried to demur as politely as we could with mime. Angered, she spat more rapid Italian, slapped me in the stomach, and went on her way, not approaching any other people in line. Both Zach and I, as well as the pleasant ladies we were talking to, became convinced that she had dropped a curse on me.
The food was another reason we began to move slower. True, the further you get out of the city-centre catering to tourists, the better the cuisine gets, but this is saying a lot as the restaurants in the downtown area were still spectacular. On the previous claim, though, when we did venture out, the food often became transcendent. One day when I became terribly lost, I decided to keep walking for a while before I reoriented myself, and ended up fairly east in the city. I found a gelateria, wandered in, and during orderly became rapidly aware that the woman behind the counter had no English. I was shocked, not because she should have had any English, but because I had managed to veer far enough out of the tourist zone to where it didn’t make business sense to bother with foreign languages.
I then began to measure the likely quality of food based on how inaccessible an establishment was to me. If I had to walk a far distance and work harder to communicate what I wanted to eat, it just seemed like it would be better, that the Florentines would be hoarding their best food for their countrymen rather than the damn tourists. As such: the gelato was mind-bendingly awesome, and on a recommendation from the hostel, I tracked down a fine restaurant (seemingly mostly for couples; I was on a bro-date with one of the pleasant travellers I had met in Rome) where the waiters walked out with enormous, unseemly slabs of uncooked beef and asked you to gesture at how much they should cleave and cook for you.
I went to that restaurant with Erwin, who had come to Florence the day before Zack and I, a pleasant Australian who threw out an open invitation to the whole hostel, but received only my interest (the allure of free sangria overwhelmed the desire for Italian food in all the other guests). Over dinner and cheap wine, we discussed how easy it was to make friends, to engender sudden intimacy in near-strangers: that we could even talk about the ease of friendliness seemed like something one wouldn’t discuss with a newer acquaintance back home.
After dinner, eager to wander, we sought out a rumoured outdoor bar on an embankment under a bridge, going on vague directions, lost navigational skills from the wine, and the lack of any readable map in the dark. Along the way, Erwin managed to stumble into a posse of Australian girls he knew from home (Aussies: they are highly common in Europe, you are gathering), who accompanied us on the search. We eventually found it, along with others from our hostel, wedged into a sandy expanse, listening to an English language band playing on a makeshift stage.
The other brief travel companion for Florence allowed for further lazing. The next night, we made plans with just about everyone in the hostel: en masse, head up to Piazza di Michaelangiolo, bask in the open air, and watch the sunset over Florence from a breathtaking vantage point. While I have often made myself out to be that guy at the hostel, I can without reservation declare that our hostel was packed full of that guys/girls, as most of them flaked in favour of sitting around and getting terribly drunk. Did they not realize that they could be doing the same while looking over the entire city, rather than the enclosed courtyard of our hostel complex?
As we were leaving, we threw it out to the whole of the gathered crowd once more: anyone interested in seeing nature’s glory over the Tuscan horizon? A woman who had just joined the crowd looked around, seemingly shocked there were no takers, before sheepishly raising her hand. This was Indira, and she instantly hopped along on our long walk. We began to worry that we would not make it in time, that the sun would just plummet beyond the sky once we reached the Piazza, but of course we reached the last step just in time for the bottom crest of the sun to hit a nearby hill. On a Eurotrip, you begin to feel like The Universe is Always On Your Side, even though it’s usually just prudent planning and good timing on your part.
We ordered a bottle of red and ate olives and dry crackers while nearby, a guitarist strummed English-language standards, well aware of his audience. It seemed picturesque, Kodakian, special and unique: I was able to block out the fact of the numerous other tourists sharing exactly the same experience not two feet away at the other tables, so rapt was I in my illusion of individuality. As we walked by the hostel, we continued to sing standards to one another, giddy with wine and “Oh, Europe!” euphoria.
To sum up my theme: Florence was relaxing. Where the swelter of Rome made one feel pressured to be constantly moving and exploring, the boil of Florence lulled one into a pleasant doze. Nothing seemed frustration-worthy, even the number of attractions that proved too expensive to bother entering. There was plenty of entertainment to be had relaxing in the shade in a park.
On that last note: while Zack and I lounged in a nice public park beside some fort or another, we discovered some Mormons wandering around, bringing people the News. In Amsterdam, I had seen who I now assume to be the same Mormons (probably not, but don’t we all like the story better this way?), dashing across a busy road to enter the train station. One assumes, so that they could more quickly and efficiently escape the sin. I was so dumbstruck by their presence in that city: Mormons, despite their, you know, being regular people, seemed like such a North American, and specifically American, phenomenon. They seemed out-of-place, an anageonism, and I kicked myself that I didn’t get a picture of their flight. In the middle of a heavily Catholic city, I felt the Universe on My Side Again, and I snapped a few shots of them pleasantly approaching some bewildered Spanish tourists. I enjoy the simple things, internet.