Odd museums, secret passageways and local delicacies - check out the sides of Florence your guidebook might not tell you about
The Tuscan capital of Italy is in itself a masterpiece of artistic inspiration, spawning the birth of the Renaissance and firing up the talents of countless heavyweights on the A-list of creative geniuses. But lining its narrow streets and medieval piazzas half-hidden trattorias and designer boutiques have also earned Florence a reputation for tantalizing cuisine and hip-as-hell fashion.
1. According to UNESCO, almost a third of the world’s art treasures reside in Florence
- not bad for such a small city. The main viewing galleries include the Uffizi, the Bargello and the Academy.
2. A monument of architectural genius in its time, the Cathedral of Holy Mary of the Flowers, known as the Duomo, dominates the Florence skyline and is the second largest church in Italy after St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. You can climb 463 stone steps into the cupola for a close-up of The Last Judgement and a sweeping view of the city.
3. In 1817, French author Henri Stendhal staggered around the streets of Florence emotionally overwhelmed at the aesthetic beauty of the city. His symptoms of dizziness, palpitations and panic attacks on seeing so many exquisite works of art gave rise to the condition, medically diagnosed as recently as 1982, known as Stendhalismo.
4. Specialities of Florentine cuisine include tripe - the stomach lining from a cow – and slightly more appetizingly, bistecca alla Fiorentina, a mammoth, char-grilled t-bone steak.
5. To immerse the senses in two of Italy’s great passions, visit the Mercato Centrale, one of Europe’s largest covered markets, where edibles and decibels vie for attention in the hullabaloo that can only be found in Italian markets.
6. After torrential rainfall in November 1966, the River Arno rose more than 5.2 metres. In two days 35 people were killed and hundreds left homeless as the city, and many of its treasures, was engulfed by silt, sewerage and water. ‘Mud Angels’ as they came to be known, flew in from around the world to help with the massive clean-up and restoration process.
7. To provide private passage between the Palazzo Pitti and Palazzo Vecchio, a raised passageway was constructed in 1565 running through the Uffizi gallery and across the Ponte Vecchio. The Prince’s Passage, known as the Vasari Corridor is one kilometre long and contains a vast collection of artwork. Tours need to be booked well in advance.
8. Between the 13th and 18th centuries, lions were kept in a den in front of the Duomo for the amusement of the citizens and became the symbol of independence for Florence. You can see this proud symbol engraved on every cornerstone and doorstep of the Ponte Vecchio.
9. Michelangelo’s statue of David was originally commissioned to adorn a buttress of the Duomo but now stands in the Gallery of the Academy. A copy also attracts the camera-clickers in the Piazza della Signoria.
10. The centre of the city is split by the River Arno and whilst most of the principal attractions lie north of the river, a number are scattered in the more artisan district to the south, an area known as the Oltrarno – literally translated as ‘beyond the Arno’.
11. Florence borders the vineyards of Tuscan Chianti country, birthplace of some of the softest reds in the world. A bottle with the gallo nero (black rooster) classification is a Chianti Classico, guaranteed heaven in a bottle
12. The Galleria degli Uffizi is the single most visited building in Italy with some one and a half million admirers passing through each year. It’s housed in what used to be the administrative offices of the city’s most famous family, the prosperous Medicis.
13. The Ponte Vecchio, now occupied by goldsmiths, was the only bridge spared by Hitler as the Germans retreated under the advance of the American 5th Army in 1944.
14. Celluloid artists have also been enchanted by the beauty of Florence capturing the city for big screen audiences in films such as Tea with Mussolini, A Room with a View, The Stendhal Syndrome and Hannibal.
15. One of the oddest museums to be found anywhere must be the Salvatore Ferragamo Shoe Museum, where footwear fashioned from dyed fish skins are among the 10,000 exhibits of privately commissioned shoes. Imelda rules no more.