My love affair with all things Italian first blossomed when I was in college.
My roommate, a bubbly Italian from a tightly-knit neighborhood in Racine, Wisconsin invited me to meet her parents, immigrants from a tiny town in the hills of Tuscany.
Her family was a joyful and noisy bunch, welcoming me like a favorite child, stuffing me with homemade pastas and rich tomato sauce, crusty breads and decadent sweets.
Her plump mother, cheeks rosy and brow damp with perspiration, bustled from kitchen to dining room carrying a parade of platters and bowls.
“Mangia! Mangia!” she commanded in Italian and I happily obliged. They declared me an honorary member of their Italian family and I knew then that someday I would go to Italy. They say Il Duomo is visible from everywhere in Florence.
Years removed from college dreams, I learned I would be making a business trip to Florence, the soul of Italian culture and beauty. Indulging in hours of research, I scoured guidebooks and art books, paged through travel magazines and explored every nook and cranny of the Internet searching for the heart of this center of beauty and culture.
Thanks to a college art history course, I knew about the Palazzo degli Uffizi, Italy’s premier art gallery, once a Medici palace, now housing the finest art collection in the country if not all of Europe.
I’d heard that Il Duomo, Brunelleschi’s extraordinary fifteenth-century domed cathedral, towered over the city and that as a foot-weary wanderer I could spot it from almost any vantage point in Florence and use it as a beacon to return to my hotel.
I knew that Florence sheltered some of the most magnificent art and architecture treasures in the world. But I was not prepared for the city’s magnetism.
Florence is a walker’s dream, compelling and enticing. I was drawn to the narrow streets that twisted and turned, leading eventually to magnificent plazas guarded silently by lustrous marble statues.
Along the boundaries of the piazzas, I discovered tiny cafés bustling all hours of the day and into the evening with chic Italians lingering over strawberry-topped cream cakes, truffle sandwiches and champagne.
Stealing time when I could, I indulged in a window-shopper’s fantasy world. I strolled past the stylish shops of the Via Tournabuoni where elegantly sparse shop windows showcased exquisite clothing and shoes and handbags. I peered into bookstores barely wider than a phone booth, crammed three-deep with browsers.
One day, I quietly joined mink-clad grandmothers gazing at an exquisite window display, exclaiming in soft Italian over lace-trimmed infants wear and tiny baby booties.
I was in love with the city and like any first love I wanted to experience it all.
Early each morning before attending to the business of the day, I made my way to the Piazza della Signoria, a six-block walk from my hotel and in the heart of Michelangelo’s old neighborhood.
There, before the daily parade of tourists descended on the attractions surrounding the nearby Duomo, I sought out the clutch of elderly men gathered around stone benches at the fountain.
I watched from a distance as they debated loudly, gestured vigorously and punched the air with their fists, adding emphasis to fierce opinions. Softly-cooing pigeons waddled at their feet.
Across the plaza, women jostled baby buggies over the rough cobblestones. A black-robed nun hurried past, hands tucked into her broad sleeves, shelter from the morning chill. The city was coming to life.
It is said that you can cross Florence on foot in a mere 30 minutes, but I doubt it has ever been done, and I can’t imagine why you would want to.
Every corner flaunts a new vista — a towering cathedral or museum showcasing exquisite Renaissance treasures, a bustling café or little family workshop where closely-guarded trade secrets have been nurtured by generations.
One day, stealing time from a meeting, I wandered off a narrow sidewalk into a tiny furniture shop. The pieces on display were simple but elegant, beautifully proportioned.
As I touched the graceful arch of a chair the proprietor, a slight elderly man, moved toward me and grasping my hand, led me to the cramped workshop tucked in back. With teary-eyed pride, he showed me the tools he’d used to craft the exquisite chairs, chests and small tables.
He spoke no English, and I only halting Italian, but no words were needed.
On my last day in Florence I set my sights on a walk to the Arno River and the renowned Ponte Echo for a serious look at the gold, silver and leather shops dotting its span.
Once again Florence caught me in her grip and distracted me countless times along the way.
Drawn off the crowded sidewalk to narrow grocery stores, I lingered at windows filled with wheels and creamy wedges of cheese, marinated olives, shiny eggplants, strings of garlic and huge tins of olive oil.
I marveled at the juxtaposition of Florence’s food and her architecture. The color palette was exquisite: subtle sepia and taupe, russet and gold, elegantly soft green and delicate apricot.
My gaze was drawn time and again to the harmony of window arches and tile roofs, carefully stacked bread loaves, subtle-green olives, and long strands of pasta drying over smooth wooden poles.
At lunchtime, I stopped at a pizzaria, giving in to the rich enticing aromas and inviting casualness of the standup food bar. Lunch, I reasoned, must be followed by a sampling of Italy’s famous gelato, arguably the world’s best ice cream.
Then it seemed appropriate to stop for an Italian coffee at a busy pastry shop, an afternoon pick-me-up to fuel the remainder of my journey.
And so I wandered, this way and that, eventually reaching the Arno River, where I ignored the gold and silver shops and instead visited the cavernous Uffizi gallery when I saw there was no waiting line.
The collection was breathtaking, much of it originally the private art of the Medici family of Tuscany and containing masterpieces by Michelangelo, Leonardo de Vinci, Botticelli and many others.
As the afternoon light waned, I was momentarily unsure how to retrace my steps to the hotel. Then I spied the towering Duomo. Heading toward it, I easily found my way back to the center of the city.
As I prepared to leave Italy, I knew I had underestimated Florence and how much of my time she would demand. There was so much to see and absorb that I resigned myself to returning home with many sights on my must-see list unchecked.
When I return (and I must—I’m an honorary Italian), I’ll go first to the Piazza della Signoria, to eavesdrop on the men gathered at the stone benches in front of the fountain. I am confident I’ll find them as I left them, deep in debate.
Then, charting my course by the towering Duomo, I’ll set out to uncover more of Florence’s secrets.
This “Traveling Writer” column was one of many published by newspapers throughout the Midwest.
Photos by Betty W. Stark