Visiting Florence was like attending a surprise party every day.
~ Jennifer Coburn
It’s no secret to anyone who knows me that Florence is not my favorite city in Italy. Before you Flore-philes start throwing things at me, please understand that my dislike comes mostly from the gazillion tourists that invade the city every single day. I am the first to admit that there is so much beauty in Florence, but it is difficult to see it when you are watching where you are going or trying to avoid getting hit in the eye with a selfie stick.
Unfortunately, the week I spent there this year was around the time of four Italian holidays: Pasqua (Easter), Pasquetta (the day after Easter), Festa della Liberazione (Liberation Day), and Festa del Lavoro (Labor Day). Let me just be blunt and say a boatload of people descended on the city while I was there this this time, and I spent a lot of time avoiding them and their sticks when I could.
That said, I do like Florence sans the tourists, and I find it and its history quite interesting. I thought I’d pass along five interesting facts you might not know about the city.
The Florence American Cemetery
Since it is Memorial Day Weekend, let me start by telling you that there is an American cemetery in Florence. Located seven miles south of the city center, the cemetery sits on 70 acres surrounded by wooded hills. There are 4393 resting there, and there is a marble Tablet of the Missing listing the names of 1409 soldiers missing-in-action. Most of the men buried in the cemetery died in battles after the capture of Rome in june 1944 and before the surrender of the Germans in May 1945.
Firenze, the Capital
Firenze (Florence) is the capital city of Tuscany, one of Italy’s 20 regions. Many people do not realize, though, that it was the second capital of Italy after it replaced Torino (Turin), in 1865. At the time of the unification in 1861, the Papal States still controlled Rome, and the Savoys of the Piedmont area were the ruling monarchs. Napolean, though, got involved and had a secret clause that transferred power from Torino to Firenze, and that was all she wrote. In addition to political implications, there were cultural ones, too. The Florentine language was the one the leaders considered the true Italian language, the language that Dante used in his works, the language that the masses could understand, and the language that would unify the country.
The Ponte Vecchio and Other Bridges
One of the most recognizable points in Firenze is the Ponte Vecchio (Old Bridge), one of three bridges that span the Arno River in the historic center of the city. The other two bridges, Ponte Santa Trinita and Ponte alle Grazie, flank the Ponte Vecchio. The original bridge dates to Roman times, but it’s been rebuilt, although the current bridge itself supposedly dates to the 14th century. Originally butchers and fish mongers occupied the bridge, so the water below was always dirty from the blood and pieces said vendors threw in. The Medicis ordered the food merchants away, and gold merchants replaced them. There is a law on the books to this day that prohibits butchers from selling there; only gold merchants are permitted.
During World War II, the Germans destroyed both Santa Trinita and alle Grazie, but the Ponte Vecchio remained as it’s said Hitler thought it too beautiful to destroy.
The Cattedrale di Santa Maria del Fiore (Cathedral of St. Mary of the Flower), more commonly known as “the Duomo,” (the dome) is another of the most recognizable sites in Firenze. Started in 1296, it was not completed until 1436, and even in that year there was still much to do. The façade was bare until the white, pink and green marble was added between 1876-1887, and the three bronze doors were put on between 1899 and 1903. The brick dome remains the largest brick dome ever built, and the church, at 89,000+ square feet, is one of the largest in the world. While it has 44 stained glass windows, the cathedral itself is relatively plain on the inside. If you visit, you’ll find that the cathedral is one of three buildings in the complex. The other two are the clock tower and the baptistery. Visiting the cathedral itself is free (although the line to get in can be very long), but you will need to buy tickets to climb the steps (483) to the dome or clock tower (414) and visit the baptistery and museum.
Instead of giving you another little historical fact, let me tell you something that might save you headaches and money: Be careful to follow the law.
If you read posts in many travel forums on the internet, you’ll find that Firenze has a reputation of being less-than-friendly to tourists because it has certain laws that many tourists don’t know about. These are the three in particular that affect most tourists:
• Do Not Buy From Illegal Street Vendors—The dudes selling “original” art, designer purses, or selfie sticks are not legit, and if the cops catch you buying from them, YOU can receive a fine of up to 7000 euro. I’ve actually noticed a decline in the number of illegal vendors in Florence since the police started enforcing the law.
• Validate Your Bus (& Train) Tickets—This is a biggie. You must validate your ticket as soon as you get on a bus or risk a fine of about 50-100 euro per person if you don’t. Inspectors get on the buses and check regularly in Firenze (as well as other cities), and they do not care if you don’t understand. To validate, you must stick the ticket into the machine on the bus so that the stamp prints on it. (Side note: This applies to trains, also. You must validate all tickets you buy at the train station before you get on the train. I was on a regional train two weeks ago and watched as SIX people got slammed with 75-euro fines for not validating. Tickets you buy on the internet are exempt from this rule.)
• Do Not Drive in the ZTLs—Take it from someone who knows this law. Most of the historic center of Firenze (and most other Italian cities) are Zona Traffico Limitato, or Limited Traffic Zones. Meant to reduce congestion in high-traffic areas, the ZTLs also help maintain the historic integrity of the various cities. You cross the boundary and think you got away without a ticket, but the cameras at the entrance of each zone catch everyone, and you will be home six months before you get that ticket in the mail just in time for Christmas. Even though we had to cross into the ZTL to return our rental car, we received a ticket eight years ago, and it cost us about $165. Had we not paid it, the cost would have almost tripled because the rental car agency would have added to the fine.