Italy. It’s a destination that so many people dream of visiting, swooning over the idea of fresh gelato on every corner, pizza pies swinging wildly in the air, and gorgeous and impeccably dressed Italians perched on their Vespas, just waiting to whisk away cute foreigners. French writer Henri Stendhal famously came to Florence in the 19th century and was so overwhelmed with its beauty and art that he fainted. And lo! The Stendhal Syndrome was born, referring to the sensory overload and subsequent mental combustion caused by too much glorious art.
So, when an opportunity to spend a week housesitting in Florence over Christmas break presented itself, we jumped at it. I’ve actually never had an overwhelming interest in visiting Italy, which is why despite living in Madrid for a year and traveling to Europe for many summers previously, I still hadn’t been to the continent’s boot. I figured it was about time to change that. I should go! Of course I’d love it, how couldn’t I? Sticking true to my travel philosophy of “I’ll go wherever an opportunity presents itself,” I figured this was a sign to make my Italian debut.
Imagine my surprise when I didn’t love Florence, the heart of the Renaissance, the city which gave birth to the men (and a few women) who transformed the modern world. Galileo, Dante, Da Vinci, Michelangelo, Botticelli, Brunelleschi, Donatello (not the ninja turtle) all created their masterpieces in Florence. Screw all roads leading to Rome, because Florence was the first city in Italy to have paved roads. The Florentine dialect is what gave birth to the Italian language as we know it today. So yeah. This place was the epicenter of culture and art and history and how could someone that studied anthropology and archaeology not love it?
Don’t get me wrong – I’m sure there are many beautiful, authentic, untouristy places to visit in Italy. Of course. It’s a huge and diverse country. I’m not in any way equating our experience in Florence with the country as a whole, though I have to say that it doesn’t make me raring to jump on a plane to see Rome, another tourist haven. Given the right circumstances and connections with someone in Italy, I’d love to go back and have a true Italian experience. I suspect that Florence wasn’t.
In the presence of such greatness, there is such a tremendous pressure to “see the sights,” take the appropriate photographs, eat the appropriate things. People sometimes express concern, confusion, or even scorn if you don’t do “what you’re supposed to do” in whatever country. I’m still waiting for the Guardians of Florence to have me jailed in the seventh realm of Dante’s Inferno if they ever find out I didn’t visit a single art museum in Florence (shhh don’t tell). Don’t get me wrong – the Duomo was absolutely incredible to see and it is probably one of the most impressive buildings I’ve ever laid eyes on. And it was hilarious to watch the little nerd boy in Veren excitedly talk about how he climbed the cathedral’s outside in the video game Assassin’s Creed.
Florence is on its surface, beautiful, which is what makes it such an incredibly touristy city. It contains lots of lovely art and buildings and food that far-flung people fling themselves closer to try to visit, all smashed into a relatively small area from which there is no escape. Other insanely touristy cities like Paris, New York, and London have their respites, places where locals go and hang out and live. I love all of those places, even if they’re too expensive for me to entertain the idea of living in them (right now). Yet Florence is too small to easily escape the madness unless you’re a pigeon and can fly above and away. I tried and failed (see photo below).
Add insane drivers that I swear must get into their cars gleefully chuckling about how many people they can nearly run over before they arrive at their destination (crosswalks and yield signs seem to be strictly optional in Florence). Now throw in the fact that there is a huge amount of these sucky cars because public transportation in Florence isn’t great. The city is trying to rectify the traffic problems with new tram lines, leading to a massive amount of construction everywhere. Finally, it seemed like every car had a serious muffler problem, and you’ll get an idea of the noise level in Florence.
At the risk of sounding like yet another whiny American when her hopes and dreams are dashed by the reality of a city, let me stop for a moment. This isn’t my first rodeo. I’ve traversed this continent of Europe many times and I don’t say this to sound obnoxious. I say this to underscore the fact that I have a lot of cities against which to compare my experiences, and Florence just didn’t add up. And I’m in good, well-traveled company with my opinion – popular travel blogger Landlopers described Florence as standoffish and like an “elaborately staged production.” I wholeheartedly agree. I didn’t even have a romanticized view of Florence before coming in. I knew nothing except that there were lots of art museums there. I’m not such a big fan of stuffy and pricey museums, but I figured that since Florence is a city of 400,000 people, surely these people do things other than go to art museums!
I’m not sure if they do though, because the city seemed two-faced. There are the brightly light touristy streets, and then around the corner there are dilapidated residential buildings. The city does not seem to do much for its residents and Florentines equally do not seem to care about maintaining it (read: lots of dog poo strewn on sidewalks, although to be fair, Madrid has the same problem).
So sorry Florence, you didn’t pass the “I’d live here” test. But that’s okay. At least you had great vegan food. And not liking Florence was an important lesson for my growth as a traveler and has cemented my firm belief in slow travel. If I’m honest with myself, I felt like I “needed” to go to Italy because I hadn’t been to one of the bigger countries in Europe and I felt like I should. Everyone assured me that I would love it and squealed about how jealous they were that I’d be spending Christmas there. But I don’t care about checking places off a list anymore (and this is coming from someone who used to keep a list of all the UNESCO World Heritage sights that I visited).
I care more about connections with people who live there, learning about what they do and how the culture is different in small or big unique ways. Even though I didn’t understand it, I still liked learning that Italians don’t sit and sip their espresso, but down it while standing at the bar. Much different to the Spanish way of enjoying a café con leche on an outdoor terrace for an hour. I enjoy discovering these little things about a culture, something that is almost impossible to do without making meaningful connections with people there. Cultural insights take time – there’s a reason why anthropologists spend months to years in field sites in order to come to a better understanding of a particular culture. In order to get a richer experience, you need to meet people, have meaningful conversations, and have time to just sit and observe.
For this reason, Florence also made me appreciate my current home city of Madrid that much more. I’ve spent a lot of time here at this point. I can’t pretend to be an expert on Spanish culture or history, but it’s safe to say I know a thing or too, which makes me appreciate the city and country so much more. And even though Madrid is the capital of Spain, it’s not an insanely touristy city – in a good way. Sure, there are tourist areas, but the city is not flashy or in your face about its palaces or landmarks. Madrid is beautiful yet still affordable, full of history and culture, has a vibrant alternative arts scene and (obviously very important to us), delicious vegan food.
I’m more excited than ever to spend the next few months uncovering even more hidden corners of Madrid and sharing them here with you. And don’t worry, even though we didn’t like Florence, we do have nice things to share about the city in our vegan guide to Florence!