August 20 2009 by Sam Lowe
One of the initial impressions many people have of Florence, Italy, is derived from a photo or painting of the dome of the Cattedrale de Santa Maria del Flore (Il Duomo) as it rises above the city, a giant multi-colored sphere hovering over the landscape. It's an image that has been recorded countless times by artists using oils, acrylics and watercolors, and by photographers using slide film, zoom lenses and digital cameras.
So it's only natural that when those who maintain that image arrive in Florence, one of their first quests is to find the exact spot where so many have stood to capture that scene. I was among those who asked the question, and discovered that the solution is relatively simple:
Take a city bus to Michelangelo Plaza, walk over to a low retaining wall and there it is. And it is beautiful, almost beyond description. The Duomo dominates the scene, just as it does in all those artistic renditions, and several other lesser domes dot the view so there's an urge to take photo after photo from every angle possible. There's also a towering bronze replica of Michelangelo's "David" right where the bus stops, and it's also worthy of close attention.
Once you finish there, the city itself beckons your quick return. And, although the plaza is located atop a hill, it's not a steep incline so walking back to the city proper is an easy hike, even for those of us who have reached the age of unquestionable wisdom, also known as senior citizenship. On the way back, you'll encounter a variety of photo-worthy scenes, ranging from smaller churches to quaint back alleys. The walk will also take you across the famed Ponte Vecchio, an ancient bridge over the Arno River that for centuries has been lined with shops selling gold and silver jewelry, trinkets and souvenirs.
Florence is one of the most beautiful cities in the world. It is also one of the most pedestrian friendly cities in the world. Tourists and locals alike can wander around the Piazza della Signoria, the heart of the historic center, with no fear of being run down by a car or truck. The piazza features a free open-air sculpture exhibit that includes another copy of Michelangelo's "David," this one done in marble. The real "David" is in the Galleria dell' Academia, a short distance away. It is a flawless work of art, but if you go there, be forewarned that there's a healthy admission fee and photography is not allowed. If they catch you taking a picture, you lose your camera.
But again, the centerpiece is the Duomo. The huge Gothic cathedral was started in 1296, consecrated in 1436, and the interior can hold up to 20,000 people. The actual dome that covers it is an architectural masterpiece, and for a small fee, visitors can climb the 463 steps to the top. Two other structures in the immediate area are also in the "must visit" category. The Baptistry of John the Baptist, built in the 11th century, features three sets of amazing bronze doors; the Campinile (bell tower) also affords another great photo opportunity for those who buy a ticket and climb the 414 stairs.
All that climbing and snapping is bound to make you hungry, and a multitude of open-air restaurants, small cafes, markets and even some fast-food venues abound in the area to ease the pangs.