A significant factor in traveling is not the physical journey or the destination but the personal encounters along the way. Conversely it is often the ability to travel alone, be at one with yourself and learn about who you are or the person you want to become. Over the past few years I have been away on my own several times and I thoroughly recommend it. Exploring the subtropical forests and canyon of Taroko Gorge in Taiwan, getting lost on a motorbike on the Vietnamese island of Phu Quoc and walking the streets of frozen Helsinki have been just some of the events in my life that I genuinely think would have not been as magical had they been spent with someone else. Not that I am anti-social, or weird, or a loner but that I’m an introverted person. I see my introversion as a strength. I’m not sure I would have moved to South Korea if it wasn’t for my introverted nature, and if I hadn’t done that I wouldn’t have gone on the adventures that I have been fortunate enough to have had over the last three years.
All the above being said, traveling alone can at times be lonesome. The oddest thing is that it is often in the busiest places; the bustling streets, the heaving subway stations, the crowded markets, where this empty, almost depressing sensation comes from. Florence was one of these places for me. From Milan I took the Le Frecce to Florence. The train glided south and the Italian landscape flickered past the windows. After disembarking I walked to the small guesthouse I had booked that very morning. A nice Italian girl greeted me and sat me down in the office. She made a phonecall and suspicions that there was a problem with my booking were quickly being aroused. Angelo, the guesthouse owner arrived and explained in a very amicable and charismatic manner that the third party booking site had made a mistake. Kindly he had contacted a fellow guesthouse owner and arranged a room for me at no extra cost. He even took the time to annotate a map of Florence for me before I left and recommended some good places to eat. The new guesthouse was just a few roads away, after taking a quick beer break (the other guesthouse wasn’t open for check-in until 15:00) I buzzed the receptionist who checked me into my room in the traditional Florence townhouse.
I took a short nap as a shower passed outside and then strolled into downtown Florence in the evening. After a little food I walked the backstreets until I was stopped by the dominating presence of Florence’s Duomo. The sun was setting and artistically illuminating the soaring green, red and white marble facade of the cathedral. I walked around the Piazza Della Signoria and checked out some of the statues and fountains that guarded the huge town square (including a copy of Leonardo’s David). An array of city buskers were invading the public area. Atmospheric tones from acoustic guitarists and string quartets were beginning to fill the piazza and the sidestreets. I stopped to watch and listen to some and observed in awe the dramatic and imposing stone carved statues that told the stories of Roman history in the outdoor Loggia dei Lanzi gallery. All this happened in the shadow of the incredible Florentian town hall, the Palazzo Vecchio. My final evening musings took me to the banks of the river Arno and a view of the medieval Ponte Vecchio, the oldest bridge in Florence and one that has lines of shops clinging to it, a common feature of bridges of the time. Tourists lined the Arno, mostly couples and American and Chinese tour groups, all vying for prime real estate to take a Florentine photo memory back home.
With the exception of a bolt of lightning that struck the railway line only twenty metres from my guesthouse, I had a restful night and woke the following day to dreamy sunshine. After exploring the atmosphere of the streets and the Florentine architecture the previous evening, today I would use my time to indulge myself in the other main attraction of Florence, its incredible wealth of renaissance art. I began with a trip inside the cathedral. Whilst the size and brilliance of the cathedral and its dome amaze from outside,the interior can almost be considered bare. The interior is considered to reflect the austerity of religious life at the time. Even so, the fresco that decorates the dome and the impressive and soaring stained glass windows, are still decorated by many of the great artists of the time, and in a way frame their greatness in a suitable light, free from clutter, audacity and possible mediocrity.
My next stop was the Galleria Degli Uffizzi. Florence has several notable and unrivaled art galleries but the Uffizi is arguably the most famous of them all. Whilst the Academia Gallery has the honour of housing Michelangelo’s David, the Uffizi has the world’s largest collection of renaissance art, and with bare exception, most of them are considered masterpieces. Botticelli, Leonardo da Vinci, Raphael and Michelangelo amongst others line the hallways and rooms of this incredible art gallery. In truth, my love of art is mostly centred in modern art, simply it is something that I most identify with and am able to relate to in a sensory way, but when in Florence it is impossible not to be enveloped in the vibrancy and drama of renaissance art. I walked out of the gallery with the knowledge that I had just witnessed what was once the beginning of a cultural and artistic revolution that will never be seen again. A kind of industrial revolution for the art world.
With the hole in my pocket burning bigger every moment I was in Italy I used the remainder of the afternoon to explore across the far side of the Arno. I walked over the Ponte Vecchio dodging tourists, hawkers and traders and had a simple lunch on the cobbled slopes of the Piazza dei Pitti. As thunder began to rumble somewhere high in the sky above I began a walk up the valley slopes of the Arno to the Piazzale Michelangelo. From the famous square, in the shadow of another replica of ‘David’, I was able to take in the stunning panoramic view of Florence below. It was breathtaking to see the Arno dissected by it’s sturdy stone bridges, the cathedral rising proudly above the terra cotta roofs, the tower of the town hall jutting out into the sunny yet thunderous sky and all this wonderment set against the background of the Tuscan hillsides. I walked a little further up the hill, away from the maddening crowds, to the Cimitero delle Porte Sante. A peaceful yellow graveled courtyard gave respite from the world and I read my book for a while. The afternoon was drawing to a close and I began the journey back to the hotel. My evening was uneventful and was spent in a similar manner to the night before, a final few hours to savour Florence.
Whilst Florence was an evocative and sensory experience I couldn’t help but feel loneliness. My time in Florence convinced me to skip a trip to Venice with the reason being that it is not a place (at least not for me) that can be enjoyed by a lone traveler. On every street, in every bar or restaurant, in every digital photo frame is a couple. A hollow reminder to the single individual or one who is missing a loved one that you have no one to share this romanticism with, nobody to discuss the artwork with, nobody to share the incredible views with, nobody beside you to absorb the music in the streets and most importantly nobody to grab hold of when a rogue bolt of lightning nearly blows up the building you are staying in!
Should you ever go to Florence, my advice is, don’t go alone!