As it was coming to the end of my year abroad and I had spent the entire time in France and Spain, I decided to go and brush up on my Italian (the third language of my degree) and booked myself onto a 4 week intensive language course in Florence! I couldn’t wait to spend some time in one of the most beautiful cities in Europe.
The classes were amazing – after a quick test to work out our level of Italian, we were split into groups and the classes were 9am-1pm everyday except weekends – which was perfect as we got to school before the heat of the day (although some mornings I swear it was already 30° by 8am) and then had the rest of the day to ourselves to do whatever we liked.
Most days after class, a bunch of us headed to the nearby pizzeria Yellow Bar (which became our all time favourite restaurant) for a typical carby Italian lunch of pizza and pasta which would set us up for the rest of the day – until we had probably the same again for dinner! My days were spent wandering around the city in the scorching heat, stopping off every so often for a much needed cocktail or gelato, some of the famous ones with huge queues out of the doors no matter what time of day you went. We visited museums – my favourites being the Uffizi Gallery with Boticelli, Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci paintings and sculptures and the Accademia Gallery with its famous David statue.
One of my favourite sights of the city is Michelangelo Square, the highest viewing point in the city and with the most amazing views of the terracotta roofs and the Duomo as the centre-point. Be prepared, however, for a LOT of steps to climb – even when we went a few times in the cool of the evening, we couldn’t make it up to the top without sweating! It really comes alive at night – if you go up in the evening, head to one of the upmarket bars or clubs for a drink, with blue lighting, white sofas, wristband entry, champagne bars and the most amazing lit-up view of the city below!
Obviously the main attraction of Florence is the Duomo itself – the most gorgeous cathedral you’ll ever see and you can walk around it for about 20 minutes – it’s so big! Remember to cover up your shoulders and legs though, otherwise you’ll have to pay to don a lovely blue poncho whilst you wander around inside – which is just as impressive as the outside. You can also climb the towers themselves right up to the top.
My walk back to my flat took me over the famous stone arch bridge, the Ponte Vecchio, which is buzzing with life as artists and street sellers and their goods line the bridge, tourists browse in the famous old jewellery shops and throngs of people gather around the ice cream stalls. There isn’t a single time of day when it’s quiet!
As Italy (along with a lot of other European countries except England) has such a great public transport system, the trains were really reasonably priced. We made the most of this by taking a few day trips to various other cities, including the lovely little Lucca, a visit to the leaning tower of Pisa (where there’s not much else to do except this), Rome and Venice…
It is busy, dirty, loud and full of motorbikes but I love Rome! I had been a couple of times before on family holidays and school trips, but not since I was younger so I was keen to visit the capital again. And it didn’t disappoint! Every few backstreets you walk down you’ll find yourself in front of a major sight, such as the Roman Forum, a giant mass of market-place ruins which is eerie, intricate and beautiful.
From here, you’ll see the Colloseum, where it’s definitely worth doing a tour, despite the queues out the front. Or if you don’t want to do the guided tour, you can simply pick up a headset from the entrance and make your way around at your own pace. It’ll take you through the giant underground maze where the animals were kept, into the Colloseum itself and then gradually to the very top where you can see the full size of it. The various images and audio re-enactments throughout the tour really make the place come alive so it’s easy to imagine just how exciting the atmosphere was back in the day!
Take a trip also to Vatican city, its own separate state, with the beautiful St Peter’s Square in front of St Peter’s Basilica. If you don’t mind queuing again (!), it’s definitely worth taking the time to go inside for a tour, climb up to the bell tower and marvel at the beautiful Renaissance paintings, sculptures and ceilings. My personal favourite place in Rome is Piazza Navona, a gorgeous square with several fountains – the main one being the Fontana dei Quattro Fiumi (Fountain of the Four Rivers), with bright coloured flowers hanging from the walls and quaint little restaurants and cafes lining the edge of the square.
V e n i c e
Most people fall in love at first sight with Venice, with its water canals, iconic gondolas and more relaxed way of life compared to the other main Italian cities. It is of course beautiful, but Florence still remains my favourite Italian city!
Although many people think everyone travels in gondolas to get anywhere, that is not the case! This is only for tourists who are willing to spend a bit extra for the experience, which I do think is definitely worth doing once while you’re there! Other than that, water taxis are the cheaper and more common way of travel, to get from airport to hotel and around the city itself.
Venice is expensive to eat and drink, but if you want to keep costs down, just make sure to not eat in the main tourist hubs or on St Mark’s Square itself. My best memory of Venice is sitting on the edge of the turquoise waters of the canal with a bottle of Peach Bellini, just people watching and enjoying the views.
Italy will always hold a little place in my heart and there is still so much more I’d love to do – I can’t wait to return!