Every time I meet someone new, they always tell me how lucky I am to have lived in such a beautiful town. I know that I’m lucky, but living in one of the most touristed places in the world can be challenging too. I love walking, getting lost in fields and streets — it’s the easiest way to recharge my internal batteries. But walking downtown Florence can often be more overwhelming than relaxing.
I have always had the feeling that Florence is not for Florentines, but for tourists.
My beautiful friend Mary introduced me for the first time to this hidden path 2 weeks ago during my stay in Florence and I enjoyed it so much that I did it again, alone this time.
Porta Romana is a noisy place, full of cars, buses and people. but as soon as you enter the park of the Art School (Liceo Artistico Statale) you forget where you were two minutes ago and start enjoying the view of kids playing in the playground, old people walking dogs, art students struggling with a new art work, young couples kissing on the bench.
You’re silently enter a space where people are living their ordinary life, like they would do in a small village or in a town that doesn’t have to deal every day with so much history and art like Florence.
At the end of the Viale dei Cipressi I enter Via Madonna della Pace and I notice things that I could never see if I wandered in the most trafficked part of Florence : there are kids bikes parked outside the houses, in Via del Bobolino an old man is walking his dog and a lady on the street is complaining to another lady who’s looking out the window of a house about her son and his bad grades in school. I keep going, smiling at this moment of ordinary life where the street become an intimate place where people can talk loudly feeling safe that nobody is listening.
While walking in via del Bobolino I’m surprised by the silence of the road. How is that possible in a city like Florence, always crowded, always full of noise? In this part of the town you can only smell the jasmine and the silence.
Then I turn in Via Giovanni Schiapparelli and I’m hit by the deep pink of the houses and walls that run along the street. I end up in a tiny stone street and I wonder, am I still downtown?
Because behind the wall I can see so many olives trees, and I tiptoe to see what else is behind the wall but it stays hidden. The wall is tall enough to prevent you from seeing what’s behind but short enough that you can see some details of the life behind it.
Walking down the street a house window is open and I can hear the sounds of pots and pans on the stove and smell something delicious. I’d forgotten — it’s lunchtime, and I guess that a parent is preparing lunch for the kids coming back from school, or a grandma is cooking for her husband.
Via San Leonardo has so little traffic, I can walk in the middle of the street, I don’t pass anyone, except a few cars that force me to move to a sidewalk that is not as as wide as my shoes.
I soak in this calm atmosphere and I want to be quiet even if it’s a public street. No commercial shops, no museums, no peddlers. Just beautiful, colorful villas, inhabited all year around by ordinary people.
The street is so narrow at some point that I have to lean against the wall and let a car pass. At that moment my sight shifts in another direction and I notice a sign carved into the stone wall, slightly hidden by the olive tree’s branches : ‘rebuilt in the year 1879’.
I keep walking, along the wall, stopping to admire the decorations carved into the wall, the caper plants that grow out of the wall, with some leafy olive branch or grape vine above the wall, proving that behind the wall there is something beautiful and hidden.
Beyond the curve I see the bell tower of the San Leonardo in Arcetri Church and I wonder how such beauty can go completely unnoticed. There is no line of people waiting outside. It has the feeling of a village church where people gather on Sunday mornings.
Once I arrive at Forte Belvedere I cross Porta San Giorgio and I start the descent that runs along the Bardini Garden.
I find myself in front of one of the houses where Galileo Galilei lived and I picture him building his telescope and watching the sky during clear nights at the beginning of the 17 century.
Before turning into Via del Canneto I stop to enjoy a glimpse of the Dome and the tower of Palazzo Vecchio. I’m still far from the crowds. In via del Canneto time seems to have stopped. I walk under the arches through one of the less beaten streets of Oltrarno.
Once I approach the end of the slope of Costa San Giorgio I feel I’m entering a different world, the Florence of the tourists, with the sudden noise of a mass of tourists heading to the Old Bridge. It’s like Florence had two different dimensions that never cross each other. One for the tourists and one for the Florentines.