It was getting to be late afternoon in a picturesque corner of the postcard city of Florence, and something dreadful was happening to my husband. His face was flushed and his left eye had begun to water – not exactly the reaction you would expect from a prosciutto and cheese sandwich washed down with a little red wine.
He complained his lips were tingling as we left the little café, around the corner from the Uffizi Gallery, and his condition only seemed to worsen when he reached the hotel. His lips turned ocean blue, his eyes welled shut and his heart thundered in shock, triggered by a nut allergy stemming from somewhere in that sandwich.
Florence was, in our brief fall tour, obviously a city to die for. But until that point, neither of us had given it much consideration as a city to die in.
With just a little luck, and a little strength provided by a warm Margherita pizza later that night, the storm passed, and the tour restarted the next morning. And even through his swollen eyes – and my jangled nerves – the sights, the sounds and the cobblestone streets of the birthplace of the Italian Renaissance were overwhelming.
Stendhal, the 19th-century French writer, also had a medical issue in Florence. It was so bad, there is a condition named in his honour: Stendhal syndrome was born after he wrote of being so overwhelmed by the Tuscan city that he was barely able to walk for fear of fainting.
Home for Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci, Florence, covered easily on foot, is littered with brilliant works of art. A stroll through the Uffizi, with its ceiling frescos, sculptures and paintings by the likes of Botticelli and da Vinci, is sure to induce a case of Stendhal syndrome. To avoid another episode (because, really, one is too many) a guided tour of the main works is advised.
Another bonus of a guided tour: Avoiding the lineup outside.
Of course, a trip to Florence wouldn't be complete without visiting what is arguably Michelangelo's finest work. The Accademia gallery showcases paintings by Florentine artists, but the highlight stands tall in an alcove at the end of the main hall. The guide keeps the group focused on other works, but your eyes can't help but wander to the main event: A nude sculpture carved from a single block of marble. The guide leaves. The tourists linger.
But Florence isn't just about David and the Uffizi, although they attract quite the crowd.
The piazzas are hubs of activity: Buskers and gypsies hassle tourists for spare change, the outdoor café tables bristle with patrons, and shoppers spill in and out of boutiques.
Milan may be the fashion capital and Rome may have the best shoes, but Florence can hold its own. Jewellery merchants and souvenir shopkeepers sell their wares to bustling pedestrian traffic along the Ponte Vecchio. The path leading away from the goldsmiths opens up a pedestrian-only shopping district with swanky boutiques selling leather gloves, jackets, wallets and other fashion along Via dei Calzaiuoli and Via Roma.
The best way to view all this splendour is from the top – a 414-step walk up. Peeking around every street corner around the main square is Florence's Duomo. The cathedral is a thing of wonder, with an intricate pink, green and white marble façade. The lineup to climb the freestanding bell tower can be long; but the climb, at times gruelling, is worth it: Churches and piazzas dot the city, and beyond it lays the Tuscan hillside.
And that hillside is worth exploring. The train station is in the centre of town, and after an hour ride through the jaw-dropping Tuscan countryside, the train drops you off in Pisa. Not one to refuse a view, we climbed the Leaning Tower, but most relaxing was sitting on the lawn facing it. Picnic lunches were being served, and souvenir stands bustled.
Of course, the best thing about making such arduous climbs – at least by my estimation – is you don't feel guilty about the heavy meals that follow.
Simplicity sums up Tuscan cuisine. One night we shared the carnivore's classic, bistecca alla fiorentina , a huge slab of Florentine-style steak that the waiter tossed onto the table. Each morsel was sliced, devoured and washed down with a bottle of classic Chianti.
Another night, on a recommendation, we wandered off the beaten path into old Florence and upon a secluded square to visit Trattoria dei Quattro Leoni. We hesitated when told it would be a 45-minute wait, but a full restaurant is a sign of good things and when on vacation, time shouldn't matter.
We were led into a small, dim trattoria. The waiter, a pleasant man, was curious about Canada, but spoke broken English. Then again, we could barely string together a sentence in Italian. Our food, though, sang. We savoured the toasted bread with rich Tuscan olive oil. My husband feasted on grilled meat and vegetables, while I relished the pasta stuffed with pears in a cream sauce, a restaurant specialty.
There were no nuts at this meal, only the warmth and simplicity of Florence.
Pack your bags
Getting there Air Canada and Alitalia offer connecting flights to Florence.
Where to eat Trattoria dei Quattro Leoni Piazza della Passera; 39 (055) 218 562; . Ristorante Buca Mario Piazza degli Ottaviani 16r; 39 (055) 214 179; .