Skip to main content

Travel Florence for one: What it’s like to be alone among the crowds in the Italian city

A view of Florence.

Jonathan Körner/Unsplash

I heard they had two kinds of water in the drinking fountains in the piazza in Florence: still and frizzante. What could be more Italian than frizzante water, I asked myself, determining that drinking it would be on my agenda.

And I had an agenda. I had gone to Florence years before, with my husband, in early March. We stayed in a convent once owned by a friend of Galileo. It was so enchanting that I’ve often made recipes we learned there, sighed wistfully when people talked about Florence and even began writing a novel set in the city.

This summer, I booked a whirlwind trip on my own to Florence. It wasn’t just the smells and sounds of the city I wanted to capture, but also to get a taste of what my character, a solo traveller, would experience. I planned out routes for my two days in Florence with military precision, starting at a medieval perfumer and then slipping through the city to a small olive wood bottega. My next stop was to be a magnificent garden, but I detoured first to the piazza, looking for that magical water fountain.

Story continues below advertisement

What I found instead was Times Square, squared.

I knew that my previous trip had been during low season and that the city would be busier with tourists in mid-July, but I had no concept of what high season really looked like.

It looked like an evacuation. I read that Florence has a population of about 380,000, but will likely get at least 10 million tourists this year. It was just bad luck that I arrived on the same day as all of them. I might have been a solo traveller but I was anything but alone. My first response was to laugh. My second was to grab a gelato – since I couldn’t find the water fountain amid the masses – and to head across the Arno river.

The gardens were quieter and I breathed a sigh of relief as I zig-zagged my way up its nearly vertical paths. My plan next dictated walking to the 1,000-year-old San Miniato for their vespers service. I could see the basilica on a nearby higher hill but to get there, I needed to trudge down a twisting cobblestone road, and then climb long sets of steep stairs. I took on a couple of travel buddies: sweat and thigh chafing.

By the time I reached San Miniato, the Gregorian chanting had begun. I leaned on a marble pillar to cool off, and entered into the mystery of the worship.

When I came out, the humidity had cleared to reveal a true-blue sky. I walked down the hill at a leisurely pace, past stately cypresses and tourists with selfie sticks. I got lost, asked directions, was misdirected, found my way and made it to the convent hostel where I was staying. There I relaxed until I realized the windows had no screens and I would share the room with dozens of mosquitoes. I googled malaria. The next morning, I lingered over breakfast and chatted with other solo travellers. We were all reluctant to leave the walls of the convent for the heat, humidity and tourist chaos.

A crowd of people take photos and selfies from piazzale Michelangelo, in Florence, Italy, on Sept. 9, 2018.

Getty Images

I convinced myself to look for the fountain with the frizzante water. And I found it, lining up behind locals who all chose the still water. Not me. I was there for 25 hours. I wasn’t going to miss out on frizzante.

Story continues below advertisement

I drank a lot of it, and set off to find my first museum. My mouth became as dry as a desert – was it the water? I found a piece of gum but it didn’t help. I’d been nervous about getting lost as a solo female traveller who spoke little of the language but I hadn’t even considered a scenario where I had trouble swallowing.

I arrived at the museum just after a swarm of tourists, and the line to get in was an hour long. I decided instead to visit the small museum dedicated to Dante. His famous line –"Midway on our life’s journey I found myself in dark woods, the right road lost" – was important in my novel.

Ironically, I couldn’t find it. I asked directions twice, making my way past the zombie hordes and waiting for never-ending tour groups to walk past before I could get in. Mercifully, the museum was nearly empty. I found some still water to sip and gradually my mouth came back to life.

After the museum, I walked through the crush in the city core and explored the surprisingly quiet market. I enjoyed every minute of it, and most especially the elderly vendor who added a handful of cherries to my apricots, as though they required a corsage.

My daughter texted me at that point: “Are you having a good time or is it meh?”

I thought of the stillness of the monks chanting, the robust breakfast conversation, the kindness of market vendors. I thought, too, of the unforgiving heat, the sweat, the mosquitoes, the dry mouth, the hypertourism.

Story continues below advertisement

"It might average out to meh," I wrote back, "but there's nothing meh about it."

Florence was unlike what I remembered, planned or feared. The city was still beautiful and its people were kind, but it felt more foreign and less enchanting as I negotiated it on my own amid crowds. I felt for the Florentine people who live and work in a city that feels like it is becoming Euro Disney – people who are trying to drink the still water while people like me guzzle the exotic frizzante.

While I ticked off most of the boxes on my list, I began to recognize I needed to let go of my agenda. Perhaps the best memory of the entire solo adventure was when I found myself sitting on a sunlit Florentine doorstep, savouring the moment and watching the world go past.

Report an error Editorial code of conduct
Comments

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff. Non-subscribers can read and sort comments but will not be able to engage with them in any way. Click here to subscribe.

If you would like to write a letter to the editor, please forward it to letters@globeandmail.com. Readers can also interact with The Globe on Facebook and Twitter .

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff. Non-subscribers can read and sort comments but will not be able to engage with them in any way. Click here to subscribe.

If you would like to write a letter to the editor, please forward it to letters@globeandmail.com. Readers can also interact with The Globe on Facebook and Twitter .

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff.

We aim to create a safe and valuable space for discussion and debate. That means:

  • All comments will be reviewed by one or more moderators before being posted to the site. This should only take a few moments.
  • Treat others as you wish to be treated
  • Criticize ideas, not people
  • Stay on topic
  • Avoid the use of toxic and offensive language
  • Flag bad behaviour

Comments that violate our community guidelines will be removed. Commenters who repeatedly violate community guidelines may be suspended, causing them to temporarily lose their ability to engage with comments.

Read our community guidelines here

Discussion loading ...

Due to technical reasons, we have temporarily removed commenting from our articles. We hope to have this fixed soon. Thank you for your patience. If you are looking to give feedback on our new site, please send it along to feedback@globeandmail.com. If you want to write a letter to the editor, please forward to letters@globeandmail.com.
Cannabis pro newsletter