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.
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.
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.
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.
"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.