My 30th birthday landed on a Saturday this year. When my husband told me he had to work just for the morning, I was skeptical that it was in fact “work” he had to do. But since it’s a busy season, and also since I didn’t want to ruin any potential birthday surprise my dear man may have been conjuring up, I kissed him off to “work” and slept in a little longer.
After we ate lunch at home together, he brewed some coffee and pulled a gelato cake out from the freezer. Since moving here, the gelato cake was something he knew I wanted for my birthday from my favourite gelateria here in Florence, La Carraia. Then he poured my cappuccino into a cup I hadn’t seen yet – at least not in our home. I have adored these cups from a cafe window in the city centre for a long while. I guess my longing gazes at them were noticed. Next to my perfect cappuccino cup, Alessio placed two tickets to go up the Torre di Arnolfo in Palazzo Vecchio. It quickly became obvious that he was running around that morning to gather each of these gift items.
He was laughing at me too, because I was just telling him right there and then over our pasta lunch about the tower – aaaagain: “hey, did you know that up in the tower there are holes called machicolations that they used to use to dump hot liquids on enemies?! And the tower is the only part of Palazzo Vecchio that has remained untouched since it’s construction in the Middle Ages?!” I was telling him these little facts because I was re-inspired to read more about it after seeing its splendor during an evening stroll in centro the night before. Neck bent up and mouth gaping in wonder as usual, I gazed at the Palazzo Vecchio and said for the bazillionth time to Alessio, “how cool would it be to go up there! I mean, think about how many people have walked those winding steps! How many stories those bricks have absorbed! Even Cosimo il Vecchio himself, the original Medici mastermind! To think we could be up there in that same tiny prison cell where he had to wait it out before coming into command of the whole of the city is just mindblowing! And we could hang off the building and pretend to be victims of Medici domination and cry out, “don’t mess with the Medici or they’ll hang you too!” Ok…that last bit, not so much, but still – the fascination factor rises for me, even though I’ve seen it so many times. Wouldn’t you say I’m pretty good at dropping gift idea hints?! It appears Alessio is good at picking them up too. 🙂
I pretty much ran from where we parked to the tower, pulling Alessio by the hand. We arrived in Piazza della Signoria, our favourite outdoor museum in Florence, and I beamed looking up at the 95-meter (312-foot) tower on top of Palazzo Vecchio; “we get to go UP THERE!”
To think this tower has been standing here for over seven centuries (built 1299-1322) and only just opened to the viewing public 2 years ago also makes my head spin. The building also stands on top of an ancient Roman ampitheatre from the 1st century A.D, and you can see parts of its ruins when you visit Palazzo Vecchio. So that tower reigns above eras upon eras of history, while providing spectacular views of the entire city!
The whole inside of Palazzo Vecchio itself is also well worth seeing, and deserves a whole other post. For now let’s concentrate on the tower, as the Florentine leaders would have wanted you to do upon first glance. They liked to show off their power with threatening statues like those you will find right outside the palace next to the David replica, and, with big, tall towers. This one was a particular architectural amazement for its time, so high-fives to Arnolfo di Cambio for designing it, this Torre di Arnolfo. Did you know it was also he who designed the old bascilica of the neighbouring Santa Maria del Fiore Catherdral?
The stairwells of the tower are narrow and they only allow a few climbers up at a time. Touching those cold brick walls chilled me to the bone as I considered that there were people who walked some of their last moments of their lives between these stones. Some of Florence’s most infamous criminals from centuries of old were imprisoned here – Savonarola for one. Girolamo Savonarola was a Dominican monk who detested any form of “pleasure” so much, that he spent his life protesting it. He is known for having a “Bonfire of the Vanities” where countless works of art (including those by famous Florentine artists like Botticelli), books, jewelry, games, anything that might be some form of “indecency” was burned in the street. Ironically, so was Savonarla himself burned, in Piazza della Signoria, right there under the tower in which he saw his final days.
There’s a very small chamber where prisoners were locked up in that they facetiously named the “alberghetto” (little hotel). Accused of being a tyrant, Florence put the original Medici man, Cosimo II Vecchio, behind bars in the tower for a while. An original Medici man in power, and one of the original Italians to use bribery to buy success, Cosimo the Elder bought his bail. Irony exists in Cosimo’s story too; he gained the whole city he once was entrapped over, and people were hung who were seen as traitors against the Medici from the very same walls, as warning to witnesses that there are severe consequences for controversy against Cosimo and his kin!
At least this “little hotel” gave them some of the most grand views I’ve ever laid my eyes upon.
The tower however was most prominently used for military purposes. When we arrived to the first platform of the tower, I got to see those machicolations I mentioned earlier, the vents in the floor used to drop ammunition on enemies. These held my attention when Alessio was calling me over to where he was. He was urgently waving me over to the bars at the windows looking out over Piazza della Signora. “Look down there!” Alessio exclaimed. Amidst the crowds of seemingly pint-sized people was a big, white sign being unraveled. “Buon…compleanno…Gina….HEY, THAT’S ME!” I shouted. Just in case I couldn’t hear them from such heights, Alessio held the phone to my ear so I could hear our friends sing “Tanti Auguri a te” to me as they waved the sign and their arms down below. As far as I’m concerned, this was another unique, important moment to go down in history in this piazza!
Conflicted between wanting to run down to embrace our awesome friends and wanting to run up to the next level of the tower, Alessio assured me that the friends were happily waiting for me to finish enjoying this special tour, so we kept on.
If you’re feeling a little woozy either from the overwhelming historical information or the climb itself, or both, once you’re at the top you can breathe that fresh Florentine air, let the sun hit your face and take a moment before being inevitably overwhelmed once more. That panorama!
You’re in the heart of Florence from the peak of a medieval tower. Think of how many people over how many decades have taken in this very same view, each one of them undoubtedly impressed on some level. At least you’re not like many of them from a more violent past, where they had no time to take in views while fighting for their lives and leaders inside the palace! I certainly took advantage of the opportunity to appreciate the 360 vista; even rats-with-wings pidegons made me happy up here.
Don’t descend those steps until you look upward after you’ve looked around at the view of Florence. More historical wonders are above you, in the bells. Sleeping soundly after years of ringing out military signals are bells that were once carried on carts in battles to warn troops, or to unite Florentines into the main piazza below the tower during attacks. Dormant for many years, the bell was heard for the first time in ages in August of 1944 when it was time for Florentines to assemble and ward off the Nazis.
Back at ground level, I bolted through the crowds to the other side of the piazza where my patient friends were waiting. We popped open some Prosecco right there in the piazza. Celebrations continued as we walked across the river to have a tea party together! At first I looked at Alessio and said, seriously? A tea party with all these guys here who would obviously much rather prefer a beer and schiacciata? Alessio let me know that was exactly what he originally had planned, but then changed his mind last minute, saying “I thought, schiacciata is what I would want, and tea time is more your style.” I do love a good schiacciata, but the extension of my husband’s thoughtfulness tasted so much better that day. What a guy! Anyway, the guys in our group totally LOVED the tea party time! They had their camera phones out and were adjusting tea cups, flowers, and dessert plates according to how they wanted their new experience to be portrayed in online world. It was another pleasant surprise on my birthday!
Via del Tè has 3 locations in Florence and has been a solace for me since I discovered it. I used to have my family and friends mail me tea from all my beloved tea shops in Canada. I love the endless blends there are to taste and smell in those great big canisters in rows on their display walls. Anticipating coffee central here in Italy, I didn’t think I would find such a place for tea here. Walking in centro alone one day, I literally squealed and jumped for joy when I found Via del Tè. They have over 300 selections of many types of tea. Increasingly seen on menus at cafes and restaurants around the country, Via del Tè is a friend in Florence to me. I was thrilled that the Italian guys incidentally loved it so much too!
As you can see, it’s no surprise that I was royally spoiled on my surprise 30th birthday celebration day. Birthday or unbirthday, I highly recommend you visit both of these fantastic places in Florence!
What are some unique ways you have celebrated birthdays while living abroad or traveling?