Sometimes I am very grateful to be a solitary traveler. This morning I didn’t have to put into words the beauty before me as I walked along the Arno on my way to my first cappuccino of the day.
What is the purpose of life? How do I make meaning? Questions asked by human beings throughout history. For those of us consciously following a spiritual path the answer always leads toward some form of the Golden Rule. Do unto others as they would do unto you. Regardless of one’s faith tradition, the idea of God appears, because without some mysterious power beyond ourselves, we only work for ourselves, and thus fail to create beauty and good, which have to be part of a sustainable purpose.
That’s what I’ve been considering as I, a solitary traveler, walk the streets of Florence. I have no way of knowing the part God consciously plays in the lives of the people I pass, but I believe that they are trying to make meaning of their lives, and that there is a God plan for everyone.
This city attracts the artist, in particular the painter and sculptor, and less obviously, the architect. The painter can carry her supplies around until she finds a spot to practice her art. He can take a painting class. Some sell their work along the tourist trails.
Along the street we are less apt to observe the sculptor working his craft. Her supplies are cumbersome and complicated, so she works behind closed doors until the final product is recognized and displayed in public—perhaps in a temporary exhibit by Koenig in the Boboli Gardens, or permanently along the Arno.
The process of the architect is more mysterious and less visible until we see the final product arise before out eyes. Can you imagine being a citizen of Florence while Brunelleschi was dome grew before your eyes?
Whether conscious of God or not, I believe these artists are creating for something beyond themselves, for some beauty or truth that transcends their personal, intiment desires.
At 8:30 this morning I started the 463 step climb to the top of the Duomo. I wonder how many times I’ve done this? 20? I’d like to say that I’ve climbed every time I’ve come to Florence, but that’s not true. There was a time when I only gazed at my most favorite building in the entire world from the street because I was afraid of heights.
It was in the late 1980s and I was traveling with my mom. She was about the age I am now but she never considered climbing with me, so off I went by myself, up the interior stone steps, and clinging to the side as I walked the arcade of drum under Vasari’s frescoes. When I got to the top I continued to hug the inside of the lantern as I made one quick navigation around before starting my descent, getting out of there as fast as I dared.
During my next visit to Florence, again with my mom, I didn’t even consider such a climbing venture.
But then, a few years later, this time traveling alone, I arrived in Florence determined to conquer this acrophobia. I had done a little work on past lives and had the sense that when Brunelleschi was directing the building of the dome, I, a young messenger boy, had fallen off a scaffold and been killed. The part of being killed is up for question because the records show that only one person died while working on the construction, and that was a grown man. I’m not advocating for or against past life theory, but this exercise helped me overcome my fear of heights and sent me climbing to the top to lean against the outside railing and locate the many spots in Florence that I love so much. I’ve been doing it again and again.
In the afternoon I walked to the Bardini Gardens overlooking Florence to view from afar the pinnacle of my morning climb.
In less than two weeks (9/4) I fly to Florence. A 4:55 P.M. flight, with a short change over in Paris, gets me to Florence airport at 10:30. A half hour bus ride from the airport to Santa Maria Novella train station, a short walk to my apartment, and I’ll be off to Piazza della Signoria for pizza. A morning arrival gives me an extra meal, and as they say, ‘You can’t get a bad meal in Italy.’
Autumn, along with spring, and December are my favorite times to be in Florence. What I’m saying is that all times are favorites, although I notice that today’s summer temperature in the city is 93 degrees. Summer in Florence is too hot and too crowded.
When I arrive, I will feel a sense of fall: the evenings will be cool and many tourists will have departed. However, summer clothes will still be in order, and the junior year abroad students will be arriving.
But I know how to work around any obstacles that might get in my way. I’ll walk across the Ponte Vecchio in the early morning when only runners and delivery people are in the streets and before the hot sun beats down. I know of out-of-the-way parks to sit in. I’ll avoid entry lines to the Uffizi by flashing my Amici degli Uffizi card. I know off the beaten track restaurants and how to avoid crowds by eating on the early side.
I love anticipating a trip, but it isn’t even half as good as the real thing.
I always feel free in Florence. As a solitary traveler, I don’t’ have to make plans with anyone. I just set out and start walking, trusting that there’s a café on every street corner and a restaurant in between--and usually a merry-go-round.
For the past six years I’ve spent two weeks in this favorite city of mine, in spring and fall, and for the past two years, in December as well. I’ve visited all the major museums and churches multiple times and can’t begin to count how often I’ve climbed to the top of the Duomo to look down upon all of my go-to places. I know the city well.
This spring, however, I changed things up and spent four nights in Rome, three in Assisi, one in Cortona, and six in Florence, staying in monasteries instead of hotels or apartments.
With only six days in Florence, I decided to be free in Florence in another way, by taking advantage of what is actually free in Florence. The only admission fee I paid was four euros to see the frescoes of Fra Angelico in the monks’ cells at the Convent of San Marco.
Other than that, I wandered about discovering free history and art surprises in churches, cloisters, civic buildings, art galleries, gardens and parks. Just by looking up at the facades of buildings I was given a free course on renaissance architecture. Sometimes I planned where to go, sometimes I just stumbled upon (yes, uneven sidewalks) something wonderful and surprising. And all for free just by wandering about.
Churches and Convents
Visiting churches is a good way to start because Florence is filled with them, each with a treasure trove of paintings and sculpture displayed in their original architectural homes. Although Santa Maria Novella, Santa Croce and San Lorenzo charge a small entrance fee (definitely worthwhile),most churches are free.
A good guidebook will alert you to the important paintings, frescoes, and sculpture of the most celebrated artists of medieval and renaissance Florence, all displayed where the folks of the day would have seen them. Santa Trinita, Santo Spirito, and Ognisanti offer a rich array of history and art free of charge.
Entry to Santa Marie dei Fiori, referred to as the Duomo, is free but be prepared to stand in line to get in. However, there is an outside entrance on the south side at the end of the nave for those attending mass or wanting to pray in the early morning and evening. With intention, I say, “La Messa,” and in I go to stare up at Vasari’s frescoes that cover the inside of the dome, to breathe in the immensity of it all, and to sit in silence and pray.
The ground floor of the Church of Orsanmichele is open daily free to the public. On Mondays, however, you can also climb to the very high ceilinged first and second floors.
Originally built as a grain market, the first floor now houses the original statues (replaced by replicas) that embellish the exterior of the building. It is well worth the climb up the turret steps to examine close-up these works of Nanni di Banco, Ghiberti, Donatello, Brunelleschi, Andrea del Verocchio, Giambologna and others.
A circular staircase leads to the second floor where you can take in amazing views of the city, from the Duomo and Giotto’s Campanile, to the Piazza Republica, to the Boboli Gardens across the Arno, to the Piazza della Signoria, to Santa Croce and La Badia, and back to the Duomo. Definitely a rewarding free morning in Florence!
We twenty-first century tourists have become conditioned to think of churches as standalones, but when we peak around a corner or walk through a door left ajar, we see the expanse of the church complex of Late Medieval (trecento) and Renaissance (quattrocento) Florence.
You never know when a cloister, chapel, refectory, or convent room will be open for a day or two. I keep looking, and if a door is not shut, in I go. This spring the magnificent cloister adjacent to Santissima Annunciata was open to the pubic to display a contemporary art exhibit.
Cloisters are integral to the set of buildings that comprised the convent or monastery configuration surrounding a church. Today many cloister entries are separate and free. To the left of the Church of San Lorenzo is the entrance to its beautiful cloister with a view of the nearby Duomo and Campanile.
The Church of Santissima Annunciata has a covered courtyard prior to the church entrance where you can gaze at an early fresco allegedly painted by Leonardo da Vinci during his early years in Florence.
To reach the ticket office to the Brancacci Chapel to view the Masaccio frescos at Santa Maria del Carmine, you must circumnavigate one of the most lovely cloisters in all of Florence. Off the cloister is the convent’s refectory (dining room), displaying a recently restored Last Supper .
Speaking of Last Supper paintings, you can spend a week just viewing different artistic renditions in refectories, many with free entry. The Last Supper (Il Cenacolo) by Castagno (1447) hangs in its original spot in the refectory of one of the largest nunneries of fifteenth century Florence, the Convent of St. Apollonia on Via VXII Aprile. I spent an hour gazing at the expansive fresco, examining scinope (fresco sketches) on the side walls, and imagining I was a nun praying during my daily meal.
Not to be missed is the Last Supper by Domenico Girlandaio in the Church of Ognissanti on the Arno. Winding through the courtyards and rooms to arrive at the refectory gives a sense of the magnitude and complexity of these convents, and reminds us that the church proper was only one part of a much bigger whole. (The entrance is separate from the church and has limited opening hours.)
4. A Hidden Church Treasure
St. Croce was undoubtedly the largest monastic complex of quattrocento Florence, and is well worth the admission charge. The entrance to its Scuola del Cuoio (leather school/shop), however, is free. Walk along Via S. Giuseppe to the left of the church to a rather modest entrance at 5R; continue along the driveway to the rear and follow the signs. On the way you get a sense of the enormity of the church complex.
Climb the entrance steps, watch artists demonstrating their craft as they make the exquisite leather products sold in the shop, and learn the history of the school and its mission to educate orphans after World War II.
5. Palazzo Vecchio
If there is a perfect place to start your Free in Florence tour, it might be the museum on the ground floor of Palazzo Vecchio, the civic building of the Trecento and Quattrocento. Off the courtyard near the ticket office is this little museum that holds artwork depicting Florence through the centuries, from early paintings of the Arno to photographs of the 1966 flood.
Many of these works were part of the Museo di Firenze Come Era (Florence as it was), now the Biblioteca (library) delle Oblate, Via dell’Oriuolo, 26, a free architectural delight where you can go to write, read, and eat while taking in a stunning view of Brunelleschi’s Dome.
6. Medici-Riccardi Palace
Perhaps palace is a misnomer for the homes of the wealthy families in Renaissance Florence. After all, the families were not of royalty but their homes were palatial. Many of these magnificent stone buildings are now homes to museums, schools, banks, and even the local police. In many cases there is free access to the ground floor courtyard.
The Medici-Riccardi Palace accommodates offices of the local police as well as a gallery of contemporary art. To appreciate this home built by Cosimo Medici in 1444, and where his grandson Lorenzo Il Magnifico entertained humanists, scholars, poets, and artists, you only need to be walking by when the entrance to the courtyard is open. Go on in, gaze up, and wander around.
Walk through the courtyard to the garden where parties were held, artists (including the young Michelangelo) worked, philosophers argued, and poets wove words. Visit the current contemporary exhibit on the ground floor rooms of the palazzo. This spring I happened upon a display of books as art. I’m always intrigued and delighted to see contemporary art featured along with the old. As the saying goes, “All art was once contemporary.”
Private Homes, Parks, and Gardens
7. Casa Guidi and the English Cemetery
Casa Guidi at Piazza San Felice, 8, was the home of Elizabeth and Robert Browning from 1847-1861. Today, under the auspices the Browning Society and The Friends of Casa Guidi, this eight room apartment is open free of charge to the public Monday, Wednesday, and Friday afternoons. Ring the bell, wait for the click of the door opening, and walk up one flight of stairs. You will be welcomed into the homey apartment where Elizabeth spent most of her days while living in Florence. http://www.browningsociety.org/casa_guidi.html
Walk outside the city center to the English Cemetery at Piazzale Donatello where Elizabeth is buried. On your way stop for a picnic at the Orti Dipinti Garden, Via Borgo Pinti, 76.
8. Park of the Art School of Porta Romana
There are public gardens and parks throughout Florence ready to welcome you. Buy a sandwich a bottle of water and enjoy.
I love to walk along Via Romana to the vast park of the Art School of Porta Romana. I eat my lunch and write, and watch people exercising their dogs, playing Frisbee and soccer, sitting and chatting, and reading and napping. The property abuts the Boboli Gardens, where alas, and entry fee is charged.
9. Piazzale Michelangelo and Environs
Everyone visiting Florence takes to time view the city from Piazza Michelangelo.
The walk to enjoy this magnificent view takes you by the Rose Garden, which is another good place to eat your sandwich, write, read or just sit and enjoy the view and surroundings. It boasts a Japanese Garden, as well as 350 species of roses.
Further on is the church of San Miniato al Monte, one of my most absolute favorite spots to visit in Florence. Entrance to this Romanesque church is free; Gregorian Chant concerts are performed without charge from time to time.
The church is surrounded by a massive cemetery. Take time to wander about and read the love expressed on the statues and tomb stones from the 19th century to the present.
10. Keep an eye out for posters displayed at churches and public building announcing concerts, art shows, garden tours, and other offerings around the city. Many are free. Also, see what the folks at the Florence Tourist Bureau and the Firenze Card office have to recommend.
Explore on line.
11. Enjoy street artists--musicians, painters, jugglers-- at Piazza della Republica, Piazza della Signoria, and the Ponte Vecchio.
12. Walk along the Arno-- my final tip for being free in Florence.
AND, a friend just reminded me: The first Sunday of the month all museums in Italy are free!
When traveling solo you set out when you’re ready, turn left or right, and you’re on your way. This morning I slept in,* something I hardly ever do, but really, there’s no reason to get up at 5:30 in Rome. It’s just as well I didn’t have specific plans because roads were blocked around the city all day to make way for a half marathon that crisscrossed ancient, renaissance, and modern Rome.
*I stayed at Casa Santa Lucia Fillippini, a monastery turned bed and breakfast that I found on monasterystays.com.
It was quiet, safe, inexpensive, and centrally located, right near a major bus stop.; my room was en suite. I definitely recommend staying at monasteries whether you aretraveling alone or with others.
They say that when in Rome do as the Romans do, so I wandered where I could, and found myself using the pedestrian underpass at Piazza Barberini, which landed me at the entrance to Palazzo Barberini.
This Baroque palazzo was built for the Barberini pope, Pope Urban VIII. Several artists had a hand in its design: Carlo Maderno (1556-1629), the H-shaped layout: Gian Lorenz Bernini (1597-1680), the square staircase: and Borromini (1599-1667), the circular one.
I wandered through the 32 rooms that displayed many of the Barberini acquisitions. These were primarily Italian works of art, from trecento icons to paintings by Caravaggio and Bernini. And this was in a small section of half of the palazzo!!
Now I sit in the garden eating the salami, arugula, and cheese sandwich I bought along the way. A cat just walked by but didn’t stop. I tell you, there is lovely solitude here in the garden.
When I go to Florence I walk around with God. Oh, I do other things: I write, visit museums, and of course, I eat. There are plenty of cafes and parks for writing, museums at every corner, and restaurants sprinkled throughout the city. And of course there are churches. Since I travel alone, my time is my own.
Italy is a Roman Catholic country, but to walk around with God you don’t have to be Catholic, Christian, or even affiliated with a religious tradition. You just have to long to find that deepest part of your being, to rest in the Holy, to search for the ineffable, to seek out your true self, to breathe in peace--that kind of thing. I call it longing for God, but pick your own term, or, keep it nameless. God is wherever you want God to be and in what every image or non-image God is for you.
Visiting churches in Florence isn’t the only way to walk around with God, but it’s a good start. One website lists 71 churches within the confines of this small city, which means that just by wandering a short distance you will come across more churches than you could possibly visit. Vsiting hours vary, but don’t let that deter you. There are plenty open to fit your schedule.
Visiting these churches immerses me in my absolute favorite period and place in history, Renaissance Florence. With its blossoming in the 14th century, to full bloom in the 15th, several factors came together: the construction of churches and secular buildings as people migrated to the city; the birth of religious orders; the establishment of a republican form of government; the creation of guilds; the acceleration of trade; the Florentine gold florin as the dominant trade coin in Western Europe; and the rising of the Medici family as a political force and patron of the arts.
I continue to be amazed at the number of churches and public buildings built or enlarged upon during the tre cento (1300s) as urban expansion continued, religious orders flourished, and the common folk found a voice. Equally remarkable are the artists, poets, and philosophers, who, with the patronage of the Medici, birthed Renaissance Florence during the quattro cento (1400s).
I start one of my favorite walks with God in the early morning, but any time will do. By 7 A.M. I have begun a walking tour of the foremost churches of Florence built by one of the religious order that flourished during the 13th and 14th centuries. Each one radiates from Santa Maria dei Fiori, referred to as the Duomo, so I usually start out at this epicenter that is the soul of Florence. Regardless of the route I take, I figure I cover about five miles on this two hour city circuit, which includes time to take photos of the facades and to stop for a cappuccino or two.
I love traveling alone but the other day I discovered that I don’t need to fly across the Atlantic or be away for a couple of weeks in order to do so. Solo travel can happen for a few hours right in your home town, or the one next door, as it did for me. It was a classic, fall New England day; I packed a sandwich, and drove the ten miles to visit the vibrant, mid-19th century Concord of Alcott, Emerson, Hawthorne, and Thoreau.
Emerson was the magnet that attracted writers, philosophers and abolitionists to Concord. His doors were always open to the intelligentsia of the time, with some guests staying for long periods: Elizabeth Stanton was a frequent visitor; Nathanial Hawthorne and his wife rented The Manse from Emerson; Alcott came and went and two of his daughters, Louisa, a writer, and May, an artist, were encouraged by Emerson.
BUT, Henry Thoreau, with his longing for solitude, was the magnet that attracted me to take this solitary fieldtrip--even though there are no Thoreau sites to visit in Concord. I had been to his cabin site at Walden Pond the week before, which was enough for me. Henry, who spent most of his life in his native Concord, was present wherever I went: he had often offered his handyman skills at The Manse where Nathanial and Sophia Hawthorne lived as newlyweds; he must have visited Bronson Alcott and his family at Orchard House; and he had lived off and on at Emerson’s home during his adult life.
My first stop was a detour from my original plan to stick to the mid-19th century transcendental Concord. Tucked away in the corner of the Old North Bridge parking lot is the Robbins House, a two story farmhouse originally occupied by the first generation of free blacks in Concord.
I had never noticed it before, so in I went for a brief tour before crossing the road to The Manse (no time for a visit) and a quick walk to the bridge.
My next destination was Sleepy Hollow Cemetery where the Alcott, Emerson, Hawthorn, and Thoreau families are buried. At the Emerson family burial plot I ate half my sandwich, and wished I had an area map and more time to find Thoreau’s site (I only had time for a three hour fieldtrip).
Next stop on my itinerary was Orchard House, the home of the Alcott family. I sat on a bench outside the house, enjoying the other half of my sandwich and recalling the guided tour I had taken years ago. (Note to self: fieldtrips are not one-time events; take the tour this winter.)
Final stop was The Ralph Waldo Emerson House * (in Emerson’s day called “Bush”). Everyone was there: Emerson writing in this library; his wife, Lidian, atending to their four children; men and women discussing in the parlor; Thoreau writing, as well as popping popcorn for the Emerson children, and fixing things around the property; and Emerson encouraging the Alcott girls, Louisa as a writer, May as an artist. The creative energy was palpable.
As I headed to my car I noticed Emerson’s hat and walking stick by the side door (taking photographs not permitted), waiting for him to pick them up as he did every afternoon. Maybe this day he would take the trail behind his barn and walk the two miles to Walden to see Thoreau. Maybe on my next field trip to Concord, I will take the walk with him—to visit Thoreau, of course.
* Emerson bought his Concord home, when he married his second wife Lidian. They lived their until their deaths, he in 1892, she in 1892. It was their son Edward’s home until his death in 1930. The house is now run by the Ralph Waldo Emerson Society.
“I go to Florence to write,” I tell people, and that is the truth. For the past ten years I’ve been doing just that in the spring and fall, and last year I fit in a December visit as well.
“I travel alone,” I tell people, and that is also the truth. For the past twenty years I have been doing just that several times a year.
Solitary travel gives me the freedom to make my own schedule, change my plans at whim, live in the moment, and give full attention to my own thoughts, all of which are essential to my writing. If you have a different craft, bring along your paints, clay, needlework, camera, or even your flute. As for me, over the .years I have worked on books for teachers, a memoir, and currently am writing travel articles for this blog.
You, too, can plan a writing vacation in Florence. All you need is a place to stay, the desire to write, and a map to lead you to inviting places for writing: cafes, parks, cloisters, libraries, and tucked away courtyards. You will glean inspiration from the city’s many churches, museums and artisan shops, and from Brunelleschi’s Dome.
Where I stay
I always rent an apartment because I want space to spread out and relax, and a kitchen.
Apartments are easy to find over the internet. They are less expensive than hotels, and are available for as short a stay as four nights. Each apartment listed gives details of amenities, price, dates of availability, photographs, client comments, and general location.
The photos show the decor and layout of the rooms, and any inviting views from the windows. If no outside pictures are offered, you can be sure the apartment looks out into an alley, or lacks any view worth mentioning. The Duomo and the Arno will always be featured, which is a definite plus for me.
Be sure to read the reviews written by prior renters. I want to know if the apartment is quiet, if it has an elevator (I don’t want to walk up 86 steps), if check-in is easy, and if the internet is reliable. The size of the kitchen and bathroom may also be important to you.
As part of your apartment search you will be asked to indicate which areas of the city you prefer. I keep a street map beside me so I can find the exact location of any apartment that interests me. Since I like to return to my apartment during the day, I choose a section in the historic center. My preference is the Duomo area, because it most centrally located, but I also recommend the areas of Santa Croce, San Lorenzo, and the Arno.
I avoid apartments outside the City Center. They may be less expensive and boast a beautiful terrace, but are probably a long walk or even a bus ride from the City Center, and that is too far for me. I want my apartment to be in the midst of the museums, churches and restaurants that are the landmarks of this culturally rich city.
Eating in Florence
It is said that you can’t get a poor meal in Italy. Whether I prepare a meal in my apartment, or eat at a restaurant, I have found that to be true.
On a given day, especially if it is raining, it feels just right to put my feet up, enjoy a salad or dish of pasta, and write alone at home, which means I have to buy groceries.
Shopping at the Central Market and San Ambrosia, the two biggest markets in Florence, makes me feel I am living in the city. I can wander from stall to stall choosing fresh fruit and vegetables, cheeses, prosciutto, salami, pasta, olives and olive oil, bread, and prepared food. Sometimes I stop for lunch at one of the eating spots nestled among the stalls. If I am at Piazza Santo Spirito. I pick up a head of lettuce from one of the outdoor vendors. Walk along any street and you’ll find shops selling bread, cheese, smoked salmon and prepared lasagna.
There are also many supermarkets throughout the city. Their storefronts blend in with the other shops on the street, so if you are not aware of them, you may pass them by.
Choosing a restaurant is easy. Menus are posted outside every restaurant, so if something appeals to me, in I go. I order vino da cassa, the house wine, which is served by the glass, ¼ or ½ liter, or bottle. Wine in Italy lacks the preservatives we are used to in the states, so enjoy a glass or two without feeling sleepy.
At the bottom of the menu you can note if there is a cover or service charge. In Italy these are considered in lieu of a tip, so when paying the bill, I may leave a little change, and then out I go.
I am always trying restaurants, but I never miss a meal at Ciro and Sons, Via Giglio, 27, behind San Lorenzo near the Medici Chapels. Great hospitality, great food, no matter if I eat inside or out.
My daily routine
My daily schedule includes walking, sitting in cafes, visiting churches and museums, and eating, with periods of writing interspersed. Nearly all my writing starts in journal form, sometimes handwritten, but often on my MacBook Air, which is light and fits in my backpack; I carry it with me almost all the time. My other valuables, passport, credit cards, cash and Kindle, fit in my Scotty vest of many pockets. My hands are free.
I set my alarm for 6:30 and am out of the apartment by 7, wandering along the Arno and through the back streets, stopping for a quick cappuccino along the way before entering the churches of La Badia, Santa Trinita, or the Duomo (entrance for prayer is through the side door on the south) for twenty minutes of meditation. I need these meditation times because when I walk I think; when I meditate, I empty my mind for new ideas to come. All grist for writing.
Early dinner for me. I am hungry by seven, and being one of the first in the restaurant assures a private table from which I can take my time watching the scene, enjoying the food and wine, reading, and writing in my journal. An after dinner stroll through the Piazza della Signoria to the Arno and the Ponte Vecchio, becomes the other bookend to my early morning walk. My mind begins to empty of daytime chatter, to be filled with a quiet sense of peace as I find my way home for a good night’s sleep. Lights out by 9:30.
My writing day
My first writing of the day starts with a cappuccino and brioche at a favorite café. I pay at the cashier booth, take the receipt to the bar, and in less than a minute, my cappuccino is ready. Returning to the same cafe morning after morning helps me settle into a writing routine. I feel welcomed as a ‘local’ as I open my computer and pick up where I left off the day before.
Cafe Chiaro Scure is often my first stop because of its extra large coffee cup.
Café Ricchi is my go-to place on a beautiful day when I walk to Piazza di Santo Spirito on the other side of the Arno. I carry my cappuccino and brioche to the room adjacent to the bar, or to a table on the piazza, and begin writing.
Felletrini’s Red Café on the Piazza della Republica is a bookstore cafe. Since it doesn’t open until 9, I often settle in there for my second cappucchino.
These cafes don’t charge extra for sitting in the morning, but check first because in Italy it is often the custom to pay more for that privilege. Once you’ve ordered, however, you can stay all day; there is no pressure to free up the table.Most cafes have free wi-fi and Internet access provided by the municipality of Florence.
Florence offers a treasure trove of parks just waiting for you. Pick a destination on your map, or just start walking, and very soon you’ll come to the perfect park bench. Pull out your journal or laptop and start writing.
The Giardine delle Rose, overlooking the city on the way to Piazza Michelangelo, offers many welcoming writing areas. I usually head for a bench in the Japanese Garden, where it is neither noisy nor crowded, just the spot to jot down a few thoughts in my journal or open my computer.
Walk along Via Romana to the spacious public park at the Art School near the Porta Romana, enter the Boboli Gardens at the Pitti Palace, or climb to the Bardini Gardens for an extraordinary view of the Florence. You’ll be glad you have packed a bottle of water, a sandwich, and your computer in your backpack.
If you want to write outside, rain or shine, a church cloister is a good choice. Although cloisters usually don’t provide benches, I sit on the low wall with my back against a pillar and start writing.
The cloisters adjacent to San Lorenzo, Santa Maria del Carmine, Santa Croce, and Santa Maria Novella are among my favorites.
Libraries seem to encourage serious writing: silence is honored, the space is safe, no one pays attention to you, and distractions are at a minimum. I am always inspired when I am among other writers, sharing energy with peers. The two libraries I frequent the most are The Biblioteca delle Oblate, Via dell’Oriuolo, 26, with its quiet writing rooms and café on the portico overlooking Brunelleschi’s Dome, and The Biblioteca Palagio di Parte Guelfa, Piazzetta di Parte Guelfa.
Florence’s historic libraries, may not provide places to write, but they do offer inspiration. The library in the Convent of San Marco, designed by Cosimo de’Medici, is considered to be the first public library in Renaissance Europe. It exhibits fifteenth century manuscripts, along with a display of the writing utensils and raw pigments used to create these manuscripts. The Laurentian Library (adjacent to the Medici church of San Lorenzo) was designed by Michelangelo to house the books and manuscripts belonging to the Medici family.
Inspiration throughout the day, throughout the city
The city of Florence is a big museum with small museums scattered throughout. Solitary travel heightens my awareness of the inspiration that is presented wherever I go. At a moment’s notice I can turn into the church I am passing, or I can plan ahead to visit the Uffizi. Without the distraction of a traveling companion, I can spontaneously respond to whatever Inspiration appears before me,. Guide books will lead you to the usual attractions, but by wandering about I have found many unique out-of-the-way places that inspire my writing.
Tap into your adventuresome spirit, and discover writing niches wherever you wander. Peer through an open gate and if the prospect looks inviting, find a place to sit, take out your journal or computer and begin.
My special secret place is through the rear entrance of the Scuola del Cuoio (leather school/shop), adjacent to Santa Croce. Park yourself on the steps leading to the apse of the church, or on the shaded stone bench nearby. People may glance at you as they walked by to the shop, but, as in most public places, you will be left alone with your writing.
Writers, Visual artist and musicians in Florence
You can’t miss Dante’s inspiration as you walk around the city. Quotes from his Divine Comedy are incised on plaques hung on buildings throughout the city. The exhibit at Casa Dante brings to life the poet’s work.
Walk through the rooms of Casa Guidi, Piazza San Felice, 8, the home of Elizabeth and Robert Browning from 1847 until 1861, and gaze at Elizabeth and Robert’s writing desks. Also visit the English Cemetery, Piazza Donatello, where Elizabeth is buried.
The creative spirit, be it expressed through writing, painting, sculpture or music, is visible throughout the city. I continue to be inspired by the dedication of street artists and performing musician, and by the craftsmen working away in little shops.
At Lastrucci Mosaics, Via del Macci, 9, watch artists employ original mosaic techniques dating back to the 16th century.
Attend one of the Italian opera concerts Saint Mark’s English Church, Via Maggio, 16, that are offered throughout the year.
Brunelleschi’s Dome has always been my number one inspiration in Florence; it is what draws me back here again and again. Every time I visit I climb the 463 steps to the lantern at the top. I locate my apartment and writing cafes, museums and churches, parks and cloisters, libraries, out of the way places, and all my inspirations. When I come down, I’m ready to write.
Raining. Not intermittently but steady enough for me purchase an ‘I love Scotland,’ umbrella.
Rhythm is important for writing. I am especially conscious of it when traveling alone and staying in the same place for a week. I have time, lots of time; time not taken up traveling from place to place or talking with a companion. It’s up to me to get the beat going and to keep it lively and inspiring.
This morning I needed a break after writing in the flat, so I weathered the weather with a visit to the Scottish National Gallery. A painter’s inspiration (Italian, Flemish, Dutch, French, English, and Scottish paintings from the Renaissance to the twentieth century), but truly inspirational for and kind of creativity.
In the midst of the visit, a poignant moment, ordered by Her Majesty’s Government, as everyone stood “in remembrance of those who lost their lives and all others that were affected by the attack in London on Saturday.”
Upon leaving the museum, I dodged the puddles and umbrellas and returned to the National Museum of Scotland, this time for lunch in the Museum Brassier, located in the bowels of museum, most likely the crypt of an ancient church. Delicious Cullen Skink (smoked fish chowder) and a half smoked salmon pate sandwich, both food and ambience conducive to writing. Thankfully it has become socially acceptable to open a computer at a restaurant. I always have my MacBook Air in my backpack.
My week writing in Edinburgh is ending. I have spent this rainy afternoon in my rented flat, writing, reading and packing. I will go out to eat tonight and then tomorrow before 6, I’ll shut the flat door and walk to the bus stop and wait for the airport bus. I’m very grateful for this time, and have enjoyed sharing this writing diary with you. Hopefully you have gleaned some ideas for a solitary writing, or painting, or sketching, or photography or, you name it, trip.
I love to travel alone, and so I do. My husband of 54 years loves to stay home and garden, and so he does. But he knows I love to go off by myself for extended periods of time. For five years (2009-2014) I rented a cottage by the sea, an hour and a half from our home, and spent the weekdays there alone. For the past twenty years I’ve been traveling by myself, primarily to Scotland (Iona, the Highlands, and Edinburgh) and Italy. When I say Italy I really mean Florence, with occasional short stops and excursions around Tuscany and Umbria and to Rome.