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Living a City

Posted on 11 December 2023

Written by:

Sophia de Sousa

This is a very personal one.

I recently visited Florence, my home for many years across the late 80s, 90s and early 00s. Since I moved back to the UK, I have maintained many wonderful friendships there and I have been back regularly for visits over the past two decades, so I was quite surprised by how very different this trip felt for me.

This time I was taking my teenage son with me, and though I had taken him to Florence when he was younger, we had always stayed with friends and benefitted from the comfortable homes and family environments they offered. I thought that this time it would be nice to have our own space. 

I treated us to renting a little flat in the historic centre. I had looked at options in various key tourist locations around the city, and even found a couple of beauties overlooking Ponte Vecchio and such like, but eventually landed on one in my old neighbourhood, literally around the corner from the flat where I had lived for 10 years. I thought it would be fun to show my son my old stomping ground.

My neighbourhood as seen from the top of the Duomo

When I booked the flat, it occurred to me that though I had been back to Florence many times, I had not really been back to MY Florence. The friends I had stayed with offered me wonderful hospitality, but I was a guest of their reality of Florence. Though they all live in what are considered desirable locations, in the hills that surround the city, none of them now lives in the historic centre as I did.

So, this time felt decidedly different, as I could enjoy being in the city as I had done as a resident for the first time since I left Florence back in 2003.

My experience of living there had been moving around on foot or on my bike, zigzagging through the streets of the mediaeval heart of the city, diving on and off the narrow pavements, dodging mopeds and hoards of tourists.

We had lunch with friends in this bar/restaurant above my favourite square, Piazza Santissima Annunziata. This was the view from my seat.

Though some things had changed, my neighbourhood had remained much as I had left it. I popped into my old corner cafe to get fresh pastries in the morning for our breakfast, went to the local market to pick up fresh fruit and stopped off at various shops on the way home to pick up bits and pieces needed in our temporary home.

Piazza della Signoria by night

My son and I did the tourist bit too, and imagine my delight when standing in an unusually empty Piazza della Signoria late on the first evening there, my son declared, “God, this is a bit bloody beautiful!” 

Before setting off on the trip, I had decided I would impose only very minimal cultural activity on my son. I thought that walking around the city and a climb to the cupola of the magnificent Santa Maria del Fiore would offer him a nice taste of the city without shoving culture down his throat.

Climbing down from the cupola of Santa Maria del Fiore, between the two shells of Brunelleschi’s dome

To my surprise he wanted to see and do far more than I had imagined. He listened, not just indulgently but genuinely interested, as I waxed lyrical about fenestration, rustication and the proportions of Renaissance architecture. He wanted to know more about the Medici family, intrigued by their palaces and the Vasari Corridor, by their patronage of the arts, and was shocked by Fra Savonarola’s Bonfire of the Vanities.

The Roman theatre in Fiesole

We went to Fiesole and tested the perfect acoustics of its Roman theatre, and talked about the wonders of Roman engineering 2000 years ago.

Remains of the Roman bath complex in Fiesole

On our various routes round the city, we zipped past many of the historic buildings that visitors flock to, just as I had every day when I lived there, on my way to work, nipping to the shops, meeting friends for dinner or going to the cinema. And as they had for me, the Duomo and other key buildings around the city, quickly became place markers, wayfinding devices for my son on our way to and from our temporary home.

Left: A busy bus stop with my favourite view of the Cathedral complex Right: Santa Croce, down the road from my flat and clearly visible from the cupola

By the end of our short stay of only three full days, my son had learned his way around the city centre, as well as some of my routes and shortcuts. He had already developed a sense of his own favourite moments, with the best views, perspectives, textures. He had started to discover those hidden spaces, delighting in glimpses of courtyards though large iron gates, the small door at the base of a tower, an unexpected cloister, the roof terrace which he’d quite fancy.

My son discovered and coaxed me into this peaceful space on our way home one day

It was as if a whole new world had opened to him, not just in learning about the city, its history and its culture, but he also wanted to know about my life there as a young adult coming of age. I showed him the places I frequented, like the hole-in-the-wall gelateria that isn’t in any of the tour guides but was my favourite place for ice cream; the small shop where I used to buy my art supplies and once was expertly pickpocketed; the piazza that became a bar and night club in the summer months, where I used to dance until the early hours. 

I told him the stories of my every day, but also of the moments that were bigger than me, like the time in 1993, when the Mafia detonated a bomb in Via dei Georgofili, beside the Uffizi Gallery. I recounted how I had heard and felt the bomb vibrate through the city and had jumped on my bike to investigate. I then spent the whole night in Piazza della Signoria as an impromptu translator for the emergency services that were supporting injured and displaced tourists. It was a time when, unlike today, few of the people in those roles spoke much English.  I told him about my friends, the art historian and museologist, coming to my place in the days that followed, talking about works of art that were now simply shadows on canvases, the paint blown off them by the vibrations of the blast. Thirty years later, my son and I stood in Via dei Georgofoli looking at the works of art to commemorate the lives lost, and were both deeply moved by them.

Art commemorating the victims of the bomb in Via dei Georgofili

The dense overcrowded urban fabric of Florence, and its rich history, its incredible architecture, its countless restaurants as well as its traffic and pollution, had been my every day, and as I fell back into it and showed him around, my son noted that this trip felt different from visiting other places as a tourist.

We decided that in getting to know Florence, he was also getting to know me better, beginning to understand some of my sensibilities, my understanding of beauty and proportions, my taste not only for good food, but also for spending hours at the table with friends.

Florence will always be my special place, an adopted city that I connected with in a way that I have with no other place on earth. It was an extraordinary experience to share my lived experience of that city with my very English son as he embarks on his young adult life and starts to look outward at the world around him. Though I know he is very comfortable in the neighbourhood where he has grown up in London, I also know that it does not speak to him in the same way Florence does to me and that he can imagine living somewhere quite different. I can’t wait for him to find that special place that captures his heart as Florence did mine.  

A few years ago, I did a talk called “Love and the City” for URBED’s 4×4 Manchester event, in which I spoke about falling in love with Florence. You can watch it below.

Love and the City at URBED’s 4X4 Manchester

I also wrote a blog for our A Place I Love series, which you can read here.