12 Sep The Dark Heart of Florence Tour
Florence in July: crowds, sweltering heat and theme-park-style queues. The best decision we made was to book ourselves onto a night walking tour so we could explore the city’s treasures in the relative cool and quiet of the evening. We also got to learn about the darker side of Florence; the medieval tales of feuds and scandals, deceit and mystery, with a taste of delicious gelato thrown in for good measure.
Failing in Florence
“What’s your plan for Florence?” asked our Airbnb host in Prague, the final stop on our whirlwind tour of Eastern Europe. My sleep-deprived brain was refusing to function and focus on the trip ahead to Italy that we’d completely failed to plan. “Um, I think we’re just going to eat lots of pasta,” I wisely replied.
When we arrived in Florence I realised exactly how foolish our lack of planning was. If you’ve ever visited the city during the peak of summer you’ll understand. The queues to get into the cathedrals and art galleries snaked for hours along the cobbled lanes while the sun beat steadily down on us; crowds packed the streets and jostled in the piazzas, it was impossible to take a picture without someone else photo bombing us.
After a day of failing to see or do much apart from melt in the fierce Florence sun, we decided to book ourselves onto the highly-rated City Wonders Dark Heart of Florence Walking Tour and let someone else guide us through the city. Considering I’m not much of an art buff but I am a fan of the more gritty side of history, we weren’t disappointed by our choice of tour.
Our Dark Heart of Florence Tour
The streets were certainly cooler and less congested when we met our guide Charles and the other 18 members of our tour group that evening. After plugging in our headphones so we could hear Charles loud and clear, we embarked on a two-hour tour of the city that transported us back to Florence in the middle ages through to the renaissance period. The time sped by in a whirl of fascinating tales as we wandered along narrow back streets, into sweeping squares and across the famous Ponte Vecchio.
Along the way I absorbed all of Charles’ stories about life in the middle ages when the city was full of nobles and merchants, soldiers, monks and peasants. The backdrop of ornate cathedrals and squares, ancient streets and shuttered houses made it easy to conjure up images of the city as it was then; of chamber pots being emptied from above, criminals hung in the grand piazzas and fires occasionally ravaging the wooden buildings.
I don’t want to spoil all of the tour secrets but to give you a taster, some of my favourite stories were about the feuding Florence families such as the Ghibellines and the Guelphs, who were forever locked in power struggles to control the city. They made assassination attempts on each other, chopped off rivals’ noses, chased through the streets and threw hot oil down on one another from their town houses.
We heard about a city steeped in corruption and scandal; how a pirate became a pope and a stabbing in the Duomo during Easter service led to days of brawling, left 25 dead and ended with the perpetrators being publically hung in the Piazza della Signoria. Opium was all the rage in Florence back then and the famous Bartolini family cunningly used the drug to their advantage against rival merchants. We also shuddered to learn that beneath our feet in Limbo Piazza lay a cemetery for un-baptised babies and we heard about the 1966 flood which devastated the city.
Touring Florence’s Famous Spots and Art History
The Dark Heart of Florence was much more than a ghost and grisly history tour. Florence is of course famous for its art history and cultural legacy which is something Charles taught us all about. Neither Andrew nor I know much about art, so we found this tour a really useful way to learn about some of Florence’s most famous artists and sculptors. Charles has a specialised knowledge of art history and his passion for the subject shone through as he took us to Piazza della Signoria.
All the statues in this square, he explained, were political messages which were extremely powerful in an age where public art was really the only images people consumed. The original David statue, for instance, was placed in the square in 1503 by the Republic in defiance against Florence’s tyrannical ruling family, the Medicis. While the statue of Perseo holding Medusa’s head was a reminder to the Florentines not to get on the wrong side of the Medicis.
As the tour started at 7.45pm, we also got to take in some of Florence’s famous spots in cooler temperatures with fewer crowds. We stopped at the Piazza degli Strozzi, the Orsanmichele church, the Lady Justice scales and a street cart that sells one of Florence’s signature delicacies: a sandwich made from cow’s stomach. We also got to see the site of the 1993 Mafia bombing and the Porcellino, a bronze pig statue that will tell you whether you’re going to return to Florence if you insert a coin into its mouth.
Towards the end of the tour we walked over the famous Ponte Vecchio, which was the only bridge in Florence to survive bombing in WW2. Although it’s now lined with jewellery shops, the bridge used to house butchers and fishmongers who’d throw their waste into the river each day and watch it float satisfyingly down towards Pisa, their rival city. On the quieter side of the river we ended the tour with a lesson on how gelato was first made in Florence. We even got to taste two delicious free scoops, undoubtedly the best we had in the city, while watching the orange lights flicker off the river.
Thanks to City Wonders who generously hosted our Dark Heart of Florence Night Walking Tour. We had a great time and as always, we’ve shared our honest opinions about the tour and our visit to Florence.