The sky above the city is so taut with blue it might shatter, fragment into the million shards of glass glimmering in the waters of the Arno below. The Sun dances along rooftops and café canopies and window ledges, shimmering gold racing us up and up the well-trodden path which loops headily towards the Piazzale Michelangelo. With our bags laden with cartons of rosé, packets of crisps and still warm cornetti from the bakery on our street corner, we are one of many to set out on this pilgrimage to reach the promised sliver of heaven at the top.
As high up as we are, we can chart the treasure map route the day has taken us on, following the yellow stringed cat’s cradle as it twists round benches and steeples and signs, darts down alleys, knots round spires and lamp-posts, until, finally, X marks the spot. And this is our prize: the sprawling city at our feet, a mosaic of orange, blue, white shards.
I trace my day’s path, beginning along the Ponte Vecchio, accompanied by the dull thud of encasements unlocked for another day’s business, then one right and a left to reach my café. Known as ‘the English girl’ to everyone who works there, I no longer trip over the very basics of a coffee order, but now hazard a semblance of conversation, more gestures and awkward giggles than words. I drink my coffee outside, acknowledged with a nod by the old gentleman who beats me there every morning. The heady fumes of coffee and cigarettes form a fog through which he peruses his paper, cover to cover, slowly, deliberately, as if he has all the time in the world. Which he does.
For life here seems to move as quickly as I choose: I sit and savour the artwork as it comes to me, pausing on every bridge and ledge, the rich orchestra of the city playing to my tempo as I beat it. Someone told me that nobody takes coffee to go here, so I don’t. I sit and I savour, just as the girl sitting on the steps of Santo Spirito does each day, her red jacket a STOP sign against the cool stone wall of the church. She sits, and she smokes, and she writes in her diary, ethereal in the haze of sunlight which shrouds her. Some days we have lunch at I Raddi on the square corner; arancini, parmigiana, and a mezzo litro of white wine best served cold in the shade of the church.
On others, I unfurl the yellow string once more across the river, entangled in the throbbing queues outside I Fratelli – a sandwich shop selling slabs of golden focaccia stuffed with parma ham, mozzarella, and tomato under the stern gaze of the Palazzo Vecchio. I sit and I savour as the world drifts by, the flitting throngs of happy snappers as fleeting as the arc of the sun on this crisp day in January.
For life here moves quicker than I’d choose: for all my sitting and savouring, it cannot be contained. Only for the apostles atop Santa Croce, the figures caught mid-action in the Boboli gardens, the faces carved into the bricks of the city walls can there be an eternity in this golden city, with beauty and sorrow and history and joy treading its cobbled pavements. For me, these are as insubstantial as the orange and pink gauze which now flutters across the sky, heralding the final act of the performance we have all gathered to watch. With jackets pulled tight and drinks poured full, we become one, in body and breath, exhaling as the sun dips down, bowing to Florence’s magnum opus – an ecstasy of colour.