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Florence: A Bus with a View

Nancy Lytle

Many visitors to Florence prefer to hoof it from one glorious site to the next, not an impossible goal given the compactness of the centro, where every block seems to present an opportunity for awe. However, there is a case to be made for ATAF, the city bus system, in regards to an often fascinating overview of Florence as a European city.

Among several, perhaps the best bus route of all is the Number 13, a clockwise circle that can easily begin and end at the Santa Maria Novella train station. A day-pass works well, so one can, if inclined, jump off and on at will along the way. Starting at the station, the "head of the line" (Capolinea) has its advantages, too, in terms of grabbing a good seat on the right-hand side of the coach. Most of Number 13's best viewing will be on the destra.

Florence, A View to the West, 1993, water color by Nancy Lytle

Florence, A View to the West, 1993, water color by Nancy Lytle

After pulling out from Santa Maria Novella train station, the bus passes the Fortessa Basso, an imposing pile of old stone that houses most of the expositions presented in Florence. Soon you are in a area of wide boulevards and palazzi dating from the turn of the 20th century --- you could be anywhere in Europe really. Passing along the Torrento Mugnone, a sort of waterway-cum-park, where dogs are invited to exercise on the bank below, the dominant shape against the sky is Florence's Russian Orthodox church. The building has a true fairytale look to it, with majolica-tiled domes and beaded chains draped from cross to cross high above.

The bus turns across the canal and continues through the architecturally-unified Piazza Liberta, with four grand loggias facing an arch of triumph and an old tower in the center. Soon the Number 13 passes the statue of Savanarola, keeping watch over the piazza named for him and his infamous "Bonfire of the Vanities" that brought the Renaissance to a screeching halt. A few turns and stops later, the Number 13 races down the grand Viale Gramsi toward the Arno, swerving around the tower at Piazza Beccaria. The tower is one of the remaining ramparts of Florence's second ring of walls that surrounded the city from the middle-ages, and is beautifully intact, with a roof and a gay iron pennant on top.

At the river, the bus turns right and cruises along the Arno, past the Biblioteca Nazionale, where Italy's most treasured texts are stored. This is the area of the November, 1966 flood, when many books in the library and art works in nearby Santa Croce were ruined by the fifteen-foot high water surging from the rain-sodden mountains to the east. The bus stop just past the Biblioteca, on Via dei Tintori, is convenient for a stroll through the piazza and church of Santa Croce, just a block away. The whole neighborhood is rich with narrow, medieval streets, cafes, restaurants and interesting shops, including the heart of the leather industry in the city.

Crossing the Arno at the Ponte alle Grazie, the view on the right, of the Ponte Vecchio, is superb. The bus stop just on the other side is a place to jump off and shoot late-in-the-day photos of the old bridge with the sun setting behind it. On the river bank below, Florence's furry Nutria-like river creatures may be seen feeding on grasses, or paddling serenely in the shallows. They are not large rats, but lovable locals.

Now the bus charges along the river in the opposite direction, heading away from the center. To the right, the charming Piazza Demidoff, a little park with a statue covered by a Victorian glass canopy. Beyond, another medieval gate, the Porta San Niccolo stands guard at Piazza Poggi. In summer, a wonderful outdoor cafe is set up on the rampo just behind, with drinks, food and free evening entertainment overlooking the river and skyline of Florence. (The mojitos are well-made and cheap!)

Getting down to serious business, the Number 13 begins the climb through the posh hills of Florence's south side. Beautiful Liberty-style villas line the way, surrounded by umbrella pines and cypress. The views from the right side of the bus are glorious (the left isn't bad either) as the coach moves ever upward, circling ravines and small valleys that still are dotted with olive and fruit trees. Finally, the top is reached, the stop where most passengers will pile off, the Piazzale Michelangelo. This is the other capo di linea on the route, so the driver often turns off the engine and steps down for a smoke or an important cell-phone call.

Piazzale Michelangelo is an enormous terrace where a replica of the David presides over a zoo of tour buses and visitors, creating a mundane forefront to what is one of the most wonderful views in the world. A wide set of stairs to the left of the piazza leads down to a slightly lower, flowery level, car and bus-free, with an outdoor cafe and a quieter view of the city and the surrounding hills.

A short walk along Via Galileo Galilei, or one bus stop further, is the imposing marble staircase that leads up to San Miniato al Monte, the exquisite Romanesque church with its geometric marble facade, also a masterpiece of design by Michelangelo. The view from the plaza in front of the church is even more astounding than from the Piazzale, and often used as a photographic backdrop by freshly-joined brides and grooms.

Continuing on Number 13, the race is on to Porta Romana, through parkland, villas and a long stretch of the edge of the Boboli Gardens. A sharp eye out to the right can spot the tawny facade of the Knight's Lodge, with its punctuating roof-line statuary, in the near distance. This intimate structure now houses a rare porcelain collection and marks the eastern edge of the Boboli. A walk up through the giardino to this spot affords a lovely and timeless view of the little valleys below, straight out of Leonardo da Vinci.

Suddenly the bus shoots into Piazza Porta Romana, with its arched gate leading into the backside of the Oltrarno district. Exiting the bus here for the Boboli, the visitor would walk along Via Romana to the South Gate entrance, a few blocks up, and beyond that, to the Pitti Palace. Meanwhile, the 13 continues on, passing a long stretch of intact Medieval wall, part of the second ring that has survived to modern times. From here, the route chugs through contemporary Florence, crosses the Arno again on Ponte della Vittoria (where a glance to the right shows the opposite side of the Ponte Vecchio and the very graceful Ponte Trinita.) At the end of its circle, Number 13 charges along busy streets to the train station once more.


Nancy Lytle lived in Italy for five years, writing manuscripts for two novels and various travel essays.

© Nancy Lytle, 2004

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