Today is a holiday in Italy – the feast of Saint John the Baptist who’s “considered the ‘symbol of moral rectitude and political correctness’ (seriously what is political correctness anymore?) on whom medieval Florence aspired to build its economic fortune and good government of the Republic. The image of the saint was even stamped on the city’s currency, the florin.”
There’s an enormous amount of history of the day and how this celebration came to be and why etc, but the main event is the fireworks display over the city – now coming from the top of the Piazzale, though in centuries past it was lit from Ponte alla Carraia, and before that, from somewhere above the Uffizi/Signoria (there’s a fresco of it painted in Palazzo Vecchio that you can see if you tour the museum (and you definitely should because it’s awesome).
I like to call this day the closest thing I get to 4th of July celebrations – even if everything else is completely different and the people in the parades here wear tights and there are no Americans painting themselves red and yelling ‘HOW!’ from the back of a horse with a feathered headdress on (this was a highlight of my childhood and it shows how incredibly much the world perspectives have changed).
There ARE fireworks though, and although there aren’t many places to lay out a blanket on cool grass and wait till the sun sets with glowsticks, there are beautiful colors and loud bangs and crackles and everyone “Ooohhs” and “Aaahs” in a universal language and it’s really nice to see a city come together to celebrate.
The first few years I was in Florence I had flown home for this day or maybe was on a trip – I can’t remember. Another year I met up with friends early and we sat on the bridge in the crowd. The first year we had Stitch, Rami was magically off from work that night, and last minute we decided to pour wine into mason jars and walk down to the Arno to see if we could find a spot far enough away that there wouldn’t be a crowd, but still close enough for it to be magic.
We found a spot on the open banks of the river, far past the Ponte Vecchio and Ponte alle Grazie, further down the river, two more bridges, where the walls open up and running paths hug the water instead of cement. We brought our wine out and laid down a blanket among the few that had taken up this spot to seek out the festivities of the night and I felt like a kid again, only lacking a glow necklace to throw up into the fading sunset. The wine was warm and so were we, but with our little puppy (who was not afraid in the slightest THANK GOD) we sat in the grass on our blanket in the general Florentine quiet on the banks of the river, and I was happy.
The next year (or maybe the year after, I can’t remember) Rami was working again but I had a wonderful friend Alina (who has now moved away sadly) and once again I slowly walked Stitch down to the river around this time, but in a year the world had changed and so had the banks of the river. Gone were the opportunities of lying a blanket down in the quiet. The area had turned into the place to be during the day and night with two outdoor bars and street food pop-up restaurants laying claim to the banks for the summer. I love these places, truly, and they are a go-to for beautiful early and late summer lunches, but I missed the solitude of the open grass on nights like these. That night we still sat on blankets but had a rumbling bass beat coming from the DJ behind us. The disco lights flashed in the reflection of the water. I waited in line for a beer in a plastic cup and paid too much for a gelato. Families piled into the area and plopped down chairs and blankets and sheets and noise.
This year, a few years later, we drove by the area on our way to the vet today. Already there were police out setting up gates and guardrails. A few years ago with terrorist attacks lighting up Europe, Florence decided to rope off the main streets and do security checks at the entrances. In just a few years, my beautiful Florentine memory is gone – and it isn’t the only one (but that’s another blog in the making). Last year, my little Fireworks buddy and I hiked up the hill next to us instead of heading toward the chaos on the water. I found hundreds of people at the top of our street, craning their necks over the walls and out toward the Duomo and the Piazzale beyond. The roar of the explosions was muffled from the other side of the valley, but still beautiful, and no security screenings to go through. It was too crowded for me and a dog, though, so we started to head home, but little did anyone know, they’d opened the gates to the park, and so we slipped in and up under the shadows and found open space under the trees to watch the rest of the shimmering colors – and it was almost as peaceful as that first night when Rami didn’t have to work, and the wine tasted just a bit sweeter – maybe because of the mason jar.
This year there’s no way I’m even trying the center. We’ll see how the crowd starts to flow around here in the next hour. Little Luna and I will snake our way through the crowds. If there’s anything worth seeing I’ll try and put it on Instagram for you. But truly, you should come and see this display for yourself – through my only advice would be to get an apartment or a hotel with a rooftop terrace. Those places and perks are the ones worth having for nights like this.