My favorite time to get acquainted with a city is early in the morning when the weather is at its best and the air is fresh. The few precious hours following the dawn offer the best photo opportunities, before the tourists and street-ramblers flood the city and spoil the scenery for a good picture of a fountain, bridge, cathedral, or the duomo. More importantly, there is also just something amazing about watching a city awaken, observing the lifeless streets as they gradually come alive and burst with activity.
The sun rose over Florence, Italy, at 6:38 a.m., slowly illuminating the classic edifices that cast their shadows on the almost-too-narrow cobblestone streets. I wanted to be outside in the cool morning air before the heat came. The river shimmered as it flowed under numerous arches, including the Ponte Veccio, boasted as one of the oldest medieval bridges in Italy. Large wooden boxes with giant chains and padlocks occupied much of the bridge’s interior walls. As the shopkeepers slowly appeared, they swung open the lids of these ugly boxes and transformed them into quaint, yet attractive, tourist shops. These shops hung out over the water, slanting and sagging. Gondolas passed by on the river every once in a while, with a faint splash of the oars.
As the sun shone more brightly, eliminating the shadows on the buildings and revealing their true color; black gave way to chocolate brown, as the drab gray turned bluish. A distant tower materialized across the bridge, a brown stone structure, resembling a castle monolith. I continued walking down the sidewalks, capturing everything on film. Some of my best pictures are created in the soft rays of the morning light.
One restaurant worker, equipped with a green apron, wiped the outside tables with cherry-red cloths and swept underneath the tables. A typical breakfast in Europe consists of fruit, pastries, bread, and spread (usually chocolate). Florence was no different. Driven by hunger, the sweet smells lured me into the eatery.
Once inside I met one of the few other people who were awake at such an early hour without the reason of needing to go to work. The waiter led me over to a blue and green swirled table, where I dined beside an Italian-speaking man. This man, whose name was Carmello, did not view the language barrier as a problem. He continued to chatter in his beautiful Italian to me, even though most of the time I could offer only a smile and a blank gaze in return. Still, he didn’t give up trying to converse with me, offering me biscotti and pointing out city sights on my tourist map.
Outside the restaurant, the hubbub was reaching its peak. Honking horns and other traffic sounds came infrequently from those brave enough to make an attempt at maneuvering their vehicles through the hustle and bustle. Except for one section of town by the library where motorcyclists kept driving in, parking, and then dashing off to their desired destinations and except for the few Peugot drivers, everyone else walked or traveled by bike. Professional-looking women dressed in short skirts and tan suit jackets and men in darker suits rode their bikes as if they were wearing casual clothing.
Soon the early morning aroma of baking bread was lost, snatched away by a breeze from the river, and replaced by the stench of tobacco and cigarette smoke. The sidewalks filled up with the loud noises of chattering Italians, a cell phone in one hand and a cigarette in the other. Many of these Firenzians were always smiling and laughing, and like Carmello, they seemed ready to make conversation with anyone, especially foreigners.
Florence was fully awake, and after my breakfast, so was I. I was ready to start the day, content in knowing that I had beaten the tourists and had already seen Florence the way it really is.