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Ponte Vecchio (Florence, Italy)

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      03.08.2005 20:10
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      Florence is awash with art treasures, teeming with stunning architecture and flooded with pretentious shops, but it isn't always that way. Oh no. Sometimes it's awash with teeming floods. The River Arno, which dissects the city, has been known to flush away everything in its path. Not the PONTE VECCHIO though.

      Although it's thought that there's been a crossing here since Etruscan times, the bridge that spans the river today is far more recent...relatively speaking. Today's Ponte Vecchio was built in 1345 by Taddeo Gaddi (not single-handedly, I assume) and replaced an earlier one which, you've guessed it, was destroyed by a flood.

      Many enterprising souls quickly set up business on the bridge to cash in on the passing trade. These businesses consisted, for the most part of blacksmiths, butchers and tanners - to say it wasn't the most fragrant of strolls would be putting it mildly.
      All that changed in the 16th century when Cosimo I de Medici set up home in the Palazzo Pitti.

      Although a 'secret' passageway (the Corridorio Vasariano - an elevated walkway between the Palazzo Pitti and the Uffizi) had been constructed above the shops allowing the Medici toffs to cross the bridge without rubbing shoulders with the mere plebs, it didn't stem the flow of 'interesting' aromas that permeated from below. Being of a discerning nature, and holder of virtually absolute power, he swiftly evicted the more odious occupants (that'd be all of them), and moved in a more refined clientele...especially those concerned with refined precious metals.
      To this day, the shops on the bridge consist almost entirely of goldsmiths and jewellers, with just a couple of souvenir shops thrown in...not literally.

      The Ponte Vecchio is not only the oldest bridge in Florence, it's also the only bridge that predates WW2. In 1944, the retreating nazis were ordered to destroy all the bridges over the Arno to try and halt the advancing allies, but those orders were disobeyed, and the bridge remained.
      However, where some far-sighted nazi officer showed compassion, Mother Nature wasn't so accommodating. During the flood of 1966, all the shops on the bridge were deluged and completely wrecked, although the bridge itself survived and is still going strong.

      So, suitably encouraged as to its state of repair and apparent indestructiblity, we made our way gingerly to this historic bridge.

      Some of the best views of the bridge are, not surprisingly, from other bridges where you can get a complete and unimpeded panorama of this impressive structure. We crossed the river on the Ponte alle Grazie and, dodging traffic, took quite a few photos before heading up to the bridge proper.

      You'd be forgiven for thinking that a stroll across an old bridge with a few shops on it wasn't the most exciting thing in the world, and you'd be right. Although it was good!
      The shops are more like medieval 'luckenbooths' really, with nothing more than a tiny trading space behing a large window. The shops all had their little offices at the back overlooking the river - I can think of worse places to while away the working day! I'm not sure, but I think there are around 40 or so of them lining both sides, with a small, open square in the middle.

      With almost all the shops being goldsmiths and/or jewellers, the lane seems to shimmer and glitter with the reflected splendour of the various wares. And what a selection!
      I was expecting a great deal of repetition among the goods on offer thinking that perhaps 40 such similar shops side-by-side might lead to a mind-numbing duplication. I was wrong. Somehow or other, it was possible to look in almost all the shops and see something different in each one. Obviously, there is still a fair bit of repetition, but I was struck by just how many different articles of jewellery could be fashioned from gold - some of it exquisitely ornate and beautiful, some of it garish and gaudy, all of it yellow and unfeasibly shiny.

      If gold's not your thing, there are lots of 'trinkets' to be had as well. Semi-precious and precious stones, objet d'art, and a myriad other little things...with not-so-little price tags. To be fair, most of the merchandise on display wasn't prohibitively expensive, but it's not bargain-basement cheap either. Noticing the twinkle in Mrs P's eye, I was tempted to splurge and treat her to something tasty, so I did.
      She really enjoyed her ice-cream.

      There's not really a lot more that can be said about this, one of Florence's best-known landmarks, so I won't.



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