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Ponte Vecchio, Florence Travel Guide

Ponte Vecchio Florence - travel-guideIntroduction

While Florence is practically littered with attractions and points of interest at every turn and corner, one of its most recognizable landmarks is the Ponte Vecchio, or “Old Bridge.” The bridge connects the north and south banks of the Arno River at its narrowest point, and the bridge itself has been pretty much unchanged since around the time of the Roman crossing. Up until the year 1218, it was the only bridge that allowed people to cross the Arno, and the next milestone in its lifespan would be later in 1345 when it had to be redesigned and rebuilt by Taddeo Gaddi after a flood destroyed the original bridge. The result of this reconstruction is the same structure that we see and use today. It is also interesting to note that it has been occupied by more or less the very same goldsmith’s shops and their descendants for hundreds of years.

The Ponte Vecchio has a colorful story that spans several centuries, two of which are most notable.

The first one dates back to 1565 when Cosimo I de’Medici decided that he wanted his own corridor that he could use when travelling between the town hall, the Palazzo Vecchio, and Palazzo Pitti which was the property and residence of the powerful Medici family. At the time, the Ponte Vecchio mostly housed butchers’, fishmongers’,  and leatherworkers’ shops, and hence was a rather busy (and messy) area of the city, and Cosimo wanted to be able to quickly go from his residence to his offices (or “Uffizi”) across the river without having to mix with the chaotic crowds below.

As a result, he commissioned the renowned painter and architect Giorgio Vasari to build an elevated corridor for him. This corridor became known as Corridoio Vasariano, or the Vasari Corridor, and the new corridor served its purpose well. However, a little later, Cosimo found that his walkway smelled very unpleasant, mostly because of the stench generated by the abattoirs and butchers’ shops, as well as the smell wafting up from the tanning vats of the leather workers below. To set it right once more, he ordered the occupants of the shops to move their business elsewhere, and instead chose to move in goldsmiths and jewelers. Other than getting rid of the smell, this also gave him an opportunity to raise the rent! Later in 1593, this arrangement was made permanent when Ferdinand I issued a decree that only goldsmiths and jewelers may set up businesses at the bridge, and to this day, the bridge is still home to same shops and craftsmen.

Ponte Vecchio FlorenceThe second story is much more recent, and takes place in 1944 during the World War. At the time, Hitler’s troops were retreating across the Arno and were destroying bridges along the way in order to slow down the advancing Allied army. According to stories that have been passed around, the Nazi officer who was in charge of the retreat felt that the Ponte Vecchio was too beautiful to simply destroy, and so going against his orders (a heavy offense during those times), he instead ordered the troops to bomb both bridgeheads and the surrounding buildings in order to create obstacles. This decision is why most of the buildings most of the buildings on either end of the bridge look like they’re from the 1950s despite being firmly located in a medieval area.

And that is how the Ponte Vecchio also became known as the only bridge in Florence to have survived the war.

What to See

Views of the River Arno

Thanks to its position at the narrowest point of the Arno, the view of the river at sunset is nothing short of spectacular. Get the chance to see what has inspired many a writer, poet, or painter over the centuries.

Gold and Jewelry Shops

Thanks to Cosimo Medici’s antics, the Ponte Vecchio remains the main place to get gold and jewelry in Florence up to this day. Today, a good number of the exclusive jewelry stores here are still owned by the descendants of the original 41 artisans that were assigned there and given shops on the bridge by Cosimo himself in the 16th century. They are established jewelers and fine craftsmen, and some of them continue to make jewelry in the traditional manners.

In the middle of the bridge are two terraces, each one facing one side of the river, and on one of these terraces is a statue of the famous 16th century goldsmith Benvenuto Cellini. If one takes a look around, you would notice that the railing around his statue, as well as the railing at other points of the bridge, may be heavy with padlocks.

This is actually a recent practice wherein young couples would inscribe their names or initials on the locks, attach it to the railing, and then throw away the key into the Arno River as a way to symbolize their unbreakable love. Most likely inspired by the novel Three Meters Above the Sky (Tre metri sopra il cielo) by the Italian novelist Federico Moccia, it is seen as a grand romantic gesture. However, the government of Florence is not too happy with this, as they have to regularly remove the locks, a task which contributes to the damaging of the bridge.

Tips and Advice

  • The Ponte Vecchio is a great landmark if you’re trying to get your bearings within Florence. It also helps that a lot of other attractions and points of interest are merely a short distance away, so it’s a good starting point for anyone who wishes to explore on their own.
  • The bridge is a heavily trafficked area, and the crowd here is thick and is usually mostly composed of tourists. Because of this, it is also a hotspot for pickpockets, so make sure to keep an eye on your valuables while strolling or browsing.
  • As mentioned previously, this bridge is a popular destination for a lot of tourists, so if you’re looking to avoid the crowd but need to get across the Arno, use one of the other nearby bridges instead such as the Ponte Santa Trinita and the Ponte alle Grazie.
  • While it may seem like a romantic gesture to place a love lock on the fence around Cellini’s bust or any of the railings on the bridge, you may want to take some time to think about this, because there is a EUR 160.00 fine that comes with it if you are caught placing a lock.
  • If you are planning to do your shopping at the Ponte Vecchio, be aware that the prices here are higher than in other parts of the city, mostly due to the fact that it is a tourist hotspot. If you are on a budget, either avoid buying anything from this area and head to the smaller ateliers in the artisan quarter, or be prepared to haggle. Hard.
  • If you wish to take your time admiring the Ponte Vecchio, unfortunately, it may be difficult to do so from the bridge itself due to the large crowds and the busy traffic. Instead, try finding a spot at one of the nearby restaurants. Just be aware that as with any popular tourist area, prices may be a bit inflated, so expect to pay more than usual for your meal and/or cup of coffee (plus extra if you decide to take a seat at a table).

Ponte Vecchio Florence