The last day, with all its rain, was actually by far the best. Ash had been to the Duomo once before but the queue was fairly short in the morning’s warm drizzle and I badgered her into coming along again. We pottered around in the nave, took some photographs and peered upwards into the dome itself. There were a couple of stone galleries or walkways up there, perhaps 150 and then 200 feet up, the second of them right where the dome started to curve in from the wall and continue on to the opening of the lantern at its apex, at 295 feet.

It looked like there were people up there. Maybe they’re cleaning it or something, I thought.

How wrong I was.

With a sense of mounting inevitability, we decided to climb to the top of the dome. The first spiral staircase wound up inside the main wall, with little apertures every now and then letting in some pale light from the outside. The stairs exited onto a smallish room somewhere within the walls, then a passageway took us towards the inside of the building and disgorged us onto the lower of the two walkways we’d seen from the floor.

Ye gods. This was high. This was really, really high.

“Good grief!” I said, feeling that stoicism and stiff upper lip were important at altitude. What I really wanted to say was less polite, and somewhat disrespectful inside a church. What I wanted to say was: “Holy fucking shit.”

The balcony projected out from the wall by about two feet and was edged by a stone balustrade. Perspex sheeting had been added in modern times, presumably to prevent those particular idiots who gaily caper around high, exposed areas from accidentally (if gratifyingly) toppling to their doom. We made our way about a quarter of the way around the circumference of the balcony where another door let us back into the friendly darkness of the walls. We kept on climbing, this time up normal staircases, but which began to narrow and curve inwards to the right. We were, in effect, climbing up the inside surface of the dome itself. The stairs eventually turned completely to the right and headed straight towards the summit.

Of course, there was a queue of maybe ten or fifteen people on the final flight of stairs, waiting for some of those up on the lantern to come back down and make room for us, so we had plenty of time to reflect that we were standing on a few feet of brick hanging unsupported by pillar or buttress over a 300 foot drop. The queue cleared, we scaled the ladder and looked out over the red Florentine rooftops. And crapped ourselves anew, because we were just so damn high up.

We took some photographs, ignoring the idiots gaily capering by the weatherbeaten and frankly inadequate iron railings, and walked very carefully around to take in the view. It was quite a sight, even with an overcast morning sky dulling the colours a little. We took a few photographs, climbed back down the ladder and trotted down the stairs with mounting relief until finally a vertical staircase presented itself. Hooray! Even if the dome were to spontaneously crumble and send the lantern tumbling a hundred metres to the cold, hard floor of the nave, we’d probably be okay.

And then another door opened in front of us. This was the higher of the two balconies. There was just something quietly terrifying about our situation, standing on a narrow ledge of stone two hundred feet above the mosaic floor with the dome starting to curve inwards just above our heads. To look up was to be reminded “My God, we were just up there,” and to look down was to think “and now we’re still up here.” We looked at each other, eyes wide, and followed the other visitors out towards the exit, another quarter of the way around but there seemed to be some kind of hold up. What kind of casual psychopath would want to linger up here?

A French one, as it turned out. A guy and a girl were lounging idly against the balustrade, pointing out parts of the fresco lining the dome, and dissecting it in the manner of art history students.

“Bof,” I imagined they were saying, “je pense que c’est assez bien, mais Nôtre Dame est plus belle, n’est-ce pas?” They would have been inhaling Gauloises if they had been allowed to, and louchely dangling a glass of vin rouge or pastis from their free hand. I didn’t actually hear what they were saying, because the mother of an American family in front of us was reminding her terrified daughter to “Breathe honey, breathe,” while they filed past the contemptuous French couple. We followed them along the gallery, back into the stairs within the wall and practically skipped down to ground level.

The exit took us out on the other side of the cathedral. My God, it was good to be alive and at sea level, or at least close enough so that falling there wouldn’t cause us to purée. We must have been giddy from either oxygen deprivation or relief, because the rest of the day was an exercise in holiday joy.

We gawked at Machiavelli, Galileo and Dante in the Uffizi’s arcade of statues; knocked back espressos at the bar of an open-fronted café as the rain thundered down at its heaviest; noticed for the first time the elevated corridor which runs all the way from the Palazzo Vecchio north of the river to the Palazzo Pitti a kilometre away on the south of it, built so the Medici could move between their strongholds without coming into contact with the great unwashed; and lastly saw the tombs of the subjects of the Uffizi’s statuary in the church of Santa Croce, that of Stendhal syndrome fame.

That evening we took the Ponte Vecchio to the Oltrarno, the quarter south of the Arno, and came to rest on the patio of a restaurant in Piazza di Santo Spirito. We ordered a couple of glasses of cheap plonk* and I think visibly slumped into our chairs. The frustrations of the two previous days were gone, and the slightly grotty** piazza felt like a slice of native, modern day Florentine culture rather than a stiffly preserved renaissance artefact. It’d taken until the last day, but we’d finally arrived! We ate well (as we had done the whole time), sat on the steps of the church with a can of vending-machine beer, drank deeply and watched the square’s residents promenade slowly around, calling up to their neighbours smoking at the windows of their apartments.

We walked slowly home. Next morning we caught the train to Pisa from the fantastic modernist train station. Oh come on, you didn’t think I’d pass up the chance to throw in a casual mention of a ’30s concrete masterpiece with the grotesque distinction of having been rubber-stamped by Mussolini, did you?

* Italy does good coffee and as far as my limited palate can tell, good wine. Drink coffee at the bar like an Italian or settle for the house plonk and you can get stimulated/relaxed on the cheap. Nice!

** Piazza S. Spirito is apparently a hang out of the “heroin set”, but I can’t decide if the New York Times means decadent, elegantly wasted artist types or your more typical Leith resident. Either way, there were a fair few slightly absent-looking people about, and I noticed in general that a lot of the city (at least what we saw of it) was just a little frayed around the edges, almost like Venice. Is this an Italian thing, or is it just that the rough patches are obvious when compared to the shiny tourist attractions?

Now there’s a blast from the past! Beer vending machines—still awesome.