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When it comes to architectural grandeur and art treasures, few cities on earth can stand comparison with Florence - the Tuscan city that pioneered the renaissance in Medieval Europe.

Founded by the Romans in the 1st century, Florence did not expand significantly until Carolingian days, but between the 12th and 15th centuries it became the greatest cultural center in Europe; some might suggest it became the hub of the universe, not only producing magnificient architecture and countless art treasures but forming ideas that form the basis of even 20th century thought.

Florence spreads itself along both banks of the River Arno and is surrounded by hills. Anatole France once wrote, "... The God who made the hills of Florence was an artist." It seems the proud people of this Medieval gem also have art running in their veins because for centuries the Florentines have had a passion for art and it shows.

Despite the onset of mass tourism, Florence, remains a feast for sore eyes: an almost perfectly preserved Renaissance city, a veritable treasure house of fine works of art. It is also colorful with its profusion of yellow ochres and umbers, burnt siennas and terracottas, and orange roofs and domes. Florence couldn't be ugly if it tried, although sometimes you begin to believe that it does try with all the swarms of noisy mopeds and Fiats honking away until the early hours.

There is one place in Florence no visitor should miss ... the Galleria Dell" Accademia. Founded in 1784, when the Granduke Piertro Leopoldo wanted to collect in a single academy the different schools of drawing that existed in Florence, the Accademia houses a vast collection of Italian paintings from the 13th to the 16th centuries including works by Giovanni do Milano, Pontormo, Santi di Tito and Alessandro Allori. The horendously long queues that form outside the gallery are, however, to witness the genius that was Michelangelo. Dominating everything is his world renowned David; this colossal statue over 4 meters in height was sculpted from a single block of marble. There are other masterpieces of the great master including four "unfinished" statues of the four slaves, and the Palestrina Pieta.

Still on the trail of art treasures we can move along to the Galleria Degli Uffizi which has one of the most important collections in the world. It was started by Francis I de' Medici and his collection was subsequently enriched by Ferdinand I, who transferred various sculptures from the de' Medici Villa in Rome to the Uffizi.

You will discover some of the finest Renaissance art in the world in the Uffizi gallery. There is one huge room which houses the work of Sandro Botticelli (1445-1510) including his much admired Birth of Venus, The Magnificat Madonna, Portrait of Lucrezia and Primavera. Besides the works of Botticelli, the Gallery has halls devoted to the likes of Giotto and the Tuscan primitives, to the Sienese School of the 14th century and to Antonio and Pietro Pollaiolo.

The National Museum of the Bargello houses a priceless collection of Tuscan Renaissance sculptures by Cellini, Giambologna and Verrocchio as well as some of Michelangelo's early works such as his bust of Brutus (1504).

You could spend days touring the art galleries and museums of Florence but you must reserve some time for visiting the Duomo, or cathedral, where Romanesque and Gothic elements are mixed together. The interior, rather severe and majestic, takes the shape of a Latin cross divided into three naves. It is the exterior though that really catches your eye - this huge building is striped in a geometric patchwork of differed colored marble, topped by an orange dome designed by Brunelleschi, the great Renaissance architect. If you feel energetic you can climb the bell-tower, which was designed by Giotto, and called by Longfellow, "... the lily of Florence blossoming in stone."

The church of Santa Croce is a fine example of Florentine Gothic architecture - and, like the cathedral, has an exterior of striped marble. There is a monument to Dante and the tombs of Michelangelo, Machiavelli, Galileo, and other distinguished citizens, which makes the church a Who's Who of Florence's remarkable past.

Built towards the end of the 13th century, the Piazza Della Signoria has long been the civic center of Florentine life and is a place of great beauty and elegance. The square is dominated by the Palazzo Vecchio a 14th palace, once the home of the Medici, but in May and June soccer matches with the players in medieval costimes are held. On long sultry summer evenings the square attracts the young Florentines as well as a host of tourists.

Henry James, in referring to Florence, wrote "... One is dealing with a solemn brilliance - a harmony of acute tones - that I am not capable of describing." From the Piazzale Michelangelo, you get a superb panoramic view of the great Renaissance city and realize how hard it is to describe the brilliance of Florence, just like Henry James.

The best way to explore this perfectly-preserved 15th century jewel is on foot but be warned - the streets are still paved with uneven flagstones. Take a trip to the Ponte Vecchio, or Old Bridge, the most ancient and characteristic bridge in Florence, dating back to 1345. It is flanked by a host of goldsmiths and jewelers and during World War II, Adolf Hitler, thought it so quaint that he ordered the German troops to leave it standing.

Another place well worth visiting is Fiesole up on the hill, which affords splendid panoramic views of the city and surrounding countryside. It's some 6 km from Florence and is best reached by the No 7 bus from the Piazza San Marco. After the busy streets of Florence, Fiesole is a relaxing sort of place and it's well worth lingering over a cappachino and taking in the fine hill scenery.

There is so much to see in Florence but you should set some time aside for shopping, for this Tuscan city enjoys a world-wide reputation for leather goods, fine embroideries, and straw articles. You will find embroidered linens are plentiful in the little shops in Por San Maria, which is near the Ponte Vecchio, while the elegant stores in Via de Tournabuoni and the famous straw market just off Via Calzaiuoli are excellent haunts for shopping. The Pitti area is good for antiques, clothing and furnishing fabrics and another Florentine speciality is marbelized paper which is used to cover the likes of albums, picture frames, pencil cases, and boxes of all shapes and sizes.