414 Steps to Heaven

by Gray Cargill on August 7, 2012

Post image for 414 Steps to Heaven

In May, I got to spend about four hours in Florence, Italy. Just four. That’s like telling a kid he’s got five seconds in a candy store. Florence is filled to the rafters with world-class works of art. So much to see, so little time.

Rather than spend my time inside a museum or two, I decided to see what I could of Florence from the outside. After all, my favorite art form is architecture. Viewing it close-up from the street is fantastic, but I also like to find a vantage point high up from which to see how individual buildings fit into the whole. There are several places in Florence which offer panoramic city views—Piazza Michelangelo, the Dome of the Duomo, and the top of the Campanile di Giotto (Giotto’s Bell Tower). Piazza Michelangelo was too far away for me to easily get there and back in the time I had. So my choice was the Duomo or the Campanile.

I chose the latter for 4 reasons:

  1. It was reportedly less crowded than the Duomo. Since I only had four hours in Florence, I didn’t want to waste them standing in line.
  2. It has fewer steps than the Duomo (414, compared to the Duomo’s 463).
  3. It is reportedly less claustrophobic than the Duomo.
  4. If I took photos from the Campanile, the Duomo would be in them.
The Duomo and Florence

You can't get this view from the top of the Duomo.

I located the Campanile and Duomo easily—they are visible from many parts of the old center of town. First, I took photos of them from street level. Then I located the entrance, paid my 6 Euro admission fee and braced myself for what lay ahead. The last time I climbed to a height for photos was on Oahu, when I climbed Diamond Head. I had a very claustrophobic experience (okay, panic attack) during that hike when I had to go through a long, dark and crowded tunnel. I was a little anxious not to repeat that experience.

The Campanile

Giotto's Bell Tower (The Campanile)

The potential was certainly there. The tower steps were narrow, as structures built centuries ago tended to be (how small were those people, anyway???). Had there been a steady stream of climbers in front of and behind me, I never would have made it. Fortunately, the rumors about the crowds at the Campanile were true.

I occasionally encountered other climbers (usually in twos), but there was plenty of space between us. At every corner, there was a small window carved into the stone letting in fresh air, and also a small landing. I often stopped on those landings to let people pass me, let my heartbeat slow down, and catch my breath again. This made all the difference in the world.

Still, 414 steps pushed me to my limits. By the time I reached the observation deck, I was exhausted and sweaty. I thought “Thank God that’s done.” Then I looked out on the landscape and realized I wasn’t at the top of the tower. This was just the first platform. I was only about a third of the way up.

Florence

View from about 1/3 of the way up the Campanile.

After resting a bit and taking some photos, I climbed on. When I reached the next platform, I thought for sure I must be at the top now. But no. There was still more climbing. By this time, the whiny little angel on my left shoulder was whimpering “Oh for the love of God, this is good enough! There are perfectly good views from here. You don’t need to go any higher. Why kill yourself?”

Meanwhile, the drill sargent angel on my right shoulder was barking in my ear “Suck it up you crybaby! You made it this far, you can make it the rest of the way. What are you, a quitter?”

My drill sargent angel is too bossy for its own good, but I always feel worse about myself when I let the whiny angel win. And there was no way I was going to go home and say I only climbed partway up the Campanile. I soldiered on to the top.

Though I went to church every Sunday growing up, I can’t say I’m particularly religious now. Still, I found my little slice of heaven there at the top of the Campanile. The grueling climb, my cramped and shaky leg muscles, the sweat plastering my shirt to my back, the air burning in my lungs with every breath, and the blood pounding in my ears as it forced its way brutishly through my arteries all became worth it when I emerged from the stone tower into the fresh air on the outside platform at the stroke of noon.

Florence, Italy

The rooftops of Florence, Italy

At the stroke of noon, every bell in every clock tower across Florence began to chime. It was the sweetest music I’ve ever heard. I stared out at the terra cotta rooftops of the city, saw the the Duomo off to my left, church towers here and there, and the distant hills. I stood there, unmoving, listening to the call-and-response chiming of the clock towers. This is Florence, I thought with a mixture of disbelief and sheer joy. I could not have asked for more perfection in that moment.

I was so glad I made the climb without a companion. There may have been others on the landing, but no one within earshot to ruin the moment by talking. Unfortunately, I didn’t get to record the sound of the chimes for posterity. If only I’d been in better shape. If only I’d gotten there one minute earlier, early enough to dig my camera out of my backpack, turn on the video, and start recording.

Instead, I stood and savored it until the last echo faded into the air. Then I dug out my cameras, took my pictures, rested a bit, and climbed back down those 414 steps without stopping.

Lisa @chickybus August 11, 2012 at 10:33 am

Love these photos…and how you approached this experience! Great that you pushed yourself to go all the way, too.. I know what that feels like and sometimes, I give up halfway (if it’s super hot or I’m too exhausted). Looks like you were really rewarded for your effort with the sound of those bells…lovely! 🙂

Gray August 11, 2012 at 12:30 pm

Thanks, Lisa. Yes, I certainly was rewarded for my efforts. “No pain, no gain,” I guess!

Kirstin August 8, 2012 at 6:51 pm

I climbed the Duomo in 1996. I wouldn’t say I am extremely tall ( 5 foot 8) but by the time I got to the top my crinked neck was in agony. I don’t remember there being any “passing lanes” and some people are just bloomin’ impatient.

Gray August 8, 2012 at 8:28 pm

Yikes. Right about the passing lanes–and if you need to stop and catch your breath, but the people behind you don’t, they’re not going to be real happy with you for making them stop and wait. Sounds like I made the right choice then.

Jeff B @ GoTravelzing August 8, 2012 at 1:01 pm

Four hours in Florence is better than nothing but it is still not enough. It is not even enough time to meet the requirement of eating Gelato three times a day. You made the right choice of which side to climb. I love the view from the top.

Gray August 8, 2012 at 8:23 pm

LOL, Jeff. I know, I was very sad that I only had gelato once when I was there.

Marsha August 7, 2012 at 6:51 pm

414 steps? Lawd, I would have to train for that! Nice to read about this little slice of Italia, as I’ve never been and would like to go someday. I’ll start doing squats now, LOL! 🙂

Gray August 7, 2012 at 7:51 pm

Marsha – LOL! If you plan on climbing the Campanile or the Duomo, I highly recommend some training. Wish I had done that. 🙂

maq203 August 7, 2012 at 4:09 pm

Wonderful account! I am in love with Florence and on my last trip happened to be there on September 8, the one time every year when the terrace of the Duomo is opened (for free) to the public. It offered a great view of the dome, the bell tower, and the surrounding city–plus it makes its way through the inside of the church, offering an amazing view of the interior. If you can time it right, I definitely suggest it. Only four hours in Florence, though….I would have missed my connection!

Gray August 7, 2012 at 7:53 pm

Oh wow, maq203, isn’t it awesome when serendipity happens?

Tracy Antonioli August 7, 2012 at 7:53 am

Yeah–you don’t need a recording for a moment like that. It wouldn’t do it justice. Better to have the memory.

And way to go for making it all the way to the top! I’m a big fan of lighthouses, but I’ve only climbed a few (and they are never that high). I bet your legs were killing you the next day!

Gray August 7, 2012 at 11:24 am

What do you mean the NEXT day??? They were shaking like crazy for the next hour! 🙂

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