It was April of 2007 and we were traveling in Italy for our one-year anniversary. Our first stop was the beautiful city of Florence. I had been here once before, but it had been a one-day whirlwind during a college graduation backpacking trip. And I’m not gonna lie: I didn’t remember much from that first trip since I had been more excited about the adventure of backpacking than learning about the history and character of each city! So anyway, there we were in Florence and I was getting a second chance to really see the sights and appreciate the history.
As you probably already know, Florence is filled with can’t-miss attractions. From the world-renowned museums to the Ponte Vecchio, this town is packed with art, history, and wonderful experiences. But the must-do at the top of my list was visiting Il Duomo and climbing the 400-some-odd stairs to the top of the dome. We were young, reasonably fit, and ready to see Florence from the top, so this was definitely happening!
So we headed to the Duomo. Now this was a long time ago, so I can’t recall what my exact expectations were for climbing the stairs of the cupola, but I do know I was eager to see the ceiling of the dome and to see the views of Florence from the top. I also remember wondering why people make such a big deal about climbing all of the steps. This would be a piece of cake!
Up the Cupola
So we purchased our tickets and headed in and up. The beginning was easy going. Up, up, up, no problem! Then, after some climbing, maybe the halfway point, you leave the stone stairwells and head onto a narrow walkway that follows the perimeter of the dome for views of the frescoes overhead. This was great until people stopped moving and we were somewhat stuck, sandwiched in between the wall, some plexiglass, and a whole lot of strangers. Is it getting warm in here????
herd line of people finally made it through the inner viewing area, it was back to the stairwells. Ahhh, thank goodness, we are moving again! This feeling of relief was somewhat short-lived, though, as our upward momentum was suddenly stopped. It was here in this halted position, that we noticed people starting to push their way past us as they headed down the steps. Why are they going the wrong way? Then more people started slinking down past us as well. What is going on? Why is everyone coming down? Why aren’t we moving??? I started to feel overwhelmingly warm as I was taking in the situation. We hadn’t budged for a while and it seemed like everyone was trying to get out. I can barely breathe–How can it be so hot in here??? I started taking off my extra layers, first the heavy sweater, then the light cardigan. I put my hair up in a ponytail to get some relief from all the extra heat and weight on my neck. Ugh, I just want to get out of here!!! I started rifling through my purse, looking for any kind of distraction. This was before iPhones came out, so I could not play Candy Crush or check in on Facebook, but I found some gum and popped a piece in my mouth. There, that’s better. So I chewed frantically and started offering gum to everyone else. No takers? Okay. I popped another piece in my mouth. At this point my husband and our friends were watching me in wonder, laughing at my little freak-out. That actually helped a little. Once they were cracking jokes about my Duomo strip-down and gum-chewing shenanigans, I was able to partially take my mind off of the walls that had seemingly begun to close in on us.
Then the line started moving again bit by bit. People still came down past us, but I was able to focus on heading up the stairs instead. I also found myself trying to take advantage of real air any time we were stopped near a window. Now, this must have looked pretty funny, since the walls are incredibly thick and it wasn’t like I was even close to actually reaching the openings as I attempted sticking my head through. Here are some of the windows that offered me temporary reprieve:
Redemption at the Top
And then it seemed the line moved faster and we finally made it to the top. Ahhh, sweet, sweet fresh air! My face got some color back, my body temperature seemed to regulate, and I was back to my old self. Thank goodness because I would hate to have missed out on enjoying the views from the top. From every corner you are rewarded with stunning vistas over red roofs, hills, and Florence landmarks.
Heading Back Down
Going back down from the top was a cinch. As we became the ones pushing past the poor saps stuck in line, I had figured out the system and knew I could head down as fast as I could squeeze by people. At the halfway point, I believe we transitioned to our own stairwell down (explaining why the tight squeeze of two-way traffic and my resulting panic attack had not started until we were on the second leg of the journey up) and we were able to make it to the bottom fairly quickly. I think I said a quick prayer of thanks to be out of there. I may have even kissed the ground! 😛
Was it worth it? Strangely, even with the onset of my crazy, overheated, gum-chewing panic attack, I think it was very much worth the experience and the amazing views over Florence
Could I have avoided the problem? This was the first time I ever had any kind of claustrophobic issue that I can remember. That said, I could not have really planned for this scenario. However, now that I know that I am a little bit of a freaker-outer in tight spaces, I think I could have managed the Cupola much better. First, I would have researched what it is like heading up so that I knew what to expect. I have also learned that if you google “___________ claustrophobic” about most any well known place, you will usually find reviews that give warnings and details of what it will be like. FYI, you can also look up “Duomo” on You Tube and find first person views (like this) as people are climbing up. I think I would also have made sure to get there right at opening since the first ones up will inevitably have less crowds, less waiting, and less people squeezing back down.
Would I try it again if ever back in Florence? I would like to think so! I would hope that a little more awareness of my own phobia, a clearer idea of what to expect inside the Duomo, and some better planning to get there when crowds are thin, would make it a much better experience. And hey, even if I still freak out, at least I will be providing entertainment for all those around me! 😉