Florence’s Lovely Bits

When I was still newly, madly in love with Florence, only four months into the relationship, I was taken around Venice for an afternoon by a friend of a friend, an American and a Venice-lover. It turned out to be Eric Denker, art historian from the Smithsonian and the National Gallery, who must have been Venetian in a former life, such is his knowledge and passion for the city. We argued over which was the more spectacular city, Florence or Venice. Florence of course has Dante, Giotto, the Renaissance, the galleries, that Duomo. Venice has Titian, Carnival, the Biennale and St Mark but undoubtedly it’s the beauty and singularity of those canals and a city built on streets of water winding their way through a lagoon.

Then Eric trumped me. “Name your favourite piazza in Florence.” I thought for a moment and picked Piazza della Passera, so tiny it can barely be called a piazza but more an intersection of several tiny streets. It’s not often found by tourists and so it remains a largely “local” piazza. “Probably the only one,” Eric pointed out. Then he went on to list is favourite campi, squares, in Venice, all places where you could stop and breathe and enjoy a drink, a book, without the hustle and bustle of crowds and obnoxious tourist shops. He was right. Venice had far more “off the beaten track” spots, something I attribute to its labyrinthine layout that scares most visitors. Florence, slightly more accessible, has been completely “discovered” and no place can really be called hidden anymore.

I have long had a love-hate relationship with Florence, the city I called home for seven years, the city that still feels like home to me. Hate is probably a bit too strong, let’s just say that living in a city like Florence has its moments – intolerable ones and magical ones.

The intolerable ones are the main reason we made the big decision to leave a year and a half ago for the Southern Hemisphere, Australia’s food capital – Melbourne. Melbourne’s far from perfect too, but it filled the gaps that we were missing in Florence. For one thing, living in Florence is not like living in a normal city. It’s more akin to living in an amusement park or a giant museum. Visitors everywhere. Crowds everywhere. There’s something about the huge hordes of tourists that come to tick something off their list, eat pizza or something else very un-Florentine, missing the very heart and soul of the place that saddens me. It’s like watching a singular of wild boar rampage through your home. And somehow along with crowds come tacky shops and restaurants that manage to position themselves in the city’s landmark beautiful spots, luring in unknowing tourists with offerings of un-Florentine but stereotypical dishes and emptying their pockets.

At least three quarters of the year Florence is unbearably crowded. The rest, that sliver between November and February, is like a breath of cool, fresh air. It was the time I considered the city to be gloriously mine. Florence can be enjoyed by all for all of its beauty at this time of the year. And then when the crowds roll back in, making their way from the Duomo to the Ponte Vecchio, I would try to retreat to those few remaining lovely bits, that are always lovely no matter what time of year, rain, snow or shine. Not by chance are most of these places on the oltrarno side of town, the “other” side of the Arno.

Via Santo Spirito: Between the Ponte alla Carraia and Ponte Santa Trinita, one block in from the river is this short and elegant street. The palazzi that rise up on either side of the street prove that it has long been a respectful, noble street. Today the ground floor houses beautiful shops, many of them artisan shops such as Quelle Tre and Angela Caputi and on the corner of via dei Serragli, where via Santo Spirito ends, you’ll find the restaurant Il Santo Bevitore and its latest addition, the “Il Santino” wine bar (pictured above), a mighty fine place to wind up after a long walk through the city to refuel. With an emphasis on quality produce, the salumi and cheeses that are paired with mostly local wines by the glass do not disappoint. Try the Mortadella di Prato just to see what I mean.

Piazza della Passera: As mentioned above, it’s so small you may not find it on a map so just wander along via Toscanella from Borgo San Jacopo and you’ll bump into it. On the corner there is Caffe degli Artigiani. The coffee’s not necessarily the best but the atmosphere is and it’s a good spot for an aperitivo amongst the arty locals. 5 e cinque is a great spot for a healthy, organic lunch or snack and next door to that is Il Magazzino, a tripperia and a wonderful place to see what Tuscans can do with offal. Their polpette di lampredotto (above left) are out of this world and will convert even the most stubborn of non-offal eaters. Quattro Leoni has its merits – I’ve never been in love with this place, it’s a little touristy despite the local feel of this piazza, but I have often taken visitors here and they have always loved it. The little parcels of pear and taleggio ‘fiochetti’ are a main-stay of their menu for a good reason.

Ponte alla Carraia: The view from here of Florence at any time of the day or night, but especially at night when the river looks like a black mirror, will steal your heart. A gelato from the gelateria on the oltrarno side won’t go amiss either.

San Niccolò: This was one of the first Florentine neighbourhoods I got to know really well, while studying etching here when I was just 20. Via San Niccolò has still retained that local neighbourhood vibe, with plenty of restaurant choices, a couple of wine bars, a good bakery and a great deli-slash-eatery, Zeb (“Zuppa e Bollito,” a good spot for homemade goodness such as soups, pasta, panini – you can either take away or perch at the counter). Rifrullo, in the centre of it all is a convenient place for a drink, breakfast all’italiana or evening aperitivo. The staff have never been the most courteous or helpful but what does help is the roaring fireplace in the back on cold days, the garden on warm nights and the outdoor, street side tables.

Have a good wander along via dei Bardi, passing by the eccentric jeweller and goldsmith, Alessandro Dari, towards the Ponte Vecchio and tourism-driven mayhem. Or wander the other way, up via San Miniato, past Fuori Porta (good crostini here) for a nice walk towards San Miniato al Monte. Don’t forget to turn around and look at the view of Florence’s red rooftops and steeples or the countryside that seems to have suddenly creeped up on you.

Mercato Sant’Ambrogio and surrounds: The Sant’Ambrogio market is my favourite produce market in the city for its down to earth vibe and local offerings, which I’ve mentioned before. But I also love the area for the fact that it’s for residents, not tourists. But a meander down Via Pietrapiana past the local cafes and pastry shops (I’ve mentioned breakfast at these places, but Cafe Sant’Ambrogio is a favourite local aperitivo spot too) to the Loggia that sits at one end of the flea market. There’s a lovely, bright florist and a cart of second hand books which I always love browsing. Or, heading north, wander up past the synagogue to the wide, tree-lined Piazza d’Azeglio where little kids are in the playground and bigger kids are playing soccer.

It’s a very different Florence from where the tangle of tourists are eating oversized gelato. A Florence that I think you’ll like.

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24 Responses to “Florence’s Lovely Bits”
  1. Rosa says:

    Lovely places and buildings! I wish I could visit Florence.

    Cheers,

    Rosa

  2. I love Florence in the winter too, and Piazza della Passera is one of my favorite piazzas anywhere, not just in Florence.

  3. Valeria says:

    I loved reading this, it touches me in so many ways. Venice is equally tainted by the massive tourist presence, more so in the summer, when cruise ships unload their whole lot of passengers in the tiny alleys of the city. It is unbearable, but on the other hand, would you blame these people we call “tourists”, for wanting to see such beautiful city? I woulnd’t, but there is so much more to blame them for -as you mention, the general (without generalzing) lack of intuition, of genuine curiosity for the place, of being travelers rather than a flock of sheep. On the other hand, Venice somehow has been able to defend itself from the general invasion, so that you can still find corners of it which are movingly beautiful and fairly deserted, especially in the fall, when tourists retire and the city becomes suddenly silent, and at night, almost bare. Yet, these glorious moments and hidden corners are hardly enough for making living in Venice easy, or even tollerable. It takes a lot of self-control, and a lot of non chalance towards all that happens under one’s bewildered eyes: people eating the worst food ever, buying Chinese pieces of rubbish glass, picnicking around any couple of spare steps…Anyway, I deeply enjoy going there late in the evening during summer, when most tourist are tired and have long digested their dinner, or in winter, when a layer of fog protects me from strangers…I love enjoying chicheti and a drink as the sun goes down, and feeling that somehow, that beautiful city everybody wants to see, is a little bit my home.

    • Emiko says:

      I knew you’d get this too, Val, I totally agree with your comment. And despite those cruise ships and hordes, Venice has magically escaped something that Florence hasn’t – well at least those corners of the city where people rarely find their way too, even when lost. And it’s more of a “daytripper” location than Florence, I believe too so you have that lovely freedom when the sun goes down and many of the tourists disappear. The times I’ve enjoyed Venice best though have been in the cold, damp, foggy autumns and winters, that sort of cold that seeps right into your bones and leaves your feet numb (always a good excuse to pop into a bacaro at that point to warm up!).

  4. So true, what you write. I grew up in Venice (we moved there from NYC, quite a cultural shock) and it was the best place for a child to live. So much freedom, no cars, no criminality. But when I go back now I cannot help feeling suffocated by the tourists, the overpriced bad menus and souvenir shops. True, there are many “campi” and “campielli” that a Venetian can still retreat to, but sometimes getting from A to B is impossible in the crowds. Then again, as Valeria says above, how can we deny such beauty to all and after all I am one of those tourists when I go back now too.

    • Emiko says:

      Wow, talk about a culture shock, Venice-NY. Two fantastic cities, two completely different cities! Travellers have been coming through cities like Venice and Florence for centuries to take in its beauty and all its offerings but I think there’s a great distinction between a ‘tourist’ and ‘traveller’ and in this case I’m pretty sure you’d be a traveller ;)

  5. Canal Cook says:

    What a beautiful post. I stayed in the Oltrano area when I last visited Florence, it’s a lovely part of the city that feels a bit more peaceful away from the hordes of tourists (of which I was technically one). I lived near Amsterdam for nearly 2 years and had the same feeling there. The tacky shops and restaurants, the tourists checking things off the list and never really experiencing all the lovely things the city has to offer.

    • Emiko says:

      It is a great area to live in too, so even when visiting I think it’s one of the areas where you can get a better feel of what the city really is like.

  6. it appears we achieved the hat trick: we visited my daughter, then living in Florence, in mid to late November last year. Stayed in an apartment near the lovely Mercato Sant’Ambrogio (wonderful neighborhood), ended up doing a cooking class near Piazza della Passera, which we stumbled upon at night–charming and romantic, oh and on top of that ate a few lunches of Gusta Pizza on the steps of the church by Via Santo Spirito, and had a lovely meal at a restaurant there as well…loved being anywhere that tourists were not…thanks for the suggestions!

  7. Samantha Boyle says:

    I lived in Florence in 2010 in Via dei Serragli… your post brought back so many wonderful memories. I could almost smell, taste, touch la mia cara Firenze… grazie per le memorie… Firenze mi manchi!

    • Emiko says:

      Thanks Samantha – I love via dei Serragli (especially now that they’ve done up the road! You’d be impressed if you saw it now!), a great area to live in, so close to so many of my favourite restaurants ;)

  8. This is so so fun. I mean, I am at the beginning of my love story with Florence. As a country girl, for years I’ve just been annoyed by the crowds of tourists, the heat of summer and the absence of a place to leave my car when visiting Florence.
    A few years ago one of my dearest friends – you – showed me another Florence and from that moment on I’ve been loving it because I was looking at the city from a new perspective.
    Now I enjoy walking in Florence in the evening, taking back roads to avoid the crowds, eating my gelato and spotting local places on the way. Yes, I am still annoyed by the touristic mass that make you feel like in a gigantic theme park sometimes, but thanks to you and other friends now I feel like I know Florence a little bit better! and I love it!

  9. I am heading to Italy in 2 weeks and will spend a few nights in Florence. I can’t wait to check out some of your recommendations. Your pictures are beautiful!

  10. Hi Emiko,

    I found you via Juls Kitchen (was just IN her kitchen a few weeks ago!).

    I love this post, probably cause you share some of my most treasured Florence spots too (piazza della passera, Il santino– I recognized the wine shelf immediately!, Dari’s studio). The photos in this post are excellent. Dreamy and romantic. Great spirit!

    We obviously share common likes, so I wanna share with you my Florence post too:

    http://www.italianfix.com/what-to-do-in-florence/

    Glad I found your blog through Giulia!

    Baci, Bianca

    • Emiko says:

      Hi Bianca, oh lucky you. How lovely is Juls and her kitchen? ;) Glad you’ve found me and hope you stay awhile for a look around! Thanks for sharing your post!

  11. Molly says:

    Beautiful Emiko. And what you say about Venice too. And Valeria’s comment above – completely agree. We have to encourage sustainable travel in these popular cities and take back the slow in it all.

    I thought of you yesterday because I was in Paperback Exchange and bought ‘Italian Hours’ by Henry James. A client who was an English professor had been referring to some passages in it when we were in Pitti a few weeks ago and I thought of it as I was browsing some books during a break before catching the train home. It’s been awhile since I’ve read some of those romantic period writings on Florence, written in a very different time compared to today! Of course I could have ordered it online and would have saved a little bit of money, and I could have had it shipped with several other books and saved money…but there is something still so special about buying that book right in a bookstore, following your intuition and spontaneity and your wandering thoughts in a quiet moment. Just as traveling used to be. The value in wandering and slowing down, not rushing around to visit so much all at once. I know your post isn’t about books and reading, but still think it’s the same connection here about how we try to go in depth in our travels and visits to cities. You can do it by running around and ingesting tons of sights and words spoken through microphones and headsets and really only understand a small percentage of what you are seeing and hearing, and not even digest it all in the end before you move on to another city, or read your books downloaded pre trip (or post trip) and not patronize local bookstores and ”discover” a new read, or you can go in depth the other way by really discovering and savoring the moments off the beaten path and away from the hoards, and come away with so much more in the end really.

    So nice to browse through the gorgeous photos too!
    xx

    • Emiko says:

      Oh I do love this comment Molly, and your take on it – stopping to savour the moment, slowing down, it’s a real art form these days isn’t it? Especially after living in Florence (I think it must be a side effect) I have always tried to do this when travelling in places I’ve never been before. I find it’s so much more enjoyable and rewarding to get to know one small pocket at snail’s pace rather than run around like a madwoman on a mission all over a city! I love that you compared it to buying a book in a bookshop (love too! The fact is here in Australia we don’t have amazon AND books are SO expensive here so bookshop browsing is one of my favourite past times, even if the baby is never impressed by it!). Speaking of books, I must get and read Italian Hours too. Thanks for mentioning it. x

  12. It was lovely to read as I can relate to your story, when living on one of the most iconic little squares in Antwerp we were often divided between loving it and hating it. We loved the evening and early morning walks but we loaded the saturday crowds… We must be in numerous tourist pictures, enjoying our breakfast in the window of our house – one of the oldest buildings in the city.
    I can’t tell you the times when tourists would yell at us, claiming we shouldn’t ride our bike in this ancient part of town, I would kindly remind them we had to live there and get around … The evenings, however the view over the renaissance church, beautifully lit and the views over the cathedral even prettier, I couldn’t sleep through the noise of people having fun in the bars on the square, students singing, and sirens running. It all sounds so very lovely to live in a beautiful city, but I would never go back there. I enjoy the silence more than I enjoy the buzzing busy city. I now much more enjoy to visit and take it in and then to come home to some peace. Also when living in a city, you not only see its beautiful buildings, squares and art, you also see all the things that are wrong with it, politics, poverty and criminality. Yes living in a city leaves you with mixed feelings indeed.
    Great list of places, I feel I haven’t seen Florence at all! I must return!

  13. Lucy at lifeandcheese says:

    Fantastic thanks and perfect for my trip in a couple of months!

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