Ten ways to survive an Italian heatwave

Newstands this morning declared the centre of Florence “feels like” 50 degrees Celsius (122 Fahrenheit) and signs warned of extreme heat this week, to stay indoors and avoid outdoor activity. They say this is the last (the fifth) heatwave of the summer. Here’s how to deal with it.

Summer-in-Italy---Florencesummer-in-italy-granita-e-canto-del-maggio

Under the Tuscan Sun may embody a dream for many, but Tuscan summers have always felt like an inferno to me, easily my least favourite part about living in Tuscany. And it’s not because I’m not used to the heat — in Australia, on average, the summers are hotter. But somehow they just never feels as long and as unbearable as a Tuscan summer (apparently it’s not just the urban heat island created in most cities in the summer, talked about in this Smithsonian article). No doubt the stone cities, built on medieval plans with rarely a tree in sight, with their red-brick rooftops that heat up like a pizza stone in an oven have a lot to do with it, along with Florence’s relatively small size and the fact that it sits in a bowl, surrounded by hills. There’s also a lack of that everyday summer comfort, air-conditioning (why? Getting “hit by air” is a serious illness in Italy). But there are ways to deal with a heatwave in Italy and the best way to do it is how Italians have alway done it.

Here are my top ten ways to survive an Italian heatwave:

1. Close your windows and shutters. Those heavy wooden or metal shutters on the outsides of windows serve to keep the sun and heat out. Keep them closed during the day. Do not open the windows in an attempt to get a breeze until the sun is well and truly down. If the sun is streaming into the room, keep the shutters closed too. Then, open all the windows at night, your best bet at cooling the place down, as temperatures are at at their lowest in the wee hours of the night, just before the sun rises. If mosquitoes are bothering you, try anti-mosquito plugs, available in supermarkets and hardware shops.

2. Siesta. That break in the middle of the day when smaller shops close between 12:30 and 3:30 (or in some places, you’ll find it’s a ghost town until 5pm) is the best time of the day to be home, or somewhere cool, eating a slow, leisurely lunch and resting in the hottest part of the day. Don’t try to venture out, or climb the steps to the top of the Duomo at this time. Take a rest.

Summer-in-Italy-nap-time-and-tomatoes

3. Granita for breakfast. In Sicily, where temperatures soar in the summer, the morning brioche is eaten together with a granita, an icy, slushy, refreshing mixture between a drink and a sorbet — lemon granita, almond granita, watermelon, elderflower or coffee are just a few of my favourites. In Florence, try them at Gelateria Carabè . Similarly, I think once you’ve had granita for breakfast, all the rules about when one should eat gelato go out the window. Gelato is a meal in the summer.

4. Caffe con ghiaccio. Forget hot drinks. Ask for a caffe con ghiaccio, iced coffee — in Puglia, more specifically Lecce, it’s a Caffe Leccese and is a shot of coffee, over ice with almond milk. In Tuscany, it’s more common to find caffe shakerato — espresso shaken with ice until frothy and chilled — or at home, to make an affogato, coffee drowned in gelato.

5. Keep the oven off. Avoid cooking. Summer produce is meant to be eaten fresh — think prosciutto and melone (cantaloupe or rockmelon) and summery, tomato-filled salads like caprese and panzanella. If you need something more substantial or more protein, try a bean, tomato and red onion salad (which you can find here). Or go out for pizza. Florentines in the know head to La Capponcina in Settignano, in the hills, where you can have pizza al fresco on a large terrace overlooking the woods and the twinkling lights of Florence below.

6. Stay al fresco at night. I love seeing towns come alive at night once the sun goes down. People bring chairs down from their hot apartments and sit on the pavement to try to catch a breeze and the entire street can become a social event where everyone sits outside and chats until the wee hours of the night — it’s better than television and at least you keep cool. There are also lots of outdoor summer events where you can eat or go for a drink along the Arno river, where it is slightly cooler than the hot piazzas in town (you can find event listings in English at The Florentine and Firenze Spettacolo). There’s always the passeggiata, a long walk in the late evening, often with dogs or a baby in a pram — and remember that the gelaterie are often open until midnight.

summer-in-italy-porto ercoleSummer-in-Italy

7. Head to the mountains or the sea. Of course, everyone else will have this same idea so if you can avoid traveling on weekends, when you’ll find yourself stuck in traffic during the exodus, it’s a great plan. Head to the Tuscan coast, grab a ferry to an island, go the mountains and dip your feet in a cold river or lake or escape at least to the countryside where, outside of the stone walls of the city you’ll find more of a breeze at least in the evening.

8. Head to a church. Call it natural air-conditioning, but the large, ominous and dark structures of medieval or Renaissance churches provide the cool relief of a cave in the summertime. In Florence, I particularly like the Church of Santa Trinità for its beautiful frescoes in the Sassetti chapel depicting the street of Via Tornabuoni in the Renaissance and the Brancacci chapel in the church of Santa Maria del Carmine. Take it slow, find a bench to sit on and relax. Santa Maria Novella is also wonderful (for Masaccio’s Trinity and the Tournabuoni chapel frescoes especially), as is the quiet, under-visited cloister to the lefthand side of the church facade.

9. Drink plenty of water. In Tuscany, you can refill your plastic bottles with chilled drinking water (both still and sparkling) at any of the Publiacqua fountains. Most are in residential areas, but the more convenient ones to the historical centre are in Piazza Signoria, n.23 (yes, believe it or not, encased in a wall of Palazzo Vecchio), on a corner of the Porcellino Market facing Via della Seta, Via dell’Agnolo, n.4, (near corner of Via Buonarroti, between Casa Buonarroti and Piazza dei Ciompi in the Santa Croce area) and Piazza Tasso, n. 55 (in Oltrarno area and conveniently across from a very good gelateria, La Sorbettiera, too).

10. Avoid August. This is the time when most Italians take their annual summer holiday, especially around Ferragosto, 15 August, and it means that many cities shut down — restaurants and shops may close even the entire month — while seaside towns fill up with Italian holidaymakers. Florence remains pretty functional during August but many of my favourite restaurants do close for most of the month. If you can, try to plan your trips around this time — or maybe head to a place in the countryside with a pool.

summer-in-italy-gelato

Have any other good solutions for managing an Italian heatwave? Let me know in the comments!

Photos from top to bottom and left to right: Florence from the rooftop of Hotel Torre Guelfa; granita al limone with a brioche; the enchanting garden of Canto del Maggio after sunset; taking a nap; summer tomatoes; diving off a boat in Porto Ercole (this is also available as a print); me in scorching hot Rome, taken by Lauren Bamford for One Fine Stay; an evening walk in my neighbourhood, Settignano; gelato from Grom and trying to catch a breeze on the terrace.

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Comments

12 Responses to “Ten ways to survive an Italian heatwave”
  1. Thomas says:

    find a good air conditioned bar and stay all day……just came back from Firenze – the Pitti Gola e Cantina was a great surprise – great organic wines……and then La Beppa for dinner……thankx for a great blog and books….

  2. EmmaP says:

    Definitely agree on the churches and also the many monasteries around the place where clever (or cautious) monks built some cool spots, like Monte Senario, past Fiesole, and a favourite Florentine Sunday spot which is a lot cooler, Vallombrosa. But best if you have a/c in the car!

  3. Great post Emiko! I wish I could keep my oven off…..recipe testing all August long is not the best planning!! But as for the rest, I’m following them down to the letter. Hope you cool off with a granita for breakfast in a swimming pool in the mountains soon!

  4. Tony says:

    We went to Milan, Lake Como, Florence, Sienna in early July and aside from Milan and Lake Como I thought I would melt. Thankfully we ate our weight in gelato daily and drank liters of Aperol Spritz the whole time to keep cool-ish. Those large old museums also gave us a respite from the heat.

  5. Asha says:

    Ah! the wisdom of closed windows. I wish I had listened when I was in Italy and the heat wave of June. I was boiling but kept the windows for the light… and drying clothes. LOL. Silly me! My solution was basically stay outside the house all day until bed time

  6. Steve says:

    buy an inflatable pool for your garden ;)

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