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.