September is a wonderful time to visit cities in the northern hemisphere. Temperatures are pleasant for idle wandering and sightseeing, the kids are back at school and as autumnal colours start to bloom, the red roofs of Florence glow in the warm September sun. Madeleine Wilson returns from four blissful nights in Florence and has everything you need to escape the well-trodden tourist route.
All the usual sights in Florence are very well covered in the guide books. It’s trying to find out what’s going on under the surface that’s the tricky part. My friend and I had four days in Florence and a family friend living in the city kindly offered to unveil the local haunts. So, under the protective wing of a true Florentine we enjoyed the best pizza, the best ice-cream and discovered Florence has much to offer the budget traveller.
I’m always on the look out for a bargain but there are times when taxis just make sense. Exiting from Santa Maria Nouvella train station, two girls and their bulging suitcases were easily won over by a hassle-free and €7 (€3.5 each) cab ride to their guesthouse.
Alex House is located on a pedestrianised road, just minutes from Florence’s main and attractive square the Piazza della Signoria. Swooning over this beautiful and Unesco-protected city, the last thing we fancied was a bland, overpriced but utterly average hotel. With Alex House (13 via Borgo Dei Greci) we had character, independence and an unrivalled location for €25pppn. Behind the giant front door you climb up stone steps (there’s a lift for luggage). Our twin room lay behind another imposing grand door adorned with wrought iron knocker. The room was a small apartment complete with kitchenette. Furnishings, although basic, had a nice vintage and characteristic feel. It had red tiled floors and lovely shuttered doors and windows looked down onto the cobbled and streets below. I didn’t bring my laptop but there was free Wi-Fi access. Alex House offers twins, doubles, triples, quads and up to 8-bed rooms between €13-€25pppn. All rooms are private but some share bathrooms. Alternatively, try youth hostels in Florence.
We realised we’d hit the jackpot with Alex House when, after just a few minutes walk, we were greeted by Florence’s biggest stars, David, Cosimo, Judith and Holofernes, Hercules and Cacus in the Piazza della Signoria. Magnificent. Having the piazza so nearby meant finding our way back to our apartment at night was simple.
It was approaching lunchtime and we had a restaurant recommendation in mind so we made our way across the river. En route we pitied the queues outside the Uffizi and Gallerie dell’Accademia and ambled across the Ponte Vecchio, illuminated by the dazzling jewellery shop windows. Progress is slow. It’s not just the deep throng, my friend, like a magpie, is drawn to the displays of silver, gold, pink gold and coral, carefully plucked – we noticed one shop assistant using a spaghetti server – from window displays to tempt potential buyers. My friend fancies a ring bearing the symbol of Florence; the fleur-de-lis. I manage to drag her away (it is only our first day after all) but soon find myself diving into the shoe shops, leather heaven. This IS the place to buy leather shoes but the price is a hefty investment.
Once you cross to the south side of the Arno, the area is aptly named ‘Oltrano’, literally ‘the other side of the Arno’. The restaurant I was recommended, Trattoria 4 Leoni (via dei Vellutini) is off the main stretch of Piazza de’Pitti. It’s on a small square and since it’s a warm sunny day we sit outside, lured by the pristine white tablecloths. There was a queue but I calmed my antsy and hungry friend, assuring her that a line of Italians outside a restaurant was a good thing and not to jump ship to the cafe across the road. Soon enough we were sipping a complimentary glass of prosecco and tucking in to juicy mozzarella and tomatoes, a far cry from my supermarket’s lack lustre vegetables back home. We both ordered the pasta with pear and taleggio in a white asparagus sauce decorated with rose petals. It was one of the most delicious things I had ever tasted. €25 seemed an extravagant first meal but with prosecco, a carafe of wine, a starter, exquisite pasta and coffee, we left more than satisfied.
It had been a long, leisurely lunch – very Italian I think. Everywhere was starting to glow from late afternoon sunlight. So we decided to head to a favourite spot, popular with locals and tourists alike – Boboli Gardens. Opting for the quieter side entrance of Annalena on Via Romana we paid €6 (€3 for under 25s from the EU). A little lightheaded from lunchtime fizz and somewhat drunk on too much pasta, we clambered to the top of the hill, passing Cosimo de’Medici’s pot-bellied dwarf, Morgante – an unwelcome reminder of our overindulgence – for a spectacular view of Florence and found ourselves in the picturesque Cavalier’s Gardens. Here you have a vista to the south of Florence. We swung our legs under the railings, sat on the stone wall, nicely warmed by the afternoon sun and pulled out our respective copies of ‘A Room with a View’ to join Mr Beeb, Mr Emerson and Miss Honeychurch on their venture through Victorian Florence. After a few lazy hours I suggest leaving the gardens by way of the impressive avenue of cypress trees down to Piazzale del Isolotto.
A Perfumery in Santa Maria Novella
Santa Maria Nouvella is a part of Florence often overlooked by tourists who associate the area with the rather run-down station. But it does boast the beautiful church of Santa Novella and also one of our favourite finds, L’Officina il Profumo Farmaceutica di Santa Maria Novella (16 via della Scala), one of the oldest pharmacies in the world. The Dominican Monks’ original purpose in the 13th century was making herbal elixirs but later they offered cosmetic potions and lotions. The skin care range, perfumes, oils, candles and even pet toiletries are still popular today. It is easy to wander past the unremarkable doorway but inside, the tunnel of rooms with cavernous ceilings and tall glass cabinets are dim and evocatively lit by candlelight. Amongst the antique bottles are the original apparatus used by the monks, recipe legers and ancient formulas. Today the Officina Profumo – Farmaceutica di Santa Maria Novella still produces and sells classic fragrances but others have inventive twists such as tobacco or the current managing director’s favourite concoction inspired by his love of fast cars.
Beyond Uffizi and Accademia
My friend and I had both done the Uffizi and Accademia on a previous trip. There is no particularly cheap trick to seeing these two infamous galleries. Just turn up and you will wait for hours and hours to pay €6 admission fee. The alternative is to book ahead for a timed-entry slot which helps cut down on queueing time. Expect to pay €10 or buy a combo ticket to access both galleries for €18 from Weekend in Florence.
We visited the Bargello (4 via del Proconsolo) instead. Dating back to 1255, this is one of the oldest buildings in Florence. It was initially the headquarters of the Capitano del Popolo, police spies known as the Podestà and also the city jail. Today it houses some of the finest classical sculpture in the world and unlike the major painting galleries, you have room to admire both the artworks and the fine spaces they occupy. You will find work by Cellini, Michelangelo and also Donatello’s David in bronze who’s nudity originally caused scandal in Florence. It is a beautiful museum with a serene central courtyard ghostly overshadowed by its history, where prisoners spent their final hours before execution. Admission €4
I buy more shoes in Italy than any other country so I was disappointed to miss our guide’s recommendation, the collection of shoemaker Salvatore Ferragamo. Designer to the stars, the Ferragamo Museum (Piazza Santa Trinita) displays his extraordinary creations worn by Hepburn, Dietrich and Loren. Admission €5
The Best Ice-Cream
Our guide, bountiful on the subject of ice-cream and claiming to have tried varieties all over the city pointed us in the direction of Gelateria dei Neri (20-22 via dei Neri), dangerously close to our accommodation at Alex House. Somehow we found room for a scoop of Fiori di Latte, perfectly marshmallowy in it’s velvety texture, decadently rich dark chocolate which, when combined with the dark cherry Amarena, evoked a Black Forest feast. Next up was a creamy Fig and Ricotta nicely rounded off with a scoop of Pear.
A troupe of us went to O Munaciello (via Maffia), a place I struggled to find in the guide books. Here the Neopolitan chefs lovingly create delicious sourdough base pizzas topped with the freshest ingredients. The surrounding decor is bizarre to say the least. Housed in an old convent, a rather hideous waxwork hunchback greets you at the entrance – apparently patting the hunch of the ‘gobba’ is good luck. Munaciello is something of a legendary Neopolitan character. A lover of practical jokes, he is certainly reflected in the playful interior, a mish mash of football paraphernalia, laundry strung up across the vaulted ceiling, strings of garlic and puppets the likes of which appear in childhood nightmares. But in the candlelight, the place appears quite magical, an old theatrical props room perhaps? I made a simple and classic choice, the Margherita DOC, to appreciate the fine quality mozzarella. Accompanied by the house wine or one of the interesting beers O Munaciello made for a hearty budget dinner.
Bars in Santo Spirito
San Spirito is one of Florence’s oldest quarters, which has been home to artisans and craftsmen for centuries. Today a few workshops still operate and you can peer in and see artists using traditional techniques. Piazza Santo Spirito is a pleasant and leafy refuge from the city’s tourist hot spots. The antiques market is bustling by day but it’s the surrounding bars and restaurants that keep the atmosphere buzzing in the evening. In summer the piazza is a popular live music venue. The name eludes myself (and Google) but we enjoyed a cocktail in a film-come-carpentry themed bar on the square. If you’re looking for bars in Florence, Piazza Santo Spirito is a good spot for drinks and pre-nightclub antics so we returned the following evening.
Escape the Tourists
Our guide also showed us what she claimed was her new office, a favourite place to work or arrange meetings over coffee. The Caffetteria delle Oblate is located on the top floor of the BiblioteCa Nova (26 via Dell’Oriuolo), a library in central Florence. While the cafe serves the usual coffee and simple sandwiches we were surprised by the view across the rooftops to the Duomo. The library boasts a beautiful and serene courtyard with overlooking terraces that are sheltered but open to the elements at the side. You can lounge on bean bags, use the free Wi-Fi, read newspapers and journals from all over the world.
A Cheap & Local Lunch
Our local guide appears again! Along the road from the Bargello we disappear into an almost hole-in-the-wall doorway and squeeze through to the back of a very low-key cafe/restaurant. The Trattoria le Mossacce (55 via del Proconsolo) is a popular luncheon spot for workers in the area. A family-run establishment, Mannucci are welcoming within the boundaries of their eating policy: ‘fuori uno avanti un altro, ‘as one leaves one arrives’. The idea is to enjoy a good meal then leave so someone else on their lunch hour can enjoy. Our friend ordered the local Florentine speciality trippa so that we could savour this queasy part of a cow’s stomach, tripe. In Florence they use the honeycomb part of the lining which is cut into thin strips and served with a tomato-based sauce. I ordered polpette. Not the small delicate meatballs I am used to, but two the size of my fist served with spinach. It’s no wonder the waiters laughed when I asked if they came with spaghetti. I was concerned when a huge fiasco of Chianti arrived on our table (it was only lunchtime after all!) but here you only pay for what you drink. We were then treated to delicious strawberries in marsala wine, but only after our guide (who’s husband frequents the cafe) gave a wink and nudge to the waiter.
Buy a ticket from any tabac and take the number 7 bus from Piazza del Duomo to the main square of Fiesole. The bus climbs the hill past wealthy Florentine palazzi to this hillside retreat. The air is cooler, refreshing (probably because it rained on our excursion) and the views look out across olive groves. It was an old Etruscan stronghold founded in the 7th century and today visitors can admire a large number of archaeological finds. A number of concerts are held throughout the summer in the amphitheatre.
Did you know…
All over the city we noticed little holes in the walls of many of the grand palazzi. Some have been filled in but others mimic small wooden doors inside small alcoves. Our guide explained they are ‘buchette del vino’, wine portals. Years ago, the palazzi owners received deliveries of produce from their estates in the countryside. The problem was how to sell it on without letting the local rabble into their houses. These small ‘wine doors’ were created so that glasses or fiascos (flasks) could be passed through and filled with wine without the hassle of opening the front doors or gates.
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