Keeping cool in FLORENCE: June 2023

Florentines avoid the historic centre of the Tuscan capital at every turn. Instead, they go round the city rather than through it. “Too many tourists” is the unanimous cry. 

English is the lingua franca in the historic centre. When I asked for a restaurant menu in Italian, I was asked “why?” by the puzzled waitress.  Well, why?, I ask myself.  Some words in Italian just don’t translate, especially when it comes to food. 

But “too many tourists” is only a belief – a story swirling around in my head. And after spending three weeks working in the gardens at the holistic breathwork centre ASHA, in Southern Tuscany, I knew what I needed to do, although doing is never as easy as knowing

Step 1: Focus on my breath – 4 in, hold for 4, 4 out, hold for 4. 

Step 2: Reframe my belief that there were too many tourists – too many for what? Too many for me to enjoy the city? Well, that was not true… it was just a belief. 

Step 3: Check in with myself to feel what feeling OK feels like. 

Step 4: If negative thoughts swirl back in again, start from Step 1 again.  

This then gave me the room to savour each beautiful and pleasurable moment, of which there are many in Florence. 

The legacy of the Medici family 

Milan may be the business capital of Italy, but Florence is the country’s historic centre of art and culture. Much is down to the powerful Medici family, who inspired the Italian Renaissance in the 15th and 16th centuries, including artists from Botticelli and Leonardo da Vinci to Michelangelo and Raphael

 Here are the spots for visiting, eating and staying that brought beauty and pleasure to my life during my stay in Florence:

On the north bank of the Arno 

Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore – the Duomo di Firenze, with a dome engineered by Filippo Brunelleschi (the inventor of linear perspective) in the 15th century, with its characteristic marble panels in various shades of green, pink and white. The queue to go in was too long, so I marvelled from the outside. 

The Uffizi Gallery – designed in the 16th century by Giorgio Vasari (the author of one of the most important art history books ever written). I was particularly taken by the work of the 14th century artists Giotto and Duce, as well as those by Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo and Caravaggio. Well worth battling the crowds for. 

Fondazione Palazzo Strozzi – this private/public foundation calls itself a ‘laboratory for art, culture and innovation’. When I was there, the exhibition celebrated the 30th anniversary of the Sandretto Re Rebaudengo collection – one of the most important contemporary art collections in Europe. Another reason to visit the Strozzi is that the international tourists tend not to favour contemporary works.

Libreria Brac – a vegan restaurant, café and art book shop. I had the most delicious green lasagne, after spending a while reading a travel book on Milan with an article by Paulo Cognetti, author of The Eight Mountains, now also a film. 

Gucci GardenOK I did not eat at the Gucci Osteria by Massimo Bottura of Osteria Francescana fame, but I did visit the Gucci Garden Galleria in this converted palazzo. 

The other two big Florentine names in fashion are Salvatore Ferragamo and Emilio Pucci. I chose instead to do my shopping at Aspesi, a Milanese brand. 

San Frediano & San Spirito neighbourhoods on the south bank

Chiesa di Santa Maria del Carmine – this church is home to the Bracacci frescoes, dating back to the 15th century. Not so crowded as the churches in the historic centre. 

Essenziale – this restaurant reminded me of my favourite places in Paris… it’s about the chefs turning to tasty local produce and coming up with an innovative, refreshing menu, with the three-course lunch menu (with choices) at a reasonable Euros35. In the evening, there are tasting menus.

Il Guscio – a restaurant frequented by locals and tourists, and across the road from where I stayed at B&B Monte Oliveto. (They were still gobsmacked when I asked for a menu in Italian. They even asked me why!) I had pappardelle with rabbit and black olives. The best! The bread was also the best I had in Flore

Sbrino – I’m sure it’s not the only place in Florence where the gelato tastes so good. All packaging and the spoons are biodegradable. 100% natural.

B&B Monte Oliveto – run by Marta, who luckily worked out at the gym, so she was able to carry my 23-kilo suitcase up the stairs. The breakfasts are superb, around a shared table. The small garden slopes up to blend with a tree-filled private garden. A 15-minute walk to the city centre, just outside San Frediano district. For me, this felt like my home in Florence.

The San Niccolò neighbourhood on the south bank 

The Boboli Gardens – more of a park than a garden. I went at eight in the morning. Perfect. No tourists. Impressive greenery, vistas and avenues. Not many flowers.

I took the Forte di Belvedere exit from the Boboli Gardens, and then the Via di Belvedere, a pleasant back road, for a coffee at Rifrullo. Ironically Rifrullo is an American Bar, even though there were fewer Americans here than at any other place I visited in Florence (except Palazzo Strozzi).

For next time in Florence 

The Accademia Gallery – home to Michelangelo’s David, and other magnificent sculptures by Renaissance artists. 

Villa Bardini – these gardens, next to the Boboli Gardens, do not open until 10am. Some people I met preferred the gardens at Villa Bardini to those of the Boboli. More roses, they said. 

Piazzale Michelangelo – a square on a hill overlooking Florence. Open 24 hours, which is a blessing in a city where much is closed on a Sunday and a Monday. Magnificent views. 

Basilica di San Miniato al Monte – a 30-minute walk from the Palazzio Vecchio, and a view of the city even higher up than from the Piazzale Michelangelo. 

Enoteca Spontanea – a natural wine bar and restaurant very near the Palazzo Pitti and the Boboli Gardens.

I highly recommend ‘The Florentines: from Dante to Gallileo’ by Paul Strathern as a good read on Renaissance Florence.

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