Florence: Everything But the Crowds
On a recent September evening I meandered along a narrow, cobblestone street, strains of organ music leading me to an open church. I entered and sat down. Florence is the Uffizi, the Piazza Signoria, the Ponte Vecchio. Dante and Michelangelo walked these alleys. Each year millions of tourists come to see this magnificent city, crowding its piazzas and rushing through museums, cameras clicking and flashing, and the only voices are German and English and Japanese.
But for me Florence was once home. It had been several decades since I lived and loved here, Italian style, and in my memory it had been much less busy. My challenge would be to create an itinerary that would allow me to experience the Florence I had known while avoiding the crowds. I vowed to visit lesser known sites, meet as many locals as possible, and get out of the city at least once during my stay. I relaxed into the music and hoped that would be possible in today’s tourist-mobbed Florence.
Leatherworking School in Florence
“Story of a little big dream” is how the Scuola del Cuoio began. Following World War II, Franciscan friars and leather craftsman Marcello Gori established an apprenticeship program to teach local youngsters the leatherworking trade. Today, directed by Laura Gori, a dynamic and passionate advocate of the authentic “Made in Italy” label, the school operates in its original Renaissance workshop behind the Santa Croce church.
In addition to a professional course, shorter programs in leatherworking are available to interested visitors. Enroll in a half-day, full day, or week-long session for a unique Florentine experience. The interactions with the staff and students will be your most cherished souvenir.
You’ll learn the art of cutting leather by hand as you create book covers or belts. A retail store on the property sells the highest quality leather goods, each one made 100% by hand on site, using the traditional methods you’ve learned. La Scuola Del Cuoio
Pedaling Around the City
Pack the makings of a memorable picnic - fresh bread, cheeses, fruit, and maybe a bottle of your favorite Chianti. Don’t forget the Nutella! It’s time to experience Florence on two wheels! Rent a bike at Knowleggi di Sergio. They also rent cars and scooters if that suits your fancy.
You can pick up maps and itineraries or head off where the breeze takes you; my favorite routes are to follow the river and head up to the Piazzale Michelangelo. Or you could be a bit more ambitious and take Via San Domenico to Via Vecchia Fiesolana to Fiesole in the hills above Florence.
Either way, you’ll have your picnic overlooking Brunelleschi’s Duomo and Florence below. If you don’t visit these spots by bike you won’t regret adding them to your itinerary. The #7 bus takes you to Fiesole and the Piazzale Michelangelo can easily be reached on foot. Florence by Bike
Modern Art in Florence
If you didn’t know Florence has a modern art museum, you’re not alone. But, it’s really not a modern art museum at all, for here in the Renaissance heartland the term “modern” indicates nineteenth century –we’re talking the Macchiaioli. While everyone else is at the Uffizi you won’t be waiting in line to purchase tickets, be rushed through, or be disappointed in the museum’s collection. Marble busts by Giovanni Bastianini line several rooms. Oil paintings depict pastoral scenes and intimate family settings. Giovanni Boldini, Vincenzo Cabianca, Cristiano Banti,and Silvestro Lega, are some of the biggest names in the Macchiaioli world and they’re all here! Don’t forget to look up at the ceilings in this former Medici residence for they are exquisitely ornate. Pause at the large windows for views of the Boboli Gardens below, a perfect spot for an afternoon walk.Galleria di Arte Moderna
Winery Tours in the Countryside
Olivia’s dimples appear when she smiles. Her eyes twinkle. “To understand the quality of the wine you must use your eyes, nose and mouth. Drinking is the last step”. We’re sampling Chiantis and Brunellos in the Tuscan countryside and I’m reconnecting with Olivia who I’ve known for a long time.
She’s like family to me and I’m impressed by her expertise and easy manner interacting with our group and the local winemakers who introduce us to their wines. Tuscany boasts over 600 wineries, most have been cared for and operated for generations by the same families. The first we visit has been used as a vineyard for seven centuries, the property purchased from the family of Macchiavelli. Yes, THE Macchiavelli.
Later, we are served a multi-course lunch in a Tuscan villa surrounded by bucolic olive orchards. Featuring the property’s wine and olive oil we sample pinzimonio (vegetables dipped in oil), fettunta (oil drenched Tuscan bread), pasta and bean soup, and lardo di colonnata (lardcured for months in basins of Carrara marble…believe me, you’ll want seconds!). Contact Tuscan Wine Tours for schedules or to request a customized itinerary. Tuscan Wine Tours
The schedule that day was Firenze – Bologna and although I have connections to both cities there was no doubt I was rooting for La Viola, the Florentine team. Everyone at the game wears purple so do so and keep yelling “VIOLA” if you want to pass for a tifoso (fan).
We boarded the bus at Piazza San Marco and bought tickets at the stadium. I still can’t imagine how we ended up in the section reserved for the most ardent fans - it must have been all that purple we sported. I didn’t see many of the plays on the field. My eyes and ears were riveted to the fans surrounding me. Approvals when the Fiorentina performed well. Otherwise strong obscenities and curses that make me blush when repeated in English!
Following the game my friend, Monica and I casually walked through Florence and turned a corner into Piazza S. Annunziata where Fiera Della Ceramica was underway. Artisans from every province of Italy had arrived for a high end ceramics fair.
All hand crafted, some traditional, others with lots of fantasy, every vendor eager to explain his or her process. These make for great conversations and wonderful take home memories. La Fierucola www.lafierucola.org organizes monthly craft shows in Piazzas S. Spirito and S. Annunziata – ceramics, woolens, Christmas markets, and organic produce markets were organized during 2012.
While wandering I felt Florence’s warmth. Early in the mornings I walked. Far from the city center I greeted shopkeepers and street sweepers and continued on to find pastries fresh from a baker’s oven. Each day a cappuccino from a different café - sometimes standing at the bar, other times sitting outside, feeling myself reenergize as the world awakened.
I walked in the late afternoon, too, often after browsing in bookshops, without an itinerary to follow, just smiling strangers passing in the street, unexpected craft shows appearing around the corner, fruit vendors proffering samples, children dripping gelato, and the occasional organ concert beckoning in the dark. Florence’s charm hadn’t disappeared or disappointed me and my itinerary made for a sweet homecoming to the most wonderful city I know.
5 e Cinque
Trattoria La Casalinga
Where to Stay in Florence
You can’t get much closer to Florence’s posh shopping than the Helvetia & Bristol. The hotel was created as a residence for British vacationers coming for extended stays in the 1800s. Think E.M. Forster. Your room will be beautifully decorated with original art work and antiques. Heated towel racks, grab bars and impeccable service make for a memorable experience.
Casa dei Tintori
Staying at Casa de Itintori is like being with family. The charming building dates to the 13th century and has been completely remodeled by architect-owner Alfredo.
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