Postcards from Florence

First view of Piazza del Duomo on the evening we arrived
First view of Piazza del Duomo on the evening we arrived

We’ve just come back from a few days in Florence.  How could I send you picture-postcard views  that are in any way better than ones you’ve seen a thousand times already in art books, travel guides – and postcards ?  Well, I can’t, obviously, so I shan’t even try.  Let me just give you a flavour of the city as it seemed to us for these few days in early June.

The Ponte Vecchio is crammed with tourists from morning till night.  But even here, you can find a bit of peace if you try.
The Ponte Vecchio is crammed with tourists from morning till night. But even here, you can find a bit of peace if you try.

We’d gone because I’d had an e-mail offer of cheap fares from a Certain-Irish-Airline-We-All-Love-To-Hate.  I discovered we could get from Leeds-Bradford to Pisa and back, the two of us, for £100.  We booked.  We found a last-minute deal on a hotel in nearby Florence.  We booked. We found we’d chosen well.  Despite being near the station, normally never a great part of town, this place was clean, well-appointed, cheerfully friendly, and within walking distance of almost everything – perfect in fact.  The weather was perfect too.  Sunny, cloud-free, and gradually getting hotter.

Malcolm had never been to Florence, but once upon a time, I knew it well.  Once upon a time – more than 45 years ago in fact – I’d had two extended periods in the city working as an au pair between school and university.  I’d had plenty of time to explore the city, and to learn the language.  I’ve had plenty of time in the intervening years to forget both.  In fact a few years ago, when we went to another part of Italy, I found that whenever I opened my mouth to speak Italian, French came tumbling out….

I was pleased, so pleased, that this time, my Italian returned: haltingly at first, but getting better each time I had another go.  A couple of times though, it would have been to my advantage to converse in French – there were French guests at the hotel.  But guess what?  No French words beyond the most basic could be prised from my lips.  I seem to be strictly a one-language-at-a-time sort of person.

We soon learned that our visit wasn’t going to work as expected.  We’d always planned a mix of visiting some of the tourist hotspots with time at some of the less well-visited sites.  After a chaotic afternoon at the Uffizi, pre-booked at what we had hoped was a quieter time, the hotspots got pretty much junked.

Here's why the hot-spots got junked: so I could use my camera in peace......
Here’s why the hot-spots got junked: so I could use my camera in peace……

The sheer numbers of visitors and the noise got us down, and my best memories of the Uffizi this time are of those moments spent on the relatively quiet roof terrace, looking down on the Florence skyline.

From one busy place to another.  That's a view of the cupola of the Duomo, seen from the Uffizi.
From one busy place to another. That’s a view of the cupola of the Duomo, seen from the Uffizi.

I wanted to share the Museum of San Marco with Malcolm.  When I was in Florence in the 1960s, this was one of my favourite places.  Back in the mid 1430s, the monk whom we know as Fra Angelico took on the task of painting the cell of each monk with a devotional image: often the Annunciation or Crucifixion.  The monastery, even though now a museum,  is a tranquil place where it’s still possible to be quiet and reflective, and to be moved and inspired by Fra Angelico’s interpretations of the familiar Bible stories .

One of Fra Angelico's interpretations of the Annunciation, at the Museo di San Marco.  Wikimedia Commons.
One of Fra Angelico’s interpretations of the Annunciation, at the Museo di San Marco. Wikimedia Commons.

At first, we had a similar experience at the church of Santa Maria Novella.  But as the morning more on, the crowds increased, and the levels of noise: we were shocked by the difference we noticed between our first moments in the almost-empty church, and the later ones when the building was filled with people busily moving around and talking.

But what’s the point of going to Italy if you don’t spend time enjoying food?  There’s the magnificent Mercato Centrale, where every morning you can join the locals as they buy fruit, vegetables, fish, meat and cured meats and  cheeses.  It’s crowded here too, and vibrantly noisy, but that’s OK.  Get your shopping bag out and join in!

And then go over the road to Trattoria Mario for lunch.  It used to feed students and local workers, and now tourists are added into the mix: Not the sort of tourists who expect a watered down ‘typical Italian’ menu, and translated into English or Russian , but ones who are happy to join a table where locals are already tucking into the daily specials.  I was swept into the kitchen to watch the team cooking in an impossibly small space: here’s a photo.  Such fun, and such good food.

The kitchen at Mario's
The kitchen at Mario’s

The next day we headed over to the other side of the river, the Oltrarno, to Porta San Frediano.  This is an area of craftspeople, working people, and strictly no tourists.  And that’s where we found Trattoria Sabatino, and immediately felt at home.  It’s the sort of place we used to like so much in France: simple food, well cooked, and served to local workers in their lunch break.  As in France, the early customers were all men, but later, women, and even children appeared too.

We spent our evenings on the other side of the river too, opposite Santa Croce.  That’s where we found two bars, the same but different.  Buy a drink in one of these places and it’ll cost you.  But all of a sudden, it seems a good idea after all.  Because trays and trays of food and nibbles appear, and they’re for you, the customers, to eat – and eat – and eat, if you wish, without handing over any more money.

And of course we spent time exploring those narrow medieval streets, where  tall buildings shelter you from the glare of the sun.  We people-watched in sunny piazzas over shots of strong espresso.  We hung over the parapets of the many bridges over the Arno to enjoy the views and the sunsets.  And the sun became hotter with each passing hour.  We relished nearly every moment of our stay.  But next time, we might go off season.  February might be good.

In the end though, I have to give you one picture postcard.  Here is the Duomo, seen on the path towards Piazzale Michelangelo.
In the end though, I have to give you one picture postcard. Here is the Duomo, seen from the path towards Piazzale Michelangelo.

 

 

20 thoughts on “Postcards from Florence”

  1. How funny that you’ve chosen to mention two of my very favourite trattorias! I love Mario’s, of course, but Sabatino has long had my heart too (and bugger – I thought nobody else had heard of it!). I’ve never been to Florence ‘in season’ – only ever in December or January, when it’s bitterly cold, but blissfully peaceful. My absolute forever favourite place is the Brancacci chapel, with its extraordinary frescoes – have you been? If not, put in On The List for next time – you’d be fascinated not just be the art itself but by its history. xx

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    1. Oh, I’ve spent many hours in the Brancacci Chapel. We would have gone, but what my blog didn’t say was that Mal wasn’t in fighting form: a leg infection that meant that he was already walking well beyond his comfort zone. So it got junked, sadly. I owe you an email!

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      1. I thought you’d know it. And actually I think I owe you one rather more :). Just prepping for guests dinner – it’s still 28 degrees outside so we’re all melting!

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  2. Thanks this makes intetesting reading. The crowds in Florence are mentioned in Bill Bryson’s book about travels in Europe in 1990s…he said there were 14 tourists to every Florentine back then and bemoaned the restricted viewing hours in the museums and places of
    interest. I haven’t been but like you

    might aim for a quieter time if such a thing exists. Excellent photos

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    1. The restricted hours aren’t such an issue now: certainly not at the hotspots. But I think places like the Uffizi should be conasidering evening and early morning viewing. It’s pretty impossible at the moment. Yes. Try November – February.

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  3. I love Florence and have battled the other tourists in the Uffizi to stand open mouthed in amazement at the Primavera painting, absolutely stunning.

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  4. What a fine trip this appears to have been! I like that you showed us “real” life, instead of the picture postcard images (even though some of your photos are plenty nice enough to be on postcards!) I hate the idea of the crowds, though . . . it’s good you found places to get away.

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  5. Sounds like an interesting visit but what huge crowds! Enjoyed the photos – especially the windows. Am always amazed at the flight offers you can take advantage of in the UK .

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    1. It didn’t take too much ingenuity to avoid the crowds. Yes, I liked the windows too. But I’m surprised that you don’t have cheap(ish) flights. I thought with your great distances you all tended to fly quite often

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      1. You can occasionally get good packages to the south but nothing like the deals you described. We are a huge country but the airfares for going from coast to coast to coast here are rarely reasonable. Its often less expensive to go to other countries than fly within our own.

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  6. Oh Margaret! You made me travel again to Italy! We went there younger in Summer1968! I now see again the Arno, the small shops on the Ponte Vecchio, the gilded bronze doors of the Baptistère, the Duomo architectural feat by Brunelleschi, beautiful portraits in the Uffizi I think, high sculptures on places…But I don’t know the Brancacci chapel nor the Museo di San Marco! It makes me feel like going back to Firenze maybe as you said in Winter!
    I hope Malcolm feels fine now! Bon week-end à tous deux! Noëlle

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    1. Toi aussi? Moi, j’étais la en 1967 et 1968. C’est beaucoup changé. Franchement, Ponte Vecchio est affreux – trop de monde, et même l’Uffizi est difficile. Mais je te conseille de visiter, si tu seras revenue a Florence, la Chapelle Brancacci et le Musée de San Marco. Mais c’est toujours une ville très belle. Je l’adore…..
      Pour l’instant, Malcolm n’est pas gueri​. Ça va arriver, on espère…. Bon weekend a toi aussi. Bises, M

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