2019 marks 500 years since the death of one of the world’s most renowned artists, Leonardo da Vinci. We couldn’t think of a better reason to visit the ever-enchanting city of Florence and sample some delicious cuisine along the way.
A toast to Leonardo
It’s been 500 years since the death of Leonardo da Vinci, the maestro who spent his youth learning the tricks of the trade in Florence under the watchful eye of his master Andrea del Verocchio. To pay tribute to the Renaissance genius behind masterpieces such as The Mona Lisa and The Last Supper, the city is putting on numerous exhibitions throughout the year. The Palazzo Strozzi (8 March 8 to 14 July), Palazzo Vecchio (from March), Santa Maria Novella (from April), and Museo Galileo (May to September) are at the centre of the activity … and provide for the perfect excuse to explore this enchanting Italian city.
My journey begins at the bustling forecourt of Firenze Santa Maria Novella train station, I excitedly hurry towards the river Arno – my wheeled bag rattling noisily along the narrow cobbled street. It’s a chilly, sleepy evening in January, but the buildings are bathed in the same warm yellow light as they are in the height of summer. The near-deserted street feels more like theatrical scenery; there really is something truly surreal and dreamlike about this city. Suddenly, the road opens up to a small junction, and there it is across the water … the Ponte Vecchio. The sun has just disappeared, but the street lights twinkle on the surface of the still water, illuminating the arches of the historic bridge from beneath.
A stroll closer towards the iconic bridge brings me to my home for the weekend – Gallery Hotel Art – tucked away in a tiny courtyard on the north side of the river. Peering out to the right from my bedroom window I can see The Ponte Vecchio; straight ahead is the turret at the top of the Palazzo Vecchio, another of the city’s most famous structures, and to the left is the pinnacle of the colossal cathedral emerging majestically over the rooftops.
At suppertime I head south of the river towards the bohemian hangout, Santo Spirito. Filled with independent shops and craftsman workshops, it’s the artisan epicentre of Florence. Santo Spirito piazza is buzzing all year round; the charming, locals-run restaurants and bars spill out onto the cobbled square whatever the weather. I nab an outdoor table under a heater at the osteria in the corner – it was an old favourite of mine when I studied here years ago. It was back when my Italian was much more fluent but I still manage to order a plate of four cheese and truffle gnocchi. To my delight it was as delicious and decadent as I remembered – a perfect match for a glass or two of local white wine and polished off with a delectably light and fluffy tiramisu.
The next morning brings a crisp and clear day; the type that encourages you to walk thousands of steps without even noticing. That’s the beauty of Florence, every twist and turn reveals another treasure. Whether it’s an authentic enoteca serving up local wine and a platter of cold meats and cheeses, or a hidden bar offering the smoothest of espressos for €1, you keep finding yourself wanting to peek around the next corner.
To soak up Florence’s beauty in full, it’s worth the effort to climb the steep steps on the south side of the river – otherwise known as Oltrarno – towards Piazzale Michelangelo. Thirsty work, but the panoramic view from the top is worth it. It would be easy to spend hours up here, simply observing people make the pilgrimage to watch the sun go down, Birra Moretti lager in hand.
Lunch is next on the agenda … but where to start in a city filled to the brim with restaurants, pizzerias and osterias boasting the very best of authentic Tuscan cuisine? I rack my brain, and decide to descend the steps and meander my way towards the Santa Croce area. There’s a familiar smile behind the counter at Salumeria Verdi, otherwise known as Pino’s. In fact, Pino himself is still taking orders, and has been doing so since opening this spot back in 1991. I order a fennel salami, scamorza cheese, sun-dried tomato and pesto delight – served between two pieces of toasted bread with the perfect level of crunch and saltiness.
Strolling back towards the shopping district, the leather market with its impressive handiwork on display is always worth a stop. Florence has been a hub for leather craftsmanship for centuries, and the legacy is still very much alive today. From handbags to sunglass cases and even cosmetic bags, you’ll find a high quality leather souvenir in any hue – most likely with the symbol of Florence (the Florence Giglio) embossed onto it.
By now it’s time for aperitivo – possibly my favourite of all Italian traditions. At almost every bar in the city between around 6pm and 9pm, there’ll be an enticing buffet of dishes you are welcome to help yourself to, just as long as you buy a drink. A pre-dinner dinner if you will.
After that, I book myself into an intimate restaurant with only a few tables in trendy Santa Croce, in an attempt to be as chic and sophisticated as all the Florentine fashionistas I’ve been admiring all weekend. There is only an Italian menu, which is perhaps a ploy to keep the swathes of tourists away. I order the pici – a Tuscan classic – and the thick hand-made spaghetti unexpectedly arrives inside a whole wheel of cheese. The waiter stirs the piping hot pasta around, picking up more and more melted cheese as he goes and, after transferring it onto my plate, produces a whole truffle and begins shaving it onto the already mouthwatering dish. And he’s generous with it too. A first delectable bite of the pici is followed by a long sip of local chianti.
The next morning involves a long lie in and, unsurprisingly, a very light breakfast.
When it’s time to leave, that rattle made by my bag’s wheels sounds more forlorn than excited. Walking back towards the station though, it’s eased by an unmistakable feeling that I’ll be drawn back to this magical city someday soon.
CITY GUIDE TO FLORENCE
WHEN TO GO
Florence is beautiful all year round but to avoid the biggest crowds, steer clear of July and August.
WHERE TO STAY
Gallery Hotel Art Just steps from the iconic Ponte Vecchio, the hotel offers rooms starting from €200 per night, based on two adults sharing a room, excluding breakfast. lungarnocollection.com
All that walking will work up an appetite. So, if you’re brave enough, try the Florentine specialty of Lampredotto (cow’s stomach) or trippa (tripe). There’s a truck that sells it called L’Antico Trippaio in Piazza de’ Cimatori. Be warned though, it’s not for everyone. For some of the best pizza in the world, head to Gusta Pizza (Via Maggio, 46).
Florence is generally very safe, but, as with any city that attracts a lot of tourists, there are some pick pockets operating in the centre. Be extra vigilant around the train and bus station, as well as in the main squares.
Eating out can be good value and delicious if you avoid the tourist traps near the Duomo. Ordering the house wine is always a good idea – it’s normally delicious and only around €3 a glass.
Florence is compact enough to be able to walk everywhere, but don’t bother with high heels unless you want to sprain an ankle.
FLY SAA flies to Munich daily. From there, catch a connecting flight to Florence with fellow Star Alliance member and codeshare partner, Lufthansa.flysaa.com
WORDS Francesca Lynagh