If Italy is suffering a financial crisis, you’d never know it in Florence. The fascinating Tuscan city of close to 400,000, filled with museums, historic churches and priceless art works, continues to attract hoards of international visitors, almost 2 million a year. Probably no city on earth has such concentrated beauty. In its compact city centre, easily navigated on foot, you can turn almost any corner and another mediaeval or renaissance masterpiece, unchanged for hundreds of years, sits before you.
You could spend days in the churches alone. From the massive Duomo (consecrated in 1436, with its white, green and pink marble exterior and a dome that seems to defy gravity) to the Basilica di Santa Croce (where you’ll find the tombs of Michelangelo, Galileo and Machiavelli) you’re constantly in awe of the ancient engineering and religious dedication.
But the museums have to be visited too. In particular, the Galleria dell’Accademia, where the world’s most famous sculpture, the five metre high “David” by Michelangelo, looks as striking as it did when it was completed 500 years ago. Also a must is the Uffizi Gallery, one of the world’s great art museums where visitors can get up close with masterpieces from Leonardo da Vinci to Botticelli in 50 separate rooms filled with more than 1500 priceless works of art.
- Tuscany food is characterized by saltless bread, white beans and many types of olive oil. But the most famous dish of Florence is the bistecca alla fiorentina, a giant T-bone or Porterhouse steak (ours was 1.4 kilograms), cooked over coals, served rare and drizzled with olive oil. They’re cut from carefully selected livestock, older than veal but younger than beef. These succulent steaks are available throughout the city but no place does it better than Buca Mario, near the main train station (Piazza Ottaviani, 16r). Overwhelming in size, and very tasty, they’re sliced tableside by white-shirted, very professional waiters.
- For a unique taste of Roman and early Florence history combined with exquisite Tuscan specialities, we headed for the Alle Murate (via del Proconsolo, 16r). Housed in a 14th century former guild hall of magistrates and public notaries, ceiling frescos from the period have been carefully restored while, in the basement, Roman ruins have been excavated and covered with a glass walkway (there’s an audio guide in five languages that you can listen to while you dine). The small, family restaurant greets patrons with a glass of sparkling prosecco and a menu that lovingly reflects and respects the local region. We enjoyed a delightful tasting menu including prawns in traditional black cabbage soup with curry, a delicate stone bass fillet, freshly made tagliatelle with beef ragout and lamb three ways – chop, leg and braised shoulder. All excellent.
- If you’re looking for some unusual Tuscan dishes in a thoroughly modern setting head for Ora d’Aria (via dei Georgofili 11r). The busy chefs are in an open kitchen behind a full wall of glass. Acclaimed Italian owner/chef Marco Stabile loves to surprise and delight with unusual dishes like pigeon soup with beetroot cappelletti and pesto (and pigeon three-ways as a main course), smoked rabbit, veal cheeks, fillet of scorpion fish and crunchy-tender suckling pig. When we were there, Chef Stabile was training a chef to prepare these Italian specialties in a new Miami restaurant.
- You can’t have an Italian restaurant without pasta. Well, Cibreo breaks that rule and several others in its four closely spaced restaurants in the city centre. There’s a trattoria, a café and a dinner theatre but the best known is the Cibreo Ristorante (via A. del Verrocchio, 8r) run by snow-haired celebrity chef, Fabio Picchi. In a setting with cream walls, dark wood and white linen that looks like a comfortable gentleman’s club, the waiter (or waitress) pulls up a chair beside you and describes each dish on the menu (there’s no written version). Questions are encouraged. We settled on the tasting menu and thoroughly enjoyed dishes like thick, spicy fish soup, beef carpaccio with watercress greens and sautéed porcini mushrooms drizzled in olive oil. All accompanied by several outstanding Italian wines that complemented each course. Desserts were dazzling too with outstanding cheesecake and yogurt surrounded by a honey starburst.
We stayed in an excellent three-star hotel in Florence that Frommer’s claims is the “Most Welcoming” in the city. Called Mario’s (not related to the restaurant), it’s located in a 17th century building close to the train station. Lots of great eateries were nearby, many serving traditional pizza. We’re convinced these Italian treats taste better if they’re baked in a wood-fired oven so make sure you can see the chef at work before you indulge.
While Florence, with its amazing sights and restaurants, could keep you occupied for a week or more, any trip to this area should include visits to neighbouring Tuscan towns like Siena, San Gimignano and Pisa. We booked a long, 12-hour day trip that included all three gems.
Just south of Florence, Siena was also a major art centre until the Renaissance. It’s still a living museum for anyone interested in art, architecture or history. Its most famous event is the Palio, a rugged horse race that has taken place since 1310 around the shell-shaped Piazza del Campo, considered the most beautiful public plaza in Italy. But the key reminder of Siena’s golden age is the massive cathedral, the Duomo. Begun in the 12th century, the remarkable interior features coloured bands of marble in the support towers, frescoes from the early 1500s and 56 unique mosaics (created by 40 top artists) on the floor.
San Gimignano, built high on a rocky outcrop just north of Siena is Italy’s best preserved medieval town. From the 11th to 13th centuries, 70 tall towers were built (for both protection and status) and 13 remain today. Except for the ubiquitous souvenir and gelato shops, very little has changed over the centuries. The area around San Gimignano supports olive groves and a thriving wine industry. We enjoyed an excellent Tuscan lunch with accompanying wines at the Sovestro in Poggio vineyards.
Late in the afternoon we reached Pisa where crowds of tourists (and scores of in-your-face hawkers) flock towards its most famous (or infamous) attraction, the Leaning Tower. Thanks to poor subsoil, the white marble cylinder started leaning when the builders reached the third level in 1185. A century later, architects tried to curve the structure but the lean continued. Modern techniques have now arrested the tilt but it’s still very much off-kilter and still a huge draw.
So if Italy is on your travel radar, do plan to make Florence and the rest of Tuscany part of your itinerary. Its art, history and cuisine combine for a memorable experience.
All Photos By John and Sandra Nowlan – All Rights Reserved
Tourists Having Fun
Tuscan Countryside and Vineyard
Pertfect Italian Pizza
Masterieces all over Florence
Holding Up Leaning Tower
Florence at Dusk