Wednesday, January 5, 2011


Everyone loves Florence because it is beautiful, elegant, historically important and filled with charm and mystery around each corner.

We chose Florence as our final destination.  As much as I hated to leave Cecina, Florence was worth the wait.   Since we were in Florence the second week of June, it was very hot and I missed the sea but our apartment had air conditioning so this helped. We drove to the Florence airport (another post will discuss driving in Italy) and dropped our car off.  Driving in Florence is a finely tuned skill, one I did not wish to learn any time soon.  There are major boulevards but many of the streets are narrow and one-way; hence, very confusing.  Once you have learned your way around the neighborhood, it is an easy walking city but driving?  Forget it.

Our landlord, the amazing Laura Merlini, met us at our beautiful apartment on the less touristy side of the Arno River in Florence in an area called Oltrarno. This area is quiet, filled with students, beautiful shops, churches, the Pitti Palace and Gucci headquarters (more on it later).  It was fashion week while we were in Florence so the city was teeming with fashion folks and beautifully decorated windows with outlandish designs by high school students who study fashion design.  For example, the antique stores may have a window showcasing a beautiful antique and a mannequin with a highly creative design made by a student.  Window shopping had never been so interesting.  One of my favorite windows belonged to a hair salon.  The mannequin was extremely tall and the dress was made out of colored hair rollers that fell to the ground creating a train of rollers.  It was truly exciting to see such uninhibited creativity.

Roller Dress
There are many beautiful churches (it's Italy!!) but do not ignore the churches that have plain exteriors.  These churches have the most beautiful interiors.  The church in our neighborhood was stunning and its piazza was surrounded by restaurants, shoemakers and an outdoor market.  On the last day of school,
(school-age children attend school 6 days a week; 8-noon) the students gathered on the bridges, piazzas and had their traditional water fight.  They filled bottles and splashed each other until they were so exhausted, then flopped on the steps of the churches resembling drunken sailors.

Santa Spirito, our neighborhood church and site of student water fights

We had been told not to miss the monks from the church on the hill, San Mianato al Monte who chant Gregorian chants in the same manner as they have in this church for 1000 years.  They do this everyday at precisely 5:30P.M.  We climbed the very steep steps to a landing, Piazzale Michelangelo which allows one to see Florence from a bird's eye view.  We continued to climb up to the church and sat in the lower sanctuary, listening to the monks chant.  I imagined myself sitting in the same spot as one would have done 1000 years before me experiencing this same sound.  After the service, we walked around the area behind the church where large homes overlooked the city.  Vineyards are abundant below the park area behind the church and Florentine palazzi dot the landscape in the distance.

San Mianato al Monte
View on the ascent to Piazzale Michelangelo

Let's talk shopping!

Florence is a fashion and leather capital.  The towns surrounding Florence produce the finest leather goods in the world.  Everywhere you look in Florence there are leather stores.  We visited a number of markets but the largest one is San Lorenzo.  Needless to say, I bought a number of bags and I love to bargain in Italian with the merchants.  It is so much fun.  I must say that by the time I reached Florence, my Italian had greatly improved.  Bargaining in the market is a skill which I perfected when I was in Jerusalem.   Before I buy anything, I look at all of the products and stores before I purchase.  I am not an impulsive shopper and I knew the type of purse and style of shoes I was looking for.  I had seen a purse in Milan that I loved but I kept telling myself that I would wait until I reached Florence and I am so glad I did.

Jerry and I were crossing one of the many bridges to the busier side of the Arno when I noticed a locally owned leather store called Giotti that specializes in braided purses.  Florence seems to specialize in braided leather (Bottega Veneta, a Milanese-based company, is a very expensive brand that specializes in this design) and I love this look which is called intrecciato. But this look is actually specific to the Veneto region of northern Italy.   As I stood outside the Giotti store (, I saw the bags I had been waiting for.  They looked very expensive (Bottega Veneta bags can cost on an average of 6200.00) but Jerry urged me to go inside and look.  He was so right.  The bags were perfect and I found one that was half price so I bought it on the spot, (not to worry, it was not half of 6200.00).  I love this bag and carry it everyday for work.  According to Laura Merlini, Florentine women know where the factories are located outside of Florence and purchase their handbags there for very reasonable prices.  I will do this the next time I am in Florence.

If you would like to learn more about Bottega Veneta and the century-old tradition of their braided bags, read the recent article about them and their designer-in-residence, Tomas Maier in
The New Yorker

Since we had an apartment, I cooked most of our meals.  I loved shopping in the market for fresh ingredients so we rarely ate out unless it was near lunch time and we weren't close to the apartment.  I had asked my landlord, Laura, if she could recommend anyone who would teach me to cook a Tuscan meal and speak Italian with me.  Laura volunteered and we had the loveliest morning.  She arrived at the apartment and we proceeded to walk to San Lorenzo market where besides leather stalls, has an extraordinary indoor food market.  Laura is a third generation Florentine and knows the city and its history well.  She pointed out historic buildings that Jerry and I had missed and explained the relevance of the design as well as the history of each building. Once we arrived at the market, Laura took me to all of her favorite merchants and showed me how to select the ingredients for our Pappa al Pomodoro.  One merchant sold Tuscan bread, meat and cheeses.  Laura told him what we were making and he chose the correct bread for our dish (the bread must not be fresh).  He then proceeded to combine ingredients for me to taste:  a paper thin cracker with parmigiano, tuscan prociutto and a candied lemon.  He then offered me the same combination with a Parma procuitto.  The combination of these flavors was extraordinary.  Laura was impressed that I could order what I needed in Italian without resorting to any English.  Had I remained in Italy for another month, I am confident I would have been able to converse with little assistance from my IPhone translator.
I have tried to duplicate this recipe at home but without much luck.  The secret is in the bread and our North American Italian breads are just not the same.  When Tuscan bread is mixed with a liquid, the consistency is more of a lumpy couscous.  This holds the soup together without that wet, gummy texture of North American Italian breads.

Now for my Gucci story:

Gucci Headquarters

Two days prior to our departure, we had spoken to some cab drivers who informed us that we would have no trouble getting a cab on the morning we planned on leaving for Canada.  LIE!!  We were packed the night before and left our apartment at 7:45A.M.  I stood on the narrow sidewalk with our luggage while Jerry walked to cafe to use the phone and call a cab.  Each time Jerry called, the cab dispatcher hung up on him.  The cafe owner called - same thing.  Jerry continued to try and I was trying to flag down a cab but they do not stop for people on the street.  It is against the law for a cab to stop for a person on the street; one must call for a cab.  Our flight left at 10:00A.M. and it was now 9:00A.M. and needless to say, we were panicking.  The window washer on the street also tried to help us but he was informed that there were no cabs available because it was Fashion Week and all of the fashion personnel were occupying the cabs.  The window washer suggested we go to the Gucci headquarters around the corner and ask for one of their cabs.  So Jerry ran to Gucci and arrived back in a cab which got us to our flight just in time.  The people at Gucci were very kind and after hearing Jerry's story, offered him one of their cabs.  Gotta love Gucci.

Jerry and I still miss Italy and cannot wait to return.  The people, the culture, the food, the architecture, the landscapes, the sea make this country the most glorious place on earth.  Paris is still my favorite city but Italy is home.


Cagey said...

Wonderful description of Florence, Pam!!

Cagey said...

Wonderful description of Florence, Pam! I'd love to return there someday and have some time to really explore the city.