At church on Sunday, a young man I’ve known for many years came up to talk with me. Seth had just returned from a semester in Florence. We had talked excitedly before his trip. I love to tell people about some of the more obscure places to visit when they’re in Tuscany. Florence is filled with them.
Seth lived and took his classes in the center of Florence near Santa Croce. Built in 1294, this great Gothic church is where you’ll find the tombs of Michelangelo and Galileo. The piazza in front is where you can buy inexpensive watercolors, leathergoods, and way too much touristy junk.
An area of Florence I like to hang out in is called, Oltrarno, which means “over the Arno.” At one time, you were considered inferior if you lived on this side of the Arno, because it meant that you couldn’t afford to live in a big palazzo in the city center.
All that changed when the Medici family decided to jump over and build a massive palace in 1550. They ruled Florence from the Palazzo Pitti for the next 300 years.
When I’m in Florence, Oltrarno is one of the first places I venture to. After crossing the Arno by way of the Ponte Vecchio, where gold merchants have been selling their wares for centuries, you make a right and follow a small street which runs parallel to the river. My family and I love to visit a little art gallery on this street. Years ago, when the dollar was very strong against the Lira, we bought some paintings there. Now, I can’t imagine paying the prices that hang on the tickets.
So, instead of buying paintings, I walk down a few buildings and enter a little tiny shop where all the lady sells is gift wrap. Now, this isn’t your usual kind of wrapping paper. This stuff is hand printed and sold by the sheet. Mainly geometric designs, the paper is inexpensive and beautiful. I usually buy about twenty sheets,which can be folded easily and tucked into the suitcase. On very special occasions, my friends get their present wrapped in one of these special papers.
This side of the Arno is filled with craftspeople making all kinds of beautiful objects. Restoration studios abound as well, with artisans working on priceless objects from museums.
Obviously, I could go on and on. I love Florence, and if I were rich, I’d have an apartment here. It is simply an amazing city that I don’t believe you could ever get bored with.
I asked Seth if he had tried Cinghiale (wild boar). Yes, he had, and loved it. Good man, Seth. Unfortunately for him, it was on one of his last days. Wild Boar has to be marinated and cooked for a long time. It is one of my favorite Tuscan foods, and I promise you now that I will view eating numerous servings on my next visit as a way to remind myself just how much I gave up when I became a vegetarian 🙂
To finish up, sometimes we tourists can get overwhelmed in a place like Florence. At first, it’s almost like we’re on some movie studio lot, or at Disney World and we’re seeing imitations of the real thing. Lots of history was made in Florence, some great, some not so great.
During World War II, bitter fighting took place in the piazzas we sample our gelato. Partisans were hung from the lamp posts to warn others about the consequences of joining the fight. The fighting here was bad and street to street.
I learned a lot about all this in a book entitled War In Val D’Orcia,written by Iris Origo and recommended by Frances Mayes. I think reading this book helped me to be a better kind of tourist, one who takes less for granted, realizing how precious is the gift of these experiences.
Somehow, I’m thinking there are going to be many parts of my Tuscan tale to come….