Lisa Clifford Florence
AFTER 18 YEARS OF TRAVELLING BACK AND FORTH TO ITALY, WRITER LISA CLIFFORD FINALLY SETTLED THERE 10 YEARS AGO. SHE AND HER ITALIAN HUSBAND HAVE TWO CHILDREN. HER THIRD BOOK WILL BE PUBLISHED NEXT YEAR.
I live 10 minutes south of the historical centre of Florence, in a green belt formerly zoned agricultural but now residential. It’s like living in the country, but we have the city just outside our gates. Florence is a living museum, a medieval wonderland that stays the same on the outside but constantly changes on the inside.
It’s at its best in May or October when the weather is fresh and the tourists have gone, and at sunset when the world is winding down and the mountains turn lavender. Florence is to be avoided in July and August when the temperatures soar to 40C and the footpaths are crammed with tourists.
Always check the opening hours of museums and galleries as schedules vary from place to place and are frustratingly quirky. It’s easy to find yourself locked out of the building housing Michelangelo’s statue of David, for example, because the Galleria dell’Accademia (www.museumsinflorence. com) is closed on Mondays.
The quintessential Florentine experience would have to be a walk across the Ponte Vecchio at sunset when the shops are closing and the colours of the city and river are soft and muted. I love the view up and down the Arno from the Ponte Vecchio at any time of day. Downriver, the elegant palazzi that line the river look busy, regal and important. Upriver, it’s green and lazy.
My favourite area to stroll around while looking in shop windows is the Oltrarno, on the other side of the river to the Duomo, which is in the main tourist area. In neighbourhoods such as San Frediano and Santo Spirito (two tiny areas side by side) old-fashioned craftspeople, or artisans, work in a timehonoured fashion. Fathers sit outside shops watching their sons take over the business of cobbling, upholstering and chandelier-making.
The Farmacia di Santa Maria Novella would probably be my favourite shop. Frescoes cover the walls and the experience of shopping there is so Florentine. The farmacia sells lotions and potions created by the monks and apothecaries who once lived on the premises. It’s at Via della Scala 16 (www.smnovella.it).
The most unsung museum in Florence is the Stibbert. It’s wall-to-wall armour, tapestries, weaponry and paintings, with no barriers or cordons (museostibbert.it). The Salvatore Ferragamo Shoe Museum (salvatoreferragamo. it) is also a treat. Shoes worn by Marilyn Monroe and Audrey Hepburn, among others, line the walls of this museum on Via Tornabuoni, underneath the spectacular shop.
Teatro della Pergola (www.pergola.firenze. it), built in 1656, is the quintessential Moulin Rouge-esque theatre. It is so beautiful that it’s hard to keep your eyes on the show. In May, Florence hosts the Maggio Musicale Festival (www.maggiofiorentino.com), which features operas and other classical music events.
One of the most incredible walks is uphill from the Oltrarno’s Piazza Poggi to San Miniato al Monte, a jewel of a church that overlooks Florence. Walk to Piazzale Michelangelo (where everyone goes) but keep going to San Miniato. Around six in the evening you might even be able to catch a Gregorian chant.
If it’s raining – or you just love art – enjoy the Leonardo da Vincis, Botticellis and Raphaels at the Uffizi Palace (www. museumsinflorence.com), but book tickets to avoid standing in a horrible queue. The Palazzo Vecchio (as above) and lesser known Bargello (florenceart.it) are also amazing to wander through.
On a fine day, buy a picnic lunch and catch a Number 7 bus from the main railway station up to Fiesole. Walk to the viewing terrace and through the archaeological park before heading down to the Roman theatre complex. Eat in the amphitheatre, walk around Fiesole for a while and finish with coffee in the piazza.
For lunch with a Tuscan atmosphere and good seasonal food after shopping in town, go to Cammillo (phone 055 212 427) in Borgo San Jacopo, just off the Ponte Vecchio. On a cold winter’s night I love having dinner at J.K. Lounge (jkplace.com) at J.K. Place on Piazza Santa Maria Novella.
Hip Florentines hop from bar to bar enjoying the antipasto offered for free along the way – if you buy a drink. The “antipasto for a drink” has become so popular that many of the younger set go without dinner, starting with an aperitivo and antipasto at, say, Colle Beretto (Piazza Strozzi 5/r), then to Moyo (Via de’Benci 23/r) and, finally, to the other side of the Arno and Zoe (Via dei Renai 13/r).
During the day, the place for a caffeine hit is Just Cavalli Cafe (www.justcavallicafe.com), next to designer Roberto Cavalli’s shop on Via Tornabuoni. Do your best to get a table outside. When the fashionistas who work nearby come in for coffee it can give you eyestrain – they are so gorgeous.