Breathe and be­lieve

Any­thing seems pos­si­ble in a reimag­ined Florence

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Destination Britain & Europe - LUKE SLAT­TERY

IT was al­most 30 years ago that I left Florence en­thu­si­as­ti­cally, vow­ing never to re­turn. It was my first trip to Italy and I could barely wait for Giotto and Michelan­gelo; for Ghib­erti and Brunelleschi; for a first glimpse of the lat­ter’s mighty 15th-cen­tury Duomo soar­ing above a plain of rust-red tiled rooftops.

I’d have a room with a view and from the cob­bled streets would rise the singsong of Ital­ian ban­ter, the chain­saw rip of Vespas ca­reen­ing around the cor­ners, and lots of big-hearted laugh­ter. I was wrong.

Florence was cold and old and aloof. I was not in­sen­si­tive to the charms of its famed art­works. Far from it. I bought a copy of Vasari — though it may have been largely for show — and read about the lives of the great Floren­tine artists when I wasn’t view­ing their mas­ter­pieces. But in the long and crowded gal­leries of the Uf­fizi, I al­ways seemed to be in­spect­ing du­ti­fully rather than experiencing deeply. And when I’d ex­hausted the art, there didn’t seem much else to de­tain me. The city was cul­tur­ally rich but also, it seemed, stuffy and self-re­gard­ing.

But here I am three decades later and al­ready the age­less city — the shade of Machi­avelli would surely recog­nise its his­toric core — seems sub­tly al­tered. A new ho­tel, So­prarno Suites, has just opened its doors in the dis­trict of Santo Spir­ito, close by the River Arno on the city’s al­ter­na­tive, more res­i­den­tial side, some­times called Oltrarno (or be­yond the Arno). A month ear­lier it would have been coated in plas­terer’s dust; a month later and it would likely be fully oc­cu­pied. I’m just in time. The place is so new that re­view­ers have not ar­rived. The taxi driver doesn’t even know of it. And yet there it is nes­tled into a court­yard be­hind one of those tree-height wooden dou­ble­doors that seem to have been built to ac­com­mo­date a horse-drawn car­riage or two. The suites are funky yet nos­tal­gic, char­ac­ter­ful but never pompous, and the own­ers — a Floren­tine lawyer named Mat­teo Per­d­uca and Betty, his English-born wife — love to chat. Fi­nally, some Floren­tine laugh­ter.

It’s mid­day when I ar­rive af­ter the long haul from Syd­ney and I could eat a horse — in fact I’m sure it’s on the menu some­where nearby. When the girl at So­prarno’s front desk rec­om­mends a lo­cal restau­rant, Moye, spe­cial­is­ing in the cui­sine of Puglia, I sense I’m onto some­thing. The re­gions of Italy are fiercely proud of their culi­nary tra­di­tions, none more so than Florence, and this is a re- fresh­ingly ec­u­meni­cal at­ti­tude. At Moye I opt, unimag­i­na­tively, for pizza and salad fol­lowed by a cheese plate adorned with a glis­ten­ing white globe of bur­rata, and wash it down with a glass of Sar­dinian ver­mentino. The in­te­rior is fresh and light and Mediter­ranean; the food, too. It all feels so dif­fer­ent from the lugubri­ous city I re­call from my first visit.

By this time I’m so badly jet­lagged I feel dis­eased so I re­turn to So­prarno Suites for a re­cu­per­a­tive nap and when I wake the dis­trict of Santo Spir­ito is at my doorstep ask­ing to be ex­plored. I pass a cob­bler welt­ing a pair of shoes, a pile of bur­nished brogues in his win­dow, and in­stantly I’m warmed by the vibe of old-school ar­ti­sanal Italy. Nearby, via Ro­mana is larded with leather­work­ers and artists and orig­i­nal gift stores. I turn a cor­ner and there, ringed by restau­rant ta­bles, is a lovely neigh­bour­hood pi­azza shaded by a clus­ter of trees ar­ranged in a horse­shoe pat­tern, and from a cafe ta­ble I have views of the Basil­ica of Santo Spir­ito.

Some­where over the Arno the main sights are be­sieged by bat­tal­ions com­man­deered by flag-wav­ing guides. Bucket-list sights such as the Ac­cademia, hous­ing Michelan­gelo’s David, are slowly de­vour­ing long queues. But over here, in Oltrarno, cou­ples are lin­ger­ing over lunch, lo­cals are parad­ing their pooches, the el­derly are grouped on benches be­neath the shade. This dis­trict, like most of Florence, would be noth­ing with­out the tourist econ­omy, yet it has a def­i­nite neigh­bourly feel.

On my visit in the mid-1980s I came to pity the lo­cal live­stock. Be­yond ri­bol­lita, the tra­di­tional mushy bread and veg­etable soup, there seemed noth­ing to eat but steak, pro­sciutto, coppa, cac­cia­tore, guan­cialle, mor­tadella and a few olives. But this night I stum­ble onto a lovely neigh­bour­hood restau­rant whose Ge­noese owner has crafted a strict veg­e­tar­ian menu reach­ing to Asia for in­spi­ra­tion. Cinque e Cinque is one of a hand­ful of eater­ies with strong veg­e­tar­ian op­tions trans­form­ing the Floren­tine culi­nary scene.

Later that night I men­tion th­ese evo­lu­tions to Betty. She be­lieves the eco­nomic cri­sis has forced the Floren­tines to set aside her­itage and mix things up, to in­no­vate. The baby-faced Ital­ian Prime Min­is­ter Mat­teo Renzi, re­form­ing mayor of Florence be­tween 2009 and 2014, has also left his mark.

Vault­ing to power with a 100-point ac­tion plan, in­clud­ing pedes­tri­an­i­sa­tion of the his­toric heart, en­cour­ag­ing nightlife and en­hanc­ing Wi-Fi for res­i­dents and tourists alike, Renzi opened a few win­dows in the city’s crusty old soul and al­lowed it to breathe.

Betty rec­om­mends an­other un­con­ven­tional lunch op­tion, Am­ble. I find it back over in the core of the city in a cul-de-sac off a street par­al­lel to the Arno. Lit­tle more than a snack and sand­wich place with out­door ta­bles set

Florence’s Oltrarno dis­trict, top, is an es­cape from the tourist bus­tle across the River Arno. So­prarno Suites, above, is one of the neigh­bour­hood’s new­est ho­tels

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