Breathe and believe
Anything seems possible in a reimagined Florence
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