Scoring Big Time in Firenze
We scored big time in Florence.
By Christmas morning, I thought the only thing I would have purchased in Firenze (Florence, Italy) was a Florentine paper pen from Alberto Cozzi Rilegatore (Via del Parione, 35 r, 50123 Firenze, +39 055 294968, [email protected]). Donna, my traveling companion, had visited the shop many years ago and was as determined to visit it for their specialty Florentine papers, as I was in finding a leather jacket.
While Florentine papers can be found all over Florence, only a few of the shops can boast of such provenance. Alberto Cozzi was founded in 1908 and has maintained the traditional craftsmanship for five generations. The descendants, Marco, Francesca, Massimo and Graziella, are in the shop from early in the morning till late at night carrying on the family legacy. There are two locations; one not far from our hotel, the Hotel Berchielli. We visited it first thing about 9 a.m. on Christmas Eve morning and again before crashing at the hotel at 5 p.m. on that same day…Donna got her fill.
We drove to Florence from Nice on Thursday for the holiday weekend with the idea of spending Christmas Eve day shopping for a leather coat for me and the papers for Donna, and then relaxing on Christmas Day by just wandering the city and taking in the sights, knowing that the museums would all be closed. I have been to Florence many times and never really liked it. Why that is, remains a mystery to even me—I think it must be a series of less than perfect experiences that colored my opinion of the Tuscan town that is the eighth largest Italian city, the birthplace of Renaissance, a World Heritage Site (since 1982) and one of the most popular Italian touristic destinations. We chose it as a quick get-away for the holiday weekend that we could do easily by car from Nice and to satisfy my desire for a new leather jacket. I wanted to test it one more time to see if my opinion of it would change.
The drive to Florence from Nice was really easy. First, we made a stop in Varazze, a town along the Italian Riviera just before Genoa, and actually landed in the same restaurant in which my daughter and I had lunched when on route to Lake Orta last July—Don Carlos (Corso G. Matteotti, 78, 17019 Varazze, +39 19 939 9003). It doesn’t look like anything special from the outside, but our meals were exceptional—a mixed seafood grill and a shellfish stew. The only reason we stopped in Varazze to begin with was because it’s easy to get there from the Autoroute and easy back again in order to continue the drive. It’s right on the Mediterranean, so the landscape is lovely…but it’s not anything like the French Riviera. Sadly, there is a big difference. While the French Riviera glows with gorgeousness, the Italian side simply doesn’t. I’m not sure if that’s because of the natural landscape or the ability the French have to manicure it to perfection.
We made a second stop on route to Florence at Lucca. Lucca is a lovely walled city that you must pass through anyway in order to get to Florence. I’m particularly fond of its architecture—actually quite different than even its neighbor, Pisa. It’s also famous for its tangy tasting golden green olive oil that comes from the Frantoio and Leccino olives grown in the province around the city. Driving into the center of the medieval town was challenging as the streets are very narrow and only go in one direction winding you around and around and around, but we scored a parking place for the brief time we spent there walking around the center and ordering up a coffee.
Coffee in Italy is a big reason to go there, if you’re a coffee-lover like me. I was literally weaned on coffee —the coffee and chicory kind from New Orleans café au lait style. From kindergarten on, my mother served up a cup of the dark brew with a piece of buttered toast and off to school I went. I’ve been drinking coffee all day long ever since and can tell you that Italian coffee is THE BEST. We drank it at every opportunity and here’s an interesting cultural difference we discovered: in France when I ask for a “déca allongé,” they serve a decaffeinated coffee with a lot of water, similar to an “Americano.” In Italy, when I ask for a “decaffeinato lungo,” which means the same thing, they serve an espresso style cup with coffee barely up to the brim…that’s their idea of “long.” A normal Italian espresso is so thick, rich and short that it’s more like “nectar of the Gods.”
One funny adventure we had on the drive to Florence was the avoidance of a traffic jam by using Google’s GPS system. It rerouted us via Tuscan towns we would never have seen otherwise. The very winding, wooded roads traveled past beautiful little villages and magnificent villas and palazzos—via the towns of Santa Croce sull’Arno and Empoli. The frustrating part was that the sun had gone down and therefore seeing the beauty of the Tuscan countryside was near to impossible. Here was a perfect opportunity to see some of the Italian landscape, but our timing was less than perfect, arriving in the dark.
Upon arrival in Florence, the hotel sent a bellman to meet us, take the car to their parking garage and get us situated in our room. That was the last time we saw the car until we headed home on Sunday. The Hotel Berchielli, overlooking the Arno River, just a short distance from the Ponte Vecchio and Piazza della Signoria, is a recently renovated 4-star hotel we easily booked using Booking.com. It turned out to be adequate and well located, but missing the kinds of details that make a stay effortless—no coffee maker in the room, for example. The staff was pleasant, but they weren’t about to go out of their way. Still, the location was excellent, the room very clean and all in all, acceptable, but not memorable.
After dropping the bags, we immediately headed out to find dinner, and that’s when we first scored big. We scored big so many times during our two-and-a-half days in Florence that it became almost a joke. That first night, I had in mind to land in a family run “trattoria” with classic Italian cooking, prepared to break my diet with a plate of pasta and a glass of Chianti wine. Just down the street from the hotel, without even realizing in what direction we were headed, we came across a “trattoria” that looked old-fashioned, familial, and classic for Tuscan cuisine, so we ventured in. Little did we know that this particular restaurant, Antico Fattore, is famous for having served the authentic recipes of the best Florentine and Tuscan dishes since 1865. The story goes that famous painters and poets, sculptors and musicians, journalists and critics had a regular “arrangement” (do you think that means letting them run a “tab?”) with the restaurant owner, Giulio.
The food was exactly what I wanted: classic, simple, well prepared and delicious! Remembering past visits to Florence, I felt compelled to order up “pappardelle al ragù di cinghiale,” a wide flat noodle with a ragout made with wild boar, part of the culinary tradition of the Tuscany region. This is the kind of restaurant you might pass up if it hadn’t been recommended because there appeared to be no tourists there except for us—just Italian families and clearly a few locals. Meanwhile, Florence was overrun with Americans. Perhaps the locals were at home with their families and the only people in the restaurants were tourists, but the sound of American English was almost more noticeable than Italian and I heard no one speaking French.
After dinner we literally stumbled into the Piazzale degli Uffizi of the Uffizi Gallery, the 16th-century building housing a vast collection of primitive and Renaissance paintings and masterpieces. Closed Christmas Day, there was no chance of our taking advantage of the opportunity to visit the impressive collections. From the Arno River end of the “piazzale,” we could see the magnificent light show on the Ponte Vecchio. (I learned that a “piazza” is a square surrounded by buildings on four sides, while a “piazzale” must have at least one side open, as is this one.)
This is all part of the “F-Light” festival now in its sixth consecutive year. “Reflections” is this year’s theme. There is a projection onto the Ponte Vecchio as there is on the riverside frontages of the Chamber of Commerce and the Galileo Museum, the facade of the Basilica of San Lorenzo and at the Piazza Santissima Annunziata. The city is awash with special lighting everywhere you turn to celebrate the holiday period, rendering it absolutely magical.
That was just the first day of our four-day excursion. At this stage, the weather was cloudy and threatening, but holding tight against rain. It didn’t stay that way for Christmas, but even on Christmas Eve day (the 24th) the inclement weather held off. We started out on our shopping trek long before the stores opened, except for Alberto Cozzi which was a bright light on the quiet street. Donna made a small purchase, as did I, after gawking at all of the beautiful hand-made papers and products. We were each gifted a Florentine papered pencil just to send us off with a smile. At the end of the day we returned again, to find them still open while most of the other stores had closed. Donna couldn’t resist adding another purchase to her collection. She scored big.
That day, we shopped till we dropped: The next stop was the Mercato Centrale, where it is well known to be flush with leather shops of all types and qualities. I had scored big at a shop there several years ago and am still wearing my leather jacket from that time as it has weathered well. I must have tried on dozens of jackets, none of which suited me for one reason or another. We walked from one specialty shop to another, having plotted our route based on great leather and shoe stores, until we were thoroughly exhausted. By the end of the day, we were empty-handed except for the few paper goods.
Most of the leather shops around the central market are filled with the same lower-quality goods, although reasonably priced. The merchants put very high price tags on them and then proudly tell you they are selling everything at 50 percent off. Then they work on you hard to try on just about every item on their racks “just for fun.” It’s wearing on you after a while (pun intended)—you just want the vendors to stop talking, stop pulling jackets off the rack and let you think, knowing that the reason you’re not buying is more about their behavior then their goods. In all honesty, maybe I didn’t find the perfect jacket, but I suspect that the vendors contributed to the failing of the quest.
One saving grace to the non-stop shopping day were the multiple coffee stops along the way to keep up our energy, the best one being at the Caffè Gilli. Gilli is the oldest café in the city of Florence, located in the center at the Piazza della Repubblica. Dating back to 1733 and established by a Swiss family in Medici-era Florence, it started as a pastry shop steps away from the Duomo and now it’s known as an elegant city lounge which has served as a meeting place for famous writers, intellectuals, and artists…ha ha ha—like us! We went there again on Christmas Day just to hang out, drink coffee and tea, indulge on their famous chocolates, listen to the church bells, contemplate our navels as we watched the rain come down and watch the light show on the Rinascente Department store.
By the end of our shopping day I was dejected, but resigned to the fact that I hadn’t found the leather jacket for which I had (partly) come to Florence. No problem, I reflected—that had saved me a ton of money and closet space!
Concerned that we wouldn’t find restaurants open on Christmas Eve, Donna and I booked a special holiday dinner at the Hotel Brunelleschi, a charming and luxury 4-star boutique hotel in the center of town. The experience from start to finish was exceptional on all counts. Elegantly ushered to our table in one of the large dining rooms, the service was impeccable and pleasant. Chef Rocco de Santis prepared a perfect multi-course seafood meal, starting with a glass of Prosecco, that was non-stop delicious, all the way to the chocolate dessert that will be remembered for the rest of our lives. It was just what Santa ordered. We scored big.
Christmas Day was a big concern—we didn’t know what the city would be like, if things would be open or not and what we’d have to do without the museums open and predicted non-stop rain. Bundled up, with umbrellas in our hands, we ventured out of the hotel about 10 a.m. with the idea to cross the Ponte Vecchio and check out the other side of the Arno, then work our way back up the eastern side of the city eventually landing at the Four Seasons Hotel.
Just walking in the direction of the hotel, we randomly came upon a leather shop that was miraculously open on Christmas Day. The window had nice things, so with nothing better to do, we ventured in. Immediately I spotted a black fur-collared, belted, quilted-lined leather jacket made of lambskin that seemed to have my name on it. Then, a little red leather short jacket caught my eye. The vendor was an Italian man, very pleasant, with nothing better to do than help me…but not in a pushy way at all. It didn’t take too long for me to bargain with him for both, quite successfully so that both he and I were satisfied with the result. I walked out wearing the new black jacket and a big bag carrying the other jacket and my old wool coat. Yep, I had scored big! And it was surprising…as if it was meant to be.
With the big shopping bag in hand, umbrella overhead, we trekked on to the Four Seasons. Everyone who has seen it says it’s a “must see.” I tried to reserve a meal there online, but came up empty and decided to “punt.” Punt we did, landing there about 12:30 p.m. just in time for lunch. We were treated like royalty in spite of the fact that we were not paying guests, nor had any reservation. They had no extra space at their tables for their special Christmas Day lunch, but a gentleman of some rank and importance gave us a full tour of the lobby and restaurants, with an explanation of the history of the building.
The Palazzo della Gherardesca, in which it is housed, was the private residence of Florentine nobles for five centuries until becoming the hotel in 2008, built in two historic palaces around the city’s largest enclosed private gardens. Yes, it’s stunning to say the least, and their customer service was overwhelmingly friendly. After the tour, the gentleman turned us over to the concierge team who made a reservation for us at a nearby restaurant they recommended—one we had passed and noticed along route to the hotel—La Giostra.
La Giostra was an upscale Antico Fattore, with a somewhat similar traditional Tuscan menu and a familial feel. There were a lot of American voices in the restaurant, including two women who had coincidentally sat near to us at the Hotel Brunelleschi’s Christmas Eve Dinner! (Small world, even in Florence!) When I asked the maître d’ why there were so many Americans in the restaurant, she explained that they were very famous. We were clueless about their fame or not, but learned that it’s been around since 1992 under the 16th-century brick arches where the horses of a nearby carousel once rested. I ordered another “pappardelle al ragù di cinghiale” to compare theirs with Antico Fattore’s. It was every bit as delicious as the first one…but different. Again, we felt we scored big.
At night we’d get in bed and watch Emily in Paris on Netflix. It is painful to watch, but necessary for the sheer knowledge of it. There are already a lot of bad reviews about it out there and I’m about to give it another one:
Season One was bad enough—we endured it, and then looked forward to how Season Two would play out. I didn’t think it possible to be worse, but it is. Let’s start with the terrible acting and predictable dialog. Add to that the most outrageous wardrobe that is 100 percent wrong, wrong, wrong on every level. Whomever is dreaming up the costumes (and that’s what they are—”costumes”) should be shot. Then there is the absolute insult to our intelligence! In Season 2 Episode 2 titled “Do You Know the Way to St. Tropez” (they must be reading my newsletter), she’s supposed to be going to Saint-Tropez, but manages to pass Villefranche-sur-Mer along the way (which is nowhere near Saint-Tropez, nor is it on the way), then lands in a hotel in Cap Ferrat. (Really?? Do they think we’re complete idiots?) And then they visit the Cocteau Chapel in Villefranche-sur-Mer…so how in God’s name is she in Saint-Tropez 119 kilometers away and a one-hour-50-minute drive? Why on earth does Darren Star and his writers/producers, etc. think we’ll buy that hogwash? Do they really think the American public is so stupid? The only saving grace is one scene that was shot at our friends’ diner, Breakfast in America, about half in to Episode 5! (I’ll watch the rest of the season, but only under duress!)
Driving back to Nice we took a short detour to see the Leaning Tower of Pisa. The rain was coming down steady as we approached the city and its famous tower on Sunday morning. The tourists hadn’t arrived yet, so we scored a parking space steps away. If you’ve never seen it for yourself, then put this on your “must see” list. The tower is stunning—a white marble campanile that took 200 years to build in three stages that began in the year 1172. The tower began to sink after construction had progressed to the second floor in 1178 due to a mere three-meter foundation set in weak, unstable subsoil—a design that was flawed from the beginning. It stands 55.86 meters (183 feet 3 inches) from the ground on the low side and 56.67 meters (185 feet 11 inches) on the high side. The lean is four degrees and while that might not seem like much, it clearly leans substantially. What’s fascinating most of all, is that it’s tough to capture it in a photo because from most angles, you can’t see that it’s leaning at all.
Reflecting back on our four days in Italy, and in particular, our experience in Florence, I’d have to admit that I saw it with a new point of view. But I still can’t say I understand the city’s appeal. The city is gray stone buildings with almost no greenery, with the exception of what possibly lies behind the big doors and in the courtyards that most of us tourists don’t get to see. For whatever reason, I still don’t get any emotional energy out of the city, and with this excursion, I saw even more clearly how it seems to be a place more for the tourists than the residents.
But, this may be more my fault than Florence’s. One thing for sure, it never quite spoke to me like Paris did from the minute I landed in the City of Light, and Nice has stolen my heart thanks to the beauty of the sea and the colorful architecture. Florence may never have that same affect on me, but that’s okay…I scored big and will always have it to thank for such a fabulous Christmas adventure!
A la prochaine…
The Adrian Leeds Group®
Adrian at dinner at the Hotel Brunelleschi, Florence
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