Florence was crammed with people. At first I thought it was just Easter Monday. But Tuesday was almost as bad. And Wednesday. Even the pedestrian areas needed traffic lights.
As always, turning down the streets away from the main monuments was when I really got to taste Florence (admittedly, the entire historical centre is quite touristy).
The Duomo (main cathedral) was beautiful, and so big that, even at the opposite end of the square, I couldn’t fit it all into my camera. Made of white marble and decorated with stripes of pink and green, reminiscent of the Italian flag.
However, we had more fun after turning away from the Duomo to Via de Martelli, where we discovered Lombardo’s, one of several shops in the area that sell traditional Tuscan food.
The shop was divided into three sections – the first had one wall of wine, one wall of sliced meat, and a central table filled with Italian cheese and sausages; the second had a wall lined with jars of sauces, olives, roasted capsicums, stuffed bell-peppers, marinated garlic and other mysterious things I couldn’t identify with labels I couldn’t translate; and the back of the store was filled with chocolate, dried pasta coloured in ribbons of white, red and green, and biscotti that smelled heavenly through its plastic bags.
On the central table in the first section, there were two cake stands with clear plastic covers. One held five saucers with cubes of different cheeses, and its neighbour displayed samples of different salamis and a cured ham. Like children in a chocolate shop, we went crazy on the samples, tasting every type of meat and half the cheeses. When the saleswoman came to help us, we were all ears (tongues?) as she told us about a traditional sweet balsamic dressing, and poured the black syrup into teaspoons for us to taste – like the tang of balsamic vinegar mixed with the sweetness of honey, it was divine with a mild cheese and she also recommended it for salad and ice cream. Later she recommended wines, and we tried one white and three reds before walking away with a bag of goodies for dinner.
So when we strolled through the centre we avoided the huge churches, instead navigating streets lined with shops and restaurants. D kept having to drag me away from the Easter displays with 50% off signs in the windows (even the Lindt store had 50% off! Unfortunately all of their Easter eggs were so big that I don’t know where I would have packed them), while we both slowed whenever we saw interesting cheese and salami, or to compare prices on menus.
The restaurants were predominately self-service places and, although the pasta, pizza and salad looked like they’d been sitting for a while, the desserts looked scrumptious – glasses held individual servings of tiramisu, fruit salad, or layered fruit, cake and cream topped with wafers.
And the gelato! Yes, you can find it everywhere in Italy, but here giant creamy mounds towered in their tubs, and all of the fruit flavours were topped with slices of fresh fruit – cantaloupe, pineapple, strawberries, banana – while other flavours were drizzled with sauces or sprinkled with crushed biscuits. My criteria for a good gelato place became whether or not I could smell waffle-cones cooking, and then I found myself drawn to the shop by my nose.
It was the same thing when we walked around the colonnades of the Uffizi Gallery (where Michelangelo’s David now rests, and which we avoided due to the discouragingly long line) to the river to see the Ponte Vecchio. Although Ponte Vecchio was charming – a patchwork jumble of pink and yellow houses stacked on top of a bridge, reaching from the Uffizi to Via de Guicciardini, a large street of shops, mostly jewellery boutiques and gelatarias aimed for tourists – my favourite part of going to see the bridge was being on the river and looking at the buildings on its southern side. Many of them were painted in warm yellows, oranges, reds and pinks, some of them peeling around the edges and others vibrant in the sunlight. In the evening sun the hills were an invitation to explore more of Tuscany.
Night-time was quieter – the stone streets glowed in the warm lights and smaller crowds gathered around street performers – one a busker who destroyed Boulevard of Broken Dreams, and one a magician with a Charlie Chaplin moustache and a costume to match. We must have joined the audience after he finished a trick, because he was making a yellow balloon animal for a tiny, blonde girl standing with him in the centre of a square of people. He held it out to her, and then snatched it away as she reached for it. She lowered her arms and he lowered it to her, and snatched it away again. When he finally gave her the balloon dog, he held out his hat to her, and she tried to hand the dog back. He shook his head, tweeting a whistle for emphasis and pointed into the hat. She held out the dog again. He gently pushed the dog back to her and pointed to the hat with a tweet. She held out the dog.
Then her sister strode into the arena and gave the little girl a coin. The magician followed her back to the audience and pointed to his hat with a shrill squeak. The sister gave him a coin. See? He displayed his hat to the audience with all the polish of a Wheel of Fortune woman.
He returned to his assistant, the little girl, and whistled at her to put the money in the hat, and she happily obliged.
He then patted her on the head and blew the whistle, pointing her back to the audience. She began to walk and he blew the whistle again – I think it was supposed to be a cue for applause – and she took this as a summons and walked back to him. He shook his head, smiling around the whistle, and pointed her back to her family. She turned, and he whistled again! She marched back and forth as he squeaked and pointed, starting to look a bit dizzy. Eventually he pointed her back to the audience one last time. She stared at him uncertainly – was it another trick? He whistled and pointed, stamping his foot. She stood still. He whistled and gently pushed her away, and prompted the audience into another round of applause.
The next day we left and, looking over my map as I write this, I can’t believe how little we saw. Although we walked around most things in the centre, I can’t identify them by their names. And despite staying right near the enormous Ex Fortezza da Basso, I never saw what was inside its walls. Oh for one more day in Florence! Maybe even two.
On the train between Florence and Naples, one side of the top handle came out. Ironically, the other side is clinging on with such determination that I can’t even cut it out.