Florence: a travel journal

Here I am, finally arriving in the city I came very close to moving to almost ten years ago. This time though, I will actually have the chance to explore Florence’s cobblestoned vicoli a little more closely. My lone visit to the Renaissance city on that overcast November day was devoted to finding my way to two job interviews and a quick bite to eat in between. This time, I will be able to put more thought into where and what I eat too.

I disembark from the train, hand and trolley bags in tow. I make my way down the platform and towards the station exit. I feel slightly overwhelmed by the amount of people congregating at various points in Piazza della Stazione. The Google Maps-generated directions I’ve printed make little sense to me as I navigate my way through crowds, and a seemingly never-ending series of road islands and pedestrian crossings.

I look at my watch. 9:35am. I had been told in an email from my B&B last week that if I arrive by 12, they can keep my trolley bag until check-in time at 3pm. With the number 6 route nowhere in sight and plenty of time to kill, I contemplate walking the entire way there instead.

Barely 10 minutes into my walk to Villa Landucci, my smartphone’s battery dies. Putting it on GPS mode to plot my route hasn’t turned out to be the best idea. I hadn’t thought at all to charge it on the train from Turin. The novelty of pulling my trolley bag along the tight and crowded streets is wearing thin too. Cursing myself for not buying a portable battery charger before my trip and about to panic, I suddenly notice a bus stop. The elusive number 6 stops there. I run into an edicola, buy two tickets and board the next bus that comes.

Something’s not right. Villa Landucci is east of Florence’s historical centre, in the Campo di Marte area. The bus, however, has gone over one of the city’s many bridges and crossed the Arno. My suspicion that I’ve caught the bus in the wrong direction is confirmed as it weaves its way through more modern, residential streets. I stay put though, knowing that once it terminates, it will take me back east.

In the end, my Chianti-themed room at the B&B has already been vacated and cleaned. I lie on my bed and let out a sigh of relief, grateful for the early check-in. The number 6 did eventually take me where I needed to go, despite being re-routed, initially due to roadwork and then an accident. I message TP and my parents from my now recharging phone to let them know I’ve arrived in Florence and am safe and sound at the B&B.

Birgitta, one of my hosts at Villa Landucci, gives me a map and draws a line indicating how to reach the trattoria run by Fabio Picchi I have in mind for lunch, Cibreo on Via dei Macci. I leave my phone to charge in my room and head off, armed with the clear and concise directions of a local.

I make my way down Via Gioberti, stopping every now and then to admire some of the clothes and homewares in the shop windows I pass. Porta alla Croce, one of the few remains of the city’s old walls, is drawing nearer and nearer. I cross the circular intersection and into Borgo la Croce. The buildings in this street are much older than Via Gioberti, a clear indication that I am now within the city’s centro storico. Men and women walk past me, carrying bags of fruit and vegetables home from Sant’Ambrogio market around the corner.

Via dei Macci is to my right. On the corner I notice one of the city’s many food vans selling panini di lampredotto and a sign saying Cibreo. I walk inside but, as it turns out, I’m a little early for lunch, which starts at 1. One of the waitstaff suggests that I go for an aperitivo at their café in Via del Verrocchio in the meantime.

I haven’t eaten since leaving Porta Nuova station at 6:30am. I completely forget this fact though, make my way to the tiny café’s curved wooden bar and order Florence’s main claim to fame in the cocktail world. I eat eagerly from the plate of nibbles the bartender has given me alongside my gin, vermouth and Campari-filled Negroni. The bread, dip and olives aren’t enough to keep me from feeling slightly tipsy though. For a split second, I wonder if more gin than vermouth and Campari has been put in by mistake. I admire the velvet-upholstered chairs placed around the low-set tables. Warm and chatty, the bartender recounts the history of the drink. We discuss the merits of which vermouth to use when making Count Camillo Negroni’s 1919 invention. For the record, he insists on Carpano. The conversation then turns to my origins after he correctly guesses I’m an Australian of southern Italian extraction. Originally from Basilicata, many of his family members migrated to Australia. He delights in sharing anecdotes about cousins who communicate with him in the lucano dialect and English, not Italian. I explain that it is a common scenario among people of Italian extraction in Australia, pay the 8 euro bill and wish him a buona giornata.

The Negroni has gone to my head completely now. It’s time to order my meal in the less pricey sibling trattoria to Ristorante Cibreo and a glass of wine to accompany my liver crostini and vegetable and tuna minestra are out of the question. I opt for some sparkling mineral water instead. I’m a little disappointed that many of the menu options are things I could get elsewhere (there’s vitello tonnato and baccalà mantecato for example, specialties of Piedmont and Veneto respectively) but the staff are attentive and friendly. The décor is also inspiring – wood-panelled walls and more of those plush, velvet chairs. I conclude my meal with a crème caramel and a shot of coffee and head straight back to my B&B for a much-needed afternoon nap.

After waking up at 4:30pm, I study the map Birgitta gave me and start plotting my way back across the river (the Oltrarno in local parlance) the number 6 took me to earlier this morning. I draw more lines to my final destination, Piazza della Passera. I set off, once again without the help of Google Maps.

It’s almost 7:30 pm now and I’ve slowly made my to Piazza della Passera, stopping at various points in the centro storico and along the Lungarno to admire my surroundings and take photographs. After spending much of the past couple of hours navigating my way through crowds and large tour groups, it’s a bit of a shock to see how calm this tiny square just a vicolo away from the much busier Piazza Pitti is.

I’ve come here with intention of eating at Osteria Tripperia il Magazzino, an eatery specialising in tripe-based dishes. I’ve already worked up a bit of an appetite though and am tempted by the offerings of the tiny gelateria in the square’s corner, Gelateria della Passera. I treat myself to a pre-dinner coppetta filled with one of the many unusual flavours this hole-in-the-wall establishment specialises in, Monna Lisa, made with apple sauce, orange blossom, cognac-soaked raisins and walnuts. Superb.

It’s dinnertime and I’m seated at a table in the offally osteria with a view overlooking the piazza. I’ve opted for an antipasto and primo, a seasonal sformato di asparagi (asparagus flan) and lampredotto-filled ravioli with a Tropea onion-based sauce. I disliked tripe growing up but in the past couple of years, Roman and Tuscan cooks have won me over with their trippa-filled creations (see this post for more details). These ravioli are no exception.

The sun has gone down and I’m making my way across the Arno and back to Villa Landucci. There are still many people – locals and visitors alike – in Piazza del Duomo and I linger there to admire the stunning cupola Filippo Brunelleschi designed sitting atop of the cathedral. The people in Borgo della Croce are no longer the market shoppers I saw this morning but young people, possibly students from the university nearby, enjoying an evening out. It’s late, it’s dark and I’m alone but I feel safe walking down this crowded street. Buona notte Firenze!

I’ve just had breakfast and checked out of my B&B. Deborah, at Villa Landucci, has kindly allowed me to leave my trolley bag at reception until 12.00 o’clock so I can explore the city with a Florence-based Australian food writer and photographer I’ve been lucky enough to get to know in the past couple of years, Emiko Davies. We meet at a nearby café, Piansa, in Via Gioberti. Over coffee, we chat about many things. Travelling for the first time ever without our little ones. The marathon that is writing two cookbooks over the past few years. My adventure in getting to the B&B yesterday morning. The pros and cons of living in a city like Florence.
Emiko now resides with her husband and daughter in Settignano, which is located on a hill overlooking the city. Her years of living in Florence’s centro storico, of being a tour guide and of documenting Florentine food traditions in words and pictures have served her well though. On every street we turn into, she has a story to tell. The fruit and vegetables currently gracing the stalls at Sant’Ambrogio market. The wonderfully good and cheap eatery in the indoor part of the market. The quirky bistro opposite open for breakfast, lunch and dinner. The litmus test for a good Florentine bakery (many locals say it is how they well they make their budini di riso apparently!). Her favourite vantage point for photographing the Duomo.
Our little tour ends in a place I’ve been longing to visit ever since I read her blog post about making Alchermes, Bizzarri in via della Condotta. This is the perfect place for me to buy the dried cochineal insects which give the Tuscan liqueur its distinct pink hue, according to Emiko. She tells me how she discovered this speziale or apothecary-like shop as a dark room photography and art restoration student. Walking inside is like returning to another age. There’s a vetrina filled with old beakers, burettes, spirit lamps and pipettes. Large glass jars of herbs, spices and artisanal candied fruit line the shelves behind the counter. I notice bottles containing the chemicals, pigments and resins Emiko would have needed in her student days too. We chat to the lady at the counter who complains about how bad Italians are at speaking English, herself included. I express an interest in buying the cocciniglia for making Alchermes but I’m unsure how much I need exactly. The lady promptly produces the shop’s very own recipe for making the medieval elixir from an old book. Emiko had mentioned previously that the people who run the shop don’t always like having photos taken but she is more than happy to let us photograph the book containing their ricetta.

It’s 12.30pm and I’m back at Santa Maria Novella station, hand and trolley bags in tow again. In just over an hour’s time I will be heading off by bus to Colle Val d’Elsa for Giulia, Regula and Sarka’s Three Acres Creative Retreat. Unfortunately, Emiko’s very detailed directions to the bus station have completely gone over my head. Rachel, one of my fellow retreat participants, has sent me a message with a map indicating how to reach the station. It looks like she arrived from a different point of departure so I struggle to make sense of her directions too. I start checking all of the bus stops situated around the perimeter of the train station. As suspected, they are for local and sightseeing bus services only.

My smartphone makes a noise indicating that its battery is dying . Once again, I curse myself for not getting a portable battery charger.   I glance at the map Birgitta gave me and notice a bus icon on a street perpendicular to Piazza della Stazione. Finally, I realise that the bus station is separate to the train station. I make my way down Via Alamanni and the street where the bus icon indicates I should be, Via degli Orti Orcellari. There’s no signage suggesting a bus station is here though. I walk past a bakery and eye the schiacciate and pan di ramerino in their window display longingly. There’s a man who looks like a local in front and I ask if he knows where the buses going to Siena leave from. ‘See that church down there?’ he says. ‘There’s a large garage opposite and the bus you need to catch is inside’.

I walk along Via degli Orti Orcellari, as per his instructions, excited about embarking on the second part of my Tuscan journey…

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