Say “Si” to Florence
March 30, 2015
Are the Florentine crowds worth the stop?
Preparing to leave for Italy a few years ago, I wasn’t so excited that the last few days of the trip would be in Florence. On my last stay there, in October 2008 for just a night, I told myself: it’s just not worth it. As much as I loved our B&B (right next to the Duomo, good room sizes and marble bathrooms; please inquire about the name) and found the architectural splendors almost overwhelmingly beautiful, the throngs of tourists dampened my enthusiasm. Was I coming here to swim in a sea of my fellow Americans? Did the weak dollar not ebb the tide of tourism to any degree in this Renaissance city, so ill-equipped to deal with the cars, smog and trash? Were walking tours fun any more if I had to use “whispers” to hear anything? Do you even know what whispers are??
For a year, I held firm. No stopping in Florence. Guide my clients away from the city to the surrounding towns and countryside that retained at least some of their integrity. Then I was invited by the Tuscan Tourism Board to spend a few days in Florence in October 2009, and …. I fell in love again. Florence was classy, classic and full of new surprises. Since late 2009, cars are no longer allowed in or around the Piazzo Duomo! No cabs, no noisy busses or vespas. Only bicycles, pedestrians, and those funny little Segways. (Does everyone know about this innovative touring mode? If not just take a peek here! They’re fun, quiet and green.)
It didn’t hurt to be lodging at the snazzy 5-star Helvetia e Bristol. The Helvetia is one of only two hotels in the whole city described as “especially pleasant” in the Michelin red guide. The Hotel has welcomed such greats as Gabriele D’Annunzio, Luigi Pirandello and Eleonora Duse, as well as many monarchs and Nobel prize winners. I ended up staying in two different rooms that were quite different one from another. From that experience, I offer a strong caveat: obtain precise information about the size and amenities in the room booked, or you may be very disappointed. The hotel (in fact, the whole city) was plagued by mosquitoes due to unseasonably warm late October weather, and this dampened everyone’s enthusiasm for the otherwise fabulous property. At least a chambermaid cleaned the dead bugs from my bathtub right away and stuck one of those funny bug-killers in the wall for me. Not too effective when you have to keep the windows open because of the heat! Oh well, that’s just part of being an international traveler. The Sheraton this is not!
Actually, I didn’t find the food at the Helvetia e Bristol to be stunning. We had buffets for both meals there due to the size of our group, and not surprisingly the food suffered. However, the gorgeous, intimate bar (including the sidewalk café portion) is well worth a stop for a prosecco (just close your eyes as you sign the bill!) and the service is consistently gracious.
For a fabulous meal, don’t miss Trattoria 13 Gobbi. The rigatoni with tomatoes and mozzarella is justifiably famous, and the bistecca alla fiorentina is truly superb here. 13 Gobbi is part of the Casa Trattoria group, and you cannot go wrong with any of these! Their aim: to promote, enhance and preserve Tuscan traditional cuisine, particularly through serving only seasonal food, sourced 80% locally. Florentines often frequent Coquinarius (no English website — love it!), near the Duomo, for lunch. Fantastic salads, goat cheese and pear ravioli, and relatively undiscovered. The hearty ribollita soup is a must if you’re here during cold weather. Every restaurant features its own version, but they’re all rich and chock full of vegetables. The key ingredient is cavolo nero, Italian black cabbage. We’re seeing more of that veggie at our local U.S. farmers’ markets. Hurrah!
Next week: wine and chocolate pairing in Florence; my favorite Florentine cooking classes.