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Off the Beaten Path - Ten Things To Do in Florence

Dean Gold (Dean)

I am purposely not giving phone numbers and exact addresses. Our approach is to wander and discover. This is a list of some of our favorite discoveries in Florence (Firenze).

Perugino frescoes

See the Perugino frescoes (freschi) at Santa Maria Dei Pazzi. This is only open from 17:00 – 19:00. You enter the church and look for the main chapel on the right. There is a little desk where we paid 4000 lire (now probably 3 Euro or so) to an elderly couple who spoke no English, only Italian and French. They were of the "if we shout loudly at you, you will understand a language you don't really speak school." Follow the signs down and through the crypt to a tiny chapel. The Freschi have never been restored or retouched. They are simple and beautiful. Filled with the soft, rich pinks, blues and lavenders characteristic of Perugino. It was a very intense experience.

Capella Brancacci in Santa Maria della Carmine

Massaccio, Masolino and Lippi are the creators of one of the great fresco cycles in this small chapel. You will have to wait in line as they only let groups of 20 visitors in for a limited time to view these superb frescoes. You sign up for a timed tour and you can go grab a caffe if necessary. They might have a reservation system in place by now. Adam and Eve being expelled from the garden is a highlight. The frescoes were recently restored by a Japanese company removing the many alterations that had been added over the years to cover up some of the nakedness in the original frescoes. Michelangelo used to study these works as part of his inspiration. The church had a fire and these frescoes survived unharmed. Not exactly unknown, but not a lot of people make the walk "Oltr'Arno" or across the Arno to see this wonderful chapel. The rest of the church is a baroque confection.

Tripe sandwiches from a tripe seller

New York has its hot dog carts, Washington DC is home to the half smoked from red and white sidewalk booths, and some of the best Mexican treats in Los Angeles are sold in carts street-side. But none compare to the wonders offered in Firenze. Located in many piazze across Firenze are the tripe carts. You have several choices: hot or cold, stuffed or regular, and salsa verde or no, con sale (salty beyond my comprehension) or non con sale (saltier than most things you will ever put in your mouth but properly so). My choices are frio (cold), ripeino (stuffed or with the center of the bread removed so there is room for more tripe) and con salsa e poco sale (with green salsa and with just a little salt). Heaven for about $3.00!!!

Museo del Opera delle Santa Maria di Fiori

The museum of the Duomo. Again, not unknown but much less visited than many other spots. Located behind the Duomo, this is the repository of many works from the Duomo. There are sculpture aplenty including Michelangelo's other Pieta and many Donatello. You can also see the original bas reliefs from the Campanile. The Museo underwent a spectacular renovation recently and now hosts special exhibits as well as its permanent collection. The curation of the permanent exhibits is superb with detailed explanations in English and Italian. Some of my favorites were the tools used to actually construct the dome.

Capecchi

One of our favorite occupations in Firenze is to shop. And one of our favorite places to shop is at Capecchi. If you are on Piazza Santa Croce with your back to the church, there are three streets leading directly away from the Piazza. The left most street is Borgo de Greci. At 13r is the shop. Jessica is the daughter and Piero is the father. They hand carve and color leather. The stuff is striking and memorable. We have assorted wallets, photo albums, purses, book marks and even wall hangings all made out of leather. I must admit that the wallets don't hold up as well as regular leather as the carving weakened the leather. But I view that as an excuse to return to Firenze regularly to get a new wallet.

Museo del'Opificio di Pietra Dure

An amazing museum. If you are unlucky there might be 10 to 15 people in there with you. Pietre Dure is the art of making pictures from semi precious stones that was the favorite of the deMedici. This museum has so much incredible art to see that it is a little overwhelming, but for 2 Euro or so, it is one of the great bargains of all time!

Lunch at Mario, Casalingha or Nerbonne

Mario is just behind the Mercato Centrale up the small street from the more famous Za-Za. Casalingha is on the Sottoporteggio to the left of Santo Spirito (as you come out the door) and Nerbonne is in the Mercato Centrale itself.

Some restaurants that have a large tourist base are transformed by the tourists and lose their edge. Others are untouched and will teach tourists about the wonders of simple, working folk's food. This trio is of the latter class. You will be having lunch with folk from painters (the kind who paint walls not artists who paint freschi and portraiture etc), professors, students, lawyers and the occasional countess dressed in furs and the family jewels. The food is old fashioned, heavy and absolutely delicious.

  • Mario is the place of Bistecca Fiorentina as well as the daily menu. You need to have two meals there to fully enjoy it offerings.
  • Casalingha is controlled pandemonium with a huge daily changing menu.
  • Nerbonne is a cafeteria set up with the ordering done at the prepared food section. But make sure to order a sandwich (lampredotto bagnato is my choice- it's a special kind of tripe but the boiled beef is also really great) and take the ticket they give you to the sandwich making end of things.

All are dirt cheap unless you go for Bistecca at the first two. None have great wines but you can get a good glass of Brunello or Chianti at Mario.

Wander from the Palazzo Pitti to Santo Spirito and enjoy the artists shops

Florence is still home to artisan shops of all kinds. In the neighborhood from the Pitti to Santo Spirito are hundreds of shops where you can see the traditional crafts being still performed today. You can see Pietre Dure being made ("paintings" made from semi precious stones). There are so many different kinds of art being made. Much of it is expensive but it costs nothing to stop and watch. But even the expensive stuff seems much more reasonably priced when you see the labor that goes into it.

Caffe e Paste at Bar Agostino

On Via S Agostino, nearby Santo Spirito, go to Bar Agostino. They will be gruff and if you are not from the immediate two blocks surrounding the place, you are totally unimportant. Until your second visit, when you will be recognized as somewhat akin to a human. If you go back a third time, you will be family. The caffe is hot, bitter and spectacular. Cappucci are superb. The pastries insanely good. At 4pm or so, they make fresh donuts.

Buy a leather coat from a street stall around San Lorenzo

This isn't off the beaten path, but it is a tradition worth pursuing! I love my coat from San Lorenzo. Its long and warm and is burnishing into a well worn treasure. It cost me less than $200 and would sell for two to three times as much in the US. I bargained it down from $400 and I'm sure that I might have gotten a better deal if I could curse in Farsi as the sellers were Iranian Jews who have lived in Firenze for almost 22 years having fled from the revolution. Not only do I have a coat, but I have the memories of those I bought it from.

Buy a picnic or a light dinner at Baroni in the Mercato Centrale

Just hand them your credit card and kiss your good credit rating goodbye. You want prosciutto? How about Prosciutto di San Daniele, Parma or Cinta Sinese (get the latter). Or Jamon Iberico Belota? Or any of a dozen sausages and cured meats made from Cinta Sinese (the heritage pig of Siena) or the Iberico pigs of Spain. All a bargain at 80 Euro a kilo for the prosciutti and 40 Euro for the sausages. Or some homemade sopressatta (head cheese). Or maybe 20 or 30 amazing cheeses including "Frog's Skin" from Montalcino. Get them to recommend a bottle of something good and unusual like Le Cupole from Trinorio or a bottle of Radikon Ribolla Gialla. If you do go, please say hello to a lot of my money well spent there. I think I am personally responsible for sending one of the kids to Harvard!

Vino Sfuzo

Find a good bottle shop and drink a Montalcino Rosso Sfuzo for 3.50 Euro a bottle. We found one great one around the corner from Residenza Il Carmine on Via Serragli on the left as you go south, away from the bridge. Its around the corner from Bar S. Agostino.

Lunch or Dinner at I Giovanni on Via del Moro

Owned by one of the sons of the family if I Lantini, this is a modern restaurant serving updates of very traditional Tuscan classics made from impeccable ingredients. The tagliata from Chianina beef served with a classic salsa verde was a lesson in simplicity. They also have some incredible seafood. It's the kind of place where young and starving hipsters take their parents when their parents are buying. Figure on around 100 Euro if you drink a nice bottle, more of you drink high on the hog. See if they have Coal Ila single malt scotch for your after dinner drink. Taste like iodine and dirty ashtray …. YUM!

Okay, so maybe it's more than 10 things! Have a great time in Florence!


Dean Gold lives in Maryland, when he is not in Italy, and owns the Washington DC restaurant Dino, www.dino-dc.com. See Dean's Slow Travel Member page.

© Dean Gold, 2007

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