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Oltrarno/Santo Spirito: Convent: Casa Santo Nome di Gesu

Piazza Del Carmine 21, Phone:

Reviewed by: gardenlady from USA, review #1306

When: November 2005

Room with a view in Florentine religious house. No elevator. Breakfast and dinner offered.

I stayed at the Casa for a week in the middle of November, 2005. I first read about it in Lodging in Italy’s Monasteries and then read reviews of it by other guests on the Internet.

It seemed well located and well priced, and I very much appreciated the option of having dinner each evening at the Casa and not having to go out. Dining out in Florence at night can be an exhausting and expensive business, and eating “at home” seemed like a good idea while I recovered from jet lag and adjusted to Italy after an absence of 10 years.

I e-mailed several months in advance for a reservation for a single room with a private bathroom with shower. At that time they were able to offer me only a private bathroom with a bath. I took it. When I arrived, I found that they had been able to move me into a room with shower. There are very few single rooms at the Casa, so I think that making a reservation as early as possible is necessary, even at low season.

I believe the room charge was 60 euros per night, breakfast included. Dinner, if desired, is charged separately.

The Casa is located in an 18th century palazzo fronting the Piazza Del Carmine in the Oltrarno section of Florence. It is about 75 feet from the entrance to the Brancacci Chapel and a ten-minute walk to the Pitti Palace, Boboli Gardens, and the bridges across the Arno.

From it, there is excellent bus service to all parts of the city. The electric bus “D” stops just around the corner from the front door of the Casa on its return run to the train station, Stazione Santa Maria Novella. This represents a very easy way to go both to the train station (where there is a central bus queue for many bus lines serving the whole city as well as train service to all of Italy) and to the airport shuttle bus, which arrives at and leaves from a building adjacent to the train station.

I arrived in town on the airport shuttle. This cost 4 euros, payable to the driver at the airport. Service is every hour on the half hour. I walked from the shuttle drop-off, towing my suitcase behind me, down towards the Arno River, across the bridge, and on to the Casa. It took about 30 minutes. I had lived in Florence for some months about ten years ago and knew the city well enough to feel comfortable doing this. If you have never been to Florence before and are a bit tentative about finding your way in a strange city, you may want to catch a taxi from the taxi stand in front of the train station. It is a short ride, would not be terribly expensive, and might make your entry to the city a great deal more pleasant.

I also could have taken the #6 bus to a stop near the Casa (pick it up at the central bus queue on the side of Stazione Santa Maria Novella) or the “D” bus (which can be picked up directly in front of the station at the moment because of construction), but I was no longer familiar with the bus system and thought I would be better off walking.

At the end of my stay I and my suitcase caught the “D” bus to the train station to take the train to Venice. This was a 15 minute ride on a slow Sunday morning. It would be a longer ride on a week day I think. The stop prior to the train station is closer to the airport shuttle. If flying from Florence's airport, ask the driver to let you off at the “aeroporto.” It will save you a great deal of struggle with uneven sidewalks, metal barriers, traffic, people, etc., as you walk back from the train station itself to the airport shuttle stop.

The Casa presents a very unprepossessing façade to the street. Be sure to know the number, 21, so that you can find your way to the door, which is usually partially open. Enter the inner court and ring the bell to the right of the inner door. You will be buzzed into the lobby. The reception desk is around the corner to the right. Either one of the sisters or one of the part-time desk clerks will check you in and give you directions to your room. Nearly everyone speaks enough English if your Italian is non-existent.

The building looks and feels like an old building. Some floors are composed of highly polished red terracotta tiles, laid in a herringbone pattern; others are made of terrazzo; others have stone slabs added here and there. The stone stairs have very low risers, making each step pleasantly small. The handrail and balusters are cast bronze. The ceilings on all floors are very high, and all the walls are painted a creamy white. The doors for the most part date from the nineteenth century and have lovely hardware. The windows are modern but blend in fairly well with overall aesthetic of the building. Most have both interior and exterior shutters, which is common in Florence.

Rooms are spread out over the two upper floors. There is a TV room on the second floor. However, given the quality of Italian television, it is never used. I had read that there was a library, but I did not see one. I donated a dozen paperbacks to an empty table in the TV room and took two P.D. James mysteries from a table up on the third floor to read the following week in Venice.

I was given a room on the second floor. There are 42 steps, spread out over four flights, up to the second floor. There are another 42 steps up to the third floor. There is no elevator. If stairs are an issue for you, you should find another place to stay.

My room, number 1, was narrow with a high ceiling and a large window overlooking the garden. It was, literally, a room with a view. The bedroom contained a single bed, a bedside table with a wall-hung reading lamp, a desk, a chair, a mirror, and an armoire. The bathroom, which was a vision of pale pink ceramic tile and white porcelain fixtures, had a sink, shower, stool, and toilet. It was so clean that it sparkled. Indeed, my room and the entire building were spotless in a way that one rarely sees in America. This is due to the ministrations of a flock of cleaning ladies that descends on the place every morning. My bed was made, fresh linens were placed in the bathroom, and the whole room given the once-over every single morning.

The bathroom was stocked with the usual array of fine white linen towels that Italians always put in bathrooms and that Americans always use to dry fine glassware. I had anticipated this situation and brought a large terrycloth beach towel and about 14 terrycloth washcloths with me. The towel I took home at the end of my trip. The washcloths, which were ready for the rag pile, I threw away as I used them. It’s a good system.

While the bathroom had every modern convenience and clearly had been renovated recently, the bedroom had an older feel. There were highly polished terracotta floor tiles laid in a herringbone pattern, plaster walls painted a creamy white, and vintage pieces of furniture that had seen some better days. The mattress should have been replaced some time ago but was still pretty comfortable. There were small pieces of art and framed embroideries hanging on the walls, and indeed throughout the building, for decoration.

The view of the garden was this room’s strong point. It is not a huge garden, but it contains mature trees, shrubs, and several ancient wisteria vines with trunks fully two feet in diameter. They must be magnificent when in full bloom. In November the cyclamens were blooming and the persimmon tree held ripe fruit. There were a few roses blooming on espaliered vines. There were numerous chairs and benches, in both full sun and shade, and I thought that this must be a lovely place to sit in more clement weather. As it was, I took a turn in the garden every morning after breakfast to appreciate the cyclamens, assess the weather, and gauge how many layers of clothing to pile on.

Breakfast and dinner are served in the dining room on the ground floor. Lunch is not available. The ceiling is extremely high, giving the room a pleasantly airy feeling. There is very little in the way of decoration, and it does have a slightly institutional feel to it. Guests are assigned a table corresponding to their room number. At every meal I looked for the small brass plate labeled “1” and sat there. One’s table location can change throughout the week, and even from meal to meal.

For several evenings I sat next to two French ladies on vacation from Paris. I spoke a little French, they spoke a little English, and we managed to have a very nice time chatting. For a few evenings I sat next to a fellow American, and on one evening there were four of us Americans, so we chatted after dinner until almost ten o’clock. The Casa attracts an international clientele, but it does seem to be especially popular with the French.

A self-serve continental breakfast is offered from eight to nine each morning. This included: coffee; hot water for tea; fresh lemon slices; teabags; apples; a couple of kinds of fruit juice; and a few baked goods - plain white rolls and a product reminiscent of milquetoast, along with sweet butter and a variety of jams. This last item I consider to be nothing more than a crunchy vehicle for butter and jam. By itself it is dry and tasteless. Most Americans will not care for it.

I don’t drink coffee or tea, but I mixed the hot water and lemon slices together and made a nice warm drink in which to dissolve some prescription medicine that I take. The rolls and milquetoast I thought were not worth eating, but I always scooped up a few packets of butter to spread on my bread at dinner, when butter was not served. Later in the morning I usually stopped somewhere in town for a cornetto or hot chocolate to hold me until lunch.

Although I did not care for the breakfast offerings, I found that going down to breakfast was a good way to wake up slowly and start the day. There is a pleasant buzz in the room, which is very sunny at that hour, and one has the opportunity to fill out the reservation form for dinner. If you miss breakfast but would like dinner in house, you can fill out the form at the reception desk and submit it by early afternoon.

I arrived on a Sunday and had requested dinner in my e-mail reservation. Of all the dinners I ate at the Casa, this was the only bad one. All the rest were simply delicious. It is possible that Sunday was the cook’s day off or that the cook was simply having an off day. Who knows? But, by the end of my stay, I had drawn several broad conclusions about the best way to order dinner here.

Dinner is served each evening promptly at eight o’clock. In contrast to breakfast, it is served by waitresses with one of the sisters or the office manager presiding. They bring you the dishes that you ordered that morning, make sure that you have enough bread and water, ask whether you would like seconds, etc.

There are two choices for the “primi piatti.” One is usually some form of pasta dish. The other is a risotto or a soup. These were invariably delicious. The risotto alla vedura (risotto with chopped green vegetables) was memorable. I disgraced myself by having two helpings, convinced that I had died and gone directly to heaven. As the week progressed, I realized that checking off only the primi piatti option gave me plenty of food without giving me too much food. This primi piatti only option also included bread and dessert, which was usually seasonal fruit (clementines at this time of year) and once was a rich white cake dusted with powdered sugar.

The “secondi piatti” also included two choices, one centered around meat and the other vegetarian. The meat course tended to be disappointing. It was usually served just barely warm and was overdone and dry. I was not the only person who thought so. After the first night’s mediocre selection, I switched to the vegetarian option and hit pay dirt. The vegetarian fritters offered the following evening proved to be a delicious mix of chopped vegetables in a potato base which were then lightly fried and served with a huge mound of green beans. I had just consumed two helpings of the first course risotto, but I plowed right through the fritters and beans. All of it was delicious, but clearly it was way too much food for me.

I began ordering the first course only. One night it was tubular pasta in a red tomato sauce. Another night it was spaghetti in a light cream sauce with chunks of artichoke hearts (a vegetable dear to Italian hearts and stomachs) black olives, and a few other vegetables that I never identified. Again, I had a second helping. I noticed that several other diners were licking their forks appreciatively. Fortunately, I had ordered no second course; and I walked out of the dining room only moderately stuffed. Well worth it I might add. I will remember that dinner fondly for the rest of my life.

Other options offered every night are: a mixed salad; a cheese plate; and another plate whose composition I never translated. On my final night roast chicken was offered as a secondi piatti, and suspecting that the cook would outdo herself, I ordered both the primi and secondi piatti. My hunch was correct. On the way down the stairs I smelled the aroma of roast chicken wafting throughout the building. The first course pasta was delicious. Naturally I had two helpings. Then out came the roast chicken, which had been cooked gently until it fell from the bones with a nudge from my fork. The “contorni” was roasted red and green peppers. I don’t care for peppers, but I could see that this side dish met with the approval of the other diners.

The full dinner option--namely, first and second course plus dessert--costs 14 euros. The first course only costs 8 euros. The second course only costs 10 euros. The various other “plates” cost 8-10 euros. Guests have the option of buying a bottle of wine from the Casa that is placed by your plate at the table each evening. On my first night I ordered the most expensive bottle on the list, 11.50 euros, and I had a glass or two with each dinner during the week. I thoroughly enjoyed it.

The necessities of daily life are within easy walking distance of the Casa. Directly across the street from the D bus stop is a pharmacy. At the foot of the Piazza is a news stand which is open until late at night and which carries European decorating and fashion magazines as well as the International Herald Tribune, which is always a treat to read when traveling abroad.

The Café Oltrarno on Via de Serragli near the Ponte Alla Carraia bridge has excellent coffee, cornetto alla crema, hot chocolate, and a cooler full of cold soft drinks and bottled water, as well as the usual small aperitifs, sandwiches to go or to stay, candy, gum, etc. The folks behind the counter are very friendly and speak English well enough to help you with whatever you might need. I stopped there most mornings on my way into town for a cornetto, some water, and a candy bar or sandwich. It is closed on Saturday afternoons and probably also on Sundays. Just around the corner from the Café Oltrarno on Lungarno Guicciardini is the bus stop for the number 6 bus and the D bus on their outward bound runs.

Several people spoke of a nearby Internet café, which I did not seek out. There is a nice trattoria fronting on the Piazza immediately adjacent to the Casa and another nice trattoria called the Cinghiale Bianco a few blocks down the street. In general, the dinner available at the Casa is as good as that offered at nearby restaurants and is one-third to one-half as costly. The Casa offers parking for cars for an additional fee. No smoking is allowed anywhere in the building.

I have only two major criticisms of the Casa. * One is the inadequate heat. Retrofitting an old palazzo with modern heating apparatus is a complicated and expensive proposition in Italy. Paying for the heat is even more expensive. While I respect the obstacles against which the Casa struggles, I must say that my room, and indeed the building as a whole, simply was not warm enough to enjoy properly.

I filled hot water bottles and placed them between the sheets of my bed before going down to dinner. I filled them again and took them to bed with me when I returned from dinner. I noticed that even European guests wore extra sweaters, vests, and shawls to dinner. They were cold, too. The lack of adequate heat would not be a problem from April 15 through October 15. After that date, I might think two or three times before choosing to stay here again.

* Secondly, both the water pressure and the amount and temperature of the hot water were severely deficient in my bathroom. The hot water came out of the beautiful chrome showerhead, with optional handhold, at just barely a trickle. It took fully ten minutes to get there. Ditto for the faucet in the sink. However, if I went to the bathroom down the hall from my room, I immediately got a powerful stream of very hot water from the sink at all hours of the day and night.

It occurs to me that the Casa easily could provide a much more appetizing continental breakfast with a minimal increase in cost. Florentine bakeries produce delicious breakfast pastries. Admittedly these would cost more than the dry white rolls currently provided, but they would be a most welcome addition.

My room was very quiet, and I was rarely conscious of the presence of other guests except at mealtimes. On the weekend I noticed noise coming from the Piazza del Carmine which sounded as if a nightclub were letting out. Given the temperature, I had closed my window and was only vaguely aware of the noise. In the summertime or in another room, I suspect this noise might be very annoying.

You should know that Florentine mosquitoes rise in swarms from the Arno River during the warmer months. If you are staying at the Casa then, you should come prepared with insect repellent and citronella candles for your room. Otherwise they will eat you alive. This is true all over greater Florence, not just at the Casa.

My bill for a stay of 7 nights with breakfast included and four extra dinners and a bottle of wine came to 477 euros. I paid with two traveler’s checks in 200 euro dollar denominations and the balance in euro dollars in cash. The Casa heavily favors payment in cash and will accept credit card payments only during two hours of the day. They were reluctant to accept the traveler’s checks. As I later discovered, it was because the bank charges them for the enormous privilege of depositing them.

Would I stay here again? Yes, I think so, as long as my stay coincided with warmer weather. It is a nice place; it has an excellent location; the management is very pleasant; the food is pretty good. I’m not sure you could do a great deal better for the price, and I am very sure that you could spend a great deal more and not get better. This is Florence. It has its drawbacks.

Reviewed by: WillTravel from Canada, review #835

When: January 2005

Nice budget convent accommodation in the Oltrarno.

I paid €43 per night.

The winter curfew time is 11 PM, but with my sedate tendencies I didn't find this a problem. They did make a special exception for New Year's Eve, and you could stay out until 1 AM, but I didn't make use of that.

I had wanted to try a convent to see what it was like. This is a lovely old palazzo, with very high ceilings. It has a library, albeit mostly with religious books in Italian and French. I did find a few tourist-oriented books, although none in English I don't think. But I suppose someone could donate a few. There is a common TV room, but once again all the options were Italian.

My room was very spacious by budget accommodation standards. Furthermore, the ceilings were perhaps 15-16 feet high (5m or so). There was a radiator in the room that has a cup attached that you put water in, presumably to prevent the air from getting too dry. There's a tall shuttered window that you can open and look out over the piazza. I found I could store some cold food between the doors to the shutters and the actual shutters (hope the design is clear). My only complaint is that the room did get cold at night, despite the radiators, presumably because of the high ceilings.

There is no lift, and it is 42-43 steps from the ground floor to the first floor. I think it's about the same from the first floor to the second floor. The floors have terracotta tiles. The place is very clean and bright.

The bed was very comfy. I had an extra blanket and pillow in the attached closet.

I chose not to have a private bathroom here to save a few euros. I did have a sink in the room. There were always bathrooms available, and the showers and water pressure were fine. I had two fresh towels per day. These were of a material that I associate more with dish towels (although fluffier and more absorbent). They worked fine, though.

Breakfast was a bit more spartan than where I stayed elsewhere. There were regular rolls, croissants (I think), butter, jam, Nutella, apples, coffee, milk, and juice. But all nicely presented and the apples were a good touch.

Some of the sisters spoke English, although not all. They also speak Italian and French.

Every morning at breakfast I was given a dinner menu to fill out if I wanted to stay for dinner. For €14 per night, I had a four-course dinner, although dessert was on the simple side (like fruit). Furthermore, I typically was given the option to have an "encore" for all of the courses. I purchased one bottle of wine for €7.50 and used it up over the course of the four nights. Dinner is optional, but it was obvious to me I couldn't get a better deal in Florence and it was so easy and comfortable to eat there.

The location is in the Oltrarno, right next to Brancacci Chapel and Masaccio's famous frescos. I walked from the convent all over the place. I had posted an inquiry about taking the bus before I left. Most message board posters suggested not walking from the train station. So I did take the bus there, although I walked back uphill (about a 20-minute walk) on depature. I also took the bus from Piazzale Michelangelo after having walked up there. But otherwise I didn't take the bus anywhere, and walked from Brancacci Chapel to San Marco to Santa Croce and all over Florence. It just didn't seem worth it to try to wait for the bus.

The center of Florence was very crowded while I was there, and the area where I stayed was considerably less so. It seemed like a very pleasant area.

The only disadvantage for me is that there is no phone in the room. I bought a cheap phone card and used that to phone my family from phone boxes.

This review is the opinion of a Slow Travel member and not of slowtrav.com.

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