Under the Tuscan sun

Taking in the staggering wealth of art in Florence and and savouring its silken coffees and fast food.

Written by Nandini Thilak | Published:September 4, 2016 1:10 am
A view of the sea of tiled roofs and yellow walls from the bell tower in Duomo A view of the sea of tiled roofs and yellow walls from the bell tower in Duomo

Most of the time, what makes a place stick to one’s heart is that one great cup of coffee you had there, or a memorable meal that brings home a city’s gastronomic trajectory. So it was with Florence (or Firen-zey, as the Italians call it), and me. Except it was not just great coffee. It was the silkiest, most flavourful one I have ever had, served by a no-nonsense barista who looked like he fought crime when he was not judging tourists (probably coffee crimes; like drinking a cappuccino with your lunch. But more on that later).

Florence is the birthplace of the European Renaissance; the city where legends such as Michelangelo Buonarrati and Leonardo Da Vinci (whose Mona Lisa was begun in Florence, though it is now rolling eyes at selfie-takers at the Louvre in Paris) once walked and worked. It is also where the most well-known of Renaissance celebrities, Michelangelo’s David, could be found in flesh, and where flows the river Arno.

Husband in tow, I touched down at the Florence airport and took a short bus ride to the city centre, the piazza della Stazione. A rigorous TripAdvisor search brought us to Hotel San Giovanni, which is right next to Florence’s main attraction — the Duomo or the Cattedrale di Santa Maria del Fiore — and opposite Café Scudieri , which served one of the best coffees in all of Florence.

The first thing we did was to park ourselves at Scudieri for coffee which made our eyes close and knees go weak. Coffee in Italy is served at the bar and can easily be had for 1-2 euros. If you choose to have a table, you could end up paying double or more. Most cafes, therefore, have two prices listed. But before I leave you to dream of Italian coffee, some rules I learned the hard way: it is not done to have a cappuccino except at breakfast or brunch, and an absolute no-no to have it with anything savoury. An espresso is the safest go-to drink if you need a pick-me-up at any other time of day.

For a museum nerd like me, there is so much art to see in Florence that it can be intimidating. A good place to start is the Duomo, which refers to a complex of three structures — the eponymous domed cathedral, a baptistery and a bell tower. While the entry into the cathedral is free, a 15 euro ticket will enable you to climb to the top of the dome and visit the bell tower, the baptistery and the Museo dell’Opera del Duomo nearby, which hosts important artwork such as a Pieta by Michelangelo. After the thrilling climb to the top of the dome along dark, narrow passageways, the most magnificent view of the city lay ahead of us: a sea of tiled roofs and yellow walls from which bell towers emerged here and there, blending into the magnificent Tuscan countryside around.

A short walk away from the Duomo is the Piazza della Signoria, a square lined with statues where Michelangelo’s David was once installed. Now, a copy holds its place and the real David is interred within the Galleria dell’Accademia. Inside, around it, is a series of unfinished sculptures by Michelangelo called Slaves. The writhing figures of the slaves emerge from the marble as if awakening from a deep slumber, and give us a glimpse of Michelangelo’s struggle to tease out flesh, blood and bones from unwieldy blocks of stone.

Our next stop was the Uffizi, completed in 1581 and designed by Giorgio Vasari, an artist, architect and author of what is considered the first work of art history in the world — The Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors and Architects. The Uffizi was built to host the collection of art belonging to the Medici family, that ruled Florence for a considerable period of time, and is, possibly, one of the first spaces in the world expressly built for the display and viewing of art. For those largely ignorant of classical European art (like me), the Uffizi is a comprehensive crash course. A couple of works to tick off your list: Botticelli’s Primavera, The Annunciation by Da Vinci, Titian’s famous Venus of Urbino, and Sleeping Hermaphrodite, a second century AD marble Roman sculpture modelled after a Greek bronze.

Overwhelmed and hungry after the visit, we walk into one of the quiet streets behind, to All’Antico Vinaio, a sandwich shop known for Florence’s best “fast food”: giant pieces of crisply baked bread stuffed with peppery meat and sauces. At All’Antico, you line up, shout out your order at the counter, grab your sandwich, a glass of wine or a bottle of water (wine is often cheaper and recommended), and head out to eat on the pavement.

It is the evenings that we found best suited for wandering aimlessly through Florence, stopping at several bridges that run over the Arno, to take in the sunsets. It is at that time that the city gains back some of the charm it loses by the day, thanks to the arrival of tourists hordes. As shops and museums close, the streets calm down and locals come out to shoot the breeze with travellers. Walking across the bridge from the Duomo to the “other side” of the city (the Oltarno) at night, we headed to Gusta Pizza, whose pizzas are a work of art in themselves — a magical combination of cheese, rucola and tomatoes which settled in nicely into that corner of my heart where Scudieri’s coffee was having a moment with David and Artemisia.

Parting notes: have gelatos, even if you have a cold, and make the hour’s train journey to Pisa to see the most famous piece of faulty engineering in the world. It is a bit underwhelming at first, but worth the trip in hindsight.

The writer is a former journalist and assistant curator at the Mehrangarh Fort Museum, Jodhpur.