I had visited Florence in the 90s for one night only so didn’t have very strong memories of it, and with David never having been, we were excited to discover this small but perfectly formed city! And we have to mention straight away that we totally struck lucky with a gem of a boutique hotel that had only just opened, Palazzo Castri 1874 – it was lovely, shiny and new! Our main reason for choosing it was not only it’s central location and contemporary style but it’s wonderful large, secret walled garden that as imagined was a god send … we sat out and had breakfast there, we had evening drinks before going out to dinner there and after a day of walking in busy, hot streets we had a dip in the small pool and laid out there! And in pure unadulterated tranquility as you couldn’t hear a thing of the busy road of hustle and bustle that passed the hotel’s entrance! What a find and highly recommended – you could literally see the Cathedral’s dome from the garden – so location was perfect, matched with great staff and service, luxurious rooms and that oasis of a garden!
As much as we loved the hotel we did get out and about and Florence as expected was jaw dropping, with beauty at every turn, as in all the Italian cities but each with their own very different feel … Florence, when we were there in the month of June, was busy but not as chaotic or frenetic as maybe we’d experienced more in Rome … we found it calmer and everyone seemed to be strolling rather that rushing … it was easy to wander and take in all of the main sights as it really isn’t spread out but it may take some time as there is always something to stop for! Food, food, food, it would be rude not to have / try / indulge when in Italy and as ever we were ready to try it all! One great place we ate at was the Mercato Centrale where downstairs you’ll find a traditional fresh fruit and veg market along with butchers, fishmongers, bakery, etc but if you go upstairs you’ll find an open area of seating and you just choose from any of the delicious array of food stations serving different dishes – one for fresh pasta, one for salads, one for cheese, one for pizza, and so on along with the largest and busiest counter being that of the Florentine steak! It couldn’t be fresher, it couldn’t be bigger, it couldn’t be more tasty – apparently as I am vegetarian but David filled his boots on the cut, and cooked to order, huge steaks! One of the veggie things I love, and that you’ll find around Italy is deep fried courgette flowers – which is the top of a courgette that in England we never see (?!?) … do they just get chopped off and thrown? What a waste! Basically you can stuff the delicate flower with whatever you fancy but usually ricotta or anchovy or mozzarella which is then dipped in a light batter and deep fried, a delight!
One of the main sights to see of course, once you’ve taken a break from eating, is the Cathedral which you may think is set in a large, spacious square/piazza but no it is shoe horned into a tight square with tall buildings all around really looming in onto the magnificent dome and it’s ornate facade … that may be a ‘slight’ exaggeration but we were shocked at how close and built up it was around this famous church! One thing about Florence – and this is purely a personal feeling of ours – but it lacked the squares/piazzas alive with restaurants and places to hang out in as we’ve enjoyed for many an hour in Rome, for example! That said we loved walking along the river, over the spectacular Ponte Vecchio, with viewing points half way across that are magical – and you can understand why many a marriage proposal has been made there!
After 3 days of discovering Florence we ventured out and drove one hour south to the walled, medieval, hill top town of San Gimignano en route passing through Tuscan vineyards and picturesque landscapes … and on the approach, from a distance, you see the 13 remaining towers that are famously dotted hight up through the town. Basically San Gimignano is pedestrianised so we parked outside the wall and walked the main, very long road which runs straight, the full length of the town – full of shops that proudly display pottery that this area is renowned for. And then there are terraces with views rolled out in front of you of Tuscany that words can’t describe! But if that wasn’t enough of a reason to visit then may we drop in the fact that World Champion ice cream makers Dondoli can be found in the centre of this tiny place in Piazza della Cisterna and is easy to spot as a never ending queue will be snaking across the square! And yes it is well worth lining up for – don’t know if we would say it was the world’s best ice cream we’ve ever had – but it was welcome on the hot day we were there and quite delicious!
Another half day jaunt we enjoyed was to Fiesole which is only a 20 minute taxi ride up the hill, just outside of Florence and again with stunning views to die for directly over the city below! It seemed deserted when we were there – we only crossed paths with a handful of locals, as we climbed through the winding streets to the panoramic view point, which was well worth the effort! We also went into the open air Roman theatre that can be found just off of the main square – it is perfectly preserved and still used for performances!
On our final night we saved the best til last and took a taxi up to Pizzale Michelangelo just before sunset and joined hundreds of others at this magnificent terrace overlooking stunning Florence. What an electric atmosphere, as there is always quite a gathering at that time of day, which added to the experience and made for what felt like a celebratory, joint appreciation of the splendour, the light, the colour, the perfect picture we looked out over!