Florence, or Firenze to the Italians, is a city that was praised and hyped by everyone I encountered. “You’ll love Florence,” they promised, praising the architecture, the food and its enviable role as the capital of Tuscany. I thought it would be a much larger city than it was, but I found it quite easy to walk around and visit the tourist sights. There were, of course, queues for everything from entry to the Duomo to the Uffizi and Accademia galleries. Florence was a hotspot on the tourist trail and had the crowds to prove it.
I was convinced to sign up for Busabout’s special introduction to Florence, a €22 excursion that included a walking tour, a leather demonstration, a four course dinner and then a karaoke/dance bar stop. We were a bit late getting into Florence, but there was enough time to check in – they basically took our passports, handed out keys and told us to pay later – and shower before I had to join the group.
I was staying at PLUS Florence, the hostel recommended by Busabout and one that had fairly decent reviews online. It was nice enough and I appreciated the fact that the shower and toilet area were ensuite, but separate so that one could use the bathroom and someone could shower without worry, but I had two big complaints. The beds were awful – the worse that I’ve experienced in Europe to date – with cheap, saggy mattresses and squeaky frames – and the bar was brutal. I know this makes me sound like an old lady, but the music in the bar was way too loud. We were on the third floor – actually the fourth, based on Italian numbering, and you could still feel the music from the fairly cheesy live band vibrating through the floor. They also kept the outdoor terrace open until just after 11pm, the shouts and shrieks of 20-something girls easily wafting through our window. At one point I thought someone was being killed, based solely on the screaming. I headed downstairs to ask them to turn on the air conditioning, which rattled noisily until silenced by some good ol’ Canadian ingenuity (my sandal, delivered with enough force to quiet the rattle) much to the amusement of my roommates who had questioned my suggestion.
My roommates were the best part of the Florence hostel experience as we all got along fabulously – this seems to be rare, especially since I was in a larger dorm. We all went for drinks, which was a nice surprise, but I couldn’t recommed the hostel based on that alone!
We were picked up for the walking tour in the lobby of the hostel. None of us had paid for our rooms at that point as the reception area was still completely slammed – I think the hostel is understaffed as the receptionists often seemed rushed and the wait times for assistance could be extensive. `The walking tour was led by a local guide and, honestly, I think a free one would have been a bit better. The guide was personable but the tour felt rushed as she tried to fit in as much as she could in as short of a time as possible. The free guides always hustle, but need to keep you engaged so that you deposit your hard earned euros into their pockets.
The Duomo was probably the highlight of the walk and, based on the number of tourists around us, it is a must-see while in Florence. The outside is impressive with marble in pink, white and green, but the inside (which I later visited) is rather austere. This is supposed to be standard in Gothic churches where ornate external decor attempts to distract from the rather dour interior. I had to queue for about 15 minutes when I went to the Duomo, just planning to visit the interior, and noted that there were also people eagerly waiting to climb the Dome. For reasons that I feel are obvious, I opted against that particular form of torture.
The Duomo did enforce its dress code – no bare shoulders, no bare knees – but it seemed to be directed towards women of all ages or younger men. I noticed a few older men walking around, knobby knees sticking out of their walking shorts. Way to stay consistent, Duomo. Those who were inappropriately dressed (and a woman or younger man) either had to leave or shell out €1.50 for a disposable cover up.
The guide also held down a part time job at the leather store she deposited us at and we were ushered in for the demonstration. A fast talking employee led us through the demonstration, showing us raw hide and how it would turn into leather items, ranging from coats to jewellery boxes. She also told us the tricks used to prove leather’s provenance, which included holding a flame to it, but everything eventually burns. The only way to guarantee the leather’s authenticity, apparently, was to buy from a reputable store. So, of course, we were unleashed into the store where I continued to prove my theory that I have expensive taste. I didn’t have €200 to spend on a leather bag – and, frankly, with so many outlet malls in the U.S. I don’t feel the need to buy leather just because I’m in Florence as I can get leather bags for cheaper at home – and I certainly didn’t have €80 to spend on a flask holder or €45 to spend on a little box… heading outside, I joined a bunch of the other backpackers who had reached the same conclusion.
The four course dinner was held at a place called the Red Garter, an American bar. I don’t want to complain, but I was a bit surprised when we were brought into an American restaurant/steakhouse, as opposed to the local restaurant I had been expecting. Our first course was bruschette with fresh, flavourful tomatoes. My obsession with Italian tomatoes is unending.
The second course consisted of some pasta – we had two types in the bowl, with half being pesto and the other half a meat sauce. The Italians, of course, cook their pasta correctly and this was no disappointment. My tablemates and I eagerly inhaled this course and you probably could have heard a pin drop at our table.
The third course, meanwhile, was the most hearty but also the most disappointing. It contained some beef, cooked like stew meat, mixed with peas served on a base of soggy french fries. There was also a chicken dish that had been cooked in a tomato sauce, served with olives and on another plate of soggy french fries. This course was served family style and I’m surprised we didn’t make a huge mess of it, trying to spoon the meat onto our plate. There was, of course, a free glass of wine and I gladly took advantage of that offering. It was interesting, because I don’t really eat a lot of meals with non-wine people. The girl beside me asked for a sweet wine, which they didn’t have, and others asked for white. I was the only person who asked the waitress about the meal and what she would recommend – and I was the only person who ended up with red.
The dolci, or the dessert, was the second best part of the meal after the bruschette – generous scoops of vanilla and chocolate gelato. Yum!
I walked back to the hostel with one of the girls from the bus and we took a long, leisurely route, stopping by many of the sights we had visited in the day in order to take some photos with them all lit up. Surprisingly, since I am greatly lacking in the tripod department, these photos turned out. Much like Rome, Florence is beautiful in the evening and much less crowded. I couldn’t help but reflect that some of the galleries should be open 24 hours – think of how much more pleasant it would be to view the David at 3am!
My favourite part of Florence was the Mercato Centrale, the massive central market that has a number of food stalls on the first floor and a big local Italian food court on the second floor. I eagerly explored the first floor, watching as fresh pasta was prepared at one stall and cured meats were expertly sliced at another. The merchants of the market know that they are a tourist attraction and they were more than willing to put on a show, demonstrating their methods of preparation and offering samples to browsers. I really wished that I had access to a refrigerator as I wanted to buy all of the cheeses, all of the meats and all the tomatoes. Italy knows how to grow a tomato.
After thoroughly torturing myself, I headed upstairs to the food court, which they call the “Primo Plato”. There was a big bar in the middle, offering a huge selection of Italian craft beer, wine and a coffee bar. Pasta counters, fish counters, pizza counters… wine bars… there was even a small Eataly outlet and a cookbook store. I finally settled on the pasta offering – and I say settled because there were so many options it was hard to choose – but I was pretty happy with it. I had what was basically a spinach and cheese ravioli (this type of pasta had a name but I cannot for the life of me remember what it was), served with a fragrant, rich nut sauce. A woman actually came up to me, as I was walking towards a seat, and first asked if I spoke English and then asked what I had ordered because she wanted some too.
I was still a little peckish and had been watching, jealously, as small balls of bufala di mozzarella and sliced tomatoes kept walking past me. I ended up at the first booth, manned by an older Italian gentleman with a fairly rudimentary command of English. With some pointing, I ended up satisfied and he also gave me some bread, freshly sliced and wrapped in a brown paper bag.
I finished it all off with an espresso, needing a quick pick me up. I think that living in Florence would be dangerous, solely because of this market. Let people line up a few hours for the David – I prefer my art in edible form.
During the day, I explored the leather markets around the Mercato Centrale. I had been told that many of the leather products at these markets were counterfeit, but it was really hard to tell in all of the confusion. It was also hard to do the smell test when your senses are assailed by car exhaust, cooking food and the general smell of the city. One of the girls in the hostel said that price would be an indication, but I’ve bought a leather bag at the Coach outlet for as little as USD 100, therefore when something is priced at EUR 60 I can’t really tell, based on price alone, whether or not it’s leather or not.
When I ventured to Florence I had no plans to attend any of the galleries or wait in line too long to see any of the sites. I feel that I walked around a large part of the old city within only a few hours and, had I not done a few day trips into Tuscany, I would have found the two full days and an evening that I spent in Florence to be far too long. They recommend that people devote a day to visit the Uffizi, if they are so interested, but I really don’t have the requisite appreciation for Renaissance art or queues so I decided against it. In terms of exploring Florence, I really don’t think that I missed anything – and, in reality, I left Florence without a leather purse and without regret.