Within about thirty minutes I declare I don’t like Florence; too many tour groups clogging the streets, and the restaurants seem grabby; mediocre-looking places charging way too much for uninspiring food.
Piazza della Signoria should have knocked me off my feet – it’s one of the grandest looking piazzas we’ve strolled. Proud, iconic statues are as common in the piazza as pigeons are in lesser locations. Nearly all are naked (given the sky-high temperatures I’m jealous), some are gruesomely macabre. It’s a glorious piazza, it’s a fascinating piazza… and it’s ruined by selfie-takers and tour group leaders waving umbrellas high in the air to attract their particular flock, making unobstructed views of the exquisite artistry on show even more difficult.
It’s hot, 38C hot, late in the afternoon, we’ve not eaten lunch yet, and I’m narky.
We head for side streets, hoping for an atmospheric cafe/bar to nibble at a snack with a refreshing beer. It takes some time to find one which appeals – Caffe La Posta on a corner on Via Pellicceria looks promising. We order a large and a medium bier and two filled rolls. Andy orders hummus, which has lots of aubergine and no hummus. I order… I order what exactly? It’s so unremarkable, I instantly forget what I’m eating. The bread is shred-yer-gums hard and the beer pump isn’t working, so we’re given two small bottles but charged for the original order. When questioned, they knock 1€ off the bill, and add on a table charge. It’s poor, poor value and my feelings toward Florence descend into blackness. Maybe I’m in Dante’s Inferno.
My dark mood is infecting Andy’s so we decide to take refuge in our hotel room on the other side of the River Arno, to maybe ‘benefit from resting a little’ before tackling the city again. First we have to wade through a marauding horde heading in our direction across Ponte Vecchio. As well as foot soldiers there’s cavalry, charging through the crowd on two-wheeled steeds with little regard for any object which stands in their way. I learn quickly that cyclists who stop for anything in Florence, including red traffic lights, are a rarity.
“I wish we’d stayed in Siena,” I grumble as I skip out of the way of another demon cyclist.
But then the dense cloud of people parts and we step from the bridge into the Oltrarno quarter. It’s like finally being able to loosen a tie which is too tight. The instant we turn right along Borgo S. Jacopo, Florence changes. The narrow street has only a handful of other people wandering its charming length. Here the bars and trattorias are cosy, inviting, bohemian. As we “ooh, that place looks good,” our way along the street, the storm clouds in my head dissipate.
It takes no time to realise Oltrarno offers a delicious sanctuary from the divine madness just across the River Arno. I thank whichever travel god guided our hands to hitting the book now button for a hotel on this side of the olive waters.
Secreted away behind a large, arched wooden door which wouldn’t look out of place as a portal to a decent-sized church, Hotel Splendid is aptly named. It is a bijou, boutique resting place consisting of fourteen inspirationally designed rooms with such tasteful and artistic decor it makes you sick with jealousy. It’s the sort of place where you might fool yourself into believing you could pen a literary masterpiece (there is an old typewriter in the lounge just in case anyone feels like trying). There’s an ambience which is both old school and contemporary casual, and we love it immediately. It is perfect for a neighbourhood renowned for artists and craftspeople.
From the comfort of leather studded chairs whose skins are as lined as the face of a wise old fisherman, we plan our Florence campaign. We shall soak up the opulent, historic sights north of the Arno and return to dine and drink within Oltrarno’s embrace.
Borgo S. Frediano, a backstreet running parallel to the Arno, proves a rich hunting ground for bars and restaurants which exude individual personalities. Bar Le Nuvole is hole-in-the-wall sized with a tiny decked terrace. What little counter space is crammed with bite-sized snacks, Italian tapas. We drink an IPA aperitif, a femme domme-esque Dama Bianca, whose golden nectar goes straight to our heads. It’s a chilled-out spot; relaxed and unhurried – the perfect antidote to our afternoon.
A short distance away is Restaurant Neromo, another style shrine which looks great, and feels both historic and modern at the same time. We’re welcomed with a “do you want a Prosecco? Yes, of course you do. In Italy we don’t eat before the sun goes down, we drink.”
It’s complimentary, everyone gets one, and, on top of the white lady, we’re woozy before the antipasti arrive. A shared coccoli fritti (fried bread dumplings)with prosciutto & stracchino (creamy cheese with the consistency of mayonnaise) and octopus with mash soaks up some of the alcohol (now added to courtesy of a bottle of Chianti) and leaves us full, but with just enough space to enjoy a creamy, asparagus-coloured risotto and penne in a tomato, cream, pancetta and vodka sauce. The food is excellent and the atmosphere buzzing – dining as it should be, fun and fulfilling.
The Saturday scene in this part of Oltrarno is so appealing we pop across the road for a nightcap on the small terrace of La Cité – a beguiling blend of cafe, live music venue, bar, and library.
We spend Sunday south of the river. There are plenty of sights to notch up in Oltrarno, starting with the Boboli Gardens behind the Pitti Palace. Created by the Medicis it’s claimed the gardens were the forerunner of all classic Italian gardens. Even at 10am there’s a long queue of people waiting for tickets outside Pitti Palace, so we give it a miss and head away from the river seeking somewhere shaded for a cappuccino. We don’t find anywhere suitable, but what we do find is another entrance to the gardens; one with no queues. We pay the €10pp entrance and breeze in. The gardens are immense, so big the map we’re given suggests three trails with gradients which range from mostly level to 12%. At their highest point they offer sweeping views over Florence’s distinctive skyline on one side and the Tuscan countryside on the other. The morning is eaten up wandering leafy paths and cypress-lined avenues, partly trying to find toilets which aren’t disgusting. The Boboli Gardens are impressive, but the facilities are primitive.
Lunch is at Palazzo Tempi beside the river. There’s no need to order any snacks as a cappuccino comes with a creamy profiterole and a beer comes with a generous tray of two types of crisps and some fried bread cubes.
Like mad dogs and Englishmen we choose to climb to Piazzale Michelangelo at the hottest time of the day. Most people drive or take a coach to the sprawling viewpoint above the city, but we do what we always do, walk. And it’s delightful. The path from the river climbs past the Torre di San Niccolò, skirting grottos and fountains. until we emerge at the Piazzale with its mock David statue and encampment of tourist stalls and fast food trucks. It’s not actually very busy and the panoramic, classic Florentine vista reward is more than worth every sweaty step.
During the ascent we spotted a curio, a river beach opposite the Torre di San Niccolò. There are only a handful of sunbathers on the golden sands and even fewer at the River Urban Beach Bar above them even though it’s a shady, riverside spot with views all the way back to Ponte Vecchio. It’s perfect for a couple of birra alla spina (draught beers) after our ascent and descent.
Sunday night in Oltrarno feels like an old fashioned Sunday night, many bars and restaurants are closed. Il Santino on Via Santo Spirito, not far from our splendid Splendid, isn’t one of them. We fancied having a snifter at this tiny deli/bar since we spotted two ‘models’ (i.e. average Italians) sitting outside it sipping white wine lit up by the early evening sunlight (both wine and women). The owner talks us into two glasses of an unusual rosé made solely from Sangiovese grapes. It’s like a silky cross between a rosé and a red. We sit outside and he brings us a smoked salmon tapa to nibble on. Sure enough the sun lights up the glasses, but it’s still far too hot. We scuttle inside where coolness bounces off the exposed brick walls and beamed wooden ceiling.
With a reduced choice of restaurants it’s the sort of night to indulge in pizza. Berberè San Frediano has a good reputation, makes pizza with sourdough, and has toppings which are different from the norm. Andy chooses one with fiordilatte mozzarella from Puglia, tomato, and basil (basically a classic margherita). I copycat the person at the next table and go for prosciutto crudo from Norcia, burrata, fiordilatte mozzarella, and orange-infused oil. The orange oil is a pizza game-changer. Dinner is over in an hour… and most bars are closed. At Piazza del Carmine we stumble across a mini open air concert where the Florence Brass Quintet make a damn fine job of the likes of Smooth Criminal and Bohemian Rhapsody. We listen to them for an hour before breaking up the stroll home by perching on a stool with a glass of red at La Prosciutteria – Crudi e Bollicine Firenze, another deli/bar where you could easily lose hours perusing the produce on display and people-watching.
Oltrarno has so many quirky, quaint bars, and we’ve too little time to try them all. But we manage to notch up one more place for an aperitif, a no frills Enoteca near La Cité where the wine is €4 a glass and the young couple opposite us on the wardrobe-sized terrace make us feel like gooseberries by being very Italian about how they drink their wine. One reads some poetry, they gaze into each other’s eyes for a moment, and then they snog passionately. Then the other reads some poetry and… repeat.
Dinner at Il Santo Bevitore, a hop, skip and no jump from our hotel, almost matches Neromo for buzzing liveliness. It probably noses ahead in terms of stylish décor – romantically dim lighting and vaulted ceiling. It is rammed (we had to book a table to be sure of getting in). The beauty of these restaurants is although their menus follow a similar format – antipasti, primi, secondi and so on – what falls under these headings changes from restaurant to restaurant. Normally we have a starter and then a primi (pasta) as the pastas and sauces are just so deliciously varied. We change tack a bit at Il Santo, starting with a primi (burrata ravioli with asparagus & scampi for me, a fiery riccioli with nduja, a seriously spicy soft salami, & aged pecorino for Andy that leaves her gasping). The secondi (main) we share. It’s a quite modest portion of roasted monkfish, Zolfini beans, bacon and pioppini mushrooms which suits just fine as we fancy a dessert for a change; although, the dessert choices when we see them don’t get the juices flowing again – too wobbly (mousses, the ubiquitous crème brûlée) and not tarty enough. Still, it’s a cracking meal overall, another über friendly place, and a fitting last night in Florence dining experience.
We leave Florence with very fond memories. Much of those are thanks to the Oltrarno quarter.