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Three Fall Days in Florence

November 2nd, 2015

We celebrated Ed’s birthday in Florence. I never have seen the city so beautiful as on these last days of October. The light was transparent, lissome, kind to all. Our regular hotel,  Tornabuoni Beacchi, gave us a large room overlooking the piazza below and a glimpse of the Trinità bridge over the Arno. We love the location of the hotel, its old world decor, friendly staff, and flowery roof garden. Walk out and you’re looking down onto the Arno in three minutes. Rivers are always changing color. In this view, the color reminded me of the porcini mushroom soup I had at lunch! But glassy and still enough for the shadows barely to ripple. Is this the most humane and pleasing city on earth? Maybe Seville is a rival, with its silvery river, flamenco, and scent of oranges, but Florence has the renaissance, a glowing light, and better food.

 

Florence has always been the same. For years we went and Florence was Florence. Only the fashions changed, and the exhibits, or so it appeared to a foreigner. Now the city is just burgeoning with creative new places and with a new ambience due to banned cars in many parts of the city. Thank you, Renzi, former mayor of Florence and now prime minister of Italy. He made Florence an open walking city. A bicycle city! The only problem now  is that you become so relaxed you can get mown down by a taxi or other allowed vehicle. The major improvement is Piazza San Lorenzo, which used to be so obscured by the leather market that you couldn’t see the church. Many other areas also are pedonale, walking only, a fine, fine improvement. The area around Santa Maria Novella, long a seedy section of the city, is changing by the day, with new shops, JK Place Hotel, and the open spaces all cleaned up.

A grand change happened to Mercato Centrale, the old city market housed in a fanciful iron building that looks as if it were once a train station (but was not). The regular cheese, meat, fish market remains downstairs, and historic Nerbone is still serving the boiled beef panini with glasses of red wine. Upstairs, however, is now a food, as in foodie, emporium, very upscale and chic with long bars for coffees and snacks and, around the periphery, cool stands selling books, housewares, pizza, breads, confections, seafood, and even lampredotto  for the intrepid. Lampredotto–made from the fourth stomach of the cow–is a florentine favorite. I thought it was tripe but it’s a specific stomach, and not made from the first three.There’s much info on line if you’re interested in the distinctions.

The cappuccino is perfect–not too foamy–and the cannoli, well, leave the gun, take the cannoli. This one: chocolate at one end, pistachio at the other. Also on the second floor, there’s a Lorenzo de’ Medici cooking school and a couple of wine tasting bars. This is the right stop for those who love grazing. (You can even get a hamburger. For the past couple of years, hamburgers have been a trend in Italy.)

 

Two other changes:

Feltrinelli RED bookstore on Piazza Repubblica now has a ground level cafe. The chain also has opened a branch at the train station. I am happy! When your train is late, or you just need to grab a book, there it is, along with a bar selling interesting sandwiches, even arancini, the Sicilian rice balls stuffed with cheese or ragù.

The historic cafes lining Piazza Repubblica have constructed outdoor enclosed seating with heat lamps. Fortunately all of them are identical so the look of the piazza is not discombobulated. We sat with friends as it got dark and still had the sense of being outside.

New restaurants, shops, casual cafes, and wine bars are sprouting overnight.  There’s a demise with this. I will miss the lovely linen shop near the duomo and my stand-by nice paper and notebook shop, Tassoti. But the classic Ginori china shop has transformed, not disappeared. It is one of the most stunning retail renovations I’ve seen.

 

 

Those are fragments of old pitchers arranged around the door. The table settings all over the store seem like Edith Wharton should be pulling up a chair, and I’d like to sit beside her. Here’s a little study, where you could count up how many place settings you have!

 

 

That striped blue ceiling–what a bold move when the walls are already striped too.  Florence is amazingly short on house and kitchen stores. This is a lovely exception.

Now to the table! For more photos, go to the websites. I don’t mind taking quick photos of plates sometimes but I don’t like to roam the restaurants with my iPhone, even though I’d like to.

We tried and liked very much Golden View, right on the river. The name put me off as it sounded like a million Chinese restaurants, but the white marble counters along the street displayed authentic looking fish and octopus, and there was the river, so in we went. Very contemporary decor with tons of art and near art on the walls, really nice service, quiet, and a good place to toast Ed attaining another year.

At lunch, we stopped at a place we’ve often enjoyed, the café CipollaRosa, Red Onion. There I had the soup the color of the Arno, a rich broth with lots of porcini. Ed ordered spicy seafood pasta, followed by fresh, fresh salads. There is Ed in the window. Stop taking pictures, Frances! This is the kind of place we often choose for lunch. Good, fun, quick. Quick because there’s so much to SEE afterwards. Always, there’s an exhibit at Palazzo Strozzi that will take you somewhere you’ve never been before.

 

 Florence’s new flying-high, concept restaurant charmed us and our friends who met there for midday pranzo : La Ménagère. It is somewhat of a menagerie, since the site offers a long coffee bar, kitchen items for sale, a gorgeous flower stall, and a restaurant that should be featured in Elle Decor. The space looks  gutted and left to charming  ruin. Multicolored orchids, roots dangling, hang low around the room and some of the light fixtures are made from disembodied arms of chandeliers. Hard to explain!  It’s all very fun and different. So is the menu. Roasted gnocchi with cheese, lemon, green apple and fried cous cous. Cauliflower soup with sauce of almond, anchovies and mozzarella crumbs. A soft cheese mound with potato sauce, mustard, and spinach.  Pasta with tripe, plums, capers, anchovies, parsley, almonds and ginger.  WOW! Not the traditional Tuscan menu.

 For our third lunch we chose Olio on Santo Spirito, so cozy and discreet. I would imagine lovers go there frequently, but there was a changing table in the bathroom so maybe it’s more for young mothers meeting friends. We were very late so had to ourselves the lovely room lined with wine, like a library but with bottles. I felt we should be confiding secrets so I asked Ed to tell me something he’s never told me before. I don’t know what I expected but it wasn’t that in fifth grade he had a crush on Sister Hedwiges, his teacher.

We do love the traditional Tuscan food and no visit would be complete without a dinner at one of the great trattorie. A favorite is La Casalinga.  We often go, as we did this time, to Camillo, right over the bridge. It’s crowded and the waiters like to joke. Who’s not happy with a plate of fried zucchini sticks to start, boned rabbit, roasted potatoes, and some most excellent Sirah from Cortona. Knowing we live in Cortona, the waiter, when we ordered our local wine, said we were “playing in the house,” an expression I really liked.  Good food, great talk with friends, and a walk out into the quiet. The missing traffic! Magic. Walking home along Via Tornabuoni, we were in a golden city.

 

 

 

 

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27 Responses to “Three Fall Days in Florence”

  1. LeAnne Barber says:

    I loved this post, Frances. So much to love about old old cites, where food is divine, everything is a feast for the eyes…
    Thank you for writing.
    LeAnne

  2. Cindy Mucci says:

    So happy it was your birthday Ed, because we also received a gift on your special day, by sharing the magnificent city of Florence with us – happy birthday and grazie! When you walk and see Florence it fills your spirit to overflowing, and your appetite to contentment! Salute Ed, and long live Florence too!!!

  3. Scott says:

    I am at the start of a conference here in Princeton today but was dawdling briefly over thoughts of Italy–Cortona mostly but with touches of Florence and Bologna; Rome, of course, and the never-visited-before Venice. Your blog brought the wonders of Florence back to us and, after several visits there, it reminded me of some of our favorite places: a small (as in tiny) paper shop on the other side of the river, perched on a corner not far from a hotel (whose name I can’t remember) and the water. The proprietress was quite elderly and wrapped each purchase carefully before handing it to you. It didn’t matter if there were three people in line behind you: it was clear she was going to do it properly. In the end, she provided us with a memory and we returned the next time to find it all as we remembered. So many wonderful memories!

    We will be there next October–with three weeks in Cortona this time!–and the excitement already builds. It will be a busy year until then–with a much-anticipated new grandchild arriving in early-June and a big birthday lumbering towards me in January. To experience the new and return to the old is such a wonderful combination! Glad you’re enjoying Italy. How can I thank the person who, through her first book, opened up this whole wonderful world to me? I’ll have to think about that one! Best regards: Scott

  4. LeAnne Barber says:

    Misspelling in first submission 🙂 Should be:

    I loved this post, Frances. So much to love about old old cities, where food is divine, everything is a feast for the eyes…
    Thank you for writing.
    LeAnne

  5. Lori E says:

    A beautiful place to spend a birthday. I should have thought of that last Monday for mine except I a in Canada and not heading to Italy any time soon.
    No matter. I will enjoy it through your words.

  6. orcagna says:

    Dear Frances,

    this sounds perfectly lovely – Florence in fall or winter is always a treat. Did you have a chance to visit the Duomo museum now that it’s open again?

  7. Heidi says:

    Awww – all is right with the world – errr Italy – I found you! What a great travelogue for Florence. I am ‘green’, but hope to see your Florence sometime soon. For now I must be content in the USofA (PA in the golden autumn). Thanks for sharing your slice of heaven with us. We missed you… Enjoy those sunsets with your beloved Ed.

  8. Nancy Greco says:

    Frances: UPS has notified me that your package has been delivered as of November 3. Hooray!! I am so glad this has a happy ending!! (This message has been repeated here as it is the newest of your posts. It also is at the end of the “Summer Travel” post.)

  9. Wendy says:

    I studied in Florence during my junior year sixteen years ago; it feels like yesterday. Thank you for taking me back there today.

  10. Margaret Mullins says:

    Longing to visit Florence again. Your hotel sounds perfect. Is it terribly expensive?

    • Frances Mayes says:

      Margaret, different size rooms are different rates so best check their site. I’d say for Florence, mid-range. And you can walk everywhere. Frances

  11. Janet says:

    I was at Bramasole today! I have waited for several years to make it to Cortona. My husband was born & raised in Prezza, L’aquila, 3 hrs from night.I have always lived in South Carolina. This is my 10th trip I think since marrying him 17 years ago. All of his family is in Italy. I first saw Under the Tuscan Sun at the request of a Vietnam veteran who was stationed in Sicily in the 60’s. It is my second favorite movie of all times. The first being “An Affair to Remember” with Deborah Kerr and Cary Grant. I have probably seen them both at least 15 times each. I have the first book and ordered 3 more last night. I hope they will be at my house when I get home next week. My husband will stay here with his Dad for another week. Dad is the only close relative left here now. We will be back next October to celebrate Dad’s 80th birthday.

  12. Sandy Wetzel says:

    Thank you! We spent 8 hrs in Florence and Pisa – cruise pit stop. Saying that it was not enough sounds obvious, but many people don’t return. Your article just reinforces our desire to return, and experience the sights, sounds and tastes of Florence.

  13. Heidi says:

    I finally found the Smithsonian Journeys Winter issue (11/18) w/ your piece about Venice and the surrounding islands. It was so much fun to read about your travels to the islands in that particular slice of Italian heaven…Venice. I have a birds eye view of that area from Sept.’14 tours from a riverboat cruise on Uni-World, however, this gives me a new look at the interior of this dreamy place surrounding Venice. Thanks Frances for giving me this beautiful armchair view and drawing me into your travel world w/ your best beau. Wishing I could find a similar ‘my Ed’ as my beloved husband, best friend & worldly companion of 37 yrs. has unfortunately (for me) gone on to the next world to explore. My journeys are solo now or finding a friend that has similar interests. Sometimes a royal feat! Again, thank you for giving us insight into your wonderful travels….and introducing me to the other delightful writers in the newest SJ. Happy Thanksgiving!

  14. Candice says:

    Hi, Frances! A hello from China. I have been a big fan of you since middle school when I first read Under The Tuscany Sun. It provides me with such a vivid description about the life in Tuscany that everyday I dream about living there. I have recommended your books to all of my besties and they just love them. Romantic love, sunshine, and good food, Aren’t these what all girls want? I really love reading your books, because they reminds me that I should live my life like a poem and make it blossom like a cheery three. In China it’s not easy to get the original English ones, so I bought the Chinese versions. One day, I will collect all your works and pass it to my baby girl and tell her how I found the meaning of life and tell her that’s the life we should lead!
    Cheers!
    Candice.

  15. Andrea Ashmead says:

    Thanks for the info, Frances. I’m heading back to Florence, Naples and Venice in February so will check out all your recommendations. I hope to meet you stateside soon! Andrea.

  16. Shaun Antle says:

    Great post Mrs. Mayes. Just finishing up “Under the Tuscan Sun” and dreaming of our 10th anniversary trip to Paris and Italy for 16 days (Sept – Oct 2016).

    I absolutely love your posts and thoughts on all things Italy.

    I would absolutely love to continue to hear more.

    Thanks you again!

  17. Adelaide Myers says:

    On my family’s small farm in Virginia, your name and your delightful descriptions are well known! …As are your recipes — tomorrow I’m making “Chicken with Olives and Tomatoes” and “Baked Peppers with Ricotta and Basil.” I am drawn to the Tuscan lifestyle and dream to learn from experiences before quickly embarking on a college journey. I apologize if this is a common request, but would you consider giving me contact information of one who may use help in exchange for room and board? An owner of a local bed and breakfast or vineyard? I’ve had a variation of experiences, from working in a small cafe to taking care of a great grandmother. I do not speak Italian, but I hope this wouldn’t be too big of a drawback. And I hope to learn! I searched several websites with such opportunities, but my mom suggested that I ask someone whom we know. And your name came up. Evidently you introduce yourself quite well! All the best, Adelaide

    • Frances Mayes says:

      Adelaide, so sorry I don’t know of any position like that, though they may exist. I’m sure you will get there somehow! Frances

  18. The Lost Artist says:

    Hello Frances. Alas, I can totally relate as I spent five days in Florence recently. A truly incredible place. The sunset that projects onto Il Duomo is something to behold. Thanks in large part to your inspirational writings, I overcame several obstacles and managed to spend the month of April in Italy. Although I’m from Canada, as an artist, it felt like home over there. I missed Italy as soon as I left – almost like leaving a loved one behind.

    Thanks for giving something wonderful to the world. Thank you for inspiring me. I hope to someday soon contribute to the world with my artwork. All the best.

    Jason

  19. Vânia says:

    Dear Frances,

    Thank you for sharing Italy with us again. All your books are so delicious that I feel you are a very close friend. I have visited Tuscany and Cortona inspired by you.

    Best regards!

  20. Mia says:

    While my maternal family is Italian (my great-grandparents came to to the US from Falerna, Italy in 1915), it took your book, “Under the Tuscan Sun”, for me to discover the beauty of Italy in the everyday life rather than the tourist destinations. From the moment I first read your book (in 2001, reading & watching my kids jumping & climbing in a McDonald’s PlayPlace), my love of Italy sparked. I took a trip there in 2011 and, this May, my husband and I are renting a car and driving all through Italy for 2 weeks. I created our own itinerary and we are seeing Italy on our terms. Of course, Florence is in our plans and I thank you for the beautiful picture of Via Tornabuoni. I’d never heard of this street but according to Google maps, it is a 3-minute walk from our hotel. Thank you for sharing your experience with readers.

  21. Martha Mallett says:

    Montepulciano! Reading about their wonderful wines in Bella Tuscany.was a surprise and delight since I often purchase bottles from that region….and I love rolling those Italian sounds around my tongue. Your gifted, poetic voice is a joy to read, and your shared life stories take us right along with you to an Italy we adore.
    Best Regards, Frances and Ed!
    From a Georgia girl

  22. Linda Shea says:

    Dear Frances,

    I read Under Magnolia and was confused about your husband having your maiden name. Would you please explain. Loved the book!

    Also, I would love the recipe that you mentioned in the book – a Christmas treat I think you said.

    I’m sure you’re very busy and appreciate if you take the time to answer.

    Thanks,
    Linda

    • Frances Mayes says:

      Hi Linda, We decided we preferred my name to his. He’s an enlightened man! Not sure what recipe you mean but I think it must be Jetties. Look back, way back on the blog and you’ll find it in a Christmas post. Ciao, Frances

  23. Julie says:

    Buon giorno, Frances. I finally had the chance to visit Italy last summer after looking forward to it for years and it did not disappoint. While we didn’t stop in Cortana, we did get the chance to drive through Tuscany. Now, as I’m re-reading your books, I understand them on a new level. I’ve commented before, a few years back, but I just wanted to say thank you for writing the imagery and the feel of the land so perfectly.

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