Florence getaway: Helen Martin on her enchanting stay in the Etruscan city

by | Culture, Travel

It’s raining, a slow, steady, refreshing kind of rain that wakes up my sleepy self as I hurry to one of my favorite cafes in the heart of Florence. I love the sounds of the city, mostly the glorious church bells that ring out from dozens of church towers, reminding me to smile as I pass a gentleman playing a plaintive ’O Sole Mio on his accordion.

The cool and sleek interior of Cavalli’s coffee shop, just beside the signature Roberto Cavalli store, became a regular hangout for my morning espresso or cappuccino. With my morning coffee, I was treated to other unmistakable sounds: the clatter of cups and saucers being continually recycled as they are washed, dried and stacked. The baristas pile the smooth, white china with such flurry and style, design and balance — all the while creating symmetrical art displays.

The whole of this Etruscan city is a museum. The grand palazzos, the expansive piazzas, framed with soaring arches; public buildings designed to endure centuries, architectural elements that dazzle. Fountains and sculptures abound around every corner, another feast for the eyes as one marvels at the changing light playing on the ancient stone. Florence is alive every hour, offering Americans the perfect European street life we crave. For years I dreamed of leasing an apartment in Florence. My beautifully furnished one-bedroom was on the third floor of the Palazzo Rimbotti, which dates back to the 14th century, each apartment lovingly decorated by the elegant current countess of the same name. I traversed Via Tornabuoni, the street which boasts Giorgio Armani, Gucci, Roberto Cavalli and Hermès, which occupies the first floor of the Palazzo Rimbotti.

Leaving my street and walking toward the Ponte alle Gracie, I pass Salvatore Ferragamo’s headquarters, housed in a splendid, ancient, dark brownstone palazzo along the River Arno. I’m on my way to visit the Uffizi Gallery and view one more time Botticelli’s La Primavera. I pass a performer of street art in front of the Prada store — a lone, beautiful girl, dressed in white — I saw her several times during my walks around the city.

The sight of El Duomo with its huge dome provided a landmark for navigating the dozens of winding streets. The Gothic marble facade is breathtaking. Another landmark to guide me: Ponte Vecchio. The ochre tones of the shops glow. The Antico Farmacia just off Santa Maria Novella on Via della Scala enchants me. Opened in 1612, the ornate building boasts a tall, carved-arch entryway, marble floors and fine art lining every wing, each one devoted to a single department such as perfumes, handmade soaps and skin care. A stroll to Via Spiriti offered another uniquely Florentine moment: watching the fireworks over the Arno, in honor of Saint John, the patron saint of the city.

I visited jewelry designer Angela Caputi, knowing full well I probably could not afford any of her amazingly colored pieces. She was in attendance and helped me select earrings for myself as well as a bracelet for my sister, each piece surprisingly just $44 and $57. Her couture collection, showcased in the Pitti Palace Costume Gallery, extends into the many thousands, but this stunning Florentine artist designs for ordinary folks as well. I treasure the photo I had taken with her.

For me, Florence comes down to the food, sensuous and sumptuous; one falls in love with its unforgettable flavors. I had a pasta dish every day — all excellent! If I had to choose an absolute favorite, it would be from a wonderful trattoria along the river — plain large shells, made in-house, with fresh, slightly cooked, pressed tomatoes, flavored with pecorino Romano cheese, a drizzle of olive oil and fresh basil. (I did not add grated cheese. The chef and my waiter approved.) I also visited the restaurant Boca Lapi, just around the corner from my apartment, for the world-famous Florentine grilled steak: a T-bone, cooked “undone.”

I took a day trip north with my friend, Giuseppe, to walk along the Carrara Mountains. As I marveled at those huge marble mountains, exposing their treasures, I wondered: Did Michelangelo imagine David when he chose a piece of gleaming stone? Most say no. Legend has it that the master discovered his brave David as he chipped and cut the white marble; it goes on to say that the Lord himself touched his hand. In Florence, I gazed at David, and when I could gaze no more, with eyes lowered, I paid homage to his maker. Soon afterward, I said goodbye to the stately city on the Arno. Ciao, Firenze.