Tuscan dream: An obsession begins
Not that long ago, after a particularly difficult mid-life challenge, publisher Christine Hogan decided to tick something off the bucket list… to study Italian in Italy.
Call it indulgence, call it whatever you like, but a month living and studying in Florence at the British Institute was just the thing my soul needed. I arrived with some rudimentary Italian, was put into the intermediate group and the care of a very kind professore, and off I went straight into the land of the coniunctivi.
Every morning, I would head off from the student accommodation in the periphery for classes in the Palazzon Strozzino, very close to Via Tornabuoni in the centre.
At the end of classes, I would head off most days to visit a friend who was a manager at the Savoy on the Piazza della Repubblica for a coffee. After a coffee there, I would habitually head around the corner to I Fratellini, a stand up, hole in the wall wine bar and panini shop (try the wild boar – see below!)
Then I would pick up a gelato at the gelateria on the corner and toddle off to see at least one beautiful thing a day. One day is was the Giotto crucifix in Santa Maria Novella, another The Fall by Masaccio in the Carmine Church. One thrilling day it was the Ferragamo Museum (6 Euros, thanks!)
Afternoons were spent in the library of the British Institute (see photos above) where the whole joint was somnolent and sunny. The only challenge to that was the one afternoon a week when limited copies of The Spectator and the Sunday papers arrived. The habitués, galvanised into action, fair rushed the desk in an attempt to secure their reading before settling snoozily down again into the deep sofas and armchairs.
More on all that later. But here are some fantastic places to start developing your Tuscan roots…
The British Institute: Lungarno Guicciardini, 9, 50125 Firenze, Italy. “The British Institute today is a vibrant bi-cultural institution offering a wide range of educational and cultural programmes for the Tuscan community as well as students and visitors from all over the world.” Find its website here. Thanks to the British Institute, I was able to go up to the Villa d’Este on Lake Como, and speak with perfect confidence to Salvatore Piazza, the then-Maitre d’ of the Grill. “Ma com’é avete questo buon accento toscano,”he asked. (“But how is it you have this good Tuscan accent?”) Yes! There is an excellent restaurant on Lungarno Guicciardini heading away from the Ponte Santa Trinita bridge after the British Institute in a tiny piazetta which is worth a visit. Very dolce fa niente here.
Around the corner, in Piazza de Fresocbaldi, try Emporio Gelateria (near the corner of the Santa Trinita Bridge. If you are staying around here, there is a great little fruit and veg shop on the corner of the Piazza and Borgo San Jacopo. Also in the neck of the woods are a couple of good saumerie, but the best one is in the Borgo San Jacopo itself up near the Ponte Vecchio on the right hand side is a fantastic place for everything you will need for a picnic in your airbnb.
The Savoy: Piazza della Repubblica, 7, 50123 Firenze, Italy. This Rocco Forte hotel is in a prime position right in the centre of town. “Hotel Savoy encompasses everything that’s great about Florence – historical architecture, elegant style and five-star Italian hospitality. It’s a place that instantly attunes you to the culture of the city, where you can taste the best of Tuscan cooking and sip on the finest local wines. Hotel Savoy is located in the heart of Florence on Piazza della Repubblica, halfway between Uffizi Gallery and the Duomo. The rooms and recently refurbished suites are elegant yet contemporary, combining Italian design with artworks inspired by Florentine fashion traditions.” Find its website here.
I Fratellini: Via dei Cimatori, 38/red, 50122 Firenze, Italy. Find out more about it here.
The best quick lunch in Florence is this hole-in-the-wall, old-school sandwich shop serving panini and wine by the glass to sidewalk patrons. Just off the busiest tourist thoroughfare in the city, halfway between the Duomo and the Uffizi (and in the street immediately opposite the orsanmichele) , lies one of the last of a dying breed: a true fiaschetteria (derived from fiasco, Italian for a flask—i.e. of wine). It is the proverbial hole-in-the-wall, a doorway about six feet deep with rows of wine bottles against the back wall behind the counter and two extraordinarily busy people fixing sandwiches and pouring glasses of wine up to the brim—either a basic rosso (red wine), or just point to any bottle to try un bicchiere (a glass).
The patrons—Florentines on their lunch break and a few bemused tourists—stand around on the cobblestones of the narrow street out front, munching and sipping and resting their glasses on a Roman numeraled slot on the wooden shelves flanking the doorway. There are about 30 stuffing combinations. Try cinghiale piccante con caprino (spicy wild boar salami spread with creamy goat cheese in a split, crunchy roll).
Perché no!... Via dei Tavolini, 19R, 50122 Firenze, Italy. They are adventurous with their flavours here. Try curry with mango and peach or banana chocolate crunch. Find their Facebook page here.