FLORENCE:A TRUE ROMANCE
WHEN WRITER MARY GRAY CAME TO FLORENCE, SO BEGAN A 10-YEAR LOVE AFFAIR. SHE REVEALS HOW THE CITY STILL HOLDS HER IN ITS THRALL
PHOTOGRAPHY GETTY IMAGES AND MICHELLE AYER
can tell you really love this city,’ a Florentine friend told me over aperitivo, the ice in our half-full Negroni glasses melting in the summer heat. His assessment caught me off guard. I’d just expressed my irritation at the place we both call home – he, since birth; I, for the past decade. In moments like that it’s easy to feel disloyal to my younger self, the starry-eyed romantic who fell for the ‘Renaissance city’ during her university years. But look at any partner in a long-haul couple. After the fog of early passion has lifted, their love becomes specific – their affection deepened by details. Leavened by time. Like so many visitors to Florence, I was initially swept away: a classic case of Stendhal Syndrome, so named after the 19th-century French author who wrote of how the city’s beauty stirred dramatic physiological responses in him: heart palpitations, cascading emotions, and other markers of being besotted with a new beloved.
Stendhal’s most potent sensations arose in the Basilica di Santa Croce. Christened the ‘Temple of Italian Glories’, the Franciscan church is cinematic and imposing. The burial site of Michelangelo, Machiavelli and Galileo, Santa Croce lays claim to Dante’s legacy, too. An honorary tomb awaits the return of the poet’s remains from Ravenna to his native Florence, 700 years after his death. The frescoes by Giotto in the Bardi Chapel left Stendhal’s head spinning. The scenes from the life of Saint Francis are moving, the sort of paintings I lingered with well after my art history professors had finished lecturing. Years later, though, the Pazzi Chapel, once used as the monks’ chapter house, draws me in. Breathing in the balanced proportions and the muted pietra serena, a grey sandstone used in some of the city’s most quietly memorable corners, feels restorative: a calming antidote to the sensory overload inside the church. Most visitors, however, tend to miss it.
Forgoing blockbuster specialities like bistecca alla fiorentina (Florentine steak) is less common – even in my student days I indulged regularly. But now I find it far more satisfying to stroll through the Mercato di Sant’Ambrogio. Between the whiffs of fresh herbs outside and the rough-hewn, lunch-only Trattoria da Rocco indoors, few spots in town can touch it. Morning stops at Sant’Ambrogio see opinionated home cooks duelling with their veggie vendors. They argue about the precise way to trim artichoke leaves, or the merits of different tomato shapes for sauces. Impassioned exchanges like this may also break out at the Mercato Centrale, a busy market closer to Florence’s main monuments.
The fascination with Ponte Vecchio, the bridge lined with jewellers and jostling tourists, never fades. Its beauty and deep significance are clear: Ponte Vecchio was famously spared by German troops in 1944 on the night when all other bridges crossing the Arno were bombed (look up over the heads of window shoppers to see a small plaque commemorating Gerhard Wolf, the German official who played a decisive part in its salvation). Today, however, I’m pulled more towards the treasures on the other side of the bridge. The Oltrarno district – that’s ‘beyond the Arno’ – is a day visitor’s delight: a tapestry of artisan workshops, boutiques and alternately gritty and glamorous bar-cafés.
I’m partial to the San Niccolò area, the southeast portion of the district, for its cobbled charms, outdoor eateries and secluded rose garden. The Giardino delle Rose is along the pedestrian route to Piazzale Michelangelo, a well-known lookout point. Even when the flowers aren’t in bloom, visit for the views alone. As the years pass, I’m drawn to Florence’s more discreet attractions. Where once I fell for the grotto-rich Boboli Gardens, the statue-lined pathways of the Bardini Gardens now hold more appeal. The river looks better from beneath Torre della Zecca, the town’s former mint, than it does from a luxury rooftop. And good luck to any glitzy chefs who dare compete with a cup of salted caramel gelato from La Sorbettiera, or a spicy plate of pici alla carrettiera pasta at the stubbornly old-school Trattoria Gozzi.
The Davids and the Uffizis are rightly among the city’s must-sees. But for those who return, deeper connections will be built on something more than sparkle – something found in quieter corners and rituals. My friend, of course, was right. He recognised that Florence had provoked me in the way only a beloved can. It’s a good thing the two of us are in it for the long haul.
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