Today we have a guest post from Judy, who recently spent over a month in Florence, Italy. Lucky, huh? In this post, Judy shares some lesser known tips for getting behind the scenes in this beautiful Italian city. If you’re on a quick trip to Florence, check out our ‘36 hours in Florence, Pisa and Lucca‘ post!
Florence Behind the Scenes
Florence is such a tourist mecca, and there aren’t really many unknown ‘secrets’ left to tell about this stunning Renaissance city. The average tourist only stays for a few days, as I did four years ago. This time though, I had five glorious weeks. So, once you’ve visited museums, cathedrals and galleries until you don’t think you can look at another sculpture or painting, what on earth do you do in Florence?
There is a huge number of language schools in Florence, and for my 4-week part time course, I settled on Scuola Leonardo da Vinci (well, why wouldn’t you, with a name like that?!), which is just a 5 minute walk from the Duomo. Their course books are right up to date, and the elementary level course was well-targeted for those of us who only had a smattering of very basic Italian, such as “grazie”, “si”, “mi dispiace” (absolutely necessary to know how to say sorry wherever you travel!), not to mention pizza, pasticceria, ristorante, vino – also necessary!
It’s worth keeping in mind that four weeks of three hours a day does not a fluent speaker make, especially with a language like Italian, with its multitude of irregular verbs and eight different ways to say “the” (yes, eight!).
The most common phrase spoken by our teacher was, “Ma, in Italiano…” which means, “But, in Italian…” This became a running joke, because it was always a harbinger of yet another illogical exception! So, can I speak Italian fluently? No, not even close! But I enjoyed the course and got to the point where I could make myself understood (as long as I had some time to formulate what I wanted to say), and can understand a lot more of spoken and written Italian than I could before. And what’s not to love about this view out of our classroom window!
While there’s a whole lot of ugly tagging and graffiti in Florence, a number of street artists call the city home, and it can be great fun finding these jewels of creativity. I found myself peering around corners into tiny side streets, just to find one I hadn’t seen before. I’m sure some people thought I was nuts, taking close-ups of street signs and graffiti! Their most prolific and famous (or infamous) street artists are Clet Abraham, a French artist who lives in Florence, Exit/Enter and Blub.
Abraham is my favourite, and ‘hacks’ street signs with his version of anti-establishment art by adding well-designed stickers that don’t affect the sign’s message. They can be easy to miss, but I love his whimsical creativity, and often found myself having a giggle at his sense of humour. His studio is in the Oltrarno district, not far from the Ponte alle Grazie, and you can buy your very own ‘rescued’ street sign.
On one side of the River Arno is the busy historical centre of Florence with its throngs of tourists. Cross over to Oltrarno and you can lose the crowds pretty quickly. At the southern end of the Ponte alla Carraia is arguably the best gelateria in Florence, La Carraia (they have another shop near Piazza Santa Croce). As you enjoy your creamy gelato, continue walking west along the river and you’ll find a green belt, something quite rare in Florence, where you can watch fishermen and water birds trying their luck and see Florence’s well known buildings from a different point of view – reflected in the water.
Florence is peppered with markets, most well-known like the Mercato Centrale. But if you walk far enough west to the Ponte alla Vittoria, you’ll find Florence’s biggest park, Parco delle Cascine, where there’s a massive market every day, selling everything from clothes to fresh olives and wine, frequented by both locals and tourists.
Purely by chance one day, I also came across the permanent flea market at Piazza dei Ciompi, where vendors sell antiques, old records, postcards, second hand clothing and furniture and other bric-a-brac. It’s amazing what you can find when you walk around aimlessly!
The Hub of Tuscany
Florence may become too rowdy and busy after a while. Check out Fiesole, which overlooks Florence and is just a 20 minute city bus ride away, with its wonderful Etruscan / Roman archaeological area.
A short climb from the town square and you get the most fantastic view of the whole of Florence from the Cathedral of St Francis (which has a great Missionary Museum with treasures from Asia and Egypt).
There’s also a myriad of day bus tours from Florence to seemingly everywhere in Tuscany – and all within around 1½ to 1¾ hours by bus. I took a Chianti hiking tour, and went to the Eurochocolate Festival in Perugia with Florence for Fun, and Pisa and Lucca with Ciao Florence.
My favourite tour was My Tours’ Siena, Montalcino & Val d’Orcia Wine Roads tour, which included the very pretty town of Pienza.
Let’s face it, Florence is a place where you can’t just sit and do nothing. There’s heaps to do every day and the historical centre has everything within walking distance. Just sitting at Piazza Santa Croce watching the street vendors and itinerant umbrella/scarf/selfie stick sellers is entertaining in itself and gives you a chance to give your tired feet a rest.
Within a couple of weeks I didn’t feel like a tourist any more, though most of the street vendors still tried to get me to buy their wares – every day, for the entire five weeks! Florence gets in your blood after a while, and leaving feels like you’re leaving home. As tourist meccas go, it’s safe and welcoming, and in staying longer you get past the tourist façade and see the city as the Italians see it.
Have you done a language course in a foreign city? Do you have any more tips about Florence? Leave your thoughts in the comments below!