Florence in 48 Hours


One of these days I am going to form a society for people who, like me and many of my friends, used to live in Florence but left. Voluntarily. 

The W.T.H.W.W.T.O. Club for example: What The Hell Were We Thinking Of club ?!?  (One of my mates has to live with the knowledge he chose to leave Florence to go and live in Leeds.) 

We all had our reasons of course (love and money, missing friends and family) but basically, we capitulated to the feeling that living in Florence was just not Real Life. Deep down, we didn’t feel we could reasonably expect to get away with living there any longer. If you too lucky, there will surely be a terrible price to pay etc.)

Florence is not remotely Real Life. It’s the real Dolce Vita – where everything great about Italian life has been distilled to its purest form. The sun always shines, and everyone is stylish and good-looking, as if they had accepted a duty to live up to the beauty of their surroundings.

Being there always reminds me of the line in  White Mischief: “another fucking beautiful day !” Except in Florence, you have to add “another fucking beautiful piazza/palazzo/church/ statue”.

Going back grants me the peculiar distinction of being one of the very few people in Florence to be caused some sort of pain by being there. 

Stepping out of the hotel, it’s as if the grotty bits of normal urban life have simply been removed. The city centre is like an enormous, immaculate, backdrop designed, particularly at night, for drama. As if the grandiose riches and beauty of Rome have been crammed into somewhere as manageable and easy-going as Siena.  

By the time you get to Piazza San Giovanni it starts to get ridiculous. The square is so cluttered with treasures, you can’t admire the baptistery without being distracted by the newly-spruced up face of the Cathedral, the enormous Brunelleschi Dome, and Giotto’s bell-tower looming up behind it. It’s like stepping into an enormous pop-up fantasy book. 

Bryan Ferry once told me how much he liked Florence – a statement which reiterates that Florence is exactly the sort of place where Bryan Ferry would feel at home. Florence as one big Bryan Ferry video set where half the inhabitants look like Bryan Ferry too. 

In fact, Florence is the sort of place where Bryan Ferry is regarded as some sort of grunge artist. 

The overpowering sense of style makes you feel as if you stand out horribly – like the members of the Star Trek Enterprise when they beam down and try to blend in with some cowboy town from the past.  

You will never see a tramp in Florence. They have tourists instead. You can spot a tourist a mile away – in their suddenly tatty clothes, grey and shapeless, like pigeons, with their ugly straw hats, bottles of water, and shorts. (Florentines never wear shorts). 

The tourists are the ones being mown down by the motorinos buzzing down a one-way street or on the pavement. Tourists are the ones feeding the pigeons or (like the pigeons) sitting in the sun. (Florentines never sit in the sun. They don’t even sweat. )

The Florentines by contrast are pampered and preened, pettinato(groomed) – in super-short skirts and long coats, heavy jewelry and make-up. Not to mention the women: the city has a huge ratio of transvestites and transsexuals. Everyone looks good and wear shades. Even at night. Especially at night…

Cigarettes are fashion accessories, as are the motorinos that the city swarms with – to be driven one-handed, talking to a friend driving alongside, wearing shades and smoking. Each traffic light becomes like a grand prix grid for kamikazes, although why they are in such a hurry is anyone’s guess. 

Mostly life is one long giro: an aimless promenade round the palazzos and Prada stores. (Florentines never just stay in.) Window-shopping is, admittedly preferable to running the gauntlet of the shop assistants in Gucci, Luisa or Raspini. 

You can spend all day (or all your life) idly taking in the sights and shops, stopping off for hits of ice-cream, or coffee and cake, at any of the luxurious-looking cafes in the city centre: (Gilli, Paszlowksi, Rivoire, or the immaculate Cinema Gambrinus, where the waiters wear tuxedos and the cakes, sweets, and biscuits are laid out like jewels.
The tourists are the only blight on life here, maneuveringaround the piazzas, in American or Japanese packs, shepherded around by idiots brandishing giant garish umbrellas, like some sort of perpetual human sheep dog trial. 

You could lose the whole weekend in the queues for the local must-see celebrities like the David, Botticelli’s Venus, Perseus, Dante, Machiavelli. The Uffizi could take 48 hours on its own, not to mention the Accademia, the Bargello, the Pitti Palace, and Piazza Signoria. 

The crowds make the most obvious tourists sights virtually off-limits, but there are so many others arguably more interesting, more beautiful, that’s no bad thing. 

My favourite squares, like Santa Croce or Santa Maria Novella, barely earn a mention with most tour guides, and there are so many churches, you quickly develop your own fetish. I go for the starker facades, less stuffed with finery (with beauty) – like San Lorenzo, Santa Maria del Carmine, or Santo Spirito. 

The sheer scale of the Duomo means a lot of tourists miss the San Giovanni baptistery altogether. Inside, there are so many storyboards, getting more cosmic and kaleidoscopic the higher you go, you’re guaranteed to get neck ache, with the out-sized cartoon Christ almost like a piece of 13th century graffiti. 

The city’s secret jewel is the New Sacristy (alongside the Chapel of the Princes) a dark, dazzling Tardis and marble extravaganza, with Michelangelo’s figures of the Dukes of Urbino, lounging around stylishly, like a marble ménage a trois.

The other unmissable spectacle is the food market in San Lorenzo, where the luscious colour of the fruit and veg is undone by sights like the grumpy-looking pigs’ heads and the rows of rabbits hanging down, their blood dripping into the plastic bags wrapped round their heads like some of lapin suicide pact.

The gory array of the Florentines’ favourite dishes (tripe, pig’s trotters, the bodies of small birds laid out in boxes) will either convert you to vegetarianism or just make you hungry, in which case you should head straight to Latini or Cibreo, two of the city’s most caracteristico (or barbarico) restaurants. 

Any afternoon in Florence should end up at Piazza Michaelangelo or the Boboli Gardens watching the pink and blue sunset fall over the Arno and the silhouettes of the oarsmen rowing under the sepia cardboard pop up that is Ponte Vecchio.  

For dinner, the best pizza in the city centre is probably il Pizzaiuolo but in Santo Spirito, Borgo Antico’s white quattro formaggi pizzas are as thin and brittle as old manuscripts, although the  soundtrack of Queen and UB40 rather ruins things. (Florentines are ultimately not as cool as they like to think.) 

The nights in Florentine descend into the fast, dark, self-destructive pursuit of pleasure, as if living there was all too much for them, downing triple measure spirits in bars like Roses, Maramao, Apollo, and Dolce Vita or the recent proliferation of English and Irish pubs. 

Around midnight, Florentines converge at Cabiria or Caffe Notte in Santo Spirito for more espresso before heading out round the clubs and late night drinking haunts like the fabulously tacky Monte Carla club or Maracana where the concept of Florentine style goes out the window and you can end up dancing on the tables with Brazilian transsexuals until five in the morning. (That mescal at Apollo might have been a mistake.)   

Going back, or leaving, Florence will kill you either way.