A Weekend in Florence Italy
Last week I was in Florence, the Renaissance capital of Tuscany, Italy. Florence is steeped in artistic flair and grandeur but teeming with the lights and life of the modern world. It’s irresistibly beautiful, and only a short drive away from Pisa, Siena and Bologna. I stayed at the Belmond Villa San Michele, outside the main hub of Florence, up in Fiesole. The Villa – an ex-monastery – boasts the most fantastic views of the city. A tad worn from the journey there, I sat down in the villa gardens, feeling protected by its jasmine-scent and struck by the expanse of the city out beyond the garden walls. The façade of the Villa San Michele is said to have been designed by Michelangelo, and it is coved into the lush landscape like it has been there forever. Being in the Villa invokes peace. Its 15th Century monastic quietude, tucked into the hilltops above Florence, contrasts wonderfully with the panoramic views in the distance. But, of course, I had to go out too! I would be a fool to have missed out on the beauty of Tuscany, so I rented a car and headed off to Siena. You can do the journey by motorway, but I took the scenic route, through Chianti, and had lunch on the way at a delightful hamlet called Panzano. Poised between Florence and Siena, it’s a medieval site full of historic buildings and fantastic vineyards. I ate at a family-run restaurant, the kind of place you can tell is packed with locals who really know their cuisine. I was treated like a king (and ate like one too!) The following day I went to Pisa, considering it preposterous to be so close to the infamous leaning tower and not see it. ‘The Campanile’, as it is known there, is so iconic that it feels surreal when you’re stood right next to it. Being beneath the subject of so many postcards and history books is a weird and wonderful experience! I took the motorway back to Florence and boy did I regret it! I’d forgotten how manic Italian roads are and how crazily they drive! I was practically glued to the steering wheel in complete terror! My companion on the trip didn’t drive, so I had to swallow the fear and press on! In retrospect, I would encourage taking the rural route if you’re doing this journey!!! I went to Bologna for my next excursion (which is just a 35-minute train journey from Florence). I had a mouth-watering lunch next to the renowned twin towers in the centre. The restaurant – Al Pappagalo – has been a signature spot of Bologna since 1919. To this very day Al Pappagalo makes the most creative dishes, fusing traditional ingredients into innovative recipes. I give you my word guys, this place is unfailingly special. A walk around the Piazzas of Bologna awoke a profound sense of the historical richness of this region. The Bologna streets are practically speaking to you. As you walk under the old Renaissance arches you become aware of the heart of the city’s past and present. Bologna is culturally and ethnically diverse. Its undercurrent of vibrancy mixes with its past to create an atmosphere of old-meets-new. The mix reminded me of Marseille in southern France. Tuscany and the Provence share a celebration of artisanship, both littered with local markets boasting the best of craftsmanship. Bologna almost made me feel in love. It evoked the same sense of excitedness and enchantment. The city has the perfect balance of tourists and locals, making it dynamic and serene at the very same time; and I’m definitely planning to go back! There’s no doubt about it, taking the train (on business class) from Florence to Bologna was an excellent decision. The train networks around Florence are efficient and fast and the carriages are quiet and comfortable. By taking the train you’re better able to soak in all the magnificent landscape passing you by. It beat the motorway from Pisa, hands down! Once back in Florence, it was vital that I saw the Palazzo Pitti – the vast palace on the River Arno – so I jumped the queue (much to the annoyance of others!) to make sure I caught my slot! The paintings there take your breath away. The palace is unmatched as an exemplar of Renaissance symmetry and perfection! As you know, I keep my eyes open for unusual apparel whenever I’m travelling. Exploring Florence one day, I came upon a perfect shop! Dream, hidden on the lower ground floor of a tiny street, didindeed turn out to be the stuff that shoppers’ dreams are made of! The variety of clothes, shoes and bags – all carefully chosen by this innovative retailer – was astonishing! I bought two pairs of Adidas Lucas trainers (the range is named after a French skateboarder), one with pink stripes and another with white and yellow combined. I was a seriously happy bunny to have found them! On my last evening in Florence, I ate at the Enoteca Pinchiurri and had the a la carte menu. This fantastic restaurant has three Michelin stars, and it deserves every one of them! Tuscany and Florence are simply mind-blowing. The churches and basilica leave you with a sense of privilege for stepping into the rich history of the region. I’m not a Catholic, but the influence of the Roman church is obvious to all and cannot but impress us all. Now back home in London (after a remarkably quick journey direct to London City Airport) a part of me is still there. I can see the shaded features of the Villa San Michele in my mind’s eye as I write this. My Florence trip was thrilling, and a far stretch from London life, but I almost feel like I’ve taken the experience back with me. A little bit inside is still walking the Piazzas. This sense of bringing a place back home in your heart is, to me, the best sign that you’ve learned and grown during your travels.