Posts Tagged ‘Florence’


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50 Places in
Rome, Florence, and Venice
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Discover the Best Places in Italy’s Big Three for Women…

Art that glorifies feminine curves in Florence…
Botticelli's Birth of Venus at the Uffizi, Florence

Cooking Class with a Roman Mamma…
Go to Cooking Class with Daniela del Balzo, Rome

Artisan lacemaking in Venice…

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Even if I’m only changing trains in Florence, I have to check my bags and make a dash to this nearby most amazing store:

Officina Profumo Farmeceutica di Santa Maria Novella

It was once a 14th century Gothic Church, founded by the Dominican Friars, who were part of that whole medieval bunch of holy men who started gathering Italian flowers and turning them into health and beauty potions. Thanks to those gentlemen, we have one of the most gorgeous shops on earth, that turns a shopping trip into a mystical experience.

It’s one jewel box of a room after another, staffed by chic women who graciously offer you chances to sniff and sample these bewitching creations. It’s also bursting with wonderful souvenirs. I LOVE the potpourri, made with ten different herbs and flowers from the surrounding hills, packaged in velvet pouches. Yes, you can now get Santa Maria Novella products on-line and at stores in New York and Beverly Hills, but there is nothing like going to this dreamy source!

AND you are near the Basilica Santa Maria Novella, a vast beauteaous spot filled with frescoes from Renaissance masters.

For lunch? The nearby Trattoria Garga at Via del Moro 48r, is a delicious, artsy hangout, beloved by Florentines and tourists.

Insomma…Just steps away from the Florence train station, you can smell, see, and taste some of Italy’s finest creations.


Florence is full of thousands of lucky Americans like Meagan Brown: college students who spend semesters in this beautiful city. I met Meagan through her My Adventures In The Land of Tomatoes blog, a wonderful account of her 2009 Fall, where she studied the city’s history, interned for The Florentine, and fell in love with Florence.

Now back at the University of Denver, with memories still fresh, Meagan graciously shares with me her vision of a Golden Day in this beautiful place. She began by writing about what she sees as “the heart of Florence”: the Arno River. Since she lived near there, she’d watch amazing Tuscan sunsets over its bridges, and ride her bike along its banks. “The river has a way of slowing the city down,” she says. “It creates an obstacle so that people walking across or sitting in traffic waiting to move on can have a moment of peace with it, recognizing the worth of it.”

And here’s Meagan’s ideal day:

I would start by the Arno, sitting in the park on the bank by Ponte San Nicolò, watching older Italian couples meander through, stopping at the kiosk for a café.  I’d follow the bike path (the best way to move through Florence is by bike) up Viale della Viovine Italia to Piazza Beccaria, then turn left down Borgo la Croce. This is one of my favorite streets in the city, lined with restaurants, gelaterie, cell phone stores, tabbacherie, churches and more.  Moving slowly down this street and catching snippets of conversations is like a peek behind the tourism veil that Florence sometimes pulls over itself. 

Borgo la Croce eventually deposits me right near the Duomo, on Via del Proconsolo.  I turn right and move around the massive cathedral, feeling minuscule in its shadow.  I make a full loop around it. Moving by bike is easy in the newly designed pedestrian-only zone. 

I’d ride down Via Calziaoli and make a quick left onto Via dei Cimatori to my favorite gelateria, Perché No? I found this place because the woman I lived with in Florence told me she went there every day.  I asked her what her favorite flavor was and she didn’t stop talking for five minutes.  “Canella, nocciola, cioccolato, mandarino, stracciatella…” Naturally, I had to experience this wonder for myself.  I tried the mandarin flavor and fell instantly in love.  It tasted as though I had just peeled a mandarin orange and taken a bite.  I returned often, to eat my gelato outside, on a corner to the left of the shop. I’d sit on church steps, looking across the street at another strangely beautiful church, the Oransmichele

When I walk through Piazza della Signoria I imagine I am there in a different time.  As though Cosimo de’ Medici just returned from exhile or Leonardo da Vinci was entering the palace to work on a painting.  I love sitting on the steps by the loggia  and listening to street musicians, allowing the history of the area to overwhelm me.

The Borgo degli Apostoli, that winds down near the Uffizi Galleries, is another favorite street to bike down in the afternoon when many shops are closed and people are home eating long, luxurious lunches.  I’d wander by the olive tree, planted as a sign of peace after many were killed there in a bombing meant for the Uffizi. I’d go past hardware shops and leather goods calling my name. Then there’s Piazza del Limbo, and a humble olive oil shop with a large dog sitting outside, and steps leading down to a place where centuries before the original foundation of Florence once was. I go through the alley and am greeted by the Arno River, reflecting the warm Tuscan sun.

For lunch I love to go to grocery stores, to practice my Italian while choosing my  panino and paying much less than I would in the center of town.  My favorite is simple yet astounding: plain bread, pesto, mozzarella di bufala, and sliced turkey.  I have tried to replicate it here at home and it wasn’t quite the same—but believe me, it is a taste bud-defying sandwich. As for dinner, the one restaurant that stood out to me was Perseus (Viale Don Minzoni 10r, near Piazza della Libertà). I wasn’t sure what to expect because it isn’t right in the center of town, but from the first night I dined there I found it enchanting. Waiters wearing matching aprons heartily laughed with one another, the man who led me to my seat told me he and his friends called themselves the “Three Stooges.”  There are meats hanging in a display and fresh vegetables and soup heating right as you walk in, enfolding you in the smells and colors of the food.

It’s truly incredible how at Perseus they understand how to cook meat to such a delicate form.  Be sure to start with pasta or zuppa.  Though the menu is not in English the camerieri are friendly and helpful – they want to make sure you enjoy their masterpieces!  I loved sipping table wine (which I recommend) after the meal and simply talking and enjoying the atmosphere.  There is no rush to move, your glass is magically refilled and the waiter is gone before you notice.

When going out at night, I would meet my friends at the Duomo or Piazza Santa Croce and move from there.  The Santa Croce area is lined with bars and nightclubs to fit anyone’s taste.  Any type of venue you can imagine is within a five minute walk of where you are.  There are high scale bars and grimy one-bathroom places that serve more beer than anything else and there are clubs filled with Americans, and some with Italians.  Anywhere along Via de’Benci, which turns into Via Giuseppe Verdi is a great place to start the night.  If you’re taking a taxi back to where you’re staying and it is only women in the cab be sure to ask for the discount for women alone: donne solo because the cab drivers will only give it to you if you ask.

Though Florence is riddled with history, it’s alive and dancing if you know where to look. Enjoy discovering all of it!

Grazie, Meagan!


You’ll see this divine image all over Italy: The Annunciation. The moment when Mary gets the Announcement from the Angel Gabriel: The Divine Is Within You!

Florence is full of them…The city celebrates its birthday on The Feast of The Annunciation, March 25…nine months before Christmas. Renaissaince painters wore down their paintbrushes capturing the action packed scene.  The most famous is the one above, by Fra Angelico, that you’ll see in San Marco. Here’s a favorite of mine by the Mannerist Pontormo, in Santa Felicita, where Mary looks like a runway model.

Every painter wanted to capture this wonderful idea: the divine presence in a mortal woman. The moment when she accepts her destiny.

Oh, I’ve heard the laments from girlfriends: “I saw too much of that in Catholic school–blah-blah…” And I say, “Come on, you’ve got to get Jungian about it or you’re going to miss out.” This is a rite of passage, this is the beautiful glorification of the A-HA moments in our lives when nothing that follows will ever be the same.

Can all these Annunciations be one of the many reasons why we women love Florence so much? Does this scene of a woman being called to a destiny she could never have imagined resonate somewhere within us? Does it fan the spark of the divine within?


Buon Anno! Tanti Auguri! Let’s eat lentils like the Italians do for the New Year, to bring in a Golden Year of Prosperity, Good Health, and Joy!

I’ve had lots of memorable New Years Eves in Italy with my husband and friends, all revolving around spectacular meals…There was one in Rome that started at Ristorante Tullio, near the Piazza Barberini, where we ended up walking from fountain to fountain until the wee hours of the morning.

There was one in Paestum, in the agriturismo of the wonderful Baronessa Cecilia Bellelli, where we’d joined Arthur Schwartz’s culinary tour, and made a timballo to add to the feast—where we dined, danced and celebrated with Cecilia’s friends and family.  There was

welcoming the New Millenium in Venice, watching the fireworks over the Grand Canal!

And there was the unforgettable first New Year’s Eve in Italy, where we happened to be in Florence, without a dinner reservation…Yikes. It had snowed, our pensione was badly heated, we were wandering the streets getting turned away at every ristorante we approached–(I’ve learned since then to reserve well in advance!). We finally found a table, in a dull, dark restaurant near the Duomo…tough veal was served, and when I got up the gumption to complain in my then shoddy Italian, a cranky chef emerged and asked me in English, “Do you want PIG?”  I fought back tears, my husband escorted me out. We were about to call the night a wash, when we found ourselves by the Arno, in front of the Grand Hotel. We peeked inside, and saw fancy Florentines sitting there as if they were watching paint dry–a scene as sorry as that awful veal. But then, blessedly, across the way was The Excelsior…where we opened the door to music (American jazz), fashionable Florentines foxtrotting…and two empty seats at the bar…

We toasted with prosecco, had our first Italian New Year’s Eve lentils, and danced under the golden chandelier to “Georgia, Georgia…” A night saved, a magical Italian New Year…a golden time.


I was a fan of Judy Witts-Francini long before we met face to face. I got to know her through her fantastic Divina Cucina web-site, the best guide to the food of Florence out there. Judy’s a native California gal, who moved to Florence over 25 years ago, and now is a central part of the town’s culinary scene. I finally spent time with her in person last year, just before her wonderful first cookbook was published: Secrets of My Tuscan Kitchen.
Just like her Divina Cucina Logo (an angel holding a wooden spoon), when I’m with Judy–whether it’s in the Central Market of San Lorenzo or just walking through the streets, I feel like she’s a guardian angel by my side, guiding me to the best tastes out there. 
So I asked Judy for her version of a Golden Day In Florence, and here’s what she had to say: 
Florence is such an easy place to walk around and enjoy each of its neighborhoods with art, history and fabulous food at every corner. Since I lived by the fabulous Central Market of San Lorenzo, I often never left my neighborhood–it has everything. 
To start the morning off right, at the corner of Via San Antonino and Via dell’Ariento is one of Florence’s best pastry shops, Siena. The old brick woodburning ovens were replaced over 10 years ago, but they remounted them on the wall in the front room which is a nice touch. Serving Illy caffe, Master Coffee “barist” Massimo will make creamy cappucino. If you want a caffe latte, don’t say latte. Latte means milk and he’ll hand you a large glass of hot milk.I like to order a mini Napolitano- style Sfogliatelle here, they are filled with a light Chantillly cream and are to die for.

After breakfast, cross the street and head inside to the food hall. Even if I’m not shopping, it’s a paradise of color and great place for photos. There are places for more snacks or a light lunch, such as Nerbone which opened in 1870 or farther down at Pork’s, a little bit of Sicily with Mamma Benita and her family. 

On the backside of the market, are some of Florence’s best little trattorias. Mario’s (Via Rosina 2r, Closed Sun, cash only) and Pepo’s are two of my favorites.

Behind the trattorias, I head down  Via Taddea, to one of my favorite shops–the Civaiolo. It’s a one stop kitchen shop, old style, and the first place I go to look for anything: beans, rice, toilet paper, pots and pans in alluminum, stainless steel or the traditional clay, which I adore.You can even have keys made here.

Leaving via Taddea, we run into Via Ginori, lined with artisan shops. On the left are handmade books, plexi-glass fun jewelery, custom picture frames, a Bagel shop and Coccoli, a new Artisan chocolate store. 

If I turn right and head down towards the Duomo, the street changes to Borgo San Lorenzo, another great shopping street with ceramic shops, shoes and clothing, without downtown prices. 

Not to be missed is the famous Medici ChapelBehind it, I can turn to via dei Conti and enjoy a fabulous Bistecca alla Fiorentina at Cipolla Rossa, a butcher owned restaurant. You can’t go wrong there.

Heading past the Duomo, I pass by Ricceri Ceramic shop, run by the famous family from Impruneta. They ship and I have always found something there very special.

 Continuing down the street, on your left is Penko, probably one of the best goldsmiths in Florence. This is where I bought my wedding rings–copies of an ancient design that was popular in Florence during medieval times.

My favorite gelato shop, GROM, is to the right of the Campanille, down the alley. Famous for using the BEST ingredients, GROM is now a chain, with shops in Bologna, Torino, Paris, and NYC.

Now I am downtown and really in trouble as every block has something special. To get away from the touristy part of town,  cross over the Ponte Vecchio and head over to what is called the Oltr’Arno. Getting off the main streets here, you find yourself in a maze of artisan workshops.

Borgo San Jacopo is a fun street to start on, where the 5 star Hotel Lungarno is located. Walk down the tiny alley to the small terrace overlooking the Arno River. This is my favorite photo spot in town with the Ponte Vecchio right behind you. 

The street is shop after lovely shop and as you keep going, it changes names to become Borgo Santo Spirito. Don’t miss the Angela Caputi shop or the expensive but  Magical Aprosio, with their tiny glass beads made into fantastic pins and earrings. 

No one can shop without keeping up their strength. I enjoy the Santo Bevitore, just at the end of the street for a light lunch or possible the lovely Osteria di Convivium. 

If I only could have one dinner, I would head to Cibreo. You have a choice of eating at the main restaurant, which is expensive, but the service, wine cellar and appetizers make it one place I suggest to all my food loving friends. You can also head around the corner, to the Trattoria where the food comes from the same kitchen at half the price! No fancy stemware, no tablecloths, no huge wine list, communal tables at times, but the same incredible food! 

I’ve just given you a tiny taste of Florence.  I believe Everyone should try being Florentine at least once a year. 

I have a dining guide available by neighborhoods. I think while exploring the wealth of art in Florence, you should always be able to discover the local places we love. No need to backtrack for a great meal.

And there is always gelato! 

Grazie, Divina Cucina. I’ll be back soon for a Cibreo fix, etc…


Here’s one of the many places in Florence you come upon and gasp: Santa Croce–Holy Cross–a Gothic masterpiece that holds inside the glorious tombs of Italy’s superstars: Michelangelo, Gallileo, Machiavelli, etc…

Stepping inside is a more peaceful experience than visiting the Duomo–it’s less crowded, you can take a seat, have quiet time to absorb your surroundings.

Such incredible surroundings with masterpieces by Giotto and this stunning Annunciation by Donatello:

  And out the doors are the cloisters, an escape from the hub-bub of Florence, created by the Franciscan monks, followers of Saint Francis, that genuis whose philosphy was to live simply…

On your way out, to the left, don’t miss the statue of Florence Nightingale, who was born here and named for the city:

There’s stalls of leather everywhere in the neighborhood. The most refined, sublime place to shop is the Scuola del Cuoio  (School of Leather) that’s tucked in the back of Santa Croce, in what was once the monk’s lodgings. You can stop by and see artisans at work, get custom-fit for a coat by one of the family members who has run this place for over 50 years, or even take a class in leather-making, like I did…

And then of course…where do we eat? I love Osteria de’Benci, Via de’ Benci 11-13/r, 055/2344923, Closed Sun.


That glorious historic center of Florence, where every door you open is like flipping up the cover of  an exquisite jewelry box–is not the most pleasant place to stroll about. Sidewalks are narrow, vespas roar. Once, across from Santa Croce, to my horror, a pigeon showered me.

So when I have the craving to really WALK, I cross the Arno and wind up a curvy route to Piazzale Michelangelo. Early morning or sunset is best.  You catch your breath as you look down upon the domes and red roofs of this beloved place.

Take the extra steps to walk behind you and find the Church of San Miniato–one of Italy’s prettiest from the 11th century. Last time I was there in the early morning there were monks singing vespers in the crypt down below. Upstairs it was just me and these beautiful images:

You’ll feel refreshed. Wind down the hill to the San Niccolo area, and stop by the cozy L’Enoteca Fuori Porta, one of Florence’s newest wine bars (from 1987), that serves over 200 selections from all over the world.

Above: A recipe for how to feel heavenly.


In honor of BLACK FRIDAY, let’s go shopping in Florence with my friend-of-exquisite-taste, Rosanne Cofoid. Rosanne is one of those Italian-American women who has a flair for style–in that simple, elegant, eye-catching way. We met on a group trip to Abruzzo years ago, and I immediately got a girl crush,  just from her ensemble.

Rosanne has poured her passion for Italy into creating a tour company, La Dolce Via Travel, that customzies tours to Italy–meticulously creating itineraries where hotels, restaurants, and sights are chosen, so you feel as if a fairy godmother designed the whole vacation to fulfill your dream-of-a-vacation.

Since Rosanne’s such an expert, I asked her to clue us in on some favorite shopping experiences in Florence, and she said:

Allora, let’s get in the shopping mood…Florence is home to many famous design houses, such as Pucci and Gucci.

The place to go to pay homage to another of these geniuses is the Museo Ferragamo, which showcases the works of Salvatore Ferragamo, one of the greatest Italian shoe designers ever.  The museum was opened in 1995 and the collection spans the  the history of his career from 1927 onward.  If you can’t splurge for a new pair from this classic house. go to the downstairs museum, where you can ogle hundreds of his unique and truly revolutionary creations for only 5 EURO! Museo Salvatore Ferragamo, Piazza Santa Trinita 5r.  Tel.  055.3360.456.  10:00 to 6:00 (closed Tuesday).

Now that you’ve been inspired and you’re in the Florentine state of mind, it’s time to shop for real.

One of the most unique jewelry shops I know in Florence is Penko, situated near the Duomo.  A true goldsmith who uses only authentic tools—no machines here–Paolo Penco’s work is done in the Florentine style, often emulating the stylistic elements of the Renaissance.  One way he shows his artistry is in the recreation of jewelry worn by subjects in works of art, such as a necklace worn by one of the Graces”  in  Botticelli’s “Spring”.   He also does a variety of works in silver and gold without precious stones, and the pricing overall is quite reasonable.  His workshop is right behind the front counter, and he’ll be happy to show you how he creates these authentic pieces.   The shop has the increasingly rare distinction of “bottega”, namely, a workshop that is mainly aimed at keeping alive the traditions of Florentine artisans. Penko, Via F. Zannetti, 14-16r,  Tel.

If you’re looking for something for your home, Lungarno Details has something for every home décor, style guaranteed.  The store is  part of the Ferragamo empire. In addition to the fashion house, the family owns several hotels and restaurants in Florence (and one in Rome and the Tuscan countryside), all with the unmistakable style they’ve come to be known for.

Good news for those of us who need a shopping fix before we can get to Florence:  there will be an online Lungarno Details store soon!  Lungarno Details, Lungarno Acciaioli 4/R.

Grazie, Rosanne—I lived through you vicariously today…


After devouring Dianne Hales’ book, “La Bella Lingua, My Love Affair With Italian, The World’s Most Enchanting Language,” I finally got a chance to meet the lovely author last week when we were on a panel together at the San Francisco Italian American Museum, talking about what makes Italy especially attractive to females.

Dianne’s book (released last May), is an enticing, entertaining, and passionate story about her adventures studying Italian. Naturally, she’s traveled to Italy often, and when I asked her to describe to me one of her Golden Days, she said…

I would begin my golden day watching the sun climb over Florence and its hills from the rooftop terrazzo of Palazzo Magnani Feroni, across the Arno from il centro in a neighborhood of artisans’ studios, antique shops, and galleries.  I stayed there so often when I was researching LA BELLA LINGUA that I came to think of it as “il mio palazzo.” However, this gem of a restored 16th-century family home (with just twelve exquisite suites) and its amiable staff are so welcoming that every guest  probably feels the same. (Conde Naste agrees: It just named Palazzo Magnani Feroni the most charming small hotel in Europe.) 

 Since I studied Italian’s history in the city known as la culla della lingua italiana (the cradle of the Italian language), I can’t resist its literary sites. My first stop would be the Bibliotheca Medicea  or Laurentian library,  built in the Renaissance to house the Medici family’s vast collection of precious manuscripts. Michelangelo designed the dramatic staircase that leads from the ricetto (reception area) to the reading room. With its vaulted ceilings and paneled walls, this cathedral to books and learning never fails to fill me with awe—and admiration for the beautifully illustrated manuscripts on display.  

Every street in Florence is so packed with treasures for the eye that I try to take different routes as I wend myself past the breathtaking Duomo, which Italians call Il Cupolone (the big dome).  I head for the via del Proconsolo, lined with several must-see museums, including the Bargello Naitonal Museum, as well as shops selling a Florentine specialty: leather purses, gloves, shoes, jackets and more.  

My choice for lunch is a wine bar called Angels, a favorite among locals so you’ll find yourself surrounded by Italians speaking Italian. Right across the street is an elegant upscale restaurant—a good choice for a special dinner: Alla Murate, a  restored guild hall with sophisticated cuisine and the oldest known portrait of Dante Alighieri (with a straight rather than hooked nose)

If the sun is shining and the day is warm, I would spend the afternoon strolling through the Boboli gardens , adjacent to the Pitti Palace (which merits a golden day of its own).  Don’t miss whimsical sculptures such as the Bacchino (little Bacchus), a fat naked dwarf sitting on a tortoise and the Fontana dei Mostaccini (literally, “Fountain of the Little Ugly Faces”.)  

I would then take a short detour to visit one of the supreme masterpieces of Renaissance painting: the fresco cycle in the Brancacci chapel of the Church of Santa Maria del Carmine. For centuries artists came to sit and stare at these breakthrough paintings by the young artist known as  Massacio (a nickname meaning “messy Tom”). I can never take my eyes off the anguished faces of Adam and Eve as they are exiled from the Garden of Eden. 

A literally golden part of a day in Florence comes in early evening.  Thread your way above the Arno, past the piazza Michelangelo  to San Miniato, the oldest church in Florence. My daughter and I once arrived just in time for a concert by a visiting Welsh choir. We walked outside as the sun was turning the Arno and the roofs of Florence to gold. The spectacular sunset continued like a Technicolor slide show as we made our way down the hill. 

For dinner I recommend the mouth-watering bistecca at a restaurant called—aptly enough for this post–Golden View on the banks of the Arno. Reserve a window table so you can look out on the Ponte Vecchio and the Uffizzi. As an added bonus, you can enjoy live jazz most nights. 

I would end the day exactly where I began it: on the rooftop terrazzo of the Palazzo Magnani Foroni.   Weather permitting, there is a full bar until midnight.  On request, the hotel serves dinner for guests.  My husband and I celebrated one of the most romantic anniversaries of our lives there, toasting the magic of a full moon ascending over a truly golden city. 

So you see why I depend on savvy women I know  for advice!


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