Published in the MetroWest Daily News
Sunday, April 7, 2013
It was sunset atop the Duomo cupola, and there was no mistaking that Florence is an Italian masterpiece.
The city spreads in every direction like burnt-orange brush strokes, the sun glinting off stone patchwork and terracotta rooftops. In the distance, the Tuscan hills rolled like slabs of marble en route to Michaelangelo’s workshop. And when a cool February wind whipped up the side of the dome, it carried with it a brisk reminder that Firenze is a timeless beauty at any time of year.
A typical stopover for tour groups young and old, Florence is Italy’s Renaissance city. From the famous masterpieces, to the goldsmiths along Ponte Vecchio, an ancient bridge spanning the Arno River, to the street musicians plucking away at violins, Florence is the hub of Italian art.
During high season, this cultural menagerie translates into hordes of gawking tourists, packed streets and exhausting lines. Most guidebooks suggest making reservations – not for restaurants but for museums.
But avoiding the chaos of summertime is both possible and worthwhile. You might have to bring a light jacket and gamble on the weather, but the payout is a jackpot – a more intimate Florence, where its treasures are more easily found and more efficiently won.
In general, traveling off-season (typically November through March) in Italy and much of Europe means that airline flights can be found at a bargain, compared to the skyrocketing summer fares. Cheaper lodgings tend to have more vacancies while the more pricey hotels drop their rates. For example, in March a premier room at the Four Seasons Firenze would cost more than 300 Euro (about $385 U.S.) less than in late July.
Battling the weather is merely a matter of layers and can be surprisingly more comfortable than midsummer’s sweltering heat, if you pack correctly. The winter Florentine days are crisp and when clear, the blue sky is a picturesque backdrop for the towering multicolored marble facade and red-ribbed roof of the Duomo, the medieval parapet tower jutting from the Palazzo Vecchio, the city's Romanesque town hall. But the weather plays only a small role in enjoying of Florence, as many of the city’s most striking possessions are found indoors.
During peak months, Florence’s two must-see museums, the Uffizi Gallery and the Academia where Michaelangelo’s David calls home, recommend securing admission in advance.
I arrived in Florence mid-week in mid-February, checked into my charming, affordable hotel – Residenza Della Signora – and within moments was perusing the Renaissance masterpieces in the Uffizi. The line for walk-ins at the museum was shorter than the reservation line and I strolled right in. Without a crowd in this typically crowded U-shaped gallery, the great and lesser-known works alike were more accessible, intimate and enjoyable. Rather than be shuffled along from frame to frame, I was able to spend time indulging in the classical subjects, the technique, use of color, dimension and depth that all blossomed during the Italian Renaissance.
At the Academia, which I walked into the next morning, again without making a reservation, I was reminded of an August visit here some years back. Back then I was hustled along, hastily pushed through the main corridor leading up to Michaelangelo’s David. Now, without the gaping throngs, I lingered at the series of statues that line the hall leading up to David. Michaelangelo’s The Prisoners, as they are called, appear to be breaking free from the massive stone slabs, perhaps unfinished or intentional. The museum layout wisely leads visitors from the least to the most developed sculpture, demonstrating the evolution of the virtuoso artist, culminating in his great masterpiece, David.
But visiting Florence off-season also gives you unfettered access to the region’s other works of art: the food. I gorged on the benefits of off-season travel several times in Firenza, but none were more satisfying than the culinary ones.
All’Antico Vinaio is the number one rated restaurant in Florence, according to most popular travel websites, guidebooks and almost anyone who has ever eaten here. This tiny sandwich shop down a side alley does not look spectacular but everything inside is. The queue typically starts early and stretches out the door and down the cobbled sidewalk. I arrived on a sunny February afternoon to an empty storefront. I strolled past a friendly man sweeping the doorstep and was immediately hit by waves of exquisite aromas. On the counter sat a whole Prosciutto di Parma (cured ham), next to a steaming roast beef still bleeding from the slice cut for the previous customer. Next to that rested a massive porchetta (roast pork). In the deli case were rows upon rows of tapanades, spreads, olives, tomatoes (fresh and sun-dried), cheeses, meats and who knows what else.
I ordered a porchetta panini, which was sliced in front of me, with fresh mozzarella and olives. For the paltry fee of 5 Euro (about $6.40 U.S.), I received a sandwich bloated from heaving slices of roast pork, crispy skin and all.
Another Florentine gastronomic institution, Trattoria Mario, is an experience all its own. You wait, but in off-season you don’t wait as long. Then you sit, you introduce yourself to the strangers you squeeze in next to, you look up at the board with the ever-changing menu. You say, "si, vino (yes, wine)," and you sit back and soak in Italy swarming around you in all its chaotic culinary glory.
Trattoria Mario is a hole in the wall off a piazza, with hundreds of overwhelmingly positive reviews covering the windows and doors. The menu changes daily but everything they offer is something you’d be unable to find anywhere this side of an Italian grandmother's kitchen. I opted for a thick, velvet white bean soup with the word "mangia" (eat)) spelled out on top in dark green olive oil. It was an exquisitely un-busy dish, like most other dishes I saw exit the central galley kitchen. The buzzing chefs do not overdress their dishes, letting fresh ingredients shine.
Beef braccioli, served on Wednesdays, was pounded thin, breaded, pan fried, rolled and swimming in tomato sauce. The meat was so tender I never picked up a knife.
Back atop the Duomo cupola, I watched the setting sun bathe Florence in an orange halo. The last entry to climb the 463 steps to the cupola closes around 5 p.m., meaning most visitors throughout the year experience a beautiful but typically daytime view. But the winter sun sets earlier – just another perk of an off-season visit to Italy’s Renaissance city.
IF YOU GO
WHERE TO STAY: Residenza Della Signoria offers charming, elegant rooms furnished in classic Italian style, with beautiful exposed wood-beam ceilings. Staff is friendly, rates are affordable and it’s perfect location on one of the main thoroughfares is within walking distance to all major attractions. Residenza della Signoria is located at Via dei Tavolini 8-50122, Firenze, Italy. Telephone: +39 055-2645990; Email: firstname.lastname@example.org or visit www.residenzadellasignoria.com.
WHERE TO EAT: For incredible sandwiches and a cup of wine, try All’Antico Vinaio located at Via de Neri 65, Santa Croce, Firenze, Italy, 50123. For an authentic Italian dining experience, complete with communal seating and out-of-this-world dishes, visit Trattoria Mario located at Via Rosina 2R (near Piazza del Mercato Centrale), Firenze, Italy, 50123. Telephone +39 055–218550; Email: email@example.com or visit www.trattoria-mario.com. Neither place accepts credit cards so bring cash and a big appetite.
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