Florence Stories and Tips

The San Lorenzo Neighbourhood

I could happily live in Florence without ever leaving this vibrant neighbourhood. Busy, often chaotic, the daytime population is swelled by thousands of tourists, most searching for bargains, some seeking to explore part of Florence's political and cultural history, others seeking food and drink. Large numbers of students add to the lively milieu in these narrow cobbled streets squeezed between Fortezza da Basso, V.Panzani, V.Cerretani, and VMartelli and V.Cavour.

You can eat, drink, and sleep here. You can shop in Europe's largest indoor food market (Mercato Centrale), which is cosily enclosed by one of Europe's largest outdoor leather goods and clothing markets (Mercato di San Lorenzo). You can shop in dozens of small, family-run businesses. There are bakers and pasticerria selling delicious breads, pizza slices, savoury snacks, biscotti for dipping in wine, dolce made with fresh fruits, cream, mascarpone, and displayed with typical Italian flair.

There's a shop selling exquisite hand-painted ceramics on Via Guelfa and another in Piazza di San Lorenzo specializing in tapestries, brocaded cushions, and wall hangings, many embroidered with the purple Florentine lily, symbol of the city. You can buy notebooks, pens, pencils, postcards, cheap framed pictures, calendars, and prints of Florence at the cartoleria on Via Faenze. You can buy newspapers and magazines, Italian and foreign, at the newsstand close to the Medici chapels or the shop on the corner of Via Nazionale and Via Faenza, which also sells 'phone cards, film, tourist guides, cigarettes, and chocolate bars. There's an excellent shop on Viale Strozzi which meets all your photographic needs. You can get your watch repaired at a tiny shop in Piazza di Madonna degli Aldobrandini and keys cut at the heel bar and key cutting shop on Via Faenze.

Fifty yards away you can take courses in Italian Language, Culture, and Cooking at Centro Lorenzo de Medici. When you leave class, cross the street for a look round Alice's Mask Shop, where Alice and her father practice the ancient craft of moulding papier-mache masks typical of 18th century Venice. Feltrinelli's bookshop on Via Cavour has a collection of English language books.

Buy a corkscrew at the kitchen equipment shop on Via dell'Ariento so you can use it to open the wine you bought at Casa del Vino on the same street. In this attractively simple enoteca with its dark wood and marble furnishings, there are always wines to taste before you buy and you can order a sandwich while you're making your mind up. Gianni, who runs the place with his father, will be happy to share his expertise with you. There's another excellent wine shop adjacent to Palle D'Oro (see above) where there are always a few regulars standing at the bar enjoying a glass of chianti. There's a laundromat on Via Nazionale and a smaller one on Via Faenza. Using the latter you could cross over to the bar on the corner of Faenza and San Antonino for a coffee, beer, or glass of wine while you wait. Or visit the neighbourhood barbiere a little further up Via Faenza and get your hair trimmed. Or drop into Your Virtual Office a few doors from the barbiere and get up to date with your e-mails. Alternatively, you could just sit and watch your underwear swirling round while contemplating the serious matter of where to wine and dine tonight.

There's an inviting array of traditional Tuscan trattorias to choose from and the amount you spend is very much a matter of choice.

For a good start to your evening, head for the Newsbar at the end of Via dell'Amorino. Oddly, since this area is frequented by so many tourists, the clientele is almost exclusively Italian, perhaps because they know something most tourists don't. There's nothing particularly striking about the Newsbar, except that in addition to having open bottles of wine on the bar from which one can choose to order a glass, there are also plates full of small panini and other little appetizers on which you can feast while enjoying your drink. This can save you the cost of an antipasto at the ristorante.

Where to eat? This is not the place for lengthy reviews. Some of these I'll describe more fully elsewhere, but there are some San Lorenzo trattorias I can confidently recommend. Everything in this neighbourhood is minutes away from everything else, so you can check them out first. In no particular order, you can eat well without breaking your budget at Palle D'Oro on Via San Antonino, and on Via Faenza at Antichi Cancelli, Trattoria Enzo e Piero, and Trattoria Antellesi.

On Via Nazionale, La Lampara offers a wide choice within a broad price range, from pizza and pasta to complete four-course meals. Close to the Newsbar, where you've just been indulging in their free nibbles, is Ristorante de'Medici (Via del Giglio). Peering through the windows at the large, high-ceilinged, chandeliered rooms, you may think it stuffy and grand-hotel-ish. Appearances are deceptive, however, and the Medici is another place you can drop into anytime for pizza or a simple pasta dish. If you're determined to have the famous bistecca alla fiorentina before leaving Florence, this is as good a place as any to order it, although your bill will rise considerably.

Over on the other side of the market on Via Guelfa, I'Toscano serves excellent Tuscan fare in two attractive rooms (don't confuse it with the cheap cafe and similar name on the same side of Guelfa), while on the other side of the street, Cafaggi offers a good value menu turistico. Around Piazza San Lorenzo, Trattoria Zaza, with its wooden bench tables, framed film posters, and subdued lighting, is a long-time favourite of mine, and unfortunately of a great many others. Dinner reservations are recommended for all these trattorias, but especially Zaza. Two places on Faenza, neither of which I've been to, have attracted some admiration: Lobs, a fish restaurant adjacent to Centro Lorenzo di Medici; and Maracan, a Brazilian restaurant with Latin dancers to entertain you throughout dinner. At midnight it turns into a disco, open till 4a.m.

For lunch only, don't miss Trattoria Mario on Via Rosina, where you'll mix with market workers and other regulars. It's just outside Mercato Centrale. Just inside the market is Nerbone, which has been serving simple, cheap Tuscan food since 1872.

For slices of pizza, brioche, schiacciata (a rosemary flavoured Tuscan bread baked with olive oil), and a multitude of cakes and fruit tarts, try Il Fornaio di Galli at the intersection of San Antonino and Faenza. On San Antonino, close to the market, is a friggitoria, selling the Italian equivalent of junk food, and where you can buy freshly made donuts and apple fritters.

During the 15th century, this neighbourhood was the political heart of Florence, where the Medici, the city's most enduring dynasty, governed from Palazzo Medici while San Lorenzo was built as their parish church. Most of them are buried in the Medici Chapels, their tombs the work of Michelangelo. It was in the mid-15th century that the tradition of wealthy, ruling families sponsoring art and artists was begun by Cosimo de Medici, named father of the country (the city-state of Florence, not Italy) after his death in 1464.

Two of Florence's greatest Renaissance artists, Donatello and Filippo Lippi, were probably the first ever artists in residence, living in Cosimo's Palazzo. Lippi, a Carmelite monk, had a voracious appetite for wine and women, and Cosimo resorted to locking him in to keep him focused on his painting. Lippi escaped using bedsheets as a rope and eventually Cosimo gave up his attempts at restraint, observing that artistic temperament was uncontrollable.

So when you look at this large, austere Palazzo, now a seat of provincial government as well as a museum, try and imagine one of the Renaissance's greatest religious painters edging down the wall clutching his bedsheets as he headed for a night of debauchery. Lippi eventually absconded with a nun from Prato who bore him several children, including Filippino, who also became a Medici court artist.

I'll tell you why San Lorenzo is my favourite Florentine church in another section and also about the four neighbourhood hotels where I've stayed.

One final recommendation. Don't just be an extra, another walk-on in this extraordinary theatre. There's a bar on Via Faenze where I sit a couple of times a day watching the constant human parade go by while I write my journal. Nobody bothers me. Find somewhere you're comfortable, a bar, the steps of San Lorenzo or the stone seats built into the walls of Palazzo Medici. And observe, reflect, and write.

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