The first time I ever visited Florence, I was a young married woman, no kids yet, and no pre-conceived notion of what I would find. I used a travel advisor (at the time they were always and only referred to as “travel agents”) who booked us into a hotel on the Oltrarno (other side of the Arno) area, a short walk across one of the city’s bridges to the historical district. The hotel was nice enough, probably a 3.5-4-star property (before I had any concept of what those stars meant). It was right on the Arno with beautiful views from the public spaces and a courtyard that afforded the ability to literally lean over the river itself. One of my favorite photos from that stay was of me, wearing a newly acquired Roberto Cavalli jacket (before anyone had heard of him) and with the river and the old city as the backdrop. I looked happy. Our room was not as lovely, the one window looked out at an air shaft, the quarters rather cramped and much less than glamorous. But, we were in Florence! We ate pasta, and gelato, visited the requisite sites and walked the cobblestone streets till we could walk no more and had to take refuge in a café and in a glass of wine. It was like nothing and nowhere I had ever been; and it was the time that began my love affair with the city that, to this day, is where I live in my heart.
There is something magical about this place that I find hard to pinpoint. It may be that every time I go I discover something a new restaurant, museum or shop I never knew before. Or, it may just be that nothing ever really changes. There is so much to see and do, and so many places to do absolutely nothing. It’s the food (Oh, the FOOD), the markets, the people! Over the past 12 years, I’ve being lucky enough to come back almost yearly; and I now have the privilege of counting many business associates as friends. It gives me a thrill to reach out and say, “I’m coming home!” and have them respond with “great, let’s have dinner.” I’ve been invited to homes to dine with families, taken on hikes that snake out of the city and up into the surrounding hills, brought to tiny hidden restaurants I never would have found on my own, and gifted with little treasures that remind me of the tastes and smells of my beloved city.
One of my favorite places is the Mercato Centrale, where you can buy every manner of meat, cheese, and produce. I’m a kid in a candy store there, but it wasn’t until the spring of 2015 when I finally managed to snag a 6-week stay in a rented apartment that I could take full advantage of the bounty of the Mercato. What joy to be able to shop for prosciutto, mozzarella, tomatoes, bread and bring them all home to enjoy with a glass of Tuscan wine. Entertaining visiting family and local friends was a delight. Taking those long awaited Italian lessons and being able to order in Italian at the market or a restaurant, it was a dream come true.
And that hotel I stayed in on my very first trip? I now book it for clients all the time since it’s now the absolutely lovely (and recently updated) Hotel Lungarno (same name, very different place) where there are no rooms that face an airshaft!
It’s still unclear to me what, exactly, it is that pulls me back and makes my heart sing. But one thing I have noticed. Every time I arrive I feel like I can really breathe. And as soon as I see the river, the setting sun glinting off the dull gray water, I hear myself thinking, “I’m home.”