Nicky Swallow

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About me

I moved to Florence in 1981 to play the viola in the opera orchestra; the contract was for 3 months, but inevitably, I stayed much longer. It was the food that got to me first. On a sunny Sunday in December a couple of weeks after I arrived, a colleague took me for a walk in the Chianti hills. In his backpack he had some rustic sausages, a loaf of saltless Tuscan  bread, a head of garlic, a flask of rough red wine and a bottle of his family's grass-green, freshly-pressed olive oil. In the incomparable, timeless setting of the Tuscan countryside, surrounded by vines and olive groves, he lit a fire, grilled the sausages and toasted the bread: he scraped garlic over the toast before dousing it with olive oil. It was all very romanitic, but I was much more interested in the bruschetta than in my colleague; I'd never tasted anything like it and knew that I had to have more, lots more.

Almost 30 years (and many bruschette) down the line, I no longer play music professionally and now divide my time between freelance travel writing and, as a nod to my musical past, running a chamber music festival in southern Tuscany (www.itslafoce.com). Much of my writing has been based around various aspects of life in Florence and Tuscany, but I've also written (or made contributions to) travel guides to Naples, Milan, Venice, Turin and Cape Town for the AA, Frommer's, Time Out, Dorling Kindersley and Insideout. It's a great way to get to know the the heart and soul of a city providing a valid excuse for being very nosey and eating in as many restaurants as possible in a short space of time. I'm the Tuscany and Umbria editor for the Charming Small Hotel guides and the Italy editor of the Hotel Guru website (www.thehotelguru.com). Magazine work includes regular contributions to Condé Nast Traveller. 

Downtime is spent with my Florentine photographer partner in our olive grove just outside Florence where our 300 olive trees produce copious amounts of deliciously pungent olio extra vergine di oliva each year.

My Florence

Where I always grab a coffee: My local bar is Caffé Ricchi in Piazza Santo Spirito, one of the lovliest squares in the city. Daniele makes fantastic cappuccino and knows that I like mine steaming hot (not always a given in Italy) and not too milky. Bag a table on the terrace to watch the daily drama of life in the neighbourhood unfold. 

My favourite dining spot: family-run Da Ruggero, one of the few genuine old-style Florentine trattorie still in business.

Best for people watching: Florentine designer Roberto Cavalli's café (Via della Spada 10r), just off chic Via Tornabuoni, comes complete with  trademark faux animal skin pouffes and a never-ending procession of chattering, designer-clad Italians. 

My favourite stroll: The Oltrarno, which hugs the south bank of the river, is a lively, Bohemian neighbourhood characterised by grand palaces, quiet squares, narrow lanes lined with artisan workshops, a lively nightlife and a relative lack of tourists. Start at Porta San Niccolò to the east and work your way west sticking to the backstreets wherever possible.

The most breathtaking view: from the terrace in front of the church of San Miniato al Monte at sunset. You see the city laid out before you as, in the forground, the Arno turns to molten gold in the evening light.

The best spot for some peace and quiet: the nether reaches of the Boboli gardens best accessed through the Annalena entrance on Via Romana. 

Shopaholics beware!: the Tuesday morning market that is laid out along the north bank of the Arno in the Cascine park sells everything from plants and flowers, fresh produce, bargain-basement fashions, imitation Vuitton and Prada and, if you're lucky, the genuine article fresh off the back of a lorry. The Florentine signoras love it.  

Best new attraction: celebrated antiquarian Stefano Bardini bequeathed his extraordinary, eclectic collection of Renaissance and medieval paintings and sculpture, furniture, arms and armour, musical instruments and the decorative arts to the city of Florence on his death in 1922. After a torturously long restoration, grand Palazzo Bardini and its contents are once again open to the public (Piazza dei Mozzi 1). 

Don't leave without....seeing Domenico Ghirlandaio's sublime 1480 Last Supper housed in the refectory of the convent of Ognissanti (Borgo Ognissanti 42).

My expert information

Florence (Tuscany, Italy, Europe,

It’s got a bit of everything

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