The other side of Florence

by Anne.Hanley

Cross the Arno, leave the Uffizi and other famous landmarks of Florence behind, and enter a world of real shops, bars full of locals, traditional food and artisan workshops. This is the Oltrarno

Rivers often divide cities into “official” and “alternative” districts – think of Paris, with its Left Bank, or Rome’s Trastevere. Florence is no exception. North of the Arno is the historic centre, which revolves around the twin civic and religious hubs of Palazzo Vecchio and the Duomo. Here, too, are most (though not all) of the city’s cultural draws: the Uffizi gallery, the Accademia, the churches of Santa Croce, San Lorenzo and Santa Maria Novella.

Cross the Ponte Vecchio… and the contrast is not immediately apparent. After all, there are some pretty fine palaces here too – including Palazzo Pitti, Florence’s most bombastic Renaissance palazzo. Other families to make their home on the south side of the Arno include influential Florentine clans such as the Macchiavellis, the Guicciardinis and the Capponis, and wine dynasties such as the Antinoris and the Frescobaldis.

One such family pile – the elegant 16th-century Palazzo Magnani Feroni – has been turned into a 12-suite luxury hotel (doubles from €220) without forfeiting its intimate, privileged aristocratic atmosphere. Alongside these imposing residences are a handful of fine churches – one of which, Santa Maria del Carmine, contains one of the city’s most unmissable sights – the astonishingly naturalistic early Renaissance frescoes by Masaccio and Masolino in the Brancacci Chapel.

But as you get away from the souvenir gauntlet of via de’ Guicciardini, which connects Ponte Vecchio with Palazzo Pitti, and begin to wander west towards piazza di Santo Spirito, you start to pick up on the Oltrarno’s unique character. This is an area of real shops, of neighbourhood bars full of Florentines, of motorbike mechanics and haberdashers’ shops, and (once you get into the piazza itself) morning market stalls overflowing with seasonal fruit and vegetables.

It is also full of artisan workshops where leatherworkers, jewellers and makers of handmade paper ply their trade. Some are very high-end indeed – such as celebrity cobbler Stefano Bemer, who once took on Daniel Day Lewis as an apprentice for 10 months in 1999-2000 (the actor wasn’t training for a role; he just wanted to learn to make shoes). Bemer’s exquisite, understated traditional men’s shoes start at €850 for a ready-to-go pair – while bespoke models cost from €2,300. A more affordable artisanal shop-op in the area is chic and cheerful Aprosio – where designer Ornella Aprosio works wonders with glass beads, which are woven into brooches, earrings, necklaces and handbags.

Waking up in Oltrarno is a delight. It’s not overrun with tourists even at peak times, but early in the morning is when the district is most magically itself, as the market traders set up their stalls and residents walk their dogs or browse the Florentine newspaper La Nazione over a cappuccino and a brioche.

If you can’t stretch to the rates at Palazzo Magnani Feroni, become a temporary local by checking into Floroom 1, a small but very stylish new b&b, which overlooks a charming little piazza. There are just four rooms (doubles from €140) – but this is one of the most design-savvy b&bs I have see in Italy. It’s also great value (free wi-fi, soft drinks and all-day gourmet nibbles are included in the price, plus a generous breakfast centred on homemade cakes and fresh fruit). And don’t write off the Lungarno as unaffordable – the first of the Ferragamo group’s five Florentine hotels to open in the city that is home to the brand, this luxurious contemporary classic, with views across the river and Ponte Vecchio, offers rates as low as €180 depending on occupancy and the time of year.

The other great thing about Oltrarno is its lively eating and drinking scene. Begin the evening with a little something at Le Volpi e l’Uva, a tiny wine bar (open 11am-9pm, closed Sun) with a comprehensive selection of wines from smaller Italian producers, many of them available by the glass. Then move on to bohemian and just a tad bijou Filipepe (€50 a head without wine; open daily, evenings only), a creative restaurant with shabby-chic, French-inspired décor and sapid, Calabrian-inspired cuisine: the chef hails from Italy’s Deep South. For something more resolutely Florentine, head for piazza della Passera, where Il Magazzino (€30; open daily) serves up dishes so classic they should have preservation orders slapped on them: ravioli stuffed with lampredotto (a form of tripe – go on, try it), stewed rabbit, cantuccini (sweet almond-studded biscuits) with Vin Santo dessert wine. After a meal here, you’ll start talking like a local.

Restaurants

Le Volpi e l’Uva (+39 055 2398132, www.levolpieluva.com), piazza dei Rossi 1r.
Filipepe (+39 055 200 1397, www.filipepe.com), via San Niccolò 43r.
Il Magazzino (+39 055 215 969), piazza della Passera 2-3r.

Artisan workshops

Stefano Bemer (+39 055 222 558, www.stefanobemer.com), borgo San Frediano 143r.
Aprosio (+39 055 265 4077, www.aprosio.it), via Santo Spirito 11r.

 

 

 

Anne.Hanley

I have been writing about Italy for over 25 years for papers (Sunday Telegraph, Independent), magazines, news agencies and – most prolifically – travel guides, editing many editions of Time Out's Venice and Rome guides.

I pitched up in Rome in 1984, thinking of staying for a year or two; but I've never managed to drag myself away from Italy. After 20 years in the Eternal City, I'm now in the wilds of the Umbrian countryside where I continue to edit guides, and design gardens (www.laverzura.com).

Of all Italy's glorious cities, Venice is undoubtedly my favourite: I love its unique beauty and that special feeling of complicity it gives anyone who gets to know it well. I make sure I visit the lagoon city three or four times a year: sometimes for a few days, occasionally for weeks. Any excuse will do: an article to write, a garden to look at, my Time Out Venice guides to update, a new hotel to check out, or just a much-loved restaurant with a pavement table and a view I find myself hankering after. What never ceases to amaze me about the place is how, despite my constant visits and endless exploring, every time I go there, I happen across something new. There’s always a reason to return to a city that reveals its secrets so slowly but so surely.

My Venice

Where I always grab a coffee - The selection of excellent coffees at the Caffè del Doge (Calle del Cinque, San Polo 609, www.caffedeldoge.com) means that there’s always the perfect cup to match my mood.

My favourite stroll - With construction work at the Punta della Dogana finally over, I can once again do my walk; the view across to San Marco from this easternmost end of the Dorsoduro district is stunning.

Fiction for inspiration - Donna Leon’s Commissioner Brunetti crime novels show this American writer’s excellent knowledge of the city. But I have a sneaky affection for Henry James’ wordy The Wings of the Dove.

The most breathtaking view - The spectacle from the campanile (bell tower) of San Giorgio Maggiore is heart-stopping. But the view from the Molino Stucky Hilton’s Skyline bar (Giudecca 810, www.molinostuckyhilton.com) is pretty good too – and you can enjoy this one with a glass in hand.

The best spot for some peace and quiet - When busy Venice gets too much for me, I hop on a vaporetto to the Giudecca and wander through to the boatyards and echoing alleys on the southern side. So atmospheric.

Shopaholics beware! I find the purposeful bustle and real Venetian spirit of the food morning market at the north-western foot of the Rialto bridge quite wonderful, even if I’m not buying.

City soundtrack - Anything by Vivaldi is the obvious choice here in his city, but I also find the works of Andrea and Giovanni Gabrieli very fitting. These 16th-century composer-brothers wrote works for performance in St Mark’s basilica in the 16th century.

Don’t leave without…trying to round the column: looking at the Doge’s palace from the lagoon side, go to the third column from the right. To one side, stand with your back against it; now try to walk around it without falling off the pavement. I’ve never managed.