A Tuscan Christmas: winter magic in Florence and Pisa

by The Otter

Market stalls piled high with lovely food, trattoria waiters with time to chat and no queues (except at Tiffany's on Christmas Eve, but that's another story); Florence and Pisa are a delight in winter

Tuscany isn't just about summer sun, olive groves and vineyards; if you would like to leave your cares at home and have a great winter break, a Tuscan city can be a revelation. I must say it is very pleasant to be able to wander around narrow streets free from the crowds of fellow visitors and the ubiquitous tour groups prevalent at other, more popular, times of the year. This year we thought we'd try our first ever Christmas break abroad and, Venice being far too expensive; we plumped for Florence with a stop-over in Pisa.

Where to stay

There are, of course, dozens of hotels at every price range in both Florence and Pisa but if you would like a day or two in Pisa and maybe a week in Florence; where there is so much to see and do, it is a good idea to combine a short hotel break with an apartment rental. Hotel Minerva in Pisa has friendly staff, is clean, pleasant and well located and offers good value for money; as does Hotel Verdi where I stayed once when the Minerva was full.

In Florence, the agency WayToStay has a comprehensive range of properties and provided a good service. We rented the small apartment La Trinita which was ideal for two, well located close to the famous Ponte Vecchio and the Piazza della Signoria. The apartment was accurately described on the website and, despite arriving two hours late, the patient owner waited for us and we were welcomed with wine, fruit and basic foods to start us off. It seems churlish to mention that the apartment, spotlessly clean and well equipped, was in a very narrow alley and thus didn't have much in the way of daylight. But, a review is a review!

Where to eat and drink

Florence is a great place for foodies with restaurants and trattorias for every pocket, not all of them tourist traps. Two favourites are Osteria Pepo (www.pepo.it) in Via Rosina (055 28 32 59) and Trattoria Cibreo in Via dei Macci. The Cibreo has a restaurant of the same name and ownership next door but with prices three or four times as much as the trattoria. This is curious as the food all comes from the same kitchen. I can recommend the rabbit stew, lovingly referred to as 'Roger Rabbit' by our friendly waiter. We were even treated to a couple of free taster courses and a total bill of 46 euros for two, including wine, was pretty good.

Similar prices can be found at Osteria Pepo - a shared first course followed by two secondi and dessert and wine came to 55 euros. The cooking was great with friendly service and pleasant background music on two visits, lunch and dinner.

Another great find is a wine bar called Enoteca Fuori Porta (www.fuoriporta.it) just over the river Arno in Via Monte alle Croce, immediately outside the old gate into the city. Here a glass of wine turned into a stop for lunch when we saw the delicious food coming out of the kitchen! The 'black rice with prawns and pureed vegetables' was heavenly. An excellent lunchtime dish only costs 8 or 10 euros, add in the cover charge and coffee and wine and the bill for two comes to 35 euros or so. 

For those times when you feel like eating in the apartment there are two wonderful markets in central Florence; Mercato San Ambrogio, near Santa Croce and the larger Mercato Centrale. The Mercato Centrale is huge, taking up two floors of a large market hall near the Church of San Lorenzo. Here the old adage that one usually eats well in cafés in or near markets is certainly true; the various eateries inside the market building all offer excellent value for simple, well-prepared food.

In Pisa, the Ristorante Al Vecchio Teatro is a place like no other, they pride themselves on the fact that: "we are not in Paris, neither in Rome or London, we are only in Pisa, little city of art and history". This local pride is reflected in their food, specifically Pisan! Try the Menu degustazione which costs 35 euros with the excellent house wine. Many courses of delicious local food ending with Brodo di Giuggiole, a hot alcoholic punch, after which a darkened room is needed!

For a simpler meal L'Antico Vicoletto in Vicolo del Tinti does an excellent frittura misto (mixed fish, fried). For 12 euros, with a carafe of house wine, starter and coffee, we are talking of about 25 euros per head.

What to see

There are so many guides to Florence and Pisa that it would be foolish of me to start listing the famous wonders of art, architecture, the gardens, palaces and shops of these splendid cities, suffice to add that visiting in winter means - no queues!

There are, however, a couple of lesser known gems I would like to mention. If you find yourself in the Piazza della Signoria in Florence take a close look at the stonework at the corner of the Palazzo Vecchio and the via Della Ninna, here you will find a profile of a face carved into the stone of the building, legend has it that this is the face of one of Michelangelo's debtors who was locked into the pillory for unpaid debts. Michelangelo, saying that a few hours in the pillory was not enough, carved his likeness into the stone so that he should never be forgotten. If true, this means that this simple carving is the only original Michelangelo sculpture in the Piazza; the David which everyone photographs is, of course, a replica! 

Just around the corner, in Via de' Neri there are two plaques on the wall of a building on the corner with Via San Remigio, one reads: "November 4th 1966 - the water of the River Arno reached this height." About 30cm below this another plaque reads, in gothic Italian: "1333 of the fourth of November, Thursday, on the night before Friday, the waters of the Arno rose up to this point". Is this an amazing coincidence, or what?

In Pisa, the tiny church, Chiesa di Santa Maria della Spina, on the lungarno Gambacorti, is a delight, as is the Chiesa di San Sepolcro and, for my money, the Piazza dei Cavalieri is the loveliest square in Pisa.

How to get there

There are numerous flights to Pisa. Easyjet (www.easyJet.com) has flights from Gatwick and Bristol (other airlines are available) and it is only ten minutes from Galileo Galilei Airport to the historic centre by train, bus or taxi. To Florence there are regular trains from the city and a "Terravision" coach from the airport (the train is cheaper than the coach but involves a change at Pisa Central).