A Strange and Different Firenze.
Early October is typically the height of the tourist season but it was a strange and different Firenze in early October 2021.
Much of that was due to the ongoing COVID restrictions. In Firenze, as in the rest of Italy, masks were required for all indoor activities including restaurants and museums. Of course you were allowed to remove your masks when you sat down to eat but many people chose to eat outside even on damp chilly days. Plus you were required to show your EU Digital COVID Certificate or proof of vaccination pretty much everywhere. As I mentioned in my Travel in the Time of COVID post, I received my certificate just before we left for Paris but my sister didn’t receive hers until just after we got to Firenze. Luckily my niece had her vaccination card and it was accepted in all restaurants and museums.
The city itself was extremely busy and it was difficult getting reservations but as my niece pointed out, most of the people seemed to be locals, perhaps taking their city back from the tourists. The only language I heard besides Italian was German.
We also had the strangest weather I’ve ever experienced in Firenze. Normally it’s beautiful and occasionally too warm through October but it was chilly and windy, especially on our third day; definitely the coldest weather in the more than 20 years that I’ve been visiting Firenze.
The weather certainly limited our activities as did the fact that we had to spend a half day hassling with getting my niece tested before her return to the States. At that point and into mid-December, testing required an appointment, typically at a farmacia (pharmacy). Once you arrived for your appointment, you had to show your passport, fill out paperwork and then get the test. Most pharmacies had a small tent outside where you received the obligatory swab up the nose which frequently feels like they’re performing brain surgery. Then after your test, you had a tense half hour, at least, waiting for the results.
But we still managed to have a good time and see some old and new places. So I’ve divided the post into Places to Go, Places to Eat and Where not to Stay.
Places to Go
The Leather School (Scuola del Cuoio)
The site given above states that, Scuola del Cuoio was founded after World War II through the collaborative efforts of the Franciscan friars of the Monastery of Santa Croce and the Gori and Casini families, Florentine leather artisans since the 1930’s. Their mission was to give orphans of the war a means to learn a practical trade with which to earn a living.
Saturday morning as we sat having our cappuccino and brioche at Caffe Finisterrae, located in Piazza Santa Croce, I had a brain storm that my niece might enjoy the Leather School, since she likes unique gifts. I first visited the School in 2019 with a friend from Istituto Michelangelo and thought both the ‘shop’ and the goods were amazing. After my sister and I returned to Firenze from Croatia that year, we went back to the school and I bought a handmade leather belt, engraved with initials.
The school is located behind Santa Croce. You follow via San Giuseppe leading east from the piazza seen in the photo to the right and about 2 blocks away, there is an arched doorway that leads into an open area behind the church. At first you may think you’ve missed the school but keep walking past the school yard on your left and you’ll see a sign pointing to Scuola del Cuoio. There’s a small courtyard and stairs leading up to the shop.
The School has hundreds of handmade leather products from beautiful designer bags to belts to journals. My niece absolutely loved it and after wandering around looking at all the beautiful goods, she probably bought at least $300 worth of gifts for her friends and a new bag for herself.
The staff is friendly and knowledgeable and not only puts every item in a cloth bag stamped with The Leather School in gold, they prepare the paperwork necessary to obtain a refund of the VAT if you meet the minimum amount and also tell you where to take the forms at the airport.
Il Museo Galileo
My sister and I visited the museum for the first time in 2018 (see Firenze, old and new post) and thought it was fascinating. So I thought my niece might enjoy it as something different from the places we’d visited in the past.
I’m not sure my niece enjoyed it that much, getting hung up on the preserved finger in a jar and the rather bizarre models of fetuses in one of the rooms. But I loved seeing the beautiful globes and maps again as well as the unique instruments invented by Galileo and those who followed him;
il Museo Galileo
il Museo Galileo
The Bardini Gardens
We’ve been coming to the Bardini Gardens since 2016; our tradition being to walk through the gardens to the very top, then stop at the little café for a prosecco, enjoying the spectacular views over Firenze. So Sunday after a brief walkabout, we decided to try it despite the cold and wind. We all spent about an hour re-packing since we were parting ways the next morning, then met to go to the gardens around 1:30 pm.
The lower level ‘biglietteria’, ticket office, is just a few blocks from Hotel Silla so we walked there quickly and bought tickets. (And I’m still annoyed they charged me 15 € when you can buy a combined Boboli/Bardini ticket for 9 € at the Boboli Gardens.) From the ticket office you can take an elevator or stairs to the lower entrance of the gardens. From the entrance we hiked directly to the ‘café’ and ordered our prosecchi. As you can see in the gallery below, we were huddled in our coats the entire time. We did take lots of photos since the wind had cleared away most of the clouds, leaving a beautiful view across the valley. But we didn’t linger and quickly hiked back down and hustled back to the hotel.
2021 was the first time in at least 7 years that I haven’t walked up to Piazzale Michelangelo (see Florence and Fiesole post) either by myself or with my sister or niece. It’s normally the first thing we do after arriving, especially if we’ve just flown in. It’s the perfect cure to jet lag. One of the reasons we’ve stayed at Hotel Silla several times (see Where not to Stay below) is that it’s just 3-4 blocks from the street that leads up to the piazza.
But between late trains, COVID tests and chilly weather we not only didn’t walk to Piazzale Michelangelo, our other walkabouts were quite limited.
Saturday, after we’d sat at Pino’s for as long as we could, we still had about 45 minutes before my niece’s COVID test. So I suggested a walk to Piazza dei Ciompi which is just 5-6 blocks from Pino’s. I’ve written about the piazza in my Istituto Michelangelo, parte uno post. What I find particularly fascinating in the piazza is the Loggia del Pesce by Giorgio Vasari, which used to be in Piazza della Repubblica.
It’s a lovely piazza and there was an interesting crafts fair with all types of handmade goods from food to clothing. We walked around looking at all the vendors and were definitly tempted to buy some of the items.
From Piazza dei Ciompi we walked back to Piazza Santa Croce and sat in the sun until it was time for my niece to take her test. (I’ve added a couple of photos from previous years to the gallery below to show the difference weather and a pandemic make.)
Piazza Santa Croce
Piazza Santa Croce
Once my niece got her test results (negative!!) we hustled back to the hotel for a celebratory bottle of wine on the terrace.
Sunday morning after our cappuccino and brioche at Caffé Finisterrae, we did a little shopping at the stores in Piazza Santa Croce. Then I suggested a walk up to Mercato Centrale which is a few blocks on the other side of Piazza del Duomo. Unfortunately it was closed so we continued to the Santa Maria Novella train station and bought our tickets to Siena.
From there we walked down via del Tornabuoni, probably Firenze’s largest and most high-end shopping street. We window shopped our way down the street deciding that sequined men’s jackets were not a thing.
Via Tornabuoni ends at Ponte Santa Trinita, one of the prettiest bridges in Firenze. And for 15 minutes or so the wind died down and we stood in the sun taking pictures.
view from Ponte Santa Trinita
view from Ponte Santa Trinita
We crossed over into the Oltrarno and walked through a very small piazza just off of via della Sprone hoping to make a reservation at Quattro Leoni but no one was around. By then the wind had picked up again so we hurried back to Silla.
Where to eat
Friday afternoon after checking into Hotel Silla, we were all starving because our train trip from La Spezia had taken longer than usual due to a medical emergency on the train after we left La Spezia.
So we walked down the lungarno to Signorvino’s which is just around the corner from the Ponte Vecchio. (I had first eaten at Signorvino’s in 2017 at a school dinner while attending IM, then my sister and I found a nice location in Bologna in 2018; see Forty Eight Hours in Bologna post.)
It was our first experience with having to show our EU Digital Certificates or vaccination cards and it was a bit of a cluster getting through the process. In fact, the waiter had to explain that what we thought were French Health Cards were the Digital Certificates. Plus we weren’t sure if my niece’s vaccination card would be accepted. Yes!!
But once we were cleared, we were seated at a nice table in the back of the main room. (The restaurant/enoteca has a huge terrace and a few brave souls were sitting out there. But we just wanted warmth.) We ordered a large tagliere (meat and cheese platter) with some of the best mortadella ever and a bottle of wine, then had a great time eating, drinking, people watching and talking about our experiences up to that point. We had great service and excellent food.
We’ve eaten at Antica Mescita several times over the years, largely because it’s right around the corner from Hotel Sill on via San Niccolo, near Porta San Miniato and the street that goes up to Piazzale Michelangelo. On a chilly, windy evening close sounded good. The meals I’ve had here have ranged from excellent to average. And that Friday night tended towards average probably because we’d eaten so much at lunch, we weren’t terribly hungry. We each had a pasta; mine with an arrabbiata sauce or something similar, my sister’s con cinghiale (boar sauce) I think and my niece had a carbonara, plus our usual bottle of wine or two. The best part was a luscious cheese cake and people watching and laughing with the waiters.
Caffe Finisterrae became my go to spot for a cappuccino during ‘pausa’ when I first attended Istituto Michelangelo in 2017. (see Istituto Michelangelo, parte uno and Istituto Michelangelo, parte due posts) I introduced my sister to Finisterrae in 2017 and we’ve returned many times when visiting Firenze. So I suggested going there our first morning, promising my niece a great cappuccino and brioche. Their prices had gone up a bit, 1,30 € for a cappuccino and 1,50 € for a brioche but they were still delicious. A far better choice than the pre-packaged (literally) breakfast at Hotel Silla.
Both in early October and when I returned in early November, dining was strictly al fresco. We first made the mistake of trying to sit in the area reserved for table service but then found a comfortable spot protected from the wind by plastic ‘curtains’ with enough sun to be warm. We entertained ourselves watching a nonno with his young granddaughters who looked to be about 4 and 6. They were fairly wild but he was extremely patient as I think is usually the case with Italian grandparents.
We had coffee and brioche again Sunday morning even though it was chillier and windier.
I was first introduced to Pino’s in 2019 by other students while attending Istituto Michelangelo. For some reason I missed the fact that it was a student hangout when I attended the school in 2017. But I’m glad I was finally clued in.
They have ginormous panini of every possible combination of meats and cheeses on what looks like ciabatta bread for 5-6 €. My favorite is one with mortadella, salami, various cheeses and artichoke hearts.
So Saturday after visiting il Museo Galileo, we had more than an hour before my niece’s appointment for a COVID test. Since Pino’s is just across the street from the test site at Farmacia Selvia, I suggested lunch there.
My niece loved it. I’m not sure which sandwich she got but I got my favorite. We should have shared though, because neither of us could finish. Later we took our leftovers back to the hotel where they froze in the fridge.
Pino’s has a few tables along the sidewalk and it was warm enough at that point that we could sit outside and do our favorite thing of laughing, talking and people watching.
The owner of Pino’s also owns an entoteca on via Ghibillina, Pozzo Divino. While attending Istituto Michelangelo in 2019, we had a fabulous wine tasting there. You can see photos in the posts referenced above. Before our trip I tried to find out if Pozzo Divino was open but couldn’t find any information.
We tried, without success, both Saturday and Sunday nights to get reservations at Quattro Leoni, an old favorite. So Saturday night I initially suggested Salsamenteria (see Places to Eat post) which was a bit of a hike on the other side of Piazza dei Ciompi. But it had become a take out place so back we went to the lungarno, first trying Signorvinos’s. Nope, it was packed.
So we started walking down Borgo San Jacopo, which is the first street going east after you cross the Ponte Vecchio into the Oltrarno. We stopped at several restaurants checking menus, finally deciding on Mama Gina’s.
And what a fun place it turned out to be. We got a nice table in the back and among the three of us we had chicken, a type of pasta with a creamy mushroom sauce, a pasta with ragu and deep fried zucchini. We had luscious profiteroles or the Italian equivalent for dessert. My niece decided it was a three bottle night and practically had to carry me back to the hotel.
And we had the funniest waiter ever. First he told us there were only two kinds of wine and he’d choose. Then when he realized we were totally agog over the table next to us, he kept walking by saying, OMG! OMG! And yes he spoke perfect English.
The table in question was one with about 15 young women and one (very happy) guy. All but one person at the table ordered Bistecca alla Fiorentina. If you’ve been in Firenze, you know this is a local specialty. It is very expensive and usually priced by the gram. To be a true Bistecca alla Fiorentina, it must come from the Chianina cattle, which are raised in southern Tuscany.
The better restaurants bring out huge slab of meat for you to see and choose how much you want. My sister and I first saw this several years ago when we were sitting next to a couple from Boston at il Ristorante Pandemonio, in the Oltrarno. When the chef brought out the slab, the husband asked for medium rare. Nope. Rare only.
If you set a bistecca in front of me, I probably couldn’t finish it if I sat there all day. These young women had their steaks whittled down to the bone and were actually gnawing on the bones, before we finished our dinner. Amazing!!
Osteria di Pitti
Sunday night after striking out on reservations at Quattro Leoni, we decided we’d try Signorvino’s again. But in an abundance of caution, I put together a list of enotecas and casual restaurants between the bridge and Palazzo Pitti. And was glad I did because Signovino’s was booked again.
So we walked up to the piazza and settled on Osteria di Pitti, largely because they had indoor seating. Afterwards I wrote: What a find!! Warm, cute, great waiters and fabulous food. We had pizza, pasta, and caprese salad plus 2 bottles of wine, a round of prosecco and dessert. We actually had two desserts, a tiramisu and a torta de mele.
Osteria di Pitti
Osteria di Pitti
Where not to Stay
I’ve written about Hotel Silla in several posts, including Where to stay, having stayed there multiple times since 2014. I’ve also written several Tripadvisor reviews praising the location, the staff, the rooms and especially the terrace.
This year was a huge disappointment. Given our previous experiences, it was a given that we’d stay at Silla for our three nights in October. We were stunned, though, when we checked in and were given rooms that looked like they were carved out of a storage closet. Not only were our rooms extremely small and located right behind the front desk where we were subjected to noise and cold, the bathroom in our room began to smell the first night.
While the staff did help my niece get an appointment for her COVID test, in general they were cold and borderline unpleasant.
My sister returned to Firenze in late October after we parted in Rome and stayed three nights at Silla. She said she’d never been in a room that small plus her shower leaked all over the bathroom floor.
What made it especially frustrating was that there seemed to be very few people staying there and plenty of other rooms.
I wrote a very negative review saying Silla seems to be all about money these days, not service or value.
Sadly, I doubt if any of us will ever stay there again. And I shall truly miss their beautiful terrace.
Hotel Silla Terrace
Hotel Silla Terrace