The journey from Bologna to Florence is an easy one: 40 minutes on a high-speed, comfortable train. If you travel, as we did, just before dawn on a clear April morning, you get to see the sky changing from inky black to velvety midnight-blue in the brief moments in between tunnels. Blink and you miss it, however, as you’ve no sooner noticed it than you’re back in the depths of a mountain. By the time you get to Florence, it’s a surprise to be shot out of the darkness into the bright early-morning sunlight which floods over the tracks, welcoming you to the city.
In a great first impressions moment, the station knocks me sideways. It doesn’t appear to have changed since it was built in Mussolini’s time, and everywhere you look there is gorgeous Art Deco detailing. I’m a sucker for this period anyway, but this is impressive stuff. There are pale brown block marble columns, which at this time of the morning (just before 7am) are casting the most beautiful shadows. All the signage is in that very particular tall, round-edged 1930s font, and contained by similar black borders. Doors are tall and made of black metal and glass, topped with windowed lintels. I feel like I’ve stepped back in time into an Agatha Christie novel. When we then reach the main ticket hall and are faced with a beautiful Deco skylight covering the whole hall, I am in absolute heaven. I could stay here and drool over the architecture all day, were it not for the fact that my stomach has, by now, woken up and is growling at me with serious intent. My brain, on the other hand, is still fuzzy with lack of sleep and in desperate need of coffee. We stumble out of the station into a Florentine morning in search of the nearest bar. Bar in the Italian sense, that is – one which serves coffee and pastries, rather than booze. I may be on holiday, but I draw the line at hard liquor before 7am.
The first vaguely breakfasty place we come to is McDonalds. There’s no way I’m going to go in there in Florence, of all places, when I could get sinful, delicious pastries and proper shots of espresso on pretty much any street corner. We therefore totter 100 yards further on and find a pasticceria. Perfect. In common with so many Italian coffee shops, there is a large glass counter displaying all manner of pastries, each larger and more delicious than the last. I eye up what looks to be a giant doughnut, the size of a small melon, but decide to plump for the safe option: cornetto con crema. I’ve become a bit addicted to these croissants filled with crème patisserie. Biting into them, the filling squidges out of the edges, and you are hit with an instant rush of sugar. Combine this with Italian coffee and you can fly your way through that first, sleepy hour of the morning no problem. Beside me, Alex snorts with laughter. I throw a questioning look his way and he nods towards the window of the bar, which proudly proclaims ‘Bar Napoletana’. We’ve come all this way north, just to end up in a southern Italian bar. We’re brought back to the north with a bump when we come to pay, though. €13 for coffee and pastries. Ouch.
Now that I’ve woken up a bit, I read the directions that I’ve been sent by the hostel. Quite by chance, it seems we’ve ended up on the right road and are already halfway there. Brilliant. We gather up our bags and stroll through the streets. The city isn’t really awake yet, and it’s lovely to breathe crisp, cold air while taking in some of our surroundings, unrushed by other people. We are on the north side of town, away from the main tourist sights, but you can still see the Duomo from pretty much wherever you are. In a strange trompe l’oeil, when you’re right next to it it doesn’t seem so huge, but it dominates the landscape when you’re further away, towering over everything else. We pass through a small park. There are swings and a flower stall, neither of which are in use at this time in the morning. There is, however, half a bottle of limoncello perched on top of a stone bollard. Somebody clearly had a very heavy night – so heavy that they didn’t even finish it. The bottle remains there for the next 2 days, amusingly enough, although it does move around a bit. I’m not sure if the local tramps are taking a swig nightly or just playing spin the bottle, but it’s entertaining to spot where it’s ended up every morning as we pass through on our way into town.
Having dumped our bags in the hostel we head back into town. It’s a beautiful sunny morning and we take our time to stroll down to the Uffizi to book tickets for the following day. I have a couple of letters to post, so I stop in a newsagent. ‘Avete francobolli?’ Not only does he understand me but he answers in Italian, rather than switching to English as so many people do. He even smiles at me. The same thing happens in the gelato stall the following day. When I arrive, an American woman is ordering, making no attempt at Italian. The girl behind the counter, on the other hand, is answering in beautiful, only slightly-accented English. I order in Italian and, despite the fact that my accent clearly marks me as a foreigner, she answers me in Italian. Even better than this, I understand everything she says to me. Is the accent clearer here, or is it just that I’m in the right frame of mind? I don’t know, but I like it, whatever it is. They’re small victories, but important ones, linguistically.
It’s not yet 8.30am, and the sun is still low in the sky. As we stand, admiring the belltower in Piazza del Duomo, rays of sunlight spill through the windows, flaring around the edges and setting the piazza alight. Gilding on the side of the cathedral sparkles in the sun, and puddles on the ground glitter. A newspaper stand trundles past, seemingly of its own volition. Runaway train! It turns a corner, and the mechanics behind the machinery are revealed: a man pulling it behind him, bumping over the flagstones and chatting to his companion with animation. A woman cycles past, nearly knocking more than one person over. Not only is she texting as she cycles, but she’s wearing slingbacks with 4″ heels. As she passes me, her phone rings and she answers, a wide smile flashing across her face. ‘Pronto!’ Her conversation carries on as she wobbles across the piazza, scything her way through passing pedestrians and charmingly oblivious to the chaos she leaves in her wake. I step hastily out of the way of another cyclist. This one, however, is completely in control, and whistling a perfect rendition of ‘Là Ci Darem La Mano’. All this before 9 in the morning. I think I love this city.
A little later, settled in a cafe in Piazza della Signoria with cups of tea and large slices of cake, we watch the world go by. Given that I’m never too far from thinking about my next meal, I idly ask Alex what the Florentine speciality is. There’s bound to be one – every town and region in Italy has its own particular food which is, of course, the very best in Italy. No other region can possibly compete! The Salento has orechiette and cime di rapa, which I love. However, I’m also quite partial to Torino’s bicerin and Rome’s artichokes and zucchini flowers. If it’s good, I’ll eat it, regionality be damned. Alex tells me Florence’s food is ‘some kind of steak’. Well, *that* doesn’t sound very exciting. A little disappointed, I put it to the back of my mind and concentrate on the excellent torta della nonna on the plate in front of me. Creamy, barely-set custard sprinkled with golden, toasted almonds and contained in lighter-than-light, crumbly pastry – what’s not to love?
Later that evening, I discover the truth behind bistecka fiorentina. On the menu, it’s listed as costing €4.50 per 100g. Well, OK, at that price it’s probably a nice piece of meat, and it’s been a while since I ate steak, so I’ll go for that, please. The waiter smiles indulgently at me. On your own? I look at him a bit blankly. He explains: it’s just that the minimum order is a kilo … I look at Alex. He grins back at me. Fiorentina for two it is, then. 500g of meat each is quite a lot, but I’m sure we’ll manage. While we wait, we get stuck into a good bottle of Chianti and people-watch. There’s a large family on the table next to us and, behind them, a gay couple on a romantic night out. It makes me realise how much I miss living in a big city, where you are free to be whoever you want to be. The Salento is beautiful, but it’s also remote and more close-minded than the cities further north. Before I have the chance to get maudlin, however, our steak arrives. Oh. My. God. A good 3 or 4 inches thick and still attached to a large T-bone, it has been no more than wafted briefly in front of a very hot pan. The outside is seared black, but the middle is still dark pink and uncooked. Perfection. The waiter scribbles a number on our bill: 1400. 1400g of prime steak between two people, one of whom (and I’ll give you a clue: it’s not me) is looking very afraid. Not only is there half a practically-still-mooing cow in front of us, but there is a hefty pile of sautéed potatoes and a giant salad. Not forgetting the 3/4 of a bottle of Chianti which we have yet to drink. I’m in my element. Forking a large piece into my mouth, I find I barely have to chew at all: this is a seriously good piece of meat. I sigh with happiness and roll my eyes at Alex. That’s the last time I listen to his food advice. ‘Some kind of steak’ indeed …