For The Love Of Florence

Mary Bly fell in love with the city and her Florentine husband at the same time. Here, the best-selling romance novelist—also known as Eloisa James—takes us on an insider’s tour of her home away from home.

By Mary Bly
The Ponte Vecchio, or Old Bridge, in Florence
Photograph: Photo by: Andrea Fazzari

Just talking about museums makes me hungry. At Caffè Italiano, on Via Isola delle Stinche, you can linger over your pasta surrounded by Italian businesswomen taking a three-hour lunch. If you don’t feel like having a long meal, make your way to San Lorenzo and the Mercato Centrale, a huge building with two floors of stalls selling everything from homemade linguini to chicken heads. Toward the back of the covered market, you’ll find a lunch counter with superb pasta. And if you want a leg of prosciutto or a kilo of dried porcini, most of the sellers in the stalls will mail it for you.

Dinner and Slumber
Florentines spend their afternoons napping righteously, allowing them to dance into the early morning hours—and so should you. My favorite place to stay is the Hotel Lungarno, which faces the river so you can watch the sun set on the water as boat crews make their way down that stretch. If you are traveling with small children, they will be equally delighted by the large water voles that leave a wake like miniature motorboats. The hotel’s decorations include Picassos, so you can guess at its quality. From the Cocteau Suite, you can lie in bed and survey the entirety of the Ponte Vecchio.
Another reasonably priced hotel in the historic center is Hotel Brunelleschi on Piazza Santa Elisabetta. The property is constructed out of one of Florence’s few remaining medieval towers, La Pagliazza. The region used to have loads of these little towers so that feuding families could defend themselves.
One sweet place to go for dinner is Trattoria Belle Donne, on Via delle Belle Donne, or the street of beautiful women. In the Middle Ages, this was a street of women whose beauty was for sale. The dining room is decorated on the principle of excess: Minimalism has no place amid the towering displays of pomegranates, potatoes and wax fruit. The menu—dishes with a distinctly Sardinian flavor include goat and squid—is scratched on a blackboard, with no English translation. The baccalà, or dried cod, comes warm on a bed of lettuce and is just the sort of thing you wouldn’t, and probably couldn’t, make for yourself.
If you would rather have a formal Florentine dinner, make a reservation at the family-run La Giostra. The ceiling has low, dark rafters strung with thousands of tiny white lights. And the chef is particularly proud of serving dishes that go back to the time of Queen Margherita, who married into the Savoie family in the 1800s. They make a brilliant risotto alla marinara. The chef’s son, wearing around two hundred gold bracelets, will decant a red wine for you in a ceremony befitting a princess. If you happen to rise at five o’clock in the morning, which is the best time to see the medieval cathedral, the Duomo, you may run into a wild-haired man on a bicycle; that’s the chef from La Giostra, on his way to the Mercato Centrale.
When I first came to Florence as a student, I danced down its medieval streets, rejoicing at the idea of placing my feet where Dante once stood. Those streets seemed smaller and more friendly years later, when my five-year-old son spent an entire summer dragging a clanking wooden caterpillar behind him over the cobblestones. And now Florence breathes a wild freedom when I throw my BlackBerry to the side and venture out for a day on my own.
Originally published in More magazine, February 2006

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