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Adventures in Writing, Reading & Book Culture

Florence, Italy

florence ponte vecchio


Florence parks index:
Boboli Gardens

Florence is the most crowded tourist city I’ve known: more hectic than Paris, busier than New York. People walk through its major streets and squares—the Via de’ Panzani, Via de’ Cerretani, and Piazza della Signoria—from early morning to late evening. If you walk among them, you feel like a blood cell pushed through arteries and veins by the pulsing heart of this Tuscan icon. My description is not meant to put you off Florence; this is a beautiful city that all travelers should experience. Its history, architecture, and its art galleries hold some of the most intriguing pieces and bits of western civilization.

florence italy_5With just a little imagination, however, you can use the tourist crowds to your advantage; you won’t beat the tourist crunch at the hot sites, but you can see a lot more of Florence and still enjoy the Duomo, Palazzo Vecchio, Uffizi Galleries, Boboli Gardens, and Ponte Vecchio. All you must do is trust your sense of travel exploration and use your city map.

I often write in travel columns about the need to get lost in a city to find its other treasures, the ones unheralded by travel guidebooks or city visitors maps. These can be specialty shops, family restaurants, two-room museums, or cellar churches that you would never have found (or suspected were even there) if you had not taken a left turn at a crossroads instead of continuing ahead. I don’t mean for you to literally “get lost”—but more so get lost from the crowds. Believe me, the tourists won’t miss you; they have many bodies to take your place.

Florence’s ancient, narrow streets—huddled bestride the Arno River—make convenient detours to any of the city’s most famous buildings. Along the way, slow down and look at what’s around you. Go into that small wine shop and looke at the bottles on the shelf. The proprietor will likely offer you a sample, with some cheese and proscuito on the side. Poke your head into the dressmaker’s shop to see the vintage clothing at bargain prices.

On my second morning in Florence on a recent visit, I found myself hurled along an interesting street, but because so many people were behind me, I could not stop to admire the buildings and their balconies, or even stop to read a sign in a window. Shopkeepers in their storefronts looked on in amazement. People were pushing me! Where were they going in such a rush? I wondered. In a flash I scooted through an opening between the ranks and stood in a side street. I walked down the street, unfazed where it might lead me.

florence italy_2Within 50 feet I stopped in front of a window. Staring through the polished glass were dozens of faces: pigs, clowns, vultures, dogs, ghouls, and assorted human children. The smell of potpourri and pulp paper flowed from the open door. By sheer luck I had just found Professor Agostino Dessí working in his art studio, Alice’s Masks Art Studio (named for his daughter). The shop is on Via Faenza, a street unnamed on the city’s free tourist map. I looked back from where I had escaped the crowd. People moved past via Faenza like they’d been shot from a hose; in fact the stream of people looked more like a raging river. And no one was walking down this street.

I stepped inside the Professor’s shop. He looked up casually from his workbench in the back. “Buon journo,” he said, and just as casually went back to his work. I stood among hundreds of masks, marionettes, headdresses, and puppets. They hung from the ceiling, along the walls, propped onto chairs and next to decorative boxes. This was a store I could spend some time in. I ventured in further. On a bookshelf nestled between colorful, flower-festooned masks, I discovered handmade books. I picked up a volume and hefted its weight. Could I really carry this all over Italy in my backpack for the next week? Yes.

“Do you make the books?” I ventured to the professor in my worst Italian (not a hard feat). He answered me in English, and thus began a 40 minute conversation on the paper arts, his 35-year career as an award-winning mask designer and producer, and my choice of this six-pound book—another of his designs and handicraft. Professor Dessi had traveled around the world to promote papier-maché mask making and design. Now he and his daughter work together to keep the art alive. They conduct mask-making workshops each week. I left the shop with photographs, memories, an education, and that six-pound book.

Out on the cobblestone road, the smell of lunch floated from a nearby café. I looked again down the street; the tourist orgy had not abated. I walked in the opposite direction, knowing a left turn somewhere up ahead would get me to the Piazza San Giovanni soon enough.

(read more about Florence, Italy highlights

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