First day trip - to an almost deserted Firenze

  • 26 May 2020
  • Prue Scott

TAP (The Amazing Patricia) and I went to Firenze last Thursday – our first trip out of Lucca, our first experience of Italy without tourists, my first rip-off coffee. It was quieter than Italy at Sunday lunch, and that’s pretty quiet.

Spotless train and every second seat had a sign requiring us to keep it free. We must wear masks and have single use gloves.* Three or four other people in our part of the carriage; no conductor checking masks, gloves, or tickets.

*Note the “have” there. We didn’t put them on and for that I’m thankful. They make my hands sweat horribly after just a few minutes, filling the tips with liquid, and posing a greater risk than sneezing. The big loose ones in the shops produce the same effect and some shops now just hand out standard plastic bags. You rip them off as you leave, dumping them in a bin just inside or just outside the door which doesn’t seem to fit with the safety messages. Same with trail of sweaty drops I leave behind me. I packed hand sanitiser and kitchen paper towels to deal with the problem.

We sped through the same towns and villages under the same blue skies as 2019, but this time it was 27C rather than 7C outside, and the countryside was lush with green fields and trees; poppies here and there; fields being ploughed; people out walking.

The great coffee shop at Santa Maria Novella (SMN) Stazione was closed, so no croissant filled with crema. Arrows on the platforms and through the terminal itself tell you where you can walk. The usual array of police, maybe a few more than normal, supported by Italian Red Cross workers reminding us nicely to wear our masks (they’re hideously uncomfortable in the heat). Travellers? So few you could swing a large elephant and not hit anyone. Even in the depths of winter last year, SMN was shoulder-to-shoulder with locals and foreign tourists. You had to barge your way through to get to your platform.

Outside, there should have been hordes of people, but no. We wandered towards to Arno, desperate for coffee, down streets with shuttered shops and cafes, the odd person here and there. Signs that shops and cafes were preparing to open, but still waiting for their deep-clean and sign-off to open.

We found coffee and when we got the bill, wished we hadn’t. I’d ordered a double espresso for which I was charged €5 – about NZ$9. Maybe that’s what they normally charge, but it took me by surprise. Our first mistake was a location in the tourist area and then sitting down. Heaven knows what we would have paid if there’d been a view. There’s media coverage of prices and how some food/coffee place are boosting their prices. I’m in two minds about this; they’ve had two months without trade and face a summer with limited tourist numbers, but that was a bit off.

If you’ve been to Firenze in recent years, you’ll know that the closer you get to the Ponte Vecchio, the denser the crowds. Narrow footpaths force you onto the road into the paths of motor scooters, cars, and weaving cyclists. You shoulder through the tourist hordes (that’s always everyone else but me), keeping your bag close, wondering why on earth you’re doing this.

Not this time. We wandered safely across former death-trap roads, arriving at the Arno to find ourselves almost alone. The luxe shops and hotels on the riverfront are still closed….and there is no traffic other than one Vespa and one car. There’s a young man on the footpath ahead, taking photos. And that’s it. Maybe one or two other people. In effect, Firenze is deserted. Not even on the holiest of holidays would it be this empty.

We swung our elephant on the Ponte Vecchio where the jewellery shops were shuttered and there were no agitated hordes of tourists angling to get their photo alongside the statue with the Arno in the background. We marvelled at the lack of people, the lack of noise, the lack of traffic. Yes, it was a Thursday, but we expected more people than this.

Seriously, where are they?

Across into Oltrano where our favourite café was open, delivering so-so coffee (a bit burnt) and a very good cinnamon bun (shared). Our coffee break was enlivened by a young and pretentious Australian lass wearing this summer’s uniform of tiny flower-print dress with sneakers and, in her case, an Akubra hat. It was a performance when combined with her conversation which we could hear. At another table, a snake woman (no fat, thin/tall as a long snake) was wearing this summer’s gathered and tiered dress made of several dozen metres of cotton. She looked stunning. We hated her on sight.

Shoe shops – our reason for going – still closed, so back across the river to Pikolinos where success is guaranteed. I fell in love with another bag, but resisted. Yes, I am that strong.

More wandering, more plastic bags on hands, more cafes as you move into the back streets. The big cafes on Piazza della Republicca were still closed and the rooftop terrace at Rinascente wasn’t due to open until Friday. We’ll go back for that – Tuscan rosé, charcuterie platter (I can’t remember the Italian term) and a sunset view over the Duomo.

Lunch options were limited to a salad at Eataly where all fresh food counters were closed. If we wanted oil on our salad, the nice waitress had to pour it. She wasn’t allowed to let us touch the bottle. We passed the old Mercato, now an upmarket collection of shops and food stalls; alas, closed until such time as we’re allowed to return to crowd-based eating.

Given we were heading out for dinner in Lucca, we gave the gelato a miss and headed for a 4.30pm train. Aren’t we smart, we said to ourselves, getting an earlier train. Ha! It turned out to be a slow train and arrived after the 5pm train. Ah well, we sat playing with our phones and working out how much time for a shower/nap before dinner. TAP went off to join the others for aperitivo, I had a nap. Cycled across town to Norma. Told a friend and she thought I meant Noma, in Copenhagen. What are you doing in Copenhagen, she texted, and how can you afford Noma? We cleared up that misunderstanding and her jealousy level dropped.

First meal out in two months and who should be at the next table but the lovely Pasquale, from Da Pasquale where I ate last year. He’s been making do with home deliveries, but will open in June with outside tables, if the rules remain the same more than a few hours’ running. Yes, things are changing that quickly. You’ll all know by now that UK/Europe travel will be allowed, but nothing beyond that; we must get to Venezia before the regular summer break to see La Serenissima in her serenissama-ness.

We ate lavishly; a six-course Sicilian tasting menu with dolce to finish. Just a few mouthfuls each time which is all I could deal with, given the day out and the fact we didn’t sit down until 8.30pm. I cycled home through the balmy night, bumping over the cobbles, and thinking that maybe a light on my bike would be a good idea.

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  • Jo Dalgety
  • 26 May 2020
  • 1:17 pm

That would be my type of travel when visiting tourist sites!

  • Julianne Evans
  • 26 May 2020
  • 1:50 pm

Sounds perfect, except for the closed eateries; wish I could magically teleport myself there for the weekend, like they do in Harry Potter.

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