It was love at first sight. Clambering with my backpack off the train from Rome, Florence dazzled. Inter-railing around Europe for the summer, along with every other student in the world, or so it seemed, I was dog-tired, dirty and drained. I just wanted a gelato and a cold shower. But that first rush was intoxicating. Dizzying.
Rome was like a pressure cooker; a Mafia trial in full swing, the dust-caked streets prowled by police with machine guns. We had been sleeping on mattresses on the floor of a dingy pensione with ten strangers. I had heat stroke. My brain was fried. We bolted north.
Emerging into Florence’s cobbled streets was like waking from a Francis Ford Coppola nightmare into a Merchant Ivory dream. I might have been in flip-flops but I floated around Florence like a wide-eyed Helena Bonham Carter.
I have hazy memories of that first trip… After weeks of culture overload the Uffizi was museum perfection. Like the ‘three bears’ it wasn’t too big or too small – it was just right. I remember gazing at the Botticellis: the Primavera and the Birth of Venus. Enraptured.
Then there was the leather: the stalls in the Piazza San Lorenzo piled high with bags and belts, the air heavy with hide. I haggled – and left Florence with a real Italian leather handbag crammed in amongst the old T-shirts and shorts.
Church bells ringing out across the city mingled with the whine of scooters. The squares were sprinkled with cool incense-infused churches. The Ponte Vecchio arched over the dreamy green Arno… Once the domain of butchers who threw the remains into the river until Cosimo de Medici had them evicted, this 14th-century bridge is now lined with jewellery stores. And Brunelleschi’s famous dome soaring above the terracotta roofs – behind which was Il Papiro, a little store selling Florence’s ornately patterned paper...
Another hidden gem was Alice Atelier in Via Faenza, a tiny back street near San Lorenzo market - an Aladdin's cave filled with papier mache masks. Like a character from Hans Christian Anderson, an old man crafted intricate masks for Italian theatre and cinema, and the Venice Carnival – using techniques dating back to the 17th century.
I’ve been back again and again, of course – and rub the nose of the wild boar near the 16th-century Mercato Nuovo every time. Stroke the statue’s nose, they say, and you’ll be sure to return to Florence…
And I’ve bought more handbags, along with hand-made leather gloves in every shade imaginable from Madova – Italian glove-makers for almost a century.
And Rome… I love Rome too now. That first crazy claustrophobic trip is filed under bad first impressions. Florence, however, will always be one of the few places that lived up to the fantasy, the E.M. Forster dream. And somehow becomes more magical with every visit.