In the spring of 2013, Henderson Productions was proud to travel with the experts from the restaurant chain, Olive Garden to explore as much about food and Tuscan life as possible.   We’ve created this series of blogs which, like the region, should remain relatively timeless.   Bon Apetito

Firenze, Italy river view

The moody Arno River in the morning

Well, first, it rained all day.    On and off drizzle or steady.    We just didn’t care.   Rick and I opted out of a full day with the group who headed to the Uffizi Gallery for two hours of intense art lessons and standing on hard floors, a two-hour lunch and then four hours of climbing the Duomo.    They didn’t take a break all day.

We, on the other hand, mostly stayed off the tourist trail and discovered two different areas of working Firenze.    The hotel breakfast buffet gave us enough sustenance for a 10 AM stroll along the Arno to San Croce Cathedral.    It’s known as the burial place of Italy housing the final resting of Dante, Machiavelli, Galileo, Ferme, Donatello, Toscano, Michelangelo, and many, many more.   Restoration scaffolding completely covered the altar, so we watched three or four levels of artists working on the stone, stained glass and frescos.   We had gone to see the famous Pazzi Chapel as a master example of Renaissance architecture but it was a letdown from our expectations after the Duomo.    The courtyard and crypt area were stunning.

A statue in the crypt at San Croce

Repairs on scaffolding at San Croce

We then scooted around the corner to the famous San Croce leather school.  “EVERYONE has been there” said a group guide we couldn’t help but listen to in the small hallway of the school.   And sure enough, there were pics of the Reagans, Frank Sinatra, Laura Bush and Michael Jackson and on and on and on.    What did we learn?   Prices were set accordingly!   Never fear, we were not looking for high quality, expensive wallets.    Mildly entertained for a few moments at their predictable processes, we did come away with the realization that while fine Italian leather goods may be MADE in Italy, they are made BY Far Easterners in Italian sweatshops.   So, what is the difference?  (No one looked overworked, underfed or tortured in any way.)

For sale at the leather school

Off through side streets to the local Sant’Ambrogio market with rows of stalls of groceries, fresh butchers and fishmongers, homemade pasta, flours, spices, fruits, vegetables inside and surrounded on all fours by household goods, clothing, flowers and anything else you could need.   Took tons of pics and loved every minute of it.    Rick’s falling down socks were replaced.   I purchased a 2nd hand Austrian wool jacket for 10 Euro and a great leather belt for 4.

Pastas for sale

The deli area of the market

Down another side street to the Mercato de Pulci – market of fleas or their version.   By this time, on a cold rainy out-of-season weekday, half the antique dealers had closed up their little shops for lunch and cappuccino but enough were open to show us the high-quality furniture, lamps and china/glassware.   Housing about 5 rows of 5 shops per row under one roof, the mercato apparently blossoms into the whole square on weekends and especially one Saturday a month.

Lunch break near the market

Just turning 1 PM, we needed a break and stopped at a local trattoria for pressed panini and drinks.    Mine was focaccia pressed around pecorino, arugula and ham while Rick settled on al Tedesco (ala German) with homemade hotdog, sauerkraut and mustard.   We chose right having landed in a local hangout with a steady stream of customers in and out the door.

Choices, choices choices of high quality leather items

Our walking journey continued through the theater district (Gypsy, Wit and the Full Monty coming soon) toward the Bargello Museum to see the sculpture courtyard but alas the guidebooks were wrong and they closed at 1:30 which we just missed.    By then it started to really dump and we stuck close to shops ducking in and out and under awnings.   I sent Rick back for a rest a couple blocks from the hotel and continued through the “new” market of lovely leather purses then H&M and Coin department stores as a cut through back to the hotel for a little nap break.

Fine marquetry woodworking

By 4 PM both we and the skies were ready for another route as we followed the Lonely Planet guide walking tour directions to “oterno” – the other side of the Arno across the Ponte Vecchio bridge.  Literally the area across the river from our hotel is littered with craftsman workshops with smiling faces beckoning you to come in and watch – an amazing two women hand designing leather purses in unique shapes; an inlaid wood apprentice walked us through the veneer options and process of cutting and gluing all those marquetry boxes and wall hangings;  frame restoration re-gilding with silver sheets;  plaster decoration repairs; a cobbler shop with two junior apprentices working in the front of shop as a demo while the owner haggles with a designer pointing and waving around drawings; the beaded jewelry gal proudly showing us how she puts soft leather on the back of big chunky necklaces to not scratch the skin; the mosaic masterpieces of art in inlaid marble and fine stones near the Pitti Palace; and the handmade famous Florentine papers neatly rolled up or laid out in stacks for review.  Wonderful.  Just plain wonderful.

Afternoon snack on the oterno side of the Arno

Hand making shoes in the artisan district

A note re Lonely Planet – you just cannot go wrong with their recommendations.   I don’t even bother anymore looking at any other source.   I am especially fond of their Thorn Tree Forum which gave us the directions for this little walking tour.   Every little alley was accurately portrayed including the recommendations midway through for a coffee break at The Village bar in a church square which was precisely as advertised: decorated with the original owners’ fine hat making tools and shaping forms and now obviously a student hangout in the arts district.   Comfy chairs, casually arranged, free wi-fi, great service and maybe the best dessert we had all week – a blackberry torte sitting on a hazelnut chocolate drizzled plate.    Rick went for the combination while I just let the blackberry be singly perfect for my tastebuds.