It’s il pomeriggio (afternoon) and I’m looking for a tiny place that’s received great reviews. It’s not far from the Duomo, in a narrow alley called Via delle Belle Donne (Street of the Beautiful Women). And yes, Belle Donne is a euphemism.
This is the old medieval quarter and I get disoriented among the twisting alleys, so even though it’s close, it takes me a while to find it. It’s not just all the twists and turns – it’s also the way street numbers work in Florence.
Getting lost in most of Italy’s towns and cities is facile (fa-chee-lay) – easy. In some, molto facile and in a few – Venice comes to mind – facilissimo. Venice has over 150 canals and 400 bridges to get lost in. If you don’t get lost at least once while you’re there, you either haven’t stepped foot outside your hotel or you’ve spent all your Venetian days trailing along behind some local guide. Where’s the fun in that?
On the other hand there are some cities that you would expect to be fairly easy to navigate. Take Florence for example. It’s small, on flat ground, has one river that doesn’t even have any disorienting curves like the Seine in Paris. What could be so difficult here?
Let’s say you have the misfortune to come down with something. Having followed the advice of all the best travel gurus, you packed lightly and thus, though tempted, did not bring the entire contents of your medicine cabinet with you. It’s late at night. The people at your hotel give you the address of a 24 hour pharmacy – Via dei Calzaiuoli, 7r. (the number follows the street name.) You probably won’t be able to pronounce the name of the street, but don’t worry, it doesn’t matter. It won’t be that hard to find the street. The challenge will be finding #7r.
Before Florence became the birthplace of the Renaissance and a magnet for tourists, it was your typical noisy, dirty, congested medieval town, crowded within heavily fortified walls built to protect its mostly wretched inhabitants from various marauding barbarian armies that might come from as far away as northern Europe or as close by as Siena, Florence’s arch rival.
When they found themselves literally up against the wall, the land-starved Florentines started jamming new buildings into the few remaining nooks and crannies, as well as on top of the existing ones. But then a problem presented itself – a problem that not even those who had objected to the newcomers – think modern-day NIMBY’s with a heavy dose of violence – had foreseen. Even if unwanted, the interloping buildings had to be assigned addresses – with street numbers. But all the numbers had been assigned long ago. This is where that little “r” in the address of the pharmacy comes into the story. It stands for rosso (red).
Maybe the locals struck some kind of committee or maybe they held a competition like the ones they held whenever they wanted a new fountain or another, self-aggrandizing monument or a new design for a church etc. In any event, someone eventually came up with the idea of dividing all the buildings into two categories – commercial and residential – which would then be assigned colour-coded street numbers. All the shops and businesses would have red numbers and all the residential addresses would have blue numbers. R & B alla fiorentina.
But given that you’re already feeling a little peaked, once you’re in Via dei Calzaiuoli, you might want to just look for the green cross that identifies pharmacies throughout Italy.
Back to lunch. On the way I pass by a small opening in an otherwise solid wall. It’s a bit smaller than the one we saw in Piazza Santissima Annunziata – about 1 foot wide and 1 1/2 feet in height – but a much happier one. Wine, not unwanted babies passed through it. This was an inexpensive, fairly effortless system that allowed wealthy Florentines to sell off the surplus wine produced on their estates beyond the city walls.
It didn’t strike me as all that effortless for the clientele. Figuring out the opening hours was enough to put off all but the most loyal – or desperate – customers. The notice above the opening starts off straightforwardly enough: La cantina resta aperta alla vendita (The cantina is open for sales…) But what follows is the most byzantine set of opening hours I have ever seen for a wine outlet.
from November 1 through April between the hours of 9 am to 2 pm and 3 pm to 6 pm; from May 1 through October from 8 am to 1 pm and from 4 pm to 7 pm
Maybe customers in those days were more in tune with the wine-making season, which is of course reflected in the seemingly arbitrary opening hours.
The place I’m looking for is called l’Osteria delle … Belle Donne. There is no mention of the beautiful women on the sign so I check the street number. This is it.
I’m tempted by the Catherine of Medici salad, but for a light lunch, it’s hard to beat antipasto. You get to sample the specialities of whatever region you happen to be in.
I chose the Antipasto Chiantigiano. It was delicious. Unfortunately, I have no photo to show you. Blame it on the couple at the table next to me. Because of them I broke my “rule” about only speaking Italian when I’m in Italy. Normally I am pretty picky about who I let my guard down for, linguistically speaking. Unless there’s something that piques my interest, I stick to Italian. Don’t say a word of English. Even if I can’t help overhearing a conversation because the tables are so close. So, as usual, when the cameriere (cam-air-ee-air-ay) came, I asked him a few questions about the menu and then ordered the antipasto and a glass of red wine – in italiano.
Before the waiter came back with my vino rosso, I decided this would be a good time to get a photo of the restaurant. From my table I couldn’t figure out how to get much of a shot, so I decided to get up and try from a different angle. The lighting was fairly subdued and the tables were even closer than usual. I didn’t want to trip and have my camera go crashing, so as I squeezed between the two tables, I paid careful attention to the stuff the couple next to me had put on the floor between our tables. That is when I noticed the label on the bag. Harry Rosen.
Now, my guess is that most people who have spent some time in Toronto will recognize that name. It’s a men’s clothing store. (and please, if you’re some Harry Rosen person, don’t write to tell me I should have said “high-end” clothing store. This is a blog about gardens, not fashion.) For some reason, it just struck me as funny. Who knows why? It had been pouring rain. I had gone all the way to Settignano to visit Villa Gamberaia for nothing. Tomorrow I was going to forego the outing I’d planned to Fiesole, where one of my favourite movies – A Room with A View – was filmed, and go back to Settignano on the off-chance that the finestrino (little window) of rain-free weather the receptionist at Villa Gamberaia had seen on the weather forecast might actually come to pass. So far the day had been a bust.
So I broke my “rule” about only speaking Italian (I’ll write about this in a later blog). After I had carefully stepped over the bag again, sat down and had a sip of wine, I leaned over and asked, “You wouldn’t by chance be from Toronto?”
I got so engrossed talking with them that I had eaten most of the antipasto before it occurred to me that I hadn’t taken a photo. Eventually we had to say good-bye – they had a train to catch. They headed west towards Santa Maria Novella, the train station, and I headed east to Piazza della Signoria.
As I walked over to the piazza it occurred to me that in spite of my language “rule”, I end up spending a lot of very enjoyable meals chatting with strangers.