Going with the flow in Florence, Italy

Toronto Star, May 28: I’m standing in a soft white robe looking out at the green hills of Tuscany, holding a perfect strawberry and half expecting Pierce Brosnan, or maybe Zach Galifianakis, to walk in bringing me coffee on a silver tray.

I’ve swung open the villa’s giant windows — they’re easily the size of a Fiat — and poked my head out to see the centre of Florence, home to Michelango’s “David,” Boticelli’s “Birth of Venus” and more than a few cinematic works of art. And while my moment at Hotel Il Salviatino does appear to be art directed — that soft light, the breeze blowing the white curtain, the soundtrack of chattering birds — this ain’t no movie.

It’s a villa above Florence built by a banker in the 15th century who wanted to stick it to those other Florentine bankers, the Medici, by creating a luxurious home they would be forced to look up to. In the 560 years since, the villa in the hills has been home to a pope, a university and no one at all, having sat abandoned for a quarter of the 20th century.

At that time, instead of lovers reading poetry in the elegant gardens out front, people would walk their dogs in the overgrown greenery. These days you can still see a guy and his dog on the villa’s grounds but he’s Giulio, a licensed truffle hunter and his dog is trained to sniff out the pungent delicacy.

The afternoon we went truffle hunting, Eta found five big black beauties in about 20 minutes. Or six. I’m pretty sure she scarfed one down before Giulio could get to her. That evening, we enjoyed the remaining truffles sliced ever so thinly on spinach gnocchi.

Ah, life in the villa. Those Renaissance bankers had the right idea. And fortunately for the rest of us, they liked to invest in art. I suspect they’d be pleased to see selfie sticks poking up like torches on a dark night and thousands of tourists saying “Wow,” in different languages as they jostle for space in front of the Uffizi.

We hit the highlight reel of attractions — The Duomo, Fountain of Neptune, The Piazza Pitti — picking up just enough art history to be dangerous at a dinner party.

“Throw away your maps and get lost in the streets,” our guide advises. Central Florence is not a big place and you can’t really get that lost. You just have to look up to find the Duomo, and you’ll find your bearings.

You don’t have to walk too far before crossing the Arno River on the Ponte Vecchio. Jewellers moved in to line the old bridge after the Medici kicked the butchers off because of the smell. When you get tired of walking, you can take a ride under the bridge. Two men stand at the back of the boat guiding it through the shallow river with long wooden poles. On this side of the Uffizi, selfie sticks are replaced with oars as kids learn to row at Florence’s most prestigious rowing club.

Back on the streets, the traffic is even more hectic than usual because some roads are closed for the Hollywood crew shooting The Inferno, the sequel to Da Vinci Code. But even on the best of days, traffic lights are “only a suggestion” a cabbie says as he manoeuvers through the swarms of scooters carrying men, women and children, who are entirely unruffled by the chaos of the streets.

As the cab climbs the long windy driveway to the Il Salviatino, past scores of pink roses that were planted centuries ago, around the corner with the pool where I drank prosecco and the spa where olive oil was massaged into my hair, the sounds of the city’s traffic fade away.

Someone’s cued the chattering bird sound track again. On the terrace, with a glass of Amarone and a bowl of Pappa al Pomodoro –– a simple soup of tomatoes, basil and Tuscan bread — I am grateful to that spiteful banker back in the 1400s. The villa he built to show up his competitors provides an excellent vantage point from which to enjoy the city the Medici built.

Just the facts:

Olive oil is good for the hair: Everyone knows olive oil is great to eat but having it massaged into your hair is pretty great too. The fatty acids coat your hair, making it smooth and shiny and all the better to run your fingers through at the villa.

Gelato is good for the soul: Gelato is a staple in the Italian diet “like milk and bread” and Gelateria La Carraia offers the best in Florence. Two scoops for 1.50 Euro. The view of the Arno River right outside is free.

Burrata cheese is just good. Shed a tear for the lactose intolerant that cannot enjoy this fresh cheese made from mozzarella and cream. Whether it’s served in soups, salads or pasta you will never again be satisfied with just mozzarella.

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