The high interior walls of Marco’s Florentine apartment were covered from top to bottom in an 18th century fresco. It was faded and flaked – but it was genuine, and I admired it as I sprawled across a chunky cream rug, taking care not to spill my glass of red wine. It was my second evening in Florence, and I was once again with my new friends Noa and Marco. We’d just finished eating a wonderful meal cooked by Noa – a flavoursome mezze of fresh mozarella, fennel salad, baked aubergines, tomatoes and courgette, pasta with chorizo – and had retired to the rug to smoke a narguileh.
Marco brought over his laptop and placed it on the rug in front of me.
“Play us some music!” he said, clicking onto YouTube.
I found some Middle Eastern jazz, to compliment the smoky atmosphere, and the laptop was duly passed around between the three of us as we shared our passions and influences, the modern medium linking us to our cultural pasts. We explained the significance of certain tunes, deciphered lyrics, and sang along, all in our new-found English-Italian dialect. Lying under the fresco, gazing out of the balconied window to a huge magnolia tree, and listening to strangely captivating 1970s Napolitan folk music, I felt further away from my London life than I’d imagined possible in the space of just a couple of days. It was a true holiday for the mind and soul.
Sunday was my final day in the city. Noa happily accompanied me across the river where we reached the top of a hill with views across Florence. We entered a chapel, saw one of Michaelangelo’s three Davids, walked through a rose garden and entered the Boboli Gardens. Crossing back over the river, Noa took me to one of the city’s oldest panini vendors – a hole in the wall with narrow shelves outside where punters could place their wine glasses. The hot paninis were filled with the freshest treats – parma ham, mozzarella, rocket, roasted veg – and cost just a couple of euros. They kept us going for the rest of the afternoon, as we browsed designer shop windows, walked past Noa’s old art school, and passed baskets of olive branches commemorating palm Sunday. Finally, we visited il Porcellino – the bronze statue of a boar in the marketplace. As tradition dictates, Noa showed me how to rub his (well polished) snout to ensure a return visit.
We squeezed in a siesta back at the apartment before meeting up with Marco once again for my last night in Florence. This time we went out for dinner – with another carefully selected bottle of wine and a constant stream of dishes from the set menu. We chatted and laughed – Noa and I swooning over the swarthy waiter, Marco discussing his love of free London museums – as the plates were delivered and swiftly emptied. Bread, olives and cold meats (including an unusual but extremely moreish salami with fennel) were followed by pasta and gnocchi, and eventually roast chicken, sage and rosemary seasoned potatoes, and the famous Florentine steak. I was utterly stuffed, and it was left to Marco to eat the last few mouthfuls as the girls groaned in defeat. Plates of biscotti were brought out with small glasses of vin santo in which to dunk them. And then the final dish – fresh, cool profiteroles, covered in pure cocoa. Noa and I stirred from out stupors, and – much to Marco’s amusement – the plate was cleaned in minutes.
Hot, creamy espresso shots enables us to tackle the half hour walk back to the apartment, where, despite the late hour, Noa willingly sat with me to help me plan my journey to the station the following morning, printing maps, marking bus stops and checking timetables. I was sad to be leaving – and invited her to London.
I woke early to make my way to the station, and found a note from Noa on the table, along with a gift of some writing paper, decorated with Italian paintings. I was touched by the gesture – I was the guest! I put the gift into my bag, and replaced it with bought a small bunch of flowers I’d bought the day before, and a note of my own, for Noa.
After three days in the city, I’d visited none of the epic museums, and I’d ventured into just one small church. I’d done no shopping and seen none of the world-class galleries.I’d stepped inside the cathedral, but not made it up the famed Duomo. Yet I had completely immersed myself in the city. As the high-speed Freccia Rossa train pulled out of Santa Maria Novella station on Monday morning, I felt content, knowing that I had, truly, experienced Florence.