Anyone who knows me knows that shopping ranks on my list of enjoyable activities down around cleaning and ironing. But occasionally shopping (or, more accurately, browsing) can actually be enjoyable – especially in a foreign country, when you don't actually have to buy anything.
As a knitter, I sought out the two yarn stores in Florence. One of them, Campolmi Roberto Filati (not far from the Duomo), is actually a manufacturer, with a large array of colors in several different fibers, mainly cottons, acrylics, and some wool, though the wool didn't feel especially soft. I may have been overtired and overheated by the time I got there, so I didn't find anything especially compelling, but it looked like there were some real bargains, and I would definitely check it out more carefully on another visit.
On the other hand, one of the highlights of my week was the visit to Beatrice Galli's shop in the Oltrarno area, right on the "other" side of the Ponte Vecchio. The charming Beatrice has run her shop for 40 years, and despite her claims of not speaking English, she has customers from all over the world. I got there just as she opened in the morning and was the only customer, and she patiently endured my primitive Italian for over half an hour as I looked, fondled, and lusted after her gorgeous skeins in wool, silk, and blends. I didn't buy anything, but I promised to return in October with some knitting friends and a clear idea of patterns and quantities – and a spare suitcase.
On another morning, I went to the Mercato Centrale, the large market near San Lorenzo, which is truly a feast for the eyes. This 19th century building houses a huge array of butcher shops, cheese shops, and stalls selling prepared foods, dried mushrooms, pasta, wine, and olive oil. The upper floor has stall after stall of fresh produce, with the aroma of basil wafting throughout. (Click on the picture for a brief slideshow.) It was hard not to be seduced by the beauty of the various displays and to walk out empty-handed. Of course, I didn't. After tasting several varieties of olive oil and aged balsamic vinegar, I bought a bottle of each... but I did manage to leave behind the fresh black truffles at €25 each. And then the cheese – after tasting several samples of parmegian reggiano I bought a large wedge that weighed in at over 2 kilos. When the woman behind the counter asked which I wanted, I said "non troppo grande, non troppo piccolo," but when she weighed them I kept thinking that bigger would be better, since it keeps well, and I would be sorry later if we used it up too quickly.
Even the little markets on quiet side streets provided pleasant surprises. A close look at the purple flowers reveals that they are artichokes! Inside the little shop we succumbed to a basket of tiny fraises des bois, the intensely flavored wild strawberries that are almost impossible to find at home.
And then there were all the jewelry shops on and near the Ponte Vecchio. My favorite time there was in the morning, as the shops were just opening. Other times it was so crowded that there was no temptation to linger!
Walking around Florence is a treat. The markets, the amazing artwork, the huge centuries-old palazzos, the nice little shops in unexpected places on side streets... You can even see art in the making – sidewalk artists working hard to create copies of masterpieces for the pennies people throw into a basket as a donation. This artist was working all day. When we walked by in the morning, he had just finished the head, and in the evening he was still working on the almost finished picture – the same Leonardo da Vinci that was on the wall in our hotel room.