Food, fashion and plenty of style in Florence

Whether it's food, fashion or football, Italians do it in style. Rory Ross finds all three in Florence, as well as swanky designer shops, classic works of art and love in the air

It was April in Florence and the entire city was basking in the afterglow of "Manchester United 7, Roma 1" and all that it implied for the humiliation of their arch-rivals to the south. In Florence - the cradle of Italian civilisation and crucible of the greatest Western art - sculpting, painting pictures, making clothes and shoes, and producing wine are often dismissed as so much physical exercise. But give a Florentine a really big football result - now that is something he can really appreciate, especially at the expense of a rival city.

I was basking in the afterglow of a perfect spring day, sitting perched on the terrace of the Villa San Michele high above Florence in Fiesole, sipping a canaletto (prosecco with crushed raspberries). Giulio Gentile, my Florentine travelling companion, was explaining to me why even Italians who hate football - indeed, especially Italians who hate football - were savouring the result. "It is good that they get the big kicking in the arse," he said.

His rock-star mop of grey hair crowned a head shaped like an hieroglyph, with his skin gorged and creviced like a relief map of the Apennines. "These Italian footballers are just a big bunch of blah-blah-blah."

Above me loomed Monte Ceceri, from whose summit Leonardo da Vinci experimented with human flight. Below me sprawled Florence, biscuit-hued in the twilight. Around me, wisteria was throwing out splashes of violet. Fountains splashed in the background. Villa San Michele used to be a medieval monastery. Those monks knew a thing or two about how to live. The romance of the place is said to have inspired Prince Charles to propose to Camilla.

Gentile was full of sage advice for visitors to Italy: "Never ask an Italian, especially a Florentine, about other Italians," he confided. "Florentines think they are the apotheosis of Italians, very proud and aware of their past. Dante Alighieri, a Florentine, created the Italian language.

"Uniquely, Florentines do not have a dialect. They speak the purest Italian, the language of Italy. Every other village, town, city and region has its own dialect. When the Roman Empire fell, the Roman Church is credited with keeping alive the flame of civilisation, but the actual flame that re-fired civilisation was in Florence in 1200. In Rome, the air you breathe is eternal. But Florence is a city of a higher kind of artistic, human and cultural heritage."

The following morning, we taxied down to Florence to glimpse what that flame had ignited. "And on our left," said Marco, our guide, "you will see a circular structure with poles and lights. A very important part of Florence, a most cherished sanctum..."

He turned to look at me and my fellow passengers, his eyes whitely messianic. I braced myself for an aspect on to a Roman or Etruscan ruin. A reverential hush descended.

"...Ecco, the stadium of Fiorentina Football Club."

Oh well, I thought, it was probably based on a sketch by Leonardo. "Ah," said Marco, misting over. "The other night, we Florentines, we were very happy at what Manchester United did. Very happy."

Marco filled me in on some key Florentine facts. Founded in 59 BC, during the time of Julius Caesar. Population 400,000, outnumbered 27 to one by the 11 million tourists each year. "I live on the other side of the Arno [River], a district called Altarno," said Marco. "It is like an Indian reservation for Florentines."

Most of those tourists visit David. Michelangelo's creation still looks good at 503 years old, despite losing an arm in a riot in 1527, and having part of one foot chipped off in a hammer attack in 1991.

"This is Florence's Statue of Liberty," said Marco, gazing up at Michelangelo's masterpiece in the Galleria dell'Accademia. "The city of Florence commissioned David, the giant slayer, to symbolise Florentine civic power...."

If this was David, I thought, standing 5m tall and weighing 30 tons, then how big was Goliath?

"...note the veins on his right-hand side and the detail of his right foot," continued Marco. "The toes splay as if bearing the weight of his body. When you see details like these, you understand the fame of Michelangelo."

David's proportions are often commented on - head and hands too big, arms too long, legs too short. But what * * about his fifth limb? "His winkle is very small," suggested Giulio Gentile. "Maybe Michelangelo's studio was cold."

One of the joys of Florence is the speed with which you can switch from high art to high window-shopping. You can cover the entire city on foot in two hours, but as Gentile said, a lifetime is not enough to see all of it.

To help me get my retail eye in, I was introduced to Angela Carpio, Florence's pre-eminent personal shopper - a charming olive-skinned girl in her twenties who is brilliant at truffling out artisans, designers, paper merchants, specialist book shops, galleries, food shops and wine shops. She led me into the labyrinth of medieval streets to visit some of the craftsmen who have made Florence their home, like Giulio Giannini e Figlio, the classic Florentine paper specialist near the Pitti Palace.

If there is one trade in which Florence leads the world, it is shoe-making. The cobbling traditions that "shoe-maker to the stars" Salvatore Ferragamo inherited and passed on continue to this day. Florence has three makers of handmade men's shoes. One of them, Hidetaka Fukaya, improbably comes from Nagoya in Japan.

Nine years ago, he came to Italy to study shoe-making in Siena. Now he is hailed as a cobbling genius. He showed me a brogue made from Russian reindeer hide salvaged from the wreck of the Metta Catherina, a Danish Brigantine that sunk off Plymouth in 1786. "I am interested in the history of leather as much as its quality," said Fukaya-san. "I get a few odd requests," he said, brandishing a pair of iridescent turquoise crocodile-skin loafers. I wondered which Italian footballer they were destined for.

Mara Broccardi, 37, of Italo-Irish extraction, is a tango artist turned women's shoe designer who was brought up in London. She shows in the Grand Hotel overlooking the Arno. She makes delicious shoes of an exquisiteness I have rarely seen in suede, soft calf, lizard, satin and lace. She describes her shoes as "very feminine, with an element of classicism and great attention to detail".

"I'm not sure that the artignani who live and work in Florence are appreciated by the Florentines," says Broccardi. "Great craftsmanship has always existed here, so they take it for granted. It therefore takes a foreign eye to see some of the beautiful things that are produced here and say, 'Wow! Isn't that incredible.' The Italian city-state mentality of the Renaissance has never ceased to exist. The Florentines' mental closure applies to foreigners living in their midst as much as to neighbouring cities. That is very much part of life here."

But where were all the Florentines? Of the people I had so far met in Florence, everyone besides Marco the guide was an outsider. "So which part of Italy are you from?" I asked Angela Carpio. "Mexico," she shot back. And how much more Florentine can you get than that?

The following day, intoxicated by the creativity of Florence, I drove north out of the city some 70km to the Tuscan-Ligurian border to visit a different but equally impressive school of craftsmanship to the artisans of Florence. In the Apuan Alps above Carrara, you find the Fantiscritti quarry in Miseglia just outside Carrara.

This is where David began his career as a 60-tonne block of marble. All the statues carved during the Renaissance originated as blocks of marble extracted from this area. From a distance, the Apuan alps appear snow-streaked, but as you pass Miseglia and begin to climb, the "snow" resolves itself into rivers of marble dust.

The extraction and transportation of great marble blocks struck me as a feat of willpower every bit as impressive as anything in the Uffizi. We alighted at the tiny hamlet of Colonnata, founded by the Romans, and inhabited by quarrymen ever since the classical era.

Il monumento al cavatore, a tribute to quarrymen who have toiled here for over 2,000 years, has been erected overlooking a carved cliff face. The humble monument depicts in relief the history of quarrying, showing great blocks being winched down the mountainside and hauled off by teams of oxen. Before mechanisation, the blocks were hewn by driving wedges of dried wood into tiny cracks, and then sluicing them with water. This widened the cracks, allowing in ever-larger pieces of wood, until the block broke off.

The Colonnata basin makes up the eastern part of the Carrara marble region. Its 70 quarries (44 of which are still active) cover 500 hectares, and are reputedly the world's only source of pure white marble - a bathroom fitter's dream.

"OK," said Giulio Gentile, "you have seen white marble. Now let's eat the stuff."

Gentile led me to a small trattoria hung with gourds, folkloric walking sticks and dried sausages. Grainy sepia photographs showed massive blocks the size of a house, swarmed over by ant-like men, being inched down the mountainside on rollers.

Tumblers of sour red wine were poured, and crostini were produced, dressed with thinly sliced white pig fat: lardo di conca, a local delicacy. The pig fat is impregnated with herbs and garlic and matured for 10 months in a conca (marble basin), then sliced and served. It has fuelled successive generations of men for the Herculean task of excavating marble from the steep Apuan slopes.

"In Italy, each village has its own style of food," said Gentile. "Centuries of evolution of gastronomy have brought about this phenomenon. The Romans did not eat well at all. They just stuffed themselves. No finesse. Then the barbarians came. The Ostrogoths stopped in Calabria, the Visigoths in Piedmont. They brought their own cuisines, herbs and condiments. I have only found this evolution in Italy; I don't know why."

Back in the city, Angela Carpio and I found Simone Abbarchi, one of Florence's smartest bespoke men's tailors. "Every man secretly wants to wear an Italian suit," said Carpio, "and this is the place to get it. Clients include the most prestigious Florentines, lawyers, business men and football players." I sifted shirts beyond inventory, admiring the cut and weight of the Loro Piana fabrics, a byword for luxury Italian textiles.

From Simone Abbarchi, it was a few yards to the intoxicating catwalks of Via degli Strozzi and Via Tornabuoni. These streets are a pure La Dolce Vita makeover. This season, Florentine women are wearing leggings, miniskirts, oversized shirts and bright colours, while showing plenty of label. It's an eye-catching grown-up St Trinian's look, accessorised with Yves St Laurent's Muse handbag.

Ordinarily allergic to fashion boutiques, I found myself thinking, "I am in the leading fashion thoroughfare of one of the most fashion-forward capitals on Earth, accompanied by Florence's finest personal shopper. It would be a shame not to extract at least something from this situation." Taking a deep breath, I said, "Right Angela, I'm an open-minded sartorial classicist prone to wardrobe stagnation. Give me a makeover." She looked me up and down.

"I think Prada."

We entered Prada. All the boutiques look exactly the same once you're inside. A posse of shop assistants, looking like camp couture Mafiosi with orange skin, hair gel and slightly ill-fitting clothes, bored gimlet eyes into me. "Maybe a jacket in red," said Angela. I shrugged and acquiesced.

The menswear manager looked genuinely thrilled, as if he'd been asked to dress not just Manchester United but David too. A single-breasted jacket was found in my size. It had a sudden claret hue, and in its construction it felt as if it had a fashion half-life of six months programmed into it, whereupon it would automatically self-destruct. And the price! Even if they'd paid me the €740 (£530) price tag, I still wouldn't have worn it. I said I'd think about it.

I've never really understood the point of men's fashion. Were you to dress in some of the menswear I saw on Strozzi, you'd provoke hoots of derision even at a fancy-dress party.

I emerged wondering where Florentine aesthetics, style and taste had gone wrong. Still, at least I knew what Florentine footballers are wearing this season: the Odeon cinema commissionaire look.

TRAVELLER'S GUIDE

GETTING THERE

The writer flew from Gatwick to Pisa with British Airways (0870 850 9850; www.ba.com). Other airlines serving Pisa include Ryanair (0871 246 0000; www.ryanair.com), easyJet (0905 821 0905; www.easyJet.com) and Jet2 (0871 226 1737; www.jet2.com).

Alternatively, Florence's Amerigo Vespucci airport is a 15-minute drive from the centre but served only by Meridiana (0845 355 5588; www.meridiana.it) from Gatwick.

To reduce the impact on the environment, you can buy an "offset" from Equiclimate (0845 456 0170; www.ebico.co.uk) or Pure (020-7382 7815; www.puretrust.org.uk).

STAYING THERE

Villa San Michele, Via Doccia 4, Fiesole, Florence, Italy (00 39 055 567 8200; bookings through Orient-Express: 020-7960 0500; www.orient-express.com). Double rooms start at €924 (£660), including breakfast.

SHOPPING THERE

Il Micio Di Hidetaka Fukaya, Via dei Federighi 6, Florence (00 39 055 212 295).

Mara Broccardi, c/o Villa Terzolina, Via di Capornia 4, Florence (00 39 393 429 3212; e-mail: marabroccardi@marabroccardi.com).

Simone Abbarchi, Bottega Delle Antiche Terme, Borgo Santissimi Apostoli 16, Florence (00 39 055 210 552; e-mail: simone.abbarchi@libero.it).

Personal shopping trips with Angela Carpio (00 39 333 837 7210) can be booked through the Villa San Michele and cost €240 (£171) for three hours.

VISITING THERE

Fantiscritti marble quarry, Carrara (00 39 05 85 70981). Open daily 9am-6pm; admission free.

MORE INFORMATION

Florence Tourist Office: 00 39 055 290 832; www.firenzeturismo.it

Italian State Tourist Board: 020-7408 1254; www.italiantouristboard.co.uk

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