Take a walk on the quiet side - of Florence

Avoid the queues and crowds, says Ian McCurrach. This Italian city is so much more enjoyable when everyone's left town

I last visited Florence during the height of summer about 20 years ago when I was a student. In those days I was prepared to deal with the hordes and the suffocating heat and was eager to take in all the guidebook "must see" recommendations. I can still remember dragging around from sight to sight and spending interminable hours in the queues, which stretched from the Renaissance Duomo to the masterpieces of the Uffizi. I shall never forget seeing Michelangelo's David in the Galleria dell'Accademia for the first time, but the memory of nearly passing out from heat exhaustion in the queue has stayed with me more vividly. These days I get tired just contemplating such a visit.

I last visited Florence during the height of summer about 20 years ago when I was a student. In those days I was prepared to deal with the hordes and the suffocating heat and was eager to take in all the guidebook "must see" recommendations. I can still remember dragging around from sight to sight and spending interminable hours in the queues, which stretched from the Renaissance Duomo to the masterpieces of the Uffizi. I shall never forget seeing Michelangelo's David in the Galleria dell'Accademia for the first time, but the memory of nearly passing out from heat exhaustion in the queue has stayed with me more vividly. These days I get tired just contemplating such a visit.

So with hindsight, I decided to return to Italy's cultural capital when the hordes would be gone and the weather much more favourable. The city is definitely at its best in late autumn or spring. I left Gatwick on a dull April morning and a couple of hours later I found myself outside the tiny terminal of Pisa airport in warm spring sunshine. To my absolute delight I'd landed a brand spanking new Peugeot 206 CC convertible, one of those flash new jobs where at the touch of a button, the hardtop cleverly opens up and secretes itself in the boot. Cool or what, I thought. And from the looks I got as I posed out of Pisa on the motorway heading for Florence, so did a lot of the design-conscious Italians.

I decided not to stay in the centre of town and holed up at Hotel Villa La Massa in the leafy suburb of Candeli. Just 15 minutes by car from the Duomo and secluded in gorgeous grounds on the banks of the river Arno, Villa La Massa is a private world away from the hustle and bustle. A vast Medicean villa, dating from the 16th century, houses the main rooms and suites and is the last word in luxury. And talk about a room with a view. I was lucky enough to be given room 45, a vast former balcony, closed in with floor-to-ceiling leaded windows, affording panoramic views of the Arno from my giant four-poster bed. Bliss!

Heading into town on the sleepy back roads along the Arno was a cinch. I was determined not to venture into any of the museums or galleries and opted for wandering around and soaking up the city's romantic atmosphere. I also wanted to see a side of Florence that most tourists miss. Starting off at Santa Croce, where the picturesque piazza was home to just a few stray pigeons and tourists, I mapped out a circular walking route that would take me past the Palazzo Vecchio, the Uffizi, across the Ponte Vecchio and east to Santo Spirito, then back across Ponte alla Carraia to Santa Maria Novella, back past the Baptistry and the Duomo and finally to Piazza Ghiberti, which is just north of Santa Croce. Depending on how long you linger, the route should take a good three hours or so.

Every time I turned a corner I thought I had jumped into a picture postcard. It was easy to pinpoint the Ponte Vecchio though; this was the only place where I came across large groups of visitors during my stay. For a refreshing drink I stopped on the pretty terrace of Le Volpi e l'Uva, Piazza dei Rossi 1r, just across the bridge, which is a locals' favourite. As I wandered through the back streets of Oltrano towards Santo Spirito, I was entranced by the timeless sight of craftsmen making crystal chandeliers and upholstering old furniture.

One of the city's secret treasures is the Officina Profumo Farmaceutica di Santa Maria Novella, via della Scala 16. Tucked away in a side street near Santa Maria Novella, you can smell it before you arrive at the discreet front door. The world's oldest perfume maker is housed in a fabulous frescoed chapel, where the Dominican friars began experimenting with elixirs and potions in the 13th century. There are a vast number of products on display. I bought a bottle of the classically fresh Acqua di Colonia, which cost £25.

Another treasure is the Museo Ferragamo, via dei Tornabuoni 2, which is a haven for foot fetishists. Housed in the pretty, pink, 13th-century Palazzo Spini Ferroni, this small but beautiful museum is found above the Ferragamo shop and contains an excellent display of some of the company's extensive 10,000-strong shoe archive. Look out for Salvatore's hand-crafted lasts of famous folk, including Rita Hayworth, Ingrid Bergman and Ava Gardner.

Also worth a look are the Ferragamo hotels, which are all within a single block bisected by the river. Hotel Lungarno, Borgo San Jacopo 14, is all cream and blue with bellboys in pillbox hats. Gallery Hotel Art, Vicolo dell'D'Oro 5, is very trendy, designed by Christian Liaigre, who was responsible for New York's The Mercer. The Continentale, Vicolo dell'D'Oro 6r, is the newest kid on the block. It is all white Formica and Pucci-pink wools and very 1950s.

The treat at the end of my walk was finding La Via del Te, Piazza Ghiberti 22, which is the finest teahouse in town, boasting more than 240 blends. With a view of the little covered food market, I downed several infusions and tucked into some delicious cakes, alfresco.

On my first night in town I decided to take in a classical concert at Teatro del Maggio Musicale Fiorentino at Teatro Comunale, Corso Italia 16. As I drove along the banks of the river trying to find somewhere to park, the floodlit reflections of Florence twinkled magically back up at me and life had never seemed lovelier. James Conlon conducted a semi-staged performance of the third act of Parsifal, which was mightily impressive

My second evening found me having dinner at Villa La Massa's Verrochio restaurant, where I tucked into tortello filled with pecorino cheese flavoured with black truffle on a bed of cannelloni bean purée, black olives and tomato. Food had never seemed finer.

Before heading back to Pisa, I managed to find time to take a quick tour of the designer factory outlet stores, which are right on Florence's Tuscan doorstep. Any followers of fashion would be mad to miss out on this treat. I managed to purchase a pair of Gucci boots for £100 and a wallet for £40. Gucci, Armani et al are found at The Mall, via Europa 8, near Leccio. Prada, Helmut Lang and Jil Sander are at Localita Levanella, near Montevarchi. Not only did I return rich in spirit, but with bargains to boot.

Getting there

Ian McCurrach travelled as a guest of Italian Journeys (020-7373 8058; www.italianjourneys.com) which offers a two-night break at Hotel Villa La Massa in Florence from £665 per person, based on two sharing, including return flights to Pisa with British Airways, car hire and b&b accommodation.

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