Florence, city of (football) culture

The tourist crowds may engulf the Uffizi but local passions are really ignited by the city's team. Michael Prestage joins a noisy pilgimage
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The Independent Travel
In between warning of pickpockets and attempting to sell tourist trips, the tour rep wandered the coach asking if there were any questions about the historic city of Florence. Where to get tickets for the Fiorentina v Juventus football match was not an inquiry she expected. Nor was she impressed by such a plebeian request.

Yet Italians are passionate about football. The soccer match a few weeks ago, and our attempt to get tickets for it, proved a marvellous way to meet people and sample Florentine life beyond the art galleries, museums and churches. For Florentines, the match with Juventus - their most bitter rivals and this season vying with them for runners-up spot in Serie A behind AC Milan - is a highlight.

Locals, inured to waves of tourists wandering through their city, became animated when the match was discussed. Restaurateur Duccio Magni, owner of La Baraonda, broke off from describing the typically Tuscan meal he had selected for us and drew a map of the ground, writing out the name of each section to make it easier for us to deal with the touts we would have to rely on for a view of the match. There was also a warning about prices. And, of course, we heard his views on the game.

We had discovered the restaurant after enlisting the help of teachers from England working at the international language school in Florence. Before arriving, we had been warned that this was an expensive city. Not, however, when such willing local guides book restaurants and take you to bars frequented by locals, where after a certain hour and an uncertain amount of wine the bill mysteriously freezes, despite subsequent rounds.

Sarah Ellis, an assistant director at the school, had also contacted the Fiorentina ground for us to inquire whether there were tickets available (it was a sell out), and told us where to find kiosks that specialised in tickets for sports events (also sold out). In the event, some bartering with touts on the day produced tickets for 100,000 lire (pounds 43.50) within minutes of our arriving at the ground.

Football crowds in Italy are demonstrative and emotional. The same scarf- wearing fans who had talked of the game as they weaved in and out of traffic on their scooters greeted their heroes with fireworks and billowing purple smoke from the terraces. Opera arias, the Pet Shop Boys' single "Go West" and the "Marseillaise" are all plundered for football chants. A lone trumpeter played "Strangers In the Night" throughout the game.

In the event, such partisan endeavour was not enough. An own goal gave Juventus the points. As the game slipped away the fans renewed their efforts. A teenage boy burst into tears. Other supporters crossed themselves and offered up prayers.

Having sampled the raw side of the city's culture, we dipped into the world most visitors come to see. We joined the queues of school parties to see the cathedral, marvelling at the dome Brunelleschi finished in 1434 and the frescoes by Vasari and Zuccaro. We wandered past Michelangelo's imposing statue of David, which dominates the Galleria dell'Accademia. And we felt spellbound at the sight of the inlaid facade of the 14th- century church of S Maria Novella.

We strolled across the Ponte Vecchio, window shopping at the goldsmiths' offerings along the way. The sheer size of the crowds outside the Uffizi deterred us from visiting one of the world's greatest art galleries, which was a shame, but that can be saved for another time.

There is a tradition in the Straw Market that if a coin placed in the mouth of the bronze Porcellino falls through the grate below you will return. It did. Now all I need is next season's fixture list.

SIX CITY ESSENTIALS: FLORENCE

How to get there

Fly with Air UK (0345 666777) from Stansted or Meridiana (0171-839 2222) from Gatwick, but note that discounted fares are hard to find. Or, find a ticket to Pisa airport through companies such as Italy Sky Shuttle (0181- 748 1333).

Where to stay

Choose a cheap, cheerful and central pensione such as the Hotel Sofia, Via Cavour 21 (00 39 55 283930), price pounds 18 single, pounds 25 double, or the Primavera at via Maso Finiguerra (00 39 55 287 072), which costs pounds 19.60 per person per night.

Where to eat

La Baraonda is at Via G Ghibellina, 67 Rosso: a starter and pizza with wine come to pounds 8.70. Latini at Via Palchetti 6 has huge communal tables, generous helpings and reasonable prices.

Who to ask

The Italian State Tourist Office, 1 Princes Street, London W1R 8AY (0171- 408 1254), supplies basic information, including a decent map.

What to read

Florence and Tuscany, an Eyewitness Travel Guide (pounds 12.99), has good maps. Cadogan Guides' Tuscany, (new edition pounds 14.99) is also recommended.

What if you don't like football?

Simply Travel (0181-995 3883) organises watercolour holidays in Tuscany. The trips, led by Sandra Pepys, chair of the Society of Landscape Painters, cater for beginners and experienced artists. You can stay for seven, 10 or 14 days; the price for a week is pounds 830, excluding air fares.

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