After checking into my hostel in Florence and becoming re-acquainted with the city I last visited 6 years ago, I headed for Ponte Vecchio and the little scooter garage nearby. I met Mauro, the Italian owner of the rows of vespas and small Fiats which lined his little rustic foyer, and Freddie, originally from Philadelphia, but a Florentine by heart if you’re lucky to meet him. While the centre of Florence is a gem for history and architecture, Freddie showed me the best part of living here may very well be the real beauty outside his city walls – that’s Tuscany! And the best way to see it is on a vintage Italian vespa. So, helmet in hand, that’s what we did!
If you’ve been following my blog, many people know I love travelling a city by foot. Walking is my way of slow travel, a chance to take things in at ease but I couldn’t help get excited about zipping around on a traditional scooter. First, we crossed the bridge toward the south side of the Arno, the river that divides Florence and which also gives the region its unique identity.
Freddie and I weaved up hills and through narrow winding roads to an impressive lookout over all of Florence. Its wide-open terrace sits on a high hilltop in the district of Oltrarno. Piazzale Michelangelo, the “small square” as it’s named, was built in 1869 when Florence became the capital of Italy (although briefly) and the city wanted grandiose public spaces to represent its power to the rest of the country. The square is a bit aways from the city centre but well-worth the panoramic views you’ll have when you get here. Piazzale Michelangelo is a place where even the locals escape to – later that evening I found Florentines picnic-ing with a bottle of vino waiting for the Tuscan sun to set!
I couldn’t imagine this beautiful, romantic city once being a massive piece of rubble, demolished by heavy bombing. The crippled economy and disastrous roads after the Second World War meant Italians urgently needed a new, practical, mode of transportation affordable by the masses. The invention of the Vespa in the late 1940s would quickly change everyday life. Families could now return to work, earn money, and feed their children. They could make daily trips to the local market or field together with small kids tucked in between the two-seater with their mom and dad. This mighty little scooter would come to symbolize freedom and independence.
Further uphill we stopped at the oldest church of Florence. The church of San Miniato al Monte with its green and white marble facade is characteristic of many 11th century Tuscan buildings I’ve seen. If the hand-laid mosaics don’t amaze you, its story will – the basilica is a dedication to San Miniato himself, a pagan soldier who was attacked by a lion and even burned of his whole body for converting to Christianity – but as torturous as the Emperor ordered it, Miniato prevailed without even a flinch. Legend has it, when he was finally beheaded, he picked up his head, tucked it under his arm, crossed the Arno and walked himself up one of Florence’s highest and prettiest hilltops. As he watched the sun set over the city, he placed his head on the ground, laid down and died. Now that’s what I call keeping your dignity!
The further away from Florence we got, I felt the narrower the roads became! We rode our vintage vespa through ancient olive groves and vineyards, zipping by typical stone houses in the countryside.
Freddie says he moved to Italy in search of “la bella vita”. And I think he found it. With the rolling green hills, the lush green vineyards, and the tranquility in Tuscany you would be hard-pressed to find anywhere else. Florentines who want to escape the hustle of city life rarely travel far and I completely understand why. If only my own backyard could be this serene…
We stopped for lunch at a typical gastronomia in Florence and while sipping on Chianti I could not help imagine myself becoming a Tuscan myself one day, owning my own vespa, living on a hill in an old stone house and riding along the countryside for no other reason but because it’s Tuscany.
If you’re planning your next visit to Florence, I highly recommended a tour with Mauro and Freddie. Their 4-hour tour takes you off the tourist map, to places you normally could not reach by foot. I loved Freddie’s passion and wealth of knowledge for the region he now calls home, and his small, slow travelling tour is the best way to experience Tuscany like a local, from a local.
I was a guest of Walkabout Florence and, while all opinions expressed are my own, they are solely responsible for the Tuscan villa and vintage vespa I now want to buy.