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the heady smells of florence

We’re sat in a cosy bar which the locals clearly love dearly, off Piazza Santo Spirito. There are gentle sepia-semi-nude-but-tastefully-done photographs on the walls. Four lights swing low over the bar and there are two cute bartenders who probably provide more of a draw for the clientele than they realise. I’m not sure how one of them quite manages it, but he’s managing to pull off a remarkable skull-scraping, pineapple-style, designer ponytail with the longer section of his hair, the bits that have escaped the grade two shave on the bottom two thirds of his head.

Johnny Cash is serenading us and when we pulled up to our wood-work bench table, a platter of olives, breads and dips materialised under our noses.

I think though, that the best thing about this place is that, as every minute passes, more interesting faces appear. We could both sit here for hours. Just people watching. It’s a good job we’re both intrigued by faces or it could very soon become boring for one or the other. Forget all the sight-seeing and the art galleries. This should be the recommended way to scratch the underbelly of Florence.

This city is full of smells. Coffee hits your nose the minute you emerge into the daylight from the station. As you close in on el Duomo via Via del Proconsolo waves of straw scented horse pee fill your nostrils and if you’re unlucky you’ll be run down by the sharp barp-barp of the lady cart driver as she insists on noisily turning the corner at Santa Maria del Fiore. There’s the rich, distinctive eau de real-leather wafting in tendrils out of the smart coat and designer handbag shop doorways on every street from Via della Condotta to the precariously brave shop fronts suspended on the sides of the famous Ponte Vecchio.

The buildings here are on a bigger scale altogether. The Duomo (aka Catherdrale di Sante Maria del Fiore) is spectacular: finished in pink, cream and green. More like a gargantuan chocolate-less neopolitan icecream than a structure of marble and stone. My favourite bit about it though is the exotic tendrils of spicy smoke which greet us as we try to fit the whole lens defying structure into a photograph.  I don’t recognise the smell of frankinsence but Emma does and we make our way around to the crowd gathered together on the far side.

There’s (what we think might be) a christening going on. Scores of dark skinned ladies with flowered white lace veils laid over their jet-black hair are singing and chanting at a small boy in jeans who’s held up in turn to an alter of flowers and then faced back towards the gawping masses. These ladies (Nuns?) are so melancholic and sombre and beautiful. To me. (Emma thinks they look like zombies). Either way, we get to look through a small window into a cultural moment that we’ll probably never understand (even if Em is going to hell with her flame licked hair).

I don’t remember Florence being this relaxed when I came with my family: I have vague memories of crowds everywhere. Weirdly, it was the smell that sparked my reminiscences: horse urine is a powerful tonic for the memory it seems. It was the height of summer when we were here as kids though. And you feel the crowds so much more when you are a half-pint sized human.

Florence in October is positively pleasant, whatever your size. In another one of what seems like hundreds of Piazzas, a little girl sits crossed legged, chin in hand, enraptured by the lithe handed puppet-master whose hips sway as he fills his craggy-faced-puppet-family full of music and dance. His and her absorption are the most captivating site despite the next imposing building behind.

People are so much more interesting than the structures they live in and around, don’t you think? Take our fleeting meeting today with Carlo Piagentini and his well-lived grey curls, mysterious eye-patch and wildly paint spattered painters apron: it’s these lives, glanced against with the briefest of touches, which my memory carries on storing up for a rainy day.

The sounds here are of church bells, market traders tempting you with their hand-crafted-wares on the weekly Sunday market and Japanese tourists “oOOOoooO”ing in unison to some incredible fact just released from their tour guides tiny microphone. And the quiet pluck of guitars being tuned by the pig-tailed, suede-and-fringed-waistcoated girls in the far corner of this little Osteria. It’s getting warmer by the minute. Body after body drifts in and the over spill continues into the Santo Spirito Piazza. It’s a veritable melting pot of interesting faces and we’re grinning in the middle of it.

Two bowl shaped glasses of heady Chianti have just arrived. I think we’re going enjoy sta sera.

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