FLORENCE, Italy — In addition to being one of the world's most beautiful and civilized cities, this one lies in the heart of Tuscany, which puts it near the center of much that is considered Italy's best and purest.
Nearby Siena lays claim to the purest language, the Italian of Dante, so decreed by the government a little more than a century ago to rid a newly united Italy of its chaos of dialects. Lucca to the west has Italy's finest olive oil and enough sleek Ferraris within its ancient walls to convince anyone that olives are good business.
But Florence's greatest gift to us all, then and now, was its role in ushering in the Renaissance, a 13th-Century infusion of warmth and humanity into art that released it from the more formalized constraints of earlier eras.
During almost a year of living in Tuscany, we found our numerous trips to Florence were exercises in embracing the museums and galleries, churches and convents, palaces and piazzas, each more inspiring than the last.
Art historians are in general agreement that the masterful painter Giotto began it all, but the names and works of Renaissance giants roll on and on here: Fra Angelico, Botticelli, Leonardo, Bellini, Michelangelo, Raphael, Titian, Cellini, Caravaggio. Come to Florence and meet them all.
Here to there: Alitalia flies nonstop to Milan and Rome; TWA and Pan Am also fly to both cities. Take Alitalia from either city to Florence.
How long/how much? Florence is a major culture stop for most visitors, so allow at least three days for the highlights only and one or two for visiting a few of the gorgeous hill towns of Tuscany. With a volatile lira, costs for food and lodging aren't as gentle as they have been in recent years. But it's still possible to sleep and dine for a fair price.
A few fast facts: Italy's lira recently sold at 1,290 to the U.S. dollar, making it worth $.000775 for your calculations. Spring and fall are lovely, midsummer terribly crowded, dead of winter often raw and bone-chilling. Walk the old city for most of the sights; cabs are reasonable.
Getting settled in: Florentine hotels were in the process of raising prices for 1987 during our visit, so regard these as approximate, probably a trifle low:
Balestri (Piazza Mentana 7; $72 double), a 25-year favorite of ours, was also undergoing renovations, which shouldn't alter its comfort and character much. Right on the Arno just a few steps from Ponte Vecchio, the Uffizi Gallery, Piazza della Signoria and other major sights. Breakfast only.
Calzaiuoli (Via Calzaiuoli 6; $72 double) also has a marvelous location on one of the town's largest pedestrian-only shopping streets, between Piazza della Signoria and the cathedral, just off Piazza della Republica. An ancient building restored in 1982, it's very contemporary and has smallish rooms and baths. It's also spotless throughout and in a great location.
Aprile (Via della Scala 6; $46) is down a couple of notches from Calzaiuoli. Simplicity is the word here. A 15th-Century Medici palace, this one is closer to the train station, and again, breakfast only.
Regional food and drink: Florentines, like all Tuscans, are great bean eaters, preferring the local toscanelli white beans in such lovely dishes as pasta fazu , and pureed in passata di fagioli minestra. These, along with ribollita alla toscana, a bread-and-red-cabbage soup loaded with numerous other vegetables including toscanelli, are on most menus.
Tripe rises above its unheralded beginnings in trippa alla fiorentina, the humble staple cooked with a tomato-and-basil sauce, usually served in earthenware crocks with a topping of toasted Parmesan cheese. Bistecca alla fiorentina is a thumb-thick steak marinated in oil, garlic and oregano, then broiled quickly, although some consider the marinade blasphemous.
Italians outside Tuscany often dismiss Chianti as troppo aceto, too sharp on the tongue, but they're usually speaking of the table variety. The better bottles are a perfect companion to a variety of Tuscan food, including an after-dinner wedge of bel paese, tallegio or fresh Tuscan pecorino cheese. Mangia bene!
Moderate-cost dining: For something like three decades we have been popping in at Ottorino (Via delle Oche 12), so we were a bit surprised to find a change of venue from around the corner. Capo Lino Amantini will see to it that just about any Tuscan specialty is placed before you, and the new place is gorgeous.
Leo in San Croce (Piazza San Croce) has kept us happy for almost as long with his gran crostone alla Piero Capponi, a masterful mouthful of ham, mozzarella, mushrooms, truffles, tomato and herbs known only to Leo, served on toast with oil and a hint of garlic. There are vaulted ceilings, Gargantuan steaks and wild mushrooms only slightly smaller than the steaks.