Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Florence Has it All - Including Gluten Free Food

Art, shopping, and food. To me, these are the core ingredients for almost any vacation recipe. When these components also happen to be the finest in the world, such as Michelangelo’s sculpture of David, famous Italian fashion houses (think Ferragamo shoes), and a host of restaurants with gluten free menus, I know the destination is Florence.

Located in the region of Tuscany, Florence is the leader among Italy’s top three tourist destinations (Rome and Venice are the other two). Most visitors arrive during the summer months, when sights stay open longer, there’s a proliferation of cultural activities, and leisurely dinners are taken al fresco. The “shoulder season” months of April, May, September, and October are also popular because lines at major sights are shorter, the backpack crowd has returned to school, and the weather is not as hot and humid. But sometimes you have to travel when you can, which is why I found myself planning a two-night family getaway to Florence in the off-season during my children’s winter school break.

Florence is a city easy to navigate on foot, even when its cobblestone streets are covered in winter snow and slush. The main artistic and historical sights are within walking distance of one of the area’s most recognizable sites, the Duomo. Known formally as Santa Maria del Fiore, it’s the big red-domed church that dominates every skyline photograph of the city. The word duomo is a generic Italian term meaning a church, and practically every Italian town has one, accompanied by a separate bell tower, or campanile. As the original depository of many artistic masterpieces, wandering into nearly any church in Florence will please both the spiritual and artistic soul.

The Duomo itself is a work of art; a Gothic cathedral completed in the 14th century, built to compete with the size and beauty of cathedrals in rival city-states. The dome was added in the early 15th century by architect Brunelleschi, who based the construction on the double-walled cupola of the Pantheon, an ancient Roman temple. When we visited the Pantheon during an earlier family trip to Rome, we noticed the hole in the dome where Brunelleschi actually cut out a sample to study. The Duomo’s colorful pink, green, and white marble façade was built in the 19th century, and is of a completely different creative style than the darkly lit somber interior. In its entirety, the Duomo is symbolic of the Renaissance period, when many people looked to the past in order to move into the future.

In the summer, the Duomo’s interior offers a cool respite from the hot Tuscan sun. On this particular winter day it’s too cold to take off our gloves. To warm up a bit, as well as get a closer look at Brunelleschi’s dome and a few of the tools used in its construction, we climb the 463 steps to the top. The narrow interior serpentine path we ascend in solitude, while the ledge that wraps around the exterior of the dome offers us a rare surrealistic view of a snow-blanketed red-tile roof city. Across the street from the Duomo is the Duomo Museum, with famous works of art such as Donatello’s La Maddalene, Michelangelo’s Pieta, and the original bronze door panels from another well-known Florence site, the Baptistery. It, too, is located across from the Duomo, and we stand shivering with the rest of the crowd waiting to take a family picture in front it.

To avoid spending any more time in the cold than is necessary, we follow travel guide book advice and make reservations for two of Florence’s most popular places of interest that require tickets–the Uffizi Gallery and the Accademia. For a small fee in addition to the regular entry price, this allows us to bypass the long ticket lines and practically walk up to the front door for admission. It’s worth the price on both cold and hot days.

The Uffizi is said to “contain the greatest collection of Italian paintings anywhere.” It’s hung chronologically, making it easier to explain the artistic progression to my children. My youngest son, at age nine, however, requires several explanations as to why many of the paintings and sculptures are of nude people. The Accademia houses Michelangelo’s David, who with his confident gaze is thought to be the epitome of the Renaissance era. More poignant to me, though, is Michelangelo’s series of sculptures entitled the Four Prisoners. Some consider these pieces, depicting figures struggling to free themselves from the marble blocks of which they are sculpted, to be unfinished works of art. I view them as representative of the human spirit, each of us struggling with whatever it is in our lives that “imprisons” us. For some of us, this can be celiac disease. But in Florence, I don’t let celiac disease or the winter weather prevent me from enjoying what I came to see and do. So, interspersed among the art, I also shop and eat!

Shopping in Florence runs the gamut from bargaining with merchandise-draped vendors offering their wares on street corners, to looking for good deals at well-established street markets such as Mercato Nuovo. There are also high-end Italian designer name stores. My husband, with Mediterranean blood coursing through his veins, is a natural at haggling over prices, thereby astounding our children when he confidently walks away from a too-high priced item, only to have the vendor run after him agreeing to the lower price. Later, he acquires a soft-as-a-baby’s-bottom leather jacket for less than half the original asking price at a posh boutique. Of course, the salesmen still make tidy profits, and we probably pay too much, but it is the personal exchanges that make these purchases memorable.

Shopping where the locals shop for food offers up another type of cultural experience. The temperature inside the immense two-story enclosed Mercato Centrale (central food market) is so cold that we can see our breath. But the sight of boar’s snouts and various internal animal parts I can't imagine eating, wheels of parmesan cheese, bushels of dried porcini mushrooms, and endless rows of cold-weather produce is irresistible. Groceries become our tasty souvenirs. A small number of food stalls also sell fully prepared meals, and I enjoy an inexpensive gluten free lunch of sliced yellow corn polenta smothered in a rich homemade Bolognese sauce. A glass of local Chianti completes the meal.

Shopping at the farmacia on the corner by our hotel yields additional treats such as gluten free chocolate croissants and a gluten free chocolate panetone. Bi-Aglut gluten free beer is also available, but something about drinking beer in an area known for wine doesn’t feel right to me, so I leave it on the shelf.

Aside from indulging in the chocolate croissants purchased at the farmacia, I avail myself of the hotel's daily breakfast buffet that includes yogurt, fruit, cheese, juice, and coffee. For lunch, colorful salads with tuna, eggs, or ham are plentiful, or, with gluten free bread I can make a sandwich of local deli meats. The Italian Celiac Association provides a booklet to paying members that lists gluten free items by store, brand, and category. This information is also free on their website, but it's not as easy to decipher.

The Italian Celiac Association also provides a list of restaurants, broken down by region, that can prepare gluten free meals. These are great places when I want pizza or pasta. Otherwise, I have yet to find any restaurant in Italy daunted by my gluten free request, as many Italians have at least heard of celiachia. Even when I ask our hotel desk clerk for restaurant recommendations, she hands me a menu from a place that serves gluten free meals. Unfortunately, this particular eatery is out in the countryside and not an easy commute on a dark wintry night with sleet beginning to fall.

Instead, we walk down the street to a neighborhood restaurant, Ciro & Sons, and inquire if getting a meal senza glutine is a problem. The answer is that of course it’s no problem, as they have a gluten free menu and are on the Italian Celiac Association restaurant list. Overwhelmed by my choices, I order a plate of gluten free spaghetti with homemade pesto sauce, and select a bottle of wine to share with my husband. I’m giddy before the first glass. (December 2005)

Helpful Information

To get the most out of a visit to Florence, and to be within walking distance of the major sights, stay in a centrally located hotel. We stayed in the Hotel Bellettini, Via de’Conti 7. Tel. 055-213-561. http://www.hotelbellettini.com/.

Ciro & Sons, Via del Giglio 28r. Tel. 055-289-694. http://www.ciroandsons.com/. With 24-hour notice, they can prepare gluten free pizza.

Italian Celiac Association. http://www.celiachia.it/.

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