Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Five Fun Facts For Florence, or Firenze, Part II

Ponte Vecchio

“She was shocked by how dirty Florence was.” 
 ~Christobel Kent

I rode the Red Bus around Bologna the other day, and a young couple from Texas happened to sit in front of me at one point. They mentioned they had just come from Florence and Rome.

"How did you like them?" I asked.

The both frowned and shook their heads. "They were too crowded and hot," according to the husband. The wife added, "And dirty."  I won't go into the rest of the conversation here except to say that I suggested that they check out the Chiesa Santo Stefano (an old church complex of seven churches), and the husband replied, "We probably won't. We're sick of museums and churches and old buildings and history."   The wife again interjected, "And dirt."  I just smiled. I carry handwipes to be safe.

Maybe it does get old, although I've wandered through all of these places numerous times, and I always find something interesting that I didn't see or know before.  Let me share a few things I discovered on this trip to Florence.

1. There are three bridges that span the Arno River in central Florence, the Ponte Vecchio (photo above), Ponte Santa Trinita (photo below), and Ponte alle Grazia (no photo). The best known is the Ponte Vecchio, which spans the Arno at its narrowest point. There has been a bridge there since Roman times, although the present bridge's construction dates to the 14th century.

Ponte Santa Trinita
The Ponte Vecchio, which means Old Bridge, always housed vendors of some sort, although in the beginning they were butchers and other merchants who set up tables to display their wares. According to historical documents, if a vendor did not pay his rent or bills, soldiers would smash his table (banco), literally breaking (rotto) it so that he could not sell anything. The vendor then lost his way of making a living.  The name of this practice? Bancorotto, from which bankrupt comes.

The Ponte Vecchio was the only bridge in Florence that the Nazis didn't destroy as they fled the city during World War II.  Supposedly, Hitler forbade them from doing so.  They did, however, blow up building on both sides of the bridge to block access to it.

Jeweler on Ponte Vecchio

2. In the late 14th- early-15th century, the shops and either side of the bridge appeared. In 1560-something, Vasari designed a private corridor for Duke Cosimo d'Medici to walk from the Pitti Palace to the Uffizi. The smell from the butcher and fishmonger shops on the bridge offended him greatly, so in 1593, he signed a decree that prohibited them from selling on the bridge.  Goldsmiths and jewelers quickly took over, and they remain there today.

Locks on hook on Ponte Vecchio
3.  I mentioned the other day about going to Verona and seeing all the locks (and gum and bandages) adorning the walls and gates around Juliet's House.  The first time I had ever noticed the practice of  putting locks on bridges or gates or whatever was in 1997 when we were in Florence for the first time.  I noticed a few on an iron hook, and somewhere I have an old photo of it.

When we went back in 2011, "Love Locks" covered the handrails on the bridge, near the bridge, on the street next to the bridge.  Somewhere, I have a bunch of photos of those, too. I'm glad I have some remembrance of them because the practice is now illegal. Local authorities cut the locks off and passed a law that makes it illegal to put a lock on the bridge or rails or whatever.  Few people are willing to risk the 160 euro fine for doing so, and the only locks I saw last week were the ones attached to the hook I saw in 1997 (photo above).

Legal street vendor
4. Florence has legal—and illegal—street vendors all over the place. A legal stand will be somewhat permanent (like the one above).  Illegal vendors are usually guys who have spread a blanket or cloth on the piazza and invite you to look.  Usually, if they see police, they grab their goods and run.

Some people think that buying fake designer goods (sunglasses, purses, scarves, etc) from these guys is great. They pay a lot less and get what they think is a good knock-off.  There are two problems, though. First, a knock-off will not last long because it's poorly made.  Secondly, and even more importantly, it's illegal to sell knock-offs in Italy (or anywhere else in the world, for that matter). In addition, it's illegal to buy them.  If police catch you buying knock-off goods, you'll pay a hefty (I hear it's over 1000 euro.) fine.

Il Porcellino
5. The Mercato Nuovo (New Market) is a few blocks away from the San Lorenzo market I mentioned yesterday,  Constructed in the 16th century, Florentines called it the "new" market to distinguish it from the "old" market (14th century). The old market no longer exists and is now Piazza della Republica.

The vendors that sell in Mercato Nuovo have carts that they wheel in every morning and wheel out every evening. During their selling hours, they're under cover of a huge stone loggia. Most of the vendors sell scarves, leather, or tapestries, although a few sell souvenirs.

Outside of the vendors, the big attraction is the 17th century Fontana del Porcellino (Piglet Fountain).  The pig spews water from his mouth, and legend has it that anyone who rubs the pig's snout will return to Florence. I must have rubbed it a few times because I returned.

Supposedly the vendors that sell at MN sell goods that are higher quality than the ones at San Lorenzo. Maybe some are, but when I walked through, I saw one scarf that I particularly liked.  It was a four-color silk scarf that I had seen in the San Lorenzo market earlier.  The vendor saw me looking at it.

"You like, signora?  It's beautiful. Four colors. Let me show you." She removed it from the hanger and whipped it around so I could see the four colors.

"It's beautiful," I said to her.  She twisted it and fooled around with it so I could see how many different ways I could use it.

"If you double it and twist it this way, you can see all four colors when you wear it," she said.  She performed a few more little magic tricks with it. "Or, you can just tie it this way and see two colors."

"How much?" I asked her.

"Usually 35 euro," she said.  "It's pure silk. Made in Italy." She showed me the ironed-on label. "But, I give it to you for 32 euro."

"I saw the same one in San Lorenzo for a lot less." I knew what was coming.

"It was probably not the same, signora. This scarf is unique to us."  RIght.

"I'll think about it," I said and walked away. As I walked through the Mercato Nuovo, I saw a number of vendors with that same scarf priced at 30-40 euro.

I walked around Florence for a couple of hours and finally headed back to the Mercato Centrale and Mercato San Lorenzo on my way to the train station. I bought a few things in the food market and went looking for the vendor who had the scarf that I saw originally.  Just as I was about to give up, I saw him twisting a scarf around a man's neck. He was putting a bit of a bow on the scarf.

"So now you can show your wife how to make the bow," the guy said as I walked up.  Phew. I didn't think the bow looked quite right on the hulking man looking in the mirror.

When the vendor finished his transaction, he came over to me.  "Which do you like, madam? I give you a good deal."  I knew he would.

"The pink one," I said to him indicating the exact one I had seen at Mercato Nuovo.  He pulled it from the hanger and whipped it around in much the same way the other vendor had. He showed me the ironed-on label which looked suspiciously like the one in the "unique" scarf.

"It's 100% pure silk.  Made in Italy," he assured me. He then doubled it and wrapped it around my neck.  "Look at the four colors." He pulled it off, twisted it another way, and draped it over me again. "Now you see two colors, but if you turn this, you can see three colors."

The temperature was in the low 90s, the humidity was high, and I felt like I was going to pass out. He wanted to show me yet another way to tie the scarf.  "No," I said.  "I want it.  I appreciate your help, but it's too hot.  How much?"  I realized that I had said I wanted it.  That's not a good thing to do in the markets.

"It's usually 20 euro," he told me.  "But I will give you a good deal. 15 euro"  Twenty was, of course, much better than 30 or 32 or 35, and 15 was even better.  I knew he'd go lower if I'd haggle.  I'm not good at haggling.

"I don't know," I said.  "That's too high." I acted as though I would walk away.

"I tell you what." He walked around in front of me. "I'll give it to you for 12."

"Ten," I said.

I don't think he exactly said, "Sold," but the next thing I knew, I was walking to the train station with a pink silk scarf in my hand.

Tomorrow: I'm a tourist in my own town.


  1. Wow! You got a deal - I want to shop with you!

  2. This comment has been removed by the author.

  3. WHY would you even GO to Italy if you didn't like museums and churches and old buildings and history...and dirt?