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Finding little pockets of peace in crowded Florence

Updated: Jan 21, 2021

A cocktails and cicchetti bar in Piazza della Passera called Bulli & Balene

Florence has been smelly. And hot. And crowded. And covered in graffiti and full of loud people and aggressive pigeons. I noticed this my first day here, and I then resolved not to complain about the predictable vexations of the city center, but instead to embark on a search for a more peaceful pocket of the city.

Don't get me wrong. I'm a sucker for the historic center's undeniable beauty. I can't help but stare up at the Duomo's pearly marble, intricate statues and gold details with my mouth agape like Napoleon Dynamite every time I pass it on my way to class. But you can only weave through so many tour groups and selfie takers before you start to feel a little claustrophobic.

So I took turns away from the Galleria dell'Accademia and Santa Croce, following the sound of silence and the sight of empty streets. But the streets I found weren't just quiet; they were lifeless, and they still smelled like pee!

I ambled along residential streets with walls obscured by spray-painted scrawl, interrupted only by the occasional empty coffee bar or tabaccheria.

I trudged through alleyways in search of a cheese store or a jewelry shop but found only cigarette butts and balled-up bags of chips.

I weaved in and out of these streets until I got so discouraged that I hoped to be spat back out into the sprawl of selfie sticks, badgering waiters and frightening birds.

So I ended my search, and I went to bed that night thinking that Florence, much smaller than Rome, just might not have as many neighborhoods that are full of bars and restaurants and lacking massive tour groups and various odors.

Then I remembered the beautiful walks my friends and I had taken here two years ago, and I decided that the next day, I would take a stroll on the south side of the river.

So south of the Arno — as far east as Piazzale Michelangelo and as far west as Piazza Santa Spirito — I went that Sunday. And the following Tuesday and Wednesday, and I'm still making mental notes of when I'll go back and what I'll do when I'm there.

I'm no discoverer; the Oltrarno (which means the other side of the Arno River) and its San Niccolo, Santo Spirito and San Frediano neighborhoods are well known and recommended by tons of travel articles about Florence. But when you cross the river to find that all signs of identical souvenir stores, audio tour groups and plaid Bermuda shorts (no shade to the classic dad get-up) have suddenly been replaced by artists' studios and about a million cool bars, you really feel like you've found something special.

Bulli & Balene, a cocktails and cicchetti (Italian tapas) spot in Piazza della Passera, has become one of my favorite places to sit on my lonesome while writing under the influence of prosecco. Just about everyone who works there or sits at their outdoor tables has tattoos, rolls their own cigarettes, dresses at just the right level of cool or some combination of the above. I do none of those things, but I still feel welcome to sit outside and let the evening roll by as my eyes flicker from twinkling lights and flower boxes in the above apartments' windows to friends chatting and cats lapping up water.

Or whenever I've told myself that I'm not allowed to spend more than 10 euro, I know I'll find a great spot to eat at Piazza Santo Spirito. There is plenty of tasty antipasti and cheesy gnocchi to be had at the restaurants in the piazza, but the steps in front of the church are the best. They're the perfect vantage point over the square from which to observe Cool Teens, cute couples and street musicians while eating Gustapizza and drinking wine from a plastic cup.

There are many other nice places to spend time on the south side of the river. The streets are narrower, quieter and decorated with art instead of spray-painted scrawl. The restaurants serve regional specialties instead of generic Italian staples. There's more of a sense of peace than one of commotion. But it's not better than the north side. It's just different. And it makes me appreciate the sight of the sunlight hitting the Duomo even more as I walk back to my apartment in the very crowded, kinda smelly and pretty darn beautiful historic center.

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