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The Modern Florence Art and Food– Away with Words

By Martin HigginsMonday 20th July 2015

In March last year we held a competition to find an aspiring travel writer to send on-board Allure of the Seas as our very own guest blogger. Our competition winner Martin Higgins, and his girlfriend Emily, will be spending one month travelling around the beautiful Mediterranean while visiting some of Europe’s most loved destinations from Barcelona to Florence on our 7 night West Mediterranean cruise.


Read about their exciting adventure with the latest edition of Away with Words.

Another day passed onboard the floating wonder of the world, the Allure of The Seas, and this time the stop-off destination was La Spezia. The gateway to Florence and Pisa. Now Florence is a city that is close to my heart, and a place I have had the pleasure of exploring at length. My close friend is a Florentine – and over the last couple of summers, he has shown me an authentic slice of Tuscany from a native’s perspective.
Florence Dome
I’ve visited places that never would have crossed my mind, from the secluded swimming spots around Grassina, to the famous wine producing region of Chianti. I’ve even stepped foot in the birthplace of Leonardo Da Vinci – literally, in Vinci.
But I’m a city boy and it is all too easy to fall under Florence’s spell. It implores me to leave everything in England behind and relocate here to become an olive oil baron and sip coffee all day outside Mercato Centrale with the other expats. And buy vegetables from here…
Florence Food Market
Standing on top of Forte Belvedere for the first time – on top the highest hill in Boboli Gardens – it is easy to understand the attraction, the magic of this place. The views are breath-taking, and rival those at the famous tourist trap of Piazzale Michaelangelo. But if you prefer quietness, and want to see the nature which has exalted this region - with the gentle rolling hills, the evergreen ferns, the timeless stone villages that festoon the countryside, and of course, the ubiquitous olive trees – come here.
Florence Hilltop
Having never stepped foot on this hilltop before, it was great to be shown around by art historian, Alexandra Korey – the driving force behind the ArtTrav blog – who was waiting for me with her husband, Tommaso.
I discovered that Forte Belvedere is an old fortification that was built during times of great political upheaval in the 16th century – on the direction of Grand Duke Ferdinando I de' Medici. Its elevated position gave it a strategic vantage to spot enemies coming from far away, and with the troops that were garrisoned here, could ward off invaders and protect the of the Medici family and the sovereignty of their Government. It also provided refuge to its inhabitants from the swarms of mosquitos further down towards the Arno River.
Florence Fort
Though its military uses have become obsolete today, the lush grounds and the height make it perfect for sightseers and it is free to visit by the public.
Alex and Tommaso talked about its provenance, and I learnt this was one of Galileo’s favourite haunts to star gaze after his infamous falling out with the church. And no wonder, just look at those views!
Florence Fort View
Despite its age, this is not a dead building. It’s not just a relic from a bygone era, either, because this space is in use. It is alive. For one special reason right now – the defensive fortress is attracting a new audience. It is bringing dignitaries and art critics from all over the world to see how modern art is flourishing in this archetypal Renaissance city. Something which is very important to the current city administration, who want to grow Florence’s reputation internationally in the contemporary art world.
Anthony Gormley Sculpture  HUMAN
In the past, Henry Moore, Zhang Huan and Giuseppe Penone have exhibited in this very place. The latest installation is by the famed British sculptor Anthony Gormley, called HUMAN. A hugely ambitious project, including over 100 sculptures placed meticulously around the grounds and inside the fort, in a way which complements the geography and the grandeur of this fortress, and also brings a human dimension to the space.
Anthonly Gormley HUMAN
Gormley is a Turner Prize winning artist, internationally known and someone I personally have admired for years. I’m fortunate coming from Northern England, where some of his most iconic works stand against the backdrop of old industrial powerhouses, and have become so rooted in the sense of place. As if they have always been there. Some have even entered into the local folklore – like The Angel of The North, for example.
But it’s the materials he uses, and the mechanisation of the human form – which impresses me most.
We walked over to the lower terrace, and here you can find one of Gormley’s trademarks, the lifesize castings of his own body. In this more linear sculpture, he depicts the human form in various stages of development, from foetal position to stargazing, and has obvious associations with the ‘ascent of man’.
Anthonly Gormley HUMAN 2
Beware, someone is always listening.
Anthonly Gormley HUMAN and Martin Higgins
I love the more abstract sculptures, which incorporate cubist elements into the composition – like this one below. As if the human form has been chewed up and spat out by a 3D printer.
Anthonly Gormley HUMAN Corner Room
After walking around the grounds for an hour or so and building up an appetite, Alex and I enjoyed a leisurely walk into town while Tommaso took the scooter – and headed for Irene, the gourmet restaurant adjoining the Hotel Savoy – created by Sir Rocco Forte and family.
The dining room is the height of sophistication, with lovely high ceilings and French windows that flood the roo
m with light, and offer you that fine-dining experience in the centre of the city, with gorgeous views over Piazza della Repubblica.
Restaurant by Sir Rocco Forte and family
Restaurant by Sir Rocco Forte and family 2
After a quick spruce up it was time to sample some of the delights from the menu, developed by famous Italian chef Fulvio Pierangelini. All the fresh, organic produce is brought together in the kitchen by Head Chef, Giovanni Cosmai, and is served here in the beautifully ornate, art-deco dining room.
The wine was flowing just as Nardia Plumridge sat down to join us, the creator of the Lost in Florence blog – which enlightens people on where to go, and where to eat locally – if you desire a more independent, boutique experience.
Restaurant by Sir Rocco Forte and family & Martin Higgins
But food was on our minds as the sweet aromas emanated from the plates of neighbouring tables. First we sampled some of the Sicilian tomatoes and freshly baked bread with extra virgin olive oil and balsamic. My idea of food heaven.
Then it was onto the starters, and if seafood is your vice, the octopus salad with coloured radicchio and beetroot, and also the fried calamari and vegetables – both had me in a state of fish euphoria I had only experienced before watching Rick Stein’s Taste of The Sea.
Clean plates all round…
Restaurant by Sir Rocco Forte and family & Martin Higgins 2
For main, I went for the mixed grill of fish on a Himalayan salt stone – which was pretty as a picture and tasted as fresh as it looked.
Restaurant by Sir Rocco Forte and family Food
You can tell when food is cooked with love. And that is a feeling that is intrinsic to this menu and restaurant as a whole. Take the name, Irene – which has been borrowed from the grandmother of the Forte family. And where would Italian cooking be without the mother?
It was my lucky day too, after dessert and a strong shot of coffee was dispatched, we could hear the drums of the San Geovanni festival approaching. So it was outside for one final photo call before setting off for home.
San Geovanni Festival
San Geovanni festival People
Florence is the meeting point of so many different cultural influences that have come together during its evolution, from the early Roman period, the Byzantine, the Lombard, the Renaissance and the lasting impact of the Medici. The problem is it is hard to escape this history sometimes, which hangs like an albatross around its neck. Or rather, it is difficult to be something else, and develop a new persona.
Just walking around, you see evidence of the artistic and architectural innovations which have developed out of this city. It is hanging on the walls today of the Uffizi and the Palazzo Pitti. And it litters the bookshelves of the Bibliotecca Delle Oblate where the students hang out on the open veranda and drink coffee all day, studying until the light disappears over the Duomo.
But Florence is constantly searching for that next cultural shockwave, because it knows that to stand still is to fall behind. And on this trip you I’ve seen the greenshoots of a new, modern city emerging, and all the blocks are in place for it to be influential again in the future.

 Images courtesy of Alexandra Korey


Words by Martin Higgins



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