I was wandering through the cobbled, winding streets of the old town in Prato enjoying the early spring sunshine and window shopping at some of the cities finest male clothes shops. I loved Prato for many reasons, and the menswear fashions were a large contributing factor, such good quality and so much cheaper that it’s neighbouring city Florence. Prato is a city famous for its textiles and materials; chances are that if you buy something from one of Italy’s fashion houses, the material will have been designed in Prato, a city firmly on the fashion map. I took a look at my watch and sighed. No time for shopping; I needed to be at work within the hour.
I was teaching English the other side of the city at a private language school called Accademia Britannica and had arranged to meet the school secretary Claudia for a coffee before our working day commenced, at a bar located at the end of the inside of the old city wall, where old meets new.
“Ciao James” came the familiar bellow of Claudia, before I had a chance to look up and spot her she had wrapped herself around me, kissed me on either cheek and thrust a red rose into my hands. “Questo è ciò che facciamo in Italia, a San Valentino,” and Claudia explained to me that it was an Italian custom for girls to give red roses to men on the street on Valentines Day. A group of middle aged men smoking outside the cafe read my surprise and gave off great wails of side slapping, good humoured laughter. Claudia, fun as always, took all of this in her stride “I don’t fancy you; you know I just thought that if you want to live in Italy then you have to become Italian and learn the way that we do things.”
“I speak Italian, look Italian what more do you want,” I jeered.
“Tonight we’re going to Bar Negroni in Florence to drink Negroni, then we’ll see how Italian you are,” and the date was set.
I’d been working at the school for about six months and had hit it off with Claudia before we even met. Our friendship began over a telephone conversation we had before I left the United Kingdom. She’d recently come out of a long term relationship and I had no intention of getting involved with anyone at the time and things remained platonic between us. She didn’t want me to spend every weekend on my own in a foreign country and would sometimes drag me out and about to places and parties that I’d never have known about without her. Her argument was that if I wanted to learn Italian then I must immerse myself in the language and speak to Italians and within a few months I could hold, understand and lead many conversations.
I rented a room in an apartment in a nice part of the city near the train station and from the balcony had a wonderful view of the Tuscan hills, a perfect setting for waking up in the morning and drinking my first coffee of the day. I’d not been much of a coffee drinker before and within two weeks of arrival I was drinking coffee like the locals, in short quick shots, far beyond the daily recommended allowance. The apartment was about a half an hour of walking to work, which suited me fine. I’ve always liked to keep active.
The day at the school went like any other, the School Director wasn’t happy about something, the School Co-Coordinator was stressed out and only one incident with the very un delightful 6 year old Salvatore later, I was free to go.
I had arranged to meet Claudia at eight o’clock outside the Palazzo Vecchio in Florence. It was a building that I had loved since my first visit to the city, looming high above my head, its imposing structure dominating the pizza restaurants and shops scattered in the square around it. A palace so grand that it was were Michelangelo’s David, the most famous statue in the world stood until 1873. The original is now housed at the Accademia Gallery and a replica stands in its place. For many David symbolises Florence, he towers over the passing crowds defending the city. He is the very essence of macho and I first encountered David and the Palazzo Vecchio from a scene in Hannibal, a horror film starring Anthony Hopkins.
The area was heaving with American and Japanese tourists nudging and trying to pass each other in the attempt to get along the narrow courtyard running through the middle of the Uffizi Gallery. It is a spectacular sight at night, the archways and statues of some of Italy’s finest artists run along the entire length of the Gallery and are lit up, giving the area a romantic feel and leads on to magnificent views of the Arno River.
“Lets get out of here,” laughed Claudia. “I’m taking you away from the tourists and to where we Florentines go, Oltrarno.” We wandered across the medieval Ponte Vecchio ‘Old Bridge’ that crosses the Arno River, passing the many gold and souvenir shops that crowd the bridge to the other side of the river and the district of Oltrarno, where Florence’s buildings seem a little unkempt, scruffy and dilapidated, giving them the feel of mysterious Italian charm, a well kept secret. Even though some of Florence’s greatest buildings like the Palazzo Pitti are on the Oltrarno side of the river it is run down and tourists tend to avoid it at night. In some ways it feels like an independent city rather than part of the city of Florence.
It would have been quicker for us to cross the Ponte delle Grazie, but it was rebuilt in 1953 and lacking in the character that the Old Bridge offered and I decided against it.
Ten minutes of walking through the dark and quiet streets and we were standing outside The Florence Bar Negroni set in a beautiful Piazza with people spilling out of bars on to the streets on this gentle and not cold early Spring evening. The atmosphere was lively, the music and talking loud, Via de’ Renai was electric.
“Andiamo,” I exclaimed looking at the bar enthusiastically, it looked like fun and I wanted to get in as quick as possible.
“Si,” laughed Claudia “I want to buy you your first Negroni” and went into detail about what goes into a Negroni; one part gin, one part vermouth and one part campari, on the rocks with orange peel as garnish and she continued on to the Negroni history lesson. At some time in the past in the days when the area, full of cafes was popular with artistic types, a gentleman by the name of Count Negroni went into the cafe where The Florence Bar Negroni now stands and asked the barman for something with a bit of a kick. The barman Fosco Scarselli known for having an experimental flair took a look at the shelves and the Negroni was born. It’s a drink now popular with the young and fashionable crowd all over Italy.
Inside the bar area was small, it had a 1960s feel to it with a modern contemporary twist and its walls used by some of Florence’s new talent, local artists to exhibit their work. The bar was packed with people exchanging news, flirting and getting merry drinking something red, which turned out to be Negroni.
Claudia smiled at the barman preparing cocktails and he stopped what he was doing and came straight over to us. His name was Francesco, he was tall, strong looking, handsome and charming and they knew each other from school. Claudia looked and winked at me “If you want to get served you’ve got to use what you’ve got,” she laughed, but six months in Italy had already taught me this. It was possible to flirt your way in and out of any situation as long as you look good, Italians feed with their eyes.
Within a short amount of time we were outside on the street with a Negroni each in hand. “Saluti” we toasted and then took a mouthful of the red liquid from our glasses. The gin was strong and the bitterness complimented the sweetness of the campari well. The drink tasted far more alcoholic that any cocktail I had had in London and after a few sips and a little time adjusting my taste buds, it tasted good. “We can only have three, after that you can’t feel your legs,” she warned and we were off chatting to the crowds, laughing and drinking for the rest of the evening. “Now you are a real Italian,” she exclaimed while toasting my health with a lively group of Florentines outside The Negroni Florence Bar.