Unorthodox Travel interviews Clarissa Mannino, a tour guide in her native Florence. In this interview we discover that Florence is so much more than mass tourism and the Renaissance.
We think Florence is beautiful and overcrowded. Would you agree?
Yes, but I want to explain Florence from a different point of view. Unfortunately Florence suffers a little bit from being the Renaissance city.
Mainstream tourism is mass oriented towards just a couple of places. Whereas Florence really shares art, history, food and culture in many different ways.
There are famous galleries, but there’s a bigger history than that. For example, Florence is also one of the capital cities of street art. And it’s something that nobody would think about.
You can visit local artists and see how Florence is also a capital for handicrafts. There are these little jewels, hidden gems that maybe tell you a lot more about what Florence is, rather than what Florence was. This is the point. Florence is still alive.
So where do you find this other Florence? It is across a bigger geographical area or do you just turn down a different street?
Florence is divided by the river. If you want to look for a different Florence, if you want to look for a young and creative Florence, just cross that bridge and venture through the neighborhoods.
Truly there are many other places to visit rather than only the city center.
Some places in Florence seem so famous and unmissable, are there easy ways that you can avoid the big crowds?
Always, always, always book and reserve your entrance to a museum. Do not expect to walk up to the museums and not queue because they are some of the most visited museums in Italy. So obviously there’s always a line and you do not want to waste your time.
So book online and maybe choose a moment of the day when you think people will not be there. Lunchtime is great because Italians are big about eating. They will never go to the museum at lunchtime. Or else go very close to the closing time of the museum and you’ll practically have the museum all for yourself.
Where would you recommend for somebody to stay? Especially someone who wants to see a more local side of the city?
Well, definitely as I said before, the other side of the river could be a great choice, even if in terms of budget it’s becoming so fashionable and the prices are increasing quite a lot.
I would also suggest trying one of the little towns. Actually, they’re not towns, they are just some neighbourhoods that are growing all around Florence.
So they’re not formally Florence even though they are reachable by train in 10 minutes. So you would be living a true Italian life inside of a smaller town, and still have the opportunity to move in and out of Florence in 10 minutes by train.
What other recommendations can you give to visitors coming to Florence?
Well, I’ll try to dismantle two stereotypes. Firstly that Florence is not a walking city. This is a great city for walking.
We have some incredible city gardens that are more like parks than gardens. And they’re the first example of Italian gardens in the world, perhaps the finest examples. So you can walk through these historical and unique gardens, surrounded by art.
The second stereotype is Florence has only Renaissance.
Not true. Florence has much more to give, not only in terms of centuries and centuries ago, but in terms of a more recent past.
For example, have you see the movie Monuments Men. Well Florence has one of the biggest histories about recovering monuments stolen during WW2. That’s just one different point of view you can get.
What about your own history with Florence? What was it like growing up in Florence?
Florence is a unique city. First of all, I never had a car. You walk everywhere. So is a city that never gets stale, it gives you the opportunity to live within its history.
I loved growing up here. You sit down in the squares to enjoy life. Every little neighborhood has its own coffee bar, its own wine bar. So when you have time, you sit down, you enjoy, you chat, you talk. Social life is very important.
I would say that Florence is a sharing experience, sharing life with your community. This is what Florence is for me.
Do you now get frustrated because there are so many tourists and big double decker tour buses?
Actually the city center of Florence is losing a lot of residents year after year, and this is happening in most of our main tourist cities, such as Venice and Rome.
But I wouldn’t leave the city center of Florence. I have always lived in my life in one of the most central areas of Florence, just five minutes away from the Duomo.
It gave me an opportunity to live in one of the most famous cities all over the world. I would have never changed it for anything else. My son walked to school, crossing the old bridge in the morning. It’s growing up really in a different way.
What about escapes from the city? Where do you recommend?
Of course Tuscany is probably the most famous day trip from Florence. Well, if you really want to go to the countryside do not stop 20 minutes away from the city of Florence, go farther south and maybe arrive to the city of Sienna, which is probably one of the most well preserved medieval towns in the world.
You cannot come to Tuscany and not visit a winery, but maybe add something more to it and don’t go to the vineyards closest to Florence.
Also from Florence you can go to the coast. Many people do not know that actually the seaside is not far from Florence. It’s more or less 45 minutes by train.
Another option is that you can rent a bicycle. We are also very strong around trekking. So we have hiking paths, trails, bikes, and it’s really for everyone.
How did you start working as a guide?
I started off working in tourism when I was very, very young, just 18, 19 years old. I started training. I love sharing. I love chatting. I love meeting people. I love art, but my real passion is history. I am an historian and I’m actually taking my PhD in contemporary history.
So actually the 20th century provides a different way of visiting and enjoying Florence and Florence has actually led me to what is my career. It really was a sort of natural choice. I never thought of doing something else or doing something different. And still now I love what I do even when it’s August, even when it’s 34 degrees under a tree in the shade. And even when you’re getting crazy because the museum is packed, it’s still worth it.
So it’s really hot in August. What would be your recommendation for the best time of year to visit Florence?
In most cases you can only take a vacation when you’re off work. So this is the reason why even Italians tend to come to Florence in the summer months, July and August, knowing perfectly well that’ll be crazy hot.
If you have the chance to choose I would say that the winter months are strongly under-estimated in Florence. It’s true that it might rain, but you get Christmas in Florence, you get all of the lights and museums are almost all empty.
You also get the chance to experience the best food in Florence, because our best food is made in winter. We have a lot of vegetables that go very well with wine.
And when you’re inside a museum it doesn’t matter if it’s raining. Why not? The Uffizi is probably the best place for a rainy day.
What is this iconic food then?
So we’re very famous for our soups. It comes from a very whole and traditional way of cooking, when people didn’t have the chance to buy fresh ingredients every day. And they just tried to use all of what they had.
Our most famous vegetable is kale, which now is so famous all around the world. We had it in our soup, starting from the 13th century.
Plus you have to remember that Tuscany is one of the regions with the very best and healthiest extra-virgin olive oil. So all our dishes are served with extra-virgin olive oil, which is, believe me, amazing.
And then I cannot forget what is probably the most famous dish all over the world, which is our Florentine T-bone steak. You know, we have this way of serving meat with this very big cut.
This means that you cannot order this steak just for you as a single portion. It has to be shared among the table. And again, we go back to the idea of sharing because it doesn’t come less than one kilo. It’s huge.
Tell us a little bit more about yourself as a guide and your tours.
I love actually breaking some of the rules of what Florence means to incoming tourists. As I said, I think Florence has very deep roots that cannot be forgotten. So you have to come to Florence and talk about the Renaissance and see an iconic museum, but there are different ways of seeing what you have already seen.
The famous artists can be carried out of the museums. And we can find these same artists as human beings, we can find their stories all around the city.
So if you are willing to walk a little bit more, travel a little bit deeper, you can find the same exact reasons you have come to Florence for, but in a different way. So this is my approach to my city.
Clarrisa Mannino was speaking to Stephen Bailey from Unorthodox Travel.