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Florentine illustrator, Giovanni Manna’s depiction of the Florence skyline as seen from the Giardino delle Rose.


A walk on Florence's quieter side

So much ink has been spilled singing the praises of the Tuscan capital that it can be tricky for travellers to know what to focus on. For this visit, John Sopinski opted for a personal, intimate experience – from a stop at Europe's largest privately owned garden within city walls to a beautiful public park that offers a private panoramic portrait of the city.

Stepping from the bright morning sunlight through an iron gate that frames a long tree-shaded lane, my friends and I are warmly greeted by our host, Vieri Torrigiani Malaspina. Gravel crunches underfoot as he ushers us toward a series of greenhouses positioned at the southern end of his property dominated by two large villas and a neo-Gothic tower. The hustle and bustle of modern Florence has been left behind as we enter into a world of calm and serenity. This is the Giardino Torrigiani, at seven hectares, Europe's largest privately owned garden located within city walls. Positioned on the south bank of the Arno near Porta Romana, it has been owned and cared for by the Torrigiani Malaspina – a prominent Tuscan family – since the early 19th century. We are about to be led on a private tour by a real nobleman.

I have always loved Florence. It repeatedly draws me back. I live in Bologna but visit the capital of Tuscany whenever I can. So much ink has been spilled singing the praises of its beauty that it can be challenging for first-time and experienced travellers alike to know what to focus on. For this visit, I wanted a more personal, intimate experience. I wanted to peek behind the city's cloak of cultural history and see it through a Florentine's eyes. Guidebooks help, but cannot provide this truly local perspective. Consequently, I needed to enlist the help of a native who shared similar sensibilities. To this end, I recruited my friends, Florence-born children's book illustrator Giovanni Manna and his wife, Laura Manaresi, to take me on a walking tour of places that express the spirit of his hometown.

Read More:

Illustrator Giovanni Manna's ten hidden jewels in Florence

(Click to view)

"You can't visit Florence without spending time in one of its many gardens," Giovanni says. "It is a city where nature and culture intersect without interruption."

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This is why I find myself standing before a Tuscan nobleman on a March morning. The marchese (marquis) is dressed casually in a green jacket and red scarf, and is one of those people you like immediately. Very down to earth.

While his son, Vanni, works on some plants, his father gestures at two adjacent greenhouses, explaining that they were among the first in Florence. Since the 1970s, he has maintained a nursery here to help finance the upkeep of the property. I can see why. The grounds are large. The estate is essentially divided between three families: The marchese Torrigiani Malaspina's family occupies a villa on the south side of the gardens. His sister, Serena, a former limonaia (lemonary) in the middle, while his cousin, Raffaele, lives in a porticoed palazzo on the north side. It is worth noting that many families in Italy – noble or otherwise – that have inherited large estates often struggle with the cost of maintaining their historic patrimony. The New York Times reported on this trend in January, 2015, noting that, "In recent years, Italy's well-rooted inherited wealth has withered from a potent combination of factors. They include the increasing costs of living and services, the shaky finances of owners in a time of lingering economic trouble, cuts in government subsidies to maintain historical properties and, not least, mushrooming property taxes."

The marchese's enthusiasm for his terra or landis infectious. A 400-year-old Ginkgo biloba tree is a favourite, showing spectacular colours in the fall. He tells the long history of his family property, highlighting the founding of the first European botanical club there – Societa Botanica Fiorentina, a precursor to the Italian Botanical Society – in 1716.

He then recounts one remarkable story about the charmed effect these gardens can have on people: During the Second World War, the German command used the property as one of its residences. As the Allies advanced on Florence, soldiers mined the gardens before retreating. However, the German sergeant who was tasked with blowing up the Ponte Vecchio didn't, and returned later to tell the liberators where the enemy had buried the mines. This soldier visited a few times years after the war, still proud of his good deed.

We cross in front of the main residence toward a neo-Gothic tower built in 1824, poking above the landscape. Unlike the famous Boboli Gardens, located just blocks away, there is a certain familiarity here not found in more heavily trafficked public attractions. The grounds inside this garden are manicured, but not overly so. And there are no other visitors present. I feel like we are intruding upon someone's garden party. The stillness lends an air of mystery that pulls me deeper into the experience. There is a subtle and pleasing balance between nature and architecture not wholly expected near the buzzing historic city centre.

Giovanni explains how these gardens have always captivated him: "Growing up, I could always see the unique shape of the tower from my uncle's yard near Porta Romana. I would daydream about the gardens hidden behind these walls. Being able to finally visit them is a real privilege."

We walk around the base of the tower emblazoned with the Torrigiani family coat of arms. It sits next to defensive ramparts ( Bastioni Nuovi) built in 1544 by Cosimo de' Medici.

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While Giovanni continues to marvel at his good fortune at being inside these garden's walls, I stare at a marble plaque inscribed with the words: "COSMUS MED: FLORENTIE ET SENAR: DUX II" (Cosimo Medici II: Duke of Florence and Siena). History's imprint is particularly evident in this contemplative setting. It is transformative. I feel its palpable weight. "More than just being beautiful, these places give you the feeling of entering into another world where time has stood still," Giovanni says.

Later, back at the main villa, the marchese leads us down the darkened main entry hall in the Torrigiani family's private living quarters. Dozens of framed photos, yellowed maps and family heirlooms adorn the walls. Faces peer down at us from old paintings, accentuating the feeling of intimacy. In a large drawing room spliced by sunlight streaming through large French doors, the marchese returns with a bottle of wine that bears the family name, Serre Torrigiani. We drink in the last moments of this memorable visit sipping chilled vino bianco as if we were part of his extended family.

Not to be lost in the shuffle of monuments and museums are Florence's unique constellation of shops selling art, antiques and handmade goods. We drop in on Antonella Pratesi, who operates a small antique shop that opened in 1991. It is located at the back of a small, hidden courtyard near Ponte alla Carraia in Via dei Fossi.

There are three words to describe this particular store: unique, varied and tiny. Inside, the space is cramped. It is hard to pass by fellow browsers. Glass display cases, filled with an array of art objects, dominate the space.

In Photos:

A serene view of Florence

(Click to view)

At one end of the store, a green desk lamp shines on a cluttered desk while a mustachioed burattino (puppet) sits on a shelf above, legs crossed, adding to the pervading feeling of eclecticism.

At the other, shelves overflow with antique jewellery, chinaware, framed artwork, old books and other collectibles. The selection of goods provides a sense of the personality of the owner, almost like a glimpse into her mind. Each object is chosen for a reason. Antonella explains that she gets customers from all over the world, including celebrities. However, she has no website, so I don't know how people find this place. In addition to antiques, she sells custom artwork by local artists such as Stefano Materassi, who creates original pieces from recycled materials and found objects.

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Antonella's space is a feast for the eyes. Little shops like this are one of the undervalued treasures of Florence.

After lunch in a traditional Tuscan eatery, Trattoria La Casalinga, full of yelling waiters and few tourists, we set out for the Giardino delle Rose in the Oltrarno district. Giovanni navigates more by sense memory than having a precise route in mind. We bob and weave through throngs of tourists in Piazza Pitti and push on, still on the south bank of the Arno, pausing in front of Santa Felicita, one of the oldest churches in Florence. The Corridoio Vasariano (Vasari Corridor), that the Medici had built in 1564 to move unseen from the Palazzo Vecchio to the Palazzo Pitti, passes inconspicuously above the main entrance of the building. Santa Felicita sits in a tiny eponymous square pushed back from the street a block from the Ponte Vecchio.

I never knew it was there. At one time, Giovanni didn't either. He recounts how he stumbled across this church as a child riding on his bicycle: "One day, during one of these rides, I entered this church, having no idea that inside was one of the most important Florentine works of the 16th century, The Deposition by Pontormo. From that day on, I began returning [often] to admire it."

He says that although the church is located in the heart of the tourist district, it is visited comparatively little. Unfortunately, the Capponi Chapel, where the painting is located, is closed for restoration work. Churches such as Santa Felicita, Badia Fiorentina – that Dante allegedly frequented – or Santa Trinita, for example, dot the Florentine landscape and offer quiet respite from the madding crowds. Furthermore, many are decorated with artistic treasures. Giovanni says that tourists – and even locals, for that matter – often follow the same paths without realizing that they are passing in front of incredible places.

The Giardino delle Rose is a beautiful hillside public garden/park frequented mostly by locals and students. It is suspended between two of the busiest areas of Florence on a verdant crescent of land: At the bottom of the hill lies the San Niccolò district, a busy neighbourhood full of eateries and art galleries; above sits the Piazzale Michelangelo, a large parking lot where armies of vacationers take pictures of the iconic Florentine skyline.

No matter how many times I visit Florence, it never ceases to amaze me how just a small change in perspective can make all the difference: For sightseers looking down from the crowded piazzale above, the city is laid out in all its panoramic glory. The view is breathtaking, yet the city seems distant. Moreover, whenever I go up there, sharp elbows are required to fight the throngs of people to get good photos. However, observing essentially the same scene from the path that winds through the terraced garden 100 metres below, a similar yet more intimate portrait is on offer. From this vantage point, I can take in the experience in relative peace. Peering between the red-tiled rooftops of apartment buildings, I spot a young woman reading a book in an open window. Laundry flaps in the spring breeze. The dome of the Duomo is framed perfectly by two cypress trees. I can almost reach out and touch it. People are nearby but hidden from view.

As its name denotes, this giardino is, above all, a rose garden, with about 1,000 varieties featured in its one hectare area. As part of an urban renewal program in the mid-19th century, the city enlisted Florentine architect, Giuseppe Poggi, to design the area. The gardens opened to the general public in 1895. Over time, attractions were added. In 1998, a Japanese garden with a water feature made its debut, while in 2011, 12 sculptures by the late Belgian artist Jean-Michel Folon were installed.

We climb toward the top, passing by a patchwork of meadows linking the various parts of the garden together. Students study while reclining on blankets. Beautiful villas dot nearby hills to the southwest. Near the summit, we finish the tour in a small square featuring Folon's Partir (To Leave), a bronze sculpture of a ship framed by the outline of a suitcase. Through the work, Florence's skyline rides the waves. A couple snaps pictures as tour buses grind up the hill above us in Viale Galileo, their passengers likely unaware of this treasure.

Giovanni admires the sculpture and looks out over his hometown. A bench placed directly behind it invites contemplation. Folon's piece seems to sum up the essence of what gives Florence its unique character. It is something new providing a window onto something old. He tells me later that Folon was an artist who loved the city of Florence and whose rich poetic imagination was evident in all of his works; he always placed a human figure or man-made object in a context tightly linked to the natural world that evoked the interlinking of nature and culture typical of the city. In the same way, the parks and gardens of Florence effortlessly connect the urban fabric of man-made art and architecture with the natural beauty of the surroundings.

The meaning of the sculpture's title is not lost on me – To Leave. I have left my home; Giovanni has left his to live and work in Bologna. But we always carry a part of Florence with us. And we always return.

Giovanni Manna's ten hidden jewels in Florence

1. Giardino Torrigiani

Address: Via dei Serragli, 144

Cost: 5 people minimum, €20 per person

Hours: Private, guided tour by appointment only. After-visit drinks with the Marquis Torrigiani Malaspina in his private residence (€10 extra per person)

Web: or

Phone: 055 22 45 27

Comment: Absolutely fantastic. Largest privately-owned garden within city walls in Europe. Seven-hectare park featuring a large variety of trees, two family villas, greenhouses, statues and a 40-metre tower built in 1824.

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2. Giardino delle Rose

Address: Viale Giuseppe Poggi, 2

Cost: Free entrance

Hours: May to Sept.: 9 a.m. to 8 p.m.; Oct. 9 a.m. to 6 p.m.; Nov. to Feb.: 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. and March-April: 9 a.m. to 6 p.m.


Phone: 055 234 2426 or 234 0115

Comment: Nestled beneath the better-known Piazzale Michelangelo, this beautiful hillside park overlooks the city centre. It features sculptures by Belgian artist Folon and a Shorai Japanese oasis,. There are about 1,000 varieties of roses.

(Return to map)

3. Corte Fossombroni

Address: Via dei Fossi 7/r – inner courtyard

Cost: n/a

Hours: Daily, 10 a.m. to 7 p.m.; closed on Sundays


Phone: +39 055 287683

Comment: Quaint little store tucked into an inner courtyard near the Ponte alla Carraia. Opened in 1991 by Antonella Pratesi, it specializes in an ecclectic mix of antiques, collectibles and original art by local designers such as Stefano Materassi.

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4. Grevi Cappelli dal 1875

Address: Via della Spada 11/13 r

Cost: n/a

Hours: Daily, 10 a.m. to 8 p.m.; closed on Sundays



Phone:+39 055 264139 (Florence store); 055 876223 / 8734081 (Company)

Comment: Hat makers extraordinaire since 1875. The Grevi family has provided hand made headware to celebrities such as Gwen Stefani, Cher in Tea with Mussolini and Diane Lane in Under the Tuscan Sun and to regular folk alike.

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5. Museo Stibbert

Address: Via Federigo Stibbert, 26

Cost: €8. Online tickets available.

Hours: Mon. - Wed. 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.; Fri.- Sun. 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Closed Thurs. Guided tours with curator at €150 total fee plus museum’s entrance (25 pers. max.)



Phone: +39 055 475520 / for guided tours 055 486049.

Comment: Amazing global armour collection, paintings, costumes and gardens. Rare Japanese military artefacts from 16th through 19th centuries, all located in the 57-

room Stibbert family villa.

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6. Badia Fiorentina e Chiostro degli Aranci

Address: Via del Proconsolo/Via Dante Alighieri

Cost: Free entrance. Open daily for religious services.

Hours: Access to the Orange Cloister and Church on Mondays 3 p.m. to 6 p.m.


Phone: +39 055 264402

Comment: Hear the beautiful chanting of vespers, see a painting by Filippo Lippi and a fresco cycle in the attached cloister. The abbey was founded in 978 and is located near the alleged site of poet Dante Alighieri’s boyhood home.

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7. Palazzo Davanzati e Museo dell’Antica Casa Fiorentina

Address: Via Porta Rossa, 13

Cost: €6. Tickets can be purchased online as part of cumulative Uffizi Museum tickets and Florence Card.

Hours: Open daily 8:15 a.m. to 2 p.m. See Website for complete list.



Phone: +39 055 238 8610

Comment: Intimate view of medieval life. Visit a 14th century Florentine home with original settings, interiors and decor.

(Return to map)

8. Museo Marino Marini e Cappella Rucellai

Address: Piazza San Pancrazio

Cost: €6 (reduced fees apply)

Hours: Mon., Sat., Sun. 10 a.m. to 7 p.m.; Wed. through Fri. 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. Closed on Tuesdays.



Phone: +39 055 219432

Comment: Almost 200 works of art – including those of Marino Marini himself – are featured in the former Church of San Pacrazio. The recently reopened Rucellai Chapel is adjacent where visitors can see Alberti’s Rucellai Sepulchre.

(Return to map)

9. Basilica di Santa Trinita

Address: Piazza di Santa Trinita

Cost: Free entrance

Hours: Monday through Saturday 7 a.m. to 12 p.m., 4 p.m. to 6 p.m.; Sunday and holidays: 8 a.m. to 10:45 a.m., 4 p.m. to 6 p.m.


Phone: +39 055 216912

Comment: Very important church in the history of Florence housing major works of the Renaissance and earlier artists. This church contains 20 chapels including the Sassetti Chapel with frescoes such as The Adoration of the Shepherds by Domenico Ghirlandaio. Also featured is the Bartolini Salimbeni Chapel with works by Lorenzo Monaco.

(Return to map)

10. Chiesa San Carlo dei Lombardi

Address: Via dei Calzaiuoli

Cost: Free entrance

Hours: Monday through Friday 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.; Sat., Sun. and holidays: 4 p.m. to 7:30 p.m.


Phone: +39 055 274 1632

Comment: Gothic church from the mid 14th century. It features Il Compianto del Cristo Morto by Niccolò di Pietro Gerini recently moved back from the Uffizi on the altar is a stunning piece. A peaceful, spiritual place across the more famous and crowded Orsanmichele (that still deserves a look).

(Return to map)

Note: please call or consult web sites prior to visiting as information is subject to change without notice. Many sites are free the first Sunday of every month.

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