Catriona hits Italy’s Holy Grail in the captivating capital of the Tuscan region. Pack the cash, we’re going shopping.
Florence was founded by the Romans. It is on the River Arno's narrowest point, 85km from the Tuscan coast. This position gave access to three passes across the Apennine mountains, while being next to a river was crucial in the manufacture of textiles, the source of Florentine wealth.
Florence was the epicentre of the Renaissance, Italian arts and the Medicis, who ruled in the 15th century. Multi-talented architects, painters and sculptors were usually masters of more than one medium. Sculptors and builders had access to green and pink marble and the beautiful white marble of Carrara.
The small area was the birthplace to some rather amazing people. Filippo Brunelleschi worked in gold, silver and bronze and branched into architecture. His greatest achievement was solving the Duomo dome conundrum. Alighieri Dante is universally known as the author of The Divine Comedy, a poem of grand construction, power and variety of form.
Giovanni Boccaccio's masterpiece is the Decameron, involving 10 characters recounting life after the plague of 1348. Cimabue was the legendary founder of Italian painting and master of the great Giotto. Michelangelo Buonarotti's name is synonymous with the word "masterpiece". This extraordinary man was caught in a conflicting world between Rome's papacy and the power and whim of the Medicis, yet he created works of sublime beauty: the Pieta, David, the Creation of the Heavens, the Last Judgement and the remarkable ceiling of the Sistine chapel.
Leonardo da Vinci was born in Florence in 1452 and his genius is still having an impact. The painter, sculptor, architect, scientist and engineer possessed unquenchable curiosity and left behind thousands of pages of notes.
Niccolò Machiavelli was a writer and statesman, Florentine patriot and political theorist whose principal work, The Prince, brought him a reputation of amoral cynicism.
The Duomo's pink, white and green marble façade is breathtaking. Built as proof of wealth, Europe's fourth-largest church dominates Florence. Its baptistry, with highly-celebrated bronze doors, possibly dates to the fourth century and the campanile, designed by Giotto, has levels of bas-reliefs depicting the creation of man, arts and industries, planets, cardinal virtues and the seven sacraments.
The 13th-century Piazza Della Signoria was once the political and civic centre of Florence. Palazzo Vecchio was the traditional seat of the Florentine government and the Medici family home. It remains the seat of the city's power.
These days, visitors to Italian cities can't help but note how elegant and fashionable the locals are. In the case of Florence, other Italians accuse them of being slaves to appearance, a broad term covering more than just dressing well. To see where they shop to be chic, here are some places to visit.
Adjacent to Piazza di Santa Maria Novella is one of the world's oldest pharmacies. It was established around 1221 by the Dominican Fathers, who cultivated the herbs necessary for the monastery infirmary's medications, balms and creams. The recipes are still used and the farmacia's frescoes, furnishings and ancient implements remain.
Ponte Vecchio, Florence's oldest bridge, was built in 1345 and was the only one to escape destruction in WWII. Once where blacksmiths, butchers and tanners plied their trades, they were replaced with jewellers and goldsmiths in 1593.
Via Tornabuoni is the smartest shopping strip, with the houses of Gucci, Pucci, House of Florence, Prada, Yves Saint Laurent, Casadei, Louis Vuitton, Ferragamo, Versace and Tiffany. They sell superb, quality leatherware and clothing in the latest designs.
Don't despair at the prices, as in Florence there are a number of stockhouses selling discounted and discontinued lines from well-known designers. Many savvy locals shop at these outlets, which are about half an hour out of Florence in the Tuscan countryside. There are three main outlets Dolce & Gabbana, Prada and The Mall but it's best to avoid weekends, public holidays or peak sale periods.
The Mall stocks Gucci, Armani, Sergio Rossi, Lori Piana, Bottega Veneta, Giorgio Armani, and Yves Saint Laurent, all beautifully displayed. Prada Outlet sells shoes, bags, sunglasses and clothing by Miu Miu, Helmut Lang, Jil Sander and, of course, Prada. You take a numbered ticket and sip coffee until your number is called and then you shop like crazy. Dolce & Gabbana's world-famous products are at prices you will find nowhere else.
When you need sustenance, Il Latini is a cosy trattoria patronised by locals and their families. Tables are communal and covered in huge platters of meat and vegetables and bowls of soup, all good Florentine fare.
Le Volpi L'uva is the last of the authentic wine bars. Tucked in a little piazza, it has a large variety of wine and cheese.
Le Murate dates from medieval times and was once the Florence women's prison. It serves good pizza and has movies and live music.
Carabé, a short walk from the Duomo, is the city's best gelataria. They also serve delicious cannoli, cassata and brioche. No preservatives or artificial colourings are used.
Grand Hotel Cavour is a stroll from Dante's House. It is air conditioned and rooms are soundproof. The roof garden gives excellent views across the city and its location is perfect for everything.
One of the 10 provinces of Tuscany
Qantas flies daily to Frankfurt and Rome, with connections to Florence operated by Alitalia. Return economy airfares to Florence start at $2485 from Perth, $2521 from Darwin, $2588 from Brisbane, $2589 from Melbourne, $2594 from Adelaide and $2605 from Sydney, per person. Prices include charges/taxes and are current at time of writing, but may vary at time of booking. Seasonal surcharges and conditions apply.
CIT Travel offers a range of accommodation in Italy. Rooms at the Grand Hotel Cavour start at $196 a night, including breakfast.
The Mall opens 9am-6pm Monday to Friday and 3pm-7pm on Sundays.
Dolce & Gabbana opens between 9am to 7pm Monday to Saturday and 3pm to 7pm on Sundays.
Prada (also known as Space) opens from 9.30am to 7pm Monday to Saturday and 2pm to 7pm on Sundays.
Qantas: 13 13 13
CIT World Travel Group
Ph: (02) 9267 1255www.cittravel.com.au email@example.com
Italian Government Tourist Office
Ph: (02) 9262 1666, fax: (02) 9262 firstname.lastname@example.org
Ph: (02) 9244 2400
Farmacia di Santa Maria Novella
Via della Scala 16 Florence 50123
Ph: 39 0555 21 62 76
Fax: 39 055 28 86 58
Le Volpi e L'Uva
Piazza de' Rossi 1r Oltarno
Ph/fax: 39 055 239 81 32
Via dei Palchetti Florence
Ph: 39 055 21 09 16
Le Murate Bar
Via dell'Angelo 1 Florence
Ph: 39 055 210 804
Via Ricasoli, 60 Florence
Ph: 39 055 289 476www.gelatocarabe.com
Via Europa 8, Leccio, Reggello 50060
Ph: 39 055 865 7775
F: 39 055 865 email@example.com
Santa Maddalena 49
Plan dell'Isol, Incisa in Val d'Arno
Ph: 39 055 833 1300
Ph: 39 055 91 901
Il Guardaroba/Stock House
Borgo Albizi 48/r Florence
Ph: 055 234 0271