I am NOT a tour guide person. My eyes glaze over whenever I hear more than three sentences about history. I need to connect with something to be interested. Call it a short attention span, or vanity. So when my friend David suggested I meet up with Penny Howard, a semi-retired Brit living out her Florentine dream, I’m more than a bit sceptical. But in Italy, it’s all about who you know, so who was I to argue?
From art school, to a lifetime as a successful marketing exec, Howard has come full circle, fulfilling her dream of dividing her time between London and Florence. She keeps a flat in a former palazzo, organising cultural events, tours and workshops for tourists.
Howard also has connections for discounted accommodation, from simple, affordable bed and breakfasts, to 5 star villas. Her service, called “Beyond the Yalla Dog”, is a nod to E.M. Forster’s reference in “A Room with a View”. The point is, Howard hopes her guests will delve into the local culture, be it through a 10-mile trek through the valleys surrounding Florence, or a cooking class with a local, a writing retreat, or art classes.
She’s also developing trips to visit artisan ricotta producers, and wine-makers. For those with travel partners who share none of the same interests – no problem. Howard knows exactly which bars carry Sky sports, how to get the best tickets to watch Fiorentina play, and can lead you through the Uffizi in under two hours, if pushed.
And, while shopping isn’t the main agenda, Howard manages to slip in a few Florentine favourites. We visit Santa Maria Novella,
one of the world’s oldest pharmacies, founded in 1221 by the Dominican Friars who started making herbal remedies and potions to use in the monastery. It now sells fragrances and skin care products so pricey you’ll come here to just look, not touch. I’m not big on entering shops where I can’t afford anything, but this is worth the tease for the museum quality of its interiors; crystal chandeliers, and a centralised cashier desk where purchases are removed from drawers before being wrapped.
For creams and shaving accessories more in reach, we go just down the road to Munstermann, an apothecary dating back to the late 19th century specialising in lemon and almond scented toiletries. And one bright morning, she leads us on a 20 minute walk under a bridge, and out of the center of town to a market only frequented by locals. Here, we buy goo quality parmiggiano for a mere 13 euros a kilo. There’s lots of cheap fashion, and if you make it all the way to the end, a specialist stall discounting high-end label cashmere awaits with knits in beautiful, unusual colours.
But one of Penny’s greatest contributions to our trip is her little black book of restaurants. Just around the corner from Piazze del Carmine is Da Gherardo, a tiny pizza place churning out fantastic pizzas and calzone from a wood-fired oven at the back (booking essential). Da Pinocchio is near the Santa Maria Novella train station, and a daily market. It’s also where Penny’s cooking classes are held, and because of her connections, we’re offered a truffle ravioli absent from the menu. We’re also treated to ravioli with pine nuts, ricotta, spinach, pesto and pear.
Great gelato is found down a small street near the Duomo at Perche No, an artisan shop that’s been around since 1939. And we nearly go back for a second cup of Cafe Corona’s eponymous coffee made by first coating a glass with chocolate sauce before, before adding espresso and milk.
Whatever your interests, Penny either knows, or knows someone who knows, through her vast network of experts. She’s even got a reading list and DVD’s on her website to whet the appetite.