What's it like to live in a far-off place most of us see only on a vacation? Foreign Correspondence is an interview with someone who lives in a spot you may want to visit.
Paul Bennett, 39, is co-founder of Context Travel (www.contexttravel.com), which organizes and leads educational walking tours/seminars in various cities around the world. Bennett is based in Philadelphia, Paris and Rome. He has been spending every other week lately in Florence, Italy, where his company is starting an artisan walking tour this month.
Q. How do your tours work, and what is an artisan tour?
A. Our tours are led by scholars, usually a historian at a local university, so they're a little more in-depth than typical tours. We have about 30 walking tours in Florence, ranging from art and architecture to "Daily Life in Renaissance Florence." There are food walks, market walks, visit to Medici villas, and so on. A group tour is three hours and costs 55 euros (about $81.50) per person. A private tour, like for a family or perhaps two couples, is generally 270 (about $400) euros for the entire party.
The new artisan tour is three hours long, and you visit three or four craftsmen; their shops are about 10 minutes from each other. You sit down, get a demonstration from the artisan — like paper making or gilding. Our scholar interprets what he says and contextualizes what he does within the history of Florentine craftsmanship.
Q. With 30 tours in Florence, how much walking around do you personally do there?
A. I'm on the ground all the time. The tours are not incredibly vigorous, but I personally love to walk. On a late October week in Florence, I traipsed across the center of the city at least four or five times a day. Florence is a small city, but I had meetings and appointments all over.
Q. Where do you stay in Florence?
A. Ours is a small business, so I stay in budget places. There's one near Santa Maria Novella called Casa Corsi, a B&B. It has three rooms, WiFi, a garden and is centrally located. I don't need a large room: I'm there to check e-mail and crash. The woman who owns it just installed an automatic espresso machine in the kitchen. You can reserve it through Cross-Pollinate (www.cross-pollinate.com).
Q. And when it's time to unwind?
A. Whether or not I'm working, one of the most relaxing things is to sit in a cafe on a sunny day in front of some beautiful structure. One of my favorite churches is Santa Croce, and there's a bunch of cafes right there. Just sit and have coffee or a shakerato — a shake in a martini glass, made with espresso and over ice.
I also love to go to a part of town called Porta San Niccolo. "Porto" means "door," as in a doorway in the old city walls. One of the best wine bars in Florence is there. It's called Enoteca Fuori Porta — "wine bar outside the door" — and that's exactly what it is.
Q. Dining in Florence: What's the classic dish to get?
A. The most famous is Florentine steak, but actual Florentines don't eat it that often: It's a steak an inch and a half thick.
There's a soup called ribolita, which has vegetables and beans and bread in it. It's really hearty but not filling. It's very fresh and good for you; it uses local ingredients. People in Florence have become connoisseurs of ribolita. Most eat it in winter, when the weather is chilly.
Q. Your favorite restaurant for Florentine food?
A. Certainly a really great one is 13 Gobbi. I was there the other night; it's fantastic. My favorite for lunch is Coqinarius, near the Duomo (Florence's famous cathedral). It has fantastic salads. Tourists don't go there — Florentines do. You eat with actual Florentine business people.
Q. Florence is da Vinci's hometown, and between movies and a rediscovered painting, he's been getting a lot of attention lately. On the other hand, international travel is hurt by the global recession. Are more people or fewer people visiting Florence these days?
A. The tourism numbers are down. Florence has been hit more strongly than other Italian cities, but I'm not sure why. For one thing, it doesn't have a major airport, like Rome has.
Also, Florence suffers from being a very touristy city, and I think people believe they've already "done" it. There are three or four sites people want to check off their list and then move on.
That's a shame: There's a lot more to see. Walk three or four blocks from the throng of people around the Duomo and you'll find a tiny church or palace or museum that no one goes into but which is filled with masterpieces.
Two weeks ago, in Piazza della Signora (Square of the Lady), crowds were everywhere. But three blocks away, one of our scholars took us away from the crowds to a little church called San Martino. It's right in Florence's medieval heart and is filled with frescoes depicting everyday life in Renaissance Florence. It was like stepping back hundreds of years. The frescoes were by Ghirlandaio, a major Florentine artist and a contemporary of da Vinci. You find Ghirlandaio's works in places like the Louvre.
This was just a little church — but it probably had 10 frescoes. That's the thing about Florence. It's packed with history, art and culture.
We spent 30 minutes there, and during that time no tourists or tour groups came in.
Q. What's your best I-was-walking-around-the-corner epiphany?
A. One of the most significant experiences I had in Florence was wandering into one of these artisan shops. I was in Piazza Santa Spirito (Holy Spirit Square) and found a workshop — just a door, actually; the average visitor wouldn't have a clue. I walked in and immediately stepped back 200 years. The artisan there was making boxes of silver, gold and other metals by hand. That's all done by machine today; his craft has largely disappeared from the planet. But this man was making them just as his ancestors have for the several centuries.
Part of the proceeds from our artisan walk funds scholarships at a local school for arts and crafts. The recipient does a co-op workshop. One last year was at this artisan's place, the Giuliano Ricchi Workshop.