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Veggie Places visits Florence and Pisa

Florence
Florence (Firenze) is a most glorious city, with the greatest concentration of spectacular old buildings in one small space I have ever seen. But even in early March it was very crowded and after four days I was relieved to get out of the busyness of it all and escape to the hills. We flew from Gatwick and booked our accommodation independently. Florence airport is tiny and we were only in arrivals for a short while, then in a taxi to the town centre. The temperature was several degrees warmer than back home, shirt sleeves rather than jumper weather, with bright sun encouraging us to dust off our shades. This and the thought of a lovely Italian coffee put us both in a very good mood. Although we were planning to see the sights, our primary aim was to visit as many veggie places as possible.

When we got to our apartment, it was lunchtime, so we just dropped in to the nearest eating place. I guess it's typical of many Italian cafes - very busy at lunchtime with pasta much in evidence - and full of locals. FlorenceI happen to love pasta and don't mind tomato sauce, so spaghetti was fine for me. They also serve the local dish of spinach here (anything with Florentine in English cooking means with spinach) - it's very simply cooked but unmissable in my opinion. However, they have these dishes after their main meal, so you will have to ask for the dishes to be served to the crazy English people all together.

Afterwards, from our apartment near the Ponte Vecchio, we planned our itinerary, which consisted of lots of eating and some drinking. It's a hard life. Il Vegetariano was our first port of call that evening. It was very busy on a weekday just after 7pm. It's all veggie, but unlike in the UK, they don't worry about whether the cheese is veggie or fuss about the eggs, so I always eat vegan. There is a ritual here, which is odd for the uninitiated. Il VegetarianoThe cafe is self service - this is not apparent when you first walk in, so you might hang around for a few minutes like a lemon, waiting for a table, until some kind person eating at a nearby table takes pity on you and explains the system. You have to go to the back of the cafe, round a corner to read the days offering on a chalkboard. You then place your order with the man at the desk who gives you a ticket. Your ticket is then handed to the serving people near the deli counter and you meal is prepped up. Then the fun starts. You struggle with your loaded tray to a spare table and an Italian woman comes running up to you and says the seats are taken. You then try another table and the same thing happens but with a different woman. At least the Germans use towels. In the end (I was about the throw my tray in the air) I asked a nice looking couple if I could join them and thankfully, they readily agreed. The helpings here are huge; don't do what we did and have a starter and main. It will be too much and you will feel silly and greedy but I brazened it out and just pretended I always eat like a pig. We had four meals all home made and fresh tasting. Penne with oven roasted aubergine was gorgeous. Tofu loaf with tomato sauce was also very good. The ricotta and broccoli flan my partner had was very hippyish - rather heavy and earthy - but tasty. Only one dish, a risotto of some sort was quite weird and not very appetising. There was a varied selection of drinks. Apart from being too full, we couldn't face the performance of going up for a sweet, but people kept coming past us with very nice looking temptations and again, the portions were enormous. Our bill was 32 euros, which I thought was good value. I would recommend this place. Possibly try it when not so busy, as I felt by asking questions about what was on offer I was holding up the long queue.

There are so many things to see, I suppose it depends on what interests you, but most people come to see the Duomo (cathedral), the Uffizi art gallery and the Pitti Palace near us, not forgetting the Ponte Vecchio, an ancient bridge with attendant expensive shops and hordes of tourists. Queues for these places can be very long but you are able to book tickets the day before, if you are more organised than we were. Alle MosacceAt the Duomo, we found a shortish queue but instead of going to see artwork, we found ourselves marching up 463 steps to the inside of the top of the cathedral - the cupola. Here, once you have started to breathe normally again and satisfied yourself you are not going to have a heart attack after all, you can admire the fantastic fresco that covers the whole dome and was painted in the late 1570s. Down below, the people visiting the inside of the Duomo appear as tiny ant like dots. The Duomo has a large square surrounding it and it was just off here that we had our lunch. Alle Mosacce is veggie friendly, the staff speak good English and the food was fresh and tasty. I had my spaghetti again, and spinach but also ordered white beans. I mopped it up with crusty bread which arrived with our order. Cheap and cheerful but much better than any caff I've been in near a London attraction.

After some exploring down the narrow streets, we came across Cafelatte. This comprises a deli with about four tables. The uninspiring menu - quiche and tomato soup - did not persuade me that I wanted to go here for a special meal, the place we wanted to go to had closed down for refurbishment so we tried the suggestion we had found on Richard Gillman's site - Caffagi. Crisp white cloths and a smiling waiter welcomed us. The menu did not have a great deal for veggies, but enough to give both of us some choice. I chose savoury crepes which the waiter assured me were made with free range eggs. To accompany this we had fried artichokes, spinach and what we thought were saut ed potatoes, but turned out to be chips. The food was very good, especially the artichokes, which everyone else seemed to be ordering too, as was the service in this friendly, family run restaurant, with "granny" much in evidence - the white haired lady who was making sure things ran smoothly. For pudding, the waiter suggested baby strawberries. These were the size of small raspberries and very sweet - they were sprinkled with sugar and fresh lime and truly delicious. Excellent coffee ended a lovely meal and a night to remember.

In the internet cafe near our base, we came across a good Italian vegan site called www.viverevegan.org which had by far the best directory of veggie places in the area. If your Italian is better than mine, you might understand the site more. In the meantime, I've mailed them (in English, you'll be glad to hear) and asked their members to write us some reviews. TroponaisWe followed quite a few leads and discovered Sedano Allegro was closed for refurbishment, several places had closed down and one was no longer veggie friendly. However, Troponais, down a back street, is alive and well and entirely vegan. The young vegan owner told me she has been trading for three years but that there has always been a veggie restaurant on the site. It opens for lunch every day and supper is available on Wednesday, Thursday and Friday. Much of the food is organic and they do a take away trade, although they are a bit off the tourist route. Tea is served in a plastic cup but is free, which I thought was a lovely touch. We had a really tasty cake each and felt disappointed we were not able to eat a full meal here as we had plans for both lunch and supper and this was our last day. This is the sort of place I would make an effort to support if I were lucky enough to live in Florence.

Lunch was at La Riccolta, which we had rekkied the day before. It's a health food shop with a clean and smart restaurant to the rear. With white walls, wooden tables and a tiled floor, it did feel a little clinical and lacking in atmosphere. It started to get very busy by 1pm, so it's obviously popular. I had miso soup to start which was very good. Giardini BoboliMy seitan and salad to follow was disappointing. The seitan had been just lightly fried and the salad consisted of just a few green leaves, raddichio and some grated carrot, dressed with a rather watery dressing. With this I had chamomile tea. Perhaps I ordered the wrong thing, but it was just was a bit too worthy for me and far too bland.

We visited the Boboli gardens, next to the Pitti palace near where we were staying. It's a huge expanse of green with gravelled unhill walks and an amphitheatre. When you get to the top, you have a magnificent view of the city. I was a bit mystified as to why there were no flowers in this "garden" - was it like Green Park in London where the wife of Charles ll had all the flowers removed in a fit of jealous pique and to this day there are no formal flower beds? I asked the man on the gate and his reply was simple. "It is an Italian garden. We don't have flowers". So now you know.

Dinner at Ruth's was a great success. It's a Jewish veggie friendly restaurant near the synagogue in an ugly modern building, but don't let that put you off. They serve Arabian style food, I suppose you would call it, with a semi open plan kitchen, which always gets my approval. Ruth'sWe found it a friendly place and loved the food which was all home made and our choices mainly vegan. We had humous, caponata, tabboule and borek to start followed by Cous cous, which was really good and not too fiery. My apple strudel for pudding was divine. With coffee and two soft drinks, our bill was a very reasonable 53 euros. I would definitely recommend this place. It was a fitting end to our stay in Florence. Obviously, it is not open on the Jewish Sabbath, so don't try to go on Friday evening or on Saturday.

The next morning saw us at the car hire place not too far from our apartment and with not too much difficulty we left the seething mass of Florence and headed for the quieter hills that surround it. We were aiming for Montespertoli, a few kilometres outside, trying to find a vegan restaurant and stopped off at the village square to ask directions. The sun was out, the place was sleepy and quiet, mothers with prams were chatting in the shade on the green and there was a small group of men under a sycamore tree idling away the time as men do. The square in MontespertoliI could not believe that the madness of Florence was only half an hour away - this seemed like a different world. It was so gorgeous, we ordered two coffees and sat in the sun to soak up the atmosphere of the place. Eventually, we jerked ourselves into action and the idling men were now actively all flailing their arms and telling us how to get to the restaurant. With our broken Italian and their better, but not brilliant English, we thought we knew were to go but alas got lost and did not make it. A check on the time meant we had to get on our way as we had to get to Pisa and then catch our flight home. I have subsequently contacted the La Fonte restaurant - it does sound fabulous and we really wish we could have gone to see it. Booking is essential.

Leaning Tower of PisaWe did not have long in Pisa but there is not that much to see apart from the tower so it did not matter. Numero UndiciWe mainly went to try the Numero Undici which had been recommended. There are large trestle tables and self service from two large deli counters. You are encouraged to clear your own table when you have finished. Vegan choices for main meals were good but I did not notice anything suitable for sweet. I had a miso vegetable stew which was very tasty. It was very busy when we went - with local office workers I would guess - but I would recommend it. A few doors down from here is a Lebanese restaurant - Al Medina that has the usual choice for vegans and veggies.

And so it was time to drive to the airport. After some problems with lack of signs, we arrived in time to catch our flight. Returning the hire car was easy. Hopefully if you decide to go, you will have more time to enjoy the sights - please remember to post reviews and add any places you come across that we might have missed.

Veggie Places - April 2007

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