Interview: Hannah and Meg from Florence for Free

Apr 23, 2014 9:45:10 AM / by Stephanie Sadler

Hannah and Meg, who each spent a year and a half studying abroad in Florence, run one of the city's best blogs. It's called Florence for Free, and was built out of their need to explore the city on a student budget. Their fun and informative blog won one of the CAPA Top Blog Awards for 2014, so we decided to dig a bit deeper and find out more about their love of Florence, some of their best discoveries in the city and how they dealt with the American stereotypes they encountered on their adventures. Images throughout the interview are by photographer Matt Freire who was with Hannah and Meg in Florence.

CAPA WORLD: Tell us a bit about yourselves, where you're from, where you live now and about your connection to Florence.
FLORENCE FOR FREE: One of the many reasons the two of us became such fast friends is our hometown pride. With Meg’s Buffalo, New York, roots and Hannah’s upbringing in Kansas City, we both found ourselves bonding over bragging about our under-rated origins. Although we “technically” have to pledge allegiance to our respective hometowns, we both embarked on our torrid love affairs with Italy as undergrads – Meg studying in Parma and Hannah in Rome. We couldn’t seem to shake this romance and found ourselves, and each other, back in Italy while attending graduate school at Syracuse University’s Florence Art History Graduate Program. We lived, studied, worked in and explored Florence for a year and a half. With limited student budgets, we had no choice but to discover "Florence for free". Since leaving Florence, Hannah has migrated back to Kansas City and Meg is currently living in Baltimore.

CW: You run the popular website, Florence for Free, which won one of the CAPA Top Blog Awards 2014. Who is your main audience? What are some of the features of the site?
FFF: Our original mission was to inspire students studying abroad. Therefore, initially our following was largely this student demographic as intended. However, as time passed, we have been excited to find more and more diverse travelers jumping on the sustainable, budget-friendly travel bandwagon!

Florence for Free offers a variety of features for visitors and residents of Florence including: an up-to-date calendar of free events, walks, features on Florentine traditions and festivals, and our favorite free places to pass an afternoon. Although we both have a big ol’ soft spot for the art history of Florence, we keep our posts diverse, covering topics from festivals to sports to food. We also gladly take suggestions for topics that our readers are interested in learning more about.

CW: Choose three blog posts you enjoyed researching and writing and tell us why they were so much fun to put together.
1. How to Crash a Tuscan Wedding. In September of 2013, one of our best pals and classmates in Florence married her Italian beau. Everything about the wedding, from the dinner at the family’s Renaissance castle the night before, to the ceremony set to a Tuscan sunset, was heartbreakingly beautiful. The cake was iced by the attendance of all of our best buds. We couldn’t help but share this magical experience with our readers and we obviously had a great time doing it.

2. The Free Art Walk. One of our most exciting collaborations this past year was with artist Patrik Lundell, who shares our passion for art and free things! We decided to market a Free Art Walk in which Patrik left original works of his own art around the city which could be found by solving the riddles written by yours truly, posted on FFF. Witty riddles, free art, and a scavenger hunt taking our readers to our favorite places in Florence? Of course we loved writing this one!

3. Upcoming Events. Every month, Meg creates a post featuring the month’s upcoming free events. We hope that with these monthly posts we can save our readers from ever experiencing the sinking regret of missing a free evening at the Uffizi, a concert at Palazzo Strozzi, or a period-dress parade. We love tipping off tourists, students and even residents about these freebies and live vicariously through them if we can’t be there ourselves!

CW: What are your three most popular posts? Pull a quote from each to share.
FFF: As we probably could have guessed (because let’s be honest, we’re suckers for trashy pop culture too), our top two most visited posts are Walking Tour: The Jersey Shore in Florence and Walking Tour: Dan Brown’s Inferno. Coming in just behind these blockbusters is Florence’s Best Markets by Neighborhood, adding a hint of class to our most popular list! Here are some of our favorite snippets from each:

1. Walking Tour: The Jersey Shore: Love them or hate them (or maybe just love to hate them), these over-tanned juice heads fist pumped their way into America’s culture, and, much to the chagrin of the Italians, Florence’s as well.

2. Walking Tour: Dan Brown’s Inferno: We’d be lying if we said we hadn’t heard a few professors moan at the sound of the author’s name (tying Da Vinci to a conspiracy theory will do that) – but haters gonna hate, y’all. The truth is, these girls love anything art history + mystery, even if the facts are a bit hazy.
3. Florence’s Best Markets by Neighborhood: We understand that shopping fundamentally flies in the face of our Florence for Free mantra, but you’d miss a major part of Italian culture if you didn’t explore the country’s many open-air markets! Brimming with charming antiques, fresh fruits, and homemade soaps, each bazaar is a feast for the senses.

CW: Our students love to find the hidden gems in their host cities. What is your favourite Florence discovery off of the tourist trail and what's special about it?
FFF: The cemetery at San Miniato al Monte is, hands down, these girls’ happy place. How creepy are we, right? The Basilica of San Miniato sits so high above the city that few tourists’ gluts can stand the extra ascent up from the already elevated Piazzale Michelangelo. The tourists who do stick it out to the top will certainly stop for a photo shoot to capture the world’s most perfect panorama. As there are no closing hours on the view we always put that on hold and jet to the cemetery entrance to the left of the Basilica. And voilà, we’ve done it! We have claimed a little piece of Florence entirely for ourselves (well, along with the souls who decided to make San Miniato their forever home). Stroll amongst rows of mausoleums fashioned like miniature cathedrals. Photograph the emotionally charged statuary. If you have time, find Carlo Collodi’s (the author of Pinocchio) headstone. Most importantly, breathe. In a city that impels you to not miss out on a single work of art, vespa ride, or strada, it’s important to take a moment to pause, and simply take it all in – good, bad or otherwise.

CW: Give us your best recommendations on where to eat and drink in Florence.
FFF: Well this sure taps into our favorite pastime! The list could go on forever, but here are a few of a personal favorite digs in Florence:

1. Gusta Pizza. Ok, yes. Gusta Pizza is a favorite of gli student Americani so it may not “feel” so authentic anymore. But, where there’s smoke there’s fire. If a place is this popular, they probably have something good going on. And in this case, there literally is fire as well. The Gusta wood fire oven bakes up the most mouth-watering pizzas, sure to haunt your taste buds long after you leave Florence.
2. Grocery stores. Yes, as generic as it may seem, the supermarkets of Florence have crafted some of our most memorable sandwiches and for a price that’s just as easy to swallow!
3. Edi House. Edi House, located in Piazza Savonarola is completely off the beaten path. Located near our school and library, it wasn’t long until we were regulars. The versatility of the restaurant made Edi House perfect for every occasion, whether we were snatching some pizzas for the library or wanted an authentic sit-down Florentine meal. Edi House is a family-owned, neighborhood restaurant that embodies simple, pure Italian cooking. For these girls, Edi House feels like home.
4. Rossi’s. Ok, we have to admit we feel a little guilty about spilling the beans on the place we so affectionately (and mysteriously?) call Secret Bar, but if you’re reading this we figure you’re probably special enough to be let in on the secret. During the day, and throughout the winter months this joint appears to be a simple rolled up kiosk in the piazza. One magical warm night in April each year the kiosk opens up, the local youth swarm, and Rossi, from Colombia, serves up solo-cup sized cocktails, aperitivo, and traditional Latino music until the wee hours of the morning. It’s the best surprise ever.
5. Negroni. Located in the quaint San Niccolò neighborhood of the Oltrarno, Negroni is largely a bar for locals as well. The bar is famous for the well-known drink, negroni, but also offers our personal favorite aperitivo in Florence.

Most importantly, remember to find places to make your own. With our strapped budgets you certainly wouldn’t have found the two of us dabbling in Florence’s finest cuisine every week. Our best advice is to find your favorite spots and make them your spots. You’ll be quick to realize that eating in Italy is about much more than the food.

CW: Tell us the story of a memorable interaction you had with a local Florentine. Why did it stand out for you?
FFF: We met Ezio, our Art Restoration professor, on day two of our Italian adventure. Something about his disheveled gray locks, handlebar mustache, round belly, and refusal to speak a word of English tapped right into these doe-eyed gals’ hearts. As Ezio encouraged us to get elbow deep in plaster and paint, he divulged tales of his romantic past and even sang Italian classics in his rich tenor voice. Ezio officially agreed to be our adopted Italian nonno. In the grandfather role, Ezio rose to the occasion of navigating his naïve students through lessons in Italian culture, history, and traditions. Ezio taught us how to get by, learn and fall in love in Florence.

CW: Being American students abroad, did you encounter any stereotypes during your time in Florence? What were they and how did you avoid falling into them?
FFF: ABSOLUTELY. With a comfortable population around half a million (not too big and not too small), low crime, rich history, and excessive art, we can scarcely be surprised that thousands of Americans flood Florence every year to pursue their studies. With the “once-in-a-lifetime” attitude, nonexistent drinking age and naturally loud voices of Americans, we unfortunately have left a less than satisfactory taste in the mouth of many Florentines.

Almost daily we encountered a disgruntled nonna, dismissive store clerk, or an over-eager ragazzo who made some pretty quick assumptions based on our accents, style or otherwise. And honestly, we can’t really blame them for this. Americans are diluting their rich culture and heritage everyday. And that is why it is important for us to be respectful of that, and prove the stereotypes wrong. One of our favorite ways to do that was by insisting upon speaking Italian. Even if all you can muster is a greeting, Italians will appreciate that you are making an effort. Florentines can be very standoffish and protective of their culture, but once you break down the barriers, we are sure that you will find, just as we did, they are the nicest people you will ever meet. The important part is meeting them halfway. Remember, we are the guests.

CW: What are your top three favourite free experiences in Florence?
1. Scoppio del Carro. The Scoppio del Carro occurs every year at Easter Sunday Mass at the Duomo. We’ll just say this: it involves a flaming wooden dove flying down the nave of the cathedral and an exploding cart of fireworks. It is absolutely bizarre and an “only in Italy” experience. It is a tradition that runs deep in Florentine history. It represents part of what makes this city so special - traditions that aren’t even flinching in the face of changing times. Read all about the excitement on FFF.

2. Notte Bianca. The White Night is an all night party celebrating the arts in Florence. It takes place every April. Museums, shops and restaurants stay open until sunrise and concerts and DJ sets bring the parties to the streets. Free art exhibits are displayed throughout town and museum entry is free. No Florentine misses out on this all-night party celebrating their arts and culture and you shouldn’t either!

3. Night walks. Some of our very best laughs, talks about life, and discoveries happened under the glow of the statues in the Loggia dei Lanzi at night, under the illuminated Duomo, or walking across the rolled up Ponte Vecchio. Florence can get crazy during the day with eager tourists, zipping vespas, and aggressive pigeons. But lucky for us, Florence has an early bedtime and we don’t. At night, the city is yours for the taking. There is absolutely nothing better than grabbing a friend and seeing the city under moonlight.

CW: Say you are a study abroad student and it's your first free day to explore the city on your own. Design an itinerary for your day.
FFF: First things first – get acquainted with the city! The faster you get your bearings, the more confident you’ll be spending your semester jet-setting around the city to must-see sights.

  • 10:00 AM – Santa Maria Novella Train Station. Get to know it and get to know it well. Although we want Florence to be your first love, we hope you get your chance to zip around the country this semester and the SMN train station will be your hub. Here you can also find a city busses, the SITA regional bus station and a McDonalds (don’t judge; that’ll come in handy around week 4).
  • 10:15 AM – Piazza Santa Maria Novella. Welcome to the city center. We are certain that if you are taking any, your art history courses will hit you over the head with this place several times. So take an unadulterated look at the Renaissance masterpiece before it becomes homework!
  • 10:30 AM – Via Tornabuoni. Out of the south side of the Piazza take Via del’ Sole to Via Tornabuoni – Florence’s runway. Ferragamo, Cavalli, Gucci. It won’t take you long to realize that some of Italy’s biggest fashion houses were born right here in Florence. While you might not be able to afford any of the goods on display, you can pop into Caffè Giacosa and feel like part of the jet-set set, at least for the length of one pasta and cappuccino.
  • 11:00 AM – Ponte Santa Trinita. This ponte is where to snag the picture perfect view of the famous Ponte Vecchio to your left.
  • 11:15 AM – Santo Spirito. We like to call the Basilica of Santo Spirito the Alamo due to its unfinished southwest style façade. A bit shocking at first, the simple façade actually makes quite a lovely backdrop for this neighborhood piazza. Piazza Santo Spirito hosts Florence’s most noteable markets every month that you certainly won’t want to miss. It is also known as Florence’s hipster hangout, so if that’s your cup of tea, this is the place for you.
  • Noon – Pizza from Gusta at Palazzo Pitti. We couldn’t possibly expect you to just stroll past the deliciousness piping out of Gusta Pizza as you exit the piazza. We suggest caving to temptation, ordering a couple of pies to go and heading east towards Palazzo Pitti. Pop a squat on the sprawling bricked front yard of the Medici and enjoy the best pizza of your life while indulging in your first people watching session.
  • 1:00 PM – Ponte Vecchio. Head south to the iconic Ponte Vecchio and take window shopping to a new level as you peek at the gold, silver and diamonds shining through the display cases of the jewelry stores that line the bridge.
  • 1:30 PM – Oltrarno. Instead of crossing the bridge, head back towards Palazzo Pitti and spend a while exploring the Oltrarno, a quieter, less touristy side of the Arno. Head east toward our favorite neighborhood, San Niccolo’. On your way note the artisan shops and workshops for which the quaint Oltrarno is known.
  • 2:00 PM – Piazzale Michelangelo. Cruise north out of the city gate and up up up to Piazzale Michelangelo. Your gluts might be a bit ticked, but let them know that THE postcard view of Florence awaits you at the top. Use this bird’s eye view of the city to really get your bearings on your new home.
  • 2:45 PM – Ponte alla Grazia. Head back down to the Arno and cross the Ponte alla Grazie (one bridge east of the Ponte Vecchio). Here you'll find more photo worthy views of the Ponte Vecchio. Finally cross to the north side of the river to the Santa Croce neighborhood.
  • 3:15 PM – Santa Croce. Smell that? It’s leather! Santa Croce is the leather making district of the city and has the shops to prove it! Piazza Santa Croce is lined with such shops and some restaurants, and it also hosts some of Florence’s biggest events such as Calcio Storico in the summer and the Christmas market in December. The Basilica, resting place to Michelangelo, Galileo and Machiavelli, isn’t too shabby either.
  • 3:45 PM – Piazza della Signoria. A stroll west will take you to the politically charged heart of the city – Piazza della Signoria to see The Uffizi Gallery, the Palazzo Vecchio and the Loggia dei Lanzi. We are not even sure where to begin with this one. Simply let your eyes wander. You are sure to be back here countless times.
  • 4:45 PM – Gelato. It’s probably gelato time. As you head north on Via Calzaiuoli pop into Perche’ No for some authentic, delicious gelato! Dark chocolate (fondente) and strawberry (fragola) is a personal kryptonite.
  • 5:00 PM – Piazza della Repubblica. Cut west over to Piazza della Repubblica to see a relatively “new” and posh piazza in town. As the former forum of the Ancient Roman town as well as the birthplace of the Futurism movement, you can count on this piazza as having at least a few stories to tell.
  • 6:00 PM – Piazza del Duomo. And for the grand finale, cut back north to Piazza del Duomo. Here it is - the dome of Brunelleschi, the defining ornament of the city. Piazza del Duomo is not only teeming with history, culture and art, but also a great way to orient yourself if you ever get lost. There is practically no spot in the city from which you cannot see the Dome. If you can make it back here, you’re home free.

Don’t bite off more than you can chew with sightseeing. You can do all the planning in the world, but we think you’ll quickly find out that Florence has a plan for you too.

Thanks Hannah and Meg!

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Topics: Interviews, Florence, Italy