Visit the artisans of Florence and come away with beautiful, custom-made shoes crafted in the Italian luxury tradition.
The Cradle of the Renaissance, Florence, is still enchanting visitors with its architecture, Tuscan cuisine, wine, and world-renowned art. Visitors gaze upon the masterpiece of Michelangelo’s David, sip an exquisite Chianti Classico, and watch boats row down the Arno at sunset. But it’s when they get out of the guidebook that they see the true, living Florence.
A secret I’ve found for a truly authentic Florentine experience is to cross the river to Oltrano (which literally translates as “across the Arno”), a small neighborhood known for its artisans who have been making beautiful, one-of-a-kind products for over 500 years according to a rich tradition. There is a long history of leather, gold, silver, books, carpentry, and marble production that has changed little over the centuries. But a declining number of willing apprentices, and gentrification of the area where they work and reside, has lead some to speculate that these skilled craftsmen won’t be around forever.
It doesn’t get more quintessentially Italian than bespoke, handmade leather shoes. Once you cross the river, it almost doesn’t matter which narrow, cobbled street you venture down. You can explore all the small artisan shops, with displays of glass, woodworking, and jewels. It’s easy to locate a shop that makes bespoke shoes — simply by the smell of wet leather — or look out for shoes in the window. I stepped inside a small shop with barely any space for a showroom. When I asked to see the process, I was led to a small workroom with workers sitting in a circle taking the wooden lasts (models of the specific feet the shoes are fitted for), stretching wet leather across them, and sewing them together by hand. To bring home a pair of shoes of this caliber, first you have to get measured, and they will build your own, individual last. The last stays with the shop, so you can repeatedly order shoes based upon your measurements.
Bespoke shoes come with a custom price tag, however. Materials like ostrich, crocodile, camel or shark can add significantly to the cost, over traditional calf’s leather. And not unlike fashion around the world, labels here go a long way to speaking for the quality of the finished product. Most houses have been around for generations, making shoes by the same methods. What you’re paying a premium for is not only the materials, but also the design, the custom fit, and the attention to detail.
After you gain an appreciation for the craft, visit the museum and showroom of one of the most famous Italian shoemakers of all time, Salvatore Ferragamo. Born near Naples, and a student of American factory design, Ferragamo returned to Florence to build his brand on the talents he had learned as an Italian shoemaker. It only takes an hour to visit the museum erected to his works and iconic shoes, in the Palazzo Spini Feroni, and it’s a good way to get acquainted with the process and see his shoes, which are truly works of art in their design and construction. Ferragamo Museo is a journey to the golden age of Hollywood, when matinee idols were all wearing their Ferragamo shoes and advertising the luxury of Italian craftsmanship.
Fine wine and food in the Oltrano neighbourhood of Florence:
Charming bars, cafés, and shops have sprung up in places like the Piazza San Spirito near the artisan shops. Try Pitti Gola e Cantina for the perfect glass of wine, with a recommendation from one of the owning Fioravanti brothers, and share one of their generous portions of antipasti for a traditional Italian afternoon.
Pitti Palace and Boboli Gardens:
Once a palace for Tuscan grand-dukes and the King of Italy, Pitti Palace in Oltrano now houses one of the best Italian art collections in the world. And make sure to also visit the Boboli gardens behind the palace. Constructed for the Medici family, they are known for their sculpture and grottoes, and they have also influenced many of the European courts.
With the declining euro against the Canadian dollar, now is the perfect time to not only visit Florence, but splurge on bespoke items, or upgrade your hotel or restaurant reservations.
Photos courtesy of Salvatore Ferragamo/ Shutterstock.com