After spending two weeks in Rome, our week in the smaller, quieter Florence was a welcome change. The main attractions like the Duomo, the Palazzo Vecchio, and the river were all less than a twenty-minute walk from the hotel. Small shops and restaurants lined the narrow streets, and daily markets could be found near the city center, where most of the activity took place. However, Florence turned into quite a different city by night.
Around 1 am on a Wednesday night, we were wandering the streets in groups of four or five, hoping to find one of Florence’s famous secret bakeries. Personally, I hadn’t heard of these secret bakeries until we were in the city. These “bakeries” only operate late at night, starting around 1 or 2 am, baking the croissants, pastries, and other baked goods that will be sold in established bakeries much later that day. However, many of those delicious treats never make it to the bakeries. If approached, the bakery operators are more than happy to sell a couple individual pastries on the side. Since this practice is not exactly allowed, the secrecy is necessary. These baking operations usually take place in non-descript buildings at a variety of locations, which are supposed to be unknown. The idea is to simply wander the streets and hope you catch a whiff of the fresh pastries, which doesn’t exactly guarantee a successful late-night adventure. In order to avoid the disappointment of spending hours walking around the city with no baked goods to show for it, we decided to do some research beforehand.
We hit the streets with at least two street addresses that others had reported on the Internet to be locations of secret bakeries. The first address took us to a street only a few blocks down from the hotel. It was quiet and dark with no discernible aromas. The other address would take us to the other side of the city by the river, to a road that wasn’t on our map. We decided to go for it.
As we made our way through the city, it was nearly silent. The fairly busy streets were quiet, only an occasional speeding car passed by. The San Lorenzo area was deserted, the leather market packed up and the streets cleaned for some time. Even the piazza in front of the Duomo was empty, and we were able to actually see the cathedral and the baptistery without crowds of people blocking the view.
As we neared the area near the river, we began to grow a little skeptical. Considering the first location didn’t pan out, there weren’t high hopes this one would as well. Every now and then we’d stop and frantically sniff the air, thinking we caught the scent. Then we would get excited and pick up our pace, wondering if we were close or our imaginations were tricking our noses. After wandering around several smaller streets and walking in circles, we finally narrowed down the area where the Via Rivolta must be located. As we turned onto an especially hidden and small street, a wave of sweet bakery aroma overwhelmed us. We eagerly followed it, getting more excited with every step, the smell growing stronger with every turn. And then we saw it. A small building in the middle of an alley with lights on and muffled buzzing sounds. We found the door, which had signs saying “Closed” and asking us to remain quiet.
At first, we didn’t know what to do. Were we sure this was it, that people actually show up and ask for pastries all the time? We decided to knock and waited. Nothing happened. So we knocked again, louder this time. Eventually, a shadow approached the door from the other side, and it opened. A young man poked his head out and looked at us expectantly. We turned to each other, again unsure of how this transaction worked. By this time a couple other people had joined us at the door. They were obviously experienced, because they walked straight up and told him their order. So we followed suit and simply asked for four chocolate croissants. The young man nodded his head, disappeared for about 5 minutes, returned with two white paper bags, held out his hand, and quietly asked for four euro. We gave him the money, and he disappeared once again behind the frosted doors.
The croissants were well worth the hour of sleepless wandering. They were big, warm, and melt-in-your-mouth fresh. By the time we reached the hotel, our stomachs were warm and full, and we were too excited about actually finding a secret bakery to go to sleep right away. Our late-night Florence excursion had indeed been a success. We had indeed followed our noses to a sweet reward.