Birthplace of Renaissance awaits Fiorentina revival

Teams, tales and tips – a guide to the local game

If Genoa (or Turin) is the cradle of the modern Italian game, then Florence, home of flagship club Fiorentina, is its historic source. Calcio Fiorentino, a revival of Roman harpastum involving early, brutal forms of football/rugby, was played across 16th-century Italy. Piazza Santa Croce, where the game is still staged every June, was its Wembley.

Calcio gave its name to… calcio, the Italian name for modern-day football, but Florence lacked the industrial drive of Turin for the sport to develop.

Local expats were behind the first games in the early 1900s, at Campo di Marte and Quercione Park, between Florence Football Club, Firenze Football Club, Club Sportivo Firenze, Fiorentina Libertas and others. The latter two emerged and began playing more seriously, at via Bellini.

Four years later in 1926, the two merged to form Fiorentina at the instigation of young Tuscan noble, Marquis Luigi Ridolfi, the new club’s first president. That same year, Ridolfi became head of the local Fascist Federation, no coincidence. Ridolfi wanted Fascist dynamism to fire sporting excellence and challenge the big clubs of the north. Mussolini himself encouraged the merger.

The embodiment of Ridolfi’s dream was the groundbreakingly modernist stadium built at the Campo di Marte by revolutionary architect Pier Luigi Nervi. Still used by Fiorentina today, the later renamed Stadio Artemio Franchi retains its 1932 look thanks to a kind refit for Italia ’90. The athletics one alongside carries the name of Ridolfi. Ridolfi was also behind the Coverciano national training centre east of Campo di Marte, unveiled shortly after his death. The wonderful Museo del Calcio there is worth a visit – see below What to see.

Nervi’s masterpiece opened as the Stadio Comunale Giovanni Berta, named after a young Fascist activist thrown into the Arno by Communists in 1921.

A World Cup venue in 1934, the Comunale witnessed Fiorentina win the title in 1956 and again in 1969. The current Fiorentina usually finish there or thereabouts – more often, thereabouts.

Getting Around

Arriving in town, local transport and timings

Modest, underused Florence Airport is 8km (5 miles) north-west of town. Vueling has budget connections with Gatwick and Luton. A Volainbus (€6, €10 return, €1.20 extra for a day ticket) leaves every 30mins for Florence bus terminus via the main train station of Santa Maria Novella (Stazione Galleria stop, journey time 20-25mins). Ataf also runs city transport of buses and trams (singles €1.20, €2 on board, 24hr €5).

taxi (+39 055 4390) to town (15mins) from Florence Airport should cost €20-€25.

Most visitors to Florence use Pisa Airport, 5km (3 miles) from downtown Pisa and 82km (50.5 miles) from Florence. A taxi (+39 050 541 600) to Pisa station is €10, about €150 to Florence. A bus (online €14) runs almost hourly from the airport to Florence Santa Maria Novella, journey time 70mins.

Where to Drink

The best pubs and bars for football fans

Expat magnet Florence is dotted with pubs. The first, near the station, was the Fiddler’s Elbow, with big-screen football and happy-hour beers. Nearby is the similarly sport-centric Lion’s FountainFinnegan is proudly Irish-owned.

The Old Stove on via Pellicceria covers all bases for pints and Prem coverage. The Tartan Jock offers McEwan’s on draught as well as live action; the James Joyce (Lugarno Cellini 1) posts up its TV schedule on the opposite riverbank.

Perhaps the best is Uncle Jimmy’s, mainly because it feels lived in but lively, has a different (and cheaper) Italian beer of the week (along with Dolomiti) and, judging by the sports tops and bikinis dangling from the ceiling, has seen its fair bit of fun. Big screen, too.

Of the Italian bars, FRienDS is just another faux pub with a piano player – Tucher and Poretti on draught are rare, though, and a Ponte Vecchio location means it’s busy. Watch out for the street number, No.51, set between No.27 and No.29. 

The Totocalcio Viola Club near the Lion’s Fountain at piazza Salvemini 4 is a tiny betting shop with plenty of football talk and a pennant collection to die for. No drinks, though – it no longer functions as a bar.

Where to stay

The best hotels for the stadium and city centre

Florence Tourist Office has a hotel directory.

The nearest hotels to the stadium are the two-star Ungherese, the former home of a Magyar noblewoman, hence the portraits of Sissi and Rákóczi; and the grandiose Palazzo Lombardo, which modestly describes itself as a Guest House despite culturally themed rooms.

Tourist-swamped Florence is equally swamped with hotels. Near Santa Maria Novella, lodgings run from two-star  Hotel Berna to top-notch Grand Hotel Baglioni Firenze. The Roma is also convenient, the Lombardia is slightly cheaper. The B4 Astoria Firenze is where Milton composed parts of Paradise Lost.

The riverside Balestri is a nice mid-range choice while the two-star Santa Croce is also near the Arno.

What to see

The top football attraction in town

At Coverciano, a 15min walk down viale Duse from the stadium area, the Calcio Museum (Mon-Fri 9am-1pm, 3pm-7pm, Sat 9am-1pm; €7/€5 6-14s) is worth the trek. Ring the bell at the gate and an elderly guide/porter lets you in, then takes you across from his bookshop/ticket office to the museum building opposite. He then gives you a rapid spiel in Florentine-accented Italian. 

You’re just worrying that you may have to concentrate really hard for the next hour, before he leaves you alone in the first room – alone with the World Cup trophies of 1934 and 1938, alone with Silvio Piola’s boots used to win the latter, signed postcards from the squad… and alone with three floors and several rooms of quite wonderful memorabilia related (mainly) to Italy’s proud campaigns in World Cups, European Championships and Olympic Games tournaments.

It’s not all cups and medals. One section is dedicated to the great Torino side of the late 1940s that perished in the Superga air disaster of 1949. Framed are the effects of defender Aldo Ballarin, shinpads and half-smoked packet of cigarettes, found amid the wreckage. Moving on, you’ll find the Olivetti Lettera 22 typewriter bashed out by the legendary Gianni Brera, for whom the phrase ‘doyen of Italian football writers’ was invented.