the sporty type

“Oh bischero, Florence has its own Central Park!” a man stretching nearby tells me. Far from New York, you could spend a good part of your holiday at the Parco delle Cascine. The green lung of Florence, the park, which is almost four kilometres long and 700 metres wide, flanks the Arno river. It features wonderful criss-crossing paths and long avenues that disappear over the horizon. 160 hectares of nature, paths for walking, running, cycling, relaxing and, in my case, making new friends. The atmosphere, sounds and central location are reminiscent of America’s most famous park. And like New York, this is the perfect place to leave the stress of the city behind you.

From the entrance you’ll notice that the park is not only well equipped, but also has a very strong sporting spirit. From the beginning of the 20th century, different facilities have been built in the Cascine: a football pitch, a velodrome, a tennis court, a hippodrome, a public swimming pool, an archery range and a clay pigeon shooting range. There’s even an amphitheatre. All harmoniously integrated into nature. Umpteen examples that, despite the park’s venerable age (it’s almost 500 years old) you can still stay in shape thanks to the sports on offer.

Urban Beach San Niccolò
Le Cascine
Along the Arno

Start with the Enzo Sacchi velodrome: 333.33 metres of curved and straight lines to glide along on a bike. Don’t be afraid of the professionalism of the surroundings: just a little bit of planning and you’ll be able to jump straight onto the track yourself. How? Contact the centre, pay the subscription fee and tell them your size. They’ll find you the perfect track bike for your needs. Off you go! It looks easy going that fast, doesn’t it? Cycling in a velodrome is like running the 800 metres – an evening run isn’t enough to prepare you for long sprints, you need to train constantly. Track cycling is tricky, especially mentally, but trust me, it’s a nice way to learn more about yourself.

Further on, in the Visarno hippodrome, I take a few moments to enjoy watching the horses’ hooves sketch pictures in the sand, the people on the stands shouting, and the people who’ve placed bets in the racing room, eagerly hoping for a win with their slips in hand. Just outside the hippodrome, one next to the other, are the archery and shooting ranges, where Olympic medal-winner Niccolò Campriani trains. It’s no coincidence. There’s a long tradition of archery in the city, dating back to the Medieval period. A story that has continued in the form of modern-day shooting. At the Cascine there’s definitely a progression of sports: first you run, then cycle, then horse riding, then archery and finally clay pigeon shooting.

And that’s not all: after you’ve got a good sweat on, the evening is the perfect time for some gentle exercise and relaxation. If you think this sounds like a great idea, try joining the 2,000 locals who have taken it upon themselves to create the group “Yoga nelle Cascine“. Three times a week, from late spring to early autumn, they come together for ancient Indian meditative practice. Ohmmm.

I don’t want to give you the wrong impression. Florence doesn’t begin and end with Cascine. There’s also life outside the park. On the other side of the Arno river, I find signs leading to roads that take me directly towards the Florentine hills. If you have a bike or use the mobike bike sharing app, climb the paths to Limonaia Strozzi or Piazza di Bellosguardo. In each season, these places contain the iconic imagery of Tuscan landscapes. The Viale dei Colli, a panoramic road system designed in the 19th century, stretches from the Porta Romana to Porta San Niccolò gates. The ups and downs of Viale Machiavelli and Viale Galileo follow the winding undulations of the hills. The road is long and comfortable. You’ll find holm oak, European nettle, cypress, locust trees, Lebanon cedar, pine and ginkgo. These, along with the many public and private gardens en route, will make you feel as though you’re in a huge botanical garden. From here you reach San Miniato al Monte basilica and abbey, with its superb panoramic viewpoint. I look out and Florence’s soul stand before me, with Brunelleschi’s great dome dominating the skyline in all its glory.

Limonaia, villa Strozzi
View from Piazzale Michelangelo

Haven’t got a bike? No problem. This area is also very popular with runners, protected by the wide pavements and leafy trees. After San Miniato comes Piazzale Michelangelo. From this famous viewpoint, a complex of streets and staircases lead down to the Arno. I start the descent by walking past a large fountain, a tower and a few houses. Further down, beyond the third garden, in summer you’ll find San Niccolò urban beach. A sandy beach on the banks of the Arno, it features vegetation, straw umbrellas, sun loungers, a cocktail bar, a couple of beach volleyball courts and various pieces of gym equipment. From the street it almost looks like a contemporary art installation. The beach is very popular and there are exercise sessions for all, every day of the week.

Tired from the day, I order a drink and ponder on the sport that has become the symbol of the city: calcio. Florence’s connection to this sport dates back to at least 1530, when the Florentine people, besieged by the imperial troops of Carlo V, decided to go ahead and play a match regardless. Since then, the sport has been synonymous with freedom. In memory of that event, every June there is a calcio storico fiorentino championship, made up of four teams, each representing one of the historic city quarters. There’s a masked procession at the beginning of each match, which will transport you back through the centuries. Matches are played in Piazza Santa Croce with its stalls, church, houses, statue of Dante and, of course, the sand brought in especially for the occasion. Two teams with twenty-seven bischeri in historic dress run, kick the ball, wrestle and make up for fifty long minutes. The audience up on the grandstands shout to the players, who box amongst themselves so as not to concede a goal. Ladies and gentleman, this is Florentine historic kickball, the rules of which developed into modern games such as football and rugby. And it is really exciting to watch, so don’t miss it, if you have the chance.

Le Cascine
Le Cascine

During the rest of the year you can satisfy your desire for football in the stands of Franchi, the stadium where the Florentine stalwart, ACF Fiorentina, play in their purple strip. Aficionados will know that the stadium is located near Coverciano, home of the Italian national side’s Centro Tecnico Federale (Federal Technical Centre). Practically a temple to Italian football, the centre has a good historical museum and you might even catch a glimpse of The Azzurri training there.

If you’re on the lookout for something else, you can take your pick around the stadium. From swimming to skating, rugby and baseball, there’s a facility for all tastes. There’s no shortage of restaurants and stalls where you can sample Tuscan salumi panini and drink aperitifs. Aperitivi are essential, an absolute must in Florence. If you want to enjoy yours somewhere exclusive, go along Lungarno Francesco Ferrucci. Just before the headquarters of the Canottieri Comunali Firenze canoe association (in case you’re interested in paddling along the Arno: canottiericomunalifirenze.it) you’ll find Rari Nantes Florentia swimming pool. The outdoor pool is delicately perched on the banks of the Arno. In summer, you can enjoy open air swimming until 10 pm. So, why not savour the slow sunset between backstroke and breaststroke? Then pop your bathrobe on and I’ll order you a nice glass of Chianti.

di Paolo Ermano

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