On the trail of Dan Brown’s Inferno in Florence

Gary Rose pairs Dante with chianti on an Inferno-themed weekend in the Tuscan capital

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Professor Robert Langdon (Tom Hanks) awakes in hospital with a sore head and depleted memory cells, in the opening scene of Inferno. Glancing out the window, he spies a familiar medieval skyline silhouetted against the dusk.

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“What am I doing in Florence?” he asks.

I have the exact same reaction as I pull open my shutters, bleary-eyed, at the city’s Hotel Brunelleschi on a damp Saturday morning. 

Then my recall kicks in. Ah yes, I’m here to explore locations used in the big-screen version of Dan Brown’s Dante-inspired novel (out on Blu-ray/DVD 20th Feb). And where better to start than in the main tourist zone, at the museum that features heavily in the first half of the film…


The Museo de Palazzo Vecchio

Palazzo Vecchio translates as “old palace”. Apt, as it’s been around since 1299, and was home to the Medici family for 350 years. It’s now the city’s town hall, although the majority of the building is open to the public as a museum.

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Ceiling in the Hall of the 500

The museum’s most prominent Inferno-related room is the 60-foot-high Hall of the 500 (above); a former meeting chamber sprinkled with somewhat aggressive Renaissance artworks. Here, Langdon and his companion Sienna examine Vasari’s giant fresco The Battle of Marciano… and unveil a secret message. “Cerca trova,” it says. “Seek and you shall find.” 

“We sought it and we found it. So now what?” says Langdon. Well… how about heading upstairs to the Hall of Maps, a room adorned with elegantly drafted cartography. Like in the film, the map of Armenia conceals a secret passage; unlike in the film, you can’t access the building’s rafters from here. Just as well really, it looks dangerous up there. And if you fell to your death through the Hall of the 500’s ceiling (like the assassin in the film), the museum staff wouldn’t be happy. Those 500-year-old frescos are a pain to replace.

Also on display here is Dante’s death mask, which the amnesiac Langdon is gobsmacked to see himself pinching on a CCTV recording. My guide from the Tuscan Tourist Board tells me that Dante’s influence on Italian literature and culture can’t be overstated. Every Italian child studies him from the age of 11, apparently — he’s their equivalent of Shakespeare.

Why? Because Dante is the grandfather of the Italian dialect. Whereas previously books were written in Latin, Dante’s Divine Comedy was penned in the language of Tuscany’s streets, making literature more accessible to the masses. 

Around the corner in the Piazza del Duomo is the distinctive, octagonal Battistero di San Giovanni (Baptistry of Saint John), where Langdon heads to recover Dante’s mask. The ceiling here is decorated with early depictions of hell, which inspired Dante’s work.

 

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Diabolical fresco in the Baptistry of Saint John

The writer was baptised here, and it’s easy to imagine how its grisly gargoyles might have freaked him out as a child. Ten euros gets you access to all the buildings in the square, and the adventurous can also climb to the top of the huge cathedral, the Duomo, for great views across the city.

Cross the Ponte Vecchio (and grab a cocktail in Santo Spirito)

Ask any local to recommend a cool area to grab a drink, and they’ll dispatch you south of the river to Santo Spirito. This is where Florence’s hip kids hang out, although it feels quite inclusive and caters for a wide spectrum of ages. The bar I visit on Saturday night, Volume, is full of Italians drinking 4-euro cocktails. There’s a jukebox and a band playing funk covers. The drummer is amazing.   

 

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Evening at the Ponte Vecchio

The most direct way to get to Santo Spirito from the Palazzo Vecchio area is to head down the main shopping street, Via Por S Maria (resist any urges to drop into H&M or Zara. You can do that at home). This’ll lead you straight onto the Ponte Vechhio, which backdrops Inferno’s opening credits and one of the later chase scenes.

This iconic medieval bridge is an architectural must-see, and you’ll want to stop for a photo overlooking the winding River Arno. Once home to butcher’s shops, its premises now offer jewellery and souvenirs, while street hawkers stalk its pavements brandishing selfie sticks and bubble wands.

Stroll around the Boboli Gardens 

A few minutes’ walk to the east of Santo Spirito are the Palazzo Pizzi and the adjacent Boboli Gardens. It’s always a good idea to take in a park on a city break, and you won’t want to miss this one. The panoramic views from its Neptune fountain are the main draw, but there’s just as much joy to be found exploring the snaking laneways to the east, with their orange groves, lavender bushes and hidden surprises around each corner.  

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View from above the Neptune fountain at Boboli Gardens

In the film, Langdon and Sienna vault over the wall to get in. I’d recommend the more traditional route of paying €10 for a ticket — unless you want your collar felt by the Carabinieri. They carry very large guns, you know.

Taste some wine

Dante pairs well with a nice chianti, and you can’t come to Florence without sampling the vino. It’s not always easy to find a decent independent wine shop in the UK. In central Florence, it seems there’s at least one on every street. Here’s they’re called “enotecas” (derived from “eno”, the Greek word for wine).

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Wine tasting at La Divina Enoteca

If you’re not familiar with the concept, enotecas are wine shops where you’re encouraged to sit down and try the products before marching off with a bottle under your arm. Often, they’ll come accompanied by a selection of meats, olives and cheeses. A touch more sophisticated than your local offie back home. 

I was impressed with the cavernous cellar at Enoteca Alessi on Via della Oche and with La Divina Enoteca on Via Panicale. And it’d be daft not to combine the latter with a trip to the Mercato Centrale; a colossal foodies’ paradise set over two floors in a cast-iron 19th century building, selling both modern and traditional Tuscan fare. And, of course, lots of wine. Just try to make sure your memory is better than Professor Langdon’s when you wake up the next day. 

Inferno is out on Blu-ray and DVD on 20th February 2017

Gary stayed at the Brunelleschi Hotel in Florence, and his trip was organised by Grape Escapes


Radio Times Travel:

Portofino, Florence and Tuscany, 7 nights from £699. What’s included:

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  • Enjoy a week’s stay in one of Tuscany’s most celebrated spa-resorts

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