As September afternoons begin to cool down and the evenings shorten, my daughter and I often feel the need to get outside after school. Living up the hill in Fiesole, it’s not easy to go for a quick bike ride here. What we crave is flatness and the only place in Florence to really get that is the Cascine park.
We are drawn to this park all year round to wheel along the straight, smooth paths, enjoying the greenery, the space and the people. From rollerblading men in Lycra to five-year-olds with crooked bike helmets, if a Florentine has wheels to spin this is where they come.
A long, narrow park that covers a sizeable 160 hectares north of the river, just west of central Florence, the Cascine is not the sparkling green jewel you might find in other cities. It tends on the shabby side and like any city park it’s not the best place to be at night. But this is a living park, whose main appeal is space and air and all sorts of city residents are drawn here, with families especially prevalent at weekends.
Built as a hunting ground and farm for the Medici grand dukes back in the 16th century—the name Cascine comes from cacio, the place were cows were kept and milked—it has been a public park since the 19th century. Certain spots are historic, like the Narcissus fountain, which inspired Shelley to write his Ode to the West Wind.
Several afternoons a month after school, I park the car along the only road through the park (the rest is all car-free), pull out my folding bike and my daughter straps on her rollerblades. We head to the Pavoniere pavilion. Its swimming pool might be closed for the season, but this is the obvious starting point for a trip around the six kilometres of paths. Other rollerbladers are here too, having rented skates or lessons from the roller club that is open all year.
The old man with his two little dogs tucked up in the bike basket rolls by: he always moves slowly but never actually stops. My girl on wheels does some spins around the big concrete circle, watching for bikes zooming past. She starts to pick up speed going down the riverside path, watching out for the odd clothes-hanger left behind from Tuesday’s market and a man steering his surfboard-on-wheels waves as he whirls past. We skirt alongside the edges of the tram tracks before they cross the bridge over the river towards Scandicci. Coasting back along the middle avenue, we feel the shade under the canopy of the magnificent, centuries-old oaks and lindens that Queen Victoria would have walked under during her Florentine strolls. We whizz past joggers, many of them chatting as they move (something Italians surely excel at), and as we pass the pyramid (an 18th-century ice house) we are passed by two handsome horses with even handsomer policemen (the police cavalry is stabled in the park).
We decide to continue west, all the way down to the Ponte all’Indiano, named after the memorial to the young Indian prince who died suddenly in Florence in 1870. Piazzale delle Cascine, the large central point in the park, is quiet today, but it comes to life on Sundays and holidays with a fairground and street food stalls. The big, broad meadows on this side of the park also buzz at weekends, when other Florentine residents claim their own leisure space among the half-forgotten decorative 18th-century mini-temples and statues: large groups of Peruvians barbecuing and playing volleyball, energetic West African footballers, keen South Asian cricketers, and multi-ethnic drumming circles.
When we come back to the cafe for our ice-cream an hour later, the light has turned golden, the trees feel taller, the park is closing down for the night and holding in its secrets.