When I first started coming to Florence 30 years ago, I would always stop by the Officina Profumo-Farmaceutica di Santa Maria Novella to pick up some favorite beauty products. It was always a treat to be in the shop, with its weighty wood display cases and terrazzo floor under the soaring frescoed arches of the former monastery of the church just down the street. The products were made by recipes handed down hundreds of years ago from those monks, and they were both fragrant and effective. And affordable. So I would stock up on Magnolia shampoo and Crema Neige, fluffy white "snow" cream that shielded my skin from winter's blasting winds back home in New York City.
Over the years, SMN has become a favorite tourist destination, packed with busloads of customers lining up at the counters. And it's become very expensive, with soaps starting at 10 euros (about $13.30), shampoo at 20, and body lotions easily ringing up at 50. And the products are now sold globally. So where's the fun in that?
On a recent trip to Florence I decided to scope out the next Santa Maria Novella. The city is packed with little beauty shops and erboristas; even every farmacia showcases at least a smattering of ancient herbal products. But I found a few contenders that are worth visiting to stock up on beauty products and fragrances you won't find elsewhere.
1. Dr. Vranjes
I first learned about this line of scents made by a doctor on the outskirts of Florence when I stayed at the stylish Il Salviatino hotel a couple years ago. Large bottles of his golden Amber fragrance with their bastoncini, (scent sticks) perfumed the air in every hallway and room. Dr. Vranjes had one little shop, near the Piazza Signoria, a range of fragrances for the home, and the promise of opening more shops and developing more products. He now has three boutiques throughout the city. And while room fragrances still dominate the line, there are a few beauty products as well, all rather medicinal (Vitamin B facial mask, regenerating night cream, Vitamin C tonic.) The room scents, though, are exquisite--tuberose and lily, rose petal, fig and sage, ginger and lime, pomegranate and mint. The line isn't cheap, with room scents starting at 25 Euros, but you won't find it everywhere either. www.drvranjes.it.
2. The English Pharmacy (Anitca Erboristeria Inglese)
Smack on the Via Tornabuoni, Florence's equivalent of Madison Avenue or Rodeo Drive, is a pharmacy started by an English doctor back in the 1700s to treat the ailing with herbal medicine. The holistic and medical side of the pharmacy still exists, but so too do two locally made products you won't find anywhere else. Carla Mazzei grows her own lavender on the famous Mazzei vineyard in Chianti and turns it into lovely soaps, hand cream, aftershave, etc. And the Castello di Ama, another renown vineyard in Chianti, produces another exclusive line of candles for the home, with unusual scents such as geranium and fennel--and, starting at 68 Euros, very pricey. The English Pharmacy is pretty, with a vaulted ceiling over huge limestone fireplace, and the manager, Donatella, is helpful and speaks perfect English. No website; email@example.com.
3. Antica Erboristeria San Simone
Across the Via Ghibellina from the Bargello museum, the pharmacist Dotoressa Fernanda Russo creates a wide range of herbal products--bath foams, body scrubs, linen sprays--that rival Santa Maria Novella's in their appeal, attractiveness, and natural ingredients, but not the price. Here the range starts at 5 Euros for herbal tisanes, 9 euros for scented candles, and top out at 33 for fragrances with diffusers for the home. The scents are wonderful: peach and rose, orange and vanilla, limonaia, pomegranate. And there is a line of scents named after the city's famous streets: Via Tornabuoni (lemongrass and amber), Via Maggio (iris, white roses) which make a nice souvenir to take back home. The shop has been dispensing natural medicines and advice since the 1700s. www.erboristeriasansimone.it
4. Erboristeria Boboli
This attractive new shop on the Oltrarno, not far from the Pitti Palace, is one of a collection of other stores around the country, and it doesn't make its own products. But it does offer a wide and affordable selection of L'Erbolario products make not far away in Lodi. The L'Erbolario line is extensive and serious--each herbal product they develop is tested at the University of Pavia. The line starts at 3 euro for soap, and features scents such as white tea, peach and orange blossom, iris, ivy and hibiscus. It also has an extensive facial line, with chamomile cleansing milk, aromatic linden water moisturizer, pollen and honey facial mask, cornflower and rose makeup remover, etc. No website; firstname.lastname@example.org.
5. Aqua Flor
Located near Santa Croce church, this shop sells its own line of scented products made in a laboratory in the next room. I can't say much about it because the sales lady wouldn't help me, as I was not buying anything. Thank goodness there are other options, like the shops above.