Thursday, October 24, 2013

Weekend in Firenze (Florence)

Josh, wonderful guy that he is, surprised me with a trip for our 12 year anniversary back in September. Exhausted from our US and Croatia trips, I was glad that we would get a 6 week reprieve from getting on a plane before heading out to Florence, Italy but excited about our upcoming trip nonetheless as I love Italy!

I can't say I was looking forward to the 1.5 hour flight to Florence, but I wasn't feeling as fear stricken as usual.  I'm not sure if that is because I had a few pretty decent flights in recent history or if it was because of the fears my mom overcame to come see me just before our trip, but I was feeling pretty good overall.  Then I got on the plane.  And it was turbulent.  And I was afraid again.  But I got over it and made it to Florence in one piece (the trip back was another story, Josh may have some broken bones in his hand from me holding it so tight!!).

Upon landing I looked out the window and could see the rolling green hills of Tuscany exactly as I had pictured it.  I had dappled in Tuscany just a little bit when Michelle and I did our road trip to the Italian Riviera in 2011 - but beyond driving from Rappalo to Pisa, I hadn't seen much.  Tall thin pine trees alongside old Tuscan villas and hay dotting the fields, just like I imagined. We even saw a herd of sheep next to the airport!

Turns out there was a transportation strike going on in Italy on the day of our arrival.  Thankfully we arrived within the 3 hour window where public transit was functioning and were able to take a bus from the airport into the city.  From there we proceeded to walk to our hotel - though we probably passed the hotels very inconspicuous entrance at least a half dozen times before finally finding it!!  But as we were walking I couldn't help but notice a difference in the air compared to Barcelona.  Yes, it still had the same city smells, but the air was crisper and fresher than that in Barcelona where the air has still been laden with humidity even in mid October.

So Florence... the capital of the region of Tuscany, home to the Duomo, David, Michelangelo, Dante, the Medicis and of course, fabulous food!!  Florence is considered to be the birthplace of the Renaissance and you can see it all around you in the architecture and in the museums.  Established in 80 BC, this city is filled with history around every corner.  While the city itself is expansive, Josh and I spent the majority of our time in the historic old city and our hotel was located right in the heart with stunning views of the Duomo.

A few pictures as we search for our hotel!

The Piazza San Firenze, home to our hotel, San Firenze Suites

Another view of our square...not shabby

Our awesome room!

View from said room

And another view

After getting situated, I was on a mission for lunch as by now it was about 3PM and those that know me, know that I can't function without food in my belly!  Josh, don't know how he does it...he can go all day on pretty much nothing.  So anyways, I couldn't focus on anything til we ate.  And while we ended up at a slightly touristy restaurant (the only thing open that late for lunch), the food was actually pretty good.

Feeling revitalized after lunch we took off towards the river in search of dinner... yes, dinner.  Actually we wanted to get an idea of what we were doing on our first full day, Saturday, and the restaurant we were planning to go to that night (recommended by good friends who have family in Florence) happened to be in that direction.  We took a quick jaunt over the Ponte Vecchio towards the Pitti Palace but detoured into a more residential area in search of our future dinner.

While not significantly older than Barcelona, the roads were more windy and full of cobblestone with little to no sidewalks.  Pedestrians definitely rule the streets here compared to Barcelona.  Much of Florence reminded me of the Born and Gothic areas of Barcelona, yet had a much older feel to it.  I also found it interesting that I heard an amazing amount of English, significantly more than I hear in Barcelona, even in the tourist areas.  And everyone we met spoke English.  Definitely a change from Spain.

About to cross Ponte Vecchio - reminds me a bit of the Rialto Bridge in Venice

Beautiful arches that ran alongside the river near the Ponte Vecchio

View right before we crossed the Ponte Vecchio

View from the middle of Ponte Vecchio

And the other side of the bridge

The bridge was lined with jewelry stores on either side, again very similar to the Rialto of Venice

We made our way from the Ponte Vecchio towards the Pitti Palace to find out what time the Palace and the Boboli Gardens were open so that we could plan our day on Saturday.  I'll be honest and I know that Josh agrees with me on this one.  Maybe we are spoiled and have seen so much in the last 4 years, but you've seen one palace, you've seen them all.  And this one... just eh.  At least from the outside. We did not venture inside as neither Josh nor I are big art lovers.  I've heard it's impressive but we would rather spend our time exploring outside rather than inside.

The front of the Pitti Palace

Ok, these impress me.  I love doors in Europe and these are HUGE!!!

More views of our walk

We crossed thru the palace wall to a more residential area of Florence

And stumbled upon the restaurant we would be having dinner at that evening, nestled in a little corner where no tourist would ever find it!  Thank you Chris and Elaine for the suggestion!!!

View from the Ponte Vecchio (I think this is actually the Ponte Trinita) - Josh was very into his black and white photos during this trip

Another view from the Ponte Vecchio

After doing our little reconnaissance mission we worked our way back to the hotel, stopping along the way to take in the sights, including a very interesting art store that had signs similar to some that I had seen in Barcelona and... some very interesting wall art.  More on that to come in it's own entry - yes, it was that interesting and fun that it needs it's own entry.  Stay tuned for that.

View of Ponte Vecchio as we were heading back to our hotel

Personally I think this statue is saying, step here to your imminent death.  Turns out that is not the meaning as I've since researched it, but I still stick with my original interpretation!

Our dinner reservations weren't until 9:30 that night so we took a little schmooze in a different direction from our hotel and while we knew the Duomo was close by, we weren't expecting it to just pop up at the end of the street!!  Our plans included climbing to the top of the Dome the next day (which we did, keep reading!).

This Cathedral is so huge I couldn't get all of it in one picture

Another part of it as well as the Tower (which you can also climb but per our friends suggestions, we only climbed the Dome instead which gave us views of the cupola inside)

While I don't want to admit it, I read Inferno (not Dan Brown's best work) which had me slightly fascinated with Dante during this trip.  We did see some of his work at the Accademia which was very cool.

With still close to an hour before we had to be at dinner, we were still meandering when found this adorable little coffee / crepe shop called La Milkeria.  We were taken by the interior right away and the drinks were some of the best we've ever had.  No joke, Josh talked about this double iced cappuccino for HOURS after.  And we went back at least 4 more times before we had to head out on Sunday afternoon.  He watched how they make it and is planning to do the same in Barcelona at some point - I'm curious if he will be able to recreate this masterpiece and all its frothy goodness.  They don't seem to have a website but here is their FB page in case anyone is ever in Florence and is looking for a fabulous coffee or hot chocolate (or crepe or yogurt)

Josh's double iced cappuccino

Now, admittedly we often get caught up in touristy areas when travelling, especially when we are with the kids.  We try to wander off the beaten path but often become indecisive on what we want to do for meals and then get to the point of hunger where we must eat NOW!  But not on this trip.  Beyond our first meal, everything was suggested to us be either the hotel or by friends and every single meal was phenomenal.  No joke.  I highly recommend all of these places.  But first, our dinner on Friday at La Beppa Fioraia.  This restaurant as I mentioned was recommended by friends' of ours that have family living in Florence - so this is a local choice.

O - M - G.  Yes, that good.  And we only had the Gran Tagliere Beppa which was like nothing you've ever had before.  It was essentially an appetizer filled with antipasti and yummy goodness that we'd never had before.  We still don't know exactly what was in it but we do know there was a fig/onion chutney, a chicken liver pate and some kind of a tomato paste.  It also came with various meats including salami and prociuto and cheeses.  For me the best part was these little rolls in the middle - they were like little bits of fried dough but didn't taste fried at all - they pulled apart easily and were the perfect accompaniment to all the dips and meats and cheese that surrounded them.  The whole thing cost us 20 euros and we were stuffed - only dessert and coffee and we were on our way.  Yes, 35 euros for dinner in Florence.  Can't beat that.

Our dinner on Friday night... soooooo good!!!

Saturday we started off with a couples massage and feeling relaxed and refreshed we headed over to the Duomo to climb to the top of the Cupola.  With an hour line ahead of us, I spied a Lindt chocolate shop (while we have some Lindt here in Spain there is no shop in Barcelona) where I proceeded to spend about 40 euros on chocolate.  I would have spent more but alas we only brought carry on luggage with us and I didn't think I'd have the space.  Probably for the best anyways.  :)

Now I knew it was a long climb to the top but I didn't realize just how many stairs.  I workout 5 days a week and I still felt winded by the time I got to the top, 463 stairs later.  It's actual name is the Basilica di Santa Maria del Fiore, but everyone calls it the Duomo and dome at the top is the largest brick and mortar dome in the world.  Like our famous basilica here, Sagrada Familia, the building of the Duomo took over 100 years.  The outside of the building is stunning and constructed from red, green and white marble.  As Josh and I both commented and this appears to be a problem throughout Italy, the Duomo could use a power washing.  Yes, I recognize it's old - but it needs to be maintained.  Much of the outside was covered in moss which can't be good for the structure in the long term.  Regardless of it's upkeep, it is a beautiful building and I've seen nothing remotely like it.  

The Duomo takes up an entire square - it's huge!

More beautiful doors

Another view of the square

So we climbed to the top of the Duomo and along the way were rewarded with an up close view of the inside of the dome.  The size of this work of art is daunting - when you view it from below you don't realize the enormity of this task.  But when up close and personal you realize just how huge of an undertaking it was to paint the inside of this dome.

After an hour in line we started the climb to the top

We actually got even higher up - there were two levels that you could walk along the paintings

Unfortunately they had plexiglass along the walkways and so my pictures of the interior of the basilica aren't quite as sharp as I'd like (they could wash the plexiglass here and there - just a suggestion!)

View from the very top

More of a close up

The Tower next to us - you could also climb this but we opted for just the cupola

Another view from the top

Me at the top!

This was back inside - this is how close you get to the art on the wall - that leg is huge!!

Josh inside the Duomo

Another interior shot

After our morning at the Duomo it was time for lunch.  So far this entry has been about art, food, art, food... yes a theme going.  I mean, come on, it's Italy... of course we are going to eat lots of great food!! The hotel had suggested 4 Leoni ( and it was fabulous as well.  Portion sizes were perfect, just enough to fill us but not feel overly full.  And it was in a location that was perfect for where we were heading next - the Pitti Palace and Boboli Gardens.

Walking by the Ponte Vecchio again

On our way to lunch

So as I mentioned before, Josh and I are not huge art people.  We like it, but we just don't enjoy walking thru museum after museum after museum looking at it.  And the Renaissance isn't really my thing as far as art goes.  I appreciate all the incredibly hard work that goes into creating these masterpieces, I just don't get a lot of enjoyment out of looking at them.  Hence we skipped the Pitti Palace and went right for the Boboli Gardens.  

Now for a place that had it's own entrance fee, I feel like it should be meticulously upkept.  It was not.  Not even close.  Shrubs were over grown and even fencing was in disrepair with cobwebs potentially older than me.  The gardens date back to the 16th century so it's impressive nonetheless.  However, given the general disrepair and need for some garden shears, the place was still beautiful.  We were still in the heart of the city but you would never know it - all you could hear were the birds and as you walked further into the gardens you could only see trees and paths around you - there was nothing to remind you that you were in the city.  It was a little getaway and I couldn't help thinking of how many people trek thru here during the day just to get a little reprieve from city life.

The courtyard between the front of the palace and the Boboli Gardens

Another view of the courtyard

There were a lot of bathtub looking statues in the Gardens, not sure of the significance

Fountain by the Palace

Me standing next to an interesting statue

Josh's panorama of the Gardens

Don't piss her off or you'll end up like that guy!!

Another example of needing some cleaning up - the statue was covered in tons of moss

It was a beautiful day to walk along the gardens and we enjoyed just meandering in and out of little mazes of paths.  After our walk we decided to head back to the hotel to chill out before going to dinner later that night.  Of course, along the way we had to stop for another cappuccino for Josh...he's addicted!

Dinner that night was Florentine steak.  I had no idea that Florence or Tuscany was famous for it's steak but since the steak in Barcelona is just ok, there was no way we were going to pass this up.  Our hotel recommended Trattoria Sostanza which has been in business since the 1800s.  The tables are communal which took a little getting used to but was fine.  It's a small restaurant and the menu equally so but this is a good thing - I'd rather a small menu but have things they know they can excel at making.  And the steak was fabulous and very very filling!!  Good thing we had to walk back to the hotel from there!  We needed it!

Sunday was our last day in Florence (insert sad face here) but alas it was time to get back to reality (and our children who were probably missing us!).  Since we stood in line for an hour to see the Duomo (we had asked the hotel if we could order the tix online and they were hesitant about it) we figured we would be proactive and make a plan to see the David at the Accademia at 11:30.  Josh ordered the tickets online and we could have a relaxing morning which would include yet another famous cappuccino and then head on over.

Alas, that was too easy.  First off La Milkeria wasn't open when we walked by around 10:30AM.  Thankfully they opened later and so Josh did get one last coffee from them.  So we had to go elsewhere - I will say it was the best chocolate croissant that I'd ever had but still not the same as going to La Milkeria.  Anyways, aside from the coffee, we got to the Accademia and found that while we had tickets to see David, apparently they were for Venice???? Um, isn't there only one David?????  So we had to go stand in the non reservation line which was about 2 hours long.

And so we did something we normally wouldn't do.  When the tour group reps started coming into the long line to ask if anyone wanted to cut the line and do an "official" tour, we grabbed at the chance.  I know, super touristy.  However, it was that or sit in line for 2 hours.  And honestly it was pretty informative and we learned more about David than we would have otherwise have learned.  

One of the things that always amazes me museums in Europe is how "un-secure" they are.  By that I mean paintings are not in glass cases surrounded by alarms.  They are hung on walls and displayed as they were meant to be.  There are security cameras and there are security personnel in each room but the paintings are as free as anything else around you.  Even David had limited security.  It did have a glass case around the bottom as I guess a few years ago someone came in with a hammer and tried to hammer off his toe.  But until then, he too, was free standing with nothing blocking people from reaching out to touch him.  You just have to hope that people don't abuse that freedom and that we are allowed to continue viewing art as it was meant to be viewed.

We were not allowed cameras in the Accademia so I don't have any photos of David or of the other statues or paintings that we saw.  We saw several Michelangelo works - apparently this museum has the most of any other.  We were both impressed with David, more so that either of us expected.  He was larger than life and hearing about the story of how he was created and why was especially interesting.  It is also amazing to see how intact he is after all these years - there have only been 2 repairs, one to his hand which was done using the original parts and the other was the toe as I had mentioned previously. The detail in this status is amazing - you can see his veins in his arm where he is holding the rock.  And to walk around the back of him and see the slingshot slung over his back as well as the rock in his hand gives a different perspective than any picture you see in a book or website.

We walked thru the rest of the museum which was housed with art dating back as far as the 1300s.  It's hard to believe something that old still exists but it does.  We even saw what appeared to be Dante's Divine Comedy - this book was massive and like all the other books we saw, hand written.  Can you imagine a time when all books had to be written by hand rather than printed like they are in modern times?  How valuable it must have been to have a book, any book, knowing what effort went into not just the story or facts being told but also the creation of the actual book.

After the Accademia, we went out for our last lunch, also a suggestion of friends who have been to Florence.  We ate at Trattoria Il Latini and it was fabulous and filling... so filling that there was no need for dinner!  We had an antipasti course which was similar (though not as good as that Beppa one) to what we'd had Friday night but it didn't stop there.  Then there was a pasta course and a meat one and don't forget dessert!!  Oh my!  What we loved about the restaurant is that while there is a formal menu the "normal" way to eat is for the waiter to explain what your choices are for specials of the day.  You basically get 2 or three choices for each course which is what we did.  The ingredients were fresh and everything was made right then and there.  The only disappointment was that most of the desserts were gone by the time we got to that course - it's probably for the best because after all that food, who needs dessert!!

But it was a great way to end our time in Florence (that and one more cappuccino!) - it was such a relaxing weekend full of exploration, great weather, fabulous food and some quality alone time that was much needed!  And now we start the next 6 weeks of chaos - Scotland, Paris and Josh has a few work trips in the middle and then Switzerland for after Christmas.  Plus we still have more visitors coming in November!  Time flies when you are having fun!!


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