We left Rome Saturday morning headed towards Florence. We arrived at Roma Termini (central Roman train station) a little after 11am to catch a train. Since it was Saturday, the station was packed with Italians, tourists, and other Europeans hopping on and off trains to various destinations. It was enticing to watch the display boards show the departing and arriving trains to and from around 30 destinations. Because it was busy, we decided to eat lunch before boarding. I’ll be honest, we broke down and bought McDonald’s because it was quick, cheap, and greasy. I know, lame. However, spending less than 10 euro on a full meal was a godsend at this point for us. The McDonald’s here are different, as I presumed. For one, their McCafés actually are cafés, filled with “fresh” cakes, coffees, and baked goods. Secondly, their menu has a limited amount of burgers and sandwiches including a few Italian staples such as shrimp and fried olives. Lastly, they serve beer out of their taps…something that shouldn’t go with McDonald’s. After we ate we had to stand in a long line to get our Eurail passes (discounted train passes that we purchased pre-trip) validated and to reserve a seat on the train for a minimal fee. Now, everything was dandy up until this point. But what we didn’t realize is that the attendants will reserve a seat on the next train out, usually departing within the next 15 or less minutes! So Ali and I ended up running past about 20 platforms to reach our train that was Florence bound within 10 minutes…luckily, we found it and got on just fine.
The train system in Europe is something the U.S. can really learn from. They’re clean, fast, and efficient. We were on one of the high-speed trains and the monitors above that track your journey clocked us at going up to 180 kilometers/hour — we were moving! The ride was smooth and comfortable. I almost prefer train travel over airplanes, within a country, because it provides great views where you can become familiar with the countryside, and Italy is a countryside you don’t want to miss.
Our hotel we stayed at in Florence was about a 10 minute walk from the train station. Unfortunately, the hotel was located on the 4th floor of an old building. In our experience of staying at cheaper places in Italy, the hotels will give you 3 keys: one for the street level door, one for the door leading to the floor your room is on, and one for your room key. In a way these places feel like an apartment with communal kitchens, bathrooms, and common areas (in Rome we even had a garden!). The gentleman that owned the 10 bedroom hotel was a nice old man that seemed to have worked 70 hour weeks, what a guy. He was willing to help with anything — especially when we blew a fuse and our light bulb busted and shattered on the floor while causing a mini “fireworks” display. The room we were in had its very own balcony that overlooked a courtyard and traditional Florentine apartments, with the Tuscan hills in the background. The most unique part of the room, however, was the tiny shower shoved in the corner of the room…no separate bathroom…just a shower.
That first day/night we just walked around the city to get a feel for it. We walked inside Il Duomo (the famous domed cathedral in the center of the town), and found our way to the fashion district where all of Italy’s top designers were housed. We found Florence to be busier than we expected, as well as ritzier. We had an amazing first dinner, and for me personally, the Tuscan menus were better than the menus in Rome.
By the next morning, our sleep schedules became more regular and jet-lag seemed to be a thing of the past. After a quick European breakfast at a café, we set off to the Galleria dell Accademia. It is the 2nd biggest art museum in Florence, and it has an immense collection of sculptures dating from the renaissance through the 18th century, as well as fine collection of paintings. The big ticket item is Michelangelo’s statue of David. Before seeing it in person, I had no idea how big it actually is! I thought it was a little over the size of a full grown male, but no, this thing was huge. It’s crazy to think how much detail one artist can extrapolate from such a hard substance such as marble. From the Accademia we walked to the Palazzo Medici-Ricardi. Now, if you are unfamiliar with the Medici family and their influence in Florence, than you never studied the renaissance. It is, to me, unfathomable how much influence, wealth, and power this family had over centuries in the republic of Florence. Anyhow, Palazzo Medici-Ricardi was one of the many buildings owned by their family and it provided a superficial view of their wealth. The highlight of the palace were the frescoes in one of the chapels known as the “Procession of the Magi.” These paintings depict the most important members of the Medici family intertwined with biblical and papal images spread amongst four walls. A virtual presentation that we watched broke down the imagery behind each character as well. Next, we walked further South near the river to Palazzo Vecchio and Piaza Signoria, yet another Medici palace. This building was the original town hall of the Florentine republic (seat of their government), but the Medici family decided to turn it into a palace. The building had one of the most unique facades in the city, as well as my favorite clock tower. Following Palazzo Vecchio, we walked across the river via Ponte Vecchio (a famous bridge in Florence). In fact, it was the only remaining bridge left in Florence after WWII — all the others had been destroyed when the city was taken over. The bridge is famous for all of the goldsmiths and jewelry shops that line the narrow bridge; the effect created a unique medieval feel. We then ventured to yet another cathedral; however, this one carried a lot more weight than others. The church was called Santa Croce and here were the tombs of many famous Italians. A few of the “star-studded” persons were the remains of Michelangelo, Machiavelli, and Galileo amongst other great Italians. They even had a large tribute to Dante (Dante’s Inferno) since he lived in Florence. The medieval church was one of my favorites of the city for the graveyard like feel within the church’s sanctuary. To top the long day off, we walked up an enormous hill to witness one of the best views of the city. We reached Piazza Michelangelo just before sunset and had some of the most breathtaking views of the Florentine skyline. Besides the abundance of tourists and street peddlers atop this perch, it was quite tranquil to step outside of the city.
Day 3 in Florence was an action packed day (as if the other days haven’t been by now). For Ali’s birthday back in November, I had purchased tickets to go on a Tuscany tour complete with wine tasting and everything. I do realize that this was a very touristy thing, but it was SUCH a good value, and it was SO worth it. We got to ride on a coach bus, complete with an English guide, to Siena, an organic Tuscan farm, San Gimignano, and lastly Pisa. The tour started at 8am and lasted until about 8pm, creating a fun-filled day. We first stopped in the history rich city of Siena. During the early modern period, Siena and Florence were rival cities, both combating constantly, and both attempting to outdo each other. In Siena, we saw the famous Piazza del Campo (voted 3rd prettiest square in the world) where the even more famous horse race, Il Palio, is put on. Look it up if you haven’t heard of it, it sounds crazy. From there we walked to their Duomo, which has history dating back to the 12th century with its ornate marble flooring indicating its connections to the philosophers of antiquity. Across the street we saw a 9th century public hospital which was still in operation up until 1996….talk about patient care! The city is well known for its patron saint, as well as the patron saint of Europe, St. Catherine, who convinced the papacy to return to Rome from France during the 14th century. However, the thing that the city is most famous for is its bank. Monte dei Paschi di Siena is the oldest working bank in the world dating back to 1472 — it now has branches all over the world. Before departing, I tried some of their “world-famous” panforte. It is a type of fruitcake that comes with an assortment of toppings — I didn’t find it “world-famous” but it hit the spot. From Siena we went and had lunch at the farm in the hills of Tuscany. Everything at the farm was made on location. It was a picturesque day surrounded by vineyards, rolling hills, and medieval villages. We were able to eat homemade penne pasta with a pomodoro (tomato) sauce, house salad with their own olive oil, fresh bruschetta and tomatoes, fresh sheep cheeses with salami and ham, and lastly Italian desert biscotti. But the kicker was the wine. We not only got to sample it, but we got to have as much of 4 different wines as we wanted. The local favorite is the Chianti red wine, because of the Chianti region of Tuscany that we were in. However, we tried in total 1 white, 2 reds, and 1 wine-liquor aged 6 years. Let’s just say the whole tour group got a lot louder after the wine was served. The lunch was heaven. After eating we made the short drive to the medieval town of San Gimignano. It literally look like nothing had changed since the middle ages. The town’s nickname is the “medieval Manhattan” because at one point the town boasted over 70 towers due to rivaling families displaying their wealth. Today, there are less than 20, but very cool nonetheless. This town was easily my favorite stop of the day. The history of the old walled city felt like we stepped back in time. The narrow passageways, winding streets with arches above, and then the tall towers felt like I should have worn my armor and brought a sword that day! Ali and I made our short time there memorable by climbing to the tallest of the towers. From there we could see for miles in all directions of the scenic landscape of Tuscany. It had to be some of the most amazing views of my life. Upon our descent back to the bus, I stopped and got some award winning gelato at a local artisan shop — never a bad call. The last stop of the day was Pisa. But before our arrival the bus seemed to have taken the “long scenic route” through the countryside. It was interesting to see the landscape change from rolling hills to woods and plains with mountains in the distance the closer we got to Pisa. Side note, I was surprised to find out that the white stuff on top of the mountains around Pisa was not snow, but actually marble quarries; I guess I never really thought of where marble was mined from. We got to Pisa around dusk and took our cheesy pictures in the field of miracles with includes the baptistery, cathedral, and campanile (leaning tower). I felt that the tower looked smaller than it did in pictures, but it truly is leaning. It almost looks juxtaposed from a distance…thinking to myself, is this for real? After taking our cheesy pictures, Ali and I ventured down the road to the see what the University of Pisa looks like. There was no central campus, and all of the university buildings were mixed in with other residential and commercial buildings of the city without any distinguishing facades. After Pisa, and on our drive back, we were able to view from the bus a WWII memorial and cemetery to American soldiers that lost their lives in the region. It’s sad to think that such violence could’ve occurred in such a beautiful area. By the time we got back to Florence, we were wiped out.
Our last day in Florence started out at a leisurely pace. We made our first stop at the Cathedral Santa Maria Novella near the train station. The special thing about this church is its unique design of using a Byzantine styled base, and a Northern European Gothic facade, for its architecture. Next, we went to the Cappella de Medici where one can find the tombs of the Medici family in a ridiculously ornate chapel — literally, jewel encrusted sculptures embedded in marble walls. Connected to the Cappella Medici is the Nuova Sacristary, which was designed by Michelangelo to house the remains of Lorenzo di Urbino and his family…also members of the Medici clan. At this point, it was kind of ridiculous how often you would run into Medici wealth in Florence. After the tombs, we walked back to Il Duomo in the center of the city and climbed the stairs to the top of the dome — over 300 feet in total. From there, we had another amazing view of the city from a different vantage point. The journey up to the top (as well as down) was an adventure in it of itself. The stairs were treacherous, narrow, medieval, winding, and sloping both ways up and down the dome. However, climbing to the top did give you access to the awesome frescoes within the cathedral on the inside of the dome. To round the day out we ended up at the Uffizi Gallery (this to was once the Medici offices of early modern Europe). Now, it is one of the premier art galleries in the world. Here we saw Botticelli’s work, including the “Birth of Venus”, as well as other paintings from Titian, Raphael, and many others. There were even sculptures from the first century A.D. by the Romans. The great disappointment, however, was that da Vinci’s “Adoration of the Magi” was taken off of exhibition for restoration, as well as the entire tapestry exhibit on the 2nd level…kind of a bummer. But.. the rest of the museum easily made up for it. Although, by this point, we were pretty “arted out” by the last week and a half — it’s hard not to be. For dinner we decided to treat ourselves for our last night in Florence, so we at a local ristorante near mercato centrale. There I had a traditional Florentine steak…they also love their steaks in Tuscany. It was a T-bone with many spices…with it also came the BEST roasted potatoes I’ve ever had in my life. I was extremely satisfied with our decision to go there. We eventually finished the night by packing for the next day to catch a train to Venice.
A few side thoughts:
-Piazzas in front of every important building is awesome — I wish the U.S. incorporated this
-80s music seemed to be making a strong comeback in Florentine restaurants — 80% of them were playing something from that decade of American music.
-Dogs can go in shops? I found this interesting because I didn’t know if it was frowned upon, or common practice since the majority of people doing it were young adults.
-Temperature — it was sunny every single day and slightly cooler than Rome; perfect weather to walk around in.
-Overall, I would like to return to Florence to spend more time in their marvelous city. I would also like to spend more time in Siena and San Gimignano because a few hours just wasn’t enough to take in the history. However, I am glad that I didn’t spend more than a few hours in Pisa. Personally, besides the leaning tower, it was not worth more than a day trip to me since it seemed to be more of a working town than tourist destination.
Fino alla prossima volta.