Firing up the soul in Firenze

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May 4th 2010
Published: May 7th 2010
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We arrived in Florence in the late afternoon - it was a great train journey through the Italian countryside. There was a light drizzle on the walk to the hotel, which increased throughout the afternoon/night. We checked in and then headed out for an orientation tour, which ended at our restaurant. By then the heavens had opened but our spirits were far from dampened. The meal was fantastic and the would-be magician waiter made it all the more enjoyable. Our group leader let us in on a secret as to how he remembered people’s names, but it all fell apart when he confidently informed us that Ren was Mel. On the walk back we slipped into a church opposite our hotel to listen to an organ recital. Florence is a truly beautiful city, even in drenching rain!

We headed out early at 7.10am and watched Florence slowly awake. We walked to the Galleria dell'Accademia and stood in awe at the magnificence of David. My fear of heights dissipated on top of the Duomo, allowing me to enjoy the fantastic view of Florence. We walked the streets through the morning, sheltered under a market stall tent to escape a downpour in Piazza de Santa Croce, and sat on a street stool and ate panini lampredotto (tripe burgers) and drank red wine for lunch. Florence is a city where you can lose (and find) yourself entirely.

After a small siesta, we caught a bus into the hills surrounding Florence to a small town called Fiesole. The view over Florence and surrounds was fantastic. We caught the bus back and walked to the Piazzale Michelangelo to watch the sun set over Florence. We then settled into one of the most incredible ways to end a day - aperitivo with red wine in a small cobblestone street near our hotel. The food was sensational - the wine even more so. Of all my travels, this has been one of the most memorable days of all! If I could quickly breach the language gap, I would live in Florence tomorrow!

We rose later in the morning, needing a little more rest to recover from the previous day’s activities. We ventured out for a café latte and pastry, and then walked to the food market - what an amazing experience! After many tastings we were completely full, but we picked up some soft crusty bread, soft pecorino (sheep’s cheese) and prosciutto (cured ham) for lunch. We headed back to the hotel, checked out and then headed to the Castle Basso for a walk and to post a few postcards. We then returned to the hotel to graze on lunch and prepare for the train trip to Lucca.

We are in beautiful Tuscany! After a very pleasant two hour train ride from Rome, we dropped our luggage off at the hotel and Alvaro took us on a walking tour of Florence...
~the historic Ponte Vecchio that straddles the Arno River, and not only are the shops on the bridge cute, but you also get a stunning view of the river and its banks;
~the outstanding Piazza della Signoria where the imposing Palazzo Vecchio and a replica of David stands;
~the magnificent open air museum near the Uffitzi gallery; and
~last but certainly not least, the Duomo, Baptistry and Campanile (bell tower). The huge gothic Duomo is the third largest church in the world and its pink, green and white marble exterior has several elaborate doors and phenomenal statues that are well worth exploring. It features Brunelleschi’s dome (a massive design and engineering feat for its time), Giotto’s beautiful bell tower, and the green and white marble Baptistry which has Ghiberti’s ‘Gates of Paradise’ bronze doors of large sculpted panels.

And just when you think this walk through Florence could not possibly get better... all these old world buildings give way to an overabundance of piazzas, restaurants, street-side cafés, bars and shops to satisfy your every whim!

Our hotel - Albergo Firenze Hotel is in the best location we could have hoped for. We awoke to the morning mass bells of the Duomo and had Piazza della Repubblica just around the corner from our little piazza...and all other places of interest were only minutes away. Even though the weather vane was firmly set on ‘rain’ for our entire stay in Florence, this really did not stop us from doing what we wanted to do (thanks to great rainproof jackets from Kathmandu!), and the rain also had its advantages in keeping the crowds down and queues short. The orientation walk on the first night was in pouring rain and cool winds, but we were too thrilled with our surrounds to care much. Especially when the walk ended with excellent food and wine at Bibo Trattoria near the Ponte Vecchio. Alvaro is turning out to be a master restaurant finder - we got excellent personal service and the food was phenomenal! Some of the outstanding dishes were pasta zuppa (a very creamy pasta and tomato soup), spaghetti passatore (spaghetti with a cold tomato and olive oil sauce), risotto alla funghi (risotto with porcini mushrooms) and tiramisu (biscotti, coffee and mascarpone cheese dessert).

Florence is definitely the destination for art lovers. Having the Renaissance and what seems like the entire catalogue of 13th to 16th century Italian art at your fingertips cannot be a bad thing, but you will certainly be driven mad with all the choices on offer. Oh and did I mention that Florence is the home of Dante too? We had considered visiting the Palazzo degli Uffizi but did not fancy a three to four hour queue, so we spent that time in the Galleria dell'Accademia instead - and Michelangelo's David did not disappoint! David stands at the end of a long hallway which is flanked by half carved marble ‘slave’ figures that have a huge presence about them. Then you reach David, standing in that provocative pose so powerful and masculine, yet boyish and charming all at once…he is just divine. 😄

Later on Andrew and I joined by the totally fun and outgoing Taryn, headed to the Duomo and climbed its dome (all 463 steps!). There are a series of little windows in the climbing stairwell that we would have loved to stop and linger at, but the tourist conveyor belt waits for no one and we were pushed right along to the top. The climb was challenging enough with narrow spaces, low ceilings and small spiral staircases; but it was made all the more difficult with numerous people who had decided that they couldn’t keep going up and were intently heading back down past us...this made for some interesting manoeuvring in those tiny passageways! While you climb you get a fantastic aerial view of the cathedral on the inside, and also get to walk up close to the frescoes in the dome. Then you experience the glorious city of Florence when you get to the very top and step outside. The rain was kind to us and kept clear while we explored the top of the dome and its brilliant views.

The plan after this was to walk to the Basilica di Santa Croce and then look for a restaurant for lunch, but 10 minutes later just as we reached the church the heavens opened up again with a vengeance. So off we went to seek a warming lunch dish. I wasn’t sure I would be brave enough to eat tripe, but then we stumbled upon a little restaurant near our hotel selling the unique Florentine dish lampredotto (tripe or cow’s fourth stomach to be exact). We had a panini lampredotto con bollito (tripe and chilli burger) where one half of a panini is hollowed out and filled with highly spiced and herbed stewed tripe and the other half of the panini is fully submerged in the tripe stock just before being served - but incredibly it wasn’t soggy! And even more incredibly, it was very very tender and delicious. And the accompanying glass of red wine helped to cut through the slight greasiness of the stock. The food in Florence has been every bit as brilliant as we had expected, and our expectations had been high. I couldn’t come to Florence and not try the various game and meat related products they specialise in here, they do it very well. The wine is also outstanding and even the house reds here are very good. Plus you can get them in litre carafes. 😊

We had planned on doing a self guided walking tour which I had downloaded from Travel, but the rain had struck again that afternoon. So instead, Andrew and I changed our minds and joined Alvaro, Claire, David and Taryn who were visiting a small village in the hills of Florence. A 30 minute bus ride took us into the small but quite affluent village of Fiesole. The village has the most gorgeous views of the sprawl of Florence, but also has charming little churches, cemeteries, convents and forested walks. We walked around for about an hour before settling into a café for the best hot chocolate I have had outside of Switzerland. It was so thick I could almost stand my spoon upright in it, and the velvety sweet hot drink was the exact tonic I needed to pep me up for a few more hours on a rainy day. On another note, I think Andrew and I have chanced upon three brilliant fellow travellers. 😊

When we headed back to Florence the skies miraculously cleared and so Alvaro suggested that it was the perfect evening for the trek up to Piazzale Michaelangelo to experience that classic sunset view over the rooftops of Florence, across the river and beyond to the Tuscan hills. We got there just in time to enjoy a fabulous fiery orange setting sun warming the red tiled roofs and a glossy chocolaty architectural skyline against a still vaguely blue sky.

That night we had an incredible evening of food and drinks (lots of) at Natalino Enoteca (17 Borgo degli Albizi, not the restaurant but its wine shop across the road). This was our experience of the splendid concept of aperitivi that occurs in the early evenings around Italy, where spending €6 or so on a drink entitles you to as much buffet food as you can manage. It is similar to tapas and we loved it very much. However I have heard that a few of the cheaper aperitivo places are swarming with backpackers and starving students who are very proficient with tongs, and will stab you in the eye in a millisecond if you so much as reach for the same panini as them! But no such food violence here, the quality of the buffet was incredible and this was our first encounter with Italian tartufo (truffles) and I think we are both firmly hooked on it now! 😊

Florence is louder than your average big city - on top of your usual city noise there is a constant droning of ambulances and police sirens, the spluttering and beeping of vespas, and the splendid raucous and clamorous ringing of hundreds of heavy church bells, on the hour, every hour. However as with most large cities, Florence by night has a mellower tone more conducive to meeting the locals and smelling the roses by. We really enjoyed our evening walks in Florence; and we also love the local custom of passeggiata - the evening stroll just before dusk in the piazzas or lanes, where arm in arm with your loved one or beloved friends you walk and chat...the perfect opportunity to see and be seen...we love it! 😄

On one of our early morning walks, we visited the incredible leather markets just as they were setting up, and then went on to San Lorenzo Mercato Centrale. The central market is definitely well worth a visit for its ambience, friendly stall holders and the freshest and most interesting produce and food either of us have seen. I will close this post with a note that the gelati in Florence are out of this world...I would go as far as saying they are an epiphanic experience!

We travel west to Lucca next…


7th May 2010

Well done Ren. Cow's Fourth Stomach Burger sounds much more appealing than Tripe Burger. Yum. However I'm hoping that the last entry of this wonderful blog won't be: "As we waddled up the narrow, ancient stairs, we were stopped in our tracks by our fellow culinary tourists waddling down, and just couldn't get past". Wonderful stuff. Keep it up, if possible. But don't spoil your trip in the process.
7th May 2010

Re: Burgers
Hey Keith, fourth stomach is better than third stomach...dont you think? rode 20km today, so should keep the waddling at bay for now at least :) hope all is well in qld. x

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