Florence and Tuscany, May 2012
This is the brief journal of our trip to Italy in 2012. I will try and add my opinions and tips where warranted. I spent quite a bit of time researching Tuscany prior to the trip. I find that several oft repeated opinions were not accurate relative to our experience. These will be noted as appropriate. This was our fifth trip to Europe so I base my opinions not only as relative to the United States but also to England, France, Switzerland and Northern Italy. My wife and I are in our late fifties.
We began a very long and arduous journey to Italy. We flew through Charlotte, NC. The trip did not begin well because Vice-President Biden was flying out of Charlotte and they shut down the air space for quite some time. This left us sitting on the tarmac for 50 minutes. Our previously comfortable flight cushion had shrunk from an hour and a half to 40 minutes.
For some reason the flight from Charlotte to Rome lasts about 9 ½ hours. This was long and amounted to torture for a guy that is 6’ 2”.
We arrived in Rome on time. I must say that US Air did a nice job of herding cattle. We cleared passport control and customs with a breeze. It is painfully obvious that no one is trying to smuggle anything into Italy.
We drug our luggage to the train station for the short ride to Rome Termini. Let me give you two tips at this point:
Tip 1: When people tell you to pack light, pack light. You lug your luggage a bunch.
Tip 2: When you get to the airport train terminal take the Leonardo Express. You can buy your tickets from any of the ticket merchants for the same price. I suggest entering a train car and taking the fold down jump seats, putting your luggage by the left side doors.
Rome Termini is a big and busy place. The ticket booths are located directly east from your arrival point. Windows have long lines. Make sure you get in a ticket line and not the information line. They are not marked very well.
We took the Eurostar for the 1 ½ hour non-stop trip to Florence. Train is clean, fast and safe.
Tip 3: You don’t know what track your train will be on until about five minutes before boarding. You stand like automatons and stare at the big monitors until they post your track for your train.
We arrived at the Santa Maria Novella Train Station in Florence and immediately chose to take the wrong exit door. Taxis were available if you exited the station to the left. We went to the right. I never saw any signage but we had been going for 30 hours without sleep so who knows.
We arrived at the Westin Excelsior and checked in. The room was very nice and had a balcony on the Arno River. We belong to Starwood Preferred group and I was using Star Points for the five nights. They gave us our fifth night free and upgraded us to the river room with balcony for an extra 10,000 points. All told, the five nights with the river view and free wireless internet (a 15 Euro per day value) cost us 90,000 Star Points.
Tip 4: I purchased an Apple specific power converter for my IPAD, IPHONE and IPOD. It worked like a charm.
We thought we would go down to the bar, get a quick bite and then force ourselves to stay up late. We had a great first meal of Spaghetti Pomodora and a couple of glasses of wine. Thought we would lay down for just a little bit. We woke up 14 hours later.
After our long sleep we awoke hungry and proceeded to the bountiful breakfast buffet at the hotel restaurant. Very nice but extremely expensive (39 Euros each). Everything you could have wanted. We only did this once.
Tip 5: Breakfasts in Florence tend to feature mostly pastries and coffee. If you are a bacon and eggs kind of person, you won’t find the equivalent of Bob Evans or Cracker Barrel. You’ll probably need to check out a hotel restaurant.
Our first touristy attraction was Santa Maria Novella Piazza and the church. It was an impressive structure and worth the visit. I won’t go into detail because you can read this in a guidebook.
Tip 6: Most of the paintings that you will see in Florence are of a religious nature and revolve around one of four titles, The Adoration of the Magi, Madonna and Child, Crucifixion of Jesus and Asuncion of Mary. So if you send a post card home and say, “Boy I saw a great painting of the Adoration of the Magi,” you will need to be more specific such as where and which one of the forty at that location. The art I was most impressed with was the architecture and the craftsmanship of wood carvers and stonemasons.
We made advanced ticket purchases in the states and went to see the Uffizi at 2:00 PM. I definitely recommend advance purchase. The lines were long and it was hot. You need to take your advance purchase voucher to the ticket office at door number three and then go back to door number one for admittance at the appropriate time.
The Uffizi Gallery is an amazing collection of religious art by the best artists of the Renaissance. The size and scope of the collection was quite impressive. That being said, if you do not love religious art and have limited time in Florence, you may want to skip. There are lots of things that I loved and would want to see of Florence again. The Uffizi is not one of them.
Tip 7: Florence is a walking town. Repeat. Florence is a walking town. Take your best waking shoes. You will get tired, sore and blistered feet if you are not careful. Florence is a walking town. Walk down the middle of streets when you can. It will save you the strain of walking on the side of a hill.
Tip 8: Cars, motorcycles and buses in Florence do not care whether you live or die. Beware before you step off of a sidewalk or curb. Beware of side mirrors on passing trucks in the narrow streets. Remember that stop signs are taken by most vehicles as a mere suggestion.
We made three nice wine stops during the course of the day. We ate our first pizza at Café Rivoire in the Piazza Sigoria. Great people watching. We also stopped at Isabelle outside of the Ferragama Museum for a rest and glass of wine.
Best drinking spot of the whole trip was the sixth floor bar SeSio on the roof of the Westin. What a view! Even if you are not staying at the Westin, have a cocktail or glass of wine in this bar. Fantastic.
Dinner for Saturday was at a small Trattoria that we passed along the way called Parione. It was very good. I had Wild Boar Pappadelle and Warm Octopus and Prosciutto. My wife had Pasta with Porcini mushrooms and Sea Bass. All of this was excellent. Service was friendly and warm.
Tip 9: Despite what many people post, you do not have to eat an antipasti, primmi piati and secondi piati with a dessert to finish it off. You can order what you want and not be a social outcast. If you dine at 7:30, reservations are rarely required. If you want additional drinks, you need to ask. They don’t push alcohol sales. If you want your bill, you need to ask. We never had a meal that lasted beyond an hour ad forty-five minutes. Most waiters spoke very good English.
We began Sunday morning at Piazza SMN at the Vincanto Café. A sunny day, cappuccino and an Italian pastry are a great way to start any day. We were on our way to the Mercado Centrale. Oops, Mercado is closed on Sunday!
Tip 10: When you are working up your itinerary, know what is open and when. Museums are closed on Monday so plan accordingly.
Instead of the Mercado, we entered the narrow streets of the San Lorenzo Market. If you are in the market for purses, wallets, scarves, luggage, leather coats, leather anything, paper goods, souvenirs etc…, this is the place for you. However, instead of the haggling that I had been led to believe would occur, there seemed to be a 40% discount off of prices tagged on or in the item. I tried to bargain but the merchants couldn’t care less. In fact, since we got there early on a Sunday, we saw a woman go to many booths with an inventory sheet doing restocking. It appeared that the same wholesaler was calling the shots and controlling prices.
The ugly side of San Lorenzo were the collection of immigrants from Senegal and North Africa shoving knock off watches and crap in your face in a very menacing manner. In addition they laid out the same mass produced “artwork” on the pavement like they were starving artists. It detracted from all of the main attractions of Florence.
Tip 11: Beware the gypsies. They were everywhere in Florence. Fortunately, they consisted of old women, young girls and accordion players. The old women looked pathetic and I almost succumbed to giving one money. However, I apparently caught one on her break and instead of bending over looking pathetic as she shook her cup, she was sitting up talking and laughing with a young gypsy man. When I passed her earlier, I would have sworn she was on her last leg. They are more annoying than anything else.
We had tickets reserved for the Galleria Academia for 2:00 P.M. We decided to eat at the Gran Caffe San Marco just outside the Academia. I had a very good Quattro Stagionne Pizza and my wife had an eve better Pizza Salomico. The only detraction is that this is a very busy traffic circle and the smell of your pizza mingled with the smell of buses.
Tip 12: Public urination. Normally, in the United States or most anywhere else, you do not see a lot of public urination. I saw a woman holding a child in the air over a gutter so she could relieve herself. I saw another man have his small son urinate on a lamppost on a busy street. I also saw people allow their dogs to urinate everywhere. Very strange. If you drop food on the street, let it lay. Also, carry disinfectant wipes.
On to the Galleria Academia. In my humble opinion, the statue of David should be moved to the Pitti Palazzo or the Uffizi and the Galleria should be closed for lack of art. We were in and out in less than ½ hour. We came, we saw, we got out of there.
Dinner on Sunday was a real treat. Our concierge sent us to Buca Mario. This restaurant in a cellar about ½ block off of SMN was opened in 1886. Everything was great. Service, wine and friendliness flowed in ample quantities. Insalata Caprese was wow. Spaghetti was wow. Beefsteak Florentino was wow. Filetto was good. Roasted potatoes were highlight of the night. I’ve read some of the limited number of negative comments and those reviewers must have been there on an off night or are just cranky.
Started the morning by dining at the St. Regis hotel across from the Westin Excelsior. Absolutely beautiful dining room. Worth going there for breakfast or dinner just to see the place.
Went up to the Mercado Centrale. This was extremely interesting. To see such a display of fresh fruits, vegetables, breads, wines, meats and pastries in one place was fascinating. We purchased a strudel that was to die for. Yummy!
After a long day of walking all over Florence, we were walking down the narrow street leading back to our hotel when we passed the Parione Trattoria, the place where we dined on Saturday evening. It was about 4:30. Our waiter, Otto, spied us walking by and called us inside. He sat us down and poured us two Proseccos and chatted with us. What a nice gesture. We decided to go back to Parione that evening for dinner and had another great meal. I had chicken in a balsamic reduction that was excellent. Otto brought us a complimentary Lemon cello and biscotti. The owner, Marco, gave us an introduction card for an Italian restaurant in New York City.
We finished the evening with a gelato at B.ICE.
Tip 13: There is no “proper” way to dress in Florence. We saw every type of dress. Lots of jeans and lots of shorts. It was just like most American cities. Of course, if you are going into church then cover your shoulders and knees. Other than that, dress comfortably.
Tip 14: I don’t know about you but I like air conditioning. I never found a place in Florence that kept the temp below 73 or 74 F. It was hot outside and just as warm inside. Dress for comfort.
Tip 15: Florence is not the most Disabilities Friendly city. Most buildings are 500 to 800 years old and haven’t yet come up to contemporary ADA standards. It is understandable. I don’t think they could possibly renovate to accommodate. Be ready for plenty of steep stairs, ledges, curbs, hurdles and tight spaces.
This was our best day in Florence. We headed first thing in the morning to the Palazzo Pitti. All I can say about the Palazzo Pitti is that the people who write guidebooks about Florence need to get to the other side of the Arno and re-examine this place. It was the best art gallery, hands down, in Florence. It had the obligatory religious paintings by the great Italian Renaissance masters but it also had great works by Van Dyck, Rubens and other European masters. The sculptures were magnificent. The paintings were wall to wall and floor to ceiling. It was almost overwhelming. All of this was housed in a magnificent Medici mansion that begs description. The frescoes on the walls and ceilings were incredible. The wealth of the Medicis coupled with their sense of art was a most fortuitous match. Hands down, my favorite Florence attraction.
A quick stroll out the back door of the Medici hovel and we were smack dab in the middle of the Boboli Gardens. It may be because there isn’t much grass in Florence but the Boboli Gardens are a gem of landscape design. The amphitheater in the Boboli Gardens housed the very first Opera. It was a beautiful and literal breath of fresh air.
After the great tour of the Pitti Palace and the Boboli Gardens we ate lunch at the Risorante La Galleria. The pizza was excellent.
We then made our third and final visit to the Ponte Vecchio. I know now why Cosimo Medici built the hallway over the bridge. It was so he didn’t have to walk through the tourists. I suppose he made a good call when he expelled the hog butchers from the bridge but that may be questioned. I saw quite a few miserable men moving like dazed prisoners as they went from one jewelry store to the next. Most of the jewelry was either overpriced, gaudy or tourist crap. It was my least favorite part of Florence. It looked nice on the outside but was a man’s torture on the inside.
Tip 16: Look for jewelry in some of the shops off the beaten path for unique selections and reasonable pricing.
Our last dinner in Florence was at the Il Profeta. Our concierge recommended it. Another home run for the concierge. It was 200 yards from our hotel. Small, quaint and family run, the restaurant was great. I had an excellent Fettucine Pistolese and my wife had a very good Mediteranean pasta. We were also given a serving of the “John Travolta” pasta. Yummy! My wife had a very nice chicken dish and I had a Balsamic Filet that was tasty. We were brought a sample of their tiramisu and then ordered Profiteroles for dessert. Wow! Try these! We were then brought a free digestive liquor where we could soak our biscotti. Nothing like a little liquor for biscotti dipping! Another major wow!
We said goodbye to Florence and hello to the Tuscany countryside. I wish that it would have been that easy. First we took a taxi out to the Florence airport and Hertz Rental Car. I rented a nice Peugot Wagon.
Tip 17: Know how to put a manual stick shift into reverse before you leave the rental lot. One hour later, lost, hot, bothered and terrified or Italian drivers, I returned to the rental lot for a brief “reverse” tutorial. However, Florence airport is a terrible place to escape from and signage is either terrible or non-existent. I don’t know what the answer is but I will never pick up a car at that location again.
Our final destination for the evening was Siena and we chose to drive through Chianti. It was a nice drive on S223. We stopped for lunch in Greve-In-Chianti. Ate a nice meal at the Osteria Mangiando on the town piazza. A few nice shops.
Arrived at Siena in mid-afternoon.
We chose to stay at the Palazzo Ravizza because it had its own parking lot. I think it was a good decision. Siena is not an easy town to navigate around. Streets are quite narrow and there is always the threat of entering the dreaded ZTL. We found the hotel and got settled in. The Palazzo Ravizza was 500 years old and must have been a pretty swank place when the monks lived there. By American standards it needed a little updating. The bed was hard as a rock. I liked it. My wife hated it. I had reserved the garden suite that opened up onto a beautiful garden that looked out on the Tuscan hillsides. My wife loved the view and we took ample opportunity to drink wine and cappuccino while admiring the countryside. One small complaint. I have no idea why Italian hotels don’t like washcloths.
The Duomo in Siena was the best of the ones that I have seen and that includes Milan. The artistry of the floors, the paintings and the ornate finishing carpentry and stonemasonry were fantastic. Hard to describe. Beautiful.
Il Campo was a pretty impressive piazza. Wide and open, bordered by cafes and trattorias, this place was dominated by its massive civic tower. It set down in a bowl shaped indentation. I would have liked to have seen a big rainstorm just to see if it filled up or drained.
We ate dinner at the Bacon del Pret on the recommendation of the proprietor of the bookshop at the Ravizza. She was an ex pat named Lisa. Very nice and helpful. She made a good call on the restaurant. My pork filets with caramelized onions was very good.
We got up and going early and that was a good thing. High season in Tuscany means crowds and loads of tour buses around every corner. We first stopped at Monte Reggiano. It was a medieval walled town. Interesting and worthwhile stop. We walked the parapet and looked out into the Tuscan countryside.
Next we drove about 38 KM to San Gimignano. It was market day and boy was it busy. It was quite a unique place and I couldn’t help but wonder how it would have looked back in 1300. I made a wrong turn coming out of the parking lot and ended up in ZTL jeopardy. I felt like one of B. F. Skinner’s rats trying to escape the maze of San Gimi. With my marriage just barely intact, we finally escaped.
Tip 17: Leave early for the best towns in Tuscany and arrive before the tour buses from Florence arrive. By 11:00 parking was completely gone.
We ate a late lunch on the Il Campo at Fronte Paio. My fettucina Bolognese was very good. My wife was unimpressed with the Spaghetti Carbonara.
We ate dinner at Due Porte. We both ate pizza while enjoying great views from the garden terrace dining. There are so many styles and versions of pizza in Italy you can just about eat it every day.
Tip 18: Chilled white wine drinkers will love the Vernacchia of San Gimignano. You can get it everywhere by the glass. My wife drank her fair share of Prosecca. I found the Brunello and the Chianti to be my favorite reds. This whole wine making thing may catch on for the Italians.
I only include this brief detail of my schedule this day because I made a horrible mistake. Instead of driving down the scenic road through the countryside to Rome, we drove across Tuscany to the coast and then down to Rome. Bad decision. The first option would have taken longer but would have been far more enjoyable. Our trip had some pretty scenery but at 120 KPH it was hard to enjoy it. The Italian coast where we went was crowded and rarely afforded an unobstructed view of the ocean. We did stop in a nice little town and had wine and cappuccino by the ocean, the highlight of an otherwise disappointing day.
If you are leaving for the United States from Rome Fiumcino you must first go to Terminal 5. This terminal is for El Al ad United States bound passengers. It has massive security. After clearing security and checking your bags, you board a shuttle to Terminal 3 where you will eventually depart.
Final Tip: Get to the airport early. It takes a long time to clear all of the hurdles and when all of the departing Americans show up at the same time, it gets really crowded everywhere.
My thanks to all the TA contributors who helped make this trip a great one! Arriverdecci!