Italian Adventure Part II: FLORENCE!

My last entry departed with the beginning of my birthday dinner, so I'll pick up there. Mike and I opted for a restaurant just around the corner from our room owned by our B&B management. Having had enough pizza and pasta for the day (and eventually throughout the next 9 days!), we ordered up a rib-eye steak for him and the filet for me, plus an interesting plate of appetizers.

Add a bottle of Italian cabernet and merlot blend and we were in business. It was my perfect idea of what a birthday should be: Eat. Drink. Relax. Repeat.


After our meal, we stopped by the hotel room for a Skype video call to my mom’s house where she had several of our close family and friends over for a big lunch. It was so neat to actually see everyone on video, even though we were so far away! It was also the first birthday that I wasn’t actually with my mom and so my sister took a picture of us “together,” my mom posing next to me on the computer screen. Gotta love technology!

Next we ventured back out and ended up on the second floor patio of a restaurant directly across from the Coliseum and enjoyed some whiskies and relaxed while admiring the famous landmark and cool night sky.

When that cafe closed, we meandered down the street to a corner spot still in stark view of the Coliseum and snacked on olives with our beers.

When that cafe closed, we took one more lingering look at the site before us then headed back to our room for a last glass of wine and cheers to my birthday. I couldn’t have asked for a better 25th, a better husband to celebrate with or a better place to be!

The end of Rome was just the beginning of our set of travels as we climbed north in Italy. We reached each of the next three cities by train, all averaging two hours. It makes for pretty straightforward transportation, but a lot of suitcase lugging and power walking! When traversing a country, though, it's far easier and cheaper to use the rail and choose an easily accessible hotel not far from the sights.

Our train to Florence arrived early afternoon and, being the motivated couple that we are, we checked into our hotel and hit the streets. (Oh, I’m totally kidding because we love sleeping in and being "leisurely.") In just a few hours, we managed to see the Baptistery of St. John, the Santa Maria Cathedral, the tombs of legendary Italians like Michelangelo and Galileo inside the Santa Croce (the largest Franciscan church in Italy), one fat bull dog and a bunch of naked men.

I’m not kidding about those last two, although the naked men were more in the form of marble statues than real life people... minor detail.

Here's our day of Florence sights in pictures (and captions):

The Basilica di Santa Maria del Fiore, begun in 1296 and completed in 1436. It's unique due to its use of polychrome marble panels in pink and green. This picture is photoshopped to enhance the colors, the image below shows the light-tinted hues seen in person.

Inside the Baptisery of St. John:

The Santa Croce Cathedral, which houses the tombs of several very famous Italians:

A large part of the cathedral's floor was covered in old tombs like this one.

Michelangelo's tomb... simply amazing to see this, as well as a lifelike bust made of him during his time.

Galileo's tomb.

Outside the cathedral grounds.

There is never a shortage of creative street vendors, producing their craft as you watch.

A scenic shot of Florence. The bridge pictured is lined with vendors and passersby.

The best part was that our hotel, which you would have never known was there except for the very small sign on the wall that said Hotel Giada, was situated directly above the biggest and baddest (aka best) street market, arguable in Europe: the Piazza San Lorenzo. Thank Heaven for Google Map’s spectacular directions, we found the hotel without a single wrong turn.

The famous market at Piazza San Lorenzo. Our hotel is the yellow building on the right.

The market fascinated us from the very start—rows and rows of vibrant carts, each with a vendor hovering out front, hawking their leather goods and Murano glassware. For just fractions of their retail price, we loaded up on leather bracelets, belts, wallets, sunglasses, decorative glass items and turquoise. I had to actually stop myself from buying more turquoise, especially after a street vendor featuring said jewelry pointed out that my nails, shirt, bracelets and my eyes were all “turquoise.” I knew then it was time to stop. Turquoise rehab just isn’t the place for me…

Headed back from the market, without too much turquoise!

Our first Florence dinner was at a quiet Italian café right next to the Uffizi Galleria, marked by a flock of oversized marble silhouettes of Italians once upon a time. Though we didn’t venture inside the museum—we were a bit tourist-ed out at this point—it holds thousands of works and sculptures by the likes of Michelangelo, Giotto, Botticelli, Leonardo da Vinci and Raphael. We feasted on lasagna and linguini in pesto sauce with shrimp and zucchini. The menus are all very similar between Rome and Florence thus far, and we’ve eaten more than our fair share of pizza and pasta. Carb haven!

The Uffizi Galleria.

Their pizzas are made very thin, which I assume is so they can cook faster since they’re baked fresh to order. They often come loaded with mozzarella, olives, mushrooms and peppers, however you can order any kind of pizza you desire from chicken and pineapple to plain pepperoni (which is referred to as sausage here, pepperoni is a type of pepper).

Most café and restaurant menus feature three-courses, found in either a set three-course menu or listed in the menu as Antipasti (appetizer), Primo (first course) and Secondo (second). The appetizers are relatively small when compared to the size we’re used to in the US, and the first-course portions are probably a bit more appropriate if you’re attempting to avoid overeating. The second courses are often beef, pork or chicken dishes. I can generally order a first-course pizza or pasta and a side salad or fruit or vegetable for a good-sized, filling meal. We haven’t had an overabundance of desert here, though we have tried Tiramisu and a mousse-filled chocolate cake – both were very tasty!

We stopped at a bar across the street from our hotel for a couple of nightcaps and watched the vendors break down their carts for the day as dusk faded into the early night. The brightly colored jewelry, bags, wallets and glass disappeared into gray and brown boxes, which were shoved into wooden drawers or shelves and blanketed with drab canvas linings then padlocked into place. It was like a caravan of covered wagons slowly meandering back into hiding as each vendor packed up his goods, then hefted up one end of his cart and rolled it into a storage unit a few streets away. Some of the vendors were smart and had motorized wheels on their cart so they didn’t have to drag it down the street.

View of the bare post-market street from our hotel room window.

A bevy of beer bottles, plastic shopping bags and riff raff was left in their wake, and we sat long enough to then watch the cleaning crew come through. They sprayed the cobblestone streets with water, flooding all the trash to the sides, then men with wicker brooms swept it into piles, followed by the garbage guys who scooped the big items into the trash truck. Finally a smaller truck drove by, sucking all the leftover waste into its belly, round brushes scrubbing the street as it passed. Before 8am the next day, the vendors were all in place again, as if the cleanup had simply been a mirage and they’d never even left.

Our second day in Florence turned out to be a diamond in the rough. We had intended to get up much early than we did, but aching feet and exhaustion kept us in bed nearly 1.5 hours late. We were finally on the train and headed to Pisa about lunch time, packing a Caprese Insalata for me and a McRoyal burger for Mike, both from McDonald’s.

It took nearly an hour to get to Pisa (the train was 22 euros roundtrip for both of us, so a cheap ride) and it was quite hot outside to be running around on foot. Granted it’s not as hot as it is in Texas, but in Texas we wouldn’t be walking three to four miles twice a day! So we grabbed a taxi to the Leaning Tower of Pisa for 10 euros and got dropped off out front.

The white-marble Pisa Cathedral baptistery, church and Tower were all very bright and clean, and really stunning. And let me tell you, that tower is leaning! I really don’t know how it doesn’t just crumble and collapse, it looks as if it will any moment. Although we learned that the Tower of Pisa has been reinforced a number of times and is constantly maintained to keep it in as best a condition as possible. It’s washed often, which explains its bright white exterior – some of the cleanest marble we’ve seen.

The Tower took an extremely long time to build—177 years to be more specific. After being started in 1173, construction was stopped due to the many battles the Pisans were busy fighting, and didn’t resume until 1272. Because such a long period had passed, the soil was allowed to settle otherwise the tower would have toppled should the seven-story construction had been complete. The final, seventh floor wasn’t installed until 1319, and the Tower’s continued plunge over the years has set it aside as a memorable landmark. And proof that not all great ideas are perfectly executed!

I was surprised to see people were being allowed inside the tower and walking up to the top, you’d think such a shift in weight would cause damage to the structure. There was also scaffolding in place around one of the tiers as maintenance and cleaning is performed regularly to keep the tower intact. After we were done viewing it, we walked and walked and walked trying to find a taxi to the beach (Marina di Pisa). By this time it was after 2pm and we still had an hour-long train ride to return to Florence and 4:45 entry tickets to the Accademia Museum. But we wanted to go to the beach.

I was hot, sweaty, tired, irritated and frustrated to say the least. We still hadn’t found a taxi and we still hadn’t decided what we wanted to do. So we plopped down in the shade on a less-busy street and gave it some thought. Then determined we would blow off our pre-paid museum tickets and head to the beach. Sometimes you just gotta do what you want to do! Though I would have liked to have seen Michaelangelo’s statue of David, I hadn’t felt the sand between my toes since last summer.

Finally we flagged down an air-conditioned taxi and made it to Marina di Pisa. There were plenty of sunbathers out but there was little or no beach, so they were all laying on giant rocks that separated the streets from the ocean. Although it didn’t look the most comfortable I was willing to suffer a little pain for a little bliss. But a bundle of umbrellas caught our eye further down the road so we proceeded to investigate. It was here we found our slice of paradise!

A private lagoon-like recluse of beach chairs and umbrellas, a snack bar and cold beers, bathrooms and a sandy beach – you had me at hello! For 12 euros, we got two chairs and an umbrella for the day, along with a quiet place to relax and stick our feet in the sand sans slippery, pointy rocks. (With my track record, I would have been sliding and falling around on them, rather than sunbathing like the chic rock-savvy locals.) The water was clear and cool and so refreshing after traipsing around all day. In just a few minutes, we had two chilled Birra Moretti’s (an Italian brewing company, owned by Heineken) in hand and waded our oiled selves into the water. Aaahhhhhhh!

It turned out to be the best decision we’d made all day. We did a little people watching as the place picked up later that afternoon, ate some fresh pizza, helped a little kid catch a crab we found in the water, talked, napped, drank and relaxed. I have missed the beach! And I never gave the museum a second thought…

Once we headed back into Florence, we threw on some clean clothes and grabbed a table at the restaurant next door to our hotel. Our last dinner in Firenze consisted of tortellini with meat sauce, salad, fresh fruit, zucchini with garlic, a slice of savory chocolate cake, and a carafe of red wine. And more people watching, one of our favorite things to do in foreign countries. Sometimes, since we can't understand what they're all saying, we make up our own stories about them and narrate. Hilarity often ensues.

The Italian language is so beautiful, both to listen to and attempt to speak. Of all the dialects we’ve heard throughout our travels in the past nine months, the Italian lifestyle, language and style is our favorite. My only real complaint is hearing so many American accents instead, especially while at the local cafes and restaurants for our meals. Instead of local Italians wallowing about the heat or their busy day or that crazy vendor at the weekend market, we kept hearing (mostly Northern) American accents drone on and on about all the walking they’d had to do or how their cell phones wouldn’t work. It’s amazing how many US tourists abound in Italian cities, big and small. They are literally everywhere. And I know we’re counted among them, but at least we make an effort to communicate in the few Italian phrases we know rather than expect every Italian face to know some English.

What’s funny is some folks you think are definitely American turn out to be German or British or Dutch. We were walking behind one couple that totally looked like the quintessential tourist over from the US, but when they stopped at a vendor in the market to browse, a very un-American language greeted our ears. It almost surprises you since you were so sure you had it right! So in an effort to avoid mistaking someone for an ethnicity that they’re not, everyone fumbles around the language barriers by beginning with “Buon giorno, scusi, parlo inglese?” (Read: “Bwon zhor-no, skoo-zee, par-lo een-gleh-zeh?”) Then you either receive a shoulder shrug and an apologetic smile or a "Hey, how are ya?"

Our departure day from Florence found us out of bed on schedule and running down to the market for last-minute shopping and more leather goods. Then we headed to the train station to catch our 10:30 ride to Venice. We have really been looking forward to this next city, our third, and seeing the water canals, the “floating houses” and our hotel on Giudecca Island (next to Venice).

L'avventura continua! The adventure continues!

1 comment:

  1. MORE! More! More!! I SO didn't want it to stop!! Loved the tour and could ALMOST hear the Italian people murmuring in the background! WHAT an awesome trip!! And how cool is that....to stay up and watch the streets close and then flower open again the next day! I have this to say....You two really know how to travel! Can't wait for the next installment!


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