In February of 2016, Rebecca and I took our second European trip, this time to Italy. As we had done with Lisbon, our plan was to base out of one hotel, and travel out to various destinations on day-trips. This time around, we were a bit more adventurous. Our day-trips included a train to Rome (about an hour and a half) and a train to Venice (about two hours). I’ll post about Rome and Venice later, but travel by train was very easy in Italy and I would recommend it.
Florence was a great place to stay, not only because it’s somewhat central, but because it’s a magnificent city in its own right. On our first day we wandered around a bit, crossed the Ponte Vecchio, the Medieval bridge that’s covered in shops, and saw a huge version of The David that looks over the city from the Piazzale Michelangelo. On our way down from there, we found a nice little gelato shop, Il Gelato di Filo. Something we found out in Italy is that a good gelato shop doesn’t have mounds of brightly colored product on display. If you see one that does, keep walking. A good shop keeps their gelato covered. I use pistachio as guide. If it’s bright green, don’t bother. If it’s a drab, brownish green, go for it.
Dinner our first night was at Trattoria Diladdarno, recommended by a tour guide friend, and I had one of my all-time, top five meals. It’s a cute little restaurant with friendly staff. So, I looked over the menu and saw what looked like a tasty and interesting appetizer. Wild boar honey sausage with crispy bread. Mmm. Sounds good. When I ordered it, the woman, probably noticing I was an American, gave me an out. She said, ‘you know this is raw, right?’ …I did not. My gut reaction was to say thanks but no thanks and pick something else. But, no. I didn’t want to be the ‘ugly American.’ When I travel, I do like to represent my fellow Americans as well as I can. If it was good enough for locals, it was good enough for me. ‘That’s fine,’ I said. It was more than fine. It was ridiculously delicious. I’m not a fan of raw meat (except some fish) as a rule, but this was amazing. For our main course, Rebecca ordered beef cheek ravioli, and I ordered peposo, sort of a beef stew with pepper and red wine. And that peposo…it was like biting into Heaven. It is, without a doubt, one of the best things I’ve ever eaten in my entire life of eating whatever I can.
Our second day we did a great food & wine tour with Florence for Foodies, where we got some pointers on what to avoid in tourist trap restaurants (red & white checked tablecloths, bread sticks on the table, etc.). We also learned about the differences in cuisine between the different parts of Italy, that Tuscany wasn’t really a great place for vegetarians, and about some very interesting vinegars and truffles. And I got baptized with grappa, a bitter liquor and an Italian rite of passage. I definitely recommend taking food tours when you travel, preferably somewhat early in your visit. It’s a great way to get a handle on the local geography, and to find out about local history and customs.
Then we checked out the Boboli Gardens, which were very nice. It rained almost the entire time we were in Italy, so we were not able to get everything we could out of those gardens. I think on a nice, sunny day, they’d make a great picnic spot. We capped the day with a trip to the Uffizi, which is a heck of an art museum. And then…then there was the Worst Pizza in Italy! But that’s a story for another time.
On our third day in Florence, we checked out the Santa Maria Novella, a beautiful church with some interesting art (keep your eye out for Dr. Zaius). Then we visited the Duomo (the dome made by Brunelleschi to cap the Florence Cathedral), which was one of the few places we encountered any crowds or lines. We arrived fairly early, and I’m glad we did. We weren’t very near the front of the line. One of the nice things about travelling in the off season, or shoulder season is not having to face as many crowds and lines. But they still happen. Usually if you show up early, you can avoid the worst of them. Climbing 463 stone steps inside the wall of the huge church, walking around inside the dome, then…walking around on top of the dome. It’s an amazing thing. Not great for someone with a heights problem, but still, pretty amazing.
For lunch, we stopped by I Fratellini, almost a literal hole in the wall, where you walk up a little side street, and there it is. You order your sandwich (3 euro) and your wine (2 euro) and you stand around in the street eating and drinking and avoiding cars and pedestrians. Great for people watching. But a bit challenging while also trying to hold an umbrella.
It was at the Palazzo Vecchio (the town hall of Florence, which houses an extensive art collection) that I had one of many strange moments of clarity. I walked into a quiet room with just a couple pieces of art. There, hanging on the wall was THE painting of Machiavelli. The one that’s on all the book covers. There it was, just hanging on the wall. I mean, we had seen the real David in a museum, but it was out there in the center of a big room and people were all around it, gazing up at his perfect ass and giant hands. But here I was, totally alone, standing in a small room looking at THE painting of Machiavelli. I had many of these little moments while walking around Florence. Looking at the walls of the buildings, at the cobblestones, at the art, and knowing that these were the very streets within which so much history happened. Before America had been created, people who have become legend walked right where I was walking. I’d felt the history hanging all over Lisbon, but perhaps because the events that happened in Florence have continued to cast such a huge shadow over history…it was wild.
To cap off the evening, we went to Osteria Vini e Vecchi Sapori (thanks to Nathalie from Florence for Foodies for getting us a reservation). There, Rebecca had the duck ragu, which was quite delicious. I probably made a mistake, because I wanted to see what someone else’s take on peposo would be, so instead of trying something totally new, I had that again. While good, it was not the near divine event my first had been. But then we had a fantastic raspberry tiramisu which made up for any disappointment. The restaurant was quite nice, and like the best ones we ate at in Italy, it was tiny. Probably no more than 8 or 10 tables.
So that was our three days in Florence. There were so many little things, so many fantastic moments, that I could never record them all. And yeah, it rained almost the whole time. But so what? We had a good time. Sure, sometimes our feet got wet and sometimes we took a different way back to our hotel, because the cobblestones on that one corner kept flooding. That’s just part of travel. Don’t expect everything to be perfect, and don’t let something like a little rain bother you.