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A Student in Florence


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Trip Description: Spring 2004. I spent 17 days in Florence studying Italian at the Koine school for two weeks and then soaking up the beauty and culture of this fabulous city. This trip report has been edited from my blog.


Warning: This trip report is long as it was originally written as a blog and is also a personal journey of my adventure. The tenses also change from present to past, depending on whether it was written from Florence or from home in Cambridge, MA.

On April 22, 2004 I began my solo adventure in Florence to study Italian at the Koine school for 2 weeks and soak up the beauty and culture of this fabulous city. It was my first trip to Europe by myself and I was nervous and excited at the same time. Truthfully, my biggest concern was my very poor map reading skills and my propensity for getting lost. That's one of the reasons I chose Florence, I mean with the Duomo as a landmark how lost can I get? Fortunately, my B&B, the Tourist House Ghiberti, and the Koine school were near the Duomo.

My love affair with Italy began in earnest in April of 2000 when I went to Rome, Florence and Venice with my husband and 2 teenagers during April vacation week. We had been to Italy 23 years before as a very small part of a budget 6-week honeymoon trip, but it wasn’t until this family trip that I became truly hooked. After that amazing trip, I was determined to return to see more of Tuscany and any other part of Italy that I could convince my husband to see. I had done a fair amount of research for that 2000 trip to Italy but now I became obsessive. I managed to convince 3 other couples to rent a villa in Tuscany to celebrate my 50th birthday and 25th wedding anniversary in September of 2002. We rented a beautiful villa outside of Siena called Il Casello, rented through Homebase Abroad. It was spectacular (see my review on Slow Travel) and had another fabulous vacation in Bella Italia.

Back in the States, I found myself pining for Italy and plotting a return as soon as I could. My villa housemates had such a great time that we tentatively planned a trip to Umbria the following fall. I didn't think I could wait until then. So when a great Auto Europe package to Rome popped up for an early June trip (2003), I was chomping at the bit. My husband takes a windsurfing trip every May so he couldn't take more time off from work. I literally leafed through my address book until I found a friend who would go with me on those dates! So it was off to Rome for 5 nights and Orvieto for 2 nights. We rented an OK apartment, Reginella 2, from the company Underground Viaggi, and in Orvieto stayed at the wonderful Locanda Rosati. It was a fabulous trip, dampened a bit by the heat wave.

When I returned to regale my friends with the wonders of this trip to Italy, they were appreciative but all think I am over the top about Italy. At any rate, 2 of the couples decided that they couldn't afford another trip to Italy in the fall of 2004 - so there goes the Umbria trip until 2005. Wait until 2005?! I would have to find a way to feed my Italy habit before then!

So the germ of an idea begins. My husband had stated in the past that if I could learn enough of the Italian language to do all of the communicating and sign reading, then he might be inclined to go to Italy more often. So, I began researching Italian language schools in Italy. If I am going to go through the pain of trying to learn a new language, which by the way I have absolutely no talent for, then it might as well be in my beloved Italy right? Also being well immersed in the Catholic guilt thing, I needed to think of a way to go to Italy that had a purpose other than pleasure to diffuse any family/friends tongue wagging of going to Italy for 17 days without my husband! Actually, he would have been more than welcome to come and I knew I would really miss sharing the delights of Florence with him - but a girl's gotta do what she's gotta do. I did plan the trip to coincide with his windsurfing trip for part of the time so it didn't seem quite so selfish. And truly if he was with me, it would have been too easy to slip back into English all the time. I hoped that being by myself would force me to use the language more.

Whew! That was a lot of background! So in preparation for this trip I took an Italian course at a community adult education center. The second semester, the class was all in Italian and it was one the most difficult things I had done to date. OK, maybe not the most difficult, testifying at the State House for a nurse practioner reimbursement bill was pretty terrifying, and taking a course in statistics to gain entrance to graduate school was right up there! But I really did feel dumb. I could catch the essence of what's being said but it was tough.

This would also be also first time I would be in one place in Italy for an extended period of time and I was really so looking forward to really getting to "know" Florence in a slow travel mode. Another reason I chose Florence was the extraordinary amount of art, museums, shops, ceramics, fabulous restaurants and it's accessibility to other towns in Tuscany. Some of my friends thought I was brave to travel by myself for over 2 weeks and sometimes I was a little nervous. But the thought of not having to consider anyone else’s desires but mine in a city I love sounded pretty appealing to me! Especially the shopping without a bored spouse or child making you feel rushed.
My First day in Florence
Friday and Saturday, April 23 - 24, 2004

The flight over was the best I have ever had to Europe. My whole row was empty which meant that I could lie down to sleep! With the help of my sleep mask and some Ambien I slept a whole 4 hours, which was a new, great experience for me. Gatwick is a bit of a zoo but the Italian airline Meridiana was very nice and I would use them again. They have a 32 kg weight maximum, which I easily made but my carry on was 2 kg over so I had to check it.

The B&B Tourist House Ghiberti in Florence was fantastic. I could not have been happier with my choice. It is new and lovely, with a big room, totally modern bathroom, minbar, extensive breakfast buffet, accommodating hosts who speak English very well, a location very near the Duomo but totally quiet! I would stay here again in a heartbeat. And then there is the free high speed Internet computer in my room!

The weather was sunny and warm and I spent my first afternoon getting totally lost. When I tell you my eyes glaze over at a map, I am not exaggerating. Both my children and my husband love navigating, so I have never been called upon to use that skill. I first set out to find out where my school was. It turns out that it is about 5 minutes from my B&B, but it took me at least an hour to find it! However, getting lost I did wander about the many beautiful piazzas in Florence, past the Ufifizi and over to the Arno. I had forgotten what a compact city it is and with the Duomo as my landmark, I was always able to find my way back home.

I managed to stay awake all day and had an early dinner at Trattoria Le Mossacce. It was the perfect first dinner in Florence for a solo traveler as I was seated at a communal table. Four visitors from Turin and 2 Danish women were seated at my table. Between the Italians' English and my very weak Italian we had a great time. The Danish women spoke English of course and we talked politics a bit, which was interesting.

The atmosphere at Mossacce was great fun and there was a mix of tourists and locals. The specialty seemed to be Bistecca; but I was not that hungry so had some delicious tortellini and mixed antipasti. A wonderful first meal in Italy.

Saturday I spent some time at the wonderful, uncrowded Bargello museum and just wandered the city drinking it all in. Ah Bella Italia I was so happy to be back!

I had dinner with my cousin's daughter who was studying in Florence for the semester. She is adorable and great company. We had dinner at Il Ritrovo, Via de Pucci, 4/A and we both really enjoyed it. Beautifully prepared and presented, wonderful hosts, complimentary drinks, a fabulous house antipasti, wonderful pasta and a good veal dish.
A Student in Florence
Monday, April 26, 2004

OK, so with my third full day behind me in Florence now I can admit it. It was a little scary and lonely here all by myself despite being in my beloved Italy. But today, with the start of my language class at the Koine school I am flying high. Not only do I love my teacher Marco, who is funny, stimulating and dedicated all rolled into one, but I understand a whole lot more Italian than I ever imagined!

Yeah, I did get placed in the beginner’s class despite my previous adult education classes at home but I feel comfortable and am being pushed to speak (and I really needed that push), but all 6 students are about on the same level, which is nice. There are 3 Germans, 1 Canadian and 2 Americans in my class. One of the German women is exactly my age and we have much in common. We lunched together at Antico Ristorante Il Sasso di Dante behind the Duomo and had terrific pasta dishes. I had tried to have lunch there on Sunday but it was filled with local families and I couldn’t get a table. On the fun school tour of the city today, I met many more fascinating people and again understood more Italian than I could have imagined. If I had taken this course without any preparation I think I would have been lost, so I am in the right place.

Some of the group went to the restaurant Dante tonight in the Oltrano district, which was fun, filled with locals and inexpensive; I shared a grilled fish plate because I couldn’t face the thought of more pasta or pizza and all those calories!

Last night I met Chandi (RedRedWine from the Slow Travel Message Board) and her husband Dave and had a very good meal at Trattorria da Ruggero on Via Senese, 89, another restaurant filled with locals. We had some very good pasta starters and shared a mixed grilled meat plate. The star of the evening however was the roasted potatoes. When Chandi complimented the waiter on how good they were, he brought us another plate, which we had, instead of desert!

Enough about food! Yesterday I went to the San Marco Museum and just loved the frescos in the monk’s cells and revisited the Santa Croce Church where it’s always daunting to be in the presence of such illustrious men’s tombs. I have also done a lot of "pre-shopping" touring, scooping out exactly where I should buy the various things on my wish list.

So much to do and now it feels like so little time!
Food Glorious Food and a Diva Too!
Thursday, April 29, 2004

My days are so full that I feel that they are really flying by. Could I really be here a week already tomorrow? As I write this with my window open tonight I can hear melodious voices singing in some location nearby. Only in Florence! It is true that 4 hours of class takes up a lot of my day. And I would be less than honest if I wrote that I’m not mentally exhausted at the end of my class trying to wrap my head around comprehending and speaking Italian. But then there’s the reward of magnificent Italian food!

Tuesday, I had the privilege of meeting Judy Witts (aka Diva) of cooking class in Florence and Slow Travel fame, who generously invited me to her apartment to sample the desert of the day which was a delicious panna cotta with fresh fruit sprinkled with aged balsamic vinegar. What a treat! After cocktails and lively conversation, she guided me around the market stalls and shops where I was introduced to vendors of all sorts of Florentine goodies. Cards collected for ceramics, scarves, leather, wine and stationery to explore in more detail and a few purchases made. A truly generous and more fun person to spend a few hours with than Diva I can’t imagine. And of course her restaurant recommendations from her website have been my bible.

After a long but exhilarating day of class, window shopping, meeting Maureen’s (from Boston and Slow Travel moderator) lovely sister Erin and going to her friend Lucia’s shop in the San Frediano district (Via Pisana 146R where I bought a lovely gold bracelet), it was a miracle I could keep my eyes open for a terrific, cheap meal at Zio Gigi, filled with locals around the corner from my B&B. Pasta, salad and a 1/4 liter of house wine for 10E.

Wednesday was sunny and lovely, a perfect day for the Boboli Gardens with a friend from school and more window-shopping around the Pitti Palace and Ponte Vecchio. Bought a beautiful watercolor of Florence from a street artist in front of the Pitti Palace. Then it was off to meet my cousins' daughters in Piazza della Signoria and off to Vivoli's for some delicious gelato. I can’t believe I have been here almost a week and only have had gelato twice. What is wrong with me?

But the food highlight of the day was having pranzo at Trattorria Cibero which to date has been the ultimate meal here. Oh my God!! A trio from school went and tasted each other’s selections. Minestrone, pepper soup, risotto, cod, veal, and squid. A truly elegant, delicious and excellently priced meal for the extraordinary quality of the food. We went a around 1:15pm and were surprised to walk right in!

One of my second cousins, who temporarily lives in Sevilla, was visiting her cousin (currently at a semester abroad here) with her adorable Spanish boyfriend. How serendipitous for me that I was here when they were all here and got to visit with them. A family reunion in Florence - who could have imagined? We went to dinner at I Torre di Panne on Via Guelfa, a simple but good trattoria recommended on Diva’s site which was a lot of fun. How proud I am to be related to these very nice and bright young people!

After class today, a small contingent from school went to the Central Market, ate a boiled beef sandwich at Da Nerbone, which was great fun; cheap and good! Shopped the stalls a bit, went back to stores Diva had pointed out and had a grand time buying scarves and pashminas.

The highlight of the day however was a school excursion to San Miniato with the most glorious view of Florence and one of the most special churches I have ever had the pleasure of visiting. Granted the tour was in Italian that further exhausted my aging brain but it was a truly glorious experience. And that we got to hear the monks chanting was the icing on the cake! Our tour guide and my wonderful teacher from school, Marco, made me feel so much better today when he told me that even though my language class was classified as a beginner’s class, that the group was very advanced and moving much faster than the norm. All I can say is - Thank God! Now I don’t feel so bad that I do not comprehend everything.

After that rather full and exhausting day, all my friend and I could manage for dinner was to go to the very close by Le Mossacce which I had already been to but liked very much and had their famous bistecca Fiorentina that with some house wine was a perfect way to end a busy day.

Tomorrow is supposed to bring rain so museums and churches must be in store!
Two Fabulous Meals in One Day or Are My Pants Getting Tight Yet?
Friday, April 30, 2004

Today was the end of my first week of classes and a much-anticipated lunch with some of my classmates at Trattoria Mario, Via Rosina 2r, near the Central Market. One of my classmates had been there the week before and upon learning it was her birthday, the chef cooked her some squid by special request. Since he usually only serves fish on Friday, this really was a treat. Because we were going on fish day, we were delighted to sample a mixed grill of fish that was wonderful in both its simplicity and flavor. Add a little spinach and garlic, some vino della casa and pane and you have a happy group celebrating the start of a weekend! On this trip to Florence Mario’s is in a dead heat with Trattoria Cibreo, Via de Macci, 122r for best pranzo (lunch) experience. One was simple and cheap, the other elegant and a bit more expensive but both extraordinary.

Since I was in the neighborhood, I once again scoped out the stalls, looking over the inventory of pocketbooks, scarves, stationery, and pashminas. Before Judy (aka Diva) took me shopping earlier in the week, I had thought that the quality of the goods offered by the stalls was inferior to shops and I was a bit hesitant to hand over my Euros. But she pointed out that really, they just had lower overhead than the shops and that bargains and quality are readily found there. I found this to be especially true of the stationery where beautiful items very similar to what was offered at such stores as Il Papiro could be had for half the cost! Also may of the stalls were outlets for shops nearby, so if they didn’t have a color or style you liked, for example, they would go to the shop to bring out alternatives. This was also true for scarves, pashminas and pocketbooks. I did not find the quality of ceramics, leather bound books or gloves to be as high as I found in specialty stores. I bought several scarves and pashminas at BIVA s.a.s., Via dell’ Ariento 8/10R, a store recommended by Diva. The saleswomen were particularly helpful in explaining the differences in quality in the various fabrics. They also sell their items in a nearby stall.

Home for a well deserved rest before one of my few dinners alone at Cantinetta Antinori, Palazzo Antinori, Piazza Antinori 3, 055-292-234. One of the things that I was apprehensive about before I arrived was eating dinner by myself. It turned out that not only did it occur very infrequently (having made fast friends at school to dine with) but that it was an unnecessary fear. When I did dine alone it was an almost joyful experience in that it pushed me to be more social with fellow diners. Not only did I meet interesting people but I was also forced to speak more Italian. When I dined with my classmates, more often than not they did the ordering, as they were more advanced Italian speakers than me.

I entered the elegant wine bar/restaurant and the host was not sure he could seat a single person. When I told him I was happy to eat at the bar and in fact preferred it, he was more than happy to accommodate me. This dinner was the best I had this trip. I had artichokes and porcini mushrooms in olive oil and basil to start with a glass of Antinori’s Chianti Classico Riserva. Perfetto! Followed by a bowl of pappardelle fresche al ragu Toscana with a glass of Brunello di Montalcino (my first of the trip). Fantastico!! Didn’t I want a lovely traditional custard torta with pine nuts and a glass of vin santo on the house? OK, twist my arm. It was a heavenly meal and eating at the bar was fun and less expensive than at a table. Highly recommended. But don't buy their wine there, they charge restaurant prices for a fancy box/wrapping. You can do much better at a wine or grocery store.

Oh yeah, with all this fabulous food - lots of pasta (which I try to avoid at home), wine with lunch (which I never indulge in at home), are my pants feeling tight yet? Amazingly enough they are not because of the miles I walk every day, roaming the city to unearth it’s delights to be found in its glorious art, colorful buildings and piazzas, bridges, majestic viewpoints, gelato, awesome craftsmanship and stylish window displays. Beats spinning any day!
An Excursion to Greve and a Winery Tour and Tasting
Saturday, May 1, 2004

Labor Day and an important National Holiday in Italy. This means most businesses and museums are closed. Knowing that would be the case, I opted to take advantage of a wine tasting excursion and lunch that the Koine School offered. A private van with 2 students from the Koine school in Lucca picked us up and we were driven through the beautiful Chianti countryside to Greve. A total of 8 students took part in this adventure led by the lively and informative Francesca, a language and cooking teacher for Koine’s Pane and Vino program as well as a wine expert. She had spent many of her formative years in New Zealand before moving back to Florence 5 years ago, so could put on a wonderful New Zealand/Australian accent and swagger when called upon to do so. We were an eclectic group of 4 Americans, 2 Japanese, 1 Australian and 1 gentleman from Lichtenstein. We chatted happily away in English and Italian with Francesca trying to lecture mostly in Italian.

Luckily, it was a mostly sunny day to further illuminate the emerald green rolling hills, brilliant poppies and young grape vines. Our first stop was in Greve’s lovely main piazza, which resembled a ghost town with most of the stores closed. It was still beautiful but I was disappointed not to be able to revisit one of my favorite watercolor artists whose work I had bought on a previous trip. His name is Khosrow Salehi and his shop is Galleria Civetta, Piazza Matteotti 42. Just another excuse to return! The famous butcher shop Antica Macelleria Falorni was open however and we feasted our eyes and other senses on the fabulous display of hanging meats and cheeses. I wished I could have bought a sample of everything but it would not have been practical to carry them around all day.

After we had our fill of Greve’s Centro, we were off to Villa S. Andrea in Montefiridolfi, which is only 16km from Florence and 15 km from Greve. Because of the holiday, this was one of the few wineries that was able to accommodate us. This was perhaps because they also run an agriturismo on this estate and had to be open for guests.

A young woman guided us through the cellars and the wine tasting in Italian (this was a school excursion) but was happy to answer questions in English as well. I have been on much better wine tours, she was not all that informative and in fact seemed a bit in a hurry because our group was running late. We did taste 3 different wines, a Rosso di Toscana, a Chianti Classico and a Chianti Classico Riserva (which was the best). Although pleasant enough, they were not outstanding. She said the Riserva would go for 60E in the States which I found hard to believe as you can get a nice Brunello for that, but I think it had more to do with importers and taxes than the quality of the wine. At any rate, I bought a bottle of the Riserva for 16E, which I would later give away to my cousin (more on that later) and a bottle of wonderful tasting olive oil for 10E. Although Francesca thought these wines were good, she usually takes groups to other wineries where she is given the keys and can do the tour in more detail on her own. However, it was a fun experience in a beautiful setting and I was glad that I had signed on for the trip.

Next, off to a fabulous lunch in the countryside outside of Greve. I’m not sure which was more spectacular, the setting or the food. La Cantinetta di Rignana was filled with Italian families for Saturday pranzo. Our menu was a pre-arranged typical Tuscan lunch, which was delicious, but I found myself watching the Italian families eating some wonderful looking food and thought that I would like to return someday to choose my own courses off their extensive menu. Our typical Tuscan meal consisted of: antipasti Toscana of cured meats, sun dried tomatoes, agrula, olives, and onions preserved in red wine and vinegar. A delicious Pappa al Pomodoro (tomato and bread soup), Tagliolini alle Noci (this was fabulous and my favorite part of the meal) and a Peposo alla Fornacina (a traditional peppery beef stew). Complimented by a house rosso vino and espresso, it was a most enjoyable meal in a truly beautiful setting. Cost was 30E per person, which was included in our 80E fee for the day.

After this lovely repast, we then visited a nearby abbey (I can’t recall the name) and a one street medieval town, whose name also escapes me. We stopped in several scenic spots for viewing young grape vines, flowers and the incredibly beautiful countryside.

By the time we arrived back in Florence. It was almost dinner time so I joined 2 of my classmates for dinner at Il Profeta, Via Borgognissanti, 93R, a restaurant that one of Camilla’s friends had highly recommended. Perhaps because of its proximity to hotels that cater to Americans such as the Excelsior, it was filled with Americans. That doesn’t make it a bad restaurant; I just prefer to see locals. The owners/waiters were very friendly and accommodating in explaining the menu and making suggestions. The 4 American couples seated next to us, followed the recommendations and had an extravagant tasting menu type of meal that looked quite good. Because of our large lunch, we weren’t that hungry, so we had a more modest meal. The insalata mista was dressed with the most wonderful olive oil, so good in fact I asked if I could buy a bottle and did for 12E. It is called Galardi Olio, extra virgin oil made at Fattoria di Poggiopiano in Fiesole. If you ever see it, buy some as it is truly outstanding! I can’t remember what kind of pasta I had but it was good if not memorable. The tiramisu however I do remember as being excellent.

One of our classmates from Japan was leaving for Paris the next morning, so she insisted on celebrating by treating us to Sangria at a Tapas bar down the street, La Habitacion liquida, mainly because she thought the il cameriere was so cute! Not sure how I made it home after all that vino and sangria but I did. Not once did I feel unsafe as a solo female traveler in Florence. Off to bed before another early morning excursion to Arezzo.
Life is Indeed Beautiful in Arezzo
Sunday, May 2, 2004

Although I am not an antiques buff, I found the idea of experiencing one of the largest antique markets in Italy intriguing. Of course, I find almost any new experience in Italy intriguing. But that it was a city I had not visited before, was an easy train ride from Florence and had looked lovely in the movie "Life is Beautiful" merited its placement on my "must do if feasible list."

So my classmates and friends Camilla and Anna and myself met at the train station to embark on this Sunday outing I had talked them into. I would have gone by myself if they declined but was happy for their company and their navigating skills. Buying a ticket using the self-service machines in the station was very easy. Instructions are clear, available in many languages, and credit cards are readily accepted. The only problem is that if your destination is not the station at the end of the line you have to figure out where that is so that you know which track/train to get on. I asked at the information desk which train stopped in Arezzo and was told it was the train to Napoli. The ticket only prints out your requested destination (Arezzo) but not that it is the Napoli train. I’m not sure I would have figured this out on my own except for matching up the time with the information/track # board.

We took a fast intercity train and shared a car with a nun. A quick 30 minutes later we arrived. It was a pleasant ride with some pretty scenery. We took an 8:42am train, so we arrived just as many of the vendors were setting up their wares. This was great because later in the day, the crowds arrived which was not as pleasant as the early morning quiet. Although this huge market brought in lots of visitors, I felt this was a truly Italian town not overrun by tourists. Not a lot of English was spoken and it felt like a true slice of Italian life unlike the bigger tourist cities of Florence or Siena. The town was beautifully kept, very clean with lovely houses and buildings in the Tuscan yellow and burnt orange hues that I so love. We wandered around the lovely streets, took in the incredible array of goods for sale, mostly home furnishings, especially furniture but also lots of estate jewelry, linens and typical flea market items.

We went to the park and the highest hill of the town, a spot that afforded us a picturesque view of the town and a spectacular vista of the countryside. Is there anything like the majesty and beauty of the cypress trees in Tuscany? It takes my breath away every trip to Italy. We also enjoyed the Piero della Francesca frescoes in the Basilica San Francesco and the lovely Piazza Grande. We watched a group of middle-aged Italian men play a game I had never seen before with a sort of paddle and a ball.

But the highlight of the day was lunch in the deli/wine shop Le Bongustaie, Via Cesalpino 6. A small shop filled with an array of deli meats, cheeses and many wonderful bottles of wine that looked like it should be in an Italian movie set. On a counter there was a grande piece of Roast Pork wafting the most tantalizing aroma. For 5E, you could make a nice lunch out of this wonderful sandwich of fresh bread and roasted pork with a wild herb stuffing that was unlike anything I had tasted before but was utterly delicious. When I asked in my best Italian (for there was no English spoken here), if it was possible to buy this herb to take home with me they said it was not. The price also included a nice glass of Rosso. We beat the crowds and were able to take in the scene (I really did feel like I was on an Italian movie set). The 2 women behind the counter wore gloves but were smoking as they cut the pork and waited on customers. I kept waiting for ashes to fall in the pork but it never did. I ended up buying a nice bottle of Il Pogo Rosso di Montalcino there for a reasonable 15E.

The town was now starting to get really crowded, so we walked a bit more before departing for Florence. We didn’t buy anything other than postcards but took lots of wonderful pictures. My friends were so thankful I had suggested this outing - it was a really lovely, laid back day. This is a town I would like to go back to experience without the antique market overwhelming it.

Back at the train station, we were right across from the magnificent Santa Maria Novella Church so what better time to take in its’ treasures? This church’s beauty blew me away. I am a fresco freak (or at least I have been since viewing the Branacci chapel on my first trip to Florence), so I was enthralled by the Capella Tornabuoni frescoes by Domenico Ghirlandaio and the Strozzi Chapel frescoes by Filippino. This was one of my favorite church experiences this trip to Italy and may have even edged out San Minato if it weren’t for the chanting monks there. The humanity reflected in the faces, the elegance of the folds in a gown, the vibrancy yet subtlety of the colors is just so beautiful. The chapel had me mesmerized - it was hard to leave.

Anna went back to her apartment and I met Camilla for dinner at Trattoria Mossacce, which I had liked for its ambience of communal tables and friendly waiters and she wanted to give it a try. She had a Ribollita, and Ossobucco, I had a Bistecca Fiorentina, and we split some Spinaci d’aglio and vino del casa. It was a fine meal and a good time. Tomorrow we would be back to school!
Frescoes and Fiesole
Monday, May 3, 2004

Monday morning and it’s back to Italian class and my wonderful teacher Marco who makes learning Italian fun despite my brain fatigue. Today was partly sunny, with more clouds and rain predicted for the rest of the week, so Camilla and I thought this might be a good day to see the sunset from Fiesole. But first it was off to lunch at Trattoria del Carmine, Piazza del Carmine, 18r, tel. 218.601. This is a typical Italian trattoria filled with locals with very good food at very reasonable prices. We could not believe the amount of food the 3 Italian gentlemen next to us were consuming - pranzo surely is the big meal of the day! We had some nice pasta dishes and I would be happy to go back again to experience more of their good food, atmosphere and friendly service.

Then it was off Capella Brancacci to see the beautiful frescoes by Masolino, Masaccio and Filippino Lippi. I didn’t remember that they only let small groups of people in for a 15 minute time period. I didn’t feel that 15 minutes was enough and it didn’t help that I got a phone call when I was there which cut into my time. I still love this chapel though. From there it was on to Madova gloves, Via Guicciardini, 1R to return a pair of gloves with a small flaw. They happily exchanged them without a hassle. This store has an amazing array of beautiful gloves. The quality is fantastic and a pair I bought 3 years ago has worn very well.

Happily, a fellow slow traveler Debbie (aka Vindesante on the Slow Travel message board) suggested we meet her in Fiesole for dinner as she was staying in an agriturismo there. Great, she would take care of dinner reservations and perhaps we would get to see our sunset. We took the #7 bus from San Marco and arrived 20 minutes later. We walked through the town a bit, had a few cookies at the most wonderful pastry shop in town (they truly melted in your mouth and the buttery taste was phenomenal - best cookies of the whole trip!) and decided to go to the archaeological area and museums. The grounds were very beautiful and we took many pictures of the surrounding countryside.

Time for a cocktail while taking in the glorious view of Florence before we met up with Debbie. Halfway through our prosecco, the dark clouds, wind and rain descended and we had to run inside before we were blown away! So much for our sunset. But there was something cool and dramatic about the dark clouds over Florence too.

Debbie picked us up and brought us to Le Lance Ristorante, Via G. Mantellini 2/b, that had been recommended to her by her agriturismo host. This was the most American meal I experienced in Italy. Although it was filled with locals, it was a very contemporary restaurant (including the art work) and the portions of food were huge! I mistakenly ordered a fried chicken dish, which came complete with a large order of French fries, making me feel as if I was dining in the Sates! My dining companions had more Tuscan fare but none of it was outstanding. The exception was the wine. Campo Ai Sassi Frescobaldi, a Rosso di Montalcino 2002 that was outstanding. I later saw this bottle of wine at various wine stores and was sorry I didn’t buy one to bring home with me.

The company and the view made for a nice evening and I was happy to have seen Fiesole. Camilla had her wedding ceremony in Fiesole 2 years ago so it was nice for her to return as well.
Transported by Ava Maria
Tuesday, May 4, 2004

Tuesday, after a full day of classes, I toured the San Lorenzo Church, (another beautiful Italian church - what's new?), had a lovely lunch at Trattoria Za Za, went wine shopping at Casa del Vino, leather glove shopping at Madova, and scooped out Max Mira (green, yellow and beige seemed to be in fashion). No wonder I wasn’t able to keep up with my blog! But the evening was even more special. I had a lovely wine tasting experience with my friend Camilla from school at Le volpi e l’uva (Nobile Montepulciano and Brunello); that with a plate of Italian cheeses, assorted salamis and crostinis made a terrific light meal.

Dopo (or next as they say in Italian), we had the extraordinary pleasure of listening to a tenor and organist perform a selection of classical music in the beautiful candlelit setting of Chiesa Maria de Ricci on Via del Corso. The highlight was his rendition of Ave Maria. I have heard better renditions of the Ave Maria in my lifetime but never in such a historical, intimate setting. It was an extraordinary experience and one of the many awe-inspiring moments I have had in this amazing city of Florence.
A Treasure Hunt and Duomo Day
Wednesday, May 5, 2004

This was the day of my most fun language class. Our class split into 2 teams of 3 each and went on a treasure hunt at the Central Market. We had to find answers to such questions as "what was the most inexpensive fruit in season?", "Is Tuscan bread salted?" (I knew the answer to this one without asking), find 3 different brands of pasta products etc. The goal was to interact with the vendors politely and find our answers within 20 minutes. Asking the questions was the easy part. When one fruit vendor launched into a fast paced dialogue on the various native fruits of the season I could only nod my head in agreement. I caught maybe every 3rd word. Our team did win the contest and it was so much fun on many different levels; trying to speak and understand Italian, the wonderful sights and sounds of the Central Market, and participating in a treasure hunt (something I had probably not done in - oh I’d say - 40 years or so).

Despite walking past the Duomo everyday on my way back and forth to class, I had not yet gotten around to stepping inside it as of my 13th day on this trip to Florence. I figured it was just around the corner and I could do it anytime. But now I only had 4 full days left and I thought I better get to it and also see the Duomo Museum. Given that it was a rather rainy day, it seemed as good a day as any to take make this my Duomo day. Because the exterior of the Duomo is so magnificent, I remember being totally under whelmed by the interior the last time I visited. Especially when it is compared to Siena’s Duomo or several Roman churches that I had experienced before visiting Florence’s centerpiece. But it was really much more impressive than I had remembered. I once again gasped at its’ vastness and Brunelleschi’s genius.

I had not been to the Duomo museum before and enjoyed it very much. I love that a ticket to almost every major site in Italy is in itself a work of art. It is such a joy to flip through my scrapbook and appreciate all over again these quintessential Italian slips of paper/art. The Duomo Museum seems to be a very undiscovered museum. In my 2 weeks in Florence, I never saw a line and it was almost empty on this rainy afternoon. Viewing the original eight panels from the Baptistery doors, without a gate or crowds, with English explanations was well worth the price of admission. Just beautiful! The Pieta by Michelangelo, created when he was 80 years of age as his own tomb was incredibly moving. And the choir boxes by Lucca della Robbia and Donatello were so detailed and extraordinarily beautiful. How could so much talent live in the same time period? Definitely worth a visit! It is hard put into words how incredibly awesome it was to walk past the Duomo several times a day because it was in "my neighborhood". I can still close my eyes and picture it so vividly. It was a true privilege to be in its shadow and an experience I will not soon forget.

Dinner that night with Camilla was at Bucca dell'Orafo, Volta dei Gorolami, 28R in a little alcove near the Ponte Vecchio. I had dined here on my last trip to Florence and had remembered it fondly. My memory held true and we were not disappointed. I had some fresh peas in season with pecorino cheese and olive oil, that was delicious, and Camilla had her favorite artichokes in olive oil, that were also lovely. Luckily we are both foodies and weren't too proud to taste each other's selections. We both had nice pasta dishes, which I can’t quite remember, but remember being happy with in addition to the reasonable cost. The ambience was purely local Italian and fun. A definite recommendation.

We had originally planned to go to Osteria Cinghale Bianco on via San Jacopo but it is closed on Wednesday. We never did make it there - another reason to return to Florence!
Last Day of School
Thursday, May 6, 2004

Because I felt that there was still so much I wanted to see (and, OK, shop for) in Florence and only a little time left, I decided that I would end my classes today instead of Friday. I felt OK about this decision, unusual for me with my normal Catholic guilt thing usually kicking in, because Marco said that our class moved so quickly that we had already covered what he usually covers in 2 weeks. So I sadly said my goodbyes to my classmates and wonderful teacher, took photos and exchanged email addresses. But now I had a whole day and a half ahead of me to spend any way I wanted to. Yipee - I felt like a kid on the first day of summer vacation! Too bad the weather didn't feel like summer.

It was a rather cold and rainy day, so I treated myself to the hot chocolate at Gilli Café on Piazza della Repubblica. It was really more like a drinkable version of thick chocolate pudding and was unbelievably good. The next day I would do a taste comparison at Rivoire in the beautiful Piazza della Signoria and would have to say that Gilli’s hot chocolate was a tad better. I did get my hot chocolate at Rivore with whipped cream however, so it was not really an equal taste test. You couldn’t go wrong at either if you’re a chocoholic like me.

Today was the day I also broke down and bought the beautiful leather bound scrapbook at Lilium, Via del Proconsolo, 7R. I think this is my favorite purchase of the trip.

But then again there are the most exquisite pieces of ceramics I also bought that day at Rampini Ceramics, Borgo Ognissanti, 32/34. I had thoroughly scoped out numerous ceramics shops before settling on this shop to finally purchase some pieces I could carry home with me. On a previous scouting visit, I had visited the Ognissanti church right next door. I had the special experience of having the whole church to myself for a while and it was so peaceful. There are frescoes by Ghirlandaio and Boteicelli here and Botticelli is buried here. Definitely worth a visit if you’re in the neighborhood. I cannot say enough about the beauty and quality of the ceramics at Rampini.

There were a few other stores that I also thought had lovely pieces: Ceramiche San Lorenzo, Via Borgo s. Lorenzo, 29r (near the Duomo), Ditta Luca della Robbia, Via del Proconsolo, 19r (near the Bargello) and Galleria Ponte Vecchio, Via Guiciardini, 104r just over the Ponte Vecchio. But Rampini is where I could have spent a fortune had I not restricted myself to pieces that would fit on my carry on luggage. This store is mainly a showroom for their work as they custom design pieces for you but they also have numerous pieces you can buy. I loved their products so much that once I got home I ordered their catalogue just so I could drool over the artistry of their work.

Home to rest before meeting Camilla and Marian (a fellow Slow Traveler on the message board) for dinner at Ristorante Ricchi, Piazza Santo Spirito, 8R. I had not yet been to Piazza Santo Spirito and thought it was just beautiful in the shadow of the stunning Santo Spirito Church, which unfortunately, I did not get a chance to visit. It was very quiet on this rainy Thursday night. It was wonderful to meet Marion after chatting with her on the message board and she was eager to hear about our school experience, as she would be starting at Koine in a few days.

The meal was very good, a wonderful pasta dish and a sea bass with a palate cleansing sorbet in between. The service was very good and the presentation lovely but it didn’t feel very Italian to me. The setting was contemporary and I felt that I could have been in a nice restaurant in New York or Boston. I am happy to have experienced it but would not feel compelled to return. A little too pricey and chi chi for me. Give me an Italian trattoria such as Mario’s any day over this type of experience. However, it was a very nice evening with good company and I made plans with Marian to meet on Sunday for our excursion to Chiusi and a Slow Travel get together (GTG) lunch in the Tuscan countryside.
Fantastic Final Friday in Firenze
Friday, May 7, 2004

I could have slept in as I was not attending class today but the thought of the early morning quiet around the Duomo propelled me out of bed at my usual 7am. It was cloudy and the skies didn’t look too promising. I had climbed the Duomo’s Dome on a previous visit to Florence so I thought this time I would climb Giotto’s tower to get a different perspective of the Duomo. Besides it has 50 fewer steps!

The majesty of the Duomo in the early morning before the crowds arrive cannot adequately be described in mere words. It is a feast for the senses and spirit. Climbing the stairs in near solitude is also a joyful experience. On each landing I would ooh and ahh over the sights and the details of the magnificent façade of the Duomo. The sun cooperated for my shots of the glorious view of Florence below and the clouds lent a scenic backdrop.

On to the market stalls to exchange a scarf with a small defect (which they did after some persuading), it began to rain rather hard so I took the opportunity to duck into the Biblioteca Medicea Laurrenziana which is only open until 1:30pm Tuesday - Saturday. It is located in Piazza S. Lorenzo. There was an exhibition of Lucius Seneca that was quite beautiful and impressive. The whole library felt holy, almost church-like, bathed in very soft lighting on its displays of ancient and beautiful manuscripts. Definitely worth a stop. The rain had abated by the time I emerged from the library, which made it pleasant for my final shopping of the San Lorenzo stalls. I checked out gloves but none met the quality of the previously mentioned Madova store. I picked up a few more scarves for gifts and bought the black leather bag I had been eyeing all week.

I am very proud of this purchase because I bargained with the seller and brought the final price down 24E from the asking price. Bargaining is not my forte but I had read that it is fairly common in the stalls and I really wanted this black, very soft bag made by the Tosca Company. So I told her how much I liked the bag but that it was really more than I wanted to spend. I asked if she would give a discount for cash and she reduced the price by 10 E. A little more hemming and hawing and she came down another 9E. I said OK but was still sighing about the cost when she said she would discount it another 5 euros so I wouldn’t have to come back. She was probably glad to get rid of me by then! I do love my bag though.

After stopping to drop off my purchases at my B&B, I headed out to the San Frediano District to Baccini on Via Pisana to check out a clothing store that Maureen from Slow Travel had said had nice clothes at outlet prices. Though it was a trek, I figured that even if I didn’t find anything, I would have a better idea of prices when I went to the Prada Outlet the next day. The owner spoke very little English, so my Italian got a work out as we looked for a skirt (gonna) that might fit me. All were too big so I thanked him for his time and headed back towards the Ponte Vecchio. I checked out Trattoria Sabatino recommended by Maureen and Diva of Slow Travel and Rick Steves. Looked great with very reasonable prices but it was just a tad too early for lunch and I didn’t want to be the sole dinner there.

Back to the Pitti Palace area to check out the street artists’ watercolors. Unfortunately the rainy weather had really hampered the showing of their wares so I was glad that I had bought a watercolor from what turned out to be my favorite artist, Hiko Nagahama, when I had visited the Bobboli gardens on a sunny day the week before. He is a very talented Japanese man who I felt had the most exquisite watercolors of all those I had checked out in the Duomo area, the Uffizi and the Pitti Palace. His prices were more than fair. I am looking forward to framing this beautiful and vibrant Duomo and cypress scene. I never found him again and ended up buying a smaller watercolor of the Ponte Vecchio from an artist near the Uffizi.

Now it was lunchtime and I tried Cammillo Trattoria, Borgo S. Jacopo 57r about which I had read some good reviews. It was a lovely white linen restaurant that was not too busy until a large crowd of British academics (at least that’s what they sounded like) descended. There were quite a few local ladies lunching also. I hadn’t yet had one of my favorites (fried zucchini flowers), so I had them as an appetizer and they were yummy. I asked for the waiter’s recommendation on a pasta dish and he suggested pasta with fresh peas in season with a light garlic and oil sauce. It was delicious! The restaurant was not a bargain but it was a really nice pranzo with house wine and an espresso to finish. Funny how I got into the espresso thing this trip. I am a cappuccino or caffe latte person at home and on previous trips to Italy. But add a little sugar to an espresso and I now get it! Great caffeine boost after wine with lunch.

On to the Baptistery because it was on the way home and I remembered loving the mosaics there (remembered correctly - they are impressive) before meeting up with Camilla to revisit Piazza Michelangelo and the nearby Iris festival and Chiesa San Miniato al Monte with it’s chanting monks. We walked to Piazza Michelangelo and lucked out with only spritzes of rain. It was a lovely 20-minute walk and the views are always worth the climb. The Iris festival was pretty but not overwhelming with only a few patches of the planted areas fully in bloom. This may have been because of a very cold and rainy spring. Loved taking in San Miniato in a more leisurely pace, once again marveling at the exterior, exquisitely painted wooden beams, frescoes and the melodious monks. God must have been watching out for us as it had stopped raining as we emerged but vast puddles informed us that we missed a major rainstorm while inside this beautiful church.

Met my cousin’s daughter for a farewell dinner in Piazza San Spirito at one of her favorite restaurants, Borgo Antico, Piazza S. Spirito, 6r. Had a great dinner for 54E, which included a bottle of Campo di Sasso that I had enjoyed so much in Fiesole, a wonderful caprese insalata and 2 wonderful pasta dishes. This was a happening restaurant with a youngish crowd but there was a fair amount of annoying smoke. My cousin had returned from a long weekend in Sicily, which she raved about and included a climb up Mt Etna! She has had many wonderful experiences during her semester in Florence and was not looking forward to returning home. Who can blame her? Italy is now in her blood too!

A busy but wonderful last full day in Florence. Definitely a day worth skipping class for.
Precious Prada and Scenic Siena
Saturday, May 8, 2004

Up early to pick up our rental car at Autoeuropa on Via Borgognisssanti, which had the cheapest daily rate we could find at 50E (inclusive of insurance) so that we could beat the crowds on our excursion to the Prada outlet. Camilla had a friend who recommended this outlet over all others outside of Florence, not that I needed any convincing or excuses to go.

Our fellow classmate Marilyn joined us on this jaunt. Marilyn was another lovely and fascinating person I felt privileged to meet during this trip. On the other side of 60, she had signed up for a month long course at the Koine. A couple of years ago (I think that time frame is correct) she had attended the Koine school in Lucca and found the Florence experience better. She had my respect in many ways, not the least of which was that in addition to our 3 1/2 hour morning class she took an additional 2 hours in the afternoon. And I was complaining about brain fatigue! Marilyn has led a very interesting life that included; becoming a pharmacist against her old-fashioned father’s wishes (not a female profession in his opinion in those days), studying in Norway and learning 2 different Norwegian dialects, marrying a Norwegian sculptor, returning to the States to an University teaching career and marrying a fellow colleague who happens to be Japanese, and now learning Italian in her retirement! After her month of classes, her husband and later some friends would meet her to explore Southern Tuscany. She lives in Portland, Oregon and I smile as I write this in thinking about her great dry sense of humor.

So here we have a woman in her mid-thirties (the driver, of course), myself at 50 plus and Marilyn more than a decade my senior (OK so I’m low balling our ages). An unlikely group to share a tremendous amount in common, let alone the same sense of fashion, except for the wonderful circumstances that have brought us together in Italy. Despite fairly specific directions from the website, we did experience some difficulty in finding SPACE which is the Prada outlet warehouse in the suburb of Montevarchi. See a very informative thread on the Slow Travel message board (shopping help! designer outlets) for specifics on location and hours. We left Florence by 9am and reached our destination around 10:15am I think, with one wrong turn that only cost 10 minutes or so.

Prada only allows 30 customers in at a time (10 if the lines are really long) so you take a number from a ticket dispenser and a flashing sign instructs what number is being currently admitted. It felt like I was going to a show and in many ways I was. Happily for us, we were there early enough that we were able to walk right in. By the time we left an hour and a half later (including cappuccino and bathroom breaks), the wait was about 2 hours to get in. I saw many disgruntled boyfriends/husbands at the thought of waiting 2 hours. It was one of the few times during this trip that I was glad my husband was not accompanying me. So I guess it pays to go early.

Prada is a good-sized store with different sections for shoes, purses (the 2 busiest spots) and a women and men’s clothing section. I have never looked at Prada goods in the States, so I really didn’t know what to expect price wise. Camilla told me that she thought the prices were between 40 and 60% off US prices. Well I can never resist a bargain (and unfortunately have many bargains in my closet that have seen very little wear) but this sounded good to me. At first I thought that I wouldn’t find anything that didn’t seem exorbitant and would just end up with a Prada key chain as a souvenir of the experience. But after some searching, I did find a very comfortable and reasonable pair of casual shoes and a lovely skirt I could wear to work. I loved the cut and flow of the skirt-is it my unabashed love for all things Italian or do Italian designers really know how to cut clothes in the most flattering way? Although a lot of the styles were trendy, this particular skirt is a classic that I will get a lot of wear out of I think. Camilla found some shoes and leather wallets for presents and Marilyn bought a cool belt for her son. I was tempted by the beautiful purses but just couldn’t bring myself to spend that much even if they were half price.

The most amazing part of the experience was watching other shoppers. Particularly the Japanese women who bought bags of every color (sometimes 10 or more!). I imagine they were buying for friends but still! We were happy to leave without spending a fortune and before the real crowds arrived. I am so glad to have had this Italian outlet experience but not sure I would go back to this particular outlet again unless someone made it as easy for me as this trip was.

Next it was off to scenic Siena. We had all been there before and unanimously loved its beautiful Campo. Besides revisiting one of the most beautiful Duomos in all of Italy IMHO, I was on a quest to find a particular jewelry store where I had bought a beautiful bracelet and had subsequently lost on a trip to NYC when it broke and fell off my wrist in Rockefeller Center. We had no problem getting to Siena from the outlet and parked at the San Francesco parking lot that was well signed and easy to find. The pleasure of this particular lot was the escalator up the Centro area. Worth the parking fee and then some!

This was my 3rd trip to Siena and the beauty of Il Campo never fails to make me sigh with pleasure. It is to date my favorite central piazza in Italy and a real slice of Italian life can be observed here. Our first priority was lunch. I had suggested a restaurant right off the Campo that I had enjoyed on my last trip, La Torre, Via Salicotto, 7-9, but my companions felt it was a bit pricey. So we wandered off the Campo a bit and found La finestra, Piazza del Mercato, 14, a nice trattoria with simple and reasonable Tuscan offerings. There was a photo shoot for an Italian magazine taking place while we were there which was fun to watch, particularly a bridal scene. We all had various pasta dishes, including pici (a specialty of this area), salads and a house wine that was very pleasant.

Then it was off to find a ceramics shop that I had remembered liking very much on my last trip here. I was proud of myself for finding it again. Bianco e Nero, Via Dei Fusori, 21 is near the Duomo. If you’re facing the Duomo, it is down a small incline to your left. We all bought a few small pieces of the owner’s lovely and unique aquamarine pieces. We left them to pick up later so we could roam Siena some more without being burdened with our purchases. We couldn’t visit Siena without experiencing the magnificent Duomo and Piccolomini Library and I was awed all over again. I do think this is my favorite Duomo in Italy.

I didn’t want to drag my friends in my search for the jewelry store so we agreed to meet back in the Campo in 45 minutes. Despite wandering over many of the streets I thought it could be on, I was unsuccessful in my quest. However, I got to take many photos of the scenic streets and enjoy the Siena sights. It was the weekend for the oca (goose) contrada to display their flags and have their marching bands dressed in medieval attire roam the streets. This was so cool to watch!

Meeting up with my friends who had been enjoying a glass of prosecco in one of the outside cafes on the Campo, we decided we had better pick up our ceramics and head back to Florence. Wouldn’t you know it-on the way back to the parking garage, I spotted my elusive jewelry store! It is Louis Ciocchetti, Banchi di Sopra, 91. Unfortunately, they were very busy (and you know how the Italians very politely only wait on one customer at a time), so I didn’t get a chance to have them show me their bracelet collection. However, now I know where it is for the next trip to Siena!

We were strolling back to the parking lot during passeggiata time (around 5 pm) and this is where I had my goose moment event of the trip. A group of middle-aged Italian men spontaneously broke into song as they were walking and it was just beautiful. Such a true Italian moment. The passeggiata here is really lively, fun and such a great people-watching event. I didn’t experience this in Florence - too many tourists I think.

When we started out in the morning, we thought we might try to get to San Gimignano on this excursion but now realized that would not be practical. So we headed back to Florence and found our way fairly easily until reaching Florence proper. The signage here is very confusing. Marilyn’s navigating skills got us through however and now we had to just figure out where to return the car after hours. Our instructions from the rental agency we now realized had not been clear. The agent had told us to park in a nearby hotel’s lot and return the keys to another address but the hotel said it would charge a hefty fee so we had to scour the area for a legal street parking spot near the agency, leaving a note as to where we left it.

Our parking spot just happened to be right in front of Ristorante Il Profeta, a spot that me and Camilla had eaten at before but Marilyn had not. By this time, after our ordeal of getting back into Florence and finding a parking place, not to mention carrying our shopping bags, Il Profeta looked good to us. We had Insalata Mista with their delicious olive oil, and our secondo was Bistecca alla Fiorentina. At least that’s what Marilyn and I shared, I can’t recall what Camilla had. It was very good and a pleasant way to end our day.

Oh but not quite yet. Marilyn left us to take her bus home and Camilla felt that she needed something to aid her digestion after all that food. So we stopped at Capocaccia, Lungarno Corsini 12/14r to share a grappa. I have never been a big fan of grappa but Camilla turned me on to the concept of choosing a more expensive selection for a smoother taste. Maybe it was my imagination but it really did seem to help the digestion process. I guess I’ll have to try it at home and really put it to the test! This was a very happening bar with lots of young people, a DJ with loud music and a nice spread of antipasti. I was thinking my kids would have liked this scene. My son for the music and my daughter for all the good-looking Italian men!

We said our goodbyes as this was the last time I would see Camilla which was sad as I had really enjoyed sharing the delights of Florence with her and felt she had become a good friend in a very short period of time. Luckily she lives in NYC, so we planned to meet for an Italian meal there or in Boston sometime. Tomorrow would be my last full day in Italy - it hardly seemed possible that my time here was almost over. I miss my husband but know I will miss Italy too.
A Slow Traveler's Trip to the Tuscan Countryside
Sunday, May 9, 2004

And A Farewell to Firenze.

Today is a day I had been looking forward to since it was first planned with fellow Slow Travelers from the Slow Travel message board several months ago. Joanna, who is currently restoring a house she bought in Castiglione d'Orcia last year and plans on living in Italy full time next spring, choose our meeting place. See her blog "The View from Il Loggino" for more details and lovely pictures. Her sister, family and a friend who were visiting from Australia and helping her with the house were also part of our party. Carol (who had studied at the Koine school in Lucca and had encouraging words for me in my endeavor) and her charming husband John generously offered to pick Marian and me up in Chiusi, were the other members of this lively party.

I met Marian at the train at 8:20am to catch the 8:42 Intercity train to Chiusi. Buying tickets from the automated machine was painless (English option) and convenient (credit cards readily accepted and there is a place to stamp your ticket). The ride to Chiusi was scenic and took about an hour.

After a quick cappuccino break near the station, we took a taxi to the Centro to visit the pretty Duomo and Museo Archeologico that was about 5 kilometers or so from the train station. Lots of interesting Etruscan artifacts and history to take in. Walking around the Duomo area, we ran into some marching children in colorful costumes. Gotta love Italy, it seems most days are celebrations of some sort. We swung by the tourist information office to see where we might find a taxi to take us back to the station to catch our ride with Carol and John who were coming from Umbria for our Slow Travel lunch. A helpful information person called a taxi for us.

Carol and John soon arrived and we drove scenic country roads to meet the rest of our party at the beautiful La Rosa del Trinoro Restaurant in Sarteano. John warned us that he was a fast driver and hoped it wouldn’t make us nervous, but I live in the Boston area (John had also in the past), well known for its less than moderate drivers, so it didn’t faze me. We found the restaurant without much trouble and met up with Joanna et all.

This was just a fabulous restaurant in a very lovely setting. After a pre-lunch glass of wine, we were seated at two tables for one of the best meals of my trip. I don’t recall all the details, but there were complimentary antipasti (a shrimp in a drinkable broth that was delicious), wonderful pasta dishes and palate cleaning sorbets. Some of the group had the set menu that looked wonderful and got great reviews. I had a roasted pork chop with garlic-mashed potatoes that was yummy. I think we shared some terrific deserts and of course had our share of wine. The service was terrific and the waiters were very funny and accommodating. Carol, Joanna, Marian, Joanna’s friend from Australia and myself sat at the same table. Lots of laughter and sharing Italian experiences as well as indulging in a little Slowtalk message board gossip! It was such a fun day in such a beautiful setting. A truly great way to spend my last day in Tuscany.

After our goodbyes, Carol and John dropped us back off at the train station in Chiusi. We lucked out and caught a train back to Florence within 15 minutes. By the time we reached Florence, it was early evening - my last in Florence! I wished Marian well in her studies at the Koine school and her stay in Florence and returned to my room to begin packing for the trip home. Of course I had too much stuff and ended up leaving some books and toiletries behind to lighten my load. I bubble wrapped all my breakable items. My bag was so tightly packed that there really wasn’t any room for the wine or olive oil to move so I thought they should be all right.

Claudio, my host at the B&B arranged for an early morning taxi. I already had my ticket to Rome but I am always nervous on departure days and like to leave plenty of time for mishaps. My train was at 6:40am leaving plenty of time to catch the Leonardo Express to FCO and check in for my 11:55am AA flight to Boston via London.

Having had such a large and long lunch, I really wasn’t hungry for dinner, so ended up just having a gelato instead. I took one last stroll down Via Roma to Ponte Vecchio to shoot some last pictures in Firenze’s twilight. It seemed hard to believe that I had been here 17 days! But all good things must come to an end so I said my goodbyes to this beautiful city and promised myself I would be back.
The Journey Home
Monday, May 10, 2004

I had gone to the American Express office on Via Dante Alighieri, 22R earlier in the week to purchase my Eurostar ticket to Rome. I am a worrier and a planner, so having my ticket in advance was one less thing to worry about. I also knew that I was probably going to have a wee bit of trouble carrying all my loot home by myself so was looking for advice on the best seat on the train to minimize my luggage worries. The agent at American Express could not have been more helpful. I told her I wanted a seat close to the end of the car where baggage is stored, as I knew I would not be able to lift my rolling duffel on to the overhead racks. She did better than that and reserved seat number 92 for me on car #10 (second class - perfectly comfortable), which is a single seat, closest to the exit and has room on the floor right next to the seat for bags. Perfetto! My bags would be right next to me and I wouldn’t have to drag them far. She also suggested that I purchase the ticket for the Leonardo Express (at a cost of 9.50 E) so that I wouldn’t have to worry about that once I arrived at the train station in Rome. Stupendo! Of course these transactions took place in English so there were no misunderstandings in my less than perfect Italian.

My mobile cell alarm didn’t fail me for a 5:30am wake-up and the taxi that had been ordered the night before arrived promptly at 6:15am. Claudio gallantly helped with my bags and I was at the train station in less than 10 minutes. I took in my last view of the beautiful Santa Maria Novella Church and said my final goodbye to Florence. It was easy to find the 6:40am Eurostar to Florence and I boarded right away. I managed to shove my bags up the few steps without too much trouble. I was able to doze a bit and arrived at the Rome terminal on time an hour and a half later. Next was the hardest part of my trip home. You have to go down many steps to reach the main terminal and the connecting express train to the airport. I slung my carry-on over one shoulder and had to pretty much drag and bump my rolling duffel down the stairs. I was praying that none of my bottles or pottery would shatter all the while swearing at my stupidity and promising myself that I would never again and try to bring back so much by myself!

I did finally manage to get down those seemingly endless stairs and followed signs for track 26 where the American Express agent told me the Leonardo Express was located. Signs for the express train were numerous and clear. Let me explain here that I am only 4'10" and despite some weight training, this was a true struggle for me. Not that I regret one purchase now that I am home and enjoying them all but I did question my sanity at that moment!

The Leonardo Express leaves every 30 minutes at 22 after the hour and 52 before the hour. I made the 8:52 train which meant that I would be at the airport 20 minutes later by 9:30am. This would be more than enough time to check in for an 11:55am British Airways flight. Plenty of time to eat, browse (and I do mean browse as I had not an inch of room to fit anymore stuff) the shops and get my VAT taxes refunded.

A nice Italian young man helped me push my bags up on the Express train and I was able to find a seat in a car closest to the door – Thank God! Because I couldn’t have struggled any further with my luggage. Twenty minutes later I arrived at FCO and asked the information desk where the BA desk was. Happily, it wasn’t too far because I had been looking at the porters longingly. No line at BA as I was so early and I did manage to lift my bag onto the conveyer praying it would make the weight limits. When I asked the agent if she would put a fragile sticker on my bag (she had already put a heavy sticker on it), she asked "why, do you have any bottles in your bag?" In such a manner as to suggest that if I had been crazy enough to do that, I would have to remove them and repack, so I replied meekly "No, just ceramics", despite my Irish Catholic guilt trip thing about lying to authorities. Lesser of two evils in this case I thought. Happily, my bags were checked all the way to Boston because BA is an AA partner. Never was I so happy to check in a bag!

This was the first time I had flown BA and it was a most pleasant experience. Friendly, efficient service I thought. The London airport scene is always a zoo but has lots of great shops to peruse. The AA flight home was uneventful and not full. I found two seats that I could stretch out in and had a fairly restful flight home.

Happily my bags arrived with me and all bottles and ceramics were intact! Bubble wrap - what a great invention! It was wonderful to reunite with my husband after the longest time I had ever spent away from him in 27 years and begin to catch up. I had the time of my life, and can’t wait to go back!
Final Thoughts

Looking back on my wish list of what I wanted to do in Florence, I am quite happy that I managed to do most of them. There are a few things that I wished I had more time to do:
  • Try many more gelato shops than the 4 I got to enjoy!
  • Experience sunset over Florence from Piazza Michelangelo/Fiesole (I did see this view but not with the sun setting as the weather didn’t cooperate).
  • Take the #13 bus to tour the city.
  • Visit Michelangelo's House.
  • Spend more time in the Central Market exploring all it’s nooks and crannies, chatting with vendors (in Italian!) and tasting olive oils and balsamic vinegars. It is only open until 2 pm and school didn’t get out until 1 pm.
  • Visit the Palazzo Vecchio.
  • Spend more time at Officina Profumo Farmaceutica di Santa Maria Novella testing their creams, oils and essences.
  • Visit the Museo Salvatore Ferragamo with its eclectic collection of shoes and photos of his shoes on famous feet.
  • Explore the inside the Santo Spirito Church.
  • Spend more time in the Santa Croce area and visit the Leather School there.
  • Revisit the Pitti Palace.
  • See the Perugino frescoes at Santa Maria Maddalena de Pazzi.
  • Revisit the Medici Chapels.
  • See Brunellesschi’s Hospital of the Innocents.
  • Take in the Istituto e Museo di Storia della Scienza now that I've read Gailelo's Daughter.
  • Visit the Orsanmichele Church.
  • Explore many of the small boutique shops where I saw many beautiful, flowing skirts and dresses that Italians are so talented at creating.
  • Experience more live music or concerts.
  • Visit more enoteccas to experience much more of the fabulous Tuscan wines.
A few "Bests" on this trip include
  • Best Lunch - Tie between Trattoria Mario and Trattoria Cibero
  • Most fun place for Dinner - Tattorria Le Mossacce
  • Best very cheap dinner - Osteria Zio Gigi
  • Best overall meal and wine experience - Cantinetta Antinori
  • Best leather gloves - Madova
  • Best Ceramics - Rampini Ceramics
  • Best Leather Bound Albums - Lilium
  • Best Pizza - il Pizzaiuolo
  • Best Hot Chocolate - Gilli
  • Best gelato - Perche No
  • Best casual /drop in lunch - Yellow Bar
  • Best Bargains - San Lorenzo Stalls
  • Best View of Florence - Fiesole
  • Best Street Art - in front of Pitti Palace
  • Favorite Church - tie between Santa Maria Novella and San Miniato al Monte
  • Favorite Excursion - Arezzo
  • View you never tire of - looking up to San Miniato façade from the Ponte Vecchio over the Arno.
  • Most beautiful setting for lunch in the countryside - Can’t choose, both were breathtakingly beautiful but we did get to actually eat outside at La Cantinetta Di Rignana in Greve but La Rosa del Trinoro Restaurant in Sarteano was in a spectacular setting too.
Guide Books/Notes I found Most Helpful
  • Rick Steves' Florence and Tuscany - I sheepishly admit to this book being my most used guide over the many more sophisticated guides I brought such as the Michelin Guide. Simple, to the point and easy to use. Some of his museum commentary is irreverent but they were good for a quick overview.
  • Lonely Planet Florence Condensed - easy to carry, some good walks.
  • Diva Cucina’s Florence for Foodies Notes - Not only were these great recommendations but they are arranged by neighborhoods that make them user friendly.
  • The Food Lover’s Guide to Florence by Emily Wise Miller - very comprehensive, hard to believe but better than Carla Capalbo or Faith Willinger’s books (I had considered them my bible until I found this one - but then it is specific to Florence and the others cover Tuscany too).
  • Eating and Drinking in Italy - a menu reader and restaurant guide by Any Herbach and Michael Dillion. A thin and useful guide to translate menu that can slip in your pocket.
  • B&B City Streets - a laminated map of Firenze with public transport listed.

This trip was beyond wonderful on so many different levels: For empowering me as a solo traveler and all that I learned about myself from that experience. Finding the stamina to push myself to keep trying to learn Italian when my brain really isn’t wired for languages. Meeting so many interesting and truly nice people. Getting to know one place fairly well and by the end of the trip really improving on my navigating skills. Having the most wonderful meals and wine. Experiencing so much astoundingly beautiful art and architecture. Marveling at the beautiful craftsmanship of Italian goods from ceramics to leather to paper. Feeling more "Italian" as each day passed.

Ciao Florence! I’ll be back!


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