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Florence On My Own: Three Weeks of Studying Italian and Very Slow Travel

#1
By Marian from New Jersey, Spring 2004
May 5-26 2004. Three weeks in Florence, staying in an apartment in the Oltr'arno and studying Italian at the Centro Koine.

This trip report was originally posted on SlowTrav.

Before I begin talking about my time in Florence, I’ll say a few words

Wednesday 5 May: Today is the day I begin my long-awaited “Florence for Three Weeks in May.” I’m particularly excited because this vacation promises to be different for me. I love to travel but since my husband Frank died in March 1997, I've been trying to figure out the best way to do it.

My instinct is always to go it alone, and this is what I do, mostly. In October 1997, I spend ten days in Paris on my own, just to get away from all that is weighing me down. My French is quite good, and I’ve been there at least four times before and so don’t care if I spend the whole time sitting on a bench and crying. I stay at a lovely hotel, see the Paris Opera Ballet, and have a fairly decent time.

I twice try traveling to Europe with friends. First I go with a good friend from school. We get along fine, and she is an interesting travel companion. But she does not really enjoy some of the same things I do, among them people watching, or having an early-evening drink. So for me, something is missing from this vacation. And I have the luxury of being able to travel in the late spring and early fall, which she does not. (I’m happy to say we remain friends.)

About a year later, I travel with a woman I’ve known for ages, who has been on her own much longer than I have. But she is dependent beyond my wildest imagination! Although I am quite clear in advance that we will not be spending all our time together, she will not even go down to breakfast by herself! So I can’t wait for the vacation to be over.

So I plan on my own. One summer, I volunteer on an archaeological dig at Megiddo in Israel (the site of many biblical battles, and also the site of Armageddon in Revelations). This is fun, and there is a great feeling of camaraderie. But we work very hard, outdoors in near 100° F temperatures. And you really only want to do this once!

Twice I join organized walking tours in Italy, which has become my favorite country. The first tour, in Tuscany through a US company, was wonderful --- great scenery, food, hotels and (especially important to me) friendly people. But these trips are very expensive. So I try a slightly less costly trip with a British group. Less said about my travel companions the better!

Then last May, after a walking tour to the Maremma that I’ve signed on for is cancelled, I decide that, rather than cancelling the vacation I will try Florence on my own. (I've been to Florence three times previously, in 1964 (solo), 1968 (honeymoon) and October 2000 (solo). I spend a pleasant 10 days at a charming hotel. And I am not too lonely, but this business of always eating alone gets to be a drag.

Meanwhile, I discover the SlowTrav message board and website! Can this be the best of both worlds? With advice from people on the board, this time I book my tickets, rent an apartment and sign up for two weeks of Italian class. Best of all, I have the promise of dinners and lunches with SlowTrav friends, people to share my travel experiences!

So the adventure is to start today. (And this year, unlike last year, I have not started by losing my passport!) My daughter drives me to Newark Airport, less than a half-hour from home. We kiss goodbye, I check my luggage, my flight leaves on time. I do not spill too much food on myself. I make my connecting flight in Paris. It’s beginning!
 
#2
Sono Arrivata! Or, The Carmine and Me

Thursday 6 May: I arrive in Florence with ease — flights, luggage delivery, ATM all cooperate nicely — and I quickly find a taxi.

So, of course, I have to start out by creating a problem. This I accomplish by losing the address of my apartment at Residenza Il Carmine. I tell the driver that it is on Via d’Ardiglione, which we agree is a very short street. But I cannot give him the number, as apparently that does not appear on any of the e-mail I’ve exchanged with the management. He seems very concerned, and I cannot tell whether he thinks I’m yet another idiot tourist, or is justifiably annoyed at a delay in his busy day, or perhaps is actually worried for me.

So we pull up to the street, and I begin making inquiries; the first two people have no idea where it is. Then the man I soon learn is part of the owning family appears on the street and says “Marian?”. The driver backs up to the correct door, takes out my luggage, and very kindly wishes me a good stay. For some reason I am quite pleased that I have not begun my vacation with an angry taxi driver. And thus my wonderful stay begins.

My apartment is even better than I expected --- nothing worn or shabby in it. The interior garden is lovely. This will be a nice place to come “home” to.

Miriam, my landlady, tells me that “due signori” were asking for me --- they know me from the internet. So this must be Dan, AKA “JaketheDog” from ST, who is also staying here; we’ve been in contact through private messaging. But I am too confused about how to use the phone to be able to reach him. I am also confused because I thought he was here with his wife, but surely due signori means two men. We shall see.

After unpacking and showering, I go out to walk in my new “neighborhood.” So many food shops and so little time! I buy some strawberries and tomatoes. I also buy a phone card and try to reach ColleenK when I return to my apartment, but am unable --- she has a US cell phone. We have a plan to meet for dinner at Ristorante Ricchi in Piazza Santo Spirito, just a few blocks from my apartment.

Somehow we make contact and I meet her at the restaurant, which is great. My first meal this trip. And it’s terrific to meet Colleen after all this e-mailing to and fro. Delicious food, presentation and service, although Colleen and her friend Camilla both think it a bit more like a NY restaurant than an Italian one. Probably so, but I’m loving it. After dinner, a short walk back “home”. Except for the cold wet weather, all is wonderful!

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The View From My Window
 
#3
Wine with ST friends and home cooking

Friday 7 May: I awake late, 11 am, and soon receive a call from Dan. We will meet 4:30 at Piazza Santo Spirito. So I start the day by wandering around a bit, then have lunch at Trattoria del Carmine in the Piazza del Carmine, again just one street and one piazza distant from home. Decent food, friendly atmosphere, reasonable (€ 16 for a pasta, vegetable, wine and coffee). I can see that I am in restaurant central here in this neighborhood. Now to buy some food --- bread and biscotti di Prato at the big bakery on Via Sant’ Augustino (continuation of Via Santa Monica toward Ponte alla Carraia), mozzarella di bufala, water, yogurt.

I meet Dan and Anne (yes, they are a male and female coppia) and we have a relaxing wine rest at the bar where Via de Serragli and Via Santa Monica meet. They are coming from the north, Venice and Verona, and heading south to Montepulciano for a week. I tell them about Sunday’s planned ST lunch, and give them Joanna’s cell phone number.

Some more shopping ---- then dinner at “home”; gnocchi with nice olive oil, bread and cheese. And of course some wine!
 
#4
Manicures and Mehta

Saturday 8 May: Today I sleep until only(!) 10 am. So my internal clock is nearly reset. During the night there is a noisy thunderstorm and the weather is still, unfortunately, cold and rainy. Somehow, I have brought only one pair of full-length everyday pants, and it is much too cold for any of the five pair of capris I have with me. Ah well, I shall wash the long pants and dry them with a hairdryer if need be.

After breakfasting at home on yogurt & strawberries, bread & jam, and tea, I head out. (Why no coffee? Because I can’t figure out how to use the coffeepot. Yes, I know there are instructions in the ST Travel Notes, but when I read them I thought “any idiot can see how to do that.” Well, apparently not this particular idiot. So this afternoon I will sneak off the an internet café and copy out the instructions.) At a nice little bar, I have a latté before setting off on my wanderings.

Surprise of surprises, I end up at the Officina Profumo Farmaceutica di Santa Maria Novella. There I buy some of the lovely foot cream and hand cream, and a special hand cream called Pasta di Mandorle. This makes me realize that my hands are a mess so I head off to buy some nail polish remover. And what do I find but a hair salon that also has a manicurist! Freshly manicured, my hands are ready for the hand cream.

I wander off to look for the Centro Koinè, where I will be studying and find it right near the Bargello. Then I cross back over the Ponte Vecchio. I walk up the main street and stop off at Giulio Giannini e Figlio on the Piazza Pitti, a well-known shop for Florentine stationery; there I buy the diary that I use to take these notes. Then I follow a long route home and pass two interesting looking trattorie — Diladdarno and, right around the bend of Via d’Ardiglione, Il Raddi. Maybe I will try them.

Tonight is the concert at Téatro Comunale, part of the Maggio Fiorentino festival. The Maggio Fiorentino Orchestra under Zubin Mehta is performing two Beethoven symphonies. This morning I asked Miriam’s husband about getting a taxi, but now that I look closely at the map, I see it is a very easy walk across the bridge and away from the center. Is there no end to the convenience of this neighborhood?

The concert is beautiful, especially the 7th Symphony. At intermission, I have a panino, as I did not have time for dinner. The food is inexpensive and delicious, in contrast to the New York State Theater, where I regularly see the NYC Ballet. There the coffee is expensive and undrinkable, the sandwiches overpriced and inedible.

During the evening, there are two nice touches. Apparently the tympanist is an old friend of Mehta’s and is retiring. So Mehta makes a moving speech (even I can understand that much) and presents him with flowers. Then, at the end of the concert, they mark the 90th birthday of Carlo Maria Giulini, a past director of the Orchestra. Someone reads a lovely letter from Giulini. I remember the time about 25 years ago when Frank and I heard Giulini conducting the Chicago Symphony, and how strong, dramatic and handsome he was!

After a pleasant short walk, I am safely home.
 
#5
A long-anticipated luncheon is so much fun!

Sunday 9 May: This date has been circled in my calendar for months now; it is the date of the ST GTG. Originally a rather large group - headed by Livinwell (Deborah) and Bill Thayer - were supposed to meet in Umbertide (Umbria) and go exploring some sort of ruined structure in Migianella del Marchesi. But these plans have fallen apart, and so several weeks ago, Carol M, Joanna (who is restoring a house in the Val d’Orcia), ColleenK and I have arranged to have lunch in the country, at a charming restaurant called La Rosa del Trinoro. (Actually, Janet and Carol have arranged it, with Janet finding the restaurant.) I meet Colleen at 8:30 am at the train station, and we travel to Chiusi. We have some extra time before we are to be picked up, so we take a taxi (7 €) up to the town proper, and visit the famous Etruscan Archaeological Museum there. Then we wander for a bit, around the cathedral and the main square. There is a festival going on, with visiting children from somewhere further south dancing in costume.

We head back to the train station, are met by Carol and husband John, and head off through the town of Sarteano to Castiglioncello del Trinoro and the restaurant. It is so great to meet the ST’ers I have been “chatting” with in Private Messages. (Cristina and Brigolante were also planning to attend, but are unable to join us.) Carol and Joanna are both charming and bright, and each has a terrific sense of humor. We feel like old friends. (Of course Colleen and I are in fact old friends by this time!) Joanna’s family is there as well --- her sister, brother-in-law and nephew from Australia, along with a friend of theirs.

We have some drinks, then sit down to lunch at two tables. We make it clear that however the seating is arranged, all we ST’ers must sit together, and Joanna’s sister’s friend joins us.

We eat delicious food, drink wonderful wine (selected jointly by our waiter and Carol, whose Italian is daunting!) talk, dish and laugh. This is truly great! Finally, the afternoon is over. Carol and John return us to the Chiusi train station, and we are soon back in Florence. Colleen is returning home to Cambridge the next day, and I am starting school.

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With Joanna, Colleen and Carol
 
#6
School begins

Monday 10 May: Today is the first day of school! I walk over quickly, see that not too many people are there, and take a written placement test. My Italian is not good enough to answer most of the questions, and I notice that the other people in the room seem to have much more to write than do I. Oh well. I bring out the paper and one of the instructors, Cosetta, takes me into a room for a discussion, an oral placement. Again, my Italian is not up too much. I am distracted by another such oral exam going on in the same room, but Cosetta appears oblivious to the disturbance.

I am done by 9:30, and we are told to come back at 11 am, when the list of class assignments will be posted. I return and find that I am in level two of five --- not so bad. Our teacher is Marco, and I think this is the one that Colleen was raving about. Most of the students are quite young, and I gather that most of them were at Koinè for at least one previous session. And many of them are Asian, which I think will make for an interesting combination. (For more about the school, see my forthcoming travel notes.)

A list of optional activities for the next two weeks is posted. They are an interesting assortment; from museum visits to a weekend on a sailboat. This afternoon there is to be an orientation tour of the school neighborhood, followed by a get-together at an enoteca, Bene Vobis, which turns out to be about one block from my apartment!

So I wander that afternoon, go back to my apartment, then head out for the 5 pm get together. Many people are there, speaking a variety of languages --- French, German, etc. After conversng in halting Italian, then French, I begin to chat with an American woman about my age who is too exhausted to want to speak anything but English. Her name is Rosemarie, she is from Atlanta, and we will become friends. That evening, she joins me for dinner, and first accompanies me to a few little markets to buy cheese, etc. We have dinner and a nice chat at the Trattoria del Carmine, where I have penne puttanesca, tonno e fagiole, vino rosso and acqua.
 
#7
The Santa Felicita Pontormo, finally

Tuesday 11 May: Today is the first full morning of school and the first day I see any “art” in Florence. I walk to school very quickly, only to find that, again, I am one of the first there. The class has under ten students, which is good. I see Rosemarie and we decide to lunch together tomorrow. I am so tired after class that I just want to go home. Once back in my apartment, I eat some of the lovely ribollita I bought last night. I plan to go out later in the afternoon and see Santo Spirito and Santa Felicita, but instead I fall asleep on the nice couch and do not waken for several hours. (This will turn out to be a recurring pattern!) After 5 pm, I go out and have a gelato (my first of the trip!) at Caffè Ricchi (cioccolato amer and lampone). It is yummy!

I walk over to Santa Felicita, right near the Ponte Vecchio, and see the lovely Pontormo “Deposition” that I had read about in the R. W. B. Lewis book, and which Colleen (moderator) also mentioned. The church itself is lovely, although several chapels are blocked off. I think that there is some sort of constant prayer vigil in one of them. I walk back “home” (without a map!) and buy some goodies for dinner (melanzane, carciofini, olive oil) at various markets on the Via de Serrragli. Then I call my daughter, and speak very briefly with my granddaughter, who is quite busy with a friend. I must speak to this friend, she insists, so I comply. Then to bed, although not immediately to sleep.
 
#8
Sympathetic magic does not work

Wednesday 12 May: The weather is still cold and a bit rainy. When will it change?

I am surprised to recall that I have a ticket for 3:30 today for the Botticelli Exhibit at the Palazzo Strozzi. I get to school without a map (brava!) and, unfortunately, without my umbrella. After school, I have lunch with Rosemarie at Le Mossacce, which is fun. For € 23 we have ribollita and ravioli (me), lasagna and spinach (Rosemarie). We share red wine and water. Sitting at the communal tables is fun. I would like to go back there for another meal, but I am already beginning to sense that there are so many restaurants and so little time!

As I’ve mentioned again and again, the weather is still cold and raw, very unItalian by my reckoning. To make it worse, this morning I have decided to dress for warm weather (sympathetic magic?). My feet in their very comfortable sandals are not very comfortable, but rather cold and wet. I must stop off to buy a pair of socks before the exhibit or I will not be able to get through the afternoon. So I stop off at the Coin department store, and get two pair. Ahh!

The exhibit is lovely, not too crowded either. But I am cold despite my new socks, and very tired. So on my way home I stop off for a nice hot chocolate at Caffè Ricchi; it is delicious! Then I buy some bread, dessert and mayonnaise. I already have tuna, deliciously sweet little tomatoes and arugula at home. Again, yummy!
 
#9
Michelangelo & Ghiberti - yes; Don Chisciotte - no

Thursday 13 May: I start the day with a latté and a pastry at what has become “my” caffè: The Caffè Oltrarno right near the Ponte alla Carraia. It’s nice to be greeted by the barista and owner. And their coffee is so good!

Tonight I am to see the Tokyo Ballet at the Téatro Comunale. But do I rest up in advance? Of course not! After school, Rosemarie, Marilyn (ColleenK’s friend) and I have lunch together. We try for Le Mossacce, but find a line outside the door. So we eat at Il Ritrovo, which is so highly recommended by ST’ers. The food is good, not great (€ 62 for the three of us).

After lunch, we separate and I head over for my first-ever visit to the Muséo dell’ Opéra del Duomo. I see the late, unfinished Michelangelo “Piéta”, and it is lovely and poignant. You can “feel” the weight of Jesus’ body in Mary’s arms. I spend about a half hour just looking at the Ghiberti doors — the ones on the Baptistery are copies, as the originals are here for protection against elements and tourists.. Also remarkable are two Donatello sculptures – a wooden Magdalene and one of Abacuc (the prophet Habakkuk).

Although I am by now very tired, I stop off at Caffè Ricchi for a gelato, and sit outside on the piazza as I eat it.

Then I go inside Santo Spirito for the first time. It’s a beautiful interior space. So by the time I arrive home, I am very, very tired. I have bought some raspberries, but drowse off on the couch before I eat them.

Yet again, I sleep too long. I rouse myself and take a quick shower to wake up fully. Then I practically run to the theater. I tell the usher I am very late, but he is kind as he says no, the curtain is not yet up. And sure enough, I am in my seat just in time. The program is a version of “Don Quixote” (“Don Chisciotte”) choreographed by Vassiliev, and I soon realize that the company is good but not great. If I were forced to compare them to my beloved NYC Ballet, I would say that the leads are at the level of very good corps members. They are technically proficient, but without flair. I decide that I will leave at intermission, after first having a panino, as I am quite hungry. I sit down at a little table to eat my panino.

And I see Ayuki, the charming Japanese girl (21) from school who is studying voice. She comes over to greet me, excited to see me, and tells me that she has seen our teacher Marco as well. The prima ballerina, she informs me, is quite famous in Tokyo. I do not have the heart to tell her that I am planning to leave once I finish my panino. When she returns to her seat, I leave the theater. After a pleasant walk home, I am in bed in time to get a good night’s sleep.

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Santo Spirito
 
#10
The school week ends as summer begins

Friday 14 May: Today in class Marco tells us that he is not to be our teacher next week; apparently they switch off. I am so sorry to hear this, as I love his class. But I shall deal with it.

After class, Rosemarie and I have lunch again at Il Mossacce. The total is € 22; I have ravioli and ribollita. The weather has suddenly become warm, almost too warm, as Rosemarie and I wander off toward Mercato San Lorenzo. Rosemarie wants to do some shopping in the Mercato, and wants company, but after two minutes I remember how much I dislike this market, especially in the hot sun. I am perfectly happy to wander off by myself and let her shop, but she seems to want the company more than the shopping!

So we wander off to the Piazza SS. Annunziata, which is so beautiful. I have never before been here, and love the Brunelleschi Ospedale degli Innocenti, with the lovely Della Robbia medallions. We are amazed that the Church of SS Annunziata looks so un-churchlike.. Then we aim for San Marco, only to discover it is closed. We stop for some coffee at an outdoor caffè, and I spy a taxi stand in the middle of the piazza. I somehow hear the taxi calling to me, so I decide to take a one home. But first, of course, I get a gelato at the caffè! The taxi ride “home” is € 7 — not bad!

After getting comfortable, I wander for the first time down Borgo San Frediano, past the Porta San Frediano. So many lovely shops! I buy various goodies for dinner including incredibly fresh arugula, little cherry tomatoes (cielegine) and strawberries — total is € 2.70. Then I buy two wonderful pastries, for € 0.85 each. Also some melanzane parmigiana a torta di verdure, and very nice balsamico.

When I return home, “ProfJohn” of Slow Trav calls; he is travelling with his wife and daughter, and we are to meet for dinner tomorrow evening. I suggest the Borgo Antico on Piazza Santo Spirito at 8 pm. And so to bed!
 
#11
A restful day, and an Arezzo day

Saturday 15 May: Today I have a relaxing day, just hanging out in my little garden, reading and snacking. The weather is still very lovely. I walk just far enough to buy some nice nail polish, and do my nails in the garden. In the evening, I meet John and his daughter Gennie at Borgo Antico. (His wife is not feeling well, and does not join us.) We have a pleasant dinner, sitting outside. The restaurant is more touristy than I would like, and I regret having chosen it, but the food turns out to be fine. Once our orders arrive and we taste our food, we all relax some. Of course the wine helps too. John is a microbiologist in Kansas; Gennie has just graduated from college in Texas. We have a very pleasant evening, chatting.

Sunday 16 May: Today I go to Arezzo with Rosemarie. She had wanted to travel further, suggesting Ravenna, but I am much to much of a Slow Traveler for that. Arezzo is only a short train ride from Florence; coincidentally I have heard Marco suggest it to one of the other students as a good day trip. My goal is to see the Piero Della Francesca frescoes in the San Francesco church. It is not clear to me exactly why, but apparently one needs to be part of a guided tour to see them.

Arezzo is a lovely, hilly town. After determining that we cannot get into San Francesco until about 1:30 at the earliest, we start wandering up the hills. I notice that there is some sort of modern art exhibit in one of the buildings, but it is not so easy to find the building! I eventually do, and it is small and very nice: “Da Picasso A Butero”. We wander around the beautiful Piazza Grande, near the top of the city; its irregular shape and slant remind me of the Campo in Siena.

Then we buy tickets to see the frescoes, for a time after lunch, as we are getting quite hungry. We stop in at one of the many restaurants we have passed on our way up the hilly streets, Il Saraceno, and have a pleasant, relaxed lunch. Then down to San Francesco and the frescoes. We are on time, but somehow are not sure that we have the right group. Anyway, there is a French-speaking guide, who I ignore. The frescoes are lovely, but I can see them on my own with the aid of my trusty Michelin Green Guide. The faces are expressive; the only disturbing part of this “Story of the True Cross” series is the scene where they are pushing the Jew down into a pit as the villain.

We are quite warm, and stop off for a drink before heading back to the train. I order a limonata, which somehow turns out to be hot lemon water. This is not what I expected, but everyone seems confused, so I just settle for some acqua minerale. And back to the train, and back home to get ready for another week. Already, I am more than halfway into my time in Florence, and I see that it will not be nearly enough.

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Piazza Grande - Arezzo
 
#12
The joys of being a solo traveler

Monday 17 May: When I get to class I this morning I have a pleasant surprise: Marco remains our teacher! Bravo, Marco!

After class, I take off on my own. I am realizing that I crave this time exploring by myself. As my travel lately has been on my own, I have become accustomed to being by myself, although regularly dining alone for an extended period of time is not great. But I find that I have become so accustomed to the luxury of wandering about at will, stopping where and when I wish, that I actually prefer this. Lunch or dinner with Rosemarie (or another friend) is great, as is our nice trip to Arezzo. But I enjoy my self-propelled aimless wanderings, and surprise myself sometimes and find I actually do have an aim. Then also, I am forced to speak Italian, which I just love to do.

So today I head back towards home, and stop for lunch at Trattoria La Casalinga, just off Piazza Santo Spirito, which I have somehow not yet visited. I have a wonderful and relaxing lunch, delicious ravioli (really delicious), a salad and some nice wine. Total cost €15.30. I somehow expected it to be jammed and unpleasantly noisy, but it is not at all. Mostly locals, living or working in the area. I meander a bit more, then back to the apartment, to relax and read in the garden, with a glass of wine. This is what it's about! Then I have some supper while trying to figure out the Italian TV show "L'Eredita".

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Garden at Il Carmine
 
#13
A lunch with ST’ers, a museum visit, a special dinner

Tuesday 18 May: This morning as I am leaving for class I get a call from Suzie Kane of ST. We have planned to have lunch one day; she and her husband are now just starting a two-week session at the Scuola Leonardo, not to far from Koinè. So we arrange to meet at Il Ritrovo for lunch today; they want to try it and I am willing to give it a second try. I need to stay in centro città anyway today, as I somehow recall that I have a reservation for the Uffizi. (I had meant to make a reservation for the Accademia, but was distracted while online! I’ve been to the Uffizi twice in the past three years, but haven’t been to the Accademia since, probably, 1968!)

The Kanes and I have a very pleasant lunch at Il Ritrovo, but, echoing my thoughts, Joe says upon seeing the bill, “How did it get to be so much?” The food is good, but nothing to rave about. And the prices are not high, but the young waiter (who will speak only English to us) makes such a big deal about the special lunch, at an extremely reasonable price, that one is surprised to see that the price is much more than expected. The total is € 46 for the three of us, so it’s still quite reasonable, but we all think that the house wine is rather more expensive than it need to be, and that the cover is high.

But we have a pleasant time; the Kanes are staying in an apartment of the Costa San Giorgio, and love it. They also love their school. I say goodbye; we will see each other again at the big ST GTG scheduled for May 24.

Again, I wander a bit and then head to the Uffizi. It is crowded near there, but once I pick up a ticket, a very nice guard makes sure I get in quickly — there are big groups with tickets and he tells another guard to let me in before the group, as I am on my own. Of course the Uffizi is wonderful, crowded or not. I look for the Caravaggios and cannot find them. A guard tells me that they have been moved down to a new gallery on the first floor (of course, there is no sign informing anyone of this). I finally locate the Caravaggio gallery, and the paintings are, as always, gorgeous.

On the way home, I pass by Madova gloves for the third or fourth time in a week. This is as good a time as any to make my purchases, and I do. Three pair of gloves: One black, a bit longer than wrist length, lined in cashmere; a second more casual pair, light brown lined in sheepskin. Then a light-colored pair of unlined pigskin driving gloves. Very elegant!

Tonight Rosemarie and I have dinner at Cavolo Nero, right next door. The food is wonderful, as is the entire experience. The waitress starts out by offering us prosecco. For dinner, I have timbale di zucchini con pesto and tagliatelle di tonne con sesame. Rosemarie has acciugghe and carciofi parmigiana. We each have a glass of Vernaccia, and split a wonderful apple tart for dessert. Total cost € 65.50.

Just to show that SlowTrav is everywhere: Soon after we are seated, I hear a man telling the owner in English that he is at this particular restaurant because it is highly recommended on a travel website — SlowTrav! It is KenC from Boston, and his wife Jo Anne, celebrating their anniversary (35th, I think) with a trip to Italy! After their dinner we chat a bit. Truly a small world.

The only bad part of eating at Cavolo Nero is that it’s too close to home to walk off the food. So I accompany Rosemarie down to the bridge, still not much of a walk.
 
#14
Basta!

Wednesday, 19 May: Today turns out to be total exhaustion day. I wander (again!) after class toward the St Ambrogio market, although I am not aware that this is my destination. I stop off for lunch at a pizzicheria on Piazza St Salvemini, where I can sit outdoors. This is when I realize that I want to find the kosher butcher near the synagogue; although I know that the butcher is only open mornings, I think it would be interesting to see the shop.

But I cannot find it, so I wander into a little kosher grocery store, and the owner tells me that the butcher shop is actually set up in the St Ambrogio market, which of course is long closed for the day. So I buy some sort of salami to take home to my apartment for a treat.

At this point it is quite warm out and I am getting more tired by the minute. But as I aim toward home, I stop off at the Paperback Exchange on Via Fiesolana and buy two Donna Leon mysteries. Another stop along the Via dei Neri for some truly wonderful gelato at the Gelateria dei Neri (chocolate chunk and frutta di bosco).

Finally, I stop off at the Alitalia office on the Lungarno to check and confirm my flight.

I arrive back at the apartment totally and immediately drop down on the couch and fall asleep. When I awake, it is 6:30 in the evening and I can still barely move. But I scrounge around the kitchen and find some cheese and not-too-stale bread to eat, then collapse back on the couch.

When I wake again at 9:30, I drag my tired self into the bathroom, shower, and fall directly into bed. As I fall asleep, I decide that I will see tomorrow whether I make it to school or not. And what will I do about the concert at Teatro Verdi that I am to attend?
 
#15
A Diva, but no concert

Thursday, 20 May: When morning comes, I decide that I will get out of bed in time to get to class after the break. So I have a leisurely awakening and an equally leisurely stroll to class, taking time to look in at the shops that are usually closed when I pass by. By now, I have a set route to get to Koinè, which is right near the Bargello. I cross over the Ponte St Trinita (I’ve got a couple of ways to get there, depending on my mood) then turn right at the Via Porta Rossa, which becomes the Via Condotta. This street leads into Piazza di San Firenze and ecco: there I am.

When I get to the school, I buy myself a nice drink in the sweet little bar. Then when I go to my classroom, I am truly touched to find that the young students have actually missed me! They wondered what had happened to me this morning! The rest of class is quite nice; I have not missed much.

Today I am to meet the famous Diva (Judy Witts Francini) of Divina Cucina for a drink near her place in the Mercato Centrale area. And then I have a ticket for a concert at the Téatro Verdi. Will I actually go to the concert? Will I find some reason to skip it?

Rosemarie and I have lunch together at the Yellow Bar, which Chris & Shannon of ST both love, and which Diva also recommends. I have really great fresh pasta; very reasonably priced. By then it is getting toward 3 pm, and I am to meet Diva at 5 pm. So I walk over to Vivoli for a gelato. I select cioccolata e melone verde; it is delicious and refreshing, but overpriced compared to other gelaterie. Then I just go back to Koinè, sit in the reception area, and read one of my Donna Leon books. Very relaxing.

I meet Diva in front of Trattoria Mario and she leads me to a great bar nearby called BZF. It’s also a jazz club, etc, and has an interesting history in publishing. Diva and I have a great time, as she reintroduces me to the concept of the 5 pm drink. We both have negronis, and we talk for a few hours. I look forward to seeing Diva again at our lunch next week.

I head back for my apartment, totally cool with Florence, and having decided to skip the concert. So it goes. Only one more day of class! I will be sorry when it is over. Tomorrow two of our number are to give little concerts: Ayuki and the lovely Tatiana.

I’ve bought some bread, and have the salami with tomatoes and arugula. It is delicious, my first meat in over two weeks. (I try to get some prepared mustard, but apparently it’s not as popular here as in the Stati Uniti.)
 
#16
The last class

Friday 21 May: Today is finally (and all to quickly!) the last day of Italian class. Ayuki sings an aria from “Le Nozze di Figaro” and Tatiana sings a lovely song by an contemporary Italian writer. I feel I have been privileged to study with these charming young people. We all run around taking photos of and with each other. This school has been a wonderful experience, and I have learned so much in such a short time.

Now I am beginning to get that “end of vacation” feeling: I’ve been in Florence for over two weeks and haven’t “accomplished” much outside of class. But I also feel that I don’t care! Checking off museums and churches has never been my goal. So I decide that, yet again this trip I can skip visiting the Accademia. It’s just too much trouble. Especially when right outside my apartment there is such a lovely garden.

I head over toward Santa Croce, my “old neighborhood,” on my own for lunch. (Rosemarie and I have agreed to have dinner together tomorrow night). Last spring I had several meals at the Osteria de Benci on the Via de Benci, and so that’s where I go. It’s too crowded to sit outside but I have a pleasant table inside. The food is very good, and I have a nice glass of wine; the total is € 25. I sit next to a middle-aged American couple who, although they do not appear to be angry with each other, do not exchange a single word during their meal! How strange and how sad.

And now I will do some more serious shopping. On the way back from class I do as Diva suggests: Just stop into a decent enoteca and tell them how much I want to spend and have them select the wine for me to buy. She recommends Le Volpe e l’Uva, which is in the Oltr’arno on Piazza Rossi, not too far from the Ponte Vecchio. I head over there, and they help me pick out six bottles for well under €75. (Dean, you can stop reading now if you wish).

Now I need to find some way to get this home. First, home to my apartment, that is. I ask if they will keep three of the bottles for a bit, and they agree, so I need only take three of them back with me, which I just barely manage. Of course I also need to figure out how to get them back home to the US with me, as the people at the enoteca have never heard of the styrofoam containers that I want. They tell me to go to a particular hardware store, G. Verde, which is just past the Porta San Frediano. Somehow I do not think they will have it, but who knows. I plan to head in that direction to do my marketing for dinner anyway.

After depositing the bottles in my apartment, I head off to the Porta San Frediano and G. Verde. Of course they do not have styrofoam cases, and offer me cardboard wine carriers. But they will not work in my suitcase. On my way home I again stop off at the wonderful stores and get the fixings for a relaxing Friday night dinner. It’s a hard life!

So I stop off at Caffè Ricchi for a mojito to console myself. This is not a totally pleasant experience. The waiter asks rudely that I pay immediately. I know this is the policy (ok, I forget for a bit) but he is peremptory and I realize he has not actually brought me a bill. Also, he does not offer me any snacks. Diva has told me that they always bring snacks when you order a drink, but I do not wish to cause a fuss this time. And the mojito is delicious! I sit and relax. Then I head back home for my dinner.
 
#17
Winding down and yet more wandering

Saturday 22 May: A day to do nothing (well, almost). This is my third Shabbat in Florence, and so my third decision not to go to the Florence synagogue. I’ve been there on other visits, and do not really want to sit in the little women’s section on the side apart from the active participants. Or, more truly, last time I was not able to sit in that women’s section, but had to stand. It had become gradually clear to me that the seats there are really for the women who are regular members of the community, who have their names on them. This is understandable, I guess. If I lived here I would not want to stand while some tourist passing through could sit down. Of course there is the big women’s section upstairs. But I opt out.

I breakfast in a leisurely fashion, and take my coffee out to the garden. I’ve decided that we should try Al Tranvai on Piazza Torquato Tasso tonight, and I ask Miriam whether I need a reservation. She says it’s a good restaurant, her daughter goes there often, and that maybe I should reserve for a Saturday night. She offers to make the reservation, but I say I’ll do it myself.

Eventually I head off toward the center, as I want to visit the ceramics shop on the Via Ghibellina where I had bought some things last spring. Somehow, it doesn’t seem as appealing as it did last year. And the artist–owner is so high pressure! I say I will return next week. Across the street is a shop called “Frammenti” that has ceramic with little bits of mosaic. The shop is closed, so I will return another day. They also apparently have a stand in the San Lorenzo market, so maybe I will see it on Monday.

I continue down the street, past some lovely shops, stopping for coffee and pastry at “I Dolci di Patrizio Cosi” at 11 Borgo di Albizi. The pastry is finger-lickin’ good. I continue back along that street and come to a shop, Arti & Mestieri, whose window has caught my eye before. They are the Florence retail outlet of a company that crafts unusual contemporary household goods. I enter and quickly buy a charming metal clock, in which the members of a small orchestra play their instruments joyfully around the clock face.

The time for dinner is approaching. I telephone Al Tranvai, but get no answer. Oh well, maybe they arrive late on Saturday. Rosemarie comes by, and I tell her about my mojito adventures. She is quite eager to sit and have a drink, so we head over to Dolce Vita, a trendy outdoor caffè just one street away on the Piazza del Carmine, and I have the best mojito there. (And of course they bring snacks.) We have a gay old time, noticing that we are the oldest there by about 30 years, and the only people of either sex whose midriffs are covered. This mojito is really great!

Then we set out for Al Tranvai (just another couple of streets) and Ecco! it is closed! What do? We decide to sit down next door, at Trattoria di Pruta. It’s decent, not great, but we have a pleasant meal; total cost € 54 with some house wine. And somehow in the isolated area of the Oltr’arno, a strolling accordionist is playing. He is very persistent, although we ignore him.
 
#18
Mellowing out with Masaccio

Today is the first day since the very beginning of my stay that I have absolutely nothing on my agenda. So I enjoy a very late breakfast at “O!O” (pronounced “oh, oh” I assume), which is a “Bar con Cucina” on the little Piazza Piatellina, just up the street from Santa Maria del Carmine.

Actually, I start the day by taking a long walk to look for the Old Jewish Cemetery, which I suddenly notice on my trusty "Streetwise" map. It appears to be just a few streets from my apartment. When I get there, and finally find the entrance, I see that it is a very old cemetery, which had its last burial several centuries ago. The plaque also says that some authority (a bishop?) had given the Jews of the community permission to bury their dead within the walls of the city, a privilege that had been denied to the community before that time. Visits are possible only with a guide; twice a month, if I recall correctly.

Although I eat my breakfast at O!O, I purchase the pastry portion of it at a pasticcheria on the Via dell’Orto, the continuation of Via Santa Monica past the Carmine church. I see several people walking out with little white cake boxes, so I go in and buy two cornetti. I devour one immediately.

Then I pass O!O and decide to stop in for a coffee. It’s a very hip and modern-looking place, and the barista makes me a nice caffè latté, although it’s not terribly hot. I sit and read the front page of the newspaper (I can actually read “La Repubblica”!) then order another latté; this time it is only tepid. So while this place if very attractive, I’m not so sure about their level of competence. Or maybe they are breaking in a new barista.

I again walk by the Carmine church, which I have not yet visited this trip, despite the fact that I am constantly telling people about the beautiful the Masaccio frescoes in the Brancacci Chapel there. I see that they open at 1 pm today, and decide to come back later. Which I do. And I get into the chapel without waiting, as I have serendipitously timed it just right. The frescoes are indeed very beautiful, especially the famous, striking one of Adam and Eve being expelled from the Garden. I think I prefer the Masaccio frescoes to the others in the chapel, done by Lippi. I try to see if I can tell who did which. (Sometimes I really am an insufferable art snob!)

I also have not yet visited Santa Maria Novella, which has a beautiful, recently restored Masaccio fresco depicting the Trinity, a fresco that art historians credit as being the first work to exhibit an understanding of perspective. Whether or not this is the case, I take a not-too-long walk over to the church to see it again. I also love the façade of this beautiful church: In an ideal world one could stand in the beautiful Piazza di Santa Maria Novella and gaze at this church; in the real world the piazza is full of hawkers of all sorts of junk, and various tourists and hanger-on. But the church is still lovely, as is the cloister and of course the frescoes.

I return home slowly, across the Ponte alla Carraia. Believe it or not, it has taken me until now to discover the Gelateria Ponte alla Carraia, right at the foot of the Via dei Serragli where it meets the Lungarno Soderini, and about two minutes from my apartment. I try a mixture, and it is wonderful. They also have benches at both entrances where you can usually sit and eat. Some people also sit on the walls overlooking the river.

For an early dinner, I stop at Trattoria Diladdarno, on the Via Serragli. I’ve noticed this several times and decide to try it. The small entryway leads to a larger dining room and then a garden, where I opt to sit. Although the food is good, somehow the meal is not a success. Maybe I am sitting in the sun. Maybe it is the fact that the waitress has very little patience with my imperfect Italian. Maybe it is the (Italian) family across the room, a mother, father and adult son, who are not all happy with their food. At least the mother is not. She keeps on complaining that she got hardly any food. Finally the waiter offers to bring her a second portion: As he walks away, she smiles a smile of victory at her tablemates.

But tomorrow I am looking forward to the big Florence ST GTG at Mario’s. Some of us will be meeting beforehand with Diva to go through the Mercato Centrale. But now to bed.
 
#19
Olive oil, balsamico, honey --- and lunch with the SlowTrav crowd

I spend the morning organizing myself and then walk over to the Medici Chapel, where those of us going on the tour of the Central Market with Diva are meeting. I see someone who must be Robert Rainey, and it is in fact he, our intrepid Passatore participant. Diva comes, then Judie from Wisconsin and her friend. But before we hit the food market, Robert wants to see some ceramics shops, so we stop at several. I am almost tempted, and collect a card or two.

Then paradise, the Market. I’ve been here before, most recently last year, but looked without buying. Now the time and place are right, as I am leaving tomorrow and have an expert with me. We stop at the Conti stand and taste their olive oil, balsamico, honey with truffles. Wow! I mention these because they are what I bought: Two bottles of olive oil (one of their production), some 20-year old balsamico (liquid gold) and some incredible miele truffato. I can just barely carry all this comfortably.

We return to the Medici Chapel, where we pick up Suzy Kane and head for Trattoria Mario right nearby. Suzy has left her language class early, and Joe has not; he is planning to meet us later during lunch. Anne (Tuscan Traveler) meets us at Mario’s. We are taken down to the wine cellar, kindly arranged by Diva (have I mentioned how fantastic she is?) so that we are not rushed.

Mario’s wine cellar is quite a place, with (of course) cases of wine all over and drying meats hanging. We talk about food, and Diva keeps our wine expert under control. We order two bottles: a Barolo and another, lesser, red. Bill Sutherland (of Tuscan Women Cook) also joins us; his wife Patti has left for the US to welcome a new grandchild.

The lunch is wonderful. I do not participate in the meat eating, but everyone says all the varieties are very good. I have wonderful vegetables, salad, fried potatoes, pasta, tuna and fava beans, strawberries, biscotti ... you get the idea. And of course the wine. We tell many stories (Bill “shares his experiences” about buying property in Tuscany), take photographs and finally part to go each our own way. And I head back with my lovely purchases.

But before relaxing totally, I walk over to G. Verde, the hardware store, and buy some bubble wrap to pack my wine. Getting all this into my suitcase is beginning to worry me.

That evening, I decide I will take the Kanes up on their invitation to see their apartment. I call and, after a light supper, walk over there. I approach the Costa San Giorgio by going past the Piazza De Rossi, where “Le Volpi e l’uva” is. Then head up hill.

Their apartment is lovely, with a view from their terrace across the Arno to centro città. It turns out that Joe had never made it to the luncheon because he did not realize that we were all downstairs — understandable as there really is no downstairs dining room except for special friends and their friends!

As I am a bit nervous about walking downhill alone in the dark (and ending up sprawled under a Vespa) Suzy walks down the hill with me. When I reach home, I decide I must pack up the wine I have bought. And so I carefully wrap each of my six bottles in bubble wrap. Will they remain intact during the flight home? And so to bed.

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#20
L’ultimo giorno --- frantic shopping and relaxing with an ST friend

I have still not paid the rent for my apartment, although I offered to yesterday. Over the past two days, I have drawn enough cash to cover the rental, it is in my room safe. On my way out to do last-minute shopping, I see Miriam and tell her I will pay later that day.

I return to that wonderful emporium, the Officina Profumo Farmaceutica di Santa Maria Novella, where I’ve already been once this visit. But now I have some serious gift shopping to do. I buy after-sun lotion for Adrienne, hand cream and foot cream for my sister-in-law, after-shave for my brother and for Adrienne’s fiancé, and body lotion for my mother. I also throw in a few soaps — why not!

Across the street, I spy one of those stores like Post Office Plus in the US. Of course! They are the ones who should have those styrofoam thingies for the wine. I buy three, at € 3 each; they are light but bulky to carry home. Now I will repack everything.

On the way home, as I approach the Ponte Alla Carraia, I see Caterina, Miriam’s daughter, out shopping with her grandmother. Somehow, I have enough Italian to have a nice conversation with them.

When I reach home, I undo the bubble wrap and place the wine in the styrofoam cases. They are huge! My luggage (one large soft-sided suitcase, one 22-inch roll-on, one backpack) will be all styrofoam, with clothes and toiletries squeezed in where available. I just manage to fit everything in.

I pay for the apartment, and have a nice conversation with the lovely Caterina. This talking Italian thing is fun, and I will miss it! Then I head out to lunch, to the Osteria Santo Spirito, where I have not yet been. The weather is lovely so I sit outdoors on the pleasant piazza, surrounded by a variety of types --- business people, local residents, and tourists of various nationalities. I order pasta and a salad (sorry! I’ve lost the card and receipt, folks) and have a generally pleasant time. Wish I had come here before, but of course there are only so many meals in one three-week period!

My plan is to head over to the Via Pisani, where Maureen (moderator) has a friend with a jewelry store. I have still not really bought anything for Karlie, my six-year old granddaughter. She is a bit too old for a toy, and clothes are not really a present for a six-year-old. Also, Maureen is arriving in Florence from Boston today and has e-mailed me about getting together. And she is staying near the Via Pisani. So I walk east toward the Porta San Frediano (my old friend) and continue to the Gioiellieria Parenti, but it is not yet re-opened for the afternoon.

When there I see the Bar Francesconi, which Maureen has mentioned in her Travel Notes. I stop in and have a coffee, glad to get out of the heat and off my feet. And I telephone Maureen who, as luck would have it, has just arrived in her apartment. In five minutes she is down to meet me. We chat a bit, connect immediately, and decide to meet for drinks at Caffè Ricchi in a couple of hours.

I head off to the jewelry store, where I chat with Lucia, her husband and her sister. I have fun buying a delicate gold bracelet with butterflies for Karlie, and also buy a narrow white gold bracelet for Adrienne (amazingly, she wears it everyday now)!

Now it’s time to head back. But not before stopping off for a gelato! Soon it is time to walk over to the piazza for drinks. Maureen has just arrived. She orders a prosecco and I order a mojito; this time the (same) waiter brings a bowl of snacks for us. We end up having a second drink each (with this drink, the waiter brings more serious snacks) and talking for two hours! What fun, to meet someone for the first time and be able to chat like old friends! Now Maureen’s long stay is beginning — she visits and helps out with her two nieces — as mine is ending.

But my day is not over! I have stopped by the Cavolo Nero and made a reservation for this evening. When I was leaving my apartment the other day, the owner was arriving on his motorscooter, and recognized me with a “buon giorno”. Why does this make me feel so good? So this evening I shower, dress and walk the few steps over to the restaurant.

The first time I was there, with Rosemarie, the outdoor garden was not yet opened. Now the garden has been opened, but last night the weather turned windy, and all the diners wanted to move inside. So tonight again I dine in the lovely indoor room. And the food is wonderful, with professional but uncomplicated service. As I have already had the two mojitos, I skip the prosecco and limit myself to one glass of wine. I have an antipasto, a pasta with tuna (canned rather than fresh, which is a bit of a disappointment) and, again, the wonderful apple tart (total € 32). I try to avoid the “last dinner mood” and instead walk a bit, then head back home. I finish packing, and to bed.
 

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