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Our Trip to Florence Italy

After taking half a dozen trips to Europe, we decided to make a few improvements.

First, we decided to rent an apartment instead of a hotel room. We wanted a kitchen where we could cook our own food, we wanted peace and quiet, a washer and dryer, and we wanted to be close to the train and bus station so we could take some day trips. So we booked an Airbnb in Florence for 2 weeks, and that was a great decision, because we were able to buy fresh fruits and vegetables in the Central Market, we were able to shop for groceries, and we saved a ton of money by not buying a whole lot of restaurant meals. We’re not big foodies, and we wanted to stay healthy. Besides, everywhere we go, we find the restaurants overrated.

Secondly, every trip we take, we overdo it the first few days and wind up fighting heavy fatigue the rest of the trip, and since we’re retired, we can do a longer term rental and pace ourselves a little more. The hard part, of course, was to force ourselves to take a day off, when we’re right there in a wonderful European city. We had to force ourselves to just sit around for a day in the middle of the trip. It worked out, though, because the weather turned nasty, cold and rainy one day, which made it a lot easier to decide to just sit there and watch Italian TV. And by the way, I think Italian TV is the best foreign TV I have seen. You don’t even need to know Italian to be entertained by Italian TV. Spaghetti westerns, action movies, cooking shows, and political argument shows. All very entertaining. They import a lot of American TV and dub it into Italian. We didn’t watch any of those.

So our overall idea was to slow down. Enjoy the moment. Try to blend in for a few weeks. And that’s what we did. It was great. So many times, we just walked around very slowly, watching the other tourists, taking in the scene. We saw a couple, apparently from the US, with two teenagers, walking past us, and the man says to his wife, very sarcastically, “…well that would have been nice, wouldn’t it?” and angrily stalks on ahead of her. She rolled her eyes and looked disgusted with him. Don’t be those people. Slow down.

The other new thing we did was to take Rick Steves’ advice, buy his Florence guidebook, and tear it apart. When you’re in some Duomo, looking at some work of art that seems very important, and you don’t know what it is, take those 8 pages out of your pocket and read. Who needs a tour guide?

So, here’s my trip report. We got to Florence airport, and took a cab to the apartment. The fares from airport to central Florence are regulated, 22 Euros I think. The host met us at the door, and we settled in. It was a 3rd floor walkup, 51 steps up the stairs. We spent the rest of the first day just walking around Florence. Florence is so compact, you can walk across the historic area in a half hour. But it is so dense with great things to see, when we left at the end of 2 weeks, we felt like we had barely scratched the surface.

Some highlights of our trip: my favorite thing was our day trip to Seina. It’s a little more than an hour by rapid bus, and maybe a half hour more by slow bus. We made the mistake of taking the slow bus back to Florence, but we enjoyed the ride anyway, because after a full day walking around, it was nice to take the slow bus that makes a lot of stops. You see a lot of Tuscany that way. Siena is beautiful. The Duomo in Siena is an overwhelming treasure chest of the greatest art ever. First, the whole church itself is a work of art, from floor to ceiling, including the floor and the ceiling. And it houses some of the greatest works of art you will ever see, including sculptures by Michelangelo, Bernini, and Donatello. No exaggeration, I’ve never seen such a beautiful place in my life.

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Second highlight: Mercato Centrale, specifically the produce market in the ground floor, which closes in the early afternoon. Every different kind of cheese, meat, fish, fruits and vegetables, and very inexpensive. We ate a lot of very delicious and healthy food. Our apartment was only a block away. Forget the food court on the floor above. It’s worth a visit, but for us, it was way too crowded. The leather markets outside are full of very aggressive entrepreneurs begging you to buy their stuff. We were more amused than bothered. But back to the Mercato Centrale: you want to save a whole bunch of money? Skip the restaurants. Eat like a local. Shop for food in the markets. The price of food in the produce markets and grocery stores in Florence is very cheap.

Third highlight: the viewpoints above the city. Piazzale Michelangelo, Boboli Gardens, and Bardini Gardens. We had fun trying to get the perfect selfie with all of Florence laid out below us. I would particularly recommend the Bardini Gardens, which is included if you buy a ticket to the Boboli Gardens.

Fourth highlight: the cathedrals in Tuscany are amazing. If you took them apart and sold the art works on the open market, you could easily fetch a billion dollars for the contents of just one of those cathedrals. Plus, seeing the art “in situ” seems a lot better than going to a museum and seeing statue after statue after statue. A perfect example is Bernini’s statue of St Jerome in the Duomo in Siena. I had a strong emotional reaction to that thing, I think partly because it was displayed where it was originally intended, and I don’t think I would have had that same reaction of I had just seen it in a museum. I walked out of the chapel it was situated in, stood around in a daze, walked back in and just stared at it for about 10 minutes. That is a powerful piece of art.

Fifth highlight: gelato. We tried a lot of gelato, but our favorite was La Carraia, which is on the river, on the Oltrarno side, two bridges up from Ponte Vecchio. Get in line with the locals, it’s worth it. One thing we found was that the farther you get from a famous tourist site, the cheaper and better the gelato.

Sixth highlight: the people. The locals we met in Florence were generally the friendliest, nicest people you could meet. We were in a multi-ethnic neighborhood, and got to know some very interesting and cheerful shopkeepers. Most of them were not native Italians. For example, there was a lady from China running a produce stand in Mercato Centrale. We bought produce from her three different times. And a Pakistani grocery store owner who had the tiny grocery around the corner from us where we bought milk a few times.

We went into a leather shop not intending to buy anything, and looked at wallets. The owner tried to bargain with me, but I told him I didn’t want to buy. So he told me to just take the wallet for free, his business was bad and he might as well give it away. Well played! He read me perfectly. There was no way I could take a wallet for free. I payed for the wallet.

Not Such A Highlight: our day trip to Pisa. There’s just not that much there other than the Field of Miracles. If your time is limited, don’t bother. We did see a funny piece of graffiti when we were walking toward the Field of Miracles. “Sorry, the tower is not leaning today.”

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Eating Out. Restaurants seem to be hit or miss on every one of our trips, with recommendations and reviews meaning nothing. We ate at a restaurant that an expat recommended to us, and in fact it was in Rick Steves’ guidebook as a recommendation, and it was really nothing special at all. The sauce on the ravioli I ordered for one of the courses could have come from a can the way it tasted, and overall the meal was not particularly interesting. It wasn’t objectionable, just not worth our time. We also googled “best pizza near me,” and ate at a highly rated pizza joint, and it was very average to below average pizza. On the other hand, we ate at a very touristy place on the main square in Siena, and the pizza there was some of the best I’ve ever had. And there was the sandwich shop we wandered into near Santa Croce where we had huge sandwiches on very fresh bread and they only cost 3 euros each! So, it’s hit or miss in my opinion. Reviews and recommendations mean very little when it comes to food.

We took a 2-hour guided tour of the Uffizi Gallery, and it was okay. The tourguide was excellent. But that place is so crowded, and when you see painting after painting after painting, and statue after statue after statue, it all becomes an exhausting blur. I love great art, but to me, seeing the art in the cathedrals where it was originally intended gives it so much more effect.

Of course we spent a lot of time just wandering the city, looking at the shops and going into churches that were free.

Things we did not do: Go into the Santa Maria del Fiore Duomo. The lines were miles long. And we weren’t about to climb 400 steps to the top of the Doumo. No way. I’m sorry I missed the Duomo Museum, though. I highly recommend looking at the façade of the Duomo when the sun is shining directly on it. All the gold leaf lights up, and all the colors show up very vividly. It’s pretty amazing. Keep your hands in your pockets when you do something like that. I’ve never encountered a pickpocket, but they say they are around in places like that.

We stood in that square and said, “look around and see if you can tell who is the pickpocket.” And we couldn’t. They must blend in really well.

Also, we didn’t go to the Accademia Museum and see the original David. Again, lines that were miles long, reservations were sold out for weeks in advance, and there were so many other things to do. But this is not unusual for us. We went to Rome for 9 days and never went to the Colosseum, and we went to Paris for 7 days and never went to the Eiffel Tower.

Another thing we did not do: rent a car and drive around. I was prepared to do it, had my international driver’s license, but somehow, we just never did it. Maybe next time.

Half the people in Florence are tourists. Most of those seem to be Asian tourists, and all of them seem to be taking pictures all the time. Sometimes I wonder, do these people see their entire trip through the lens of their cell phone?

Florence was wonderful. The two weeks flew by. I think it’s one of my favorite places I’ve ever been. It worries me a little that my future travels will never be able to match it.

Coming back to the US was easy this time, because for the first time, we had Global Entry. We just walked past all the poor unfortunate people stuck standing in security lines that looked like Disneyworld. We breezed on in like a couple of celebrities.

The End

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1831 posts

Thank you, loved your report! I can’t wait till hubby retires so we can settle in and live like a local. I am shocked about your reactions to restaurant food, I dislike cooking, much prefer restaurants to my own cooking!

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1454 posts

What a lovely trip! Thanks for sharing.

We are planning a trip that includes Florence next summer with our young adult children. I had already decided the Uffizi would not be good for our group (my husband and I have been there once but many years ago before current crowds). I had been thinking that seeing art in its original location would be more meaningful. You made a point of doing this, illustrating with Siena cathedral. I was wondering what recommendations you might have for Florence itself. We are planning to stay five nights in an apartment and make at least one day trip into Tuscany countryside.

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21243 posts

Great Report --- and a big THANK YOU for NOT breaking the report into part 1, part 2, etc.,, Makes the reading of the report so much easier.

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3829 posts

Thanks for sharing your trip report, Marty!

I also really like to gaze at the beautiful art inside churches.

Your tv watching comment made me smile. We watched an Italian game show on a previous trip to rest our feet at the end of a few days. We were entertained!

Sad to see your food experiences were hit & miss! Guess it’s a reason to return! We like to take a cooking class when in Italy, and they usually have great insight of where to eat, and very importantly what NOT to order because it’s tourist dishes.

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BethFL, if you are making one day trip from Florence, I've only made two myself- Siena and Pisa, and Siena was really great. Do not miss going inside the Duomo in Siena. That was my number one experience in my entire two weeks.

Other art we saw "in situ" included the Medici Chapel (Michelangelo), Santa Croce, Santa Maria Novella, and really a whole lot of other cathedrals. I also recommend going in the Basilica of Santo Spirito on the Oltrarno side. The interior architecture (by Brunelleschi) was to me spectacular in his extensive use of Romanesque arches. It's free to enter; no pictures allowed.

But the cathedral in Siena was like a religious experience for me. I guess that's what they intended, right?

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1454 posts

Marty,

Thank you for the suggestions!

My husband and I have been to Siena so we are thinking of visiting Volterra this time instead. But I do remember that the cathedral was magnificent!

Beth