“Perhaps travel cannot prevent bigotry, but by demonstrating that all peoples cry, laugh, eat, worry, and die, it can introduce the idea that if we try and understand each other, we may even become friends.” – Maya Angelou
When I Return to Florence This Is the Hotel for Me
The bus dropped us off a few blocks from our hotel, we gathered our bags and made the grand march to our final hotel, Torre Guelfa. This hotel was originally part of a palace built by Niccolo Acciaioli a very rich merchant in rare and precious fabrics and a skilled politician in the fourteenth century. The tower was erected even earlier by the Buondelmonti family in the previous century. It is amazing that the building and the tower has survived all these centuries, especially World War II when so much was destroyed. There are still wraught-iron torch holders, banner holders, and large iron rings used to tie horse reins.
My room had tons of character, a bit baroque in feel, perhaps. I mean I had winged cherubs blowing horns hung above my bed. The room was tidy and clean. I had everything I needed.
Photo Gallery: Torre Guelfa Hotel Room
How Much Does This All Cost?
I was pleasantly surprised once I had been in Italy for a while that it was quite affordable. I thought it was going to be a bit pricey. But I found that everything was on par for what I would pay in Philadelphia. Sometimes, a bit less. Hoorah! Additionally, the Rick Steves Tour gives you great bang for your buck. It is a big reason why I use them. Once I paid my deposit, my price was locked in. Other tour companies will tack on add ons for fluctuations in gas prices or currency. On top of that I didn’t need to worry about tipping my guides or the bus drivers. It is all included.
Sometimes Just a Sandwich Does The Trick
Off into the city I ventured. Being famished I went to All’antico Vinaio, a sandwich shop. For €5 you get this huge sandwich with tons of meat. A sandwich is all about the quality of ingredients and this place was top notch. There was a very long line, the vast majority being locals. I really didn’t pick up on a tourist vibe so much. I just picked the sandwich I could pronounce the name easiest – ha! A sandwich and a bottle of water.
All'antico Vinaio Photo Gallery
Firenze has a new law in the central historical area. You can not stop and stand or sit anywhere to eat. You must keep moving. The fine is €150. I accidentally stopped and a police officer motioned me to keep moving so they mean serious business. Yeah, I could have gotten in trouble with the Fiorentine po’ po’. Thankfully, my sandwich was easy to eat on the go. It was marvelous.
Now of course I needed a gelato! Apparently, I still was hungry because this time I had three flavors at Edoardo, Il Gelato Biologico. The staff was super friendly. Nothing puts me in a better mood than to patronize a place where they appreciate your business. Plus, the gelato was top notch.
Elena had clearly printed out today’s outline of activities sheet when we were all supposed to meet. She had even pointed out the very spot at which I was to meet everyone. I still had a good amount of time, but I had been going like the energizer bunny this whole trip. I decided to head back to the hotel for a nice little rest. Well, I certainly rested. Because the next thing I knew I was waking up from a nap on my bed. What time is it?! Oh my gosh! It is only a few minutes to meet everyone at the Piazza del Duomo. I did a mad dash from the hotel to the Piazza. Run, run, run through the crowded streets of Florence, dodging hordes of tourists. Will I make it??! Have they departed off on their walking tour? How much time do I have left?
I got there in the nick of time. At that very first meeting of our group we all picked a buddy so we could keep tabs to make sure everyone was present at different points along the way. My buddy was Cherie and I could see a slight expression of relief when she sees me.
Renaissance Walking Tour
It is time for a renaissance walking tour of Florence. Elena took us back in time and explained all that we were admiring in the streets of Florence. As part of the walk we visited the Accademia Gallery for a “highlights tour”. And no tour of the Accademia would be complete without admiring Michelangelo’s David. Many have remarked on its significance, you don’t need my two cents. It deserves all the attention it gets. Too soon our group was let loose for solo time. I stayed in the Accademia and explored a room full of antique musical instruments, including a Stradivarius violin, followed by a room full of sculpture. But I knew I wanted a view of Florence at sunset, so I had to venture out into the city.
Photo Gallery: Piazza Della Signoria and Piazza Del Duomo
Piazza Del Duomo
Photo Gallery: Accademia
Florence at Dusk
Piazzale Michelangelo sits atop of a hill for amazing views of the city. Why I was surprised that I would have to climb steep inclines to reach this destination is beyond me. I was in a race against time. Can I reach the summit in time for the light of twilight? I sprinted as fast as I could from the Arno river, all through the Oltrarno district to make it in time. I did it and found it without much trouble thanks to Google Maps and GPS navigations. By the time I got there I was huffing and puffing. Now I wanted to take photos and my hands were shaking after so much exertion. This just made me laugh. I was so happy that I made the effort because it truly made for some magical photographs. I also was witness to a wedding party celebration and a live musician perform. I decided I had plenty of time before my 9:00 dinner reservation, but it was too late to visit Boboli or Bardini gardens or even the Pitti Palazzo. Instead, from the Piazzale Michelangelo, I walked over to San Miniato church. They were in preparation for a concert and I felt like I was intruding. There was an individual standing on a make shift stage and one person was attempting to sing. Not sure if it was some kind of modern fringe art piece or opera. As I was leaving, I heard the beginning strains of Mozart’s Queen of the Night aria from the Magic Flute, but then the soprano made some avant garde choices that were just bizarre. I just took a few pictures there and then and high tailed it out because it definitely looked like it was a ticketed event.
Darkness now descends on the city. Happily, I got some great night time shots of the city. It is time for me to make my dinner reservation. It is Saturday night. Just like at home, if you want to eat at a good restaurant, you should make a reservation. I made mine months in advance. On my way to dinner the streets had no street lighting. Pedestrians are walking in complete darkness while using the “flashlight” (or torch) on their phone to light their way so as not to stumble over uneven walkways. At first, I thought it was because I was traveling along the border of the Bardini gardens. But no, because I kept on going and more of the Oltrarno neighborhood was in complete darkness. I thought maybe there was a power outage. But no, because store fronts had lighting. I think these streets just do not have street lights. Crazy! You probably are thinking why not go another way. While I was using Google Maps I still managed to get a little lost. I zigged when I should have zagged and I didn’t want to make matters worse by changing my route. I think the poor GPS had a difficult time keeping track of me. Finally, I stumbled upon my destination.
Photo Gallery: Florence at Dusk
One of My Favorite Meals Of All Time
Dinner was at Trattoria 4Leoni. I approached the hosts at the receiving stand and in Italian explained, “Please excuse me, my Italian is horrible. My name is Douglas. I have a reservation." I was led to my table. I didn’t have to wait too long before my very friendly server stopped by.
“I know”, he said, “You’re Italian is horrible.” We had a good laugh and we discussed the menu. I had bruschetta al pomodoro to start, which was tasty, nice and light. I already knew that I wanted bistecca alla Firoentina – a classic Florentine steak but it is served by the weight. I asked if I could have 1 kilo. The server said the smallest they usually serve is 1.8, maybe 1.5 kilos. Instead, he suggested a similar steak that was appropriate for one person. I’m not all that picky. I said “Yes, please” and he gave me a huge smile. As I was enjoying my appetizer, he brings out a slab of raw steak on a wooden platter. He shows me the steak and says the chef had this for me and it was 1 kilo, did I approve? YES! Of course! “How would you like it cooked?”
“Rare, please” I had two reasons for this choice. First, that’s how a local would order it. Second, I actually prefer it that way when cooking at home.
“Are you sure? We can make it medium or well done”. I looked at him like he was crazy.
“Yes, I am sure.” He started to walk away and I stopped him. “Do you know who likes it medium or well done? The Pisans!” and I made a spitting motion and sound.
“What?”, he asked.
“The Pisans!” I exclaim with a look of disgust. “The people of Pisa would order bistecca well done.” He started busting out laughing and returned to the kitchen. We enjoyed much banter back and forth throughout my meal. Along with my bistecca I enjoyed a glass of Chianti Classico. For dessert, I had the best tiramisu I ever had. The balance of flavors was superb. Often, the coffee flavor overpowers. Not this time. It was perfection. I finished off with a cup of espresso. When I looked at the bill it came up much less than I anticipated. I think the server helped me out with the total. Even though we used a lot of English, I tried to speak as much Italian as I could. Between that, the laughter, and being a solo traveler really helped to make a connection. I’m telling you the bistecca should have cost quite a bit more. Once again, it pays to smile, laugh, be friendly, and make an attempt at the language. This was an utterly blissful meal.
Since my hotel is centrally located, I was back in my room in no time. It was off to dreamland before starting another day.
My server is the one on the right
Rick Steves Audio Europe
There are travel lectures, ebooks, radio interviews, but what was most valuable on this trip are his self-guided tours of must-see destinations and walking tours of historic walks. You just download what you want to listen to ahead of time and it is like having Rick be your own personal tour guide.
App of the Day
Our local guide to the Uffizi, Carla
Sunday, 9 Septermber, 2018
Breakfast was an amazing buffet of pastries, cakes, fruit, yogurt, sliced meats, cheeses, and rolls. As usual on this Italian adventure, I had a couple of cups of espresso. Surprisingly I didn’t get the jitters considering I don’t have much caffeine in my normal daily life. Before starting today’s activities with the group, I climbed the steps to the top of the hotel’s tower to check out the view and what a view! This was my favorite hotel of our trip. We saved the best for last. The décor was ornate baroque splendiferous in rich reds.
We met our local guide, Carla, outside the Uffizi Gallery. This is an incredible repository of renaissance art. Fitting, considering that I always think of Florence as the place that is the heart of the renaissance. After Carla finished with her highlights of the Uffizi tour, I explored on my own for another 30-40 minutes.
Torre Guelfa Photo Gallery
The Other Side of the Arno River, Oltrarno
Finally, I left and made my way over to the Oltrarno to explore the Bardini Gardens.
Clearly the seasons have changed because not much was in bloom. It was a nice pastural oasis in the city, but much of the flora was in decline because of the approach of autumn. It does have an incredible vantage point of the city.
Baldini Gardens Photo Gallery
I wanted to visit the Palazzo Pitti. It was the residence of Luca Pitti, a Florentine banker. Later it was bought by the Medici family and became the main residence of the ruling families of Tuscany. Outside of the palace was a vintage car show exhibition. I took advantage of this unexpected happenstance and checked out all of these shiny, cool vehicles. So cool to stumble upon something like this. I did want to see the palace, but I had a bit of difficulty finding the entrance. Somehow, I made it in and it is gorgeous, just gorgeous. It was something else to visit the royal apartments to see how the Medici lived. The rooms all had different themes depending on who lived there; but they were all quite grand. My favorite part was the costume exhibit – I know some drag queens who would kill for some of these looks.
Palazzo Pitti Photo Gallery
Off I ventured to the Boboli Gardens. There I ran into Mario and Cindy from my tour group. I love small town moments in a big city. We had a really nice time exploring the grounds together. Boboli incorporated more sculpture than Bardini Gardens. I felt like this garden had more to offer. We each had plans so we parted ways. With all the walking around, I had worked up an appetite.
Gusta Pizza was a tiny brick oven pizza shop that was recommended to me. I like my pizza very simple. The margherita with pomodoro tomatoes, mozzarella, olive oil, and basil fit the bill at €6. I sat on the steps of a church a few feet away and chowed down on my yummy lunch. Just what the doctor ordered!
It is the 2nd Sunday of the month which means the Oltrarno flea market makes its appearance. Time to go shopping! If you are in Florence at the right time, I recommend a visit. There was a whole variety of goods for sale. It’s just I don’t think furniture could fit into my carry-on. Instead, I was on the hunt for something I could wear on my person on the plane. There was a vendor who had really cool jewelry, right up my alley, very modern, unique items. It was just more than I wanted to spend. It wasn’t unreasonably priced, just not in my budget today. Instead, I found this vendor selling jewelry made of olive wood. I thought this is unique and how Tuscan to be made of olive wood. I snapped up a ring at just the right price. Score!
Hit the Heights!
My time in the Oltrarno comes to an end and I walk my way back to the Duomo for another workout. Time to climb the campanile of the duomo. My original plan was to clime the dome, but by the time I had arrived in Italy all the reservations had been taken. The campanile requires no reservation. Earlier in the day there was a long queue to gain entrance. Now it is late afternoon and I have no wait at all! Because I’m climbing the stairs at a fast clip, once again there is more huffing and puffing by the time I reached the top. How else do you know if you got a good workout? The view was a bit marred by the fact that you look through a cage, but I had a bird’s eye view of the entire city including the dome.
My reward was a visit back to my favorite gelateria, Edoardo, right in the Piazza del Duomo. Once again excellent, friendly service with delicious gelato.
Hover your cursor over the box to reveal the favorite memory.
While so many memories come to mind when thinking about our time in Italy, our last night must be mentioned as some of our group were able to walk down to the Palazzo Pitti, stand at the curbside, and listen to several entertainers who were attending a charity event inside. The sounds were indescribable...especially that of the artist for whom was the reason we made the trek, Andrea Bocelli. After hearing Mr. Bocelli, my husband and I headed for the hotel as we knew there was no better way to say goodbye to Italy.
-Contributed by fellow tour members, Ceri and Tim
The Last Supper
All good things must come to an end and my travel buddies and I had a wonderful farewell dinner. The wine flowed and flowed. I recall at one point my tablemates encouraged me to steal a bottle of wine from another table in our party. It is now months later. I don’t remember what I ate. I’m sure it was delicious. It looks great from my pictures. What I remember are the feelings. How fortunate I was to share this trip with such friendly, great people. To have Elena was priceless, whatever they are paying her – give her a raise. At my end of the table we laughed so much. Towards the end, after quite a bit of wine, I got up and made a toast to celebrate our journey. I can tell from the video clip here not only am I tipsy, but I got a bit choked up. Afterwards, Elena gave each of us a gift. She had picked up pieces of alabaster in Volterra. I received a small heart sculpture. So perfect. I feel like I left a piece of my heart in Italy and now I have a piece of Italy here with me. I loved it so much.