Italy 2014 – August 25th to September 4th
I usually write about stupid adventuring that normal, sensible folks wouldn’t think of doing. However I have been known to do more mainstream stuff, it’s just I don’t bother to write about it as it’s probably pretty boring. I thought I’d make an exception and describe one of our “vacations” (Ummmm….If one is retired is it fair to use the word vacation? Isn’t life one entire vacation at that point? But I digress….)
2014 was not supposed to have a European trip included in it. 2014 was to be The Year of the New Car (out with the obscenely fun Miata and in with the even more amazing Mazda3!). Jeri and I are, after all, responsible adults. Mostly. Usually. So clearly it must be someone else’s fault and I choose to blame the Innerwebz.
In April, while recovering from the initial new car hit, news came to me of an airfare sale from one of the dark corners of the Innerwebz. Seems United Airlines was running a one day deal for business class flights from various places in the US to Europe. This included some destinations in Italy. Oh, well that was interesting…..
Jeri and I have been to a lot of countries, but Italy is by far our favorite (excepting Antarctica, but that’s a whole ‘nuther story and not, technically, a country). It’s an effort to figure out how many times we’ve been there, but it’s something like 6 or 7 trips. I figure it’s the food and style of France crossed with the laid back attitude of California. The country is extremely easy to move around in, the people very friendly (even to dumb-ass Americans) and the food is beyond great. The history and culture of Italy make the US look like an infant. You can walk down residential streets and see doorknobs that are older than the US. Um, did I mention the food? Why I believe I did.
Language isn’t much of an issue as most Italians seem to speak English, but if you were raised in California you are probably familiar with Spanish and Italian is pretty close to that. Close enough that Jeri and I can bumble along in Italian, to the amusement of the Italians who speak better English than our Italian. But I think they appreciate our efforts.
And…..due to Jeri’s ancestry she was able to obtain Italian citizenship, so now she’s a trendy dual national. This means on any visit to European Union countries she flashes her Italian passport and breezes through immigration while I have to wait in the dumb-ass American (and others) line where the nice officers determine if I’m going to be a threat to their country. Jeri just waits on the other side with an amused smile.
So we like Italy….a lot. But so much for background. On with the story.
Poking around a bit showed fares were available on United Airlines from John Wayne Airport in Orange County to Florence, Italy for a mere $1,500 per person, round trip. In stinkin’ Business Class no less! This was lower than the published coach fare at that time and was an amazing price. It would be downright….irresponsible….not to take advantage of such a bargain.
The only downside was that the tickets required a return no later than September 4th, which meant a late August, early September trip. This isn’t the greatest time due to the thundering tourist hordes and the stinkin’ heat. But it was what it was.
A quick check showed our favorite apartment in the San Lorenzo District of Florence was available for the period we were considering. This place is only a block from the Duomo, yet high on the 4th floor, wonderfully quiet and huge for two people. It’s a few minute walk to the Mercato Centrale for the usual morning cappuccinos at Alma and Claudio’s. The apartment is fully equipped with refrigerator and washer (and excellent air conditioning!!) so we’ve found it a great place to just hang out. I’m not much of a fan of cities, but somehow Florence is different. Despite its touristyness, we’ve used it as a base to explore much of Italy. It helps that our apartment of choice is only a ten minute walk from the Santa Maria Novella train station.
So….within 45 minutes I had our unexpected 2014 Italian vacation locked down. Nine days or so in Florence with no idea what exactly we’d be doing. But we’d think of something. So what follows is a day by day account of what we did, which I wrote up mostly while we were there.
Now as I mentioned we’d been to Florence a number of times before and had seen all the normal sights. Twice maybe. Yeah, David has big hands. To give us some things to do for this trip I scoured the Innerwebz for weird shit to see in Florence. The sort of stuff normal tourists wouldn’t have a clue about. I ended up with a fairly long multi-page list that we could choose from on a day to day basis depending upon weather and our energy levels.
Day 1 -Monday – Tuesday, Travel is Hell
One would think a three hop trip from Orange County to Florence wouldn’t be such a bad thing, especially in Business Class. In fact it sucks donkey balls. It still ends up being almost 24 hours of travel, and each hop adds to the probability that something might go wrong. Of course you do get the chance to spend a full hour (no exaggeration!) taxiing around on the ground at Chicago’s O’Hare Airport before taking off for Brussels. The pilot claimed the weather was changing (it’s friggin’ Chicago, after all) and our departure runway kept changing. But I suspect Ground Control was just messing with us. Pity I can’t get extra United miles for that bit of fun.
This was our first flying with United, after changing over from American. Turns out to be just a different flavor of suck. The aircraft seemed pretty worn out. The United lounge we used at O’Hare was really third world, its only saving grace was that it was still better than being in the cramped main terminal.
We contrasted that to the Brussels Airlines lounge during our layover at the Brussels Airport. It was a temporary, relocated facility during the remodeling of their normal lounge. Despite this it was several notches above any domestic lounge we’ve been in. There was abundant free food (sandwiches, soup, cheeses and pastries) and craploads of free beer. Were I a beer drinker I probably wouldn’t have left.
The only bright note was the lay flat beds on the Atlantic leg of the ordeal. Despite the considerable online bitching by United fliers over these seats they were much better than the American sliders. As a result, Jeri and I managed to get a few hours of sleep.
Upon arrival in Florence we bolted out of the terminal (say yes to carry on!) and snagged the first and strangely only cab in the taxi queue. 20 minutes later we were pushing through the throngs of tourists near the Duomo on the way to our apartment for a week and half.
Now we didn’t get settled in to our place until about 5:30 PM. But between then and when we crashed for the night we managed to fit in grocery shopping, a quick dinner at the new Italian hipster food court on the second level of the Mercato Centrale, chocolate gelato at Grom, cantucci and amaretti cookies at Scudieri’s, and….a walk along the Arno. I don’t know…..it all made sense at the time. At any rate, once past 9 PM it was ok to fall into bed without messing up our time zone acclimatization.
Day 2 Wednesday – Our first full day (What time is it again??)
We of course have our priorities so first thing in our pretty early morning was a stop at Alma and Claudio’s cappuccino stand in the Mercato Centrale. 2.40 Euros total for two of the best cappuccinos we’ve ever had (excepting, of course, the previous times we’ve stopped there).
After the cappuccinos we wandered around the marketplace gathering up foods for the next few days from an assortment of vendors. Bread, cheeses (Pecorino Fresco!), meats (Yay, Speck, the crack of cured meats) and various fruits and vegetables.
Returning to the apartment I have hazy recollections of extensive eating, but it’s mostly a blur. We finally regained enough of our faculties to allow us to safely head out, so the first place we went was a bakery that specializes in Cantucci cookies (il Cantuccio di San Lorenzo) to stock up on this mostly overlooked food group. Once that was done, more rest was required and it was, surprise, getting close to meal time again.
We headed out across the Arno River for a look at the Museo Bardini, but got skunked when we discovered it wasn’t open on Wednesdays. So we continued waaaay on up the hill to the Church of San Minato. Now it’s a neat church and all, and perhaps the better views of Florence. But we were mostly interested in again visiting the cemetery, which is one of the most interesting cemeteries we’ve seen, and we’ve seen a lot. Unfortunately our lousy luck continued because while the church was open the cemetery was closed. Why? Because it’s Italy and this shit just happens. At this point we thought it wisest to retreat to our room and maybe eat some more. Why? Because it’s Italy.
After some rest and refreshment at the apartment we headed off to something on my list labeled as the “English Cemetery”. I was determined to see at least some sort of cemetery that day. But this was really strange and interesting one.
In the middle of a large and very busy traffic circle northeasterly of the historic center there is a very incongruous sight: A very old cemetery. It’s elevated, forming a hill covered with elaborate tombstones and monuments. Italians know how to do cemeteries with style, but in the middle of a traffic circle? That takes it to a whole new level.
Actually it wasn’t quite the Italians, it was the Swiss Reformed Church who started the thing in 1827. For a variety of reasons it ended up being the final resting place for prominent, mostly English folks, including Elizabeth Barrett Browning. It’s a wonderfully strange place to wander around in, Jeri and I being the only weirdos doing so.
Day 3 Thursday – Day of the weird museums
The usual cappuccino at A&C’s in the Mercato Centrale, then we made the walk to Florence’s other market, the Mercato di Sant’Ambrogio. It’s far less touristy than the Mercato Centrale (we were the only tourist yahoos I saw) and most of the clientele are local Florentines. We like to switch off between the two markets as both have their own charms. Picked up the usual cheese, bread, meat and whatever else looked interesting then retreated to the coolness of the apartment for a while.
Going from my list of weird shit to see in Florence, we headed over to the University of Florence, off Piazza San Marcos to check out their museums. Took a little hunting to find the ticket office as it’s a very low key affair. But a 10 Euro per person ticket gets you in to all the university museums as many times as you want for 30 days.
First stop, since it was at the ticket office, was the Geology and Paleontology Museum. Lots of Mammoths. And unlike US museums there were no railings between you and the bones so you can get up close and personal, no touching of course. Pissing off an Italian museum curator is probably not a good idea. Anyway, it was a wonderful small museum with only a handful of locals, and English translations for most of the exhibits.
Next stop was across the courtyard at the Mineralogy and Lithology Museum. Again, very nicely done, not overproduced like things are in the US. In all honesty rocks, gems and minerals don’t get me too excited, but all the crystals were very purdy and it was worth the stop. Not to mention bathrooms, and one never says “No” to a bathroom in Italy.
Relocating about a block away, we came to the U of F Botanic Gardens. Very nice! Open, green space is a rarity in densely packed Florence and this is quite an oasis. It’s the third oldest botanic garden in the world, started in 1545. Respectable.
That evening we decided we wanted to see the Gucci Museum, adjacent to the Palazzo Vecchio. Thursday nights it’s open late, and half price after eight so we figured we had little to risk for this weirdness.
It was a surreal experience. There were impressive displays of friggin’ PURSES, as if they had some societal significance. Very elegantly done, of course, and the staff was better dressed than us schmucks by orders of magnitude. The exhibit descriptions were all so serious, again as if this fashion nonsense were something important. There were a few visitors who seemed to be really getting into it, and they were fun to follow around and observe. In truth there were some gowns on display that were impressive for their craftsmanship, so they were interesting. But the majority of the “museum” was of such fluff that at times it felt as if we were walking through a Monty Python sketch. So I highly recommend a visit, if only for the entertainment value.
Day 4 Friday – The Vasari Corridor saves us from mingling with the riffraff
Friday was one of the two days we had something concrete planned in advance. In this case it was a tour of the Vasari Corridor. It’s an elevated passage way, about a half mile long, connecting the Palazzo Vecchio to the Palazzo Pitti on the other side of the Arno River. It crosses the river above all the shops lining the Ponte Vecchio. It was constructed in 1564 by a guy named Vasari for Cosimo I de’ Medici, the ruler of Florence at the time. This allowed him to travel from the government offices (the Uffizi) to his residence at the Pitti Palace without having to mingle with the locals. A reasonable idea given hygiene conditions of the era.
Up until recent years the Vasari Corridor has been closed to the public but recently reopened to small guided tour groups. We jumped on one early that included a tour of the Uffizi Museum prior to normal opening hours and breakfast on the Uffizi terrace prior to passing through the Vasari Corridor. These morning tours are pricier, but the group size is limited to on 15 people.
We’ve been through the Uffizi before but to do so before its normal opening was fantastic. No tourist hordes, just a few other small tour groups here and there. The guide of our group was excellent and over about 2 hours hit the high spots. Following that, breakfast on the Uffizi terrace turned out to be merely a pastry and cappuccino, but hey, the view was good. To be fair, that is a typical Italian breakfast, despite it being starvation rations to calorie addicted Americans.
Passing through the Corridor was amazing. Through windows along the way there are great views of the Arno River and Ponte Vecchio. We could see the length of the corridor and we were the only ones in it. The artwork hung in the corridor isn’t especially inspiring but our guide gamely tried to make it sound interesting. Clearly the real thrill was being in the corridor itself.
One of the cooler parts was looking out the large windows in the sides of the corridor over the middle of the Arno River. These were installed by Mussolini to improve the view for meetings with Hitler at that very spot in the corridor. Hitler liked it so much that when the German army retreated from Florence they blew up all the bridges except the Ponte Vecchio. So I guess he wasn’t all bad?
At the end of the tour we were dumped out of a nondescript door adjacent to the grotto of the Pitti Palace. Since we were now on the other side of the Arno River, we thought we’d give the Bardini Museum another try. This time it was open.
Bardini was a collector of antiques and when he died in the early 1900s, he willed his collection and villa to Florence. At the time, Florence was less than impressed and viewed his “collection” as uneducated and just a step or two above being a hoarder. However in recent years, Bardini’s collection has been reexamined and the consensus is now, “Whoa, wait a minute, this guy really did have themes going on. This is cool stuff!”. It’s not a big museum, but it’s quiet and seldom visited by tourists. Very enjoyable.
Day 5 Saturday – Bologna is tasty
Three months prior, when Trenitalia ticket availability had first opened, I snagged a couple very cheap round trip high speed train tickets to Bologna for the day at 18 Euros each. Since these were nonrefundable and for specific trains/times, I had to guess how long to allot for the trip. I thought maybe leaving Florence at 8 AM and leaving Bologna at 4:30 PM would make for a decent day. Of course this decision was made in the comfort of home, not in the current swelter of Florence we had been “enjoying”. Considering the relatively small amount of money we had invested in the tickets and the prospect of being stuck out all day far from our air conditioned apartment we seriously considered just blowing off the Bologna trip. Fortunately, we didn’t.
Bologna turned out to be a lovely city, in many ways much nicer than Florence. I had read it was the “city of porticos” but didn’t really appreciate what that meant until we saw it. Essentially, on most of the main city streets the property owners were allowed to construct their buildings all the way to the street curb line from the second floor and above. But the ground floor walls were set back a considerable distance from the curb. The net effect was the creation of very wide sidewalks that were covered by an overhanging structure. This provides pedestrians great protection from rain, and yes, sun. Lots of shade which made the walking very enjoyable.
In addition, apparently the downtown area is closed to vehicles on weekends, so pedestrians were free to roam everywhere. Moving about was just fantastic. Also the hordes of tourists found in Florence were at a minimum here. It just seemed more refined overall than Florence.
Jeri and I hit the main sights and wandered though the city’s shopping district. Florence has some pretty high end stuff, but so does Bologna, and it was all done in a much classier manner. We stopped at the Teatro Anatomico to see a several hundred year old human anatomy/dissection lecture hall. Very elegant.
Continuing with our theme of weird things to see we headed for the Museo di Palazzo Poggi. It had exhibits regarding ancient nautical and military science, astronomy, zoology and gynecology. They all go together, right? The gynecology exhibits were especially bizarre as most were porcelain teaching aids for midwives, showing every conceivable birth complication. The “birthing machine” was, ah…interesting. It sucked to be a woman in the 1700s.
We decided to forego climbing any of the many towers of Bologna as it was pretty warm. Instead a long lunch was in order, an excellent way to kill time in Italy. Bologna is considered a foody town and our restaurant didn’t disappoint. We enjoyed a long and indulgent lunch.
Our last planned stop in Bologna was to be the Museo per la Memoria di Ustica. From what I understand this is a profoundly strange museum that’s a memorial to a plane crash, which actually contains the plane. Unfortunately after making the walk all the way to the museum we found it closed up for no good reason. Probably because it’s August in Italy. So we headed back to the cool of the train station and waited in the new lower levels for our high speed train back to Florence.
Day 6 Sunday – Gotta rest sometime
We had always been curious about Forte di Belvedere (Fort Belvedere). It’s a massive, star shaped structure sitting high on the hill on the south side of the Arno, adjacent to the Boboli Gardens. I knew it was now open to the public, but only on Sundays, so it was off on another hike.
In terms of tourist visitation, Florence is a bit like Yosemite Valley. While at times Yosemite Valley is completely overrun with humanity, walking just a short distance out of the valley leaves everyone behind. And so it was here at Fort Belvedere. Better views of the city than the nearby (and swamped!) Piazza Michelangelo and practically no one there. Only a few Italians out for a Sunday visit. We plopped our sweaty American butts in the shade of cafe they have running there and had some nice cold drinks while enjoying the view.
Since we were adjacent to the back entrance to the Boboli Gardens, and had already done all the climbing, we decided to descend though the gardens back into town. Boboli is a nice place, but as a garden it’s not much of a wow.
That evening we spent until well after dark in the Piazza della Signoria. We’d find a stone ledge or bench near the Uffizi or the Loggia and listen to the assortment of street musicians. The atmosphere doesn’t get better than that and the price is certainly right. We ended up doing this every night again until we left.
Day 7 Monday – An empty church in Florence?
Cold pizza for breakfast then off to A&C’s for cappuccinos. Following that ritual, we headed off to Orsanmichele.
Orsanmichele is an easily overlooked churchy thing between Piazza della Repubblica and Piazza della Signoria. Doesn’t look like much, just a tall rectangular structure with interesting windows. In all our visits to Florence, we couldn’t recall ever being inside. But we knew Mondays are special.
The ground floor is your regular renaissance church. It started off as a grain exchange but got repurposed, hence its non-cathedral appearance. Not very large inside, but has a most intricate altar. And this is what you can see every day. However on Mondays they open the stairs to the two upper levels, with small signs pointing to the almost hidden stairs. And that is what makes this worth a visit.
The second floor is a sculpture gallery. The outside of the Orsanmichele building is ringed with about 14 larger than life sculptures, set in niches above the ground. Turns out these are copies. The real ones are on the second floor and you can get as close as you want (just don’t touch). And only a handful of visitors.
But wait, there’s more…..another set of stairs takes you to the third level, which is pretty empty. That’s not a problem as the main draw is the four sided view out of the windows to most of the historic part of Florence. Really, really nice. And again, despite the streets below starting to look like Uncle Milty’s Antfarm, there was only one other person up on that level with us. Oh yeah, and this was all free. No admission charge.
In the afternoon we walked up Via Cavour (every city in Italy must have a Via Cavour) to check out the Piazza della Libertà (more from my weird list). This spot marks the former Porta San Gallo, an important northern city gate of medieval Florence. Not too interesting but better than sitting in the apartment.
Day 8, Tuesday – The Long, Long Mercato
Something I had added to my list of weird shit was the Park Cascine market on Tuesday mornings. In all of our visits I had never heard of this one and it was too bad. Park Cascine is a long, linear park on the northerly bank of the Arno about a half mile westerly of the Santa Maria Novella train station. This Mercato operates in the park on Tuesdays from around 8 AM until maybe 2 PM, and this thing is big. Like in really big. It goes on and on.
There were food stands, clothing, housewares, purses, shoes, nursery plants, even pets (well, I think they were pets and not food!). Attendees were 100% local, and could be seen streaming in across the Arno bridges. After we got worn out from the market we detoured into the park itself and really enjoyed that.
Heading back from the park we planned our course to pass the Pharmacia Santa Maria Novella so Jeri could pick up sweet smelling somethings. I have no idea what she does with them but picking up a few scented soaps seems a requirement of our visits. They rode back in my luggage this time and I had rose scented shirts until the first wash. Jeri thought it an improvement, me less so.
Day 9, Wednesday – Mummies!
On our last day we spent the morning packing and getting staged for an early departure the next morning.
Once that was accomplished we headed off to the National Archaeological Museum at Piazza Santissima Annunziata. I had low expectations but was completely blown away by the place. They had the usual Etruscan and Roman exhibits, it being Italy and all, but what was surprising was their Egyptian inventory. Mummies all over the place, and who doesn’t like a good mummy? Lots of hieroglyphic samples, including 4,000 year old papyrus. We ended up spending a lot more time there than I expected, as the exhibits just kept going on and on. And hardly anyone around. I suspect the richness of their Egyptian stuff is due to Italy’s proximity to Egypt. It’s probably also due to a refreshing lesser level of political correctness and its resultant need to “repatriate” the artifacts. They snatched ’em fair and square and ain’t giving them back
To end out our last night we decided to go to the Palazzo Vecchio late. During Summer the place is open for visitation until the incredible hour of Midnight. After 8 PM or so, visitor traffic really drops off and it’s a great experience. Walking through that place after dark is rather magical.
Day 10, Thursday – Travel is still hell, but less so when aimed toward home
When I set up the trip, a 6:15 AM departure time at the Florence airport didn’t set off any alarm bells. It should have. As it got closer I realized what a pain in the ass it was going to be. The cheap airport buses from the train station didn’t start until 5:30 AM so that was out. And even to snag a taxi that early probably required a trip to the train station. So we set up a private driver at stupid o’clock, otherwise known as 4:30 AM. This meant we had to be up by 3:50 AM. This is how one begins a VERY long and unpleasant day.
The drive to the Florence airport went well and the airport was fairly deserted. Hell, at that hour everything was deserted. Business Class in a small RJ-100 regional jet is where they block off the seat next to you. Sorta cute. And we actually left the Florence airport early, as this local airline connector was run by Lufthansa, so no messing around with the Germans. Finally got to see the sun rise though after being awake a few hours.
We arrived in Munich and had a couple of hours layover there. The Lufthansa Business Class lounge was pretty good to hide in, with ample food although Jeri thought it looked like we were waiting in an Ikea. We boarded the flight to the US (Houston) on time and began the big hop home. This was almost a 12 hour flight, daylight the whole way. And getting up as early as we did it was quite a drag. But again we enjoyed the lay flat seats and killed time binging on movies and TV. I rewatched the final three episodes of Breaking Bad, the “Citizen Kane” of TV series. Nice.
Arrival in Houston was on time and we hid from the masses in the United lounge. Pretty crowded and non-existent food but better than the terminal. Oh, yeah and there were the showers. This particular lounge offered showers and after having been up for a ridiculous number of hours we thought it might be a good thing to wake us up. And it was. Showers are fantastic. Say yes to hygiene! They really perked us up for our last 3 hour hop to Orange County, arriving just at sunset. That was one damnably long day.
Italy’s nice, but there’s no place like home. Over the course of many trips we’ve come to realize we are tourists, not travelers. But we still do it.
Some final thoughts we took away from this……
The Vasari Corridor tour really rocks.
Florence in August really sucks. The weather is hot enough to make walking arduous, and the hordes of tourists offloaded from huge cruise ships are a plague. Also we found a number of establishments we wanted to eat or buy from were closed for vacation. Even the Italians want to blow outta town in August.
We are pretty much Florenced out. We need to be somewhere new, and Bologna looks interesting.
We feel a little embarrassed to say we really enjoyed the new food court on the second floor of the Mercato Centrale. Last time we were in Florence it was under construction and we didn’t know what it was. But we saw the fruit and vegetable sellers, the prior occupants of the Mercato’s second floor, got booted downstairs. That didn’t seem good. And the new installation looks so….American. It would very natural in some trendy spot in Southern California. Not traditional Italian at all. But damn….It works! The food is great, you can see it before you order, and it’s really fast (very unItalian!). And for us uncouth Americans the main draw is you can eat at the times YOU want, not when a restaurant decides it’s the proper time (Dinner at 4:30 PM? No problem!). The Mercato’s second floor is open from 10 AM until Midnight every day. And it’s a hopping place. Before, the entire Mercato closed up about 2 PM (the first floor still does). So good on the Florentines….They’ve found a way to turn an underutilized facility into something really cool. And lucrative.
After extensive cross testing, we have determined the best Chocolate gelato in Florence to be from Venchi, facing the Mercato Nuovo (the vendors market with the brass boar), followed imperceptibly closely by Procopio, on Via Pietrapiana just west of Mercato Sant’Ambrogio. Sorry Grom, but we gave you a couple tries. Our fruit flavored gelato testing wasn’t as extensive but we found the best to be Vivoli, near Santa Croce (but good luck finding it!). Procopio was again a very close second. In fairness, Gelateria Neri was closed for vacation, so we couldn’t try them, but they have been very good in the past. And Perché no!?? Man, I just don’t get the popularity of that one. Meh.