We almost missed our train to Florence, but fortunately, it was running 10 minutes late. Watching the destination board update itself was like gambling. “Come on, Firenze! Daddy needs an on-time departure!” Learning from our past experience with EuroStar, we upgraded to first-class for this leg (a mere $20 extra), trying to avoid the unwashed masses and get a bit of legroom.
Our hotel in Florence, the Hotel Centrale, like the Dolomiti in Roma, looks old and crappy on the outside. Unlike the Dolomiti, however, our room looked old and crappy inside as well. For US$85, we got a big room with two twin beds and a shared bath. Fun. But you have to excuse a country where things look old for a reason — they are old, and they HAVE been for hundreds of years. Ian Schrager this isn’t.
But the worst feature was a door that wouldn’t stay closed without using the deadbolt. It made going to the bathroom in the wee hours without waking the entire floor unavoidable. Still, it was a clean room in an excellent location with a nice view of a church Duomo (dome).
Our first meal was at a trattoria called La Madia, a 4-table sidewalk cafe that dished up a killer pesto. After the resulting nap, we visited some basillica with wacky brass door reliefs. Pretty cool. But the Duomo really stunned us with its overwrought medieval construction, size and total lack of restraint or taste. (Back then, more wasn’t less, more wasn’t enough.) The churches in Florence all look like Medieval fortresses because, well…that’s basically what they were.
We went to the Uffuzi Museo (near the Verrachio Palazzo) and saw the whole place in less than 2.5 hours. It was long and tiring, but entirely worth it. Lots of major works by Botticelli, a few Rubens, Michelangelo and even a Rembrandt or two. Take the kids.
Our first serious Florence shopping venture began at Ponte Vecchio, a jewelry mecca on a bridge over the Arno river. On the southern side of the river, we got lost in the narrow, backalleys Italians like to call “roads.” We found our way to Saint Spirito, a famous church with no apparent front door. Its blank facade convinced us there must be another door somewhere else, but we couldn’t find one, so we left.
Crossing back over the river — which, by the way, the Florentines used to piss into knowing the folks in Piza would be drinking it — we traipsed down to Saint Croce to bargain shop. Not finding the deals we hoped, and being “churched out,” we headed for a small perfume/apothecary store that still operates since being opened in the 1600s by the Pope to treat victims of The Black Death.
After Amy bought the place out and we were confident we wouldn’t be getting The Plague any time soon, we hit the Mercato Centrale and took up residency at a cafe to plan our next meal and people-watch. Shortly, we set out to wander the badly mapped streets of this cramped town.
Eventually we made our way to Sosanta, a basement restaurant hidden from every street included the one it was on. Inside, we polished off Parmesan soup and chicken in butter sauce washed down with the house Chianti. As we were finishing up, they seated a nice Irish couple next to us. The well-endowed and kinda slutty-looking wife turned out to be a doctor who claimed she knew The Cranberries. We chatted for what seemed like hours and, in fact, it was. We got the boot from the restaurant owner and went our separate ways around 11pm.
Every morning in Florence started the same way for us. Sunrise, bells and then construction. We never saw what they were building outside, but we figured it was another church. Italians can never have too many churches, it seemed.
We had breakfast at the hotel and went to see The David. It was exactly like the pictures, only bigger and 3-dimensional. Not that interesting. So, having heard that leather goods were cheap here, we went shopping for coats. That turned out to be a big mistake. Now we had to carry them all the rest of the trip. And we didn’t leave enough space in our luggage for stuff like that. Or anything, for that matter.
We had done everything we had planned and decided to jump on a bus out to Sienna for the day (only 75 minutes each way). Upon arrival, we immediately had to pee and we ducked into McDonald’s for a clean banyo. Overcome with curiosity about an unfamiliar menu item, I went ahead and ordered the Greek Mac. Not bad, but then, what food dripping in Tzatziki sauce ever is? We also found they serve beer in Italian McDonald’s, proving once again that America truly sucks.
Sienna is an entirely enclosed, medieval maze of stone alleys and fortress-inspired architecture. This design made it easier to defend against marauding foreigners. There were no main, direct or even straight streets. You more or less wander around in the direction you think something is, and hope for the best. This process ultimately led us to the Piazza del Campo, several acres of brick plaza, surrounded on all sides by stone walled buildings. The wide-open plaza was a stark contrast to the rather tight confines found through the rest of the town. As a bonus, there are no “open container” laws.
The city itself is adorable, full of quaint shops and attractive brick and stone apartment buildings. But as the sun sets, foreboding, eerie shadows crawl across the piazza, and the temperatures drops off fast. We grabbed the 7pm bus out to avoid getting stranded overnight (and surely eaten by zombies). The drive back was through glorious countryside very much like Napa Valley only with hilltop castles every few miles. Back in Florence, we went to Le Fonticine for some whole fish in wild boar sauce. It tasted better than it sounds.
We had nothing further planned and decided to wait in a long line to go inside the Duomo. It wasn’t worth it. Despite having the highest nave in Italy, the basillica is otherwise unimpressive. The San Lorenzo, outside our hotel room window, was much prettier and had works by Brunelleschi and Donatello to boot.
Overall, the funniest thing about Italy so far had to be the local artists. Even though they are surrounded by some of the best classical art the world has ever known, they still line the sidewalks with the same cheesy watercolor tourist crap you find every where else in the world. Even Mexico.
After visiting only two cities, I had already taken 200 digital photos, the maximum number my memory cards could hold. Severely underestimating the quantity of photo-worthy subject matter forced me to have them downloaded onto CD at 10-Euros per card. Who would have thought that the cradle of ancient civilization would have so much cool stuff?