Travelogue: Florence 1999
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Itinerary: A two week trip to Florence in May 1999 by Judy Brandon

I'm in beautiful Tuscany staying with my friends and their three kids in their large, 5-bedroom, nicely restored farmhouse in a secluded valley just outside Florence. It is very quiet here with many birds creating the only sounds. There are farms all around and the air is perfumed with blossoms. It's in the high 70s and low 80s, just right for sightseeing.

My first flight overseas on KLM was quite pleasant. There were three movies (one I actually wanted to see - Waking Ned Devine) and they fed us four times - I couldn't believe I didn't need the snacks I'd packed. When I landed in Bologna on Sunday local time, I took a bus to the train station where I had the only snafu of my trip. I had just called my friends to tell them which train I'd be on when I heard my name over the train station loudspeaker. Unfortunately, I only understood my name (guess I should have studied Italian harder!). I went to two information counters and neither had any idea why I'd been paged; I called my friends again and they hadn't called. I did a quick inventory - I had my passport, my return ticket, my driver's license, both my pieces of luggage and my money so I just hurried and got on my train. Sitting on the train, I realized the probable reason I was paged - one of my luggage tags had fallen off. No biggee! And I haven't heard anything else so I can only guess that was it. Phew!

I hadn't planned on doing any sightseeing Monday but ended up going to the Duomo, the Baptistery, the Ponte Vecchio and getting the "lay of the land." Someone asked me directions to the Ponte Vecchio in Italian and I actually knew the way and was able to say "Sempre dritto," straight ahead. That was too cool.

Tuesday, I was 100% over my minor jet lag and I played tourist for 10 hours. I saw the San Marco Museum, a former monastery, which has frescoes by Fra Angelico all over the place. Lots of crucifixion scenes. I went to the Accademia and saw the real David; I didn't swoon, but it is an awesome sculpture. I then spent a couple of hours exploring and looking for Vivoli's, home of the best ice cream in the world. Wow! It was tasty; I had the rice as recommended by Rick Steves in Italy Through the Back Door - like rice pudding but 100Xs better. More exploring, a little sidewalk cafe people watching (I saw Bryant Gumbel - I didn't say anything to him but I got close enough to hear his voice to be sure.) Then at 17:00 (5 pm in regular time!), I went to the Uffizi and only had to wait 20 minutes to get in (people wait up to 2 hours at peak times). I was thrilled with the Lippis and the Botticellis. So many beautiful works of art. So many Madonnas and Child!

Tonight, I offered to sit with the kids, ages 5-1/2, 3-1/2, and 2. All three were overtired and now I am, too!

One morning at about 9:30 (on the early side for sightseeing), I was headed to the Bargello Museum of sculpture which is not far from the Arno River, which cuts Florence in half east to west, where the motor scooter and taxi traffic is quite heavy. Coming toward me, I saw three teenage girls, one pregnant, one with a baby in a front pack and one unencumbered. Luckily I recognized them as potential gypsy pickpockets because my friend had pointed out similar-looking young women (one also with a baby in a front pack) who had looked as though they were being arrested by two policeman and she had said she thought they were pickpockets. When I recognized I was in potential danger, I couldn't just cross the street because of the heavy traffic but when I was accosted and my arm grabbed by the unencumbered one, I was prepared. I just kept walking briskly and yelled "No" very loudly twice and they left me alone. I am so grateful to be abroad for the first time with friends who can help me learn the score!

The Bargello is a large fortress built in the 1200s which was used for a prison for a couple of hundred years. I actually walked clear around the structure before realizing I'd walked right past the entrance. Nowhere is it even marked what the building is. Thank goodness for maps! The Bargello is full of sculpture - those by Michaelangelo and Donatello were my favorites. There is so much art in this city it's almost overwhelming. Because the Bargello is near Vivoli's, I had coffee there before heading back to the farmhouse - coffee ice cream, that is!

Thursday, my friends and I headed out for a weekend of sightseeing in Umbria. We were joined by Andrew Sigal, a friend of theirs (and creator of this web site!) who is traveling around the world on a special United ticket that sounds like a really good deal. Andrew isn't a "kid person" so he had his own car to allow for a little space, but he did welcome the company because he's been on the road alone for two months. That night we all stayed in Orvietto, an incredible hill town. We had dinner in a restaurant in a cave in the hillside. Our hotel was definitely funky - the room I shared with the 2-year old and his crib had a fiberglass "bathroom" installed into one side of the room that reminded me a bit of a motorhome bathroom.

The Duomo in Orvietto is described in guide books as the most exquisite facade in all Italy. It was breathtakingly beautiful. Having never been in a medieval town before, I felt like I was in a fairytale. Or, more precisely, in Whoville, Dr. Seuss's setting for The Grinch Who Stole Christmas. Holly is quite sure I'm the first person to make that particular comparison. We also went into St. Patrick's Well which was built in the 1300s and has two nonintersecting spiral staircases of 248 stairs each. Very interesting. We then drove to Perugia (the kids nap in the car; I had hoped to go to Civitta, the pinnacle town, but it didn't work out) and arrived in the town of Perugia in time to see some of the sights which included a very large town square with no motor traffic. We stayed in a very nice hotel, La Rosetta, but since it was right on the town square, it had the drawback of being very noisy. We had dinner in a nice restaurant, La Taverna. Needless to say, we 4 adults and 3 kids were always given a nice table in a secluded part of the restaurant. It took me a meal or two to get used to ordering an antipasto, primi, secondi and dessert, but I've got it now! I also am enjoying espresso with sugar to finish meals. May be a new habit.

Saturday morning we trekked off to Assisi. I never thought I'd have a chance to see this. The Upper Basilica is closed for restoration from the fall 97 earthquake but we got to tour the Lower Basilica and the tomb. I really enjoyed seeing the fresco of St. Francis feeding the birds. Assisi is another beautiful hill town and we had lunch on a patio with a few of the valley. I made the mistake of having a beer with my tuna and onion pizza (it was very good!) and I got the giggles. The kids thought that was too funny. Holly and Bill took the kids for the afternoon nap car ride and Andrew and I set off to visit Gubbio, billed as the quietest hill town in Italy.

The joke was on us. Gubbio may be the quietest town 364 days a year but on the day we arrived it was Festa di Ceri, a festival that's been happening annually since something like 1086. It involves three groups in the town carrying these 500 kilo (approximately 1200 pound) wooden "candles" topped by a patron saint. The teams are made up of 300-400 men, with 20 carrying the ceri at a time. My bank card had gotten stuck in a gas station cash machine just outside town and a group of absolutely wonderful people saw us in a quandary (it was truly self-serve, unattended station) and came to our aid: Louisa, Feruccio, Marionella, Elvi and Atonietta, Franco and their 7 year old son, Niccolo. Antonietta is a linguist and speaks fabulous English. The bank card appears to be a goner (I called to put a block on it) but Andrew and I were taken under the wing of this friendly group of souls and escorted to the Festival. It was an amazing spectacle on the narrow streets of this steep town with almost everyone in town wearing the blue, black or yellow of their team and all with red bandanas. It was truly an adventure and I will be in touch with Antonietta. My new friends were so pleased that I could understand some of what they said and could speak a little Italian!

This morning, Andrew took off on his own and I and the family went to a children's amusement park, Citta della Domenica "City of Sunday." The kids had fun, especially in the labyrinth, and so did the adults. I figure we walked about two miles. Little Alex, who was 2 in April, walked the entire time without whining. He is the best walker of any 2 year old I've ever known.

Monday, Monday was rainy in sunny Italy this week. Since many sights are closed on Monday, I decided to make it a journey day. I took the train to Pisa and have now seen the famous Leaning Tower. I don't have much else to say about Pisa - it is definitely not my favorite town in Italy. I then took the train on to Lucca, a beautiful walled city southeast of Florence. It had stopped raining and I walked the tree-lined promenade around the circumference of the town. Since the sights were mostly closed, I just took the train back to Florence. Then a bus back to Due Strade, Bill and Holly's neighborhood, and then a 15 minute walk to the house. I covered territory!

Tuesday, I saw the Palatine Gallery in the Pitti Palace (full of bare-chested women!) and the Boboli Gardens. It was a pretty day so I walked on to Fort Belvedere, an old city fort, and on to Piazzale Michelangelo - both have exquisite views of Florence and I took many, many photos. If anyone ever camps in Europe, there is a beautiful campground right below the Piazzale Michelangelo which also has incredible views. I've seen nothing like it in the U.S. I also went through Romanesque San Miniato church - cool and crowd-free (pretty much like Rick Steves advises in his guide).

Fiesole was my destination for Wednesday. Fiesole is a small hill town 5 km north of Florence. Estruscan and Roman ruins, good museums and, again, incredible views of the town. I had lunch at a bar on the main piazza and was very embarrassed for two women tourists who didn't even try to speak basic Italian like sera and grazie, wanted to use a credit card and then, when that wasn't possible, asked to have the tab split and then the one who had wanted to use credit paid with a traveler's check. Geez. It was only L32,000 ($18 or so). If they're traveling, one might think that one of them could pick up lunch today and the other tomorrow. Ugly Americans.

Last night, we got a babysitter for the kids and went to a fabulous restaurant WAY out of town. Da Delfina's is in a small town called Artimagno which isn't all that far out of Florence but we had quite a time trying to find it. The food was exquisite and it was a very pleasant evening.

As I'm nearing the end of my stay here in Florence, although I miss Randy incredibly, I hate to leave. Holly and Bill have invited me back before they leave to return to the U.S. in July 2000 (they've said I've accomplished my goal of being the easiest guest ever) and thinking I might be able to come back may be the only thing to get me out of here!

There was a HUGE thunder storm on Thursday night that lasted from 8 p.m. until a final clap at 6 am Friday morning. I've never seen anything like it. It went on and on and knocked out our power for about 12 hours. I took a bus trip to Siena and San Gimignano on Friday morning and everyone looked kind of sleepy because everyone's sleep had been interrupted.

The tour was pleasant and I enjoyed seeing Siena. San Gimignano is a hill town like Assisi, Gubbio and Orvietto so although the site didn't wow me, they had some great frescoes in their church.

I spent my final day in Bologna and flew out of there at 6:25 Sunday morning. Bologna has a church with the basin with which Pontius Pilate supposedly washed his hands - that was a trip! I climbed up Dante's Tower (getting in my exercise here) and enjoyed walking around the city. I was here for the traditional Blessing of the Flowers. One of the churches was filled to overflowing and everyone was walking around town with flowers. I've never seen so many roses!

As I leave, I'd like to share a few general observations:

  • Big red poppies grow like dandelions.
  • Roses grow like weeds (at least without much tending). I have seen beautiful roses growing alongside railroad tracks!
  • They have fireflies here (I love fireflies!).
  • Many American, British and German tourists. Just a few French and almost no Asian.
  • I've encountered no lecherous men; I think I'm too old and that they just go for the 18 year olds. I have been flirted with charmingly a few times but nothing threatening.
  • Italians do like it when foreigners TRY to use their language and I have had a number of conversations with them helping me along. Yesterday, a postcard vendor thought I was Italian (?!?) and complained to me about his previous customer (she had wanted him to write the amount she owed).
  • Gypsies are the primary pickpockets and they are fairly easy to spot.
  • This is definitely a country worth a second trip!

© 1999, Judy Brandon

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