Five Days In Florence – Part Due

Throughout our time in Florence, we have the pleasure of walking a half block from our hotel right into the Piazza della Republicca, one of the main squares in Florence, for almost everything we want to do while we’re here.  The Duomo is past the Piazza, and on our day at the Uffizi, we go through this square first.  It is our gateway to the western half of Florence.  As we wander to the Arno and the Ponte Vecchio, the Piazza della Signoria offers its sculpture and history to us as well.

Lovers affix a lock to the Ponte Vecchio, promising one another that their hearts will be “locked” together forever . . . a naive but sweet ritual.

And as it happens, our visit this year coincides with a small Tuscan festival, situated right on the piazza itself.  (See photo from previous post.)  Celebrating the upcoming grape harvest, a series of lovely white tents line one side of the piazza, coincidentally in perfect view from my hotel window.  Inside these tents, area vendors offer tastings of wine, cheese, honey and other products associated with the good life in Tuscany.

As I begin to browse the offerings inside each vendor’s space, I am drawn to a table with not only several types of wines, but two stacks of books, each a bit more square than a deck of cards, and a bit fatter.  These chunky books are filled with resources, one volume for Tuscany, the other for Florence specifically.

I talk with the woman who compiled the books and wrote up the information in each . . . Veronica Ficarelli.  To my surprise (and this is one of the delights of my traveling experiences), Veronica and I quickly prove to be quite simpatico, and I see her nearly every day of our stay.

Needless to say, I promptly buy her books, but each day at an appointed time, we meet at the group of tents, exchange e-mails, and plant the seeds of a friendship I hope will flourish in between my trips back to Italy.

Veronica Ficarelli – It’s always a lovely thing to find a new friend in a favorite country!!

Anne and I purchase our wine glass at the festival, which we carry around with us, visiting one wine table and then another,

getting tiny tastes of the various products of the vineyards in the countryside.  Before or after our walks we taste and talk . . . a favorite daily ritual.

Our group develops a co-mingling independence, going off in small clumps to this restaurant, that museum, the other gallery.  We meet for breakfast in the dining room of our hotel, check in about the day’s activities, planned and spontaneous, and move out to greet the day.  Four of us visit perhaps fifteen little restaurants one evening, searching for one that serves steak tartare, finally settling for beef carpaccio instead.

Five or six of us meet up mid-day for an espresso or a cappuccino and something sweet, before or after a visit to my favorite button shop, a writing store one of us spotted during the previous few hours, a dress in the window of a tiny shop down a side street lined with cobblestones.

We can always create our adventures by simply strolling down an unfamiliar lane, turning left instead of right at an already familiar corner.

Porcillino – The Brass Pig – A Market Mascot

And then there are the scheduled activities.  Next post . . .

 9/14 – 6.77 miles registered on my pedometer


Five Days In Florence

I have never been able to explain why this city comforts me, welcomes me.  Why not Rome, one of the greatest cities in the world, according to some?  Why not Venice, my mother’s favorite?  And of course there is always Paris . . . with an atmosphere all its own . . . .  Somehow, if I were to live in a city out of our country, it would have to be Florence, my first choice.

Tents are set up for a four-day celebration of the coming grape harvest . . . Tuscan wines, cheeses, honeys, oils, etc. are available for tasting throughout the long weekend!

There is something magical about Florence, something intimate and soft, as well as historical and cultural.  There are two piazzas in close proximity to our hotel, the Albergo Pendini.  One is directly below my bedroom window, the Piazza della Repubblica.

The other is perhaps six blocks away, an easy walk, the Piazza della Signoria . . . the one with the Fake David.  That’s how we always identify it, but it is much more than that.  Bernini statures, the Palazzo Vecchio, the entrance to the Ufizzi, the cobblestone street that leads directly to the Ponte Vecchio.

An exquisite dome . . . Firenze

And the magnificent Duomo is only a few blocks from our hotel.  I only have to walk for perhaps three minutes, turn left, and in another two or three blocks, there is the breath-taking view of it.

We are spending more time here than I have ever stayed in one visit.  Five nights, thus nearly five full days this time.  And it makes no sense to give a blow-by-blow description of everything we will do in this five days.  We began the way I always do . . . a visit to the Piazzale Michelangelo, as you read in the last post.  That was Wednesday afternoon and evening.

Thursday morning, we meet Elena, a lovely young woman who is my walking guide when I come with a group.  She gives us a bit of history as we walk through the sections of the city near the Duomo, near the Arno, near the fancy shopping street, and her lilting English makes me smile.  She knows that we will end near the Antinori Cantinetta for lunch, so she plans her route accordingly.

The lunch is magnificent as usual, in the small and intimate restaurant owned by the largest wine-producing family in all of Italy.  Service is impeccable, the prices match the quality of food and wine, and everyone is satiated.  The San Lorenzo market is nearby and some of my travelers head there to look for a wide array of gifts displayed at colorful booths before they head back to our hotel again.  The Pendini is in close proximity to nearly everything we want to do in this favorite city.  Fifteen minutes of walking will get you anywhere you want to go within the old walls.

Magnificent, no matter how many times I see this statue! Absolutely breathtaking . . .

On this trip my women will visit the Medici Chapel to see ancient mosaic ceilings and floors, sculptures of Michelangelo in the Medici, the piazzas, and of course at the Accademia, where the real David stands in all his glory, at the end of a hallway lined by The Prisoners, also Michelangelo created.  Though photos are not allowed anymore, someone snuck one in quickly!

The Uffizi is full of early art, for those who have never been there, and for those whose eyes are able to take in an enormous number of paintings and sculptures by the masters . . . Caraveggio, Boticelli, da Vinci, Giotto, Titian, and of course, at least one piece by Michelangelo.

But I, like the Doobie Brothers, I am taking it to the streets.  Wandering through the winding roads is my favorite pastime, stopping when I see an inviting café (a bar, they call it in Italy) where I can have a cappuccino and something sweet, just for a moment, trying out my meager Italian as I order what I’d like.  Stopping at a market, buying a basket of strawberries, bright red in their freshness, and asking, “Quanto costa?”, then giving the vendor two Euro or three, eating the fruit along my journey.

More on bella Firenze soon.

9/13 – 6.65 miles logged on my pedometer

Coming to Florence . . . a most delightful experience

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

The Campo . . . One could spend an entire day (or week) just in this square.

This morning in Siena we were on our own, free to wander the streets, sit at a café in the Campo, shop in the many storefronts and market stands in and out of the twisty, turning cobblestone streets.  Anne and I wandered in and out of shops with purses, bumping into Amy and Laurie here and there.

The group plan was to meet at the hotel by 12:45, get our bags and walk two blocks to the bus station, where we would board the bus for Florence.  Plans went smoothly until I had everyone on the bus and realized I had left my carry bag/purse behind the desk at the hotel “for safekeeping” . . . so Mary and Sue assured me the group would find their way to the hotel in Florence (they all had their StreetWise Florence maps, indispensable for easy wandering), and I would take the next bus an hour later.

Three hours later, checked into our rooms at the lovely Hotel Pendini, we again gathered together and headed out in taxis to the Piazalle Michelangelo and the church of San Mineato, high on top of a hill overlooking all of Florence.  The views from up there are spectacular!

San Mineato not only has a beautiful church, but the grounds house a cemetery full of family crypts, sculptures, and decorated gravestones.  At 5:30, we quietly walked into the church, settling ourselves in the lower level so we could hear the monks chanting the Mass.  Two of the monks settled themselves on time, and then began to look at their watches and exchange mystified glances as the minutes clicked by.  By 5:45, one of them left by the side alter, and ultimately, the rest of the monks entered, followed by . . . surprise . . . (see Rome/Pantheon entry) another ancient priest who was apparently supposed to say the Mass.  His wavering voice began a thin, watery chant, and his shaking hand could barely turn the page of the Mass book at the pulpit.  Where DO ancient priests go when they no longer really belong in front of people?

By 6:30 we were on our way back down the hill, walking this time, following a path full of students, locals, and cats.  Eventually finding ourselves on the street in the Oltrarno district, we came upon a Capoeria session inside one of the doorways on our path.  Capoeria is a Brazilian martial art that combines dance and music with their “fight” motions.  Adults and children moved beautifully to the drum beats of several members of the group. A perfect example of “stumbling into magic” that comes with wandering the back streets in another country . . . I was able to video just a bit of it before one of the Capoeria members asked me to stop.  Unfortunately, I can’t seem to load it here, so I’ll have to get better instructions!

Walking across this bridge, you will find wall to wall jewelry stores . . . Ponte Vecchio means the “Old Bridge”, but often people call it the “Gold Bridge”.

We wound our way to the Arno River, and ultimately crossed at the Ponte Vecchio (more on that later).

Our evening ended with dinner at Il Porcospino, well taken care of by Franco and the rest of the staff.  I love beginning my time in Florence at this restaurant, where everyone is happy to see me and whomever I bring along for a great meal!

I walked 7.66  miles today.

Siena And An Important Commemoration . . .

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Why is it that I can never type today’s date without feeling as though I shouldn’t be celebrating anything?  9/11 has become its own planet, wrapped in sorrow and disbelief, no matter that it has been eleven years since the twin towers collapsed, taking thousands of people with it.

Life DOES go on for all of us, but the solemnity of writing the date still envelopes me.

Today we leave Rome, headed for the train station.  We board a train to Florence and the Stazione Santa Maria Novella, where we meet Stefano and Fillipo, our private shuttle drivers, who will load our luggage into two shuttle vans.  Our Florence hotel, the Hotel Pendini, is centrally located, and we leave our luggage there, but for an overnight bag, before we head to Siena for one night.

Arriving in Siena, we check into the Hotel Chiusarelli, just a block from the Chiesa San Domenica, a beautiful, simple church whose claim to fame is that it houses St. Catherine of Siena’s head in a glass case on a side altar.  The Italian Catholics are big into collecting body parts of saints, and St. Catherine is the Protective Saint of Siena.

Our guide, Viviana, meets us at a café across from the hotel and we begin our tour of this stunning hill town.  The Duomo (I call it the Zebra Church) never fails to captivate me.  Viviana’s information is always fresh, her knowledge is impressive, and the history of this church, the town, the rivalry between Siena and Florence, and the magic of the Palio competition makes Siena a must-stop for my Italy Women adventures.

We complete a wonderful day with delicious dinner at Le Logge, just off the Campo, and we toast to the memories of all who lost their lives on September 11, 2001 with a moment of silence in the midst of the pleasures of travel.  We are the lucky ones.

My pedometer tells me I walked 5.47 miles today.

The Worst, Best and the Rest of Rome . . .

Monday, September 10

The Rome whirlwind goes by with glitz and overload, especially when one goes to the Vatican.  I know, it’s something you just have to do when in Rome, but frankly, this is the last time I’ll make a trip to the smallest country in the world.  And referencing the title of this post, I think for me, the Vatican experience is the worst of Rome.

The Basilica is exquisite, overpowering, full of story and art, and though the Vatican Museum is also art-full, somehow my eyes glaze over, especially when I think about the link between political power and the Church’s co-dependent relationship with the richest families in Italian history.  Stolen art from other countries, contests to see who has the most body parts of saints, and overwhelming statuary, tapestries, paintings . . . all of that would be enough, more than enough.

But squeezed into every section of the Vatican Museum are souvenir shops and counters, selling ridiculous amounts of books, plastic artifacts, gold crosses, rosaries.  A veritable Vatican Coney Island.  Heresy, I know, but I think I’ll be hard pressed to visit Rome again.

Rome is hot and sticky, teeming with tourists and Romans alike, wandering the streets as though there are no cars at all . . . and some of that is part of the charm of this dirty old city.

The Rome upside is that it is walkable, moreso than I had remembered, and just going back to the Spanish Steps, soaking my bare feet in that cold fountain pool,

My feet were nearly blue, but it surely did feel wonderful!

inspiring several Italian women to take off their shoes before the politizia could shoo us off . . . now THAT was fun!  The policewoman scowled at me and said, in Italian, that this was not a bath, and if I wanted a bath, I should go back to my hotel.  I told her it was only my feet that were taking the bath, and that I was happy she hadn’t come along until about 30 minutes into the soak!

Our final Roman dinner, at the Fortunato just near the Pantheon, was an opportunity to have the best steak tartare I’ve ever eaten!  Delicious food, yummy wine, all on a Roman terrace, with the dusk settling over the Pantheon over my right shoulder.

10.72 miles logged on the pedometer on Sunday, 7.11 miles on Monday.  I’m training for the Camino de Santiago even when I’m in Italy.

Getting Into The Roman Groove

Saturday, September 8

Breakfast (Colazione) at Hotel Smeraldo is lovely, with trays of salami, ham, and cheese.  Yogurt, cereal, fruit, rolls, and coffee round out the fare.  After breakfast I meet with my group in the lobby, armed with our Roma passes.   Like a line of ducklings, we wander out, snaking through small piazzas, looking for Bus # 116 which will take us up to the Villa Borghese and the Borghese Gallery.  One of my favorite places in Rome, the Borghese Gallery houses, among other spectacular artwork, mosaics, etc., the statue of Apollo chasing Daphne, by Bernini.  Spectacular . . . and I am awe-struck again.  (Unfortunately, absolutely NO photos allowed, so I revel in the real thing, and buy a postcard . . .  ).

No photo can convey the exquisite beautiy of this piece . . .

A walk through the Villa Borghese grounds to the lookout point above the Piazza del Popolo, then a stroll to the top of the Spanish Steps and down to the fountain, where we can fill our bottles with water from the fish’s mouth.

On Via Condotti, the high end shops do NOT beckon to me, but it’s interesting to see the suited-up concierge outside each entry door.  We ducked down a block or two and had a delicious light lunch.  More walking walking walking and we were at the Pantheon.  The McDonald’s across the Piazza from the beautiful round-domed building is no longer, and a waiter at what is now a lovely restaurant in hat location confided that there was “funny business . . . connected to the mob” which caused the shut-down of the greasy fast food place.  Excellent!  The Pantheon does not deserve to have to look at the golden arches for the rest of its historical life.

Anne and I went in to the Pantheon just as it was closing to tourists, because a Mass was about to begin.  We simply said we were attending the service and the guards let us in, though their looks were dubious.  Do you think I LOOK like a Catholic, rather than a heathen?

The priest appeared to be as old as Abraham, his black four-cornered hat atop his white and balding head, escorted in by a young assistant.  The usher lifted the front hem of the old monsignor’s dress as the Monsignor took one step toward the altar and plopped into his carved chair.

He had his role, but it was only for half of the service, while the lay participants and the younger assistant read the various parts of the mass.  Anne and I sat, amazed by the ancient priest, and we snuck off at the Communion.  More walking before we caught up with Sue, Marie, Laurie and Amy for dinner on the Piazza Navona and back to the hotel.

7.28 miles logged on the pedometer for today.

Roma – Day 1

Friday, September 7, 2012

Arriviamo a Roma!  At the Fiumicino Aeropuerto, we gathered our Denver/Charlotte group and our luggage before attempting to find Anne (flying from Vermont/NYC), Mary (Des Moines), and our limo/taxi drivers.  After the whirlwind of activity surrounding our Denver to Charlotte flight, our arrival went off without a hitch. The Passport Control agents in Rome seemed to have no interest in even checking our passports, let alone stamping them, much to Amy’s chagrin, since this is her passport’s virgin voyage.

But we loaded the two FacileTaxi cars and were eventually deposited at our hotel, the Hotel Smeraldo.  First order of business . . . catch our breaths, get situated in the rooms, and then gather for lunch and our Hop On, Hop Off bus tour.  I purchased the bus passes from the hotel, before scurrying off to Piazza Navona to secure the Roma Passes at a news kiosk.

Today’s plan would be for all of us to sit on the two-level bus, sit on the upper deck, listen to the mediocre narration and see the city.  While some people could barely keep their eyes open, we all got the trip around, and disembarked at the Colisseum.  Once on our feet again, we realized how exhausted we were, and made our separate decisions about actually going into the giant ruins.  Some of the group got back on the bus, four more stops, and exited the bus closer to our hotel to take naps.  Ann, Sarah and I decided we might as well explore it now, since it was standing right in front of us in all its glory. And the lions ate the Christians . . . "What would Jesus do . . . ?????"

No matter how the afternoon ended for each of us, the evening began with a stroll over the Tiber River to Trastevere and dinner at Taverna Trilussa before returning to our hotel.  Trastevere is a very hopping place, especially on a Friday night, but my very tired ducklings declined the festivities this time . . .

5.47 miles logged today on my pedometer, before a long awaited sleep after our first day in Italy!

Off to Italy!

Thursday, September 6, 2012

I can’t believe our Italy trip is beginning, but here is the limo driver knocking at my door, and three women are waiting in the stretch white car, as well as the three that are chatting at my kitchen island, all ready to go.  Am I?  I think I have everything, and probably more than everything I need.  The weather generally is mild, and I’ve packed lightweight items for the relative heat of Rome in early September, as well as the long pants and long sleeves I will need after a few days.

Two and a half weeks of soaking up the Italian sunshine, some of the best art in the world, exquisite cuisine, and the company of one another.  Ten of us . . . in Rome, Siena, Florence, Lucca, and Venice . . . and I hope to give you a taste of our adventures right here on this site, day by day, as often as I possibly can.

Ten years ago I took my first group of women to Italy, and I love the country more each time, especially when I can introduce others to some of what draws me to it.  Yes, I know, I’m part Italian, so perhaps that counts for something, but there is an exuberance in Italy that I don’t find anywhere else.  I plan to get my fill of it!

My info packet, the staple of each travel adventure, is full, each page of reservations, phone numbers, and maps tucked into its proper section of the binder:  Trains, Planes and Automobiles; Rome; Siena, Florence, Lucca; Venice; and Miscellaneous.  I announce to the women, “If I get hit by a train or fall over in a dead flop, just know that this clear binder has all the information you need for the trip.  You can step over me and move on to Roma!”

Then my cell phone began to ring with the US Air updates . . . updates telling us our flight from Denver to Charlotte would be an hour late . . . and then two hours late . . . and we only had a one-hour layover in Charlotte for our flight to Rome.  Clearly we wouldn’t make it, and I have two travelers arriving from other places, with no cell phones so no contact.

The very, very short story is that US Air had an earlier flight, for which we had ALMOST enough time to board.  We were booked on the flight, luggage quickly checked, and a U.S. Air ticket agent RAN us to the security line, past the hundreds of waiting passengers, to the front of the security check point, while dumbfounded passengers watched us buzz through ahead of them.  One man looked toward me and asked, “Who ARE all of you?”  It took everything I had to stuff my mouth so I wouldn’t respond flippantly, “The CIA!”

The gate agents were ready to close the doors, had already cleared a stand-by passenger instead of the last of us, and I was afraid Sarah wouldn’t be on the plane.  Certainly I wouldn’t have left without her.  But that US Air ticket agent communicated with the gate agents, and the stand-by person was booted off the plane, making room for Sarah and me.  We got to Charlotte with three hours to spare, and bushels of gratitude for the airline, for a change.  After meeting up with our Charlotte traveler, making introductions all around, trolling the concourse for croissants, coffee, sandwiches and bottled water, we headed for the sign that said:

We head for this door, like iron filings to a magnet . . . now eight travelers, and soon to be ten, as we meet with our Iowa and Vermont friends in the Roma airport.