After three days in Rome, Zack and I took the train to Florence. We chose a high-speed train, so it only took an hour and a half. Although it was a bit of a challenge at first to figure out the train system, weeventually figured it out by asking for help. It’s amazing that so many people in Italy speak English! Both the Italians and the tourists. The train was so nice and clean and FAST!
The heart of Florence is only a few blocks from the train station, so it was simple to walk to our hotel. I was so excited to get to our hotel because it was situated right next to the duomo. I had visions of us waking up, looking out the window and admiring the duomo at our leisure, on our own time, whenever we wanted. Unfortunately, I was very disappointed. I didn’t notice it when we went into the building, but when I got to our (very small) room, I opened the shutters…and I couldn’t see anything! The building was covered with a huge billboard and scaffolding. Ugh! What a HUGE bummer! We complained but there was nothing they could do. But hey, how much time do you actually spend in your hotel room? They really should have informed us though.
After we got settled in we got to meet our friends! Yolanda and I had been planning this trip together for a year and it was so wonderful to finally meet up with them and enjoy Florence together. They had started their trip in Venice and were traveling south as we were traveling North. Our plan was to spend a couple of days together in this part of the country before they continued on to Rome and we would spend some time in Cinque Terre and Florence and then head to Venice. Then we would meet up again in Sorrento. We had a great night wandering about the city, hitting up a Irish pub(weird), and having some AMAZING food in a nearby restaurant.
I was unbelievably excited for our first full day in this part of the country. We hired a driver/guide to take us into Tuscany for the day. All I could think of were quaint little hill towns, rows of cyprus trees, vineyards…and the scene from Twilight when Bella and Edward meet up with the Volturi! It would have been all the better if we had had a yellow Porche like Alice!
We hired Alessandro Cammilli and he was spectacular! First, he took us across the river and up the hill to look over the city at a place called Piazzale Michelangelo. This was a fantastic spot to see the entirety of the city. Matt and Yolanda had been to this exact spot the day or two before…and had attended a GELATO FESTIVAL!! Oh my, how I wish I had been there for that. I could have sat in this spot forever enjoying the view (we came back another day to do this) but we were headed out into the countryside.
Alessandro took us to several little towns but our first one was San Gimignano. It was love at first sight! The plan was to walk into the city and Alessandro would meet us on the other side in a couple of hours. No cars are admitted into the town. The streets are narrow and lined with adorable little shops with cheese, meats, pottery, perfumes, jewelry, wine and so much more!
We had such a great time taking pictures and exploring. One of the best things though was going to the place where they say gelato was first introduced. YUM!!
When we came out on the other side of town the view was spectacular. We walked down to where Alessandro picked us up and he drove us a little bit out of town so that we could see San Gimignano from a distance.
Our next stop was so spectacular! We went to Siena and basically did the same thing again…walked through the city. At this point we were getting hungry and we had learned that the best food was to be found by following the locals. We picked up a Caprese pizza and took it to the piazza. Apparently this was a great idea because quite a lot of other people were doing the same thing. I just love how everyone just sits in the piazza enjoying the sun, the company, and the food. Such a great community activity!
One of the most spectacular things about Siena was the Duomo, Cattedrale Metropolitana di Santa Maria Assunta. The outside was stunning but the inside was insane! The ceilings once again were what caught my eye. Immense and vaulted…and striped! The mosaics on the floor were breathtaking as well. Once inside, we listened to Rick Steves’ online guide which took us around the cathedral and gave details about beautiful art pieces that we would never have noticed on our own. He also gave the history of the place. I highly recommend this if you don’t have a guide in person.
After Siena, Alessandro drove us to a few other adorable little towns of which I don’t remember their names. So fun to walk through casually and appreciate the beauty and the history. This is boar country, so it was killing Zack that he couldn’t go hunting. He did eat some good boar though!
Our last stop was at a winery, the Castello Vicchiomaggio! The view was unreal. Exactly what you think of when you think of Tuscany. This is even a place where Da Vinci stayed and the story goes that this is where he painted the Mona Lisa! We stood at the exact spot where it is believed that he painted this masterpiece. No one is absolute about this, but it is fun to imagine. Alessandro made sure we had different pairings of wine and cheese and appetizers, all local and fresh. The wine came from this vinyard and was really great!
Our second full day in Florence was spent again with the Sherards and we went to a couple of famous museums, the Uffizi and the Academia. Once again, we used one of Rick Steves’ recommendations and hired Alessandra Marchetti as our guide. Just the five of us. Wow, we would NEVER have been able to get through these museums in the record time without her. Yolanda and I knew our men were not going to walk through museums all day, so we wanted a guide to take us to the really important pieces like The Birth of Venus and the Annunciation, and then get us outside again. We hired Alessandra for 5 hours and it was perfect. It wasn’t 5 hours of looking at art pieces, even though that was spectacular! She also walked us around the Duomo and helped us to understand the history behind that too.
By far the most breathtaking thing we saw was Michelango’s David. Wow! I have always looked at images of this sculpture and wondered what the big deal was. I just didn’t get it. When Alessandra explained it to me it made sense! The detail work is amazing and it really looks like he is about to move! The veins in his hands, the flexing of his muscles. It doesn’t make any sense unless you actually stand next to it.
When we left Alessandra we continued to wander around Florence. We could have easily done this for days! It was so wonderful to be on our own and not in a large tour group and not have to be back on a bus at a certain time. We explored several churches, one of which had Michaelangelo’s tomb. There were some catacombs and artwork as well.
The next day the Sherards headed for Rome and we went to Cinque Terre for a few days (that will be posted at another time) but we returned to Florence for another day before heading to Venice. On the day we got back from Cinque Terre, we still had a little bit of daylight, so we decided to walk up the bell tower of the duomo. I thought I was in shape but I was mistaken! We didn’t count the steps but it must have been 1,000 or more! Worth it when we got to the top though! We had a 360-degree view of the city! When we came down we had to taste Florentine pizza. This had a thicker crust, basically Foccacia. I think I like the thinner crust better. However, sitting in the piazza can’t be compared to anything else.
On our last day, we crossed over the Arno River and walked up to Piazzale Michelangelo so we could enjoy it one last time. We then did something that ended up being one of my favorite things in Florence. We found (in a rather roundabout way), the Abbazia di San Miniato al Monte. We had been to so many churches and this one wasn’t that out of the ordinary in comparison (still phenomenally beautiful of course) but the view from the front steps was insane! We sat down with a bunch of other tourists and locals and watched the sunset until an adorable little priest came out and let us know, “Di square is closing!” The way he said it sent us into giggles. We headed down the steps, through the city gates, into the city and had one of the best meals of the trip! I wish I could remember the name of the restaurant. However, it is quite difficult to have a “bad” meal in Italy. We left the next day, after some shopping, and headed to Venice!