Thursday, December 15, 2016

Italy Trip 2016 - day five (Florence)

getting bored yet?  I hope not!

Day Five:  Florence

One of the few things we pre-booked for this trip were our tickets to the Uffizi and the Accademia – all of the guidebooks recommended getting tickets in advance, even though we were going during a generally quiet time for tourists.  We decided to hit the Uffizi first thing, then save the Accademia for the end of the day.  In pre-trip communications, our concierge recommended we take the train to Florence, saying it would be much easier for us.  We thought, hey, that sounds good!  So we were armed and ready for our day in Florence.

Getting to the train station in Pontadera, however, was a little more complicated than originally thought.  The GPS kept getting us turned around and we kept missing turns.  We asked a very nice local lady for directions, which she kindly gave us.  In Italian.  Unfortunately, directions were NOT part of my 5% fluency (though I DO know the words for north/south/east/west, which was the tiniest bit helpful on drives), so she wasn’t a huge help.  We finally drove behind the train station and then turned around to come back.  We parked in what we thought was a good parking lot, but heard from another kind local (mostly through pantomime) that we were in a lot for workers, not daytrippers.  So part of our group went to move the car somewhere else, and the rest of us ran to buy tickets – if we wanted to be on time for our Uffizi entrance, we needed to get on the next train to Florence.  We found a tabbachi shop, and I had a vague memory from our last trip that you could buy train tickets there.  Woo hoo, my vague memory was right!  Pegged immediately as a tourist when I asked for ‘biglietti,’ we were directed to the cashier who sold us one-way tickets.  Since we didn’t have a lot of time before our train, we took them.

European trains are so much nicer than American trains, in my limited experience.  They’re not so cramped and are generally double-deckers.  Maybe I haven’t been riding at the peak time of crowdedness, but I’ve never felt claustrophobic on a train in Europe.  Happily.  We didn’t get seats together, we had to split up – one of my beautiful gal pals sat next to a very handsome Italian gent practicing his manspreading, but other than that, it was a quiet and uneventful trip.  Once we got off the train, however, we did have to pick up the pace and walk briskly across the city to get to the Uffizi on time.  Again, a beautiful gal pal and her reliable phone’s GPS saved the day!  We were a little sad not to be able to get a good look at Florence yet, but we knew we could slow down after our trip to the museum.

Every time someone mentioned the Uffizi to me, they mentioned the crowds, so I was really fearing the worst.  Happily, we picked up our tickets without a line, then we were third in the queue to get into the museum itself.  When we heard the church bells toll ten, they dropped the rope and everyone got in. There's a bit of security before you get into the museum, and before you get to see the beautiful art, you have to climb approximately 7000 steps.  Whew.  It was quite a climb.  Good thing all the beautiful art was worth it (as was the 16th century building containing it).  Before the trip, I did a little research on the art I was most especially keen on seeing and I had it written on a notecard.  I think I had seven rooms I wanted to visit for sure and knowing our time there would be limited, I tried to keep to those seven rooms. Of course, it doesn't always work that way. There's so much gorgeousness, it's hard to drag yourself away.  I was the tiniest bit disappointed that the Titians I had so wanted to see were away on loan, as was the painting "Judith Slaying Holofernes," but at least they had a replacement painting by Artemisia Gentileschi that I could enjoy.  But, really, there are no complaints here, the Uffizi is incredible and seeing Botticelli's "The Birth of Venus" live and up close was worth the price of admission. 

We did about two and a half hours in the Uffizi and then we were starving.  Several people had recommended to us I Fratellini, a sandwich stand near the Uffizi.  They've been serving people since 1875!  At least according to their sign.  After a couple of circular attempts, we found it.  Oh my, I'm so glad we went there! The food was AMAZING!  There is a menu on the side of the building (you can also look at printed menus) and you tell one brother what you want and the other brother makes it.  They heat up a delicious roll, add your desired fillings (I went with my old standby, prosciutto and mozzarella), and they make them all to order.  There's no place to sit, so everyone just stands around the cute cobblestoned street to eat - there are lots of pigeons there, since generations of them have gotten crumbs of that deliciousness over the years, I'm sure.  We took a fun group selfie in front of the window and, if you look closely, you can see the brothers posing, too.  What a treat!

Originally, I had thought I wanted to head to the Palazzo Pitti after lunch - I love a palazzo and they have some incredible art there.  But the day was so sunny and glorious, I didn't want to spend more hours inside.  I decided to join my travel buddies just walking around and soaking in the Florentine atmosphere.  We went to a street fair, petted a statue of a boar, checked out the fake statue of David, walked over the Ponte Vecchio (the only bridge spared when the Nazis tore through and destroyed most everything in Florence), and then decided the thing to do on a gloriously sunny day was check out the Boboli Gardens, which, coincidentally, are behind the Palazzo Pitti.  They date from the 16th century as well, designed by a Medici, though they didn't open to the public until the 1700s.  And they are spectacular.  Beautifully arranged and just an idyllic spot in the midst of a bustling city.  I will admit that I didn't quite make it up to the highest point of the gardens - my body rebelled against another 7000 steps.  So I waited patiently by the Neptune Fountain while my intrepid (and in better shape) friends went up to the top.  I did enjoy my quiet moments and recorded a brief sound clip of a very type-A duck:  HERE.

Once my pals were back on their way down to the bottom of the gardens, they called for me to join them down the cypress path.  How lovely it was.  Very calming and peaceful, with beautiful statues and stunning greenery, especially for late November.  It was a nice stroll to the street and back to the bustle of the city.  We then hightailed it over to the Duomo, which we wanted to see before our reserved ticket time at the Accademia.

The Duomo, obviously, is beyond spectacular.  The outside is glorious - the inside near the front is relatively sparse, comparatively, but then when you get to the back and that beautiful dome/ceiling by Brunelleschi, there's where you get your money's worth. Spectacular.  Although, somewhere in the cathedral, I lost my butterfly scarf, darn it.  It was all hands on deck trying to find it, but no one did.  I sent an email to them, after we got back, but I haven't heard anything.  Sad face.  I try to consider it a Light in the Piazza kind of omen, where a gorgeous gent found the scarf and will return it to me, but the whole transcontinental portion of that idea kind of makes it not work.  Sad face.

I also wanted to get a look at the doors on the Battistero - rumor is the building is Florence's oldest.  But I really wanted to see Ghiberti's doors.  I read a book about the doors when I was maybe ten or eleven and the idea of seeing them has been with me for that long.  I can't remember the book now, but I will always remember the joy of finally seeing those doors.  The 15th century masterpieces took Ghiberti nearly 30 years to complete - each panel is so detailed, it's amazing.  The doors are actually copies (the originals are in one of the nearby museums), but that didn't make them any less beautiful to me.

After crying over the doors, and looking in vain for my scarf, we
briskly walked over to the Accademia, to view the David (oh, ok, there's other art there, but really, everyone goes to see the David).  We did pay some attention to the paintings and religious art in the front of the building, but  Just. Wow.  There are really no words for the impact and feeling you get when you see that sublime sculpture in person.  It's much larger than expected, and his hands are enormous.  You hear about Michelangelo's reasons for the perspective, but it's still quite surprising.  Being able to walk around the statue and examine it from every angle is such a blessing.  It's incredible to think it was sculpted in the 16th century!  We spent quite a bit of time there, walking around the statue, and sitting down on the benches behind.  We discussed what to do next - we were finally figuring out the 'eating later because we're in Italy' thing, so we decided to have a drink and a tiny snack (it HAD been a long time since our delicious sandwiches!) before walking around Florence more before dinner.  We did look at more beautiful sculptures on our way out of the Accademia - one room had a very interesting video on how the sculptures were first modeled and then completed.  Then we walked out and looked for a nice cafe.  

We finally found one - Caffe Niccholini.  We found a seat and ordered some coffee drinks/cocktails.  I got the cafe shakerado, which was an iced coffee/milkshake sort of thing.  It was delicious and really hit the spot.  The gal behind the bar also brought us some chips and peanuts to snack on, which was nice. As we relaxed for a bit, there was a bit of a frenzy in the room - there was a theater next door and a gent came into the cafe, saw that someone was at his favorite table (that would be us), and then had to set up a ticket booth or something on the other side of the room.  As near as we could tell, there was a show going on next door, but people could buy drink tickets or something.  Our gal behind the bar seemed much happier waiting on us than the theater patrons, but that was ok.  After a good break, with tasty drinks and salty snacks, we went back out into the Florentine evening.  

We stopped to listen to a delightful pair playing music beside the Duomo, we peeked into several gorgeous churches, we shopped, and we looked for a restaurant for dinner that had been recommended.  The trusty GPS of my beautiful gal pal got us over to the area where the restaurant was located - they were opening late that night, but we were ready to eat, so we wandered back over to another area that had several promising restaurants.  One was so full, we knew we'd never get in, a couple others had very pricey menus. We finally settled on Ristorante La Spada.  It was a lovely spot and Ivan, our server, was delightful.  Two of our party decided to try a local specialty we had been hearing so much about: the bistecca a la fiorentina. Also known as a ginormous steak. They sell it by the gram, so Ivan let everyone know the least expensive way to order it, which was very nice of him.  When the steak arrived, we all oohed and ahhed.  It was another work of art in a day filled with works of art.  My gal pals let me taste it and...yum.  SO good.  But I also loved the pasta dish I got, penne with burrata. Everything at La Spada was delicious, and the house specialty dessert that Ivan recommended was out of this world!  It was sort of a creme caramel, but made with chestnut cream.  SO good.  We had a great time at La Spada and Ivan even generously gave us a bottle of their house wine when we said we wished we could take some home. What a treat!  We will definitely recommend La Spada to anyone looking for a good spot in Florence.

photo credit: Gregg Moore
After dinner, we were starting to get tired and realized we had been walking pretty much all day, so we went back to the train station - luckily, there was a train going back to Pontadera in ten minutes, so we got our tickets from a machine and hopped aboard. Easy peasy.  As was the trip back to our trusty car, and then the trip back to the villa. What a glorious day!  I have to admit, though, I was happy that the next day was Thanksgiving and we'd be sticking close to home - in the morning, we'd be walking to a nearby winery for a tour, and then a cooking lesson IN the villa!  We have so much to be thankful already!

photo credit: Chris Weikel

fake David behind me

photo credit: Gregg Moore

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