Italy 2014 - Planes, Trains, and Automobiles

Florence - Click here for the slideshow (292 pictures)

Finished - September 18, 2014

Introduction
Rome
Venice
Florence
Ostuni
Taormina
Syracuse
Palermo
So, we left the hotel in Venice via taxi (boat) and as luck would have it, the same dashing young man who took us to the museum yesterday was our driver to the train station. I didn't take his picture but Suzi did. Damn, they all look like movie stars.

Upon arrival at the train station, the driver asked if we wanted porter service. Seeing as how the rain had become serious and we had three large and one medium bag - all heavy - we said yes. Word to the wise: the porter gets 5 Euros a bag to bring them around to the side entrance of the train station and up to your train. If it's not raining and you don't feel like supporting this man's retirement fund, carry or roll them yourself; it's a shorter walk.

Hotel Laurus al Duomo

Best bet after a long train ride and a quarter-mile shlep, dragging three bags from the train station to the hotel, is to ask the concierge for a local trattoria. Da Garibardi was the recommendation and it was a good one. Right near the Central Market (shopping!) and full of locals. I started with Orecchiette mixed with eggplant, Suzi had Tortellini in cream sauce. Both were excellent. I can't say no to Osso bucco and I was rewarded with a superb entree for my selection. I finished mine before we realized that we'd forgotten the pictures. The empty plate tells the tale.

Our first full day in Florence starts out as a shopping expedition. The Central Market is less than a 5-minute walk from the hotel (I'm overjoyed.) Leather, leather, and more leather. Did I mention I bought a leather jacket last night? Bargaining is standard operating procedure here. Suzi got a leather bag that started at 178 Euros and walked out the door at 135 Euros, only because the kid selling the bag finally brought his father in to do battle with me. My jacket, last night's purchase, started at almost 600 Euros, then the shopkeeper applied the "standard" 60% discount. The final sale price was 210 Euros; not the same as dealing with beach vendors in Jamaica, but a good exercise in bargaining.

Inside the Central Market is a food lovers paradise. Meat, fish, vegetables, fruit, nuts, abound. I bought a pound or so of dates that were larger and sweeter than and I'd ever eaten. Lunch was a non-descript calzone and a caprese salad. I've had better and it seems the real focus is on dinner anyhow.

Our hotel is literally two blocks from the Duomo and there's no line to speak of, so we marched in and shot photos. The ceiling, some six stories high, is quite plain, but the stained glass and the floors are spectacular.

Great dinner tonight! Trattoria Parione, not more than 10 minutes walk from the hotel. This was the fifth restaurant called by the concierge to get us a 7:30pm reservation on a Saturday night. The place has two seatings - 7:30 and 9:30 - that's it and apparently it's the same for most medium to high-end restaurants. We sat downstairs in the wine cellar along with all the other Americans. How odd.

Meat Lasagna

Fettucine Porcini

Pork Shank with baked potato

Grilled Lamb

Cheese cake

Chocolate souffle

Early Sunday morning. Not yet 8 o'clock and we're walking up the street to see one of the most famous statues in the world - Michelangelo's David. We spent a few extra Euros to get "we don't have to wait in the long line" tickets and it was absolutely worth it. The one thing that always strikes me upon first seeing David, is the sheer size of the statue. Photos don't really do justice to the enormity of piece. Having taken dozens of pictures over the years, the ones I shot this morning were closeups; a study of the details.

From the museum, we wandered around aimlessly for a bit before stumbling upon an outdoor market. The dude holding the wooden bowl (250 Euros) made it and several other pieces from a 350-year-old Olive Tree that toppled over in a storm. Over the years, the rest of the wood hardened to where it was too hard to be carved and the townspeople used it as firewood.

Guys, don't think for a second that you are going to visit Florence and NOT take your wife or girlfriend to the Ponte Vecchio. For a woman, it's a religious experience. To be surrounded by all that jewelry is intoxicating. Keep your credit card ready, because something is going to catch her eye. We managed to squeeze in gelato between shopping the two sides of the bridge. The sugar rush helps to feed the frenzy. And just so you know, there are no bargains; all prices are fixed. Appease the gods of precious metals, it's good for your soul.

Osteria Natalino - recommended by one of our friends. Good meal, nothing spectacular, however it was reasonably priced. Once again, a short walk from the hotel. No question about it, the hotel is centrally located and the city is small, easily walked. The Duomo has become a perfect landmark for us as the hotel is just down the block.

Shrimp and avocado salad

Homemade pasta with meat sauce

Pepper mill with their label

Breaded veal cutlet & tomatoes

Braised pork

Monday, day 4 in Florence. Most of the museums are closed, so we went to the oldest botanical garden in the world, according to the sign. Some amazing plants and trees, but the real winner in this garden is the massive collection of hot peppers. One of them, a Trinidad Scorpion, said 1.4 million Scoville units - much hotter than anything I'd dare to eat. There were hundreds of different peppers in pots throughout the garden. I was tempted to snatch a few samples and stuff them in my pocket, but just like snorkeling, "leave it there for everyone else to see" came into play.

After lunch and a quick stop at the hotel, we toured the Palazzo Medici Riccardi - an interesting contrast between modern and ancient art. There was also a special exhibition by one of the Ferrari brothers, but not one of the brothers who has anything to do with cars.

When it takes three tries to get a dinner reservation, you expect the meal to be world class. Osteria di Giovanni did not disappoint. In fact, it is the one restaurant we'd go out of the way to eat at the next time we're in Florence. The t-bone steak we consumed could not have been more perfect. I'd go so far as to compare it to places like Morton's in Chicago or Peter Luger's.

An unassuming front for a great meal

Fried treats

Antipasto - a meat fest

T-bone steak (before)

T-bone steak (after)

Chocolate biscotti that we couldn't finish

Day five in Florence and we're off to Pisa by train. Here's a tip for Italian transportation: No one asks to see your ticket! We paid $50 for two round trip tickets and the only time we saw a conductor was on the ride back, and he didn't make it as far as our car. We bought bus (boat) tickets in Venice and still have them. I guess it's the honor system. Good luck with that back home.

As best as I can recall, the last time I saw the Leaning Tower of Pisa, in the flesh, I was a young teen. I remember climbing the stairs, I remember it was big, really big, and it stood in the middle of a field. With the exception of the stairs, all I remembered was correct. I was going to climb the stairs, but the notion failed the "why?" test. Of course, we took pictures of us holding it up, all good tourists do.

From the tower, we took the tour of the Baptistery and the Duomo; both quite impressive with their high gilded ceilings and amazing artwork. One thing's for certain, I've never been a synagogue that was decked out that fancy.

Last stop of the day - The Uffizi Museum. Loaded with old stuff: paintings, busts, statues, tourists (not all of them were old, though.) Good thing I had Suzi with me to point out the famous paintings, otherwise I would taken pictures of them all. It's easy to spot the important stuff, just watch where the tour groups gather and take photos. You can almost hear them freeze in their tracks as their guide breathlessly details some important work of art. The silence is broken as dozens of shutters click and the throng shuffles off to their next stop.

Deciding to forego recommendations, we found this restaurant as we wandered back toward the hotel from the Uffizi. Not bad and reasonably priced. My lamb chops were half meat, half fat, but I filled up on the antipasto. This one had boar sausage that tasted exactly like salami. We were actually too full to eat dessert. No problem, we'll make up for it tomorrow.

Two points of interest for diners in Florence. First, you can immediately tell the price to food value in any restaurant by checking the caprese salad. The cheap places charge 6 Euros, the better (and for the most part the bulk of them) charge 8 Euros. After that, you're in a high end joint and you better be prepared to spend over 60 Euros, without wine, for dinner.


Antipasto with boar sausage.

Spaghetti with tomato sauce

Skinny lamb chops with roast potatoes
Chicken cutlet with mystery sauce

Make no mistake about it, the Pitti Palace is HUGE! We walked it at a pitti good pace and it still took us over two hours to see all the ancient art. If you go, don't waste your time with the modern art; it starts in the 1700s and never makes it past 1890 something.

We were going to walk the Boboli Gardens, but it was too hot and we'd already climbed 9000 stairs. There's nothing about this palace that's small. The gardens take up 111 acres! Looks like we'll have to see them the next time we're in Florence.

Our last meal in Florence is another restaurant just around the corner from the hotel - La Madia. Large portions and good food, nothing spectacular, and the caprese salad was a standard 8 Euros (not tonight, though.) The service here was fast, something we had yet to experience, but then again, the restaurant was packed inside and out, so they were moving the customers along as quickly as possible.

A side note here about pizza...
If you come to Italy expecting good pizza, stay home and order delivery instead. The crust is as thin as a potato chip and the sauce is dietetic. We'll be in Sicily next week, that's where the good pizza awaits.


Hmmm...

Proscuitto e melone

Ravioli

Veal Cutlet a al Madia (famous!)

Veal Limone

Overall Impressions
  • Hotel Laurus al Duomo - the perfect hotel to see Florence. Literally two blocks from the Duomo and less than a ten minute walk to almost anywhere else. The front desk staff are helpful, accommodating, and knowledgeable. The room is large with plenty of storage space. Big bathroom, nice amenities. My only two complaints would be the bed, but then again all of the beds so far have been very hard, and the air conditioning system. We had a dickens of a time getting the room to be comfortable. We went to sleep at a pleasing temperature, but by 2 o'clock in the morning, it was either freezing or steamy. I guess we'll need a course in operating the thermostat next time.
  • People - not as many smokers and a bit less crowded. Everyone was friendly. The street musicians can be pushy and it's interesting that they march through restaurants without a word from the waiters.
  • Getting Around - there are far less streets than either Rome or Venice, so it's much easier to find things, but you will need a map. Shopkeepers are very helpful in giving you directions, but after a couple of days, you can navigate without their help or a map.