The past several days in Florence were really nice. We arrived by train from Venice Thursday afternoon, and thanks to google maps we made it to our hostel without getting terribly lost. The hostel was really basic with only one shower and a closet sized kitchen, but the beds were clean and our fellow bunk mates were quiet. After coming from very decent hotels in Germany and Venice, our six bed dorm room was a startling change. Anyways, we got aquainted with our small living space, found ourselves a map, and walked around for a while. My first impression of Florence was that it was overrun with massive amounts of tourists everywhere, and I really missed our quiet visit to Venice. Feeling a bit overwhelmed by all the people we kept our walk short that evening and went out to find dinner. The receptionist at the hostel sent us to a very touristy restaurant packed with Americans, so that was kind of a let down. He made it sound like an authentic dining experience... Oh well. It turned out that the food and wine were really quite good, so we left in better spirits. Following dinner we made it back to the hostel for a quiet night.
Friday we were up and out early for a action packed walking tour of the city. Breakfast was at a small cafe we had passed the night before. The beautiful almond glazed scones sitting in the window display had caught our attention, and we just had to give them a try. The scones, along with piping hot Italian coffee were the perfect combination to get our epic day of walking into full swing.
We started our stroll around the more touristy area near the center of town and made our way to the Piazza della Signoria. This medieval styled plaza was a great place to stop for a while. The small street cafes were full of mid-morning coffee drinkers. The buildings are all so ancient and grandiose. The Uffizi and Palazzo Vecchio surround the plaza and house many important pieces of art. Everywhere you look there are large columns, watch towers, huge buildings and impressive sculptures. From here we went towards the Arno River and the famous 16th century Ponte Vecchio Bridge. The bridge is always crowded due to the nice views of the river and the many jewelry stores that line its length on both sides. Aaron took a few pictures and we continued on.
We crossed the river and continued our walk beyond the Palazzo Pitti. After several stops into beautiful old cathedrals, we found ourselves in a non touristy area of Florence. The south side of the bridge offers a very different experience for tourists. This might have been our favorite part of the day. The quiet narrow streets wound up the hillsides taking us to a beautiful residential area. The old villas came in a variety of colors, pink, bright orange, and canary yellow. The well groomed yards housed a mixture of interesting plant species and plenty of olive trees. Many residences were gated, but we peeked through cracks in the walls to catch sights of the bustling city below and distant mountains. Tucked among the homes we found a convent and a very small church that was built in the 13th century. It felt like going back in time as we quietly strolled along this amazing and quaint italian neighborhood.
On our way down we found a cafe to stop and eat lunch. We sat beside a fireplace and enjoyed a lovely meal. I had fried polenta topped with fontina cheese and proscuitto, and Aaron had penne pasta with salmon. Thankfully wine is cheaper than water here in Italy, so we split a half liter of the house red. After a quick Americano to complete our fine dining experience, we were back outside continuing our long walk.
Before crossing the river back towards our neighborhood, we climbed lots of stairs that led us to the Piazzale Michelangelo. The plaza is littered with tacky souvenir shops and yet another fake David. Poor Michelangelo. Anyways, the panoramic view of the city from this plaza was well worth our time. The clouds dispersed, the sun made an appearance, and Aaron got some great shots.
We started the long walk back to the hostel to take a short break and give our feet a needed rest. Our return trip took us along the Arno River and back into the busier parts of Florence. Of course we stumbled upon a market, so we had to stop and check out the many interesting foods for sale. We are both market junkies. It doesn't matter what is being sold, from trinkets to foul smelling fish, we can be found. As Aaron says, the more disturbing the better. Not to get off track, the meats, cheeses and breads had us constantly oohing and aahing, and the fresh produce didn't look so bad either. We decided to buy a few dinner items here, and so we excitedly left with fresh gnocchi, pesto and some veggies.
Finally back at the hostel we took a brief hiatus and put our feet up until late afternoon when we went back out. Earlier in the day we saw fliers at one of the cathedrals about a concert featuring pieces by Handel. We crossed the river once again and found the church hosting the concert. Mass was just finishing so we snuck in the back and waited for it to end. The concert was very small and informal with a soprano and two organists, and there were only a handful of people in attendance. Really there was only a nun, a few older folks, and us. The cathedral was dark and gothic style adorned with large columns and frescos throughout. Heat was lacking, so we stay bundled in our warmest winter wear. The musicians performed above from the balcony, and the music was absolutely beautiful. Handel's 'Rejoice' was amazing as the soprano sang impeccably and with appropriate emotion. This was a perfect end to a perfect day.
Back at the hostel we prepared dinner and just had a quiet night. The pesto gnocchi was excellent. I believe we put in about 13 miles throughout the day per our pedometer. Not too bad...
I won't go into as much detail about the next two days as they were a bit lower key. Saturday morning we toured The Uffuzi and saw impressive Renaissance art. Botticelli, Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, Raphael... Standing in front of The Birth of Venice was extremely surreal. We also had gelato several more times. The pistachio is my absolute favorite so far.
New Year's Eve was especially nice. I managed to stay out way past my bedtime. We rang in 2012 in one of the central plazas listening to the Florence philharmonic symphony, watching fireworks, and sipping cheap champagne. There was a competition going on between the music and pranksters shooting fireworks. The conductor got very flustered as the surrounding booms drowned out the music. It was pretty fun to watch him get so angry. He most certainly could have used some of our cheap bubbles to calm down.
We slept in on New Year's Day, and in the afternoon we made a short hour trip to visit The Leaning Tower of Pisa. Pisa is a nice quiet town that is easy to navigate. After walking a short distance from the train station the tower came into view, and sure enough it was leaning at a pretty decent angle. After Aaron took about 300 pictures we found a pizza place for lunch. Once again we enjoyed an excellent meal. In the early evening we caught the train back to Florence and just relaxed and played cards in the hostel.
Yesterday we packed our bags and made our way to Lucca, which is where we are currently. Florence was a place that we have always wanted to visit, and it certainly met our expectations! Let the good times continue throughout Italy!