Before we visited Italy, I didn’t have much interested in going to Florence. I would have ranked Florence, Italy, as my third- or fourth-favorite Florence, behind Florence Henderson (Carol Brady in “The Brady Bunch”), Florence and the Machine (British indie rock), and maybe Florence Nightingale (sure, she basically created the whole field of modern nursing in the Victorian age, but what has she done in the last 120 years?).
Way back in Rome, on the first day of our guided tour, the 26 of us sat in a circle on a rooftop deck at our hotel and named the one thing we were looking forward to doing on this trip. The vast majority chose the Cinque Terre. There were some votes for Tuscany, wine, food, and some of the sights of Rome. (I said that we left our kids behind with my in-laws, so the rest of the trip was gravy for me.) Exactly zero people mentioned anything in Florence as their top choice.
But then we got there. And it was spettacolare!
Before we arrived, though, we had one last trip on the luxury tour bus. Every time we got on the bus, our guide would balance letting us snooze with lecturing us on any topic that popped into his head. We’d be cruising along the Autostrade, in and out of sleep, when the intercom system would click on and he’d start speaking in a voice-of-God manner: “Let’s devote some time to the history of Tuscan cuisine.” And off he’d go. Sometimes he would provide us with our room numbers for the upcoming hotels, but usually he’d stare out the front windshield, not even checking if any of us were awake, and ramble on about Italian politics, history, art and architecture, wine and cheeses, etc. He loved giving Italian language lessons: “Lesson one: Grazie does not rhyme with Yahtzee. It’s three syllables: Grot-see-ay.” He’d point out sights from the window: “There’s Andrea Bocelli’s childhood home;” “Those are the mountains where Cararra marble is harvested;” “There’s Pisa, see the leaning tower?”
He surprised us on that last bus ride with a stopover at something none of us knew had even existed: the Florence American Cemetery and Memorial, the last resting place for over 4,300 U.S. military dead. We spent an hour walking around the hillside 70 acres of headstones, and our guide filled in for the cemetery superintendent to provide us with a history lesson on the Allied invasion of Italy, a mission that happened a year before the Normandy invasion and offered lessons on how to better prepare for that excursion. (The superintendent was not available for anything other than a quick 5-minute talk because he was with family members of a soldier buried there, and that’s his first priority.) Humbling and quieting.
Before we stopped there, we had made a pitstop at a rest area, and I bought an Italian candy bar, the Ferrero Duplo Nocciolato, a chocolate-covered hazelnut candy bar. I stuck it in my pocket and got back on the bus. “Aah,” I said to my lovely wife Jen, “time to enjoy a little Italian sweetness.” She said, “Um, no, you have to wait until we get off the bus. No food on the bus!” I looked at the other bus riders: they were busy passing around bags of m&ms and packages of biscotti, chocolate and crumbs spilling on the floors, and sloshing their coffees all over the seats. But sure, we’ll be the rule followers here. “When can I eat it?” I asked. “When we get to the cemetery.” That’s ridiculous, I thought, and maybe a little disrespectful to eat at a cemetery. But I waited anyway.
So after we toured the cemetery, I said to Jen, “Now?” She gave me the nod. I opened the packaging, and as anyone with even a cursory knowledge of what happens to a chocolate bar kept in one’s pocket for 90 minutes (did I mention it was 80 degrees out? Sorry, I should say 27 degrees Celsius for you Europeans, meaning really hot), It was a melted, yucky mess. “Gosh, that looks awful,” Jen said. “You probably should have eaten it earlier.” Oh, you think? Thanks a lot, lady! You’d think that would be the last time I listen to her about food. You’d be wrong. (See the bollito sandwich section below.)
One thing you notice when you arrive in Florence is the lack of autos. The roads are narrow, cobblestoned, winding, and clogged with walkers. Our bus had to drop us off a few blocks from the hotel because it was too wide for the hotel’s street. (Rolling Thunder 2018 was back! The tour group’s wheeled suitcases were put to good use on this trip.) The city center purposely makes it a hassle for drivers: the only vehicles allowed on the streets are taxis, limo services, some tour buses if they are dropping off passengers, police, and delivery vehicles. It’s bizarre to be in a city that prioritizes pedestrians. You’d be walking, and you’d feel something hovering behind you: there would be a taxi or three, silently and patiently creeping behind you. But nobody honks. I got the feeling that if a driver honked at walkers, he’d be pulled from his car and beaten with slabs of prosciutto by a crowd of angry Florentines.
Our hotel was 720 years old. It was called the Torre Guelfa, or the Guelph Tower, named of course for the centuries-long power struggle between the Guelphs and the Ghibellines, two factions in Italy that argued about the supremacy of the Pope vs. the Holy Roman Emperor. (It’s not often that a hotel promotes its charming, welcoming aspects with the words “papal supremacy.”) It was imposing, with a tower that can be accessed by a steep staircase with amazing panoramic views of Florence. It was very dark; I pulled the drapes back in our room and it seemed as if I was the first to do it since the 1500s. Plus, bonus, there was this wide, square staircase that went up and up with an opening in the center, where a glass elevator shaft was added; I kept waiting to see Jason Bourne either ride a motorcycle down the stairs or jump to the elevator shaft and slide down the side of it.
The first thing we did when we hit town was head out in search of these special Florentine sandwiches at the Mercato Centrale. Our guide suggested we go there for shopping and lunch, and if we were brave enough, he recommended a certain deli counter that had two particular sandwiches: the bollito and the lampredotto. We kept hearing people say that Tuscany is known for its meats, and Florence is known for its own particular meats. (Town motto: “Florence: Come for the Meats, Stay in a Papal-Supremacy Hotel!”) Here’s what you need to know about the bollito: it means, roughly, “boiled meat,” and as far as anyone would tell us, it’s the meat from the back-fat of a cow. But it could be any meat from anywhere (on, I guess, any animal). It’s sort of like roast beef. And the lampredotto: that means “like a lamprey eel,” but it’s actually (are you ready for this?) the fourth and final stomach of a cow, sliced up and cooked in a broth. I don’t know why the “and final” part is added to the description of the cow stomach from which it is taken; does that make it more appealing? “Oh, it’s the fourth and final stomach of the cow? Give me two!”
We walked around the market; the first floor was concrete-floored, lots of meat and fish counters, many other food products, and generally a little dirty/gritty. There’s one counter that everyone gravitates toward, like flies to a rotting carcass. (“Rotting meat carcass” would be another accurate translation of “bollito.”) Jen said, “Why don’t you get the bollito and I’ll get the lampredotto?” I said okay, not so much because I was looking forward to the bollito but because I was starving and it sounded better than the fourth (and final!) cow stomach.
Here’s the problem with being from the Chicago area: I know what a Chicago-style Italian beef sandwich tastes like. (Shout out to Little Joe’s in LaGrange for one of the best!) The bollito that I had tasted like…boiled meat. It was okay. Then Jen said, “I can’t finish my lampredotto; do you want some?” I should have said no, but we were in Florence, other tourists were eating it, so I thought why not. This is why not: I couldn’t chew the stomach meat or fat or folds, whatever they were, enough to get them to a small-enough chunk to swallow. I’ve never gagged on a food before, but I couldn’t choke this stuff down. If you visit any food-centric website discussing Tuscan cuisine, they all mention the lampredotto and the bollito and how this “authentic Florentine street food” is a must. I’m here to tell you, however, that it’s okay to say, “No thanks, I’m saving room in my first (and only) stomach for the gelato.
Florence is easily walkable, and we were getting better at not getting lost in Italy. We walked with purpose back from the Mercato Centrale to the hotel and definitely got lost, but since we knew our hotel was near the Arno River, we pushed onward until we hit a body of water, hoping that it wasn’t the Mediterranean (which is 92 kilometers away, so that would have been embarrassing).
Our morning walk brought us to the Piazza della Signoria, the heart of Florence. This square has some impressive sights in it: the Palazzo Vecchio (the “old palace”), which is the town hall; the Loggia dei Lanzi, which is a triple-arched alcove containing an open-air sculpture gallery containing a dozen or more statues from up to 500 years ago; and, on the corner, the Uffizi (“Offices”) Gallery, a museum housed in the Medici family’s former offices. As our guide pointed out sights and we walked toward the palazzo, I couldn’t help but noticing…wait, that can’t be…is that…Michelangelo’s statue of David in the front of the palazzo?!? What the heck? I thought it was in a museum somewhere!
Turns out the original is in a museum somewhere, which we’d be visiting the next day. This replica stands, however, in the exact spot where the statue first stood in 1504. The original was moved indoors in 1873 to the Accademia (“Academy”), after having suffered a broken toe, a broken finger on the right hand, damage to the base from lightning, and, not surprisingly considering Italian politics, an arm broken off in three pieces when rioters occupied city hall and threw furniture out the windows at it.
We continued our walk to the Duomo (officially the “Cattedrale di Santa Maria del Fiore, or “Cathedral of St. Mary of the Flower”). Fun fact about Florence: nearly all of their most-visited sites have boring names: the Dome, the Offices, the Academy, the Old Bridge, the Old Palace. Anyway, the cathedral and its dome are so remarkable that it’s hard to peel your eyes off of them. The architectural specifics behind the construction of the dome are fascinating, and not to get too much into the science of it here (because I have no idea what I’m talking about, even after reading the Wikipedia entry about it), but basically, the Italians had forgotten the technique by which the ancient Romans had built domes such as Hadrian’s Pantheon (I talked about it way back in my Rome post), and the concern was that no self-supported dome would stand. The original architect for the dome, di Cambio, proposed his plan in the 1200s, then died before any work was begun. About 200 (!) years went by before anyone else decided to take a crack at it. Enter Filippo Brunelleschi in the 1400s. He worked out the math behind it, creating an inner and an outer dome, called upon his friend Donatello (of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle fame) to build a wood-and-brick model with him to explain it, and only 60 short years later, the dome was completed.
We visited the dome and church several times over the next few days, including climbing between the two domes to the top of it. For those of you who are afraid of heights and also don’t trust the laws of physics and math, I would suggest not squeezing your way up the 463 steps to the top of the dome and outside to the viewing area. It was dizzying. Also, on the inside, at one point you walk along the inner side of the dome and see, worryingly, massive cracks in the ceiling of the dome. Our guide said that engineers don’t really know what’s happening or how to counteract it, so it’s best if we visit it while it’s not under renovation (or collapsed). So we spent a good 10 minutes on the top, looking over the whole city, while in my head I was having a mini panic attack and was ready to get the frick off of it as soon as Jen was ready.
One night, we had another outstanding, one-of-a-kind view of Florence, this time from the tower back at our papal-supremacy hotel. Halfway up the walk to the tower, there was a tiny bar with beers and wines that you had to carry the rest of the way up yourself. There were about five tables on the open-air rooftop; we spent a pleasant hour there chatting with our tour mates before heading down for bed.
The second full day in Florence, we visited The Accademia (so called because it’s a gallery connected to an art academy), where Michelangelo’s original David now stands. It really is incredible to approach this perfect-human-specimen statue down a long corridor, be able to walk around it, and study it closely from any angle. You notice the veins on David’s arms and how realistic his muscles look. Of course, for me it was like looking in a mirror. People would say, “This is amazing!” and I’d reply, “I know! How lucky Jen must be to look at a body like this every day!” Then they’d walk away slowly as I stared off into space, smiling at my own humor.
Our guide had suggested two gelaterias in Florence: Gelateria Edoardo, near the Duomo, where there was always a long line, and Carabe, a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it shop a little bit harder to get to near the Accademia. Most of the people on our tour chose Edoardo because it was easy to find; Jen was feeling confident about our chances of finding Carabe (mostly because we already stumbled upon it while leaving the Accademia). I can’t speak about Edoardo because we skipped it, but Carabe was out of this world. So good. We went back the next day. It was definitely the best gelato we would have in the whole country. The flavors were inventive, the creaminess was tongue-pleasing, and I am starting to sound like a snob describing it so I will stop. Just, if you find yourself in Florence for any reason, seek it out. And tell them the Spaniard sent you.
There were tons of leather shops in Florence. (Not those kinds of leather shops, you sickos.) Our guide, who had misled me about finding wood and alabaster in Florence, was right about one thing: if you like shopping, Florence will please you. High-end retailers, the world’s best clothiers, jewelers along the Ponte Vecchio, and, if you’re into cheap leather goods, so much leather. There was one shop across the street from our hotel. And when I say “across the street,” the street was only about 10 feet wide, so we’re talking within spitting distance (but don’t spit in Florence, that’s rude). Jen kept circling back to the window every time we passed. I knew where this was heading. “Hey,” she said casually one evening, “maybe we should pop in there and take a look. You know, for souvenirs for the kids.” Sure, for the kids. I was on to her. Ten minutes and one fancy leather strapped shoulder bag later, we left with one thing for her and zero things for the kids.
Two other great museums that we saw: the Uffizi and the Museo del Duomo. The Uffizi was crowded with paintings by Renaissance Masters. I couldn’t spin a fancy leather bag above my head without hitting a Renaissance painting. (Seriously, I couldn’t. Their crack security squad wouldn’t let me.) I’d turn a corner and be like, “Hey, it’s Botticelli’s “The Birth of Venus,” or, “Oh, look, there’s another da Vinci/Titian/Caravaggio/Bronzino,” etc. There were almost too many great paintings that it got boring. Just kidding, it was awesome.
Jen and I ducked into the Museo del Duomo, which a lot of our fellow tour mates were skipping. It’s next door to the Duomo and is devoted to the construction and planning of the cathedral. I know that sounds uninteresting, but maybe you’re uninteresting. Sorry, I’m a little testy and probably suffering from gelato withdrawal now that I’m back in the States. Technically, the museum itself is called Museo dell’Opera, I have no idea why. Anyway, it has a neat layout that allows you to see the artwork of the cathedral up close, including some originals that have been removed from the sides of the buildings. Spread out over three stories and in 25 rooms, the artwork (mostly sculptures) highlights the history of the cathedral, and there’s a bonus on the top floor: an exit leads you to a balcony that overlooks the Duomo.
Our last night in Florence was spent at a feast at a nearby restaurant. Our guide knew the owner, so the food and the wine flowed nonstop. This being Florence, the menu was mostly meat-based. Sorry, vegetarians! The meal was bittersweet; after instantly bonding with the few dozen people on our tour and spending a week and a half with them, we were about to say goodbye and never see most of them ever again. (I assume I’m going to keep in touch with my wife. But other than her…) The late-night walk back to the hotel, and the conversations that continued in the hotel lobby and up on the tower, were like graduation night; no one wanted to be the ones to end the party.
The next day, we had until mid-morning before we had to catch our train to Venice. I convinced Jen to go on one last side trip, this time across the Arno River and to the Piazzale Michelangelo. It’s a park in the Oltrarno district with a panoramic view of the whole city. We walked across the Ponte Vecchio, with its fancy jewelry shops not yet opened for the day’s business, and into the funky Oltrarno neighborhood. Up a hill and several steep staircases, we found ourselves looking at…could it be?…yes, another statue of Michelangelo’s David, this one a bronze reproduction. Criminy, those Florentines love their anatomically correct naked-man statues! The view was magnificent, looking out across the river (not looking back at David’s anatomy, although that was fairly magnificent, too).
I said to Jen, “A pretty good way to end this part of the journey, eh?” She said, “Give me a gelato and a lampredotto sandwich, and I could stay here for a long time.” I knew it was the right time to move on when Jen started waxing philosophically about the fourth (and final!) stomach of a cow.
Bear with me, faithful readers, we have one more leg of this adventure: a quick stop in Venice, then out to the lovely town of Treviso and our friends’ wedding! (You do remember that this whole trip was about a wedding, right?)