Florence. Florence was one of those cities that just feels right, almost immediately. Small enough that it’s not at all overwhelming, big enough that there’s a seemingly endless supply of beautiful things to do, see, and revel in.
We arrived on a rainy afternoon. Everyone was feeling that bone-deep travel exhaustion–after all, at this point, we’d been in three cities and two countries in the previous 24 hours (give or take) and were feeling a little overexposed to the endless stream of planes, trains, water taxis, buses, and metros it had taken to pull off that particular feat. So, everyone else took advantage of the grey and sleepy afternoon to catch up on some much-deserved napping. I, on the other hand, turn into a too-excited-to-sleep little kid upon arrival in a new place and instead opted to spend some quality time in the hostel kitchen with a cappuccino, Nicole’s guide book, and a map of the city, plotting all the can’t-miss points. If I do say so myself, I think the resulting marked-up map ended up being very useful indeed. (I’m also going to take a moment to pimp out the aforementioned guide book–it’s a “Let’s Go” book and if you’re traveling, anywhere, at all, I highly recommend you get one. It never gave us bad advice, and it’s also hilarious. Except don’t get one if I know you and you’re going abroad in the spring, because then I won’t have anything to get you for Christmas.)
That night we wandered, tentatively exploring the cobblestoned, colorful city we’d arrived in, charmed by the feeling that it was frozen in time and humbled by the knowledge of the countless incredible minds and souls that had walked the same streets centuries before us.
We imagined Medicis gazing down at the Palazza della Signoria from the high windows of the Palazzo Vecchio…
…and gazed in wonder at the dome Brunelleschi was somehow able to imagine against all odds, against history, against what architects and engineers had managed to achieve at that point. Do you know that Arnolfo di Cambio began the construction of the cathedral in the 13th century before anyone knew how to create a dome for it, acting on the faith that, by the time it was finished, someone would? He was right, of course–Brunelleschi came through for him in the 15th century and created what is still the largest masonry dome in the world. This whole story just baffles me and makes me feel like my imagination is a little lacking. (I know my engineering skills are.)
One of the coolest parts of that first night by Santa Maria del Fiore was realizing that 20 years ago, give or take, my mom was walking around the very same building, probably feeling just as awestruck as my friends and I were a few weeks ago. Even cooler to me than knowing that Gaudi stood and stared at the Sagrada Familia or that Michelangelo himself touched the David is thinking about all the people I know and love who have stood before these incredible sights, exactly as I have, feeling something like I felt. Thousands of miles away from most of the people who occupy my thoughts, it makes me feel a little bit closer to home to know that I’m doing something they, too, found worthwhile at some point. This blog wouldn’t be me without a little bit of sap every now and then. 🙂
Just as important–if not more important–as our reveling in these amazing sights in Florence was our ardent devotion to–what else–the amazing food the city had to offer. That first night, we had an amazing introduction to the gelato of Italy when we stopped at Grom.
What you’re looking at is heaven-sent nougat and coffee gelato (endorsed by the guy behind the counter as his favorite combination of flavors!). This met and then smashed to bits every expectation I had for Italian gelato. If the Duomo had me silently thanking God, this had me rousing a crowd in the streets to a foot-stamping, clapping, echoing rendition of the Hallelujah chorus. (I mean, not really, but in my mind, yes.)
God is great, God is good, let us thank him for our food.
Oh, and here’s a fun gelato fact for you: apparently, if gelato is piled high and brightly-colored, you don’t want it. That stuff is no good. Well, it’s probably delicious, to be fair, but delicious in a normal, American gelato way. Real gelato is mixed in the metal container it’s served in and “should look like poop”. So there you go. If it doesn’t look like poop, don’t eat it.
The great food adventure continued that night with an unforgettable meal at Trattoria Anita. Sorry for the dim lighting!
This pasta…wow. This pasta is what made me realize that every time I don’t eat fresh pasta, I’m basically taking one of God’s greatest gifts (to continue with the religious theme) and throwing it back in his face. This pasta is the pasta that would allow me to run a marathon, qualify for Boston, and then just run another marathon right away just for fun. This pasta changed my life. This pasta is what caused me to send numerous frantic emails to my mother insisting that we purchase a pasta press, promising to cook endless supplies of fresh pasta if we purchase a pasta press, claiming that I’ll somehow earn millions of dollars and buy my parents a house in the South of France if only we can have a pasta press.
I’m pretty sure we’re getting a pasta press.
I’m pretty sure my parents still aren’t getting a house in the South of France. (I mean, never say never, but don’t hold your breath, Mom and Dad.)
This night pretty much set the tone for the rest of our Florence trip. Our days always started at the same adorable, perfect little breakfast place around the street from our hostel. Every morning, I had a cappuccino, yogurt, muesli, and fresh fruit. And every morning, without fail, it was delicious.
Fruit that fresh and that perfectly cut makes my heart flutter. So does the adorable miniature silverware they gave us to eat it with. From there, we’d wander across the river, basking in the absolute beauty that is Florence in the morning (and any time of day, really…this picture was taken in the afternoon, full disclaimer).
We wandered from place to place, delighted to find that Florence was every bit as inviting and manageable as we’d imagined on our first afternoon. Not only did we get to visit most of the city’s can’t-miss spots, they actually became a part of our daily landscape, as familiar and friendly as the kind woman who owned our little breakfast place.
And the food–oh, the food. I’m not sure if our sightseeing was punctuated by breaks to eat or if our eating was punctuated by breaks to sightsee. Trattoria Anita turned out not to be an untouchable first experience (although we did love it enough to return there on our last night), but rather an indicator of the equally delicious and varied feast that was still to come.
At Sergio’s, which was recommended by my favorite leather vendor (Massimo–more on him later), I decided to truly take advantage of my location and enjoy some Tuscan specialties.
This is ribollita soup. I know it doesn’t look like much–or, well, maybe it looks like something you don’t want to eat–but trust me, it’s amazing. “Ribollita” means “re-boiled”, I think, and I guess the original concept for the soup is that it’s basically a stew made from whatever food is just taking up room in the kitchen. People would just cook whatever vegetables they had around with broth and bread that was getting stale, and this was the result. My mom actually makes it at home, and twice last year after very long, cold runs, I gobbled down three or four bowls, no problem. It’s heaven.
This is vin santo and biscotti. Vin santo is an Italian dessert wine, and from what I can tell, it’s always served with little almond biscotti. (At Sergio’s, they just brought us a giant basket…you can see the edge of it in this picture. SCORE. Um, yes, we ate it all.) Weirdly, the wine tasted more alcoholic once you dipped the biscotti in it than it did if you just sipped on it. I bet a science person could explain that to me. However, until that happens, have no idea why that is. It was a perfect, charming, authentic-feeling dessert.
At Trattoria Le Mossacce (recommended by the guide book to end all guide books), I realized that I actually, contrary to what I’d always thought, love roasted potatoes…as long as they’re covered with a ridiculous amount of garlicky amazingness. And especially if they’ve been roasted to an ridiculously soft consistency. These potatoes in the picture are basically my dream potatoes. I couldn’t get enough of this particular side dish in Florence, and I suspect I will spend the rest of my life trying to make roasted potatoes that taste like Florentine roasted potatoes.
At Mercato Centrale, I finally found my very favorite pasta–orecchiette! I used to ask for this all the time growing up, but it’s hard to find. It’s even harder to find freshly made and covered with pesto (my very favorite sauce). But Mercato Centrale came through for me, and I loved every delicious bite. Fun fact: “orecchiette” means “little ear”. So cute. As long as you don’t think about the potential cannibalistic implications, which I never have until I just typed that. So, yeah.
Gelateria dei Neri might have ever-so-slightly beaten Grom as my favorite gelateria in Florence. It had a really cute, old-school feel (our unbeatable guide book said it was the local favorite), and if the ricotta and fig (yup, you read that correctly, changed my life, I’ll never love again) gelato wasn’t enough to win me over (it was), the absolutely divine tiramisu semifreddo I paired it with certainly would have done the trick (no need, but I definitely appreciated the effort…amazing). (Parentheses are my favorite.) Also, this place earned some bonus points for being decorated with pictures of Gelateria dei Neri cups all around the world–I should have taken mine back to Paris with me! They already had one of the Eiffel Tower, so I guess I would have gone with the next best thing and put it next to a pissoir.
We returned to Trattoria Anita for our last meal, albeit somewhat guiltily. We all felt like we should be trying as many different places as possible, but Trattoria Anita was just so good. Luckily, it wasn’t too much of a repetition, because they had already completely changed their menu when we went for the second time! (You know a place is authentic when….) We split that amazing asparagus side dish, and I don’t think I’ll ever eat asparagus not covered in parmesan again. And then I had tagliatelle with mushrooms. It was incredible. The mushrooms were like…butter. But more flavorful. I died.
Oh, and I think it goes without saying that we loved the delightfully bubbly prosecco and giant multi-liter jugs of Italian wine everywhere we went. 😉
I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the leather market. It was a pretty big part of our Florence trip, I have to say. Somehow, I ended up with no pictures of the place…probably because I was too busy frantically tracking down deals on scarves, gloves, bags, and, of course, the perfect jacket. My story was almost a sad one. It all started with a recommendation from my friend Emily (who’s in Paris with me and went to Florence a few weeks before I did) to go to Massimo’s for a jacket. Not really knowing what I was dealing with, I was happy to have a recommendation to go off of. Massimo immediately impressed us with his lunch recommendation (Sergio’s, home of my first Tuscan ribollita). We returned after lunch, and I had every intention of buying a jacket. Well, I tried on several, and I liked lots of them, but none of them were quite what I was looking for. Until I found the one. It was perfect. The right color, the right style, the right feel. I felt like I imagine a woman feels like after finding the perfect wedding dress. All my friends agreed: it was perfect! Why even look anywhere else?! The only problem? It wasn’t quite the right size. At first, that didn’t seem to be much of a problem at all–the friendly and helpful man working in the store assured me that I could custom order one and it would be sent to Paris. Once he began talking with Massimo, though, it became clear that that wasn’t going to work out. I guess the particular leather I had fallen in love with wasn’t in stock anymore, so they couldn’t make the same jacket. They had similar colors, but they weren’t quite right. Here’s why Massimo is the best. It would have been so easy for him to have had a jacket made in a near-identical color and then shipped it off to Paris, where I would have been stuck with a not quite right jacket for the rest of my life, way too many euros poorer. But he didn’t. And this is in a sea of vendors who were pulling things like trying to sell us jackets that were made for children and displaying bags with fraying seams.
So, if you skipped that long paragraph, I don’t blame you one bit. Just pay attention to this part: if you end up in Florence and want to buy something leather, go to Massimo. He’s honest, kind, and he won’t rip you off.
I know you all were on the edge of your seats wondering, so wonder no more: I did end up with a leather jacket. It looked like a no-go…I thought I was ruined for all other jackets after the perfect one fell into my hands and then was ripped away. But after a sad period of following Heather around the leather market looking like a kicked puppy, I found it. And I love it. I think maybe I was meant to find my real jacket but had to go through the pain of losing the first one to really appreciate it. Which goes to show you that…good things fall apart so that better things can fall together…and…better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all (but then love again)….and…every other cliche I made my AIM status in 7th grade…they’re all true.
So glad we found each other, jacket. It was fate. And if it doesn’t work out for some reason (like you get stolen in a ghetto European airport or someone spills Natty Light all over you at the Palms, God forbid)…we’ll always have Florence.
We also made some time for a little art while we were in Florence, and visited a few museums, my favorite of which was the Gucci Museo. Yes, it’s real, and it was wonderful, and my favorite museum I’ve been to in Europe, and no I’m not kidding, and you should really just go, even if you think you’re above it, or you’re not into fashion, or you’d rather do something else, or you live in the middle of the Pacific (because I totally have thousands of international readers) and think I’m joking when I say it would be worth it to pay for a plane ticket to Florence just to see this museum. I’m not. Go.
Pictures weren’t allowed, so this, and my word, will have to suffice.
We also did something a little more traditional and stopped by the Accademia to see–what else–Michelangelo’s David. I don’t have pictures of the actual statue, but I do have pictures of the wall outside the museum (where we waited in line for an hour, give or take). And a story to go along with them.
The wall was covered in graffiti. Covered. People were just inspired by their proximity to a famous work of art, I guess, and their inner Michelangelo took over.
Hey look, my mom’s name!
And some people said disgustingly syrupy sweet things. If I ever write or say anything like this, ever, someone, please, lobotomize me.
Anyway, I decided that I wanted to leave something of myself behind on the wall, too. So, representing the whole group, I proudly penned a little “XΩ” as high up as I could reach.
You can kind of see it next to that sign. Anyway, as soon as I was done with my little graffiti project, I took it upon myself to read the sign. Which informed me the area was under video surveillance and it’s illegal to make marks on the “historic site” we were standing in front of. Well, damn.
Ever calm under pressure, I completely flipped out. It got even worse when I saw a man in a very official-looking government uniform getting off his moped just across the street, looking very solemn. My heart was pounding. I was trying to decide if I could outrun him in my ballet flats. I was going to spend the next four years of my life in an Italian prison, just like Amanda Knox! What had I done?!!?
At some point, it became clear to my highly amused friends that what was surely a terrifying police officer approaching me with handcuffs was actually…a mailman. So, yeah. That was really embarrassing, considering I had a full scale freakout in front of not only my friends but everyone in line. That just goes to show that I wasn’t made to break rules. Ever. (When I was a toddler, my mom could put me on a blanket and tell me to stay there. If I so much as set a finger off of the blanket, all she would have to do is sternly say “Tessa” and I would go crawling back to the middle of the blanket, where I would no doubt resolve to remain indefinitely. Not much has changed, apparently.) I lost some pride that day…but not enough to stop me from hiding out in the leather shop across the street until it was our turn to go into the museum.
The David was cool. Very cool. Larger than I expected. Symbol of Florentine pride. Cool that Michelangelo touched it. Very cool. Cool. Neat-o. Awesome. This has been a really long blog post, y’all. Sorrier for you than I am for myself. I think what I’ll remember the most, though, is the two prim-looking ladies about my grandmother’s age sitting next to my friend Tess and I. (Oh yeah, Tess met us in Florence! Nicole started calling the two of us “the Tessi”. Everyone say hi to Tess! She’s the blonde one on the left.)
Anyway, we were sitting behind the statue. (Warning, blog’s about to get a little PG-13, things are getting cR@zY!!!) Tess observed that David had a nice butt. I was about to quietly agree when the proper-looking ladies next to us did it for me, except loudly, for the whole world to hear. So that gave us all a good giggle. But things got even funnier as we continued to listen in on the women’s conversation: “It’s too bad, really. Big shoulders…big hands…big feet…big disappointment.”
Hilarious. (I would say it would be like hearing your grandmother say that, but honestly, my grandmother saying that wouldn’t surprise me one bit. Love you, Amma.) It wasn’t until we left the museum that I was really able to get it together after that one. Sorry, maturity, it was fun hanging out for a little bit, but I don’t think things are looking good for us long-term….
I’ll end on a slightly more serious note. (And then, I promise, I’m done…this has been an epic post. I really loved Florence, what can I say.) Onwards, to the Piazzale Michelangelo. I had the pleasure of unknowingly stumbling upon this popular tourist spot while I was running one morning. I was running along the river, saw a path leading up, figured up would lead to views, and followed the path without hesitation. Which turned out to rank prominently on my list of “Best Decisions Ever”, because the view that resulted is one I’ll never forget, ever, for as long as I live. (This blog is my Notebook…read this, and I’ll come back to you.) (If you don’t catch that reference, maybe we shouldn’t be friends.) I don’t think I could pick a favorite moment from my Italy trip, because honestly, the trip was nothing if not a string of impossibly perfect and completely unforgettable moments. But I have to say, there was something very special about that morning at the Piazzale Michelangelo. The tourists hadn’t really arrived yet, so I felt alone on top of the world, free to take in Florence in all of its splendor, bathed in the light of a new day, dappled in that fresh, clean way that seems to only result from morning shadows. It was just cold enough to be refreshing, I felt fully awake and invigorated from my run, and life just felt so perfect in that moment I almost wished I could stop time. But of course, that’s silly. So instead, that night, I took my friends back just in time to watch the sunset.
Florence, you’re magical.