Travelog: Florence 1999
If you are reading this, you will quickly realize that this travelog is in progress. The travelog below contains some complete portions, and some parts which are just brief words or notes to remind me what I ultimately want to write about
5/3/99 - 5/17/99, Florence, Italy. The seventh stop on my Round the World trip.
Flying to Florence via Frankfurt.
Got to Orly only 1/2 hour before my schedule departure, but of course it was no problem at all because the flight was late. It appears that one can generally rely on Lufthansa being late. There is a very impressive polyglot stewardess on this flight doing the announcements in German, French and English. Her French sounds perfect to my ear, and I assume her German is good, but the amazing thing is her English. It is perfect, but she speaks with a very weird almost Texas-like twang. Go figure.
As I sit here now I am in Frankfort, awaiting my connection to Florence. Of course, there is no problem that my flight to Frankfort was late, because my connecting plane to Florence isn't even here yet (it is supposed to be leaving in 10 minutes!) I donít know if it is Lufthansa's fault, or if this is just a fact of life of intra-European air travel, but late departure appears to be de rigeur.
So they finally boarded us onto the plane 1/2-hour late. It is an ARJ, which is the smallest commercial jet plane I've ever seen. There is only one class of service, and it is a 2x3 plane. But the whole thing is really tiny. And here we sit on the tarmac, waiting to take off. The pilot says that we have missed our allotted take off slot, and we will now have to wait 3 hours for another! He says that this is "unacceptable", and I tend to agree. Who knows, perhaps they will get us off the ground. One would think that Lufthansa would have a certain amount of clout in Frankfort.
So we've been sitting here for over 2 hours and they think we might be able to take off some time soon. I just asked the stewardess (not an objective source) why it is that all Lufthansa flights are late. Is it Lufthansa or Europe? She says that it is related to the war in Cosovo; Military planes have priority. An interesting excuse - I wonder if the war really has any impact, since I haven't seen any military planes here.
We seem to have lunch service on this plane. I am pleased, but also kind of stunned. It didnít seem like the plane was big enough to support such a thing. My lunch is notable because it includes something I have never seen before: reconstituted hard-boiled egg! Every slice is the same diameter with the same size yoke, and the whole thing was clearly extruded in one long tube. As if to give it some semblance of reality, the yoke is jauntily off-center. I almost considered tasting it just for the experience, but I just couldnít get my fork to my mouth. The egg-substitute is doubly odd because it is on a plate with some very nice lox and an excellent piece of Cambanzola. Go figure.
Had an uneventful landing in Florence, and I now understand why I was flying on a micro-plane. The runway here is insanely short; clearly they could never land any real commercial jets here. Suddenly it all becomes clear.
Took a cab to the villa just outside the city where I am staying, and instantly felt like I had arrived in heaven. It is insanely beautiful here. Green hills covered with grass and flowers, fruit and olive trees, and a zillion birds singing. Swallows have made nests in the beams of the house, and fling themselves to and fro. It is magic. The villa is owned by a couple who are architects, and they are renting out the occasional room as a B&B. I am renting a whole self contained mini-apartment and it is splendid. Sadly, the house isn't very old -- it's only about 400 years old, which they consider to be merely old, not antique. Nonetheless, I think it is stupendous, and they are doing an amazing renovation job. My friends Bill and Holly rent a house on their property just down in the valley, and they hooked me up with this apartment rental.
After the extended plane trip I didnít feel up to heading into town for dinner, so I just went to the nearby area of Due Strada for Pizza.
This morning Bill and Holly got me set up with a bus map and rode bus into Florence with me. I got of at the Duomo and had a good look around. Inside the Duomo there was a woman sitting at a table that had a sign which said something about free tours. I asked her about it, but she said she didnít speak English. Then, in English, she explained to me that the free tour wasnít running today because the woman who does it is out. When I was in Florence the last time (almost 15 years ago) I had climbed the wonderful dome of the Duomo, so I decided to skip that (for now.) Instead I just wandered around a bit and eventually made my way towards the Galleria degli Uffizi. The lines were epic, as advertised, so I just went into the reservations office there and got a reserved ticket the next evening.
Traveler's Tip: The Uffizi is a must-see, but standing in line for hours is just stupid. Reservations can be made by phone or in person, and this is highly recommended.
Right on the Piazza della Signoria was a restaurant I had read about called Restaurant Cavellino, so I stopped in for lunch. Even though I was early for lunch and there were only a few other people there, there were no single tables with a view left on the deck. So, when no one was looking I pulled apart a table for four into two tables for two, and sat down. Voila! Over the course of the next hour I watch couple after couple sit down at various tables for four, and be told by the waiters that they couldnít sit there.
The waiter was jovial, but was also pushy and slow. He forgot all about me for a while, but eventually took my order. When he came by to take my order, I asked a question and he basically told me what I was going to have for lunch. But I wasnít having any of that, and I gave him my order (which he seemed to approve of.) I had a really great Chianti called Aziano Chianti Ruffino, 1997. For my starter I had "Riso Cavellino" - a risotto with peas and meat, which was good but not great, and then for a main had "Salimbucca ala Romana" (veal with prociutto) which was wonderfully spiced. Rather than having a desert at the restaurant, I decided to head over to the land of Gelatto shops for some sorbet. It was truly excellent, and almost rivaled Berthillion of Paris.
Really sleepy, got on bus in wrong direction. Almost an hour to get back to the Villa
Back into town for dinner: La Guibbe Rosso. The man next to me was chain smoking, lighting one cigarette off of the prior one.
Proscuitto e Melone - great cantalope. One of those great strange taste combinations.
Vegetable soup - well done
Tagliatelle with salmon and mushrooms - the Italians do know a thing or two about pasta
Hanging out by the Duomo, studying the Baptistry doors without any crowds
I have had a wonderful day today. That is to say, a day filled with wonder.
Woke up this morning to beautiful sunshine and more singing birds, and had another nice light breakfast of toast and Earl Grey tea.
Chatted with Bill
Bus into town, Casa Buonarroti
(Church) Santa Croce?
Across Ponte Vecchio to Pitti Palace gardens (Giardino di Boboli)
Sitting reading, rain, carbonieri
Dinner: La Pentola dell'Oro, 24r Via di Mezzo, a "club" run by Giuseppe Alessi, a scholar of Renaissance cuisine.
Pepperdelle al sugo suee "ocio" (megrissimo) all'orentine - a lovely pasta dish. Pure in taste and al dente
"Il Peposo" stufato di bue drogato el pepe, con le pere, del Brunelleschi - beef chunks stewed with whole pepper corns. Stunning, shocking and excellent. Said to be a rescipy invented by the architect Brunelleschi (the guy that designed the dome of the Duomo.)
Dolce Firenze Rielabozozione de P. Ortusi (fine '800), el caffe rozolio amero - a slice of ice cream pie with two layers, one of pure cream the other of coffee flavor on a light crust. Excellent.
Taxi home, stars are out
Lunch at Trattoria Mario, Via Rosina 2r, noted in Lonely Planet
Pennetti ala Zucchini, excellent, olive oil, spice and salt. Simple and excellent
Pork with Fagioli beans, salty, spice and nice
Eating in the english ghetto
Wander by Santa Maria Novella, it is closed
Make hotel reservations
Galleria dell'Acadamia, no lines at 4:30pm
Fat Americans comments on David
Went to the bank to get 1,000,000 lira to pay for the B&B
Back to the villa
Talk for a while
Pizza in Due Strada, so loud I couldnít believe it.
Decided I needed a day off. Just lazing around at the villa, listening to the birds, chasing lizards, reading and writing.
Dinner: Don Chisciotte, Via Ridolfi 4r. Excellent. Menu degustation of fish
At start was given a glass of spumante and two small crostini
Then got a bottle of white wine, a very nice Terruzi & Puthod ernaccia di San Gimignano, 1998
Assortment of breads, the walnut bread was amazing
A small plate of Calamari. Very simple preparation of olive oil and Parmigiano. Beautiful green extra-virgin oil. Normally I donít like calamari, but this was excellent
Another beautiful dish: Gambetti con spinachi e bacon. More green olive oil. Again, a simple delight
Next, Langostino, clam octopus, shrimp and fish, lightly sauteed together in olive oil. Some julienned carrot and zucchini and tiny croutons. Simple and perfect. One insanely delicious tiny clam. A whole plate would have killed me.
Next, clams and squid-ink fettuccini. Olive oil and garlic. Something was wrong here. It was good, but not great. It came out cool. I wonder if there was a screw-up, because there was a long wait before this dish came out. Perhaps it was forgotten?
Next, Tagliatelli with scampi. Butter sauce with paper thin sliced artichoke. A masterpiece. A tour de force. The highlight of the meal.
Finally, the "main" course, some kind of white fish (monkfish?) with a wine & thyme sauce on top of a rosette of sliced potato, served with some more clams. I was so stuffed I worried that one more bite would see me vomiting! Had to leave most of this dish.
Desert: Lemon sorbet beautifully presented on slices of lemon on a plate dusted with confectioner's sugar.
Coffee and a plate of little treats, including one which was a fresh grape crusted in a coating of crystallized sugar. How did they do that?
2.5 hours of dining. I donít think I ever need to eat again.
Checked out of my B&B and into Hotel Porta Rossa. One hour later, checked out of Porta Rossa and into The Regency.
Quick bite of lunch
Sorbet at Vivoli (Via Isola delle Stinche, 7). <How I found it> <Tip on paying first>
One of the best things about Florence is the many songbirds. They are really wonderful. I have no idea what they all are, but they are great. There are also uncountable swallows, which are beautiful to watch, but have very unpleasant scratch voices that my mother would say "sound like a rusty swingset." One of the worst things about Florence is the lack of green places. The city is surrounded by green hills, but inside there is virtually no greenspace. Boboli gardens is nice, but it hardly counts since you must stand in a long line and pay to enter, and once having done so it is very crowded. Where Paris will have a public garden with grass, flowers, trees and a fountain, Florence will have a square fully paved with the grey pietra serena stones. I am told that Florence gets very hot in the summer; I am sure that with such a lack of open green spaces, the heat must be absolutely unrelenting, and the public squares certainly bake.
Another nice thing about Florence is that the Florentines really seem to be happy. They joke around. They are jovial. Bartenders and barristas will smile, be helpful, and even poke good natured fun at you, even if they donít speak English. Thoroughly different from my experience of Madrid.
Dinner at Tratorria Cibreo (around corner from the restaurant at Via A. Del Verrocchio, 8r) with 4 Italians. Managed to communicate a little bit with two who spoke a tiny bit of English, and one that spoke a fair bit of French. Yellow pepper soup, Stuffed chicken neck. Good but not great.
Jazz Club Via Nuova de Caccini, 3
Bar: Bier Stube Amadeus - Via dei Pescioni, 5r (055-2398229)
Late breakfast <contrast with Spain hotel.>
Fiesole: View over the city, St. Francisco, Museo Bandini and Museo Archeologico
Dinner: Ristorante La Giostra, Borgo Pinti, 10r
Carpaccio of Swordfish. Enormous platter. Far too much for one human to eat. Very nice. Served on a bed of butter lettus and raddicio, with thinly sliced tomatoes, lemon, olive oil, and what I believe were whole pink pepper corns. Very good, but way too much.
Linguini with Tartufi Bianci (white truffles). Very nice, hard to eat after all that swordfish.
Was going to go to Siena, decided not to
Officina Profumo Farmacentica di Santa Maria Novella: Perfume museum
Walk to Michaelangelo plaza. Great view, no relaxation
Bus back to hotel
I think I am done with Florence. There is no relaxing green space here. It is unfair to compare Florence with Paris (the greatest city in the world), but having just come from Paris I cannot help doing so.
Couldnít face another Italian meal. Went out for Chinese. Have to apologize to my friend Ted. I gave him a hard time when he took us out for Chinese food in France back in the '80's. I now understand. Went to Nin Hao, Via Borgognissanti, 159r. It was pretty good. The menu was predominantly Cantonese, but I really wanted Szechwan, so thatís what I ordered. The hot and sour soup was good, as was the spicy beef. Mercifully, the portions were small and the service was fast. I wonder what Italians think of that? Doubtless the fastest sit down meal I have had in Italy. Szechwan food always walks that fine line of one-dimensionality; come to think of it, so does Tuscan food. My dinner tonight managed to cross the line of one-dimensionality into the realm of interesting cuisine, but it was only a tentative step over the line, not a robust charge into the land of deliciousness. On a negative note, I started to feel like there may have been a lot of MSG in the food as I was finishing up my meal.
Today I decided to actually go to Siena, but for a change of pace I decided to do a guided tour rather than having to figure it all out for myself. The hotel booked me onto a tour with "Caf Tours" (055/210612), which runs a tour of Siena and San Gimignano for 83000 lira (about $44 US). I met the tour bus at the Florence train station, and after the usual confusion over which bus I was supposed to be on, we were underway. The guide (Alessandro) did an entertaining talk about the Tuscan countryside as we made our way to the tiny town of San Gimignano. His English was good, and the talk was entertaining, if a bit redundant (I lost track of how many times he informed us that there are 1.6 kilometers to the mile.)
San Gimignano is a beautiful little medieval town, that is renown for its many towers. Having a high tower was a status symbol, and demonstrated a families power and influence. At one time there were over 70 towers in San Gimignano, but now only 14 remain. Unfortunately, the town is completely overrun by large groups of tourists (such as my own), which really diminishes its charm. Surprisingly, I ran into one of the couples that I had had dinner with the other night at La Giostra. They told me that they had spent the night there in a little room over a restaurant, and that it was really wonderful. Apparently in the evenings and mornings there are no tourists and the charm of the place really shows through. Sounds like a good tip.
<Mimosas in bloom>
<Head of St. Catherine in a box>
Dinner with Bill and Holly at Caffe Concerto, Lungarno Colombo, 7 (055/677377), as recommended by Three Perfect Days.
Calamari with dumplings
Macarachotti with clams, radishes, and red wine
Steak with balsamic vinegar reduction
<Berlitz menu reader fails in italy>
<Saw a well dressed woman talking on a cell phone while riding a ramshakle old bicycle across cobblestone paving through pandemonium traffic - busses, cars, scooters, other bikes, pedestrians. Amazing>
<Taxis: flag drop is the most expensive part. After that it almost doesnít matter how far you go.>
Best thing was Verrochio's Puto with a Dolphin - worth the entrance fee alone
Dinner at Trattoria Za Za. Food was just OK, the service was the least pleasant and least friendly I have had in Italy.
My friends Bill and Holly, and their three kids and another friend (Judy) from Seattle were all heading off to Umbria today and invited me along. Unfortunately, they were unable to rent the large mini-van that they wanted, so we were not going to be able to travel together. Nonetheless, I checked out of the hotel and headed over to their place. When I got there I started calling car rental places to get a car. To my surprise, there were none available! Yikes. Finally I called American Express and asked for their help. In typical excellent American Express Platinum fashion, they managed to find me a car with <company name? Maggio?> (which turned out to be the Italian arm of National Car Rental.)
After picking up the car at the airport and getting back to Bill and Holly's, we were finally off for the drive to Orvieto, which is a lovely little town. We were booked in to a charming hotel, the Grand Hotel Reale, Piazza del Popolo, 25, (0763/341247). This hotel is exactly what the Porta Rossa in Florence should have been.
Dinner in a cave
Walk around lovely Orvieto
Fantastic Duomo; possibly the nicest in Italy?
Walk into a really cool well/cistern (Pozzo San Patrizio)
Drive to Perugia via Todi (sp?) and (where?)
Church with ceramic plates
Hotel "La Rosetta", Piazza Italia, 19
Hotel comes close, but fails. Bill, Holly and Judy have arranged for adjoining double rooms so that they can care for the kids. Their rooms are really nice and spacious. I have a single right next door. It is tiny. The contrast is hysterical. I donít really care about the size, however, the room is hot and stuffy and somewhat claustrophobic. I ask to be moved to a double. They show me another double which is almost the same size but with a double bed. It is furnished with 60's plastic furnishings instead of the nice antiques of my old room, so I donít move. Get back to the hotel after dinner, room is really hot. I open my window which looks onto the Piazza Italia which is so noisy on a Friday night that there is no way to sleep.
(Review of rooms: 58 large, beautiful, noisy. 59 big, nice, noisy. 60 tiny, claustrophobic, noisy. 62 Medium/small, quiet, no nice venetian glass lamp.)
Dinner at La Taverna, Via delle Streghe, 8, 075/5724128, Chef Claudio Brugalossi - lots of framed "thank you's" from famous people on the walls.
Desert afterwards at Caffe di Perugia - tried drinking Amaro.
Arrange to change rooms, then off to Assisi.
Drive to Gubbio
Losing credit card in gas machine
Helped out by Perugians, huge celebration. A wonderful experience; highlight of the trip.
Dinner at hotel
Walk around main drag.
Left Perugia, decided to drive through the Chianti region of Tuscany before returning to Florence. Headed towards Sienna (because I needed a destination). <Agrotourism>
Lunch in Sienna
A very different feel to the town, quiet outside of Il Campo and Duomo areas
Return to Florence
Fly to Budapest
So I decided to keep my rental car and just drive myself to the airport. Big mistake. Somehow I missed the sign for the A11 off of the A1, and ended up going a good 10-20 kilometers north on the A1 before I realized it. Then, it was at least 10 kilometers before I was able to find an exit. Finally I got turned around and got back to A11 (doing a good 140kpm on the Autostrada) but the exit markings in that direction must have been different because there was no signage for the airport. Needless to say, I chose the wrong direction, and was well on my way to Pisa before I managed to get turned around yet again. I finally made it to the airport at about 4:35 for my 4:50 flight!
The Florence airport is really small and really weird. Dealing with a rental car is something of a pain. You leave your car in the long term parking lot, then carry your luggage (aka run with your luggage) a reasonable distance to the Arrivals area; there you drop off your keys. Then, you get to march (aka run) back to the departures area. Now you are faced with the next mystery: where is the Lufthansa check-in counter? It turns out that there isn't one. It seems that all of the counters serve all of the airlines. There are video monitors above the check-in counters which could be changed to say the names of different airlines, but when I got there they all had the same logo, which is the generic logo for the airport. Of course, all that running around really wasnít necessary. Lufthansa was late as usual. In fact, when I was standing at the check-in counter at 4:45 praying to get onto my 4:50 flight, the plane hadn't even arrived in Florence yet!
Just to add weirdness to weirdness, I went to the security point to get to the gates and desperately told the security person that I needed to cut into line because my plane was just about to leave (I didnít know I had a reprieve yet.) She told me "No, delayed". So I went to the back of a huge line. When I finally got to the front she told me "No, delayed". I said, yes, I understand, but why can't I go through to the waiting area. She stands firmly in my path and points me to the side. I look over, and there are actually a lot of confused looking people holding boarding passes and muttering to each other in a variety of languages. So, I go over to the milling sheep and bleat along. The security gate is now completely empty, but no one is allowed through. Finally, after 15 minutes of standing around talking various bits of several languages with the other passengers, there is a boarding announcement for our plane, and the security agent lets us all file through the security gate, slowly, one by one. On the other side is a gate waiting area like those of any airport, except this one is completely empty. Dozens of empty chairs which we were not allowed to sit in comfortably while we waited. We all file onto the waiting bus, and when everyone is on and the bus is packed to capacity, it makes a 30 foot voyage to the plane, we all pile off the bus, and then we all wait to climb up the stairs and onto the plane. Of course, it would have been much simpler to just walk across the tarmac, but that would have made too much sense. Someone needs to give the Florence airport authority a good talking to!
So, our little ARJ airplane got out of Florence only 1/2 hour late, and with the traditional full-throttle hand-brake start that is required of a tiny runway. I'm not really worried about missing my close connection in Munich; it will certainly be late too.
Side Note: Row 5 of the ARJ has no windows on either side. If you are booked into a window seat, make sure it isn't in row 5.
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© 1998, Andrew Sigal