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Travel Journal for Florence, Italy

Written by Rose Tantraphol.

Some visitors to Italy fall in love with Venice. Others fulfill their dreams by making a pilgrimage to Rome. For me and my fiance, Scott, the trip of a lifetime took us to Firenze, Italia, our home base for a seven-night visit that included New Year’s Day 2012. We walked and ate our way around Florence and left the city limits for a day to peek into some of the hill towns of Tuscany.

Italy is a country we have independently longed to visit, and what better time than half a year before our wedding, after which time it’ll be… well, time to settle down. This was our chance to make sure we would never have to say, “If only we had…” It was our honeymoon before the honeymoon — a chance to revel in the kinds of culinary beauty and artistic genius that only Italy can offer, and an opportunity to take some of that inspiration back with us to deepen the hues through which we view the world.

GETTING THERE (OR, WHY WE LOVE OUR TRAVEL AGENT MORE THAN WE CAN TELL YOU)

So here’s the deal. Scott and I have never ever used a travel agent. We were under the impression — that, we have found, many of our friends were under as well — you have to pay travel agents to do things you can do yourself online. Not true. We didn’t pay a dime to book our flight and hotel through our travel agent — and here’s the killer part — we paid half what we would have paid on our own. Half. We went online and checked a package that included the same number of nights at our hotel, on the same flight (departure and arrival day), and I’m not kidding, this trip was half that price. So, had we done this on our own, one of us would have gotten to take this trip (we joke that we both know which one of us would get to go), or we would have been able to afford three nights rather than seven.

We worked with Classic Travel based in Okemos, Michigan. Joy Thrun and the excellent team at Classic Travel literally made this trip happen for us. Scott and I can’t thank them enough. And part of the reason, I think, is that Joy and her husband, Tom, truly love traveling, and sharing that passion. Here’s a snippet from the Classic Travel website:

Time flies when you are having fun. Probably the oldest cliché in the world, but for us at Classic Travel, it certainly holds true. It does not seem possible that we have been selling travel and all the exciting things that come with it for thirty one wonderful years. And thanks to you, our well-traveled clientele, we have had the pleasure of sharing in your globe-trotting adventures for the past quarter century.

Over this time we have witnessed events that have changed the world and impacted our industry. Travel is our business, but above all, it is our passion. We believe that travel contributes immeasurably to the overall quality of life. No matter how well traveled you may be, each trip you embark on brings knowledge and new experiences. Travel is continuing education and we will never run out of exotic places to go. One of the most precious rights that we have is the ability to move freely around this fascinating world of ours. To experience the diversity and richness of far away places creating memories that will last a lifetime, we are proud to be one of the most experienced travel companies in the entire industry, but we continue to grow in many different areas.

So if you’re reading this and thinking you’ll never visit Italy, I want to say that I didn’t think I’d get there either — at least not any time soon. Life works in strange ways sometimes. Stay realistic, but hopeful, that you’ll eventually find a way to make the trips you dream about.

463 STEPS

On our very last evening in Florence, we capped off our trip by climbing the 463 steps up to the cupola of Duomo, Florence’s stunning Gothic cathedral. What makes this cathedral remarkable is not just that the dome, which took 14 years to build, was the first Renaissance dome, or that it was the largest since Rome’s Pantheon. What’s incredible to me is the story that’s told about the cathedral — that it was originally constructed with a gaping hole where the dome would go, because no one quite knew how to create a dome that could span that space. Can you imagine the immovable belief that things will all work out? And indeed, things did work out, because architect Filippo Brunelleschi came up with an ingenious double shell construction in which the skeleton of a dome was filled in by interlocking bricks fashioned together in a herringbone pattern. This created a dome that relied on its own support as it grew slowly upwards.

Not surprisingly, the 463-step trek up is winding, steep and claustrophobic (there are several passes so narrow you get pretty intimate with tourists making the return journey), and there’s really not much of a warning about any of that when you slide over 8 euros (about $11) for the entrance ticket. I would have expected an impossible-to-miss notice for anyone who is pregnant or has a heart condition, but perhaps that is the overly cautious American in me. Neither the guidebooks nor Duomo officials adequately prepare you for the trip up — or for the view at the pinnacle. We arrived around 6 p.m. on a perfectly clear evening and marveled at the Campanile, the 270-foot bell tower designed by Giotto. Walking around, we could see the Accademia, where David — created by Michelangelo Buonarroti when he was just 26 — is showcased. Here were all the avenues lined with holiday lights and over there was the Uffrizi Gallery, where you can find Botticelli’s Birth of Venus. We could easily see Santa Croce Church, famous for housing the tombs of Galileo Galilei and Michelangelo. We slipped one euro into the binocular stand and looked with disbelief into the windows of the rooftop restaurant where we had enjoyed our divine New Year’s Eve dinner a couple nights before. After the initial shock of this perfect view, it seemed most couples realized the romance of the winds and the perch, and shared quick kisses or longer expressions of their gratitude for each other.

IF YOU GO. We started the climb about an hour before the last entry, and we’re pretty sure we got lucky with the best possible conditions anyone could have walking up. Florence’s high season is April though October, although July and August can be unbearably hot. It must be a snail’s pace up to the top when the crowds are in town, and I’m sure temperatures rise accordingly in those narrow corridors. After this trip, Scott and I are sure we prefer traveling during a destination’s off season, even if it means cooler temperatures and higher chances of some closures. No matter what the season, if you go, take into consideration whether you want a daytime or nighttime cityscape, and get in line very early in the day or late in the evening. Make sure you’re hydrated going up, but not so much so that you’ll need to use the bathroom any time soon.

LESSONS FROM THE CLIMB. Rick Steves describes the Duomo climb in his guidebook as “463 plunges on a Renaissance StairMaster,” but the journey reminded me less of exercise and more of a journey of faith that all these stairs were leading somewhere worthwhile. You’re placing your feet on each stony step, unable to see ahead and cognizant of the futility in looking back. If you’re ever in Florence, take the climb up, and see what the journey evokes for you.

WHO NEEDS A CAPPUCCINO?

Americans do not know how to appreciate hot chocolate. Italians do. People always talk about Italy and the espresso and cappuccino available there. But what about the hot chocolate? The first time I ordered a cioccolata calda I looked around to see if anyone else was drinking the same thing, and whether they were pouring milk or something in the cup to cut it. I couldn’t accept the fact that the beautifully thick, smooth molten chocolate inside this cup was mine to enjoy as is. What do Italians do when they visit the United States and have their first cup of hot chocolate? Crying seems like an appropriate response. I might not mind winter in Michigan so much if we had this kind of creamy expression of warmth. (OK, I’d probably still mind just as much, but it would at least be a little something to look forward to on the coldest days.)

IF YOU GO. Try cioccolata calda in Siena at the Caffe A. Nannini. And by the way, about cappuccinos — for Italians, it’s a breakfast drink. Restaurants will serve it all day if that’s what tourists want, but if you want to do as the locals do, only order this frothy goodness in the morning.

LESSONS FROM THE SIPS. Too often, I try to split the difference. In my brief visit, I found that Italian culture fosters making a commitment — whether it’s heavy hot chocolate or a three-hour dinner — and that, in turn, can allow you to live more fully in the moment.

WILD FOR WILD BOAR

Cinghiale (cheeng-GAH-lay), wild boar, is a noted Tuscan specialty. I’ve never loved the other white meat (though as you know, I’m having issues with the main white meat these days), but when I paid a visit to Memphis a couple of years ago and had ribs down there, I understood, for the first time, the appeal of ribs. Following in the same spirit, I gained a new appreciation in Florence for prosciutto (cured ham), salami and cinghiale. When done right, these meats have a refined and comforting flavor. My single favorite dish from the entire trip was pappardelle di cinghiale, wild boar with Tuscany’s extremely wide, flat ribbons of pasta.

IF YOU GO. Unless you’re a vegan or vegetarian, don’t be afraid to try cingahle in a few of the various forms available — in pasta, as salami, as a main dish or in a stew. If you hate it, at least you’ll know you gave it all the chances it deserved.

LESSONS FROM THE BITES OF BOAR. Location, location, location. I’ve learned that about so many things now — that you risk missing out on something pretty cool if you are too quick to write something off when you haven’t tried it in the right context.

THE TOWN OF SIENA IS DELIGHTFUL

Drive 35 miles south of Florence and you’ll hit Siena, Florence’s historic archrival and interestingly the first European city to ban automobile traffic from its main square. Siena is, in a word, delightful. An intense horse race called Palio di Siena is held twice every year on the grounds of Il Campo, the town center. Our local tour guide explained that the city is comprised of 17 neighborhoods, or contradas. It sounds as intensely tribal as a city can get. Each contrada has its own church and fountain (and sometimes museum too), along with its own flag, a mascot (our tour guide made sure we knew she was from the rhinoceros group) and a rival neighborhood. Each neighborhood has a horse that, if chosen by lottery (the town center can only accommodate 10 horses out of the 17), runs the Palio di Siena. It’s a bareback race, and the first horse to cross the finish line — with or without a jockey still hanging on — wins. Laughing, our tour guide also explained that two people from different neighborhoods who get married will sometimes determine their children’s allegiances in a prenuptial agreement. That sounds to me like a Michigan State University fan and a University of Michigan fan signing a prenup determining if the kids will wear blue or green. Incredible.

IF YOU GO. Don’t breeze through town like a tourist, reading the guidebook and looking at buildings and architecture. You have to talk to local residents to realize why this town sparkles. I know that’s true of pretty much any place worth traveling to, but it’s so true here.

LESSONS FROM THE TOWN. That I need to go back to spend more time there.

CARING ABOUT CARBON FOOTPRINTS

Floating around one of our guidebooks as a bookmark is my Venice fast train ticket. Right on the ticket there’s a number — 26 Kg — that’s confusing if you’re not used to taking these trains. It turns out this number indicates the estimated amount of CO2 saved by taking this particular trip you’ve just paid 43 euros for. The day trip we took to Rome — also at 43 euros each way for second class — saved 32 Kg of CO2 each way. What a sensible idea — telling people in concrete terms how the decisions they are making right now are making a difference right now. People say Italian drivers are crazy. After this trip, I see why and while I agree, I’d add that they are crazy skilled. It’s beyond me how people can drive even small cars through some of these narrow streets, navigate confusing city-center traffic-free zones, snake their way into a too-small parking spot, not kill anyone along the way, and keep their cool the whole time.

IF YOU GO. Don’t rent a car. Period. Let professionals (taxi drivers, bus drivers and train conductors) get you from point A to point B.

LESSONS FROM THE RIDES. Every single trip I’ve made to Europe (I’m up to four now) has underscored how much farther the U.S. could be when it comes to public transportation. The technology is there — we just have to care enough to put the policies into place that would make it happen.

A RETURN TRIP?

To help our odds of returning, before we left Florence, we paid homage to a popular bronze statue of a wild boar and did as many visitors do — slipped a coin into the mouth of the cinghiale, rubbed its snout and made a wish to return to the city that historically was the cradle of Renaissance arts and personally has become a cradle of new shared memories. This travel journal is an adaption of the series that first appeared on my blog. To read the full series, click here.