Monday, December 5, 2011

Our Italian Adventure Begins ... with Florence

This trip has been a long time coming. I've always wanted to go to Italy ever since a relative once told me a long, long time back that there was nothing like eating pizza on the cobbled streets of Florence admiring the grand art and architecture around you. Of course I wasn't quite the foodie back then but just that comment alone had me intrigued. And then I evolved into somewhat of a foodie. Watching endless hours of Food Network and Italian dishes being prepared by the TV peeps inspired me to somehow make this trip happen. So I guess you could say to me, this trip was a tiny bit more about the food than anything else. There I confessed.  Nothing wrong with that right?

I'll try and split this up into sightseeing and food so those of you who are just interested in the Food portion, can skip over the rest! :)

Once the tickets were booked, I spent a fair bit of my spare time pouring over websites like Fodors, Rick,  and Chowhound to gather as much information as I could about destinations with Italy- sights to see, restaurants and accomodations. This trip was also to celebrate 5 years of marriage, so I wanted everything to be perfect.  I'm also a bit sick when it comes to research so I made notes of everything.  After much deliberation about which cities to visit, Rajesh and I decided on Florence and Rome. Before I knew it, everything was booked and it was time to leave!

We took off the day before Thanksgiving via London Heathrow. It was a looong flight and combined with my usual lack of sleep on airplane flights, I was quite tired by the time we landed in Rome almost 20 hours later at 5:30pm. We took the train from Fumincino Airport, Rome to Termini (main terminal) train station and from there hopped on to another train straight to Florence. We travelled "second class" but let me tell ya, second class was nothing to sneeze at. It was a very comfortable journey and we reached Florence by 9pm. The minute I got off the train and stood in line for a taxi, I took one look around me and it took my breath away. In front of me was this gigantic gorgeous looking church, the cobbled streets and a flurry of activity.  We reached our charming B&B in a few minutes and the front desk gentleman welcomed us with a huge smile.

The hotel we stayed at had 23 rooms and was previously a castle. I mean how cool is that? It certainly had a lot of character with it's long narrow hallways. We probably had to make 8 different turns to get to our room. In the morning, breakfast was a simple but satisfying spread of pastries, toast, cheesees, granola/yogurt, hard boiled eggs, fresh fruit, deli meats and freshly brewed espresso or cappuccino. The nice lady serving breakfast greeted us with a "Bonjourno" (good morning) every single morning. She kind of took it personally when Rajesh regretfully informed her he doesn't drink coffee, just tea.

Sightseeing in Firenze

Florence has so many great things going for it.. it's a small enough city that gives off a very friendly vibe. Everyone seems really relaxed and enjoying being there.  On our first morning, we had tickets reserved in advanced for the Uffizi.  It hosts the world's finest and largest collection of Rennaisance art. It was built in the mid 16th century and later extended and open to the public by the Medici family (they were a very prominent family that contributed a great deal to the art and science during that era).

It has three huge hallways filled with beautiful art and sculptures.  We came across a group of high school kids getting a lesson in art history.. I mean what better place for a field trip right?!  For lunch we stopped at a small "fast food" joint for some amazing salad, crepe and tomato mozzarella panini.

After a bit of souvenior shopping and strolling on the streets, we entered the Church of Santa Maria del Fiore. It was grand! There is a climb up 400 steps to the dome/cuppola that we decided to do another day. Next stop was the Accademia which hosts the magnificent, David by Michelangelo. This gallery was originally founded in 1784.

The climb up the Duomo the following day was pretty intense.  It took us a good 30 minutes and the stairway was quite winding. During most of the climb, the stairway was barely enough for one person to fit through. Imagine a stairway shaped like a spring coil and you had to walk up that for 30 minutes. The stairs were quite steep so let me just say, I must have worked off my breakfast in that climb. But in the end, the view of the city from the top of the Duomo was breathtaking.

On our way to climb the Duomo

The climb down was less intense but if you were not careful, you could have a split head. The steps are of solid stone and it was hardly forgiving.  Once back down, we took a bit of a break at the steps of the church and did what a lot of people do sitting down- people watched. This was one of my favourite activities.. just sitting on the steps or at a cafe and watch the crowds go by. It was not considered the high tourist season but there were a lot!  After a deliciously satisfying lunch, we strolled on to the San Lorenzo street market. Stalls of merchants selling purses, shawls, scarves, belts, knick knacks... bargaining was allowed and even encouraged. :-)  After dinner, we strolled around the Piazza Del Repubblica area.  Florence (and Rome for that matter) is filled with these Piazza which translates to "public square"- there are huge pillars and a dome structure, possibly a fountain or two and a large open square where people just hang out with a cappuccino or gelato... there are many street performers and artists and you find that time passes away without your knowledge.

On Sunday, the following day, we had planned a day trip to Pisa to see the famous leaning tower we all learnt about in 6th grade. As luck would have it, we got to the train station, bought our ticket and then found out with the help of another couple that were also Pisa-bound - that the Train people were on strike for that day.  DARN IT :( . We had a whole other agenda planned for Monday and we were to leave Florence on Tuesday so this was the only free day we had saved for Pisa. Oh well. We walked back into town and cheered the marathoners running the Firenze marathon that day. How anyone can run 26.2 miles on those cobbled uneven streets is beyond me but there were a ton of racers including some elites. I was personally very excited to have had this opportunity to cheer for racers in Italy!  There was an Italian band playing music to keep the runners pumped up and the energy going. After a quick stop at lunch which was somewhat disappointing.. one of the few poor dining experiences we had in our entire trip.  But we did see some chocolate Santas nearby!

We made our way on the street that runs parallel to the Arno river near the Uffizi, to the Galileo museum. We had a great time going through the various exhibits and witnessing the history of Florentine science.  The museum contains Galileo's own binoculars, compass and microscope.. as well as optical kit and a telescope with which he discovered the satellites of Jupiter.  For science majors like me and R, seeing these exhibits and comparing them with what we use in modern day was very very cool.  Galileo was one smart dude! Certain instruments like a compass and protractor haven't changed much since his day.

By the time we were done with the museum, so was the marathon and we saw groups of marathoners congregate by the bridge proudly wearing their finisher medals. Some of them were hurting to even get into a car. We hung out by the bridge, taking a few pictures and strolled over to the south side of Florence to Palazzo Pitti. (Pitti Palace). We skipped the inside tour of the Palace since it was getting a bit cooler and windier and my legs were begging to be done with walking! We got to see the sun ever so slowly coming down on Florence while crossing the bridge.

On Monday , we met up with another family for a Wine and Cook tour I had booked online through this company called Accidental Tourist. It was a day of wine/olive oil tasting followed by a cooking lesson up in a 800 year old estate in the Tuscan countryside. You can read all about our Wine and Tour adventure in Tuscany here.

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