Food / Travel in Europe

Florence: Land of Gelato and Michelangelo

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Florence. The name itself inspires a sort of beautiful anticipation, as though slide after slide in an art history lecture will emerge in one city: Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus, Michelangelo’s David, Titian’s Venus of Urbino… But I hadn’t gotten to those yet. I arrived by train tired and ready to unload my increasingly heavy bags. At the hostel (by far the most impressive I’ve stayed in) I caught my breath and chatted with some hostelmates – an Australian travel writer and an American in Florence for a food and wine summer program. It’s so easy to make friends traveling alone, especially because everyone has one thing in common already – a love of travel. It doesn’t hurt that we’re all for the most part in our twenties, fun loving, and thirsty for conversation.

As my first day in Florence waned I explored my area. I peered through the bars of a closed botanic garden then popped into a few shops. One smelled strongly of incense and cigarettes and sold of cool Indian and African looking jewelry. I bought an intricate little pendant that caught my eye. Continuing on, I heard Buddy Holly chirping from a vintage store and couldn’t resist ducking in. It was a great place, full of loud but wearable 50’s and 60’s dresses, oversized hats, handbags, and one fabulous pair of round, embellished, tortoiseshell Moschino sunglasses. I reluctantly left to take a few more turns around my neighborhood before returning to the hostel. That night I met a bunch of travelers at the outdoor hostel bar, and our circle of chairs grew to accommodate Australians, Americans, Brits, and plenty of heavily accented Canadians. Everyone was hilarious, and we spent hours telling stories, performing party tricks, and learning each other’s local slang (I have now quite a repertoire of Aussie colloquialisms).

The piazza near my hostel

The vintage store

I couldn’t handle the insane lines at the sights the next morning. Instead, I perused a map over some good Italian espresso standing at a bar counter. It was served with a small glass of seltzer water. Is that an Italian thing as well? Off I went to Ponte Vecchio, the famous bridge. It was large and full of shops like Rialto in Venice. I pushed through the crowds to find salvation in the shaded alleyways curving off on the other side. What I love about London, about Paris, about Florence, about so many cities in Europe, is how they possess alluring hidden surprises. It could be an old-fashioned hat shop, or a cheese monger, or a light-dappled and musty secondhand bookstore. Here it was Florence Art Factory, a little capsule of cool on a forgotten street. The creative space currently featured “Today-Tomorrow-Too Late”, an exhibit of paintings with verdant greens, Japanese influences, and binary code. I kept walking towards Piazzale Michelangelo, passing small cafes and Italian men with skinny ties on bicycles.

Ponte Vecchio

Sweating and dehydrated, I finally reached Piazzale Michelangelo at the top of the giant hill. The view was well worth the hike. You can see everything from there, and Florence is an excellent city to view from above. After a while soaking in the view, I made my way downhill. I spotted another gallery, this time of interesting sculptures by an artist named Mario Lituani. The whole neighborhood was apparently stuffed with art, as I later came upon a little gallery of cool street-art looking pieces. I had spotted one of those altered street signs in Rome.

As I found out later, gelato was invented in Florence. I’d consumed plenty of gelato on my trip already, but nothing could have prepared me for the culinary bliss that awaited me at Il Gelato di Filo. I got two scoops for €1.50: fruiti di bosco (fruit of the forest) and crema di marsala (cream of marsala). Oh my goodness. Not to discredit the cathedrals of Italy, but this gelato was a religious experience. Words cannot describe. It was the most delicious gelato I’d ever eaten, perhaps the most delicious food I’d ever eaten. I stood in the shade and tried to savor it slowly, already lamenting its impending demise.

What heaven tastes like

I kept wandering, still anxious to avoid the city center and its throngs. I discovered an exquisite little flower shop bursting with pale pink peonies and exotic purple orchids. Up the street, overlooking the city, was a rose garden so picturesque it hurt. The garden held  smooth, contoured sculptures and the rosiest smelling roses I’ve ever smelt. And I know roses. My dad (who has a shirt that says “Real Men Grow Roses”) and I share of love of the flower. I sat for a long time in a shaded flowerbed listening to the humming summer day. This perfect peace settled into me. Here I was in Italy, breathing in floral-scented air, listening to the gentle drone of bees and the soft brush of lemon trees in the breeze. I was young and alive, deliciously alone and deliriously lucky.

For lunch I sat outside at an enoteca nearby. Before coming to Italy I’d worried about eating alone. I was preemptively self-conscious. But actually, drinking a glass of prosecco and people watching behind sunglasses was delightful. My lunch looked like a Bon Appetit cover: burrata, grilled vegetables, and crostini with fresh tomato and pecorino cheese. I order burrata whenever I spy it on a menu. It’s my all-time favorite food. The lunch was a good meal to enjoy with all five senses: hearing the crunch and snap of the crostini, seeing the vivid colors of the vegetables, feeling the fizz of the prosecco bubbles on the tongue, smelling the strong pecorino, and tasting all of it of course. I paced myself, relishing the meal in small bites and occasionally turning back to Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms (a bit grim, but fittingly set in Italy).

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Next I headed to Gallerie Uffizi, whose line had diminished somewhat in the late afternoon. I enjoy visiting art museums alone. You can linger on your favorites and glance in passing at others. There’s no pressure to make an insightful comment (“Caravaggio’s use of chiaroscuro is meant to reference a shady religious leadership”) or a funny one (“That is one ugly Medieval baby.”) The strangest thing about the Uffizi is the blatant commercialism. I waded through the old masters only to pass through a ridiculous number of gift shops to find the exit. Eventually I made home, art-ed out for the day but content.

On Saturday I visited the Gallerie dell’ Accademia, or, where they charge €11 to see Michelangelo’s David and not much else. I prepared myself to be underwhelmed, but David is just so impressive. It’s 17 feet high, marble, and perfect in every respect. With its own alcove and its monumental size, the incredibly lifelike statue dwarfs everything else in the museum. I’d learned the history and the interpretation sophomore year, so I was happy to stand and appreciate the masterpiece from every angle. The museum featured other classical and renaissance art, as well as a few out of context contemporary pieces by Yves Klein, Francis Bacon, and Andy Warhol. Very bizarre additions.

Then, I popped into the Duomo (officially the Cattedrale di Santa Maria del Fiore). The interior was austere and rather bare; I preferred the magnificent, detailed facade. By this time I was quite hungry, so I devoured ravioli al pomodoro and some very rich, overwhelming tiramisu at Osteria Al Gatto e la Volpe. Walking later on, I heard the strains of Dracula-sounding organ music resounding from a church. Inside I found a free afternoon organ concert with music louder and throatier than any rock concert. The unseen musician poured out complicated patterns of thrilling notes.

The Duomo in Florence

The exterior

Heading back towards the hostel, I weaved through the leather market. Every stall boasts high quality, vibrant bags reeking of new leather smell. I rarely let myself spend money on anything but travel and food, but I couldn’t resist this one red, tassled purse. After, I wandered through a medieval-themed festival in a nearby piazza before crashing by the hostel’s pool for the late afternoon. The next day would be an early one.

The leather market

On Sunday morning I joined a few others in my hostel for a day tour of Tuscany. We visited San Gimignano, a vineyard in Chianti Classico, Monteriggioni, and Siena. In San Gimignano we snapped photos of the unbelievable panorama. To be honest, I’d wanted to see the Tuscan hillsides ever since watching Under the Tuscan Sun a few years back (a chick flick yes, but irresistible). It reminded me a little of Oregon‘s wine country, with the green rolling hills and cypress trees. I ate tiramisu and caramel gelato from the World Gelato Champion, whose shop loudly proclaimed its three-year winning streak. It was tasty, of course, but not the same as what I’d experienced the day before.

San Gimignano

One of the many sculptures like this around town

Soon our van left for Pietraserena, a winery specializing in Vernaccia wine. Vernaccia is only grown in this part of Chianti (and therefore, in this part of the world). A cute guy named Michelangelo guided us through three Pietraserena wines: Vernaccia, Tuscana Rosato, and Chianti Colli Senesi. We munched on toasted bread covered with fresh, locally made olive oil or porcini mushrooms and truffle oil. My favorite was the rosé. It was ruby red and smelled like dessert. I bought a mini bottle as a souvenir (not that it would make it to the U.S.). A few Australians, a French-Canadian, and I had a great time chatting and taking in the view.

Pietraserena Winery

Some damn good olive oil

The next stop was a short one – lunch in Monteriggioni. We ate prosciutto and herbed salami, bruscetta with tomatoes or mushroom pate, and ravioli and papparedelle pasta with creamy mushroom sauce and meat fillings. Our guide spent a good half an hour describing the countless varieties of pasta shapes. He was easy to listen to due to his remarkable resemblance to Johnny Depp and his interesting background. I’d never met anyone who grew up speaking five languages. His were Polish, Spanish, Italian, English, and French.

We then visited Siena, where we learned about the old rivalry of the 13 families and the greater rivalry with Florence. Twice a summer in the main square they host the Palio horse race, which seems utterly crazy and utterly Italian. We checked out Siena’s Duomo, which I liked for the intricate floor decorations. A parade of a Siena family randomly entered the cathedral and left soon after with the fanfare of drums and whirling, crest-emblazoned flags. Apparently all the main families have parades every week and it’s completely normal. Oh Italy.

Siena

The Duomo of Siena

Inside the Duomo

I love a good ceiling.

Back at the hostel I hung out with a new group of Canadians. Despite giving me a very hard time about being a Boston Bruins fan (who beat the Vancouver Canucks in the Stanley Cup last year) they were friendly and very fun. Most of them had met that evening at the hostel, banding together out of common nationality. They praised Canada in the sweetest way. I mentioned to one guy that he made Canada sound like a wonderland. He said simply, “It is.”

A late night turned into an early morning and I was soon on a train to Cinque Terre.

2 thoughts on “Florence: Land of Gelato and Michelangelo

  1. Pingback: Cinque Terre: Eat, Drink, Tan, Repeat « Travel Ardor

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