Florence as a Quick Get-Away
by Jan Gordon
I was lucky enough to be invited to a family wedding in Tuscany in June this year. At first I wasn’t overjoyed to be planning my first Italy non-business trip in early June, as I was afraid of the post-Memorial Day flood of Americans heading to Europe. Besides, I had always envisioned my Italy holiday as a September vacation in a villa rented with 2 or 3 other couples…a real Tuscan house party.
When my husband and I started thinking more earnestly about the wedding of our niece, we decided to add a few days onto the front side of the June 2nd wedding and make a long weekend city-break in Florence. Neither of us had ever been to Florence, so the prospect of 4 days in this Mecca of Renaissance art seemed perfect, and the wedding site was in a Tuscan hillside town halfway between Florence and Arezzo in Eastern Tuscany.
We got around to making air reservations long after all the frequent flier seats on the major carriers were gone, taken, nada. Although Alitalia has a direct flight from Boston to Milan, I was really hoping to save some money on the high season air fares with at least one free ticket. It ended up working out to use American Express points to get a Swiss Air companion ticket rather than a frequent flier ticket…both are free with points, but the companion ticket requires buying one ticket at listed price and using only 25,000 points for the companion ticket. This was a much better deal than using 60,000 points for a frequent flier seat on Alitalia, which didn’t have any seats available anyway. That’s the story behind how we ended up flying to Zurich, then the ½ hour flight over the snow-capped Alps to Milan.
The flying was easy, and the modern, pristine Zurich airport is even better than Denver. The hang-ups started in Malpensa Airport outside Milan. Luggage took forever to come; we couldn’t find the ATM to get money in Euro’s; signage of transport to Milano Centrale train station where we were taking the Eurostar to Florence were misleading; the train station was under construction, filthy, teeming with people, and disorienting (it didn’t help that we were sleep deprived from an overnight flight); we took seats on the wrong car of the first class section. By the time the train took off with us in the correct seats we were grumpy and tired. I started wishing we had sprung for Milan/Florence air travel instead of the train. Then it happened: Italian Food.
Nothing sets the tone of Italy as perfectly as Italian food. (See our additional article, You Can’t Get a Bad Meal in Italy). It turns out that the first class Eurostar has a gourmet restaurant car where we scored a usually pre-reserved table for two. Balancing adroitly in a narrow aisle of a speeding train, our Eurostar waitress served a multi-course lunch (pasta, wine, beef and arugula, wine, chocolate torte, espresso, finish off the wine) at a leisurely pace while hurtling 130 miles per hour. With palates sated and the grumpies banished, we napped in comfortable first class loungers the rest of the way through the Italian countryside till we reached Firenze at about 4:00 PM. We were off to a good start!
Our WIMCO trip advisor, Glennie, had strongly recommended we stay at the Hotel Sofitel right in the heart of Florence. Only a short walk from the train station, we rolled our suitcases the four blocks to the hotel rather than attempt a taxi…Florence is primarily a pedestrian city, with limited car mobility only on designated congested streets. It is a much better idea to be without a car in Florence than to try to drive into this walking town and deal with parking. The Sofitel is small, friendly, and intimate….an Engish speaking staff greeted us and showed us to an elegant, high-ceilinged, well appointed room with Sofitel-standard modern marble bathroom. Another note for travelers: European bedding rarely approaches American “king size” or even “queen size” beds, so we had ordered two twin beds, which is the key to achieving a king size sleeping arrangement in Italy. They were side by side under one upholstered headboard, so we were perfectly comfortable but suitably connected in sleeping configuration. After a recovery nap and bath, we ventured out in the early evening, map in hand, to discover Florence right outside the Sofitel doors.
Like Lemmings we followed our noses and the crowds on the sidewalk past enticing shopfronts, round a bend in the road, and wow, there it was. High, massive, overwhelming its environs, the Duomo of the Santa Maria del Fiore with its green and white marble façade, dominating bell tower, ornate Baptistry and Brunelleschi’s vast gold dome is breathtaking. In the piazza that encompasses the Duomo and baptistry a whole world of street theatre, tour groups, retail hawkers, outdoor restaurants, and meandering cyclists chaotically wove among each other to create early evening chaos. As the Duomo and Campanile (belltower) were closed for the evening, we decided to meander through central Florence’s pedestrian alleyways in search of dinner. After a thoroughly delightful dinner, we window-shopped up the main Via dei Calzaiuoli past designer shops, independent fashion and leather boutiques, gelati shops, Florentine paper specialty stores, and the obligatory cell phone outlets toward the Palazzo Vecchio’s proud statuary, the nighttime Uffizi Gallery, and the Arno River. Without turning to our map, we “felt” the Ponte Vecchio’s pull to all who were out walking in the full moon evening. With its jewelry stalls closed like turtles into their shells, the “Old Bridge” nonetheless was alive with walkers, lovers, families, students, and musicians. We shared a magical moment at the crest of the bridge where the shops open up to an arched terrace looking up the Arno toward Fort Belvedere on the hillside and the Boboli Gardens beneath the fort. The full moon on the river and hillside had created a majestic light illuminating some statues in the distant gardens. At this very moment a street musician on the bridge was playing “Bridge Over Troubled Water”on acoustic guitar to an approving and attentive crowd of students and lovers. It was one of those “connected” moments in travel when who you are, who you are with, and where you both are visiting on the planet purr harmonically.