Florence – Our Tale of Two Cities

The View from the Giotto's (Bell) Tower
The Duomo in Firenze

 

Unlike Charles Dickens’ 1859 novel “A Tale of Two Cities”, our tale of two cities is technically the same place, Florence.  Hang in there folks, it’ll make sense soon…

 

Florence for us is really two cities.  Florence of 2011 and Florence of 2015.  I’ll stop talking in riddles now and fill you in on the details.

 

The first time we visited Firenze in June of 2011 was in a word, disappointing.  Not so disappointing that it spoiled or trip but enough for us to say ” I don’t need to come back here again.”  There were a number of factors that contributed to our tarnished stay.

  1.  Location. Location. Location.
  2.  Rain
  3.  Mosquitoes and Bedbugs

Location

Picking the right place to stay can make and sometimes break the experience of  your visit.  There are countless numbers of hotels, B&B’s and Monasteries to choose from.

Our Monastery Stay
Istituto Suore di Santa Elisabetta

 

We took the Monastery Stays route for our time in Firenze.  Istituto Suore di Santa Elisabetta is an impressive working monastery located on beautiful tree lined via.  Its rooms are decent sized with high ceilings and ten foot doors.  The stained glass staircase window was a beautiful site we got to see daily as we went to and from our room.  The nuns where very nice  but unfortunately few words of English left their lips.  It made it challenging to get directions but otherwise we made due.

The location was a bit removed from the action for us and we had to walk quite a distance to find somewhere to eat.  Even finding a small market or cafe was a challenge.  If you’re the type that likes taking long walks with your loved one, this probably will be right up your alley.  For us though, facing another long walk to and from the old city in the heat of the day, lost its charm quickly.

 

Most of the Monasteries do have  curfews.  Some as early as 10 pm and others past 11 pm.  Not a problem for us because we were bagged by that time anyway.  Now for those of you that like to howl at the moon late into the night, it’ll no doubt cramp your style.

 

Rain

We timed our visit to Florence at the same time the region was having a period of heavy rains.

A Firenze Thunder Storm
And the Rain Came Down

 

To say we ran into some rain would be an understatement.  It poured!  Normally, I like watching downpours from the comfort and safety of a sheltered cafe while enjoying a hot cappuccino, not scrambling for shelter to escape the thunder and lighting overhead.  We laugh about it now, not so much then.  Fortunately for us, the rain wasn’t constant.  We had our share of sun too.

 

Cappuccino River

The Arno River
The Swollen Arno River in Florence After the Rains

 

Mosquitoes and Bedbugs

It’s a pretty safe bet that when you have hot, humid weather combined with higher than normal spring rains, you will suffer the wrath of the little winged devils also known as mosquitoes.

 

The area that our room at the monastery  was located within a very lush greenbelt.  This beautiful well maintained neighborhood is lined with large mature trees with wide spreading canopies that casts much welcomed shade for travelers looking for relief from the heat of the day.  The problem for us was the little blood suckers love shade too and lay in waiting to ambush anyone that sits still for too long.

We were safe from the  mosquito swarms during the heat of the day but come late evening, the little buggers came out looking for some fine dining on Canadian stock.  Now where the mosquitoes became a real problem was at night while we were laying our heads down for a restful nights sleep.

Now, there is absolutely no way you can fall asleep all snuggled up in your bed, knowing full well that the enemy is lurking in dark just waiting for their chance to feast.  I for one can be in deep REM sleep and still be jolted awake by the high pitched sound of a mosquito buzzing my head.

The unfortunate reality of our room was that there was no air conditioning and the beautiful tall windows we had to cool the space were not equipped with screens.  So, our choices were to either over heating or blood loss.  We went with heat.

 

Bedbugs

Now I won’t harp on this point too long because really, I’m not sure where the attack of these creepy crawlers actual happened so I would never say it was at our Monastery.  That won’t be fair to them.  Since the symptoms from the bedbug bite can show themselves some two weeks after the bites occurred, we just can’t say when they happened.  Unfortunately for Florence 2011 though, the appearance of the itchy red bumps just happened to coincide with our first visit there.

 

Firenze 2011 Summary

Due to a number of unfortunate events and encounters, our impressions of  Florence 2011 fell far short of our first two stops in Roma and Positano.  Had we been closer to the action it may have been a totally different outcome.  As it was, we were happy to leave its city limits vowing never again to spend another night there.  Our motto for Florence became “We Came, We Saw, We Won’t Come Back.”

Now just to put an exclamation mark on the premise of us not caring much for Florence 2011, my wife and 6 year old niece made up a song about their time spent in Firenze during one of our long walks into the city center.  Keep in mind that they were entertaining themselves and it may sound harsh out of context, but it did reflect our mood at the time.  To help you put a melody to the words, use the song Frère Jacques as the tune. So here it is…

 

I hate Florence

I hate Florence

Yes I do …Yes I do

Never gonna come back

Never gonna come back

I hate Florence

I hate Florence

 

 

Fast forward 4 short years….

 

Firenze 2015

The thing about time is, it helps you to forget and re-evaluate previously held ideas.

It took  a few years  for us to concede that we most likely judged our first trip to Florence a bit too harshly.  We realized that we needed to forget the past and start fresh with new plans to see what so many others see in Florence.  So we fired up Google search and began the hunt for accommodations.

 

The Duomo in Firenze
The Duomo in Firenze and our New Point of View

 

A good thing about making mistakes is you can always learn from them.

This time the goal was to find accommodations in the city center near the Duomo and  restaurants.  After checking out the options, we went back to Monastery Stays and found an excellent place a few blocks away from the Duomo.  This alone made a huge difference in our enjoyment of  the revisit to Florence.  Our room was close to shops, cafes, restaurants and historic sites which gave us countless options to experience what Firenze was known for. We weren’t disappointed this time.

 

The best thing about having low expectations of a place is that you always enjoy it more when things turn out so good.

 

The best part of walking down the narrow via of Florence (and most other cities in Italy ) is that you will always come across a piazza sooner or later.  In these piazza’s you can count on finding a ristorante or two.  You can bet on a bar and of course, a gelatoria.  Now, not all ristorante, bars and Gelatoria are created equally.  I’m sure you will find many great gems to visit while you search the lanes.  You can usually take a peek at what other are eating and if they seem to be enjoying the meal or not.

The “best” part of exploring a city is that after walking as much as you do, you can eat plates of pasta, stacks of margherita pizzas and knock back beer and wine like there’s no tomorrow, all the while realizing you haven’t put on any weight!  Sounds like an infomercial doesn’t it?  Truthfully, we did eat well, not obscene amounts, just more than we’d do at home.   I usually had a pasta dish with a Peroni or Moretti beer, or the best pizza ever, the classic Margherita pizza and a beer for our mid-day meal and something equally as delicious for dinner later that evening.  Tammy loved ordering her seafood pasta dishes whenever it appeared on the menu.

Take note, you’ll be hard pressed to find any good ristorante open for serving dinner before 7 pm.  If you are conditioned to your 5 pm suppers at home, practice eating late or keep a granola bar on hand to tide you over, to avoid being very hungry by the time restaurants open for their evening guests.  Don’t settle for sub-par, ready made, reheated pizza intended for starving tourists that just can’t wait.  You will miss out on a great dining experience.

 

 

Enjoying a good meal side street style
Enjoying a Great (late) Meal – Side Street Style

 

What is a meal without the mandatory post meal walk to a gelatoria? NOTHING!

 

Gelato Paradise
The Hard Part was Choosing a Flavor!

 

The evening ritual of taking a long walks along historic lanes which normally ends up at a gelatoria is alive and well among travelers and locals alike.

I will admit, it’s easier to stick to a walking fitness regime knowing a scoop of strawberry (Fragola) or sour cherry (Amarena) is waiting for you at the other end of it.  The great thing about most Italian cities is that there is no shortage of shops offering up these tasty treats.

 

 

Short Walk to the Duomo

 

Our choices for restaurants, cafes and shops improved greatly by taking the time to find accommodations closer to the attractions.

 

Simply Amazing
Cattedrale di Santa Maria del Fiore (The Duomo in Florence)

 

If standing in front of the Duomo doesn’t give you a sense of awe, check your pulse. You may be dead.

Time and time again I pause in wonder at the craftsmanship and artistry of these monuments to God.  We are very grateful to be able to say that we have seen creations like these in person.  Oh sure, the large crowds and long lines surrounding the Duomo can be off putting to some, but not us.  Take the time to pause and really take in the details and artistry of this Church.

 

Beauty is in the Details
Beauty is in the Details

Beauty is in the Details too
Beauty is in the Details too

 

There is a stark contrast between the peaceful flowing Arno river and the frenzied activity of buyers, sellers and window shoppers of gold on the historic Ponte Vecchio that crosses it.

 

 The Arno River flowing through Florence and under the Ponte Vecchio
River Cruising on the Arno by the Ponte Vecchio

 

The narrow lanes and streets that weave all throughout the old city are in a word, congested.

It  is easy to see that these roads were not intended to host the millions of tourists.  The flood of humans  clog these little streets every year.  I get a kick out of the taxis, cyclists and people all trying to squeeze their way by one another.  This dance is all done on roads which are not much more than double wide sidewalk in North America.  At first glance it looks chaotic but soon you see they have a method to the madness that helps them navigate through it all.

 

As travelers and tourists it’s up to us to to be aware of our surroundings when walking these narrow streets.

 

It’s important to watch yourself as you blissfully stroll along the picturesque streets and lanes. Do not become part of the camera toting zombie hoards which really cause traffic flow issues for motorists and cyclists.  It’s all too easy to step off the sidewalks on to the roadway to go around slow moving foot traffic. This however, is where the potential for injury can happen.

 

Watch out for the cyclists in Florence
Silent Assassins

 

Enter “The Silent Assassins”

Watch out for cyclists.  They are everywhere and they are in a hurry.   With all of the sounds being created by crowds and machines, it’s incredibly hard to hear these stealthy riders.  It’s exceptionally startling as they whiz past and maneuver around you.   This is why I affectionately refer to them as “The Silent Assassins”.  One wrong move by either party and you’re down!

 

So, with that said, make sure you shoulder check before stepping off the sidewalk.   No one likes tending to injuries on holidays.  

 

Final Words

The Florence of 2011 and Florence of 2015  experiences couldn’t have been much more opposite for us in many ways. I am very happy that we weren’t so rigid about never returning to Firenze based solely on our first stay. We would have missed out on having another great Italian experience in another great Italian destination.  We know unexpected things can happen to all of us on vacation.  It’s how you choose to react to them that will define the memories of your adventure.

 

We have adopted a motto to live by when we travel around Italy, “Just Roll With It.”  

 

 

 

 

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