For our first trip of spring, we decided to bail out of still-wintry Luxembourg and return to Florence for the first time since studying abroad together as 20 year-old college students from Ohio. We woke up before dawn on Friday and jumped on the first flight out of Lux to Milan. The flight to Milan always jolts and rocks over the Alps, so while Erin was in a drug-induced nap, Dave was doing deep breathing exercises and filming the crags below as we chopped the air in our propeller plane at 24,000 feet.
We landed in Milan around 8am and took the airport express train to the Milano Centrale train station, where we hopped on a 2-hour train direct into Firenze Santa Maria Novella. We booked first class train tickets and enjoyed cushy leather seats, drinks and snacks while watching the rolling hills of Tuscany pass by. Upon arriving in Florence, we navigated to our small hotel, which was housed in a Renaissance-era Florentine palace, complete with towering ceilings and peeling frescoes. We stayed in the "Clarice" suite which featured a pink and teal motif and massive sitting area. We took a few minutes to enjoy our surroundings before hitting the streets.
Bell Tower Climb
We were thrilled to be back in Florence after 13 years, so our plan for day 1 was to hit all of the major sites and to regather our bearings. We started by climbing Giotto's 14th century bell tower to take in views of the entire city as well as the rolling hills of Tuscany. We sprinted up 84 meters to the top of the red, white and green marble structure. The clear, sunny skies allowed us to view in detail the various churches, outdoor sculptures and architectural wonders dotted throughout the town. From the bell tower, we walked around the famous Duomo church and into the famous octagonal baptistery, which was built starting in 1059. A mob gathered around its intricate bronze doors and extravagant gold mosaic ceilings that served as the place of baptism for many a notable Florentine, including Dante and members of the Medici family.
Piazza della Signoria
After hitting the baptistery, we headed one square over to the Piazza della Signoria, which includes the 14th century Medici stronghold called the Palazzo Vecchio and a sculpture garden showcasing a copy of the David as well as Erin's favorite sculpture called "the Rape of the Sabines." After taking time to admire the Renaissance sculptures, we strolled down to the river to admire the famous Ponte Vecchio - a medieval stone bridge across the Arnor lined with jewelry shops. We walked along the river for romantic views and then decided to take a lunch break.
For our first meal in Florence, we weaved through crowds to the newly renovated Mercato Centrale. The market dates back to the Renaissance era and features vendors selling fruits, vegetables, meat, fish and Tuscan specialties such as olive oil, sun dried tomatoes and fresh pasta on the first floor. The upper floor is filled with local food vendors selling ready-to-eat food such as wood-fired pizzas, truffle antipasto plates, home made pastas, cannoli, prosciutto and arancini. We selected a cheese-free veggie pizza with spinach, broccoli, egg, and anchovies paired with a local Chianti.
After lunch, we passed quickly through the various leather shops surrounding the market and then headed back for an afternoon nap. We awoke just after sunset and headed out on the town. Luckily, we arrived just in time for spring weather and it was still in the mid 60s after the sun set. We walked through the main squares of town and intentionally got lost wandering the streets. We'd heard about a local restaurant that made a killer wood-fired truffle artichoke omelette lazily found it, only to find out that it was completely booked and wasn't open the rest of the weekend. The disappointment was temporary however, as we stepped into an osteria next door and enjoyed sea bass over fresh linguine, seafood risotto and fresh asparagus, along with a local red. We stumbled home and passed out, knowing we'd have to wake up early to beat the crowds to climb up the famous duomo in the morning.
Saturday morning we were able to get only one ticket reserved to climb Brunelleschi's famous dome, dating from the 1400s. Our reservation was set for 8:30 am, and by the time we arrived after scarfing down soft boiled eggs and tea delivered to our room, the line to climb the dome stretched half-way around the church. Because we were only able to score one ticket, we planned ahead to sweet talk the guard taking tickets to sneak in before peak time. We waited about 20 minutes and Erin gave her best innocent American smile as she flashed the ticket and we made it through.
In order to access the viewing platform at the top of what was the largest and tallest dome ever built at the time, we climbed very narrow steep stairs within the inner wall of the church. From there, we inched along a 2 foot wide inner ring at the base of the dome, overlooking the church floor more than 100 feet below. Erin's fear of ledges had her clinging to the wall as the line of people slowly moved along the narrow ledge to the next set of stairs cased within the wall of the dome. We scaled steep stairs between the inner shell of the dome and the famous orange-hued exterior and finally made it to the top. From the highest point in Florence, we had birds-eye views of Florence, Tuscany, Giotto's bell tower and the David replica a few squares over. We took a few minutes to appreciate the view and Erin revelled in the personal accomplishment of making it up to the top, which she failed to do in 2004 due to her ledge phobia.
Next, we headed to the famous Uffizi Gallery and checked out the Botticellis, Michelangelos, DaVincis and works from the other Renaissance masters. Erin was enraptured with the facial features and ethereal dresses on Botticelli's "Primavera" and felt jealous of women painted more than half a century ago. We spent hours wandering the halls of the former Medici building and appreciating the transition from flat medieval art to three-dimensional life-like Renaissance works. All that art worked up an appetite, so we headed back to the Central Market to share wood-fired pizza, vegetarian burgers, roesemary-roasted potatoes, wine and juice.
We took another afternoon break and then embarked on a long walk across the river to the Gould Institute, where we lived when we studied art, film and travel journalism during the summer of 2004. We walked into the former orphanage and took a look at the simple lobby we remembered instantly. Erin approached the proprietor and asked to look around - he instantly remembered the Miami University study abroad program and our professors. He joyfully shared fond memories of the Miami students. He allowed us in to the private areas where we located our old dorm room, classrooms and the kitchen where Erin first learned to appreciate wine. it was very surreal to return after so long, and we felt a bittersweet nostalgia.
Pitti palace - Piazzale Michelangelo
After the Gould, we headed to the Pitti palace, the former home of the ruling Medici family. Once Dave laid his eyes on the jagged rock foundation, he couldn't resist bouldering up the exterior walls. Within 30 seconds, he was scolded firmly in Italian by a passing cyclist, but he continued his ascent and reached the top. After visiting the Pitti, we picked up a bottle of wine and hiked up to a viewpoint outside of town to watch the sunset. Like Trocadero Square in Paris, the Piazzale Michelangelo is the place in Florence where tourists and locals alike gather to watch the sunset, drink wine and be merry. We sat outside and took in the views of Florence from its old city walls all the way into the Dome dominating the city center. As the sun set we witnessed two marriage proposals, one gay and one straight, and we enjoyed joining in the standing ovations greeting each couple. Just as the sun set, a rainstorm came so we hurriedly headed back into town for dinner at La Giostra.
Twenty years ago, a Hapsburg prince known for having lavish dinner parties decided to open up a Florence restaurant, and since then La Giostra has been serving both classic and inventive Florentine dishes. Celebrities have frequented La Giostra since its opening. Upon arrival, we were greeted with a glass of prosecco and a plate of antipasto. As we were browsing the menu, we spoke with a Texan family seated next to us and spent the rest of the evening sharing travel stories and talking football while we feasted on pear and pecorino ravioli, seafood pasta, roasted sea bass, garlic spinach, Chianti and a decadent dessert - all to classic 90s songs from artists like Pearl Jam and Radiohead. We ran home in the rain and fell asleep full and tipsy.
For our last day, we decided to head out of town into the hills of Tuscany to escape the crowds, take in nature and enjoy sweeping views of Florence. Just like we had done nearly 13 years earlier, we hopped on the number 7 bus from San Marco square and rode up into the hills, stopping frequently to pick up locals on their way to the market. We started by climbing the steep hill up from the town square to the San Francesco monastery. The first time we visited, we were lucky enough to hear monks chanting and singing from inside the centuries-old stone walls. This time, we went inside to visit the old monks' chambers and were stunned by their tiny size and simplicity. We also hung around to hear a bit of Sunday mass and shook hands with locals saying "pace" - kind of like "peace be with you, and also with you" in English-speaking churches.
From there, we spent a good hour exploring local trails with views across the valley dotted with cypress trees and just hanging out enjoying the sunshine and our surroundings. Eventually, we hoofed it back down to the base of the hill and bought homemade foccacia and chocolate from the Sunday market, which we enjoyed on our bus ride back into town.
After arriving back in Florence, we made a beeline for the Accademia gallery, home to some of the world's most famous sculptures, including Michelangelo's David. We entered from a long hall and were mesmerized approaching the towering 17 foot figure from afar. We learned that Michelangelo created the sculpture when he was only 26 years old and that it was originally intended to sit atop the church, but it was so perfect (and so heavy) that it was instead displayed in the main square until the 1800's when it was replaced by a replica and moved indoors. After taking in the masterpiece and other iconic Renaissance paintings and sculptures, we grabbed a quick bite, picked up our bags, and headed to the train station.
For the next 6 hours, we trained from Florence to Milan (which was delayed and uncomfortable due to our seat mates who smelled like a thousand cigarettes and removed their shoes and placed their socks on the armrests). Then we trained from Milan train station to airport. With only 10 minutes to spare, we ran Home Alone-style through the airport, finally boarding our flight back to Luxembourg. We arrived home just before midnight Sunday night.
Although it was a quick trip, it was awesome to go back to the place where our love of Europe really started. We enjoyed beautiful nature, classic art and delicious food and wine. Next up, hiking the famous five towns of Cinque Terre on the rugged Italian Riviera.
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