The Food, Fun, and Foibles of a First-Time Europe Traveler

Florence

Florence Day 2: No Fotos!

Sculptures Galore.

After the disappointment of the night before, Hanna and I arose determined to have a great second day in Florence. She headed to the “breakfast” that our hotel provided and returned with a single, packaged apricot “cake”. Apparently they ran out of croissants and orange juice, so that was all that remained. Needless to say, we headed to the market to pick out some breakfast and, while we were at it, some stuff for lunch.

It was a Saturday morning, so the market was incredibly crowded. It took me a while to realize, but everybody in the market besides us was over 65 years old. It looked like they were picking out food for dinner, as they crowded and pushed in the vegetable aisles.

Hanna and I picked up some Pecorino cheese (a Florentine specialty), some salami, and some prosciutto that the guy at the deli sliced for us. We also picked up some foccaccia bread and a couple of pieces of fruit.

In line, we saw the old man’s cart in front of us and it made us extremely jealous. He had a full spread of sausages, squash blossoms, tomatoes…anything you can imagine. Hanna leaned over to me and whispered, “Forget the restaurant…we should ask this guy if we can eat at his house tonight!”

After the market we picked up a couple of pastries and Hanna had a cappuccino at a pastry shop down the street (3 euro total…Italy is much cheaper than Paris and Switzerland).

Next it was off to the world famous Uffizi Gallery. There was a huge line, so we paid a little extra to get advance tickets and had to come back in about 45 minutes. While we waited we sat outside the museum next to a slew of street performers. Most of them were “statues” that didn’t get much attention, but one guy in particular was cleaning up.

He was dressed as Cupid, only he was an old, fat man. He had the full makeup, complete with wings and a bow and arrow. Hanna and I couldn’t believe that people would pay to have their picture taken with this guy. His clientele was mostly women, and when they would come up he would caressingly wrap his hands around their faces and give them a big kiss on the cheek (sometimes more). It was really creepy but incredibly popular. He must have had 10 customers in the 30 minutes we were waiting there, taking in at least 3 euro per picture. That’s a lot of pastries and cappuccinos.

We finally got into the Uffizi and Hanna and I were both pretty underwhelmed. It’s not that the collection wasn’t impressive, it’s just that Medieval and Renaissance art doesn’t particularly appeal to either of us. It was very repetitive: a picture of Jesus on the cross, a picture of Mary and baby Jesus, a depiction of a scene from a Greek myth, a statue of a Greek God, etc.

We had to commend them, however, on their gift shops. In order to exit, you have to walk through no less than 10 separate gift shops. If we had any money to spend, we definitely would have been suckered in.

After exiting, we ate our lunch outside and then headed to the Accademia, the home of Michelangelo’s David. We debated whether we wanted to pay to see one statue (the rest of the museum didn’t boast much), especially considering that there is a replica just outside the Uffizi that is pretty much identical. But we figured we couldn’t go to Florence and not see the David, so we went inside.

We were immediately glad that we did; the statue is much more impressive in person. I would show you pictures, but there was a vigilant staff of women who would immediately shout “No Fotos!” and run up and put their hands in front of whoever had unsheathed their camera.

The statue is a lot larger than I ever imagined, and there is something about the pose that makes it appealing. We learned (perhaps we should have known this) that it was a depiction of David from the Bible (I always thought it was his model/boyfriend named David), and it is supposed to be him after he has slain the giant Goliath. He holds a rock in one hand and that thing over his shoulder is his sling (I always thought it was his pants).

The Accademia also had an exhibition about “The Triumph of Love” that we checked out. It was basically a series of depictions of women in art of the 15th, 16th, and 17th centuries. Nothing we hadn’t seen before, but below each painting there was an explanation of the story depicted and its historical context. It made the exhibit much more interesting and educational. There was even a video by modern American artist Cindy Sherman (I remember see her on a field trip to an L.A. museum in high school…it was a bunch of pictures of women lying on linoleum floors…very modern). It was called “Doll Clothes” and it was basically a series of photos turned into a movie depicting a “doll” picking out clothes then having them ripped off by a giant hand and having others placed forcibly on her. Although out of place, it tied into the whole depiction of women in art thing, so it was pretty cool. I felt like I enjoyed the exhibition much more than anything at the Uffizi. I guess as a guy who’s not really into art, it’s important for me to have some context when I look at a painting.

After that we went into our dinner search. We decided to go back to the more residential area across the river where we were staying, hoping that we would get away from the more touristy restaurants. We picked out a small one, but when we went in they were all booked up for the night. Good sign (or maybe not given last night’s experience), but disappointing. We went to another, larger place. Booked until 10:30. At this point Hanna got extremely annoyed and nearly gave up our search for our great Italian restaurant.

I talked her into trying one last place, a tiny restaurant that we’d passed on our daily walks the past two days. We went into the empty restaurant (there was one other couple) and crossed our fingers when we asked if we could have a table. The waitress called out the chef/owner, a spindly early-30s looking man with long, stringy hair, a full beard, and tattoos on each arm. He looked through his book, made a pained face, and finally told his waitress to seat us at the smallest table in the place, right next to the cash register. This was clearly an “emergencies only” table, as one seat was simply a bar stool, but we were extremely grateful.

Neither the chef/owner or the waitress spoke English…a very good sign, and they finally brought out another waitress to talk to us who spoke a little bit of broken English (they struggled to translate “truffle” and actually brought one out of the kitchen to ask if Hanna wanted it on top of her appetizer). That appetizer was, of course, Hanna’s favorite cheese: burrata. Truffles are another favorite of hers, so obviously she got them on top. Out came a huge ball of burrata, more than I’d ever seen in one place in my entire life.

She took one bite and I finally saw that smile on her face. We had finally found our true Italian restaurant. She gobbled it up, savoring every bite, and I gave her a bite of my chicche (kind of like gnocchi) in a gorgonzola pear sauce. As the place filled up we realized, as we suspected, that we were the only non-Italians in the restaurant. Bingo.

The entrees (or secondi) were just as good. I got a beef carpaccio with arugula and pecorino cheese. Hanna couldn’t understand anything on the menu besides burrata, so she looked at what the Italian guy next to us and pulled a page from When Harry Met Sally, “I’ll have what he’s having.”

Luckily the guy had good taste and Hanna had a delicious pasta that we forgot to take the name of. Our meal was paired with a great red wine (the chef/owner came out and picked it based on what we ordered), and we left more than satisfied.

The next day we were off to Rome, the home of peddlers, pickpockets, and something called the Colosseum.

 


Florence Day 1: No Writing on the Walls

Not bad.

We took the early train (there was a strike on the Italian trains, surprise surprise, so we figured we’d try to get the early one) at 7:29 to Florence. The train was nice, and we connected in Spiez, Switzerland, and then again in Milan. At the train station in Milan I was treated to my first Italian pizza (even the train station pizza was pretty good), and I got a glimpse of the fashion sense of Italian women…and men.

We got to the train station in Florence, and I immediately led us in the wrong direction. What should have been a 20 minute walk ended up taking us about an hour, but we did get to “scout out” our trip for the next day by walking through the heart of the city…I always have a plan.

We finally got to our hostel, the incredibly modern “Youth Hostel Firenze 2000”! We received plenty of instructions, then headed into our rooms to get off our feet for a while. Since we arrived so early, we figured we’d head into town and see some sights. We went into the Dumo, a huge Cathedral that was a far cry from the Gothic churches we saw in France. It was elaborately painted with vibrant colors and unique patterns. Definitely nice to see something different.

On top of the Duomo

Once inside, we walked 463 spiral stairs to the top, the last of which were so steep that we basically were walking vertically. When we finally got to the top we got to enjoy this view. It was kind of underwhelming after coming from Interlaken, but still a great view of the city. It seems like everywhere we go we end up overlooking the city at some high point. Interesting.

The interesting thing about the Duomo is that everyone insists on writing on the walls. So much so that there are signs that warn, “Do Not Write on the Walls!”. As a result, you end up with clever graffiti like this, and writing on every wall. Very strange.

Aren't you clever?

At the top on the inside, we got a clear view of the dome and the fresco on top of it. Once again we got a stark reminder of what happens to you if you go to Hell. Apparently it’s not fun.

We left and scoped out places for dinner. Hanna was on a mission to find an “off the beaten path” restaurant, which was difficult in the heart of Florence. She had strict criteria for what qualified:

  • It couldn’t be near a hotel
  • It couldn’t have a sign (at least not a prominent one)
  • There couldn’t be anything but Italians eating there
  • The menu couldn’t have any English on it

Eventually we stumbled upon one, through the back alleys, called “Latine.” When we got there at 6:30 pm, of course they weren’t open for dinner yet. Dinner in Italy doesn’t start until 7:30. We saw the owner, an old fat Italian guy, and he said we could come back at 7:30 and he’d have a table for us. Hanna was excited. It was a tiny dining room with prosciutto hanging from the ceiling…a real Italian place.

So we grabbed a drink and wasted an hour until we finally headed back. When we got there, there was a line out the door. “This is good,” we thought, “this is very good.” We were afraid that with all the people waiting to get in, there was no way the owner would remember us and/or give us a table. Hanna tried desperately to get his attention until finally he glanced our way and told us to come in. As he seated us he smiled and said, “I remember you!” We thanked him and reveled in the feeling of importance we got from being ushered in by the owner.

As we waited for the antipasti, we noticed something strange. The couple next to us was speaking Italian, but there was a group of six 20-something Americans next to us asking whether they could drink all of the house wine on the table. We looked around and noticed more non-Italians.

They brought out the antipasti and it was good…not great. Prosciutto, mortadella, and something that tasted head cheese. Then came the real trouble. There were no menus, and the waiter came by and asked us what we wanted for our second course, “soup or pasta.” Um.

Turns out they had a choice of two soups and three pastas, and when we ordered them they were brought out no more than five minutes later. Clearly this was a pre-fabricated meal and there were big vats of each dish waiting in the back for us.

I saw the look of disappointment creep over Hanna’s face, and when he came around asking us, “you want meat?” we politely declined. We left, disappointed, and determined to find our true Italian restaurant the next day.