Monday, December 24, 2012

Florence

Florence. Duomo. Basilica of Santa Maria del Fiore.Florence left a very nice, lasting impression. When we were getting to this Renaissance town by train, we learned that its Italian name is Firenze, and somehow it stuck with us. So Firenze was nice. The center of the city with its narrow cobblestone streets, red-roofed old buildings, absolutely surreal Duomo, dreamy-looking tourists was just what I expected it to be and more.

Little streets of Florence.Upon our arrival, we took a bus to the hotel. Danya asked hotel’s stuff in advance for directions, so we knew what bus and in what direction to take. It was a smooth ride, although the bus was pretty crowded. On one of the stops bus driver did not open the door for a pair of shabby-looking gypsies, who cursed and spat on the bus in retaliation, and to be honest I was rather relieved that we did not have to worry about our luggage since these people would be practically hugging us if they went in. We decided to take a taxi for our next ride with luggage when it would be time to leave.

Hilton Garden Inn Florence Novoli. Our room.We were staying in Hilton Garden Inn. It was located in a quiet neighborhood and had a view on an interesting-looking newly-built living complex and a huge green field. The room was big and clean, the stuff was friendly, and breakfasts were as good as one can expect them to be.

Basilica of Santa Maria del Fiore.Since we arrived mid-day, we’ve decided not to waste the remainder of the evening and start exploring. We took a 15-minute bus ride to the city-center, and in a few minutes of walking we got to Duomo. I was absolutely stunned by its beauty. It looked like it was not built by humans, but came from a fairy-tale and was conjured up by some magical creatures. The facade, which is made from red, white and green marble, is so delicate, so delightfully gentle for such a massive cathedral, that we could not take our eyes away from it for a while.

Firenze. View from Uffizi Gallery.As with most Italian churches, it took hundreds of years to build this work of art, and it felt special to be there and to be able to see it with our own eyes. Pictures just don’t do it justice, and for me this particular place was one of the most memorable from the whole trip.

Climbing to the top took 414 steps.We took stairs to the top of Giotto’s Campanile — a tower adjacent to La Cattedrale di Santa Maria del Fiore. Now, there are over 400 steps, so it might not seem as an easy climb, but in reality it was more than manageable and I would recommend it for anyone. The beauty is that you don’t have to climb the whole thing at once — there are numerous watching points where people can admire the views and get a short break. I am actually very happy that elevator was not an option — getting to the top on foot made the whole experience more satisfying. I guess, it’s a human nature — we have a greater appreciation of things which require more effort.

Florence. View from the top of Giotto’s Campanile.The view from the cathedral was quite lovely. The sea of red roofs, the mountains on the horizon, the greying sky… I tried to take in the sense of tranquility which being there on top brought.

Cellini’s Perseus.After getting down, we walked around a bit. We stopped at Piazza della Signoria — a squire by the entrance to the famous Uffizi Gallery. It had a few very famous statues, including fountain of Neptune, Cellini’s Perseus, Bandinelli’s Hercules and Cacus. It also had a reproduction of The David, and if we did not know any better, we could have confused it with the real thing. As for the real David, we never got to see him actually. We kind of planned to, but got so overfed with art after visiting Uffizie Gallery, that we decided to skip it this time around.

Piazza della Signoria.I have to be honest, many of these statues are fascinating and disturbing to me at the same time. What went on in the minds of artists who created them? What inspired them? Why did they choose certain subjects?

Duomo.We felt increasingly more hungry as the day was turning into a chilly fall night. Before our vacation, people who’ve been to Firenze kept saying that we have to try a Florentine beefsteak. I personally am not a fan of steaks, and rarely order beef when we go out, but in this case I was very curious. We started to look for a restaurant which has it on the menu, and to our delight all respectable-looking places seemed to have it.

Evening in Florence.There was only one issue — our timing was off! It was around 4:30 p.m. and every fancy-looking trattoria we checked was closed. All of them were supposed to be open for dinner in 1.5-2 hours, so we had little choice but to keep walking around like a pair of lost puppies.

Night in Florence.Also, before coming to Florence, I’ve heard a lot of good things about Italian ice-cream, or gelato. We stopped in some random place, and I got a pistachio one. I used to be a huge ice-cream lover, but in the last year or so ice-cream lost its appeal and just does not taste as good as before (am I getting old?). So I was hoping that gelatos will revamp ice-cream image for me. This did not happen in this place — it was so mediocre, that I barely finished my portion.

The proper gelato.However, when we got to the hotel I did a bit of research, and figured out that the place we picked was not very good. For one thing, my gelato was too green, which suggests artificial coloring and overall subpar quality. The next day, armed with this new knowledge, we picked a better place, and gelato was extremely tasty. I would totally buy from them again! Also, what I did not know the first day is that you can ask to combine a few flavors together, but in the future we did just that. I got wild berry and mascarpone flavors combination, and Danya got mandarin and strawberry one. The sales lady let me try a pistachio one as well, and it was delicious too.

Trattoria ZaZa.Anyhow, back to our first night in Firenze. After a disappointing gelato break, we kept walking around and stumbled upon a restaurant, which was actually recommended to Danya by one of his colleagues. It is called ZaZa. We were in luck — it was open and had a Florentine beefsteak on the menu! We ordered artichokes as an appetizer, and they were heavenly! We only ordered one main meal since apparently no-one sells it in portions smaller than 1 kg. Who on earth can eat this much meat in one setting? Seriously, it’s enough beef to sustain a small village for a week, but we had no choice if we wanted to indeed try it.

Bistecca alla Florentine.Another thing about steak is that both of us prefer it to be medium well done, but the waitress suggested that we should order it medium, and that’s what we did. Huge mistake. It was too red inside, and neither of us liked this. We cut pieces of brown meat from the top, but for the most part we could not eat it. Potatoes on the side were delicious though! I still don’t understand what’s so special about this meal — in my opinion, American chain restaurants offer much more tender and flavorful steaks. And it can’t come even close to cobe beef that we’ve tried in Japan (150 grams to share at quadruple the price). We also got some Prosecco wine, which to our surprise turned out to be sparkling wine. We liked it and ordered it a few times more during our vacation.

Streets of Florence.After dinner we got to the hotel and peacefully slept some insane amount of hours again. One of the things that I loved about this vacation is getting lots of sleep. I don’t know when I’ll be able to sleep so much again, but whatever, Aroshka is totally worth it!

Tourists. Central part of Florence.Next day was Monday, and museums in Florence were closed. We knew it in advance, and planned a day trip to Pisa and surrounding areas. We’ll write about our little trip in a separate post.

Duomo.And then we had all Tuesday to explore Firenze some more. We knew that we wanted to go to The Uffizi Gallery and maybe The Accademia Gallery if we’d feel up to it. As I previously wrote, the latter did not happen, since in my opinion a person can only process a limited amount of art in one setting, and my head was already spinning after seeing what The Uffizi had to offer.

Uffizi Gallery.We read that there are always lines to the Uffizi Gallery, since it’s one of the oldest and most famous art museums in the world. It was our hope though that since it was off-season, we’ll get lucky. And so we did — no line at all!

Streets of Florence.I’ll be honest, neither Danya nor I know a lot about art, but we still saw paintings which we were able to identify. The most familiar to me were The Birth of Venus and Spring by Botticelli, Venus of Urbino by Becellio, Annunciation by Da Vinci. It was pleasant to see so many famous works of art with our own eyes. As in Vatican, I particularly enjoyed looking at all the Madonnas with children icons and paintings. There is a different quality to those women, a different vision of a different time. Many of them are so calm, relaxed, even dreamy, yet there is often sadness in their gazes. I often feel as if they look at me and tell me that they’ve seen it all, and life is beautiful, and life is sad, and life is short, and life is eternal.

Ponte Vecchio Bridge.After spending over two hours at Uffizi Gallery we just decided to take it easy. We walked around Firenze, ate some gelato, went window-shopping on a famous Ponte Vecchio Bridge, got a cappuccino, checked some clothing and food shops.

Gnocchi with Truffle at Osteria Dell Agnolo.What caught our eyes in many stores were products with truffles — truffle olive oil, truffle spread, truffle risotto mix, truffle-infused Parmesan cheese. We actually bought some of those for ourselves and as gifts, and then decided that it will be a good idea to eat something truffle-ish for dinner.

Alena. Florence.We started checking menus of different restaurants and finally decided on Osteria Dell Agnolo. We got bruschetta for an appetizer (and our waiter corrected our pronunciation — apparently “ch” should sound like “k”), and it was very good. And for main courses we got truffle risotto and gnocchi with truffle. Both meals had that rich distinctive smell, and both of them tasted delicious. We washed the food down with half a liter of house red wine, which was also very good.

Old Firenze.Before coming to Florence, Danya heard from people that it’s possible to find nice leather goods in Florence (although he read online that most tourist-oriented shops have low quality stuff). He wanted to get a leather-banded journal in particular, but we did not see anything worthy. Either they were made from faux leather, or the styling was not that great.

Streets of Florence. And Daniel.While looking for the journal, we stumbled upon a stationary store, Il Papiro, which sells hand-made paper products — post cards, boxes, calendars, blank books. Danya really liked the idea of a person putting so much work into simple things, so we bought him and his dad nice journals. They are pricey, but as they say — you get what you pay for.

Florence. Central part.After dinner we just went back to the hotel, packed our bags and went to sleep pretty early again. Milan awaited!

Florence. By the river.
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