What Italy lacks in physical size, the country more than makes up for with the rich and ancient history that permeates the streets of its cities and the people living within them. Ruins of the once great Roman civilization can be found right next to contemporary office buildings and homes. People stop for an afternoon espresso under the shadow of the Colosseum and in Florence, sip on a glass of grappa after an amazing meal, with the Duomo illuminated behind them. The songs of gondoliers echo off the walls of St. Mark’s Basilica in Venice. Remnants of the past are seemingly around every corner.
In 2009 my wife Destiny and I traveled to Italy. We spent three days in Rome, two in Florence, one day in Pisa and three in Venice. Nine days; a whirlwind trip whose tale begins in Rome and now continues with a train ride to Florence and two magical days in my favorite city…
The Rome Termini train station is busy. People are in a hurry as they rush from here to there. Businesspeople carry briefcases and the daily edition of the paper. Tourists are laden with luggage. Parents wrangle their small children. It is an organized chaos. We find our platform and wait, but not for long. The sound of metal screeching announces the arrival of our high speed train as it pulls into the station. We find two open seats and as the train lurches forward we are excited about the next chapter in our adventure.
After leaving Rome’s city limits the countryside opens up into the rolling hills of Tuscany. It’s a short ride to Florence, a little less than two hours. We spend some of that time with our noses in our Lonely Planet book, coming up with a loose itinerary of places to visit and things to see. Before I know it we are pulling into the Firenze Santa Maria Novella railway station.
There is a steady rain as we walk the stone streets of the city towards our hotel. Like in Rome, we throw our packs on the bed without opening them and return to the damp chilliness to start our exploration of this ancient city. The first stop is a small restaurant down a narrow alleyway. We are in luck as they are still open even though it is time for riposo, a common practice even to this day, where museums, churches, shops and restaurants close during midday so that owners can return home for a long lunch and rest. It is not unlike the Spanish siestas where quality of life is just as important as making a living. The owners welcome us inside and seat us to a marvelous, hearty meal in the warm, wooden confines of their establishment. We are full, happy and ready to continue on but not before promising to return for a dinner before we leave for Venice.
The rain has lightened slightly, but there are still people hurrying under umbrellas to whatever destinations lies ahead of them. We walk to the Ponte Vecchio, a medieval stone bridge that spans the Arno River which splits the city. There is a bronze bust of Benvenuto Cellini, commemorating the sculptor and master goldsmith from Florence, atop a fountain on the bridge and affixed to the railings surrounding it are hundreds of padlocks. It is an old tradition bound in love. Couples close the padlock and throw the key into the river eternally bonding themselves to one another. We watch the river and the people pass by the bridge that has stood for over 1,000 years.
We walk the streets into the late afternoon, ducking into jewelry stores and souvenir shops, whenever the windows laden with wares entice us inside. This is how we came to Casini Firenze, a leather shop owned by Jennifer Tattanelli. The designer greets us with a friendly smile and a slightly New York accent. In our conversation Jennifer explains how she is home for the holiday season but usually splits her time between here and New York. Handbags and coats hang on the walls. Displays of boots and wallets sit on tables. The distinct smell of leather permeates her cozy storefront. She talks about her designs as I try on different jackets and Destiny tries on countless pairs of boots. The conversation turns towards food and as we make our final selections Jennifer surprises us with making reservations at a few of her favorite restaurants around the city. She hands us our receipt and a note scribbled with addresses, times and directions. The genuine kindness of a stranger making sure that our journey is filled special moments, making memories of a lifetime.
The afternoon turns into evening and the rain is still coming down. We walk along the Arno making our way to Trattoria Celestino, the restaurant that Jennifer had recommended earlier in the day. The interior is warm and inviting against the biting cold of the rain and the food is spectacular. As we finish our meal and walk back into the night the rain has stopped altogether. We walk through streets illuminated in holiday lights since the city is preparing for the Christmas season. Our first day in Florence is behind us.
The following morning starts early enough. The skies above are still cloudy and the streets are still wet from the rain the day before, as we move against the chill in the air. First stop is the crown jewel of Florence, the Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore, or, more loving known as, the Duomo di Firenze.
The Duomo towers over the city. The magnificent structure was started at the end of the 13th century and took two centuries to fully complete. The architecture is stunning and the outside is ornately decorated with green, pink and white marble but that pales in comparison to the inside as we enter through a set of large wooden doors. Like most of the churches we have already been in on this trip to Italy, the Duomo is made almost entirely of marble and stone. Stained glass works of art filter colored light into the huge archways. The attention to detail on the mosaic tile floor pieces is particularly fascinating and there is a large clock, designed by Paolo Uccello in 1443, that still works, counting down the ora italica that ends the 24th hour of the day at sunset. Giorgio Vasari’s frescoes of the Last Judgement add even more color to the scene before us. Destiny lights a few candles and we walk through the cathedral in hushed whispers as we point out different details to one another.
The only way to see Vasari’s frescoes up close and personal is to climb the 463 steps to the top of Brunelleschi’s Cupola. Making the trek up this winding staircase of stone also affords us amazing views of the dome’s exterior as well as the entire city of Florence. As we climb the clouds break and the sun starts shining through. We spend time examining the paintings and architecture before heading back the way we came and onwards to the next stop.
We spend time at the Fountain of Neptune and the Palazzo Vecchio where the city’s first public clock stands in its tower since 1353. The sun starts to set as people fill cafes and restaurants. We head for another one of Jennifer’s recommendations and yet again are not disappointed. There’s charcuterie, freshly made pasta, thinly sliced steak covered in avocado, and rose petals decorate our plates. Everything melts in our mouths. We continue on after our bellies are full, needing to work off some of those decadent calories. We find Il Porcellino, the bronze fountain of a boar and rub its snout for luck. We hold hands as we ride the antique carousel of the Picci Family, something we had seen from our ascent to the top of the Duomo. As we walk the streets, much busier this evening than last, the sounds of music come towards us as we catch the procession of a brass band and decide to follow it. The band leads us and others back towards the Duomo where we decide that a little gelato is absolutely necessary. As we exit the little shop we are treated to an amazing sight. The moon, shining full against a few clouds, has risen just above the dome of the cathedral, bathing it in an intoxicating glow. It is a beautiful moment and we are frozen for a few minutes holding onto one another, watching as people pass by us in the streets. This is one of my favorite travel moments of all time.
Later that evening we found ourselves down the street from our hotel at Space, an electronic discoteque. The music reverberates through the rooms of the basement dance club as the deejay spins records and the crowd undulates to the rhythm of the deep and thundering bass lines. We stay late into the early morning before our heads hit the pillows of our cozy hotel room bed. We fall asleep with the music still echoing in my head.
Tomorrow we will take a train on an unplanned detour but tonight we sleep with elated exhaustion…