DAY 6: CITY OF ART AND ARCHITECTURE
AT A GLANCE
Hotel: Hotel Silla (first night)
Key Words: Ponte (bridge), Buona sera (Good evening), Buona notte (Good night)
Highlights: The Renaissance Walk, the view of the Arno from our hotel room, and a fantastic night out with our new friends at the best restaurant of the trip
After a quick breakfast and our first road trip on our bus, we left the rains of Venice behind and arrived in Florence to be greeted by perfect weather. Reid had us off the bus, unpacked in our rooms at the Hotel Silla, and back out exploring the city in a jiffy. The first item on our itinerary? The famous Rick Steves Renaissance Walk, over the Ponte Vecchio, through the courtyard of the Uffizi, and through the squares of the Palazzo Vecchio and the Duomo Cathedral. Everywhere we looked, there was incredible art by some of the greatest masters of the Renaissance - as well as some fantastic street art by students hoping to be the new masters of the day.
We had a lot more art in store for us over the next few days, but first, food! Reid took us to the Ristorante Giglio Rosso, which he has been sharing with groups for over 20 years. The owner greeted us like old friends and over four courses and delicious glasses of wine, we enjoyed a movie-scene-worthy dinner with our big "Italian family."
Wandering back to the hotel, we joked and laughed and marveled at the magic of the Duomo and the Ponte Vecchio glowing in the night. It had been wonderful to have a day to rest a bit to enjoy one another's company and some amazing Italian food to fuel up for what the next few days would bring.
DAY 7: OVER THE ARNO AND BACK AGAIN
AT A GLANCE
Hotel: Hotel Silla (Second night)
Key Words: Caffè (an espresso), Pomodoro fresco (Fresh tomato), Basilico (basil)
Highlights: Cooking lessons in the Oltrarno, a concert with the Three Tenors, and an amazing sunset
Each hotel we stayed in had something special, and at the Hotel Silla, it was the courtyard terrace where we ate breakfast each day. Every morning we enjoyed a full buffet of meats, cheeses, pastries, and fruits and Maggie's new favorite - blood orange juice - among potted olive trees and softly cooing pigeons. Of course, that was the most rest we'd have all day...
We spent much of the day in the Oltrarno, a more residential neighborhood were we enjoyed more of the true Florentine lifestyle. We began with a visit to one of our first Michaelangelos in a local church, and then a chance to test our Italian by stopping for a mid-morning cappuccino. It was the first time we had an entire conversation in Italian as we ordered and paid for our drinks!
Back Door Basics: Caffè italiano
Early in our trip, Reid shared an important primer with us: how to drink coffee in Italy! A few basics: cappuccino is a morning drink, usually only with breakfast. If you want cream in your coffee later in the day, ask for a macchiato, which is an espresso "stained" with milk foam (macchiato means stained). But the most typical way to drink coffee is to order a simple "caffè" (espresso), often drunk standing up at a counter and loaded up with lots of sugar. Learning how to order these drinks in Italian early in our trip was so much fun, as this quickly became our daily treat during our mid-morning breaks!
Then we headed off to one of the highlights of the trip, which Priscilla in particular had been looking forward to for months: our cooking class. We split into two groups and gathered around professional kitchens with our instructors (ours was the effervescent Nicolai) and learned how to make a full meal, from pasta and vegetables to classic tiramisu. Even better than the cooking, though, was eating. After a full morning and lots of time on our feet, we were starving, and so excited to enjoy a family-style meal together in the charming wine cellar downstairs.
With some unscheduled time ahead, we wandered the Oltrarno among the tiny paper shops and restaurants, before spying a sign advertising a concert that evening featuring singers in the style of the Three Tenors. We crossed the Arno during a beautiful sunset to make our way to the church where the concert was held. Two female singers kept us entertained as we waited for the doors to open, and then we stepped into the cool stone entryway. No photos or video were allowed, so we simply did our best to remember every moment of the concert, reminding us that paintings and sculpture were not the only inspiring art forms of the Renaissance.
Then off home to bed for a good night's sleep before our final day in Florence.
DAY 8: MASTERS OF THE RENAISSANCE
AT A GLANCE
Hotel: Hotel Silla (third night)
Key Words: Impressionante (Awe-inspiring), Fantasioso (Whimsical - not fantastic!), La tela/Il quadro (Painting)
Highlights: A million museums! The Uffizi, the Museo Galileo, the Accademia, and an afternoon break at the Loggia del Piazzale Michelangelo overlooking the city
Our final day in Florence was a full one - it took the record for most museums visited in one day! As usual, we were grateful for the inside connections we had through the Rick Steves tour when we arrived at the Uffizi that morning. We were able to skip the line and get right in. Because we'd arrived first thing in the morning, we were able to enjoy the museum before it became totally crowded. Once again, we had an expert local guide who was able to help us quickly find and learn the stories behind the highlights of the collection. The museum itself is a work of art, and we were grateful to the ruling family of the day, the Medecis, who had been so thoughtful in designing what were essentially administrative offices to house fine art and other wonders of the Renaissance. We enjoyed our time there so much we decided to stay and visit a special exhibit highlighting the relationships between the Medecis and the Middle East as expressed through gifts of art.
Not ones to waste a minute, we then headed straight into the Museo Galileo next door. The Renaissance Italians weren't just about art; scientific knowledge was exploding, and the Medecis were early supporters and collectors of scientific discovery and instruments. Each item in the collection was well documented, and we took advantage of the museum's highly educational and easy-to-use (and free!) app, which explained all about the instruments, how they were used, or who made them.
Finally, our poor feet had had enough of marble floors and cobblestone streets. Since it was our last afternoon in Florence, we decided to make sure we saw the famous view and splurged on a taxi to take us up to the Piazzale Michelangelo, where we found a beautiful hotel with a terrace. We ordered prosciutto and breads and cheeses, and splurged on a little prosecco as we enjoyed seeing the Arno Valley spread out before us, punctuated by Brunelleschi's famous dome.
Back Door Basics: Taxis in Florence
Many of the cities we visited were small enough to be traversed on foot, which is really the best way to see them. After all, these cities were designed for pedestrians! However, once in awhile it is worth resting your feet - especially if your walk would entail hiking up a hefty hill. We quickly learned, though, that in Florence you can't just hail a taxi off the street. Instead there are stations conveniently placed around town where you can wait for a taxi. If you've splurged on an international data/calling plan, you can also call a taxi to meet you.
Slowly we made our way back down into the city and joined up with the rest of our group to head to the Accademia. While first thing in the morning is a great time to beat the lines, there's another time of day people often don't think of - early evening! On weeknights the museum was open until 7:00, so we entered at 5:00 just as everyone else was beginning to wind down their site seeing. Here, we finally got to see Michelangelo's famous David. There are so many photos and copies of this statue that one might wonder if it's worth heading to an extra museum just to see it, but there is truly no replacement for experiencing it in person, particularly in the building that was built specifically to house it. And, along the way, we were able to see some of Michelangelo's other famous sculptures, the Prisoners.
With our brains and hearts full, we headed out for another great group dinner before making our way back across the Arno one last time to collapse, happy and exhausted, in bed.