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Trip Report 31 Epic Days in Italy with 2 teenage sons, Part 2: Firenze

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Hello Fodorites,

I'm posting my trip report in small parts to help readers more easily locate a part that interests them. I've already posted Part 1: Venice at this link:
http://www.fodors.com/community/europe/trip-report-31-epic-days-in-italy-with-2-teenage-sons-part-1-venice.cfm

And now on to:

Part 2: Train to Firenze…an eye-opening experience!

I had booked tickets online for the Frecciargento train from Venice to Firenze. I’ve done this before, and the process was fairly easy this time. DH always gets a bit frazzled at the train station, but I was confident that I knew what I was doing. It was the boys’ first experience on a train, and they were excited to ride it.

We took the vaporetto from Rialto to the train station, rolled our bags up the stairs to the station, and settled in front of the Departure board to await notice for our train. Since we are still somewhat neophytes, we had arrived quite early so we had to wait a while.

DH waited with the bags while I took the boys to the restaurant. There they had their first experience paying the cashier, and then going to pick up their food. We were disorganized when we ordered, and forgot to get a panini for DH, so I sent YS back to the cashier to order one more.

Meanwhile, OS was watching one small bag at a counter table. He had a strange experience there with a “creepy guy” who had no bags or food, but stood a few feet away from OS and the bag. OS moved to the other side of the table a few times and stared him down, and the “creepy guy” finally gave up and left. What do you think? Probably out to steal the bag? We thought so…

All this time, I was getting our orders, and YS was trying to communicate what he wanted to the very kind woman at the cashier desk. He came back not too sure what he was getting, but we were running short on time, so didn’t really care. We took our packages and hustled back to DH.

While we were standing there watching the board, we suddenly heard a great commotion and shouting, and looked over to see two policemen dragging a yelling man out of the station by each arm. Hmmm…it wasn’t the same creepy guy, but apparently there are many.

DH was a little worried that I didn’t know what I was doing, but I assured him that our train to Santa Maria Novella was in fact the same train listed for Roma. Soon, the bin number for the train was posted, and we all dashed off to the correct platform.

Our seats were in First Class, carriage 3, and in the mad dash to get to the train all my previous experience went out of my head! I forgot that all the carriages are marked either 2 (for 2nd class) or 1 (1st class), so there can be many that are numbered 1. While I was working this out, a kind gentleman asked if he could help, looked at my ticket and led the way to the other end of the train. There he helped load not only my luggage, but also that of two other women, and the rest of my family. I assumed that he must work for the train station.

There was some confusion with seats once we got onboard, as other people thought they had the same seats at first. The kind man watched from outside as we worked things out and then he knocked on the window. I showed him my ticket and he nodded and pointed to my seat. Then, as I settled our bags, he knocked on the window again, and started pantomiming playing a violin. It didn’t occur to me at first, but then I realized that he was asking for a tip! I had to laugh at my naivete, and then asked DH, who was still near the doorway, to please go back out and give him some money. The man actually did work hard for the money, though, so I really didn’t mind…

Travel Travails and Treats… Firenze

After all of our adventures so far, I thought that the rest of our arrival in Firenze would be a breeze. This was my sixth trip to Firenze, and having shopped the streets extensively I felt that I could find my way to Hotel Hermitage next to the Ponte Vecchio like a homing pigeon!

So, when we exited the train, I suggested to DH that we save ourselves the taxi fare, and just wheel our bags to the hotel. He agreed, and as we left the station, we said “Non, grazie” to the man who tried to cajole us to ride with him. I confidently led the pack across the bustling road toward the historic center of town, certain that I could get us to the hotel directly, as soon as I saw the Duomo. I got out the TripAdvisor City Guide once again, and Pointed us There to Hotel Hermitage. It didn’t seem that far…

Well, we probably could have done it more easily if we hadn’t had to deal with all of the tourists and the heat, not to mention the somewhat confusing streets at that end of town.

We would go along at a brisk pace, stopping every couple of blocks to check the compass on the app. No Duomo came in sight, and DH looked like he was about to pass out from the heat (he gallantly carried the heavy shoulder bag and wheeled two others). OS was trying to help out with two more heavy bags, and even his energy was lagging. This wasn’t going as smoothly as I’d planned! We stopped at a corner near a restaurant to get our bearings, and the kind waiter came over to see if he could help this obviously misguided family.

He set us off in the correct direction, and we soon came to the Duomo. From there it was a direct route to the hotel, but not a quick one. When we finally dragged ourselves to the hotel, we were somewhat dismayed to see the staircase up which we were to lug our bags. I left the others downstairs to recover, while I went up to check in.

When I got to the small elevator, there was a young American girl standing in it with her suitcase as she puzzled over how to get it to work. I asked if I might fit in the elevator, and she gladly moved over. The reception is on the fifth floor, so once we figured that out, up we went.

After that, things went wonderfully. Our rooms were ready, and they were charmingly decorated, with views over the Arno. We dropped our bags and were off to get started enjoying Firenze.

After stopping for gelato, we headed over to the Piazza della Signoria by way of the Uffizi. The usual painters were there, and mindful of all the postings about fake watercolors, I was a wary consumer. Within 10 minutes of our arrival, I had found a beautiful watercolor (authentic, I think) and we dispatched OS back to the room to put it safely away.

When he returned, we set off for Santa Croce, to visit the church (and unofficially, to shop on the way!) The piazza was blocked off in the center with lots of temporary seating set up, so it wasn’t as beautiful as we remembered. However, the lovely little gilded wood shop on the corner was still there, and in I went with OS, who genuinely seemed to enjoy these excursions. After selecting a couple of boxes to add to my collection, I asked the young man at the counter what was going on in the piazza. I couldn’t believe it when he said that Roberto Benigni (Academy Award winner for Life is Beautiful) was going to be giving a performance of the Divine Comedy there that night!

Excitedly, I went back to DH and we went over to the ticket office. However, we discovered that the Canto being performed was from the Inferno, which seemed a bit depressing for our first night in Firenze…not to mention, it would naturally be in Italian, so we decided not to go. Good decision!

We went to dinner that night at Trattoria Quattro Leoni, which is right across the Arno in a delightful little square. We had been there on our last trip and expected to be treated like royalty. However, we were treated just like everyone else, which was still fine. There was a couple who sang and played guitar in the square for a while. We had a special treat when the man at the table next to us got up to join them for a song. This guy was amazing, with a terrific voice and polished stage sense. Yet, he didn’t try to take over the attention, deferring to the woman when they sang. It was hard to believe that it was an impromptu performance! The entire square erupted in applause at the end, and he modestly returned to his seat. What a special experience!

After that we wandered across the Ponte Vecchio, where some other street musicians were performing, and made our way to Piazza della Signoria. That is one of our favorite places in the world at night. That night we had another musical treat, as a band was set up in front of the Palazzo Vecchio. So we sat on the marble benches lining the Loggia and enjoyed people watching while we listened to the music. Another magical night in Italy!

Other restaurants we visited in Firenze:
La Burrasca: delicious food, some of the best on our trip
Antica Tratorria da Tito: charming, fantastic food
Vini e Vecchi Saporo: quaint, try the tiramisu
Il Pennello: Good, not great

Art, art, art!

Over the next few days, we saw a lot of art! We had a private tour of the Uffizi that I had booked through Freya’s Florence that I would highly recommend. Our guide was Nicholas, and he did a wonderful job putting all that art into an historical context, while tailoring it to our boys’ level. It was like an art history course, and DH commented that it was the first time that he really understood what he was looking at in a museum. The boys also enjoyed the tour and often referred to what Nicholas had said when we toured other museums later in the trip.

We visited the Accademia with a reserved ticket; I don’t understand why more people don’t do this! There was a very long line waiting to get in, and the people were all standing in the oppressive heat on the street while we just sailed in. This happened all the time on our trip. Hopefully, some people reading this will take the suggestion to book tickets online in advance for the more popular attractions and spend more time enjoying their vacations!

Other places we saw:
• Duomo Opera museum—highlight: Mary Magdalene by Donatello, along with many other beautiful exhibits. Not that crowded, enjoyable
• San Marco monastery—highlight: frescoed walls in the tranquil cells by Fra Angelico, Savonarola’s cells. We were a bit confused by that part though, because it seemed as though they were honoring him. (He was the fanatic monk behind the bonfires of the vanities.)
• Bargello—highlight: sculptures by Donatello and Michelangelo and many others


Fiesole Fiasco

Since we were in Firenze for 5 nights, we had the luxury of doing things on the spur of the moment. Although we had decided not to go through all the trouble of catching a bus to Fiesole, as we were leaving San Marco we happened upon an empty bus labeled “Fiesole”. Since we had no real plans that day, we hopped on the bus. I was excited to show the others the view over the city of Firenze that I remembered from a previous visit with my sister. I was quite certain that I would recognize the stop when we arrived, and described the statue of David in the circle overlooking the city.

(Those of you familiar with Fiesole already know where I’m heading…)

Well, the bus came to a stop in a part of town that I didn’t recognize, and I asked the driver for directions to the David. He didn’t speak English, but told me that I needed to go back to Firenze to see David. I tried to describe the “other David” on the hillside, but he didn’t understand. A kind young British couple asked if they could help, but had no idea where I could possibly be talking about. Finally, an Asian woman spoke up and said that she thought we were talking about Piazzale Michelangelo…and immediately I knew she was right! Unfortunately, it was nowhere near Fiesole…

So, then we were worried that we might miss the bus back to Firenze and we were afraid to venture too far from the bus stop. The town did look very cute, and I took a few hurried photos. Luckily, my family forgave me for this latest wild goose chase, but we all decided that Piazzale Michelangelo would have to wait for our next trip!

Shopping as a Survival Activity

I had done some serious power shopping over our days in Firenze, usually when DH and sons retired to the rooms for afternoon naps. I used to love shopping at Peruzzi on the corner of Piazza Santa Croce. They have a huge selection of stylish leather jackets and leather goods, and you can usually get a good deal on quality items. I headed off happily in their direction and entered the store only to be met with a MOB of shoppers who must have just come off a tour bus. I could hardly walk through the store, but I still found my way to the back and bought a nice jacket and a purse for my oldest son’s upcoming wedding. (He wasn’t on the trip with us.)

I had also visited the Erboristeria in Piazza della Signoria, which has some of the nicest body lotions and perfumes anywhere at reasonable prices, and stocked up for home. The guys had gotten wallets and belts, and we all felt that we had done well by Firenze.

However, on our last day I was a bit disappointed that I hadn’t made it to the fabled Farmacia di Santa Maria Novella, and when DH and YS went off for their nap, I asked OS if he’d like to accompany me on one last shopping quest in Firenze. I had been there with DH on our last trip, and it had been challenging to find, so I checked my map, got out TripAdvisor City Guide once again and we set off for the short walk to the Farmacia.

After a while trekking through the hot streets, OS mentioned that it seemed as though we were entering a less than lovely side of town. We double checked the map, and confirmed that we had in fact walked several blocks past our turn! Another goose chase!

So, we retraced our steps and after quite a bit of walking came to the church of Santa Maria Novella. From there it would seem to be a breeze to locate the store on the side street leading to it, but when we went down the street nothing looked familiar. OS was getting a little worried at this point, so I stopped in a small bookshop and asked for directions, only to be told that we had already gone by it! It was around the corner on the street we had just been on. Unbelievable! Back we went, and looked very carefully at every doorway and soon enough, there we were.

Once again, it seemed that a bus must have just dropped off a load of tourists, so it took a while but I was able to pick up replacements for a few of my favorite items. They have really updated the shop from the last time I was there. No longer do you get to chat with the lovely proprietor and linger over your selections. Now, two very efficient clerks take your order and enter it into a computer. That generates a card, which you then bring to the new room in the back lined with counters. After standing in line, you present your card, your purchases are delivered and you pay on the spot. Much more efficient, but less charming. At that point, however, efficient was just what we needed!

We were able to find our way back to the hotel but OS was much more involved with navigation that time. I think I was losing all credibility in his eyes at that point!

We had a wonderful time in Firenze, and were sad to leave. It did help to know that new adventures awaited us, though, since we were picking up a car on our way out of town and driving to San Gimignano for the next phase of our epic journey!

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