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Trip Report Relais and restaurant recommendations in Florence

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My trip report from Florence, three nights in May, 2006:

We arrived in Florence via EuroStar from Rome, around 3:00 in the afternoon. Unfortunately, we were charged an unpleasant fine on EuroStar, because our ticket was mistakenly printed for 1:30 p.m., and we were actually on the 12:30 train. We bought the ticket at the window in Rome, barely in time for the 12:30 train, and the agent knew we were rushed. But, she issued the ticket for the wrong time, and we had to pay 8 EUR on the train for her mistake. Because, of course, the conductor didn’t believe our explanation. And, to make matters worse, we didn’t have our reserved seats, so we were lucky to be able to sit. Oh, well, we got to Florence, safe and sound.

We took a short cab ride to the Relais Cavalcanti. a very charming little 'hotel', at Via Pellicceria, 2. It occupies one floor of a building located near the Uffizi gallery, in a very good central location. Because my daughter had just finished her semester in Florence, she was able to recommend her favorite location in town for lodging.

The Relais Cavalcanti building has been in the same family's ownership for 100+ years, the owner/manager of the new-ish Relais is Francesca. She said she inherited this one floor of the building, so she recently renovated it to create a little hotel. It's relatively new, with beautiful tile bathrooms, showers, etc. The rooms are very charming, and good-sized.

You have the feeling of entering a very nice, private Italian home, when you unlock the Relais door and smell the potpourri set out on the beautiful tables in the hallway and entry way. It has a small elevator and a/c, too. No breakfast is served, but even better I think is that they have a beautiful little dining room/kitchen that is open 24/7 for guests. You have always available the makings for coffee, hot chocolate and tea, plus containers of pre-wrapped pastries and dessert cakes. That's about as much as you get in any Italian B&B for breakfast, and this way you can serve yourself whenever.

One evening we bought wine, cheese, bread, and fruit and enjoyed our own private time in this beautiful room. The only thing to be aware of at Relais Cavalcanti is that the first floor of the building is the Old Stove Irish pub. The good news is that it's a decent little place for panini, and has free wi-fi. However, it attracts a lot of students and young people, so it is quite noisy into the early morning hours. Our room window was directly above the pub's patio, with a nice view of adjoining rooftops. The double windows, plus the wooden shutters, can block out about 90 percent of the noise from the pub below. I found that I could also turn on the a/c fan in our room, which would then totally cover any outside noise.

Francesca also cautions her prospective guests that she does not staff a 24/7 front desk. She is there during posted hours, mostly till 6 p.m., and has an emergency number on the door. But she is careful to tell guests that hers is not a hotel with full-services at night-time. I highly recommend the Relais Cavalcanti.

The afternoon we arrived, my daughter took me to a rooftop café, which overlooks the Duomo. It is on the top of a nice little ‘department’ store. I think it’s called Ristorante Ottorino, via delle Oche, 12-16r. We enjoyed wine and salads, on the sunny afternoon, with a close-up view of the Duomo. A very nice introduction to Florence for me.

We then walked a bit, and I saw Ponte Vecchio for the first time. Shops were closed by then, but it was fun to see the bridge and the Arno River, after all the photos I’d seen of them from before.

We walked around some more, and window-shopped the designer shops. I have to say, Florence is more upscale than I expected. Because so many students are there every semester, I expected it to be less expensive and have more the feeling of a ‘college town’. Instead, I loved its classy shops and wonderful windy roads. Without my daughter guiding me, I’m sure I would have been lost half the time, though, on those cute cobble-stoned streets. Or, hit by a car on those narrow ‘streets’!

That evening, my daughter recommended one of her favorite restaurants, the Trattoria Garga on Via del Moro 48/R, phone 055 2398898. We had an amazing meal there, probably my best in Italy. My dish was veal with avocado, which sounds odd (most really good dishes do, I think), and was mouth-watering. Our waiter was a riot-- singing and joking all over the restaurant. It was a friendly, lively, bustling atmosphere with excellent food. We paid 81EUR for two, with a half-liter of house wine.

The next morning, we went to the Uffizi. Even though we had a reservation, it was still an ordeal of standing in line, with many people butting ahead of us. I am so amazed how some people have no regard whatsoever for a line, and how chaotic it can become.

But, once inside, I had a personal art history guide, as my daughter had been studying in Italy all semester. She was able to tell me all about each of the ‘significant’ pieces of art. It is all pretty overwhelming, and a lot to take in. I especially liked Botticelli’s Birth of Venus. It is amazing to see all that art in person, and under one roof.

We walked all day, seeing places my daughter had visited during her semester. We went up the hill to her college’s villa, so I could see it and meet the coordinator there.

We also took the bus up to the San Miniato church, to visit it and enjoy the sweeping views over Florence. It’s pretty to see the Duomo and all the rooftops of Florence from that perspective. Walking down the hill a bit, we found a little café with a nice outdoor terrace, which actually looked across the hills at the college’s villa. It was a nice place to take a break, again with caprese salads and wine.

We returned to town and finished our shopping mission: to find a wallet and a belt for my son. My daughter’s recommendation was a little store on Via del Corso 69/r, called Leonardo da Vinci. A very nice woman runs it, and my daughter thought her prices were the best for quality pieces.

That evening, we were invited to her Italian host family’s home for dinner, which was a special evening, with a very nice woman and her two daughters, who shared their home with my daughter. It was a treat to meet them, share dinner at their table, and see where my daughter had lived all semester.

Our second day, we took a train and then a bus to San Gimignano, for a day-trip. We had beautiful blue-sky weather, about 75 degrees. It was a perfect day to wander the little town. We had wine and salads at a wine bar, overlooking the hills. It was called Enoteca di Vinorum, Pza Cisterna 30.

We returned to our hotel, to get ready for dinner, again at one of my daughter’s favorite restaurants, Acqua Al 2 (pronounced 'aqua al duo'), Via della Vigna Vecchia, 40/R, phone 055 284170. They are known for their perfect steak with balsamic. I had it and was impressed. (They are now opening a restaurant in San Diego, believe it or not.) This restaurant is known throughout Florence, and is very popular, so it gets loud and crowded, but very worth it, even though the service was a tad spotty. We split a half-liter of house red wine, and we paid 50.70EUR for two dining.

Our final morning we had reservations at the Accademia. I am now a life-long admirer of Michelangelo. Having just seen his Sistine Chapel and the Pieta at St. Peter’s Basilica, I was primed to see David. But, I don’t think anything prepares you for seeing it in person. I will say it is more impressive and awesome than I’d expected, as is the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. As people rightfully say, it appears as though David will walk right off that pedestal. How on earth did Michelangelo create such life out of marble?

After the Accademia, we found a place to sit on the patio and enjoy a nice lunch, at Trattoria Za-Za, at Piazza del Mercato Centrale, 26R. It's popular with business people, and we enjoyed nice omelettes there. Lunch for two, with a glass of wine for each, was 25.50EUR.

That afternoon we walked through the gardens at the Pitti Palace, before taking our late day train to Venice.

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