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Florence or Bologna? 7 nights early October

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Oct 29th, 2018, 07:52 AM
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Florence or Bologna? 7 nights early October

Oct. 3 - Oct. 10
We drove from Rapallo to Florence as the fourth leg in a 6-week European vacation.
But, with such great rail service in both Florence and Bologna, we dropped our car at the Florence airport. Lodging in both cities was through airbnb.

This report includes:
Pistoia
Florence
Siena
Bologna
Modena
Parma
Eataly World
Ferrara


So, Florence or Bologna?
Hands down, for us, Bologna! And that’s mostly because of over-tourism in Florence.

Day One.
We had some time before we dropped our car in Florence, so we stopped in Pistoia, mostly to see its architecture. We knew little about it, other than it being the birthplace of the pistol, but maybe we were motivated to visit because we read about its many artisan chocolate makers. Street parking near the pedestrian old town worked for us, maybe we got lucky, given that it was market day. The market was busy, many clothes had low prices (3-10 euro), and some tables were mobbed by locals. And, the market extended street after street. We know the importance of the weekly markets to the locals, and they provide some tourist interest. But here was a city of beautiful historic buildings, literally camouflaged by, in many cases, unattractive flea market tents. Maybe it was because we wanted to see and photograph some of these beautiful buildings, and obviously that matters little in the general scheme of a town going about its business. But, it did seem like there might be better choices. We would like to re-visit on a non-market day; it did look like a typical Tuscan town (and oddly, we didn’t notice any chocolate shops or anything associated with pistols for that matter). We filled up our Fiat for its return to the nearby unattractive Florence airport, but due to fast moving traffic and terrible signage, we wasted some of that fuel trying to find the rental car return. On our second go-round, we drove into the area of the airport terminal, and we were quickly waved away from a road we weren’t supposed to be on. We pointed to our IPhone, where the offline google maps weren’t working for us, and the security came over, grabbed our phone and, to our amazement, quickly added the appropriate destination for us. I am not sure if we would have ever found the odd return spot without that extra bit of niceness. There were lots of people waiting for the bus to the city center, but fortunately the buses run every half hour. The last time we were in Florence was 18 years ago, our first trip to Europe and our first stop in Italy. (Dad and Mom had rented a large hilltop villa in Umbria and we were ultimately headed there.) At the time, we also got our introduction to flag-leading tour groups and street vendors seemingly coming out of nowhere with umbrellas at the first drop of rain. We didn’t see everything, cut our visit short and always felt Florence was too touristy and crowded. Our first return, about a dozen trips to Italy since then, was to be focused on museums, but we rented an apartment on the “other side of the river.” That turned out to be a good decision for us, a quiet street in a wonderful old building, yet a few hundred feet from Ponte Vecchio. But our walk from the main station, through the heart of the old city, was almost nauseating; we felt Florence in 18 years was now 10 times busier. We could hardly walk on sidewalks, and there was still ample vehicle traffic even in the supposed pedestrian areas. And, it didn’t seem to tamp down even at night. We also found the city to have a dirty feeling, maybe it was just the inability to keep up with all the trash piling up from so many people. We are positive people and walked quite a few miles from the bridge to the Duomo to the Mercato. We took dozens of photos of people, creative shops, outdoor art, and the main sights. We visited Eataly, an international chain that we enjoy, a bit different in every location. And, across from Eataly was the two-story Mercato Centrale, the bottom level’s fish, meat, produce available only in the morning. The second floor seemed to be an Eataly-inspired food court that featured individual businesses operated by individual Italians. The Neapolitan pizza, for example, was as good as any we have had in Naples. There was an operating cooking school, where through large windows, we could see maybe 20 aspiring cooks following the lead of a number of chefs, everyone in crisp white uniforms. The food court advantage is that we were able to buy part of our inexpensive dinner from each of several vendors ( margherita pizza, yummy roasted potatoes, a big salad of tomatoes, feta and giant green olives and, red wine and gelato). But back outside, we saw more of the stuff we don’t understand. You could hardly see this beautiful old glass topped market building for the giant “leather market” that is essentially one vendor after the next selling the same belts and purses. However, even in all the hub-bub, we did briefly get lost looking again at all the beautiful detail on the duomo and then the beautiful gold doors behind us at the Baptistry. At least until we looked in the other direction and see the huge billboard promoting McDelivery, MacDonald’s free delivery offer good until October 15. Really? We headed back to the more peaceful Arno River and watched some rowers prepare their boats, did some grocery shopping and headed home.

Day Two.
We delayed purchasing the Firenze card which we calculated would save us some money on our many planned museum visits, even over our expected two full days. We also correctly determined that if we wanted to see the old city at its best, we would have to get up early this morning, before the tour buses arrived. Fortunately, few others seemed to do the same, except for what appeared to be a documentary film team hoping to see things that will be blocked with people in a couple of hours. There were many delivery vehicles at this early hour, but we were able to get up to the gold doors at the Baptistry, all by ourselves, without the push of a mob. Empty streets and shops we hadn’t noticed before. We also made an early entry to the Mercato and were the first to purchase some really fresh pasta and other items to do more cooking at home. By then, it was closing in on 9 a.m. and lines were forming at such places as the Duomo and the Uffizi. The lines were long, and all have priority, but "skip the line” lines are just one sign that it’s hard to deal with simply too many people. That’s all it took for us to say “not us” and “not today,” and our plans to see some famous art that we have missed was not as compelling. We reasoned that, in the 50 or more churches we have already visited on this trip alone, we have seen lots of stunning sculptures, paintings, frescoes, and architecture. So, we decided to stay away from the crowds and hoped “our side” of the Arno River would do that for us. The brilliant sunny day first inspired a long walk in the much quieter Oltrano or other side. Eventually, we found ourselves, high above the landmarks in the old city, in Piazzale Michelangelo, a large mass of mostly empty pavement. But you can get there by bus or taxi, so there were some tourists, mostly jockeying for positions on one end to take that panoramic view of Florence. A modest church across the road garnered almost no interest, but behind it, we found a grander basilica, with striking and intricate wood beamed ceiling, and a very special cemetery. It is one that you need to see, because it’s hard to describe. It’s mostly old and beautiful and unique. It is full of tombs, of course, crosses, statues and flowers, but it is much more than that. It is the last home for many of Florence’s rich and famous, including Carlo Collodi who crated Pinocchio. So many different types of statues, some well cared for, others blackened or broken, all crowded into a small space. So many were beautiful by themselves, such as the man and his wife shyly staring at each other, but as a group, a little eerie. Lots of children and military officers decked out with medals. It is a cemetery, an active one, and not a museum, and that may explain why there were only two or three other visitors there. This was an unplanned day, so we were feeling things out and came across the entrance to the Baldini Gardens and bought a ticket. We later found out that these gardens have been open to the public only recently and are not well known. The views from this upland acreage were wonderful. There were many nice statues and a fountain, but in early October the foliage and growth was mostly green, a rich manicured green, but absent were the colorful flowers that must be evident during the spring and summer, with a rose bed the only exception. There was a villa attached to the property, but we were told that our ticket did not include that, and we think that is only available on special occasions. But, to our surprise, they pointed up the road and mentioned some other gardens that WERE included, and we had heard of them. Boboli Gardens. And, you needed a map for these gardens because the property is immense. Bounded by a fort on one side and the renowned Pitti Palace on another, you could easily spend a large chunk of the day and walk miles on the many wide lanes all over the place. At the top of the gardens, there was a nice view of the hills above Florence, more formal gardens and a villa-like building that was the home to a great porcelain museum. A couple thousand porcelain pieces, some gifts to or from royalty, but all like brand new, with astonishing bright colors. Platters, dinnerware, figurines and more, all displayed in what we were told is among the 100 most visited art museums in the world. So, we can’t say we didn’t go to any Florence museums. This seemed like more park than garden and included the striking Neptune Fountain and a pond with an island with its own large fountain statue. In another corner of this sprawling property, in what may have been an elegant old barn, presumably for the adjacent Pitti Palace, there was a free show of historic artifacts with a horse theme. Another Florence museum for us! An eclectic collection of ancient items, each of which can be, and may be, something you would see in any of the best archeological museums in Italy. Bronze, marble, wood, big, like a wagon, or small like a toy, these pieces of art ranged from Roman to Medieval times. There’s a neat grotto building outside the Pitti Palace, and, although our ticket did not include seeing rooms there, we did get to walk around the palace including the inner courtyard, with its indoor fountain and statues. We made dinner at home, using ingredients from the Mercato, and then set out to see what nightlife was like on “our side.” Our airbnb hosts told us that this area was more local than tourist, and we saw neat little hotels, and lots of fun-looking restaurants and bars. Lots. After some window shopping in unique shops, we ended the night with a piccolo cup of gelato from a little spot near the river. We were told they served the real thing, and we added some “panna” (whipped cream).

Day Three.
Maybe 10 years or so ago, we spent a lot of time in Tuscany, had a car, and had planned a quick stop in Siena. We failed to figure out parking and ended up buying something at a suburban camera store and moving on. We decided today would be our chance to finally see the city. Local trains were cheap, and our walk to the station through the Florence crowds only confirmed this decision. During this trip, we learned that some college graduates celebrate in a unique way, dressing up in unusual attire, silly anyway, and then parading around, in song, with friends and family. We first saw this in Siena, but repeated in several other places during this trip. They often sang “dottore” (or doctor), making us believe this behavior was limited to graduates of higher learning. At first, we thought this was related to neighborhood competition, related to the summer Palio horse races in the central square, but we soon realized it was unrelated, but there were lots of flags and other signs of these events. We don’t like paying admission fees to go into churches (Milan was a recent exception), so we skipped the Siena complex, knowing it was probably a mistake and also knowing that the 100 churches we expected to visit in six weeks this fall probably would end up being a blur anyway. The walkways are big stone blocks, all of which are for pedestrians only. We quickly found the Piazza del Campo, where the annual horse races take place. We tried to imagine how hard it must be on horses to traverse this big (but not as big as a typical race track) square with its red brick surface. We decided to contemplate that over lunch in one of the several large restaurants that have outdoor seating covering a chunk of this area (restaurants that have to give up this space to the standing crowds for Palio). And, a nice affordable lunch, with good service, despite the touristy spot. Our visit to Siena was intended to be relaxed, and we mostly explored all the streets and shops. We visited one of the busiest pastry shops we have seen in Europe. One thing that caught our eye were strange street lights everywhere. They are whimsical, with bases decorated in colors and symbols representing the competing 17 neighborhoods in the town. Each is topped by eight plain light bulbs on arms, 7 twisted in a downward position. It looks like a fun town that would be worth some time exploring in the evening. We took the trip back to Florence, where our airbnb, although moderately priced, had the best chef cookware we have seen in a rental. So, we enjoyed another evening at home eating two kinds of fresh ravioli, one of them a very tasty lemony pasta, and some green beans.

Day Four.
We have written before on other threads that we, and likely most Fodor’s posters, are part of the over-tourism problem, so we also try to see as much of the “real” Europe as possible. When we initially planned for 6 weeks in Europe, we had plans for 6 days in Corsica and 6 days in Sardinia. Corsica (which connects better with France than Italy via air) is expensive and does not connect well with Sardinia (long way to get a decent rental car when you come in on the ferry), so we eventually wrote off the $100 ferry ticket we had purchased, cancelled our lodging and rental car and added 4 days in Bologna (which has a good and cheap air connection to Sardinia) and increased time in Sardinia to 8 days. We had the time and took the slower and cheaper rail trip (90 extra minutes for $40 less) to Bologna, stopping briefly in Prata, where we noticed a slot machine IN the rail station. Bologna is a VERY busy place, not just students, just a busy, busy Italian city. But, it instantly felt authentic. We were clearly the odd ones, carrying bags the 30 minutes to our apartment, very close to its signature two towers and the city center. Many of our neighbors were students, but it was quiet. Perhaps our stone walls helped. We quickly headed out, under the many caruggi (I think we read that Bologna has something like 30 miles of these covered walkways). We first spot the “two towers”, a remnant of the days when Bologna had 180 of these individual fortresses, presumably for its many nobles. One of the towers has an obvious lean that shows why so many collapsed or were taken down. We check out the local multi-story Eataly that in this case appears to be part of their own bookstore. Across the street is a large food court that they call a Mercato, but it appears to be separate from Eataly, which has its own restaurants, inside and out. But this is not a city where you seek a chain restaurant. This is not only one of the best culinary centers in all of Italy, but the competition keeps the prices quite reasonable. And, a cute little place operated by a bunch of outgoing young people fit the bill for us.

Day Five.
A Sunday market filled a large parking area, not far from the Bologna rail station. Today’s destinations were Modena and Parma, amidst a region that produces so much of the Italian food and drink we are used to. And, they produce cars most of us aren’t used to driving. Our first stop was the Ferrari museum, a little hike from the station on this beautiful morning. Part of the museum is in a family house that Enzo Ferrari sold when he was a young man. Most of the cars on display and a film are showcased in a modern building next door. The cars all are beauties; the film a well-done history of Ferrari and his cars; and the old house features all sorts of engines and Ferrari’s office. We walked a few blocks to a Maserati headquarters and showroom that was closed on a gated property that looked a bit tired yo us. In fairness to the other sports car company that calls Modena home, we noticed the Lamborghini Museum was a bit out of the city center. We were looking for signs of balsamic vinegar, which originates in Modena, but, without trying too hard, we saw no sign other than the usual Italian products, including balsamic, in some shops. There were bicycles, lots of them. People of all ages, many seniors and families on them. And, on this Sunday, it was local families who ruled the village, not tourists, and many were gathered in the street watching a puppet show. We saw several young men in crisp military clothing and learned that the stunning old palace in the city center has been a military academy since the 1600’s and, among other things, is also a police training center. We mostly walked around and admired the exteriors of the handsome looking town, and then took a train to Parma. On our way to the city center, we came across a free puppet museum in a beautiful old building that stopped us in our tracks. Most were old, some have been on Italian and American TV, all were handmade out of wood, and dressed in unique costumes. An interesting collection. But the duomo is the centerpiece of this town, with frescoes and art from floor to ceiling. The multi-colored marble slabbed floor probably dates back to the original church built more than 900 years ago. Another church, Sanctuary of Santa Maria della Steccata is a little newer, early 1500’s, but was the burial place for a lot of Dukes of Parma, and this one has lots of artwork/frescoes and gold. And, “when in Parma”, we needed to get a local platter of thinly sliced parma ham and parmesan cheese, perfect with our favorite sparkling red lambrusco wine also from this area. We topped that off with a cup of gelato from Ciaccos. The local chain grocer Conad was sponsoring a chocolate fest in a covered market area adjacent to one of its stores. As part of this, there were 10 youngsters, decked out in chef attire, learning how to make chocolate. You could buy dentures or what looked like fine leather shoes, all in chocolate. Inside the store, there were the usual dozens and dozens of prosciuttos hanging, but the eye-catcher was a 2-story (next to an escalator) pile of parmesan wheels, each about 85 pounds, 21 shelves high with 24 wheels to each shelf. That’s more than one ton on EACH shelf. And, again, this was just in one fairly small grocery store. Back to Bologna, we were curious if the crowds thinned out on Sunday evening. Not at all. Maybe even larger than usual. Music on multiple corners, people everywhere. Again, nearly all local people.

Day Six.
We would never, for example, go to Disneyland Paris. But on Monday, we decided to go to something that some might feel isn’t much better. Eataly World. It’s a bus trip away, maybe 20-30 minutes, from the old city, and the entry toll booths look a lot like the way into the Magic Kingdom. The day before, we’re told, the place was packed for a beer fest. On this first day of the week, there are only a handful of visitors. It’s the world’s largest food park and larger than a typical shopping mall. There are some animals and some fruit bearing trees and plants on the grounds outside, but that part of the experience is a significant disappointment. Too small and nothing special for anyone who has ever been to even a small farm. The only excitement was a goat that was out of its pen and the fact that no one seemed to care. The indoor space is all on one floor, and, if you desire, they have three-wheel bicycles, lots of them, with shopping baskets attached, available for hourly rental. As regular walkers, we saw a few other guests using them, but we thought it silly. There are 45 restaurants or eateries of one kind or other, from Michelin-starred places to inexpensive street food. Some of these vendors, with impressive and spotlessly clean equipment, produce such things as pasta, cheese, sauces, sausage, coffee, gelato, beer and bread all day long. There are also educational opportunities about food, eating well, eating sustainably and more, but some of those were out of order. We even planted a seed, which we believe was for a future basil plant, and they have a website and an identifying number where you can follow the progress of your plant online as it moves through a hydroponic carousel. A cute idea, but we have found error messages on the website each time we have tried to access it. There is a convention center, cooking school and open air shops selling some well-known Italian brands such as cookware. And, interspersed throughout, but mostly near the checkout area, Eataly has many of its signature Italian-made grocery items. It looks like an after-thought, perhaps to appease families, but outside there was a video arcade and a fairly low quality mini-golf course. We are skeptical that this endeavor is coming anywhere near the 10,000 people a day they had hoped for, but, for the most part, it didn’t look like they were cutting many corners. Yet. The restaurants, many of them quite large, did get some lunch business, perhaps from the nearby business area; judging by prep activity, we guessed they must have some evening business from locals as well. If you count the lunch business, the whole million square feet might have had a few hundred visitors all day while we were there. We did enjoy seeing all the Italian products under one roof, and we enjoyed some of the food, some really good french fries and an excellent, perfectly cooked pasta lunch and gelato. It was a fun and different day for us. We admit we even played mini-golf on the terrible outdoor course. We suspect when things are busier that there are events and other activities going on. There were great displays, and we are glad we went, even if it wasn’t exactly what we expected.

Day Seven.
Another day. Another train. This time to Ferrara. Upon arrival, we had a major feel good moment. The guilt from the morning pastry in Bologna had not worn off, and then we spotted a nice pastry shop with four young men behind the counter, each with white aproned shirts and white fedora hats. But the thing that caught our attention was the name of the shop with the tagline: “Wellness Bakery Cafe.” So, for the rest of our trip, our morning pastry was a health thing. And, perhaps it would be healthier for us if ew did something that it seems nearly everyone does in Ferrara. Ride bicycles. We saw business people in suits on bikes and many elderly ladies. In many Italian towns, we like to take photos of groups of men gathered outside cafes, in parks or outside clubs. These gatherings seem so Italian. In Ferrara, first thing this morning, we see a large group of men, maybe 20 of them, outside the duomo, presumably talking about the news of the day, and each of them standing alongside their bikes. Not far away was the moated Este Castle, and we were happy to pay for a ticket. The kitchen, the dungeons, the outdoor terrace full of potted citrus trees, and ceiling art that has been damaged in recent times by earthquakes were the most memorable. We paid a little extra to climb the castle tower, which offered a good vantage of the city from above. We didn’t have to go far to find empty streets, once you get a block or two from the duomo. We had a prior interest in Lucrezia Borgia, once having a private tour of her former castle in Spoleto, and later from having watched the mini-series on the Borgias. Alfonso d’Este, the duke of Ferrara, married the controversial Borgia (who also was the daughter of the Pope). We tracked down a little convent (it’s often called a monastery but it’s home to 12 nuns), that is out of the way and sometimes difficult to visit to see the tombs of both d’Este and Borgia. It took a number of knocks on one door and a doorbell at another entrance to eventually get a nice gentleman to show us two beautifully decorated chapels in this convent, the second of which had a half dozen tombs at the foot of the altar including d’Este, his father, the duke before him, and Borgia. The gentleman spoke enough English to provide a history of all these people for us. Back in town, the duomo was undergoing work inside and out, but we still were able to see many of its grand features. Our lunch was at a great little friendly sandwich place Schiaccia , and we considered grabbing a glass of wine at Al Brindisi, which claims to be the oldest wine bar in the world, going back as far as 1435. We walked in, saw lots of dusty old wine bottles, and it simply didn’t feel right for us. And, although business was slow, no one acknowledged we were there, so we decided to head back to Bologna, where found a great lentil soup and some fresh pasta. And, we needed to prepare to leave in the morning for the airport and Sardinia.
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Oct 29th, 2018, 09:04 AM
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Wonderful report, and it's given me a lot to think about as we plan our next vacation!
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Oct 30th, 2018, 03:39 PM
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yes, indeed, whitehall, a great TR, full of fascinating detail.

But can I put in a plea for more paragraphs? I find that I can't cope with blocks of text of more than 10 lines or so, preferably less. So I fear that I have skimmed over a lot of good stuff simply because I can't read it!
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Oct 30th, 2018, 04:31 PM
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Fair criticism. Hope to post our report on Sardinia tomorrow and will re-format beforehand. Thank you.
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Oct 31st, 2018, 02:37 PM
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Thanks whitehall. That would be great.
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Jan 11th, 2019, 08:23 PM
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Thank you! Great report. Can you please share the Airbnb properties you stayed at?
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Jan 12th, 2019, 04:36 AM
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Thank you. We have sent you a private message with that info.
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Jan 12th, 2019, 07:50 AM
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Thanks for the report! Nice to see someone else going to Ferrara, which I have twice used as a base for day trips to Ravenna. I still haven't made it to Florence, and reports like yours aren't making it any more attractive, lol. Guess I should have gone on my first visit to Italy in 2004.
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Jan 12th, 2019, 08:24 AM
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No need to go to Italy for Eataly. The chain is up to 40 locations (says Wikipedia) on several continents and at least one cruise ship. I see it as Disneyland for foodies. In the US, TV chef Lidia Bastianich and her family are involved. Mario Batali was booted after an abuse accusation.
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Jan 12th, 2019, 10:40 AM
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<<Thanks for the report! Nice to see someone else going to Ferrara, which I have twice used as a base for day trips to Ravenna. I still haven't made it to Florence, and reports like yours aren't making it any more attractive, lol. Guess I should have gone on my first visit to Italy in 2004.>>

Thursdaysd, even earlier than that I fear if you wanted to see it without the heathen hordes. Bill and I took the kids at about that time and the contrast with when he had I had visited about 20 years earlier was startling. Even at the end of October [in 2004] there were queues everywhere, such that even though we had pre-booked the Uffizi for 8.30am, there was already a queue round the block for those who were not fortunate enough to have had the benefit of advice on Fodors about pre-booking. We still had a good time, but it was nothing like it had been when we visited in about 1983 when we were able to drive into the city, park for free along a road adjacent to the Cathedral, and have our pick of the local hotels, which we had not reserved in advance. In July.
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Jan 12th, 2019, 10:49 AM
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Although we don't go to Italy, or NYC for that matter, for Eataly, we are curious former entrepreneurs and love everything Italy. So, when nearby, we have checked them out. Eataly World is unlike anything we have ever seen anywhere, and there were some interesting aspects, but overall, it was over-hyped and disappointing.

One thing we like about Eataly is that we have now been to two in NYC, two in Rome, Bologna, Florence, Genoa and Eataly World, and they are all different. We assume the world-wide growth has already homogenized the experience at most locations. The biggest one in Rome, out of the way, seems more geared toward locals than tourists, with no signage in English, but it covers four floors of a massive old train station. We have never had an interest in repeating a visit to any of them, because, as you say, it is a sort of Disney for foodies and lovers of Italy. We have an Italian market near us here in Florida, and it's much more "authentic" in many ways.
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Jan 12th, 2019, 11:00 AM
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Originally Posted by thursdaysd View Post
Thanks for the report! Nice to see someone else going to Ferrara, which I have twice used as a base for day trips to Ravenna. I still haven't made it to Florence, and reports like yours aren't making it any more attractive, lol. Guess I should have gone on my first visit to Italy in 2004.
We thought it crowded in 2000 when we were last there. Besides ten times more people than 18 years earlier, or so it felt, it also seemed quite dirty. I think much of that was the stadium effect, cleaning up after the football game or concert; something that never seems to end in Florence.
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