We just returned from the best trip of our lives! We had 14 days in Florence, Tuscany & Venice, and thanks in large part to help from fellow fodorites, it was a dream trip.
I'll be posting lots of details in my trip report and I'll be happy to answer any questions.
Day 1: Fly into Venice, take bus to train station & train to Florence
We had a direct flight from Philadelphia to Venice, which was so much better than connecting at another European airport first..for one thing, our bags got there when we did! I slept a bit on the plane, thanks to Ambien, which I took for the first time but only 1/2 tablet, since I was a bit worried that it would be too strong. It did work for about 3 hours, but that was all I needed. DH didn't take any, and didn't sleep a wink, but he caught up on the train later.
I was quite brave on this trip, and after reading everyone's advice on bringing cash, we only brought a few hundred dollars for emergency use only, and headed straight to the ATM at the Venice airport. The ATM was a bit intimidating at first, but a kind fellow tourist helped me navigate the buttons. Then we took out what I thought would be enough for the first several days (it wasn't), and then headed to our next adventure: the bus to Mestre station.
It turned out that all I needed to do was go to the information booth to buy the bus tickets for Mestre, then we went to wait for the bus outside. Noticing the locals, I went & stamped our tickets in the yellow machine, DH loaded our bags on the bus and we climbed aboard, feeling quite proud that we'd gotten this far.
When we reached Mestre, the local people all seemed to drift off, and we stepped out into the blazing heat at the stop, which was at the side of a building. It looked like a long walk with our bags to the station entrance, so we took a shortcut behind the building. I think that this was actually the service area, and we were in fact the only travelers walking briskly along toward the trains. We earned the first bemused looks of the trip, but it didn't slow us down.
Usually I make my train reservation online, but I've always already been in Italy on the day scheduled for the train. This time we were flying in, and I never really trust the airlines' arrival times. Knowing that missing the train could be costly if we had a reservation, and since everyone said it was so easy to just buy the train tickets at the station, I had decided to try it.
As we reached the main area of the station & got our bearings, we headed for the area to purchase tickets. Remembering all I'd read on this website, I bypassed the line waiting to buy tickets, and went right to the machine. Unfortunately, the 10:45 train was full! Drat--maybe I should have made a reservation. However, there were still seats on the next train, so I bought the tickets, and we went outside to wait for the train.
The train tickets were a bit confusing to DH, which led to some worries about which car the seats were in. Even though I was sure I knew, I agreed to go confirm it with the information people.
Getting help from Customer Service is interesting. I was trying really hard to do the right thing this trip, since a few faux pas have occurred on past trips. The door was closed, and with my limited Italian, I could determine that only one person was welcome inside at a time.
I dutifully waited outside the closed door, but a couple of other people just went right in. They looked like they might have the right idea, but I really didn't want to get off on the wrong foot, so I continued to wait. Another man started to go in ahead of me, but then I pointed out the sign. He was French, and apologized for missing the sign. Then both of us stood outside for a moment, until the next person went in past us and then we decided to join the crowd inside.
When it was my turn at last, the woman confirmed that our seats were where I had thought, but it was still worth my time to go there, because my train was listed on the board as Roma, not Firenze. Firenze is just a stop along the way. This could have messed us up, so it turned out well that I'd gone for help.
Then we had the issue of dragging our bags down the stairs, through the tunnel and up the next stairs to the train platform to await the train. This trip, the third bag was really DH's things: all my things for the 14 days were in my carry-on! I think next trip, DH might be a bit more organized in his packing. That extra bag was a beast more than once on the trip!
We did manage to manhandle the bags onto the train without too much incident and then we were on our way to Florence. DH slept the whole way, but I was worried that we'd sleep through our stop, so I stayed awake. Besides, I was too excited to sleep!
Days 1-3: Florence
We stayed at the Relais Cavalcanti, a very nice no-frills Bed & Breakfast centrally located near the Mercato Nuovo. We stayed there on our last trip, and the room had a nice view of the tower of the Palazzo Vecchio, so we were looking forward to another stay.
To the first timer pulling up to the Relais Cavalcanti, it looks as though this couldn't possibly be the place. It is right next to an outdoor Irish Pub, with a graffiti covered sliding door to the left of the entrance, and Vespas parked along the sidewalk. However, we knew that this was the right spot and walked confidently to the nondescript brown door and rang the bell as several people in the cafe looked on.
When there was no reply to our first ring, we rang again...and again received no reply. Since I'd called ahead from the station in Venice, I knew that they were expecting us but this was still a bit worrisome. We were about to examine our options, but just for good measure gave another ring, and this time received a reply.
We were let in and dragged our bags up the long flight of stairs to the elevator. (DH says it doesn't really make sense to have an elevator, if you have to drag everything up a flight of stairs first and I must say that I sort of agree with him there).
We dropped our bags in our room, and then we were off to start having some fun in Florence. (Translation: I wanted to shop, and DH was patient with that) After a couple of hours of wonderful window shopping on the Ponte Vecchio where I just narrowly avoided spending every cent budgeted for the entire trip on some awesome earrings, we returned to the bed & breakfast to get ready for dinner.
Here is a summary of the restaurants we went to in Florence. I had done a lot of research on this site and chowhounds.com and tripadvisor among others, since we weren't that thrilled with our restaurants last trip. These were all highly recommended:
First night: Trattoria Quattro Leoni: a wonderful casual and inexpensive little spot on a quiet piazza in the Oltrarno. We had made reservations online, and I'd recommend it since they were very busy. We were greeted with two glasses of prosecco, and the service was warm & friendly. We sat outside and had a wonderful first night in Florence. The total bill for two dinners with wine was only about 50 Euro!
Second night: La Giostra
This is a more romantic and intimate restaurant, with lovely atmosphere. It was started by a Hapsburg prince and his two sons, and I was very excited to go there. I had originally requested an outdoor table, but when we had seen the restaurant's outdoor seating that afternoon, we knew that indoors was the way to go. Not to mention, it was about 95 degrees and we needed relief from the heat! Our meal was more expensive but not outrageous. Highly recommended.
Third night: Acqua al Due
This was promoted as a lively, bustling place with reservations essential. We had our reservations, and I was looking forward to another great night. Unfortunately, it was NOT a good night. For some reason, our waiter never gave us any service! People who had come in at the same time as we had, and even later were eating their third course before we had even received a thing! (And, no, I don't think we'd committed any offenses...our English-born waiter had been very friendly to us when he'd taken our drink order, but then studiously ignored us for the next hour.) When I finally asked about it, as our neighbors were receiving their secondi, he acted somewhat surprised, then came over and apologized with some story about one of the ovens not working. Finally, our meals arrived and we thought all was well, until we tried to order espresso. 15 minutes later, still no espresso, so we asked for the check (it was 10:00 by then). At that point, he acted shocked and said, "Oh, you ordered espresso, didn't you?" So we said that was okay we no longer wanted it, but he brought it anyway with the bill. We paid the bill and left, very disappointed with such poor service, but determined not to let it ruin our entire night. I would NOT recommend this restaurant; the woman who runs it is very abrupt, diners are practically sitting in each others' laps, and the food wasn't even that good.
Fun things to do at night in Florence:
Piazza della Republica is usually a hopping place. The same gypsy band was there that we saw last time (three years ago). We like to sit at one of the outdoor cafes with a glass of wine and people watch.
Piazza della Signoria is also very active at night. It's fun to sit at one of the cafes there and admire the statues and take lots of pictures that all look the same of the Palazzo Vecchio.
Street musicians play outside the Uffizi (we really enjoyed the guitar player this year who played Simon & Garfunkel and other baby boomer tunes) and a more hip area is the Ponte Vecchio, where we felt more like chaperones but it's so beautiful we didn't care.
There's a small store at the corner of the Santa Croce Piazza right across from the Peruzzi store that sells beautiful gold leaf items. The couple who run it are lovely, and it's a great place to pick up truly nice souvenirs.
Signum (between Piazza della Signoria and Piazza Santa Croce) sells prints of antique maps which I'm a sucker for, as well as beautiful leather books and gilt edged stationery.
The Misuri leather store in Piazza Santa Croce has some great deals on quality leather goods, and the Gold Market store connected to it carries some nice jewelry.
The Erboristeria in Piazza della Signoria (right next to the pizza place, across from the Rivoire cafe) has some very nice perfumes and body lotions with authentic old fragrances like Limone di Sicillia and Lavender. Much less expensive than what you'll find at Santa Maria Novella, and very high quality. Great gifts.
Farmacia Santa Maria Novella: on this fourth trip to Florence, I was determined to locate this mecca of fragrances and body lotions. We did find it at last, but it is in a less than attractive area and quite a long walk. The building is very lovely, and I received personal and attentive service (I was the only customer at the time). The products are special but very costly. I did buy a few things and I'm looking forward to trying them.
Ponte Vecchio: I didn't buy anything there this trip, but i Ristori carries quality jewelry and has great service. Dante Cardini is another nice shop to deal with. Some of the stores don't seem as nice as these two, and I can vouch for the honesty of these merchants. Word to the wise: never pay the asking price. They'll almost always come down if you ask what their best price is. Paying cash also helps in most stores.
Sights to see:
After the Uffizi and the Accademia (David), San Lorenzo church has many wonderful masterpieces. The Bargello is also highly recommended if you like sculpture. Capelle Medicee doesn't take long, and contains some beautiful works by Michelangelo.
Tip: every afternoon, we would find the restaurant where we'd be eating that evening. That way, we could make all the wrong turns ahead of time. This was a great help in getting to the reservations in a timely manner, and much more calmly!
Well, sorry to be so long-winded, but I hope some of this is helpful to anyone planning a trip.
Next time: Fun Times Driving Standard...Where's Reverse? ...Driving through Chianti region to San Quirico d'Orcia
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