Thursday, January 8, 2015

Italian New Year Part III - Florence

On New Year's Eve we headed to Florence to meet Chris and Natasha, two of Sara's close friends, who were spending the week between Christmas and New Years in Italy.  When we arrived, we toured the Uffizi, stopped by the Duomo and walked a bit around town during the day.  We headed back to the apartment Chris and Natasha had rented in the late afternoon to relax and get ready for our evening out.
The Uffizi Museum
The Duomo's beauty is impossible to capture with photography

The shop down the road from our apartment filled wine bottles that you brought in from a tap.
We went to dinner at a recommended restaurant were, per Italian tradition, they were featuring seafood.  Where we first thought we had to choose from a selection for our first course, second course, dessert, etc., we soon found out that we were eating what was basically a ten-course meal.  The food was excellent, although a bit heavy on seafood for my taste (admittedly that was the point).  Although we got to the restaurant at 8:30, we had to rush out to get to the river before midnight.  Like most of Europe, Italy celebrates NYE by shooting off massive amounts of fireworks at midnight and throughout the night.  I was hoping there would be a city-organized display, but it was just tons of Italians setting off fireworks by themselves.  What the show lacked in organization, it made up in quantity, vigor and spontaneity.  After the fireworks died down, we hopped into some weird bar/disco playing awful 80s music. We danced, badly, for a half hour.  Further down the road, one of a dozen city-sponsored concerts filled a piazza with live music, families, champagne, and of course, more fireworks.  We were home by 1:30 and slept in on New Year's Day.
Sara and I before heading out on NYE

Natasha and Sara at dinner 
Music in the piazza
 Many of the major tourist sites in Florence were closed on Jan. 1, but we found a modern museum with a fantastic Picasso exhibit open for the day.  We had been worried about restaurants and shops being closed all day as well, but quite a bit was actually open.  After lunch, we walked to one of my favorite spots in Florence - Piazza Michelangelo.  Fifteen years ago, this was my first view of the city, looking down on the majestic red roofs and the dominating Duomo.  The Arno river crawls across the landscape, crisscrossed by bridges with the famous Ponte Vecchio in the center.  Despite a few subsequent trips to Florence, I had yet to return to this first wonderful view and it was as great as I remembered.  The sun shone brightly with a crisp blue sky, while an Italian singer crooned U2 and Coldplay cover songs in the background.  Despite the crowds, we were able to secure a spot along the railing and just look across the city and hills.  We were in no hurry to go anywhere or do anything and we just stayed there for close to an hour.  Everything was just serene.  Probably my favorite part of our time in Florence.

It was not warm.  We were wearing coats, but Sara wanted a photo without our coats on.

The Ponte Vecchio and Arno River

That evening, we had another wonderful dinner.  Chris wanted to try a famous Florentine steak - a thick T-bone weighing in at over a kilo (2.2 lbs.).  Having personal experience with Italian beef, I thought better of it and stuck to pasta.  Surprisingly, the steak was fantastic, perfectly cooked (really hard to do with a 2 lb T-bone), wonderful flavor.  Smartly, Chris didn't even attempt to eat the whole thing. 

The next morning, as Chris and Natasha headed to Chianti to do a wine tour, Sara and I headed back into town to take a free walking tour.  As a former tour guide, I can admittedly be a bit of a tour guide snob.  I have certain expectations and I have generally found that these free walking tours offer some of the best tours (better than many paid tours I have taken).  As they generally work for tips only, they have to be good in order to make money.  There is an art to corralling large groups of people, regaling them with interesting and (mostly) truthful stories about art, history, food, people, and culture.  Give them more than they can get from a guide book.  Oh, and be on time and make it easy for people to find you.  Like I said, I am a bit of a tour guide snob.  The tour that we went on was easily the worst tour I have ever been on.  The guide was late, leaving dozens of people wandering around the square wondering if they had the right time and place.  She spoke like a mouse and her microphone system was broken.  The only information she provided was opening and closing times and the cost of visiting sites.  She gave some vague information on dates and who built stuff, but none of it came alive.  It was worse than reading your high school history book.  After our third stop, I made Sara leave the tour (she wasn't enjoying it either) and we ventured off on our own.

We wandered into the Central market, which was the perfect end to your foodie trip.  This market was filled to the gills with fantastic produce, cheeses, bread, bottles of oil and vinegar, and meats of all varieties (Sara didn't like the chickens with heads), as well as flowers and spices.  While somewhat touristy, this is where many Florentines come to shop on a daily basis.  Upstairs from this fresh food mecca, they had an upscale food court, serving all sorts of cooked to order meals (even fast food in Italy is cooked to order).

I loved the calm reflective waters of the Arno

Look at these oranges!

And the artichokes (artsy photo courtesy of Sara Caniglia)

Our final walk over the Arno

One thing I forgot - the Gelato!!!  We ate tons of it.  Sara got mad at me a few times because I am a gelato snob and won't just eat it anywhere.  She complained as we stopped at several "gelaterias" and I made her turn around again.  When we found one of the good places, she admitted it was worth the extra walk.  God the gelato was good.

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