Driving, Pisa and the Med

Breakfast Florence

Today’s synopsis is brought to you by Sarah who, in a moment of extreme frustration today said “Some days you make all the right decisions and everything is good and you have a great day, and then there are those other days…”

Today started as one of the other days when our apartment internet connection was painfully molasses-y while I was trying to upload 1000 pictures to finish the post from yesterday. It took forever this morning. I can’t even talk about it. It didn’t put us behind but spending a couple hours glaring at my computer with gritted teeth and saying “U P L O A D!” wasn’t the best start to the morning.

I have to give props to Sarah and all my friends and family who travel with me and have the utmost patience to sit with their hands in their laps while I photograph all their food and wait patiently (and quietly) while I blog and write every day. You’re the best and I love you all.

I finally finished and we packed, left the house, had the breakfast above, which was great and also had a view of the Arno river, and then the sun came out! And so did all the tourists!

Florence from the ponte vecchio

We walked over the Ponte Vecchio for the last time (lovely), tried to take a picture with no people in it (unlovely)  and then tried to find a taxi to take us to the airport to get our rental car.

Things we didn’t know: you can’t hail cabs in Florence like you can everywhere else in the world. Instead you need to go to a taxi stand and act like you don’t care and you don’t need a taxi and then one shows up. Indifference, apathy and the correct location are the only things that get you cabs in Florence. We didn’t have any of those things because it took us a long time to figure that out, multiple cabs passed us by and we really really wanted to get out of Florence.

A couple strangers finally took pity on us and explained the system and we finally got a cab that took us to the airport only to discover that the airport rental cars aren’t at the actual airport, they’re accessible only by shuttle bus. So again with the indifference, apathy and finding the correct location for the rental car shuttle bus. Finally we got our car, finally Sarah figured out the clutch, a rather harrowing business, after which she said “You know what I need now? Chocolate.”

One piece of chocolate later we lurched our way out of the airport parking lot, started out going the correct direction and then it started raining and then we got lost, at which point I remembered a conversation we’d had the night before about whether or not to get a GPS for the car and Sarah said “How much is it? 27 Euros? No! Let’s just get extra glasses of wine instead.”

Perhaps we’d have been less lost if we’d had the glasses of wine before we got in the car. I’m sure we would’ve cared less. As it was, my lap looked like this:

maps of Tuscany

And none of those maps included all the cities we drove through. The next two hours of our lives were small skinny two way highways

Driving through Italy

Leading into one roundabout after another with multiple signs listing cities I’d frantically try to find on the map while Sarah circled the roundabout, I’d find none, we’d make a guess as to our exit, repeat repeat repeat.

We finally gave up on the scenic route and took the “expressway,” a slightly less skinny highway system and then also stopped for lunch when we realized that low blood sugar wasn’t helping.

So, this pizza from a road side stand called al Molinacci in Uzzano was awesome.

Sarah pizza

Can we talk about that wood fired  crust?

Al Molinaccio pizza

We certainly can. And it cost 1 euro! Our whole lunch including beer and a package of nutella cookies (we needed them) cost us 7 euros. And then the tide changed.

The sun came out, Cyndi Lauper came on our radio singing “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun” and we got to Pisa in record time with blue skies and good parking.

How precious is this little wedding cake of a complex?

pisa italy

You can just see the famous tower behind it. And speaking of that tower, I’ve never seen so many ridiculous selfies as I saw in Pisa. Here’s a small sampling, Can you see everyone with their hand out?

Leaning tower of pisa

It’s almost impossible not to play along though, especially on a day with such blue skies. So, here’s Sarah

Sarah in Pisa

And me

me in pisa

And us

pisa selfie

And one more just for good measure in case you can’t remember what it looks like.

Leaning tower of pisa

It’s simply so photographable we couldn’t help ourselves. And unlike everything else in Italy, they plunked it in a huge green open field and made it so easy to take pictures! Thanks Pisa! We could have paid 18 euros to climb the tower but we didn’t. We climbed two yesterday. We’re good.

Instead we took a tower break to photograph gelato (carmel) and cafe (macchiatto)

Gelato y cafe

And buy postcards and jewelry and then we got back in our little silver bullet and zoomed our way to the coast. In what seemed like .3 seconds, we were at the sea.

The Med in Italy

So gorgeous, the Mediterranean.

The Med in Italy

We’d decided to spend the night at the shore and head into wine country tomorrow so after climbing up and down that cliff and watching the waves crash for what seemed like hours, we continued driving down the coast looking for hotels. We swung off the road in Castiglioncello at the first hotel we found that overlooked the ocean to ask if they had a room.

They did. Would we like to see it? Yes. She takes us downstairs and turns to the sea side of the hotel, opens the door, says “and there’s a balcony” and then she opens that door to this view.

The Med from our balcony

Are we interested in the room?  ARE WE INTERESTED IN THE ROOM? Can I live here? Perhaps forever? Just for tonight? Ok, yes. We’ll take the room.

We moved in and stood on the balcony to take in the view and then only ripped ourselves away because we were starving and it was getting late. And then we tried to find an open restaurant in a small seaside town during off season… not easy. Sarah finally accosted a little old guy on the street to ask him about anything open and he said “Sto pensando… pensando…” and then gave us directions up the street to a place he was sure was open and promised we would eat very well. He actually kissed his fingers, God bless him.

The place he recommended was Scolapasta, a white table cloth place that looked very shi shi but starving beggars can’t be choosers so we went in and sat down… and then proceeded to have the best meal I’ve had since I got to Europe, perhaps one of my best all year.

Bread and wine

Ristorante Scolapasta Italy

Fresh handmade pasta so thin I could see through it

Ristorante Scolapasta Italy

Fresh grilled seafood

Ristorante Scolapasta Italy

And a yogurt mousse dessert so light it was the texture of whipped cream.

Ristorante Scolapasta

Sarah and I couldn’t get over ourselves or this food. I’ve never had Italian pasta that good ever. Not once. And if I’d left Italy and not eaten food like this, I’d have been so sad. I’m also so glad it was by the sea because the seafood was so fresh. Outstanding. All around.

Ristorante Scolapasta Italy

Cheers Scolapasta. You’re magnificent.

And then we bought a bottle of wine and went back to our balcony because.. views.

Sarah and the Med

And that’s how a day turns around. Thank God.

Tomorrow: wine country.

Il Duomo and David in Florence

Florence Italy

When Sarah first suggested Italy, the answer was yes even though it would be a short trip. Overall I do believe it’s better to go for a short period of time than not go at all but seriously, Florence, Italy in one day!?? Who does that?

Terrible idea, for the record. I mean, glorious, but terrible.

I flew in to Florence from Prague by way of Paris, making it a three language kind of day. Already Italian is easier for me than German since I have a Spanish language background. But even though I think I know what I’m talking about,  I’m continually pronouncing everything wrong . Fortunately Sarah’s Italian is decent, better than her Russian but not as good as her German, French, English or Spanish. I would hate her just a little bit out of sheer jealousy except she’s just so darn adorable.

Sarah in the sun

She’s basking in our 15 minutes of sun today. Sigh. Florence for one day and it poured rain? Why why why!

Anyway, we each managed to find our airbnb flat in Florence last night. I always consider finding someone in a foreign country a bit of a miracle since my phone doesn’t work unless it’s connected to wifi. How did we function before cell phones? I hardly remember.

We went out for a glass of wine and see our neighborhood, the Oltrarno right by the Ponte Vecchio, a beautiful unusual bridge full of shops that dates back to the medieval era.

Ponte Vecchio Florence

The rest of our neighborhood is a hilly little warren of shops and cathedrals and restaurants and the occasional teenager hanging out. This was my favorite picture of the evening.

Oltrarno Florence

Italians and their pizza. Not a myth.

This morning Sarah came out to the living room to tell me – somewhat worriedly – that we had no hot water in the shower. She’s Swiss and frugal so she let it run for two seconds and then took a 2 minute cold shower. I let it run for 5 minutes and voila! hot water!

Other cultural differences showed themselves at breakfast. Please guess which side of this table belongs to the American.

Florence Breakfast

Over breakfast we made a somewhat sketchy plan for the day that included seeing Il Duomo – one of Europe’s biggest cathedrals and Florence’s show piece – and then going to the Galleria to see Michelangelo’s David, having lunch at the mercato centrale, “seeing a few more things” taking a break around 5 and having dinner around 7. Piece of cake. Best of Florence in one day. Gentlemen, start your engines. It hadn’t yet rained at this point so optimism was running high.

Wow. Il Duomo. Just wow.

The Duomo Florence

So big. So pretty with all that pink and white and green. Like a humongous birthday cake.

The Duomo Florence

The Duomo Florence

And almost impossible to photograph, of course. Also full of tourists with lines out the door to get in, so Sarah and I said “Nope” and we went around the corner to Giotto’s Campanile, the bell tower, where it just so happened we could climb up inside and get a better view of the Duomo.

The Campanile Florence

Climb a tower? Don’t mind if we do.

Stairs up the Campanile

Stairs up these towers are no joke and this one was an up/down staircase requiring everyone to flatten to either side of the wall/railing to let the opposing traffic stream get by. Only slightly hazardous and in Europe, just another day.

414 steps. 85 meters high. The views? Spectacular.

The Duomo Florence

How pretty does that Duomo look now? This cathedral took 170 years to build, which means no one who designed it or began the project lived to see it completed. I try to picture an architect now making plans for the grandest building of his life that he’ll never see finished and I can’t do it.

The Duomo Florence

Notice all those tiny people up in the cupola around the Duomo dome? Yes, our tower ticket included the privileged possibility of yet another tower climb that day, should we so desire. But the day was still young so we forgot about it and just attempted the first of many selfies.

Kaitlyn and Sarah

The results of which were mixed and the attempting of which was hilarious.

Kaitlyn and Sarah When it started to rain at 11, Sarah got a bit outraged. “Kaitlyn, you said it was supposed to rain at noon! It’s 11!” The rain eventually drove us off the roof and we headed down only to find a steady stream of visitors trying to get up. We’d timed our visit perfectly since now that it was raining, everyone wanted to be inside a building somewhere and lines for the campanile were now out the door and across the plaza.

We walked through the rain to the Mercato Centrale, a farmers”s market on the bottom floor selling the gorgeous fresh produce for which Italy is justly famous

Mercato Centrale Florence

And a food court on top selling gorgeous antipasti for which Italy is also famous.

Mercato Centrale Florence

That’s a trufffle antipasti with mushrooms, mozzarella, proscuitto and tomatoes covered with shaved slices of truffle. The mushrooms and truffle were particularly delish.

After our fortifying snack, we went onward into the rain. By this point it was pouring and when we finally found the Accademia Gallery, the lines consisted of a thousand umbrellas covering damp tourists lined up along the walls and around the corners. I had that sinking feeling that everyone in Florence would be inside the gallery taking selfies in front of the most famous statue in the world and trying to stay out of the rain.

We talked about not doing it. Standing in line sucks and standing in line in the rain simply for the privilege of swimming through a crowd of damp tourists sucks even more, which brings up the major problem with spending only a day in a major city: the wait times. Technically it’s possible to see all of Florence’s major sites in a day if you have a good pair of shoes, a lot of energy and an endless capacity for history, art and culture. Don’t waste time taking photographs, talking to anyone or absorbing much of Florence’s street culture and you can do it.

Except for the wait times! Everyone in town wants to see all the same stuff you do and it’s simply impossible to figure out when the “off times” are and the lines are shortest. More time is wasted waiting in line than traveling from one thing to another, for sure. So at a certain point you have to commit to what you want to see and get zen with the queue.

Sarah and took a deep breath, prepared ourselves for a wait and got in line. Fortunately the line wasn’t that bad and we were inside the gallery in about 30 minutes. And it wasn’t even that crowded inside the gallery! How’s that for a tourist win? Plus that statue took my breath away.

Michelangelo's David

The thing is, when you see a painting in real life that you’ve only ever seen in pictures, there’s a visceral thrill of realness. The colors are always slightly different, paint textures, size, impact etc. But a statue? No picture can convey the impact of a piece of sculpture, The weight, the sheer size, the details, the way you can walk around it and see every side and every angle. It’s breathtaking.

Michelangelo's David

I’ve seen pictures of David a thousand times but never noticed how giant his hands were sculpted, completely out of proportion to his body. And the veins on his arms and neck are so striking. It’s odd to me that body musculature is so fantastic and realistic and his head and hair are so stylized and yet the whole effect is one of realness and life. I also had no idea he was so gigantic. Here’s a terrible picture for scale.

Michelangelos' David

Thank God that plinth is so high because he towers over everyone and it’s possible to photograph him from any angle without getting other people in the picture.

We spent a long time here just looking at him. Most visitors to this gallery did as well. I saw a lot of people put down their cameras and just take him in with their human eyes, a phenomenon that doesn’t happen often these days. I don’t know why he has such an impact but he really does.

Nothing else in the gallery compares to him, just medieval triptychs aplenty. But he’s worth the wait and the admission ticket.

The rest of the afternoon went quickly. We had to abandon our plans to visit the Uffizi Gallery because there simply wasn’t time. Sorry Botticelli, next time! And instead we went back to the Duomo, hoping the lines were shorter. They weren’t. But they also went quickly. We had good queueing karma today.

The inside of the Duomo, however, was disappointing and boring. It’s the emptiest cathedral I’ve ever seen and all the glory is outside. We did take a peek into the crypt at the remains of the older cathedral. This space dedicated to Santa Reparata dates back to 1-4AD and il Duomo was built on her remains. That floor is 2000 years old. Insane.

Santa Reparata Florence

And then we went across the plaza to the Baptistery, the last remaining building of the Duomo congregation. Unlike the Duomo, the Baptistery is stunning inside. it looks the way I expected the Duomo to look.

The Baptistery Florence

And the ceiling murals are covered in gold leaf.

The Baptistery Florence

The sole purpose of this building is baptisms. It’s just a small octagonal chapel with a baptismal font. For centuries, all the kids in Florence were baptized here yearly on March 25, the day of Mary’s Annunciation, and artistically this baptistery is a much more beautiful space than the Duomo.

So, at this point we were – as you probably also are – exhausted. The afternoon was completely gone, our time frame was but a fleeting memory and the only question was: have a glass of wine now or climb the last tower of the day?

I opted for the tower since I’ve never climbed two towers in Europe in one day and Sarah agreed under a tiny bit of duress. Her breakfast brioche hadn’t carried her as far as my omelette gigante. Ultimately, it was the last event on our ticket so we went for it.

Good Lord, that climb. I’ve never seen stairs like that and at this point I’ve climbed a lot of towers. There were circular stairs and tiny stairs, super low stairs, two way stairs, stairs that went completely vertical like a ladder and stairs that arched over the dome

Climbing the Duomo

If someone fell down those stairs, I don’t know how they’d get them out.

464 stairs later, we made it to the top where a small waist-high railing simply suggested that perhaps we should take caution and we could look down upon the Campanile and say “remember when we thought that was high?”

IMG_5495

The sun came out for a few brief minutes at the top of this dome, we reveled in all our climbing and then we somehow got back down those stairs, past all the the opposing stream of traffic coming up the stairs and that was the end of our day in Florence.

I leave you here with yet another piece of breathtaking sculpture, outside the Uffizi gallery where we had our well deserved glass of wine in the Piazza della Signorina

The Uffizi Gallery Florence

Firenze, you’ve been a pleasure and a delight. I’ll come back any time.

And now we’ve rented a car. Get ready Chianti country, we’re coming for you!