Sunday, August 10, 2014

A More Wonderful Florence

Florence is a feast for the eyes, mind, and heart.  There are glorious works of art and architecture at every turn. Compared to my earlier trips to Florence, I found the city gratefully cleaner and more manageable for a tourist.  This was due to 1) restrictions on cars in the areas that have the most attractions, and 2) the purchase of a Firenze Card. This one-time tourist ticket applicable to most sites was a little bit pricier that buying individual tickets, but allowed us to go into the cathedrals and museums through a separate entrance that rarely had a line. An approximate extra twelve dollars earned us much more time doing what we came to do rather than standing in long lines.  I recommend it highly. As for the fewer cars, you can really feel the difference.  Walking (and window shopping!) is infinitely easier since you are not perpetually dodging cars and scooters, and the entire city is quieter and less dirty as the result of less pollution, air, noise, or otherwise.

The lobby of Palazzo Magnoni Feroni

Another recommendation is to stay oltr'Arno, which means stay at a hotel or pensione on the "other side" of the Arno river which has fewer historical monuments or museum and, therefore, fewer tourists.  It is quieter, and you will meet more true Florentines, adding only an extra 5 minutes to your daily walk to the sites.  On the strong recommendation of a friend, we had the special pleasure of staying at Palazzo Magnoni Feroni.  I researched this hotel and originally resisted it since the price was steeper than we usually spend. My friend, a seasoned traveler herself, urged me to consider how tired I would be after a long day of city sightseeing and how much I would appreciate a comfortable place to stay, and she pushed me to stay at this Palazzo.  'Wise friend, she could not have been more right.  The Palazzo offered us elegant, though not stuffy, accommodations with impeccably friendly and helpful service in all ways.  The staff filled our every need, even needs we didn't know we had!  A special treat -- the hotel has both a courtyard and a rooftop bar; each allows you to be outdoors without being among crowds, and the rooftop view was spectacular.  Both outdoor settings provided us with a comfortable place to rest at the end of our full days, and I could not be more pleased with our choice.  Lastly on this subject, my friend got a good deal on this hotel via Expedia, and we got a good deal in that they upgraded our room to a larger suite!  'Can't say why, but who am I to ask?

We dined very well, as described in the previous post. The rest of our time in Florence was spent marveling at the magnificence of the past maintained.  At times, words cannot describe my awe.  Just a few photos will have to do.

A view from the Uffizi Galleries

An exceptionally beautiful dome of one of the galleries of the Uffizi

Michelangelo's David (need I say more?)

Il Ratto delle Sabine (Giambologna) in the Piazza della Signoria

I viaggiatori felici !

Monday, August 4, 2014

Eat, Drink, and Be Merry!

Where does one begin when sharing the wonders of Florence?  The history abounds, the art work astounds, and the food, well, that's where I must start!  We had three memorable meals in Florence, but they were punctuated by daily doses of gelato and, in one case, two doses a day!  Since I am an ice cream lover wherever I am in the world, it is a real treat to be enjoying the special kind they make in Italy, creamier, tastier, and deceptively lighter than American ice cream. We were out to find the best gelato in Florence and tried three places in three days: the renowned Vivoli, near the Piazza della Croce, Gelateria La Carraia, which has multiple shops with one conveniently around the corner from our hotel, and Gelateria della Passera, in the quiet Piazza della Passera near the Pitti Palace and Boboli Gardens.

While time has not taken its toll on Florence, it has taken its toll on Vivoli.  Should you find yourself in Florence, skip it.  Uninspired flavors, small portions, and unfriendly service make it an exception to most other gelaterias, so why bother? La Carraia provided generous portions, interesting flavors with a creamy texture to match -- it was no surprise that there was always a line outside.  Even better, though, was Gelateria della Passera that offered the most inspiring flavors, including cioccolato all'arancia (Chocolate with orange) and pompelmo rosa (pink grapefruit) which I combined with limone.  We have a winnner. Perfection!

The flavors at Gelateria della Passera. 'A little out of the way, but well worth it!

There were stellar meals in Florence, too, of course.  We ate modern Italian cuisine at Il Santo Bevitore, shared a huge Florentine bistecca at the popular Trattoria Pandemonio, and enjoyed memorable homemade pasta and grilled pork chop at a locals' favorite, I'Brindellone.

Each was so different from the rest that one could not choose a favorite, but if I had only one more night to eat in Florence and had to choose from these three, I would choose I'Brindellone with Il Santo Bevitore a close second, both of which I have reviewed on TripAdvisor.  So that's my foodie's report from heaven in Florence.  Never fear, we did not just eat -- we saw a great deal of art, architecture, and historic sites, and hopefully a post on those will follow.  There is one breathtaking site after another in Florence, and I appreciated that more on this visit than ever before.  Sightseeing, though, is needs's my best evidence of our time well spent.


Saturday, August 2, 2014

A Room with a View

The Italian Lake District was a very hard place to leave.  The scenery is beyond compare, with the lake views or mountains at every turn, and it offers water sports and mountain hikes combined with sophisticated hotels and family-owned restaurants.  We were particularly lucky to be staying at Relais Villa Vittoria in Laglio, a classy yet unpretentious small hotel on Lake Como.  Our room was elegant without being fancy, and the view was spectacularly romantic.  The hotel had a welcoming pool that has one wall of glass, making it appear that it flows right into the lake.  'Unusual, and quite fascinating! Our time for rest after kayaking or hiking could not have been spent in more beautiful surroundings.

An attraction of the Italian Lake District is its proximity to Switzerland.  I was determined to go there since I have had a fascination with the Alps since I was young.  We traveled a mere two hours north of Laglio to a  storybook town named Soglio that time seemed to have forgotten.  It met the stereotypical features of Switzerland (Svizzera) with its dramatic mountains, tiny houses, and hilly paths. The drive was easy, though the Italian reputation for fast driving remains intact, and I got the dose of Alpine views that I was craving.

My feeling is that if you're staying on a lake, you had better got onto that lake!  We did so by taking a short kayaking trip out of Bellagio, a larger town (quite touristy) on Lake Como.  The trip was run by Bellagio Water Sports and Kayak Club, and our tour guide, Mich, could not have been more friendly or helpful. From our very first email contact with him to our final photos and goodbyes, he was reliable and informative. And we got our opportunity to see the land from the water -- a whole new perspective.

Of course, we ate and drank well the entire time we were in Lake Como, and especially liked the local restaurant in Laglio, La Locanda del Cantiere.  We never spotted Laglio's celebrity resident, George Clooney, but his home was up the road and, of course, was the object of some curiosity on our parts. I found Laglio to be the perfect place to start our vacation after so many busy months.  It is a peaceful setting for some R & R, with enough attractions and activity to keep you going.  I hated to leave, though Firenze called, so not a bad place to face next!

A couple of personal notes: The Italian language I've been studying all summer has come in handy, but nearly all of the Italians we encounter speak English. In Florence, I'm getting a little more practice in, and the Italians seem to appreciate my efforts.  Also, wi-fi access has been less than reliable, so I'm keeping things short and sweet -- come check out @TravelFan15 on Twitter.