This is the second of my three part series on exploring Italy with two friends.
I was pretty sure that our taxi driver had brought us to the wrong place when we pulled up outside our next Airbnb. A plaque on the building said “Embassy of Bangladesh” and I was very sure we didn’t have diplomatic credentials. At least I didn’t. We were in the right place but it was no longer an embassy. Or maybe just the bottom floor was? We loaded up our luggage and one person into the cubicle of a lift and two of us took the stairs. We were a bit early for check in but able to drop off luggage, which freed up our hands to eat lunch.
By mere chance and good fortune, and the kind of coincidence that makes you feel like the universe is having a mischievous day, the restaurant kitty corner from the Embassy was one Mary Anne had visited and loved during a trip 30 years before. The food was still marvelous and stumbling upon this happy memory made it even more delightful. (Angie and I immediately noticed the Irish Pub nearby. We saved that knowledge for the night we would be jonesing for a cheeseburger and fries.)
The Airbnb apartment itself was rather stunning. Fourteen foot ceilings, marble floors, archways between the living and dining areas. The living room was big enough to dance in. Even though the weather was grey (off-season has its downsides), there was plenty of light during the day because of the huge windows. In short, they were pretty swanky digs. Some of the amenities were not up to superhost standards. The owners seemed particularly concerned that people would steal their towels. (Trust me, the towels were not worth stealing.) They also gave us two rolls of toilet paper (one in each bathroom) for our three day stay. With three women. And two small bars of soap. Nevertheless, we made ourselves at home. (And bought more toilet paper the next day.) The owners/managers were not nearly as helpful as most Airbnb superhosts are. The place was spectacular; how the owners made it to superhost status we don’t know.
Walking Around the Duomo Area
We spent our first full day in Florence exploring the Duomo area, hitting into little shops, snapping pictures (do we still “snap” pictures?), and basically just feeling the vibe of the city. Florence has a most excellent vibe. For the first time in months, I heard American accents. Right out of the gate we met a couple of American women, walking their dog. Cooing over dogs is a great way to meet people, but mostly, we just wanted to pet ALL the dogs. Angie and Mary Anne were missing their four-legged furbabies and Florence’s dogs were happy to accept all the pats, back scratches, and reassurances that they were, indeed, such good dogs.
Mary Anne had told me about the Fabriano Boutique, a wondrous shop with all kinds of incredibly fine paper and journals and pens and folders and all sorts of things that fascinate people who write and make art. Exquisite is the short review. Let’s just say that if you are a writer, if you appreciate creamy paper and ink that flows effortlessly, the Fabriano Boutique is a must-shop.
We wandered into a leather goods store with a lovely elderly shopkeeper who insisted that we not look at the price tags; he would make us a happy price. And he did. There’s nothing like breathing in the scent of leather; it is, to me, more intoxicating than any perfume. (Is that weird?) I found a gorgeous leather jacket, just the right weight for Portugal and Italy, at a price that made me not just happy but ecstatic. We stopped at several leather goods stores throughout the day, but ended up going back to “our” shopkeeper to buy gloves and a few more items. I am thinking about marrying him.
I had two requirements for a lunch establishment: It must have something I would actually eat (I have the dietary range of a spoiled three year old) and it had to have HEAT. Again, off-season in Italy is chilly and damp. We had a fantastic lunch in the backroom of a little restaurant, splitting a pizza and trying a couple of side dishes, including a very peppery carbonara.
After lunch, we went to the da Vinci museum, a small space, hands-on experience, great for kids and for adults who like to play. The museum had working models of some of da Vinci’s designs and you could turn cranks and pull levers and play with blocks to your heart’s content. So we did.
Of course we spent time admiring the Duomo. The construction started in 1296 and was completed in 1436. The dome itself took 16 years to build. The outside is faced with green and pink marble panels, bordered by white and as the Earth moves around the sun, and the clouds scud in and out, it seems to be in constant change. We didn’t take the tour (we didn’t go inside a lot of places, trying to limit our exposure to COVID), but we were able to admire the sheer engineering mastery that built a structure that large and beautiful in a time without heavy equipment and modern maths.
Some sidewalk art near the Piazza del Duomo.
The Piazza surrounding the Duomo was busy with tourists but not overcrowded, a benefit of visiting in the off-season. It was lively, but easy to maneuver through the streets and sidewalks. Rome was more of game of dodgems. For us, we are more about experiencing the people, the out of the way shops, and back streets of a city rather than ticking off a list of tourist spots.
Side Trip to Bologna
The train system is the easiest way of exploring Italy, short of having a private driver at your beck and call. The train system in Italy, as in most European countries, is fast and convenient and we took advantage of that to visit Bologna for a day, figuring we would look around, have lunch, look around some more. There were protests going on throughout the country that resulted in a several hours delay of just about every train in the country, so we got to spend some time in the Florence train depot. We grabbed coffee and croissants, and then people (and doggie) watched. We debated abandoning the trip, decided to stick it out and eventually boarded our train to Bologna.
The Bologna train station is huge. It is a crossroads for Italy and the station has who-knows-how-many levels. We made our way to the street, encountered an orderly protest and made our way around it. Bologna is known as a “foodie’s paradise” and we climbed a hill to an area crowded with restaurants for every taste and degree of appetite. Unfortunately, we hit at the exact time most were closing for their break between lunch and dinner service. We found a restaurant that was open and had a delightful meal. Of course, I ordered the Bolognese and was not disappointed.
It got dark early; the drizzle didn’t help. We headed back towards the train station, taking time to stop at an outdoor Christmas market. We checked out several booths, bought a few trinkets, listened to the music. We may or may not have picked up an abundance of pastries. I am sworn to secrecy.
Bologna seemed grey and dismal and a little rundown, but I don’t think that’s a fair assessment. I suspect I need to see it again in sunlight to get a true feel for the city.
I Shall Return
The people in Florence were more relaxed and friendlier than in Rome. The pace was less hurried but still vibrant. Florence just had a happier vibe going, like it was okay with itself and didn’t need to prove anything to anyone. I have marked it down as the number one place in Italy that I want to return to and spend more time, probably at least several weeks. Due to limited time and really, icky weather, we didn’t get out to any of the wineries or see much of the countryside. Exploring Italy in more depth is definitely on my agenda. I’ll return to Florence in warmer weather to get to know this area better and to branch out to see more of this dynamic country.