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Solo Traveller’s Guide to Florence – Part 2

Oltrarno B&B

The windows in my room at the Oltrarno B&B

This is my last morning in Florence. I wake up, pull back the curtains, watch the traffic flow on the street outside. My B&B right now is in the Oltrarno (the other side of the Arno River), which has given me a chance to explore beyond the usual tourist bounds of central Florence. One thing I’ve noticed is that almost everyone who lives in Florence is originally from Florence, the opposite of melting pots like New York, London, Berlin or Barcelona.

I’ve found that the restaurants are better, on average, in the Oltrarno. I’ve met locals, enjoyed the slower pace, and only once felt uncomfortably stared at during lunch. I’ve also found myself overwhelmed by the age and artwork of Florence.

Pitti Palace sculpture

This sculpture was one of my favorite in the Pitti Palace.

I love the history of the city. It was once the most influential place on Earth, where Leonardo da Vinci, Galileo and Michelangelo helped the world move past the Black Death period and forward to what came next. I wish I could have seen Florence then.

In the past few days, I visited Donatello’s tomb and learned about the Medicis. I saw Michelangelo’s David statue in person, and it is categorically different than most other sculpture. It has its own life, apart from the crowds of tourists who throng the Accademia Gallery. I can only encourage you to see it in person if the opportunity arises.

Here are some other highlights from the past few days.

The Firenze Card

Final assessment: Totally worth it. For maximum enjoyment and minimum burn-out, activate it around 1pm on a Tuesday so that it expires around 1pm on Friday. This will allow you to avoid weekend crowds and Mondays, when many museums in Florence are closed. I skipped the lines everywhere I went and saw the major museums in about three hours a day, along with everything else I wanted to do (hint: eating, wandering). My favorites were as follows:

Michelangelo's David

Michelangelo’s David – different view

Uffizi: Great art and a sense of history.

Gallerie dell’Accademia: Michelangelo’s David.

Pal Davanzati: After the Uffizi and the Accademia gallery, this was my favorite museum in Florence. It’s a small palace once occupied by a wealthy family and meticulously preserved, down to the authentic drawings on the walls. Apparently, writing and drawing on the walls was a thing in Renaissance Florence (the Palazzo Vecchio also has drawings on the back of a fireplace there).

Pal Davanzati

Escheriffic – the Pal Davanzati.

The Duomo: The first medieval cathedral not to give me the shivers but instead to have an actually inspiring vibe. I also climbed the stairs to the cupola, a serious workout but worth it for the experience, especially the part where I edged around the giant dome, separated from space by a glass barrier.

Dante House: I was just walking down a street and saw this museum, so I went in and enjoyed it more than expected. Some great story-telling in the exhibits.

I must admit that I didn’t enjoy the Pitti Palace all that much — I think I had art overload — although the Boboli Gardens were nice. Note that they are populated by bees during October (I was hoping they’d be gone by now, but it’s still in the high 70s every day).

More Food

Trattoria Da Sergio: A meat-eater’s restaurant to the core. I treated myself to potato-filled ravioli with a sausage ragu. This was my best meal in Florence, bar none. I tried to return yesterday, but it’s closed on Mondays.

Perche No!: Great cioccolata gelato. Reasonably good mascarpone gelato. Perhaps my fault for ordering them together, allowing the cioccolata to overwhelm the mascarpone.

Grana Market: The owner made me a custom sandwich with ricotta, provolone and pecorino cheeses on a baguette. It cost about 3.50 euros and was amazingly delicious. I ate it at a wooden picnic-table in the back of the store.

Il Cantuccio di San Lorenzo: This bakery specializes in the biscotti, which was superb. The non-biscotti thing I got was just okay; focus on the biscotti.

La Via del Te: Yep, I found a tea house in the Oltrarno. The food is okay, but the tea is spectacular. I tried Oriental Beauty tea for the first time in many years, and it was as good as I remember. I stayed for a second pot of tea recommended by the staff, which was also great.

Bakeries along Via Pisana and Borgo San Frediano: Generally good and much better than bakeries in central Florence. Try whatever catches your eye. There is even an organic bakery. One thing that is hard to find is a bakery/cafe with good Wi-Fi and tables inside that invite lingering. I looked all week for a place like this, finally settling for a place that was half-bar, half-cafe. (Edit: I found one today near the Santa Maria Novella train station.)

The Cinque Terre

Cinque Terre

A view of the Cinque Terre in the morning.

I took a day trip to the Cinque Terre, a group of five small villages clustered along terraced cliffs by the Mediterranean Sea. It was a slow day, a nice break from the inland noise of Florence. Many of the paths between the villages are closed due to damage in a storm three years ago, but I’d love to return when they reopen to hike between and behind villages, through vineyards and rocks and waystops. For now, the trip I took was perfect, with boat and train rides among the villages and leisurely walks along the beach in Monterosso del Mare.

What’s Next

I’m heading to Tuscany today to spend some time on a farm. My goal is to remove distractions as easily as I added them in Florence. I’ll miss Florence, but at the same time I feel like I’ve seen most of the things I came here to see, and am ready for the next stop.

Tips for train travelers: At the Santa Maria Novella train station in central Florence, you need a ticket from a small machine in the biglietteria (ticketing) room before you do anything, even ask for information. Once you have this ticket, your number will appear on the overhead screens for you to buy a ticket or ask for information. The information window is window 19, and there is often a line at this window.

Also, if you’re going a short distance from Florence, you can go with your ticket to the Tabacchi (tobacco/convenience store) in the same room and get a “kilometric” ticket with only a short wait. It will allow you to travel a short distance to your destination without needing to reserve a specific train number/time.

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Solo Traveller’s Guide to Florence – Part 1

Florence is a museum. It’s a chaotic, beautiful, slow, delicious, bureaucratic, welcoming place. It’s full of history and contradictions.

Florence ApartmentI’m staying in the center on a small side street near the Santa Maria Novella train station. My host’s apartment is where she grew up as a girl, now occupied by her daughter and other guests, variably. Today I met the grandparents.

In the apartment, with its polished wooden ceilings and solid wooden doors and arched gateways, I feel at home, floating above Florence’s street noise.

Outside, I feel a bit lost, mainly because it’s easy to get lost! Cellphone GPS helps, but even so I’ve found myself lost three times. Each time, I encountered interesting places, and I’m finally learning my way around the Duomo and its environs.

A few tips for fellow travelers to Italy:

The Paperwork

Consider booking your first night in a hotel. Why? It turns out that hotels take care of some paperwork that you may need to complete yourself otherwise. In my case, that meant spending two hours in a crowded immigration hall instead of at the Uffizi this morning.

This is actually unlikely to happen to you. As far as I can tell (and I am not an expert), it only arises under a specific set of circumstances:

1.) You are staying in Italy for more than eight business days after your arrival; and

2.) You came to Italy via another Schengen (EU) country (this includes connecting flights), instead of getting your passport stamped at an airport in Italy; and

3.) You aren’t staying in a hotel for the first several days (e.g., if you are a guest, staying with family/friends, or hostelling/camping).

Granted, if you ignore this paperwork, nothing is likely to happen. But if you need to go to the police for any reason after your eight days, you could be deported, which sucks and could have other repercussions. I’m staying for a month, so I dealt with the two-hour paperwork process this morning. The whole process made me feel uncomfortable.

Next time I will just book a hotel for the first night.

The Firenze Card

Status in Uffizi

Great art, ignored, and appropriately distressed about it.

Consider buying the Firenze Card if you can make it work for you. This card provides access to nearly all of the major museums in Florence, plus the Boboli Gardens. It works for 72 hours from the time of activation. This is generally inconvenient because:

1.) You may feel pressured to go to as many museums as possible instead of exploring the city as a whole; and

2.) You could end up with museum overload, where you rush past great art because, “Hey, I’ve already seen 50 Botticellis today and I’m hungry.”

But here is the really good thing about the Firenze Card:

It lets you skip the lines.

Bird in Flight by Tower

A bird in flight by the Arnolfo Tower.

If you have seen these lines, which can be hours long, you will know this is a giant benefit. I waited approximately 5 minutes to enter the Uffizi Gallery today and 2 minutes at the Palazzo Vecchio. What is an hour of your time worth? Right. So I got the card. It also comes with a free bus pass; I haven’t used it yet since I tend to walk everywhere, but I like having the option.

I decided to try to spread the Firenze Card’s goodness over four days instead of three, allowing me to maintain a leisurely pace and do non-museum things too. So I activated it Tuesday at 1pm. It’s good until Friday at 1pm.

Tuesday afternoon, I saw the Uffizi Gallery, Palazzo Vecchio and Torre Arnolfo (tower). No lines, so all of this took about 3 hours. Then I meandered through the streets to my favorite gelato place. On my way home, I passed the Basilica de San Lorenzo, so I ducked in there just before closing time. Then I went back to the apartment to upload my pictures, went out for dinner, and returned home to blog and do nerd-related self-directed learning. So far, the Firenze Card is working for me.

The Food

The food is amazing if you know where to go: The TripAdvisor top restaurants list is a good start. I’ve tried four of the top 30 so far, plus some other places:

Mario: The owner of the apartment where I’m staying recommended this place near the Central Market, and it may be the best pasta I ever ate. Clearly homemade, al dente to perfection, with tomato sauce that was light, fresh and not overwhelming. Go early because there’s always a wait, but it’s shorter before noon.

Edoardo Gelato Biologico: There’s a huge line most of the time. It’s still worth it. The plain Crema flavor (fresh eggs with vanilla) is my favorite — always a good sign with food — though I loved the now-vanished weekly special, Honey & Poppyseed.

Ete Bistro: Organic bistro just a few blocks away from where I’m staying. Had a delicious spinach-ricotta gallette for dinner, which was the daily special.

Marco Ottaviano Il Gelato Gourmet: It was very good gelato, with great pistachio and Crema del Duca (lemon) flavors, but I preferred Edoardo. Both places far surpassed the gelato I ate in my life prior to Italy.

Amorino: Awesome panini and extremely friendly owner — I had tuna, capers and olive oil on flat focaccia bread.

Central Market food court: The cheese place at the end on the left has amazing fresh ricotta, which I paired with a small roll from the bakery a few stands down. The other cheese place has a wider selection, and I took home a piece of smelly but delicious raw cow milk cheese. The fruit stall has good fruit except for the squishy plum I received, and the yogurt was tasty. I took home supplies for several days because breakfast is not a big thing in Italy. Most people just have a pastry with coffee. I need a bit more substantial food.

On a not-so-great note, during an otherwise-good lunch at Gilli, I was charged 7 euros for a tiny pot of tea holding about 8 ounces of water. That’s about $10 for one teabag and a cup of water. I was planning to buy a pile of chocolates from this place, but I decided not to. Instead I bought a 2-euro pastry. Perhaps unsurprisingly, it also was not that great.

The Language

I am learning a bit of Italian with the help of Rosetta Stone, about half an hour per day. Each day I understand a little more. Moreover, I have found absolutely everyone to be understanding (or at least tolerant) of my limited-language skills. I’ve also found almost everyone to be very courteous. As a solo traveller, I was a little worried about this, but Florence has been a largely great experience so far.

On to the next day! By the time you read this, I’ll be out of the apartment exploring the city. Ciao!