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Florence – Italy

Friday, December 10th, 2010

We spent 2 ½ days in Florence, our last stop on this vacation. We covered the usual tourist “must see’s” and also took an interesting tour that most wouldn’t be aware of. Here is a quick recap:

The Duomo: wow, magnificent from the outside, it is the focal point in Florence. I remember seeing it from the plane window from a distance and being amazed by its size. What is most surprising however is that there is nothing noteworthy or of interest on the inside (except for the ceiling within the dome which is definitely the highlight). But it’s really not worth the line up to get in – after the incredible duomo in Sienna we were both left unamazed. I was in there and I couldn’t stop thinking that it would be a great place to play floor hockey.

The Campanile: the tower right next to the dome is really worth climbing for great views. The views are more impressive than those from the Duomo (because you can look out over the duomo from the campanile) and is also a more pleasant experience than climbing the duomo – less people, larger passageways, airier. Don’t climb the Duomo if you get claustrophobic.

I just summarized in 2 short paragraphs what took an entire afternoon to line up for and climb.

Below: Inside The Duomo

We had a tour the next day. Taste Florence (www.taste has a 4 hour walking tour around the center of Florence. We met up with our guide Christina at the St. Lorenzo church. Young girl, full of life, and as we were to find out (we were a total of 8 in our group) she seems to know everything about food and wine. We spent the next 2 hours exploring the St. Lorenzo market where we sampled Olive oil and balsamic vinegar. Christina explained everything; the processes involved, the various denominations of quality, the strict controls of the Italian food industry, the marketing of Italian products overseas. A lot of what was explained overlapped with what Milo had told us when doing our wine tour around the San Gimigmano area; we always knew Italians loved their food and wine, but it is amazing to what point the Italian authorities go to control quality. Let’s face it, Italians are known to have a very relaxed attitude about things; they park their cars on sidewalks (sometimes facing the opposite way from which they came), they don’t care so much about cleanliness or organization (see Italian trains for perfect examples of both these points). But not about food. They take their food as seriously as the Swiss take their banking.

Above – St. Lorenzo church and outdoor market.

After 2 hours at the St. Lorenzo market, we continued on to a Gelato shop close to the duomo where we sampled 5 different kinds of gelato. We then went for my favorite – wine tasting. The wine tasting was in a wine cellar (see photo above). Again, Christina explained the different wine making regions of Italy and the various denominations, she really knows her stuff.

Overall, a really good tour, I would recommend it to anyone. Very educational but also lots of fun.

I had saved the museums for the last full day in Florence. I don’t particularly like going to museums – too many people. I hate shuffling around with hordes of people. One of the things I constantly said in Italy was “ah shit, look, there’s hordes of people in line” or “oh no, more hordes” which always got a response from Lissette because it sounded like “whores” more than “hordes” coming out of my mouth. She was still also getting sick of me talking like an Italian which I mentioned in an earlier post – when you hear people talking a certain way you sometimes unintentionally pick up a few mannerisms. So somehow, somewhere along this trip, I ended up being the guy articulating with his hands while saying stuff like “mama mia, looka da whores, dey all ova da place. Eh!”. It wasn’t cool with Lissette.

Anyway, it was museum day – I had pre-bought tickets at both the Academia (where Michelangelo’s David is – see pic above) and the Uffizi which is one of the oldest and most famous museums in the world. As expected, there were still hordes (despite the pre-bought tickets). Tons of people. I can sum up our museum day in a couple of short lines. 1. The Academia. Statue of David is impressive, bigger in person then I imagined. The detail is very impressive, his hands and feet seem a little too large however. There were a lot of other sculptures in the museum but a lot looked like discarded heads, bodies, and arms. 2. The Uffizi. We did the express tour and managed it in less than an hour. I know it’s supposed to be famous and all, but I honestly wasn’t that impressed. I had been much more impressed in Venice seeing the huge frescos in the Doge’s palace. Even the Alte Pinakothek in Munich impressed me more. But what made it thoroughly unenjoyable for us was the layout of the Uffizi, small rooms and corridors with those hordes of people. The highlight of my day was getting out of there. Not my cup of tea as those Brits would say.

It was a beautiful day however and we took advantage to see some of the outdoor sights in Florence. Below is the Ponte Vecchio, the famous old bridge (described as “Europe’s oldest wholly-stone, closed-spandrel segmental arch bridge”).

We walked up to piazza Michelangelo for great views over the city (the first photo on this post was taken there as are some below). Lots of stairs, but the view was worth it (although Lissette doesn’t agree, she’s not as excited by viewpoints as I am – or “photo opportunities” as she likes to call them).

We did a lot of walking that last day. Florence really is quite a beautiful city.


We splurged and stayed at the “Il Guelfo Bianco”. Beautiful hotel. I’d give it a 4 out of 5 and would stay here again just for the location.

We also broke all the rules – there’s a McDonald’s right next to the hotel and we had one night when we just wanted to veg out in front of the tv.

Cortona – Italy

Tuesday, November 30th, 2010

Cortona was our favorite place on this trip. It’s a small (and incredibly hilly) town on a large hill with great views in every direction (including Lake Trasimene – it was there in 217 BC that Hannibal and the Carthaginians defeated the Romans in the Battle of Lake Trasimene in which close to 20,000 men died).

The main street, Via Nazionale, is the only flat street in town and where most of the tourists walk up and down. The rest of the town is almost straight uphill and full of great views and churches. How can they have so many churches in one small town?? Each church required going higher and higher up the town until you basically get to a grassy knoll where there is a fort with fantastic views of the countryside. It was peaceful and there were no tourists which was a great relief because Italy is full of tourists (mostly middle–aged Americans – and I know some people will think that saying this is anti-American. It’s not, its just an observation.)


Hotel Italia was the best hotel we’ve encountered on these travels – fabulous room and the friendliest people (actually, everyone we met in Cortona was very friendly).

We love Italian food and have had some great food and wine on this trip. Our only complaint however is that there are not many choices – either you go to a sit down restaurant (another 3 hour meal…) or you try to find some kind of takeout which, in Tuscany at least, seems to be limited to the same old pizza. After two weeks of going to a restaurant every night or eating pizza, we were getting fed up. There were just no other options. One night we found a little supermarket and brought cheese, ham and bread back to the hotel to have with our wine – but in most places there were no such markets in the center of town. Anyway, we loved Italian food, we just missed some of the variety that we have at home. I think Tuscany would be a great place to invest in a take-out sushi place or a Lebanese –style Kabab restaurant…

The San Gimignano and Chianti tour – Italy

Thursday, November 11th, 2010
The smaller towns and countryside of Tuscany are impossible to visit without a car. So I had booked a day tour with a company called Tuscan Escapes. What I wanted was ... [Continue reading this entry]

Siena, Italy

Monday, October 25th, 2010
We headed south after Pisa, the geography getting hillier and greener as we approached Siena. Siena is a hilly, pretty city with one of the most beautiful piazzas in Italy (Piazza ... [Continue reading this entry]

Pisa, Italy

Tuesday, October 19th, 2010
Pisa - We passed through Pisa for a couple of hours on our way from Lucca to Sienna. Overall, there isn’t much to see it Pisa; it was heavily bombed during ... [Continue reading this entry]

Lucca, Italy

Wednesday, October 13th, 2010
We both agreed that while Lucca was a nice town in many ways, neither of us were wowed. The ramparts ringing the town were the highlight for us; a wide ... [Continue reading this entry]

Vernazza, Italy

Wednesday, October 6th, 2010
October 6, 2010 - Vernazza was our first stop on our Italian holiday (we actually flew into Florence – but that will be covered later after we spend some more time ... [Continue reading this entry]

Europe trip summary (2009)

Tuesday, July 7th, 2009
lau1.jpgreg9.jpgsal93.jpgbac1.jpgav71.jpgrut91.jpglau92.jpgkog6.jpg[Continue reading this entry]

Venice, Italy

Wednesday, May 27th, 2009
av1.jpg May 27, 2009 - Every corner of Venice is another painting. Three days we walked the city, usually getting lost. Tons of alleys, little bridges over canals, squares with churches. The detail is everywhere and ... [Continue reading this entry]