Europe Trip Part 3: Florence

This captures the essence of Florence in the spring

Ah…just thinking about Florence brings up some really unique and indescribable feelings. This was truly the heart of the trip for us in many ways. We were able to slow down and drink in the city, and it was a refreshing time after the hectic pace of Barcelona and Rome. We only had to use public transportation to and from the train station, so the whole time in Florence we strolled everywhere. Our hotel was right on the river and a short walk to some of the most famous sights in town. Florence (“Firenze” to Italians) is located in northern Italy in the region of Tuscany, which is one of the most beautiful parts of the country. Both before, during and after the trip, we had people telling us our next trip to Italy should be to the Tuscan hill towns. We were already talking about our next trip only hours after arriving in Florence! I think one of us said “Florence suits us!” Indeed it did. Celebrated by most as the birthplace of the Renaissance, there is beautiful and world-famous history and art at every turn. The town has modern elements, but the age of this medieval town is evident everywhere. I think Lisa took more pictures here than in any other city–there was something beautiful to look at everywhere we went. And a lot of the beauty was edible, as you’ll see!

Firenze: Love at First Sight (& Bite!)

As we whisked north from the busyness of Rome, we were soon greeted with a quintessential view of the Tuscan countryside to get us in the mood:

Yeah, we’ll be back.

Once we arrived in Florence, we discovered that our hotel was happily a few steps away from a gelato shop! Our first taste of Italian gelato in Rome was hard to beat, but Vivaldi¬†Gelateria did not disappoint (and we returned, um, a few times). I think the peach flavor was our favorite. Looks like mah belly was already full of gelato and ready for more…

I think the best way to convey the many beautiful and edible impressions that Florence made on us is to provide a photo collage of some of the highlights for us. So in no particular order, here’s what we see and taste when we close our eyes and remember Florence. Click for a larger image.

We saw amazing medieval and renaissance art at the Uffizi Gallery¬†(including an exhibit featuring an unfinished Da Vinci painting with a fascinating history) and at the cathedral museum, but being the foodies that we are, we couldn’t help but be smitten by the edible art at the famous Mercato Centrale, with stands for every kind of fresh and prepared food downstairs, and the most amazing food emporium upstairs (“food court” makes it sound way less elevated than it really was. It even had a place to take cooking classes) . Once we gathered some treats, we sat there and could have stayed all afternoon, sampling everything. The fast wi-fi didn’t hurt, so Lisa could upload her pictures that were rapidly filling up her phone’s memory!

The food we saw at every turn was truly inspiring, and made us wish for more days in Florence and more mouths and stomachs to fill! The real food highlight was at a humble sandwich shop, which I’ll describe below. Other highlights included the portrait session (pictures above) for Lisa with this amazing artist who spoke no English. We watched him draw two other people, and we could tell he had an eye for capturing the essence of a person and drawing out their natural beauty. Not caricature, but an almost impressionistic portrait. Lisa eagerly sat for him and said “Make me “bellissima!” We were so impressed with the result. We call it her “principessa” (princess) portrait!

The climb up the bell tower of the Florence cathedral¬†, officially the Cattedrale di Santa Maria del Fiore or Il Duomo di Firenze or just “Il Duomo”, was an event for sure. Over 400 stone steps in a NARROW winding staircase (not for the faint of heart, mind, or knees), 3 separate stages to get out and look over the city before finally reaching the top. We weren’t alone in mistaking (and desperately hoping) that we were already all the way up on the second or third level–we had to break it to a group of British tourists that no, there were many steps left before the top. They laughed and “carried on” like good English citizens! But the views were worth the climb, as the pictures above show. Lisa especially enjoyed the little hidden views through the narrow stone window holes in the staircase on the way up. But now, a review of our favorite food in Florence (and it turns out thousands of people agree!).

All’Antico Vinaio: The Best 5 Euros You Can Spend in Florence

If you click on the above link for this tiny sandwich shop (which has cleverly opened an identical shop right across the narrow street!) you will see the Trip Advisor page, which currently shows that All’Antico Vinaio has 19,289 reviews and counting! Last I checked, that makes it the 3rd most reviewed restaurant on Trip Advisor in the world!! And this is for a place that serves only made-to-order sandwiches on fresh focaccia bread for 5 Euros each. The order and prep counter is smaller than an American Subway restaurant. There are 3-4 friendly and talkative behind the counters quickly filling and ringing up orders for sandwich after sandwich. The hordes of tourists (and I’m sure locals as well) haven’t jaded them at all–they even posed for pictures with an eager young American guy behind the counter. We got sandwiches there twice, once to go, and once to eat in. Both times the service was amazingly fast considering the line that was out the door (of course, any line would be out the door–the place is tiny). But we again were thankful to be there in mid-May and not mid-July when the heat and crowds were at their peak.

They have a selection of named sandwiches to choose from, and we tried 4 of them. All were delicious. Here’s a sign with their 5 most popular. I tried La Favolosa (their award winner) and it was amazing. Lisa had a veggie one (La Jean George I think) , and we also tied one with “lardo” (yes, thin sliced pork fat), and one with arugula and gorgonzola dolce (a sweet and mild blue cheese).
Here’s the fresh-baked bread, which arrived frequently from the kitchen in the back, and had an aroma and taste like nothing we’ve ever had. Rich, crusty but soft enough for a sandwich, with an almost pastry-like sweetness that went so well with the savory toppings.

Speaking of toppings, here they are in the display case, ready to for the speedy sandwich makers to adorn that amazing bread:

They had several spreads made of veggies, including tomatoes, olives, artichokes, and mushrooms. A really unique departure from boring mustard and mayo. The cheesy spreads (pecorino, goat cheese, and gorgonzola) were also delicious. And lest we forget that this place was decidedly un-vegan, behold the meats:

Several kinds of ham (prosciutto of course), salami, porchetta, and yes, the lardo (creamy white stuff in the bottom right of the photo). Everything in moderation, folks! To lower your LDL from looking at that, here’s Lisa’s veggie creation, which had zucchini, mushrooms, mozzarella, basil, mint, an eggplant spread and a balsamic glaze:

And here’s Chris’ La Favolosa, which lived up to its name. I’ve never had a sandwich like it. The meat was called sbriciolona, which is an ancient style of salami unique to Tuscany. It was topped with a creamy pecorino spread, along with and spreads made of eggplant and artichokes. It tied for winner of the “I-don’t-want-it-to-be-over” award along with the lasagne in Barcelona!

These guys truly know how to make a sandwich. And with the exchange rate at the time and no sales tax, the price was the same as a $5 footlong from Subway, but much more substantial, and about as like a Subway sandwich as as the green stuff in a can is like the hunk of Parmigiano Reggiano cheese we got from the market! Gotta move on to Lisa’s door pictures before I start gnawing on my laptop…

Doors of Europe: Part 3

Next, we were off to Venice, or as it’s often called “La Serenissima”. Its watery and timeless beauty truly had a calming effect, in spite of its over-crowded tourist vibe. It was definitely ready for its close-up, and everywhere we looked screamed “take a picture of me!” as you will see.

For now, as with the previous posts, here are more of Lisa’s door pictures to close out this snapshot of Florence. She had a treasure trove of doors, and interesting knobs and door knockers, to photograph in Florence, including the amazing front door of Il Duomo (last in the gallery). Enjoy!


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