Wednesday, November 26, 2008


Dateline: Firenze, 10/11/08 - 10/15/08

Firenze is the city we call Florence, but I think the Italian name is much prettier. I met Jim there after the Montisi knitting retreat. Gianmarco drove a group of us to the train station in Sinalunga. I was the only person traveling north; everyone else was going back to Rome and then home from there. I said good-bye to my fellow knitters at the station, and for the first time I was on my own in Italy.

After a week in the tiny town of Montisi, I was dazzled by Firenze: the jewels sparkling in store windows, wonderful-looking pastries on display in bakeries, beautiful Medieval and Renaissance architecture, and lots of people walking everywhere. The center of Firenze is closed to traffic except for taxis, which have to go slowly to make sure they don't run over the pedestrians. I was glad to be back in a city.

The Hotel Alessandra is a very nice small hotel in a central location, within easy walking distance of the Uffizi Gallery and the Ponte Vecchio (pictured at night, at the top of this post). It is on what Italians call the second floor, but we call the third floor, of a palace built in 1507. I was surprised at how spacious our room was. The view of the Arno River from our hotel window is above.

Neither of us is much of a museum-goer (despite my having worked with museum data for several years at RLG), but we had to visit the Uffizi and the Accademia (home of Michelangelo's David). We found that the self-guided museum tours in Rick Steves' guidebook were just right for us; they concentrated on one piece of art in each gallery and there was humor in the descriptions. We read them out loud to each other as we toured the museums.

One day we took a bus tour to Siena, another medieval Tuscan city, where we had a walking tour that ended at Il Campo, the huge town square. On the way back we stopped in San Gimignano, "the epitome of a Tuscan hill town" according to Rick Steves, beautiful but very touristy (seen from a distance in the picture above). We had less than an hour there, and a lot of it was spent waiting in line for the rest room (for which we had to pay), and for prize-winning gelato (for which we also had to pay).

Our hotel arranged for us to take a cooking class, which was a lot of fun. Along with other students from all over the world, we made two types of pasta and two sauces, plus chocolate salami, chocolate mixed with pieces of biscotti and rolled to look like a sausage. We sat down to eat our pasta with a couple from Australia and a couple from India who live in London; among us we had the English-speaking world pretty well covered.

Gelato is everywhere in Firenze. I had with me a list from the San Jose Mercury News that preported to be the top 10 best ice cream places in the world; one was in Firenze and one in San Gimignano. I was suspicious of the list because of the three U.S. entries, places in Maui and in Fairbanks that I had never heard of, plus Ben & Jerry's in Vermont. I like Ben & Jerry's but would hardly rate it as one of the 10 best in the world. (I do, however, rate Toscanini in Cambridge, MA that way.) The list's Italian recommendations were good enough, but Vivoli's, a recommendation from Rick Steves, was the best. I was surprised by how good the rice gelato was, like a frozen version of rice pudding.

Of course I needed some time for shopping in Firenze. As usual, I had a list of yarn and bead stores from the web. Filati Campolmi
is a yarn outlet store that had some bargains. At Beatrice Galli Yarn Shop, the owner followed me through the length of the store, commenting on the yarns and making me very uncomfortable. I bought a little bit in each place, but I also had in mind that we were trying to travel light and that the stock market was crashing, so for once I didn't go overboard. I thought I had found Ditta Chiti but then decided I must be wrong, since the window was full of underwear. Then I remembered that it's common in Europe for yarn to be sold in lingerie stores.

Beaded Lilly was not as good a store as its website made it look; a very small bead store that I had to visit 3 times before finding it open. I also discovered another small bead store purely by accident while walking through the city. I started a collection of glass beads, which I continued buying in Venice, and which I plan to string some day as a remembrance of our trip to Italy.