Wednesday, February 29, 2012

A Mishmash of Florence: Santa Maria Novella, Santa Croce, Ponte Vecchio, and Pizza

  Seeing as I don't have much more time to write this evening and am still determined to wrap up Italy by midnight, this post will briefly touch on the what I didn't get the chance to earlier.
 I'd love to do an in-depth review of our hotel in Florence, but unfortunately that's just not going to happen. I'd highly recommend it, however. The Grand Hotel Minerva, located just south of Santa Maria Novella, a stone's throw away from the train station. The staff were all unfailingly polite and friendly, our room was modern and very clean with a great bathroom, the buffet breakfast was well-attended and featured a variety of tasty food, need I go on? I've seen some mixed reviews of it online however; it seems like most of the negative ones were posted during the high season and had lots of complaints about drunks being loud in the piazza just outside the hotel. We had a room facing an inner courtyard and never saw any drunks on the way in/out of the hotel, but maybe we were just lucky. Whatever the case, I'd definitely stay there again.
  We never actually made it inside Santa Maria Novella, but it was a great sight to see every time we walked through the piazza. It's one of Florence's 'top 25 sights' in my guidebook, but our trip featured more of the 'top 10' than the top 25.
  Santa Croce, however, was one church that I really wanted to do a post on, all by itself, but again never found the time. The final resting place of Michelangelo, Galileo, Machiavelli, and many others, it also features a memorial to Dante. The architecture is amazing, inside and out. It's especially lovely when seen in the early evening, just after sunset.
  Ponte Vecchio is Florence's most famous bridge: lined with old shops (selling gold and jewelry), the current structure was one that was rebuilt in 1345. It was the only bridge that wasn't destroyed by the Germans in WWII. When you're walking on it, it's hard to remember that you aren't just on a narrow street, but it also makes a great scene when viewed from the banks of the Arno.
   Ok, that's all on Italy! I was hoping for another post tonight but it's just not going to happen. So, until our trip to Belgium in April, it'll be about life in England from here on out!

                                     Santa Maria Novella

                                      Pizza. Florence has great little pizza shops on just about every large street

                                                 Ponte Vecchio

                            Ponte Vecchio as seen from the banks of the Arno

                                                 Santa Croce (courtyard)

                                    Santa Croce during the day

                                        Keila at the buffet breakfast. She's not a morning person

Gelateria Carabe in Florence. And More Perche No!

  Here's post #1 of the day....#2 and maybe a #3 will be following shortly!

   After leaving the Galleria dell'Accademia, we headed back south towards the Duomo, stopping at Gelateria Carabe on the way. I'd seen Carabe listed as one of Florence's best, so we figured why not give it a go and see if it stood up to Perche No! (Click HERE for the link to my Perche No! post). Plus, we had a coupon from their website Click HERE for a link to the free scoop upgrade coupon.
Now, it wasn't bad gelato by any means...and the owner was a really nice guy who spoke excellent English. But our hearts (and tongues) are still loyal to Perche No! So much so that I had to eat it one more time about an hour after we ate at Gelateria Carabe. Yuki was by this point convinced that something was wrong with me, seeing as that made gelato #3 of the day. And I didn't admit to him that I probably could've eaten more!
 One more point about Gelateria Carabe: apparently their fruit granitas are rumored to be excellent, but we only tried the gelato. Maybe we'll give them a go again whenever we get back to Florence.
Gelateria Carabe, Via Ricasoli, 60r, a few blocks from the Galleria dell’Accademia (between the Duomo and Accademia).

                                              Be careful not to miss it, as the shopfront is rather unassuming

                                                      Cookies 'n cream gelato

                                 Keila loved the new earmuffs we found in the market near the Duomo

                               The Duomo in late afternoon light

                                   Third (and final) gelato of the day at Perche No!

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Michelangelo's David and I Due Fratellini in Florence

   On our last afternoon in Florence, we had reservations at the Galeria dell'Accademia to see Michelangelo's David.
 Meaning that, after spending the morning mooning about the Piazzale Michelangelo (Click HERE if you missed the Piazzale Michelangelo post )  we had only limited time for lunch. Following the advice of a trusted friend (thanks Suzanne!), we stopped at I Due Fratellini for some sandwiches. Let me say these 2 things: if you ever want to visit sandwich heaven, then I Due Fratellin is your place and 2. I wish we would've tried them sooner than our last day in Florence! That being said, we did go back and hit them up again late that afternoon, in order to have something for dinner on the train ride back to Venice. They were just that good. And not at all expensive, either. I think the priciest sandwich we got was maybe 3 euros, and that had porcini mushrooms and special cheese. I'm drooling just thinking about it.
  After our wonderful and quick lunch (Yuki took advantage of their wine-by-the-glass, too), we headed north past the Duomo to the Galeria dell'Acccademia, most famous for being home to Michelangelo's David. If you've got a lot of time in Florence, I've heard that the Uffizi is also of course amazing, but since we were on a tight schedule (and with a baby who may/may not have more patience in museums than I do) we skipped that one.  Oh, and most importantly, if you know when you're traveling, book your tickets NOW. As in, stop reading my blog and go book them N-O-W. Advance tickets sell out quite quickly, and do you really want to spend your time in Italy waiting 3-plus hours in line for a museum? No! You want to spend it eating gelato after wandering around said museum! Here, I'll even throw in the link for the official ticket site, so you don't spend a half hour searching the web for it like I did:  This site covers the Accademia, Uffizi, etc. You're welcome.
  We covered the entire Accademia in maybe an hour; there are of course other exhibits but the David is by far and away the highlight of the museum. I don't think I've ever seen a work of art that's been so moving. Definitely worth the ticket price if David is all you see!
  Finally, if you happen to be carting a diapered baby around with you, you'll be pleased to know that the Accademia women's bathroom (on the way out, after you've been through the whole museum) does have a diaper-changing unit. I only mention this fact because diaper-changing stations are relatively rare in Italy, at least from what we saw of Venice Florence, and Siena!
  Seeing as today is already February 28th, and I'm still intent on honoring my vow of wrapping up Italy posts by the end of this month, be on the lookout for at least one if not two more posts by tomorrow night!

                                          Random accordian player we came across on the way to the Galeria dell'Accademia

                               I Due Fratellini   The best sandwiches I've ever had.

                                                  Paradise on bread

                                                  Michelangelo's David. Simply breath-taking.

                                           Line at I Due Fratellini Later That Afternoon

Sunday, February 26, 2012

Piazzale Michelangelo

  On our final morning in Florence, before heading to La Accademia to view the David that afternoon, we trekked south across the river and climbed up to Piazzale Michelangelo. Apparently it was to be a Michelangelo-themed day, purely by accident.
 I'd been warned that the piazzale would be quite crowded with tourists, so we were pleasantly surprised to find that it wasn't all that bad on this particular morning. Plus, the weather was pretty good, so it offered a wonderful view of the city! Definitely worth the effort, whether you go on foot or by bus.
 Besides the great view, you can also amuse yourself by looking at the gaudy souvenirs being sold, and there's a chance for photos with Pinocchio and a big green copy of David. Free fun for all!
  Next post: the real David, and yet more food!

                                                       Climbing to the top

                                       Piazzale Michelangelo

                           View of Florence from Pizzale Michelangelo

                              No idea how this giant Pinocchio got up there. We asked but couldn't get the truth out of him. Go figure.

                                                         Tiny David in my hand! This place inspires bad jokes, apparently.

                            Florence's Duomo as seen from Piazzale Michelangelo

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Restaurant Review: La Bussola in Florence

   For our final dinner in Florence, we decided on La Bussola, a restaurant that my guidebook describes as having a 'rustic setting with a relaxed friendly service'. They were also purported to have some of the best pizzas in town (cooked in a traditional wood-burning oven), along with serving great seafood dishes.
 Now, I'm not really sure where the authors of said guidebook tend to dine, but I would hardly call La Bussola 'rustic'. Not by a long shot! Honestly, had I not merely been passing by without the guidebook's recommendation on hand, I would've assumed that this place was way too expensive to take a baby into and just kept on going.
 However, when we called to make a reservation (definitely a good idea for this place; they were packed!), the maitre'd assured me that they'd have a high chair waiting, and sure enough, it was. It stuck out like a sore thumb in the midst of all the other couples and groups out drinking and dining, but nobody seemed to bat an eye other than to smile and exclaim over how cute Keila was. And luckily for us, Keila slept through half of the meal anyway, giving us some time to relax and enjoy the truly good food.
 Dishes aren't as cheap as at Marione (, but they're quite tasty and the pizza was indeed excellent. I think the only issue we had with La Bussola was choosing which pizza to order--they have a TON on the menu! No worries about translating from Italian, either--the menu is in both Italian and English, other than tiramisu, which 'needs no translation'.
 Dessert (we split the tiramisu) was also the best we'd had at a restaurant in Italy, although I would still probably recommend just hitting up Perche No! and devouring their tiramisu gelato instead. But not because La Bussola's was bad; Perche No!'s is just that good.
 All in all, a great restaurant: good service, great food, and wonderful atmosphere! Oh, and there's a Trip Advisor award sticker on the door. I'm only throwing that in because La Marione also has the sticker, so it's probably a safe bet to try a restaurant sporting one if you're out and don't know where to eat!
  La Bussola, Via Porta Rossa 58r  phone 055 293 376

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Merry-Go-Round In Florence

  Just a quick post tonight:
   After returning to Florence from a long (and wonderful) day in Siena, we decided to do a little something for Keila, seeing as she'd been great about being carted around all day in the Bjorn. While walking through the Piazza della Repubblica that evening, we spotted a gorgeous merry-go-round and let her have a go on it. We'd actually seen it before during the day, but the lights at night made it truly spectacular. Plus it's a relatively cheap way to keep kids happy while touring the city: I don't remember the exact price offhand, but Keila and I rode for maybe 2 or 3 euros total, possibly less. She was thrilled, and admittedly, so was I! A child is a good excuse to ride, but by all means have a go on your own if you happen by it one evening!
 Just a few more posts on Florence to follow, then our Italy trip will finally be wrapped up!

                                       Keila also got some vanilla gelato after her enchanted ride

Monday, February 20, 2012

Day Trip From Florence: Siena

      On our second-to-last day in Tuscany, we decided to head out for Siena, a lovely little medieval town about an hour away from Florence.
 It's fairly easy to grab a bus from the SITA terminal near Florence's train station; the ride is only about an hour long. I've heard that this is one of the rare cases in Italy where the bus may be preferable to the train, since the bus will drop you off quite close to the city center in Siena, whereas the train depot is a ways away from the main part of town. 
 If you do decide to take the bus, make sure that you get to the SITA terminal at least 10 minutes before the scheduled departure time: we barely made the 9-something bus, and we were about 5 minutes early. Apparently the bus will just leave if it's full, plus Yuki and I weren't able to get seats together since we'd arrived a bit too close to departure.
  I won't go into the history of Siena, mainly due to lack of time, but if you get the chance do look it up a bit. It's quite an interesting town.
 My personal favorites of this beautiful UNESCO site include: Siena's Duomo (cathedral), the Piazza del Campo (town square), the Museo dell'Opera dell Duomo, and of course, the food!
 First off, if you see only one thing in Siena, then make it the Duomo. We saw quite a few cathedrals on our trip, but there wasn't one that inspired as much awe as Siena's did. Simply amazing, both inside and out! I'll post a few pictures of it below, but they honestly won't do it a bit of justice. It is rather overwhelming inside when one is confronted with the sheer amount of frescoes, carvings, etc; I guess that this abundance would make sense seeing as the cathedral was originally intended to be the largest in the world (money unfortunately ran out, go figure).
 The Museo dell'Opera dell Duomo, located right next to the cathdral, is pretty cool too. Remember that this statement is coming from someone who doesn't last very long in museums. There are lots and lots of beautiful works that used to be in the cathedral itself. But, the great thing about this museum is.....drumroll.....from here, you can climb up to the top of what would have been the facade of the new nave of the cathedral! Yep, poor Yuki got roped into another climb, this one unexpectedly. We both had no idea that you could climb up to roof, but when we got to the top floor of the museum and saw a bunch of people waiting in line in the 'Hall of Vestments', we simply joined them. Assuming that there must be something worth waiting for if there's a line, right? We did ask the 2 guys in front of us if they knew that it was, but they'd had the same idea as us. Smart Americans.
 It was quite a pleasant surprise to find out from a museum guard that we could climb up and get a great view of Siena. The reason for the line was that only about 20 people at a time are allowed up, since the walkways and staircases are so narrow.
 Once our time to climb arrived, we went up the spiral staircase (claustrophobics beware) to the first walkway. From there, you could continue up another even narrower staircase to the very top, which of course we did. The view was well worth battling my fear of heights for. Although I did feel like hugging the walkway once or twice! Tip: Never look straight down. I'm telling you this from experience.
 Quick aside: You can also climb the Torre del Mangia in the Piazza del Campo, but we refrained due to lack of time. Plus, while I can't remember the price offhand, it seemed a bit steep compared to the combined Duomo and Museo dell'Opera ticket (12 euros). I'm pretty sure that either climb would suffice if you want a great view, although if you're only in Siena for the day then go for the facade climb so you can fit the museum in too.
 In between visiting the Duomo and touring the Museo dell'Opera, we took a lunch break at a great family-run restaurant near the Piazza del Campo. (The Piazza itself is great for pictures and as a reference point. Also, be sure to buy a tourist map of Siena from the tourist information center located on the Piazza. It's 50 cents and will save you a lot of trouble).
 Anyway, back to lunch. In this case, we took a tip from Rick Steves and headed down Via Giovani Dupre, just off the Campo. Locanda Garibaldi Restaurant is located at number 18, quite close to the Campo but far enough away that one won't confuse with the over-priced tasteless tourist traps directly on the square.
  Locanda Garibaldi is a family-run restaurant that serves incredibly tasty and very reasonably priced food. We were the first ones in for lunch on that day, but it started to fill up after about a half hour. The menu is all in Italian, but our server (I'm guessing the son) of course spoke English and was able to answer any questions we had. We also asked him for his recommendations; he's got excellent taste.
I think we paid cash for our meal, and I'm pretty sure that credit cards aren't accepted. While we were eating, several locals dropped by for a quick lunch, and we also chatted with a couple who were bringing their children to eat; they had originally visited Locanda Garibaldi years ago while traveling Italy as a couple. Obviously the place had made quite an impression!
 If you're looking for romance and high-class dining, then this probably isn't your restaurant. But if you want good, authentic Tuscan food in a semi-rustic setting, then this is the place to go. Only drawback in my book was the lack of a high chair, but familes are very obviously welcome and thankfully we had no problem holding Keila.
 I'd love to write more about Siena but have promised myself that I'll wrap up Italy by the end of this month. So enjoy the pics, and the next post will be back in Florence!

                                  Torre del Mangia in Piazza del Campo, Siena

                                            Siena's spectacular Duomo

                                              Inside Siena's Duomo

                            Lunch break at Locanda Garibaldi Restaurant

                              They have some amazing home-made noodles!

                            Views from Museo dell'Opera dell Duomo

                                     Siena's Duomo as seen from the Museo dell'Opera

                                       I actually did lie down on the walkway to take this one

                                             One of Siena's side streets

                                              A final picture of Siena's Duomo.