Florence: food and art abound.
by Rodrigo DeMedeiros
Although Summer is most definitely NOT the best time to visit Italy - too hot, too crowded, too expensive - Florence is such an amazing mecca of food and art that even with all the hassles it becomes impossible to have your experience completely ruined. I am a big proponent of NOT setting expectations before a visit to a new place; it really sets your mind to just enjoy the ride and take things as they come. This avoids lots of unnecessary grief.
We drove to Florence and entered the city through the Porta Romana. You have to pay 1 Euro everytime you enter the city by car - you can look at it as a "conservation fee" instead of a monetary penalty for adding to the already nasty polution. We navigated the tiny streets in our tiny Fiat Panda (highly recommended due to portability and scale) and found our super well located flat, a few blocks from the Boboli Gardens. We unloaded our overpacked vehicle and I found a garage where I parked it for the duration of our stay. We had already decided we would walk or bike everywhere within Florence to avoid stress.
Our place was simple, but really lovely. We are big fans of renting from locals in order to be able to experience the lifestyle - shop locally at small street markets and stores on a daily basis, and cook our own meals as much as possible. Usually we would shop for breakfast and eat out at lunch, while alternating eating in and out for dinner. In the mornings, we would get up while the kids were still asleep and go explore the local markets looking for fresh fruit, vegetables, eggs, cheese, bread and cured meats. Needless to say Italians got that right for sure. The refrigerators were all consistently small everywhere we stayed in Italy. Italians shop for small amounts of food, and frequently, to avoid waste and excess.
We found that the ideal rhythm for our family was comprised of focusing on one or two activities per day at the most, always starting early and returning home to rest for 4 hours before going out again. This worked great, since we ended up following their siesta schedule. We also made a pact to communicate to each other if we were hungry, and before anyone got grouchy.
This was our third visit to Florence, but the longest. I always make sure to visit my two favorite pieces of art - Michelangelo's David at L'Accademia and Boticeli's Birth of Venus at the Uffizi. We started early and I got to sit in front of the Boticeli's sketching for a while. This time we also went to the Galileo Museum, the Boboli Gardens and did a really great biking tour around Florence. Highly recommended.
Using the same company that offered the bike tour, we did a quick cooking course where we learned how to make pizza and gelato from scratch - and that was definitely a highlight with the kids. While I failed miserably trying to slide the pizza pie onto the flat spatula before putting it in the blazing 700 degree oven, both Bella and Marco did it with ease, under applause from the participants. We learned from our chef Paul that the Mercato nearby was a perfect place to explore in search of amazing food. We went there the next morning and had a fantastic breakfast - fresh, delicious bread and pastries and the perfect cup of coffee. We also tried a couple of excellent restaurants: the Trattoria 4 Leoni, and the Ristorante Il santo Bevitore. Truly remarkable. Both menus consisted of smaller plates, ranging from suculent rabbit to creamy pastas, all accompanied by lots of great wine.
Let's talk a bit about coffee in Italy. I think it' virtually impossible to have a bad italian cup. Unfortunately we have not learned how to understand or appreciate the REAL taste and aroma of a perfect cup of coffee in the US. Our family is lucky to live in Seattle, where you can likely have the best cup of coffee in the country. In order to truly experience the flavor, you have to let go completely of any previous sensorial memories - tarnished from only drinking the stuff made at Starbucks or over diluted with hot water at hotels. Believe me when I say America doesn't get coffee. The US is the number one consumer of the bean and yet can't fully grasp what a real cup of coffee tastes and smells like. Starting with the horrible habit of not grinding the beans properly, and using those automated machines to brew multiple cups at once. You end up with a brownish, bitter, acidic liquid that looks more like tea or dirty water than coffee. We had great coffee everyday in Italy, several times a day. Brewed using the little italian coffee makers you put on the stove top and boil. Thank God.
One afternoon we headed to the Boboli Gardens, when the crowds had already dissipated. The gardens are huge, and one needs to be ready to walk around for hours, but it's magical - amazing statuary and stunning foliage designs at every turn. We stayed until we got kicked out around 6 pm.
Overall, Bella and Marco seemed a lot more at ease in Florence. It may have been the fact that we stayed longer and took it easy; or maybe it was because we were constantly bribing them with gelato.