Florence travel journal (part 5): Itineraries + essential guides + getting there

YogaRose.net travel journal for Florence, Italy
Part 5: Itineraries + essential guides + getting there

This is the final installment of the barely tangentially related to yoga 😉 travel series on my trip to Firenze over New Year’s Eve. This one is all about getting there and getting around. (I would have finished it by now, except I’ve spent much of the past week KO’d by a bug I’m convinced we picked up on the flight from Amsterdam back to Michigan. As I’ve said elsewhere — I’m not complaining about this. All I wanted was to not be sick in Italy, and I felt great the entire trip.)

>>Getting there (or, why we <3 our travel agent more than we can tell you)<<

So here’s the deal. Scott and I have never ever used a travel agent. We were under the impression — that, we have found, many of our friends were under as well — you have to pay travel agents to do things you can do yourself online. Not true. We didn’t pay a dime to book our flight and hotel through our travel agent — and here’s the killer part — we paid half what we would have paid on our own. Half. We went online and checked a package that included the same number of nights at our hotel, on the same flight (departure and arrival day), and I’m not kidding, this trip was half that price. So, had we done this on our own, one of us would have gotten to take this trip (we joke that we both know which one of us would get to go), or we would have been able to afford three nights rather than seven.

We worked with Classic Travel based in Okemos, MIch. Joy Thrun and the excellent team at Classic Travel literally made this trip happen for us. Scott and I can’t thank them enough. And part of the reason, I think, is that Joy and her husband, Tom, truly love traveling, and sharing that passion. Here’s a snippet from the Classic Travel website:

Time flies when you are having fun. Probably the oldest cliché in the world, but for us at Classic Travel, it certainly holds true. It does not seem possible that we have been selling travel and all the exciting things that come with it for thirty one wonderful years. And thanks to you, our well-traveled clientele, we have had the pleasure of sharing in your globe-trotting adventures for the past quarter century.

Over this time we have witnessed events that have changed the world and impacted our industry. Travel is our business, but above all, it is our passion. We believe that travel contributes immeasurably to the overall quality of life. No matter how well traveled you may be, each trip you embark on brings knowledge and new experiences. Travel is continuing education and we will never run out of exotic places to go. One of the most precious rights that we have is the ability to move freely around this fascinating world of ours. To experience the diversity and richness of far away places creating memories that will last a lifetime, we are proud to be one of the most experienced travel companies in the entire industry, but we continue to grow in many different areas.

We also have to thank Sara Metz, whose trip to Morocco with her husband, Will (catch him live here), inspired me to ask her about traveling. She promptly put me in touch with Joy.

So if you’re reading this and thinking you’ll never visit Italy, I want to say that I didn’t think I’d get there either — at least not any time soon. Life works in strange ways sometimes. Stay realistic, but hopeful, that you’ll eventually find a way to make the trips you dream about.

And if you do go to Florence, here was our itinerary, along with some tips on finding the right guides.

>>Itineraries<<

We flew out of Detroit two days after Christmas, stayed all seven nights in Florence, but took the following day trips (one-way travel time by fast train in parenthesis):

  • Venice (two hours)
  • Rome (1.5 hours)

In addition, we devoted an entire day to taking a 12-hour tour aboard a comfortable bus that allowed us to visit the following towns in Tuscany:

  • Sienna
  • San Gimignano
  • Pisa

I don’t have travel stats to bear this out, but I have this idea that Americans tend to gravitate more toward Rome and Venice. Before this trip, I had very little sense of geography of this boot-shaped country, and probably would have been happy to spend seven days in any of these cities. After this trip, I thought Florence was the perfect — truly, the best — home base for me. It’s a compact but lively, walkable city (apparently it was once rough for pedestrians but has, thanks to car-free zones, become quite pedestrian-friendly — though you still have to watch out for that crazy Italian driving!). Florence is home to the Renaissance and a cultural cradle. Seeing Michelangelo’s David in person is awe-inspiring. You’re a hop and skip away from fascinating and gorgeous Tuscan towns. All the culinary Italian specialties I’m so enamored of — like tiramisu and pappardelle — have roots in the Tuscan region. What’s not to love?

>>Essential guides<<

Rick Steves’ Italy 2012

It got to be a joke at some point that every American we met on our travels toted a dog-eared copy of the Rick Steves Italy book like their travel bible. We bought Rick Steves this time because his London guide served us so well last year, and his Italy book proved to be every bit as useful as the London edition. In addition to the overviews, tips and details you need from a good guidebook, I really appreciated the extras — like the appendix that includes an annotated copy of an actual train ticket so you know what each part of the ticket says.

 

Rick Steves’ Italian Phrase Book & Dictionary

This pocket book was the one I pulled out of my purse most frequently. I’d argue that you need this compact little thing even if you get the Rick Steves country book. The phrase book has a menu decoder divided by theme — desserts, wine, etc. — and sections on hailing a taxi, getting a room, and so on. There are also handy Italian-English and English-Italian dictionaries tucked inside. I was happy to see that this book included phrases such as “I’m allergic to” (“Sono allergico[a] al…”) and “Sorry for the mess” (“Scusi per il pasticccio”).

 

Eyewitness Travel Top 10 Florence & Tuscany

This slim number was a wonderful reference to check on everything from masterpieces of art located in the Uffrizi Gallery to masterpieces of the culinary kind brought to your dinner table.

Great Eats Italy

I really liked this book for the introduction, which gives some great tips for finding good eats throughout Italy. The book then provides specific recommendations by neighborhood.

Hotel concierge

A guidebook can only get you so far. The concierge at the Grand Hotel Baglioni got us a reservation at what was, hands down, our best meal in Florence (Buca Mario). (By the way, there doesn’t seem to be a standard recommendation for tipping for concierge services, but I recommend tipping, especially if they book something for you.) This hotel, which is ridiculously centrally located and a place we really enjoyed, would normally be way out of our price range — see the travel agent section above on how we managed that.

Your tour guides

I highly recommend paying the extra however many euros it takes to see the Uffrizi and Accademia Gallery with a tour rather than on your own. For one thing, you skip the unbearably long line and go right in with your group. For another, especially if you’re traveling as a couple, it’s a nice way to get out of your couple bubble and meet fellow travelers. We met a great family from Pittsburgh on our Uffirzi tour, and if we’re ever in Pittsburg, we’ll be dropping them a line. Maybe we just got lucky, but every single one of our tour guides were awesome — full of character quirks and full of passion for their beautiful city. Tour guides are also great sources for general tips and restaurant recommendations.

>>Random travel tips<<

Some of my random travel tips:

Tell your friends, family members, colleagues and travel agent about your fantasy trips.

You never know if a tip they might hear about and send your way could get the ball rolling for a getaway. If you have the kind of lifestyle where you could leave quickly for a trip, sign up for notifications about last-minute deals. Ask around for good travel agent recommendations, and let them know your parameters.

Barter presents at home for better meals abroad.

This year, Scott and I agreed: No Christmas presents. Believe me, every bit we saved on that, we spent in Italy. Knowing that our families would insist on getting us Christmas presents, we told them about our plans, so that they could get us something related to the trip, thus decreasing our expenses that much more. Scott’s parents got us fantastic luggage that could handle the abuse of international travel, and my parents got us the gadgets that we couldn’t live without (namely, the converter for our iPhones and iPad) and a great Italian Berlitz CD set and computer program that taught us how to properly say, “Parla inglese?”

Avoid credit cards if it’s possible (and safe)

Credit cards typically charge you a percentage of each transaction (a small percentage, but it adds up quickly), so if you’re traveling in a pretty safe area, see if you can roll with cash. Exchange a chunk of currency before you go (in the Lansing area, we got great rates at Liberty Coin), limit the number of times you use the local ATMS, and try to avoid credit cards. Scott and I didn’t pull out our credit cards once in Italy — and again, every bit we saved on transaction fees, we spent on meals. :-)

Keep your info handy

Electronically saving your passport information via a scan using Google Docs, Evernote (thanks to Kate Tykocki for this idea) or by dropping in Dropbox, just in case you’re in a jam and need it. Perhaps online security experts will tell me this is a bad idea, but I think not having access to your info is also a bad idea. And hey, here’s a recent story about a guy who had to resort to using a copy of his passport scanned on his iPad to get back into the country — honestly, your personal odds of getting back into the U.S. with a scanned passport is probably a big fat 0.0 percent chance, but it’s an interesting tale if nothing else.

The little things

Ask your hotel concierge before you leave home how much a trip from the airport to the hotel by taxi should cost, so that you’re not scammed by drivers who claim a different flat fee (not all airports post the mandated flat fees).

Travel like you won’t be back

Rick Steves likes to say in his guidebooks that you should assume you’ll return. I think he’s saying it to encourage Type-A American travelers from rushing from point A to point B so much that they don’t actually experience the trip. I say, however, travel like you won’t be back — so if you are wondering what something tastes like, by all means, taste it. Spend the extra euros to skip the two-hour-long line to get into the museum, so that you’ll have two more hours to wander, explore and be surprised. You can eat peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for as long as you need to when you return to make up for the extra little flourishes that you’ll remember for years to come.

>>Smart phones and iPads<<

Verizon vs. AT&T

Finally, if you are considering an iPhone or an iPad and don’t know whether to go with Verizon or AT&T, you might consider how important it is to you to be able to use the device when you travel abroad. Verizon and AT&T devices are built on different technologies, and AT&T devices are more likely to use the the same GSM technology used in European countries. When I bought my iPad, I chose AT&T over Verizon, and that was one of the main reasons. Before we left, we added an international data plan and took what we needed from the Apple World Traveler Adapter Kit my parents had gotten us. For more on this issue, because I don’t have the patience to think any more about it, see The New York Times‘ “How to beat roaming fees while traveling abroad.”

>>Worth the trouble?<<

There’s alway that moment in a trip abroad when I am remember how much work it is to travel. How awkward it can be. How exhausting. And then there’s always that moment when I remember why it’s worth all the trouble — all the scrimping and saving, all the research, all the harried, last-minute (in my case) packing.

At the end of our Uffrizi tour, Antonio, a very proud Florentine who spoke with a heavy Italian accent, said, “May you travel a great deal. The best money is spent on holiday.”

He is absolutely right.

As for us…I know we said we wouldn’t be heading back to Italy any time soon. That is true. But when we do, we already know the area we’re most interested in making our home base for exploring — with at least a day trip to Firenze, of course.

Arrivederci!

(Graphic credits: Florence’s Porcellino: Via http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:PorcellinoFlorence.jpg, Why this statue? Tuscany map: Screen capture of map from http://www.italyguides.it/us/italy/tuscany/tuscany-italy.htm. )

© YogaRose.net and Rose Tantraphol, 2012. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to YogaRose.net with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Florence travel journal (part 1): Firenze as home base

 

YogaRose.net travel journal for Florence, Italy
Part 1: Firenze, Italia as home base

–>Trip snapshot

–>Five sketches from Florence and Tuscany:

–>A word about the travel journal
–>Future posts in this series

>>TRIP SNAPSHOT<<

Some visitors to Italy fall in love with Venice. Others fulfill their dreams by making a pilgrimage to Rome. For me and my finance, Scott, the trip of a lifetime took us to Firenze, Italia, our home base for a seven-night visit that included New Year’s Eve. We walked and ate our way around Florence and left the city limits for a day to peek into some of the hill towns of Tuscany. Thanks to frecce alta velocita, Italy’s low-carbon-footprint and fantastically fast train line, we also got day-trip glimpses of cities to the north and south that capture so many imaginations.

Italy is a country we have independently longed to visit, and what better time than half a year before our wedding, after which time it’ll be…well, time to settle down. This was our chance to make sure we would never have to say, “If only we had…” It was our honeymoon before the honeymoon — a chance to revel in the kinds of culinary beauty and artistic genius that only Italy can offer, and an opportunity to take some of that inspiration back with us to deepen the hues through which we view the world.

Scott and I unloaded our suitcases not too long ago — we’re back home later than scheduled, thanks to a delayed departure in Florence, a near missed connection in Amsterdam and unfavorable headwinds back across the Atlantic. But of course we’re already asking ourselves if we’ll ever return. We hope so. To help our odds, before we left Florence, we paid homage to a popular bronze statue of a wild boar and did as many visitors do — slipped a coin into the mouth of the cinghiale, rubbed its snout and made a wish to return to the city that historically was the cradle of Renaissance arts and personally has become a cradle of new shared memories.

I’m starting this travel series with five sketches from our week there. Check back for future blog posts that will include:

>>Five sketches about Florence and Tuscany<<

463 STEPS
Not for the weak of heart (physically or romantically): What a cathedral whose dome became the model for Renaissance domes can teach us about confidence and faith

On our very last evening in Florence, we capped off our trip by climbing the 463 steps up to the cupola of Duomo (Cattedrale di Santa Maria del Fiore), Florence’s stunning Gothic cathedral. What makes this cathedral remarkable is not just that the dome, which took 14 years to build, was the first Renaissance dome, or that it was the largest since Rome’s Pantheon. What’s incredible to me is the story that’s told about the cathedral — that it was originally constructed with a gaping hole where the dome would go, because no one quite knew how to create a dome that could span that space. Can you imagine the immovable belief that things will all work out? And indeed, things did work out, because architect Filippo Brunelleschi came up with an ingenious double shell construction in which the skeleton of a dome was filled in by interlocking bricks fashioned together in a herringbone pattern. This created a dome that relied on its own support as it grew slowly upwards.

Not surprisingly, the 463-step trek up is winding, steep and claustrophobic (there are several passes so narrow you get pretty intimate with tourists making the return journey), and there’s really not much of a warning about any of that when you slide over 8 euros (about $11) for the entrance ticket. I would have expected an impossible-to-miss notice for anyone who is pregnant or has a heart condition, but perhaps that is the overly cautious American in me.

Neither the guidebooks nor Duomo officials adequately prepare you for the trip up — or for the view at the pinnacle. We arrived around 6 p.m. on a perfectly clear evening and marveled at the Campanile, the 270-foot bell tower designed by Giotto. Walking around, we could see the Accademia, where David — created by Michelangelo Buonarroti when he was just 26 — is showcased. Here were all the avenues lined with holiday lights and over there was the Uffrizi Gallery, where you can find Botticelli’s Birth of Venus. We could easily see Santa Croce Church, famous for housing the tombs of Galileo Galilei and Michelangelo. We slipped one euro into the binocular stand and looked with disbelief into the windows of the rooftop restaurant where we had enjoyed our divine New Year’s Eve dinner a couple nights before.

After the initial shock of this perfect view, it seemed most couples realized the romance of the winds and the perch, and shared quick kisses or longer expressions of their gratitude for each other.

>>IF YOU GO. We started the climb about an hour before the last entry, and we’re pretty sure we got lucky with the best possible conditions anyone could have walking up. Florence’s high season is April though October, although July and August can be unbearably hot. It must be a snail’s pace up to the top when the crowds are in town, and I’m sure temperatures rise accordingly in those narrow corridors. After this trip, Scott and I are sure we prefer traveling during a destination’s off season, even if it means cooler temperatures and higher chances of some closures. No matter what the season, if you go, take into consideration whether you want a daytime or nighttime cityscape, and get in line very early in the day or late in the evening. Make sure you’re hydrated going up (that’s the yoga teacher in me), but not so much so that you’ll need to use the bathroom any time soon.

>>LESSONS FROM THE CLIMB. Rick Steves describes the Duomo climb in his guidebook as “463 plunges on a Renaissance StairMaster,” but the journey reminded me less of exercise and more of a journey of faith that all these stairs were leading somewhere worthwhile. You’re placing your feet on each stony step, unable to see ahead and cognizant of the futility in looking back. I had this same type of feeling many times during Hilltop Yoga’s tough 300-hour yoga teacher training program, when I was wondering whether I should stop the emotional and physical gauntlet — a good yoga teacher training program provokes some heavy and often unwanted self-reflection — and turn around. But after the formal program ended and I taught my first Ashtanga class — after I saw the practice of yoga from that vantage point — I knew it had been the right journey.

If you’re ever in Florence, take the climb up, and see what the journey evokes for you.

WHO NEEDS A CAPPUCCINO
Try the cioccolata calda instead

Americans do not know how to appreciate hot chocolate. Italians do. People always talk about Italy and the espresso and cappuccino available there. But what about the hot chocolate? The first time I ordered a cioccolata calda I looked around to see if anyone else was drinking the same thing, and whether they were pouring milk or something in the cup to cut it. I couldn’t accept the fact that the beautifully thick, smooth molten chocolate inside this cup was mine to enjoy as is. What do Italians do when they visit the United States and have their first cup of hot chocolate? Crying seems like an appropriate response. I might not mind winter in Michigan so much if we had this kind of creamy expression of warmth. (OK, I’d probably still mind just as much, but it would at least be a little something to look forward to on the coldest days.)

>>IF YOU GO. Try cioccolata calda in Siena at the Caffe A. Nannini. And by the way, about cappuccinos — for Italians, it’s a breakfast drink. Restaurants will serve it all day if that’s what tourists want, but if you want to do as the locals do, only order this frothy goodness in the morning.

>>LESSONS FROM THE SIPS. Too often, I try to split the difference. In my brief visit, I found that Italian culture fosters making a commitment — whether it’s heavy hot chocolate or a three-hour dinner — and that, in turn, can allow you to live more fully in the moment.  

WILD FOR WILD BOAR
Giving something a (second, third, fourth…) chance

Cinghiale (cheeng-GAH-lay), wild boar, is a noted Tuscan specialty. I’ve never loved the other white meat (though as you know, I’m having issues with the main white meat these days), but when I paid a visit to Memphis a couple of years ago and had ribs down there, I understood, for the first time, the appeal of ribs. Following in the same spirit, I gained a new appreciation in Florence for prosciutto (cured ham), salami and cinghiale. When done right, these meats have a refined and comforting flavor. My single favorite dish from the entire trip (more on that in the next blog post) was pappardelle di cinghiale, wild boar with Tuscany’s extremely wide, flat ribbons of pasta.

>>IF YOU GO. Unless you’re a vegan or vegetarian, don’t be afraid to try cingahle in a few of the various forms available — in pasta, as salami, as a main dish or in a stew. If you hate it, at least you’ll know you gave it all the chances it deserved.

>>LESSONS FROM THE BITES OF BOAR. Location, location, location. I’ve learned that about so many things now — that you risk missing out on something pretty cool if you are too quick to write something off when you haven’t tried it in the right context.

THE TOWN OF SIENA IS DELIGHTFUL 
Who wants prenup?

Drive 35 miles south of Florence and you’ll hit Siena, Florence’s historic archrival and interestingly the first European city to ban automobile traffic from its main square. Siena is, in a word, delightful. An intense horse race called Palio di Siena is held twice every year on the grounds of Il Campo, the town center.

Our local tour guide explained that the city is comprised of 17 neighborhoods, or contradas. It sounds as intensely tribal as a city can get. Each contrada has its own church and fountain (and sometimes museum too), along with its own flag, a mascot (our tour guide made sure we knew she was from the rhinoceros group) and a rival neighborhood. Each neighborhood has a horse that, if chosen by lottery (the town center can only accommodate 10 horses out of the 17), runs the Palio di Siena. It’s a bareback race, and the first horse to cross the finish line — with or without a jockey still hanging on — wins.

Laughing, our tour guide also explained that two people from different neighborhoods who get married will sometimes determine their children’s allegiances in a prenuptial agreement. That sounds to me like a Michigan State University fan and a University of Michigan fan signing a prenup determining if the kids will wear blue or green. Incredible.

>>IF YOU GO. Don’t breeze through town like a tourist, reading the guidebook and looking at buildings and architecture. You have to talk to local residents to realize why this town sparkles. I know that’s true of pretty much any place worth traveling to, but it’s so true here.

>>LESSONS FROM THE TOWN. That I need to go back to spend more time there.

 CARING ABOUT CARBON FOOTPRINTS
That’s the ticket

Floating around one of our guidebooks as a bookmark is my Venice fast train ticket. Right on the ticket there’s a number — 26 Kg — that’s confusing if you’re not used to taking these trains. It turns out this number indicates the estimated amount of CO2 saved by taking this particular trip you’ve just paid 43 euros for. The trip we took to Rome — also at 43 euros each way for second class — saved 32 Kg of CO2 each way. What a sensible idea — telling people in concrete terms how the decisions they are making right now are making a difference right now.

I also learned on this trip that Smart cars — which as you can image are ubiquitous in this part of the world — can also park perpendicular to the curb, as seen here:

People say Italian drivers are crazy. After this trip, I see why and while I agree, I’d add that they are crazy skilled. It’s beyond me how people can drive even small cars through some of these narrow streets, navigate confusing city-center traffic-free zones, snake their way into a too-small parking spot, not kill anyone along the way, and keep their cool the whole time.

>>IF YOU GO. Don’t rent a car. Period. Let professionals (taxi drivers, bus drivers and train conductors) get you from point A to point B.

>>LESSONS FROM THE RIDES. Every single trip I’ve made to Europe (I’m up to four now) has underscored how much farther the U.S. could be when it comes to public transportation. The technology is there — we just have to care enough to put the policies into place that would make it happen.

>>A word about the travel journal<<

I’ve long wanted to follow up my various trips with blog posts that offer something of a yoga-themed travel journal, but it simply hasn’t happened, mostly due to time constraints, I suppose. On this trip, I spent seven hours on fast trains getting to and from Venice and Rome, and nearly 20 hours on planes to and from Florence — so I had time to start in on some blog posts before returning home. I hope that with this post, I’ll start to make it a point to do similar types of guides when I travel — some heavier on yoga and others, like this one, much less so.

If you’ve been to this region, please share your experiences and tips in the comments! I would love to hear about your trips, whether yoga-related or not.

Ciao, till the next post.

© YogaRose.net and Rose Tantraphol, 2012. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to YogaRose.net with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.