Searching for Gelato, Ghiberti and Gondolieri

May, 2022

by Jeff Kravitz

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After a two-year hiatus we got to travel again. During our long, boring self-imposed imprisonment, Donnie, my wife, world-traveler, adventuress and explorer had been attempting to control her travel addiction by watching various lectures via Zoom. One of her favorites was a series of lectures and slide-shows by an art historian and renaissance art expert, Elaine Ruffolo, who went to Florence decades ago to study the art and never left. She did a whole lecture series on the art of the Renaissance with an emphasis on Florence, her adopted home town.

Donnie was thus fired up to go to Florence at the drop of a hat, but the world Covid pandemic was preventing this. Then, some things came together - the pandemic eased somewhat, especially in Europe, and I, her loving husband, looking for a really unique, unforgettable way to celebrate our twentieth wedding anniversary, told her we would go on a first-class, no expense too large, two-week trip to Florence and Venice. Yes, I am that crazy... about her. So here we go...

Day 1 Thursday, April 28

Today was our travel day. The main item of note is that as a celebration of our big anniversary, we booked first class tickets to Florence. Well, actually there weren't any direct flights from New York to Florence, Italy so we had a stopover in Amsterdam, so it was first class to Amsterdam and business class to Florence. We booked first class mainly because it included fully reclining seats that essentially became a bed, so we could try and get some sleep on the plane. Flights from New York to Europe almost always leave in the evening New York time, and arrive some time in the morning Europe time, so it's good to try and sleep so you can be semi-awake your first day at your destination, especially since most of the hotels don't have rooms ready until the afternoon. One other advantage was that flying first class allowed us to use the airport lounges, both in JFK and Schiphol, the airport in Amsterdam. Unhappily, the lounge in JFK was so crowded we had a hard time finding seats and were uncomfortable with the crowded close quarters in the days of Covid, and the lounge in Schiphol was so far away from our gate that we decided to skip it.

The flight left relatively early, around 5 PM, so we really weren't sleepy, but we still got a little rest and the seats were more comfortable than the cheaper ones. First-class was not as luxurious as it used to be and we probably will never use it again.

Day 2, Friday, April 29

Eventually after the stopover in Amsterdam, we arrived in the tiny Florence airport and saw beautiful weather. We took a scenic, interesting, and a little frightening taxi ride to our hotel. I'm sure that the taxi driver left at least a half-inch between his side mirrors and the many buildings and pedestrians we passed, or maybe it was a centimeter.

During the ride we went past an amazing view of the Florence Cathedral and Baptistery so we resolved to go out today to take pictures before bad weather arrived. Our "highly accurate" smart phone weather apps had predicted rain for almost our entire trip. Happily it turned out to be "highly inaccurate".

Our hotel was very lovely, being an old palazzo itself. Our room was ready early and they informed us that they had upgraded us to a junior suite with a complementary bottle of wine. The junior suite was very roomy and lovely, the wine turned out to be not so free. They wanted ten Euros for glasses and a corkscrew. It didn't matter. We were in a very attractive, centrally located, upscale hotel on a beautiful day in beautiful Florence. Magnifico!

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We dropped our stuff and went out and walked to the Duomo, which means Cathedral, not dome as you might think.

Educational Information - skippable if you already know everything.

The Florence Cathedral dates from the 13th century and has a dome designed and constructed by the renaissance genius Filippo Brunelleschi - goldsmith, clock maker, artist, architect, designer, sculptor, engineer, mathematician, planner and construction supervisor. He was the first artist to master the art of perspective, which he probably invented. Perspective was immediately adopted by almost all the other renaissance artists. He was also the first person to receive a patent in the Western world.

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The dome is huge, the largest in the world when it was constructed, and is visible from almost everywhere in Florence. Brunelleschi even designed many of the tools and construction equipment used to build the dome. Millions of words have been written about the Cathedral and dome and Brunelleschi.

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Just wandering the streets of old Florence you get glimpses of the Duomo from every little street and alleyway. The outside of the building and the dome are more impressive than anyone could imagine until they see it in person. You can be wandering blocks from the Cathedral and suddenly turn around and there it is sticking up behind some buildings, towering over everything.

We started doing what we continued to do every day, wandering the streets. Every street is a step back in time. We took "postcardy" pictures in the sun. I usually avoid taking obvious postcard pictures, but it was hard to avoid. Florence was very crowded, which was a little worrying in the time of Covid, but we took some comfort in knowing that ninety percent of the Italians were vaccinated and that all visitors had to be either vaccinated or tested before entering the country. Most times we wore masks indoors. Italy had just relaxed its rule that everyone had to wear a mask, even outdoors.

The crowds turned out to be mostly college age kids which was surprising. We didn't imagine that the city famous for being the birthplace of the renaissance and home of several world-class museums and art galleries would be a hot attraction for college kids.

After wandering, and wandering, and wandering, we eventually got hungry and thirsty. We had read about some famous panini shops in florence and had made a list of them, among several lists we made, and fortunately our hotel was very near the most famous one. We wandered over and waited in a very, very long line at the All' Antico Vinaio panini shop, which had become so famous it is now three shops on the same block. It's so famous that whenever we passed by there were long lines. Some articles we saw online said that the panini inside aren't that much better than some other shops so the panini weren't worth the wait, but the fame has continued to cause long lines. There were even other panini shops between the three All' Antico Vinaio shops, some of which had good online recommendations, but they weren't as famous and there was nobody going to them. How silly and sad.

The crowds were so big that the shop had employed line managers wearing day-glo green vests with the shop name on them to direct people to the shortest line. We also discovered that there was no menu, either printed or on a sign in the shop. The guys in the vests were holding little plaques with QR codes that you had to scan to see the menu on your smartphone. We hadn't yet gotten an Italian SIM card for our phones, which we planned to do soon, so we had no internet connections and couldn't see the menu.

We eventually got to the head of the line and got two Number 1’s. We never figured out what was in them but they were good, huge but good. Since there was no place to sit near the shop, except on a doorsill or curb, which some kids were doing but we can't anymore, we took them back to the hotel. We ate about half a panino each since they were too big, and then, exhausted from no sleep and jet lag, we crashed.

Day 3 Saturday, April 30

We slept fitfully but we somehow got enough sleep. We woke at 7:00 AM, which was a reasonable time. Usually after a flight to Europe we wake up the first day at some ridiculous time. We had an excellent buffet breakfast in the hotel. We weren't sure if they were still doing buffet breakfasts due to Covid, so we were pleased. The scrambled eggs I had were very fresh and delicious. It took us a long time to get our act together and go out. We were tired and achy.

Continuing the theme, we wandered around Florence in the nice warm, sunny, blue-sky, not-predicted weather, got our Italian SIM cards, enjoyed the beautiful old buildings, took lots of pictures, and eventually decided to sit and have something to drink. We had heard and read of a drink called a Spritz, which is a very popular cocktail invented in Venice. It contains Aperol, Prosecco, soda water, and a slice of orange. Aperol is an aperatif which is a bright orange color and has an orangy flavor. Donnie wanted to buy a bottle to take home, but I didn't want to deal with getting it home in the checked bags. We resolved to try to find it at home. Editor's Note: We did.

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We each had a Spritz at a little outdoor cafe in piazza Santa Croce. We found them to be very refreshing and we enjoyed them a lot, another continuing theme. We then went looking for another recommended place on another of our lists of things to find in Florence - Gelateria Vivoli. We had two small gelati. I was disappointed. They were not as flavorful as we had hoped and expected. We did make a long list of recommended gelaterias, so we had other options to try later. Florence is considered the place to get artisanal, or home-made gelato.

While we were sitting eating our gelato, the City of Florence played a nasty trick on Donnie. When she was attempting to get her phone out of her pocket, she knocked the lens cap off her Nikon and it rolled directly into a storm drain. She could see it laying in the sludge. So we had to google for nearby camera stores. We found one and she bought a new lens cap and I convinced her to buy a second as insurance. Afterwards, we continued our wandering and then eventually went back to the hotel for a brief rest. At our age, this too has become a continuing theme.

In the evening, we had dinner at an outside table at a little place near the hotel. Almost every restaurant has outside tables. We find that very inviting and pleasant. Then we walked around Florence at night. It was still very crowded, with hordes of young people and lots of taxis, cars and scooters, all attempting to mow down a few tourists. We had learned that cars aren't allowed in the old part of town, except with special permits, but there seemed to plenty of cars with permits and along with the taxis and motor scooters, walking was perilous, especially since all the motorized vehicles made almost no attempt to avoid pedestrians. Even very narrow streets or piazza's that appeared to be pedestrian zones weren't safe from motor scooters. Some locals would ignore the cars coming within inches of them. Others yelled at the drivers, in Italian, of course.

Day 4 Sunday, May 1

Once again we awoke about 7:00, had breakfast, etc. We walked out to go to the Palazzo Strozzi, one of the museums holding a special exhibition on Donatello, renowned renassance sculptor, and pupil of Brunelleschi.

Educational Information - skippable if you already know everything.

Florence is considered to be the birthplace of the renaissance. It was, at various times, home to the greatest minds and talents of the worlds of art, literature and science. The names are still beacons of genius. They include Leonardo Da Vinci, Galileo, Michelangelo, Raphael, Donatello, Ghiberti, Botticelli, Vasari, Masaccio, Caravaggio, Giotto, Dante, and Machiavelli, to name a few. Many of these masters and their works were financed by the Medici, a very, very wealthy, very powerful family that were influential in Florence and Rome for centuries, and even had several Popes among them.

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On the way to the palazzo we passed some kind of May 1 celebration. There were a large group of people in period costumes, some carrying colorful flags and some playing military music on drums and brass instruments. At one point they started twirling flags and tossing them into the air and catching them. The piazza where they were doing this was very crowded which made it hard to see the action.

After a while we continued on to Palazzo Strozzi and saw the Donatello exhibit. Happily, we didn't have to wait on long lines at the Strozzi or any of the museums because we were smart this time and had booked timed tickets online before leaving New York. The organizers of this exhibit had put together a collection of his sculptures and works by others that influenced him or were influenced by him and had placed the exhibit in the Strozzi and the Museo Bargello, which we also had tickets for.

Donatello's sculptures were amazing and very beautiful. This is no doubt why he was very successful during his lifetime and is now considered the finest sculptor of the early renaissance.

The palazzo dates from the late 1400's and was also fascinating.

As before, we wandered around Florence again. It was more crowded than ever. During our wandering we walked along on the Ponte Vecchio which was unbelievably crowded, since it's another very famous tourist attraction which people come to see because it's famous.

Editor's rant: In my totally irrelevant opinion, some major art objects, such as the Mona Lisa in the Louvre in Paris, Michelangelo's David, the Ponte Vecchio, various Rembrandts in museums around the world, etc., are all visited by huge numbers of people merely because they are famous and these people go to see them just to be able to tell their friends that they saw them. We have seen the Mona Lisa a few times, and most of the people in the crowd take a selfie in front of the painting and barely even look at it. End of rant.

Educational Information - skippable if you already know everything.

The Ponte Vecchio is a bridge across the Arno River which was built in the late 14th century, replacing one that had been destroyed by floods. The earliest known bridge at that location dates as early as the 10th century. The bridge is a stone structure and is currently for pedestrian-only traffic, which is fortunate because it is always jammed with people. The bridge is lined with small shops along both sides which sell gold and jewelry. There always have been shops along the bridge, but early on there were butcher shops and fishmongers and the resulting smell and pollution of the Arno caused the sixteenth century Holy Roman Emporer, Ferdinand I, to declare that only goldsmiths would be allowed to occupy the bridge, which they do to this day.

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Interestingly, the Ponte Vecchio was the only bridge over the Arno not destroyed by the Germans as they retreated from Florence during WWII.

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Because the Ponte Vecchio was the home of the goldsmiths for centuries, in 1900 they commissioned a statue of Benvenuto Cellini to commemorate his 400th birthday. Cellini was an artist, sculptor and master goldsmith. The Florentine goldsmiths adopted him as their patron and teacher. The statue is still on the bridge. Donnie did a little window shopping at the Goldsmith shops, even going in one to ask prices, but ultimately didn't buy anything.

We wanted a small lunch, and had researched local eateries and decided to share a personal pizza at a little place called Napoli Pizza 1955. We shared a pizza and found out that the pizza maker makes heart-shaped pizza for female customers. The pizza was very good. The place was opposite one of the stores of All' Antico Vinaio, so we got to watch the long lines and crowds and people eating panini sitting on the curbs.

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One thing we noticed about Florence that had changed dramatically since our last visit, almost twenty years ago - the number of eating places. When we were here the last time, the number of restaurants in the city was nothing unusual, and there were very few outdoor seating restaurants and no pizza places, pizza being a southern Italian specialty. Now there aren't just thousands of places to eat, there are probably tens of thousands, many with outdoor tables, and thousands of places selling pizza, panini, gelato. Some blocks contained nothing but places to eat. Also you could get a Spritz everywhere, even from a little stand selling them "to go" in plastic cups. We avoided these. In our many travels we have noticed that pizza has become "the universal food". You can get it almost anywhere, even Japan and Iceland.

On most days, in the afternoon after being tired from all the wandering, we sat at an outdoor cafe or bar and relaxed with a Spritz. One nice thing about European cities that we have discovered in our many travels is that if you sit at an outdoor cafe or bar or restaurant and order something, even just a coke, you can sit and nurse it for as long as you want and nobody will be bothering you to pay up and get out to make room for the next customer. If it's mealtime and the restaurant is serving meals, then it's expected that you ask if you can just sit and have drinks. Some places you can tell which of the seats are reserved for dining vs. just drinking because some tables have tablecloths and others don't.

In the afternoon we walked to another place on our "must visit list" - the Venchi chocolate store. Venchi has a section where you can pick from a wide variety of chocolates with different flavors and fillings and a section selling gelato (of course), and even a chocolate wall, where liquid chocolate appears to be flowing down the wall. I'm skeptical that it's really chocolate. We found out that there's a Venchi store in Manhattan, so we'll have to visit it. Later I discovered that there are over 135 Venchi stores in over 70 countries. We selected and bought an assortment of chocolates.

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We then Walked near the Duomo and sat and had Spritzes at a little place where we met a young, outgoing, funny waiter. The Spritzes were good, the price was right, the location, right next to the Duomo was fun, and the waiter was fun, so we went back to more than once. Right next door we discovered a highly rated panini place, Panini Toscani, so we bought a panino to share for dinner. The place was a very tiny hole-in-the wall, where the proprietor gave you a little taste of the salamis, prosciuttos and cheeses so you could select which you wanted and then made the sandwich for you, while grandpa was out front of the store directing the customers inside.

We walked back to the hotel in a still-crowded Florence. The panino we bought we shared and it was delicious, better than the one from All' Antico Vinaio. Donnie spent the evening watching a Zoom from her favorite expert on Florence, Elaine Ruffalo, except this one was by a guest lecturer talking about Gothic Architecture.

Day 5 Monday, May 2

After breakfast we once again wandered around a little until our pre-arranged time to enter the Palazzo Vecchio. Once inside we found out that you had to walk up very long, very steep, slippery stone stairs with no intermediate landings to get to the exhibits, which were way up high, and then walk down again. At our age, this is not as easy as it used to be.

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The Palazzo Vecchio was incredible - amazing ceilings - amazing frescoes. It was built between 1298 and 1314, which means it's pretty old. Cosimo de Medici, the ultra-rich banker and ruler of Florence and father of the Medici Dynasty used it as his seat of government for some time. Now, in addition to a museum it's the Florence town hall. We walked around inside the Palazzo for about an hour taking in all of the beautiful art, decorations, frescoes, ceilings, furnishings, sculptures, etc. Then we had to walk down. I’m positive that we walked down at least twice as many steps as we walked up.

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Photo by D. Kravitz

We then went to the Baptistery. It's a large octagonal building a few feet from the Duomo. As you might guess from the name, it's where people were baptized. The reason that it's a separate building from the Cathedral is that back then you were not considered a Christian until you were baptized and therefore were not allowed into the Cathedral proper, so you had to be baptized in a separate building.

The most famous parts of the Baptistery are the doors. We visited them and photographed them before going inside, even though the sky was overcast and the pictures were not great.

Educational Information - skippable if you already know everything.

The Baptistery is one of the oldest buildings in the city, constructed between 1059 and 1128. At the end of the fifteenth century the doors to the Baptistery were the subject of a competition to see who would be the artist who designed and created bronze panels to decorate the doors. Seven artists competed by submitting a bronze plaque on the “Sacrifice of Isaac”. The competition narrowed down to Lorenzo Ghiberti and my hero, Filippo Brunelleschi, however Ghiberti won. It has been rumored that Brunelleschi was given the commission to create the Cathedral dome as a consolation prize. If so, we are all lucky he lost. The south doors were created by Andrea Pisano and the north and east doors by Ghiberti. Michelangelo dubbed the east doors the "Gates of Paradise".

The plaques are gold-covered bronze panels in very high relief. They are stunning. The ones on the doors are now copies, the originals being housed in the Museo dell’ Opera di Santa Maria del Fiore.

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The inside of the Baptistery was half covered and scaffolded for restoration, but the uncovered parts were beautiful and impressive, especially the ceiling.

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After lunch we went to the Ospedale degli Innocenti. This is yet another architectural masterpiece designed and built by Brunelleschi in the early 1400's. It was built as an orphanage and was used as such until 1875. The building appeared to be in need of some maintenance and we didn't go in but just walked around in the courtyard and took pictures.

Nearby, Donnie stopped into a little stationery store and bought a pencil, eraser and sharpener so we can work on the crossword puzzles we had brought along to work on in our hotel room instead of watching Italian television. Then we went to our Spritz “place” and had Spritzes. They are becoming a habit, albeit a refreshing one.

In the evening, we went to dinner at a place called Ristorante Il Caminetto which was only a few feet away from the Duomo. Usually we avoid restaurants close to blockbuster tourist attractions because they usually cater to tourists with cheap prices, English menus, and bad food. Il Caminetto however was actually hidden on a tiny sidestreet away from the crowds, had a charming interior and a very interesting, almost gourmet menu. It became clear that it was a family-owned and run place and Mama and Papa and their daughter were very friendly, welcoming and helpful.

I have tried to avoid descriptions of our meals as a rule because it would bore you dear readers, but I have to mention something about this one - Donnie had her first taste of Ribollita on this trip to Florence. It's a very traditional Florentine dish which we had first tried on our visit decades ago and which is a soup made from leftover bread, cannellini beans, kale, cabbage, and vegetables. It's very thick and hearty. The food and the ambience in the restaurant were so good that we went back again.

Another fun part of being in old Florence - we hear church bells everywhere, several times during the day and into the evening, even in our hotel room - fun! They kindly don't ring them at night when people are sleeping. On our first trip we were here on Christmas Eve and at midnight all the churches rang their bells simultaneously for several minutes. It was wonderful.

Day 6 Tuesday, May 3

We decided today was the day to try to get into the Duomo. There had been long lines all week but we hoped that by going there before opening time we might avoid the lines. We had pre-booked timed tickets for the Baptistery, the Museo dell’ Opera di Santa Maria del Fiore, which is the museum related to the Duomo, and something called the Crypt of Santa Reparata, which we knew nothing about. However they didn't offer timed tickets to get into the Duomo itself because, being a church, entry is free. Since it is a major tourist attraction, and entry is free, and there are no timed tickets and Florence is inundated with tourists, our hope that an early attempt would avoid long lines was doomed to failure.

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There was a very long line to get in. We were about to give up when we noticed a door with a short line at it. Checking the nearby sign we found out that the line was to visit the Santa Reparata crypt, something included in the tickets we had purchased online and which weren't set at a given time. We didn’t know if this entrance also got you into the Cathedral. We had to wait about ten minutes before it opened. Our luck was good. We got into the Cathedral proper without waiting hours on line.

The Cathedral itself was dark and somewhat unimpressive inside so we were very happy that we didn’t have to wait on the long line. We wandered around inside the church taking a few boring pictures. We were surprised that a building so impressive on the outside was so plain on the inside.

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Educational Information - skippable if you already know everything.

The church was designed by Arnolfo di Cambio. It was started in 1296 and finished around 1367 - another very old building. The Cathedral was completely covered by multi-colored marble, except for the front façade that wasn't done until the 19th century. The very impressive, very tall bell tower was designed by another famous renaissance artist and architect, Giotto.

The Florence Cathedral is now the fourth largest church in the world.

The architecture, paintings,stained glass windows and sculptures of the Baptistery, the Bell Tower and the Cathedral were done by such names as Brunelleschi, Giotto, Ghiberti, Donatello, Vasari, Michelangelo, and many other lesser-known artists. We were figuratively standing in the renaissance.

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After visiting the Cathedral proper, we went down to the Santa Reparata crypt which was a pleasant surprise. It was a modern, well-lit exhibit of the older church that existed before the Cathedral was built. There were some magnificent mosaic floors on display. We wandered around the underground exhibit for a while and admired the ancient floors and sculptures before heading back outside.

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From the Cathedral we wandered over to the church of Santa Croce. Inside, the most impressive sights for me was the tomb of Galileo, who is another one of my heroes, and those of Michelangelo, Ghiberti, Rossini and Macchiavelli and the monuments to Leonardo Da Vinci, Dante, Marconi and Enrico Fermi, who are buried elsewhere. Once again we were surrounded by the renaissance and embedded in genius.

From there it was a long walk to La Galleria Dell’Accademia di Firenze or simply the Accademia, perhaps the second most famous sight in Florence since it is the home of Michelangelo's David. It was crowded but not too unpleasantly so. One change from when we were here last was that pictures were allowed now. Given that everybody has a smartphone with a camera, it would be almost impossible to prevent people from taking pictures. Nineteen years ago if a guard saw you attempting to take a picture you would get a stern lecture, in Italian.

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David was as impressive as we remembered. Pictures do not do it justice. From close up it is huge. It's seventeen feet tall. Michelangelo designed it to be seen from far below as it was originally supposed to be along the roof of the Cathedral. The anatomical detail is amazing as is the beauty of the surfaces and the overall presence it exudes. One unusual thing is that the hands and head are larger than normal, but this might be because it was supposed to be high up. The Accademia has placed it in a position where it can be seen at the end of a long hall that you enter from the main entrance, making it more impressive as you walk toward it.

Lining the hall leading to David are four other sculptures by Michelangelo now referred to as "The Slaves". They are unfinished and in various states of completion. They are amazing since there are torsos and body parts seemingly entombed in rough stone. It is said that Michelangelo felt that the figures were already in the stone and he merely had to chip away the excess material to reveal them.

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In another room was a temporary exhibit containing a row of nine bronze busts of Michelangelo sculpted by Daniele da Volterra, his pupil and close friend. They were remarkable, very lifelike and evocative.

The "Highly Accurate" iPhone weather app has been predicting rain every day, inaccurately. Today, while walking back from the Accademia we got some rain. It drizzled for about two seconds. There's some accuracy for you.

We went to a little outdoor place on the way back to our hotel and shared a small pizza. Then we were ready to try "Perche No", supposedly one of the best gelato places in Florence. We walked and walked only to discover it was closed on Tuesdays. So we settled for gelato from Venchi instead. It was ok - better than Vivoli. On the way back to the hotel, Donnie stopped in a Carrefour store, a chain of small supermarkets, to get some lemon soda, but instead she got two small bottles of Prosecco. Then we went to a small bakery and bought some cantucci. Cantucci are what the Italians call what we call Biscotti. In Italy, Biscotti is just the word for "cookies".

We had Dinner at a little place just called L’Osteria. Tonight, as we had seen during other meals, the restaurant put some Tuscan bread on the table for us. We tasted it. As we found out nineteen years ago, the bread tasted like cardboard, or maybe styrofoam - perhaps crunchy air - yuck. The Tuscans make their bread with no salt, rendering it tasteless. They claim that they like it - they seem to be proud of it. They make sure that every tourist has a chance to eat it. I think it's some kind of in joke.

There are two legends about why Tuscan bread has no salt. The more boring legend is that salt was heavily taxed and the Tuscan bakers couldn't afford the taxes. The more fun legend is that there was a feud between Pisa and Florence and the Pisans blockaded the salt shipments to Florence and the Florentine bakers, in defiance, made their bread anyway and, since they really hated the Pisans, refused to use salt from then on.

Otherwise dinner was delicious. After dinner we had planned to go to another recommended gelateria on our list - Gelateria Neri but it too was closed, so we went back to the hotel and worked on a New York Times crossword puzzle, done using Donnie’s new pencil - and, sorry to say, her new eraser. One other thing - while we were in the hotel room suddently the whole building shook for about a second. It was very disconcerting, especially since it was a massive stone building with thick walls.

Day 7 Wednesday, May 4

This morning at breakfast we found out from our waiter that the shaking we felt yesterday evening was an actual earthquake, a 4.2!. Scary. He assured us that earthquakes were very rare in Florence. We hoped he was telling us the truth.

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We had planned to go to the Museo dell’Opera del Duomo, which is the museum containing artworks from the Duomo, but when we arrived there was a long line to get in, even for ticket holders, so instead we hiked a long way to the Mercato Centrale. This is a public food market on the ground floor, with stalls selling meats, cheeses, breads, veggies, you name it. One stall sold nothing but mushrooms. Everything looked delicious. Upstairs was a more touristy food court. We walked around and took pictures and drooled and finally had a snack of delicious crostini and wine for a light lunch at a little counter downstairs, sitting on stools.

Then came the very long walk to the Galleria degli Uffizi, or in English, the Uffizi Gallery.

Educational Information - skippable if you already know everything.

The building construction began in 1560 and was completed in 1581 and was designed by Georgio Vasari, yet another renaissance artistic genius, and was commissioned by Cosimo de' Medici, the renaissance financial genius. It was originally built to hold the offices of the Florentine magistrates, so it was called Uffizi - "offices". Obviously, the name stuck. Part of the building was used as an art gallery since 1737 when Anna Maria Luisa dé Medici who was the final member of the dynasty decided to donate their entire collection of art to the gallery. The gallery was originally only open to visitors by request. In 1769 it was opened to the public and officially became a museum in 1865. It is now a world-class art museum, home to many of the greatest pieces of renaissance art. It is one of the largest, most visited and best known museums in Italy.

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Once again there were lots of steps up. It turned out that there was an elevator, but we didn't find that out until we were leaving. At least we didn't have to walk down the many steep, slippery, uneven, scary for us older folks, stairways.

By my recollection, in comparison to our last visit, the gallery was not very crowded. Supposedly during July those without pre-arranged timed ticket can wait up to five hours in line. The building is shaped like a giant letter "U" where the sides are two very, very long hallways - at least a city block long, lined with paintings and sculptures but the major works are in smaller rooms off the hallways.

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Inside was art. Now there's an understatement. There was art by some guys named Giotto, Botticelli, Leonardo, Raphael, Michelangelo, Verocchio, Titian, Carravagio, etc, etc. - even Albrecht Durer, El Greco, and Rembrandt, who, if I remember correctly, were not Italian. There were even works by a woman, Artemisia Gentileschi - a fact which was pretty unusual for the period. We have seen her work in other museums, even one close to where we live. She is now getting the recognition she deserves.

After an hour of art we took a break and went to the rooftop cafeteria and had iced coffees and treats. The treats were artistic also.

After spending hours at the largest art museum in Italy, what did we decide to do? Visit another museum of course - the Museo dell'Opera del Duomo which we had tried to get into this morning. This time we got there when there was no line. The museum was more modern, bigger, and more impressive than when we were here last.

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The most impressive part however was the display of the original doors of the Baptistery, They were beautifully displayed and lit up and restored since the last time we were here. We wandered around this museum for a while, until we reached "art burnout" as we do in all these museums.

Afterward we had Spritzes at our Spritz place and then trudged back to our hotel to collapse for a while.

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In the evening we had a tasty pizza dinner at Pizza Napoli 1955 again since we didn't want a big meal and we didn't want to search for any new place. After dinner we walked over to the Arno and down to the Ponte Vecchio and took some iPhone pictures of the river and bridges with the last rays of sunset and a crescent moon - very pretty and romantic. I was sorry I didn't take my "real" camera. The iPhone didn't do too well.

Day 8 Thursday, May 5

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Today was the first really rainy day so far in Florence, although it was mainly just a drizzle. After breakfast, etc. we took a very short walk to the Bargello Museum, since it was only half a block away from the hotel. This was another very impressive renaissance building, the construction of which started in 1255 - that's old. It was an office of the head magistrate, then the office of the police chief and then a prison. It was the police headquarters until 1859 when it finally became a museum.

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We saw the rest of the Donatello exhibit including his most famous work, a statue of David. Donatello's was first, before Michelangelo's, by about sixty years. It too was amazing and beautiful. We, of course, wandered around the museum for some time. I started to think that I was reaching museum burnout.

For lunch, we had to complete another one of our "must do" items and have Bistecca alla Fiorentina. This was high on our list. This is a dish we had tried when we were here nineteen years ago because everything we had read said it was a classic Florentine dish and was not to be missed. It was unforgettable. It is a huge steak, from a Tuscan breed called Chianina which is specially prepared. It's cooked over hot coals and quickly seared to a char outside but left very rare on the inside and just seasoned with a little salt. Many restaurants will not serve it except rare. If you ask for medium or, heaven forbid, well-done they will politely, or maybe not so politely, ask you to leave.

It wasn't easy to find a good place to have it on our first visit but now every little restaurant offers it, probably because it's now another touristy thing. One problem is that almost all the restaurants have decided that they won't sell a steak under a kilogram in weight. That's 2.2 pounds! Even sharing it, we can't eat that much anymore.

Luckily the desk clerk at the hotel found a restaurant for us that served smaller portions of Bistecca so we walked in the drizzle to Osteria Natalino, a little place with about six tables outdoors under umbrellas. It was even hard to find a sign with the name of the place. The bistecca was great and the portion was just the right size. The flavor was incredible. Even Donnie, who rarely eats steak loved it.

After lunch we went to the Basilica of San Lorenzo where we saw the tombs of Donatello and Cosimo Di Medici. We're getting to the point where a phrase used by a very good friend of ours was beginning to become relevent. When touring cities in Europe, she would say "Oh no! ABC" where "ABC" stood for "Another Bloody Church". We were getting tired of old churches too.

After the Basilica, on the way back to our hotel, we finally got to stop at "Perche No" for gelato. "Perche No" means "Why Not?" - a good name for a gelateria. It was pretty good, but so far we haven't had any gelato as good as we remembered from our first time in Florence.

Day 9 Friday, May 6

We had a very slow start today. I think we didn't leave the hotel until eleven. We had nothing on the agenda except laundry today. Donnie is obsessive about laundry. I won't bother to repeat her long explanation about packing light, the amount of clothing she takes, the need to wear clean clothes every day, etc. Suffice it to say that when we are on a trip longer than a week, laundry becomes a pressing issue (pun intended).

We could have paid the hotel to do our laundry, but I have this aversion to paying three times as much as they cost to have a pair of underpants cleaned. So, naturally, Donnie had done her homework and before we left home she had located the laundromat nearest to our hotel.

So this morning we Did Laundry.

After sheepishly sneaking our cleaned clothes back into our hotel room, trying to avoid embarrassing stares by the desk clerks, we went for a panini lunch at another recommended place, L’ Girone de’ Ghiotti. It was a little chaotic. There was a young, unorganized crowd outside the door but someone was holding a little numbered green ticket and told us that you had to squeeze past the crowd and go inside and order and then they would give you a ticket and call the number when your order was ready. Inside there were two guys making the sandwiches. One was operating the meat slicer and making little piles of meat that he lined up along the counter, assembly line fashion, and the other guy was assembling the sandwiches. It took a while to get our panini. We took them back to the hotel and had them with our supermarket Prosecco.

In the afternoon we had quite an adventure. We walked, in the rain, to the Oltrarno district on the the other side of the Arno. Elaine Ruffolo, the Zoom lecturer on Florence recommended it as it is supposed to have many artisans workshops and stores. We were pleasantly surprised to see them since I had supposed that hand craft artisans were a dying breed. We enjoyed the walk, even though it was raining.

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We passed a shop where two young women were making shoes by hand, surrounded by the tools of the trade. We passed several other workshops which were fascinating.

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Then we came to the shop of Simone Fiordelisi who makes incredible objects of inlaid stone. We read that he is one of the last masters in the art of scagliola or mosaico fiorentino, a technique dating back to the ancient Romans. Semi-precious stones are cut and inlaid into marble to create geometric patterns or images

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He was in his shop wearing a smock working, surrounded by beautiful plaques, tabletops, and many other beautiful objects. We asked about prices and he attempted in his limited but workable English to give us some idea of the price ranges.

After much coaxing by me, Donnie picked out a pair of earrings which were small, dark stone discs with inlaid violets. He took them from a little shadow box in his store window and then explained that they were just little plaques and didn’t have earring backs. First he suggested that we have our “local craftsman” mount them but we sort of indicated that we had no “local craftsman”. He then suggested that he could offer us a stud of silver or gold on the back. He quoted very reasonable prices and said we could come back in an hour. He didn’t even want money in advance. So we said we would be back in an hour and as we left he took off his smock and said he was going out to buy the studs. We walked around in the rain and the went back and purchased the beautiful, genuine, handmade earrings directly from the artisan who made them. While we were there he told us that some important customers were coming from the U.S. to buy some custom boxes that he made for them. He proudly showed us the boxes which were dark grey stone about three inches on a side, with beautifully decorated tops and very heavy. He was very enthusiastically telling us about them.

It was a fantastic, extraordinarily memorable experience.

Day 10 Saturday, May 7

In the morning we walked around a new area to Santa Maria Novella, a part of Florence that was much less touristy.

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We stopped in a little shop where they made and sold items made from marbled paper. While we were there they were holding a one-on-one workshop where they were showing a young woman how to make marbled paper.

Later we stopped in a very elegant outdoor place in Piazza Santa Maria Novella and got Spritzes. The waiter was dressed in a very expensive suit and when we asked if we could sit and have drinks he very haughtily suggested that we look at the menu first. He seemed to imply that we couldn't afford their drinks, since we weren't dressed as well as he was. The Spritzes came out with fancy decorations and even custom swizzle sticks. They were expensive, but we enjoyed them and we also enjoying teaching the waiter a little humility, or so we hoped.

Donnie had wanted to go to Piazzella Michelangelo which is a piazza high up on a hill on the other side of the Arno far away from our usual haunts, but is well visited as it has a wonderful view of all of Florence. She suggested walking. I vetoed that. We took a taxi. Of course when we got there it was very overcast, windy, chilly and the light on the city was ugly. We took some really bad pictures and then started the long walk down. As we we going down the various flights of uneven stone steps Donnie admitted that walking up would not have been a good idea. Once we got to the bottom we still had a bit of a walk back to the hotel but I pointed out that we were near the Gelateria dei Neri. So we had to go there. The gelato was the best so far. We went back to the hotel for a while for our afternoon rest and then went out for a stroll.

After another good dinner, when we got back to our room there was a note on our bed saying that due to a sporting event tomorrow, a foot race, the taxis and other vehicles will have great difficulty and would be blocked from the area near our hotel, just at the time we need to get a cab to the train station. We went down to the hotel desk and asked about it and were told that we should get a cab before nine instead of ten when we were going to leave. So we set our alarms for six AM. Ouch.

Day 11 Sunday, May 8

Today we left Florence - sad.

At five to nine the front desk called our room to confirm that we wanted a taxi at nine and if we wanted someone to come up to get our bags. They were very efficient and helpful. The taxi showed up promptly and a nice lady taxi driver zoomed through the almost empty streets to the station.

The Santa Maria Novella train station was a little crowded and there was almost no place to sit but about 9:30 it had cleared out some and we found some seats. Eventually our train arrived about a couple of minutes before its scheduled time.

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The train was very clean and modern and comfortable. It departed about two or three minutes late - not bad. After a few minutes they came by with boxed mineral water and cookies. Judging by the scenery going by, the train was moving really fast. The screen onboard said 248km/h. That’s over 150mph! This was not Amtrak. I will omit my rant about trains in America.

We made sure to reserve window seats so we could enjoy the scenery so naturally after leaving Florence we entered a tunnel and we were in that tunnel for quite a while. After a long time in darkness we emerged into the daylight - for about a second. Then we were in another tunnel for a long time. This scenario repeated a few times.

Even when we stopped in Bologna, the station was underground. We finally emerged again outside Bologna. We had seen the underbelly of Bologna. During the trip, the train made stops at Bologna, Ferrara, Padova, Mestre, and finally, crossing a causeway, we were in Venezia!