I have visited Italy several times, but I’ve never been north of Rome. Many of the country’s most famous cities and sights lie north of the capital. So Joe and I planned a long Thanksgiving weekend trip that started in the beautiful metropolis of Florence. While there, we visited many churches, drank lots of wine, took a quick overnight trip to Cinque Terre, and discovered the best sandwiches in the city. Here are some of the highlights from our time in the Birthplace of the Renaissance.
I think we picked our accommodation quite well: on the way to our apartment from the train station, we walked right past the Duomo. It’s quite shocking, really, to come upon that massive building all of a sudden. It fills your field of view, and you can’t help but stare. And as for our charming studio, it was located just off the lovely Piazza di Santa Croce. A massive church graces one end, there’s always someone playing a violin or guitar, and our favorite restaurant sat just off the square.
Food and drink
We discovered the delectable joy that is Note di Vino Enoteca and Wine bar on our second day in Florence. I found it while scanning Google for well-reviewed restaurants in our area. People really seemed to love this little spot, and we immediately learned why when we settled in at a tiny table outside. The owner, Lorenzo, is enthusiastically welcoming and helpful. His wife, Letizia, makes the biggest, freshest, most succulent sandwiches you’ll find. And few things, including the delicious, local wine, cost more than 5 euros.
After our meal, Lorenzo brought us a box of cookies and let us select what we wanted. When we finished them along with our drinks, he appeared with a little plate of biscotti and traditional Florentine sweet wine – you dip the cookies in the wine for dessert. All of these treats on the house. Our hearts were won.
We found our other favorite place to drink wine and snack just around the corner from the Duomo. Enoteca Alessi offered nicely varied wine flights – I’m a sucker for a good flight – and had a massive underground wine cellar. An American woman brought us the snacks that came with our wine (yay aperitivo!) and explained that the olive oil was special: it was the first of the season. They’d been waiting for it for weeks. Ah, Italia!
Our dinner spots were also quite good – we tried Fishing Lab, a trendy new seafood joint, and Osteria del Gatto e la Volpe (the Cat and the Wolf), a traditional – and always packed – Florentine bistro. The best part about Fishing Lab: the complimentary glass of prosecco you get while you wait for your table. And at the Cat and the Wolf? The pasta was just divine.
Sights to see
Let’s just get the obvious one out of the way: the Duomo, or more properly the Cattedrale di Santa Maria del Fiore, is truly spectacular. You may think it’s too touristy or too cliché, but it’s not. At least not in November! We climbed up the Campanile and gazed out over the colorful church and its massive dome just as the sun broke through the dark clouds hanging over the city. Then we climbed the 416 steps up into that dome (after our legs were already slightly jellied).
But let me tell you – it was worth it. Being so close to the beautiful ceiling paintings and squeezing through narrow passageways and up nearly vertical stairways just added to the excitement. And needless to say, the view from the top was incredible. Looking out over a sea of brown and red-tiled roofs, we tried to pick out monuments we recognized as the sun sunk below the dark grey horizon.
My other favorite monument was the Basilica di Santa Maria Novella (Saint Mary certainly gets some love in this country!). Joe and I expected to find just another church fronted by just another beautiful square. But it was so much more than that. The inside of the church was relatively plain, as seems to be the norm in Florence. Until we reached the end, where the triple apses and lavish enclaves beckoned.
Every inch of paintable surface held a riot of colors and forms, and tall, intricately designed stained glass windows shone serenely in the dim winter light. I don’t think I’ve ever seen so much decoration in one place. Even the side enclaves were rich with adornment. But it didn’t stop there.
As we wandered casually out a small side door, we emerged into a large, colonnaded courtyard planted with grass and evergreens. Upon closer inspection, we realized that the walls and ceilings were all painted and carved. A small side courtyard contained hundreds of inscribed marble tombstones and vaulted, painted ceilings as well. It just kept going, opening up into more ridiculously frescoed chapels and even larger courtyards. That entrance fee was worth every penny!
We also visited the Medici palace and gaped at the insane amount of marble worked into every detail of their chapel. I learned that Michelangelo contributed a great deal to the sculptural decoration and design of the place. The level of wealth that family possessed was just astounding.
There’s so much more to see…
Unfortunately, we couldn’t see it all. Florence’s wonders are many, and there were a number of sights we just couldn’t fit in. I guess we’ll just have to come back. Lemons into lemonade!