If you’ve been keeping up with the blog, you may have realized that we’ve been traveling non-stop for the last three weeks, blowing through six cities in Switzerland and Italy. By the time we got to Florence on Tuesday, we were both exhausted. Traveling but taking our time is an art we’ve apparently forgotten all about, five years after our big circumnavacation. So we set about recovering our breath and remembering how to make time for ourselves in Florence.
We have seven nights in this Tuscan city, home of pretty much every single Renaissance painting you’ve ever heard about that isn’t in the Louvre of Paris. Michaelangelo painted here, Botticelli did too, and it’s the adopted home of Leonardo da Vinci. The Medicis ruled here for hundreds of years, gathering the cream of European art and culture and displaying it here in their palaces. When we first sat down with a list of places we wanted to see, it felt like one big headache. I just saw us racing from one museum to another. Needless to say, that’s not anyone’s idea of a fun time. After much deliberation, we balanced the most talked-about places that we agreed we had to see with other smaller quirkier, less-famous museums and sights that we had a personal interest in, and ended up with basically one activity per day. It’s proven to give us enough flexibility, and resulted in enough sleep and down-time.
We found an excellent Airbnb which overlooks a little square in Florence city center, a mere 10-minute walk from the cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore (the Florence Duomo) and many other highlights. It has a lofted bedroom and a well-equipped kitchen, as well as one of the firmest couches that I’ve encountered on this trip. Several nights in a row, we’ve been enjoying dinner Italian style with the aperitivo. At many restaurants around Florence, you can hop on in sometime between 6 pm and 8 pm, and they’ll have what they call the aperitivo: for 10 euro, you get a cocktail or drink and enjoy the all-you-can-eat antipasti buffet. You can heap your plate high with any kind of pasta (usually some pesto and tomato variants) offered, olives, bread, veggie dishes like eggplant parmesan, olive or tomato tapenade, slices of fried polenta, stir-fried marinated mushrooms, and much more. We tried it out at a nearby restaurant yesterday, which was fun; I got a Hugo, which is a cocktail with elderflower liqueur, fresh mint, and prosecco. However, even tastier has been having it at home. Our first evening, we bought a local cheese that is gorgonzola layered with marscapone (creamy and stinky, my favorite!), panzanella (a breadcrumb salad), marinated artichokes, olives, and salami, topped off with a freshly cooked baguette. Two days ago, we tried some tortellini instead with white beans and other variants. Tonight, it was freshly fried sausages with an orichette and caprese salad. We have bought our own bottles of Campari and Aperol here, and enjoy making our own cocktails to boot. Honestly, the best hidden tip to travel Europe on a budget is to buy a combination of pre-made supermarket food and groceries and simply cook for yourself. Eating out is a hazard that is more often than not something that doesn’t pay off – we’ve purchased enough dry, tasteless, and prohibitively expensive paninis and pizzas on this trip already, and we’re not even in Rome!
Another observation from our travel fatigue is that we’re not alone. Being tired and traveling abroad is a real challenge, as many fellow travelers can attest to. Florence, Siena, and Venice are all home to very large tourist populations during the summer, and the ubiquity of English means we’ve been witness and accidental eavesdroppers to all kinds of family and couple arguments. En route to San Marco Piazza in Venice, we saw one young Korean couple rowing over what was the correct route to take to the piazza. Honestly, Venice is such a warren of streets that even Google Maps gets confused about where your location is all the time. In the middle of their argument, the woman literally threw up her hands and ran away crying, with her husband in hot pursuit to apologize, but even after three streets (we were going the same way), she would not forgive him. That was one conversation which we did not need to know their language to know it was a very, very bad time. Another time, an American family on the train from Siena to Florence were having a bitter, ill-humored time arguing about cellphones and data usage. The grown son and his wife were sniping back and forth with his mother in very thick Southern accents about exactly how the technology worked and why it wasn’t possible to get messages from the other family members they were corresponding with. It made us both wince each time we heard a “Did you turn the data off again?!” behind us.
We’ll be the first to agree that there’s plenty to get upset about. There’s the hot weather, the bad food where you feel like you’re being ripped off, and the crowds and long queues for every museum, because everyone else is also on vacation visiting Italy. I think what pushes people over the edge is that in the back of your mind, you know you should be happy and having fun. And you are paying a ton of money and spending your precious vacation time to be fly halfway around the world to argue with your loved ones. So of course it sucks – you don’t want your argument by the Trevi Fountain to be your memory of your amazing Italian vacation.
We’ve learned to mitigate the worst of the travel by giving ourselves space and time, rationing time spent in museums to one a day (our record so far is five straight hours) so that we don’t start groaning at the sight of another room with oil paintings, and remembering that we actually do like to hang out with each other – those things all help us from becoming that next couple in someone else’s blog entry! And of course, actually having a lovely travel experience to remember. For example, our favorite memory from our first night was actually taking some time after dinner to walk to the Duomo. After the sun had gone down in Florence, the evening was warm and breezy and comfortable. Many other folks were taking the opportunity to be outside in comfort, not just sticking to the shaded side of the street, and some enterprising musicians were playing guitars and saxophones in the piazza. Looking at the large creamy marble cathedral, outlined in pale green and pinks, we just enjoyed being with each other and going no place in particular.
I’ll write soon about all the museums we’ve seen here so far (the current count is three), and we’ve definitely had fun with all our destinations so far, but honestly, the most important thing about Florence is that we’re enjoying this city more than any other place we’ve been to in Europe so far, and that’s mostly because we’ve slowed down!