I was really excited to head to Florence, as many of my friends had mentioned it on their list of favorite Italian cities. Shout out to Hannah Rafferty who even sent me an email detailing her favorite Italian things to do- you were right about the ravioli! (We’ll get to that later).
We took a train from Bologna to Florence, successfully navigating the high speed train system with its lack of signs or any direction at all. We have been fortunate to usually be right with our educated navigation decisions (well, mostly Ashley’s as I knighted her the navigator of the team), or at least we figure out we’re wrong fast enough to still get where we need to be. I have a few redeeming qualities, for example I am very good at having advil in my bag, or remembering to bring my phone charger, but navigation is not my strong suit. I’m working on it.
Anyway, we made it to Florence and checked into our Hostel (Hostel Santa Monaca) which turned out to be great for the most part. I was a little spooked when I found out that the building was a convent in the 18th century, but it all added to the charm of the place. As we unpacked our bags on our first evening, we heard classical music coming through a locked door on one side of our room. We obviously tried to open the door to find out where the beautiful string music was coming from but after all of our lock picking efforts failed went just down to the desk to ask. It turned out that we shared a wall with a converted church that was now a concert hall, so we had the pleasure of free concerts a couple of the nights we were there (through the door). It was very cool.
Exploring Florence was different from the last places we had been because all of the major sites are grouped in a very close proximity to each other. We were able to see most of them all at once, which was great for my sore feet, and made us look outside the tourist attractions to the more residential areas of the city. There were little nooks and side streets everywhere, and it was fun to see what appeared and what disappeared when the sky went dark and the city lights went on.
Walking through Florence, what struck me most was how different the colors and architecture was from the other parts of Italy we had been. More blues started to appear, and stark white marble seemed to be everywhere. The outside of the city seemed to always been glowing in shades of gold, even when the sky was cloudy and gray. The Duomo and the Cathedral of Saint Mary were massive (as were the crowds of people surrounding them) and we chose to not wait in the lines. Instead, we decided to use the money elsewhere and do a tour of a few other Tuscan cities a few days later. Another site we skipped was the David, but we had both previously seen the museum and David’s perky butt before, so we avoided the massive floods of selfie sticking tourists.
One Florence attraction we did pay to see was the Basilica Di San Lorenzo as well as the Laurentian Library where there was an exibit that displayed artists’ interpretations of Dante’s Inferno. The Basilica was beautiful, and there was a free audio visual tour on tablets that we were able to rent out to help us understand the historical importance of the different spaces around us. The Dante exibit was really interesting, even spooky, seeing the different ways artists over time have drawn the images written out in Inferno. Having not read it myself, it was a little hard to follow, but I appreciated it nonetheless. I know I know, I’ll read it!
Ashley and I made the very adult decision to be more money conscious, as we realized that we were spending money like we actually had it. Utilizing the grocery store next to our hostel, we purchased meats and cheeses to eat for lunch, and had beet salads and pasta for dinners. We even found a large indoor market where we bought a cheese made of goat, sheep, and cow milk and it was amazing. It was cheaper, I swear.
One meal we did go out for was to Ristorante La Giostra, a recommendation from Hannah. She said we had to go to try the pecorino and pear ravioli, so how could I not? We went, and were immediately impressed by the decor and the atmosphere but disappointed by the high prices, and that everyone around us was American. I have a theory that they seat all the Americans in one dining room, and everyone else in another, but that could just be a rumor I am about to start.
The food was delicious. They brought us complimentary prosecco as we perused the menu, and after we had ordered the ravioli and a penne with pomodoro sauce, they brought us a “gift” of an appetizer plate. It consisted of two tomato bruschetta, two crostini with chicken liver pate, two little fried cheese somethings, and an assortment of veggies. I had no complaints about anything on the plate, and even thought the pate was nice. I felt less bad about the prices after they buttered us up with the free stuff.
The pasta was great. The ravioli was different; sweet and salty at the same time with very nicely balanced flavors. I added more parmesan to tone down the pear a little bit, but overall I really liked it. The penne was a standard pasta with red sauce (Ashley hadn’t completely recovered from the bug she contracted in Bologna so simple was best). We were happy. I would recommend it to everyone studying abroad who knows their parents will take them out to dinner when they come visit (almost everyone around us was in this situation, or on their honeymoon which Ashley and I decided was too cliche).
On our third day in Florence we decided to take a day tour to see more of Tuscany. We booked a trip called “A Day in Chiantiland” which promised us stops in three cities, and a final stop at a wine cellar with a tasting and snacks (!). Day tours are nice because they allow you to cram a lot into a day, getting you past lines, and honestly just making things easier. As embarassing as it may be to be in a herd of lemmings following a lady with a stick in the air, you learn a lot and see a lot in a short time.
*Side note: We had to get on the bus around 8:15am for this trip, so as we passed a shop that said “American Coffee Experience” we decided to go in. After drinking espresso every day, we were hoping for a simple cup of good to-go coffee we could bring to the bus. The coffee ended up being all lattes with flavorings added to them, or just espresso, and so we both just decided on espresso over ice. But that is not the reason I’m telling you. The reason this was such a hilarious experience was because of the crowd that caused us to have to wait in line for a solid 15 minutes; about 40 Italian teenagers all ordering caramel macchiatos and hanging on each other before going to school. I will never again complain about the morning rush at the coffee shop back home.
The first stop was in a little medieval city called Monterriggiono. A little city on a hill, it is home to only 50 people, and it mainly still in existance for tourists to come experience was life was like back in the day. The tall stone walls, sloping streets, and tiny shops all made it feel cozy and surreal. It was like stepping back in time. The one room church was so simple and pretty, and there seemed to be more pigeons around than people.
Next, we moved on to Siena, a bigger city that, when googled, was called “the emerald of Tuscany.” Siena was beautiful, and I was thankful to have a local guide that explained the history to us. We learned about the different districts within the town, and how important they were and still are today. Each district even performs a baptism outside that of the church, which signifies the child’s loyalty to their district. The word district makes me think of The Hunger Games, but I promise it was really cool and not at all similar.
The tour included passes into the Siena Cathedral, which was by far the most beautiful church I have ever seen. Traveling Europe, you see a lot of churches in all their forms, and this one took my breath away. The use of color, shapes, and patterns was unlike anything I have every seen, and I had wished we had more time to explore it. From the ceiling to the floor, every piece of the Cathedral was a work of art, and I was blown away. We were lucky enough to go when the floor, which took 2oo years to complete, was fully uncovered. Usually it is partially covered so the chairs for mass can be used, but for a short time in October they remove them so the works can be seen. My favorite part was the section of floor that was covered by a blue and gold crescent moon pattern which was a symbol of the crusades. I’m not a religious gal myself, and I’m definitely not a supporter of violence, but this floor was stunning. Someday, I will have a crescent moon floor.
During our hour of free time to explore Siena, we found a cute little pizza joint for a quick lunch (mine had eggplant parm ON THE PIZZA), and then made our way to the main square, the Piazza del Campo and parked ourselves in the sun. We laid down on the brick and relished our half hour of laying, literally, under the Tuscan sun.
Post sunbathing, we boarded the bus to San Gimignano, a city famous for its fourteen remaining towers from medieval times. This had been my favorite stop on my trip to Italy in High School, and hoped it would be once again. As I climbed the stairs, I began to remembered just how high up this city is, with spectacular views all around. Looking out over the stone walls took my breath away once again, as I considered the two versions of me that have no looked out over this view. One, a 16 year old with no cares in the world other than her hair straightener blowing up and whether or not her boyfriend would like the new scarf she bought. The other, a 22 year old college graduate with more worries than she probably should have, learning to be her own person with the world at her feet. In that moment, I was proud of how far I’ve come, and proud to be on this adventure. I finally had that moment I had waited for, knowing I made the right choice and can do anything (except anything that would require a degree in something other than marketing/ anything dealing with blood).
We ventured through San Gimignano, tasting award winning gelato from Gelateria Dondoli. I ordered the dark chocolate and the blackberry lavender, which was possibly the best gelato I have ever had. Lavender is one of my all time favorite flavors, and I was blown away at how creamy and delicious it was, with the perfect balance of the sour berries with the floral lavender. If we hadn’t run out of time I would have gone back for seconds.
*Gelato Update: We had gelato at two different shops in Florence, Gelateria La Carreria which was my favorite, and another that I can’t remember the name of so it must not have been as good (but still great). It has become my personal mission to try gelato everywhere I see it, just to make sure it is up to my standards. So far, I have not been disappointed. I am still favoring dark chocolate as the overall winner, but you can’t really go wrong with any of them.
Our final night in Florence was a big deal. I’m talking a BIG deal. This was October 18th, the night we would get to see Dave Matthews Band live in Florence. Try to calm down, I know it’s hard (it’s been two days and I still can’t believe it either). When we had first planned this trip, Ashley saw that DMB would be touring Europe the same time we would and would be in Italy during our stay (fate, am I right??). We purchased standing room seats, thinking we would be close enough to see something, but weren’t willing to spend too much (sorry Dave, we’re on a budget here).
We had bought bus tickets to get to the Nelson Mandela Forum, but after unsuccessfully navigating the bus system, ended up walking the 45 minutes to the concert. As we entered we realized something- the standing room section was the whole floor… we could get as close as possible! We ended up about three rows back from the fencing separating us from Dave, the closest I’ve ever been in the four times I’ve seen him. The show started, we danced and sang, and then something not so fun happened.
This trip has been awesome. We’ve met great people from all over the world, and have been able to experience some amazing stuff. I have always hoped that people will judge and make opinions based on how I act, not where I’m from. At the concert was the first time this hope was dashed. As we danced and sang, a girl next to us began staring, glaring at us like we had stepped on her toes repeatedly or said something terrible about her mother. As she kept staring, I realized that we were the only people at the concert who knew the words, the only people dancing. She started yelling at us “Go Away! Go Away!” in her Italian accent. I almost couldn’t believe what was happening. Instead of standing silently, watching as the band performed, we danced and sang like we had always done at concerts in the U.S., especially at the Dave concerts we had been to in the past. I realized that there was another man looking at us too, who shook his head and made a face at a man next to him like we were unwelcome trash. We had done nothing wrong, hadn’t touched them or said anything to them, but we were different, and we were clearly American. Maybe they didn’t like our outfits, or maybe they thought we had terrible voices, but from what it sounded like, they hated us for where we are from. This is an experience I will never forget.
We were able to enjoy the concert to the fullest, ignoring the haters and singing our hearts out. No one gets between me and Dave, ok?
We were so close I could see the sweat on his face. I refrained from crying as he played “Lover Lay Down” which might be my favorite song of all time and I have never heard it live. Dave ❤ ❤
Having clearly stayed long enough, we packed our bags the next morning, heading for the bus that would take us to Rome. We stopped for a quick breakfast at a cafe on the way, called Shake. Shake boasted an all natural menu with juices, smoothies, lots of fresh fruit, salads, and wraps. I had a bagel with smoked salmon, cream cheese, and arugula and a smoothie made from banana, cinnamon, almonds, and ginger. Ashley chose a vegan croissant and a “refresh” juice which had apple, mint, ginger, and lime. Both of us were really happy with our breakfast, needing the boost of the fresh and light ingredients. It also helped that they played Usher over the speakers, which made us feel riiiggghhhtt at home.
Only, the bus never came. We waited and waited. I asked another bus driver if this is where the MegaBus stopped, and he told me we were in the right place. We kept waiting. No bus. We finally gave up, walking to the train station and buying tickets for the next train to Rome. Luckily, the whole bus shenanigan turned out to be the bus company’s fault, and they refunded us our ticket money.
Having finally made it to Rome a solid five and a half hours later, we found our hostel situated in an area that reminded me of China Town in Boston, but on a much larger and more multicultural scale. Surrounding our address were Chinese, Indian, and Caribbean take out shops and markets as well as other little stores filled with products in languages we couldn’t read. It was late by the time we checked in, and looking for food, we went on Yelp. We found a review for a restaurant right around the corner that read, “Tired of pasta and pizza? You have to check this place out.” We went right over!
The restaurant was called Hang Zhou, and had both a Chinese and an Italian menu. We ordered sweet and sour chicken (anything sweet and sour is my favorite) and asked our waiter for another suggestion. What he brought us was a dish made up of pork, potatoes, and mysterious mushrooms, but we enjoyed it.
We spent our day in Rome fulfilling the tourist checklist: The Colloseum, The Forum, The Pantheon, The Trevi Fountain (which was sadly under construction and not running), and everything in between. We had focaccia style pizza for lunch, gelato for dessert, and walked until I couldn’t feel my feet. The size of Rome is daunting, as are the crowds of people that constantly surround you. I actually would like to do a study of how many people actually say yes when the street peddlers push selfie sticks in your hand and say “how much?? great price!”
Rome is beautiful. Dirty, but beautiful. One you look past the trash and the occasional smell of poop, you can see how much history there is in this city that is so well preserved you feel like a gladiator might race his chariot right by you. The ruins will make you want to go back to school for archeology, I’m serious. I really do recommend buying the 12 euro pass to see the Colloseum, the Forum, and the Palatine Hill.We bought our tickets at the Forum (Insert A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum joke here) and being able to skip the line at the Colloseum was great.
Our hostel provided us with free pasta for dinner (they even added red pepper flakes, can you say fancy??) and we spent our final evening reading and writing about our time. Our flight to Barcelona was early the next morning, so we headed to bed and I pretended not to watch as one of our roommates meditated on the floor.
Italy was an amazing time. I loved the food, the history, and the beautiful scenery. I know someday I’ll be back, so I won’t say goodbye, I’ll just say Ciao for now!
Coming up next: Shashley (Shelby & Ashley) takes on Barcelona. Paella, cava, palm trees, what more could you need?