January 1st, 2013


Florence, day 1

Hotel breakfast was adequate, but again a step or two down from previous hotels. No hot items, smaller selection of cold meats, cereals, and pastries, and a self-serve pot of coffee and milk instead of someone to prepare it as you order. 

We had decided to have a half-day tour to get oriented, and our guide Allessandra met us at the hotel. She was very good, giving a lot of Florentine history and art discussions as we walked and doing pretty well at engaging the kids, especially B.  
First stop was the basilica of San Lorenzo, large (large and well decorated were themes, as much of the core of Florence was built in a sort of conspicuous consumption arms race with other Italian cities), but looking rough as it never received the marble skin it was built to have. The market for leather and other goods fills a few streets around the church,  and is a row of tent booths, oftentimes set up in front of the owner's storefront, which they are anxious to get you to enter to view more stock. We weren't shopping at that point. 
Next up was the Duomo, the heart of the city.  Visible from lots of places, so you can't stay lost for long--you can always get back to the Duomo. The dome is a major feature as the English cognate shows, an early success in building a very large and octagonal dome, and it's actually 2 domes with a space in between. Steps in that space let you can climb to the top of the dome. The exterior of the Duomo is clad in a rather dramatic white, green,and pink marble facade, a 19th century addition. We didn't have time to wait in the line to go in, but did admire the Baptistry doors by Ghiberti--copies, with the originals in the Bargello museum since the 1966 flood damaged them. 
We walked on to the Piazza della Repubblica, with a big arch and a very useful 3D map of the core of the old city in bronze that our guide used to talk about the bridges and the river.
From there it was a walkthrough of the Palazzo Strozzi, for a discussion on how the rich lived in the Renaissance. Big palaces, lower floors fortified and with barred windows, used for food storage, stables, and soldiers. Upper floors were for the family, but the fewer stairs needed the more prestigious, so the children and servants got the highest levels. Kitchens were at the top, to keep the smoke and cooking odors away and to minimize damage from fires. 
We walked by the Ferragamo house/offices, a building much in this style, but with a store on the street level. The modern Medicis, says our guide. 
We walked across the Ponte Santa Trinita, looking at the Arno and the part of city destroyed in World War II.  That included the buildings on either side of, but not the shop-lined Ponte Vecchio. It was spared by the Germans not for its history or beauty (sort of), but because the bridge couldn't have been used for tank crossings anyway. All other bridges in Florence were destroyed, but have mostly been rebuilt in their old styles. 
Walked close to the Pitti Palace, later home of the Medicis, but not to it.
Recrossed the Arno on the Ponte Vecchio, historic home of gold and silversmiths and now mostly jewelry shops. The bust of Benvenuto Cellini on the bridge made me think of The Spirit Ring.  An upper walk crosses the bridge and connected the Pitti Palace and the Palazzo Vecchio for the Medici in a private walkway. 
Walked by the Uffizi and were shown where to pick up our tickets the next say, then it was on to the  Palazzo Vecchio (the town hall) and the Piazza Della Signoria with a cluster of original and copies of famous statuary, most recognizable being the copy of Michelangelo's David
On to the Galleria dell'Accademia, and the real David, and our guide gave us a nice introduction to it before leaving us there. We had lunch at at Ristorante  nearby--mine was a fairly ordinary pici with ragú, others thought they had their best meal of the trip there. 
Headed for gelato, stopped and went into Duomo as the line had almost evaporated and looked at the interior. The girls wanted to climb the dome via the staircase between the two layers, but the line was too long.  
Next up was gelato. L's gelato-expert friend's  "best in Florence" was closed until New Years, so we went to Grom, part of a chain.  I got chocolate and stratiacella--chain or no, it was good. 
We then split up, and Robbie, Myra, and I wandered through part of San Lorenzo market but made only minor purchases. Back to hotel, and I took a nap. 
At about 6, Robbie and Myra volunteered to do laundry, process that eventually stretched past 9 pm as they waited on machines. They got sandwiches at the bar next to the hotel, later Brian and L. went there and got sandwiches/salad and brought back sandwiches for other kids.  I skipped, as I had nibbled pannetone with tea at hotel's afternoon serve-yourself tea and the cold was depressing my appetite. 

Florence, day 2

Breakfast about the same as yesterday, though we discovered that if you can manage to catch one of the staff, you can ask for espresso, capuccino, or cocoa. Which was a good thing, because today the big pot of coffee out on the table was tepid. The capuccino, while bitter, was hot. 

We had 10 o'clock reservations for the Uffizzi, which after negotiating the ticket pickup line, the security screening line, and the entrance line, got us in about 10:20 or so. We agreed to meet in the gift shop at 12:30...which seemed short even then, and after only a little while into the galleries proved ridiculous. There's so much in there, and the crowds also make it hard. Plus my limited art history background....

After that, we sort of started for food, but diverted to do Santa Croce. Robbie's knee gave under her on the way and she fell, so she, her mom, and B. found a place to sit in the piazza and waited while Brian and I and the girls went in. Again, there just wasn't enough time to explore the nooks and crannies and we didn't have a good guide to what was there, only the little free brochure. Michelangelo, Machiavelli, Galileo, and more are buried there, and the art work....again, my background just was inadequate. 

Lunch: what was supposed to be a great place for sandwiches had no seating (I Fratelli), and another that looked great had a tiny seating area that was full (Cantinetta del Verrazzano), so we ended up at yet another pizza place that I've lost the name of. I got a focaccia with prosciutto crudo and rugula, which turned out to be a crisp thin focaccia with the toppings piled on. Good, but unexpected. 

We then just happened to pass a chocolate shop our guide of the day before had pointed out, Arte del Cioccolato, with a lovely selection of truffles and other chocolates. I got a caramel truffle (caramel center, chocolate coated, dusted in powdered sugar, and treated each of the kids to their choice of truffle. 

Split up time: the girls decided it was time and joined the line to climb the Duomo., Robbie, Myra, and B. went to the leather market, and Brian and I went to Piazza della Repubblica to a department store with a rooftop terrace. Alas, the store was very crowded including the terrace and the view was disappointing anyway (mostly roofs) so we retreated without waiting for a table. Walking back we spotted coalboy's recommended Il Pirata, plus another promising gelato shop. We made it to thevhotel for tea at 4:30 or so. 

Dinner was a hotel-recommended restaurant. Ugh, another pizzeria, Il Giardano di Barbano, but it's nearby. Not bad, actually--I had a pork chop that was reasonably well done, and others' pizzas seemed good. 

Florence, day 3

We started the day on the south side of the river at the Pitti Palace, a de Medici palace, though the bought it from Luca Pitti and added on. It's at the other end of the walkway that goes to the Uffizi over the Ponte Vecchio, and now houses a number of museums and the Bóboli Gardens. You have to pick between two sets of museums when buying your ticket, and my preferred combination of the Galleria Palatina (with the major paintings) and the gardens wasn't an option. We went with the paintings, it being a chilly morning, near freezing, and we were all cold from our walk. Garden viewing wasn't on.

The Galleria Palatina was the experience I'd have liked in the Uffizi. Smaller crowds, and each room had a card available in Italian or English with the layout of each wall and blurbs for each painting, table/vase/whatever, and the ceiling frescoes. Better yet for my limited art knowledge, the really major works in each room were highlighted in red, for a quick way to be sure you didn't miss, say, the most significant Raphael in the room. After the rooms of paintings came the state apartments, also interesting. I think my favorite room,vas well as my nephew's, was the room of Hercules (supposedly the protector of the Medici family). B. put his mythology to the test trying to ID the setting of the various ceiling components and the paintings, while I verified by way of the card/cheat sheet.

That took up the morning, and rather exceeded the art quota for the younger generation. We walked back across the Arno, found a sandwich shop on Via dei Tavolini and got what turned out to be small sandwiches to share, and ate those in the street before heading first to the Nuovo Mercato street market, then back to the one at San Lorenzo for better prices. Brian wasn't interested in shopping and headed towards the hotel, the kids took off together, and Robbie, Myra, and I stuck together. The two shopper groups coalesced after a while to look for a leather coat L. was buying for her gym teacher, and a purse for herself, promised as a gift from Robbie. We found the coat first, and at the same shop I found one (hip length black with brown cuffs and collar) for myself, then the (excellent) salesman got A.L. to try on one that we all said was a great look on her. She couldn't afford it, and ended up getting a special gift from her grandma. :).

Shopping finished up with successful finding of a purse for L. and assorted smaller items as gifts for various people. I bought myself two scarves, one for dress-up and one for warmth (labelled as "Firenze-Italia" but made in China when you find the inner tag, alas). We walked back to the hotel by Via Genori, with a stop at Le Botteghe I'd Leonardo gelato shop (no GMO! No preservatives! No artificial colors or favors!), and arrived at the hotel in time to get coffee or tea from the afternoon tray.

Dinner was L.'s birthday celebration, and we had a recommendation for Paoli's from our first-day guide. Very nice, small, with arched and painted ceilings.
Close to kitchen and could watch--our waiter turned to ask if the steak I wanted was still available (yes), and called out in the other direction to order L.'s salad of rocket, zucchini, Parmesan, and truffles. I had filet with cream and green peppercorn sauce, after starting with a salad, then ended with creme caramel.

We gathered in a room off the hotel lobby to give L. her presents--she's now rather well supplied with scarves, I can report.

Florence, day 4

Set out after breakfast (well, at 9:45, not trying to move teenagers too early) to the one synagogue in Florence. Moorish style, built in 19 th century after the Emancipation in 1861 when Jews became citizens and no longer needed to build hidden temples. Survived the German occupation in WWIi, even saving the Torah scrolls by hiding them, but most were then destroyed in the 1966 flood. High water mark still visible inside at about 6 ft or so up the wall. Small museum on second floor.

Spotted a ceramic shop and diverted to buy a small dish (R) for dipping olive oil, and a cat-themed tile (me).

Next to Galileo Museum, actually a focused science museum with some instruments used by Galileo. Lots of really cool historical stuff, especially on time-keeping and astronomy, also physics topics. Seriously expensive displays in the interactive section, but without as much interpretive material as I'd like.

Lunch at restaurant recommended by a friend of L's, on Via dell'Agnolo, called La Vinaina. Family operation that appeared to be mother-daughter, making plain Tuscan food. I had tortellini with prosciutto and cream, which was nicely done. The panna cotta with chocolate sauce wasn't so, with too much gelatin.

Split up after lunch: R and mom went back to the market for one more item, then to hotel. Rest of us started towards Piazza della Republica, stopped back at Cantinetta del Verrazzano for cookies for the train tomorrow, more for immediate consumption, plus cake pieces ditto for others. The kids then split off to go to the hotel via the market, and Brian and I walked to Piazza Santa Maria Novella, took a look at the church exterior, then made our own way to the hotel arriving in time to make a cup of tea and join B and L as they ate their cake.

Downtime spent napping, Internet surfing, etc, then went down the block to a small Chinese restaurant, Tang, for dinner at 7:45. Crowded into a corridor space between the kitchen hatch and the bathroom, but nonetheless had a good dinner. Some communication issues, as with getting a chicken with bamboo shoots and black mushrooms instead of cashews, but other than lackluster spring rolls the dishes were good. Steamed pork dumplings, shrimp with noodles (very fine noodles), fiery duck in soy sauce, salt and pepper spareribs, a specialty beef dish that might have had black bean sauce and cumin, and the chicken.

Back to hotel and a sort of second Christmas organized by Robbie, mostly to make sure each of the kids got some *things* instead of all cash. A.L. and B. went to bed, L. tried to get stick-in-the-mud adults to go in search of New Years celebrations. I finally went with her on a brief walk at around 11, we encountered enough drunk young men roving in packs to be uncomfortable, and came back in 15 minutes or less. There were 5 or so concerts around in various piazzas, but I wasn't headed that far or into that big a crowd. Stick-in-the-mud....


Florence to Sorrento

A late start (our last), with 11 am checkout and needing to be at the train station for our 12:04 train to Naples. The hotel called 2 taxis for us, and we piled in with luggage for the short ride to the train station, paid the fare including the holiday bonus for New Year's Day, and wheeled our stuff into the station past the evidence of much drinking the night before. We've discovered that the train platforms mostly don't get posted until the train is pulling into the station, then you have a quick dash to the right platform and along it to the approximate location of your car to be ready to get all your stuff on before the train pulls out. Which can be in 10 minutes for the high speed trains.

That wasn't yet, though, because we got to the station by about 11:20 and the train was running 5 minutes late so was expected in at 11:55. It was a little over freezing, and the open cavernous train station was *really* cold. We just huddled in a group by our bags and shivered, after scouts sent to investigate reported that there was no room to crowd into the McDonald's where there was some heat. Had a little entertainment when a group doing some sort of New Year's Day run jogged through the station cheering and waving, but otherwise we shivered. Finally the train was posted and we made the dash to our spot and got on.

This was our first Frecciarossa train, the fastest TrenItalia operates at up to 300 km/hr, and it stopped only in Rome before Naples making the trip shorter than our Rome to Venice on the slower (200 km/hr) Frecciargente. The speeds maxed out at 180 kph north of Rome, but once out of Rome we hit 300 or close most of the time. (Current speed is posted on screens in the car, or you can get to a limited wifi and see speed, lat/long, altitude, and a map...as long as the train isn't in a tunnel away from GPS signals.) We grabbed sandwiches from the cafe car instead of having a full meal in the dining car, and they were quite acceptable. Toward the end of the run we got pretty nice views of Vesuvius despite some clouds around, which was good because shortly after that the clouds came down and hid the mountain. Rain expected tomorrow, so probably no views then either. Let's just say, though, that "dominating the Naples area" is an understatment. That's one big volcano, and it's right there at the city.

We were met on the platform by our driver Guitano (I think, "you can call me Guy" anyway), loaded into a 7 passenger Mercedes Benz minivan, and off we went around the Bay of Naples to Sorrento to the Grand Hotel Vesuvio, about an hour's drive in the light holiday traffic. Guy gave a good tourist spiel as we went.

Sorrento seems a little odd--it's a seaside resort town just around the peninsula from the Amalfi Coast and the nearby Isle of Capri, but it also seems a little seedy. Maybe that's just the seaside watering hole atmosphere...I keep thinking of Harriet Vane at Wilvercombe, perhaps aided by the geriatric leaning of the guests of the Grand Hotel Vesuvio. Walking through the town before dinner we saw the ritzy jewelry shops and the junky souvenirs, the blue-jeans crowd and those wearing full-length mink coats. Odd juxtapositions.

The hotel is spacious (wonderful change from the Hotel Cellai!), though it feels less luxurious than some we've had this trip--the furniture is middling and the towels are thinner than Hotel Cellai's. Internet is quite spotty in the rooms, but OK in the lobby. It's up on the hillside above the town, so they run a shuttle bus back and forth on a schedule. Oh, and I didn't expect it, but we got rooms with a view, that is, the one across the bay to Naples and Vesuvio. If only it had been clear, it would have been spectacular. Oh, well.

We did shuttle into town on the 5:30 bus, wandered a bit, then found the hotel-recommended La Fenice for dinner. Which turned out to be at 6:45 when they open at 7, so we walked in on staff dinner. They just waved us to a table and delivered menus, then right after 7 started the process of taking our orders. Very nice of them, and our waiter (perhaps the owner) also delivered an extra plate of warm bread (a focaccia or similar) gratis after the usual basket of sliced bread, then at the end of the meal brought spumante for us to toast the New Year, pouring a little for B. out of L.'s glass so he could taste it too. The food was very good though not fantastic, and the atmosphere was really nice. I had veal cutlets alla Fenice which was with ham and green peas, and a mixed salad, then shared a piece of lemon almond cake for dessert.

Early morning tomorrow, as we will be picked up at 8 and so must be packed and checked out by then. I'd better rearrange my packing and get to bed.