I feel terrible admitting this, but never have my expectations of a place been so let down. Florence certainly had a lot to live up to. When I thought of Florence, I thought of art, romance, and beauty. I thought the city would sweep me off my feet with the enchantment of the Renaissance. Instead I was sorely disappointed and couldn’t wait to get out of the crowded, hot, and unfriendly city.
I can relate my experience in Florence to a hypothetical yet misfortunate dinner at a restaurant where the food is reputed to be delicious but the service and atmosphere is lacking. We’ve all had one or more of those dining mishaps, so hopefully it will be easy to follow my analogy.
First, I made my reservation for the wrong day. Navigating the train system is difficult, but I thought I had it down. Nope! I got kicked out of my seat and then almost got kicked off the train because I had no idea that my ticket was for Monday not Sunday. I had to pay an upgrade fee and a change fee. Ouch. Then I arrived at the restaurant but lost my $100 gift certificate. Yes, this relates to how I felt when I realized I left my Euro power adapter, camera charger, and extra camera battery on the train from Rome. The string of swears I chained together was quite a work of art in itself.
Next, I got seated at a table far in the basement away from the view, and my waitress was too busy to greet me so instead she sent the inexperienced hostess, who had no idea what she was doing, to take my drink order. Translation: the B&B I booked online was over the river and through the woods of the Florence ghetto. The owner, who was practically a celebrity in the Trip Advisor reviews that I read of the place, was on holiday this month, so instead her two teenage daughters handled me while their awkward boyfriends looked on from the common area. I did not feel welcomed nor at ease.
Next, the wait staff gave me unfriendly stares as if I came in 5 minutes before closing, just as the Florencians (?) wanted me out of their hot city so they could get the hell out themselves and go on vacation. Florence, surrounded by mountains, is unbearably hot in July and supposedly August. No resident wants to be there during this time.
The taste of the city, at least for my appetizer of exploring, was not as good as reputed. It was overcooked, bitter, and soggy. Basically. I had to wait a long time for what I really wanted –the meal– since I arrived in Florence late on a Sunday. Everything is closed on Sunday evening and all the big museums were closed on Mondays too. On Tuesday, the meal finally came in the form of The Accademia Gallery, where Michelangelo’s David is housed, the sculpture haven of the Borgello Museum, and the world-famous Renaissance documentary that is the Uffizi Museum.
Needless to say, the taste of these museums was spectacular. It was the service and atmosphere that tarnished them:
- Around the David statue, some child was shrieking as though she was being murdered, and it echoed throughout the hall threatening to shatter Michelangelo’s masterpiece and everyone’s eardrums.
- The security women wanted to slaughter any reckless tourist with the words, “NO PICTURE!” (I snuck a few from behind the columns, shhh!).
- The process of getting into the Uffizi even with a reserved ticket had me standing in line to the entrance, then being sent across the street to another line where I needed to exchange my reservation for a physical ticket, then back to the same grueling entrance line again.
- Once I was finally inside, the security man there made me cry after I gently, but innocently, tapped him on arm to ask if I could keep my water bottle. He chastised me for daring to touch him, as if he was a priceless work of art.
- The audio guide for the Uffizi was as interesting as listening to the hum of an air conditioner.
Overall, a delicious meal, but everything else in this restaurant that was Florence sucked for me. Most people say they had a wonderful experience in Florence. I guess I was just unlucky.
- Alessandro, who ran the B&B I stayed at, was handsome, kind, and apologetic to my less than stellar Florence experience.
- The statue of David was magnificent. He has quite the figure –and pair of balls.
- The Borgello was easy to enter and explore. Very few people go for this not-as-famous sculpture museum.
- I learned a lot about the history of art. I am still shocked at how advanced the Greeks and Romans were and how retarded the medieval Christians were. Now I can officially say it, “Thank god for the Renaissance.” I now truly understand why it is so celebrated.
- Gelato makes everything okay.
- My Insanity training came in handy as I hiked with ease up the four-hundred-some-odd steps of the Duomo to the epic top for a panoramic view of the city.
- Did I mention Alessandro?
- Oh, and David’s balls. Wait, I already… Oh whatever, they’re worth mentioning twice.
And now for dessert: Siena! I followed travel guru Rick Steves’ recommendation to experience Siena not just for a day trip, but also at night. I took a bus there rather than the train because the bus station drops you off in the center of the town; the train ejects you on the outskirts. Exploring Siena was delightful. It’s an old medieval town that actually rivaled Florence in its day, but evil Florence shut down Siena’s banking operations and effectually stopped the city’s growth in its tracks. This is wonderful for tourists because they can enjoy a city that hasn’t changed much over time. It was enchanting! Although I missed Il Palio by a week, the orgasmic horse race that happens twice in the Siena summer.
In line to climb Sienna’s main tower I befriended an American family who let me tag along with their sightseeing. I think the timing was perfect for me; I was getting tired of struggling to communicate in Italian all of the time and I was getting a little lonely. It was a relief to be able to communicate normally, to have my mannerisms picked up rather than lost in translation. The family consisted of 3 middle-aged cousins, a brother, sister, brother-in-law, two young kids, and the family matriarch. They were all in Italy to support one of the sons who plays soccer. Kevin, the brother of Karen (who had the kids and the soccer player) was happy to have me there since he was getting irritated with his family’s foot-dragging and incessant need to check out every cheap souvenir store. We toured in a way I wasn’t a fan of: very slow transfers between major sites, then really fast explorations of sites. I prefer to sightsee the opposite way. This experience helped to remind me of the benefits of traveling alone.
I spent dinner with the group as well and enjoyed probably the best meal of the whole trip in this cellar of a restaurant. The owner was a small Italian man who considered himself and his chefs artisans of food. They cooked me up a killed gnocchi with meat sauce!
After dinner, I parted ways with the family with the potential to see them in Cinque Terre in a few days. I found a bar with internet, chilled for a bit, then got gelato (my second of the day!) and sat on the sloping beach-like pavement of Siena’s main piazza as friends and lovers sat drinking, smoking, and enjoying the warm midsummer’s night. Siena was totally worth the trip –despite my bed, which felt like a stone slab– and I took a little inner peace of the city with me.
Next: Cinque Terre! A picturesque set of 5 villages nestled like seagulls along the northwest coast of Italy. I’m already there now, so let me quote from Carly Simon, “It’s the stuff thaaaat dreeeeeams are maaaade of!