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A Very Italian Road Trip, Part 2

Florence Duomo

With Venice in our rear view mirror, we set out for Florence.  This drive is autostrada all the way, so it’s quick and easy.  We did learn two things on this trip, however.  One, when you get near Florence coming from the north, the autostrada splits.  Both will get you there, but one is the scenic route and one is the direct route.  Not knowing this was going to happen, we mistakenly took the scenic route.  And it was, but it was winding and twisting and probably much longer than the direct route.  The good thing was there was very little traffic because everyone else knew to take the other route.  Two, don’t try and find Fiesole using Google Maps when you’re coming into Florence from the north.

There is a place we love to stay called Pensione Bencista.  It’s about 15 minutes north of Florence in a town called Fiesole.  We usually come into Florence from the south, but this time we were coming from the north.  I turned to Google Maps to get us up to Fiesole and Pensione Bencista.  This was a critical error.  Google Maps is great, except for when it’s not.  It does not take into consideration that we were driving a nine passenger van with manual transmission.  We were going along just fine when Google Maps had us go up a one way street that was paved, but otherwise could best be described as a goat path.  However, if I were a goat, I wouldn’t go up it.  We could see that the road went up a hill and made a sharp left turn, at which point we couldn’t see what happened.  It’s a real shame that we couldn’t see beyond that sharp left.

One clue might have been the small sign that I saw out of the corner of my eye that said No Campers on this road.  I did point that out to Steve who astutely commented that we weren’t in a camper.  It’s a real shame we didn’t pay heed to that sign.  Up we go to the mysterious sharp left turn which was bordered by stone walls.  What we saw was that after the sharp left, the road became even more narrow than down below, followed by a sharp right, all on a hill with brick pavers and tall stone walls.  Two cars were in front of us trying to navigate through, making us come to a stop on the hill.  Small cars.  Once they made it through we tried to go up.  No way could we get the momentum we needed to make it up the hill.  Steve backed down some and took a running start.  We made it around the sharp left but saw that we could not, under any circumstances, make the sharp right.  It was just too narrow.  That left us with one option – backing down.  We got into a jam going back down the curve and were a few hairs away from the stone wall.  Mike got out and directed Steve to safety.  I still can’t believe we didn’t hit that wall.  We made it to Pensione Bencista with ease after that – and I’ve never seen six people so ready to get out of a vehicle before in my life.

First Impressions

Michelangelo's DavidIf Venice didn’t leave a good first impression on the Romans, Florence took up the slack.  The weather was perfect – bright sunshine and light jacket weather.  And for Florence, the crowds were small.  We were there a couple of weeks ago for the Donatello exhibit and there were no crowds.  This is the time of year when crowds start picking up, so there were definitely more people, but not the throngs that come in the summer months.  We walked around the Duomo, Bell Tower, and Baptistry and were so overwhelmed with the grandeur that we had to stop and have a gelato.  Then we had an appointment with David.

To me, nothing says Florence like David.  The symbol of the triumph of good over evil, of piety over bluster.  The ultimate underdog story.  It’s been a while since we’ve paid a visit to this old friend and it was so good to see him again.  Standing there in all his majesty, just waiting to hurl that stone.  Or has he just hurled it and is staring in wonder as the giant slumps down?

Pensione Bencista

After our visit to David, we went back to Bencista and had a well-deserved drink in the garden overlooking Florence.  This place is magical – the quirky rooms, the fresh air, and the quiet views over Florence.  Cynthia felt a special connection – on one wall of their room were paintings by an artist that she has hanging on the walls of her home in Rome.

We watched the sun set over Florence and went in for dinner.  None of us were ready to get back into the van after our experience so we had dinner at Bencista.  Easy.  The only hazard was walking down the stone steps to the dining room.

Romans Conquer Florence

The Romans on the Ponte Vecchio
Cathy, Steve, Ann, Jim, Mike, Cynthia

The next day was picture perfect.  Clear, sunny, not too hot, not too chilly.  Just right for walking through Florence.  We walked by the Duomo again, down wide avenues lined with designer stores, through the Piazza Signoria (one of Italy’s finest) past the Palazzo Vecchio, by the Uffizi (one of the finest art museums in the world), and finally came to the Arno River.  This is where you could see how many visitors were in Florence.  Everyone comes to the Arno River and the Ponte Vecchio, and the narrow sidewalks and streets around there were brimming with people.

We toured the magnificent Santa Croce church and saw the tombs of Michelangelo, Machiavelli, Rossini, and Galileo, among others.  Another great piazza is in front of Santa Croce – one of the best people watching spots around.  I never know how people will react to Florence.  Some people are captivated by it and others are not impressed.  I think Florence surprised the Romans with its riches.  Art is everywhere and even if you think you’re not into art, you are drawn into the giant sculptures, the architectural ornamentation that is just over your head, and the incredible floors beneath your feet.  You could spend days in Florence and not see it all, but the really good thing about it is that the historic part of it is small and easy to walk around.  You can get a great flavor of Florence in a day, then can plan your next trip and decide where you want to concentrate.

Ann and a street artist in Florence
Ann getting “blessed” by a street performer in Florence

Back to Anghiari

After our Florentine day, we headed back to Anghiari for a relaxing couple of days before going back to Rome for their flight back home.  I’m happy to say that the drive home was very uneventful.

It’s always good to travel around and see other sights, but the times we spend at home just hanging out are always special.  This is a group that settled into a comfortable rhythm with each other.  There are no tensions and everyone is respectful and accommodating of others.  Laughter comes easy, stories are familiar, yet somehow fresh, and life experiences are shared with knowing nods and understanding smiles.

Facing the final few days, I feel a stab of sadness.  I’ve come to love these people and find their company so very refreshing.  Steve and I have had a lot of togetherness over the past nine months with most of our encounters with others in a foreign language.  It felt good to speak without thinking and to be able to say what I wanted without struggling for the words.  And it felt good to have other souls in the house, helping out and participating in that fellowship that comes with sharing meals, drinks, and life.  I will miss these Romans.


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