We’re trying to experience as much of the Christmas spirit as we can in our corner of Italy. We planned to spend a day in Florence and the morning we were to leave, I did a quick search for hotels just see what was available. We found a very conveniently located hotel for about $60 for the night, so we packed up and spent the night in Florence. That way we could see all the lights at night without having to worry about driving back home. And have dinner.
We have different philosophies when it comes to going to Florence. I prefer the train – hop on in Arezzo and an hour or so later you step off in the center of Florence. No parking, no traffic, and no unintentional driving into the restricted zone (which Google maps does not take into consideration when routing you). Steve prefers to drive. He likes the challenge of navigating through Florence, the control of having your own mode of transportation, and the quicker trip. We drove and after a few wrong turns into the restricted zone, found our hotel near the Central Market. We stayed at Hotel Art Atelier, which is on a tiny side street just behind the Medici Chapel. It was the perfect place for a quick little trip and our room even had a private terrace.
It was about 2:00 by the time we got there and we were hungry. We headed to the Mercato Centrale for a quick bite. We ended up staying for two hours. The Central Market is new by Italian standards, built in the 1870s. It’s always been a food market, originally designed so that the produce was on the top floor and meats, dry goods, and bakeries were on the ground floor. A renovation in 2014 put all the fresh food vendors on the ground floor and turned the top floor into a food hall with dozens of stalls selling every kind of Florentine food imaginable. I hate to compare it to Ponce City Market, but it is kind of like that. Just way, way, better. What I like about it is that everyone can sample something different, or in our case, have multiple samples each. It’s really hard to stop eating there. Every time you take a stroll around the food offerings, you see something new and enticing. We started by having a trapizzino, which is a popular street food, mostly in Rome, but really all over Italy. It’s kind of like a corner of pizza dough rolled into to cone shape and filled with all manner of delectables. We chose chicken and artichokes. It was the most wonderful, messy thing I’ve had in a long time.
We also sampled a lampredotto, which is a uniquely Florentine thing. It’s made from the cow’s stomach. Specifically, the fourth and final stomach of the cow. There are many times that I wish I had another stomach in reserve to take on some this food, but alas, we humans only have one. I’m not entirely sure what’s so special about this fourth stomach, but that’s what makes the lampredotto. Ours was in sandwich form and the filling was cooked in a rich sauce. It was good, but a little chewy. I’m still somewhat squeamish about all the organ meats and other animal parts that we’re not used to in the US. I try them, but the inner 12-year-old in me is shouting “Gross!”. Sometimes the adult wins and sometimes the child wins.
We walked around the market several times, stopping to awe at the offerings and wishing we had that second stomach. We stopped and had a couple of glasses of wine, struck up a conversation with a very nice American couple and just generally enjoyed ourselves.
After we emerged, we just strolled leisurely around Florence, with the ultimate goal being the Christmas market in the Santa Croce piazza. Crowds were there, but it was one of the least crowded times I’ve ever been in Florence. No lines to get into museums or churches and few clumps of tourists clogging the Duomo piazza. A clear, crisp day with bright blue skies and pleasant temperatures. It was near perfection.
We got to the Christmas market in the late afternoon and walked through the stalls. The Christmas markets in Italy are modeled after the famous German Christmas markets, so there are lots of huge pretzels and wurstel offerings. The stalls selling gift items range from traditional Christmas decorations, to jewelry, to stuffed animals, to scarves and gloves. Very interesting to poke around. As we were leaving, the sun was starting to set on this perfect day and we were treated to the beautiful almost full moon rising over Santa Croce in a sky tinged with pink. More perfection.
We had an early dinner (7:30 – early by Italian standards) at Trattoria I Due G, a short walk from our hotel. We got there and the staff was just finishing their dinner. They graciously allowed us to have a table while they finished. We ordered the house wine, a Chianti, and it arrived in a huge fiasco (you know those straw covered bottles from old movies?) and the waiter told us we pay for what we drink. I like this concept but wondered how he measured and priced it. It must be a very popular concept because many other diners chose it as well. I had a salad and tagliata (sliced steak) and Steve had pappa al pomodoro ( a thick bread and tomato soup) and a fillet. It was all excellent and just what we needed after our day of strolling through Florence.
Florence is one of my favorite cities and I’m always surprised by how small the historic center is. It’s so easy to walk around – it’s flat and most streets are relatively straight, making it hard to get lost. But even you do get lost, you couldn’t ask for a better place to be lost. Walking through Florence you feel the ghosts of the Renaissance everywhere. Walking past the Duomo museum where Michelangelo created the David, past Dante’s house, past the house of Leonardo, past the various Medici palaces, past buildings filled with some of the greatest art ever created, past architecture that spans the ages, past all these things which changed the world. Add Christmas to all this and you get something truly magical. Every street is adorned with lights and all manner of festivity and the Ponte Vecchio is awash in an undulating light show that leaves you wondering where the water ends and the bridge begins.
These are the times I have to pinch myself. Am I really living this life where I’m able to spend the night in Florence on a whim and stroll through this Renaissance capital on a crisp winter night looking at the beautiful and festive decorations? One of the most wonderful things about all this is that for the first time in my adult life I have time to savor it all. When I was working, even if I took time off around the holidays, it was a constant non-stop race to get everything done. Now it’s just me and life enjoying each other. And we are enjoying each other so, so much.