An Italian love affair and a weekend in Florence

My love affair with Italy started at a very young age when I heard some slightly cheesy Italian hits on the radio and watched snippets of an Italian course on TV. I loved the sound of the language although I didn’t understand more than a couple of words. Later I listened to the likes of Eros Ramazzotti and Umberto Tozzi, trying to translate their songs and learn the basics of the language. (The shock when I realised that a ‘sentimental love song’ was actually about children dying in Africa and the destruction of rain forests…!) Seeing images of the magnificent architecture, art, and scenery,  and listening to the still-so-beautiful language made me want to travel somewhere, ANYWHERE, in Italy.

The first visit eventually took place and led to a few others, one of them to Florence many years ago. This cradle of Renaissance with so much artistic and architectural heritage, stunning landscape, and plenty to explore seemed like a perfect option when I was recently looking for a city break, especially as my husband had never been there before. I couldn’t wait to get back to Italy for a little energy boost that the country always seems to give me.

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Although we tend to book flights and hotels separately and do all the legwork ourselves, this time we decided to try the services of a personal travel counsellor. If nothing else, it would save us a lot of time and effort. We emailed the travel dates, our maximum budget, and a preferred hotel location (= within walking distance from the centre) to Ollie Raikes Travel Counsellor , who promptly sent us the first proposal for the flights and accommodation. Had we booked the trip ourselves, we would have probably chosen a more basic hotel but Ollie’s suggestion seemed ideal: Hotel Pitti Palace al Ponte Vecchio  was right by the historic bridge, had free Wi-Fi, was reasonably priced for the location – and came with two resident cats! We had a deal! Before we travelled, Ollie also checked us in both ways and emailed both the hotel voucher and the boarding passes over. It felt slightly odd – but also very relaxing – not to have to do anything ourselves. We might just get used to it!

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Arriving at Pisa in pouring rain, trying to find the bus stop for the transfer to the railway station, and finally arriving at equally wet Florence wasn’t the most glamorous start for the break. The first piece of news we heard as we settled in our room was Alan Rickman’s death. Happy holidays indeed… However, the next morning was a different day, in so many ways. The breakfast room on the top floor had fabulous views over the now sunny city, and when we ventured onto the roof terrace one of the hotel cats made an appearance demanding attention. I’m not sure which one of us enjoyed the cuddle time more!

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As usual, we familiarised ourselves with the city by just roaming around without any specific destination in mind. Walking along and across the river Arno in the glorious sunshine felt energising, and there were also all those piazzas to admire and narrow side streets to explore. Of course we could have done traditional sightseeing and visited some of the many fine museums and galleries but being outdoors, taking in the beauty and vibe of the place, seemed much more important. The puddles after the previous night’s torrential rain created an excellent opportunity to try some creative photography too.

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Florence is an art lover’s heaven, full of  galleries, churches, and museums to visit. Although we skipped them this time, I had previously been to both of my ‘must see’ galleries: Galleria dell’ Accademia with its Michelangelo collection and the magnificent statue of David, and the Uffizi with its equally magnificent art, including works such as Botticelli’s Venus. To avoid queuing, it’s best to book tickets in advance. We did visit the cathedral, Il Duomo: the entry is free although you have to pay to climb the 463 steps to its dome – and no, there is no lift!

To me a big part of a trip abroad is the local food culture, especially in a country like Italy where eating and drinking is more than just quickly filling your belly. I enjoy (discreetly) observing locals at cafés, restaurants, bars, corner shops, and markets. Especially coffee bars seem to be local hubs where everybody gathers and everything goes: you can order a glass of champagne if you feel like it,  drink a strong, smooth espresso standing at the bar, or enjoy the luxury of table service and pay much more for the same drinks.  I’ve seen little trattorias welcome dogs with their owners and diners tuck into a steak accompanied just by a green salad in a separate bowl. A pizza by the slice is always a great fast food option, and you simply can’t go home before you have had an ice cream, a gelato. Even football grounds have a selection of beautiful sandwiches and good, inexpensive coffee. Is it actually possible to have bad food in Italy?

Florence is well located for explorations further afield too. Although our holiday wasn’t very long, we managed to find time for day trips to Siena and Pisa, making the most of the Italy’s affordable train travel. As our city breaks never seem to be complete without a good climb, on our last morning we went up to Piazzale Michelangelo for a view of Florence and beyond. Apparently you could take a bus there but after all the pizza and gelato we had had, using our legs seemed like a sensible idea. With this view waiting, it was definitely worth the effort.

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