Dine with a View

For a friend’s birthday this past week we checked out a place for apertivo that came with a bonus: not just food and wine, but a stunning view. The hotel we went to for apertivo, the Westin Excelsior, is along the river, so there are decent views of the city and great views of the river. The weather was perfect, too! Below you can see one of the dining areas that they have. We ended up sitting in an area with a few couches so we could fit more people.

IMG_1256The food was fantastic, actually, but keep in mind you pay a price for that view: remember, a typical apertivo runs around 8 euro. At the Westin it’s 16. So definitely a special-occasion kind of place, at least for me! A couple people got orange and raspberry mojitos; I opted for something called the Seelbach cocktail, bourbon, cointreau, bitters and champagne.

IMG_1269To be fair, there was a huge selection of food, particularly at the beginning of the evening (they open for apertivo at 7, though you can eat there anytime), so it was really enjoyable. Below you can see a few more great views. If you are looking for something to do for a birthday or other special occasion, put this one up on your list– it’s worth your while!

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Buona sera from Florence and buon appetito!

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Learning from the Master

I’ve done a lot of cool things in Florence, Italy and, well, frankly around the world but it’s hard in my opinion to top a low-key evening with friends. Last week I was lucky enough to hear Chris Dobson speak for the second time at a little wine shop called Vinoutlet on Borgo Ognissanti, one of my favorite streets in Florence, near the river and the French Institute and generally off the well-beaten tourist track. Vinoutlet is owned in part by Carmella, a friend who I met through another friend here in Florence who is in the same book club. We went for the first time together about a week after I had been to the store for the first time, when they were open during Taste Florence (see previous post here). Unfortunately I don’t live closer so they don’t get a ton of business out of me, but they have a great selection of wines in the 5-10 euro price zone and are really sweet to us every time we go. It’s a pretty small shop but like I said they have a good selection.

Vinoutlet Wine store Florence

 

The wine is store on these trays and each has a sheet with information about the brand. They’re Italian wines, but range in location of origin. They can recommend a Tuscan wine for you if you are so inclined, and carry a small amount of other products, including the olive oil and wine from their own vineyard.

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They also run really sweet events, including an upcoming beer voting event (just this month they expanded their inventory to include beers) and these monthly events with Chris Dobson. Now the name might not be familiar to you, but that’s okay. Chris Dobson was the Master Armourer for, in his own words, “Her Majesty the Queen of England.” (Gets me every time!) He has an art restoration background and that’s how he got his start in the royal armouries and eventually got promoted to the high position. He is thus extremely knowledgeable about art and art history and has a passion for Florence, so he’s extremely interesting to hear speak. He jets back and forth from England to Italy, and gives tours of the city. I don’t have much of a budget for tour guides, but if you do I can guarantee he’s worth every penny– in both talks I have learned things about the city of Florence that I never knew before. For example, in the last talk he gave, I learned that Via Martelli, a major street right off the Duomo used to be where the swordsmen would work and fence. How cool!

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This month he talked about something which I personally find very interesting, which is the transition from tempura painting (a color tempered with another medium, usually egg, which I know from personal experience is a real pain to work with, and that’s putting it nicely) to oil painting in Florence and he used works by Michelangelo (known for his tempura and frescos) and Da Vinci (known for his oils) as examples. Fun fact: did you know that Da Vinci’s knowledge of working in oils and adaptation to them is why his frescos are cracking? He took too long painting them, whereas Michelangelo used tempura techniques to paint his frescos which explains why they not only have such vibrant colors but why they have lasted so long.

These events are so fun and you should definitely check them out if you are lucky enough to be in Florence (Vinoutlet has a Facebook page where they announce events and Chris Dobson announces his speaking engagements on his website), but it’s also a great example of how, as my Dad would term it, getting “plugged in” in a place really opens doors. If I hadn’t attended Taste, or followed Events postings online and in the papers, or made friends who knew other friends, I would have missed out on this great event. Don’t be afraid to put yourself out there! There are so many resources regardless of where you live. The event was free and included wine– you can’t go wrong there! Get out there and see what’s going on in your city–you never know what great thing you might experience.

One fish, two fish, red fish, blue fish

Museums are a dime a dozen in Florence, but I am so excited to share with you about what I think may be in the running for the coolest museum in the city. Located in the former church of San Pancrazio (fun fact: before being a museum it had a life as a tobacco factory), the museum has so much history but there are hardly any tourists there– on the day that I went, in fact, there was hardly anyone there at all. The vast majority of the people that I saw there were part of the same tour I was on, a free event in Florence called “Digital Invasion” where museums let in a group and give them a guide (in Italian) for free as a part of a social-media publicity thing. 

So obviously the Marino Marini museum is known (when it is known) for its collection of… you’ve guessed it, Marino Marini sculptures. Marini was educated at the Academia di Belle Arti in Florence, hence how his work eventually ended up back here. Growing up in the early 1900s, surprisingly he was inspired more by the Etruscan and Roman early styles than the Renaissance works that abound in the city. Irony, there. Anyway, he’s best known for his sculptures of horse and rider, like the one below.

marino marini sculpture

However, in my humble opinion, this was just the icing on the cake. The truly interesting part of the building was not even technically a part of the museum itself, though admission allows you into the area. San Pancrazio contained the Rucellai chapel, which is what you should really go to the museum to see, regardless of whether you are a modern art fan. The Rucellais wanted a chapel in Santa Maria Novella (I think) but they ended up at this smaller church. Giovanni di Paolo Rucellai commissioned Leon Battista Alberti to create the chapel. Alberti designed the chapel as an imitation of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. I haven’t been to Jerusalem, but I will definitely be making comparisons when I make it there someday!

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After many years of restoration the chapel was opened to the public just early last year, which is perhaps why so few Florentines, expats and tourists seem to know about it. It’s by far worth a stop– one of the coolest things I have seen in the city and something very few other people have heard about! The Rucellai chapel is a great way to get off the beaten path in Florence– only five minutes walking from major piazzas like Santa Maria Novella.

Notte Bianca (White Night)

This past Wednesday was the Notte Bianca in Florence, named the white night in Italian, an annual event. Starting in the evening, it is marked with late museum openings, free admission at some museums and outdoor exhibitions and performing arts. A few friends and I made dinner reservations and headed out to check out the festivities afterwards. We ate in the Santo Spirito neighborhood, and ended up at a small gallery nearby to check out an opening first up… a giant skull composed of hoses.

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Just goes to show that modern art does exist in Florence! From there we walked towards the Ponte Vecchio, catching an outdoor video display as well as contemplating indulging in cotton candy… though eventually we opted for gelato.

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There were tons of people out on the streets and we stopped by Palazzo Vecchio before heading towards Santa Croce. The square was packed out, even though not much was going on in the actual piazza.

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We ended up in Santa Croce where we did a (albeit very small and short) hay bale maze and then split up for the night shortly thereafter. Overall it was a good night, though I have to say we didn’t actually end up doing that much associated with Notte Bianca– it was more of a good excuse to get together. If I had to do it over again, I’d do dinner a different night and explore earlier, thus giving us time to hit a concert or something. But it was fun– if you are in Florence it’s definitely worth checking it out because you can get into places for free! This year it was held on April 30, but that could potentially change, so just keep an eye out late April.

So with that I will leave you with…

Recommendations for Notte Bianca in Florence

-Have a late lunch or just grab a panino while you are out; don’t spend the time on dinner.

-Schedules only appeared day-of, but they had a map attached and were really helpful once we got them… late. So go seek one out early!

-Start out around 7-8 PM and have a look at the schedule online in advance. A lot of events run concurrently; there is a good chunk of performances that start between 9 and 10 PM and you can’t be in two places at once! It helps to look at the schedule in advance so you know when things close. For example, many museums close around midnight, but Palazzo Vecchio was open until 6 AM the next day– go there last.

High Fashion: Gucci

One thing many people wonder when they visit Florence is how they can possibly choose which museums to visit. After all, there is a stunning array of choices, most focused on Renaissance art. If you are needing a break from frescoes and religious artwork, however, fashion might be a good way to explore something different that is a true part of Florence’s past and present. The Gucci Museum in Florence is one of the paying museums and is not, to my knowledge, included in most museum packages and cards, but if you have an interest in fashion, it is definitely worth a visit nonetheless.

The museum is organized by important periods in the work of Gucci, from his beginning as a creator of high-fashion luggage to the label’s more recent exploration and investment in high fashion for the red carpet. Each room has its own explanations presented on elegant postcards that are included in admission. One of the most interesting rooms to me was the floral room, where Gucci floral designs are displayed; floral prints on everything from china to dresses. Notable in this room in particular is an original Gucci scarf designed and given to Princess Grace of Monaco.

The favorite room of many, however, is the red carpet dresses room, where red carpet dresses worn by everyone from Blake Lively, in the label’s debut, to other famous actresses. The dresses are displayed on dress forms in low lighting, and you can get nearly as close to them as you want. A video in the room shows photographs of the actresses in the gowns when they were worn.

Notable in the museum is the foundation’s commitment to film restoration; in one room visitors can view the Italian films that have thus far been restored.

Also unique to the Gucci museum is a contemporary art gallery supported by the foundation; the exhibit changes every few months.

Throughout the entire museum it is easy to see how Gucci pulls in classics from the past, updating them for the modern woman. The museum is not only a look at Gucci’s work but also at the history of twentieth century women’s fashion. One major thing that I learned about Gucci was that he spent a good deal of time working in England during his younger years, and it is the upper middle class of the British that inspired many of his designs; the horse bit used as a handle for a bag, his designs incorporated into picnic sets, et cetera. For those with a passion for fashion, the Gucci museum is a bargain look at its history through the eyes of one designer.

Buona Pasqua (Happy Easter)

Hello friends! I hope you had a happy holiday weekend with friends and family, regardless of what religion you follow or choose not to. In Italy, the vast majority of the population is Catholic and Easter is a big. deal. A lot of stores and restaurants were actually open on Easter when I was out and about, but for many Italians (aka not the tourists frequenting said stores and restaurants) the weekend is a good time to catch up with family in particular. Easter is celebrated on Sunday, naturally, and many Italians attend mass, and then on Easter Monday, Pasquetta in Italian, most families head out of town (if they are not gone already) to spend some time together in the countryside.

The night before Easter there was a procession to the Duomo and the priest lit the Easter “candle.” More like a giant ball of fire. Perhaps it was an intricately shaped candle, but we couldn’t tell from up above. But OMG the view!

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Ironically, what Florence is known for best at Easter isn’t even a Catholic tradition; rather it’s just a long-standing one, but a big one nonetheless. A friend of mine hosted a brunch and I spent the night before at her apartment helping her get ready. She totally lucked out… her apartment has views of the Duomo from the windows and was thus PERFECT for watching the festivities!

The Scoppio del Carro is annually celebrated in Florence on Easter Sunday and translated into English means “explosion of the cart.” The story goes that once upon a time (in old Florentine history), in 1622 to be exact, the cart was built. Pazzino, a young Florentine, took part in the first crusade of the Holy Land. Being the first to scale the walls of Jerusalem, he was rewarded with three flints from the Holy Sepulchre. At 10 AM a priest uses the flints to light an Easter candle, which they use to light coals, which are transported in the cart to the Duomo. They are taken inside the church but the cart stays outside and the coals are used to light something like a rocket that shoots back outside the church to set off the fireworks in the cart.

Below you can see where the men in traditional historical costume have accompanied the cart to the center in front of the Duomo.

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Despite the sunlight, it was pretty spectacular! Quite the show and what a way to start Easter Sunday! It was hard to get good photos, but such an amazing experience. I did capture this sweet video that will give you a pretty good idea of what was going on.

It was so, so cool to be able to view everything from a bird’s-eye view and avoid the crowds below! So many people leave Florence for the holiday (as did I the last time), but I’m so glad I opted to stay this time around.

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Suburbanite

Most of you probably wouldn’t have cause to know this, but when I got back from visiting my family in the US I moved to the outskirts of the Florence city center, drastically impacting my overall commuting time. If you look at a map of Florence, you’ll note a couple of important things.

The first is that most of the general tourist maps are really limited in the area that they cover, centering on not just the city center zone but the immediate center of the city where most of the tourist attractions, main churches, etc are located. The second major thing is that Florence is divided by a river. Whaaat? Yep, though it doesn’t really divide the city equally. The main city center is at the top and the Oltrarno is the area once you cross over the river, the Arno (mind-blowing, right?). You’ll note that there aren’t a ton of touristy things to do across the river, but there are many fewer tourists, Palazzo Pitti and the Boboli Gardens within are a hidden gem, and there are tons of places to go out. Win-win-win.

Note also that the main railway station the top left hand corner barely makes it into this map. Below is a more realistic portrayal of Florence, if slightly more overwhelming:

Now this map might seem massive, but keep in mind that most tourists stay primarily within the confines of the above map, not this one; this one is just to give you a better idea of how the city is laid out. Florence is pretty small (really!) and the main touristy area can be traversed on foot easily within half an hour (though during high season you might want to tack on a couple extra minutes to fight through the crowds). One major thing that you can see in this map is the “viales,” the major streets that run around Florence, unlike the tiny streets that weave through the heart of the city. You can also notably see the train stations and tracks, which is particularly important for yours truly. In the left hand corner you can see the main train station, Santa Maria Novella, as well as the Fortezza de Basso, where events are now held. Go north ten minutes and you’ll find the family I babysit for.

In the righthand corner you can see more train tracks, beyond which lies a big green patch. See that? Leading directly to that street is a footbridge that goes over the train tracks that I basically walk over every. single. day. Closer to the train tracks is a smaller stadium, where this past weekend they were holding track meets (that’s all I can assume, from the frequent sound of the gunshot and then cheering). Past that, still in the green and labeled on the map is the major stadium of Florence where the Fiorentina, the soccer team, plays. I live pretty much directly opposite the smaller stadium, so before the trees had leaves I could actually see inside it, but while I can see the lights and hear the announcements and cheering from the Fiorentina games I can’t actually see that stadium from my window/ balcony. Here’s my view:

Campo de Marte Florence

So the view above is what I can see looking straight out my tall doors that open on to my balcony. Behind the trees is the smaller stadium with the mountains in the distance and in front is what we in the US would term a bus barn.

Campo de Marte Fiorentina stadium

If you look to the left from my window, this is the view: you can clearly see the big bright lights that are lit up when the Fiorentina play in the big stadium.

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It’s more difficult to see with the trees in full bloom, but to the right you can see the train station and the footbridge. It’s funny because when I first moved in I never noticed the trains but now I hear them all the time.

My dad specifically requested this post once I had lived here for a bit, so I’ll try to explain what it’s like to live out here. A lot of young Florentines live out here because it is cheaper than living directly in the city center. Technically I live just outside the city center, but my address is still in Florence. It takes me about half an hour to walk to the Duomo and to school, depending on what direction I take while walking. It takes me about 45 minutes to walk to the family’s house where I babysit. A lot of people ask why I don’t catch the bus more often; it’s something I have considered, but even though the fare is only 1,20 euros, that adds up over time and I really don’t have a huge budget for transportation when my feet work just fine. Also, when you count in waiting time, sometimes it actually isn’t faster to get the bus, and I’d rather be in motion than standing around waiting. Also, bus strikes? Happened multiple times since I’ve moved out here.

Campo de Marte is generally a quiet neighborhood, which is definitely a major plus over living in the city center. I lived over a bar before, paying double the rent on a shared room (now I have a single) arranged through student housing, which generally tends to be more expensive. The bar would have a good crowd until late in the night, and was particularly rowdy during the summer when it was warm enough to sit outside (though Florentines will sit outside when it’s freezing, a concept I don’t understand). I specifically remember one time being woken up at three o’clock in the morning to “Barbie World.” Not an experience I’d care to repeat.

However, the quiet is definitely broken when the Fiorentina play at home, which thankfully isn’t too often. I’ve had to walk home twice when the games get out, which basically consists of feeling like a sardine and getting elbowed and stomped on because I’m going majorly against the flow of traffic.

Generally speaking, though, while Campo de Marte is technically a neighborhood of Florence it definitely feels like the suburbs. It’s quiet, generally, and I don’t always see a ton of people around. There is a dog park near the footbridge, and running paths, so I suppose if that’s your thing it can be nice. There is a grocery store around the corner from my apartment but it is tiny, so I typically shop in the city center and carry it with me when I’m on my way home. There are a couple of major stores and coffee shops, but all my friends live in the city center, so that’s much more likely where I am to be found. Walking has just become part of my routine, and thankfully it’s rare where I have a day where I really don’t want to walk the distance; it’s just a part of my life.

Still, were I to continue living in Florence I’d personally prefer to be closer to the action. It’s much easier to just grab a coffee with a friend or run a quick errand when it doesn’t involve a half-an-hour commute. In many ways it reminds me of living back in Plano, my hometown, and commuting into Dallas for an event. Half an hour and you’re there, but it’s more convenient if you are closer. Housing in Florence can be hard to find, and if you are looking to move here, start early! It might seem crazy to look a few months in advance, but finding an apartment, a good one with decent landlords, which I am lucky to have, can be tough. If you want any more advice in that area, feel free to contact me.

Is there something you’d like to see on the blog? Drop me a comment and I’ll consider it!

An Italian Dream

The last time I lived in Italy, four years ago now, there was only one major place in Italy that I didn’t get the time to see, and that was Pompeii. I promised myself that if I were ever in Italy again, I wouldn’t miss out on the chance to see it. So this past weekend I took a little trip to the Amalfi Coast, with the crowning jewel of the trip (for me) being an afternoon at the ancient archeological ruins. I paid in advance for the guided tour, which is 20 euro as opposed to the general admission fee of 11 euro; you can also do an audio tour, but I highly, highly recommend the guided tours. I had heard mixed reviews, but I found my guide very knowledgeable and interesting. It was great to see the ruins, which are massive, in the context of the guide’s knowledge of what each area was during the time and the history that represented. So first off, head here to look at a map of Pompeii:

The nude colored areas? Yeah, that’s all still buried. I’m pretty sure that according to my guide restoration has also temporarily stopped at Pompeii while they seek more funding, but I’m not positive. But generally speaking it’s a massive area even not including the uncovered areas. You can see how tall the walls area, and keep in mind that the ash was FEET above the walls before they were uncovered. So no small amount of ash. The volcano at the time was both taller and wider (considerably so) so scientists believe that even were the volcano to erupt again, it wouldn’t be nearly as serious as it was when Pompeii was buried.

Pompeii entry

You can see from the above picture just how massive the site of Pompeii is. This is the view from the entry and the city extends far past what is visible in the photograph.

Main Piazza Pompeii

 

Above you can see the main piazza of Pompeii– or really what’s left of it. The tall pillars would have had wood on top of them for the second floor.

Body cast Pompeii

Above you can see both ceramic jars from the city of Pompeii as well as a body.The body’s actually a cast; bodies of those who died in the city were buried in ash. The ash solidified around the bodies and then the flesh decayed. Scientists were able to pour plaster into the ash then to create human shapes. Below you can see where there were blocks put up to create pedestrian-only streets.

Pompeii pedestrian zone

 

Below you can see an example of the central heating system that the Pompeiians employed.

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The people of Pompeii were smart cookies, as they not only figured out central heat but also how to light a room any time of day.

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Pompeii restaurant

Above you can see our cute little old guide pointing out details at an ancient restaurant. The holes in the counter are where massive jugs would sit. You can’t see in the photo, but there are also bumps in the ground in front of the restaurant; they were for ancient sliding doors. Below you can see another snazzy invention: stepping stones for avoiding the streets in the rain.

Pompeii stepping stones

 

Below is something familiar: a pizza oven!

Pompeii bakery pizza oven

I thought the market was really interesting as well; the middle portion was used for cleaning fish. They know this because they have found ancient fish residue in the area!

Pompeii market

Pompeii was so fascinating and I’m so glad that I was finally able to visit. I definitely would return, or check out the neighboring sites, like Herculaneum, which were also affected by the volcanic ash. I have a strong interest in archeology, so this stuff is fascinating to me! Pompeii’s an easy day trip from Naples, and isn’t too far from Rome, though a bit further from Florence so I went with an organized tour. But if you’re traveling around Italy and have the time, in my opinion it’s a must see, even if it’s a little inconvenient to get to. This was the last major item on my must-see list in Italy. Crazy!! Is there anywhere that you think I shouldn’t miss? Right now it looks like I’ll be leaving Italy (where to, who knows) around the beginning of August, so definitely let me know if you have a recommendation!

Pompeii Mt.Vesuvius

Brunch Bunch: Florence Edition

Brunch… possibly one of my favorite things on the planet. And not necessarily the easiest thing to find in Florence, where the typical breakfast consists of a pastry and coffee and people eat at fairly structured times during the day. Eggs in the morning? Not a thing here.

There are, however, many cafes that will serve you an “American” breakfast… for a fee. Eggs and bacon don’t come cheap here! When you are really craving brunch, which is more likely to happen if you live here, like me, it’s sometimes better to hit up the American places in town. This past Sunday a friend and I visited the Clubhouse in Florence for the second time, but I’ve also been to the Diner previously (and posted about it here). So far, I have not been overly impressed with their food, but they have two euro mimosas, so I’d say that is a pretty good deal right there. Last time I was there I got the French toast… it was decent, but you only got two regular loaf-sized pieces and I was still hungry afterward. I got the Monte Cristo sandwich this time and my friend got the avocado BLT. Both were decent… they come with good French fries and the mimosas, sitting outside in the sunlight, were really nice.

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I have also heard good things about the Odeon Bistro’s brunch, which is a 14 euro buffet with orange juice and coffee. So at some point I may check that out, though it seems pricey. In general I would have to say for breakfast food I still prefer the options at Mama’s, where I typically get quiche or a bagel sandwich. Still, I miss the brunches from the US… definitely something I am looking forward to. Still, here’s my number one recommendation for a meh meal: add gelato or this Sicilian treat, granita. Almond and coffee. See? Instantly better meal.

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Have you been somewhere good for brunch, in Florence or otherwise? Let me know in the comments and maybe I’ll check it out!

Your Dinner Tonight: Gusta Pizza

For locals (particularly young expats), it’s practically a sacristy that I had never been to Gusta Pizza until last Friday night. I have no excuse… but the last time I lived here, I didn’t get across the river that much. Gusta is a Neopolitan-style pizzeria and is well known for their pizza within Florence. Gusta Pizza is part of a collection of Gustas, so if you are in the mood for pizza, be sure you find the right one. Here’s a hint: the Osteria is directly on the corner of Santo Spirito. The paninoteca is in the piazza of Santo Spirito. Walk the opposite way to find the pizza. Then, if it’s nice outside, or if you’re crazy, like us, and take a chance on the weather, grab your pizza to-go and go sit by the church with it. Outdoors and all that. So my friend and I did so… which worked wonderfully until it started to rain again.

On to the pizza though… Gusta only has seven options, typically. Both my friend and I opted for a spicy salami and mozzarella pizza which was pretty dang delicious. Don’t miss the specials board though!! We saw it afterward and I totally would have gotten the eggplant daily special pizza had I seen it beforehand. Overall the pizza was super yummy, with a great chewy crust and just the right amount of toppings. And…. of course it appears adorable. If you’re a cute girl the pizza makers will sometimes make your pizza into a heart. I had heard about this… my friend had not. She got a great surprise when she opened the box!

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Gusta is a great place in an awesome location– Santo Spirito is a great neighborhood to go out in afterwards, though we grabbed gelato and then headed back home to watch a movie. Compared to Il Pizzaiuolo, where I went a few weeks ago, Gusta was definitely similar quality… just less variety. So if you are looking for a lot of choices, it probably won’t be your cup of tea. The two places are also in very different areas of the city, so depending on your itinerary could impact where you might want to go. Either way, you won’t regret the awesome pie you end up with.

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