Part IV | Florence

"We enjoyed our final morning in Sorrento with a hearty breakfast on the veranda, a quick, cool shower giving an orchestra on the nearby lemon and orange trees. We left in a flourish and clambered into a sedan that would take us to Napoli train station. There we waited and finally boarded for a rambling, top-speed excursion through the rolling Tuscan countryside. Mountains of drifting clouds swirling and morphing in the blue sky, dotting the green landscape below in dappled shadows. Olive trees and pines fill the fills and a clutch of villages in apricot and terracotta nestle here and there. Tuscany is altogether lovely. 

Eventually we reach Florence, change money, and make our way to Hotel Botticelli. Its ceilings are frescoed in cherub glory and our rooms are comfortable but lacking the charm of Mignon. We unpack to air out clothes and plot our desires on the map the hotel mistress bequeathed us with. Armed with a general sense of direction and only a matter of hours to make the most of our time in Firenze, we set out to eat, see, and not get too lost.

We strolled the endless stands of vendors all selling the same things - leather bags, scarves, jewelry and hats - all the while letting ourselves be drawn to Il Duomo like moths to flame. (I did find a gorgeous navy pashmina I can't wait to wear this fall.) Words fail to describe just how large The Dome is and that it is attached to an entire cathedral (Santa Maria del Fiore) only adds to its magnitude. It took 20 minutes to circle the giant, capturing pieces of its sheer size one frame at a time because goodness knows I couldn't do it in just one. It was bright at midday and the sun reflected off of the white marbled walls like a beacon. The intricacies of every turn held fascination but we eventually sought out lunch at Panini Toscani - the highest ranked eats in Florence.

Fortune favored us as we arrived late for lunch which meant we did not have to battle crowds and the owner himself - Uahid - walked us unhurriedly through four cheese samples (re rica! Soft to hard, mild to strong) and a few meats. After our education we chose the ingredients as they constructed our sandwiches. Olived focaccia bread, salami, a soft cheese, roasted peppers and sun dried tomatoes paired with a cheap glass of chianti and a view of the Duomo made for a delicious lunch for both eyes and taste buds. 

The breeze picked up and the shade of the giant cast upon us making our spot chilly, so we picked up and joined the crowds, flocking to Ghiberti's bronze doors showing ten panels of scenes from the Old Testament. My camera was in love with them :) Then we wound around admiring the meandering cobblestone streets filled with iron-clad windows, smatterings of tables and chairs, and mopeds zigging and zagging. The day was perfect for exploring - sunny and mild, needing no more than a scarf in the shade. On our way to find Vivoli, we stumbled across a great many statues and cathedrals (Loggia, Piazza, and Palazzo Della Signoria & Palazzo Vecchio, appreciating from the outside and guarding the little time we had for more important endeavors - namely, to wander and eat. :)

We homed in on the gelato of our dreams and enjoyed amaretto and rum gelato with cappuccino con panna, despite the cheerless service. The interior was carved wood walls and tiled floors, a sunset fresco burning over us while we spooned the goods into welcoming mouths.

Once happily full, we strolled to Santa Croce to admire the architecture and made our way down to the canal where we enjoyed the view by Loggia del Mercato Nuovo, and tried to dodge the sun. I ducked into a paper shop and found a few cards and emerged to find a patient husband waiting on my every whim. 

We joined and crossed the storied Ponte Vecchio - crammed with jewelry shops - and sought refreshment at a bar on the terrace with a view. Orange spritze for me, espresso for The Mister. We sat in a breeze sipping delicious things and munching on the best briny olives of my life.

After our rest, we wandered the streets and switchbacks to Piazza del Michelangelo for uninterrupted views of the stunning city line. Turrets, towers, Il Duomo, cathedrals, bridges and river turned into Tuscan hills beyond - breathtaking and golden. We did a 360 degree Google cardboard video for the kids and moved along to a side garden to pass time and rest before dinner.

And dinner was certainly a highlight! La Bottega del Buon Caffe was easily the best meal experience of my life and even though we were clearly tourists, they paid us great attention and care, always explaining the meal and wine pairing. This night was an extravagance we saved for and we fully indulged in the 6 course tasting menu along with the three additional complimentary ones they gave us. Linens and candles adorned the table. A beautiful woodland light fixture twinkled above, lighting the brick walls and ceiling. Cushions galore littered every seat. Oil and incense fragranced the air. New glasses and silverware were laid at every course. Magic bread reappeared every time the last bite was gone. One focaccia with flaky sea salt reminded me of buttered popcorn when dipped in the region's best olive oil. Let's face it - bread is a vehicle. 

The chef, with his commanding view of his guests and team, sent us a few plates to tickle our fancy. A faux-tomato was revealed to be duck pate cooked in tomato water with a tiny cube of salmon topped with green caviar and citrus. Next was a broad bean cream with ingredients I'm already failing to remember. Our menu was a feast of perfectly sous vide eggs with foam and asparagus, deer tartar, tongue ravioli, pigeon (perfectly meaty but tender and flavorful), risotto with lime zest and mint, and then cake and pear sorbetto. Wine after wine accompanied our plates and I found the room growing rather warm. We capped off the meal with espresso and cappuccino and the chef sent us a trio of truffles - nutella with white chocolate, dark chocolate with cacao powder, and an applesauce one with white chocolate.

Happy, full, and very tipsy, we thanked the chef for such an unforgettable experience and requested Odetta call us a cab. The whole time I had been mentally pretending I was on Iron Chef America but at last, these two buzzing critics just wanted pillows.

The driver brought us to the hotel and we raced to the room to see who won first dibs on the restroom. I lost. We promptly passed out, dead to the world. Another excellent day in Italy."


Heather Hall