Thursday, 21 March 2013

Florence for a Birthday

What does a birthday mean to you? Growing up, it meant birthday cake, clowns and balloons. Birthdays were fun and it meant being surrounded by your family and friends from school and feeling really special because everyone’s brought you presents. Then things change as you go through those rebellious teenage years and decide that “a good birthday” meant getting wasted, really really wasted and acting like a complete idiot. A good birthday was one where you can’t remember all the details, “I don’t remember anything, so I must have had a great time!” Looking back, I’d like to think that I had fun at the time, but I also feel that that’s a chapter of my life that I’ve closed. That’s not to say that I don’t party and drink anymore, but I’ve realised there’s more to life than just mindless “fun”. As for birthdays, I’ve come to see it as about celebrating an annual milestone of your life, a sort of pat on the back for making it through another year in one piece, but above all, its about being with the people you love and sharing that special day with the ones who matter to you most.

Vanessa turned 20 this year and wanted to celebrate her first step into her twenties by travelling to a foreign land. She picked Florence because of her love of art and architecture and also, it was a place in Italy we haven’t yet explored. We’ve always loved Italy, mostly because we love the food (fresh pasta, Neapolitan Pizza, Gelato, White Truffle, Fresh Basil and lots of tomatoes, the list goes on) but we also love the ancient architecture and ruins that serve as a reminder of the magnificently rich history of the country. We’ve been to a few places in Italy and Florence surpassed my expectations in all ways (except for the food); I would go as far as saying that it has become my favourite city in Italy. Yes, it isn’t as grand as Rome, but it has more charm; a small city with well-paved streets, you can easily walk or cycle everywhere. A city steeped in history, it’s an ancient city that has retained its grandeur and heritage by keeping buildings, gardens and statutes in good repair (unlike Naples). And compared to Milan, it has more substance by housing world-class museums. The only place that rivals its charm is Venice, but Florence offers better service. Everyone that served us, from fancy wine bars to the side street sandwich shop were friendly, accommodating and most importantly, helpful; it made our stay so much more pleasant than having to deal with the usual rude waiters taking advantage of tourists. 

View from Piazaale Micheangelo
Florence offers romantic dreamy scenery-- the rolling Tuscan hills, an ancient city with a river running through it

Tranquility by the river in front of the Uffizi

We were in Florence for 2 nights 3 days which was just right, making it a great option for a weekend (romantic) getaway. I say romantic because apart from the beautiful city offering the perfect backdrop to a romantic weekend, you will find more couples canoodling and kissing here than anywhere else. Below is a list of our top picks of things to do and restaurants we visited. 

Things to see:

Duomo aka The Basilica di Santa Maria del Fiore

This was one of the most beautiful churches I’ve ever seen. When we arrived in Florence it was sunset and walked towards to the Duomo. Basked in the warm light of the setting sun, the intricacies of the carvings and the pink/green/white colour scheme of the church just looked incredible. We also walked up the stairs (400+ of them) to the top of one of the towers, from there you’ll get a 360 view of Florence, so it’s worth the climb.

View from the Duomo

Galleria dell’Accademia

The star attraction here is Michelangelo’s Masterpiece – David. Created between 1501 and 1504, a 26 year old Michelangelo beat out Leonardo da Vinci to get awarded the commission. Looking up at this massive marble statute (5 meters high plus the stand), you realise how patient and skilled artists must have been to undertake such monumental work without any help from technology. What’s more is that it’s also beautifully sculpted, with veins and muscles subtly defined; you can’t help but be in awe of Micheangelo’s skill in breathing life into his work. 

Michelangelo's David

Galleria degli Uffizi

Considered to be one of the best museums in the world for Renaissance art, you will find Botticelli’s Primavera and The Birth of Venus amongst other masterpieces. Note of warning: buy tickets in advance or be prepared to queue for 45 minutes to an hour.

Palazzo Pitti and Garden of Boboli

Palazzo Pitti is a stunning Renaissance Palace that has housed the Medici Family, Napoleon and the King of Italy. Today it is an art gallery showcasing an impressive collection of art including paintings and costumes. The palace itself is opulent and extravagant, with a huge array of differently styled rooms. Behind the palace you will find a perfectly manicured Renaissance garden. 

The Food

People say you don’t visit Florence or Tuscany for food but this is perhaps somewhat unfair. Anyone that lives in foodie cities like London or New York is going to be spoiled by good food served by world-class restaurants and is therefore naturally going to be more picky when travelling. We admit that we’re hard to please which is why quite a lot of research goes into restaurants when we travel because if you like food, sampling the best of what the locals can offer is just as important as seeing the sites. We went to Florence without expecting too much, especially as we had the most terrible lunch in Pisa on our way there. There were a few good surprises in the form of wine bars and small eateries, but go with low expectations so you’re not disappointed.



We had a great dinner here on our first night. This laid back wine bar near the Duomo offered an extensive menu of simple yet tasty food, accompanied by a good selection of affordable local wines. There was a great atmosphere as well, waitresses were attentive, and jazz played softly to form the backdrop to bubbling conversations. What's more, the prices are super reasonable, we paid 90 Euros for 3 starters and 3 mains plus 2 bottles of wine and 5 glasses of desert wine, a bargain considering the quality. 

Tuna Carpaccio with pine nuts, dill and raisin
Goose Carpaccio with confit mini onions with aged balsamic 
Gorgonzola Rocket pasta-- Best pasta of the trip. Proof that you don't need heavy cream sauces when you have fresh ingredients

Pear and Ricotta Ravioli-- this is a popular dish but we found it slightly dry.

Gusto Pizza

Tucked away inconspicuously in a side alley, Gusto Pizza is a favorite amongst American students on their one year university exchange in Florence. All pizzas are made in a huge brick Pizza oven and if they like you, they'll even shape it into a heart shape. The dough was chewy and the toppings simple but satisfyingly fresh!

All’Antico Vinaio

According to tripadvisor, this is the best “restaurant” in Florence, when in fact it’s a takeaway sandwich and wine shop that’s run by a mother and her sons. Our research told us that by lunch time there’s a 30 minute wait, so we go early, so early that we’re the first customers of the day. Inside there’re cured meats hanging and a counter full of fresh produce, including the biggest bowl of Gorgonzola I’ve ever seen. We decided to let our sandwich maker surprise us and asked for one meat and one veg sandwich. Our verdict: all the individual ingredients were superb and of amazing quality, but the combo was lack lustre. We wanted more flavour and more ingredients. So if like us you know the kind of flavours you like, take the reins and tell the sandwich maker exactly what you want. Go early as well, we walked past it later in the day and there was a queue of about 50 people waiting. 

Il Santo Bevitore

The name means “The Holy Drinker” and as you’ve probably guessed, it’s a wine bar, it was also the restaurant Vanessa picked to have her birthday dinner. Shelves rammed with wine line the walls and every time someone orders a bottle, the waiter reaches up with a “wine-grabber” and lifts a bottle down by the neck. The menu offered a variety of meats and seafood as well as the obligatory cheese. Food was great and it was definitely the best meal we had in Florence. It’s a big restaurant but it was completely full when we left, so do book ahead. 
Quote on placemats at Il Santo Bevitore
Scallops with brussel sprouts
Leek flan
Langoustine broccoli Orecciette

Gelataria della Passera

No trip to Italy could be complete without Gelato. We heeded the warning to stay away from gelatarias on the main streets that had gelato piled up like mountains as it meant the gelato wasn't fresh. Out of all the gelatos we had in Florence, this offered the best creamy texture and interesting flavours.

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