10-06-2018 Day 12 The Oltrarno, The Other Side of the Arno

After 12 days of almost perfect weather, we wakened this morning to gray skies and dripping rain.  The cool air and sound of the rain made for a wonderful night’s sleep for both of us.  Once again we had a nice home breakfast and worked on our photos, caught up on emails and conversations from people at home, and enjoyed just hanging out. 

This quiet time, and the opportunity to slow down a bit now and then is one advantage of spending two weeks in Florence.  We meet people who have 2 days, or maybe 3, and are rushing around trying to see everything.  I just cannot imagine doing that, and more than once Deanna and I congratulated ourselves on our stellar planning that allowed us enough time to explore with down times to actually absorb the wonders around us.

The Oltrarno, on the left bank of the Arno River, is a completely different side of Florence. Here local life flourishes, and with just a a bit of distance from the  crowded Ponte Vecchio, the old neighborhood is a lovely respite from the city and hordes of tourists. The Oltrarno area is now becoming more popular and well known, with new artisanal stores, galleries and eateries adding to the old neighborhood craftsman shops.

The neighborhood where our apartment was located, was technically in the Oltrarno, although we were about a mile from the main streets near the Ponte Vecchio.  By this time we were used to walking the streets on both sides of the river, and knew which way to go to find coffee and pastries to begin our explorations of the neighborhood.

The little heart on the lower right is our apartment.  The Ponte Vecchio bridge is about a mile to the left (west).  The Oltrarno neighborhood that we explored is the large red circled area on the lower left corner of the map.

Near the Ponte Vecchio, the streets are choked with tourists, traffic is crazy, and the shops are full of tourist junk.  Just a block or two in either direction yielded a completely different view.  We found the beautiful shop of hand woven textiles founded by the Busatti family in 1842.  Frances Mayes, author of “Under the Tuscan Sun”, bought linens for her famous house in Tuscany right here in this shop.  I managed to treat myself to a pillow cover, (yes, the one in the photo) in a place where a full tablecloth would cost half a month’s income.  I did keep the business card and the name of my favorite weave and color.

We continued along the narrow streets and found ourselves in front of a magnificent jewelry store.  The artist was in residence, creating some of the most elegant and wild pieces I have ever seen anywhere.  He didn’t talk to us, but all around the store were photos of him at work and copies of magazine and newspapers from around the world touting his art. I didn’t see the “no photos” sign until we had already walked through most of the shop.

We were hungry and decided it was time for real pizza, with real wine, rather than something grabbed in a bakery.  The rain was coming down in earnest when we slipped in the the Tarocchi Cafe, with big wooden tables and images of the Tarot on the walls.  The pizza was again delicious, and the wine inexpensive and wonderful.  We even had dessert as we lingered.  Such a delight.

With the rain still coming down in fits and spurts, we continued walking up the hills toward the Pitti Palace and Pitti Square.  The shops lining the street in front of the square were more geared toward the tourist crowd so we didn’t linger.  We planned to save our explorations of Pitti Palace for later the following week, on a day when the rain would allow us to visit the beautiful Boboli Gardens that are included with the price of entering the famous Medici Palace. 

Taking our time, we ambled into several ceramic shops, where I ooh-ed and ahh-ed and gasped at the prices, and thought better of buying. I tucked the image of a special piece away in my mind, however, and knew that I might return before we left Florence.

As afternoon ambled toward evening and the rains increased, we decided it was time for a nice hot cappuccino.  With the rains, crowds were thinning a bit, and we found a seat beneath a canopy and decided once again paying to sit and drink was better than just buying a coffee and standing around in the rain to drink it.

We really loved wandering around the Oltrarno, and there were plenty of churches, museums, parks and workshops to explore. In addition to the historical treasures that we skipped on this day, the Oltrarno has another great advantage.  It is far enough from the busy center of Florence that you can find a calmer, more authentic area.  It is full of artisan studios making centuries-old traditions and crafts, many antique stores,and small, family-run restaurants.

We followed the Rick Steve’s Oltrarno walk directions for part of our afternoon, but wandered off on our own as well, discovering small treasures like this bit of street art in a back alley.

Our route home took us once again past the very crowded Ponte Vecchio where tourists were shoulder to shoulder vying for position to see the tiny crowded shops along the bridge.  Not something we were into much at all. 

I did stop in at the small Supermarket for a few supplies, and discovered to my chagrin at the check-out station that I was supposed to weigh and mark my own produce before getting in line.  Oops.  The cashier was full of disdain, but when I apologized profusely in Italian, she warmed up a bit.  I think it was the one time my little bit of Italian made a tiny difference.

We passed a couple of restaurants on the way back home, with folks in line for tables, and big plates of gorgeous pasta.  It was tempting, but the wait was not.  Once home to the cozy apartment we draped all our damp clothes over the rack and cooked a great supper. 

Hand cut pork chops from the Carni shop were complemented by delicious fresh green beans and some tiny steamed potatoes that came in a vacuum packed package.  We loved these little potatoes sliced and sautéed in olive oil. One item that wasn’t that great in Italy was lettuce, most that we purchased was tough and not that good.  Maybe the country is too warm to grow good lettuce, but it surely does grow great tomatoes. See that little bottle of Balsamic Vinegar on the table?  I managed to get that in my suitcase.  Pure rich gold.  I have never had balsamic like that before or since and when that bottle is gone who knows what I will do.

Tomorrow we will again trek into downtown Florence for what we think of as our “Michelangelo Day’.  Coming up, Casa Buonarotti, where Michelangelo lived, the Bargello Museum, with more of his sculptures, and Santa Croce, where Michelangelo is buried.


10-02-2018 Day 8 First Day in Florence

Cloudy, a bit rainy, and 58F 14.4C

View toward Michelangelo Piazza from the apartment bedroom window

Neither of us slept well last night.  Perhaps Deanna may have slept better if I hadn’t been so restless, since we shared the queen sized bed in the bedroom.  There is also a sofa bed in the living area, but we decided to skip making that one up  since it takes up most of the space, and we had no problem sleeping together.

The problem with that plan is that the bed, much like our bed in Montepertuso, is very hard. In addition to being hard it is also lumpy, and sags a bit.  I can’t believe how attached we both are to our comfy beds.  Is this how Europeans sleep? 

I got up in the middle of the night and tried to sleep on the sofa, (at least here we HAVE a sofa) but that didn’t work for long either.  Hips and knees are arguing in a serious way.  I have a feeling it is the damp and cool weather rather than all the hiking we have been doing, because I was much better back on the sunny coast of Amalfi!

Rainy morning view from the kitchen window

We have already decided that this will be a catch-up day, so the rain is quite delightful.  No need to rush out and explore, and our main outing for the day will be a walk to the market. 

Breakfast was simple, with NesCafe conveniently left in the cupboard,  some of our lovely breads from Sara, and the last of our yogurts that we brought with us.  We can drink the water here in the apartment and are quite happy that we don’t have to be buying and hauling bottled water every day as we did in Montepertuso.  No clue if that was necessary or not as we never thought to ask Sara.  We bought a lot of big bottles of water while we were there. We saw locals filling water bottles at the square  in Montepertuso from a water vending machine so I am fairly certain we did the right thing.

This apartment has a lot of charm, with delightful art from the owner’s world travels in Africa.  I should mention that while Isabella speaks excellent Italian, she is actually Canadian and speaks perfect English.  Her home is outside the city on a small farm and she has lived in Italy for 18 years.  She was kind enough to leave us a lovely bottle of olive oil from her home orchard.  The apartment has two fat and fluffy down comforters, plenty of pots and pans, a microwave, and even a small washer which is currently taking care of a week’s worth of hiking clothes.

Isabella tried to give us a good overview of how to live in the apartment when we arrived.  The most complex instruction was concerning the heat and air conditioning.  It has a very strange system controller that is on the wall over the stairs, requiring a long lean over the railing and a flashlight to see the tiny settings which are in Italian of course.  So far we haven’t been successful getting the heat to operate, but hopefully that will be attended to before it gets cold again next weekend.  Tomorrow is supposed to be much warmer with no rain for a few more days. I did just receive a WhatsApp note from Isabella saying that in the city of Florence it is not legal to turn on the heat before November 1.  Ok then! Back to the jackets, socks, and comforters!

The bathroom in our little apartment is well appointed, with nice fixtures, excellent plumbing, and a window that opens for fresh air.  We had seen the photos on the Air BnB website, but they really don’t do justice to the small space.  It is very very small, so tiny that turning around in the space is not really possible.  The other laughable thing is that you have to step over the bidet to get the to toilet. 

We sat at the table this morning for breakfast, on hard little chairs with a thin cushion, and came up with a great idea.  We moved the extra cushions from the other chairs and now sit on 2 or 3, just right for computer work.  Are Americans really this soft??  I guess so, at least we are.  I want my cush!

The very best surprise for this morning, however, was our decision to open up the sofa bed and see how it worked.  Out popped the most lovely memory foam mattress, and we looked at each other and almost cried we were so happy.  Ahhhh.  We WILL be sleeping on the sofa bed, and are incredibly grateful that the next two weeks in Florence won’t be marred by aching hips from a hard bed.

We looked at each other and at the gray skies outside, the wet terrace through the window, and said, “Time for a nap!!”  I think it was about 9 AM.  Yes, this is a day of rest and recuperation, with the most difficult tasks being napping, processing photos, and actually writing for the blog. 

By midafternoon with rested bodies and minds it was time to brave the streets of our neighborhood and make an attempt to find the market. Although Isabella said that the market was just down the street, we had no clue how to find it.  It was still a bit cool and rainy and we donned our jackets, made sure that Google Maps had downloaded the proper maps for the area, and set off on the hunt.

Even with google maps for imagery the directions for walking don’t work when offline.  We wandered off in what seemed like the proper direction before we finally arrived on a street that had some shops.  The Carni (meat market) was closed, but down the street was a small pharmacy where they told us that the Carni would open in November.  The young woman in that shop told us to go to the COOP.   We managed to find the shopping center where the COOP was located on Google Maps.  After a couple of miles we at last entered into a huge supermarket and spent a long time looking at fabulous food and filling our carry bags with groceries for the coming week.

It was a long walk back to the apartment with those heavy bags.  We had to stop for sustenance at very nice little gelato shop where we were allowed to sit with our treat at the empty table without an extra charge.  While tasty, the gelato was nothing like the amazing treat we had in Positano. 

A bit farther along on the same road we found a bakery with take away pizza slices and bought two for our supper that evening.  We found Italian pizza to be much like any other, always different, some fabulous and some so-so. These first slices of pizza in Firenze were a veggie mix that was truly yummy.

Continuing along the road we passed the Carni once again and it was wide open! It had only been closed until 3pm, in the Italian tradition of closing in the afternoon for a long lunch.  Most shops are closed between 12 or 1 and 3 or 4 at least.  We also discovered that we had simply made the wrong turn when leaving the big intersection and in the future wouldn’t have to walk all the way to the COOP for groceries.

Just for fun, check out this Google map street view image of the intersection to understand why we were a bit confused on that first day in the big city. Just trying to get some groceries had turned into a major undertaking.

the main intersection near our apartment

Tomorrow will be a big day, as we begin to explore the magnificent history of the city center of Firenze.