It was the fourth leg of our trip. After traversing Munich, Prague, and Greece, we were headed for our next two stops, Florence and Rome. Having been to Italy once before, Kaitlin and I decided to make a pact with our cousin Kim for the duration of our stay. The terms were simple. The minute we set foot on Italian soil, there would be gelato. Once a day, every day. No exceptions.
“Isn’t that excessive?” you may be thinking.
No. I assure you, it isn’t.
Obviously, we were a little obsessed. We were in Florence and Rome for eight days, and each day around four in the afternoon––like clockwork––we would stumble upon a gelato shop and begin scoping out cone/cup/flavor configurations like a giddy five-year-olds.
It’s important for you to know that I’m not really an ice cream person. I don’t seek it out. I don’t buy it at the grocery store, or walk into ice cream parlors unless I’m pulled in by other people who happen to love the stuff. But gelato is different.
Okay, get ready because I’m about to unleash a forced, clumsy metaphor on you. Gelato is…everything that I really love about Italy. If you get a cup of strawberry gelato, it tastes like strawberries. There’s nothing artificial, no boatload of sugar covering anything up, no excess of air whipped into it. It’s authentic, it’s real, and it’s almost nostalgic. When I got home from the trip, I was craving my daily dose of gelato so much that I scoured Manhattan for a gelato shop, walked there during a weekday lunch hour, and paid six dollars for a small cup. It wasn’t the same.
Upon our arrival in Florence, we set forth from Santa Maria Novella station in search of our new home base––an apartment in a medieval building that once housed Florentine painter Filippo Lippi. No joke. The place was cheaper than any hotel I could find, and it was in the perfect location––far enough from the hustle and bustle of the city’s major tourist attractions, while somehow being close to everything. The great thing about Florence is that it’s a very walkable city. We walked EVERYWHERE from this little apartment, and it felt like we could get anywhere on foot in less than 20 minutes.
As I mentioned earlier, this was a second trip to Florence for my sister and I. The first time we visited, I was sixteen, and it was the height of tourist season in early August. We did a whirlwind of sightseeing. One of my clearest memories from that trip was in the Accademia gallery, pushing through hordes of tourists to get a glimpse of Michelangelo’s David, as an Italian security guard’s shouts of “NO FOTOS!” bounced off the walls.
This time around, we took a more spontaneous approach.
We headed to the Mercato Centrale, which was surprisingly devoid of tourists––at least in the morning.
At approximately…9.30 in the morning, we dug into lampredotto, porchetta, and beef cheek sandwiches at Nerbone. Which apparently wasn’t weird, because we were in the company of a few locals––mostly old guys in tweed suits. I like to think that there was a sense of camaraderie amongst us––a tacit acknowledgement that the kind of people who would rise early to enjoy a tripe sandwich for breakfast (i.e. us) are totally winning at life.
We also ended up wandering into the Odeon Theater for popcorn and a movie. The place was largely empty, as tourists tended to just walk on by without giving the old building a second glance. I love old theaters, and it was awesome to sit in air-conditioned bliss for a couple hours.
We also ended up at Piazza Michelangelo, where we got an amazing view of the entire city.
We did get to see the Duomo up close, at our cousin’s insistence.
And my sister finally got to live her dream of taking funny-faced pictures in a photo booth. Not sure how we all squeezed in there (what with there only being one stool and all), but we managed to not embarrass ourselves in front of all the passers-by on the street.
On a Sunday night, we were searching for a restaurant for dinner. To our dismay, it appeared that anywhere worth eating at was closed that night. It was our supposition that 1) the Italians take their day of rest seriously, and 2) all the people running and/or working in said restaurants were probably at their grandmothers’ houses, having elaborate, glorious Sunday dinners.
We bypassed every Italian restaurant that was open, bloated as they were with tourists eating spaghetti pomodoro, and somehow stumbled upon this:
An authentic Sichuan restaurant. In the middle of Tuscany. GLOBALIZATION!!!
As you can see, Chinese tourists and curious Italians were crowding the front of the establishment, and there was a 30 minute wait for a table. Naturally, we grabbed a menu and got on line. It’s a weird moment, when you’re in a foreign country, don’t speak the language, and then suddenly find yourself on a little island of familiarity.
I brought out my slightly rusty Mandarin and ordered dinner without having to point, gesture emphatically, or furiously tap things into Google Translate. And you know what? It. was. so. good. Seriously some of the best Sichuan Suan Cai Yu (fish with pickled cabbage) I’ve ever had. Even better than a lot of the versions I tried while living in Beijing.
On our last day in Florence, we wandered into the Museo Novecento, another one of the city’s hard-to-find empty spaces. I swear, including us, there were no more than 10 people in the museum, which housed a really interesting collection of modern art.
On the top floor, we were shown a video compilation of Florence in film, from the early 20th century to today, seeing how the city’s changed over the decades––or rather, how it hasn’t really changed at all.
On a day trip from Florence, we headed to the medieval town of San Gimignano, where we sampled the amazing gelato pictured at the top of this post. (While pretty much ALL of the gelato we tried throughout the course of the trip was good, this one was award-winning. It was seriously the best ice cream I have ever had. Ever.)
I gotta tell ya, the Tuscan countryside really lives up to the pictures in real life. See those tiny little towers off in the distance in this photo? That’s San Gimignano.
You can see it a little better in this photo:
It’s an absurdly well-preserved medieval town (apparently, the plague swept through during the 14th century, and the city remained largely deserted for centuries, preserving the town in all its Romanesque & Gothic glory).
I won’t give you full recap of exactly what happened when we were out in the Tuscan countryside, because it was all such a blur. Just know that there was wine. And food.
Ah, Rome. The last leg of my journey through Europe (being an adult, who apparently has a job and has to work and stuff…I left Europe a week earlier than my sister and cousin, who both recently graduated from college). It was another whirlwind of sights, sounds, food, and cooking.
We settled in a lovely apartment in the neighborhood of Monti, owned by a very cool, bohemian older lady named Elena who left us donut peaches, cherries, and cornetti for our daily breakfast. Despite only speaking with her for about 15 minutes, this gesture alone tells me that she is awesome.
The apartment was situated in an amazing area, full of winding streets, young locals, busy restaurants, and small shops.
With the Colosseum a ten minute walk away, we did put our tourist hats on a bit to go see it, along with the Roman Forum.
The next morning, we headed to Campo de’ Fiori to buy ingredients for dinner. Among our purchases? These AMAZING tomatoes.
By 11:00, the temperature was soaring over 90 degrees. Luckily, Elena, our Airbnb host, had a really awesome DVD collection in her apartment, so at the hottest time of day, we retreated to the apartment, spending the afternoon watching A Fish Called Wanda with a big bowl of cherries in front of us.
We’d go out again in the late afternoon, and return to the apartment around 8:30 to prepare dinner. While we did have a few meals out during the day, we cooked most of our dinners in the apartment––zucchini blossom pasta, tomato basil bruschetta, and other simple, summery things we could cobble together from our market trips.
We threw on one of Elena’s Ella Fitzgerald CDs, threw open the kitchen windows to hear the chatter from the street below, and set to cooking. It almost felt like home.
For more travel-y stuff, check out our post on the final leg of the trip, in Budapest.