Wednesday, June 23, 2010


After two drizzly days in Venice, we headed south to Tuscany. Known for Chianti wine, medieval hilltop castles, and Renaissance art, the Tuscany region has been on my to-do list since I saw “Under the Tuscan Sun” so many years ago. We couldn’t find a CouchSurfer to host us in Florence, but we did find a cheap hostel, centrally located, called Ostello di Rifiorenze. For only 15 euros a night, we got to stay in a converted convent. Because the hostel is a cooperative, they’re also CouchSurfers (which is where I found them) and they allowed us to stay one free night! The second we arrived in Florence, we dropped our bags off and immediately headed back to the train station to go to Pisa. We had been told by many people that Pisa wasn’t anything special, and that it wasn’t worth it, even to see the famous Leaning Tower. Thus we were pleasantly surprised to find Pisa a charming little town with many pedestrianised streets, cheap food, and a marvelous square that holds more than just the tower, but two other stunning attractions set against the backdrop of old medieval walls. The Tower itself was very interesting, but I found the cathedral and the baptistry equally beautiful.

After a couple of hours in Pisa, we returned to Florence late and slept the first of three mosquito-filled nights in a tiny cubicle that reminds me of a shipping crate. The next morning, we got an early start to Florence and began our tour at the Piazza della Signoria. Here you find the world famous art gallery, the Uffizi, and a replica of Michaelangelo’s David standing outside the square.

For us, the replica was enough, especially since it’s standing in the exact same spot it stood hundreds of years ago before Italy decided to capitalize on every single piece of art and charge a ridiculous admission fee to see it. Nearby we stopped and visited the Porcellino and rubbed his snout for good luck.

We then headed to the Duomo, or cathedral, to bask in the over-ornately gilded interior and to make the really long trek up the stairs into the dome for a great view over Florence.

Along the way we got a close look at the frescoes decorating the ceiling, which shows some interesting torture methods.

In need of refreshment, we stopped for our daily gelato and then did some more uphill climbing in the Boboli Gardens. Not so much a garden as an exercise in climbing stairs, we had some more great views but not enough shrubbery to satisfy my definition of a garden. The nearby Garbini Gardens were much better at fitting this description, though at this point I was really sick of climbing up and down (little did I know the torture was to intensify in Siena).

Since Andrew and I are on a strict budget of 66 euros/day, we saved on dinner by buying some pasta and cooking it in the microwave. I had no idea this was even possible, and while not the tastiest thing I’ve ever had, it was one of the cheapest, bringing our dinner total to about 2 euros. Until you added in the bottle of Chianti we also bought.

Day 2 in Florence began by standing in line at the Uffizi. Despite our lack of interest in Renaissance art, we knew that if we didn’t visit we’d probably regret it later. Thankfully, armed with our teacher cards from France, we scored a 50% reduction on our tickets, thus only paying 5 euros each. We also downloaded a free audioguide by Rick Steves, which was excellent and worth paying money for. We understood a lot more of what we saw, and his sense of humor and appreciation for his audience was nice. He told his what rooms were completely boring and useless to see, and he explained the reasons for which so many of the paintings were world famous. Among the jewels of the collection were Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus and Caravaggio’s Medusa.

It happened that that day was the festival for St. Giovanni, or St. John the Baptist, and thus there were parades and fireworks throughout the town.

For lunch that day we stopped by a cheap panini place called Fratellini, where we received sandwiches stuffed with ham, cheese, eggplant, and tomatoes for only 3 euro. They also had wine by the glass for 1.80.

Refreshed, we continued our walking tour of the city. We had another microwave pasta dinner and headed to the famous Ponte Vecchio for sunset.

The bridge used to be a marketplace, but the noise and smell were bothersome so the vendors were cast out and a new law was created, making it illegal for vendors to sell their wares on the bridge, with the exception of gold merchants. The law still stands today, and all the shops that hang periously over the side of the bridge are jewelry stores.

Around 10pm the fireworks started, which were really beautiful and fun to watch as they cascaded over the River Arno. We spent one last night at our wonderful hostel, and in the morning we continued our journey to Siena.

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