When my mom talks about her time studying abroad in Edinburgh when she was in college, she often mentions how Florence was one of her favorite places that she got to visit. So when AIFS announced that there was an opportunity to spend a weekend in Florence, I jumped at the chance. And I’ve got to say – my mom was right! (Don’t tell her that, though!)
There were about 14 of us that signed up to go – all girls. We left early Friday morning, and since the group was so small we each got our own row of seats on the bus, so we got to spread out and nap without worrying about falling into our neighbor’s lap. I was up late the night before doing laundry and packing (living it up), so I was actually able to sleep on the bus! It was kind of disorienting, though – the drive includes going through a lot of tunnels, many of which have colored lights inside, and I woke up in the middle of one of the tunnels and was so confused because I thought I was on Space Mountain at Disneyland (like the slow part at the beginning where you’re “launching off” with all the spinning colors).
Apart from that, the drive was long (~6 hours!) but uneventful. Getting to watch the Italian landscape go by (when I wasn’t sleeping) was absolutely gorgeous, though – I actually had trouble concentrating on my book because of it!
Our bus driver’s name was Maria; she’s originally from Italy but now lives near Cannes. She was a hoot – very very animated, lots of hand gestures, lots of exclaiming “Mamma mia!”
On the way to Florence, we stopped in Pisa to see the famous Leaning Tower. Cars/buses aren’t allowed in Italian cities (I believe?) without a special permit or license, so we had to park maybe 10 minutes outside of the area of Pisa we’d be exploring. As soon as we got off the bus, we were swarmed by vendors trying their darndest to sell us sunglasses, keychains, or – my personal favorite – selfie sticks. I don’t know how many times I was asked, “Hello – selfie?” that day.
Sandrine and Aude warned us beforehand that the route to the Leaning Tower was filled with pickpockets and to be careful with our bags (and, in some girls’ cases, selfie sticks). As soon as one started to approach us, however, Sandrine turned around to us and goes, “See, girls, this is a gypsy! Everyone hold your bags!” Which seemed to rather effectively scare her away. It helped, too, that we were following a huge group of Japanese tourists, one of whom got pickpocketed right in front of us. So that was exciting.
After we passed the pickpockets, we entered the land of vendors: the sequel, though these ones had actual “storefronts” that folded up into these cone shaped kiosks when they weren’t open. A lot of them called out “Lady Gaga! Shaka laka boom boom!” at us as we passed, which confused yet amused all of us greatly.
So I don’t know how to say this without it sounding pretty dumb, but I wasn’t expecting the Leaning Tower to be quite so…leaning! It depends on the angle at which you look at it, but there were definitely moments when I caught myself wondering how it was still staying up.
The area is swarming with tourists, many of whom are doing the classic “holding up the tower” pose, which makes for some pretty fun people watching. And apparently the vendors actually do rather well, because I don’t think I’ve ever seen so many selfie sticks in one place!
The area also contains the Pisa Cathedral, which Kailyn and I decided to go walk through. There’s a very strange system to get in that involves going and getting a free ticket in this museum with a bunch of broken sculptures, and you then have to go across the square to the Cathedral right away. I’m not entirely sure why there’s such an elaborate process, but it was worth figuring it out – the Cathedral was huge and stunning. Just the amount of detail is incredible!
We still had a good bit of time to wander around before we had to meet up with the rest of the group to head to the bus, so we decided that it was the perfect opportunity to try some gelato. I got a scoop of “cacao” and a scoop of “cookies” and it was delicious!
The rest of the trip to Florence was peaceful – we were all pretty tired because of the early start and the amount of time we’d spent on a bus. Perhaps the most exciting part was when we were pulling into the city and I glanced into the car next to the bus to see that it was being driven by a shirtless man trying to turn a white t-shirt the right way out. It brought up so many questions: Had he been wearing the shirt beforehand when he realized it was on inside out? Maybe he spilled something? Had he been in such a rush that he decided to get dressed en route? Had he simply forgotten that he was only half-dressed? Did he have a habit of doing that, prompting him to keep t-shirts in his car? I found it even more fascinating since it was probably around 5:30 PM at the time – while I wouldn’t consider that normal behavior at any time, really, if anything I would expect it to be something you’d see in the morning, like on the way to work or something.
But I digress!
We arrived at our hotel around 6ish, and at 7 the group met in the lobby to head to dinner together. We were walking through the Piazza della Repubblica when we passed a street performer playing “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” on the saxophone, and I had one of those moments you always hear about where suddenly everything just hits you. I was in Europe, exploring one of the most beautiful and historic cities I’ve ever seen, about to eat real Italian pizza, learning more about different cultures and improving my French every day – cheese alert, but “the dreams that you dare to dream really do come true.”
So after my little “epiphany” (aided, I’m sure, by my utter exhaustion and the fact that I’d been stuck on a bus for the majority of the day), we found our way to the restaurant with Aude, Sandrine, and Maria, where I had a delicious marguerite pizza and some tiramisu. Earlier some of us had talked about going and taking a walk on the Ponte Vecchio (this medieval bridge) after dinner, but we were so tired that we ended up heading straight back to the hotel. I was so sleepy and cozy when I was reading before bed that I nearly fell asleep in the middle of a chapter (not a good day for reading for me!).
We were up bright-ish and early again the next day for a guided walking tour around Florence. We got these nifty little listening devices and an earphone so we wouldn’t have to huddle around the guide as we walked around, which I really liked. It also kind of made me feel like a secret agent or something, which is always a plus (though most secret agents probably don’t have historical facts coming through their bright blue earpieces, I’m guessing).
I don’t think there’s any way I can list or really even remember all of what we saw that morning, but it seemed like we hit all of the big sights in the city. We saw the Mercato Nuovo, or straw market, which is a pretty large outdoor market area with tons of leather goods and scarves and ties and the like. There’s also a wild boar statue that you drop a coin into (the mouth, I think?), and depending on where the coin ends up in relation to the boar, it’s supposed to determine whether or not you’ll come back to Florence in the future. I didn’t try this, but I’m hoping that I can go back at some point even though I may or may not have the boar’s permission.
We then headed off to the Piazza della Signoria, which is home to the Palazzo Vecchio, Florence’s town hall. The entrance to the Palazzo (I guess I can call it that?) has a copy of the statue David, and it’s right next to the Loggia dei Lanzi, which is this little covered area with a bunch of really well-known statues that I can’t name but had definitely seen before. That, to me, was probably one of the most interesting aspects of Florence – all of this important art was just out there in the open. Sure, it was covered, and there’s wire on them to keep birds off, but they’re definitely still exposed to the elements.
Next was the Ponte Vecchio, which boasted some beautiful views, lots of expensive jewelry shops, and some really really strong wind that made my hair start attacking people.
Then we rushed off to the Cattedrale di Santa Maria del Flore, the huge and gorgeous cathedral. This is, of course, a massive tourist draw, so we had to wait in line for a good bit to actually get in, and then the inside, while absolutely stunning and huge, was so crowded that I personally had some trouble feeling like I could fully take it in. At least in line we all had plenty of opportunities to buy selfie sticks if we didn’t get one back in Pisa! (I managed to resist the temptation…) Going back to how art is just out in the open here, we learned that David was originally supposed to go on top of the cathedral; luckily he’s nice and cozy indoors, instead!
Lastly, we were off to the Galleria dell’Accademia, where David fortunately ended up instead of on a roof. As we were waiting in line outside, it started to rain, and the guys hawking selfie sticks ducked behind a corner and were back within half a minute with umbrellas to sell instead. They really know what they’re doing.
I wasn’t expecting David to be so huge! My mom had the exact same reaction when she saw him, so I should have had some idea, really, but the shock of his size made him all the more impressive.
At this point it was around lunchtime, and we were all released from the tour to spend the rest of the day exploring on our own. Kailyn and I had no idea where to go for lunch, but we figured that in Italy we couldn’t really go wrong, so we chose a random little café near the cathedral, and I had a beautifully simple classic – spaghetti with a tomato basil sauce – which was to die for.
We didn’t really know what to do from here, so we basically just wandered around trying to find places we hadn’t covered during the tour that morning. There are a bunch of old churches, many of which we wandered through, and after a couple hours we finally ended up back in the Piazza della Signoria to try some apparently pretty renowned hot chocolate. It was almost ridiculously rich and strong, and it had a mountain of whipped cream on top that we weren’t quite sure what to do with – it was so big that it made drinking it difficult, but no one else seemed to be stirring theirs in. Since I didn’t want to be wandering Florence with a whipped cream mustache, I ended up stirring mine in, which also helped to temper the intensity of the chocolate a bit.
Since we were in the square, we checked out the Museo di Palazzo Vecchio, which houses the private spaces of the Medici court. Basically, everything was extraordinarily ornate and decked out and old, and each room seemed to be more extravagant than the last. Imagining people actually – for lack of better words – existing and living in such a space was sort of mind-blowing.
We also went back to the Straw Market, where I got a new scarf, and then we wandered in and out of a few little clothes shops. They were reaching the end of their winter sales, but most of the prices were still a touch out of my league!
By this time it was around 7, which is dinnertime in France, so we were pretty starving. We decided to find a place near our hotel since we realized that we had basically spent 9 hours on our feet running around the city, and we ended up in a nice restaurant that offered us a student discount back in the Piazza della Repubblica (a block or two from where we were staying). It wasn’t crowded since apparently Italians tend to have dinner around 8, and I had a delicious Greek salad. We also got to enjoy the view of the carousel in the Piazza as well as a pretty large protest that marched by – sadly their signs were in Italian so we couldn’t tell what they were protesting.
We were totally exhausted, but we decided that since it was our last night in Italy til Spring Break, we should go out with a bang. And thus we were off in the opposite direction of the protesters, searching for gelato. Luckily there’s a gelateria or two on every street, I swear, so we found one really quickly! I don’t know what exactly I got, but it was wonderfully chocolatey and had little pieces of some sort of sponge cake in it.
One thing that we noticed in most of the restaurants we went to, as well as the hotel lobby, is that music video television seems to be really big in Italy. We asked Aude about that, and she seemed a touch surprised that we didn’t see a lot of that back in the US. Apparently Ellie Goulding’s video for “Love Me Like You Do” from 50 Shades of Grey is pretty darn popular right now.
Our stomachs very full and content, we dragged ourselves back to the hotel for another early and sleepy night.
We checked out of the hotel the next morning and went off to the Uffizi Gallery with our guide, where we got to see the Birth of Venus by Botticelli, as well as art by all of the Ninja Turtles. It was sort of frustrating because our time was so limited and we didn’t get to see everything, but it’s just another reason to go back in the future!
We left the museum around 11:25ish, and we had 35 minutes to grab lunch somewhere and meet back at the hotel to leave, which was probably not exactly enough time. So Kailyn and I started walking back towards the hotel, figuring we’d find some sandwich place along the way so we could grab something to go, but then we passed a Mexican place and decided that we needed burritos instead as there is literally no place in Cannes to get Mexican food. (Unless you count the cafeteria’s version of a burrito – an oddly sweet tortilla filled with lettuce, tomato, onion, tofu, chopped cucumber, and I think grilled asparagus. It’s really sad.)
So we got our burritos to go and then somehow got a bit turned around and accidentally wandered in a circle again, but we finally found something that looked familiar and were able to speed walk back to the hotel just in time!
So we had our burritos on the way to this vantage point that had a view of the whole city, as well as another copy of David. My first legitimately spicy food in about a month! It was beautiful. Oh, and the view wasn’t bad either!
And then we were on our way back to Cannes. I absolutely loved Florence and felt right at home – I wish we could have spent more than a weekend there! It also made me even more excited for Kailyn’s and my Spring Break plans to go to Athens, Rome, Pompeii, and Venice! Italie – tu me manques, mais je vais retourner!