2015 03 eu trip (2): florence siena

day 06: amsterdam to rome to florence

Travelling day. Early start, 6.30am alarm and out of the house at 8am. Had to repack at bag drop as our luggage was just a little above the limit. First time we fly easyJet and we can see the nickel and diming at work. Flight was almost 100% full and almost on time arriving at Rome. Picked up our luggage and leisurely made our way to the train station. We had a couple hours to wait for the direct train to Florence. It was fine, we found seats and had sandwiches we made at our friend’s house for lunch.

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The train was very nice. When I was booking online, the first class (non-refundable) was the same price as second class (flexible) so I sprang for the first class tickets. For that we got comfrotable seats, a free drink and a small snack.

Florence train station was a big heaving mess. We had the option of taking a taxi or bus, and ended up at the bus stop. The bus arrived a few minutes later and we squeezed in with what seems to be the entire population of florence. I had the fare in my pocket but wasn’t able to figure out how to pay when we were pushed further down the bus. We knew we had 4 stops to go, and were glad the directions were correct.

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We found the retreat house with no issue, the only slight problem was pushing our suitcases along the narrow cobblestone streets. We were greeted by Sister Lucia and Sister Flora, both from India. Their warm and friendly welcome was a good sign already. Our room was a good size and basic, with our own bathroom. We took a peek at the breakfast room, sitting room, chapel and garden. Everything had a quiet and peaceful feel.

After leaving our bags, we headed out to find dinner. Found the remains of a market at a nearby square selling baked goods, cheese, olive oil and balsamic. I bought some balsamic glaze for mum, as requested. We also found a small supermarket where we stocked up on water.

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Dinner was at a small café nearby called ok bar. We both had spaghetti vongole and we shared a plate of grilled vegetables. The spaghetti was good if a little salty; the veg was very good. I also had a small carafe of house red, which was the same price as a large coke. Pretty good. The retreat house has a curfew of 10.30pm, we were back well in time.

day 07: florence duomo, ponte vecchio, oltrarno

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Woke up at 7am, mm wanted to go to early morning mass with the nuns. I didn’t go, but I got up anyway. We had breakfast at the dining room of the retreat house—bread roll, cereal, yogurt. We then explored around the house, gardens and chapel, everything was immaculate with a sense of peace. The furniture admittedly were older, made the place even more charming.

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Florence’s most distinctive landmark, the Duomo, was around 15mins away. There were queues for both the dome and the cathedral so we walked on towards San Lorenzo and the Mercato Centrale. Just the right time for an early lunch. The second floor of the market had about 10-12 artisan food stalls, we opted for a plate of mixed cold cuts & cheese from one and spaghetti pomodoro from another. I had a glass of rosé.

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From the market we walked past the train station, Santa Maria Novella church towards Piazza Republica. Checked out the hard rock café and the market nearby. Lots of leather goods and souvenirs, also quite sticky salespeople. Followed the crowd to reach Palazzo Vecchio and the copy of David at the entrance.

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Where the crowd was thickest was at Ponte Vecchio. Around the bridge and on the bridge but not inside the jewellery shops on the bridge though. Across the river we ambled towards Palazzo Pitti and Biboli gardens. Didn’t go inside, we weren’t that interested in the art in the palace and €10 for just the gardens didn’t seem value for money. We were pretty tired so had tea at a small coffee shop opposite the palace.

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We kept seeing people disappearing into a small alley next to the coffee shop, analysis of the map showed that one street over was the Santo Spirito church. Free entrance, so we went inside. It was quite nice, the main attraction was Michaelangelo’s wooden crucifix. We walked around the interior that had lots of art (didn’t know how to appreciate though) and sat for a little while. No photography, although I sneaked a couple of the interior, this would continue to be a theme on our italian trip.

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From south of the river, we walked slowly back towards our retreat house. On the way we stopped at a religious store near Duomo. We were looking at the figures at the window when the sister inside waved us in. The store was run by nuns from a religious order. We were drawn to wood carvings of Mary and baby Jesus that were handmade by one of the sisters at their order. Quite expensive, but after some thought, we decided that they were worth it. Very beautiful pieces. The sisters at the shop were so friendly, we even took pictures together. We won’t forget Sr Stefanie, who spoke English and have travelled around the world, for a long time.

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Dinner was at a taverna near the retreat house—caprese salad, grilled vegetables, pici cacio e pepe. It’s the first time we tried cacio e pepe pasta, and even though it’s a Roman speciality, the one here in Tuscany was very good. I had 250ml carafe red wine that was only €3. I think I’ll end up drinking a fair amount of house wine in Italy.

08: siena

When I was doing research for the trip, the dilemma was how to cover Tuscany. My first reaction was to rent a car, then drive around just like what we did at Provence, but mm didn’t want to, so the task was to figure out public transportation. Most of the websites and guidebooks said that if we only had one day and one destination to visit, we should go to Siena because it’s pretty and it’s relatively reachable by bus and train.

We had a leisurely breakfast then walked to the central station. The bus station is next to the train station and we saw a Siena bus leaving at 10.40am. I glanced at the clock and it read 10.39am, eeek. Hurried to the ticket office and sent mm to hold the bus. Thanks to the kind bus driver who wanted for us. Turned out that it was a local bus that stopped at a couple of towns before Siena. We got there around 12.20pm.

Couldn’t see a tourist information office so followed our noses and the crowd. Very beautiful, rustic Tuscan town with narrow cobblestoned streets and typical houses with tiled roofs, shutters and balconies.

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Wandered into a small gourmet supermarket and decided to have lunch there. Porchetta sandwich with a little pickled peppers and we shared a whole burrata. Perfect lunch. Had a gelato from a small shop while walking too.

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We followed the signs to San Francesco church and accidentally went inside the university next door. Felt a bit like mature students. Useful since we needed to find a bathroom. The actual San Francesco church was large if really empty. Later, mm found out that inside the church were hosts from a eucharistic miracle in 1730.

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Followed the signs again to Piazza del Campo and the Duomo. The piazza was very pretty but we didn’t linger.

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The duomo had various combinations of entrance tickets including the main cathedral, the crypt, the tower and the museum. We opted for just the cathedral entrance for €4.

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Lots to see inside, especially many small chapels off the main area. The standout for me was the library, which had a display of illuminated choir books and frescos on the ceiling. There were also many other works of art in the cathedral as well as painted mosiacs on the floor.

On the way back to the bus station, we bought a couple of local cakes for the nuns at the retreat house and the shop. Took pictures at the Basilica Cateriniana. We had 20mins to wait for the bus, and in trying to find bathrooms again accidentally came across the small pretty St Andrea chapel. We ended up going into a hotel for bathroom so all was well.

Dinner back at Florence as at the mercato again. Had the local speciality of trippa (tripe), arancini with spinach and spelt salad. Didn’t feel like anything too heavy so the combination was good. I had a chianti reserve with the meal.

Lots of walking again, probably 3-4 miles today. I’m missing running and training but hopefully the walking is keeping me from losing all my fitness. Quite pleased that we managed a whole day’s exploration without a map. Would have been nice to find a tourist information office but it’s okay.

I remember when we were planning our Provence trip in 2012 we debated between Provence and Tuscany. We only had one day in the Tuscan countryside so it’s difficult to compare. Both are beautiful and well worth repeat visits.

day 09: florence shopping

We woke up at 9am, too late for breakfast at the retreat house. Had our coffee and tea at a nearby coffee shop instead. Bought sandwiches from the street market—porchetta and lampredotto (cow stomach).

First stop was at the religious shop near the Duomo, to give the sisters there the cake we bought at Siena. They were so nice. Sister Stefanie invited us to visit their chapel above the shop. So peaceful and blessed.

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The rest of the day was quite boring for me. Walked to the bus station to catch the bus for the outlet. The bus was full so we had to wait for the next one. Good timing to have our sandwich lunch. The outlet had a number of brands—Prada, Ferragamo, Coach, BV, Burberry, Tods, Hogan, EA and the like. Honestly I have no interest in branded stuff, especially since most of the stuff for sale were handbags, shoes and accessories. There were a few wallets and belts that looked alright, and mm as usual was tempted by handbags. I don’t get why anyone will buy wallets for €100-200 or handbags for almost €1000, nice though they were. We didn’t buy anything at the end and caught the 4pm bus back.

Walked through the market back at Florence and looked more carefully at things to buy. Came across a couple of stalls where the salesperson wasn’t obnoxious or pushy. Bought two handbags (mm) and two belts (me).

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Bought chocolate at lindt then headed for dinner at the taverna near the retreat house. We shared a 1kg bistecca alla florentine di costata (florentine sirloin steak on the bone), good taste and well cooked for around €35.

day 10: santa croce

Leisurely breakfast. Laundry after breakfast too, the sisters charged us a nominal €1 to use their washing machine, there was plenty of room in the garden to hang our clothes to dry.

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Walked to the Basilica di Santa Croce, the biggest franciscian church in Florence. The entrance fee was €6 and it was worth it, there was a lot to see. Aside from the main area, there were rooms and corridors full of art and artefacts, including many that were ruined by the 1966 flood and carefully restored. The church was also the final resting place for MIchaelangelo, Galileo, Machiavelli and other prominent people.

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I enjoyed visiting the church, but got a bit impatient. We would go to a particular spot, an altar, a painting or something interesting. It’d take me a couple of minutes to look at the object and take a picture. Then I’d have to stand there for another 10mins waiting for mm, who seemed to read, look, appreciate and photograph every.single.thing with excruciating slowness. We definitely have to compromise going forward. Sigh.

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There was a leather school and shop accessible from the church. It was interesting to see the craftspeople working at their workstations. Apparently they take in apprentices from all over the world, it was refreshing to hear one from Japan talking to another from Korea in Italian. Florence being famous for leather goods, the products at the school were beautiful and the leather of the highest quality. Expensive too.

It was past 2pm by the time we came out of the basilica. I had plans to go to Piazza Michaelangelo across the river, but obviously it wasn’t possible. We still had to find lunch. The first place, near palazzo vecchio, was way too touristy for our liking. We found a trattoria slightly off the main squares. It was still touristy, with some locals inside. Their lunch menu was until 3pm, so we took advantage of it. I had chicken liver crostini and mm had grilled vegetables. For mains we had veal scalloppine. Everything was good, the scalloppine was underseasoned, as if the chef forgot salt. Their bread was the best we’ve tasted in all of Italy. They made their own pizza and we noticed they made their own bread too. For dessert we shared a cheesecake with strawberries and cream.

More walking. Had a small gelato (mint and yogurt for me, mint and lemon for mm) and got a few things at the supermarket. Back at the retreat house at around 6pm. Still full from lunch, no need for dinner.

day 11: piazzale michaelangelo, basilica san iniato al monte

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Rainy day plus a late start due to laundry meant we spent the day in Florence instead of taking a day trip out to Tuscany. It means we only get to go to Siena this trip. I’m a little disappointed although mm preferred to stay in town.

Headed to south of the river to Piazzale Michaelangelo. A long trek up steps brought us to a wide open square with spectacular view of the city. The rain stopped long enough for the sun to peek out to give us even better views.

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Quite a lot to see and do over there. There were 2 churches next to the square, a small church associated with a franciscan missionary and the basilica San Miniato al Monte which had a spectacular view to the city as well as an extensive cemetery behind the church. In front of the square is a small garden with roses and citrus trees, very pleasant to sit there once the weather cleared up.

Back to San Lorenzo market and Duomo area for last minute shopping. Dinner at our usual tavernetta and florentine steak again. Back to the retreat house for our last night, packing and relaxing. We weren’t as agressive as before, taking our time everyday, so it meant we saw fewer sights than how we used to travel. Then again, we didn’t feel as rushed and it was sometimes nice just to sit at a café and watch the world go by.

The retreat house we stayed in Florence is the casa per ferie regina del santo rosario run by Sister Flora, Sister Lucia and others. I can’t recommend it high enough. Yes, it’s fairly basic. There is no TV in the room, no room service and other fancy stuff. I found it very peaceful and pleasant. We spent a little time in the morning in the living room with the door to the garden open for fresh air and it was as good as life can get. They are actually on booking.com, Sister Lucia was using the computer the other night.

flickr sets: florence | siena

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This page contains a single entry by invisiblecompany published on Friday March 27, 2015 10:44 PM.

2015 03 eu trip (1): holland belgium was the previous entry.

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