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Florence Introduction and Tourist Hints

July 19, 2003

Dear Friends and Families,

Florence was a relatively big city for us and we are always a bit apprehensive about how to approach anything more complicated than a small town. The basics of parking, hotel, meals, and what-to-do are generally trickier the bigger the town. Here's how things worked out in Florence. (There is a separate diary about the art we saw and a picture set of views and vistas.)


This was the first major decision. We had only a couple of guidebooks to describe the choices, no personal recommendations. Marianne selected the small "Residenza Johlea" based on price and location as well as availability of air conditioning and telephone. We'd been doing without the last two, but Florence promised to be much hotter than our hillside villa and, with a phone, we could more easily get back in touch with family and friends.

As it turned out, we spent six days in the Johlea, three in a small cool room and three in a larger not-so-cool room whose AC barely functioned. As for location, we were on the edge of the center of town so it was a 10- or 15-minute walk to most of the tourist attractions. Normally, that would be fine, but with daytime temperatures in the 90's (mid to upper 30's C), this was a walk we learned to dread.

Of course, there would have been options. We walked past plenty of small hotels that were somewhat cheaper than ours, but not appreciably nearer the tourist action. For fun, we also checked out a couple of fine hotels along the river. The Westin Excelsior, for example, would certainly treat us in a manner we would enjoy but, with rooms starting at 675 euro per night, this was far from an option.

All in all, the Residenza Johlea was a good balance. (Postscript: A week later, Marianne stayed in another small hotel that we would also recommend: Residenza dei Pucci. A bit more money but very close to the Duomo, and very hospitable staff.)


For us, this is a consideration all by itself. Our car is our baby and we had heard a number of tales of problems of car vandalism and theft in Italy. Residenza Johlea offered an option of parking in a neighboring residenza, at a price. This turned out to be a perfectly secure underground facility, so we had no worries. Staying at this Residenza would have been even more convenient, but rooms started at 400 euros per night. Sometimes our car sleeps better than we do!


Our European eating practice is normally a hotel-provided breakfast and then a single meal as late lunch or dinner, with allowance for a snack or two. The Johlea did not have a prepared breakfast but rather little in-room packaged goods, which they called "wherewithals". Surprisingly, this was an OK start to the day: instant coffee plus packaged crackers, jam, airline croissant and something that was the Italian equivalent of a Hostess Twinkie. Breakfast of champions.

For snacks, there were good and bad. A stop for a pair of beers piazza-side cost 18.50 euros (over $20). Ouch. Other stops for coffee or sandwiches (panninis) were also pricey if we expected to sit down at a restaurant table. Walk-away food however was tasty and relatively cheap. The best snack in Florence, maybe in Italy, has been ice cream (gelato). The tastes are rich and full and the variety seems endless. Sitting on the steps of the Duomo (cathedral), savoring a new gelato flavor, became an evening highlight.

As for real meals, again we had mixed experiences. Picking restaurants at random is risky. "Cute" didn't always translate into tasty. In contrast, a restaurant our host Fabio had recommended, La Sostanza, served us the best meals so far in Italy. Trattoria Sostanza offered a limited menu of typical Florentine food, but their specialty was Tuscan steak, a T-bone that was better than any steak we've had in Europe. The atmosphere was warm and friendly, as it probably has to have been to survive for over one hundred years. No trip to Florence should be without a stop here.



So, what was there to do in Florence?

-- Museums and galleries. This has to be the prime attraction on any visit to Florence. My impressions are recorded in the next diary.

-- People watching. Big cities are good for just watching people. In Florence, a large number of those people were American tourists and college students. We hadn't heard so much American English in a long time. It was fun watching people have fun.

-- Walking. Florence is a walking city. Cars are largely forbidden in the old center and most of the sights are close together. However, hot sunny days limited our comfortable walking periods to mornings before 11:00 and evenings after 8:00. At another time of year, I'm sure we'd have walked the entire day.

-- Morning mass in the Duomo. One morning, we went to the Duomo for mass. The celebration was at a side altar in a wing of the cathedral, as big as most churches, and I'll admit that I was looking around at the church as much as I was paying attention to the priest. Actually, since he was speaking in Italian, I had an excuse. It was much like attending the Latin masses of my childhood.

-- Shopping. Florence has acres of street vendors selling everything from T-shirts to "originals" from Gucci, Versace, and other famous names. These were places at our budget. Hidden along several of the old streets were elegant shops offering real Italian designer clothing and accessories. These places were well above our budget,

So, what's my overall advice for Florence? Avoid it in the dead of summer. It deserves better attention than is possible while wiping sweat out of your eyes. Be accepting of tourist crowds or go off-season. Give it time. The must-do museums need a few days at least and a sense for other attractions needs even more time to really develop. I think some of the college kids had it right: spend a semester in Florence, have fun, and let the history and culture just sneak in without straining.

Regards and good luck, no matter what city you choose to visit. (Above advice may well apply to any city.)

John and Marianne


ps: some useful websites: A good overview of Tuscany. Wonderful collection of art work. Shows many of the pieces we saw. Website for our hotel Website for the hotel Martianne used later. All-purpose Florence Another all-purpose site. In italian but good museum descriptions Stanford project scanning the David and some other background too. If you want even more, search "David Accademia" on Google.



The "hotel" Residenca Johlea was on the first floor above ground level. The Church of Scientology occupied the ground floor and lawyers occupied the rest. There must be a joke in this somewhere.



Our street and most in the neighborhood had many small hotels. It was hard to tell from the outside what the quality level was but one clue for us was open windows. In the heat we had, anyone with air conditioning kept windows closed.

This is a standard tourist task, taking someone else's picture. Here Marianne takes Carlos from LA (while I take them).



This is another standard task - writing these diaries. I suppose you thought they appeared magically.





In the early morning, mopeds are asleep. For most of the day they are careening around Florence, risking the lives of riders and pedestrians.



Some art work is more contemporary than others. This mime drew a crowd, including policemen looking for bad guys looking for wallets.

Getting our daily ice cream fix was a necessity. The selection was wonderful. And free of calories in July.



Here's our waiter and the kitchen crew at La Sostanza. This was a great place with excellent food, excellent service, and genuinely friendly people.





In the early morning, we had free passage and decent temperatures.



Later, everything filled up with overheated tourists.

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