Apparently, I was fashionable this summer without trying. It seems that all the celebrities were in Italy this year. FYI – I did not see anyone of note while we were there.
With the girls at University in the UK and the crappy year that they had, I decided to book one of my bucket list trips and take them to Venice and Florence. Both Madeline and Cameron have studied and love Art History with our youngest continuing that education as her major in University.
After booking the flights and accommodation I had second thoughts. How would this be possible given the current situation? I did not research or plan until the week before, convinced the trip would be canceled.
Everything came together and because of COVID, there were no lines which made the trip all the more pleasant. I have to say that visiting these two beautiful cities was a test of endurance for us all trying to pack in as much as possible! With COVID there is timed entrance into museums which helps considerably with the lines.
We landed in Venice on Cameron’s birthday and headed to our Airbnb to pass out for a few hours. The two-bedroom apartment was a block from the Grand Canal and the famous Rialto Bridge so I felt that we hit the jackpot.
I prefer renting a small apartment more than staying in a hotel, feeling that you get more connected with the city you are visiting. You find a favorite place for breakfast and hopefully are more exposed to the local culture.
We stayed in Venice for two nights with 2 1/2 days to see the sights. I loved narrow waterways, the patina of the historical buildings, the sunlight bouncing off the walls to create a magical glow to the city. We walked and walked. Historic sights include the Doges Palace which is incredible with an overload of paintings, woodwork, and gold leaf. St Mark Basilica was breathtaking too with the gold mosaics of the Saints giving off a beautiful glow.
The obligatory gondola ride is a must and we loved every minute. Please note that your ride should cost around 80 euros and last 40 minutes. We did not discuss with our gondolier beforehand so had a much shorter ride. Our gondolier has been working in this trade since he was 16 years old and spoke the local dialect which sounds nothing like Italian!
We had dinner at a restaurant along the Grand Canal on our first night. Let’s just say it was a beautiful location but if you want good food you need to do some research beforehand and get off the main tourist routes. I would suggest the Cannaregio area for some amazing seafood.
I got up early on a Saturday morning, grabbed a tea and delicious croissant, and sat by the Grand Canal. As I discovered, the Rialto Market was a block from our apartment, bustling with local fisherman settling their early morning catch from the lagoon and fresh produce stalls selling the most delicious fruit and vegetables. I noticed a line of people outside a storefront, upon further investigation discovered it was a cheese market and felt I too should get in line! This was one of the best decisions I made that day. I could feel a picnic coming together! Aliani Casa del Parmigiano also sells cured meats so I purchased a couple of cheeses and some prosciutto. There is a write-up from the Wall Street Journal framed and hanging outside the store.
Having picked up green figs, peaches, tomatoes I found a nearby bakery with bread just out of the oven. We were set! I headed back to the apartment knowing the girls would be thrilled to hear of my lunch plans. Keeping their hands off the warm crusty bread was a little difficult but when we came back at lunchtime we were in heaven.
Another must-do in Venice is to hear Vivaldi’s Four Seasons live. While walking we came across a poster and I booked for that night at San Vidal Church. The strings were accompanied by a harpsichord which added to an experience that we all enjoyed.
On Sunday, I woke up early once again and walked to St Mark’s Square. It was different without the crowds – to be standing in that square with all the history!
This was our day to experience the Vaporetto – the local river taxi – and see Venice from the water. There are a few boat trips to islands but you need to plan in advance and spend more time in Venice.
We took a ride to the much-painted Isle of San Georgio Maggiore which is home to a Benedictine Church that has the BEST views of Venice and is only a short trip. It was a nice break from the heat and people. From there we visited one of the largest churches in Venice and octagon in shape- the Basilica of Santa Maria Della Salute. There are many beautiful churches in Venice if you have time to wander.
Late afternoon we said goodbye to Venice and I found myself sad to leave. To be in this one-of-a-kind city was surreal – there is nowhere else like is the world.
Our two-hour train ride took us to Florence or Firenze as it is known. Once again I was thrilled with our Airbnb, a beautiful 2 bedroom and walking distance to everything we wanted to see!
On day one our first stop was the Medici Chapel – nondescript from the outside but the marble work in the chapel was unreal. The next stop was the Duomo, an incredible sight to behold. The Italians wanted it to be the most amazing cathedral and from the outside, it is decorated in pink, white and green marble. The inside is pretty plain but then Brunelleschi’s dome blows you away! It took 142 years to build, is the largest in the world and the frescoe painting on the interior is stunning. We climbed over 900 steps that day and deserved a sightseeing break mid-afternoon to have a fabulous drink and dessert at Caffe Gilli which is worth the visit for a taste of luxury, European style. It opened over 270 years ago and is the oldest cafe in Florence. We ended our day with dinner at 13 Gobbi. Unbelievable Florentine steak and fried zucchini flowers. Basically, a huge T bone served on a wooden cutting board to be shared at the table.
Much of day two was spent resting but I did manage to drag the girls to the great market of Mercato Centrale. After wandering we found an Eataly kind of situation upstairs and had truffled everything for lunch!
I did check out the leather markets and bought a couple of bags though I’m not sure I got a deal. It’s a little overwhelming and at one point I had a crazy vendor chasing me around the market on his scooter offering a better price on his luggage.
After a nap we visited Santa Maria Novella which is the world’s oldest pharmacy, perfumery before dinner. Established by Dominican Friars over 600 years ago, it is a museum as well as a store. Just beautiful and we felt fabulous!
Day three was packed with the Uffizi Museum in the morning and the building is a work of art in itself. It was wonderful to see some very famous paintings in person. We stopped for lunch and could not face the lines at All’antico Vinaio for the traditional sandwich made with schiacciata bread (looked like focaccia) filled with prosciutto and cheese. We chose to eat delicious pizza and watch the lines from our table.
We walked over the famous Ponte Vecchio – which is a medieval bridge and the only bridge to survive WW2 bombings – to Pitti Palace. This was an overload of gold leaf frescoed ceilings, one room after another with walls of artwork. You have to see it to believe it.
We took a brief walk around Boboli Gardens which was super dry from the hot summer and not that spectacular. Our last dinner in Italy was at Trattoria 4 Leoni and just a couple of blocks from the palace. We sat outside in a small square that was really just the intersection of three narrow streets. Apparently, they are known for their fried zucchini flowers but we were most impressed with the fresh pasta.
In summary, it was a wonderful trip. I was reminded that you do need to do your homework if you want to eat well. There are many bad restaurants in Italy- one night in Venice we had frozen pizza – not quite cooked through – served to us.
The girls preferred Firenze to Venice because there were fewer crowds but I have to say that Venice was magical and probably my #1. My advice would be to go soon. Watching the water lap onto the walkways as boats came by is disconcerting and proves that climate change is real!