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A Trip to Florence and Venice

by Justin Locke

Justin Locke grew up on a farm in Ohio, then at age 20 he magically "got the call" and found himself playing bass in the Boston Pops. In his books and presentations he shares a remarkable journey of personal and artistic discovery. Check out his laugh-out-loud Boston Pops memoir, Real Men Don't Rehearse, along with his other books Principles of Applied Stupidity and Getting in Touch Your Inner Rich Kid. Also check out his recent Berlin premiere!

Well I have already talked about Rome but had never been to Florence and Venice so here we go.

The train from Rome to Florence is easy, at least if you have made reservations on the website of trenitalia beforehand and you know how to get to Rome’s Termini Station. (lesson: on the website, ignore the various options for kinds of discount tickets, those are not available to tourists, just click on the default. Also be sure to get the fast eurostar train, takes 90 min). All we had to do was hand our e mail printout to the conductor on the train.

No real need to be super early, as seats are reserved, also there are NO seats in termini station.

security guy in termini station-- view from the platform area

Be advised they do change the platform number last minute, but the train people make it clear, also just ask the locals if they’re on your train and then just follow the crowd. it’s no big deal, you just walk 40 feet to the next platform. Also unlike the airport train, the platform for the trains to Florence is right near the square with the buses, not a long hike into the station. I was afraid it would be a hustle and bustle with 50 platforms but it's not that big really. In the cars, there is adequate room for bags in the overheads and between the seats. The car I was in was full up, but I noticed on trips to dining car that other parts of the train were empty, and therefore were cooler from the air conditioning. Next trip I might, after ticket is punched, move to roomier quarters.

There is a dining car and while the food there was not great is was serviceable.

Getting yourself and your bags off the train is often a bit of a panic, as all the big luggage is stowed at the end of the car and people (like me) getting it out clogs the way.

Okay the train pops you right into Florence, and while it’s a couple of blocks you can easily (not counting jet lag) walk to the bus stop (okay, some construction and traffic) where everyone and their aunt suzie is standing waiting. The trick is getting a bus ticket. Like most italian cities, you buy a paper ticket (they are sold at the train stations, but you generally learn that it’s accepted practice to buy them just about anywhere– including croissant shops, tobacconists, and street newsstands.) You then validate/punch the ticket on a little machine on the bus (impossible to do with luggage if you are not near it)– it’s then good for the next 60 minutes. I have never yet seen anyone official ask to see everyone’s ticket. We ended up riding for free once or twice, we either forgot or were too crammed in or tired to go punch the ticket. I can’t imagine a transit cop stopping a jammed bus to check tickets.

Our hotel, casa cimabue (chima-boo-ay) was on the far (east) side of town– a little too far to walk comfortably but an easy and convenient bus ride. I recommend this part of town, and other than the street noises of passing cars and vespas (which was considerable) it was a great place to stay. There were lots of good eating places and lots of shopping too. The hotel was really nice and clean and friendly– only up one flight, had a public balcony. There is a restaurant on the corner of cimabue and whatever street it ends at on the south near the river– la taverna I think – possibly the best meal– certainly the best pizza (asparagus?? You bet) I had in Italy. Cheap too!

Note, there are two number 9 via cimabues, so pay attention. Bed and breakfasts in Italy are odd, they are more like houses, no big signs, you see tiny little placards on the wall next to the door, ring the bell and you get buzzed in, and usually you have to climb some steps to get up to the place where hopefully one person is waiting to let you in.

okay, Florence is a small town and once you figure out the bus stops and routes (easy) you can get to where you want to go. There are 5 things to see there– ponte vecchio, the duomo, david, the uffizi gallery (we missed this) and not often talked about, the piazza repubblico.

First stop, ponte vecchio. We walked from the hotel along the river– an okay walk, not something to recommend, not any decent place to walk, all the other bridges are post WWII, and there’s traffic to dodge all along the way.

But once you get there the bridge is pretty neat, also if you cross the bridge going south, take a left, and go to the last restaurant on the left before things open again. We had a great meal there.

sunset from ponte vecchio

The bridge is a bit of a touristy hangout– also I discovered after the fact there is a problem with people putting padlocks on the bridge, this is not an ancient custom, it is a fad created by some travel agents, and it’s bad for the bridge so don’t do it unless you lock them on the locks hanging off the walls, I assume that’s ok to do.

Okay from the bridge it’s an easy walk through the old city center . . . no cars in the old part. If you go straight north from the bridge you will come into piazza della repubblico,

a big square surrounded by restaurants on all sides. We discovered it after our first night of dinner on the bridge and liked it so much we had dinner there the following night.

Different bands play there every night it seems, and there was a mime putting on a Charley Chaplin routine on a street nearby that we unfortunately missed but there was a big crowd there as the show was ending.

North of the piazza is of course the duomo, which was really something – the way they put it together,

it looks like it’s, well, not stone, but paper. When I first saw it I thought, darn, it’s under construction, and they put a painted canvas over it– but no, that’s the way it looks. Much nicer to see it at night, the crowds (choking during the day) are very small and the dome is quite pretty at night.

We didn’t go inside– line to get in was ridiculously long.

Okay– David.

David lives in a museum called the galleria dell accademia. Here’s how it works. You call up, maybe as late as the day before, and reserve a time to get in. When you get there, there are 2 lines– one stretching north on the sidewalk, the other stretching south.

The reserved ticket line to see david. Note duomo at end of street.

The north line is reservations, the south, no reservations. I think the way it works is, they can only allow a certain number of people in at any given time, let’s call it 100 an hour for sake of discussion – if there are 75 people with reservations for 1:00, they all get in, and 25 people without reservations get in at 1:00 also. At least I assume that’s how it works. Upshot of it is, highly recommended to reserve an entrance. ALSO note that people with reservations pay more– 12.50 instead of 9.50 or something like that. When we were waiting in line it sure seemed like there was no way we would get in at our appointed time, but we did.

I have to say, whatever the cost, seeing david was worth it. It’s just amazing. It’s huge, and so lifelike and realistic, it just knocked me over.

The rest of the museum was okay – they have some beautiful strad violins and cellos which tragically don’t get played. Always saddens me to see those instruments locked in displays. Like seeing caged cheetahs.

in the square (san marco) where you land when you take a bus to the galleria, I had the WORST meal I had in Italy – a truly awful pizza, cost over 20 bucks too. It was the restaurant in the southwest corner.

Waiting in piazza san marco where you also catch the #7 bus to go to fiesole.

Fiesole is a suburb of Florence, about 2 miles northeast, Worth going, but brace yourself, you may have to stand for most of the 30 min bus ride to the burbs.

When you get to fiesole, it’s all right there at the last stop. On one side of the top of this little hill are two restaurants overlooking Florence (the museum is on the other side). The restaurants were okay – most memorable part was the pay toilet in one– they give you a token that looked like a ridged potato chip, and you put that in a slot and that opens the bathroom door.

The view of Florence from a restaurant in Fiesole

A short walk north and you find the roman/ etruscan ruins in an outdoor museum complex on the other side of this hilltop. Entrance is something like 10 euro. There is a well preserved roman amphitheater,

also a temple of sorts and roman bath ruins all in the same complex.

The museum was interesting and shady, although the outdoor stuff was better. Also the views from there (and from the restaurants) were fabulous.

Okay TRANSIT STRIKE I had heard stories of bus strikes in Italy but never thought it would happen to me – guess again – the wonderful folks at casa cimabue took us to the train station in their own car free of charge (amazing) and off we went to venice. 3 hour ride.

Well when you get off the train, you walk south and there’s a ticket booth with a long line,

and you get a ticket for the boat.

Here is a pic of the station/ doc for the vaporetto. Note the signs at the ticket booth are really confusing, there are two stops for san marco and it took me a while to sort out which boat I was supposed to get on.

It’s just like getting on a subway or bus except it’s a boat.

And here is our first view of venice –

But due to the transit strike, they would not take us to san marco stop, they would only take us to rialto, half way there.

Once you get on the vaporetto boat, it’s all sort of surreal, you’re expecting it but not. There should be asphalt but instead it's water.

When you get to venice you really are stepping into another universe.

The thing about venice is, yes, lots of canals, but that’s just half of the deal,

there are also lots of little streets and walkways– all with odd or no signage and you can’t tell if it’s an entrance to a restaurant or the main drag you’re looking for.

The only way to navigate is by following the signs to major points – “per san marco” or “per rialto”–

and then find your way from those points. Trying to navigate the streets with a map is darn near impossible because the streets look just like the entrances to the restaurants and they go all over everywhere like a mouse maze.

Unfortunately, along with being dropped only halfway to our hotel by the quasi-striking transit people, we had some heavy rollaround suitcases with us, and venice is not exactly designed with handicap ramps. Above you see one of the many bridges we had to negotiate with luggage. beautiful but . . . ouch. There are 400 bridges I hear.

and so we had to haul our bags through these ant colony streets, up and down steps. And amazingly we made it to our hotel.

Well of course you have to go see san marco square which faces the big church.

We bought some bird seed (little packets of corn) and the moment you put the bag in your hand you suddenly find yourself with all these pigeons landing on you– on your head and your arms–

Here's Jen doing her impression of tippi hedren . . .

It's quite safe, they just want the bird seed, but it’s pretty wild for a moment feeling all those little claws landing on your arms and on your head.

So many people feed these pigeons so much that they get fat– I saw a bunch of them sleeping it off, couldn’t even stand up they were so overfed.

San Marco Square is quite lovely at night, there are various little bands playing light classical/ folk music in front of various restaurants just out of range of each other.

We found a great place to eat thanks to riccardo at cortecompana hotel, a little off the beaten track and a nice walk away from san marco square.

The best thing about Venice is just walking around – It is, essentially, a huge museum, the buildings are all preserved as they were, and this place gives true meaning to the phrase “rabbit warren.”

Around every corner is another and another beautiful view of a bridge over canals. As you get further away from the san marco touristy area the crowds thin out and you can occasionally enjoy sitting next to a canal in a little square.

We DID do a gondola ride . . .

I find it difficult to describe the gondola ride, as I can’t really think of any other experience to compare it to . . . The boats themselves are works of art, and the whole trip is beautiful, romantic, and silly all at the same time . . . You get to chatting with the guy rowing the boat, I had no ideas it took 2 years to learn how to operate them. Longer to become expert. You sometimes see the gondolas out in the harbor fighting wakes and waves . . .

One touristy thing I recommend in Venice is the Doge's Palace-- it is certainly an impressive, and in terms of architecture and history, very interesting building. This is one of those places where a rick steves book really comes in handy. He pointed out this 3D effect in one of the staircases . . .

Okay, leaving venice . . . here is the dock for the airport shuttle

A bonus not expected, the airport shuttle is a boat ride around the harbor of venice, with great views.

the doge's palace and bridge of sighs

Venice from far

Well that was our trip to florence and venice. next time, I need to see the florence science museum and uffizi gallery. hopefully soon! ciao bella/o,



A few notes-- Venice is a swamp and so you should be aware that mosquitoes can be a problem. Our hotel was not allowed to have screens due to historical building codes, etc, so on the second night we were eaten alive.

Another note, the airport shuttle boat from venice to the airport drops you off a considerable distance from the airport, which as best we could figure, you must walk. We're talking a good half mile. Our B&B host told us to wait for a bus but when we got there no one else waited, they all took off for the station so we followed along-- we asked and were told there was no bus to wait for.