Florence hospitality

Trip Start Mar 14, 2007
Trip End Apr 10, 2007

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Saturday, March 24, 2007

People, as much as sights, are what I remember most about travel. And nowhere was that more the case than in Florence, where Gabriele -- who Nancy had met through work at Red Cross -- and his charming girlfriend, Letizia, offered unsurpassed hospitality and friendship during our three days in Florence and surrounding countryside.

To preface this entry, I need to explain that Nancy and I had been to Florence before -- once on our 13-month backpacking trip through Europe and North Africa in the 1970s and again in the spring of 2002 when we spent a week in a rented apartment in the small village of Panzano, which is on SR 222, the "Chiantigiana" or "Chianti Way," halfway between Florence and Siena. This time, we wanted to introduce Braden to the delights of Florence and Tuscany. When we had asked him what he wanted to see in Italy, he had replied "art and Roman archeology." On a brief visit, that means only two places -- Florence and Pompeii. As further background, I should explain that Nancy met Gabriele briefly at the Red Cross office in Seattle when he was passing through after helping with emergency services in the New Orleans area, still suffering the aftereffects of Hurricane Katrina. Nancy and Gabriele made email contact before we left home, and Gabriele insisted on being our host while we were in Florence. In fact, when he learned that we had been to Panzano, he responded "You won't believe this, but I know Panzano as my own pockets." It turns out that Letizia worked in a winery there a few years ago, and she and Gabriele hope to be married in a small church nearby...a church Nancy and I happened to have visited when we were there in 2002. Pretty amazing, but read on...the coincidences don't end there.

Back in Bologna, our bags finally caught up with us, and we caught a Eurostar Intercity to Florence in the late afternoon. After checking into our room in the Santo Spirito neighborhood (south of the river, out of the touristy area north of the river), Nancy called Gabriele, and he insisted we meet him for a drink at Caffe Amerini, which he said was a cafe frequented only by locals. He also told us of a gelateria near where we were staying (Gelateria La Carraia, just across the Ponte alla Carraia bridge, on the south side of the river) that he considered the best in Florence (which is really saying something, if you know Florence gelaterias).
One note about our room in Soggiano Alessandra: Because we were now in southern Europe, we did not find it strange or substandard that the shower in our bathroom was not enclosed by anything other than a curtain. Some might. Some might also find it a great inconvenience that the room was up two flights of stairs and there is no elevator. We didn't.
We spent the following day as tourists, visiting the outside of the Duomo (cathedral) with its amazing baptistry doors ("The Gates of Heaven") and the Uffizi Gallery, the greatest collection of Italian Renaissance paintings anywhere in the world, not unexpectedly. We had dinner at the funky but foodie Sant' Agostino 23, with its travel decor, including an old metal train luggage rack and subway maps from around the world.
The next day, we were to spend the entire day with Gabriele and Letizia, but Gabriele had to work, so Braden went off to visit the Science Museum and a comic book store, and Nancy and I decided to see Basilica San Lorenzo, with its strong historical ties to the Medici family and its impressive art and architecture. On the way, we wandered happily through un-touristy back streets and through a weekly market behind the San Lorenzo church. We bought cashmere scarves to fend off the chilly weather that had followed us almost unabated from England. Inside the basilica (which charges an admission fee), I enjoyed the High Renaissance interior, the art of Donatello (who is entombed there) and Brunelleschi (especially the oratories he started but did not finish before his death) and the huge painting of San Lorenzo (Saint Lawrence). I also noticed what remains something of a mystery to me -- balls in various art and architectural features that vary in number from three to eight.
When Gabriele was off work, we met him and Letizia at the train station, and we were soon off in his car down SR 222, through countryside and villages that Nancy and I recalled from our time there just a few years ago. We persuaded Gabriele to take us up to the tiny hilltop village of Montefiore, where Amerigo Vespucci was born. Its a charming, out-of-the-way place today, with its D-shaped single street and views across the Tuscan countryside. Then it was on to Panzano, where we stopped in to see the famous "mad butcher of Panzano" -- at least that's what I call him. Dario Cecchini, the owner of Antica Macelleria Cecchini, is a purveyor of fine meat products and a character. He is dedicated to quality and seems to enjoy the spotlight. Almost as soon as we were inside his shop, we each had a glass of local red wine in our hands and samples of the meats in our mouths. (A Seattle connection: The owner of Salumi studied under Dario.)
Then it was on to San Leolino, the tiny early-medieval church outside of town that Nancy and I had walked to in 2002 and that Gabriele and Letizia want to utilize some day. After only a few minutes, Letizia disappeared down the dirt road. Gabriele explained that she wanted to visit the widow whose house she had lodged at while working in the winery. As it grew colder and a light rain began to fall, we decided to go pick up Letizia so that we could go to dinner in town. Gabriele drove to the widow's house and went inside, but soon returned to say that Clara, the widow, had admonished him for leaving us in the car. We were invited into a time-capsule home owned by everyone's Italian grandmother and soon had small cups of dark, rich coffee in front of us. It felt somehow familiar to me, as if I had time-traveled back to my childhood, visiting an Italian immigrant woman who owned a grocery store in our neighborhood and who had her apartment above the store. We were just like members of the family. You can't buy a travel experience like that.
Eventually, we said our good-byes and headed to a restaurant that Letizia said was the best in Panzano. Of course, it turned out that Nancy and I had eaten there in 2002 (although it's now under different ownership -- it's called Trattoria Ottre il Giardino, and subscribes to the Slow Food movement). I started out with ribollita, the Tuscan bean soup. Braden and I had Steak Florentine and red wine...as near a perfect meal as I can imagine. But more than that, we had the most wonderful conversation with two people who had been almost strangers just two days earlier, but who were now warm friends. We had vin sante (sweet wine with a biscotti to dip in it) for dessert and two kinds of grappa, including a local Panzano one, afterward. Before we headed back into Florence, we went looking for a natural spring and ancient fortification, got pleasantly lost on dark dirt roads (with night creatures peering at us from the roadside fringe) but eventually found the autostrada (main highway). A viewpoint overlooking nighttime Florence provided a memorable conclusion to the day. Braden vowed to Gabriele that he would return to Florence as we bid our new friends a fond "arrivederci."
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