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Report 1870: Three Weeks in Tuscany

By M Johnson from Wisconsin, USA, Fall 2010

Trip Description: Sept. 6-27, 2010 Highlights, including some great restaurant recommendations for two weeks in Florence and one Week in the Tuscan hill country basing in Montepulciano.

Destinations: Countries - Italy; Regions/Cities - Tuscany

Categories: Vacation Rentals; Art Trip; Foodie Trip; Sightseeing; Wine Trip; Independent Travel; 3-4 people

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Page 1 of 2: Florence

Three of us have just returned from three weeks in Tuscany – two weeks in Florence and five days in Montepulciano and two days in Siena. It was a trip made much better by all the advice garnered from Slow Travel and from other Slow Travelers who responded to our inquiries. To the ST recommendations, I would add two, one that helped make our trip easier and one that is a response to the big downer of the trip. The latter first: do NOT fly Swiss Air if you can in any way avoid it. Their spiffy new Airbus has the tiniest seats I have ever occupied, so tiny in fact that two long-legged Germans aboard nearly came to blows over seat-back placement, and the rest of us came home with knees bruised from bumping the seat in front of us. My other suggestion is that all travelers run out and get a vest from SCOTTeVEST. The vest has a gazillion pockets for anything you want to carry with you and makes a purse superfluous.

We stayed and ate at many places recommended on ST, so I will comment only briefly unless our opinions differ from others made on ST. The first comment (and one of the briefest) is that you should believe everything good you have read about the Residenza il Carmine in Florence. Our friend had the Mirra apartment, and my husband and I the Domus. The Domus is huge and could easily accommodate a family of five. The Mira is a good-sized studio apartment. Both exceeded even the expectations created by many favorable ST reviews.

Three restaurants located near Residenza il Carmine merit rave reviews. The first, Cavolo Nero at Via dell’ Ardiglione 22, is just two doors away from the residenza. On our initial visit we ate in the garden. All of us had excellent food; the Chianti Classico, selected with the help of our server who is the daughter of the owners, was excellent; and the service was attentive and friendly but not annoyingly so. Despite a rather hefty bill – €170 – we all felt it worth returning to Cavolo Nero for our last feast in Florence 10 days later.

Il Santo Bevitore, not far away at Via di S. Spirito 64/66 earned a second visit also. The atmosphere is relaxed, the food good, and the waiters both charming and helpful. Ours actually warned us not to order a secondo until we had finished our antipasti and prima piatti in case we were too full to enjoy more food. He was right and we wound up ordering less than we had planned but enjoying it more, and we had room left for dolce, a delicious mascarpone with strawberries. An added bit of entertainment is provided by the waiters retrieving wine from ceiling high shelves with a long-handled grabbing device similar to what old-time grocers used to retrieve items from the top shelf. We waited breathlessly for a bottle to fall, but that never happened.

Also nearby was the Sant’ Agostino 23 at, you guessed it, Via S. Agostino 23. We had our big Sunday dinner there and thoroughly enjoyed it. It was one of the few places we dined at that pushed the boundaries of the typical Tuscan menu with some items like falafel and gazpacho. Its menu included special sections for vegetarian dishes and for dishes made of locally produced meats, pasta, and produce.

Worth mentioning also, but a bit further away, is the Trattoria Baldini at Via il Prato 96/r where we enjoyed our second Sunday dinner. We came upon this restaurant toward the end of a long, aimless walk westward along the north side of the Arno. Its atmosphere is decidedly un-touristy, and the waiters appeared to know most people who came in. They seemed to regard us as a bit of a curiosity, but indulged us when we asked for separate glasses for our water and our table wine. It was only later in the trip that we learned that Tuscan tradition says we should get along with one glass. As we slowly translated the menu of the day, our waiter brought us an English menu, but it did not include the specials, so we continued to struggle with the Italian version while he waited patiently at a respectful distance. For €83 we had three antipasti, three pastas, two desserts, and, yes, three cappuccini, all it very tasty. That no one ridiculed us for the cappuccini was, we felt, a sure gesture of goodwill toward the hopeless Americans.

When two full meals a day finally was too much, we found the enoteca Vivanda at via Santa Monaca 7r. For three people we ordered one meat and one cheese antipasto plate and a bottle of wine. With bread, that was exactly right to tide us over to the next feast, and at about €30 a pretty good deal.

Unfortunately, one other nearby restaurant merits a comment, but not a favorable one: Il Raddi on via dell’ Ardiglione has been praised here, but we can’t join the chorus. We were met – not greeted – by a surly host wearing a grungy t-shirt. Our smiling but generally discombobulated waitress rarely got anything right the first time. And my husband’s steak was mostly gristle and fat with a touch of tough meat. A shrimp and pasta dish ordered by our friend could justly have been mistaken for a pasta-only dish. Though the antipasto of Sicilian cheeses was very good and my pork and pasta dish better than average, the whole experience was a great disappointment. The best we could say is that since it was a rainy night, we were glad we hadn’t had to walk far.

Lest it appear that food was our only concern, we did spend a great deal of time in churches and museums. Santa Marie del Carmine with its Brancacci Chapel and Masaccio and Lippi frescoes was our first stop. It was right next door, after all. We stopped to buy advance tickets but were told that we didn’t need to – small numbers could almost always get in without reservations – so we went right in. Do watch the film that provides not only information about the frescoes but, also, the history of the church and some interesting information about the Capuchin friars who founded it.

Three other churches were special treats. Chiesa di Ognissanti, with frescoes by Ghirlandaio and Botticelli also delighted us with beautiful music when we stopped in during Sunday mass. Santa Felicita near the Ponte Vecchio, a lesser known gem, has some very interesting frescoes by Pontormo. We stopped there because of two laudatory articles in a Robert Kahn’s quirky but highly useful City Secrets: Florence, Venice & the Towns of Italy. Lastly, San Miniato, on a hill above Florence, was spectacular and well worth the steep walk and steps up from Piazza Michelangelo. A cab ride up to the Piazza Michelangelo from Piazza San Marco cost only €8 and took us through interesting (and posh) suburban Florence. We took the advice of many others and enjoyed a leisurely walk down hill and back to our apartment.

Also following advice found on ST, we bought Friends of Uffizi memberships. It’s worth every penny even if you don’t quite break even with buying individual tickets. Just not waiting in line at the Uffizi is worth the price. We did, however, more than break even, returning to the Uffizi, the Pitti Palace and the Boboli Gardens more than once and visiting the San Marco convent. To purchase the membership, just go to the office at entrance #2, and very helpful clerks will get you registered. It proved an easier way to sign up than using their web site which was down more than it was up and failed to accept our credit card information.

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