I had a short stay planned for Florence, probably 24 hours’ total. It’s definitely not enough time for my very favorite city, but it was better than not going. I caught the Freccia Rossa high speed train in Torino and less than three hours later I was stepping out into the Piazza Santa Maria Novella in Firenze. That is fantastically speedy, by the way. Usually this ride would take me five or six hours, and I was rather expecting that it would like that through Italy until I learned that nowadays, Italy has high speed rail. And it is fast: the Freccia Rossa goes around250 km/hour on average (170 mph). I had a reservation and the train was nearly empty, so it was a pleasant, easy ride. Fast trains and airplane windows use specially treated glass, and photographs are a crapshoot. I was hot and tired from not getting enough sleep (remember all those coffees?), so I didn’t take any. I hope you’ll forgive me.
As soon as I got to Florence, I went to the Hotel Aurora, just across from the station. The staff was attentive, pleasant and efficient, which is nearly all it takes to satisfy me hotel-wise. Best of all? They were willing to sell me a couple of thin linen Italian towels. I’ve been looking to buy these for a few years now with no success. It was a good omen. I had a lot of shopping errands in Florence; that’s where I buy my shoes and purses whenever life affords me the opportunity. It was time to spend some money. Fortunately, you can get some very stylish things for low prices in Florence, which is one of my big reasons for shopping there. Same is true in Rome, and I thought whatever I couldn’t find in Florence, I’d probably find in Rome. But first, some gelato. It was on the way. Really it was. I headed across the Ponte Vecchio and past all its dazzling gold and jewels into a more affordable region of town and found at least half of the things on my list. I admit I got a bit overwhelmed and probably missed some good merchandise by feeling cross-eyed from all the choices, but it’s better to underspend anyway. Mentally exhausted, I headed up to Sasso di Dante near il Duomo. My friend Rachel from Torino pointed me there for dinner and I had a reservation. They did not disappoint. The food was delicious but the buffalo mozzarella and the prosciutto in particular were divine. Mozzarella cheese in Italy is made with the milk of the water buffalo and it is very smooth, with a certain lightness and delicacy that cow’s milk mozzarella simply does not possess. After dinner, and my compliments to the chef, the waitress asked me what I’d like for dessert. I thought, hey, this is Italy, why not, so I said “Pense lei”, meaning “as you think”. At least I guess that’s what it meant because she smiled and left the table. A few minutes later an incredible piece of cheesecake made its way to my table. Oh G-d. I haven’t had cheesecake since last fall, I don’t think, and this one was particularly fantastic. She knew I liked the mozzarella and decided I’d like more good cheese for dessert too. Am I lucky or what? I finished it all off with an espresso, though I was to realize later, around 3:30 AM, that espresso after dinner is not a good idea.
I was so happy and so relaxed (and just a little tipsy) that I walked back to my hotel and decided I should go out again and photograph the city a little. Even after dark, with il Duomo all lit up, I thought it might be nice. On my way back, I got an appraising look from an Italian man and a “ciao, bella”, despite being 42 years old. This town does not disappoint. Now that I have been here a few times, I knew that I should not encourage him or he’d follow me for blocks, but I admit I did smile back while I kept on walking. It seemed like the fun thing to do. I dropped my shopping bags in my room, grabbed my camera bag and walked back to the piazza. There I met some nice people visiting from Dubai and we talked about the hours of the church for the next day, and I took some pictures. I figured I was done for the evening, but in fact, there was a little more work to do. As I neared my hotel, some guys in a nice car said “Scusa” and asked me for directions in Italian. I didn’t speak well enough to answer so I told them my Italian was limited and we switched to English, which they spoke beautifully. Turns out they were Romans and they were lost, looking for their hotel. As it happens, I had stayed in that hotel before and I knew exactly where it was (what were the odds of that?). I got out the Android smart phone that my cousin Eric had so kindly lent me, got out the Google map application, and showed them the way from where we were. We had a nice chat and I could tell they were thinking of asking me for a drink, which would have been nice, but not exactly what I was looking for, so I said my goodnights. I headed back to my hotel, happy that I had done a nice thing and had such a pleasant evening. But then, that’s why I love Italy. Generally my visits here are like that – I help when I can, then people help me, and we all have fun together. I suspect it would not matter if I were 28, 42 or even 65; it’s the smile that counts.