Florence, our favorite city

Boboli Gardens

We began the morning with coffee and a quick snack in the apartment before walking to the Pitti Palace for our tour of the Boboli Gardens. The gardens are vast and different from what I expected. 

Based on previous garden tours, I expected lush gardens with flowers and a few sculptures interspersed. No way, this place was wide open landscapes with hedge mazes, walking trails/streets lined with Cypress trees, and lanes with trees bent to form arch canopies. Then there were the statues; they were everywhere. 

We walked almost every path and saw just about everything open to see in the gardens. We climbed straight through the middle to see the highest section first. Then we meandered around through the paths to the Cypress trail, the arches, and the fountain island. The central fountain is on an island full of lemon trees and shrubs. Unfortunately, the bridge to the island was closed so we couldn’t go out there. 

When we got to the bookstore, we realized how much walking we’d done on the crushed gravel trails when we noticed the dust and dirt caked to our shoes, feet, and legs. It was disgusting. We grabbed a snack at the café and headed back to the apartment to clean up. 

After cleaning up and having a great cup of Lavazza coffee made with my latest obsession, the Moka pot, we eventually made our way up to the Abbazia di San Miniato al Monte. This church sits above the city and has a commanding view across the river to downtown Florence. We were there to see the church and the views and listen to some Gregorian Chant, a unique and regular feature of this church. We had to wait an hour for the monks to start their chant session, which wasn’t fun. At least there was shade and a lot of activity to entertain me. I watched a photographer shoot portraits of four families individually and then together in one massive family portrait. Watching him herd the cats was fun and reminded me that I do not want to be a portrait photographer. The Gregorian chant was interesting but not great. We both agreed it could’ve used some cool synth music a la the 90s pop hit Sadness from Enigma.

We walked down the hill and went to the first place that had decent reviews and an open table for dinner; the Osteria Antica Mescita San Niccoló. The waiters were friendly, and the owner was attentive. The house wine was pretty good, the cheese plate okay; overall, the dinner was respectable but not great. The highlight for me was the awesome-looking Fiat 500 Abarth street-parked outside. Fiat 500s seem to be the default car in every country we’ve visited; they are everywhere, which makes sense due to their immense urban practicality. The Abarth is the hilariously awesome version with an exhaust note that will make you think a Ferrari is coming down the street until you see this diminutive “monster” zipping around. I love it, and I want one.  

One of the sharpest-looking 500 Abarths we saw.

Palazzo Vecchio

The next morning’s goal was to go to a breakfast place recommended by the Devour food guide. It’s apparently fantastic because there was a line around the corner when we arrived. Our time was limited, so we skipped it for the next place on the list in the square of Santa Croce. It turns out their specialty is pastry, so that’s what we had for breakfast, one ricotta-filled and one cream-filled croissant with a brilliant cappuccino. Not my ideal way to fuel the day, but they were delicious. 

We started our tour of the Palazzo Vecchio with a trip up the tower. This tour was as good as the reviews said. The tower is a good climb, and there are three observation levels along the way, which give you a great perspective as you climb above everything in Florence. The top provides a beautiful view of the Duomo from a height almost equal to it. It makes for an excellent place for cityscape photos. 

After the tower, we toured the museum of what was once the Medici family palace when they ruled Florence. If you haven’t visited Florence, studied Italian history, or played the outstanding Assassin’s Creed II video game, you may not be familiar with the Medici family. The quick and dirty version is that they ruled much of Italy before there was a country called Italy. They were mighty, ruthless, rich, and commissioned some of the most brilliant works of art the world has seen. You cannot travel through Tuscany and not see their influence, good and bad. The artwork was fantastic, as was the history of how the place was transformed from a plain government building to a flourishing and gilded royal palace. After the tour, it was time for a break and nap time. 

We had a mission for dinner, sandwiches from All’Antico Vinaio. We saw the lines for this place yesterday and hundreds of people walking around eating their giant sandwiches. We each found one on their menu we wanted and got in line. Thankfully for us, the line was the shortest we had seen in days, so it wasn’t bad. We ate most of our sandwiches on a nearby bench and then brought the leftovers to the apartment for breakfast the next day. We spent the evening strolling around town, looking at some of the squares and buildings we missed earlier or on the last trip, including the Basilica di San Lorenzo, the Central Market, and the Piazza Santa Maria novella. The Piazza and the area near the train station had a different vibe from the rest of the downtown, which was fun to see. They also lead you through the central shopping district with the high-end name brands you know like Dior, Gucci, Hermes, etc. 

The day ended with a walk back to the Duomo, drinks at a nearby record store/bar, and then a walk back to the apartment. We set our plan for shopping the next day and checked the schedule for the day’s festivities. The next day was the Festival of San Giovanni, the patron saint of Florence, starting with a parade at 9 am. 

Shopping

The day of shopping. We had a plan, hit the parade at Piazza Vecchio that began the day’s festivities, and then shop. We started the day according to plan as we got to the square in time to see the parade arrive in all its pageantry with buglers, drummers, and costumed people waiving their county/family flags. We watched them do their thing while the leaders went inside the Palazzo Vecchio to get the ceremonial candles to bring to the Duomo.  

Then we started toward the leather school I read about as a great place to buy authentic, handmade leather goods from artisans in training. We turned the corner from our apartment and found a Massimo Ravinale store, so we decided to go in. We had seen another one on our walks almost daily, and they seemed to have quality silk scarves, so we figured it would be good to look around. Many, many euros later, we walked back to the apartment with a bag full of goodies. Crystal and I each bought something for ourselves, but mainly we bought Christmas and birthday gifts. A great way to start our shopping spree. 

With the goods stored back at the apartment, we set out again for the leather school, only to walk by a store almost across the street from Massimo, which was also recommended for quality leather products, Il Perseo. We popped in there, and 30 minutes later, I walked out with a gorgeous goat’s skin jacket and a recommendation of a place to go for handbags and maybe shoes, along with a by-name reference for the owner. It looks like we won’t make it to that leather school after all.  

We walked into Noi and asked for Nino, just as Sam at Il Perseo had instructed. We made our introductions, I told him what I was looking for, and he showed me a few examples. Ten or so minutes later, I picked up my new leather bag and was good to go. We asked about their shoes, and he said their store was around the corner and he would take us there so Crystal could see their current collection. Nino took one look at Crystal’s feet, accurately guessed her shoe size, and said they had a few examples left in her size but not many. Six pairs of shoes later, we parted ways with Nino. Seriously though, the shoes were fabulous, Crystal bought some outstanding examples that were the last ones in stock, and they just happened to be her size. I bought two pairs of exceptional suede loafers, including a pair in a fantastic silver/gray color. Goccia is the type of place you’ve never heard of, but you’ve probably seen their work because they make shoes for themselves and as a white label for other high-end brands to sell as their own. If you’ve looked at “designer” shoes in Nordstroms or Bergdorf Goodman before, you’ve probably seen their work. Shortly after we left, the head coach of the Kansas City Chiefs, Andy Reid, and his wife came in for some custom shoes (Nino showed us the photo when we saw him later). 

We finished the day with our scheduled dinner at Antico Ristoro di Cambi. Dinner was good, authentic Italian family food, and the restaurant’s location set us up nicely to get a spot on the Ponte Alla Carraia bridge to wait for the Festival of San Giovanni fireworks. Every street was crazy crowded, but the show was good, and we enjoyed the experience. 

We got our last bit of laundry done the following day and checked out of Francesca’s apartment. The stay was fantastic, and we love Florence now more than ever. We both agree that it feels like a place we could live in and be happy forever. 

The drive to our vineyard stay at Castello La Leccia wouldn’t take long, so we had to find things to do before we could check-in. I picked a winery from their list of recommendations and scheduled a tasting. After what felt like way too long on dirt roads, we made it to Casa Brancaia. The winery is typical Tuscany, on a hilltop surrounded by vines and cypress trees and impossibly beautiful. We started our tasting in their wine room but also noticed they had a restaurant. Their Chianti Classico Reserva was spectacular, as was their signature “Blue” wine which has garnered seemingly every wine award and high rating in the industry. The wines were all excellent, and Crystal enjoyed a few reds, which was a bonus. 

After tasting, we asked about lunch, and they said we had to wait about 20 minutes for them to open officially. No problem, we took photos of the views and then had a great lunch with some amazing olive oil. By the time we finished, it was time to check in at our next stop, just as we had planned.  

The entrance to Castello La Leccia

We made our way to Castello La Leccia and settled in the most amazing spot. The castle has been around since 1070 in various forms, but it has been a full Italian Agriturismo since 2012. They make organic wine, most of it chianti, since we are in the heart of the Chianti region. This location is one of the handful of counties allowed to make Chianti Classico because they are truly the region’s center and have some of the best grapes. We took the daily wine tour and tasting, which included four wines and a few little snacks; it was awesome. 

The courtyard where breakfast and dinner are served.

We made our reservation for dinner outside, which was great, and decided we wouldn’t explore the region during this stay. It was a perfect time to relax and enjoy this beautiful place. I parked the car and didn’t plan to use it until we left a few days later. We have massages scheduled for Monday, and the pool was calling. 

The day of the pool. The included breakfast buffet was outstanding, and eating outside with the rolling hills of Tuscany as our view was spectacular. No photos can do justice to the view; even with the heat haze of summer, it is stunning. 

The rolling hills and cypress trees of Tuscany are spectacular.

After breakfast, we hung around the “living room” outside our room to get some “work” done. I downloaded and edited photos from Florence and made a small dent in the process; so much to do. Then it was off to the pool. We had the place to ourselves for the first couple of hours, which was awesome. 

There is a reason people write books and movies about Tuscany, and photographers make their career reputation with landscapes from here; it is the most beautiful place I have ever been. Maybe that’s the wine and sun talking, but I want to spend time in Tuscany every year for the rest of my life. 

More guests arrived at the pool, and the bar opened, so we enjoyed a nice cocktail and snack before returning to the room. Relaxing by the pool, reading a book, and enjoying a cold beverage is a recipe for a good day. Doing all of that, surrounded by a stunning Tuscan landscape, makes for a truly excellent day.

The next day was even more relaxing since we had massages, I spent some time in their Turkish bath, and we did nothing all day but enjoy the beauty of our surroundings. A vacation within a vacation, perfecto! With all of the sightseeing we’ve been doing on this amazing trip, it was more than perfect for taking a few days to do nothing but relax and enjoy the beauty of our surroundings. 

After our restful stay in this spectacular villa, we packed up and headed to our next stop, Milan. 

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