Such a wonderful treat

 It was truly amazing to run across the famed Ponte Vecchio unimpeded and see the Duomo in all its pure splendor without vendors and stream of tourists detracting from its beauty. It was so quiet and peaceful that we just stood in the middle of the piazza taking it all in. Though we did receive a few odd glances as we stood in the middle of the piazza in sweaty running gear. 


A trip to Italy was a last minute decision for my husband and I this summer, but it turned out to be such a wonderful treat. Our daughter was invited to vacation with the her friends and their family in Italy, Turkey and Greece, so my husband and I decided to fly her out and explore Florence, Tuscany, Siena, Pisa, and Naples as a couple. The last time we were in Europe was with all the kids in honor of our eldest's graduation from high school. It was a whirlwind cruise, 7 countries in 15 days! We missed Florence during that visit but after spending more than a week in Florence by ourselves and then the final few days with our friends, we couldn't help but fall in love with this historical city and eager to introduce it to the rest of our family.

Our friends generously opened their villa to us while they were away. It was our base during our travels which made it so nice to return "home" after a day of exploring, shopping, and dining. The beautiful villa was situated on a quiet street which, as it turned out, was right along a wonderful running route. A run up the winding treelined Viale Michelangelo led up to the top of Piazzale Michelangelo where we were rewarded with an impressive view of Florence. From there our route continued on past Boboli Garden, along the Arno, to Cascine Park, known as the "Central Park of Florence". Running around the park gave us a nice reprieve from the heat as the dirt and paved trails were shaded by trees. The park seems to attract cyclist, runner and walkers alike which made it quite safe to run alone during the day and early evenings. On another morning run, we headed out at 8 a.m. to explore the city center before the heat and all the tourists. It was truly amazing to run across the famed Ponte Vecchio unimpeded and see the Duomo in all its pure splendor without vendors and stream of tourists detracting from its beauty. It was so quiet and peaceful that we just stood in the middle of the piazza taking it all in. Though we did receive a few odd glances as we stood in the middle of the piazza in sweaty running gear.

Florence is such a beautiful city. We couldn't help but be in awe of all the original masterpieces on display in the piazzas. The buildings themselves held such history within their arches and stoned walls. The influence of the Medici family on the world of art, architecture, and Florence's gloried past and present was evident everywhere. We were reminded of their legacy as we admired great works of art by Michelangelo, Da Vinci, and Botticelli in the museums and walked past their original palace by the piazza. Being able to walk on cobblestone streets dating back centuries was quite humbling.

With so much to see, my husband and I made a point to walk everywhere as much as we could. It was a good thing that we brought comfortable shoes because those who were foolish enough to bring high-heeled shoes soon discovered that the streets of Florence were not made for them. Everyone in Florence dressed casually but elegantly. Despite the heat, we noticed that men still wore dress shirts and jackets and women donned dresses and skirts. Almost everyone walked, cycled, or scootered around Florence. The streets were so narrow that only subcompact vehicles could navigate successfully in some. You will find SUVs almost non existent while Smart cars are in abundance. Gelato stores here are the equivalent of Starbucks in the U.S. - to be found at every corner. Not a day went by where my husband and I didn't indulge in the frosty treat... sometimes even more than once in a single day... shhh.

We took the opportunity to visit Tuscany's wine region, tour the various vineyards, farms, and sampled the food and wines of that area. We made a stop in the medieval city of Siena and learned about the world's oldest bank which, unfortunately, is not doing too well currently. In the middle of the town is Piazza del Campo, the site of the 600 year old Palio horse race which, as we understand from the locals, is the most important event in Siena and a must-see once-in-the-lifetime race. Speak to any local and you will get the sense of just how incredibly passionate they are about the race. After lunch at a Tuscan vineyard, we headed to San Gimignano. It sits majestically on top of a hill surrounded by a magnificent stoned wall. Contained inside are picturesque streets and piazzas and, of course, the award winning gelato shops. There were two, each claiming to be the "Best in the World". However, we were let in on which establishment was the true award winner and it was yummy, well worth the long wait in line! The last stop on our side trip was a quick visit to Pisa. We had gone to Pisa before with the children and our collective memory was of how touristy it was with vendors and crowds. This time, our venture beyond the immediate square revealed a rather quaint town with its own university ranked in the top 500 in the world!

The second week, we took the Italo bullet train to Naples for a quick visit. Upon arriving we could sense how different it was from Florence. There were more cars. The air was charged with more urban energy. We decided to be daring and took the public transportation to our hotel and found it quite fun rubbing elbows with the locals. We stayed on Via Partenope right on the coast. The hotel is situated on a street which seemed to possess two very distinct personalities: peaceful and quiet during the day but party central after dark. In the early mornings and late afternoons runners could be found streaming up and down the coast. We joined in the fun and found the run along Via Partenope and Via Mergellina quite relaxing. There were sunbathers lounging on sun bleached boulders and children frolicking in the ocean. For hill repeats, a run up the very narrow windy Via Posillipo provided an amazing view of the coast from the summit and made for a wonderful pre-dinner workout. Having dinner at 8:30 p.m. made us feel like the senior citizens that we are because no one hip and young eats before 9 p.m.! During our stay, we managed to pick up a few Italian phrases most having to do with dining as we couldn't read some of the italian menus ("Cos' questo...?") and finding places as we were always getting lost ("Mi scusi, dov'...?" ).

Once back in Florence, we went on a truffle hunt at Agriturismo Ca' Solare in Umbria where 80% of black truffles are found in Italy. It was quite a delightful experience for all. Matteo Bartolini and his dog, Sole, were our guides. The landscape was just breathtaking with views of the glorious hills and valleys. The experience was made even better when it concluded with a 4-course gourmet lunch of truffle pasta and roast pork prepared by Matteo's mother.

At the end of our visit we truly felt like locals navigating the streets of Florence, enough so that a family of French tourist in a car actually stopped us on the street to ask us for directions! We felt so honored despite the fact that we were of no help to them at all! Mi dispiace!

Arrivederci Italy!

Angela Meng

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