Italy ranks as one of my favorite developed-world countries and it really comes down to the eating experiences. In fact, if you ask me, each person reading this should do their stomach a favor and put Italy on the bucket list because the country was made for foodies of all sorts (not just ice-cream-loving-fiends).
See, the meal is just the beginning though, it gets you to the dessert! Because once you’ve eaten your fill of bread and wine you have full permission to indulge in gelato, which is Italian-style ice cream.
I studied abroad in the north of Italy, Bergamo, during the summer of 2005 doing some Italian language intensives at the Universita’ di Bergamo. There was a slew of us from my Florida universityand after the program ended I went south for a week exploring Rome. I wasn’t completely alone in Rome, but there were several days of exploring solo as the other students from my Uni went separate ways. It was my first time ever going it alone abroad – Bergamo is a much smaller city and we all traveled to and from class en masse.
But in Rome the lure of the the ancient Coliseum and the magical Trevi Fountain under the dusky night sky prompted me to enjoy some pistachio gelato in the warm evening air before the 25 minute walk back to my hostel. Naturally, being the south of Itlay it was mere minutes before I had an ardent suitor buying me a rose on the Spanish Steps- an Italian man from Sicily. We talked, it was lovely, but he got a little too ardent (nearly scarily so) so I escaped and hightailed it back to the protection of my hostel.
On the walk back, men standing in the doorways of the local bars murmured appreciative “mmms” and clearly audible “che bellas.” Over and over again, as a single female walking at night I was subjected to their comments. I was 21, alone, and all of this outright attention left me flustered so I started an ungainly trot until I was just a block from my hostel –I breathed a huge sigh of relief when I saw a carabinieri car, essentially the Italian police, parked within view of both me and my hostel. I knew all was well since they could watch me walk all the way to the door of my hostel.
Then it happened…I’m nearly on level with the carabinieri and the piercing shriek of a whistled catcall breaks through the night air. Then a breath later, the ever present “che bella.” I was so exasperated…and pissed–the police too? Really!?! I mean did they seriously just catcall at me?!
I think that was my first visceral introduction to some serious cultural differences – and I had to readjust my expectations. I’m not condoning the catcalling, but that sort of “open appreciation” for women accompanied my every moment in the south. It just did. And it probably took the last two years of travel for me to really come to accept that evening for what it was – a little slice of the southern Italian culture rather than reeeaaally, reeeaallly crude men (which was my first thought).
Including Assisi on my backpacking trip across Italy was a no-brainer once my friend Jenn talked about her dream of visiting the gorgeous Basilica of Saint Francis. We spent just two days visiting the sights in Assisi before moving onward again, this time we would make a very long travel day(s) from the center of Italy to the coast of Croatia. From our hostel in Assisi to our friends’ cottage in Croatia, it would take eight separate legs of travel — including buses, trains, taxis, and ferries — to reach the end of the journey.
It’s during this misadventure in transportation that I was once again so glad that I have packed light on this trip. Although many backpackers who go full carryon, I chose a small 52-liter pack that is often packed with room to spare, especially in the warm weather when I was able to ditch some of my cold-weather gear. Over the past months, that decision to use a modest backpack for round the world travel saved me money, from exhaustion, and it saved my sanity on numerous occasions. I have hiked steep hills in search of an elusive hostel and up seven flights on a winding staircase to find my top-floor room. I have stood for hours when there were no seats, and I’ve clutched it with fervor when “helpful” porters offered to store it on the Indian train for me (um, no thank you). On the 24 hours of travel torture that it took for this long journey, my ability to run at top speed with my pack became essential. Read on to discover why.
Hiking from Bus to Train To reach the bus station from our hostel in Assisi, we made an intense uphill hike on a narrow road with cars winging around corners at high speeds — it was a mercifully short distance. We caught the bus and it stopped directly in front of the train station. What a relief! It was mid-day the heat had begun to bake the ground, and us. A tiny train left the station with us on it, and we stopped after a few towns when we reached the larger train station in Foligno. From Foligno, we commandeered a set of four seats on the nearly empty train and stacked our luggage in a heap for the few hours it took to cross the waving fields of wheat splayed across the picturesque Umbrian countryside. The three of us all work online as freelancers and writers, so we put in a several hours of work while we sped across Italy. In Ancona, a coastal town and the central departure point of ferries, we figured the rest would fall into place easily once we found our ferry. It’s a straightforward ferry ride across the Adriatic from Ancona, Italy to Split, Croatia. In actuality, there was much more to come—we were just three legs into this eight-leg journey!
Navigating from Train to Bus to Cab Arriving at the train station in Ancona left us confused. Our Italy Lonely Planet didn’t include the nitty-gritty details on how to travel from the train station to the ferry terminal? That meant I had to dust off more of my Italian language skills that I had allowed to languish since my study abroad and I eventually figured out which bus ran directly to the docks.
With a few hours to kill, we spotted an internet café directly across from the train station and we all decided we needed time to submit our work, blog, post photos, etc. We didn’t know if the cottage on Brać Island would have wifi, so this could be our last access for six days. As a working digital nomad, that’s a long time! So I made sure to contact my clients and get everything situated in case I was taking an impromptu internet sabbatical.
With our internet fix satiated, we boarded bus 21 and fervently hoped that we were headed in the right direction. Lucky for us, the bus dropped us at the ticket counter for Blue Line Ferries. Except, when looking around, we realized that the ticket offices are nowhere near the actual ferries themselves. Confused, we watched other ticket holders walk outside and queue for the cabs that make the five-minute ride to the docks.
Up until this point in our travel day, all was fairly simple. Then we made a mistake. Instead of promptly lining up for the cab, we grabbed dinner, figuring that we could cab to the docks closer to the time that our ferry was scheduled to leave. As we sauntered down the stairs to the taxi area, we realized that the line had grown quite large because one of the two cabbies that runs this circuit was actually off for the rest of the evening.
We urgently flagged down the cabbie as he circled back for the next load but, since we weren’t first in line, he gestured another couple into the cab instead. I begged him to look at our ticket time, and he was displeased with us. We were cutting it majorly close and even though he was frowning, he told us he would try to help return quickly so that we could catch our ferry. Those next 11 minutes ticked by in agonizing slowness. A young Canadian backpacker joined our group while we waited as he was also taking he 8:20 ferry to Split — like us, he was perilously close to missing the ferry.
As minutes ticked by, Jenn grew more nervous, checking her watch every 30 seconds. We jumped into action as the cab sped to the curb, the cabbie shoved our backpacks into the trunk and motioned us four of into the cab. Then, because ridiculousness comes in threes, a man with his four year old son started a heated argument with the cabbie — he was on the 8:20 ferry as well! The man and the child took the front seat, which left my cousin, Jenn and I to squish together. Jenn jumped onto my lap and the Canadian guy somehow also squeezed himself into the car, closing the cab door with a dull thud as it squeezes our bodies even closer. The cabbie floored it and we raced away toward the docks with our hearts racing and an intense fear that our boat would leave without us.
Taking a Cab to a Ferry to a Ferry The cab made the two-kilometer drive to the docks in record time and we tumbled from the vehicle in true clown car style. Grateful for having mobile luggage, we all slung our packs onto our backs and darted into the customs line for a perfunctory passport check. The customs official stamped our passports with loud thunks and shooed us to the ferry.
It was still there!
With relief washing over us, we jogged to the ferry and we jogged past a large group of older Eastern European women taking pictures of the rapidly setting sun. We were far more concerned with making the ferry, so we press onward at full speed until we reached the back edge of the ferry, where a crew member informed us that the passengers were already on board and we could board only once all of the cars were loaded.
There was no chance we would no miss the ferry, so we lined up to the side as instructed by the ferry crew. I love a good queue, and throughout my South Asian travels I had learned that this love for lining up is not universal. The four of us (we were still chatting with the Canadian backpacker) patiently stood waiting for the crew to signal that we could proceed onto the ferry. But from our hind quarters and with a stealth usually reserved for the African savannah, the large group of older women (in their sixties at least!) descended on us just as the crew member indicated that we could proceed in an orderly line onto the boat.
Those women bum-rushed us!
These woman literally went a little bit insane in that split second and with absolutely no warning whatsoever the old women began throwing elbows, pushing, shoving, and pulling us backwards to jostle for a better position in the mob. My shock has to be wholly attributed to the fact that I never even saw it coming!
They surrounded the four of us and tried to push us out of the way. The only excuse I have for my next behavior is that fight or flight kicked into gear. I wasn’t sure what was happening, so I used my sheer size (I am a tall woman with two large packs strapped onto my body!) to push them behind us. The four of us were rapidly separated, and as a mob instead of a line, the women surged toward the stairwell, with each of us trapped between them and separated. Jenn summited the steps first and shared with us the reason for the bum-rush — there were a dwindling supply of seats and the last on board would have to sit on the floor for the overnight ferry ride.
Madness greeted us when the four of us reconvened on the top of the steps. There were at least 40 women behind us ascending the stairs, and just a small section of airline seats. Others had staked out multiple seats and were doing the “fake sleeping” as they ranged their bodies across several seats. A few people dared me to question them, meeting my gaze with a fierce glare if I so much as pondered plunking my bags down on one of the “open” seats.
It’s was chaos. The women began pushing and shoving us again, attempting to bypass our careful walk though the passenger area. We were overwhelmed and harried by the aggressive arguing some people were now engaged in over the handful of remaining seats. Jenn looked distinctly frazzled by the entire situation and a crew member nearby plucked her from the churning rush of people and pushed her through what we now call the “magic door.” Jenn grabbed my arm and together we followed the crew. My cousin stayed behind and guarded the three seats that we wrestled control over, and Jenn and I entered a quiet space free from the fray.
Like the door to Narnia, this magical door with no special markings. We followed a dark stairwell deeper into the belly of the ferry into an empty area holding 100 more airline-style seats. We were ecstatic. Jenn and I immediately staked out a small room with glass doors on each side and only a dozen or so seats. I grabbed my cousin from upstairs, and as I returned we passed a few others. I spotted the Canadian too pulled him from the chaos. Then we passed two other backpackers — they could come too! Everyone was relieved to discover the calm oasis, such a wonderful and on the ferry’s lower deck.
We settled into our enclosed room and slept on the cold, hard floor — but thankfully it was so quiet. We woke at sunrise and ventured to the upper balcony just as the ferry approached Split harbor. Once in Split, we said adieu to the Canadian and we booked our ticket for another ferry, one that would take us to the Brać island, just off the coast.
Seeking a Ferry, a Bus, and a Cottage We arrive on Brać without incident and begin the search for the bus that would take us to Milna. At this point, it was our luck to run into a Croatian woman who spoke great English. She offered us a room, but when we told her that we had a rental in Milna, she explained that buses don’t run to Milna on Sundays. Then she offered to fetch us a cab for 30 Euro. My Spidey senses tingled for some reason, and feeling that something wasn’t right, we declined. The bus station was completely deserted, and there were moments we wondered if we should have taken the cab, but mere minutes later we discovered that there was a bus leaving for Milna momentarily. The bus ride cost four dollars for three of us, compared to the 30+ dollars we might have paid if we’d fallen for her ploy.
My cousin connected us with this cottage rental. It was the vacation home of her friends’ parents, and they offered us the cottage for an easy 25 Euro a night. It sounded like the perfect way to relax, enjoy the sunshine, and take our first footsteps into Croatian culture and language.
Our surly bus driver dropped us in Milna, and my cousin read from her directions to the cottage:
Walk along the harbor and turn right at the church steps.
Perfect and easy! We located them within seconds. Then proved trickier.
Take a left off of the square and the house is at the end of the road.
There were four lefts off of the square?!
We were royally lost. Finally, we dumped our packs in the middle of the cobbled path. Jenn stayed back to guard the packs, and my cousin and I fanned out in search of the “small latched and gated cottage at the end of a cobbled street.”
Finally, a local spotted us wandering in confusion. She darted into a nearby house, located a young woman who spoke English, and that friendly woman led us to our cottage.
At this point, it was 10:00am and we had been traveling for more than 24 hours. We had taken three busses, two ferries, a cab, a train, and our own two feet . . . or is that six feet? Anyway, we were tired. It was a welcome relief to walk into a newly renovated and sweet little house that was all ours for six whole days. After sweeping out the bugs, a nap was tops on my agenda. We all curled up in the beds and let dreams erase the the 24 hours of misadventures in transportation.
Traveling to Croatia? Use my free online Croatia travel guide to plan your trip—filled with budget and mid-range travel advice, accommodation, and tips on what to see and do.
Florence is a gorgeous city, one of my new favorites in the world. With the Tuscan countryside begging for bike rides and wine tours, art history breathing in every corner, and delicious food, I thoroughly loved the week we spent exploring the city. But it’s time to move onward and continue this trip. No round the world trip can happen if you stay in one spot, and so we chose one other area of Italy to explore. Since my cousin and I had visited the classic iconic spots on past trips, we all decided to head deep into the center of Italy, to the heart.
Jenn’s uncle had raved about Assisi, he told stories of gorgeous countryside and a warm welcome from locals, and that was enough of an incentive for us to head straight for this small Italian city.
The Italian train system works well and it’s convenient to rely almost entirely on trains to navigate Italy. Unlike buses, trains forgo highways and instead dissect the remote and untouched areas of the country, affording spectacular views. Just a few hours after leaving Florence, the train coasted to a stop at a tiny train station surrounded by wheat fields. In the distance, we spotted the glittering walls of Assisi, a city perched on the hillside and presiding over the rolling wheat fields. Then, it was time to walk to our hostel.
Our hostel was nothing to write home about. The reviews online were highly polarized and although we were a bit nervous about what to expect, frankly, Ostello della Pace is the only budget place in Assisi. Had a budget place like Bed and Breakfast A Casa delle Fate existed on this trip, we would have stayed there—it looks just a bit toward mid-range budget, but is clean and convenient. If you’re traveling solo, or on a mega budget, however, the hostel suffices, but that’s the most I will say about it. An older woman owns the place and she runs it in the mornings—she doesn’t seem to enjoy the hospitality industry and was downright rude in a few interactions. That said, the young woman running the reception in the evenings is sweet and the place is exceedingly clean.
Anyhow, refusing to let the hostel dampen our spirits, we took a short walk into the city center. The walk is beautiful. The path snakes through golden wheat fields that gently sway in the breeze far into the horizon. As a city, Assisi is significant in the Catholic faith, and the crowning jewel is the Basilica of Saint Francis. Saint Francis is the patron saint of animals and founder of the Franciscan friars. While I am not Catholic, my grandmother ensured that I have a good foundational knowledge. This served me well as I learned more about Saint Francis of Assisi, his life and actions.
Rocca Maggiore is a massive fortress more than 800 years old. Constructed in 1316, the fortress presides over the city. Sitting on the highest hill in the region, the walls are still in good condition and it’s a focal point from anywhere lower in the valley.
And while the fortress is a must-visit, Saint Francis’ Basilica is the highlight of an visit to Assisi. The detail and architecture in this UNESCO World Heritage Site is gorgeous inside and out. Inside, the spectacular ceilings have a dark, intricate design offset with diamond-shaped ceiling beams. Pope Gregory IX laid the first stone in 1228, and the entire church is built directly into the hillside. For this reason, there is both an Upper and Lower portion of the church, and both contain gorgeous frescoes and intricate artwork from many eras of Italian art. Photos are forbidden inside, so these two are WikiCommons photos.
Jenn, my cousin, and I wandered the cobbled streets for the entire day. At one point, we were royally lost. We had somehow left the city and walked for 45 minutes around the lower city walls. Eventually, we found a small unmarked trail that lead to the Fortress. We had all assumed that this path — filled with underbrush and no signposts — would lead us back into the city.
Somehow, we had truly trapped ourselves outside of the city’s tall walls. The only way we found back into Assisi was to follow the highway to a small, quaint arched entrance that had clearly served as a primary entrance for hundreds of years. We hunted down sweets as a snack once we reached the city center once agian.
On the whole, Assisi is a charming city on every level. The unique religious history is just one reason to visit, it’s also simply lovely. Tiny streets wind along the hillside, passing houses with windowsill flower boxed bursting with bright red, brilliant pink, a riot of spring colors.
The calm and relaxed vibe means that Assisi seems to draw older tourists and those on bus tours across Italy. For that reason, it’s not on the backpacker circuit. That is both refreshing as a change of pace, but also a bit pricier than cities with ample budget accommodation and food options. It was the perfect stop between Florence and our next misadventure in transportation, taking the ferry from Ancona to Split, Croatia — but that’s a story for another day.
Florence is an amazing city filled with beautiful art and history. The first time I visited Italy, I had missed the chance to visit Florence and always regretted it. This time, it lived up to my expectations once I arrived! My cousin, bestie, and I had planned an adventure-filled few days in Florence, packing in as many activities as possible. We had wandered the museums in search of Renaissance masterpieces, we photographed the beautiful Boboli Gardens, and even spent a beautiful day biking around Tuscany in search of tasty wine. The only thing we hadn’t done was a ladies night!
Jenn had joined the trip fresh from home, but Helen and I had spent many months in developing regions of the world, which isn’t always luxurious. So, we gratefully and humbly requested of Jenn a girls night on the town. Of the several nights we stayed in Florence, we sampled the local markets and cooked up a storm in our own hostel kitchen, making delicious meals with the local ingredients from Florence’s Central Market (they also had an amazing dried fruit vendor). With each meal, we selected and worked our way through the flavorful local wines.
It was a great routine that worked while we explore Florence on a budget. But as our days dwindled, we wanted to splurge on a nice evening out on the town. Jenn prodded me into buying a new dress at H&M because she feared that I was going to wear my dressy kurtah, which I was. With a new dress though, it called for getting fancy with make up and everything.
It was a windy evening, so we did a not-very-classy shuffle-walk while clutching our dresses. Finally after 20 minutes we had made it into the center of Florence, and began searching for a nice restaurant where we could enjoy our last evening in a big city. Jenn ranks restaurants by the presence of cloth-napkins, and by those standards we had failed. The rains had started and we scurried into the closest restaurant, but it turned out lovely. We snagged a spot near a window and could people-watch while enjoying the nice meal.
A shared bottle of wine later, and we were all content with our tasty dishes and ready to mingle with the moonlit crowds strolling the Arno River. The rains had cooled the evening and we took a lovely walk across the Ponte Vecchio bridge, too.
We also couldn’t resist a mini photo shoot along the way when we walked past a block of funky mannequins:
Ponte Vecchio is suffused with romance in the evenings. Local street artists playing heartbreaking love songs on their violins. Couples stroll hand-in-hand with gelato and besotted smiles. It was spectacularly pretty, and only a touch depressing since we were all single, so we continued a slow wander just to see Florence at night.
On the way back, we found a gelatería — it’s never too hard to find one — and this is where it the evening took a funny turn. The three of us perused the gelato cases, and Jenn made up her mind first. She loves apple flavored gelato and ordered a small, two-flavor cup for Euro 4. That’s a bit pricey for a gelato! But, thinking nothing of it, I indicate that I want the same size as Jenn’s and I pick out my flavors. Then, before I can stop her, the woman plops a sugared waffle chunk into the cup.
“Cinque Euros per favore.”
Five euros?! OK, that small piece of waffle costs Euro 1? Fine. What choice do I have? But five Euros is definitely pricey for a tiny cup of gelato.
My cousin had just picked out her flavors with another woman, and before I could issue a warning, the woman plopped a waffle on hers as well.
“Nove Euros per favore.”
My cousin, who had already taken a bit of her trio of creamy deliciousness, choked on that announcement. Jenn and I stood there with mouths agape. Nine euros. That’s nearly US $14! We are budget backpackers and a $14 ice cream was definitely not in the plans when we set out in the evening.
We had no other choice but to pay and laugh about it. For the rest of the night, Jenn and I gently poked fun at my cousin for accidentally ordering the nine euro gelato. To her credit, she ate and enjoyed every single drop of it!
The sun warmed our skin just as it warmed the grapes and olives on the gnarled tree branches we passed as we biked through the Tuscan countryside. Our wine tour was among my favorite experiences on my round the world trip. Priced higher than many activities at Euro 60 for the day, it allowed the chance to leave Florence and spend a day among the rolling hills and beautiful wineries. We had spent our first days in Florence at the Boboli Gardens, and absorbing art and culture at the Uffizi and the Accademia. We had picked a great hostel in the city; it was affordable and central. Since we hadn’t splashed out on our own place, we found a beautiful biking tour that would spend a full day biking on a loupe on the country roads outside of Florence, stopping at notable wineries and giving us breads, fresh olive oil, and other treats.
Is the Van Ever Coming Coming?
My best friend Jenn had joined me from the trip, and my cousin was still traveling with me, so the three of us woke early and hoofed it to the outskirts of Florence to meet our tour leader for the day. Jenn’s not a morning person, so she was bleary-eyed while we wandered confusingly for a bit and rubber-necked from a curb. We had been told that a van would meet us at this rendezvous point. We found several other confused Americans waiting for the vehicle, and concluded we had all found the right spot, we had just arrived too earlier.
A few minutes later, and a large van scooped us from the curb for a short drive away from the bustle and chaos of city life, and into the heart of Italy’s wine country.
Our tour company was run by an American expat who has lived in Italy for decades, and it’s funny how at home I felt on the tour. It was a gorgeous experience, and one that an Italian might have run differently, but I found it met and exceeded all of my expectations. The tour company provided us with well-maintained ten-speed bicycles, a sturdy bike helmet, and a water bottle. Our route would take us through 12 miles of sloping hills, so the water bottle was an important detail we were grateful for in the heat of the day.
A Tuscan Wine Tour & Intriguing Statues!
Once we were kitted and fitted four our bikes, we started out for our Tuscan wine adventure. It started quickly! Just ten minutes after pedaling out of the bike shop, we stopped at the ritzy Villa Mangiacane Winery. After a tour of the grounds, we stopped in the tasting room for a sampling, too. Tasty!
The property is stunningly pretty. It has a five-star hotel on the premises, and perfectly manicured grounds. As we walked through the property, we discovered a number of beautiful sculptures and paintings scattered throughout the winery — the naked ladies statues were added for an artsy European calendar that was photographed on the estate.
Normally, I would have assumed that a wine tasting at a winery of this caliber is out of my budget. I would have never known to visit if I hadn’t booked the tour. And I was so glad to have visited! Although the estate produces just a few wines, they are delicious. The red Estate Wine was gorgeous and flavorful; it didn’t have the strong burn of alcohol that I find common in the cheap wines I can most often afford. The rose wine was light and sweeter; it was my favorite of the two. Our table also had a complimentary sampling of the house olive oil and crusty soft Italian bread.
Under the Tuscan Sun: Our Wine Tour
After touring the grounds — and with a tiny, lovely wine buzz from the estate’s generous samples — we pedaled back into the country lanes of Tuscany and continued to the next stop. Just as imagined, Tuscany is gorgeous. It’s everything you see in the movies and the photographs. As a romance-movie aficionado, visions of Under the Tuscan Sun filled my head as I biked my way through large wineries and quaint estates. The acres of olive groves give the rolling hills a muted green color, the neat rows of grape trees create symmetrical patterns on the hilltops. And being summer in Italy, the golden sun glinted over leaves and kissed the budding grapes and olives.
The bike tour was structured but not rigid. Our guide, Jillian, would announce our next stop, and then give us leave to explore the countryside at our own pace. We could amble through the country lanes, or fly down the hills, or take a gentle speed instead. With gorgeous views and sweeping vistas, we only had to pay enough attention that we didn’t get lost in all that beauty!
We rode for a bit of time until we reached our lunch spot, a gorgeous Italian cafe called Cantinetta del Nonno. This is another area where I rarely splurge on each course. When I studied abroad in Italy, I often met with friends from my university and indulged in the long lunches. As a budget backpacker, I’ve been more frugal. This meal, however, shaped up as completely memorable. We started with glasses of red wine and we nibbled on balsamic vinaigrette, oil, and bread. Three courses followed, a tasty salad, a main dish, and panna cotta for dessert, which is among my favorite desserts of all time! At the end, we sipped coffees and enjoyed the slow leisurely Italian style lunch, which had Jenn almost nodding off for a siesta by the end! At that point, none of us were quite sure how we would continue another two to three hours on the bike!
I am a Turtle! AKA How to Bike Uphill Full from lunch, we could only hope that Jillian’s assurance of a gentle ride would bear out. She had assured us that we would have time to digest before hitting the hardest part of the bike ride — two kilometers up a steep hill. With the promise of a leisurely ride, our group spaced out and began exploring independently. There is so much beauty in nature, and it was charming to pedal through the rolling hills and muted-green landscape. The fresh air blowing over my skin on the breeze. I found my own groove and then got lost in the experience of biking through the countryside and taking in all the sights and smells.
Eventually, however, we reached the hill. I don’t enjoy steep inclines, it makes my lungs burn no matter how fit I am. But the hill had to be conquered, so I applied the same strategy I have used in long distance hikes: “Be the turtle.” As the adage says, slow and steady wins the race and there no prize waiting for the first one up the hill. Which is never me. Instead, I am a turtle. This mantra got me up the 3,200 meters of my Himalayan trek, and it served me well here too. With only the briefest pause for walking, which allowed me a moment to even out my breath, I pedaled to the top and hydrated in a tiny gazebo while the others made the steep climb.
Oh Gelato, How I Love Thee Once the group reassembled at the top of the hill, Jillian gave us one last surprise — a trip to the gelatería! We were all thrilled with the prospect of creamy, ice-cold gelato after the long, hot bike ride.
After our tasty treat, we had just a breezy, ten-minute bike ride back to the bike shop. From there, they drove us back to town. The owner of the property — a dashing older Italian man with very little English — gave the three of us a lift back to town because the van was too full to hold the whole group. We pulled out of the driveway in his beautiful Mercedes, all of the windows down, hair blowing in the breeze and he pumped Guns and Roses until it pulsed through the car. Then we flew through the winding roads on our way back into town. Kinda perfect.
Quick Tips: Traveling in Tuscany
Where: The Dany House Hostel in Florence is highly ranked and a good option for a base in the city. I used Florence as my gateway to exploring Tuscany. But there are other hostels and guesthouses actually within the Tuscan countryside, and you could do a search using the map feature to discover one right among the rolling hills!
Plan: We used a guidebook Jenn had brought from the States; the Rick Steves Florence & Tuscany has a good deal of history and walking tours and is perfect if you’re headed just to the Florence and Tuscany region, otherwise I prefer the general Rick Steves Italy. Although the Lonely Planet is the best for budget travelers, usually, the European guides form Rick Steves have better details for tours and culture and such.
When: It’s always a good time to go to Italy! Tuscany was gorgeous in the spring, and I’ve also traveled there in late June, and I loved baking in the warm heat with a glass of wine and pretty vineyards.
How: The bike tour I used is no longer in operation, so your best bet is asking at your guesthouse or reading reviews on TripAdvisor. They are all fairly similar, but some will pick you up from your hotel, and give a few little extras (more wine and gelato!), so shop around.
Florence is truly a city of magic. Traveling with my cousin and best friend, we stayed at an affordable hostel in the city center and used that as a base to explore. Although the one- and two-star hotels are often affordable, with the private room in the hostel we saved money on breakfast and had a base of knowledge from other travelers. Pulling from those sources, we started our time in Florence with a visit to the beautiful Boboli Gardens.
Then, we scheduled appointments for two signature attractions in the city. The Galleria dell’ Accademia houses Michelangelo’s David, the famous and gorgeous statue. We also visited the Galleria degli Uffizi, which is stocked with the most recognizable Botticelli masterpieces in the world.
TIP: Although it’s possible to wait in line to visit, it’s much better to make an appointment since they are offered for a mere four Euros more. Our hotel recommended it, and they were right. What an easy way to see it all! The hotel called and booked the appointments the day before, then we showed up at our requested time and we walked by a huge queue of visitors spending several hours in line during the sweltering in the heat of the day. We bypassed that and instead had an express pass directly into the galleries, using our energy to stand in awe of the artistic masterpieces of the Italian renaissance.
Visiting Galleria Dell’Accademia
We started out at the Accademia, and the David is everything that you have heard, and more. It’s subtle, but beautiful. I’m not an art-history major, and I don’t know the intricacies of that period in renaissance art, but I do know that this statue is just spectacularly beautiful in person. The Academia also houses a small collection of paintings that I found less interesting. We glanced at these before heading directly to the hall with the David statue.
Shiny black floors gleam throughout the long hall, which is dim except for the prominent spotlights on each pristine white sculpture. The total effect is gorgeous. The hall was special built for the David, and the corridor dead-ends into the magnificent statue at the very end.
The sculptures leading up to the David set the tone for viewing the masterpiece. The displays house nearly a dozen half-finished of Michelangelo’s other sculptures from that time period. The unfinished figures appear to emerge, some seemingly climbing out from the constraining marble. It was wild to see the meticulous detail and expressions on each face—sometimes half-finished and still hidden under stone. It’s as the figures are trapped inside and Michelangelo freed them. But instead of freeing them like he did David, he died before completing each of the pieces on display. The figures are forever stuck with a fleeting glimpse of the outside world and half-finished expressions of serene joy and contemplation.
David is undeniably the masterpiece once you reach the section corded off for the 17 foot tall statue. It was created from 1501 to 1504 and is carved from a single piece of marble. Over the centuries, David has become foremost work of art showcasing the beauty of the male form. You can’t help but agree when viewing in person.
This sculpture of David is markedly different than those that came before it. Michelangelo’s sculpture takes a rare look at David before he slew Goliath. It’s a man contemplating the weight of the task he must accomplish, and understanding he may fail. It’s impossible to describe the nuance and curves when viewing them in the 3D. It’s just perfect. Jenn believes that the perfection comes from the sculpture’s ability to look supple and flowing—you can easily imagine David turning his head to drop into conversation. There is fluidity within the unyielding white marble, grace and movement in a still statue. It’s these contrasts that make it magnificent. David’s veins pop from the marble. His well-proportioned muscles ripple to the point that you might believe they would be warm and fleshy if you gave them a squeeze.
We spent more than an hour gazing at the statue. We walked full circles around it, making laps around the room from other angles. We even eavesdropped in on several tour-guides to learn of tidbits of knowledge. Once guide noted that David is actually 100 percent perfectly proportioned, although it appears otherwise. Given the angle from which we view him, it creates an optical illusion that his proportions are off. Instead, Michelangelo intended for the statue to sit higher off of the ground.
Fortifying with Lunch and Gelato
After leaving the David, we found a small Mexican restaurant for lunch to have a chance of place in the flavors, and then we spent an hour hunting for one of the oldest gelato shops in the city. Jenn’s guidebook recommended a Vivoli as having the best ice-cream in the city, with a recipe that dates back nearly a century. We are inclined to agree! Although the shop was difficult to find with our map, it was well worth the effort. The lampone was the hit of of our two weeks in Italy—it had “little frozen puffs of happiness” according to Jenn.
Wandering the Incredible Galleria degli Uffizi
That gelato fortified us for the three hours we spent wandering around the Uffizi. Because we had an appointment here as well, we walked right in the door without any wait. Like the David, the level of beauty and art on display is unbelievable. The Uffizi has many works from Botticelli—most notably “Birth of Venus” and Primavera,” among other lovely ones that are definitely under-appreciated with the “Birth of Venus” in the same room!
Once done with the paintings, we wandered through the statues, finding the ones in the most interesting poses—not a particularly high-brow game, but it proved entertaining nonetheless.
We couldn’t take pictures in either of the two Galleries, so these pictures of the statues are pictures of the replicas from the piazza outside of the Uffizi. The “Rape of the Sabine” was particularly moving—the woman in the statue is being kidnapped. They have a replica of the David, too, which is the ideal spot to take a photo and such since photography inside is forbidden. A massive Poseidon fountain dominates the piazza, and there are a dozen or so additional key replicas of those actually displayed in one of the two Galleries.
These two museums are must-visits on any trip to Florence; they showcase incredible artistic prowess and contain the history and legacy from Italy’s most famous renaissance artists.
Quick Tips: Planning a Trip to Italy
Read: I recommend using the Rick Steves Italy book. While I usually use the Lonely Planet guidebooks all over the world, Rick Steves guides are particularly great in Europe and provide a lot of walking tour suggestions and cultural history that other guides lack.
Want to better understand local history and food? Day tours are mega convenient. If you don’t have time to wander solo, the Urban Adventures’ day tours in Florence use local guides and prioritize sustainability and responsible tourism—the Florence foodie walk looks fantastic, and there are customized tours, too.
On my first trip through Italy, I somehow missed visiting Florence. What a mistake! This is one of those cities that lives up to the hype and delivers on the promise on a stunning few days filled with gorgeous architecture, beautiful sculptures, and a charming slice of life from Renaissance era.
This time through, on my round the world trip, I knew I needed to spend a week soaking in the city’s fabled art, architecture and beauty were mine. I huffed in the heat to see all the spots recommended in my Insider’s Guide to Florence. All the spots make me remember just why Europe rocks. The streets are bikeable and easily walkable too. Most everything a tourist needs to visit is close. And for the trip into Tuscany, I took a bike tour. Florence is charming and just easy to explore. I visited the Duomo and the museum to take in the inexplicable exquisiteness that is Michelangelo’s David — I highly recommend reading From Marble to Flesh for a fascinating biography of the David. I picked outdoor cafes in the evenings and sipped wine in the evenings.
And after a few days, I knew it was time to take in some of the lesser known sites in Florence — namely, the Boboli Gardens. Unlike the massively sculpted gardens of palaces and castles, this is like an open-air museum set among hedges and cypress trees.
Why Should You Visit the Boboli Gardens in Florence
After days spent in the city, I knew that I wanted to get back into nature. Hiking Cinque Terre was fantastic, so I wanted to a chance to still experience Florence, but perhaps visit it from a different vantage point. Visiting the lush and expansive Boboli Gardens is the perfect antidote to a case of the city blues. It’s located just on the other side of the darkly flowing Arno River. The manicured gardens require a small entrance fee, but it’s worth it for the views, the fresh air, and the unexpectedly charming gardens hidden in various corners.
Though I had been traveling solo, it has been so nice to explore with friends. Together, we decided to make a full afternoon of our trip to the Boboli Gardens. It’s an expansive area, and the grounds have twisty paths. We wandered up and down the lanes, each of us delighting when we found a new nook or cranny without another soul present.
The best part: The Boboli Gardens showcase a spectacular view the Florence Duomo. The gardens sit higher than the city, so the views include the burnt orange rooftops, with that iconic domed roof sitting tall and proud in the very center. The duomo is the largest and most ornate cathedral in the city, and it’s usually the first place travelers visit. If you want a wider view though, you have to head uphill to the gardens.
And while there are a lot of pretty spots to take a photo, the three of us decided to use the relative quiet of the gardens to take unique shots. These leaping shots in the long canopied aisle of trees was my favorite unconventional spot for a jumping photo. There’s just something more joyous about making a game out of the afternoon too. We all finished our leaping shot series with huge grins on our faces.
The rest of the Boboli Gardens hide a pirate’s treasure trove of beautiful fountains and stunning statues framed by the pristine green gardens. The grounds all date from the 16th-18th centuries, so there’s a lot of old architecture and beautifully worn statues. There is also a museum within the complex; the displays change and when I was there they had a fun history of fashion exhibit on display. It was intriguing to see the gorgeous period dresses some were so elaborate they tended toward gaudy, with sequined bedazzled vests from the 80s. The only thing missing was pink lipstick and teased hair.
What are the Can’t-Miss Spots in the Boboli Gardens?
In addition to just wandering the gardens and popping into the museum, there are a few gardens and spots that are just too pretty to miss.
Though the amphitheatre area is the most popular, use the map to navigate to a small, ivy covered cottage hidden on the garden grounds.
The Grotta dei Buontalenti is one of the most famous caves on the grounds and it’s worth navigating the other tourists to take a look.
Find the lookout points for the Duomo. If you have the time, I recommend timing your visit to after lunch, that way you can wander for a few hours and then grab some shots of the sunset sky surrounding the Duomo domes. The building itself has beautiful pastel green and pinks laid into the marble. It looks gorgeous against a pink-streaked sky. The rocco-style 18th century coffeehouse has the best city views and you can use the terrance even if the coffeehouse is closed.
Visit the Bardini gardens and head to the Forte Belvedere. These gardens are included in your ticket price and it’s all very close together. The fortress has arguably the best views of the cityscape.
Pack a book and relax under under the pergola of Holm oaks located on a side avenues off the Viottolone.
If you like the jumping shots, head to Ragnaie (spiders lane) for the long arched pathway.
Isolotto’s Basin is gorgeous and there are unique statues around it. It’s also a good spot for reflection photos at certain times of day.
The Tindaro Screpolato is my favorite statue. I love it so much I’m going to share a bit more about it below!
The Giant Cracked Face Statue
There is a stunning anonymity to the giant, cracked bronze statue. This is my favorite piece in all of the Boboli Gardens, and it strikes me as remarkable even years after seeing it. I am inexplicably drawn to it. I am not an art buff, but I turned a corner of the garden and stopped in my tracks. After an hour of wandering the massive hedged gardens, the Tindaro Screpolato by sculptor Igor Mitoraj stood in a large gravel area.
Bizarre. Huge. Beautiful.
It’s a tale of strength and fragility told in one image. The face is huge, the features dwarf those standing near it. The face is pearled with green streaks running through the cracks. By the time I came upon the statue, I had lost my friends further back on the path. Instead of continuing on, I simply moved to the edge, sat in the gravel and stared at the facets of the face. It’s striking from every side. From the front, you see the features and a streak of tears from one eye, From the side, the face is hollow. From every angle, the face has a stoic expression.
If I could have a mascot photo for A Little Adrift, it would be this one. This face knows what it’s like to be A Little Adrift. The entire representation resonates with me in a way that I know is unique from some others. Though my friend Jenn was intrigued, the face did not hold the same fascination. I highly recommend you stop by this spot and view it for yourself.
Quick Tips & Resources for Florence
Price & Location: The Boboli Gardens are a part of the Pitti Palace complex. This website has the garden’s hours, latest prices, and directions. The price is about €13.
Where to Stay: On the uber-budget end, I recommend DanyHouse Hostel — it’s fantastic. If you have a moderate budget, however, you can upgrade to some basic, conveniently located spots like Hotel Nuova Italia (which has single rooms too, which is ideal for solo travelers). Hotel Andrea is a bit nicer and has an affordable boutique feel. If you want a gorgeous spot in Tuscany, Bassetto Guesthouse is stunning and surprisingly affordable. And if you’re traveling as a family or even a group, there are gorgeous Airbnbs on offer in the city.
Guides & Books:
There are two great guidebooks for Florence, the Rick Steves Florence & Tuscany has a good deal of history and walking tours, whereas the DK Eyewitness book is good for pre-trip research and ideas of the top spots you will really want to see. I find value in both, but the internet hotly debates which is better.
Easy Italian Phrase Book: 770 Everyday Phrases: I learned Italian in college, but for others, this is handy and it’s insanely cheap. I recommend throwing it on your Kindle (or Kindle App) so that you have it handy when you’re over there.