42. Florence // Siena // Italy

Ever since we had first considered planning our trip, we couldn’t wait to arrive in Tuscany. Known for its rolling hills, picturesque wineries and stone villas, Tuscany was a major drawcard. We arrived in Florence by train, already enticed by the lushiously green countryside and vine-covered lots along the way. Our Air BnB was only a few hundred metres from Ponte Vecchio and before we dropped our bags, we’d already traversed the stunning Arno River that carves Florence in two. When we met our host, we had instant flashbacks to Dublin as I was almost certain it was the Italian doppelganger of Battye standing right there before us. Unfortunately, due to the nature of asking for a photo of a complete stranger being on the creepy side, we don’t have evidence. We had either three or four nights in Florence, we “think” four, and our apartment was self-contained and provided all the kitchen essentials for us to pretend we did in fact live in Tuscany and could in fact cook all our own favourite Italian meals. Our host gave us a quick list of all the flavourless restaurants to avoid and recommendations on where he would eat. But most importantly, we learnt where we could stock up on our own temporary pantry and cook with ingredients we’d go broke over trying to live on in Oz.

Florence isn’t necessarily a place where a plethora of attractions demand your attention. Although there is plenty to explore, the main reason we were there was to get back to cooking. We rarely eat out when we are in Melbourne and Elisha loved spending her weekends simmering sauces on the stove or slow cooking some lamb. There’s no better way to spend a Sunday then with a good wine with your partner and the aromas of a roast filling the house. As such, we thought Florence was a good spot to reminisce and attempt to emulate our former life.

In all my travels so far, I don’t think I can say I’ve seen a market, let alone a generic supermarket, that sold the quality of produce we found in Conad. Aisles were filled with world-class wine, regions I’d never heard of before, parmesan and mozarrella, marbled prosciutto, freshly rolled and cut pasta, homemade pasta sauces, freshly baked bread, bowls of black and green olives, of anchovies, of grilled aubergines, red-ripe tomatoes and an abundance of fresh fruit. We were about as excited as Kermit arriving at a Muppets reunion as we roamed each section, slowly filling our basket with more items than we could ever dream of eating in 4 days. Considering the quality, it was surprisingly inexpensive for the simple reason that I don’t believe Italians will settle for anything less. We trundled home with our bag of goodies and within minutes, we were stirring aromatic pesto sauce through a saucepan of perfect pasta, drizzling it with some good olive oil, seasoning it with a twist of salt and some cracked pepper and chowing it down with a glass of chianti. So incredible. Florence was giving us a ripper day outside and the terracotta rooves looked as remarkable as an oil painting against the sunny blue sky. Our next three days followed in much the same way, gorging on fresh pastas and salads, drinking Aperol Spritz, prosecco, chianti and bruno di montalcino¬†and enjoying the aroma of freshly chopped garlic, shredded basil and picked oregano.

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That experience aside, Florence (or Firenze) had plenty to offer outside of our apartment as well. It’s a beautiful Tuscan town, dating back to about 200 BC, known mostly as the home of the Renaissance. Both the Medici family and Michaelangelo called Florence home. When you see the spectacularly golden sunset from the Ponte Vecchio bridge, you can understand why an entire generation of inhabitants might have been inspired in the way they were during the 14th and 17th centuries. With yet another Rick Steve’s audio guide, we spent one afternoon on the Renaissance trail, a brief 20 minute walk that takes you from the Duomo to the Ponte Vecchio.

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The Duomo is another sight in itself. And I’m sorry to do this but I’m going to reference Assassin’s Creed II again. Firenze is one of 3 main cities that appears in the game and, in fact, is where you commence playing. You actually learn the controls standing on the Ponte Vecchio. The Duomo is the first major challenge and, when I played the game several years ago, I got stuck trying to get inside because of the guards patrolling the area (the trick was to climb a neighbouring building and then jump across onto the roof so as not to be seen – very assassin-like.) As was the story in Venice, I was uncontrollably jubilant to be seeing landmarks I’d come across in a video game.

Others might also be familiar with Florence as it is the home of the statue of David (a giant 17 metre statue of a naked man and his willy.) The line was a little daunting and the price a little steep so we elected not to join the hords of visitors. Besides, I’m practically a giant myself and don’t need to see a 17-metre-tall man’s willy. What was funny, however, happened as we were observing the line. Florence (like most tourist cities) is full of immigrants trying to sell junk and, in this case, paintings. To prove that they weren’t all that valuable and, I assume, to also provide a quick grab n run in the event of police, the sellers would have their generic artwork displayed on the dirty ground. Desperate to catch up on some sleep, I’d taken a Valium the night before and was still experiencing the after effects, dazed like a deer in headlights. When a seller approached me as a potential buyer, I casually waved him away. Well! He seemed to take great offense to this and began waving his arm back at me, yelling “mamma mia!” I was still struggling to work out the simple things in life, like walking, and so waved my arm again. We repeated this process three times before I matured and moved on . . . by staring, intently interested, at one of his paintings. By now he’d had enough of me and showed his maturity by turning the painting over so I could no longer look at it! No worries. I simply glanced my eyes across to the next of his 8 paintings. No surprise his reaction was the same – turning that one over too! Surely, I couldn’t frazzle him by looking at a third painting, could I? I casually shifted my eyes and, yes! Painting three turned over! I didn’t want to point out that he was doing himself a disservice for, even if I wasn’t going to buy a painting, now no one in the queue could see his paintings for sale and, even if they could, they would now know they’d been sitting facedown in the dirt. I don’t know if it was that funny or not but, still groggy on valium and with nothing else to do with my time, I’d quite enjoyed the interaction.

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There’s plenty else in Tuscany other than Florence to see though and, after (we think) four nights, we left the golden sunsets and pure blue skies behind for Siena, an enchanting medievil town that sits high up on a hill. Its centre is a beautifully preserved warren of dark lanes and is protected by its enclosing city walls. During the middle ages, it acted as the artistic and architectural challenger to Florence. Even though the town now only houses 54,000 people, we instantly fell in love with it. In no way did it present the same culinary experience we had had in Florence, but it charmed us in other ways. Our days were spent meandering though endless laneways and passages that rolled up and down steep hills. At night, the township came alive and rigorous conversation and laughter could be heard from nearby restaurants, people eventually spilling into the streets. A cultural exhibition was on the weekend we were there and this meant an assortment of entertainment was on, including a brass band with classically dressed participants dancing before them and a massive show in the Piazza del Campo.

The Piazza del Campo is a brilliant area regardless of whether a show is on or not. The next day, when everything was packed up, we went again in the midday sun and sat amongst a throng of other lazy travellers, visitors and locals. The piazza is in the heart of the city and the square slopes down from the semi-circle of restaurants to the Palazzo Comunale at the bottom. It has been the civic and social centre for almost 600 years and still hosts the annual Il Palio, a horse race marked by the outskirts of the square. You couldn’t help but lap up a sense of culture and history as you ate a packed lunch and shared a glass of vino as everything went on around you.

Something I still struggle to get my head around with is Globalisation. On this particular occassion, we were in a part of Tuscany, Italy that I hadn’t even heard of until a week before, a town occupied by just 54,000 people and, in truth, wasn’t exactly on the traveller’s map. Yet even so, at 5.30 in the morning and when the square outside was still pitch black and freezing, we were able to find a bar that had chosen to open for us and 6 other Australians to watch the AFL Grand Final match live. Quite bizarre. For what was probably the first time in our life, we agreed it was probably a little too early to have a beer and settled on a coffee instead. I won’t lie. Seeing the cash-strapped Sydney Swans lose to Hawthorn despite having Buddy Franklin in their lineup was as satisfying to me as seeing the Miami Heat lose to San Antonio despite having LeBron James. A team can always beat talent.

All in all, Siena was incredibly beautiful and was one of those places you were just happy to slowly pace your way through and to simply be there. Florence had woed us with its splendour and food and Siena had won us over with its charm. With a few more towns still to visit, Tuscany was in every way standing up to its hype. Not many places get to say that.

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