Toscana




“Alright then, have fun with your art hangover,” Lindsay said before hanging up the phone. I took a deep breath, shutting off my phone and rereading my notes about Tuscany. I was traveling by myself to northern Italy, the result of a cheap flight and the overwhelming need to escape Sevilla.

Erin said she left her heart there. Jessica suggested I eat rather than go see the sites. Irene told me it was the only place other than Sevilla she could live in. Needless to say, I was excited but nervous to be traveling by myself for the first time. But things were researched, reservations and couchsurfing appointments double-checked. I could leave feeling confident I’d squeeze as much into my quick trip as possible with as little money spent.

And then I nearly missed the bus to the airport. I think I was stalling because I was having that nervous feeling in my stomach, the one you have before getting dumped. I arrived to the bus stop just minutes before it left, sweating after running the last few blocks with my rolly suitcase.

two hours later, boarded on a Ryan Air flight, Sevilla dropped from view and I began to think again about traveling all by myself. I started getting that feeling again, but before long I was asleep. When I came back to consciousness, we were over the ocean, about to land. I searched in earnest for the Leaning Tower of Pisa but didn’t see it.

One thing I hate about traveling alone to a location is leaving the gangplank and knowing no one is going to greet me on the other side of the doors. But since I was surfing, I expect the Italian Stallion who’d accepted my couch request to be waiting for me. Perhaps with a sign. There was a whole mess of people. I wandered around with my pathetic (and now breaking) suitcase but didn’t see anyone remotely close to Salvatore’s profile picture. I did the awkward blind date thing as the crowd thinned out. “Salvatore?” was answered with blank stares, shrugs and people moving away from me – fast.

Surprisingly, I didn’t freak out per normal Cat behavior. I dug some coins out of my purse, only to find the machine didn’t accept coins. I began to stress out, but mostly because I’d have to use my cell phone. As I dialed my host’s number, I heard my name.

“Cat, where were you? I’ve been here twice to look for you! It was Salvatore, taller than I imagined and totally Italian – slicked, dark hair, expensive-looking leather shoes and a mini-Mafia man (as it turns out, he’s from the south!). He walked my bag to the car and we set off.

Like any good host, he showed me around the small city of 100,000. We parked his car next to the river Arno and walked over the river in the shadows of bell towers and arcaded sidewalks. It had rained earlier that day, so the pavement shone. Salvatore and I got on well – we talked about travel and CS and anything that came to mind. We walked past half a dozen old churches, the university and finally ended up at the Leaning Tower of Pisa.

It was well past midnight, so the whole Campo de Miracoli was silent, save a few bikers who zipped past. Seeing the tower this way, so silent and lit up, was quite wonderful. It was a bit smaller than I expected, but peering down the foundation and seeing the 3 degree lean was cool. It was one of those moments where you’re witnessing something incredible or fulfilling and it stays etched in your memory forever. We stood back and saw the baptistry, the church and the tower all at once.

It was now past 1am, the time when bars in Pisa stop serving on the weekdays (this would NEVER fly in Espana!). Salvatore and I crossed the river once more to one of the main shopping streets, Rossa Italia I think it was called, and he managed to talk a bartender to serve us a bottle of beer. We cheered in our respective languages, drawing several puzzled looks. After getting the car, we flew through the town at breakneck speed and to his large apartment just a block from the train station.

His room was about as large as my flat, and I was to sleep on a pullout couch. There was no flirting or anything, so I felt safe knowing I wouldn’t wake up to him next to me! He introduced me to Italian TV, which seems as awful as Spanish TV, and taught me a few words in Italian. The word endings confuse me, as they change for male and female, as well as if it’s in the past tense. Whew. We shut off the lights at about 2:30 and I was right to sleep.

The next morning, Salvatore passed me along to his roommate, Salvo, who demanded I sign a huge map with signature and notes from other guests. I decided to mark my place as Chicago, mostly because there wasn’t enough space near Sevilla. Salvo offered me coffee and pastries, but I wanted to eat something in town, which would undoubtedly be more appetizing than a wrapped anything.

The hunt was on for a cappuccino and a pastry, but my hungry stomach led me to the first place I saw (though I was tempted to get gelato at 9am). I asked for a huge chocolate-filled croissant and a coffee, but only the treat came. I drank in the atmosphere instead: people plunked down a year, received a hot espresso and slammed it down. Two teenagers sat playing footsie under the table next to me while the girl ate a pastry and the boy read the paper. A group of young tourists came in, eyes wide looking at the variety of pastries available in the case.

I moved on, noticing the beggars on every corner that I hadn’t seen last night. The city wasn’t as enchanting during the gray day, but the colors somehow seemed more vivid – burnt oranges, cheery yellows and pale pinks. The marble still shone around churches and the university, and afterthought of the rainy night. I passed gelateria after pizzaria after souvenir shop, all selling magnets of the David and replicas of the Tower. I bought my postcards, as I do in nearly every new city I visit, and walked to the Tower, nearly getting clipped by bikes and envying all the people whose coffees actually arrived. I mainly stayed on the streets we’d traveled last night, just veering off slightly to browse a neighborhood market and quickly retreat upon smelling the nastiest fish stall ever (even Spain in the sweltering summer months isn’t so rank).

The tower was thankfully still standing that day, since I hadn’t bothered to take any pictures the night before. The whole base of the tower was ringed with people taking pictures of themselves leaning or holding the building up or whatever. I concentrated on memorizing every single shape of the tower – the arched windows at the top, the diamonds etched in gray marble closer to the base.

“OH MY GOD I can’t believe this!” My ear is naturally trained to listen for English, so I whirled around and saw a woman shielding her eyes as if the thing had just gone up in flames. “Am I actually here?” I offered to pinch her and she just giggled. Turns out she’s in England by way of Atlanta and visiting Tuscany with her husband. She had lost him, and I was alone, so we walked around the Duomo church right in front of the tower. Made of white marble, it has an intricately carved wooden door depicting famous scenes from the life of Jesus. Around the opposite side, the facade is also decorated in painted marble with thick grey lines wrapping around the front and several matching colonnades, identical to those ringing the tower. The baptistery, to the front, is older than the tower but not so interesting. I met a group of six older Spaniards from Cordoba who graciously took my picture and told me I did a great impression of Spanish pueblo talk. I said goodbye to the woman, who had found her husband, and set off towards the train station, dragging my little suitcase behind me.

To avoid supreme humiliation because I don’t speak much Italian, I used an electronic ticketing machine to buy my way to Florence. The phone card I bought to call my next host did absolutely no good in serving it’s purpose, so I hoped I’d be able to find a place to stay in Florence. Shrugging, I set off.

The train was delayed a bit, so I had a look at the vending machine. Such things are curious from country to country, and I was not the least bit surprised to see cheese and crackers for sale. Curious, I bought a pack and fell in love with cheese, albeit refrigerated and package, yet again. The train was crammed, but I was lucky enough to get a window seat, perfect for a bit of journaling and watching the countryside. Sadly, Tuscany was not as romantic as I imagined it would have been until about 45 minutes into the trip. There were no hills crowned with crumbling monasteries, no oddly shaped trees, no red-tiled roofs. It seems the railroad tracks pass forlorn little villages and industrial parks. It was certainly no preview as to what would come in Firenze.

An hour later, I had arrived at Santa Maria Novella, the central train station in Florence. The place was HUGE, and I couldn’t find a payphone anywhere amidst all of the commuters rushing to their trains or out the door. I mimicked a phone sign to a nearby police officer, and he pointed me in the right direction. fumbling with all of my bags, the phone card, my notebook with Danielle’s number and the phone itself, I was able to punch in the numbers, understand enough Italian to correctly use the card. A voice answered in Italian.

“Uhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh (long pause while I gathered my thoughts), Danielle?”

“CAT! HI! I didn’t know if you were coming!” She then explained she’d be gone for another hour but I assured her I had gelato to eat and no problem dragging my suitcase along with me a bit longer. And I set off, stopping first to admire Santa Maria Novella, one of the oldest and most important churches in Florence. It was here I got to see the colored marble facade that characterized many Florentine churches, complete with similar arches and a high stone spire. Walking through the plaza and onto Via Sant’Antonio, I ran into a street market. Not a cool one, but those that are geared towards tourists with fake Gucci bags, leather belts and tee shirts. I tripped over the uneven cobblestone several times, at last bursting into the Piazza del Mercati Central.

Danielle lived right up the street, just above a small hotel. I continued my way along the streets, in search of a place with an endless array of gelato, perfectly whipped with added garnish. I got so hungry, I just stopped in the next place I saw. The man served me pistachio, and I took the cone to go. Less than a block later, I was standing in front of the Duomo, wide-eyed and suddenly suffering from a headache, not sure if it was induced by the quick consumption of the ice cream or the incredibly stunning facade of the Duomo.

Danielle greeted me at the top of a long flight of stairs that nearly killed me. Her dog, Rosalita wandered out and jumped all over me. An oversized and overly agile French bulldog, I immediately took to her and succumbed to her many kisses. When I emerged several minutes later (dude, that dog is STRONG), I could finally meet Danielle face-to-face, albeit covered in dog spit.

Her long hair in braids and looking extremely Italian in brown boots and a long wrap dress, she showed me around her loft and we talked about travel, her job and mine. She´s working for a company that specializes in placing young people in internships around Florence. I watched as she ate something delicious looking, and realized I was spending time talking to her and not eating or seeing any of Florence. She gave me her keys (with a Packers key ring, this was destiny!) and I set off, 10 kilos lighter without my suitcase.

Despite the weather forecast predicting steady showers, the weather cooperated magnificently. I first walked back to the Duomo. The outside was a creamy white marble laced with pearly pinks and greens, flanked by statues and reliefs. The inside was cavernous, but bare. I guess I missed some major works of art, but after spending over a year of my life in Europe, all churches and seminaries and even castles are starting to look the same. At Danielle’s suggestion, I climbed the bell tower. Following a group of Spaniards up, I painstakingly scaled the 400-plus stairs. The first flight allowed for a spectacular view over the plaza and eye-level with the rooftops. When I finally reached the fourth and final level, my legs were quivering and I felt dizzy. The fresh air hit me, and I was rewarded with a superb view of the red-tiled dome and roofs of the buildings.

From the top, I spotted a huge, stately plaza. Locating it on the map I hurried down the stairs (HORRIBLE idea, as my legs were throbbing by the time I had traversed the 400-plus steps again) and set off towards Piazza della Republica. The yellow government buildings are ringed with pijo-looking cafes and souvenir kiosks. Continuing on, I ran headfirst into another large plaza.

Staring up at Palazzo Vecchio, I have to say I was less than impressed. The boxy building is uniform except for the illogically placed, off-centered bell tower, adorned with a clock. Near the top of the building, there are crests of lions, the fleur-de-lis and shields. A humongous replica of the David joins another statue next to the doors of the palace, and immediately opposite is a whole mess of other marble statues under an awning. It’s quite odd, as is the fountain of Triton on the opposite side, with green statues distorted into grotesque positions of pain. Odd.

My stomach was quite angry with me, so I had to sit and eat and rest a bit. By now, my feet and lower back were in more pain with each step. I considered getting gelato, but remember Jessica’s suggestion to eat my way through the city. I stopped in a small, self-service pasta shop and pointed to the one that looked the best. The woman said, “Mmmm, Salmon. Very good.” And I crinkled my nose and she scooped it back into the vat of salmon pasta and suggested the mushroom and cream pasta. It was 8E, but I sucked it up since I was close to the sights. I added a coke and the total was magically 13E. UGH. And it was sub par. I could have made a better one at home, so you know it was that bad.

Fighting off my usual siesta urges, I continued on to Ponte Vecchio and was suddenly there without realizing it. I had been studying the curved of arches in buildings along Via Calizana and the statues of long-dead poets when I nearly ran into a wall bearing the name “PONTE VECCHIO” It was here that the first bridge over the River Arno was built, once lined with butcher shops. Because of the immense weight, the Medici family demanded the butchers pack up their knives and jewelry dealers moved in. I peered in the shop windows at the gorgeous coral necklaces, the diamond brooches and decided I wanted to be proposed to on this bridge, and then pick out my ring at one of the shops. The view of the river and the pumpkin orange buildings against the grey of the clouds was stunning. Green shutters closed off the windows on all of the huts coupled together over the river.

It was a short jaunt through an arcaded tunnel to Gallerias Uffizi, an impressive art museum. I stood in line for 20 minutes, tapping my foot and wishing for a book, before I couldn’t take it any longer. I’d have to come back the next day. Nancy suggested Santa Croce church to me, so I walked along the Arno quickly, realizing I had just three hours before the sights closed. The plaza was full of pigeons, but not many people. I stopped to watch a small puppet show. There were 3-foot-tall clowns, Ray Charles at a piano and some other characters. I snuck around the back and watched the puppeteer commandeer their creations, laughing with one another and swaying their hips. Closer to the door of the church, a black piano was plunking out what I guessed was a folk dance. Three people were dancing to the music, clapping and doing a coordinated dance. They weren’t selling CDs and didn’t have a hat set out for donations.

Santa Croce wasn’t as exciting as I thought it would be, mostly because it was under construction. Reputed ot be a bit like Westminster Abbey, the church floor is covered in gravestones and frescoes cover nearly the whole ceiling, including in all of the private chapels. Gallileo and Michaelangelo’s tombs occupy part of the thick stone walls. Not really worth the money I paid to get in.

Brandon suggested I go to the Medicci palace, the huge square fortress where I’d had lunch. The building is now used as part of their city hall and hold large receptions and conferences. There wasn’t any furniture in the whole place, but the decoration was intricate and full of color. One room was blue with navy fleur-de-lis patterns all over the walls. Again, not really worth it, and I would have much rather enjoyed a trip to Uffizzi or Pitti Palace.

Lindsay suggested a restaurant to me that she eats at every time she’s in Florence, but I decided instead to get two scoops of gelato – huge mounds of papaya and pineapple goodness. The city streets themselves are beautiful and it makes the city feel like a huge architecture museum. I took my time popping in and out of leather stores and etching every cracked stone on the ground into my memory, hoping to remember all of the art and endearing moments. And how amazing gelato is.

After showering quickly, I headed out to a restaurant that Erin had suggested, Il Gatto e Il Volpe. The food was reasonably priced, but I saw it was full of Americans, so I was about to look for somewhere else to go. Instead, a young waiter whose shirt said “family” on the back pulled me in and sat me at a table near the door. Everything on the menu looked good, but I kept my promise to Kike and ate pizza – margharita with rucula and fresh, tangy parmegean. The house chianti, a typical wine from the region, was served in a small, painted jar. I came in not expecting to eat the whole pizza, but I did. it was incredible. And, I was only charged for the pizza – the wine and apertivo were free!!

Feeling a bit drunk from the wine, I grabbed a cappucino and met Danielle back at her apartment. We put a muzzle on Rosalita and went towards the old fort, which has been converted into an exhibition space. It was a creativity festival, billing that anything creative could occupy a space. There was a booth that had all kinds of objects made out of chocolate, artwork, dance exhibitions and some very strange man named Tricky yelling “Jesus called!” into a microphone on stage. Yeah, I’m not kidding. We got bored after just an hour and were picked up by two of Danielle’s friends and Balou, and old golden retriever. The dogs came with us to an enoteca, or wine bar. As always, Rosalita was the center of attention.

After walking home in the rain, Danielle warned me that the puppy snored – and loud! As a matter of fact, it put me to sleep right away, just as if Kike was sleeping right next to me! The next morning, I left the house quickly and headed to the Central Market, right down the street from Danielle’s apartment. I love watching people bargain or dodging to avoid being pummeled by big slabs of meat. The cheeses and meats were on the first floor. I hunted around for the cheapest parmesan and scored a huge hunk for 2E. The butcher sliced off a piece for me to try – it was salty and creamy and a bit earthy. Upstairs, I picked out a banana and some strawberries for breakfast, and ate them in line at the Uffizzi galleries.

After 40 minutes, I was finally able to enter the museum, famous for it’s Botticelli works, like the Birth of Venus, and extensive Reneissance collection. After having been in Europe for quite some time, I found this museum rather boring. The long corridors are lined with portraits of the most famous people of the time from all over the world. And while Botticelli was great, I found I spent more time examining the colors of priests’ robes (you know, since Medieval art is all about Jesus’s childhood), the length of toes and the number of fat rolls on lil Jesus. The rooftop bar but us at eye-level with the Gottici tower and the Duomo’s dome.

From the top floor of the museum, I could see Ponte Vecchio, so I resisted the urge to buy beautiful watercolors from street vendors (and thus risk a fine of 500€) and instead browsed the jewelry shops. Take note, boys: I expect to be proposed to on the bridge and then get to pick out any ring I want from the shops. Everything was goregous – encrusted and dripping with diamonds or precious stones. Walking away from the Duomo, I passed Pitti Palace and turned onto a side street in search of…something. I found Pitti Vintage, a whimsical (yet expensive) vintage store, with plush pink chairs covered in old vinyls and a wonderful pair of white cowboy boots that I fell in love with…until I saw the 75€ price tag.

By now it had started to rain, so I ran back to the ice cream store I´d seen the night before. The shop, right near the Duomo, had dreamy flavors like pear and baccio (chocolate ice cream with hazelnuts). The attendant practically folded the ice cream over and over again while I watch. I ate it on a bench near the center of town as if I would never eat ice cream again. After saying goodbye to Danielle and Rosalita, I rolled my little broken suitcase back to the train station and headed towards Pisa.

Two days seemed a lot longer. I was able to see tons and eat tons. I had just eaten a mozzarella and tomato sandwich when I met some Americans in line for the flight. They were all from the east coast and studying in Florence for the semester. Grateful to have a bit of company, we sat together on the plane and I helped them find their hostal. They repaid me by inviting me to dinner at El Rincón de la Tita – fried eggplant with honey, pork loin with whisky sauce, croquetas and puntillitas.

During dinner, I gushed about how gorgeous and interesting Florence is and how lucky they were to study there.

Erika said, “Sevilla is astounding. I can’t believe you live here.”

Me neither.

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About Cat Gaa

As a beef-loving Chicago girl living among pigs, bullfighters, and a whole lotta canis, Cat Gaa writes about expat life in Seville, Spain. When not cavorting with adorable Spanish grandpas or struggling with Spanish prepositions, she wrangles babies at an English Language Academy and freelances with other publications, like Rough Guides and The Spain Scoop.

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