The Best-Kept Secrets in Florence

I admit I’m terrible at keeping secrets, but only the kind that you’re bursting to share with people. The kind where no one is being talked about and no one will get hurt.

I would have loved to keep the Novio completely in the dark about our Tuscan holiday until we arrived to the airport in January 2013, but as someone who hates surprises, it was easier to tell him to pack for a weekend of eating and drinking, with a little bit of walking around in between courses.

It’s not secret that I love Italy and just about everything I’ve experienced – my great aunt married an Italian just off the boat, and together they founded Chicago-based Italian food import company Dell’Alpe. Italian food and language have always been present at my family gatherings. The Novio had never been to anywhere north of Cagliari, so I bought him round-trip tickets, a secret I kept for less than three hours. 

Having spent my first solo trip in Florence, the city’s main sights held little mystique, so I got a local to spill the beans – Tiana Kai, an American married to a Fiorentino, who sent me a list of bars, enotecas and hole-in-the-wall trattorias. But everything went out the window when we arrived cold and hungry to Florence after 10pm.

Despite wrong turns, nearly scratching our rental car and being at the inability to find our hotel, the concierge suggested a hidden trattoria for dinner. When I say hidden, I meant really was – even after an exhaustive Internet search, I still can’t find the name. It was near the Mercato Centrale and just as nondescript as every family-run restaurant on the street.

We arrived just before the kitchen closed around 11pm. Ushered to a table and poured glasses of wine, we blinked blindly at the menu, which was all in Italian. A group of American students chattered nearby, crinkly their glasses of Chianti together every opportunity they got.

I found two words I knew – ravioli and gorgonzola – and settled on it. The Novio ordered another ravioli dish and a plate of antipasto. We broke a no-pasta-or-rice-before-bedtime rule.

The restaurant’s kitchen was just over his right shoulder, so I watched the chef hand roll the pasta, shape the raviolis and stuff what looked like pulled pork into the small squares of pasta. Lumps of cheese went into mine, which were then tossed in a wine sauce and garnishes with walnuts. The Novio had unwillingly chosen wild boar, which is also the unofficial mascot of the city (hence the photo).

The following morning dawned cold but bright. I walked the Novio past all of the important sites – the Uffizi Galleries, the Duomo, Ponte Vecchio. We vowed to spend our euros on food and drink, and therefore skipped the lines at the Medici palace for an espresso in the square, just steps from the iconic David statue.

We ended up near Santa Croce at noon. Entrance was a few euros, but as soon as the Novio found out it was Franciscan, he was willing to fork over the equivalent of a nice glass of wine. Though not a secret, hidden church, this basilica houses the remains of illustrious Italians, like Galileo and Michealangelo, in addition to providing respite from the cold sun. It’s a simple church, though its 16 chapels house frescoes from celebrated Italian artists.

We sat in the adjacent plaza after our visit,and I turned on my data to try and find a hole-in-the-wall pizza place I’d visited a few years back and found an open wi-fi code at a nearby wine bar. 

A college friend of mine had studied in Florence and recommended Il Gato e la Volpe. I had a meal there five years before, during my first trip alone in 2008. The waiters had sat me with an Italian American family who shared their wine and breadsticks with me as I devoured a pizza by myself.

Secret or not, this is as dive bar as classy Florence gets – wood paneling, rickety chairs and the smell of burnt pizza crust. We shared a liter of beer, a pizza and gnocchi with pesto for less than 12€, the price of a plate of pasta or individual pizza in a moderate restaurant near any major site in the city. (Via Ghiballina, 151, near Santa Croce. Open Daily)

We walked off our plates in the neighborhood, exploring roadside monuments and tucked-away piazzas before ending up back at the Arno and within view of the Ponte Vecchio.

The last place on our list was Piazzela Michelangelo – not an off-the-map place by any means, but most tourists don’t know it’s accessible by car. Tiana had clued us is, so we grabbed our bags from the hotel, shifted into first gear, and climbed the winding street in our Fiat.

The views were stunning on the clear day. We traced our steps through the narrow roads of the so-called Cradle of the Renaissance, from the Mercato Centrale to the Duomo to the backstreets of Santa Croce.

We were soon on the road to Bologna, food capital of Italy, where we’d skip again the leaning towers in favor of pasta, oysters and wine. Even in Emilia Romagna, we’d find locals willing to lead us to local foodie hangouts and invite us to rounds of grappa in the university area.

We left Italy after 48 hours, easily a few kilos heavier and without seeing any major sites. Unless, of course, you could seeing the Ponte Vecchio from afar.

Have you ever been to Florence or Bologna? 

The Best Destinations for European City-Breaks

Editor’s note: Just last night, my friend Mickey and I were talking about our travel tastes. While she loves exotic, I prefer a weekend of city life – museums, hip coffee houses and pounding the pavement. Living in Seville, I have the chance to take city breaks every weekend, thanks to no work Fridays and tons of destinations under two or three hours away. Fall is a great time to travel because of the lower cost to fly and stay, and it’s ideal to come to Seville now. Where’s your favorite city break?

A city-break offers the ideal opportunity to glean a glimpse of local life. Indulge in your destination, its culture, history and heritage and enjoy iconic tourist attractions with a one-stop weekend away. Europe boasts a wealth of dream city destinations, just a short flight from UK shores.

With something to offer everyone, European city-breaks promise a weekend away packed with entertainment and enjoyment. With relatively reasonable flights to an array of European destinations, get set to start exploring.

Immerse yourself in Italy’s capital

From culture vultures and art enthusiasts to fans of fine dining and superlative shopaholics, Rome has something to astound every visitor. Steeped in history, Rome is a city of culture with iconic attractions at every corner. From the Vatican to the Colosseum, prestigious landmarks prevail. So much so that the entire old city centre is celebrated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Help make your holiday money go further. Find affordable flights here and make your selection from a variety of convenient departure points. Soak up the cafe culture or hit the shops with your savings.

Romantic Rome offers some of the most iconic historical and cultural experiences in the world so enjoy the majesty of this Italian jewel with an unforgettable weekend away.

More: Where to eat in Florence and Bologna.

Discover Dubrovnik

Dubrovnik is a Croatian coastal delight, steeped in history – and one which is becoming increasingly popular. This walled city is home to Baroque buildings and medieval fortifications and overlooks the sparkling Adriatic Sea so it’s hardly surprising that Croatia’s tourism numbers were up to 6.6 million for January-July 2013!

Beautiful beaches and astounding architecture vie for attention and combine to create a varied choice for a spectacular city break. With everything on offer from superlative seafood to adventure sport facilities, visitors will want more than a weekend away to enjoy this fantastic destination fully!

More: read about walking the Dubrovnik City Walls and chowing down on spicy cevapi.

Soak up some Spanish culture

Barcelona remains a popular destination, combining heritage and history with contemporary and cosmopolitan city life. The historic quarters of the city intrigue with a network of narrow streets and the tree-lined, pedestrian street, La Ramblas proves ever popular as a destination.

The Sagrada Familia and Parc Guell showcase some of Spain’s finest feats of architecture. Several of Gaudi’s monuments are classed as UNESCO World Heritage Sites and sit comfortably alongside Barcelona’s bustling modern districts and beautiful coastal location.

Plus, there are some pretty sweet hotels and apartment rentals to stay in while in the Ciudad Condal.

Read more: Barcelona’s whimsical Parc Guell, visiting the Sagrada Familia or Day Trips from Barcelona.

Where are you headed on your next trip? Or, since it’s a long weekend in Spain, where are you now?

Italian Holiday: First Rate Without the Luxury Price Tag

Ah, Bella Italia. Conjures up images of designer boutiques, smart pavement cafes with eye-wateringly expensive menus, and beautifully dressed people sipping frothy cappuccinos in the sunshine, doesn’t it? Or perhaps Italy means flying down snow-packed pistes with the wind whipping your cheeks, or maybe it even touring the lakes, vineyards and rolling hills of rural Italy. My mother grew up telling us about Italy, of the fabric shops and the endless amount of gelato, despite not having an ounce of mediterranean blood in us.

Italy was the second foreign country I visited, and it was hot, sticky and crowded. After Nancy touted it as her favorite place in the world, I was disappointed with Rome and Naples, but loved Sorrento’s sea views. As it turns out, there is a seemingly endless list of different holiday experiences on offer in this glorious part of the world, and we went during the height of tourist season. What they often have in common is a certain luxury factor that many might associate with top of the range holidays and a price to match, though you might be surprised to learn that a trip to Italy doesn’t have to cost una pasta (haha, get it?).

Take my solo trip to Pisa. I flew on a budget airline, stayed with local hosts on couchsurfing and searched out the cheap eats, spending a mere 120€ between the flight, food and transportation . In trips to Rome, Sorrento, Capri, Florence, Pisa and Bologna, I’ve picked up a few tips for keeping costs down in the Boot.

Teaming a low-cost flight with your own choice of hotel is often a great way to enjoy a city break or a stay in one of Italy’s famous locations. Book your flight as early as possible, as scheduled flights rarely stay cheap for long – particularly over weekends or public holidays. Look for hotels with good reviews and try to find those that are close to public transport networks, or be prepared to walk a little distance to get to the main sights. Unless you hit on a great deal, those hotels within the city centre or close to the major sights are typically more expensive. Do your best to shop around – you’ll often find great deals where you least expect them.

Check out local markets for a quick lunch, and never eat at a place right near the sites. Take a look around, and you’ll see that there are zero locals around, and this for a reason! In Florence a few years back, I caved and devoured a plate of tagliatelle near the Medici Palace, and 250g costs me nearly 10€! When I travel, I often tweet locals or ask friends for recommendations.

If you’re after a package break, you’ll find plenty of Italy holiday deals through tour operators like Thomas Cook. The best discounts are often advertised on last-minute holidays, but you’ll frequently find some great deals on next year’s or next season’s breaks too.

And splurge when it’s necessary! I took a boat ride in Capri to the Blue Grotto and the Novio and I stuffed ourselves at a dinner theatre in Bologna. Italy doesn’t have to be expensive, but when in Rome…

Have you been to Rome? What are your top destinations and top tips for saving money while on a city break?

Seville Snapshots: Love Locks in Florence, Italy

Actions always speak louder than words, right?

I mean, I teach English and I know more idioms than I would ever need to know, but my knees goes all jelly and my heart melts when I see random acts of kindness or unnoticed displays of affection on the street.

During our recent trip to Florence and Bologna, where we chose tagliatelle over tourism, we stopped at the Ponte Vecchio, one of my favorite parts of the city. I’ve long loved bridges and the chalky colors of the jewelry shops perched on top of the stone bridge are no exception.

On my first trip to Florence four years ago, I saw the bridge at night. The cobblestone was slick with rain, and I was in a hurry to meet my couch surfing host for a glass of wine. This time around, the Novio had forgotten his sunglasses and we squinted at one another as we walked arm and arm from the Uffizi Galleries.

Like us, love locks were arm-in-arm with the wrought iron of the statue on the bridge. In a city in close proximity to the Eternal one, eternal love was scrawled in permanent marker across heart-shaped ones, small luggage ones, and the type I had on my locker in high school. Cheesy, maybe, but a testament to love in one of the most romantic places I’ve ever been to.

Do you like love locks, or are you against them? Where have you seen them around the world?

Tapas Thursday: Eating Italy

Little known fact about me: Italian food is as much a part of my family’s table fare as meat and potatoes. And I have not one ounce of sangue italiano in me.

There’s two parts to this story: firstly, my mom studied gelato and fashion in Rome in the 70s, developing a love for Ferragamo and fromaggio. And my great-aunt Mary Jane married the boy next store, my beloved Uncle Mario, whose family arrived from Northern Italy when they were in high school. Mario Rubenelli started the Dell’Alpe food import company, whose products can be found around Chicago. Imported olive oil, pepperoncini, balsalmic, and parmesean cheese were always on our table.

When I surprised the Novio with a weekend trip to Bologna, we had little else on our itinerary but gain a few kilos and wash it all down with Chianti. Add an overnight trip to Florence, and our food hangover was coupled with an art and architecture one.

Upon arrival to Marconi Airport, we steered our car south towards Firenze. Eager to eat, we arrived frantic and without a place to park. Our hotel recommended a small trattoria, and we snuck in just before they closed. The place, Trattoria da Guido, was cozy and lit with candles with a plain view of the kitchen. We communicated with our waitress in Spanish with a sprinkling of Italian – vino, prosciutto, acqua, grazie.

My eyes immediately went to the gorgonzola ravioli with walnut sauce, and Kike’s choice of tagliatelle with wild boar meat – a symbol of Florence, anyway – was clear. My chianti arrived with our salad topped with mozzarella and Parma ham, and our fresh pasta a few minutes later. Manggia, we did – I didn’t even take any pictures! My dish was heaven – creamy with nutty undertones and just the right amount (Via Faenza, 34. Open daily for lunch and dinner).

The following morning, a breakfast with a view of the Medici Chapel and the Saturday market met us early. After an espresso, hot panini and even some nutella for my banana, we stopped by the nearby San Lorenzo food market. On a sleepy Saturday morning, many of the stalls hadn’t even opened, meaning the Novio and I had nearly the entire maze of fish and vegetable shops to ourselves. But I was on a mission: to bring back a hunk of parmesean, even if it mean donning more clothes on board our return flight if my suitcase was overweight. Tempting were the rolls of salami, mortadella and tiny flasks of limoncello.

The morning was punctuated by stops in sunny piazzas for another caffeine jolt or Moretti beer. I was aching to get the sightseeing done and get onto having another meal, this time in a student pizzeria where I’d eaten years ago. The wood-backed chairs and exposed brick walls of Osteria del Gatto e la Volpe lent a comfortable atmosphere for our crostini appetizer as we poured over a six-pages of pasta, pizza and calzones. On my first solo trip, spent in Florence, I’d had a simple pizza and a small jar of wine, and the waiters seranaded me from a small corner table on a busy Saturday night – I needed that pizza again.

In the end, we split a hearty potato gnocchi with pesto and a margherita pizza with parmesean and ruccula (Via Ghibellina, 151, near Santa Croce). The meal was a perfect balance and a great value, and it filled us up during a day of driving back to Bologna and a long winter’s nap once there.

Emiglia Romano is the unsung food hero of Italy, home to Parma (of ham fame), Modesto (of basalmic vinegar fame) and tasty regional capital, Bologna (of the meat sauce fame). The gritty capital is not only known for its food, but for its modern university, which meant cheap and plentiful food options abound.

After a long sonnichiarre, the Novio and I bundled up and got a glimpse of the Due Torres, San Petronino church and Piazza Neptuno. Our hotel was right next to a highly-recommended osterria, but the early dinne crowd had us huddled in a bar, drinking beer. Upon changing locations – an aptly named bar called Siesta – the bartender asked the Novio what kind of beer he wanted via the young Italian sitting next to us.

Peppino – with two Ps, not to be confused with the vegetable – had studied in Las Palmas de Gran Canaria and spoke pretty good Spanish. Adopting the When in Rome Bologna, do as the Bolognians do frame of mind, we followed Peppino and his friend Eliza to a swanky, low-lit supper club called Bravo Caffe, where we ordered a bottle of suave red from his hometown of Lecce and a platter of cured meats – mortadella, prosciutto, parma ham and pancetta. (Via Mascarella, 1. Bologna).

A woman took the stage as the lights dimmed, meaning we’d be eating with very little light. Our appetizer of squid with caramelized mushrooms arrived, opening the floodgates of my hunger. I had ordered potato gnocchi with pecorino cheese, smothered in parmesan, olive oil and fresh parsley, a staple on my Italian side of the family. Ignoring the music, the company and everything else that wasn’t on my plate, I popped potato ball after potato ball in my mouth. If there’s one thing that makes me a horrible guest, it’s the presence of good food in front of me – I don’t even remember what Kike ate!

After such a hearty meal, a grappa seemed to be in order, followed by a cocktail. The next morning’s alarm went off and I had to roll off the bed, thanks to a still-full stomach and a slight tequila hangover. We wouldn’t consume much more that day, sharing sandwiches on the plane ride and even skipping dinner.

Back at home, I purveyed my pantry: a new hunk of parmesan, marked with PARM REGG, three types of pasta, and all of the Dell’Alpe spices I’d hoarded from my family’s company. Not bad for a non-Mediterrean.

Like food posts? I also told you everything I ate while in La Rioja, Spain’s de-facto wine capital. Do you like Italian food (or food gluttony)?

Seville Snapshots: When in Rome…

I have to admit that Seville has been less-than-inspiring lately. Between the master’s and work, plus rainy weather and holing up with a recently-returned Novio, I’ve barely even been in the center!

So we escaped la vida sevillana and swapped tapas for heaping plates of pasta this weekend in Bella Italia. Our Cruzcampo became half liters of Moretti; potato chips, crostini.  The Novio even parked his car and chose to hoof it as we explored Florence’s piazzas and Bologna’s jumble of churches and towers.

We spent the weekend looking for the little bits of sun on a cold Saturday in Florence, ducking in and out of bars for espressos and seeking out cheap grappas at old man bars.

In short…we ate. And drank. And ate more.

But you have to wait… I have driving school to attend en español and finish writing about Barcelona.

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