Solo in Florence

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View from the Duomo, Florence, Italy

It was not totally without trepidation that I traveled alone to Italy this fall, but the opportunity of a lifetime suddenly presented itself to spend three days in a villa in Tuscany and my heart leapt at the chance. Glorious fond memories of sights, food and people called me back. My last visit in 2006 when the three of us traveled through Italy together, my mom, daughter and I.  It only made sense to add a few days on the front and back end to balance the long hours and expense of travel to do some further exploring on my own. Traveling solo on vacation is a first for me, one of many on this adventure.

Many of my gal pals and even my own mom gave me the eye, you know the one. “Won’t you be afraid? All by yourself?!” Can you even speak Italian? (Not but a few phrases.) Once I make my decision I proceed full tilt, planning my trip fairly meticulously.  First, where to stay, second transportation logistics (I’ve never ridden a train for actual transport) and what to see. Because I was traveling alone, I wanted to stay in a small, multi-lingual, affordable hotel or bed and breakfast inn within walking distances to the main attractions. I wanted the intimate and personal interactions that I would not receive from those big, fancy hotels that render guests anonymous, regardless of the excellent service. In short, I wanted to my hosts to get to know me as much as I they, so that someone would care enough to be my safety net in a foreign city.

Olivia laughed at my “huge American luggages” as I rolled both suitcases off the train from Pistoia into the Santa Maria Novella train station. Just off the platform we walked to a quiet spot amist the crowds to say our goodbyes and off to continue our personal journeys. Lynn to Rome and Olivia to Malta. Hugs given, pictures taken, a contented sigh as we turned our separate ways. In my planning I had traced the walking route from the station to the Hotel Alloro on the map, but in the fog of the intense weekend that mental map offered me nothing recognizable to the scene before me. The hesitation to just start out walking won over and I opted for a taxi ride. A few blocks later I was deposited on a quiet narrow street in front of a 16th century building with massive iron gates. I laughed at myself at the shortness of the ride (but still thought it was well worth it!)

If I had any doubt about being in a safe place at night these mighty gates readily allayed my fears. Schlepping my luggages into the small elevator to the second floor, I entered a gracious salon basking in the morning light coming in from the interior atrium windows.  Since my room wasn’t quite ready (being only 10:00 am) my host Christian offered me a caffe and some treats as I waited. His father laughed at my luggages and asked if I was packing a man in one of them. I fear I must learn to pack lighter on these sojourns or forever endure the jokes my suitcases seem to provoke.

Sitting quietly in the salon, I pulled out my journal and began writing. Jamie would be so proud. Filling my pages with the thoughts that have been swirling in my head, not wanting to lose those precious observations, facts and feelings so gently cajoled and encouraged at the villa. Quietly, Christian brings another caffe and the transition begins as my role of independent traveler supersedes that of pupil.

Morning coffee at Hotel Alloro, Florence, Italy

Soon my room is ready and the large skeleton key with the brass fob unlocks the wooden door.  Will this be alright? Breathing in sharply, yes.  Just right. The morning light streams in the huge windows and bounces off the golden painted walls with classic murals, inviting my artistic nature welcome.

As a promise to myself, my son, and my friend Meeta I gathered my camera, adjusted my boots and headed to the Piazza del Duomo. Street map studied and in hand I was determined to visit Basilica di Santa Maria del Fiore and climb all 463 steps to the top of the Duomo before sunset. My orthopedic boot and all.

2 1/2 hours from my first step into the line to the top of the Duomo!

The wait and the climb in the boot was well worth the huffing and puffing up the narrow steep steps. New friends made along the way and a sense of exhilaration at the top. It is sad how much graffiti scars any surface within reach, but even that cannot erase the sense of accomplishment on the faces of the people that make the climb. I could have easily paid for my dinner if I asked a euro for each photo I took of couples and families commemorating the moment. The growing darkness reminded me to start heading back down and out to the piazza. Gelato was my reward, as the wonder of being again at street level brought me back to reality.

One of the highlights of visiting in Florence with my mother and daughter was discovering some of the most beautiful shops — not the overpriced designer boutiques — but the hidden treaures of stationers and apothocaries. One in particular called to me as I made my way though the narrow streets guided by vague memory and instinct. Having worked at a stationary store all during high school, my love for fine paper, pens and all manner of things drew me back to R. Vannucci Cartoleria.

Cartoleria = Stationers

Weaving my way back to the Hotel Alloro, nearly invisibly through the throngs of visitors and street performers is a delightful sensation. Watching the families, the tour groups following behind the ever present upheld umbrella adds to the pulse and flow of this city that I have found to be very clean and safe with a visible police presence. But all that looking has worn me out. Time to put my feet up, have a Diet Coke and think about what’s for dinner, not only the what but where!

The Hotel Alloro is near the San Lorenzo Market and a number of restaurants within easy walking. After a weekend of delightful Tuscan home cooking, writing and photographing all about food, you can bet I was looking for something more than dish of something prepared specifically for the tourist trade.  I asked my host for some suggestions and we chatted about the pros and cons of those near by. I looked Christian in the eye and said, “I want something better.” He smiled as he handed me a little square business card.

Next installment: where eating is sexy cuco

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12 Responses to Solo in Florence

  1. Olivia says:

    Oh Robin I still picture you at the train station with those 2 large luggages! You see I wasn’t the only one laughing at them 🙂

  2. Oh, Robin, I wish you were here now. We’re going to your restaurant before we leave. We’ve discovered several wonderful ones across the river in Santo Spirito. Small, don’t speak English. I had an amazing terrine of boar for lunch there one day. I can’t wait to try your place.

    We’re here in Florence for two weeks of language training and exploration. We spend the mornings in Italian lessons and the afternoons and weekends exploring the city and the region. The school provides not only language lessons but also great recommendations for restaurants and places to explore. It’s our favorite kind of vacation.

    As always, your photos are break-my-heart gorgeous.

    • I am so glad to hear from you Kate! What a wonderful vacation, it would be so fun to join you, at least I can hope to hear about your adventures at Serendipity. You kind compliment melts my heart. Thank you.

  3. Bentobird says:

    How lovely to go along with you this wonderfully refined city, and see it through your eyes, Robin! Can’t wait for the next installment….ciao!

  4. Jamie says:

    What a beautiful write up and Jamie is proud of you and wants to hug you! By the end of your first paragraph I found a smile dancing on my lips, my shoulders relaxing and your beautiful, perfect words washed over and transported me to Florence. What an enchanting day… and I admire you, admire you for traveling alone, climbing all of those steps, chatting with people, wandering around solo and daring to push your host to spill the name of a real restaurant. Wonderful story, beautiful storytelling and I await the next installment. x (how I would love to do some travelling with you!)

  5. Jeanne says:

    OMG you climbed all those steps in your boot??? Now that’s commitment! 🙂 Not that I doubted for a second you were a committed lady, having spent those three days in the villa with you! I love travelling alone – I really do. You can keep your own timetable, visit only the places that interest you, and you seem to meet people more easily. I find I always think of my mom when I travel alone – the woman who (six months before she went into renal failure) came to Europe in her 60s and travelled alone on the then-novel Eurostar to The Hague while I stayed behind in London to wait for her. No questions where my love of travel comes from!!

    Can’t wait for your next instalment 🙂

    • I think we are kindred spirits Jeanne and blessed to have wonderful, strong mothers as role models. Your work motivates and inspires me onward and for that many, many thanks.

  6. Denise says:

    I remembered you climbed all those steps (I was so proud!) when I did the same thing a few days later.
    Love to read this post and can’t wait to read the next part!

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