Why I love Italy: five inspiring insights from an evening with Frances Mayes

Earlier this month I had the transporting opportunity to interview Frances Mayes on stage as part of the National Geographic Traveler Conversations series in Washington, DC. I actually met Mayes in the early 1980s, when I moved to San Francisco. I had told my creative writing graduate school poet-mentor that I was moving to the Bay Area, and she told me that I should be sure to look up the poet Frances Mayes. I did and Mayes helped introduce me to the cultural riches of the city. This was years before Under the Tuscan Sun catapulted her into the kind of best-sellerdom poets can only dream of. That passionate, transformative memoir has spawned many subsequent books on Italy, including her most recent and delightful work, “Every Day in Tuscany: Seasons of an Italian Life.” In our conversation, as in her books, Mayes was passionate, articulate, and electrically alive to the senses and seductions of Italy. Here are five of the many Italy-inspired insights I took away from our talk:

1) The rhythms of Italy: Poetry, Mayes said, was all she ever intended to write. But something happened after she bought and moved into Bramasole, her house in Cortona:

“I started writing longer lines and lines didn’t any more want to be cut at where the line break goes in a poem. I started keeping notebooks and it just started expanding, and I found myself writing prose. I never intended to and I think that it’s just mysterious that sometimes the rhythms in your brain change and your genre follows after that. It wasn’t a conscious choice, but I did start writing prose because I was writing out of excitement at living there and leaning a new language, meeting people. It was very spontaneous and in fact all of my books about Italy have been written out of just spontaneity and fun.”

It’s fascinating to me how the rhythms of a place can infiltrate us and change the way we create, even how we move through the world. This phenomenon has certainly been true in my own life. In the hard Grecian sunlight, I’m more decisive and my writing is brighter. More vivid. More clearly etched. In France, my sentences are more languorous, more nuanced, more apt to while an hour or two away over a café crème, watching the perfumed passersby from a windowside seat at a café by the Seine. In Hawaii, I surrender myself to sun, sand, and sea. In Japan, I’m attuned to intricacies, shadows, the larger meanings of little things. 2) Italy is old and ever new: Last summer was Mayes’s 20th anniversary of living in Cortona, and yet, she said,

“Tuscany is still new to me. That’s what is so unpredictable. You think that you know a place after 20 years, but Italy is such a remarkable country. Maybe this is because they only unified – to put it loosely, they haven’t really unified — 150 years ago. Because they had such a long history of small papal states and little kingdoms, everything stayed very individual: different dialects, different pasta, different artists, different colored stone. It’s still like that. Even if you’ve lived there 20 years, you can still go 30 miles and be somewhere that you’ve never seen before – some little tiny village or hill town that’s really intriguing. There’s always something really interesting and new to discover. And of course learning a new language is the same thing.”

First of all, I love the sense of possibility in these words – the way when you know and love a place well, it keeps revealing itself in new and expanding ways. (Mayes used as an example of this her discovery in January, in Friuli, of a Byzantine church floor mosaic about the size of an auditorium. “I’d never heard of it and it was stupendous. And we discovered it just by haphazardly visiting this wonderful old Roman town,” she said.)

This has been true for me everywhere I’ve lived – precious pocket musees in Paris, overlooked archaeological sites in Athens, mossy cemeteries and senbei shops in Old Tokyo, parrot-loud parks in San Francisco. It’s a great lesson: the more you know, the more you have to learn.

Secondly, I love the analogy that a language works the same way. It’s so true! You think you know a language well and then you stumble into linguistic neighborhoods you’d never known about before. Or you discover the past perfect subjunctive and it’s like a whole new swath of grammatical jungle has revealed itself with raucous birds and impossibly lush flowers. You can never exhaust a language or a place.

3) The lessons of the Tuscan table: I asked Mayes if there was one meal that stands out for her as a particularly unforgettable feast. She said it would have to be the first of the many eight-hour fests they have been invited to in Cortona.

“This was a First Communion dinner a friend had for her two boys. There were about 150 people there. When we arrived, they’d passed around 30 antipasti already. Next they served two pastas they had made, and then several secondi. After that four men came in the back door holding a tray big enough to hold a human. This was the thigh of a Val di Chiana cow that was so big they had it roasted in the hotel oven in town. They passed around this wonderful roasted beef and potatoes. Next thing I knew my husband Ed was on his feet singing a song he’d never heard of with four other men. He was feeling really good because two women had asked if he was in film. I think we were the first to leave and we staggered out about eight hours later. As we drove off, Ed said, ‘I just hope we’re around when those two boys get married.’

“When I first started having Italians over,” Mayes continued, “I remember being thrown because they would often turn up with a couple of extra guests. I had the table set for 8 or 10, and they’d say, ‘Oh, so-and-so was in town so we’ve brought him,’ and I’d think, ‘Oh great.’ I’ve since come to think how wonderful that is in a way because it shows how naturally they entertain, how they think about food, and how they experience the table. Put in another handful of pasta, pull up another table, va bene. So now when we go someplace, we sometimes bring an extra guest too.

“Food is such a good reflection of the culture. Food is never cult in Italy. For example, I have never heard food associated with guilt, never heard someone say, ‘That looks so fattening.’

“Another thing I love about the Tuscan table is that nobody stays in their place. Our friend Marcos says that it’s best to have 25 at table. I’ve come to think that’s right – I used to think six was the best – because in the course of the evening everybody moves several times so everybody gets to visit with everybody else. I love that.”

4) Openings and art:

“Another thing I’ve loved in Tuscany,” Mayes said, “is the sense of the open door. Our house is very at home in the landscape. And when I first saw it, I remember thinking that if I lived there, I could be at home there too. There are no screens. The doors are open, the windows are open. The butterflies go in one window and out the other. The neighborhood cats run through the house. The house is open and therefore the mind is too, and that has influenced me quite a bit, opened up my writing quite a bit. It gave me the confidence to try to write a novel, for example.

“Italy is a wonderful place to be a writer – there’s something about living in beauty. Art is taken for granted when you grow up bouncing a ball against the Orvieto Cathedral. Beauty is just something that is part of their breathing. As a writer, it was wonderful to be in a place where the arts are taken much more as a natural part of life, not afar but normal.”

5) Living on Tuscan time: There is a different sense of time in Italy, Mayes said.

“Tuscans are at home in time because they have so much time behind them. They don’t have the sense that life is a frantic thing to master. It’s more like time is a river and you’re in it. Down at the bottom of our hill, Hannibal defeated the Romans in 217 BC, and sometimes we’ll go to dinner at somebody’s house and they’ll be talking about whether Hannibal came from the south or another route, and whether he’d lost his eye by then or not. You’d think Hannibal could walk in the door….

“So they do have this really long sense of time. Our little town was one of the original 12 Etruscan cities. The town walls date from 800 BC. You live in layers of time, you’re conscious of it because of the landscape. The landscape is still so similar to the background in those Renaissance paintings that you feel like there’s a continuum of time that you’re in, so you feel less crushed by time and more in it.”

Discovery Adventures travel company debuts 2011’s Discovery Channel-inspired trips

adventure travel companyArmchair traveler red alert! Discovery Adventures is offering eight new Discovery Channel-inspired cultural trips for 2011, including Greece, Turkey, Italy, France, Japan, and East Africa. Explore archaeological sites near Athens, visit wineries in Tuscany, safari in Kenya, or soak in hot springs in the Japanese Alps. Trips are limited to 16 people, and run from eight to 15 days. Accommodations range from boutique hotels and inns with local character to eco-lodges.

Discovery Adventures has teamed up with adventure travel industry leader Gap Adventures and non-profit Planeterra to offer travelers more opportunities to positively impact the lives of communities around the world. Each trip provides travelers with an opportunity to visit destinations (often traveling by traditional modes of transport such as rickshaw or elephant) and interact with local people in an ecologically-responsible manner. In addition to your guide, you’ll be accompanied by local historians, archaeologists, artisans, and naturalists. Time to get off that Barcalounger!

[Photo credit: Flickr user Arno & Louise Wildlife]

Gadling’s favorite destinations for 2011

gadling favorite destinations 2011

We travel a lot, to destinations both well-known and unfamiliar. In our defense, it is our job to travel like mad, to explore the world and then write about our discoveries.

Though most travel writers find something or other of interest in most places we visit, there are always those personal favorites that rise above the rest. This year, we decided to scribble our favorites down for you. Some of these spots we’re tipping for greater coverage in 2011, while others are simply tried-and-true favorites that we can’t stop raving about to our friends and the various publications that allow us to write for them. Over the course of this week, we’ll weigh in on our favorite hotels, airlines, gadgets, apps, and websites.

So, without further ado: Gadling’s favorite destinations for 2011.

Mike Barish. St. Kitts. I genuinely enjoy how locals and visitors frequent the same beach bars and restaurants. During evenings on the strip, I’d recognize staff members from my hotel doing the same thing I was doing: enjoying the ocean breeze with a cocktail and some jerk chicken.

Kraig Becker. Everest Base Camp, Nepal. For adventure travelers, a visit to Everest Base Camp is one of the best treks in the world. The 12-day hike isn’t just about the destination, however, as you walk in the shadow of the Himalaya each day, passing through sleepy mountain villages steeped in Sherpa culture along the way. The scenery, and altitude, is a breathtaking once-in-a-lifetime adventure.
Catherine Bodry: Ko Chang, Thailand and Sayulita, Mexico.

Joel Bullock: My favorite new roller coaster of 2010 is Carowinds’ Intimidator. Carowinds is located on the border of North and South Carolina in Charlotte in the heart of NASCAR country. It was only fitting that the park design a racing-themed roller coaster that bears the nickname of racing legend Dale Earnhadt. Intimidator is an exciting ride. It’s the tallest, fastest, and longest roller coaster in the South East.

David Downie: As a general trend, I revisit places that have fallen off the tourist maps, or that have been taken for granted, and delve deeper into favorite destinations such as Paris and Rome, which are infinitely rich and fascinating and satisfying. Cities: Paris (art, culture, walks, museums, food, wine), Rome (art, culture, walks, museums, food, wine), Genoa (food, wine, scenic beauty, history, magically restored architecture), Bologna (food, food, food and atmosphere and architecture), Helsinki (scenic beauty, atmosphere, seafood). Countryside destinations: Burgundy (wine, food, vineyard and mountain scenery), Massif Central (hikes, scenery), Drome-Provencal (ditto, plus truffles and wine), Tuscany (art, culture, museums, wine, food, vineyard and mountain scenery), Italian Riviera (ditto).

Don George. (1) Peru‘s Sacred Valley. I finally made it there this year and was enchanted by scenery, history, culture, people, cuisine. Machu Picchu is of course life-transformingly amazing but the other untouted ruins all around the valley are equally amazing. (2) Kyoto, Japan. The cobbled back quarters of this ancient city are as enchanting now as they were when I first visited 30 years ago. Tiny temples, impromptu shakuhachi concerts, apprentice geisha in full splendor. (3) Aitutaki, Cook Islands. Incredible island scenery, hospitable people, stunning lagoon, peaceful and laid-back lifestyle, thriving dance, carving, and textile arts scene.

Tom Johansmeyer. If you’re a cigar smoker, nothing beats Esteli, Nicaragua. On just about any budget, you can spend a few days down there. Make a few calls in advance, and you’ll have the opportunity to tour tobacco fields and cigar factories. Even if you aren’t a smoker, it’s amazing to see such craftsmanship in action.

Jeremy Kressmann. Hanoi, Vietnam for its great history and architecture, awesome cuisine, and intriguing Cold War sights. Secondly, Laos. The rugged north of the country has great hikes and the buzzing cultural capital of Luang Prabang is totally worthwhile.

Grant Martin. Bogotá. Forget what you’ve heard about kidnappings, drugs and danger, Bogotá is the new cosmopolitan capital of South America. With quaint, brick streets, a buzzing commercial district and a hip, young population, there’s not much to dislike about this place. Get there before the rest of North America figures it out.

Melanie Nayer. Shanghai. The city of old and new hit a turning point when it hosted the World Expo, and set the stage for Shanghai to become one of the most talked about–and visited–cities in the world.

Sean McLachlan. Ethiopia. Friendly people, rugged scenery, historic sites, and great coffee. What more could you want? Beautiful women, good food, adventure travel? Ethiopia has all that too.

Laurel Miller. Ecuador, especially Cotopaxi National Park (see above), because it’s stunningly beautiful, uncrowded, and there are loads of outdoor recreational opportunities. Ecuador is an amazingly diverse country, kind of like a mini-Peru but with very low-key tourism. There’s also great whitewater rafting/kayaking and mountaineering, fascinating indigenous culture, beautiful colonial cities, delicious regional foods, and the people are wonderful. There’s so much more to Ecuador than just the (admittedly spectacular) Galapagos.

Meg Nesterov. Bulgaria is cheap, creative, and easy to explore. Several of my most well-traveled friends already rave about it. Go now before tourism overexposes the country.

Heather Poole. Positano, Italy. It’s just so beautiful and the food is amazing. I’m a flight attendant and I have a four year-old son, as well as a husband who travels over 100,000 miles a year for business. Our life is like a game of tag. So when it comes to vacations all we want to do is relax. I love to be able to sit on a balcony and let the vacation come to me.

McLean Robbins. Telluride. It’s not new, but as ski towns go it feels non-commercial and relatively untouched. You’ll find truly friendly people (and your fair share of under-the-radar celebrities), but also the country’s best extreme skiing. And it looks like heaven when it snows!

Annie Scott. I’m big on Vienna. It’s a magical city that embodies everything I think of when I think of Europe: culture, history, cathedrals and class. I think the Swiss Riviera may be the most beautiful place I’ve ever been. Lake Geneva looks so pristine you could drink it, and the French influence gives everything from the dining to the shopping that elusive je ne sais quoi. Lastly, I had a marvelous trip this year in Zambia where the wildlife was rampant and the scenery was enchanting and unexpectedly dynamic: sweeping plains, dreamlike riverscapes and incredible trees. The thrill of being immersed in the bush is hard to match.

Alex Robertson Textor. Lima, Peru continues to pop. While the Inca Trail is old hat, Lima is emerging as a major destination on its own. Perhaps most notable is the Peruvian capital’s excellent restaurant scene, which is as disarmingly inexpensive as it is top-notch. I also have to mention green, rustic, jaw-droppingly beautiful Dominica as the Caribbean’s top adventure destination. Dominica has a number of fantastic eco-lodges that showcase the island’s natural beauty wonderfully and are priced reasonably.

Karen Walrond. As a diver, I love Cayman. Love it. Very touristy, but the diving is beyond anything I’ve seen, and i’ve been diving all over the world. And I’m partial to Grand Riviere in my homeland of Trinidad, which isn’t touristy at all. Between April and June, you can see Giant Leatherback turtles nesting in Grand Riviere.

[Image: Flickr | alepheli]

Daily Pampering: Thanksgiving in Tuscany

You could hang around the family dinner table at Thanksgiving, listening to Mom whine about the fact that you’re still single and she has no grandchildren while Dad pours himself another scotch and Uncle Chester keeps missing his mouth and spilling stuffing all over his lap. Or, you could pack it up and head to Tuscany for a stay at The Castello di Vicarello, a 900-year-old castle that has been transformed into a seven-suite luxury retreat with organic vineyards, restaurant and olive orchards.

Castello di Vicarello is offering a Thanksgiving in Tuscany travel package for the week of November 21-28, 2010. Guests can book the entire property in the Maremma region of southern Tuscany for an exclusive family holiday retreat or a solo getaway (if you so desire).

In addition to exclusive use of the Castello di Vicarello, you and the family can indulge in the authentic Tuscan farm-to-table cuisine produced by owner Aurora Baccheschi Berti and her team of chefs. In preparation for Thanksgiving meal, you can even participate in a hunting excursion to the Castello’s exclusive nearby Valle di Buriano estate, where they can hunt wild boar, quail and partridge. Of course, the estate’s award-winning red wines will be part of the feast. When the decadence at the table is over, stretch and soak at the Castello di Vicarello’s Ayurvedic spa with a massage, yoga lesson or visit to the hot tub, sauna and Turkish bath.

The price for a week in Tuscany for Thanksgiving? Approximately $36,355 (Euro 26,000). That’s about what your sanity goes for these days, right?

Want more? Get your daily dose of pampering right here.

In Italy: The Florence meanderings

Florence is so much more than a city. The past of this small community on the banks of the Arno is forever intertwined with invention and progress. The Renaissance began here, advancing all forms of intellectual inquiry and creation. The Medici, essentially the world’s first modern bankers, built a Florentine empire with a strong patronage for the arts. Once the center of the banking and art world, it now exists simply as a quiet city in the Tuscan hills. Florence has come down gracefully from its apogee unapologetic and ready to just be. It forges on ahead with shops full of artisans; architecture that has shaped our conception of beauty, and an art scene that may never be eclipsed. The Florence experience serves a welcome respite from the supercenter and highway lifestyle. Florence is more than a city. It is an ideal from which every other beautiful city should be measured.

Once you have arrived in Florence, the beauty can be overwhelming. I do not have a cure for Stendhal Syndrome, but I do have some experiences for you to enjoy while exploring this old town.

Bistecca

My first night in Florence, I sauntered by a dimly lit restaurant on my way back from the gym. In this restaurant, called Perseus, gigantic cuts of meat hung gracefully from the ceiling. That settled it. I had to go. And go I did. Bistecca Alla Fiorentina is a gigantic mass of beef similar to a multi-story T-bone weighing at least a kilo (2.2 lbs). They cut the beef extremely thick and cook it over burning wood coals. Black and crusty on the outside, scarlet in the center, this robust cut is a true carnivorous delight. The meat is so tender; you could eat it with a fork and spoon. The type of beef used is from the prized Chianina Cow, the largest breed of bovine in the world. It is also one of the oldest. These cows have roamed the hills of central Italy since the age of the Roman Empire.

Bistecca Alla Fiorentina is a famous Tuscan indulgence, and is quite easy to find around Florence. To be sure you are getting the real thing, find a local place that appears to be busy. I happened upon Perseus, and they slapped me silly with their decadent beef, fresh baked bread, and nutritious greens. I left that place with a smile and not a care in the world. A good cut of Bistecca starts at around 45 Euros, but don’t expect to finish it alone.

%Gallery-102594%

Drink the Local Stuff

The countryside surrounding Florence boasts some of Italy’s finest vineyards. Chianti flows like the Arno River in this part of the world, and the straw-flasked bottles are an ubiquitous sight along the streets of Florence. A great place to sample wine is at an enoteca. These are wine shops that cater to all classes and tastes. Some are small street booths to stop for a quick glass while the upscale ones serve elegant meals with their wine offerings. No Florentine experience is complete without nosing into one of these establishments for some nectar from Chianti.

Enoteche range from the basic Casa de Vino, to the opulent Cantinetta Antinori. For a truly wonderful experience, take a tour of the Tuscan countryside and check out the surrounding vineyards. Some great vineyards to visit are Le Cantine di Greve, Castello di Meleto, and Castello di Brolio. Italy and Wine offers great wine tours of Tuscany.

Visit with David

David looks like, at any given moment, he could break free of his pedestal and take off down the hall of the Galleria dell’ Accademia. Michelangelo created a true masterpiece. Nothing really prepares you for its chiseled perfection and gargantuan size. This statue has been considered a masterpiece for over 500 years, and standing there in front of it only confirms this well-worn denotation. His alive eyes insinuate a level of intimacy beyond the customary experience with a fine work of art. He seems to follow you around the room.

Michelangelo’s David is housed in the Galleria dell’ Accademia north of the Duomo. If you are visiting during peak season, then purchase tickets ahead of time online to avoid wasting time in line. Entry is €6.50, and fees are added with online purchase. Open 8:15am-6:50pm Tuesday through Sunday. A replica is available in Piazza Della Signoria, but you need to see the real deal.



Brunelleschi’s Ambitious Dome

The Duomo began its life in 1296 by artist Filippo Brunelleschi and was finished by Filippo Brunelleschi in 1436 Emilio de Fabris in 1886. It is still, today, the largest brick and mortar dome in the world. To complete this herculean feat of engineering, Brunelleschi reverse engineered many lost Roman masonry techniques used in old structures such as the Pantheon in Rome. He also invented several new machines to complete this impossible commission made possible by Medici wealth and renaissance intuition.

The Duomo dominates the Florence skyline, and is thus quite easy to locate. The climb to the top is almost 500 steps up narrow stairwells filled with tourists. I know that part sounds awful, but the views of Florence and surrounding Tuscany from the top is well worth the torment. For a fantastic view of the Duomo, climb the adjacent Campanile, which is much quieter. Cost to climb the Duomo is €8, but free if you just want to enter the cathedral. Hours vary by day – Monday-Wednesday, and Friday 10:00am-3:30pm; Thursday and Saturday 10:00am-4:45pm; Sunday, 1:30pm-4:45pm. And to make things even more confusing, on the first Saturday of the month, the Duomo is open from 10:00am-3:30pm. The Campanile is €6, and is open daily from 8:30am-7:30pm.

Shop for a Fine Vintage

Florence boasts Guccio Gucci, Emilio Pucci, Roberto Cavalli, and Salvatore Ferragamo as native sons. As the list goes, so must the shopping. And while these names come with stratospheric price tags more likely to inspire shock than awe, Florence is also filled with some seriously amazing second hand boutiques. These small shops peddle vintage Gucci, Pucci, Valentino, Prada, and more. The finest vintage shop in Florence is quite possibly Elio Ferraro. Check out the website for sure.

Guccio Gucci started the House of Gucci as a craftsman supplying leather goods to the equine set of Tuscany. Florentine leatherworkers have established themselves as some of the greatest in the world, and Gucci’s wide spread success illustrates this point sufficiently. A fine way to bring home some fine Florentine leather craftsmanship without dropping hundreds of Euros is to purchase gloves. My black and red leather cashmere lined gloves are one of my favorite possessions. They cost me about €50, and are softer than a whisper.

The Secret Vasari Corridor

During World War II, the Germans blitzkrieged much of Florence. They bombed all of the bridges crossing the Arno River, except Ponte Vecchio. Rumor has it; Hitler found it too beautiful to destroy. This is an unlikely tidbit of local lore, but not as unlikely as Ponte Vecchio’s secret passageway. The Medici commissioned a secret passage leading from the Uffizi Palazzo Vecchio, over Ponte Vecchio, and to their home at Pitti Palace on the other side of the Arno. This was done so that they did not have to be bothered walking among commoners. The passageway is called the Vasari Corridor. It begins on the top floor of the Uffizi at a nondescript wooden door, passing covertly over the rooftops of the city.

Getting access to the Vasari Corridor used to be near impossible without bribes or connections, but now you can book a bundled Uffizi/Vasari tour here for around €100. The corridor is set to close down for 3 years at the end of 2010. Walking Ponte Vecchio with the commoners at the street level is also beautiful. The bridge is filled with old world jewelry shops. Ponte Vecchio is a popular and romantic sunset spot.

The Dead in Santa Croce

The Basilica di Santa Croce houses 16 different chapels, and is considered the largest Franciscan church in the world. The grounds are filled with frescos, sculptures, and most impressively – a fine collection of worthy tombs. Like a Hall of Fame for notable Italians, many individuals of great renown are buried here: Michelangelo, Galileo, Machiavelli, Dante, and Rossini. The aesthetics do not disappoint either. The Basilica has several quiet courtyards to solemnly admire. If you happen to visit in early February, then check out the artisan chocolate festival in Piazza Santa Croce right out front. They give out prodigious amounts of free samples.

Santa Croce is located in the Santa Croce neighborhood next to the Biblioteca Nazionale. Doors open at 9:30am and close at 5:30pm, except on Sunday, when they open at 1:00pm and close at 5:30pm. Cost is €5. The 2011 Artisan Chocolate Festival has not yet been announced, but will likely be the first weekend of February. Cost to enter the chocolate festival is free.



Boboli Gardens

Spending an afternoon admiring the ornately appointed lawns behind Pitti Palace will put the Medici wealth into perspective. They began as wool traders and eventually came to form the most respected bank in Europe. They used their wealth and influence to build up Florence as a banking and art center for Europe. They sent family members to the papacy, invented double-entry bookkeeping(debits and credits!), and in many ways, initiated the Renaissance. They had fantastic taste and the Boboli Gardens were their backyard. Be sure to check it out.

The Boboli Gardens open at 8:15am daily, though closing time varies by season. They close at 7:30 in the Summer, 6:30 in the Spring, 5:30 in the Fall, and 4:30 in the Winter. Entry to the garden is through Pitti Palace on the south side of the Arno and costs €6. Pitti Palace boasts 7 different galleries, and was the original home of the Medici. The Palatine gallery houses the Renaissance stuff, and they also have a silver museum, carriage museum, royal apartment museum, a costume gallery, porcelain museum, and a museum of modern art.

The Uffizi Gallery

The Galleria Delgi Uffizi is the top art museum in Florence. Once the base of operations for the vast Medici empire, Uffizi translates to offices. The Uffizi has an extremely simple U shaped layout, and floating from room to room is effortless and awe-inspiring. From Botticelli’s Birth of Venus to Da Vinci’s Annunciation, the Uffizi impresses with over 1500 master Renaissance works. The frescoed corridors lined with statues lend a divine aesthetic to the experience.

During high season, the line for the Uffizi can take upwards of 3 or 4 hours. To expedite this process and ensure that you are not wasting precious Florence time in line, book your tickets in advance here. If you go in the winter, then you can get away with just showing up. The Galleria degli Uffizi is open Tuesday to Sunday from 8:15am to 6:50pm. Cost is a low €6.50, though booking online adds a few Euros to the fee.

Eat, eat, eat, and eat

I used to eat at this Chinese restaurant as a kid. I always wondered how their food was so freaking good. I would just shovel the stuff in until my instincts waved a white flag. Later, I found out that every entree was showered in monosodium glutamate – the bastard child of salt and science. I understand that now. The food in Florence also defies my notions of how good something should be. Everything tastes so fresh that I almost feel insulted by the banalities I drag out of the supercenter back home. Salads seem to grow straight out of the plate. Tomatoes burst with flavor and are “real,” not aberrations genetically tinkered to ripen as they jostle down the interstate. Whereas the secret to good 80’s Chinsese food was msg, the secret to great Italian food is closeness to the source, and of course, love. Everything feels as though it has been loved to fruition rather than simply cooked. From chocolate to pecorino to truffles to basil to gelato, everything tastes, as it should – perfect.

The Tuscan Countryside

While most of Florence can be explored on foot, taking to rural Tuscany requires some sort of wheels underfoot. Some great options for exploring the surrounding countryside include tours on bicycles, cars, or even by Vespa. A great car tour company, The 500 Club, rents out classic Fiats for you to drive in an arranged convoy. Tuscany Bike Tours offers a great bicycle tour of the Chianti region. If you want to take to the Italian countryside by Vespa, then check out Tuscany by Vespa.

To reach Florence from the United States, Alitalia offers a code share with Delta from New York, and Lufthansa flies from Boston and San Francisco. None of these flights are nonstop. From London, you can fly on Ryanair for under $30 nonstop to Pisa, and take a short train ride to the heart of Florence for about $16. It is difficult to find an inexpensive flight directly to Florence in Europe, but budget airlines easyjet and Ryanair serve nearby Pisa International Airport. Florence is just an hour and half express train away from Rome, so you can also fly to Rome and take the train to Florence for around $60.