Day trip to Florence...

During my trip to Rome, I had my sights set on going to Florence for the day – even after my Airbnb host said ‘it would be too short and too tiring’ – nothing was going to change my mind. The trains run frequent and I’d already consulted my Italian ex work buddy Emmanuele, and if he said it was easy, then I knew to trust him (thank you Emmanuele).

I know I’ve said to really soak up and uncover a city and all its charm, ‘you have to live a city’ – and that means spending more than a day somewhere, but hey, one day was better than none….and one day I will ‘live Florence’. I already knew I wasn’t going to see everything in one day, and I was intent on not rushing to see everything. And anyway, I love having a reason to return somewhere :-)

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I’d already booked and paid for my ticket a few days in advance, so all I had to do was find my platform and my seat. I chose a super early 7.45am train. The tickets are cheaper if you book ahead – my return ticket was approx. 60 euros. But, if you know exactly what day you want to travel, it’s even cheaper if you book a few weeks ahead. So, that morning (1st December), I set my alarm super early and headed at 6.30am for the Termini Station in Rome. I had a 50-minute walk, hence my early start. It was a dark morning when I left my cosy home, and walked through the streets, but I was excited at the thought of making this trip. The journey isn’t too long (just under 2 hours), and the ride itself is beautiful. Passing through little towns, and Tuscan fields of trees and fog, I had to resist the urge to get off at a random stop just to take a photo. I thought of my photographer friends who would have loved to have shot with their drone here. It really was special.

I arrived into Santa Maria Novella train station on time 9.17am…and oh boy, first though was ‘it’s so much colder here!’. Luckily once you’re in Florence, its small-town feel makes it so easy to travel about from one spot to another on foot. It’s probably one of the most accessible and walkable main Italian cities.

I’d been to Florence before and writing this now, I can still remember what it was like to catch my first glimpse of Santa Maria del Fiore – it was just how I remembered it. Breathtakingly beautiful. It’s one of the most famous Cathedrals in Italy due in part to its huge dome . I had a sense of Deja-vu walking around the cathedral – I circled it twice just to get a feel for its immensity and to see ‘the gates of heaven’- and I remembered the day when mum and I stood watching a religious procession. The weather totally opposite to what I was experiencing this time around – it was sunny, hot and Mum and I were a little shocked at our rather expensive and rather huge £5 gelato! I had to dig out the photos of us on my return. It was September 2011 and I remember it like it was yesterday.

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It was still early morning, and relatively free from tourists, so I headed to Giotto’s Campanile first as there was no queue. Reliving previous bell tower climbs and also the Leaning Tower of Pisa, I was prepared to work up a sweat. There are 414 steps to reach the very top; it’s unmistakably memorable, and it’s also a symbol – much like the Duomo – of Florence. From the lofty heights of the top, you’ll be rewarded by several grand panoramic views of the city, the surrounding hills and of the cathedral and Cupola of Brunelleschi itself. It really is quite beautiful.

 

Rather than taking a teeny rest, I decided there was no time like the present to face the next climb and I headed straight for the Cathedral Cupola…there was a little queue, and I knew if I left it any later the queue would be ten times, if not more long (I was right). After seeing the Duomo from all side and visiting inside, I wanted to see inside the dome and the view, so I booked my time slot, and dodging a rain shower I headed in. My legs were still recovering from the Campanile climb, and silly me didn’t notice the 463 steps to reach the top of the Cupola. It was too late to change my mind, and so up I went. I felt quite proud of my achievement once I’d reached the top, and wow, the view! I thought the Campanile view was a beauty, this was even more spectacular (well, I thought so). Not only do you get a remarkable view of the city from the top, but as you climb, you also get to see a different perspective of inside the Cathedral, and of the stunning and intricate frescoes. It’s something you can’t miss seeing in Florence.

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Naturally, once back on the ground, I needed to refuel…on gelato, and headed for Gelateria Edoardo where news to me, I found out that Florence is the birthplace of Gelato! How an earth did I not know this? Naturally coming here felt like a good sign that I was in good hands with whatever flavours I choose…. always pistachio though ;-)

Other than the Cathedral, I had no real agenda, I just wanted to walk and enjoy Florence, and that’s exactly what I did. I soon found myself at another spot I remember so vividly…Ponte Vecchio, one of Florence’s oldest and most beloved landmarks. Literally translated as the ‘old bridge’, I love the history and Romantiscm of this bridge. While today the bridge is known for its illustrious jewellery shops, and hanging balconies, the history of this bridge is interesting (to me anyway). Beneath the glitz of gold rings, chains and watches is a bridge that’s stood the test of time. A gold necklace can be bought anywhere, but a gold necklace purchased on the Ponte Vecchio, is not just gold, it’s all in the location that make that item of gold so special. It’s an experience. I was drawn back to the bridge various times that day – I guarantee anyone visiting will be too – the light changes at different hours of the day. The Cathedral is impressive, the museums and galleries spectacular, but for me Ponte Vecchio is my favourite sport; at sun set the bridge literally bathes in gold and at night it twinkles. It’s so completely charming.

Another important spot linked to the bridge is the Vasari Corridor – and oh my, when the light hits this corridor all kinds of wonderful shadows, sun beams and magic happens. It’s a long corridor that links the Uffizi Gallery to the Pitti Palace. I had so much fun taking photos here, that I had to stop and make myself head to Piazza dell Signoria and Palazzo Vecchio – Florence’s most famous square.

Time was ticking-on, my train was due to depart at 7.33pm…and I felt like I had so much more to see. I’d only scratched the surface of this city – I was drawn by too many smartly dressed men in trilby hats to photograph too. It was making me sad that I was going to have to leave so soon…

Top tip, unlike me, if you don’t want to just walk and wander, and you do want to tick off some sights, you’re going to have to make yourself a little itinerary. Florence really does hold some of the most magnificent masterpieces in the world. There are the major museums and galleries to visit including the Uffizi home to Michelangelo’s David (plan ahead if you want to visit here. It’s the biggest and best museum, and also the hardest to get into), The Academia, Palazzo Vecchio and Palazzo Pitti, churches including Santa Croce, Giardino de Boboli (I like saying the name Boboli), a market, as well as the many streets (on either side of Ponte Vecchio bridge) and piazzas to get lost in. Not to mention all those energy refuelling pit stops to make in the cafés and restaurants. And, because it was gearing up to the festive season, everywhere had taken on that magic Christmas feel.

Sadly, I didn’t have time to visit the numerous art galleries – as you can see from above, there’s enough to keep you busy for weeks on end – as well as beautiful Renaissance churches, buildings and streets. There’s also the view at Pizzale Michelangelo. I was told the view here is a little of a hike up a hill, but it’s a great way to see a stunning view of the city without having to pay to climb the steps of the Duomo. 

Maybe next time, because Florence, I’m sure to be back x

 

Palermo's legendary food...

I hope - from my ‘what I did in Palermo’ previous post you – you got a sense of just how much I loved this Sicilian city, and of just how much there is out there to see and enjoy. And, that’s just a small part of the island. I also hope you found it enjoyable and insightful.

Now, let’s talk food! Literally, you can pretty much take a breath in Palermo and you’ll pop on a few pounds in body weight. Food is taken VERY seriously here.

We all know that Italy is well known for its amazing food, but when it comes to food in Palermo, oh.my.gosh, wow! You can’t leave the island without trying out some of the ‘must-try’s’…here’s a few…

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I mentioned ‘panica meusa’ (spleen sandwiches) in my previous post…and if spleen sandwiches don’t tickle your fancy. It didn’t mine (although that’s because I’m not a meat eater), then you do have to give the all-round crowd-pleasing arancini (‘little oranges’ in Italian) a try. This street food snack is so delicious…what’s not to like about golden, deep-fried rice balls that are crispy on the outside and all creamy on the inside, and filled with cheese, peas and sometimes minced beef, chicken or ham..or even pistachio pesto! Order two or three, with a side of tangy arrabitata sauce and you can call it a meal. And, yes, they are soooo-good.

Now if you’ve ever set foot inside an Italian bakery or been to an Italian street food fair, you’ve probably sunk your teeth into one – or maybe ten – of this iconic Sicilian pastry, Cannoli. These delicious mouthfuls of joy are at their best when freshly made. A good cannolo should have a crispy shell that crumbles as you bite into it with a light creamy ricotta filling. Hhmmm, those of you who’ve had a good Cannoli, you know right? …

It’s a known fact, I love my gelato, but wow, Sicily takes ice cream to another level with ‘La brioscia col gelato’. This gelato extravagance originated in here Sicily where the gelato is thick and creamy, and…. it’s served in a sweet brioche roll. It’s essentially an ice cream sandwich that you can have for breakfast, or a mid-morning snack, or lunch, or dinner...or anytime really!...Or, if you feel like a change from gelato…try ‘brioche col tuppo’ – literally brioche and granite. Refreshing and comforting at the same time. The combo of sweet soft unctuous bun with the legendary Sicilian sorbet will wake you up, and give you that sweet energy rush. Go for lemon sorbet if you want that real authentic Sicilian experience.

Chestnuts! Roasted and best eaten walking along the street! Yup, other than my gelato fix, I’ve grown addicted to the Italian tradition of heading to one of the chestnuts vendors for a coppo (cone) of ‘caldarroste’ (hot and roasted’ chestnuts. Maybe, it’s because I remember years ago when we were little my grandad would buy chestnuts at Christmas (none of us really liked them back then), or maybe it’s the traditional nostalgic black and white image I have in my head of a couple walking down the street dressed up in their finery stopping to buy a bag of chestnuts on a cold winters evening, or maybe it’s just that they’re warm and comforting. Whatever it is, I loved my daily (maybe even twice daily chestnut-fix). In the cooler months, every street market and on pretty much every street corner in Italy is filled with the chestnut man. You’ll see the white smoke wafting into the crisp evening air. Hot roasted chestnuts are not everybody’s cup of tea, but there’s something cosy and satisfying to me as these nuts come off the hot coals and are tossed into a rolled-up cone of newspaper for you to enjoy as you wander the streets.

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Sicilians really love their street food, and ‘panella’ is the queen of Palermo’s street food. Locals buy these tasty fritters in one of the many ‘Sicilain friggitorie’ or ‘panellari’ - these can be little shops or kisosks, or nothing more than a window opening to a small kitchen with a few tables outside. These little street food spots only serve fried food; it’s simple, and yet they’ve become so popular that you’ll find them anywhere in Italy. Anyway, panella…cici (chickpea fritters) are mouthfuls of gently fried golden chickpea polenta. They’re best eaten straight away, when they’re hot and crispy, or you can try popping a handful into a sesame bus, with a squeeze of lemon. Then they become a ‘pene e pannelle (a sandwich) J…

And, once you’ve tried out ‘panella’, also give ‘rascature’ a taste test. Scicilians hate any idea of food going to waste, and ‘rascature’ is basically fritters made from the leftover remains of the ‘panella’ chickpea dough that’s gone a little too dry. Genius!

I bet if you were to walk into a cute nonna’s kitchen, you might be lucky to walk into the smell of freshly fried ‘cassatelle alla Trapanese’. Soft crescents of dough filled with sweet sheep milk, ricotta and chocolate chips! Sprinkle these mouthfuls with icing sugar, and eat when they’re still hot…the chocolate melts into the creamy ricotta...I know right (sounds delicious) and moreish…I did warn you! Sicilians love their food.

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And, you’ll find that pistachios flavour pretty much everything here…from gelato and pesto to flavouring pasta dishes. Handy, because my all-time favourite flavour of gelato is pistachio.

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It’s hard to stop writing about Sicily’s food – there are so many delicious things to be said about the food here – mainly because there literally are so many street food snacks, sweets and popular Sicilian dishes. The cuisine and the markets are something I will always remember about Palermo, and it’s all thanks to its history (dating back from the Arabs, Greeks to French, Spanish and Normans). I love that it is so diverse and represents a mish-mash of cultures. It’s what makes the island so different – I’m sure that the Catania side of the island is just as interesting and delicious food-wise too…so, maybe, next time :-)

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Palermo in October...

Whenever I think of Sicily, I can’t help but conjure up images of mysterious figures lurking down dark alleyways – I think that comes from me reading one too many Italian crime novels!

It took me a few good years to make it down to Italy’s boot. Mum and I did a tour of Calabria some years back, and we popped over to Catania in Sicily for the day. It’s funny how some memories are so vivid, as I can remember what book I was reading at the time of that trip…’A death in Calabria’ by the writer Michele Ferrara. I can even remember the summer dress I was wearing on that hot and sticky day…it was blue and white stripes. I have a photo of me sitting at the fountain in Taormina Square, and just as a gust of wind blew my dress up, Mum pressed the shutter....ha, happy times.

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So, it was time I ventured back ‘on-my-own’ to get lost in the streets with my camera. I was also well prepared with some top tips from a work colleague and Sicilian, Emmanuele. The timing of this trip was a birthday trip for myself too, although it turned out to be more of a ‘soul-searching’ trip. Life threw up a huge curveball for me at the beginning of October. And, without dwelling on it too much, it was a sad time for the travel industry. Monarch Airlines – where I’d worked for 20 years collapsed – and so I was left feeling a little all over the place.

In some way’s I’d been waiting for this day for months, I’d been toying with the idea of leaving my job – but I knew I wouldn’t make that leap without a gentle nudge. So why was I so heartbroken? I should have been happy, right? Well, I loved the people I worked with – we were like a little family, and I don’t think I fully appreciated those people until they were no longer around me. I had a sense of purpose and place. I had a routine. I knew what I was doing and everyone around me knew me and what I was capable of. Don’t get me wrong, I got so frustrated with the place at times, I swore I was going to leave more than once. I’d been angry to the point of tears many times, but that’s part and parcel of working for a larger organisation = office politics. But, I was 19 years old when I joined Monarch (back then Cosmos). I’d practically done my adult growing up there. All my hard work was going to end in a rubbish dump somewhere. That thought saddened me.

So, my Sicily trip was a perfect distraction from the fact that I was now redundant from my job. I wouldn’t get to work with the people I’d said goodbye and wished ‘happy weekend’ to on the previous Friday night. It was a time to reflect, do some soul searching, and ask myself ‘what do I want to do next?’…I knew in my heart what I wanted to do, but my heart was kinda heavy – ok, SO no one died, not really – just a name – but it was still a complete shock. And, it didn’t end on ‘my’ terms. I’m a big believer in ‘things happen for a reason’, and I was starting to realise this ‘hiccup’ was a blessing in disguise. I could do something for ‘me’ now, and focus all my energy on the things I love and those that I’m passionate about.

I now had an empty blank canvas ahead of me; a whole new chapter…

…Anyway, enough about that… let’s talk Sicily!

I realise as I’m reliving and writing about this trip, I’ve already waffled on - a fair bit - before actually even making a start on talking about Palermo! And so, I’ve decided to structure this post by breaking it into two posts. One; so that it’s not ridiculously long, and you get the most out of it (hopefully, it’s inspiring too). And, two; I get to relive, and write down what made it this trip so special.

I’ve decided to share ‘what I did’ on this trip, followed by a little snapshot of ‘Palermo’s legendary food’.

I arrived at Palermo airport, and the best tip I’d received was how to get into the city, and that’s by getting into one of the ‘sharing taxis’. I wish every airport had this little system going. Basically you ‘share a taxi’ with around four others (or as many people that can get into the vehicle). It’s around seven euros, and the taxi will stop on one of the main squares or main roads. Easy right, and cost effective too :-)

   
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My Airbnb couldn’t have been better placed. I always try to get a location that’s central – mainly so I can be out exploring from super early morning until late at night – although more often than not, I tend to tire myself out from getting up at sunrise and I’m usually in bed by 9pm drinking a cup of tea! Anyway, my cosy home was right in the centre of the old city, and perfectly located between the markets - something I was very happy about. I love a good local market and it meant, I could get up early and observe market life as it sprang into action. I’d heard Palermo’s markets were some of the best, and OMG ‘insert heart eyes’ I wasn’t disappointed.

Today’s Palermo disproved any lingering Mafia images. I’d read that Palermo’s streets were intense with purse snatchers; that it was chaotic and run down, and ok, some of the buildings can be a little rough around the edges, but that’s what makes everywhere so alluring, so mysterious and so incredibly charming, but as for the chaos and purse snatchers, nah, I didn’t find that at all. The city is colourful, yet traditional. It feels perfectly safe. It’s youthful and trendy, and the Sicilians are some of the warmest and friendliest. The city makes it easy to become a temporary Sicilian and that’s reason enough to visit. You don’t tour Palermo, you live in it, and that’s exactly what I did. The way of life offers any visitor more than any monument or museum ever could.