I’m not gonna lie: I very nearly gave up on Florence, Italy. For reals. In my defense, we arrived late in the afternoon after a tenuous train trip, our “hostel” (it was a shack at a campground) was less than ideal for the price I had paid, and I was hungry. Oh, and almost the entire first day it was raining. Have I ever mentioned how intrinsically my mood is tied to the weather? Well, I’m mentioning it now: intrinsically. Besides, I was becoming increasingly suspicious after spending our first few days in Italy in Rimini that Italians don’t really like travelers. But more on that later. Fortunately, free museums and a sunny day mostly remedied me calling the entire city a wash, but it was a close one, let me tell you.
Italian Trains are my nemesis
It started with trying to get a train out of Rimini to Florence. The station was packed, there was zero information on schedules or routes anywhere to be found (in English or Italian), and the only place to buy a ticket was at unmanned kiosks. This was not helpful. I could have skwarked (that’s a new word that I just made up) my way through the process if the language had been the only issue, but it was one of those deals that the available tickets only show the final destination, not the stops in between. And you’d think there might be a mention of cities like Florence along the way, right? Wrong.
Since we hadn’t memorized every possible train rout out of Rimini, we had no idea which ticket we needed and the one ticket attendant that was roaming the crowded hall was zero help. Zero. He basically pointed to a city on the big overhead schedule and shooed us away. So after several minutes of Google mapping and searching the ticketing website for a solution, we purchased a ticket that we were only about 80% certain was the right one.
And then we proceeded to discover that Italian trains are possibly the worst trains ever. It was like those pictures you see of buses in India where there are so many people on board they’re hanging out windows and climbing on top… Obviously, there was none of that on a train, but we were packed in so tight you couldn’t turn around. I was less than enthused. And in case you’re wondering, yes, my disenchantment with Italian public transportation did continue to spiral as we journeyed in Florence and Rome.
The stops are never labeled, you have no idea where to get tickets (nearby news shops, bars, even gelaterias sell them), and there are no maps or stop alerts on the buses. Also, no one is going to help you figure it out, except maybe another traveler who has already managed it.
We arrived in the afternoon, waltzed around the city a bit, took a ride on the most hilariously tiny public bus I had ever seen (they have to be tiny to navigate the city’s narrow streets), and then once again attempted to find the right bus to take us to the campground some 5 miles away where I had booked what appeared to be a small room but turned out to be more or less one of those trailers you see by worksite where they threw in a window and a cheap bathroom and called it temporary lodging. Plus there was no Wi-Fi and it smelled vaguely of sour milk. You had to hike down a hill to a disgusting shared kitchen (even by campsite standards) and then Josh proceeded to ignore my urgings to go get a bottle opener for the wine and instead broke a key and cut his finger–rather badly–trying to do without.
However, even with Google maps telling us more or less where to go and which bus to take, we could not freaking find it anywhere. And, once again, when we asked an employee at the bus station, even showing him our phone with the route name on it, he just waved us off. Suuuuper helpful. By now I was getting a little restless and just about to the point where I was considering starting to punch anyone in the esophagus who even looked at me funny. True story. Ask Josh. It’s my go-to threat for just about any occasion. Did I mention I was getting hungry? You wouldn’t like me when I’m hungry.
By the time we did find a (different) bus to take us to the campsite, it was dark and I had just about had enough of people asking me for money (I realize this probably makes me sound like a terrible person, but you see how you feel after an exhausting day and no fewer than six people in two hours come up and either ask you for money or try to sell you a flower for €10). But we did make it to our disappointing lodgings where we hoped the next day would be better.
But that’s probably my fault. Weather, remember? We had good wet-weather clothing and all, but I still hated it. And then I was tricked. Walking to the bus, a seemingly innocent nice old man stopped us on an empty street and started talking to us in Italian. Between my limited understanding of the language and animated hand gestures, we mostly had each other figured out–he was suggesting where to go and what to see on a nearby hill–but then things got weird. He saw we were married and started pushing us together because he thought it was appropriate for us to kiss. We did not want to kiss in front of a stranger. Especially one who was practically man-handling us into it. And then he asked for money. For crying out loud! You should know this about me: the only way I have happily parted with spare change when asked by a beggar or homeless person is when they are snarky, comical, and in no way trying to scheme me into feeling sorry for them. A veteran in a wheelchair straight up asked me one time in Austin as I exited a cash-only business (smart old man!), “Can ya spare some change for a cranky ol’ bastard?” And I gave it to him. That’s all it takes.
Add that to the fact that I could find almost nothing interesting to do for free in the city that wasn’t outdoors and you’ve got yourselves a recipe for mopiness. We didn’t want to explore parks or go on a walk because it was disgusting and chilly, but fortunately, somewhere around lunchtime, I discovered it was the first Sunday of the month and that meant almost all of the museums were free! For those of you who don’t know Florence, that’s a huge deal! We’re talking Uffizi, Medici Chapels, Accademia Gallery, Bargello Museum. It’s insane! The number of artistic masters that called this city home is an art-lovers dream!
Now, I wouldn’t call us art lovers, though I do appreciate art of all kinds, and we’re not museum fanatics, either, but when in Rome (or rather, Florence)… Besides, you can’t pass up the opportunity to see gleaming reliquaries and paintings like The Birth of Venus. And one thing I did learn about myself is that I am a huge fan of sculpture. I’ll take in some good paintings at a leisurely pace, but you put me in a room with a few marble sculptures (or hundreds, as is often the case in Florence), and I could spend hours examining the craftsmanship from every angle. And Michelangelo’s David? If you’ve never seen him in person, let me assure you that he is worth all the hype. And then some. He is the most beautiful piece of artistry ever to carved out of marble. Even Josh was impressed, and he doesn’t impress easily. I mean, just, wow. Wow.
One more time, with gusto…
Day two was slightly better. The sun decided to come out, making the city look a lot more impressive. We decided to walk a bit since we missed our bus and didn’t just want to sit and wait. As a result, we came across this large, stunning cemetery. The gate was open, so we went in for a look. We wandered around the empty cemetery, saw a few guys working, but when we went to leave a woman came out of the office and started speaking in Italian. No idea what she was saying, but between her motioning to the gate and going to close it behind us, best we can figure is that we weren’t actually supposed to be there. Well, then you shouldn’t leave the front door wide open. Worth it. I like old cemeteries, OK? It’s not weird.
But since the sun was shining we could finally go to some of those parks and gardens. Except we couldn’t. Because for some reason unbeknownst to anyone, all public parks and gardens are closed on the first and third Monday of the month. We were not the only ones to find locked gates all over the city and grumble under our breath. Instead, we walked along the Arno River, went to Piazzale Michelangelo to see the bronze version of David and get a look at the city from above, and visited the fine Catholic Chiesa di San Salvatore al Monte and the Palace of Bishops and Abbazia di San Miniato al Monte, complete with an impressive cemetery with monstrous mausoleums. All free.
We even found a lovely little rose garden adjacent to the Piazzale where Josh napped and I caught up on journal entries as we lounged in the grass between flower beds and a handful of other travelers. It was quite lovely. The only thing left to do was to stake our claim on a bench near Michelangelo Plaza to watch the sunset. I was glad we decided to stick around the city instead of paying the $30+ for a day trip to Pisa.
Vegan food in Florence? Not stellar. I was disappointed to discover this. Grocery store options weren’t bad, which was good for stocking up for dinner, but meals out were either uninspired or super duper expensive. We attempted one decent vegetarian restaurant, Nirvana, with good reviews and were a bit peeved to be served a (small) plate of greens and marinated seitan (that’s vegan protein for all you non-vegans) that had to be remade because the menu said it was vegan but was topped with cheese. It cost €10 plus a €1.50 “cover charge” and €2 more for sharing the meal. Not even remotely worth it for a dish that was barely an appetizer for one.
We picked up hella fresh bread at the Mercato Centrale that’s brimming with food vendors (and tourists), and the coffee and gelato in Florence were on point. We had both every day. Sometimes multiple times a day. You can get a macchiato with plant-milk for 1 (vegan-friendly Shake Cafe was our favorite stop each day), a cappuccino for €1.50, and a couple scoops of vegan gelato for under €3. If there’s one thing I love about Italy it’s the cheap, quality coffee. We also found little Pasticceria Gualtieri on the way back to our campsite that served vegan pastries, so that was a thing that happened every morning. Unfortunately, none of these cafes offer a place to sit down, relax, plug in and check your email. Cafe culture just isn’t the same there. You order your espresso and you go on your way. Nobody is setting up shop for the afternoon and writing their screenplay at a cafe in Italy. Well, most cafes in Italy.
The last train out
We left early the next morning for Rome licking our wounds and counting our losses. I’d say what with rose gardens, stunning architecture and David (let’s be honest: David alone would have been worth the trip), we just about broke even. But that’s travel for you. Full of ups and downs and surprises. But you’ll never know if you never go!
Alisha is a freelance writer and photographer based in Austin, TX. She loves her tiny house, vegan food and experiencing the community of travel in far away places. She’s also pretty sure she’s addicted to coffee. alishamcdarris.com