By Don and Linda Freedman

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Winter 2003

Rome | Lucca | Florence | Rome

A late morning train from Lucca brought us to Stazione FS Santa Maria Novella, Florence, before noon. It was another brisk, sunny day, perfect for the twenty minute walk to our hotel. We headed north on via Nazionale, turning right on via Guelfa to via Cavour, where we turned left to #85 and Hotel Giglio.

If it's your first trip to Florence and you're impatient to see the famous Duomo, another way to walk to the hotel would be to follow the signs to the Duomo and at Piazza del Duomo turn left onto via Martelli, which becomes via Cavour. If you prefer not to walk, it's a five-minute taxi ride.

The location is excellent, in a quiet neighborhood just north of Piazza San Marco and just a ten-minute walk to the Duomo in the center of the city. Florence is small enough for walking easily to anywhere within the city center. If you should require a bus, those that don't stop outside the hotel can be gotten at Piazza San Marco or the train station.

The hotel is situated on the second floor of an elegant 19th century building. There is an elevator for easy access or a wide, stone staircase if preferred.

When we passed through the doorway to the bright, cheerful entrance hall, we were happy to see a comfortable Internet point for guest use. Our first and lasting impression is that we had never seen such an immaculately clean hotel and for good reason. The owners, the Masselli family, are fanatic about cleanliness. The reception, bar and lounge are combined in an attractive room that is a perfect spot to relax with a beverage or reading material any time of day or night.

The recent restoration has maintained the building's late 1800's design. The refurnishing has been done in a classical Florentine style with subdued, homey colors. All the rooms have individually-controlled air conditioning, satellite TV and telephone.

The sparkling, tile floor of the corridor led to our large, corner room with shiny, wood flooring and double-windowed doors overlooking a garden. The furnishings were very tasteful and of excellent quality. A fully-equipped bathroom with stall shower and bidet completed our accommodations. This would be a comfortable home for our week-long stay.

But that's only half the story. The owners and staff were the clinchers. The father, Massimo, owns and operates the well-known Osteria del Cinghiale Bianco where son, Marco, was introduced to the hospitality industry. When they purchased the hotel, Marco was ready to become the full-time manager. Dad pops-in frequently, as when he goes to market early in the morning for his restaurant needs, he brings the fresh fruit he has carefully selected. He procedes to cut it up and has it ready for the earliest arrivals in the breakfast room.

Most mornings Marco was on hand to make us a superior cappuccino to go with the fresh bread and croissants, juice, jams and that special fresh fruit salad. He is available all the time, catering to his guests' needs and he's never too busy to help with an inquiry or a special requirement. The staff he hired shares his enthusiasm for guest satisfaction. We have found a perfect place to call home in Florence.

Our previous visits to Florence were shorter stays, distracted by hordes of tourists. On this visit we'd be able to sense the rhythm of daily life, investigate artistic and artisan activity and discover hidden corners at our own pace.

We had a tip that Nerbone near the Mercato Centrale served fabulous boiled beef sandwiches but unfortunately when we got there we found the place closed for the day. All was not lost though because this is a fun spot with wall-to-wall vendors outdoors and fresh products inside. However we came to have lunch (a bit late) and finally settled into Trattoria ZaZa, Piazza Mercato Centrale 26/r for good but not great pizza.
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Although we had several old favorite eating places, we were in search of new adventures. Marco was a wealth of recommendations. His first choice, of course, was to keep it in the family. So we made our way across Ponte S. Trinita to the district of Santo Spirito. (Florence is divided into four districts, from west to east, north of the Arno River, are Santa Maria Novella, San Giovanni, Santa Croce and south of the Arno, Santo Spirito.) After crossing the bridge, immediately to the left is via Borgo S. Jacopo, one of the oldest streets in the Oltrarno (other side of the Arno). Osteria del Cinghiale Bianco is at #43/r. The restaurant is an institution with locals and very popular with tourists in the know.

The Cinghiale Bianco decor reflects the age of the street, with its high stucco ceiling, stone walls and sturdy wooden furniture. We were seated in the front room, side-by-side in a cozy alcove conducive to holding hands. There is a stairway to second level seating in the rear dining room. Our appetites were ready and we ordered accordingly. We started with assorted bruschetta, various toppings on dense toasted bread. The traditional tomato, garlic and basil was marvelous and the others were not only new to us but instant favorites; roasted peppers and garlic, fagioli and spinach, all with fabulous olive oil.

For the next course, I had the signature pappardelle al cinghiale (an awesome wild boar ragu) and Linda had gnocchi with plump shrimp, sweet, tender scallops and zucchini. Both dishes and the house red wine were delicious.

We are still raving, to anyone who will listen, about the quality and preparation of our fabulous main courses. Linda's tagliata, sliced sirloin steak, was served on a bed of fresh arugula and sprinkled liberally with slivers of Parmigiano. The steak was done perfectly medium rare and crispy on the outside, the arugula fresh, young and aromatic, and the cheese, rich in flavor and marvelously grainy in texture, a sensual, I mean sensory, combination to be sure.

Until now I've been having rabbit stews but tonite it would be simple, did I say simple (?), roast rabbit. These plump, meaty, choice cuts were seasoned with rosemary, sage, garlic, salt, pepper, olive oil and white wine then roasted to a succulent perfection. The roast potatoes on the side were heaven.

Since we would walk home (about 25 minutes), we knew we could handle dessert and it was a worthy decision. Homemade tiramisu and chocolate cake with mascarpone cream were outrageously delicious. The service was superior and the prices extremely moderate. This was the finest meal of the entire trip.
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The first settlers in this area were Etruscans who built their settlements at Fiesole, overlooking Florence; at last, we had time to visit this nearby gem. We purchased the bus tickets at the newsstand in Piazza S, Marco and took the twenty-minute ride on bus #7, winding up the forested mountainsides sprinkled with glorious, golden villas, to Piazza Mino de Fiesole.

The very helpful tourist office is a few minutes north of the square, in front of the archeological area, a fascinating park of Etruscan, Roman and Longobard ruins. The setting on three hectares of the splendid landscape of the Tuscan Hills is perfect theater; speaking of which the Roman amphitheatre, built at the end of the 1st century to hold up to 2000 people, is exceptionally well-preserved.

The adjacent archeological museum contains a collection dating from prehistoric times to the Middle Ages. The religious and household objects used by Etruscans, Romans and Lombards are flanked by items from the Costantini Collection of ancient Greek pottery.

Next door is the Musee Bandini with a treasure chest of 13th and 14th century Tuscan artworks. There are also examples of 15th century Florentine art and an impressive collection of Della Robbia polychrome terracotta.
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A walk up via San Francesco, west of Piazza Mino, brought us first to Basilica di Sant'Allessandro, which dates back to the 4th century and was built over a pagan temple with materials of Roman times. Just in front of the church are Punto Panoramico and Parco della Rimembranza, with impactful views of Florence and its hills. Inside the small park is a monument to the Carabiniere by the artist Marcello Guasti.

Around the bend on top of a hill above Fiesole is Chiese di San Francesco, Museo Missionario Etnografico Francescano. Both were closed so we were not able to see the 15th and 16th century Tuscan paintings or the archeological finds on display in the museums. The church was partially open so that we were able to get a glimpse of the lovely cloister.

At lunch time, we headed straight for a place we had noticed from the bus on our way up from Firenze. Although we walked, we'd suggest that the short bus ride would be a safer alternative, as there was a steady procession of fast-moving vehicles and no sidewalks. Our destination was Ristorante Le Lance at via Guiseppe Mantellini, 2/b (Tel: 055-599-595). Fortunately, we arrived with hearty appetites because we were about to have a memorable feast.

Le Lance is in a rambling set of buildings set back from the road, with a terraced, landscaped garden and outdoor dining patio surrounded by forest in the rear. We sat in the modern main dining room at street level, across the way from a cozy room with pizza ovens, which is above an attractive wine bar on the lower level. The property has recently changed hands and we were very favorably impressed by the affable manager, Riccardo, whose hospitality and attention to his guests was evident right from his warm greeting as we arrived. With just the slightest bit of guidance from us, Riccardo coaxed perfection from his kitchen. A beautifully-presented assorted appetizer platter contained polenta with duck ragu, traditional bruschetta, crostini with chicken liver puree, fried dough balls (coccoli) and garnishes of arugula and herbed, boiled potatoes, which tasted every bit as delicious as it looked. In this part of the world, we love carciofi fritti (fried artichokes) and the Le Lance rendition was sensational. (Linda says best ever and when it comes to "fried", she is the expert. She likens this preparation to the finest artichoke tempura.) If for no other reason, this dish will be the magnet for our return; but there were other reasons.

The pasta offerings all sounded tempting so Riccardo suggested a sampling of three. I'd hate to see the size of full orders if this was a sampling but each of the three was very special. We had pici alla Senese con pancetta nostrana con pecorino di Pienza (hand-rolled pasta with house-cured ham in delicious cheese and tomato sauce), maltagliati (literally, badly cut) sull'anatra (homemade flat noodles in duck ragu), and gnudi di ricotta e spinaci con speck, porcini and scamorza (not a pasta but spinach and ricotta balls with ham and mushrooms in scamorza cheese sauce). The house red wine was light and fruity and ideal with this lunch. Prices were very reasonable and the service excellent. We waddled our way out front to catch the next bus back to Florence.
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After returning to the hotel for a rest, we headed out for a walk towards the Arno. We were too full from lunch to contemplate dinner but did settle for some marvelous gelato. We considered going again to the much-touted Vivoli, but just as on our last visit Vivoli was closed. Instead we followed our noses to Perche No! at via Tavolini 19/r, where we enjoyed some of the best gelato and panna we've ever had. Nice ladies serving smooth-textured, rich-flavored, generous portions at reasonable cost is an unbeatable combination, which we verified time and again throughout the course of our stay.

The next beautiful morning, we strolled through the lovely botanical gardens, part of the university and one of first in Europe. The gardens are located a block east of our hotel just north of Piazza San Marco and the impressive Piazza della SS. Annunziata.

The Convento di San Marco contains the splendid frescoes painted by Beato Angelico to decorate the monks' cells. There is a beautiful library designed by Michelozzo in 1448, the first public library of the renaissance period. The church of San Marco alongside was redesigned by Michelozzo and the headquarters of the University of Florence is just across the piazza.

The basilica of the SS. Annunziata is one of the most important churches in Florence. It was founded in 1250 and expanded over the centuries. The huge entryway leads into a work of art. Gilded wood dominates the sides and ceiling. The carved stone and marble design is impressive as is the magnificent dome. The windows on high direct the light very effectively. The cloister of the voti and the cloister of the morti contain famous frescoes by Andrea del Sarto, Rosso Florentino, Franciabigio and Pantormo.

On the left side of the Portico of Santa Maria (on the east side of Piazza SS. Annunziata), you can still see the window with the basin below where abondoned young children were left in the 15th century and the Wheel of the Innocents for unwanted infants, which was added later.
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The landmark of the city of Firenze, the Santa Maria del Fiore cathedral, is the fourth largest in the world after Rome, London and Milano. No matter how many times you come upon the Duomo, its bell tower and baptistery, you are awestruck at its exceptional beauty. It was erected over the ancient basilica of Santa Reparata, and was designed by Cambio who started construction in 1296. Brunelleschi completed it in 1436 with the elegant dome. Vasari and Zuccari frescoed the interior. The construction of the facade dates from the mid 19th century. The gorgeous, square bell tower was designed in 1334 by Giotto. It is covered with red, green and white marble inlays, decorated with panels and carvings representing the occupations and trades at that time.

Opposite the Duomo is the white and green marble baptistery of San Giovanni from 1128. It is a masterpiece of Florentine Romanesque architecture. The amazing bronze doors are copies of the originals, now housed in the church museum.

Nearby is the basilica of San Lorenzo and the Medici Chapels, close by the Mercato Centrale. The church is flanked by Brunelleschi's old sacristy and the new sacristy by Michelangelo, which houses the Medici family tombs. To the left of the church is the Laurentian Library by Michelangelo with a stunning entry and staircase.

Just south of the Duomo is the medieval area. Via Oche was an ancient Jewish street. Piazza S. Elisabetta is surrounded by graceful, restored towers of different design and is quite striking. One is an old cylindrical tower known as La Pagliazza (its unusual name comes from Pagia, straw), which had been a prison where the inmates slept on straw. In the basement of Hotel Brunelleschi at number 3, you can see the remains of Roman baths and there is a small museum with artifacts and photographs. Via Corso was the most important street and still is today as a busy shopping thoroughfare.

Nearby is the understated Chiese di Dante and the Museo Casa di Dante, dedicated to Dante Alighieri, the foremost poet, called the father of the Italian language for promoting the use of the Italian language in literature. Across the way is the Castagna (chestnut) Tower in Piazza San Martino, where the council met in a small, frescoed room to hear the stories of people who needed money.
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Time for lunch so off we went to check out the authentic Neapolitan pizza at Il Pizzaiuolo, via dei Macci 113/r. (Tel: 055 241 171) we had heard about. It's a cute trattoria featuring pizza and seafood dishes. We had one Margherita and one fritta (a fried, rather than baked calzone) filled with mozzarella, ricotta, salami, tomato and pepper. The pizza was pretty authentic Napolitano in appearance and taste but it was extremely wet, causing the dough in the center to be soggy. The fried pizza is very heavy, detracting from the otherwise-tasty ingredients.

The Uffizi Gallery, housed in the Uffizi Palace is one of the largest art galleries in the world. The Palace is an architectural masterpiece and the collection of paintings of the Florentine School, by the most famous artists, has a perfect home. Next door, facing the Piazza della Signoria is the imposing Palazzo Vecchio, erected between 1298 and 1314. We did not visit inside but understand the halls and apartments are noteworthy, something for next time.

Linda had been shopping for earrings for some time and had postponed her decision until we could check what was available in Florence. We headed north on via de Cerchi and stopped short at Jean Saadé Fine Jewelry at 6/r. In front of us was a bright, glowing display of unique and attractive Florentine-style jewelry. Somehow we instinctively knew that the decision was about to made. Jean and his father design and make almost everything they sell. We felt very comfortable dealing with Jean, a charming and sincere fellow, and he happened to have the very earrings Linda had been seeking. We went away pleased with our purchase and happy to have met Jean Saadé, who ensured that we had a box for the earrings even though Linda left wearing them.
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Another recommendation from the Hotel Giglio staff was La Congrega at via Panicale 43/r (Tel: 055-264-5027) where we had dinner this evening. It is a smallish place with 10-12 tables in a very relaxing environment so it is necessary to reserve. It's just a ten-minute walk from the hotel, halfway to the train station. We were greeted and comfortably seated by the owner, Mahyar Sanago. Since it was our first visit, he explained that everything served is homemade from market fresh ingredients. The basic menu is atypical as it offers only pastas, soups, salads and veggies. But every evening there are three main dishes of meat and/or fish offered, one of which is always a T-bone steak.

Mahyar brought us a house bubbly aperitif, which was excellent, and a basket of outstanding warm cheese bread that Linda proceeded to adopt as her first course. I, of course, was not to be deterred and started with farro soup, this one decidedly different from the two previous versions this trip. To begin with, the bowl was enormous and filled to the brim. The soup was thick with firm, semi-crunchy grains in a natural, tasty broth. I added the home made olive oil and ground pepper to my taste. This recipe calls for 3-5 hours of slow cooking and constant stirring to achieve the desired texture of grains and broth. I loved the results; this was tasty and wholesome comfort soup.

La Congrega is famous for the T-bone steak, so bring it on! The thick, tender steak was beautifully grilled to medium rare, deboned and served sliced with fresh spinach. The fame is justified; need I say more? Panna cotta with chocolate sauce was a divine way to finish the meal. The prices are very reasonable for this high-quality experience.
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Today we started out in the Santa Croce district. Piazza d'Azeglio is a gorgeous, green square with a park in the middle and attractive buildings all around. Just south in the Piazza S. Ambrogio is the pretty church of the same name with its famous paintings and frescoes, particularly around the small, marble alter. This piazza is at the north end of via de Macci, where we went for our pizza lunch yesterday. This is a wonderful Florentine neighborhood with the smell of food all around. There are many well-known restaurants, cafes and bars, as well as a large market. The most tempting aroma was coming from a street vendor cooking and selling campredoto all'uccelleto (boiled tripe). Via de Macci is a charming narrow way lined with small shops servicing the neighborhood. It's real snapshot of life in Santa Croce.

At 16 Piazza S. Croce is the Scuola del Cuoio (leather school) located in the Monastery S. Croce. This school was created after World War II as a collaboration of the Franciscan Friars of the Basilica of Santa Croce with the Gori family, leather artisans in Florence since the 1930's. The school was formally started in May, 1950, and the first pupils were war orphans. They were taught about the different types of leather, the art of cutting by hand and how to create bags, briefcases and small leather objects. The talented students were taught the art of gilding using 22 karat gold and using that technique to make artistic objects such as desk sets and jewelry boxes.

Some time ago teaching was suspended but there are plans to restart the school in the near future. The old monastery is a beautiful structure and the remodeled area of stone, brick and archways where classes will be taught will be very appealing to the students of the future.

The original family still owns the business, which offers limited production of exquisite articles sold only at the school. We observed the skilled craftspeople gilding and applying the gilded leather to the desk set forms. It was quite amazing to see the manufacture of these exquisite products but the highlight was the extraordinary design and quality of the handbags. They are expensive but if what you want is one-of-a-kind, completely-handmade perfection, this is the place where you will find it.
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The church of Santa Croce dominates the large square of the same name. Its majestic facade was designed in 1853 by a Jewish architect from Ancona, Niccolo Matas. Many famous Italians are buried within its walls; Michelangelo, Machiavelli and Galileo to name a few. Matas had wanted to be buried with his peers but because he was Jewish, he was buried under the porch and not within the walls. Another interesting note is that the large Star of David which dominates the top of the facade is in recognition of the Jewish community's support for the construction of the building.

There are many bridges which cross to "the other Florence", the Oltrarno, and the San Spirito district. Leaving Santa Croce we took the Ponte alle Grazie, which offered terrific views of the most famous bridge, the Ponte Vecchio. Here the past is alive in the generations of artisans who practice their ancient crafts. We were fascinated by the craftsmen diligently employing their time-refined techniques to produce the unique wares for which Florence has become famous.

Across from the Pitti Palace in Piazza de Pitti, we stopped in Pitti Mosaici for a closer look at the magnificent pieces we saw in the window. The pieces ranged from small, framed designs to dining room table tops. This is a renaissance, hard stone technique workshop where, entirely by hand, designs are created of individual stone pieces. It must take enormous amounts of patience and diligence to do such labor-intensive work.
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The tree-shaded Piazza Santo Spirito is the hub of this picturesque neighborhood, which is populated by craftsmen, restorers and antique dealers. The wide square is surrounded by artisans' workshops and places of refreshment. Peaking into the doorway of Bini Alfonso, Piazza S. Spirito, 5/r, we saw wood carvers happily at work, and found ourselves drawn inside by the smell of wood shavings. As in many of the woodworking shops in the area, they make forms for shaping hats but, as we were to discover, they carve many decorative items as well. Mr. Bini took us upstairs to his showroom where we were enthralled by objects in every form imaginable; jackets, trousers, golf sets, luggage, skirts. hats, household furnishings, and the list goes on. The detail, authenticity and finish were so incredibly realistic, we found ourselves touching things just to make sure they were really wooden.

Around the corner on S. Agostino, at 2/r, (Tel: 055-219627) we came upon a shop that specializes in another of Florence's traditional crafts. Legatoria S. Agostino has been a family business for generations whose niche is bookbinding with goat skin, primarily for lawyers, plus restoring books and paper and creating paint and paper products. Two friendly sisters operate the shop, creating and producing their designs on the premises. We watched in wonder as an individual sheet of gift-wrapping paper was created before our eyes. These papers are also used to cover fountain pens and pencils, pencil holders, book covers and other attractive and useful items. It was not just instructive but a delight to see such creativity. The women teach classes in their specialties so if you're interested you can phone them for information.

The church of Santo Spirito, a beautiful example of renaissance architecture from which the piazza gets its name, dates back to the 13th century, was enlarged in the 14th and rebuilt by Brunelleschi in the second half of the 15th century. Off to the side of the church is a tall bell tower that is the sentinel of the district. In the refectory is a fragment of a "Last Supper" by Andrea Orcagna. The neighborhood of Santo Spirito was a delight. To observe such creativity and skill was both stimulating and exciting. A visit to the Oltrarno should be on everyone's itinerary; we'll be back next time to discover new treasures.
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In fact, we found one singular reason for returning soon and often, the Trattoria La Casalinga on via dei Michelozzi, 9/r, (Tel: 055-218624), a small street near Piazza Santo Spirito. When we walked-by, we saw working people pouring in, and when the door opened the aromas were wonderful. Rule one, follow the locals! It was lunch time and the place was packed; waiters darted back and forth from the kitchen, patrons' conversation was animated and everybody seemed happy, as well they should be! This is the kind of place that has never changed over time even though it has been enlarged as a result of its popularity. On both of our visits the customers were a diverse mix, from tradesmen to office workers to executive types; great food at great prices appeals to all strata. The large, bustling cucina produces fresh, homemade, traditional Florentine recipes, with daily offerings in addition to regularly-available items.

On our first visit, Linda had ravioli with rabbit sauce and a mixed salad that she proclaimed outstanding at any price. I had ribollita, which was without a doubt the best version I've ever had, followed by roast chicken and a tomato salad, simply said, wonderful. How to describe perfect profiteroles: exquisite pastry, luscious cream filling, rich dark chocolate sauce finished with real whipped cream and a touch of spun sugar. What a way to go!

Next time around, we shared a luscious tortellini al sugo di coniglio and divine minestrone di farro, followed by coniglio alla cacciatore. The meaty, tender rabbit was stewed with a heavenly array of vegetables. For dessert we had apple cake and a cream-layered cake with chocolate chips and powdered sugar on top, both of which were amazing. Oh, did I mention that the bread served at Casalinga is incomparable?
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The Pitti Palace and Boboli Gardens is our choice as the "must visit" in the city. The Palace was commissioned by Luca Pitti in 1448. Once again it was Brunelleschi who did the original plans. It was enlarged in 1549, when ownership passed to the Medici family. Many parts of the interior were undergoing renovation so our visit was limited to the Galleria Palatina and the Musei degli Argenti and delle Porcellane and the Boboli Gardens. Frankly, I don't think I could have absorbed more beauty than we saw. Each room is an amazing work of art from ceilings to floors and exquisite furnishings.

The Galleria Palatina displays the private collections of the Grand Dukes, with masterpieces from the 15th to 17th centuries. The design, decoration and art of the rooms of the Argenti just blew our minds. Every inch of space is spectacular and we found it difficult to leave one room for another.

The Boboli Gardens are probably the grandest of all Italian gardens, extending on the Boboli Hill between the palace and Fort Belvedere. It's an invigorating visit, but ours was unfortunately cut short by a rare rain shower.

Our hotelier, Marco, came up with another excellent dinner recommendation, right around the corner from the Hotel Giglio. Ristorante da Mimmo is one of Marco's personal favorites. The large, square room is very attractive with a painted, curved ceiling and gorgeous hand painted platters decorating the walls creating a warm, intimate atmosphere. Linda had a salad of arugula, radicchio, pignoli and noci (pine nuts and walnuts) and spaghettini alle vongole. I started with fettuccini with wild rabbit sauce followed by tagliata di manzo su rucola. The pastas were presented on large plates garnished with greens and orange slices, very attractive as well as delicious. My sliced steak was fine quality and grilled medium rare, as ordered. Our waiter was a fun guy, helping to make it a totally relaxing evening. The prices are representative of this quality restaurant.
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Today we would have the kind of experience that most travelers would welcome and adore. We were off to Pisa on a first time visit, on the 11:25 train scheduled to arrive in Pisa at 12:33. There was one other couple in our coach; the woman was knitting a sweater for her husband. He clowned as she held the sweater up against him checking the size, and we gave him the thumbs-up, as a friendly gesture to break the ice. We all got up to leave as we approached Pisa Centrale and while we waited for the train to enter the station, we asked them to recommend a lunch spot, which they did, but tossed out the caveat that the food was better at their home. We laughed, said our goodbyes and headed to the tourist office for a map. While we were talking to the attendant, a voice from behind said "you're coming home to lunch with us!". We were stunned and our immediate reaction was to graciously decline, but Pierrana wasn't taking "no" for an answer. She told us that Giorgio had gone for the car and would be picking the three of us up shortly. Period. We couldn't help but admire this woman and, of course, deep down we were thrilled at this exciting turn of events.

Our new friends live about ten kilometers outside the city in the foothills separating Lucca and Pisa. Their son, Tommaso, was as warm and friendly as his parents. He speaks English very well, which facilitated our communication, although we had done pretty well considering our limited common language. Needless to say, Pierrana is a great cook and lunch was marvelous.

Over coffee, we told them about our travel discussion group and invited them to join us at the upcoming get-together at the Hotel delle Muse in Rome. They enthusiastically joined our group and made a special trip to Rome, to see us again, meet our friends and participate in the gathering.

After lunch, they drove us around the area to a few points of interest before taking us on a tour of Pisa. The leaning Tower, completely refurbished now, looks fantastic, even more beautiful than we expected, and the Duomo and Battistero are truly magnificent structures in their own right.

Pierrana and Giorgio guided us through the center of the city and we were to learn that there is a lot more to Pisa than the tower. This is a precious town with attractive piazzas joined by twisting, neat streets with colorful buildings, an old outdoor market and arcaded shopping streets. We didn't have time for an in-depth visit, but plan to return for further investigation.

We left Pierrana and Giorgio at the Ponte di Mezzo, which bridges the wide Arno, separating the north and south parts of the city, which have a competitive history. At the annual summer festival held in June, there is a contest during which teams compete by pulling and pushing a vehicle across the bridge tug-of-war style, to the delight of townspeople and visitors.
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Tonight we would return to an old-favorite restaurant, La Maremma, at via Verdi, 16/r (Tel: 055-244615). The kitchen produces traditional Tuscan delights with great care and consistency. The cucina is matched by the warm professional service. It's a good idea to reserve because the tables are usually filled with regulars, as they were this evening.

The warm chicken liver crostini is a perfect way to start the meal, along with the house chianti, Renzo Masi. Tagliatelli con funghi porcini is one of our favorites, and Linda loved this rendition. I was in the mood for basic spaghetti Bolognese and was thrilled with this preparation that had a touch of garlic and peperoncini. I had yet to have cinghiale other than in a pasta sauce so now the time had finally come. This preparation, a wonderful treat, was tender pieces of wild boar stewed slowly with vegetables and served with a side of potatoes. Once again, one of the best meals of the trip. The prices are very reasonable for a meal of this caliber.

This was a very special week in Florence, the best time we've ever spent here. We were feeling incredibly happy that we had decided on a winter break in Italy, and with our decision to include Lucca, Firenze and Rome in our itinerary. At this point we were especially happy, that we still had eight days in Rome to look forward to before returning home.
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