Stay here: The Art Inn, Florence, Italy

The Art Inn
6, Piazza di San Lorenzo, Florence
http://theartinn.com

Once we realised we’d be in Florence for New Year’s Eve, husband and I thought we’d better to book our accommodation in ASAP – it’s not the biggest city in the world, but young people from all over Tuscany come flooding in for it and we didn’t want to miss out on somewhere to sleep!

We vetoed Airbnb and decided to treat ourselves to an actual hotel to ring in the new year. A bit of searching and comparing prices led me to The Art Inn, and I was super sceptical – it seemed too cheap for what t promised. Turns out my scepticism was completely unfounded.

The Art Inn brand is only a few years old, starting in 2013 in Lisbon, and having expanded now to Florence, Seattle and Rotterdam. The concept is boutique hotel specifically located in an area of the city central to both major attractions and public transport, and decorated with art work inspired by the city. Florence is home to some really beautiful art, so it seems like an obvious choice to set up one of their hotels there. So why stay there?

Location. Unbeatable. A few minutes walk from Florence’s main train station and right on the doorstep of the San Lorenzo Market and Il Duomo.

Room size. Enormous! After spending the last several weeks in tiny European apartments and hotel rooms, we couldn’t believe our eyes when we were taken to our room. Very spacious, every room has its own unique pieces of art to admire. And the space doesn’t stop in the room – bathrooms are massive, too..

Amenities. Free wifi, an excellent breakfast included at a cafe a few doors down, in room mini bar, complimentary bottle of water, tea and coffee, tv, iPod dock, toiletries hairdryer. And there’s an absolutely beautiful library/reading room for guests to relax in.

Service. Every email was answered within a few hours, and no question was too silly. We were greeted with a smile and a “hello” every time we left and returned . And when we realised the week before visiting that we had no restaurant reservation for New Year’s Eve dinner, I emailed the hotel, and we had a table at one of the best restaurants in town half an hour later.

Value for money. We stayed for 3 nights over the New Year’s period, with a cafe breakfast included every morning, and paid around AUD $650.00.

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Eat here: S.Forno Panificio, Florence, Italy (bakery)

S.Forno Panificio
Via Santa Monaca 3r, Florence
http://t.ilsantobevitore.com

My auntie is a wonderful artist; she often travels to Italy to paint (because it’s impossible to not be inspired by such a gorgeous country), which means she has plenty of opportunities to find some real hidden gems. When I told her we’d be visiting Florence again, she told me I had to go to S.Forno. She was right.

The beautiful little bakery we found actually looked like it’d be more at home in Fitzroy or Collingwood than a tiny side street in Florence, but the retro decor and feel isn’t just fabricated to be reminiscent of the past. This is actually an old bakery that’s been rescued from certain doom by an enterprising  group of people…

The space has been a forno (bakery) for over 100 years. For the past 40 years, baker Angelo has walked into the store every morning to prepare freshly baked bread for the local Florentines. But something happened lately. After years of 7-day weeks and 18-hour days Angelo needed time beyond the bakery business and local restaurant team behind the successful Il Santo Bevitore came to the rescue. Partnering with Angelo, they have brought the business, but kept the baker, to ensure its place in the neighbourhood is secure for the future.
                                                                            – Lost in Florence

The daily offerings were written up on a chalkboard behind the counter, and assorted baskets were filled with loaves of bread. The front counter’s display case was filled with a mixed bunch of cake trays topped with an assortment of sweet treats, and the air smelt like freshly baked bread. Heaven. Husband and I were told the food was delicious and it didn’t disappoint; we ate cauliflower quiche and a prosciutto-topped slice of foccacia for lunch, and they were divine. While we ate, we watched customer after customer come through the door and leave with arms full of fresh bread.

We weren’t ready to leave after lunch; the atmosohere and people watching was too good. Sitting in there felt like total immersion in Florentine life, and we couldn’t have been happier to be sitting in the middle of it. Also, the sweets looked too good to leave without sampling.

Just to be clear, this is not a coffee shop. There’s no fancy espresso machine or 2 page caffeine menu. The focus is on the dough. But they are kind enough to offer some self-service, stock-standard American coffee and boiling water for tea, so we grabbed some of that and chose two typically Tuscan desserts – a baked rice cake, and a piece of castagnaccio, made from chestnut flour, rosemary, pine nuts and raisins.

Don’t be fooled by the nondesctipt façade; the service and atmosohere are both so warm and welcoming, and the food is some of the best in the city. It seems that they’ve arrived at the perfect balance between old traditon and new innovation, and that should earn them a visit when you’re next in Florence!

We stumbled upon an Easter parade in the streets of Florence…

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Easter 2013. I was in Italy. It was our last night in Florence, and we were to leave for Venice in the morning by train. We had been up since around 7am and hadn’t stopped all day. We were absolutely exhausted and would be needing our energy for Easter lunch the following day with mum’s family. So, we took the excuse to be completely pathetic and get an early night, turning it at around 9pm.

Around an hour or so later, we woke with a start to yelling, cheering, drumming, trumpeting. Our hotel, located so close to Il Duomo you could almost count the individual tiles that made up it’s intricate facade, was unwittingly also smack bang in the middle of all the action! We threw open our room windows, wrapped blankets around our shoulders to ward off the unseasonably cold spring wind, and watched the most fantastic parade wind it’s way around the dark streets below. After 20 minutes, our exhaustion got the better of us and we finally fell asleep to the beat of the marching drummers. It was a little too dark for a photo that night, but below is the scene from our hotel window the following morning, before we checked out…

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The following morning, we rose early to take advantage of the few hours we had left in Florence before our midday train. Down the stairs we went, emerging onto a busy street. It was Easter Sunday and our hotel was only a few metres from one of the greatest churches in Europe. The craziness was to be expected. We started walking, aimlessly, through the streets when we heard it again; the drumming. We scurried along, trying to follow the sounds of the drummers, bursting from a small side street onto a larger street upon this…

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We found the parade! A cursory check of the watch indicated a solid two hours before we needed to be back at our hotel to check out, so we followed the parade, in all it’s noisy glory, all the way to it’s final destination, la Piazza della Signoria. We watched the flag throwing, the elaborately costumed paraders and the other people gathered around. We noticed a well dressed gentleman being followed by an attentive security detail, wishing everyone a buona pasqua (happy Easter), shaking hands, smiling for photos, kissing babies, that kinda thing. We shook his hand, too, when he got to us, also wishing him a buona pasqua (I did, anyway; husband had absolutely no idea what he was saying, he just smiled and nodded politely). When we finally did get back to the hotel, I asked the lady who checked us out who he was. She swooned a little and told us he was the Mayor of Florence, and the pick of the people to be Italy’s next Prime Minister. He was Matteo Renzi, and is now, indeed, Italy’s Prime Minister. Absolutely lovely man, by the way!

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That was one hell of an Easter day, one I’ll never forget, and one of those days that makes me eternally grateful for the fact that I chose to follow the crowd and allow myself to get caught up in the moment that day. While I’m not a religious person, it was beautiful to see all of these people celebrating old traditions so happily and with so much gusto. I hope everyone, no matter where you are in the world, no matter what your traditions are, has a wonderful Easter  : )

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Throwback Thursday: Il Duomo by night, Florence, Italy

Another week, another travel/throwback/take me back Thursday… I’ve been dreaming of going back to Italy for weeks now, and Florence is an absolute favourite city; not just in Italy, but in the world. Last visit there, in 2013, I was lucky enough to stay within stone’s throw of Il Duomo – I could see if from the window of the B&B, could almost reach out and grab it!

It might be gorgeous by day, but to me, it really comes into its own at night. Il Duomo and the surrounding piazza and streets become another world at night. You can smell all sorts of deliciousness wafting through restaurant doors as you wonder down the old, cobbled streets. Sometimes you’ll hear the odd musician playing and children laughing as they chase each other around. It’s old world, its classic, it’s beautiful and it’s really something to experience.

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Il Ponte Vecchio, Florence, Italy

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Il Ponte Vecchio (or “The Old Bridge” as it translates to) is a pretty popular point in Florence. A medieval stone bridge that lays over the Arno River, it was re-constructed in it’s current form in 1345 after a flood destroyed an existing bridge. It was also miraculously the only bridge in the city not destroyed by the fleeing Germans in World War II.

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There was also a corridor constructed above the bridge in the mid 1500s, in order to connect the Palazzo Vecchio to the Pitti Palace. While the bridge was originally occupied by butchers, it’s now well known as the place to buy jewellery in Florence and as such is very popular with the ladies (not so much with their poor husbands and boyfriends)!

It’s a really lovely place to take a stroll come dusk – the sun setting over the neighbouring bridges is a beautiful sight, and the atmosphere changes come early evening, less frenetic and more relaxed.

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Lucca – Tuscany’s hidden little gem

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There are some absolutely stunning little towns in Tuscany, a very short distance from Florence, that are rarely visited and explored by people not wanting the leave the comfort of a bigger city. Some of the gorgeous cities that are well worth a visit are places like Sienna, San Gimignano, Volterra, and a personal favourite of mine, Lucca.

Around 75km, or about an hour and a half on a train from Florence will see you in this picture-perfect little town that is still enclosed by enormous Renaissance-era walls (which you can actually walk on for an amazing view!). Lucca is perfect for a day trip from Florence, for a quiet interlude to an otherwise busy and exciting city. There are literally dozens of churches to see (each more beautiful than the next), but some other points of interest are:
– The Guinigi Tower, with it’s rooftop garden
– Piazza Napoleone, particularly if you’re there in winter to enjoy the ice-skating rink
– The Clock Tower, from which you’ll have a breath-taking view of the city
– The botanical gardens, Orto Botanico Comunale di Lucca
– The Ducal Palace

Also, just wonder the streets with a camera handy – it’s a seriously beautiful city, the people are lovely and will help you out with directions and lunch recommendations as much as the language barrier will allow! For only a few dollars on a train ticket and a few hours of travel from Florence, it’s the perfect way to spend a day in Tuscany 🙂

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Eat here: D.O.C. Pizza & Mozzarella Bar, Melbourne (Italian)

D.O.C. Pizza & Mozzarella Bar, Melbourne
www.docgroup.net

I’m Italian, and proud of it. Yet, as you may have noticed, I rarely frequent Italian restaurants. Why? Because I find it really hard to find good, I mean really, authentically good Italian food. I know there are some beautiful Italian restaurants out there, but I’ve also grown up eating my family’s home cooking, both here and in Italy, so I know what it should taste like. And very rarely does anything live up to those standards. Good Italian food is simple. It’s very high quality ingredients, put together in a very simple way. It’s avoiding fancy cooking techniques and extra embellishments, so as not to take away from the amazing ingredients being used. So, when mum vouched for D.O.C., I knew it’d be worth a visit.

We finally got there for lunch last weekend, and in complete honesty, it was the best Italian meal I’ve had since actually being in Italy last year. Visiting their website, you immediately see D.O.C.s mission statement:

D.O.C. is real Italian eating and age old simplicity refreshed with contemporary flair. A celebration of heritage. A joy in sharing. Authentic, exuberant and outrageously Italian.

And that is exactly what we got. You can read a lot more about what they’re all about on their website, so I won’t waste your time regurgitating it all for you. I’ll let the pictures of our food do the talking.

First up, like the proper wog I am, was the salumi board with fior di latte cheese drizzled with a little olive oil ($24.90). I’ve had some pretty amazing cured meats, thanks to my grandparents who do a lot of it themselves, but this would have to have been one of the best meat boards I’ve ever had. The cheese was even better. Oh my goodness. Husband (now an honorary Italian) was half way through and already asking if we were free next weekend to come back.

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Next up was the pizza – resplendent with San Daniele prosciutto, buffalo mozzarella and San Marzano tomatoes, with the typical Italian drizzle of oil ($23.50). We both agreed, best pizza we’ve had outside of Italy. But seriously, would we have time to visit again before I flew off to Vietnam next weekend?? For food this good, you make time.

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We spent the meal talking about how much fun we’d had in Italy, Rome and Florence in particular the previous year. Being the insatiable wanderluster I am, I’ve already planned trips up to 2019 (I’m not kidding, I have a problem), with the next big one being back to Europe. I asked how he’d feel about hiring a car and driving around Tuscany for a week. Absolutely! How about moving to Rome for 6 months? It was up for debate before we started eating; we were ready to pack up the house that afternoon by the end of the meal. We felt like we were back in Italy for a while, over that meal. And it was amazing. There really aren’t many restaurants that can so effortlessly transport you around the world like that. If you’re in Melbourne and like me in that you want something real and authentic to eat, you’re going to love D.O.C. I really can’t praise it highly enough, and I really can’t wait to get back again.

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