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.

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!

Through my eyes: Siena, Italy

When we talk about Tuscany, everyone’s heard of Florence. But not quite as many people know Siena. And the few who do generally only know it for the horse race held there every year, the Palio – horses topped with bareback riders race around the Piazza del Campo in an ode to the times of old. If you’re still unsure about what I’m talking about, maybe this scene from Quantum of Solace will ring a few bells.

But I’m not talking about the Palio this morning, because there’s so much more to Siena than a horse race. The beautiful little city, which was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site way back in 1995, still looks every bit the picture book medieval town it probably was back in 30AD when the Romans plonked a military outpost there. There are uniform terracotta roofs as far as the eye can see, those beautiful but somewhat difficult to walk upon cobbled paths, and symbolic and religious iconography around every corner. There’s also the incredible Tuscan food, the sweet little corner stores, the steeply sloped alley ways that you just have to wander up and down, and the best door knockers you’ve ever seen.

Welcome to Siena, through my eyes 🙂

The Leaning Tower of Pisa – actually, it’s just the bell tower…

So, my mum and dad are flying off to Europe today! I’m so, so excited for them – they are the hardest working, kindest, most generous people I’ll ever know. All of the time and energy goes into looking after us girls, into looking after their parents, into making other peoples’ lives better and easier. We may clash sometimes, especially mum and I (as mothers and daughters so often do), but I have nothing but love and respect for them both, and couldn’t be happier that they are FINALLY taking this trip they’ve been talking about for so long! In honour of this trip, I’m throwing it back to 2013 and my second visit to Pisa…

6.36Little known fact: the Leaning Tower of Pisa was never meant to be the main attraction in Pisa, even before it developed its current gangster lean (and it seriously is leaning – having walked up it twice, the spiral staircase you climb to the top seriously screws with your head – you literally lean against the inner and outer walls as you climb, the lean is that severe). The headliner was actually meant to be the piazza and cathedral, below, il Duomo di Pisa. The Leaning Tower is actually “just” the cathedral’s bell tower. Or at least it was until it started leaning on it’s crappy 1173 built foundation, making it a bigger draw card than the cathedral and piazza themselves…

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While we’re at it, I’m gonna do a few more travel throwbacks this week, so I’ll see you tomorrow in Thailand 🙂

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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