Places: Pisa and Florence, Tuscany, Italy

I am not sure if that happens to everyone but with any family vacation of a certain length, there are some times when you think to yourself, ‘why did I make this vacation so long?’. As we left Cinque Terre, I think we all were starting to tire out a bit and look forward to our own beds. However, we knew we still had a couple of nights left so there isn’t much to do when you are across an ocean and relying on an airplane for your ride home.

We debated whether we should bother stopping in Pisa on our way to Florence – it seems silly not to, the train goes right through town, but having to store our luggage and get on another train seemed a bit daunting at that time. Regardless, we decided to buck up and visit and were we ever glad that we did! Pisa seemed to re-energize everyone and set the stage for an awesome last couple of days. If you ever have the occasion to pass through Pisa, it is one of the few places where bags can still be stored at the railway station and the cost is pretty minimal. There is a nice little guide for a day-stop in Pisa that has been put together at Ready, Pack, Go that I referenced for our stop.

Photo credit: Lil’ E

We dropped our bags off there and then proceeded down Corso Italia, the main pedestrian mall lined with shops and restaurants that leads to the Leaning Tower. This (kind of like the Eiffel Tower) is exactly what it looks like in photos but somehow seems SO much more impressive in person. Actually appreciating how much it leans and seeing the scale of it was really much cooler than I expected. After we were done there, we wandered back through the small streets, did a little shopping on Corso Italia and headed back to the train station (and remembered to get our bags!) in time to catch our next train to Florence by 2:30. This was an awesome stopover and we were all really excited that we had done it – the kids loved seeing the Tower and Pisa has such a cool, laid-back vibe; I’d definitely consider using it as a base city next time.

In Florence, we arrived at our apartment (at the top of three flights of narrow, steep stairs) and knew right away that AirBnB had delivered another great spot. Our kitchen actually overlooked the Sant’Ambrogia Market, a place we explored the next morning before taking off. We stayed east of most of the major touristy stuff, closer to the university and in a real vibrant part of town.  At first, I worried that our location was too far east but now realize you could be even further east and still easily walk to everything you might want to see.

One of the cool squares half a block from our place.

Our first night in Florence, we went to a small pizzeria on our block, Angolo della Pizza, that was a simple affair but very delicious, and ridiculously cheap!  It was cool – a complete one man operation from ordering, to preparing the pie, to cooking it right in front of us in his pizza oven that seemed to take up about a third of the floorplan of the shop. Properly satiated, we headed out on another of our night adventure walks, going from one impressive landmark to another; Basilica de Santa Croce, Palazzo Vecchio, Piazza della Republica, and finally, the Duomo that Florence is so well known for. Walking around at night, we had the streets to ourselves and it seemed even more impressive to see the monuments in the dark. One of the funnier things that happened in Florence was that the kids became obsessed with the many statues, and attempted to recreate them through their own acting while giving their own interpretation of what event was being captured. Our first night in Florence was finished up with some delicious gelato at Marco Ottaviano, a spot that was deemed the best of our trip.

A carousel? Yes, please!
As the big guy explains this statue, ‘he’s dead.’

After being out late the night before, it was a bit of a slow start to our next day despite our big plans. We went to take the bus up to Piazzale Michelangelo for a view over the city and after finding some bus tickets, we hopped on, only validating these because the driver was nice enough to tell us how to do it.

The view from the top. Piazzle Michelangelo.

After enjoying the view, we hopped back on the bus to take us down to explore the south side of the river. During this trip, inspectors hopped on to check bus tickets. This already seemed a bit shady since this route is completely filled with tourists but most people managed to produce their validated tickets. The one exception was a young couple from Hong Kong who I had watched buy tickets from the driver but had failed to validate them on the bus. There was clearly no intent to scam the system, the young man, like me earlier, simply couldn’t read the instructions in Italian but in his case was given no help from the driver. He protested his case, with the inspectors and with the driver (who had sold him the ticket about three minutes earlier) but he and his girlfriend both ended up with fines for 50 euros each. I later read up on this online and I guess since about 2009 these Florence inspectors have become infamous for preying on tourists on these routes since the whole validation system is not intuitive. Ruining someone’s whole impression of a city that is now built on tourism seems to me to be a pretty short-sighted cash grab but there is really no leniency . While this was all going on, I did some online searching and also realized that perhaps our kids should have had tickets on the bus since they are over one metre tall (although the driver had told me no previously) so we quickly departed the bus at the next stop!

Last day of vacation? Time for some homework.

After our hasty exit, we wandered through the small streets of the South side of the Arno River, visiting some shops before eating a late lunch at Gusta Panino in front of Santo Spirito. We were unable to visit the Boboli Gardens due to some damage from rain the week before but we fought through the touristic hordes on the Ponte Vecchio and returned to our apartment for a nap before dinner.

Our last night in Florence, we visited a small pasta bar where again it was a one man show, with the same gentleman taking orders, filling water, and cooking in the back. Quite fascinating to watch. We couldn’t pass up walking back to our favorite gelato spot for another treat before bed.

The next morning we took a cab to the airport very early, got gouged on one final 7-euro hot chocolate for Lil’ E, and took off for home via Frankfurt. A smooth travel day that ended a wonderful vacation we’ll remember for a long time.

Yep, time to head home.
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4 thoughts on “Places: Pisa and Florence, Tuscany, Italy”

  1. I appreciate your honesty in your writing. It’s easy to make it all sound amazing, whereas we know there must be “moments”? I’m amazed that you’ve done such travels! We thought we were doing well taking you coast to coast in Canada as a kid.

  2. Thanks for the shout out and glad the itinerary worked!

    Glad to see I’m not the only one who would consider Pisa as a base on a future visit.

    Happy travels,

    Monique

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