This was a pretty high-stakes trip to Italy for me. It was the first time I had ever led a group of travelers. Normally, I travel solo. Sometimes I meet up with a group of yogis on a retreat, or I join other photographers on a workshop. Coordinating a trip to Italy for six ladies was a pretty big deal. I was nervous about whether I was up for the challenge.
It all came about at my parent's 50th wedding anniversary party last July. I had just returned from Lucca a few days prior, and was bubbling on about Tuscany, seeing the Eagles play, the wine, the food...all of it. Several of my mom's friends casually mentioned that I should take them to Italy the next time I went and, since I'd been toying with the idea of whether or not my passions for travel and photography could someday somehow supplement my income, I ran with it. Ten months later, six of us were headed to Italy and I was in charge.
On Day 1, at O'Hare, we checked in with no problems, handed over our luggage, breezed through security and boarded without a hitch. Our seats were scattered throughout the plane but it looked like no one's seat mate had BO or any similarly egregious problems. Things were looking, and smelling, good.
Except that we never took off. We waited for an hour. And then for two. Finally, the pilot informed us that the satellite, required for long-haul, trans-Atlantic flights, wasn't operating, and needed to be repaired or replaced. Shortly after, a maintenance team boarded the flight to repair a completely different issue. The flight crew announced that we could deplane if we wanted. After 3 hours, we definitely did want! We deplaned and made a beeline to the nearest airport bar. Thank goodness my ladies were drinkers! Can you imagine a dry tour of Italy? Me either. After 3 more hours, 2 cocktails each, a gate change and a new plane, we finally took off. But the almost 6-hour delay meant that we would miss our connecting flight from Brussels to Florence.
For those of you that don't know, if you are flying to Florence, you have to connect through another airport in Europe, since Florence wasn't designed to handle the large, long-haul jets. If you want to fly direct to Italy, you can fly to Rome but if I can, I avoid (big, crazy, international) airports like Rome, Heathrow and Charles de Gaulle. Besides, if you fly to Rome but are immediately headed to Florence, you need a taxi from the airport to the train station, and then a train ticket from Rome to Florence, and then probably a taxi to your hotel. With the additional hassle, time and expense of all that, I prefer not to fly into Rome.
I usually prefer to fly to Frankfurt (Munich and Zurich are good too) and then fly to Florence or Pisa. This trip, for some reason, I scheduled us through Brussels, which I will never do again. United Airlines (my heretofore preferred carrier) only flies from Brussels to Florence once per day. Because of our United equipment delay, we had missed that single, daily flight. United even had to split up our party to get us to Florence. The airline re-routed three of us on KLM through Amersterdm and three of us on Lufthansa, through Frankfurt. Our easy flights to Europe had turned into 24-hours of travel, a ton of airport food and hours of long layovers.
I maniacally emailed my contacts in Italy to re-arrange our airport-to-hotel transfer and to request that our arrival day cooking class be rescheduled, rapidly burning through the international data package on my iPhone that was supposed to gently nurse me through two weeks of European travel. The good news is that our driver cheerfully met us at the airport at midnight. The bad news? Rescheduling the cooking class was a big fat NO since the school required 24-hours notice. We couldn't re-book unless we paid in full again. Even more of a bummer? KLM lost 3 of the ladies' bags.
Ultimately, the bags did arrive and Florence, while crowded and a little rainy, was magical. But it's Italy, so who would imagine anything else? Here's a quick look at part of our Florence itinerary and suggestions on how to make your trip to Florence amazing too.
- Stay at the Hotel Monna Lisa. The location is great, prices are fair and a generous breakfast is included in the nightly rate. It's an independent boutique hotel so every room is different. There are antique-filled sitting areas scattered throughout and a charming courtyard where you can enjoy an aperitif each evening before heading out to dinner. The bartender is a Russian man who will tell you to call him Vinnie. He's quite the comedian.
- Eat at Giostra. Ask the hotel to book you a table as soon as you arrive in Florence. When you get there, forget about money. Eat everything. Drink copiously. Sit for hours. As you pay the bill, ask for some of their limoncello to "settle your stomach." They'll probably bring you a little decanter of their home-made version. Relax. Sit some more. Drink it all. The Monna Lisa is right down the street so it's no big deal if you're a bit stumbly as you walk back.
- Book Cantina Barbagianni when Giostra is booked. It's also just down the street from the Monna Lisa. The food is excellent, the atmosphere is charming and it's a teeny bit easier on the wallet than Giostra.
- Hire a private guide. You knew I'd say that, right? Our guide Elisabetta walked us all over Florence and took us on a tour of the Accademia. The line for "Skip the Line" ticket holders was pretty deep (ironic, no?) but she nodded at a museum guard who whisked us in another door. Elisabetta also called and made a reservation for us for lunch at one of her favorite places (read: not your typical tourist trap). Plus, she made a list of exactly which galleries we should see in the Uffizi, since we were visiting that museum on our own after lunch. We also met her in Siena, for another day long-tour. I'd highly recommend Elisabetta if you head to Tuscany.
- Buy real art. It's spendy, I know, but make yourself do it. I bought an unusual stone mosaic with a gilded frame at Scarpelli Mosaici. It was expensive but it was one of the only things I bought this trip and I'm looking forward to enjoying it for years to come. It's really special and I'll love it always because of the memories it will bring me. How did I find this shop? Elisabetta, of course. While she doesn't get commission when she takes tourists here, she loves the shop and the mosaics the artisans craft.
Next up... black and white street photography from Florence and Lucca.