With our car seat lost in limbo somewhere between the U.S. and Italy, we met Sam and started out for the 1 1/2 hour drive to Viterbo with Maddie riding "Italian style" in the backseat with me. (Sam told us that, though Italy has a car seat law, it's not uncommon to see Italian mothers driving their stickshift cars with two babies on their laps, smoking a cigarette and talking on a cell phone ... so driving with Maddie and no car seat was actually not so bad in comparison.) The drive was a lovely one. Sam drove us along the highway near the coast so we could catch glimpses of the sea to the west, then took a two-lane winding road through little Italian towns and past ruins of ancient Roman viaducts. Maddie and Andrew both dosed while Sam and I chatted.
We arrived in Viterbo in the afternoon. Maddie and Eli reunited after 8 months, and within a few minutes they were running around the living room shrieking and playing like long lost friends. Because it was a Sunday, we spent the late afternoon strolling around Viterbo's central square and enjoyed our first gelato cone. The way to do it is to order two flavors: a blend of cioccolato and crema was a favorite. Caroline and Sam taught us their trick for Eli, who of course wants his own cone; they had the gelato shop give them an extra cone and then added some gelato from their own cones. Thus we were able to indoctrinate Maddie with her very own ice cream cone without wasting a lot of precious gelato.
That evening Caroline and Sam took us to one of their favorite pizza places in town, where we were introduced to real Italian pizza. It's very thin, and so long that it takes two plates to serve it. The custom is to order different toppings on each half (meta diabolo, meta funghi). Unbelievable, but it isn't difficult to eat most of the pizza in one sitting.
On Monday, Caroline and I drove around in circles for awhile looking for the car rental place so I could pick up the VW I had rented for the week. Viterbo does not have street signs, and the names of roads (and where they pick up and leave off) can be very confusing. It also doesn't help that we were looking for the wrong name of the business. We finally deduced that it was the Avis rental car outlet we were looking for. Like a typical American, I showed up with no paperwork or vouchers, expecting to produce my passport and driver's license and get my keys. Turns out I needed a printout, so I had to go next door to a copy shop, get on the Internet, print out my voucher and pay 50 cents euro for the privilege. Once I finally got my car, it took me awhile to figure out how to shift into reverse. Caroline helped me, and about two and a half hours later we were finally on our way.
We spent Monday touring a couple of the towns around Viterbo, including Bagnaia, where there is a famous 16th-century garden called Villa Lante. Unfortunately, the public garden was closed on Monday, so instead we enjoyed our daily gelato cone and let Maddie run off her sugar high through the streets.
Later that afternoon, Sam and Eli joined us and we all drove to a nearby lake. A dormant volcano is near Viterbo (which is why there are so many hot sulfur springs there, which we enjoyed later in the week), and this lake was actually were the crater of the volcano used to be. We hiked in to the beautiful open space, and saw signs along the trail notifying us of the wild boar we might run into along the way.
We set out early Tuesday morning, following espresso and pastries at the cafe around the corner from Sam and Caroline's apartment and a quick trip to a store for food for Maddie for the trip, for two days in Florence by ourselves. Tuesday was rainy and very cool, so it was a good day to have to spend the day driving. The ride is about 2 1/2 hours, and we had Lisa and Jeremy's trusty GPS (already pre-programmed from their trip to Italy) to help us. (We had one little mishap getting out of Viterbo; when the GPS says to "veer right" sometimes it isn't completely clear what that means, and I ended up following a scooter a little narrow street that ended up in an even narrower alley, off limits to cars ... not scooters of course. All the shop owners stepped out to watch the curiosity of an American tourist uncomfortable with driving a stick try to turn her rental car around right up against a dropoff dead-end. We were very lucky we didn't end up in jail or seriously injured.)
At one point the GPS steered us off the interstate and into the countryside, through some little towns and winding around narrow two-lane roads, but ultimately it got us to where we needed to go, which was the Autostrade (the major toll freeways that run between the major cities in Italy).
By the time we rolled in to Florence around 4 in the afternoon, the rain had subsided. We followed the GPS's direction and were amazed to easily find our hotel, a brand new business hotel about a 15-minute walk from all the major attractions of Florence. Our hotel was beautiful (and affordable, presumably because it was so new) and very modern. Some highlights: a library off the lobby which Maddie insisted on visiting each time we came and went so she could pat the lion and bear statues on the shelves ("lion, lion, lion, lion" ... you get the idea); a gorgeous rooftop gym and patio; an in-room refrigerator with free beverages; and free breakfast at a very nice buffet -- if you can even use that word for a very yummy European-style breakfast -- in the morning. Also, free parking, which is evidently unheard of in Florence.
We relaxed for a few minutes, then headed out to see as much as we could see before dinner. Just walking through the neighborhoods of Florence was so amazing; I think the residential sections we passed through when walking to and from our hotel were some of my favorite moments of Florence. Based on our map, I saw that we would be able to arrive easily at the Ponte Vecchio, the bridge over the river that hundreds of years ago was where the butchers of Florence had their shops, and which featured a secret passageway that allowed Florence's royal family to pass unseen from one side of the river to the other. One Florence ruler got rid of the butchers at one point because he didn't like the smell; then goldsmiths moved in, and today it's lined with high-end jewelry shops.
It's also crowded with hundreds and hundreds of people. We had seen the bridge on a Travel Channel program before our trip, and it must have been 6 a.m. when they shot it because there were like 5 people on the bridge on TV. It was practically impossible to even get through the crowds.
At this point we sort of wandered around, stumbling upon historically and artistically significant attractions that we looked desperately through our guidebooks for explanations of. We tried to get into one of the basilicas but things were starting to close for the evening (it was about 5:30 at this point), so we snapped some pictures and headed back to the hotel to freshen up for dinner. Sam and Caroline had luckily lent us some of their guidebooks, including one about the best food in Italy with a great section on Florence, and we got a good recommendation for Trattoria Armando, home-cooked Italian food at a place where the owners are relatively understanding of Americans' bad ordering habits (i.e., our tendency to order pasta as our main course rather than as a first course), and we felt that sounded like a place that would also tolerate our restless toddler.
Not only were the people at Armando sweet to Maddie and very kind to us, they brought Maddie plain linguini with tomato sauce that she went crazy for. Andrew and I also had incredible food: for me, pici con ragù di carne e funghi porcini, and for Andrew, pappardelle sul cinghiale (that would be pappardelle with wild boar). A family came in with a baby and that kept Maddie captivated for awhile, then she stared at all the other patrons for a bit while we finished our wonderful meal.
Wednesday was our big see-the-sights day. Florence is an amazing city, but it's also exhausting and can be ... well, glaringly touristy. And Andrew and I are known for getting testy if we try to pound the pavement too much on vacation. Florence was hot and crowded, and we spent a lot of time walking around looking for things that felt "authentic" rather than touristy (which was difficult ... and ultimately, for example, we settled for a mediocre, overpriced open air cafe for lunch because we were starving and knew places were going to close soon). Plus, while we were staying in New York I had reserved tickets over the Internet for the Academia to see David. We had reservations for 11 a.m., which I had believed would be more than doable since Maddie usually wakes up so early; I figured we would have been out of the hotel for hours by then. But my experience with the car rental place had me thinking that I should probably have printed my vouchers, and when I pulled down my email via the iPhone (no Internet at our "business hotel") I was right -- the disclaimer said I absolutely must have my voucher, no exceptions. We discussed finding an Internet cafe and trying to print everything out, but by this point it was 10:45 and we were going to miss our reservaton time. So we were feeling pretty disgruntled about the wasted money and wasted opportunity.
But we got to see absolutely exquisite cathedrals, including the Duomo and the Basilica Santa Maria di Novella. We visited the indoor food market, Maddie got to go on a carousel ride, and we ultimately ended up across the river at the Boboli Gardens, which were gorgeous and a nice way to end the day.
But by this point we were exhausted and it was much later in the day than we had hoped. We headed back to our car at the hotel, set the GPS to point us homeward, and set off around 5 p.m. (rush hour, by the way). About 15 minutes into our departure, we began noticing what the GPS was telling us to do wasn't corresponding with what we actually could do; for example, we'd be stopped at a light and the GPS would be plugging ahead telling us to go right and left and right. The satellites were all messed up, and we couldn't figure out how to get back on course. We had wandered into a part of the city where no one spoke English. I even pulled over at one point to ask directions back to the Autostrade at the caribinieri (Italian state police) station, and even they didn't speak English; he understood "Autostrade" and produced some hand gestures that at least pointed me in the right direction. This episode was definitely the low point of our visit to Florence because ... well, let's just say, being as tired as we were, we didn't exactly handle it very well. But ultimately we ended up getting back to the Autostrade, the GPS got itself together, and we got home safe and sound (and probably a little richer for the experience).