Uffizi Gallery / Tuscan Day Trip
I got out of bed an hour after my alarm on Wednesday, still wiped out after many nights of not sleeping well. I rushed to get ready and eat breakfast before going to the Uffizi Gallery. Learning from my experience with the unexpected line at the Vatican Museum, I reserved a ticket for 10 am. I think it was worth the few extra Euros because otherwise I might've waited in line longer than I did at the Accademia. I made my way through the labyrinthine entrance and ascended the staircase to the main exhibit. The museum is set up in a big U shape with many rooms attached to the main hallway. Classical statues line this hallway and the rooms are full of gorgeous Florentine paintings, many of which belonged to the Medici family's collection. I visited Florence and the Uffizi Gallery once before when I was a kid, so it was fun to see pieces that I remembered seeing before, like The Birth of Venus and Perseus Freeing Andromeda. The museum is paradise for anyone who appreciates classical and Renaissance art and I spent a few hours wandering around. From the top of the museum, there was a nice view of Palazzo Vecchio, Florence's town hall.
After the museum, I needed something to eat and a break from walking, and fortunately the second highest ranking restaurant in Florence (according to TripAdvisor) was just down the street. It's on a quieter street just off the beaten path and it's clearly more of a local hangout than tourist trap. I called it a restaurant, but it's more of an informal sandwich shop. On the inside, you can watch the workers make the sandwiches at the bar, there are a number of stools and tiny tables, and all sorts of cured meat hangs from the ceiling. I had no idea what to order. It seemed hard to go wrong because everything they serve is either made in the shop or comes from a local farm. Eventually I decided on their best-selling sandwich. I still don't know what it was for sure, but it was delicious and I'll be going back there every chance I get.
I wandered back towards the Uffizi where there's a free open air museum of sorts overlooking Piazza della Signoria. There are a few classical and Renaissance statues. I was happy to see a statue featuring my favorite character from classical literature (who can be pretty hard to find anywhere). I sat down for a while and enjoyed piazza life and writing in my journal. Once late afternoon rolled around, I headed back to my hostel to get some rest.
On Thursday, I successfully woke up early and got ready for a big day--a day trip including horseback riding and wine tasting. I met up with my group members (two couples and two kids) and our kind and humorous Italian tour guide in front of the train station. We rode in a comfortable van for about an hour to the Chianti region of Tuscany. Along the way, our guide pointed out places of historical interest and talked about life in Italy. This was my first experience with being in a car on this trip and I was glad to have an experienced driver; streets are tiny and traffic is chaotic. Our guide told us that the first time he drove, his instructor had him drive in the middle of Florence. I think that I had a much easier time learning to drive in more rural Ashland.
We stopped at a farm first and the rest of the people in my tour group stayed there for wine tasting while I went on the horseback riding tour. I got out to take a picture of the medieval town San Gimignano in the distance. Someone remarked, "This is fake, right?" It looked more beautiful than a postcard in person.
The guide introduced me to the farm owner and we headed down to meet the horses. While walking down the road, something ran up and touched my hand. Startled, I looked down and saw the farm's dog, Pepe. Pepe is one of the sweetest dogs I've ever met. He likes to lie down and put his head on people's feet until they pet him. I've been missing my doggies and love encountering animals over here.
We reached the horses and I was introduced to the horse that I'd be riding. My horse was quiet, gentle, and perfect for my minimal experience. Two people who weren't from my original tour group joined me and we started making our way downhill. The trail wound through some woods and opened up at the base of a vineyard. As we rode on, we passed by more vineyards and old buildings on rolling green hills. I could see small Tuscan towns in the distance. The weather was pleasantly warm with a cool breeze. It was ideal. The ride lasted an hour and a half and I was already sore by the end, but I wished that it lasted longer. I've been really wanting to ride horses since before I left on my trip and had any idea that the opportunity would come up. Tuscany is probably one of the most beautiful places for horseback riding!
When the ride was over, I waited for my tour guide to pick me up in the farmhouse. The farm owner let me sample the delicious honey that is produced on the farm while I waited. The guide arrived before long and our group headed San Gimignano, the town I saw from a distance earlier. While it feels like a village, it's the largest town in the Chianti region. San Gimignano's most striking feature is its towers, more than ten of which are preserved from the medieval ages. Originally, these towers belonged to families who tried to build the most impressive tower to show their family's power and prestige. We walked through quiet streets and market squares to get a closer look at the towers.
We went through tiny passageways and made it to an incredible panoramic view of the Chianti region. There were more rolling green hills as far as the eye could see, beautiful blossoms and trees, and charming farms scattered over the land. I found myself thinking that if I could move to Tuscany, work on a farm, and ride horses all the time, I'd do it in an instant.
We had a bit of free time so I scurried up to the ruins of a castle overlooking the town. From the top of a wall, I had another incredible panoramic view of Tuscany, this time in the direction of Florence. I enjoyed the view for a few minutes before walking back to the tour van.
Next, we drove to a winery a few miles away for lunch and wine tasting. This winery was started in 1720 and the man who served us the wine is a direct descendent of the founders. He loves his job and his passion showed through when he explained the different kinds of wine to us. He also told us how to properly taste wine (pick up the glass with your left hand with three fingers holding the stem, transfer to your right hand with one finger above the stem, swish, smell (I'm sure that smell isn't the proper word), and drink). First we tried salad, cheese, and salami with four different wines. We sampled four more wines with vegetable soup and lasagna, and then a dessert wine with biscotti. To say it was delicious would be an understatement.
Lunch ended around 4 pm and it was time to head back to Florence. Before being dropped off back at the train station, we stopped by an amazing square overlooking the city. Piazzale Michelangelo had a great view, but this viewpoint was even higher. Florence is gorgeous in the late afternoon light.
We went back to the train station and said our goodbyes. Thus ended one of the best days of my trip and one of the better days of my life. I was apprehensive about the tour at first because it was pretty pricey, but it was worth every cent. Everyone in my tour group was really nice and I'm glad that we all got to experience Chianti together.