Italy: Firenze, forever fabulous

By Sasi Nair

Sasi Nair takes a whistle-stop tour through some of northern Italy's beautiful regions.

The Piazza della Signoria in the centre of Florence, a tourist hub flanked by, among others, the Palazzo Vecchio, Florence's town hall. Photo / 123RF
The Piazza della Signoria in the centre of Florence, a tourist hub flanked by, among others, the Palazzo Vecchio, Florence's town hall. Photo / 123RF

From the window of our apartment in the old city of Florence, I could see the queue in the laneway across the square begin to form at 9.30 in the morning.

It remained till midnight, a snaking line of young people waiting patiently, while others perched on the pavement on either side. Curiosity revealed a hole-in-the-wall sandwich shop that sold nothing but pork sandwiches. But these were no ordinary pork sandwiches.

For the princely sum of $11 you could choose from a wide variety of fillings, from lettuce to truffle cream, and pork every way you could imagine, smoked, cured, roasted, as well as daily specials, such as wild boar, all packed between two slices of flat bread.

And for an additional $3.75 you could get unlimited cups of white wine. No wonder the queue never disappeared.

We gobbled our sandwiches while perched on stools set on the pavement and enjoyed every delicious mouthful. Certainly no visit to Florence would be complete without a taste of these remarkable concoctions.

It became one of our best memories of Florence, one of Italy's many medieval cities.

The architecture of the old city is graceful, its spotless cobblestone streets (yes, spotless, including the laneways) inviting you to wander at will.

The historical Uffizi gallery, the magnificent Duomo and the Ponte Vecchio are all easily accessible. The jewellery-lined streets of the Ponte Vecchio are particularly striking, paved with gold, one might say, thanks to the jewellery stores that line it, dazzling the eye with beautifully worked pieces in gold and precious stones.

Vernazza on the Cinque Terre. Photo / 123RF
Vernazza on the Cinque Terre. Photo / 123RF

It was the high season, but there was never a sense of being crowded, and the people welcome the visitors. It is a charming city with charming people.

The Tuscan countryside offers tranquil vistas of olive groves, cypress trees and vineyards set in gently rolling hills. It seems the perfect setting for the many medieval cities that dot the landscape.

A tour that took in Pisa, San Gimingnano and Sienna gave us a sampling of them. I admit being thrilled at seeing the leaning tower of Pisa. Understandably it's a view that entices many visitors to mug for photographs of them stopping the tower from falling.

The flea market in the carpark is a good place to pick up souvenirs, such as key chains and copies of Venetian masks, at very reasonable prices. It's a lot cheaper than Venice, for instance.

San Gimingnano, in the heart of Chianti country, is built high on a hill and offers great views of the Elsa Valley from a high parapet.

Here we sampled what we were assured was the best gelato in the world.

The chef wore a T-shirt advertising the Gelato University but helpfully told us only gelato makers could attend its courses.

Many say Siena is Italy's loveliest medieval city. It is famous for the huge square called the Il Campo, where the famous horse race, the Palio, is run. Thousands pack the square to watch the race each summer.

The Duomo is breathtaking and built on a grand scale, with its ancient stained-glass windows and ornate altars.

From Florence, some of Tuscany's most famous cities and sights are within easy reach by coach and train. Italy's trains deserve special mention. They are fast, clean, luxurious and efficient, making day trips easy and enjoyable.

San Gimingnano. Photo / 123RF
San Gimingnano. Photo / 123RF

One of the most spectacular places any train will lead you to is Cinque Terre.

The stunning coastal region's beauty rests in its five hilly towns — Riomaggiore, Manarola, Corniglia, Vernazza and Monterosso. With cobblestone streets and quaint houses clinging to the hillsides overlooking the deep blue Mediterranean sea, it feels like you've stepped into the past.

Many of the buildings that front the main street — mainly cafes and boutiques — cater to the tourists, but look out for the little shops selling a wide variety of local produce, such as herbs, pastas, oils, local liqueurs, soaps and more.

The countryside is spectacular and available to anyone who wants to hike the area.

The coastal walk with stunning views is a fitting place to end a tour of this glorious region.


Venice was everything it's cracked up to be. It is almost surreal being in this water city after having seen so much of it in movies and read so much about it as settings for all kinds of stories.

Riding the vaparettos was an adventure and many paid for the pleasure of a ride on a gondola. But with the high season beginning in April and running till the end of October, huge crowds are the norm. It is impossible to walk a straight line in the narrow streets, as one is forced to dodge around the many wandering visitors.

The little lanes off the main square of San Marco hold curio shops selling leather, Murano glass jewellery and clothing.

Quaint little cafes lead out to hidden courtyards; we had staff from several competing for our business and offering discounts. Our choice served up a delicious meal in a quiet courtyard garden, with locals passing though after picking up children from school.

The Rialto bridge looks more impressive from the water than when you are on it. The fish market is huge, reminiscent of the wet markets common in Asia, but get there before 2pm or you will see only empty counters, with just a lingering smell to indicate what was sold there.


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