“Grazie”

Italy; Part 2

We headed out from Rome on Saturday morning and took the train to Florence. It was only a couple hours away and I found out I love traveling by train. It is so easy, clean and comfortable. If only Albania had a legit train system! That is a long ways off, but a girl can dream right?

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Once we arrived in Florence, we found our hotel and dropped off our bags. For the rest of the morning we walked around and shopped. There is a significantly different feel from Rome to Florence. Rome was fun to see but I LOVED Florence. It is such a beautiful and fun city. It’s exactly what I pictured the streets and stores of Italy to be like. Very beautiful but not overwhelmingly big. We were also lucky because we were there when it wasn’t tourist season. It was a lot easier to get around and enjoy the different aspects of the city.

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Once noon hit, we searched for a little food cart that sells sandwiches made of different types of meat. We branched out of our comfort zones and had cow stomach sandwiches for our lunch. It was actually delicious and I would have had a second one if we had returned later on. Surprisingly, the fact that it was cow stomach, didn’t bother me that much. I think my range of what I will and will not eat has been affected by Albania. I have now eaten cow brain, heart, sheep brain, eyeball, tongue, cheek and now thanks to these sandwiches; cow stomach.

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That evening we had a cooking class where we learned how to make pizza and gelato. Our chef’s name was Julio and we were in a group of about 10 people. We each made our own dough and created our own pizzas. He taught us some of the little known tricks of Italian cooking. One of which is that Italian is very simple, you just need fresh, quality ingredients. After making a simple pizza dough, we topped it with  tomato sauce, fresh basil, grated dry mozzarella, oregano and a little olive oil. He was right, it wasn’t difficult to make, but it tasted amazing. The gelato was also a very simple recipe, that called for good quality chocolate. At the end of the class he gave us all certificates and told us to open up our on pizzeria. If that would help me stay in Florence, I might be tempted. I will have plenty of time this winter to cook. As they say, practice makes perfect!

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The following day was filled with more shopping, and of course, stops for cappuccinos!

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While we were there, we toured the Galleria dell Accademia. This is where the statue of David is held, as well as many other famous sculptures. We also visited the Galleria Degli Uffizi, which is an elaborate art museum in the center of Florence. It houses well over 800 paintings as well as sculptures. We went on a guided 1 ½ hour tour, and were able to scrape the surface of what it has to offer. Our guide was a lively older woman who reminded me of a cross between Mary Poppins and Mrs. Doubtfire. She had a passion for art that resonated with each excited question she asked us.

Florence is known for their leather making. There are literally hundreds of huts and shops selling leather products throughout the city. We had been searching for some Christmas presents when we got wrangled into a side shop. The salesman continued to try to sell me an expensive leather coat, to which I would respond no, no, I can’t afford that. He kept insisting, to which I finally spouted out that I work for no money. I am poor! I am a volunteer! He then asked where and we soon had the whole shop asking why on earth I was living in Albania. Well this salesman was very suave and he proceeded to charm his way into my good graces and I picked out a purse from his shop. During this time, he decided that he would like to marry me, drew a heart with my name in it on my shopping bag, and also asked for my Facebook account.

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That evening we ate at a restaurant that is known for their T-bone steak. I had some of the most amazing food I have ever tasted. One thing I learned about traditional Italian eating, is that there are a lot of courses. First you would order some type of antipasta plate, such as a cured meats and cheese tray. Next comes the pasta dish. Lasagna, fettuccine, ravioli gnocchi, or any other pasta you can imagine. It is Italy after all! After the pasta course comes the main course of meat or fish. After the meat course, comes your salad. After the salad you can have dessert, followed by an espresso or cappuccino. Crazy right? We ordered a prosciutto and mozzarella salad (my favorite), lasagna, t-bone steak and Tiramisu. The entire evening we had unparalleled attention from our waiter. It was another thing that I noticed in the restaurants, the waiters don’t take their eyes off of their group of tables. If you drop something on the ground they are there to pick it up before you have a chance to swoop down. They bring customer service to a whole new level.

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One of my favorite days in Italy was when we went on a “Best of Tuscany Tour.” There was a bus and guide that was with us the entire day. We started our day off in Sienna, one of Tuscany’s most iconic medieval towns. The oldest working bank in the world is located there as well.

The oldest working bank

The oldest working bank

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We also visited the church located near the center of the city. The detail, as with most of the churches in Italy, was amazing. Every time we walked into a new church, my mouth would drop open. That may have been where the phrase “wow factor” came from.

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From there we visited a winery located out in the hills of Tuscany. We we had lunch and were able to sample 4 types of wine. They were even affordable enough to buy on a volunteer budget! To put it nicely, the wine in Albania is terrible. It usually burns when it goes down, smells terrible and a lot of times, is sold in recycled plastic bottles. I can’t even describe how happy it made me to drink good wine again!

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After lunch we headed to the town of San Gimignano. This city is nicknamed the “Medieval Manhattan” of Italy. It was my favorite stop of the day. You felt like you were stepping back into some alternate world as you entered this little city. The views of the rolling hills of Tuscany surrounded you. It was absolutely breathtaking. There were also quaint little shops that lined the cobblestone streets every which way you looked. As I have said before, the pictures don’t quite do it justice.

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After San Gimignano, we headed to Pisa to see the iconic leaning tower of Pisa. Built in the 1100’s, this building was leaning from the very beginning. There were plans of restoring it to a straight position. However, it was decided that it would take away from the history of the building and so it remains at that angle today.

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They had a Subway, I almost cried.

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Our last day was spent wandering around the markets. Followed by, a cooking class with a market tour. The market in Florence was unlike anything I have ever been to. It was one of the coolest experiences that I had in Italy. When we arrived we had a little tasting with one of the workers. We tried different types of cheeses, olive oils and balsamic vinegar. I couldn’t believe the difference it made to have good quality ingredients. I think I would have died and gone to heaven if I could shop at that market every week.

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Each counter was run by a different worker. It was their stand and they knew their product inside and out, backwards and forwards. Where it came from ,how it was made, what you should do with it. It was literally a chef’s paradise. They were also extremely interactive with the customers. Loud, and yelling Italian every which way but in such a cheerful manner, it made you want to stay and hang out with them. If you glanced a curious look their way, they would usher you over and hand out samples of their products.

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For our cooking class we learned how to make homemade pasta, ravioli, two types of sauces and tiramisu. It was such an informative  and fun class! I really enjoyed it and I learned a lot too. Some were simple things, such as the correct way to cut produce. Others were more complicated, how long to knead pasta dough until it is ready. I love cooking and I wish I could have stayed there and continued learning. And between you and me, I think I am destined to marry an Italian chef! 😉
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I think Florence stole a little piece of my heart. It is such a beautiful and amazing city. If you have the chance to go, don’t think twice. I know I will jump at my next chance to visit!
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