Allen On Travel

A 30 year veteran of world travel (but knows nil about Orlando-area attractions), Will Allen III writes about his weekly odysseys by air on business and how the airlines rob him--and you--of time, the most precious commodity on earth. Time: It's all we have, and the airlines routinely take it from us. This blog challenges the airlines to keep their basic promises.

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Location: Raleigh, North Carolina, United States

Born 1948 in Kinston, NC and raised there in beautiful eastern North Carolina, I now live in Raleigh and commute around the country and the world.

Friday, November 12, 2010

2010 Florentine Impressions

My experience of Florence in September was defined by mostly pleasant revelations of a city I came to know and love in the early 1970s. Despite it being a hastily planned trip to visit my ailing cousin (see previous posts below), it went better than I expected or, frankly, could have hoped for. I felt guilty for having enjoyed it because my cousin, an old and dear friend, had only days to live.

Some impressions of Florence in 2010 compared to my first visit nearly forty years ago:

· If you need Euros, it’s much more difficult to change money now at a reasonable rate. I used to go to the American Express office, but it has long since closed. The banks were also reliable in previous decades, but these days none offer Forex windows. Instead, most people use their ATM cards to extract money, which of course gives Euros against the dollars in one’s home account. I resorted to my ATM card in just that way, having been advised that it was the only reasonable method to get cash. But my next bank statement (Wells Fargo-Wachovia) showed two hefty service charges tacked onto an already poor dollar/Euro exchange rate. An alternative to ATM machines are a handful of specialty foreign exchange booths found in central Florence, but their charges exceed even what you’ll pay using an ATM card. Bottom line: Changing money has become quite expensive for individuals.

· Italian banks now require patrons to pass through phone-booth sized security portals with built-in metal scanners to thwart robbers. If you have any metal on you, it must be deposited in a locker outside (similar to the ones in bus and train stations in the USA). Then one enters the outer door of the security portal, which closes behind. If the scanner doesn’t detect any metal, the inner door slides open to allow entry to the bank. Too bad if you have any metal INSIDE you from, say, hip surgery.

· For twenty Euros I purchased an Italian SIM card from a walk-in store of Italian mobile provider WIND for my American (service through AT&T) cell phone that included €15 of phone service at the rate of 12 cents per minute. I had intended to do just that, so called AT&T Wireless before leaving the States to get my particular phone’s special unlock code so that it would accept non-AT&T SIM cards. It took me all of five minutes to unlock my phone and activate the new SIM card, which worked like a champ. I forgot to mention that the SIM card comes with its own number which can receive inbound calls. My family got through to my new number daily for updates. This was an easy, convenient way to have a temporary mobile phone while in Italy.

· Toilets at the Florence main train station (Firenze S.M.N.) charge one Euro to enter. I thought this was an unreasonably steep price to use a public convenience.

· By contrast, toilets aboard Italian trains are free. However, they do dump directly onto the tracks below the car, just as passenger train toilets used to do in the United States. Amtrak toilets have long been self-contained chemical systems similar to airline toilets.

· Internet cafés were in surprisingly short supply in Florence. I located one about 5 blocks south of the Arno run by Pakistani businessmen that was open from 9:00 AM to midnight and charging reasonable rates. Trouble was, the Internet service was abysmally slow. Since I had traveled with my laptop, I looked for wifi hot spots but found only one, a café operated by a Tunisian clan that was a bit closer to my apartment. It was open only from noon each day, and the wifi speed was tolerable, but not great. Mostly I was able to work through my email traffic by stealing wifi signals from the surrounding apartments. Most were encrypted, but a few were not. I had to lie in wait for the open wifi networks, however, as the residents turned off their systems when they were not at home. Altogether, staying connected worked out OK, with only a little hassle and inconvenience.

· Taxis in Florence seemed in short supply, and that was confirmed by my cousins who have lived in the city since the 1950s. They claim the taxi union refuses to expand the license pool, keeping the number of drivers low but busy. Good thing central Florence is small; I was able to walk almost everywhere I needed to go.

· It’s also a good thing I didn’t need to drive or park in central Florence. The city has instituted very strict zone-based driving and parking rules for residents only. Fines for entering—even accidentally—an unpermitted area start at 84 Euros and are automatically recorded.

· Third generation cousins among my relatives now living in Florence are in their early to mid twenties. They were born and raised in Milan and migrated to Florence of their own accord. They tell me that the many young adults I saw scurrying about are typical of Italians their age. They say they have come to Florence because they like it, and they plan to make their homes and their lives there.

· The food was magnificent and memorable! I vividly recall many glorious gustatory experiences in Florence and Tuscany over four previous decades, and the city’s chefs didn’t disappoint this time, either. Florentine food was as good as ever. I highly recommend, for instance, Trattoria del Carmine in the Piazza del Carmine on Borgo San Frediano. There I dined on exquisite funghi porcini (porcini mushrooms) over egg noodles (first course) and a veal scallopine with lemon (main course), washed down by a simple yet elegant Tuscan vino rosso della casa (house red wine). Just when I didn’t think it could get any better, the restaurant’s simple dessert of homemade panna cotta with homemade strawberry syrup was a gift from the gods in its delicate, divine perfection. Trattoria del Carmine delivered a meal of a lifetime.

· A strong second for eating pleasure in Florence came at the Ristorante Dante, also on Borgo San Frediano at Piazza Nazario Sauro. My cousin, sick though he was, scoffed at my choice of that establishment when I raved about their egg noodles topped with enormous quantities of precious porcini mushrooms in a truffle cream sauce and their out-of-this-world white beans in oil. “Too expensive!” he barked, “And the food is just so-so!” No, I said, I enjoyed all that, plus dessert and wine, for a mere €35 including gratuity. And the meal was heavenly! Compared to most Americans, my Italian relatives have far more discriminating palates. But to me, each bite of each dish in the restaurants of Florence was scrumptious.

Overall, my impression is that Florence has gracefully entered yet another century with its glorious history in trail and its dignity and reputation mostly intact. By my reckoning, anyway. The city’s core has changed hardly at all in 500 years, and yet the place retains a perennial vitality. I’ve only been home a few weeks, and I want to go back already.