The Quest for the Perfect Gelato: Food, Whirligigs, and Understanding Art History in Florence

I got up early to head out to the train station to head…somewhere! I had sent some couchsurfing requests in Milano and Venice as well as emailed a friend of a friend in Florence, but as of yet I hadn’t heard back from any of them. My plan was basically to head to train station, find a WiFi spot to check email since there wasn’t any in the house, and then take a train to the first city where I had a place to stay. If no on got back to me in an hour I would just take whichever train was cheepest. It was the week again (Monday the 29th of August, for those of you who want to know just how behind in this I am!) and so Shilly had already left for work, but I said goodbye to Roberto and headed back to the station. The subway was brand spankin’ new, less than a year old! It cost one euro to go anywhere, but there was only one line, that sort of lurched its way across the city, which I took back into the center. I sat by the big board of fares and times and played banjo while contemplating my next move. Luckily enough, I soon recieved an email from Ada, from Florence, inviting me to come and stay whenever I wanted. Florence it is then! I looked up the prices and found that in fact, the cheapest fare was actually from a station near where I had stayed that night! Oh well, back to the subway it is!

I headed on back and started walking to the subway. What had seemed rather close on my map of the city was actually a rather long way, particularly in the hot sun with all my gear. There wasn’t a clear path either, so I found myself picking my way next to a highway, past walls covered with huge graffiti murals, and windowpanes long broken and dusty. The air smelled of disel and rubber and the sidewalk was sticky from the heat. I spotted my destination through a shattered window closing off an empty lot, but had to walk around the perimeter before I finally made it to my destination. At the station I managed to navigate the automatic ticket machine that spoke to me loudly in broken English: “PLEASE NOW BE PAYING YOUR MONEY!!””PLEASE NOW BE TAKING YOUR TICKET!!” I resolved to complete future transactions in Italian (which didn’t speak at all!) to avoid this monstrosity. [Other great translations: On the elevator in the cinema museum the info sign finishes the description if the elevator and then continues “Anyhow! If the elevator breaks down…” I thought this was hilarious!] I went into the underground tunnel that accesses the different tracks and managed to find the correct one. I sat by the side of the rails and played banjo to the interest/indifference of the passangers around me. Have you ever noticed that the general interest in a street musician is inverse to distance? People far away look on with great interest, while if those sitting right next to one seem indifferent. Anyway, I got on the train, managing to take up two seats with my banjo and sat down to watch the scenery and write. It soon occurred to me that I actually had no idea where I was supposed to switch trains (for my ticket said I had to) which was more than a little worrisome. I found the conductor and asked her and then sat down and listened to some of “Clash of Kings” (great book for traveling, really long!) on tape. We got to what I thought was the station and made to get off the train. The condutor stopped me, “this is not the right station for you” I went back to my seat. Aha! There was my stop!  Unfortunately it wasn’t. After the third repetition of this game the conductor finally told me that she would fetch me when it was time. I bought a little sandwich from the even smaller pushcart and we finally made it to my station. I spent but a few minutes in this station before hoping on the next train to take me to Florence. It was somewhere along this time that I got a message from Ada saying “Make sure your train is going to Firenze Santa Maria Novella, not Campo di Marte” Of course my train was going to Campo di Marte station. I got in at nightfall, and had about thirty seconds to run into the station, navigate the machine (in italian, as promised) and run back out to catch the local train to FSMN. The oddity of the system finally struck me: No one actually checks tickets. Apartently the whole thing works on a system of random ticket checks with hefty fines, so if you are traveling in Italy and feeling lucky….I still wouldn’t recomend it, the fines are ~500 euros.

I made it to the station and set out in the direction of Ada’s house. The city smelled interesting, with each block bringing different scents. Bread, leather, oil, pizza, perfume mix together. In my journal I wonder about exploring a city blind. I pass tourists puzzling over a map an walk on my way. I am becoming comfortable enough in my traveling habits not to experience the same sort of discombobulation at entering a new city with an unfamiliar language. I have no doubt that this will return at times, but in this moment I am confident and excited in a new place. I round a corner near her house and find myself staring up at the Basilica di Santa Maria del Fiore, The Duomo.

In the night it looks eirily like it was folded from paper, it seems so perfect and flat. The white and colored stone towers up into the night and for a moment I just stand their amazed. Ada later tells me that the Italian philosophy behind city planning is that buildings are hidden in the approach until the last moment so you are stunned by their grandeur all at once. I think of the contrast to a place like Versailles, which trumpets it’s presence from long, broad, straight approaches! All around are vendors, with handbags, food and selling little whirligigs that flash LED and fly up into the air. Street musicians strum and squeeze and sing, and tourists and locals walk in every direction or just sit on the steps of the building eating gelato. I continue on the last few hundred meters and call Ada. We quickly find each other and she leads me up the 111 stone steps to the top of a 16th (i think) century tower to the appartment where she lives. She shows me the room where I will be staying, with a large couch and windows overlooking the city. She then shows me up to the roof where there is a 280 degree view of the city, and I am once again impressed.

Where i was staying was actually between the two large structures, duomo on the left and Palazzo Vecchio on the right

My first thought was, “these roofs were meant for chases, spies and plotters to run across.” This is actually a fairly accurate historical statement as far as i can tell! I will not try to do justice to Ada’s stories and knowledge, but she gave me a encyclopedic and colorful account of the city’s history, intrigue, characters, wars, and stories. She let me cook a delicious dinner of pasta, garlic, tomatoes, and some of the most delicious mozzarella i have ever had (along with blood orange juice, the joy!). I managed to navigate the complicated shower (this button turns on the water, this one the hot water, this one the water pressure, but i don’t use it cause it can start a fire…oh and then here is the shower on the other side of the house!) before we set out for a late night walk to see the city. We walked to the Ponte Vecchio, all lit up with stars and lights, as well as the Palazzo Vecchio.

In one notable story about the latter, Roman artifacts were found underneath the courtyard in front of the beautiful palace, and so archeologists were called to take up the ancient cobblestones to unearth them. The whole thing was done with the utmost care to preserve the plaza, which was historically important in its own right, and after a while was complete. They went to put back the cobblestones, only to find that they were missing!

It turned out that some city official had sold the centuries old authentic stones to a landscaping company. Oops! Typical of Italian bureaucracy? You can decide. Anyhow, the thing looks like a castle should look! Awesome. We ate gelato “from the best gelateria in the city” and headed home to sleep.

This is where the condensing comes in! I will again tell mainly in pictures, but suffice it to say that Florence is absolutely beautiful! I stayed there until the morning of September 3rd. I had spectacular food all over the city, with Ada acting as guide and showing me around. I wandered around the Palazzo Vecchio looking at the gorgeous art until I had a crick in my neck. I looked at statues that had been “modified” to fit certain changing standards of decency. I had the realization and understanding of why people choose to study art history. In the United States there are very few places where one can see art of this period in anything even remotely resembling it’s original context. Seeing these pieces in the places they were designed for brought me to the realization that made the whole thing appealing: Much of art was intended to convey very specific messages, create very specific feelings or impressions and say something about where it was, who lived there, and (usually) how powerful/awesome they were. These pieces told stories, that with the right eye and understanding one can still construct hundreds of years later. Wow! To all the lovely art historians in my life; this may not be why you study art history, but I can understand this field more now for having visited. Of course there were also some rather risque pieces! I’m not quite sure what this was conveying, but wow, how did that not get fig leaf-ed? Standing out was also the map room, with one of the largest globes at the time and astonishingly accurate maps of much of the world on the walls.

I also visited the Palazzo Pitti, with its stunning gardens, art and grottos. 

This is not a naturally forming cave, but a stylized recreation of roman excevations that had had statues found partially covered by natural formations. They just chose to carve the whole thing at once to save time! I was able to finagle my way into a half price ticket (still over 12 euros!) some clever use of official looking ID. As usual, much of my time in the city was spent wandering around, in this case I managed to see a man getting arrested for stealing a pair of jeans (probably way overpriced!) In late night walks with Ada we often entertained ourselves with looking in the window displays of the fashion district to see the cool/strange things/see exactly how overpriced the items were. I posted one of these items (the black purse to the right on Facebook yesterday asking folks to guess the price. Not wanting to spoil the guessing game, I have posted the answer in the comments, so you can guess before scrolling down to see how close you were. Unfortunately even if you guess right, no one will believe you unless you posted yesterday!

Another of the great sights was a set of street artists creating fine art on the street!

The city is beautiful and old and fun and way too filled with tourists. This does however lead to very funny events involving mimes who harass them. I have the feeling that the extent to which they grab and pinch and otherwise get physical with strangers might be somewhat illegal in the US…

Anyway, I found masks and big gold doors and generally had an awesome time!










Anyway, I’m sitting outside right now and it is starting to rain, so I am wrapping up.

TLDR: Florence is beautiful, ada is an awesome host, I like gelato, mimes are too touchy-feely!


Also, the purse was $16,900 Gahhh!


About Jeremy Carter-Gordon

My blog of a year studying point-and-hilt sword dancing on a Watson Fellowship. Enjoy reading, tell me your thoughts and leave me a comment, or visit my website at
This entry was posted in Exploring, Italy. Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to The Quest for the Perfect Gelato: Food, Whirligigs, and Understanding Art History in Florence

  1. Molly Wexler-Romig says:

    🙂 Yay maskssss! And il Duomo!! Firenze e bella! (was that grammar right??) This was my favorite city in Italy 🙂 So glad you’re enjoying it. *Hugs*
    P.S. Contact improv with Amii is the bessssst!

  2. Lynn says:

    I guessed $2,000 and was slightly expecting it to be too high! I can’t even comprehend that. Even expecting it to be super expensive. Couldn’t you buy a house for the price of that purse?

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