My original plan for fall 2021 was to attend a language school in Sicily or Salerno after visiting Naples and Sorrento, staying there until my last week in Italy, then returning to Firenze for the Christmas lights. Unfortunately, the schools in Sicily and Salerno said they couldn’t guarantee enough students to have any activities.
So I contacted Istituto Michelangelo (IM) and the director himself absolutely promised me there would be all the same activities in the 50+ program as I’d enjoyed in 2017 and 2019. (see Istituto Michelangelo, parte uno and Istituto Michelangelo, parte due posts) Au contraire.
Istituto Michelangelo, 2021
Classes and Staff
I was shocked when I arrived at school my first morning and found one front desk person, where there had been three in previous years, no Lapo, who had been the administrative secretary for several years and organized all the activities, and about half the number of classes and teachers.
Obviously COVID had taken its toll. The only administrative person was the Director, Domenico Cancellieri, and most of the remaining staff had at least two jobs. For example the front desk person led the guided tours during my first two weeks; one to Santa Maria Novella and one to Santa Croce. And Augustino, who has been the cooking instructor for a number of years, also taught my conversation class and led the one excursion, to San Miniato.
My first day I was so exhausted and upset, partly because of the horrible student apartment (see Where Not to Stay below) and partly because of difficult news from the home front, that I started crying in the director’s office. He sent me to take the entrance exam and then put me in a beginner class.
The instructor, Vincenzo, was super nice and one of the best teachers there. When I went through the obligatory introduction, he said, ‘You speak well.’ I enjoyed the class and in retrospect I wish I’d stayed even though no one invited me to coffee during the pausa. But at that point the other students had just started past tense which I’d had three times already. Plus a couple of days later two of the students went out of their way to cut me out of the group.
On day two, for reasons known only to himself, the director placed me in a level 3 class that was studying an esoteric form of the conditional tense. I had clearly written on my exam that I hadn’t studied the conditional. So the class was both a complete waste and completely humiliating as I answered, non lo so, over and over.
On day three I was assigned to a level 2/3 class and I thought it would work out. Ermano, the instructor, seemed funny and nice. But I quickly realized he spoke rapid fire Italian and went from one verb form to another with barely a pause. I’ve taken a TEFL course plus a number of Italian and Spanish classes and jumping from verb form to verb form is pretty much the worst way to teach a language.
Plus the second week a woman from the U.S. came back to class after an absence of a couple of weeks. She was one of the most obnoxious persons I’d ever meant, monopolizing the class with her opinions. And Ermano fed right into, encouraging her to talk incessantly. I was so offended by her political opinions that on Thursday, I came to class late after an enjoyable cappuccino at Café Michelangelo. Ermano acted clueless when I entered class 45 minutes late, saying ‘Barbara, siamo preoccupati.’ (Barbara, we were worried.) But the next week, he kept her somewhat under control
The one saving grace of being in Ermano’s class was meeting a nice woman from Israel (Anat) who was (and still is) living in Firenze with her daughter. They’re looking into permanent residency since her late husband was part Italian. My first Friday at Michelangelo she invited me to have coffee during pausa and that became our daily routine. Plus we organized a couple of aperitivi with some of the other students and eventually I felt at least semi accepted. (We still keep in touch and she’s been sending me beautiful pictures of Firenze in spring. Sigh)
Augustino was a much better conversation teacher than Ermano was a grammar teacher plus, since he also taught cooking, we had a couple of our classes in the kitchen where he made a pesto lasagne and tiramisu for our class. But he always acted like I was an idiot and like most of the teachers and staff at Michelangelo favored the Spanish speaking students, most of whom were young and apparently quite wealthy.
My second week at Michelangelo there were no activities solely for the 50+ ‘group’, other than my cooking class. There was no excursion and no cultural event. Given the difference in cost between the standard program and the 50+ program (740 euros for two weeks of 50+, 390 euros for the standard course), I decided it wasn’t worth it and changed to the standard program for my last week.
If anyone has read my previous posts about my cooking classes at IM in 2017 and 2019, they know that the classes were not only excellent in terms of the food we cooked but great fun with the entire class and Augustino lingering over lots of wine and laughter. Not so in 2021. Like everything else the classes were smaller but unlike previous years Augustino was careful not to make extra food and on the rare occasion when we had a little extra, he gave it to the South American contingent.
Day 1: After my first cooking class I wrote, Stuffed from cooking class–risotto con carciufi and pere con cioccolata. There are only 5 of us but my hopes of leftovers were dashed by 2 South American girls who ate everything. Carciufi are artichokes which I love and the risotto was delicious.
Day 2: After my second cooking classes I just noted that I was stuffed with pumpkin gnocchi. We also made individual tiramisu’s that were yummy!!
Cooking Class 2021
Cooking Class 2021
Day 3: My third class was memorable mostly because as I wrote: I was late getting out of class, trying to finish my wine and just as I walked to the front my package arrived!!! Cooking class was fine although I wasn’t thrilled with lasagne con pesto e i funghi. I do like funghi (mushrooms) but I’m not a big fan of pesto. I think dessert was a panna cotta with berries. (The package contained some warmer clothes and had been circling in space for nearly two weeks.)
Day 4: We had a simple pasta with tomato and red pepper sauce (Penne Strascicate al sugo di peperoni) for my last class plus made cantucci, a type of ‘biscotti’ with almonds, traditionally eaten with vin santo.
Dinner at the School
On my first Tuesday at Michelangelo, there was a free dinner at school for all the students. Augustino, our cooking instructor and my conversational instructor, made several types of pasta and there was plenty of wine. I talked at length with several students and thought it was going to be a good experience. Au contraire. I’ve wondered at times if the fact that I declined to go with a group to Sosta dei Papi, a little enoteca, after dinner that evening resulted in the coldness I experienced with some of students.
Santa Maria Novella
On Wednesday of my first week, there was a ‘guided tour’ of Santa Maria Novella. Our guide was Elvira, the school administrative assistant, and even though I’d been to SMN before and the tour was in Italian, I felt I learned some interesting information, especially about the frescoes and other art within the church and the cloisters.
Santa Maria Novella
Santa Maria Novella
Dinner at Trattoria Benvenuto
Friday evening, prior to the concert at Teatro Verdi (see below) our tiny 50+ group had dinner at Trattoria Benvenuto. I’m not sure of the name of the woman who took our group from school to dinner and the concert but she led our group cultural activities in 2019 and is very sweet and speaks very clear Italian, making me wish she were my teacher.
I had eaten at Benvenuto with a friend in 2019 and thought their food was quite good. We had the standard aperitivo, pasta and wine but after sketchy meals at my apartment and in Naples the previous week, it tasted divine. And as I wrote later, that it was nice to have conversation and company.
Dinner at a restaurant near Santa Croce
On the Wednesday of my second week of classes, we had a dinner at a trattoria near Santa Croce. It was open to all students but free for the 50+ group. It was a really nice evening; good food, lots of wine, and good conversation. Again, we had antipasti, risotto, cacio e pepe and wine but the servings were more than generous.
After our dinner at Trattoria Benvenuto we went to a concert at Teatro Verdi with Orchestra della Toscana and guest artist Pablo Ferrandez. He is an accomplished violoncellist and was well received by the audience.
I have to say, though, that I enjoyed the Brahms Symphony No. 4 which the orchestra played after intermission more than the modern works at the beginning of the program. I guess when it comes to classic music, I prefer to hear music of the 18th and 19th centuries rather than 20th century music. I enjoyed the concert but it was incredibly stuffy in the concert hall and after a heavy pasta dinner, I was ready to pass out and was relieved to go out into the cool evening air.
The Festa del Tartufo Bianco in San Miniato al Monte is held the last three weekends in November and celebrates the rare and expensive white truffle which grows in the wooded valley below the town. A fairly large group of students from Michelangelo signed up for the group trip the second Saturday of November. From Firenze, you take the train on the Pisa line to San Miniato Basso (the newer town on the plains), then a bus to al Monte, a beautiful hilltop town with gorgeous views over the valley. I loved both the town and the festival. (The towns remind me somewhat of Montecatini Terme and Alto (see Montecatini Terme post).
The instructor who accompanied us took us on a ‘passeggiata’ through the town and the various market areas where all types of local products from truffles to wine, meats and cheeses are displayed and sold. Then he had us walk up a very steep hill to a tower, the Rocca di San Miniato. It was worth the climb, though; you could see forever.
Afterwards we were on our own so I walked through the town again, checking out the various displays and generally absorbing the ‘flavor’ of the town. A number of the restaurants offered pastas or other dishes with white truffles but they were far too expensive for me. So I found a little trattoria (Vecchio Cinema) and had one of the best calzones ever and my usual glass of wine.
As I walked back to the meeting point, what had been a bright sunny day changed abruptly and the skies opened up. I took shelter at a gelato shop with some of the other students and our guide/teacher. When the rain stopped, we started to walk to the bus stop and saw a beautiful rainbow stretching across the valley.
And as our train chugged back to Firenze, we saw rainbow after rainbow, several of them double.
I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve visited Santa Croce and it never gets old. Something about it brings me great peace, which I definitely needed at that point in time. This was the first guided tour of Santa Croce that I’ve taken and even though it was in Italian, I learned several interesting new facts; e.g., that the frescoes in some of the chapels are by Giotto. My sister and I visited the Cappelle Scrovegni in Padua in 2017 which has some of his best known frescoes.
Also as I wrote in my journal, There’s a really cool mostra (exhibition) in a large chapel outside the main church with a 3D video made from illustrations of his works playing on all the walls accompanied by what sounds like Gregorian chant of the words to Dante’s Inferno.
Post Istituto Michelangelo
I’ve written about the museums and gardens I visited during my five week stay in my Firenze off season, parte uno post. So I’m just going to add some information about restaurants plus a couple of hotels and apartments.
Where to Eat and Drink
I was first introduced to Pino’s in 2019 by other students while attending Istituto Michelangelo. For some reason I missed the fact that it was a student hangout when I attended the school in 2017. But I’m glad I was finally clued in.
They have enormous panini of every possible combination of meats and cheeses on what looks like ciabatta bread for 5-6 €. My favorite is one with mortadella, salami, various cheeses and artichoke hearts.
In early October after visiting il Museo Galileo, my sister, niece and I had more than an hour before my niece’s appointment for a COVID test. Since Pino’s is just across the street from the test site at Farmacia Selvia, I suggested lunch there.
My niece loved it. I’m not sure which sandwich she got but I got my favorite. We should have shared though, because neither of us could finish. Later we took our leftovers back to the hotel where they froze in the fridge.
Pino’s has a few tables along the sidewalk and it was warm enough at that point that we could sit outside and do our favorite thing of laughing, talking and people watching.
The owner of Pino’s also owns an entoteca on via Ghibillina, Pozzo Divino. While attending Istituto Michelangelo in 2019, we had a fabulous wine tasting there. You can see photos in Istituto Michelangelo, parte uno post. Before our trip I tried to find out if Pozzo Divino was open but couldn’t find any information.
After I returned to Firenze in early November for language school, I revisited Pino’s, initially buying their good panini to take to my apartment. But eventually it became my home away from home when I discovered I could get a glass of white wine for 4 euros or red for 3.50 euros. As I wrote in my journal: ‘Pino’s vino time. Pretty sad when they hold up a wine glass when you walk in. A seriously miserable day; started raining pretty hard as I got to the lungarno so had to stop and put on my lovely poncho. Got to talking with a nice young guy who works here and speaks perfect English. Go figure.’
I stopped most afternoons, occasionally talking with the young guy but usually writing in my journal while I sipped my wine. On my last afternoon, after getting the good news that my COVID test was negative, I went to Pino’s to celebrate. They were extremely busy and I didn’t get a chance to talk with anyone. As I went to leave, the young guy waved at me and I called out, ‘Arrividerci. Sto lasciando domani.’ Good bye, I’m leaving tomorrow. He said, ‘but you’re coming back, right? Thinking he meant someday, I said, ‘sure,’ but he’ll be long gone before I return.
Osteria di Pitti
I wrote in my Three Days in Firenze post that Sunday night after striking out on reservations at Quattro Leoni, my sister, niece and I decided we’d try Signorvino’s again. But in an abundance of caution, I put together a list of enotecas and casual restaurants between the bridge and Palazzo Pitti. And was glad I did because Signovino’s was booked again.
So we walked up to the piazza and settled on Osteria di Pitti, largely because they had indoor seating. Afterwards I wrote: What a find!! Warm, cute, great waiters and fabulous food. We had pizza, pasta, and caprese salad plus 2 bottles of wine, a round of prosecco and dessert. We actually had two desserts, a tiramisu and a torta di mele.
Osteria di Pitti
Osteria di Pitti
So I was excited to try it again. But as often seemed to be the case, I was treated completely differently when I came back alone, the evening after I changed apartments. Here’s what I wrote: Got to Osteria Pitti earlier than planned [even after strolling around to take pictures of the Christmas lights] and it’s definitely not the friendly service we had and house wine is 6 euros a glass. Yikes! Plus they set me by the door and it’s colder than outside I think. I had the same pasta we had on our earlier visit and it was very good but I did not linger over dinner.
On Thanksgiving, another student from Michelangelo and I met there for Festa del Ringraziemento.
We ordered pizza and a half bottle of wine and once again it was like night and day. The waiter was fun and friendly, calling our demi bottle ‘adorable’ and taking our picture.
Trattoria I’che ce ce
I’ve written about I’che ce′ ce′ in my Places to Eat post. I ate there on my first trip to Italy. I’d found a recommendation for it in my Trattoria of Northern Italy book and loved it. I tried it again in 2017 and had a good experience although I was disappointed that it no longer had the ‘communal’ table for single travelers or those without reservations.
In 2019 I found that it had closed. But towards the end of my 2021 stay I checked and it had reopened. So I made an early reservation for my next to last evening in Firenze. Prior to going to the restaurant I walked around Firenze for 30-40 minutes trying to get photos of the Firenze Light Show but mainly getting rained one.
So I looked like a drowned rat when I arrived and was the only one there for at least a half hour. They did seat me in the back where it was relatively warm and I had a very good ossobuco and a glass of wine and a chocolate souffle. But the ownership or management has changed and with it the prices and service. I paid over $30 for fairly small portions and they seemed happy to see me go. (Definitely a theme on this trip.)
I ate at Trattoria Nella on my last night in Firenze and chose it mostly for convenience since it is fairly close to Hotel Davanzati.
Prior to my reservation I walked up to San Lorenzo and took some nice pictures of the light show there plus more of the trees. I also took some good photos at il Museo Galileo which was part of the light show plus took a few more of the Ponte Vecchio.
Firenze Light Festival
Firenze Light Festival
When I first sat down at Nella, I wrote: It’s seriously cold but the owners are nice and the prices are right. Then: OMG!! That was delicious; roast pork and potatoes and grilled vegies. Waiting to order dessert.
After getting back to my hotel I wrote: Can’t believe I’m still drinking after all that food and a ¼ liter of wine. But the owners were so sweet and I had twice as much food as last night for 3 euros more.
It was definitely a keeper, one of the few places I felt welcome even dining solo and I will go back my next trip to Firenze.
Bottega di Pasticceria
Lungarno Francesco Ferrucci 9C R, Firenze
One of my bigger regrets is that I didn’t try this little bottega sooner. After moving from the hideous school apartment to the VRBO apartment near Piazza Ferrucci, I looked for restaurants and enotecas in the area. Bottega di Pasticceria came up on my search but because I assumed it was a pastry shop, I didn’t try it until my second week in the apartment, walking over on a Thursday afternoon. I wrote in my journal: At the bottega; miserable walk over but got a delicious panino for 4,50 and an OK glass of wine for 5. Will definitely come back although it’s fairly chilly. But the Bottega is definitely a keeper.
I realized after I sat down that La Bottega is a full service restaurant. The upstairs is open for lunch and dinner and the downstairs has a huge case of panini and pastries plus serves everything from wine to coffee.
I went back Saturday morning having a delicious cappuccino and a brioche. Then I returned Saturday afternoon when I had a turkey and tomato panino. I think that the first afternoon I probably had a panino with a mix of cold cuts. Both times the panini were delicious, especially the bread.
Bottega di Pasticerria
Bottega di Pasticerria
I tried the Bottega on my last Monday at the apartment but was extremely disappointed to find that it was closed.
Where not to Eat and Drink
I’ve written in my Three Days in Firenze post about the great late afternoon meal that my sister, niece and I had when we first arrived in Firenze in early October. And after traveling to Firenze from Napoli on November 6th, I wrote: Ever since I got on the train I’ve been wishing I could get into SignorVino’s, even more so since I got here and found it’s cold and windy.
Be careful what you wish for. Late afternoon, after checking into Hotel Silla and getting somewhat organized, I went Signorvinos. But they seated me by the door and initially across from a couple with a weird dog that spilled water all over the floor. Then the ravioli I ordered were beyond weird and the wine super pricey. When I indicated I didn’t like my food, the hostess got really snotty with me and gave me a big 10% discount.
I found this little pizzeria in 2019 when I stayed in the same apartment and thought it was darling; great food, nice staff, a warm upstairs where I could people watch.
So I went back my first Saturday night in the VRBO apartment. As I walked over I kept replaying a scenario where they sat me right by the door and damned if they didn’t try that but I requested a table towards the back of the restaurant. The staff seemed a bit resistant to letting me sit there but eventually agreed. Since I was the only person there when I arrived (and until I left) I’m not sure why that was an issue. But after the initial shock of a woman alone on a rainy night, the waiter was reasonably pleasant.
Not exactly the experience I was looking for but I had pizza (1/2 of which I brought home) and due calice di Chianti for 17 euros.
Where to Stay
VRBO Apartment near the Arno
After 6 days in the horrible student apartment, I knew I couldn’t stay, so that first full Sunday I started researching apartments on VRBO. Despite it being off season, the only apartment that I could afford was the same apartment I stayed in while attending IM in 2019. I knew it wouldn’t be a convenient location since it’s near Piazza Ferrucci about a mile and a half from Piazza Santa Croce but I knew it would be clean and functional. I also knew that there could be communication issues with the owner, Chiarina, who speaks no English and we started off with a major problem when she booked me for longer than I wanted to stay. But we sorted it out and agreed that I could move in around 1:00 pm on Sunday the 21st of November.
After first checking in I wrote: But it’s super clean and quiet. Right now the radiator’s on, it’s cool but not uncomfortable. And best of all there’s a big bottle of water and a bottle of wine. I had more noise issues this time– a screaming baby next door, and someone who stomped around upstairs late at night. But that was nothing compared to the noise outside the school apartment plus the washing machine worked and like last time, the kitchen was well equipped. The apartment started to get a bit chilly my second week, but Chiarina brought me a portable heater which was wonderful.
When I decided to stay two more nights, Chiarina only charged me an extra 76 euros. The pictures below show the area behind the apartment. The street leads up to Piazzale Michelangelo and I regret not walking up there; the first time in many years.
I spent hours researching Tripadvisor and other sites for a hotel for my last three nights. I wanted something in the centro convenient to Piazza del Duomo so I could see the lighting of the Christmas tree plus an easy walk to the other sights in the centro–Piazza Santa Croce, Ponte Vecchio, Piazza della Signoria, etc. At the same time, I was looking for a hotel with good reviews, especially for the staff, since I would need a taxi to the airport Friday morning. Plus it needed to be within my budget. A tall order.
I finally settled on Hotel Davanzati and it fit all my requirements. It’s on the same street as Mercato Nuovo and just a few blocks from Piazza della Repubblica. The staff was pleasant and helpful and for the first time ever I got a taxi that didn’t overcharge me for the trip to the airport. The staff makes sure that you know there’s a steep set of stairs to the level with the elevator but if you ring the bell, a staff person will come down and help carry your bags to the landing with the elevator. Given it was off season, I only paid about 80 € a night.
The breakfast wasn’t anything special, especially the less than great coffee, but the room was perfect. Here’s what I wrote: Not as luxurious as hoped–no toiletries, no vino- but very clean and comfortable and super nice staff. Plenty of hot water but the room could be warmer. Super pissed though that the cab driver went all over Hell’s Half Acre until he ran the tab up to 17 euros.
I was able to get the room to warm up and after a shower, I took a walkabout through Piazza della Repubblica, went to Pino’s to eat and drink, then back to the hotel where later I heard fifes and drums. I leaned out my window and saw a procession coming down the street, then turning towards Piazette della Parte Guelfe. I took a few pictures, learning later that the procession was coming from the lighting of the Christmas tree which was supposed to be the following night. Aaargh!!
Procession after the lighting of the Christmas tree
Procession after the lighting of the Christmas tree
But over the next two days I thoroughly enjoyed the hotel and the location, wandering from one end of the centro to the other, taking lots of pictures of the Christmas lights and trees.
Where not to Stay
I have never in my life stayed in a worse place–cold, dirty, incredibly noisy and absolutely nothing worked; not the wifi, not the washing machine, not the coffee maker.
On the Sunday before I started class, I met the director at school and he walked me to the apartment, about two blocks from the school. The one and only positive of the apartment was that it had a lift.
But the director and I immediately got into it when I couldn’t get the key to work in the apartment door, and he kept yelling, ‘It’s easy,’ and then insisted I had wifi when I didn’t. As soon as the director left, I realized I had no towels. I texted him and he said I could come back to school to get some. But all he had were hand towels. Then when I returned to the apartment, I found there was only one sheet on the bed.
The girl who lived there (and whose grandmother owned the dump) arrived that evening. She turned up the heat (but it went back off at midnight) and said the wifi never worked. On Tuesday I came back to the apartment to find her packing, saying she was moving back to Arezzo. While I was glad for my privacy, there was no one to help me when I found that the washer didn’t work.
That first night I huddled under every blanket I could find but between the cold and incessant noise, I got no more than 4 hours sleep, which was the case every night I stayed there. The next day as I described my horrible night to the director, he said he’d look for something else. Later he said he could put me in a single apartment for another 200 euros. I declined since there was no guarantee it would be any better. Next to my decision to move to the VRBO apartment and not continue in the 50+ class, it was my best decision. I was seriously pissed when I found that another student had been given a single apartment for the cost of a double.
I’ve written about Hotel Silla in several posts, including Where to stay, having stayed there multiple times since 2014. I’ve also written several Tripadvisor reviews praising the location, the staff, the rooms and especially the terrace.
This year was a huge disappointment. Given our previous experiences, it was a given that my sister, niece and I would stay at Silla for our three nights in October 2021. We were stunned, though, when we checked in and were given rooms that looked like they were carved out of a storage closet. Not only were our rooms extremely small and located right behind the front desk where we were subjected to noise and cold, the bathroom in our room began to smell the first night.
While the staff did help my niece get an appointment for her COVID test, in general they were cold and borderline unpleasant.
My sister returned to Firenze in late October after we parted in Rome and stayed three nights at Silla. She said she’d never been in a room that small plus her shower leaked all over the bathroom floor.
I had an equally tiny room when I returned to Firenze from Napoli in early November. My room was carved out of what used to be the bar and there was a large group of Germans who sat in that area, talking loudly, until well after midnight. What made it especially frustrating is that there seemed to be very few people staying there and plenty of other rooms.
I wrote a very negative review saying Silla seems to be all about money these days, not service or value.
Sadly, I doubt if any of us will ever stay there again. And I shall truly miss their beautiful terrace.
Hotel Silla Terrace
Hotel Silla Terrace