Russ and Elke's European Travel

It's not only what you see, it's how you see it

Russ and Elke's European Travel is a small company run by husband and wife team Russ and Elke Beck, a professional travel agent.

Over the years we have experienced some fantastic places, people, food and wine.  Out of our love for travel developed the idea to create very exclusive, intimate and interesting itineraries and let our clients experience, taste, smell, touch and hear what has given us so much joy in our travels. 

Florence- City of History, Art & Traffic tickets

     Russ and I are very lucky to have been to Florence many times.  We have fallen in love with the city and always discover something new.  The food, the history, the food, the art, the food, the wine, it is simply a place with something for everyone.  The problem for us with Florence is the getting there.  We love to drive ourselves around Tuscany, so we can be impulsive and stop whenever we want.  We have learned the hard way, however, that driving a car into Florence is not advisable.

     Even though we knew about the traffic rule not to drive into the ZTL (Zona Traffico Limitato) in the center of Florence, where only local license plates are allowed, a category in which a rental car most certainly doesn’t fall, we managed to ‘graze’ the outskirts of the ZTL in our search for parking and promptly received a traffic ticket in the mail a few weeks after returning home.  The second notice of a traffic violation followed a few days later - this one stated that we were driving in a moving lane. We both didn’t recall driving anywhere different on the road than the other cars around us… and what the heck is a moving lane anyways?

     The fact is some people report receiving two or three tickets from a simple drive across town as they pass various cameras. The cameras record your license, verify a violation, and send the ticket to your rental car company, which then charges you a fee on your credit card for reporting your information back to them. So in the end you pay two fines, which add up to a hefty amount.

     Needless to say we don’t drive into Florence anymore, we now take the train. 

     It’s a short train ride from just about anywhere in Tuscany to Santa Maria Novella stazione, from which it’s very easy to tour Florence. This eliminates the worry about traffic tickets as well as the hassle to find parking - you just get off the train and start your visit. 

     The city itself is one amazing piece of art. A cacophony of architectures, paintings, sculptures… everywhere you turn there is beauty to admire, history to study and local culture to observe. 

     Besides the attractions most tour guide books point out as must-see’s and that are definitely worthwhile seeing, Russ and I enjoy another side of beautiful Firenze. It should come as no surprise that we are most attracted to great food and wine as well as shopping for local crafts.

     We love to visit and explore the local food markets. One where we spent considerable time browsing, taking pictures, eating and conversing with the locals is the Mercato Centrale, in the middle of the old town. You can purchase fresh veggies, fruit and herbs in abundance. There are butchers, who sell meat from the local farms and bakers that offer delicacies that will make your mouth water. If you are in the mood for fish, this is the place to look for the catch of the day.

     The stalls selling homemade pasta were especially intriguing to me since we love to make our own at home. The assortments were amazing, from linguini, tortellini to ravioli and many others I haven’t seen or heard of before. You can get everything and anything you need for a fresh cooked meal. A quick cooking class could be had simply by standing and watching the older ladies make the pasta they were selling.  

 Russ with Nona

     We often just wander until we find foods for a lovely home made dinner.  If our stomachs indicate their discontent we stop for lunch at one of the vendors. On our last visit Russ and I sampled some local fare cooked by Nona, rang up by Nono and served by their beautiful granddaughter - of course with glasses of their house vino. It was a whole family affair and we had a lovely time joking with the family and trying to understand Nona's local Florentinian dialect.

     Another personal favorite of mine is San Lorenzo mercato, where you can find the most amazing leather goods. Ladies let me tell you, the plentiful display of fabulous one of a kind purses for sale makes my heart beat faster every time and Russ has resolved himself to the fact that at least one of them will be added to my collection. The smell of leather draws you in; the kaleidoscope of colors and the craftsmanship are one of a kind. Don’t take me wrong Russ gets excited as well. Vendors sell wallets, belts, briefcases and gorgeous jackets. If you can’t find what you like at the open air stalls the vendors will take you to their stores just around the corner where they have an even larger selection of treasures.

     A bit more off the beaten track is  Mercato Alimentare Sant'Ambrogio.  This Mercato is a much more local affair and not quite as camara ready as the Mercato Centrale.  Set as the center piece of what appeared to be average working class homes, we expereienced a much more definite sense of neighborhood than at Mercato Centrale. 

     After having explored the mercato and selected our produce, we chose to eat at Trattoria Cibreo.  Owned by the exceedingly excentric Fabio Picchi along with 3 other establishments of similar name situated at the four corners of the mercato, the tratorria is very small with about twelve tables inside and a small amount of outdoor seating during the summer. They don’t take reservations and we walked in and were quickly seated at a table we shared with a single lady. While made famous via Fodors this tratoria still retains it's rustic charm and remains heavily favored by the locals. Our table companion was about finished with her meal and was replaced by a working couple shortly after. The staff is efficient in getting people back to their jobs or tourists back to touring. The food was exquisitely simple, polenta with olive oil for example, and the wine list was carefully selected, the house red was delicious and perfectly acceptable.  It was a fun experience and we love to mingle with the locals.

     A little known fact of visiting Florence is that after 4 PM, many Enoteccas serve "finger food" as a draw.  It is a simple thing to stop in, pay less that 10 euros and enjoy a glass of wine and whatever they are serving.  Some places have a few bruschetta and others have tables groaning under the weight of a buffet. On our way back to the train station we stopped for a glass of vino and were surprised to see tables laden with all kinds of different bruschettas, cheeses, meats and other small bite size delicacies. When we ordered our wine we had a nice conversation with the owners and were told we could eat as much as we wanted for the very small price of 8 Euro.  We needed to get to the train and had a big dinner planned at the villa, but I tell you it was tempting. Something to remember for next time!

     Florence can be anything you want it to be and has a vibrancy you’ll only find in Bella Toscana.

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