Valentina and the Tuscan Jewel


The ink in my pen ran dry shortly after the Brunello in my wine glass… so I took a short walk down the Via del Proconsolo. This was a walk I will never forget. Ever. Florence has swiftly transformed itself into the object of my affection.

I have seen not nearly enough of this world, but more than enough to know that Florence is special. I’ve licked sticky Nutella crepes off my hands in the Luxembourg gardens of Paris, felt the sting of salt water in my eyes on a white sandy beach in Tulum, and inhaled the scent of a thousand curries on any given street in London. All of these were essential moments in creating heavy-metal, world-weary, self-aware (or completely UNaware), wandering Vail.

I would be lying if I ever tried to admit that the places I’ve been have not impacted me in a big way, but nothing until this experience has brought me literally to tears like yesterday when I first set my naked eyes on the towering red tiles of the cupola Duomo in Florence. (Update: today I saw the works of Botticelli and Caravaggio and lost my tiny, childish, emotional mind in front of hundreds of strangers again.)

It has easily been one of the most moving experiences of my life. I try not to take sayings like that lightly as I realize how it can belittle the reality of a truly poignant moment in life but it is difficult to find the words to properly describe the way this centuries-old town is making me feel. In short, let’s call it murdered. Murder is a term we use to describe when you’ve been so deeply influenced by a person, place, or thing that it nearly kills you because really, it would be difficult to recover. It happens sometimes. It’s a thing. Needless to say if we were simply just discussing the art history of Florence, you would have me viscerally floored.

Enter Michele. Michele is a man that has been known to my family for many years. In 1999 my closest family member, my aunt took a semester of art history in Florence. It was during this time that she made life-long friends with Michele, a humble ceramic shop owner and more importantly an exceptional painter. Michele produces recreations of Renaissance masterpieces like the Venus of Urbino and Procession of the Magi. Over the years Michele has provided our family (specifically piquing the interests of my late grandmother) with irreplaceable heirlooms of traditional Florentine painted ceramic dishes, bowls, tiles, vases, and busts. Needless to say, Michele's presence has been in our homes for nearly twenty years. He is known among us. 

Tuesday was a special day as I was finally able to put a face to that name. And boy, did I ever. Michele is the warmest, most lovely soul I've met for quite some time now. It was like meeting old family. He immediately recognized Maile and we spent nearly half of an entire day in his shop, also on Via Proconsolo. After what felt like excessive attempts at trying to pronounce my name; "Very difficult in Italiano!" he landed on and adopted me as Valentina. So there you have it, my Italian name is Valentina and I love it. Thank you, Michele for your hospitality and beautiful endeavor. I'll not quickly forget it. 

Growing up in this very artistically-inclined family naturally instilled within me a sense of awareness and appreciation for the arts in all of their forms. This in turn inspired a desire to study art throughout my academic and personal life, especially in college. After several years of obsessing over the pages of my Art Across Time books I decided to add another item to my bucket list (after climbing base camp of Everest with my grandfather): go to Florence; climb the cupola of Il Duomo, spend a day in the Uffizi in the company of the Renaissance’s finest, eat a panini on the steps of the Santa Maria del Fiore.

The food is an entirely different enigma in Florence. Not only are the mouth-watering rustic dishes of Tuscany offered on every corner of every winding cobblestone to every piazza, but cuisine from all corners of the Apennine Peninsula are featured in Florence as well. As it can be considered a veritable melting pot of cultural backgrounds there is a different smell around each bend. Traveling abroad, you find yourself basically eating out for every meal, this trip is no exception. I may have spent the greater majority of my available funds on decadent meals in the past two weeks. One meal in Florence was no exception...

I seem to recall the name of the restaurant as Touch, the warmest welcome was accompanied soon after by a wide glass of Brunello di Montalcino. "This," proclaims my regularly wine-imbibing aunt, "is my favorite wine in the world!" And let's just say she knows her stuff. This perfectly full-bodied local red could not have been more ideal for the following meal. The procession followed; white truffle creme on house-baked salt bread, grilled octopus in squid ink, and ossobuco-stuffed ravioli swimming in a saffron creme anglaise. 

It wasn't until about 11pm that we realized we'd been enjoying each other's company and that of our fantastic meal for upwards of four hours. Needless to say no plate left the table without being passed around at least twice and mopped clean with any crumb of bread left in the communal basket. There is something spiritual in the sharing of a exquisite meal in presence of fantastic company. The only item missing that could have truly signed off the evening as exceptional was authentic Florentine gelato.

Oh wait. Hi Antonio, sweet old man on the corner serving the city's finest coffee and amaretto gelato! Scoop it in a cone, serve me up one last espresso and I'm finished. Antonio will not be forgotten, neither will the happy meal that preceded him. I foolishly write on Florentine food without mentioning the savory salume di Montalcino panini or the melt-in-your-mouth Tuscan prosciutto pizza topped with fresh peppery aruco.

At its very essence, Florence is a city that has mesmerized me; mind, body, and soul. 

So now I’m a proud owner of a checked box on an unreasonably long bucket list. And a DAMN FINE checked box at that. Florence, you’ve made a fool out of my formerly-confident and now currently ignorant self. Who did I think I was before you? Who could I possibly be after you? You’ve killed me. Thanks for the murder. I owe you one.