In Florence, an introduction to group tours for extended periods

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My family calls me Bethesda Brit. I’ve spent so much time traveling in the UK that London is almost a second home.

But I’ve long wished to dive elsewhere: Florence, the city where the Renaissance began around 1350 and – for most art history buffs – the center of the world. My husband and I have traveled there a few times over the past few decades, but never been there more than a few days. On two group tours, we stayed out of town and were bussed for the afternoon to visit the must-see places: Michelangelo’s David statue and the Uffizi Gallery. On those visits, I would walk around as much as time would allow.

This wasn’t usually much, and I wanted more. So when I saw a three-week Smithsonian tour package called Live in Italy based in Florence, I booked the May trip. I would go on my own—it was too long for my husband’s taste—and join a group of about twenty Americans in their sixties and seventies, as well as three of their eighties, most of whom had never been to Florence before.

Road Scholar, the nonprofit tour company specializing in “learning adventures,” offers a six-week stay in Florence, but I’ve seen two major drawbacks: The Florence version includes a daily morning Italian language class as part of the itinerary, and places participants in different apartments. Alternatively, the Smithsonian’s itinerary offers Italian language study as an option (about a third of our group took lessons), and houses the entire group in a residential hotel, providing greater potential for camaraderie.

Explore Italy without a car

The neighborhood near our apartment hotel, in the San Jacopino district near the edge of Florence, was where most of us informally gathered for dinner, turning up and joining the locals around the town square. Our tour leader told us that the trip was taking place in a downtown hotel before the pandemic, but that our small neighborhood was providing a more intimate aspect of city life without sacrificing comfort. It had a greengrocer and several small shops, providing easy access to the essentials of our small kitchens, and it was only a 10 minute tram ride into the heart of Florence.

Scott Bird, a retired linguistics professor from San Antonio who was in the group, in an email.

A normal day for me started with a pie on the way to the tram. Early starts are best, and by getting to the center of Florence before 8:30 am I was able to experience the city come alive, not yet so busy that I needed to dodge the traffic or other tourists. At this time, one could clearly see the uneven ancient stones of the empty streets in front of you. There is no better way to sense the pods you walk on.

Because I wanted to have as much independent time as possible, I was satisfied that I didn’t choose weekday Italian lessons, although those who did found them interesting and valuable. I have visited many places that I have seen on previous trips, but I have added many others that are rarely visited by tourists. There was time everywhere—usually churches—to sit, research, meditate, read the pieces I had brought, and listen to podcasts to guide me in the consideration. (One that delves deeply into most of Florence is Art historian Roque Ruggiero’s “Renaissance Reconstruction.”)

The long stay gave me time to visit faraway places, such as San Salvi, a church that is part of an eleventh-century monastery complex. There, in the refectory of the monastery, the colors of the fresco “The Last Supper” of the sixteenth century by Andrea del Sarto are still bright, in contrast to the colors of Leonardo’s famous “Last Supper” in Milan. If San Salvi were closer inland, that mural on the circuit would be the most successful. Further afield, I took the train from Florence, only three stops away on our tram line, to Bologna for one night, and to Pisa for a faster ride. The Smithsonian’s itinerary also included day trips to many destinations in Tuscany, such as Siena, Lucca, San Gimignano, and Cortona.

In Sardinia, the long-kept secret of Italian pasta is now available

We had enough unscheduled time to indulge our own interests. One of my fellow travelers rented a bike and drove away out of town for several days while his wife took the Italian. I spent three hours in the early Renaissance Basilica of Santa Maria Novella, where Masaccio’s centuries-old “Holy Trinity” fresco is celebrated for her experiments with perspective. (One of the reasons Florence attracts art history buffs is that it offers the thrill of seeing the amazing paintings on-site rather than in museums.) Some members of the group told me they appreciated the occasional long-stay voucher to take away. Day off and relaxation.

There was also plenty of time to walk around. I listened to an audio recording of “Florencewalks” by Anne Holler, which divides the city into quarters with indications of where to stop and look. It was a great way to see details like the coats of arms perched high on the facades of Renaissance palaces for once mighty families while listening to their history. She noted the homes of non-Florence celebrities and told the early stories of some of the greats–Dante, Michelangelo, Machiavelli–along the streets where they once lived.

One day it was my garden day. I came down the steep hill from my favorite church, San Miniato al Monte, to visit three who were in full bloom. First came Iris Garden in Florence, where she held her annual competition. (The iris has always been a symbol of the city.) A little below is the city’s vast rose garden, where locals bathe on lawns among roses. Then have lunch on the loggia in Pardini Park, with a panoramic view of the city and the wonderful Wisteria Tunnel.

After my trip, I did an informal email survey of our group. I asked why they chose to stay for three weeks and if they were happy about it. There was consensus on several motivating factors, including not needing to empty more than once and having enough unscheduled time to be independent. Many said staying for three weeks gave them confidence. “My last day in Florence, some other tourists called me for directions and I was able to direct them, just like a longtime resident (well, almost),” Mike McWilliams, a retired business owner from Gresham, Oregon, wrote in an email.

Not to say everyone thought the trip was perfect. Despite being art lovers, two couples told me that the trip felt a bit long towards the end and that they experienced an art overload. But the consensus was positive, and most felt as if the excellent tour leader experience, the protection afforded in the event of a medical emergency and the camaraderie of the group, especially at mealtimes, outweighed the advantages of an independent reservation for a long-term stay. Some said, maybe next time.

I think back to those three weeks in a different way than I look on other group trips – and I took a lot of them. So much has been seen, so much has been accomplished. But, for some reason, it’s less fuzzy. And my fellow travelers stay with me like the colorful characters in a non-faded mural.

Nathan is a writer based in Bethesda, Maryland.

The group tour “Living in Italy: A Three-Week Stay in Florence” from the Smithsonian Journeys includes lectures, guided visits, tram fares, day trips outside Florence, and 13 lunches and dinners. Assistance and guidance from our resident tour manager in Florence and on bus trips out of town are available at all times. Accommodation in a serviced apartment near downtown by PopArtment. From $6,140 per person for double occupancy and from $8,130 per person; Flight tickets not included. Three additional options available: Art and architecture guided visits to additional locations ($550 per person), 12 days of Italian language instruction ($940 per person for 2022, $990 for 2023), and a three-session cooking class ($620 per person) ).

The Road Scholar tour “Living and Learning in Florence: Independent Stay and Language Study” includes daily language lessons and housing in apartments, as well as excursions in Tuscany. There are 15 lunches and dinners. From $9,799 for single occupancy, and $10,299 for double occupancy. Sold in 2023 departed; Limited space to leave September 23rd.

Prospective travelers should take local and national public health guidance regarding the pandemic into consideration before planning any trips. Health Travel Notice information can be found on the CDC’s interactive map showing travel recommendations by destination and the CDC’s Travel Health Notice web page.

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