Monday, September 19, 2016

Stazione Santa Maria Novella (Train Station) ... A Bit Dodgy, But Central And Very Convenient

Stazione Santa Maria Novella

Piazza della Stazione 1
50123 Florence, Italy
Stazione Ferroviaria Santa Maria Novella

Not the nicest station in Europe by far, the fascist design is reminiscent of the days of Mussolini. Like many train stations in Italy, it is close to the historic center of Florence and one of the most beautiful cities on the continent if not the world. 
Well connected to all parts of Italy and beyond, you can get a train pretty much anywhere. Just make sure you arrive at least 30 minutes before your departure of purchasing tickets as the ticket machines have long lines during the day and are quite slow. Also make sure you are not using a "credit card only" machine if you want to use cash. There are also human ticket agents available if you have time to wait in line.
Most trains are "Trenitalia" (state trains) and quite punctual. "Italo" also operates here and has very nice, very fast trains for long-haul journeys (Napoli-Firenze for example) and are often cheaper than Trenitalia. On our trip from Naples, they even offered FREE WI-FI with movies available on their network, also free, in English. Italo "veloce" trains hit speeds of 150-180 miles per hour, making the journey between Naples and Florence in just 2.5 hours.

The station is a bit of a pit and full of seedy characters, so clutch your valuables and avoid crowded areas. Otherwise, it is quite handy if traveling by rail to or from Florence.

CombatCritic Gives Stazione Santa Maria Novella (Florence) 5 Bombs Out Of 10 ... More Bombs Are Better!

Title: Florence, Italy: Stazione Santa Maria Novella (Train Station) ... A Bit Dodgy, But Central And Very Convenient

Key Words: Firenze, Florence, Italy, maria, novella, santa, Santa Maria Novella, station, train, CombatCritic, TravelValue, travel, value, stazione, Tuscano, Tuscani

Thursday, September 15, 2016

DayTripQuip: Pensione Bencista - Fiesole From Piazza San Marco By Bus (Florence, Italy)

We have spent quite a bit of time in Florence over the years, most recently staying the month of July in an apartment near Mercato San'Ambrogio (don't miss it) in addition to other trips ranging from a few days to over a month.

The ATAF Bus - Line 7 - travels between Piazza San Marco - Via La Pira and Fiesole - Vinandro Osteria about every 20-30 minutes between 5am and 1am. Bus stop: FM0373 (REDRESS) is on the main road to/from Fiesole and a short 10 minute stroll from Pensione Bencista. You can purchase tickets at any tabaccaio (tobacco shop - look for a dark blue sign with a big "T") and the hotel may have some for sale. The stop going to Florence is across the road close to the top of the big bend and the one going toward Fiesole is up the road (to your right) 100 or so feet.

Piazza San Marco is close to the historical center (centro storico) of Florence, very close to Galleria dell'Accademia where Michelangelo's "David" resides and short walk to the Duomo, central Florence, Palazzo Medici Riccardi and the train station (Santa Maria Novella).

From Santa Maria Novella, you can go pretty much anywhere in Italy or Europe for that matter. Nice, short day trips available via rail are to Prato, Lucca, Pisa, ArezzoSiena and Bologna, all of which leave you close to the city center.

You can read my numerous reviews of Florence restaurants, hotels, museums, and attractions here on TripAdvisor and on my popular blog where there is much more detailed information, including my patented and popular DayTripQuips.

Enjoy Firenze and buon viaggio!


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Title: DayTripQuip: Pensione Bencista - Fiesole From Piazza San Marco By Bus (Florence, Italy)

Key Words: Fiesole Pensione Bencista, Florence, Firenze, pensione, Bencista, Piazza San Marco, CombatCritic, TravelValue, DayTripQuip, day, trip, quip, travel, value, review, Yelp

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

DayTripQuip™: A Free Bus Tour Of "The Prato You Do Not Expect"

That's Prato
Phone: +39 328 00 21 009
Prices: € € € € 

Abbey (Badia) of Santa Maria of Montepiano
Across the piazza from Chiesa Santa Maria Novella, a free bus will take from Florence's Santa Maria Novella train station to various itineraries in and around Prato, a town between Florence and Pistoia heading toward Lucca and Pisa. You pay only for the entrance to museums (if applicable) and your lunch.
Monastery of St. Nicholas -Courtyard

The Province of Prato has organized these free weekly tours available on ten consecutive Sundays from May to July, taking four routes/itineraries with both Italian and English Guides:
I emailed That's Prato, asking for a reservation for the Path of the Pilgrims tour which was quickly accommodated with a reply the following day for the next Sunday. When we arrived at the train station on Sunday morning, the group was in front of McDonald's next to Track #1 as promised. We gave them our name, waited until everyone arrived, then made our way to the other end of the station where the bus was waiting.
Monastery of St. Nicholas - Fresco
In a modern tour bus with air conditioning and comfortable seats, we were quickly on our way to Prato, a historic city (comune) and one of Italy's newest provinces (Provincia di Prato), established in 1992 from the Province of Florence. There were about 30 tourists on the bus for The Pilgrim's Walk tour, mostly Italians and, oddly enough, from the Florence area no less.
The Prato area has a long history associated with monasteries and holy places as well as Marian devotion, Which dates to the Early Middle Ages. This tour retraces some of the stops made ​​by pilgrims as they journeyed through the Apennines."
Our first stop was the Dominican Monastery of St. Nicholas (admission € 5) in the city of Prato. Established in the 13th Century, the monastery has beautifully decorated chapels, a pharmacy, dining hall, and many other rooms with fabulous frescoes and antique furniture. One of the resident nuns accompanied us on the tour, providing details of the history and tales of the ancient building.
Small Lake - Montepiano
We then took a route through the city streets and squares of the old town, then up the winding mountain road to the top of the mountain for lunch in Montepiano, a small town in the Bisenzio Valley. After a reasonably priced (€10) two course lunch on the small lake, we hiked up the hill to Abbey (Badia) of Santa Maria of Montepiano, a small church also from the 13th Century with a fresco of Saint Christopher which sits on what used to be the main road from Florence to Bologna for hundreds of years.
Fresco of St. Christopher - Santa Maria of Montepiano
We then made our way down the mountain to Vaiano and the Abbey of San Salvatore with its small, but very interesting museum. This quaint complex dates back to the 11th Century and has a serene courtyard with fountain and bell tower, halls with ancient frescoes, and a museum with historic artifacts, the abbey's original kitchen, a small chapel, and trap door that leads to a 1,000 year-old lavatory. 
Abbey of San Salvatore - Paiano
Our bus driver then took us on the 40-minute ride back to Florence by the appointed hour of 6pm as promised, leaving us at the Santa Maria Novella train station where we had started our journey.
Kitchen (Fireplace) - Abbey of San Salvatore
That's Prato recently added free tours on eight consecutive Sundays in September and October with the following itineraries:
A trip by train to Arezzo or Siena, for example, will cost you €16 per person for train tickets alone, so for just €15 including lunch and museum entry (both optional), you will not find a better value when visiting Florence in terms of day trips.

You can email, visit their website:, or call them at +39 328 00 21 009 to request your spot on the tour.

CombatCritic Gives 9 Bombs Out Of 10 ... More Bombs Are Better! 

Read More Reviews By CombatCritic On Yelp - "Elite '14/'15" - And On TripAdvisor - "Top Contributor" - And Don't Forget To Subscribe To TravelValue TV on YouTube

Title: DayTripQuip™: A Free Bus Tour Of "The Prato You Do Not Expect"

Key Words: Prato, day, trip, quip, DayTripQuip, train, Santa Maria Novella, Montepiano, Vaiano, abbey, monastery, fresco, church, antique, travel, value, Firenze, Florence, Italy, free

Monday, August 24, 2015

Forget Overpriced Florence Hotels, Rent A "Little Florentine Retreat" For Your Best Value And Comfort

Little Florentine Retreat
Via di Pilastri 36, Firenze, Italia
Web: Airbnb
Prices:  €  € € 

Accommodations: Apartment

Via Pilastri and Chiesa Sant'Ambrogio (Far Right)
We spent two months in Florence, one month in July 2012 and the other this past July (2015), staying in apartments both times. The first apartment was small, but nice in the Santa Croce/Sant'Ambrogio area and the cost a very reasonable $1000 a month or a little over $33 per day. It had a small kitchen and bath, living room, loft (open) bedroom, air conditioning, wireless internet, and a clothes washer.
Living Room
We tried to rent the same apartment this year, but the owner was not cooperative, so we found another place in the same area, our favorite, and are we happy we did!
Main Bedroom
This apartment, just around the corner from the Jewish Temple and down the street from Chiesa and Mercato Sant'Ambrogio, is on the top floor of a historic villa. With no elevator, the 54 steps (no elevator) to the apartment became tedious over the month, particularly with heavy bags and 100 degree temperatures practically every day, so we limited are exits and entries as much as possible. After all, who wants to spend most of the day in an apartment when in one of the most beautiful and culturally abundant cities in the world?
Main Bedroom and Wardrobe

The owner greeted us warmly upon arrival, explaining the intricacies of the small, but very functional two-bedroom apartment. One decent size bedroom with queen size bed and wardrobe and one smaller bedroom with a pullout bed, desk, and chair were all we needed for the two of us and the occasional guest. Entering into the small kitchen-living room area, the bedrooms and bath were readily accessible. The small bathroom has a shower and bidet as well as a skylight providing ample natural light. The bedrooms both have air conditioning, but the kitchen, living room, and bath do not. However, with the bedroom AC units on and doors open, which we used sparingly, the main living area's temperature was tolerable in the 100 degree heat. The apartment has a TV with limited English language broadcasts, fast (cable optic) wireless internet, a dishwasher and clothes washer. The furniture was modern and functional, and everything necessary to live comfortably (pots, pans, dishes, silverware, toaster, microwave, etc.) was provided.

Entry and Kitchen
The apartment has been renovated inside, but still retains some of the charm of a historic building with exposed wood beams and terra cotta tile roof. The floors were also terra cotta tile. There are windows in each room, medium sized in the main bedroom and living room with views of the pallazzo across the street and a small window with no view in the smaller bedroom. The windows have wooden shutters which can be closed to provide darkness for those who may be sensitive to light when sleeping.

There are two supermarkets (Conad and Carrefour) within a five minute walk as well as shops, restaurants, bars, hardware stores or pretty much anything else you could find elsewhere in Italy. Santa Croce is a ten minute walk, and the Duomo, Ponte Vecchio, and the train station are just fifteen to 20 minutes away by foot. The best pizzeria in Florence, Il Pizzaiuolo, is close by, serving delicious Neopolitan-style pizza at fairly reasonable prices. Mercato Sant'Ambrogio (open 7:30am - 2:30 pm Monday thru Saturday) is also a short stroll away where you can buy clothing, shoes, housewares, fresh fruits and vegetables, bread, meat, salami, cheese, bread or anything else you might need in the kitchen. They also have a small restaurant where you can get an inexpensive lunch for less than €10 per person. It is much smaller than the touristy Mercato San Lorenzo (a ten minute walk away), but has everything you need, is frequented mostly by locals, and has better prices.

The owner has recently listed the apartment on Airbnb at $106 per night, but if you plan on staying for a length of time, contact the owner to see about getting a reduced rate. As I mentioned earlier, we paid $1100 for the month of July, about 1/3 of the published daily rate, so it is worth a try!
Bedroom 2

At $106 per night, you may find better values in Florence ($75-$80 per night would probably be a more appropriate price), but for the $1100 per month that we paid, this was an exceptional value and I highly recommend it for long-term stays.

CombatCritic gives  8 Bombs Out of 10 ... More Bombs Are Better!

Read more reviews of Florence restaurants, attractions and day trips as well as ways to save money in CombatCritic's "Definitive Florence (Italy)" ...

Wood Beam and Terra Cotta Celing


Main Entry
Title: Forget Overpriced Florence Hotels, Rent A "Little Florentine Retreat" For Your Best Value And Comfort

Key Words: Florentine, retreat, apartment, hotel, accommodation, Pilastri, Santa Croce, mercato, Sant'Ambrogio, Duomo, restaurant, Airbnb, Italy, Florence, Firenze, travel, value, definitive, review, guide, 

Sunday, August 23, 2015

Il Pizzaiuolo: This "Pizza Maker" Does It The Traditional, Neopolitan Way ... Delicioso!

Il Pizzaiuolo
Via dei Macci 113R
50122 Florence, Italy
Near Mercato San'Ambrogio
Phone: +39 055 241171

I wrote an extensive review in 2012 on Il Pizzaiuolo, so I will not bore you with too many details or flowery prose. Leave it to say that in parts of Italy, Rome and northward, good pizza is hard to come by. Most visitors do not realize that this is authentic pizza napoletana (not "Napolean", he was the squirt of a French dictator), equaling some of the best pizzerias in Naples (Napoli), the home of pizza and the best in the world.

Just around the corner from the wonderful Mercato Sant'Ambrogio and a five minute walk from Santa Croce, Il Pizzaiuolo has only around 15 tables, so the place is small and hard to find a seat after 8pm. Beside pizza, they have starters, pasta, meat, and fish dishes, but pizza is their specialty. On this visit, one of many in the past, we decided to try their frittura (€8 - fried things), including arancini di riso (rice balls), croquette di patate (potato corquettes), and montanare (fried pizza dough with a little tomato sauce). Their were just two of each (six pieces total) and a disappointment compared to what you would get in a Naples pizzeria for the same price (€8 gets you 25 pieces of the same). They were good, but there should have been more or it should have been much cheaper (€3 to €4).

I had a Neapolitan classic, pizza con salsiccia e friarielli (fior di latte cheese, sausage, and broccoli rabe sauteed in olive oil and garlic - €10) and it was wonderful. My wife's pizza quattro formaggio (four cheeses - €8) was also excellent with loads of mozzarella, gorgonzola, ricotta, and provola cheese. As is usual in pizza napoletana, the dough was thin and chewy, only crisp enough to hold the toppings without getting soggy and with little splotches of burnt crust from the fiery wood-fired oven. Perfetto!

My only complaints, other than the women's toilet being rather filthy on this visit (my wife told me, I did not see for myself) are the fact that you can only get wine by the glass or bottle, no liters or half-liters and that the prices are a little steep compared to Naples, but those are small discrepancies when you are eating un'oltima pizza napoletana (excellent Neapolitan pizza) in Northern Italy!

CombatCritic Il Pizzaiuolo 8 Out Of 10 Bombs ... Bombs Are Good!

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Title: Il Pizzaiuolo: This "Pizza Maker" Does It The Traditional, Neopolitan Way ... Delicioso!

Key Words: Il Pizzaiuolo, pizzaiuolo, pizza, pizzeria, Naples, napoletana, Neopolitan, Florence, Italy, Firenze, restaurant, ristorante, menu, Sant'Ambrogio, CombatCritic, TravelValue, travel, value, review, guide

Saturday, July 25, 2015

A Wonderful Pasta Factory Tour In A Historic Villa Seized By The Nazis During WWII

Pastificio Chelucci
Food Tours, Pasta Factory
Via di Valente, 7
51100 Pistoia, Italy
Phone: +39 0573 42011
Prices: € € € € 

Hand-crafted pasta since 1912, the owner Giuseppe has been in the family business since 1950, is extremely friendly and informative, and made us feel welcome for our free, private tour.

During World War II, the Nazis took over the building, a villa, making it their headquarters in 1942. The family had to walk for two days to Florence while the Germans occupied their home. Once the Nazis fled from Allied Forces in December 1942, they returned home and were the first pastificio (pasta factory) of 36 in Pistoia to resume operations after the war. They are the only remaining pastificio of the original 36 in Pistoia.

The factory has been automated since 1950, but the pastas are still dried the old fashion way and hand packed. In fact, Giuseppe's sweet 94-year-old mother Dina still processes and packs the maccheroni by hand from time to time. The same machine from 1950 is still being used today. They have numerous varieties of pasta, including their signature pastas like "Quasimodi", made with only Tuscan flour from the Pisa area and their secret ingredient, pure local spring water. They recently unveiled a pasta in the shape of Pinocchio characters called "Le Bugie" ("the lies"), the result of a scholarship competition in the local schools.

The factory employs only six people, but they produce a wide variety of pastas using old family recipes and processes. The small river behind the factory once spun the turbines beneath the building which allowed them to resume operations so quickly after the war. Special drying units maintain constant temperatures between 32 and 35 degrees Celsius (90-95 Fahrenheit), ensuring that the pasta does not break, reducing waste, and resulting in quality products. Pastas take from 24 hours to six days to dry depending on the shape (versus two hours for mass produced brands).

The bronze pasta forms used to give the pastas their various shapes result in a special consistency not found in mass produced brands (De Cecco, Barilla). Their pastas take much less time to cook (5 minutes versus 12-15 minutes for comparable mass produced pasta) because the pasta from the brass forms allow the boiling water to saturate the pasta instead of cooking it from the outside. The water they are boiled in also has much more starch then that of the mass produced brands, allowing the water to be used to better thicken sauces before serving.

The valley in which the villa sits is quiet, green, lush, and much cooler than smoldering Florence, so it was a breath of fresh air, literally, after a month in 100 degree Florence and its wall-to-wall tourists. The temperature and humidity in the protected valley setting creates the perfect environment for making top-quality pastas. Giuseppe is working on adding a small gift shop and cafe, culinary demonstrations, and possibly pasta making and cooking classes in the near future, but in the meantime a tour of their operation is a must if visiting Tuscany (I have also included it in my article: Top 19 FREE THINGS TO DO In And Around Florence) and tell him CombatCritic sent you!

CombatCritic Gives Pastaficio Chelucci Tour The Coveted 10 Bombs Out Of 10 ... IT'S THE BOMB ... More Bombs Are Better!

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Title: A Wonderful Pasta Factory Tour In A Historic Villa Seized By The Nazis During WWII

Key Words: Pastificio Chelucci, pastificio, Giuseppe, Chelucci, Pistoia, Florence, Firenze, Italy, Toscana, Tuscany, pasta, factory, tour, travel, value, review, guide, Yelp, TripAdvisor

Monday, July 20, 2015

DayTripQuip™ - Beautiful And Historic Siena From Florence By Train Or Bus

Piazza del Campo
DayTripQuip™: Take the train (Regionale: 1 hour 28 minutes - €8.80/person each way) from Santa Maria Novella Station to Siena. Trains leave throughout the day from S.M. Novella at 10 minutes after the hour. Another option is the bus (Corse Rapido: 1 hour 15 minutes - bus station is just south of the train station - bus schedules below - €7.60/person each way) which is a little faster than the train, cheaper, and leaves you closer to the center of Siena. The Siena train station is a little over a mile and a 25 minute walk to the historical center of Siena where you will want to go. The Siena bus station is very close to the center (centro storico) and its fabulous piazza, ancient churches, beautiful cathedral, and historic buildings. Siena has restaurants, cafes, bars, and shopping galore if you would like a break from the frenzy of Florence for a few hours.

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 Bus Schedule

More Photos

Title: DayTripQuip™ - Beautiful And Historic Siena From Florence By Train Or Bus

Key Words: Siena, day, trip, quip, DayTripQuip, train, piazza, Piazza del Campo, campo, duomo, cathedral, fresco, church, antique, antiques, travel, value, Firenze, Florence