By Phyllis Schweikle
Photos courtesy the Italian Government Tourist Board NA
It is said that 65% of the world’s art treasures are in Italy, and 50% of those are in Florence. Five of us wanted to stay there for a full month, so hotels were too costly, and any pensione were too “rustic” (I’m finished with group sharing of bathrooms).
I made a list of our basic needs: old Florence neighborhood, quiet, four bedrooms, three baths, a well-stocked kitchen for my chef husband, air conditioning and a washing machine.
Then I entered “apartment rentals Florence Italy” in my computer search engine. Pages appeared with links to user-friendly websites for every size apartment, location and price, often with neighborhood maps. Historic Florence is not large, but if your interests lie near San Marco, then San Spirito may not be the neighborhood for you, unless you really like to walk a lot.
That year we found a wonderful apartment on via del Corno, behind the Palazzo Vecchio. While affordability motivated us to rent, we came away with so much more from our experience that today renting is our favorite option wherever we plan a stay of six days or more. Rent and you become what the Italians call famigliari — “familiars,” recognized and greeted by the fruit and vegetable guy, the baker, the butcher. You become absorbed into the fabric of your temporary neighborhood. Today at Ristorante Buzzino, where we often regrouped that first year, we embrace and are embraced, welcomed home on annual visits.
In major tourist areas, most Italians speak English, so if language is not your gift, you will be fine (always carry a light weight dictionary). But think about it… you are moving into a neighborhood, so why not learn some basic pronunciation rules and a few simple phrases? You will be amazed at the response to your effort. Check out the website “CyberItalian” and see if this interactive language learning tool appeals to you (for a $25/year membership you have so much to gain and comparatively nothing to lose).
We have learned a few things from renting six different apartments (five in Florence, ranging in size from studio to four bedrooms, and a two bedroom in Rome). Here are a few thoughts to consider:
1) Rates depend on a number of factors, but Italians are pragmatic, so don’t be afraid to negotiate respectfully if you plan to rent for three weeks or more. Owners are willing to reduce rates rather than leave a unit vacant.
2) Study the photos of every room. In my experience searching for six different apartments, online photos are reliable. So that ‘fish-eye‘ picture you see really does reveal the struggle to showcase a small space (which may be fine for you). If you find an interesting description with a photo of the terrace, request photos of all the rooms. There may be nothing wrong, but I’m just saying…
3) Italians are used to living in much less space per person than Americans. An apartment listing for 3 to 4 persons may have one bedroom for two, and a full size sofa bed in the living room, and/or a daybed in your bedroom to accommodate someone. If that’s okay with you, then go for it.
4) “T” stands for “Terra” which means Ground Floor. In Italy, the 1st Floor (Primo Piano) is one flight up, so unless you are young or athletic, you may want to eliminate any apartment without an elevator which is above the 2nd floor . Remember you will be carrying suitcases filled with necessities on arrival, and treasures when you leave, daily groceries, that famous bottled effervescent water, and your tired self up those steps at least once a day.
Our second apartment was a penthouse with a terrace and wonderful views. It belonged to an artist whose lovely artworks and subtle personal touches made us feel instantly at home. I was entranced by the interior photos, and though the description said ‘4th floor walk-up’, we were in very good shape. After all, I had walked all 60 miles of the Breast Cancer 3-Day that year. A few steps weren’t going to be a deal-breaker! Unfortunately, Tony and I both caught the flu at a language school we were attending. Every day for three weeks, two in health and one in illness, at least once a day, I’d find myself sitting on that 65th stair, surrounded by books, or groceries, and that water, staring exhaustedly up at the final 70th step with its terrace gate like a pilgrim outside the pearly gates.
5) Arrival can be a bit overwhelming, but ask how to use the washing machine and the oven (your dictionary should have a conversion table for weights and temperatures). Most important: be sure to ask where your electric box is. In one apartment we lost power repeatedly until the owner explained we needed to turn off the water heater in the bathroom before heating the oven. Italian electric flow is not like ours. Your daughter cannot dry her hair while you wash clothes, and your husband watches the news in air conditioning. In Italy, the circuits will blow. Ask where the switchbox is located. Then, when it happens, you can turn the power back on and choose where to reduce your draw. Trust me.
7) I assume there are clothes driers at the lavanderia (laundromat), but I have never seen one in an apartment or home. An Italian drier is the sun and breeze, and rain is an extra rinse cycle. In city apartments without terraces, you will find a drying rack in a closet along with clothespins, but be sure to check outside your windows…another clothes line could be there. You will also find an ironing board and iron. Italians iron everything. Washers do not hold a large number of articles, and take a long time to cycle. I would not recommend washing jeans within 48 hours of departure unless you plan to wear them damp.
Anais Nin wrote “Life shrinks or expands in proportion to one’s courage.” May your adventures be joyous, your courage rewarded, your view expanded.