In Florence, an introduction to long-stay group tours

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

But I had long hoped to immerse myself in another place: Florence, the city where the Renaissance began around 1350 and — for most art history buffs — the center of the world. My husband and I had traveled there several times over the past few decades, but never for more than a few days. On a couple of group tours, we had stayed outside the city and been bused in for the afternoon to visit the must-sees: Michelangelo’s David statue and the Uffizi Gallery. On those visits, I would wander as much as time allowed.

That usually wasn’t much, and I was left wanting more. So when I saw a three-week Smithsonian Journeys package called “Living in Italy” and based in Florence, I booked the May trip. I would go solo — it was too long for my husband’s taste — and join a group of about two dozen Americans in their 60s and 70s, as well as three octogenarians, most of whom had never been to Florence before.

Road Scholar, the nonprofit tour company specializing in “learning adventures,” offers a six-week Florence stay, but I saw two main drawbacks: Its Florence version includes a daily morning Italian language class as part of the itinerary, and it places the participants in different apartments. The Smithsonian Journeys program instead offers studying Italian as an option (about a third of our group took the classes), and it houses the entire group in an apartment hotel, offering greater potential for camaraderie.

Exploring 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 gathered informally for dinner, showing up and joining the locals around the town square. Our tour leader told us that the trip had been based at a hotel in the center of town before the pandemic, but our little neighborhood offered a more intimate side of city life without sacrificing convenience. It had a greengrocer and several small shops, offering easy access to basics for our apartment kitchenettes, and it was just a 10-minute tram ride into the heart of Florence.

“Staying in one place to meet the shopkeeper down the street, know where to get a good cup of espresso, understand the story in the streets, those were big advantages,” Scott Baird, a retired linguistics professor from San Antonio who was in the group, said in an email.

A typical day for me began with grabbing a pastry on my way to the tram. I prefer early starts, and by getting to Florence’s center before 8:30 a.m., I was able to experience the city coming to life, not yet so busy that I needed to dodge traffic or other tourists. At this time, one can clearly see the ancient, uneven stones of the empty streets lying ahead of you. There’s no better way to sense the centuries you’re walking through.

Because I wanted as much independent time as possible, I was satisfied not to have opted for the weekday Italian classes, although those who took them found them to be fun and valuable. I revisited many places seen on earlier trips, but I added many others that are rarely visited by tourists. There was time at each place — usually churches — to sit, look up, contemplate, read pieces I brought along and listen to podcasts to guide my looking. (One with deep dives on most Florence sights is “Rebuilding the Renaissance,” by art historian Rocky Ruggiero.)

The longer stay gave me time to visit places that were farther afield, such as San Salvi, a church that is part of an 11th-century abbey complex. There, in the abbey’s refectory, the colors of the 16th-century “Last Supper” fresco by Andrea del Sarto are still bright, unlike those of Leonardo’s famous “Last Supper” in Milan. If San Salvi were closer in, that fresco would be on the greatest-hits circuit. Farther still, I took the train from Florence’s station, just three stops away on our tram line, to Bologna for an overnight stay, and to Pisa for a quicker one. Our Smithsonian Journeys itinerary also included day trips to several Tuscany destinations, such as Siena, Lucca, San Gimignano and Cortona.

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We had enough unscheduled time to indulge our own interests. One of my fellow travelers rented a bike and rode far outside the city on several days while his wife was taking Italian. I spent three hours at the early Renaissance basilica of Santa Maria Novella, where Masaccio’s centuries-old “Holy Trinity” fresco is celebrated for its experiments with perspective. (One reason Florence attracts art history buffs is that it offers the thrill of seeing breakthrough paintings in situ rather than in museums.) And some of the group members told me that they appreciated the permission slip that a long stay gave them to occasionally take a day off and relax.

There was also plenty of time for wandering. I listened to an Audible recording of Anne Holler’s “Florencewalks,” which divides the city into quadrants with cues of where to stop and look. It was a great way to see details such as coats of arms perched high on the facades of Renaissance palaces of once-powerful families while listening to their histories. It pointed out homes of famous non-Florentines and narrated the early stories of some of the greats — Dante, Michelangelo, Machiavelli — along the streets where they once lived.

One day was my gardens day. I climbed down the steep hill from my favorite church, San Miniato al Monte, to visit three that were in full bloom. First came Florence’s Iris Garden, holding its annual competition. (The iris has long been a symbol of the city.) A bit lower, the city’s vast Rose Garden, with locals sunbathing on the lawns among the roses. Then lunch on the loggia at the Bardini Garden, with its panoramic view of the city and glorious wisteria tunnel.

After my trip, I did an informal email survey of our group. I asked why they chose a three-week stay and whether they were glad they had. There was unanimity on several motivating factors, including not needing to unpack 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, I was approached for directions by some other tourists and was able to direct them, just like a longtime resident (well, almost),” Mike McWilliams, a retired business owner from Gresham, Ore., wrote in an email.

Not to say everyone thought the trip was perfect. Despite being art lovers, two of the couples told me that the trip felt a little long toward the end and that they suffered from art overload. But the consensus was positive, and most felt as if the expertise of our excellent tour leader, the protection afforded in case of a medical emergency and the camaraderie of the group, especially at mealtimes, outweighed the advantages of independently booking a long-term stay. Maybe next time, some said.

I look back on those three weeks in a different way than I look back on other group trips — and I have taken many. There was much seen, much accomplished. But, for some reason, it is less of a blur. And my fellow travelers remain with me like colorful characters in an unfaded fresco.

Nathan is a writer based in Bethesda, Md.

Smithsonian Journeys’ “Living in Italy: A Three-Week Stay in Florence” group tour includes lectures and guided visits, tram fares, day trips outside Florence and 13 lunches and dinners. Assistance and guidance from a resident tour director in Florence and on bus excursions outside town available at all times. Lodging in an apartment hotel near the city center through PopArtment. From $6,140 per person for double occupancy and from $8,130 for single; airfare not included. Three available add-on options: Art and Architecture guided visits to additional sites ($550 per person), 12 mornings of Italian language instruction ($940 per person for 2022, $990 for 2023), and a three-session culinary class ($620 per person).

Road Scholar’s “Living and Learning in Florence: Independent Stay and Language Study” tour includes daily language classes and housing in apartments, as well as excursions in Tuscany. There are 15 lunches and dinners. From $9,799 for single occupancy, $10,299 for double occupancy. Sold out for 2023 departures; limited space for Sept. 23 departure.

Potential travelers should take local and national public health directives regarding the pandemic into consideration before planning any trips. Travel health notice information can be found on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s interactive map showing travel recommendations by destination and the CDC’s travel health notice webpage.

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