Updated: Jan 21
My favorite smell in Florence is bread being baked by the pastry students at Apicius.
My favorite thing to touch, at the moment, is probably a fuzzy, squishy peach, especially thrilling in light of the "non toccare!" (don't touch!) signs displayed at the farmers market.
My favorite taste is any combination of crusty bread and creamy cheese, for obvious reasons.
My favorite sight: unoriginally, street lights reflecting in the Arno River in the late evening.
And I don't have to think twice about my favorite sound: the convivial clinking of coffee cups, spoons and saucers in the city's approximately five million coffee bars.
You can hear the sound on just about any block on any street in any Italian town at any hour. Like the purring of vespas and clanging of church bells, it's a sign that the city is alive.
I'm not a big coffee nerd, but I always find myself lured into coffee bars by these sounds — of humming espresso machines and gently clattering glasses. A stop inside isn't just a chance to sip a chocolate-dusted cappuccino, but also a chance to rest my elbows on a cool surface and just pause, taking in the scene.
I found myself drawn to coffee shops with particular frequency during my solo trip to Santa Margherita Ligure this past long weekend, when I had lots of time to sit, think and observe — especially after a severe stomach sunburn from my first day prevented me from spending too much more time at the beach.
With the company of a cappuccino and a baby cannoli, I peered at smartly dressed elderly Italian men sitting alone, hunched over newspapers like grumpy cartoon characters, and Ladies Who Lunch chatting in groups over cigarettes, espressos and orange juice. I listened to blond French children persuade their parents to buy them cookies and pastries. On many occasions, I resisted the urge to leap from my chair to pet passing Ligurian wiener dogs.
My thinning wallet and disappointing inability to digest more than a couple cappuccinos a day limited the time I could spend at coffee shops, so, without more sights to see (Santa Margherita Ligure is tiny and meant more for enjoying than conquering), a book to read (I'd finished the only one I'd brought) or a drink to sip, I had to get comfortable doing nothing. That got progressively easier as I discovered a few pretty idyllic observation nooks: a seaside bench, a restaurant chair with a view of the ritzy yachts in Portofino and a warm wading spot by the jagged rocks in the ocean.
Actually, the best observation spot had no coffee bars, French kids or wiener dogs at all. It was the terrace at my bed-and-breakfast for the weekend, furnished with a couple of tables, a few cushioned wicker chairs and a succulent or two. To get there, I had to climb 400 stony steps up a cliff in a tiny beachfront town called Paraggi, so you can imagine my sweat, knee pain and, perhaps more pleasurably for you, awe over the view of the Ligurian Sea.
In the evenings, fellow guests milled on and off the balcony, chatting in Italian I could understand in bits and pieces — "How's the breakfast here?""Nothing special. Just toast, jam, cookies." — but I remained glued to the same chair, the seat leaving deep indentations in my thighs and the sun rising steadily off of my back. I listened to the loud buzzing of cicadas when I noticed it, though mostly it faded into the background like traffic or ocean waves. I watched the sky progress from evening to night, bright blue to pink and purple, until it and the sea blended into a shade of powdery blue that darkened so subtly, I missed a whole shade every second I looked away. I wanted to remember this scene forever, from every ship on the sea to every spike on the succulents.
When the sky turned navy and a big flock of birds flew overhead from my right until I could no longer make them out among the cliffs to my left — to get tucked into their nests for an episode of Netflix before bed, I'm guessing — I knew it was time to sleep. Drinking in one last gulp of my surroundings, I realized that my whole weekend had been like this: one long pause, at the counters of coffee shops and on a terrace above the sea.