Last night my mom, sis, and I walked around Florence together. We people-watched along the Ponte Vecchio, ducked into food specialty shops (Mom loves food as a way of getting to know a culture), strolled past the Duomo, and took photos of our favorite things, like the Palazzo Medici at night. One must see Florence at night if one has the chance. The air is charged and magnetic. Turn almost any corner and be presented with a glowing ancient piece of history and, with the streets being less crowded, everything is easier to see and access.
“The transition from day to night is magical! I read that it would be, but oh, it really is!” says Mom. She came to the trip from San Antonio, Texas; my sister, from Austin. Myself, from the North Fork of Long Island, New York. Every year we take a girl’s trip (we are just the three of us now), but, this year, Mom’s health isn’t so good (it’s difficult for her to walk long distances), sis has a new job, and oh, there’s a worldwide pandemic.
So how did we manage a trip to Italy? Discover Live offers exclusive live tours with live guides to take you around a city using Zoom-based technology. It is not pre-recorded; it is a live, virtual tour. They have been specialized in doing this since 2018.
The Easiest Airline Security Ever
In traditional travel, the excitement starts way before the actual journey. The planning, in fact, can be some of the most fun. You get to pre-live the journey. Dream of the food you will eat, list the streets you want to walk down, pick what you want to see most in case you run out of time. The same goes for live virtual travel. About a week before our trip, my mom texted: What airlines are we flying? I thought maybe she had misunderstood me about the trip being virtual. So I called her, and she repeated, excitedly, “So, what airline are we taking? Zoom Airlines? Skype Air?” She, outing herself as more knowledgeable about tech than I would have guessed, was so into it. We kept the theme running. The email with the Discover Live Zoom link became her boarding pass; our Zoom test run w/Mom, getting through security; and our pre-Zoom meet up, early boarding. Note: My mom is 79. This would be her first Zoom experience.
Experiences like Discover Live may be the (only) way we can travel abroad for a while. It’s not only fun, it’s the ultimate low-impact travel. No planes. No building of hotels. No purchasing of unnecessary things. No huge carbon footprint. We can fly Zoom Airlines, do a whole lot less damage, and not break the bank, all at the same time.
A Return to Italy, the Whole Family Included
Almost 20 years ago now, I lived in Italy while working on a documentary in a tiny village in Tuscany. Mom joined me for a month. We went discovering, made olive oil, ate wild boar, sat at long family dinner tables with our neighbors, and she even got to see the Pope. This woke up an entirely new adventurous side of her, and us together. It’s something we’ve always wanted to recreate. We picked Florence for our Discover Live destination because going back to Italy would be a rekindling, as well as whole new adventure. This would be my sister’s first trip to Italy. Actually, her first trip to Europe!
Three Girls Take On Florence
“I am excited to take three girls around Florence, all to myself,” exclaims Michele, our guide. He’s climbed many of the world’s highest mountains, and he drives a 1959 Triumph motorbike. A super Italian.
Our trip starts in the heart of Florence. “I am going to show you something that you will not have to experience with me today: a very long line!” he says, laughing. Our day coincides with the first-ever Formula One Tuscan Grand Prix. I am struck by how many people are out and about. The streets are lively. Most everyone wears a mask, and it all feels normal; elegant, even. It is a beautiful September day in Florence.
A Long Meandering Stroll Through the Side Streets
Winding our way through smaller, less-populated streets, we duck into a cafe and admire the sides of Florentine beef that will be custom ordered (minimum thickness 1.5 inches), a tiny shop that makes torrone (an Italian nougat), a touristy gelato shop with huge mounds of ice cream and long lines, and then an insider local gelateria that was far more civilized. Mom had asked to see how people eat, so we tease her taste buds, and then she stops to ask about a piece a street art that catches her eye.
Street Life and Long Shadows Over the River Arno
The streets open up to the Ponte Vecchio (Old Bridge) and, in the early setting sun, it is dazzling. We walk right up to the banks of the Arno and then a little further on so that we can look back on it. The Ponte Vecchio looks like a row of small colored houses joined together to connect the right side of the Arno to the left.
“Do people live here?” asks my sister. She’s taking tons of photos. Turns out these tiny houses used to be butcher shops way back when. At the end of the day the butchers would chuck remnants/bones/etc. out the window and into the water. Now, they are jewelry shops. The shadows are getting longer as the day begins to fade, and locals make their way home.
We turn the corner, and a marvelous dome seemingly appears out of nowhere. The Baptistery of Florence glows in white and green. Just beyond it, the Duomo itself, the third-largest church in the world (after St Paul’s in London and St Peter’s in Rome), which took almost two centuries to build, ending around 1471. This is the kind of detail that in “real life” might wash over me, but today, with Michele, it sinks in. I will now also remember things like: three of the Medici brothers would become Popes (7th, 10th, and 11th), and Michelangelo named the marvelous bronze doors of the Duomo the “Gates of Heaven” (because neither he nor God could make them more beautifully).
This Feels Like Teleporting
I feel as if I am seeing Florence for the first time. Partly because of Michele’s only-as-an-Italian-can style of storytelling, partly because this feels a bit like teleporting. “It all opened up for me when I decided to transport myself into the screen,” says Mom. “It was much harder to step back out, though; I didn’t want to leave! I wanted to sit down on the steps of the Medici and listen to music with those other people.”
Inspired, With New Shared Memories
Immediately after, we all got back together for a debrief. “It definitely gives you the feeling of being somewhere,” Mom says excitedly. Not only that, it gave us the feeling of being there together as a family. We have new shared memories as if we had traveled together, because we had. I know we will be recalling “remember when we went to Florence and …” stories.
What’s next? Tonight the three of us are meeting up for pizza and chianti (Pizzeria Zoom this time). Part of the plan is to talk about where we will go next month. Australia? Portugal? Alaska? Mom has wanted to go there since forever.