Johanna Payton took a scenic journey through Italy when she ventured from Florence to London by train via Milan
For three and a half years, I completely avoided planes. This July, a perfect storm of circumstances (read: time – or lack of, childcare, very special nuptials and friends flying together) meant I boarded an Airbus and enjoyed sweaty palms for almost two hours on a flight from Luton to Pisa. I survived, you’ll be surprised to know.
My compromise, though, in agreeing to break my own rules and board an aeroplane, was that – after the wedding – we would make the journey home via train.
So, three full days in Florence ensued: and what a trio of perfection they were.
Upon arrival in Florence, we settled into a wonderful Air B&B apartment called Agnolo in Santa Croce, a hip area to the west of the duomo.
With two double bedrooms (hugely comfy beds – plus a sofa bed for an additional two guests if you need it), modern-minimal decor, air-con and a pretty little courtyard, the ground-floor apartment immediately became our home-from-home. We dashed to the supermarket – a well-stocked Carrefour five minutes’ walk away – and got stuck into wine and nibbles al fresco.
After one wedding and three nights in fabulous Florence, we made the journey home to London via train, stopping overnight in Milan
Santa Croce has trendy and traditional restaurants and bars, a daily market and the odd antique store and boutique dotted about, so there was plenty to keep us on our toes in this part of town.
But sights are made for seeing and Florence is small, so a jaunty 10-minute walk got us to the heart of tourist-ville- and, in the opposite direction, I found the fantastic Bellariva/Nannini outdoor pool (Olympic sized) to cool down and stretch my limbs in. Just remember to pack a swimming hat (you can buy one at the ticket office, if you forget).
The duomo, Ponte Vecchio, Piazza della Signoria and Uffizzi gallery are all well worth a visit while you’re in town (and that’s putting it incredibly mildly), but if you want breathtaking views of the city – and a breather away from the masses of tourists – follow our lead by heading across the river to the Boboli Gardens (for a €10 entrance fee), where you can wander through tranquil spaces, see the sculptures in the Pitti Palace and then explore Forte di Belvedere (you pay a separate entrance fee here).
After you’ve teetered back down the hill from the Belvedere, stop for drinks and crostoni (a large slice of freshly baked bread with cheese and delicious toppings) at Fuori Porta: service is rather slow, but it’s a very nice spot to watch the world go by and recover from that steep descent.
The service was far from slow at two other (outstanding) eateries we experienced.
Less than five minutes from the apartment, Cibreo is a theatre, a cafe and a Michelin Guide ristorante across three, adjacent, properties. We hit the restaurant and experienced mouth-watering delectations from the daily changing menu including traditional vitello tonnato (veal served cold with tuna and lemon sauce, capers and beetroot salad), a “savoury gateaux” made with ricotta and pesto, garlic panna cotta, cuttlefish casserole and stuffed rabbit with rosemary.
Dessert was equally divine and, as our party of four ordered only three puddings, a citrus cheesecake appeared, on the house.
A further five minutes from the apartment on foot, Toscania is a thoroughly modern affair with an industrial interior and traditional menu prepared with contemporary twists. Do not expect a “standard” evening here: from the complimentary glass of Prosecco upon arrival to the amuse-bouche of pizza dough balls and fried polenta, this place is extra special.
After tuna carpaccio, aubergine stacks, Tuscan wild boar and open ravioli, the flourless chocolate cake can only be described as “orgasmica” (no translation necessary).
The food – and everything else – at the wedding we attended was blissful.
The nuptials took place at Villa Medicea di Lilliano wine estate, just 20 minutes outside Florence in a cab, making it an ideal site if your guests want to stay in town.
What happens at a wedding in Florence, stays in Florence; but let’s just say it was the most romantic – and Italian – experience, from the joyful entertainment to the sweeping Tuscan views from the terrace.
And, if I marry for the third time (I’ve already had two weddings to the same dude), I’ll be heading in this direction.
After so much good food and extraordinary fun, it’s a wonder we were able to pack our bags and make our way to the station. But we managed (stopping for a freshly baked focaccia and espresso brekkie at a cafe en route).
To take the train from Florence to London, you have to change at Milan – so it would be rude not to spend the night there. One word of warning; because we bought tickets from Florence to Milan on the day, they were a cool €64 each, so it pays to be prepared and book this leg of the journey in advance.
In less than two hours we arrived at the grand Milan Centrale station, a fabulous building with huge, ornate halls – and just a 10-minute stroll to our hotel for the night, the Westin Palace.
The Westin is a chic, upscale hotel halfway into town from the station, so it’s a great shout if you’re passing through the city.
There’s a lovely summer terrace restaurant, rooms are elegantly furnished and, if it’s hot during your stay, check out the sun worshippers’ open deck where you can shower and stretch out on plush sunbeds, with views across the city.
With just one afternoon to explore Milan, we went straight into town (a vibrant city that reminded us keenly of New York), via the lovely Parco Indro Montanelli.
The duomo is breathtaking and the designer fashion is, as you’d expect, amazing: you can’t go to Milan without drooling at Prada’s altar in the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II.
But I’m a vintage girl, and I’d urge anyone who feels the same passion for the old to seek out Vintage Delirium (you must press a buzzer and ask for Franco Jacassi – because it’s that cool) and Cavalli e Nastri. Serious. Bliss. I finished the day with two 1960s dresses and an unworn Italian mod shirt with change from €100 – but you could spend an absolute fortune on vintage here, particularly if you’re partial to Pucci.
All that remained for our short stay was to sample something of Milan’s culinary offering…and it came courtesy of Ristorante Piazza Repubblica, in the same block as the hotel.
Pricey, smart, special – you might as well go for broke.
Service is formal and the food is fabulous: we feasted on salmon tartare with samphire, lime and roasted pistachio, grilled squid, Milanese risotto, fusilli with red prawn carpaccio, traditional tiramisu and juicy strawberries served with meringue and chocolate fondue.
If I’d died then and there, I would have been smiling my way to foodie heaven.
The following morning, rested and vowing never to eat again – unless it’s in Italy – we boarded our train home from Milan’s Garibaldi station (let’s not mention the fact we started out at Centrale before a startling realisation and two tube stops across town in something of a lather: do check those tickets, readers).
Views of the Alps, great food, a quick change in Paris and a short skip on the Eurostar and we were back in London. Ok, so the journey home is the best part of 12-hours (including the shimmy across Paris – we took the RER two stops from Gare de Lyon to Gare du Nord), but it’s affordable, comfortable and wow….those views.
Perhaps, another time, I’ll train it both ways and see how it pans out; I’m already fantasising about long train trips with stop-overs in Chambrey, Turin, Rome and Bari…but the fly/train combo is a great idea if you’re short on time and can just about put-up with a one-way sky trip.
Plus, doing it this way round, there’s no fear of the flight home to sully your holiday – giorno felice!*
*That’s “happy days” in Italian: you’re welcome.
How to get from Florence to London by train via Milan without flying:
From Florence, Johanna took a high speed train from Santa Maria station to Milan Centrale, taking 1hr 39 minutes. You can buy tickets on the day or save money by booking in advance with ItaliaRail from around £27 per person.
From Milan, Johanna booked her journey with Voyages SNCF, taking the stopping service from Milan to Paris Gare de Lyon and changing to the high speed Eurostar train from Paris Gare du Nord to London St Pancras. This leg of the journey was £139 for two passengers (booking over three months in advance) plus a single Metro fare in Paris (around £1.50 each).
Words: Johanna Payton for Feet on the Ground
Images: Johanna Payton / Matthew Swan