Sunday, May 18, 2014

Random Wandering, Shopping and Il Santo Bevitore

We are both tired and looking forward to a day of just aimless wandering. We slept late and skipped breakfast at La Scaletta; while it is a good value, I am tired of eating exactly the same thing every day, with scrambled eggs I cannot eat taunting me from the chafing dish. (This is one dish that Florentines do not improve. To be fair, I don't eat scrambled eggs in restaurants at home either, because I'm damned picky about how long they should be cooked and the ideal texture.) So, we had breakfast at a pasticcheria behind Palazzo Vechhio; I should have checked the receipts for the name, but I've now misplaced them. There was a special with scrambled eggs, tomatoes, toast, marmalade, orange juice, and coffee for 10 Euros—while some of it was the same as that available at La Scaletta, I was looking forward to breakfast that was food made to order. I should have known better, as the scrambled eggs were—odd by my standards, as though they began to fry the eggs and after the white had set, then scrambled them in the pan. But at least they weren't wildly overcooked and had been made fresh for us. Everything else was quite good, including the coffee. We had more coffee and a brioche to finish. 

Then we wandered off toward Piazza dell' Santissima Annunziata, to check out the nearby farmacia. On the way, we stopped in at a paper shop with a family tree in the window; we bought a tree (and on a stop back in after the trip to the farmacia, a pen) for Bill, and a handmade blank book of Florentine paper for Pam. The young woman minding the shop was Japanese, from Yokohama, so Shawn was able to practice his go, and find that he still has it, some 30 years on.

The farmacia, unsurprisingly, was closed, but there were lovely things in the window, so we will try again tomorrow. That is part of the story of Italy; often, you will find that things are closed when you try to visit, but if you have patience and time, you may want to try again later.

Next, we checked out the Museo dell'Opera del Duomo, which had just closed for the day when we stopped; we'd both like to see it, though, as it includes models of many of the machines used to build the dome, as well as pieces originally housed in the Duomo. We will try again tomorrow for it as well.

I decided that as I had not seen any affordable jewelry I wanted, Shawn could buy me some Italian cashmere as an birthday/anniversary present. We went to Cashmeritaly, a store whose wares I had been admiring through the window as we walked along Borgo San Jacopo. I settled on a lovely cape that is a light lilac-blue on one side and a deep blue on the other. Very warm--too warm for the nearly 80 degree day, but it will be lovely to have back home.
Then we popped back to Gabriella's shop to get money clips for Jon and Shawn; we were able to confirm that Texas and Tennessee (our nicknames for some of the couples from the tour, as we did not remember everyone's names) had made purchases, for which we are glad.
Next we dropped off our purchases at La Scaletta and popped up for a drink on the terrace. Silvia warned us, as Larissa had already done, that there was a benefit dinner at the restaurant that evening; we were welcome to come up for a drink and make a donation if we wished, but have a drink in any event.
We hung out in the room for a bit, reading and relaxing, until it was time to wander over to il Santo Bevitore. It is made to look rustic inside,  with big, rough wooden tables, much larger than those in most restaurants here, and built-in benches lining the walls. There are cheeses and artisal meats on display. All of the wait staff are young and hip and could have been transplanted from Brooklyn to Florence. Very good jazz playing when we arrived. One odd experience was when a waiter slammed into the table, jamming it into me, and then just looked at me. After my irritation passed, I realized that he was probably more concerned about having blown his cool image than about whether he had hurt me; he certainly made no effort to apologize. But the food was very good. Shawn had some delicious ribollita with tomato, and I started with a salad that was huge and fresh. We both had pasta (handmade) with 'nduja, which we had been told at da Ginone was vegetarian, though I later read that it is a spreadable sausage from Calabria; small quantities are added to tomato sauce used for pasta. We are hoping that it was vegetarian, simply made to resemble the sausage, which has lots of red pepper in it. It came smothered in pecorino and was very spicy and good--and did not taste of pork. Had a wonderful super Tuscan, Numero Otto, 2008--learned a bit from Adrienne about how to pick wines, it seems. We finished with delicious desserts and amari--chocolate mouse with rice gelato and hazelnuts for me, accompanied by a spicy and accessible amaro (I'd never seen it before--riserva something?), creme brulee and pistacchio rum raisin gelato for Shawn, with a miele (honey) amaro that was sweet and had the loveliest smell ever. So, all in all, a very good dinner--and the line outside the restaurant when we left was very long, so it is clearly a popular place. Cristina says that she rides by it every night on her way home, and there are lines outside even after midnight.

At La Scaletta, the party was in full sway when we returned; we sat up a bit reading--well, I did, but Shawn passed out pretty early on--his turn to be completely wiped out.

Saturday, May 17, 2014

Giardino Boboli

Today we slept in a little; we are both enjoying our trip, but the constant motion is perhaps taking a bit of a toll. We lingered over our breakfast and decided to visit Boboli Gardens today, as it is a lovely cool day, the gardens are close, and we both wanted a bit of the natural world as a counter to the art and architecture we have been enjoying. 

First we headed to the Sapori e Dintorni Conad supermercato on Via de Bardi for acqua and ambrosoli miele candies. At the garden, we walked down to the limonaia, which we could not enter this time—a real pity, as the garden is full of lemon trees bearing fruit, as well as peonies and roses. Peonies were in bloom everywhere, seas of pink and white—it was beautiful. 

Next we meandered to the Isolotto; again, full of peonies, roses and lemon trees, spectacular in the sunshine. We sat and watched a crane fishing in the pond; lovely, peaceful and quiet, even though there were many people enjoying the garden. We walked back up the far side of the garden and took a slight circuitous route (because of bits closed off for work) to the Museo delle Porcellane, not because we wanted to look at porcelain, but because it sits high on the hill at the back of the garden and commands views of the surrounding countryside. Again, phenomenal gardens there filled with roses and peonies.

From there we drifted over to the Kaffeehaus and again admired the views toward Florence. We walked down the grand stairs in the amphitheater (this time, please note, we were smart enough NOT to walk UP them, which we did on our first visit). On the way out, we looked at the spectacular rose gardens, full of both roses and peonies (sensing a theme?). 

On the way back to La Scaletta, we looked at the work of the street artists who set up at Palazzo Pitti and found a couple of watercolors for my mother. At the hotel, we ate insalata caprese and drank Negronis (and Nancy had another chocolate flan, this time with fragola gelato as an accompaniment!) and advised a travel writer from Minnesota about what to see, as she was only in Florence for a short time.

We went back to the room for a bit, where Shawn had a shower and I rubbed down his lower back, which was spasming. While Shawn napped, I caught up this journal and read; lovely as our trip has been, it is feeling good to have these periods of little motion over the last couple of days. We will try again for dinner at Il SantoBevitore this evening.... Il Santo Bevitore was full up this evening when Cristina called; she made us a reservation for 8 PM there tomorrow night, so we'll see if it lives up to its reputation as a hip spot with good food.


I hit a wall this evening, just exhausted before we even started to think about what else to do for dinner, so we looked a bit at Trip Advisor, but then just headed out toward Via dei Bardi to see what options looked good. Shawn had read about Ristorante Alfredo Sull'Arno on Trip Advisor; I was so tired that I had hardly looked—and, to be honest, and somewhat surprisingly for me, I was tired of looking, too. I'm actually about ready to stop choosing restaurants and be able to just make something when I'm hungry. I definitely want an apartment the next time we do this, so that sometimes we can have meals at home. 

Anyway, we tried Ristorante Alfredo Sull'Arno; the view of the Arno and the Uffizi was lovely, as it was just fading to dusk. Our table was a bit cramped; tables here seemed closer together than elsewhere. I had a  potato gnocchi with pesto and cherry tomatoes that was quite good; I don't remember what pasta Shawn had. We both had a plate of grilled vegetables for secondo, as the restaurant did not have the grilled mushrooms that Shawn tried to order. The vegetables were OK, but as we had just had grilled vegetables at La Reggia degli Etruschi as contorno, they simply did not compare. These tasted as though they had been grilled quite some time before, and the olive oil didn't have that lovely peppery finish that the truly good stuff has. We skipped dessert and went back to the hotel for an early night; I passed out pretty quickly.

Friday, May 16, 2014

Galleria dell Accademia, Roman Amphitheatre, 27 Years of Marriage Celebrated

Because we had reserved tickets to see the David, which we inexcusably missed on the last trip—our first—to Florence, we were up fairly early. We had the usual breakfast at La Scaletta, and then a long (for Florence) walk through not crowded streets to the already very crowded Galleria dell'Accademia. We were very, very glad to have made reservations, as otherwise we would have had quite the wait; the line was already more than a block long. In and to the left, and one can see the David.

Because I had read about its dimensions, it was less surprising to me than to Shawn, who had expected it to be smaller. It is lovely; the detail of each muscle and bone are very convincing, though we both thought the hands and feet and calves quite large compared to the rest of the form. Still, I suppose that David is supposed to be a boy, so perhaps this is not inappropriate. The crowds were at least respectful, so we were able to completely walk around the statue, examining it from each side. At a respectful distance, we agreed that though it is clearly a masterwork, it is one of those things that has been so hyped that it can hardly fail to disappoint, just a little. Still, I know that we are both glad to have finally seen the original, having only seen the replicas at Piazza della Signoria and Piazzelle Michelangelo.

It was quite interesting to see the other Michelangelo works in the same corridor at Galleria dell'Accademia. We also looked at some plaster models for 18th and 19th century sculptures and some photographs of Michaelangelo's works, meta art, if you will. But we agreed that we had perhaps had enough of the crowds, and the incessant and insipid conversation to be overheard in these must-see tourist spots. We have found that we prefer wandering churches and admiring architecture on our own to walking through many museums. The curated experience is, oddly, not as compelling as the one intended to inspire spirituality or even just to impress. And, I think, there's a great deal to be said for being left to oneself to just experience things, rather than having the guided, shaped experience.

After the Galleria dell Accademia, we walked to Piazza San Marco and purchased tickets for the Number 7 bus to Fiesole. We waited only 10 minutes or so, and then had a ride up, on a bus without many passengers. We were actually asked to show our tickets, and the gentleman checking them seemed pleasantly surprised that we had actually stamped them without having to be instructed to do so. (Later, I was really glad that we had done so; I knew that one could be fined for failing to stamp a ticket, but I didn't know at the time that the fine was at least €50.)

In Fiesole, we first wandered up to the little church on the main square and revisited it; it is old and quiet and perhaps unremarkable, but it was cool and pleasant and empty. From there, we figured out where the Roman amphitheater is; we decided, as it was noon, that we would first walk up to La Reggia degli Etruschi for lunch. Once there, we sat on the terrace in the sunlight and enjoyed that remarkable view. We each started with a sformatina, Shawn's with funghi and mine with zucchini and pomodoro. Then I enjoyed mezzaluna with ricotta and pear filling, covered with cheese sauce and poppyseeds. Shawn had risotto with funghi. We shared some grilled vegetables (zucchini and melanzane), dressed with olive oil. We enjoyed a bottle of Vernacchia, to which I think we have both grown attached. For dessert, I wanted the millefoglie con fragole, but it was finished for the day, so I settled for cantucchini con vin santo, and Shawn had panna cotta with wild berries--and una duppio espresso, which is becoming his Italian standard. 

He decided to buy lunch for a young couple who turned out to be from North London, because he heard them discussing what they could afford to have; he remembers how difficult the early years were for us, and wanted to let them have the money to spend on something else for their vacation.  (And this, of course, is part of why he is so easy to love.) The waiter blew Shawn's cover, though, and Hayley, the young woman, was most thankful, and wanted us to stay and have a coffee with them. Her husband, who did not introduce himself, and only reluctantly shook hands, seemed affronted by the gesture; we both hope that he get over it, and remember one day to do the same himself. He may have been a bit placated when we explained that we were celebrating our 27th anniversary and just wanted to share the good fortune.

We then walked up to the turnaround above the restaurant and admired the views of Florence. The day was more overcast than on our last visit, but it was still beautiful. We walked up to the monastery, visiting the church and the choir room in the missionary's museum, a room with beautiful medieval frescoes and the most perfect acoustics I've ever encountered. We lingered in the abbot's cloister, admiring the roses and the koi pond; it is such a lovely little spot that it brought tears to my eyes. I remember it as a little surprise from our last trip, one that I especially appreciated for its quiet and beauty.

Back down to the Roman amphitheater, which is built on a site that already contained an Etruscan altar and other buildings. The amphitheater is still usable, and is used for summer concerts; they must be lovely, as it is a fairly intimate space, with beautiful views of the countryside. In the old days, one could first have gone for a bath and then ambled over for a performance. We ran into an older couple from London, Ontario there, she walking with a cane, but both of them joyful at being there. These are the North Americans one wants to meet in Italy.

We caught the 5 o'clock bus back to Florence, and Shawn got stuck talking to a guy from New Hampshire who did graciously give me his seat, but then wanted to talk about work. Most of us Americans don't appear to know how to talk about anything else. Still, he and his wife were nice, in a status-conscious, excessively-proud-of-how-hard-working-we-are American kind of way.

Back in Florence, we walked back through crazy crowds to La Scaletta, arriving tired and hot. When we got to our room, we found a cake and a bottle of spumante with a happy anniversary note! It turned out that the spumante was from the hotel, but Cristina and her mother had made the small Sacher torte for us; I nearly cried. Here is this Romanian girl who really barely knows us, but she spent some of her limited time off making us a cake for our anniversary. Just when I become disgusted with humanity in general, some specific human being reminds me how kind we can be. She is a very sweet girl. 

After thanking her, we enjoyed our cake and bubbly and relaxed a bit. Then we went up top for drinks; I tried the hotel's Negroni (ala Dino), which is very, very good—and larger than those I've had in the states. Shawn enjoyed an amaro, as the Montenegro was back in stock.

We decided to just walk down to Trattoria La Galleria, as we were both very tired. Our first waiter seemed to be phoning it in, but we managed to get a piccolo bottiglia of Antinori Chianti, about which we had heard good things. It was very, very good--but so is most wine here. I had some ricotta and spinaci ravioli with a butter and sage sauce, which was delicious. Shawn enjoyed potato gnocchi in pomodoro sauce and a side of cannellini with olive oil, as this is the city of bean eaters. For dessert, we shared another panna cotta with berries; I managed to decorate my face and dress with the berry sauce—can't take me anywhere. (And don't forget the duppio espresso.) Shawn talked with the owner about the photo at the register of this whole area of Via Guicciardini, which was hit hard during WWII. The Germans occupied the city until the Americans advanced on it in, I believe, 1944; on their way out, the Germans used munitions to blow up most of the bridges across the Arno to slow the Americans down. The Ponte Vecchio was spared by a German commander who could not bring himself to destroy it, but the next bridge west, Santa Trinita, was later rebuilt to look as it had before the war. Having spared the Ponte Vecchio, though, he used munitions to destroy the streets leading to the bridge, meaning that much of this area was painfully reconstructed after the Germans left and the war ended. 

Thursday, May 15, 2014

Lazy-ish Day, Mercato Nuovo and the Plant Market

We started the day again with the breakfast buffet at La Scaletta; though we love the staff here, we are beginning to think that having an apartment next time would be lovely. For one thing, we wouldn't have to share our breakfast time with others. So many clearly cannot read the signs about carrying one's tray back down off the terrace (to keep the pigeons under control, because they are quite brazen about helping themselves to leftovers.) Many also seem to want to force America down the throats of everyone they meet—there are many who keep insisting that things be done exactly as if they were at home.

After breakfast, we headed out to wander through Oltrarno, looking in at workshops and shop windows. After yesterday's organized tour, we wanted a less structured day and time in the becoming-familiar environs of Firenze. We discovered a plant and flower market near the Art Viva offices, along Via Pellicceria, in front of the main post office, I think. Row after row of lovely plants and flowers; I wanted again to have my own apartment with its own terrace that we could fill with the lovelies we were seeing.
The flower and plant market, photo by Shawn

The flower and plant market, mark II, photo by Shawn

After a bit, we went to Mercato Nuovo, where Shawn bought another gift.

Mercato Nuovo, from http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/8/8f/Firenze-mercato.jpg

The boar at Mercato Nuovo, photo by Shawn
Then we went to the leather shop associated with a stall at the market that we especially liked. Many of the vendors in Mercato Nuovo also have separate stores, and if you show interest in the more limited selection at the market, will direct you to the main business. Florence is wonderful in that it is a city of nearly half a million people, but it operates in many ways like a small town. Everyone seems to know everyone, and everyone will helpfully suggest where you should eat or shop.

Again, we wandered some more, and then came back to the hotel for a quiet afternoon of reading and relaxing, after the hectic day yesterday. We finished our Vernacchia from Tenute Niccolai, as well as the wonderful cheese, grapes, strawberries and cookies that we purchased at the "supermarket" the other day and enjoyed the view from our wonderful room.
A mystery tower to our left, photo by Shawn

Fort Belvedere and the Tea House, photo by Shawn, in the late day light from #21 at La Scaletta

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Art Viva—San Gimignano, Monteriggioni, Siena

We were up early and off without breakfast, as we needed to be at the Art Viva offices no later than 8:15 AM for our tour. As is not unusual in Florence, we walked around the building housing Art Viva a couple of times before we found the entrance to get to the second floor office of Art Viva; most businesses don't have really large signs at the street, which can make finding them difficult, but does make for a lovelier city. We were early enough that we checked in for the Best of Tuscany Tour tour, and then nipped back out and around the corner, to grab a quick cappuccino before popping back to board the small bus.

Most of our fellow tour-takers were North Americans, most from the States, though there were several Canadians, too. It was a full group; this particular tour accepts up to 18 people. Our tour guide was Adrienne, a young Austrian-Italian woman, and we had a bus driver who only spoke Italian, and who I believe was named Fabrizio; my Italian wasn't good enough to converse with him.

The traffic getting out of Florence was pretty much bumper-to-bumper, an aspect of the city that you get to miss entirely if you stay mostly in Centro Storico, as we did on our last trip. Even in some of the closest outlying areas, if you are walking, you don't really notice the traffic. But it took 40 minutes just to get out of Florence, and on the road to San Gimignano. It was a lovely, slightly cooler, but sunny day, perfect to be starting out on a tour to see the Tuscan countryside and explore three medieval cities. On the way, Adrienne told us about our itinerary for the day, and then about the countryside through which we were passing. She spoke about the history of both the provinces of Tuscany and Siena and their longstanding rivalry. She described the different levels denominazione di origine controllata, the controlled designation of origin, that rules wine and cheese making in Italy.  

San Gimignano

We could only glimpse San Gimignano imperfectly as we arrived. Since it is a medieval city, the streets are not really sized for motor vehicles, and like many historic areas of Italy, mostly you cannot drive within the city itself. So the bus parked and we walked into town, and on the way, began to fall in love with it and the surrounding countryside. Tuscany is every bit as beautiful as you've heard, and the sunshine really is unlike that anywhere else we have ever been.

The view of the countryside seen as we walked into San Gimignano, photo by Shawn

Porta San Giovanni, San Gimignano, photo by Shawn (See what I mean about that blue sky?)
San Gimignano is a walled city, known as the Medieval Manhattan, because of its many tall towers. Only 13 of the original 72 remain, but they still make for an impressive view, especially from a distance, as we would eventually see. The city is almost entirely built of red sandstone, and in the early morning light, it was absolutely lovely and cool. As a group, we walked the Via San Giovanni to the Piazza della Cisterna, in the center of town.The walk takes you down a street that is filled with shops targeting the tourists, but as they are in these lovely medieval buildings and offer mostly handmade artisanal pieces—San Gimignano is known for its pottery—it's not like being in an American tourist trap like Gatlinburg.

I can't mention a piazza with a cisterna and not show it to you, right? (photo by Shawn)
San Gimignano's Piazza del Duomo is just around the corner.

San Gimignano's Duomo, photo by Shawn. One regret is that we didn't have time to get inside...
We only had about an hour in San Gimignano, but it was long enough for us to decide that we could happily spend a week or two exploring it more fully—we loved it. Once we were on our own, we skipped the famous gelato, as there was a line, and instead walked up to the Rocca di Montestaffoli, a fortress built by the Florentines in 1353, when Florence took San Gimignano under its protection, ostensibly to prevent Siena from seizing it. Adrienne had suggested that the views of the countryside from the fortress were lovely...

View of countryside from Rocca di Montestaffoli, photo by Shawn
We wandered back through the quiet, tiny residential streets and imagined what it would be like to stay there for several days.

A lovely quiet corner, photo by Shawn

We thought we might feel right at home... (photo by Shawn)
That's a street, lined with homes... (photo by Shawn)
Several of the famed towers, photo by Shawn
We wandered back down to the Via San Giovanni, to Leoncini, the pottery shop that Adrienne had recommended as we walked in. All of the pottery is handmade and hand-painted by local artisans, some with unbelievably intricate designs. After some dithering on my part (which pattern do I like the best?), we bought a lovely, transportable plate, in the pattern they describe as "'cafaggiolo blu' coat of arms with florentine lily." We also learned that their wares can be purchased online, and the online prices include shipping costs. It turns out that buying while one is there is a considerable bargain, though I did have some anxiety about getting that plate home.

Next we got back on the bus for a short ride to winery, where we were to have a tour and some lunch. Along the way, we made a quick stop to look back at San Gimignano.

San Gimignano from a scenic overlook, photo by Shawn

Tenuta Niccolai Palagetto Winery

Our next stop was the Tenuta Niccolai Palagetto winery, owned by Sabrina Niccolai, a woman just a few years younger than we are. (I'm a technical writer, she inherited her father's winery. At least I get to drink the wine.) We were given tour of some of the vineyard, as well as the wine-making facilities by an Englishwoman who said she had been in Italy for about 20 years.
Before the wine is put into barrels or bottles, it goes here (photo from  http://www.agriturismoniccolai.it/torrepalagetto/en/agriturismo_farm_wine_cellar.php)
After our tour, we were served a lovely 'light' lunch: pasta in a simple tomato sauce, followed by a plate of pecorino cheeses of various ages, accompanied by sliced pears, pear jam, a lovely tomato and cheese sandwich on a brioche (croissant) flavored with fennel, and bruschetta with olive tapenade or chopped tomato. We sat near Adrienne, and learned that she was the other participant who had requested a vegetarian meal; she seemed quite happy to find that she wasn't the only one, and to learn that we have been vegetarian since the early 1990s (which is probably about when she was born). We liked Adrienne very much. We learned that she had studied art history, worked for an auction house, and there learned about wine.

With our meal (made for us as a nice perk, since they do not have a restaurant), we were served 'samples' of the winery's Vernacchia, a white wine made only in the vicinity of San Gimignano, as well as their Chianti and Chianti Riserva. In Italy, a sample is a glass; in this, as in so much, they get it right. Bottles of the Vernacchia and Chianti Riserva came home from the tour with us, as did a small container of the olive oil made on the estate. (The Vernacchia did not make it out of Italy...)

Monteriggioni

Next we went to Monteriggioni, which was quite different than in Assassin's Creed II. (Lest you think we only know about it from a video game, it also gets a mention in Inferno). The real-life village is even smaller than in the game, so small that when you stand in the Piazza Roma, the central piazza, you can easily see both the Porta Romana and the Porta Fiorentina. We parked outside the village again, since there is very limited motor traffic inside, and walked up a steep path to Porta Romana to enter the village, which is perhaps the most perfectly preserved medieval walled city in all of Italy.

Porta Romana, Monteriggioni (photo by Shawn)

Monteriggioni-panorama1.jpg
Monteriggioni
(from "Monteriggioni-panorama1" by Vignaccia76 - Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.)
We had only 20 minutes to look about. We climbed the walls (well, modern metal stairs, as they are working to restore the original access) to look at the countryside and back over the village.

The view across Monteriggioni from atop the walls (photo by Shawn)
A section of the walls at Monteriggioni, photo by Shawn
The church on Piazza Roma, looking very much as it does in the game (photo by Shawn)
A quiet Montereggioni street, photo by Shawn
When we climbed down, we looked in a handweaver's shop with many lovely things; I wish that I had purchased something, but we had so little time there.

Siena

We headed off to Siena, furthest in distance and feeling from Florence of all places visited today. On the way, Adrienne told us about the contrade of Siena, city wards that each have their own distinct identities, strict boundaries and their own animal or mascot. Each contrada competes with the others in the twice annual Palio.

Siena (photo from http://www.thereareplaces.com/newguidebook/images/pgpx2/it/siena5.jpg)
Siena is a much, much larger walled medieval city than either Monteriggioni or San Gimignano. We parked outside the fortress, and had a long walk into the city, to the Piazza del Campo, where the Palio di Siena, the famous medieval horse race is held twice a year.

Piazza del Campo (photo from "Siena5" by Ricardo AndrĂ© Frantz (User:Tetraktys) - Own work. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons - http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Siena5.jpg#mediaviewer/File:Siena5.jpg)
Because of the delays in travel, we really only had about 20 minutes to look about in Siena, which was a major disappointment. We only had a quick look at the outside of the fantastical Duomo di Siena, the inside of which we'd really love to see.
Duomo di Siena, photo by Shawn
The city buildings feel very tall and the streets very narrow after Florence; it definitely isn't as inviting as Florence. We did see several markers for the different contradas, but didn't get to try any panforte at the source. On our way back out to the bus, Shawn and I were able to poke our heads into the Basilica of San Domenico aka Basilica Cateriniana, and see the lovely stained glass windows, as well as the preserved head of St. Catherine of Siena, which was a bit gruesome.
Basilica of San Domenico
(photo from "San Domenico Siena Apr 2008 (10)" by Gryffindor - Own work. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0 via Wikimedia Commons - http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:San_Domenico_Siena_Apr_2008_(10).JPG#mediaviewer/File:San_Domenico_Siena_Apr_2008_(10).JPG)
On the way back into Florence, Adrienne pointed out the American cemetery from WWI and WWII, which is a bit south and west of Florence. We drove back in on Via Maggio and could see the Porta Romana (the Florentine one, not the one in Monteriggioni).

Once back in Florence, we walked the couple from Tennessee from our tour, down to Gabriella Zolfanelli's leather shop, as I had told several of the women on the tour about the shop, as a lovely small place to buy quality leather goods at reasonable prices. (We discovered the shop on our last trip and had already been back on this one.) We also showed Tennessee where to turn to get to Trattoria 4 Leone, as Adrienne had recommended it to them for dinner. It's right across from Caffe degli Artigiani, a student place we had eaten in 2012. When we arrived at Zolfanelli's, Jason and Jennifer, the couple from Texas who had also been on our tour were already there, shopping. So we hope that we helped Gabriella and her sons have a good week for sales! Outside the shop, we ran into Adrienne, on her way home. She recommended Il SantoBevitore, on Via Santo Spirito, to us for dinner, saying it was a great place to try wine with good food accompaniments. We weren't able to get in this evening, but will try again later, as it looked a cool kind of place, and was filled with locals. Adrienne also told us to get in touch with her if we came back to Florence; I think that she appreciated our enthusiasm for wine, food and embracing the moment. In Italy, live la dolce vita, else why come?

We walked the couple of blocks back to La Scaletta and had a grappa (or two, for Shawn) on the terrace. Shawn sent another American couple from California up top, in part to hear their exclamations; that view is always a stunner for those who have not yet seen it. After failing to get in at Il Santo Bevitore, we walked to Trattoria da Ginone for dinner. We were recognized by the older gentleman who has served us in 2012 and the other day at lunch and were given 'our' table in the back. The Pici con le Briciole was delicious, as was Shawn's pasta with 'nduja sauce (which we later discovered included a very creamy and spicy sausage—so much for the assurance that it was all vegetables). Our secondi were not as good. Shawn's parmigiana melanzane was a bit overcooked, and my stuffed vegetables were so stuffed that the stuffing overwhelmed the vegetables, though the accompanying grilled scamorza was very good. I could not finish it, though Shawn could and did. We enjoyed a half liter of the house red, and then Shawn had an espresso. The house bought us each one of their amaro and our waiter gave us a bag of cantucchini to take away, too.

We walked back to La Scaletta, very tired and perhaps a little drunk, but it was a lovely cool evening with many people out walking. Piazza Santo Spirito was full of people enjoying the day as we walked to dinner, and the evening as we walked home. Firenze is welcoming in a way that most cities are not; when you see people on the street, they do not look through you. It's easy to feel a part of things here. But perhaps that's in part because so many of those in Florence, even those who live here, are really from some place else.

It was a really wonderful day.

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Palazzo Pitti and Planning

Breakfast at La Scaletta again; Larissa made us caffè americano, rather than making us drink the coffee from the automatic maker—much, much better! That, with brioche (what we'd call croissant), soft, brie-like cheese, Tuscan bread, tomatoes and fresh fruit makes for a filling, if somewhat unusual breakfast.

Because it was supposed to rain, we decided to walk to Palazzo Pitti which is less than 5 minutes from La Scaletta, to tour the museums, which we skipped in favor of Boboli Gardens on our last visit. We saw the Galleria d'arte moderna  and Galleria Palatina, as well as the royal apartments.
Palazzo Pitti from the Boboli Gardens side, photo by Shawn September 2012
A Boldoni in the Gallery of Modern Art at Palazzo Pitti — I've become a fan
(from http://www.firenzemadeintuscany.com/media/1703796-boldini-ZXKJE81K.jpg)
Royal Apartments at Palazzo Pitti (from http://mikestravelguide.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/06/Palazzo-Pitti-Royal-Apartments-2-800x533.jpg)
A room in the Palatine Gallery, Palazzo Pitti (from http://www.wga.hu/art/p/pietro/cortona/1/pitti02.jpg)
From the Gallery of Modern Art, Palazzo Pitti (from http://www.initaly.com/regions/aletto.jpg)
Much of the palace was remodeled in the 18th and 19th centuries, so it feels much newer and not much like the rest of Florence. The modern art was of much finer quality than the other collections seemed to be, and little of it on the level of the art in the Uffizi, which we spent one day in when we were here in September 2012; it's the kind of museum that would take years to see properly, as it is so easy to overload. (See Stendahl Syndrome.) We are glad to have seen the galleries and the apartments, but unlike most of what we have seen in Florence, we agreed that we would probably not go again to visit any of them. It was very warm in all of the galleries, and my non-existent allergies were really acting up and making me miserable, so I'm sure that somewhat affected my impressions, but I really do prefer the medieval and Renaissance to the 18th century especially.

We walked back and had lunch at Trattoria La Galleria, just down from the hotel, toward the Ponte Vecchio, and tucked back into an alleyway.
Trattoria La Galleria (photo from http://www.ristorantelagalleria.it/Filtrate/26.jpg)
I think I'm getting spoiled; the asparagi was slightly overcooked though accompanied by a delicious smoked scamorza (for an appetizer). However, the risotto alla funghi and Shawn's pasta were very good. (We had considered eating insalatta caprese at La Scaletta again, but found that they had closed the restaurant for lunch, in expectation of the rain that never came.)

We were tired after the morning of touring galleries and the last several days, so we spent some time planning to be sure to get in some of the things we wanted to do before we leave. We read some tour brochures, looking for a broader, one-day Tuscany tour that would get us out into the countryside this time, and especially to Monterriggioni. I found us an Art Viva tour that takes small groups to San Gimignano, Monterriggioni and Siena, and also includes a winery tour and lunch. With Cristina's help, Shawn made us tour reservations for tomorrow and reserved us tickets for the Galleria Accademia on Friday morning at 9:45—I've been ashamed to admit that we did not see the David the last time we visited Florence, so this time, we'll make sure that doesn't happen again.

We turned in a bit early, as we will have to be at the tour office by 8:15 AM, and we'll be walking to get there.

Monday, May 12, 2014

Mercato Nuovo, Piazzele Michelangelo, San Miniato al Monte

We got up a bit late, but still managed breakfast on the terrace, getting there at about 9:30 AM. Today, we decided to start at Mercato Nuovo, so that we could rub the snout of Porcellino, which is supposed to ensure one's return to Florence. (I suspect that it is not as effective as having a good salary and no children to pay for, but I'm willing to indulge in a little superstition and shopping.)

Porcellino, photo by Shawn
After scoping the market, I purchased a washed leather bag, and a beautiful blue silk scarf with large, stylized, watercolor flowers. There may be other scarves and bags there calling my name, and I think Shawn may want to try on a water buffalo leather jacket for size...

We went back to the hotel to drop off our purchases, and then back to Toscanella Osteria for lunch as we've decided to try not to wait until late in the day to eat; makes for grumpy Hales when we do that. Today, I enjoyed the pappa al pomodoro that was already gone when I asked for it last night, and for Shawn, penne (be sure to pronounce both of those n's, or you are ordering something quite different) with Carrettiera sauce, a 'mildly spiced tomato sauce with fresh parsley.' We shared a half carafe of the house rossa, a 2011 Sangiovese, and very good, as well as the ubiquitous Tuscan bread, crusty and salt free (I could eat it forever).

After lunch, on to Piazzele Michelangelo, as many things are closed on Monday, but the view is always open. Today, we agreed, was the perfect sort of day for walking; it never got warmer than about 75 degrees Fahrenheit and there was a lovely breeze all day. We walked down Via dei Bardi to San Niccolo, and then up and up and up long sets of stairs (Florence is all about the climbing—have I mentioned that?), with a brief but lovely garden break in the middle.
A portion of the 'stairs'--you get no sense here of how steep this is... (photo from http://images.everytrail.com/pics/fullsize/3346992-IMG_1992.jpg)
The garden, the name of which neither of us could find, was filled with roses and peonies (it smelled so good!), and offered pretty spectacular views of Florence; all of the morning clouds had cleared away, and that sky was that glorious cerulean blue seen so often here—and so rarely in Michigan.

To the south, a fairly large section of the 14th century city wall is still visible. 

A asction of the 14th-century city walls, and roses, photo by Nancy
A clearer shot of the wall, photo by Shawn
The Duomo dominates, as it does in every view of Florence.

Duomo, Campanile, Arno, photo by Shawn
The Arno is more prominent than in views from other directions, muddy now in the spring, but full this year.

Ponte Vecchio and the Arno, photo by Shawn
We agreed that the view from Bellosguardo is perhaps better, as one sees the facades of most of the landmarks: Pitti Palace is huge and clear there, and one sees the fronts of Santa Maria Novella, Santa Spirito, Santa Croce, the Duomo, and Palazzo Vecchio. But the city is lovely from every angle, and I’m glad to be able to compare it from each one.

On up more stairs and on to the water closets, as lunch and too many stairs makes one need them. At least they were clean, as we had to pay a Euro each to use them.

Back then to the Piazzele,  FULL of tourists from everywhere on the planet. Again, a very large space from which to view Florence, and one easy to get to by bus, with ample parking, and thus, popular with all of the tours. I was glad that we had eaten in Oltrarno rather than waiting to eat at one of the (I suspect) expensive restaurants nearby, though the views from them might be worth paying a bit more for one’s food.

Shawn at Piazzele Michelangelo, Duomo, Palazzo Vecchio  Santa Croce and the Arno in the background, photo by Nancy

Nancy at Piazzele Michelangoe, Duomo and Campanile in the background, photo by Shawn
After a bit more of the view, we walked again uphill to the Basilica of San Miniato al Monte, a Romanesque church we had seen off in the distance on our last trip and wondered about.

San Miniato al Monte from Giardino di Boboli, near the Museo delle Porcellane, photo by Shawn
The facade is covered in the white and green marble seen throughout Florence, but the church is much older than most, dating to 1018. It is surrounded by the most wonderful cemetery, which to us Americans reminded us of New Orleans' cemeteries, but far more ornate, with a combination of many, many mausoleums, as well as large structures with niches for bodies and doors with inscriptions over the niches (rather like a concrete morgue). It is both a lovely and a vaguely disturbing city of the dead; I kept wondering what it would be like to be there in the dusk, rather than on a brilliant spring afternoon.
A small portion of the cemetery at San Miniato al Monte, photo by Shawn
Inside, the church looks as one has seen Roman buildings represented: huge columns covered in marble, a dim, dim interior, marvelous marble mosaics with pagan overtones on the floors and some walls, faded frescoes on the side walls, and brilliant ones—blue and gold and primitive, after looking at the rich variety of color, depth and perspective of so much Renaissance art--over the choir above, and in the sacristy.
San Miniato al Monte, Interior (photo from http://www.tuscany-by-divino.com/media/flor-san%20miniato.jpg)
Crypt, San Miniato al Monte (photo from https://c2.staticflickr.com/8/7088/7251910946_ddf7196ca9_z.jpg)
Aretino Fresco, San Miniato al Monte (photo from http://rolfgross.dreamhosters.com/Tuscany-GE/Spinello/Spinello-Arentino-Life-SBenedict-sacristySMiniato-Florence-1387.jpg)
We briefly visited the farmacia, where one could purchase gelato, honey, beeswax candles, pottery and oils prepared by the Benedictine brothers. We stayed until 5:30 PM to hear the brothers chant very briefly in the crypt; the building has lovely acoustics, and I couldn't help but feeling that priests speaking there must feel especially powerful as they hear hearing their voices swell in that space.

Once again, lovely views from in front of the church; we had approached from the left as one faces the church, walking up through green space and past a memorial ground for Red Cross volunteers in WWI and WWII, so we did not use the huge flights of stairs that lead to the 'gate of heaven' until we descended, which considering who we are, is perhaps appropriate. I was very glad to have seen both the views and the church; Italian churches do make me feel spiritual, if only because of the awe they inspire at what we humans can create when we feel moved.

Stairs up to front of San Miniato al Monte (photo from http://static.panoramio.com/photos/large/62678451.jpg)
The way back from the Piazzele seemed much shorter to both of us, though Oltrarno was filled with those on passegietta, so the walking was more difficult. We stopped at a supermarket on Via dei Bardi and loaded up on goodies to make a picnic in our room: strawberries, grapes, Taleggio, Toma from Piemonte, good Tuscan bread, Santa Cristina Toscana 2013, Vernaccio di San Gimignano, marinated olives, and fiocchi sfogliatelle, wonderful little twisted cookies that are a bit like a pinwheel in flavor, but much less sugary.
Fiocchi sfogliatelle (photo from http://www.matcompaniet.no/images/kaker/Fiocchi2.jpg)
After fighting our way back to La Scaletta through the crowds, we very much enjoyed our solitary picnic, with the doors and shutters thrown wide and our view of Fort Belvedere and the Kaffeehaus to soak in. It is nice to have an evening in, but to still feel very much in the heart of Florence and Tuscany.

Sunday, May 11, 2014

Mercato Centrale, Basilica di San Lorenzo

Up by 8:00 AM today, so that we were able to breakfast on the lower terrace at La Scaletta. It looked as though it might rain, so we grabbed our coats and headed in the general direction of Basilica di San Lorenzo, which wasn't to open until 1:30 PM, but as we were still a bit sore, we thought meandering slowly in that direction would be a good idea.

 We decided to cross at Ponte Santa Trinita, to avoid the crush at Ponte Vecchio. We walked up Via Tornobuoni ,and then to Santa Maria Novella, which we admired from outside. From there, we walked to Mercato Centrale and walked through the outdoor market first.

Outdoor market at Mercato Centrale (photo from http://media.tumblr.com/tumblr_lp8yxsL9lD1qkuzsy.jpg) 
(It was far more crowded than shown here, already wall-to-wall people at about 10:30 AM.)The exterior of the market is lovely, but doesn’t say ‘market.’
"Mercato centrale di firenze 11" by sailko - Own work (my camera). Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons - http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Mercato_centrale_di_firenze_11.JPG#mediaviewer/File:Mercato_centrale_di_firenze_11.JPG
Then we went inside, where the market's upper floor is now a kind of very upscale food court, one of the Eataly locations, with tables everywhere so that you could eat from the many mini-restaurants that make up the main part of the businesses included. There was also a shop with cookbooks, and one with soccer souvenirs. We noticed a shop selling takeaway fresh pastas and sauces, which looked wonderful; an easy option if we were ever to do an apartment rather than a hotel in Florence. We stopped for a drink at the birreria; Shawn tried a Moretti Rossa, which was very, very good, and I had a middling glass of white wine. Then we tried Piatti Vegetariani from OrtoFrutta. The dish was supposed to be a Burger Vegetariani, but there was a very small potato and lentil patty accompanied by some very good lentils, two potato fries and a lot of cooked spinach, which was, at least, prepared very well. We also bought some chocolate, as well as some honey and violet candies. We were tempted by some pistachio spread and some of the truffle pastes, as they looked delicious, but might get them at Enoteca Alessi, which is a bit less touristy.

We then walked to Basilica di San Lorenzo and toured the church and museum storing the treasures of San Lorenzo, silver reliquaries, crosses and other religious trappings. Beautiful workmanship, but no pictures allowed. We saw the tomb of Cosimo I, Lorenzo's grandfather, in a great pillar holding up the church—no symbolism there at all....

The church itself, designed by Brunelleschi, is one of the plainest in Florence,. The exterior is simple stone.
Basilica di San Lorenzo, photo by Shawn, September 2012
The interior is  all gray (serena) sandstone, white plaster, and gray and white marble, with accents of gold, but lovely in proportion and lightness.
Interior, Basilica di San Lorenzo (photo from http://www.trekearth.com/gallery/Europe/Italy/Tuscany/Florence/Florence/photo783826.htm)
The church tickets also give one access to the iPad tour, which was nice as a way to learn more about some of the aspects of the building and the pieces of art within, but also distracting from the sheer beauty and majesty of it. I prefer just to walk through and look, after having read about the buildings and art within. San Lorenzo may have the most lovely sacristy I have ever seen.

We will need to return to visit the Medici Chapel and the crypt, as they were closed today. (Again, we didn’t make it on this trip, so I guess we will just have to go back.)

We next walked to Piazza Santissima Annunziata, where the Ospedale degli Innocenti is completely covered in covered scaffolding, as it is being restored. Florence wants you to return, many, many times, and it will do whatever it takes to make that happen. Still, we sat and rested our weary calves and enjoyed the breeze, so it wasn't an entirely wasted journey.

To return to La Scaletta, we walked to the back of the Duomo, and then along its south side. We braved Ponte Vecchio, which was as crowded as we have seen it. And now we are resting, though one of us more so than the other....

For dinner, we went out to Toscanella Osteria, a restaurant recommended by many on Trip Advisor. And, in this case, the many were right on the money.

<strong>Benvenuti</strong>
Toscanella Osteria (photo from http://www.toscanellaosteria.com/gallery/1/il-ristorante.html)
We started with some lovely grilled thinly sliced vegetables--artichokes, zucchini, eggplant, sundried tomatoes, red peppers--dressed in olive oil, chopped garlic and parsley. Then I tried Carabaccia, a sweet onion soup with chopped almonds, which was wonderful. Shawn had Minestrone, also delicious. Then, because the food was so delicious, I had a Parmagiana di Melanzane, Eggplant Parmesan the way that it is meant to be, with 1/4 inch thick slices of eggplant, dipped in a tempura-like batter and fried until soft and golden, wrapped in a mild garlic tomato sauce, with parmigiana. Shawn had the handmade pappardelle with pesto, both of which were the best of either type that we've ever had. We had a lovely Montepulciano wine, a blend with mostly sangiovese grapes. We shared a custard tart topped with apricots and strawberries. Shawn had an espresso duppio (double espresso). We've had no bad food on this trip, but this was probably our very best meal yet.

After dinner, we walked back to La Scaletta. We went up to the terrace for an after-dinner drink of limoncello for Shawn and Montenegro Amaro for me; we’ve really become fans of amaro in general, and Montenegro in particular. I understand that they are really an acquired taste; bitter doesn’t half cover it for some brands.

Cristina joined us; we had asked if we could buy her a drink, as we were pleased to see when we arrived at the hotel that she did remember us as we had remembered her. (She was bartender at the ‘American’ bar at La Scaletta when we were last here. It’s an American bar in the sense that they primarily serve beer, wine and cocktails, rather than an Italian bar, which serves caffe,  plus all of the above and snacks. Cristina would only have a juice drink, though—a Florida, which I remember includes banana juice. We sat and chatted for more than an hour; she is a very nice college student, about 26, who lives in Scandicci, a kind of suburb of Florence  (or, according to Cristina, ‘a country town full of old people’) and who is studying the economics of culture, with the idea of working for an NGO after she earns her degree next year. Her sister worked at La Scaletta before her; apparently, though they are not twins, they look enough alike that guests sometimes mistook one for the other. We heard about how long it takes to get to work by bus (2 hours by the only reliable bus she knows) and by bicycle (40 minutes); she prefers the latter, when the weather permits, as it is much faster. We heard that her sister always wanted to do all of the driving, and so Cristina is so out of practice that her friends are a bit afraid to ride with her. She dreams of traveling to the United States once she has graduated, to visit New York City and Washington, D.C. She would like to work abroad, though she loves Florence, and agrees with us that it is magical. Perhaps I'm jaded, but only someone who has never seen NYC would want to leave Florence to visit it—I’m sorry, nieces, but Florence is my favorite city in the world. But Sara, another hotel employee who we have come to know, visited NYC for a week last year, and told Cristina that you can hail a cab anywhere, and that sounds wonderful to Cristina... (In Florence, you can easily catch a cab at the airport and at the train station, and perhaps at a few other taxi stands, but you cannot just hail one on the street. Doesn’t happen.)

It was very nice to sit and laugh with Cristina, learn a little Italian, teach a little English and Japanese (one of the hotel kitchen staff is from Japan, so Cristina was glad to learn a little bit of his language, so that she could speak to him), and feel vicariously younger ourselves, while simultaneously (at least for me) being glad to no longer be so young. Still, Cristina has her whole life ahead, and is young and full of energy; I have to acknowledge that I’m no longer as energetic as I once was, though I’m glad to be able to afford to do some of the things I want. We wish her only the best. We asked her to let us know what she thinks of NYC and Washington after she visits them; we'll have to be sure to let her know how to contact us.