Villefranche sur Mer

Villefranche sur Mer
it all starts with a beach

Monday, November 17, 2014

Fabulous Florence!!

Florence - Sheer beauty, ravishing, sensuous, glorious! Oh, how I love this city!!
30 Oct - Travel day. I find a bit of apprehension every day I'm doing major travel - the things left behind, 5 warnings in fewer moments at stations to watch out for pick-pocketers, people offering to help with your luggage, etc...but that's another worry...the luggage. I've done six months now with one small suitcase and a backpack. Still when I'm hauling them, it's a 2-Voltaren, hot bath, wish-I-had-a-masseuse day.

The fast train to Florence is quick and easy, with free coffee and snacks, wireless, chargers...and sprawling views of the Italian countryside - where vineyards and solar farms cover the floor beneath hilltown castles and forts. A quick taxi to my hotel on Piazza Santo Spirito lands me on the top floor in a room made for a princess!

I arrive midday at Palazzo Guadagni, where Olivia (Italian) and Atish (Mauritian) show me around to various lounges, a wrap-around terrace, library, dining room, finally vaulting to the top floor where I walk through my personal library into a lovely, light-filled room. It's spacious, with lovely art, and a bathroom (yes, a bath!) bigger than my last apartment. Within minutes I'm sprawled on my king bed, wireless working, looking out over Florence. Ahhhhhh!

After a few hours re-orienting myself to Florence, PiazzaSignoria, and the Piti Palace, I take dinner at a nearby trattoria, where I meet a honeymooning couple from San Francisco and enjoy pasta with squid ink and porcini mushrooms in a spicy Tuscan sauce. The dark chocolate cake/soufflé with a runny white chocolate/blue cheese center is divine! (move over Roy's)

31 Oct - Heading out into the day, I cross two bridges down from Pont Vecchio, winding through back streets to The Tower - Palazzo Vecchio, where I climb 250 steps from the 112 already up. The views are significant! but mostly blocked with ropes...and another guard on his smartphone. I do a little of the museum, note the grad ceremonies, but bore out...into the Piazza Signoria, wandering past a carousel and small shops to the Duomo. Even seeing its enormity from the Tower, it's hard to fathom once I'm there.
Afterward circumnavigating inside and out, I duck in a little side street where the sign outside Sasso di Dante, "life is too short for cheap wine," calls my name. Soon I'm enjoying a beautiful Chianti and gnudi fiorentine ricotta & spinaci al burro salvia & parmigiano. (ricotta/spinach balls in sage butter with parmesan shavings). Mouth-melting. The waitress explains the cover (coperto - table set up only, no water - police denied their permit to serve tap). I miss the free, cold caraffes of delicious tap water in France...and no cover charge.

Shooting street art on the way back from Bardello, which was closed, I drop into St. Mark's, where I notice a sign for Opera tonight - Love Songs...and catch musicians practicing - he's on piano and singing, she fills the space with a voice made for Carmen. It' a 20-minute treat!
Back in my princess' room I edit photos, write a bit, putter about the hotel, then go to Ricci' on the piazza for a most unmemorable meal of pappardelle and wild boar and a piss poor wine. I shoot the Halloween kids around the fountain, then head up for a good movie: Begin Again on Amazon. Buono notte, Florence.

On the Street. Some of the charms of a great city are all the little street scenes - the chess shop, window art, musicians playing for coin. While shooting great art all day...on my way to the original David (not the one on Piazza Signoria), I crossed the Arno and came upon a musician who played hauntingly beautiful sounds so unique I stopped for a long listen. Then walked about 8 miles. Enjoy the streets of Florence.

1 Nov! I sleep like someone enjoying death. Shower, email/fb, then breakfast in a room filled with prisms, rainbows dancing around the room. Atish makes a killer espresso, and the croissant is stuffed with an almond cream.

Attempting to follow my directions to the Accademia Gallery: Walk thru St Spirito Piazza to Pont S. Triniti, via del Tornabuoni, past piazza palazzo, R on dela Rebublica, L of Calinala...Borgo san Lorenzo/P. Medici, R. Via Cavour, R via Degli... I get lost, but the wandering in Florence is so good! I amble  into an Italian food show, then drop by a "Picasso & Spanish Modernity" exhibit at Palazzo Strozzi. The event covers from 1910 to 1963 and features Miro, Dali, Gris, Gonzales, Tapies, and others, along with Picasso. Eventually I arrive at the Accademia, pay E4 to skip the long line (E20 without a press pass). Michelangelo's original David is the main draw...and it's spectacular!

It makes the excellent copy on Piazza Signoria, well...look like a copy. I trip on the sculpture rooms, the Florentine art, the manuscripts (where I'm refused photos because it's the current exhibit). To think that all those stories were written and illustrated by hand. Gorgeous!
I miss a turn and end up at Piazza della Santissima Annunciazziata - where there's an enormous market of handicrafts - from woven yarns and silks to artesian cheese-making, paintings to grains toasted to taste like espresso...hat makers, jewelry and clothing designers, knitted sweaters, so much more. I filled another suitcase in my imagination. Then went on towards Sant Croce, stopping for lunch - piatta del giorno (my only meal of the day): a lovely pasta with pumpkin and ground sausage, grilled chicken with green beans and roasted red & yellow peppers, a nice red, caffé. In a few blocks I'm finally at Sant Croce, with another huge market and the enormous Basilica. No discounts here, got to pay the full E6 price. It was another mile plus home (after about 7-8 miles already), but it was mostly along the river...and eye-searing. On my return 'home' Olivia made me a strong gin & tonic on the terrace, where I enjoyed the setting sun and conversation with a couple from Brussels. Worked til I couldn't...then slept like a baby.

2 Nov - Hiked up to the Piazelle Michelangelo (spectacular views of Florence and the surrounding countryside)...and San Miniato al Monte, then a 6-hr Wine Tour of the Chianti region with Ciao Florence, Massimo & Julio. Met new friends Meg & Francis.
Italy has 20 regions of which Tuscany is one, with Florence (pop 400k) the capitol of Tuscany, and south between Florence and Sienna - Chianti (still part of the region of Tuscany). For a wine to be labeled Chianti, it must contain at least 80% of its sangiovese grapes from the Chianti area, and the rest must also come from Tuscany (merlot, cab sav, syrah, etc). 3 stops:

1. Sant Appiano (tiny hilltown just outside the Black Rooster area). C. Classico, other tuscans, and evoo. French oak adds vanilla and berry notes. Large vats are Italian, for table wine, everyday stuff.
            1. Rosé (not a French one!)
            2. Chianti DOCG 90% sang, 10% merlot...way too young!!!
            3. Chianti Superiore DOCG 100% sang. 9 months in fr. oak...not enough!!
Didn't like any of these wines, but Julio poured me a grappa to get me down the road :-)
2. Panzanello - near Greve. CC and Reserva from Black Rooster area. In the 13thCentury the Chianti League established this area, symbolized by a black rooster in a golden field. Luciano gave us a nice tour of this new winery, completed in 2009. 4 wines: 2 black rooster classicos and 2 super tuscans, 3 agro-tourisme apts. 100k btls/60k cc. 
            1. Chianti Classico - 100% sangiovese grapes. super tuscan (better than best at last place)
            2. Chianti Classico Reserva - 18 mos in french oak, 1 year in btl. 90% sangiovese grapes.
            3. Manuzio - 80% sangiovese/20% harvest, hand-picked in July. 2yrs oak/2yrs btl. Oh YES!!
            4. Vindea - BEST! Wine of the goddess...only 2500 btls. 50% sangiovese, aged 3 years.
3. Greve - tiny village with a triangle square. Tapas and a nice cappuccino with Meg and Francis.

I'm speaking better French now than ever, asking Italians (in French) if they speak French or English, missing the cold caraffes of tap water, the little cookie with espresso, all things French. As I bid aloha to Florence (always a fabulous town), I think I should practice my Italian for a future trip. Then I pick up a copy of Dan Brown's Inferno and re-live my Florence trip all the way home. 

PS. Did I mention my love affair with the Arno River?


Sunday, November 9, 2014



Before heading back, I take a quick trip back to Italy - for the pasta...and so much more. 4 days each in Roma et Firenze. Words can't begin to describe this huge (3.5 million) city - it's sprawling, chaotic, dirty, confusing, disorganizing, frustrating...scenic, historic, beautiful, delicious, and thoroughly enjoyable. I'm at a point where I can't keep up with my here, unedited, are journals and photos from amazing Rome, Italy.

26 Oct - By morning I'm looking for a room (my booking lost), down the street and around the corner to another hotel. I look at the room. It is depressing...and NO wifi. I cross the street where Gigi at the Hotel Borromeo actually offers to help me out, opens his little address book, and starts calling around, finally finding me a cheaper room in a 4-star, right near Via Veneto (La Dolce Vita). A E10 cab drops me at the entrance, and I enter a better world where cherubs dance on the ceilings, and class is written all over. Michele books me right in, I drop everything in the room and head out into my first day in Roma.

After passing the American Embassy (grand, former palace of Queen Margherita, built in 1886), I get down to the metro, which M has instructed me to take to the Vatican. I stop to hire a taxi driver for the day. He wants E200 for 4 hours! Instead I wait 20 minutes for the Hop on - Hop off bus, meeting a couple of women from Israel, here on a little spa holiday while doing some workshops. Then hang with some wonderful Italians from Firenze, finally loading into the last seat on the double-decker (cold, windy), winding my way around Rome, gawking and burning through my camera battery faster than ever. I will return to the Colosseum and Piazza Venetia.

I hop off at the Vatican, too late for the Pope, but not too late for a pass at the National Museum, housed in the former cloister (town) of the popes and bishops in the 6th C., Castel Sant Angelo, with killer views of Rome from the top. Walking through the little streets and squares I get a real feel for how they lived back kings!

I wander into the little tourist office (omg, the French do this sooooo much better!) past street performers and little shops to St. Pete's Square. It is HUGE! with thousands of people cuing up. Instead I ask a tour op to recommend a nice little restaurant, and he takes me around the corner to Satiricus, where Roberto makes an otherwise good lunch fabulous! He was attentive, fun, and incredibly efficient, handling dozens. When I ask if he speaks French or English, he speaks flawlessly in both then says he learned so many languages by working in the restaurant from age 13. He loves his work...and it shows. I enjoy the plat du jour: a fabulous tomato/basil salad with a huge buratta, arugula, nice balsamico. There's some bruschetta, a caraffe of nice red, sparkling water bottle, a deeeeeelicious pasta carbonara, divine panna cotta...and italian espresso. After no dinner the night before...and nothing but coffee all day (and an apple later for dinner), it was perfecto!
It's a long walk home from the last stop, and the internet in the room isn't working, so I take my laptop down to the bar where Mauro pours a little amaretto in my caffé and I hang for an hour or so, catching up.

27 Oct - After a great in-hotel breakfast, I head downhill via different streets, coming around the back of the palatial US Embassy, secured by Italian Army, Italian and Rome Police, and local  Security. At the bus stop I meet two Brazilian gals and we observe a whole street of smart cars, plugged in.  I hop off at the stazione ferroviaria, where I take a ticket then cue up for 45 minutes to buy my Thursday train ticket. In the meantime I enjoy a superb cappuccino and prowl through 2 floors of books at Borri Books - International Bookstore. Restaurants, a Nike store, Armani...

All set, I head downstairs to the Metro, spend E1.50 for a ticket and hop off in 2 stops at...the Colosseum! Built in 80AD to hold 50,000 seats for its spectacular games, today it's Italy's largest tourist attraction, drawing over 5 million per year. It's colossal. Bigger than imagined. Thousands of visitors are lost in it. History slaps you in the face then runs away with your imagination. Takes about 2 hours - one to stand in the line for tickets (hey, it's Italy), one to enjoy this wonder.

I shoot the exterior and the arch, wander a bit, then decide to head towards the Piazza Venezia, but spy a bike, and Rome (yep, mom named him after her favorite city) pedals me over, dropping me at a great little ristorante for ravioli, a nice red, and a break. And a table in the sun. I pace the piazza then head up the memorial, engrossed in the sculptures, the levels, another wait for the toilettes, and finally panoramic views of Rome (half price for seniors) from the top, via el. A brief walk through the museum (free for press), and if I were a war buff, this would do it for me, but instead I go down a few levels for the film museum.

Long walk to Trevi Fountain - which is CRAZY with tourists...AND under construction/repairs. I grab a gelatto then get a E6 taxi home - whew...musta walked 7-8 miles today and hundreds of steps. nice to be 'home', editing photos and enjoying  a nice Montepulciano. Full day!!

28 Oct - Hiking downhill under overcast skies  to Vila Medici, I find it's not open for a couple hours, with an English-speaking tour (gratuit pour la presse) at noon. I carefully descend the 136 Spanish Steps, have a little conversation with a lovely Italian policewoman, brief negotiations with the horse and buggy driver, then hop on the Metro to Piazza del Popolo, a huge square hanging out in the sunshine. I tip the guitar soloist, playing Beatles songs while I shoot all around the piazza. The Leonardo da Vinci museum calls, but I don't have enough time now. I take a photo of a couple and they offer to take mine. Fellini is calling me to his Caffé Canova on the town side of the piazza. The cappuccino is creamy and delicious...pricey, but hey, it's a celebrity. I hand out the roses I was given (bought) from the Indian in the square, then get chatting with Angelo, who's been at the cafe 25 years, used to serve Federico Fellini. Friends of the film maker used to own the café, so he spent lots of time there every day, being with friends, writing scenes, and drinking his favorite beverage, fresh mandarin juice. On the way back, I sign a petition for Lautari and his program for les enfants. The Anglican Church has Vivaldi's Four Seasons concert tomorrow night.  I'd love to go!

The English tour starts as soon as I get back to the 1576 Vila Medici, an extraordinary Renaissance Villa with stunning views of Rome. Luca is wonderful, speaking English with a French accent. The French Ministry of Culture & Communication handles this treasure acquired by Napoleon in 1803, who installed the French Academy here. Today they provide an artists in residence program (18-24 French and others) that piques my interest, and the details fire up my imagination about the Medicis, the powerful and rowdy popes, married for power and loaded with scandal. Porno art, 400 residents and 40 prostitutes, tons of legitimate and illegitimate children, messages in the commissioned art...lascivious times - not virgin Mary and Jesus. Fascinating. I could do a book about the Medicis! I order a jambon panini and red for the view over Rome and am joined by Parisian, Nicola, here as an intern at the Palace. We have a great conversation in French/English, then he buys me a café, and we linger.
Another 136 steps down (huge crowd now) the Spanish Steps, and I'm not far to Barberini Palazzo...just past the Spanish Embassy, half mile down the shopping street, around the piazza, and up the hill. Caravaggio's Man with a Lute takes the first exhibit, then a stroll through the neglected gardens of the palazzo before entering the palace for the regular exhibit (gratuit and good thing since a whole floor was closed today due to a shortage of personnel - despite there being 2 in every room on the other floors). Amazing Art: Caravaggios, Raphaels, Garofalos, Berninis, Tintorettos, El Grecos, Renaissance, Roman, and Venetian. A quick taxi uphill (just couldn't walk any more), a vodka/tonic at the hotel bar (Mauro translating for the bartender), and up to my room to download and edit and write...
And sleep.

29 Oct - All out today! Take the S steps labyrinth underground to the Metro to the Vatican, where street hawker, Eslam, negotiates me (!!) into the Maya Tours office just as Jad is heading out with his group. I jump on...and am glad I did from the moment I spot the HUGE lines. Waiting another hour or two just isn't in my plans today. A rare Syrian Christian, Jad Butri is the only Arabic guide at the Vatican. He came in 2010 under diplomatic coverage (his family is under the protection of Assad) to Florence to get his PhD in archeology. His thesis is about the old monasteries being destroyed in Syria. We do the gardens, in and out, the museums (Renaissance art, sculptures, Raphael rooms...), and famed Sistine Chapel (jewel of the Vatican), where young (31) Michelangelo initially refused the job (he was a sculptor not a painter), but one doesn't refuse popes, so after working three weeks with painters and studying bodies from tombs, he told them to leave...and he worked alone, finishing just four years later in 1512. At 61 he did the Last Judgment, and a month after he died, one of his students covered up the naked bodies for the new pope. The 1979-99 restoration was financed by Japan. Here Jad leaves us to continue with the Basilica, built by a brain trust of Renaissance architects, capped with Michelangelo's dome. Inside - an enormous space, filled with priceless jewels, artworks, and the famous Pièta. The Basilica is Italy's 'largest, richest, and most spectacular church', protected by 150 Swiss guards, who live here with 550 clergy.

Exhausted, I stop in Ai Fienaroli near my hotel for a lovely late lunch: fresh ravioli, stuffed with chestnut puréé, buratta, and black truffles with a porcini mushroom sauce and a nice sangiovese. The flavours are delicate, unique, seasonal and sensational...Divine! (I could write poems about this food!) Simoné insists (I've learned to let the waiter guide my decisions) I try the ricotta mousse with pistacios and chocolate with my caffé. Ridiculously delicioso!!  I'm on a food high. I want to linger, enjoy watching the lively families, couples, and business associates. An afternoon affair would be perfeto! He brings a chilled limoncello instead.

I had planned the best for last, so I stroll through the park (filled with electric carts, bicycles, segways, scooters, children, and lovers) to the Borghese Palace, stuffed with important art masters...and NO lines. They keep the crowds to a minimum by limiting entrance, which requires reservations days in advance, and mine's from 5 to 7. 

After dark when I leave and just three blocks from my hotel, I take a few wrong turns and get lost, arriving back (finally) 30 minutes later. I'm missing my gps and flashlight on my long-gone iPhone.

Rome is exhausting and's one last peek