Italian Iter | Florence


Giotto's Tower
We arrived on a bustling Saturday when Florence’s narrow streets were particularly packed with leather hand bags and tour groups. I had forgotten about transportation on wheels. Suddenly surrounded by growling motorcycles and careening bikes, I had to remind myself how to share the streets after Venice’s pedestrian paradise.

We stayed a short walk east of the Duomo on a street where every door and window was shuttered, save for the corner convenience store where John bought a shaving razor. The street may have been unwelcoming, but we loved our AirBnb, a sunny, spacious, top floor apartment.

Food and Drink

We ate very, very well, but there were some awkward moments. At Vivanda (listed below) we had a 7pm reservation, but were told multiple times that we needed to finish by 9pm even before we had ordered. We wanted to say: We’re American; we can eat and be out of here in 30 minutes if necessary! Also, at the Florentine happy hour buffets, it’s either buffet or nothing. At one such place, when we really wanted to rest our legs and have drink, the woman behind the counter politely asked us to leave since we weren’t planning to eat. I’m always fascinated by the protocols of food in other cultures. In the US, everyone wants to make a buck; we’ve never been turned away from a mostly empty restaurant or bar.

A directory of favorites:

Mercato Centrale – Downstairs is a traditional market, where John had a boiled beef sandwich at Il Nerbone — definitely worth the long line. Upstairs is a food hall, very New York. At Marcella Bianchi’s Il Vegetariano e Vegano, we had phenomenal veggie burgers, like one with eggplant and spicy mayo. We ate food from a few of the stalls and everything was excellent. No pressure, no reservations, but there is always a line for the bathroom.

All’ Antico Vinaio  – This sandwich spot has opened up three storefronts on the same street to accommodate its steady business. John loved his porchetta sandwich, and while there was no stated vegetarian offering, a man begrudgingly made a sandwich for me with artichoke spread, roasted zucchini and eggplant.

Eby’s – Because sometimes you just want sangria and empanadas.

Archea Brewery – Great selection of house brews and guest beers with friendly bartenders.

Gosh – Visit this bar for the fabulous flamingo themed wallcoverings.

Il Santino – One side is a formal restaurant and the other side is a winebar, which is where we went. We had a delectable Tuscan cheese plate and tried different wines. From our seats at the tiny bar, we watched three women handle the orders coming in; they’d chop herbs, pour wine, use a hand-turned slicer on cured meats. The best of kind of theater!

Vivanda – At this tiny vegetarian-friendly spot, the server might tell you to hurry up at first, but eventually she will relax, smile, and leave you alone. We had an excellent dinner — pea fritters, asparagus ravioli with sausage, farro bowl with pesto.

Enoteca Pitti Gola e Cantina Across from the Pitti Palace, this winebar offers exquisite food (scallops; crustless zucchini tart) and wine (an orange pinot grigio). I really only want to return to Florence so that I can eat here again.

Recipe – Farro Salad

Inspired by Vivanda:

Mix warm cooked farro with pesto — any pesto whether made with basil, radish greens, beet greens, etc. Throw in chopped walnuts, olives, and grated Parmesan to taste.

For a more substantial salad, add sauteed zucchini, beans, chopped tomatoes.

Recipe – Olive Caprese Snack

Inspired by Il Santino:

Chop a tomato. Toss with red wine vinegar, olive oil, salt, and pepper. Let sit for 30 minutes.

Slice a loaf of good bread. Smear olive tapenade, like Divina Kalamata Olive Spread, on a slice. Top with the marinated tomatoes. Pull apart a ball of buffalo mozzarella and arrange the pieces on the tomatoes. Garnish with shredded basil, salt, and pepper.

Top Five Sites

I visited Florence for two days back in March 2006 on a college trip. This time, I had the chance to explore much more of the city. John and I especially enjoyed:

IMG_9707
Seeing the most magnificent sculpture on Earth. We also visited the Medici Chapels, but beware:  the Basilica di San Lorenzo is a scam. Go to the back — not to the church entrance! Otherwise you’ll have to buy two separate tickets.
Basking in the gold of Botticelli’s luminous paintings at the Uffizi. Photo source: Wikimedia, Google Art Project.
View from Piazzale Michelangelo
Walking along the verdant, villa-lined Viale Machiavelli and Viale Galileo. We started at the Pitti Palace and walked up and around to peaceful San Miniato al Monte, where the monks were singing. Our excursion ended with this splendid view from Piazzale Michelangelo.
Firenze street art
Celebrating the work of living artists. Blub always depicts his iconic subjects underwater. We loved Florence’s playful street art, which gave the city a little edge along with its awesome vintage stores and hip arts center in an old prison near Sant’Ambrogio market. We also enjoyed exploring traditional workshops, like I Mosaici di Lastrucci (inlaid stone mosaics — no grout used) and L’ippogrifo stampe d’arte (etchings and prints).
Blessing the vines
Sampling the bounties of Tuscany! Through Viator, we signed up for a half-day tour of two wineries: Tenuta del Palagio and Famiglia Mazzarrini – Poggio Amorelli. At the tastings, we enjoyed not only Chianti Classico, but the more experimental “Supertuscan” wines along with aged balsamic vinegar, olive oils, pecorino cheese, and bread. It felt great to ride in a bus and let someone else make all the decisions for us!
Toilet Troubles

A very quirky washer/dryerIn Florence my misadventures did not concern a toilet, but a different piece of hardware in the bathroom of our AirBnb: the combo washer/dryer. Although our host had given John a thorough orientation and even supplied us with the manual, we still missed an essential step. For the thing to dry, it must be on “1/2 load”. We thought we’d run it over night and wake up to dry clothes. Instead we stayed up half the night wondering where the machine was in its endless 14-step cycle. Fed up, we found a huge drying rack and used that instead. However, for the second load, we used the proper setting. The clothes turned out to be about 40% dry. Better than nothing! It was worth it to have clean clothes!

 

Social Encounters

Another restaurant anecdote: We arrived at the exact same time as another couple. Although all the tables outside were empty, we were seated next to each other. They were mid-20s; he was American, she was South African, which we deduced from her accent and stated dislike of Afrikaans rap. In such close quarters, just a few inches apart, John and I couldn’t help but eavesdrop and, of course, judge. The other couple closely followed the art market, but neither were artists — she was on break from law school; who knows about him. He was trying to remember the name of the artist whose painting recently sold for more than $100 million. I can’t remember what clues he gave, but John said “Basquiat” out loud. He said it again louder. They ignored him.

Notes for Next Time

Take the train in for the day and go all out for the prix fixe lunch at Enoteca Pitti Gola e Cantina. Stop at Mercato Centrale and buy a bunch of goodies to go. Escape to the Tuscan hills.
Chianti country viewContinue reading: Rome 

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More Than the Loire

(Grand Tour Part 3 of 7)

The Loire valley is a whole region of scenic rivers, medieval towns, and Renaissance chateaux. Over the next two days, we sampled its bounty.

At Le Moulin du Fief Gentil in Blere, our host, Florence, gave us a wonderful breakfast with four homemade confitures, excellent croissants, goat cheese, and another regional speciality, rillettes. She and our Back Roads France book recommended visiting less frequented towns and sites: Loches, Montresor, and Chateau de Montpoupon, so that’s what we did on Saturday.

Meat at the Loches marketThe market at Loches was hopping. We mistakenly bought a very expensive cheese (it was delicious and lasted us a few days; we got more than we meant to buy). John couldn’t resist a saucisson sec (though we later realized the knife we had wasn’t strong enough to cut it) and we had to try the fresh strawberries. After buying a baguette and a Provencal olive assortment with peppers and onion, we had our picnic items for later ready. At this market, one could buy almost any fresh food item from seafood to head cheese to steaming paella.

A lovely medieval town on the Indre river, Loches had very old-fashioned public toilets to match. A hard metal basin with foot grips sits over a hole. Still it served its purpose and I felt ready to explore the Cite Royale of Loches, the walled acropolis of the town containing a Romanesque church, chateau, and massive donjon. The entrance to the church is decorated with carved stone animals and mythical creatures; traces of the colorful paint remains and I was reminded me of Greek art from the geometric and archaic periods.

Loches donjon Romanesque church in Loches

We drove east toward Montresor on the Indrois river to find a picnic spot. At a small convenience store, we bought other snacks: pistachios and peanuts.Amazing Loches strawberries John picked out a beer and I understood the whole conversation John had with the cashier about the gorgeous weather. Little signs pointed us to a pique-nique area where lush woods met the parking lot of a small post office. This is where we learned the postal service uses Kangoos too!

A trail led us to an ancient Gallo-Roman aqueduct, but the path wasn’t well maintained so we ate at the tables off the parking lot. We got quite good at stuffing the bread with the soft cheese, olives, and roasted peppers. The strawberries provided the perfect dessert. More oblong than the strawberries I see at home, they nearly melted in our mouths.

We drove into Montresor proper and walked around the quiet streets for a few minutes. One restaurant was open and the whole town must have been sitting there enjoying the perfect Saturday. Even the cars were happy:

Maybe it's Maybelline

We spent the early afternoon at Chateau de Montpoupon, where part of the house is still reserved for the family. The chateau contains beautiful furnishings and some gorgeous ceilings, but the “touristic elements” felt very kitsch. When we walked into a room, a recording of a conversation, presumably of two former inhabitants, would play from hidden speakers. Above the stables, which were partially converted into a hunting museum, were the rooms showing the life of the huntsman, complete with manikins! Not again! The kitchen, however, was a highlight with its immensive collection of shining copper pots and we loved watching two horses grazing in the field behind the chateau.

Hunting museum -- this is just one small part of the wall!
One small part of one wall. There were hundreds of antlers and heads all labeled with the year of the kill — even a stuffed boar’s head! Swallows kept flying in and out of the room and loved settling on the antlers.

It seemed appropriate to stay in a hunting state of mind, so we continued northeast toward Cheverny via Montrichard and Chaumont. John had hoped to get a picture of Chaumont, but we could see from the car that there was no view from beyond the entrance gate.

As we neared Cheverny, we saw more and more signs for different vineyards. At random, we decided to pull into Domaine de la Plante d’Or, whose logo is a salamander. We learned later that the salamander was also the sign of Francois I, an important king who brought Leonardo da Vinci to France and heavily invested in building and renovating chateaux in the Loire region. Philippe Loquineau, the owner of the winery, which his grandfather started, told us he spends a third of his time in the fields, a third in the cellar, and a third drinking. We laughed and thought that sounded like a perfect life, but he wasn’t so sure. He told us about the soil in Cheverny and Cour-Cheverny, the two local appellations, and poured us a few samples. I loved the Cour-Cheverny “Fleur de Lis”, which tasted like its name. He smiled and said it was a woman’s wine. Their “Salamander” wines are drier with stronger minerality. We were happy to buy two bottles, one of each variety, and wished him well.

We arrived at Cheverny around 4:30pm. I knew from Rick Steves that the estate’s hounds eat every day at 5pm, so we joined the crowd of mostly French tourists (we heard many at the Loire chateaux) to await the exciting moment. The dogs with their luminous coats, strong bodies, and giant paws knew dinner time was coming. They were barking and howling while the trainer disinfected the area where they would be eating.

The famed hounds of Cheverny

The trainer laid out the meat and kibbles and the dogs started cramming themselves together on the stairs that lead down to the food. At 5pm on the dot, the priority hounds (I wasn’t sure what distinguished them — maybe something to do with the social order of the pack of 70 animals) got a head start and then . . .

By 5:03pm, the whole show was over so we walked to the chateau. Like Montpoupon, Cheverny is privately owned and the family still spends time there. Cheverny, built in its current form during the early 17th century, has remained in the same family almost continually since that time. The furnishings, painted ceilings and walls, elaborately carved fireplaces, and tapestries are to die for (none of our interior photographs came out). The family’s dish pattern features hounds. I loved the self-guided tour booklet too which offered “Did you know?” boxes with fun facts: “It was Louis XV who decided to place table forks with their prongs facing downwards as he was tired of snagging the lace on his sleeves.” or “The [bed] canopy and tapestries were used to keep the heat in.” Makes so much sense; I’d never thought about the practical reasons behind these textiles that seemed merely aesthetic items.

Cheverny gardens
My slightly crooked handiwork capturing the back of the chateau

We visited the hounds one last time before departing. They were calm and happy. Poo was everywhere.

For dinner, we drove less than 20 minutes to Blois and parked in our first ever garage in a foreign country! (Once we were in a garage in Frankfurt, but a native was driving.) My Back Roads France book recommended a dinner spot with lots of vegetarian options, of which I felt in need. Blois viewIt was too early for dinner (not quite 7pm), so we walked around the small city through its open places and narrow streets to the grand chateau. I had a very good vibe from Blois; I can’t say why particularly, I just did. The same sort of feeling I had in Rouen. The smaller cities are very fun and if I get a chance, I’d like to revisit Blois when I’m not so tired and when it’s not so late in the day.

Shortly after 7pm, we walked into Le Castelet on rue Saint Lubin. As if some alarm had rung in everyone’s heads, the place was totally full within 30 minutes. All the diners, including ourselves, had three course meals meaning that there was probably only one seating per table. We left shortly before 9pm.

There were indeed many wonderful options for me, while John tried the day’s specials. For Lanah: veloute, a delicious pureed soup with a strong flavor of fresh peas, an omelette, and a cold strawberry soup with rhubarb cream, the dessert of the day and absolutely heavenly.

For John: beets with andouille sausage and chevre (he loved this and wished it could have been his main), rabbit with vegetables, and chocolate mousse.

As the sun set, we drove along the Loire River so serene in the twilight. We gave up on the Nostalgi station our car picked up so well. There’s a limit to how much Barry White and Abba I can hear in a day non-ironically, so John plugged in his phone. And that picture of Chaumont we wanted? Best done from across the Loire.

Loire at dusk

View to Chaumont-sur-Loire

 

On Sunday morning, we again had a good breakfast and were joined by an older Texan couple. Their son, who wasn’t traveling with them, sounded like quite a character. He has a master’s degree from a Polish university and now works at a resort in Colorado. I miss overeducated bohemians — DC just isn’t the place for them.

We had a little trouble getting ourselves on the right route to Azay-le-Rideau. My 3′ x 4′ double-sided Michelin map came in handy as I directed us down two farm lanes. We stopped to let a peloton by and later I saw one cyclist’s gentalia as he stopped to pee in a field. We also passed this amazing property:

Peace

Eventually we were on a main road (thank you car GPS for pointing us in the right direction) and took a leisurely drive through village after village on the Indre river. All that water got me thinking about my pressing bladder. I spotted a park with a small shack, which had to be a bathroom. It was! A hole with foot rests just like Loches. I prefer much these to stinky, hot Port-o-pots. It was liberating not to wash my hands (there was no way to do so anyway). What obsessive American hygienic convention could I give up next?!

The pretty Indre River

Azay-le-Rideau turned out to be not only a chateau, but an adorable village where John did a stellar job parallel parking the Kangoo. He’s dreamt since high school French class of coming to this “jewel of Renaissance architecture” (as described by the brochure).

Azay-le-Rideau

I kept expected a guard to come out of the woodwork to chastise John for posing with the chateau, but no such thing happened.

Of particular note is the chateau’s loggia — a fabulous open-air staircase, apparently “one of the first French examples of a staircase with straight flights place in the centre of the main building, and not, according to medieval convention, in an attached tower.” Each square of the loggia ceiling has a portrait inside.

Azay-le-Rideau
The grounds and waterways are undergoing restoration, which is the reason for the fence.

John and I were also entranced by the sounds of bats in the attic where the impressive timberwork, dating from 1522, is visible (learned all this from the brochure). Hear the twittering bats here.

John’s dream fulfilled, we walked back through the village, had an ice cream, and set off for Chinon. We’d been in the car for less than a minute when John pulled over. “Get a picture of that” he said pointing. “What the flowers?” Then I saw it.

The highlight of the trip for John

He couldn’t decide what was better Azay-le-Rideau or this 1954 Jaguar.

We drove south to Chinon, a medieval town famous for its red wine (I find it rather thin and prefer juicier reds). With vineyards on all the slopes above the Vienne river, this was the kind of Loire Valley town we’d imagined. The main route took us right to the parking lot above the fortress that overlooks the town. John and I expected to spend a short time exploring Chinon’s ruined fortress where Knights of Templar were imprisoned in the 14th century and where Joan of Arc first met Charles. It turned out to be a huge place and a primer in defensive architecture with its five towers. By the end I couldn’t climb up or down any more staircases. Those knights must have been beasts to wear all that armor and climb all those stairs. Here are a few pictures of this amazing site most of which was built in the 12th century and then expanded over the centuries:

Chinon view

Chinon fortress

Chinon fortress

The Knights of Templar!

Unlikely the cushiony Renaissance chateaux we’d been seeing for the last day and a half, this place seemed wholly medieval: stark stone, impossible spiral staircases, cramped rooms everywhere except in the “logis royaux”.

It was approaching 3pm and we still hadn’t had lunch! We started to walk down the steep hill to the center of town and then decided to drive down and park by the river. Again, I applaud John’s parking abilities. After a handful of pistachios, we set out in search of lunch.

Chinon was a quiet town with incredible medieval buildings. We followed Rick Steves’ advice and ate at a wine bar where John got the charcuterie plate and I the cheese plate. I think we both wanted something more substantial, but were unable to walk another step (next door was a Tex-Mex place called “Tennessee”). The owner set John up with two reds (one local wine called “La Diablese”) and me with two whites, a nice white Chinon and a magical Chardonnay: La Margelle from Chateau de Fosse-Seche. Neither John nor I saw when or how he dripped wine down the front of his white shirt, but he did. More amazingly, he had an extra shirt in the car.

Our plates arrived. John tried blood pudding for the first time and I nearly reached my cheese saturation point.

The exact moment when Lanah reached her cheese saturation point
The hard cheese at 12 o’clock was a favorite. I also really liked the soft cheese at 11 o’clock; it had a wonderful chive flavor. I was nervous about some of the goat cheeses, but they were all fairly mild and very creamy. The two soft cheeses on the left were from Normandy.
Blood pudding? Sure, why not!
Meat. What do I know? I think the three kinds of pate were duck, pork, and chicken.

After eating, we looked around the wine shop and talked to the owner about what seemed to be his real passion, electric guitar. He had his there with him!

We walked through town and then along the river back to the car. It was time to start driving back east. We followed signs to Usse for a quick picture and cold drinks at the snack bar in the chateau parking lot. Then on to Villandry, heaven for gardeners!

We bypassed the chateau and savored the gardens. People were lounging by the fountains, dipping their toes in the water; there’s a garden for children and a labyrinth. Villandry of all the chateaux encourages you to relax and watch the swans (Thought I would say “smell the roses”, ey? We did that too.)

Villandry

Villandry

Villandry

We weren’t entirely ready to leave, so we sat outside under an umbrella at the cafe just outside the entrance. We watched an old man smoke his pipe while he talked with his friends, an old couple with a very cute dog. The couple smoked cigarettes. A shock to me since I so rarely, if ever, see elderly people smoking. A group of college kids at the table next to them puffed away as well. I live in a smoke free bubble so going to Europe startles me every time.

I had no idea how to get us from Villandry back to Blere. The Michelin map frightened me with thick red veins all leading to Tours, like some congested heart. Rick Steves threatened hell fire on any driver who dared to cross city. We put our faith in the GPS and told it to avoid toll roads. On a Sunday evening, Tours proved easily navigable. We were on the industrial, modern, and very ugly outskirts. There were actual stoplights, no roundabouts for a time. We arrived safely in Blere and decided to stay in town for the night.

The French truly have a passion for plants. We walked by this gorgeous garden on the way to dinner:

Blere garden

Blere is a small town with a WWI memorial and a square with a church. Dinner options included the pizza place, the kebab place, and on the square we could choose from the bar tabac where all the kids who constantly ride motorcycles hang out (we would learn more about this dirt bike and motorcycle obsession in Vendome); a cafe that was closing up for the day; and Le Cheval Blanc, an elegant hotel with a traditional restaurant, which came highly recommended by Florence.

We anticipated that we’d be dining at Le Cheval Blanc and subsequently dressed more nicely and even showered. The welcoming host and hostess (whom I named Gerard and Hortense) did everything from busing to recommending wine. Most importantly they assured me that a vegetarian entree could be prepared. I loved the dining room done in black and white with hot pink accents. John had the fish special (dos de bar) and I was delighted with my vegetable risotto. We had a white Chinon wine (I think chenin blanc), but the best part of the meal were the desserts. My strawberry-rhubarb concoction showed off the chef’s skills with foam, glassy sugar shards, and little dots of rhubarb puree. John’s chocolate-coconut dessert was like a candy bar cake. We had fun watching Crepes Suzette made table side for a large group of Germans (coincidentally, there was also a large group of Germans at the restaurant in Blois the night before). They got louder the more they drank. At the table behind us a couple decided on cheese for dessert and Hortense rolled out the great cheese board kept under a glass dome. When she opened it, a waft of intense curd perfumed the air. The husband ordered a glass of amber Calvados. We ordered coffee with dessert which slightly perplexed Hortense, but no matter. Over the trip, we learned that this is an American habit. After our dessert, came another small complimentary dessert:  little meringue puffs and chocolate-covered fruit, all surprisingly light. Gerard was happy that we were happy and encouraged us to write a review so more Americans would come to his restaurant and hotel.

Back at the mill, John went to the communal refrigerator to pour himself a glass of our wine. The one he picked up was open and a small amount was missing. Apparently the son of another American couple had mixed up the bottles. It was my Fleur de Lis!

Blere WWI memorial
Taken by John on a morning stroll