Festive Florence

Festive Florence

Winter Holidays, December 2016
Florence, Italy

Interested in a Music and Markets Tour? We’d love to hear from you!
We’re looking ahead to Spring – Aix en Provence for the Easter Festival.

As we’re coasting into Italy our pilot announces that we’ll arrive not in Florence, as planned, but Bologna, due to extreme fog in our expected destination. Dreams of a delicious Tuscan lunch forgotten, we watch the hours tick by as we await our luggage (everything’s slowed to a crawl in Bologna due to all the re-routed Florence fights!), then load a couple of very cramped buses for the hour trip to Florence airport. Gasps of astonishment waft through the bus as we approach Florence and see the entire city under a heavy blanket of clouds – and this at nearly 4 pm!
We’ve kept in touch with the owner, Gianni, of the apartment we’ve rented to let him know of our delays (can we rave once again about T-Mobile and their invaluable plans?  No extra charges for texts and data wherever we travel!), and he meets us with a smile and takes us to our spacious home for the next few days. Before we even unpack we find the closest hole-in-the-wall and order a pre-dinner snack – oh those delicious Tuscan sips and tastes!
Then back to settle in to the apartment, located just over the Ponte Vecchio in the Oltrarno district – a superb location! If you’re looking for a comfortable, well-located and well-priced Florence spot, we sure recommend Guicciardini 10! After dinner we stroll across the foggy old bridge and from one favorite piazza to another, enjoying the mysteriously misty Christmas lights.
We wake up to the Florence we are familiar with – bright and sunny! Crossing the city to an old favorite, Teatro del Sale, we renew our annual membership, then stroll the fabulous Mercato Sant’Ambrogio before lunch at the Teatro. There’s something for everyone in the market – fresh fruits and vegetables outside, beautifully prepared meats, creative appetizers and cheeses inside, and out the back door the antiques stalls that used to be set up by the old fish market. Here’s Kirk’s description of a row of intriguing antipasti platters: “Found in a Florentine market: An assortment of ground meaty stuffings wrapped in thin “leaves” of dough. Cook in the oven and serve to admiring guests. Also there are tons of meaty cheesy vegetably things tied in strings with bacon or sewn together with toothpicks to be cooked and presented together. You don’t see this stuff in Italian restaurants in the US. Gotta be here for the real deal. Yum.”
We’re happy to find out that photos are now allowed at Teatro del Sale, where the chef shouts out what’s coming from the oven or stove-top from the kitchen window, dishing out ribollita, a warming stew, from a giant pot.For years the creative owner, Fabio Picchi, honored with a bust and photos above the wood-stoked oven and still cooking up a storm, would gruffly deny any photos, but now allows us to snap to our heart’s content. Baking pans and oval platters of pastas, vegetables, roasted chicken, and my favorite olive-drizzled focaccia (I could fill up on just THAT for lunch!) keep filling the table and our stomachs, with plenty of serve-yourself wine and water.
Fresh clementines, a bowl of rich whipped cream for tall twirly cookies, almond cake, and diamonds of Cibreo’s (Picci’s elegant flagship restaurant, from which all of the others developed) melt-in-your-mouth chocolate cake sate our sweet tooth.
A reviving cup of Illy coffee in the library and we’re ready to hit the streets again.
Creative shop windows catch our eye as we walk to Piazza Santissima Annunziata with it’s unique monkey fountain, then back to Piazza del Duomo, full of so many memories. We had this view when we took Kirk’s dear mother to Florence, and rented an apartment so close we could almost touch the cathedral. And the soaring bell-tower always reminds me of climbing to the top with our grandchildren a few years later. From Kirk: “Here’s 30 seconds from the center of the Roman center of Florence. Romans tended to build near a river or a spring (preferably a hot spring) in a checkerboard pattern. There was usually one main east-west street called a decumanum and a north-south street called the cardo. You can see down all four directions from this point.”
As the sun sets we make it to Piazza Santa Croce, another favorite.F-lights, a holiday celebration of creative lighting on Florence icons, delights with art-class drawings projected on the simple facade of Santo Spirito, and near Palazzo Pitti colored balloons float above the street behind a marble column erected by Medici ruler Cosimo I in 1572 to commemorate his victory over Siena at the Battle of Marciano in 1554.Our time’s gone much too quickly – just enough hours to say hello to favorite spots – but before we go we can’t miss the Mercato Centrale, where we stock up on Tuscan specialties for our New Year’s Eve feast in Rome. And before the train speeds us south we peek into Santa Felicita at a Pontormo Annunciation, walk along the river to Torre San Niccolo, and are surprised by a rhinocerous hanging from the ceiling inside a beautiful palazzo, the city’s science museum.Bye-bye balloons, thanks for the party!


A Savory Ciao to Florence

A Savory Ciao to Florence

Interested in a Music and Markets Tour? We’d love to hear from you!
We’re looking ahead to Spring – Aix en Provence for the Easter Festival.

Thursday, 2 January 2015
Florence, Italy

On the road again – back to Florence, where we dropped the car, checked into welcoming Hotel Rivoli once again, then headed out for lunch. After checking out the offerings at the Mercato Centrale, we suggested an old favorite nearby, Da Mario. At slightly before noon we should be able to get in line for a table. Unlike on previous visits, though, they’re already open and going strong, every table filled. Recognizing us, the waiter asked if we’d mind sitting downstairs. Downstairs? Didn’t even know they served downstairs! 01031501 da marioWell, since demand has only gotten stronger for Mario’s simple but delicious Cucina Povera (poor folk’s cooking – the essence of Tuscan cuisine) they’ve cleared out space in the basement storage area for a few tables. So here we are, among the hams and wine, enjoying a great lunch.
After our tastings at Conti in the Mercato at the beginning of the tour, we all had a list of items to purchase now that we’re ready to pack our bags for returning home. Stefano’s smile will go with us until we come back – he makes shopping such a pleasure!01031501 back to conti before packing casesAnd one more before-packing stop, the ever- glorious Farmacia Santa Maria Novella, where Lorri stocks up on fragrant gifts for her lucky friends and family. 01031501 back to smn before packingLorri and I stayed at the hotel, packing up for our departures tomorrow, and the gents went exploring, Kirk sharing tales of Florence as they walked. They found what Kirk described as a “men’s Santa Maria Novella”  – but came home without any treasures of their own. 01031501 du guys exploreWith enough packing done, we sought out some more Florentine favorites to share, such as Ghirlandaio’s intimate Nativity, in a side chapel of Santa Trinita.01031501 ghirlandaioOutside, the streets glow in the evening light, making it hard to say goodbye to this beautiful city.01031501 evening stroll and ghirlandaioOne more delicious meal, which we began with an unusual appetizer, artichokes draped in lardo. 01031501 dinner artichokes with lardoYes, that’s lard, but not like any lard you’ll taste in the States. Delicate and tasting of superior bacon, every bite was superb. And of course we included everyone’s favorite 4 Leoni pasta, “purses” filled with pear blanketed in creamy taleggio, walnut and asparagus sauce.01031501 dinner everyones fave at 4 leoni

None of the desserts tempted us that much, so we stopped for gelato, 01031501 gelato for dessertand finished up with a Ponte Vecchio photo-op.01031501 on ponte v It’s been a pleasure to share this jazzy, tasty and beautiful week with Russ and Lorri. Ciao til next time, Italia.

Arrivederci Florence

Arrivederci Florence

Tuesday, January 3, 2012
Florence, Italy

Interested in a Music and Markets Tour? We’d love to hear from you!
Next on the itinerary: Our spring tours in Barcelona, Venice or Prague

How about a stroll up to Piazzale Michelangelo after that delicious lunch at ZEB?
The somber façades of Florence’s typical rusticated stone buildings are surprised with a flash of terracotta rose on an Oltrarno street. You’ll often see dark mustard/gold buildings with green shutters – but I do not recall seeing this color in central Florence before!
We walked through the San Niccoló neighborhood because we were anxious to see if the San Niccoló Tower was open today. We’d heard it was recently renovated and opened this summer to the public for the first time since it was built in 1324! Though its toes are at the level of the Arno River, from its crenelated rooftop,160 steps up, we’ve heard, the 360 degree views of the city are breathtaking. It was built as part of the defensive wall when it was expanded during the 13th and 14th centuries to protect the neighborhoods that had sprung up on the other side of the Arno. A huge gate on the tower’s ground floor regulated traffic and commerce into and out of Florence . Of all the towers with gates around Florence that provide evidence of her powerful past, only this one has never been decapitated. Unfortunately, there was a sign on the entrance saying it was only open from June 24 to October 1st.
No problem, for exercise we’ll take the short and steep route to Piazzale Michelangelo. As soon as we head south of the tower we discover we’re outside one of the remaining stretches of the 13th century city wall. The road ascends by zigs and zags but we’re never far from the Tower of San Niccoló. First we notice we’re about as high as its halfway point then before we know it, we’re looking down on it as we step into the parking lot with the most famous attendant.

The Piazzale’s a popular spot both day and night, and a favored place for wedding photos. This couple is framing the Duomo, far below and across the Arno, with heart-shaped arms. Couldn’t tell whether they love each other or their Duomo the most.

Here the third actual size copy of Michelangelo’s David watches over the city. And since it’s such a climb to get up here, there are fewer tourists and we can admire the artistry from all angles and from any distance.

while far below the ever-present crowds look off of the Ponte Vecchio – I wonder if there’s a musician entertaining today?

The gold-topped Duomo bursts into view as we try out the Macro setting – nice!

Across the Arno Valley on the opposite hill, Fiesole’s tucked into a cleft to the north of the city – another great place for sunset views.

From this perch you can really see how Florence is cradled by hills on all sides – what a setting!
On the west side of the Piazzale Michelangelo, two terraces below the parking lot, a sign points down a little path to Il Jardino della Rosas. Can we get back down to the San Niccoló neighborhood through the rose garden? Or will we be unable to exit the other side and have to retrace our steps back uphill to here? The Garden of Roses looks like it’s worth the risk, so we descend the path and find the roses and other flowers share the spotlight with interesting sculptures by Jean Michel Follon, such as this bronze walker.

The charm of an old terracotta design graces another pause in the slope.
We enjoy the landscaping and art and even find an exit and soon we’re walking down Via del Monte alle Croci through another city gate into the neighborhood of San Niccoló again.
It’s been a marvelous few days in this beautiful city, and yet there are far more places to see and trattorias to try than we could fit in. Guess we’ll just have to put them on our list for next time.
Arrivederci, Firenze!

Florence – Old Favorites and New Discoveries

Florence – Old Favorites and New Discoveries

Monday – Tuesday, January 2-3, 2012
Florence, Italy

Interested in a Music and Markets Tour? We’d love to hear from you!
Next on the itinerary: Our spring tours in Barcelona, Venice or Prague

Florence’s Mercato Centrale – a must visit each time we’re in the city. And it’s even more fun than usual since we’re in an apartment, and are on the hunt for dinner inspiration. We’ll stock up as well with take-home-to-Virginia essentials, Olio Nuovo (just-pressed olive oil) from the Conti’s, a hunk of Par- miggiano, and some tender sun-dried tomatoes, which are just better than any we’ve found in the States.
I’m looking as well for a travel tote. For some reason (could it be because we’re always traveling???) mine wear out sooner than I’d expect. Several shops are still closed – Monday is a frequent off-day for shops and museums in Europe. I need compartments for phone and makeup, length and depth enough for files, magazines, and newspapers, something relatively lightweight since I load it so full of must-haves, and with a closure so things don’t escape when slipping through security.
I’ve looked in myriad shop windows, tried out several totes on my arm, but haven’t found what I want. Kirk suggests the leather shops near Santa Croce, and as I walk into one, he goes into another, through a courtyard across the street. The shop I’m in has pretty much what I’ve already seen in all the market stalls – not interested. So I join Kirk, and just fall in love with an embossed leather bag – but will it hold magazines, etc? It looks small. The saleslady assures me that it will, and brings a few magazines from the office to try it out – yes!
I see so many things I’d love in here – it’s Bottega Fiorentina, and their designs are just lovely- not what I’ve seen everywhere else. Gianluca and his family have been crafting unique and beautiful leather goods since 1961. I’m sold! We’ll certainly tell our Music and Markets guests about this place. Such wonderful quality, fair prices, and friendly non-pressure owners. (And the purse/tote worked wonderfully on our flights home, I’m glad to say).
After all of this hard work, we treat ourselves to a warm Bomboloni (like a filled doughnut – chocolate for Kirk, cream for me) from our favorite spot on Via del Corso, stroll around some more, then spend the evening relaxing in the apartment (and enjoying the delicious fresh pasta we picked up at the Mercato!)
We start the day slowly on Tuesday – Kirk’s fighting a mean cold. But we don’t want to miss what has become an annual pleasure – the Uffizi’s I Mai Visti (never before seen). Each year a particular selection of masterworks that have long been in storage are curated into a lovely small exhibition, which is always free.
This year the theme is Volti Svelati – Faces Revealed: an intimate viewing (love the small room – keeps the works accessible and not overpowering in number) of classical sculptures from the collection of the Grand Duchy of Tuscany.

The works of art coming out of storage include 44 busts of ‘Cesari in marmo’ (‘Marble Caesars’), as well as one of the best collections of Classical portraits ever seen in the Uffizi. Isn’t this stone drape exquisite?

There are also several portraits gracing the walls, showing the importance of classical sculptures and collections to artists through the centuries. This was unique to me – Giovanni Damon’s self-portrait in which his real hair shows below the requisite wig. Truly I Mai Visti 😉

Across the calm Arno is the quieter, less-visited San Niccolò quarter of Florence. The tower of the same name was built in the early 1300’s to protect this area of the city.

I smile as we pass a parking garage – one of the reasons I love Italian is that it is so very musical! Adagio = slow, in music, and slow for cars too! Draw out the soft “g” as you pronounce it – it just SOUNDS slow, doesn’t it?!

This quiet part of the Oltrarno is getting better known as new restaurants move in. Our destination today is ZEB, a former grocery store that the mother and son team of Giuseppina and Alberto Navari reinvented as a lunch and dinner counter.

A carefully chosen wall of wine on one side, stools lined up along the counter on the other…. and the smells and sights inspire as we gaze.

The longer we sit, the more we see that we want on OUR lunch plates.

First a generous portion of tortelloni in a creamy pecorino sauce, blanketed with layers of pear.
We share a plate of main course dishes – a peposo (beef stewed with pepper- corns), an intriguing and delicious mash of potatoes and artichoke, cippolline, petite onions in a sweet and sour marinade, and a smoky eggplant parmiggiano. Each bite is fabulous… and it’s such fun to watch the Navaris, with their lovely smiles, enthusiastically describing the dishes in Italian or English as the counter fills with hungry clients.
What a feast! Now for an afternoon walk…. (to be continued)

Sunset Beauty in Florence

Sunset Beauty in Florence

Sunday, January 1, 2012, part 2
Florence, Italy

Interested in a Music and Markets Tour? We’d love to hear from you!
Next on the itinerary: Our spring tours in Barcelona, Venice or Prague

We never tire of this glorious city – summer or winter, spring or fall.

A stroll across the Ponte Vecchio’s accompanied by music this afternoon – we stand, listen and just take in the view.

Like the crowds around us, we’re just taking it easy, meandering across the Arno,

watching as the sunset paints the sky.

We’re glad to be bundled up warmer than Signore Winter, on of the Four Seasons on Ponte Trinita!

After that delicious traditional seafood lunch, we’re going cutting-edge tonight, at a relatively new restaurant, Filipepe, in the San Niccolo area of the Oltrarno.

The intimate candle-lit dining room, with stylish mismatched chairs and glasses, is a perfect setting for the creative contemporary take on Italian cuisine.

We start with complimentary prosecco and freshly made croutons, and ooh and aah over the menu – can you imagine licorice gnocchi?

They’re served with a spicy Calabrian sausage/tomato sauce – a wild combination, no? We ask how they are made – hard licorice candy is ground up and mixed in with the dough for the gnocchi. Believe it or not, it’s delicious!

We share a main dish of roasted pigeon breast with a reduction of Tuscan Rosso (red), licorice (yes, again!) rice, and caramelized fig – just mouthwatering!
We haven’t had anything like this in Tuscany before…. we’re rather reminded of the nouveau meals we enjoyed in Barcelona.
It’s fun to taste such innovative takes on tradition – an exciting contrast to the good old Tuscan meals we’ve enjoyed through the years.

Duemilladodici (2012)  begins in Florence

Duemilladodici (2012) begins in Florence

Sunday, January 1, 2012
Florence, Italy

Interested in a Music and Markets Tour? We’d love to hear from you!
Next on the itinerary: Visions of Venice

We begin the New Year lazily, sleeping in after our very late night. The streets of Florence are so quiet – few cars, people walking around, but plenty of room to meander, unlike the packed streets and piazzas of last night. It’s always a delight to catch sight of Brunelleschi’s dome rising down a lane.
Today’s one of the few days of the year that the outdoor stalls around San Lorenzo are closed…. how unusual to see these streets as we’ve never seen them, no crowds, no leather jackets, purses, belts or gloves, no silk scarves, no florentine paper. Cosimo de Medici reigns over his quiet kingdom.
Both Rachel (of Florentine Flats) and Gloria (who recommended these apartments to us) have told us not to miss Trattoria Roberto, just around the corner from the apartment. As we walk in we see lots of paintings of the Amalfi Coast, and not just the renowned spots such as Positano and Amalfi, but off the beaten track hamlets such as Scala, where we enjoyed a mountainside walk years ago. We’re shown to a table by a smiling gent and ask if he’s Franco (the owner, who kept the Roberto name since it has been called thus for generations). No – Franco’s in the kitchen. He reaches out a hand to shake from the kitchen window, and we tell him that we’re in Rachel’s apartment. He welcomes us and tells our waiter to take good care of us.
It’s rare to find a fish restaurant in Florence, but Franco has brought all of the local flavors of the Amalfi Coast with him, and the menu’s full of tempting seafood dishes, such as this Spaghetti allo Scoglio. We couldn’t resist all the wonderful seafood, ordering stuffed calamari, a carpaccio of tuna, octopus Amalfitana… and I asked if by any chance they had fried artichokes, although they weren’t on the menu. Our friendly waiter said he would see, and after our main dishes came out, Franco brought a platter of crispy lightly battered artichokes – fabulous! We wanted to continue the Amalfi tastes and chose the lemon tart for dessert…. then were told it was “finito” . Too bad…. nothing else grabbed our fancy. Then Franco brought a small bowl of creamy lemon filling to our table – “This is all that’s left – enjoy!” Yum!
Every other table was filled with Italian speakers – families, “ladies who lunch”, a sister from a nearby convent… and no wonder! The food is the best, and very well priced – no credit cards, though – cash only. I see by the Trip Advisor reviews of Trattoria Roberto that it is definitely “discovered” – but it remains truly Italian and unspoiled, and a great value!