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Archive for the ‘Italy’ Category

Although the weather may not have reflected the idyllic Italian May we had envisioned after a long, cold Northern European winter, we were not entirely disappointed. Spring was in the air, quite literally. The fragrances wafted about from jasmine hedges, flowering bitter orange trees, wet cedars and honey suckle. And wild flowers abounded around and atop the Roman ruins and throughout every country hillside.

Ah, the hillsides. Above the city of Florence and its teaming masses of tourists and students shuffling from David to the Uffizi, in the sleepy town of Fiesole, we took advantage of a generous invitation of hospitality. As much as the artistic wonders that the city contains wowed us, we were enchanted by the green hills that repeated endlessly into the horizon. Olive trees punctuated the panorama and meandering streets contained in old stone walls wound though our view from the front step. We hiked through blazed paths that led us by castles and ancient olive groves filled with red poppies, purple thistles and countless other yellows and whites and pinks in the tall grass.

Although Fiesole was only a bus ride away from the center of Florence, it provided a sigh of relief. We sat under a cafe veranda with a bottle of wine overlooking the red roof tiles packed in around the massive dome of the cathedral in the valley below. Another day, we walked up to the Franciscan monastery perched at the highest point of the town and hid under the exterior cloister while we watched a violent lightning storm submerge Florence and then race up the hillside toward us.

Amongst these scenes of natural beauty that strike memories urging us to return, we found in Fiesole smaller moments as well. At the town cemetery I was stunned (and relieved) to find a public, and clean, toilet. How thoughtful of them to consider what I assume must be the parade of devoted old ladies that hike up this hill to pay their respects. We also stopped briefly in the cemetery. Each stone held a photograph of the person remembered. Most were elderly, but not all. One stone marked the grave of a couple. His picture showed a charming young man, killed during the war. Her picture, beside his, was of a woman in her sixties, buried next to her husband, forty years later.

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I stand firmly by the belief that a cliche tour of Italy — Rome – Florence – Venice — is a very worthy endeavor indeed. My gut, however, forces me to look for something a little different even within a predictable schedule. After a nearly lifelong tradition of the exceptional tour I cannot help but revel in unusual delights.

This is not to say that we uncovered some unknown gem nor came upon an unvisited secret corner of these mightily visited cities. But here and there we found unpredicted delights, sometimes in the most predictable locations.

In Rome it began at the Vatican Museum. Accidently on line for the opening hour (since I had the times wrong) we entered with the first few hundred guests. But as they — and they consisted mostly of locust-swarming group tours — made a beeline for the Sistine Chapel, we headed to the picture gallery. And there we stood before three massive Raphael masterpieces, with our backs to tapestries he designed, entirely alone. Several hours later we were body-to-body (and body-to-lunch!) with the hoards standing beneath Michelangelo’s ceiling, but for that brief moment, we had the masters to ourselves.

Still in Rome, on a certainly well-known and yet oddly unpracticed trip out of town, we took the train to Ostia Antica. There lies an entire forgotten city of ancient Rome. Blue Guide in hand, we worked our way through tall grass into and out of rooms and courtyards, we charted our way by frescoes, old wine bars that took little imagination to reanimate and lively mosaics that patterned the floors of baths and gyms and living rooms. Our reliance on what I think of as alternative tour books — the Blue Guide and a Wallpaper* City Guide — endowed us with informative as well as fun insight. After all, we may not have gone searching down the Cardo Maximus for the “striking” mosaic at the doorway to a 4th century home.

Rome even managed to surprise us when we took only a few steps off the well-trodden tourist lanes. With take-away pizza from a well-known spot on the tourist-saturated Palazzo Navona, a little ways away we found a slighty dingy square with several benches, a dramatically arguing couple and this lovely fellow watching us all from his window perch. Now, with calendars at every souvenir shop touting “Cats of Rome,” this is nothing extraordinary, but enjoying a postcard moment without a postcard shop in sight proved pleasant enough.

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Even the Roman ruins we stroll by in the endless chambers of Vatican art remind us that half the reason we love Italy is the food we eat. The mosaics display a banquet of roast boar with mushrooms, crisp vegetables, ripe fruit, plentiful seafood and other succulent morsels that taunt a grumbling belly four hours into my insistence that I will get my 14 euros worth of this gargantuan museum.

The sad truth is that many visitors to Italy do not take advantage of the great culinary honors of the country. Most decent eateries are not near the tourist magnets, and if you insist on eating at 6 p.m., you will find no self-respecting Italian restaurant serving. Although we had our share of mediocre sandwiches and passable ice cream cones — when hunger strikes and trekking out to the foodies’ favorite district was not in the cards — we also delighted in the delectable without extreme measures nor an outsized budget. Have others in Italy eaten better? Sure. But we were quite content with our taste bud travels inextricably linked as they were to a hardcore cliche visit to the big three: Rome, Florence and Venice.

To start off with the big stuff, the best meal we discovered, indeed, off the beaten track. But not too far off. The small town of Fiesole sits in the Tuscan hills above Florence. Even the hop-on-hop-off bus reaches the main square, off of which the tiny Vinandro offered us melting carpaccio, succulent rabbit, rich truffle cream sauced pasta and a 7-euro liter of fine red wine.

Not all our meals were so refined. We set up a picnic of meat-and-cheese-stuffed rice balls (arancini) and a zucchini flower fritter amongst the ruins of an ancient Roman town. We returned again and again to gelatto counters in different cities: caramel, coffee, chocolate mousse, melon and — my favorite — pink grapefruit.  There were sweet rolls packed with sweeter cream from a pastry shop, a pizza lavished with buffalo mozzarella and fresh basil leaves and another topped with grated spring artichoke, uncooked and tossed in lemon juice. We were even pleasantly surprised in Venice to be served a lovely little Parma ham and cheese sandwich scattered with crisp arugula.

But I could not limit myself just to what was served. An unexpected food market of regional specialties set up in front of Santa Croce presented the opportunity to take home truly sun-dried tomatoes, a gnarly salami made with red wine and salty firm ricotta. Even the smallest grocery store overwhelmed: perfect purple artichokes, giant juice pears and alien-fingers of spring fava beans, all products of Italy. Ah, and my first real, sweet tomatoes since last summer.

And for anyone who fears she may not discover such marvels on their own, I have all the confidence of ten days experience to declare: at the very least you shall find a fair cappuccino.

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Wish us luck on our culinary treasure hunt. See you back here in ten days with tales to tell.

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