The Fresh Florence Air

After spending the morning inside museums, Hubby and I were ready for some fresh air, even if that meant cold fresh air that tried to lift your skirts. (Tell me again…why do grown men wear kilts in windy Ireland? It makes no sense.)

Leaving the Bargello, we wandered over to the Loggia dei Lanzi with: yep, more statues. You can circle Hercules as he wrestles a centaur. Admire the Medici lions. Wonder why women are cast as victims. (Until you remember “Florence Triumphant Over Pisa” and maintain constant respect for your hostess.) And yes – I told you so! – there is Perseus himself, holding the head of Medusa. No wonder this place is full of statues, she’s the beginning and the end of the whole place. Percy stands in the Loggia, at the edge of the Piazza della Signoria, where we decided to take our afternoon tea break.

Sitting in the terrace, I poured a proper cup of loose leaf darjeeling – it cost seven euros – while newlyweds passed us in a horse-drawn carriage. Neptune’s fountain was across the way, undergoing renovations. A tourist in a green-striped shirt walked by, wrestling with his gelato cone. A small child held his parent’s hand, toting a Mickey Mouse pack on his back.

If there’s one thing I know for certain, this was no fake Neverland.

Florence never faked a thing in her life, thank you very much.

To continue our stroll towards the Arno River, we passed between the Uffizi Galleries, a final set of museums that we would have no hope of seeing at this late hour. Inside, Florence kept her painters: Botticelli, Rembrandt, da Vinci, Titian, Raphael, Michelangelo, the list goes on. It is, perhaps, the heart of Florence. Her poetry. I imagine I would be lost in the first frame, listening to the eloquent genius pulsing from it.

We emerged onto the glittering waterfront, shaking off the shadows of Uffizi and picking up the energetic  bustle of tourists heading towards the Ponte Vecchio. This famous bridge is not quite what I had imagined after all the hoopla, but it had it’s charm. Padlocks are strung along the railing, in the tradition of “love locks”: names of sweethearts and/or dates are etched onto the locks, the locks are attached to the bridge and the key thrown into the river. Apparently, this only began in the early 2000’s after a book depicted the idea and it spread world-wide. It represents an unbreakable love.

Where I come from, it represents vandalism. Good grief, get a tattoo and save the fish.

Florence threw out 5,500 love locks from the Ponte Vecchio in 2006 alone. There is a strict fine for attaching one, but let me just show you this:

Ahem, Benvenuto Cellini does not approve.

I’ve dubbed Ponte Vecchio the “Yellow Brick Road” because, per the1593 edict of the Medici Grand Dukes, all they sell is gold jewelry there. The windows glow. Let me just show you this:

But I wasn’t in the market. We grabbed a gelato and got going.

At the sun began to settle, we worked our way over the Arno and up a side street. We wanted to view the sunset on our last day in Florence from the Piazza Michelangelo, a large raised plateau. It was the first thing farther than we expected it to be and did not anticipate the amount of steep steps it took to reach the top.

We arrived hot and bothered but the view was worth it. I understand the sunset here changes all during the year, Florence turning this way and that, catching the light and playing it over her curves. Her mood tonight was subtle, blushing over the river, softening rooftops, reducing the wind to a soft warm sigh.

A bronze copy of David enjoyed the sight with us. It’s fitting that they surrounded him with permanent green groupies. After seeing the real deal, nothing less is interesting.

We bought souvenirs there on the piazza, because at this point, the street vendors seemed like old friends. A couple of T-shirts later, an apron, a scarf, we returned down the steps and back into town in search of pizza for dinner.

Hubby by now had strict pizza rules: ten flavors is not adequate, but twenty choices means business. It must say “Pizzeria” on the door and offer outside seating in an actual lane of traffic. The prices must be reasonable, using the Costco standard. It must have “atmosphere” if at all possible.

Florence knew just the place. Which was great, because by now I was ready to kill him.

I had a nice big glass of red wine when we were seated, which means I had a half a pizza in a take-away box when we left for our hotel. I can eat or I can drink, not both. We wandered down the first narrow street that headed in the right direction and ran smack into the college district.

All of Florence’s twenty-somethings were enjoying the pubs along this particular street, standing in groups, chatting and enjoying the evening. We walked at least a mile and never saw a single person drunk, rowdy, or raising a voice. Florence kept it cosmopolitan classy.

“We should have eaten here!” Hubby said.

“Well, considering that we have been married longer than these kids have been alive,” I pointed out, “I feel we chose wisely.”

I took his hand.

If I had to choose being single and twenty-anything in Florence, hanging out with the cool people, or being fabulous five-oh in Florence, hanging out with my beloved on the world’s most amazing 30th Anniversary trip to Actual Italy….there’s no competition.

I wouldn’t trade this night for anything.

Abridged Florence When you’re a pizza snob. Looking back towards the tea. Duck! That’s gotta hurt.

Exploring the Closets in Florence

Piazza di San Giovanni lies between the Santa Maria del Fiori, the third largest church in Europe, and it’s famous golden-doored Baptistry. We stood in this little piazza on our last day in Florence, Italy, wondering how she could be so sunshiny and yet blow with such a stiff, cold, steady wind.

It was first thing in the morning and Hubby and I were not prepared for it.

Brunelleschi’s massive egg-shaped duomo, the crown of Florence, was our immediate goal but this time, our luck did not hold. Timed entry tickets were sold out for the day. We shivered in the square and decided to attack the campanile instead.

This tower is only twenty feet shorter than the dome and as we circled around and up to each staircase level, small rectangular air shafts framed beautiful views of the city, the orange-tiled dome across the way, and the cathedral decked in stripes of green, white, and pink Tuscan marble. 414 steps later, we were treated to a view of Florence from atop her scepter.

The campanile empties out into the Piazza del Duomo. The endless line waiting to enter the cathedral on the west side meant there was almost no one in the square with us, enjoying the slowly-warming southern side. A small caffe on the corner winked at us, then gave us a peek at her pastry case, tucked discretely behind orchids. You guys. We are only human. We sat right in the front window and had a decadent breakfast.

Be still my heart.

I want to believe that if you fill someone up with enough sugar and espresso, the very next thing they see will appear as golden, floating, surrounded by alien aura. But probably the Baptistry really is. My photos indicate that we actually walked through gold doors, under a gold ceiling, and stood in sunbeams that gave us halos. The baptismal font sounds like an angel choir when you hold it up to your ear.

Once the caffeine wore off, we walked completely around the cathedral, hoping to find the end of the entry line. People were frozen, hunched resolutely against the cold, sculpted by the wind.

You can admire the statues or become the statues. Easy choice.

We bypassed it once again, heading instead into the Museo dell’Opera del Duomo, a museum dedicated to the history of the duomo. It contains the original Baptistry doors. A great many statues, including Donatello’s St. John and another pieta by Michelangelo are in there, as well as paintings, mosaics, textiles, choir stalls and books, gold-work, and a display of tools and designs used by Brunelleschi for his dome.

St John, by Donatelli Abraham and Isaac Real deal doors.

The Museo Nazionale del Bargello is three blocks straight down Via del Proconsolo. I ask you: can you go into too many museums in one day? No you can’t, don’t be silly. And the Bargello is worthy of your time. There was plenty of sculpture for statue buffs like myself, and a frightening amount of ancient armor and weaponry, right down to hunting hawks’ hoods. Coins, cannon, cloth. No less than three different Davids with the head of Goliath rolling around their ankles.

Caught a fish. Heavy metal. My name is Inigo Montoya… Mercury says there’s more upstairs….

Sighing with contentment, I tucked my camera phone away and declared that it was, finally, tea time.

Legend says that when the contest for who would build the Duomo of the cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore was held, a great many engineers and architects argued around the table about ways to accomplish it. Finally, it was Brunelleschi’s turn to speak. He passed an egg around the table and asked everyone to try standing it on it’s end. No one could. He took the egg back, and smashed it lightly onto the table. The end broke, the egg stood: a perfect dome.

“This,” he said, “is what we need to create.” He got the job.

The story of  Brunelleschi and the largest masonry dome in the world can be enjoyed here. It was an engineering nightmare that he pulled off seamlessly and he died without leaving a trace of notes explaining how he did it.

Tasting the Tuscan Wine

The “Sunset Siena and Chianti Wine Tour with Dinner from Florence” sounded elegant. It included “transport by air-conditioned coach, professional tour leader, and dinner at a wine estate with wine tasting”. It did not include gratuities.

But these were optional.

By the time we pulled up to the winery doors, I was tired. I was thankful to be able to sit and let the fun come to me for once.

The sun was setting, somewhere in the west behind the rolling Tuscan hills, and it was obvious to all of us that the “sunset” part of the tour was already over.

This did not bother Marco in the slightest.

Marco represents his family’s vineyards to incoming tour groups and we followed his exuberant lead for the rest of the evening. He gave an introduction at the gate and although my research told me we were in the Holy Grail of wine country, the cup was not any more glamorous than that in Temecula.

We settled at tables in a room and this was all we got to see of the winery. There was no tour. When you read about this place on their website, it’s hard to reconcile what they think they look like with what we actually saw.

Marco (Polo) is a comedian with a captive audience. I have to admit he was entertaining, even assuming that, as the audience tastes more wine, he gets exponentially funnier. He can’t lose. I did feel, just a little, like I was sitting in on a time-share sales pitch, though.

He sold a lot of wine at the end of our evening.

Our group was so random. There was an eight year old with his mom, the Three Elderly Sisters of whom I spoke in the last blog, middle-aged giggling women on a girls trip who were there to get wasted, honeymooners who admitted they were trying to get pregnant to the whole room, true wine aficionados who frowned into their glasses,…we sat at a table with a couple from Morocco who spoke French. We smiled and kept our manners and stared at the plate a lot.

Marco was okay with all of it. He’d seen worse.

We were all served a glass of wine, a plate of antipasto, a pen, and a form for making notes. Marco then taught us the proper way to appreciate wine:

    1. Use a goblet or a paper cup. It doesn’t matter. But if you have a wine glass, for ding dang sake, pinch the stem at the base with thumb and pointer, and keep the rest of your grubby fingers under the bottom. The wine is chilled. The wine is pure. Stay as far away from it as you can and good luck not spilling.
    1. Pour in a half inch of wine. Hold it up and let the light refract through the liquid.
    1. Does it look like…white wine? Good.
    1. Now sip it. Does it taste like…white wine? Good.
    1. Holding the glass properly, swirl the wine in a little hurricane-like vortex while slowly counting to ten. Don’t spill it, I said!
    1. When you reach “ten”, stick your nose and mouth into the cup. Your chin and cheeks should keep the wine in place as you inhale deeply.
    1. Does it smell like…white wine? Good.
    1. Place your spare hand over the mouth of the cup. Holding the glass properly, swirl the wine in a little hurricane-like vortex while slowly counting to ten. Do not get wine on your hand. See step 1.
    1. When you reach “ten”, remove your hand and place your nose and mouth into the cup again.
  1. Does it smell like…buttered bananas? You are a wine tasting winner because that is exactly what this wine is supposed to smell like and now you have discovered it.

This is the only white wine produced by this winery. And it smells like bananas.

We repeated these steps but now the goal was to write down our thoughts as we took a bite from each of the foods on our plate and immediately sipped.

My notes explicitly state that, although the white Vernaccia di san Gimignano was nice with toast, it was exceptional with a bite of salami. Marco asked by a show of hands, which food was best with the wine. Only the eight year old and myself had preferred the sweet and salty combination.

Marco reminded everyone that there were no wrong answers.

The red we sampled next was a Chianti Classico, with the black rooster label. If it had fruity flavors, they were lost on me. This was when I remembered that I had been fighting a head cold all week. For all I could tell, the wine tasted like buttered chicken. But this was the good stuff.

So I drank it. Salute!

“The vinegar on your greens,” declared Marco, “is our Balsamic Select. It can also be purchased at the end of our meal tonight.”

He flipped a sample form over as the meal was served. On the back, was an order form for everything they sold at the winery.

Convenient.

The Brunello di Montalcino has a strong personality with a dry, full, smooth, well balanced flavor. Its bouquet is characteristic and intense, composed of violet and forest fruit scents. I found it spicy with a strong leather undercurrent. It did not distract me from trying the secret family recipe white sauce lasagne because the waiter was going around and pouring million-dollar Truffle Flavored Extra Virgin Olive Oil over our plates.

I have never tasted truffle outside of a box of See’s candy.

There are no words to explain this flavor to you. But it is fabulous and delicious and intriguing. Even with a head cold.

“Truffles are a strong aphrodisiac,” warned Marco, “be careful!”

The honeymooners giggled. The gigglers demanded more wine. The eight year old looked thoughtful. I drank my Brunello.

Another course was served, a thin slice of beef and little bits of potato, some bare lettuce. With it we tried Cavaliere, a Super Tuscan. “The prime quality and structure of this wine demand excellent first courses and risottos with sauces made from game, red meat, and mature spicy cheeses.” My thoughts were, “There’s a horse on the label and it has great legs in the glass. Logic.”

Have I mentioned that red wine puts me to sleep within minutes?

Thankfully, plates of biscotti appeared, along with the house dessert wine. Naturally, there were rules: dip the biscotti into your wine ten times, then nibble the cookie and sip the wine. Repeat.

Marco set up shop as we finished, selling his wares to one and all. Hubby had thoroughly enjoyed the wines and bought some Cavaliere to bring home.

“Excellent choice,” I mumbled. I was cheating, chomping on the brick-hard biscotti and swilling the wine down after it.

Sure, Marco can school me on wine etiquette, but me and enjoying dessert go way back.

I know I promised you all some Italian recipes and although we ate many a splendored dish, there was no time to walk to the back and question the cook. Marco promised me the recipe for his grand-mama’s white lasagne but there is nothing on his website but panzanella and knuckle of pork. While I found you some fabulous limoncello recipes and told you where to find the best gelato in Italy, here instead I will point you to Mary’s fresh blog: Spoon and Suitcase. She shares her world wanderings and her culinary discoveries.
It’s a little mini-vacation all over again.
Enjoy.
On the road again… The legs of a thoroughbred. Marco makes the money fly.