Saturday morning cappuccinos, croissants, and eggs in the funky restaurant at the Palazzo Vittoria in Verona, and we are ready to depart for Florence. Car brought around, we load up and head off for our two and a half hour journey. En route Charles is trying to get us to make a diversion to Modena where the famed Ferrari Museum is, but we insist that there will be just enough time getting to the center of the city, finding our hotel, lunching, touring a bit, before we have to get ready for dinner.
We have been using a GPS or Nav Sat as Stewart calls it, and it has been pretty reliable, but when we get into the busy center of Florence something goes wrong. We find we can’t turn down some streets that have pedestrian traffic and we go around in circles. Barb suggests I hop out and ask, but the men are adamant that we will find the Relais Santa Croce. Fortunately we have Google maps on Charles’ phone, and we discover we are very close to the hotel and soon arrive at the front door on a busy street. Turns out Stewart had put in a hostel (hotel) Santa Croce rather than Relais Santa Croce, that would have been quite a change from our usual accommodations. When we arrive at the splendid front desk we are given the news that we are upgraded to suites. Yes!
Santa Croce church in all its glory
The rooms turn out to be glorious with views of Santa Croce Church, beautiful bathrooms, candies and fruit on offer and large sumptuous beds. We meet in the bar and decide to separate as Charles and I want to find a jewelry store that was owned by an old friend, and I was the recipient of a charming bracelet called Zero. Our friend Aldo Torrini had died a few years before, but his brother was alive and we thought it would be bittersweet to visit. The store in the Piazza del Duomo was we remembered, near the famed cathedral. After finding the boutique and noticing the closed until 3:00 sign, we stopped for lunch at a pizzeria café on the square. I had announced earlier that I would not have another fattening pizza, but found myself ordering one with a glass of wine, and just ate out the top of the center. Ha – all the difference!
There goes the centre
When we arrived at Torrini jewelers there was a man leaning on the door and I asked him if he was Franco, Aldo’s brother, as there was a striking resemblance. He was indeed, and we visited for a while reminiscing, and then walked to the famed outdoor San Lorenzo market nearby where I was on a mission to purchase three silk men’s ties for 10 euros for my girlfriend’s boyfriend. Mission accomplished very quickly, but we continued to wander up and down the stalls, a fun activity in an outdoor market no matter what city. In Florence there is a preponderance of leather products, purses and more purses, and I enjoy looking at the people. It seemed we walked for hours and that our late afternoon nap was beckoning. Back to the gorgeous suite and a snooze.
Franco Torrini in his shop
As usual we met in the bar before dinner and shared our afternoon adventures. Stewart was working diligently to keep Barb away from the stores, and we enthused over our hotel. The bar in this hotel also served mini appetizers with drinks, ( see Viva Italia Part 2) which we gobbled up because we hadn’t eaten for at least 3 hours.
The restaurant choice for the evening was a short walk from the hotel on Ghilbellina, called Ristorante Dino. Friends in Toronto had told us that their daughter was married to the chef and she also was working as a sous chef. I booked this ahead and received a very welcoming email from Lezlie. The atmosphere was homey and warm. The food was simply delicious and very reasonably priced. We were offered a wonderful bread soup to start and then Charles and I shared meatballs, while Stewart and Barb shared a porcini mushroom soufflé, a real winner. For the main course Barb and I chose the wild boar that was braised in a chocolate and raisin sauce, heartbreakingly good, Charles and Stewart, the ossobucco, also excellent.
Ristorante Dino: Charles with Lezli and me
I keep short reminder notes on my ipad when we are travelling, and then transfer them to my laptop and write my stories. The spell correction is always a marvel because when I started reviewing my notes I wondered what on earth Charles had eaten that was called an Oslo Buccaneer, and then it dawned.
Marathon in Firenze; one tired runner and friend
The next morning after more food at breakfast, starting to feel my clothes shrinking on me, we separated for a few hours. There was a Sunday morning marathon with thousands of runners, walkers, and dogs all wearing the same t-shirts for some charitable cause, so we watched them and wandered through their ranks. All the stores were open. We visited the Piazza della Republica where families had taken their children to ride on the giant carousel in the centre. We wandered through the shops on Via del Corso, lunched on soup and shrimp salad at the pricey outdoor café of The Savoy hotel and marvelled at the endless flow of fashionable people. Then back to the hotel for a quick fresh up and shoe changer to prepare for our afternoon walking tour with private guide.
Piazza della Republica carousel
Riccardo, a young, energetic, knowledgeable art history major from a small tour company Colors of Italy was our expert guide. He pointed out the tabernacles on the walls of many buildings where people would pray before there were churches. We visited the Santa Croce Church (see above) where hundreds of famous men are buried like Medici and Galileo. Riccardo told us the story of Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci and their time in Florence. He talked of Michelangelo’s homosexuality all this in advance of viewing David, at the Accademia. Our tickets to see David were purchased in advance for 5:00pm, but we had to line up anyway. There were two lines, one for advance tickets, the other for walk-ups. Obviously the former is the way to go as we got in before the walk-up line. Although hundreds of people were outside in the lines, inside it was not crowded at all, perfect to view this magnificent sculpture created in one piece of marble. Amazingly, the eyes are heart shaped to reflect the light.
Riccardo tour guide, Riki, and David in all his splendour
Exhausted, we returned to the hotel to regroup for dinner at a seafood restaurant suggested by Lezli and Massimo, our new friends, the chefs from Dino restaurant. A taxi took us across the river to Cestello where we indulged in masses of seafood that we chose from a refrigerated display; tuna tartare with salmon and scallops then divine huge scampi grilled over flames, served on mashed potatoes. Stewart and Barbara delighted in fois gras in cream then sea bass. Lemon vanilla froth covered with caramel sauce hardened like glass was dessert. We dragged our fat bellies to bed knowing that we were heading early the next day to the Tuscany hills, a wine tour and lunch.
Incredible grilled scampi at Cestello
All through my blogs I have links to many websites. I suggest you click on them as the photos and descriptions from the hotels and restaurants are informative, as are the detailed history of many subjects.
Monday morning arrived and we headed to the Tuscan hills and Carpineto vineyards. There are actually five sites where Carpineto wines are made, but we planned to meet with Antonio Zacheo in his winery near Montepulciano where the wonderful Vino Nobile di Montepulciano is prepared. Antonio is an old friend and he proudly took us on a tour of his most modern facility and explained the creation and production of his wines. He is a charming man and totally fluent in English, as so much of his wines are sold in Great Britain, the United States and Canada. He told us that he was invited to a Wine Spectator event in New York, and would have the prestigious honour; his Vino Nobile-chosen as one of the top 100 wines in the world.
We struggled to find his place. Our GPS let us down, wonder of wonders, and took us into a hill town, (we missed seeing the sign that said no cars allowed), and we inched our way down hills, close to walls that we could touch, but managed to get out unscathed. Charles was driving this day. I had to hold back my laughter because that seems to be the way I deal with these sorts of situations. After a phone call to our host we followed him to his vineyard. Whew!
Riki with Antonio, Barbara and Stewart at winery in Tuscany
After our tour, we accompanied Antonio to lunch at a local cantina, and drank 2 bottles of the famed wine, 2011 vintage, that was brilliant. We also had some of his spumante with our pate starter, followed by a pasta dish made with wild boar, which must be in season, then the tour de force, Chianina grilled on an open barbecue. This enormous piece of beef with the T-bone in it has to be the largest I have ever seen and also one of the most tender. It was cooked rare and shared among the table of 5. I opted for the bone, which was succulent. If I weren’t such a lady I would have picked it up and eaten it, chomping on the succulent meat closest to the bone. After espresso, we left for a visit to the nearby town of Montepulciano. We climbed the steep road up from our car to this charming Tuscan setting and walked off as much of the lunch as we could, as well as purchasing soaps and other local gifts. Then we headed back to Florence tummies full, and heads clearer from our exercise.
We decided in the evening to skip dinner, but found ourselves walking and stopping for a drink in a bar/café in the Piazza Santa Croce and planning an early evening before our morning departure for Erbusco.
My sister had suggested a resort/ spa in a small town near Lago Iseo called L’Albereta. Naturally we arrived in time for lunch on their charming outdoor terrace. At this point we are all feeling like The Michelin Man, but that didn’t stop us from ordering from the creative menu. Salads, fish, chicken, all very tasty. Then I went for a swim in the very stunning indoor pool and Charles went for a read and a nap.
Lobby at L’Albereta
Unusual garden sculptures
Our garden rooms had a small patio facing lovely views with hills in the background. Our dinner plans got re-arranged so we stayed at the hotel and ate in their special restaurant called Leonefelice or happy lion. And what happy people we were. We chose lightly for obvious reasons. The local fresh fish was done in a meuniere style and simply delectable. We drank a Franciacorta rose from the vineyard of the hotel called Contadi Castaldi. This sparking wine is produced by the champagne method and is very different from prosecco. We planned to visit the vineyard the next day and sample the various sparkling wines they make. This is complimentary if you are a guest at the hotel.
Back to dinner. We didn’t order dessert, except Barb who chose something delectable in caramel, but they offered us a sampling of different incredible sweets; miniature dark chocolate ice cream bars, soufflé with dipping sauce and a brioche bun, all presented in a whimsical way. Wonderful caring service from our waiter topped off our evening. There also was gorgeous décor with lots of glass and stunning art.
We drove to the Contadi Castoldi winery and met our group of 8 people who would take the tour in English. I should mention that this hotel also owns Bella Vista another winery with Franciacorta wine that is served at La Scala opera. The young man who greeted us and accompanied us all morning, Matteo, was superb. He spoke English extremely well, well enough to make jokes, which is a real test of ones language skills. The tour was informative and the tasting of 5 Franciacorte sparking wines simply dazzling.
Before all this happened we arrived in an impressive hall that is obviously used for entertaining. Near the back of the room was a grand piano. One of our group sat down and started to play. He was obviously a professional. So I wandered over and we started talking. He actually is an American jazz musician, Greg Spero, who works as an arranger and music director for a teenybopper rock group called Halsey that had recently sold out Madison Square Gardens. He played Summertime and I sang. It was just the right time and place and he was super. I am told I wasn’t bad either. The acoustics were great and I even got to sing a nice high note and held on to it for ages. What fun. Then we had the tasting. Greg’s wife is a chocolate producer with cacao from Columbia, and the other couple were from Australia, he a minister in the government. So the chatter was terrifically interesting.
Singing before tasting
We needed lunch after this, and headed into the small town of Iseo where we had crepes with porcini mushrooms. Fortunately it was only about a twenty-minute drive to the hotel, also fortunately all the stores were closed until later in the day. I went for a massage in the spa, which was very good. Dinner was a delightful experience in a farmhouse, not far from the hotel, the family owned Il Priore. More food! This time a very country homey fare. We had a wonderful tasting of a creamy cauliflower soup, carpaccio, and then three of us had a beef filet in a truffle sauce, delicious, while Barb had pork tenderloin, cheeses for dessert. One new taste treat for me is parmigiano with a splash of balsamic vinegar. The other, for lovers of espresso and ice cream is affugato, a scoop of vanilla ice cream and a shot of espresso. Charles’ favorite.
Views at Lago Iseo and Affugato
So at this point we all decided that we could eat no more and that it was a good thing we were departing Italy the next morning. Any one who follows me on Facebook might remember that our flight home took a very long time, with a diversion to Shannon airport for a heart attack victim on the plane, a broken airplane door slide, another stop in Halifax for a crew change, and then finally after 18 hours of travelling we were home.
The next morning I checked in on the scale and much to my surprise and delight I hadn’t gained a pound. I can attribute that to no snacking, eating natural foods without preservatives, little fat just olive oil, lots and lots of walking, and very non descript food on Air Canada.
Viva Italia indeed!