Saturday, May 5, 2001
Wacked out from the flight. Eating gelato in the shadow of the cathedral, an immense construction of pinkish marble that took five centuries to build. I wonder what was the original form. It was finished under Napoleon who knew how to get things done.
It’s good to be back in Europe again. Milan is not what I expected. I didn’t see any factories or gleaming modern office towers. This is an old city.
Hotel Gran Duca di York – charming – on a side street surrounded by banks. There’s a tiny bar in the lobby and elevators the size of phone booths. I love the construction details. Our room is tiled green throughout. Marble facings on the elevators. So much here seems built on a small scale except the monuments. The cathedral is truly large.
We’re here on a weekend, and the pace is just right. The day after tomorrow, Monday, things will be different. We’ll be on our way.
May 6, 2001
Milan – Lake Como – Milan
Sun and cool air. Excursion to Lake Como. I’m surprised at how steep the surrounding hills are right down to the lake. The famous villas are all built on steep hillsides. One of the great ones belonged to Luciano Visconti. The town of Como’s claim to fame is Sandor Volta, who invented the battery and gave his name to the volt.
Finally got the meaning of “alla Milanese”: breaded and deep fried – not my favorite kind of food. We’ve had two great meals though, and we love staying at the Duca. Met a lady architect who lives in New York on East 28th Street. She encouraged us to go to Sienna while were in Florence, an excursion we have already planned.
Monday, May 7, 2001
Milan – Florence
Left Milan, city of banks, for Florence (Firenze) on a first-class train. The trip was over all to soon. We love traveling by train. We ate in the dining car. Primo Piatto: fusilli with a light tomato sauce. Segundo piatto: turkey cutlets with vegetables. Such fun! We love eating on the train, and it’s been so long!
Our first lodging: Hotel Maxim, a stone’s throw from the Duomo in the heart of Florence. It’s Monday and everything is closed. We walked a long way taking pictures. Crossed the Arno on the Ponte Vecchio.
Here are the wonders of Florence: the Duomo, Cellini’s Perseus (copy) in front of the Palazzo Vecchio, the Ponte Vecchio, the whole city with its medieval feel. Wonderful!
Walked a long way past the Pitti Palace (closed) and the Boboli Gardens (closed). Drank a Martini Bianco in a friendly snack bar. Later, in a tony hotel on the edge of town we had a bathroom break and drank Cynar.
We ended our walking tour in the Piazza Santa Croce at dusk. Lovely!
May 8 – 13, 2001
Churches of San Marco & SS Annunziata
The Medici Palace
A large food market
Il Pizzaiuolo for the best pizza in Florence
Perseus for the famous Steak Florentine
Steak here is made in a way we no longer eat it at home. Thick chunks, grilled very rare with too much gristle.
The lunchtime pizza was the highlight of the day – thin crust, tomato sauce and Mozzarella di Buffalo.
The Uffizi knocked us out: Botticelli’s Birth of Venus, Michelangelo’s Sacred Family in unconventional poses, the artist’s only easel portrait.
To enter the Uffizi, I got up early and sat by the entrance an hour before it opened. A woman from Texas soon joined me. A long line formed behind us. At last Kay came running wit two tiny plastic cups of coffee covered with napkins. This was the best the Florentines could do in the way of to-go cups.
It’s amazing how the Renaissance painters reworked the same subjects over and over – scenes from the life of Jesus, with an occasional depiction from the Old Testament and one from ancient myth.
May 9, 2001
Cars, scooters, and all motorized vehicles are a noisy curse in this city, at least in the old town.
“Al dente” is harder here than in America. Spaghetti with tomato and basil is a joy. The sauce is so light.
Tourists are everywhere. I’m glad not to be here later in the summer.
There is an extraordinary view from the terrace of the Boboli Gardens. In Florence the weather seems to change every half hour – sun to clouds, warm to cool.
I’m glad to be reading Cellini’s Autobiography. I saw several of his pieces in the Bargello Museum this morning.
Cibrèo in Florence, our blowout meal of the trip. Ate so much I felt sick. The menu had no antipasto section; the little dishes came automatically, two or three at a time. Of special note was a dish of baby lima beans that popped in the mouth. They were dressed in olive oil and honey. Also, among the surprises was a tomato puree flan, a veal tripe salad and . . .
Wine was poured as an aperitif, a white from the Veneto called Bianco di Custoza. It was so delicious that we ordered a full bottle. My segundo piatto was fresh tuna baked in the oven then dressed with olive oil and herbs and served at room temperature.
There was a cheese plate with five of six different kinds of pecorino arranged from young to old or delicate to strong. We ate these with honey.
Finally, I had a kind of caramel flan for dessert (Kay ordered a flourless chocolate cake.), dessert wine from the South of Italy, espresso, and for me, a Fernet Branca.
We staggered back to the hotel and passed out. Curtin!
May 10, 2001
Checked out of the Hotel Maxim and into the Malaspina. One distinction of the Maxim is its number of oil paintings. I counted 23 in the dining room alone.
We’ve got a food hangover from the Cibrèo adventure. Today feels like a good one to do chores and plan some things for the days ahead:
- Change hotels
- Buy tickets for Venice
- Plan an excursion to Sienna
- Buy more film
- Do laundry
- Read more of Cellini
Friday, May 11, 2001
Florence – Sienna – Florence
First impressions of Sienna: the fucking motorbikes aren’t allowed in the old center.
Il Campo, the old square that has the tallest tower is marvelous. Its brick pavement sloping downward on three sides form a kind of bowl.
Young people sit and lie on the bricks. As one of our guidebooks put it, “It’s like being on a beach without sand or water.”
There seem to lots more old people here proportionally speaking. Maybe the motorbikes in Florence terrify them from going outdoors.
Lunch in Sienna was in a little family-run trattoria. We’ve had many of our best meals in such places. Here we ate papparadelle with chicory, tomatoes and mushrooms. For dessert there were sliced strawberries with cream.
Finding the train station in Sienna was a frustrating adventure. We had taken a city bus from the station to the city earlier in the day and thought to do the reverse. The problem was that we couldn’t get the right bus. We wandered all over the city on one and at times could see the station in the distance but couldn’t get to it. Finally, we did, of course.
Italian gelato is a new distinction for me and really wonderful. For me the wonderfullest flavor is crema. Florence has a renowned gelato parlor called Vivoli located near Santa Croce. It’s simply the best.
May 12, 2001
We accomplished much. We got into the Galleria as the doors opened. Finally seeing the real David is a thrill. Lot’s of other Michelangelo’s work today as well, at the Academia and elsewhere.
Near the end of the day I got a sudden inspiration to see the frescos of Masaccio in the Brancacci Chapel at Santa Maria del Carmine. It had begun to rain, and the Carmine was a distance from Santa Croce. Cabs were in short supply, but one driver saw Kay and called another driver on his radio for us. This kind of generosity happens to us regularly; it’s a blessing.
Seeing Masaccio, who I had no knowledge of and who died at 28, was a revelation. His depiction of Adam and Eve in despair as they leave the garden is so powerful. In other panels he paints his own face, that of Donatello, and that of Botticelli. These are extraordinary. His own face is that of a man of strong character. Botticelli looks beautiful, like one of his own creations.
May 13, 2001
Florence – Venice
On the Venice train we shared the compartment with three Spaniards and I finished reading Cellini’s Autobiography. What a picture I have of this man!
I’m noticing how clean our hotel rooms are, cleaner than many at home. All rooms here are tiled, which adds to the ease of cleaning.
I’m noticing also the hotel decors. They’re individual and personal. The Maxim in Florence is filled with small oil paintings. Here in Venice at the Al Piave, the staircases are lined with views of Venice. Not only the walls but also everything – colors, furniture, fabrics, moldings, and lighting – bespeaks individual taste.
Our taste for Italian cuisine deepens. It’s simple. A caprese salad, for example, is a thing of great beauty and flavor. Simply grilled vegetables (verdure all griglia), eggplant, zucchini, sweet peppers dressed with pepper and olive oil are delicious.
The venetians have a specialty sold in bakeries called Zellito. It’s a kind of dry and semi-hard biscuit, oval, five inches long, and filled with raisins. Delicious! Expensive, too, almost $2.00 each.
Venice has the reputation of being the most expensive city in Italy. Funny thing: it has been so for the pat 400 years. Montaigne complained of the cost of his Italian trip in the 1500s.
The Piazza San Marco – Napoleon called it “the finest drawing room in Europe.” We sat at the Café Florian at sundown. Cool air and wonderful music from a four-piece orchestra. Played favorites old and new: Andrew Lloyd Weber’s Theme from Cats, Strauss waltzes, and finally, The Bolero, when the musicians had to compete with the sound of the bells on the Campanile.
Arriving at the Venice train station we splurged on a water taxi for our trip to the Siestre Castello near our hotel. What a blast! Kay and I were alone in the back of this sleek boat with the sun shining and the first impressions of Venice moving by. I was taking pictures like mad.
We went on the canals, on the Lagoon, past the Via degli Schiavoni, the Doge’s Palace, the Bridge of Sighs, and St Giorgio Maggiore. It was a wonderful way to enter the city.
Monday, May 14, 2001
Slept later than usual. We decided spontaneously to visit the Island of Murano. Kay is infatuated with art glass. The hotel’s patron says there is a free taxi to Murano – en garde! The water taxi ride straight to the glass cooperative was lovely. There we met Claudio, a super salesman. This I expected. What’s a surprise is how well the transaction goes.
There’s no feeling of pressure. We are offered a glass-blowing demonstration followed by a tour of the showroom. We take a long time looking and evaluating. Finally, we buy a beautiful vase of the filigree style. Kay is delighted.
Murano is lovely, much more so than I remember. We ate lunch al fresco – lots of fish and a pleasant chat with an English couple, whose plan for retirement is to live on a sailboat.
In the late afternoon we went to Burano, not a bad idea since we’re doing the northern islands. Burano is noted for its brightly colored houses and its lace making. There are lots of people in the street, mostly older, talking and gossiping.
There are election results posted in the center of town; we can’t read them, though.
The guidebook is full of quotes by Ruskin, who pronounced on everything he saw here. I didn’t realize he was so stuck on the Middle Ages and the Gothic. Most of Venetian expression offended his sensibilities mightily. Some of his Victorian opinions sound ridiculous today.
Food, wine, sun, wind – we can’t help but relax here.
May 15, 2001
Rain. We had to move and changed hotels in the rain, taking the Vaporetto from S. Zaccharia to Ca’ Rezzonico and then losing our way finding the Hotel Pausania in the Dorsoduro.
The hotel is located in an ancient 14th-century building and our first-floor window looks out onto a beautiful interior garden with no noise. We love to sleep with the windows open. The air sans cars, buses and motorbikes is so much cleaner and fresher.
The Academia here is extraordinary. I’ve seen his work before, but this time I really get Tintoretto – the powerful drawing, the colors, and the drama. His are action paintings. Bellini must have ten versions of the Madonna and Child in the museum, all wonderful. There are great scenes of Venice, huge and minute in detail. They are documentary records of how people dressed and how ships were built in the 14th and 15th centuries.
We’ve eaten so well on this trip. We find a small place, often on a back street, where the showmanship of the patron or waiter makes dining such an experience. We often take their recommendations for what to order. Last night’s antipasti course: pig’s cheeks sliced very thin on a bed of arugula tasted like ham. Following this was a dish of large ravioli filled with spinach and ricotta. My Segundo piatto was a duck dish stewed with a sauce of liver and mushrooms. Never have I ever tasted anything like this. Kay had roast-suckling pig and loved it. Earlier, we went to Harry’s bar and spent a fortune for two Bellini cocktails. Ho hum!
Last night a red from Piemonte, Sampò 1997, a great, smooth, delightful bottle. These are discoveries.
Yesterday’s lunch was a pizza on a quiet piazza in the Dorsoduro. We watched two pigeons performing a mating ritual on the paving stones before us. People walking dogs passed by. Nearby, a group of what looked like students studied a building, photographing, measuring, notating, etc. For what purpose . . . architecture, renovation? We’ll never know. Then there were the sparrows. As we sat relaxing and soaking up the sun, these tiny birds would come onto our table two feet from our noses and take pizza crumbs from our plates. One even carried off a crust, which must have weighed as much as it did. These are experiences we never have at home.
Wednesday, May 16, 2001
At the Doge’s palace there were hordes of people. Too many! The space of the courtyard is impressive. Afterward, having had enough of crowds, we visited churches. The Rendatore is thrilling, an enormous white space lit by lunettes high up on the sides. The proportions of the apse to the transept to the nave work so well.
We ate again at La Bitte (only meat). Tonight, prosciutto (fresh and smoked) or, as they say here, “ham at the knife.” We followed this with a delicious spaghetti and the “little chickens”, actually a breast stewed in a wonderful sauce. We drank another wine from Piemonte, La Rivolta Monferrato ’98, deeply red, smooth, and strong.
After the main course came in succession first, strawberries cut small in a juice that included a touch of Balsamic vinegar and pepper, and second, a drink made with gelato, vodka, lemon, sparkling wine, and heavy cream. Delicious!
Next, were little glasses of Agricanto, a liqueur made with wine, grappa, and sugar. It tasted a bit like cough syrup but good. Finally, there was warm pineapple with schnapps.
It was quite an evening in the garden, three-and-a-half hours. We have a photo of us with Stefano. Must send him one.
May 17, 2001
This is our last day in Venice. We have a train to Bologna at 2:30 pm, but until then . . .
San Nicolò dei Mendicoli, a tiny church in an obscure corner of the Dorsoduro that was the location for Nick Roeg’s film Don’t Look Now with Donald Sutherland.
After leaving our bags at the railway station, we made a walking tour of the north side and visited the Jewish Ghetto and the Churches of San Avise and Madonna dell’Orto. The Avise has three extraordinary Tintorettos: Christ being Whipped, The Crown of Thorns, and Christ Carrying the Cross Up Calvary. These scenes of Christ’s human suffering are intense, more so than I’ve ever seen. Too bad the reproductions are so poor.
May 18, 2001
Arrived in Bologna late yesterday afternoon. Kay is sad to leave Venice. Here we’re back in the land of cars and motor scooters. Yuck! We’re glad we came, though. Bologna has a different look and feel from the other cities.
For starters there are the arcades, twenty-one miles of them. We ate well (This town is noted for its food.), but after the very special evenings at La Bitte it is kind of a let down. Kay is not very cheerful.
Now, we have a whole day to play. I’ve found a park, similar to parks in the U.S., where I sit at 8 am making these notes. The air is cool; the sun is shining; the birds are chirping. In front of me is a pool with a fountain at its center consisting of four stone turtles spouting water. Around the perimeter are four statues on stone bases. They are mermaids and lions and seem to grow organically out of their bases. Parks like this seem to be rare in Italy; it’s a pleasure to sit in one.
On the way here I walked through an enormous outdoor market selling clothing, household items, etc. What fun! This whole trip has been so restorative. Vacations mean change for me – new sights and different ways of thinking and learning – getting Venice in a new way and getting Tintoretto’s greatness. Then there is discovering for ourselves quiet churches in obscure corners of the city and reading the history of the places. The experience is so rich.
Wine note: Roero Arneis ’99 (Pronotto) 12% From Piedmont. A very dry white with an unusual aftertaste. Different and interesting.
Bologna is proving to be a very good choice. It’s a college town with lots of bookstores and musical events. People seem serious. There are many intellectual types.
We witnessed some kind of political demonstration this morning, communist by the look of it. There were red flags and banners, fiery rhetoric. Caribinieri were in force on the sidelines. I wonder what are the rules of engagement?
Our second Bolognese meal, this one in the Restaurant Grassilli. Lovely ambience and service. We were served a pasta dish with asparagus and prosciutto in a butter sauce. Then Carpaccio (I really get it now.), very thin slices of raw beef with a great vinaigrette dressing. It was surrounded by a mixed radicchio and arugula, very fresh and nice. Delicious but not heavy. Finally berries and cream, raspberries and blueberries. Divine!