Sunday, August 10, 2014

A More Wonderful Florence

Florence is a feast for the eyes, mind, and heart.  There are glorious works of art and architecture at every turn. Compared to my earlier trips to Florence, I found the city gratefully cleaner and more manageable for a tourist.  This was due to 1) restrictions on cars in the areas that have the most attractions, and 2) the purchase of a Firenze Card. This one-time tourist ticket applicable to most sites was a little bit pricier that buying individual tickets, but allowed us to go into the cathedrals and museums through a separate entrance that rarely had a line. An approximate extra twelve dollars earned us much more time doing what we came to do rather than standing in long lines.  I recommend it highly. As for the fewer cars, you can really feel the difference.  Walking (and window shopping!) is infinitely easier since you are not perpetually dodging cars and scooters, and the entire city is quieter and less dirty as the result of less pollution, air, noise, or otherwise.

The lobby of Palazzo Magnoni Feroni

Another recommendation is to stay oltr'Arno, which means stay at a hotel or pensione on the "other side" of the Arno river which has fewer historical monuments or museum and, therefore, fewer tourists.  It is quieter, and you will meet more true Florentines, adding only an extra 5 minutes to your daily walk to the sites.  On the strong recommendation of a friend, we had the special pleasure of staying at Palazzo Magnoni Feroni.  I researched this hotel and originally resisted it since the price was steeper than we usually spend. My friend, a seasoned traveler herself, urged me to consider how tired I would be after a long day of city sightseeing and how much I would appreciate a comfortable place to stay, and she pushed me to stay at this Palazzo.  'Wise friend, she could not have been more right.  The Palazzo offered us elegant, though not stuffy, accommodations with impeccably friendly and helpful service in all ways.  The staff filled our every need, even needs we didn't know we had!  A special treat -- the hotel has both a courtyard and a rooftop bar; each allows you to be outdoors without being among crowds, and the rooftop view was spectacular.  Both outdoor settings provided us with a comfortable place to rest at the end of our full days, and I could not be more pleased with our choice.  Lastly on this subject, my friend got a good deal on this hotel via Expedia, and we got a good deal in that they upgraded our room to a larger suite!  'Can't say why, but who am I to ask?

We dined very well, as described in the previous post. The rest of our time in Florence was spent marveling at the magnificence of the past maintained.  At times, words cannot describe my awe.  Just a few photos will have to do.

A view from the Uffizi Galleries

An exceptionally beautiful dome of one of the galleries of the Uffizi

Michelangelo's David (need I say more?)

Il Ratto delle Sabine (Giambologna) in the Piazza della Signoria

I viaggiatori felici !

Monday, August 4, 2014

Eat, Drink, and Be Merry!

Where does one begin when sharing the wonders of Florence?  The history abounds, the art work astounds, and the food, well, that's where I must start!  We had three memorable meals in Florence, but they were punctuated by daily doses of gelato and, in one case, two doses a day!  Since I am an ice cream lover wherever I am in the world, it is a real treat to be enjoying the special kind they make in Italy, creamier, tastier, and deceptively lighter than American ice cream. We were out to find the best gelato in Florence and tried three places in three days: the renowned Vivoli, near the Piazza della Croce, Gelateria La Carraia, which has multiple shops with one conveniently around the corner from our hotel, and Gelateria della Passera, in the quiet Piazza della Passera near the Pitti Palace and Boboli Gardens.

While time has not taken its toll on Florence, it has taken its toll on Vivoli.  Should you find yourself in Florence, skip it.  Uninspired flavors, small portions, and unfriendly service make it an exception to most other gelaterias, so why bother? La Carraia provided generous portions, interesting flavors with a creamy texture to match -- it was no surprise that there was always a line outside.  Even better, though, was Gelateria della Passera that offered the most inspiring flavors, including cioccolato all'arancia (Chocolate with orange) and pompelmo rosa (pink grapefruit) which I combined with limone.  We have a winnner. Perfection!

The flavors at Gelateria della Passera. 'A little out of the way, but well worth it!

There were stellar meals in Florence, too, of course.  We ate modern Italian cuisine at Il Santo Bevitore, shared a huge Florentine bistecca at the popular Trattoria Pandemonio, and enjoyed memorable homemade pasta and grilled pork chop at a locals' favorite, I'Brindellone.

Each was so different from the rest that one could not choose a favorite, but if I had only one more night to eat in Florence and had to choose from these three, I would choose I'Brindellone with Il Santo Bevitore a close second, both of which I have reviewed on TripAdvisor.  So that's my foodie's report from heaven in Florence.  Never fear, we did not just eat -- we saw a great deal of art, architecture, and historic sites, and hopefully a post on those will follow.  There is one breathtaking site after another in Florence, and I appreciated that more on this visit than ever before.  Sightseeing, though, is needs's my best evidence of our time well spent.


Saturday, August 2, 2014

A Room with a View

The Italian Lake District was a very hard place to leave.  The scenery is beyond compare, with the lake views or mountains at every turn, and it offers water sports and mountain hikes combined with sophisticated hotels and family-owned restaurants.  We were particularly lucky to be staying at Relais Villa Vittoria in Laglio, a classy yet unpretentious small hotel on Lake Como.  Our room was elegant without being fancy, and the view was spectacularly romantic.  The hotel had a welcoming pool that has one wall of glass, making it appear that it flows right into the lake.  'Unusual, and quite fascinating! Our time for rest after kayaking or hiking could not have been spent in more beautiful surroundings.

An attraction of the Italian Lake District is its proximity to Switzerland.  I was determined to go there since I have had a fascination with the Alps since I was young.  We traveled a mere two hours north of Laglio to a  storybook town named Soglio that time seemed to have forgotten.  It met the stereotypical features of Switzerland (Svizzera) with its dramatic mountains, tiny houses, and hilly paths. The drive was easy, though the Italian reputation for fast driving remains intact, and I got the dose of Alpine views that I was craving.

My feeling is that if you're staying on a lake, you had better got onto that lake!  We did so by taking a short kayaking trip out of Bellagio, a larger town (quite touristy) on Lake Como.  The trip was run by Bellagio Water Sports and Kayak Club, and our tour guide, Mich, could not have been more friendly or helpful. From our very first email contact with him to our final photos and goodbyes, he was reliable and informative. And we got our opportunity to see the land from the water -- a whole new perspective.

Of course, we ate and drank well the entire time we were in Lake Como, and especially liked the local restaurant in Laglio, La Locanda del Cantiere.  We never spotted Laglio's celebrity resident, George Clooney, but his home was up the road and, of course, was the object of some curiosity on our parts. I found Laglio to be the perfect place to start our vacation after so many busy months.  It is a peaceful setting for some R & R, with enough attractions and activity to keep you going.  I hated to leave, though Firenze called, so not a bad place to face next!

A couple of personal notes: The Italian language I've been studying all summer has come in handy, but nearly all of the Italians we encounter speak English. In Florence, I'm getting a little more practice in, and the Italians seem to appreciate my efforts.  Also, wi-fi access has been less than reliable, so I'm keeping things short and sweet -- come check out @TravelFan15 on Twitter.

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Beyond Bourbon Street

Getting ready for Mardi Gras

Most visitors to New Orleans come ready to party.  The city is made for good times, famous for its cuisine, jazz, bars, and esprit de corps.  It is common, though, for tourists to only experience those wonders within the French Quarter, centered on Bourbon Street.  I have enjoyed the French Quarter, for sure. There are great restaurants to be found and some fun shopping, but there is much more to New Orleans beyond its boundaries, with local charms that conventioneers, frat boys, and their companions cannot provide.

The neighborhood that I like to frequent most is the Faubourg Marigny.  Its quiet, angled streets are filled with houses like the one above, proud and pretty.  Head to Frenchman Street, where you will find the best jazz clubs in town.  Beginning mid-day, there is continuous music coming out of clubs up and down the block.  We started at cocktail hour at The Spotted Cat where music was free and the band was filled with musicians we had heard elsewhere. A cheap glass of wine, a diverse crowd of young and old, and we had a rousing start to a terrific night.

We have heard John Boutte at d.b.a., Kermit Ruffins at The Blue Nile, and Nova Nola, comprised of the talented members of the Masakowski family at Snug Harbor.  Each club has a low cover charge ($5-$15), with plenty of good tunes and congenial folks to share your time.  Another fun spot a few blocks away is Mimi's, where on Monday nights there is swing dancing which may be even more entertaining to watch than to dance!  When you enter Mimi's it looks like just a bar, but head on upstairs for some good music and great times.

We have stayed in "the Marigny" (pronounced mare-in-yee) twice, both times at lovely bed and breakfast inns.  This type of lodging abounds in the neighborhood, and offers the added feature of a chance to meet the local owners who offer up good stories about life in The Big Easy, as well as helpful tips of where to eat and what to do.  I recommend The Elysian Fields Inn for its location, comfort, spaciousness, and decor, let alone the friendly innkeepers, Leigh and Jim.

Beyond the Marigny is Bywater, another local neighborhood that welcomes visitors to its fun restaurants and clubs.  Check out The Joint for outstanding barbecue -- the pulled pork and the brisket melted in my mouth.  But do come hungry because the portions are huge.  From there, head to Bacchanal Wine just a few blocks away, an interesting combination of wine shop/restaurant/bar/jazz club, where you can taste a variety of small batch wines while listening to more New Orleans talent in the garden.  They also serve dinner there which I am told was spectacular.

Perhaps my favorite outing, though, in the Bywater was to take part in a second line parade.  The origins of second line parades are varied, but the draw is enthusiastic folks taking part in strutting their stuff throughout the neighborhood.  This one started out a little crazy, but it was all part of the fun. Everyone is welcome!

Moving outward from the Marigny and Bywater, we spent time in the entirely contrasting neighborhoods of the Ninth Ward and the Garden District.  These two areas point out the wide disparities in American fortune, good and bad.  We wanted to see an area hard hit by the floods that followed Hurricane Katrina, and to see what nine years of rebirth might have brought.  Confederacy of Cruisers offers a 4 hour bike trip to to explore just that.  While there is new housing stock thanks to a few non-profit organizations, there are sadly also blocks of empty lots, broken down pavement, and a quiet from the lack of services, and even street lights.  Those who live there now are rightly proud, and we had a chance to meet Ronald Lewis (featured in "Nine Lives", the wonderful book about New Orleanians by Dan Baum) who has his very own House of Dance and Feathers, a museum which serves to acknowledge the rich history of the Ninth Ward.  

After that day of austere reminders of tragedy and its remaining challenges, we finished a recent trip with a reminder of old world New Orleans, filled with grand dames and dandies.  Commander's Palace, in the majestic Garden District, had not interested me.  I thought it would be stuffy and not my cup of tea, but a friend convinced me that I must go, and I'm glad I did.  Yes, it looks like a country club, but the service was warm, friendly, and approachable.  The food outdid the service, and we ate what they call "haute creole" - a meal of turtle soup, oysters, cochon de lait, and strawberry shortcake.  At lunch, they serve 25-cent martinis (no kidding!) which just contributes to the impression that you have entered another time and place.  

So if you leave the French Quarter, how do you get around?  You will do a lot of walking and can easily take cabs, but there are also busses and the slow but historic streetcar.  Check out a map -- look beyond the bars of Bourbon Street and discover the real New Orleans.  You'll meet what are perhaps the most generous, enthusiastic, and unjaded 21st c. Americans around.  They are proud of their strong city, quirky by nature, and have so much to offer -- this is why I hope to go back again and again!