Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Exquisite Europe * Firenze, Italy (December 2010)

On our way out of Venice to Florence, we experience a different scene on the horizon, this time it was sunrise.  We left Venice early morning and on the road, we could still see the beautiful colors reflected on the sky by the sun rising on the east.  It was a nice sight.  And along the way, we also saw some frost on the ground, probably from the snow the previous day.

We made a quick stop in Verona, then headed on to Florence.  On our way from Verona to Florence, we had a lunch stop at the Autogrill, and was able to get some hot sandwiches, this time, I chose the Apollo sandwich which was a fried chicken patty in soft round bread.  On our way up, a woman asked me where I was from, and it didn’t immediately register to me that this was the gypsy woman that the tour guide warned us about.  I knew this was something I should not be interested in, but I didn’t want to be rude as well.  Well, when she asked me to sign something, I told her I was in a hurry and just left.  After all, there were a few people around her table.  I later found out that one of tour mates actually got duped by one of the gypsy woman and had to shell out 10 euros.  Well, she was young and it was a lesson to be learned.  Sometimes, the goodness of your heart does not always do you good.  Although if you reflect on it, what do you lose, just money, not your soul, LOL.  As we headed back to the bus, we had to go down a level to find the exit and was surprised to find a deli on the 1st level of the autogrill.  This seems to be very common in the convenience stores along the roads in Italy.

Anyway, our first stop was San Gimignano, a quaint little medieval town that was the very well preserved in Siena, in the Tuscany region.  This is also where the wine and the olive oil were supposed to be the best.  We walked up the hill to the topmost part where a small viewing tower lies.  From there, we could see the breathtaking scenery of the surrounding villages.  The sun was nearly setting, so the color of sky was marvelous.   And we felt dreamy again, no wonder Italy is such a romantic place.  We then headed back down to explore the stores.

We had to stop for our Gelato, which was really delicious.  We got cioccolato and stracciatella, which is like chocolate chip.  Unfortunately, the supposedly best gelato place was closed when we went.  In Rome, I was also able to try limone (lemon) and lime sherbet.  I've never tasted sherbet as smooth as this.  There was also a store that sells wild boar ham and salami, we didn’t really try it as we didn’t know which to order and wasn’t particularly excited about it, as we were told it was tough.  We decided to buy a bottle of Vernaccia (white wine) and Chianti (red wine).  Vernaccia is their locally made wine and it was highly recommended.  Chianti reminded me of dad, this was one of his favorite wines.  My dad loved the dry ones.  And this is where I learned all the names of the wines, from him.  Although I would admit I still don’t know one wine from the other.  There are some wines that I really like, and they may not be the best for expert drinkers.  And there are some expensive ones that I do not like either.  I guess each has his/her own tastes and these days, it doesn’t really matter which you pick, red or white, sweet or dry, as long as it matches your tastes.  I also got a bottle of olive oil to try, they are supposedly simply great even with just bread.  I would say aside from giving us one of the best sceneries to enjoy, San Gimignano also gives us a great gastronomical experience.

Day 2, our first stop was Piazelle Michelangelo to get a panoramic view of the center of Florence including the Arno river.  This Piazza lies on the opposite side of the Arno river prior to approaching our entry to the city center.  There lies a bronze replica of the statue of David.  So who is this David?

Florence is known for the famous naked statue of David (of David and Goliath), sculpted by Michelangelo.  It is really a great work of art.  The amount of detail was simply amazing, every muscle, vein, and scar is actually represented which makes the status very real.  Aside from the head, hands and feet, the rest were of normal aspect ratio, the statue is about 5 meters high.  And they said the head, hands, and feet were intentionally enlarged so that it is more visible as it was originally standing on the piazza outdoors.  Now it stands inside the Accademia museum together with other works of Michelangelo.  You can literally sit for hours looking at the statue and you will find new interesting details to see.  One of my favorites was the back, his butt was beautiful, LOL.  And funny how when I told my friend I went to Florence to see David, the first question she asked me, was whether I saw the back, LOL.

One other interesting thing about the statue of David was that he was just 13 years old when he fought the giant Goliath.  One can argue whether Michelangelo created the statue before or after David killed Goliath.  If you look at it from one angle, it looks like David is worried, but if you look at it from another side, it looked like David feels relieved.  I believe that it is things like this that make art beautiful, because you can interpret it in many different ways and keep wondering what was really going on in the artists' minds.

The statue of David reminded me of the works of Rodin, which I recently saw in one of the museums in Buenos Aires.  I saw the famous sculpture where a couple of kissing.  When I saw the statue, I can easily imagine a real couple kissing, my first thoughts were, how real it looked, and you can experience the feeling of seeing two people in love.  Over the years as I travel, I have began to appreciate these arts more.  I think it's because we see it with our own eyes, and you absorb the realism of all these things, of which are previously only seen in books or movies.

After the visit to the Accademia, we went out to explore more of Florence.  Our first stop was the facade of the Duomo, an Italian term for a cathedral church.  In Florence, it's called the Basilica di Santa Maria del Fiore.  The color of the church is pale green, pink and white.  I saw this church as well in the movie "Under the Tuscan Sun"  The church was gigantic, and includes many difference buildings.  We didn't have a chance to go inside, but the exterior was already more than enough to see. The campanile alone is made by two different architects, and thus the difference in design between the top and lower part of the tower.  Opposite the cathedral is the Baptistery, which is an octagonal building sitting on its own.

We then headed down to the Piazza della Signoria where the replica of the statue of David now stands.  Along the way, we saw a very colorful vegetable stand and what stood up to me was the bundles of red chillis.  We also got introduced to the small electric cars and motorcycles that run around town.  Instead of the usual parking meters, there is a small charger unit on the street that allows the cars to recharge when outdoors.  We also passed by a lavender shop where my niece, who loves the lavender color, and was wearing a lavender jacket posed beside the lavender bicycle outside the store for a photo.  Along the streets, we saw an interesting protruding section of a 2nd level of a house, which basically covered the top of the small alleyway.  The tour guide pointed out that it was a bathroom, and people do this to expand the floor area of their houses.  I wonder if the government charged them for that, LOL.

And now, we reached the Piazza della Signoria.  On one side, we see the gigantic Palazzo Vecchio which looks more like a fortress with a mechanical clock tower standing over it.  It is now a gallery.  On its left stands a fountain with Neptune.  And on the right just in front of the gallery doors, the statue of David and Hercules.  On another side, under a covered area, called the Loggia dei Lanzi, seems to be a statue that looks like Perseus, holding a chopped off head. My nephew mentioned that it was a character in a book he read.  On the third side, was a building that was being renovated, called Palazzo del Bargello, a national museum, and in place lies a painted board that covers the entire building, with a picture of what the building should be looking like.  It was a neat way to cover the ugly construction that was going on.

After enjoying the piazza, we headed further down to the river Arno, where we saw another popular sight, a bridge of houses lying atop the river, called the Ponte Vecchio, which is the oldest bridge in the city (ponte meaning bridge).  And what's unique is that the houses were actually hanging outside the main bridge, though  I wouldn't want to be living there.  We also passed the Uffizi Gallery, which seems to be a very popular museum as you see rows of people queuing up.  On the columns outside the gallery, you'll see statues of people like Leonardi da Vinci, Michelangelo Buonarroti, and Machiavelli, all popular names. Along the river, just outside the famous Uffizi gallery, there is a section where a chain of padlocks lie.  Apparently, people over the years, had left their padlocks on the chain and wrote their names and dates of when they visited.  It's now an interesting piece of art.  I would have left one of my padlocks there, but I didn't have a marker to leave my mark,  haha.  So instead, I just took a picture of it to remember by.

After the overview of Florence, we had around four hours to spare, we were given the meeting times for some of the optional visits to the jewelry store, the leather store and the olive oil and wine tasting tour all from the Piazza San Croce, which is the Church of Sta Cruz or Holy Cross.  We skipped the jewelry store and just hanged around the piazza to play with the pigeons. This time, all my nieces and nephews got to experience feeding the pigeons and having them land on their arms and hands.  At the Piazza, there were also quite a lot of gypsy families looking out to steal some money from tourists unaware of such cases, so our eyes were wide open.  Some of the older gypsy women who outright ask for money are more visible, while there are some people including children who act like tourists and come and interact with you looking for an opportunity of missed attention from  you.  After a few minutes, we meet up with the group at Piazza Santa Croce to go to the leather store.  There are loads of leather stores around this area, but we went to one just outside of the piazza, to see a demo of how they engrave the gold designs onto the leather.  It wasn't really a full demo of a leather factory but rather how they do the designs.  The store sells all sorts of leather goods.

Everybody was hungry by this time, so we headed down to a restaurant called Baldovino to get a taste of the famous Florentine steak (Bistecca alla Florentine), one of the few good meals we've had during our trip.  And rightly so, I later researched the internet about this restaurant.  It turns out to be founded by a Scot and his wife who left their regular work to migrate to Florence to open this restaurant, in the hopes of filling a void in the food business in Florence.  Florence either had the places where you can get a cheap meal and the pricier ones where you can get a better version of the same meal.  Baldovino was meant to provide more options.  We ordered some soup, and some risotto to share but our main meal was the Florentine steak, which was a gigantic T-bone steak, 3 of us ate about 1+kg of steak.  The steak was excellent and the taste of the meat was so flavorful that you didn't need any sauce to dip into.  Again, this reminded me of Argentina, where the steaks are the best.

Then back to the piazza for us where we would meet up with the rest of the group to go and visit the olive oil and wine tasting place.  Aside from the plain olive oil, we got to taste the different types of flavored olive oil, ones with black truffle, white truffle, and lemon.  Also had a chance to taste some balsamic vinegar, they had some light ones, stronger ones, and one that is very thick in consistency.  Then we had some white and red wine although the group was too large and the place was really small.

Florence is also famous for its leather goods, especially the famous brand name bags.  I myself am not really particular about these, while practically everyone else I know would die to have one of these bags, e.g. Gucci, Louis Vuitton, etc.  People can call me crazy, but it’s just not me.  Similar to jewelry, I’m not really gaga over fashion.  I like them but to me, I'd have one and it's enough for me.  I’d rather spend my money on traveling and seeing the world :-)

Anyway, we ended the night by a visit to the Monastero della Certosa di Galluzo and experience a traditional Tuscan meal as they prepared it in the olden times.  The Carthusian monastery houses Benedictine monks.  The visit to the monastery was a bit creepy cause it was absolutely pitch dark except for a few lights.  We were led into the square and you could see a monk walking in the dark.  We were told that the monastery now only has around 10-15 people living in it.  It probably hires some other non-monks to produce their products like wine, etc.  We were given an overview of the church, and the nearby cloister which housed a lot of paintings and works of art, known here to be painted by the monks escaping from the plague.  We were also shown one of the rooms that the monks live in, it was practically like a prison cell, even with a small window to look out to, since they were part of a cloistered order.  After the visit, we hopped on to the La Certosa Restaurant to experience the traditional meal.  We were all seated in one large table, if they could fit us all around the room facing each other, they would, but we were a big group.  We had each a big round wooden board on our tables and two cups.  Red and white wine as well as a bucket of bread was on the table to share.  We were given a liquer to start with, which was odd.  I would expect this to come at the end of the meal.  Anyway, it warmed us up.  We started with a Green Salad with almonds, walnuts, caciotta paesana (apparently, a kind of cheese) as well as Slices of pear and Pecorino cheese with honey made by the monks.  The Pecorino cheese was delicious especially with the blending of the pear and honey.  Then came fresh pasta with ricotta, raisins and pine nuts and tortelli filled with potatoes served with vegetable sauce.  The main dish was the Monk's stuffed duck and chargrilled chicken, with salad and potatoes on the side.  The stuffed duck tasted a bit like our Filipino embotido.  It was delicious.

There was live entertainment during our dinner, with an old man playing an accordion, one with a violin, and another singing the opera.  They were joking around as they provided the entertainment.  And some of their jokes even were about drinking because of the wines they make, which didn't seem to be monk-like.  And truly enough, they weren't.  They were just out there to provide great entertainment and sell their wines.  Even the waiter was so funny.  I was pretty amazed as our waiter was a singer, he managed the entertainment, he sliced the duck and served in plates, he managed the kitchen, and he serves us food and wine, and yet, he keeps an extremely happy disposition.

Our dessert was a cup of gelati al Certosino Red wine from the farm bottled in fiascos then Chicory Coffee.  The dessert was a bit odd-tasting probably because of the liquer but you acquire the taste after a while.  The end of the dinner was of course a selection of the liquer, which included some digestive liquors and one that was actually 90% alcohol.  I tasted one of the digestive liquors which tasted like prune juice with alcohol.  The mandarina was normal, I think it's like orange vodka.  And the 90% alcohol one wasn't that bad, although it kinda burns my lips.  Definitely warms you up though, but does not leave you feeling tipsy.  After all, it was a small shot.

With that, we ended our visit to Florence.  The next day, we head back to Rome for our last day.

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