Word of the day: Luce

Luce (LOO-chay): light

We have enjoyed two fantastic days in the City of Light. During the day time you can see why it is called that, as the boulevards are broad, with enormous promenades on either side, leaving lots of open space and light from the sky. Here, pedestrians don’t have to compete with cars for space and the result is more polite drivers and pedestrians than you would find in Florence and most other Italian cities. There are also lots of green spaces, large and small, places to sit and watch passersby. We walked part way through the Tuilleries Garden, which is enormous and light filled. The most spectacular chapel I’ve ever seen (Saint-Chapell) was a hymn to light, with its gigantic stained glass windows that turn the whole chapel into a lantern of light and color.

And then there is Paris at night. The beautifully lit Eiffel Tower with its golden glow is a beacon of light all across the city. In fact it has two powerful search light type beams that send light out over the top of the city in the evening. Every hour, on the hour, the tower performs a light show of twinkling lights, top to bottom, that make it shimmer and dance. This lasts for exactly five minutes, enough time to get a good photo. The facades of churches are lit as well, adding to the city’s glow. Cafes and restaurants are open until the wee hours, sending light and laughter out to the streets, welcoming you in for coffee or a drink.

Yesterday we visited the Louvre (actually a very small portion of it) and were wowed by the grand glass pyramid which creates a solarium of light to the floors below.

Brilliant works of art, with contrasting light and dark hues, continue the theme of light into the life of the mind. From the small Mona Lisa to the huge Wedding Feast at Cana on the opposite wall, the statue of Winged Victory riding atop a ship’s prow and the tiny figurines from ancient Egypt, the luminous Botticelli’s and the glowing skin of Titian’s nudes, the soft glow of innocence and the dark violence of war, every work invites us to ponder the best and the worst that humanity has to offer. The light show continues over at the Musee d’Orsay, where impressionist art is all about the play of light.

The Arch d’Triomphe gave us a spectacular (though cloudy, windy, and cold) view of the city, its cathedrals and skyscrapers, tree-lined streets, and distant hills. Even the Deportation Museum, the memorial to the over two hundred thousand French citizens who lost their lives during the Nazi holocaust, featured the light of hope shining at the end of the dark tunnel. A small crystal of light for each of those two hundred thousand lives lost, sparkles in the underground memorial.

Of course, we have only just scratched the surface of all that Paris has to offer. Two days is  but a brief introduction. Tomorrow we will spend a few brief hours up at Montmarte visiting Sacre Couer and wandering the streets. My stereotypes of Paris were of charming, though dirty, streets and aloof, unfriendly locals. My experience has been quite the opposite. The city seems luxuriously large and well kept, and every single Parisian I have interacted with has not only been friendly, but has gone out of their way to be helpful.

Have I mentioned that it is spring? The blossoms and leaves on the trees all add to the soft play of light and sweetness that I will carry from here, back home to Florence and to my travels beyond. I didn’t expect to fall in love with Paris, but I have. I realize that it isn’t ALL sweetness and light, but I am choosing to let the light in and treasure these brief glowing days of discovery.

Now if I could just convince Parisian restaurants to lower their prices…

This didn’t go out to most followers, so I’m trying again. My apologies if you get it twice.

A Year Abroad

Parigi (Pa-REE-jee); Paris

Yes, you guessed it, we are in Paris for the weekend. We left at 4:30 this afternoon, after George’s last class. We took a bus from Florence to Pisa, a Ryanair flight from Pisa to Beauvais (an hour north of Paris), a shuttle bus into Paris, and 2 metro lines to our hotel neighborhood. When we came up out of the underground, we had no idea which way to head, so we just picked a direction. It was the wrong way, but it lead us right past a beautiful view of the Eiffel Tower, all lit up and sparkling like a jewel. What a lovely welcome to the city of lights.

Eiffel Tower

Who could resist taking this photo? Sometimes, you just have to be a tourist.

We figured out our way to the hotel on Rue Cler, settled in, and then went downstairs to enjoy a glass of…

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Word of the day: Parigi

Image

Parigi (Pa-REE-jee); Paris

Yes, you guessed it, we are in Paris for the weekend. We left at 4:30 this afternoon, after George’s last class. We took a bus from Florence to Pisa, a Ryanair flight from Pisa to Beauvais (an hour north of Paris), a shuttle bus into Paris, and 2 metro lines to our hotel neighborhood. When we came up out of the underground, we had no idea which way to head, so we just picked a direction. It was the wrong way, but it lead us right past a beautiful view of the Eiffel Tower, all lit up and sparkling like a jewel. What a lovely welcome to the city of lights.

Eiffel Tower

Who could resist taking this photo? Sometimes, you just have to be a tourist.

We figured out our way to the hotel on Rue Cler, settled in, and then went downstairs to enjoy a glass of wine (for me) and a kir royale (for George) in an outdoor cafe. We love the street we are in, and are so excited to see all the shops open in the morning. This is George’s first ever visit to Paris, and my first in 23 years. We are just buzzing with the excitement of being in this amazing city.

I wonder what tomorrow’s word will be…

Word of the Day: Palazzo

For Wednesday, March 28.

Palazzo – (pa-LAH-ttso): Palace, large building, important building.

Today we went to the Palazzo Davanzati here in Florence. It isn’t visited by tourists all that much, so I thought I would write about it. You aren’t allowed to take pictures inside, so I have pulled a couple from the internet to show you.

This palazzo built in the late 1400s, is a fine example of what the home of a wealthy family might have looked like. Although the furnishings and paintaings aren’t necessarily from the renaissance, they are representative of furnishings in a home like this one. The palace has a ground floor entry area, leading up to 4 more floors of living space. The interior courtyard was open to the sky, so if you wanted to move from floor to floor of the house, you had to use stairways that were open to the elements. The ground floor of the courtyard has a big drain in the middle for catching rainwater and directing it to a cistern under ground.

On the first floor (just above ground level), there are wooden trap doors built into the floor so you could see who was coming, and, if it was an enemy you could pour hot oil or molten lead on him. There is a fireplace in this room for just such a purpose. Many of these rooms were covered with tapestries, lined with fur (usually squirrel fur), to keep the warm room. Some pieces of tapestries are on display.

Several of the rooms are decorated with murals of wall hangings, rather than actual tapestries. Above the paintings of wall hangings, they have painted a loggia with various trees, and above that, some Roman arches. Apparently, this was quite common in the Renaissance, but very few examples of this genre remain. The ceiling is beautifully carved and painted wood.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

This home was one of the few that had its own well. A bucket on a pully goes down under ground to get water from the well, and then goes up through all 5 floors (including the ground floor) to service each level. It is hidden behind shuttered doors. It also has a bathroom on every floor, with exterior pipes made of clay to carry the waste away.. This was VERY advanced. We didn’t see a kitchen anywhere, which means it was either in the upper stories, or on the ground floor somewhere.

One of my favorite rooms was the “nuptial chamber”, a large bedroom not necessarily always occupied by the husband and wife, but certainly on their first night together. It has a fresco all the way around the top of the room that tells the soap-opera-like story of (I believe) French origin. In it, the king goes away to do whatever kings do while they’re away, leaving his queen at home alone. A young nobleman is visiting, and she decides to seduce him. They go for a walk in the woods where she tries to kiss him. He refuses because he is loyal to the king and besides, he’s in love with someone else. The queen then threatens the young man that if he doesn’t give in to her desires, she will get her revenge. He still refuses. When the king returns home, she tells her husband that the young man forced himself upon her. The king confronts the noble man and he says it isn’t so. In order to convince the king, he reveals that he is in love with a young woman and she is in love with him, too. In order to prove it, he has the king see him and his young lade in the garden together, necking. This is scandalous because nice young women aren’t supposed to be alone with a young man long enough to fall in love, let alone do any kissing. The girl’s family finds out about her love affair with the young man, and she is so ashamed that she kills herself. Her lover comes in and finds her dead and kills himself. The king is so angry with his wife, that he has her beheaded. Very sad story. It is painted on the bedroom wall as a warning to the wife about fidelity.

On the left, the queen threatens the young man. On the right, the young lovers meet in the garden.

Also in this room is a birthing salver, a painted tray given as a symbolic gift for a successful birth in Renaissance Florence. These were often commissioned by wealthy families from workshops around Florence. Only a few dozen remain and most of those are not in very good shape. The one in Palazzo Davanzati is in excellent shape, and it is so much fun. This isn’t a very good photo of it, but you can still see that it is a painting of two putti (cherubs) grabbing each other’s penises. The tray is about 2 feet across and made out of ceramic, I think.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

There were also rooms with looms and lace, paintings, beautifully carved chairs, a locking “strongbox”, ceramic hand warmers in the shape of shoes, and many other interesting things. It’s worth a visit if you have the time, and it only costs €2 to get in with complimentary guided tours – one of the best deals in Florence.

We also had our second cooking class last night, but I have written so much about food, I thought I should write a little about art and culture for a change.

Word of the day: Camminare

Camminare (Cam-mee-NAH-ray): to walk

There were so many words to choose from today, but this is the one that best characterized the day for me. I left the house at 10:15 am to go to the Cascine Street Market. It is a 15 minute walk there, and the market itself is at least a mile long. Then when you get to the end you have to turn around and walk back through the market (another mile) and then back home.

The street market is a weekly ritual for me. I’ve only missed a couple of Tuesdays since I’ve been here. It’s such an amazing mix of things, from fresh fruit and veggies, to kitchen gadgets, to clothes and beauty products, to herb starts, to puppies for sale, the market has it all. Today I bought beautiful purple onions, lots of tomatoes, fresh peas and asparagus, fresh eggs, and a fried polenta snack. That’s just the food stalls. I also got a new purse, a new belt, a new shirt, 2 capri length leggings, a new scarf, a bra, and a dress, all for €22.

Left to right: leggings, belt, purple dress with scarf, lavender strapless bra, adorable top with rose trim, and brown rose purse.

When I got home form the market at around 2:15, I put away all the fresh produce and headed out again. I am on the hunt for 2 things – a pair of comfortable walking shoes for summer and a pair of skinny jeans. I walked for another 3 hours, stopping in shops and trying on shoes and pants. I didn’t buy a thing, although I did find a pair of shoes I really love. They are €99 and I’m trying to decide whether or not I want to commit. I also stopped in at the Santa Maria dei Ricci church where the California Redwood Chorale will be performing in a few weeks time.

But here was my real score of the day. At the end of all that shopping, I was hungry so I stopped in to my local fresh pasta shop. I’ve seen this place before but never ventured in. Today, I decided I would stop in and say hello and buy something. The gnocchi looked good so I asked him for enough for 2 people. It cost €2.80 and was PLENTY for us to eat for dinner. I have been meaning to get back to the salumeria to buy some more of that divine ricotta, so I stopped in there, too. He was out of ricotta, but I saw that he had something labeled “salsa di tartufo.” I told him that I LOVE truffles and he said this stuff is really good. I meant to ask him “How do I prepare it?” but instead I asked “How is it prepared?” and he said that it has only butter, white truffle, black truffle, salt, and parmesan cheese and it is molto buono! He asked what I would put it on. I told him that I just bought some gnocchi and he said, “Perfetto! This will be the best gnocchi of your life.” I asked him for enough for 2 people. I was nervous because this stuff is €80 per kilo but when he weighed it, it came out to about €6. You don’t need much. (I just want to brag for a moment that this entire conversation was in Italian! Yea!)

We had it for dinner and it was beyond heavenly. Seriously. I don’t know why we ever eat out. I don’t know if we should ever eat out again. I should certainly not try to cook this stuff from scratch myself. For about €9 we had the best (well, maybe second-best) dinner we’ve had the whole time we have been here. Why would anyone make their own pasta or gnocchi or pesto or anything of the sort when some artisan down the street who has perfected the art is selling it for cheap. I’m sorry, my American friends, but this just isn’t something you can find in the states. I plan to soak it all up (and probably save it all on my thighs) for the rest of the time I am here. Does it help that I walked for over seven hours today?

“Cammino molto”  I walk a lot!

Word of the Day: Vino

I thought about doing an Italian word every day that we are here that relates to the activities of that day. We only have one month left in Italy, so I think I will try to do that for the next month. I’m going to start today.

The other day on the food tour we learned about a little shop where you can bring your empty wine bottles and they will refill them and re-cork them for super cheap. I brought in 3 bottles and got 2 bottles of chianti and a white wine from the Traminer region of Italy. It is in the far north. You can also taste before you buy, but I was on my own and it didn’t sound fun to stand there in the shop and taste wines by myself, so I just took my chances. I opened one of the chianti bottles when we got home and it was quite delicious. In general, the wine here is quite good. We have taken two wine tasting classes (reds and whites) and learned a little about what we are tasting, but in the end I like to just kick back and not analyze it too much.

“Mi piace vino rosso, specialmente chianti.” I like red wine, especially chianti.

Food tour

I know I’m supposed to be catching up on our spring break trip to Croatia, but so much is happening so fast here in Italy now that we are back. I thought I’d just put in a quick post about the food tour we took on Friday. One of the activities on the cultural program put together by AIFS was a food tour. We had a guide take us around to different shops, restaurants, bars, and cafes and point out the authentic and varied food delights of Florence.

I’m kicking myself that I didn’t take loads of pictures and take copious notes, but here are the highlights. We had the most amazing, fresh ricotta cheese I’ve ever tasted. It is cheap and right down the street from me (and I didn’t know it was there!) Why don’t they do this tour at the very beginning of the semester? We sampled four different kinds of cheese, had the Florentine dessert called the “torta della nonna” (grandma’s cake), found out where to buy wine, beans, and rice in bulk, and had the best wood-fired-oven pizza I’ve yet encountered in Florence. We also visited the central market where we had cappucino and learned about a coffee drink called marrochino (little Morrocan) which is chocolate in the bottom of a coffee cup, covered with a shot of espresso, then cream, then topped with powdered cocoa. We tasted different grades of balsamic vinegar, smelled different kinds of salt (I bought some smoked, spiced salt) and watched ravioli being made. One of the students in the group is a chef, and he walked me through a couple recipes for truffle pasta and truffle risotto while we relaxed with a slice of pizza and a glass of chianti. We learned where to buy our pasta and pesto. We topped it all off with generous scoops of gelato. Our guide showed us the symbol displayed on shop windows that indicates a long-time, historical Florentine shop and urged us to support these artisans to help them survive the influx of foreign and fast food competition. She also urged us to explore our own neighborhoods, get to know the locals, and share our culinary finds with each other.

We walked, talked, sampled, compared notes, laughed, ate and drank for over 3 hours until we were happy and tired. It was one of my favorite cultural activities of the semester. I plan to retrace my steps many, many times (and take better notes for future reference.) Tomorrow I plan to buy more fresh ricotta, get my empty wine bottles filled at the wine shop and enjoy a gelato in the Italian sunshine.

For those of you planning a trip to Florence soon, ask me where my favorites are!

Rovinj and the Istrian Peninsula

When we decided to go to Croatia for spring break, we assumed it would be easy and cheap to get from Italy to Croatia. It’s just across the Adriatic sea. We’re practically neighbors. Croatia is part of the EU so there should be no problem, right? Wrong. At least in March. We couldn’t find a cheap flight because most of the budget airlines don’t start routes there until at least April, some not until June. The ferries from Italy don’t operate until April or later, either. So we decided to rent a car. €150 for 10 days. Not bad. Then I read the fine print. You can’t take the car into eastern European countries. So we scrambled to find a car company that would allow you to take the car into Croatia and finally found one. (We went through an American company called Kemwel, in case you’re interested. We’ve had great luck with them during all our travels in Europe.) The car cost about €275, plus gas and tolls, but at least we could get there.

Since we were driving, we decided to limit our trip to northern Croatia. The Istrian peninsula (right at the top of Croatia on the sea) used to be part of Italy and is still largely Italian speaking. The Kvarner region, slightly to the east and south of the Istrian peninsula is home to a national park that I’ve been wanting to see ever since I read about it on the Boots N All Travel website. It turns out that part of the Kvarner region is also famous for truffles (the mushroom kind, not the chocolate kind.)

We set out on Friday morning at about 9:00. The drive to the Croatian border took about 5 and a half hours. Border control was a piece of cake. They didn’t ask us any questions. They just stamped our passports and sent us on our way. We headed directly for the sweet, romantic little town of Rovinj (Roh-veen-ya), right on the Adriatic sea. As we drove the 45 minutes or so to our hotel, we began to understand why there were no flights or ferries here during March. Croatia is covered in deciduous beech and alder forests, so at this time of year, they are still bare. Although the weather was sunny, it was still quite cool. Because Croatia is known for it’s spectacular beaches, the tourists don’t start showing up until June. This worked out just fine for us because it was still very beautiful and quiet.

As we neared our hotel, we got a big kick out of our GPS unit trying to pronounce the names of Croatian streets. We checked into our room and found that it had a balcony with beautiful view of the harbor and a nearby island.

View from our hotel room across the harbor.

From the dining room, we also had a gorgeous view of the town of Rovinj. This is an enormous and lovely hotel. It reminded me of a cruise ship. During the off season, we paid €44 per night for our room, including breakfast for 2. The breakfast was the biggest buffet spread I have seen anywhere in Europe. It was as if they were trying to satisfy every brand of tourist that might be there. They had eggs prepared several different ways, pancakes, waffles, pastries, multiple kinds of breads, cheeses, yogurt, fruit, vegetables, cold cuts, olives, cereal, juices, coffee, tea – they even had tofu. My favorite thing at the buffet bar was pickles! Why didn’t I think of pickles for breakfast? I ate sweet and savory delights for about an hour every morning, while looking across the bay at the church on the hill and listening to the sounds of the boats and fishermen on the harbor. Not a bad way to start the day.

This was just my first trip to the buffet.

The town itself is picturesque and sweet. The people who live there were busy sprucing things up for the impending tourist hoards. We found a great little pizzeria called Marinero with a friendly waiter who spoke fluent Italian, so we could communicate a little. We had a delicious after dinner drink made of sweetened, fortified red wine. (I forgot the name. Oops.) We walked up to the cathedral, enjoying the beautiful views along the way.

On Saturday we visited the nearby town of Pula, famous for its Roman amphitheater.

We then wandered over to the cathedral, which was open, so we went inside. They greeted us in Italian and handed us a concert handbill. A free concert? Why not. We went in and sat down, waiting for the program to start. A choir began to sing and a priest came out and we were all invited to stand. Ok, it will be a quick little prayer and then on to the concert. No. It was a full mass. At least it was in Italian so I could try to work on my listening skills without actually being required to respond. After an hour or so, we gave up on getting to see the concert, snuck out the back door and headed to the bar across the street. I had been wanting to try Croatian beer and this seemed like a good opportunity. George, who never drinks beer, had apparently been done in by the mass, and he ordered one, too. Karlovac`ko (kar-loh-voch-koh) is a light amber ale with an almost citrusy flavor. While we were enjoying this, we chatted with the bartender. He was very friendly and seemed to appreciate that we were trying to speak Italian and even learning a few Croatian words. When we finished our beers, he poured us shot of his private stash of grappa – on the house. I remembered grappa as being vile, but this was actually pretty good. We left a little  loopy and a lot happier than when we entered.

The following day we headed to Brijuni (Bree-yu-nee) National Park, located on a small island near Pula. The only way to visit the island is to book an excursion. The only one sailing while we were there was with a group of 250 Croatian women and the tour was all in Croatian. We didn’t understand a word, but the island was very pretty. The former leader of Yugoslavia, Josip Tito, owned a house there which is now a museum. I had never heard of Tito, though George knew all about him. The exhibits there were in English, so I learned a great deal. Apparently he was a great animal lover, and whenever heads of state would come to visit, they would bring him a new animal. There is a safari park on the island to this day made up of the descendants of these animal gifts.

One of my favorite things about the Istrian Peninsula was the color of the water. The water is crystal clear and ranges from turquoise to green. We took a ridiculous number of photos of light on the water, sunset on the water, boats in the water, people by the water. We just couldn’t get enough. If you’d like to see more pictures of this area, you can click on the links below.

(Still working on the link…)

Next on the trip… The Kvarner region and the island of Krk. (No, I didn’t misspell that, there really are no vowels in it. I was pronouncing it something like Kirk, but then I heard a Croatian woman pronounce it and somehow she managed to do it without any vowels. Cool language.)