Posing in Pisa. 2007.

In 2007, Michael Logan captured this view of a tourist photographing her friends “holding up” the leaning tower — always a ubiquitous sight on Pisa’s Campo dei Miracoli.

Do you have a photograph like this? Post a link in the comments.

Pisa Pose - 2007

Vintage Slides: Posing in Pisa. 1954.

This slide certainly falls in the “some things never change” category! Our heroine seems to be doing a pretty good job of “holding up” the tower in an era before instant digital photography.


Stay tuned for a 21st century look at the same pose.

Venice Restaurant picks

Eating in Venice

My friend Dave, in Berkeley, recently asked:

Hi Clay,

I have friends going to Venice in 2 weeks. Could you give me a short list of 2 or 3 restaurants that you have liked there. I know you have found some special ones.

Thanks, Dave

Our best meal in Venice recently was at Antiche Carampane, a hard to find family-run restaurant in San Polo frequented exclusively by locals. The menu changes daily and is based entirely on what they find that morning at the market, so it has a somewhat limited menu composed almost entirely of local fish, shellfish and vegetables, all brilliantly prepared. The atmosphere is very friendly, and the owners will basically tell you what to eat. If you are not picky, you will have a great meal. The atmosphere is lively and fun and even the desserts are great. It’s quite moderately priced given the quality of the food—and that it’s in Venice. It’s small, and reservations are essential. It’s also quite hard to find, so you’ll need a good map. As Venice addresses are useless you’ll be wandering some fairly deserted residential alleys and squares until you find the Calle de la Carapane. When you’re sure you’ve missed it, just go a little further, and there it is.

Other favorites in Venice are San Marco, a stylish restaurant with excellent food and a good wine list, centrally located on a small street called Frezzeria behind the famous piazza; and Vino Vino a  casual and inexpensive winebar/restaurant (on Calle della Vesta, no credit cards) near La Fenice opera house.

The three restaurants mentioned by every food writer in the world are all excellent, but also extremely expensive. The very formal Da Fiore is great, but you may not want to drop the 200 Euros per person it will cost you to eat there. Likewise the equally delicious and famous Al Covo. Fiaschetteria Toscana is my current favorite among the three, being slightly less pricey. All offer expansive menus, multi-lingual staff and excellent food—for a price.

If you have time to take a day trip out to Torcello (a very pleasant boat ride in good weather), one of my favorite restaurants for a long, leisurely lunch is Osteria al Ponte di Diavolo. Great, typically Venetian food in a lovely outdoor setting between the boat dock and the oldest church in Venice. A little expensive, but worth it, and again reservations advised.

It’s worth visiting Do Mori, one of the oldest bars in Venice, for a drink and a few excellent cicheti. This stand up establishment, tucked away on the Calle die Do Mori on the San Polo side of the Rialto Bridge is a stand up affair, and open only during the day. Nearby there are several similar bars offering cicheti and wines by the glass.

Notable too are a number of new, very stylish and modern bars and restaurants that seem to be popping up around Venice, indicating that the city is more than simply a museum. You’ll encounter them in out of the way places, but Aciugheta (on the Campo Santi Filippo e Giacomo, between San Marco and San Zaccaria) is a nice central place for a drink and cicheti. They also operate a stylish new restaurant with only five tables (on the same square) which serves very good modern takes on Venetian food.

I will also recommend the guidebook Venice Osterie (in English) though you’ll probably have to pick it up in Venice itself at the Mondadori Bookshop (Salizada San Moise, in the haute shopping district off Piazza San Marco.) By the way, there is a very stylish cocktail bar behind the bookstore, one of the few that is open late in Venice, but drinks are rather expensive. If you still want to drink after dinner, I’d suggest a walk to the Campo Santa Margherita and the cheap and lively bar Margaret Duchamp.

In addition to the above, I cannot stress enough the value of simply wandering around the farther, tourist-ignored reaches of Castello, Cannaregio, San Polo or Dorsoduro around lunch time, where you will encounter wonderful little restaurants catering to local residents and workers, and serving up simple, delicious food at absurdly low prices. Poke around and go with your instincts. In these non-tourist areas you’ll also find great places for coffee and drinks (try the Spritz Aperol, a local favorite) at rock bottom prices—the Venetians love their coffee and drinks.

France and Italy, Part II, Tuscany

Tuscany

3 October 2006                    The Gatto Rosso

Amazingly almost nothing has changed in the three years since I was here last. It was a quick drive Saturday morning on the Autostrada to Lucca. We stopped there for lunch at da Guilia. Same good (cheap) food, same waitress, and her son…grown from a little boy to a very tall teen (14, she said). Had some of the beans with tuna I like so much, and then that delicious Macherroni (flat, house made pasta) with the creamy veal sauce. Arrived at the Gatto Rosso to warm greetings from owner Carlotta. The house, and the estate is not much changed. Still three cats, a flock of geese and a dog (Vita, replacing the dead Edo). Grapes harvested, but trees green and full of fruit. Apparently they own a large farmhouse on the estate as well…I can see it from out back yard…I wonder if she rents it and how much, it would be great for a large group. Still the too small bathtub…nonna is in there now trying to take a shower in it! There will be water everywhere. {Note, Gatto Rosso is the nickname of the rental house on the agricultural estate…the actual name of which I will not reveal here, as it is a fantastic place and an amazing bargain, and so not surprisingly has very limited availability.}

Saturday late afternoon we braved the supermarket; the COOP market has moved to a much bigger location a few blocks farther away. We loaded our basket full of goodies and got in line, only to discover at the register that they no longer take credit cards! Fortunately they have an ATM  machine in the store, and although the market was very crowded, the cashier was quite nice and helpful about the whole mix-up. Nonna had trouble with the ATM, as she kept asking it for 30,000 euros, but fortunately my Amex card worked in it fine. The groceries are still much cheaper here than at home, and a much better selection of fresh items as well. What we bought would have cost three times as much, at least, at Whole Foods.

I used Ermintrude (that’s what we have named the Tom-Tom satellite navigation device) to locate the HUB gay club outside of Lucca. It really is less than ten minutes from the Gatto Rosso. The device guided me right to it. I went back a little after midnight on Saturday hoping to catch some gay Italian nightlife, but there was nothing going on…parking lots virtually empty. Having found the club, now I wish I could find out when it was open!

Ermintrude is a great help…sometimes. Can save a lot of frustration getting in and out of big cities; and sometimes she’s great at guiding you directly to your destination. Sometimes she gets confused…certain towns, and especially narrow streets are not so good. Sometimes she loses her satellite signal, or her battery power, at crucial moments. Sometimes you can’t tell which street you are meant to turn on until you have passed it. All in all though, it’s a help, just not an absolute. One still has to keep an eye open for directional signs, and having a good map is an essential backup.

Sunday we had a big lunch outside at the Osteria de Meati, also unchanged since our last visit. Pasta and a big rare bistecca. I love my Italian Sunday lunch. Later on Sunday we decided to take a drive, north of Lucca, to the hill town of Barga. Very high up and very steep. Mostly closed up since it was Sunday, but I did climb to the very top to see the Duomo, a pretty cool, very austere, almost windowless, large, Romanesque church. A little farther down was another pretty little dark church, this one redone in the 18th century. Fantastic views from both over the countryside. We had a lemon sorbet at a gelateria that was open; the woman there spoke flawless English with an English accent, but she amused herself by speaking Italian and listening to my garbled responses.

Driving back to Lucca the road was very congested. Lots of traffic around Lucca in all directions, not quite sure why. We did pass a big carnival, with lots of neon-lit bolted-together rides, outside the Lucca walls. I would have liked to have gone to it, but inquiring at the tourist office on Monday, apparently Sunday was the last day. They said there were lots of fairs and events in Lucca through September, but everything ended with the end of the month. Indeed, on Monday in Lucca, they were tearing down the market sStalls on the San Michelle square. We paid a brief visit to Lucca on Monday, and lunched at the tratoria de Leo. It was packed and bustling. Food was simple and very good…bean soup, rissotto, tasty roast veal slices with excellent potatoes. A stylish woman next to us showed us a picture (half page, full color) of the restaurant in the September 24 issue of The New York Times. The lead article was about eating in Lucca!

We will probably go back to Lucca this afternoon, around 4. The shops open from 8 to 1 and then again from 4 to 8. Very Spanish! I want to do some shopping.

4 October 2006                    outside Lucca, Italy

Sunny day today. We leave in an hour to go to Pisa to pick up Jim Laur et al at the train station. Giving ourselves and hour and fifteen minutes to make the half hour drive…just in case. Though I did program Ermintrude to find the station, and I checked it on a map.

Yesterday was a pleasant day. Midday we took a drive over the mountain that lies south of Lucca and East of Pisa—a tiny winding road to the summit and back, through a few historic towns and saw a few old Romanesque churches (all closed of course). We didn’t really stop and walk around any of the towns (too much for nonna), but the drive was nice. Went into Lucca around five, when the shops have re-opened and it’s getting lively with locals again. We had a coffee, then shopped some, at the good bakery Gusti; and I bought toothpaste and contact lens solution, and Nonna bought another Manderina Duck purse (for home use). We walked around the shopping streets, to the old amphitheater piazza, then got lost coming back. Nonna had to walk part of the way on the top of the walls—it’s nice up there, but I thought it was going to kill her. Actually she held up pretty well. We had dinner, early, at da Guilia. Many Americans, but the staff treat us like regulars now. A big dinner too: mixed antipasto, two orders of the house made maccheroni, and liver for nonna and veal in some chopped tomato sauce for me. Even a slice of torta verdura (Lucchese vegetable tart that tastes oddly like gingerbread, despite being green.) Very tasty local Fabianno red wine, pricey for them at 15 euros! Even with the wine dinner cost only 61 euros.

4 October 2006                    outside Lucca, Italy

Uneventful drive to Pisa to pick up Jim, Bea and Pat. We went to lunch at that nice Osteria in Pisa then I drove them to their hotel in Lucca. Actually drove to their hotel, in the center of Lucca ( a bit insane that; and even worse trying to drive out; was saved by an English lady on a bicycle who tapped on my window to tell me how to quickly get out of the city as bikes, pedestrians, and mothers pushing strollers enveloped my car as if it wasn’t even there, on one of the tiny, semi-pedestrian streets that make up all of central Lucca.) The hotel is wacky. They have kind of a cool apartment in a building around the corner from the hotel; it’s a residential building and very private. Not sure what the rooms in the hotel itself are like. They seem to find it acceptable, even fun, even after the 5 star luxury of the Hotel Bristol in Vienna. I wandered with them a bit after check-in and then went to the internet café, where I found I could plug in my own computer (happy day). Then I drove here to pick up Nonna and we went back and had dinner at Tratorria de Leo. Our second meal there, and I am really liking that place. I had a great piece of grilled pork. Started with ravioli with butter and sage, though Jim’s Tortellini in Brodo looked great too. Love the lively atmosphere.

5 October 2006                    Lucca (Pisa)

Today I drove everyone back to Pisa to see the monuments: Baptistery, Duomo, Cemetery, and of course the tower. For the first time, I paid the 15 Euros and climbed to the top. Great views, but you really know it’s leaning when you are on the top of it! They let very few people up at one time (and you get a half hour, start to finish); but it was not crowded; the tour buses come in the morning I think, and it’s late enough in the year now, that things are not too busy—though the weather (mostly) is great.

After Pisa, we came back to the house here, and had some prosecco, then we went to dinner at Meati. Did a big family style meal, with shared antipasti, four primi (gnocchi with shrimp, fetucinni with mushrooms, rice with herbs, and ravioli with ragu), then shared two big steaks, one with rucola and one with porcini mushrooms. Food there is great—and very cheap, except for the steaks.

6 October 2006                    Lucca

Our visitors wanted to stay in Lucca and shop, so we joined them for lunch at Gigi, a cute tratoria near their hotel (and one that was also mentioned in the NY Times.) Was another great, inexpensive, local place. Full of Italians. Nice outdoor space on the square, but we had to sit inside because the terrace was full. I had a pasta with shellfish and a carpaccio (though I was tempted by baccala fried with tomato sauce.)

We wandered around the city, looking at churches and shops and stuff (even wandered over to the east end beyond the canal, where I’d never been and where there really isn’t anything of note). Nonna and I went home to get our laundry inside, then we went back to meet them for dinner at Giulia. I ate way too much, considering I had lunch that day. I had my tuna and bean antipasto; a soup; and …in honor of Mr Logan…the tartare cavallo, which was, I must admit, really, really tasty. Jim ate a big meal too…I don’t think Pat and Bea were that hungry, and Bea was not impressed with the macheroni I recommended (she later confessed that she likes her pasta overcooked.) It was a beautiful day, warm and very sunny—I actually got too much sun.

Jim and family are very taken with Lucca, and like wandering around the town very much.

7 October 2006                outside Lucca (Viareggio and Livorno)

So we decided that the next day, Saturday, we would take advantage of the good weather and drive to the coast. Naturally it rained all day! We did walk around Viareggio. We had coffee in a café, and walked down to the beach—the water was a very pretty green in the overcast and drizzly sky. Then we drove on to Livorno.

Sadly, no reason to see Livorno at all. A couple old coastal forts you could see from the car; the rest of the town unremarkable. Dull duomo, completely rebuilt after the war (and closed), a network of canals, not particularly picturesque, with another shut up church. Actually everything was closed (it was between 1 and 4, so the stores I could understand), not even cafes were open. No one was around. It was all very desolate, and rather depressing. The rain didn’t help. We finally found a lone bar/cafeteria that was open, with one table occupied, and we went in and ordered some pasta (very cheap, like 3.50 euro a plate.) While we were inside, this torrential storm broke: thunder, lighting flashes, torrential rains, wind, the rain driving sideways, the street flooded, the rain rushed into the café under the door flooding the floor! It was quite a scene. Fortunately Jim and I were able to get from the café back to our car by traveling the whole way under arcades (they must get a lot of rain in Livorno) and then we drove back round the square to pick up the ladies. No one liked Livorno much; the storm was the highlight of the trip.

We came back to our house to rest up, the storm broke and the sky cleared. I took Jim for a walk to see the “town” of Cerasomma, then Carlotta sent us some hot fresh baked bread, so we ate bread and drank a bottle of Vernachia de San Gimignano (very light and refreshing).

We drove back to Lucca for dinner at eight, a place Jim found on his wanderings. A bit stuffy and catering to rich Americans—and all rich Americans seem like Republicans to me. I thought the food was good, but no better than the other places we eat in Lucca, and the prices were double (still, not outrageous). But the atmosphere was lacking, and the formality unnecessary. Jim had booked it because he’d seen their nice courtyard terrace (too cold for dinner) and not the over-formal dining room.

8 October 2006                    outside Lucca

Last night Jim and I went to the HUB disco, only five minutes from the house here! It’s supposed to be the biggest gay club in Italy, and I believe it. It was packed too. It was great to have Jim to go with, as I think we were the only non-Italians there. But for the rest, they must have come from all over northern Italy. Very diverse group (though trending toward young!) gay boys, lesbians (lots), gay boys with their girlfriends, maybe even a few actual straight couples. Many different looks and fashion statements: casual, dressy, International Male(!), eighties. Showing a lot of boxer underwear is not the style here—but showing your butt crack is! Also lots of wild hair. The common denominator, and so typical…everyone was thin. Thin to very thin. How do they do it?

The club itself was really nice, obviously lots of effort put into it. A huge indoor dance floor, a huge outdoor terrace with gazebos (for smoking, for quiet, and with better lighting than indoors), a small outdoor dance floor (techno, while the music inside on the big floor was very eclectic—they played Tainted Love—and euro-pop.) Lounges, several bars. Admission and buying drinks took some puzzling out. Various lists (for discounts) and a short line for general admission (pricey). But you don’t pay going in, you just get a colored card. Then you take it to the cashier at the bar and pay your entry fee (a pricey 25 euro for us non-list folks; I think there is a 10 euro or more discount depending; there were many colors of tickets). You get an exit card and a drink ticket. Then you stand in line to get a drink from the bartender—everyone is ordering fancy cocktails (Americano’s and such) so it takes a while, even though the attractive bartenders are quick.) We had vodka tonicos, easy to say, easy to make. There was something for everyone: go-go boys, a brief drag show, eclectic music, cute boys and girls. The staff was very friendly, and helpful, despite our complete lack of Italian (limited English was spoken by some, enough to get us by.)

It seems to be open every Saturday night, though I have no idea why it wasn’t open last Saturday. By the time we arrived at 12:30, it was packed already and a throng at the door. I think it’s worth showing up smack at 11:30. They do have convenient parking, for 2 euros. Drinks are expensive (7 euros?) but strong. No tourists, because it’s so hard to find, I think, being so far from a city center; you absolutely have to have a car to get there, and I was a bit concerned about all the cute boys driving home drunk—and they were pretty drunk by the time we left at 3:30. Not sure how late it’s open. Typical Jim: he saw a hairdresser from Lucca there and then he chatted briefly with a waiter from a café in Lucca he’d been to. It was fun; actually the most fun big disco I’ve been to in a long while. Everyone seemed to be having such a great time (because being gay is still rather a private thing in Italy) and there were so many different “types” there, and much flamboyance and over-the-top looks. It was one of those times though, when one longed to speak the language a bit, so one could talk to people, ask questions, be involved more than as just an observer.

Today, I plan a Sunday lunch with Nonna, and then to meet Jim & Co. in the late afternoon for ice-cream and shopping.

10 October 2006                    outside Lucca

Sunday was a quiet day. The weather was beautiful—sunny and warm—and indeed has remained so. Nonna and I had Sunday lunch in the garden at the Osteria di Meati (gnocchi, riso, and steak) and then went into Lucca in the late afternoon. Lucca in October is not closed to cars on Sunday, nor is it thronged with people; just an ordinary afternoon, with a lot (but certainly not all) of the shops closed. We had ice cream with Jim et al, (not at Turandot, which was closed, but at the place on the opposite corner of the piazza). Nonna, Pat and Bea sat there all after noon, while Jim and I went looking for bookstores, and the outdoor book market. Some fun old things at the book market, but too bulky to buy. I did get an English/Italian Touring Lucca regional guide at a bookstore. We came back and had another drink at the little café, and Nonna and I left Lucca about 6:30. We just had a cold supper at home.

Oh, I also explored some hotels in Lucca. Jim says the Le Torre was nice enough, with their room in the private annex, but not too great on service. The promised shuttle service and the free internet didn’t seem to exist. And when Jim arranged on Sunday to have them driven to the Santa Anna gate so I could pick them up, the staff on Monday morning knew nothing about it. I’m not so impressed with them. I am impressed with a little hotel I found off the Piazza San Michelle, The Picollo Hotel Pucina (across the street, apparently, from the house where Puccini was born.) Really cute lobby, great location, nice guy at the desk, and cheap at 68 euros a room. It seems really nice. Another nice looking choice is La Luna, a bigger hotel, with more services, near the amphitheatre. It’s rooms start at 110 euros however. Also saw a super swanky hotel, very elegant, but small, with a fancy restaurant and beautiful courtyard. It’s called Hotel Noblesse, but it’s in the 400 euro range, so it’s right out…and no doubt filled with rich American Republicans as well. The Hotel Universo, on the Piazza Napoleon, looks fun—it’s a grand 19th century hotel which seems to have resisted modernization; no idea what the rates might be.

Monday, we picked up Jim, Bea and Pat so I could drive them into Firenze, to the Hotel Silla. Didn’t get underway until about noon, due to complications with the hotel, Jim leaving his credit card at a store, etc. Nonna rode along too, so everyone had to sit with bags on their laps (except me, as driver). Pat and Bea have so much luggage…like four bags each, some of which are huge. Anyway, got efficiently to the Silla, from the back road down the mountain, with a stop at the Piazza Michelangelo for the view. Beautiful day…even the quick snaps I took with my compact camera show what a nice day it was. Got them into the Silla, and they let me park in their garage long enough for us to have salads for lunch at Zoe. They have a nice triple on the third floor (I didn’t know the hotel was that big, having never stayed above the first floor!) I look forward to staying there again when we visit Firenze.

Drove home and made some prosciutto and melon, and pasta, for dinner. Cooked up the porcinis from Carlotta, but I think I waited too long, as they had lost much of their flavor. I guess you should eat the fresh porcinis when they are really fresh. Had good fresh macherroni from the supermarket though.

Nonna has been going strong; lots of walking, and getting her stamina back. I was having high hopes for her, but last night she hurt her back (somehow, she was just standing in the house doing nothing) and today she can barely move. So we will see; I was hoping with the continuous exercise she would regain some of her mobility, and it seemed to be happening. Also, with the exercise, she seems to be sleeping much better. I will hope this new period of invalidism will be short lived.

12 October 2006                    outside Lucca

We had dinner at Da Guilia again on Tuesday night…just a few people there, mostly Italian. We are real regulars now. Macheronni and a pressed chicken. Yesterday we decided to see the sights of Pistoia, so we made the thirty minute drive on the Autostrada. Had a lot of trouble parking (it was market day, and they were shooting a movie or something!) but finally found a place. I had forgotten to bring a guidebook with a map though, so we didn’t know where we were! Just next to a big church that was closed up. We wandered toward what we hoped was the center, and I spotted a bookstore where I got a city map for six euros (a very detailed, very large map of Pistoia!). We were near the center, though we’d taken a sort of round about way there from the car. It was just time for everything to shut up for lunch (the market was closing, and of course all the shops) so we decided we might as well have lunch. We were on a little square and sat first at an outdoor table at what I soon realized was a Czech beer pub (!), so we moved to a wine bar (no food) and then to a charming restaurant next to it. Had a table on the street, and was consulting my map to see where the duomo and main piazza might be. When I got up to go to the toilette, I found out, as the other end of the restaurant opened on to the Piazza, and had tables overlooking the baptistery! The restaurant was called ‘la Botte Gaia’ and it was really excellent. I had a delicious pumpkin soup with chestnut and big slices of fried proscuitto, and then a salt cod with garbanzo beans. My mother had an excellent risotto and then a grilled ham and cheese crostini that she couldn’t finish. We had some white Vernachio de San Gimignano to drink. It was really a nice lunch—pleasant table, great food.

It was a warm afternoon. We walked to the Piazza after lunch and visited the Cathedral (S. Zeno). It was very old, very large. Romanesque, very few windows, roman columns (I believe), very elaborately decorated truss roof. Bits of frescoes remained along the upper parts of the walls. Great baroque altar, obviously added centuries later, rather gaudy. Most famous treasure is a solid silver (very large) altar, locked up in a side room with the lights off. I bought a brochure with a picture for a euro. Baptistery was pretty, typical black and white striped octagon, but closed. Large L-shape square with a number of gothic buildings surrounding it, one open, with a courtyard and frescoed vaults. We walked next to Santo Sprito, another old Romanesque church, the façade never completed, and the interior completely remade in the baroque style. Pistoia has quite a few churches and monasteries and convents within the remains of its ancient walls, but it would have been too much walking for Nonna to try to find them all. We walked back to our car, hoping St. Sebastian, the huge church we parked next to, would be open, but it was locked up tight. I decided to skip the Autostrada and take the scenic route home…unfortunately it wasn’t that scenic—suburban sprawl, traffic, etc. I liked Pistoia though, definitely worth a day trip. We had dinner at home. Today, later we are going into Lucca. It’s partly cloudy…not the bright sun we’ve been having.

I should mention that I really like that in Italy they have gas stations where a boy will fill your tank for you. Even if it does cost nearly 70 euros to fill up the Peugeot.

Not getting a lot of news here in Italy. I think I’ve only bought the Herald Tribune twice. And CNN International (the only non-German language TV we get via the satellite) is awful…practically information-free. Last night turned it on to find a small plane had crashed into and apartment building on New York’s upper east side—the reporters knew nothing of course, but they talked and talked, basically trying to instill panic through wild speculation about terrorism. Turned it off.

13 October 2006                    outside Lucca

Lazy morning around the house yesterday. Drove to Lucca around three. Coffee and gelato at Turandot. Shopping. Nonna bought a sweatshirt (an American brand, expensive) and prescription reading glasses (a bargain, and ready in 30 minutes!). Wandered around the town. Had dinner (early, 7:30) at Tratoria Leo, not too crowded. Sat on the sidewalk, weather was cool but comfortable. Our waiter, a cute, effete Italian boy with glasses, was very enthusiastic with his English. He spoke well, and obviously enjoyed it. Said he learned it all from working in the restaurant, and from the internet. His name was Marco. They seem to have given him all the English speaking guests to deal with. My mother was eavesdropping on the couple behind us, as Marco had to explain to the young woman what ravioli was. My mother said to me: “I thought they were from Colorado, not Mars.” I left him a big tip. (I ate tortellini in brodo, roast pork, roast potatoes, fagioli e cipolini, and torte di fiche e noci.)

Today, bright sun (yesterday a cloudy morning, sunnier afternoon, warmish evening). Have decided to drive to Volterra—a longish drive, but why not.

14 October 2006                    outside Lucca

Yesterday was quite an active day, with my decision to visit Volterra, a 90 minute drive each way. Of course we arrived in the vertiginous mountaintop city just in time for lunch. Ended up in quite a fancy restaurant (a member of the association piatti boun giorno) called Del Duca. Food was excellent, though we did not opt for a full lunch. We split a starter of proscuitto of wild boar served with a hot cheese sauce and toast. All very delicious, though I was never sure of the proper way to combine the elements. Afterwards I had a very tasty rabbit haunch, cooked in butter with little green olives and kapperappeltjes (still don’t know what they are in any other language but Dutch). Nonna had a pasta with truffle slices on top. We had a dessert of semifredo with vin santo jelly (interesting, that) and little crumbs of chocolate biscotti. Not as stellar as the savory courses. A glass of prosecco, and glass of very nice house red from the region. Slightly pricey, but only by comparison with the places we usually eat in rural Tuscany. Would be good for dinner.

After lunch we trekked across Volterra (a very small town) to the Etruscan museum. It’s filled with artifacts (all uncovered locally) from the Etruscan period, about 9th to 1st century BC. Hundreds and hundreds of funerary, or ossuary boxes. The most beautiful are the Greek-influenced (in carved alabaster) from 2nd and 3rd century BC—a reclining figure of the deceased (banqueting) on the lid, and elaborately carved scenes on the sides. They literally have hundreds of these. Along with urns, coins, oil lambs, candelabra, bronze figures of people and animals, jewelry (funny how earrings have not changed in 2500 years), mirrors, pots, etc. It’s all housed in this dusty old palazzo and things are just stacked everywhere. Only a few visitors. I like the old fashioned-ness of it, it’s a very 19th century sort of Museum. My mother said—“think if there were an Earthquake!”—and it’s true, everything would just come crashing to the floor and be shattered into a million pieces. One is kind of amazed that the Getty foundation doesn’t swoop in with a billion dollars and build a state of the art modern museum; but I do like the unassuming charm of this one.

Visited the cathedral and the baptistery too. Small octagonal baptistery with only one façade finished in striped marble. Romanesque church, fairly large, with some interesting later paintings—a large, rather sexy St. Sebastian, and likewise a young Jesus teaching in the Temple (I’m fairly certain), with, incongruously, very cute naked boys lounging in the foreground. Elaborate, gold-leafed coffered ceiling, not sure from what era.

We bought a few alabaster doo-dads, and I got the small catalogue from the Etruscan museum. We drove back, taking a rather unusual route via Pisa…the route planned by Ermentrude, rather than our usual straight line route through Pontaderra (the road we took down). It was faster perhaps, a chunk was on a free stretch of autostrada, and would have been faster still if we’d stayed on the autostrada from Pisa to Lucca, rather than wending through the Friday night traffic on the local roads.

Been gone four weeks, with two weeks and four days left. So strange how time distorts in travel…in a way it seems like I’ve been gone forever, California a distant memory, and one easily forgotten. Then too, one feels so busy, that the days seem quite rushed…then fade into a suddenly distant past. Still warm and sunny, a beautiful autumn. The signs of the season are around us though…the grapes have been harvested, there are sounds of gunshots from the hunters, everyone is selling and eating porcini mushrooms. I expect to see game on the restaurant menus any day now. Just hoping it stays warm and dry for two more weeks. The weather is perfect.

Logan and Randy arrive tonight, 8:15 at Pisa airport. We have a 9:30 dinner reservation in Pisa, so I hope their plane is not delayed. I hope they are not exhausted from the trip, and from the 4 hour stopover in CDG. Should be a busy week ahead, with Pisa, San Gimignano, and Siena to show them, as well as Lucca.

15 October 2006                        outside Lucca

Logan and Randy arrived right on time Saturday night at the tiny Pisa airport, in a tiny commuter jet from Paris. We met them there (excellent directions into the airport courtesy Ermentrude) and arrived early for our 9:30 dinner reservation at La St…. (also easily located with the GPS system.) Same place I ate on my first trip to Pisa eight or so years ago, I did vaguely recognize it, same husband and wife owners. Menu with a heavy emphasis on seafood, dinner was quite good, and portions were huge. Shared some starters: octopus, caprese, and porcini salads. Primi: I ordered vongole, it was a plate so large I thought it was for at least two people, but no, everyone else got a pasta too, randy a risotto with squid ink, Nonna had fettuccini carbornara, and Logan had gnocchi. It was enough to eat, but we went ahead and ordered two segundi anyway—a mixed grill of fried fish (sardines, calamari, squids) and some rouget in a red sauce. Came back to the Gatto Rosso, and Randy, surprisingly was energetic enough to want to go to the Saturday disco. So we headed to HUB about 12:30, arriving just after the rush this time. I said I had been there the previous week so the color coded entry tickets we got this time only cost 15 euros instead of 25. A nice surprise. Not quite as crowded as the week before but still basically the same. Lots of cute boys, an act…not drag, but a Eurovision singer, I am guessing (her song, “Boys, Boys, Boys” had Eurovision written all over it; I’ll have to ask Martin), go-go boys, cuter than last week. Just fun people watching. We stayed until three and then made the quick trip back to the house. (After all the wine at dinner and two gin tonicos at the club, I was glad I didn’t have to drive far.) Poor Randy had to sleep on the couch, as he couldn’t check into his hotel until Sunday.

We had breakfast and then Logan and I drove Randy into Lucca. Parked outside the gate, and carried his bags to the hotel (fortunately he’s a light packer). I had considered trying to drive into the hotel again, as I did for Jim, but I’m glad I didn’t as there was a special, city wide flea market that Sunday! Anyway, Randy’s room is even farther from the Hotel than Jim’s was (though much closer to our usual entry gate, so that is good. A cute room, but with the same set up as Jim’s: a private bath, but outside the room. His room does have two nice windows overlooking an enclosed courtyard. He says the bed is not bad. I am beginning to wonder if they have any rooms in the building where the lobby/breakfast room is though. It’s definitely an odd hotel—though good if you crave privacy; sort of like having an apartment in Lucca.

After we got him settled we went back to the car and picked up Nonna and went for Sunday lunch at the Osteria de Meati. Great weather again, and a great lunch on the back patio. Crostini and lardo; riso, fettuccini fungi and the house pasta, a macheronni with a ragu, then two big chianini steaks. Dropped randy back in Lucca for a nap, and napped myself at the Gotto Rosso. Around eight we went back to Lucca, just to meet Randy (lots of traffic; and they had just torn down the flea market stalls). Everything was closed of course; but we did have coffee, and walked around to see the monuments by night.

16 October 2006                    Lucca (Pisa)

Today we took Randy and Logan to Pisa. Turned away for lunch at our favorite restaurant (I hadn’t planned on lunch, so hadn’t booked, but when we got there everyone was hungry.) We found this cute little student hangout with a back terrace (I don’t even know the name) that was super cheap and cute—full of smoking university students. Pastas and salads, everything was under 5 euros and pretty good. I liked it a lot.

Afterwards we stopped at the hospital chapel of S. Chiara to see the thorn from the crown of thorns (brought to Pisa in 1266.) Then back to the Campo de Miracoli for the monuments. The same tour we did a week ago with Jim et al. Not at all busy, pleasantly uncrowded in fact. The Rolex watch sellers almost outnumbered the tourists. Let Logan and Randy climb the tower, as I had done it the week before. I went off to find a pharmacy to get Nonna something for her mosquito bites (which were making her cranky). After some wandering, found the main shopping street—I’d forgotten how nice it was—didn’t have time to linger though, just stopped in an old fashioned pharmacy, very cute, and bought what was recommended to me.

We had dinner tonight a de Giulia, our last visit this trip, I suppose. It was surprisingly busy, and we had to sit for the first time ever in what I call the sale de tour buses, as the front room was full. They put a few more Italians in there as well, so it was fine (we did have the English speaking—sort of—waiter though) and the room is cute. Had the favorites: mixed antipasto, tuna and fagiole, macherroni, horse tartare for me and Logan, veal stew with olives for Nonna and the flattened chicken for Randy. Some very tasty spinach that Logan ordered on a whim. Nonna had her panna cotta with strawberry sauce. The blonde lady wasn’t there, and the dark haired woman was so busy when we left, we didn’t really get to say goodbye. Kind of sad.

Anyway, tomorrow we are off to San Gimignano and Siena.

17 October 2006                    San Gimignano

San Gimignano hadn’t changed much since my previous visits. It’s far too touristy, but still rather fun (and impressive) to visit. If you step off the main street, it can be strangely deserted, we found to our delight. It was late afternoon that we spent there, and it wasn’t that crowded, really. We had excellent pizza (wish I knew the name of the place, I only know how to find it) and then excellent gelato. We visited the small Romanesque Cathedral, with it’s fantastic frescoes of the old and new testament stories. Nonna sat in a café while we went off to see the monastery church. We all had a coffee, then she joined us for the walk up to the fortress, and the amazing view of the surrounding countryside. We just missed the sunset (the sun had slipped behind the mountains anyway) but still a very beautiful, almost timeless view.

We had dinner at a tucked away little restaurant that I discovered on my last visit—but discovered too late to eat at. It looked good, and so I had always wanted to go. Turned out to be really excellent. (It’s called Rondo, in some cellar rooms on an obscure side street.) It didn’t hurt that there was an incredibly cute, very friendly waiter—his name was Omar. But the food was outstanding. Highlights included a trio of soups: cavalo nero, onion, and cream of potato; and more I don’t remember althouh I have the menu among my papers.

18 October 2006                    Siena

The drive to Siena was easy (even though Ermentrude’s power was dead when I tried to turn her on this morning—the danger of relying on technology.) We only had a little rufusing about the walls of Siena before we found signs which led us to the hotel and its on-site parking. The Hotel Athena is nice—modern, without a lot of character, but very comfortable and convenient, and very service oriented. Logan forgot to bring his passport, despite my reminding him, so at the hotels we’ve been sort of pretending he doesn’t exist. This silly registering one has to do with Italian hotels. You also have to show ID to use the internet in Italy—they make a copy for the government, some anti-terrorist law—absolutely silly.

We got to Siena and walked down to the campo. Sat at a café for the view. Had sandwiches and a glass of wine and coffee for the outrageous price of 55 euros—well, you pay to sit on the campo, it’s silly. This evening we found a better café, still on the campo, to have our pre-dinner drinks—four euros for a campari/soda, much more reasonable (at the bar il Palio). After our afternoon snack we walked across town to the San Dominica church to see the head (and finger) of St. Catherine. I bought a bunch of postcards, of course. The church is otherwise unremarkable. Walked back (past St. Catherine’s house), Nonna complaining of the hills and the length of the walk. Rested in the hotel and downloaded emails for a while. A little after five Randy, Logan and I walked to the Duomo and spent quite a lot of time inside. The façade, sadly, is completely covered in scaffolding, but it does have one of the most interesting and impressive interiors in Italy. The inlaid floors were uncovered. We also visited the ‘crypt’ which I had never seen before. It’s not really a crypt, but an old pilgrimage entrance to the cathedral, which was buried when the church was expanded and the baptistery built. It actually sits between the dome of the baptistery and the floor of the cathedral, and had been filled with dirt and debris until it was accidentally rediscovered in 1999. Because it had been buried for 600 years or so, the surviving paintings (not frescoes, but images dry painted on the walls) are brilliantly colored and without any alterations or restoration. It’s beautiful (though much was lost in expanding the church). We were the only people there. The Cathedral too, late in the day, was mostly empty…it’s mobbed most of the day. We were too late though to go to the baptistery, it was closing…it wasn’t yet 7, the official closing time, but it was empty and they wouldn’t let us in. We went for a drink and waited for Nonna to walk from the hotel and join us. She’d been walking well…lots of walking the day before in San Gimignano, and again today, but now her hip seems to have given out.

Great dinner tonight dinner at Osteria di Logge, just off the Campo. It’s a really cute restaurant with fantastic food. I had: first a chunk of fatty bacon cooked with a few beans; then a ravioli stuffed with potato puree and mozzarella, then fried rabbit, then a rich chocolate ‘soup’ with lemon sorbet (an odd but delicious combo). Other dishes included two tasty octopus tentacles, pasta with sausage, rare sliced steak, and delicious rack of lamb. And another dessert of warm chestnut mouse with cassis sorbet. Chianti (1999) of course. We started off with a cute young waiter, but ended with some of the more experienced servers. Everyone was very nice, including a woman who I think is the owner.

Randy, Logan and I walked back from the restaurant, after putting Nonna in a taxi to the hotel. She was very happy that I insisted; I’m glad that I walked though. On the walk back, passed a bar full of gays on the same street as the restaurant. Not a gay bar, just a typical Italian bar, but all gay guys, inside drinking and on the street smoking. Farther along toward the hotel, spotted a rather surprising scene of a guy giving another guy a blow job in a dark little square by a sculpture of a Panther, off the fairly busy lane leading to our hotel. Who knew Siena was so gay? Who knows what you might find, prowling around the dark Siena streets?

20 October 2006                        outside Lucca

Change in the weather yesterday afternoon, just after we returned from Siena. Cloudy and a light but steady rain, then a heavy rain through the night. Today it’s chilly and overcast but dry, though occasional showers are forecast (by Carlotta, who always seems to know the weather.)

Yesterday we didn’t get up to much. A quick visit to the baptistery in Siena after breakfast, and an easy drive back to Lucca and Cerasomma. A quick visit to the COOP with Logan, then lazing around the house in the rain until dinner. Ate at Leo, bean soup and roast pork. Logan had the pumpkin ravioli and the rolled roast veal, which was really excellent. Randy had a combo of boiled tongue and chicken leg—not sure why the combination. I didn’t try it. My mother had a particularly tasty spaghetti pomodoro, and a stew of chicken, tomatoes and olives. Lemon sorbet with sage for dessert—not as interesting as the melon with peperocini, though.

Today is our last full day in Lucca…so Logan and I, at least, are going in to see the churches, and have a walk around the city walls. Nonna is suffering with a painful hip.

Logan and I drove into town in the late morning and met Randy. We had coffee at Turandot, made a dinner reservation at Giglio; walked by the Cathedral and on to lunch at Gigi. Nice table on the small terrace, as we arrived just ahead of the rush. We ate light (one course each) so as not to spoil our dinner—but everything we had was fantastic. I definitely wanted more; and in retrospect was sorry we had not had a light lunch at Giglio and a big dinner at Gigi. The food was better and half the price, another super cheap tratoria like de Leo and de Guilia. I had spaghetti with seafood: mussels, shrimp—simple but really tasty, with excellent pasta. Randy had a terrific looking seafood stew, mostly octopus, served on a big slice of toast, in a broth. I think Logan had bresola and rucola, though I may be misremembering. Everything coming out of the kitchen looked great, and the patio was lovely, and the casual atmosphere charming.

After lunch we visited churches. I got us lost going round the Piazza Ampiteatro, so we visited a church I wasn’t expecting. Then finally found San Frediano, with its impressive mosaic façade. The Chapel of Santa Zita was closed—under renovation—but the saint in her glass vitrine was on display in the main church. From there we ascended the city walls and walked halfway around the city atop the walls. It’s a lovely park-like promenade with attractive views. Most of the trees were still green, but some were turning and losing leaves, depending on their orientation. We passed the Casa Cura de Santa Zita—a rest home that looks like a luxury hotel; and we passed a penitentiary (inside the city walls; I never knew it was there.) All over the city they have been setting up fully enclosed tents; they started at Piazza San Michele, then in front of the Cathedral, the entire Piazza Napoleon and a big grassy area outside the walls. I never did find out what event they were for. We came off the wall on the other side of the city and visited the Cathedral (with it’s “holy face”—a crucifix of miraculous origin, carved by saints, which then sailed itself to Lucca; that sort of thing). We visited also the deconsecrated church of SS Giovanni and Riparta with it’s interesting archeological excavations dating to the first century. Then onto gelato at Santini on the Piazza Puccini, and a little shopping. Back to the Gatto Rosso to get Nonna and return for dinner at Giglio. Coming back Logan twisted his ankle—it looked bad when we got home. Giglio is a bit elegant, for which you pay double the price of the tratorias. The food sounded interesting, but while it was good, it was really no better than the places we’d been eating. Nice terrace, but so has de Leo and Gigi.

Saturday 21 October                outside Lucca

Morning. Preparing to leave our country house. Raining this morning. With Logan’s twisted ankle, I am now dealing with two invalids. Neither of the them can walk, or want to go out in the rain, and there’s nothing for breakfast here. Carlotta gave me a little tin plaque of a sheep, it’s really cute.

Later, Hotel Silla, Firenze

Left Lucca in the morning, without a proper breakfast and in the pouring rain. Had a mediocre coffee along the way at the Autogrill. Checked into the Silla, and it looked like it was going to clear. Had salads under the tent outside Zoe. Decided to take Randy for a walk around the city while Nonna and Logan rested their various achy parts. As soon as we left it started to rain again, but I walked Randy in a great circle around the city anyway: Santa Croce, Duomo, Baptistery, Piazza Signorini, Ponte Vecchio, Pitti Palace, Santo Spirito. As I refuse to be burdened with an umbrella, I got soaked.

Took a taxi to dinner at Cibreo. Expensive (340 euros for 4) but really excellent. Attentive friendly service. Lots of great little antipasti: delicious tripe salad, tomato aspic, salted onions, chicken liver crostini, a few other things. I had a primi of pumpkin soup a segundi of a breaded room-temperature veal chop with tomato sauce; Logan had potato flan with ragu and a mound of raw fish over celery. nonna had polenta,  and then a veal stew. Randy had mushroom soup and… oh I forget. Everything was quite delicious though. Desserts of flourless chocolate cake (a gift) and coffee bavarese (like flan) with dark chocolate sauce were outstanding. A pear tart and chestnut filled merangue were less spectacular. Altogether though, interesting, very good and different food. I’d still be happy to eat in the adjacent tratoria though, and pay half as much. We walked back to the hotel.

22  October                    Hotel Silla, Firenze

Took a very nice walking tour in the morning. Official, licensed guides, and ours was excellent. The company is Mercurio, and I would recommend them. Basic art and history of Florence –Ponte Vecchio, Piazzi Signorini, Duomo, then to the Academia (where they arrange admission) but still quite interesting. Our guide (Patricia) was knowledgeable and interesting. And I learned things I didn’t know: that Florence was ruled for a time by the Byzantine empire; that the important families lived in stone towers before they replaced them with Palazzos, that the white, green and pink marble on the Duomo represents faith, hope and charity. Her discussion, inside the Academia, of Michelangelo’s late, unfinished, slaves, and his early David was most interesting. Sadly, the room in the Academia filled with plaster study casts was closed for renovation. We couldn’t really linger in the Academia, sadly, as we had lunch reservations.

We took a cab to Omero, in the hills south of the city for Lunch. Nonna met us there. She was supposed to go on the walking tour, but her hip was too painful this morning. The weather was nice—it turned quite warm during our walking tour, and Omero has this fantastic view of the Tuscan countryside. We had a little salumi and crostini, and interesting mushroom and parmesan salad; then pasta: papardelle with hare for me and Randy; Spaghetti with ragu for nonna and (expensive!) white truffles for Logan. After that, two bistecca alla fiorintino. Good, but not really better than the ones at Osteria di Meati. Wacky ladies from Texas in the dining room. Our waiter was kind of surly most of the meal, but he cheered up toward the end. Randy tipped him 20 euros which I wouldn’t have done, but then I am always thinking Randy is over tipping. He gave the taxi driver on the way down an enormous tip, just because he thought he was so amusing (he was right out of central casting as a stereotypical young Italian Guido).

Logan, Randy and I wandered around the Boboli gardens a while. I came back and checked my email (free wireless now at the Silla, though the signal doesn’t reach our room; but it’s a nice first floor room on the front.) Around 8pm took Nonna out for a walk and we sat at Riviore, looking at the Palazzo Vecchio, drinking expensive Campari sodas. The evening was warm, but grew chilly with a weak breeze. Randy and Logan joined us for a drink, then we went for a little walk, had gelato (mediocre) and came back to the Silla. Not enough time in Firenze I fear.

23 October 2006                    Hotel Silla, Firenze

I desperately wanted to take everyone to La Specola, the strange natural history museum of Florence, with the 18th century wax anatomical models. I marched Nonna there…up the road blocks beyond the Pitti Palace, only to find that the Museum—up six flights of stairs in a rennaisance palazzo that is now part of the unversity—has no elevator. I walked up and asked at the desk if they had invalid access. They told me to wait downstairs. And then two not very young and not very large men appeared and offered to carry my mother up the stairs! I was expecting, of course, a service elevator hidden somewhere. They looked greatly relieved when Nonna declined and went instead to a café for capuccino while Logan, Randy and I toured the collection of ancient stuffed creatures and gruesomely realistic wax corpses. It was virtually deserted, have just been abandoned by a group of school children. I felt badly that Nonna didn’t get to see it, but she sounded unimpressed by my descriptions. I think it is a fantastically cool place.

We had lunch outside on the Santo Spirito square, which has a number of pleasant cafes. Then we went shopping at Nonna’s favorite leather shop—the prices are surprisingly low.

Dinner was at one of my favorite Firenze restaurants—the fabulously bargainy and always delicious Casalinga. We had reservations, but were denied the pleasure of being led to our table under the envious gaze of tourists waiting in line (so much fun!) as it was Monday and not crowded to overflowing. The food, as always, was basic, traditional and delicious—and priced to encourage over-eating.

24 October 2006                    Hotel Silla, Firenze

Logan had to catch an early flight to Paris to connect back to Los Angeles, so we didn’t even get to see him at breakfast. We went shopping at our favorite Florentine paper store (the somewhat hard-to-find and therefore inexpensive) il Torchio, then had a more leisurely departure for the scenic drive north to Modena.

Villa Gaidello

A beautiful Italian farm and a fantastic homemade meal: what more could you ask? The Villa Gaidello, just outside Modena, Italy is our favorite sort of inn: comfortable, full of character, family-owned, moderately priced, completely unpretentious, and serving delicious, lovingly-prepared food.

Villa Gaidello

Lets start with that food. We knew we were in for a treat when we saw the ladies making the meat tortolini through the kitchen window. There is just one set family-style meal served in the farm’s large dining room. We sat down at a table with our places stacked high with plates on pretty hand embroidered linen. The owner, Signora Paolo Bini, came to the table to chat in Italian. First a bottle of sparkling Trebianno wine made on the estate was poured. Antipasti appeared: parma ham, salami, mortadella, pickled onions, marinated artichoke hearts, and these amazing little deep fried puffs! Then we had those handmade pork tortolini in broth. Then a plate of larger tortoloni, ricotta stuffed, with butter and sage leaf. Then a roasted chicken (delicious!!) with roasted potatoes and a little green salad. There was a bottle of red wine…a local San Genovese. Then some deep fried sweet cheese thing—I’m not sure what exactly—with some deep fried zucchini strips. Then a dessert of a sort of chocolate and vanilla puddings on a biscuit, with some candied fruit and whipped cream. And some sort of unlabeled fortified wine with it, and a coffee, and a meringue and a cookie! A fabulous dinner with no effort on our part at all. No one speaks any English here, but they are never-the-less very friendly and chatty! The atmosphere is totally unpretentious, with makes it especially fun; the food is served by a girl in an apron–no tuxedoed waiters here—but it is so fantastic.

The rooms—suites really—in various farm buildings are charming and quirky. We had two bedrooms, two sitting rooms, a kitchen, bath and hall–all for just the two of us. The suite was furnished with funny old things, some very pretty, some rather shabby, but all quite comfortable—rather like staying in a private home. I would recommend a room here on the main farm, rather than in the newer annex down the road. The grounds are beautiful, with trees and gardens lots of lovely details and even a lake full of swans!

I will confess, we discovered this inn through a mention in Travel+Leisure Magazine—but it is very un-Travel+Leisure, and if your favorite hotel is the Ritz-Carlton, it may not be to your taste; but for the rest of us, it is a real find. Dinner for two, and our huge suite that could have easily slept four, plus a tasty breakfast totaled a reasonable €200. Convenient to Modena and Bologna, it is also well worth a special trip.

Mornings the inn is managed by Signora Bini’s American-raised niece, a good time to call if you need to speak English, but fax or e-mail reservations are probably easiest.—Clay Doyle

Written 2002, revisited October, 2006

Villa Gaidello
18 Via Gaidello, Modena
39-059/926-806,
fax 39-059/926-620

www.gaidello.com

Antica Osteria di Meati

Sometimes you find a great restaurant in the most unlikely place. Such is the Osteria di Meati it a tiny hamlet just outside of Lucca. The village of Meati is so small as to be almost non-existent; It’s on a tiny, obscure road that you would likely be driving only because you had gotten lost; and the restaurant itself is totally unassuming, looking rather like a neighborhood bar. Only the large number of cars parked outside hint at the treats waiting within.

Osteria di Meati

Inside is a rather ordinary bar with a few tables; a reservation will get you a table in simple, but pleasant, dining room in the rear—crowded with happy, well dressed, hungry locals. And why not? The food is fantastic, and unbelievably cheap! About half the short menu consists of daily or weekly specials, all composed of fresh seasonal ingredients and house-made pastas.

It’s difficult to make a plate of tuscan beans with slices of lard sound as good as it is, but this is a must have antipasto. The Tuscan crostini with chicken livers is among the best versions I’ve had of this Tuscan classic. Grilled vegetables are also very nicely done. The risottos and pastas are consistently excellent, particularly the daily specials, which might feature wild game, wild mushrooms or fresh herbs. The segundo tend to feature rabbit, duck, eel or tripe as specials, though there is always roast chicken or sliced steak. The meat dishes are perfectly prepared and seasoned, evidencing an un-fussy, yet sophisticated hand in the kitchen. The rabbit and duck were both delicious, and Cinghiale, a classic Tuscan stew of wild boar and olives that is too often lackluster, was perfection. Desserts are pleasant and the house wine decent.

I’m not sure who is in the kitchen, turning out this fantastic food, but the owner and his teenaged son run the dining room, with a friendly welcome and great enthusiasm.

And Unbelievably—four courses, house wine, coffee will set you back little more than €20 ($20) per person. If you can find it, I enthusiastically reccomend a meal—or several—at the Osteria di Meati.—Clay Doyle

Antica Osteria di Meati

Meati is about 3 kilometers west of Lucca

Follow the signs to Meati from the old road SS12

Telephone (39) 0583-510-373

Reservations advised

Originally posted November 2002. I revisited the Osteria di Meati several times in October of 2006 and found it better than ever. Sunday lunch on the lawn with big bistecca Friorentino is a special treat.—Clay

Tuscan Grapes

Tuscan Food and Wine

With an emphasis on fresh, seasonal ingredients and straightforward preparations, it is no wonder that Tuscan food has become a favorite around the world. Still, there is nothing like a trip to the source, and Tuscan food in Tuscany offers both familiar favorites and delicious dishes and ingredients not often seen in America. Best of all, food and wine in Tuscany is not only great, it can also be a great bargain—even in the most touristy areas.

The ultimate meal in Tuscany is Sunday lunch, and the ultimate Sunday lunch is the justly famous Bistecca alla Fiorentina—a two-inch-thick slab of beef cooked on a wood fire. This is possibly the best steak in the world, and strangely impossible to recreate outside of Tuscany. Order it at Casa al Chino (53037 San Gimignano; +0577/946022; fax +0577/946045; $8-20), an unpretentious farm restaurant in the hilly fields seven kilometers west of San Gimignano—by far and away the best place to eat near this touristy town. Start with very traditional antipasti—the crostini with chicken liver (rather like a New York chopped liver) or an assortment of cured meats. Sample the pastas, as all are good and you can share an assortment of three among the table. Then have the bistecca—though served for two persons, it can easily feed three. Skip the lackluster desserts though, and have a justly famous italian gelato later. Sunday lunch draws a festive crowd that ranges from stylish young couples to extended families with children and grandparents, but it’s a good choice for lunch or dinner any day.

Only a few restaurants serve the bistecca, but within central Florence, the lively Baldovino (Piazza Santa Croce; +055/234-7220; $10-30) offers a huge version as well as fantastic homemade pastas (try the pear and ricotta ravioli) and not to be missed desserts. The atmosphere is lively and informal.

In Siena, head for the tiny Osteria la Chiacchera (Costa di S. Antonio 4; +0577/280631; $6-9) on a steep and narrow alley by the San Domenico church. Run by a group of hip young Sienese, the atmosphere is fun (shared tables) and the food is excellent. Try the bici, a Sienese specialty that’s a thick spaghetti, and the daily specials. There’s a variety of tasty tarts to conclude your meal but, quirkily, no coffee.

In Lucca, the locals flock to the Trattoria da Leo (Via Tegrimi 1; +0583/492936; $5-8) for hearty traditional pastas and fantastic roasted meats. There’s always a lively crowd at this family-owned trattoria, drawn by the friendly staff and low prices. The nearby Giulio (Via delle Conce 45; +0583/55948; $6-9) is good choice for Lucchese specialties: try the white beans with tuna, the bread or emmer soups or the house-made maccheroni; you can skip the unexciting meat courses, but do have the traditional (and unusual) chard tart for dessert.

In Pisa, avoid the restaurants around the Duomo and its famous tower, and make the short walk into the little-visited center of this pretty university town. Have a traditional meal at the bustling Osteria dei Cavalieri (Via San Frediano 16; +050/580858; $8-12) or an elegant one at La Mescita (Via Cavalca 2; +050/544294; $10-18). The complex, original food here can be fabulous—when it works; the huge, reasonably priced wine list makes up for any excesses in the kitchen.

The best food can turn up in the most unlikely places. The hamlet of Meati, 4 km southwest of Lucca is no more than a handful of scattered buildings, and the Osteria di Meati (Meati; +0583/510373;$5-8) looks like little more than a roadside bar. But the welcome at this family restaurant is sincerely friendly and the food streaming out of the kitchen to the tables of stylish locals is unbelievably good. About half of the short menu consists of daily specials in season—mushrooms, game, tripe, eel. It’s hard to make a plate of beans topped with lard sound good, but it was amazing, as were the risotto, homemade pasta with a sauce of game birds, and the delicate meat courses duck, rabbit, and traditional, but far better than usual, dish of cinghiale (wild boar) with olives. One can hardly believe that four excellent courses and house wine cost only €20 Euros a person.

House wine is almost always quite drinkable. Nice Chianti’s, even with some age on them, are usually reasonably priced. Many excellent wines carry simply the label “Rosso” as winemakers are blending grapes in new and interesting ways; ask for recommendations. And if you want to drink a famous Montalcino or Montepulciano be prepared to pay—and don’t bother with one less than ten years old; these big reds need plenty of age. Do try the traditional dessert of cookies and a glass of Vin Santo.

Reservations are expected, and often essential, though they can often be made the same day. Meal times are rigid in Italy—do not make the mistake of thinking you can eat any old time. Plan to sit down to Lunch between 1 and 2:30 and dinner between 8 and 9:30. Go on the late side and you will have the advantage of seeing what the other diners are ordering; it’s often more informative than the menu.

By Clay Doyle {Published in Out & About, 2002}

Roma Travelogue

A pre- Holy Year visit to Rome and Vatican City, accompanied by my companion Rufus—my first trip to this city—and it seemed on the one hand an excellent time to visit and on the other exactly a year too early.

Lily in Rome

Part One: The Holy Year

The January weather was brisk but continuously sunny—and comparatively warm compared with our winter here in Northern Europe. Still, the city was delightfully free of tourist crowds and museums were empty and restaurant reservations easily made. Indeed, the only place in all of Rome where we encountered a crowd was inside the Sistine Chapel. It was, as expected, fairly wall-to-wall with visitors. Even here though, there was no wait to enter—we actually passed through twice, making a second, accidental visit, in our search for another part of the vast Vatican galleries!

This is all expected to be rather different next year, as the Catholic Church begins its Jubilee, or Holy Year, on December 24th 1999 and this once-every-twentyfive-year event coincides with the frenzy of the millennium. Record numbers of visitors are subsequently expected in the year 2000—but they will have an opportunity to see much of Rome that we could not. (Everyone has heard of the millennium of course—far too much at this point; but this was the first I’ve heard of the Holy Year. Even with six years in Catholic schools, I don’t remember any mention of it, but apparently it is quite the big deal. The Pope opens a fifth door in the façade of St. Peter’s—a door that is kept bricked up in the intervening 24 years—and those who make the pilgrimage to Rome and pass through it…well something good is supposed to happen, though I’m still a little vague on what. I believe you get an indulgence—and if I have to try to explain that we’ll never get to the trip!)

In preparation though for the Jubilee and the year 2000, many of Rome’s most famous ancient and Christian sites are undergoing cleanings, renovations or major restorations. For us this meant galleries closed, artworks off exhibit and dozens of facades, mosaics and church interiors buried behind scaffolding. It got to the point that when we entered a church, EyeWitness guide in hand, after a long trek only to find everything covered in plywood and accompanied by the roar of power tools, we would begin to laugh.

Still, there was plenty to see and do in this city whose monuments span more than 2 millennium, and we spent seven days being quite the tourists.

We arrived in Rome late on a Sunday evening. Checked into he Hotel Campo de Fiori—cute sixth floor room, but no lift. (our retribution for putting my mother in a similar room in Venice last year). It’s quite a hike! Adjacent roof terrace with nice views though—especially of the garishly huge Victor Emmanuel Monument. Arrived a bit after 10pm and had a walk around to the Pantheon, then a couple of pricey compari/sodas at the swanky Hotel Minerva.

Up early Monday morning: breakfast in the basement and off to the Vatican. The Vatican museums close at 1:45(!) so we had no choice but to get an early start. A short walk really from our hotel on the Campo de Fiori across the Tiber to St. Peter’s square. The Bernini colonnade had just been cleaned—they were just finishing the last few columns—but the facade of St Peters was completely hidden behind scaffolding. In the square, next to the obelisk, the pope still had his Christmas Tree and larger-than-life Crèche up! And it’s 24th night! I am a bit appalled. The tree looks pretty sad at this late date.

It’s a further, rather longish hike around the Vatican walls to the museum entrance (despite the fact that one end of the complex actually adjoins St. Peter’s.) Not too busy at the museums—we breezed right in and up the long spiral staircase. Stayed from 10am or so until the 1:45 closing—saw quite a bit, but still only a fraction of the galleries: The Sistine chapel of course, the Rapheal Rooms and the Pinacoteca galleries. Also a fab great long hallway with huge frescoed maps of Italian towns from the 16th century. Highlights included a fantastic Rapheal fresco of St. Peter being sprung from jail by an angel; An amazing Carravagio (deposition of Christ) and a last judgement from the middle ages. The last judgement panel was circular and had beasts spitting up the limbs of people they had devoured and angels waking the dead with trumpets! Of course the Sistine Chapel’s frescos are amazing—though one wishes for a catwalk so one could get a bit closer to them. We had the CD audio tour, which in addition to detailed art history, also managed to work in quite a lot of Catholic theology as well!

We had planned to have a long lunch as a reward for our Vatican tour; but instead just grabbed a slice of pizza, so we could take a guided tour of St. Peter’s at 3pm. Actually it was quite a good tour; an hour and a half and quite a bit of information. Our guide was Penny, a smart Englishwoman who has lived in Rome for 32 years—and has been conducting tours for 17 years! She was quite fun, in the manner of ‘English Lady’ tour guides and, it became evident, a devout Catholic, a fervent Papist and quite the fan of John Paul II. She even gave everyone on the tour cards with a picture of the pope on one side and the lord’s prayer in Latin on the reverse, which she apparently has printed up of her own volition! She’s also in the Vatican choir and a regular at mass at St. Peter’s. (We learned a lot about her.) We also learned a lot about the church, particularly about how huge it—and everything in it—is! It’s a behemoth; certainly an amazing construction feat for it’s time. I’m not sure how they managed it. It is also the most immaculately maintained church I have ever seen—it looks like it could have been finished yesterday. All the paintings were replaced in the 18th century with copies made of mosaic tile (amazing copies that are so finely detailed that at the distance one views them they look like paintings) so they would not crack or discolor! There is marble everywhere, and gold, and statues 22 ft tall! And all of it gleaming! I guess the façade will be as clean as the inside when the scaffolding comes down for the holy year.

Dinner was at a little place near the hotel recommended by travel writer Rich Ruben (as was the hotel)—Hostaria Giulio. We had a mixed antipasto (cold meat and vegetables), ravioli with ricotta , butter and sage; and I had grilled anchovies on arugula. Then we had an artichoke because they were having them at the next table and they looked so good—it was. Desserts were tiramisu and a really good flan type thing in caramel sauce. Of course we were starving after 10 hours of walking and standing! It wasn’t at all busy, but reassuringly, the other diners were all Italian.


Part Two: Christians and Lions

Rome offers irrefutable proof of the incompatibility of the automobile and the city. Here we have a large and vibrant urban center that functioned without cars for some 2500 years—and is now dominated by the internal combustion engine. Boulevards have been bulldozed through ancient sites; beautiful squares and courtyards turned into parking lots; and everywhere, at all hours of the day and night, there is a chaos of traffic with driving that borders on anarchy.

Drivers actually do stop for pedestrians, though in our seven days there I never came to accept this idea. The necessity of stepping into a traffic circle swirling with automobiles or crossing a six lane Via at an uncontrolled intersection continued to fill me with fear. We would often wait at the sidewalk until some unconcerned Romans stepped nonchalantly into the maelstrom of traffic and then cross in their shadow…following as closely as possible. We found the most effective escorts to be old women in fur coats and soldiers in uniform…they parted traffic like Moses at the Red Sea.

On our second full day in Rome, Rufus arranged for us to go on a walking tour which met at the Coliseum. We set out to toward it, but found ourselves trapped behind the excavations of the Forum. We walked all the way round the outside of the Forum, then down along the long grass covered oval marking the site of the long-vanished Circus Maximus, and back along the other side of the Forum to the Coliseum. Fortunately we were still about an hour early for the tour so—after several wrong turns—we located another stand-up pizza place recommended in the Cheap Eats in Italy guide.

The tour was amusing—actually rather interesting, and quite long—over three hours. The company is called “Enjoy Rome” and is owned, or run, by an American woman named Suzy. She actually accompanied us for most of the tour—checking up, I think, on our guide, a young, fun-loving Australian. The guides all seem to be young, just-out-of-college types who have drifted to Rome on a lark. We met a couple of the others before the tour. We got lots of information on the coliseum (and the bloody slaughter of men and beasts that constituted the entertainment there. There was a fair amount of Roman history and social organization as well. (The coliseum dates from 74 AD, well into the empire, and stands on the site of a lake in front of the hated former Emperor Nero’s palace. It takes it’s nickname, probably, from a colossus of Nero—and subsequent Emperors, they just changed the heads—that stood on a square adjacent the stadium. Things we probably learned in high school and have subsequently forgotten). Also got a bit of information on the Forum, The arch of Constantine and Hadrian’s Markets and Column, all nearby.

Mussolini built a huge boulevard thought the archaeological site to connect the Arch of Constantine and coliseum with the Victor Emmanuel monument; a place to parade his (briefly) victorious armies. We waked on to the V.E. monument and the adjacent papal palace that was Mussolini’s HQ. From there it was on to a more pleasant monument—both historically and architecturally—the Trevi Fountain. This is the fountain of’ “three coins in the fountain” fame; as the tradition goes, if you toss one coin in the fountain you will return to Rome, a second and you will fall in love on your return, and a third and you will be wed in Rome. It is one of the most pleasing examples of baroque architecture: a lovely grand fountain on a tiny, intimate square filled, even in January, with happy people—and many of the coin throwers were Italian!

We made brief stops also at the Temple of Hadrian—a surviving colonnade now embedded in the façade of the stock exchange, the Pantheon, and the Piazza Navona, laid out on the ruins of a Roman foot-race track. There is a rather impressive Bernini of fountain of the Four Rivers in the center. (Nile, Danube, Ganges, and one recently discovered in South America, FYI)

It was a particularly great day to be outside: striking deep blue skies, a few muscular white clouds and, to end it, a pastel sunset.

That night we had a delicious dinner at Al Pompiere, one of the Roman-Jewish restaurants near the Campo de’ Fiori. We had the house specialties as our antipasto—one of each, all deep-fried—artichoke, zucchini flowers stuffed with cheese and anchovies, and salt-cod. Next we had pasta e fagioli (it was good, but everyone else in the place was having a different pasta—and all were having the same thing.) To follow Rufus had saltimbocca (tasty!) and I had some lamb cutlets roasted in salt, also really good. And a simple, perfectly dressed salad. We had an assortment of pastries for dessert—but everyone else was having the lemon sorbet! I recommend: go a little late, and watch what comes out of the kitchen before ordering! Everyone seems to be in on what’s best—the place was obviously packed with regulars. OK, I confess, I sneaked back two days later for lunch so I could try the pasta and the sorbet—I hate feeling left out! Other favorites included the deep fried vegetables, oxtail (I think) and some kind of salad with slices like big celery that I never did figure out what it was.

After dinner we walked back to the Trevi fountain, to see it lit up at night and to toss in our coins—just one each of course!—and to walk off some of our huge dinner.

Wednesday we were up early again for our breakfast, and then walked over to see the interior of the Pantheon. It’s the place I most wanted to visit in Rome. It really is a magnificent building, if a bit unfortunately tarted up inside with Catholic iconography (it was given to the pope in the 6th century—which is though why it has been preserved in such good condition) and tombs of Italian kings. The dome is amazing—a perfect hemisphere in coffered cast concrete.

The Romans managed some fantastic architecture and engineering. The buildings are on a vast scale and the water system is apparently still in use today. Little spring-fed fountains run continuously all over the modern city. Rome, we are told, had the same population at the time of the empire as it does today—and covered a somewhat smaller, but still vast area. And the subsequent buildings—renaissance, baroque and modern, are largely built on Ancient foundations.

From the Pantheon, we walked on to the daily print market and then to the area of fancy shops around the Spanish Steps. There was one shop I liked that sold prints form 19th century photos of Rome—they even had very pretty little mass-produced prints on watercolor paper. We walked up the Spanish steps, with all the tourists and Italian youths lolling about on them, admired the view—of the city and the youths—and then walked back down.

We had made a lunch reservation at Fraterna Domus, an inn run by Nuns, who also serve lunch and dinner six days a week. This was written about with some enthusiasm by Sandra Gustafsun in Cheap Eats—and it seemed so charming as to be almost irresistible. (We also loved the fact that there is one seating per meal and one daily menu—absolutely no choices. Are we the only people who absolutely relish this absence of choice where food is involved? Sit us down, bring us food, ask us no questions—that way you completely avoid that nagging feeling that someone is feasting away on something far better than what’s on your plate!)

We arrived at Fraterna Domus and were seated at benches of highly polished dark wood at a table covered with a plain white cloth, two simple white plates, two simple wine glasses and a big pitcher of water. The room was plain, but very pretty, and possibly the cleanest dining room I have ever seen. The place began to fill quickly—primarily with neighborhood folk—shopkeepers, workmen, a few old people, mostly quite lively though. Wine was brought to the tables—a half liter for us, several liter bottles for some of the larger parties! It was cheap and screw-capped, but not at all bad. Lunch began with bowls of pasta: penne sparingly sauced with a tomato/pancetta sauce. It was delicious, and impossible to say no when the nuns returned with big serving bowls offering seconds! The secondi was a perfectly roast quarter chicken with absolutely heavenly (no pun intended) pomme frites. Then a simple salad of greens in oil and lemon, and a bowl of blood oranges for desert.

The workers, who obviously ate there all the time, had a great time. I noticed that they frequently went up stairs to the toilet; after lunch, the bowl full of cigarette butts explained why. This is probably the only restaurant in all of Rome where smoking is prohibited—the men had to sneak up to the toilet to smoke—undoubtedly just as they did when they were children in Catholic Schools!

Lunch was great, and cost (for 2 persons with wine) 43.000 lira—a grand total of about $26.50! The nuns were very sweet too, it’s enough to change my whole feeling about nuns—if only the ones that ran my elementary school alma mater St. Dominic Savio had been able to cook like that!

Well, we liked it so much we immediately arranged to return Sunday night. The atmosphere at night is less lively—guests of the inn (mostly American retirees) instead of workmen—but the food was no less tasty; a soup of tortellini in chicken broth, pot roast, green beans, and those french-fries—which must be the nun’s signature dish—and salad and fruit.

Oh, how I do go on. This installment is just all about food—are you hungry yet? After lunch, more browsing in shops. We climbed the Spanish steps yet again and then spent some time walking and sitting in a big park overlooking the city. It was once the grounds of someone’s villa of course. There were very many busts of famous Italians, mostly with their noses broken off. From the park we climbed down to the Piazza del Popolo, one of the entrances to the old city. We visited the church of Santa Maria del Popolo, which has two important Caravaggio paintings; of course they are located on the side walls of a tiny private chapel—not the spot for optimal viewing. The church also has a wonderful Bernini sculpture of Daniel in the lion’s den. Daniel is depicted as a nearly nude, very attractive youth with a lion licking his foot!

We walked back to the Piazza Di Spagna and had an exceedingly expensive pot of tea at Babington’s, a well regarded sort of English tea room in Rome (leaving aside the question of why one would want British food in Rome—they do have a full menu—it was nice to have a cup of tea). The place was (predictably, I suppose) full of Japanese ladies with bulging bags from the designer shops. Rufus mitigated the price somewhat by lifting one of their very cute ashtrays!

(Note from Rufus: I am such a bad thief. I was a nervous wreck. I fully expected to get busted and began imagining myself dragged down to police headquarters—which probably ain’t too pretty in Rome. I suppose my crime was inspired by reading too much Jessica Mitford on our trip. Her tales of her madcap British upper-crust upbringing—complete with the favorite nanny who taught the children how to shoplift—must have had undue influence on me. After getting the ash tray back to our hotel safely, I was struck with a raging fever that kept me in bed all the next day. I imagined I was being punished for my crime. Rome’s Catholic guilt must have rubbed off on me.)



Part Three: Scaffolds and Bones

Rufus, with his fever, spent a day in bed, with his Isherwood and a view of the rooftops of Rome.

I went out wandering alone that day, first down to the Tiber. I crossed the oldest bridge in Rome (1st century BC but completely covered in scaffolding of course, with just a narrow girdered passage to walk—or ride your scooter—across!) on to the little island in the Tiber, which has a church and a hospital. Not much to see really. I crossed back, walked around two intact temples from the Roman republic (well the round one was completely covered in scaffolding, but the other was quite lovely—a small, rectangular, well proportioned roman building.)

There were a several Romanesque churches in the area I had in mind to visit. (I prefer the Romanesque to the gaudiness and grandiosity of the Baroque—especially since the baroque is so ubiquitous in Rome; it seems most of the churches in Rome were built, re-built or at least redecorated in the baroque style during the Papacy’s time of great wealth and anti-protestant excess. I also love the layering of the very old churches—the way they incorporate parts of ancient buildings, and I think it quite interesting how technology vanished with end of the Roman empire and the buildings become smaller and less accomplished.) One church of course was completely covered in scaffolding—closed of course, and another was closed for a wedding; but I did get to go in one very old and dark church, and I had the place all to myself. It was gloomy and cold and deserted—but rather beautiful in its solitude. The roof of the nave was supported by mismatched columns, scavenged from various Roman temples. In a side room that might have once been a chapel, an old friar kept a lonely vigil over a small shop of plaster saints and extremely inexpensive postcards.

Though unplanned, my wanderings led me back to the spot where Rufus and I had been trapped behind the Forum excavations on. Today, being much earlier, the Forum was open and I found my way in through the back gate. One is allowed to roam rather freely through the excavations and the ancient site—and although all that remains for the most part are the merest fragments of the once massive temples and basilicas, it is none-the-less fascinating to walk through the site. and From the midst of the site, you really can get a feel for it’s enormous scale, the beauty and technology of the architecture—and the fact that it would take many centuries before anyone in Europe could build structures like these again.

I wandered some more, no real destination, and when I got hungry I got an irresistible craving for those deep fried artichokes and stuffed zucchini flowers. Of course, I was some distance now from the Jewish quarter, so I had a brisk march across town. I had a late lunch back at Pompiere—the above mentioned antipasti and the house pasta. Plus a half liter of wine all to myself! It was late afternoon when I returned to check on Rufus. He was feeling better—he had gone out for pizza—but still rather weak. We spent the evening reading and playing computer scrabble, took a short stroll and went to bed early.

Next morning Rufus was much better—up early and fairly energetic. We had to pack up after breakfast as we were being moved that day to a different room. We left the hotel and walked the short distance to the Gesu—the first Jesuit church. The exterior is unremarkable, but the interior is a spectacle of the Baroque—and this in spite of a good two thirds of it that was completely covered in scaffolding! (Rufus’ favorite part of the church was it’s nativity scene—a diorama behind glass that when you pushed a button real water flowed down a stream and s shooting star crossed the sky!) I was impressed by the sheer excess of the decoration, and a particularly bloody near life-size crucifix.

From there we crossed the terrifying traffic of the Piazza Venezia, and made our way to the other side of the Vittoriano. Here, behind this hideous and massive monument is a lovely little hilltop piazza design by Michelangelo. Flanking the piazza are the Capitoline Museums. Though one of them is completely closed for renovation the other was a dusty delight. A bit of a hodgepodge, the collections run the gamut from some very famous paintings and sculpture to a great many really kitchy porcelains. There is the famous Caravaggio of St. John the Baptist—St. John depicted as a nude and very sexy adolescent! In fact, there are quite a few teen John the Baptists and sexy young St. Sebastians in the Capitoline collections. (It may be possible to discern the sexual orientation of Italian artists by observing whether they depict St John as a youth or an old man.)

The museum has a wonderfully dusty, untouched for 50 years quality—and it is completely empty of visitors, which makes it quite fun to explore. No doubt it will get a modernizing in the not too distant future, as this is already underway at its companion across the Piazza.


We used the cheap eats guide to pick a little lunch spot on the other side of the Quirinal Hill, and wound our rather convoluted way through heavy traffic around the presidential palace. The little tratorria was pretty good…I had a big plate of gnocchi in tomato sauce. It was decorated oddly with these big lighted signs of puti pissing into champagne glasses….I’m not sure why. After lunch we walked into the Via Veneto area…a 19th century section of the city that is very Paris-like with grand boulevards and hotels. Apparently it was extremely chic in the 60’s but has now fallen out of favor with the truly hip. The main site here is the madly macabre crypt of Santa Maria della Consezione—where the Capuchin monks have decorated chapels entirely from the bones of dead monks. Bones, skulls and jaws are arranged on the walls in elaborate patterns. The overall effect is ridiculous and gruesome all at the same time.

We decide to walk back to our hotel via two churches we had yet to visit. The first of these was Santa Maria Maggiore—an enormous basilica famous for its mosaics. Naturally, the mosaics, and indeed most of the interior, were buried beneath scaffolding. Not only that, but all the interior lights were turned off, and the gloom was so absolute that one could see nothing of even those portions of the interior not covered up!

From ere we moved on to San Pietro in Vincoli—famous as the home of Michelangelo’s Moses. We found the church at the end of an alley, up a steep flight of stairs. The façade was covered in scaffolding and inside workmen were performing some rather loud and extensive renovations. Moses was in a little side chapel, behind a construction barricade. You could see him there, beyond the tour group crowds, who had to keep feeding lira coins into the meter that kept the light on! Such poor conditions for viewing an art object, one wonders how these things even become an attraction. An adjacent gift shop sells miniature reproductions—so poorly executed that you can actually choose from rather astonishing variations on the pose and facial expression of old Moses!

Returning to the Hotel Campo de Fiori, we were introduced to our new room. Though it had two french windows and a nice view over the city, by night it was a bit glum, owing to being covered in midnight blue wallpaper and lit by a few bare low-wattage bulbs. The most frustrating aspect was that there was no electric outlet in the room—not even one—so I couldn’t plug in the computer! Oh well, no guilt about not making notes!

(Yes, I too have become quite the pitiful slave to technology. No pencil and paper for me—no way. But I am hardly alone in my addiction to the marvels of the microchip. The rooftops of Rome are a sea of TV satellite dishes and in every café you hear the ubiquitous chirp-chirp of the mobile phone. At the sound, everyone within earshot begins rooting in unison in their bags. Outside the excavations of Hadrian’s Markets, boarding a school bus at the end of a tour, I saw a boy no older than eight pull one from his pocket.)

That evening we went to the Taverna Campo de Fiori in the square and drank prosecco (a very nice and rather inexpensive sparkling wine from the Veneto) and ate toasted sandwiches with the lively Italian crowd. We stayed there quite a while, then went next door to “The Drunken Ship” (yes, I know, the name says it all) where a crowd consisting almost entirely of American college students was drinking beer at prices exactly double that of the Taverna. We stayed for one drink, greeted our fellow hotel guests from USC, and fled.


Part Four: Saints be Praised (and Preserved)

The school I attended, grades one through six, was named for a saint: Saint Dominic Savio. Though he was an Italian saint, the unfortunate lad was born too late to be immortalized in the golden age of Italian religious art. He was a nineteenth century saint, and a bit of a country bumpkin too as I recall, living far from the centers of art and power. So alas, I have seen no paintings of young Savio. Had he been born a few centuries earlier, he might have been a popular subject—as I recall he died at the age of nineteen, and in a book at our school he was portrayed in dreamy watercolors. I don’t recall why he was made a saint—the road to sainthood has become a bit vague in the last two centuries; the requisite miracles become less impressive the nearer to our own era they occur. A patina of great age suits the miraculous. I recall only that St. Dominic Savio, son of a prosperous family, would trade the white bread from his lunch each day for the black bread of a poor peasant youth. This oft repeated tale was intended to inspire both guilt and gratitude as we all went out to eat our Wonderbread sandwiches. But I have to wonder now, was Dominic an unselfish, saintly child or a budding gourmet, ahead of his time? I also recall that he was the favorite pupil and special friend of St. John Bosco (namesake of the all-boy high school next door) who I believe, founded a religious order. Though for six years we studied the lives of these two very minor saints to about the same extent as we studied St. Peter, Charlemagne and George Washington, my memory of them is now rather vague, and I may have made a hay of their stories…alas, my volume of Lives of the Saints is in Los Angeles. But there are other saints in Rome, as you will see.

Saturday morning we strolled the Campo de’ Fiori market, a daily spectacle (excluding Sundays) just outside our hotel. The large square is lively with buyers and sellers: produce, fish, spices, flowers and counterfeit football jerseys. The vendors make bonfires from produce crates and shoppers retire to cafes for espresso. I wander the market, making still life photos of vegetables.

For our daily museum visit, we had selected the Palazzo Doria-Pamphilj, partly because the collection was housed in a Palazzo built between the 15th and 18th centuries, and partly because of a Caravaggio painting we wanted to see.

Interestingly, it turns out that the art and the Palazzo are still privately owned by the Pamphilj descendants, who still live, at least some of the time, in some part of the vast building. We learn this, and quite a bit more about the family, the ancestors, the Palazzo and the art collection from one of the cleverest and most delightful museum audio tours I have come across. The audio tour is included in the modest price of admission; its one of those nifty CD players that allow you to control the pace and the sequence of your visit. From the introduction we are hooked: the tour is narrated by a present-day Pamphilj heir and resident. He refers to it as his home, tells anecdotes about his family, recounts scandalous gossip about his ancestors and very quickly you get the feeling that Mr. Pamphilj is actually there, taking you through the house. We half expected him to pop out through a door and ask us to tea.

(Naturally the question arises, is this dashing Oxford accented voice on the English version of the audio tour really Mr. Pamphilj? Not outside the realm of possibility…and he does sound awfully sincere.)

Mr. Pamphilj takes us first on a tour of the 17th century public rooms of the villa, nicely restored and reopened in the late 20th century by his mother. There is a long series of these rooms, ranged in a row and culminating with my favorite—the private chapel. It’s a mini-baroque church which houses the Pamphilj family’s most sacred objects: the whole preserved corpses of two early Christian saints! These saints and many more were removed from the Roman catacombs, where they had rested for over a thousand years, and their relics handed out by the church to the faithful. According to our host and narrator, whole and intact bodies were rare and highly prized and it is a mark of the power and influence of the Pamphilj’s that they were given two such complete relics. One of the saints entrusted to the family is Justin the martyr, a relatively well known 3rd century saint. One of the female Pamphilj ancestors apparently prized the relic so highly that she obtained permission form the pope to allow the saint to travel, and took him with her on her journeys! The papal decree allowing the saint to travel is hanging on the wall; Justin gets out less these days I suspect, he and a female saint rest in glass cases in the chapel. (And all the nuns ever gave us were plastic saints!)

Beyond the public reception rooms is the wing of the Palazzo that houses the galleries. The extensive art collection dates from the 15th through the18th century. The current heirs have focused not on collecting but on restoration, and the galleries have been restored to their original appearance, the paintings re-hung salon style in their original positions. This approach to exhibiting art has been out of fashion for a century, so one really does get a feeling of being in another era. The context also, in some cases, becomes more important than the individual works: pictures were purposefully hung with and eye to contrasts and juxtapositions.

Of course there are some marvelous individual pieces in the collections as well: the aforementioned Caravaggio, Titian, Claude Lorrain.

There is a Velazquez portrait of Pope Innocent X that is considered by many to be one of his greatest, and two identical busts of Pope Innocent X by Bernini—when the original was chipped, Bernini himself made a copy.

Innocent X was the Pamphilj pope, and the source of much of the family’s wealth. Our host and guide takes us into his confidence and gives us the dirt on his most famous ancestor! It seems he was rather under the thumb of his brother’s wife (her rather formidable portrait hangs in the gallery) who rather likely was also his mistress. She made a fortune for the family by convincing the pope that it was immoral to collect taxes on Rome’s brothels—which she coincidentally owned! She finally become so powerful and demanding that poor Pope Innocent had to have her exiled from Rome.

There are plenty more amusing anecdotes, which make the visit to the Palazzo quite entertaining. The galleries are not at all busy—there couldn’t be more than a dozen visitors in the whole place—so viewing the art is a pleasure. There is also a collection of (heavily restored) ancient sculptures, and a suite of art and antique filled ‘private’ apartments that can also be toured.

The afternoon found us exploring Trastevere, an old and densely populated working class enclave on the opposite bank of the Tiber. It is district also recently popular for its restaurants and trendy nightlife. None of this was in evidence on a Saturday afternoon however—shops were shut, streets were deserted and an air of siesta pervaded the district. The main square is quiet too, save for a few boys kicking a ball around the fountain. The square is dominated by Santa Maria in Trastevere, a lovely Romanesque church. Inside, there are Roman columns supporting the nave, and real candles burning, not electric bulbs. The church is most famous for its 12th century mosaics; as the church was not currently undergoing a major restoration, and constituted our second scaffolding free site of the day we counted ourselves very lucky indeed!

Trastevere is reputed to have the most churches per area than any district in Rome—a city where there are no shortage of churches. We visited only a few; mostly they are Romanesque structures remodeled in the baroque style—and now quietly falling apart. Sad places in a lovely sort of way. The simple Romanesque can endure a fair amount of neglect, but the extravagant baroque ornamentation requires a level of maintenance that is quite beyond the resources of these neighborhood congregations. They are not being renovated. But each one has its works of art, its odd relics, and its stories to tell.

That evening, we had dinner reservations at Tratorria Checchino dal 1887, a restaurant famous for serving some of the best—and most unusual—food in Rome. The tratorria, sits on the edge of the wholesale food markets and established its reputation by preparing delicious food from the, well, discarded parts of the animals. It’s a tradition that carries on today. It gets rave notices, and we don’t mind a little adventure, so we had to give it a try. It was a longish walk from our hotel, through parts of town that were only intermittently interesting, and with plenty of Rome’s notorious traffic to deal with. The Testaccio markets, oddly are also home to a number of rather gaudy discoteques—meat market by day, meet market by night I guess. The restaurant itself is at the top of the hill, and inside it is another world; a small room of restrained elegance and smartly dressed diners.

We dined on headcheese—which I have never dared try before; and which I probably still don’t know want to know exactly what’s in it—two thin slices of a delicate flavor. Pleasant enough but not thrilling. The other antipasto was fantastic though—a salad of beans, carrot and shredded pig’s trotter. The pasta was even better—fettuccine with ewe’s cheese and pigs cheek—the cheek like tiny pieces of bacon. For main courses we passed on the testicles, hearts, and other organs on offer and had the less daring oxtail and the specialty of the house, chunks of lamb in a white wine sauce. Excellent and extensive wine list too—I know too little about Italian wines, so I had the waiter select something appropriate and affordable. They have a fantastic assortment of cheese as well—it’s expensive though, and I’d skip it next time; it’s a bit much after all that anyway. A good, and unusual meal—though not a place for vegetarians or even those leaning in that direction. We skipped the discos, and took a taxi back to the hotel.

On Sunday, our last full day in Rome, we returned to where we began our tour, the Vatican. We explored the Castel Sant’ Angelo, the Pope’s fortress.

The original building was built by the Roman Emperor Hadrian as his tomb. It was turned into a fortified castle by the Church and used both as a treasury for the church’s wealth and a refuge in times of siege. A corridor built into the city wall connects the fortress to the Vatican. As weaponry became more sophisticated, the castle’s fortifications kept pace; the partial remains of an elaborate star fort enclose its square medieval walls. The entire complex is open to visitors—even the Pope’s private bath—and there are great views of the city from the upper walls.

Spanning the Tiber in front of the Castle, the Ponte San Angelo is perhaps Rome’s most beautiful bridge. It is lined with a colonnade of Bernini angels—delightful baroque fantasies in stone. Each angel holds one of the attributes of Christ’s passion: a cross, the crown of thorns, the spear, the three nails and so forth. Never have the instruments of torture looked so beautiful! It’s the paradox of religion: the joy of suffering and the shame of pleasure. The saints do so enjoy their martyrdom.

We returned to St. Peter’s for a second visit. Finally the Christmas tree had been removed from the square. The Pope traditionally makes an appearance at his window on Sunday morning, but he was touring America.

We walked back across the river and had some gelato at Giolitto’s near the Piazza Rotunda. It’s a very famous place for ice cream, but this was January, and it was mobbed. Fantastic stuff though.

We left Rome the next morning, with a lot of sites still unseen: The Appian way, the catacombs, The Lateran and the sancta sanctorum and everything that we couldn’t see because it had been behind the scaffolding…but we did toss our coins in the Trevi fountain…so we’ll be back.

FINIS

Inedit on the Orient-Express

Cocktails on the Orient-Express

When the nineteen cars of the Venice Simplon Orient-Express pull into Verona’s Porta Nuova Station, heads turn. The gold trim glistens on the beautifully restored sixty year-old navy blue carriages. Improbably, the cars look as if they have been freshly washed en route to the station. Stewards leap from the cars to help us aboard. Unencumbered by luggage (our preposterously over packed bags have been collected at our hotel), we saunter stylishly to our cabin, just like in the movies.

Few things as fabled, and as hyped, as the Orient Express are able to live up to one’s inflated expectations. But if you can live without a murder, the experience is much as fans of Agatha Christie might hope. We settle into our cabin, its rich paneling inlaid with a tiger-lily design, as the train leaves Verona.

The train races through the Dolomite mountains, past vineyards ablaze with the deep reds and golds of late fall. Philip, our steward, cheerfully wrestles our bulging luggage into overhead racks as we watch apologetically. We are given a card with our table assignment for luncheon, seating at 2:00, allowing us an hour to explore the train. While each car is subtly different, owing to different manufacturers in Belgium, England and France, all were built in the 1920’s for the Orient Express or first class trains plying other European routes. Our car, No. 3555 was built in France in 1929, and in-between stints as a luxury carriage, was used as a hotel in Lyon during World War II. After years of neglect, the cars were rescued from various ignoble fates for this lates incarnation of the Legendary Orient-Express, begun in 1982 by James B. Sherwood, Chairman of Orient-Express hotels.

We make our way to the elegant bar car where a baby grand piano and saxophone serenade the train’s well-coifed and well-heeled passengers, who seem to be a mix of elderly Americans and moneyed Japanese tourists. We sip our Campari-sodas as the rushing scenery becomes increasingly alpine. Those brilliantly hued vineyards climb straight up the mountainsides as we plunge in and out of dark tunnels.

Conductor

Attired in fashionable suits and ties we never have occasion to wear in Los Angeles (“You can never be overdressed on the Venice-Simplon Orient Express,” the English-language information booklet issued to us prior to our trip advises, emphasizing “please do not wear jeans.”), it is possible to believe that it is 1930. In travel today, speed and economy have replaced service and luxury, and the actual transit portion of any trip is now mostly something to be endured for as little time as possible. But traveling like this erases all desire for journey’s end, even when the final destination is Paris.

Luncheon is three courses, complemented by appropriately brilliant wines, and set with sterling silver fish knives and dessert spoons. The late afternoon vistas continue to dazzle as our meal finally ends in a glass of Courvoisier XO Imperial; the crystal snifter engraved, like nearly everything else aboard, with the cursive initials of the Venice Simplon Orient-Express. The cognac is wonderful.

****

We are not in the habit of drinking Cognac after luncheon, but it is after all, the cognac that has brought us here. Not an alcohol-induced delusion, but something close; an invitation from Courvoisier to participate in the launch of Inédit, a special limited edition cognac in a bottle designed by the late Art Deco master Erté. We have been chosen as liaisons to the gay community—whether it is the well-known gay enthusiasm for cocktails, for Erté’s work, or both, we can only guess. Accompanying us on this trip are a suitably mystery novel-like set of international characters, which include dashing French cognac executives, international liquor distributors, and journalists from all over the world who write for publications with names like Decanter. We meet over cocktails, the night before at the Hotel Due Torri, in Verona.

Glass

Finishing our post-lunch cognac as we whisk through Austrian mountain passes, we realize that it is nearly 4 o’clock—and we must hurry back to our cabin to await the arrival of afternoon tea at 4:30. Returning to our cabin, we hear it rumored that our hosts have a special surprise in store for us as part of the unveiling of the new cognac—but no one has any idea what it might be.

The schedule given us by Courvoisier is quite rigorous—even if it does consist almost entirely of eating and drinking. It does set aside 90 minutes for dressing for dinner after tea, a suggestion we ignore in favor of lying about our cabin resting our stuffed and besotted stomachs. This we regret when we find to our embarrassment that two people cannot get into black tie, dressing out of suitcases, in a tiny room (no matter how lovingly detailed), on a moving train in anything less than an hour!

As a final complication we seem able to get only one of our two bow ties knotted in a presentable fashion. In desperation, but also secretly eager to leave no service untested, we ring our steward for help.

“Do you have any luck tying these?” we query we he appears. Unfazed and grinning, Philip responds, “I’m afraid not. My mother always ties mine.” But all is not lost. As a testament to his preparedness, he produces a selection pre-tied clip-around bow-ties. Moments later we’re decked out and rushing down the narrow corridors to the conference car for our pre-dinner special presentation.

As we join the other guests in the leather paneled conference car that’s been added to the end of the train for this occasion, we realize that the train has stopped. Our host informs us that in order to power the generator to run the VCR for our presentation, they’ve had to stop the whole train! The video begins, and we learn more about Courvoisier, Erté, and the aging and blending of cognac. We view the previous limited-edition bottles Erté has created for Courvoisier—sleek, teardrop shaped decanters like giant perfume bottles, with Erté’s trademark deco illustrations depicting the cognac making process. But it isn’t yet time for the official unveiling of his ultimate creation. We adjourn our meeting and are treated to a pre-supper cocktail party where the champagne pours most generously. We’re all too dashing —the men handsome in their tuxedos, and the women looking like Bond girls in their sleek cocktail dresses.

Next comes dinner, served in the restaurant car (built in 1927, with black lacquer panels depicting scenes of sporting animals). Place cards reveal our dinner companions to be Roger and Diana Capstick-Dale (hyphenated—we are delighted with the perfect Britishness of it), a charming couple from London. He moves in art circles and was an associate of Erté’s; she is a theatrical set designer.

Our appetizer consists of rolled fillet of sole and scampi with spicy cuttle-fish ink. It’s gorgeous and Mrs. Capstick-Dale insists we take a photo of its brilliant orange and black swirled sauce for our magazine article. We don’t tell her that we’re shooting in black and white and it will end up looking like a biology dissection.

By the time coffee is served it’s well after midnight and there’s only one thing left—the very reason we’re here—the unveiling (and imbibing!) of the new cognac, Courvoisier Inédit.

Courvoisier’s Master Blender stands and tells a little about the cognac were are about to experience. Among the vintages of cognac combined to create this particular product, one dates back to 1892, the year Erté was born. As he speaks, we begin to notice the train’s staff, including the chefs, gather in the hallway outside the restaurant car door. Evidently our surprise is near at hand, and they too don’t want to miss the event.

The Master Blender passes the cordless microphone he’s been speaking into to Courvoisier’s director of PR, who thanks us all for coming, then gives a signal, which suddenly throws the entire room into darkness. “Ladies and gentlemen,” he announces, “Courvoisier presents Inédit!” With that music begins swelling through the car, and after a second we realize it’s the Dionne Warwick recording of Burt Bacharach’s “I Say a Little Prayer.” The lights come up a bit, and into the car strides a tall, lithe woman with cascading blonde hair, carrying a bottle of cognac—and completely nude. Nude, that is, except for a few strategically placed gold-leafed grapes over her more personal parts. She is the “living embodiment” of Inédit, a living, breathing version of the Erté gal on the front of the bottle. The gay waiters exchange incredulous looks. The model brings the bottle around to each table, stopping for photographs, allowing us to examine her and the cognac. There’s something just so deliriously fabulous about this all, so surreal and so European. Soon there are legions of waiters carting out more bottles of Inédit, filling our snifters.

This bottle, featuring the nude woman, was actually Erté’s first ever design for Courvoisier. Unbelievably, this restrained drawing was deemed obscene by U.S. regulators under the Reagan administration and, denied access to the American market, Courvoisier canceled production. Following Erté’s death, the company decided to revive his original, unreleased (Inedít is French for unpublished) design—and the less censorious Clinton administration cleared its importation to America. We savor several glasses of the rare and expensive blend. Only 4000 bottles of this cognac will be made; most of those will be collected, like expensive marbles, and never consumed.

We retire to the club car—it’s now about 2:00 a.m.—to find a few of our fellow travelers still eager for more festivities, and, inconceivably, for more cocktails. Leading this charge is the Inédit model, who, after being closed up in a train compartment all day (so as not to spoil our surprise), is ready to rhumba. She insists the pianist and the saxophonist (who seemingly never sleep) to play something danceable, and soon we find ourselves gyrating to “Rock Around the Clock”. This proves to be our undoing, and finally, exhausted, we retire to our cabin.

We slip into pajamas, and into our perfectly turned down berths. Giddy with exhaustion and fullness, we settle down to the rollicking motion of the train. A glance at my watch tells me it’s now almost 3 a.m. We’ve been eating and drinking for approximately 14 hours.

We sleep four hours and awaken heading into Paris—a very agreeable way to begin any day. Our 20 hours aboard the Orient Express have come to an end—save one last treat. Philip raps lightly on our door and enters briskly. “Breakfast, sirs,” he grins.

Article by John Polly and Clay Doyle. Photographs by Clay Doyle.
My First Travel Article!
{Published in Genre magazine, 1995}

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