Wednesday, June 08, 2005

Day 23: Florence

We have breakfast in a nice bar just across the street from the Piazza Santa Croce...we are the only non-regulars there--amazing to us since there are so many tourists in Florence now. But of course, most of the visitors eat breakfast at their hotels and not in bars.

We have never been to the Sant'Ambrogio market located in a more residential neighborhood to the north and west of our apartment. The route to this market takes us through very pleasant streets, with schools, neighborhood shops and Florentines going about their business. We pass the Piazza Ciompi, where permanent stalls sell antiques and second hand merchandise of varying quality. There is a book stall that has boxes of old magazines, including many back issues of Bell'Italia, the very glossy Italian travel magazine. The issues are only Euro 1.00 and I am very tempted to buy some, but the thought of adding more weight to our luggage convinces me against buying any. Next time....

The market is just beyond what is becoming Cibreo row.....Cibreo is a high end, very famous Tuscan restaurant that now has a lower cost trattoria, a bar and a food shop in the same block. The outdoor stalls at the market, mostly fruits and vegetables, are overflowing with ripe melons and piles of red cherries. It is hard to resist all the beautiful produce but we settle for some cherries and apricots. Inside, we inspect the meat and cheese displays and buy a couple of bottles of local olive oil to bring back to DC. Walking back to Santa Croce, we discuss perhaps getting an apartment in this neighborhood on our next extended stay in Florence.

I get the car out the garage--the garage attendant has to move about six cars to retrieve our BMW--and we head for Poggio a Caiano (about 20 km west of Florence) to have lunch with our friend, Maddie. We are on the east side of town and have to get to the other end of Florence to leave the city. Since the "centro storico" is largely closed to through traffic, we have to take broad boulevards that skirt the center. These streets are packed with traffic all trying to do the same thing we are but it moves fairly well. There are only a couple of uncertain moments when we have to make quick decisions about which road to take out of the traffic circles, but before too long we have gone past the station and are on the right road. The Florence residential suburbs are quite built up--dense blocks of apartment buildings interspersed with neighborhood shops and bigger shopping malls. Even after we pass the Florence city limits, it is a slow trip with many stop lights and complicated traffic maneuvers.

We pick up Maddie at the travel agency where she works and she proposes that---instead of having lunch in Pistoia--we eat in the nearby hills and then head to Pistoia for a short visit. The mountains start very abruptly in this area and we are very quickly climbing on a steep curvy road. We get a good tour of the hills because a couple of the places that Maddie has in mind are closed during the week (it is still off-season for resort areas). We end up in the restaurant of a small hotel in the town of San Baronto. The dining room is almost empty....there is only one table occupied...but the staff is eating in the kitchen and the grandmother of the family is eating by herself at a corner table. When we sit down, we ask if we can have what the staff is eating, but the waiter informs us that they are having risotto which is not on the menu.

The food is fine and lunch is fun....we have a good time catching up with Maddie and talking about families and the travel business. I have a large and tasty Tuscan antipasto followed by penne with sausage...good but a little greasy. Diana has another spectacular melon with prosciutto and a hearty tortellini dish while Maddie has very good bruschetta with chopped tomatoes and garlic and a tagliatelle served with a very rich meat ragu. We all have the standard but usually very good Italian restaurant dessert...a simple fruit salad (macedonia).

Pistoia is town (like Prato) that exists in the shadow of Florence...very few tourists visit here. But the historical center is very nicely preserved, there is a large cathedral, a hospital with an impressive della Robbia frieze, and several other nice squares and churches. In addition, there is a compact shopping district and Maddie tells us that she is more likely to come to Pistoia to shop than go to Florence. Since we are there between 1 pm and 4 pm, the city is quiet so it is hard to tell what it is really like (we are also there after the big semi-weekly market and there is a good deal of trash being cleaned up) but I suspect it is similar to other Italian cities of a moderate size (Lucca, Mantova, Ferrara). I think it might be a nice alternative as a base to visit this area of Tuscany if someone didn't want to stay either in Florence or in the countryside.

We walk around town for about 45 minutes and stop in at the tourist office and in the Duomo before starting back to Poggio.....we sit in Maddie's office for a while talking and checking e-mail before continuing on to Florence. As we enter the city, I decide to try and drive past the apartment that we stayed in last fall by crossing the "centro storico" instead of taking the long way around the city. This route entails crossing the Arno several times and following the complicated traffic pattern through the narrow streets of the Oltrano. We get very close to our destination but, when faced with the prospect of going down the Borgo San Jacopo that empties out at the Ponte Vecchio, I lose my nerve. Recrossing the Arno, I try and figure out a way to get across the city and the next thing I know, I am driving on the Piazza della Signoria...the large pedestrian square where tourists, horse-drawn carriages and vendors are hanging out. I should have just pushed on across the square but again I lose my nerve and we find ourselves stuck in the pedestrian shopping area for what seems like an hour before I finally get on a main traffic route and reach the garage near the Piazza Santa Croce. One interesting thing...something that I will file away for my next driving adventure in that no one--including policemen, shoppers, strollers and vendors--took any notice of us while we were sharing their space in the pedestrian zones.

After our driving adventures, we rest in the apartment until it is time for dinner. We decide to go somewhere close by. While walking, we pass the open door of a pretty little restaurant in the Piazza de' Peruzzi; inside it is lit by candles and looks very inviting. The menu--posted at the door--is a little creative but still appealing so we go in. The unlikely name of the restaurant is the Club Culinario Toscano da Osvaldo and, as we sit down, I am afraid that we have made a mistake. All the tables are occupied by English-speaking diners and the solitary waiter has a very strange affect.

We decide to stay and dinner turns out to be very nice. After some stumbles--it takes a long time for the waiter to take our order (he is the only waiter for all ten tables), we enjoy our evening very much. Diana has some very elegant ravioli stuffed with cheese and spinach and served with a walnut sauce and a tender, tasty tagliata (filet). My very unusual tortelli stuffed with goose and served with a perfect mushroom sauce is delicious as is the "verzini ripieni"--cabbage stuffed with an almost too rich meatball concoction. The waiter disapproves of my wine selection--he asks me if I am familiar with the Tuscan blend I had picked--and switches us to a perfect red from southern Tuscany (Suvereto) called Eliseo. The other thing that makes the evening fun was that we strike up a conversation with the English couple at the next table and really hit it off.....talking together through several courses.

After dinner, tired and slightly drunk, we are happy that we are only a block from our apartment. Tomorrow we will search for some more Last Suppers and then we have lunch with our friend, Jane Nyhan.