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North to fabled Firenze
By The Lady Upstairs (AKA Carol Pearlman), West Hollywood, California
The regulars at the corner cafe. By The Lady Upstairs (AKA Carol Pearlman)
I have one thing to say about Florence: Officina Profumo – Farmaceutica di Santa Maria Novella, founded in 1612, with its essences, pomades, spirits, syrups, balms, smelling salts, waters, liqueurs, eaux de cologne, face and body creams, potions, room fragrances, and other pure herbal, flower, plant essence preparations.
I wander through carved gilt and marble rooms adorned like a holy museum, stopping at each station to sample scents, elixirs, flower waters and lotions, swooning in ecstasy over fragrances like nothing I ever experienced. I want everything.
Officina Profumo – Farmaceutica di Santa Maria Novella, founded in 1612. Photo courtesy laragazzaconilcerchiettorosa.blogspot.com.
Sure, you can stand on endless lines and buy tickets to enter the crowded Uffizzi, the Academia, Pitti Palace, Duomo -- majestic buildings that house the great art of Florence, Da Vinci, Boticelli, Michaelangelo, best in the world. You can visit Italy’s high fashion houses of Gucci, Pucci, Cavalli, Armani, Versace, buy the finest leather goods, acquire precious jewels on the Ponte Veccio, and stroll through the magnificent Boboli Gardens. We didn’t.
We walked through the crowds and looked, took shelter at the swanky Savoy Hotel bar where we sipped cocktails served with delicious appetizers, ate a great 3-course seafood dinner at the gorgeous Ristorante Fellini, gazed into small crowded bars and cafes displaying sandwiches, pizza, panini di prosciutto and formaggio, and the inevitable gelaterias, especially the one at the corner of Santa Trinita bridge, with its pink-cushioned benches, where we did more than look.
I don’t like Tuscan pizza – too heavy, bready, especially after the thin crisp pastry-like crusts in Rome. And, Tuscan bread is made without salt. Impossible but true; beautiful to look at but dull and tasteless.
A Florentine cheese market. By The Lady Upstairs (AKA Carol Pearlman)
It rained all the time we were in Florence; two days of cold wind in our faces, teary eyes, fingers frozen to umbrella handles; we coughed and sneezed our way down ancient cobble-stoned streets, looking in every shop window, stopping for a creamy canolo, or delicate ricotta cheesecake with a steamy cup of thick hot chocolate.
For a brief moment the sky cleared and we hopped onto the open upper deck of the on-again-off-again bus that drove around the city, showing us the sights of Florence and surrounding hills overlooking the gorgeous city, with its domes and tiled roofs, playing the music of Vivaldi in the background. At least we had that.
The manager of our hotel told me last year at this time the temperature was 35 degrees – in the mid-nineties -- which would have made the gorgeous, inlaid marble floors of our luxurious quarters much more enjoyable. Our bathroom, incidentally, was the size of Grand Central Station.
Julie left at 4:30 am for her long flight home. We had a great time together, got along well, were good to each other, cooked, ate, drank, shopped, explored, and enjoyed everything we did. I’ll miss her. But loner that I am, I return to Montevarchi, 38 minutes away by train, excited to experience the place on my own.
Regulars passing time with dominoes. By The Lady Upstairs (AKA Carol Pearlman)
First thing, I head to “Gastronomia Chef,” a tiny, dimly-lit, take-out food shop with painted brick and wood-beamed arched walls, chandeliers and antique decor, tucked into an ancient building on a small side street of Montevarchi. Here, the brilliant chef prepares a dozen different dishes each day, and his charming rotund wife takes care of hungry customers. I buy small portions of lasagna with pecorino sauce, light semolina gnocci with thin shavings of black truffle, ravioli with ragu sauce, roast codfish with garlic sauce, mixed grilled vegetables, steamed carrots and string beans, eggplant parmigiana, tender osso bucco in red sauce, roasted rosemary potatoes, a fragrant veal stew with little onions and mushrooms… Well, it’s Saturday and the shop is closed Sunday and Monday. What else can a girl do?
That’s what the farmer shouted as I passed his stand at the big outdoor market in Montevarchi. At first, I thought it must be a poem. I reached down to squeeze a fat specimen of his beautiful porcini, but he pointed a finger at me and said, gently, but firmly, “non tocare.” In Montevarchi, we’re not allowed to touch the produce at the market, but they offer tastes of most things, and he was generous, threw an extra mushroom into my bag, and an additional tomato as well.
People are kind here. I could site so many examples. On our first day exploring Montevarchi, in pouring rain, Julie and I got lost and stopped into a café to ask directions to our home. A young man examined my map, then looked outside at the rain, and said, “Wait here, please.” A few minutes later he pulled up in his little Fiat and drove us home.
Before I go further I need to apologize for what I said about Tuscan Pizza. It’s not thick and bready, but thin and crisp the way I like it, with great toppings; as good as it gets. You just need to know where not to go. I now know the good pizza places in Montevarchi – and, (grazie Francesco) I stand corrected.
A taste of Firenzian ham came moments later. By The Lady Upstairs (AKA Carol Pearlman)
Can’t change my mind, however, about the salt-less, tasteless bread. They say it’s better to hold the parma ham, wipe up sauces, and other salty foods, but I don’t agree.
The Tuscan sun has finally appeared, to show me what I’ve missed for a month of cold, rain, and near-daily thunderstorms. I’d actually begun to rationalize my limited travel ability to the weather.
But no, one needs a car in Tuscany no matter what the weather. The train is fine, but too limiting. I wish I was daring, adventurous, and foolhardy enough to have rented one by myself, drive everywhere I want to go, but I’ve finally come up against something I feel too old to do. I’m scared to drive alone in Italy. I need a driver, or a navigator, a road partner.
Not only would I wander the country-side, discovering where to go along the way, I’d have destinations. Termi di Saturnia, for example, rated just this morning by Lonely Planet as #6 in its list of the “Top Hot Springs in Europe.”
That phrase really gets to me. I’d cross oceans for such an experience, but alas, not the nine hours of public transportation, over mountains and through valleys, for less than 200 miles. It will not come to pass.
The incomparable beuty of Rome and the north of Italy. By The Lady Upstairs (AKA Carol Pearlman)
I did take the train back to Florence one afternoon this week, to gaze again at its incomparable beauty - in the sunshine this time. I stopped for a cappuccino in Roberto Cavalli's cafe on the via Tournabuoni, and observed the beautiful Italian women, serious shoppers, wearing the most fabulous clothes, shoes and bags, step up to the bar and throw back a quick cup of strong coffee. This experience told me I need a whole new wardrobe.
So, now it’s ultimi giorni – last days in Montevarchi. How I loved this place! Peaceful, relaxed, beautiful, authentic, non-polluted. I’d forgotten what clean air smells like, and how to take things slowly, look around, smell the jasmine, and enjoy the moment.
I’ll take the train back to Rome on Sunday, dine in one of my favorite restaurants near the Piazza di Spagna, and leave the next morning for home. Next time I go to Italy, I swear not only will I have a driving partner, I’ll speak Italian.