EUROPE 2023 - Part 2
Updated: May 26
London – May 1
Our last real day in London and we don't really have a plan. I suggest maybe train out to Hampton Court to spy on the Tudor ghosties but instead we go to discover the edginess of Camden Town. It isn’t far by way of tube from our digs in Bloomsbury. Camden has been reinvented several times, the most profound being during the industrial revolution when it ceased being a baronial estate and became a terminal for the railroad. Carts would gather here to take goods off the trains then move them into London. Later, a canal system added to the transport options. It was then an unfashionable collection of rough business and tough characters. Today we see this as a portion of London captured by counter-culture factions. There's a jazz club that features top talent as well as punkish dance clubs. There's also a private fight club dedicated to boxing with gourmet coffee and cakes. There's a kind of permanent street market full of trinkets, souvenirs, and counterfeit copies of fashion items. Scads of booths offering street food, most of it looking mildly suspicious. I did spot two that were hawking health food. They looked alien, out of their element. Even though we didn't indulge, the aromatic sensations from these street vendors was kind of seductive. Amy Winehouse lived here once upon a time. She hung out at Hawley Arms, her fave pub. There's a life sized bronze of her somewhere though we failed to run across it. We didn't have much of a reason to be in Camden except to satisfy some curiosity. We walked about, pushed through another crush of people, snapped some photos, then hopped the tube back to Bloomsbury where we had a bite of lunch at The Marquis of Granby, a very tidy pub, in the Bedford Square zone.
I should comment on our experience with the Underground, the Tube. It's an amazing wonder of transport to move people around the city in this way. It gets constant use, therefore shows a fair amount of wear and tear. It isn’t exactly a smooth ride. I most notice it in the crazy noises these trains make. Sometimes I imagine a gigantic cheese grater is grinding the cars like a wedge of Parmigiano. Then there's the low lonesome howl of a dozen Banshees being strangled with an anchor chain. In what sounds like the whole train is derailing, there's the noise of 1000 empty trash cans being crushed beneath the wheels. If I had to ride routinely, I would use hearing protection because it really is deafening enough to be dangerous at times.
Our evening meal is back in Covent Garden at Giovanni's. It's expensive but we love it. Last Thursday, when we were there, we asked for a reservation for Monday, today, thinking it would be no sweat. But no, May 1 is part of the 3 day Bank Holiday so we have to take a late seating. When we were here in 2019, I don't think we experienced the effects of a Bank Holiday. People really take advantage of it. Pino seats us immediately as the restaurant is not full. CK has an orange salad again with Ravioli. I go for the pasta e fagioli followed by penne pasta with wild boar ragu. Next to us are three folks from Canada, Ibrahim, Jaime, and Masa. We spend an excellent evening chatting them up and trading pleasantries. We mention to Pino that we’re going to Italy tomorrow, so he gives us some connections to make in Venice. One of them is a restaurant and we’ll simply have to get reservations for it.
Our plane is at 10:35 am which means we’ll get to Rome at a decent hour to have a rest before an evening walk out into the city. Meanwhile in London, the news informs us that there are 3 bank holidays in May plus coronation, of course. We're getting gone just in time.
London to Rome - May 2
Goodbye Tavistock Hotel. We may not be back. Your rooms are too small and stuffy. British Air promises to carry us to Rome. But first we need to find the plane. We're up early to grab the Tube to Heathrow. There's a start. One hour on the Piccadilly Line gets us to Heathrow. The train dumps us out in the deepest pit beneath the terminal. We seem to ascend for 15 minutes through this towering monument to transportation before we reach departure check-in level. There's time for a coffee and a whisky before going to the gate. I indulge. 11:02 am wheels are up and off of British soil. I try my usual thing when in flight mode, to fall into semi-consciousness. I would sleep if I could but without serious drugs I can't seem to manage it. The crew brings the drink cart so I have a rum instead.
Wheels down in Rome, 2:02 pm. Now that Brexit is a thing, we have to go through a passport check. No big deal this time because there was no queue. But I can see how this can be annoying if there is one. The hotel is sending a driver for us! Yay! We find him easily and soon we're off hurtling down the highway toward downtown Rome. The sky is getting dark at 2:45 pm. Looks like something is gonna happen and it will probably be wet. Clouds begin to open up on us a few minutes later. We slosh into town amidst a downpour. Our car, gliding past cold, wet tourists lends us even more appreciation for having a driver today.
Our room at the hotel is nice. Much larger than the London joint. Much more modern, more comfy bed, excellent bath. The downer is that we cannot see out. There is a window but it is 9 ft above the floor. A remote control moves the shade up and down. Zero view whatsoever. And the elevator is absolutely microscopic. 1 person with two bags would fill it. I think we'll be using the stairs.
This hotel is the Antica Albergo del Sole Al Pantheon. The Pantheon is literally right outside the front door. After a short rest we peek out to be sure the rain had passed. No more rain so off we stumble to explore a bit. With puddles everywhere we must watch for scooters and taxis aiming to splash us. We have to be at the Piazza del Popolo early tomorrow morning for a tour. We decide to scout it out. Between Google and our paper tourist map we find it easily. This plaza features an Egyptian Obelisk created under the reign of Ramses II. It was brought to Rome by Augustus after defeating Marc Antony and Cleopatra.
Along the way there are half a dozen churches. CK wants to visit all of them but actually invades only two. "You're going to be busy," smirks I, "Rome has more than 900 churches." She doesn't laugh. I am alarmed. Along the line of more earthly ambitions we look into half a dozen gelato shops. All but one is selling crap gelato. I saw better quality gelato in London, so far that is. This is not right. I suspect this is the work of the Prince of Darkness.
It’s been a long travel day. I gotta crash. We’re doing Pompeii tomorrow.
Rome / Pompeii – May 3
Up early and out in the street to walk 1.3 miles to the Piazza del Popolo where we are to meet our tour group. We are so early that no coffee shops are open yet, a fact we discover on our way there. All we have is the tea pot in our hotel room. The army has taken over the plaza preparing celebrations for the 162nd anniversary of its existence. Who commemorates a date like that? 100, 125, 150 ,yeah maybe, but 162? Any excuse for a party? This is Italy so I shouldn’t be surprised?
Eventually we are assigned our group and bus. Bus seats are made for midgets and children, of course. We both feel overly folded and squeezed. 1 hour 20 minutes highway time to the first rest stop: Cassino, site of some miserable WWII battles. We still have another hour plus of driving to get to Pompeii. This thing is a 3 hour bus ride from Rome, but no surprise.
Pompeii has been excavated to a considerable degree but much of it remains buried. Excavation began 1748, they say, but this was not a scientific dig. It was really a process of looting. Actual archeological work began at the end of 19th century. Every year they discover new time capsule items from 2,000 years ago. We discover something else: massive crowds. We had faint hope that tourist pressure would be somewhat tame, this being shoulder season. Not so, sadly.
The scene at the ruins is chaotic with several buses and tour groups dodging, passing, and merging with each other. Our tour guide is dressed in beige. Can't keep an eye on him in the crowd. When he arrives at a point of interest he stops, gives a short explanation, invites everyone to 'enjoy' and 'take your time to take pictures'. 30 seconds later he's hoofing it to the next POI. If I “ take my time” to examine a ruin or take a photo he's a nightmare to find again as he disappears into the flowing humanity. I make two hurried shots then I'm hustling to catch up.
We are shown some ancient fountains, stepping stones, graffiti, amphitheater, carvings, a plaster cast of an unfortunate teenage girl who worked in a massage parlor, a brothel, a temple to Jupiter, and a modern bronze statue. This is about a two hour, very superficial skimming of Pompeii. It is quite a large site, much of it is still buried so I didn’t expect to see all of it. But I was expecting to see the best mosaics, private gardens, and painted interiors just like the guide books show, right? We saw some of Pompeii but we didn't see the spectacular things.
The crush of tourists is again something to note in that I feel I'm spending as much or more time dodging people as I am actually being a tourist. Ironically, or not, the biggest traffic jam is in front of Pompeii’s brothel. What people want to see are the drawings on the wall, depictions of available activities that served as a kind of menu for the foreign visitors of the time who did not speak the local language. The queue to get into this space is at least 20 minutes. Time spent inside, 2 minutes, max. We feel like cattle pushed through a chute. I’m afraid the photos aren’t so good.
I keep imagining that the tour will fan out, that we’ll be moving out to less crowded areas of the ruins but this is not to be. Our guide announces that the tour is over and we are hustled out to the exit. We're back on the bus about 2 pm but they propose to drive us up the side of the volcano. It's only 4,200 feet to the top of Vesuvius. The bus stops short of the summit where we get out to make a short, steep walk to the edge of the crater. It costs 10 euro to get on the path. Tickets are not sold on the mountain. So, we see some folks milling about, frustrated having driven up the mountain only to discover they can't continue on foot. The trail is wide and fairly firm. There is a steady breeze. As we ascend we can easily see the zone where the mountain collapsed in 79 CE and spread out to create new coastline. I made some photos but I think they will be for evidence only. There wasn't much about it that was photogenic. There were eagle level views of Naples but the haze obscures much of it. Fireworks are being launched over one of the ridges producing multiple explosions. The pyrotechs are practicing ahead of a celebration in honor of the local futbol team which seems to be winning and the townsfolk are fizzy about it. Wind is blowing a steady 25 knots at the top. We get a peek inside the crater and observe some steam vents. There are also remains of the funicular railway that ran up to the crater from 1903 to 1944 when an eruption destroyed it. We cannot stay long at the top as it is feeling quite icy in the wind. We didn’t bring any winter clothing for this.
Hopping around an active volcano was not on the bucket list but we're glad we did it. Now when we need a conversation starter we can bring it up. Conversely, if we need to put our guests to sleep we'll bring out the Vesuvius photos.
Back on the bus about 4 pm. Back in Rome 7:30. We grab a bite and soak up a bottle of wine at Trattoria Gran Sasso, a nice place with linen napkins. Curiously the pasta was far more al dente than Pino would serve in Covent Garden. CK’s carbonara is too rico and she cannot finish it. On the walk home we search again for a decent gelato but fail. There are 4 shops but all feature the fake stuff. The only good one closed early.
Tomorrow we get a later start. I think it’s a tour of the Colosseum.
Rome – May 4
We have a 10 am meeting this morning for a tour through the Colosseum. We have about a 30 minute walk. It’s nice to walk in Rome before the tourists are awake and the businesses are still closed. Closed like all the coffee shops at this hour. You know Rome doesn’t even have Starbucks yet. Actually Starbucks IS planning to open its first shop soon. The locals think this is a travesty. We arrive way too early. Our group doesn’t move for an hour.
Inga is our guide for the first 30 minutes. She is from Estonia but has been in Italy for many years. Our “underground” tour features the labyrinth of passages and chambers beneath the arena level. This area was only opened two years ago. She congratulates us on getting in. "These tickets sell out 1 minute after they appear on the website." I suspect the travel agents and tour companies of snapping them up. That's how we got them.
X-ray security scans our bags twice. Twice we walk through metal detectors. Twice my knees set them off however they don’t frisk me. There’s even a passport check by a bored looking policeman. I mean the look on his face was probably boredom but it could have been plain old garden variety contempt. No Buongiorno from this guy. The security guys decide we’re harmless so we part with Inga and she hands us off to another guide, whose name I don’t recall at the moment. She takes us down into the inner workings of the old Colosseum.
The "underground" area is restricted to minimal traffic. While we're there we aren't fighting mobs. We have plenty of opportunity to look around and make photos. We are told much more about this ruin than we'll ever remember. For instance, it was originally named Flavius Double Theater. It was financed by Vespasian's plundering of Jerusalem, by a fee he placed on using the public toilets, and by selling the urine thereof which was used in making soap. Slaves provided the manpower and much of the engineering. They finished in in 10 years. The performances and executions were free to the public. This was the concept of 'bread and circuses'; maintenance of political peace through entertainment. It works today just like it did 2000 years ago except that our 'games' aren't free.
Our “underground” guide hands us back to Inga. I was curious about how they managed naval battles so I asked her. I got a detailed answer in the form of a reasoned hypothesis, something I've been unable to find elsewhere. But I won't bore you, kind reader, with the answer unless you ask for it! Inga gives us a brief tour of the Roman Forum.
I learned why some Roman buildings survived the centuries more intact than others. It is because they were chosen for re-purposing as a Christian church. Such is the case with the Old Roman Forum and the Pantheon. They are in pretty good shape considering their age. Wait. That sounds very much like Senior Citizen Speak. Inga has general advice for travelers in Italy: Make the taxi driver start the meter! Driver may insist he will charge a flat rate. The only flat rate is back and forth to airport. Don’t accept any trinket that anyone hands you. That is the beginning of a scam that involves bullying. Inga informs us about low tourist season. It doesn't exist in Italy. This agrees with our experience. Oddly there seems to be plenty of tables available in restaurants. This is probably because there are so many of them. There are dozens of bars and restaurants with in 1 mile of our hotel.
We leave the Roman Forum with the idea to hike over to see what the Spanish Steps are all about. After about 25 minutes walking we arrive at a charming plaza or, more accurately, it would be a charming plaza if it weren’t packed with humanity cheek by jowel. There’s a large fountain here but we literally cannot see it for the people. The staircase is adorned with fancy monkeys with cellphones and azaleas. Oceans of azaleas. This is early May and the blooms are in peak glory. We are seeing the Spanish Steps on it’s best day of the year. It is a zoo. We see faces here from all over the globe. Some are in flashy clothes and makeup to do fashion photo shoots. This is a mob scene but nothing like our next stop.
From the Spanish Steps it's about 15 minutes of walking to the Trevi Fountain. This is an enormous water feature placed here in the 18th century to mark the spot where the Main Aqueduct terminated in the city. People sit and watch this thing like they do when their at home watching TV. Oh, that can’t be right but that’s what it looks like. This is a prime spot to watch other people in my opinion, and that might be what they’re doing. In our case, the crowd is too much. We can say we’ve been to Trevi Fountain and punch that box on the list but we can’t say we had a wistful romantic moment there. Not gonna happen. I take that back. If you’re in Rome and you want a peaceful, intimate experience with the Trevi Fountain, pick a day when it is pouring rain. Grab some large, sturdy umbrellas, some towels to sit on, and a bottle of wine. Then you can probably have a nice, quiet time there.
Back at our hotel we pass the lineup for The Pantheon which we have yet to visit even though it is right outside our hotel’s front door. There are a thousand people in that line. I think the trouble is that the Pantheon is a church and the entrance is free. Free means a queue from here to Munich. Gah.
For the evening meal we walk a mile out to the Trastevere neighborhood. We select a likely spot and order some food. It is very good. I deem it better than The Gran Sasso last night. We got chatty with some ladies from Switzerland seated next to us. They were very pleasant company and made for a lovely evening. We hit some worthy gelato shops on the mile walk back to the hotel. All told, a terrific day in Rome.
Rome – May 5
We're up with the crows this morning to grab a taxi at 6:15 am. The driver is working early hoping to get a fare to the airport. Poor fellow only gets an 8 euro trip to the Vatican from us. But he makes it as exciting as possible with high speed antics through streets of medieval width, his proximity alarm beeping continuously. We presume he wants to live to see tomorrow so we have some trust in his skills.
At the meeting point we find our tour guide as planned. This is another pre-booked group tour with 'skip-the-line' features and other faint expressions of exclusivity. For instance, we are promised a sumptuous and peaceful breakfast in the Vatican Garden. We are presented with a paper plate of cold eggs, cold sausage, cold potatoes, and day old croissant while a tractor provides the ambiance of heavy equipment as the lawn is mowed behind us. Only the coffee is warm. This is a breakfast fit for a monk, which is appropriate, I suppose. We left most of it for the pigeons who were on the attack. These birds were bold and determined. They would not wait for people to leave a table before snatching food from a plate. The gulls had slightly more couth. They waited until everyone had left the breakfast area before making their run.
Our guide attempts to describe the vastness of the Vatican Museum; if one were spend 60 seconds gazing at each item it would add up to 12 years of art appreciation. Yeah, I don't think we'll be seeing everything today. We are ordered to be silent in the Sistine Chapel so the guide does the show & tell explanation of this in the garden next to the museum of paintings.
Before we enter the museum we are processed through the x-ray security / weapons detectors. I can't help noticing the enormous ticket hall we are in. Multiple windows looking like bank tellers are prepared to do some serious credit card scanning. I don't know how much they haul in but the Vatican budget in 2022 was 823 million euro. They already have our money. No, they’ve had it since 2019. That’s when we reserved this ticket. Covid didn’t kill us so we’re taking revenge! Once we get into the galleries we are herded again at a steady pace but probably slower than our minders would like because of traffic. The crowd of people here is often shoulder to shoulder. Clearly there are so many skip-the-line tix that this is now forming its own queue which will require an even steeper fee to avoid. The experience we get is the experience of being here. We cannot contemplate artistic beauty in the normal way. Instead we meditate upon being immersed in the titanic enormity of unthinkable quantities of priceless art and allow the symbolic tidal wave of Papal Loot to wash over our heathen souls or what blackened bits are left of them. The Popes undoubtedly inspired the Ferenghi Culture of Acquisition and spawned countless Nifflers if you follow my meaning, you readers of JK Rowling.
One of the most remarkable pieces in possession of the Vatican is the Greek marble ‘Laocoön’ from the 1st century BC. It really is stunning. We are funneled, yes funneled is the perfect word, into the Sistine Chapel. It's actually bigger than I imagined. No photos. Women must cover their shoulders and knees. Silence!! This is a Holy Place!! But there's a lot of talking going on in here. 2500 people or more are being pushed through this room every 5 minutes. Expecting them to be quiet is kinda silly. Then a guy on an amplified public address system tells us to stop talking and be quiet. About half obey for about 30 seconds before resuming their non-silence. The no-photos thing is being monitored more closely by stern looking guys in suits. If anyone pulls out a cellphone one or more of them move in. We are being watched. Regarding the painted ceiling: I wonder how one was supposed to view it? Were couches provided for the Popes so they could lie back and look at it because simply cranking your neck to look up is not very comfortable or practical. I should have asked the guide about this but didn’t.
The tour ends at the entrance to St Peter's Basilica. CK has arrived at the world's biggest church! All others must now recede into pale obscurity when compared to this titanic temple of modern mythology. We're surrounded by corpses of popes and saints whose effigies in stone float above the floor as giants, many times life size. Except St Jerome. He's dressed up in nice clothing as he lies in a glass box. He's wearing a mask that gives him the appearance of sculpted Marzipan. I'm certain that the Vatican could make tons more cash with a Chamber of Horrors Tour. You know they have more corpses like St Jerry hidden somewhere who could be put to work.
We leave the Vatican behind. It is good to say that we’ve been there, done that. It isn’t far back to the Pantheon and this afternoon is our last chance to get inside.
The Pantheon, being free, has a long line but it seems to move fast. We're seeing it midday so it is well lit by sunlight through the oculus. The sun throws a glorious beam squarely on a painting of some saint or other. I'm on a mission to spot the tomb of Rafael and Queen Margherita. Queen M is a particular culinary pilgrimage since it was she who lent her name to the Pizza inspired by the Italian flag: red (sauce), white (mozzarella), and green (basil leaves). Rafael was the brilliant innovative painter of the Renaissance period who died in 1520 at the age of 37.
Next lunch with beer and, of course, a Margherita Pizza. The beer was good. The salad was fresh with excellent tomatoes. The pizza was sadly a masterpiece of indifference.
Later that evening our meal fortunes improved at the Buca di Ripetta. We soaked up a bottle of white wine from Tuscany. CK had a ravioli with orange sauce. I sampled another version of pasta e fagioli and a plate of fresh gnocchi in cream sauce. Afterward we enjoyed a moonlight stroll on our last night in Rome. Of course I had to stop for a gelato!
Roma to Firenze – May 6
Old Italian stones New paths to be walked upon This Roman world Curiosity Punching box on bucket list We move to Florence
We enjoyed our time in Rome. It was amazing to appear in places we've only seen in books and classrooms. We didn't toss the one coin into the Trevi Fountain, the one that insures a return to Rome. That doesn't mean we won't. We just don't have foreseeable plans to do it. In my opinion, if we do return we will need the guidance of a person who knows Rome's secrets, the fascinating bits that hide from the average tourist like us, the things that travel agents and Rick Steves doesn't know.
We're taking a train to Tuscany this morning. We should arrive by early afternoon. We wish. Rome's Tiburtina rail station, platform 6. There is chaos. "Guasto alla linea elletrica." This means "Electrical line breakdown". People are being dumped out of their trains here. Everyone is chattering in worried tones. Our bubble of ignorance is annoying at this moment. On the schedule board our train keeps adding delay time. Result: we wait. We become very familiar with the cracked concrete, pigeons, and petrified chewing gum blobs on platform 6. Long story short, our train arrives 3 hours and 20 minutes late. We are scheduled to meet a tour guide in the lobby of our hotel at 3 pm. That is not going to happen. Next paragraph I shall report our progress upon arrival in Florence.
The main station in Firenze is another mob scene. This looks like we are here in high season. Things cannot get crazier than this. We find the taxi stand after 10 minutes searching. There are 60 people in line ahead of us. This looks bad but the line moves quickly. 15 minutes later we're loaded up and off through town to Hotel degli Orafi, right next to the Arno River a block away from Ponte Vecchio. And the tour guide we had scheduled is still there waiting for us. After tossing the bags in the room we're off down the street for a very personal guided walk around town. He points out several things I promptly forget except for the bronze of Perseus and Medusa, the Duomo, and the Academia Galeria where we get to view Michelangelo's Prisoners and "The" David up close and personal. I'm too beat to give this the write up it deserves but I will mention some things I learned about the David sculpture. His hands appear large and out of proportion because of where it was originally planned to be placed, in an elevated position in the big church, the Duomo. It was meant to be seen from a low angle. When viewed in this way the hands appear more proportional. Secondly, behind his left foot is a tree stump which is actually part of the leg. This is there to provide strength to the structure. If the statue were to be supported only by the ankle shapes it would collapse.
Leonardo is our guide's name. He's friendly and knowledgeable. There are only 3 of us which is a refreshing change from the groups we had in Rome. He tells us to visit the Duomo's museum instead of the church itself because that's where all the good stuff is. Also tells us where to find tombs of Galileo, Michelangelo, Machiavelli, and the opera maestro Rossini: all in the Balsilica of Santa Croce. We're also told of an old apothecary full of treasures and where to find it. He even shows us where the best gelato shop is. Great tour. 5 stars.
Our evening meal is at Trattoria La Casalinga. We soak up a fine bottle of Pino Grigio and eat too much. I think we're in love with Florence.
Florence - May 7
We have to catch the tour bus at 8 am but it is across town, too far to walk at that hour. After a quick plunge into the sumptuous Hotel Orfali breakfast a cab flicks us across the cobbles to the meeting place. It's good that we're getting out of Florence given that this is the day of The Florence Marathon. The downtown area will be disrupted with crowd control, closed streets, and general chaos. Taxis will be tough to get after 9 am. That's what the hotel tells us. If all goes to plan we won't care because we'll be in Siena and San Gimignano.
We're loaded into bus seats made for pygmies and the otherwise vertically challenged just as we were for each one of these guided tours except for Leonardo's yesterday. After an hour plus we arrive in Siena. Lorenzo, our guide, gives a detailed description of the rivalry between Siena and Florence in the middle ages. Suffice it to say there were several nasty battles but Florence couldn't conquer Siena outright.
At the time of this rivalry Siena was poised to be one of the grandest cities in Europe comparable to Paris, Rome, and London, that is, until the plague took out 2/3rds of its population in the 14th century. It was left without builders, workers, and architects and so lost its power. This presented an opportunity for the Medici from Florence to move in and take over. They did so with help from Spanish allies. Siena retained many buildings from the 12th - 15th centuries because of the lack of population after the plague years. There simply wasn't the manpower to tear the old structures down.
Siena's biggest event is The Palio, a horse race happening July 2 and again August 16. Riders representing each of Siena's 9 neighborhoods compete for bragging rights in a race around the main square. Our guide explains that cheating in every conceivable way is the name of the game. The shenanigans include bribing jockeys to throw the race or switch teams. We won't be here for it, thank you very much.
Like Florence, this is another tidy town full of charming streets, bars, and ice cream shops. There's a considerable church here but we can't see inside because of Sunday services. We have a café and gelato on the square and a pleasant stroll through town. In the main square we meet, by purest chance, two people we know from our summer visits to Yellow Point Lodge in British Columbia, Lynn and Ray. What are the chances of that? It's crazy.
We are back on the bus for a short ride to a quintessentially cute Tuscan winery where we are served a delicious lunch and given a flight of wine samples. This lunch is excellent, much better than we expected. I mean to say, after our 'Breakfast in the Vatican Garden' I was prepared to abandon any expectations of adequacy for the remainder of the trip. This experience brought us back from the precipice of despair. We even bought some wine. At our table we meet two ladies from Leipzig! And we were just there 3 week ago.
There's another stop on the tour, San Gimignano. This is a Tuscan town known for good medieval buildings, some of which are towers 130-170 ft tall. These towers were built to display wealth and power, also as defense against freelance bands of raiders who roamed the zone at the time. Once there were 72 of them. These days only 14 remain. The main streets of its town center are devoted to tourist shopping almost exclusively and there is every kind of shop imaginable. It is busy but in a pleasant way. More than one shop offers wild boar prosciutto & pecorino. I almost investigated the idea of sending home a cured boar ham. Gah. Maybe I should have. In the main square I discover a truly celestial flavor of gelato in a shop called Dondoli, which owns bragging rights as the World Champion Gelateria. I'm referring to an ice cream featuring flavors of pink grapefruit and sparkling wine. I think this is now my favorite ice cream.
Our evening meal is back in Florence at Osteria del Pavone (Peacock). Excellent cuisine and atmosphere. The staff is very welcoming and friendly. We made another rez for Monday night.
Florence - May 8
We have a schedule today. Time for a bullet list:
 Sleep in  Have a lazy breakfast  Wander around Florence  Find a café worthy of a mystery novel  Go back to Osteria del Pavone for an evening gnosh
Spoiler alert: We accomplished all of that. Strolling around Florence is very easy and pleasant. Florence is far more relaxing and accommodating than Rome but to be fair, Florence is far smaller. Florence has 400K population plus a massive tourist flow so there's nothing that cannot be had here. Not even Google can count the number bars, wine bars, bistros, cafés, and restaurants. The choices are bewildering. And every one of them seems to offer quality food, drink, and service.
As we stroll about, we are consulting some pages torn out of a Rick Steves guide. The unhurried pace that goes with not being in a tour group is a welcome change. We really only have one goal today, and this is to locate the site of a medieval pharmacy or apothecary, the Officina Profumo-Farmaceutica di Santa Maria Novella. It once dispensed medicines and herbs under the guidance of the church but these days it features perfume, cologne, scented soaps, and other olfactory delights. It wasn't exactly easy to find. Our guidebook didn't mention it and Google was very secretive. We wandered toward its general location based on remembered comments from our first day with Leonardo, but we were missing the details. At the church of Santa Maria Novella a ticket seller gave us another direction to follow but we were still a bit fuzzy about it. I tried different words in Google search and this time it responded. A few minutes later we are standing in the most fragrant space in Florence or maybe anywhere. Liveried salespersons are standing by looking like Gucci ads. We're surrounded by tikkity-boo displays, floral arrangements very tre, and expert lighting, all in 18th century rooms. CK bought a bar of soap. I spied a well-heeled customer watching her order going into a spacious crate. She wasn't going to carry it away in a bag, no no no. This will be delivered! Si! We seriously don't belong here but the same is true for 90% of the people we see.
We spotted a likely café, the kind in which James Bond could be found schmoozing his latest starlet. Bah. There was a big wait list so we went next door. CK ordered pizza which, again, was a bit disappointing. We are certain there is great pizza in Italy but we haven't found it yet. The more experiences we have like this gives me to think that the pizza I make at home is not bad at all. After a brief rest back at the Hotel we're out for another skip around the neighborhood before our dinner at 7. We spend the time investigating the outrageous bling shops on the Ponte Vecchio. I don't know what to say about it since I'm not a bling person. It seems like every store window is a sparkling cascade of gold, diamonds, and colored stones in every shape imaginable. What is it like to have the scratch to shop here? Who knows? We don't.
Our restaurant is a few blocks away and we're a hair early. The maître d remembers us from last night. He snaps his heels as he welcomes us to our table. We soak up a bottle of Chianti. CK orders linguine with wild boar ragu. I have gnocchi with shrimp. Outstanding stuff. After dinner we stroll up to the Pitti Palace, grab a gelato and call it a day. Back at the Hotel Orfali we're planning another lazy morning tomorrow followed by an ambitious attempt at the Uffizi Gallery. Later in the afternoon we're meeting David & Alex, friends from Lopez Island who happen to be in Florence when we are!!
Florence - May 9
This is our last full day in Firenze and we have a lot to do. We don't have much to complain about. After the scratchiness of Rome, Florence is a silky spa day by comparison. This city is like many others with streets made for horse-drawn carts. Motorcyclists and vespa type scooters whiz through them faster than they should, their side mirrors missing our elbows by mere inches. Taxi drivers roll up behind pedestrians, inching through crowds muttering to themselves, sometimes shouting out the window at a deaf old man who doesn't move quickly enough. In Rome we saw these things with more aggression than in Florence. Here there seem to be more pedestrian only zones and the principle streets for autos are several blocks away from the city center. Therefore the hotel, shopping, bar, restaurant, and museum zones are quiet, well swept, and superbly accessible on foot. That said, we can't say it's a good idea to drag luggage from the train station to the hotel. Rough stone streets and narrow sidewalks will test the engineering of the luggage wheels and physically wear you out with the bouncing friction of it all. Should one of the wheels fail on the cobbles you will be carrying your case. Cabbies cannot usually be hailed along any street. To get a taxi one must find a 'taxi stand', a designated place where cabs are allowed to gather. So, if you are caught in a downpour or your luggage wheel breaks, a taxi stand is unlikely to be convenient. Be prepared, o intrepid traveler!
Pitti Palace. This is a museum. The Palatine Gallery is the main reason to visit. We can see more Raphael and Titian here. The Boboli garden maintains its shape but mostly features pools, fountains, and hedges. We have to search for the Rose Garden. We found it. It isn’t very big. The garden obviously isn't the big draw.
We plan to investigate the church Santa Croce so we bail from the Pitti Palace. The walk is 25 minutes, no problem. We need to find the ticket office first. This is where many of the most famous Florentines left their bones: Dante, Michaelangelo, Machiavelli, Galileo, Rossini, and others we've never heard of. We pay the fee to support the preservation of it and also to walk alongside the dust of the immortals.
At 3 pm we have a reserved time to enter the Uffizi Gallery (so named because it was originally an office building in the 16th century) is up today. They only allow 600 people inside at a time so it's a good idea to select your time online in advance. This is another museum that cannot be covered in one day so we'll have to drink in what we can and call it good. This is where we will find "The Birth of Venus", various portraits of Medici bosses and Popes, lots of Da Vinci things, Botticelli, Raphael, Caravaggio among other priceless treasures.
After a 2.5 hour walk through it we are stunned and partially in mental paralysis. Here is a question Google cannot answer and shall remain beyond the scope of any AI bot: "How many baby Jesus' are depicted in the Uffizi?" There must be thousands. There should be an equal number of Mary's but I can't be certain. There's literally a parade of them. Lots of marble sculpture of Roman and Greek gods, Roman Emperors, Greek philosophers, mythical scenes. Our heads were swimming toward the end. All the religious paintings ask me to send my imagination back to a time when these images were considered vitally important. Of course that is impossible so I end up giving myself a headache trying. I snap too many pix which creates another problem in selecting which ones go in the blog.
David and Alex, our neighbors from Lopez Island were planning to join us later in the day for wining, dining, and a cheerful visit. However this was canceled due to some complications involving their tour company. CK and I settle for meeting David and his cousin Evan in the middle of the Ponte Vecchio for a brief chat. We leave them with wishes for a super trip.
For our last dinner in Florence we grabbed a table at Antico Trattoria Fattore. The pasta e fagioli was very good. CK's pasta was good. The wine was good. The beef I ordered turned out to be well done, quite dead. Bah. And I repeatedly read that Florentines always serve beef rare. I'll have to hope for redemption in Venice, our next stop.
Florence to Venice – May 10
We wake up in Florence but won't sleep here tonight. We have a morning train to Venice after we plunder the breakfast at Hotel Orfali one last-ah time-ah. CK says we will go from the Venice train station to a boat which takes us to the hotel. Cool! Also wet. The weather today is rain, 100%. The forecast is for more wet weather the next several days. No worries. We have umbrellas. If they fail we can snag new ones.
Language hasn't been an issue in Italy so far. On the other hand we experience far fewer people who speak more than a few words of English. I know a bit of Spanish which helps me learn a few words and phrases of Italian but there's significant differences between them. "Do you have a table for two?" In Italian, "Avete un tavolo per due?" In Spanish, "Tiene usted una mesa para dos?" So, you see, they aren't that interchangeable. Nevertheless, when I'm having difficulty communicating in English, I apologize with "Mi despiace, non parlo Italiano," then try it in Spanish. Often they will understand me right away. It's kinda fun trying to decipher the lingo. The Italians use the word "prego" a lot. It's most common meaning is "you're welcome" as a response to "grazie," thank you. But they also use it in other ways which is a bit confusing. Other meanings are, "please", "after you," "not at all," or "don't mention it," depending on the context. Maybe I'll get a better grip on this just before we fly home where I will forget it all.
Off the train at the Venice station, only 25 minutes late. This seems like totally on time after the 3.5 hour delay out of Rome. The Venice station is throbbing with humanity. We might be motivated to go outside except for the rain which is pelting buckets. We gotta figure out the boats because our hotel is a stretch away up the grand canal. There are no taxis in Venice. We rally our strength and brave the rain. Buying the ticket and walking to the proper dock is enough to thoroughly soak us from head to toe. But CK finds the right boat. We're off at our stop and slopping through the street with our heads down trying to keep the cell phone dry and the Google map pointed toward Hotel Giorgione. If the rain was pelting 15 minutes ago it is now beating us like rented mules. We are only two blocks away but it seems like a mile. Arriving, we find our room and abandon the notion of going for an exploration of the city. Instead, we look for ways to dry our clothes. At 5 pm the hotel's bar opens for business. I get a nice gin martini in a warm, dry corner. The barman is good.
We find a likely spot for a decent meal, Trattoria Ca' Dolfin. Charming and comfortable dining area although a bit small. Food and service are good but far below half a Michelin star. At rush hour the joint was packed. After dinner we search out a spot recommended to us by Pino Ragona back in London, Trattoria Do Forni. A decision is made to go there in person to make the reserva. After more sloshing through Venetian streets brandishing bumbershoots, success! We have a reservation there tomorrow night. Can't wait!
Venice – May 11
Our hotel, The Giorgione, is a former warehouse for a candy maker. It was remodeled in the 19th century and apparently decorated in an 18th century style. The sensation is that of bedding down in an antique store. I half expect Louis XVII to stroll into the bar demanding a cognac. Wish he would. I could show him my cell phone just for the giggle. That would frazzle his wig.
Our day starts with that hotel breakfast that is prepared for an NFL team on a weight gain program and no hangover. Today we surprised the poor fellow in charge of the room with how little we ate. “That’s all you want?,” he blurts in broken English. A younger version of myself would eat as much as possible in a place like this, not because I was hungry but to get my money’s worth. We have several hours of sightseeing to do today. A bloated belly full of food would not be a good start.
A 20 minute walk in heavy rain through the maze of Venetian streets and bridges brings us to St Mark’s Square where we connect with our guide next to the columns of St. Theodore and the Lion of Venice. Her name is Ana. We waste no time getting out of the rain and into the Doge’s Palace.
“It really wasn’t a palace. It was the seat of government. The Doge was simply required to live in it,” she patiently explains. Once through the metal detectors and security inspectors we arrive at the entrance.
“This is the Golden Staircase,” as we pass onto steps featuring a vaulted ceiling of ornate gold and white stucco. “This was only used by VIPs and magistrates of significant importance.” Like everything else about this palace, the intent was to impress and intimidate visitors. The point of all of it was to gain a diplomatic advantage. The Venetians understood that war was bad business. It closed trade routes and wasted resources. They became very skilled at getting deals done and averting conflicts along the silk road through Constantinople to India and China. Business was good until the early 17th century when Portuguese sailors began trading in Indonesia by ship, having learned how to navigate around Africa. That’s when Venice began to lose its grip on trade with the Far East. Its power faded significantly along with its income. Venice surrendered to Napoleon in 1797. He proceeded to plunder much of its most valuable art pieces. Our tour takes us through enormous, empty halls. There’s no furniture anywhere like there is in other European palaces. I should have asked Ana if Napoleon sacked it all. I didn’t. Anyhow, the point is that we saw multiple examples of power projection in this building, an attempt to make the visitor feel overwhelmed by majesty, wealth, and power. We didn’t expect to see probably the most famous part of the building, the so-called ‘Bridge of Sighs’, so named in Lord Byron’s poem “I Stood in Venice”. Ana rolls her eyes and informs us that the Venetians never used this term. “If anything, it was the ‘Bridge of Prison’” The convicted were taken from the courtroom across this bridge to incarceration, often a fatal one. She takes us there to stroll across and inspect the cells. Spooky. More so because we seem to be the only people in this section of the complex.
Next is the big Basilica of St Mark. This is a 13th century production made under the influence of Constantinople which bossed things around here in those days. The deco in this place shows it, too, with the Byzantine images of Jesus and the Saints depicted on the curving arches and domes in gold infused glass tiles. For some reason Venetians had exceptional talent with glass making. They still do. Dale Chihuly came here to learn more about how it is done. The mosaic floors in here are also a visual treat.
When we finish with the Basilica her job is over but she hands us tickets for the Museo Correr. But first we have a lovely tea and cake at a café CK spotted on the edge of St Mark’s Plaza, the Caffe Lavena. This is said to be a hangout for the German composer Richard Wagner and also for Franz Liszt. The wait staff was liveried in white coats and ties, the chairs and tables tiny. But the ambiance was very nice as they had a professional trio of musicians (piano, fiddle, and upright bass) playing instrumental pieces in a 19th century style.
After a 25 minute queue for the Museo Correr we are frisked at the entrance by the security guys for the 8th time, I think. We’re becoming experts at prepping for this. This museum is very much dotted with stuff we’ve been seeing ever since we set foot in Italy: Roman and Greek sculpture and paintings from 12th – 18th centuries. Subject matter is either mythology, Christian themes, battles, or portraits of the rich and influential. I know it’s all old and half a miracle that it has survived the centuries but there does seem to be a lot of it. So much that not even Napoleon wanted to steal that many Madonna’s and Bambino’s. I liked the ship models in this museum.
Next we try to get lost in Venice but end up at the Rialto Bridge, the Nexus of All Things Tourist. This is a bit like the Ponte Vecchio, a bridge lined with shops, many of them full of bling. Of course, people are strewn all over it. Lunch happens at Ristorante dalo San Marco. Hey, we find a worthy pizza at last! It took a while but we found one.
We must get a bit of rest before we go back out so its back to the Hotel Giorgione for nap and a quick dry-out. It is still raining.
Before our dinner rez we search out a church which features a principal piece of religious art by Titian. The church is Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari. The art in question is above the altar, “The Assumption of the Virgin” from 1518, panned without mercy in its day but praised as a superior masterpiece in later eras. Curiously this piece escaped Napoleon’s greedy fingers. But I don’t think this is so surprising given the number of Virgins already in Nappie’s collection. There’s another Titian piece here and a Bellini. And plenty of knights installed in the floors under thick marble slabs.
Tonight we have a meal at Trattoria Do Forni. We seriously don’t know anything about these places before booking them. We just think they look nice and go for it. As I walk around Florence or Venice a voice in my head keeps nagging me, saying I need to try every bar and restaurant I see. I even hear ‘the voice’ when I pass by a gelato shop. Of course, I have to say no to ‘the voice’ almost every time. Then when I finally say ‘yes’, the voice switches to “Well, maybe you shouldn’t have picked this one. Look at that one over there.” I must be bonkers, right? Our meal was ok, the wine was excellent. The exceptional experience, so far, seems to be Caffe Lavena with its terrific music.
More to report tomorrow as we have one more full day in Venice. My smart watch says 18,000 steps today. Ciao.
Venice – May 12
Our last full day in Venice before we pack our bags and roll away to somewhere else. Breakfast at the Hotel Giorgione again. I try to help a British lady with the hot water bath they provide for cooking eggs. I don’t know what I’m doing any more than she does. There’s no timer on the machine. That seems to be the biggest obstacle, so I suggest that she use the timer on her cell phone. Problem solved!
Our tour gathers at 10 am next to an equestrian statue dedicated to the memory of a thumping the Italians gave someone in the 19th century. There are about 10 of us. We’ll be taking a boat across the lagoon to Murano Island and Burano Island. At Murano we are shown a Venetian glass shop. Our guide gives us to believe that there is only one genuine Murano glass shop and this is it. Somehow I doubt this is quite so. The demonstration of glass making is fascinating but doesn’t last long. We are given an abundance of time to peruse the sales floor where any quantity of money can be spent on glass objects. I found an attractive set of wine goblets, 8 for 3,500 euro. Yeah, right. I don’t think they organized this in an optimal way. Instead of boating us to the glass shop in a clanking, cramped, noisy, dirty tub, like they did, it should have been a gleaming yacht with complimentary cocktails and canapes served by liveried waiters. The alcohol would have muddled our wits perhaps to the point of buying some of their stuff. Sadly, for them, we were entirely sober and bought nothing.
Back on the boat for a quick shuttle to the next island, Burano. The guide wants us to visit an Italian lace shop. I wait for CK in the street outside as I am literally a bull in a China store in this tiny space. CK actually buys a couple of items. Burano is a cute, small town section of Venice. Being its own island, it is quite separate from the main part of town. It costs a local as much as 70 euro to take a boat from Burano to St. Marks Square, for instance. But this place has everything it needs. We stroll the main drag and find a specialty seafood restaurant for lunch.
The noisy, clunky boat back to the big island is 45 minutes. It cruises past the legendary Venetian Arsenal, where massive fleets of boats of all sizes were produced back in the day.
A quick rest in the Hotel is followed by a random-ish walk away from the crowded zones, into quieter neighborhoods. At one point we find ourselves in the Jewish Quarter. Delicious fragrances assault us as we pass a Jewish bakery.
Then there is the gondola ride to consider. This is a decision reserved for an improvised moment of impetuous abandon. If we go, we will feel as if we've exposed our guilty tourist souls to the universe in a shameless fashion that also serves to make us several Euros poorer. But we may do it anyway with another of Oscar Wilde's quotes swimming in our ears. For him it was like being... “in the sewers on board a coffin”. Ugh. He's not altogether wrong about that. For 1,600 years, this city has dumped its raw sewage directly into the canals. This has not changed in the 21st century. There is only one reason to take a gondola ride and that’s to say we’ve done it. The gondola doesn’t actually take you anywhere unless you want to spend unholy amounts of money to go there slowly. The cost for a typical joyride is 80 euro for 30 minutes. We talked about it as we watched others floating by. In the end we pass and walk on.
Venice is the image of a specialized civilization in decline. The sea is relentlessly grinding it away and the wealth that kept it polished and repaired faded long ago. This place, with all its broken, moldy 13th-18th century architectural mashups brings to mind an irritating pop song that infested US radio stations in 1968: “MacArthur's Park is melting in the dark, all the sweet, green icing flowing down. Someone left the cake out in the rain...” Venice was once a decadent, cloying beauty but has grown old in an irreparable way. It rots before your eyes, almost dripping into the lagoon like Richard Harris's cake. Tourists are loving it to death but it is a slow death. Tourists are probably the only thing that keeps this city afloat.
Our evening meal is at Aquila Nera. This looks to us like a neighborhood restaurant. The tourists aren’t lining up for it and the people running it look like they’ve been doing this for 40 years. CK has a lasagne. I have a salad. I’m still full of fried fish from the noon meal. A clever gent strolls into the room and plays a charming accordion set. For a moment we feel like we’re in a movie scene. Cool.
Tomorrow we’re off to catch a train to Parma. The weather looks crappy. We have to drag our luggage to the Grand Canal and catch the boat to the train station. If it is raining we’ll get soaked. Gah.
Venice to Parma – May 13
No rain this morning as we check out of Hotel Giorgione. Grateful for the luck of pulling luggage in dry conditions to the vaporetto or 'steamer', a barge-like transport, a floating bus system that moves up and down the Grand Canal on a regular schedule. We had the opposite luck 3 days ago when we arrived; we got a good soaking. Scored tix from the vending bot at the docks, hopped aboard, and bounced down the Canal to the ferrovia (railroad). We're an hour early. CK spots a church (S. Maria di Nazareth) where we park ourselves and luggage in a pew. It's one of those pews with the cruel backrest. A narrow bit of molding hits the spine just below the shoulder blades. This is a Holy Place and one is made to suffer because if it feels good it must be wrong. Of course, it is dedicated to The Blessed Virgin, a myth that has been part of the human story since the primeval boyfriend brought his date home late. We spend time gazing at vague images intended to be meaningful.
Our train is to Bologna where we switch to catch another train to Parma. Trenitalia has been good to us, but we struggle to make sense of this passenger car because there is no space for luggage. The overhead shelf is too small. Everyone is taking two seats, one for themselves and the other for a bag. This is a two-hour trip. The car is stuffy and hot. Changing trains in Bologna is not a trouble. We have a car all to ourselves. Seems like nobody is traveling this direction. 1 hour to Parma. Our hotel there seems to be in the train station.
Arrival in Parma. Yes, our hotel is parked right next to the train station. We’re about 1 mile from the bar and restaurant district. After unpacking and settling in we light out for a two-hour investigation of the city center before the evening meal. We discover a shopping and pedestrian zone that seems lively. There are several good gelato shops. I only spotted one dodgy one. This ratio is the opposite in Venice, Florence, and Rome. Bad gelato shops outnumber the good ones 5 to 1.
I'm not sure we would be in Parma other than for the fact that our guided bicycle adventure starts here. We aren't sorry about that because it feels like we're pilgrims to the origin of some of the most popular items in every delicatessan shop. I speak of Parmigiano Reggiano cheese and Prosciutto, Italian ham. Certainly, there is a big church full of the usual religious propaganda and at least one trophy relic. I'm certain that if time permits we will be there. But there are some other kinds of shrines here far more worthy of adulation: Museo del Parmigiano Reggiano, Museo del Pomodoro, Museo del Prosciutto, and Museo de Salame di Felino. Really! Museums dedicated to cheese, tomatoes, ham, and cured meats. In the famous persona departamento we must note that Parma is the birthplace of Arturo Toscanini, the conductor. Giuseppe Verdi was born in Roncole, a small village in the Parma Province. Therefore, the city claims him. We spot a large bronze monument in his honor, featuring characters from his operas.
Our meal tonight was at The Tribunale. By 8 pm it was filled with Italians. We might have been the only tourists in there. Most of the time I was getting the stink-eye from some middle aged woman at the neighboring table. She just didn’t like the cut of my jib. I ordered a Labrusco soaked risotto, which was excellent, and CK got lasagne. Her pasta was so rico she couldn’t finish it. Neither could I. We were defeated. We drank a fine bottle of Montepulciano, dry and crisp.
We had no rain today but this will not be the case tomorrow. The weatherman promises moisture without fail.
Parma to Antico Borgo di Tabiano Castello - May 14
Goodbye to the Hotel NH right next to the Parma train station with the slick, angular, modern Italian design, huge breakfast room, and equally huge breakfast. I can see it now. Mother always told us to clean up our plates and not let food go to waste. We walk into these sumptuous hotel breakfast buffets knowing that we are going to ignore 350 lbs of fresh food. The Wasted-Food-Guilt-Button gets mashed by our mother’s ghosts. It simply cannot be helped.
Our instructions are to meet the Backroads bike travel rep in front of the train station. Got that. No problem. Her name is Veronica from Argentina. She gets us herded over to the van for a 30 minute ride to another meeting place where the bikes are brought out and safety talks take place. The bikes and navigation gear is all new. Even the helmets.
There’s a bit of knosh again with waaaay too much food even for our group of 20 or so. From here we launch onto some Italian rural roads toward Tabiano Castello about 23 miles away. The weather is molto iffy with heavy clouds threatening rain. We actually start getting some annoying rain about the 9 mile mark but it doesn’t last more than 20 minutes. When the rain shower passes we get blown dry as we ride. About 6 miles from the Castello the terrain starts to climb and we are rewarded with terrific views.
At the finish we meet beneath the walls of a castle having its origins in the 12th century. Before that it was a Roman fortification. This castle is built on the ruins of the Roman thing. They make cheese here, the Parmigianino Reggiano, the real stuff. A quick stroll around the grounds reveals commanding views out across the plain toward Parma. We cannot have a tour of the castle, which is usually available, because it is hired out entirely for a private event. We are told that the Ferrari family (yes, the billionaires who make the cars) are using it for something.
This place is also an inn for various kinds of tourists. People come here for hiking, for retreats, for biking, for eating, and who knows what. As I say, the accommodations are uniquely ancient but stylish. They are proud of their food service here. Our dinner here lasts 3 hours with 3 courses including a wine and cheese meet & greet before sitting down. The meal is very elegant, the pasta very al dente, my bacala (cod) is a perfect example of sous vide precision. For dessert a small apple tart is served with a delicate cream sauce. We have a lively table of fellow travelers, all very chatty and interesting. We decline to soak up another bottle of wine since we have a 30+ mile ride around the area tomorrow and we don’t want our brain cells to be out of sorts. We will be here in Tabiano Castello tomorrow night, too.
Our room at here is, how you say, rustic chic? Floor is terra cotta brick, open beam ceiling, stucco walls, woodwork 150+ years old and beautifully cared for but worn in a charming way. A bath thoroughly modernized but designed to maintain the character of the castle. A fireplace that looks very cozy but there's nothing to burn, no fuel. And no heat. This place is like a romantic walk-in fridge. It's gonna be a rather monkish (perhaps Spartan) experience for the next couple of mornings. For all the fancy schmancy haute couture of this place and its connection with nobility both past and present, we find it odd that warmth is not even an option. We interrogate other folks in our group and they have no heat, either. We ask at the reception if there is a heat source. “No. We are sorry. Zee heet eez off-ah.”
If it gets too cold we’ll take down the drapes and pull them over us.
Tabiano Castello - May 15
Today we have a perfect Spring day in Italy for a 34 mile bicycle route.
But first there's a shower inside the refrigerator, um I should say, our room. This building is made of thick stone and mortar. It feels like a wine cask cellar, that is to say, it would still be chilly on a hot day. The sun is up at 7 so we run out as soon as possible to find a pool of light. There we bask like lizards on a rock until the breakfast room opens at 7:30 which presents another vision.
I am including a photo of this 1/4 acre of food because my command of the English language is insufficient to communicate the proper scope and glory of it all. There isn't much missing from it except, perhaps, Scottish porridge and roast pheasant with gold leaf garnish. Coffee is made fresh to order by a barista. There is no coffee-bot nor are there pots of coffee to decant. Each cup is made to order. Our group of 20+ cyclists has no possible chance of making a dent in this ginormous spread. Perhaps a troop of 60 Girl and Boy Scouts could clear it if they were starved for 48 hours.
After this breakfast feast I need a post prandial nap but no can do. We have miles to go on our two wheeled adventure through Italian farmland. Off we spin through wheat fields and patches of oriental poppies in full bloom. The GPS gizmos are very good. After having an experience with them yesterday we feel more confidence with the possibility of being separated from other riders. This makes for a much more relaxed experience.
We pass through a couple of villages. In the first one our route takes us through the middle of a local street market. Another, the small village of Fontanellato, features a picturesque medieval fortress with an actual moat.
Our cultural stop this morning is a caseficio (cheese factory). The manager gives us the tour and Veronica translates. Here is the only place where certified Parmigiano Reggiano is made of milk from a herd free of antibiotics. And all their product is sold to US vendors. I can't remember how many thousands of gallons of milk they process every day but it's a lot. I take fotos of every process until we get to the aging room. Here it seems that we've arrived at cheese central, like cheese gravity will soon poke a hole in the space-time continuum. Each wheel is 40 kilos stacked 30 feet high. In this room stands 5 million euro worth of Parm. We get to taste 3 different levels of maturity: 18, 30, and 40 months. My taste for Parm is now irretrievably spoiled. I won't be able to respect Costco parm again. I will need to find out if DiLaurenti's does mail order.