London, United Kingdom

72 hours of sheer joy it was, wasn’t it, our London break last week. London has always represented the top of the world for me, so yes, I’m biased. Guilty as charged. First time post Brexit, so far all is still good, buzzing, polished and polishing, metropolitan, cosmopolitan, huge, diverse, expensive, welcoming. However, it’s gonna be choppy ahead. For the United Kingdom, for London, for the rest of Europe, for everyone.

View of The Shard, London, UK
Something old, something new, something blue …

The reason, the cause, the motivator for this last trip to London was this magnificent David Hockney exhibition at Tate Britain that I just couldn’t allow us to miss. Continue reading “London, United Kingdom”

Tuscany Revisited, Autumn Continues

Soon, the bricks and mortar of Florence were replaced by gentle hills of rural southern Tuscany. The weather, the food, the wine, the mood – everything mixed and moulded into perfect getaway.

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People were picking olives on sunny slopes of olive groves with nets carefully laid under the trees. Every frantoio we passed was busy, the tractors parked at the entrance waiting to unload the crates of precious fruit.

The white and dense steam was winding out of the chimneys of local distilleries producing the intoxicating grappa.

It seemed that everyone was busy except for us, who loitered around the fruitful landscape, marvelling at the beauties around us. In reality though, the fact was that many other tourists anywhere we went and everywhere we turned surrounded us. The fantastic autumn days were too perfect to not be spent up and about.

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We saw gorgeous persimmon trees, still leafy and dotted with golden fruit, and many pomegranate trees and bushes laden with fruit – how the slender and thin branches of that length can carry that heavy fruit is beyond me.

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The vineyards were turning from green to yellow to deep red. The work there ceased after the harvest but it’s far from done. The rose bushes in the pole position of the rows were still in bloom although already showing the lines of exhaustion after a long season.

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Oh, the late afternoon sunlight of Val d’Orcia! It painted the deepest rose-gold nuances ever and cast the longest shadows. The line for roasted marroni in the main piazza of Pienza was too long but my man was anyway on a quest to get equipped with all necessary utensils for home roasting. Call him crazy but our home kitchen is now proudly enriched with a proper chestnut roasting pan and even a pair of scissor-like taglia castagne (blimey, I didn’t even know such a thing existed). Plus, there are still about two kilos of Tuscan marroni sitting on the cool windowsill.

Thanks to our delighful host at Il Sassone I got to cut her pomegranates to take home. There’s a special treatment for you. Thank you again, Simona. Back home, their olive oil almost freaked me out for its crazy colour, it’s the spookiest shade of green I’ve seen so far. The freshest too. Tastes like heaven. Their wine is a staple in our household anyhow. Their jams are kept hidden behind the tins of fagioli and pickles in our pantry just to secure they last longer.

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Since it’s autumn, the season of harvest and abundance, I’ll brag about my own little harvest: our own home grown lemon tree bore its first fruit! Ladies and gentlemen, here’s Ms Peachy.

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Last but not least, I was really upset to have missed the exceptional exhibition on arte della natura morta in Villa Medicea in unprepossessing Poggio a Caiano. It’s the only museum of its kind in Italy and it houses the Medici collection of still life paintings that was never exhibited because it was for many years buried in Uffizi’s and Palazzo Pitti’s depots. Unfortunately, we missed the appointed hour and couldn’t wait for the next one but did take a walk around the immense renaissance villa and its gorgeous (citrus) garden. There’s a perfectly legitimate reason for a return visit if I needed one!

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Related:

Ristorante Il Falcone, Poggio a Caiano

Sagre Toscane a good site for gathering the info on gastronomic events (and applying them to your itinerary accordingly)

Roughly the itinerary for this trip: after a weekend in Florence, an early evening stop in Siena for a coffee break, then via Roccastrada to peaceful Maremma where we unpacked (Massa Marittima for instance is spectacular), the next day Montalcino, Pienza and festa della castagne in Sassofortino. Finally, upon returning home via coastal raccordo, passing the beautiful Bolgheri along the way, we stopped in Poggio a Caiano before getting our teeth into packed autostrada Firenze-Bologna again.

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Florence, Tuscany

Early on Saturday morning we left for Florence for a short break. We were eagerly anticipating that trip for we didn’t stop in Florence this last summer en route further south for the summer holiday. We thought we better leave it out so we have a relevant reason to return to Tuscany again later in the year. Not that one actually needs a relevant reason; there are plenty more or less simple and basic ones. Delightfully, we stuck to that plan.

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Florence is a magnificent city as anyone who ever visited will tell you. I haven’t met a soul who’d complain about it or think ill about it (although the hordes of tourists are in fact quite overwhelming and at times very much suffocating).

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Anyone heading to Florence (or further south) from the east please note that the new route between Bologna and Florence is now finally open (we gladly found that out back in July already), so a traveller can choose between Panoramica (the pre-existent motorway) and Direttissima (new and faster way, lots of tunnels). The two meet at the top of the hills near Barberino di Mugello. This part of the way between Bologna and Florence used to be the most tiresome because the lanes were dramatically narrow for all the heavy traffic (trucks! trucks!), continuing ups and downs and endless curves. Now, if you’re lucky, you’ll be jammed only for a (relatively) short period of time (of course the never-ending road works are on-going) before descending downhill to Florence.

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Which reminds me of my childhood, when driving in our parents’ car towards the Adriatic coast for the summer holiday my brother and I competed impatiently who was going to be the first to glimpse the sea. Cheerful exclamations of “The sea! The sea!” were the proof the holiday had commenced. Even now, as a grown-up, when approaching that last curve before the descent, I usually feel the excitement of a child: the sea is still a vast blue breadth holding a promise of good times and jolly. This same captivating feeling upon descent down the Apennines onto the plain where Florence spreads out all elegant and classy moves me dearly, and the restless eye looks out for the tremendous cupola of the Duomo. The child in me shyly exclaims “Duomo! Duomo!” thus confirming the good time is here.

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We had the best possible time in Tuscany this autumn. Two days in Florence and two in the country. The four days were sunny and warm (no socks! short sleeves! sunglasses!) and we could enjoy the impressive colours and fruits of autumn without limits.

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The flavours of autumn were persistent too: marroni (glazed and roasted), freshly pressed olive oil, ribollita on day one, trippa alla fiorentina on the last. And many other delicious meals in-between.

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Marrons glaces at Caffe Giacosa
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Tiny kitchen, delicious dinner at Coco Lezzone

Despite the leading motifs of autumn and the cool nights, we simply couldn’t skip the best Florentine ice cream. We walked to Carabe after dinner (every additional trip up Via Ricasoli makes the walk seem shorter) and I (of course) had a cup of Sicilian agrumi and crema. So good! As I remarked to the master how delicious his ice cream is every time we have it (for we have been returning customers for years now), he smiled and humbly said it was the quality of the ingredients that made the end product reliably superb.

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Two days are scarcely enough to explore Florence if one is to do it justice. But to take it all in it’s enough to submerse into its elegant streets, turning the head more often upwards at the marvellous Tuscan facades and peeking past the ajar doors into craftsmen’s workshops or brick paved courtyards with cisterns. Notice the Duomo looming large above and behind the narrow streets. Carelessly sip the coffee or Negroni which is what Bellini is for Venice. Watch the people and scan the exquisite shops.

See some of the obvious sights en route: Piazza della Signoria, Ponte Vecchio, Davide, Uffizi, Palazzo Pitti, Basilica di Santa Maria Novella – there is more art, beauty and history than you can imagine. Breathtaking.

Shop for fantastic designer goods (many of the great Italian designers originate in Florence) or for refined Florentine prints in countless tiny shops or for medicinal herbal tonics and fragrant soap.

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By all means, plan to return. Florence like Venice is pure magic.

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Related:

Our favourite eatery in Florence is Sostanza in Via del Porcellana but it’s open weekdays only. So we chose this one instead and it was very good.

Ai Weiwei exhibition in Pallazzo Strozzi till January 2017

Ignore the silly fashion industry photos lining the walls if you please but do take your coffee at Caffe Giacosa because it really is excellent. The interior itself has been painstakingly renovated so it retains the same old school charm – a must-see – and the service is attentive. Alternatively, Gilli is another Florentine institution (for more info in Italian only see Italian wikipedia).

A few weeks ago saw a launch of a much anticipated TV series on the Medicis, the most famous of Florentine dynasties. As it turns out, it’s so far been aired in Italy only but pay attention to when it comes to your country. According to the frenzy it seems to be a good one.

Official site Florence tourism

Before & After

Whenever I have a couple of days off I take to flipping through outdated newspapers and magazines. I find it unfair to not consume the editions that I selected myself in the first place: unfair to authors and unfair towards the money spent on them. Doing so, I usually notice some things I missed before, or see them with a fresh pair of eyes.

You know, how there are places around the world that everyone longs to go to? Venice, New York, Paris, Rome, Cairo, Sydney to just name a few. The places that have grown for centuries and developed a certain type of attraction, a vibe in a modern language, but managed to keep and maintain the connection with their history, residents, visitors. Places where locals tend to be annoyed by hordes of tourists.

I come from a mid-sized Mittel Europa town and have never really understood the anti-tourist lament. I never believed it existed, actually. Mostly, I thought it more of a PR move. Until I started on purpose to try to sense my vacation destinations as if I lived there. It’s a whole new attitude, people. I recommend it highly. Not only does it make the travelling and staying in a foreign place more humble and modest (and therefore the richer in experience), perception of your hometown changes: you evaluate the pros and cons more self-confidently and you gain the understanding of that before mentioned lament. That not only exists but is true and by all means completely (mostly) justified.

As travellers the humans act as conquerors. As if the fact that we can afford to travel gives us the right to expect that everything must be done to serve us. I used to despise the fact that on a Sunday every shop in Vienna is closed. I thought them downright crazy to leave the thousands of strollers on died-out shopping arteries unattended. Recently, I started to appreciate that fact. Let them have their way, its on them to have it their way. It is I who should adapt.

So, when I spotted this:

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Paul Signac Maisons du Port, Saint Tropez, 1892; taken from Sotheby’s ad in FT Weekend 30 April/1 May 2016

I reached for my phone to find this:

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My iPhone shot of the place on 2 October 2011

What do you think? Did this place survive and earn the notorious reputation because of the tourists or in spite of them? What changed significantly is the density, quality and value of the moored fleet. The old town hasn’t changed that much, has it? I bet the locals lament over stupid tourists all the time.

Vienna Calling

There are many good reasons why visit Vienna. These two were a big draw for us this spring:

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The grand imperial city, poetically located in a draught position between the East and the West, saluted us with grey skies and clear, cool air washed by spring rain that we, as it seemed, have just luckily avoided. Not that we cared, really, we came to have a good time. And were served accordingly.

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I dare you to open the door.

It was on one of our walks that I detected my first peonies this year, not really altogether there yet but showing great potential.

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Our every trip gets latticed by food and Vienna has some lovely offerings, I can tell you that:

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I start craving the Tafelspitz as soon as we set the date for a Vienna trip. There’s something homely about it but very Austrian indeed: freshly made from local produce, very filling but definitely unskippable. I’d like my horseradish sauce more piquant but I don’t complain at all. I down four servings of delicious broth before you can say Jack Robinson. Then, the rest of the meal.

You’d have to be downright crazy to miss the wonderful Esterhazy cake or Milchrahmstrudel at Demel’s afterwards.

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The quintessential coffee served the old-fashioned way (and the only proper way for that matter) at Meinl’s am Graben will spruce you up again.

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Back to business, both exhibitions are just wonderful. Each of them gave me a light headache, in a good sense. The Russians’ works of art are clearly beautiful and powerful, the German’s clearly huge and impressive. The stories the art tells are universal: the past lurks from behind the present however much we try to pretend to ignore it, influences it heavily, always using the language of art as a vehicle to prod in our faces, and our intellect, to stimulate our brain and cast the light on the path we’re treading now. We’ve been here before, the humankind, we should know better.

 

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Since Vienna has always been artistically and culturally savvy there are many choices. It’s down to your tastes and wallet condition (highly acclaimed classical musicians and artist, that are the essence of Vienna, come at a price) and how far in advance you start to plan (Staatsoper and Musikverein events sell our quite fast). Anyway, there are always very good exhibitions, national (Klimt anyone? Schiele? Kokoschka?) or international, taking place in the many fabulous museums and galleries. The MuseumsQuartier is an example of how well art can be incorporated into city’s everyday. So, there are always many options to explore.

There’s obviously more to Vienna than this but, mind you, it’s only been a sleepover. We’ll be back soon enough.

 

More info (selected):

www.albertina.at

http://www.mqw.at/en/

https://www.plachutta.at/en/home/

www.demel.at

http://www.meinlamgraben.at/Home

www.wiener-staatsoper.at

https://www.musikverein.at

http://www.kameel.at/

PS

When planning a weekend in Vienna please consider that everything, and I mean everything, is closed on Sundays. The Austrians still have it the old way: they work up to 6 PM on Saturdays, after that it’s weekend for all. So, Saturday is for shopping and eating, Sunday for art and outdoors.