A day in Italy. An afternoon with Florence. (continued from previous blog)

I use to be in love with the Florence airport, I was a bit cool to Florence herself. Too crowded, too noisy, too much traffic, all the usual blather. So now, in my fickle way, I find myself newly in love with the city of Florence and in hate with the airport. Mood swings? Love on the rebound?

bronze of florence. croatian warrior, greekPart three. An afternoon and early evening in Florence

FLORENCE – Boy. I am all over the map here. You remember my undying love for the Florence airport? Well, it died. Hate is such a strong word, but I have thought about it and decided that, yes, so far I think I do hate the new renovation there and what they did to the car rentals area is just beyond contempt. And at the same time, while I use to be in love with the Florence airport, I was a bit cool to Florence herself. Too crowded, too noisy, too much traffic, all the usual blather. So now, in my fickle way, I find myself newly in love with the city of Florence and in hate with the airport. Mood swings? Love on the rebound?

So, there we were at the ugh airport dumping off our rental car. We squeezed our keys into the not quite key-sized window slot to the agent. She has a mini rebellion going on, in what is surely a reaction to the mess they’ve made of those offices. All she can see out her window is a legion of cranky and confused customers. STANDING IN LINE OUTSIDE. Is it any wonder that she has blocked out that view with computers, notices, warning, and instructions about what you can do with your problem. And what you will and will not do at this window. OK, stepping away from the airport.

And into a taxi waiting to whisk us into the city. I usually take one of the reliable every fifteen minutes like clockwork buses. But with two people it starts making sense to grab a taxi. Plus Midge said “we are taking a taxi.” We give him the street address of our hotel and know we’ve got a good driver when he instantly processes the address and says “Orto di Medici” before we add that. Cool. We’re good to go. And because he knew our hotel we ask about our restaurant for tonight. We think they are somewhat near each other. He’s not as solid on that but thinks he knows about it. “Terrible neighborhood? Good food but people doing drugs on the street? Don’t go after dark? Is THAT the place you are talking about?” Oh cripe. What have we done now? Innocents abroad.

Midge at Orto di Medici, Florence, ItalyA few minutes and a few euros later (20 euros) we are in the hotel and I see why Midge says it is her. Note that Orto di Medici is the only hotel we have on our recommends list in Florence. It’s a three star, convenient, and clean as a whistle kind of place. Very pretty. Our room is very nice, on the top floor with a big terrace with topiary trimmed trees framing a city/roofscape view that includes old palazzos and even a duomo. The duomo or a duomo I never could figure out. Anyway, nice view. Per noi? Why thank you. Riccardo at the desk, the man who handled our phone reservations, remembers us from that and we get on famously right from the start. Does he, as a hep young man about town, know about our restaurant? He says yes, that address is only a couple minutes’ walk away but he’s sure he’s never been there. And he isn’t any too positive about that part of the neighborhood either. Oh, fine.

Gentlemen. Start your pedometers. Ours is an Omron. Our office’s physical trainer, Liz from Enerjoy Studios, got everyone on Team Vreeland back in Maine one of these gadgets and we wear them constantly. I’ve had mine on the whole trip and it’s on right now. Whoa, wait where is it? When did I take that off? Can one have too many pockets? Ah, there it is. Well, we put some miles on it during our afternoon and evening in downtown Florence. Florence was fun to the brim with happy campers shoulder to shoulder up and down its streets. We have short and long term walking goals for these streets and here they are:

pop up map of Florence, ItalyShort term walking goals: find the museum named Palazzo Medici Riccardi. Medici hotel, Medici museum, the name is everywhere. They’ve been dead and gone for centuries and wouldn’t they be happy to know how omnipresent they still are today? We want to find that museum because that is where the recently discovered and newly restored full size Greek bronze is being shown. Apoxyomenos, the athlete of Croatia, was found in the waters off Croatia but Italians did the restoration so it seems only right that they get to show it off first.

Long term goal: Find the restaurant where we have reservations. Guess we have to check it out in broad daylight.

The art show is in a fine big old palazzo. We get totally turned around and around finding it but hey, more miles for our pedometer and we’re seeing Florence. Our pop-up map has saved us once again. If you don’t have one, get one now. We’ll wait. Aren’t they cunning? They fit in your pocket and snap open and snap shut somehow and are a few inches wide when open rather than bedsheet-size. So very hard to look cool with a map wrapped all over you on any given windswept foreign street corner. So, all set? Start walking.

lancia limo in museum in Florence, ItalyThe palazzo is as good as the show. We’ve never been in this museum before. Which just goes to show, you don’t have to go to the Pitti Palace with lines going down the block to have a good time here. There are a million things to do. Pick one without a line. This one is covered with massive stone plaques, oversized historic busts, and all that is just in the courtyard. And what is this sitting inside the walls of the palazzo behind eleventy foot tall wrought iron gates? An appropriately large and grand long black limo. The Lancia Thema. Who names these cars? Wikipedia says Themes (singular thema) were “administrative units of land in the Byzantine Empire”. You mean, like “acres”? And I find that name in the web world and it is a real Lancia name but nothing I find on the web looks like this one. What a whale. A rather graceful whale but still a surprise considering we are not in Dallas but here in downtown Europe. Assume it is a homage to Mercedes’ Maybach.

While we are waiting for our group to be let into the featured show (every five minutes) the place sprang to life around the limo. As the driver with headset and black shades stepped out of the car, a Carabinieri stepped smartly from a guardhouse. The doors appeared to open elegantly by themselves in some automatic way. Is that possible? Did I dream that? Regardless, a guy in a suit disappeared through one back door, all the doors closed, the giant iron gates opened. And they were gone.

Now, where were we? Right. Art stuff. The bronze was fine. But nothing bronze will ever match the rough shock of entering the presence of the Bronzes of Riace. Certainly not this relatively polite, passive Croatian warrior. The Riace ones would run this one around the school yard and take his lunch money for sure. They just had Do Not, repeat NOT Mess With Me written all over them in the most stunning and heroic way possible. They are in Reggio di Calabria. If you are ever on the tip of the toe of the boot that is Italy where you take the ferry across to Messina in Sicily stop in and see them.

tiny yellow car in Florence, ItalyIn spite of preferring the Riace bronzes we were glad we saw this museum and this bronze. There was a great crowd and they were managing it well and being accommodating. Signs said they were open till 11 pm. And it is always fun people and car watching on the streets of Florence. This tiny yellow bird of a car was at the exact opposite end of the auto spectrum from the giant limo in the museum isn’t it? Stay tuned for the rest of the story: Dinner in Florence. Coming up next in Part Four.

Water, water everywhere. Life on an Italian peninsula.

CASTIGLIONE DEL LAGO, Umbria, Italy – Not a bad place to be on a sunny day. The “del Lago” part you’ve probably already figured out is all about being right on the lake. Strangest, no – I think the chamber of commerce people would say most unique – geography I can imagine. First, you have this nice round lake in the middle of the Italian peninsula. There are some hilly approaches to the lake but mostly on the far east and some on the north. On the south it is all an agricultural plain around the lake, same with the west where this peninsula, for no reason at all, inexplicably juts straight out into the lake. And there it is. A long, tall rock in the middle of a lake. How did that happen?

I suppose it really doesn’t matter how it came to be there. The point here is that the peninsula is very interesting and when you get up there, the town built there on the peninsula has water on all sides. And you have enough elevation to pull up a gelati and enjoy the view. Look, isn’t that Panicale on that hill over there? If I squint I think maybe it is.
castiglione del lago in umbria, on an italian lake

When you first drive through the main gate you will likely be parking in front of a big palace where there are art shows and exhibitions. That palace is connected to a long skinny defensive corridor to an imposing fortress where the views get really grand and wild. You can sometimes see outdoor movies in the center of the fortress on a summer’s eve. Been there, done that, quite liked that. People smoke, they talk, kids run around, there is a long intermission. Very much not like a night at your multiplex back at the mall in your home town. Meanwhile, along the main, and almost only street, are frame shops, books stores, restaurants, hotels, and pastry and fruit stores of every stripe. And lots of stores with mounted cinghales where you can get wild boar sausage, wine, cheese and other necessities of la dolce vita. And down by one arched entry to the city (you can just barely see it in one of our photos here) is an eccentric “antique” store. Its merchandise is all over the map, just like the owner. He’s tiny and busy as a bee. We usually talk in Italian but every now and then he surprises us with his English. Something about South Africa? I disremember exactly where he misspent his youth. But what I do remember is pushing in through the clutter and inching my way sideways like a crab past decorative farm tools and glass dishes to the furniture cavern at the back and being kind of bowled over by the lofty, seemingly optimistic, prices. I expressed my “concern” over the cost there and the owner said “oh, you need my ‘cose povere’. We have a whole building full of poor things” He herded us out of his building, locking the door behind us, jumped on a long suffering Vespa and motioned for us to follow him. And we were off. The cinder block building he led us to was just a few blocks away, down the hill. And when he opened the doors it was like Ali Baba’s cave to us. Great, fun and funky stuff, dirt cheap. And choices? You bet. This was a nice size place and full to the rafters. In more, shall we say, our price range. We bought things we loved, he steered us to a cousin who is an aces restorer, we picked new marble tops for all of the pieces. That made them seem to match, we had them all stained to match, and a few months later we had a set of bedroom furniture to be proud of. They look old money but they cost hardly any money. And we got what we wanted.


Below the walled town itself the ground goes almost to sea level – ok, lake level. And there are beaches and ice cream vendors, and ferries to the islands and parks. And a nice drive around the peninsula. Being Italy, it is a bit of circuitous route with a baffling one way / non one way kind of pattern to it. Someone in their department of transportation decidedly thought about this way too long. But along the drive, on a sunny day anyway, the lake can be an almost unnatural Caribbean turquoise blue. And should a storm come up, I’ve seen that that blue can change to black water and white caps in a flash. When we took these pictures it was sort of an in-between kind of day. Just recently along this lake drive there is a new modern crop of sculptures that have sprung up. Their job seems to be to frame views of the lake the way their ancient ancestors in the city up above have framed their views for centuries. You remember Katia the broker of course. The people shown next to the sculpture are Katia’s parents celebrating life, good health and Italy on a summer day. Wouldn’t mind being there with them right now. Ciao, Mario, Ciao, Angela!

See you in Italy,

Stew Vreeland

Marketing, Italian Style

CITTA’ DELLA PIEVE, Umbria– Aren’t Saturdays grand? No work and all that. What a great concept. Wait just a minute we’re on vacation. Everyday is Saturday on vacation. Even better concept.

Lets make a list of what we want to do today: Get up late. Check. Go for leisurely coffee with friends in the piazza. Check. Decide on spur of the moment to go to Citta’ della Pieve for market day.
citta della pieve market

And, thats enough list making for one vacation, we’re in the car and headed down the hill. Its only what? maybe 20 minutes from our house in Panicale so we’ve been to Citta’ della Pieve, lower left of map, a few times and eaten at Piccolo Eatin’ (ok, purists may spell the restaurant: Piccolo Eden) and rented cars from Signore Giorgi at his gas station there. Things like that. But we’ve never just, you know, what IS the Italian word I’m looking for? Hung out. That’s it. We’ve never done that there. Shirt sleeve weather surprising everyone here in late fall, we’re able to stroll from shop to shop up to the city center where the market stalls are set up displaying hardware next to x-rated undie sets, costume jewelry next to collandars and everything in between. All the non necessities of life. Half an hour later we have bags and I can hardly think what is in them. Fuzzy, flowered purses and neon stripped socks figured in there somewhere.


Tried, at 11:30, to get a porchetta pannini. I know they probably are not like health food. But can you smell that? The stand is right there, the guy in the white paper hat and apron is there behind the glass counter, but the pig is gone. Oh poop. So, we trudged down the street, heads hung as low as sunflowers in a winter field. That rejection pushed us into a pasticcieria for a paninni and mineral water break. Ohhhh Shiny objects, sparkly candies, fruit tortes, Sacher (Looks like a big old loaf of dry Tuscan bread but inside it is a super moist and creamy, fruity kind of cake. When the guy behind the counter said it, it sounded like how we’d say “soccer”) More coffee and a plate of those cookies to go, my good man! We’ll be back to Stefania’s pasticceria. We were literally like kids in a candy shop here because well, it IS a candy shop as well as pastry and coffee shop.

citta della pieve carSTREET SEEN

The car shot? That is for Steve. No, not San Francisco Steve, not Palms Springs Steve, not cousin Steve from Maryland, not Aussie Steve. Yet another one. One from Yarmouth. Some days it seems like half the people we know are Steves. And you know, Stew, as a name, isn’t exactly a giant leap away from Steve, is it? Regardless, I just put the Shiny Black, Non-Candy Item in here so Yarmouth Steve would know it was actually all very civilized over here on that side of the pond.

Speaking of that side of the pond, our friend Kiki is there in Panicale right now, so if you see her and Todd, be sure and wave. They will be there through the holidays curled up by the woodstove doing wireless emails on the newly installed broadband. Talk about civilized.

OK, think Happy Holiday thoughts.

See you in Italy,


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Visiting London, eating Italian

LONDON– But are we really in England? When did London go back to being a Roman outpost again? True, I do gravitate to all things Italian, but that’s lucky for me because it would be tricky trying to avoid Life Italian Style in London today. We have many totally Italian tales from Italy but are going to do a couple Italian in England tales on the way. Bear with me? It all makes sense at some point.

It started the minute the car dropped us at our apartment near Marble Arch. (more about Globe Apts in another blog at a later date. Great cheap excellent way to stay in London). We took the aces day flight Boston – London which was almost empty. But yet as soon as the plane lifted off I saw a concerned dad standing in the row ahead of me holding a pristine, unused airsick bag. Holding it with that aw shoooot. . . tooo late look on his face. That blurr going by? Me. Headed as far away from baby Vesuvius as I could get. Stretched out over yet another five seats across, I drifted off to nap time thinking of the joys of travel with children. Luckily for us, we are traveling to visit adult children rather than traveling with and cleaning up after cute baby children. Yes, the Wiley Traveler is all grown up and living in London for the next year or two. Getting her masters in film direction. She needs us once in a great while so she says she’s actually only two thirds grown up. Regardless, she’s a great excuse to come and visit London and once we’re that far we really might as well drop in on Umbria, right? Hung for a sheep, hung for a lamb.

So there we are. Getting off that lazy flight and thinking happy dinner time thoughts. But by the time we got to our apt we were closing in on full on hunger alert and it was starting to get on the late side of dinner time even for a big city like London. We threw our bags in the apt and shot out to the nearest pub. Too late for pub grub. People throwing back pints at the rail were British from the accent, but all the tables we walked by inside and out were full of people speaking Italian. Stepping out of the pub and glancing around like hungry wolves we see a sign of life across the intersection LOOK LEFT oh good an Italian restaurant. And it is open. They kind of look at their watch and say sure, sit. They clearly are going to feed us as their last customers of the day. And we ate like ravenous kings while listening to Italian musak between snatches of Italian conversation happening all around us. Then off to lovely sleep perchance to dream.


Leonardo and Tuscan Interiors
Hey, its morning already. Lets do something totally British. Lets take the tube to South Kensington and go to the Victoria&Albert, OK? Two shows, no waiting. Choices, choices. Shall we see their show about that famous Italian Leonardo or should we see their At Home in Renaissance Italy show? We’d spent all morning at de Gournays looking at wallpapers for a renovation we’re way into so I guess we will pick “Interiors For 400”, Alex. We may do more on de Gournays at some point. For someone with an artistic bent and a new house to redo, this was a very Kid in Candy Store moment.

Finally, that night we did something non-Italian. The Wiley Traveler has scored us tickets to Wicked the musical pre-quel to the Wizard of Oz. If you get a chance – GO. We got last minute tickets and were almost in the last row and it still swept us away like a Kansas twister.

Apuglian PastryThe next thing we knew it was morning yet again. Isn’t that funny/tragic how fast that rolls around when you have your clock set on Goof Off? Well, it was certainly morning. And you know what that means. Find cappuccino. Find now. We stood on our corner and looked left and looked right and Wait a minute what is that? Another bit of Italy dropped right on our doorstep. A ‘Puglian Pastry Place. Full of Puglians no less. And Pastries. Oh, and what pastries they were. Frutti di Bosco tortes sitting behind glass screaming “Pick Me”, “No! Pick ME!”

Isn’t Bosco a funny word for “The Woods”? When I think of a food and the word Bosco, I can’t help think of the funny kids add-it-to-milk-and-stir kind of drink. Wasn’t that an ad icon on Saturday morning cartoons? But Funny name or not, Frutti di Bosco is a wonderment. I want that on pannacotta – when Stefi makes it at Masolino’s in Panicale. And when I can get it on a tasty looking torte sign me up. Like here at La Masseria. Tiny, tart wild berries in red and blue on the lightest pastry almost floated off my fork. Come back here, you pastry you. Nope. All gone. Again with the Italian music in the air and the staff all chattering away in Italian. I swear, these days in London, if you see someone coming at you on the street talking at the top of their lungs and gesturing madly to someone on their cell phone just assume it is another Italian headed off to yet another Italian coffee or food shop. They are everywhere. Case in point.


The Wiley Traveler and her Daniel have the nicest apt in Golders Green. The town is just out of central London but their apt is pure civilization as it is over an ATM, next to a very quiet very convenient train station and from their bay window you can see not one, not two, but three big cappuccino dispensers in the form of Starbucks, Costa, and Café Nero.

totally Italian, really Italian Piazza Express
Side benefit of owning a house in Italy: People COVETwantDESIRE MADLY what you have. And are willing to trade big for it when you are not using it. There are people we’ve found listed in an International house exchange who live in Wiley’s town. They want to trade. In fact, when we call they can’t show us their house as they are in Chianti. We may just consider doing a trade sometime. We’ve done that in the past with a house in the US and it worked swell. Charming town Wiley lives in: Golders Green. (You saw the bit about the number of cappuccino places.) Most of the stores in town are kosher and many people on the streets are the formally dressed in black hats, beards, prayer shawls etc. And yet. There is a Pizza Express. Ubiquitous in London, like Macs in Moline. They aren’t too bad and they are quick and once again we are starved. And even here in the burbs and in a pretty much kosher burb, in a chain pizza joint, the waiters and their friends are all hanging out, folding napkins and nattering away in fast paced Italian. You can run but you can not hide from Italians in London these days.

Daniels Family in Holiday Mode in Harold Wood outside LondonLONDON TIMES

Except maybe at Daniel’s family party in Harold Wood. What happened to the Great British stereotype we are wondering over food, fun and chatter. Where is the famous reserve, the stiff upper lip business? They even challenge Italians to a bit of a contest with hugs and kisses and singing and carrying on and just having a fine time and making darn sure you are having one too. We are so not in Kansas, Dorothy.

Travel tip. Do not assume because 80 year old grandpa George is here filling a glass with whiskey and water and downing it with great regularity that you can do the same. Or accept a beer every time you are generously offered one. We are rank sissy amateurs thrown to the lions here. These are pros. Do not attempt to go where they go.


A scene I’m glad to replay in my mind is the Grandpa and the Spilled Whiskey Moment. He’s neat as a pin, ramrod straight. Was in the service and you can tell. He carefully set his fifth? fifteenth? fiftieth? whiskey & water down next to his chair and someone walking by knocked it over for him. A number of people went Oh, too bad, bad luck that George. And put a new drink in his hand. And a new smile on his face. Then. And this sequence of things is what is important. Then, and only then, did anyone sort out the spill on the carpet. Jolly good. Lesson learned. Life is all about priorities.

non smoking children welcome in London restaurantAND THE SUNDAY TIMES

And yes, yes, yes, ok, we did have a classic Sunday lunch in a pub. Was it the one with the No Smoking Children’s section or was that from the place we went after the play? Regardless, we spent a lot of time in this beyond classic, dark wood, etched glass pub called the Holly Bush in Camden Town.

This is a long-time Wiley Traveler Favorite Pick from her undergrad days. We’ve eaten there with her in the past and will look for any excuse to do so in the future. It was packed to the gills, we got a bit of nook big enough for one tiny table and we sat and sometimes talked and sometimes kept reading the Sunday London Times and watched the show around us. RobertoVision at the Holly Bush in LondonA Roberto Beninni type was behind me with three, count’em three, girls. One had her arm lolled around his shoulders giving him a happy Isn’t This Fun? squeeze every now and then, but when she would go off for more cigarettes or to “the loo” one of her mates (that blonde ponytailed one) would ever so casually slide her hand into the back pocket of Roberto’s stone washed jeans. And just sort of leave it there till her girl friend would show back up. He’d never bat and eye. And of course, neither did we. There was a mirror over our table and so his act was Must See TV for me. I’d read the paper and glance up and get a bit of RobertoVision and read some more. It was swell watching Roberto smoke and talk and talk and smoke and get hugged and patted, and patted some more, his every word producing tickled responses from all three of his adoring crew. They all needed to get a room already. But they settled for our table when we left.