dimanche, octobre 22, 2006

Florence, Tuscany and a bit of Trento

Italy is a beautiful country in general and one usually eats well there. Tuscany has become quite famous in the past decade as European and American politicians and Movie Stars seem to spend much of their vacations there, so I guess that I was pretty happy to be able to say that me too I've just spent 3 weeks this summer hanging around Tuscany.

We drove to Florence from Stuttgart, passing through Austria and Northern Italy. It was raining as we left Germany, but as we entered Italy, the rain literally stopped and the sun came out. Wonderful, a promising start to our vacation. The only problem was that the Italian stretch of the journey seemed to lack in rest areas, so one had better not need to stretch one's limbs or take a pee too often when driving. Also we were careful to stay in the middle of the road as the barriers dividing the highway into the 2 directions tended to be extremely rusty and would possibly give polio to the car if we should be careless enough to scrape it against them.

We spent our first 10 nights in a 4-star hotel (Villa Stanley) in Sesto Fiorentino very near Florence. It was the Villa of an American woman who lived there in the 1800s and had extensive grounds, with a swimming pool, restaurant, tennis courts etc. The rooms were spacious and nicely decorated, though for a night or 2 there was air in the pipes and they sang through the night which meant that we all had little sleep. Breakfast was a buffet with quite a spread, but the juice was from a Tetra Pak and the bread like everywhere else in Tuscany has no salt in it (because the dishes in general are usually very very salty).

We were contented for a few days and then started getting bored. Hubby left for his Italian classes in Florence every morning and left me with the 3 kids AND his mother. We had nowhere to go and were pretty much left to our own devices. And nobody could really swim in the pool before noon as it was nicely shaded from the sun, meaning that even in August it was too cold to swim in it. It wasn't very fun spending the morning staring at the MIL who didn't want to go out and didn't want to stay in the hotel either (?)...

In the afternoons though when the hubby's back, we would venture into the region, driving to the dirty and narrow beach in Livorno (good seafood - but not enough for a town by the sea), to Pisa (horrible restaurants - real tourist traps - but the Leaning Tower's simply beautiful), to Siena (worth a visit, and they speak the best Italian there), San Gimignano (they have 2006's World Gelato Champion and the town's really pretty), Monteriggioni (very pretty and the restaurant Il Pozzo serves very good food including wild boar specialties), Fiesole, Prato...But we hadn't had the time to visit Montepulciano (for the wine) though.

I like Tuscanian food. It's rustic, filling and very predictable. After a week, we could walk into any restaurant and order blindfolded. And lest anyone should assume that we only went to tourist traps, let me assure you that we've consulted Hubby's Italian superiors in the FIAT Group, his Italian teachers, his Italian colleagues, the famous Michelin Red Guide, Fodor's and the Lonely Planet...and ate out every single day. For a country where salaries are not as high as in Germany or the UK, we found eating out pretty steep. I think we've chalked up more than 4500 Euros in restaurant bills and that's excluding breakfast and the daily gelato. Anyway, those who've eaten well in Italy know that Torino and Milano and the regions near France serve the best Italian food. Tuscany has other charms to offer.

So we usually start a meal with a soup (though I try to avoid those filled with pieces of bread - a Tuscanian peculiarity), a salad (they are good with them, I'm very fond of their seafood ones) or a pasta (my absolute favourites are Spaghetti alle vongole and Fusilli lunghi al arrabbiata), followed by pizza, meat (the absolute must-try is the Bisteca alla Fiorentina - though please don't kill the meat like the British by having it too well-done. It is best eaten really rare. I also like to eat sliced steak with rucola/rocket salad and parmesan cheese slices.) or Fish (not much variety, but the salt-baked seabass/branzino or grilled soles/sogliata are usually very good).

The main courses are very rarely accompanied by any vegetables and they are often so salty you have to eat them with the saltless bread, which needless to say is very bad for me who's supposed to cut down on my carbohydrates. Unless they have a really nice-looking Tiramisu, we usually just go for gelato (Coronas in Florence was my favourite, I love its pink grapefruit and mandarin orange ice cream flavours) after dinner as the desserts were often pretty unimaginative. But the gelato was great, we could just live on gelato alone.

I must make special mention though of our 4-star hotel in the heart of Florence where we spent 12 nights in : the Hotel Kraft near the American Embassy. It has a roof-top pool with a view of Florence to kill, very attentive staff, lovely-rooms with amazingly high ceilings and an excellent roof-top restaurant (that offers cooking classes by the way) with a really innovative menu (compared to the rest in the region) filled with different types of fish and meat dishes. Wish we had eaten there more often.

Florence is a really pretty city and one can see that it used to be really rich and important (still is, I guess). August is a great time for us to visit as the locals were all gone (less crowded) and we only had to squeeze with the other tourists (many many French). The city was really accessible on foot and most of the museums and restaurants were within walking distance. The shopping was quite interesting too, Italian women have good taste in fashion in general and this was reflected in what the shops had to offer.

The only thing that bothered me was the way fake Louis Vuitton and Dior bags, Chanel sunglasses etc were being sold everywhere in the streets of the city by African men. The Police and their cars came by very very often (there were policemen and cameras in every street corner, talk about Police State) and those counterfeit goods sellers would just wrap up their stuff and stand aside until the cars moved on and then get on with whatever they were doing before. I guess that checking identity papers became unnecessary ever since like the Spanish and the Italians carried out a few mass regularisation exercises for their illegal immigrants, though being part of the EU, I would except them to have more rigour and respect for the intellectual property rights of the French luxury industry.

On our way back to Stuttgart, we stopped at Trento. The 4* Grand Hotel Boscolo we stayed in was lovely, situated in the heart of town near the restau-rants and the main sights (pretty buildings). We loved the dinner we had in this simple restaurant near the hotel, probably one of the best we've had in 3 weeks. Grilled seafood, pizza, linguine with scampi...really good and reasonably-priced, Trento's a surprise discovery. There is a river near the town which allows one to do water sports like white water rafting and kayaking, so this is a place to look into for a longer stay another time.

All in all it was a good trip and we've enjoyed ourselves. Which is good considering that we may just be moving to Milano or Torino next year. I am going to enjoy mastering Italian cooking. I'm already having some ideas about octopus.
PS : The photos will come in bits and pieces as I have difficulty downloading down - as usual.
(Picture above is Siena and that's my mom in the middle. Joined us in our last week.)

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