Sunday, September 28, 2014

Firenze: Settling in San Niccolo

A view of Florence from our neighborhood in San Niccolo.
I've returned to the San Niccolo quartiere of Firenze this year. I'm sharing an apartment with Anne, a friend from Norway that I met last year in the hall of this palazzo, where I had rented a different apartment. We're on the 3rd piano (4th floor), and it takes walking up 60 steps to reach our place. But it's lovely and comfortable, and much more affordable than previous rentals in Florence. Outside, there's a lively piazetta, with several cafès, a wine bar, several restaurants, a forno (bakery and baked foods), an alimentari (small grocery), a cartoleria (stationery store), a gelateria, and various other shops. There's also a chiesa (church) nearby: we can see the bell tower from our kitchen window and hear the bells quite clearly when they ring. We're right inside the city walls, and the nearby Porto (exit) leads to Piazzale Michelangelo, high above the city. It's my favorite part of Florence, and I feel lucky to be living in San Niccolo two years in a row.

Waiting in line at the Uffizi for free entrance.
The day after I arrived in Florence, the state museums were open to the public for free, and I took advantage of the opportunity to go the the Uffizi. I arrived about 15 minutes after it opened, but had to wait in line for an hour before getting in. Since I've been there many times before, I know my way around, and visited the areas I most enjoy and the current exhibits, rather than trying to see everything.
Everyone loves Botticelli!
That evening, Anne and I went to dinner (cena) at one of the nearby restaurants. Anne is in Florence working on a Masters project, about the life of an apprentice learning the skills of art restoration. San Niccolo is a haven for artists, and there are many botteghe (artist workshops) here.

Cena with Anne at the nearby Osteria Antica
The next day, I met up with my friend Haruko, and we walked around the centro storico. We met up later with Anne, planning to attend the Festa della Rificolona, which I've attended several times in the past. Haruko introduced us to an interesting cafè in Piazza Repubblica, Cafè Giubbe Rosse, which was once a hangout for the literati of Florence. We stopped in for aperitivi to pass the time before the festa started.
Cocktails at Cafè Giubbe Rosse , with Haruko and Anne
We waited around in Piazza Santa Croce where the sfilata usually starts, then moved on to Piazza Signoria, but didn't see much happening in regards to the festa. However, there was a large crowd in front of Palazzo Vecchio, and we heard rumors that George Clooney was inside. Those rumors turned out to be true, but we never were able to see him. As the evening got darker, children started filling the piazza carrying their lanterns, and piano, piano (slowly) a band arrived. But it was not the New Orleans Jazz Band of previous years. Instead it was a city band, singing a religious song, which seemed more of a dirge than a celebration. Since Anne and Haruko had never attended the festa before, we were all disappointed that this year the parade was more somber than usual. You can read about a more festive version here:

Festa della Rificolona 

and here's a fun video, from 2010:

The ever-present Duomo.
I had a few days to get settled in before heading out with Haruko to visit Pienza and Montepulicano in southern Tuscany.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Montepulciano and San Quirico

Landscape on the way to Montepulciano
Well, the day started out okay, except for the fact that we couldn't catch a bus to Montepulciano until noon. So we decided to backtrack north on the bus route and visit a village called San Quirico. We had seen several hikers on the bus the day before who had stopped in San Quirico, and since we had time to kill, we thought we'd check it out. San Quirico is on the pilgrimage route via Francigena, which goes from France to Rome.

Chuch of Sts. Quiricus and Julietta
San Quirico is a small village, with only 2500 inhabitants, and there wasn't much to see there. We walked around for a few hours, then caught the bus going back towards Pienza that would take us to Montepulciano.

The landscape outside San Quirico.
A view of Val d'Orcia from the bus.
By the time we arrived in Montepulciano, there were ominous dark clouds moving in. We took a bus up to the centro storico of the village, which sits high on a 605-metre (1,985 ft) limestone ridge.
When we first arrived, the streets were filled with people, and we made our way up to Piazza Grande,  the high point of the village. As we strolled the area, it started to rain.

Piazza Grande
Palazzo Comunale (fashioned after Palazzo Vecchio in Florence)
Along the way, we saw an interesting clock tower, the Torre di Pulcinella.  Soon after, the rain was getting worse, and we ducked into a café for lunch.

Torre di Pulcinella, with a working clock at the top.
As soon as we got settled at a table, it started to pour heavily, but we were dry and safe while we ate a leisurely lunch, and drank a quartino (quarter liter) of Montepulciano's famous wine, Vino Nobile.

Cafe Poliziano, where we escaped from the rain.
In fact, most people come to Montepulciano for the wine, and there are numerous shops and cantinas where wine-tasting is available. However, neither Haruko or I are big wine-drinkers, so our sample at lunch was sufficient.

Montepulciano in the rain.
Our time in Montepulciano was hampered by not only the rain, but the bus schedule as well. There was only one option for getting back to Pienza that afternoon, and since it was raining, we didn't have much time to explore. We headed back to the bus station early rather than get drenched by the rain. Che peccato! Hopefully there will be another chance in the future to return and spend more time in this area.

A view of Montepulciano from the bus window.

Monday, September 22, 2014

Pienza, Val d'Orcia

Haruko and I set out for Pienza early one morning, which involved catching several buses: first, a direct bus from Florence to Siena, then a bus across town from Piazza Gramsci to the train station, where we caught another bus to Pienza.  It was a lovely sunny day in Tuscany, and we enjoyed the view from our bus windows.

The countryside of Pienza (grazie a Haruko)
Once we arrived in Pienza, we settled in at the B&B we'd reserved, and then set out to see the village, famous for the beautiful landscape and for pecorino cheese.

Piles of pecorino
Pienza is known as the "touchstone of Renaissance urbanism." In 1996, UNESCO declared the town a World Heritage Site, and in 2004 the entire valley, the Val d'Orcia, was included on the list of UNESCO's World Cultural Landscapes.

Outside the B&B
The village itself is very picturesque, with plants all along the streets: very charming and appealing to the many tourists who find their way here. Since traveling by bus to Pienza can be challenging, its best to visit this area by car. I had tried to get to Pienza twice before, but was stymied by the inconvenient bus schedule. On Sundays, there are no buses at all!

The greenery adds so much to the ambiance of the village.
Piazza Pio II
According to Wikipedia, "Pienza was rebuilt from a village called Corsignano, which was the birthplace (1405) of  Enea Silvio Piccolomini, a Renaissance humanist born into an exiled Sienese family, who later became Pope Pius II. Once he became Pope, Piccolomini had the entire village rebuilt as an ideal Renaissance town. Intended as a retreat from Rome, it represents the first application of humanist urban planning concepts, creating an impetus for planning that was adopted in other Italian towns and cities and eventually spread to other European centers."

Another scenic street.
In the evening, we walked along the passeggiata alla mura, a walkway on top of the city wall, and watched the sunset. There was also a full moon that night, but it was hard to get a good photo of it by the time it was in view.

One of the reasons we came to Pienza was to see the Val d'Orcia, which extends south of Siena to Monte Amiata. It has gentle, carefully cultivated hills, dotted here and there with trees, and picturesque towns and villages. It is a landscape which has become familiar through works of art that show the landscape, from Renaissance paintings to modern photographs. HOWEVER, I was surprised to learn that this landscape was not natural, but man made.

The Val D'Orcia landscape before sunset
The UNESCO site explains that the  landscape of Val d’Orcia was "redrawn and developed when it was integrated in the territory of the city-state in the 14th and 15th centuries to reflect an idealized model of good governance and to create an aesthetically pleasing picture. The landscape’s distinctive aesthetics, flat chalk plains out of which rise almost conical hills with fortified settlements on top, inspired many artists. Their images have come to exemplify the beauty of well-managed Renaissance agricultural landscapes". 

To be honest, I was disappointed to learn that the landscape was not natural, as I had assumed that the rolling hills punctuated by cypress trees were magical because of their natural beauty. Now I know that the trees were planted just so, for artistic effect. But I have to admit, the fact that the land was worked to create this effect in the 1500s is a miracle in itself.

Tramonto a Pienza (sunset in Pienza)

Now that we've seen what Val d'Orcia is like in September, we'd like to return some spring, when the landscape is totally green.

Saturday, September 20, 2014

Procida and Sant'Angelo

Marina di Corricella, Procida
One day I took a hydrofoil for a 20-minute ride from Ischia Porto to the nearby picturesque island of Procida. The houses are painted in pastel colors, giving it a festive and attractive flair, but I quickly found that there is not much to do in Procida. I took a walking tour suggested by Lonely Planet, and it took me less than thirty minutes to walk from one side of the island to the other.  (Of course, that was a short side of the island, rather than the long side.)

Marina Grande, with oleander trees in bloom.
The boat landed in Marina Grande, the bustling port of the village. Few tourists come to Procida, and even fewer stay more than a few hours, but I found it to be worth the effort to visit, simply for the lovely views. I walked up a winding path, past a crumbling castle to see the panoramic views from the highest point of the island.

The view from Castello d'Avalos
On the way back to Ischia, I chose a cheaper hydrofoil, which only had a few people on it, and I was able to stand on the prow for the entire journey, soaking in the sun and the sea.....true bliss!

The view of Marina di Corricella from Piazza dei Martiri.
Posters remind visitors that Il Postino and The Talented Mr. Ripley were partially filmed in Procida.
Back in Ischia, on my last day I took a bus that circles the island, and spent a few hours visiting Sant'Angelo, on the southwest coast of the island. The large scoglio (a rock that emerges from the sea) is evident from the road, while the village itself is hidden from view. From the bus stop, there's a long walk, at least 20 minutes, down to the village.

The marina, with the great scoglio in the background.
There's even less to do here than in Procida, but it's a tranquil spot, where tourists like to sip wine and do some shopping. It's also possible to hire water taxis to the sandy beach, Spiaggia dei Maronti and the thermal waters in the cove of Il Sorgeto (mentioned in a previous post on Negombo).

Piazetta Ottorino Troia
The long walk back to the bus stop.
Both Procida and Sant'Angelo were worth the effort, as they provided a relaxing, beautiful and out of the ordinary experience of island life.

Friday, September 19, 2014

Ischia: Negombo Thermal Water Park

Negombo Thermal Water Park. Piscina termale: 34°C.
One of the main reasons that people come to Ischia is to benefit from the thermal waters. There are a variety of spas, water parks and even caves where people can enjoy the effects of the waters. The island’s natural volcanic activity has been harnessed for its curative powers as far back as 700 BC, when Ischia was first settled and discovered. In addition to the spas, there are also natural phenomena such as hot springs which provide free facilities. The natural hot springs of Sorgeto, for example, are a series of rock-pools in a small bay where the water is naturally heated by the volcanic activity. I hope to explore Sorgeto on my next visit to Ischia.

One of the more popular thermal pools. Seawater pool, ambient temperature.
This year I decided to check out the Negombo Thermal Water park. For 30 euros, you can spend the day exploring twelve different types of swimming pools and baths, each heated to a different temperature. The temperatures of the main pools range from 24° to 36° celsius but there is also a Japanese Labyrinth Bath where you walk through two channels, one that is 18° and one that is 38°C, one after the other, in order to improve circulation. (I found this one painful, as you walk on river pebbles!) There are also swimming pools, a sauna cave and a Turkish bath.

The Japanese Labyrinth
The park is located in Lacco Ameno,  a short ride on the bus from Ischia Porto. Once you get off the bus, there's a descent down a steep staircase, then a tricky 500 meter walk down and around several streets to reach the park. I followed the signs and found my way to the entrance.

The beach before the crowds arrive.
I arrived shortly after it opened and there were only a few other people there at that time, so we literally had the place to ourselves. I made a quick survey of the various parts of the park, and tried out most of the pools before settling in at a few that were the most enjoyable.

Templare: 30° C. These massaging cascades are great for sore necks and shoulders.
Though I checked out the beach when I first got to the park, I neglected to claim a lettino (sunbed), and when I returned a few hours later, they were almost all taken. I ended up in the next to the last row, when I could have had a choice spot in the first row next to the beach.

My spot at the beach. Enough space for five people!
One of the things I enjoyed most about Negombo was the lovely natural setting, which boasts more than 500 varieties of mediteranean and exotic plants.

I love the natural setting at Negombo
Last year I went to another thermal water park, Poseidon, which is located near Forio, on the west side of the island, but I much prefer Negombo. Poseidon is a little too "spic and span" for my taste, and guests are required to wear swim caps at all times. I'm sure I'll return to Negombo in the future. For more info on Poseidon, here's the post I wrote last year:

Ischia: Giardini Poseidon

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Ischia: L'Isola Verde

Castello Aragonese, Ischia Ponte
Though it was raining when I left Naples, by the time I arrived in Ischia Porto, the sun was out in full force. It was only a 10-minute walk to the apartment I'd rented for the week, and I quickly settled in. Last year I stayed at hotel, which has since become overpriced, and decided to look for an apartment this year, which was relatively easy to do on Airbnb. Though I'd been hoping to stay in Ischia Ponte, I found a better deal in Ischia Porto, and am so glad I opted to choose to stay there. I ended up with a spacious apartment, which included a kitchen, a washing machine and a large terrace. Not only that, but it was close to the port, the main shopping street (via Roma), a free beach and a supermarket. From the port, I was able to catch buses to other parts of the island and various types of boats to other ports and islands.

La terrazza
On the first night of my stay, there was a festival going on: the last day of an event honoring the patron saint of the island, San Giovan Giuseppe della Croce. I wrote about this event at length last year, and you can read about it here:
Ischia: Festival, Food and Fireworks

Unfortunately, this year it was rainy during the festa, which literally dampened things, and fewer people were in attendance for many of the events. The town was lit up with bright lights, but several of the events were either postponed or cancelled. I was most interested in seeing the fireworks display at midnight, which I'd missed the year before. Instead, the fireworks went off the next day at 7 pm, and I heard them from three different parts of the island, so they must have been traveling on a boat. But since I'd been unaware of the time and place, I missed out on seeing them again this year. Che peccato!

Piazzale Aragonese
San Pietro Beach, where I spent many hours.
One of the main draws for me in Ischia is the beaches, and the chance to swim in the sea. I spent part of every day at San Pietro beach, either swimming, sunning, or walking along the shore. There were places to buy a ''spot" with a lettino (beach chair) and ombrello, but I opted for the free spaces and a beach towel. For more about beaches and gardens in Ischia, check out this link:

Ischia: Gardens and Beaches

Thursday, September 4, 2014


Mount Vesuvius and the Bay of Naples
I spent two short days in Naples, and it was surprising, as the streets were fairly empty, with the Neapolitans spending their last weekend of the summer at the beach. So I missed out on the chaos and madness that is usually associated with Naples. I'd found a lovely B&B in the historic center, across the street from the Duomo. The place was aptly called Bruno's Historic Home, and had only been open three months. Though it was in a 600 - year - old building, the B&B had modern furnishings, which were more like an upscale hotel, and Vincenzo was an attentive host.

The Cloister of Santa Chiara
I visited a few of the nearby sites, including the Cloister of Santa Chiara, with its majolica tile decorations. It was a cool and quiet spot to relax on a hot Saturday afternoon.

a Gino Sorbillo pizza: mozzarella, artichokes, tomatoes and basil
That evening, I went looking for real Neapolitan pizza, and joined a crowd standing outside Gino Sorbillo's Pizzeria. I was lucky to be among the first wave of people allowed into the pizzeria when it opened at 7 pm. After that, there was a long waiting line the rest of the night. I asked two Japanese girls if I could share a table, as I was worried the waiters would frown on a single person taking up a table for four. They quickly agreed, and we had a nice chat over our pizzas about their travels on holiday from college. Sorbillo had recently won a regional championship for the best pizza, and had banners proclaiming his victory outside the restaurant. Even more amazing, he is one of 21 siblings who are pizza makers in Naples.

Mussels for sale on the street
One place I was eager to see in Naples was the Museo Archeologico Nazionale, which has many of the mosaics, frescoes, silver, and other objects found in Pompeii. Since I'd been to Pompeii last year, I wanted to see these displays, especially the mosaics.

A mosaic panel from Pompeii, Museo Archeologico

A close-up of the mosaic, showing the tiny tesserae.
A fresco painting from a wall in Pompeii, Museo Archeologico

Silver items from Pompeii, Museo Archeologico
There were also several statues taken from the Baths of Caracalla, which I had visited in Rome a few days before coming to Naples. The large and impressive Farnese Hercules is one of the most famous sculptures of antiquity, made in the early 3rd century.

Farnese Hercules, Museo Archeologico

Besides pizza, Naples is also famous for other food, including special types of pastry. I found the renowned pasticceria Scaturchio in the well-known shopping area called Spaccanapoli, and bought a few of the gems, including sfogliatelle, babà and il ministeriale.

Sfogliatelle, Babà, and a ministeriale.

Sfogliatelle means many layers and they resemble leaves stacked on top of each other. They look like seashells when baked. The pastries are then filled with a sweetened ricotta cream and candied orange bits. Babà = is a small cake saturated in rum and sometimes filled with cream. (I got a small version: the usual one is the size of a fist!) The ministeriale is a chocolate medallion filled with chocolate cream and liquor. I also tried arancini (stuffed rice balls which are coated with breadcrumbs and deep fat fried), and potato croquettes for a snack one day. Neapolitans seem to love many types of fried foods. They have places there called a friggitoria (frying place) that I haven't seen elsewhere in Italy.

Presepe items on Spaccanapoli
Another speciality that Naples is famous for is their presepi, referring to a crib or Nativity scene. Many stores are devoted to selling items for creating elaborate presepi. On via San Gregorio Armeno, located in the centro storico, or historic district of Naples, there are hundreds of shops featuring hand-made presepi.

On my last day in Naples, I rode one of the four funiculars (cable railway)  that operate in Naples, taking me high above the city to the Vomero area, where there are panoramic vistas of Naples, Mount Vesuvius, and the Bay of Naples. I headed for Castel Sant'Elmo, which looms high above the city and has spectacular views from every direction.

The Bay of Naples, taken from Castel Sant'Elmo
It was raining the morning that I left Naples, and Vincenzo gave me a ride to the Beverello Port, to catch a hydrofoil boat to the island of Ischia. He drove like a madman through the tiny streets, then weaved in and out of traffic to get me there on time. Otherwise, I'd have a 90 - minute wait for the next hydrofoil. He made it there with a few minutes to spare, helped me with my luggage, and tore off again into traffic. Ciao Napoli!