EUROPE 2011: Florence, Italy

Florence Pitti Palace

We rose early and caught the vaporetto to the rail station, where we boarded the train for Florence. The two-hour ride went fast. We had window seats to enjoy the passing view, but soon became absorbed in conversation with our seat companions. Laure was Italian and her husband Paolo, Argentinian. They were in Italy visiting her family. Before we left the train, we exchanged contact information and promised to look them up whenever we were in Buenos Aires, which was on our list of must-see destinations.

In Florence, we could have walked from the Santa Maria Novella train station to the hotel, a ten-minute trip, but opted for a five-minute cab ride, not realizing our hotel was so close by. My recommendation is if you don’t have heavy bags to carry or wheel, then walk, which is what we did the next day to catch a bus (at the rail station) for our tour of Tuscany.

Florence David

We checked into the Hotel dei Macchiaioli, located in the heart of the historic district, and settled in for our stay. Our room, one of only fifteen, was quiet and nicely appointed, and the hotel staff pleasant and accommodating.

After we unpacked, we walked to the Galleria dell’Accademia for our 4:00 p.m. reservation. There was some confusion as to where we should pick up our tickets. While Dave sorted out the problem, I was dismayed to see the long lines continue to grow. Once we resolved the issue, the man taking the tickets informed us that the 4:00 p.m. group was already inside, so he let us jump the line.

I couldn’t wait to see Michelangelo’s magnificent sculpture David, a Renaissance masterpiece created between 1501 and 1504. The white marble nude, which stands seventeen feet tall, represents the biblical hero David. Armed with only a slingshot, David defeats the giant. The sculpture was moved to the Accademia in 1873 to protect it from damage and later replaced with a replica at the original location, the entrance to Palazzo Vecchio.

Florence Uffizi Gallery

Our first, full day in Florence would be a long one, so we laced up our best walking shoes, grabbed our water bottles, and set out on foot to the Uffizi Gallery to see the many pieces of artwork collected by or commissioned by the House of Medici. The Uffizi has the largest collection of Italian paintings anywhere, and they are displayed on a single U-shaped floor in chronological order from the thirteenth to the seventeenth centuries. Leaving after our two-hour tour of the gallery, we bumped into Laure and Paolo—a delightful surprise. We talked for a few minutes, then said goodbye and headed to our next destination—the Pitti Palace.

Florence Bobili Gardens

The imposing building was the former residence of the grand-dukes of Tuscany and later of the king of Italy. It now houses several important collections of paintings and sculptures, porcelain, and a costume gallery. But as an avid gardener, I was more interested in seeing the magnificent Boboli Gardens, one of the earliest Italian gardens, famous also for its fountains and grottoes. It was impressive, and indeed a living work of art, so we spent hours roaming the lush landscapes and snapping more than our share of photos. We could have stayed longer, but next on our list was the Duomo, the Gothic cathedral named in honor of Santa Maria del Fiore.

Florence Duomo2

My eyes traveled from the red-tiled dome of the Duomo to the facade of the Gothic Revival cathedral, the exterior faced with polychrome marble panels in various shades of green and pink bordered by white. The interior was stark, somewhat plain, and vast. As a minimalist, the austere space appealed to me. I wanted to linger there as well, but with time a constraint, we left for our last destination of the day—a walk over the Ponte Vecchio.

Florence Ponte Vecchio

The Ponte Vecchio is a medieval arched bridge over the Arno River with shops built along both sides. At one time the stores were occupied by butchers, but in 1593 they were replaced with more prestigious occupants—gold merchants. Today, there are gold and silver jewelry boutiques, art galleries, and souvenir shops for your browsing or buying pleasure. We strolled from one end of the bridge to the other, then returned to our hotel to change for dinner. We had reservations at Ora D’aria Ristorante.

The phrase ora d’aria refers to the period when prison inmates are let out into the yard: a blessed reprieve. One of the restaurant’s dining rooms is deep inside, far from the street, and the other underground. We were seated in the former. The menu paid homage to Tuscany, and after perusing the dinner items I couldn’t wait to order.

Ora Florence

The prix fixe offering started with the “end of season meat”—rabbit with mustard—followed by homemade tagliolini. The main was grilled beef with a potato bacon tart. For dessert, we chose a chocolate and white chocolate soufflé and a crème caramel with melon. After this delicious meal, we took a leisurely stroll back to our hotel to rest up for tomorrow’s tour of Tuscany.



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EUROPE 2011: Bellagio, Italy

Bellagio StreetMy memories of our first drive around Lake Como, back in 1994, were still vivid as we packed into our rented Audi and left Milan for the lake region. And we played out those memories in the present as we zigzagged our way through hairpins turns, narrowly avoiding some drivers who preferred to use the center of the road and at high speeds. Although hair-raising at times, the trip was, as always, beautiful. We stopped often to enjoy the scenery and the weather, although scattered clouds hung low over the lake and made picture taking a challenge.

Bellagio, “the pearl of Lake Como,” and definitely one of the most romantic places in the world, sits at the tip of a peninsula where the three arms of the Y-shaped lake meet. The lake is an exceptionally deep glacial lake amid the Italian Alps, which are visible across the water to the north.

When we arrived in Bellagio, we discovered that the street we had taken in 1994 to reach our hotel was now closed to vehicle traffic, so we proceeded until we came to a dead end near the park. Here, the hotel signs directed us to turn left. As we nosed our Audi down the alley-wide road, Dave was skeptical about going any farther because the lane didn’t appear passable for vehicles. So he pulled alongside a parked police car and asked for directions. The officer in the driver’s seat assured us we were headed in the right direction, then offered to escort us to our hotel. As we entered the narrow street, pedestrians plastered themselves against the walls of the buildings or stepped into the recessed doorways of storefronts to allow our car to pass.

Bellagio hotelWe made it to our hotel without harming any of the locals or tourists and parked in the lot of the Grand Hotel Villa Serbelloni. Dave thanked our police escort, and then we headed to the lobby to check in. The moment we crossed the threshold, I was surprised, and a bit disappointed, to see that the hotel had undergone a major remodeling. Gone were all traces of the modernist decor I had seen during our earlier visit. Now the interior had a very traditional European look which I, a minimalist, categorize as opulent. Frescoes and paintings adorned the walls and ceilings, antique Persian carpets covered the floors, Murano crystal chandeliers hung from the coffered ceilings, and grand marble staircases led to the upper floors.

After we checked into our room and unpacked, we stopped to marvel at our lake view, then left for dinner at Barchetta Terrazzo. I loved wandering this charming hillside village with its cobblestone byways and multitude of stone steps that lead to the top of the hill. There, if you look back, you can catch glimpses of sparkling blue water tucked between the narrow spaces of century-old buildings with colorful facades in shades of warm rose, peach, sunshine yellow, and vibrant orange. Tomorrow, we would linger longer in these picturesque lanes, tour the classy boutiques, and savor an espresso at an outdoor café on the waterfront while we basked in the warmth of the afternoon sun. But now dinner awaited—grilled lake fish served with orange risotto.

The next day, fortified after a hearty breakfast, we set out for some retail sightseeing . . . okay, some buying. Our first stop was a T-shirt shop. So many great choices were available, but we settled on two each as we still had three weeks of potential shopping ahead and only so much room in our suitcases.

Azelea shopOur next stop was Azalea. Since 1968 the store has sold silk accessories (scarves, ties, foulards, and bags) strictly from Italy. They also sell high-quality men’s clothing (shirts, sweaters, polo shirts, and T-shirts) and leather accessories “rigorously made in Italy.” I had my sights set on a few scarves and was extremely pleased with my choices and the quality of the silk. The staff was knowledgeable and helpful but not pushy.

We spent the rest of the morning and afternoon browsing the shops, then hiked a steep hill with well over 250 stone steps in hopes of seeing a sweeping view of the town and lake. But when we reached the top, both of us a bit winded, we found the gate to what looked like a park padlocked. In the distance we could see a sliver of blue water. Undeterred, we continued up the embankment, still seeking a lake view, but to no avail. When we crested the rise, we came down through a quiet residential neighborhood, enjoying the warm day and the exercise as we headed for the waterfront. There, we passed an hour strolling along the lakeshore before returning to our hotel to clean up for dinner.

Bellagio La PuntaI had read varying reviews of Ristorante La Punta, but we decided to make our own determination. The waitstaff seemed a tad perturbed that we had arrived precisely at opening, even though we had made reservations months in advance. But they seated us on the outdoor patio and our drinks came in due course. Fish lovers, we again ordered the lavarello (lake fish), but on this occasion broiled in butter and sage. A good Italian white wine, a beautiful lake view, and a balmy Bellagio evening . . . who could ask for more?

Up early the next morning, I slipped on a light jacket to ward off the gentle, cool breeze blowing off the lake, then climbed the rise to attend Mass at St. James Basilica. Few people stirred at this hour, and I felt as though I had the village to myself. Approximately two hundred are full-time residents of Bellagio, but the town has nine hundred beds for tourists. With no one to block my photographs altogether or involuntarily include themselves in my pictures, I stopped halfway up the steep incline for a photo op before continuing on to the church.

St James BasilicaBuilt in the 900s AD, the basilica’s distinct Lombard Romanesque exterior is as captivating as its gold-accented interior, which was precisely what caught my eye the moment I entered the church: the gilded tabernacle and the fresco-adorned apse (the wall behind the altar).

After Mass, I walked briskly down the hill toward the hotel, famished and ready to tackle the sumptuous buffet breakfast laid out in the grand Salone Reale. When I arrived, Dave was polishing off his second espresso. He reminded me to eat light since we had lunch plans, so I nursed a second cup of tea rather than take a second tour of the buffet table. Then we left the dining room to pack and check out, ready for the drive to Verona where we had lunch reservations at Villa del Quar.


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Europe and Bellagio

October 1994: Dusk was falling when we left Zermatt, Switzerland, for Italy. By the time we reached our hotel in Bellagio, it was too dark to see anything outdoors. However, I do recall being duly impressed with the interior decor, with its white marble and lavender and purple accents. Since our visit, the hotel has been remodeled and the contemporary touches and colors are gone, replaced with a more old-world decor.

We woke to a sunny, clear morning with a beautiful, panoramic view of Lake Como from the balcony of our room. Stuffed after a lavish brunch buffet, we hiked the narrow streets of Bellagio to shop for Murano glassware and a few souvenirs.

In the afternoon, we took a nail-biting drive around the lake with its narrow roads, hairpin curves, steep inclines, and heavy traffic. We didn’t worry about the road conditions as much as the inexperienced drivers, who often came around a sharp corner in the middle of the road.

From Bellagio, we drove through the Italian Alps to St. Moritz, where we lunched, then wound our way into Innsbruck for a day of shopping and sightseeing. Up early the next morning, we left Innsbruck for Füssen, in Bavaria, to tour King Ludwig II’s three castles: Hohenschwangau, Neuschwanstein, and his final retreat, Linderhof.

In Füssen we backtracked to the Autobahn and zipped into Munich to meet friends for Oktoberfest, staying long enough to catch up over a beer and brat, and to buy a souvenir beer mug before we sped down to Salzburg, Austria, for the night.

The next day, we toured Hohensalzburg Castle, wandered through Mirabell Palace and Gardens, and visited Mozart’s birthplace. Later in the day, the tea hour, we lingered over an espresso and a generous slice of Sachertorte (chocolate cake with apricot jam and dark chocolate icing).

Early the next morning, we left Salzburg for a two-day visit to Vienna, both of us ready to put down stakes for a while after admitting we had packed too much sightseeing into our three-week trip.

In Vienna, we started our first day with a visit to St. Stephen’s Cathedral. At noon, we stopped at the Hoher Markt Clock, a large glided clock designed in 1914, to watch the parade of all the figures and to listen to the melodic music that accompanied the procession. Afterwards, we toured the Imperial Palace (Hofburg).

On day two in Vienna, due to a misunderstanding by our hotel’s concierge, we missed out on our original plan to take a boat ride down the Danube to Budapest. By the time the matter had been cleared up, our boat had already departed. However, many years later, we would visit Budapest and for much longer than just one day. So day two began at Belvedere Palace and a visit to St. Charles’s Church, completing the evening with a boat ride on the Danube.

When we left Vienna, we drove along the Danube to Melk until the road detoured from the river. Here, we veered inland and sped onto the Autobahn for Passau, Germany. I wanted to see where the three rivers converged: the green Inn, the black Ilz, and the blue Danube. History says the rivers brought wealth to Passau. I saw only beauty as the three flowed into one.

Hugging the Danube, we left Passau for Regensburg, the Danube River’s oldest  medieval town. First on our sightseeing agenda was the ancient Stone Bridge with its sixteen curving arches, but we soon discovered that this charming town had a lot more to offer, so we set off on foot to explore. After leaving the bridge, we paused to snap pictures of the clock tower before we entered the city center. Our destination? The Cathedral of St. Peter (Trierer Dom). On our afternoon jaunt back to our hotel, we came across Historisches Eck and made reservations for dinner. Our five-course meal was superb.

We said goodbye to Regensburg and drove into Würzburg, interested in seeing the Residenz, the former residence of the prince bishops. While my husband lingered to admire the architecture of the building, I toured the court gardens, my sights set on the orangery. Next, we headed for the Festung Marienberg, the fortress with stunning views of the town. We saved the afternoon for a long stroll across the Alte Mainbruecke, pausing on the bridge to enjoy the vistas: the fortress high on the hill surrounded by vibrant green vineyards, the melody of the river as it constantly flowed below us, and the sight of the medieval town itself. Warmed by the afternoon sun, we wound our way through the crowds of tourists and locals, who were sipping wine or beer while listening to the musicians play. I stopped to take pictures at each of the twelve statues: two kings and ten saints that were added to the bridge by the prince-bishops from 1724 to 1746.

Road-weary on our last day, we checked into our hotel in Frankfurt and flew home the following day. My first long trip through Europe was fun, and I would return many years later, especially to Bellagio, where part of a future Darcy McClain novel will be set.


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