Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Bottega (n.): workshop

Last fall, soon after I booked my apartment along the Arno, I decided to subscribe to The Florentine, in the hope that it would connect me more deeply to local news and events. Week after week, I read an eclectic mix of articles on everything from soccer matches to organic farming, and picked up odd phrases here and there in a regular column on the Florentine dialect, even though I couldn’t imagine I would ever be sfavato in Italy, which I was told meant “bored to death, unmotivated, unenthusiastic.” I happily scanned the ads for shops that catered to the needs of ex-pats, who by November were searching for an American-style Thanksgiving dinner, and I even perused the classifieds that sought English-speaking tutors and nannies. Shortly after Christmas, though, there was one story in particular that caught my eye. It focused on the San Lorenzo market, a place I had explored more than once.

In an effort to open the piazza in front of the basilica and to make room for a new electric bus route, vendors were being pushed into streets and alleyways near the Mercato Centrale. This was an aggressive and controversial move on the part of the mayor, Matteo Renzi, a charismatic man who within months would be tapped as the next Prime Minister of Italy. For years, tourists had flocked to the market for its inexpensive scarves and leather handbags, but there were few controls on the goods that were offered for sale, and most were poor quality imports that competed with the real “Made in Italy” products of local artisans, many of whom have small workshops on the south side of river, tucked away from the city’s historic center.

Sitting here now, in a plush green armchair in my tiny apartment, I’m thinking again about that article and the debate it provoked, and about Luigi Barzini’s warning to foreigners that “real life” is a world apart from the Italy of their fevered imaginations.

I’ve decide to devote the entire day to a unique challenge. I want to explore Florence through the eyes of its artisans and I’ll do that without ever crossing the river. There will be no stroll across the Ponte Vecchio today, past the glittering shop windows of jewelers and goldsmiths, and no walk down Via de’ Tornabuoni to observe the Spring fashions of Gucci and Ferragamo.

I’ve made the charming, cobbled streets of the Oltrarno my temporary home. I figure it’s time I get to know my neighbors.

The name Oltrarno simply means the “other side” of the Arno River, the side that is less explored by tourists who rarely venture beyond the Boboli Gardens and the imposing façade of the Pitti Palace. After sipping a morning cappuccino at Open Bar on Via dei Bardi, it’s there that I begin, in a large, sloped piazza under a clear blue sky.

I walk first into the bookbinding and stationary shop of Giulio Giannini e Figlio, which has operated from the same location since 1856, selling a form of art that dates back centuries further, that of marbleizing handmade paper. There are crowded shelves of carta marmorizzata, covering everything from photo albums to pencils to picture frames. I stand there for a few minutes, transfixed by the swirls of color that spread across the page like rows of scallop shells, and I find it marvelous that submerging a piece of paper into a liquid bath with floating dots of ink can produce patterns that are, at once, so carefully controlled and yet so strikingly unique.

I follow along the sidewalk further and enter another shop, Pitti Mosaici, where I’m greeted warmly by the shopkeeper, who introduces herself as Elenora. The showroom is a stunning space, filled with fine examples of pietra dura, an Italian phrase that literally means “hard rocks,” but translates more gracefully into the art of polished stone inlay. The Medici were obsessed with pietra dura and the work of the Renaissance artists they supported can be seen all over Florence, from the Palazzo Pitti and the Palazzo Signoria, to the Medici Chapels near the San Lorenzo market. Here in the 21st century, the tradition continues. There are large tables covered in all manner of fish and flowers, and tiny plaques inset with local landmarks, including the Ponte Vecchio and Brunelleschi’s red-tiled dome.

I glance about and my eyes catch hold of a beautiful circular mosaic of a bird with a cobalt blue head, perched on a delicate pink rose and set against a black marble background as dark as night. It’s a gorgeous piece, probably dating to the 1920s, she says, but I look at the price and know I can’t possibly afford it. I just can’t. We talk further, though, about this and that, and when I mention that I have a travel blog, Elenora graciously offers to take me on a tour of their workshop, which is just around the corner.

She introduces me to a trio of friendly artisans who are slicing and filing and polishing slivers of marble in order to fit them precisely together, like the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. One man is working from a pencil sketch of a rooster, while another is occupied by a pair of cherries hanging from a vine. The last is concentrating on an elaborate church, and I recognize it immediately as Santa Maria del Carmine, where I once made a pilgrimage to see a stunning cycle of Renaissance frescoes in the Brancacci Chapel. The sections of stone he has chosen have a subtle gradation of color that render the scene nearly three-dimensional, and as I look across the table at the painting he’s used as an inspiration, at his pencil sketches that translate those shapes into outlines, and finally at the stone inlay he’s produced, I am humbled. I can’t help but think that I will never in my life be as skilled at something as this man is in his art. And he’s still learning, she says. After twenty years, he’s still learning.

Careful not to disrupt their work for too long, I thank Elenora and the men I’ve met for their indulgence of time and make my way back into the alley and into yet another shop, that of a silversmith named Donato Zaccaro. As I browse the glass cases, Donato’s wife asks if I would like to see the workshop in back. Of course, I say, and she takes me to meet Donato himself, who is fashioning a large monogram of the letter “D.” Bashfully, I explain that it’s the first letter of my name, and Donato jokes that it’s his, too. His smile is infectious. He shows me pieces of paper on which he’s penciled the letters, and how he transfers the design onto wood using a series of nails, around which he bends a silver wire into shape. As he pounds the “D” flat and holds it up for my approval, I decide to buy it as a souvenir, knowing that by the time I leave Florence in a few weeks’ time, my suitcase will be filled with them, including a lovely paper picture frame and a mosaic of the duomo. I’ve been making a mental list all morning.

After an obligatory break for gelato at Gelateria della Passera, there are other artisans to visit, and they fill my afternoon happily. I explore a bead and embroidery workshop, a print maker and engraver, and a bespoke shoemaker, but my favorite of the afternoon is Giuliano Ricchi and his wife Maria, whose shop is tucked away in a quiet courtyard near the lively Piazza San Spirito. They are gracious and kind and within minutes Guiliano offers to takes me on a private tour to show me the equipment he uses to craft charm bracelets and metal boxes and business card holders, which he sells to luxury retailers abroad, including Neiman Marcus and Dior.

By the time I leave, my feet are tired and my stomach is growling for dinner. I sink into a seat at Trattoria la Casalinga, where a line is growing despite the early hour, and I’m grateful when I see that a carafe of good house wine costs less than bottled water. Wine it is!

The crostini with garlic and olive oil, and the spaghetti al pomodoro I order are equally inexpensive, but tasty and comforting in their simplicity of ingredients.

As I stroll back towards Borgo San Jacopo and stop to the admire the 16th century fountain on the corner of Via dello Sprone—the one by Buontalenti with the grotesque mask and the large fluted bowl, a well-loved landmark on the Oltrarno—I think about what a nice day it’s been. Through all of my wanderings, I’ve etched these streets into my memory, and the short walk back to my apartment feels like going home.

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Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Giardino (n.): garden

Years ago, on my first trip to Florence, I ventured into the Boboli Gardens. It was late in the day and I had already walked up the hill to Piazzale Michelangelo and back. My feet were tired and my brain overwhelmed by hours spent in churches and museums, absorbed in the art of Giotto, Fra Angelico, and Piero della Francesca. I had thought a stroll through the gardens would be a respite for my body and my mind, but I was wrong. It was a hilly place, situated in a large triangle between the Palazzo Pitti, Forte Belvedere and Porta Romana, and the challenging terrain—which was not apparent on the tourist map I carried with me—wore me out almost as soon as I arrived.

This morning, some six years later, I’m back to try again, this time on a fresh pair of legs before the heat of the day descends. I use my Amici degli Uffizi card to pick up tickets at the entrance to the Palazzo Pitti, and then move through the cool shade of the courtyard, into the sunlit space beyond. There’s an airy amphitheatre fanning out and up the hill, anchored at the center by an Egyptian obelisk. I follow the path up and reach the terrace of the Neptune Fountain, where the god of the sea has his trident in hand, as if to pierce a fish out of the murky green water below.

Up and up I go, toward the statue of Abundance, until I reach the Porcelain Museum and the adjoining Garden of the Cavaliers, where a row of pink roses are clinging to the iron railing at the edge of the terrace. I stop to catch my breath and survey the surroundings. The imposing Palazzo Pitti is to my back, and the red roofs of Florence lie beyond. Ahead is a yellow valley dotted with old palazzos, olive groves, and cypress trees. I feel as though I’ve traveled a long way in a few steep steps. I’ve wandered no further than the Medicis’ back yard, and yet as if by magic, I’ve been transported from the frenetic streets of the city, to the languid countryside of Tuscany, where I’d very much like to stay for a while.

The morning hours turn to midday and then slip pleasantly into early afternoon. I stroll to the Kaffeehaus and an elegant terraced garden overlooking the city, then through a shaded avenue of cypress, flanked by statuettes, all the way down to an island pond near the Porta Romana gate, where an artist has set up an easel to capture the scene, much as John Singer Sargent did more than a century ago.

By the time I reach the Lemon House and the Buontalenti Grotto, I’m ready to head indoors. It’s been a memorable morning, lounging here much as Henry James did in the late 19th century, and it’s done much to change my initial impression. I think of Versailles for a moment, and about the manicured gardens of grand country estates in Britain. I suppose he was right about the Italian manner, “with flowers rather remarkably omitted, as too flimsy and easy and cheap, and without lawns that are too smart, paths that are too often swept and shrubs that are too closely trimmed.” Indeed, there is something wild and shabby about the Boboli Gardens, “here and there a dried-up fountain, and everywhere a piece of mildewed sculpture staring at you from a green alcove.” But the end result, as Henry James wrote, is an “irresistible mixture of nature and art” that rather inclines one to daydream.

I glance at my watch and head back the pebbled path. There are a multitude of museums to discover within the complex of the Palazzo Pitti, as well as a special exhibit of Jacopo Ligozzi’s work, including some fantastical naturalist and botanical drawings that has just opened in the Palentine Gallery. It’s only when a text message arrives on my phone that I break my gaze from the Raphaels, Titians, and Caravaggios.

Some months ago, a reader from the Midwest had contacted me through my blog to ask for help in planning a special trip to Italy with his son. As it turns out, we’ve landed in Florence at the same time and he’s graciously invited me to join them for a sunset limousine tour of the city. They’re staying at the Hotel Davanzati on Via Porta Rossa, with my old friends Fabrizio and Tommaso, who’ve booked our ride through their sister company, I Just Drive, and so I happily agree to meet them there at 7:30, relishing the chance to catch up.

By 8:00, we’ve settled into the back of a Bentley limousine, with an interior far wilder than I could have imagined. There are curved leather seats in stripes of gray, pink, and blue, a thumping audio system, and a minibar awash in neon light. When we arrive at Piazzale Michelangelo, my kind benefactor offers to take my picture, and I strike my best “mine, all mine” pose while leaning against the door, my arm stretched wide across the roof of the car.

It’s an extravagance being here—arriving by limousine to watch the sun set over a glorious city, both brimming with history and the vitality of youth—but I’m grateful most for an evening of unexpected companionship. As a solo traveler, I’ve come to appreciate these fleeting encounters, and whether I ever meet this generous father and his charming son again, I’m glad we crossed paths here on such a lovely summer’s night.

After a glass or two of prosecco on the return drive to Piazza della Repubblica, we joke that we should to stand up through the moon roof like Richard Gere in the movie Pretty Woman, but our driver, Leonardo, says that they’ve had to seal it off because people were throwing bottles out the window and into the street. “Italians can’t be trusted with anything nice,” he says, for a moment I’m reminded once again of the British tourist with the walking stick I met on the way to Fiesole.

Ecco l’Italia. That’s Italy!

By the time we part and I wish my new friends well on the remainder of their trip, the sky has darkened into a velvet black. It’s tempting to stay out late, walking the streets or listening to Claudio on the bridge, but it’s been a busy day and I still need to pack. I’m about to go on a vacation from my vacation. In the morning, I’m taking a train west in pursuit of palm trees and the Ligurian sea.

Thursday, June 5, 2014

Rinascita (n.): rebirth, revival

In October 2011, flash floods from a vicious storm devastated one of my favorite little corners of the world—the Cinque Terre, a hamlet of tiny fishing villages perched on the rocky cliffs that line the southern coast of the Italian Riveria.

Vernazza, in particular, was hit hard by the mud slides that followed. Just a year before, with a belly full of pesto and focaccia bread, I had snapped a postcard view of the town on a warm summer’s night, a memory fit for a daydream. The following winter, while knee deep in snow and ice back home in Vermont, I found that if I closed my eyes I could summon the bells of the lemon yellow church of Santa Margherita d’Antiochia, and I could imagine the rows of pastel houses that fold back from the snug harbor, watched over by the ancient Doria Castle and a fleet of small boats bobbing in the teal green sea.

The storm that fall brought a rude awakening. A headline in The Telegraph in London announced: “Villages All but Wiped Out as Storms Batter Italy’s ‘Cinque Terre.’” The scale of the disaster, they said, was “unimaginable.” A raging river of water and sludge had poured down the steep and narrow streets, which acted like a miner’s sluice, burying the towns in as much as thirteen feet of debris. The harbor in Vernazza, so stuck in my mind, was left silted and dry, its boats splintered like matchsticks.

Rick Steves, a long-time champion of the region in his guidebooks, said it was “as if nature had murdered someone I loved.” He was right. I felt it, too.

Nearly three years have passed and I’m eager to go back, but nervous, too, of all that has changed. Literature is replete with the notion that you can’t go home again. I’m about to find out, but first I’m having a lazy morning at the apartment in Florence, finishing chores of laundry and dishes. I pack a small suitcase with rolling wheels and listen to its rhythmic sound on the sidewalks and cobbled streets all the way to Santa Maria Novella station, where I’m booked on the 12:30 train to Monterosso al Mare. The journey is an easy one, with a change at Pisa Centrale, and before long I find myself pressed against the window of the train, excited by the quick snatches of sun and sea, as we hurl through long, dark tunnels towards the station.

It’s three in the afternoon when I step out into the sun and onto the platform. A row of palm trees frames my view of the turquoise sea, and I pause for a moment to breathe in the air and to enjoy the energy of the tourists crowding the New Town promenade. Instinctively, I turn left, walking past symmetrical rows of beach umbrellas, and a sign (in English) that reads: “Homemade Sangria, Experience the ‘Drunk Ass’ Bucket.” I push onward, through the tunnel, and when I emerge into the quaint streets of Old Town, I see a dark-skinned man in a fedora, playing the accordion. I toss a few coins in a basket and then bend down to pat the belly of his dog, who is napping lazily at his feet. He nods at me and grins widely, and with that simple gesture, I know that life goes on and that people are resilient.

The Cinque Terre is alive and well.

I check into my room at the Hotel Margherita, where the tangerine stucco and green shutters look just as I remember. In fact, I settle into the same room as before, although the fragrant garden of basil and lemon trees I remember so well has been replaced by tomatoes and oranges. I kick back on the bed and think about how to spend my time. Over the next few days, I intend to head north, by train and by boat, to a collection of small seaside towns along the Italian Riveria— to Rapallo, Santa Margherita Ligure, Camogli, San Fruttuoso, and Portofino. But tonight, I long to see Vernazza.

The train ride is short, and the summer’s night long with possibilities. I stroll down to the harbor to admire the view, and the rows of pastel houses that slide toward the sea like a melting dish of rainbow sherbet, but before long my stomach is begging for dinner.

Remembering Rick Steves’ colorful review, I decide to try Il Pirata delle Cinque Terre, a casual eatery owned and operated by a pair of Sicilian brothers name Gianluca and Massimo. To be fair, the food itself is nothing memorable, but the conversation certainly is! At the table next to mine, a woman from Boston is enduring a lecture on how “real” cannolis are made with ricotta. Nearby, an American couple has dared to order the chocolate cannoli, which earns a forceful rebuke. It seems I have stumbled not into the “Cannoli Twins,” but rather into the “Cannoli Nazis.” By the end of my meal, I’m half tempted to order the chocolate myself, to see if Massimo’s head might explode—I truly think it would—but I haven’t the heart.

It’s nine by the time I arrive back in Monterosso al Mare. The sky is fading into a dusky pink, and the colorful chairs and umbrellas that line the beach have been folded away, standing guard like sentries awaiting the dawn.

Friday, June 6, 2014

Questa è la vita (exp.) – This is the life!

It’s a beautiful day to be on the Italian Riviera. As I walk to the train station in Monterosso al Mare on my way to the pretty seaside town of Rapallo, there is a brilliant blue sky overhead, a warm sun on my shoulders, and the scent of roses in the air, mixed with the aroma of freshly baked focaccia bread. All I can say is: Questa è la vita. This is the life!

It takes me little more than half an hour to travel north less than twenty miles at a cost of just eight Euros, but the difference in my surroundings is striking. There are similar rows of spindly palm trees and buildings awash in Ligurian pastels, but the architecture is decidedly more refined than in the villages of the Cinque Terre. The windows are hung with the same green Plantation shutters that swing open to let in the light, or close for shade while tilting out to tempt in the sea breeze, but here there are ornate pediments above the window frames. Some are in molded plaster, while others are grandly painted in the fashion of trompe l’oeil.

My feet take me instinctively the Lungomare Vittorio Veneto, a wide and lovely promenade lined with park benches and ice cream stands and colorful umbrellas, anchored at its far end by an old stone castle known, appropriately, as Castello sul Mare, or Castle-on-the-Sea, which my guidebook tells me was built in the mid-16th century to ward off pirates. I wander towards it to take a closer look and it’s then that I see her.

There is a woman in a strapless bikini. Her feet are pressed into the pebbles on the beach and gentle waves are lapping at her ankles. She’s reading a newspaper and judging from the expression on her face, the article is terribly funny because as I stand and watch, her eyes crinkle at the corners and her smile approaches a laugh. I realize something then. What strikes me most—though it shouldn’t—is her age. Her gray hair is nearly white, and it’s pushed back from her face in waves that are reminiscent of a style women used to achieve with pins and curlers half a century ago. She is not young, her figure is not perfect, and she does not care. She is basking in the warmth of the summer sun, and enjoying the cool of the water between her toes.

I love her. I want to be her.

I struggle to remember when I last wore a bikini. It was sometime in my awkward teenage years, just before a growing self-consciousness drove me into a one piece with a flouncy skirt. Was it 1982, the year my family drove south to Florida on vacation? Or was it on one of our many trips to Chincoteague and Assateague Islands in Virginia? No matter. It was a long time ago.

As I walk back along the promenade, past the Chiosco band stand in all its Baroque glory, I think of my hotel room back in Monterosso al Mare and of my luggage stacked neatly in the corner. I buy a dish of gelato and sink into a park bench facing the harbor. I didn’t pack a swimming suit. I spent more than a year planning this trip. I knew I was coming to the Italian Riviera and it didn’t once occur to me to pack a swimming suit. All of the sudden, I feel silly.

I stand and stretch my legs, make my way to the ferry terminal, and buy a ticket. It’s time to push on. I could take the train, of course, but if I cannot swim, why not sail on a day like this?

It’s a short ride on a crystalline sea that brings me to Santa Margherita Ligure. It’s a handsome resort town with extravagant villas and fountains and yachts moored in the harbor, although there is a romantic castle crumbling on a hill nearby that hints at a far more adventurous past. I stop to admire a statue of Christopher Columbus in Piazza della Libertà before setting off down Via Pelstro, which my guidebook assures me is “the strolling street for window-stopping, people-watching, and studying the characteristic Art Nouveau house painting from about 1900,” which includes elaborate ornaments, sundials, pediments, and false balconies.

For now, though, I’m walking in a determined fashion toward a bakery called Panificio. It’s well past one in the afternoon and my stomach is growling for food, in particular for a square of focaccia bread I spy in the shop window, smothered in thin slices of zucchini. The strawberry tart I order next is just for good measure. The sea air makes me hungry.

I wander as I eat, first to the castle and then to the tiny church of Sant’ Erasmo, which has been blessed by the sea with oars and nets and elaborate ships’ models. Then I climb higher and stumble into the gardens of Durazzo Park, which begin with a formal rose garden overlooking the harbor before descending into a forest below, whose wild walls and twig railings follow a path lined with classical statues grown thick with lichen and moss.

By the time I emerge from the shade, my eyes are squinting into a late afternoon sun. I visit the church of Santa Margherita d’Antiochia and shops with a tempting array of local delicacies, but mainly I just roam the manicured streets until my legs give way and the train carries me back to Monterosso.

For dinner, I decide to try a small restaurant on a quiet street near my hotel, called Via Venti. It’s seven thirty and the heat of the sun has given way to an evening breeze that reaches my table outside and causes me to breathe a contented sigh. I fall into an easy talk with the woman sitting next to me, a fellow solo traveler, and together we strike up a lively conversation with a couple from California. They tell us they’ve eaten here eight times through the years, always in pursuit of the same dish—a plate of fagottini pasta, stuffed with pear and ricotta cheese. In a moment of divine serendipity, I realize that it’s what I’ve ordered for myself and when it arrives I can see why they’ve returned time and again to enjoy its pleasures.

As we dine together, they tell us a story. The last time they came to Italy they asked the chef for the recipe so that they could recreate the dish at home, which he graciously provided. With an equal mixture of pride and determination, the wife took a cooking class where she learned to make pasta from scratch, while her husband tracked down the most authentic ingredients and had them imported to the States. And yet somehow, it didn’t work. It just didn’t taste the same. In the end, it was easier—and verging on less expensive—for them to fly back and order it here.

We all laugh.

I understand their disappointment all too well. Through the years, I’ve tried to reconstruct the food I experience in my travels time and again, but with only occasional success. The chocolate fridge cake I made in 2006 was really quite good, but did it equal eating a slice in the cloister of Westminster Abbey? Of course not. I bought a special pan to cook poffertjes after my 2009 trip to the Netherlands, but could my tender pancakes, drenched in butter and powdered sugar, really compare to the plate I had in Amsterdam on a cold and rainy morning in June? Never. I can think longingly about a cup of Angelina’s hot chocolate on the Rue de Rivoli in Paris, or the jägerschnitzel I once had in Rothenburg ob der Tauber, Germany, but no recipe in the world can bring them back.

It’s the memories we want, more than the food, and a fleeting experience we try to bottle that we can’t ever bring home. Yes, the fagottini was good tonight, but I knew it would be. I had pleasant dinner companions and a fine glass of wine. There was a cool sea breeze on my skin, and under a setting sun my tired feet gave way to a very happy heart.

Will I try to make some homemade pasta with pear and ricotta cheese when I get home to Vermont? Not a chance.

Saturday, June 7, 2014

Rocambolesco (adj.) – fantastic, incredible, as in an experience

I’m walking to the train station again this morning, taking my familiar route down Via Roma and Via Feglina to the long dark tunnel dividing the “old town” of Monterosso from the “new.” When I emerge into the light and see the rows of beach umbrellas before me, I also see my fedora-wearing friend, the accordionist and his dog, and he pauses to wave hello.

Even on a slow regional train, the trip to Camogli takes only an hour, which seems well worth the effort for a village that Condé Nast Traveler recently called “one of Italy’s best-kept secrets.” I scan the article again as I make my way up the coast, the rhythmic sound of the tracks ringing in my ears. There is a description of the same “multi-story palazzi, painted in the muted pinks, yellows, and terra-cottas you find along this coast,” in towns such as Rapallo and Santa Margherita Ligure, “their deep-green shutters framed by trompe l’oeil flourishes.” But there are also assurances that Camogli is “far from the madding crowds” and “just-sleepy-enough” with its “under-the-radar calm.”

Perhaps. But not on a dazzling Saturday in June.

By the time I find the stairway that descends to Camogli’s waterfront, a wide stretch of pebble beach that arcs gracefully towards the 19th church of Santa Maria Assunta and the far more ancient castle of Dragonara, there are scores of sunbathers lounging on towels and deck chairs, and wading happily in the sea. The entire scene is so convivial that it has me rethinking the obsession American tourists have with “hidden” treasures, with experiences that depend not only on isolation, but also exclusion. Suddenly, it all seems rather churlish. I scan the crowd and see a young boy with a rod and reel fishing from a rocky ledge, a couple with a baby floating lazily on an inflatable raft, and a woman reclining with her knees bent, lost in the pages of a book.

In the late-19th century, Thomas Hardy famously used the phrase “far from the madding crowd” as the title of one of his novels, but the phrase originates with Thomas Gray, an English poet who years before had penned “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard.” It’s become something of a derisive catchphrase that urges escape from the frenzy of civilization.

I look again at the languid view before me. Personally, I think I’m already there. And I don’t mind sharing.

I scan the shops along Via Garibaldi and find another focacceria for lunch, this time settling on a thick slice of bread slathered in tomato sauce and cheese from Revello, as well as a hazelnut cookie, rolled and pinched on the sides, called a “camogliesi alla nocciola.” I stop at a jewelry store, Robe di Cuoio, and buy a corded bracelet with two seashell charms and a silver starfish. But mainly I wish I could stay longer.

It’s early afternoon and time to push on to the abbey at San Fruttuoso, which is accessible only on foot or by sea. It’s a warm day with a blistering sun and I have limited time to explore, so I opt for the ferry.

It’s a fascinating place, nestled into a secluded cove between promontories marked by castles and lighthouses, and I wile away another hour or two discovering the monastery’s medieval cloisters and the burial vaults of the Doria family.

By the time I board the ferry again for my final stop of the day, I’ve grown weary and my shoulders and neck have reddened with a wicked sunburn. Yet as the boat rounds a bend and enters the harbor, the view unfolding before me nearly takes my breath away.

I’ve arrived in glamorous Portofino, and I’ve never seen anything like it.

There are Italianate villas perched high above the town on hillsides studded with palm trees and cypress. Tall masted yachts are anchored in the harbor alongside smaller pleasure boats that gleam with brass and polished wood. And the town itself is a gauzy confection, hung with streams of colorful flags that create an atmosphere of perpetual celebration—a holiday without end—which is, I suppose, what it’s like to be rich and summering on the Riviera.

I spend some time window shopping for diamond baubles and silk scarves in shops like Rolex, Salvatore Ferragamo, and Louis Vuitton, half expecting to see Elizabeth Taylor emerging from Dior on the arm of Richard Burton. Then I head up the long, sloping path towards Castello Brown, stopping short at the tiny, tangerine church of San Giorgio. My legs are in open revolt and the view from here is stunning enough.

Back down at the harbor, I decide to sit and relax for a bit with a fruity cocktail at Caffè Excelsior, where the steady stream of well-heeled couples passing by reminds me of the way Robin Leach used to close each episode of Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous back in the 1980s, by wishing his viewers “champagne wishes and caviar dreams.” This is, I think, the closest I will ever get.

The ferry carries me back to Santa Margherita Ligure, where a train completes my circle back to Monterosso al Mare. It’s nearly eight o’clock by the time I slide my sunburned body into a quiet seat in the alley outside of Gastronomia San Martino. It’s a no-frills kind of place, where the menu is written on a chalkboard and orders are placed at the counter, but the chef is gregarious and kind and when a young woman delivers a cardboard plate of food to my table a short time later, the pansotto in walnut cream sauce that it holds is exceptional. The entire meal costs all of €11,50—less than the drink I had on the luxurious harbor front in Portofino—and that suits me just fine.

Sunday, June 8, 2014

Risvegliarsi (fig.) – to reawaken, come alive

Sometimes, I bite off more than I can chew when planning my travels. Ideas that seem inspired on a snowy day in February, at times look far different once I’ve arrived and logistics begin to take shape. Today, I had hoped to go to Genoa for the Regatta of the Ancient Maritime Republics, a rowing competition that rotates annually between the towns of Genoa, Amalfi, Pisa, and Venice. Frankly, though, I’d rather not. I have a weakness for festivals of all kinds, but the information I’ve found online is sketchy at best and without a decent strategy for how to get to the venue, it feels more exhausting than adventurous. I decide to stay here instead. After days of jet-setting up and down the Italian Riviera, a quiet day in Monterosso al Mare is exactly what I need.

I take a slow stroll about town, stopping in Gioielli del Mare to buy a silver pendant I’ve been admiring in the shop window for days, one that reproduces the Gothic rose window in the church of San Giovanni nearby. I buy a sundress hanging on a rack outside a clothing store. I sip a glass of lemon granita. I unwind and relax and the hours melt by.

It’s nearly two in the afternoon when I find myself on a park bench in Piazza Garabaldi with a fragrant slice of focaccia bread in my lap. There are children playing on a swing set behind me, and the sound of their laughter mingles with the clinking of silverware at nearby cafés, and the cadence of rapid Italian as neighbors sit in the shade and gossip. Close by, two violinists are playing for spare change under the railroad bridge, but somewhere, too, is the unmistakable strains of an accordion—my friend and his dog. It’s a curious symphony for the senses, and I’m reminded of that scene in Paris Je T’Aime where a middle-aged woman finds herself in a similar park on a similar kind of day.

“Sitting there, alone in a foreign country,” she says in a voiceover fraught with repressed emotion, “far from my job and everyone I know, a feeling came over me. It was like remembering something I’d never known before or had always been waiting for, but I didn’t know what. Maybe it was something I’d forgotten or something I’ve been missing all my life. All I can say is that I felt, at the same time, joy and sadness. But not too much sadness, because I felt alive. Yes, alive. That was the moment I fell in love with Paris. And I felt Paris fall in love with me.”

Alive.

That’s what I feel. Fully present and alive.

I think again about the woman in Rapallo, the one with the bikini who stood reading a newspaper while the sea lapped about her feet. And suddenly, I know exactly what I want to do.

I’m going to go swimming!

I rush through the tunnel into New Town and stop at a beach store facing the promenade. I have things to buy. A beach towel, €12. Turquoise bikini, €10. Matching sarong, €7. Swimming in the Ligurian Sea on a lazy Sunday afternoon? Priceless.

The sand is hot and the shimmering water cool to the touch. My toes slip in first and sink gently into the loose pebbles, and I feel the ground shift with the ripple of the waves. I inch forward little by little until my entire body is floating as light as a feather. It’s exhilarating and I find it hard not to laugh.

Much later, when I sit down to dinner at L’Osteria, the evening mass at the church of San Giovanni is just letting out. The door is ajar and I can hear the parishioners singing. On the street, a dog is barking playfully at a tabby cat, who retreats under the patio in utter indifference.

The symphony continues. And for the first time in a long time, I feel as though I am the conductor.

After dinner, I take a walk up to the statue of St. Francis of Assisi, and then down to “Il Gigante” and back, bumping into Scott and his son Ian along the way. The sun has set, the air is cool, and they’re eating gelato and brimming with enthusiasm for the Cinque Terre. They tell me it’s a magical place that will be hard to leave behind.

I smile and nod. Of course, I agree.

Monday, June 9, 2014

Ondata di caldo (n.) – heatwave

It’s a beautiful morning in Monterosso al Mare, and with a reluctant heart, I’m heading back to my apartment on the Arno. When I emerge from the Old Town tunnel, I see my friend with the accordion, as I have every day, and I stop to scratch his dog on the belly and behind the ears. The man smiles, sees my luggage, and wishes me ciao and arrividerci.

It’s a hot day, so I’ve splurged on a 1st class ticket for the IC train to Pisa Centrale, which has lovely, private compartments with good climate control, but the regionale train that pushes on to Santa Maria Novella is stifling. By the time I step off, I’m drenched in sweat.

I’m back in Florence in time for the summer’s first heat wave, which already has me longing for the cool waters of the Ligurian Sea. I find myself veering towards narrow, shaded lanes on the walk back to my apartment, but along Via de’ Tornbuoni I’m grateful to Armani, Prada, and Gucci, who all have their doors standing wide open, allowing bursts of arctic air to spill out onto the street.

I spend the afternoon unpacking, doing laundry, grocery shopping, and straightening up. I eat dinner at home, but venture out later for some gelato at La Carraia, which melts nearly as fast as I can consume it. As I turn back, I retreat from the bustling lungarno in favor of Borgo San Jacopo, where the shops are dark and shuttered for the night. A wave of loneliness passes over me as I push open the door to my empty apartment and sink into one of the lime green armchairs. I send an email to a friend back home that reads: “Feeling a little homesick tonight… How are you?”

Just before I sink off to sleep, he writes back: “Looks like you’re having an amazing time! Homesick-shmomesick!”

I decide to shake it off, because he’s right. I am having an amazing time.