Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Picturesque Piazzas, Fresh Pasta, Adventures in Italy.

Hi all,

I realize its been a tad over the promised 48 hours for this entry, but here it is.  Part two of the recent Italian adventures with Judith, one of my favorite travel partners in crime.

On our last morning in Siena, we wandered.  Taking more photos, ducking in and out of inviting boutique shops.  For lunch, I had an incredible swirl of noodles topped in chunky tomato sauce heavily packed with garlic and herbs.  Whoa.  It looked simple.  Not especially impressive or mind blowing.  Mind though, was blown.  Even the noodles were thick, light, totally different in texture and taste from noodles I have eaten anywhere outside of Italy.  Almost with a fluffy texture to them.  Floury, light and fluffy.

So, funny story.  We arrived at the Siena train station, craning our necks to examine the timetable for a ride back to Florence.  There was one departing in 5 minutes or one departing in 45 minutes.  The train leaving in five minutes had a brief change over in Empoli.  However, total travel time for either train was roughly the same.  Looking at Judith, I suggested "shall we grab the one in five minutes then?"  She was hesitant, preferring the one without having to switch connections. 

"But why wait here for 45 minutes...?  Why not just snag the one now and get back to Florence sooner?"  I asked her. 

She shrugged and said sure, agreeing.  So, we bought tickets and hopped on the train departing then.

Now, as Murphy's Law dictates, what can go wrong will go wrong ;-).  What was supposed to be a total travel time of 1 hour and 30 minutes ended up taking over THREE hours!  No joke, zero exaggeration, our train moved maybe 5 miles (about 8km) in one hour.  Able to see the conductor when I craned my neck, staring down the aisle, I watched him pumping a level and stabbing several colored buttons on his dashboard aggressively.  The train would shudder, lurch forward a few hundred feet, seem to exhale, and then come to an abrupt halt. 

This going on for, as I said, over an hour.

Now, tack on the fact that it was roughly 95 degrees F (35 degrees C) outside AND that there was no air conditioning inside the train.  Whoa.  Please excuse my candid description when I say there were rivers of sweat streaming down my sides and back.  The train, stifling, stuffy, overwhelming, to say the least.  I nearly lost it.  Judith cast me a long look, to which I began giggling and shrugged. 

"How could I have known this was going to happen??"  I said, beginning to laugh at the utter craziness and irony of it.

She laughed back.  "No, of course not.  I know that.  I am just mad at the situation," she said, smirking and shrugging.

"My god, I am absolutely dying, totally sweating.  Aren't you?"  I asked her.

"No, not really," she said.

Cue my blank, unamused stare.


We finally made it back to Florence after three long hours, hair plastered to head, irritable, exhausted.  It was a rough ride.

On the plus side, the scenery was arresting.  Panoramas of Tuscany speeding by our train window (when we first started out and were actually moving, before the train basically broke down).  Rolling hills, expansive wineries, Italian villas nestled into the hills. Seemingly endless fields of sunflowers, sunshine seeming to explode amongst the grassy expanse.

So, see below for the remaining photos from our last morning in Siena before I move on to our time in Florence....

This pasta.  Oh man.  Looks simple, routine, like nothing special.  How wrong I was.  Absolutely mouthwateringly delicious.  The texture, the flavor, whoa.  Mindblown.

Oh man.  The worn stone, the dark alleyways, the narrow passages, the warm brick.  Romantic, mysterious, charming, old.  In love.

And now, onto Florence.  For our first evening, we dined at Hostaria il Desco.  Where I had eaten three summers ago when visiting Italy on my very first solo trip ever (here are photos from that trip, if you'd like to see).  During my solo trip three summers ago, I sampled what I had read online as a unique and incredible combination of gnocchi topped in gorgonzola sauce and pears.  The online reviewers were spot on.  Still dreaming of this dish.  So I took Judith there.

This time around though, deciding on sampling something new.  Settling on the pasta with fresh Italian bacon and spices.  Phenomenal.  Tomatoes, garlic, pancetta, hers and spices, superb.  Judith got a thick flour and water spaghetti in truffle oil and cheese.  Also totally yummy.  Both remarking several times how awesome each of our food was, each offering the other tastes of our dishes.

And now, my favorite square in Florence.  Piazza della Signoria.  I walked through this square every single morning during the seven weeks of studying abroad in Italy, my first time ever in Europe, at the age of 22.  With zero doubt that this experience 10 years ago was one of the pieces leading up to my eventually move to Europe almost a decade later.  Having planted a fire in my heart from the moment my feet touched down in Italy.

We came to this Piazza on our first evening in Florence to sit for some tea and dessert.  To enjoy the scene and atmosphere.  See below for the photos of the famous Café Rivoire where we sat, and of the square.  I drank a steaming green tea and had a tiny almond cookie.  Judith snagged a towering gelato on the way home, the two of us walking side by side through the balmy air after the sun had set.

Ah, yes.  And the Duomo in Florence.  One of the most famous cathedrals in the world.  The inside is not especially awesome. However the outside is breathtaking.  Gigantic.  Looming.  Awe inspiring.  Done up all in marble colored in shades of cream, green and red for the colors of Italy.  We walked past this on our way home that first evening, Judith gasping as we happened upon it.  The two of us abruptly stopping to take several photos.

The next day, we had lunch at 13 Gobbi.  Another restaurant I had sampled three summers ago, where I reassured Judith the food was the bomb.  While waiting for them to open, we wandered a bit.  Walking along the Arno river, taking a few photos, searching out a mailbox for Judith to mail her postcards. 

For lunch, Judith had a salad of cherry tomatoes and buffalo mozzarella.  I had Tuscan beans simmering in tomatoes and sage which was just, oh man.  Awesome.  Judith tried a bite, her eyes widening as she exclaimed, "whoa, that's actually really, really good." 

For our main dish, we both went with the signature 13 Gobbi recommended pasta.  These are thick rigatoni noodles simmering in a tomato sauce, lightly herbed and spiced, a splash of oil stirred into the sauce.  And the best part?  Melted buffalo mozzarella underneath the pile of pasta.  This means when swirling a noodle around in the sauce and pulling it out on the end of your fork, a stringy length of cheese will come along with it.  Comfort food at its finest.  The dish looks simple but tastes awesome.

Then we headed back towards to Duomo where we split up for a bit.  Judith wanted to go inside while I decided on strolling one of my favorite cities for a bit.  Venturing to my favorite jewelry shop and buying a pair of small, pretty earrings.  Almost resembling little gold coins.  Then, stumbling upon a dairy free, sugar free gelateria, deciding it was something I had to try.  Because of course, one of gelatos key ingredients is cream, so I wondered, how on earth could this possibly taste like gelato without?  Believe it or not, it did.  Shockingly delish.  Unable to detect a difference between this cup of chocolate gelato or the traditional ones with dairy.  Walking away quite impressed.

Judith and I met up, meandering our way down the tourist crammed street towards Piazza della Signoria.  She wanted to climb the Palazzo Vecchio (the town hall, which really looks more like a castle of sorts) in the square, while I decided on grabbing a tea and doing some writing in Café Rivoire.  I sat, gazing at the square.  So familiar, while feeling exciting and new again. 

The buildings outlining the square in sandstone.  Pale yellows.  Burnt oranges.  Varying shades of white and cream.  The ground in squares of stone.  The copy of David across the way from me, standing erect in front of the Palazzo Vecchio.  Hoards of tourists milling through the square.  The statue of a man on his horse in greened copper dominating the center.  Cafes lining the perimeter.  My favorite dude (a waited in the café) still here after all these years, remembering him from my time studying abroad in Florence.  His face drawn, a long handlebar mustache covering his mouth.  Looking ever the part to work at the longstanding, famous, upscale Rivoire.

I loved the time sitting here, writing and sipping my tea.  Reveling in the time on my own to reflect and relax, to write and dream.  When Judith came back though (after roughly an hour), my heart leapt seeing her walking towards me.  Finding myself really happy to see her again.  She sat down next to me, seeming equally as happy, a huge smile on her face.  Taking out her camera to show me the photos.  Stunning.  Part of me wishing I had joined her on the climb up.  The view in her photographs an incredible one. 

After that, we meandered down Via de Benci, the street I used to live on when studying there.  I ended up buying a pretty, pale blue bag.  Both because my two purses (each coincidently purchased in Florence years ago, on two separate visits) are now worn beyond recognition and quite literally, broken.  The zipper on one completely torn off, and the straps on the other one busted.  Quite sad for me actually, as I have cherished and carried these bags daily for years.  So, I snagged a new one, keeping with the tradition of getting my bags in Italy.  So that each time I look at it, swinging it over my arm, I am transported back to Italy.  One of my favorite places in the world.

This new bag is small.  In a pretty, pale blue.  Simple.  Elegant.  Classic.  Cute.  Judith was very patient with me in my wavering back and forth about whether or not to buy it.  Very sweet :-)

Then, we headed past the restaurant where Alessandro works.  Hands down, one of the most beautiful men I have ever seen in my life, whom I first glimpsed back when living on Via de Benci.  Out for a jog with my roommates within our first couple days of living in Florence during 2008, running by the restaurant in which he works and nearly slamming into the building in front of me.  So distracted I was by this stunning man.  My roommates equally agog.  For the next 7 weeks of my living there, I visited the restaurant once or twice a week.  Not for the food, which was average, but for the jaw dropping view.  If you catch my drift.

So, each time finding myself back in Florence, I make a point to walk by.  Just curious to see if he still works there.  And, to my heart thumping, stomach fluttering thrill, there he was.  Fixing plate settings in the outdoor seating area.  Looking the same in body and face, but tanner, with wavy, longish hair escaping from under his black baseball cap.  Tall, lean, toned.  With big, dark eyes.  Stubble sprinkled across his cheeks and chin.  My.  God.  Still hands down, one of the most mouthwatering, gorgeous  men I have ever laid eyes on.

After that giggle inducing walk-by, we crossed the bridge and began making the climb up to Piazza Michelangelo.  The view up top offering a stunning, sweeping panorama of Florence.  Unfortunately as it was roughly 95 degrees F (35 degrees C), so we snapped a few photos and then headed back down, in search of dinner.

Much to Judith's disappointment, good pizza seemed tough to find on the fly.  So we settled on a TripAdvisor.com award winner that we happened to stumble on.  She tried the ricotta ravioli in mushroom and truffle sauce.  I enjoyed a heaping pile of Add to tagiatelli topped in basil pesto and diced tomatoes.  Both super yummy.

After dinner, we walked the 30 minutes back to our hotel room where we lay in bed, too sweltering and tired to move.  Judith on her phone while I read.

Overnight, I was absolutely FEASTED on by mosquitos.  Waking up to roughly 20 huge, quarter size (or, the size of a 2 euro coin for European readers) bites, all over my legs and arms.  Huge, red bulbous lumps.  Disgusting.  While Judith, despite having slept right next to me and also having slept uncovered, had none. 

On our last morning in Florence, we walked the 30 minutes into town, carrying our bags.  Myself with a backpack slung on my back and bags in hand.  Judith pushing her wheeled suitcase,  The air at 10:30am (at least in the shade) refreshingly still some semblance of cool (meaning like, 80 degrees haha).

We stopped in the Central Market, wandering a bit.  Judith wanted some souvenirs for loved ones.  I grabbed a bowl of pesto pasta for lunch from one of the stalls that, much to my shock, was plastered with stickers and papers boosting all sorts of awards won for their food.  And several years in a row at that!  The pasta was way better than I anticipated.  The pesto, excellent.  One of the best I have ever tried. 

Then Judith and I walked Florence a bit in search of a café where we could hunker down for a couple hours.  Not having to leave for the airport yet for some time.  We ended up stumbling on the coolest spot!  Reminding my a bit of Snickerbacker 7 in Sweden, a café in which I spent a lot of time reading and writing during my solo trip there last summer. 
(Click the link for loads of photos from that trip!)

This one was called La Menagere ("laboratory gourmet" was the tagline, managing to accurately capture both the atmosphere and food).  We hung out here for a couple of hours side by side.  Drinking tea and coffee, sampling their cake, Judith doing things on her phone while I did a lot of writing.  Each of us stopped periodically to chat, laughing and reminiscing about the trip.  All of our favorite funny moments.

For Part ONE of our Italy trip, with loads of photos, food, stories and more, here is the link :-)

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