Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Eze-le-village, France

Eze-le-village, in the hills above the Riviera
The trip to Eze was a simple one, as we caught a bus near our hotel that took us east, from Nice to Eze, in less than an hour. The bus followed the coastline, past Villefranche-sur-Mer, Cap Ferrat and Eze-Bord-du-Mer, then up into the hills.

Quaint street in Eze
Eze is a tiny village, with quaint winding streets that are too small for vehicles. The German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche wrote the bulk of his work “Thus Spoke Zarathustra” in Eze, where he lived in the late 19th century. There is also the famous Nietszche trail, a strenuous climb that goes from the coastline up to the Village. Nietszche claimed that climbing the trail daily in the summer heat gave him hallucinations that inspired his writing.

Up and up...
And at the top of the village, there is a castle in ruins, the area now covered by an exotic garden with more than 400 cactus and succulent plants. It cost 6 euros to enter the gardens, but it was well worth it, as there is a panoramic, 360-degree view of the Riviera at the top. It was a lovely spot to spend a few hours enjoying the scenery. 

Cactus and Sea
Placed amidst the cactus are fifteen ethereal statues of women,  created by the sculptor Jean-Philippe Richard and added to the garden in the 1990s. The visages of the idealized women are said to be "steeped in eternity."

Endless beauty!
I found the statues to be mesmerizing, and took many photos of them, against the backdrop of the Mediterranean Sea.

After our trek, we stopped for galettes (crêpes made with buckwheat flour) at a crêperie called The Cactus. Galettes are usually savory, with vegetables, meat and/or cheese fillings.

Galette with vegies and cheese
There are several perfume factories in Eze, including another Fragonard, but we skipped it and visited a different one, Galimard, which had a similar museum and saleshop as the one we'd seen at Fragonard in Grasse. My friend was anxious to get back to Nice, so we didn't linger, and as the prices were higher that what we'd seen in Grasse, it's just as well.

The perfume museum at Galimard

In this room, you can hire someone to create a unique perfume for you.
After a rainy day in Grasse, we were fortunate to have such a lovely, clear day in Eze. I'm still haunted by the images of the statues in the cactus garden: it seemed they had some wisdom to impart with their ethereal beauty.

Monday, January 26, 2015

Grasse, France

Train Station in Grasse
The journey from Nice to Grasse was somewhat awkward, and further complicated by rain and the fact that we went there on a Sunday, when many things were not open. The train didn't leave until noon and it took about 90 minutes for us to arrive in Grasse. Though the distance was not that great, it was necessary to take one train to Cannes, then another to Grasse, with many stops along the way. And from the station in Grasse, we had a long walk up to the city center, following a winding path up hundreds of stairs, as the shuttle buses were not running that day.

part of the walk to the village center
Once in the village, we headed towards the Fragonard Parfumerie, one of the leading perfume factories in France, which also has a small historical museum.  The streets of Grasse were eerily empty, and shops were closed, so there was not much to distract us from our goal.

the empty streets of Grasse
Just as we arrived at Fragonard, it started pouring rain, so we were content to peruse the Fragonard complex for several hours.
Parfumerie Fragonard Museum
Tours of the factory were given in several languages. Since the tour in Italian was getting ready to start, we decided to go along with that group, instead of waiting for the English-speaking tour guide.

An explanation of one method used to make perfume.
I could understand most of the tour, and there were also written explanations in English to fill in the blanks. However, it didn't seem like a working factory, since everything was so pristine. It left me wondering where the real work was being done, but I was too intimidated to ask.

A display of the mixing room
How cold extraction is performed.
Here's where you get enticed to buy their products.
And of course, there were several sales rooms. There were so many lovely scents, it was hard to choose, but I knew that I wanted to splurge a bit. I ended up buying a small 1.7 ounce bottle of eau de parfum, called Jasmin - Perle de Thé, which has notes of lemon, bergamot, jasmine, honeysuckle, green tea, white cedar, guaiac wood and white amber. So subtle and lovely! I was told that the scent of eau de parfum will linger for up to 5 hours, while the scent of parfum (perfume) will last up to 8 hours, or longer.  I also bought a smaller bottle of perfume, (.5 oz), for twice the cost of the eau de parfum, in a similar scent, strong on jasmine. (Oddly enough, I recently discovered that I can get the same bottle of Jasmin - Perle de Thé on Amazon! It's a lot more expensive, but at least it would save a trip to Grasse.)

Some  antique perfume bottles in the museum
The museum had a large selection of antique perfume bottles that were attractively displayed.
More uniquely shaped antique perfume bottles.
Though there were several other perfume factories in Grasse, we didn't get to see them. We walked around in the rain trying to find the International Perfume Museum, but kept getting lost, and when I stopped to ask for directions, I only got annoyed responses from the locals, who didn't seem to know what I was talking about. I know enough French to ask simple questions, but could not always understand complicated responses to those questions. And many locals either didn't speak English or they didn't want to.

I loved the decor of this cafe!
Once we left Fragonard, we were pressed for time, knowing there was only one more bus (no more trains!) that would take us back to Cannes, but we stopped to get out of the rain and have a snack before we made the long trek back down to the station. There was a clever little cafe across from Fragonard, and even though the waiter was surly when we asked how to get back to the station (he refused to tell us!), he made wonderful crepes. My crepe was simple yet exquisite, with a dusting of powdered sugar and a squeeze of lemon juice.

The best crepe ever, and yet so simple: crepe au sucre et citron.

On the way back to the train station, I asked a local man if we were headed in the right direction, and he was kind enough to lead us to a shortcut that saved us some time. I was disappointed that we'd seen so little of the town, and wished we had planned it better. If we'd come earlier, on a weekday, we'd have had more time to see what Grasse has to offer. As it is, due to the rain and the hassles we'd encountered, we were tired eager to get back to Nice.

About those crepes: when I returned to Florence, I went to several creperies, hoping to find a crepe made with sugar and lemon like the one I'd had in Grasse. Yes, they had them, but they were not the same. The crepe in Florence was thick, and covered with granulated sugar (instead of powdered), which made it  heavy, gritty, and sickeningly sweet. However, back in the States a friend invited me to take a crepe-making class at our favorite health food store, and now I can make them myself!

Saturday, January 24, 2015

Nice, France, Part 1

Nice, France
Okay, I've been lazy for a few months, and still have stories to post about my recent stay in Italy, which included a side trip to the French Riviera. I was surprised and delighted with Nice, which I hadn't anticipated at all. I mean, I was expecting a lot of snobby, rich people,  and that everything would be expensive and la ti da, but it was NOT like that at all! In fact, I enjoyed it so much that I'm eager to return and spend more time in that part of the world.

Our venture to Nice took place during the first week of October, 2014. Since we had bought our train tickets online three months earlier, we got great discounts, and paid less than 30 euros one way from Florence to Nice. The journey involved several train changes, one in Genova and another in Ventimiglia, located on the border between Italy and France. Our journey took about four hours total, but was otherwise uneventful.

Gare di Nice Ville: train station
Once we arrived in Nice, the first thing we did was take the tram across town to our hotel, located near Place Garibaldi. We lucked out, as the hotel was both inexpensive and centrally located, near Vieux Nice. Once settled, we went out to look for food, in particular, Socca, which is  a  thin, unleavened crêpe, made with chickpea flour and sprinkled with pepper. It's a typical food of the Ligurian seacoast, from Nice to Pisa. Socca turned out to be very cheap and filling, an interesting and unusual snack.

Socca stand near our hotel
By an odd coincidence, my brother Chris from Camas, Washington was in Nice that weekend. He'd been in Cannes for work and had come to visit me in Florence the previous week. When he heard we were coming to Nice that weekend, he arranged to stay an extra day so we could meet up before his departure for Denmark and another work-related meeting. 

Chris and I at a restaurant on Place Garibaldi
Chris called to tell me he was eating lunch near our hotel, so we met up with him for a brief chat before going on to explore Nice for the first time. We headed down the winding streets of Vieux Nice, the older part of town, to the beach. After all, isn't that where all the action takes place? I mean, we'd come to the French Riviera...shouldn't we be checking it out?

Vieux Nice

Above and along the long stretch of Nice's famous beach is the equally famous  Promenade des Anglais, or La Prom, as the locals call it. It seems it was named The English Promenade because it was originally conceived of by wealthy English visitors who were visiting Nice in the late 1800's and noticed that many people were out of work. The city of Nice liked the idea, and expanded on it, building a wide pathway that follows the line of beach from one end to the other.

Promenade des Anglais
One can stroll, run, skate, or bike along the path, which is lined with palm trees, or sit in one of the many long benches that face the sea. I spent several hours enjoying this part of Nice, and only wish I could have stayed longer.

Cours Saleya, a shopping area near La Prom.
Of course, shopping in Nice is de rigour, and we did some of that, though it was not my favorite pasttime. Instead, I would have preferred spending more time at the beach. However, shopping abroad  is always interesting, and I did my share of it during our stay. Mainly, I shopped for soap, lavender and perfume, small items that would not add much weight to my luggage.

That evening we met up with my brother for dinner in Vieux Nice, such a special occasion! I'd seen my brother at the beginning and end of his adventure, and was thrilled to have been able to share that event with him. (I need to write a post about his motorcycle journey through France and Italy!)

Eating out in Vieux Nice with Chris and  Haruko.
The next day my friend and I were headed to Grasse, the perfume capital of the world, so we bid adieu to Chris and returned to our hotel.

Monday, October 13, 2014

A full plate

Giotto's Campanile,with Brunelleshchi's cupola in the background
I'm still in Florence, currently listening to the rain hitting the skylight above the desk in my bedroom. My soggiorno (stay) in Italy this year has been quite different than in years past, as I've had company nearly every day, which leaves me less time to write or even think about writing. In addition, I had a two-week stint of online work, which also interfered with my creative life.

One of many painters on Ponte alle Grazie, painting Ponte Vecchio
I've traveled to a few more places this month, including a five-day stay in Nice, France, with side trips to the nearby towns of Grasse, Eze and Menton on the French Riviera. And then my brother came to visit one weekend, on a BMW motorcycle he'd rented in Nice. One of these days I'll write about all these adventures. My roommate leaves for home tomorrow, and another guest from the States arrives the next day, so it will have to wait until I have more time.

Tonight,I'm feeling lazy, so I plan to enjoy the sound of the rain, hoping it will clear the skies for another lovely day in Tuscany.

A presto!

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.