Saturday, January 20, 2007

Day 16 - Florence - Bosco

So much for the magic of Florence. We arise after a poor sleep, the result of unusually good weather. Paradoxically, this winter’s unseasonably warm temperatures are not compatible with our hotel’s heating system, which generates enough heat to warm a small city, regardless of the outside temperature. Even when the in-room heating is switched off, billions of BTUs spout up the elevator shaft and stairways, roasting all life on the upper floors of the hotel. Our room is perched atop this bonfire, requiring us to open the windows at night or risk melting away, normally a pleasant state of affairs, but on the weekends the ragazzi like to party like its 1499 (the pre-curfew age) all night long. The oppressive heat, their less than melodious soccer fight songs, the mosquitos and our rumbling stomachs are more than we can handle. Although fatigued and cranky, we are happy to call the evening quits when the sun finally rises, forcing the revelers and the mosquitos elsewhere. We vow not to let our the evening affect the enjoyment of our last day in Florence. We go through the motions at breakfast in the hotel and Bill retires to the room to catch up on some work as Suzy heads out for some shopping.

After a while Suzy returns and we head out for some more shopping and sightseeing. Along the way we stop by the Palazzo Davanzati, a renaissance palazzo converted into a living history museum, giving visitors an idea of how life was lived in renaissance Florence by an upper class merchant of the time. We visited this museum during one of our early visits to Florence but for more than a decade it has been closed for renovation. It has become a standing joke between us, as we get our hopes up to see the Palazzo reopened. The day before, we have wandered by it and the placards announcing the renovation (which have been posted outside the palazzo for all these years) are still in place. This morning, however, the doors are open and there is at least the possibility that tourists are once again being allowed to enter.

So we enter into the outer courtyard, a space that has been open to the public during the renovation as a sort of preview of coming attractions space, but today there is a difference. The doorway into the inner courtyard, with its staircase up to the rooms of the palazzo, is also open. We creep into the courtyard, no security or ticket takers in sight, and get a glimpse into the palazzo. It is inviting, but there is no one to tell us whether the palazzo is open or not. After a few minutes we give up, happy for the opportunity to see the inner sanctum once again and planning to return on our next trip to Florence.

We prepare to depart Florence but despite our continued queaziness decide we need to have lunch before driving to Perugia, two hours away. The hotel staff recommends the nearby Trattoria del Porcellino, only two blocks away and just around the corner from the Mercato Nuovo, the outdoor market of touristy souvenir stalls graced by the statue of il porcellino, the bronze wild boar whose snout you rub for good luck. We are slightly wary about dining so close to such a dense tourist area, but looking in the windows at the crowded trattoria it is apparent that this is more of a local hangout than a tourist commissary. We wait ten minutes for a table and then sit for an improbably memorable meal.

I say improbable because we really can’t believe that a restaurant directly next to one of the most touristy destinations in Florence won’t be another fixed price, English language menu of spaghetti and meatballs. Improbable, too, because our stomachs, after weeks of overuse, are telling us not to enter. It seems foolish to sit down for a lunch given these realities, but we do. And with great optimism, Suzy orders a bottle of acqua frizzante (effervescent water), joking that it will calm our stomachs and make us able to dig into the meal. Improbably she is right.

Our waiter speaks little English (to us, always a good sign, and again unexpected given the locale) but seems pleased by the amount of food that we order and the obvious gusto with which we place our order. He is particularly pleased that we have chosen bistecca alla fiorentina, the local grilled steak, Florence’s signature dish and perhaps the best steak in the world. After a while our antipasto plate arrives, two plates of mixed crostini, topped with liver, black olive paste, tomato and mushrooms. We skip the pasta course and head right to the bistecca, served with a side order of white beans in olive oil and sautéed spinach. The steak is slightly more cooked than rare and it is chewy and slightly tough, a trademark of the chianina beef that is used for fiorentina. With each chew, however, the rich, earthy taste of the beef fills our mouths, mingled with the ample salt, olive oil and a little lemon that has been drizzled over it. This, put simply, is the best steak we have had in Florence, at least in recent memory. Thank goodness we did not wimp out and skip lunch!

We pay up and return to the hotel, which has delivered our car out front. We load our bags, say our goodbyes and are soon on the road out of Florence (while driving into Florence is next to impossible, leaving it is so simple even we can do it), heading south toward our next and final destination of this trip, Perugia. Along the way we plan to stop at an upscale outlet shopping mall about 20 minutes outside of Florence.

We exit the A1 autostrada at Incisa and follow the signs to the mall which is ingeniously named “The Mall.” We arrive a few minutes later to a wood and steel outdoor complex of buildings connected by wide cement walkways and manicured lawns that looks like what I imagine the Microsoft of Apple “campuses” look like. The shops are very high end and very high tech – Gucci, Armani, Ferragamo and the like. We are here solely on a reconnaissance mission, just eyeballing the shops so we can recommend (or not) this as a stop for our friends and customers. It is very impressive.

Perhaps we would have stayed longer, but somewhere along the way we realize that we have left one of our bags, the results of our shopping spree in Florence, back at the hotel. After a phone call to the reception we decide that we have to return to Florence to retrieve the bag, which will add about an hour to our trip. Two days ago, with our fog light warning beeping every 15 seconds, we probably would have shot ourselves. After a few therapeutic days in Florence almost look forward to the excursion.

We retrace our steps to the hotel, pick up the bag and about an hour later we are at the Sinalunga exit on the A1, where we pick up the spur to Perugia. We notice signs for the Outlet Village at Valdichiana and decide to take a quick stop, again solely for research purposes. The Outlet Village is not nearly as upscale as The Mall, but it is much, much bigger. There are dozens of shops selling mostly clothing and housewares. Prices in most of the stores are good and there seem to be some incredible bargains to be had. We wander for a while and head to Perugia.

About 45 minutes later we arrive in Perugia and head for the restaurant of the Deco Hotel in nearby Ponte San Giovanni, where we have arranged to meet our friend Javier Casuso and his children for dinner. The Deco is run by the owner of the house we have been looking at renting for our new villa business and we have had a few conversations with Javier (who is our partner in the business) about whether this is the right property. We are leaning against consummating the deal with the owner, but in Italy this should be no reason not to have dinner in his restaurant!

We arrive on time and enjoy the cool air on the terrace outside the restaurant as Javier struggles to assemble his team, which live a block away and whose apartment is visible from where we are sitting. We can see figures dart back and forth across the windows and occasionally hear shouting, fighting and begging to get a move on. It seems that family life in Italy is little different from that in the U.S.

Finally, about 20 minutes late Javier and the crew arrive, faces we have not seen for nearly a couple of weeks, since they have been visiting us in Washington, D.C. over the Christmas holidays. It is good to see the kids again and, despite the usual kid behavior in restaurants (eating with hands, hitting everyone, running around the table – and I am only referring to Javier here) we have a terrific dinner of pastas and fish, which takes several hours. Not content with saying goodbye, Javier invites us to his apartment for a nightcap of espresso and grappa, as well as delicious little crème filled pastries that one cannot seem to find on desert menus anywhere in Italy, but which are abundant in the country’s numerous patisserie.

We say our goodbyes and drive about 15 minutes to the town (in definition only) of Bosco, where our hotel for the next three days is located. At night it is easy to miss the sign for the driveway to the Relais San Clemente, but after turning around we navigate the long private road to this exquisite property which boasts beautiful gardens, a pool and tennis courts, many outdoor activities and dozens of beautifully appointed rooms in a building dating back from the renaissance. It is dark, naturally, so exploration of the Relais will have to wait until tomorrow. For now we are content to fall sound asleep in the peace and quite of the countryside, windows open and cool air filling the room. We deserve a good night’s sleep and the Relais seems just what the doctor ordered.

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