My Montecatini

Montecatini Terme is a happy Tuscan mix of art, culture, and historic spa scene.

La Belle Époque

Belle Époque (French) is the graceful era between 1890 and 1914 when Montecatini developed its elegant spa scene. Art nouveau bathhouses set in a verdant, landscaped parks offered healthful waters, massage and mud treatments. Beautiful.

Montecatini Terme 2

The Hall Of Water Springs

Celebrities like Giuseppe Verdi and Giacomo Puccini flocked to Montecatini’s healthful thermal waters, and like me, were soon captivated by her abundant natural charms.

Giuseppe Verdi, portrait by Giuseppe Bordini

Giuseppe Verdi by Giuseppe Bordini

Savor

Theater Boy and I practice our far niente skills over lunch in high style at the grand Hotel Tettuccio whose old-fashioned, courtly service transports us back to that graceful era.

Silky gnocchi, crisp greens, a glass or two of wine and crusty bread — we do not rush our old-world experience. We savor our slow food at a stately and dignified pace.

Choco-scholarship

Being an Italian chocolate scholar, I head to nearby Cioccolato e Company where I continue my research with an immodest trifecta of nut bark in three shades of delicious.

Followed by Mojito and Puccini bonbons, and a few swoon-worthy truffles.

Cucchiaini chocolateMontecatini

Twirling a dark chocolate spoon through hot cappuccino is a sweet recharge. I assemble a scholarly selection for David, which doubt will survive until he gets off the plane.

Valeria approves the initial selection

Such a sweet way to fill an hour (or two) — highly recommended!

Art/History

I walk off my chocolate buzz at Montecatini Contemporary Art (MoCA), which occupies two floors of the historic town hall and houses an impressive collection. Best of all, it is free and open to the public.

Joan Mirò’s Woman Entangled in a Flight of Birds is one of MoCA’s best-known and most striking works. Locals say it expresses Miro’s frustration with the confinement of illness. I say it also expresses the joy of making a beautiful mess — note the freeform coffee stains.

Romeo Marchetti’s delizioso caricature illustrates the popularity of both Giuseppe Verdi and thermal baths in the early 1900s. Look closely and you will glimpse the reflected parade of celebrities visiting Montecatini throughout the last century.

MoCA’s current exhibition, Montecatini Garden Spa of Europe, tells the story in painting, photography and graphic design. Through April 2020 — I may be lucky enough to revisit.

Art. Design. History. Slow food. Silky chocolate. Montecatini Terme has it all. •

Next up … Montecatini Alto, Ferrara, Vicenza, a week in Padova and sunny seafood lunch in Venice.

 

Posted in Art and Culture, Food and Wine, International, Italian Travel, Off-the-beaten-track, Opera, Theater, Travel, Tuscany | Tagged , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Three Boroughs, Three Olives, 33 Hours

These are perilous times, and my democracy grief is overpowering. No one is selling tickets for civility and truth, so I grab tickets to Medea at Brooklyn Academy of Music.

BAM’s contemporary production is harrowing and utterly relatable. Based on the bloody, catastrophic tale written 431 BC, modern Medea is brutal and raw — at times, difficult to watch. Set in a seamless white rectangle, the production has stunning visual impact.

We digest the muscular drama with a late-night meal at nearby Caffe e Vino, a classic bistro serving northern Italian fare. Standouts include savory polenta with veal, buttery sage pasta, and lemony Torta della Nonna — best I have had on either side of the Atlantic.

Time Travel

My rescue-remedy includes a space-age trip down memory lane at JFK’s TWA Hotel, a shrine to brilliant Finnish architect, Eero Saarinen.

Adding to the sensation of mid-century zoom is a vintage Lockheed Constellation plane just outside the lipstick-red “Connie” cocktail lounge. We enjoy a few Royal Ambassador Martinis, served with three olives and shiny TWA flight wings.

The soaring lobby of the former Terminal 5 has identical Saarinen and Hughes wings (for TWA founder Howard Hughes). Guest rooms have floor-to-ceiling views of working runways, astonishingly soundproof. Get a good night’s sleep and dream of the 1960s.

The inspired Saarinen drawing above confirms my deeply held belief that some of the world’s greatest design work can be found on cocktail napkins.

Art & Soul

No trip to New York is complete without a day at the Museum of Modern Art. Racketing back and forth from midtown to Queens is admittedly a schlep, but MoMA is an essential part of my self-designed therapeutic breakaway, and cheaper than a psychiatrist.

Basquiat’s tortured portrait, Glenn, reflects my dark mood on arrival.Van Gogh’s sweet postman, Joseph Roulin, begins to raise my spirits. “A good soul, so wise and so full of feeling and so trustful,” Vincent said.

Klimt’s circles calm my apocalyptic political dread, and his palette warms my heart.

Oh my! Beloved Matisse Dancers restore a bit of lightness, joy and whimsy.

Uh-oh. Madelon Vriesendorp’s Flagrant Délit reminds me why am am here in New York in the first place: Democracy is in peril — Lady Liberty is pissed.

It’s time to get back to work.

Tipping Point

My time-out has been both restorative and inspirational. I recommend a 36-Hour Art & Soul Getaway for anyone depressed, overwhelmed or defeated by the vertiginous, hope-or-hate tipping point at which we find ourselves. •

Coraggio! Next we return to Italy: Montecatini, Ferrara, Padova, Vicenza and a sunny Venetian afternoon.

 

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Montecarlo

This jolly uphill street is in Montecarlo, a charming town nestled in the Tuscan Hills.

The quaint historical center is surrounded by small shops and maze of city walls. Once called “Vivinaia,” Montecarlo has nearly 20 wineries — an astonishing number for a small town of 4,500. This serene stop on the Via del Vino is a must for oenophiles.

Racimo de uvaMontecarlo’s vineyards are open for tastings by appointment. If you’re visiting in May, do not miss ViaVinaria, when lush vineyard cantinas open their doors for the weekend and welcome visitors to sip, savor and explore. Ci vediamo — we’ll see you there!

Butterfly and Boheme

Montecarlo is home to Teatro dei Rassicurati, a favorite haunt of Giacomo Puccini, composer of Madam Butterfly, La Boheme and Tosca. Theater Boy is drawn like a magnet to an afternoon of informal reverie and tour of the lovely historic space.

Dreamy

I bask in a golden corner of Tuscan sun sipping a glass of local vino rosso. When Theater Boy returns, we eat several bowls of savory chips and decide: This is the life.  •

Next: Montecatini, Ferrara, Padova, Venice…

 

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Siena: Golden Light

I am honing my far niente skills in the golden light of Siena. Home is a fifth-floor walk-up overlooking the bell tower and zebra-striped cathedral of Santa Maria della Scala.

Much of this quaint Tuscan town is della scala — marble steps, stone steps, brick steps. Warm hues of goldenrod, rose and saffron fight the advancing November chill.

Siena’s glorious medieval centro, Piazza del Campo, is a luminous space where the Palio horserace has run since 1633.Don’t miss Bar Palio’s ricciarelli almond cookies with cappuccino — the “grande” is so generous it’s served in a bowl. This fragrant combination starts my day, work or play.Shopping opportunities abound, pop into a cheese and wine shop to for regional specialties like pecorino di Pienza, truffles or salumi di cinghiale, yum.Siena Chocolate Shop 2Savor samples at Nino and Friends — pralines with hazelnut creme, espresso beans or lemon rind in dark chocolate. Try a slab of milk chocolate studded with pistachios, almonds or hazelnuts. Or just stand and stare at the chocolate waterfalls.

Teatro e Tesoro

Theater Boy joins me for a bit of Tuscan touring. He buys a silk necktie at Cravattificio di Siena for the occasion — and as Giusi predicted, it is orange. Lovely!

Siena’s Opa Si! pass allows visitors three days of access to the incredible cathedral complex, museum, bookshop and facciatone terrace.

Rooftop viewClimb 130 narrow spiral stairs for panoramic bird’s eye views. Ceiling Santa Maria della ScalaInside the cathedral — look up! Every direction holds a wow.Pavimento_di_siena,_allegoria_del_colle_della_sapienza_(pinturicchio)_02Look down! Gorgeous marble mosaic floors tell the story of Revelation.
Vaulted crypts, below, hold treasured reliquaries, holy remains like tongues, teeth and jawbones of saints and martyrs. Seriously. The whole complex is a wow.  Opera della Metropolitana di Siena is mind blowing.

La Cena

Theater Boy and I are knocked out in the best possible sense. A celebratory evening meal of grilled octopus, nicely blackened, with chick pea puree, followed by Pici Cacio Pepe and steak Fiorentina. Like Mimmo’s, it’s gigantissimo. With a velvety Tuscan red, perfect.

Pasta cacio pepe 2Our time here has been wondrous. Tomorrow I return to my woolly work in the Tuscan Hills, and Theater Boy (of course!) visits a few theaters while we wait for David to arrive.

Up next: Montecarlo, Montecatini, Padova and Venice!

 

 

 

 

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Boo! Halloween in Pistoia

In Pistoia’s historic Piazza del Duomo, it’s Halloween. Patron saints San Zeno and San Jacopo supervise as children whirl and shout. Their hysteria is charmingly muted and they’re modestly costumed, with small bags of cookies from local merchants. I notice the absence of a critical element — candy. Miles of Silly String, but no candy. Brava l’Italia!

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Florence: Fashion & Friendship

I arrive on a golden Tuscan morning, hire a car and check into centrally located Hotel Malaspina. The B&B’s cheerful staff, robust breakfasts, Wifi, rooftop terrace, cozy rooms and free valet parking (yes, I said free valet parking) make it great for solo travelers.

I launch myself into the lovely day with a stroll to nearby Piazza San Marco where cyclamen are still in bloom. Hang a right to Piazza del Duomo, already jammed with pedestrians eating gelato, racks of colorful leather bags and “See the WORLD!” tee shirts. 

I zip through the Florentine version of Eataly, inspect the fancy wares and scoff at the prices. I scan the racks at Sisters, Italy and buy a handy palm-sized notebook at Legami. The legendary Tuscan sun casts its amber glow on residents, tourists and the beloved Ponte Vecchio. The crowd moves like the gentle river Arno — civilized, calm and polite. 

Fashion

Fashion choices pop and simmer in streets and shop windows. I feast on vivid color and signature Italian style, note fabrics and trending hues. Shades of orange, eggplant and cognac rule. The Florentine circus of brilliant color and fashion makes me both delirious and ravenous.

Food

I spot a vine-covered bistro just off the beaten track, Il Sasso di Dante. It’s a perfect spot for travelers who enjoy their street-side dining from a comfortable remove. My first dish in this delicious country is potato-stuffed ravioli bathed in olive oil and mint pesto. Hours of rough road surrender to the magic of this tummy-friendly, restorative fare.

I order another glass of flinty Vermentino and lean in.

Mimmo at 44

A convivial group of men on my left are pounding the table, chanting, “Mimmo! Mimmo!” They offer me a friendly hit of grappa. I demur. The customary Bistecca Fiorentina arrives, and it is Flintstonian; Mimmo can barely see over the top. I love the local tradition of men dining together, and try not to imagine what the women are up to this afternoon. Let’s just say I hope they are enjoying a similarly joyous day.

Friendship

I meet my Florentine pal, Giusi, for lunch at Mercato Centrale. This is Firenze’s oldest open market, a sprawling iron-and-glass maze packed with meats, cheeses, bright produce and flowers – fragrant and fascinating.We ascend to foodie heaven, where fresh pizza, pasta, vegan fare, beautiful fish, gelato and pastries confound and delight. The waitstaff is discreet and mysterious, bringing wine, mineral water and correct change. Magically, it all works.

Giusi and I reminisce. We laugh out loud, maybe even cry a little. Discuss trending styles and colors — shouting “Arancia!” in unison. Giusi is a forever friend with a great eye who manages to kick all traces of jet lag down the iron stairs. Brava, Giusi!

Art & Culture

I meet beloved American friend, Theater Boy, for a morning at the Uffizi Gallery. We love the Galleria — that much is always true. It is perhaps the best in the world.

We book a pricey private tour and prepare to immerse ourselves in the wonders of the Renaissance. Our tickets are billed as a ‘skip the line’ experience.

Madonna and Child by Filippo Lippi

Our guide is late. We are not greeted as promised by Viator personnel, in fact, we are not greeted at all. We find our guide by accident – hardly an auspicious beginning.

La Primavera by Sandro Botticelli

Lines are long, but painterly gems are stunning, exquisite, amazing — often breathtaking, from Filippo Lippi to Sandro Botticelli to Leonardo da Vinci. There are entire rooms dedicated to the genius of Caravaggio — red rooms, of course.

Annunciation by Leonardo da Vinci and Andrea del Verrocchio

Crowds are increasingly daunting and the ambiance is frenzied. Babies cry, and so do we.  I begin to feel like Caravaggio’s Medusa in the classic Uffizi image below.

DO NOT BUY: ‘Small group’ or ‘skip the line’ tours by Viator unless you enjoy paying three times as much as the next guy, rushing through the collection and feeling savagely ripped off.

RECOMMENDED: 3-day pass online to Uffizi, Pitti Palace, Boboli Gardens and Opificio delle Pietre Dure (incredible stone inlay) for 18€ off-season/38€ high-season. Super!

Newly discovered work-within-a-work by Leonardo

Revive

Theater Boy and I resolve to remember only the amazing Uffizi treasures and cease our fretful chorus. We indulge in a relaxing lunch at Antica Fattore. We marvel at the raw artichoke salad, thinly sliced, in lemon and olive oil — tart, crunchy and restorative.

We continue to regain lost composure over white truffle tagliolini, shaved truffles over buttery pasta ribbons, a simple preparation that packs a velvety swoon. I ask for a bit of extra formaggio. Our straight-backed waiter says, “No, Madam,” and insists I cannot possibly want it. “Please,” he says, his eyes misting. I’m humbled and delighted.

Evening church bells ring, slightly muffled and sweet, the way baby Bruno cries when he is very tired. The sun sets red over the Piazza Independenza, a glowing bit of heaven. •

Coming soon: Pistoia, Montecatini, Montecarlo … and David!

 

 

 

 

 

 

Posted in Art and Culture, Food and Wine, International, Italian Travel, Off-the-beaten-track, Travel, Tuscany | Tagged , , | 3 Comments

Eating Montreal

Montreal’s burgeoning food scene rivals any “best of” city, even my tasty little hometown of Portland, Maine. Glowing fruit and vegetables in mysterious heirloom varieties, divine buffalo mozzarella, robust cider vinegar, flinty wines, and oh, the duck! Pillowy gnocchi and sweet beignets created with love and magic are simply delicious. During Jazz Fest 2019, we indulge in our own epicurean exploration of this world-class city.

Jazz & Food

The diverse, multigenerational Jazz Festival crowds grow each day. As temperatures soar, regular time-outs at onsite cafés are a necessity. We settle at Café Nouveau Monde for some stellar people watching and refreshment. We take our time over chilled sangria, red and white. We savor goat cheese “Josephine” and a thin Alsatian tart.

I beg for their favorite sangria recipe. “Pas de problem,” says the friendly bartender.

White Sangria

  • Soupçon each light rum, dark rum and Triple Sec
  • Pineapple juice – 2 cups
  • White wine – 1 liter
  • Secret Montreal Ingredient: dash of Sprite! Seriously.
  • Add orange, lemon and lime slices. A few maraschino cherries.

Red Sangria

  • Soupçon each light rum, dark rum and Triple Sec
  • Orange juice – 2 cups
  • Red wine – 1 liter
  • Secret Montreal Ingredient: dash of Sprite! Seriously. 
  • Add orange, lemon and lime slices. A few maraschino cherries.

Festival stalwart Le Blumenthal Brasserie is also centrally located, and a fine place to take a break while in the heart of the festival. The menu is reliably creative, with fresh salads like our favorite, heirloom tomato with Québécois mozzarella. Best of all, the profits from this busy brasserie help finance the work of the Maison du Festival. The exchange rate reduces prices by about 25%, if that is the kind of cool comfort you crave.

Heirloom tomato 3

Like me, if your idea of summer refreshment skews toward gin and tonic, check out the Hendrick’s Gin Tent. Their version of the hallowed cocktail is sublime in its simplicity, featuring sliced fresh cucumber. It feels almost healthy — a boozy micro-salad.

Hendricks

Hendrick’s Gin & Tonic

INGREDIENTS
1 parts Hendrick’s Gin
3 parts tonic water (***I like Fever Tree)
3 ribbons (or rounds) of cucumber

HOW-TO
Combine ingredients in a highball glass filled with cubed ice
Lightly stir and serve
Garnish with thinly sliced cucumber

Poutine!

Our neighborhood destination for local color is Nyk’s. First night, we’re feeling shy, and politely order house fries with a modest dab of mayo and splash of vinegar, s’il vous plait. A delicious but tentative beginning. Feeling a little braver after a day or two, we decide to go native with classic Québécois poutine: fries, cheese curds and Nyk’s special foie-gras gravy. Sublimely decadent. We’re hooked, and return a few days later under cover of darkness. We revel in the local scene, the waitstaff doing shots behind the bar, a quintessential Montreal moment. Our Poutine infatuation rages throughout our stay, culminating in the ultimate combo: fries, cheese curds, and unctuous duck confit draped in Nyk’s special foie-gras gravy. Swoon-worthy fare, it’s just this side of food porn. 

Screen Shot 2019-07-18 at 10.27.04 AM

We’re finally tempted offsite to Joe Beef’s new Liverpool House in Little Burgundy, home of jazz great Oscar Peterson. We sip a flinty Ontario Stanner’s Riesling and order six oysters, les huitres. Surprise! We receive seven jewels: 3 from P.E.I., 2 from Quebec, and 2 from British Columbia, a briny provincial sextet plus one. The gorgeous black ruffled oysters from B.C. taste like the wild ocean itself, wow.

Next up, the Njudi Sando is a crazy combo on warm English muffin. Whose idea was it, anyway, that swordfish be cooked? It is sublime raw, dressed simply with herbs and olive oil. Add a generous layer of Njudi, spreadable spicy sausage with a hint of chili oil, and Le Sando becomes an unctuous, extraordinary bite. With Liverpool’s sangria, heavy on the blackberries, it’s another grand slam out of the park.Don’t miss Liverpool’s grilled Asparagus Diane in densely flavored morel mushroom sauce with a hint of Cognac, complex and rich. We’re blissed out; the sauce is the velvety brown of George Clooney’s eyes. Our server asks if we’d like bread for the juices. Oooh, yes. The dish is astonishingly deep, dark, veggie-centric and flavor-forward — fabulous. “How do they DO it?” we moan.We will return to Liverpool House. Joe Beef and company lives up to the the hype. Arrive early — doors open at 5:00 and it gets crowded. Their delicious success is well-deserved.

Un Po’ Di Piu!

Another epicurious treat is Un Po’ di Piu (“a little bit more”), a wonderful addition to Old Montreal’s waterfront dining scene. Un Po’ is the newly hatched sister of Olive & Gourmando, home of outstanding panini, and Foxy, creator of unforgettably delicious wood-fired trout.

We start with Campari Spritz, nibble delicious thick-skinned olives, and happily absorb the riverfront scene. The Asparagus with Burrata and local herbs is dreamy — light, soft, and delicious. The burrata plays beautifully with shallots, fresh herbs and splash of sunny yellow olive oil. Dense house-made focaccia is handy for bright and flavorful juices. Service is thoughtful, helpful and pleasantly chatty. Well done, Un Po’ di Piu!

Daily Bruschetta features tiny, Maine-style shrimp – the kind we no longer get in Maine. Alas, they’ve wisely migrated to cooler Canadian waters. The shrimp arrive piled high on slices of grilled sourdough, topped with tomato essence, olive oil and basil. Exquisite tastes! Our happy reunion with the small, succulent shrimp is well worth the trip.

Don’t miss Un Po’ di Piu.

Mile End Food Tour

Mile End is also an epicurean Montreal hub. We explore this thriving hive of musicians, creatives, chefs and entrepreneurs via the brilliant and revealing Mile End Food Tour. My dear foodie friend, Radio Girl, comes along — a perfect companion. We actually get a little giggly from the excitement of our first food tour together! Oh my, it is such fun.

Walla Volo is a colorful, multicultural Mile End mural and the largest in Canada.

Our tour is led by engaging guide, Sebastian, who speaks English, French, German and even a bit of Italian. He is both fun to listen to and nice to look at. We happily ping from falafel to chocolate, bagels to gnocchi, and on to charcuterie and baked goods. We visit the Godfather of Gattuso and sample his beautiful salsa della nonna. We peer into the window of Wilensky’s, creator and purveyor of an identical grilled bologna sandwich on white bread, with pickle, since 1938. Seriously.

We explore back alleys, quirky shops and Mile End stalwarts like St. Viateur Bagel. We absorb local lore and color while savoring some neighborhood classics. My favorite bite is a succulent pork rillette at Boucherie St. Lawrence — excellent. Our odyssey concludes with a bit of mango gelato at Kem CoBa. Radio Girl and I agree, mango is just the thing.

Get There

Montreal has a festival every five minutes all year long. If you don’t believe me, check it out for yourself. Montreal is known for vibrant nightlife, all-season festivals, cinq-a-sept happy hours, multi-cultural conviviality and joie de vivre. More than a mini-taste of France, this grown-up, world-class metropolis is more than worth a visit in any season. •

 

Posted in Canada, East Coast Travel, Farm-to-Table, Festivals, Food and Wine, Holiday Travel, International, Jazz Festival, Maine, Maine Travel, Montreal, Music, Off-the-beaten-track, Quebec | Tagged , , , , | 1 Comment