April 21, 2013
Mont-St-Michel is an occasional island in Normandy, France that is so stunning it’s worth battling the hordes inching their way up the Grand Rue to reach La Merveille (“the miracle”). The three tiers of thirteenth century buildings surrounding an abbey topped with a golden statue of Saint Michael, his posture combative, are indeed a marvel and a vision of strength and simplicity.
In summer, the Mont is crowded with tourists arriving by bus or car before making their way across the ramparts to clog the streets on their slow journey up to the abbey, whose spire dramatically crowns the Mont.
A cacophony of voices in innumerable languages mingle their way up and up. “Doucement, doucement,” French mothers advise small children and they climb the old stone steps: softly, softly.
The Abbey moves closer into view.
Finally, the abbey. The Eglise Abbatiale doesn’t impress with ornate stained glass or artwork. In fact, it is surprisingly sparse and simple and quiet and, like a sudden silence after constant, unrelenting noise it calls the pilgrim to attention and contemplation.
The cloisters provide another opportunity for contemplation, and a welcome bit of green: lush life among all the stone and sand.
We stayed on the Mont, at the Hotel Croix Blanche, in August. The Mont was heavily, heavily touristed at that point, and our stay was only bearable because we had the Mont nearly to ourselves after dark. In the early morning, we again climbed up to the abbey, this time by ourselves, lingering at the bay views and admiring the tiny, winding streets.
March 27, 2013
As Easter approaches, I’m thinking about the themes of life, death, and resurrection (of a kind) in the 2010 Italian film ‘Le Quattro Volte’. In its press release, the director paraphrases Pythagoras, who lived in the 6th century, BC in what is now Calabria, Italy: “Each of us has four lives inside us which fit into one another. Man is mineral because his skeleton is made of salt; man is also vegetable because his blood flows like sap; he is animal in as much he is endowed with motility and knowledge of the outside world. Finally, man is human because he has the gifts of will and reason. Thus, we must know ourselves four times.”
Regardless of whether Pythagoras philosophy resonates, the film moved me as a meditation on life and death and time and beauty in a village up in the hills of Calabria. It’s tempting to say that the village is “isolated” and “remote” and “forgotten by time”, but these platitudes are not only cliché but untrue. Read the rest of this entry »
March 24, 2013
It’s been a cold, gloomy spring so far here in Chicago, perfect weather for looking back on summer trips to brighter, warmer places. We visited Salzburg, Austria in late summer and the gardens were still lush and the city full of little surprises.
March 10, 2013
I grew up thinking of Audrey Hepburn as the UNICEF lady: a serenely beautiful, soft and well-spoken advocate for starving children. It wasn’t until sometime in high school that I watched ‘Breakfast at Tiffany’s’ and realized that she’d first been a movie star whose grace and impeccable fashion sense aren’t likely to be duplicated. Not in today’s world.
While I don’t think we should ever mimic another person or attempt to follow directly in their footsteps, we can observe and admire the way they respond to various challenges or successes that come their way. Which is why I appreciated Melissa Hellstern’s How to be lovely: the Audrey Hepburn way of life: it isn’t a step-by-step manual for emulating Audrey or a pictorial of her style, but rather a collection of simple and profound observations from Audrey Hepburn’s imperfect yet exemplary life. So, a few lessons gleaned… Read the rest of this entry »
March 4, 2013
“What really belongs to a man except what he has already lived? What has a man to live for except what he is not yet living?” – Cesare Pavese
March 3, 2013
In researching for the Florentine portion of our Italian journey, I was intrigued by what promised to be hearty, filling fare in the Tuscany region. I knew about bistecca alla fiorentina and wild boar, but an Italian acquaintance enthusiastically recommended something I’d never heard of: a simple, rustic dish called pappa al pomodoro, made of day old bread, olive oil, garlic, basil, and chopped tomatoes. Thankfully we took her advice and this, among other memorable dishes, made our time in Florence a gastronomic treat.
Each morning began with Brazilian caffe and locally made cantuccini at our bed & breakfast (the latter of which our proprietor gave us as a delicious parting gift). In between visits to the Accademia, Uffizi, and Boboli Gardens, we treated ourselves to some Florentine specialties at restaurants and trattoria in the Oltrarno area, where we were staying. At Il Cantinone (via Santo Spirito, 6r), we each started with the pappa al pomodoro. The texture and flavor of this not-quite-soup was complex and completely unique. Matt tried his darndest to make a dent in his enormous bistecco alla fiorentina, while I swooned over pork cooked with cinnamon, cloves, anise and spinach. Il Cantinone is known for its wines and the restaurant is, fittingly, in a cellar. Read the rest of this entry »
We ate well in Italy, and not by chance. I knew that ‘x’ amount of days meant ‘x’ amount of meals and desserts and because Italian is my favorite cuisine, I didn’t want to waste a single dining opportunity. I researched food blogs and forums, magazines and even guidebook reviews and compiled a list of recommendations. During the many months leading up to our trip, I developed great expectations for memorable culinary experiences.
Too often in Rome, though, our sightseeing schedule didn’t jive with the good restaurants, which are often far removed from touristy areas. Florence, however, is a much smaller city and because we were staying in Oltrarno, an area known for delicious and reasonably priced restaurants, it turned out that every place we ate was a place to which I’d gladly return. We ate well throughout the city, though, including at the place pictured above, called Vestri, just a short walk from the Duomo.
Vestri (Borfo degli Albizi, 11r) is a chocolatier that also happens to have excellent gelato. The dark chocolate flavor was excellent, of course, as were the hazelnut and stracciatella. Another notable gelato spot was Carapina (via Lambertesca, 18r), which is all about quality, seasonal ingredients. We popped into the small outpost near the ponte Vecchio for some sustenance after an afternoon at the Uffizi and, cups in hand, joined the small crowd of people enjoying their own cones and cups along the small, cobbled lane. Grom (via delle Oche, 24r), a chain, proved a good alternative to the puffed up bins of unnaturally colored and flavored gelato throughout the city center. The caramello al sale (salted caramel) was particularly tasty. Read the rest of this entry »