Tuesday, August 30, 2011


Arriving at Portovenere by boat
Venere is Venus in Italian and so the name of this exquisite little village is Venus’ port, aptly named as it is indeed romantic and gorgeous. It is in the region of Liguria (north east of Tuscany) and just south on the coast line from the Cinque Terre. A boat leaves very frequently throughout the day from Portovenere to the Cinque Terre, so it is possible to stay overnight here and catch the boat up to the Cinque Terre to explore the fishing villages for the day, but then return to the warmth of Venus for the evening. Portovenere is very picturesque.  The houses are tall and narrow and painted bright colours and  are protected by medieval walls which expand into the wonderfully preserved fort above.  Perched scenographically on the coastal cliff point of the town is the romanesque church of Saint Peter (consecrated 1198).

San Pietro
Another romanesque church, Saint Lawrence, is nestled high up amongst the houses, close to the fort. There are some B&B’s and hotels, as well as restaurants and bars. Directly in front of Portovenere looms Palmaria island. There are two places to stay on the island, a B&B and the Locanda Lorena, a restaurant/hotel, where I stayed for two nights.

Locanda Lorena on Palmaria Island
A walk around the island takes a little more than two hours on a very basic goat track. It is wonderful and rustic with spectacular views. 

Scenic walk,  Palmaria Island
There is one small private beach establishment where it is possible to rent umbrellas and deck chairs for the day. This is the only one for Palmaria and Portovenere so there are many daytrippers to the island, catching the boat over (the same one that then continues to the Cinque Terre) and so it can be quite busy. Otherwise, people lie on the rocks at Portovenere.  
Locanda Lorena has a handful of rooms above their very popular restaurant below (serving predominately fish). For clients of both the hotel and the restaurant there is a free boat shuttle which goes continuously between Portovenere and their jetty on Palmaria island and which, I must admit, I took full advantage of. In the morning, I went across to Portovenere to explore the churches and the fort, and in the evening back over again to have a gin and tonic before returning to the restaurant below my room for a fish feed. Their boat is one of the fabulous wooden old style riviera boats from the 1970’s (made by ‘Riva by Ferretti’), and so I felt very diva-ish with the wind in my hair and the beautiful colours of the sunset as I was skimming across the water for my aperativo. 
At Portovenere there are a few shops selIing the typical Ligurian regional products (pesto, testaroli pasta, olive oil) as well as a very cool little ceramic bottega where I indulged (www.labottegadirena.com).

La Bottega di Rena
Portovenere and Palmaria island, like the Cinque Terre, were designated world heritage sites by UNESCO in 1997.

Saturday, August 27, 2011


The Italians are passionate about many things and gelato (literally in English ‘frozen’) is seriously high up on that passion list of theirs. Eaten by all ages, it is a national obsession. That it is good stuff is probably about one of the only things that Italians from the north to the south, east to west, would agree wholeheartedly upon !
Gelato is not simply the Italian word for ice cream, as it is indeed slightly different. There is more milk product and less cream used in gelato than in ice cream, which means that it is lower in fat content. The fat content in ice cream adds to the creaminess.  However, having less fat content doesn’t actually mean a less creamy texture, as one would logically conclude. The creamy texture of gelato is achieved by less air mixed in during the production process, something that is referred to in technical terms as ‘overrun’. An increased level of overrun is required in ice cream to keep it from freezing too solidly. Packaged generic quality ice cream often has 100% overrun, which means that it is half air. This helps to explain why it can be a big tub but not as heavy as it would be if it were gelato which has circa 20% overrun. The denser state of gelato means that the taste is more intense, and it is more like soft-serve ice cream than standard ice cream.
So, to summarize: gelato is addictive due to its dense, creamy texture, it has a high taste intensity and is less fattening!  The ingredients of gelato and ice cream are more or less the same (milk, cream, sugar, egg yolks, air and flavour) however in varying degrees.


Semi-freddo - This is equal part gelato with whipped cream. It has the consistency of a mousse.

Granita – it is water, flavour (fruit or nuts such as almonds) and sugar. The liquid base is poured into a shallow tray and frozen. At intervals it is stirred to break up the ice crystals as they form. It is typical of Sicily and served in a cup. Gourmands can also add a scoop of gelato (a winning marriage is almond granita topped with pistachio gelato).

A sorbetto – same ingredients as the granita but churned like ice cream to achieve a soft texture.

La Serenissima twist: When in Venice, do as the Venetians do and after dinner order a ‘Sgroppino’. It is served in a glass champagne flute and is a dreamy concoction of lemon gelato and vodka.

Venetian Sgroppino

THE GELATO PLAY-OFF IN FLORENCE  (these are all ‘produzione propria’ - made in-house):

Gelateria dei Neri (Via dei Neri) – I always get the ‘Giotto’ (coconut, hazelnut, walnut) but there is gorgonzola & walnut flavour, ricotta & fig, mexican dark chocolate and chili (the kick comes afterwards, very cool).

Gelateria dei Neri
Perche No! (Via dei Tavolini) is located mid-way between the cathedral and the town hall, so very convenient. Flavours such as rose and lavender are sometimes on offer, as well as a great one I tried recently which was Eastern inspired with spices and ginger - it was a winner.

Gelateria Perche No!
Vivoli (Via Isola delle Stinche) mentioned in all the guidebooks. The rice flavour is a hit. It is more expensive than the others.

Carapina (Via dei Lambertesca) – this is the newest kid on the block and making lots of publicity with the foodies in Italy (an acclaimed Italian food critic, The Gastronauta, just included it in his top five gelaterias in italy!). Their aged parmesan cheese flavour is pretty cool. I love their business cards also folded into the shape of a cone, nice touch.

Grom (Via delle Oche)– this chain is springing up like mushrooms all over Italy, born in Turin in 2003 and now gone global (Malibu, New York, Tokya, Osaka, Paris – crazy!).

My absolute favourite in Florence, I must admit, is just outside the centre, called Gelateria dei Medici (via di statuto 3-5/r) for those who are in the area. It is simply fantastic, as attested by the hordes of Florentines outside at all times of the day. 

I am an addict of the little balls that they make up of some of their flavours and then coat them with something delicious. My all time fave is the pistachio ball rolled in crushed pistachio nuts or the hazelnut rolled in crushed hazelnuts. Their house specialty is the ‘crema dei Medici’ flavor (cream and chocolate).

Finally, as a testament to the Florentines' love of gelato, every year towards the end of May there is a GELATO FESTIVAL in Florence!!!

Saturday, August 20, 2011


A wonderful American professor, who brings students to Florence every year, will be tickled pink when she hears of another old tall monument to climb in her beloved city. She climbs every tower or tall old thing in all the cities that she visits and, thus, so do I when I go with her. In Florence, until recently, there were traditionally only two sites to climb: the king of all domes in the modern world, the magnifìcent cupola (1420-36) of the cathedral by Filippo Brunelleschi (463 steps), and the gothic bell tower in the same square (414 steps). Last year the two top floors of the Orsanmichele church became accessible on Monday only (see previous blog entry) and now this year we can add the Torre di San Niccolo on the Oltrarno side of the city. This lone soldier standing on its own, seemingly built in splendid isolation, gives an erroneous idea of its original function. The large opening at ground level hints at its most important role - this tower was once part of the last set of walls that protected one of the most important and wealthiest republics of the medieval world.

Torre di San Niccolo
The Florentines decided to extend the walls of their city for the last time in second half of the thirteenth century. They commissioned their favourite architect, Arnolfo di Cambio (also the first architect of the current cathedral and the Santa Croce church for the Franciscans to name just few of his major undertakings) to provide the plan, and construction began in 1284. This major third set of walls, dramatically increasing the land territory of Florence, took circa fifty years to complete. In 1340 the walls, the large entrances and the defensive towers built above them, were completed.

Map showing third set of walls
These walls were completely intact until the 1860’s when they were largely destroyed in a regretful plan of renovation when Florence was briefly the capital of the newly formed Italian nation. A tree lined avenue was created, where the walls had been, for the carriages (this is still the main much congested ring road of the city today). The majority of the actual entrance ways were left in place as historical reminders.  They look a little incongruous, however, standing alone in the middle of five lanes of traffic.

The Saint Nicholas tower was once one of the four major entrances to the city on the south side of the river. The other three, all of which are intact, are the Porta Romana (with her original wooden doors), Porta San Giorgio and Porta San Frediano. The large wooden doors would open at sunrise and close just after sunset and were of course always guarded by sentries, just as the borders and customs are in countries and airports today. The doors were often called after a saint or religious entity important in that local area (there is the ‘church San Niccolo Oltrarno’ a stone’s throw away from the door) or where the direction may lead you, as in the case of Porta Romana or Porta Faenza (on the north side of the river). They all had towers (circa 200 feet tall) soaring up above the entrances for the sentries to survey the countryside or ‘contado’ as it is called in Italian. The Saint Nicholas tower is the only one that remains above the city wall entrance, as can be seen by the truncated other doors all around the city. The towers above the doors were destroyed by the Florentines themselves in an act of defense in 1530, when they were being besieged by the Spanish troops of the Holy Roman Emperor and the exiled Medici family. So that the canons wouldn’t be able to fire against the towers and cause great destruction when falling inside onto the people, the Florentines truncated the doors, leaving only the entrances. There was no need to destroy the one above Saint Niccolo as the hills directly behind it made it a very inconvenient station for the troops on the outside.

Porta alla Croce
Porta Romana
Every day, from 4pm - 8pm, small groups are accompanied up to the top of the tower every half hour. The view from above is lovely of both the city and the surrounding contado.

View of the city from the top of the tower
There is a little explanation about the history of the site in Italian given by the guard who accompanies the group and the admission fee is 3euro. I did have to wait until the following group as it was already booked out the time before. It is possible to reserve a place ahead of time, tel: 055 2768224, or just try your luck as I did and, if you need to wait, there is a little outside bar in the summer months down below where you can sit and relax, sipping a prosecco, whilst waiting for your time to climb. The tower is open until 1st October!
View from the tower showing the old city walls

Saturday, August 13, 2011


The bell tower in the Piazza del Duomo (Cathedral Square) is often overshadowed by the real protagonist, the house of God (the Duomo = domus dei = house of God), but it is one of my favourite medieval buildings for its complex wonderful symbolic decoration. It is nicknamed ‘Giotto’s tower’ as the great artistic maestro of the Trecento was the first architect of the structure in 1334. After his death in 1337, Andrea Pisano continued the construction and it was brought to completion by Francesco Talenti in 1359. There are two horizontal superimposed rows of bas-relief decoration which wrap around the lower part of the structure and this is what I love most. The decorative cycle was begun under Andrea Pisano and completed in the following centre under Luca della Robbia.

The Industries of Man

The campanile, being a square structure, has two rows of seven bas-reliefs on each of the sides. Concentrating first on the top register of diamond shaped bas-reliefs (the earliest, largely done under Andrea Pisano from the late 1330’s) the seven facing towards the Piazza della Signoria (the centre of the Florentine political life) are the seven virtues (three cardinal – faith, hope, charity & the four cardinal – prudence, temperance, fortitude, justice), as the Florentines elected to the government must rule with virtue.
The seven virtues

The seven facing towards the east (to back of the square) are the seven liberal arts (the trivium – rhetoric, grammar, logic & the quadrivium – music, astronomy, geometry, arithmetic) as the face where the first Florentine university was situated (the street ‘via dello studio’ reminds us of this location).

Gionitus the astronomer observing the sky
The seven facing the cathedral are the sacrements (baptism, confirmation, Eucharist, ordination, extreme unction) and finally facing the baptistery are the seven known planets at the time (Saturn, Jupiter, Mars, Apollo, Venus, Mercury, Moon) implying that we are all part of God’s great organisation and his influence filters down through the concentric perfect planetary spheres to us on earth, and baptism is the first step to ensure that the soul rejoins from whence it came after death.

Grammar (one of the seven liberal arts) in the Cathedral Museum 
Directly below the hexagonal bas-reliefs are the Industries of man, what man is capable of when using the above structures.
There is construction, civil law, fabric production with a depiction of a loom (the back bone of the Florentine merchant economy), astronomy, painting, sculpture, but my favourite is the depiction of Daedalus. He represents human ingenuity and genius. He is shown with the wings that he made in order to fly away from the island of Crete after falling out of favour with his patron, the King Minos, when the labyrinth that he had created to house the Minotaur had been mastered by Theseus and the half bull half man had been killed. In the bas-relief Daedalus (his name means skilled worker from Greek) is depicted with feathers all over his body, which I think is a nice touch.

The inclusion of human ingenuity personified sums up the Florentine spirit at the beginning of the fourteenth century. With their population ever increasing and business flourishing, they had brimming confidence. Its inclusion helps us understand how a republic can commission a dome for their cathedral larger than what was possible for them to actually construct with the knowledge available at the time. They just assumed that by the time they did come around to building it, somebody would have figured it out. The campanile displays the Florentine Republic in all of its religious, civic and economic pride and is worth a closer look when next in the square.
The bas reliefs are now copies and the originals are displayed very well in the museum of the cathedral located in the cathedral square behind the apse (open everyday Monday-Saturday 9am-7.30pm, Sunday 9am-1.40pm, admission: 6euro)

Saturday, August 6, 2011


Santa Maria Novella pharmacy is a beautiful place to visit. It mixes the old with the new and it smells divine. As soon as you open the door, the wonderful aroma from the herbs and flowers used for the potpourri and essences, and the array of different products for both sexes (not to mention the selection for our four legged friends also – a range for cats and dogs!), wafts welcomely over us. Walking past a sculpture of Aesculapius – the pagan god of medicine – reminds us immediately of the history of the place. This was, before becoming the chic shop it is today, the area of the infirmary for the Dominican complex, the place where they sold their remedies and curing agents, as well as the location of their herb garden and presses for their manufacturing.

The current entrance to the Farmacia, from the street (via della Scala), means that we walk initially through a vestibule and into the first selling room which was previously the gothic style chapel, built in the fourteenth century and paid for by the Accaiuoli family, and built next door to the infirmary for the sick. The family donated money for the chapel’s construction after having benefited from the Dominicans' medical saviness. The chapel was restructured into the selling room in 1848 when the street entrance was made. From the onset of Dominican presence in Florence (early 1200’s), the friars made remedies and kept a herb garden, their rose water (used to purify the air and as an antiseptic in times of plague epidemics) was already mentioned as being for sale in a document from1381. The Dominicans hired a skilled layman apocathery and herbalist in 1542 and an independent ledger was begun. 

The official founding date for the pharmacy as a shop and establishment open to the public however, where the creams and waters for commercial sale were produced, is 1612. In the 1650’s it was endorsed directly by the Medici Grand Duke of Tuscany and received many privileges, one of which was an additional title ‘Foundry to His Royal Highness’. Today the old infirmary is the second selling room, and the current third selling room was the initial selling room. This third room (with original 1700’s decoration) gives onto one of two cloisters in the Dominican complex (off limits today as it used by the Carabinieri) as the Farmacia was, before the mid-1800’s, entered from inside the monastery.

The Dominican cloisters

Don’t miss a visit into the little sacristy (next to the chapel, now accessed from the second selling room) with the original frescoes of the passion of Christ attributed to Spinello Aretino (ca.1350-1410).
Open: everyday 9.30amam-7.30pm (frescoed sacristy & room with presses and ceramics 10.30am-7pm).