Stuffed and Baked: A Mediterranean Vacation Diary

| 13 Aug 2014 | 12:25

    For reasons that would be of little interest to anyone except our creditors, Elizabeth and I began our French-Italian vacation on a baggage-class British Airways night flight that required a stopover in London on the way to Rome. Early the next morning we found ourselves at Gatwick, one of the world's less prepossessing airports, wanting breakfast and not liking the looks of the terminal coffee shop. When you have a few hours between flights, as we did, the redeeming feature of Gatwick is that the city is very nearby via light rail. We got to Victoria Station on the Gatwick Express in well under 20 minutes.   Rome is a fantastic place, and I'm already looking forward to my next visit, but it won't be in July. The perambulating that's essential to enjoying any classic city is obstructed by the insane auto, bus and scooter traffic in all seasons, and in summer the swarms of visitors, humid heat and air pollution can be exhausting. Determination helps, and was supplied copiously by both Elizabeth and her Aunt Joan, a favorite relative whose annual visit to Italy had influenced the timing of our own trip. After checking into the Eliseo, an economical but pleasant three-star hotel near the Via Veneto and the Palazzo Borghese, and eating dinner on the patio of George's, a pretty but undistinguished old restaurant, we three embarked on a long evening walk. If you do go to Rome at the height of tourist season, nighttime is when to see a lot of the architectural sights. The Capitoline Hill, the Forum and the Colosseum are well lit but virtually deserted, the air is cooler and the cars pose fewer obstacles. One place to start would be the bar atop the Forum Hotel, with a great view and a flute of Prosecco (or a fashionable shot of super-chilled Limoncello).

    If you've already visited the Sistine Chapel and the Vatican Museum, avoid the overwhelming crush of pilgrims and spend a couple of hours at the Galleria Borghese (06/85-48-577 to make a required booking), which was reopened last year after a protracted (14 years!) but splendid renovation. Admission is limited, which means no perspiring mob jostling you past the displays. Set in a lovely park, the 17th-century palace was built as the personal museum of a certain luxury-loving Cardinal Borghese. The favorite of this great art patron seems to have been Bernini, whose pieces here include the wonderful Apollo and Daphne?her marble limbs sprouting leaves while, running from the lusty god, she's transformed into a laurel tree. (I may just be bloodyminded, but I also really liked Caravaggio's David With the Head of Goliath.)

    Another solution to the stifling heat and crowds is to head out to the countryside by car, as we did one evening with our friends Stefano and Fausta. Stefano, a native Roman chef who used to cook at Il Cantinori in the Village, picked a hillside trattoria whose name I've unfortunately forgotten. The place was by no means unique, anyway; the idea was what mattered. A few bottles of Chianti, antipasto, grilled fish, wild berries, a cool breeze. Stefano told us he missed the easier living in New York, where, he thinks, the restaurants are better than in Rome.

    In Florence, anyone with sufficient funds should stay a night or two at the Hotel Lungarno, about a block from the Ponte Vecchio on the north bank of the Arno. It's elegant and comfortable without being ostentatious, and the better rooms have terraces overlooking the river and the city. (When you're less flush, a nice alternative is the Hermitage, a smaller hotel near the Uffizi Gallery.) Hotel "continental" breakfasts should be avoided; for the same price, I preferred Giacosa, an upscale espresso bar in the shopping district on the Via Tornabuoni. The coffee, pastry and panini are excellent, the waiters are friendly and the clientele is mostly local. Not far from there is Coco Lezzone, the tiny backstreet restaurant beatified by New York restaurant critics back when Tuscan food first began to fascinate America. We had lunch there?minestrone with rice, ribollita, roast pork, vitello tonnato, peaches in white wine and so on?and it vindicated the worshipful framed reviews on the walls.

    After a few days trundling around from church to cathedral, examining frescoes and tombs (don't miss the spooky Medici mausoleum in San Lorenzo), a worthwhile change is an uphill hike from the Arno to Pian de Giullari. That's where the heretic Galileo was more or less imprisoned in a villa for 11 years. A special appointment is needed to get inside, but the important point (to me at least) is made by the plaque outside.

    Across the street is the real destination, a marvelous trattoria called Omero where the cuisine is strictly traditional (Florentine steak, flattened grilled chicken, perfect white beans) and the windows look out on olive trees and grape arbors. Walking back down, we stopped for an iced coffee at Piazzale Michelangelo, which offers a panoramic view of the city. Or you can take a cab or bus up to the lovely ancient town of Fiesole, where we had terrific pasta on the arcaded terrace at Villa San Michele, a former monastery turned five-star hotel that was designed by Michelangelo.

    We took a day trip by train to Ravenna, on the eastern coast of Emilia-Romagna?a town of quiet, pretty piazzas that was once the booming capital of the Western Empire and a great port from the time of Augustus in the first century AD until the Byzantine era a few centuries later. By then the port was silted in and the boom was over for the next thousand years or so.

    A big boast in Ravenna is that Dante, having been driven from his hometown of Florence by political enemies, was laid to rest here. His dignified tomb, where the chastened Florentines supply oil for a flickering flame, is worth a quick stop. The main reasons to visit are Sant'Apollinare Nuovo, a huge sixth-century cathedral decorated with gorgeous mosaics, and the small but beautiful mausoleum dedicated to Galla Placidia, wife of a fourth-century barbarian ruler and sister of a Roman emperor. Unlike Dante, however, she's not actually buried in Ravenna, and probably never was.

    Leaving Florence to meet up with Joan again on the Riviera, we decided to take an overnight train along the Ligurian coast to Nice. Apparently the only way to accomplish this was to stop for several hours in Pisa.

    That old leaning tower is one of those ultimate cliche attractions to which no photograph can do justice. Now I know why people have been coming to gawk for hundreds of years. After gazing at it for some time and taking a few corny pictures, we sat down and ate pizza at a noisy little joint where we could keep looking at the tower until the sun went down. There isn't much else to do anyway in Pisa, a university town with a decent bar called the Pub. After a couple of beers there, we walked back over one of the bridges that crosses the Arno up there to the train station. In the middle of the night the train finally showed up and, miraculously, we were shown to our berth by a helpful, efficient porter who brought us some bottled water.

    The next morning, however, didn't work out quite as well. The train unceremoniously dumped its hundreds of passengers well short of the French border?supposedly because of a fire somewhere ahead, but in fact because of a strike. It had to happen sometime. We got to Nice in a taxi we shared with a Navy dentist on holiday. Worse was yet to come when we picked up a rental car to drive to St. Tropez, where everybody in France seemed to be crawling down the two-lane highway toward the beaches.

    The Riviera and St. Tropez in particular suffer from the modern syndrome of popular summer resorts everywhere: too many cars, too much tacky tourist junk and too many fellow vacationers yearning for sun and sand. Joan knows the town very well and remembers a better time; she told us about the swinging days 30 years ago, when almost everybody went topless all the time, including at dinner. She had booked us into the Ermitage, a fine family-run hotel just below an old hilltop fort called La Citadelle. From our upstairs room, we could look out over shady gardens, red tile roofs and the perfect blue bay.

    One afternoon, Joan took us to an exclusive little beachside club, La Voile Rouge, for lunch and a swim. Sitting under a thatched canopy a little too close to the sound system (blasting the Fugees' cover of "Killing Me Softly"), we ordered pizzas, salads and iced tea. Prancing around between and on top of the tables were two or three models, showing off the latest in exotically elaborate resort wear, all conveniently available in the adjacent boutiques. It was the sort of place where they charged $20 for six or seven spears of asparagus vinaigrette, and another $25 per person, per day to perch on a cushioned lounge chair along the club's private strip of sand. There's not much in St. Tropez that isn't for sale or for rent?including the temporary right to a little more waterfront than might be available to the less fortunate on the other side of the fence at la plage publique. Everybody still has to swim in the same water, which was surprisingly clean and refreshing. Personally, I found the well-dressed cabana boys at the Voile Rouge a little too officious and watchful for my taste. The next day we went to the public beach, where vendors come by selling beignets, soda citron and copies of Liberation (yes, even French socialists vacation on the Riviera).

    There are great restaurants here, but they're expensive. On a Saturday, we bought lunch at the bustling weekly market on the square, where local farmers bring their cheese, honey, Cavaillon melons and much other Provençal produce. The seafood places along the port mostly should be avoided?they're overpriced, and all you can see from the tables are the enormous docked yachts that block the water from view. The best dinner we had in town was at Bistrot des Lices, which served an unbelievably delicious raspberry souffle. The weather was hot and muggy even after midnight, so we generally drank white wine. The local Chateau Minuty they serve almost everywhere was decent, but La Clos Neuve Prestige '98, also from a chateau nearby, was a lot better for a few francs more.

    St. Tropez wasn't exactly my kind of town, being a bit Eurotrashy and boutiquey. Still, after a few dips in the sea and a bowl or two of soupe de poissons, my favorite, I realized I could relax and enjoy it. Then it was time to fight the traffic back to Nice, and fly home.