Stuffed and Baked: A Mediterranean Vacation Diary

| 17 Feb 2015 | 01:25

    For reasonsthat would be of little interest to anyone except our creditors, Elizabeth andI began our French-Italian vacation on a baggage-class British Airways nightflight that required a stopover in London on the way to Rome. Early the nextmorning we found ourselves at Gatwick, one of the world's less prepossessingairports, wanting breakfast and not liking the looks of the terminal coffeeshop. When you have a few hours between flights, as we did, the redeeming featureof Gatwick is that the city is very nearby via light rail. We got to VictoriaStation on the Gatwick Express in well under 20 minutes. Rome isa fantastic place, and I'm already looking forward to my next visit, but itwon't be in July. The perambulating that's essential to enjoying any classiccity 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 AuntJoan, a favorite relative whose annual visit to Italy had influenced the timingof our own trip. After checking into the Eliseo, an economical but pleasantthree-star hotel near the Via Veneto and the Palazzo Borghese, and eating dinneron the patio of George's, a pretty but undistinguished old restaurant, we threeembarked 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 CapitolineHill, the Forum and the Colosseum are well lit but virtually deserted, the airis cooler and the cars pose fewer obstacles. One place to start would be thebar atop the Forum Hotel, with a great view and a flute of Prosecco (or a fashionableshot of super-chilled Limoncello). If you'vealready visited the Sistine Chapel and the Vatican Museum, avoid the overwhelmingcrush of pilgrims and spend a couple of hours at the Galleria Borghese (06/85-48-577to make a required booking), which was reopened last year after a protracted(14 years!) but splendid renovation. Admission is limited, which means no perspiringmob jostling you past the displays. Set in a lovely park, the 17th-century palacewas 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 pieceshere include the wonderful Apollo and Daphne-her marble limbs sproutingleaves 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 Withthe Head of Goliath.)

    Anothersolution to the stifling heat and crowds is to head out to the countryside bycar, as we did one evening with our friends Stefano and Fausta. Stefano, a nativeRoman chef who used to cook at Il Cantinori in the Village, picked a hillsidetrattoria whose name I've unfortunately forgotten. The place was by no meansunique, 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 easierliving 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 elegantand comfortable without being ostentatious, and the better rooms have terracesoverlooking the river and the city. (When you're less flush, a nice alternativeis the Hermitage, a smaller hotel near the Uffizi Gallery.) Hotel "continental"breakfasts should be avoided; for the same price, I preferred Giacosa, an upscaleespresso bar in the shopping district on the Via Tornabuoni. The coffee, pastryand panini are excellent, the waiters are friendly and the clientele is mostlylocal. Not far from there is Coco Lezzone, the tiny backstreet restaurant beatifiedby New York restaurant critics back when Tuscan food first began to fascinateAmerica. We had lunch there-minestrone with rice, ribollita, roast pork, vitellotonnato, peaches in white wine and so on-and it vindicated the worshipful framedreviews on the walls.

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

    Across thestreet is the real destination, a marvelous trattoria called Omero where thecuisine 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, whichoffers 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 terraceat Villa San Michele, a former monastery turned five-star hotel that was designedby Michelangelo.

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

    A big boastin Ravenna is that Dante, having been driven from his hometown of Florence bypolitical enemies, was laid to rest here. His dignified tomb, where the chastenedFlorentines supply oil for a flickering flame, is worth a quick stop. The mainreasons to visit are Sant'Apollinare Nuovo, a huge sixth-century cathedral decoratedwith gorgeous mosaics, and the small but beautiful mausoleum dedicated to GallaPlacidia, 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 neverwas.

    LeavingFlorence to meet up with Joan again on the Riviera, we decided to take an overnighttrain along the Ligurian coast to Nice. Apparently the only way to accomplishthis was to stop for several hours in Pisa.

    That oldleaning tower is one of those ultimate cliche attractions to which no photographcan do justice. Now I know why people have been coming to gawk for hundredsof 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 lookingat the tower until the sun went down. There isn't much else to do anyway inPisa, a university town with a decent bar called the Pub. After a couple ofbeers there, we walked back over one of the bridges that crosses the Arno upthere to the train station. In the middle of the night the train finally showedup and, miraculously, we were shown to our berth by a helpful, efficient porterwho brought us some bottled water.

    The nextmorning, however, didn't work out quite as well. The train unceremoniously dumpedits hundreds of passengers well short of the French border-supposedly becauseof a fire somewhere ahead, but in fact because of a strike. It had to happensometime. 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 towardthe beaches.

    The Rivieraand St. Tropez in particular suffer from the modern syndrome of popular summerresorts everywhere: too many cars, too much tacky tourist junk and too manyfellow vacationers yearning for sun and sand. Joan knows the town very welland 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 hadbooked us into the Ermitage, a fine family-run hotel just below an old hilltopfort called La Citadelle. From our upstairs room, we could look out over shadygardens, red tile roofs and the perfect blue bay.

    One afternoon,Joan took us to an exclusive little beachside club, La Voile Rouge, for lunchand a swim. Sitting under a thatched canopy a little too close to the soundsystem (blasting the Fugees' cover of "Killing Me Softly"), we orderedpizzas, salads and iced tea. Prancing around between and on top of the tableswere two or three models, showing off the latest in exotically elaborate resort wear, all conveniently available in the adjacent boutiques. It was the sortof 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 alongthe club's private strip of sand. There's not much in St. Tropez that isn'tfor sale or for rent-including the temporary right to a little more waterfrontthan might be available to the less fortunate on the other side of the fenceat la plage publique. Everybody still has to swim in the same water,which was surprisingly clean and refreshing. Personally, I found the well-dressedcabana 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 vacationon the Riviera).

    There aregreat restaurants here, but they're expensive. On a Saturday, we bought lunchat the bustling weekly market on the square, where local farmers bring theircheese, honey, Cavaillon melons and much other Provençal produce. Theseafood places along the port mostly should be avoided-they're overpriced, andall you can see from the tables are the enormous docked yachts that block thewater from view. The best dinner we had in town was at Bistrot des Lices, whichserved an unbelievably delicious raspberry souffle. The weather was hot andmuggy even after midnight, so we generally drank white wine. The local ChateauMinuty 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. Tropezwasn'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 trafficback to Nice, and fly home.