Inside a secret garden in Florence

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The morning after I arrived in Florence, I ran down Porta Romana for my morning espresso at Bar d’Angelo and then on to Italia Power Yoga for my DIY yoga retreat week (meaningly 2-3 classes a week, scattered around my eating, reading and relaxing time in the city). I pulled myself to a halt as I passed number 144, via dei Serragli. The drive way is of grande size, lined with big beautiful trees on both side. The name on the small door was written in perfect illuminati style – Giardino Torrigiani (Torrigini Garden). I have not heard of it in any travel sites, especially when in Oltrarno, Bogoli Garden took the crown jewel.

After blissful yoga, I went home and started my digging. Do you know Giardino Torrigiani is Europe largest private garden? 17 acres of lush English style garden is solely own and managed by the Torrigiani family since 16 century. The catch to visit it – an invitation from of the 2 owners who would then accompany you around. That’s what it said on the website.

I went on to send a nice admiring email to the property hoping to arrange a visit within my time in the city. And so I waited. 10 hour later, the reply came with details of the visit which worked really well. They typically hosting a party of minimum 4 people but lucky me, Mr Torrigiani agreed to host myself and 2 other fellow traveller, on Thursday afternoon, at 5.30pm. Great time to finish with an aperitif afterwards.

The family has owned this garden all along and it was near the very first fortification of the city, built by Cosimo I de Medici in early 16 century to defend the city from Siena’s attack.. I did recommend anyone who want to visit Italy to read a bit about the Medici family – fascinating bit of history! In side the garden now stay 3 residence – one of the Vieri, one of his sister and the other of his cousin, making it 2 branches of the family that own the garden together – the Torrigiani Malaspina and Torrigiani di Santa Cristina.

As Vieri shared, the name Torrigiarni meant “the man at the tower”. Pietro Torrigiani inheritted the small botanical garden in 18 century from his mother’s brother, Cardinal Torrigiani,  as well as the Torrigiani name.  He started acquiring the neighbouring lands to build up from the famous botanical garden. Within his property he built a 3 tier tower (square, hexagon and cylinder shapes) for his astronomical observation.

The garden boasts some wonderful architecture with statues, artificial river, bridges, arch, grotto, temple,  tower, etc. The botanical collection ranges from the Far East to the Americas. This used to be a famous botanical garden of Italy due to its owner’s passion for plants. Till now, Vieri and his son still provide many plants for the city from their own plant nursery and greenhouse within the garden. They also host events at their wonderful home.

After the long walk, Vieri invited us in for some refreshing white wine, a perfect end for a hot summer afternoon.

I wish the Torrigiani many good years ahead to maintain this wonderful oasis inside wall of Florence.

Maybe next time you are in Florence, take a chance to visit!

Love,

Kate

 

 

 

 

Capri out of hour

I heard of Capri. I wanted to visit Capri. I knew it would be expensive as everyone seemed to pour into this tiny little island off the gulf of Sorrento. It is the crown jewelry  of the Tyrrhenian sea.

There are 2 sides – Capri and Anacapri. Capri, closer to Sorrento, is the port, with many restaurants, hotels on top of hotels, boutiques inside boutiques. It’s the land of 15 euro pizza and overpriced pasta. Anacapri is the sister village, only 20′ on bus from Capri yet hold some of the island main attractions – mount Solaro and its famously scary chairlift , Grotta Azzurra (Blue Grotto), Villa San Michelle and a few more. I opted to stay in Anacapri to soothe my funemployment pocket.

So at first I booked in one of the cheapest airbnb but has great view and a pool in Anacapri. Then I decided against it to spend more time in Almafi Coast. Then I was convinced by Isabella to just go there even to stay only 1 night and make some nice pretty sandals there. Using up my hotels.com award, I managed to get a hotel in Anacapri just the day before getting to Capri.  The ferry took me from Ischia to Capri port in less than an hour, where the hotel manager greeted me at gate 21 in a tiny van. There were another English lady on solo trip and a young couple. As we squeezed our way out of the packed marina, we started climbing up the mountain road between the 2 villages. I was relieved I did not plan to ride a scooter here. I would freak! The driver skillfully took us through the smallest alley that somehow still fit the car and arrived at Hotel Il Girasole (which means Sunflower).

The hotel is a little run down, 1980 styles, yet it has a pool and a large veranda with impeccable views of the ocean and Ischia island. That’s a nice surprise! I asked the hotel manager about a nearby restaurant called Da Gelsomina and got his approval. He also offered to help me arrange for the pick up service. Hospitality at its grandeur!

After arranging my little things and taking many good photos of the view, I headed down to the main square for a walk and some  late lunch. Anacapri around 12-2pm is nice and quiet as all the day-trippers are now flocking down Grotto Azzurra to catch the best time of the light. There were an ongoing Pizza festival that weekend I learnt as I saw random colorful pizza ovens were set up on the street. In front of the big cathedral, a small stage was being prepared for the yearly outdoor concert. A few people sat down for the rehearsal performance. The streets are small and clean and crammed with restaurants, bars and boutiques. Handmade leather sandals, linen fashions, ceramics, Italian condiments, lemon and all its products – to name a few. I found Antonia Viva shop as from Isabella’s recommendation. In total honesty, I was not crazy about the all complicated dedicated strappy look of the sandals here – I had become way too practical and minimalist in my attire for the last 2 years. I tried them on and made my final no as the soles were so stiff and slippery. Really just for show sandals.  I settled at a small cafe with a humble 4 star on Google review and order just a seafood pasta. I really wanted to save myself for dinner (I did had a massive dinner at Ischia’s Nano Cantino the night before and still stuffed!). Here even in the cheaper side of the island, you still expect to pay 25 euro for a very average lunch.

The island was baked under the sun. 39*C is not my forte. A lot of A/C and some swimming later, I sat on the porch watching out to the sunset, the best I had ever seen. The sun was glowing like a fireball falling down casting its dark shadow on the calm sea. Far away is the symmetrical cone shape of Ischia. The sky changed its coat from blue to orange to red to mulberry. Everything was still, so still at that moment, wondering what an incredible chore that universe had done. Even my mind was calm.

At 8.30, a tiny van from Da Gelsomina picked me up and climbed up the hill. In the car there were 2 more ladies from the accent of whom I knew they were American. The restaurant lied on the hill top, even higher than hotel Il Girasole with its outdoor pool and al fresco dining room. As I waited to be seated, the host come and took a couple, then the 2 ladies BEHIND me. I looked at him and said politely “Excuse me, would you ask if I need a table please?”. He looked at me in dismay like the first time in his life he was asked to wait on a customer. “Only you?”. I didn’t say anything. The 2 blonde yelled “Oh you can sit with us if you want”. I turned around eyes in a bullet shape “Thank you, but no thank you”.

Then I was seated in a corner of the restaurant, the darkest corner where mosquitoes were await for their Asian dinner. And I seated. I finished 2 glasses of wine and I was still seated, the idiot waiter was still busy serving the blonde. After much of a hassle, I wandered to the fish tank, counting fish to take attention from the CHEF. Then finally I was served. Food was delicious and expensive (very) and I shall not return.

The next day I aimed to explore the Capri side in the early morning before the 10am mark of day-tripper arrival. Taking a small local bus to the other side, at some point, i thought i was thrown out to the seas and at another point, i thought we had crashed a scooter to the rock! From the bus station I started walking toward Faraglioni passing many fancy boutiques. I wondered what a boring holiday it would be – trapped in a beautiful and expensive island with very limited beach time, tiny hotels, drink limoncello, and do nothing but shop at Versace, Prada, Misoni, etc.

 

The rain started as i reached the beach club down the cliff, stormy to be true. I looked out to the sea to all those tiny dingy boat and it scared the s*** out of me. I have always been scared of open water, especially choppy open water.

On the way back to the main square to visit Via Krupp, I heard a shiny voice singing O Sole Mio – it’s the lemonade seller. Her Granitta di Lemone is the most expensive  as well as the most disgusting in town. I forked out 3 euro just to hear her sing. And guess who else? Everyone.

The famous Via Krupp was one of the most beautiful road in the world zigzaging from the cliff down the water toward Marino Picolo. The view from the top down the silk like road to the turquoise water is very charming. I was rather disappointed the Via Krupp was no longer accessible and will never be completed due to  falling rocks. It would have been amazing to walk all the way to Marina Picolo listening to the ocean waves.  And you paid a fine 5 euro just to get in the tiny Augustus garden to look at the walkway.

By the time I left Augustus garden it’s around noon and the town is so so crowded. I wandered around checked out a few restaurant and get into one with many celebrity review. 25 euro later, I had a pizza and a glass of wine. Pick up a pretty leather sandal (not strappy!) on my way back to the bus stop, i squeezed myself in a full of teenagers ride back to anacapri, ready for a good nap. Should i go to the blue grotto? Should I stayed in this heat for an hour and then pay silly money to get in a cave? Lucky me, as the sea was rough, the cave was closed that day. A perfect afternoon to chill on the porch!

On my last day in Capri, I decided to take the famous chairlift to mount Solaro instead of 2 hour hiking up. It’s scary as f***. just a chair, with a handle across your front, and off you go, all airy up the mountain. You can walk around and take in the entire island in your eyes. So so beautiful! This is definitely the best 11 euro I had spent on the island.

My verdict – if you have money to splash, go to Capri and stay a few night. The island is way better at night, before 10 and after 5.30pm as only the true holiday makers are left behind. Calmer and quieter.

 

 

 

 

Consciously forgetting the checklist in Italy

I know most people go to Italy with checklist ( I did on my first trip to Italy and I checked every single things off!). Here is probably the most popular-

  1. Roma – visting Christine Chapel, wandering Colosseum, people watching at Spanish Steps, testing Mouth of Truth (thank to the classic and graceful Audrey Hepburn), throwing a coin at Trevi fountains and making too many wishes, checking out Pantheons, walking Castello Angelo and putting a damn lock on the bridge).
  2. Venezia (Venice) – taking the overpriced romantic boat ride admiring and speculating stories about the Ponte dei Sospiri, visiting the basillica and bell tower, getting lost in the city (you don’t need to try, you will!), hopping on a river taxi to Murano and Burano, hoping to see wonderful yachts.
  3. Firenze (Florence) – seeing all legacy of the Medici family (Literally the entire city!), walking across Ponte Vecchio and admiring the local vendor, climb up the hill to see David and watch the sun setting over the city, etc. These plus day trip to Cinque terra, seeing Pisa leaning tower, tasting wine. Some people expressed to do Florence and Chianti in a day.
  4. Capri – I actually not sure about this one.

All the above are wonderful things and you need to know you are fortunate enough to see them, however, you can enjoy all that if you have at least a week in each city. And Italy is not just Rome – Venice – Florence. Also, mind you all these beautiful cities and sites are carefully preserved so that 10, 20, 50, 100 years from now, they still look great (and pretty much the same). For me, the entire city of Florence is a museum itself. So calm the h*** down!

Having been to Italy numerous times (I love it!), I’m speaking this from my own experience.

My first time in Italy back in 2009, I spent 10 days in the 3 cities above and crossed around 50% of the above. My 2nd time in 2013, I spent a week only in Chianti region (still didn’t do a vineyard visit!). The most recent, this summer, i spent 2 weeks. the first half lazing in Florence (My favourite city) and then a bit of running around south Ischia – Capri – Salerno. I didn’t cross many “must do”, but I collected some very fond memories and some good friends.

So here is 10 bullet buttons:

  • ARRIVAL – Try to arrive between 4pm and 7pm to ensure the best greetings at hotels or especially homestay/airbnb. Italians doesn’t really work in the morning, go on lunch break between 12-4pm and then off to fiesta at 7pm. It’s like God’s times to them so be respectful and don’t expect too much. People give you the most attention and most helpful from 4-7pm I found.
  • ATTENTIOn – If you want your host or the hotel to pick you up, call them the day before and as you arrive (even if you have told them through the booking, on messages, all black and white in writing). Italians love attention but they will leave you alone after check in. Love it!
  • BAR – If you are paying more than 1 euro for an espresso, you’re in a very touristy area. Try to look for though small local water holes which are cafe by day and bar by night. It’s the same word in Italians’ world – BAR. Go there in the morning and see those Italian order an espresso, talking to a stranger while waiting, drinking the coffee straight away, leaving a coin and off on his vespa. Those with mostly local are the best!
  • ROAM – Walk around, a lot, and try things out – whether its pizza, spaghetti, local beer, another Aperol spritz or some local made leather sandals. Some of these are at the bottom of Trip Advisor list because the shopkeeper don’t speak English or maybe only boring people leave reviews. Don’t bother to call taxi (and there is no Uber!).
  • LOST. Seriously get lost. Google Map doesn’t show little alleys in Italy so well and there are many walking/running trail that only the local knows. On a random turn during my morning run in Oltrano, I passed Galileo’s house and a small fort where you can have some very good sunset cocktails! I found the best restaurant i have ever been to in Ischia just by playing with my google map and roam around.
  • LOCALS – buy from them, I meant the street vendors who sell freshly picked fruits and vegetable, the local vineyard who only make a thousand bottles a years, the one at the corner with no sign.
  • WINE – Make time for wine tasting at a vineyard. Italian in the countryside exude this fountain of hospitality and share with you their most incredible wine and salami and olives and bruschettas.
  • TRAIN – don’t bother anything else – this is the one thing that is efficient in Italy. Go everywhere, on time, affordable.
  • MEDICI – Read about the Medici family. I was amazed at the rise and fall of this family and how far their power and money had stretched in the past.
  • EAT ALL YOU CAN. – amazing gelato, pizzas to die for, fresh pasta, so many condiments and cold cuts, cheese, sweet desserts ….

I have come to Italy to consciously see why Italians are being the way they are – fun, exuberant, talkative, gossipy, proud, trendy and very particular about coffee.

I hope you can start planning a fun trip.

Love,

Kate