Anywhere but Here.

France and Italy, Part III, Tuscany to Paris

Tuscany to Paris

25 October 2006                    Villa Giadello, Modena

Returned to a favorite discovery, the farm/inn-restaurant of Villa Giadello, east of Modena. The elderly owner is still here and hard at work. Our apartment was smaller and rather more modern than the one we had on our previous visit (we were in the new building), but the only disadvantage was the very narrow beds. (Randy told me, much later, that he didn’t sleep at all, for fear of falling off the bed, which was both narrow and quite high. He still refers to it as a “Nun’s bed.”)

Just a brief rundown on last night’s dinner (the reason we came, after all).

Sat down to a big stack of white plates. First offered a locally made wine—their own wine in fact, first a frizzante white Trebbianno followed by a frizzante red Lambrusco. The white is better—the red more resembling something teens would drink at a party. The food began to arrive.

1st: a platter of cold cuts, and a platter of pickled onions and pickled artichoke hearts. A bowl of puffy deep fried dough pockets (irresistible!)

2nd: A bowl of tortellini in brodo: chicken stuffed tortellini in a rich chicken broth

3rd: a cheese stuff pasta (larger tortellini) with butter and cheese

4th: roast pork in a dark balsamic gravy with roast potatoes and green salad

5th: desserts: a bowl of fruits in a liqueur; a custard and a chocolate pudding, and a plate of meringues and cookies.

6th: Coffee and a mysterious after dinner sweet liqueur.

Just finished a nice breakfast of good coffee, meat, toast, apple butter, pear juice and plum cake.

26 October 2006                    Como, Italy

After dinner, our second night in Como. I’m fighting the onset of a cold…a little congested, not too bad, I’m hoping it will pass. Como is a really cute (almost too cute), really rich little city on the south edge of Lake Como, not far at all from Milano. It’s very pristine: clean, ordered, manicured…it seems almost un-Italian. Full of banks and fancy shops, and a beautiful lake front with promenade and park and marina. Our hotel, the Metropole and Suisse, is cute, if a little stuffy, but comfortable, on the Piazza Cavour with a view of the lake. We arrived yesterday, midday, and had lunch in the rather formal, and rather empty, hotel restaurant. It’s after the season here, so it’s not very crowded, which is nice, and the weather is great, but it gives this big resort hotel a bit of a forlorn feeling. The food was good, a little pricey, the service too formal.

After lunch, we discovered a funicular, which takes you up a steep hillside from the waterfront to the top of the mountain. It’s only a seven minute ride, so it’s not that far up. Great views though. It was sunset, I took some pictures; we had some really bad wine at the café up there—“all natural wine as made by the Romans before the bisth of chist.” It was fun though.

We found a neat little tiny restaurant for dinner. It’s called Nostra’damus, which must be some kind of pun in Italian. They had a very small menu, which they seem to change daily. After pressing our faces to the glass, we reserved a table for 90 minutes later, but it’s good we did, because every table in the little place was full by 8:15. All Italians except us, I believe. No translation on the menu, although the waitress did translate a few mysterious items for us. Started with a plate of artisinal salumis, and a polenta (of wheat or ?, it was dark brown) with a soft cheese melted on it. Unusual and really delicious. Had a risotto…your basic saffron, very rich though, and followed that with pork loin stuffed with sausage—really great but also just too much by then. Great place though. It’s on this cute little (tarted up, but historic) medieval street, just behind the shopping area.

This morning I went to the Duomo, a fabulous renaissance cathedral in pristine condition. Inside there are some amazing altars…a carved wooden one, a great renaissance altar, and a mad baroque concoction. Tapestries, and a beautiful vaulted ceiling painted with stars. The facade is a marvelous marble display decorated with statues of saints. (I took Randy and Nonna to see it late in the day…the facade was prettier in the fading light, but the interior was too gloomy by late afternoon.)

We left at noon to take the public ferry boat up the lake. The lake is dotted with cute little hillside villages and extravagant waterfront villas. We took an almost two hour ride to Bellagio, the halfway point, sitting on the open deck of the ferry. It was a lovely ride…cold in shadow, but very warm in the sun. We had sandwiches and cappuccini in Belagio, which was mostly closed up for the season. There’s one really extravagant hotel there, with what sounds like an amazing gourmet restaurant; but really there is not much there. Definitely just a resort spot. It made me glad we were staying in Como, where it’s pretty but also some real life going on. We came back on the hydrofoil, which took less than an hour.

Randy and I walked along the waterfront to a little early 20th century villa rotunda that turned out to be a monument and museum to Allesandro Volta, the scientist and inventor of the battery, and Como native. It was at the end of a very pretty little park, which also contained a fascist era (but rather nice looking) monument to the WWI dead; and a memorial to the resistance fighters of WWII. Italy often seems to forget what side it was on in WWII; one forgives them though because they are so good natured. I wonder that the people didn’t want to go to war anymore then than we wanted war with Iraq.

We had dinner tonight at Resturante Rino, oddly enough, a Tuscan restaurant. (It and the restaurant the night before, had been suggested to us by the owners of this cute little place we stumbled into that only served lunch; unfortunately we didn’t get to try it—they serve a different lunch every day; It’s next door to Nostra’damus.) The Tuscan place was really good as well, also quite small and full of Italians (mostly; there was a group of posh, well-heeled, elderly Brits). I had some crostini, fresh pasta with truffled duck sauce (I think they own the pasta shop next door as well) and grilled lamb chops with spinach. And some vin santo and cantuccini. The truffles were very nice, very aromatic (one of the crostini was a truffled something…all I could taste was truffle.

In the morning we are off to Strasbourg, the long drive through the Alps. Should be fun, and quite scenic. It’s the longest drive of the trip.

28 October 2006                    Strasbourg, France

The Hotel Rohan is as nice as ever. Great staff, friendly and helpful. Haven’t done all that much while in Strasbourg. A little shopping. Some walking around. Visiting the beautiful red sandstone cathedral (such an unusual color)—though they are doing a lot of work on the tower and the north exterior. Took the silly boat ride around the city. Visited some gay bars—well two—with Randy. One a place of middle-aged queens who all knew each other, with comfy sofas (JJ’s) and the other a packed and happening teen hangout with really cute boys (and girls) and cheap drinks. It was very hot and we were conspicuously old.

Randy was happy to be in France (he likes the ethnic diversity and open homosexuality, which is lacking in Italy). Nonna’s becoming a little impatient with everything, (It annoys me particularly because I think it is an unpleasant trait I have inherited myself.) I think she’s ready to go home. I could use a week in Paris, alone. It all makes me want to run away to Europe—oh, I did that already!

29 October 2006                        Strasbourg, France

Great dinner tonight, our best in Strasbourg, at the famous (justly so) Chez Yvonne. Fantastic foie gras and great choucroute (with liver quenelles, worsts, lard, duck confit, ham) and also excellent house wines…a very good Gewurztraminer (sweet) with the foie gras and a nice Riesling to follow. Lots of other great sounding things on the menu too, if you don’t want to be so traditionally Alsatian. The (small) staff was very nice and friendly and the place was packed with people streaming in all during our dinner (we arrived at 8). It’s the best place we ate in Strasbourg. Better than Strissel (booked  by our hotel the first night); better than our return to Table d’ Alsace (the fish place), although I did enjoy my oysters. Strasbourg does seem to have a service problem though, all the restaurants seem understaffed and overworked. Not sure if it’s a chronic problem or if perhaps they have cut back to winter staff and are overtaxed by the unseasonable warm weather. Every place needs more staff though.

We decided to stay a third day in Strasbourg. For simplicity’s sake, and skip Reims in favor of two country inns on the route to CDG.

Having finished the fascinating but excessively self-conscious Cloud Atlas, I am now reading the aggressively self-conscious Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close.

30 October 2006                    Marre, France

Leaving Strasbourg, we drove straight through to Verdun, where we had a tiny lunch in grand hotel/restaurant, Le Bistro hostellerie du Guy Hardi, where I’d really like to have a full meal sometime. They had cloches! Verdun seemed kind of cool, its buildings still showing WWI bullet holes in the stone, and a nice Cathedral with a beautiful Gothic cloister.

Staying the night at a funny little logis in Marre, the Village Galois. Cute, simple rooms, a nice dinner, and a (closed for the season) miniature golf course—all buried under autumn leaves. Dinner was good, a salad of warm rabbit in vinegar, and a piece of suckling pig, though I ate half of Nonna’s steak, which was better. Nice breakfast of meats and a fresh baguette and pain de chocolat. The inn was really quirky though…in addition to the abandoned miniature golf course, the dining room was this circular stone building, and the inn, which appeared to have only two floors, had two staircases—each led to a similar—but not the same—corridor of rooms; which both appeared to be on the first (2nd American) floor. They seemed to occupy the same space at the same time! There was also a very odd old man, who may have been the proprietor, who was building an extension to the building…he kept coming by to talk to us: outside, at dinner, at breakfast, but each time he found we spoke English he just smiled and went on his way.

31 October 2006 (Halloween)                    Chateau-Thierry, France

Leaving the logis, we drove nearly to Belgium through beautiful, bright green, and completely deserted countryside, to the American Great War cemetery, which Nonna wanted to see. The whole area we drove through was devastated in WWI; they say whole villages were destroyed and never rebuilt. We drove then to Reims, and parked by the Cathedral, and because I had an overwhelming desire for steak tartare, we walked to the Brasserie Flo. The tartare was good, but big. Nonna ordered a Choucroute (it came with a ¼ duck confit and a whole tongue (!) which she didn’t eat, of course.) Then we drove out of town just as it began to rain, and onto our misadventures with the inns.

The idea was to stay in a final country inn, then in the morning to the airport. We actually found the place I was looking for, a place we stopped for lunch a year or so ago—the Auberge Le Relais, a few kilometers east of Chateau Thierry on the N3. Excited to find it (not remembering its name) and pulled up in front to find it Ferme Mardi et Mercredi! Merde! Drove on few more kilometers and saw a sign to the hotel restaurant Le Moulin…followed the sign to this really cute farmhouse type inn…with a locked gate and a note that they would be closed from 30 October to 3 November! D’oh! After that we were in the small city of Chateau-Thierry, where we could not find two hotels suggested by Ermentrude; stumbled upon the one logis in town (I parked the car to look it up in the book and noticed it was across the street!), but it was kind of forlorn and shabby. Followed signs to something that sounded promising but was a motel by the payage, turned around and saw this big Best Western Hotel La France. It’s comfortable, but not quite charming, though the Madame at the desk is quite nice. It has a restaurant (which turned out to be pretentiously elegant and rather dull). The room has a pleasant view, but the street out front is like a highway, so it’s not so charming. Ah well, it will be fine. It’s a pity the cute inns were closed. Had I known, I might just have stayed in Reims, though this will, I suppose, make getting to the airport easier.

Last night in France, funny it is Halloween. We fly on All Saints Day, a holiday in France and across Europe. Sort of just a nothing night, a rest-stop before CDG. We didn’t go back to Paris; possibly I should have stayed the night in Riems, where we stopped for lunch.  We saw some kids trick-or-treating on the way—in the daylight, so as not to be run down on the roads at night, I suppose. In Reims a cinema was showing 12 horror films for one admission price! Seems this American holiday has caught on in France. I suppose they are whooping it up in West Hollywood. It’s been ages since I did anything on Halloween.

Winding up the trip now; It will be good not to have to carry suitcases anymore, though I know I will miss Europe after a week back in LA.

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