August 29, 2015

Summer ’15–Recommendations from a Summer of Travel

They all speed by, don’t they–the summers? Whereas, winter lasts forever. For us, this has been an especially wonderful season. We finished two restorations. We traveled. We had our grandson Willie, now thirteen, visit in Italy for six weeks. We cooked and read and walked and swam. I redesigned and implemented Bramasole’s garden. I even wrote a little. We got up early, took afternoon naps, and stayed out often until two in the morning. Ed cycled hundreds of miles. I got into a regular exercise routine. So much happened, and from the standpoint of late August, it seems to have occurred in fast-forward mode.

Some fantastic recommendations from our travels:

Rome, city with the big beating heart. At the beginning of the summer, we rented an apartment on via di Montegiordano near the Piazza Navona for several days. The massive crowds were just beginning to descend upon the city, rendering it impossible until September. But we were happy and charmed in our neighborhood, and soon had our regular place to go for cappuccino in the morning. We dined at Casa Bleve in a stately glass-covered courtyard, surely one of Rome’s most beautiful restaurants and a top destination for winos like us. Another night, we ate outside under tall trees at Santa Lucia Ristorante next to the vine-covered Hotel Raphael. Taking a recommendation from Elizabeth Manchelli’s Eating Rome, we chose Perilli a Testaccio, an old world trattoria that so reminded me of discovering Rome many years ago. Our waiter, when he heard that Willie was in Italy to study the language, engaged him in teasing banter and gave him a few lessons in gesture as well. What a great place for Sunday pranzo, dining among large local families and devouring that simple but complex pasta, cacio e pepe and homey roast guinea hen.  Another but very different lunch place we like is Roscioli  near the Campo de’ Fiori. Updated classics, a cool and crowded atmosphere, and a terrific wine list. Rome is endless! We rented our apartment through Rome Lofts. I’ve rented five apartments in Rome and this was the best–supremely comfortable with big sofas and armchairs in old world fabrics, a well-equipped kitchen (rare to find), marble bathrooms, two bedrooms. All very gracious and roomy. Here we are, at home in Rome.

 Below, the romantic Casa Bleve. If you go, on the way out buy a little bag of the citrus and nut candy that they bring at the end of the dinner.

A good discovery for me was the small Museo Mario Praz , the Old World residence of the extraordinary writer and collector Mario Praz, who wrote a book I dip into frequently, La Casa della Vita (The House of Life).  What’s clear is that he valued collecting and living among his treasures more than anything. I think he must have driven off his wife and daughter with his fervor for things. But the book is fine, a memoir formed around objects and the stories of those objects. ( In this way, it connected with the Pamuk museum described below.) Exploring small or out-of-the-way places makes summer travel more fun. There was no one at Praz’s abode and the guide had time to give us a leisurely tour and to share stories of her own about the place. Apparently, the children of the neighborhood recognized his quirkiness and thought he cast the evil eye.

The islands of the Venetian lagoon. We went twice to Venice. I was on the exciting assignment to write about the islands for the new magazine Smithsonian Journeys    The article will be out in the next issue and I don’t want to prempt it, so just to say the islands are so varied, surprising, and fun to discover. It’s exhilarating to be out on open water and to step off on little nubbins of sand barely emerged from the tides. The trips gave me a chance to read a lot of Venetian history and also the travel classic, Venice by Jan Morris. If you’ve never read it, grab it now! My suggestions for hotels, etc. are all in the article. On our last night, we stayed in Venice proper and checked into Hotel Ca’ Segredo, which was almost like checking into a museum. The grand, frescoed public rooms are a rare pleasure–a glimpse into an outlandishly splendid way of life in a magnificent palazzo. The rooms are sedate and refined and the position of the Grand Canal just perfect. The price was reasonable for Venice, in fact, our room cost the same as an American chain hotel in Boston.  The position on the water is similar to the Gritti, where I loved staying once, but the rate there now is really high. A little jewel in Venice is the Locanda Orseola, but you must book way in advance. We were on boats for hours a day and came to know Venice in a larger and more elemental way. This is no Tiepolo cloud!

Willie and I on one of the many great staircases in the Ca’ Segardo. I loved the soapy sheen of the worn marble. Willie is now taller than I am.  He’s 5′ 8″ here, and now at the end of summer almost 5′ 9″, which seems impossible.

Bologna is a long time favorite city and now I have a favorite hotel / restaurant there: I Portici, named for the arched covered walkways all over that handsome city. We had the mansard room with a balcony. Willie adored all the high-tech amenities–buttons to push for lights, windows, locks, etc. We all three adored the white, white room and bath under the eves and the cool minimalist decor.

At the hotel’s restaurant, a one-star Michelin, Willie discovered the concept of the tasting menu. We were proud that he was willing to try very unfamiliar seafood and sophisticated preparations of more familiar food. He loved every bite. I’m so glad my daughter and I, both picky eaters, didn’t pass on our tame palates. Bologna is full of bookstores, intriguing doorways, and interesting looking people. On a building facing Piazza Maggiore, we spotted a wall of photographs of partisans who died in World War II. We wandered for a couple of hours in the archaeological museum, staggered as always by how much remains of the ancient world. The old market neighborhood is pure joy to wander. It would be fun to rent an apartment there, just to cook and to be able to bring home flowers from the market area.

A major treat of the summer was Istanbul. One of the perks of a house in Italy is that so many places are within short flying times. My daughter and her husband joined Ed, Willie, and me in Rome and we flew quickly to Istanbul on Turkish Air. What friendly skies–nice attendants, enough room for Ed’s legs in coach, and a quite tasty lunch served on board. We stayed at Neorion in the old part of town. It’s a moderately priced hotel with an extremely helpful and friendly staff, nice spa and hammam, and a perfect location. Ed and I have been to Istanbul three other times so we wandered in markets and the Archaeological Museum, while the rest of the family took in the mosques and Topkapi. I was amazed to see so many more women covered up than I saw eight years ago, and not just the scarf but the whole black regalia with only slits for the eyes. Several locals claim the women, who seem to travel in groups, are visiting from Saudi Arabia but that can’t be the whole story. What are they on, field trips? Seemed to me that a strict religious wave has washed over. I even saw little girls in scarves and long dresses with their brothers in shorts cavorting around them.  One can only hope that totally obscuring yourself is a choice made by the women. They can’t even eat normally. By my lights, it’s hard to believe that anyone with real free choice could want to be so invisible in the world. Perhaps this is my own limitation.

By far the most exciting place we visited in Istanbul was the Museum of Innocence, brain child of the writer Orhan Pamuk who wrote the fascinating Proustian novel of the same name. While he was writing, he began to collect objects that are mentioned in the book and to conceive of displaying them. The museum is a three-story Ottoman house filled with cases of these objects, which take on artistic lives of their own. I can’t do justice to the museum here–do look into it. I like the novel very much, and also his brilliant Istanbul, which is both a memoir and a biography of the city.

We were all crazy about the food! One of the great world cuisines and a neglected one by us American cooks! Ever since we came home, my daughter and I have been cooking Turkish food. Tomorrow we’re making a whole dinner. We love the unexpected combinations of herbs and spices. Our carry-ons were stuffed with bags of Aleppo pepper, sumac, cinnamon, cumin, sesame, black mustard seeds, cardamom, and other seasonings from around the middle East such as Zaatar and dried Persian lime. These baklavas demonstrate the wonderful combining of flavors–pomegranate and saffron, raisins with pomegranate, fig with walnuts, mint with hazelnuts.


Now we are back in Hillsborough NC for this lovely late summer bounty of the garden and farmers’ markets. I would always like to be in the South for tomato, butterbean, corn, okra, yellow squash and peppers that burgeon in the garden. There’s little better in the wide world than big southern vegetable dinners!  I’m just relishing these last days of a memorable summer. Next week I’ll post a list of books I recommend from a summer with lots of time to read on trains, boats, and planes. I would love to hear travel recommendations from you!