Thursday, 28 June 2012

Lucca Wherea We Stoppeda for Lunch

Had it not been overcast that morning, I don't think I could have left Portofino of my own volition.  Hotel Splendido had seduced me and rendered me helpless in its power.  I had fallen truly, madly, deeply in love.

But love's a fickle bitch, and as I said, it was overcast, so we packed the car and headed towards the Tuscan sun.  


The drive between Portofino and the Chianti region is about 3 hours, following (though not overlooking) the Ligurian and Tuscan coasts. It then heads inland past Pisa and the turn off to Florence before winding its way through Chianti's hilly patchwork of vineyards and olive groves.


At the halfway mark, we had the choice between stopping for lunch in the fashionable beach resort of Forte dei Marme or 
Lucca, the medieval walled city renown for its ramparts and charm.  Lucca won and was a winner on all counts. The restaurant that was recommended - an inn dating from the 18th Century named Buca di Sant Antonio - served simple and delicious Tuscan dishes including stuffed rabbit, roast suckling pig and all sorts of variations on the bean theme.  (Beans are big in Tuscany.)

Powered by those beans - and a few good glasses of local wine - we started a walk around town, only to be stopped in our tracks just a few blocks away from the restaurant.  There we were, standing in front of the house where Puccini was born.


Monsieur and I love opera (opera is to Monsieur what Hotel Splendido is to me, at least when it's sunny) so to stumble across Puccini's birthplace and a museum filled with his original handwritten scores was a delight, not to mention total embarrassment, since neither of us realised the dude was from Lucca.  Intellectual credibility? Straight out the window.  And any remaining credibly was shot to hell when we both started crying like babies at the sight of Turandot's original costume.

Thank gawd that Tuscan sun was shining and we had to wear shades.









Style File Followers Take Note:
1. The highway along the northern Tuscan coast goes past Carrera, as in the marble, which is a marvel to glimpse from the road: Mountains of white stone that have been chiselled at and carved away for millennia and used for famous statues, enormous monuments, grand buildings and my neighbour's bathroom in Toronto.
2. To find out more about Buca di Sant Antonio click here.  And if you're ever in Lucca, go there.
3. Just go to Lucca, period.  It's pretty, laid back and not over-run with tourists like other Tuscan towns.
4. While walking around town, we came across a little book fair.  An Italian best-seller?
5. That's us, hiding our Puccini + red wine induced red-eyes behind our sunglasses on the ramparts of Lucca.
6. Next stop: Living the Tuscan dream and the Y-chromosome nightmare on my birthday.

Monday, 25 June 2012

A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to Portofino

Men are great.

I happen to be engaged to one, so I know what I'm talking about.

But there's a quality, marked somewhere on the Y-chromosome, which never ceases to flabbergast me.  It's a certain stubbornness that manifests itself in the usual clich├ęd male ways: ie. the refusal to ask for directions, the refusal to admit when one's lost and, as I discovered the other day, the refusal to admit that the car needs gas.

About 20km after leaving Beaune on our drive to Portofino, I saw a sign for a gas station and noticed that the little pointer thingy was within the final quarter mark of our gas gauge.  (I prefer the names of nail-polish to car parts, okay?)  Let's get some gas, I said.  We don't need any, was Monsieur's response.

And with those Y-chromosome driven words, our little A-Class - loaded with luggage, Monsieur's bike and the de rigueur purchases of Meursault and Pommard that one simply can't leave Burgundy without - sped past that little gas station on France's southbound A6, only for the 'reserve' light to flash no less than one minute later.

Oh.

You know when an 'I told you so!' is just too obvious to be necessary?  This was one of those situations.  So instead, I sat there silently - we both sat there silently - hoping that the power of positive thinking would will the next gas station to come up soon.

Yeah right.

The only thing coming up was our turn off to the A40 towards Mont Blanc, and storm clouds.

We'd driven at least 35km before we spotted the first sign for roadside services, another 27km away.

Each km felt like an eternity. We held our breath as we counted them down, somehow believing that the less air we expended, the more fuel efficient the car would be.

With 5km left the rain started to come down hard.

With 4km it was torrential.

At 3km I found G'd.

At last we found a BP Station.


And Monsieur found a hidden talent.  €88.00 on the nail.



Style File Followers Take Note:
1. Had worst come to worst, Monsieur could have put his bike together and ridden off to get some petrol in the rain, while I sat in the car drinking Pommard.  At least that's how it worked in my mind. 
2. I wasn't quite so able to refrain from an energetic I told you so! when we got lost under the searing midday Tuscan sun while hiking on my birthday.  (That story to follow.)
3. I think Monsieur looks kinda cool in those plastic gloves.
4. For those who've asked, the gloves are dispensed freely at French pumps.  Another reason I love this country: Manicures must be protected at all times.

Tuesday, 19 June 2012

Splendiferous

How fine can a port be?  Can a hotel really be that splendid?

Exhausted from the nearly 7 hour drive from Burgundy to the Genoa coast, my cynical second nature kicked in as our car curved around yet another bend on the road to Portofino.  I'd dreamed of staying at the legendary Hotel Splendido for as long I could remember, but a few kms from our destination I found myself anxiously wondering if I'd been unduly seduced by the hype, like a teenage girl in love with a tv star, only to find out he's gay.  My expectations had been so high that there was no where to go but down.  I braced myself for disappointment.

Needlessly.


You see that large, pretty pinkish building at the top of the hill?  That's Hotel Splendido, a grand dame of a hotel - with decent plumbing.  I've chosen to highlight decent plumbing because water pressure (or lack there-of) can often be a let-down in hotels with this much history.  But even in this detail, Splendido utterly failed to disappoint.  In fact, everything failed to dissapoint dismally. I found the bygone-era decor to be charming, the service, spot-on and the nightly entertainment, a riot. (The pianist in the bar is a fantastic singer, not to mention an amusing shit-stirrer.)

And the food?


I know.  You'd prefer to see photos of beautifully arranged dishes of delicious Ligurian specialties like pasta al pesto, and here I am, posting a hazy shot of a glass filled with murk.  But that murk was my salvation; a daily breakfast of carrot, celery and apple juice which enabled me to indulge in Splendido's fabulous fare and copious carbs at lunch and dinner with minimal guilt.  For a carb-o-phobe like me to be able to juice while on holiday in Italy was the (liquid) cherry on the (spelt) cake. 


Of course, there were other juices too.




Apart from the Bellini (which I firmly believe should be classified as a juice) there's something you may have spotted in the background of this and the previous photo:  The view.



The view from the hotel is breathtaking, taking in lush forest, blue sea and the charm of Portofino's tiny harbour below.  It is the prettiest view I have ever seen. 


Fat and lazy or stiletto-wearing guests can take a shuttle back and forth from the hotel to the village and Splendido's harbour-front sister property, the hotel Splendido Mare, but we preferred to walk.





Spending time in the harbour involves sipping sundowners, watching boats bob and shopping 'til you declare bankruptcy.  For such a small place, the number of luxury boutiques is staggering.  There's also a good selection of more affordable, unknown resort-wear brands on offer, including a shop called Milano at which I wish I'd done more damage.  Dotted among the shops are a number of waterfront trattorias and restaurants including Chuflay (pronounced shoo-fly, bless...) at Splendido Mare.  

The 10 minute strolls between the hotel and harbour weren't quite enough to shift what we were consuming at Chuflay so on day 3 of our far-too-short stay we decided to go for a serious hike in the hills above.





That's Monsieur hiking in front of me, wearing the sort of thing that one tends to hike in.  My approach is a bit different:



My reasoning goes a little something like this:  The hat is a must to protect your face from sunburn; the lack of straps is to prevent a farmer's tan; the linen cardigan can both keep you warm if the weather turns or protect those shoulders if your tan threatens to burn, and the dress is because you never know where a hike may lead.


Style File Followers Take Note:
1. Tom Selleck.  Apparently.
2. That's dress 6 on the stairs leading to the harbour.
3. All I bought at Milano was a violet coloured, strapless maxi-dress (similar to the black one above, but the wrong fabric for hiking). Wish I'd bought the stone-coloured Chanel-esque jacket and the camouflage shorts as well.
4. Speaking of fashion, you see the hill just behind the harbour?  Domenico Dolce and Stefano Gabbana live there.  Lucky bastards.
5. Portofino is at the tip of a large nature preserve which includes several hiking trails of varying lengths and levels of difficulty.  We did a 3.5 hour trek which took in thick forest and dramatic coastal views.  And at one point we saw an otter.  An otter!  Seeing an otter in the wild was one of the most amazing experiences of my life, right up there with staying at Hotel Splendido.

Wednesday, 13 June 2012

Make No Beaunes About It

Burgundy is beautiful.








The wines are magnificent.






The dining is divine.




Style File Followers Take Note:
1. On our second day in Burgundy we visited two wine estates: Chateau de Pommard and Chateau de Meursault. Our Pommard experience was exceptional - Pommard IS luxury.  The Chateau is gorgeous, with a contemporary art gallery and the owner's personal collection of Dali sculptures on permanent display. The way the wine is made warrants the eye-watering price - they practically breast feed each grape.  To taste the 2008 vintage is to feel like a Rockefeller.  (To buy the 2010 vintage is to be a Rockefeller.)  The Chateau de Meursault experience is less luxurious but also rewarding.  The village of Meursault is postcard perfect. And I hereby declare that Chateau de Meursault Premier Cru 2008 is my favourite white wine.
2. That's me at Chateau de Pommard, wearing a George Hogg twinset dress. (Number 13 on the list.)
3. That's the fine dining room at the Hostellerie de Levernois, where some mighty fine dining is done.
4. If you're in France/near France/thinking about France, visit Burgundy.  Then sign up for AA and join a gym.

Tuesday, 12 June 2012

Beaune-giorno

The first stop on our damn glam drive through Italy was, in fact, in France.

We chose Beaune, not so much for its position between Paris and Portofino but because Monsieur has been banging on about Burgundy for as long as I remember.
Just 3 hours from home (with a further 6.5 to Portofino) we found ourselves following the driveway that leads through the lawns of Hostellerie de Levernois, a 5 star Relais + Chateaux just 5kms from Beaune's town centre. The hotel is owned and run by Jean-Louis and Suzanne Bottigliero, a dynamic duo who's passion for what they do is richly evident in the property's service and details.

After a warm welcome, they set us on our way to discover Beaune, beginning with lunch at the Bistro de l'Hotel.

Beaune is a gorgeous little town; even its industrial estates seem manicured.  On our amble over to the restaurant, we caught the closing minutes of its postcard-perfect market.





Burgundy isn't just wine country; it's a foodie fantasyland, studded with towns that read like a menu, including Dijon (as in mustard), Bresse (the famous chicken) and Epoisses (a traditional cheese).  As you can imagine, we were expecting to find fairly good fare in Beaune.  What we weren't expecting was the exceptional quality on offer at Bistro de l'Hotel, conceived by its owner, not a Frenchman but a Swede.  


This is what was left of an entree of poached tomatoes before I had the presence of mind to take a photo of what was possibly the most mouthwatering yet simple starter I ever tasted.



And that is a Swedish chef.




You will notice that he isn't wearing a big chef's hat, nor does he have a big hairy mustache.  But that hurdy-grudy Muppets song was, I'm ashamed to admit, playing loudly and clearly in my head while our chicken was being carved.  (Uum bort bort bort!)


Among other accompaniments, our Bresse chicken was served with french fries worthy of a legion d'honneur.  




In an effort to digest our amazing meal, Monsieur and I spent the rest of the afternoon walking around town, taking in the sights such as Beaune's famous Hospice, which had been a hospital for the poor since the 15th century and continued to be a medical centre until recently.






The first day of our vacation ended with a short strawberry picking session with Jean-Louis back at the Hostellerie de Levenois, a Chardonnay tasting on the terrace and another awesome meal, this time at the hotel's casual Bistro Bord de l'Eau.






How I am going to get through this holiday in the same dress size is anybody's guess.


Style File Followers Take Note:
1. More about the Hostellerie de Levernois can be found here.
2. More about the Bistro de l'Hotel can be found there.
3. I was wearing an Agnes B black and white gingham dress and cardigan.  If you want to cross reference my packing list, that's dress 2.  (Off plan already.)
4. Umm bort bort bort! 
5. I have no idea what happened to the font.  I'm upgrading to Wordpress as soon as I can.