A “Star” Hotel in the heart of Florence

2018c Helvetia & Bristol

original watercolor painting by Ginda Simpson

Helvetia & Bristol
Via dei Pescioni,
50123 Firenze
39-055-26651
http://www.starhotels.com
reservationshelvetia@starhotels.it

They say location is everything, and it certainly is true for the elegant Helvetia & Bristol in the heart of Florence, steps from Palazzo Strozzi, Piazza della Republica, the Duomo and the Uffizi. But a stay at this renowned hotel gives you so much more. Built in the early 1800’s, it opened its doors on June 28, 1885 by Giacomo Mosca, as the first hotel in Florence. It quickly attracted artists and writers, with its Winter Garden becoming the place for society to meet. It did not take long for it to become a much sought-after hotel during the days of the Grand Tour.

Restored and updated over the decades, it has maintained and even celebrated its original Art Deco features. Upon entering its lobby, guests are enveloped in an atmosphere that whispers of its aristocratic past. Period antiques, fine woods, graceful fabrics all add to its elegance, providing a warm and cozy welcome. A chilled pitcher of lemon-ginger spiced water awaits the hot and weary tourist upon his or return each day. In our room, we discover a pretty dish of sweets to add to our welcome while the décor and amenities add to our comfort. From our private balcony, we can look over the terracotta rooftops of the city, or close the shutters and retreat into a darkened stillness, a relief at the end of the day.

The Winter Garden serves as our breakfast room. Beneath its Art Deco pastel-colored stained-glass roof and wrought-iron chandeliers, a sumptuous buffet tempts us at every turn – from the savory selections of salami and cheeses, to hot servings of eggs, bacon, and vegetables. There are enough sweet choices to move a saint into sinful indulgence. Yes, the Helvetia & Bristol offers more than location. It delights, it soothes, it pampers…

copyright Ginda Simpson   http://www.rooms-withaview.com   http://www.gindasimpson.com

 

Advertisements

La Terrazza del Principe – an unforgettable view

La Terrazza del PrincipeLa Terrazza del Principe
Viale Niccolò Macchiavelli, 10
50125 Firenze
39-055-224-104
http://www.laterrazzadelprincipe.com
info@laterrazzadelprincipe.com
Owners: Sabina Stiehl & Nicolo Reina

I had meant to ask why the name The Terrace of the Prince, but with the intake of every breath I know that it is a princely view. We are lone diners at the moment and therefore have the entire terrace to ourselves as if we are private guests. It is a purely Tuscan scene that includes olives and vineyards, tall cypresses, medieval stone walls, and the elegant villas of the Boboli Gardens. Wow!

We have brought our appetites for this sun-blessed al fresco lunch. The cuisine interweaves the traditions of both Tuscany and Sicily, reflecting the marriage of the owners, Sabina and Nicolo. Vine-ripened tomatoes burst with flavor in a Caprese salad, an antipasto to be savored slowly, like the aging of the wine we drink. Our first course sings of Sicily with a sampling of Pasta alla Norma, made with tomatoes and eggplant, and Rigatoni al pistacchio in a cream sauce. A shared secondo of polpette alla nonna, grandmother’s meatballs is simple and satisfying, transporting me back to my own grandmother’s kitchen.

We have left no room for dessert, except for the sweet memories and a longing to come back before we even leave. An aperitif with a friend at sunset? Or a romantic meal for two just because…

copyright Ginda Simpson  –  http://www.rooms-withaview.com  –  http://www.gindasimpson.com

Caffe Desiderio – Cooking as Art

cdc1Caffe Desiderio
Piazza Niccolò Tommaseo, 5r
Settignano (FI)
39-055-697687
http://www.caffedesiderio.com
info@caffedesiderio.com
Owners: Michele Busanero & Francesca de Gasperi

What a pleasure it is to sit with Michele, chef and owner of Caffe Desiderio, an unpretentious yet inviting wine bar/restaurant in the center of Settignano outside of Florence. Caffe Desiderio indeed was a locale as far back as the end of the 18th century when artist Desiderio da Settignano opened it as a tea room and exhibit space for his paintings.

cdd1Today the art that is offered is of the culinary variety, attractive to look at, and most satisfying to consume. Seasonally fresh ingredients and innovative recipes make Michele’s cuisine a special treat on this summer evening. And Michele shares a moment with us expressing his knowledge and passion for his Tuscan cuisine, inspired by his childhood in Florence and his travels to other parts of Italy.

Take for example, traditional prosciutto of Tuscany served with milky fresh stracciatella cde1and fritters made with grano arso, or burnt grain, a tradition that has its modest beginnings in the southern region of Puglia. In the 18th century villagers would harvest the scorched grains that remained after the farmers had burnt the fields in preparation for the next planting. For the poor, nothing went to waste not even burnt grain, and Michele’s efforts to introduce burnt grain to his customers are not wasted either. His liver paté, on the other hand, is as rich as fois gras, made so with lots of butter and an extra amount of vin santo, making a superbly rich spread for his fried polenta wedges.

cdf1The menu at Caffe Desiderio changes often, according to the season, and sometimes daily depending on what is offered at the market that day. We got to try fagottini (little egg pasta knapsacks) stuffed with lampredotto, or tripe. Lampredotto is a Florentine specialty that shows up as popular street food when stuffed into a crusty panino. Tonight’s pasta dish is topped with delicately sweet red onions and a spritz of green sauce. I would not have known any of this, nor had the courage to try it, if it hadn’t been for our chef introducing us to this unusual, yet totally delicious specialty. I love being cdg1introduced to the local cuisine in this way.

Our wine is local too, a Chianti Ruffina from the Frascole estates. Grazie, Michele and Francesca, for a delightful meal.

copyright Ginda Simpson   http://www.rooms-withaview.com    http://www.gindasimpson.com

Villa Gamberaia and Its Gardens

vgaVilla Gamberaia
Via del Rossellino, 72
50135 Settignano (FI)
39-055-697-205
http://www.villagamberaia.com
info@villagamberaia.com

Just kilometers from the city of Florence, a narrow country road (with narrow escapes) leads us from the center of Settignano to Villa Gamberaia, a Tuscan villa par excellence, elegant in its architectural simplicity overlooking both city and countryside. Inside the main gate, a graveled walkway flanked by cypresses leads us to the villa but gives no hint of the splendid gardens that await us.

vgj

The Citrus Garden

In order to build Villa Gamberaia in 1610, a huge terrace was leveled on the slope and a high wall was constructed behind the villa to support a citrus garden and the woods, where many of the trees have stood for centuries. Within the foundation are wine cellars and agricultural store-rooms which can be reached directly from the house or from the fields below it, uniting the house with the land and surrounding countryside, achieving both practical and aesthetic qualities. An open air drawing room links the ground level of the house to the upper level of the garden. In 1717, an open loggia on the south side of the villa was added, to allow a view of the broderie parterre and the cypress belvedere which were created at this time. The inner courtyard of the villa is open to the sky, an unusual characteristic of the architecture and from here one can enter a large salone on the ground floor that overlooks all of Florence.

vgb

The Open Drawing Room

Today is filled with brilliant light, perfect for exploring the garden, one which had its beginning in the 17th century as an orchard, followed by a broderie garden a century later, when broderies were made popular by the French. These gardens were “embroidered” with varying layers of shaped boxwood and embellished with broken shards, glass and stones, to create intricate designs, enjoyed best when viewed from above. The real transformation of the garden began in the 20th century when the property was purchased by Princess Ghika, her particular design luring scholars and landscape architects from around the world to visit and study its characteristics.

vgh copia

The Water Parterre

The water parterre created by Princess Ghika is located south of the villa. The enclosed beds of the broderie parterre became pools of water with borders of lavender, iris, lilies, roses and oleander, introducing more color to the garden to be reflected in the pools. Rows of tiered boxwood, spheres and other topiary shapes give this peaceful garden a symmetrical, sculptural dimension. Over the decades the boxwood grew to overtake the flowering plants giving the garden a predominantly green appearance, but recent plantings of flowering plants have brought back shades of color once again. A circular pond graced with water lilies and water irises rests tranquilly in front of the cypress belvedere at the far southern end of the water parterre.

Beneath an arched opening in the hedge are two chairs and a small table, inviting us to sit and gaze back at the villa gleaming in the late morning sun. We have brought a small picnic with us and this is a perfect spot to contemplate the history of this villa that was almost completely destroyed during WWII. Upon purchasing the ruined villa, its new owner, Marcello Marchi, used existing prints, photographs and maps to restore the villa to its original design and furnished it with tasteful period pieces that reflect what the interior would have once looked like. The villa is available for rent and for events such as weddings.

vgg

The Bowling Green

Our apartment was built into the structure that was once used for indoor tennis. It faces a central element of the garden, the famous bowling green, a 225-meter expanse of grass along the north-south axis. On the northern end is the Nymphaeum, a massive fountain carved into the hillside surrounded by cypress trees. The southern end overlooks the Arno valley. The east-west axis is 105 meters long and runs through the center of the villa and leads one to the cabinet di raccoglia, also known as an open-air drawing room, an intimate oval shaped garden linking the villa to the upper citrus gardens and the woods. Curved walls are covered in stones, pebbles, shells and rocks, with niches, terracotta urns, statuary and fountains. There is a large limonaia that houses the lemon and citrus trees during the winter months. The facade of the house offers a uninterrupted view of the city of Florence.

I have chosen to sit in the shadow of the Nymphaeum and write these notes. I lean against an ancient wall that looks as if it might crumble into my lap. If only walls could talk, perhaps help me describe the beauty I see before me. I am not well versed in garden talk, but I know poetry when I see it! And a symphony when I hear it!

Visiting the Gardens of Villa Gamberaia

The gardens are opened from 9 am to 7 pm (last entry 6 pm) on weekdays.
On Sundays, the gardens are open from 9 am to 6 pm (last entry 5 pm).

Please note that from time to time the gardens are closed for a private event. It is recommended that you always contact the Villa to be sure that a visit is possible on a given day.

Cost of the entrance for the garden visit:
€ 15 per person, regular and groups
€ 12 per person, students

copyright Ginda Simpson   http://www.rooms-withaview.com   http://www.gindasimpson.com

Who’s afraid of Monsters? Il Sacro Bosco

b17Il Sacro Bosco
The Monster Park
Località Giardino
01020 Bomarzo (VT)
Tel: 0761-924-029

Our granddaughters are too worldly to be afraid of monsters – they take more delight in poking fun at what we old folks might call scary. The Monster Park of Bomarzo, known as the Sacro Bosco or Sacred Grove, we discover, is delightful. Located in Bomarzo in the province of Viterbo, north of Rome, this 16th century garden is anything but frightful, but it is awesome. Designed by architect Pirro Ligorio in the Mannerist style of European art that emerged around 1520 in Italy, the garden is best described as surreal.

Dispersed among the dense woods and vegetation in the valley below Castle Orsini, larger-than-life grotesque sculptures of mystical figures and animals inhabit the space, some of them sculpted right into the bedrock. In a once barren landscape, the garden was commissioned by Pier Francesco Orsini as a means of expressing his grief at the loss of his wife, as indicated by an inscription that explains this intention: sol per sfogare il Core – just to set the heart free. It is hard to connect the individual works into any organized plan, or fully understand their symbolism; the statues or buildings rather seem intended to astonish us, by their size, or subject, or by their unexpected appearance as we round a corner. There is even an purposely constructed leaning house, intended to disorient the visitor. Giants, monstrous fish, a war elephant, and the iconic monumental monster face all play their part in this bizarre wonderland.

Over the course of the centuries, the park fell into neglect and the garden became overgrown with vegetation. In the 1950s, the Bettini family began a restoration program that lasted twenty years, and today, although still private property, it is open to the public – to amaze, to delight, but definitely not to frighten. Even the giant screaming mouth welcomes you inside, perhaps to picnic, if you so wish.

The park is open all year long from 8.00 a.m. until sunset .

Entrance fees :
Individual 10,00 Euro
Children from 4 to 13 years 8,00 Euro
Groups minimum 30 people 8,00 Euro (with the letter of the promoting Organization)
Student 6,00 Euro (with the letter of school) and one free entrance for every 15 people

copyright Ginda Simpson – http://www.rooms-withaivew.comhttp://www.gindasimpson.com

 

La Scarzuola – one man’s portrait in stone

La Scarsuola (9)

La Scarzuola
Località Montegiove
05010 Montegabbione
Province of Terni
Tel: 0763-837-463
http://www.lascarzuola.com
info@lascarzuola.com

Designed by the Milanese architect, Tomaso Buzzi, La Scarzuola is an architectural complex in a garden setting intended to represent his vision of the “ideal city.” From humble beginnings as a monastery founded by St. Francis in 12l8, to a fantasy-land in stone, La Scarzuola is a place both sacred and surreal. Tomaso Buzzi purchased the monastery and land in 1957 to build Buzziana, his secular city, beginning his project with the restoration of the monastery and the recovery of the gardens, what he saw as a “holy city.” We enter the grounds by way of the small church of the monastery in the town of Montegiove in the province of Terni. Little remains of the church save for an early 13th century fresco portraying St. Francis.

church

We begin our walk along stone paths in what was once the monk’s giardino, a traditional tranquil garden, with box hedges, flowers, statuary and vine-covered pergolas. It is a peaceful sanctuary and does little to prepare us for the imaginary city that lies ahead, a jumbled landscape of stone structures strewn across a paradisaical playground. There are temples and towers, reflection pools, theaters, and a natural arena. Architectural details have been extracted from every art period of the past and blended into elements of the Neo-Mannerist style. There is a sense of unbalance and disproportion that bends one’s mind. Buzzi’s city is a complex of seven theaters, with the focal point being the “Acropolis,” a chaotic arrangement of buildings with elements borrowed from such structures as the Arc de Triomple, the Parthenon, and the Temple of Vesta, all vacant but not lacking stairways and bridges.

La Scarsuola (5)

 

I find myself seeking some sort of visual and spiritual balance and I find it in the natural landscape that surrounds these structures – the tall cypresses, the vast expanses of lawn, the hedges and olive trees – elements that seem more comprehensible, more enduring. One would have to have known the artist to understand the workings of his mind to understand the complexity of his vision and its subsequent execution. Of this, I have no clue, but like all magic, one need not understand how it was done to enjoy it. Such is La Scarzuola.

 

It was Tomaso Buzzi’s wish at his death in 1980 that nature take over his unfinished city, leaving it to be a city of haunting ruins. His nephew, Marco Solari, however did complete his uncle’s vision and thankfully, these gardens are open to the public today.

Visits by appointment only.
Call or send request by e-mail.

Copyright Ginda Simpson – http://www.rooms-withaview.comhttp://www.gindasimpson.com

A Simple Feast at Il Granaro del Monte

Il Granaro

Il Granaro del Monte
Hotel Grotta Azzurra
Via Alfieri 7
06046 Norcia (PG)
39-0743-816-513
info@bianconi.com
www.bianconi.com

We feasted at our hotel’s restaurant, Il Granaro del Monte, considered a national culinary monument.  I was in agreement from the very first savory bite.  What makes their cooking so extraordinary?  Ordinary, wholesome ingredients prepared with a love and respect for the land that produces them – Norcia!  The Black Truffle is king and is an essential part of the cuisine of Umbria.  Truffles are best consumed shortly after being extracted from the ground, as their particularly strong scent and taste fade quickly.   At the Granaro, the chef does not allow this to happen and he prepares the truffles in countless ways.  For me, they are absolutely divine simply perched on a mound of handmade tagliatelle.   But a meal would not be complete without sampling Norcia’s lamb and cured pork specialties, the lentils of Castelluccio (presented here in a velvety soup), the spelt, the cheeses…

Picture the sheep as they graze in the flower-filled meadow of Castelluccio, the cheeses made from the sheep’s milk, the honey of a thousand wildflowers.  These are the elements that are used to recreate traditional dishes following ageless recipes, held dear by the Bianconi family and presented daily to their guests.

 

copyright – Ginda Simpson – http://www.rooms-withaview.comhttp://www.gindasimpson.com