The Best-Kept Secrets in Florence

I admit I’m terrible at keeping secrets, but only the kind that you’re bursting to share with people. The kind where no one is being talked about and no one will get hurt.

I would have loved to keep the Novio completely in the dark about our Tuscan holiday until we arrived to the airport in January 2013, but as someone who hates surprises, it was easier to tell him to pack for a weekend of eating and drinking, with a little bit of walking around in between courses.

It’s not secret that I love Italy and just about everything I’ve experienced – my great aunt married an Italian just off the boat, and together they founded Chicago-based Italian food import company Dell’Alpe. Italian food and language have always been present at my family gatherings. The Novio had never been to anywhere north of Cagliari, so I bought him round-trip tickets, a secret I kept for less than three hours. 

Having spent my first solo trip in Florence, the city’s main sights held little mystique, so I got a local to spill the beans – Tiana Kai, an American married to a Fiorentino, who sent me a list of bars, enotecas and hole-in-the-wall trattorias. But everything went out the window when we arrived cold and hungry to Florence after 10pm.

Despite wrong turns, nearly scratching our rental car and being at the inability to find our hotel, the concierge suggested a hidden trattoria for dinner. When I say hidden, I meant really was – even after an exhaustive Internet search, I still can’t find the name. It was near the Mercato Centrale and just as nondescript as every family-run restaurant on the street.

We arrived just before the kitchen closed around 11pm. Ushered to a table and poured glasses of wine, we blinked blindly at the menu, which was all in Italian. A group of American students chattered nearby, crinkly their glasses of Chianti together every opportunity they got.

I found two words I knew – ravioli and gorgonzola – and settled on it. The Novio ordered another ravioli dish and a plate of antipasto. We broke a no-pasta-or-rice-before-bedtime rule.

The restaurant’s kitchen was just over his right shoulder, so I watched the chef hand roll the pasta, shape the raviolis and stuff what looked like pulled pork into the small squares of pasta. Lumps of cheese went into mine, which were then tossed in a wine sauce and garnishes with walnuts. The Novio had unwillingly chosen wild boar, which is also the unofficial mascot of the city (hence the photo).

The following morning dawned cold but bright. I walked the Novio past all of the important sites – the Uffizi Galleries, the Duomo, Ponte Vecchio. We vowed to spend our euros on food and drink, and therefore skipped the lines at the Medici palace for an espresso in the square, just steps from the iconic David statue.

We ended up near Santa Croce at noon. Entrance was a few euros, but as soon as the Novio found out it was Franciscan, he was willing to fork over the equivalent of a nice glass of wine. Though not a secret, hidden church, this basilica houses the remains of illustrious Italians, like Galileo and Michealangelo, in addition to providing respite from the cold sun. It’s a simple church, though its 16 chapels house frescoes from celebrated Italian artists.

We sat in the adjacent plaza after our visit,and I turned on my data to try and find a hole-in-the-wall pizza place I’d visited a few years back and found an open wi-fi code at a nearby wine bar. 

A college friend of mine had studied in Florence and recommended Il Gato e la Volpe. I had a meal there five years before, during my first trip alone in 2008. The waiters had sat me with an Italian American family who shared their wine and breadsticks with me as I devoured a pizza by myself.

Secret or not, this is as dive bar as classy Florence gets – wood paneling, rickety chairs and the smell of burnt pizza crust. We shared a liter of beer, a pizza and gnocchi with pesto for less than 12€, the price of a plate of pasta or individual pizza in a moderate restaurant near any major site in the city. (Via Ghiballina, 151, near Santa Croce. Open Daily)

We walked off our plates in the neighborhood, exploring roadside monuments and tucked-away piazzas before ending up back at the Arno and within view of the Ponte Vecchio.

The last place on our list was Piazzela Michelangelo – not an off-the-map place by any means, but most tourists don’t know it’s accessible by car. Tiana had clued us is, so we grabbed our bags from the hotel, shifted into first gear, and climbed the winding street in our Fiat.

The views were stunning on the clear day. We traced our steps through the narrow roads of the so-called Cradle of the Renaissance, from the Mercato Centrale to the Duomo to the backstreets of Santa Croce.

We were soon on the road to Bologna, food capital of Italy, where we’d skip again the leaning towers in favor of pasta, oysters and wine. Even in Emilia Romagna, we’d find locals willing to lead us to local foodie hangouts and invite us to rounds of grappa in the university area.

We left Italy after 48 hours, easily a few kilos heavier and without seeing any major sites. Unless, of course, you could seeing the Ponte Vecchio from afar.

Have you ever been to Florence or Bologna? 

Rainy Days in Oviedo

It’s raining in Seville, rare in September but welcome after a hot and excruciatingly long summer. They’re those sort of spotty showers that come and go as fast as takes you to find a cozy cafe to wait it out. Usually, I’d be cursing having to take public transportation to work or scrambling to bring in laundry I’d hung in the sun, but this last week of rain has been incredibly relaxing.

In between the raindrops, people run into the street to do their errands, to have a coffee, to meet with friends. I was virtually the only person on the street last Friday as I let the bottoms of my jeans get wet on the way to sue my bank (pequeños placeres, people). For sevillanos, rain means literally raining on their parade, but so many places in Spain get rain almost daily.

I spent two days in Oviedo last summer with my local friend Claudia, ducking into boutiques, cider bars and bakeries when the rain clouds closed in and sipping coffee in the sun when they dissipated. In the summer months, the capital of the Principality of Austurias still gets rain nearly half of the day!

Clau lives right behind the train and bus station, so after I set down my bag, all packed for the Camino de Santiago, we stopped off at a bakery for an early afternoon treat. The repostería’s outdoor seating area looked inviting, so we caught up between mouthfuls of cupcake.

Just as we were counting out change for our coffees, a waiter came to zip the plastic enclosure around the patio. Asturianos are like dogs – they know when the weather is about to change.

I’d been to Oviedo once before with the Novio and some friends – his mom’s family is from Asturias – so we could skip the museums and touristic sites. The rain came and went quickly, leaving the marble pavement in the city center slick. 

Claudia is Argentian and once lived in Seville, where we met. After years of almost nothing but sun, she’s learning to live with rain.

Even with the spotty weather, Asturias shone. The colorful buildings stand apart amidst the grey skies that dogged my first of seven days in Asturias.

Having known one another for five years, Clau led me exactly where I wanted her to: a place to eat and drink in Plaza Fontán. We ordered a bottle of cider and two bollos preñaos, hardly breaking our chatter to have a bit to eat.

Once again, the sky opened and we could hardly hear one another over the rain drops on the canvas umbrellas. Unlike in Seville, no one ran for cover, but scooted their chars a bit closer to the table, lest a few raindrops splatter on them.

We ordered another bottle of cider to wait out the storm. Now with hazy brains, we took long naps and headed to Calle Gascona later on for endless rounds of cider, cachopos and giggles. 

The next day’s sun burnt the clouds off early in the morning. We hiked to the Pre-Romanesque churches of Monte Naranco, taking time on the way down to stop in bars for the views over the valley, have a caña and share a few snacks.

The rain held off all day in Oviedo, only to pour that evening in Avilés. No wonder the cows here produce such great milk – the grass really is greener on the other side of the Picos! 

Surprisingly enough, for the five days Hayley and I walked through Asturias on the Camino de Santiago del Norte, we had not one drop of rain. We were instead met with soaring temperatures and beach weather, a rare but celebrated thing in this corner of Spain.

I’ve dealt with rain in Lisbon, in Brussels, in Ireland, often sticking around in my hostel to relax or get to know other travelers in the bar or common areas. But somehow, rain in Oviedo just seemed like something to work around, and not get worked up about. Way to not be an aguafiestas, lluvia!

How do you cope with rain when you’re traveling?

A Peek at Life in India: the Hawa Mahal in Jaipur

From where we stood, halfway up the hill to the Monkey Temple, the waning light was turning ‘The Pink City’ a pearly, golden hue. The jagged skyline’s stack of buildings and telephone poles, a thousand candles, was like a fanciful birthday cake.

I scanned the horizon across Jaipur, noting the immense desert city that sat sprawled between mountains. We’d come because the city that had been painted the color of hospitality was rumored to be beautiful but gritty, busy but manageable. The Amer palace was the draw, but I had my eyes locked on the cake topper in the center of the cake – the Hawa Mahal.

Our tuk-tuk driver, Ali, warned us that the Hawa Palace was not really worth seeing. “It’s a house. A pink house. Better at Mughal market for the shopping.”

I’m sure you say that to all the ladies, Ali. Tu t’aime las filles, after all.

On our only full day in Jaipur, we did a whirlwind tour of the Fort, skipping the elephant ride as we climbed the hill on which the intricate palace sits before seeing the Janta Mantur observatory. While Ali tried to persuade us that it was better to skip the pink palace for a lassi drink and browsing the spice market, I couldn’t get over the pink lattice windows that peeked out above the city palace.

Like in many countries I’ve visited, the Hawa Mahal is essentially a fancy brothel, beautifully constructed living quarters that once included gilded doors and extravagant fountains against a facade that resembles a honeycomb. The five-story building is riddled with staircases, rooms, windows and lattice-work, allowing its inhabitants to see life on the streets below without actually being seen themselves.

Hayley and I saw a great deal of India from a tuk tuk, not quite on in a hit-the-pavement sort of way I had craved when we booked tickets. Even through the kindness of hotel owners, who helped us when we were scammed, through driving tuk tuk down deserted roads, to posing in pictures with sari-clad Indians in front of the Taj Mahal, I feel as though we barely scratched India’s expansive surface.

Like the women who once lived in the small bedrooms of the Palace of the Winds and could witness the trading and chaos, the wandering animals and the comforting hum of daily life in Jaipur, our India experience felt like theirs – someone not quite on the inside. I suddenly had the urge to skip Mumbai and stay in the Pink City, to consider India in the future. After five days, two train rides and countless interactions with strangers, I knew one trip to India would never be enough for me.

Ali was waiting for us at the Tripolia Bazaar, feet up on the narrow dashboard of his motorized tricycle. “So, very boring, yes?” he questioned as we climbed into the back and he sped off towards the spice market.

I somehow knew India had gotten under my skin in that very moment.

Have you ever wanted to learn more about a destination after you’d visited? Or do you see things and then mentally cross it off a bucket list?

Autonomous Community Spotlight: Las Islas Canarias

Not one to make travel goals, I did make one when coming to Spain: visit all 17 autonomous communities at least once before going home. While Madrid, Barcelona and Seville are the stars of the tourist dollar show (and my hard-earned euros, let’s not kid around here), I am a champion for Spain’s little-known towns and regions. Having a global view of this country has come through living in Andalucía, working in Galicia and studying in Castilla y León, plus extensive travel throughout Spain.

When the Novio asked if it would be ok if he took me to a wedding on Gran Canaria island, I started looking for flights before I even agreed. Located off of the coast of Africa, this archipelago is comprised of a dozen islands, has two capitals and is famous for being a holiday maker’s paradise. 

As we drove around Gran Canary on an amazing road trip, dined on fresh seafood and I attended my first Spanish wedding, I almost forgot that most of the people we met or who served us spoke English. Six years later, I was on a Tenerife road trip with locals, exploring caverns, colonial cities and Spain’s highest peak.

The islands are definitely Spanish while retaining a little bit of a wild heart.

Name: Islas Canarias

Population: 2.1 million, the majority of whom are on Tenerife and Gran Canaria

Provinces: The Canaries consist of seven main islands: and Tenerife in the Santa Cruz de Tenerife province; and Gran Canaria in the Las Palmas de Gran Canaria province. What other autonomous region can boast two regional capitals?!

When: 11th of 17 regions, June 2008 

About: The islands’ name is said to be derived from the population of monk seals that once inhabited the islands. Volcanic eruptions led to the formation of the seven inhabited islands and five smaller islands less than 100 kilometers off the coast of Morocco, which are believed to have been inhabited from the Roman times, or perhaps earlier by aboriginals once called guanches.

Thanks to its strategic positioning, the islands have served as an outpost for explorers (including Columbus), mission bases for galleons and fleets and pirate hideouts. The islands were colonized by the Castillian crown in the early 15th century, and the autonomy gained status as one of Spain’s 17 in the early 1980s. Nowadays, sugar and bananas are huge exports, and small pockets of immigrants from the mainland, Europe and northern Africa make the islands an interesting cultural melting pot.

Must-sees: The big draw to the Canarias is the sun – the islands get more sunny days and a more stable climate than any other place in Spain. So there’s the beach, the sand and the sun, which is why droves of budget flights congregate in the two largest airports in the archipelago, Tenerife Sur and Gran Canaria. In fact, I flew for free to Tenerife earlier this year! Lanzarote also draws those with a love of hiking and adventure sports.

On my first visit, we spent time on Gran Canaria, hitting the capital, the touristy southern resort towns of the island like Maspalomas, Playa de los Ingleses and Puerto Mogán and the northern gems of Arucas and Agaete before visiting the central mountains of this near-circular island.

My long weekend in Tenerife was full of adventure – from the guachinches to scaling Mount Teide, Spain’s highest point. While the southern part of the islands draws the sun seekers and the cruise ships, the north is a bit more local and untamed, as well as wallet-friendly. The cliffs are just as dramatic as I’d expect them to be on the other islands, which are far less touristy.

Undoubtedly, what stands out about the islands is the biodiversity, from marine life to plants. The islands boast four national parks, a number of celebrated canarios and a dedication to preserving the island way of life. I was shocked to see so many local fairs, Canarian kitchens and a pidgin-holed language that uses gua-gua instead of bus or employs whistles.

Oh, and then there’s the Carnival, one of the largest outside of Brazil. And the food – the fresh shellfish, the soft cheeses and the mojo picón-drenched wrinkly potatoes.  

My take: I am always a bit hesitant about places that are overly touristy and catered towards those wallets. When the Novio took me to Gran Canaria, we sat on the dunes in Maspalomas, sun bathed on Playa de las Canteras and ate in a British pub. But we also partied at a Spanish wedding in a beautiful church in Arucas and drove to Roque Nublo in the center of the island.

We truly got the best of both worlds – the familiarity of my Anglo world with the charm of an island community, plus the melting pot of so many other languages, cultures and histories. I felt like it was a bridge between my two worlds.

Have you been to the Canary Islands? What would you recommend seeing, eating and doing?

Check out the other regions I’ve highlighted: Andalucía | Aragón | Asturias | Islas Baleares . If you’re looking for other great blogs on the Canaries, don’t miss Gran Canaria Local or Island Momma.

Each month for the next 14, I’ll take a look at Spain’s 17 comunidades autónomas and my travel through them, from A to, um, Valencia. I’d love your take on the good and the bad in each one, so be sure to sign up for my RSS feed to read about each autonomous region at the end of each month! Next up for August is Cantabria.

Spain Snapshots: The Guadalupe Monastery of Cáceres

Many great places in Spain are seeped in legends, mentioned in texts or venerated by the insane queues at its ticket offices (I’m looking at you, Alhambra). 

For me, the Real Monasterio de Guadalupe was an obscure monastery and the name of many females, little more than a blip on a map in the wild back country of Extremadura. I figured it was worth a detour on our way to Trujillo.

Then came this:

According to legend, the veneration may have been carved in the 1st Century by Saint Luke himself, who then carted her around the world  before presenting the Archbishop of Seville, San Leandro, with it. During the Moorish invasion that commenced in 711, the Archdiocese of Seville looked for a place to hide her as invaders ransacked cities and palaces.

Turns out, I have something in common with this particular image of the Virgin Mary (besides my birthday being on the day of her ascension into heaven): we both made a pilgrimage to Guadalupe from Seville of 320 kilometers. When she arrived, though, she was buried next to the Guadalupe River and not discovered until the late 12th Century.

On that very spot, a humble chapel was erected and eventually converted into one of Spain’s most important (and arguably most stunning) monasteries.

Like all great pilgrimage sites, like the ending points of the Camino de Santiago or El Rocío, Guadalupe has attracted illustrious names in Spanish history – Columbus prayed here after returning from the New World (and the Madonna is now revered in Central and South America), King Alfonso XI invoked Guadalupe’s spirit during the Battle of Salado, and many modern-day popes have stopped to pray.

While we weren’t on a religious pilgrimage, really, I’m slowly ticking UNESCO World Heritage Sites off of my Spain list, and Guadalupe is listed as such. We joined the last tour of the day after getting lost in teeny towns on nearly abandoned highways, many of which bear names that were later given to cities in the New World, like Valdivia, where we devoured fried calamari sandwiches.

Tours to Guadalupe’s cloisters, treasury, church, religious art museum and sacristy can only be done on a guide tour in Spanish, which leave on the hour. As the monk droned on about artistic heritage, I stole into the Gothic cloistered courtyard.

As we had joined the last tour of the day, an elderly monk showed us through the sacristy, painted in its entirety by Zurburán, and invited us to the room that held one of three black Madonnas. The soaring chamber had frescoes of Catholicism’s most famous female saints, relics in every wall and a small turnstile that allowed the three women on my tour named Guadalupe to kiss the hands of the veneration.

They, like Columbus and Cervantes before them, had come to pray in front of the woman who gave them their name and ask for her eternal protection.

As it turns out, the 60 minutes we’d budgeted for the monastery stretched to nearly two hours, meaning we were late to meet Angela from Trujillo Villas, but a night in a cozy palace-turned-vacation-home has us back on the right track the following morning before visiting Yuste and the gorgeous hamlet of Garganta la Olla.

Have you ever been to Extremadura?

Spain Snapshots: My Perfect Madrileño Day

Danny and I were on our third glass of vermouth in Malasaña when it dawned on me: Madrid had finally won me over.

Between the barrio life, the collision of old and traditional with new and different and the balmy late spring nights, La Capital is quickly becoming one of my favorite escapes in Spain.

Madrid isn’t as outright beautiful as Seville or as wildly gorgeous as the calas on Menorca. It’s not old and cobblestoned or dripping in Gaudí’s whimsical architecture. It’s a bit grandiose on one block, and a bit gritty on the next.

 Simply put, it’s a Spanish city that encompasses it all and is the epicenter for nearly everything in Iberia.

My most recent trip to Madrid was two-fold: I was coming back from an emergency trip to the US, and I’d be brainstorming and hamming in front of the camera for a project I’m working on with other social media darlings. But as soon as I’d touched down in Barajas, my jet lag dissipated, and I spent the day retracing my favorite madrileño haunts and finding new spots to love.

My perfect Madrid day, unfiltered: Strolling, snacking, meeting lifelong madrileños and other adoptive gatos who have decided to call Madrid home.

Like Madrid? Check out these posts: Mercado de San Miguel // The Saturday City // Casa Hernanz // Visiting Alcalá de Henares

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