Wednesday, May 31, 2017

My Italian Vacation, Part III: Siena

A Tuscan sunset from my hotel window.

The last stop on our Italian vacation in April was Siena. I'd never been there and a well-traveled friend had told me it was by far his favorite place in Italy. It's only about an hour's train ride from Florence so that was the final stop on our trip.

I found great online reviews for the Palazzo Ravizza hotel, and since it was the end of the trip I splurged on a room with a view. It was actually two rooms with a sitting room and amazing views. I especially loved the decorated ceilings. It was like sleeping in a cathedral, but cozier. 

Ceiling of our sitting room.

Ceiling over the bed.

The second floor of the hotel had a beautiful common room with a grand piano. One night I was reading my book here, and another guest treated me to an impromptu private piano concert! It lasted over an hour, until the staff had to ask him to stop because some silly guests wanted to sleep. This isn't my photo, but I had to add it because it was one of the highlights of the trip (if this is your photo, please let me know so I can give you credit or find another one). 

Our room had amazing views and a beautiful terrace. The first night I sat outside with a little snack. I had a book with me but the view was so stunning I just sat and admired it. 

Siena is a beautiful walled Medieval city and the streets are very narrow and winding. It's also hilly so some of the streets are really steep. 

Yes, those are cars driving amid the pedestrians. All the streets are one-way you have to have a permit to be able to drive inside the city. I don't think tourists are allowed to drive there, with good reason. Amazingly, they do have buses which are tiny. Sadly, I was never able to snap a photo of one in time.

After walking through the winding streets I suddenly found a big open space, the Piazza del Campo which is the main square. 

That's building is the Palazzo Publico, the city hall. The "square" in front is actually a semi-circle, and it's on a slope so it's a little like an amphitheater.

I didn't actually go inside any of the buildings this time. After almost a week of sightseeing I was happy to just walk around and enjoy the architecture. 

I can't remember what this building is but this courtyard reminded me of Game of Thrones. I kept looking over my shoulder for Lannisters. 

Another square has the Siena Cathedral, which is big and gaudy.

Outside the cathedral is this mysterious wall which leads nowhere. You can climb to the top, but I was a little worn out from all the climbing in Florence so I passed on this one.

Another thing I noticed was that Siena has pig images everywhere. This one was carved into the doorstep of a restaurant where we had lunch. Guess what was on the menu? 

This shop sold nothing but pork products. 

If you are looking for seafood on a menu in Siena, you are out of luck. Seriously, I didn't see fish on a single menu, except maybe anchovies on pizza.

Naturally, the food in Siena was amazing. This was paparadelle, wide pasta with a braised pork and tomato sauce. 

A lot of the restaurants in Siena are in 14th century buildings which feel like wine cellars with bricks and vaulted ceilings. We loved this restaurant and ate there the first night and the last. That's my daughter hiding behind her menu.

Her favorite thing to eat in Tuscany was pici, handmade noodles like thick spaghetti, a local specialty. I think she ate them every day. These were served cacio e pepe -- butter, parmesan, and black pepper. 

At the same restaurant we had an appetizer which was basically a truffled potato cake with cheese. Those slices on top are white truffles. I averaged about 15,000 steps a day in Italy so I needed those carbs, right?

Every day we had amazing sunsets. I can't believe I actually took this photo on my phone. 

So that was Italy! It was a wonderful vacation and I'd love to go back -- I want to drive around Tuscany and visit all the little towns, and I also want to visit Cinque Terre, Amalfi, and Capri. Bloggers, have you visited Italy? Which other Italian places belong on my wish list?

Sunday, May 21, 2017

Over-the-Top Victorian Melodrama by Mary Elizabeth Braddon

Since I started seriously exploring Victorian literature, I've made some unexpectedly delightful discoveries. One of my favorite surprises was Mary Elizabeth Braddon, a Victorian writer who is best known for her Victorian sensation fiction. Author of more than 80 novels, she's best known for Lady Audley's Secret, which I read several years ago for the RIP Readalong. When I saw that the library had her debut novel available as an e-book, I couldn't wait to download it. 

First published in 1860 as Three Times Dead, Braddon reworked the novel and republished it in 1864 as The Trail of the Serpent. Basically, there are three intertwining plots. The first is the fate of Richard Marwood, a somewhat ne'er-do-well scamp who is trying to turn his life around, and is mistakenly accused of the brutal murder of his wealthy uncle. Following a verdict of not guilty by reason of insanity, he's sentenced to life in an asylum, while a sympathetic deaf police detective tries to prove his innocence and catch the real killer.

The second plot involves a psychopathic schoolteacher named Jabez North, who was fished out of the river as an orphaned baby. He believes he deserves better than working as a teacher in a second-rate boarding school and is merciless and diabolical. 

The final plot is a wealthy Spanish heiress, Valerie de Cevennes, who lives in Paris and is secretly married to a star opera singer. A manipulative adventurer named Raymond de Marolles manipulates and blackmails Valerie, forcing her to become his wife and control her fortune. Eventually, all the threads tie up together into one super-dramatic plot.  There are swoons and fevers and poisonings and dopplegangers, and of course, lots of Big Secrets and dramatic reveals. 

If this sounds really over top and melodramatic, well, it is. There's a lot of swooning and mustache-twirling, and I wouldn't call any of the characters well-developed. It's not so much a mystery of who the criminal is, but really how they did it and more importantly, will they get away with it? 

Nevertheless, the plot is really great and it's a fun, fast read. It's one of the earliest British detective novels, published a full eight years (in its first incarnation) than The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins. And it always pleases me to realize that women authors in the 19th century were just as prolific as some of the men (which then leads me to wonder why the male authors are studied as canon, yet many of the works by women have fallen out of print and are largely forgotten). This is the Victorian equivalent of a vacation read and I really enjoyed it.

I'm counting this as my 400+ pages novel for the Victorian Reading Challenge and as my Classic by a Woman author for the Back to the Classics Challenge

Sunday, May 14, 2017

Top Ten Books My Mom Would Love

Flowers for Mom!
(Actually, it's the Keukenhof Gardens in the Netherlands).

I'm a couple of days early for a Top Ten list, but in honor of Mother's Day, here's a list of books I think my mother would love. We have quite similar taste in books (and I'm pretty sure she's read some of these already). But this is my Top Ten List of Books My Mom Would Love.

Polly Walker, Joan Plowright, and Josie Lawrence in the film version of Enchanted April.

1. The Enchanted April by Elizabeth von Arnim. Four Edwardian women rent a castle in Italy for a month. Beautiful gardens, a castle, and ocean views. And Italian food! What is not to like? (Also has a great movie adaptation).

2.  Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day by Winifred Watson. Probably the most popular book in the Persephone catalog, and with good reason. A down-on-her-luck spinster accidentally gets the wrong assignment from an employment agency, and is swept into a whirlwind when she works as a secretary for a glamorous nightclub singer. The movie adaptation was brilliantly cast with Frances McDormand as Miss Pettigrew and Amy Adams as her employer, Delysia LaFosse. (McDormand also narrates the audio version, also wonderful).

The ladies of Wives & Daughters: from left, Cynthia, Molly, and her stepmother Hyacinth.
3.  Wives and Daughters by Elizabeth Gaskell. One of my favorite Victorian novels, it's the story of young Molly Gibson, whose life is upturned when her widower father remarries because he thinks she needs a woman's influence. She's not exactly a wicked stepmother but she's very misguided, and Molly also gets a stepsister Cynthia in the bargain. A great story about class and the role of women in 1830s England. And yet another great TV miniseries, one of my all-time favorites. (Also stars the brilliant Michael Gambon as the local squire).

4.  Rachel Ray by Anthony Trollope. My mom is actually the one who introduced me to Trollope, but I don't think she's read this one. One of Trollope's romantic comedies about the course of true love never running smoothly. It's one of his shorter novels and it's not one of his two famous series, so it's a great introduction to Trollope if you're daunted by the Pallisers and the Barsetshire Chronicles. One of the few books on this list that hasn't been adapted for TV or movies, but I wish it were! 

Prunella Scales, left, as Miss Mapp; and Geraldine McEwan as Lucia.
5.  Mapp and Lucia by E. F. Benson. The fourth in the Lucia series, and my favorite (though they're all really funny). Set in the 1930s, two middle-aged social climbing women in an English village  constantly try to one-up each other, with hilarious results. There have been two TV adaptations so far. I haven't seen the 2014 version, but the 1980s version is brilliant -- Nigel Hawthorne is especially delightful as Lucia's best friend Georgie. 

6.  Miss Buncle's Book by D. E. Stevenson. Another delightful book reprinted by Persephone. Like Miss Pettigrew, Miss Buncle is a spinster in financial straits, but she makes her own luck by publishing a thinly-veiled humorous book about her friends and neighbors in the small town of Silverstream, and life soon begins to imitate art. Stevenson wrote more than 40 novels and was a bestselling author with over 7 million copies of her books in print during the mid-century. Most of them are currently out of print but a few have been reprinted by Persephone and Sourcebooks and there are a lot of used copies for sale online. 

Dorothy Whipple

7.  The Priory by Dorothy Whipple -- well, pretty much anything by Dorothy Whipple, one of my favorite Persephone writers (though I already I forced a copy of Someone at a Distance on poor Mom on a previous visit. She did enjoy it!) Whipple is one of Persephone's most popular writers and her novels and short stories are just wonderful, though they're often tragic tales of mid-century domestic fiction. She's very middlebrow but there's nothing wrong with that. 

8.  84, Charing Cross Road by Helene Hanff. A charming true story of a postal friendship between a sassy New York journalist and a reserved London bookseller. Hanff was looking for particular classics in the 1950s  and couldn't find them in New York, so she began writing to a second-hand bookstore in Charing Cross. What followed was a long friendship based on books but is so much more. Ann Bancroft stars as Hanff in the movie adaptation -- she loved the book so much, her husband Mel Brooks bought her the film rights. Now, that's a lovely gift!

9.  The Cazalet Chronicles by Elizabeth Jane Howard. OK, this is an entire series, not just one book, but they're so good I have to include the whole series. It's the story of an extended upper-middle class family starting just before WWII, and how they react to the War and what follows. A great saga with well-developed characters, and I loved all five volumes.

10.  The Grand Sophy by Georgette Heyer. Part Pride & Prejudice, part Emma, this Regency farce is pure fun, and just the thing when you've finished all of Jane Austen. Heyer's books are great escapist fiction -- and unlike Jane Austen, she wrote about 50 books, so it'll take a long time to finish all of them!

I could go on and on, but these are books I know my mother (and many other mothers) would love. Happy Mother's Day, Mom!

Friday, May 12, 2017

Four days in Florence

View of the Duomo from the Campanile.

Part 2 of my Italian vacation -- on to Florence, where we spent four days, filled with art, gelato, and climbing hundreds of steps (therefore justifying all the gelato, of course).

I took this photo just off the Ponte Vecchio. I like how the buildings are reflected next to the gelati.

We had mostly good weather, except for the first day when it was scary and overcast just as we were about to climb the Campanile, or tower, in the main square by the Duomo. (We had to make a reservation to climb the Duomo another day). Naturally, it started to rain (with thunder AND lightning) when we reached the top of the tower. It made for some good photos, but it was a little scary. 

Not the tallest tower, but the best views in Florence. 

Like the tower in Pisa, there are several different levels where you can stop and admire the view, plus catch your breath, so the climb wasn't as difficult as I thought. Plus, I think I'm much more used to walking stairs and hills than my last trip to Italy; living in a four-story house, in a hilly neighborhood, you tend to get better at it. 

That's the Piazza Vecchio in the foreground, and in the far left you can see Santa Croce (famously visited by Lucy Honeychurch in A Room with a View.)

The next day I went inside the Duomo, which is surprisingly plain -- apparently they used up all the money and resources to decorate the outside. Inside the actual Dome it's quite elaborate, with all kinds of Biblical images, especially hellfire and damnation. 

At the opposite end is this amazing clock, which is clearly not telling time how I learned it. Here's an explanation if you're curious.

We did climb the Duomo a couple of days later but it was less fun than the tower because it was really narrow and crowded, because people are climbing up and down the same staircases (some towers have designated up and down routes, in different stairwells. Also, the Duomo is the most beautiful thing in Florence, and obviously, you can't see it when you're inside. But the views of the countryside are pretty spectacular. 

Naturally we had to visit a couple of museums. My daughter isn't a huge art fan but even she found David to be pretty impressive. 

Her favorite thing was to take photos of statues and give them snarky captions on her snapchat account. I was able to save a couple of them.

Aside from towers and museums, my other favorite place in Florence was the Boboli Garden, part of the Palazzo Pitti, the mansion of the Medici family on the opposite side of the Arno. It's a bit of a walk from our hotel but it was worth it. It's a huge, beautiful garden (supposedly the inspiration for the gardens of Versailles) and it's on a hill, so the view is amazing. 

As you'd expect, the food was amazing. I am eternally grateful to have children who will eat just about anything. My daughter discovered she loved one of the local specialties which is crostini with chicken livers. We had crostini almost every day. 

At this restaurant, it was more of a DIY crostini, but it was really good. 

I only had pizza once the entire trip. It was pretty amazing.

We also enjoyed the Florentine steak, which is served in a large piece by weight. The smallest we could get was 600 grams -- for you non-metric readers, that's about 1 1/3 pounds. We shared but it's still a big portion, especially if you've already been eating crostini. 

Nearly every restaurant in Florence has Vin Santo and Cantucci on the dessert menu. Vin Santo is a traditional sweet dessert wine and cantucci are twice-baked cookies that Americans call biscotti (technically, biscotti just means any cookie in Italian; cantucci are always twice-baked). These had chunks of chocolate baked into them and they were the best I had in Florence.

And finally, here's one of my favorite photos, a view of the Ponte Vecchio from the Uffizi Gallery:

It was my second trip to Florence and I loved it just as much as the first time. Next up: Siena!