We were sitting in a favorite cafe the other day, watching the snow fall, sipping on some Earl Grey, and contemplating the sad state of the travel industry, when a voice piped up, “You're here in this miserable weather and not off somewhere?”
They almost certainly meant somewhere warm. Antipodean hot, perhaps. Or Mediterranean mellow. Or Caribbean cool.
It's been happening a lot lately - this kind of verbal confrontation - as anyone who knows that we're passionate travelers always assumes we just swan off to warmer climes whenever the barometer bottoms out.
But we are going away soon - to Florence. Not exactly warm at this time of year. More like room temperature. But likely to be snowless, at least.
It's still a pretty nice spot for a February vacation, though. Geographically on a parallel with Nice, fellow tourists will be light on the ground. Prices at an all year low. Locals happy to see us and eager to assist (and take our tumbling dollars).
There'll be easy access, too, to all the famous sights without all the long lines of high season. The Uffizi Gallery. The Accademia (the permanent home of Michelangelo's David, when he's not out on tour). The brilliant Brunelleschi-domed Duomo (cathedral), Giotto's Campanile, the Baptistry, the Ponte Vecchio ... and on and on.
The restaurants won't rush us, either, which is an important consideration because, like Napoleon's army, this two-member squad travels on its stomach, and Italy of all countries titillates the taste buds. All that risotto and polenta, pecorini and pasta, funghi (mushrooms) and tartufi (truffles), bruschetta and carciofi (artichokes).
And then there's the bread. Big rounds of foccacia covered with fresh herbs and garlic and tomatoes, slathered in peppery Tuscan olive oil. And rustic loaves the size of footballs, with their crispy crusts and chewy crumb, invariably accompanied by jugs of regional reds. Or better yet, Chianti Classico, which, according to 17th-century poet Fulvio Testi, “kisses you and bites you and makes you shed sweet tears.”
Are we there yet, Daddy?
Over the past decade or so, we've always done a mid-winter trip - Barcelona, Prague, Rome, Berlin, Paris, Vienna, Budapest, London - cities big enough to lose ourselves in, and still culturally and artistically satisfying. Places that can easily keep us busy for a week. Or three. And amused indoors if ever the weather turns turtle.
These cities must also, of course, have an efficient transport system that effortlessly meshes the buses and trams, subways and trains so that places both inside and out can be easily and inexpensively explored.
Florence is just one of those cities. And it's also an excellent base for exploring other Tuscan treasures. Like Siena and Pisa and San Gimignano. Assisi and Arezzo. Lucca and Livorno. And of course the hills and villages of Chianti Country.
LAST WEEK we wrote about our friend Dario Castagna, who had just published his first book, Too Much Tuscan Sun: Confessions of a Chianti Tour Guide. Unfortunately this book is not currently available in the U.S. We can only suggest you e-mail him at RASNA@ dada.it. Or Fax 011-39-0-577 322 534. His Web site is www.initaly.com /ads/tscnwlk/dario.htm.
WHILE ON the subject of reading with a heavy travel component, there's another genre beyond the biographical that is proving increasingly popular in our household. (And these are definitely available in local bookshops and libraries!)
These are basically books that dig deeply into single, narrow topics about mundane items that, throughout history, have had world-altering repercussions.
Remember the 1995 bestseller, Longitude by Dava Sobel, that told of the race to find how to measure longitude for navigational purposes? Well, eventually Yorkshire clock maker John Harrison won that race - and changed marine navigation forever.
Intrigued by this unlikely story, we went to see his actual timepieces on display at the Greenwich observatory, and then, quite unexpectedly, discovered the genius' burial place in a Hampstead cemetery.
Anyone who enjoyed that epic tale might also try Nathaniel's Nutmeg by Giles Milton (1999, Penguin) which tells how Europe's insatiable desire for nutmeg and other spices sent ships off into uncharted waters, precipitated bloody wars between nations, and eventually changed the course of history.
And then there's Cod by Mark Kurlansky, a biography of the fish that encompasses a thousand years and crosses continents and oceans. The lowly fish “spawned” wars, changed national diets, and is now, sadly, endangered by overfishing.
Kurlansky's latest book, Salt, is another masterful historical kaleidoscope that blends economy, science, politics ... and food. (Can Vinegar be far behind?)
One of the beauties of all these delightful histories is that they can either be devoured whole ... in front of that blazing fire ... or dipped into, one savory pinch at a time.