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Saturday, March 14, 2020

The Leather Market of Florence



          Suddenly the light rain is a thundering deluge. Vendors on each side of the narrow cobblestone street are scrambling to lower sheets of plastic and canopies over the front of their tents. Covering my camera with a piece of the scarf around my neck, I duck backward inside a booth, out of the pelting drops.


          A familiar smell blankets me, and immediately a new car interior comes to mind. It’s the pungent rich smell of leather. Not just any leather, but the robust, earthy scent of newly minted, newly cut and stitched leather. Turning around in the tent, I'm surrounded by a sea of garments. Black, brown, red, white, green, purple and pink, the variety leather styles and colors is huge.

italy, leather, florence, market

Brushing aside the coats I make my way further inside the packed tent. The vendor sees me and motions toward the backside of his booth, where a storefront is visible. Here is his permanent business, where floor to ceiling leather goods are displayed in even more abundance and colors. The tent outside is just a sample, and part of the Mercato di San Lorenzo, the famous street market of Florence.

italy, leather, italian leather

              A few minutes later the cloud burst ceases, tarps are lifted and items are moved back out toward the street. Walking through the displays I note a distinct difference between this and other markets I’ve shopped in Italy. Not only is the product here decidedly upscale – even fur coats accompany the leather
displays - most impressive is the location, the street named Via Dell Ariento, a pedestrian corridor framed by the Basilica San Lorenzo in the heart of the historic district.



travel, italy, florence
          Florence is a destination for many things, the least of which may be the San Lorenzo Market. But for those desiring a unique piece of Italian leather, the quality and affordability is best found here. Just a five minute walk from both the Piazza Duomo and Santa Maria Novella train station; it is one of the more user friendly markets in Italy due to its location and lengthy hours of operation.

 

          Vendors here are friendly and generally unaggressive, although now during the slow winter season, we are experiencing an eagerness to sell, the upside of which is the ability to negotiate price.
          Two vendors each have a jacket I’m interested in purchasing. Similar in quality and style, one vendor quotes me 150 euro immediately while the second vendor starts at an astonishing 350 euro but quickly reduces the price three times as I walk away. Trying on leather here is an eye-opening experience. Normally a size medium in the United States, I quickly learn here in Italy I’m an extra-large. After negotiating a good price on a snug jacket, I learn there is not a larger option available unless I wait to have it made, so I walk away with a new treasure.
         Leather shopping accomplished, we enter the spacious in-door food market adjacent to the street market. A large, open air industrial building, the Mercato is a colorful buffet of Italian herb stands and stalls piled high with cheese, wine, meats and produce.




        Following the aroma of food, we discover a walk-up restaurant, crowded with Italians waiting in line for pulled pork sandwiches and homemade soup.
         An hour later, stuffed with a flavorful bean soup, roast pork and Prosecco, we head back through the market, stopping at several stands displaying hats, scarves, gloves, and souvenirs.


After a short walk, we arrive back at our modest hotel. Florence has a variety of inexpensive hotels, mostly family owned apartments, housed several to a building. Among the many choices, we chose the Hotel Ester for its proximity to the market and train station, low room rate and vast views of Florence.  


italy, travel, market

          Unpacking our treasures, we’ve scored two embroidered scarves at five euro each, several packets of dried seasoning, two wool hats and two leather jackets. Settling into a dinner of cheese, prosciutto and wine, we have a prominent view of the San Lorenzo Central food market building two blocks away, a reminder that the crunchy loaves of bread we passed up are close by should we change our minds.
          But for now I am content to eat light and hope that during tomorrow’s walk of Florence I will still fit into my bargain price, size extra-large and slightly snug, hand-made Italian coat.  
End

Friday, January 31, 2020

Monte de Procida - Naples Secret Coastline


The mozzarella cheese on my pie is still bubbling. Behind us, a huge pizza oven is heating the entire room – no easy feat in mid-January in a space enclosed by glass windows. Gazing past our table, I take in the view far below. Rick Steves won’t come here. Nobody comes here in the winter, and in the summer it takes far more patience and time than the average tourist will commit. We are alone in a pizzeria overlooking a popular waterfront destination, normally bustling with activity. Today, it is clear and quiet. Perfectly, beautifully, quiet.



The waterfront southwest of Naples is the stepchild of the Amalfi Coast to tourists – relatively unexplored by out-of-country visitors but revered by locals. Those lucky enough to be here right now – on a sunny, clear day in the dead of winter – can soak up the big views uncluttered by buzzing scooters, lumbering tour buses or car loads of families headed for the beach.


The twisting, winding road from the Tangenziale  to this perch high atop Via Panoramica in Monte de Procida, morphs from two busy roundabouts and a ghastly long, dark tunnel laden with obtrusive speed bumps to a narrow waterfront boulevard at sea level.
            The road curls along the marina with views of the harbor boat slips and Aragonese Castle of Baia on a promontory in the distance. Built on the edge of two volcanic caldrons in 1495, the castle was a military fortress occupied throughout the centuries by different warring factions. Used as a military prison in World War II, it currently houses the Archaeological Museum of the Phlegraean Fields.
Eventually the road narrows and gains elevation, climbing above the ocean, past the Aragonese Castle on Via Castello, a road that curls in half-circle around the promontory, suddenly offering a small view point harrowingly located on a blind corner. For those deft enough to cross the road, two arches frame hypnotic views of the bay of Baia below. From the scenic overlook on Via Castello, the road descends again through the tiny shops and the village atmosphere of Bacoli.


Sitting side-by-side, Bacoli and Monte di Procida are neighbors whose boundaries blend at a glance. What they share is a sheltered location that is both time consuming to reach – and completely worth it. We come here often in the winter and soak up what we avoid in the summer. Our destination in Monte di Procida is a scenic drive that frames the coast. Via Panoramica is an uncharacteristically wide road that traverses a cliff side overlooking the Gulf of Pozzouli, Baia Marina, Lago Miseno, the island of Procida and an expanse of the Tyrrhenian Sea. Most prominent in the ocean landscape is Cape Miseno.


A gently curved peninsula, Miseno was the site of Rome’s largest naval port, and housed the largest fleet of Rome’s navy ships, and many luxurious Roman homes in ancient times. Occupied by the Germans in World War II, it has a rich history as a military stronghold. Today the Cape attracts thousands to its beaches and restaurants in the summer months.
From above, the colorful arrays of beach umbrellas mark the individual private beaches where sun worshipers pay 10 Euro for a chair on the sand.


Along Via Panoramica several restaurants are perched on the cliff with patios and dining areas that overlook the vast view below. They vary in quality, but all feature casual dining, reasonable prices and the same vista. Today we’ve picked a favorite and have joined friends to share a Sunday in January eating pizza and drinking Prosecco on a terrace overlooking a part of Italy many people only dream of seeing. It’s our little secret - what we call the winter magic of Monte di Procida.
The End

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

The Amalfi Coast Treasure Hunt

            The elderly man walking toward me is holding out his hand. It seems he wants to give me something. 
             We are the only two people on this stretch of beach in Southern Italy, and have been quietly lost in our own musings until now.
Clearly his intense scrutiny of the sand has revealed a treasure he would like to share with me. Speaking in Italian, he smiles and drops a tiny shell into my hand. 
I can't understand what he is saying, but I'm charmed he wants to gift me with the snail shell, and I would like to reciprocate.  
              Reaching into my pocket, I pull out a recently found treasure and offer it to him. A piece of green ceramic, it is the only colored chip I have found so far on the beach.
His reaction surprises me. 
He chuckles and shrugs, walking away to continue his search without taking my gift.
 It occurs to me this man has probably lived here in Vietri sul Mare for many years. Strolling the beach, smoking his cigar and quietly scanning the sand is not a new past time for him.



The busy season of sunshine hasn't arrived yet and it is the perfect time of year for locals to enjoy their quiet waterfront devoid of the crowds who will flock to this beach in June.
I decide rebuffing my gift with a shrug is actually his way of saying that the bits of Italian pottery on the beach are familiar to him. I am just a silly American who may not have realized that.
Continuing my stroll a few feet from the surf, I wrap my scarf around my neck and pull up my collar, shivering in the breeze coming off the Mediterranean.
I am here on the gateway to the Amalfi Coast in March, alone on the beach with one Italian man, peacefully searching the sand. This part of the coast – a lesser traveled one by tourists, is exactly what many people dream of seeing in Italy.  
The colorful character of the people and charming homes with laundry lines almost an art form; the wonderful smells of pizza and Italian coffee – it is abundant here.
              Suddenly I see one.
Grabbing up the bright stone from the beach, I examine the intricate floral design, still bright yellow on the orange pottery worn smooth by the tide. For the Italians who live in Vietri, a visitor's fascination with colorful bits of ceramic washed up by the tide probably seems silly.



To an American coveting most things Italian, the bits of colorful scrap spit out from the majolica factories in Vietri and coughed up by the sea are tiny treasures that represent the artistic magic of a town known for the ceramics produced here.

the coast of italy

              At one end of the Amalfi Coast, Vietri is the first small town between Salerno and the official beginning of the iconic Amalfi Coast drive. By-passed by cruise ships and bus tours, it is colorful and claustrophobic, a gem in the shadow of the better known towns of Amalfi and Positano.

Italian ceramics

              The "Ceramica Artistica Solimene" is a large family-owned factory built in 1951 by Vincenzo Solimene, whose family began producing ceramics here in 1947. The factory has exhibitions and conducts art classes in the traditional method of creating ceramics.
Although the largest factory, it is one of many in this small coastal town that supplies the hotels, shops and restaurants along the Amalfi Coast
with a huge variety of pottery and tile art. Short of a sofa, there isn’t much of anything that Italians won't construct into ceramic.

ceramics

The Vietri shops are laden with decorative ceiling lights, wine cups and decanters, sink basins and cabinet treatments. Some shops feature traditional Italian colors and designs, while others specialize in modern d├ęcor or fanciful figurines.  
High above the village, St. John's church has a distinctive green and yellow ceramic dome that speaks to the artesian roots of Vietri. Visible from miles away, it marks the tiny spot on the Italian coast where you can find a one-of-a-kind ceramic in an idyllic place tourists often overlook.  Add the adventure of beach combing for colorful scraps of pottery polished by the sea, and you have an authentic Italian treasure hunt.

ceramics

The End

The Leather Market of Florence

           Suddenly the light rain is a thundering deluge. Vendors on each side of the narrow cobblestone street are scrambli...