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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.

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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.

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              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.

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          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.  

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          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.  

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

The Leather Market of Florence

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