Saturday, April 30, 2011

Day 4: Saturday, April 30: Prato

The weather this morning is a bit uncertain….cool and overcast and some rain is forecast. After breakfast–which we have standing up at the tiny bar/tabacchi just around the corner from the Residence–the weather improves so we set out on foot for our morning sightseeing. First stop is at the Biscottificio Antonio Mattei who make the most famous traditional biscotti in Tuscany…we will bring a bag to our friends in Vicchio.


We walk around the corner to take a look inside Santa Maria in Carcere, a church with a simple Greek cross design, but there is a mass going on so we decide to come back later. It is only a few more blocks to the Museum of Textiles (it's amazing how much easier it is to navigate around Prato now compared to when we arrived three days ago.)

The museum is housed in one of the oldest textile factories in Prato–the old Campolmi mill.


We are completely blown away by the exhibits at the museum….it starts off with a history of the textile industry in Prato and continues in the orientation section with amazingly clear explanations of the development of weaving techniques and the different materials that are used in the process. The translations of the exhibit text are a treat and the illustrations are clear and helpful–so even if you don't know the difference between a warp and a weft, you will learn something at the museum.

You can see one of the old boilers that powered the machinery


and get a good idea of the process that allows the steam to work all the different machines.

We catch the current exhibit on its last day….Ceramics and Fabrics: Dialogue between the arts of the Tuscan Renaissance. The show compares the concurrent development of similar artistic forms in the two mediums and there are stunning displays of fabrics and clothing as well as pottery from that time. A little of this exhibition went a long way for me but Diana was quite enchanted with it.

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The upstairs gallery displays dozens of examples of different kinds of fabrics as well old machinery and tools and newer versions used in the industry.

The textile museum is obviously well funded by the industry but it is superbly done,
the exhibits were terrific and we learned a lot.
Our friends, Jane and Carlo, live in the country outside of Vicchio which is located north of Florence in a green and mountainous area called the Mugello. Carlo is a great cook and we always enjoy our visits with them. After lunch, we get a tour of their "estate" and see the newly arrived chickens that they will raise.

Back in Prato, I walk over to the big Castello in the center of town…


it is completely empty but I climb up to the parapet and enjoy the views of the rooftops and church towers of Prato.

Tomorrow (May 1) is one of the five days of the year that the Sacra Cintola (Sacred Girdle) is taken out of its case and shown to the people. I stop by the tourist office to ask what time the ceremony is and, after searching on the internet, the lady tells me 6 pm…so it looks like we will miss the ceremony this time.

We decide to return to Il Baghino for our farewell dinner…..the lure of the steak tartare is too great to resist….and it doesn't disappoint. Before the main event, i have a hearty bean and farro soup and Diana has the house special of ravioli with spinach. For dessert, I have my first panna cotta of the trip–very good–and Diana has a "sgroppino"–a slushie made of lemon sorbetto and vodka–which is very refreshing. We say our good-byes to our "friends" at Il Baghino, take a quick walk in the Piazza Duomo and head back to the hotel. (I neglected to mention in earlier reports about Il Baghino that the bread is also terrific—three varieties each night including an addictive crisp version of the Tuscan flat bread schiacciata.)Tomorrow we leave for Genova.

Jim and Diana

Friday, April 29, 2011

Day 3: Friday, April 29th: Prato

A very good night’s sleep in our new room (we switched for various reasons including the excessive street noise)……This room faces the interior courtyard and, while somewhat smaller, seems more comfortable and convenient.  I take this opportunity to go out for a morning walk…I really want to get a comfort level about the layout of the town and yesterday I felt somewhat at sea trying to navigate.  It is cool but the sun is trying to break through and it looks like it will be a nice day.  (The weather for the first two days was pretty good–even a little warm yesterday.  So far, no rain.)

After breakfast at a bar down the street, our first destination is the Museo della Pittura Murale.  This is a gem of a small museum…the paintings are beautifully displayed in a long gallery.  There are a number of 13th and 14th century altar pieces which are in beautiful conditon with so much detail on the various levels that it is difficult to take them all in.  One of the altar pieces by Mariotti di Nardo has just been restored and is included in city wide exhibition now going on called “Echi Preziosi (Precious Echoes).


There a number of memorable pieces in this small gallery, including a stunning Adoration of the Magi by Lippi with an angelic Mary and a remarkable Joseph that was shown in Paris and is now back in Prato


a breathtaking stained glass panel from the 15th century 

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 and very vivid Mother and Child with Saints by Trombetto.


Again we were the only people in the museum and, while it is a shame that there isn’t a larger attendance, it is really nice to have the paintings all to yourself.

After a quick stop in the Church of San Domenico next door, we walk down the street to the Palazzo Datini, home of the “Merchant of Prato”.  Bernardo Datini was one of the richest businessmen in the world in the 15th century.  Iris Origo wrote a favorite book of ours “The Merchant of Prato” based on the large store of records and letters that he left.  He made a fortune in the wool trade (Prato is still an important textile center) but also is known for his development of accounting principles and economic analysis.  He traveled all over the world promoting his businesses and kept painstaking records which documented what he saw and how the businesses were doing.  After his death, he left his fortune to a charitable organization in Prato dedicated to helping the poor….the foundation (the Ceppo) is still active.

The outside of the palazzo was heavily frescoed in his honor after his death.


There is also a statue of Datini prominently located in the Piazza del Comune.

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His palazzo is now open as a museum and has painstakingly detailed (and ultimately a bit dense) exhibits about the house, his life and his work…..but we are happy to make the “pilgrimage”.

We have lunch at a sandwich place on the Piazza Mercatale that I had seen the day before…a lampredotto (cow stomach) sandwich–a Florentine specialty–for me and a porchetta sandwich for Diana–both delicious.

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After lunch, we walk back to the hotel for rest and work.  In the late afternoon, with rain threatening we get in the car for an expedition to a couple of museums.  The less said about the expedition, the better.  Our first destination–the Museo del Tessuto (Museum of Textiles)–turns out to be closed; I had somehow misread the opening hours.  And the second–the Luigi Pecci Center for Contemporary Art–is just closed with no explanation.  And to top it all off, it is raining and we get caught up in heavy rush hour traffic making the trip back to the hotel very difficult.

We have to circle around once before finding a parking space and make it back to the room without getting wet.  Once the rain stops, we decide to have an apertivo at a nearby bar.  The prosecco is fine but the outdoor tables are full of noisy school kids….we will have to pick a different bar next time.

Back at the hotel, we have a long discussion with the manager of the hotel while we settle up the bill.  She complains how difficult it is to drum up any tourist trade from Americans even though she uses all the social media–Facebook, Skype et al.  I tell her that I have never convinced any clients to give Prato a try and don’t think it will be an easy sell, even though we like Prato very much. 

We also discuss the presence of many Chinese in has the second largest Chinatown in Italy (after Milan).  Chinese companies are now very active in the textile industry and they bring in Chinese workers who undercut wages of Italians and are said to produce inferior products that have the “Made in Italy” label. Other people we spoke to share the resentment of the Chinese in Prato and blame the government for not doing more to discourage the increase. 

We have dinner at a nearby place–an informal, old-style trattoria listed in the Slow Food Guide.   Trattoria Soldano is a treat–a no-nonsense place with low prices, little style, a welcoming atmosphere and terrific food.  Diana has a dish of prosciutto, stracchino and “coccole”, a fried bread that we have also had in Emilia-Romagna – followed by a beautifully fried “fritto misto”.  I try the local specialty–mortadella di Prato–which is different than the Bolognese version–a little less delicate–but still good and a plate of very good pici (thick homemade pasta) with a sauce of wild boar (cinghiale).  The house wine is okay and the bread is very good.

We have a nice time talking to the Italian couple sitting next to us who are there with their one month old baby son…we show them pictures of our grandchildren and talk a bit (in our limited Italian and their limited English) about Prato, the United States and having babies.  All in all, a very nice evening…

Tomorrow we will try again for the Museum of Textiles and then drive to Vicchio (north of Florence) to have lunch with our friends Jane and Carlo at their house.

Jim and Diana

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Day 2: Thursday, April 28: Prato

We were tired after the long travel day(s) and are able to sleep past 9:00, even with a significant amount of noise from the hotel and the street. But that means that we are hopefully over our jet lag. The hotel–the Residence Manassei–is located an old palazzo steps just off the Piazza del Duomo in the center of Prato. The rooms are large and quirkily furnished and there is a small kitchenette hidden away in a large cabinet.

The Residence–not a full service hotel and the staff only work six hours a day, five days a week–also doesn't serve breakfast, so we go down the street to a local bar for our coffee, tea and cornetti. Our first stop is the Duomo and the main attraction is the fresco cycle behind the altar portraying the lives of St. Stephen (the patron saint of the Cathedral) and St. John the Baptist done by Fillippo Lippi in the mid-15th century.

We actually have seen the frescoes before….in 2004 (while we were staying in Florence) we visited Prato to see the frescoes while they were "in restauro", a thrilling experience where we were able climb on scaffolding (wearing hard hats) and see the works "up close and personal"

Here is the link to my 2004 report describing the experience.

On this visit, we are initially a bit confused and have trouble figuring out exactly which chapel houses which work and the brochure distributed by the Duomo is not much help. But after a while, we rent one of the audioguides and the descriptions help us get oriented and appreciate the works.

Both walls of the main chapel behind the altar are covered with the scenes from the saints' lives…the main thing that catches your attention are the depictions of the people…they are lovingly drawn and full of life. The most spectacular panel deals with Salome's dance and subsequent beheading of St. John the Baptist and, of course, you can pick out the details of the lower panels much more easily than the top-most panels high above your head.

I am including a few of my pictures of the frescoes but you are advised to go to this link to pictures of the frescoes to get a better sense of their beauty.

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Lippi, though a cleric, had quite a tumultuous love life and ending up marrying one of the nuns who was his student. She became his model and later the mother of his child, the artist Fillippino Lippi, whose work we'll see tomorrow.

We take a quick look around the rest of the Duomo with a brief stop at the Chapel of the Sacred Cintola (translated as girdle but really a belt) but the relic is kept securely locked up and the chapel is enclosed with an imposing wrought iron fence that obscures all the art work contained within.

Briefly, the "cintola" was believed to have belonged to Mary and was given to St. Thomas on her death. It ended up in Jerusalem and was later brought back to Prato where it is now the city's version of the "Shroud of Turin"–with much less fanfare.

The other distinctive feature of the Duomo is the pulpit on the exterior which was crafted by Donatello. This is a copy…the original is in the Duomo museum.

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Diana was quite taken with the intricate designs on the underside….

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We next visit the Museo dell'Opera del Duomo….the museum next door where many of the original works from the cathedral are housed along with treasures from other churches in the region. As with many smaller Italian museums, it is a treat to have the place to yourself with the chance to see a few masterpieces and lots of lesser works–some of which have considerable charm.

We were glad to see the chest that formerly held the "cintola"


crafted by Maso di Bartolomeo in 1456 and this Pala by Fillippo Lippi


When we leave the museum, we stroll around the city for a while until we are ready for lunch at 2 pm. Since the sun is out, we walk to a bar with outside tables. At first, we (and all the other patrons) are ignored by the waiters and we are ready to leave. But finally our order is taken and the lunch is actually very good…a caprese salad for Diana and carpaccio for me as well as a delicious dish of spinach baked with cheese.

After lunch, we take the car out and head for the mountains just to the north of Prato in the direction of Bologna. The first part of the drive is not so pleasant–we pass through seemingly endless suburbs and then drive through a number of industrial towns. Finally we start to climb and drive up to the pass at Montepiano (about 2,500 feet). There are thick pine forests

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and beautiful panoramic vistas

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as we begin our descent and drive back to Prato. We get caught in some fierce rush hour traffic and it is almost 7 pm by the time we get back to town. We next have the challenge of finding a parking space. We have to circle our neighborhood twice before we find an empty space on a permitted street….I am almost ready to give in and park in a lot. :)

We hang out in the room before making the short walk back to Ristorante Baghino for dinner. The restaurant is much less full tonight and we get the same table as the night before. Dinner is again terrific….Diana has "pinzimonio" (raw vegetable that you dip in olive oil) to start, followed by a delicious filet. I have a "spedino" of bread and mozzarella dressed with anchovies and capers, served on wooden skewers (very unique and very delicious) and an order of "trippa fiorentina", which is just about the best tripe dish I have ever had. We drink a fantastic rosso di Montalcino and Diana has a great torta di ricotta for dessert.

While we are finishing, we watch as the waiter prepares an elaborate tableside preparation of steak tartare for another party…we may have to come back again to try it.

We take a quick turn around the Piazza Duomo before going back to hotel and bed. Tomorrow, a few more Prato museums are on the schedule.

Jim and Diana

PS A couple of notes from Day 1…

I neglected to mention that when I set out to find a parking space after we arrived, I turned too close to an obstruction extending out from the building at ground level and scratched the left side of our new rental car…..thank goodness for zero deductible insurance. Then, while stopping at a crosswalk to let pedestrians walk by, the car behind us bumped into us. No harm done to either car, but we've certainly given the car its proper welcome.

Also I forgot that we both had our first gelati of the trip….stracciatella and fior di latte for me, pistacchio and crema for Diana–the first of many I am sure.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Day 1: Wednesday, April 27: Prato

The US Airways flight from Philadelphia to Rome is--amazingly enough--not full and we both have empty seats next to us. We arrive in Rome pretty much on time--9 am; I have gotten a few hours of sleep and Diana has gotten less. Our luggage arrives quickly and we are on the road north by 10 am.

Traffic on the autostada is pretty heavy through Chianti and around Florence but we make to it to the Prato exit before 2 pm. Our drive into town is complicated because our GPS seems to have lost its detailed Italian maps and there are no specific street by street directions to reach the hotel. We have to rely on the hotel signage, which turns out to be fine and we are at the Residence Massanei after only a couple of missed turns.

After getting into the room, I set out to find a parking space for the car. The Residence desk is unmanned at mid-day (the entrance key had been left under a doormat) and it is tricky trying to locate the streets where parking is allowed with the hotel permit. But after a while, I find one and make my way back to the hotel.

Once we get settled in the room, I head out for an exploratory walk in Prato to orient myself while Diana takes a nap. Later in the afternoon, we head out together and walk through the Piazza del Duomo

and around the "centro storico". At the Piazza del Comune, we stop to listen to an accordion orchestra--students from Germany--playing some tunes reminiscent of klezmer music before an small but appreciate audience of Pratese.

We have dinner at a restaurant just around the corner from the hotel...we need to have an early night after our very long day...and find a gem. Ristorante Baghino is terrific...the staff is friendly, the place has a nice buzz and the food is wonderful.

We split an order of antipasto Toscano and fett'unta (toasted bread with toppings of olive oil, garlic, tomatoes, liver pate, white beans and lardo). Diana has a beautifully prepared risotto with parmigiano and my parpardelle (wide flat noodles) with duck is great. The house wine is very good and Diana finishes with an order of pineapple. The bill is Euro 54 (very reasonable)...about $80.00 US.This is a place that we will return to before we leave Prato....

Luckily, it is only steps back to the hotel and we are asleep in no time. But we are very happy to be back in Italy.

Jim and Diana

Monday, April 25, 2011

Itinerary for Zurers in Italy - Spring 2011

We are off again....for another month of research in Italy. Here is
our itinerary for this trip.

Itinerary for Zurers in Italy - Spring 2011

April 26: Fly to Rome by way of Philadelphia.
April 27-May 1: Prato (Tuscany) (near Florence) (A)
May 1-6: Genova (Liguria) (B)
May 6-10: Sulzano (Lago d'Iseo) (Lombardy) (C)
May 10-11: Sesto Calende (Lombardy) (near Malpensa Airport) (D)
May 11-18: Paris France
May 19-20: Sesto Calende (Lombardy) (near Malpensa Airport) (D)
May 19-22: Lerici (Liguria) (E)
May 22-26: Rome (Lazio) (F)
May 26: Return to US

You will note that we are spending a week in Paris in the middle of
our trip....a revolutionary idea.  :)

Here is a link to a Google route map showing the towns where we are staying.

Jim and Diana