Then suddenly it sweeps over me, Florence, Italy

Italy

Hey guys, so it turns out Florence is really fucking beautiful! It’s full of amazing art and lovely bars and surrounded by properly gorgeous rolling countryside that is sort of like quintessentially English countryside but somehow more sun drenched and misty and lovely. I realise this is common knowledge for the thousands of tourists who flock there every year but somehow I missed it. 

As far as commutes into town go, it certainly beats the 55 down Hackney Road

Home for my two day stay was a lovely old house up on a hill about two miles southeast of the city. A real Airbnb gem, this great lil BnB is run by Claire, her son Stefano and their lovely housekeeper Nico. After dropping my bags in my (enormous) room and admiring my lemon yellow 70s bathroom of dreams I set off on the leasurely 45 minute walk into town, down cobbled streets flanked so closely by stone walls I’m amazed a single car fits down them. In my usual way I had done absolutely no research so followed my nose around town, spending a faintly ridiculous amount of money on hand marbled postcards and trying to remember which way I had come from. I paused at the river to get my bearings and generally marvel at quite how photogenic the whole situation was. It was then that I remembered the ever knowledgeable Curious Pear had done a city guide to Florence, and after consulting it decided to head to Gurdulu for dinner to try the ‘sophisticated, seasonal gourmet cooking’. Of course I was unfashionably early and the restaurant wasn’t open yet, so I popped into a tiny wine bar, Langolino, next door to read my book and kill some time. Two hours, various new friends and more than my fair share of Spumante later, I found myself exiting Langolino in the opposite direction, across Piazza Santo Spirito in search of some famously indulgent gnocchi alla tartufi from Osteria Santo Spirito. Sadly they were fully booked, so my new friend Mariano and I instead found ourselves propping up another bar, drinking boulevardiers and eating olives. After a while we had to admit that fun as it was, it really wasn’t dinner so Mariano led me through town to his favourite sandwhich spot –  All’Antico Vinaio. Even at 10.30pm the queue was out the door, but Mariano snuck us to the front and ordered us two ‘sandwiches’. Huge slabs of fresh focaccia with a great smear of truffle paste, fresh soft cheese, lightly sautéed courgette and fresh rocket. Dio mio. Cheesy chips may never suffice again. Refuelled, we wandered back into the night, but only as far as the steps of the Uffizi gallery where one of Mariano’s friends was busking. Another few hours and another few bottles of wine drunk surreptitiously from plastic cups, eventually I made the slightly wobblier walk back to the house, cursing past me for agreeing to an 8am breakfast.

The Ponte Vecchio at sunset. Show off.


The next morning, my headache and I were met with a delicious breakfast of local jams and toast, before getting the bus back into town to do some culture. In a move that, in hindsight, was possibly ambitious considering the scale of my hangover, I decided to tackle the Uffizi. Home to the largest collection of renaissance art in the world, it is worth braving the crowds to see, though I would recommend drinking at last one less bottle of wine than I had to fully enjoy the experience. After two hours of staring at various enormous visualisations of innocents being slaughtered and so so many terrifying ugly baby Jesuses, I gave up and retreated to a cafe for cake and WiFi and sitting. 

When all I could think off whole looking at this picture was ‘pull my finger’, I figured I’d probably had enough art for one day

When my Airbnb host, Stefano, checked in on me that afternoon to see how I was getting on I explained that I had failed to go for dinner the night before and asked if he had any recommendations. It turned out he actually owns Gurdulu and a couple of other spots around town, so he offered to get me a reservation at any of them or, as a wildcard, to come for dinner with him and some friends in a villa on the other side of town. Never one to say to no a free dinner, I agreed and a few hours later Stefano picked me up and drove, at truly terrifying speed, through the winding roads to the west of the city. The evening that followed was a blur. About 20 people, mostly friends since they were kids, all together in this mad huge beautiful villa, chain smoking and feeding me wine and roasted vegetables and bread and shouting at each other in that uniquely Italian way that simultaneously conveys outrage anger and deep rooted love. Obviously I had less than no idea what was being said most of the time but everyone was lovely and engaging and it made me miss my mad friends back home. 

The next morning, I contemplated my time in Florence and thought about how maybe not reading the guidebooks or doing the research is necessarily the worst mistake. Wandering slightly blindly but, crucially, saying yes to the situations we stumble into often produce the most unexpected and positive results. Maybe slightly less wine next time though.

Written by Laura.

What I’m saying now.

What I’m seeing now.

Advertisements

Viva Terlingua!

Marfa, Terlingua, Texas

After Austin we had a decision to make. The path to the right led north, to Dallas via the big slide at Waco (seriously, watch the video and tell me that isn’t tempting?). The left path, on the other hand, stretched far far into the West Texan desert.

Fans of Robert Frost that we are, we took the road less travelled by and headed west, to Marfa. Marfa is a well established community of artists who have chosen to remove themselves from the bustle of city life in favour of sweeping views of nothing. We were starving (as usual) when we got to town and couldn’t check into our tent for a few hours, so drove around aimlessly until we happened to stumble upon Capri Kitchen. Tucked away in a gorgeous courtyard, this tiny kitchen was churning out delicious plates for just a few hours every day. We settled on the kale salad – lovingly massaged raw kale with just the right amount of lemon, pecorino and garlic croutons, and fantastically crispy and sweet corn cakes with slow roasted tomatoes. Both plates were practically licked clean.

IMG_1836 copy

Corn cakes with roasted tomatoes and a sauce that was delicious and cheesy but that’s as far as I remember, and raw kale salad, from Capri Kitchen

We were staying in an RV park and campsite called El Cosmico, in possibly the fanciest tent I have ever not had to put up. Marfa’s most famous attraction is actually not in Marfa at all, rather a 45 minute drive away just outside Valentine. Prada Marfa, an art installation disguised as a Prada storefront, was built in 2005. Six days later it was swiftly broken into but, not being a real store, the thieves only made off with 14 right shoes. Now it sits lonely in the desert, gathering cobwebs, feeling like a simultaneous critique and homage to the consumerism it represents.

11889455_10153512675997889_7785928342230070181_n

Prada, Mustang and George.

Obligatory ‘Mustang in front of fake Prada’ photos taken, we drove back to Marfa to explore the town itself. Honestly after weeks of ever present southern charm, I have to admit that I was slightly underwhelmed by Marfa. It wasn’t so much that people were unfriendly (in fact everyone we met at El Cosmico was utterly lovely), it was more that the locals were quite dismissive. Maybe we were just two more not particularly artistically knowledgable tourists trampling through their town, but we felt the least welcome we had for weeks. We spent a while wandering round town, peering into galleries and looking for somewhere to eat. There were about ten places in the whole town to choose from, all of which seemed to be open for a different two days a week. We eventually stumbled across Cochineal, which our guidebook assured us was shut that day but seemed to have humans inside. They immediately presented us with bowl of homemade hummus which which hummed with delicately balanced spice. George had sushi, which was apparently remarkably delicious, especially considering how far we were from a sea of any variety. I ate a perfectly cooked piece of fish on a bed of mashed sweet potato and asparagus, all drowned in brown butter. After a lovely yet strangely sterile dinner experience, we both wanted a drink. We stumbled across the Lost Horse Saloon; a proper characterful Texan dive. A whiskey and a Lone Star later in the back yard later, staring at the real Texan stars, Marfa made a last minute sprint towards growing on me.

Lost Horse Saloon

The Lost Horse Saloon

As if Marfa wasn’t remote enough, we decided to further continue our retreat from society by venturing south four hours to Terlingua. Just outside the Big Bend national park, basically on the Mexican border, Terlingua was a thriving mining town a hundred years ago. Now the population has shrunk to just 48 at last count, and is largely a ghost town. We were staying in an adobe dome about an hour out of ‘town’. Built by a wonderful human named Trevor, the dome is completely off grid – all of its power is generated daily by solar panels. A solar fridge, rainwater tap, gas stove and composting toilet were all the amenities for miles and it was completely glorious. After stocking up on supplies at the nearest store, Needful Things, a twenty minute drive away, we made a remarkably impressive lunch of fresh corn tacos and with all the fixings. We hadn’t really managed to cook anything since staying with Mary in Atlanta right at the start of the trip, and it felt so good to just sit and eat a simple meal, prepared ourselves, with no one else around instagramming their lunch or stressing over how much to tip the waiter. Right there, in that hut, with nothing but tin shacks and the odd goat for miles around, I finally felt reconnected to food as nothing but fuel and simple pleasure.

IMG_1967 copy

The Dome, Terlingua, TX

The next morning, we woke up at 5am to go climb a mountain, obviously. If we thought navigating the dirt roads to the dome in daylight was tough, then doing it in the pre dawn dark was a different ball game entirely. We eventually found our way to the main road and an hour later, just as the sun started to break over the horizon, we entered the Big Bend national park. As cliched as it is, there are no words to describe quite how breathtaking the mountains were in the early morning light. We were the only ones on the road as it swept through the landscape. We found the trailhead for the Old Mine trail and parked up, noting the bear proof lockers by the side of the road and suddenly wondering if we had bitten of more than we could chew. This feeling was heightened when another pair of walkers turned up in full hiking gear and I looked down at my trainers and the shorts that I’d slept in feeling like the kid who forgot her gym kit. Nevertheless, we set out ahead of the others, purposely striding past the sign warning of recent mountain lion sightings (apparently you should pick up all small children and under no circumstances run away. Seems legit). One brief freak out over potential bear/lion droppings in our path, and a few miles of clambering over rocks later, we broke through the tree line and found ourselves momentarily on top of the world. The sun was still low in the sky and cast long shadows in the valleys below us, only heightening the feeling of being on some sort of Avatar inspired floating mountain. The idea that we were still in the same country as the food trucks of Austin, the cowboy hats of Nashville and New York in all its eccentricities felt mildly ludicrous. And we hadn’t even needed hiking boots to get there.

11825147_10153512681717889_8189578426371747507_n

The Lost Mine Trail, Big Bend, TX

On the way home, we bathed in some hot springs on the banks of the Rio Grande. The surprisingly non Grande river acts as the natural border between Mexico and the US – we could have easily waded over to hang out with the Mexican donkey grazing on the opposite bank. We didn’t though because, you know, US border patrol are terrifying.

That evening we decided to brave the thunder storms gathering on every mountain and head into town for dinner. The Starlight Theatre was our destination; originally an open air movie theatre in the 1930s, it was brought back to life (and given a roof) in 1991. It was everything we could have dreamed of in a Texan saloon bar, from the ageing cowboy with a guitar in the corner singing country songs, to the stuffed goat drinking a beer in the back. Side note – It turns out the stuffed goat was actually the first Mayor of the next-door town. We met his living successor later that night and had the honour of feeding him beer ourselves. Long story.

11880600_10153512682592889_193038018781876292_n

The Starlight Theatre, Terlingua, TX

No sooner had we sat down and ordered a beer, two brave young men approached our table and asked if we’d like to dance. The dance floor didn’t look like it had seen any action in quite some time so it seemed rude to refuse. Dancing with Luis and Victor, it emerged they were in Terlingua on the Texan equivalent of a lad’s holiday (Magaluf this was not) and were still in high school! Our food arrived and was surprisingly great; blackened salmon on a bed of greens with a great cucumber dill dressing. A few more beers in (us, not them, drinking laws and all..) and we found ourselves bundling into cars for an after party at their hotel. Just before we left, we asked for the check only to be presented with a note saying that out bill had been taken care of by our new friend Victor! Who could have guessed that the craziest night of our trip wouldn’t be in bars of New Orleans or the Nashville strip but at a golf resort in the West Texan desert?! The whole night was a bit of a blur but definitely featured a meeting with the town mayor (the aforementioned goat), coolers filled with beer, belly flops into the pool, and an eventual visit by the Sheriff to shut the whole thing down (a real human one this time).

The next morning, we reluctantly packed up the car, bid farewell to our dome away from home, and turned north. It felt like we had been in Texas forever yet had barely scratched the surface. We had run out of time though, and New Mexico was calling.

IMG_2078 copy

See ya, Texas


 

Written by Laura.

What I’m saying now.

What I’m seeing now.