Visitors Arrive

Two weeks have passed and the first of my guests started to arrive!!! I was so excited to begin to share the sites, sounds, smells and taste of Italy.

I have moved from Florence to Giardino Incantato, a lovely Tuscan home I found through Airbnb. It is an idyllic setting and perfect to entertain guests and leverage as a home base in Tuscany.

My Tuscan Home

My Tuscan Home

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Rachael, my daughter arrived mid week and we had an awesome day out in Florence on her first day. The weather was amazing, the sky perfect ( especially for picture taking)  and our stop for a Caffe Macchiato and Cappuccino and visits to imagethe  Mercato Centrale ensured several chances to smell and taste the wonderful Italian cuisine.

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It turns out the world is indeed very small, as walking along the River Arno we ran into a KPMG partner from Saskatoon, Canada, Tom Robinson and his partner Suzanne. It turns out he too retired and was having a tour through Italy. We shared wine and dinner and exchanged stories…. What a chance meeting???

The following day we maneuvered our way into the city centre to Stazione  Santa Maria Novellato pick up Mary Lou and Virginia who arrived by train from Rome. Perhaps at a later time I will do a blog on the challenges of driving in Italy and navigating Florence. I think I and several of my guests have several more grey hairs after our weekend driving expeditions. But we tried not to let it get in the way of our enjoyment.

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After a glass of wine in our lovely garden, we headed off the first evening to Tre Pini  http://www.ristoranteitrepini.it/Welcome.html a  restaurantnearby.. we had a lovely wine and Tuscan food…although our favorite item on the menu was the pizza we shared as a starter..pizza in italy is truly something else!!

Touring Tuscany

Saturday was dedicated to roaming the Chianti region…visits to towns, to  enotecha’s to taste and buy wine, a lunch stop to relax and drink more wine and indulge in a spectacular sharing platter.

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Our favorite town was the medieval hillside town of San Gimignano.

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San Gimignano is a small walled medieval hill town in the province of Siena, Tuscany. I remembered it as one of the prettiest Tuscan towns from an earlier trip to Italy – I have a lovely picture of its unforgettable skyline in my home… five towers in the medieval style …examples of both Romanesque and Gothic architecture. The town built from the 12th to 15th centuries is encircled by three walls and has four town squares. It is a charm to walk within and around the walls encircling the town with its amazing viewpoints into the valley below

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And of course our favorite past time was tasting and buying wine….Mary Lou and Virginia managed to find some amazing bottles of wine, typical to the region, both from the Italian grape sangiovese and the super Tuscan variety. Another blog will be dedicated to the wines we have enjoyed. image

imageWe returned to our Tuscan home and collectively prepared our ‘Italian Tuscan Thanksgiving dinner’. Bruscetta, pasta and Pollo all’arrabbiata.

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Having toured the food stalls and markets of Florence we were off to our second half of the adventure. In very short order we were transported to the hilly outskirts of Florence and entered the beautiful property of our host. A late summer garden, outdoor pizza oven, tables for eating ‘al fresco’ and an amazing kitchen space both for group cooking awaited us. The site was amazingly designed to fit the purpose.. John you would have loved it. We donned our chef aprons and were ready our Tuscan Cooking Experience

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Soon under the careful guidance of our master chef, Carmela ( I am hoping I got the name right) a woman who has been feeding her family home cooked meals, singing and dancing her way through the kitchen.. She spoke Italian— we all caught what we could from her effective full body descriptions of what we were to do—but not to worry, Elisa was on hand to translate her instructions.

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We began by preparing bruschetta….which is pronounced with a hard C not a ch sound as so many of us have come to do in North America. The fresh tomatoes, basil, garlic and bread purchased that morning were soon prepped. Bread on the outdoor pizza oven/barbecue and soon we are tasting the first results of our journey into Tuscan food.

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It was quickly established that this group loved a nice ‘vino’, both to accompany the food as well as to enhance the cooking experience and so the wine began to flow…

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Next was group prep for the ‘bolognese sauce’ –interesting very few herbs in this sauce, simply garlic, onion, celery and carrot finely chopped, hamburger meat, wine and tomato sauce. Trick of course is to let it simmer on the stove for several hours.

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While the sauce bubbled away, we received a demo in how to make pasta … really had no idea it was so easy. Shortly the whole class was making their own pasta.. Carmella demo’ed how to take pasta and turn it into all the forms of pasta we simply buy in bags at the store.. today we made tagliattelle to go along with our ‘Bolognese’. But now we knew how to make agnolotti, cannelloni, capellini fettucini, etc. It turned out making a pasta serving for one, was fun and quick..I did wonder how long one would have to work to prep Pasta for a family of 6 however…..so it is likely I will continue by pattern of buying fresh pasta at the local grocers…which here in Italy….is really good!!!!

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Pasta ready we moved outside to be joined by our second Tuscan chef. She is a pizza specialist and works in a Firenze pizzeria. She had prepped the pizza dough the previous night..apparently she preps hundreds of small pizza dough balls for her work at the pizzeria. We were paired off and set to it to create our personal pizza’s ..fresh tomato sauce, mozzarella al fiori, basil, ham, artichokes.. and of course Olive Oil to top it off. While we did not duplicate our chefs skill in pizza throwing, we successfully baked our pizzas in the 800 degree wood fired out door pizza oven..pizzas were done in a minute and 20 seconds… HOT OVEN is the trick clearly!!!! And then we ate them sitting outside taking in the stunning country side.

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So, antipasti and pizza consumed, ‘Primi’ course bubbling  (sauce)  and drying (pasta), it was time to turn our attention to the ‘secondi’ which was to be the lovely pork tenderloin we had purchased at the Mercato Centrale and the ‘contorni’ (vegetable side dish) in our case roast potatoes. The tenderloin had been cut to specifications by the butcher. The meat had been removed from the bone and then the bone section reattached with kitchen string. The bone of course adds lovely flavour but having it removed in advance eases the carving when the meat is complete. Simple herbs ( garlic, rosemary and sage ( I think) were rubbed onto the meat. The potatoes were salted ( heavily). Both of these dishes again  received a  healthy dose of olive oil, drizzled of course.. it is note worthy that this is a staple for all food prep in Italy. According to Carmela very healthy and much better than butter… I decided that olive oil must be a diet food in Italy.

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And as our roast was cooking we were given a final lesson in preparation of ‘dolce’ –as a group we prepped Tiramisu and then prepared our individual dish of same. We also collected whipped up some gelato..while all dishes here to had benefited from a liberal doses of Olive Oil… the ‘dolce’ had healthy doses of Liquor.. marsala wine in the tiramisu and amaretto in the gelato!!!!

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So having completed our lessons, all the while enjoying the chianti and the company,  we moved outside to enjoy our Tuscan dinner ‘alfresco’.

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Elisa had warned us in the morning that we would have a fulsome Tuscan meal…and indeed that was certainly the case!! A good thing none of us had dinner reservations that evening.. I doubt any of us could have consumed another bite.

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Carmela topped off the evening by awarding us all our personal Tuscan Chef School Certificates. What an awesome experience..highly recommended should you come to Florence.

Florence Food Tour

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As many of you know, Italy and Tuscany in particular is known for its love of food and great cuisine. This is very evident in its food markets and shops, big and small, which display local seasonal food to its plethora of  eateries, whether they are called trattoria, osteria, ristorante, birreria, spaghetteria, pizzeria, tavola calda, rosticcerria, café, taverna—-seriously a bewildering series of names —not sure what the difference is.. what is consistent, is a love of good food.

So with this awareness of Tuscany, I had decided to seek out a cooking class. The website offered a lot of choices…eventually I landed on a tour offered by Walkabout Tours Florence https://www.walkaboutflorence.com/ . The tour offered a food tour through old Florence followed by a cooking lesion at a nearby Tuscan Farm House.

IMG_9612What a treat this turned out to be!!!! At 10 am on a Friday morning, 15 people met at the appointed meeting place. We met Elisa, our food and tour guide. My group consisted of visitors from Perth and Sydney Australia, Hong Kong, several cities across the USA (Denver, New Jersey, Virginia, South Carolina to name just a few), ranging in age from 20 to 60+. The group was friendly and eager for a great experience and Elisa was determined to give it to us.

IMG_9630Having collected we were off, following Elisa to discover Florence’s historical food market, visit the local baker, butchers and market stalls. Knowledgeable, Elisa shared with us a great deal of  Florentine ‘food history’ , all while conversing with the local sellers as we purchased the ingredients that we would later need in our cooking class. On the journey Elisa and Frank ( one of my fellow travelers) loaded up food bags with local tomatoes, olives, mozzarella, pork loin, ground meat.

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On the way, we learned that Florence was an important city in the wool trade in the middle ages given its location on the Arno River. Florentine merchants develop the first coin the Florin and the first bills of exchange –this enabled the merchants to pay debts without transporting cash and of course extend credit—hence the establishment of a robust banking system in Florence.

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We learned that salt, used to preserve food in the days prior to refrigeration was also a ‘golden’ commodity and extremely expensive. The bread of Florence is not salted—yes it is quickly one of the things you notice, although I did not immediately twig onto that it tasted different because there is no salt in it.  There are two stories as to why. The first is that salt was so heavily taxed, the people of Florence couldn’t afford to add it to their food and started to make unsalted bread and continue to do so to this day. The second story is that in the 12th century, Florence and Pisa were rival cities. The Pisan army blocked shipments of salt reaching Florence to force a surrender to Pisa. Florentines simply eliminated salt from their cooking and did not surrender. According to Elisa, a rivalry still exists today between the Florentines and Pisans.

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IMG_9613We were introduced to the methods of selling wine in early Florence. The picture here is of Elisa telling us the history of the ‘wine tabernacle’. This small opening that you see ( most today are closed off, as the one in the picture) was just the right size for a bottle of wine to fit through. Locals would come to these small wine tabernacles- holes in the wall, and purchase their wine directly from the seller. A curious wine vending approach only found in Florence—they are called ‘tabernacle’ because they have a similar appearance to religious tabernacles also found on many a street corner. Deb a fellow traveller rather wished she could still purchase a bottle today.IMG_9614

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A final stop was to a typical Florence coffee shop for our morning coffee. We were instructed in the varying forms of Italian Coffee, espresso, caffe normale, cappuccino, machiatto, caffe correto  and so on( a latte, by the way in Italy is hot milk and has no coffee). There seems sot be a coffee drink in Italy for every time of day, need and mood. A caffe correto is drunk the morning after. It has a shot of liquor to set you to rights again..although another explanation was also given— that the Italians get up at the crack of dawn, labour in the fields and by mid morning need a shot of something in their coffee. Whatever it all seems to work. We also were advised there is no sitting with your morning coffe…the north American tradition sitting at the starbucks with your coffee and paper of computer, is NOT the way to drink coffee in Florence. And indeed I have yet to find anything resembling a starbucks type establishment.

Coffee is drunk standing up at a narrow counter, you drink it ( and as you know an espresso does not take long to consume) and you go! Coffee drinking Italian style!!

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Armed with our purchases, coffee to sustain us we departed via mini bus to our Tuscan farm house.

My next blog will take you through our cooking experience.

Florence Streets 
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As Florence was established in medieval times, many of its streets are quite narrow. With our north American sensibilities we would think it unsafe to have two way traffic, bicycles, vespas and pedestrian traffic all making their way down what we would term mere alleyways. Nevertheless it seems to work. Mind you one can’t possibly get any real speed up on these twisty streets so not even the cars go too fast. Interestingly, while gardens do exist in central Florence they tend to be situated in inner courtyards or surrounded by large walls. Consequently the houses and garden walls come right to the edge of these narrow streets. Many of the streets are therefore designated one way…good thing in my estimation and much of Florence is designated as pedestrian zone.

The inner city is therefore not designed for modern day vehicular traffic. I have found that the inner tourist area—which is most of old Florence is a ZTL –Zona a Traffico Limitato …a Limited Traffic Zone so a restricted traffic area, apparently controlled by a network of video cameras. To drive in this area you need a special permit ( not available with a rental car) and if you do apparently a massive fine will eventually find you.  While I will be renting a car for part of my stay in Tuscany, there is no way I will get anyway near the centre of the city.

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Very glad I was that i was here early enough to suss this all out and to recognize how complicated it will be to drive in Florence at all. Oh yes I may not have mentioned that these small streets also do not run in nice straight lines or form any kind of grid that could help you figure out where you are or where you are going. In fact you will find that most of the streets change names quite regularly as well.. you think you are still on Via Giuseppe Verdi and you look up at a cross road and find  out you are on Via dei Benci.. all part of the charm of the Florence experience. To experience Florence comfortably, you cannot have a high need for control or knowing exactly where you are at any given point…. If you did, this would be a frustrating city..  I did seem to find however, that when I amble down many of the streets in the centre, most eventually lead me to the Duomo. I guess getting to church was important in medieval times.

In my first few days I wondered what it would be like to find one’s way at night through these narrow streets and as a woman on my own in Florence I considered how safe it would be to venture out of an evening. Well I did not have long before I was compelled to experience Florence at night. When I arrive, I

concert 10like to check out blogs of others on Florence. They are great sources of what to see and do and often more interesting to read than the commercial tourist sites. http://girlinflorence.com is a great site that I found really informative, as well as an English monthly news magazine called The Florentine that my hosts had left in the apartment for me. I picked up a more recent version at the tourist bureau later in the week and you can also access it online at www.theflorentine.net

Mercati in Musica: “un Orchestra di Chitarre”

In any event, trolling events I found that in the month of September the Markets in Florence were hosting a series of musical concerts in the evenings. The last of these was to be held at 9:15pm on Saturday after my arrival. This sounded way interesting, so with some trepidation I set out to see what it would be like to navigate those small alleyways at night on my own. Just to be safe,I let my daughter know what I was doing and where I was going. What she could do about it back in Canada who knows, but I thought,  if I never show up again the police would have some place to start in their investigation. (I am currently reading Elisabeth George, hence the leap to how to leave clues for police detectives ).

In any event I soon found out traveling the alleyways at night was no issue…they all are incredibly well lit and generally full of people out and about experience Florence.  A breeze as it were…although wherever you go, it is always good to pay attention to what is going on around you..having been pickpocketed once in London UK, I did not want to have a second experience.

concert 12concert1So off to the Mercato della Loggia del Porcellino to experience “un Orchestra di Chitarre” –“ A Orchestra of Guitars” in memory of Franco Mealli.

When I arrived I found a large group of guitarists sitting on the steps of the market playing guitar.. turns out I had arrived while they were still setting up and simply practicing. Shortly chairs came out, set up in the Mercato, I scooped a seat in the second row and experienced an amazing concert of guitarists accompanied by a violin, an oboe and clarinet. Amazing and magical. I attempted to make a short video, but until i upgrade my blog,it seems i can’t upload it yet… I will try to do so in the next few days so that  through it you will get a sense of the evening.

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A great start to experiencing some of the culture in Florence.

Florence Firenze Italy

Beautiful Florence

Beautiful Florence

the Duomo

the Duomo

Arrived in Florence, or Firenze as it’s known to the Italians just under a week ago. Finalizing my arrangements proved to be more than I bargained for. Three days prior to my arrival i received word that my apartment ( booked 3 months ago) had been damaged due to construction and was no longer available. No alternate solutions provided. Talk about stress!!! However with the help of family and friends ( who told me not to despair–which i was) we scrambled around and i found the first of three alternate locations that I will now be staying at.
At this point i don’t know if the initial booking was a scam.. that story is still unfolding and will likely be the subject of a future blog.
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Welcome Wine

Welcome Wine

Late September is like late summer in Ontario. Beautiful warm sunny days and slightly cool evenings.
I am living in an apartment in a residential area just north of the city centre…but easily walkable to all the sights. I have enclosed a couple of pictures of my new apartment. A lovely balcony, a bottle of local wine and antipasto dinner left by my hosts, awaited me. Rather welcome after my stressful departure and journey

I have been walking for most of the past week…walking walking walking and soaking up this beautiful old city.

Florence is the capital city of the Tuscan Region, in the province of Florence or Firenze. It has 370,000 inhabitants…and based on the tourists even in September, when they tell me it is not as busy, millions come to visit each year. Florence is OLD, ranked by Forbes as one of the most beautiful cities in the world and declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1982—as a result the inner city is largely a walking zone only…to drive in it one needs a special permit.

It started as a Roman city, became the centre of medieval trade, and eventually, the birthplace of the Italian Renaissance. The powerful Medici family, one of the most important noble Italian families who reigned in the 16th and 17th centuries, called it home . Noted for its architecture, as it was the ‘cradle of the Renaissance, the most notable site in Florence is the Duomo, the domed cathedral of the city. 600 years after it’s completion it is still one of the largest brick and mortar dome in the world.

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Duomo

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The Arno

The Arno

Michelango Gold on the Ponte Vecchio

Michelango Gold on the Ponte Vecchio

The Arno is the river that runs through the centre of Florence and the Ponte Vecchio the most famous bridge—incredibly not destroyed during the 2nd world war. It houses shop upon shop selling gold and Italian jewelry!!!!
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Over the next 2 months I hope to highlight a number of key experiences and sights…there are so many to visit and write about…hopefully this first Firenze blog gives you a bit of the flavour of what is to come.

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LTD —— LTP
Living the Dream, London to Paris
Paris for the weekend. Just a few hours away.
Hop on a train, travel through the chunnel.. one barely notices the short half hour under the English channel and presto out the other side and before you know it you are at Paris Gare du Nord.
A beautiful warm October weekend. Spent hours walking through the city. Paris is beautiful!!
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Gorgeous buildings, engaging cafes, lots of parks and green space and of course at the heart of it all the Seine.
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Renee a good friend from home had rented a great apartment just across from the Luxembourgh Gardens. Vibrant neighborhood .. St Germaine de Pres…. One immediately experiences the essence of Paris. Lots of cafes filled with people drinking coffee and smoking..one of two elements that did not attract me… I was quite shocked how enthusiastically French people still smoke…strong cigarettes at that . No longer allowed inside but everyone smokes on the outdoor patios….

The second disappointment was that I found Paris considerably dirtier than London… on reflection I think that London works very hard at keeping itself very clean. When I returned I noticed street sweepers everywhere.. I think they spruced up for the Olympics and the Jubilee and have maintained the standard.

Paris not so much.. lends some substance to an old dutch saying my mother used ‘de franse slag’ . I don’t wish to offend so will just leave it at that.. my family will understand.
A weekend was hardly enough time, so this is definitely a city I will want to return to and live in at some point. Checked out some possible neighborhoods to live in. Given the good weather, I walked and walked.. the Sacre Couer…(was not able to take in a service, but it is on the list), the Marais, Place des Vosges, the Tuilieries Gardens, stopping for wine of course.

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A highlight which I would recommend for all new tourists to Paris is the cruise we took on the Seine as the sun was setting. Embarked at Pont du Neuf, we headed towards the Eiffel Tower..great views as the sun set behind the tower , then turned around and back into the centre of Paris, as the lights of the city lit up…beautiful!!!
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Dinner in the evening with Jane, friend from KPMG Holland days.. you may recognize her of Amsterdam Queen’s and Veuve Clicquot fame.
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Sunday morning the skies were overcast and a slight rain..so museum day.. Off to the Georges Pompidou for a Roy Lichenstein exhibit. The exhibit was excellent..gained a real appreciation for his art.
And of course the Pompidou centre itself a colourful building with a great history. Initial reaction to the Pompidou centre design was not pretty… a leading news article stated “Paris has its own monster, just like the one in Loch Ness”. Two decades later the design of the centre “turned the architecture world upside down” and the designer has earned a reputation as a high tech inconoclast.. the buildings skeleton is exposed.. lots of tubes, bright colours…it reflects the modern art that is held inside… escalators on the exterior walls covered in glass tubes.. offering a great view of the city as you move to the top of the centre.. the view from the top floor of the city is amazing… too bad, it was rainy and dreary..just another reason to return on a sunny day!
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One of the other reasons to check it out is the whimsical Stravinsky Fountain.. sixteen works of colourful, very colourful sculptures that move and spray water. Created in 1983 by sculptors, Tinguely, and Saint Phalle the works represent the genius of the composer Stravinsky. Very Cool!!!
Lunch, and then back to London.
A quick visit but oh So Worth IT.

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Chat line…..Rachie and I
Rachie: yeah mom …..LTD
Me: LTD??
Rachie: Living the Dream mom!!!
Me: Yeah …..Rach love your definition.

LTD used to mean Long Term Disability to me in my world. Now it means Living The Dream
Rachie’s version of the acronym suits me to a tee right now.
Living the life in England! A weekend in Paris! All is good.
Loving London. Visiting all my favourite places. Stepping out!

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Boroughs market for lunch with Sister-in-Law who came to visit. This has got to be the BEST Foodie Market. So many great marketers.. Jenny Dawson of Rubies in the Rubble, who brought disadvantaged women together, using local produce, produces great chutneys and of course employment! Lloyd Hayes who used to be a drug dealer and now a chef due to Jamie Oliver’s Fifteen Foundations course and a regular demonstration chef at the Boroughs in his old neighborhood.Ronnie Hancock of Wright Brothers Oyster and Porter House..who brought back oysters from the Thames and serves them with Porter. Porter was a drink that emerged out of London, had a connection with the markets way back and a favourite of the workers…hence its name. Apparently the chocolate notes of porter balance very well with the salinity of oysters….alll fitted well with the borough.
Now me, I still prefer just having a Borough’s glass of proseco…nothing like it at 11 in the morning with the multitude of smells in the market.
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My favorite purveyors Pieminster Pies..nothing like them …..Moopie, Chicken Funghi, and about 10 more. The Cherry Trees jams and chutneys..Spicey Tomato and Caramelized Onion, my current favorite and cheeses ..so many places.. but Neal’s Yard Dairy right at the top..a must see shop. And for coffee the Monmouth Coffee shop…be prepared to line up though!!
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Great Shows… latest was Once. An Irish busker, a Czech pianist and some fabulous musicians make for a great experience.
And of course real live busking at Portobello market!!!
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Pub crawls along the Embankment,
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cocktails at Sofitel and other swanky hotel bars
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. High Tea at the Park Lane Hotel,
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lunch at the food court in Harrods,
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and of course popping into Prince Bonaparte..fav pub across the road after a day on the town.. eating and drinking one’s way through all London has to offer.
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Sunday service at St Paul’s Cathedral
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and a walk through the parks… glorious sunshine
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A city for all the senses!!!

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