Ah, Venezia!

We had an easy trip over, in spite of our uneasiness over the lifting of the mask mandate in the US. From the number of people wearing United masks on our initial flight to Frankfort, there were those who assumed that they’d be mask free heading to Europe. Sorry, Buttercup. I’d say probably 70% were wearing kn95 or N95 masks, the rest just surgical masks.

We were met at the dock by Elisa and Jan. Elisa and her husband had recently renovated another apartment nearby for their daughter, and as there wasn’t yet anyone living there, it was ours. An enormous two bedroom facing the lagoon, no problem! The 55 steps will just help work off the pasta.

Bedroom. Check out that view!

We walked around the corner to old favorite restaurant, Osteria Alla Frasca. We were early enough to get a table outside. Some wine, some pasta, enjoying a quiet corner of too often heaving Venice. It’s been a long three years since we were last here.

Tagliatelle with clams, mussels, shrimp and calamari. Rich seafood and tomato sauce, yum.

A little pan a cotta scented with rosemary and pistachios, another yum. And limoncello in the sun.

We were fading, so took a short nap. The apartment is eerily quiet due to the think 400 year old walls and new windows.

Then a wander for some groceries, bread and wine.

Got ourselves organized, then made some salads for dinner. Lettuces with oranges; and lentils with arugula and tomatoes. The kitchen is easy to work in, I was even able to figure out the induction cooktop on the first try. The oven has a mysterious control panel, I’ll leave that for when the jet lag fog wears off.

Is this thing still working?

Tap, tap. Let’s see if I can get this blog going again!

So, after three years and several cancelled trips, we head to Italy in three weeks. We start in our favorite apartment in Venice overlooking the lagoon in Cannaregio. Then we move across the Canal to a larger place in Santa Croce. The Dans and Evan will join us there, very exciting. After Venice we will be at a farmhouse in the Sabina Hills/ southern Umbria for a week. Our London friends Jonathan and Philippa will meet us there.

Still plan on Covid protocols, and I really hope we can get second boosters before we leave. Between all that and our recent Covid souvenir, we should be fairly well protected, but as we’ve learned, this virus is insidious!

I’ve had to upgrade my blog plan, so I guess I’m committed to doing some blogging on the trip.

Birthday Weekend-Friday

For my birthday, we thought it might be nice to have a brief countryside break. I love Amarone wines, so the nearby Valpolicella area seemed a good fit. An old Slowtrav friend recommended an agrituriso winery where he has stayed several times. I learned that they had recently opened a small restaurant on site that has been getting excellent reviews. Sold.

We knew a few days earlier that Italy would be having a transportation strike on Friday. The vaporettos would not be running, so we would need to walk to the train station, not a problem. What we were unsure of was how many trains would be cancelled that day. As it turned out, just a few were cancelled. So about 100 confused people had gotten off trains at the station, waiting ot the docks for vaporetto that wouldn’t be coming.

In Beautiful (not) Mestre, we picked up our rental, a tiny Fiat 500. We started driving west, the highway lined with industrial plants and nondescript office parks. Ah, here are grapevines finally, in the valley floor and climbing hills. We first stopped in the town of Soave. Well preserved walls partially enclose the old town, and climb the hill to the Castello at the top. You can climb the rough steep hill too, or do like we did and find the hidden road to the top. Pretty views up there.

Whoops, rookie mistake, the Castello would be closing for lunch in 30 minutes. We poked around Soave a bit, and then got to the serious business of finding a place for lunch.

Google map recommendations and TripAdvisor Italian (sometimes more reliable than reviews in English) pointed us to Osteria no. 1, in the Volpecella town on F. . Very lively, with a dapper owner singing along with the radio, good smell from the kitchen. Food was slightly gussied up traditional. Mmm, glass of Amarone. We began with tortellini stuffed with radicchio, honey and smoked cheese. Really good. Then pork with fried leeks on a pumpkin purée for Larry, and beef cheeks in an inky dark Amarone sauce for me.

I love Romanesque churches, and had noted some in the area when I was doing research. We found two beauties, each closed up tight. I’ve noticed that these old churches in France usually have a key at the local Marie (town hall) or a note on the door with phone number of key holder, who is usually delighted to show you the village’s pride and joy. But in Italy, you’re out of luck unless the key holder is cleaning. One of the churches was in a cemetery, where graves all sported flowers and decorations for All Saints Day next week. None of the ladies fixing up graves knew who had the church key, ah well.

We then drove to Massimago, the winery-agriturismo Ian had recommended. A beautiful building and grounds, up on a hill surrounded by vines and forest. We arranged for a tour and tasting later that afternoon, checked into our pretty room, and went to read on the patio by the pool.

With Ariana from the winery, we climbed the steep hill terraced with grapevines, learning about the five major grape varieties grown in the region, the wines they produced, and drinking a glass of fresh white wine halfway up. Massimago is an organic winery. The grapes have been grown here for decades, but the family has only been making their own wines for about 15 years.

At the top of the hill we visited the fruttaio, the shed where grapes are dried for 3-4 months before being crushed and slowly fermented for Amarone. This can be a delicate process, highly dependent on the grapes and environment. Rot is a big danger.

Down in the cellars, we tasted five wines, with nibbles of local cheeses. We both really liked the 2013 Amarone, which will be even better in five years or so. Amarone can be a big fruit bomb, but this was nicely balanced.

Dinner downstairs that night was a real treat. We did their five course tasting dinner, each course accompanied by their wines. First a little mouthful of bread made with wine, topped with a light cheese. Then stuffed zucchini flowers. Risotto with ginger, rosemary and a bit of licorice. Sounds odd, but delicious and worked well with the wine. Boned rabbit, topped with shaved black truffle, yes please. We’ll go apologize to the huge rabbits we saw in nice hutches on the hill tomorrow. I’d have never thought of cooking eggplant in red wine, but it too was great. Dessert was also excellent , a tart cherry and beet sorbet with local nut crumble. Ariana had noticed it was my birthday from my passport, so the chef brought out a little slice of cake with candle, very nice. About my only criticism was that the portions were too large for a tasting menu, we had to be careful to not finish everything, particularly the risotto.

We slept well.

Blue Skies

I had to resort to taking something to help me get back to sleep at 1 am, so slept well past my usual 5 am. We eventually headed out, and crossed the Canal and roamed around San Polo for a while,getting happily lost in the maze of tiny calles.

We had seen an intriguing sign on a palazzo fronting the Canal, “Love is Blind–Blind For Love.” Palazzo Tiepolo Passi is hidden down a teeny alleyway off Calle Savonarola. You climb the stairs, and are welcomed by a docent. The artist, Caroline Lepinay, has created an experience retelling the myth of Cupid you can encounter with your senses–and if you reserve, it happens in a magical way. First, without your sight.

The docents take groups of four blindfolded people through the small exhibit blindfolded, leading them to each element, where they encounter the pieces by touch, by hearing music and voice, and by smell. The docents are themselves vision impaired, which gives them the unique skills to help visitors use their other senses. Afterward, you take the blindfold off and retrace adding sight. Yes, perhaps it is a bit gimmicky, but that doesn’t take away from how you experience it. You can reserve through the website. Love is Blind

We walked around some more, peeking into little shops and dodging down side streets to avoid crowds. San Polo was definitely more crowded than Cannaregio. I was looking for a jewelry store I’d first found on our first Venice trip almost 20 years ago. She uses Murano beads, and her pieces are reasonably priced. (Although I’ve eventually had to have things restrung as the necklace stringing is delicate) Ieventually found Donà Maria Luisa, just by chance. We chatted for a while, and I was sad to hear that she is going to be retiring soon. She talked about how so many of Venice’s visitors now are happy to buy cheap imitation Murano glass jewelry, and it is getting more difficult to do what she does. She is looking for someone to take over her shop, anyone interested?

We continued walking to Rialto, and ducked into Al Arco for some chichetti and wine. We didn’t have luck hovering for a table, so stood and chatted with someone who works at the UN who had been stationed in Lebanon. We also stopped to share a glass and tramezzini at the bar next to Casa di Parmigiano. We picked up some ravioli de zucca for dinner.

My joints were complaining by now, so we decided to just take a vaporetto ride to enjoy the afternoon. We boarded the no. 1 at Rialto, and grabbed seats outside for the trip to Lido, then back again. Gorgeous day to enjoy being on the Grand Canal with the beautiful palazzos and boats of all kinds. Happily, no Grandi Navi this afternoon.

Eventually returned home, iced the knees, then went over to the “secret bar” for aperitivi on the rio. The evening futbol game was going on in the Campo, which makes me so very happy to see. This little piece of Venice is still here.

Raviolis and salad for dinner.

Essentials

We decided this time to get the Venezia Unica transportation pass instead of two weekly passes. The Unica is meant for residents, (Or those from abroad who cough up the fee) and gives an enormous discount on the Vaporetto. It is good for five years, so makes sense if you’ll be in Venice for several weeks during that period. So I guess we’ll need to come back to get even more of our money’s worth, right?

We walked the length of Strada Nova, crossed the horrible new bridge past the train station to P. Roma. (And why oh why did they use slippery green panels underfoot, they’re a death trap in high humidity so everyone tries to walk in the narrow paved part in the middle. Don’t get me started on the pod for the disabled that never worked)

We had our passports and had filled out the forms, and even so the process took time and yet more paperwork. We hopped on the vaporetto and went to the Rialto markets for some shopping. Mascari for wine, Casa di Parmigiano for cheeses and prosciutto; figs, greens, herbs,; and some little purple artichokes and zucchini flowers from Sant Erasmo, the farm island in the Lagoon. I pick the stands with the lines of little old ladies.

After stowing groceries back home, we realized we’d skipped breakfast and were hungry. Walked over to Ai Promossi Sposi. Seafood antipasti, and frito misto were delicious and hit the spot. The resident adorable dog sat at my feet the whole time, flashing big brown eyes and casually putting his head on my knee. Nice try buddy, I don’t want to be responsible for your upset stomach.

After a rest in the apartment, we walked west, zigzagging through the Fondamentas and bridges to Palazzo Albrizzi, site of three countries’ Biennale pavilions. it is always fun to visit these palazzos used during the Biennale, with the juxtaposition of past and present. Granada had the most interesting one here, with a focus on Memory, including a mesmerizing installation of projected images through jars, which blended and shifted. In another room was hanging photographic and text mobiles centered on family; and another with huge, beautifully composed photos. There was also a fascinating film that veered between hauntingly beautiful and very disturbing in imagery as the family storytelling unfolded. more about the Granada work here: Granada

Picked up the loan of a knife from Nan, then back home to pick up a few things from the Coop and a bottle of Friuli white from the vino sfuso. Followed by a preventative ice pack on my knee.

For dinner, I made sautéed little artichokes with garlic and lemon, and ricotta stuffed zucchini flowers in a very light batter. Salad, figs and prosciutto, cheap Prosecco.

Valnerina Wandering

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Evan was arriving in Rome Monday morning. The plan was for him to take the train from Fumicino up to Orte, where we’d pick him up. There were several places I wanted to get to in southern Umbria, so this worked well.

Another beautiful sunny day. We drove down past Trevi, the headed on to the sp 209, a road which climbs up, over, and occasionally tunnels through the mountainous landscape. We stopped to wander some tiny hilltowns, church hunting with the aid of Bill Thayer’s website. We never did find San Felice di Narco, and the churches in tiny Vallo di Nera were locked up tight., with Santa Maria looking quite the worse for wear (or earthquakes). Wandering around the five medieval streets of Vallo, we found two little kittens playing in a flowerpot. Larry would not let me take them home, happily they looked well fed and healthy. Scheggio was a particularly pretty town, with a river underneath the hilltop town.

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One of the churches high in my list was San Pietro in Valle. It was founded in the 8th century, and the present Abbey was built in the early 12th century, with some of the earliest frescoes in Umbria. To get there, we took an extremely steep, winding road up and up and up, praying that we’d not meet a car coming down the other way. The road ends at the Abbey, where the church and cloister have been preserved and are open, the other Abbey buildings are a small hotel. You’ve got to love peace and quiet to stay there!

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Now this is what I’d been looking for. What a wonderful old church. On the left side are Old Testament scenes; with New Testament on the right. All along the walls are Roman sarcophagi and other bits and pieces; there are 15th century frescoes in the apse, a Medieval Lombard altar, all kinds of fascinating things. And amazingly, the custodian has a pamphlet with a map and details on everything inside the church.

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The simple cloister has been preserved, along with a Roman carved pedestal where the monks had ground off the naughty dancers. There’s an early Christian inscription above a doorway.

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Afterward we briefly stopped in the pretty hilltown of Arrone, but it being Monday, were having trouble finding an open restaurant. I was about to settle for a bar panini when we found a place on the road, featuring fish. After a week of meat and pasta, fish sounded great. Simple place, simple food. We shared an antipasto of prawns in salsa verde, and then a pasta with spicy tomato sauce, and I had trout with truffles. We struck up conversation with a family at the next table, who had just been to the Marmore Falls. We had just enough time for a visit before needing to heat to Orte, so we set off.

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Cascata delle Marmore were initially devised by those clever Romans, who cut channels to divert water away from flood plains. There are three levels, and now the water is used by industry and for hydraulic power. The flow is turned on and off periodically, so visitors should probably check to see when it will be at its strongest flow. When we arrived shortly before 3, we heard a loud siren–the sound of the falls being turned on. At first the falls were pretty but not overwhelming, but within a few minutes it had grown to a thunderous flow, with spray and mist enveloping us on the walkway. You can take paths all the way up to the top, which I would love to do someday with a stronger knee.

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Drove to Orte, scooped up the jetlagged Evan, stopped at Lufra for more bufala and a few pastries, and went home. Dinner was cheese and salumi, and defrosted lentil soup. And I seem to have developed a gross cold, ugh.

Into the Mountains

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Wednesday morning we stayed at home, being lazy while the sun decided if it was going to make an appearance. We headed out late morning, with no plans other than to head toward some mountains. We took the 356 north of Cividale, winding through Faedis before the road turned steeper and curvier. Thickly forested slopes with craggy tops, small towns, the occasional ruined castello on hillsides, almost no traffic.

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We stopped at the larger riverside market town of Tarcento for lunch, choosing Al Muelin Vieri pretty much at random because of the number of cars parked outside. This seems to be where the local business people go to lunch, groups of them eating and playing cards in between courses. We ate very well from the verbal menu, each having a local stuffed pasta dish. We finally got to try cjazonses, the Friulian potato-dough ravioli stuffed with greens, pine nuts and raisins; sauced with butter and cinnamon, topped with smoked ricotta. Sounds odd, but they were fabulous.

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We continued climbing the twisting road up to Musi, way up into the Parco Naturale Regionale delle Prealpi Giulie. Supposedly this is the wettest part of Italy, and as we were driving through clouds at this point, I could see why.

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Lots of hiking in this area of dramatic scenery of cliffs and river gorges, we saw signposted trails all around.We headed east, but stopped when we realized we’d gotten to the Slovenian border, as we hadn’t thought to have our passports with us. Back down and home. Salad for dinner, and reading on the lumpy sofa while listening to the dripping.

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Port Cities

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Tuesday we woke to cloudy skies, and a faint rainbow after the sun broke through the moisture.

We drove south to Aquiliea, to see the Roman ruins and museum, and especially the Basilica. You drive through a flat landscape of vines and fields, suddenly seeing roman ruins along the road and through the dusty town. The tourist office is well supplied with information, and runs a two hour walking tour at 10:30.

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If you’ve been to Rome, Pompeii or Ostia the ruins may not wow you, and most of the choice bits are in museums. But it is still interesting to walk the different areas of the excavated city ruins, and to see areas still being excavated and studied.  The museum across the road from the Basilica has lovely sculptures on the ground floor. Unfortunately the first floor is currently under renovation and was closed.

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But oh that Basilica…just wonderful. The entire floor covered in fantastic mosaics from the 4th century. You walk on a clear lucite walkway that travels the perimeter. At the front you can buy a pamphlet describing the many different elements and stories told in the mosaics. Plan on time to enjoy this. I could have spent hours slowly walking around, trying to take it all in.  No photos allowed in the main part of Basilica, but they don’t seem to mind you taking them in the other areas. Here is a photo from the web.

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There is also a gaily painted little crypt with a collection of gem encrusted reliquaries, and to the left of the main entrance a lower area being excavated. In these areas they don’t seem to mind photographs.

Here is the crypt, and one of the festively decorated displays of saint’s bones.

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Here the the partially excavated side chapel.

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There is a paved bike path to walk along (look for it behind the tourist office) so you don’t have to walk along the busy road between the sites. Very few visitors when we were there, mostly school groups and a few bus tours. I’d imagine it’s busier in summer.

From there we drove the short distance to Grado, parking just outside the pedestrian area. The centro is lovely, with twisty streets, piazzas and many cafes and seafood restaurants. There is also a beach, crowded in chairs in typical Italian beach style, and a long concrete walkway along the shore where people were sunning themselves on benches.

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We came mainly to see the two 6th century churches, both with lovely mosaic floors. Beautifully detailed, with geometric shapes and animal figures, along with inscriptions. These floors are still heavily in use, with church pews on top. Look for the Lapidarium behind the Baptistry, there are many wonderfully carved early medieval stone pieces inside.

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We had an excellent seafood lunch at Trattoria de Tony. Fried moeche, tiny softshell crabs, sweet grilled prawns, and scroppino (lemon gelato, prosecco and vodka)Supposedly somewhere is a Museum of Underwater Archaeology, but in spite of Google and asking three people, we never found where it was moved to.

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Back home, a simple dinner, and wine on the porch.

Among the Vines in Friuli

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We drove from Venice to our agriturismo just south of Cividale del Friuli on Thursday morning. We’re staying in a winery that rents rooms and apartments, Perusini outside of Cormons. http://www.perusini.com/en/. We are in an old house high on a hill, that has been divided into two apartments. We had originally booked one of the halves, and upon arrival discovered that it only had an exterior staircase, with bedrooms on the top floor and the only bathroom on the ground floor. Uh, with my knee, dragging myself down and up on an outside stairway in the middle of the night, no. Very fortunately, the apartment in the other half of the house had an interior stair, was available, and in fact had the much better view from the porch. It is definitely funky as country houses can be, but we have a fabulous view, a comfortable bed, and the toilet flushes.

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We hit the local Despar for some groceries. Corno di Rozzano is a newer town, not much on charm but with good shops and services for the community. We easily cooked pasta with sausage and greens for dinner (after rinsing out the cooking pots and plates, yuck) , and ate on our porch with a nice bottle of Friulian wine. What more does one need?

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Friday morning we went to the Cormons weekly market. Not huge, and the usual trucks selling made-in-China shoes, clothing, and housewares. But there were several fruit and veg sellers, cheese trucks, and butchers. We bought a kilo of the sweetest peas I’ve ever had, some zucchini, tomatoes, and fruit.

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We drove around a bit, admiring the vine-covered hills, mountains in the distance, and glimpses of castles hidden behind trees.

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Then drove the short distance in a valley to Cividale del Friuli, a lively and very interesting town with plenty to see and do. We found parking in a lot near the “Devil’s Bridge” in the south of town. The centro has attractive main streets, and plenty of evocative cobblestone alleys to explore. It was a stronghold of the Lombards, and retains much of its history.

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There’s a Roman mosaic under the town hall, a Duomo, the lovely Piazza Diacono lined with cafes, a restored 14th century house to explore, and a nice riverside walkway. We tried two regional sweets, gubana and strucchi, pastries filled with nuts, cinnamon and chocolate. Our favorite visit was the the beautiful Tempietto Longobardo, built in the mid 8th century. Tiny and very special, with carvings and partially restored frescoes.

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We had an excellent lunch at Antico Leon d’Oro, just across the Devil’s Bridge on the south side of town. We tried the local traditional frico, a hot mashed potato and cheese dish, hilariously served with polenta. Definitely something to get you through a cold winter. Also excellent was my pasta with asparagus, and Larry’s herb-stuffed ricotta dumplings.

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Cividale has several interesting museums, and since the weather for tomorrow promised rain, we decided to return to them then. To take advantage of today’s sun after lunch we drove north to Gemona in the foothills, (about 40 minutes drive) with mountains rising all around making for a spectacular landscape. The town is built up a hill, and was mostly destroyed during the 1976 earthquake with centered there. The town has been rebuilt and some of the older parts restored. There is a marvelous medieval cathedral with a striking facade. The interior was heavily redone in later centuries, but still there is the charming Romanesque font which incorporates a font from the 2nd century with beautiful carvings. We wanted to go to the small museum, but even though the sign n the door said open, it was firmly shut. Ah, Italy, what can you do. We’ll try again.

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A few miles north we stopped at Venzone, a lovely walled town that was also completely rebuilt from the original stones after the quake. There’s a 14th century civic hall, and a cathedral that is still being restored.

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For dinner we ate at Al Postiglione, the restaurant on the agriturismo. Meat and Meat is what you eat here. We had an excellent crudo, a fresh salad (yay, vegetables) and then the main dish arrived–enough perfectly rare steak for four people, plus vegetables. We also had an engaging encounter with the local curling champions at the next table, celebrating their victory. They seem to push polenta pots on an ice rink, insisting we see their videos on youtube. Much laughter.

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Printed and Spoken

Evan’s flight was scheduled for late afternoon, we we wanted to do something fast and local this morning. Larry and I first walked over to Chapel Market, where there were just a few produce stands, and mostly housewares. We took the few bus stops over to the British Library, first stopping to admire the imposing St. Pancras.

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My favorites are always the gorgeously illustrated old books, including the Golden Hagaddah from 1th century Spain. Really, I hadn’t noticed the “No photographing” sign until I was politely stopped by a guard.

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We went back to the flat to pick up Evan’s bag, and went down to London Bridge to have some lunch before his train to the airport. Want to try the new pasta place which gets such good reviews, but the line was down the street. Instead got a table at the turkish Arabica in Borough Market, and then found out that the train had been cancelled, and he’s need to get an earlier one. The waitress was helpful in steering us to quickly prepared things, and after a tasty and fast lunch, we were out the door.

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After seeing Evan onto the train, Larry and I headed over to Soho, where we had tickets to see Ian McKellan and Patrick Stewart in Pinter’s No Man’s Land. They were absolutely brilliant in their roles, giving Pinter’s sometimes head-scratching words shape. I love how a gifted actor can impart humor or despair just with how a line is timed, or with subtle body language. And I adore the jewel-box London theaters, the intimacy so different from Broadway.

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We met up with old friends Jonathan, Philippa and Susan in Leicester Square. Larry and I had a go on the light-up seesaws, there’s video footage here for blackmail purposes. Amy is really 4 years old. We took the bus up to our flat so J&P could drop their bags and chatted a bit, then walked down to Exmouth Market where Berber & Q was just opening. Modern Israeli food, lots of fantastic tastes and textures. We began with an assortment of mezes–slices of smoky eggplant, a delicious beet and orange salad, chiles in yogurt, a rich and chunky humus, a salad of okra and beans much better than it sounds. The short menu emphasizes schwarma, so we shared the fantastic lamb schwarma and chicken, served with herby salads, sauces, and pita. Great food, although the environment got so noisy when full we had difficulty hearing each other, something I hate about so many restaurants these days in my grumpy middle years. I’d certainly go again for the food, but only if I could eat outside or take away.

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