Sunday 29 June 2014

A bird's eye view on Tuscany from the Etruscan village of Artimino

Heading out in search of one of the less visited Medici villa, La Ferdinanda, which occupied an even older castle, we stumbled upon a small village so rich in history that makes this 11th century castle villa seems like a new property.  

Merely 40 minutes west of Florence, passing through a small town called Montelupo that specializes in ceramic making with factories open for visits, up a hill called Montalbano, sits the Etruscan village Artimino.  Little information can be found on the internet (no Wikipedia entry and only a short blurb on Michelin guide), this seems like one of those villages George Clooney filmed "The American" - a perfect hideout for a contract killer.  

A walled medieval village, the entrance is an opening underneath the crenellated clock tower.  The layout of the village, which isn't complicated at all, is said to have remained unchanged for hundreds of years: a one-way circular route no more than 600 meter in its circumference with two inner paths.

Occupied by the Florentines since 1327, most of its land was purchased by the Medici, and by 1596 the villa across from the village began construction.  They must have seen what we saw that day: an unobstructed view over the Tuscan landscape.  


Medici Villa, La Ferdinanda 

The 1000-year-old church of San Leonardo is set outside the walled village, as is a common practice at that time: the separation of the castle and the church signifies the disparity in their domain of power over the people.  

The Ferdinanda and the Artimino are now classified as UNESCO Heritage Sites:


French-Catalan or Catalan-French? - gastronomical delights in Perpignan

There are certainly no shortage of eateries in Perpignan, the second most important city of Catalonia (see my previous post on Perpignan).  Tapas bars and restaurants are everywhere to be seen, and chefs from every generation cook up a unique blend of French-Catalan cuisine.  

Every dish begins with the ingredients, and the Pyrénées offers a bounty of great and fresh produce.  Scout around the busy market for local flavours as well as an eclectic (or even exotic) mix of ingredients, from salted bacalao to dried chilli peppers.  

I was led to the legendary restaurant Casa Sansa for lunch, which was half hidden in a narrow lane, steps from the castle tower in the historic old town.  Here is an interpretation of French-Catalan dishes at its finest: fresh, full of flavours, earthy and organic, made all the more interesting with subtle addition of herbs and spices. Nothing is overpowering the freshness of the ingredients and the simplicity of its presentation.  

Very much like Barcelona or Girona, locals sit out in cafés and wine bars wherever there is empty street space.  Catalan flags fluttering in the wind, view of the castle tower, canal and plazas all make up such a pretty sight that even a painter couldn't have captured it better.  

Discover the colourful cuisine of the region here:

So is this French-Catalan or Catalan-French?

Tracing French Catalonia in southern France - Perpignan

Dominating a huge chunk of fertile land on either side of the Pyrénées - now a natural border between France and Spain - is the historical province of Catalonia.  Populated since ancient Greece, it has been a major trading community on the Mediterranean for almost 3000 years.  It was the first region in the Iberian peninsular (what we now call Spain and Portugal) to come under Roman rule, and for the next 2000 years its people have shaped history that will forever be remembered and reminded.  

Barcelona's title as Catalonia's first and greatest city is undisputed; there is always a competition for a shot at the second.  Most would argue to agree that the title goes to Perpignan, across the Pyrénées in southwestern France.

Once called by Salvatore Dali as the "centre du monde", Perpignan is perhaps not the centre of the universe it once was.  It is the last major city before crossing the Spanish border, and stripes of yellow and red - color of Catalan flag - is everywhere to be seen and reminded of.  Even though the city was ceded to the French in 1659 under the Treaty of the Pyrenees, where France was given control over Perpignan and Roussillon and gave up county of Barcelona in return, the city is today still more Spanish than French in every aspect: its architecture and tapas bars, and Catalan still being spoken and visible on road signs, not to mention the exotic mix of populations from North Africa that will remind you of Andalusia more than Paris. 

The major touristic draw is of course the great Palace of the Kings of Majorca, which began construction in 1276 by King James II and was later given a make-over by Louis XIV's engineer Vauban. Its magnificence is in the sheer size of a structure made entirely out of ocre stones and Pyrénées red marble.

Meandering through the town are quarters of tapas bars and restaurants, as well as the Arabic shops and markets.  Catalan restaurants like Casa Sansa is legendary, having established itself since 1846 in the historic centre but tucked into one of the tiniest lanes (see separate blog post on Casa Sansa).  

A saunter through the rest of the town will come upon the quiet canal, the cathedral of St. Jean, the iconic building that is now the Hotel de Ville (centre of administration), the once-affluent area on rue Emile Zola where Belle Epoque mansions of yesteryears adorned both sides of the street.

My only regret is that French is now more frequently used than Catalan or Langue d'Oc.  Music by Languedoc composer Déodat de Séverac (1872 - 1921), which I often play and listen to, was greatly inspired by the culture and language of the region, and I was hoping to hear authentic Languedoc being spoken here that would draw the connection to his music.  

Official tourism website for Perpignan and its surrounding region: