Tuesday 31 July 2012

And There Was Cake For Breakfast

And there was cake for breakfast.

Scratch the skin of Kraków and she bleeds. Listen to Kraków's voice and she is both romantically melodic and hauntingly sad. Look into Kraków's face and she is beguilingly beautiful, generously welcoming, and yet etched with worry lines, eyes reddened by so many tears having been shed.

And there was cake for breakfast.

We had heard much of Kraków but had never before visited. Indeed, our proposed stay would be our first foray into Poland, a country which for us held intrigue and fascination but which also, we suspected, concealed a deeply troubled past.

And there was cake for breakfast.

The Piano Guest House was the perfect choice of where to stay in Kraków. A short walk from the Old Town and run by Madame Ola [a stage name for she is also a cabaret singer] and her two sons, it offers a taste of the real Poland with a quirkiness and a touch of bohemia guaranteed to make any visit a pleasurable experience and one not to be forgotten.

a glimpse into our bedroom at The Piano Guest House with hats at the ready for an outing

And there was cake for breakfast.

It could easily have been a scene at the Pensione Bertoloni taken from E.M. Forster's 'A Room with a View' when, upon arrival, Madame Ola swept us up and whisked us into the reception dining room for tea and cake. Mateusz, her son, on holiday from his work as a stage manager and conductor, produced a street map onto which places of interest, restaurants of distinction [he used to be a food critic], and hidden delights were marked with theatrical flamboyance and the confidence of a knowledgeable local.

And there was cake for breakfast.

Our five days were packed with interest, each one launched in glamorous style with the most glorious and delicious of breakfasts. Madame Ola, speaking only French and Russian [apart from her native Polish], draped from head to foot in black, floated among her guests offering black tea, green tea and coffee whilst the breakfast table was laden with all manner of culinary delights sprinkled with red currants which sparkled like rubies in the morning sun. Generous quantities of local hams, cheeses and sausage were supplemented with eggs, patés, yoghurts, cereals, tomatoes, cucumber, fruit and cake. 

the breakfast table without  cake - image from The Piano Guest House

Cake for breakfast! How decadent we thought, and how lovely.

P.S. For those who are intrigued to see and listen to Madame Ola, then we include a short video, of rather doubtful quality, found on 'Youtube':

Monday 23 July 2012

Up at a Villa - to borrow from Robert Browning

the visitors' book of the Villa Massei on the occasion of the visit of HM Queen Sonja of Norway 
There is, as most will readily recognize, a fine but nonetheless distinct line to be drawn between a house in the country and a country house. The Villa Massei, the home of dear friends Gil Cohen and Paul Gervais de Bédée, falls without doubt into the latter category.

the drive approach to the Villa Massei as viewed from the balcony beyond the hall door

a corner of the entrance hall of the Villa Massei - the main door reflected in the looking glass

the fireplace of the principal drawing room at the Villa Massei as seen in summer

the bedroom as occupied by Jane and Lance Hattatt during their recent stay at the Villa Massei

Magnificently situated surrounded by its own olive groves and bosky woodlands, this Renaissance former hunting lodge is today set in the most splendid of formal gardens created over the past thirty or so years by its artistic and very talented owners, Gil and Paul.

the view from one of the many garden terraces towards the surrounding Tuscan hills

lemon trees in terracotta pots and grown in the local traditional manner side a gravel square

the rose pergola, constructed of handmade bricks, which forms a principal axis in the garden

the pool and fountain garden with two of four 'Alice in Wonderland' miniature chairs

And what joy it has been this past week to be entertained in true country house style to all the delights of the Villa Massei. For we have been treated to the most delicious of luncheons and dinners, to the enjoyment of the gardens and grounds in the coolness of the evening, to idling away time in the shade of the loggia, to the brilliance of the poolside and, should this have been not enough, to the meeting with friends on a Tuscan hillside for a salmon supper served 'alfresco' in the gloaming as well as to the delights of a tour of that most romantic of cities, Lucca, by horse drawn carriage.

evening shadows draw across the lawn - our bedroom windows white shuttered in the sun

contemplating the passing of time - Lance Hattatt seated in the shade of the Loggia

the swimming pool of the Villa Massei, the scene of a poolside luncheon with friends

the tree lined ramparts of Lucca which surround the city viewed from our horse drawn carriage

The day of our departure, following on so closely a Puccini concert in the Baptistery and Church of Santissimi Giovanni e Reparata the night before, found us by invitation at the grandiose Villa Reale. Once the property of Elisa Bonaparte Baciocchi, the grounds contain a green theatre dating from 1652, a Grotto of Pan, the near ruined Villa del Vescovo as well as water gardens, lemon parterre, and the most delightful, if somewhat startling, swimming pool complex of the 1920s now, alas, sadly neglected.

a detail on the splendid west front of the Cathedral Church of San Martino dating from 1204 

the portico front of the Villa Reale once the home of the regal Elisa Bonaparte Baciocchi

the now sadly near ruined Villa del Vescovo situated in the grounds of the Villa Reale

built in the 1920s, the swimming pool complex of the Villa Reale remains a fantasy of fun

The highlight of our time at the Villa Massei must be the private visit of HM Queen Sonja of Norway to luncheon and a personal tour of the gardens.

What excitement in the early morning as the Carabinieri descended in force to make their final check and then, some few hours later, to watch from the vantage point of the balcony overlooking the drive as the escort cars, lights flashing, wound their way up the twisting roads of the valley. And then, generously included by our hosts, Gil and Paul, to join with them to greet the Royal party, we descended to the entrance court.

entrance court of the Villa Massei where we assembled to greet HM Queen Sonja of Norway

Such fun it all was. For the Queen was knowledgeable, gracious and charming. Her 'faux' Ladies in Waiting, for the real ones had been imprisoned, so to speak, on the Royal Yacht, were equally delightful and so, in the manner of such an occasion, we progressed in Royal but relaxed fashion through each of the garden rooms.

the sixteenth century Grotto of the Villa Massei where pre luncheon drinks were served

a simple but inspirational table decoration in readiness for luncheon taken in the Loggia

Pre luncheon drinks served in the Grotto and then the most delicious buffet taken in the Loggia where the conversation, never stilted nor silent, was constantly punctuated with the sound of mirth and merriment.

a most regal chair, one of a pair, to be found in the drawing room of the Villa Massei

And now, our sojourn over, we are once more returned to Budapest but where the laughter, life and love of the Villa Massei continues to resound in our ears, as indeed it will do so for many, many years to come.