Archive for April, 2011|Monthly archive page
We’re still in Tuscany today, and Italy is still celebrating Easter with a Monday holiday so it was crowded everywhere we went. Today we were in San Gimignano (say “jimin-yano”), a medieval town with 13 bell towers and an 8th-century skyline. I’m sort of fresco-ed out and medieval-ed out and, believe it or not, gelato-ed out.
So after a huffing-puffing walking tour of the city up the steep hills, it felt really nice to sit down in a restaurant that featured (I’m still pinching myself): Belgian beer. Really! Italy is not known for its beer selection (Peroni, Moretti) so it was really exciting to see something else. And the restaurant was so much fun… our guide Mauro took a few of us with him, and it was a real hole-in-the-wall, down a dark alley. Never would have found the place in a million years. The owner was a hoot, the food (a huge bruschetta with mozzarella, basil, and tomatoes) was great, and they played Dire Straits and Creedence Clearwater Revival the whole time we were there. Not only did we sing along, we might have gotten up and danced if there had been room. (That’s me with the owner.)
After San Gimignano, we went to the Tenute Niccolai winery for a wonderful tour and tasting, complete with delicious pecorino sheep’s milk cheese and olive oil. We tasted a Chianti Reserve since we’re in the Chianti region, plus a Brunello di Montalcino and a lovely Vernaccia Santa Chiara.
And while we were there, the skies opened up and poured. We had thunder, some small hail, and just a great downpour while we were sitting in the tasting room with floor-to-ceiling windows. Romantic! By the time we walked back to the bus, the rain had stopped and it was about 20 degrees cooler. My power to control the weather never ceases to amaze me.
I’m packing tonight because we’re leaving in the morning for Venice!
I visited Florence today with, oh, maybe 10 million of my closest friends. They were there to celebrate Easter. It was quite an experience.
First, I have to talk about the weather a little bit. I haven’t mentioned lately that I am the Weather Fairy. But this power has come in very handy on this trip. The past two days have started out rainy, with the forecast calling for a very good chance for rain all day. Both days it was raining when we boarded the bus at the villa. Today it rained steadily all the way to Florence – about an hour’s drive. When we got out of the bus, viola! No rain. Thank you, Weather Fairy.
Not only did it NOT rain today, it got very warm and sunny. But at one point in the early afternoon a huge black cloud loomed over the city, and I thought for sure my powers were not strong enough to hold off what looked to be an impending storm. But not a drop. I am really good.
I have been to Florence before, but it was such a brief and superficial visit, I barely saw the city. In fact, I thought I’d seen Michelangelo’s David, but I had only seen the reproduction. And I had not seen the famous duomo. This visit was much more thorough. We started at the Galleria dell’Academia, home of the actual David and other Michelangelo sculptures. David is a really incredible work of art, and to see him in his proper place and to be able to spend a nice amount of time gazing all around his perfect 17-foot body…well, I am humbled.
Beyond the Michelangelo sculptures, the gallery wasn’t very interesting. We paid our respects and went out into the street to head for the famous Florence duomo…only to find the streets blocked off for the traditional Easter celebration in which a paper dove is lit on fire and it glides down a rope to a cart filled with fireworks, which explode in a frenzy of happiness and joy. We saw very little of this, unfortunately, because by the time we got down to the square we were on the wrong side of the duomo and could only see the occasional spark…and lots of smoke. But we heard the whole thing, and being in a crowd like that can only be compared to Times Square on New Year’s Eve. Nuts-o.
Following the fireworks came a very interesting parade. I had a good look at the first part but then, since I am short, I missed most of the second part, which featured flag throwers. I could see the flags being thrown into the air, but I couldn’t actually see the throwers. Nevertheless, it was fun.
After the parade we continued to walk through the crowds to the Palazzo Vecchio with its fountains and sculptures – including the false David that I had seen before. It was good to see him again, however, since we were not allowed to take pictures of him in the art museum; I am not ashamed to say that I photographed him with a telephoto lens in all his anatomically correct glory.
Our group broke up at this point – it was about noon – so we could explore and dine on our own. I spent most of my time taking pictures and loving, loving, loving Florence. I went to the Ponte Vecchio bridge, which is totally crazy with gold jewelry shops and people, but cool for the view. I walked up and down the streets and took pictures of the people and the shop windows and the bicycles. I found my first sugar waffle on this trip. (Last time I was in Italy I discovered these delicacies in Rome, but I didn’t see them there this time. Here, however, I smelled them before I saw them. Man, they taste good.) I did a little, teensie bit of shopping, walked back to the duomo for photographs, drank a coffee on a rooftop café overlooking the center of the city…wow, it was just a spectacular day.
After our group met and walked to the bus, we drove to a parking and garden area overlooking the city for a spectacular view and a group photo.
Now we’re back at the villa, which looks prettier every time we come “home,” and I am enjoying the cheese and olives I bought in Perugia, drinking a glass of wine…you know, the usual.
I love Siena! Our villa is in the countryside near Siena — about a half-hour ride by bus. It’s a typically hilly Tuscan city but it has the most amazing square: the Piazza del Campo. When I walked around the corner and caught the first sight of it, I said out loud, “We have a winner!” I think it might be even better than St. Mark’s Square in Venice, but it’s been awhile since I saw that one, so I guess we’ll see.
So the square is amazing and the duomo is beautiful and the shopping is great and there are dozens of tiny alleyways — all scenic and wonderful. We toured the duomo and learned about the city’s history. The city is divided into 17 neighborhoods, each with their own colors and name — and when you’re born into the neighborhood you’re an owl or a giraffe or a unicorn for life. Some neighborhoods dislike other neighborhoods, so if you meet and fall in love with the wrong person, it’s a real Romeo and Juliet scene. They take this very seriously. I love this!
I also love that they do a horse race twice a year in the Piazza del Campo, with each neighborhood sponsoring a horse and rider. It’s a big deal. We saw a video, and I loved it. I probably wouldn’t love being there for real, because the crowd would kill me off. Too crowded! But it seems like a lot of fun.
Anyway, we toured the duomo and then I walked to a nearby art museum in which I had to give up my driver’s license and stash all my belongings in a little locker. I was pretty much the only visitor in the whole museum. It was nice, but small. I especially liked the view of the city from second floor (the view of the actual city, not the historic square — see at left) and the drawings that had apparently been made as sketches for huge murals. Those were beautiful.
After the museum, I shopped. And then I had a gelato that has to be the best gelato in all of Italy. And then I shopped some more. I will not say what I purchased, but just that I definitely boosted the economy of Siena.
And now we’re back at the beautiful Villa Vecchi and I have Internet — a happy moment!
Today was a day with lots of variety. We left our little medieval town of Todi and traveled through Umbria into Tuscany. On the way, we stopped in the town of Deruta, which is considered to be the center for ceramics in Umbria. We went to the Maioliche Binaglia ceramics shop and watched a demonstration of the traditional art of ceramics decoration. The shop is owned by two sisters, both trained ceramics artists. All of the artwork in their shop is handmade by them. We watched as they transformed a small white vase into a beautiful work of art with flowers and birds and other traditional decorations.
Afterwards we had time to shop, and I was so tempted to buy things but didn’t because of the cost, the weight in my suitcase, and my fear that the ceramics wouldn’t make it back to the States in one piece.
After leaving Deruta, we traveled to Perugia, which is a really interesting place. It’s known for its chocolate and also for its large university. The city is quite large and modern on its lower levels. To get to the older (and more interesting) part of the city, there’s an excellent public transportation called the MiniMetro. Our guide says it looks like an egg. Really it’s just a small car (sort of like a cable car or subway car) on a track that whisks you up and up and up. I felt like I was in the future. At the top, the city did not disappoint. It had a lot of very old buildings and the sort of archways and alleys we’ve grown to expect in these ancient cities. But it’s also got high-end shopping and, at least today, a gazillion sidewalk vendors.
They were selling the most incredible cheeses and olives (and meat, if you like that sort of thing), breads, pastries, liquor, sweets, you name it. (They also had a lot of non-food vendors.) I bought a huge pretzel and a chunk of really delicious cheese from a vendor that seemed to be specializing in German foods. I found a table and a beer and had a wonderful lunch. Afterwards, I walked around and bought some chocolate and some olives for later on.
The best part of the day was driving into Tuscany (Cypress trees! Olive trees! Rolling hills!)and to our wonderful, amazing hotel called the Villa Lecchi. It overlooks the Chianti region and was originally built in the 1500s. It was modified in the 1800s but then fell into disrepair and was purchased in 1994 by the family who currently runs it. What a great story – the whole family is involved in the operation. Laura is the manager; her husband is the pastry chef and also tends to the gardens and occasionally hunts wild boar. Laura’s mother (called just Momma) is also a chef and was seen today gathering eggs from chickens they have on the property, plus she had an apron filled with fresh greens. Laura’s two sons do the heavy lifting around the place, including lugging our bags up the many, many flights of stairs because there is no elevator. Pappa Guiseppe (I’m probably spelling this wrong) had the original idea to buy the property and fix it up. We’re all amazed at how much work it must have been, based on the photos of what it looked like in the early 1990s with no roof and crumbling floors. Now they have wireless Internet, spiffy bathrooms, an amazing restaurant, and possibly the most beautiful view in all of Italy, as you can see.
Today we visited Assisi and I learned that it’s much more than the city of St. Francis. The San Francesco Basilica is obviously a huge attraction here, as is the Basilica Di Santa Chiara (St. Clare). Both churches are lovely and contain frescoes and statues, and they feature Gothic architecture from the 1200s.
It’s a hilly city, not so different from the other towns we’ve visited in this region (Orvieto, Todi). I couldn’t find this in the literature, but I’m pretty sure Assisi is known as the Italian city that has the highest gelato cafes per capita. Literally, they are next to each other all up and down the streets. Also, there are bakeries like I haven’t seen since I’ve been to Italy. I took pictures of the windows and went into a few of them. They are totally overwhelming. I managed to choose just one thing: a pistachio cannoli. I really wanted a bite of everything.
In one shop that featured Italian meats, cheeses, pastas, and other Italian specialties, I was able to taste some of the olive oil and spreads that were being sold. The proprietor told me (in English, with a strong Italian accent) that his shop was featured in Rick Steves’ book. He then had me taste some eight-year-old balsamic vinegar, and I had to buy some. One drop in a puddle of olive oil should make for some mighty yummy dipping when I get home.
I did some shopping in Assisi – the stores were great – but I won’t say what I got because some things might end up being gifts.
We’re back in Todi for one more night. Tomorrow we leave Umbria for Tuscany.
If you’ve never heard of Todi, you’re not alone. Before I got my Portrait of Italy itinerary, I had never heard of it, either. It’s in Umbria, and it’s an ancient city on a hilltop surrounded by lush, fertile ground. The city is small – we figure we can walk pretty much anywhere in about 10 minutes from our central hotel location – but there’s a fair amount of traffic, a good selection of shops and restaurants, churches, banks, historic sites, and the like. Some of the city’s history dates back to the 1st century BC. So it’s a pretty cool place to be.
We started our day with, well, breakfast, and after that with a walking tour of the town. This is the first day that we have not, at any point, gotten onto a bus or other public transportation. Everything was on foot. I like that. We visited a couple of churches, took in a few scenic overlooks, and went to the local historical museum.
After that we had a free afternoon, during which I posted a couple of blogs and checked my email, ate gelato, walked up 150 steps to the top of one of the churches’ bell towers for a spectacular view of the city and surrounding area, did a little shopping (but didn’t actually buy anything), drank a beer, and then relaxed for a little while before most of our group went to dinner together.
This was another one of those dinners that lasts forever and includes a lot of wine. It was a lot of fun, and some folks in our group ordered brave foods like wild boar. I had a cheese pizza. But it was a really good cheese pizza.
We left the noise and crowds of Rome behind today and headed into the slower pace of the Umbrian countryside. En route to our overnight town of Todi (pronounced “Todd-dee”) we spent some time in the hillside village of Orvieto, home to a lovely duomo and excellent local wine.
To get to Orvieto, you have to take first an escalator or staircase to the funicular, ride the funicular up the mountain, and from there you have a lovely view of the valley below. We continued higher, however, in a small bus, which dropped us off in front of the duomo.
We had some free time in Orvieto to tour the duomo or shop or drink wine. I took some pictures and then set about drinking the local wine. Our original table of five kept growing and growing and pretty soon the vast majority of our group was there enjoying a glass or two.
The highlight of our stay in Orvieto was going to the Zeppelin restaurant for wine and a pasta-making demonstration out on the patio with wine and an appetizer and more wine and the pasta and then we went to our tables inside the restaurant for more wine and lasagna and wine and I forget what came next but then there was dessert and coffee and by this time we were, how you say, happy campers.
There was a lot of giggling back through the streets of Orvieto and I told Mauro our guide that if his goal was to make us drunk and happy, he was entirely successful.
Good thing none of us had to drive. We made it to Todi and in to our lovely Hotel Fonte Cesia in the village. (Mauro says we went from Rome: population 3 million to Todi: population none. This is an exaggeration, but it is very small — about 17,000 inhabitants — and Medieval and lovely.)
We are almost at the half-way point of our trip (I believe tomorrow is hump day) so I figured I had better rinse out some clothes so they’ll be dry before we leave in three days for Siena. My bathroom looks like a Chinese laundry just now and I am proud of myself for staying awake and having enough sense to actually do the wash and write this entry after 10 glasses of wine
I am so grateful that this isn’t one of those “If this is Tuesday, this must be Belgium” tours because I am pretty darn tired and it’s only our second city.
We started out our day today visiting the Vatican: The Sistine Chapel, St. Peter’s magnificent basilica, the Vatican museums. Like yesterday, the tour was much more thorough than when I was here 10 years ago. I was very happy to finally be able to see the Sistine Chapel, because it’s just one of those things you ought to do before you die. My only disappointment today was that Michelangelo’s Pieta was not open to the public. I was really looking forward to seeing that sculpture again, but at least I got to see it before.
After our tour we returned to the hotel and I crashed. I didn’t sleep well last night so I took a nap, which I never do. After I slept for a little while, I got out and walked around but really took it slow and easy. I think jet lag must be finally catching up with me!
I loved Rome the first time I was here, but I sort of felt like I’d already “done” the city before, so honestly I wasn’t all that excited about coming back. But today reminded me of what I really love about the city. It’s just such a wonderful mix of ancient history, art and culture, in a vibrant living environment. And, also, gelato.
We started our morning with a really thorough tour of the Coliseum and Roman Forum. I had been to these sites before on a guided tour, but it paled in comparison to today’s tour. Our guide took us through the Coliseum, walked us through the Forum, and led us up to Capitol Hill. All the while she told us great stories about the history of each of the places we were visiting. My grasp of history is, admittedly, not the best, but I was happy to be along for the ride.
After we finished the tour of ancient/pagan Rome we encountered a huge parade – I’m assuming it had something to do with Palm Sunday but it’s hard to know for sure. At any rate, our group of 25 parted ways at that point; most took the tour bus back to the hotel, some stayed in the area, and nine of us headed off to Isla Tiberina and points beyond.
This was an area of Rome I hadn’t seen before and our guide had mentioned it was an area he enjoys (he lives in Rome when he’s not giving tours to the likes of us). So we walked there and had lunch and a beer and then meandered through the area. Eventually one couple decided to head back to the hotel, so then it was just seven of us.
We spent some time in Campo de Fiori – at least, that’s where I think we were. There was some sort of farmers’ market / flea market going on there. It appeared that there was a nice mix of tourists and locals.
And then we walked to the place that was my favorite last time I was in Rome: The Piazza Navona. It was in full splendor today, with its cafes and artists and spectacular fountains surrounded by lovely architecture on all four sides. It is an absolute treasure, and it reminds me of one of the things I enjoy most about Europe: the city centers. Most cities and even small towns have these plazas or squares around which you’ll find little shops and cafes and places to sit and meet people. In America, we tend to have strip malls.
So I took my time there taking lots of pictures, and we ate gelato, and it was just lovely.
Afterwards, it started raining a bit so we picked up the pace. We didn’t linger at the Pantheon – of the seven of us remaining, none of us know the significance of the place so we just shrugged and moved on.
I’m back in my hotel now and rumor had it I could connect to the Internet if I went down to the bar, er, lobby, so that’s where I am right now. Not a bad place to be.
Today we left behind the stunning Amalfi coastline and headed toward our second overnight location: Rome.
But first, we stopped for a visit at the Montecassino Abbey. A German stronghold during World War II, the hilltop Abbey was destroyed by Allied bombing and then rebuilt after the war just as it had been in the 17th century. Amazing! And just as amazing as the Abbey itself (still home to 20 Benedictine monks) were the views of the valley below.
And then: Rome.
Rome holds a special place in my heart. It was my first European destination, back in 2001. There, I saw (and fell in love with) my first Smart car and tasted my first gelato. I can still remember waking up in this city the first morning at exactly 5:20 a.m. Rome time – the same time as my alarm was set back home. I looked at the clock and said to myself, “I am a freak of nature.”
I remember getting lost within the first three or four blocks away from my hotel on the first day. After that, before I left the hotel, I carefully planned my route on the map and highlighted it with a marker. It worked! I walked all over the city.
This afternoon, I revisited the Spanish Steps, whose mass appeal baffled me before and baffles me still. There were thousands of people there. Why? And then I walked to the Trevi Fountain. Now this I understand. The fountain is gorgeous and very famous. Just as I had 10 years ago, I threw a coin in the fountain just like in the movie.
All the crowds and walking and coin-tossing made me hungry and thirsty so I had a pizza and a beer at a restaurant near my hotel.
Here are a couple more photos I like: