Friday, October 29, 2004
The first evening here we took a long walk down the Via Veneto, over to the Spanish Steps, and down the Via Condotti. Daniella wanted to see the fancy designer shops, etc, and it certainly was eye-popping to see all the Prada, Gucci, Versace, Valentino, etc. etc. row after row of stores. The women here often look as if they have been shopping in these places, turned out in high style, and high heels have definitely not gone out of style in Rome, including many tall and glamorous boots - all with sharply pointed toes and spiky heels. Ouch!
Yesterday we literally walked all the way across Rome and back again. We first wandered down to the Colisseum and the Roman Forum, then attempted to go across towards the Pantheon. Alas, there was a big political event going on (something having to do with signing some important EU document), so a whole section of the city was blocked off to both vehicle and pedestrian traffic. There were virtually hundreds of carabinieri everywhere, keeping us from going where we were trying to go! So we went on many large and small "giros" (detours) until finally we got across the Via Nazionale and were able to continue on. We saw the Trevi Fountain, packed shoulder to shoulder with people, and then made it to the Pantheon, always one of my favorite places in the city. Next we went to a cafe in Piazza Eustacio which had been described as having the best coffee in Rome. Daniella sampled it and I had my usual ciocolata calda - yummm.
I will digress for a moment about the chocolate in Italy, since it is a major pull and distraction for me. It is endlessly diverse and delicious. The hot chocolates I've been drinking are deep, dark, not too sweet, and full of rich flavors. Then many bars have HUGE selections of chocolate bars and candies to choose from. For example, they sell Lindt chocolates in so many flavors that we never see in the US, and of course there are tons of other kinds. In Orvieto the other day there was a selection of chocolates that filled a room about the size of the Food Bin. It included flavors such as pepperoncino (hot pepper), cannabis, and every flavor of liquor and liquer. Also it had chocolate in every shape imaginable, everything from what are called "pinocchio's noses" (long pointy cones) to boxes of chocolate sex scenes! It has been mind blowing, and we have spent long, enraptured moments standing gazing at chocolate. Interestingly enough, we have barely eaten any of it, except occasionally in gelato, because we are always deeply satisfied by our mid-day pasta lunches! Go figure!
Anyway, back to Rome, I left you at the cafe, where we were gazing at more chocolate - but we then walked to Piazza Navona, so divine still, and on through to the Campo de Fiori (Rome's large open-air food market). For those of you who don't know, this was where we lived for the better part of a year, so long ago, in a tiny courtyard called Arco degli Acetari. I rushed in there again yesterday to see it. Such sweet memories flooded back!!! It is still as charming as ever, a hidden little nook one would never notice. Fortuitously, a man was sitting down in the courtyard transplanting flowers in flowerpots. I went over to speak with him in Italian for a few moments, and he told me that he was now the owner of the place. It turns out he is an American who has lived there since 1977 with his partner, both gay men. The one we met was a clothing designer and the other also an artist. We talked for quite a while about the place and what he has done to it, etc. Found out that they rent it out when they come back to the US, so we exchanged email addresses and plan to keep in touch. We asked him for a recommendation for lunch and he pointed us to a trattoria right on the Campo de Fiori, La Carbonara, so off we went!
This lunch featured a buffet of antipasto dishes where one could take a plate and serve oneself. We ate a large selection of fabulous things - asparagus, stuffed tomatoes, eggplant parmesan, crispy fried little fishes, porcini mushrooms, etc. We also ate a salad called "puntarella' which was the crispy hearts of chicory in an anchovy sauce, delicious. Next we had a penne all'arrabiata (hot and spicy tomato sauce) and a tagliatelle ala vongole (fresh clams). Finally, we had a bowl of wild strawberries, a treat that I always remember from the Campo and from my childhood, but never see anywhere else, sadly. That was more than enough good food, so off we wandered again.
We walked over to the Tiber river and along a good stretch of Lungotevere, the beautiful tree-lined street along the river that reminded us so much of Paris. Got to see Castel Sant'Angelo and then plunged back into the city where we basically walked all the way back to the hotel, stopping for awhile at the Piazza Navona for a gelato, and at the Trevi fountain for Daniella to soak her tootsies! After a couple of games of Spite & Malice, we crashed and had a great sleep.
Today we plan to take a bus back to Campo de Fiori and have pizza for breakfast there and see the market when it is at is fullest, in the morning. Yesterday we were a bit too late to see it all. After that, who knows where we will wander to. We still plan to have one more great trattoria lunch somewhere, and we also need to re-pack our luggage so that we can fit in all our stuff! This will be challenging. We leave the hotel at 4:30 tomorrow morning by taxi, and goddess willing, we will be home tomorrow afternoon.
Thursday, October 28, 2004
We spent an afternoon and an evening in Tarquinia, one of my old haunts. It is yet another walled hill town that looks out to the sea about 10 miles away. Tarquinia was the burial ground of the Etruscan civilisation, and thus it has some 40,000 tombs dug into the tufo stone underground. These tombs are famous because they are chambers like large rooms, where the sarcophagi were placed in groups deep underground. Each tomb is painted with bright and joyous frescoes - of dancers, musicians, hunters, animals, birds, garlands of flowers, wine cups, gymnasts, etc. We wandered and lingered in the Museum which houses a lot of the objects that were removed from the tombs, wonderful pots and urns and jewelry and so on. Then we went out to the necropolis where we were able to enter 14 of the actual underground tombs. It was another stairmaster exercise, but well worth the effort. That night we stayed in a converted monastery on the main town square, in a room with vaulted ceilings high above, but a doorway so low we had to bend down to enter the room. Our window looked out across the land to the Mediterranean and since there was a nearly full moon, it was pretty spectacular. In the night, however, a phenomenal thunder and lightening storm came along and went on booming and crashing and pouring down huge hailstones (even set off some car alarms), so sleep was not very good, but it sure was dramatic!
Yesterday was, for me, one of the best days. We drove to Mazzano-Romano where I had lived for a year over 30 years ago. Our old friends were waiting for us. We went to the home of Fernando Falco and his wife and daughter, and there was my dear friend, Immacolata, waiting for me. Fernando had been a handsome 14 year old when I was here last. Now he works for the post office, is an amazingly artistic photographer, and is building a killer country home for his family complete with pigs, chickens, a huge garden, olives, vines, and a house he is putting up stone by stone. They had prepared a huge - no make that HUGE - meal for us, and we sat eating and hugging and telling stories and laughing and marveling that we had found each other once again. Immacolata had lost her husband, Nicola, a few years back, and has had a hard time since, but she is an absolute rock of a woman and couldn't have been more loving towards me. After the massive lunch, we took a little passagiata to see Fernando and Rosella's country home. Then I asked them to help me find another old friend.
We drove to Calcata, another little dot (not on the map) of a town, where we were able to locate Guilio, one of the men who had been a laborer on the excavations when Jonathan and I were working on the archaeological project all those years ago. He was always one of my favorite guys, with a twinkle and laugh for every occasion, a true contadino who provided everything for his family from his own land. We found him living with his only remaining daughter and her husband (both of whom I had known as teenagers) and they were also completely bowled over to see me there, but thrilled and excited nonetheless. They knew exactly who I was, and we sat with them and talked for another couple of hours. Fortunately by now my Italian is getting fairly decent again, at least enough to engage in long conversations with people who don't know any English at all. So we yakked, Daniella was able to follow along pretty well, and they tried to ply us with wine and whiskey and grappa and so many things we did not want to drink or eat! Guilio even asked me if I still raised sheep - he remembered that I told him that the farm where I grew up was a sheep farm - and that was pretty amazing that his memory was that accurate! He is almost 77 years old now, and widowed, and still full of life and very "giovane", young looking. In the end, as we were trying to extricate ourselves, they were begging us to change our flight and come back this weekend for a big "festa" with all the families together! Anyway, it was very moving and sweet for me to reconnect with these old friends, and it certainly pulled the strings of my connection to Italy much tighter. I so much want to return!!
Today we are in Orvieto, such a gorgeous place, where we will eat a scrumptious lunch somewhere and then turn in our rental car and take the train to Roma.
Tuesday, October 26, 2004
When we arrived, I couldn't help but notice Ringo, a lovely dog in a very high cage. He is a distant cousin to my friend Betz' dog Buster, one of my fave dog pals. There is one exception, Ringo has a cropped tail. Every day my heart sank about this trapped, wonderful dog. I fantasized every day about freeing Ringo from his imprisonment. We asked our hosts if it would be ok to bring him our food scraps, Certo...certainly. One of the Canadian men tried taking Ringo for a walk, as he was missing his black lab, back home. It was fairly impossible...as Ringo pulled him furiously! Our hosts explained that if Ringo got out of the cage, he would run into town and get hit by a car. Every day my sadness grew. I would go to the cage and pet him. He gave me gentle kisses, so I knew he had a sweetness about him. I hoped somehow to free him on our last day.
I wondered about their reasoning for locking him up. I saw Nonna Dina feed him every day. She'd go to his cage and shoo him back with a stick, get him into a submissive posture before feeding him. You have to know that Nonna was about 4 feet tall, about as big as a minute...even in those high shoes she wore. As each day passed, I watched these people work their land, slowly and steadily. As time went on, I realized that they had a rhythm and a wisdom about all they did. I wondered if Ringo was really better off in that cage. Somewhere, sometime I let go and surrendered the fantasy of releasing him. Yesterday morning before we departed, as we were cleaning out the fridge, Kim handed me our small milk carton and said, "Why don't you give this to Ringo?" So I took the half empty/half full carton to pour into his bowl, which for the first time was full of water.
Hmmm. I got him to come around and perch on his dog house and slipped the carton thru the grid so he could drink. He took the carton from my hand, spilled it onto the roof of his dog house. As he licked the carton, it fell on the ground near the door of the cage. Not wanting him to eat the carton, I naively slid the metal latch on the gate, and he was out of that cage so fast and furious, I did't have a chance to catch him. Nonno Vasco who was watching all this, grabbed a hunk of bread set aside for Chicken feed and started calling the dog. "Allora Ringo" , “Well then, now then Ringo”. Ringo is already running all over the country side lifting his leg over hill and dale. I'm whistling at him and praying he doesn’t get hit by a car or knock down Nonna who looks really frail, but I suspect not. My mind is in a panic of embarrassment, thinking what a stupid, ugly American they must think of this city/valley girl, and my body furiously trying to find and capture this rascal Ringo. I see him in the lower terraced olive orchard. I call him, and he sees me. I decide to try a trick that works with my dogs. I start running back down our driveway which works! He runs after me, at least now his is in our yard-on our turf. Nonno Vasco gets his leash, and we capture him.
Vasco and I climb up the turf, slick and damp from days of morning nebbia-fog just like we have in Santa Cruz...which burns off by noon or one. We wrestle Ringo into the cage. Nonna Dina and Kim are screaming and cheering in the background. I hear my own scream, as I tumble backwards in the slick earth, toppling over a giant flower pot and Ringo is on top of me scrambling over me and Grandpa trying to hold onto him, to no avail. Flat on my back, my shoes and pants full of the wet earth, I am laughing out loud. For a split second, I think about their country wisdom, pick myself up again and am now in hot pursuit of Ringo, andiamo onto the chase! Somehow nonna grabs a stick and along with her husband of 47 years, they coax Ringo back into the cage. Grandma gets into the cage with the dog. She gets the dog into submission and grandpa can now exit. Allora, all is well, and nobody got hurt. What a laugh riot we all had, and a lot of endorphins expressed for 8:30 in the morning. I get Kim to translate for me, saying to Vasco "It would be really great if you could hook Ringo up to your plough. That dog has so much horsepower." We all kiss cheek to cheek, Buon Viaggio. How sweet it is to feel loved in this way. When they say CIAO, they don't wave their hands away from their bodies, but they pull their fingers into their hands to say come back again.
ah bella Italia!
First of all, we had a heart wrenching departure from Cortona, including a small calamity which Daniella will be writing about so I will only touch on it! On Sunday evening, Franca and Valerio came down to our little apartment and said their very affectionate goodbyes. In the several days of staying at their little farm villa, we had become very attached to them. We had wonderful long conversations about art, about the differences in our languages and country, about our families, about how the agricultural culture of Italy is changing as the old farmers die out, about food and wine and oil, about the history and culture of Cortona and so much more. We had wandered all over their property and beyond, taken their photos, eaten meals together, watched each other paint - and so when we had to leave, there was genuine sadness on both sides. We exchanged addresses, phone numbers, invitations to visit us in the US, and long hugs.
The next morning they were both gone early, so we did not see them again, but the old grandparents were hanging around waiting to say goodbye. Daniella plans to write the story she calls "Flat on my back with Ringo", so you'll have to wait for the details, but in a nutshell, we inadvertently let the dog out of his cage and he ran off, and we and the grandparents had a hell of a time getting him back again. Daniella's story of this misadventure is priceless and worth the wait!
We drove off into the hills again heading for Lazio, but most of the day we were in Southern Tuscany, driving through one magnificent hill-town after another: Montepulciano (spectacular), Pittigliano, Orvieto (an old favorite), and countless others, each seeming more fabulous than the one before. Here in the more southern areas, the hill towns tend to be built on a spur of tufo rock that stands up out of the landscape like a giant wedding cake with a fairy tale castle and village on top. Hopefully our photos will convey some of the splendor and magic of these historic towns. In each of them, there is always a giant central plaza with the cathedral and several palazzi all around it, and always there are narrow streets that are really long winding stairways. There are seldom any cars because the streets are much too narrow and they are also full of people strolling, chatting, peeling vegetables, selling things, a very active community life in every town.
We stopped yesterday afternoon at a place called Saturnia, where we were aiming to go, having seen photos in a guide book of their natural hot springs. We had reserved a room in a delightful little inn, which turned out to be one of the prettier places we stayed. The room was beautiful, with a commodious bathroom and even a private throne across from the bed (we don't know what that was about!). Best of all, there was a balcony over their garden, looking out onto a wonderful spilling landscape of rolling fields, woods, olive groves, and distant hills. We were high enough up that we could watch the birds flying by at eye level, magpies and swallows zipping along merrily. We quickly changed into our bathing suits and drove down the road to the "terme" which we had seen on the road coming into town.
The hot springs are fed by a huge gushing jet of hot water that bursts out of the earth in about three places, creating a massive waterfall that cascades down over what has become a series of tiered stone basins that lie beneath the spray. It is a completely natural place, but has the feeling that someone (god?) sculpted a set of cascading bowls into the hillside and then filled them with warm rushing water. Small waterfalls drop over the edges of each bowl, creating places to sit and get a neck or back massage from the streaming spa water. The place had probably 40-50 people of all ages soaking in the water, with plenty of room for more. There was an old man near us who was nearly submerged except for his wizened face blissfully above the water level as the springs coursed over his bald pate - he didn't leave that spot for the nearly 2 hours that we were there soaking, and I began to fear that his rump was stuck to the bottom of the pool. If he hadn't looked so completely in ecstasy I might have asked if he needed help. Anyway, we soaked, we chatted, we absolutely loved it. And for Daniella, after being "flat on her back with Ringo", it was the perfect prescription for getting rid of those nagging aches and bruises!
We had a recommendation for a great restaurant (Due Cipi da Michele) and went there for dinner. We were stunned to have one of the most fantastic and memorable meals of the trip last evening. We began with a simple bruschetta al pomodoro (toast with tomatoes and olive oil) that was somehow seasoned to breathtaking perfection. Next we both ordered tortelli, which are kind of like large hand-made ravioli. One dish was stuffed with chestnuts in a sauce of butter and fennel seeds - divine. The other tortelli were stuffed with creamy pumpkin, in a sauce of butter and chopped mint. By this time we were in a swoon. Next we ordered a traditional Tuscan dish, "aquacotta" - literally cooked water - which turned out to be a magnificent vegetable soup/stew served over a slab of bread with a fried egg on top, so delicious we could not believe it. Finally we had a large order of broccoli (we are hungry for green things) that was cooked with olive oil and red pepper flakes, also very beautifully prepared. We were doing so well, we decided to try a dessert and ordered a chestnut pudding covered with a sauce of pureed persimmons that must have had some kind of sweet wine added. It was great, but we were too full to do it justice.... allora!
This morning we took a long walk down a very country road that ended up at a little farm. It is a gorgeous sunny day here and everything was sparkling in the sunlight. At the moment we have driven to the next town called Manciano and we are heading over to the coast and down to Tarquinia to look at some Etruscan tombs. Tomorrow we will visit my old friends in Mazzano-Romano, and I'm very excited about it.
Sunday, October 24, 2004
We climbed up through their vineyards, through their olive groves, up and up, until we came to a small road that went back into the valley behind Cortona, climbing all the way, past spectacular private villas and wonderful farmhouses. We finally came to a main road that led back into the town of Cortona, at which point we turned around and came back down. Last evening we were fed like queens again, and had a wonderful evening with just us and the family laughing, trading stories, and making our way in two languages. Franca made 5 kinds of pizza in her own wood oven. We had tomato-mozzarella, foccaccia with rosemary, pizza with wild mushrooms, pizza with roasted onions, and pizza with five cheeses. Of course she threw in some salami slices, a jug of wine, and a giant cake to top it all off. Again, we staggered away from the table, and it was too late and too dark to go take another walk, so we sat up and played Spite & Malice and waited for the meal to settle.
This morning we took off early on another major hike that took us way back up into the mountains above where we are staying. There was an old stone Roman road back in there, and I think we climbed for at least 4-5 kilometers. It took 2 hours to reach the top, and another hour to come back down. All the while we were trying to flash neon colored clothing and make loud noises, as the woods were full of the cacciatore (hunters), including the grandfather from our house. Apparently on Sunday going hunting is the thing to do. We were thankfully not shot, and arrived back in Cortona at about 1pm, just in time for our second lunch at La Grotta, a divine little trattoria we have been frequenting. Tired but deeply satisfied, we walked back down to the farm, where Franca was waiting for us. She wanted to take us on an excursion to see Bramasole, the home made famous by Frances Mayes in her books, Under the Tuscan Sun, etc. So we set out in her car to drive there. On the way up, we passed a commotion on the side of the road, and there was grandfather and his cronies with their triumphant catch of the day - 4 wild boar (chingiale) taken on their hunting spree. They were so proud, were eating sandwiches over the carcasses, and we got some choice photos of them!
Next it was off to Bramasole, which is every bit as spectacular as described - a pink villa perched on a steeply sloping hillside, with terraces of beautifully landscaped trees, vines, and flowers all around it. In fact, there were crowds of people walking past it and the locals say that Frances Mayes is so tired of people coming and gazing and even knocking at her door, that she is moving further out into the country. She has bought another house further away from town. We walked back to Cortona from her place, leaving Franca to go off on her own. The walkway to town is one of the most beautiful walks I have ever seen, high along the edge of the mountain, with breathtaking views out along the valley. The roadway is closed to cars and is lined with ancient cypress trees all the way for probably a mile and a half, on both sides. Spectacular!!!
Tomorrow we reluctantly leave Cortona and head down to Lazio. This has been such an utterly delicious and sensually delightful place to spend time. We will miss our Italian hostss very much - they are completely charming!
Saturday, October 23, 2004
Just a few moments here at the internet point, having made a bunch of phone calls to - ta da - make reservations for the rest of the nights on our trip! I am so proud of myself. I did it all in Italian and got reservations for every night remaining to us (we already had Rome sewed up!).
We spent a quiet day yesterday, exploring some of the tiny and steep streets of Cortona, sitting in the garden of the farm and gazing at the spectacular views below. We watched the family working in the fields above us, feeding the animals, harvesting figs, trimming the vines, cultivating the vineyards, sawing up wood, all of them ' grandparents and parents, working steadily all day, laboring by hand for the most part, and greeting us cheerfully as they passed by. We took a long walk downhill from the farm, into a valley below us, where there were many small farms such as the one we are staying on. We shopped for more ‘picnic supplies’. Each day we eat at least one meal that consists of bread, cheese, salami or mortadella, olives, sun-dried tomatoes, and whatever other little specialities of the region that take our fancy. Yesterday we added a bottle of the homemade wine from our little farm, and some Lindt chocolate - and we had a splendid picnic of it. Today we are fogged in, so we decided to take some internet time, do a little shopping, and then take another long walk. It is a relief to have the reservations made for the days ahead. We will leave here on Monday and head into Lazio.
Today is the open market day, so the streets are full of people out shopping. Surprisingly they are all dressed up in what look almost like church clothes, probably because they socialize when the market happens. There are few tourists here - we seem to be at the end of the season. We saw a lady wearing what appeared to be a red snakeskin suit and high heels this morning, going to the market! Wow!
Friday, October 22, 2004
Today finds us happily situated in Cortona. The ‘happily’ is a long story, and wasn't always something we thought we would have! I'll tell the sad story, with the happy ending, in this post.
Yesterday morning we got up early in Arezzo, where we stayed a cheezy cheap hotel. It had the added feature that when one took a shower, the entire bathroom floor flooded about 2 inches deep with water and stayed that way for the rest of the visit - yuk! We have learned a few things about travelling without reservations and trying to find something when arriving in a new place. It works, but it takes a lot of work. In some little towns it is easy and obvious, as there is not so much choice. We have stayed in some lovely places, surprisingly beautiful and commodious. But in bigger towns, such as Arezzo and Cortona, one is often given a long list of possible places to stay and basically the message is 'good luck stranger' and off you go to make your own phone calls, blind or cold calls, hoping to come up with something decent! When you are already tired from climbing up and down a thousand steep stairways, vertical streets, and blind alleyways, it can be devastating - but I digress!
Yesterday in Arezzo, we were first in line at the Piazza San Francesco to visit the incredible frescoes of Piero della Francesca. I remember these from 30+ years ago, and they have since been restored to incredible bright colors, sparkling clarity, and luscious detail. Piero is probably my favorite Italian Renaissance painter, and his portraits still move me. They are so life-like and touching. One sees these beautiful faces every day in the streets of Italy, the descendents of those whose portraits Piero painted so many years ago. Anyway, we were alone with the frescoes for that early part of the morning - what a treat! We left Arezzo soon afterwards and headed down to Cortona, thinking we would come here early, find a room, and then relax for the rest of the day. We had a leisurely lunch in a beautiful little trattoria that was truly a wine cellar, with arched vaulted stone ceilings and stone walls. We ate gnocchi with gorgonzola cream sauce, grilled eggplants and peppers, and a salad of fresh tomatoes and mozzarella. (By the way, in case I haven't mentioned it, the tomatoes here are incredibly sweet and flavorful. We keep saying to each other every day, at every meal, 'what have we been eating in Santa Cruz all these years??'). Next we set out on a long post-pranzo passegiata (walk) up a killer-steep hill to the top of the city. We were both dripping by the time we reached the top, and we had not seen a single place for rent - unusual. We strolled back down into the town and began in earnest to look for a place. Fortunately I had kept the email address of the place where some Santa Cruz friends stayed the previous April, and had emailed to Sylvia, but had no phone number for her. In short, we looked and looked for places, and were getting nowhere. We saw places that were dark and dank, or small and funky, or too expensive, but we didn't see anything we were willing to rent. Finally we had an email from Sylvia saying that yes, she had something, and giving us a phone number! What happiness! The next challenge was to find a public telephone, not an easy matter as everyone but us uses a cell phone here. We climbed up another 1000 steps and found a phone that was out of order. We climbed in another direction only to find that the phone number we had was incorrect. By then it was about 4 p.m. and this was the time of my colossal meltdown. I began sobbing with frustration. Daniella got us into our rental car and began to drive us out of town, to where she had no idea. I pulled myself together and said, no we must go back to the internet place (another climb) and get the right number. So we went back, climbed up, got the right number, and called Sylvia. Thank goodness she was there. She said she had a beautiful apartment nearby and her boyfriend's mother would come and get us.
Moments later Franca drove up in her little turquoise car, and we followed her down the hill at the back of Cortona to their wonderful little farm, where they had an apartment for us, with a kitchen, bedroom and bathroom all newly remodeled and VERY comfortable. We took it immediately, and plan to stay here for at least 4-5 days to relax, paint, stroll, and enjoy the exquisite views out over the valley from our farm. Last night we were invited to eat dinner with the entire family - the ancient grandparents who have lived there their entire lives, Franca and her husband Valerio, who is an artist and a cycling champion, the only son Francesco and his girlfriend Sylvia (our heroine of the week). There were also 4 Canadians who are staying in a guest house on the property. Franca cooked the entire meal, which we ate at a long table in their home. Bear with me (or delete if you like!): we had 4 kinds of bruschetta, pasta with her homemade sausage and tomato sauce, roasted veal with Italian greens from their garden, salad from their garden, a huge cake (torta della nonna - grandmother's cake), homemade wine, homemade olive oil, homemade vin santo, homemade limoncello, and roasted chestnuts from the trees out in the garden. We looked at Valerio's paintings, laughed and chatted, and then staggered off to bed at about 11 feeling like a couple of stuffed piggies, but very happy. It was a delightful evening and we slept very well in the absolutely silent farmhouse.
Today I have burned some photo CD's, bought some groceries, and will now return to the cottage to join Daniella in doing some water colors. It is a relief to have a place, a place we love, and to just relax!
Tuesday, October 19, 2004
Tonight we are in Arezzo, and perhaps I must backtrack a bit to catch you and me up on the events of the last few days. I think in my last email we were on the goat trails of Cinque Terra, and contemplating a move to Siena. We took a very nice train ride through the countryside to Siena and met another American couple from Oregon on the train. We hit it off pretty well, and so we spent time with them in Siena, first for a lunch on the great Campo (spaghetti carbonara and an insalata mista for me, ravioli with pesto - again - for DD), and then we strolled all over the city, visiting the great green and white marble Duomo in all its glory and really stunned at the amount of beautiful detail in just one magnificant building. We learned, for example, that it took 200 years for the inlaid marble floors of the cathedral to be completed. They are nice, but they are only a small particle of the massive decoration and detail in every inch of the place, marble sculptures, stained glass, inlaid wood, frescoed ceilings and walls, mosaic, the carved heads of all the bishops in history, the soaring domes with golden stars in deep blue paint, with the sculpted little angels looking down into the church. It was staggeringly beautiful, and we thought so much about what kind of community it would take to commit to building something that not only would last through their lifetime as a project, but also for many generations to come. Imagine anybody today proposing doing anything that would take 200 years to complete?? It is outside our realm of possibility....
We slept in a sweet little hotel in Siena, about 2 blocks from the main Campo, and woke several times in the night to the sound of the campanile bells ringing, a common sound in Italy. I love it! Yesterday, after sampling what was billed as ‘the best hot chocolate in Siena’ - it was like melted chocolate mousse - we picked up our rental car and drove off into the Chianti countryside. We got a Citroen to drive, very adorable and it has plenty of zip and plenty of room to stow our luggage out of sight, a good idea! We drove most of the day yesterday through the Chianti hills, following a route recommended for getting out of the mainstream, and we certainly did that! We were on dirt roads, winding along mountaintops clustered with acres of vines, olive trees, black cypress, and stone villas with red tile roofs. Absolutely picturesque, everywhere we turned. There were wineries about every 2 miles where one could stop and taste. We had a suggestion for an ‘out of the way’ lunch place, which turned out to be about 10 miles up another dirt road on top of a mountain, with 360 views of vineyards in all directions. We almost lost the faith getting there, as the road was so twisty and seemed to go on forever. There were Italians on the roadway picking up chestnuts who had no idea where we were supposed to go, but we kept on and were rewarded by another splendid lunch and great Chianti wine. In the afternoon we found a small village, Impruneta, with an outdoor ‘mercato’ in progress, selling everything imaginable under little tents and canvas stalls. We visited a pristine romanesque village called Volpaia up in the mountains where it appeared that time stood still over the rock walls and walkways, exquisite. Last night we stayed in a place called Radda in Chianti, a tiny walled stone town high up above the wine country. Our window looked out into a valley below studded with the usual cypress, vineyards, and stone villas. We fantasized waking up this morning and just sitting outside and painting from the wall below our room. Alas, it was completely fogged in when we got up, so we let it go.
Today we had a kind of weird day. Drove up high into the mountains above Chianti, between Florence and Siena. There were a lot of monasteries up there (including Calmoldoli) and beautiful trees and forests with turning leaves, so we though of New England. But everything was closed up for the season, and the little towns were like ghost towns in the mountains. Finally we came down to a village called Poppi where we found our fine lunch for the day. Can I describe to you - 3 varieties of bruschetta, with tomatoes, wild mushrooms, and some kind of panchetta. Next 2 kinds of ravioli, one stuffed with goat cheese and made with a green pasta full of arugula in a tomato and mushroom sauce, the next stuffed with ricotta and arugula in a different spicy tomato sauce. Then we both had beef - one with wild mushrooms, the other with red, green and black peppercorns and rosemary - accompanied by cannelini beans in oil and lemon. Finally we had the classic Tuscan dessert of biscotti soaked in Vin Santo, a sweet wine that is only taken through cookies - they don't seem to drink it. Afterwards we wandered around the little town for an hour or so to walk off the lunch and prepare to drive again, here to Arezzo.
We are tired, happy, and looking to settle down somewhere for a few days, perhaps in Cortona which is only about 20 miles from here.
So much beauty every day, our wiring is on overload that is for sure. Also, Italy is VERY expensive. Every little thing costs a lot, and the dollar seems worth not much at all. So we are trying to be frugal, but it usually doesn’t work! Tonight we have a cheap hotel (60 euros) so that helps.
Sunday, October 17, 2004
Tomorrow we go to Siena to pick up a car and head into Tuscany, what a change of gears for us after all this mountain climbing!
Saturday, October 16, 2004
We got an extra day in Venice, thanks to a railroad strike that made it impossible to leave town ' not a bad fate to have. In Italy, one goes with the flow and also with the hiccups (as my friend Wallis so aptly explained it to us), so we went off to the Venice Architectural Biennale, and for more walking around the city. Finally at about 5 pm we were able to catch a train to Parma, a trip with more hiccups than Pope Pius in the 60's, but those are stories too long to relate here!
We stayed two nights with Wallis and Paolo, our old friends from so many years ago. He is an eminent professor at University of Parma, in human evolutionary genetics, and now working on plant genetics as well. Wallis is a writer, editor, poet, world traveller, philosopher, yogi, great spirit, mother, dear friend. It was not altogether convenient for them to have us, as both are very busy, but they graciously made space in their lives to take us around Parma, feed us delicious meals, and talk to us about what has been happening in their lives and families for the last 20-30 years! It was rich, and they both are vibrant, engaging and brilliant people to be with. We left them yesterday morning for more train travel, first to Genoa and then on to Riomaggiore, at the bottom of the Cinque Terra.
The travel has been challenging. I feel not as young and nimble as I once did, and my Italian definitely has to be dredged up from the depths of wherever it has been sunken for 30 years. But it is coming back, and I am enjoying this beautiful language once again. We found an apartment here that is high up on the cliff, looks out on the tiny village and the crashing sea, and has many luxuries - the most astonishing of which is a washing machine, hallelujah! Even the cruise ship did not offer that, although for a price they would do our laundry (no thanks!). We did it by hand and hung it out on our verandah as we sailed! Our little place has TV with CNN in English, a full kitchen, bath, living room and comfortable bedroom. The silence of these little villages (no cars) is deep and vast. We sleep like babies. Last night it became blustery, with lightening striking visibly out over the sea. We went to a tiny trattoria to eat and just as we got there, the rain opened up and poured down, as we enjoyed our Penne al Pesto and our Frito Misto di Mare and our local wine and foccacia. Pesto is famous in this area, and Genoa is its absolute center, so we hope to eat a lot of it in the next few days. Last night’s sample was divine!
Today we are off to hike along the cliffs to the next village or two. It is sunny but blustery, and I just bought a warmer shirt! Think of us in a landscape much like Big Sur, with tiny villages wedged into the rocky crags and stacked high up the hillsides, in colors of pink, yellow, peach, gold, green. It is gorgeous!
Tuesday, October 12, 2004
This afternoon we are in Venice, and the cruise is over. Yesterday we sailed right into the city, and stood on deck 12, towering over the tile topped roofs, the canals, the vaporettos, and the gondolieri, as we went all the way to the cruise ship pier at the far end of the city. It was spectacular, every minute, although also a bit obscene and a lot embarrassing to be on a ship that was taller than anything in the city. That was not lost on us, to be sure. We arrived at noon, just as all the city bells began ringing in the campanile - not for us, of course, but nice choreography!
We got to spend one last night on the ship in port, and then this morning they got us off the ship early and we have been out on the streets ever since. We spent the day with Meg and Don, our friends from Santa Cruz, who will be flying on to France later tonight.
We leave for Parma tomorrow. Yesterday the weather took a brief turn for the worse, after a fabulous 2 weeks so far. We arrived in Venice in a blowing gale, very cold, and blustery. It even rained a little, and we were afraid it would continue, but today has been cool and sunny, just gorgeous. We went to Murano and looked at all the beautiful glass, wandered the mostly empty streets, and then returned to the main city. We found a wonderful trattoria and had a deeply delicious lunch of risotto, seafood, fresh and delicate salads, and a bottle of red wine. Yum! Later we wandered in the Jewish ghettto area, and finally to find our hotel, which is in a great location and has a room that is very good. Dinner that night was at a trattoria down a quite back alley, recommended by a friend. It was one of the most spectacularly delicious meals of the whole trip. My meal was a Zuppa di Pesce (fish soup) just bursting with fresh fish, shellfish, and exquisite flavors.
I don’t think you have heard from me since the end of our day on Mykonos. Since that time we spent a day in Athens at the Acropolis, then drove down the southern tip of the Greek peninsula to Cap Sounion, to a temple of Poseidon, located on a high point on the tip of the land stretching up above the sea. We had lunch near there in an elegant ultra-modern hotel, waded in the Adriatic, etc. The next day we were ‘at sea’ all day, and relaxing on board the ship in a variety of ways, exercising (we have to the way we have been eating!), reading, soaking in the tub, gazing into space. We even took a ballroom dance lesson (rhumba). That evening, all 14 of us in our little group had our first meal together in the grand dining room on board, the Olympic. It costs an extra $30 per person, but the meal was one of the most gourmet spectaculars I have ever had, and the service was unbelievable - 4 waiters for each table of 8 people! They choreographed every move, so that plates were placed or removed simultaneously for us on every course. Our favorite was the cheese course, when they wheeled out a cart of about 20 very fancy French cheeses and breads. Daniella mostly adored the fact that when she got up to go to the bathroom she was escorted to and from the restroom by a handsome young man in a tux who offered his arm! Naturally we all had to have a go, so to speak!
Biggest surprise of the trip, so far, has been Croatia. We absolutely loved it. Dubrovnik is a completely walled city on the sea, and very small, only 4,000 people live inside the walls. Streets are narrow and steep, and people are very friendly and charming. Our tour took us down the ‘Croatian Riviera’, driving south along the coast for about 40 miles along steep winding mountain roads, somewhat comparable to Devils Slide south of SF, and a little like the Amalfi coast in Italy. The place where we had lunch was a country inn next to a rushing stream with waterfalls, trout pools, shady pathways through forested lanes, luscious food and wine, and just oozing charm every which way. Croatia is very inexpensive, and probably one of the best kept secrets in Europe. We definitely would like to return there some day and see more of it. They are recovering from the war in 91-92, and we heard a lot about it and saw the damage everywhere, bullet and missile holes in walls, etc. Everyone seemed very sad about it, but resilient.
We are also finding that we are resilient. We have walked more miles than I could have imagined, eaten more meals than I care to think of, and explored wonderful places we haven’t known about before. We are having a great time together, and wake up each day so excited about this adventure we are having.
Thursday, October 07, 2004
This evening we are on Mykonos, the end of 2 days in the Greek Islands. Yesterday we walked our legs off on Santorini, climbing, climbing, climbing some more, and taking pictures of the fabulous buildings clinging to the cliffs all the way up the mountainsides. We felt, at times, as if we were viewing the world from a small airplane, as the great cruise ship down in the harbor looked like a toy when we finally reached the top of the mountain. Greece is a feast for the eyes, with spectacular new views around every bend. The ancient rocks covered with fresh white paint are so dramatic, and lovely. We ate a fantastic lunch of Greek salad, tzatsiki, and moussaka, then kept on walking for many more hours. To get to the top of the island, where the town is, we had taken a "finicula", kind of like a ski-lift car, up to the top - totally terrifying. We decided to walk down, as that was the only other choice offered besides riding donkeys down the 1000 foot zig-zagging stairway. Those poor donkeys must do that trip all day and all night, carrying lazy tourists up and down the mountain. They must be made of steel, as the stairway is steep and unrelenting. Anyway, our walk down the mountain was quite hilarious, as we had to constantly jump to the side to avoid the mules and donkeys racing either up or down with their passengers. The steps were also covered in donkey manure, kind of slippery, but meanwhile we were enjoying such a spectacular view. A terrific day, followed by sleep as if in a coma!
This morning we awoke in Mykonos and were docked right at the pier, so that we can just walk off the ship into town. We spent the morning getting lost in the winding and narrow little streets of the village, and gazing at all the little shops, views of the sea, etc. This village is at sea level, very different from yesterday. In the afternoon we got onto a local boat and took a 1/2 hour trip to the island of ancient Delos through extremely windy and choppy seas, rocking and rolling across the waves. Delos was the home of approximately 40,000 people in the 5th, 4th, 3rd centuries BC, and has been extensively excavated by the French. The city site covers a large portion of the uninhabited island, and is well worth the visit. We had an excellent guide who told us the history of the island, explained all the ruins, and threw in a lot of mythology to boot.
The ride back on the small ship was even rougher, but we met a delightful woman and had a great chat all the way back, so it was not a problem. She told us a wonderful story. She and a group of friends have traveled together for years. They were all friends since early childhood. One of them, a wealthy single woman, recently died. She left money for them to take a trip together. They carried a life-sized photo of her face, and had themselves photographed with it at every opportunity, draping her in a tasteful shawl. And every evening they eat chocolate and drink wine in her honor, as that is what she loved to do! Beautiful!
We will find some dinner and then wander back to the ship. Tonight we do not sail until midnight, tomorrow morning we are in Athens and Cape Sounion. Unbelievable!
Wednesday, October 06, 2004
We have been to such exotic locations as Nice (not our favorite, but Nice is still nice), Tuscany (where we visited two small hill towns, and had a wine-tasting luncheon at a small winery). Seven varieties of wine for lunch about did us in, but we soldiered on for the rest of that fabulous day! Tough life! We went to Toscania north of Rome to look at Etruscan ruins, etc., and a couple of days ago we were in Naples, Pompei, and Salerno. Our guide, Luisa, was the juiciest, most passionate, and well informed woman - kind of like having Anna Magnani for a guide, she was extraordinary and kept us laughing and delighting all day. A highlight was a visit to a farm up in the hills above Salerno where they raise lemons, olives, grapes, all in the same steep fields, in layers. They run around on poles above the ground to harvest the stuff that is up high. We saw them making Mozzarella cheese, and had samples of everything they make on the farm, including cheeses, salami, fried eggplant, homemade wine, bruschetta with hot pepper tomato topping, artichoke spread, and limoncello (a lemon flavored liquor) - of course all of that was before lunch. Did somebody hear an oink????
Yesterday we were at sea all day, lazing on the ship in deck chairs, sipping cold drinks, reading novels, taking walks, dozing. Last night we had the thrill of passing Crete (lighthouse, clusters of lights on a long shoreline), and this morning woke up moored outside Santorini. It is basically a volcano with a village perched on top, all white and glistening 1000 feet above the clear blue seas. We are going back out to walk some more.