Venice’s Last Laugh

Venice, as I may have mentioned, expects you to take it’s paths and bridges and meandering waterways in stride, hauling luggage over every uneven inch. When it was time to go the airport however, we were picked up directly in front of our hotel by water taxi. From there, it was an easy twenty minute race to the airport, each boat attempting to outrun the other, our captain taking the wakes in a rhythmic bump, bump, slam pattern.

I imagine a taxi ride in Rome would have felt the same.

Finally at the quiet dock, we stepped onto moving sidewalks that ushered us gently into the Venice airport. We waited at our gate, relaxing in the morning sunshine and sorry to see Italy go.

Of course, the minute boarding was called, everyone immediately stood up and crushed forward at the cattle chute. We were so Italian by this point.

The airline slowly and clearly called out each boarding zone and the restless passengers reluctantly took their turns moving through, flashing their tickets and dragging their carry-ons. Hubby inched one deliberate inch forward at a time, keeping an eye on a little old lady to his left and a businessman on his right, both of whom were preparing to jump the queue if he wasn’t diligent. I drafted behind him, playing word games on my phone, confident in his ability to blaze a path through the chaos.

We finally scanned our tickets through and headed briskly down the ramp, jostling our carry-ons and bags and the fluffy neck pillow that Hubbs so faithfully dragged all over Italy, knowing full well he was never going to use it. But it was from Costco. For all I know, he will attempt to return it.

What seat number was I again?

At the end of the ramp, it took a turn and instead of an airplane door, we were faced with a flight of stairs. Super confused but laughing, because this behavior is always what we will remember about Italy, we hauled our luggage down another, and another, until we were exiting the airport onto the tarmac.

Were we walking home?

There was a bus. Full of passengers, standing like cattle, holding onto handles from the ceiling. We squeezed on, trying not to step on the old lady’s foot. She looked ready to kick.

Everyone was shifting restlessly, eye-rolling, wondering which way they were going to stampede next, and preparing for all possibilities. Hubby flared his nostrils. Challenge accepted. “The first shall be last,” I whispered. But I knew better. This man had already extrapolated all pathways and exits. He was ready for the next Italian chess move.

The bus rumbled across the Venetian tarmac and vomited its passengers out in front of an airplane that had open doors at both ends, accessed by another set of stairs. I could see everyone mentally freaking out with the option.

The rush, I was told, is so that you have room in the overhead for your stuff. Worst case scenario? The nice stewardess takes your bag up front and hands it back to you as you casually exit at your destination. No overhead hoisting required. Less time sitting in a stifling plane, and a free valet. I’m sick of lugging luggage.

But honey, did I hustle with it.

I put some serious mileage on those poor little swivel wheels; cobbles, stairs, pavers, grills, bridges, escalators, curbs, moving sidewalks, ramps, rain, even an exploding water bottle. And it was always packed first and politely waiting for Hubby’s dastardly duo at the hotel door.

We finally sat in the plane, luggage at peace overhead. Hubby was in his seat, fluffing his shirt from his exertions and wrapped it up with his signature sigh. All was right in the world.

Goodby for now, Italy. Thanks for the memories!

We flew over the crispy alps of Austria, the farmland of Germany and the tidy dikes of Holland. Scotland, Greenland and the Hudson Bay brought us slowly back into America and home. So many more places to visit.

The world is bigger and smaller and more beautiful than you will ever discover in this lifetime.

But you should try.

Caio, bella Italia.

Romancing Venice

Italy wears its heart on its sleeve on the isle of Venice. A thoroughly romantic mix of museums, music, colors, history, and mystery, Venetia makes you want to wear a pink swirly dress and swoon on a balcony.

Venice, the home of Marco Polo, Casanova, Vivaldi, Goldoni, and Titian, begins with formal introductions in St Mark’s square, but will lean in when you least expect it and whisper sweet intimate nothings in your ear.

Venice has no other purpose than to delight you.

St Mark’s Square is to be toured in an orderly fashion. The “finest drawing room in Europe” as Napoleon christened it, invites loitering with the pigeons while your imagination takes flight.

First, step into the Basilica (a free but timed voucher). The cathedral glows from an overbearing amount of gold decor. It feels heavy, a facade so thick that you are sure the real church must be hiding in the back somewhere, but no. For an additional fee, you discover that St Mark lies beneath a sheet of gem-studded gold that seems just a little like he is trying too hard to impress.

Competition is tough for saints.

You are not supposed to take photos, so you didn’t see this:

Near the entrance, a tiny passageway leads straight up to the rooftop terrace. Pay your 5E at the top and you will be able to enjoy the views, indoor and out, as long as you like. The original copper horses are inside, and replicas are out. Sadly, I was not allowed to ride either set. But they are magnificent.

This photo is for Kim.

Back in the square, a trip to the top (another timed voucher) of the Campanile is not to be missed and to prove that chivalry is not dead…it has an elevator! The lift holds just 11 people at a time and you will have only 15 minutes up top. It’s a gorgeous arial view of the island and its surrounding neighbors. The bells overhead ring at high noon. You will have to decide for yourself whether this is an exhilarating experience or the fast road to deafness.

The clock tower bell-ringers across the way are far more decorous in their duties.

Enter the lacy pink marble Doge’s Palace and you will once again feel the weight of history. It settles around you as you move from grand staircases to spacious rooms, fat gilded ornamentation bordering heavily detailed paintings, scrolled metalwork, polished wood; symbols of wealth, government, and religion. Here, judgement was passed and here, beyond an extensive armory, the Bridge of Sighs led prisoners to the dungeons. Graffiti in the cells is intriguing, especially as Casanova himself scrawled some of it.

This kiss is for John.

To complete the Square, explore the elegant Correr Museum. You will simply run out of time to see all of this multi-level extensive collection of everything. I was reduced to taking a photo collection of chandeliers (12) and then another of rare and ancient books (a million or so). A giant foot statue and a mummy rounded it off nicely.

When we ventured away from St Marks Square, Venice decided to rain on our parade. Armed with our Roman umbrellas, we hopped the vaporetto south for a march along Via Guiseppe Garibaldi. We admired his monument then strolled slowly back along the waterfront. When the drips threatened to put a damper on our day, we stopped at a sidewalk cafe and ordered hot espresso and a banana nutella crepe with a puff of whipped cream.

Because, happiness.

The Rialto Market was right beside our hotel. Placed beneath a permanent roof, this sumptuous daily market is full of tourists taking photos and locals buying their groceries. Everything is shipped in on early morning boats and by afternoon, nothing is left but a lone man hosing down the empty pavement. The variety of seafood, flowers, fresh produce, and spices is glorious.

This is a hint for what your restaurant is going to put on your plate tonight. It’s time to dress for dinner.

The cloak of dusk swirls around the island. Venice dons a mask of deep purple with gold trim, water shining through like eyes of magic. The crowds are finally gone. The night is young. And you are so beautiful.

Venice moves from courtship to seduction.

On each side of St Mark’s Square, a little orchestra plays. To your right, you hear The Blue Danube, from the left comes the theme from Titanic. Should you sit for a moment and take some champagne from the bow-tied servers hovering along the edge of the pavement? Or perhaps you would prefer a creamy hot chocolate from the cafe, steaming like a sigh from its cup? The music begs your feet to move, and happily, Venice is entirely new at night.

The Grand Canal is rippling glass, reflecting lamplight, moonlight, and the stars in your eyes. Wander over the Rialto Bridge (take the gratuitous selfie), and on past glittering delights in small shop windows. Chocolates, high end luxury stores, fashion, bakeries, gelato, lace, leather, glass, jewelry, pubs, and restaurants tempt on all sides.

There are few straight lines in Venice. Follow the curves and dips, the paths that make you glance back over your shoulder wondering whether you missed something, on through the twirling shadows. Each little bridge is an invitation to pause and enjoy the swimming splendor of it all.

If you are wise, you brought your own Casanova for emergency purposes.

If you are smart, you brought your dancing shoes.

Cinque Terre, A Pictorial

I would like to dedicate this next episode to Andrea, Barbara, Bettina, Abbie, and every one of our Tribe who has seen the colored-up filter-enhanced impossibly beautiful images of Cinque Terre on jigsaw puzzles and travel brochures and thought to herself, “Self, a place can’t really look like that and be real.”

You and your selves are wrong.

The five little villages of Cinque Terre, in the province of La Spezia, the region of Liguia, are connected by a local train, a local water bus, and a narrow hiking trail (each require a purchased ticket). They perch along the cliffs like tiny jewels. Throw on your sturdy shoes and grab a water bottle, because we are going exploring.

“New” Monterroso “Old” Monterroso

Monterosso al Mare, where we stayed, has an original section and a newer section, connected by a little tunnel. These are the views from that middle spot, looking both ways. The beach is what draws people to Monterosso, but it has a sculpture at the far west (under scaffolding during our visit) and a tiny castle to the east if you want to “see a thing”. You can walk the whole length in twenty minutes or so, which we will do, because this is the morning we are hiking the tiny, famously outrageous trail to the next town over: Vernazza.

So it begins… Along the cliffs, heading south in the morning mist. And straight up, stairs, ramps, boulders…just UP forever. But you are rewarded by beautiful surprises, ocean views, flowers, vineyards… Until you finally (an hour and a half later, ahem) find Vernazza.

Vernazza is a lovely hamlet, if you are a giraffe. I love Italy’s use of space. Vernazza has the only natural port of the Cinque Terres and was buried in a mudslide in 2011. 

Welcome to Vernazza. From the cliffs. And the train is a blip on their radar. Remember fountains? Who needs a water bottle?

We took the train for the rest of our adventures. (Whew!) When it stopped in Corniglia, the next town south, we discovered what makes this place extra-special:

Read it and weep. Looking back. Do not attempt this in the heat.

Once you reach the top, you must still climb through Corniglia and around the little chapel of St Catarina to the cliff for the view.

Could not decide who this is…but he guards the place. Corniglia is in the middle: two towns on either side…waaaay over there. Looking inland.

We treated ourselves to a fruit smoothie and headed back to the train. Our next stop was Manarola. This is the one featured on jigsaw puzzles, colorful homes perched at the water’s edge.

Main Street, Manarola. You share with the boats. You can walk left to the boat dock… Or you can walk right to get that village view. But what is THIS? You can swim here, too…

We hadn’t thought to bring our suits, but it’s just as well, we had one more village to find. Riomaggiore is the fifth stop and if you have any steps left in you, climb left and follow the path…

The little marina. Keep walking, the water color gets crazy beautiful. And here is the hidden end of the path. Just wow. You can go inland, but it’s also uphill!

To end this day just right, we took the train back to our hotel, got fancy and returned for the spectacular finale:

This one’s for you, ladies!

Vernazza at sunset is not to be missed. Everything changes color with the sky: you, the town, the water, the air. My friends, you must sit here some day.

Golden sunset from Vernazza.

Doing Absolutely Nothing in Cinque Terre

We sat at a table along the beach front next to another two random couples, in the true Italian way of forcing you to make eye contact and offer a word of introduction while you wait for your meal to be delivered.

I hate that.

I never know where to begin and I always worry there’s spinach in my teeth. Thankfully, Hubby thinks it’s great. He dove right in and told our life story to the four unfortunate souls.

Ahi, strawberries, basil…

All I can remember about them is that one of the ladies was from Santa Barbara and appeared to be trying to land a business deal with the uneasy elderly gentleman across from her and the other lady was super excited to hear about our plans for “doing absolutely nothing” that day.

Her companion and I kept busy with the wine.

“We’ve been running through Italy at high speed,” said Hubby, “so we planned for a day when we would do nothing but lounge on the beach,” he took a sip, “especially since we want to do some hiking here tomorrow.”

He paused and waited for the raised eyebrows. He was not disappointed.

Oh,” said the other lady, “You haven’t been hiking yet?” She leaned into Santa Barbara’s personal space, “Wait till you see the trails!”

Her companion took another drink.

We went on one of the trails,” she continued, “and the steps go absolutely straight up! They just go for ages and my legs are still aching!”

She nodded wisely.

“Give yourself plenty of time,” she finished, as the food was served.

Fresh fish is a big menu item everywhere in Italy. Who knew?

Hubby smiled into his glass. This challenge had been accepted, even before we left home. Hubby reckoned that if “regular” people had done a hike in an hour and a half, we could certainly accomplish it in forty-five minutes. He had done his math. I had rolled my eyes.

Thirty years of marriage: I had also calculated how this would end but kept my mouth busy eating pasta.

Which proved to be a challenge in itself.

See these?

I can remove the crawly legs. I can forgive the buggy eyes. I can work around the crunchy tail bits. But for the love, why must I spend my time fishing out stray antennae from around my noodles? These long hairs were the only frustrating part of a gorgeous day.

Grab your towel, let’s go. I’m giving you my beach chair.

Cinque Terre is where Italians go to unwind. When they are sick and tired of creating art, discovering ruins, and eating gelato, they toss their pizzas into the air and hop a train to Monterosso. And this is where we stayed.

We sauntered out to the beaches that morning like professionals. SoCal is not short on beaches. It’s a language we know.

This narrow strip of beaches runs west to east, as Monterosso al Mare sits in a little alcove before the coastline turns south and into cliffs for the rest of the “five terraces”. The beach is pebbly to rocky, shifting as you walk it, and not easy if your feet are tender. You can burrow a nice space in it with your shoulders, but by far a better way to go is to rent a couple of loungers and an umbrella from the guy running one of the private beach areas.

I’ll give you a minute to stop choking on your arugula.

You have a choice.

Yes, there are free beaches that people pack into during the day, and it’s really not a bad rap if you aren’t the fastidious type or you have an hour to kill. You can walk through the “private” beach areas with your feet in the wavelets.

But for twenty euro, you get comfy chaises, wide umbrella shade, and use of their showers, changing rooms, etc (these resemble porta-potties, don’t get excited) for the entire day. This is not a spa experience, but you can come and go as you please and your chairs will be right where you left them, unclaimed.

We did a fair bit of “coming and going” that day, to the boardwalk for lunch, to the tabacchi for post cards, to the trattoria for the outrageously good specialty of the area: deep fried seafood in a paper take-away cone.

This, this, all of this!! Sardines turned into french fries…

And when I say “we” I mean “Hubby” because once you are settled in that lounger with the gentle waves serenading you and the light breeze blowing by and the warm sun slowly melting away your troubles, everyone and everything else around you no longer exists.

I can watch these sparkles all day.

Well…the street vendors exist. They followed you to paradise and if you want to have a foot massage right there in your lounger, be my guest. If you must buy a sarong, go ahead. But if you aren’t interested, you can plop your hat over your face and feign death. They will pass by your chair and let the tassels of the sarong brush over your feet to get your attention.

And you will have to decide whether responding with a kick will get theirs.

After what happened in Rome, I decided to play nice. You never know.

Hubby enjoyed the Med, snorkeling and floating and wandering along the jetty. There were plenty of fish (although not the variety that you find in Hawaii or the Caribbean), and large, jagged rock formations. One just off the beach offered adventurous types a fifteen foot jump into the bright clear blue water.

Is it blue? Is it green?

All morning, we watched incoming waves of visitors arrive at the train station, doing Cinque Terre as a day trip. They flowed along the tiny main street and eddied into the public beach areas, wrestling luggage, eager to experience the area. They came and went and finally washed back out to the countryside. Those of us who had the great fortune to be staying overnight then strolled through the quiet dusk to enjoy the small community vibe, the splendiferous sky, and of course, a lovely meal with new friends-of-the-moment.

When you order seafood in a restaurant, you get the whole enchilada. When you order at a window, you do too, but it’s all deep fried and heavenly.

Pisa, Italy: Don’t Mess

Q: If your train departs Florence at 9:30am and arrives in Pisa at 10:30am and your second train departs Pisa at 1:40pm, how much time do you have in Pisa?

A: Plenty, if Hubby will just stop fretting.

Q: If you exit the train in Pisa and it takes ten minutes to run in a circle looking for the baggage lockers and another twenty minutes to deposit said luggage into said lockers, and another twenty to walk the length of Pisa to the leaning tower (thankfully, without your luggage), how much time do you have in Pisa?

A: Plenty, if Hubby will just stop fretting.

Q: If Hubby has tasked you with navigating the fastest way through Pisa to the leaning tower and you have located a short cut that NO OTHER TOURISTS appear to be taking, should you guide him that way?

A: No. Hubby will lose his mind. Place him squarely in the center of the lost tourists and let him work his way to the front of them so that he feels like he is making good time.

Q: Once you have located your leaning tower, should you take a dorky tourist photo of Hubby holding it up?

A: Yes. This is a good use of your time.

Q: You have a timed entry ticket for the leaning tower and must arrive by 11:45am. You have already placed Hubby’s manly fanny-pack into the security lockers nearby (aka: cloakroom). It’s 11:45am. Should you get in line?

A: No. Your tiny 3×5 purse is NOT ALLOWED in the tower. It is considered armed and dangerous. You must dash back to the line at the security lockers nearby and leave it there, too. Camera phone included.

Q: It is now high noon. You have been scanned by high security airport personnel, patted down, and watched closely by rifle-toting military dudes. Can you finally act hot and bothered?

A: No. This tower is all the fame Pisa has and they are not about to let some tourist like you tip it all the way over. They will take the key and lock you up.

Q: Is the climb worth it?

A: Yes, it’s all fun and games until you reach the top where the tilt is strongest. Galileo himself hung off the edge and experimented with the velocity of falling objects. Stop looking at Hubby like that.

Q: Now that you have accomplished your climb and retrieved your effects, do you have enough time to tour the Baptistry and Cathedral?

A: No. Your ticket is no good for the Baptistry. You can take a quick dash through the Cathedral if you will just stop taking so many pictures, because – this is true everywhere – church is free.

Q: Fine. I didn’t want to see it anyhow. If you ask me…the Baptistry is leaning too. Or maybe I am leaning. Is everyone leaning?

A: No. Just the Baptistry. We are sorry you noticed….

Q: If your train leaves Pisa at 1:40pm and it’s 1:15pm, did you have enough time to return to the train station, retrieve your luggage, locate your platform, and sit around people-watching?

A: Of course. Have a snack. You will be at the beach tonight and Hubby will take all of his frets and throw them into the sea. You’re welcome. Thank you for visiting and have a nice day.

(If you know my Hubby, you know he is a creative engineer. His brain works like a Rubik’s Cube combined with Mastermind and Statego. He had decided – through sheer will power – that the Italian train system was not going to throw a wrench into our stop in Pisa. He was in it to win it…)

 

Boom.

There is a moat around the tower.

Of course.

An intricate crown; Pisa baptistry.

Pretty, Pisa cathedral In the cathedral.

I don’t know who they are, but only two had any faith in us.

How to Ride Trains in Italy

A fellow passenger was struggling to put his luggage into the overhead bin on our train. The bin is adequate for airplane carry-on sized luggage. When you have a massive full size suitcase, or even a quite heavy smaller one, lifting it over your head on a shifting train is a dicey proposition. But we saw a few people attempt it.

Hubby had looked into “trani” before our trip and understood a few things.

“Here,” he called out to the struggling Aussie, “you just slide the suitcases between the seats like this, see?” And Hubby demonstrated.

“Oh!” exclaimed the tourist, “You’re a legend!”

And Hubby was.

Train seats are turned facing each other, creating a space between their backs that is exactly perfect for sliding your case between. The space keeps them from rolling around, unless a curve is taken a little too fast, then they all peek out from between seats, as if looking to make sure their owners are still close by.

Let’s take a moment to assume you are, and go over the finer points of riding a train in Italy.

If you are doing a little train-hopping in a single town, you won’t have luggage to lug. You may as well stand in the foyer and grab a handle. Once the train comes to a stop, you push the green button to open the doors. Sometimes, they open automatically. Don’t be that guy who stares at the door waiting for something to happen until a local leans over, pushes the button, and proceeds to lead a herd of buffalo over your head as payback for making them lose a precious two seconds of hustle time.

Perhaps the vicious rumor that Italian trains do not follow schedule has something to do with the restrained pandemonium. Perhaps it’s because the tourists don’t realize there are free bathrooms (aka toilettes, water closets, loo) on the train. Or perhaps you just have NO IDEA where you are going and all you have left is making good time.

If you are taking a train cross country, there is a definite plan of action.  You must get to the stazione early enough to find out whether your train is on time. Then you wait in a group huddle, watching the display until your train has a platform assigned to it. Once a number pops up, move through the gates – where they may or may not scan your ticket – and count platforms until you hit yours.

They hide trains, sometimes. Platforms 1 and 2 may have been moved around a corner or be three flights underground. They are funny, those staziones. You must be prepared at any moment to grab your suitcase by the scruff and haul it up steps and over gaps and around fellow cattle passengers. You have to want it. Get your bearings and keep an eye on that display because if, with two minutes to spare, your train decides to pull in to platform 3 instead of platform 7, you and everyone else who was standing at military attention on platform 7 will suddenly have to haul potatoes outta there.

Frantic people will stall in the stairwell, because while their feet got the message to run, their hands never actually grabbed their luggage by a handle. Don’t be that guy. Everyone is stacking up behind you and I will personally go gladiator and lift you and your effects up and out of that ant hill.

Turn onto your platform and stride purposefully down until you are standing beneath the car number assigned you on your ticket. If you are in a tiny town next to a train tunnel (and this works for the metro as well), you will feel the wind gusting ahead of the train first. Then you will see the headlight curve into view. Inch closer to the edge of the tracks, gripping your luggage and staring fiercely ahead. This indicates to others that you have every intention of – wait for it – boarding this train.

Wait for the train to pull up and stop right in your face.

Verify your car is actually the one in front of you and scramble aboard. Did you at least verify that this train is the right number? Does your ticket say “666” on it, but the train says “687” on it? While the Vatican approves this change up, you have two seconds to decide whether you are mass-boarding a train heading for Austria instead of Naples. The conductor waves you aboard, so you go.

And someone else has taken your window seats. And they are feigning death. You stare at your ticket wondering if you have enough gladiator left in you to argue, but the train begins to move, your luggage starts to roll down the aisle towards the snack car, and you just dive into a seat with a shrug.

Three hours next to a drooling tourist may seem a little tough. The other couple stares out the window and although Hubby sits facing you, your conversation will either be in mime or holler. Next time, order seats side-by-side. This is the moment you pop in those earbuds, relax, and listen to Rick Steves. Or maybe write a few lines in your journal:

“Dear Diary, Why must Hubby chat everyone up? He does it in restaurants, on trains, in lines, on duomos. He’s asking the trolley cart guy whether our train is on time when he should be buying crisps. We’ve missed lunch again. This time, specifically, the workers in charge of nothing else but feeding lunch to people on trains are striking. Striking. Here comes someone to check our tickets, finally.”

And this is as far as you go before you are leaning sideways, drooling in your sleep.

#onecasetorulethemall Maybe the red guy is just trying to help. Are you fast enough to catch a bullet train? Stampede. But act casual. Milan. Admire the stazione for a hot minute if you can. What do you mean, the train changed it’s mind? With a gust of hot air, your rippling shirt says the train is coming…. In a blur and a screeeeech, your train has arrived!

Italy and The Joys of Gelato

Not all gelato is created equal.

Hubby and I scoured the length of Italy to tell you so.

As a matter of fact, you cannot walk a Roman city block without tripping face first into three different gelato displays and as tempting as it is to eat your way through Italy with a cucchiaio or palletina in your hand, you need to know the “Good” from the “Great”.

“Good” will have a small case of flavors, ten or so basics, tucked into a larger establishment like a restaurant or souvenir shop. “Good” gelato is made in a factory from sullen cows with whatever ingredients are handy.

“Great” will have a wide variety of flavors, twenty at least, in a place dedicated only to this frozen delight. It will have over 150 if you’ve arrived in gelato Nirvana…which exists in Rome. Maybe it has won major awards for deliciousness in Sorrento. It will say “gelateria” over the door and have a bonafide gelato party going on inside.

You have arrived at your destination.

“Great” gelato is crafted from the finest fresh ingredients from someone’s secret family recipe that Nonna left under her pillow. Each artisanal flavor will be piled into tall fluffy mountains of joy with bits of the ingredient tossed on top. ie: the pineapple gelato will be wearing a pineapple crown and the walnut gelato will be studded with walnuts. They branch out with lighter sorbets, too, just to mix things up.

The chilled pan of noccioloa will be half empty because the Master Gelatieres can’t stop ‘sampling’ it for quality control.

This place is taking gelato as seriously as you are and that’s good Great.

Great Jumping Gelato, Batman!

Next – always choose a cup, not a cone. Don’t be that guy with the cone we watched over and over, veering into the middle of the street trying frantically to lick his gelato into submission and losing the battle. You will find him later in the baptistry – sprinkled in holy pistachio. Marked by his dedication.

Now for the best part: Choosing your flavors. Begin slowly, don’t hurt yourself. We began with single flavor starter cups and worked our way up to professional level with three for four flavors at once. This allowed us to sample sometimes eight flavors at a time, because sharing is caring. Also, this is how you discover that lemon and chocolate go surprising well together in a single lick. My absolute favorites are the pear and the fig. The flavor is rich but also subtle, with bits of dried sweet pear or fresh fig swirled into the gelato. Unusual and delicious.


Here are the flavors we tried:

Cocco (coconut)

Pistachio

Amarena (tart cherry swirl)

Deep Dark Cioccolato (death by chocolate)

Stracciatella (a bit like chocolate chip)

Peanut (not peanut butter sadly, but more like a raw peanut ice cream)

Pera (pear and ricotta)

Berry

Tiramisu

Albicocca (apricot)

Noccioloa (hazelnut)

Mango (basically you are just eating a chilled perfect mango)

Limone (tart lemon)

Mistero Latino (it’s still a Latin Mystery to me but it was quite tasty)

Fico (fig)

Caffe (coffee)

If you have thoughts on gelato, by all means, put them in the Comment box and join the party.

Caio!

Let’s get this party started. All mine…plus a cookie!

On Every Street Corner

Gelateria in Corniglia…wish I’d tried the basil.

Top of Anacapri, treats for the brave

Exploring the Closets in Florence

Piazza di San Giovanni lies between the Santa Maria del Fiori, the third largest church in Europe, and it’s famous golden-doored Baptistry. We stood in this little piazza on our last day in Florence, Italy, wondering how she could be so sunshiny and yet blow with such a stiff, cold, steady wind.

It was first thing in the morning and Hubby and I were not prepared for it.

Brunelleschi’s massive egg-shaped duomo, the crown of Florence, was our immediate goal but this time, our luck did not hold. Timed entry tickets were sold out for the day. We shivered in the square and decided to attack the campanile instead.

This tower is only twenty feet shorter than the dome and as we circled around and up to each staircase level, small rectangular air shafts framed beautiful views of the city, the orange-tiled dome across the way, and the cathedral decked in stripes of green, white, and pink Tuscan marble. 414 steps later, we were treated to a view of Florence from atop her scepter.

The campanile empties out into the Piazza del Duomo. The endless line waiting to enter the cathedral on the west side meant there was almost no one in the square with us, enjoying the slowly-warming southern side. A small caffe on the corner winked at us, then gave us a peek at her pastry case, tucked discretely behind orchids. You guys. We are only human. We sat right in the front window and had a decadent breakfast.

Be still my heart.

I want to believe that if you fill someone up with enough sugar and espresso, the very next thing they see will appear as golden, floating, surrounded by alien aura. But probably the Baptistry really is. My photos indicate that we actually walked through gold doors, under a gold ceiling, and stood in sunbeams that gave us halos. The baptismal font sounds like an angel choir when you hold it up to your ear.

Once the caffeine wore off, we walked completely around the cathedral, hoping to find the end of the entry line. People were frozen, hunched resolutely against the cold, sculpted by the wind.

You can admire the statues or become the statues. Easy choice.

We bypassed it once again, heading instead into the Museo dell’Opera del Duomo, a museum dedicated to the history of the duomo. It contains the original Baptistry doors. A great many statues, including Donatello’s St. John and another pieta by Michelangelo are in there, as well as paintings, mosaics, textiles, choir stalls and books, gold-work, and a display of tools and designs used by Brunelleschi for his dome.

St John, by Donatelli Abraham and Isaac Real deal doors.

The Museo Nazionale del Bargello is three blocks straight down Via del Proconsolo. I ask you: can you go into too many museums in one day? No you can’t, don’t be silly. And the Bargello is worthy of your time. There was plenty of sculpture for statue buffs like myself, and a frightening amount of ancient armor and weaponry, right down to hunting hawks’ hoods. Coins, cannon, cloth. No less than three different Davids with the head of Goliath rolling around their ankles.

Caught a fish. Heavy metal. My name is Inigo Montoya… Mercury says there’s more upstairs….

Sighing with contentment, I tucked my camera phone away and declared that it was, finally, tea time.

Legend says that when the contest for who would build the Duomo of the cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore was held, a great many engineers and architects argued around the table about ways to accomplish it. Finally, it was Brunelleschi’s turn to speak. He passed an egg around the table and asked everyone to try standing it on it’s end. No one could. He took the egg back, and smashed it lightly onto the table. The end broke, the egg stood: a perfect dome.

“This,” he said, “is what we need to create.” He got the job.

The story of  Brunelleschi and the largest masonry dome in the world can be enjoyed here. It was an engineering nightmare that he pulled off seamlessly and he died without leaving a trace of notes explaining how he did it.

Tasting the Tuscan Wine

The “Sunset Siena and Chianti Wine Tour with Dinner from Florence” sounded elegant. It included “transport by air-conditioned coach, professional tour leader, and dinner at a wine estate with wine tasting”. It did not include gratuities.

But these were optional.

By the time we pulled up to the winery doors, I was tired. I was thankful to be able to sit and let the fun come to me for once.

The sun was setting, somewhere in the west behind the rolling Tuscan hills, and it was obvious to all of us that the “sunset” part of the tour was already over.

This did not bother Marco in the slightest.

Marco represents his family’s vineyards to incoming tour groups and we followed his exuberant lead for the rest of the evening. He gave an introduction at the gate and although my research told me we were in the Holy Grail of wine country, the cup was not any more glamorous than that in Temecula.

We settled at tables in a room and this was all we got to see of the winery. There was no tour. When you read about this place on their website, it’s hard to reconcile what they think they look like with what we actually saw.

Marco (Polo) is a comedian with a captive audience. I have to admit he was entertaining, even assuming that, as the audience tastes more wine, he gets exponentially funnier. He can’t lose. I did feel, just a little, like I was sitting in on a time-share sales pitch, though.

He sold a lot of wine at the end of our evening.

Our group was so random. There was an eight year old with his mom, the Three Elderly Sisters of whom I spoke in the last blog, middle-aged giggling women on a girls trip who were there to get wasted, honeymooners who admitted they were trying to get pregnant to the whole room, true wine aficionados who frowned into their glasses,…we sat at a table with a couple from Morocco who spoke French. We smiled and kept our manners and stared at the plate a lot.

Marco was okay with all of it. He’d seen worse.

We were all served a glass of wine, a plate of antipasto, a pen, and a form for making notes. Marco then taught us the proper way to appreciate wine:

    1. Use a goblet or a paper cup. It doesn’t matter. But if you have a wine glass, for ding dang sake, pinch the stem at the base with thumb and pointer, and keep the rest of your grubby fingers under the bottom. The wine is chilled. The wine is pure. Stay as far away from it as you can and good luck not spilling.
    1. Pour in a half inch of wine. Hold it up and let the light refract through the liquid.
    1. Does it look like…white wine? Good.
    1. Now sip it. Does it taste like…white wine? Good.
    1. Holding the glass properly, swirl the wine in a little hurricane-like vortex while slowly counting to ten. Don’t spill it, I said!
    1. When you reach “ten”, stick your nose and mouth into the cup. Your chin and cheeks should keep the wine in place as you inhale deeply.
    1. Does it smell like…white wine? Good.
    1. Place your spare hand over the mouth of the cup. Holding the glass properly, swirl the wine in a little hurricane-like vortex while slowly counting to ten. Do not get wine on your hand. See step 1.
    1. When you reach “ten”, remove your hand and place your nose and mouth into the cup again.
  1. Does it smell like…buttered bananas? You are a wine tasting winner because that is exactly what this wine is supposed to smell like and now you have discovered it.

This is the only white wine produced by this winery. And it smells like bananas.

We repeated these steps but now the goal was to write down our thoughts as we took a bite from each of the foods on our plate and immediately sipped.

My notes explicitly state that, although the white Vernaccia di san Gimignano was nice with toast, it was exceptional with a bite of salami. Marco asked by a show of hands, which food was best with the wine. Only the eight year old and myself had preferred the sweet and salty combination.

Marco reminded everyone that there were no wrong answers.

The red we sampled next was a Chianti Classico, with the black rooster label. If it had fruity flavors, they were lost on me. This was when I remembered that I had been fighting a head cold all week. For all I could tell, the wine tasted like buttered chicken. But this was the good stuff.

So I drank it. Salute!

“The vinegar on your greens,” declared Marco, “is our Balsamic Select. It can also be purchased at the end of our meal tonight.”

He flipped a sample form over as the meal was served. On the back, was an order form for everything they sold at the winery.

Convenient.

The Brunello di Montalcino has a strong personality with a dry, full, smooth, well balanced flavor. Its bouquet is characteristic and intense, composed of violet and forest fruit scents. I found it spicy with a strong leather undercurrent. It did not distract me from trying the secret family recipe white sauce lasagne because the waiter was going around and pouring million-dollar Truffle Flavored Extra Virgin Olive Oil over our plates.

I have never tasted truffle outside of a box of See’s candy.

There are no words to explain this flavor to you. But it is fabulous and delicious and intriguing. Even with a head cold.

“Truffles are a strong aphrodisiac,” warned Marco, “be careful!”

The honeymooners giggled. The gigglers demanded more wine. The eight year old looked thoughtful. I drank my Brunello.

Another course was served, a thin slice of beef and little bits of potato, some bare lettuce. With it we tried Cavaliere, a Super Tuscan. “The prime quality and structure of this wine demand excellent first courses and risottos with sauces made from game, red meat, and mature spicy cheeses.” My thoughts were, “There’s a horse on the label and it has great legs in the glass. Logic.”

Have I mentioned that red wine puts me to sleep within minutes?

Thankfully, plates of biscotti appeared, along with the house dessert wine. Naturally, there were rules: dip the biscotti into your wine ten times, then nibble the cookie and sip the wine. Repeat.

Marco set up shop as we finished, selling his wares to one and all. Hubby had thoroughly enjoyed the wines and bought some Cavaliere to bring home.

“Excellent choice,” I mumbled. I was cheating, chomping on the brick-hard biscotti and swilling the wine down after it.

Sure, Marco can school me on wine etiquette, but me and enjoying dessert go way back.

I know I promised you all some Italian recipes and although we ate many a splendored dish, there was no time to walk to the back and question the cook. Marco promised me the recipe for his grand-mama’s white lasagne but there is nothing on his website but panzanella and knuckle of pork. While I found you some fabulous limoncello recipes and told you where to find the best gelato in Italy, here instead I will point you to Mary’s fresh blog: Spoon and Suitcase. She shares her world wanderings and her culinary discoveries.
It’s a little mini-vacation all over again.
Enjoy.
On the road again… The legs of a thoroughbred. Marco makes the money fly.

Siena, Italy

Siena sits at the outskirts of Florence like her moody teenage brother. He’s nobility, but that doesn’t stop him from riding bareback, hell for leather, brawling up and down the streets fighting over which of his cousins gets to hang his logo on the flagpole.

Throughout antiquity, Siena and Florence (like all of Italy and all siblings) constantly squabbled over the glorious Chianti acres between them, each town trying to expand its borders. Eventually they decided that enough blood had been shed and they came to a gentleman’s agreement. They wanted to find a border that was fair to each side. Each town chose a knight and a horse and proposed that, simultaneously, each knight would ride from his hometown towards the rival town. Wherever the knights met – presumably the half-way mark – would delineate the final border.

But how to ensure that each knight began at the same time?

Each town chose a chicken.

This is because every morning like – clockwork – roosters crow. Siena chose a white rooster, and Florence a black. The day before the race, Siena fed its rooster well, provided his every need, and tucked him into his roost in preparation for a healthy morning crow.

Florence, on the other hand, put its rooster to bed early without his supper.

Needless to say, the black rooster woke first (assuming it slept at all) and began crowing for its breakfast. The knight from Florence was within seven miles of Siena when it met Siena’s knight.

Thus says the legend. Thus all Chianti wine belongs to Florence and carries a black rooster label. Thus the Duomo of Siena is striped in black and white like chickens checkers….

Probably.

You can see Siena in a comfortable half day visit, but we were given exactly one hour to do our worst. I’ll explain why in a minute, but if all you have is an hour…get to the Piazza del Campo and then see the Duomo.

The Piazza del Campo is the heart of Siena, a fanning medieval centerpiece that hosts the twice-yearly Palio. This festival brings representatives from all 17 Siena contrada (parishes/districts) together in a wild horse race that will determine whose symbols will represent Siena. This ancient rivalry runs deep and as you wander the narrow winding streets, you can find their different animal symbols on flags, carvings, and souvenirs.

I myself was sorted into Gryffindor. The unicorn came in second place.

What I’m trying to say is that Renaissance Fairs and Medieval Times are alive and well in Italy.

The Duomo of Siena is gorgeous little cupcake of a cathedral. The facade is fascinating, with colored marble, mosaics, sculptures, different on every side. As you enter, two things grab your immediate attention: the bold striping of the columns and the sapphire blue with gold stars ceiling that they support. Immediately after, you realize you are being watched.

By the busts of 172 Popes, 36 emperors, 42 patriarchs and prophets, and finally, eight golden statues at eye level.

I guess they could have been admiring the floors.

The marble floor mosaics are covered most of the year, with only a few of the 56 panels available for viewing. We saw the “Death of Absalom” (1447), “Slaughter of the Innocents” (1481), one of “Elijah” (1500s), and “The She-Wolf of Siena” (1373). All were rendered from the cartoons of Sienese painters.

You must peek into the Piccolomini Library, a tiny side door we almost missed. This will be revisited in a later blog devoted entirely to books. And probably floors. Unlike huge basilicas elsewhere, I enjoyed the lavish details of this Duomo in a comfortable, personable setting.

Just as I considered trying out the choir stalls, we noticed the time.

In a way, we also experienced the Palio. We dashed madly through the streets trying to meet up with our tour on time. It’s small but there are no straight lines in Siena. We did a few laps.

Our tour guide was waiting, grimly counting bodies as we congregated. She had already left late from Florence and now she was determined to get us back on the bus and to our final destination, a winery for dinner. From the beginning, the odds were stacked against her.

The problem was (and this is one of several) that she would not slow to the pace of three elderly sisters who had signed up for the tour, or the couple from Australia who had two bad knees and a hip between them.

The Aussies had taken a tour yesterday from Florence, and “did anyone know whether they would once again be asked to walk from here, down a back street, through an alley and down a ramp to the tour bus because they weren’t ever going to do that again but it sure looked suspicious”.

Hubby, ever the chatty, helpful fellow, engaged the tour guide and watched as the dialogue confirmed the Australians’ worst fears. They were having none of it. The tour guide was helpless to change it. Hubby backed away and blended into the crowd.

Another concerned couple wanted to know how late we were returning from the tour because they had other plans and could not possibly be back later than ten. The tour guide mentioned that she was dependent upon several things outside of her control, including traffic. The couple threw down their gauntlet and marched back into the crowd.

We were delayed, waiting for two people who never showed up. We hiked our way to the tour bus and waited some more for the two knees and a hip to get on board.

At this point, our guide mentioned the three elderly sisters. “Good news,” she said as we sat down, “They are already at the winery waiting for us to join them.”

Apparently, they had been put into a cab and whisked directly to the end of the tour. And they were not pleased. On the bus that night, as we drove back to Florence, these spicy ladies used colorful expletives to explain in great detail their displeasure with Italy in general and tour guides in particular. They were leaving for home in the morning and never coming back.

“Goodness,” said a tourist three seats behind us, “You’d think she (the tour guide) could extend just a bit of Christian charity…”

But really, it could have all been solved with a chicken.

Touring Siena should be at the pace of a fat, content hen, picking along, scratching up treasures. The “White Rooster” tour.

Everybody faster should go with the “Black Rooster” group.

Dragon flag… Piazza del Campo Duomo of Siena Bell tower. Notice a pattern? Checker columns, night sky. Etched, carved, inlaid, immense floor panel. So much to see. Massive Pipe organ. When you step outside the medieval times, there is the rest of modern Siena…like leaving Disneyland and finding LA sitting there.