Thursday, January 2, 2014

Happy New Year!

I thought it was about time I posted...something. Anything. I do hope to try and blog more in the New Year. If anything, at least I'll finally finish up blogging about our trip to Italy. Here is a sneak peak: We went to Pisa. We spent one last day in Florence. We headed home. We had a horrible experience at the Amsterdam airport (is there any other kind of experience there? People say it's so great, but every time I've been there, the lines to get through security have been interminable). We had a nice experience at the Yotel in the Amsterdam airport (if you have a long layover there and are just sick and don't want to venture into town, this is a good alternative). We made it home.

I also hope to post at some point about my marathon experience! Yes, I did it! I completed the Twin Cities Marathon. 5:26...more details to come.

I am also knitting my husband a sweater. Really all that is left to do is the finishing. Which includes a zipper, so we'll see how that goes.

2014 has the promise of a wonderful year. Travels are planned to Las Vegas and Vietnam. I hope to complete another marathon. I'm taking up yoga.

So, watch this space. With any luck, there will be more frequent posts. Then again, I've said that many a time before. 

Saturday, April 27, 2013

Back to Florence



So, uh. Eventually I'll be done writing about this trip. I'm getting there.

We were up bright and early the next morning. This was the day were headed back to Florence. I was sad to leave Tuscany, but was excited to see more of Florence...and we had plans for a day trip to Pisa.

As I've said, I was pretty snuffly so I was looking forward to a nice hot, steamy shower. It was not to be. I let the water run and run, but it ever warmed up. This was disappointing, but...timely considering I'd been reading some of the travel tips ad philosophies in my guidebook and Rick Steves specifically mentioned hot showers ad the occasional lack thereof. So, I just sucked it up and we headed to the Cafe Poliziano for breakfast. Croissant and a cappuccino. I felt very Italian standing at the bar.

We had some time to kill before Giacomo came to pick us up, so we sort of wandered up and down the streets. David wanted to look in some wine shops so we did that, ventured back into the cellars/caves below the wine shops, picked up a few little items. It was sort of a drizzly day, chilly, and since it was early not much was open. It was nice to just wander without any agenda.


Mmmm...cheese. If only I could have just taken a whole hunk home with me.


More huge barrels of wine. See those little glass doo-hickeys on the top? Those will fill or empty as the wine in the barrel settles (evaporates?) or something...I can't remember. But, I do remember that if it is empty, that means they need to add more wine. The nice gentleman at the enoteca the day before told us about this. He  also casually mentioned that they were invented by Leonardo...as in da Vinci...in such a way you'd think they were pals or something.


It's like a maze down there! Of course, you are just sort of wandering around down there...I wonder if anyone ever gets lost.



Yes, they are very big barrels of wine.

Eventually Giacomo showed up and we loaded our stuff into the van and headed for the train station in Chiusi...this is on the line to either Rome or Florence. It was raining and chilly and we had to stand on an outdoor platform waiting for the train.  David bought a copy of a British newspaper, so on the ride back I read all about the latest happenings in Britain...including the sad story of children being disappointed about not being able to see Sponge Bob Squarepants at a holiday event. Authorities would not let him on stage because he did not fit up the stairs, so he could only wander around the floor and the children in the back could not see him. This little article is still hanging on my fridge.

So, there's David on the train. It was quite cozy and we passed many cute little Tuscan towns. It was really raining by this point. 


When we got to Florence, it was just a torrential downpour. Thunder. Lightning. The works. Dudes every three feet selling umbrellas. Fortunately, our apartment was only about a 5-minute walk from the train station, but even then, we were completely soaked by the time we got there.

The owner was lovely and even said that she'd be able to call a cab for us for the morning we left (which was going to be VERY early) and check us out the night before. She showed me how to use the washing machine (which was located outdoors...bummer) and the other appliances. The David and I settled in and got around to drying everything out. 



I'd picked this apartment partly because it had a washing machine and I thought that would be nice to have a chance to do some laundry. I'd forgotten it didn't have a dryer, as most people in Italy don't have dryers (energy conservation and expense). The washing machine was located outside, in the little courtyard (which had also been a draw), so actually washing clothes was a challenge because I was trying to hold an umbrella at the same time. The rain was just crazy. It rained the entire time we were in Florence, so we never really got to enjoy the courtyard. The apartment was fantastic though so I can't complain.

This was one of those nights where I was really happy we had opted for apartments rather than a hotel. We were both feeling under the weather, there was a full-on thunderstorm outside, all our stuff was soaking wet. We just didn't feel much like getting dressed and finding a restaurant for dinner. So we didn't. We ventured over to a little cafe for a cappuccino, then we headed to the grocery store for some pasta and sauce. Then we just stayed in the rest of the night.

I was pretty happy with that plan.



The only real thing on the agenda for the next day was to visit the Uffizi. More to come!

Friday, March 22, 2013

Last day walking

So, this was it...the last day of our walking tour (but not the last day of our trip at all). Today was the day of one of our longest hikes; about 8.5 miles to Montepulciano. Montepulciano is also known for their wine, the Vino Nobile. The hike was about 3 miles to Montechiello and then from there about another 5 miles or so, mostly uphill.

Paolo and Giacomo came to pick us up that morning and we decided to let them drive us to Montechiello, just to cut the walking time down a little bit. My cold was leaving me feeling a bit weary. Unfortunately, this meant we still had to do the second half of the walk, which was what was going to be the tough part. Five miles, pretty much all uphill.

This was the view from Montechiello, just before we started on our way.


It was only about 10 a.m. or so when we were there, maybe even a little earlier, and the town as absolutely deserted. I don't remember seeing a single person. Nothing was open. But, it was picturesque and seemed like a place I'd like to just sit down on a bench and knit for an afternoon.


Hopefully, I'll get to go back some day, because I'd love to go into this tiny little place for a coffee.


Look! We saw these really pretty flowers. I just, ya know, thought they were pretty and deserved a place on the blog.


Another beautiful day in Tuscany! Clear, blue sky! This wouldn't last...things actually got pretty foggy later in the day. Wouldn't you just love to live here? At the end of a drive lined with cypress trees?


Yeah...there it is. The fog. We actually had a little trouble seeing where we were going...many of the directions, we were sort of on the look out for things, and we couldn't really see them until we were right on top of them. But, that was okay. At this point, we were pretty much walking in a ditch....on our right was a highway, on our left some vineyards. It was, of course, very muddy and wet. We persevered.


We walked through a little residential area...farms and such...and saw these happy chickens. I was also totally freaked out by a woman just standing by her front gate. Didn't see her until she was RIGHT THERE! Little old lady...I thought she was a witch that popped out of nowhere...a good witch of course.


As you approached Montepulciano, you pass by the Tiempo di San Biagio. At one point, our walking directions told us we would be able to see it in the distance, but it was far too foggy for that. It was finished in 1529 and when we were there, some major reconstruction was going on inside, so we could only sort of peek our heads in a little bit. The workers didn't try to shoo us away or anything, which was nice. Outside, a nice little old man started talking to David...we think he was trying to tell us that the church was closed and we should head into the little restaurant just across the way (which looked charming...I'm not sure why we didn't go in...perhaps because we were huge sweatbombs covered in mud?). We also had a  lovely conversation in Italian with the workers: What time is it? 1:00! We walked all around it though, in the very wet grass, before we began our trek up the hill the rest of the way to the heart of town.


The walk was actually a little scary at times. We were on a main road with not really any shoulder, and a large bus passed about two inches from me. Yikes. I wonder if there is a better way....

Of course, this odd poster sort of made up for it. I have no idea what is going on here...I thought cats didn't like water, but the one appears to be doing the breaststroke...


We arrived at the B&B and called the owner to let her know we were there. We were earlier than she expected us to be. She was so friendly....we had a huge room and she explained that for breakfast we would go down the street to a cafe. We got cleaned up a bit, unpacked what we needed, and then headed out for lunch.

We would up at the Caffe Poliziano, which was also where we would go for breakfast the next morning. We had sandwiches and coffee and relaxed. We did a little window shopping afterward...there was a shoe shop/leather store across the street that had some beautiful things and we also checked out a coppersmith's shop...if I'd had the space, I would have bought a pan. Next time.

We sort of took a wrong turn at some point, but when you are in a small town surrounded by walls, you can't really wander too far off the beaten path. Montepulciano is pretty hilly....you walk up for a while, then down. It's best to take it slow and enjoy.


This is a church! Ain't it beautiful!? Ha ha....This is the Cathedral of Santa Maria. This was completed in 1680. They ran out of money for the facade. Or maybe not, but they never added a facade. It's kind of interesting to think that all those other lovely churches we saw...this is what they look like underneath. It was lovely inside though.
 

We spent most of the afternoon just wandering around. I think we were both kind of tired and it was chilly and cloudy. We walked pretty much from one end of Montepulciano to the other. This does not take long. Of course there are several churches...more than several? A lot. Truly, in Italy there are more churches than you can shake a stick at, which is fine by me. I love old churches.

Eventually, we wanted into some kind of wine cellar/cave. There was no one around and I kind of felt like maybe we were someplace we weren't supposed to be....but whatever. It was sort of like a little maze...a maze full of huge casks of wine. Really huge casks.

Eventually, we wound up in a little enoteca, de'Ricci. It was their cellars we had been wandering around. Check out the website...some beautiful photos. We did a tasting of several of their wines and picked up a couple of bottles to take home. We shared with them that we had been on a walking tour and had walked from Montalcino over the course of a few days...they thought we were crazy.


We slowly meandered our way back to our hotel. There is a clocktower in Montepulciano with this crazy little man with a spear on top. Watch out. He'll get ya. Apparently, he is Punch, of Punch and Judy fame!


Here is a shot of the amazing little shop across the street from our B&B. If we had had more walking to do, I'm sure this is where we would have bought our cheese ans fruit provisions.


Here is David with the secret passageway...to closed store. This was right outside the town gate....


And here is the gate....impressive, no? A pharmacists was just down the way, and I believe we wandered here to find that. She was not as friendly as the other pharmacists, but I did get some good decongestant. No need to show your ID in Italy to get really pseudoephedrine. They must not have meth problem there.


We headed back to the B&B to relax a bit before heading to dinner. I believe this was the day I spent 45 minutes facetiming with my sister...getting all the family gossip (holiday season and all).

Eventually, we had to head out for dinner. We'd seen a little pizza place nearby, which seemed like it might be a good option. When we had wandered around for lunch, several places we saw were closed. I wasn't really sure what we would find for dinner. We had a few suggestions from our travel guides, but hadn't decided on anything.

Montepulciano was pretty much deserted. I felt like we were walking through a ghost town. David dragged me all the way to the end of town...past several places that were open. I was getting kind of grumpy...I made this known by walking slower and slower (this is my tactic...rather than just saying, "can we stop already!" I just move at a snail's pace). I believe David could sense the frustration, but to his credit, he kept going.

We took a left down a side street and eventually came across a place that had lots of people inside, a few empty tables, and looked promising. Turns out, it was Osteria Acquacheta, which I had read a bit about. They are known for their steaks...don't go if you are a vegetarian.

Here's David. Doesn't he look happy?


This place was pretty casual (our server was in sweatpants...then again she looked about 8 months pregnant...but, the other server was equally casual, so...), but the food was amazing. Our server was patient with us in explaining the menu, but with a no-nonsense attitude. I told her I wanted steak but not the huge two-pound t-bone that was the specialty and she pointed out the smaller filet I could get. Yay! David ordered sausages and wow! very good. We started with some bruschetta and as a side had pears with pecorino cheese...all warm and melty and amazing.

So, here's the deal here...if you order the house wine, you use the same glass for wine as you do for your water. Traditional osteria style. I was prepared for this from what I had read, but apparently not everyone likes this...mostly grumpy people who write reviews on Trip Advisor. Get over it people.

If you order the steak, the owner hacks a large piece of meat off the side of beef at the back of the restaurant. He then brings this to you at your table on piece of butcher paper, tells you how much it will cost, and then gets your approval (I guess). He also did this with my little baby steak, so I felt pretty special. You can get your steak done rare, or medium rare (another point of contention for those grumpy Trip Advisor reviewers). Off he goes and a bit later, you are enjoying an amazing steak.

When you are done, the owner comes back with a pen and scribbles on your butcher paper "table cloth" all the prices of everything you had. This is your bill.

I thought this place was great. During the high travel season, you definitely need reservations to eat there. The place is tiny and you are seated family style at long tables...elbow to elbow with your fellow diners. Across from us were some New Yorkers discussing Super Storm Sandy. Next to us was an Italian couple on a date. And, as we waited for our food, the receptionist from the hotel in Pienza came in! We chatted with her for a bit about how much we were loving Italy and about our walk form Pienza.

Full of good food, we wandered back to our B&B to get some rest before the next day. I couldn't figure out how to get the heat to turn on, so we added extra blankets to our bed and snuggled in.

Our walking tour was coming to a close, but we still had 4 days left in Italy. The next day, we would head back to Florence.

Sunday, February 10, 2013

On to Pienza

So, here's a funny story. After my last post, which really was based on dim memories, I found my little notebook in which I had kept notes about our trip. Really, the notes totally sucked. They were something like this "Walked long way. Yummy dinner. Spicy Sauce. Had cold. So tired." In some instances, the notes are completely illegible, or they are so brief and nondescript it is as though I woke up in the middle of the night and jotted down a few words that in the morning were supposed to remind me about my dream, but it really just says "squirrel...golf balls...flboud" and is not very helpful at all.

And, I've since lost the notebook again. Gah!

But, it did remind me of a few things. It reminded me of what I had eaten for dinner. David had chicken, and like the rabbit he'd had another night, it was full of all kinds of teeny tiny little bones. I had beef stew and on the side I got fried baby artichokes.

I don't know what I expected from the artichokes. But they were awful and I hated them. They were like, deep fried. I think in my head I was picturing sauteing...which is not what I ordered. They really reminded me of the deep fried veggies you can get at the State Fair and if I wanted that I'd just go to the State Fair. I'd say it was one of only three real food fails while we were in Italy.

I also realized that I had not mentioned the beer place in San Quirico. When we were in Montalcino at the Fortezza, we had two bottles of a locally brewed beer shipped home to us. Well, here was where the beer was from! They did free samples of their two styles and then she showed us around. So, at the link they refer to the "plant" which makes me think of something at least the size of the Surly Brewery in Minneapolis, but really...I think the whole place would have fit in my apartment. It was a micro-micro brewery.  Good stuff though. We've still got two bottles waiting to be drunk. We have plans to have a beer dinner with my sister and brother and their spouses.

But, back to our trip. Sunday and we were off to Pienza. It was only about a 5 mile walk. We had a lovely breakfast and as we were getting our stuff together to head out, Paolo showed up! Paolo was one of the other people from the tour company who would drive our stuff around. He's also Giacomo's dad. He was super friendly and we helped him get the stuff out to the van and chatted a little bit. I told him about my cold and he said that Giacomo also was feeling under the weather. He asked if I felt well enough for the walk and I said I was. So, off he went and off we went. We headed back to the same shop as the day before to get sandwiches, some fruit, and water and then we bid farewell to San Quirico.

We saw these little signs around San Quirico and perhaps in Pienza as well. Remember, we were walking along the same route that pilgrims took to Rome back in the day...way back, like...medieval times.


It was just a gorgeous day. I can't believe who lucky we got with the weather while we were in Tuscany. The sun was shining, the temperature was perfect, not at all what I had expected. This is just outside San Quirico. This is my "Look at all this beauty!" pose. It happened often. I just could not get over how beautiful Tuscany was. As I sit here, with tiny piece of ice falling from the sky, it all seems so long ago.


Ahhh...cypress trees. These trees are sort of everywhere in Tuscany. And I'm sure you've seen them in mist any picture you have seen of Tuscany.


Later in the morning, we came upon a herd of sheep. Our walking materials gave us some advice on dealing with sheep dogs, but we were lucky that this particular herd had no dogs protecting them. I think there were fences instead. The walking materials made sheep dogs sound very protective and more than a little dangerous, suggesting an alternate route if you could not get by.

We could hear the bells on their necks clinging as we watched them move around in the valley below. These are not sheep for wool, but rather for their mile, which is used to make Pecorino cheese. One of Pienza's specialties is Pecorino cheese, and there were many shops in town selling it.


Don't I look happy? Even with my cold. The weather always warmed up enough for us to take off our jackets as we walked from town to town. I had forgotten to buy sunscreen, but we had picked some up at the pharmacy in Montalcino and we made sure to slather our faces and ears as it was so sunny everyday. I'd really expected sort of rainy, gray weather, which is why I look so happy.


I was really looking forward to seeing this church! This is the Capella de Vitaleta, and it is one of the most photographed churches in Tuscany, most likely because it seems to have been plopped down in the middle of nowhere. There is a farmhouse next to it, but it did not appear that anyone lived there. You can't go inside the church, and the windows are quite high so you can't see inside either, but it really was a lovely scene. I haven't been able to find any information about this church...just photos.




There was one other couple taking photos when we got there so we stayed out of their way and had a little snack. Then we took advantage of the self-timer and my little tri-pod!


And then we continued on our way...off into the sunshine.


Just another view. As David gets smaller and smaller.


Anyone interested in renovating an old Tuscan farmhouse? I had bought a magazine at the U of M bookstore before the trip, and it had  a lot of information about renovating old properties.


This one was in, uh...pretty bad shape. The floor seems to be missing....


But this would be the view you wake up to everyday! I think this was about a mile outside of Pienza.


Oh yeah, here is the downstairs.


Just outside Pienze is the Pieve de Corsignano, or the Parish Church of Corsignano. You'll need to translate the page at that link (if you are using Chrome, it will ask if you want to translate it). I believe this church dates back to the 12th century. Pope Pious the II was baptized in this church. He was originally from Pienza and after he became Pope he set out to completely remodel the city and renamed it Pienza.

He didn't touch this church, and it is quite simple inside, with exposed wooden beams, rough stonework.

.

This is an original piece of Etruscan pottery above the door. If you have time to search flickr or another photo sharing site for more photos, I recommend it. There were some pretty interesting carvings.


The view over the valley. Again, you can see my lovely using tree branches to frame the photo!


Another view of the church. We just sat there and enjoyed the nice weather and had a snack before we continued on into Pienza. We right outside town at this point, but it was all uphill from here.




So, we got into Pienza, and were at a little square, outside the city gates (I think I've mentioned before that all these little Tuscan towns are surrounded by walls and there is usually a "main gate" that heads into town). There were quite a few people milling around, perhaps having finished church. There were two little cafes that seemed to be quite busy. The hotel we were first supposed to stay in was closed for the season, but Giacomo had written out directions to a different hotel. At first I felt like we were walking off into the suburbs (I'm sure it was less than a quarter mile from the square where we'd been), but we did head off to a more modern, less picturesque part of town. I was a little bummed at first, but it turned out the hotel was really nice and really...not that far to go.

There was a bit of a misunderstanding when we got there. Not a problem, of course, because only two rooms were booked that night, but the receptionist wasn't really sure who we were. She was so friendly though and she even carried my very heavy backpack up the stairs.

I'm not really sure what was going on in this picture, but there's David. Holding up the ceiling or something. One thing I like about some of these hotels in Europe is that the lights can only be on if you have your key card in a little slot by the door...so you can't accidentally leave the lights on. Well, I guess you could, but then you would be locked out.

I had a lovely shower before we went to explore the town! I didn't mention it, but we had a very nice shower in San Quirico as well. We seemed to have gotten past the bad shower experiences (foreshadowing...)


At this point in the day, we were pretty hungry. I actually can't even quite remember now if we had gotten sandwiches before we left San Quirico or if we had decided we would eat when we got to Pienza. I'm guessing the latter because we went to one of the little cafes we had seen and each ordered a pizza. Not sure we would have eaten so much if we'd had sandwiches earlier. Theses little pizzas were really quite good. I think mine was some kind of ham with cheese and truffle oil and David had some other kind of ham. They really hit the spot.


And then it was into the old-school style Pienza. Right through this gate!


Pienza has many little shops and artisans. Rick Steve's says that it's totally given over to the tourist dollar and feels a bit greedy. I didn't necessarily notice that, but it was also November and there were less tourists around, but definitely more than we had seen in the other towns.

Pienza is the birthplace of Pope Pius II. It was originally named Corsignano, and he was originally born as Silvio Piccolomini. After he became Pope he decided he would transform the city of his birth.

I thought Pienza was completely charming. We weren't able to see the Palace because it was closed for two weeks while we were there (bummer), but we were able to wander around the Duomo which is on the Piazza. Here's the facade.



And here's the Piazza. The bell tower was closed as well. Booooo!



So, the Duomo is built on the side of the hill (all on clay and sandstone) and it is totally leaning and it seems like the area with the alter is just going to break off. As you step towards the alter, it almost seems like the floor is supposed to lean down, and then you see all the cracks. These run up the walls as well. In some places, there are metal "clasps" that seem to be holding it all together. Overall, it is lovely inside, even if it does have what I think is the creepiest painting of the baby Jesus ever, which I have decided not to include. I don't want to seem disrespectful.



While we were in Pienza, I felt a little like I didn't know what to do with ourselves. I'm not a big shopper, and with the Palace being closed, we were left with few other options. One can only wander around a cathedral for so long. They did have a little museum we wandered around in and saw more relics. Lots of relics. Everywhere in Italy, relics.

So, we wandered all around the little windy streets of Pienza. And this is what it looked like. See, charming! And there were bicycles parked here and there, cats wandering about, flower boxes.


We also found gelato! Yay! I was so happy. This was nice for my sore throat and my tastebuds.



As I mentioned before, there were a lot of cheese shops. We wandered into this one and picked up some Pecorino. The woman working there was not the friendliest. She didn't seem to eager to answer our questions about the cheese. Oh well. There are grumpy people everywhere.



For dinner, we decided to go to Trattoria Latte di Luna. The receptionist had recommended someplace else, but this place looked so charming. If you look at their website, the picture in the bottom right hand corner...we sat at that table against the wall.

This was definitely a family run place. The owner came over and talked to us a little bit, and then introduced us to his daughter who makes the semifreddo and also runs their Facebook page. They had a nice little crowd in there. We had the house wine and I had the pasta with a spicy sauce (yum) and David has lasagna. It was all very good. And then the owner brought us shots of limoncello to end the evening. He seemed like such a nice guy. It was a good way to spend the evening.


And here is the gelateria from earlier!


After dinner, we called and talked to my mom and sister and the Little Guy for a little bit. As I recall, with my cold and stuff I wanted to talk to my mommy.

Another wonderful day in Italy. We only had one more day of our walking tour left, and it was to be a doozy. 8.5 miles to Montepulciano....the last 5 miles mostly uphill. Would I make it? Would my health hold out? I'll let you know!