The finale and home

Well, I am back in Colorado, and have been too wiped out to complete the details about the rest of our trip until now. However, my entries will be easier to read now, because my daughter fixed my paragraph formatting problem in the last couple of days. She called and said, “Mom, I hacked into your blog, and now your paragraphs actually show up as paragraphs!” Ah, the wisdom (and technical skill) of youth . . .

So I think I had completed most of our villa day trip details, having finished the San Gimignano and vineyard tour. And the last day of our villa week was spent lounging, re-packing, and preparing to leave Ambra for points north. The older couple who cooks for us sometimes when we’re at the villa, Anna and Pasquale, returned Friday evening with their son Patrizio, and presented us with a sumptuous meal. Any of you who are reading this could have joined us and we still would have had more food than we needed.

And at the end of the evening, Debra, Adell and I went into Ambra to find that internet point in the bar, about which I wrote on May 19, I believe. That was one of the highlights of my trip, and it made me realize that being in a little town with NO tourists, just soaking up the local color, is exactly where I want to be.

So . . . Saturday morning, we packed up all three cars and headed back to Florence to the car rental return. We piled all our luggage in one corner of the car return garage so our mini-bus driver, Marco, could load it up in the little bus, which we had hired to take us up to Cinque Terre. Marco’s eyes got bigger and bigger as he watched the continuous parade of bags from the ten of us, after ten days of shopping through Tuscany. We assured him that we didn’t mind some of the bags riding in the seats with us. Fully loaded, we made our way to our first stop of the day, Pisa, to see the Leaning Tower, Cathedral, Baptistry, and the junk-market circus that surrounds these beautiful treasures. We were scheduled to stay in Pisa for two hours, and that’s about how long it takes to visit the buildings, and make the decision NOT to climb hundreds of steps to the top of the tower, which leans more precariously with every second one considers how it would feel to hang out of the top of it.

Back in the van again, we continued our journey to Cinque Terre, the five villages on the Italian Riviera which are built on very steep hillsides above the sea. Typically one can drive to the edge of the village, unload one’s bags, and drive back up to the pay-parking lot half way up the mountain, but I hadn’t considered that these mini-buses are not allowed to do that, and they must stop quite a way up the mountain, much farther than we typically park. Marco parked the bus and turned off the motor. I tried in my minimal Italian to tell him I thought he could drive down so we could unload the bags. He folded his arms, glared at me, and said, “Non posso.” I certainly understood those two words. I cannot. He got out of the van and began to unload the bags onto the pavement. I gave him an early tip, 50 Euro, and he mellowed a bit. After a few phone calls to Andrea, our host at our B & B in Manarola, the National Park shuttle showed up to take nine of us down to the town, while Debra stayed back with all the bags. Soon a little 2-person truck with a large flat bed (picture a wide pick-up truck . . . now reduce the size by half . . . and try not to imagine that the vehicle needs winding before it will go anywhere . . . ) arrived to get the bags and Debra. Once the arrangements had been made, it was an easy entry, but at first, all I could think if was ten of us dragging perhaps 30 bags of all sizes (and WEIGHTS) down the mountain road toward the sea. Perhaps once we began, we would just roll down into the waves and float back to Boston!

Settled into our rooms in Manarola we set out to explore the village, walk down to the bottom of the town to the Marina Piccolo bar for cappucino all around. Over the next three days we scattered here and there among the five villages, hiking, shopping, eating, tasting wine, and enjoying the spectacular, take-your-breath-away views from anywhere, always out to the Italian Mediterranean where the water was blue and looked much friendlier than it probably was.

More later.



May 18 – San Gimignano and a winery

Today we headed out, all of us, for the fortress of San Gimignano. This, another medieval hilltown, had 72 towers at one time, and still has 14 of the original standing tall above the hill outside Poggibonsi (we’ve all agreed this is our favorite weird word for the season . . . poggibonsi, which is apparently named after a famous Italian poet). We thought we had chosen a good day, because one of our guide books said that Thursday is market day in San Gimignano. That was a bad idea. The main piazza, Piazza del Cisterna, and the one next to it, Piazza del Duomo, are usually stony calm places to meet up with one’s group, but today, the market was actually dozens of tented tables, full of schlock, not artisan items, and we couldn’t find the Cisterna, thus it was difficult to find one another. But we all managed finally, with the aid of cell phones and occasional shouts across the fray, to locate one another, find an escape route on streets past the Duomo, and locate corners of the old town that were away from all the market hawkers.

Debra and I wandered up a hillside behind the Duomo, after a stop at the Leo Balducci pottery studio and shop (a favorite of mine here) and discovered a musician playing a harpsicord in the middle of a grassy patch of ground. We sat and lsitened, purchased three CDs, and wove our way back down through the main square, now devoid of the market mess, to find our car. The rest of the group was still in San G, but we, Debra and I, were on a different mission. We had contacted a woman named Franca Gatteschi, the owner of a small winery near Gaiole in Chianti, just outside Montegrossi (through the village, look for the madonna shrine on the right, turn right down the dirt road until it ends and there you are!). She had invited us to come to her house and vineyard, winery and tasting room, to have a look around. After many wrong turns here and there, we finally arrived at the Madonna statue and were stumped as to which dirt road to follow. But cell phones, even in these little bitty places, DO work well enough to get us where we want to go, and we met Sra. Gatteschi, a delightful woman of perhaps late 60’s or 70 years of age, who gave us two hours of her time and information, tastings of four of her family wines, and an exchange of e’mail information. She comes to Colorado twice a year and we are going to arrange for her to come to my house to do some cooking classes! Anyone interested?

After our Gatteschi adventure, we joined the rest of the group at the Trattoria at Colona Di Grillo for a sumptuous meal (I think I have not seen so many dishes on the table during this whole trip) and a fairly minimal bill at the end of the night.

Tomorrow we will stay close to the villa and try to pack our things efficiently, because on Saturday we will take the cars back to Firenze and get our mini-bus up to Cinque Terre, a completely different experience.



May 17-Chianti Country

This morning, a Wednesday, three of our group decided to stay at the villa to relax. Cyndy and Adell headed to Arezzo to see frescos and churches, while five of us headed northwest/west to the Chianti towns for the day. We first stopped in Gaiole in Chianti, a nice little place where we always do our first exploration of this region. There is a little walking street with a sort of hardware store, a kitchen store, a wine-tasting place and the usual ATMs and Tabacchi stores, for post cards and stamps and the ever necessary bottles of water.

After a short stay, we headed to our main destination, lunch at Badia a Coltibuono, a restaurant on the grounds of an abbey, Lorenza Di Medici’s cooking school, and a lovely little shop which sells the wines of the Badia as well as many other tempting goodies. One of our group nearly purchased a four-foot in diameter ceramic table top, until she realized that the shipping would cost nearly as much as the table. But in this lovely setting we had a fantastic lunch, with cream of fresh pea soup topped with goat cheese, grilled deer with risotto, goose carpaccio on creamed polenta with cream . . . you know . . . the usual restaurant fare!

After two hours enjoying our food and the magnificent view, we went back down the hill, toured the shop, and headed for Greve in Chianti, another favorite of mine. For the first time ever, I didn’t buy wine in the excellent wine store in Greve. I didn’t even ENTER the store. So good for me. I did get some practical items, namely dish towels, and sat at an outdoor cafe for the requisite cappuccino. Drinking cappuccino and bottled water are constant activities in Italy, which then require that one find a toilette, preferably not a ceramic hole in the ground, but a real toilet . . . perhaps with real toilet paper as well.

As the sun was smiling low in the sky, we made our way back to Ambra and our villa, where the three homebodies had gone grocery shopping and had dinner grazing ready for us when we arrived. Another beautiful day.


May 16 – Lake Trasimeno and Cortona

Lake Trasimeno is situated just inside Umbria, just east of the Tuscan border, and has three islands, I think, one on which Neil and I, Ashley and a friend stayed for three days in 1996, if I remember correctly. The women, three cars full again, drove to the town of Passignano, caught a little ferry boat to the Isola Maggiore, and spent a few hours, eating, walking, sitting, taking photographs of the old doors on the houses of the fishermen who live on the island. There are five churches on this island, five churches in the space which one can circumnavigate in one hour or less.

The lake is calm and beautiful, but we all wanted to spend some time in Cortona as well before we headed back to the villa, so we were off again in mid-afternoon up to Cortona, the town made famous by Frances Mayes (Under The Tuscan Sun). Read the book, see the movie (not much like the book, but a fun movie nonetheless) and enjoy vicariously the life in another medieval village WAY up on the hill. There is a different feel to Cortona, somehow. More noble, a bit less junk for sale, I’m not quite sure. But I entered the walled town from a different entrance than I typically do, having found a parking spot JUST outside one of the arches. Ten steps inside the walls I stood in front of a tiny gallery full of whimsical original drawings by a young man (everyone is young in my eyes these days . . . either young or VERY VERY old . . . )who sat just outside the shop. Short story is I bought three of his pieces for a very reasonable price, and they are packed well and safely in one of my suitcases. For some reason I wanted to stay in Cortona on this visit. I sat at a little table in the square, sipping white sangria with something added which tasted like peach schnappes, and wondered what it would be like to have a Frances Mayes experience. I don’t think I could live without the dogs and Neil, but it was nice to fantasize anyway.



Tuscan hilltowns – May 15 – Montepulciano-Pienza

This is my catch-up, the promised one. I will do it in segments, since there is no way I can figure out how to make paragraph breaks or indentations which actually post to the site.

This is a new paragraph! Montepulciano is situated about 45 minutes from our villa, in my favorite part of Tuscany, and is quite close to Pienza, site of some of the scenes in The English Patient.

We drove our three cars to Montepulciano and all ended up in the same parking area within 5 minutes of one another! Amazing! We all walked through the old medieval brick and stone arch, tasted a bit of tuscan toppings on tuscan bread, but agreeing that it was too early in the morning for the wine. The sun hadn’t yet crossed the yardarm, as Neil likes to say.

I bought six jars of my favorite pasta seasoning mix, saving five to take home and earmarking one of them for the pasta I would cook for our group that evening. We found the lovely Caffe Polizziano for lunch, a recommendation from one of our last travelers two years ago, and then we all split up to shop or write or find the internet cafe. Unfortunately, we left our restaurant just at about 1:30, which is the time the shops are all closed. So we were forced to stay in the only store that stayed open, a beautiful leather shop with journals, pens, shoes, purses, and I found I just couldn’t resist a soft red leather journal. It came with an old fashioned pen, the dipping into the ink kind, and I was told I could choose a color of ink to take home with me. I certainly hope my clothes aren’t purple when I unpack them!

On to Pienza for the last half of the afternoon, the beautiful little place tucked on the edge of the Tuscan valley. There I finally bought a ceramic pitcher made by a woman who owns MezzaLuna (half moon), and I will carry it home on the plane.

Back at the villa, several of the women chopped mushrooms, onions, garlic, and peppers while I made the pasta sauce. Salad and a nice Chianti topped it all off well.

We even had a fire in the huge old kitchen fireplace in our villa. Sleep until the next day. See next entry for Lake Trasimeno, Isola Maggiore, and Cortona.


A beautiful afternoon, and then, some catch-up . . .

Well, we’ll see . . . I titled this, and the hit “enter” so I hope I can amend this post. Otherwise, there is always another, right?

I have neglected to write about the day trips we have taken while we were in the villa in Ambra, but now, I am sitting in the little train station in Manarola (fourth from the “top”), the Cinque Terre village in which we are staying for three nights. This morning it was cold and stormy, so we bagged the plan to go to Camoglie and Portofino, hoping tomorrow morning will be better. But then the day turned beautiful at about noon, and I have returned from an afternoon in Vernazza, the second little village from the “top” (north) of Cinque Terre.

In Vernazza I found a favorite restaurant, got a glass of the local wine and made reservations for dinner. Then crossed the piazza about twenty steps to the wall just overlooking the little beach and inlet in this lovely place. Boats peppered the piazza, and as I looked out to the sea, I heard the din of all the international voices all around me. Today was some sort of May Day, and many little children were celebrating their first communion, which is apparently a HUGE family event. Our own host, Andrea, showed up this morning outside the breakfast room at Da Baranin in a white suit and red printed shirt, on his way to a family celebration in La Spezia with his wife, two young children, his brother and sister-in-law and their baby, etc. In Vernazza, little girls in their white dresses ran around happily with younger cousins, siblings, and beaming aunts, uncles and parents.

I sat on the edge of the water and then moved to a table steps away, part of the Ristorante Gamberoni Rossi, I believe. I think that’s the Red Shrimp Restaurant, believe it or not. I sat alone, luxuriating in my solitude amidst thousands of visitors. Asked the waiter for a plate of sliced tomatoes and a pesto pasta dish (pesto originated in this area, and it was green, creamy, and delicious). The food came with the requisite bread basket, plate of foccacia, olive oil, balsamic vinegar, and a bottle of water (senza gassa-without bubbles). Also un quarto, a 25 ml. carafe of a better version of the local wine. I had a conversation with a nice couple next to me from Seattle, then settled into my food and my book.

By the time I had finished both the food and the first story in the book, I was nearly in tears with the joy of just being here, reading Amy Bloom’s exquisite prose from her book of short stories, entitled Come to Me. The first story is entitled “Love Is Not A Pie”, and I remember it from years ago. Truly it is the kind of writing you want to read out loud to your dearest friend.

Enough already. I am going to walk back up the windy old brick and stone street through Manarola, back to my room to rest a bit and get ready to go back to Vernazza tonight with half of my group to have dinner at Gianni.

More later.

Ambra on a Friday night!

Well, I am at a real cultural event! We are staying at a villa just outside Ambra, between Siena and Arezzo. We’ve been here nearly a week, doing day trips which I have begun to write about, and will continue to report to all of you. Tonight, after our last dinner at the villa, brought to us by our local favorite couple, Anna and Pasquale and their son Patrizio, three of us decided to go into Ambra, the little village, to find an Internet cafe.

We were told about two computers sitting quietly in the back of the local bar, open until midnight. So here we sit, with most of the townspeople of all ages outside on the piazza, men crowded around the tables and the bar entrance, the women sitting on benches on the outer perimeter, and little children running around everywhere. You enter the bar (sort of a cross between a 7-11, a gelato shop and a pool hall), find your way to the second layer of rooms, and move to the corner where the computers are. This particular screen is hiding the left two inches, so I have no idea what I have typed at the beginning of each line. Mea culpa.

At any rate, the conversation behind us is deafening, as perhaps thirty old Italian men have pulled their chairs into a circle in the middle of which is a card came or dice or something. All we can hear is the roar of approval or dismay after each hand. I want to stay here forever, part of a little community like this.

My Italian classes continue to serve me fairly well. I understood at least 30-50% of all the velocemente (fast) conversations thrown at me by our cooks, as well as by the old owners of the villa. They have invited me to contact them directly next time I come to visit, rather than go through the two agencies we have to use. Andthe cooks have invited us all to their house next time we are here. Cinque minute vicino . . . five minutes near, actually.

Tomorrow we brave the trip back to Florence in our three rental cars, where a 16-passenger van is supposed to be waiting to pick us up, take us to Pisa for a couple of hours to see the Leaning Tower, Baptistry and Duomo, etc., and then whisk us on to Cinque Terre, specifically our little village of Manarola, the fourth in the line of five villages, if you are going north to south.

Iàll write more in another entry, since it looks like no matter how I format my writing, paragraphs, indentations, double space between paragraphs, everything shows up in one long stream of letters. Again, mea culpa.

Grazie e ciao.