Italy Women 2014, continued . . .

September 20, 2014

Our week in Chianti, with home base in a beautiful villa in Vagliagli, was spectacular!  With a van that held all of us, we didn’t have to worry about caravaning in three cars or getting lost (well, at least not THREE cars getting lost) on our way to our daily adventures.  Peggy was my navigator-extraordinaire, and though on the first day, just outside of Siena, an unruly metal guardrail jumped out and snatched a big blocky side-panel attached to the left rear of the van, we still managed to get to our first destination, the beautiful restaurant at Badia a Coltibuono for lunch, just outside Radda in Chianti.

P1020418Badia a Coltibuono is also the property on which Lorenza di Medici’s cooking school is situated, and if you want to spend several thousand dollars for a few days with the school, your bank account is much larger than any of ours!  But lunch on the grounds is exquisite, with wisteria drooping over the canopy overlooking the Tuscan hills.

During our week at Solaria di Santa Maddelena, up the hill from the little town of Vagliagli, we spread out among the seven bedrooms and six bathrooms, the four patios and decks, a huge living space with large dining room and larger living room, and we played.  For several days we all piled into the 9-passenger van I rented, and explored the area.

A sneak peek at the Tarot Garden

A sneak peek at the Tarot Garden

Day One, Sunday, we traveled took advantage of a cloudless sky and a good weather forecast, and drove all the way to Porto Santo Stefano and the Giardino Tarocchi near Capalbio.  The Tarot Garden is the brain-child and many-decade project of artist Niki de Saint Phalle, http://www.nikidesaintphalle.com , a nearly unbelievable mosaic labor of love.  Click on the link for many photos and the story itself.

The next morning we headed to Montepulciano, a favorite hilltown, where we were promptly applauded by several elderly Italian men watching me pack into a tight parking space with this huge van!  Three or four of my travelers were outside the van, calling directions for situating the big Opel beast perfectly within the lines of the parking area.  Where was my camera THEN??

We finished that day by making a stop in Pienza, the location for two scenes in the film, The English Patient, as well as the home of pecorino cheese, a fine sheep’s cheese.  Stopped at the main piazza for a cappuccino with some of the group, joined by Jennifer, the gelato queen of our trip, and her friend Mindy, both nodding in approval at their selected flavors of the creamy stuff.

My pitcher, with one of Jennifer's vessels behind it.

My pitcher, with one of Jennifer’s vessels behind it . . .

Shopping in Greve in Chianti, everyone found something special, a manageable painting, a ceramic pitcher or other-shaped vessel, and two bottles of wine for Neil, a tradition begun in 1999 when he and I visited this wine shop in Greve together.

For some reason, (perhaps because of the wine shop and the very unique ceramic artisan shop) this is my favorite Chianti town, though others might argue the virtues of Radda, Castellina, Gaiole and Panzano as “best”.  I used to try to rush around and see at least three in one day.  Now it is more enjoyable to just land in one village and take my time.  My traveling companions were more than happy to do that as well.

As we wound down the afternoon and returned to our villa, those who stayed home were preparing a delicious dinner for us, and we were satiated with sightseeing, shopping, swimming and sumptuous food, ready to go to bed and greet tomorrow’s adventures well-rested.

Finishing Our First Week

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Michelangelo’s most famous and stunning sculpture . . .

September 13, 2014 – Five days in Florence just flew by, as it always does, with exquisite visits to the Accademia to see the David, the Medici Chapel, the Uffizi, and up high to the Etruscan town, Fiesole.  Wandering the streets of Florence, walking over one bridge and back across another . . . the Ponte Vecchio, Ponte Santa Trinita, always with a misty or sunny view of the Arno River.

By Wednesday, September 10, we were headed to Siena for the next three days.  Walking tours with Viviana Girola are always a must in Siena, and we toured the Duomo, the historical banking Piazzas, the Campo, and the palazzo where ancient documents from centuries of official transactions are stored.

A caprese a day . . . delicious!

A caprese a day . . . delicious!

As in Florence, our Siena days were also filled with delicious meals, including my staple, like an apple a day, the caprese insalate.  Fresh tomatoes, alternated with creamy mozzarella and a variety of applications for the sprig of basil.  I just can’t get enough of this dish, and there is no reason to deny myself.  It is low calorie, and much more satisfying to my taste buds than gelato, though several of the woman are becoming experts in the gelato arena.

The women in this group have threads of connections with one another that grow stronger with each passing meal, each passing glass of wine, each day of this trip.  We eat, shop, eat, walk and walk, laugh, break up into small groups sometimes, wander alone when we want, and come together each evening for another delicious dinner.  On our second evening in Siena, we attended an opera concert, with nearly a dozen arias sung by a woman whose strong voice was actually too much for the little church venue, but when in Italy, how appropriate to hear these familiar pieces sung in the language of this rich-in-culture country.

Siena, Day 3 is free for whatever everyone wants to do . . . exploring back streets to find that special cheese shop, looking for linens and discovering an art store, wandering around until we find our dinner restaurant for the evening, and of course, stopping often along the way for an espresso (big discussions about NOT calling them EXpressos!) or a cappuccino.

The Campo - Siena's center of energy, and a great meeting place!

The Campo – Siena’s center of energy, and a great meeting place!

And always in the center of the town is the famous wide Campo, site of the Palio, the horse races in July and August that determine the winning contrata (neighborhood district) each year.  The Campo is a buzzing place, big enough so it never seems too crowded, with a tower at one end and a fountain at the other, making it easy to find your traveling companions to reconnect after a day of exploring.

Today, Saturday, we will head for the Hertz office and get our cars . . . YIKES!

 

 

Florence is the place to be . . .

September 7, 2014

Our first three days in Florence, after a full day of travel (with jetlag) have been spectacular.  I hope you like that word, because I’m sure that many of the next two-plus weeks of experiences will earn the right to use that word . . . spectacular.

We began on Thursday, September 4 at the ungodly hour of 5:30 a.m., when A Last Minute Limosine showed up at my curb, awaiting six of my group of eight, luggage and all.  The very efficient women had delivered their larger bags to my house on Wednesday evening, to make the loading process more efficient, so that by the time we all climbed into the very long, smooth limo, the driver had packed the bags and we were quickly ready to head to DIA.  Mimosas on the way down, and we arrived at the airport in plenty of time to check in, show passports, and even to allow United ticketing agents (bless their efficient hearts) to undo a big confusion-glitch compliments of Swiss Air, involving three of our passengers.

However, that effciency was undone by the weather in Chicago, thunderstorms that caused an hour of extra stuffy time on the tarmac before we could be cleared for take-off.  But our Italia magic prevailed and we caught all of our connections, uniting our group with our separate traveler, Lydia, at the Florence airport.

Settling into the Hotel Pendini went off without a hitch, their staff warmly welcoming us as they do each time I return with my groups.  Eating our way through this favorite city began with lunch at Cantinetta Antinori, an elegant little restaurant in the very fancy shopping district, after which we walked (and sometimes trudged) up a very long hill across the Arno, to get to Piazale Michelangelo and the Church of San Mineota, just in time to hear the monks sing the Mass.  High above Florence, we stood together and looked out over the city.

Caprese salad, Italian style . . . the real deal!

Caprese salad, Italian style . . . the real deal!

Firenze in a haze, but lovely, as always.

Saturday we met my lovely walking tour guide, Elena Leo, whose abundant knowledge about P1020282this area enhances our trip each time we are in Florence.

Just so readers know, my WordPress isn’t behaving as it did on the Camino, and until I figure it out, I’ll do my best to send details of our trip every few days.  But the photos aren’t “nesting” in the text in any consistent way.   Ah, Viva Firenze!

Our Group Is Nearly Complete . . .

May 22, 2014

It’s the middle of the night, and I have been checking out the menu for each of my favorite Tuscan restaurants, in preparation for our Italy Women 2014 adventure!  We have had a health-related cancellation, and that woman is one sad puppy . . . will YOU be the person to fill this recently re-opened final space in our fabulous Tuscany and Cinque Terre Italy Women trip??  . . . September 4-23, 2014.

Check out the November post on this website, the one that has ALL of the details!  Drool, and then let me know if you are interested in being that last lucky person.  We’ve got a great group already!

Update on Italy Women 2014 Adventure

Well, there are two spots available for our September trip, and you can scroll down to see all the details, pricing, etc.

Florence, Siena, Chianti country villa, and the Cinque Terre!  A variety of beauty for the eyes  . . . I just secured our accommodations in Manarola (Cinque Terre), right at the edge of the Italian Riviera.  And the villa we have acquired for a full week . . . well, looky here, as my sister says!

Our Chiangi Country villa

Our Chianti Country villa!

Five nights in the heart of Florence, three nights in beautiful Siena, and a week exploring the Tuscan countryside from this villa . . . San Gimignano, Montepulciano, the Chianti towns (Castellina, Greve, Radda), tasting delicious food and wine, and soaking up the ambiance of the area.

Portofino harbor

Portofino harbor

Our adventures culminate on the Italian Riviera, where we can explore the coastal towns from Riomaggiore to Portofino.  As we travel, I’ll write here about our daily activities.  Will you join us?

Check through some of the archives for past years’ details. And go to the details post for further information.

Ciao!

Market Week in Provence, Part 3

May 9 and 10, 2012.  Mid-week in Provence found us in St. Remy, and to our surprise, Wednesday was Market Day in this town famous for the fact that it is the home of the mental hospital at which Van Gogh spent about 15 months.  Down the path to the hospital and surrounding it are eighteen plaques, what I call the Van Gogh Stations of the Cross . . . on each plaque is a reproduction of one of his paintings, along with an excerpt from his journals, or a letter to his brother, or some other bit of his writing which helps put each painting in context.

No matter how many times I enter the hospital, I am always struck again by the austerity of the room in which he slept, the simple horror of the tub where he received his shock treatments, and the beauty he created despite his tortured mind.  The hospital is still functioning, and the young patients take great inspiration from Van Gogh’s dedication to his work despite his mental illness.  Many of the patients’ paintings are for sale in the inevitable gift shop.

The presence of the street market made today’s visit to St. Remy even more full of color and the buzz of the local shoppers.  Fresh fish, vegetables, eggs, jams, sausages, olives as well as table linens, purses, dresses, and street musicians filled the streets from downtown to the visitor’s center.

What’s for lunch??

Though we are beginning to recognize some of the vendors, the variety of booths and tables of merchandise never stops surprising me.

Next time I come to this intriguing little city, I won’t even look for a restaurant.  I’ll just graze ecstatically among the market’s offerings!

On our way back to our villa after lunch, we spotted a glowing field of poppies, so we pulled off the side of the road, walked to the field, all of us with cameras in hand, and clicked and clicked until we thought we might have had our fill of the view.  Incredible!

Brilliant poppy field with a backdrop of the Luberon Mountains

Our days are full and lazy in that order.  Plenty of places to see while it’s sunny, and then back to the villa to relax, read, swim, graze at a table full of market fare, and sleep, sweet sleep before we begin again.

Thursday’s market venture found us in Aix-en-Provence, where the market stretched down long avenues and wound through alleyways and plazas.  After a morning of shopping and lunch in front of the merchandise market, we returned to the villa in anticipation of our dinner, prepared for us on site by Chef Ronald, http://www.chefronald.fr, and we were not disappointed.  You can check out his website (click on “English”) and go to the menus for a mouth-watering list of possibilities, with photos.

More on that in the next post!

Market Week in Provence: Part 1

May 7, 2012. When I created the schedule of activities for most of our week in Provence, I didn’t deliberately choose to visit my favorite towns — Cassis, Gordes, Roussilon, St. Remy, Aix-en-Provence — each on the day of the local market, but four days out of five, that’s what happened.  I must admit that Sunday’s outing (see the previous post) was a deliberate market choice, and our timing was better than in the past.  Earlier in the day, the colorful booths explode out of the pathways around the Sorgue river, full of everything from tableclothes to shawls to baskets to cheeses, olives, roasted chickens, antique threads and tapestries, furniture, and schlock souvenirs (though thankfully there isn’t much of that).

Monday’s journey was to the Cote d’Azur, the French Riviera, specifically the beautiful little town of Cassis.  The U-shaped harbor is lined with cafes and what else . . . shops.  And at the water’s U-shaped edges are rows and rows of sailboats and motorized touring boats, which carry their passengers in and out of the Riviera’s calanques, fjords, the watery fingers of this part of the coast.

Since I have a strong tendency toward motion sickness, and have braved the waters the first time I traveled to this part of the area, I choose to send my traveling ducklings down these beautiful passageways without me.  The turquoise sparkling surface of the water reflected a magnificent sky today, and in my mind, the weather was perfect.

While my travelers cruised the calanques, I scouted out a restaurant where I could sit down and have my favorite boat-waiting meal . . . steak tartare!  Glass of red wine, basket of delicious French bread (there is NO bread like French bread from France, no matter HOW much I love Italy!), and a plate of fresh raw beef, parmesan cheese shavings, arugula in the center.  An on-shore meal to die for . . .

When the cruise boat returned to the dock, everyone was hungry, so of course we scouted restaurants and menus again until we found a place that offered something for everyone in our group.  I was happy with a glass of ice water and lemon, but the women had their fill of delicious soups, salads, and sandwiches after their time on the water.

Getting out of Cassis is always a challenge, and even with a GPS, the first few turns are very tricky  Who knows where we might end up?

After returning the women to our villa to enjoy the late afternoon sun (and a glass of wine, of course!), Anne and I went to the neighboring town, Coustellet, to find a Super U grocery store, to stock our barren refrigerator and cupboards.  Cheese, fruit, bread, coffee, salad greens, roasted chicken, fig jam, a bottle of Port, among our goodies, and accompanied by the wine we purchased at the Caveau de Luberon, a wine-tasting bar and wine store, we were set for at least half the week.

Back at our villa, we arranged our food purchases from the Sunday market and those from today’s grocery outing onto platters and carried everything out to the table in our courtyard, set to relax until bedtime.

Last days in Provence

Friday, October 15. Today was a day to stay near the villa town and its neighbors, do short visits here and there, do laundry, pack up and get ready to move on to the second half of our France adventure.

We slept in, made breakfast and headed out toward Roussillion again to check out the color, the shops, and the countryside. Gordes was also on our list, a beautiful hill town north of our village of Goult. Again, walking the town, stopping into bakeries and lavender shops, gathering fresh bags of herbs de Provence, and finally lunch at a little cafe, L’Estaminet Cave a Vin, where we ate outside in the glorious sunshine. I had the most delicious pate foie gras, buttery and rich, accompanied by toast points, a fresh Mesclun green salad, and sweet onion chutney, chased down my throat with lots of water and a delicious glass of local red wine! YUM . . .

My car, with Kay, Ellen and Gena as my passengers, then nosed its way down the hillside to the Village des Bories, a renovated ancient stone site, with the most amazing dwellings, all out of stacked stone without any mortar.

A final stop to LaCoste, where Gena was determined to see the Marquis de Sade’s castle, and though we couldn’t drive to it, no matter what the signs said, we parked and she took her determined self up the hill to get more than a glimpse of the crumbling facade. Pierre Cardin is said to be restoring the castle to its original sadistic brilliance, and we’ll see how long THAT takes!

Back to the villa, everyone was finishing the last of the soup, cheeses, olives, and all manner of bread goodies. We have to be up and out of the villa before 10:00, headed north over Mont Ventoux to our next stop, Gigondas, in the Rhone Valley.

More of Our Villa Week in Provence

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Ah, the best laid plans . . . I know, I’m behind on my Provence details, because we’ve been having such a lovely time, though the weather hasn’t been as warm as we had hoped. Yes, we’ve been eating, drinking, talking, reading, walking, laughing, etc. Wonderful villages, beautiful countryside, not any real progress learning any French. We try, but it’s a hilarious effort!

I left you in St. Remy on Monday, walking around with the Van Gogh “stations of the cross”. Tuesday, we drove to Aix-en-Provence to the market, met our Chef Daniel and walked around the mouth-watering stalls of food, while he carefully chose the ingredients for our dinner that night. Small shiny aubergine, my favorite color. (Eggplant, that is). And zucchini. Girolles and sep (mushrooms to die for), some sea bass, goat cheeses, pears, and honey. Then he went off to the villa to begin preparation for our evening meal while we found a lovely restaurant for lunch (I’ll get the card from my stash and enter the name here soon) and agreed to do a bit more market looking/shopping before we met at the cars at 3:30 to return to the villa.

Later that afternoon, Daniel set out cutting boards and sharp knives for each of us and we chopped and sliced, stirred and tasted, according to his direction, finally sitting down to our evening meal, accompanied by sparkling wine, white, rose, and red.

Of course we again went to our bedrooms stuffed to the gills, I with a cup of tea in my hand.

Wednesday, October 13. The winery St. Esteve de Neri, owned and operated by our villa hosts, Allan and Alexandra (Alex) Wilson, was our destination today. This morning we didn’t have to leave very early, and we took the opportunity to lounge around the kitchen table in our pajamas before heading to St. Esteve. The winery is located outside Ansouis, so we drove through a charming two-level village called Bonnieux, then Lourmarin, and finally approached Ansouis and turned into the vineyard property.

Allan was awaiting our arrival and we got a short tour of the lower levels, where the enormous stainless steel vats hold the wine before it is bottled. We then had a bit of a lesson in tasting, with one white wine, one rose, and three reds. Just as we finished our tasting, Helen, Alex’s sister and our chef from last Saturday evening, rang the tasting room to say that our lunch was waiting for us on the patio of the Wilsons’ home.

Walking from tasting room to home patio, we passed the vineyard again, complete with turning leaves, garden cats, and that smell of the countryside nothing else can duplicate. Our table was set with delicious fresh tomatoes from the garden, olives, fish cakes, roasted chicken and fingerling potatoes, and the richest chocolate mousse I’ve ever tasted. Since I’m not a chocolate fan (I know, I know . . . ) I bestowed my portion of dessert on a chocoholic fellow traveler!

Later in the afternoon we stopped in Rousillon for a short visit, and marveled at the red and ochre cliffs surrounding this picturesque village. We decided we’ll have to return tomorrow.

Dinner on this night was light, since our lunch stuck to our ribs nearly until bedtime. Sle
ep and a new day of adventures tomorrow, this time to the seacoast!

Thursday, October 14, all but one of our group headed south again, this time in brilliant sunlight, toward Cassis, a small town on the French Riviera. The coastline is gifted with calanques, the fjords of this area. You can take a boat ride to visit the calanques or just sit on the boardwalk at a restaurant and watch the water. I chose to do the latter because I’ve seen the calanques from the water, and I’m a bit motion sick to say the least. So while the women embarked on a five-calanque ride, I sat at an outside table with a delicious plate of boef tartare, its presentation deserving of a photo or painting, but alas, I dug into it before I remembered that I had a camera.

I took out my Kindle, sipped my red wine, and savored the most delicious tartare I’ve ever eaten. It came as a ground up raw patty of beef, with a trio of minced onions, capers and parsley surrounding it. A raw egg topped the beef and I mixed all the ingredients into a most tempting mess on the plate. Then lovingly slathered bits of the tartare on fresh crusty bread and closed my eyes, savoring every bit of my light lunch. The waiter asked about dessert and I began to shake my head, but then asked what he had to offer. In the list of possibilities, the words “flan caramel” caught my attention and I ordered a slice. Exquisite!!! With a generous dollop of fresh whipped cream, drizzled with the same caramel sauce that bathed the flan.

When my traveling companions returned on their boat, THEY were hungry, though I was now completely stuffed, and happy. So I sat with all of them while they had their share of real French Fries, crepes, and salads. Another hour of exploring shops through the harbor walk, a cafe au lait with Kay, and we were back in our cars, negotiating the roads from Cassis through Aix to our sleepy town of Goult and down the long dirt road toward our villa.

No one was famished that evening, but I made a huge pot of chicken vegetable soup, with herbs de Provence right from the source! Salad and some of that incredible crusty bread and we were full, warm and happy.

More later.

Bon nuit!