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

IMG_1909

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!

Nearly Lift-off!

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

As the old Peter, Paul and Mary song went: “Well, my bags are packed . . . I’m ready to go . . . ” and I can almost say that’s true.  Trying to pack in the midst of fighting family fires, making last-minute lists, and re-checking reservations for flights, hotels, and most important, wonderful Italian restaurants, has kept this little old tour guide very busy in the past week.

I am so looking forward to showing a new group of women my favorite parts of my favorite country, Tuscany, Italy.

Very early Thursday morning, a limousine will arrive in front of my house and begin to load up the ladies’ luggage, and then the ladies (“women” is the term I prefer . . . ) and the driver will whisk us down to DIA where we will begin our journey, accompanied by mimosas.  I like to start out our travels in style.

Within a bit more than 24 hours, we will disembark at the Pertola airport near Florence and begin a 2-1/2 week exploration of Florence.  I will post photos and a bit of a narrative of our days, and hope you enjoy traveling vicariously with us.  Perhaps you will be inspired to join me for my next adventure, either in France (late April-Mid May 2015) or in Italy again (mid-May to early June, 2015).  Watch for more details soon!

In the meantime, ciao!

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!

Italy Women 2014

Florence, Siena, Tuscan Countryside, Cinque Terre

September 4-23, 2014

Walking across this bridge, you will find wall to wall jewelry stores . . . Ponte Vecchio means the "Old Bridge", but often people call it the "Gold Bridge".

Walking across this bridge, you will find wall to wall jewelry stores . . . Ponte Vecchio means the “Old Bridge”, but often people call it the “Gold Bridge”.

Ah, Bella Italia!  Wouldn’t we love to explore her majestic art, architecture, and cuisine, her serene villages and vineyards, her romantic coastlines for half of the rest of our lives?  Well, on this Women’s Adventure, we’ll have to settle for just a bit less than that, taking in some of the spectacular sights in the top half of “the boot”. 

We’ll begin in Florence, my favorite Italian city, full of culture and beauty, and just the right size to enjoy ourselves easily. We will stay five nights, strolling on the Ponte Vecchio to the other side of the Arno, listening to the monks chant their 5:00 Mass near the Piazzale Michelangelo, stopping at a frutta e verdura market for a fresh afternoon snack.  After a half day private walking tour to get a feel for the history of Florence, we will visit the old masters in the Uffizi Gallery and the exquisite statue of Michelangelo’s David at the Accademia.  Franco treats us like queens at Il Porcospino, a local ristorante near the Medici Chapel..

A day trip to Fiesole will give us our first taste of some northern Tuscany towns, with a spectacular view of Florence from above, and we can explore the Etruscan ruins nestled in Fiesole’s village boundaries.  And always there is espresso, cappuccino, gelato and other delicious culinary delights.

Siena - Duomo

The Duomo in Siena

We depart Florence and travel by short bus ride to Siena, where the Palio is held each year at the Campo, in July and August.  We can see clear evidence of which contrata has won the prize when we’re there.  A half-day private tour with my friend Viviana Girola will put some of Siena in a historical context, including entry into the magnificent Duomo, as well as the side gallery with ancient illuminated manuscripts on display. Then we will be free to explore the walkways, churches, shops and alleys of this old world town. My past participants always long to stay more than one night here, so I’ve added two extra nights.  Delicious dinners await us, as well as casual daytime grazing on the Campo, full of cafes and street vendors.

Our Chianti Country villa!

Our Chianti Country villa!

After kissing Siena goodbye, we will head to a lovely villa in the Tuscan countryside, near Vagliagli, just outside of Castellina in Chianti.  We will take off most days for towns in Chianti, as well as Montipulciano, Pienza, Cortona, and San Gimignano, and perhaps visit Capalbio’s Il Giardino dei Tarocchi (Tarot Garden), a spectacular park with mosaic magnificence in the form of the figures of the Major Arcana.   

We can also just spend a leisurely day or two (your choice) at the villa itself, lounging by the pool, walking the area or napping luxuriously in the Tuscan sun.  There is always time to write in your journal, one you will receive for the trip, or one you bring with you!

Our departure from the villa, on our way to Cinque Terre on the Italian Riviera, will allow time to stop in Pisa for a few hours. We will see the Leaning Tower, of course, and those of you who are adventuresome can climb the tower if you wish.  The Baptistry and the Duomo are spectacular, part of the unique Field of Miracles situated within an area the size of a city block.  Then we begin our time on the Italian Riviera nicely recovered from floods and mudslides in 2011.

Cinque Terre

             Cinque Terre – Vernazza

In Cinque Terre, where we will stay for three nights, we can walk or hike from one of the five villages to another, or take the little “milk train” instead, stopping here and then there to explore Monterosso, Vernazza, Corniglia, Manarola, and Riomaggiore.  We will steal away one day, taking the train to the spectacular oceanside town of Portofino (remember Enchanted April, filmed in that area?) for a day of shopping (even just window-shopping) in the high end stores and galleries or just sitting by the sparkling Ligurian sea, sipping chilled Prosecco and watching the yachts come and go. 

When we depart from Cinque Terre, we will head for Milan’s Malpensa airport and our return to reality!

Our trip will include AIRFARE FROM DENVER, eighteen nights’ lodging (double occupancy), all transportation within Italy, walking tours in Florence and Siena, a half-day trip to Pisa, sixteen breakfasts, three lunches, two picnics, eight dinners, entrance to the Duomo in Siena, the Uffizi, Accademia, and Medici Chapel in Florence, combo ticket in Pisa (the fee for the Tower climb is not included), Florence Street-wise maps, travel journals, and ME, your planner, guide, and all-around fire extinguisher!

Cost for above, (including airfare from Denver) is $6200.00**  A $500 non-refundable deposit holds your space.  A referral discount of  $250 is yours for early registration by November 30, 2013 OR for bringing a friend not on my list . . .

For questions, please contact Joannah L. Merriman, Lifeprints, 970-481-6339.  E-mail me at jetlost@lamar.colostate.edu and check out my travel blog, http://www.woodswomanabroad.com for samples of previous trip adventures!

A very happy group of women!

Delicious food, delicious wine, very happy women!

Arrividerci!

**Double occupancy.  Single occupancy available for additional cost.  If you are flying from somewhere other than Denver, or if you have miles you’d rather use, please talk with me. Travel insurance is a must, I’ve found, but I will offer a group rate or individual policy for the full value of your trip as well as for lost luggage, trip delays, medical coverage etc.  Details about that upon registration.

Five Days In Florence – Part Due

Throughout our time in Florence, we have the pleasure of walking a half block from our hotel right into the Piazza della Republicca, one of the main squares in Florence, for almost everything we want to do while we’re here.  The Duomo is past the Piazza, and on our day at the Uffizi, we go through this square first.  It is our gateway to the western half of Florence.  As we wander to the Arno and the Ponte Vecchio, the Piazza della Signoria offers its sculpture and history to us as well.

Lovers affix a lock to the Ponte Vecchio, promising one another that their hearts will be “locked” together forever . . . a naive but sweet ritual.

And as it happens, our visit this year coincides with a small Tuscan festival, situated right on the piazza itself.  (See photo from previous post.)  Celebrating the upcoming grape harvest, a series of lovely white tents line one side of the piazza, coincidentally in perfect view from my hotel window.  Inside these tents, area vendors offer tastings of wine, cheese, honey and other products associated with the good life in Tuscany.

As I begin to browse the offerings inside each vendor’s space, I am drawn to a table with not only several types of wines, but two stacks of books, each a bit more square than a deck of cards, and a bit fatter.  These chunky books are filled with resources, one volume for Tuscany, the other for Florence specifically.

I talk with the woman who compiled the books and wrote up the information in each . . . Veronica Ficarelli.  To my surprise (and this is one of the delights of my traveling experiences), Veronica and I quickly prove to be quite simpatico, and I see her nearly every day of our stay.

Needless to say, I promptly buy her books, but each day at an appointed time, we meet at the group of tents, exchange e-mails, and plant the seeds of a friendship I hope will flourish in between my trips back to Italy.

Veronica Ficarelli – It’s always a lovely thing to find a new friend in a favorite country!!

Anne and I purchase our wine glass at the festival, which we carry around with us, visiting one wine table and then another,

getting tiny tastes of the various products of the vineyards in the countryside.  Before or after our walks we taste and talk . . . a favorite daily ritual.

Our group develops a co-mingling independence, going off in small clumps to this restaurant, that museum, the other gallery.  We meet for breakfast in the dining room of our hotel, check in about the day’s activities, planned and spontaneous, and move out to greet the day.  Four of us visit perhaps fifteen little restaurants one evening, searching for one that serves steak tartare, finally settling for beef carpaccio instead.

Five or six of us meet up mid-day for an espresso or a cappuccino and something sweet, before or after a visit to my favorite button shop, a writing store one of us spotted during the previous few hours, a dress in the window of a tiny shop down a side street lined with cobblestones.

We can always create our adventures by simply strolling down an unfamiliar lane, turning left instead of right at an already familiar corner.

Porcillino – The Brass Pig – A Market Mascot

And then there are the scheduled activities.  Next post . . .

 9/14 – 6.77 miles registered on my pedometer

Five Days In Florence

I have never been able to explain why this city comforts me, welcomes me.  Why not Rome, one of the greatest cities in the world, according to some?  Why not Venice, my mother’s favorite?  And of course there is always Paris . . . with an atmosphere all its own . . . .  Somehow, if I were to live in a city out of our country, it would have to be Florence, my first choice.

Tents are set up for a four-day celebration of the coming grape harvest . . . Tuscan wines, cheeses, honeys, oils, etc. are available for tasting throughout the long weekend!

There is something magical about Florence, something intimate and soft, as well as historical and cultural.  There are two piazzas in close proximity to our hotel, the Albergo Pendini.  One is directly below my bedroom window, the Piazza della Repubblica.

The other is perhaps six blocks away, an easy walk, the Piazza della Signoria . . . the one with the Fake David.  That’s how we always identify it, but it is much more than that.  Bernini statures, the Palazzo Vecchio, the entrance to the Ufizzi, the cobblestone street that leads directly to the Ponte Vecchio.

An exquisite dome . . . Firenze

And the magnificent Duomo is only a few blocks from our hotel.  I only have to walk for perhaps three minutes, turn left, and in another two or three blocks, there is the breath-taking view of it.

We are spending more time here than I have ever stayed in one visit.  Five nights, thus nearly five full days this time.  And it makes no sense to give a blow-by-blow description of everything we will do in this five days.  We began the way I always do . . . a visit to the Piazzale Michelangelo, as you read in the last post.  That was Wednesday afternoon and evening.

Thursday morning, we meet Elena, a lovely young woman who is my walking guide when I come with a group.  She gives us a bit of history as we walk through the sections of the city near the Duomo, near the Arno, near the fancy shopping street, and her lilting English makes me smile.  She knows that we will end near the Antinori Cantinetta for lunch, so she plans her route accordingly.

The lunch is magnificent as usual, in the small and intimate restaurant owned by the largest wine-producing family in all of Italy.  Service is impeccable, the prices match the quality of food and wine, and everyone is satiated.  The San Lorenzo market is nearby and some of my travelers head there to look for a wide array of gifts displayed at colorful booths before they head back to our hotel again.  The Pendini is in close proximity to nearly everything we want to do in this favorite city.  Fifteen minutes of walking will get you anywhere you want to go within the old walls.

Magnificent, no matter how many times I see this statue! Absolutely breathtaking . . .

On this trip my women will visit the Medici Chapel to see ancient mosaic ceilings and floors, sculptures of Michelangelo in the Medici, the piazzas, and of course at the Accademia, where the real David stands in all his glory, at the end of a hallway lined by The Prisoners, also Michelangelo created.  Though photos are not allowed anymore, someone snuck one in quickly!

The Uffizi is full of early art, for those who have never been there, and for those whose eyes are able to take in an enormous number of paintings and sculptures by the masters . . . Caraveggio, Boticelli, da Vinci, Giotto, Titian, and of course, at least one piece by Michelangelo.

But I, like the Doobie Brothers, I am taking it to the streets.  Wandering through the winding roads is my favorite pastime, stopping when I see an inviting café (a bar, they call it in Italy) where I can have a cappuccino and something sweet, just for a moment, trying out my meager Italian as I order what I’d like.  Stopping at a market, buying a basket of strawberries, bright red in their freshness, and asking, “Quanto costa?”, then giving the vendor two Euro or three, eating the fruit along my journey.

More on bella Firenze soon.

9/13 – 6.65 miles logged on my pedometer

Coming to Florence . . . a most delightful experience

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

The Campo . . . One could spend an entire day (or week) just in this square.

This morning in Siena we were on our own, free to wander the streets, sit at a café in the Campo, shop in the many storefronts and market stands in and out of the twisty, turning cobblestone streets.  Anne and I wandered in and out of shops with purses, bumping into Amy and Laurie here and there.

The group plan was to meet at the hotel by 12:45, get our bags and walk two blocks to the bus station, where we would board the bus for Florence.  Plans went smoothly until I had everyone on the bus and realized I had left my carry bag/purse behind the desk at the hotel “for safekeeping” . . . so Mary and Sue assured me the group would find their way to the hotel in Florence (they all had their StreetWise Florence maps, indispensable for easy wandering), and I would take the next bus an hour later.

Three hours later, checked into our rooms at the lovely Hotel Pendini, we again gathered together and headed out in taxis to the Piazalle Michelangelo and the church of San Mineato, high on top of a hill overlooking all of Florence.  The views from up there are spectacular!

San Mineato not only has a beautiful church, but the grounds house a cemetery full of family crypts, sculptures, and decorated gravestones.  At 5:30, we quietly walked into the church, settling ourselves in the lower level so we could hear the monks chanting the Mass.  Two of the monks settled themselves on time, and then began to look at their watches and exchange mystified glances as the minutes clicked by.  By 5:45, one of them left by the side alter, and ultimately, the rest of the monks entered, followed by . . . surprise . . . (see Rome/Pantheon entry) another ancient priest who was apparently supposed to say the Mass.  His wavering voice began a thin, watery chant, and his shaking hand could barely turn the page of the Mass book at the pulpit.  Where DO ancient priests go when they no longer really belong in front of people?

By 6:30 we were on our way back down the hill, walking this time, following a path full of students, locals, and cats.  Eventually finding ourselves on the street in the Oltrarno district, we came upon a Capoeria session inside one of the doorways on our path.  Capoeria is a Brazilian martial art that combines dance and music with their “fight” motions.  Adults and children moved beautifully to the drum beats of several members of the group. A perfect example of “stumbling into magic” that comes with wandering the back streets in another country . . . I was able to video just a bit of it before one of the Capoeria members asked me to stop.  Unfortunately, I can’t seem to load it here, so I’ll have to get better instructions!

Walking across this bridge, you will find wall to wall jewelry stores . . . Ponte Vecchio means the “Old Bridge”, but often people call it the “Gold Bridge”.

We wound our way to the Arno River, and ultimately crossed at the Ponte Vecchio (more on that later).

Our evening ended with dinner at Il Porcospino, well taken care of by Franco and the rest of the staff.  I love beginning my time in Florence at this restaurant, where everyone is happy to see me and whomever I bring along for a great meal!

I walked 7.66  miles today.