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Off-season pleasures

12 Nov
Off-season travel usually means planning a trip around indoor activities, i.e., museums and churches. November in Roma has been glorious, so much so that I almost feel guilty knowing what the weather has been like in Portland. Tuscany was equally mellow and we were pleasantly surprised to find Lucca wreathed in fall color whereas Roma is drab. In Roma, the leaves simply fade to yellow and give up, falling into the path of AMA street sweepers.  Lucca’s trees give a bit of a show. Nothing like my native Minnesota, but quite pretty. (Click on any picture for a larger view.)
I’ve always said that it was not worthwhile to go to Pisa and waste a vacation day. Having visited — and being glad we did see The Tower — I would still advise those with limited travel time to spend their precious days elsewhere, but it was fun to see the iconic leaner. We were a 20-minute train ride from Pisa and the weather was perfect, so why not?
We also made a trek to the beach at Viareggio. I  expected more, expected to be wowed, alas the beach has not much to recommend it. However, the beautiful weather had us in shirtsleeves seaside before Noon. It’s not our beloved Cannon Beach, but it’ll do in November.
Lucca surprised us in many ways. After the costumed crowds cleared out, we found a walkable, shoppable little town, with affordable restaurants, inviting stores, and well-preserved buildings. Our B&B was from the 14th century, handily updated for modern living. This is a delightful place for a two-or-three night stay.

 

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Costumes, Comics and Games in Lucca

5 Nov
The train to Lucca from Firenze seemed crowded, but then it was a holiday, Ognisanti or All Saints’ Day. Still, the costumed young people (and occasional adult with a modest devil’s horns headband), seemed a bit odd the day after Halloween, especially since Halloween is not a big deal here.
Walking toward the famous wall that surrounds Lucca, the crowds were clearly large. Perhaps due to the spring-like day we had on November 1, people were lounging in the wide grassy lawns and parading on top of the wall in throngs. I found myself worrying that Lucca was just a little too popular and we would not enjoy a stroll around the mighty wall as intended. 
The gang from the Big Bang Theory would be at home here.
The gang from the Big Bang Theory would be at home here.
We struggled up the stairs inside the wall with the hoards of arrivals who were now clutching panini of porchetta or mortadella eating on-the-go. It was a conga-line of people, from bambini to nonni. What the heck was going on?
What was going on was Day 4 (and final day, grazie a Dio!) of Comics and Games 2015. This is the Tuscan equivalent to Comic Con. As we wound our way through the narrow lanes searching for our B&B (XIII Century building!) we encountered more characters, some elaborately dressed, some less-so, but an ever-growing crowd of people searching for their favorite animators, authors, artists, game designers, movies, merchandise, and whatever they could get their hands on to eat or drink. 
Characters were happy to stop an pose for pictures.
Characters were happy to stop and pose for pictures.
After checking in, we could not resist the impulse to venture into the streets and see this event. We were swept into the crowd, surging through the streets. It reminded me why I don’t go to crowded places unless I have a reserved seat. 
This was like a passaggiata that went out-of-control.
This was like a passaggiata that went out-of-control.
We did bear up for about an hour-and-a-half, but the crowd was so dense that when we did see a place for coffee or lunch (15:30 and we still had not eaten) it was mobbed with super heroes, bananas, princesses, or invaders. It was fun to see the costumes, and the crowd, being overall nerdy and geeky, was very polite but it gets tiring to swim in a school, especially upstream. 
Luckily by 19:00 the event was over except for the cleanup, which would go on for days. We departed Wednesday and there were still event tents all over the city. We might have missed some of the charm of Lucca, but had anyone told us Comics & Games was on, we’d likely have changed our trip. Sometimes ignorance is bliss and you stumble into something interesting. 
A few more pictures for your enjoyment. Click on any picture for a slide show. 

Long weekend

22 Feb
The Presidents’ Day long weekend gave us an opportunity to celebrate: my birthday and Valentine’s Day, not the presidents. In Oregon we almost always went to the coast for a few days this time of year. Last year we spent 5 days celebrating in Rome as tourists. This year we had a weekend at an agriturismo in mind, and the opportunity to stock up on wine from a favorite cantina we visited last July. How lucky are we to be able to say “We’re going to Toscana for the weekend”?
Toscana in winter is not for the faint of heart. It is chilly: 32-34 degrees Fahrenheit overnight and maybe high 40s at the highest during the day. (OK, I know the U.S. is in a deep freezer right now and 40 sounds pretty balmy, but that is considered cold here. And we are considerably less acclimated to cold than our Minnesota and North Dakota roots would indicate.) There are no sunflowers, and vineyards are bare, but also there are no crowds, driving is easy, and wineries and restaurants are welcoming.
Last April we bought a stay at Agriturismo Poggio Etrusco at an auction. As readers of this blog are aware, we are on-the-go a lot as I try to burn up all of my paid vacation time before I retire. So it was winter before we found time in the schedule for this trip. 

 

One of the downsides of a trip to Toscana is that we have to rent a car and I have to drive. Ric is the navigator and manages the GPS, a bitch voice named Bonnie. She drives me mad with her repetitious, annoying flat mechanical voice. And she’s not always right, so we have to have maps as well to double-check her directions. For example, I have no idea how we ended up on a dirt road coming home from one day trip when our outbound portion was all paved. I think Bonnie found a “short cut” to entertain herself. HOWEVER, without Bonnie we would have much more trouble navigating and we have learned to always take her along. We have also learned when to turn her off so we don’t end up in a ZTL.
The upside to renting a car is we have a method to transport massive quantities of wine and olive oil. Our Fiat 500L was luckily big enough to handle the purchases. If we had bought anymore we’d have needed a van. We whiled away the weekend at wineries, visited an abbey we have planned on seeing since our first trip here in 2010, ate too much, and got to know the Montepulciano area better.
The Abbazia di Monte Oliveto Maggiore is a magnificent and off-the-beaten-track place to visit, at least in winter.  It was begun in 1320, which in itself is hard to grasp, and also houses priceless frescoes from the 15th and 16th centuries. One wanders down a forest path to visit this very peaceful place. It was fun to be the only visitors wandering around on our own. The monks make wine, olive oil, herbal remedies, honey, and soaps. An affable young man named Luca was manning the cantina and entertained us with stories and history. An enjoyable aspect to off-season visits is the availability of people like Luca who have time to chat when visitors are not lined up 6 deep. 

 

One does have to plan meals around restaurant openings especially in the off season. On Friday we arrived at our destination, Poggio Etrusco, a farm that produces olive oil and wine, after 2:00 PM and were directed to try to find something to eat in the town of Montepulciano as there was nothing open in the little hamlet near the farm. On the way to Montepulciano at almost 3:00 PM, we saw a place that in retrospect I can only describe as a Tuscan Tourist Roadside Attraction. Almost like Camp 18 in Oregon. The quality of the food was fine, but sale of products was clearly uppermost in the minds of the staff and owner. You are caused to walk through their retail space on the way to the cavernous dining room; there’s a push toward the €20-€30 bottles of wine (not at lunch, thank you); and walking back through the retail area to pay, there are all kinds of inviting products practically throwing themselves off the shelves at you. That said, it was the only game in – or out – of town and there were Italians eating there too. If we had waited until we got up into Montepulciano we’d have ended up eating cheese, sausage, and oranges standing on a street corner in the cold.
Cavernous Ristorante Pulcino - not my picture but from their website. I wish I had photographed the outside for you!
Cavernous Ristorante Pulcino – not my picture but from their website. I wish I had photographed the outside for you!
We ate some meals at some old favorite places (Grappolo Blu in Montalcino) and also discovered some new ones like Tre Stelle in Sant’Albino. We also enjoyed the luxury of hanging about the farm, entertained by cats, dogs, and chickens, nibbling on pecorino from Pienza, sipping wine provided by our host, eating the aforementioned oranges, in front of a lovely fire in a massive fireplace.  I will say for those who seek a non-touristy experience, winter in Toscana will provide that. As long as you aren’t forced into Ristorante Pulcino. And bring your flannel pajamas.

Tranquil Toscana

13 Jul
In the past couple of days, two regular readers have told me I am not blogging enough, so I finally got my act together to offer up this trip report. Lest you think life is just one big vacation for us, we do still have to cook, shop, do laundry, clean the cat boxes, go to medical appointments, and I might add, work, as that is our reason for being here. Much of what we do daily is not exactly blog-worthy. You, dear readers, only get the good stuff.
Tuscany offers one spectacular view after another.
Tuscany offers one spectacular view after another.
I am not sure what I expected when we decided to spend the holiday weekend in Montalcino. Certainly I expected some traffic in the height of summer, maybe mosquitoes as well. We found neither. What we did find was tranquility, uncrowded restaurants, and winemakers anxious to tell us about their wines in private tastings. We prefer off-season travel; we just did not know this would actually be off-season.
We had planned to go to Abruzzo, but at an Embassy auction we acquired a three-night stay at an agriturismo. Therefore, destination decided: Le Ragnaie, less than 4 kilometers outside of Montalcino in the heart of Brunello di Montalcino country.  This is a delightful, peaceful spot, not far off the road but miles away in spirit. We slept 9 hours on Friday night and Saturday night thanks to the absence of 1) AMA trucks picking up trash, 2) seagulls screaming at 3:00AM, and 3) motorini. We feasted on a terrific breakfast spread every morning, a great start to a day in the country.
Le Ragnaie is also a producer of organic wines, with grapes hand-picked and sorted. Guests are welcome to sample and discuss the wines in an intimate setting, which we did with out host, Augustino, and a lovely couple visiting from Sweden. We saw very few North Americans, by the way, anywhere in the area.  I guess most are intent on seeing Venice, Florence and Rome, but really, two or three days out of the mainstream would do any traveler good.
Goat family eyes us warily as we hike along their country road.
Goat family eyes us warily as we hike along their country road.
Planning to eat those hearty Tuscan meals and to taste our share of Brunello, we started each day with a long walk, in the cool of the morning. As early risers we were rewarded with soft light and encountered only a few locals starting their days. From Le Ragnaie, just across the road is a country lane leading to Villa a Tolli, another agriturismo. We walked past fields of sheep, goats and a donkey, as well as vineyards. Then we turned around and hiked the 2.8 km back to breakfast.
Another morning we parked in Montalcino well before the town was awake, and walked through deserted streets in search of coffee. [The only problem with an agriturismo, B&B, or small hotel is the absence of coffee when we roll out at dawn.] The morning light shined softly on golden Tuscan walls and the empty streets belied the busyness of Monday-to-come. Luckily in Piazza del Popolo we found coffee and fresh pastry at 07:00 to sustain us until our agriturismo breakfast would be ready.
Color added by seasonal flowers really perks up the town, Pienza.
Color added by seasonal flowers really perks up the town, Pienza.
With two days in the area, we spent one taking the magnificent drive to Pienza and Montepulciano. Classic Tuscan scenes unfolded: villas at the end of drives lined by Italian cypress, fields of grain and hay bales, and vast tracts of vines. In Pienza the tempting scent of pecorino wafting out of the shops enticed us to pick up some of the famed cheese, one with pepe nero and the other wrapped in olive leaves. Stop by and we’ll share.
Montepulciano gave our legs a workout. We parked at the bottom of the town and worked our way up to Piazza Grande. Montepulciano makes a fine lunch stop and there are many tempting shops. Since we had the luxury of a car and did not have to worry about handling luggage, we indulged in some gift buying. Now I only have to find those things and remember to pack them when we go to the States in October.
My Italian friend Eleonora told me about a wine she liked from Montalcino, a Brunello from Ventolaio. We found Ventolaio was only a bit beyond our morning walk to Villa a Tolli, so I called late Saturday afternoon to see if we could visit. In my hesitant Italian I asked and was told certainly they were open, please come! Maria Assunta welcomed us with four of her excellent wines accompanied by cheeses, bread with her own fine olive oil, and a big heart. Maria and her son Baldassare told us about their wines, property, history, and family. The entire operation on 89 hectares is run by mom, dad, and two sons. We could not have asked for a better aperitivo! We returned with the boot full of 36 bottles of wine, six of olive oil, and one excellent grappa. The Barton household will be having several dinners planned around Maria Assunta’s fine wines in the months to come. She says the 2010 is going to be one of the very best years for Brunello, so we need to stop by in January for the release. Feel free to place your orders; my handling charge is small.
Wonderful detail on a pillar of the Abbey.
Wonderful detail on a pillar of the Abbey.
Since we were driving, I had to watch my wine consumption and not have to drive too far from restaurant to lodging. (No such problem for Ric who chooses to be the navigator.) Fortunately, there are many fine restaurants in Montalcino. We are fond of Taverna Grappolo Blu. For four years I held a taste memory of their polenta vegetariana and I was not disappointed in the replay. The wine list is a heavy binder; One almost needs to order a glass of wine and an antipasto to sustain one while reading. Another favorite is Ristorante San Giorgio. While many of the restaurants in the more touristy streets and piazzas were almost devoid of patrons, the convivial, family friendly atmosphere of San Giorgio attracted many locals. It boasts a menu ranging from Tuscan favorites to fine pizza and the prices were a terrific relief from what we face in Rome.
Abbey of Sant'Antimo, near Montalcino
Abbey of Sant’Antimo, near Montalcino
Sunday we ventured beyond Montalcino, to Locanda Sant’Antimo in Castelnuovo dell’Abate.  Sunday lunch – or any lunch – under the arbor in the garden is a special experience.  One can drive here in 10 minutes as we did this trip, or one can feast here after walking about two-and-a-half hours from Montalcino to the nearby abbey, as we did four years ago on our first trip to Italy. That hike was our first Italian hiking adventure and while it was fun, we decided once was enough. Still, I would recommend it to anyone who craves a little country experience that borders on orienteering. You can take a bus back to Montalcino from Castelnuovo dell’Abate avoiding a two-way hike.
Speaking of the abbey, Abbazia Sant’Antimo is not-to-be missed. Dating to 1118, it is still an active community of monks today. We popped in at 14:45 to hear the monks chant, which they do six times each day. Much to our surprise, the community is apparently only 4 or 5 monks strong!  I guess the monastic life just doesn’t attract men like it did a few hundred years ago.
Rome’s weather has been great this year: not nearly as hot (yet) as the past two summers. We have hardly used the A/C and the mosquitoes have not been a problem so we have been sleeping with windows open. The downside is the noise. As much as we love Rome, escaping to the country is truly restful, even if I have to drive to get there.
We took about 400 pictures, and I know I am trying to share too many, but if you are motivated to do so, click on any picture below for a slide show.

By the sea

6 May
We are drawn to the sea. I guess growing up in the land-locked Midwest made the sea particularly mesmerizing to us. When we moved to Portland in 1987 we became frequent visitors to the Oregon Coast, and were especially fond of going to Cannon Beach with the dogs. Yet we are not beach people, per se. We are ramblers and hikers who enjoy the fresh sea air and great seafood. So we gravitate to the coastal areas not in the height of summer with normal people, but in the shoulder season, and occasionally in winter. We made a trek to “CB” each fall and very early spring for many years. Never got close to getting sunburned at CB.
Early morning view from our room in Porto Santo Stefano.

Early morning view from our room in Porto Santo Stefano.

And so we a passed a long weekend in Tuscany. “Tuscany?” you ask. “Isn’t that hill towns, Renaissance art, sangiovese and wild boar?” Yes, it is all that, but it also sports a fabulous coastline in the Maremma area. It’s a little bit like the Cinque Terre, but closer to Rome, easier to get to, and less well-known among North Americans.
Ric’s contractor friend Dario recommended this area, particularly Porto Santo Stefano, as he knows our interest in hiking and our affection for the Cinque Terre. Isola del Giglio,  which has intrigued us since the Costa Concordia capsized off its coast more than two years ago, is only a short ferry ride from Porto Santo Stefano. Lacking enough time to make a Cinque Terre trek, and always interested in places our countrymen seldom visit, off we went. After talking to some Italian friends it seemed we might have been better off actually staying on Isola del Giglio instead of in PSS, but by the time we came to this knowledge, it was too late to secure a room that was both acceptable and affordable on Giglio. This was a holiday weekend – the third in a row! – for Italians. So we stayed in a quaint B&B in Porto Santo Stefano, with a fine terrace overlooking the sea. The price we had to pay for the view is a four-floor walk-up. Ugh.
Cute little Giglio Porto. The ugly shipwreck is behind me, just outside the harbor.

Cute little Giglio Porto. The ugly shipwreck is behind me, just outside the harbor.

It’s been a chilly spring in Italy, but the lack of oppressive sun makes for good hiking and small crowds. An hour-long ferry ride took us across the channel. Giglio is part of the Tuscan Archipelago, a national park. We secured a map and a brochure and a little information from the guy at the Tourist Information Center who knew slightly less English than I know Italian (always a rewarding moment for me). We wanted a hike of 60-90 minutes, leaving time for lunch and to return to the harbor to catch our ride back. “Up to Castello,” he said, confirming what we’d read online and heard from a local diver the day before. “It’s steep, but go slowly. And there’s a restaurant. You can take a bus back down.”
It is difficult to imagine the industrious people, probably Romans, who built this path over the island so very long ago ago.

It is difficult to imagine the industrious people, probably Romans, who built this path over the island so very long ago ago.

Steep it was, and deserted. We only saw four people during 90 minutes, quite a different scenario than the Cinque Terre. We trudged up the mountain, glimpsing the castle high above us, and rewarded with beautiful views below us.  Wild flowers as one can only find in spring are abundant. We traversed oak woods, through scrubby pine, and finally some classic Italian Cyprus, emerging 1300 feet higher at Giglio Castello. Not bad for old people. We weren’t even panting (too much). And there was a restaurant. Not just a “restaurant” but one serving fabulous food. We got ourselves into a very fine lunch indeed! In the U.S. in all of our hiking for years and years in Oregon, we could never have dreamed of such a lunch at the end of a trail! Maybe a stale granola bar, or perhaps a hot dog at the Dairy Queen in some small town on our way back home, but fresh seafood pasta? A Tuscan salumi platter? Fine, crisp vino bianco? Yup, here at the highest point of a tiny Mediterranean island, alongside a castle from the 13th century, after hiking a path used for millennia to cross the island, we find superb cuisine.
Ric on our steep steep hike at Isola del Giglio.

Ric on our steep steep hike at Isola del Giglio.

The castle high above us. The hike was from sea level to about 1300 feet.

The castle high above us. The hike was from sea level to about 1300 feet.

After 90 minutes of uphill hiking, we are at the last bit before achieving Castello. Lunch is in range!

After 90 minutes of uphill hiking, we are at the last bit before achieving Castello. Lunch is in range!

Don't tell Dr. Rosa what we had for lunch! Lovely Tuscan salumi platter. I like to think the hike caused us to wear off the fat before we even ate it.

Don’t tell Dr. Rosa what we had for lunch! Lovely Tuscan salumi platter. I like to think the hike caused us to wear off the fat before we even ate it.

As we hiked to Castello, we were seldom out of sight of the Costa Concordia. We are probably at 800 feet taking this photo.

As we hiked to Castello, we were seldom out of sight of the Costa Concordia. We are probably at 800 feet taking this photo.

We found Isola del Giglio interesting enough to return a second day, allowing us to check out the windward side of the island at Giglio Campese. An efficient bus ferried us from the port, up-and-over at Castello, down the opposite side to the beach.  Here we found an almost Hawaii-like locale, but not so posh. Also, Hawaii lacks 19th century turrets as far as I know. Our planned ocean-front hike turned into an inland trek when the rock climbing became a bit challenging. Not wanting to risk a broken body part, we opted for forest, wild flowers, and bees. Once again our efforts were rewarded, this time with fresh salads and crisp Ansonaco, (the local wine) on the beach.
The beach at Giglio Campese, a little like Hawaii.

The beach at Giglio Campese, a little like Hawaii.

A little like Hawaii, but with a 19th century tower.

A little like Hawaii, but with a 19th century tower.

Wildflowers are abundant in May, and the bees made industrious.

Wildflowers are abundant in May, and the bees industrious.

Porto Santo Stefano is a very peaceful location with a number of good restaurants at all price levels, a fantastic lungomare and piazza with a 5-star hang-out factor. We could see the stars from our terrace and nights were so quiet that our sleep was uninterrupted. Bliss.
Porto Santo Stefano sports many restaurants along a fabulous lungomare, prime for the passagiata.

Porto Santo Stefano sports many restaurants along a fabulous lungomare, prime for the passagiata.

Lovely piazza in Porto Santo Stefano. Great hangout factor.

Lovely piazza in Porto Santo Stefano. Great hangout factor.

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