Tuesday, February 04, 2014

A Decade of Travels to Italy

Looking Toward Mt. Etna

May 2006  Beginning in Sicily

June 11: My friends John  and Blake picked me up at the airport and we drove to Taormina (north) on a beautiful day.  After settling into  our Villa (Schuler), I took a walk to the Teatro al Greco and tried the bancomat.
That night, the entire  group -- Alex and Bebe and daughters Rebecca and Blake (Jr.),  Jean and Dave and Blake and I  dined at a restaurant where I had fresh grilled sardines. 

Today for lunch I had chocolate and strawberry gelato (yes that's all).  Tonight at Granduca Restaurant I had mixed grilled pesche, a golden fish, calamari, prawns (gambinos) and swordfish plus spinach and potato and very good salad.  Lottsa wine.
During the day we drove to Siracusa,  visited the Square of Diana, then the Temple of Apollo the Duoma built around a Roman ruins.
After some returned to Taormina, Dave, John Blake and I drove to another part of Siracusa where we visited the Roman Theater and the Greek Amphitheater of which  Lawrence Durrell wrote.  The Romans were inspired to produce the spectacle, the Greeks, great sound.  We drove back to Taormina in pouring rain. 
 June 12   Aggrigento, Valley of the Gods

Blake on cell at Aggrigento


 Il Mosai Valla
Uncovered in the 1920s these mosaics from 3rd century AD Rome depict scenes of the Gods (Hercules going through his perils, Juno or Diana being turned into a tree; most famous perhaps are the women in 2-piece bikinis. 
Having just arrived back at Villa Shuler after a two hour ride, I am soaking my feet in the bidet.  I drove between 100 and 140 kph.  I am now lying on the bed, legs and feet slightly elevated after having finished the soak.  It was an adventure!
Weds. June 24  Erice
We arrived here at 5 from Taormina after a harrowing drive through Palermo with a much more relaxed stop at Segesta, which some say is perhaps the best Greek ruins in all Italy.  It was built about 4th century BC and features classic Greek with Doric columns. 

Nearby was a village that had been in turns Greek, Roman,  Swabian, and then again Roman.  At the top of the hill was a Greek theater in which the audience had a 180 degree view of the hills and mountains. 
This morning we enjoyed another fabulous breakfast at Shuler Villa.  Museli, yogurt, fresh fruit, strawberry granite.
Lost in Palermo for one and a half hours driving in a figure 8
Thoughts:  On Tuesday I drove with John and Rebecca to Valley of The Temples where both Greek and Roman Temples co-exist.
6/16  Yesterday we visited Monreale on the way from Erice to Palermo.  Like Erice,  Monreale is another hill town, the town centro is a beautiful cathedral (4th c AD) that evidences the Norman-Moorish aspects.  Inside there are two narratives told in paintings – old testament Noah and Abraham, Isaac, Rebecca, etc. and Life of Christ.  At the top of the apse is a large head of Christ with hands in traditional blessing  of Cathedral congregation.  A border around has flower like designs, Moorish design.  The tiles have crosses and stars of David.
We also went to the Cloisters – some of the decoration on the Corinthian arches show Christian scenes (St. Louis presenting the cathedral to the Virgin Mary) and others have figures identified only as “oriental men.”  Within the Cathedra we saw a workman doing a restoration on the tiles.
Our hotel in Palermo was quite luxurious La Grand Hotel et des Grande Palmes.
We had dinner last night at John's’ hotel, The Palace  – on the roof.  I tried again to get anchovies but alas my pasta contained only capers, I think, not anchovies. 
I bought a new hat and necklace.  Bellissimo !
Palermo is bustling.  IT seems like a good city in which to shop.  There is a “Promenade” near the hotel with many cafes and shops.  Today we had lunch at Taverna Sicilian, and I had caprese de mozzarella e pomidoria.

Today, we tried to get info re ferry terminal which was impossible by phone.  We now have resigned ourselves to arriving early, looking for signs and praying we are led correctly.  When we arrived at the hotel, I sat in the car, until a man in a red shirt came up and took the key.  I kept trying to get a ticket for the car, but didn’t succeed. 
A few hours later, as we strolled down the Via Roma where the hotel is located, I spied the same young man driving one of the tourist horse drawn carriages.  He seemed to recognize us and waved.  In horror, I said to Blake, he's the one who took our car.
Oh, said Blake, another man from the hotel took the key from the first man and got into the car.
Very casual this Sicilian way.
We arrived at La Citterna Villa on Saturday afternoon via Port of Rome and a Saturday afternoon stop in Orvieto.
Orvieto had a wonderful cathedral with alabaster windows.   Outside there are both horizontal and vertical lines, depending on how the stone is laid.
We walked through he village now filled with shops (and I purchased several rings), and had lunch of wonderful salads at a cafeteria with an indoor courtyard.
We arrived at La Citterna Villa and soon were joined by Blake’s cousin Louisa, her husband Mark and daughters Caroline, 25 and Emily, 21.
Sunset at La Citterna
That night we had dinner at La Fattoria, a local place specializing in wild boar and pig.  The best dish was the fried bay leaves.  We also had a bay sorbet.
Sunday we enjoyed our fruit in a great compote along with cereal and yogurt.  John left early to pickup his wife Ann at the train station where she arrived at 7 a.m.
A visitor at La Citterna
Our main trip of the day was a large grocery run – We tried to go to the coop in Poggibonsi, which was closed, so we went to the one in Tavernelle, which was more than adequate.
Lunch was the fabulous focaccia with cheese and ham.
The dinner that night was catered by Anita and her husband :  a wonderful antipasto of grilled zucchini, eggplant, small onions (cooked in sugar, oil, balsamic vinaigrette, which was reduced through covered steaming).  Next we had a mushroom risotto followed by beef in a wonderful marinara.  Finally we finished with a crème caramel dessert in strips.


I spent the afternoon reading the Henry James'  "Aspern Papers."   Rebecca could be a Jamesian heroine.  She is truly the artless American who has no pretense, asks questions about everything and is not afraid to show her ignorance (She asks: “When did Henry James write?”  “What happened in the middle ages?”  “When were prehistoric times?”)
Monday, we traveled to Volterra where I mostly shopped – beautiful alabaster, glass, bead and stone rings.  Al Piazza del Prior.
I also bought a piece of art – Inside the main building was an art exhibit of many colorful pieces reminiscent of some of Anne Slaughter’s work – writing, collage, opening of canvas  I got a piece printed on Chinese newsprint – a colorful figure of a girl with bow (Amazon?) – for Margaret.
My Italian was awful.  I couldn’t think of words to say – some “bella” but some “interessante” (if that’s how they say it);  I did not go to the archeology museum (where we went a year ago) but did go into the Baptistery to look at the views of the countryside.
Many tourists, many tongues, Italian, English German.
Wonderful smells.  What is the tree of honeysuckle that is not honeysuckle.
What a poignant story in the Aspern papers.  I cried at the end.  Miss Tina remains the guileless female although she has offered herself as a way for the man to gain access to the papers.  She sees his horror.  She burns the papers, she renounces her love even as he is about to sell his for access.
Tuesday:  Midsummer in Italy
Yarrow, Poppies, magenta, mustard, Scotch broom, Queen Anne’s Lace, purple chickweed, purple thistle,
On Tuesday we drove to Galgano, southwest of Siena, the site of a abbey ruins and chapel.  San Galgano was a young man who renounced his knighthood and life of warfare for a peaceful hermitage.  He went there in 1181 and died a year later.  The sign of God’s wish for him was when he plunged his sword into a stone, and it could not be removed (counter to the legend of Arthur pulling the sword from the stone and therefore becoming king of Camelot). 
The abbey ruins are quite beautiful, set in the shape of a Latin cross.  There is no roof on the apse and altar ends and large ovals for windows. T he side entrance and windows have rose shaped windows. 
Then I walked up the hill to the chapel through a field of wild geraniums, yarrow, queen Anne’s lace, through a vineyard to the round chapel which was empty when I entered.  I lit a candle in memory of beloved Glassell – I knew he would love the spot, the story and the sword into rock, which was the centerpiece of the main chapel.
In an adjoining chapel was a sign telling the story of two men who attempted to remove the sword from the rock and whose arms were torn off by wolves close to San Galgano.  You then lift the curtain and there are the arm bones. 
After Galgano, we cut across the countryside, zigzagging roads east and north to reach Montalcino where we enjoyed lunch inside the fortress.  This included an olio tasting (I bought the favorite)), tomato bruschetta, cheeses, meat.
Then we walked through the town visiting a few shops.
Again I found myself at the main duomo of san Alban alone for prayer and reflection.  It’s a neoclassical church built in the 1830s on the site of the original roman church  there are a few stone wall figures still in the church.
Afterwards I stopped at a smaller church L’Eglio.  Again I was alone for solitude and prayer and reflected on how it would be too live in such a town and enter God’s house more frequently.
Back to La Citerna and then dinner at La Mach---   3 pastas (ravioli, pasta margarita with boar, antipasto of fried sage, spinach soufflé, and sorbet of sage and lemon.  The main course was bison cooked to perfection with lemon juice on it – I shared with Alex.
Wednesday:  Greve
Today Blake and drove with Louisa and Mark to Greve in Chianti on back roads through Badia a Passignano (a convent converted to a winery but still a convent).  There, we shopped, I went in the church and then we ate – my favorite bruschetta with crema de fughi, cheese and a thin ham.  We also had an artichoke bruschetta, some cheese with fruit.
We stopped at the winery and got red and white vine to have with dinner.
Another cute story  about Rebecca .  At Montalcino she asked the clerk “Do you speak English?” to which the answer was “yes”  Rebecca then turned to her cousin Emily and said “how do you say . . .” and Emily says “she speaks English.”  “I just want to practice my Italian,” replies Rebecca.
Dinner Wednesday night:  steak Florentine, melon and prosciutto, copious wine.
Thursday:  went to the market in Tavernelle where I bought a bedspread and a wallet.  Then on to San Gimignano for more viewing and shopping.   Great gelato
Thursday night:  pork, potatoes, apples, salad nicoise
Music that evening at the Villa:   Maria Callas and Without a song by Sonny Rollins

Friday:  Certaldo Alto
This morning we drove to Certaldo which was an ancient city of Frederick Barbarossa (Redbeard) in 1184 around the same time that San Galgano was becoming a saint.
I walked through the palazzo which contained beautiful frescoes of students of Botticelli.  One room had frescoes from the original tabernacle room where condemned persons were taken prior to their deaths.  Those frescoes depict annunciation, birth and crucifixion of Christ as well as depictions of martyrdom of San Sebastian.  These were shown to prisoners in an effort to allow them to confess and repent in order to save their souls.
Against this context were a number of pieces of modern art.  In one room, pictures of Dorothy, the red slippers and a transvestite witch.  A film of a medieval shed in a forest and modern people coming up and trying to hit or kick a Napoleon-like head.  A gyrating rock star swinging on a star studded niche.  Other rooms:  photos of Alice, then prints of the Mad Hatter, the Mouse.  Hansel and Gretel statue – he’s carrying a gun, she a match.  Red Riding Hood, Pinocchio, King Kong .  I went up on wall and took a picture of the scene below. 
We got to and from Certaldo alto on a funicular. 
Everywhere the aroma of jasmine.  In Certaldo white flowers with long leaves – white oleander, more wild pink geraniums.
At Citerina, I heard a cuckoo and a whiporwill.  There are bougainvilla, figs, apricots, bushes of rosemary.
Saturday:  start with dinner.  The restaurant was Cibreo in Firenze.  We ordered Vernachia (San Gimignano wine).  I had a yellow pepper soup with parmesan; Blake and others had a ricotta and parmesan soufflé with pesto sauce.  Our antipasto was spinach and ricotta soufflé, pickled zucchini, carrots, eggplant, tripe.
The main course was porcini funghi with olive oil, garlic cooked in foil and served with white beans. Fantastico !  For dessert we had chocolate flourless cake and apricot cheesecake.
Earlier in the day we had stopped at the straw market, the Mercato Nuovo near the Duomo where I purchased shawls, scarves, t-shirts and jewelry and a “carpet-bag.”  Afterwards we went to lunch and discovered Cavallieri Leathers where we proceeded to spend lots on leather jackets (reversible and justified as winter coat purchases!)  Rafael, the designer and store owner, was a master salesman as we asked for the “Bebe-Rose discount.  Blake purchased red, Jean, honey brown, Dave a deeper brown and me, a loden green.
Rafael and Roberto fitted us, took our measurements for the custom-made jackets.  Of course we were willing victims.   “We are like the team in the car race,” says Rafael, “each one doing something.”  “I make it just for you, very special”  “Green for your eyes.  It will brighten your skin.”
 Oh well, I only live once.
After we came back to the hotel, I went back to Duomo.  The cathedral had closed to tourists but on the eastern entrance some were going in.  “Missa?” the guard asked.  “Si” I respond.
I went in and at one of the side chapels, two priests and an altar boy were beginning a mass.  It consisted of a few prayers and communion.  At first I demurred – I’m not Catholic – the RC doesn’t offer communion to all.  But then a man in the back starting singing acapella.  I think he was only a tourist.  I figured that God would want me to take communion so I walked up and took it from the older priest.   A younger priest spoke, saying that it was a great joy during his stay to serve the tourists at this service and that he was available for confession, and then I realized there was a special dispensation for this Duomo to serve communion to the Non-Catholics as well.
“So enjoy this beautiful place and feel the presence of God with you as you journey . . . .” he concluded.  It was beautiful  I left but not before taking a picture of the Dome where I remember walking 2 years ago.
Fiochi Piane -  Fireworks.  We saw lots happening in honor of St. John the Baptist and also in honor of the annunciation of Mary (June 27)
Sunday:  breakfast with Dave and Jean and then goodbyes.  Blake and I went to the Bargallo  where we saw  many sculptures.  I remember one by Michelangelo and  the Madonnas by Andrea del Robbia.  There were wonderful animals from 1511, including a turkey which I had thought was an American fowl, but I guess not.
Then we walked to the Ponte Vecchio and looked at the shops along the way.  Coming back, I was almost pick-pocketed.  Most of the time I was careful to rezip my green bag after replacing my coin person and camera.  But it was unzipped.  We were just inside an area off the street looking at the windows.  With my left side with bag over shoulder on street side.  A young man reached toward my purse and as I pulled away he made as though looking at his watch and vamoosed.  I said to Blake who was store side “someone just tried to steal my purse.
The woman proprietor came out and said in English: "I saw that, I saw that.  Be very careful.”
The Ponte Vecchio was the only bridge in Florence not bombed in World War II.  Cellini’s  bust  is there.
We saw a few African-American tourists, but everywhere in Florence, the color barrier is apparent.  Most of the street merchants are African men selling art prints, sunglasses, handbags, belts.  At night they roll up their canvass with the goods inside.  We saw signs saying the selling of counterfeit goods is prohibited and a huge fine imposed.  But I saw no enforcement at any time. 
After the Ponte Vecchio, we visited Ora  San Michelle and the Bargallo.  At the Bargallo, I could hear protestant hymns being sung in Italian.  When we came into the street I saw it was La Cheisa Evangelista, about 100  people in a small church – with African drums part of the music.
Then we discovered the Orasanmichel which was having a free choir group from Detroit.  We wandered about to find Trattoria Zaza at Mercato Nuevo where we had a great bruschetta and salad and then back to hear the choir which was quite good.  An unexceptional dinner at the Plaza Republica and a walk home to our hotel.
Monday we walked to Piazza de Annunziata, the oldest in Florence and went into the church there.  We looked at the frescoes of Mary’s life and annunciation, then stopping at a Romanian café for latte.
I walked past a garden of Franchi sculptures, large squat figures.  On the way to the air port there’s a large bird sculpture in the same mode.
As I write this, it’s Monday and I’m aloft from Florence to Munich flying over the Appennes Mountains and maybe the Alps.  The water below in the Alps looks so very aqua, almost green. 
 2008 Italy     September
Sunday:   Sant'Agostino, San Gimignano
On the way to this church, I took pictures from a tower, the walkway and then Santa Caterina’s statue.
In Sant’Agostina, over the altar is a painting of Christ crowning Mary in heaven.  This masterpiece by Piero del Pollaiolo was painted in 1483  and it shows other saints as well  One has a darker skin, is in tattered clothes and has a wide brimmed hat on the ground beside him.  Is this supposed to be St. Augustine?  He looks like an African slave from America, but of course this painting was done a few years before Columbus discovered America.
The walls have a series of Frescoes 1) St. Sebastian interceding on behalf of the people (as far as I can make out form the Latin).  Sebastian on a pedestal surrounded by the people, angels above him, Jesus and Mary on the next tier looking up and more angels and a white bearded man above (God, Moses?).  Another fresco is a portrait of Mary seated on a throne holding the baby Jesus.  On one side, an angel is cut off – it looks as though the original painting had been tampered with.  The same is true above the painting.  On the right, there is only an arm reaching toward Mary with a small angel or monk (in a different scale than Mary and the angel) kneeling below her.  Another fresco shows three men before the Pope but one is regarding us, the viewers.  Next to these paintings at one corner was a decorative “frame” of pears, pinecones, onions, peaches, parsnips, squash, apples, pomegranates.
Monday:  We entered the walled city of Lucca from the South and wandered through the Piazza Napoleon named for his sister Elise.  Banners proclaimed Puccini festivals and his 150th Birthday (born 1858).  We visited two churches, St. Martin’s and San Michele’s.  San Martino had a wonderful large wooden cross with a clothed Jesus carved on it.  It was believed to be an effigy carved by Nicodemus at the time of the crucifixion, supposedly it came from the 8th century to Lucca.  September 13 is the festival .  There is a wonderful sculpture of San Martino on a horse dividing his cloak to share with a beggar.  A copy of the sculpture is on the roof outside, but the original in the Cathedral can be examined closely.
A beautiful marble sculpture tomb of Ilariadel Carretto, the young wife of a prominent townsman, she had died in childbirth in the early 1thth Century.
In San Michele's, there is a fabulously opulent painting by Fillipino Lippi of Saints Helena, Jerome, Sebastian and Roch – lots of reds and blues.  One has a gash on his thigh and another is holding an arrow.  I know Sebastian was tortured by arrows.
Outside San Michele’s is a large market making me think that these markets near churches have probably existed forever.   Lucca also has a lovely area of shops set on the Teatro Romano with low archways leading to the other areas.
Mark, Caroline and I climbed the Torre delle Ore where we could overlook all of Lucca’s red tiled roof and even a few rooftop gardens.  The Torre has a number of oaks growing there.
Alas, Puccini’s birthplace was closed so we drove further west to Villa Puccini near Torre del Lago Puccini.  There we had a tour of the house which was so interesting with its pictures of Puccini and the other musical stars of the time – Toscanini, Caruso.  Puccini is buried at the house.  From his pictures and the sculpture of him wearing an overcoat and a fedora, Puccini was very handsome and seemed the family man.  There are pictures of him from age 22 up to the time of his death.  Apparently in the later years, his wife accused him of having an affair with their housekeeper, who subsequently killed herself.  The family of the housekeeper successfully brought a suit against the Puccinis and won a large award.  Puccini, a smoker, died from cancer.  I purchased the complete operas and a Puccini pin.
While we were in Lucca, it started raining and pretty much poured most of the rest of the day.  For lunch I had a simple sandwich, but for dinner we enjoyed steaks from the grill, potatoes and green beans with pine nuts and a fabulous lemon tart which we purchased in Lucca.  I fell asleep in front of the TV only to arise when everyone had left and so I took myself to bed.
In the night, I heard an owl and foxes.
TuesdayMontecatina Terme Alta
We took a leisurely approach leaving late morning for Montecatina Terme, a spa town.  First, we went up to the older hill town, walked around the church and fort.  Inside the church was a room that had a miniature nativity scene in which the people moved, the ocean teemed with fish and whales, the stars came and went, a blacksmith hammered, townspeople worked at variety of tasks.  An angel descended and there was music and a narrative in Italian.  IT was quite charming
The fort was adjacent to the church, in between was what looked like a world war one or two gun placement and some barbed wire.  A memorial of sorts?
In town we had lunch at Giusti’s.  I had taglialini (flat thin pasta) with squash blossoms – it was delicate and lovely.
We wandered around some more and then Caroline, Louisa and I took the funicular down the mountain.
AT the bottom, we were met by the rest of the gang and went to the spa, an opulent fin de siecle (19th) structure with wonderful fountains and carved ornate facades surrounded by gardens.  It had a nostalgic feel – like a place whose best time has passed.  Parts of the garden were a little seedy and the men’s bathhouse, quite forlorn.  However, the garden had some lovely laurels, Magnolia, palmettos and palms and there was a very interesting daily “calendar” formed by succulent plants.
Anita’s dinner needs its own description.  The first course was zucchini sliced very thin with a “mandolin”, topped with chives sprinkled with lemon juice and then topped with thin slices of parmesan or pecorino.  YUMMMM.  (I have made it three times since coming home.)
The pasta course was zucchini ravioli, delicate but not filling.  The main course was a lamb roast that had been rolled in a dressing that appeared to have bread and pesto.  IT was served with roast potatoes with rosemary and then with a cooked chard that was quite good.  The dessert was pannacotta, a delicate custard with a burnt sugar glaze and a crust of ground nuts and flour (We had some left over so I had it for breakfast and for another dinner).
Wednesday:  Arezzo

The highlight was the story of the true cross as painted in the frescos by Pierro della Francesco.  The story begins with a tree planted by Seth at the time of Adams death, continues through the meeting of the Queen of Sheba and Solomon (when QSS recognizes the lumbered wood in a bridge), an agreement between QS, Solomon and the Eastern Western Church, Judas finding the cross.
We had lunch in Guisti (again) faggioli e saussisse (in a tomato sauce) and a glass of wine.  Later at Piazza del Duomo we have gelato pistachio, lemon and chocolate hazelnuts.  We then walked to the ancient Antifico Romano Teatro and the archeological museum.  I was especially drawn to the terra cotta, and clay sculptures around 200 BC of Etruscans.  They were very lifelike and one had a clear sense of the individuals. 
That night we had dinner at the Welshman’s – Marechi?  Where we enjoyed antipasti, rabbit with horseradish sauce and tiramisu
Thursday:  Blake Bebe, Alex and I went into Tavernelle for market day.  I got two kitchen gadgets, a mandolin (a kind of slicer, not the stringed instrument) and hand grater, very inexpensively and also a very pretty green sweater and a pair of sunglasses (tres chic). 
In the afternoon, we re-grouped to visit Montsanto Winery where we visited the cellar as well as the liberio of bottles from each year of the vineyard’s existence (since the 1960s, relatively new).  We tasted a red cabernet and we’ll have some more of this tonight.
Blake and I returned home, visiting two cimiteros on the way, while the others went on a wine tasting tour.  The graves appear to be above ground in rectangles on which stones are placed bordered by pieces of granite, etc.  often with a picture incorporated into the design.  I took pictures of a Gianinni the family Jefferson brought to do stone work (I think) and who settled eventually in my Charlottesville neighborhood.
We had a grand lunch of leftovers, including the pannacotta.
This was Bebe and Alex’s last night.  Bebe had collected some tomatoes which she was taking apart to get the seeds for her garden.  She left them outside, Blake saw them and simply thought she had left a mess and tossed them.  Bebe came back, rescued the tomato seeds and dried them some more.
Friday:  We stayed at La Citerna (name of our villa)  while the Nelsons went into Firenze.  We made a lunch of chicken salad, tomatoes and finished off the pannecotta. 
About 2:30 John, Blake and I drove north through Lugarno, Ginestra to Montelupo where Blake hoped to find tiles for her kitchen.  John knew of the place N.D. Dolphi. (nddolphi.it salvano dolphin).  At first, a young man told us they were closed that day, but John persisted, explaining in Italian we had come a long way, couldn’t come back, etc.  So he let us in and soon we were joined by an older man (the original artist) and his daughter (the current artisan).  No one spoke much English so John translated.  Blake got 10 pieces each with raised fruit – two each of grapes, pomegranate, peach, fig pear and banana (which she had never made before).  The work in the studio was beautiful – all types of bowls, urns, lamps, plates.
After our purchases were made we came back into town and walked around the pedestrian mall a la Charlottesville.  Shops were closed but there were a variety of ceramics stores, interesting water street sculpture.  The town sits on the Arno.  I also took picture of a door announcing the arrival of a baby boy with a blue ribbon.  We had our daily gelato and purchased tiramisu for dinner, which consisted of steak, tomato and mozzarella and roasted potatoes, onions, carrots and rosemary.
Saturday:  Blake and I went to bed early and rose early to take me to Tavernelle for the bus.  It was very efficient and I arrived at the Stazione in Firenze by 8:30 or so.  I left my luggage in the “deposito lugaso” and wandered about the area to Santa Maria Maggiore which was open early, and then Santa Maria Novella. 
Santa Maria Maggiore was first constructed in the 9th century, reconstructed in the 13th and then again in the 18th centuries.  IT was lovely peaceful and quiet.  I prayed before a statute of Mary and lit a candle for one of my colleagues who has cancer and took some pictures.  When I got home, one of the outside pictures has light hitting it in such a way that it looks as though there is a small Madonna statue outside the church.,  I like to think that this is the miracle of Santa Maria Maggiore and that it is a blessed portent for my friend.
I then went to Santa Maria Novella and visited there but the Giotto crucifixion is being restored.  The other frescoes (Brunelleschi, I think) were magnificent.
By 10 a.m.,  I was on my way to Rome on the train through a more gently rolling landscape with broad valleys, different from the rugged hill towns of Tuscany.  Arriving in Rome, I again left my bags and roamed about Rome, finding myself going the wrong way a couple of times on back streets that were reminiscent of New York City.  Eventually I came to Meraluna, a large green avenue with lots of trees and cafes.  My goal was the Coliseum and the Forum.  
September 2010 Trip to Italy:  Shortly after my retirement

Thursday – Friday [September 9-10]
After traveling through Charlotte to Rome, as I was getting on the Rome plane I met Mark and daughter Molly who were traveling from LAX to Firenze.  Blake and John, Louisa, Caroline and Emily met us in Firenze.  Blake and I picked up our car and with the two cars drove toward Certoza, Tavernelle through Marceliana and Fiano to Citterna.  Paying our toll at the exit, we could not get the machine to take our card and had to get the person on the radio to direct our activities.
Alex, Bebe and Rebekah were at Citterna.  I unpacked, had snacks and a drink downstairs before going to La Locando di Pietra Cupa in San Donato.  John got the pasta with truffles as an appetizer and Emily, the sautéed onion – We polished both off.  Emily and I chose the beefsteak vinsanto with fried aubergines.  Blake and Louisa had rabbit in fennel sauce (which I tasted and the fennel – which ordinarily I detest – was undetectable to my palate or at least not the strong licorice taste).  We also had tiramisui which was a sweet goat cheese with a raspberry sauce.  It was Mark’s birthday so we celebrated that occasion.
We drove to and from the dinner in the Greens’ huge van – seating 7.
Saturday [September 11]
I slept till 7:30 (from 11 p.m.), got up and then went back to sleep till 10.  Coffee and cereal outside with Blake and the Nelsons and then read various guidebooks.  Greens have gone to get daughter Blake, Jr.  and her husband Matt at the airport.
I also continued a conversation with John about the Muslims in France and the moves to assimilate them or not (outlawing burqas, for example).
The day is beauteous – sunny but with a breeze, San Gimignano in the background.
Last night, driving home we viewed the seemingly rural landscape lit up like a lighted city.  John said it was Certaldo (where we’ll go this afternoon). [My photographs begin in Certaldo]
For dinner we went to Al Macereto (owned and run by Wyn, the Welshman) where I had rabbit fried in a batter with a hot sauce.  Before dinner we had hors d’oeuvres of pate, friend bay leaf and other goodies and a large ravioli covered in a green cream sauce.
Sunday, September 12
Only today did I realize that yesterday was September 11, an anniversary that we had not noted.
Today we drove to Panzano in Chianti where we had brunch reservations at Solo Ciccia, “the mad Butcher’s”.  [Many photos taken] There is a butcher shop where the dramatic butcher carries on and there is the restaurant where we had a two hour meal with at least 6 courses – The last one, braised beef cooked in vinegar -- Ciccia umido – was my favorite, I think.   We had also beef boiled with salad (like a pot-roast but with fresh cold vegetables, maybe the carrots were parboiled but not the greens), called Tenerumi en salad.  There was Ramerino in cula – Steak tartar with rosemary; sliced ciccia arosta; pork deep fried with deep fried veggies, including sage (Fritto del Macellaio).  The crostini with meat ragu (with a spicy aftertaste) was exceptional.
All this was served with red wine, water and bread.
Before our reservation we had time to wander about.  I visited one art studio with a beautiful sunflower painting (photo taken).  A beautiful shop.  We also saw some beautiful belts made of shark, snake, and ostrich at 140 euros.
Talked more with John about EU (although interested and listening, my eyes kept falling shut as the car rolled us homeward) and about his work with his company which he has now dissolved.  He said there used to be more compromises within the EU but now those with the power (Germany) no longer want to compromise but only to use their power.  Sounds like our Congress and its gridlock.
For dinner we had melon and prosciutto, much to several persons’ dismay – although I was still contentedly full from having stuffed myself at the Butcher’s during the 2 ½ hour brunch.
Monday [September 13]
Sanctuary at Sant'Antimo
We drove to Abbazio di Sant’Antimo, the monastery near Montalcino.  We stopped at a restaurant just above the monastery where Blake and I had Ribollito, a peasant soup in this instance made with spinach, cannelloni and bread.  While we were there, the other cars arrived.  We left and arrived in time for the monks to enter and sing.  We drove back with John, stopping in Pienza. We saw Monte Amiata, the highest mountain in Tuscany and we passed through the Val d’Orcia (the river).  John told us about Iris Origa, an Englishwoman who married an Italian has produced a war journal about the WWII about the Val d’Orcia (she also wrote Merchant of Prato about a medieval Italian near Poggio where I will go at the end of the week).  Another book mentioned was The Whisperer by an Italian writer, Cassise.
The fields were brown, the olive trees were full and the sunflowers had mostly dried.  But the orange pyracantha, Queen Anne’s lace were in bloom.  Everywhere we saw vineyards and olive groves and the sharply pointed vertical cypress.
(Others had planned trips to Montalcino and they may have stopped there briefly on the way home.)  We saw some lightening and rain as we returned.  That night we had guinea fowl, roasted potatoes and onions with rosemary and tomatoes, basil and mozzarella.  Molto bene !
My knee began hurting after Sunday swimming.  Ugh.
Tuesday [September 14]
Blake and I drove with John to Fiesole to see the Etruscan and Roman ruins which include tombs, a large well preserved amphitheater and the foundations of temples.  The closer the Florence we got, the steeper the hills and more terraced.  We pass the Italian cemetery from WWII.  We crossed the Arno to the East and climbed the Hill behind Florence, with the Duomo looming below.  Lot of traffic in Santa Domencia and the suburbs of Florence.
I learned about the Lombargato peoples from Germany who migrated to Italy around 700 AD.  They shaved their heads from the nape of the neck to the occipital ridge, parted their hair in the middle and let it fall over their faces – that’s a look I can only imagine!  Somehow, this fact fascinates me – although I don’t know how the archeologists have discovered it.  We visited the museum which contained wonderful small talismen for tombs and for healing.  Some were  little men in upturned Chinese shoes and roundish hats, some nudes, some with elongated bodies like those seen in Volterra and similar to those sculptures of Alberto Giacometti.
For lunch we went to a trattoria (Il Fiesolano) near the museum.  Blake and I had zucchini squash blossoms stuffed with meat mixture and sautéed in olive oil.  John had a steak.  We briefly visited the Fiesole Bandini Museum and saw the Madonna of Fiesole, by Brunelleschi and other art treasures from medieval through Renaissance periods. 
We returned to Tavernelle to market for veggies and fruit and then home for dinner.  John cooked a delicious pork roast with cooked apples and salad.  For dessert we had cantucci with vinsato and lottsa red wine.  [Many photos of Fiesole including the modern sculptures being exhibited in the Amphitheater area]
Wednesday [September 15]
Each day seems long and languorous.  I rose early to read The Glass Room by British writer, Simon Mawer.  I’m hurting though – my knee is not better, despite loads of Advil, and I’m getting a fever blister.
Today we go to Castellini a Chianti before meeting others at San Gimigmano in the afternoon.  It’s a small town with shops off a square.  We had lunch on the square.  I had minestrone soup, salad and a shared a sheep’s cheese and walnut salad with Blake.  Blake found a ceramic salt server she liked and had it shipped.    I came home because the knee hurt too much. 
John’s key wouldn’t work.  He called the housekeeper Suzanna to come.  She came, her key wouldn’t work.  She called a former housekeeper’s husband (Victoria’s), who came, jiggled the lock, broke the key in the lock and then broke the window to enter.  Small and limber, although he is in his mid-60s, he wriggled his way through the small window opening to unlock the door and then take apart the lock, cleaning and oiling it (it was apparently a spring that got stuck).  He showed me how to work it.  Later, while I was upstairs, he came back for only a few minutes, but when I came downstairs, he had put in the new panes.  Very handy man, indeed.  In the meantime I finished The Glass House, the story of a family on the eve of WWII in Czechoslovakia and what happened to them.  It was a very moving novel.
Tonight Alex and Matt grilled stakes and we had them with potatoes and tomato and basic.  Tomorrow Siena?
Thursday [September 16]
This a.m. after a couple of doses of Louisa’s strong ibuprofen, my knee is much improved.  After a breakfast of fruit, coffee, cereal, Blake Mark and I lounged, then drove to two nearby churches in Lucarno and then into Tavernelle for the market.  I purchased two necklaces (a blue one for me and a red one for Margaret), two silk soles and a nightgown.  I love the Tavernelle market.  Good value.
We met John and had lunch at Café d’Italia and then drove back to Citterna.  I believe this is where I had my first Negroni and I liked it very much (one part each gin, sweet vermouth and compare with orange twist). 
After a brief respite at La Citterna, we drove down the road to Sticciano where I purchased olive oil and olive oil soap and body lotion.  Yum !  On the way there we saw two beautiful pheasants, male and female, doing what appeared to be a mating dance (although this is not the mating season).  The male’s black back showed as iridescent blue/green through the binoculars.  On the way home, we saw another pair, less glorious in color but still impressive.
Sculptures in Montelupo
Then we came back, dressed and went to Castella del Nero, in a valley beyond Tavernelle,  for drinks. The Castela del Nero was a private home, and is now a luxury spa hotel.  I had an “aperto” an orange – sweet and bitter drink.  Beautiful views and long shadows as the sun set in the west and we looked east.   When we returned, Anita and Joshi had prepared the dinner:  grilled vegetables, onions cooked in balsamic, eggplant grilled then cooked with white wine vinegar, mint, olive oil, salt and pepper.  Red peppers roasted and skinned and seasoned; zucchini also well prepared (we are getting all these recipes from her). 
Our pasta was made with porcine.  Then we had rabbit cooked with sage leaf and stuffed with ham and its own liver and wrapped in bacon.  We had a cauliflower, carrot and cabbage dish with vinegar and roasted potatoes.  As usual, a fabulous feast.  The dessert was a cake with brandied apples and vanilla custard.
Friday [September 17]
After saying goodbye and doing an ATM and news run in Barberino, John, Blake and I set out across the back country to Poggio a Caiano.  We stopped near Montelupo at the ceramics place (“Dolpho") where Blake got her tiles last time.  She bought an interesting vase; I window shopped and took pictures of the sculptures in the garden.  Then we drove further stopping to have  lunch and  a view of another Medici palace.
The Medici Carriage for the Festa in Poggio a Caiano
On to Poggio where because the central area was closed to traffic during the Festa, our directions to the hotel were irrelevant but at last we found the Pami Super Mercado and then the Hermitage Hotel. 
A brief rest before the ordeal of trying to get a cab to the Bacchus wine tasting.  No answer in Poggio so John ordered a very expensive Prato cab.  We arrived a half hour later but nothing happened for another hour.  It’s drizzling rain, we’re tired, and John especially aggravated at the disorganization.  At last, the “Principe and Principessa Medici” arrive in a horse drawn carriage and after some ceremony we wait again for the wine fest to begin, for the procession to the villa, for anything. 
Finally, we decide to walk to the villa and we are seated inside the hall at a table with Sr. Buti (former council member) and the two journalists who are from Abbruzzo region and whom Maddie had introduced us earlier.  We have at last wine and water.  At last the “principes” arrive, and the dinner begins.  There are entertainments between courses – including stilt dancers and what I perceive as a “nude” woman, I think swathed on top only by transparent white scarves and lying on a table apparently carried by invisible persons underneath the table covering.  Minstrels and singers entertain the tables – a mandola (mandolin with a hurdy gurdy lever), a bagpipe, flute and tambourine in different combinations.  Then there are also flag jugglers (I got pictures of them but not, alas, of the naked lady).
Each course is offered several times so that I turned down what actually was a separate course – but by that time, I was pretty full.  We left before dessert – John calling the hotel to try to find a cab.e
We followed the road outside the villa walls where there are booths of crafts, games, food, and a totally youth scene.  I felt like I was in an Alfred Hitchcock thriller trying to escape by following John and not losing Blake.  (in a way it was also like more modern scenes of youth nightclubs and mosh pits).  Definitely claustrophobic.  We finally got out of the crowd,  but there is no car; another call and the taxi finally arrives.  We are home by 12 but I really don’t sleep.  I read Iris Origa’s War Journals.
Saturday [September 18]
Rise for breakfast with Blake and John and then apologies for the night before  and  farewells as I leave with the journalists and Maddie for Prato – tour of a biscotti bakery (opened in 1865 and still run by same family).  There we are each given a huge bag of biscotti and a bread.  [a few pix of the Prato area, including biscotti making]   Then, on to Firenzi for the arrival of the Medici carriage.  Of course it does not arrive on time.
But we are entertained in the Piazza del Signoria, where I snap photos of strangely dressed persons who are demonstrating for some purpose, and shop for final gifts in the nearby straw market  (where I purchase two shawls). 
The carriage arrives, and we enter the city hall, formerly the Palazzo Vecchio remodeled for Cosimo Medici  and his wife, Eleanore of Spain who were the parents of Francesco (a rather ineffective son, I learn) whose presence we have been celebrating at the Poggio Festiva.  After ceremonies we get a tour, including the special entrance into Francesco’s office, where he was an alchemist. [ I snapped photos of the gold ceiling and of the blue cord locking it off to the general public.]   The place in decorated in gold and paintings and has a secret door and staircase to another chamber and then another staircase and another door.
In the main hall there is a Michelangelo statue “Victory” made when he was an old man but depicting himself as a youth on the back of an old man.  It was intended for a Pope’s tomb and was presented  to Cosimo Medici after a military triumph over Siena.  [I photographed this sculpture as well as a very odd one of a faun wrestling a man and apparently trying to castrate him.]
There are rooms in the palace dedicated to the gods – Hercules and Ceres (Demeter), sister of Jupiter and wife of the King of Siciana.  Eleanore’s ante rooms include one with painting of the Rape of the Sabine Women, one for Ester (the strong woman of the Old Testament) and one for Penelope, a celebration of wifely duties and marital virtue.  (Good advice I get for future visits is to get reservations for Palazzo Vecchio, Uffizi and Academy to avoid lines – of course, we are getting the cook’s tour, no lines and entry to usually closed off rooms).
On the way back to our car (good hint for future parking: north of Arno, near 2nd bridge west of Pontevecchio), we stop for gelato.  Back in Poggio we go to a local restaurant but I order only caprese and taste the very good grilled chicken.
Another mix up – the villa will not be open after 6 as originally planned, so we decide to go at 2:15.  Maddie gives me the English tour, the journalists go with the Italian guide. Most interesting is the intrigue involving Francesco, Giovanna of Austria (his wife by arranged marriage) and Bianca Capelli (his lover).  (It’s ironic that the Festa celebrates Francesco and Giovanna when they were in fact not a happy couple - an understatement as you will see below.)
Giovanna dies, Bianca and Francesco marry but then they die within 10 hours of one another around 1587.  Forensic evidence on Giovanna and Francesco, who are buried in the Medici Chapel in Florence, shows they were both poisoned by arsenic, their bodies preserved in the seizure positions in which they died.  Bianca was not buried with the Medicis, but evidence points to her being buried in a church yard near Caiano, where a female body dead about the same time and also killed by arsenic is identified as probably being Bianca. 
The story goes that Francesco and Bianca may have poisoned Giovanna; later, Francesco may have intended to poison  the Cardinal.  However, and this is all conjecture, the Cardinal saw what was happening, switched the poison, and Francesco died.  With her lover dead, Bianca also took the poison.  What a novel that would make!
The Poggio Villa later was a retreat of the King Vittorio Emmanuel in the 19th century so it contains much from that era.  An Andrea Del Sarto fresco from an earlier period showing a turkey must have been later finished by others (The turkey was discovered in America after the 1600s so became part of a fresco after Del Sarto painted).  [No pix were allowed within this villa.]
A later Medici married nobility from Orleans (Marguerite) a French gal who apparently was very bored until her husband gave her the okay to re-do the house.  She created a beautiful theater, which has balconies and orchestra pit as well as a stage and a unique organ.  Next door is a sala di billard created during the time the Duke of Savoy was the owner and decorated in a Piedmonese style.  Marguerite also created  the first bathroom in the Villa -- with a huge and deep Roman-like tub.   Other past occupants of the villa included Napoleon’s sister Elise.
(I am writing this later  while in the tourist office later on Saturday night during a violent storm.  As usual, I do not know when or where we’ll eat.  The journalists and I walked to the villa from the hotel but I’m feeling like an absolute mute in Italian.  Cannot think of a word except a French one, Merde.)
Finally  the journalists  and Maddie appear.  We wander the street, finally settling into a food stall sponsored by Osteria de’ Paganelli.  Graziella and Salvatore Pironello are the owners and he was a member of Town Council and has visited Charlottesville.  The chef, a past prizewinner at the Poggio Festiva, cooked for a year in the  Bush I White House at special events when Italian food was required.  He lived in the US for 8 years.
We tried his so called Pasta with white sauce, which was really pasta with oil and a crumbled beef – very tasty.  Then I had a sampler of meats, sausage, beef rib and grilled chicken.  Very good.  Then, the chef brought out an unidentified dish which they finally said was tripe.  Only after several people – including a cute patron who had joined us – said “you have to try it” did I take a bite.  And it was  very tasty in fact -- well prepared with spices and olive oil but  still,  given that it IS tripe,  I don’t think I’d order it.
For dessert, the Chef served his apple cake – a light sugared pastry with an embedded apple accompanied by with a sauce that was delicious – pureed apples, berries and plums.
And Vin Serena (an aged vinsanto, I’m told). 
Back to the hotel and packing before my 4:30 a.m. wakeup
Sunday [September 19]
The taxi was EARLY, and it took only 20 minutes to the Airport where I ran into Mark, Caroline, Emily and Molly, all leaving on a plane just ahead of me.  It was good to get a final goodbye there.
Slept on plane; changed in Amsterdam and got to Philadelphia ready to go through customs to discover that my suitcase was still in Amsterdam [it arrived a day later in Charlottesville and was delivered].  My seatmate from Amsterdam was a young man who is a left-handed pitcher for the Seattle Mariners farm team – on his way to Phoenix for baseball camp.
Home and pick-up at the Charlottesville Airport by Margaret and Craig.  Easy to sleep but I awoke early on Monday morning  … In Italy, it was already 8 a.m.

Venice and Vicenzo February 2012 (to be continued)

Bacchus spewing wine during Carnevale

Canal in Venice

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