Pictures taken by Tom, Kim, Tracy, Mary and unknown nice travelers we met along the way (unless otherwise noted). Everything else I culled from various sources.
Days One and Two - Are We There Yet, Which Way To First Class and Is This The Airport Sauna?
Although we managed to trash one rental car (a precautionary tale of stupidity from the first part of our trip) and seriously impair dozens of brain cells along the way during our 22-day journey, we successfully returned from another wonderful trip to Europe. No Italian animals, pedestrians, priests or nuns were injured during the making of this trip report (scared, yes; harmed, no), which will describe the hill towns of Umbria and Tuscany, the beautiful cities of Firenze, Venezia and Roma, and all the sundry details I can remember.
I devoured enough pasta and miscellaneous carbohydrates that poor, dead Dr. Atkins has already turned over in his scrambled eggs. My cholesterol count is undoubtedly so inflated from that over-indulgence that not even an intravenous drip of Lipitor could make a dent in it. Since I’ve been home, I wake up screaming in the middle of the night for ravioli stuffed with ricotta, Pecorino and spinach, drizzled with olive oil. Yes, I am now a full-fledged Pastaholic.
On the Fodor’s Travel Board, I had read trip reports by overwrought travelers who incongruously perceived that Italians were taking turns laughing and mocking them as they strolled the streets of Rome and other Italian environs. For those traveling to Italy in the future, let me first allay those misguided fears. Although given ample opportunity to do so, Italian citizens neither laughed at nor mocked us throughout our three-week stay (at least to our faces).
We hooked up with another couple (Dan and Linda) for a night in Florence and the last three days in Rome. Between the six of us, we took 1,500 pictures (more if you count Dan’s camera, now resting comfortably at the bottom of a Venice canal).
Following are the facts and nothing but the facts. The story you are about to read is true. No names have been changed, because no one is innocent. This is “Italy Uncensored.”
For those who hate airline stories, this is your chance to skip to Day Three, although if you have never flown first class or had to spend 12 hours in two airports, you might enjoy this part. Confusing? Yes. Much like our flight plan to get to Rome.
Tracy and I had converted most of our frequent flyer miles to go first class (once before I die, I thought). You are at the airlines’ mercy when it comes to FF awards, so we were booked to go Los Angeles to New York, New York to London (six hour layover at Heathrow) and finally (mercifully) London to Rome.
Upon checking in about two hours before our Thursday, 1:15 p.m. flight to New York, Tracy and I decided to take advantage of the American Airlines Admiral’s Club (we never met a free drink we didn’t like). Upon entering the lounge we were greeted with, “You must be Mr. and Mrs. Your Flight Is In Peril But You Don’t Know It Yet” (not our real last names).
At first we thought, “How nice. They know our names.” Then came word that bad weather in the east had caused a four-hour delay in our flight to New York, meaning we would miss our connection to London. “Not to worry,” they said, and we were quickly re-booked on a 6 p.m. Los Angeles to London non-stop.
We’d already dropped off the cats and taken the limo (OK, it was a Lincoln Town Car) to the airport, so we were not going to spend a fortune to go back home only to come right back again. This was one time we wished we had some unemployed friends who could pick us up at the airport and play for a few hours.
But alas, we would spend the next five hours munching on peanuts, having drinks and watching the same, three news stories ad nauseum on CNN.
The American Airlines’ people were terrific from the start. They notified us that our luggage had been found and rerouted to our new flight and told us to relax in the lounge. Granted, six hours in a lounge is a lot of relaxing (even for me), but we made the best of the situation. Dreams of gelato danced in my head.
A few drinks and a few hundred peanuts later, we finally boarded our flight to London.
First Class Baby! It is the only way to travel. When we boarded, I inadvertently turned to the right toward my usual seat in the bowels of coach Hell, but the flight attendant, realizing my error, quickly turned me to the left toward first class, and there before us lay a world I never knew existed.
Nobody reclines their seat into your knees while your legs lose all feeling twenty minutes into the flight. Champagne was served to us immediately after boarding, and free-flowing French wine was poured at our command during the first hour of the flight (hey, a few hundred peanuts can make a man thirsty).
Our movies were brought to us on a silver tray (if only the movies had warranted such an intro). The seats reclined all the way to form a sleeper bed. I stood, turned around and gazed toward the rear of the plane at the sad, pathetic faces of cramped, uncomfortable passengers and could only think, “Oh, the humanity!”
Dinner consisted of smoked salmon with crème fraiche, onions and capers and a salad laced with baby lobster tail. The meal was topped-off by a delicious steak (I could have opted for a sundae, but I was afraid the plane might be overweight if I indulged any more).
Tracy and I stretched out for about five hours only to be awakened by the smell of breakfast, a very rich tasting cream cheese, chive omelet with a side of filet mignon, coffee and juice. “I wonder how the other half lives?” I asked Tracy.
At Heathrow, reality hit us again as we took grasp of the understanding that a five-hour wait laid ahead before our flight to Rome on British Airways. Heathrow is huge, and a bus driver (who must have just received his learner’s permit that morning) made the trip from Terminal Three to Terminal One quite exciting by applying the brake and gas at unusual intervals. Plus, the guy was driving on the wrong side of the road (yeah, I know)!
The BA lounge offered a nice variety of finger sandwiches, cocktails (my first Campari of the trip), coffee, tea and soft drinks. It also had a number of computers to wile away the hours, and showers to rejuvenate the spirit (Campari did the trick for me).
We arrived in Rome at 9:30 p.m. Friday night after a 2 hour and 15 minute flight from London (nothing special) and walked to the Rome Airport Hilton, where we would spend the first night awaiting our friends’ arrival from San Diego the following morning.
If you enjoy a good sauna, the walkway between the airport and the Hilton reminded me of one, except that nobody was naked. The weight we gained on the plane was quickly shed during the five to ten minute walk to the hotel.
It had been told to me that the Rome Airport Hilton was overpriced. Well, maybe it was (210 Euros a night), but the shower and late dinner of ricotta and basil ravioli with julienne zucchini hit the spot perfectly (the two martinis didn’t hurt either). For a couple of weary travelers, the room was just fine. We hit the pillow by midnight and were asleep in a matter of seconds.
That was a good thing, because I had a wake-up call set up for eight in the morning so I could pick up the soon-to-be infamous rental car, meet our friends and head off to Umbria. The adventure was now officially under way.
Day Three - Things Go Better With Spello, Reversal Of Misfortune and I Didn't Know You Could Speak Yiddish!
Tracy and I reveled after a good night's rest (well, at least as much as two people can revel at 8 a.m.), and it was time for me to walk halfway through the Hilton/Airport sauna tunnel to pick up the car. I thought about wearing my swimming trunks and a towel to stay cool, but decided against it for fear of causing an international incident.
The Hertz line was a mile long, but I quickly whipped through the Europcar line and walked to search for our automobile, which turned out to be an almost brand-new Fiat (may it rest in everlasting peace).
It didn’t take me long to find myself in the first rental car jam of the trip. I drove toward the automated gate where drivers insert the card in the slot to exit the rental car area, but the guy in front of me seemed to be having a bit of difficulty. He wanted to back his car up because his card wasn’t working properly.
No problema, I thought. Well, no problema until I tried to get my car in reverse. Try as I might, the damned car would not go into reverse.
Of course, the more I tried, the more cars started lining up behind me. And the more cars that lined up behind me, the more I began to sweat profusely (think Albert Brooks as the hapless newsman in Broadcast News.
Finally, the guy got out of his car, walked past me, and shot me a look that said, “Why didn’t you back up imbecile?” I smiled like, well, an imbecile. He got back in his car and (thankfully) we were all going forward again.
When I returned to the hotel room, Tracy saw my sweat-stained shirt and said, “Man, that walkway must have been really hot today.” I didn’t tell her about my driving faux pas until after I quickly took my second shower of the day.
Downstairs, we had a mediocre 12 Euro Continental breakfast (OK, the Hilton is a tad overpriced), checked out and waited for Kim and Mary, who showed up at 11:30 a.m.
As Mary changed clothes in the Hilton lobby bathroom, she ran into our first Ugly American, which thankfully turned out to be our last Ugly American of the trip. A young woman put her hands under the automatic sink, and, as automatic sinks often do, it took a couple of seconds for the water to start flowing. Mary said the woman screamed, “I hate Italy! You have to wait for everything!”
Obviously, not a devotee of Slow Travel, the young lady then stormed from the restroom. This phrase, “You have to wait for everything,” became our humorous and endearing catchphrase for the remainder of the trip, because waiting and relaxing is what makes Italy so endearing (picture at right was taken by Kim in Florence).
We jumped in the car to head for Spello, but first I told Kim about the little reverse problem I encountered earlier that morning, and he attempted for a few minutes (with no luck) to get the car to back up. “Well,” I thought, “I don’t have to use reverse on the Spello drive, so we’ll deal with this minor inconvenience later.”
For those of you who love foreshadowing, there was no manual to peruse.
There was terrible traffic on the Rome Ring, but once we got out in the country, it was clear sailing. On the two-lane road heading toward Spoleto, it was exciting to see how close the cars passing other cars going the opposite direction actually came to causing us to have a head-on collision.
I looked in the rear-view mirror and saw Mary covering her eyes so she didn’t have to witness these many near-death experiences. She was also getting sleepy.
We arrived in Spello after a little more than two hours and headed for the city center and our hotel for the next three nights, the Palazzo Bocci. Even with eight eyes peeled, we passed right by it and, like an airliner missing the runway, circled back around to try again.
This time I took a different route (not on purpose), which put me in a parking area near the center of town (not the parking area I wanted, but it was close enough to walk to the hotel). I saw a parking spot in my rear view mirror and was planning to put the car in reverse when a terrible thought occurred to me, “I don’t know how to put the car in reverse.”
This was no time to panic. No sense making a bad impression on our Spello neighbors in the first five minutes. At one point, in a Keystone Kops moment, Tracy, Kim and Mary actually tried to push the car backwards into the parking space (which was the first time Italians could have reasonably laughed at us, yet they stayed restrained, though perplexed, at the actions of their new out-of-town residents).
We tried many different variations on a theme until Kim finally came upon the answer. You put your fingers under the ring and pull up on the stick, contrary to our years of driving sticks where we pushed down. “Spello, we have touch down!”
The Palazzo Bocci was everything it was cracked up to be from reports I had read. Our room was lovely with a view overlooking the Tuscan countryside from our little patio (courtesy of Kim and Mary who took the room without a view).
There was also a large patio where the four of us shared wine, cheese and various meats for the next few nights while meeting some of the other hotel guests.
After unpacking, the four of us strolled the streets of Spello (fortunately no one recognized us as the “pushing car” Americans). We quickly partook in our first gelato experience, found some spectacular vistas for picture-taking, traversed the quiet streets, stopped in to see the Pinturicchio frescoes at the Santa Maria Maggiore and came across a nice wine store to grab a couple of bottles of vino to enjoy on the patio before dinner.
Our first class airline experience unfortunately was quite different from our friends. They had flown to Rome via Atlanta from San Diego in the cattle car, and Mary was beginning to feel the effects as we sat outside drinking our wine.
We were chatting with a nice young German newlywed couple who told us about some great restaurants in the Jewish section of Rome (where we would end our trip). Suddenly Mary started talking Yiddish to them (the sad part is she really doesn’t know any Yiddish). It was at this point we knew Mary would not be joining us for dinner.
Tracy had the dish of the night, a pasta concoction chock full of pistachio, pecorino and prosciutto. The honeydew in my prosciutto y meloné tasted like candy. I also tried the Zuppa de Frutta, a fantastic dessert of honeydew, grapes, kiwi and peaches in a mint-type sauce.
The Montefalco 2003 Rosso Antonellio was a bargain at 13 Euros. We all toasted to our great fortune of being back in Italy and realized how incredibly lucky we were to be able to enjoy trips such as this.
It would be the last day for quite some time where our feet and legs would feel good, as tomorrow would start our ten day mission of exploring hill towns throughout Umbria and Tuscany.
Day Four - It's All Uphill From Here, Does White Wine Go With Mass, Of All The Gallstones and The Spello Restaurant Dash
After breakfast at the Palazzo Bocci, we were off on the road to Spoleto (the forgotten Hope-Crosby movie). On the way, we stopped to take pictures of a cute hill town we thought (by the signage nearby) was Foligno.
The girl at the desk had told us there would be a wine festival in Foligno that night, and we decided we would check it out later on the way back.
We drove to the old town of Spoleto (well, I guess they are ALL old towns) and parked. We hiked up to the top of town (our first inkling of how our feet were to feel for the next 19 days). If we had so chosen, we could have paid 20 Euros apiece to join in the Spoleto Wine Festival, which consisted of taking your glass to various venues and consuming mass quantities of wine.
Since it was only 10:30 in the morning, we determined that would be a huge tactical mistake. We barely missed the tour at Rocca Albornoziana, the place where Lucrezia Borgia was sent to get away from her second husband (I guess she was tired of those wacky orgies she had with her own father and brother. Now that’s All in the Family).
Instead we walked to the Ponte delle Torri, a bridge built on an old Roman aqueduct. The views from here of the valley behind Spoleto were spectacular. We walked across the aqueduct and there was beauiful scenery including a mini-waterfall.
After spending some time soaking in the natural wonders, we headed toward Spoleto’s Duomo. They were just ending Sunday Mass, so we waited nicely and quietly in the back.
A woman showed up inside the Duomo with a wine glass tied around her neck (obviously part of the wine tour, or at least I hoped so). Suddenly the phrase “drinking Mass quantities of wine” took on quite another connotation.
In the process of departing Spoleto, and for the first time since I had picked up the car, I drove the wrong way on a one-way street. Obviously the Spoletons had been warned of our arrival, and fortunately there was no carnage.
Speaking of wine (and, if you remember, I was), we headed toward Montefalco, the home of Sagrantino and Sagrantino Passito, its famous wines. We were told that the Sagrantino grape (from which these wines are made) is a grape found only in the Montefalco region and that Syrian monks might have introduced it in the 7th century. Since we were hungry, I didn’t question whether that was true or not.
It had turned chilly and it was quite foggy outside, so the respite was nice, and we lunched on a couple of risottos, a spaghetti dish and noodles with wild asparagus. There was a cool fireplace (hmm, is that an oxymoron?) where they grilled meats.
Even though I had just learned about Sagrantino, we decided on the House Red (a 2002 Roccadi Fabn’ Montefalco Rosso) for 12 Euros. It turned out to be a vino bargain.
After lunch, we walked to Santa Chiara, the church where Montefalco’s patron saint, Clare, lies in a transparent casket. The church was dark and quiet, and we were the only people inside. We saw Clare’s body, and I told the group we could knock on the door, and, according to something I read, the nuns could show us the remains of her heart, three of her gallstones (which represent the Trinity) and the scissors that were used to cut out her heart. Since we had just finished lunch, we all decided to let the remainder of Clare rest in peace and pieces.
Bevagna is definitely a cute town. On the town’s Piazza Silvestri are two gigantic churches. We went into the Basilica di San Silvestro, built in 1195. Prince Charles had been stumping to get money to help restore the church, but there was no sign of him on this day.
I had kept us on a pretty fast pace, and when Mary had the chance, she tried to stuff my head into the stocks, so we could slow down a bit. Fortunately, my neck had already been enlarged by the previous night's hearty meal, so I didn't quite entirely fit in this medieval torture trap, and it was back on the road again.
Since it was late afternoon, we thought it might be fun to drive to the charming town we believed to be Foligno. Once we got inside the city limits of Foligno, we realized this was definitely not the charming town on the hill, but a bigger city that was getting us more lost by the moment. Well, I was actually getting us lost, but when I can blame an entire town, I do.
Just when we thought we were lost for sure, navigator par excellence Tracy saw the sign for the road to our hometown of Spello. We hightailed it back to the Bocci wondering what the heck was the name of that mysterious hill town we had photographed earlier in the day, but decided that two more bottles of wine on the patio would make that a moot question.
After discussing the Spello restaurant scene over vino, we had come to the conclusion we would like to try La Cantina Ristorante in Spello for dinner, which had been recommended to us. The restaurant’s welcome was lukewarm at best, and we just did not feel a good vibe in the place. It was very, very quiet with lots of long, drawn-out faces (perhaps they were just a bunch of people who couldn’t figure out how to get their cars in reverse, I thought).
Anyway, after a few minutes we made a quick group decision and headed back to Il Molino. Heck, it would be new to Mary (who had been Ambien-free for more than 24 hours), and we were very happy with our meal the previous evening.
On this night, the spectacular dish was a Filet with caramelized balsamic that Kim and I ordered. It was spectacular. Tracy had another steak she deemed too rare, and Kim (Mr. Chivalry) changed dishes with her (I would have been chivalrous had I not already eaten my entire steak). The entire meal was complemented nicely by a 2003 Montefalco Rosso Scacciadiavoloi (which took us less time to drink than for me to spell) for 13 Euros.
After I received a lecture on chivalry, we got to bed early because the next day our feet were going to get their first real test on the hilly streets of Assisi.
Day Five - Don’t Be Assisi, The 47-Minute Perugian Tour and Well, It Looked Like A Parking Lot To Me
After another nice Palazzo Bocci breakfast, the four intrepid travelers hopped in the car for the quick 15-minute drive to Assisi. We parked in the upper lot in a covered parking area, and started walking toward the Basilica di San Francesco.
We obviously took the route less traveled, because we passed a number of residences. I soon had us on a path that the rest of the group thought might head in the wrong direction. Stubbornly I pressed on, and fortunately we were on the right path to the Basilica. Well, at least, I was.
I made it to the Basilica and waited for about 20 minutes until I saw the group heading toward me. They had made a little wrong turn and wondered why I had strayed so far ahead. As usual, I had no good answer.
The four of us had been here nearly five years earlier, but wanted to return to give Assisi more time. We toured the Lower and Upper Church and walked down to the crypt that contains the venerated stone coffin of St. Francis. The entire experience is quite remarkable, even for a pseudo-Presbyterian like me.
We saw the church where St. Francis was baptized, the Roman Temple of Minerva, and after a quick bite to eat, walked into the Santa Chiara, home of the bones of St. Clare (the more famous of the two St. Clares) and the crucifix that supposedly talked to St. Francis.
My favorite fun fact about Clare is that she is the patron saint of television, although rumor has it that she disavows any knowledge of the Fox News Channel or UPN.
We had spent about four hours meandering the streets of Assisi, and when we got to the car, I saw a picture I had brought with me of a set of steps I wanted to see in Perugia. For some bizarre reason, I wanted to go to these steps. So we set off for Perugia, and wound our way up, up, up and parked in a nice little square with a statue in the middle.
Besides the steps, Perugia was on my radar only because of its unique and rather sordid history. In the bad old days, the ancient Perugians would dress up in deer hides and beaked helmets before summarily stoning each other to death. Now, that’s entertainment! Three popes were also poisoned to death here, so I figured we should at least make a quick stop.
And a quick stop it would have to be. We only had enough change for 47 minutes of parking, so armed with only a picture of some steps and not knowing if we were anywhere near those steps, we started on our quest (well, it was actually my quest, but since I was driving it also became a group quest).
Finally at the Fontana Maggiore in the Piazza IV Novembre, I saw a tour group. I asked the very pretty leader about the steps, and she told me it was a five-minute walk to see them. Amazingly, we found the steps, ran up and down them, took some pictures, and I then relaxed, having completed the quest.
Tracy then said, “I guess our next quest should be to get back to the car because we don’t have much time left.”
I had completely forgotten that we only had a few minutes left, and no one really remembered what time we had parked. When we arrived back to where we had parked the car, there was one minute left before we would receive a ticket, and there was a Carabinieri waiting very near our car to do just that. As Maxwell Smart used to say, "Missed it by that much!"
As we drove toward Spello, we started thinking about the town we thought was Foligno the day before. We had figured out it was Trevi, so we decided to drive and take a quick look at the town before we got back to the Palazzo Bocci.
Trevi looked like a cute town, and I thought I saw a wide-open parking lot with empty spaces galore. “Wow, this great. There are plenty of spaces.” As I drove into the “lot”, Tracy exclaimed, “Tom, you idiot (an endearing expression I have heard quite often during the past 15 years), you are driving on the town square.”
Sure enough, a few local Trevians looked on in awe as I drove in a bizarre circuitous route on their traffic-free square, a spot only seconds before where they were spending a pleasant Monday afternoon.
We had dinner at Il Pinturicchio in Spello. It was another nice meal. We all went to bed knowing that tomorrow we would head to our new hometown, St. Quirico d’Orcia via a stop in Gubbio and a ride up the “Bucket of Bolts.” Unbeknownst to us at the time, we would also have to bid farewell to our means of transportation before we reached our appointed destination.
Day Six - The Bucket Of Bolts, Lunatic Fringe, Life's A Gas And Death Of A Rental Car
Looking back, the day did have a rather ominous beginning. I woke about 3 a.m. to a thundering rain. That wouldn’t have been bad if I hadn’t left my shoes out on the patio to air out after realizing I had stepped in some dog pooh the day before. I dumped out the water and brought the shoes in to dry.
Then, at breakfast, Tracy and I saw that Kim and Mary were not feeling well (and it was not from my smelly shoes). Mary had been under the weather since we arrived (Thank God for that Airborne Cold Remedy I had been taking religiously for the past week), but Kim was now looking a little ill. He hadn’t gotten much sleep due an upset stomach.
Fortunately, I thought, he can get some sleep in the car, because we were headed for Gubbio, and then, after a short stay there, it would be a 2 ½ - 3 hour drive to St. Quirico d’Orcia (or so we thought), where we would spend the next four nights.
We bade farewell to the Palazzo Bocci. As mentioned, it was a great hotel, and Spello was a wonderful base to explore Umbria. The phrase, “All roads lead to Spello” became our mantra for these few days because of its central locale in the region.
The drive to Gubbio, which has been called the most beautiful medieval town in Umbria (although it sounds like a long, lost Marx Brother to me), took about an hour and was very scenic. It was a hilly road with many twists and turns, but luckily it didn’t affect Kim’s stomach in a negative way. We knew we needed gas, but decided to get it on the way out of town.
Parking lots for Gubbio were located relatively near the entrance to the town center. In addition to seeing what this town looked like, the main attraction we were looking for was a rickety funicular that would take us to the top of Monte Ingino. We had dubbed it the Bucket of Bolts from a report that said, "It holds two people, and gives one ample time to admire the view and to study your cage's welding and bolts, which are all that lie between you and oblivion."
Tracy showed me a poster on a wall that had a picture of The Bucket of Bolts. Looking at the photo, I was happy that our life insurance was in proper order.
We strolled (we did a lot of strolling, so it seems) through town, took an elevator up to the Piazza Grande, which afforded beautiful countryside views, and then continued on another ten minutes to our appointed destination; the dreaded Bucket of Bolts.
Kim, bad stomach and all, and Tracy were very much looking forward to this death-defying contraption, not only because they enjoyed these kind of things, but they also realize I am a tad frightened by heights and falling to my death.
Having this fear, at least I was comforted by the fact that Tracy and Kim were having great fun at my expense. Mary, who has a much greater fear of heights (she passed on an Eiffel Tower visit on her first Paris trip), was a doubtful starter from the onset.
For the vertiginous amongst us, The Bucket of Bolts looked worse than the description. Two people stand in tandem in a ski-lift-type cage after making a running leap into the mechanism, which is closed at the last minute by a guy who seemed to get a kick at my look of imminent doom.
To her credit, Mary sucked it up, and she and Kim were the first to go, followed in the next death bucket by Tom and Tracy. The cage swung back and forth, and we were on our way up to the top (hopefully). Once we were off and rolling, I loved it and the fantastic views, although mortality was never far from my mind.
Once on top, I could only think of one thing…Campari, which I had at the little snack shop. My motto became, “You’ll never be sorry with another Campari.”
We hiked another 5 minutes up to the Rocca and the Basilica di Sant’Ubaldo. If you need some useless trivia for your next cocktail party, Ubaldo is the saint against demonic possession and migraine headaches.
The Basilica holds the remains of Ubaldo. I wanted to see his body, because one hand is missing three fingers due to an overzealous manservant who chopped them off as souvenirs (and perhaps to put on Medieval E-Bay).
However, there was a funeral going on (fortunately not ours), so we just took a quick glance at the church, walked back to the Bucket of Bolts and rode that bad boy to the bottom. The views of the town and an old Roman ampitheater were spectacular, and, of course, we made it back to terra firma safely.
While in town, there was one more important task to perform. Although my three traveling companions already were aware of this fact, I wanted to become a lunatic: an official Eugubian lunatic. To do this, so the legend states, one must run around the Fontana dei Matti (Fountain of the Mad) three times, all the while splashing yourself with water. I was looking forward to this baptizing of oneself.
Before I started my lunatic run, I backed up to take a picture of the fountain, tripped over a tiny barrier and fell on my ass. It was at this time I believe the locals started boarding up their houses.
I ran around the fountain three times, was deemed a lunatic (and perhaps an idiot) and we headed back to the car for the ride to St. Quirico. It was to be a leisurely 2 ½ drive to the Palazzo del Capitano, and I had us arriving at the appointed wine-drinking time of 5 - 6 p.m.
We stopped at an unmanned ESSO station for gas. After initially pausing at the Diesel pump, I went over to the Super Gas pump. We looked for the manual on how to get the gas tank open, but sadly there was no manual. After a few minutes the “brain trust” had the gas tank open.
Our next job was to figure out how to pay. After five minutes, we had everything in control, paid the 70 Euros to fill up (makes Southern California look like a bargain), and we were ready for easy trip to St. Quirico. But you know better than that, don’t you?
After about one minute of driving, the car sounded like a bicycle with baseball cards in the spokes, and it was missing more often than Angel hitters vs. the White Sox. I don’t know if they could see the panic in my eyes, but my passengers were beginning to feel uneasy.
The car was beginning to feel undriveable.
We all agreed we should stop at the closed IP station up ahead to see what was wrong. Kim exited the vehicle to see why our car was performing so badly. Then came the words that have us all waking up in sweat to this very day. Kim exclaimed, “Oh my God, we put Super in a Diesel car.”
Yes, ladies and gentlemen, here we were, four stranded, feeling rather stupid, Americans in the middle of virtually nowhere, all alone at a closed IP station in a car filled with the wrong gas. There haven’t been four longer faces since the Kerry family on election night 2004.
The only place on the car it said “Diesel” was above the gas cap, under the lip, where it was nearly impossible to see, but, no matter, the damage had been done. Although there was no manual, we did have a Europcar help number. The good news was Kim had brought along an international cell phone for some business he had to do during the trip. The bad news, there was only a busy signal at Europcar for half an hour.
We found a skinny hose and Kim, whose stomach wasn’t feeling bad enough to begin with, tried to siphon the gas out. Although thinking I should offer him a Gas-X to lighten the mood, I decided against it.
Siphoning did not work, but as despair set in, the guy who works at the station stopped by. It was our first stroke of luck. He told us about a tow tuck driver in Gubbio who might help us. The downside to that plan was it would cost a few thousand Euro.
Instead, he called Europcar and finally got through to someone. He said they would call right back. I paced while Tracy, Kim and Mary read.
An hour later, still no return call from Europcar. The guy at the station tried again and this time got through to Europcar in Perugia, where we had spent 47 of the nicest minutes of the trip the day before.
At 5:30 p.m. (about 3 ½ hours into the ordeal) a tow truck came and lifted our car onto the back of the truck. Mary and Tracy were offered the nice front seat in the tow truck, but what about Kim and Tom?
Well, we climbed onto the truck and strapped ourselves in backward for the trip down the hill. It was Bucket of Bolts, Part II, The Tourists Held Hostage.
Had we known what was going on up front during our journey, Kim and I probably would not have been so happy waving to all the Italian woman who were about to pass us on the winding road. According to Tracy, when the driver hit the first turn he looked back nervously to see if the car was still on the truck. She also said he drove much of the way with one hand (cell phone in other) and no hands and one knee when adjusting the visor to keep the glaring sun from coming in.
But drive he did, and our wives said he was very nice. They knew much of his life story by the time we reached our final destination, which was, thankfully, Perugia.
There was tons of traffic, and Kim and I were oblivious to where we were headed. We saw a Europcar office and thought, “Man, if only we could stop here,” but it looked closed.
Suddenly we saw the driver and Tracy head toward us, and Mary made a mad dash to the office. As it turned out, the driver was on the cell phone to the guy at Europcar, who stayed ½ hour late to wait for those gas-impaired Americans.
The Europcar guy was nice and even a bit funny. After telling us we were not the first Americans to ever do this, he said in his best English, “I probably don’t have to tell you this, but this car is diesel.” Everyone's a comedian!
We thanked him and tipped both he and the driver (we also tipped the guy at the IP station). As I walked away he added, “Oh, by the way, to put the car in reverse you pull up on the ring.” I wondered if he had seen a video from Spello.
The four of us were felling very lucky that our day had turned out like this, because just two hours before, things looked bleak, although Kim had said at the time, “In 24 hours, this won’t be a big deal.”
We had called the Palazzo del Capitano and told them we would be late, although we did not give the exact reason for our tardiness fearing the hotel employees would run for cover once we arrived.
We pulled into town at 8:30 p.m., saw our beautiful rooms and went in search of food. After sipping gasoline for lunch, a dinner of real food sounded good to Kim.
Dinner on this night would be at Il Tinaio on St. Quirico's main walking street. The highlight dish was a ribollito (bread soup) that Mary and Tracy ordered.
Kim and Mary then headed off to a well-deserved sleep, while Tracy and I stayed to have a nightcap, go over our incredible day, and toast our very good fortune.
Outside of “don’t put the wrong gas in your rental car,” I think the moral of the day was that if you treat people nicely and with respect, they usually will treat you nicely, no matter where you are. Had it not been for three very caring people (the guy at the IP, the tow-truck driver who stayed on the phone for a good part of an hour with Europcar and the Europcar guy himself), the outcome could have been much different.
“Wow, that was one wild day,” I said, sipping my Campari nightcap.
Without missing a beat, Tracy replied, “Well, at least you have a good story for the (travel) board now."
Day Seven – Pecorino Is My Life, I Don’t Need a Bath and The Town You Can See From Everywhere
Tracy and I awoke undaunted from the previous day’s traumatic adventure and looked forward to new travels, which we hoped would not include anything that had to do with a gas tank. Kim and Mary had also recovered nicely, and the four of us had a good breakfast at the Palazzo del Capitano.
Both couples were very pleased with our rooms. We were in the Leone (I’m a Leo), while Kim and Mary were in the Gemelli, since Mary was a twin (well, I guess she still is) and Kim and Mary were parents of twins.
I don’t know if it was that beauty of the garden or the knowledge that I was going to get behind the wheel again, but Kim and Mary said they were going to spend the morning reading and relaxing in the garden, and we told them we’d pick them up in the early afternoon for sightseeing.
Tracy and I meandered through the lovely town of St. Quirico and got in the car to dive to our first stop, Bagno Vignoni (less than 10 minutes from St. Quirico). Bagno (as I like to call it) is the town where people like St. Catherine of Siena and Lorenzo the Magnificent came to sooth their aching bodies in the thermal baths, which had been renowned for its healing powers.
Lorenzo had a great quote: “Whoever wants to be happy, let him be so; about tomorrow there's no knowing." Obviously, he realized the perils of filling up a rental car with the wrong gas.
Having already showered, Tracy and I did not need a bath, not that we could have gone in the huge pool in the town’s piazza, anyway. The town was charming, and we spotted a lovely, little restaurant, Osteria dei Leone, that looked very good, and thought it might be fun to come back for dinner here.
From Bagno, you can see a fortress high on the hill called Rocca d’Orcia. We drove up the winding road to the town, and took in the beautiful views and dreamed we owned one of the properties that overlooked the gorgeous Val d’Orcia.
In 2001, Tracy, Mary, Kim and I (yes, they went with us on this trip knowing the dangers at hand from a previous journey) had visited Pienza and spent some time in a cheese store eating Pecorino as the lovely proprietress plied us with wine. About a ½ hour and bottle of wine later, we left the store and had a Pecorino picnic in Montepulciano.
From that day on, the four of us have been Pecorino fans. It was a spectacularly sunny day, and as we walked around Pienza and smelled the Pecorino from the various shops selling the cheese from heaven made our appetites grow. We could either stay in Pienza for lunch or go to the town of Monticchiello. Having never been there before, we both decided we should head to Monticchiello.
For a tiny town, Monticchiello has an interesting history, including one event from World War II. On April 6, 1944, the Prefect of Siena, during the Fascist Republic, dispatched 450 available men to Monticchiello, to confront a small group of partisans camped around the town.
The Fascists were forced to retreat, but revenge was on their mind. The next morning at dawn, a German division reached Monticchiello with orders to find and shoot all the inhabitants. Soldiers broke into the houses, rounded up the people and lined them all up against the wall outside the town gate for execution.
Thanks to the intervention from the German wife of one of Monticchiello's landowners, and the help of a priest, Don Marino Torriti, the execution was averted. A monument now commemorates the event, which is on the wall intended for their executions.
Tracy and I, however, came in peace, of course not before terrorizing citizens with some more erratic driving. Reaching the gate and realizing I could go no further, I proceeded to back down the hill from whence I came (using the reverse ring to accurate perfection).
We walked up the hill to the Osteria La Porta near the gate into town where we were afforded a table on the patio with incredible views and even more incredible food.
Now here is a shock. I ordered Ravioli alla Pecorino. The tomatoes on the Pomodoro Bruschetta tasted like candy. The ravioli was incredible. We could have dined here for every meal, but a German film crew was setting up to shoot a movie for the next few days, and the restaurant would be closed.
An interesting dichotomy don’t you think? Sixty years ago Germans came to Monticchiello to shoot its citizens, now they were coming to shoot a movie. Quite an improvement, I must say.
Afterward, it was back to St. Quirico d’Orcia to pick up Kim and Mary. They looked relaxed and ready to get back on the road. Kim reminded me it had been 24 hours since our ordeal, and sure enough it was a distant memory (at least until the bill comes).
Radicofani, not surprisingly, has a rocca fortress, and we decided that all these medieval people had way too much time on their hands, which is why they kept invading and killing each other.
This was also the place where Ghino do Tacco kept the Abbot of Cluny hostage for a while (I wonder if Ghino yelled "Hey Abbot!"). It’s an interesting story that you should look up online. A hint: Ghino had a nice side to him after all, which is why I now call him the Soft Tacco.
That night we dined at Osteria dei Leone in Bagno Vignoni, and although the meal was good, it didn’t quite live up to our expectations, except for an excellent risotto. The Nobile di Montalcino was good enough that we ordered a second, and I consumed a little more than my fair share.
Since he did not drink too much wine (unlike some other guy we know), Kim drove us back to the hotel. It was early to bed, because tomorrow we were planning to explore five relatively obscure hill towns, and the group (and its tired legs) would need plenty of rest to make it through the day.
Day Eight - The Five Best Hill Towns That People Do Not Visit
I feel it safe to say that most people who visit Italy have never been to any of the five we were to visit on this day. But Tom’s Tuscan Tours (as our trip had been dubbed), doesn’t always take the path more traveled.
We filled up early on the Palazzo del Capitano breakfast (did I tell you much we loved this hotel) because we had a big day of driving ahead of us. Fortunately, we had plenty of gas (the car, not us).
In planning our Italy trip, I had compiled reams of information on various towns we could visit in Tuscany and Umbria. Today would be the day we would travel to five hill towns that don’t receive much coverage in the guidebooks.
Even with the car incident, Kim had decided that I should start Tom’s Tuscan Tours, because of the details I had in my pre-planning, which included information on restaurants, the history, shopping and sites to see in all the towns we had been to and were about to go. He thought I should take groups on these adventures. It might be fun, but a group with a negative attitude could make that kind of job pretty miserable.
Tom’s Tuscan Tours on this day started from St. Quirico and wound past Rocca d’Orcia until we were on the Strada dei Vin heading for our first hill town of the day, Arcidosso. There were charming hill towns dotting the countryside, but we had a five-town goal, so on we traveled.
Arcidosso is a quaint hill town (and really, aren't they all) in the Monte Amiata area (a region known for its mystics and seers throughout history) was home of the mystical 19th century prophet, Davide Lazzaretti, who, in a Jim Jones moment, proclaimed “he would be King and would reign over a kingdom of justice in the final age of the world.”
We parked and walked through the ancient part of town until we reached the Castello Aldobrandesco, which dates back to the 12th century. For one Euro apiece we were told we could climb the multitude of steps to the top. Since we had never met a set of stairs we couldn’t climb, up we went.
The view was great, and we saw the beautiful Madonna Incoronata in the distance. Afterward, we walked over to the Madonna Incoronata, supposedly a neat church to visit. It was quite a vertical drop to the church, but on we went, visiting friendly cats along the way.
Unfortunately, once we got there, we realized the church was closed and that we now had to go back up to get our car. Since it was early in the day, our foursome was ready to meet the challenge.
Arcidosso is also host to a large Buddhist community, but this was no time for meditation. We had more hill towns to explore on Tom’s Tuscan Tours.
I don’t know how many of you are Harry Chapin fans, but the late singer had a song called “The Rock,” which told the story of a rock (hence the name) which hung precariously over a town. Well, Roccalbegna has just such a huge rock that dominates the town.
Roccalbegnans have a saying, "Se il sasso scrocca, addio la Rocca." Translated it means, "If the rock crumbles, goodbye to the village (and I assumed, any California tourists in the general vicinity)."
Tracy was giving me the evil eye (known to me merely as “the look”) when I said we were going to climb to the top of the Rocca on the rock. I told her that Tom’s Tuscan Tours does not back down when it comes to climbing. Knowing she’d rather have an Almond Rocca than climb to the rocca, I, along with Mary, set off to blaze the trail. Kim and Tracy pulled up the rear, and I think the photo shows Kim giving me the "You're Number One" sign.
For anyone who wants to do this, it’s simple. Starting at Piazza IV Novembre, go to Salito Sassa (to the front of you and on the right). Turn left at Salito Sassa (look for the yellow sign); go past the Bar-Tabacchi (unless you need a drink or a smoke) on your left, meander along a winding lane and, in about ten minutes, you are at the base of the town fortress.
The climb up to the top of the Rocca is steep, and we almost had our first casualty of the trip (well, first human casualty). As Tracy neared the top, there was a snap. Unfortunately, it was not a tree branch, but Tracy’s ankle. Thankfully, the injury did not turn out to be serious, but I started getting “the look” a little more from this time on.
The views of the countryside were fantastic, but the view down on the grid-like streets and red roofs are what struck us. We made it down with no further incident.
Should you travel to Roccalbegna in November, you could become a part of the famed Focarazza Festival, which commemorates the martyrdom of the saint for which the town is named. The Focarazza is a fire festival held in Santa Caterina di Roccalbegna.
The ceremony goes something like this: an oak trunk, called a Stollo, with garlands of ivy, is raised. The next day the Stollo is the object of a contest among all the districts of Roccalbegna. The team that catches the Stollo burns it and spreads its ashes to ensure good harvest. I don’t know exactly how this contest is staged, but needless to say, the fire departments of Tuscany are on high alert that day.
Since Roccalbegna is off the beaten path, we saw no tourists. I walked over to the nearby TI to get directions to our next destination, and it was obvious he had seen no tourists for a while, either. This guy was really nice, and I think he would have chatted with me all day.
He gave me maps of the winemaking areas nearby, a book about the Roccalbegna and the surrounding countryside, and everyone in the office thought it was cool we were from California. “We don’t get many people from California, “ he said. “How did you find us?” As usual, I had no good answer, but it was fun to talk to him and the others in the office.
The rest of my group had sat patiently wondering (hoping) I’d been abducted. I said I had perfect directions, and we promptly drove three kilometers in the wrong direction (Tracy is right ... I am not a good listener).
My miscue turned out great for us (as driving miscues often do), because driving back toward Roccalbegna provided a sensational photographic opportunity.
Our next stop on this day was Sovana, located on the Pitigliano, Sorano, Sovana "Sunken Etruscan Road", which, of course, gives away the names of our final two hill towns. Some people believed these roads were sunken as a defensive measure so people could move unseen from town to town. Others think the roads were constructed to help mooooove livestock, which Tracy thought was udderly ridiculous.
In the middle of town, we got quite a start when we saw a FEMA truck. We decided it arrived late bringing supplies from a disaster that happened in the 1800s. I could just hear Bush saying, “Luigi, you’re doing a heckuva job!”
In any event, since I had deprived my tour group from food, we all stopped for a healthy, late lunch of gelato and gelato crepes (part of our Five A Day helpings of gelato). By now, our cholesterol counts were all nearing 1,000, so an extra helping couldn’t hurt. Sovana was a nice town, but the next two towns blew us away.
The drive into Sorano, with the road cut into the tufa, is something to behold. We parked a little outside the town and took photos of the town carved into the rock, and of the road below. It kind of reminded of us of the Cinque Terre sans the Ligurian Sea. What could top this, we thought?
Well, about nine kilometers away was Pitigliano, a town that even has more spectacular views of it from many vantage points. Thank God for digital because Kim and I spent 20 minutes just shooting it from any angle we could.
Wine was not hard to find since Pitigliano has wine caves at every turn selling local vino, olive oil and packages of ribollito. We bought some local wine at ridiculously cheap prices and also the soup mix, and soon we were headed back to Spello.
It had been a long satisfying day exploring these five “undiscovered” gems, so we were all pretty hungry, and the hotel’s restaurant (picture taken from website), Trattoria Al Vecchio Forno beckoned us that evening.
The restaurant has two rooms on two floors and is absolutely charming, not to mention it serves good food. There are wine bottles everywhere ready to be opened, and we were the happy recipients of a few.
Kim’s pesto pasta was deemed best dish of the night while Tracy renewed her love affair with everything arugula, this time in a salad with pecorino and walnuts.
I know that there are people who feel it is incredibly dangerous or difficult to drive in Italy (or other places in Europe), and that you can see as much by traveling by train. Today’s journey proved just how inaccurate that comment happens to be. Had we not had a car, we would not have been able to visit any of these places. Plus, I didn't have to put any gas in the car.
This day was our most scenic driving day of the entire trip, and exceeded even my most detailed pre-planning preparation expectations. The signage was great. The directions that the gentleman in Roccalbegna gave us were perfect, even though I started out in the wrong direction. And the memories of the day will last a lifetime.
I can’t repeat my mantra enough.
Enjoy the Journey! Attitude is Everything!
Day Nine - It’s Brunello Time and Abbey Lane
Following yesterday’s big drive, I promised my tour group we would have an easy day (mutiny is an ugly thing). We had another nice sleep in our great room (picture from website).
After breakfast, we completed the short drive to Montalcino, the home of Brunello; Italy’s “Big Red” vino, but not without putting my passengers in peril...again!
It had been hours since I had made a driving error, so I thought I’d regale the passengers with another one. Trying to find the correct street to find the Fortezza (with an enoteca downstairs), I somehow instead found a dirt road with a very steep downgrade. Mary had the look of terror on her face, but, once again, we survived unscathed. Luckily, I was able to find a spot to turnaround before the car plummeted off the cliff.
After parking, we walked through town, which was having a market day. We all had varying opinions of market days. Kim and Mary thought they were kind of neat, while Tracy and I thought it was more like a bad flea market.
But we had vino on our mind (hey, it was almost 11). First though, we bought our tickets to go up to the top of the Fortezza.
Tracy and I climbed to the top and walked around the ramparts, taking a bunch of pictures. This was the second time we had been to the Fortezza in our life, and it was just as cool the second time around.
Then it was time to spend our life savings on Brunello. Kim and I each did a 9-euro tasting of Brunellos, and I bought one for about 60 bucks. The Fortezza is a must stop if you are interested in Brunello.
It would be two hours until they would chant again, so we paid a visit to the abbey, which, after seeing so many opulent churches, was quite beautiful in a simpler sort of way.
In the early afternoon, we went back to St. Quirico and stopped in the Collegiata St. Quirico. If I have my saints correct, St. Quirico was a third century martyr killed at the age of five by the Romans because he declared himself a Christian.
We also took a look at the Horti Leonini, which is a 16th century garden comprised mostly of box hedges. As usual, I was having trouble finding beautiful gardens for Tracy, a recurrent theme in our European adventures.
Both Kim and I went to an Internet café to look and see if we had any important work messages. Tracy just wanted to know if anyone had visited our cats at The Cat Hotel in Burbank. The cats were doing fine, only our Tabby, Cupid, was pouting because I didn’t spend the extra dollars to put him in a kennel with the television that showed 24 hours of Animal Planet.
After wading through more than 500 e-mails, mostly telling me where I could buy cheap Viagra and Xanax, and seeing that our San Diego Padres were still amazingly in first place, we went back to the hotel and, well I’ll leave that to your imagination.
About the Palazzo del Capitano: This hotel was superb. The people who worked the front desk were extremely friendly and helpful in giving us directions or anything else we needed. Both rooms were spectacular (our room was 150 euros a night; Kim and Mary’s 130 euros a night - picture from website). I would book now, because I guarantee within the next couple of years, those rates will go up. The owners were also very nice.
As stated earlier, I can’t recommend this hotel enough. This was my 13th visit to Europe, and for value, cleanliness, beauty and service, it was our best hotel experience we have had.
That evening, the four of us sat with another couple from the Bay Area in the garden drinking Prosecco and wine, and munching on some of our provisions.
The garden is another aspect of the hotel that stands out. It’s huge and beautiful.
Like Spello, St. Quirico d"Orcia is very central base see much of what Tuscany has to offer. It is much less touristy and crowded than a Pienza, Montalcino or Montepulciano (which we visited in 2001). The corner restaurant/bar on the "main" drag was filled one night with locals watching a soccer match and playing cards.
OK, let’s get back to food and drinking. Even after wine and cheese, we were hungry (there is something weird about Italy in that no matter how much you eat, you just have to eat more; there must be something in the Prosecco).
We dined again at the hotel restaurant, the aforementioned Trattoria Al Vecchio Forno. I had the big appetite on this night, devouring a meal of prosciutto y meloné, ravioli with pecorino sauce, baked pecorino with arugula and, for good measure, topping it off with some Biscotti dipped in Vin Santo.
Back at the hotel, we had after-dinner drinks in the breakfast room area of the hotel, which also has a cozy bar. We toasted the hotel with various libations including Limoncello, Campari (wonder who ordered that) and some Amaretto.
We would be saying arrivederci to relaxing St. Quirico tomorrow morning and driving through the Crete area to Siena, where we were scheduled to stay four nights. As you will find out soon enough, our four-night stay became a two-night stay for various reasons. Stay tuned.
Day Ten - That’s The Ticket, An Oasis In The Forest, Sunny Siena and “Man, Am I Glad I’m Not That Driver!"
As the others packed and relaxed a little more, I walked to where I had parked the rental car so I could drive back to the hotel and help load the car. As I approached, I wondered, “What’s that on the window (even though I instinctively knew what it was)?"
Yep, it was a parking ticket for parking in a “residential only” parking area. In their one minor lapse, the people at the hotel said it was fine for us to park in that area, but obviously the ticket stated otherwise.
The ticket was 35 euros, but by the time I got back to the hotel I decided it wasn’t enough to make a stink about, especially since we loved our time here.
It turned out the German guests (who also had a parking ticket) were making stink enough for two. The husband was getting flustered and talking in rather high decibels, and the girl at the desk called a couple of places to see what she could do to help. I just put my ticket next to theirs on the desk and waited for the eventual outcome.
I had made up my mind while listening to her on the phone that if we had to pay, then we’ll pay. Remember, “Attitude is everything!”
Obviously our German friends had a different mindset, because when she got off the phone and softly said, “You both have to pay the ticket,” he picked up the ticket and threw it back on the desk. As his face reddened, he replied (well, kind of yelled) in no uncertain terms he wasn’t paying. He then stormed off (he had another night to stay, so I don’t know how it was resolved, but needless to say his day was pretty much spoiled ... not by the ticket, but how it had affected him).
The girl at the desk said she would take it over to the police station and get it paid, and then she apologized again. No problem, we said, and packed the car, which was now even more cluttered thanks to the stuff that Tracy had bought in the lobby (olive oil, soaps and other beauty stuff) for people who were helping to take care of the house while we were gone.
I guess I could have been like the other guest, but why ruin a day over 35 Euros, which would eventually just be another add on to the dreaded Europcar bill? Kim and Mary were also nice enough to split it with us, so no big deal.
We drove to Siena via the Crete Road. It was on this road where we would visit the Monte Oliveta Maggiore. Nestled in a forest of cypress trees, this abbey turned out to be one of our favorite detours of the trip. The church itself was beautiful, but the frescoes in the loggia that run around the Chiostro Grande were spectacular.
We (well, except for Kim who had donned a pair of shorts on this morning), visited all the rooms and received a nice explanation of the place from a docent-type person. Afterward, we visited the on-site pharmacy where herbal medicines made by the monks are sold. I was more interested in the non-herbal Vin Santo they sold, so Tracy grabbed me quickly, and we were on our way.
We made a quick stop in Asciano and the Basilica di Saint’Agata. After walking around the town (and saying hello to a cute kitty in the window), we took the short drive toward Siena.
The Crete Road was interesting to a degree, but it didn’t quite grab me like some of our other previous drives, but I’m sure it was a more interesting drive than the main highway. As we approached Siena, we saw the signs for the Porta Romano, and a couple of blocks before it lay our next hotel, Piccolo Hotel Oliveta.
Even though this hotel has garnered some nice reviews, I am afraid I cannot give it much of a recommendation, if at all. I’ll give you the plusses first.
It is located just outside the walls, has parking, and in the evening has spectacular views over the Tuscan countryside…Really spectacular.
Alexandra is a very nice host who is most accommodating, and they have some interesting tours if you don’t have a car.
On the negative side, the rooms were pretty worn, and the beds were the worst of the trip (not terrible, but not good either). I didn’t care so much that the shower was on one side of the room and the bathroom on the other, but some might. Much of the time, the first bursts of water emitted from the faucets had an uncomfortable brown color coming out. That can never be good.
It was told to us this hotel would undergo a management change in the next 12 -18 months, so no upgrades could be expected during this time. I must admit it was a letdown, but at 125 Euros, you make the call.
Kim, Mary, Tracy and I had based in Siena in 2001, and to be honest, were not impressed with the town. On that trip, we took trips to San Gimignano and Volterra (which we loved) and spent much of our Siena time at the Palazzo Ravizza hotel, which we also loved. The town just seemed dark and Gothic to us. We had vowed to come back and give it a little more time. I’m glad we did.
On a gloriously sunny afternoon, we all walked to the Campo, split up for awhile, and ate at two different locales. After lunch on the Campo at the aptly named Ristorante Il Campo (we enjoyed a very good penne pasta with vodka for 9E and the ever-present Prosecco), Tracy and I hooked up with Kim and Mary to tour the Duomo.
This was a special time of year, and the mosaics on the floor of the Duomo were uncovered in all their glory for everyone to see (plus you could go in the crypt underneath – which we would do the next day). The audio guide was invaluable, and the whole experience turned out to be a terrific surprise.
We spent almost two hours in the Duomo, which was a lot longer than I had planned.
The most amazing part of the Duomo to me was the Librera Piccolomini, which features ten huge frescoes by Pinturicchio and his assistants that cover the ceiling and walls. The audio guide describes each fresco, and it is quite entertaining and enlightening.
After leaving the Duomo, we walked across the street to the Museo dell'Opera Metropolitana (all of us had the combo ticket), which not only have some cool art and statues, but stairs to the top of the “new” Duomo. I think I saw some eyes rolling when I said, “Let’s go to the top.”
As always, it was onward and UPWARD. There were some spectacular views, so I knew I had to walk up to the top of the nearby Torre Mangia of the Palazzo Pubblico (and its 503 stairs) before we left Siena. The rest of the group already was coming up with “sore feet” excuses for tomorrow.
On the bottom floor of the Museo was the original Rose Window that used to be in the Duomo and some other statues. It was the consensus that we were glad we had come back to Siena to give it a "second chance."
When we arrived back at the Campo, there was a huge celebration taking place. the members of the 17 contrade (districts) who took part in ther Palio race about a month before were marching around the Campo with banners. It was an incredibly colorful sight, so much so that Tacy felt she should take a part in the frivolity of the moment.
Then came a driving experience I was glad I was no part of, except as the part of innocent bystander. Walking back to the hotel, we witnessed a man behind the wheel of what looked like a rental car receive the wrath of many of Siena’s local drivers. A befuddled driver (trust me, I know that look also), had strayed into a right hand turn lane, changed his mind, and like Robert Blake, was now attempting to go straight.
He finally was able to maneuver his car into the correct lane so that the many honking cars behind him could get moving and make a right turn on the arrow. For those of you who saw the movie Airplane, you might recall the moment where people on the aircraft line up to attack a whining passenger. The next few moments in Siena reminded us all of that scene.
As cars pulled to the offending driver’s right, ostensibly to turn, they would all stop, give him a stare (even worse than “the look”), a hand signal of unknown origin, a flurry of honks of the horn and, finally, an impressive array and barrage of Italian expletives were yelled at the poor guy.
The light for the wrong-lane guy seemed to stay red for an hour as car after car, and driver after driver stopped alongside the hapless man to give him a strong piece of their collective minds.
One “outraged” driver was particularly demonstrative in his actions. He yelled for ten seconds, but to his ultimate chagrin, as he tried to peel away around the corner, he stalled his car. The wrong-lane guy loved that, and when the light turned green, he had a smile from ear to ear knowing he had received the last laugh.
There had been a wedding at our hotel that afternoon, and a large New York contingent from that ceremony was also staying at the hotel. They shall enter into our story later.
The four of us shared some Prosecco before dinner, marveling at the incredible views of the Tuscan landscape, and then walked back to town later for dinner at Ristorante Nello, which had been recommended by the hotel (photo from website).
The owner (not coincidentally whose name is Nello) sat at our table, chatted with us for a few moments and took our order. The menu was an eclectic mix of Asian-Italian, and the food turned out to be quite good. I really enjoyed my cubed beef in a Chianti reduction sauce, served with basmati rice.
After dinner, we walked to Il Campo and bought some delicious cookies on the square. The man in the shop was handing out free glasses of Grappa.
For those who have not tried it, Grappa is alcohol to the third power. If you decide to try it, I do recommend that you not smoke at the same time, or you might become an instant combustible agent.
I had booked four nights at the Piccolo Oliveta, but as the director of Tom’s Tuscan Tours, I sensed the group might be happier if we could make this a shorter stay than our original plan (since we were not enamored with the hotel), but what could I do? The next day would provide the surprising (and wonderful) answer.
Day Eleven - An Amazing Find In The Hills Of Chianti, Saint: Dead A Head, The Big Climb and Cane y Gatto
Sleeping with the windows open offers one the opportunity to savor the smells of the Tuscan countryside, unless one is greeted in the morning with wafts of cigarette smoke. The New Yorkers were up early, and to their credit they were quiet. On the downside, they were smoking like a chimney under our window. Yes, lung cancer was in the air (and our room).
The breakfast at the Piccolo Oliveta was fine (good sweet roll and cappuccino), and we decided to explore the land of Chianti on this very sunny Sunday. Everyone had slept through the night, but as I mentioned, the beds weren’t the greatest.
We headed out of town and got on the S222 (or Karen Valentine Highway as we called it in honor of the 1960s’ television program Room 222. Yes, our minds are full of useless trivia).
As mentioned, we were a little underwhelmed with our hotel, but it was not terrible, so we had planned on staying ... until we happened upon an oasis in the desert (ok, it was an Agritourismo in the vineyards). There, about ten miles from Siena, just to the right of the Karen Valentine Highway nestled in amongst these beautiful vineyards, were a mind-boggling array of swimming pools (yes, plural). I believe it was Mary who said, “What is this place?”
I made one of my many illegal and dangerous U-turns to accommodate that curiosity.
We pulled into a driveway that took us to the Agritourismo Il Molino. We got out of the car and walked to the adjacent swimming pools to the left of this lodging and were astounded by what we saw. A swimming complex that would have been a Mark Spitz dream and cost somebody tons of euros to construct.
We gazed out at a giant lap pool, wading areas, a regular swimming pool, a place you could just walk out into the water and stand, and bridges that connected certain areas, all set out in the midst of this incredible vineyard setting. Pretty spectacular.
Walking up a staircase, we encountered an area to purchase snacks and cocktails, and there was a sitting area where you could have late afternoon drinks or cappuccinos in the morning. Oh yeah, it had a restaurant on the premises, too.
Four minds, one thought; “What did this place cost a night?” A fortune, we presumed.
We walked up the stairs to this little gem and chatted with a woman who knew very limited English. Knowing this place must cost a fortune, we still asked her how much a night was it to stay here. She wrote down the nightly cost on a piece of paper and flipped it around for us to see.
I hadn’t looked this surprised since Tracy said she would marry me.
“Are you sure?” I exclaimed (which happened to be the same thing I asked Tracy). Kim then gave me a look that usually was reserved for Tracy when she thought I was an idiot. He laughed and said, “Would you feel better if she told you it was more? Why don’t you talk up the price?” I knew he was having a good time ridiculing me, so I let him continue.
The cost per night, per room, was incredibly 60 Euros, and since it was September, guests could use the pool (which was actually a new, local swimming complex) for free. Well, let me backtrack, our room (with balcony) was to be 60 Euros; Kim and Mary’s room - sans balcony - was 55 Euros.
Knowing that everyone was disappointed with the Piccolo Oliveta, we booked two rooms for Monday and Tuesday nights, got back in the car and headed back for Siena to tell the hotel we were going to cut our visit short.
Kim was always better at breaking up with girlfriends when we were in college, so he was chosen to tell the woman at the front desk we would be departing early.
Kim told the truth (unlike our college days) that we wanted to spend a couple of nights in the country instead of the city, and the Piccolo people were very nice about it. We certainly expected to pay a penalty for backing out two days early, and were charged for a third night, which was fair. With the new charge at our agritourismo, it would be a wash for us.
So instead of Chianti on this Sunday, we decided to stay and see the rest of Siena. As we walked toward Siena from the hotel, I had a terrible thought. “Oh no, I have reservations on Monday night at Il Cane & Gatto for Tracy and me that I booked last month.”
Kim and Mary had declined because the reastaurant has a set prix fixe menu, and since Kim is allergic to tomatoes, he couldn’t take the chance on there being five courses of tomato dishes. Fortunately I called later in the afternoon, and they could change the reservation to Sunday night, so Tracy and I could still go that night.
We were all hungry (what else is new), grabbed a bite, and then walked to The Crypt under the Duomo. It was all part of the ticket we had bought the day before, and once again a good audio guide tour provided a wealth of information.
A good crypt experience always puts Tracy in a shopping mood, and this proved no different. Actually, the ceramic plate we bought near the Duomo turned out to be a nice purchase.
I started thinking about the song “I Ain’t Got NoBody” and so we all walked over to the San Domenico monastery so we could see the place where they keep St. Catherine’s head. After our visit, while I was still thinking it’s a little creepy to keep someone’s long dead, yet venerated, head for people to look at, my traveling companions were thinking about feet ... their own feet, not St. Catherine’s.
A few times during the day, while walking on the Piazza del Campo, I had stopped by the Palazzo Pubblico to see how long a wait it was to walk up the 503 steps to the top. Fortunately for the others, the line was always long. I decided I wanted one more opportunity to make this trek, and Kim and Mary felt their feet would take a vacation from this journey.
Always the trouper, Tracy said she would walk over there with me, although I knew she was hoping for just one more long line. By a stroke of luck (mine), there was incredibly no one in line, so up we went.
This is definitely a good (well, that might be a contradiction in terms) trudge up to the top, not for those with vertigo, a weak heart (or smart brains), but the views of the Campo, rooftops and countryside made it quite worthwhile. Fortunately for me, there were plenty of people at the top, so Tracy could not fulfill her dream of pushing me over the edge. Looking down at the Campo from here is really a vertiginous experience.
When we got back to the bottom, there once again was a long line, and Tracy said, “Where were those damn people an hour ago?” I love it when she talks dirty.
Back at the hotel, we relaxed with Kim and Mary and a bottle of vino before our feast yet to come that evening at Cane & Gatto, where we had 8 p.m. reservations.
We arrived at the restaurant a little before 8 p.m., and since no one else was hanging outside, we walked around a bit, so not to be the first ones there.
We were the first ones anyway, except for a couple of women who were told this was a good restaurant by their hotel. They were not told, however, that this would be an eating orgy, and not being that hungry they left after talking with the owner.
The restaurant is intimate (we counted 11 tables), and the owner greets you with a complimentary glass of Prosecco. The server for the restaurant is the owner’s daughter, and she was delightful (and cute, not that I noticed). Tracy was given a green and burgundy orchid (to wear, not to eat), and the feast was about to begin.
First course was an antipasti misto. The blue cheese quiche with mascarpone was incredible, and the pecorino with honey, mozzarella with diced tomato and basil, meloné y salami and crostini with paté of chicken liver was no chopped liver either (well, I guess the paté was).
Next up was a cream of chick pea soup drizzled with olio, croutons and rosemary. Why is soup on vacation always so good? We jotted down a note to make more soup at home.
By now, there were six couples in the restaurant, and that is the way it would stay for the remainder of the evening. Our waitress told us the wines, and we chose one. Another couple asked if they could see a wine list. In one of my favorite lines from the trip, our server answered (very politely), “I am the wine list.” The timing was impeccable.
We then went on to our next course, wide stripes of pasta with a wild boar sauce. I think it was at this point in the meal I had to loosen a belt loop. Fortunately, they gave you a reasonable amount of time in between courses so you don’t explode at your table.
There was no stopping the gravy train now, and next was a course of grilled beef with truffles and porcini mushrooms, along with the only dish I could have done without, quail with green peppercorns in an orange sauce (tiny little bones kind of got in the way of any enjoyment of that dish).
Looking back, when the quail came in view it was fortunate for all of us that Dick Cheney was not in the vicinity.
Tracy loved the grilled eggplant/zucchini/artichoke dish with her favorite (arugula), while I decided to save myself for dessert. I’m glad I did.
The strawberries in a semi-frozen meringue were out of this world and, although I am not a tiramisu guy, this was the best I had ever tasted, served with little chocolate shavings.
The sliced fruit (pineapple, kiwi, orange and gooseberries) was incredibly fresh. We washed it all down with a Moscadello de Montalcino.
The entire bill, including two bottles of wine came to about 190 Euros.
At the end of the meal, as people were starting to leave, we struck up a conversation with a couple (he was from Boston, and I was in need of another baseball fix). As we chatted, I casually asked how they knew about this restaurant. She said, “Oh, I am on a travel board.”
I had told her I had read about the restaurant on travel boards, also.
Then, in an Italian-thread minute, she blurted out the name of a well-known Slow Traveler and Fodorite, “Bob The Navigator rocks!” The man is an icon.
Tracy and I waddled back to the hotel at about 11:30 p.m. and said we were going to stop eating so much. It had been a wonderful meal, but I was beginning to feel a little overweight. Tomorrow would start a day of moderation in our food intake, we thought.
Little did we know, that within 14 hours, we would have a meal that would even surpass this one for food, ambiance and experience. Even better, it would only be 1/3 the price! God bless Italy!
Day Twelve - A Lunch For The Ages, The Great Danes Meet Tom’s Tuscan Tours, The Undiscovered Hill Town and Catching A Few Rays
We said goodbye to Alexandra at Piccolo Oliveta. Tracy had started calling her “my new wife” since she believed I was trying to flirt with her (a shocking assumption). After receiving some parting gifts (olive oil) and flirting with her more (oops), we hit the road.
From this point on, if (I guess that should be “when”) Tracy became annoyed with me, she’d say, “Well, maybe your new wife will like that.”
As we rounded a blind corner getting out of a Siena, a large truck traveling at an excess speed veered halfway into our lane. We narrowly averted death by the nimble maneuvers of Tuscan Tom, and we were safely on our way. Alexandra never knew how close she had become to being a pseudo-widow.
The Karen Valentine Highway was beautiful, and we passed by our new accommodation (where we would check in that afternoon) and drove toward Greve in Chianti. Before you reach Greve, there is a sign for Lamole, a town I had read about, and was interested in its restaurant with a spectacular view.
We passed the Villa Vignamaggio vineyard (the winery where the girl who posed for the Last Supper lived back in Da Vinci’s day). Speaking of the last supper, Tracy and I were still full from the Cane & Gatto experience of the previous evening, but by the time the short, uphill journey to Lamole had been successfully navigated, amazingly we were ready to eat again.
Truthfully, I don’t know how the four of us fit in the car together with all the food we ate.
In Lamole, Mary jumped out of the car (after it had stopped) and ran into the local church. “Had you read about it?” I asked as she left the church.
“No,” she answered. “I was just giving thanks that the truck didn’t kill us.” Now I know why Mary stopped in so many churches during the trip. Her hand was getting wrinkled from all the holy water she dipped it in.
It was a little before noon, and the Ristoro di Lamole (with incredible views out onto the Tuscan countryside) was only open for drinks until 12:30 p.m., so while Kim played “Mark Focus, Professional Photographer”, we sat on the patio and talked to some Brits who were on a tour. When Kim came back, he told them that he and Mary were on Tom’s Tuscan Tours, and they should think about signing up.
I think I had them at one point, but their tour director showed up, and they were back on their organized tour.
Our tour voted to stay for lunch (it’s a democratic tour, for the most part), which turned out to be one of our best decisions of the trip.
In the U.S., if a place has a view, the food is usually mediocre, at best. Not here. The food was spectacular, and the waitress was very funny, although like Mary and my new wife, Alexandra, she had a nasty cold. “I’m doomed,” I thought.
Even my current wife, Tracy, was starting to cough. So many wives, so little cough drops.
Every dish was fantastic: Ribollito toscano, gnocchi with roasted tomatoes and olives, a pecorino ravioli with the freshest pears ever grown (and drizzled with Lamole Olio), a pasta with pork, zucchini and carrots.
Finally, the lunch was topped off by a dessert of chocolate cake (more like a dense brownie) with whipped cream and wild berry sauce. They even gave us complimentary limoncello (a move that could have bankrupted the restaurant) and left the bottle on the table if we wanted to consume more. This meal experience even topped the Cane & Gatto, and the price of the meal was about 1/3 of C&G, including Prosecco and vino.
Kim said, “This meal is on us because of all the work and preparation you’ve done.”
Sure, I could have just said a pleasant “thank you,” but I all I could blurt out was, “Damn, if I’d known you were going to pay, I would have ordered another dessert!”
Tracy thought this Lamole olio was the best olive oil we had tasted on the trip, so we bought some, and we all thought the wine divine, so we bought some of that, too. As a matter of fact, I am going to e-mail Lamole soon to send me a case of olive oil, and Kim has seen the Lamole di Lamole wine at a Beverages & More and Trader Joes (see, I told you we still talk to each other).
Near the end of the meal, we started chatting with a couple from Denmark, who come to Chianti for a month each year. They have a place in Panzano in Chianti. Both were very friendly and talkative.
Just a little digression for a moment: One of the reasons Kim called it Tom’s Tuscan Tours was that I prepare for a trip longer and am more detailed than most people (which is why he so graciously picked up the tab). I had sent them descriptions of virtually every hill town in Tuscany and Umbria, complete with attractions, history and digressions.
It’s even color coded (what, me anal?). I had also done the same for Florence, Venice and Rome.
All in all, I had prepared about 250 total pages for our trip full of useful, and I hoped, humorous information, not to mention pictures of the areas we were going to travel.
Anyway, the Danes started telling us about an enoteca in Greve where you pay money at the counter and are then given a plastic card, which you stick in the vino machines to wine taste.
Before they could give the name, I whipped my papers from my back pocket and said, “Oh, do you mean Le Cantine?”
“Why yes,” they said. “How did you hear of that? By the way, there is a famous butcher shop in Greve.”
“Is that Macelleria Falorni?” I said. “Doesn’t it have a bunch of hanging prosciutto inside?”
Now the Danes were semi-impressed. Kim just said, “This is why we book Tom’s Tuscan Tours.”
A little later they said, “We have a favorite restaurant in town,” and gave me a glance.
“I’ll bet it is Bottego del Moro,” I said. They nodded and laughed and said on their next visit to California they’d call me for Tom’s Tuscan Tours of Southern California (I stole that name from the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim).
The great Danes were drinking a bottle of wine from Volpaia. This was not in Tom’s Tuscan Tours' guidebook, so we listened attentively as they talked about this little place.
“Just up the road,” they said, “was the charming town of Volpaia. Not too many people know about it.” That was enough for us, so we had to go take a look.
I gave the Danes my business card, and told them to call me for a tour when they come to Southern California. I promised lots of wine (a good selling point no matter where one travels).
We started toward tiny Volpaia. The narrow road became narrower, and the cement turned to dirt, and we were all thinking that we were going to “discover” this town. Unfortunately, when we hit the center of town, it seemed a couple of tour busses had “discovered” it, too, and the place was crawling with Americans (the most we had seen on the trip to this point).
Outside of the tour busses, the town was very cute, and looked like it had a couple of very charming restaurants. We did buy a couple of bottles of wine from the store in Volpaia and left, feeling much like Columbus would have felt had someone told him Leif Erickson discovered America centuries before he did.
We made a quick stop in Panzano to see our friends’ adopted Chianti town and to look for Dario, the famed butcher, but his shop was closed. We walked around Panzano for a short time, and, like so many other places, it seemed we had stepped back in time.
Then it was time for the group to check in to our new "find", the Il Mulino and a late afternoon round of drinks around the pool.
For a couple of hours, we sat out in this great setting, the only four people using this huge area. We had cocktails, but even better, one of the pools was a “beach low-level water” pool”, meaning we could walk out, and the water only came up a little over the knee. All our aching feet and knees would become rejuvenated in the next two days, with the soothing water and surface providing much needed therapeutic relief. Well, that and the Campari.
Since we had the room with the balcony, Kim and Mary came over and joined us for some Volpaia wine in the early evening and a view of a gorgeous sunset in Chiantiland. Our room was located right over the hotel restaurant, so as people walked in the front, we wondered if they would ask how they could be seated at the outdoor tables.
The four of us eventually walked down to our restaurant for dinner, and sure enough, some Canadians sitting next to us overheard our conversation about our balcony and said, “We saw you guys when we came in and wondered if they had outdoor dining, eh?” OK, they didn’t really say eh.
The restaurant served mostly good dishes with a couple of slight misses. It is relatively new, and we chatted with one of the owners who had previously owned a restaurant in Napoli and in a nearby town before starting this one. The pork in a balsamic sauce was the night’s big winner and so was the ravioli stuffed with spinach and ricotta in my beloved Pecorino sauce.
The two house wines cost six Euro and 12 Euro respectively and they were pretty tasty.
The bed was comfortable, and we slept well. Tomorrow would be our relaxing day in Chianti; a day where we would recharge our bodies in advance of hitting the big three of Florence, Venice and Rome before heading home.
Lucky Day Thirteen - Why Do Men Have Nipples and Wearing Costumes In Chianti
After a nice sleep, we enjoyed cappuccini outdoors overlooking the beautiful vineyards and swimming complex surrounding the Il Mulino. Tom’s Tuscan Tours was in full relax mode before hitting the “Big Three”, so after breakfast we headed out by the pool for some reading and sun time.
While the others concentrated on convoluted novels and heady books, I delved into my new book, “Why Do Men Have Nipples?: Hundreds of Questions You’d Only Ask a Doctor After Your Third Martini.” I was very interested in this book since I often have a third martini and never remember my questions.
The title alone was longer than most books I read, and the book now shares a prominent spot in the Tom and Tracy guest bathroom.
The day was beautiful, and we were the ONLY people who were enjoying this little slice of Chianti heaven. “Where is everybody?” we thought.
Although we had brought trunks and swimsuits, we quickly adhered to the new Italian terminology of these clothing items. They were now known as our “swimming costumes,” which it was stated would be apropos for pool activities.
As Kim and I tried to figure out how much the swimming complex had cost, we also realized that if we came back in two years, the price of this place would probably be double. “Still, a good bargain,” we surmized.
It was a very leisurely morning, but damned if it wasn’t time for lunch. We hopped in the car and made the 1/2 hour drive to Monteriggioni (hill towns, nothing but hill towns). This town, dubbed “The Crown of Italy”, has some ramparts, a nice piazza, restaurants and a church, the Santa Maria Assunta, where Mary dipped her hand in holy water again. It has a population of 60, who must all work at restaurants.
We had lunch on the patio of Il Pozzo, which has a very nice and secluded position a little off the main piazza. Tracy and I shared a bottle of Prosecco (we were in a rut, but a good rut), while Kim and Mary went the beer route (although not really a big beer drinker, the beer in Europe is so much better than it is in the U.S. in my opinion).
Lunch was good, and I had to try the strawberries with shortcake dessert. No, I really did.
We walked around the ramparts after lunch (like that was going to help take off any weight), Tracy found another cat and we got back in the car. We easily slipped back into being slugs out by the pool for the remainder of the afternoon (still, nobody else taking advantage of this…amazing!).
Then came my wardrobe (or swimming costume) malfunction. I came out in a sleeveless tank top and stupid hat I had bought for the trip. Kim was taken aback by the fashion statement I was attempting to make, while the women just laughed at my, uh, costume.
“Dear God, what is that?” Kim said, shielding his eyes like a vampire at dawn. I guess I’m glad no other hotel patrons had the opportunity to see my costume.
Another evening of wine on the patio was relaxing (the Lamole di Lamole was delectable), and it was back down to our restaurant for dinner, where we once again sat next to the friendly Canadians. Dinner was good, the wine delicious and cheap, and, best of all, everyone was happy and grateful for their day of relaxation.
We congratulated ourselves for the find of the trip. If anyone is contemplating staying here, they do have a couple of apartments for families (I think the cost is only 110 euros for an apartment). The menu is in Italian, English and German, and we were told that they do get a steady clientele from both Great Britain and Germany.
A good night’s sleep was needed because tomorrow we were going to drive into Firenze, a place where on previous trips I have nearly killed nuns, bicyclists, street vendors, locals and tourists alike with erratic and dangerous driving, including backing up down a one-way street. Florence, here we come!
Oh yeah, here’s the answer from the book title: “Although females have the mammary glands, we all start out in a similar way in the embryo. During development, the embryo follows a female template until about six weeks, when the male sex chromosome kicks in for a male embryo. The embryo then begins to develop all its male characteristics. Men are thus left with nipples and also with some breast tissue.”
Tom’s Tuscan Tours: Fun AND Informative (By the way, so is the book).
Day Fourteen - An Early Wine Break In Greve, The Dangerous Drive Into Florence, Our First Irish Pub (Yes, First!) and The Hostess From Hell
Break’s over! We were on the road to Firenze, but not before a slight detour in Greve in Chianti. Greve is a cute little place located right on The Karen Valentine Highway. After parking, we made the fast excursion around the Piazza Matteotti, Greve’s main piazza.
There is a statue on the piazza of Greve’s favorite son, Giovanni da Verrazzano, who in 1524 was the first European to sight New York Bay (even though Henry Hudson gets most of the credit). The Verrazzano-Narrows Bridge in Brooklyn is named for him.
He also discovered Cape Fear in North Carolina, however, showing his dark side, he kidnapped a small child on that trip, which did nothing to help his Karma.
Da Verrazzano met a rather ignominious end. While exploring Florida, the Bahamas and the Lesser Antilles, he was met by some unfriendly and hungry natives who were on a strict Atkins diet. They devoured the intrepid explorer. Whether they enjoyed a nice Chianti and some Fava beans with there meal is not known.
Anyway, I was in search of an Internet café because in my lethargy during the Il Mulino stay, I had inexplicably forgotten to email for directions to our next hotel, the Tourist House Ghiberti. This is tour director error number one, especially when driving into a city as complex to drive in as Florence.
Unfortunately, the server was down at the only place in town where there was a computer I could use. What to do in this situation was easy; sample some wine.
After looking at the assorted meats at the famed butcher shop (Macelleria Falorni, which was founded in 1729 and is now run by the 8th generation of its descendants), we walked a couple of blocks to Le Cantine.
Le Cantine advertises that they are “the biggest wine store in the Chianti Classico region,” and who were we to argue the point? We just wanted some vino.
Money was paid at the counter, we were given a card, and it was off to the vino races, sampling Chianti, Brunello and even olive oil. We helped the local economy by purchasing some wine and headed for the deathtrap known as Firenze city streets.
On the road into Florence, Mary used the International cell phone to call Claudio at the hotel for directions. She was on the phone for a few minutes, scribbling at an incredible rate, so I knew this would be no walk in the park (although I might accidentally drive into a park).
Let the games begin. Knowing my past driving escapades of nearly killing dozens of Florentine citizens had all the passengers on top of their directional game.
As we headed over the first bridge, we were all ready for our appointed jobs.
Tracy had her eyes peeled (ouch) looking for any street signs (never easy in Florence). Mary was relaying detailed information given by Claudio. Kim was telling us the streets we should be passing and when our appointed street should be near.
Myself? Well, I had the easy job. I just had to drive. However, had we been killed or killed any pedestrians, I knew the fault would lie with me.
We amazingly made it to the street where the Tourist House Ghiberti (THG) is located and made a quick stop to ask a local whether we were near the hotel. She said “Avanti, about 100 yards ahead on your left,” and in about 100 yards, there it was.
Claudio greeted us after we had rung the bell and he helped us with our bags. We were safely at our hotel. One part of the Florence driving journey was complete without incident.
We looked at our rooms, which were spacious and had computers (by the way, to show how nice Kim and Mary were about the rooms, they let us pick at every hotel which room we wanted since I had made the reservations).
Now it was time for Claudio to give us directions to drive and drop off the rental car.
Tracy gave me the rental car papers, and Kim went with me to drop off the car. I had driven about 75 yards when I remembered I had put the papers down on the bed and not retrieved them (another foreshadowing moment for you following along).
Kim ran back and Tracy was waiting with the papers. When Kim got back to the car, he said, “Tracy just wants you to know that you’re an idiot.”
Kim had this baby mapped out perfectly, and we made no wrong turns. Outside of nearly getting creamed by a huge bus, there were no major incidents.
The people at Europcar fortunately did not have our final bill (see Gubbio and Gas), so we could ride out the rest of the vacation in ignorant bliss of what that charge would eventually be in the end.
The Tourist House Ghiberti was a terrific find in Florence. It’s only a couple of blocks from the Duomo, and across from the Santa Maria Novella Hospital. The double paned windows meant there was little or no street noise. The bathrooms were spacious, and there was a nice breakfast that you could enjoy on the small outdoor patio in the morning. The price is inexpensive for this quality in Florence. Four big thumbs up for THG! Let’s make it eight thumbs up!
This was Tracy and my fourth trip to Florence and Kim and Mary’s second, so it was easy finding our way around. We had already seen the Uffizi (which I think is vastly overrated, sorry) and we did not have reservations to the Galleria dell’Accademia, which we had all been to before, also. We were curious about seeing the recent restoration of the David, but the line was too long each time we stopped by, and nobody really wanted to wait.
This afternoon, the four of us walked around Florence. It was a beautiful day, and being familiar with the city, it was nice to be able to navigate the town easily (no maps needed). The Duomo and Giotto's Tower popped against the bright, blue sky.
After doing some window-shopping and buying some scarves, it was once-again the cocktail hour. Inexplicably, we picked an Irish pub (you haven’t visited Florence unless you haven’t visited an Irish pub). Hey, drinks are drinks, and we all thought it was pretty funny to be in Italy and drinking at an Irish pub.
I had been given the recommendation of the Trattoria Zá Zá in the Piazza Mercato Centrale as a restaurant to try for dinner. After convincing everyone that this was not run by a Gabor sister, we walked over to the piazza for dinner. The place was crowded, and a hostess who was grumpier than Scooter Libby after he was served with papers, greeted us (well, greet might be a stretch).
If looks could kill, we’d be dead now. She said there were no tables outside and sat us down at an inside table, flung what must have been menus in our general direction and walked away to snarl at some new unsuspecting guests.
It only took us a few moments to realize that we need not patronize the Zá Zá, and we departed. I am sure our hostess missed us as much as we missed her.
We walked back toward our hotel and had dinner at Café Danté, or something close to that. Fortunately, there was no inferno. We were not all that hungry anyway, and the dinner was relatively unspectacular.
However, even this place had a dish that would be enshrined in our Italian Food Hall of Fame. Kim had chicken in a yellow pepper, butter sauce that was incredibly tasty. I also enjoyed by gnocchi with blue cheese.
As we were ready to go to bed, Tracy started coughing like Mary and my other wife back at the Piccolo Oliveta, and we had reservations for a big-ticket item tomorrow. She didn’t have chicken for dinner, so I went to bed safe in my knowledge that at least she didn’t have The Bird Flu.
Day Fifteen - Lean To The Left, Lean To The Right, Are You Talking To Me, No Chicken Sandwiches And Oh no, Not Another Irish Pub!
This was the morning that I had pre-reserved an 11:40 a.m. climbing of The Leaning Tower of Pisa. The plan was for the four of us to take the 8:27 train from Florence that got in to Pisa at 9:30.
At 7 a.m., I realized that there were only going to be three of us, since Tracy had the Mary/Alexandra/Lamole waitress cough (though not nearly as bad).
Tracy decided to relax for part of the day in an attempt to nip her illness in the bud, so she decided to stay behind. “I’ve been to Pisa and can live without it.” Since there was still a week to go on the trip, she thought it would be a good idea, and, as it turned out, it was.
One of my idiosyncrasies (one of many) is that I am a freak about not being late. I tend to get to places too early, but I figure it’s better being too early than too late. Fortunately Kim and Mary know that about me, so they noticed that, as we were having a cappuccino at the THG, I was getting a little antsy about departing for the train station to get our tickets and make the train (although I think Kim likes me to sweat just a little bit for amusement).
We walked (briskly) to the station, and, of course, we got there early (sorry K&M, you were right). We got the tickets in plenty of time, but I had forgotten that the train station sometimes plays pranks with overly time-conscious travelers such as myself.
8:10 (no track number). 8:15 (no track number). 8:20 (no track number). I know that the trains run on time, so where do we go? As usual, my worries were silly since we had plenty of time once the track number was announced.
Two years ago, Tracy and I had driven to Pisa, which is why I decided on the train for this trip. On that previous journey, Tracy and I drove through the maze of streets in Pisa following phantom signs to the Campo dei Miracoli. It was a miracoli we ever found it. I didn’t have a good impression of Pisa on that trip.
On this trip, the train arrived at 9:30 and it was a simple 20-minute walk to the Campo dei Miracoli. When not trying to negotiate one-way streets and nearly maiming pedestrians, one gets a different perspective of a place, and my thoughts about Pisa are a little different now. Pisa wasn’t so bad after all.
The last time we walked into the Campo, all the booths selling Leaning Tower crap kind of cheapened the experience, so I warned Kim and Mary to just look at the Campo and imagine how beautiful this whole area was before tourism. We walked by a restaurant where a bird had deposited a load on a guy’s shirt on our trip in 2003 (ah, some memories just never leave you), and we were in the Campo.
I brought the printed proof of receipt to the ticket offices of Opera della Primaziale Pisa and they gave us our tickets, and we all bought the combo ticket for the Duomo and the Baptistery. We visited the Baptistery first.
The interior has a neat Pisano pulpit and a large baptismal font. We were told that, if you count the statue on top of the Baptistery, the building is actually taller than the Leaning Tower. Useless trivia, but good cocktail party fodder.
Then we visited the Duomo. For some reason, we were obsessed with finding “Henry’s Tomb”, the tomb of Emperor Henry VII (whoever he was), which was one of the pieces that survived a 16th century fire that destroyed much of the Duomo’s art works.
Near a 14th century pulpit (which obviously survived the fire, too) is a bronze lamp that, according to legend, favorite Pisa son, Galileo, started staring upon one day at Mass (obviously bored by the length of the service). Just like me after a few bottles of Chianti, the lamp started to sway back and forth.
This is supposed to have given him the idea for the Pendulum. Since that event, some know-it-all Pisans have argued that since the lamp was cast in 1586, a few years after his discovery, this story was fiction. Being the romantics we are, we gave Galileo the benefit of the doubt.
We still had some time before the big climb, so we decided more caffeine was in order and downed a cappuccino. It was then time for the climb to the top of the Torre Pendante, and I had forgotten about Mary’s fear of heights.
Mary, like myself, is more a Type A personality, meaning we tend to yap incessantly. Fortunately, our respective spouses are more the B variety and usually just shake their heads as we banter on. Today, Mary, feeling a little uncomfortable as we started the climb upward, began bantering ... with herself.
I must admit, it was an odd feeling listing to one side or another as we walked around and around. I was right behind Kim, and we could hear Mary talking a blue streak, singing songs and just staying busy talking about nothing in particular. I said, “Kim, who is she talking to?” He was laughing when he said something like, “Oh, no one in particular.”
Our spouses did a lot of laughing, although they were usually really laughing with us, weren’t they? In any event, we made it to the first landing with no problem.
We could see, where if slippery, a misstep could cause you to pull a Kim Novak in Vertigo and become a minced Pisa Pie. Fortunately, we safely made the top of the tower.
Mary was calm (sort of), and we took some fantastic pictures. It was cool to look across at the difference in height from one side to the other, but unfortunately that differential didn’t show up that great in the otherwise terrific photos we took.
Just before noon, a voice came over the speakers saying in various languages that the bells are going to ring, it’s going to be real loud and don’t be so frightened that you fly off the tower.
They were loud, and we are still here to tell about it. The tour to the top and back is 1/2 an hour, and the groupings are limited to how many people can go up each trip.
ALERT: Read the signs before you go that say “no backpacks and purses.” They mean it. Mary had deposited her purse, but a couple of people with daypacks obviously did not think the signs were intended for them and did not heed the signs.
They did not make our tour, and were not in the next group (probably full). I don’t know if they ever made it up to the top, but the Tower people are strict about that detail.
We made it to the station for the 1 p.m. train (after a gelato stop) and were back in Florence a little after two.
Kim and Mary went off on their own, but I was now in search of the greatest chicken sandwiches on the face of the earth at Caffe Giacosa, off the Via Tornabuoni.
This was Tracy and my fourth visit to Florence, and these morsels from heaven are the tastiest, freshest little sandwiches ever made. We have them every time we are here, and this seemed like a nice opportunity for me to do something nice for my wife. I thought, “Tracy will say I am the greatest, most considerate husband on earth (well, she could lie) when I bring these back for her.”
To my horror, they were sold out of chicken sandwiches. Panic set in, because we only had one day left in Florence and had dreamed about these sandwiches from the time we got to Italy (sure that’s weird, but damnit these are GOOD sandwiches!).
“We usually put them out at 11,” the woman said. I made a mental note that we should not forget to be here tomorrow morning at 11 a.m. Remember, however, I am the guy who put Super Gas in a Diesel.
Back at the hotel, Tracy was feeling better (even without sandwiches) and had even washed some of our clothes so we didn’t have to look like transients by the time we reached Venice.
That afternoon, the four of us went over to the Cappelle Medicee to see the tombs of the dead Medicis. When I visited this museum in 1996 with Tracy, there was some bizarre fashion show going on and the entire inside was full of Christian Dior junk (sorry fashion people, I’m more into dead bodies and stuff). I was looking forward to seeing the place uncluttered.
So, of course, when we get inside we see that the whole place is under scaffolding, and some of the statues have been removed for renovation. It was still interesting, but not great.
We walked across the Arno to the district of Oltrarno where we have purchased historical pieces of art before. Luckily, we didn’t see anything we wanted, so after the four of us window-shopped, we looked at our watches and said (all together) “Cocktail Hour!”
I heard Kim laughing, and knowing that neither Mary nor I had not bantered for minutes (ok seconds), it could only be one other thing; he had found another Irish pub.
Yes, soon we found ourselves drinking Campari, Guiness, Jack Daniels and Scotch (not all in one drink fortunately), at Irish pub Numero Due. We met some guy who, after hearing we had gone to Pisa, said he was an engineer, and proceeded to tell us that a number of tourists actually fall to their deaths from the tower each year. We weren’t drunk, so we really did not believe his accounts, because I think hordes of tourists falling to death from a famed landmark would make the news.
Our second cocktail made the story no more plausible.
We walked by the Osteria del Cinghiale Bianco and made reservations for dinner later on that evening. We then crossed the dangerous Ponte Vecchio.
No, not dangerous for pickpockets, but for the plethora of bling-bling shimmering its blinding glare toward Tracy’s eyes (and fingers and ears). At this point, I was feeling the bridge experience would be cheaper for me if I was pick pocketed before she could find earrings, a necklace or ring that called her name. Fortunately, neither happened, which meant we could afford to spring the cats when he arrived home.
Later that evening, we walked back over to Osteria del Cinghiale Bianco for dinner. The place was busy. I was the lucky recipient of the night’s best meal, a fantastico veal chop.
We had been fortunate enough to enjoy numerous delicious meals on this trip, and tomorrow would arguably be the best we would encounter (at least, in hindsight, it was my favorite). It would also be our most fun dining experience.
Day Sixteen - Galileo Gives Kim and Mary The Finger, A Museum Off The Beaten Path, The Elusive Chicken Sandwich, Racing For The Sunset, My Favorite Restaurant And Introducing Dan and Linda Sharing Tragic (And Funny) Tales Of A Sunken Camera and The Most Expensive Fish In The World
We all woke up late, and, the two couples went our separate ways to a couple of lesser-known Florence attractions. Kim and Mary went to the Museo di Storia del Scienza. The one reason I almost tagged along was to see one of the museum’s more offbeat attractions, Galileo’s finger (let’s see if you drop a finger and a hand from the Leaning Tower of Pisa, will they…?).
Tracy and I decided to visit the Chapel and Museum San Marco (picture from website). While in the chapel, I believe I was scammed by the old Fake-Priest trick. He was sitting inside in priest-like garb (hey, I’m a Presbyterian, what do I know?). After I gave him a two Euro donation, he opened up his priest outfit and showed me an “I Love the USA” pin. Oh well, I hope he spent it wisely.
The museum was quite fascinating with interesting frescoes by Fra Angelico, and we saw the tiny rooms where monks lived in the old days. This is a museum in desperate need of an audio tour, but I highly recommend it, and I’d buy the eight euro book first for even more insight into the frescoes. The tour is only four euros.
Then came another Tom Moment of Terror. I looked at my watch and it was 11:30 am. The chicken sandwiches had been waiting for us for ½ an hour.
We hustled over to Café Giacosa, and there was only one sandwich left. We bought it, and took it to the nearby bridge. Trading bites, it was if we were about to lose a long lost member of the family as it became smaller and smaller, so before the ultimate demise, I pulled out the camera out and took a picture of the half eaten sandwich complete with its Café Giacosa wrapping.
We strolled along the Arno on another beautiful Florence day, walked over to the church of Santa Croce, where Galileo (sans one finger) is interred, did a little more window shopping, and walked through Neptune Square (well, that's what we call it). All in all, we walked for a few hours just enjoying the day and soaking up our last hours in Firenze.
When we got back to the THG, the clothes Tracy had washed the previous day were still a little wet, so we took them to the Laundromat down the street and dried them.
Every European trip needs one trip to the Laundromat just to see how long it takes clothes to dry in foreign lands. Fortunately, they had been drying since the previous day, or we might have had to stay in Italy for extra month (hmm, on second thought).
Back at the room, we heard a knock. Mary told us that they had run into our friends Dan and Linda (“hey aren’t you..?) in front of the hotel, and they were now in the lobby.
Dan and Linda had been to Oktoberfest in Munich and then trained to Salzburg and Venice before meeting us here. Besides wanting to say hello to them, we were interested in La Calcina in Venice, our hotel the next three nights after Florence.
They had stayed at La Calcina for three nights, and they loved it. Both were in good spirits, except that Linda also had contracted the “cough from Hell” on the trip.
Dan and Linda eased into the wine and cheese thing in a hurry, and the four of us along with Mary downed some vino. Kim was on his international cell doing some work. Little did I know that in about 15 minutes, I’d be huffing and puffing more than Rosie O’Donnell on a treadmill.
Coming into the vino room, Kim quickly changed from work mode to play mode and said, “Hey, it’s getting dark, aren’t we going to go down to the Arno and take some sunset pictures?” We had talked about this earlier, but I had completely forgotten (sort of like the chicken sandwich).
It was time for speed walking. Well, for us it was speed walking.
I’ve known Kim since we were freshmen in college in 1970, and we weren’t all that fast in those days. On the vacation, he and Tracy usually walk at the slower pace while Mary and I blaze the trail. Not today.
Kim started walking faster than Karl Rove trying to dodge a subpoena. Then it was more of a sprint (well, an old man’s sprint) toward the Arno. We passed Santa Croce on the left, and after a quick wave to Galileo, it was down to the river.
We took some shots of the Ponte Vechio, but Kim’s (aka Jessie Owens) quest had just begun. We walked at a brisk pace to the Ponte Vecchio and took some really neat sunset pictures from there. At this point, Dan and Linda were probably wondering what they were getting into by hooking up with this bunch.
The previous day while Kim, Mary and I had done the Pisa thing, Tracy had ventured out and discovered a little restaurant near the Duomo called Ristorante Il Caminetto. I had made nine o’clock reservations with the owner previously on this day and was excited because I had only spoken Italian to him (ok, with a little help from a waiter), and reserved a table on the patio for six people. I had hoped I had said all the right things and had not booked a table for Christmas.
Sure enough, our table was ready at 9 p.m., and this turned out to be my favorite restaurant on the trip. The inside of the restaurant is very charming, but the evening was nice (a little chilly, but they have heat lamps), and we really wanted to dine outside.
My meal was as good as it got on the trip, and that includes Ristoro di Lamole along with Cane y Gatto in Siena. I started off with the pumpkin risotto, which was absolutely unbelievable.
The waiter was very excited when I ordered the evening’s special, the Beef del Imprunetta (that name might be a little off, but the 9 euro, one litre wines were going fast and furious this night). The dish is a peppery beef stew in a Chianti sauce that the restaurant doesn’t serve very often, but our waiter felt it was the best dish of the night, and it was.
Not that anyone had a bad meal, but my two dishes were spectacular, so it became my Numero Uno restaurant of the trip. It was so good that Dan and Linda ate there two nights later, and said it was just as terrific. Total cost for the six of us was 168 euro.
Oh yeah, I almost forgot the incredible side dish. The roasted rosemary potatoes here were incredible. The table ordered extra helpings (wow, a talking table). Similar to the chicken sandwich, it doesn’t sound that spectacular, but take my word for it, if you go here, order them.
During the evening Dan and Linda regaled us with stories from their trip to Oktoberfest, Salzburg and Venice. They had quite a fun time at Oktoberfest (what they remembered), and fell in love with Salzburg, too.
It seemed that Dan had a little trouble with cameras during his journeys, however.
His digital had bit the dust before he got to Venice, so wanting to take some pictures while there, he bought a little disposable camera to take up the slack. He was nearing the end of the role and was taking a picture of a really cool boat.
As he positioned himself for his final picture, one of the women (who were with Dan and Linda on the first part of their journey) accidentally hit his elbow. Needless to say, Dan has no pictures of Venice and the canal has another tourist souvenir camera.
We had already taken the Doges Tour a couple of times in the past, but were glad to hear that Dan and Linda loved the experience and the stories about the Bridge of Sighs. I said, “See, Sighs does matter!” I think Dan would have laughed, but he was about to tell his biggest Venice horror story.
After departing the train in Venice from Austria, Dan and his group were a hungry bunch, and they saw a restaurant as they departed the train station. He ordered the turbot, and, he said it was a nice piece of fish.
Unfortunately for Danno, he had not noticed that the fish was sold by the gram, and this fish must have had a hell of a lot of grams, because it cost our fine diner a total of $200 Euro for his fish dish. He said it was fruitless to argue, and he actually had a good laugh over it. Well, probably not right at that moment.
"You know, I don’t think I can ever eat a piece of turbot for the rest of my life," Dan told us at dinner (picture shown on right is not of his actual dish, but still enough to give him nightmares).
I replied, “Look at the bright side. Your fish was less expensive than our tank of gas in Gubbio.” Vino, at a good price, can make anything seem humorous.
He couldn’t remember the name of the restaurant (sort of like I didn’t want to hear the word Diesel), but the restaurant was located near the train station, and Danno told me to tell future visitors, “Beware of a limping waiter pushing the turbot on the menu.”
We all had a blast at Ristorante Il Caminetto, and by the end of the evening knew all the waiters (left, with Mary) and patrons on the patio.
Back at the hotel, Dan said he would get up early to say good-bye before we headed to the train for Venice the next morning. Linda made no such promise knowing they would hook up with us for the last three days of the trip in Rome.
Day Seventeen – Sunny Venezia, Up On The Roof, The Four Seasons Without Frankie Valli and I’m Not Wild About Harry’s
Dan greeted us at breakfast, and we said goodbye to the Tourist House Ghiberti and Firenze. Linda, true to her word, was sleeping like a log. We thoroughly enjoyed our stay at the hotel and highly recommend for price, location and hospitality.
Our train arrived in Venice a little before noon, and we were very cognizant of any restaurant near the train station touting turbot, since $200 for a piece of fish is a tad above my budget.
A little digression about Venice: Our first visit to Venice was in 1996 and we hated it. I called it, “Disneyland on speed.” We had taken the Vaporetto to San Marco, and I remember thinking, “What do people see in this place?”
Souvenir vendors, the plethora of pigeons and the enormous amounts of people were overwhelming. The day was rainy, and we were happy to get out and go back to Padua where we were staying.
Over the years, Tracy and I thought that there had to be something we missed about Venice because so many people love it. So, in 2001, we returned (with Kim and Mary) and found out what we missed on the first trip, nighttime in Venice.
Venice at night is a magical experience, and we stayed away from Piazza San Marco during the day except to go to the Basilica di San Marco and the Doges Palace (which we loved). We meandered the streets and alleys, and after that trip, decided that Venice would be a place we could come back to in the future. Often.
This year, after reading so many great recommendations about it, we had booked Pensione La Calcina, also on Dorsoduro. The hotel was the home of British author John Ruskin when he wrote “The Stones of Venice” in the 1870s. Funny, I thought, because the 1870s seemed to be how long Mick Jagger of the Stones has been around.
We got off the Vaporetto, walked over a little bridge, and there was the hotel a short distance away. It turned out to be just as nice as the reviews we had read.
Our rooms both had balconies, which offered a snippet of a canal view. But the hotel also has a balcony on top that you can reserve. It was an incredibly beautiful day, so we reserved an hour at 6 p.m. (Vino time) that evening.
After settling in, Kim and Mary went to have lunch toward San Marco, but since we were told this was going to be the only blue sky day while we were here, Tracy and I decided to eat a couple of doors down the canal on the water. Lunch was OK, but just sitting and soaking in the sun and the view was spectacular.
I had not remembered so many cruise ships the last time we were here, but on this day there seemed to be no shortage of them. Fortunately, we did not see any pirates.
On the way to converge with Kim and Mary, Tracy and I stopped at a nice little church (Chiesa San Vidal) a short distance after walking over the Ponte dell Accademia. On the train that morning I had asked Tracy if she would be up for a little classical musical if we could find a concert.
I had mentioned that I would really like to hear The Four Seasons. When Tracy asked whether Frankie Valli was still with them, I knew that my warped sense of humor had now affected her brain permanently.
Well, luck was with us. There was a concert on this evening and it was The Four Seasons, Vivaldi-style. It only cost 23 euros apiece, so we purchased tickets for the 9 p.m. performance.
We met Kim and Mary at San Marco later in the afternoon, and the four of us took turns leading the others down streets leading to who knows where? Wandering aimlessly, to me, is part of the great allure of Venice. I was a little disappointed because the signage seems better than before, meaning it is a little more difficult to get lost (at least while sober).
When we returned to the hotel, while the rest of the team took a little nap, I decided to walk to the little wine store nearby. It’s funny, at home, if Tracy wants to walk around the block at night, it takes an act of Congress to get me off my butt. In Italy, I’m like the Energizer Bunny who just keeps going and going and going.
The Cantine del Vino Schiavi was hopping on this Saturday afternoon. The place was packed, with the overflow crowd sitting on the little bridge that sits over a narrow canal. I was buying some Prosecco for the rooftop rendezvous, but since I was here, I decided it would be a big mistake to not partake in the atmospheric moment. OK, all I really wanted was a good glass of wine, but it was atmospheric.
I arrived back at La Calcina and rousted the sleepy ones out of their respective beds, because it was nearly 6 p.m., and I think you remember what that means. The view from the rooftop of La Calcina was terrific, but we could feel a change in the weather.
Since we had all had late lunches, dinner on this evening was a little cheese and salami on the top of the hotel.
I’m glad we had the opportunity to enjoy the La Calcina rooftop, and if you stay here, book an hour or two and savor the beautiful view the rooftop affords.
The concert at the Chiesa San Vidal was wonderful, with each violinist taking the lead for the respective seasons. Sadly, they did not play “Big Girls Don’t Cry.”
Afterward, we decided to walk down to San Marco, and I told Tracy that after listening to The Four Seasons I always like to “Walk Like A Man.” She shrugged and moved quickly ahead of me.
On the way toward San Marco there was an exhibit on Vivaldi, featuring some ancient instruments and a detailed account of his life. We were asked if we wanted to go to another venue the following night for a rendition of, The Four Seasons. Venice: All Vivaldi, All the time!
When we arrived at San Marco, we looked at the places on the piazza like Caffé Florian, but then began wandering toward Harry’s Bar, ostensibly to have a really overpriced Bellini. I had envisioned Harry’s as being some truly Venetian-type of experience, but after gazing in, it just looked like another overpriced, busy bar to me. Yes, I know, some people say you have to do it, but the atmosphere did not appeal to us for some reason, and I can pay too much for drinks anywhere.
Since it was still beautiful outside, we zipped back to La Calcina, where they were open a little later than usual for dinner on the outside patio overlooking the Zattere. Tracy and I soaked in the glorious evening with a little more vino and toasted our return to Venice. We thought, “This beats an overpriced Bellini any day.”
It would also be the last time the patio would be open while we were there (photo from La Calcina website).
Day Eighteen - Palazzo Perfecto, Spectacular Scuola, The Canal Jesters, What’s That In My Espresso and A Singing Gondolier That Doesn’t Include A Gondola Or A Guy Singing
We woke up to a cloudy Thursday morning, and after breakfast at La Calcina (I usually eat breakfast five times a year at home. This was my 16th straight breakfast on the trip), Tracy and I hopped on the Vaporetto for the Ca Rezzonico, an old palazzo.
We had purchased a Vaporetto pass when we first arrived in Venice, which turned out to be a good deal, so we hopped on for the short trip.
The cost for the Ca Rezzonico was 6 ½ euro plus 4 euro for the headphones, and it was a very insightful look at what Venice was like a couple of hundred years ago. If you go, the audio guide is a must, because it gives you a more detailed account, although Tracy thought it could have more information on the building itself, instead of just the art pieces inside. All in all, we both thought it was a great stop.
We toured the palazzo for 90 minutes, and then rushed to San Polo to meet up with Kim and Mary to take a look around the Scuola Grande di San Rocco.
Tracy had told me that this museum was full of the works of the famed Tintoretto, who up until the day before, I had thought was the mouse that had appeared on the Ed Sullivan Show.
It was six euros to enter and the audio guides are free. The highlight to me, besides some incredible Tintoretto paintings, was the wood inlaid library.
The upstairs contained a bunch of mirrors just lying around on benches, and I was thinking that they were for tourists to look at themselves and make sure pigeons hadn’t pooped on them.
Tracy informed me, that if you looked down at the mirror that lay there, it gave one a perfect view at the painted ceilings. Sure enough, the ceiling was spectacular from this angle, although I gave a quick glance to see that there was no poop on my shirt, since I had worn it yesterday at San Marco.
Our sightseeing continued at the Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari, the largest church in Venice after the Basilica di San Marco. It cost the others 2.50 euro, but I had bought a cumulative ticket for eight euro on the first day and got in on that.
So much sightseeing could only mean one thing, lunch. We popped into a happening restaurant on a little alley, the Ristorante alla Madonna, where you could dine like a virgin. The place was huge with four or five large rooms. We were seated in one of the smaller ones.
The bread was crusty, and come to think of it, so were the waiters, but the lunch was good.
Dishes ranged from spaghetti and clams, ravioli pomodoro, scampi and a fish soup alla Venezia with crostini. I was forced to try the cream cake, which was delicious.
Up until this point in the trip, I had still not bought a really cheesy souvenir. That oversight would soon be rectified. On the way to the Rialto Bridge, there were a number of souvenir stands selling; well I’ll be blunt, crap. But that doesn’t mean we didn’t buy something.
I had already bought a cheesy sweatshirt since I was cold, but we even did better than that. Kim and I both attended San Diego State (or as Kim jokingly calls it, the Harvard of the West). The school colors are red and black, and at one of the stands were red and black jester hats (bells and all). They were calling our name.
To Mary and Tracy’s ultimate dismay, Kim and I each bought one (five euros each) and took photographs of each other near the bridge in all of our sartorial splendor. Now those were two ugly Americans.
The rain was starting to come down, so Kim and Mary took the Vaporetto to points unknown, while Tracy and I walked the streets back toward our destination. It also started Tracy’s 24-hours of shopping.
It started innocently enough with some Murano glass necklaces.
While we were walking I spotted the Pasticceria Bar Rizzardini, and there in the window was a Mascarpone Cookie that said “Tom.”
Once inside, I decided to have an espresso. “Grappa?” the gentleman behind the counter asked.
“In my espresso?” I replied.
It was a new drink to me that I have since learned is called Café Correto, and the guy assured me that people actually drink it. As stated previously somewhere in this report (where, I know not), Grappa is a drink that hits with a powerful punch. However, I must admit, it was quite tasty, and I didn’t care if Tracy spent more money shopping after finishing it. Oh yeah, the cookie was good, too, what I remember of it.
After finishing my drink, the sign of the little Pasticceria Bar Rizzardini looked like the picture on the right...a little out of focus. Yikes!
That evening, we all started to walk from the hotel to find somewhere to eat. It started raining pretty heavily, and the dinner at La Calcina was looking better to us. Tracy and I headed back to the hotel, but Kim and Mary were not that hungry, so they trudged on through the night.
We dined inside, and it turned out to be a good choice, although not great ... EXCEPT, for yet another drink invention.
But I digress.
We sat next to two schoolteachers from Germany, who we met when they were given Tracy’s soup by mistake. They were a joy to talk with, and they kept apologizing for their poor English (which, by the way, was better than many San Diego State students I have met).
The timing of this dinner was shortly after the German elections, and we asked whether they liked Angela Merkel who looked like she would become the next Chancellor. They said, “No, but Schroder is just as bad. We actually can’t stand either of them.” Tracy and I told them we felt their election pain.
As we were chatting with our German comrades, I saw some Brits at the other table downing an after dinner drink with much gusto and in good spirits. Knowing that their politicians were as bad as the Americans and the Germans, I surmised it must be the cocktail that was putting them in such good spirits.
I said, “My good man (yeah, I’ve seen too many English movies), what might you be imbibing?”
“It’s a Sgroppino,” he replied, without a stiff upper lip.
A Sgroppino?! My god, it sounded like a disease I could have contracted at San Diego State, but I asked the waiter what it was? He told us it was a concoction (not his own words) of lemon sorbet, Prosecco, a touch of Vodka and a little cream (like the drink on your left). He added that this drink was a great after-dinner drink to settle your stomach.
That clinched it. We decided to try one of the frothy delights. They were delicious. The German ladies asked if we liked it, and since Tracy had not broken the bank shopping, I ordered two for the Germans (ok, and one more for Tracy and myself).
We liked everything about the Sgroppino except one thing, the name. What could we call this Venetian drink when we serve these at home? After a few seconds of contemplation, Tracy took the first two letters of the drink and said, “Let’s call them ‘Singing Gondoliers’!”
I thought to myself, “Damn, I married well.”
Day Ninteen - Men Of Accademia, The Tiny Ship Was Tossed, Singing In The Rain, the Cat Puppet and Whose Pen Leaked On The Spaghetti?
Over the years, Kim and I have had many a “Boys night out;” sporting events, bars, gambling and clubs that provide, ahem, adult entertainment. However, we had never had a “Boys morning out.”
Today was going to be that day. But instead of clubbing, we were going to a museum. Yes, we are now officially old.
The afternoon before we had spotted a long line at Galleria dell’ Accademia, which we had wanted to see. “I wonder if there is a long line at the opening?” I pondered. Kim said he would give it a try if I wanted to get up early.
It seemed like a much better idea the previous day when I awoke a little after seven. The combination of Campari, vino and Singing Gondoliers were still dancing in my head when I rang Kim’s room. “Let’s go for it,” he said.
I forget if it opened at 8 or 8:15 a.m., but Kim and I were a few minutes early, nonetheless. There was one guy in line, so we ducked in a nearby cafe for a cappuccino, and were back in line for the opening.
To avoid lines here, come early.
The Accademia was well worth the visit, and the audio guide covers the big-ticket paintings. It took us a little less than 90 minutes to go through the museum.
Kim had taken a liking to the paintings of Bellini, but all I could think of when I saw his name was a peach drink, and that didn’t sound too good at 9 a.m.
We were done by 9:30, meaning that if we hustled we could still catch breakfast at La Calcina, and you know we couldn’t miss breakfast. Tracy and Mary were already seated when we rushed in for cappuccino and a sweet roll.
We had a plan to take the little-more-than-an-hour trip to Burano, the lace island. As we stepped outside, the skies opened and it began pouring.
Unfortunately, the previous evening after dinner, in a Singing Gondolier-induced moment, gave away one of our umbrellas to one of the Brits after dinner (obviously, those Singing Gondoliers caused a feeling of generosity). Luckily, the hotel has spares for their guests who over-imbibe and give away their worldly possessions.
We sloshed down to the Vaporetto stop, as water came up on the walkway. Yes, the weather started getting rough.
A few years ago, on a trip to Catalina, Mary and Kim found out that strong seas and their stomachs’ don’t mesh very well. As we stood on the platform waiting for the Vaporetto, I looked at Mary’s face. It looked whiter than one of those Venetian masks, and I had a feeling Burano was not in the cards for our friends. I think if we had gone on the Vaporetto, more than the tiny ship would have been tossed.
So much for the fearless crew of the Minnow and our three-hour tour of Burano. For me, the rougher, the better (boat rides, of course). However, it did seem kind of dumb to take a one hour-plus boat ride when all you could see was a driving rain, so Burano will have to wait for another visit.
The Professor and Ginger then headed for Piazza San Marco, while yours truly, Gilligan, and Mary Ann decided to go back to San Polo.
It is a fact; Venice is a blast in the rain. We even saw a couple of guys on water bicycles enjoying the pouring rain.
As we headed on the Vaporetto toward the Rialto Bridge, we noticed that the Ca Rezzonico that we had visited the day before was impossible to get to due to high water. We window-shopped for a while, but hunger once again set in (hey, I only had one sweet roll for breakfast).
I had read about a place called Cantina do Mori (picture on right taken from web), which has been a bacari since the mid 1400s, so Tracy and I decided we’d eat there. It is said that Casanova hung out here, but I do not know if he said, "This vino rosso is better than sex."
We were the only Americans who occupied the place along with a bunch of Italians and a few Germans. This is one of those places where you eat cicchetti, which is basically a bunch of finger food that you have to eat a lot of to get full. But it was really good finger food.
We devoured some bruschetta pomodero, a wedge (or two) of Pecorino, deep-fried, breaded eggplant, smoked salmon crostini, a crab claw (not a pretty sight), a potato/dried tomato skewer, crostini with zucchini and shrimp, along with salt cod mashed with olio and pepper on a crostini. Each of us had a glass of prosecco and a glass of vino rosso. There were no seats, so we occupied a position at the back bar.
Interestingly, all the Italians paid when they bought each item, while for us, they just kept serving us different things as we ordered, which was often. I told you we were hungry! I guess I had an honest face.
Finally, we were ready to pay the bill, and I had no idea how much this going to be, but I thought it would be a lot because, as you can see by the above description, we didn’t skimp on drinks or food. Amazingly, the entire bill was only 26 Euros, which I felt was a bargain.
The atmosphere of this tiny place was also terrific. One of the guys behind the counter was going to be married soon, and the locals who came in kept buying him glasses of wine and giving him grief (as a once-future husband, you can tell what they’re talking about, no matter what the language).
We started the soggy walk back toward Dorsoduro. Tracy bought some jewelry for friends, and then we stopped to look at a window of a cool, little shop (similar to the one on the right) that had a beautiful (I can’t believe what I am about to write) cat puppet. I can’t even blame it on the vino, because it looked so similar to our little orange tabby, that we immediately decided we had to buy it. Ok, maybe it was the vino. Thankfully, we still liked it when we unpacked it upon returning home.
Tracy and I had a great day walking in the rain and experiencing Venice in this different way. It was pretty enthralling, and I believe Venice is one of the few spots in the world where a rainy day can be just as fun, or even more fun, than a nice day.
Kim and Mary also had fun walking the streets and alleys of Venice. They had lunch at the Cantine del Vino Schiavi near our hotel, which they said was good, and had meandered down to the Campo San Marco, which had put up the planks due to the wet weather. Kim took a cool picture of the restaurant on the right, which looks like a place we might have to visit on our next journey here, if he remembers where in Venice it is.
Kim and Mary also had a surprise for us. Our traveling companions invited us to their room at the appointed 6 p.m. cocktail hour. There on their table was a Party-In-A-Box. Cheese, Campari, vino and pre-made Bellinis were all within our grasp. Afterward, there was only one more thing to do, go out to dinner.
We had made early reservations for Taverna San Trovaso. There are actually two of these restaurants with the same name. The more familiar one on the little canal was closed on Monday (as are many restaurants in Venice), but its sister restaurant was open.
There was communal seating, and this place was packed at just a little past 7 p.m. The folks at the table next to us had ordered a little before we did, and we were not sure where they were from, but when they got their multi-colored pasta dish with lobster arrived at their table, they didn’t look happy. She called the waiter over, and we could tell she wanted to send the plate back because it looked bad (to her).
Fortunately, Tracy’s multi-colored pasta dish arrived about the same time, so once the woman realized that it was supposed to look that way, everything was fine.
Mary decided to be bold and went for the spaghetti in squid ink. It was not the most appetizing looking dish, I must say. Actually, it did look like a ballpoint pen had squirted black ink everywhere on the plate. It was at this moment, I was glad I ordered the veal limone.
Tracy and I ordered a round of Singing Gondoliers after dinner. The waiter, not knowing the name of this local drink had been changed, said, “How about a Sgroppino?” They’ll get used to our new name for it some day, I’m sure.
The Singing Gondoliers here were frothier than La Calcina’s, and better (we made a batch at Kim and Mary’s house on Thanksgiving; see I told you we still like each other and they were delicious again).
(I have posted the recipe for this little drink below)
When we got our bill, there was a little card saying you could pay in your local currency. After reading about this before I left the U.S., I know this was not what we wanted to do. The waiter never pushed it (and they had been very helpful and nice all evening long), so I didn’t say anything and we paid in Euros.
When we got back to the hotel, there was a little bottle of Campari and soda that had still not been opened. Knowing we did not want to pack it, I took one for the team and forced it down. Yeah, I didn’t think you’d buy that.
We had an early train to Roma the next morning, and had I known how much trouble I’d get in, I might have stayed in Venezia.
SINGING GONDOLIER RECIPE
2 cups (16 oz) lemon sorbet, softened
2 Tbsp vodka
1/3 cup Prosecco
4 Tbsp cream or half-and-half
1 Egg White
I can't put just two tablespoons of vodka in anything, but you don't want the vodka to overpower the drink. I used four tablespoons and one more tablespoon of cream (if not you are not a vodka person, it is not mandatory to put vodka in). You really shouldn't taste the vodka anyway (I just like knowing it is there).
Melt the lemon sorbet until soft, and put ingredients in a blender. Blend until it becomes somewhat liquidy (I don't think that's a word, but who cares).
Then comes the maitaitom method to make it frothy.
As it blends, open the little top of the blender and add the white of one egg as it continues to blend. Blend a little longer.
Pour immediately after blending or the mixture will separate. Drink perfection is an ongoing process, so should anyone have a better recipe, I am open to ideas. It is a perfect after dinner, stomach-soothing drink.
Day Twenty - Strangers On A Train With The Lovely Sherpa, May I Butt In, “Sorry, But The Taxi Is Broken,” The Glorious Galleria, Fake Terrorist Attack and Not The Nina Or The Pinta But The…
When the phone rang a little after 4:30 a.m., I turned on the light and gazed at my wife, who even though she had her eyes closed, was giving me the look. “Why did you book such an early train?” she asked. There are no good answers at 4:30 a.m.
The four of us showered (not all together, this is a family report), and were ready for the water taxi at 5:45 a.m. (I need a long shower at 4:30 in the morning). Kim took the last picture before we stepped on the taxi, and off we went.
The water taxi from La Calcina to the train station takes about 15 minutes, and, with tip, was about 70 euros. The skies were clearing, and we saw a few people taking early morning strolls. We guessed they had just arrived and their body clocks were off, but maybe they were just enjoying the incredible Venetian serenity of early morning.
Once again, I had purchased first class e-tickets for our train ride to Rome (via Florence). We left at 6:30 and were scheduled to arrive in Rome a little after 11. Tracy and I sat across from each other, and seated next to us were a couple of very good looking young women with bare midriffs (not that I noticed).
Once again, Tracy gave me the look, which set a new European record of two “looks” before 7 a.m. Across the aisle, Kim and Mary just laughed.
Although I love driving in Europe, I do enjoy train travel, also. The ride provided me time to catch up on my notes, get in some reading and occasionally ogle the women next to me.
The best part was that my three traveling companions were not in the mood for coffee, so they all ordered espressos for me. By the time we hit the Rome Termini station (4 1/2 hours and seven espressos later), I don’t believe I was able to blink. However, that doesn’t mean I couldn’t screw up.
As the train slowed to a crawl, I made a husbandly faux pas of planetary proportion. Plucking our luggage down from the rack, I saw my new girlfriends were in need of help. I started loading Tracy up with our luggage, and then gallantly took the girls’ luggage off the rack and handed each of them their suitcase.
I then turned to Tracy who had two suitcases hanging around her neck and shoulders, and one in each hand, and she did not look too pleased with me. She said, “What am I, your Sherpa?”
I thought about doing a little Tenzing Norgay humor, but immediately thought better of it.
We headed to the taxi stand and waited for a cab to drive us to the Hotel Santa Maria in Trastevere.
We were first in line when the taxi pulled up, and a couple proceeded to butt in front of us giving us a tale of woe in Italian (he looked like a student – a very old one - saying the dog ate his homework). I was about to get in a “discussion” with the gentleman when the taxi driver jumped out of his car and started yelling at the guy, who departed immediately.
The journey wound through the streets of Rome, and when we hit Trastevere, we were a little concerned. As I was to find out, Trastevere is similar to Campari, as it is also an acquired taste. There were tons of graffiti and it is not the cleanest place in the world. “Where have I booked us?” I thought.
We wound through alleys that didn’t seem able to accommodate two bicycles, much less one taxicab. Yet, in a few moments, we were at the gate of our new oasis, the Hotel Santa Maria. This is another wonderful hotel, and there is no doubt that it caters to an American clientele.
As we would soon find out, the afternoon spread, put out about 5:30 p.m. is fantastic, the breakfast includes eggs, and the people at the desk are more than helpful. The rooms are set up around a courtyard, and there was a bar for those who partake in wine, Campari and Prosecco drinking.
The hotel recommended a little place in the tiny square around the corner, Augusto, and we had a nice lunch (it had been our first day without breakfast, except for my seven espressos). The place had paper place settings and featured some great garlic bread.
We walked back to the hotel, and the man at the desk called a taxi for us, because I had booked online 3 p.m. reservations for the Galleria Borghese.
The Borghese is one of those places they tell you to get to early to show your reservation so you can pick up your tickets. As usual, I gave us extra time, since I hate being late. “No problema,” I thought.
As we drove down a Rome street, the taxi abruptly stopped. “Sorry, the taxi is broken,” our cabby said. ”You must get out and find another cab.”
This is why you leave early.
Luckily for us, a taxi deposited someone only ten feet behind us, so we started to climb in. He wasn’t going to let us in, because he thought we were bypassing the taxi in front of us. When I told him the taxi was broken, he smiled and let us in.
We still arrived there in plenty of time, received our tickets and went to the entrance. We were first in line, and although many reports say to go upstairs to the paintings first, we did not. Tracy said she could have spent the entire time in the first room, with its incredible ceilings and walls.
There are some incredible sculptures on the first floor, my favorite being Bernini’s Apollo and Daphne (picture on left from website). In it Apollo chases Daphne after being struck by Cupid's arrow. Just as he (Apollo) is about to catch her, she calls to her father to save her. Her fingers begin to sprout leaves, her toes become roots, her skin turns to bark and she becomes a tree. Anyway, poor old Apollo ends up with a handful of leaves and splinters in his thighs. Women!
I was completely blown away by many of the beautiful statues. The paintings upstairs were nice, but it’s the statues I remember the most. As usual, the audio guide, to me, was a must. Although you have two hours to go through the museum, it took us a little less than 90 minutes to see both floors.
We then walked through the park, down a street to the Spanish Steps to the Trevi Fountain and finally to the Pantheon (nothing but net). That tired us out, so we stopped at the Campo de’ Fiore for cocktails (sometimes this seemed like a trip perfect for The Thin Man).
When we arrived back at the Hotel Santa Maria, Dan and Linda greeted us at the hotel. It was Happy Hour, Roman-style. Per Tracy’s notes: “It is a lovely presentation. The spread includes, bruschetta with pomodoro, mushroom pastries, a bowl of olives, Pecorino with chili peppers, pizza bread with dried tomatoes and anchovies, caprese salad and much more.”
During Happy Hour, Dan and Linda told us about their journey to the hotel the previous day. When they told the taxi driver at Termini Station they needed to get to the Hotel Santa Maria, the guy said he could not take them there.
“Terrorist drill,” he said. Timing is everything.
It seemed the day Dan and Linda arrived, Rome was preparing for a terrorist attack at various venues in the city, so it was difficult for taxis to navigate the streets of Rome (like other days are a piece of cake). They were told to take a bus that dropped them off in Trastevere, which they did.
Unfortunately they did not have a map to the hotel, so it was sort of hit and miss on where to go. Then, it started pouring, and they ducked into an enoteca (any port or sherry in a storm), and started cursing Tuscan Tom’s Tours. “Where has he put us?” they asked. “What kind of area is this?”
A little digression (yeah, I know, again): Kim, Mary, Tracy and I had been to Rome before, so we had thought about Dan and Linda arriving in Trastevere the day before (although we did not know the entire story, of course). We even said, “Boy, this might be a little different for someone who had never seen the city before. They are probably wondering why we booked a hotel in this area.” As it turned out, we were right.
Fortunately for Dan and Linda, someone knew where the hotel was, lead them to it, and they loved the hotel. Dan and Linda walked all over Rome later that day and said they had a great time. They also liked the Trastevere area, but their biggest rave was for the enoteca where they sat out the storm, and said we had to go there later. It turned out that this little enoteca had the best dessert I tasted on the trip (more later).
Kim and I went to the desk at the hotel to get a restaurant recommendation, and the girl behind the desk was stunningly beautiful. I had already accumulated enough wives (and trouble) on the trip, so Kim said she could be his new wife.
When I told Tracy (still not quite over the Sherpa episode), she said, “Great maybe Kim can have a double wedding with you and the Piccolo Oliveta girl, but remember, Mary and I get all the property.”
There is nothing like a wife to spoil a perfectly good middle-aged man’s fantasy.
We had a good, fun, but not spectacular dinner that evening. Obviously Kim and I were still under the magical spell of the girl behind the desk, because we don’t remember the name of the place we ate that evening. Tracy and Mary then called it a night.
The rest of us went to Dan and Linda’s wine place, the Enoteca Trastevere (picture is from web), and sat outside enjoying vino and the most spectacular dessert on earth.
The enoteca had a chocolate, cinnamon dessert that is hard to describe except to say I nearly licked the plate clean to get every last morsel. The dessert’s name is Il Saraceno and besides chocolate, it has cinnamon and cayenne pepper. I knew I had crossed the lines of proper etiquette when Dan said, “Tom, you have chocolate on your nose.”
We headed back to the hotel, bid farewell to Linda, and the three boys went off on our own. We had one cocktail (I made the mistake of ordering a brave bull that nearly killed me), and we started back toward the hotel.
It was after midnight when we hit the happening Piazza Santa Maria in Trastevere. There were fire dancers and other street people doing their thing around the fountain. After nearly a day here (more for Dan and Linda), we decided we really liked Trastevere, warts and all.
Kim and I had rooms next to each, and Tracy answered my knock immediately. Mary, on the other hand, did not answer Kim’s knock on the door. The window was open, and we tried to awaken her, but not wanting to be loud for those nestled in their beds, we could not roust Mary from her deep sleep. Could it be another Ambien and wine episode?
Fortunately, it was not. She just happened to be out colder than Robert Downey Jr. on a drug binge.
Finally, Tracy called Mary’s room, and after numerous rings, a very tired voice answered, and Kim had a place to sleep for the night. No matter what happens during the day or how many wives we dream we have, Kim and I always end up with the correct wives.
Day Twenty-One – Tom’s Tours Hits A Snag, Is Nero Near, A Funny Thing Happened On The Way Through The Forum, A Colosseo Short Cut, The First Dead Pope (an Nearly A Dead Husband), The Mystery Instrument and A Mime Is A Terrible Thing To Waste
As stated earlier in this report, I don’t like being late, so it was with trepidation that I asked the hotel for a taxi pick up about 50 minutes before our scheduled Domus Aurea (Nero’s Golden House) tour. I don’t like fiddling around with being late.
I had pre-reserved the tickets and had my print-out to take to the ticket office. Right before we left the room, Tracy said, “Do you have the print out?”
“Of course,” I answered confidently. Famous last words.
We were supposed to arrive a half hour early, and the hotel said it wouldn’t take more than 15 minutes to get there, so I thought the only thing that could go wrong would be the taxi breaking (as it had the day before).
Kim and Mary were feeling chipper, so they decided to walk (about 45 minutes from the hotel, they were told).
Dan, Linda, Tracy and I were waiting for the taxi when the guy at the Hotel Santa Maria desk came outside to tell us that the taxis were very busy that day, and we had better walk down to the taxi stand to get one. Now panic was beginning to creep into my brain.
For most of the trip, the leader of Tom’s Tuscan Tours had been in complete control, with no problems. Suddenly, I felt that control going away as we walked the five to ten minutes to the taxi stand. We were going to be late, and I was not happy.
I walked ahead of the other three, talking to myself like an idiot, and I think it was here that Dan and Linda began thinking that I had lost my mind. As Al Jolson would have said (if he were still alive), “You ain’t seen nothing yet.”
We got to the taxi stand, and were fourth in line, but there were no taxis. OK, now I’m officially worried. Not only were there no taxis, when I reached in my pocket, I discovered there were no printed reservations, either.
Yes, yours truly had left the paper on the bed after telling Tracy, “Of course.” I didn’t even turn around, because I could feel “the look” coming from Tracy, not to mention Dan and Linda.
“Damn,” I said (although I might have used a more descriptive expletive at that point). “Have the taxi meet me at the hotel,” I said. I then started running back to the Santa Maria.
For those of you who have seen the movie “Damn Yankees,” I must have looked like Shoeless Joe Hardy running for the fly ball after the Devil had turned him back into an old man. The citizens of Trastevere could only look in awe at me running slower than the slow motion scenes in “Chariots of Fire.”
When I eventually reached the room, I was sweating more than I was when I couldn’t get the car in reverse at the rental car exit. I picked up the reservation form, the taxi met us, and we were off.
Linda said, “Tom, I’ve never seen you like that!”
Tracy, quicker than a Muhammad Ali jab, answered, “Oh, I have ... often.” She doesn’t get a lot of punch lines, but she nails them when she does.
We were 20 minutes from our tour time, when the taxi driver gave me another bit of bad news. “What is the Domus Aurea?”
I repeated the mantra, “Attitude is Everything! Attitude is Everything!”
As he drove the busy streets of Rome, I was showing him where it was on the map, and he alternately kept switching his look from the road to the map as he was driving wildly through the streets, pedestrians hurtling their bodies out of harm’s way. I told the rest of the crew, “I guess we’ll get there or die trying.”
He drove past the Colosseum, let us out and said something like, “I think you’re close,” which did not give me a lot of reassurance. We were just about five minutes from tour time.
Standing nearby was a horde of police giving one guy a traffic ticket. One bored policewoman (who was standing and looking at the officer writing out the ticket) must have noticed my sad countenance and said, “May I help you?” She obviously knew the look of a confused American.
She pointed me in the right direction, and I went into full gallop, old man style. Tracy, Dan and Linda followed, but I got so far ahead of them again, that they also had to ask for directions.
As I got to within 50 feet of the ticket office, I saw two familiar faces walking toward me in the sunlight. It was Kim and Mary. Kim said, “How come you’re sweating? We’re the ones that walked.” Oh, the trials and tribulations of a tour leader.
I ran to the ticket window, and the very nice woman at the counter, noticing the beads of sweat on my face, smiled and said, “Don’t worry, you still have a few minutes until the tour.”
We enjoyed the tour of Nero’s House (please follow along – the audio guide again a must) and since there is not very much intact to see, you need to use your imagination to know what it must have been like back in the day of the crazed emperor. (Note: It’s lucky we went, since after our visit heavy rains have forced it to close for at least two years.)
Tracy wanted to show Dan and Linda the Carcero Mamertino underneath the Church of St. Joseph of the Carpenters near the Foro Romano, where Peter and Paul had been imprisoned 2,000 years ago. We walked down the winding stairs from the first floor and saw the small room where Peter and Paul were kept before being executed.
We were going to go to the Colosseum, but since Dan and Linda had already been there, they went off on their own, and the four of us walked back through the Forum.
Before they left, Dan gave us this piece of sage advice. “Get your ticket to the Colosseum on the combo Palatine Hill ticket. Go to the second ticket office.”
This information garnered Dan the Tip of The Trip Award.
As we walked through the Forum, Tracy and Mary stopped at the House of the Vestal Virgins (well, what’s left of it), where they immediately went into a chorus of A Whiter Shade of Pale. “One of sixteen vestal virgins who were leaving for the coast” resonated throughout the Forum, and since neither was really a virgin, Kim and I thought about burying them alive like they did to virgins who strayed in the old days, but we decided against it.
We bought our combo ticket and walked up to Palatine Hill. Words do not do justice to the view of the Forum that day from Palatine Hill. The blue skies and amazing cloud patterns made for some remarkable photo opportunities. I think it was at this point that Tracy first said she was hungry.
It was now time to tour the Colosseum. Dan had told us not to wait in the long line, which stretched forever. Instead, he told us to go into the guided tour line, which we did.
At first, the guard said we could not go in this line, but when we showed him the ticket, he waved us through. Dan’s little tip saved us more than hour of wait time.
We took the elevator to the upper level. On top, as I was reading about the Colosseum from the guide I had prepared before the trip, a young couple stood nearby. We thought we might be blocking their view, but when we asked if they wanted us to move, the guy said, “No, I was just enjoying the comments from the tour guide.” It had taken a few hours, but Tom’s Tuscan Tours was back in business (although it was now called Tom’s Roman Tours).
The next group we ran into was a bunch of Irish students on holiday, who were having a blast in Italy. Kim (being Irish) took this opportunity to flirt with them, thus affording me a welcome relief from "the look."
Kim and Mary then took the subway to Circus Maximus, while I continued to deprive Tracy of sustenance as we headed on the subway toward the Vatican. I told Tracy there was a method to my madness for wanting to go to Vatican City.
We had 9:15 a.m. Scavi Tickets for the following day, and I wanted to know exactly where we should go. Plus, both Tracy and I wanted to see St. Peter’s again.
At St. Peter’s, we asked the Swiss Guard where the Excavations office was, and soon we found ourselves in a surreal takeoff of the famed Abbott and Costello “Who’s on First” routine.
“Where is the Excavations Office?” I asked.
“Do you have reservations?”
“Yes, for tomorrow, but I just wanted to make sure where to go.”
“Come back tomorrow.”
“Yes, I know, but is this where I go?”
“Do you have reservations?”
“Yes, for tomorrow.”
“Then come back tomorrow. Ok?”
“I don’t know ... Third Base.”
Anyway, I did ascertain (finally) that this was the place to go the following morning. We saw a long line stretching through the Vatican, and I was going to ask the Swiss Guard what the line was for, but realized we had to be back at the hotel in a couple of hours for cocktails.
Instead, I asked someone else. “Oh, that’s the line to see the tomb of John Paul II.” The line stretched forever so it seemed, and we determined it wasn’t worth the wait.
We circumvented the throngs and walked inside St. Peters and spent a good deal of time wandering. We then saw another line that was going past another dead Pope. “Who’s that?” I asked.
“Pope John XXIII,” was the answer. He was lying in state because he was on the fast track to sainthood.
The line was short, so we got in. People were taking pictures of the pope (who you could see through the glass encasing) as they moved through, and although it seemed a little sacrilegious, I took one, too, but I was moving too fast and it came out blurry.
Tracy’s hunger pangs were evident, but we were now in the dreaded Bermuda Triangle time of in-between lunch and dinner hours, so she said she’d just wait until the Santa Maria Happy Hour.
Being on our feet for more than six hours, we could have taken a taxi back to the hotel, but we had not had a lot of luck with taxis, so we walked the 20 minutes back to the hotel along the Tiber. Arriving at our room, Tracy said, “OK. My feet are now officially broken.” She was too tired to even give me the look at this point.
We met up with our friends at the Santa Maria Happy Hour, and it seemed like “Broken Feet Syndrome” was running (well, walking) rampant in our group. There is nothing like Campari, Prosecco, Vino and a nice spread to rejuvenate the spirit, if not the feet. The weather was a little iffy at Happy Hour, so we dined inside, although you can take your food and wine to the nice interior patio. We chatted with other guests until it was time for dinner.
At eight that evening, we walked the (thankfully) short distance to the Piazza Santa Maria in Trastevere. Dan and I walked over to a restaurant called Sabatini, and he turned toward me and the others, his face pale as a ghost. We couldn’t figure out what was wrong until we glanced at the menu that said their fish was priced by the gram. Dan was having a Venice flashback, so we hurried over to the Ristorante Galeassi on the piazza and secured an outside table.
As we dined, I kept looking out on the square at a guy dressed like King Tut, or at least that’s what I thought he looked like. He kept staring at our table, not moving, and suddenly I couldn’t get that Steve Martin tune out of my head. Thankfully, he finally had to go back to his condo made of stona or wherever he was from, and we ate without his constant stare.
Soon, the piazza’s musical entertainment was near our restaurant. Two youngsters “playing” accordion regaled the crowd, but something seemed amiss. Linda said, “They’re not really playing. I think the music is recorded.”
We all agreed, except for Kim, who steadfastly said the boys were live, not Memorex. Well, we went back and forth until we all chipped for a handsome tip and had Linda go pose with the boys.
She swears that when she got close up to the boys, the kid on the left was just faking playing the instrument. She maintains, that there was some sort of tape recorder inside the accordion.
Looking back, she could have requested a song to see if they were really playing, but it was more fun to just argue the point.
For dessert, it was back to the Enoteca Trastevere. Once again, this chocolate masterpiece was terrific. We chatted with one of the owners who said it (the enoteca, not the dessert) has been in the family for 60 years, and she lived upstairs. We had a great glass of a 1998 Brume Rosse Reserva and also a glass of Rosso Moio.
The six of us enjoyed the atmosphere so much, that we made dinner reservations for the following evening.
We were feeling sad because tomorrow was going to be the final night for all of us in Italy. For you, it’s good news, because this report is almost finally over.
Day Twenty-Two - Under And Above St. Peter’s, Shortcut To A Dead Pope, Linda Buys A Ristorante, The Incredible Garlic Bread and The Last Supper (Roman Style)
In an effort to not recreate the trials and tribulations of the day before, the crew was ready to roll by 8 a.m., and we all walked to St. Peters (no taxis today, thank you). Before leaving the room, Tracy said, “Do you have the printout for our tour under St. Peters?”
“Of course,” I replied (that statement has a familiar ring, huh?).
As we departed the room, Tracy asked again. I reached in my pocket and, unbelievably, it was not there.
Then, in a Siegfried and Roy moment (without the carnivorous tiger), she whipped out the paper from behind her back. Tracy held the reservations over her head. “You left it on the bed again,” she said incredulously, all the while giving me the look at the same time.
I was beginning to worry that she had given me so many looks recently her eyebrows might freeze in that Spock-like position. Fascinating.
At 9 a.m., we walked into the Excavations office, and in 15 minutes a group of 13 were on the Necropolis Tour underneath the Vatican. All of us were a little surprised that we were allowed to keep our daypacks on and were not searched.
For anyone who has any doubts about this tour ... take it! We were very lucky to have an excellent English-speaking guide who also had a sly and wry sense of humor.
Walking through the streets of the necropolis was also memorable. The tour more than lived up to its advanced billing. As we entered the chapel near the end of the tour, the sounds of chants and hymns filtered down from above. We found out later they were inducting priests on this day, and the sound of music we heard in the bowels of St. Peter’s made the experience quite surreal and spectacular.
We viewed the tomb of St. Peter and what they believe are his bones. Earlier. Tracy and I had told Dan and Linda about being able to stand in line for Pope John Paul II’s tomb. Their flight the next day was in the afternoon, so they thought they would wake up early and get over to St. Peters at 7 a.m., when it opened, to beat the tourist hordes.
When the tour concluded, the guide said, “You can exit to the right, but just to let you know, if you walk about 25 feet to your left you can see the tomb of Pope John-Paul II. I ’m not supposed to let you go that way, but I might look the other way if you decide to go left,” which, of course, we all did. Dan and Linda could now sleep in tomorrow and, truthfully, I would have been disappointed had I waited in line for it.
After the tour, it was time to walk and soak in the majesty of St. Peter’s, and then I told the group that Tom’s Tours had one more vertical adventure left in it. After a slight bit of cajoling the group, we all decided to climb to the top of St. Peter’s Basilica.
I gave the crew a slight break, and we took the elevator first, which saved nearly 200 steps. The view down to the inside of St. Peter’s Basilica is amazing and not for those who have a distinct fear of heights.
I then gave the group the sad news, “There are more than 300 steps to go to the top.”
The stairs that curl to the top have a weird tilt. I felt like it was Leaning Tower II. The exercise was all worth it for the views over the rooftops of Rome were phenomenal. The climb up to the top was invigorating, so much that I know I heard the words, “Let’s go to lunch!”
I had selected a restaurant near the Piazza Navona, so we made the walk from Vatican City. We finally found the restaurant on a narrow street and looked at the menu.
As a tour director, you have to be cognizant of what the group wants, and they definitely did not want this restaurant. How do I know that?
I turned around and Mary and Linda were already looking at a little pizzeria across the street, where we eventually wound up eating. As they say on the Miller Lite commercials, “Good call.”
The name of the ristorante is Pasquino, which happens to be located on the Piazza Pasquino.
First of all, we had a wise-guy waiter who was really funny. Linda tried her best Italian to order a pizza, and the guy shoots back with, “What? You want to buy our pizzeria. Do you have the money?”
The rest of us quickly ordered in English.
The food was really good including the Caesar salad, a Greek salad, spaghetti with bacon, tomato and hot pepper sauce, the four cheese gnocchi and a vegetable lasagna with eggplant, zucchini and capers. But the best item on the menu was the garlic bread.
We all agreed it was tremendous, but obviously Mary had taken a look at how much she and Kim had spent on the trip, because when Kim was about ready to order another piece, she said, “I don’t think it was worth money, honey.”
In a surprise turnaround, which shocked wives and husbands in the general vicinity, Kim gave Mary “the look.” He then said, “Whatever,” and ordered another one. Husbands throughout the land rejoiced.
After lunch, we all went our separate ways for the final afternoon in Rome. Before we split up, Dan and I saw a bicycle with room for a bottle of wine. Dan said, "Next time, that's how I'm traveling around Rome.
All three couples were back at the hotel in a short time thanks to a heavy downpour, and it was getting close to Happy Hour.
That evening, we had a fine dinner at the Enoteca Trastevere, and I had TWO of the great chocolate dessert. By the time the evening ended, I was once again wiping chocolate off my nose after cleaning the plate. I have to get that recipe!
To no one’s surprise, we had consumed a good amount of vino at dinner, so there were hugs galore because Tracy and I would be up before the crack of dawn to catch to our flight, and Kim and Mary would not be far behind. Linda smiled, knowing she could sleep in AND have the good breakfast.
We were recounting all our adventures when Kim reminded us of going to the Monte Oliveto Maggiore while wearing his short pants. “I guess I made a mockery of the monkery,” he stated. Believe me, after a few bottles of wine, that sounded pretty funny.
Tom’s Tuscan Umbrian Venetian Roman Tour was done, and I, as usual, was very saddened to leave bella Italia.
Day Twenty-Three - Arrivederci Roma, Homeward Bound and Is The Pilot Baking Cookies?
Tracy and I had an early flight, so the hotel rang us before 5 a.m. I quietly lugged the luggage to the Happy Hour Room. The Santa Maria was another fantastico hotel, which I would definitely recommend.
I liked Trastevere more than Tracy (although she loved the hotel). It’s hard to describe, but I just liked the vibe of the entire area. For some reason, it felt real, and the walking distances to most major venues are not bad. I can see that Trastevere is not for everybody, but I would stay here again.
It was thundering and lightning when our very nice (and tired) hotel guy called a taxi, and we chatted while I waited. He thoughtfully made Tracy and me one final, delectable cappuccino. “I hate leaving Italy,” I said.
We first flew to London where I checked my e-mail one last time.
NOTE: I used mail2web.com to check my e-mail throughout the trip. This way I was able to keep up with the thousands of offers of Viagra and how to find dates with desperate housewives (coincidence, I think not!). Mail2web is an easy way to check your e-mail, however, and I was already married to a desperate housewife…desperate to get home and see our cats.
It was first class again, baby, and we took full advantage of the perks. Non-stop vino, steak, pizza and caramel Sundays were digested with gusto, but all the while we looked back on the fun we had all had on the journey.
“Batman Begins” was good, but most of the pictures in our mind was of the fabulous three weeks we had just spent in Italia.
A few hours from landing, the smell of fresh, baked cookies wafted through the first class cabin of American Airlines. I was afraid that if the passengers in steerage also smelled these cookies, we could have a riot on our hands.
Then out came fresh, baked, sensational, warm chocolate cookies. These chocolate delights were more than delicious. I told Tracy I wanted to stand up and yell to the folks in the back, “Let them eat peanuts!”
She gently reminded me that we would be those peons again for the next ten years until we accumulated enough frequent flyer miles, so I stood down. Oh well, it was fun while it lasted.
Tracy’s friend met us at the airport, and in the car were eight, great smelling tacos. I somehow found the appetite to eat my fair share. We picked up the cats, paid the bill (I’m glad we love them) and drove home.
It was another incredible trip to Italia. Everyone got along, the sights were amazing, the food was delicious, the wine divine (and cheap), the memories indelibly etched in our memories and the people of Italy could not have been nicer.
Yes, there were a couple of stumbling blocks (and gas tanks) along the way, but they were only minor inconveniences in the scheme of things that we can easily laugh about now (although it was only recently that I could utter the word Diesel without pain).
Where we go to next is still up in the air, but I guarantee that whether it is Tom’s Eastern European Exodus or Tom’s France Foray or Tom’s Spain Swing, we will maintain the two most important facets of any vacation:
Enjoy the Journey!
Attitude is Everything!