Monday, September 27, 2010

Day 8 – Siena and the Open Air Market

While Siena is a great medieval city to sightsee as it was once Florence's rival and has great churches and piazzas, we did none of that today. I have been to Siena once before, though I don't remember it that well beause I was 13 at the time. Today we strictly shopped and dined. So much for sightseeing.

However, we were unable to do either until we found parking. It took us over 45 minutes to find parking but once we did, we realized we had discovered the best parking place in the entire city. We parked at a pay lot for San Franchesco which was dauntingly downhill from the main part of the city. Fortunately, as we started walking up the hills to the market, we discovered a covered escalor. We took it up. Then there was another escalator, and we took that up. And we kept taking escalators up until we were just outside the San Francesco church and it's lovely open piazza! A short jaunty though the closed to cars medieval streets and we were at the market! And in the end, the four hours of parking cost us only 6.40 Euro.

The Wednesday market in Siena is an event not to be missed. Like the market in San Lorenzo in Firenze, there are souvenier shops and leather good shops, but the Siena market also has fresh fruits and vegetables, meats, cheeses, and fish, and in terms of souveniers and leather goods, it has a much larger selection. I can't post what I purchased though as they are gifts, but I will say I got a great deal on them! I love open air markets.

After getting my shopping fix at the market, it was lunch time. The restaurant we chose was called Il Biondo, and rememer that name if you ever go to Siena, because it was amazing! Easily the best meal I've had since I've been in Italy on this trip. Everything that was brought to our table was delicious. Now I'm going to make your mouth water and your stomach rumble just a little bit. We had a spaghetti alla vognole (clams), ravioli “il biondo” that was stuffed with a spinach pesto, and lasagne with a meat and red wine sauce and a souffle top! But the best part of the meal by far was the anti pasti! We ordered a prosciutto e melone which had the ripest melon I've ever tasted and the most prefectly salted and sliced prosciutto. Then the real winner of the lunch was the eggplant parmesean that I will dream about for years to come and try to replicate for even longer. The sauteed eggplant was layered with cheeses, alternating between fresh mozzarella and pecorino. The top layer was a marinara sauce covered in a thick layer of pecorino cheese. Oh. My. Goodness. When I figure out how to replicate this dish, I will share it with you all, and you will fall in love just as I have.

Tomorrow I am traveling back home. I have to take the train from Firenze to Roma, then from Roma to Roma Termini, then get on my plane to Montreal where I will have a three hour layover, then head into Newark where I will land at 9pm. Because I've got such a long layover, I've decided to go ahead and check my bag. I am so looking forward to sitting on planes all day! Can you sense the sarcasm?

Until then...

Day 7 – Firenze on Foot

Florence to us English speakers if Firenze to the Italians, and it still baffles me why we change the names of cities and countries. Would Firenze mean something diferent than Florence if used in the same context? I don't think so.

We arrived in Firenze at about noon knowing that we would have plenty of time to see all the major sights before leaving for our dinner party at 7:00pm. I've been to Firenze two times previously, so I've seen most of the sights, but it's always amazing to see them again, I just can't get over how old and ornate everything is!

The first stop was Piazza Signoria outside of the Uffizi Gallery. I've never actually been inside the Uffizi or the Accademia where the David is housed, in all the times I've been to Firenze. Is that the sign of the bad traveller? Maybe, but I think it's just that I'm not a giant museum person and there are replicas of many of the famous statues in Piazza Signoria anyway, not to mention you can see the collections in countless art history books and in photographs all over the internet. Personally, I enjoy seeing the replicas outside in natural light. My favorite is Michaelangelo's David (of course). But, I especially love that this sculpture is so well thought out that it is meant to be viewed looking up at it intead of looking forward at it. Michaelangelo designed David improportionate so when you look at it head on it looks like David has some really short legs. But, when you are looking up at him, he looks long, tall, and muscular the way he was meant to be viewed. I took a picture of him in his proper viewing state, which I will show you later.

Next we went to the Piazza della Republica while passing the Orsan. Michele church (there are so many of them in Firenze), the site of the original Roman Forum in Firenze. Then we headed up the main street, Via de Calzaiuoli, toward the Duomo. We sidetracked off to eat lunch at a small restaurant off the beaten path called Mangiafuoco Bracerie where I decided to have a very Italian lunch. I had bruccetta alla pomodori and spaghetti alla carbonara. From our table we were able to wath the futbol game on TV, how very Italian.

After lunch we headed to the Duomo. I decided not to climb the 463 stept to the top of the dome since I had already done it twice. I figured the view hadn't changed much in four year's. I did go into the church part of the Duomo and admire the frescoes on the ceiling though, not that I could see them clearly from 463 steps below.

After not climbing the Duomo we ventured through the market in San Lorenzo where street vendors sell souveniers and lots of Italian leather goods. It's your typical European street market with lots of the same stuff from stand to stand. The Italian leather goods did look enticing though...

Before we continued on our historical walk of the city, we explored the train station as I will have to navigate it when I leave from Firenze to Roma to catch my plane back to North America. I learned where to buy my tickets, which is always a good thing to know ahead of time.

Before continuing our historical walk of the city, we stopped for gelato outside of Piazza Santa Croce. I enjoyed half a cup of crema di limone that had candied lemon chunks in it and half a cup of fragole (English translation: strawberry). I sat in the piazza and admired Santa Croce which is painted in the colors as the Duomo (and other churches in Firenze as well).

Then we walked along the Arno River away from the center of the city toward one of the parts of the original wall that was around the city. After we saw the wall, we turned around and walked along the river towards the Ponte Vecchio, the famed bridge that has jewelry stores built on it. I'm not sure if they were always jewelry stores or if they were something else before (I've heard they were meat shops). When walking on the bridge, you can see it literally sparkle and shine from every angle in the light. It is bellissima.

One thing that you have to watch out for in Firenze is the motor bikes and scooters! They will run you over if you get in their way, and they zip along quite fast, though luckily they are not allowed on all the roads Motor scooters even have their own special sized parking spaces, which is good because there is not a lot of available parking in Firenze. Speaking of two wheeled vehicles, there are also a ton of bicycles in Firenze, and they are parked all over the place. I really enjoyed that this small city had such consciencious residents and commuters. I weren't it weren't so scary to ride bikes in Manhattan!

After nearly seven hours of exploring the city (for the third time) it was time to head to the dinner party at Cindy's (link). Of course my blister joined us as well.

Tomorrow we are going to Siena, a smaller Tuscan city, to go to their market which is much better than the market at San Lorezne in Firenze.

Until then...

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Day 7 – I don't want to write about Firenze and Italian and American Dinner Party

You know how after a long day where you've done so much all you want to do is go to sleep? That's where I a right now. It's just midnight here in Tuscany and I am exhausted. I spent five hours exploring Firenze aka Florecene (and I didn't even go into any museums!) and then attended an American and Italian dinner party. I think I'll write about the dinner party now and about Firenze tomorrow, because that's what I feel like doing and gosh darnitt it's my blog and my vacation.

Cindy is the woman my dad is renting the apartment from in Barberino Val d'Elsa. She is an American ex-Patriot who married an Italian and now lives in Firenze, after moving there from living in this very apartment in Barberino. They have two sons who are my age so it wasn't just me and seven people twice my age. Andrea (the older son) and I even exchanged facebook information. Cindy is a cook! She teaches cooking classes in Italy, so needless to say our dinner at her Firenze penthouse was quite delicioso. We started with fresh tuna ceviche and chicken liver pate toasts (two different kinds, not together, that would be interesting). Then we had home made cheese ravioli in a pommodorro sauce with lots of fresh garlic. After that we enjoyed pork wellington, sautteed eggplant and zucchini, porccini mushrooms, and a green salad with arugula, radicchio, and corn. For dessert we had fresh fruit, a seasonal grape pastry (with San Giovese grapes and LOTS of seeds), and biscotti. Food heaven.

Both Cindy and her friend Jane are American born girls who came to Italy and fell in love with debonaire Italaians and subsequently moved here, got married, and had children. Supposedly, there is an entire “American girl who marries Italian man” community in Firenze and they all know each other and actually have meetings and get togethers, like a book club.

All in all it was a fun dinner party with great food, lively conversation, and an interesting mix tape filled with 70's and 80's American pop songs. I admired these American women for coming to a foreign country on vacation and then essentially never leaving. I've visited many places that I felt I could never leave, but I think that may hae been the “I don't want to go home” string pulling on my heart. I don't think I could ever move anywhere too foreign, Canada maybe, but not Europe, no matter how much I love it.

Tomorrow I will write all about my five hour exploration of Firenze.

Until then...

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Day 6 – Coastal Exploration and Mirko

Every time I explore Italy I am introduced to a place I have never been before. Italy is such a huge country, and even though this is my fifth visit here, I still have not seen all of what there is to see in this beautiful country.

When you think of Tuscany, you think of hills covered with vineyards, olive groves, and sunflower fields, correct? Me too, you are not alone. But, today, for the first time I was introduced to a part of Tuscany that I had never seen before, the Marremma region of Tuscany.

We first ventured to a seaside village by name of Talamonte at the very tip of a tiny peninsula where there is a beautiflu cape and harbor to go along with it. Of course there is a very old walled village as wel, where every apartment has a view of the sea. Net, we ventured south to a mountain named Argrentario off the western coast that is conneted to the mainland with three thin strips of land that form lagunas in between them. On the northern coast of the island is Porto San Stefano where we stopped for lunch overlooking the harbor. Then we ventured to the East of the Island and marveled at Porto Ercole which is guarded by two forts on two hills overlooking the harbor. Luckily it is the off season in Marremma which meant less tourists to navigate through and less seagulls to worry about becoming roadkill.

After exploring the coastal marinas at Monte Argentario, we drove uphill to the little midieval mountail villages with spectacular views of the Mediterranean and Isola d'Elba. We drove through Maglinao, Pereta, and Scansano, all beautiful terraced hillside towns with medieval walls and stuctured. Every time I go to Italy (or anywhere in Europe really) I am awed by how old it really is. In the United States of America we don't have structures or towns or cities half as old as the ones in Europe, and seeing them in Europe (and espeicially when I was in Isreal) reminded me of how old “civilized' human life has existed. It's really fascinating.

After returning back to the apartment in Barberino Val d'Elsa we ate dinner at a restaurant where I dined on wild boar and tagliatelle. The wild boar was caught on Sunday morning with the restaurant proprieters shotgun... The pizza chef at the restaurant, Mirko, is moving to New York City in October to move in with a friend of his and look for work. He wants to make arrugula pizza in Brooklyn just for me (or so I'd like to think), and I think I know just the place for him to create his pizza magic.

Tomorrow we are off to Florence.

Until then...

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Day 5 - American Backpackers Brandon and Nick

Sunday is the day of rest in Italy. Nothing is open, and I decided I would embrace the custom of doing nothing, and do nothing. I came to the Piazza in the morning and caught up on my e-mails (thanks for the comments on the recent entries!) and just as I was preparing to leave and go back to the apartment, I was approached by two American backpackers looking for a winery with an open tasting room. I explained to them that it is Sunday! and that nothing is open, but better luck next time. I told them about Bustecca down the street with yummy pasta and house wine, and they said, "Let's go!" and offered to treat me to lunch in exchange for my knowledge. Count me in.

Brandon and Nick of Reno, NV, a tattoo artist and cabinet maker respectively, both business owners, were happy to share their traveling experiences with me. Highlights so far included bar hopping in London in between flights and meeting and congregating with travelers from around the world (Poland, Canada, and Egypt) at their hostel in Tavarnelle. They are most looking forward to Oktoberfest in Munich and bathing in hot beer while drinking beer in Austria (apparently you can do that?).

Talking with them made me wish I had the guts to go backpacking through Europe. I've thought about it so many times but there is some little fear in me, I think of being alone in the big bad world. Anyone want to go with me? But seriously, I really want to go backpacking in Europe and sleep in hostel beds and carry my big back pack around and use it as a pillow on overnight trains.

Until then...

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Day 4 – Panzana Wine Festival and Unlimited Calories

If there is one thing the Italians love more than their food it is their wine. Or at least the tourists do. Today we went to the Unione Viticoltori di Panzano in Chianti other wise known as the Panzano Wine Festival. Essentially, the festival is a huge wine tasting event where intead of taveling from vineyard to vineyard to taste wine as you would do in Napa Valley, California or the North Fork of Long Island, NY, each taster purchases a wine glass with carrying pouch (think kangaroos) and hops from booth to booth tasting wines from various wineries. This festival has 17 wineries with booths, most booths have more than one wine to taste, so one person could taste about 34 wines, which equates to about seven glasses of wine in total. That's a lot of wine. And all for 12 Euro... for TWO days!

I tasted at eleven booths (I discarded lots of the tastings after one or two sips). This was my first experience of a wine tasting festival. At first I thought all the wines tasted the same, but then I was able to discern what I thought were good wines from the rest. My three favorite vineyards were: 1) Chianti Classico Reserve at Cennatoio, 2) Chianti Classico Reserve at Panzanello, 3) Rose at Vignole. For ambience, there was a band playing Pink Floyd and classic American rock'n'roll covers at the festival as well as wine inspired art painted by Luca Carfagna (with whom I am now in love with) displayed and for sale.

After the wine festival we headed to Badia a Passignano for dinner at La Cantinetta di Passignano where I must have ingested over 2,000 calories, all of which were well worth it. We started with a antipasti platter of Italian meats, cheeses, bruchettes, pates, tomatillos, jams, and arugula. For the primmi piatti we had the “Linguine Chef” which our waiter informed us was always fish based and that no matter what it was we would like. He was right. We were served fresh linguini in squid ink with tomatoes and little clams. I've always strayed from squid ink because it smells so salty in American Italian restaurants, but this was not too salty at all, it was perfect, so perfect I wouldn't let our waiter clear it from the table. For secundo piatti we had beef with fresh truffles. Oh. My. Goodness. And that is all I have to say about that.

Today was a day for my stomach, and tomorrow, with any luck, I will walk it all off. It is raining now (bad for the grapes but good for my allergies) so hopefully tomorrow will bring clear skies perfect for strolling around.

Until then...

Friday, September 17, 2010

Day 3 - Exploring Barberino

First I'd like to say, that is it so unequivolcaly Italian that the wifi hotspot in this village is at the wine bar. But of course! Where else would the proper spot be? Also, that I can't post photos from here as my memory card is not compatible with my dad's computer, but once I return to NY I will add the appropriate pictures to each entry. Until then, use your imagination.

I took the morning to explore this midieval village of Barbino that I am staying in for the week. The walled part of the town, the medieval part, is teeny tiny and takes about 10 minutes to walk a full loop. There is a front gate and a back gate to get in and out of the town. Once inside there is a church that rings it's bells every hour and half hour from 6am until midnight (do they sleep around here?), a wine bar, a little grocery shop, a library, a hair salon, a few artisanal shops, a butcher, and a baker, but no candlestick maker that I can find.

I walked outside the city walls and found the new apartments and homes all with great views of the Tuscan hills. Every diretion there is a view to die for. That's one of the things I love about Tuscany.

A few other things that I love about Tuscany are the flower pots on every balcony and doorstep in town and all the fresh laundry hanging over balconies and on lines. Every once in a while I found a little old lady (the average age here is about 80!) out watering her plants or hanging her laundry. Also these old women sweep their porches and steps what seems like all the time, trying to get rid of the never ending dust and dirt that accumulates in a midieval town. Lastly, I love the cloths that hang over the heavy wooden front doors. Since it's rare to find a European dwelling with screens on the doors and windows, these clothes supposedly keep the bugs out.

Lunch in Italy lasts from 1pm to 3pm, and all the shops are closed. Only restaurants and bars are open. I kind of feel bad for the waiters and chefs that have to work during this designated time off, but not really, because I get to eat the yummy food. Today I ordered homemade pasta in a pear and gorgonzola cream sauce for only 7.50 Euro at Bustecca. It was tutto bene! The pasta here is really something else. I'm sure it's the reason why even thin Italaian women have little soft pasta bellies. I can anticipate having one before I head back to New York. I will just have to walk it off every day, because there's no way I am going to stay away from the pasta while I am here. But it will be so worth it.

Until then...

Italy Day 1 and 2 - Transatlantic Travel

The only aspect of traveling to Europe that I dislike is the actual traveling part. Once in Europe it's great, but getting here is a pain. It's bad enough taking a flight that is supposed to be “overnight” when it feels like staying up into the wee hours of the morning and then, viola!, you find yourself in a foreign country and it is early morning when it feels like bed time. Add on all the travel to and from the airports and it has become a 24 hour trip, most of which has been spent awake without proper meals or showers. Sounds fun, doesn't it?

My trip began in my hometown boarding a bus to Manhattan at 12:30pm. I disembarked from the bus at 2:30pm then took the subway to Penn Station where I proceeded to walk in circles until I found the New Jersey Transit and bought a ticket. The train was conveneiently waiting for me and left soon after I boarded. I rode the train to the Newark International Airport stop where I was able to catch the Air Tran which took me right to my terminal. Because I'd been so lucky with catching trains one after the other, I arrived at Newark a good two and a half hours before my flight departed. After checking in at the TAP desk and securing a window seat (score!) I headed through security with no problems at all with my expertly packed one quart clear plastic bags with 3oz or less bottles of liquid inside.

I was one of the only passengers to wait patiently at the gate for my row number to be called. Most people crowded around the boarding area thinking “I'm going to be the first person on the plane!!!”. This makes no sense to me since boarding is by row and all the seats are assigned and there is no need to rush into the plane to get a good seat. But, what do I know?

My plan was to get comfortable in my seat, wait until we took off to take a sleep aid pill, and pass out for the next seven hours until arriving in Lisbon. Of course, my plan didn't go as... planned. I did manage to get as cozy and comfortable as you can get in an airplane seat and then took a sleeping pill right after take off when I could recline my seat. But, I was so rudely awakened by a steward pushing the button to un-recline my seat when the meal was served. He explained to me that everyone was eating so I had to put my chair up. Did it look like I cared? No. I did not want to eat. I wanted to recline and pretend that I was sleeping through the night so that when I arrived in Portugal and later Rome, it would feel like I had slept all night and woken up in the morning. But as I said, my plan did not work, all because this Portuguese airline required that I had my seat in it's “upright and locked position” while everyone around me ate their food (which smelled surprisingly seasoned for airplane food) despite the fact that I preferred to sleep.

We landed in Portugal when it was still dark outside so I didn't get to see any of it from my window seat, but I did manage to see the lit up arch of a McDonalds as we approached the runway. Once in Portugal, I got my passport stamped (woo!!!) and then headed to my next flight, where I had to go through security again, which irritated me. The line was short and I thought it would be no problem. The security officer wouldn't let me take my huge bottle of water through so I stood there and started drinking it before I went through the security check point. She decided that while I was standing there anyway it would be a good time to get out my little bags of liquids and check to make sure they passed security tests. I graciously offered both my baggies to her for inspection. Well, apparently I and Newark security officials had failed to see that my very favorite Boscia face wash was actually 5oz instead of the required 3oz or fewer. This is expensive face wash, and I love it, I cannot live without it. The security officer told me I had three choices. One, throw it away (never!!!). Two, mail it to myself (this would have worked perfectly expect to do so I needed Euros and I was without any), Three, go through customs, go to the airline counter and check my bag with the liquid inside of it (this is what I wanted to do but then they told me if I did this that I would likely miss my flight). So, none of these options were working for me. I had to get clever and creative. I had packed a 3oz bottle of shampoo which I decided wasn't as important (or expensive) as my face wash, so I emptied it out in the garbage, washed it with the remainder of what was left in my water bottle, and filled it with my beloved face wash, most of which made it into the 3oz container. When I washed my face this morning it smelled a bit like the shampoo but didn't have any of the pink color so I think I did a good enough job.

I made it to the gate for my flight from Lisbon to Rome in plenty of time, and then the plane ended up being delayed because people's luggage was not on the plane yet (probably people who had the same problem as I did and decided to go back and check their bags). I should have gone with that option... Oh well. I slept again on that flight (three hours) though the person behind me decided that he wanted to kick and shove my chair frequently enough so that I would understand he was not happy about my reclining my seat. People (especially tall men) need to understand that seats on airplanes recline, and anyone is allowed to recline them! If anyone has problems with people reclining chairs in front of him, he should buy the seat in front of him. Harumph.

When I arrived in Rome, I didn't get a passport stamp (sad face). I didn't have any checked baggage so I was able to get out of the airport easily and find my dad and his friends. We got in their rented car and started driving to Tuscany where they are renting an apartment and I am staying, by way of a coastal highway with great views of the Mediterranean sea. After having lunch in a small town called Santa Marinelli (I have to check the name on the map later) I promptly fell asleep in the back seat of the rented Fiat and missed pretty much all of the scenic drive. Oops?

We arrived in he medieval city of Barberino around sunset. I was much too tired to do any exploring or even notice that I was in an over 1,200 year old city. But I'm sure I will have time to adequately explore the area tomorrow.

Until then...