Tuesday, July 29, 2008

The Fruits of One's Labors

In between travelling the country and the world this summer, I've been keeping a little veggie garden. I built a raised bed, about five by seven, in a spot that gets as much sun as any place in the backyard. I raked all of the backyard leaves into the bed in the fall, so there was ample compost by spring time. I should have turned the leaves into the soil more than I did; that would have given the plants a stronger base to root in , but, as it worked out, it was okay. In the spring, I planted three tomato plants that I had started indoors, a row of peas from seed, four broccoli plants that I had started indoors, several spinach plants from seed, a patch of bush beans from seed, and a row of carrots. I also tried to root garlic, but, that didn't work out so well.

The spring and early summer was very wet and very cold, so things took a long time to really take off, but when they did, several plants REALLY took off. Unfortunately, much of the taking off happened while we were in Italy, so, the garden was pretty hairy when we returned. One good thing, however, was that I had planted most of the garden in plots rather than rows, so a larger surface area of the garden was occupied by crops. This kept the weeds way down.

The tomatoes took off like the vines that they are, and in no time, they have managed to attempt to claim nearly every inch of the airspace in the little 35 square foot patch. Only vigorous caging, staking, and tying has managed to keep them somewhat tamed. But, what I deal with in vine growth pays off in fruit production. Now that the weather has finally warmed up a bit, I expect to be harvesting red, ripe tomatoes well into fall. I am growing a bit impatient, however. A ripe homegrown tomato is probably my favorite food on Earth. I check their status at least four to six times a day!

The broccoli ran away. Only one of the plants made even a half decent head, and that started to yellow up while we were in Colorado. We managed to harvest it, and it wasn't too bad, but, it wasn't peak, it was past peak. the other plants just grew. They are about four or five feet high, and have some really impressive leaves on them, but, no heads at all. I might pull them and replant for fall, but, if I do that, I better do it really soon.

The bush beans also took advantage of our absence to run out into a sort of pole bean type of growth. The variety I bought claimed they were bush beans, but, I think they were half bush, half pole, because these suckers just ran all over the ground, but in a bushy kind of way. As it were, I had to build a fence to separate the beans and the broccoli, since they were getting really chummy with each other. Also, the beans were beset by some sort of leaf-eating beetle that did a number on the fruit, too. We managed to harvest a few pounds of beans, but, they weren't always pretty.

The peas were a pleasant surprise. they were a low growing variety, and they produced a good amount of fruit, but, the vines seemed to wither and die quickly and without notice. I never have planted peas before, so, this was a learning experience for me.

The carrots...well, they didn't go so well, but, that may be because I harvested them too early. They weren't very large. But, I have a new crop in, so, we'll give them more time and see what develops.

The spinach was good, but, like everything else, they started to bolt while we were in Italy. we still managed a harvest of some of the plants, and it was tasty spinach. As well, I have a new crop of spinach in next to the carrots. We'll see what fall brings us.

We also planted some containers with basil, parsley, and two varieties of cherry tomato plants that we got from our CSA (they are already ripe and delicious). I tried to grow rosemary from seed, but none of it sprouted. Bad batch of seeds, I guess.

All in all, it's been an enjoyable season in the garden. Monkey likes to call me Farmer, so, today, while she was holding a wheelbarrow up so I could spread some compost, I called her Farmer's Wife! I hope to take what I have learned this year and make a better garden next year. I might try some new things, I might try some old things in new ways. But, first, I am going to gorge myself on red, ripe Beefmaster tomatoes!

Monday, July 28, 2008

Rocky Mountain High (A Not-Quite-As-Long-As-The-Italian-Story Story, In Its Entirety)

Two Sundays ago, Monkey and I loaded up The Penguin and headed for Estes Park, Colorado. The Ambassadors had invited us to spend a few days with them out there where they spend their summer vacation each year. It was mighty generous of them, but, that's just the kind of folks they are.

The drive out took us a bit longer than we expected, after stops in Ogallala and three other places, most likely because we hit the congested area of I-25 and US 34 at a busy time, but, after an uneventful drive through Nebraska and southeastern Wyoming, we arrived at our destination. We had a nice dinner at a local establishment, walked around the town of Estes Park a bit (nice river walk), and then discussed the next day's plan over some wine.

We planned on a breakfast at a little place in a town just down the way called Allenspark, and then a hike to Ouzell Lake from the Wild Basin Trail Head. Round trip was about 9.8 miles.

Breakfast was tasty, and we were on the trail by about 9 am. It was a great hike, with wonderful views of several waterfalls, glimpses of distant (and not-so-distant) peaks, some good gains in altitude, and a idyllic lake at our chosen terminus (we could have hiked for another five miles if we'd chosen to).

This was my first trip to Rocky Mountain National Park, and it was astounding. It was also my first visit to a place with any altitude since Monkey and I were in Oregon in 2005. It was strenuous at times, not being used to the rarefied air at 9000 feet and above (I think our highest point of the trip was just about 12000). However, even with short breath and a spot of dizziness here and there, this was one of the best hikes I had ever been on.

The only negative to the hike was the thunderclouds that rolled in just as we got to the lake. Our return route (after a short pause for lunch--you guessed it: PB and J!) left us exposed for about three-quarters of a mile along a ridge. It's not good to be exposed in a thunder storm. The rain is a pain, but the real worry is lightning strikes. If you are standing on a ridge with no trees around you, that makes you the tallest thing for miles. Lightning likes to strike tall things. So, we covered that stretch on the ridge pretty quickly. It didn't really start to rain seriously until we were almost back into the tree line, so we also stayed pretty dry as well as avoided the lightning. Beside the danger of being hit by a bolt of lightning and a little bit of rain, it was a great introduction to the Rockies. And, I saw a blue grouse on the trail (that's a bird), and, I'd never seen one of those before!

We made pasta at home and ate copious amounts that evening and then retired early. The next morning we planned to rise at 3 am to try and catch the sunrise at a place called Chasm Lake.

I know I said that the previous hike was one of the best I'd ever been on, but the in-the-dark-of-morning hike to Chasm Lake was head and shoulders above that one! We left the Longs Peak Trail Head at 4 am, and, with our headlamps lighting the way through the trees, ascended pretty quickly to the treeline. The sky was just beginning to lighten as we broke out of the trees and continued to ascend across a broad open area. At one point, as Monkey and I stopped to rest, I looked off to the northeast and saw, silhouetted against the just lightening sky, a female elk and a calf. I pointed them out to Monkey just as we noticed that we were standing not 100 feet from a herd of perhaps forty or more elk. It was amazing to watch them slowly move off to the southwest, but, we were trying to make it another couple of miles before the sun was up, and it didn't look like we were going to get there in time.

We reached the ridge top in full sun, took some pictures and enjoyed the alpenglow on the face of Longs Peak. However, we still had another three-quarters of a mile to go to the lake. We had gotten out pretty far ahead of our companions, but decided (on their assertion) to continue on. We were even higher than we'd been the day before, and I still wasn't completely acclimated, I guess (or maybe I was just hungry). I had to stop at one point and sit down for a few minutes, but, after some water and a Cliff bar, I was good to go.

After my "recovery," Monkey and I were treated to what I think was the most picturesque part of the whole trip. After crossing a thin trail along the side of a ridge, which included a snowbank, we found ourselves in a beautiful alpine meadow, with a creek running through it, columbines and other alpine flowers growing all around, the mountains looming all around us, and a spectacular view into a pond-studded gorge to the east. I wish I could have stayed there forever. It might be the most beautiful place I have ever seen with my own eyes.

We paused just outside a US Park Ranger patrol cabin, smelling coffee and bacon. The lake was close, but our companions were nowhere to be seen. We decided to walk back, hoping to run into them on the way. We might have to double back again, but, at least we would be all together. After getting only halfway across the meadow, we saw them coming across the snowbank. We signaled to each other, and Monkey and I waited for them to come on.

From the meadow, there was one more challenge before we reached the lake. We scrambled up about 100 yards of rocks, accompanied by several yellow-bellied marmots, and there, just below us, at the foot of the peaks, was our destination. It was very cold and windy at Chasm Lake, so, after a snack and a really quick nap (remember, we got up at 3am), we made our way back to the trail head. Today's hike was about 8.5 miles.

After breakfast, we napped for about an hour and then headed to Boulder (about 40 miles) for some wandering and a really expensive dinner. Both were good. We slept well that night.

The next day, we took it kind of easy, making breakfast at the cabin and taking a drive around the park. Old Fall River Road, a one-way gravel road ascends to an Alpine Visitors Center at about 12000 feet, with many unbelievable views along the way. Here we saw more falls, more elk, the Never Summer Mountains, and, on the way down Trail Ridge Road (the other park road), three moose! Monkey was especially excited to see the moose, since that and bears are the two animals she always says she wants to see (I was especially excited we did NOT see a bear). We then toured our way down to Grand Lake, had some ice cream, and then were on our way back to Estes. More pasta at the cabin (good pesto!), and more "what shall we do tomorrow" talk, and we were off to bed.

The next day, Monkey and I were set to depart, but, we rose a bit early (6 am) and headed out to Glacier Gorge Trail Head for a short (5.4 mile round trip) hike to Mills Lake. This was not a better hike than the night hike, but Mills Lake was probably the most beautiful lake I've ever seen (and the second most beautiful place, next to that alpine meadow). This was a pretty gentle hike, just the way to spend your last morning in the park. And, we left early enough that we mostly avoided the huge crowds out and about on our way back--very busy trail! On our hike back down, we saw lots of families hiking using child carrier backpacks to allow their tiny tots to accompany them into the wilderness, and hydration backpacks (Monkey is contemplating getting one of these) and BPA-free water bottles (I gotta get me one of those!) to combat high altitude thirst.

We had another good breakfast in Allenspark with The Ambassadors and The Ambassadors' Children (who had arrived in the wee hours and declined to accompany us on our hike). While we waited for our food, one of The Ambassadors and I walked down to a place called the Fawn Brook Inn, where they have about a million bird feeders out. I was surrounded by hummingbirds (rufous and broad-tailed). I had never seen so many birds in one place in my life. It was amazing!

After breakfast, we packed up and hit the road, departing at about 2 pm MDT. A shorter drive home than on the way out, and we were home by 11pm CDT, certainly tired, but mostly grateful that we had the opportunity to see the Rockies!

For more photos, click here.

Sunday, July 27, 2008

Feeling Pici

A few days after our return, Monkey and I decided to make our own pasta. Truth be told, I had been planning on making pasta before our trip, but, I never made the time for it. In all truthfulness, it was pretty easy. It took a long time, and, as usual, we learned a few things along the way (which I will reveal to you). It was a pleasurable culinary experience.

The recipe (from The Food Network) is pretty simple:

2 cups semolina flour

2 cups all-purpose flour

1 1/4 cups water

After mixing the two flours in a bowl (although the ultra traditionalist would simply scramble it all together on a table top), we made a little hole for the water, which we poured in a little at a time, until we had a consistent dough (we used all of our water, but, you might only need one cup).

After you have your ball o' dough, it's time to do a bit of physical labor. You need to knead your dough for about ten minutes on a floured surface. This should make you sweat a little bit. If it doesn't, you ain't doing it right!

Let the dough rest (covered) for ten minutes. After which, it's time to roll the dough into noodles. Mario's recipe suggests rolling out your dough into long dowels, but we just broke off a hunk and went to work. It was a chore, but, once you get the hang of it, it goes pretty smoothly. Your noodles will be THICK, maybe thicker than you think they should be, but, that's okay.

As you finish each noodle, you should put it on a cookie sheet dusted with semolina. DON'T let the noodles touch (unless you dust them well, too). And don't do what we did, which was roll up the noodles into little spirals (unless you dust them really well). Because, unfortunately, when it came time to put the noodles in the boiling water, we kind of had a few pasta pinwheels that we had to either throw out or manhandle back into a strand.

The pasta needs to cook for about 20-25 minutes. Keep checking it for al dente-ness. When it is finished, toss it with a good, hearty sauce, like a garlic sauce or a meat sauce. We used a garlic-heavy marinara-type sauce. It was okay that evening, but, because the pici soaks up the sauce so vigorously, it was even better the next day.

We neglected to take any pics of the finished product (special thanks to Monkey, Official Pici Adventure Photographer). A gross oversight on our part, but, we won't forget next time. We plan on trying our hand at some orecchiette next!

Friday, July 25, 2008

Vatican City and The Tour de Churches (A Very Long Italian Story, Part the Last)

First, my apologies for the abrupt hiatus that this long story took on Thursday last, but an impromptu trip west took us away from our computer for a few days. Now, we are back, prepared to finish this tale, update all on the goings on since our return (pasta making!) and to tell the tale of our recent westering.

Second, I am surprised that no one called me on the fact that I referred to the Pantheon as the Parthenon in my last post. Boo to all of us. The Parthenon is in Greece.

Our last installment will cover the last two days of our Italian tour, a visit to Vatican City on Monday, and a whirlwind of churches on Tuesday. The departure on Wednesday was a bit of an adventure, also; maybe we'll make that an Epilogue.

The Vatican tour began, as all our Roman days did, at the bakery, sipping espresso and eating pastries (why would we want to leave?). From there, we hopped on the Metro and were quickly deposited on the other side of the Tiber, just a short walk from Vatican City.

St. Peter's Basilica and the Vatican Museum were our main objectives on this day. We crossed the long sun-drenched piazza outside the Basilica and entered the dark church. It was big and ornate, as you might expect. Turning each corner seemed to reveal a pope interred in a glass sarcophagus, and most walls held beautiful replicas of Renaissance paintings done in mosaic. You could hardly tell they were mosaics, they were so exquisitely done.

Of course, the biggest draw, for me, was Michelangelo's Pieta, which occupies a small chapel near the Holy Door (which is only opened during Jubilee years (four times each century). As I stood there, gazing through the glass partition at yet another Michelangelo masterpiece, a couple came up next to me, jostling through the crowd. The woman, shorter than the man, stood on tiptoes, but still could not see.

"What is it?" she asked the man.

"Eh, it's just a scuplture," he said, as they walked away.

Just a sculpture? Some people.

We proceeded down into the crypt of the Basilica, where the tombs of many ancient popes are located. It is interesting to see whose tomb is simple and whose is ornate (by order of their own "living will").

From the crypts, we headed a few blocks down the main drag to have some pizza, then walked back to the museum. We had about three hours to tour the museum, which contains so much art and so many artifacts that it takes several days to really see everything. We headed right for the Sistine Chapel. The chapel itself was beautiful, amazing, breathtaking. The experience of getting there and being there, which is similar (I imagine) to being herded like a steer through some passage ways and then corralled, was not so wonderful.

We then whizzed our way through some of the paintings (good stuff), before heading back home to get ready for dinner at a little place called Pasqualia's (I think). Dinner was okay, but the real treat of the evening was the after dinner walk we took through the heart of Rome, from Campo del Fiori to the Trevi Fountain and the Spanish Steps. It was such a different experience seeing these famous sights under the moon light.

The next day, after a final stop at the bakery, where Monkey felt like a regular when she exchanged some greetings with one of the counter girls, we made a tour of nine churches. From Santa Maria Maggiore, with its early Renaissance mosaics, to St. Peter in Chains, with its Moses by Michelangelo and its relics of St. Peter, we made our way. Next, we visited San Clemente, where underground excavations reveal the structure and artifacts of a thousand year-old place of worship (but, we got there too late to visit the archaeological area), then proceeded to San Giovanni in Laterno, the basilica of Rome.

San Giovanni seems to want to rival St. Peter's Basilica (the basilica of Vatican City), but, it just can't (and it shouldn't try). One of the oddest things I witnessed on the whole trip was a crowd of people standing near the altar, throwing coins at (what might have been) a tomb covered with Plexiglas. Never did figure out what that was all about.

The Pantheon was next, but only to have a slice of pizza on the steps, before we toured San Luigi dei Francesi. This church, built by French Catholics, contains a statue of Jean d'Arc, some intense baroque architecture, and three typically awe-inspiring Carravagio's depicting scenes from the life of St. Matthew. This might have been my favorite church of the day.

Church number seven was San Ignazio, a Jesuit church with some uninteresting trompe l'oeil frescoes on the ceiling, and a strange wooden model of a "world church" or some such fantastic toothpick idea. It's possible that our poor assessment of San Ignazio was due to the next church we visited, Chiesa del Gesu, whose baroque ceiling included a spectacular fresco of the Last Judgement that made it appear (in a very Michelangelo sort of way) as if people were actually falling from the ceiling.

Our last church was Santa Maria Sopra Minerva, the only Gothic church in Rome. Here, we viewed the remainder of the remains of St. Catherine of Siena (remember, her head and thumb are in San Dominico in Siena), as well as one last Michelangelo, a marble Jesus carrying the cross with bronze accents. A very realistic and human-looking Jesus, but then, what DO you expect from Michelangelo?

After our marathon of churches, we were ready for some fine fare, which we enjoyed at a little place near Santa Maria Maggiore. Our last meal in Rome was definitely our favorite. A fine way to finish up before a 3 am wake up call to catch a taxi to the airport to begin our long journey home.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

A Loss For Words (A Very Long Italian Story, Part Fifteen)

Our first morning in Roma took us to Pannella, a little bakery down from Santa Maria Maggiore (a big ol’ church). It was a wonderful little shop, with some tasty goodies (including the hot out of the fryer donut I had for breakfast) and excellent espresso. Monkey and I visited here each morning we were in town.

Proceeding (afoot) to Palatine Hill, we purchased tickets for there and the Coliseum, then walked over to the Coliseum to start our sightseeing day. It’s hard to really say anything that doesn’t seem pedantic about the Coliseum, so, I’ll just post some pictures.

From the Coliseum, we went over to Palatine Hill, where the Roman emperors used to build their homes (this place is where we get the word “palace”). This was amazing, a huge area of ruins: walls and foundations, steps to nowhere, vistas. Wow. And, as an added bonus, from an overlook, you can see the remnants of the half-mile-long Circus Maximus, where the Roman version of Carl Edwards (Karlus Edwardii) and Tony Stewart (Antonius Caesar) once did their things with chariots.

From the hill, we descended into the Roman Forum, another place where description would fail miserably. So, visuals.

We left the Forum, and wandered more of Rome: Capitoline Hill, designed by Michelangelo; the Victor Emmanuel Monument, the massive white structure that Romans call the “false teeth;” Palazzo Venezia, where Mussolini would address crowds in the street from the window above; Trajan’s Column, with a statue of St. Peter where Trajan used to be; the Pantheon, a spot we would come back to every day we were here, and lastly, Trevi Fountsin, where it appeared everyone else in Rome had decided to go, as well. Very crowded little piazza.

We shuffled back to the apartment, and then walked down to the Coliseum area for dinner. However, the restaurant where we wanted to eat was closed (it was supposed to be open, according to their hours). We suspected that the owners decided to focus on the quarterfinal soccer match with Spain that evening. So, we headed to another restaurant that we had been informed of, Trattoria di Quadranto. The pictures on the wall showed that this establishment had been here for at least eighty years, so, we figured that as a good sign.

We learned something very important at this restaurant. Monkey ordered a pasta with a gorgonzola sauce. It turns out she doesn’t like gorgonzola as much as she thought. So, not wanting to leave a full plate of food in front of us, I ate her pasta, and my fried cod (this after a primi, also). I was stuffed!

We had flirted with a night walk, but, after the day's marathon, and my distended belly, we decided that we’d walk to a gelateria (for Monkey—none for me…okay, maybe just a little taste), and then head home. That would be enough of a walk, and we’d save the romantic evening stroll for another time. Like tomorrow, after we got back from visiting the Pope’s house.

Desperately Seeking Marcus Aurelius (A Very Long Italian Story, Part Fourteen)

The last leg of our Italian journey began as we settled our bill, loaded up the Punto, and headed east to the unknown streets of Chiusi, where we were contracted to return the rental. Our drive to Chiusi was uneventful, if not beautiful, but, as we arrived in town, we were in the midst of the most half-baked plan of any we had devised on the entire trip.

All we knew about the rental office was the address (82 Via Marcus Aurelius). Along with us, we had no map, no Garmin, no directions. Just the address and the assurance from the office in Firenze where we picked up the car that the location was “downtown.” So, as we approached Chiusi, we tried to figure out where “downtown” was. We stayed on the main road, thinking that would lead us into the bustling interior of the urban hive that is Chiusi. The main road took us into the centro storico, instead, the old town, with the tiny streets and the cobblestones.

We were on a sort of deadline, too, needing to return the car before 11, or we’d get charged for an extra day. We had already decided that the short drive to Chiusi had not used up enough gas to label the tank “not full,” so we didn’t fear any fuel charges, but we didn’t want to tack on any penalties, if we could avoid them, and being charged for a whole day when you only had the car an extra fifteen minutes because you were turning circles trying to find the place where you were supposed to drop the car off for an hour plus seemed to us like a height of stupidity to which we wished not to soar.

In the middle of our turning and turning and backtracking and neck craning and street sign reading, we were forced to turn into a parking lot, in order to turn around. I remembered that many of the parking lots we had visited in these smaller towns had large maps of the towns in them, and I spied one as we turned in. I hopped out as Monkey pulled the car out of the main traffic area. After a few moments looking at the map, I found our street, which wasn’t far away. I hopped back in the car, and we headed that way.

We found the road pretty easily, but, as we drove along, watching the numbers, we seemed to drive right by 82 (with no markings of it anywhere). There was 78. There was 81. There was 90. What happened to 82? We knew that in Italy, the residences and the business each had different colored numbering systems, and it was perfectly natural for a business 82 to come just before a residential 34, or after a 126, so we kept driving. Then, as streets often do, Marcus Aurelius took a quick turn, leaving us on a street we did not want to be on, so, we swung around and got back on. A few blocks later, Marcus Aurelius seemed to disappear altogether.

But, we were clearly in a downtown-like area. We did a few turns (and maybe broke a few of those phantom Italian “traffic laws”). We passed the train station, where we needed to ultimately be to get a train to Rome, and, then, as if on cue at the lowest ebb of hope and highest tide of despair, we turned inexplicably back onto Marcus Aurelius, only two store fronts from the Eurocar office.

As we pulled up, the Eurocar rep was getting into a car.

“One moment,” he said, and drove off.

We sat on our luggage. It was 10:45. At 10:55, he did return with a cup of coffee. We checked in with no problem and walked over to the train station to wait for the train to Roma.

Our tickets to Roma cost 16 Euro each. This was a great difference between our tickets to Firenze from Milano, which cost 36 Euro each. We wondered if we had the right tickets, but, as we waited for, boarded, and rode the two hours south, nobody accosted us.

We got off the train in a very hot Roma, walked the three blocks to our accommodations, where they held our luggage, because we couldn’t really occupy our room until 3pm. So, with map in hand, we wandered the streets of Rome, beginning a trend that would continue for the remainder of our trip of walking (nearly) everywhere, covering miles each day, and consuming gallons of aqueduct supplied public water.

We planned our tomorrow: Coliseum, Palatine Hill, Roman Forum, and then got previews of a few of those places. One side note on Rome: I may have mentioned in a previous post that I was nervous about Rome, since I have a sort of loathing of large urban areas (maybe loathing is too strong a word…), but, for the three days plus that we were there, I rarely, if ever, felt the same way as I have described feeling about Chicago, or San Francisco, or Baltimore. I don’t know why, but, my enjoyment of Rome was not in the least hampered by my own paranoid hang ups, so, hooray for me, I guess.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Taking It Easy (A Very Long Italian Story, Part Thirteen)

And so, we come to our last full day in Tuscany. We decided to make it an easy-going day, and slept in an extra hour before heading to breakfast. After a leisurely cappuccino, we spent some time at the apt reading up on any last minute places we wanted to head. Monkey wanted to visit a little town called Montechiello. We also decided to spend some time visiting a town we had passed each day in our Tuscan travels, San Quirico d’Orcia.

San Quirico was our first stop. Once into the town, our first stop was a small church with a little well outside of it. It was very rustic on the outside, and not very interesting on the inside. We spend about ten minutes inside. We then proceeded to the town gardens, which were described to us in a guidebook as “a fine example of a boxwood hedge” (I am paraphrasing, here). When we entered the garden, it was a ten by ten paved yard, with a couple of weak-looking shrubs. This wasn’t a “fine example” of anything. Undaunted, we walked up a little stone stairway and through an arch that led to some tree-lined paths. After some cool wooded strolling, we came upon some dilapidated fortress walls and, eventually, the actual boxwood hedges. And, yes, they did seem pretty fine to this boxwood hedge noob.

We strolled down to the piazza and visited a church known as the Collegiata. It was a white marble, with the unique feature of having three doors, two of which still contained the original sandstone columns and lintels from the original 1000 year–old church. Inside, the church is pretty bright (for a church in Italy, anyway). The interior was done in light colors and the décor was light colored, as well. Not much in the way of priceless art, but, while we were there, it seemed that a local artist was showing off his newly created rostrum and Stations of the Cross in sandstone.

After checking out a few shops in San Quirico, we headed down to Montechiello. There was not much doing here. It was a beautiful little town, and, much unlike yesterday’s “Tuscanyland,” there was not much in the way of tourists. We spent most of our time in Montechiello (which wasn’t much), just wandering the tiny twisting streets, and listening to the sounds of lunch being made coming through the windows above.

On the way back from Montechiello, we stopped in Pienza to pick up some wine for a light lunch of leftovers back at HQ. After lunch, we lazed about, until dinner (for which we had reservations) at Latte di Luna. Then, it was off to bed, since tomorrow would bring a drive to Chiusi and a train ride to Roma.

Tuscanyland! (A Very Long Italian Story, Part Twelve)

Our second day in Siena proved that one learns from experience, as our time spent maneuvering within the city limits and securing a parking space was much reduced from the previous day. Like mice in a maze, we clearly remembered where to go to get the cheese. The cheese in this case being, of course, a parking spot.

We visited some more museums, and were thrilled at the sights of Donatello’s tondo of Madonna and Child (not our contemporary Madonna and her adopted baby, but the Biblical Madonna and her baby, Jesus), as well as Duccio’s Maestra and Passion. The real treat was that we stumbled upon a museum guide/art historian giving a lecture on Duccio’s works. It was enlightening to say the least. I know a little bit about art history, but this was a tour de force of a lecture! And, it was in English—score! Really illuminating.

We also spent a little while in Il Crypta, the remnants of the eighth century church on which the Duomo is built. It was okay. Lots of frescoes and brick arches. Our next stop in Siena was Il Facciatone, the remnants of what was to be the façade of the actual cathedral.

Remember yesterday, I told you about the rivalry between Firenze and Siena? Well, in the 1300s Siena had planned to expand their cathedral, which was completed in the middle 1200s. The gargantuan expanded cathedral would have been many times larger than the relatively large structure that they have now (and waaaay bigger than Firenze's). However, after building the façade, the plague hit Siena, and work was halted, never to be resumed. So, now, they have a giant wall (with a good view), and some white marble pavers to show visitors where the columns would have gone in the Olympic-sized transept of the planned Uber-cathedral.

After some pretty tasty pizza, we headed over to the Oratorio di San Francesco, to visit one last Senesi museum. This one, also a diocesan museum, was loaded with church art, from the 12th century to the 19th. Not bad, though I can’t recall anything that I found particularly breath-taking, here. Then, it was back to the cheese (I mean parking space), to head over to Volterra, via San Gimignano.

We had planned on heading directly to Volterra, having heard that San Gimignano was kind of a tourist trap. At our pizza fiesta the night before, however, we were turned on to a supposedly world-class gelato shop in the town. So, intrigued, we went. As a side note, this area of Tuscany, the sort of northwestern area of Siena province, is well-known (apparently—I didn’t know it) for its alabaster. Thus, if you are looking for some quality artisanal alabaster, head on up to this area. As it turned out, the gelato at the recommended purveyor was four-star. We sampled peanut butter, rosemary-raspberry, pistachio, chocolate, and banana (I think that covers it). We had seconds, it was so good.

I dubbed San Gimignano, “Tuscanyland” (like Disneyland). It really did have a feeling of a this-is-what-Tuscany-is-like-so-we-hope-you-enjoy-it-would-you-like-to-buy-some-alabaster-or-a-T-shirt-that-looks-like-a-Renaissance-style-doublet? I sort of felt like I had strolled into a Renaissance festival, Italian-style. I would not have been surprised if someone in full Medici garb came wandering down the via with his entire retinue, including a juggling dwarf and a prancing minstrel with a lute.

The drive out to Volterra was a bit longer than we bargained for, but, it was a good side trip. We got to see the first Roman ruins of our adventure, a theatre. Unfortunately, as we arrived at about 5pm, the site was closed, but, fortunately, it is readily visible from the street, and the woman at the ticket booth did let us stand on the overlook inside the grounds (for free). We had a gander at a few other sites of Volterra (Etruscan walls, churches, you know), then headed back to Pienza where we hoped to dine at Latte di Luna again.

But, no such luck. As we approached the restaurant, there, on the sign outside, was a note: “Completo.” No room at the inn. We spun around in a circle a few times, not wanting to admit that we had only one other choice: the restaurant just up the street, Trattoria di Baccus (or some such). It was good enough fare, but Monkey was pretty disappointed. The moral of this story, when you go out to eat in a town with two restaurants, make reservations!

Monday, July 14, 2008

Heads, Thumbs, and Wood-fired Pizza (A Very Long Italian Sory, Part Eleven)

Our next long drive took us northwest, to the Renaissance rival of Firenze, Siena. The drive, on a sort of state highway-type road, was a bit frustrating (as are many a drive on state highway-type roads), since the road was two lanes, and many large trucks were also heading toward Siena. We spent a lot of time behind trucks. Now, the traffic laws in Italy are more suggestions, I think, than actual "laws." And the ones that apply to passing on the highways and byways seem even less than suggestions. The typical Italian driver (it seems) does not know what tailgating is, or, if he or she does, he or she does not recognize it as a hazardous driving activity. In addition, the typical Italian driver (it seems) does not trouble himself or herself with waiting for a straight section of road with good visibility before passing. Their cars, after all, are relatively small, so, perhaps the drivers assume that they need little space in which to execute the passing maneuver. In all fairness, even the most harrowing example of disregard for the personal safety of self and others was executed successfully, but, this sort of positive reinforcement of negative behaviors must catch up with the typical Italian driver on occasion. Yet, we saw no evidence of this. I was able to distill my traffic observations into the overarching principle of Italian driving: when in doubt, speed up. This also led to a corollary: never brake. If you can remember these two rules of Italian driving, then you are well on your way to a successful Tuscan road trip!

Once we arrived in Siena, we discovered that this was no little Tuscan town. We had so much trouble figuring out where we were (not a very good map of Siena) and then finding a parking space, that we may as well have been in an international metropolis, like Rome or Paris. But, after (I kid you not) about an hour and a half of driving around the winding streets of Siena, with the occasional unanticipated 180 degree turn (which is not a U-turn, it's an intersection that sends your car not on a new track 90 degrees opposed to your previous track, but, somehow manages to spin your car in such a way that you begin travelling in the opposite direction from which you were just travelling (It's not magic, by the way, it's just a screwy street layout.)) we found a parking spot, that another random old woman (not the same one from Montalcino) assured us was legal.

There are a lot of old people in Italy. Not that there aren't any young people, but, it seemed like there were more older folk than one typically sees on an American street. I wonder two things about this: one, is it actually true, or was I simply somehow more attune to the "ancient" in a country that has been in the throes of some form of civilization for 2000 years (and left ample evidence of it behind); and, two, why might that be?

The former wonderment needs no discussion. It may be true, it may not. I don't see how it could be demonstrated one way or the other, so , let it be. The latter, however, is an interesting thing to ponder, maybe. Are there more old people in Italy, or are they more active, or more public? Or, do young people just age amazingly quickly in Italy, and the preponderance of the aged was merely a preponderance of thirty year-olds with graying hair, poor posture, and a penchant for brown suits and patterned mid-length dresses? Now that I have begun this discourse, I find that this is an unsolvable mystery, as well, so, let us move on.

Siena. A lovely town, really. We will spend some part of tomorrow here, as well. Our first stop today was a church (go figure), San Domenico, which holds a few creepy relics of Saint Catherine of Siena (a local virgin who lured the pope to Rome (I am guessing not by using here feminine guile, but then, who knows...)). The town is big on Cathy, and her home is still standing and open for visits (however, nearly every square inch of it has been remodeled into a chapel (Here's the chapel where she received her stigmata! Here's the chapel where she cooked the polenta! Here's the chapel where she used the chamber pot!). San Domenico, which dates from the 13th century, is proud of its connection to Catherine. Here in this church, she made her vows of chastity (I think), and, while her body is interred in Rome (where we will catch up with her later), the Catholic church decided it would be only right for the church of Catherine's beginnings as a saint to have her head and her thumb, which are proudly on display in her chapel (along with the scourge that she used to use to purify herself each day--you think it's easy being a saint?). It's reassuring, I must imagine, to the devotees of Catherine to see her, eight hundred years after removing the "mortal coil," to be grinning at them and giving them a detached thumbs up (And we thought "Buddy Christ" was just irreverent comedy? Truth = stranger than Kevin Smith).

Moving on, there is also the Piazza del Campo, a massive and beautiful, semi-circular town plaza, with the Fonte Gaia as its shining white centerpiece, and the Duomo of Siena. Apparently the medieval and Renaissance competition between Siena and Firenze was fierce, and, more than once, the rivalry descended into a shooting war. That spirit of rivalry is clear in the edifices of the respective towns. The piazzas, the Duomos, within them one can see how each city tried to outdo the other. In the long run, posterity recognizes Firenze as the center of the Renaissance world in Italy, and, with the Uffizi, the Bargello, and the Accademia, Firenze has many of the greatest hits of the 1300s-1600s within their ancient walls, but Siena is a hell of a town. You take away Firenze's museums, and I think Siena is the better of the two. It's larger, it's somewhat prettier...I think I liked it a bit better than Firenze (just on a town-wise basis). Anyway, Siena was cool.

We had to get going after a while, because we were meeting some folks outside another little town about a half an hour north of Siena. Monkey's yoga teachers from Columbia were finishing a week-long retreat in Tuscany, and they had invited us to dinner, wood-fired pizza. So, we left our hard-won parking space, and headed still more north to Monterigionni, a tiny walled town. A few hundred yards north of there, we turned off onto a gravel road and proceeded to the farmhouse where the festivities were to be held. The matron of the farmhouse was not aware that we were coming, but, as she ushered us into the porch yard, she summed up the quintessential Italian attitude (if you ask me), "Whatever."

It was a great pleasure to see some acquaintances in our travels, and even more enjoyable that they were folks that we don't see very often. The pizza was fabulous (especially the rosemary and olive oil), the wine flowed, and, as the sun set low on the horizon, we sadly made our goodbyes, and headed safely to our distant home away from home.

Friday, July 11, 2008

This Way to the Best Meal Ever (A Very Long Italian Story, Part Ten)

I remember that the day I am about to write about is a Tuesday, so, if my calculations are correct, we still have over a week to go. As we are now relaying part ten, two things have already or are about to occur. The first, that this is the longest "Very Long" story I have told (there have been two others), and, after this installment, I can no longer count the number of the part in Italian (eleven is tricky, for me).

On this fine Tuesday, we headed north, first to a nearby former abbey, known as Sant'Anna in Camprena. Only a few kilometers from our vacation house, this abbey was a location for the film The English Patient. This explains why there are pictures of Ralph Fiennes eating in the restaurant where we had dinner in Pienza. The main attraction of the 14th century abbey, however, which is currently very nice-looking B&B, is a small room off the courtyard that contains five-hundred-year-old frescoes by Il Sodoma. The grounds are attractive, as well, and the proprietors of the inn are kind enough to allow visitors to wander the grounds during posted hours.

From Sant'Anna, we drove further north, visiting the very small town of Castelmuzio and then proceeding through the area known as Le Crete to another abbey at Monte Oliveto Maggiore. The skies were a bit gray as we arrived at the abbey, but the rain had held off. Unfortunately, the abbey was on siesta until 3pm, so we headed further north to the town of Asciano.

The drive from Castelmuzio north to Asciano was excellent, the hills revealing spectacular vistas. The only disappointment was the lack of sunshine, which would have made for some beautiful pics. Asciano, itself, however, was not so excellent. We wandered around for a while to kill time, and grabbed some pizza and foccacia for lunch, but the town was, compared to other central Tuscany towns, not very attractive.

Back at the abbey, we entered the grounds over a drawbridge (no longer drawable, it appeared, but still pretty cool), and then had a nice tree-shaded walk to the abbey proper. Within the walls, a small chapel captured our interest, along with a double column of large ants making their way down the trunk of a tree, over about twenty feet of ground, and up the front wall of the chapel, where they disappeared over the edge and onto the roof. Ant prayer services?

The abbey itself was fantastic, its courtyard decorated with more Il Sodoma frescoes of the life of Saint Benedict. While we were there, something like a fire alarm was going off, but, the sexton seemed to be telling everyone that it was just a false alarm, and nobody else seemed too concerned, so, we just made our way through the courtyard. Inside the church, we were treated to another set of monks that were doing their prayers in the manner of Gregorian chant. That was unexpected, and, perhaps due to a different scent of incense, or the ostentatiously baroque architecture of the church, I had nowhere near the same sort of experience here as I had at Sant'Antimo.

We headed back to the pad to get ready for dinner at Poggio Antico, where we had made reservations a few days before. As we sat down to eat, the skies opened up. We sat near a window, watching the rain come down, robbed of the evening view that, according to the maitre d' stretched, on clear days, to the sea. At the restaurant, we noticed that the whole evening, no one else entered the restaurant. We were the only diners. This night, Italy was playing someone for the chance to get to the quarterfinals of the European Cup. Our waiter claimed that that was keeping people home. After further experiences with soccer in Italy, I came to believe him.

At any rate, we enjoyed the attention of the entire restaurant, as we enjoyed what turned out to be, perhaps, the best meal we had ever had. We started off with an excellent Rosso di Montalcino (2006), and were treated to some excellent homemade breads. I greatly enjoyed my primi, a tagliatelle with vegetables, but the high point of the meal, for me, was a dish called peposo, a heavily peppered stew, really, served, in a more modern twist, over pureed potatoes and cream. It was spectacular. Monkey had some excellent dishes, too, a three meat ravioli in brasata and gnochetti with lamb.

The attentions of the wait staff were a nice treat, too, and the maitre d' was such a personable fellow. We spent a good portion of the evening joking and talking with him (mostly in English, of course). Monkey was especially excited, as we left that evening (after the rains, and two hours later), to meet the chef, who was sitting at the front of the restaurant, since, I guess, he only had the two of us to cook for, and we were done.

At the house, we turned on our tiny TV (the first time since we'd arrived in Italy) to see the outcome of the soccer match (il calcio, the Italians call it). Italy had won, and they were going to play in the quarterfinals. That would be Sunday night. We'd be in Rome by then. But first, we were off to Siena in the morning, and a rendezvous that evening with some old friends from CoMo, believe it or not.

Wednesday, July 09, 2008

In the Footsteps of John Paul II and Killer Hamsters (A Very Long Italian Story, Part Nine)

Our next Tuscan destination, Cortona, took us about as far west as we would go in Italy, and introduced us to many Etruscan wonders. But first, we met a couple of Jayhawks at breakfast. Imagine, travelling halfway around the world to meet people that live about a hundred miles away from you. Strange, really.

But enough of our domestic neighbors. On to Cortona, a town much larger than any we visited the day before, and, it seemed to us, much steeper and higher. We parked on the street at the foot of the Public Gardens, which was really just a shaded park with gravel on the ground and walked a short distance to the Piazza Garibaldi, trying to use one of our guides to walk us through the town. It was a relative success.

The view from Piazza Garibaldi was big, but nothing compared to later views we would get from a higher vantage point. Frances Mayes, the writer of Under the Tuscan Sun lives in the area of Cortona. If you're ever in Cortona, and you're interested, according to our guide, her villa is behind a hill to the left of the view from Piazza Garibaldi. For me, not the most fascinating tidbit of info. I liked the hill, regardless of whose villa is behind it.

The one thing you notice during the first half of your visit to Cortona: you are always walking up. Steeply. From the main piazza, we found some level ground within the walls of the Etruscan Museum. We spent a couple hours in here, looking at clay pots, jewelry, helmets, weapons, rocks, mosaics, and various interpretive videos whose effectiveness was diminished due to our own ignorance of Italian. In addition, this museum also had some works by Severini, a son of Cortona, who gained some fame in the early 20th century as an artist and critic. The coolest thing in the museum, however, was a heavily decorated oil lamp from the 4th century BCE.

Our next stop was Santa Margherita, which is at the penultimate point of the town. As we made our way higher and higher, climbing along switchback steps that seemed to wind through neighborhoods and nowheres, we came across a marker that stated that Pope John Paul II had made this trek in the 1990s. I was impressed. I'm pretty sure they didn't roll the Popemobile up there, and, unless he was ported up in a rickshaw or on a pillow-laden platform, then, he was one fit old pontifus maximus. Of course, in my mind, it is more than likely that he reached the church on the back of some poor, yet infinitely grateful local, huffing his way up the rocky stairway, bearing his heavy-robed burden, and imagining himself on the white-lighted stairway to Paradise, a beaming Saint Peter standing next to an overcome-by-pride Saint Margaret waiting to punch his ticket and welcome him aboard. But, that's just my speculation. The church is not the town's cathedral, but the residents spend most of their time and money on the beautification and decoration of this church, because Margherita is a home girl. It is a very beautiful church, and choc-a-block full of Margherita relics.

From here, we did some backtracking (mercifully downhill), had some pizza, and visited the cathedral (not very impressive next to Margherita's final resting place) and the Diocesan Museum (you know, these church folk got some damn nice art). The museum is mostly the structure of another church (Chiesa di Gesu), reconstructed and with additional pieces from the diocese. Highlights included an Annunciation by Fra Angelico, an elaborate baptismal font, some stations of the cross by Severini, and a wonderfully frescoed lower chapel.

In Cortona, we did the same thing as the day before in Montepulciano, buying some local stuff to eat with the remainder of our pasta and cheese. We brought home a bottle of Cortona Sangiovese, but, we didn't like that quite as much as the previous night's wine.

That night, as I sat on the veranda, a fox walked right past me. I thought that was a nice sight. However, a few moments later, I spied the tiny head of an unidentified animal poke out of the bushes around my chair and seem to look up at me. I looked down at him, and he seemed to be unfazed by my presence. I decided to take that as a hint that it was time for me to go inside and go to bed. This unidentified mammal was dubbed, "The Wild Hamster of Pienza." This later became, after time and the predictable hyperbole that accompanies an unidentified anything, "The Killer Hamster of Pienza." So, future travellers of the Pienza area: beware the killer hamster!