Saturday, May 28, 2016

Last Dance in Pordenone

There's never a whole lot to talk about regarding travel days. We finished packing up our stuff, walked through a light rain to the train station, figured out which platform to stand on, rode the train, made our connection, and were met by Joe & Mindy in Pordenone. We all headed out to the Paladin winery for an open house, sampled a number of very nice wines, had a lite snack while doing so, and sat through what we thought was going to be an English language tour, but which turned out to be a rah-rah marketing presentation in machine-gunned Italian.

Went to the house for a while to relax and chat, then we all went off to a very trendy new restaurant tucked away in a very unlikely location, called Flame. Fantastic menu, mostly focused on broiled meat, as you might gather from the name. We had a delicious platter of sliced Spanish meats to get us started, then the other three had a roast leg of lamb apiece, and I had a delicious full rack of ribs, indistinguishable from some of the best Texas barbecue I've ever had. Very very nice.

I'm not sure what the wait staff thought about the crazy Americans who actually wanted to chat with them. Our busboy, Alexander, was a child of Russian emigrees, and I got a chance to use my 35 year stale language skills on him; he was kind enough to say that I had a good accent. Sated, we drove home and had a short guitar sing-along before bedtime.

Boboli or Bust

Went to the Mercado at San Lorenzo again, picked up some things we wished we had grabbed the first time around. Got there just as the outdoor booths were getting set up, found what we needed, then bailed before things got crowded.

Went to the Santa Maria Novella church and toured the interior of the basilica, chapels and sacristy. Some amazing artwork, including frescoes from the 1300s which were heavily damaged in the flood of the 1960s, and which they are trying to restore. There is also an astrological "clock" on the floor of the basilica, where a beam of light from one of the stained glass windows illuminates the zodiac sign which is dominant (Gemini was lit for my birthday yesterday), equinoxes and solstices. I rather liked the painting of John the Baptist dowsing Christ - John was wearing a leopard skin outfit just like Tarzan's.

Stopped back at the apartment with our goodies - it's nice to have a place that's centrally located for breaks and to drop off purchases, so you don't have to cart them around town. Had a healthy salad and some meats and cheeses for lunch, then hiked up the hill to the Pitti Palace and Boboli Gardens. The Gardens are massive, and a great place to hang out in the heat of the day, as many Italian families seemed to be doing; people sprawled on blankets on the lawns, napping on concrete benches near the ponds, and pushing strollers across the gravel paths.

Our ticket to Boboli also got us in to the Argentum and Costume museums, which were interesting, but overwhelming in the end, filled with beautiful art objects, jewelry, and plunder from the New World. Stopped at a quiet cafe for an aperol spritz and a bowl of munchies, and relaxed for a while. Back to the apartment to get cleaned up before dinner. Had a great pizza at one of the nearby places, Osteria Ristorante Centropoveri, that we stumbled upon, and which turned out to be a very nice place - saw some amazing platters of food go by while we awaited our (probably) final Italian pizza, and the place was jam-packed with mostly locals by the time we departed, line out the door. A stop for pistachio and cinnama gelato and my night was complete.

Friday, May 27, 2016

Il Mercado

Headed off first thing in the morning to the San Lorenzo Market. Blocks and blocks of open air booths filled with leather goods, silk scarves, ties, pashminas, backed up upon the retail stores which have even more stock on hand, should nothing be found which suits your size, style and price range. Ranging from the sublime to the merely whimsical. I asked one booth guy question about what type of leather a particular jacket contained, and was led to "his" store, where a salesman spent nearly a half hour showing me some exquisite antelope leather jackets (they have buffalo and lamb, too), and was quite put out when I didn't buy one, even though the price he finally negotiated with me (I was really saying "no", since I don't need another leather jacket, while he thought it was a haggling tactic) was pretty attractive.

At one corner of the leather market is the indoor meat, produce, cheese, wine, and confection market, where my true buying weakness lies. I did pick up some truffle paste, cheese and one of the endless varieties of salami on sale. The provolone cheese we get in the States is a weak-kneed sister to the fantastically flavorful varieties here. I tried something new, fried pasta. They form pici (like fat spaghetti), ham and cheese into a cube, bread the outside and deep fry it. Can't wait to see that at the county fair; beats the heck outta corn dogs.

From there we wandered back to the apartment for a salad and bit of antipasta, then headed to the Medici Chapel - not so much a chapel as an entire church dedicated to housing the remains of the whole former ruling family of Renaissance Florence. One of the women of the family started a huge collection of saints' relics and reliquaries, and many of them are on display on the main floor. I believe these relics are thought to have healing powers and convey blessings to those who possess them, and the Medicis were certainly a fortunate family; unimaginable wealth. The main basilica is under restoration, and has been for a number of years, but the ceiling there is nearly as marvelous as the Sistine Chapel, and far less crowded, filled with biblical scenes from The Fall to the Crucifixion. There is also a side chapel containing three of Michelangelo's statues; Mary and Child, Dawn and Dusk, Day and Night. A good place to contemplate mortality and immortality.

We thought the heat of the afternoon might be a good time to check out the Boboli Gardens, so we trouped to the Altrarno's Pitti Palace and checked the ticket booth for times and prices to enter. Decided we wouldn't get the full experience of the gardens and museums in the time before closing, so we decided to walk a short ways away to the Torrigiani Gardens, a smaller nearby spot of greenery on the map. Oops. After walking the entire circumference of Torrigani, we determined that these were private, available only to the residents of the swanky homes at their south end. We could see over the walls that there was a really cool-looking old palace and tower inside (like the set of a King Arthur movie), so it was a pity we didn't get to see them. 

Along the trek, I visited a couple of hardware stores - there's a foot pedal sink faucet I've seen several times in Italy I really want to locate; it would be just the thing in the kitchen, when you have your hands full and want to turn on the water to wash something. The ferramenti were very much like old time hardware stores in the States, but very limited in space and selection - not exactly Home Depot, yet still very familiar. No sign of faucets. I may have to find a plumbing store. Another fun discovery was a 99 Cent store. Cheapest soda and juices to buy anywhere in the city.

Defeated but not daunted, we returned to the apartment for a glass of wine, then ventured out to a restaurant we'd noted earlier. The Ristorante Lorenzo de'Medici serves a pici pasta dish with a wild boar sauce - I had to try it. We started with Insalata Pomodora (tomato salad) and Spinaci (sauteed spinach) and shared aplate of  Empepata de Cozze (peppered mussels) and Pici Chiante Cinghale (pasta with wild boar) - all was delicious. People-watching on Santa Maria Nuvella square and Ponte alla Carraia bridge, then off home to bed.

Thursday, May 26, 2016

Firenze in Flashes

Up nice and early, and hit the pavement by 8 AM. Found our way with only a minor bobble to the Piazza San Marcos, and met up with our guide, Frediana, for our trip to the Galleria de Accademia, where Michelangelo's David resides. We were definitely glad to have booked the skip the lines tour, as the crowd was already getting pretty large at 9 AM. The statue was as magnificent as imagined, and we spent a fair amount of time gazing at him and listening to details of his creation, the techniques involved, political implications of the statue, and that sort of thing.  Looked at some other sculpture while we were inside.

From there we went to the Duomo of St Mary of the Flowers and looked at the vast place of worship, caught a glimpse of the interior of the dome, and saw a unique clock inside, which doesn't operate on a 24 hour basis like most, but instead tracks the hours to sunset, for liturgical purposes. Got to visit the pig at the marketplace, stand in the Piazza del Republica, and enjoy the controversy regarding the giant golden turtle on display there, compared to the replica of David, bronze of Perseus, and other great statues for the public to see.

Our guide left us near the Uffizi for a lunch break, and M and I ducked away from the crowds down a little side street to find a neat little osteria, Osteria Vecchio Vicolo, which served us our second-most delicious pizza so far, a Quattro Staggione style, with prosciutto, artichokes, cheese and black olives, and a bit of frizzante water to wash it down. After about ten minutes, the lunch crowd began to descend, but we were able to make our escape, and wandered in the area for a while on foot.

Our next guide, Catarina, met us at the statue of Galileo Galilei within the U of the Uffizi, and we breezed past the security checkpoints and headed for the top floor of the art museum, which boast the claim of being the first of its kind, open to the public for centuries now - created to show off the Medici art collection. We met a very nice family from Atlanta while we were waiting, and we traded thoughts and tips on our Italian adventures. 

Inside the Uffizi, there are literally thousands of statues from ancient Greece and Rome, recovered during the Renaissance time frame. Didn't think archaeological digs had been going on that long, eh? In addition to the sculpture, there were several hundred years worth of paintings, showing the evolution of art techniques, including the invention of perspective. Botticelli's Venus and Primavera were on display, and the details of those paintings could absorb your attention for hours.

Our guide left us to our own devices after that, and we eventually exited the building and tried to find the San Lorenzo Mercado to do some shopping. Never got to the market, but we did stumble upon Santa Croce, make a river stroll, and so forth. M's feet were killing her, so we spent a bit of rest time back at the apartment in the afternoon; I made a trip to the local market and bought some easy ingredients for dinner - we had minestrone soup and a salad. I discovered a jar of the most tasty giardiniera I've ever had, found some monster "cocktail" onions, stocked up on Schweppe's Limone drink, picked up a fresh "baguette" and a cucumber. I've been dying to try the local artichokes, but didn't see any at this particular market.

After dinner, around sunset, we made a trip out to Gelateria d'Angelo, which is either the name of the owner, or means "of the angels", which may be appropriate, as the gelato was heavenly! Watched the night life on the square at Santa Maria Novella, and saw one of the illegal street vendors take an inordinate amount of time with a little Japanese girl who bought one of his toys, showing her how to operate it properly. The street vendors can get a little pushy sometimes, and it's easy to get irritated with them, but one has to admire their entrepeneurial spirit. 

All in all, a pleasant first whole day in Firenze.

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Way Down Upon the Arno River

We took one last short stroll in Rome in the morning, over to the Castello St. Angelo, along the Tiber, where we saw some "crew" rowers working way too hard, stopped at Caffe Nero for a cappucino...then made our way to the bus stop, and headed for Termini Station. I have never seen such a line of taxis in my life, endlessly circling, picking up passengers at the curb, jockeying for position. Crazy. Got to our train in plenty of time, and had a smooth ride at 250 kilometers per hour to Florence.

After a short hike from the Santa Maria Novella train station to Borgo Ognossenti, we were met by Serafino, our host, who took us through the maze to our apartment, which turned out to be even more wonderful than it looked on Airbnb. Our arrival coincided with the massive sinkhole near the Ponte Vecchio, and he sadly informed us that there was no water in this entire half of the city, but that they hoped it would be restored by evening. 

We went for a walk to the Altrarno (other side of the river), and found a little market that sold us a few things for the fridge, but not quite everything on my list. Had lunch at a "self serve" pizzeria, which simply meant that there was no table service, you simply order from a display case at the counter, they heat up your pizza or focaccio sandwich, and you grab and available table. The focaccio sandwiches were a bit dry for American tastes (no may, mustard, lettuce, tomato...), and I discovered why Italians don't like their own beer.

Had a fun time bargaining with a lovely Irish woman named Tyna at a leather goods store and picked up a couple of nice gifts, then walked the length of the Ponte Vecchio gold shops - some incredible work on display there. Ended up in front of the Pitti Palace, then selected an alternate route back to the room from there. The water had come back on by then, so we spent a couple of hours on our "washing day" activities, ending with clothing hanging from all available hooks. Laundry was, of course, accompanied by a fine white wine, some pecorino cheese, and greek olives.

Another quest for a small grocery store to round out our fridge - we prefer to eat a small breakfast in our rooms before we start our daily adventures, and occasionally either another meal, or some home-made antipasti from the phenomenal meats and cheeses here. Wandered down the street to find a place to eat, and had a disappointing meal at a local pizzeria - M's calzone was ok, but my veal cutlet was a joke - in fact I joked it needed some country gravy to salvage the meal. Ah well, it fills the tummy. Back to our retreat on the river for our repose.

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Il Papa's House

Headed off on foot to the rendezvous at the north entrance to the Vatican Museums, and waited while the rest of the tour group showed up and our lovely guide, Laura, gave us all headsets and pre-instructions, then herded us all across the street and gained us entry into the sovereign nation of The Vatican. No full body search was required, just a pass through the metal detectors.

We visited the contemporary art collection, the candelabra rooms, the map rooms - did you realize that the tradition of putting insets of major cities into maps came about in the 17th century? We're doing it to this day. Looked at about a zillion tapestries, but I got distracted when my phone/camera ran out of memory and I had to delete a bunch of older photos on the fly to make room for the new stuff. Rafael's rooms were very interesting, too, paying tribute to the arts & music, philosophy, mathematics and the law.

Eventually, after a very thorough briefing on what we were about to see, we entered the Sistine Chapel and spent nearly a half hour gazing at the frescos there. The mind boggles. The chapel is still used for sacred masses, so they ask for silence once you are inside, but there are always too many idiots who think the rules, as well as those forbidding photos, don't apply to them, for some reason.  This results in disturbing what "silence" existed with loud announcements of "Silencio!" After leaving the Sistine area, we made our way into the greatest basilica of all, St Peter's. The scale of the place is beyond belief, and the masterpieces of great art contained there could take a lifetime of study.

There's one bit of the Final Judgement scene which Michelango painted in the Sistine where the monster, Minos, welcomes sinners to Hell. It seems that Michelango and one of Pope Justin's henchment didn't get on too well, and so he immortalized the man's likeness in his depiction of the monster, who is also being bitten by a demon in a sensitive body part. Lesson learned - It doesn't really pay over the long haul to tick off an artist. There's a similar anecdote told about one of the sculptures in St. Peter's, which depicts the Church of England, which had been giving the papacy some grief over the years, as a tiny spot on the map, squashed beneath the big toe of one of the Catholic angels. 

After the tour was over, we decided we'd had about enough for one morning, and made our way rapidly back to our apartment for lunch. Decided to return to the Pantheon in daylight, so we could go inside and see the oculus and the artwork. We made a stop at the church of Santa Maria sopra Minerva, too, and looked at some marvelous artwork in a much less crowded venue, including a statue of Christ Bearing the Cross by Michelangelo.

Window-shopped out way back to the apartment, then I made a quick trip to the Carrefour Express for a couple things and prepared some crostini, poured ourselves a glass of red, and relaxed before our evenings's excursions.

Thought we would dine by the Tiber somewhere, but we walked a long way without seeing even a panini joint close enough for takeout. We walked the far side of the Tiber until eventually we came to the edge of the Trastevere, and began to smell food. Took the first right down a side street and after a few blocks got a table on the street at Il DuCa, a random selection. I had the Fettucine alla Funghi Porcii and M had the Ravioli di Ricotta e Spinaci con Crema di Tartufo Nero - a mouthful to say, and a delicious many mouthfuls to eat. Got into a conversation with a nice young German couple, teachers, who were also celebrating their last night in Rome - by eating all of the courses in their proper order from the menu. They preceded us, and they were still valiantly assailing their Secondi when we departed, full satisfied with only our Primi Piatti.

A bit of a long walk home, but it was pleasant under the century old sycamore trees along the Tiber, and we found our way home without incident.

Monday, May 23, 2016

Ave Imperator!

Started off the morning brewing up some truly smooth coffee with the little espresso pots here in the apartment. Lavazza Rossa. A nice little breakfast, and we were off once more, down the Chiesa Nuova bus stop and caught the metrobus down to Piazza Venezia, where we thought we'd take a transfer to get to the Colosseum, but it turned out to be just around the corner when we passed Trajan's column and the monument to the Fatherland.
Went to the Forum entrance, as our dear friend, Rick, recommends, and bought a combo ticket for the Forum, Colosseum and Capitoline Hill. Wandered throught the Forum, trying to use his audio walking tour, but soon grew confused and just read the signs instead. Next stop was the Colosseum, which probably should have been first, given the crowds that had gathered later in the day, but we were still able to skip the ticket-buying line, at least. Once through the metal detectors, we got to roam all over the massive monument. When we'd about had our fill, we headed out, just in time for a thunderstorm to threaten with some rain droplets. I've never seen anyone move as fast as the street vendors running for the Colosseum exits with umbrellas for sale, and never seen a quicker bargain done than when the guy next to me haggled one of them down from 5 euros to 2. I think the vendor was afraid if he didn't close the sale quickly, his competition would get all the good business down below.

Found a nice little place in sight of the Colosseum, Ristoro della Salute, and had a slighly pricey combo meal, but it was worth it for the proximity to the attraction. Our waiter was a really nice guy who surprised us with his best guess gelato flavors for both of us - I think he took my question about whether we had to select flavors or just be surprised and ran with it.

Off to Capitoline Hill after that, and the nice young man at the main entrance let us through, rather than sending us back to the entrance that comes in from the Forum, so we were once again surprised by the kindness of Romans. There are lovely gardens at the top of the hill, and M narrowly avoided getting beaned by a falling orange at one point. Visited the museum for a bit, did a lot of casual strolling, and just absorbed the flavor of the history there. When we came down off our perch, we stopped at a booth and bought bus tickets, and got our water bottles filled at the most interesting vending machine, where you just push a button and choose the size of your bottle (glass, .5 liter 1 liter) and it automatically dispenses the proper amount of water - ice cold - free.

By the time we found the bus stop leaving Piazza Venezia I determined that we were only four stops away from Chiesa Nuova, and there seemed little point to jumping on the bus again for that distance, so we walked back to the apartment, where we had a glass or two of wine, some antipasti, and relaxed for a little bit.

Decided to wander over past the Piazza Navona to the Trevi Fountain, and found it just as magical and captivating as all of the propaganda would for the jillion tourists clustered in the area, with the same idea. Wanted to smack the idiot kid climbing up on the marble of the fountain with his skateboard, but his parents were paying no mind - idiots are universal. Took a roundabout route back, venturing into the "normal" portion of Rome, where there were real shops rather than tourist kitsch, and got back without any losses.

I prepared a nice supper of farfalle pasta with Amatriciana sauce and vongole (baby clams), accompanied by a simple salad, then we decided to go for passagata down to Castel St. Angelo, enjoyed the Tiber river scenery, and closed things out with a bowl of gelato at Blue Ice.

Sunday, May 22, 2016

All roads...

Up early in the morning, got some breakfast from the buffet, slurped some coffee, and checked out of the hotel. Our friends dropped us off at the Pisa train station, and we had reserved seats all the way to Rome, about a three hour tour, a three hour tour...
Fountain of the Four Rivers

I got the bright idea to get off the train at the San Pietro station, knowing that our apartment was located close to the Vatican, so I figured it would be quicker to get there than going all the way across the city to Termini. The jury is still out on that. Once I pulled up Google Maps on the cell phone, I discovered we were on the opposite side of the Tiber, so it would be best to use the bus, anyway. We tried to catch the bus and pay while getting on board, but as luck would have it, they don't accept cash, so we had to hunt up a Tabbacieri and buy a metro bus pass, then went back to the stop, but we were in the mid-Sunday lull in the bus schedule, and we waited about 45 minutes before a kindly local couple led us to another bus stop and a different bus route that got us to Chiesa Nuova very quickly.

Jumped off the bus, planned our walking route with Google Maps, and promptly got disgustingly lost. As I later determined, the GPS was not keeping up with the pace of our walking, and we walked right past the apartment about 3 minutes into our journey, and spent another hour or so trying to figure out why the GPS was suddenly sending us in circles. Eventually, I got to a place where the route became simple, and we made our way to meet our airbnb host, Paolo, to check in. 
Piazza Navona

Fait accompli, we went out and down the street a bit for a pizza and beer for  belated lunch, where M got into a conversation with a fellow trombone player from Holland, and our Italian waiter confessed his preference for Belgian beer, then back to the apartment for a quick shower and short nap, then a longer excursion to the grocery store for some essential items, since we have a nice little kitchen here. After the groceries were put away, we went for a walk to the Piazza Navona and the Four Rivers fountain, the Pantheon, the church of St. Agnes, the Santa Maria sopra Minerva, and a couple miscellaneous churches, then wandered back to our room, fixed a light dinner, and went to our well-earned rest.

Saturday, May 21, 2016

Unsupervised in Italy

Hopped on the train Saturday morning bound for Cinque Terre. A couple of hours and transfers later, we jumped off at Monterossa, northernmost of the "five lands". Wandered around the city for a while, grabbed a focaccia sandwich and granita at one of the little shops and enjoyed the view of the sea over lunch. Headed down to the main part of town and peeled off my shoes and pants legs and waded in the Mediterranean for a bit. Some window shopping for a little bit, and eventually made our way back to the train and went on to the middle little town by the sea, Corniglia.

Corniglia is at the top of a long flight of nearly 400 steps, so it's a bit of a challenge to get to. We made the climb successfully, and had a nice fresh lemonade made of the local fresh squeezed fruit, found some more phenomenal views, and after a short time, made our way down the hill to the train once more, and took another hop south.

Next stop was Riomaggore, the southernmost village. Wandered all over the place here, and discovered what I like to call "Hard Beach", where people sunned themselves on a shore of rather large round rocks, watched cliff divers splash into the sea, found a cute little hidden piazza, and sampled the local delicacy, anchovies - wrapped around olives on a skewer, and deep-fried in a paper cup with a squeeze of lemon - eaten whole - crunchy!

The whole area was a bit of a tourist zoo, and the trains grew steadily more crowded so eventually we exercised our discretion and got out of town a bit earlier than we'd originally planned, not wanting to miss our conections back to Lucca. Made it back to the city around half past eight, had some crostini and lasagna al ragu, delicate and delicious, at a table on the street at Osteria Dos Nenos, followed by a custard-like cheesecake. Then we strolled out to the front gates and met Joe and Mindy for a ride back to our hotel. They had just finished dinner with some of their old friends from Pisa, so the timing was perfect.

Packed out bags in preparation for the journey to Rome, and went to bed fairly early.

Last Tango in Tuscany

We headed down to Pisa in the morning after breakfast. Those of you who know me well will not find it surprising that we hit Mercatopoli, a thrift store at which I felt right at home, and picked up a couple of interesting items to bring home.

Onwards to the city of Pisa, and purchase tickets to climb the tower. Joe and Mindy waited down below, and held our bags, since security was tight and no purses, backpacks or guns were allowed on the stairway. The security police were highly visible, and serious about things, but still willing to have children photographed in front of the military vehicles parked in the shado of the tower. Full auto weapons at the ready.

The view from the top was marvelous, and a cool breeze was blowing. A very pleasant experience. This was definitely the most touristy place we've been so far. It should be good prep for Rome.

Leaving the scrum, we headed north once more to a small winery recommended by our friend Michael, Enza di Carmigniana, in the hills on the road called the Strada di Vino, near Montecarlo. The owner of the winery, Elena, gave us a short tour of the facilities, and history of her family, who have been making wine in the same location since 1386 - Elena is the first female to run the winery, her only brother did not want anything to do with the family business.

We then enjoyed an intimate private tasting of three whites, a rose, two reds and two special "dolce" wines, each paired with the food which complements it well, from fresh tomatos out of the garden to the sausage made from white pigs at a nearby farm, to aged pecorino cheese with honey. Absolutely incredible, and every one of them delicious.

We purchased quite a bit, and Elena gifted us with a bottle of red blend on our way out, as well. She also called the nearby visitors bureau and made arrangements for us to meet a young lady there for a private tour of the old theatre in town, so we drove up to the castle in Montecarlo and met Mariella, a charming girl who let us in to the building and gave us the history of its use, disuse, restoration and all the rest. We wandered about the town for a bit, chatting with the nonas, enjoying a cone of gelato, and enoying the spectacular view of the Tuscan countryside.

Back to the hotel for a while, enjoyed a bottle of wine by the pool in the sunshine, then drove down to Lucca where we once again enjoyed the company and cuisine of our friends Michael and Anita. Anita prepared a variation on traditional Polish pirogi for us (she comes from Poland), and chatted with us about the history of her mother's recipe, which she has altered to take advantage of the finer ingredients available in modern Italy. A short stroll in Lucca town, then back to our rooms to slumber peacefully.

Friday, May 20, 2016

Polpo, al Pompelmo

After a very nice continental breakfast at the Principessa, we loaded up in the car and headed down to the train station to pick up tickets for our coming day trip to Cinque Terre. Our next mission was to head into the walled old city and pick up tickets for a concert in the evening. After that, our hosts had some errands to run down at Camp Darby, so they left us to enjoy things on our own for a bit.

Our first stop was the Puccini Museum, located in the home where he was born here in 1858. Quite an interesting collection of odds and ends, ranging from score revisions and letters from his friends, to the entire set of a production of La Boheme and a number of costumes from some of his productions. Michele was in heaven, as a musician, but I found it interesting, too. I'm definitely going to have to look up the "Western" opera he wrote, Girl of the Golden West.
Chiesa St Michele

We made our way after that to the old Ampitheatre, which is now filled with shops and restaurants around its walls, and browsed for a bit there. A crazy thunderstorm came up just as we were leaving, and we finally had to give up on pushing on through it, after our umbrellas were inverted several times by the strong winds, so we huddled for a bit in an archway with a few other travelers, and eventually when the storm settled down for a bit, we made our way to Bar San Frediano, where we enjoyed our first italian pizza - Margherita, a simple composition of tomatoes, cheese and basil. A nice light crust, dripping with home made sauce, truly good mozzarella cheese, and delicate spices. More, please!

We had a nice stroll on the old wall, which has been turned into a beautiful park, well removed from its function as a major defense for the town. A little bit of window shopping after that kept us busy until our rendezvous with Joe and Mindy, and we all drove back to the hotel for a short rest.

In the early evening, we returned to the St. Giovanni church to listen to the music of Puccini and Verdi performed by a pianist, a soprano and an baritone. I'm not a big opera buff, but the power of their singing filled the church and was truly and unforgettable experience. A standing ovation by the crowd led to a rousing rendition of O Solo Mio, which even a cultural barbarian like myself had to enjoy.

A short walk after the concert led back to our friends Michael and Anita at Lucca il Tavolo, and an absolutely amazing dinner. Anita made me a special seafood salad of prawns, squid and octopus, flavored with fresh grapefruit, and the angels alone know what other spices. Michael introduced us to a bottle of sparklin sauvignon blanc, with which we became fast friends. Secondo for me was medallions of veal, in an amazing brown sauce, covered with wafer thin prosciutto, and baked potato wedges, drizzzled with olive oil and dredged in a bit of balsamic "crema" vinegar. A small glass of a digestivo send us on our way, fattened and happy, to our peaceful slumbers in the Tuscan hills.

Thursday, May 19, 2016

Per Lucca

A highway is an autobahn is an autostrada, to paraphrase some poet of note, so I can't say a great deal about the drive from Pordenone down to Lucca, save that it was at high speed, and very much resembled a drive through any rural countryside, punctuated by occasional transits of cityscapes.

We arrived in Lucca, a city north of Pisa, around rush hour and got checked into our room at the Hotel Principessa, a marvelously lucky find on the outskirts of town in the Tuscan hills. The hotel was first built as the villa of a Duke of Lucca just short of 800 years ago, and has seen a number of transformations, and it is located in beautiful gardens, furnished in classic opulence, very peaceful. 

We took a bit to freshen up, then headed into town, determined to do a bit of exploring, then to have a meal at the restaurant of two friends of our hosts, but our well laid plans went a touch astray. We barely cleared the city walls.

Joe and Mindy introduced us to their friends Michael and Anita, who run the strategically located Lucca in Tavola, and began one of the most amazing meals I have ever experienced. Our new friends visited our table beside one of the main pathways to the interior of the walled old city with their recommendations and commentary on a feast which began with crostini covered with Laredo and Tartuffe, continued through a meat and cheese platter of salami, capaccio, pecorino, prosciutto and olives. The ladies had rolled sole, stuffed with prawns and spinach, Joe had a perfectly cooked sirloin, and I ended up with home-made tagliatelle pasta, smothered with mussels, clams, and calamari and flanked by a pair of amazing shrimp.

All of this was accompanied by flights of prosecco and Chianti, punctuated by an encounter with a marvelous Australian couple celebrating their 50th wedding anniversary (who may join us for dinner tonite, as well) and topped off by special baked desserts filled with Chantilly cream and strawberries. The entire affair lasted until well into the evening, and we were left only with time for a short stroll to Piazza St Michele before we drove back to the hotel at midnight, replete.

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

La Serenissima

After a hearty breakfast in Portenone, we drove a short way down to Sacile to take a train into Venice. We got off at the main station, and grabbed a all day vaporetto (water buses is the only way to describe them, really) pass at a handy tobacco shop and then did a fast fade off into the old Jewish quarter, where we surmised that the crowds would be lighter, as most tourists head directly to St. Mark's square, the Doge's Palace, and the Grand Canal. A very successful strategy, actually.

The crowds were nearly non-existent in that part of Venice, and we were able to stroll about looking at little shops and just inhaling the atmosphere of this unique city. We managed to wander into some mostly residential areas along the northern edge of things, where we saw the little old grandmothers making their way home from shopping, trattorias packed with smoking locals, and a great little kosher grocery where we picked up a bottle of prosecco and four plastic cups to keep us from being too parched on the way out to the island of Burano.

Venice was first established in the swamps of the coast by the merchant princes in the 6th century to provide a very efficient machine for separating tourists from their money, and it retains those ancient traditions to this day. There are a zillion shops filled with kitsch, African street vendors illegally selling knock off Prada, and more than enough high end legitimate shops hawking local wares to give you reason to leave home without your American Express. Burano lace and Murano glass were ubiquitous, but most vendors are touchy about photos, so you'll simply have to come and see these amazing and exquisite creations for yourself some day.

We enjoyed late lunch in Burano at Su E Zo of sea bass, salmon and calamari, talked with local glass makers whose families have been in the business for centuries, and very charming little old nona in a lace shop. 

The day was too short to really see it all, so by the time we made it to St. Mark's the museums had closed, and we didn't get a chance to see them, but we had a marvelous dinner by the Rialto bridge on the Grand Canal at Cafe di Saraceno with a water side table where we got to watch the gondolas go by with their cargos of lovers, young and old. Spaghetti a la Vongole, Broiled Dorado, Beef Steak with Peppercorns, a couple of nice bottles of Chardonnay, capped by a boat ride back down the canal to the train station again made it a most memorable day.

Monday, May 16, 2016

Down Time

I may have picked up a bug on the plane, and ended up with some intestinal woes for most of the day on Monday, so we ended up hanging out in Pordenone at the house and resting up. Still no pictures. 

Venice on the horizon today, however, and the weather is looking good.


We piled in the car mid morning and headed up to Aviano Air Base to attend a bazaar. Plenty of local artists and merchants displaying their wares, which ranged from the sublime, like Murano hand-blown glass, to the ridiculous, like macrame owls. A huge thunderstorm blew up while we were in the airplane hanger they were using for the venue, but for the most part we remained inside warm and dry. Didn't really take any pictures there, either. Still nothing much on the camera.

Back to the house for the  reposata - the traditional mid-afternoon nap, and dinner at a local hangout, Comela. The sandwich I had was very good, and the house limoncello was delicious.

Sunday, May 15, 2016

Stone Soup

Some time ago, when I was cooking in, and later managing, restaurants, it was often my job to come up with a daily special soup. Occasionally, when I had a fair amount of leftovers to clear out of the walk-in cooler, I'd tell my customers we were having "Stone Soup". This of course often elicited puzzled looks and questions, so I would tell them a story I remembered from my childhood.

A wandering band of vagabonds or gypsies comes to a village and fills up a large pot with water, lights a fire underneath it, and places a round smooth stone in the water. When the curious villagers begin to gather, and ask them what they are doing, they reply that they have a magical stone, and that by boiling the stone in water, they can create a delicious soup. 

As the water is heating, one of the travelers says, "This is going to be such a wonderful soup, but it would really be remarkable if only it had a carrot or two in it."

One of the villagers admits that she might have a few carrots, returns to her home and gets them, and they are quickly chopped up and added to the magic stone soup.

Little by little, the villagers are conned into contributing to the soup, and at the end of the tale, the entire band of travelers and the village feast on the Stone Soup.

I applied those principles to my creation of Stone Soup, and would grab random complementary ingredients from the cooler; a tub of mixed veggies from a few nights back, some diced onions getting a little mushy, leftover roast beef, and maybe some kale from the salad bar get the picture.

I just happened to be thinking about stone soup this morning as a friend was creating Bloody Mary's with the spices available in a borrowed kitchen, and decided to google the name, to see what the Internet remembers of the tale, and got a serendipitous surprise, the probably source of my recollection of the story. 

"The story is the basis of Marcia Brown's 1947 children's book, Stone Soup (1947),[6] which features soldiers tricking miserly villages into cooking them a feast. The book was a Caldecott Honor book in 1948[7] and was read aloud by the Captain (played by Bob Keeshan) on an early episode of Captain Kangaroo in the 1950s, as well as at least once in the 1960s or early 1970s"

I am betting that my early childhood library contained a copy of Ms. Brown's tome. 

Saturday, May 14, 2016

Getting There is Half the Fun

After a long flight over the ocean, a stop in Frankfurt, and a quick hop south, we arrived safely at Marco Polo airport around 1800 hours local time, and were met by our hostess, Mindy, who whisked us away to her home in Pordenone. We spent the evening in delightful conversation with her and a pair of expats living in Cortona, who are visiting as well, and sampled a good bit of the local vino. 

No picturesque photos to share so far, but I'll be sure to share here as we venture into Venice and beyond.

Friday, May 13, 2016

The Warrior's Apprentice by Lois McMaster Bujold

This is the book that introduced me to the world of Lois McMaster Bujold, and which has forced me to buy every sequel that she's published over the last few decades.

Son of Count and Regent Aral Vorkosigan and Cordelia nee Naismith Vorkosigan, Miles has some big shoes to fill, especially when you add in the riding boots of his Grandfather, Piotr. He has put everything he has into successfully passing the entrance exams for the Imperial Military academy, and the story begins with the tragedy of him washing out of the physical portion of the test after shattering his legs trying to leap tall buildings...or at least an obstacle course wall.

Mentally cut adrift, he determines to take a trip to Beta Colony for a visit with his maternal grandmother, dragging along his childhood friend, Elena, daughter of the dour and faithful Sergeant Bothari, his batman. He hopes that they'll be able to solve the mystery of who Elena's mother was by poking around in cemetery records there, since that knowledge is still classified burn before reading on Barrayar, tied up as it was with Prince Serg's disastrous armada and glorious death (Read Shards of Honor).

We learn very nearly all we need to know about Miles in the first hour or so on Beta Colony, when he pokes his nose into something that is most definitely none of his business, and ends up rescuing a pilot, Arde Mayhew, and buying a ship by mortgaging part of his inheritance - some radioactive swampland. From this point forward the tale skips from frying pan to fire and back - repeatedly. Along the way, he also picks up a Barrayaran deserter, Baz Jesek, who is stranded offworld, and to keep him from being arrested, swears him in as his personal armsman, tying up the diplomatic teams of both planets in a snarled mess.

In order to pay off the mortgage on the ship, Miles takes on a dubious cargo of "agricultural equipment", which is to be delivered to the losing side in a planetary war, past a blockade maintained by a mercenary fleet. Miles plays the role of a devil may care mercenary a bit too well, and we begin to wonder if his personality is splitting at the seams. When they encounter the blockade, all is going reasonably well, the cargo is well concealed, and the shakedown bearable, until the leader of the boarding party decides he needs to take a hostage, too - Elena.

When Miles and his companions reach their breaking point moments later, they overwhelm the bored and out of shape mercenaries, then turn the tables, boarding the mercenaries ship and taking command. When faced with the need to keep the mercenaries, who outnumber them, too busy to launch a counterattack, Admiral Naismith and the Dendarii Free Mercenaries are born!

Simply one of the best, most entertaining stories I have ever read...and re-read...and re-re-read.

Wednesday, May 11, 2016


I've been slacking off on my reviews here...just the business of life again, and lack of motivation to write anything about what I've been reading lately, for the most part. I have a few queued up now, and then we'll have some travel blogging to do, if I can make my iPad do the job.

Quantum Night by Robert J. Sawyer

This one had some really interesting things to say about the nature of consciousness, and how it is dependent on a quantum state in the microtubules within our neurons. A college professor realizes late in life that the psychological testing he submitted to as a student has had some serious repercussions in his life, including turning him into a psychopath for a time, and causing him to lose six months of his memories.

The "thriller" portion of the book relates how he digs up all of the secrets about his past, the experiments, and other dangerous ideas.

It turns out, according to Sawyer, that approximately 1 in 7 people in the world are actually really conscious, think about their lives, reflect on the consequences of their actions, while 2 in 7 are psychopaths, with varying degrees of evil intent, ranging from the ruthless business man to the brutal dictator (not surprisingly, most of the politicians of the world fall into this category), and the final 4 in 7 - four billion of them, are what he calls "p-zeds" - basically thoughtless, herd-following automatons.

This theory explains a lot, eh?

Anyway, once we get to this point, and find out due to the results of another experiment performed by our protagonist and his girlfriend, a physicist, which brings her brother out of a coma and shifts his mental state from one category to another, it is inevitable that they are going to use the technology to bring peace and justice to the world, especially when the psychopaths in power in the U.S. and Russia bring the world to the brink of nuclear catastrophe.

Sawyer, as always, tells a tale guaranteed to amuse for a few hours.