Venice in a Day


This was my first trip to Venice and frankly I had low expectations after I told many I was going in June.  I got the “Oh it’s going to be so crowded and hot” comment over and over.  Not fond of crowds, I was apprehensive.  I spent 2.5 days in Venice with my friend Page, and I found myself pleasantly surprised by its rundown charm.  I’m glad I visited the city before it sinks! Continue reading “Venice in a Day”

Day Trips from Venice

Vicenza (a day trip)

Vicenza is an hour drive from Venice and worth touring if time permits.  The city in a UNESCO World Heritage Site and features many works of Andrea Palladio, a 16th Century Renaissance architect who defined the Palladian Style.  Palladio’s buildings are marked with bi-lingual signs, thus it is easy to tour the town in search of his architecture.  Two places designed by Palladio that we visited were the Olympic Theater and Villa Capra (la Rotunda). Continue reading “Day Trips from Venice”

Three Days in Sorrento, Italy

If you only have three days to spend on the Amalfi Coast, I recommend staying in Sorrento as it is a very good central location for seeing the area.  Having said that, if you are looking for rest and relaxation on the coast, three days is not enough time.  I recommend staying at least week midway along the Amalfi Coast so that you can avoid the crowds and visit the popular towns in the evening when the masses have gone home for the day.  I thought I was going in the off season during September, and compared to August, apparently I was, but it certainly felt otherwise.  This is what I learned during my time in Sorrento and on the Amalfi Coast.


It’s likely easiest to fly into Naples to eliminate two train rides, but the airline pricing from the USA encouraged me to fly to Rome.  From Rome, it takes three train rides to get to Sorrento, but it is the most affordable route.  The first is the Leonardo Express train, a non-stop service between the airport (FCO) and Roma Termini (the main station). The train departs every half hour from 6:23 to 23:23, and the trip takes 32 min.

Once at Roma Termini, purchase a ticket at one of the many kiosks (self-explanatory) to Napoli Centrale. There are a few train options. I used trainitalia.  The high speed train takes 1.25 hours.  The ticket prices vary based on car class are lower if purchased in advance online.  Second class is perfectly comfortable.  The reserved seat and car number are printed on the ticket.  The train can be very full depending of the time and date of travel.  I chose to wait until I arrived to purchase my ticket just in case my flight was delayed, and rode a somewhat empty train to Napoli on Wednesday, but my return train on Sunday was completely full.  I felt lucky to get a ticket on same day travel.

At Napoli Centrale, go downstairs to Napoli Garibaldi (same station, different name). Catch the Circumvesuviana train for a few euros.  This train was not air conditioned and was standing room only for most of the ride.  I had considered not taking it due to all the cautions I read about being pick-pocketed, but I didn’t have a problem, and never felt threatened.  I’d just say be aware like any savvy traveler.  This train also leaves every half-hour and takes between 45mins-1.25 hours depending on if it is “directo” or “directisimo”.  See the train schedule here:

Should the cramped and hot quarters be unappealing, a ferry service is available, but that required an extra step for me…a taxi ride from the station to the port and then the high-speed ferry.  This is a helpful website for ferry travel:


On my first day in Italy, although exhausted, I forced myself to tour around.  For some reason, I expected a quiet coast like Cinque Terre.  This was not the case!  Of all the places I’ve been, I was most scared to step into the crosswalk in Sorrento especially after noticing virtually every car had a scrape on its front or back fender.  Pedestrians regularly had to play chicken with vehicles, though the drivers did stop.

I stayed at Relais Villa Angiolina which was conveniently (and I suppose when I was entirely exhausted inconveniently) located a short distance UP the hill from the old town of Sorrento.  The hotel is like a quiet oasis in the middle of the hectic city and features a lovely garden.  My room was fine, nothing too exciting, though I was surprised to find gel packets for “intimate hygiene” along with the shampoo!  I enjoyed a nice breakfast everyday on my patio which was included in the price of the hotel, and the staff was simply wonderful.

On Wednesday, both hungry and tired, I followed the map to the main street which led me to Piazza Tasso, named for poet Torquato Tasso.  The traffic zips around the Statua di S. Antonino as tourists order food and drinks at one of the handful of “bars” lining the street.  The meals at these places are over priced and not the greatest, a perfect tourist trap, but if kept me from wandering aimlessly while jetlagged on no sleep!  I got the shrimp special at Fauno Bar, and I think there was a reason why it was a “special”, but at least I got a free Limoncello at the end of the meal.  In addition, the service was fast and friendly.

After lunch, I wandered around some more to get the lay of the land.  I strolled by Piazza S. Antonino complete with a strange statue as I continued along Via V Veneto to Piazza Della Vittoria where I enjoyed lovely views of the sea before I turned left up Via T Tasso and poked my head into Chiesa di San Paolo, a lovely catholic church on the way back to the hotel for a short rest.

I mustered up the energy to go out for dinner later.  I weaved around the mobs of people shopping on Via San Cesareo, bounced around a few side streets and finally settled on Ristorante Sorrento.  The prosciutto wrapped melon was ok.  The pasta main course was excellent.  The service, once again, was fast!

The next morning, I planned a tour along the Amalfi Coast and the pick up location was at Hotel Antiche Mura.  I gave myself some time extra time to find the hotel and slowly picked my way down Corso Italia while checking out the Duomo e Campanile, an 11th century cathedral with a lovely three story clock tower.

Upon arrival at Hotel Aniche Mura, I found it sitting atop a gorge where the ruins of Il Vallone dei Mulini stood below.  It was quite an amazing scene in my opinion. Of course I like mills and old buildings and wanted to get down there to see it up close. I asked the way, but there wasn’t one.  I could just admire it from above.

After my tour along the Amalfi Coast, we returned to Sorrento in a massive down pour!  I donned my raincoat and rushed down the shopping street, now almost vacant from tourists as they had taken cover from the rain.  I had seen a restaurant that looked popular the previous day and was aiming for dinner there, but I couldn’t remember exactly where it was, so now that I was completely drenched as I came upon a top 10 restaurant according to TripAdvisor, Ristorante Fuoro.

Chilled to the bone, I ordered mushroom soup for an appetizer.  Since the Amalfi Coast is know for its fish and lemon, I tried this for the main course.  Unfortunately, the restaurant was out of the soup and when my second bite of fish included four bones, I started picking at it.  Despite scraping my fork across the filet, I still ended up with two more bites of bone.  This just about did me in…as a child I would have stopped at the second bite! Based on the restaurant’s ranking, I must have ordered wrong!

The next day took me on a boat ride tour to Capri and afterward I decided to explore some more nooks and crannies in Sorrento.  The more time I spent in the town, the more I liked it.  Tonight I walked to Marina Grande via the Porta Romana, a cool old arch.  I ate at The Five Sisters Restaurant, where according to the sign, Sofia Loren recently dined.  I went with pasta and clams caught by the local fishermen.  The meal was fantastic!  The people next to me loved theirs as well.  In addition, the pricing was more reasonable, though it was cash only.  I was surprised to see it got panned on TripAdvisor, as it was the best meal I had the whole trip.  In addition, I got to enjoy a wonderful sunset.

My Rick Steve’s info claimed the best gelato around was at Davide il Gelato.  There is also Gelateria David, so it’s best to know the difference.  While I prefer chocolate, the gelateria is known for its fruit flavors, so that is what I tried.  It was quite tasty.  I walked off dessert by walking down the countless steps to Marina Piccola.

My final day on the Amalfi Coast was in Pompeii.  After visiting the ruins, I returned to Sorrento and found three more places to explore. With the exception of seeing Bagni della Regina Giovanna, a secluded swimming hole, I feel like I really covered the city.

I wandered to the other side of town to visit I Giardini di Cataldo.  It was cool to see the vats of Limoncello, but other than that I didn’t see the draw to make it the #12 place to go in Sorrento.  After visiting the lemon garden, I walked to Chiesa e Chiostro di S Francesco.  I had visited the night before, but it was very dark, so I wanted to see the church again.  This time I happened upon an Italian wedding.  How cool is that?!?  I assume the priest announced, “I pronounce you husband and wife” as everyone clapped, but then he kept talking and when the ceremony ended just a minute or two later, the crowd began trickling out, but the bride and groom stayed near the front of the church with their family.  That was different from what I’m used to seeing!

Finally I had dinner at Gigino, a restaurant in the old town district whose patio was always full.  This time I ordered pizza since Napoli is known for it.  The atmosphere was nice and the pizza was good.  I’d go back, but I liked the Marina Grande area better.  Overall, Sorrento was a great town!


My first day trip from Sorrento was along the Amalfi Coast.  I used Mondo Guide, which is associated with Rick Steves.  They used two small vans that held seven people each to take us to Positano, Amalfi, and Ravello.  The pick up location was at Hotel Aniche Mura.  They were timely and professional.  If only the family I was paired with was too.  The family included two adults who lived in the area, two who lived in Panama City, and two who lived in Florida.  They were late for departure and then the local gentleman proceeded to conduct business calls, one of which was on speaker phone through out the car ride, which wasn’t terribly enjoyable to hear.

Vincenzo was our driver.  When we first began the tour, the winding road which followed the coastline of the Salerno Gulf on the Tyrrhenian Sea, didn’t seem to hard to drive ourselves.  The traffic wasn’t too bad, there were scenic view pullouts along the way.  In addition, Vincenzo could point things while driving.  Once we arrived in Positano, our first visit, that changed!  Boy was I glad I had paid for a driver.  Due to the limited and expensive parking, cars were parked along the narrow road for at least a mile!

Fortunately for us, Vincenzo brought us right to town, parked by the gas station, and then pointed us to the pedestrian only shopping area.  Fancy shops lined the slim corridors that veered in a variety of directions downhill toward the rocky beach. Tourists browsed the shops while I squeezed between them in search of a more peaceful area.  Surprisingly, after reaching the beach, I found a path to the right (or west) with a sign indicating a hotel.  Being lazy, I almost didn’t take it as it slanted upward, and since all I had done for the previous week was climb up and down mountains, going up another incline didn’t appeal to me.  Just walking down all the stairs to the beach was enough!

Anyway, we had an hour in the town, and I covered the shopping area and church in less than a half hour, so what else was I going to do?  Off I went.  I only passed a few visitors as I meandered along the coastal trail which eventually led to another beach guarded by an old fortress, now private, so I couldn’t go near it.  The walk provided lovely views and due to the cloudy, cool weather, the beach was empty, so it was a very tranquil place.

Soon I returned to the gas station, met the group, and Vincenzo steered us through some small towns to our next stop, Amalfi.  Along the way, we contended with huge buses that hardly had room to pass each other as they inched forward and backwards to pass without scraping sides.  Cars had to move out of the way by reversing or going around.  At times, there were also traffic stops.  I’d hate to see this place in the summer, as a weekday in September was busy enough!

In Amalfi, Vincenzo parked down by the water, we crossed the main highway and entered the old town.  One of the first things that comes into view is the Amalfi Cathedral.  There was an entrance fee and pictures weren’t allowed, so I boycotted going inside.  I don’t mind an entrance fee, though it seems a little sketch for churches to do this, but if I can’t even take a picture for a memory after I paid, I don’t see the point!  I carried on to the Museo della Carta on the outskirts of town.  I had to shimmy between window shopping tourists and cars zipping by on the tight road.

I over heard a couple say, “You know that lawyer in Chicago that filed the lawsuit for the bus running over someone’s foot, he’d make a fortune here!”  It was true.  I’m amazed more people aren’t struck by moving vehicles.  So the paper museum was ranked in the top five things to do in Amalfi by TripAdvisor. I paid four Euro, walked through a library and into a room filled with some old paper making equipment before exiting around the back to see a water trough and completed the tour in about four minutes.  I was shocked to find this was ranked in the top five things to do in Amalfi.  I suppose it was a testament to the size of this small town…there is not a whole lot to do!

I returned to the main drag and dodged more cars and tourists by taking detours on to small sidewalks which led up to residences.  I do like to weave through the mazes of side paths.  Finally, at the suggestion of Vincenzo, I tried the Cuoppa d’Amalfi, a paper cone of fried seafood.  I got one with fried squid and fried shrimp. I loved the overly salted squid.  The shrimp tasted a bit “shrimpy” to me, so I am 0 for 2 on shrimp now. Perhaps my tastebuds have changed.

From Amalfi, we headed to Ravello which wasn’t too far away.  Vincenzo parked below, and we climbed the stairs into the square.  Ravello was a much smaller and quieter town that I LOVED.  It was much more my speed.  Vincenzo gave us two very good suggestions.  First, he said to walk past the archway where the concerts are held in the park because the view of the sea is the same, and there is no admission fee just 40 meters away.  He also suggested we go to Villa Cimbrone, a posh, old world hotel with fine dining and lovely gardens.  The walk through small alleyways past the Monastery was charming in and of itself, and the eight euro entry to the gardens was well worth the solitude.

The Cloister, adorned with interesting artwork and sculptures and the Crypt are to the left of the entrance   A long walkway covered in vines led visitors to the Statue of Ceres located beneath a pavillion marking the entrance to the Terrace of Infinity.  The natural balcony adorned with eighteenth century marble busts provided magnificent views of the multi-colored coastline.

I continued following a path which took me past additional statues tucked in the shade of oaks, alder and chesnut trees.  Soon I reached a lovely rose garden before I finally headed back to the square.  From the square, I took a short walk past the small row of shops before I joined the tour ride back to Sorrento.

My second day trip was to Capri.  I also booked this through Mondo Guides who contracted with Capitano Ago.  If swimming and riding a boat around the island and through the famous Faraglioni Rock formations is the goal, then this is the appropriate tour as it is limited to twelve people.  Having said that, the crew seemed to care more about their boat than their passengers, and I would not use them again. If seeing both Anacapri and Capri in addition to going to the Blue Grotto is first priority, then I recommend joining the masses on the ferry for half the price of the tour.

I picked this tour for less people, the ease of seeing the Blue Grotto, and for seeing both towns.  I knew that high tides could keep us from entering the Blue Grotto, so I asked at booking time if the tour was timed appropriately for the tides.  I was informed the tour doesn’t go in bad weather.  As such, when they switched my tour date from one day to another, I was under the impression the Blue Grotto was open. It wasn’t due to high tides.  I felt somewhat bamboozled.

Once on the island, four hours was not “plenty of time to visit both Capri and Anacapri” as the brochure claimed, so don’t make my mistake! Regardless, I tried to absorb as much in a I could.  I skipped through the town of Anacapri before riding the chairlift up to the top of Mount Solaro for panoramic views.  I took the path down, stopping to admire and old church and other ruins.  I quickly paid for the bathroom (which was a common and annoying theme in Amalfi – nickled and dimed for everything including “free” bread on the table which isn’t free), and then joined the bus line which fortunately was only took 15 minute.  It can be much longer and the taxis are a fortune, 25 – 40 euro for a ten minute ride.

I made it to Capri in time to get lost wandering through one narrow corridor and to take in the view from the square before I had to ride the bus again back to the marina to reload the boat.  I missed a variety of things in Capri which was disappointing, but at least I saw most of Anacapri which was also less busy.  Had I known the Blue Grotto would be closed and it took longer than the advertised four hours to see the two towns, I definitely would have booked the ferry.

My third and final day trip from Sorrento was to Pompeii and Vesuvius which was an easy train ride away on Circumvesuviana.  It took about 30 minutes to get to Pompeii and cost just a few Euro.  Upon arrival at Pompeii, there was a public bus departing to Vesuvius.  I paid the roundtrip fare to the bus driver, just under 7 euro and took a 45 minute bus ride to the ticket office at the top of a very winding road to Vesuvius.  The buses actually honked before entering the narrow blind turns to notify traffic oncoming traffic of their location.

I purchased a 10 euro ticket to the volcano that literally blew its top in AD 79 spewing stones, ashes and molten rock on Pompeii and Herculaneum.  While the eruption destroyed the villas, many of the artifacts were well preserved due to lack of air and moisture.  I was very excited to climb Vesuvius as volcanoes have always been fascinating to me, mostly because I’d like to see lava just once.  I followed the path to the top of the crater’s rim after an early stop to enjoy the only view of the densely populated coastline before I entering the low clouds.

The nice part about Vesuvius is the ability to walk around the rim.  The disappointing part is that it was enveloped in clouds, so it was hard to see anything at all. Additionally, the whole hike which was rather leisurely while taking pictures of white fog took less than hour.  Having previously been to the rim of a volcano, I’m not sure the ride over, waiting for the next bus pick up, and the ride back which took three times longer than the hike made it worth the visit, especially after I learned I missed going into the most preserved house in Pompeii by ten minutes!  Just something to keep in mind if tackling both sites in a day.

Anyway, on to Pompeii.  The bus driver asked me if I wanted to be dropped off at the train station or the ruins.  I said the ruins.  What I didn’t realize is that there are two entrances, the main one which is up the stairs from where I was dropped off and closer to the train station, or another nondescript one across the plaza from the road. The line was short at this entrance. I’m unsure if that was because it was a secondary entrance or because of the late hour (after lunch) which I understand is when the crowds dwindle.  While I enjoyed the quick entry after I pointed out to cashier she charged me for two on my credit card (I’m not sure if that was an error or not given she gave me cash back), I made two mistakes.  I forgot to ask for a map which I highly recommend having as Pompeii is basically a large maze!

Secondly, I was following the free guided tour by Rick Steve’s which is available online and it assumes entering through the main gate.  As such, not having entered the main gate, I was somewhat lost!  Fortunately, I had grabbed a tiny map from my hotel room, so I used it to steer me toward the main area.  I managed to find the Forum which was the fourth stop on Rick Steve’s tour and where I started.  I basically missed the main entrance and the main street, both of which I found later.

The Forum was the commercial, religious, and political center of Pompeii.  The Temple of Jupiter where people came to make offerings, marked the North end of the square. The City Hall stood at the South end.  The court house, with some stumpy columns remaining, could be found on the West side.

Before leaving the Forum, I checked out some of the artifacts in glass enclosures.  It’s amazing to think volcanic debris both destroyed and preserved this ancient Roman town that was rediscovered in 1748 by the Spanish military engineer,  Rocque Joaquin de Alcubierre.  What’s creepy is to realize the ash also preserved the very humans it killed!  The bodies decomposed leaving hollow spaces which were filled with plaster by archaeologists while excavating.  The last minutes of these peoples’ lives can be seen with the casts…incredible.

From the Forum, I headed to the baths, just past the modern cafeteria.  The baths have a men’s and women’s section.  After working out in the “gymnasium”, clients took a hot, warm, or cold bath.  The engineering of the bath house was impressive.  In the hot bath, or steam room, the floors were heated!  The fountain spilled water onto the floor, creating steam.  The ceiling included ribbing so that the condensation didn’t drip on patrons.  Who knew heated floor existed in 600 BC!

Across the street from the baths, were fast food joints!?!  Marble counter tops with holes for pots that contained food are still there today.  Apparently Romans didn’t cook much in their tiny apartments.

The next stop, just up the street from the fast food joints was the House of the Tragic Poet.  It wasn’t open, but visitors could still look through the glass into the entry hall. It didn’t seem like it was open often.

I returned past the fast food places to a giant arch which was part of Pompeii’s water delivery system.  A long aqueduct brought water to the city, but because the water pressure was poor, substations like this arch were constructed.  Its water tank was hidden atop the arch!  The aqueduct fed water to three independent systems…the bath houses, private homes of the wealthy, and neighborhood wells.  In the event of a water shortage, water was cut off to the bath houses first and homes second.  The fountains remained operational so all citizens could get water for cooking and drinking.

From the arch, I continued to the House of the Faun, Pompeii’s largest home.  With 40 rooms and 20,000 square feet, it covers an entire city block!  It is famous for a small life-like bronze and the floor mosaic of the Battle of Alexander.  Alexander is the only one without a helmet.

From the House of the Faun, I headed to the House of the Vetti, the most preserved house in Pompeii.  The sign at the door made it seem like it was open every day until 1:30.  What a bummer to just miss going inside.  I did get to look through the doorway of the bachelor pad to at least see a fresco in the entryway which featured a large erection.  The penis and the bag of money balance each other on the gold scale above a large bowl of fruit.  The meaning is: Only through fertility and money can one enjoy true abundance, the fruit.  The pool in the atrium, which I could also see, served as a water supply tank.

I continued on to a bakery mill which had flour grinders and a brick oven and a tavern before finally reaching a brothel or lupanare…there were several of each in the town. The brothel included several small rooms with stone beds and pillows. Above each door were painted frescoes possibly indicating different services rendered.  The prostitutes were always painted with white skin as this was considered beautiful. Prostitutes were known as lupa or she-woman for the call she made (like a howl) to attract business.

After visiting the brothel, I made my final stop at the theater, built into the hillside by the Greeks as Pompeii, an ancient Roman City, was founded by the Greeks and Etruscans around 600 BC.  The theater, which could seat 5,000 people, sat next to the Gladiator barracks and courtyard where the warriors practiced.  This is actually where I entered Pompeii.  Instead of leaving this way, I looped back to the main drag, wandered once more through the Forum, and then left by the Entrance as I finally had my bearings.

On the main drag, the basalt stones of the streets were the original Roman pavement and the sidewalks were raised to hide the plumbing.  The large stepping stones that crossed the streets let pedestrians get from one side to the other without stepping in the flooding water that the Romans used to clean the street.  Chariots, with standard sized axles, could straddle the stones and their wheels have left grooves in the pavement.  A street with one stepping stone was one-way, a street with two stepping stones was two way, and a street with three stepping stones was a major thoroughfare.  Three tall stones were traffic barriers which allowed for a pedestrian shopping mall.

a one-way street with grooves from the chariots

Pompeii was well worth the visit and the crowds were manageable.  I hear, however, Herculanean is very well preserved too with less visitors.  Herculanean is a longer train ride from Sorrento, but easily reached on the Circumvesuviana.  After about three to four hours in Pompeii, I was too tired to continue to Herculanean and returned to Sorrento for a quiet evening before heading to Tuscany for the next week.  All in all, I’m glad I visited the Amalfi Coast.  I was expecting it to be more relaxing, but that requires a longer stay!  ETB

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How to Do Rome in a Day!

I wrote our final day in Italy as a guest post for Darjeelin…a French travel website. Here is the link with additional pictures below:










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From Manarola to Pisa to Rome…

Since the Cinque Terre region was known for its hiking, and we had only completed one hike given the rest of the coastal path was under construction due to the floods of 2011 and 2013, I opted for one last hike before we left this morning.

I walked down the ten stories of stairs in to town for a coffee and croissant only to find breakfast places in Manarola are not open before 7am…neither was the grocery store. The path to Volastra, 0.55 KM, was estimated to take 30 mins according to the posted sign.

I started out on the route by the trekking store. It began with stairs. I climbed past the farmed terrain of mostly grapes and tomatoes up to a path directly across from our apartment. I crossed over the path and continued up more stairs as I followed a cable car route up the mountain past Manarola’s world famous nativity scene which is lit up for approximately two months over the winter and past shrines to Mary and other saints that were prevalent in every town.

Eventually I reached a path that turned to the right and was level for a few hundred yards as it led me by workers in the vineyards and old stone buildings. I thought I had finally reached the the top. Not so. A sign led me to the left up more stairs which continued the rest of the way. I wouldn’t be surprised if I climbed 1,000 stairs. Upon reaching Volastra at the top of the mountain, I hoped to enjoy a coffee and croissant. Again, I found nothing open, but I did find a church!

I continued on the path to Corniglia for just a bit because I wanted to see Manarola below. I finally got a view. It was a long way away! As I walked back down, a local was running the stairs…WOW. I took the loop path, so returning was a less steep grade that crossed the road a few times and then followed the river. It was pleasant, but not as pretty as the steep way up which I’ve learned in Italy also seems to be called “panoramic”.

The shops were finally open, so I grabbed us breakfast and ventured back up to our abode to enjoy our patio view one last time before we ventured to Pisa and then Rome past fields of sunflowers.

IMG_5129 sunflowers

Pisa was a fly by trip. We stopped to see the leaning tower and to have lunch. While the tower is famous for its “leaning”, it is also unique in that when constructed it was not attached to or erected near the church. While it is not the only example, it is rare.

The tower is made of limestone and is divided into eight segments called orders. A spiral staircase, with 293 steps, reaches six open galleries, an inner shaft closed by a vault and belfry at the top. We didn’t wait in the long line to climb the tower, but instead snacked on a pizza lunch before making the four drive to Rome’s airport to drop off our rental car.

Eventually we made it into parking garage B. All I could think of are the folks on the Amazing Race. I think we’ve been lost almost everyday…only by a few feet at times, but still circling!

Our Taxi driver was awesome. He took us directly to our Hotel S. Anna located next to the Vatican. A taxi ride from the airport is a flat 48 euro. We could have taken a subway and a bus for cheaper, but didn’t feel like lugging our bags around Rome! Our hotel was lovely with sizable rooms and a nice bath.

IMG_5132 s anna hotel

We freshened up and took a 30 minute walk to Campo di Fiori, a lively piazza. The Argentinians just scored in the World Cup, so chants of Messi were echoing from the restaurant patios eventhough he didn’t score. We found a restaurant recommended by Rick Steves, Trattoria der Pallaro, just off the beaten path, that serves you whatever they want for 25 euro. Wine, water, and an after dinner liqueur are included. We got plates full of surprises…tomatoes, mozzarella, lentils, bread, prosciutto, rice balls, two types of pasta, pork, salad, potato chips and pie. It was a feast and fun!

We finished up just in time to saunter back to Campo di Fiori to join the USA and Belgium crowds cheering for their respective teams. It was a valiant effort and at least the extra time was good, but the USA couldn’t claim victory. I suppose I will root for Belgium to win the World Cup. They looked pretty good, especially with one of their best players out. We strolled back to the hotel after midnight and stopped at Piazza Navona with the famous Four Rivers Fountain by Bernini before finally slipping into our twin beds around 1am. ETB


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Rounding out Cinque Terre…Riomaggiore and Corniglia

Our coffee shop by the passenger tunnel to the train station was closed this morning, so we had to try another place down Main Street closer to the harbor. They made crepes.  Heidi ordered a Nutella crepe and I tried a mozzarella asparagus one.  For me, it was nothing to write home about, but it was breakfast (the most important meal of the day :-)). Heidi’s looked rather tasty!

We finally confirmed that the entire coastal path was closed except the section that we hiked yesterday and that section was the hardest part!  If we chose to take any other paths, we’d have to climb to the top of the mountain. The 1km hike to Riomaggiore from Manarola was estimated to take 1.5 hours!?!  I’m still trying to wrap my head around that calculation, though last night when we started walking up the 200 plus stairs, it was slow going.  Therefore, train rides were in our future.

Of course, without knowing the schedule we arrived at the station with 30 minutes to spare, so we asked the station attendant the best way to purchase tickets. A pass to get on and off the train anywhere in Cinque Terre lasted 6 hours, otherwise individual ticket purchases were required.  Each ticket had to be validated at the entry station, otherwise a 50 euro fine was possible.


Our original plan was to visit Riomaggiore and then turn the other direction, passing Manarola to Corniglia before finally ending the day on a sunset boat ride in Levanto.  This was going to take more than six hours, so we purchased individual tickets. While we were waiting for the train, we strolled along the only street in Manarola.  The main street of Manarola, lined with boats instead of cars as they are not allowed, came to life at 10am…all six to eight shops opened! Heidi found a lovely painting for her apartment in Chicago.

This time, with the train schedule in hand and the ability to read it, we embarked on our three minute train ride which was uneventful except for the fact the regional trains aren’t terribly timely.

Starting out with the most negative thought first, Riomaggiore was my least favorite town in Cinque Terre. The colors of the buildings weren’t quite as bright…most were in need of a paint job.  It was smaller than Monterosso, but larger than Vernazza.  Of course, it offered the token church and castle/fortress/palace/tower to visit.  I may have simply just had my fill of these types of buildings, though we made the trek up the hill to see each.  The information signs were in Italian so it made the clock tower and crosses less interesting since we didn’t understand any of it.

The marina was nice and full of people. After we watched the waves crash over the rock barrier, we browsed the shops.  Most the shops carry the same items, risotto, olive oil, limoncello, wine, ceramic tiles, beach bags and jewelry.  A few had cute clothes, and I found a lovely dress for 35 euros!

After searching in vain for A Pie di Ma, a must see restaurant according to a blog post I read, we ended up at La Lanterna.  Heidi had spaghetti with clams, and I had fried shellfish which included anchovies.  I can’t say this satisfied my taste buds too much.  Perhaps my tongue was having an off day, though I think the way to go is pasta…each of those dishes has been fantastic.

After lunch, we ventured back through the tunnel to the train station, where we found the next train wasn’t departing for 45 minutes. We forgot to consult our schedule and just missed the previous train.  If our final destination weren’t Corniglia, we could have left a little sooner, but regardless we had time to visit the vendors by the station. It was Heidi’s turn to buy a dress.

As we waited on the train and watched the birds line the roof tops, we spotted a restaurant perched on the cliff jutting into the sea.  That had to be A Pie di Ma on the other side of the train station from town. Next time!

IMG_4423 birds

We eventually made it to Corniglia where we prepared to tackle the 365 steps up to the village from the station.  It is the only village that is not seaside, and climbing the stairs is the only way to get there from the train!  Heidi had a grand idea to count the days of each month and take a picture of our “birthday step”.  My April 14th birthday earned a bench on a landing.  Heidi’s August 17th birthday step earned a nice view of Manarola as we were 2/3rds of the way up.  We were pleased to find that the San Diego couple we met a few hours ago were correct regarding the difficulty level.  The steps were low and the grade was flat as the staircase switched back and forth up the mountain.  The couple had planned to hike to all five towns today, 11km.  While it doesn’t sound like much, given all the coastal paths were closed and mountain climbing was necessary, we wished them luck, especially when the gentleman claimed he’d do it four hours.  Wishful…there are way too many people to succeed at that!

I just absolutely loved Corniglia and its historic charm.  I don’t suppose I need to mention the church and the tower by now.  We did, however, enjoy walking down the narrow, stone sidewalk lined with shops, bars and restaurants that led to a beautiful panoramic view of the sea coast with Manarola to the East and Monterosso to the West.  We also found a soccer “field” which was cement with painted lines and nets hanging to keep the ball from going over the cliff or down the stairs.

We decided after all of our stair climbing, that we deserved gelato.  Two gelaterias stood right next to each other.  This has been a game for me…to see how many gelaterias I could find in each town.  Vernazza won with three in about 600 yards of each other.  The other places were home to two though I didn’t look that hard in Monterosso (there were probably more) given the size of the town.  Riomaggiore challenged me the most in my “I spy” game…I almost had to leave having only found one, but I spotted a second shop near the train station.  While we didn’t eat gelato in every town, I liked the caffe gelato at the gelateria closest to the train station in Manarola the best.

At 4:19, we hopped the sardine packed train back to Manarola, as our sunset cruise was canceled.  It was just as well, as we have had very busy days.  With one stop on the train and the hike up to our “penthouse”, I was relaxing in the cool breeze on our balcony, a necessity without air conditioning, by 5 pm.  Heidi decided to browse a bit more at the stores.  As I was staring down at the street at least eight stories below, all I could think was I didn’t want to walk down for dinner in three hours, so I texted Heidi (they seem to work within the Italian network, but not so great from America), “How about pasta and fruit salad?”  She bought the goods, and I cooked.  I suppose, never say never, as we were eager to use the kitchen we never intended to use!  We ate on the patio while we watched the World Cup on her phone as the sun set over the mountain.  It was a perfect final evening in Cinque Terre!!  Even the seagull tried to get in on the action.

My favorite places in Cinque Terre were Corniglia and Manorola, though they may be a bit quaint for some especially if staying more than three nights.  I found them far less crowded than Monterosso, Riomaggiore, and Vernazza, though Vernazza had a charm to it despite all the floods the last few years.  I’m not sure how I’ll handle bustling Rome tomorrow, but I am looking forward to seeing all the historic sites!  ETB

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The Coastal Trail from Monterosso to Vernazza

Oh what day again! It took me nearly 30 minutes to walk down all the stairs, around the footpath, order warm chocolate croissants and coffee, and make the trek all the way back up to our “penthouse suite.” I worked off my croissant calories before I even sat down!

IMG_4355 manarola

After enjoying our breakfast on the balcony overlooking the town and harbor below, we took the train to Monterosso. This may have been the busiest place we’ve been since we’ve arrived in Italy. There were tourists everywhere, pouring down every street. Monterosso wraps around both sides of the train station with the busier side being to the east, so we followed the mobs from the harbor, along the stone path, and through the tunnel to check out the town.

Monterosso has a few main streets lined with cafés, souvenir shops, and of course churches while a few palaces perch on the hillside for protection. It is also offers a coast of beaches for sunbathing. We were happy to find three ATMs too, as Manarola’s only cash machine didn’t work. Though so far, it seems restaurants have taken credit cards (we had heard otherwise).

The first church we visited, San Giovanni Battista, with its black and white stripe facade is a lovely example of Ligurian Gothic architecture. It was constructed between 1244 and 1307 under the Genoese maritime republic rule. Next door to the church stood the Mortis et Orationis Confraternitas. Dating back to the 17th century, the con fraternity which dressed in black robes aided widows, orphans and even the shipwrecked. Skeletons were carved into the eves and the trim and were even painted over the entrance.

As we wandered away from the harbor and up the wide streets, we veered onto a narrow stone street where we found the Santa Croce Oratory. Here the con fraternity wore white robes, cared for the sick, and ran the hospital until the mid-seventeenth century.

We attempted to venture up to the palace, but it did not appear open, so after meandering around the town and harbor we thought we’d take the Coastal Path to Vernazza for lunch. The lady we met from California last night said it required admission, and it was easy.

We climbed the stairs to the ticket booth where a sign warned no high heels allowed and paid 7.50 euros each for our chance to pass through the national park. The path led us along the coast providing magnificent views of Monterosso before it turned into the shade of trees. The trail climbed and climbed as we took step after step up the stone stairs dotted with wildflowers and flanked by old wooden gates, stone walls, and of course vineyards.

We continued following the red and white trail markers for SVA 2, though it was impossible to get lost as the path was well cut and heavily traveled. Narrow at times, we stepped aside for those traveling from Vernazza to Monterroso, though it seemed like the masses were going in our direction. Snapping a picture without a stranger in it was a feat and keeping the pace was important, otherwise a whole tour may have overtaken us.

I skipped taking a picture of a lovely, stone bridge that arched over a trickling waterfall, as I’m not sure it ever would have been clear of people and a secluded gate with “WC? Please not here” painted in blue. That was pretty funny. Wish I would have gotten that one.

Eventually, Vernazza finally came into view, much to the elation of Heidi. Here we also found locks of love dangling from a wire, and upon descending into town we found the trolley car that follows a raised cable bar along the path. I couldn’t for the life of me figure how they harvested their lemons and grapes climbing up and down all these stairs. What a great invention…the cable car! At the end of the path, we were greeted by musicians who played Italian tunes.

We considered it our celebration song, as frankly, I would have to say the “Coastal Walk” was a bit of a misnomer. We gained 600 feet in elevation almost immediately and spent the rest of the time walking well above the coast in a blanket of humidity. The 4km took us at least 1.5 hours! I don’t think the vertical distance of the 750+ stairs we climbed up and down is counted.

I thoroughly enjoyed the variety and beauty the hike had to offer, though if I had to do it over, I may have started earlier for cooler temperatures and less crowds, and I may have headed in the direction of Monterosso so there wasn’t always someone fore and aft, though I may have felt like a salmon swimming upstream, and we would have missed out on an awesome lunch at Belforte Ristorante (more on this later).

Vernazza, though smaller than Monterosso, with only one Main Street was equally as busy. The main street featured cute clothing shops, jewelry, the typical souvenirs, THREE gelaterias, and a handful of trattorias. Down by the harbor, tables shaded with umbrellas covered the stone street where tourists filled every seat.

We walked down to the point to try our luck at Belforte Ristorante, a three level restaurant on the cliff’s edge where the lower balcony gets sprayed by water during high seas. Nothing was available, so we made a reservation for 2pm, an hour away, and browsed in the town.

Once again, we stopped at the local church, Santa Margherita di Antiochia. Its windows offered a lovely view of the harbor (that’s probably where I’d be looking if I were sitting in a pew). I also found the confessionals intriguing, as the confessors kneel in public. I imagine anyone could hear ones wishes for forgiveness.

We also ventured through a tunnel carved out of the rock that led us to a beach. Kids were swimming despite the red flag warning due to an impending storm! Waves crashed over the rocks, and looking up behind us made me wonder if and when a house will just topple off the cliff, especially given the warning signs for falling rock.

Finally, lunchtime! We got the top deck of the restaurant…more stairs. My aunt recently gave me a fit bit, I’m anxious to see how many flights we climbed today. We walked 10,000 steps by noon, and at least 1,000 of them had to be straight up. Upon reviewing my iphone data, we walked 26,058 steps and 11.22 miles for the day (though it wasn’t adjusted for the Italy time zone, so it might be slightly off). It doesn’t tell me how many flights of stairs…oh well…A LOT!

I had the best pesto trofie pasta in the world! Heidi had pasta with shrimp and zucchini that was full of flavor. I’m not the biggest pasta lover at home, but in Italy, it’s a different story. Freshly made pasta is divine! And to top it off, the restaurant serves a free glass of Prosecco. We settled up our tab just as the sprinkles fell onto the bamboo roof of the outdoor patio and trekked to the train station (that sounded far, not really).

We don’t have the trains down yet. We just tell the ticket seller where we want to go, ask what platform to stand on, and know they come every 30 minutes or so. We’d be in a bit of trouble if we had to buy a ticket ourselves or read a schedule without taking 15 minutes to concentrate on it. And thankfully, the attendant reminded us to validate our ticket…no need to risk a hefty fifty euro fine for two euro one-way fare and short ride!

We had considered hiking to Corniglia from Vernazza, though we read the path was closed from the landslides a few years ago. Then we briefly considered stopping off in Corniglia on our way back because it is a one street town too, but the rain was heavy. Sweaty, tired, and knowing we had to climb at least four more flights of stairs to our “penthouse” if we walked the “long way” to avoid twice as many otherwise, we opted for home. We got a good soaking as we exited the train, but the rain lightened by the time we made it to the gelateria…caffe and chocolate for me…lots of pistachio for Heidi.

IMG_4961 gelato

After a relaxing late afternoon at our apartment, we attempted to walk to Riomaggiore for dinner. The map Heidi purchased claimed it took 20 minutes. We saw a trail sign near our place and followed at minimum 200 stairs up the mountain, and we weren’t to the top. This was not the 20 minute stroll along the SVA trail. It was another trail, number 531. This area has trails everywhere! After asking in the coffee shop, we found out the SVA trail was closed from Manarola to Riomaggiore as well. It also sounded like it would be hard to return on the train with a limited evening schedule, so we chose to stay in Manarola and eat at Marina Piccola Ristorante on the harbor. Awesome seafood risotto! After dinner we wandered out to the point for a beautiful view of Manarola lit up by lights. What a lovely sight! And what a busy and amazing day…we’ll sleep well tonight! ETB

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Montepulciano, Siena, and Cinque Terre!

Oh what a busy day! We had to wave good-bye to our fantastic host Gianluca and his family as we prepared to go from being 100% spoiled in Tuscany to self-sufficient in Cinque Terre. We left the four house complex that was built in the 1400’s and restored by Gianluca between 1999 and 2007 to take a round-about way to Cinque Terre. First, we stopped in Montepulciano, only 10 miles away and later Siena, a bit further.

As with every Tuscan town it seems, Montepulciano sat up on a hill, was home to many churches, a palazzo, restaurants, and a variety of stores including a famous copper store. Each town, including Montepulciano is laid out with a parking area upon arrival with a posted map and a water closet nearby, all very convenient when we were otherwise feeling constantly lost.

We started our walking tour strolling up a hill, enjoying the view and eventually making it into our first church, Chiesa del Gesu. It began construction in 1691 in the baroque style, was changed shortly after, and finished construction in 1730 under the supervision of three different architects.

From the church, we continued up the hill to the palazzo. Aside from the surrounding park, which didn’t allow futbol, the site wasn’t open so we continued up the hill.

IMG_4803 futbol

We passed by the torture museum which was advertised on billboards in all the small towns, as we got enough of a taste in the entry before we visited the cattedrale constructed in the 14th century on the Piazza Grande. It was adorned with flowers as it was being prepared for a wedding. No pictures were allowed inside.

Across from the cattedrale stood the Griffin and Lion well built in 1520. We have seen several throughout the region along with cool old water fountains. As we continued strolling around the streets, we stumbled upon an historic winery, De Ricci. It was free to tour, so we wandered through the dark tunnels storing giant barrels of wine. By now, it was time for lunch, so we ventured back toward the parking and found a trattoria. I tried Pici with pepper and Parmesan, one of Montepulciano’s famous dishes, and it was spectacular. Heidi had the gnocchi.

With a three hour drive to Cinque Terre and a one hour drive to Sienna, we were a feeling a bit pressed for time as we needed to meet Lorella, the lady from whom we rented our apartment. So off we went. As we weaved down the hill through the countryside, we noticed a few bystanders on the roadside. Shortly thereafter, we were waved to the side of the road and a bike race of fifty cyclists came storming through with support vehicles and all! How cool was that!?! Those boys were breathing heavy as they climbed that hill. It turned out it was the Italian National Road Race Championship. Of the 124 riders that started, only 49 finished. Vincenzo Nibali won. The race has been run since 1905 with the exception of the years during WWI. I found it kind of funny that such a big race didn’t even have the roads blocked. Here is the link in cycling news:

IMG_4837 cycling

After a few interesting turns, we finally made it to Siena and parked by the stadio (this is the best place to leave the car and walk). We enjoyed the nearby fountain, passed by tourist stands, popped our heads in a few leather stores, took a look at St. Catherine’s head in St. Domenico Catherine Basilica, and followed the signs to the Duomo, as this cathedral was supposedly the one to see compared to all others. We only went to the cathedral and library as we didn’t have time for the crypts and baptista, but it was beautiful.

The black and white exterior was magnificent, both near and far. The marble murals on the floor, the carvings beneath the windows, and the paintings that covered every ounce of the church were lovely. Even the wooden chairs were ornate. I’m certain every nook, color and image had a meaning, but we were just there to take in the grandeur before we moved on to Cinque Terre. Sienna deserved more than 1.5 hours, but at least we made it.

In Cinque Terre, we parked on the outskirts because cars aren’t allowed on the interior and rolled our bags through the parking lot and down the street until we reached the stairs. We climbed a few until we reached a sidewalk and found the address, 85. More stairs…ok…to a courtyard, where a couple questioned, “Are you looking for Lorella (in Italian)?”

Si, we replied.

They pointed to a narrow, stone staircase that curved up the hillside and said, “La Scala”. Ok, we could barely fit…but up we went. Lorella met us and commented, “Just a few more steps”. Really!?! We climbed four stories of stairs from their basement to our “penthouse suite.”

And we were blessed with a penthouse view. Our patio looks out over the whole town as the sun sets on the harbor! The two bedroom apartment was quaint with a small kitchen and bath. Another building included a separate kitchen that we will never be using!

We opened the windows, enjoyed the sunset, and set out for 9:30 dinner reservations at the most popular restaurant in town, Billy’s. We had a fantastic waitress who would not tell us her name and joked with us despite not knowing much English (though it was more than our Italian). We had the antipasto seafood sampler which included octopus, cuttlefish, shrimp fritters, a crab cake, two types of anchovies, two types of tuna, and some things we didn’t know what they were at all…12 things in total.

We also opted for the fish of the day, sea bass, and to our surprise she brought over a plate of three dead fish for us to choose from. We pointed to the one in the middle. It was the smallest. Thirty minutes later, the whole thing was presented on a platter. After she watched us attempt to filet it, she came over and helped!

Suddenly, we started making friends. A couple from California asked where we were from and gave us tips about hiking from town to town, and a table full of fun Italian ladies called us over once the free Limoncello and bitters were served. What a fun night until we couldn’t get the gate open to our apartment, “Oh, just force it,” Lorella said. We kind of felt bad to call her after midnight…but what a fun day and night! We’re ready to tackle a hike tomorrow…ETB


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Cycling to Sinalunga, Italy…Rewarded with a Pizza Party!

Before we arrived in Italy, Heidi and I requested bikes because we had always heard of amazing bike tours in Tuscany. After driving around for a day on the narrow and busy roads, we had second thoughts about riding them and had considered different plans for the day but forgot to tell Gianluca.

Gianluca has gone out of his way to give us suggestions and get us what we have needed at all times, so we felt at least obligated to ride down the street and back. We told the family we’d be back in 5 minutes and told Gianluca we were going to Betolle. “That’s only 700 meters”, he responded.

So we strapped on our helmets. Lunch boxes were attached to the handle bars held spares tubes, air cartridges, and tire irons. We were set for our adventure, with the first stop being the grocery store for Heidi’s much needed Diet Coke. Of course, we couldn’t find it…a common occurrence. We rode up and down the hills around the three streets and finally settled for water which turned out to be a smart purchase on this warm, sunny day.

From Betolle, we intended on riding to Sinalunga, however, we missed the turn and pedaled down the hill on a busy road. Most drivers were friendly, though one passenger yelled “boo” out the window which was quite a startle. Still in one piece, we decided to pull off the road and map out a different route back to the house.

We turned through a neighborhood and then on to a back country road. Within minutes we were riding along what appeared to be a gravel driveway, but it just kept going. We passed by fields, gated houses, a few signs we didn’t understand, vineyards, roses, and poppies as we admired towns perched on the hills in the distance. As we pedaled along, suddenly a DHL truck was coming toward us, ah…there was an exit!

It returned us back to the busy road only a few hundred meters from Betolle. Sometimes mistakes are the best! We had so much fun riding through the country side. From Betolle, and after an hour or so of riding, we thought we’d return to the house, but we missed the turn just as we were heading down another hill, this time in the direction of Sinalunga, so we just kept going. The hills proved challenging as we pedaled as hard as possible. We stopped for more water from the public fountain in Guazzino before riding a few more miles and crossing bridge where we could see Sinalunga perched on a giant hill in the distance! Just the sight of the town on the hill ended our desire and attempt to visit it. The grades for some of the town roads were like mountain passes.

We turned right through the round-about and looked for another way home that might not require us to climb the hill we just road down as Heidi astutely noticed, “There is not a shoulder where I can walk the bike up the hill.” We were headed toward the A1, the main highway with a 130 km speed limit.

“Perhaps it has a side road,” Heidi said to me.

“Would you want to ride on the side road to LBJ?” I responded.

Miraculously, there was another two lane road to follow (Heidi is an excellent navigator), but we certainly didn’t avoid any hills. We rode past old houses, grazing horses, and eventually topped out with a lovely view of Sinalunga.

Two and a half hours later though probably only 10 miles, it was well past lunch-time, so we stopped at the meat market picked up Salami, cheese, bread, soda, water, and a bottle of wine for only 13 Euro! We were proud of our ordering skills…knowing no Italian, we survived.

Lunch by the beautiful pool back at the house, Il Casale del Marchese, was in order. The rectangular pool was flanked by trees and flower gardens with a spectacular bath area. On one end stood the pizza oven and the other end a huge cabana with pool chairs, a ping pong table and a foosball table. We snacked on our tasty purchases as we shaded our arms, legs, and face which were null of sunscreen during the whole ride while worked on tanning our midsection.

Happy hour time soon rolled around and the rest of the family joined us after a day in Cortona. We moved from the pool chairs to the shaded table and chairs by the enormous pizza oven. Gianluca and his mom made us at least ten pizzas with sausage, ham, tomato, olive, mushroom, artichoke, arugula and more. The final one was Nutella! The wine poured all night while Clarke played the guitar which Gianluca secured from a friend. What a great way to spend our last night in Tuscany!

We’ll do some more exploring tomorrow before finding our way to Cinque Terre…ETB


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Cooking and Wine Tasting in Tuscany!

I started my Tuesday morning travel with alerts on Monday night from American Airlines that my flight from Denver to Chicago was delayed. It wasn’t going to matter as I had a long connection time to get to Rome, but it seemed getting out of O’hare wasn’t any better. Our delayed departure due to mechanical difficulties was scheduled to leave just as a storm built into a supercell, thus Heidi and I sat on the terminal floor a bit longer. Three hours later, we finally made our way to Rome on an airplane without wifi or personal TVs. I’m certain some folks were disappointed; I just made my best effort to sleep. After landing, we sifted through customs and wandered around in search of the rental car counter, which turned into another fiasco. All the “joys” of travel were soon erased when we arrived to our 11 bedroom estate in Tuscany just in time for cooking class! Marci, my step-mom rented the lovely place, and we got to enjoy the last few days she had it with my sister Liz and her family and my sister Christian and her family.

We learned how to make spinach and ricotta ravioli along with chicken wrapped around mozzarella, spec, and spinach fastened with a tooth pick. For the ravioli, we kneaded the dough, flattened it in a pasta cutter, folded it over the filling and cut it into squares. It was divine! The chicken was delicious too. It was pounded flat. We placed a piece of spec, some spinach and some cheese on top and rolled it up with a spring of thyme. Gianluca and his mom were excellent cooks and hosts at the Il Marchese house as they served us in a grand dining room.

Bedtime couldn’t have come fast enough after 24 hours of travel, though a sleeping pill still called my name with the time difference. Heidi and I retired to our apartment, which was attached to the main house, with two bedrooms and a living/kitchen area which was attached to the main house. Each sleeping area was named. Ours was called Tabaccaia.

IMG_4733 house sign

I squeaked four hours off the sleeping pill and tossed around until about 7:15 before showering and heading down to 8am breakfast. Breakfast included cappuccino, tomatoes, salami and cheese, toast, croissants, lemon bread, cereal, yogurt, fruit, jams, and Nutella. It was a nice spread that we enjoyed at the breakfast table on a manicured lawn (mowed by a self propelled mower named Ambrogio) with a view a converted barn, ivy arch, well, and surrounding landscaping.

By 8:30, Heidi and I along with Christian and Craig were off to our first wine tasting in Montalcino at Castel Giocondo owned by Frescobaldi. The estate was so large, 2,500 acres, that it did not have an address making it somewhat difficult to find. After a few calls to Nadine, we finally entered through the brick columns and followed a gravel road a few kilometers to the office. From there, our guide Nadine, drove us to the processing area.

The quality of the grapes are monitored throughout the year and harvested between late August and October. The wine goes through two fermentation processes in large steel vats before it is transferred to enormous oak barrels. The oak is used multiple times thus provides little flavor to the wine.

The Frescobaldi family produces 10 million bottles of wine throughout its seven Tuscan estates, but the Brunello is one of the wines that is produced at the location we visited. Brunellos are only produced in the Tuscan region using 100% San Giovese grapes. This particular wine was stored for three years in a smaller French oak barrel that had been used multiple times and then bottled where it needed to age for two more years.

At the tasting we were treated to four wines including their 2007 Brunello which was five stars! I personally liked the Mormento produced in the Chianti region and used it to wash down the meats, cheeses and breads they served with the tasting. I may have had the best salami ever…super tender, not rubbery at all!

After our wine tasting we stopped along the property to enjoy picturesque views before Heidi and I went on to Montalcino. Montalcino is perched on a hill and was once protected by an old fortress, now a place to taste wines. We meandered along the steep streets passing by a few shops, but staying near the city center with easy access to our car as a storm was brewing.

From Montalcino, we moved onto Cortona, about an hour away. Cortona sat high upon a hill as well. It was home to several piazzas, a museum, magnificent views and more, but the storm finally reached, and it was not just a small rain shower. The lightning and thunder struck simultaneously. We were in its center, and it was so loud that a little kid taking cover with his mom next to us under the theater’s portico was shrieking while covering his ears with his hands. Luckily, we had purchased some gelato just before the skies unleashed, so we waited out the storm for the next hour savoring hazelnut and pistachio flavors.

The rain let up just in time for us to get home and prepare to watch the World Cup soccer match. Gianluca led us to Foiano, a nearby Italian town, where we drank Scottish beer in an Irish Pub while watching the USA play Germany in Brazil…definitely international. We had Bell’s Pub to ourselves. Umberto and Lucia were wonderful hosts. They played the game just for us and prepared several crostini appetizers in advance of us arriving. It was so nice of them! What a great way to enjoy an early evening before heading back to the house.

What a fun day! I’m ready for what Italy has to offer tomorrow! ETB


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