Saturday, September 28, 2013

On the Way to Tuscany

On the Way to Tuscany

Sunday, September 22, 2013

It was time to say good bye to our Australian friends and to Cinque Terre. It was amazing how quickly four days had passed, how much time we had spent together in that time and yet, how fleeting the connections seemed to be.  As always, Jim and I were welcomed as part of the group, as pseudo-Aussies, and that is what makes it so difficult to leave this group, knowing we will see them all again, yet not knowing when.

We waved goodbye to the group and got back into our car which had been sitting idle for four days. We were on our way to Tuscany by way of Portofino and Pisa. 

On the way north to Portofino, we soaked in stunning views of both mountains and sea coast. The freeway paralleled the coastline and tunneled through mountains. We lost track counting after 20 tunnels, some of which were almost 2 kilometres long.

Villages dotted the hillsides on both sides of the highway. We wondered why they were built in such rugged and remote locations. Often a bell tower soared into the sky well above the other buildings.

We left highway and travelled on a local road around the peninsula coast to Portofino. We passed through Ragalio and Santa Margherita in Ligure along the way. There is only one road into the peninsula and the same road back out to the main highway. As pretty as it was to be driving within metres of the sea, we tried to imagine what this place would be like at the height of tourist season.

Finally we reached Portofino, parked the car and walked the short distance to the main square on the waterfront. Although it was still mid morning, it was already hot and it was crowded!! Shops and cafes were all bustling. We sought a table in the shade and ordered a cappuccino. FIVE Euros ($7.00) each!! Portofino lived up to its reputation of being an expensive place. After finishing our cappuccino and our people watching, we strolled down toward the water to look at the yachts that were crowded into the small port area. Wow! Breathtaking! Jim took my photo in front of the town clock, sponsored by Rolex. I think that says something about the town in and of itself.

We had had enough of Portofino by this point and began to wander back toward the car. We popped into a very busy bakery to pick up some bread for lunch. We purchased 2 small panettones, one for lunch and one for breakfast tomorrow. Our jaws dropped when the server handed us a ribbon-wrapped package and said, “26 Euros, please.” That was almost $35.00 for two small loaves of bread. Add on eleven more euros for parking and this was likely the most expensive hour of our entire trip!!

We did enjoy the lovely coastal drive back out to the highway. And then we headed south, back through the tunnels, eventually passing the Levanto exit where we had started this morning

The landscape along our route was constantly changing. Mountains got higher with multiple ranges visible in the distance. Some were quite white on some slopes. The white areas almost looked like glaciers but were actually marble quarries. In this area some of the world’s finest marble is harvested. We noticed many marble factories along the sides of the highways with massive slabs of marble awaiting processing.

The land flattened as we drove further south. Agriculture abounded – corn, tomatoes, horses, vineyards and the iconic sunflowers of Tuscany. Sadly the blooms were slightly past their prime. No beautiful sunflower photos for us.

Pisa was amazing. Yes, there is a tower there that leans … and I gasped audibly when I saw it. I have held this image in my mind for probably 50 years and there it was for real. The tower was much larger around than I expected. We walked around it, gazed at the top, studied the lean and did our best to take a photo of me holding up the tower. We did not get it quite right but it was fun trying.

We also visited the Baptistry, a beautiful yet gentle 8 sided building with very little in it other than a pulpit and a large central baptismal font. Galileo was baptized here. One of the significant features of this bapstistry is the quality of the acoustics. Periodically throughout the day, a chanter will come in and sing three notes. As he lets go of one note, the sounds hangs in the air of the space. As he produces the second note, the two notes blend in harmony and when he produces the third note, this man has effectively created a three part harmony sound all by himself. What an amazing sound it was. The people in the baptistry were respectfully silent until the last note seeped away. We were awed by the experience.

The Pisa Cathedral was large and elegant. It featured a huge, ornate, gold leaf ceiling, beautiful stained glass windows, and detailed carvings on original pulpit.  With the original pulpit left in place, a new pulpit and sacrament table were recently  installed. They are much more contemporary in style although very tasteful and beautiful. Not surprisingly, this decision created much controversy within the congregation. One can only imagine the tenor of the committee meetings leading to this decision.

How much marble does it take to built a cathedral or a Baptistry or  a tower? How was that marble quarried and transported to the building site? How many skilled marble workers were on site creating the magnificent buildings that now command our attention? There seems to be a trend to create broad black and white marble stripes in the facades of many of these buildings.  To achieve such a pattern would certainly require substantial skill and much precision in the work.

Finally it was time to move on, to head for Tuscany and the countryside apartment we will be sharing with friends, Deb and Bill, for the next 6 days. We left the main highway and travelled on more local roads, passing through wonderful agricultural land and crossing hills in and out of valleys. Our destination, La Ripa near Ulugnano, was a bit difficult to find but its setting and facilities made it all worthwhile. The view of the hilltop village from the window is perfect.

So was the pasta and pesto from Portovenere that we enjoyed for dinner and the long, quiet pleasant evening we spent engaged in conversation with good friends.

Monday, September 23, 2013

We were up early in the morning, eager to get on with the day’s adventure. Breakfast consisted of panettone from Portofino and parmesan cheese from Parma. It was a great way to begin an exciting day.

Deb, Bill , Jim and I all hopped into the car and headed for the village of San Gimignano, visible from our rural apartment but still several kilometres away. San Gimignano is a village that was initially constructed many hundreds of years ago (1200’s). It was walled city with a myriad of main streets, side alleyways and public plazas. As the village grew, newcomers built homes along the roadways. There were many different styles of stone, brick and other materials used in the construction. One thing was consistent though. You could almost say that this is the place that ‘keeping up with the Jones’s’ got started. As new homes were built, each builder strived to make the new one taller than any other building in town. The result is that this town has a unique skyline punctuated by up to 14 towers which rise above the homes of the initial wealthy landowners.

Today, San Gimignano is a haven for tourists. The street level of most buildings is filled with shops – leather, specialized food items, tourist trinkets, ceramics, linens, wine, chocolate, cafés, shoes ….. The upper levels are either homes and apartments owned by permanent or holiday residents. Many others are holiday rentals. I can only imagine what the rental rates would be to live inside the walls of San Gimignano.

In spite of the crowds, we thoroughly enjoyed our day. What was anticipated as a fairly short visit extended into a several hour excursion including lunch. I must say that Deb and I enjoyed the shops more than Bill and Jim and, in the end, they were very patient about waiting at the gate through which we would exit the village. It’s a good thing there was a café nearby.

From San Gimignano, we travelled on several beautiful roads surrounded by the patterned and rolling landscape of Tuscany. Olive groves and vineyards dominated this part of the countryside. More than once, each of us was heard to say, “Pinch me. Am I really in Tuscany?” It is truly more beautiful than I could ever have imagined.

We finally arrived at Poggibonsi, the home of the closest supermarket. It was time to stock up on some food for the week as we had facilities to prepare our own meals. PAM was the supermarket that was suggested to us. It was large, well lit, and well organized. Yet, at the beginning of our shopping expedition, it all felt a little overwhelming. Familiar foods with unfamiliar customs for purchasing them …. Or unfamiliar foods with labels in Italian.

We had prepared a list and slowly made our way through the items we needed. Fresh fruit and vegetables were abundant. Each item needed to be bagged, weighed and labeled in order to be ready for the check-out. Staples such a cereal and crackers were easy to find but the brands were generally unfamiliar. Fewer options seemed to be available than we have at home. Cheese and other dairy products were challenging since we could not read the language and, even if we could, we were not familiar with the kinds of cheese that are readily available in Italy. We found bread, eggs and meat. But we searched and searched for milk. We finally discerned that fresh milk was generally not available anywhere and we thought we would have to purchase UHT milk. Finally, Jim found a small quantity of fresh milk at the front of the store. Our shopping experience had ended with success. We loaded our groceries into the car and headed home. Deb and I were looking forward to preparing a home made meal in our Italian kitchen. It was well equipped although there was no microwave.

Dinner consisted of pasta, sauce, fresh salad and fruit. A healthy and tasty alternative to the restaurant meals we have been having. Many more nutritious and tasty meals with good company lie ahead of us this week.

Tuesday, September 23, 2013

A new day dawned and new adventures awaited. Deb and Bill were off early to catch the train to Florence. Jim and I had a slightly more leisurely start. Our goal for the day was to simply roam and explore the Tuscan landscape. The sun shone gloriously and beckoned us out onto the roads.

We left our town, Ulugnano, and headed back toward Poggibonsi on a different road than the one travelled yesterday. We were excited when we saw PAM, the supermarket again, and felt like we knew where we were.

The roads in Tuscany follow the contour of the hillsides and rise to the tops of the hills and tumble back into the valleys, sometimes rising or descending in a gentle manner and sometimes using a more straight-line approach to descend or ascend a hill. The hillsides and valley floors are filled with vineyards and olive groves planted in straight lines at varying angles. The result is beautiful patchwork quilt effect stretching for as far as the eye can see.

Tuscan homes, built from yellow or red stone, dot the landscape and at the top of many hills, church bell towers rise to meet the sky. We passed through several quiet villages throughout this day.

Two specific villages caught our attention and invited us to linger. Panzano was the first one. It was perched high on a hill overlooking a vast valley. We drove to the upper town and enjoyed simply sitting on a park bench admiring the countryside that stretched for miles below. Such precision, such beauty, such colour … Pinch me! Am I really in Tuscany?

We strolled along the ancient streets of Panzano, stopping at the foot of the steps leading to the stunning church perched atop the hill. Flowers baskets adorned each step as we made our way up to the door. Once inside, we were touched by the simplicity of what we saw. This was a very modest church, starkly contrasting with the cathedrals and basilicas we have visited recently. It was quiet and cool, elegant yet peaceful. The nave was adorned with ancient and well worn frescoes and the large front doors featured beautiful bronze carvings of well known stories. This church is a treasure in Tuscany.

From the church we proceeded to the lower town where we were seeking a particular butcher shop, Antica Macelloria Cecchini's Butcher Shop. This butcher is known for his incredible skill, the flavour of his meats (beef and pork) and his amazing marketing skills. From the instant you enter his shop, you know you are going to have a unique experience.

Classical music fills the tiny shop as the staff offer special focaccia, salami and pork butter on bread to all who enter. Red wine is poured into glasses and a party atmosphere permeates the space. Behind the counter stands Antica, carving meat, preparing packages, arranging the display case, serving customers. Antica is known far and wide for the quality of his meat and claims that he is in the business of selling meat and will use all techniques available to achieve this goal.

One strategy that has proven to be very successful for him is to open first one, then two and now four restaurants that feature his meat on the menu. No vegetarian options in these places. Jim and I decided to have lunch in the open air rooftop restaurant located above the butcher shop. We were escorted up the stairs and shown to seats at a very long table. We were joined, coincidentally, by 4 other Canadians as well as a German couple.  A lively conversation accompanied out meal.

As the menu is prix fixe, it was simple to select our lunches. Jim and I each had a succulent quarter pound burger (no bun) accompanied by crudités, special olive oil, Tuscan soup, Tuscan beans, fried potatoes, grilled onions, red wine and later, coffee and cake. The fare …. 15 Euros (about $20.00) To complete the experience, in the butcher shop, we purchased some roast pork to share with Deb and Bill for dinner. It looked as delicious as the burgers had.

We walked back to the car, exclaiming over and over how good lunch had been. The food was delectable, the company was great and the setting absolutely beautiful.

We spent much of the afternoon exploring more roadways, stopping to admire views and take photographs whenever traffic and road conditions allowed (the roads are very narrow and winding). We visited another small village named Gaiole, reported to be the prettiest village in all of Tuscany. A small river ran alongside the main road through town and flower beds and pots adorned the roadway, public spaces, and private homes. It was indeed a delightful place.

Unfortunately, we arrived in Gaiole during the traditional afternoon siesta time (approximately 2 – 5 pm) when most shops and many cafes and restaurants are closed. We were sorry that we did not have the opportunity to explore Gaiole to the extent we would have enjoyed.

Heading back home, we realized that we were on several roads that we had seen earlier in the day. Landmarks were becoming familiar and we felt we knew where we were. I am not ready yet to head out without benefit of a map or GPS though.

I went for a swim when we arrived ‘home’. The day was hot and the water refreshing. In fact, it was downright cold!! Although the days are still hot, the nights are quite cool (wonderful for sleeping) and the water is settling into its fall temperature. Nonetheless, it was refreshing and washed away the heat of the day.

Another homemade meal completed the day, and we all whiled the evening away catching up on email, diaries, blogs and photographs. What a comfortable place to be with good friends.

Wednesday, September 24, 2013

Jim and Bill headed off for a truffle hunting expedition this morning, complete with dogs sniffing and digging the truffles they found. After collecting the truffles, the men then participated in the preparation of food using the truffles they had dug and enjoyed a large lunch with truffles on most things along with some very good red wine. They were completely sated when they arrived back at our apartment.

Deb and I had a totally different kind of morning. First, we tried to do the laundry and learned that the machine was broken. Our landlord immediately called a repairperson and also took our laundry with him to do the washing in his machine. Other than knowing he was handling our ‘delicates’, we were quite content to await his return with our clean laundry. We hung it out on the line under the Tuscan sun and headed off into the nearby village of Ulugnano.

Ulugnano is a small village that has basically one main street that runs from the bottom of a long hill all the way to the top, a couple of kilometres in total. We had hoped to find a café, a grocery store, a bakery … almost anything in the village that would be of some interest. We were sorely disappointed with our exploration. Other than several older men sitting on benches along the road, there was virtually nothing of interest in this village. One shop, a combination bar/café was open for business but was singularly uninviting. We went in and asked where we might find a bakery and were told in very clear English, “Not in Ulugnano.”

So we got back into the car and drove the short distance to Poggibonci where we parked and wandered around the central area of the town. Poggibonci is predominantly an industrial town with virtually no tourist attractions at all. We did find a lovely church in the middle of town, a number of apartment blocks with laundry hanging out the windows,  some stylish clothing stores and a few white linen restaurants. It was almost noon and the streets were almost empty of people. Shops were closing as siesta time began.

We happened upon a modest patisseria that offered cappuccino or espresso for one euro and sweet items also for one euro. It was a great find!

Following our coffee, we headed along the main street of town and realized that there were many more shops than we had encountered in the town square. Overall, it was a humble town, one where real people seemed to live and work. Quite a contrast to many of the tourist meccas we have been in in previous days.

Our final stop in Poggibonci was at PAM, the supermarket. We needed a few items for our enjoyable homecooked meals. It was easier to find them all in the store this time. We were at least slightly familiar with its organization.

We arrived home just after Jim and Bill and spent the balance of the afternoon chatting, reading, using the internet and sleeping. It was a luxuriously relaxing day for all of us.

Dinner consisted of pasta with home made sauce and a tossed salad. It was delicious!

Thursday, September 25, 2013

Today was a day for Donna and Deb to have an adventure. Early this morning we headed off to Certaldo to attend a Tuscan cooking class at La Cucina di Guiseppina (Josephine’s Kitchen).  We were a bit early for the class so our day began with a stroll through part of the upper town in Certaldo, a medieval walled city. There were very few people on the streets and the town was quiet. We walked along inner streets, through alleyways, into courtyards and along the outer walls. It was a beautiful place and has been well preserved. Archways, towers and elaborate brickwork punctuate every street. What a great way to begin our day.

At 10:30, Deb and I proceeded to La Cucina and donned our red aprons. It was clear that we were going to learn a lot, indulge in much delicious food and wine and have a good time doing it. Guiseppina and her daughter-in-law were working together to prepare for and instruct this class. Both women spoke good English and were eager to engage in conversations on many topics, especially related to food. It was evident right from the start that Guiseppina was passionate about food, passionate about teaching about food, and passionate about creating a successful business enterprise with food as the central component.

The menu for the day was shared with us – bruschetta with cannelloni beans, antipasto, fettucini DonnaMaria, chicken with vegetables and finally, tiramisu.

We made the tiramisu first, beginning by beating one egg and adding sugar. Biscotti was dipped in espresso coffee and laid in the bottom of a dish. Marscoponi cream was blended with the egg mixture and placed on top of the biscotti. Chocolate was sprinkled on top and it was placed in the fridge. Presto … as easy as that!

Then we moved on to the chicken dish which had to cook for the longest time. Garlic and sage along with the chicken, including the skin and bones, was placed in a fry pan with olive oil. Over medium heat, the chicken was coated and turned over several times as it cooked through. When the oil was absorbed into the chicken a healthy portion of white wine was poured into the pan to provide additional moisture. Meanwhile, the vegetables were being prepared – onion, zucchini, red pepper and tomatoes were cleaned and chopped. When they were ready they were added to the chicken along with another healthy portion of white wine. A cover was placed on the pan, the heat turned down and the dish was left to simmer.

Next came the bruschetta. Thick crusty bread was lightly toasted while more tomatoes, basil, garlic and cannelloni beans were prepared. When the bread was ready, the beans/tomato mixture was generously placed atop the bread. Deb and I were offered Chianti to sip and escorted out to the Certaldo wall where we ate the bruschetta and sipped wine while looking out over the Tuscan countryside. The sun shone brightly and the day was glorious.

We also nibbled on our antipasto course – hard cheese, salami and onion marmalade. One of Certaldo’s main agricultural products is sweet red onions. The marmalade was a delicious complement to the foods before us.

Soon enough though, we were invited back into the kitchen where we learned to make pasta in the traditional way. A portion of flour was placed on a wooden board and a well was created in the middle. One beaten egg was poured into the well and our task was to mix the flour with the egg until the dough no longer stuck to our hands. Just the right moment … Then we kneaded the dough until it was spongy to touch and it was set to rest under a cotton towel for 10 minutes.

No rest for us though …. Now we needed to make the sauce, a simple combination of fresh tomatoes (have I mentioned how delicious the tomatoes are here?), basil, garlic and onion. We prepared the vegetables and set them aside until the pasta was completed.

Back to the pasta …. We cut the pasta into small sections and began to put it through the pasta machine. I had no idea that in order to make thin pasta, the dough had to pass through the machine as many as 8 times, each time pressing it thinner and thinner. Great exercise for the upper arms, I assure you. Finally, the pasta was appropriately thin and we could pass it through the fettucine setting. A little flour to dust it and a pot of boiling water to cook it came next. While the water was boiling, we cooked the vegetables for the sauce. Only slightly cooked them to blend the flavours but not lose the shapes. The fettucine was placed in the water and only allowed to boil for about 3 minutes. Then the fettucine was placed into the sauce on the stove and stirred.  Presto … onto the plates and another course for lunch was served. If I do say so myself, it was superb! Probably among the best pasta I have ever eaten. Yum!!

Next came the completed chicken dish, equally delicious … along with more wine. Chianti, of course, made by Guiseppina’s family. Deb and I were beginning to fade a little – so much food, so much wine and it was only noon.

Yet, we managed to save space for the tiramisu, another culinary triumph!!

We virtually waddled away after lunch and met up with Jim and Bill who took us home (La Ripa) in nearby Ulugnano where we relaxed for the balance of the afternoon. It would be fair to say that dinner was a meager affair this night.

Friday, September 27, 2013

Today began early as we all headed off together to visit the city of Siena. We left early so that we would be ahead of most tourists. The traffic was a challenge en route and it took us longer to travel there than we had anticipated. Bill did a great job driving under arduous circumstances.

Once we were there, we were very glad that we had come early. It was clear by the number of people already in the upper town that it was going to be very crowded as the day went on.

The climb from the parking lot to the upper town looked daunting, that is, until we discovered the 5 escalators that had been installed to transport people to the upper level. Each escalator was en extension of the one below it. It was a long way to the top!

Siena is another walled city and has been superbly preserved over time. The buildings are in good repair. Narrow streets and alleys crisscross throughout the town and roadways follow the contour of the land with steep slopes whether going up or down. Overall, it was a beautiful and interesting place to spend a couple of hours.

We had two specific destinations in mind when we came. The first was the duomo, the cathedral which is the focal point of the entire city. The bell tower rises far above the walls and buildings,  built with black and white marble in the 11th century.

The exterior of the cathedral was magnificent, built entirely of marble in many different hues – pink, white, grey, black. Columns punctuated the exterior of the cathedral and each column was beautifully carved in a unique pattern. Although very detailed, it was not ostentatious in any way. The overall effect was tasteful and beautiful.

Inside the cathedral was equally stunning. Tall columns of marble supported the ceilings and the central dome. Chapels along the side also had smaller domes. The pipe organ was magnificent, three consuls of pipes, including a section of horns that extended out from the pipes. The walls of the cathedral were covered with large paintings and murals. Of particular note was the library where there were 16th century frescoes that looked like they had been painted last year. The colours were so vivid and fresh that it was difficult to believe they were already 5oo years old!

But the feature of the Siena Cathedral that sets it apart is the marble artwork on the floors. Inlaid marble is found everywhere in many intricate and beautiful patterns.  Fifty-six marble murals depicting scenes from biblical stories cover most of the floor of the cathedral. For 9 months of the year, these murals are covered so as to preserve the murals. We were fortunate to be here during the period of time that the murals were visible to the public. Red ropes cordoned them off so that no one would walk on them. Visitors quietly moved from one to the next to admire the truly exquisite work of the artists who created them.

After exploring the cathedral, we headed for the Piazzo Publica, a large open plaza built in the shape of a large seashell. It is of such a size that the ring around the exterior is used for horse races. The crowd that gathers fills the central area during the races. It is described as a spectacle to behold. It was still early in the day when we were there and, although the crowd was growing, it was difficult to imagine how many people it would take to fill the entire square.

We walked along streets and through alleys, under arches and past sculptures until we reached the escalators that had carried us to the top. I walked down the stairs while Jim rode along in comfort. I wish I had counted how many stairs there were, several  hundred to be sure.

We met Deb and Bill at the bottom and headed back to the car to make our way to our next destination. Deb especially was curious about the butcher shop we had visited in Panzano earlier in the week so we were returning there for lunch today. Once again, Bill did an outstanding job of driving along the winding hilly roads through the Tuscan landscape. It does not really seem fair that, while the passengers oooh and ahhh and the views from the car, the driver has little time to enjoy any of it, lest he miss a turn in the road.

The butcher shop was busy when we arrived but it did not take long for us to be seated in one of the restaurants and offered a delicious beef burger meal. We were hungry, the food came promptly and we were sated easily.

Next stop was Greve, a nearby village with a unique approach to wine-tasting. They had over 140 wines on offer. One needed to purchase a ticket and proceed to taste the wines of choice, deducting a fee from the card for each wine tasted. The prices varied with the age of the wine and the size of the sample. Jim was especially interested in some $100+/bottle wine which he knew he would never have the opportunity to taste in any other setting. It was fun to sample such wines without having to buy a whole bottle.

The afternoon was wearing on and it was time to head back to La Ripa for our last evening there. Beautiful sunshine, stunning landscape and great company was all part of this final journey together.

Tomorrow morning, we will all take our leave and head in different directions for the balance of our Italian experience. It has been a wonderful week together, a week of fun, relaxation, exploration and conversation. When we will meet again is not known at the moment but we have some great memories to carry us through until our paths cross once more.

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