Thursday, October 3, 2013

Let the Road Trip Begin

Let the Road Trip Begin

Saturday, September 28, 2013.

We said an early farewell to Deb and Bill this morning, a bittersweet occasion as it marked the end of a fabulous week at La Ripa, our rural apartment and our shared Tuscan adventure. We were all on the road by 9 am with great plans for the day. Deb and Bill were on their way to Venice and we were in the first day of the next part of our journey, a three week road trip to the south of Italy.

Well, we did not get far before we made our first stop. Along the laneway from La Ripa to the main road, we encountered a grape harvester at work in the vineyard. We simply had to stop and watch the process.

The harvester travels down a row of vines with a part of the machine on each side of the row. The middle of the machine sits quite high as it needs to travel along the row above the grapevines while the components on each side of the vines harvest the grapes. The grapes are harvested by actually removing them from their stems, one by one. After the machine passes by the grapes are in the harvester and the stems and empty bunches remain on the vines. Amazing!

Once the harvester has travelled along two sets of vines, it raises its collection bins one at a time and pours the grapes into a large metal container on a wagon behind a tractor. There are two collection bins to empty, one from each side of the grape vines. We were surprised to see how the grapes retain their shape and their juice during the harvesting process. The tractor then transports the grapes to the wine-making site and the processing the grapes into wine begins.

It was great to see this harvesting on the day we were leaving Tuscany. We have been fortunate in our timing as we have seen fields of sunflowers on the brink of harvest and vineyards laden with grapes – purple, red, green and white – ready to be harvested as well.

Finally, we got back in the car and headed toward Firenze (Florence). It was to be our main stop for the day before spending a few hours on the highway. It took less than an hour to drive there and we were pleased to find that the traffic was not nearly as bad as had been described to us. We drove right into the centre of the city and parked at the railway station parking lot. It was fascinating. Cars were parked on two levels; the cars on the top level were mechanically lifted so that each parking space was actually doubled, something like a two tier cake dish. Parking lot attendants were swift and efficient. Cars vanished from the pull-in area in a matter of one or two minutes and were returned to us just as swiftly when we came back later in the day.

Florence is another of many walled cities in this area of Italy. We are not accustomed to seeing buildings that are up to 800 years old. It was all quite breathtaking as we wandered along cobbled streets and narrow alleyways.

Florence has a wonderful cathedral in the core of the city with the fourth largest dome in the world. It was a must see! As we approached the cathedral, the enormity of it became a reality. It was not possible to capture the entire building in a single photograph. And the beauty of the outside of the building was astounding, rivaling the cathedral in Siena in the ornate patterns and beautiful colours in the marble used to construct this edifice. The inside of the cathedral was much simpler than Siena, but not less beautiful, with inlaid marble floors, beautiful stained glass windows and enormous paintings and carvings depicting biblical scenes. Magnificent ….  The only word that begins to describe this cathedral.

We left the cathedral and explored the central area within the city walls. Statues were installed everywhere!! Some of them were over 600 years old and mounted on open air pedestals with no protection from weather or people. How different from the way we preserve and protect works of art.

We especially wanted to see the statues of David (by Donatello) and Bacchus (by Michelangelo) and were enthralled by both. We also tried to get tickets to see David by Michelangelo but none were available so we had to settle for the replica of the original statue which stands outside the city hall (Palazzo Vecchio) in the Piazza della Signoria.

From here, we made our way to the Ponte Vecchio, the only bridge across the Arno River that survived German destruction during the Second World War. We knew we were heading in the right direction because the streets kept getting more and more crowded. By the time we reached the bridge itself, it was wall to wall people. Amazing how people throng to this location. We took photos of course and made our way off the bridge as quickly as we could!

But not fast enough ….. The World Cycling Championship is taking place in Florence this week and one of the women’s races was underway. We were not able to pass across the street that would take us back to the train station. So, if you cannot beat ‘em, join ‘em. We stood with our camera at the ready as the bicycle racers sped around the corner and flashed past us in their pursuit of an international championship. It was definitely fun to see them first hand, the power of their bodies, the speed of their movements and the intensity on their faces. Wow!!

Soon after the cyclists passed this point, the gates opened and we were able to continue our walk through Venice and eventually end up where we began … the Railway Station Parking garage. We got in our car and made our way out of town. Our anticipated 2 hour visit to Venice had extended to almost five hours. It was worth every moment.

Once on the open road, we turned our attention to the ever-changing landscape. We had left the gentle rolling hills and fertile valleys of Tuscany and were now ascending a mountain range along steep hills, multiple tunnels and expertly engineered bridges that crossed deep and rugged valleys. It was a beautiful and exciting journey with a speed limit of 130 Km/hour. It was just safer to stay out of the fast lane. That’s all I have to say about that!

Just after 6 pm, we arrived in Parma. We stayed in Parma for a few days between Venice and Cinque Terre but I was ill and thus, we did not get to do a couple of things we had set as priorities. So we are here again in a comfortable hotel, looking forward to a relaxing Sunday when we will plan our itinerary for the next three weeks.  We will be busy on Monday with Parma activities and then head south along the west coast.

More about that later.

Sunday, September 29, 2013

Happy Anniversary, David and Karen.

Well, we slept in today. What a treat. We are staying in a hotel which is part of the Italian chain called My One Hotel. It is lovely  - large clean rooms, an enormous and delicious western and European breakfast, and terrific internet.

We took today off from travelling. It was raining all day long and it just seemed to be a good day to catch up on some reading, some planning, some diary-writing, some photo organization, an afternoon nap and conversations with Karen, David and family, and with Iain and Jim’s mom.

We skipped lunch and had a wonderful dinner in the hotel dining room and went to bed early in anticipation of a busy day tomorrow.

Monday, September 30, 2013

This morning started early as we headed out of Parma to a small nearby town to observe the daily production process of parmesan cheese. We were invited by the owner to visit a small family run business. They make about 5000 wheels of cheese each year.

The entire cheese operation takes place in a restored monastery and its out buildings. That, by itself, was fascinating. Part of the monastery was used for cheese storage and part was used for accommodation (perhaps for the family. We are not absolutely sure.) It was a beautiful building, charming in its preservation and its architecture.

By the time we arrived, the cheese production was well underway. Seven enormous stainless steel vats were filled with milk that was heated and stirred. Through some chemical process, there was a separation of liquids and solids in each vat. A thin pale yellow liquid was left as the cheese, being heavier, settled to the bottom of each vat.

The liquid was partially drained from each vat (It is sent off to Parma area pig farms as feed for pigs. It is the only food allowed for pigs that will be used for authentic Parma Ham.)

Using a heavy, wet fabric, cheese is then lifted from the bottom of each vat by two strong men who hang it from a crossbar over the vat like a turkey in a sling. The cheese drains some of the extraneous liquid at this point.

In due course, the cheese from each vat is cut into two large pieces, each of which is shaped and wrapped in cheesecloth and hung again from the cross bar. The vats are then drained of all remaining liquid.

A little while later, each ‘sack ‘ of cheese is moved by a mechanical arm and inserted into a round cheese mold and fully wrapped in cheesecloth which will remain its cover during the aging process. A heavy marble lid is placed on each cheese round to press it into the round shape that is familiar in Parmesan cheese.

Later in the day, each cheese round is transferred to a stainless steel ring for 1 day. It is then immersed on its side in heavily salted water for 4 to 5 days. The water is stirred regularly and the cheese turned regularly in order to retain its round shape. Additional water is added as evaporation occurs. The salt enters cheese by osmosis.

After 5 days, the cheese is removed from the water and placed on shelving units to age. The minimum aging is 12 months although cheese can be aged for up to 4 years. Of course, the longer the aging process, the more valuable the cheese.  When it is ready to sell, each cheese round is inspected and approved by a local cheese consortium. It is stamped and dated for purchasers to see. Local producers also add their own individual label.

We were able to visit the cheese storage area in this facility and were awed by the sight of so much cheese in one location. The odor was wonderful!!

From here, we travelled back through Parma where we had a light lunch before heading on to the village of Modena, known for its production of balsamic vinegar. Or so we thought!

We visited a beautiful manor house, Villa San Donnino, the home of a family who produces traditional balsamic vinegar.  Again, there is amazing history in the manor house itself. It is several hundred years old, originally owned by generations of a Jewish family who were ultimately forced to leave the property and move to Rome during World War II. During the war, the house was occupied by German military officers who virtually destroyed the interior. The original family chose not to return to Modena and the property was offered for sale. The current owners purchased the property and have restored it. It is now protected as a historic property under Italian legislation that names it as a piece of valued architecture. It is indeed a beautiful dwelling and property.

Now …. Onto the vinegar tour ….

The production of Traditional Modena Balsamic Vinegar is, at minimum, a 12 year process.

Families that produce traditional balsamic vinegar typically have a vineyard where the grapes are grown. The grapes are picked in the autumn  and cooked for over 20 hours to create grape must (the name of the substance that exists at the end of the cooking process).This must is then placed in wooden barrels. The vinegar maker chooses which woods to use for barrels as different kinds of wood influence flavours of finished product. Each producer is able to create a unique product based on the wood that is used in the barrels.

Tradional balsamic vinegar is produced in sets of barrels, called a battery. Each battery has a minimum of five barrels, ranging in size from large to small. The smallest barrel has to have a capacity between 15 and 25 litres.  The barrel batteries that were in the villa we visited contained 10 barrels each. In all, there were hundreds of barrels in production here, all stored neatly on racks of ten barrels, from largest to smallest on each rack. Each battery was clearly labeled with the year the production began.

The barrels are left on their sides with an open hole covered with a cotton cloth on the top side of the barrel. The grape must needs to interact with oxygen in order to transform into vinegar. Thus some evaporation occurs, about 10 % per year. The oldest and smallest vat is topped up once a year with liquid from the next oldest barrel and so on down the line. The youngest and largest barrel is then filled once more with fresh must and the process begins again.

After 12 years, the balsamic vinegar in the smallest barrel is taken to a consortium for bottling and labeling. The consortium keeps track of all the traditional vinegar produced with such precision that producers must provide maps of their barrel storage so that each barrel can be accounted for.

Traditional balsamic vinegar is often aged for longer than 12 years, sometimes twice that long.

We learned that the word Modena is not protected. Thus, commercial enterprises around the world are able to produce Modena vinegar through mass production. (Check on the balsamic vinegar bottles in your own cupboards.) It is the word traditional that differentiates the vinegar produced in Modena.

Traditional balsamic vinegar is such a valued product that each time a child is born, the family starts a batch of vinegar for each child (10 barrels) which are given to the child, usually as a wedding gift. Historically, this vinegar has been a dowry for brides and a source of income for grooms.

We were provided with samples of traditional balsamic vinegars of a range of ages. A six year product called Nerone is sold. We also sampled 12 and 18 year vinegar. It is beautiful in flavour and used sparingly on pasta, fish, fruit and even ice cream. I must say it was delicious on gelato. Of course, we bought some to bring home.

Following our vinegar tour, we left Modena and travelled on the autostrade to Bologna where we once again spent a night in My One Hotel. It was very comfortable and we are truly sorry that we will not encounter any more hotels in this chain as we travel further south.

An added story of the day ….. Since today’s account has largely been about food, this seems to be a good time to chat about ceramic tile and alcohol though …. As it happened AGAIN!

We have fallen into the habit of carrying some bottles with us, sometimes wine, sometimes beer, so that we can indulge in a drink once we are settled into our hotel room for the night. What we have learned is that bottles of lovely tasting fluids and floors made from ceramic tile do not get along well when the bottle rolls off a surface, even a surface just a couple of inches above the floor, and falls on the ceramic tile.

Our first experience with this phenomenon was in Levanto in Cinque Terre. A small bottle of champagne rolled from the fridge in our room onto the floor …. And smashed into a 1000 pieces. All we could do was inhale the vapours and clean up the mess.

Our second experience was in Tuscany at La Ripa, our lovely countryside accommodation. We were carrying our bags into the apartment and I placed a bag of groceries onto the floor, gently or so I thought. The next thing I knew a bottle of beer exploded and poured out onto the floor. We had not been there five minutes before we made a mess. Our landlord arrived with pail and a mop and helped us clean it up. Sadly, no beer for the guys that night.

And again tonight …. As I was placing some food items into the small hotel room fridge, another bottle of Jim’s precious beer rolled from the bottom shelf and dropped about 4 inches to the floor. Again, it exploded and glass flew everywhere as the golden brew flowed out across the floor. Cleaning up is becoming less fun with each event.

So, my new plan is that henceforth Jim can handle all breakable alcoholic drinks. I think there is a better chance we might be able to sip them rather than just inhale the fumes.

Good plan?

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Today we set out to travel from Bologna to Vinci, the hometown of Leonardo Da Vinci. We anticipated a smooth drive through mountainous and beautiful terrain.

The car, however, had a different idea. Part way along the very busy and very fast mountainous autostrade, a message appeared on the control panel of the car. “Engine malfunction” it said.  “Service immediately.” A little tough to do as we sped along with the traffic at 120km/hour with no where to pull off and no exits within sight. As the car seemed to be performing well, we decided to locate a Ford dealership near Vinci, our destination. Thankfully we did not encounter any problems before we arrived there and the staff were extremely helpful to us. One woman even google translated a message she wanted to share with us.  She made many calls to Hertz on our behalf, all with the same outcome. We need to talk to the original Hertz office in Venice to determine a course of action.  And, the people in Venice told us that if we needed a tow, they would send a truck and tow the car to a place of their choice for service. It did not seem to matter that we were already at a Ford dealership! In the end, the mechanic at the dealership assured us the car was functional and we drove on to Vinci with no specific plan in mind.

Vinci is a wonderful rural town in beautiful rolling landscape. The surrounding area is both agricultural and heavily forested. Olive groves and vineyards created geometrical patterns across hillsides. There were also many, many tree farms in the area, growing everything from seedlings to mature trees, tropical, evergreen and deciduous, both decorative and traditional. We drove along roads flanked by thousands of trees, all destined for parks or gardens. It was interesting to see a variety of vehicles with newly purchased trees rising high above their roofs travelling along the road taking trees to some destination somewhere.

Of course, in Vinci, we visited the Museo Leonardiano. It was a remarkable place, high on a hillside in an old castle, beside the church where Leonardo da Vinci himself was baptized.

The museum held displays of da Vinci’s designs and ideas as well as  replicas of machines. These served as a reminder of his brilliance and breadth of scientific knowledge – weather, anatomy, astronomy, flight, physics, pulleys and gears and so much more. Sadly, it is not known which of his designs ever made it to the production stage. There is no  photographic record, of course, nor any written accounts of what happened to his ideas.

We drove on and as easily as it had appeared the engine light on car went off. But we made a decision to go to Hertz office at Pisa airport, close by our route. We did not want to travel with the worry that something might go wrong. What a great decision that was! With no muss or fuss, we are now driving a new car, upgraded, peppier and no worry about engine problems. A good investment of 45 minutes!

We continued along gentler roads for another 90 minutes to Piombino to take BluNavy ferry to the Island of Elba. The one hour crossing was smooth and beautiful on calm seas. Elba was visible in the distance and as we drew closer and closer we were able to see the rugged coastline, forested hillsides, small villages in coves and small, beautiful beaches. We look forward to exploring all of those tomorrow.  

Once off the ferry, we drove directly to Fetovaia and our hotel, Montemerlo. It is a small resort in a beautiful setting. We felt like pinching ourselves. Here we were on an island in an Italian national park surrounded by Mediterranean Sea. A first for us!

Dinner was served at 8 pm and then early to bed. A lovely end to a very pleasant day

Wednesday, October 2, 2013.

We set out today to explore the Isle of Elba. The island is 35 miles long and 14 miles wide with varying elevations, its peak rising above 1000 metres. There is a paved road that circumnavigates most of the circumference, twisting and turning on the edge of the mountains and then plunging to the seacoast only to rise again when it leaves each small coastal village. It is a delight to drive, especially when there is very little traffic. Elba is a popular summer destination and I suspect it would not be nearly as much fun to drive at that time.

The entire island is a National Park. There is wildlife, wonderful vegetation, natural habitats and landforms to see at every turn. It is beautiful at this time of year as summer gives way to autumn and the colours of the landscape take on the orange and red hues of the changing season.

The vegetation on Elba must be noted for its diversity. Bamboo and palm trees punctuate the landscape. The bamboo especially is prolific and seems to take over wherever there is a patch of fresh water. In contrast, cactus grows wildly high on the mountainsides, with flower buds that are just about to burst into blossom. Fruit trees are abundant – date palms, orange and lemon, pomegranate to name a few. And olive trees are everywhere, some cultivated for crop production and others simply growing wild on the hillsides.

Small household gardens are seen all around the island, sometimes high on the mountainsides, wherever there is a patch of arable land. In one community, there were actually paths carved through the underbrush and people crept through the resulting tunnels to reach their gardens. Tomatoes, grapes and corn seemed to the most abundant crops.

Vineyards have been established on many hillsides and in valleys for wine production. The Isle of Elba has produced several varieties of high quality wine, mostly red, which we have enjoyed with our meals here.

The Mediterranean Sea surrounds the island. The vivid blue waters are mesmerizing in the sun and the heat. Many coastal villages have beaches. Some are easily accessible and others can only be reached by walking down long paths (up to 500 metres) to finally get to the water. Beaches are categorized by their terrain. There are a very few sand beaches (our resort has access to one of them). Most are pebble beaches, some grey and some white, as is common along the Mediterranean shore. Others are rock beaches where the mountainsides plunge deep into the sea. The sea water on October 2 remained quite warm and many, many people were in swimming.

The Isle of Elba lays claim to being Napoleon’s home for 300 days after he was banished from the mainland. The home where he lived remains on the island and there is a nondescript museum which houses temporary exhibits related to Napoleon.

Having spent much of the day exploring, we returned to our hotel late in the afternoon, looking forward to relaxing in the hot tub. To our dismay, bees had taken over the decking around the tub so there was no relaxing there for us.

A before dinner drink had to suffice. Dinner was served at 8 as usual with swordfish being the main event tonight.

Tomorrow we ferry back to the mainland and continue our journey south.

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