Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Tuscany

From Amul:
We're back home in the US after an amazing trip.  We didn't have much time to update the blog after Florence so these next few posts will be recaps.  

Following six days of city sight-seeing in Rome and Florence, we were due for some relaxing country-side living.  Fortunately we had planned just for this and spent the next three days in Tuscany.

Our Tuscany adventure started with a trip to the Florence airport to rent a car.  I had specifically reserved a Fiat 500, mostly because it was the only automatic transmission car available but also because I've been seeing this commercial for the last 4 months:


I had to promise that I wouldn't drive our car (that Kira affectionately named "Fifi") into the water. Its a great little car for city driving but I can tell you it was not built for the bumpy unpaved roads of the Tuscan countryside.



We drove 1.5 hours south from Florence to our farm stay at Fattoria Voltrana just outside of the town of San Gimignano.  Voltrana is located a mile off the main road up in the hill.  The farm grows grapes and olives and the owners make their own wine and olive oil.  Additionally, Voltrana breeds and trains Icelandic horses offering riding tours through the surrounding hills and towns.  We were unable to go on the tour because of my lack of riding experience:(


We decided to have dinner at the farm that night. A simple four course Tuscan meal was served with house wine that dangerously "tasted like punch" according to Kira.  We went through a litre of it, needless to say dinner was a fun time.

The next morning we decided to drive to Siena and got lost got driving into town but saved ourselves by simply stopping at the first parking spot we saw and walking the rest of the way.  Kira wrote about Siena in her earlier post: Summer Reading. Despite the rain we had a great time exploring town. In the evening we had dinner in San Gimignano at Trattoria Chiribiri recommended by the farm staff.  Chiribiri has only 8 tables and puts out some great homemade rustic Tuscan dishes. Kira had the homemade pasta with wild boar raghu.  We noticed the pasta itself was the scraps and end pieces from tortellini, they were all different sizes and shapes. My Ossobuco with stewed tomatoes and vegetables fell off the bones at the lightest touch. Oh so rustic and oh so good.


The next day we headed east to the Chianti region for some wine tasting.  We made a reservation to tour Catello di Verrezzano.  The Verrezzano family and their descendants have been making wine here since the year 1150, its oldest winery in Italy.  The most famous member of the Verrazzano family was Giovanni da Verrazzano the explorer that charted much of the east coast of the United States for whom the Verrazano Narrows Bridge in New York City is named after (they left out one of the "Z"s in his name).



After wine tasting we headed into Greve in Chianti the main town in the Chianti region. We swung by the local butcher shop to pick up some salami to bring home as well as a nice prosciutto sandwich for an afternoon snack. We decided some more wine tasting was in order and headed to the Chianti wine museum which just so happens to have the largest wine tasting room in the world.  The 140 wines are self serve controlled by electronic dispensers that read your pre-paid tasting card.  After trying a few desert wines Kira found a sparkling moscato at which point we used out remaining funds to get Kira a full glass of it. She was happy to say the least.  We drove back to San Gimignano to watch the sunset from the top of the city walls before having dinner at Chiribiri for the second night in a row.  Once again it did not disappoint.


Monday, June 10, 2013

Unstuck

Welp, wonderful Amul stayed up till almost one in the morning trying to figure out how to get us to Paris. On a related note, Iberian Air's customer service sucks. As in, it's nonexistent. 

But Air Berlin has come through for us, sort of. I'll be spending the day driving to Florence and then flying from there to a layover in Vienna and then to Paris instead of hanging out with the Icelandic horses who live at our agroturismo farm and wandering the alleys of San Gimignano, but this will get us to Paris at roughly the same time our previous plans would have. 

Our other options were a little ridiculous. Apparently there are no other direct flights from Florence to Paris. So we could have waited to see what Iberian's solution was, which we predict probably was to stay another day or two here in Tuscany, which wouldn't be so bad, but then we'd have to pay out of pocket for another night's lodging here and another day of car rental, to then grab a red-eye (with layovers), which would get us to Paris maybe by the 13th (we leave for home on the 15th).  Or we could wake up early, drive to Florence to grab a 3-4 hour train back to Rome and hope to catch a flight from there. Or pay $1100 each for a Florence-Rome-Paris flight route.

Our tickets on Air Berlin are $350 each--rather steep, but we both agreed it was worth it to cut the hassle of the other options, where the risk of missing a connection were much greater. Plus, we'll be reimbursed by Iberian for the cost of our original ticket, and we won't have to pay for additional nights of lodging or car rental.  Air Berlin will get us to Paris at 8pm (our original time of arrival was 8:30), which will give us enough time to get us to our rental apartment before I turn into a pumpkin. Or a werewolf. I'm not sure which. And we'll still have the same number of days in France before we head home. 

Many kudos to Amul who spent several hours trying to get ahold of Iberian and then searching online for alternative solutions. I was rather incapacitated after an afternoon of wine tasting in Chianti. If this is the worst hiccough in our three weeks of traveling through over seven cities across Europe, I count this honeymoon as a great success. 

Stuck

And Amul just got an email that our flight tomorrow night from Florence to Paris has been cancelled.

Possibility of being stuck another day on a horse farm (where they also make their own salami, olive oil, and wine) in the Tuscan countryside? Man, life is tough. 

Summer Reading

I mentioned earlier how my vacation reading of Haruki Murakami's 1Q84 coincided nicely with the cats in San Torini. My streak of well-chosen "junk food" books continues. I'm finishing up Ken Follett's World Without End. I read Pillars of the Earth years ago and thoroughly enjoyed it, and I'm quite enjoying the sequel. It takes place in Medieval England and follows the life of a 1300s church builder. Follett provides interesting situations in which technological and architectural advances may have been invented as Medieval Europeans dealt with royal and religious politics, war, and even the Plague. 

What I've read definitely came to mind as Amul and I wandered around the Tuscan town of Siena yesterday, and explored its beautiful Medieval cathedral. The town of Siena has been listed as a UNESCO Living Heritage Site, as one of the most well-preserved Medieval towns in the world. Apparently, in the 1300s, 2/3 of Siena's population was wiped out by the plague. With so few people left the city could not govern itself, and was handed over to the Medicis of Florence to manage. Now, a rivalry between Florence and Siena has existed for centuries, even up to today, and the Medicis, the famous Florentine patrons, saw no need to invest time or money into developing their rival city. So Siena was essentially "frozen in time," with little means to build the town up past its Gothic era. Looking up in the apses of Siena's great Gothic cathedral, I understood what a feat it was to create such a masterpiece with 14th century technology and labor. Conversely, I can now also visualize all the architectural features I've read about in Follett.


My e-book loan for Dan Brown's Inferno just came in the other day and I've downloaded it to my Kindle. Apparently it takes place in Florence, and we saw advertisements for the book alp over when we stayed there. With any luck, I'll be reading about Robert Langdon's adventures, picturing Tom Hanks (with awful hair) running about the Uffizi and Boboli Gardens while sitting in the Firenze International Airport tomorrow afternoon while waiting for our flight to Paris. 

Another book I've gotten through on this trip was Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell, and while maybe I'm a month or two off, I was reminded of my upcoming trip to Korea this summer while I read Sonmi's confessional in the book. I have to say, though, after hearing all the raves about how incredible of a book it was, I was a little underwhelmed by Cloud Atlas. Certainly a good, solid read, but not the life-changing literary epiphany I was expecting. Will have to watch the film on the flight home if it's still in Air France's queue. 

Amul's been doing some relevant reading lately as well. In addition to a bunch of Europe travel guide books, he read Under the Tuscan Sun (by a San Francisco State University professor!) right before we left on our trip. I bought him a copy of one of my favorite Korean adoptee memoirs, Trail of Crumbs, by Kim Sunée, and he's been reading that over vacation.  Trail of Crumbs is Sunée's journey through food and self-discovery living in provincial France. Similar to Under the Tuscan Sun, Trail of Crumbs intersperses regional recipes among its narrative. 

Well, this has turned into somewhat of a what-I-did-over-summer-vacation book report, which was not really my intention. Apologies. Anyway, looking forward to another week or so of junk-food reading before I get back to the heavy stuff when I get home. 

Saturday, June 8, 2013

Florence Day 1 and 2

From Amul:

It is our last of three nights in Florence before we head off for a three-day drive through the Tuscan countryside.  Florence is so much better than Rome. Less traffic, better food, smaller city, and just as many sights (if not more).

We arrived in Florence via train from Rome around 2:30 in the afternoon; our hotel was a short walk from the train station and we were settled and ready to hit the town in no time.  Our first stop was the newly renamed “Galileo Museum of Science History.”  I was like a kid in a candy store.  The museum told the history of Italian scientific revelation through the Renaissance covering astronomy, navigation, mapping, basic physics, anatomy, and electromagnetics.   The museum was a treasure-trove of 500-year-old scientific instruments and mechanical experiments.  It also has two and a half of Galileo’s fingers on display.

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After the museum we headed to a restaurant I’ve been eyeing for about 4 months now “La Prosciuttoria.”  It is basically the best deli in the world serving sampler platters of cured meats, cheese, bread, and wine.  The ten-euro sampler platter filled us so much that we didn’t need dinner.

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On day two, we visited Florence’s central market to view, sample, and buy some of best food Tuscany has to offer.  Interestingly, tourists flocked to the outdoor part of the market which sells souvenirs and fake Prada purses but very few dared to enter the indoor food market. They were clearly missing out. We ate well including indulging in a “truffle product sampler” from one of the delis.

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That afternoon we went to the Galleria de Academy, the art museum of Italy’s most famous art school which has been teaching students since the 1500s.  The main attraction is Michelangelo's statue of David.  We were unable to pre-book tickets but after an hour of standing in line we got in and it was well worth it.  David is truly amazing and pictures (which were not allowed) do not do it justice.

We strolled around the city the rest of the day and settled on a local restaurant in the southern part of town for dinner. The restaurant came highly praised by our friends Mike and Erica who just toured through France and Italy two weeks before our own trip.  We got the gnocchi with truffle oil and rabbit “hunter’s style” with a few glasses of house wine. The food was spot on and a great way to end the day.

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Kira taking over from here to finish things off, as Amul’s gone to take a quick shower before going out to dinner:

This morning we wandered around the Boboli Gardens, which are less like the curated palatial gardens we expected and more of miles and miles of hiking trails interspersed with fountains, sculptures and mini-museums that house the some of the Bobolis’ family heirlooms.  There were some impressively-manicured areas as well, however, and we were duly impressed.

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We grabbed lunch at a little piazza café near the gardens and then headed over to the Uffizi Gallery (which Amul has dubbed “the Fuzzy”).  Spent the next several hours wandering the 80+ rooms of the gallery, which is the famous home of Botticelli’s Birth of Venus.  Beautiful, but honestly, I enjoyed some of the other Botticelli pieces that were displayed more.  The colors are quite muted on Venus, and some of his other pieces are much more vibrant.

For our post-museum teatime nosh, we headed back to La Prosciuttoria, as I had promised Amul that we could visit at least twice during our stay here in Florence.  Another delicious sampler plate and a couple of glasses of house wine later, and we were feeling quite content.  Amul’s hair has been steadily thinning, and over the past year or so, I’ve encouraged him to wear a hat whenever we’re outside to prevent scalp sunburn.  Thus, I was able to talk him into buying a souvenir cap from La Proscuittoria, as a practical investment.  I think he looks quite smart in his new driving cap, which bears the vendor’s name and logo across the sides.

On our way home, we made a point to walk past the famous bronze statue of the wild boar that sits at the entrance to the Nuovo Mercado.  Legend says that if you pat the boar’s nose, you’ll return to Florence.

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We’re headed out for our final dinner in Florence in a few minutes.  Amul’s bookmarked a restaurant that’s specialty is beef strips in truffle sauce.  I like how this man thinks!

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

When in Rome…

From Amul:

It is our last night in Rome before we move on to Florence.  The last few days have been lots of walking and lots of sight seeing. It amazes me how many ruins, churches, monument and fountains there are in this city.  It seems every corner you turn or block you walk you run into something worthy of mention in a history book.

We arrived Sunday evening and we warned of two things: the city’s transit workers would be on strike on Monday (no public transit except for morning and evening rush hour) and the weather forecast for Monday and Tuesday (our only full days in Rome) called for “heavy rain”.  Seizing our seemingly only shot at good weather and working transit, we headed out for a long night walk through Rome hitting all the major sights, but first dinner.

We ate at a restaurant next door to our B&B recommended by our host.  It did not disappoint.  Veal scaloppini with porcini mushrooms, pasta bolognaise, and a five euro carafe of house wine that yielded about 4 generous glasses. 

Properly fed (and happy from the wine) we hopped on the metro and rode it to the other end of the city all the way to the Vatican.  For about 2 hours we meandered back home through Rome passing St Peter’s Basilica, Piazza Navona, Trevi Fountain, the Pantheon, the Coliseum and various other monuments and ruins before arriving back home very tired.

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Only two things in Rome are open on Monday, the Coliseum and the Vatican Museums.  We prepared for rain and spent the day at the Coliseum and the neighboring ancient roman forum.  After 3 hours of sightseeing we stopped for lunch and noticed the busses and trains are still running and the sun was still shining.  We did not complain!  After a brief nap back at our B&B we headed out to revisit Trevi fountain and had dinner in Piazza Navona. We did the obligatory coin toss over the shoulder in to Trevi fountain to ensure our eventual return to Rome.

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Today the weather held out for use yet again with relatively clear skies and just a quick thunderstorm. We visited the Galleria Borghese which housed the private art collection for the Borghese family and is now a public museum.  It contains some the greatest marble statues by Bernini, and the building walls, ceilings and floors themselves contain museum quality frescoes, tile mosaics, and carved reliefs.  No pictures were allowed but I’ll say I think it was the highlight of our time in Rome so far.

We just awoke from our afternoon siesta and are read to plot our last evening in Rome before we head on to Florence tomorrow. 

Sunday, June 2, 2013

Isle of Cats

IMG_1699For vacation reading, I just finished Haruki Murakami’s 1Q84 last week in Athens, and really liked the story of the Town of Cats.  Mostly because I like anything that is furry and has four legs.  But the symbolic meaning struck me as well. 
After two and a half days on Mykonos, I can say with certainty that it is an Isle of Cats.  Literally more than figuratively.  Big cats, little cats, fluffy cats, skinny cats, dirty cats, brave cats, shy cats, ugly cats, cats in dumpsters, cats living in ancient Greek ruins, cats at the fish market, cats in cafes—Mykonos has them all.  And while I know the damage feral cats can do to native flora and fauna, and know the difficulties of having un-fixed feral feline populations, I did enjoy seeing a kitty around every corner and alley.
IMG_1446Mykonos is also home to a pelican named Petros.  Legend has it that a Mykonian fisherman found a wounded pelican while out at sea in 1954.  He brought it aboard his fishing boat and nursed it back to health.  Rather than winging away once it had recovered, the pelican remained on the island, revered by tourists and residents alike.  Named Petros, the pelican became the mascot of the island, and lived for nearly thirty years in and around the town and port, receiving the choicest catches of the day from the local restaurants and fishmongers.  Petros was killed in the mid-1980s by a drunken tourist’s car (one version of the story says he was the victim of rape by a drunken tourist), and mourned by everyone on the island.  So beloved was he that they soon replaced the original Petros on the island with a new pelican (some say a gift from Jackie Kennedy-Onassis).
Today, there are three pelicans that make their home on Mykonos.  One white IMG_1428pelican has been named for his predecessor, and two pink-hued pelicans keep him company.  We met the new Petros our first night on our island, when he made an appearance at the restaurant we were at for dinner.  He wandered down the alley cool as you please and stuck his head in the door, begging the kitchen for IMG_1436fish.  Waiters rushing in and out affectionately ruffled his crown feathers on their way.  One waiter took a moment to chat with Petros, cradling the bird’s head in his hands before gently shooing him out of the way.  Petros responded by opening his beak wide for fish, but when he realized he would be denied a snack, trudged back down the alley from whence he came, in search of a more generous patron.  Unfortunately, we were unable to get a photo of Petros that night, but we met his pink buddies the next afternoon.
Mykonos is known as the gay party island, and we were warned of the raucous beach parties when we told people we were traveling to the island.  But we stayed a twenty-minute walk away from town at a hotel on the cliffs and found it very peaceful.  Our first evening on the isle, we wandered the windy pedestrian alleys of town, filled with colorful souvenir shops, bars, and cafes.  We found a waterfront bar and ordered some drinks to nurse while we waited for sunset.  The hour or so we spent on our little terrace bench sipping passionfruit martinis and hand-muddled basil vodkas was well worth the rather steep drink prices, and we witnessed a beautiful sunset on the watery horizon.
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Dinner that night was at a restaurant recommended by the concierge at our hotel (where we met Petros).  I had some of the best lentil soup in my life, and Amul tried the local special of grilled sardines.  We saved the sardine heads and fed them to the stray cats we encountered on our walk back up the cliffside to our hotel.
IMG_1386The next morning, we awoke (relatively) early to catch a ferry over to the neighboring island, Delos.  Delos is a (now) uninhabited island that was home to a flourishing civilization centuries ago that was wiped out by pirates and raiders long ago.  The island is basically an open-air museum now, and Amul and I spent the morning wandering about the ruins, treading on the same streets as ancient Greeks did two thousand years ago.  What’s left of the civilization in the ruins is remarkable beautiful mosaic floors have been overtaken by wild Queen Anne’s lace, vivid frescoes adorn crumbling walls, lizards dart in and out of abandoned pottery shards.  Yet, tall marble columns still proudly stand, and the complex IMG_1389aqueduct and waterway systems still flow beneath the city, and water still sits ready to be drawn up from the individual well accesses in each of the residences.
 
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Our final evening in Greece was spent drinking the last of Vasso’s wine on our hotel’s terrace, watching the dark envelop the ships in the harbor, enjoying Greek desserts handmade by the local baker.  A quick puddle-hopper of a commuter flight this morning got us from Mykonos back to Athens, and now we sit in Athens airport, waiting for our flight to Rome.

Saturday, June 1, 2013

A few quick pics of Mykonos



Before we head to dinner, here are a few snaps from Mykonos and Delos.