Tuesday, 22 July 2014

Back to Rome -final Two Days in Italy

Yesterday we left Bologna in teaming rain and arrived in Rome to a day of sunshine. Having travelled unencumbered by our full compliment of luggage for two weeks, it was a bit of a shock having to, once again, manage elephantine sized luggage.  To make matters worse, it was just our luck to get a train car without luggage racks and Charles' huge suitcase was rolling around to the detriment of anyone standing close to it.  So much easier with a back pack!  We can see the headlines now, world news..."death by roll-away luggage!" Trenitalia would never live it down :(

Once we arrived at Termine, Roma Centrale, it was the usual fiasco getting a cab with hustlers trying to usher unsuspecting travellers to unlicensed cabs. When I questioned the driver we were first taken to about his credentials, he became quite defensive and rudely invited us to choose another cab. Somehow, magically, the man who was directing tourists escorted us, finally, to a proper cab and we ended up in an official cab to the Donna Camilla Savelli Hotel.  It's amazing what happens when you know the language. Ah, Italia! Ultimately, our legit cab driver turned out to be informative and kind, going out of his way to show us the major attractions in this part of Rome, one that is new to us. It was obvious he enjoys talking to tourists who show an interest in a city he is clearly very proud to live in. He didn't charge extra for his trouble either, but of course we tipped extra.  Our favourite spot he showed us was a vista of Rome from a lookout point at Piazzale Giuseppe Garibaldi, about a ten minute walk, or perhaps I should say climb,  from the hotel.

Monument to Giuseppe Garibaldi at the top of the lookout point
Taken from the lookout point at the Piazzale Giuseppe Garibaldi
Believe it our not this photo was taken from the terrace of our hotel, Donna Camilla Savelli, note the clay tiles that form part of the roofing 
The hotel itself is gorgeous, a great spot to end our time in Italy.  It's a former convent that has been refurbished as an upscale hotel and still contains a functioning chapel and a wing where elderly nuns reside.  A unique place.  Thanks to Linda for this fabulous recommendation! We love it!

Once inside the iron gates, we were met with what looks like a fortress

Inside however, the decor is anything but fortress like

The doorways are original 

There is a functioning Chapel that is part of the hotel for the public and probably for the nuns who stay here; they are invisible, we've only seen a few walking about

Beautiful garden to hang out in and where we eat our buffet breakfast

Hallway that leads to stairs to the guest rooms

In the evening we walked along the Tiber River.  As mentioned earlier, we didn't really explore this part of Rome, the other side of the river, when we were here four weeks ago.  The Tiber at night is really beautiful and romantic.

We still find night shots a bit tricky, but we hope this gives an idea of how beautiful the Tiber is at night. Note the movie screen on the river bank.  This is how they do drive in movies in Rome. No cars, viewers walk and are seated outdoors.  It's hard to see in this photo, but the outdoor theatre is packed.
One of the bridges that crosses the Tiber, maybe Ponte Sesto -car free!
Tonight we will be having our final meal at a restaurant called Da Gigetto in the Jewish Ghetto.  Note that this is not a derogatory word in Italian, it means foundry.  We chose this place because our cab driver, a Roman after all, told us we would find a good authentic Roman meal here. Apparently, authentic Roman cooking is as much Arabic as anything else. Every day we learn something new-----a perfect way to live.

So, our little travel adventure is almost at an end.  Today we're taking care of business.  Checked in to our flight, checked the status, packed our luggage in a way that is air friendly, checking documents to make sure we have everything we need, all that stuff.

We're thinking of creating a final post with the top ten things we did, but the more we talk about it, the more we realize it may be impossible to choose.

So for now let's just say a' rivederci Roma and ciao to la bella Italia! Until we meet again!!!!

Monday, 21 July 2014

Cooking with Fernanda

Among other things, Villa Le Barone has cooking classes with the actual cooks who prepare the meals there.  I, and a lovely young American couple, Pam and Zapada had a ball with Fernanda, our instructor, who was a volcano of energy!  Charles was the photographer, but was also considered a participant in a way because he was invited to taste and also to partake of the meal we prepared. You see, the neat thing about this meal was that we ate what we prepared during the class for dinner that evening.  Fernanda doesn't have formal schooling in cooking, but boy, does she rock in the kitchen!  Everything she learned was passed down from her mother and her mother before her, so lucky participants of her cooking class get a taste of preparing and sampling truly authentic Tuscan cuisine.

We started with bruschetta that was loaded with tomato, garlic and basil that is grown in the gardens of Villa Le Barone and olive oil that is made from olives that are harvested and pressed a kilometre away from the villa.

Tomatoes must be chopped very small so they stay on the bread and soak up the flavour of the oil, garlic and herbs
When it comes to olive oil, Fernanda doesn't mess around 
By the way, the real secret is to use a LOT of olive oil...as in glug, glug, glug and quite a bit of garlic & basil, then let the mixture sit before spreading it on lightly toasted bread
Something I learned that was totally new is to cut the garlic clove in half and look for the little germination kernel.  If it has one, remove it for a sweeter and more gentle gastronomic experience.  Who knew?

Next came the preparation of the Primi, which was a vegetarian Pasta.

Diced vegetables and peeled tomatoes sautéing in a lot of olive oil

The pasta must be worked before stretching
Easy does it

The pasta is cut and laid out on a cloth to dry for a few hours an then ready to cook :)

The Secondi, was a traditional stewed beef called peposo, made with peppercorns and vegetables.  It's easy to prepare, but must be started well in advance, as it takes a while to simmer its way to tender perfection.

Meat is roughly sliced into chunks

Add vegetables and throw it all in the pot

Give it a stir and add A LOT of good red wine and a tad of water...I like that ratio
And finally, the dolce.  You guessed it, Tiramisu!  Yay!!

Marcapone cheese, of course, as well as whipping cream and eggs
Build the layers
And keep building until all the ingredients are used up
Fernanda dips the lady finger cookies in freshly made espresso coffee and she only dips half of each cookie so that the final product isn't too soggy.  It worked really well.

To a job well done!

Bruschetta is in the corner, in our excitement we forgot to get a pic at the table

Dinner that evening was fantastic.  It was most gratifying to enjoy a meal that we had played a role in creating.  Pam, Zap, Charles and I sat at the same table and were served the food we cooked. A tasty meal and great company; doesn't get much better than that! This was definitely a highlight of the whole trip, to be working along side an amazing woman like Fernanda. Charles and I both agree that her laugh sounds exactly, and I mean exactly, like my Aunt Carmela's!  We just looked at each other and shook our heads in amazement every time she laughed :)
The pasta was superb!  Fernanda tossed it with the sauce we made and added cream...yum!

The stewed beef...OMG...So good!  We also peeled and prepared the carrots; she cooked them in a little butter and olive oil just before they were brought out to the table

The Tiramisu garnished with chocolate shavings and rose petals.  A lovely touch and it was absolutely delicious!

Now, for our friends back home who are caught between a state of drooling and envy, the good news is, we have all the recipes and are not only willing to cook them for you, but also to share them.  Bon appetite and see you all soon.

Friday, 18 July 2014

Panzano in Chianti

Here we are in Chianti, Tuscany. True, we were already in Tuscany when we visited Florence, but now we KNOW we are in Tuscany.  OMG!  We are in love with this part of Italy. Tuscany certainly does not offer the most beautiful vistas we've experienced on this trip, given what we saw on the Amalfi coast and the Liguria regions, but there is something about the combination of the hot Tuscan sun on rolling hills speckled with orchards and vineyards, the shadows, the depth of the landscape, that is so enchanting. As with many parts of Italy, we feel a sense of awe at how the land has been groomed to yield up its fruits... and in Tuscany, this often translates into wine!

View from the gardens of Villa Le Barone ...the mist, we've been told, is the result of unusually large amounts of precipitation the region has experienced this summer

A vista from another garden at Villa Le Barone ...we don't have to go far to see amazing vistas!
Villa Le Barone is a gorgeous spot.  Thanks to George and Elaina for suggesting it!  Your instincts that we would love it were one hundred percent right on.  The property is absolutely beautiful, with lovely gardens that offer public as well as private spaces for guests.  Great food too!

Today, we decided to walk to Panzano, I know, we're supposed to take it easy, but we seem to be hooked on exploring everything we can get our little paws into.  By the time we were half way along, sweating, winded, and wondering what the heck was wrong with us, um...there's a really nice pool at the villa we could have been enjoying instead, we caught up to an elderly woman and her walking companion who had already made the trek down the road from Panzano and were now heading back, uphill!  They were keeping a steady pace, thus having the double impact of both putting us to shame and proving inspirational at the same time.

This elderly woman made us look like spoiled North American wussies!
Once in Panzano, we decided to take the bus to Greve where we enjoyed what has become a staple for us at lunch, a Capresi salad with a glass of white wine, accompanied by bread with olive oil and balsamic, of course, not the real thing however, as we learned a few days ago.   We did make it back to the villa by 2:30 and yes, pool time!

Backtracking a bit, I forgot to mention that we hired a driver, Rosano, to take us to Villa Le Barone, and as part of the drive there, we stopped at a balsamic vinegar factory, San Donnino, and a winery in the Emilia Romagna region, just outside of Bologna. Rosano actually arranged these tours for us. We found him very helpful and informative.  At San Donnino, we had quite an education about true traditional balsamic vinegar.  It is in fact, not really vinegar at all.  The real traditional stuff is boiled down right after the grapes are pressed. The process is quite complex and occurs over a minimum of 6 years, with 12 years required for the silver standard and 24 for the gold!  They have some balsamic bottles that are over 50 years old.  Unbelievable! As the juice ferments, it is passed from the largest to the smallest of six barrels, and repeated each year until the final yield is ready.  In order to qualify as true Balsamico di Modena, the final product is tested by a licensed consortium, where it is bottled and returned to the producers for marketing.  We tasted the 6, 12 and 24 year product and wow...yummy!  It was great on ice cream too, believe it or not.  And Bob, if you'r reading this, yes...we're bringing some of the real thing home for you :)

This girl knows everything there is to know about traditionally produced balsamic vinegar!
Our stop at the winery was also very interesting.  The vintner is a former journalist who lost his job during the financial crisis in Italy.  We've been hearing quite a bit about the negative impact the switch from the Lira to the Euro has had on the everyday worker. His was just such a case. However, Davide's wife's family owns a vineyard which he and his wife have now taken over.  They produce an excellent white wine from Pignoletto grapes.  We loved both the still and sparkling white wine.  Davide, the owner prepared a lovely "snack" of bruschetta, a variety of salumi, prosciutto and cheese as a compliment to our wine tasting.  His Merlot was also quite good.

View from Davide's vineyard..Emilia Romagna Region

Labelling for the wine was inspired by the work of Davide's wife's grandfather, a well known local artist

That's it for now.  Tomorrow we'll be chilling by the pool until 3:00, at which time the cooking class starts.  Really looking forward to that.

Before signing off, is it me, or is Charles starting to look Italian?
Just sayin'

Wednesday, 16 July 2014

It Seems We Can't Get Enough of Florence!

On our way back to Bologna from Cinque Terre, we experienced one more type of train service, the Intercity. Surprisingly, it was both more comfortable and made fewer stops than the Regionale. We had two changes, though, one in Pisa and another in Florence where we boarded the Frecciargento to Bologna. It sounds tedious, but it really wasn't too bad.  The connecting trains are relatively well timed, at least that has been our experience.  We imagine there are frustrations, though.  We experienced a 30 minute delay returning from Florence the next day, so luckily that didn't happen when we needed to make a connection. Oh, and we learned how to use the fast ticket machine to book our seats for the Frecce trains.  Hallelujah!  It's SO much easier.

For our second day in Florence we had two goals; to climb the tower and to visit Santa Maria della Croce. Charles also wanted to climb to the upper levels of Il Duomo, but the line went around the entire building.  Ridiculous! It would have been a two hour wait, if not more, to get in. The tower was only about 30 minutes, so we left it at that.  Got some great shots of the city from on high.

The tower in front of Il Duomo; Charles climbed to the second level; "Stop" for Jeanne at the first :)
Shot taken from the first level of the tower 
View from the opposite window
Il Duomo from the first level

Shot taken from the second level of the tower; such a beautiful city!

Santa Maria della Croce was also inaccessible to us due to the extremely long lineup to get in.  With so much beauty all around us, we simply aren't willing to wait for hours to add to what is already an incredible succession of fantastic experiences. Ultimately, it's about breathing in the essence of the city, and we feel we can do that very well without spending hours lining up for one or two more "must sees" during a busy tourist season. 

So instead we went shopping!  And bought each other gorgeous leather bags.  Also, we came across a fabulous wine bar, but more than a wine bar, called Obseqvivm, Latin for "gift".  Here we met a young Mexican woman who immigrated to Florence because she loves art and has a passion for wines.  She was lovely to speak to and her Italian was flawless, grammatically perfect and without any accent at all. 

Entrance to the wine bar, just off Via San Jacobo on the south side of the River Arno, a few blocks east of the Ponte Vecchio. In addition to great tuscan wines, one can also find here local honey, fruit preserves, antipasti, and pesto from the Ligurian Region where pesto was actually invented; it's also the Cinque Terre Region, so no wonder anything with pesto was so delicious there.

Great selection of wines, particularly from the Tuscan region

Brunello di Montalcino, compares to some the best wines we've ever tasted
Jeanne and I are contemplating why we are so fascinated by Firenze.  I, Charles, believe there is something extraordinary about Florence. And forgive me for venturing out on a limb here.  There is a unique blend of Christian and Hermetic influence, that defines Florence differently than other cities we've visited. Remember, it was the Medici family that strongly encouraged the practical application of Hermetic thought, believed to be descended from the Egyptians, in the writings of Giardano Bruno and Giovanni Pico della Mirandola, two Renaissance humanists. Now, try to stifle a big yawn at this point and stay with me. Florence is the greatest physical manifestation of humanism of the Renaissance. That's my opinion. You can't see Florence without thinking of the rise of the Medici Bankers and without thinking of the central idea of Hermetic thought that all life is soul; that all soul is mind; that God exists around and through all things and that man through his reason can learn the secrets of the Divine-----not through a priest, or some other dude, but through reason.  This is why I LOVE FLORENCE!!!!!! And if you're not sure what I'm talking about, check out the TV series Da' Vinci's Daemons :)

As we made our way to the Ponte Vecchio after leaving Obseqvivm wine bar, we were reminded about the manager who immigrated to Florence from Mexico for the art... makes sense...it's everywhere, even on the streets. 

Young artist using pastel chalk colours to render a copy of the Mona Lisa on a street in Florence near the Ponte Vecchio. Isn't it marvellous?

Tomorrow is a "rest" day in Bologna, but that doesn't mean we'll be sitting around.  We have a few things we want to do in Bologna before heading out to Greve.  Really looking forward to this final leg of our journey.

Sunday, 13 July 2014

Cinque Terre

After a three-an-a-half-hour ride on the Treno Regionale, that included a change-over in Parma, we finally arrived in Monterosso. Admittedly, the Regionale experience is quite different from the high speed trains, Le Frecce, Trenitalia (Le Frecce translates as The Arrows. ) Since train travel has been a big part of our experience on this trip, it bears elaborating somewhat on this aspect of our travels.  We have encountered two types of speed trains, Frecciarossa and Frecciargento, (Red Arrow and Silver Arrow) with the "rossa" offering slightly newer amenities. It is mandatory to reserve a seat costing 10,00 Euros per person on any of the high speed trains, even if you have a Eurail Pass, but it's worth it.  Apparently, there is a Frecciabianca as well; we haven't seen it. Le Frecce trains travel only to the larger cities and generally move North/South. The Regional trains travel east/west as well and make many more stops, hitting the smaller and more rural towns. Seating is open and for Eurail pass holders, free, which is nice. Comfort is no where near what it is on the high speed trains.  That said, they are still efficient and effective modes of transportation to move large numbers of people to a variety of locations.

As with most of our arrivals to new places, our first encounter with Monterosso was confusing.  What had been a relatively quiet train ride became more and more crowded and chaotic as we approached the Cinque Terre towns, and the Monterosso stop was teaming with people getting off and on the train, some arriving for the first time, others using the train as a mode of transportation to visit one of the remaining four towns, Vernazza, Corniglia, Manarola, and Riomaggiore.

As part of our package, B&B Il Parco had a taxi waiting for us, a tremendous relief. A short ride to the hotel and we knew we had a winner.  Thanks, Les for helping us locate this fantastic spot. They even have a decent breakfast that includes scrambled eggs that Charles loves :) The peace and quiet comes at a bit of a price. The descent to the town centre where the action is, i.e. restaurants, beach, stores, espresso and gelato bars, etc. requires about a 15 minute walk to the shortcut ...a set of stairs, we counted 135, so not bad compared to the Praiano stairs experience.  The walk back is more rigorous, since the climb does't end with the stairs. The road is uphill all the way, a good workout after a meal or snack of gelato which is to die for anywhere in Italy. I've developed a fondness for nocciola and chocolate, yum! We've noted that somehow all this exercise doesn't seem to translate into weight management.  We can both feel out waists expanding by the day.  Home time will also be diet time...big time!

B&B Il Parco has great views and beautifully manicured gardens with quiet spaces to sit and gather your thoughts
Having already experienced incredible meals in Bologna, it was an unexpected surprise to find equally amazing food at Miky's in Monterosso.

Tuna steak with capers and sun dried tomato 

Sea bass with really good potatoes

And le piece de resistance, tiramisu ...delicious!
The hiking trail from Monterosso to Vernazza was much safer yet, in some ways more strenuous than the Path of the Gods along the Amalfi Coast, beautiful in it's own way, but very different.  We found it hard to put our finger on just what the difference was.  The best we could come up with is that the vistas along the Amalfi coast were somehow more majestic.  Cinque Terre, however is very pretty and extremely photogenic.

Vernazza seen from the hiking trail

Beautiful vistas from the hiking path

Vernazza from a closer perspective along the trail

Today, we took the boat ride along the coast and had the opportunity to see each of the towns from the water, all stunningly beautiful from afar. The only town we actually explored was Vernazza.  By the time we got to Riomaggiore, we were both tired and starting to get a little seasick from the rocking of the boat so we decided to pack it in and head back for an afternoon of sunning and swimming at the beach. By the way, 10,00 Euros each for an umbrella and two chairs. They get you coming and going in these tourist areas!

We learned that Vernazza and Monterosso were the hardest hit during the awful mud slide that happened in October of 2011.  Once again we are amazed at the resilience of Italian villagers.  Walking through the towns today, one would never believe that three years ago the main roads were six feet deep in mud! Mirella, the proprietress of B&B Il Parco, explained that the towns folk, young and old, of Monterosso and Vernazza worked night and day to get things back in shape for the following tourist season and, for the most part, they succeeded.  She mentioned that some relief also came from other parts of Italy and Europe as well, which was nice to hear.

Street in Vernazza that was buried in mud after the mud slide of October, 2011

Loved this shot of the water Charles took as we were leaving the Vernazza harbour

And finally, I just had to include this photo of an amazing seafood pasta dish I had at La Tortuga Ristorante. As we sat eating, I watched a huge Mediterranean storm from a window right in front of me.  It was awesome!  Come to think of it, that's probably why the boat was rocking so much...the waves were higher than usual, probably due to the storm the night before.

Yummy seafood pasta at La Tortuga

Window at La Tortuga.  The storm was still brewing at this point, but nature put on quite a show!
Well, tomorrow it's back to Bologna for a few days.  We'll probably hit Florence one more time and not sure what else.  Really looking forward to Greve in Chianti, Tuscany coming up at the end of the week.