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Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Italy... after 26 years...

I recently wound up in Italy for a week, having won the "Tuscany & Cinque Terre" 8-day tour from Intrepid Travel (yes, the Sweepstakes Queen strikes again...)
I haven't traveled on a group tour since I was 14 and went to Israel with my father on an AJC Tour (where the other guests Gasped With Horror when Papa ordered us wine with our dinners!), & I truly had no idea if it would be a Good Thing, but it seemed, at the time, like a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to have a "girlfriend getaway" with my Best Friend, and I sold all my gold jewelry & Papa's 1913 swords to make it happen... but, as they say, "the road to hell is paved with good intentions"!

The tour itself was excellent, thanks in Great measure to the fact that Tamara, our Trip Leader (the link is to her website and photographs), had (& miraculously retained) her great sense of humor, the genetic ability (from her mathematician father) to divide restaurant bills by 11(!), and the patience of a saint! :-) The other members of the group were great, flexible, and full of good humor, and we shared a lot of laughter throughout the week, along with sore feet & a taste for grappa! We got to travel "with the locals" by train & bus, and to hike enough that in theory I shouldn't have gained any weight from all the wonderful food...
I'd gone to school in Firenze back in 1977 when I was at The Cooper Union, studying painting (watercolor & encaustic) with Prof. Maurizio Martelli at his studio within the grounds of the Medici Chapel, living at the Pensione Arizona next to the Synagogue, and riding my Cimatti motorino around town... I also lived in Firenze thru the Very Cold Winter of 1978-79, when I woke up with a layer of snow covering my pile of blankets, working as a waitress at The Cheapest Restaurant in Florence (hard by the Church of Santa Maria Novella near the train station), and selling watercolors to the tourists from my cafe table at Cafe Rivoire... I was married by the Mayor of Scandicci in Feb. 1979, given red roses & carnations by the Partitos Radicale & Communisti respectively, as well as the book "Il Sole e Muore" by Orianna Fallacci, and so became un vero citizina Italiana... The last time I was in Italy was in 1981 for Carnivale in Venice... Given that I truly never thought I'd be getting back to Italy any time soon, it was, in many ways, a rather magical week for me, and some of the highlights (in no particular order) were:
1. Being able to speak my "Bad Italian" for the first time in 26 years! It was Wonderful to find that I could still speak enough Italian to make myself understood, AND (more importantly) understand at least 80% of what was said to me in return! I got a big kick out of being able to struggle through newspaper articles, read signage, and eavesdrop a bit on cafe conversations going on around me...

2. Learning that my 1970s & 80s Idols of Great Italian Pop Music, Renato Zero & Eduardo Bennatto, are still "known", and still creating & performing music! (I did feel about 104 years old when 30-something Tamara had NO idea who Eduardo Bennatto or Renato Zero were! But in chatting to Italians over 30 on the train, I discovered that they ARE still known- and appreciated!)
3. The first night and day that I had in Siena on my own (Maria having missed the flight...), to wander about Siena and take it all in... To find the Pinacoteca, and wander slowly past 100s of gilded 1300s Madonnas, to find the Synagogue, with the plaque listing the names of the Jews deported and murdered during WWII... to sit in cafes on the Piazza del Campo, drinking my first-in-a-long-time cappuchinos... to photograph the small Palio parades with the children in their fabulous costumes waving the colorful flags of their Contrade...


The Tourist Office Lady was wonderful, and found me a bargain (38 Euro/night) pensione just steps from the Piazza del Campo: the excellent Tre Donzelle at Via delle Donzelle 5, Tel: 0577.280358. The staff was charming & helpful, and I had a simple room on the top floor, with a classic Tuscan view from my window: yellow ochre washed walls, dark green shutters, the balconies of neighboring apartments, ancient stone & brick, and terra cotta roof tiles.... it took me right back to my student days at the Pensione Arizona! I even enjoyed falling asleep to the sounds of Siena closing up in the wee hours (the clanging of metal grates) and waking up shortly thereafter (more clanging of metal grates), and the (spotlessly clean) toilet and shower down the hall...

3a. The beautiful scenery on the train from Milan to Florence, but Especially from Florence to Siena. The landscapes were truly magnificent, and as tired as I was after the flight, it was glorious to see the vineyards and hills of Tuscany again, awash in the warm afternoon light... The lovely dining cars of my youth, however, have been replaced, even on the fancy "EuroStar" trains, by dismal stand-up "bar cars", where one stands drinking mediocre coffee from throwaway cups as the train lurches to & fro... :-( This was a Major disappointment, as one of the things I'd been looking Very forward to was again sitting at an elegant, linen-clothed table with my cappuchino, watching the scenery go by...

4. Getting to see and walk (at least part of) the gorgeous Cinque Terre, and through the beautiful little towns of Riomaggiore, Cerniglia, Vernazza, and Monterossa, on the mountain path above the sea and along the beach... & the Truly fab lunch of local anchovy-and-roasted pepper pannini & white wine at the annual Monterossa Anchovy Fest, one of the "great good meals" of life, that I so wish I could have shared with Dan... I had never been to the Cinque Terre, and for me this was one of the major highlights of the trip.











































4a. A lovely, delicate ravioli with Salsa Noci (nut sauce) for lunch, with a glass of house red, at a trattoria in Riomaggiore, sketching the view across the cobblestone street from my table ...

4b. The adorable Mar Mar Apartment, down a winding lane in the center of Riomaggiorre. I enjoyed waking up to sunshine & the music of the church bells, and throwing open the shutters, pretending, for a moment this was really "my" apartment... And I loved the murals and mosaics by Benedetto that grace the RR tunnel and walls throughout town...











5. Finding THE best wine-bar/salumeria in Siena: Antica Pizzicheria al Palazzo della Chigiana, at 93/95 Via Di Citta, the ring road right outside the Piazza della Campo. I think this place was really "the" find of my trip! The wines, house-made salamis and hams, cheeses, and crusty breads were EXCELLENT, and Antonio & Massimo were a delight! We had two great evenings there, and the rest of the group wound up there and had a great time, as well! The paninno they made me for our picnic lunch the next day was truly great: wild boar proscuitto & peccorino on crusty bread... This place is worth going to Siena for!







5a. The great Happy World Internet Cafe in central Siena- my one, true bargain!

5b. The glorious installation of modern art horses on display all over Siena...













6. The luscious saffron-cream "house" pasta sauce at our first group dinner in a simple Siena trattoria...

7. Sketching by the pool at our beautiful Tuscan "villa" in Greve in Chianti- the first time I'd sketched in my journal in Many years... It was truly wonderful to sit in the sun with a glass of wine & sketch again... When Andrew pulled out his watercolors and began to paint, it really did inspire me to start sketching again...



























8. Both the great & inexpensive local wine in its no-lable, cork-topped bottles, & our Chianti Classico wine-tasting dinner at that same villa in Greve in Chianti. I especially enjoyed the "interestingly oaky" Chianti that Sue kept insisting "smelled like bad breath"! I will be forever hunting for Just that Chianti!












9. The AMAZING white truffle pasta sauce at that dinner... Truffles are "earthy" in the best way- like a good "peaty" single malt whisky, it's sort of like eating dirt- but in a really refined, gourmet way! :-) I lucked into this pasta by asking the waiter for "qualcosa interresante da qui"- what I hoped meant "something interesting from here"- and he suggested a pasta with truffle sauce. I then asked "white or black truffles?" so he'd think I knew more than I did, & when he said "white" I nodded sagely & smiled my delight... and was rewarded with a totally fabulous and uttterly luscious pasta sauce... This is the kind of risky restaurant business that sometimes results in fabulous food; I've been lucky, but the truth is that I've Never eaten badly or had a bad glass of wine in Italy- ever. I've come to believe that it's not possible to eat or drink badly in Italy!

10. The delicious chingialle (wild boar) sausage & ham at our lunch at the terrace restaurant in the burgo of Montefioralle overlooking Tuscany... and Robin's scrumptious desert (which she graciously passed around) of peccorino cheese, pears, honey, & walnuts! Yum! This was another "great good meal" that that gave us all the strength for the rest of the 9-hour forced march (I mean "3-hour gentle hike") thru the gorgeous (and delicious!) olives and grapes of Toscana- singing Broadway show tunes with Andrew, a veritable mobile songbook of everything from Oliver thru South Pacific! Although I'd done the requisite "Chianti Winery Tour" when I was a student, I'd never actually walked thru Tuscany, past the olives and the grapes, much less sampled the odd (sweet!) grape, and so this was a totally new and wonderful way to see the countryside...



10a. Noting the similarities between the southern West Virginia ATV trails & Tuscany, as we marched (I mean "hiked") the narrow, rocky path thru the forest, back to Greve...




11. Buying wine from the charming man who opened the church in Montefioralle for us and showed & explained to us the wonderful paintings... and those Excellent red cherry peppers stuffed with anchovies at our "home-cooked" group dinner at the "villa" that evening...






12. "Limoncello & Grappa Nights" in Riomaggiore, when "Mamma" poured the first round of shots... Limoncello is the sort of overly sweet liqueur that must be served Ice Cold, preferably in frozen shot glasses, lest the sugary-sweetness of it rot your teeth before you have a chance to become "tiddly"... but it has a way of 'growing' on one... as does grappa, which I found to be Far smoother than the rotgut I recall from my wild Florentine youth... "Back in the day", grappa was a drink rough old men quaffed while standing up in neighboorhood bars... this was, of course, before "foodies" got hold of it, before the invention of the word "foodie", actually...
13. "Armagnac Morning", following our walk about Siena, when Andrew & Maria did at least 4 snifters of it while their "livers were being watched" by Robin, who Does Not Drink Before Sundown- it's just not Done!
14: Finding Our Lady of the Good Trip Companions with her blue neon halo, as Maria & I walked back to the hotel, our last night in Siena...
15. Learning several key Hungarian phrases from Tamara, none of which I shall Ever forget...
16. Getting to walk about Firenze again (as well as Pisa & Siena)... tasting again Gnocchi with Pesto... finding a corner cafe with the "perfect view" of the Leaning Tower, Duomo, & Baptistry... getting to spend 6 hours in the Uffizi with Maria, seeing again the Botticellis, DaVincis, & Artemesia Gentileschi's painting, and having coffee up on their lovely terrace cafe overlooking the Duomo... walking again across the Ponte Vecchio (but finding "my" cafe, (with Mario the Barrista, who looked like Sylvester Stallone), long gone, having been replaced by a fancy new one...)... tasting again luscious Italian gelato... hearing opera singing in the Pzza. Republica, amidst the glittering backdrop of a carousel... & sitting again at Cafe Rivoire, listening to a brass band play by the Palazzo Vecchio... even tho' I had to shove 30 gazzilion tourists out of the way to do it all! (Remind me not to go to back to Florence until October...)




























17. Sitting in as many little cafes as possible throughout Tuscany and the Cinque Terre, drinking cappucho after cappucho, watching the world go by, and writing in my Trip Journal, a.k.a. Elisse's Therapy Diary...

My sadness (and need for the Therapy Diary) stemmed from the fact that during this trip I lost a friend, one who'd I'd considered my Best Friend prior to this trip. So from that standpoint, it was a very expensive and sad lesson that I could have nicely lived without... I do have a few fond memories of some time we enjoyed together on this trip, especially at the Civil Museum in Siena and at the Uffizzi, and the evenings in Siena at the Pizzicheria and finding "Our Lady of the Good Trip Companions"... More than anything, I wish I'd been able to do the tour with Dan, for then it would have been 1000% Wonderful & THE most romantic of holidays... Someday I hope to show Dan "my" Italy, and together we can taste all the wonderful things Italy has to offer...

I do wish I'd had at least one more day to wander about Firenze, to go again to the Brunelleschi-domed Synagogue, and Santa Croce, to see the Van Gogh exhibition, find "my" old apartment on Via Campuccio & see the Pallazzo Pitti again, to have a trattoria meal, to spend some time at the Medici Chapel where "my" studio was, and go again inside the Duomo & Baptistry-in other words, to revisit "my" Firenze, go back to the art store when I bought my colors, and find the historic pharmacy at the Church of Santa Maria Novella that still makes Catherine di Medici's perfume... and I wish I'd had a better exchange rate for the US dollar!!!! The dollar is Truly in the pits, and the exchange rate was SO bad (I got 330 Euros for $600!) that I had to think about every small expenditure which wasn't a lot of fun. Prices in Euros seemed good until you realized you had to DOUBLE them when thinking in dollars! AAAAAUGH!

But the absolute BEST part of my trip was coming home with a suitcase full of wine, pasta sauces, honey, Limoncello from Pisa, & Monterossa anchovies, and being able to share it all with my wonderful husband!!!! Oddly, as gorgeous as the clothes and jewelry were (and Florence has clothes & shoes what-to-die-for, as it always has had), for the first time in my life (perhaps because I felt Fat & had just sold all my jewelry...) I lusted after neither... the Only thing I wished I'd had more money for was to buy and bring home more wine and sauces and other delicious things (Truffles! Cinque Terre peppers stuffed with tuna!) to enjoy with Dan... We cracked open that bottle of really great Montefioralle Chianti Classico the other night, & had Monterossa anchovy-roasted pepper pannini on crusty, home-baked bread at the Elkhorn Inn! And now I REALLY have to lose 20 lbs!!

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Powerful post.