Oct 20, 2006

The Amalfi Coast

This coastline is amazing…which means the road that curves its way along its edge is amazing. This is a road for sports cars and motorbikes…but that is coming from someone who loves to hug the curves, whether in a car or a bike. Half my fun was driving and the other was taking in the sheer cliffs that plunged into the sea. We drove from Sorrento to Amalfi and took in some of the hill towns that were along the way.

There are some incredible properties with fantastic views and Anne and I stopped to soak it all in. We walked through old center after old center without tiring of the feel…knowing that the cobblestones and walls held secrets of the ages. If only they could recount history.

We ate in Amalfi, staring at a woman who seemed to have an unusual attachment to a duck. The duck swam with her, came when she called and loved to be picked up and hugged.

Ravello, which held so much promise to be extraordinarily beautiful, was somewhat disappointing to us. Lovely views were to be seen from the balcony of an expensive hotel, but we didn’t find it as captivating as other small hilltowns.

We did have some fun hamming it up for a photo overlooking the ocean and pretending to not understand an Italian hanging out of his car window asking what our names were.


Dinner at Osteria di Buonconvento

What a find! Anne and I decided to walk into town to find internet service and look for a piano bar she had read about. The piano bar was elusive, but during the search, we came across narrow, cobblestone streets filled with shops that had their wares spilling over on the sidewalks. We didn’t know where to start!

Evenings like these are a true sensory experience. There are smells of all kinds….scents of leather goods; different foods, baked bread, pizza, fruit piled high on outdoor stands; perfume from the elegantly dressed woman who passed by, or the smell of man hard at work. Street lamps stretch their yellow arms as far as they can, embracing tablewares and passers-by in their warm glow yet leaving corners in dark and mysterious contrast. Brilliant colored stones sparkle in their metal trappings waiting for willing hands to wrap them around a long and beautiful neck, bare wrist or naked finger. Colors of bright yellow sunflowers trapped in tablecloths or ceramic dishware and pared with reds, blues and greens. There are silky scarves begging to be touched, beautiful stiletto shoes asking to strut about town; furs to be caressed and worn only in my imagination.

Mouths open and strange but beautiful sounds, seemingly all vowels, soft and gentle tumble forth, one word caressing another. Strains of accordion music draw us around a corner expecting to find nothing more than a loudspeaker. We find instead a jolly man, sitting outside a restaurant with his instrument, sending musical notes to the ends of the street to beckon the curious and enchanted. We are entranced and decide to stay for dinner and indulge our last sensory experience. Steamed vegetables, seafood, soup, pork, wine and limoncella; eaten to the strains of Italian and French music. What a treat!

These will have to be some of life’s simple pleasures….good food, good company, good ambiance and a good walk to show off the limoncella.


We awoke to another amazingly beautiful day. There is a bit of a chill in the air now, but the sky was blue and the sun felt wonderfully warm on our skin.

We decided to see Vesuvius today and took off at a leisurely pace. Anne was amused by the Italian drivers and there were many to entertain her.

Somehow, we ended up on a town called Torre di Annunziata…a town we hope to never see again. It gave Anne a good idea of what non-touristy life is like. I already had my introduction by driving around the outskirts of Naples. Dirty, filthy streets with bags of garbage piled high; some spilling open to show their rotting contents. I couldn’t believe I had left such wonderful, clean country to come to this.

Lunch time caught us in town. We found a wine bar that was serving lunch and ordered some Panini. They served different types of cheese and some mushrooms and salami that they had preserved in house. The mushrooms and cheeses were delicious and we walked out of there with cheese sprinkled with truffles and the honey to pour on top of it. Who would have thought that combo would be so delicious!

On the road again, we made one more circle to nowhere before resorting to the autostrada and finally found our way. If you know me, you’d know that any winding road is heaven for me. And this was heaven. At the parking lot, the adorable Italian attendant immediately took a liking to Anne and showered her with compliments. Just to show he meant it, he paid her equal attention when we got back from our walk to the crater.

I thought the volcano was extinct….Wrong….just sitting there waiting. 1944 was the last great eruption and they are sure it is just a matter of time before it spouts again. From the top, we could get a glimpse of Pompeii, a trip for another day, and a perfect view of the dark brown haze that is covering the city. Well, brown is supposedly the fashion color for next season……


Sorrento and the east coast

Anne has arrived and it’s nice to have her with me. She had to wait a grueling two hours for me as I got a late start, traffic was horrible to start with and I didn’t realize just how far I was from Rome.

On the way back, we stopped at the Abbazia di Montecassino….where the abbey was bombed almost into non-existence in WW2. I understand why there were so many casualties….this place is literally situated on top of a steep hill. Anyone trying to attack would have been easy prey for the one’s holding the abbey.

We were outside for just a moment taking photos and trying to send a message when our neighbor came out on the terrace. She had a 5 litre bottle of wine for us…and it was delicious. We’ll finish it before the week is over.

Pina, the neighbor, surprised us later that evening when she came over with her son asking if we would help with his English homework. This would have to be one of the most rewarding things I’ve done; it was so good to help him and also learn. It was incredibly easy to talk with him…far easier than I’ve had with many adults. I hope this means I will have fun learning how to teach English…and then have even more fun actually teaching it.

And most of all, I hope I get to teach it in Europe.


Oct 19, 2006

Italian Drivers!

The first rule of thumb: there are no rules!!!

I’ve decided that Italians are really a step above other countries when it comes to driving. They have learned the art of sharing, tolerance and acceptance:

- They share their respective lanes with other cars, scooters, bikes, pedestrians
- They are not territorial and hog space, they will willingly drive on the curb to allow a fellow driver to pass, in their lane and then pull back on to putt along happily.
- Drivers that impatiently bounce back and forth almost on your back bumper are not upset at your pace; just eager to be on their way, probably happy to get to work. This is shown by their peeling off at the first opportunity they get to go around you.
- Lanes on blind corners, of which there are many, are shared by oncoming traffic….no one seems to mind. Italians take corners wide so they don’t have to turn the steering wheel as much.
- Lanes of traffic are happy to share their lane with scooters going in the opposite direction.
- There is an unspoken code of courtesy at round-a-bouts and intersections….one car pokes its nose far enough into oncoming traffic…naturally, other cars stop to let them through.
- Cars overtake on double lines, turn lanes, marked barriers…no one minds at all
- Close one lane of a three lane road; all three lanes just squeeze together, nice and close and cozy, instead of merging into two lanes. This is “sharing” at its max!

With this exhibition of camaraderie and sharing, why do we think Italian drivers are crazy fanatics on wheels.

Oct 18, 2006

Italian Leather!!!! Yeah!

FINALLY! I’ve bought a pair thanks to the fellow above. I laughed so much when I tried on the pair I am not sure it was because the pants fit well, or because I liked him. Or maybe both; I don’t think I would have parted with that much money if it didn’t fit well.
He explained the characteristics of leather and how it conforms to ones form. I thought “of course he would tell me that it fit well, for a sale” but I think the week of walking in the Dolomites and the constant walking everywhere has trimmed things up a bit.

Nevertheless, as I am standing with my back to the mirror, craning my neck around trying to see my behind, I said , “the only thing is, I don’t have a butt.” I swiveled around to look at him only to see his retreating back, his head in his hands, muttering, “women, women! They are never pleased.”

I asked him about the color and his answer was this…"black is good for the discotheque but brown is the color for the next season". So the pants is brown instead of black. Then he told me that I need to wear a short top with it AND that I should not get it hemmed. I will then limit it to a certain pair of shoes. Instead, adjust and hold with double stick tape and that way I will be able to wear it with a number of different pairs.

This was the best fun I’ve had spending money. Now I have to find a reason to wear it here.

Oct 11, 2006

Siena Landscape

Siena landscape

Rolling hills near Siena, sectioned off by white roads snaking their way along the landscape; scalped brown in places and braided with straight rows of chianti in others, sentinels of cypress guarding the ridges.


Gubbio, the villa

I love this place. This is the first apartment where I wanted to get up early and go for a walk. The best part is that there are no curious and nosey old women nearby to check out what I am doing…when I come in or go out.

My apartment is at the back of the building; perfect for me as I want to leave that beautiful door open as much as possible. The door opens to a large green area with a passiagiata just a stones throw away. I’m glad the weather is still good and warm during the day.

There was an early morning mist when I walked, that made the countryside look dreamy and mystical. I could live in a place like this forever. If anyone has seen anything like this in the States, let me know – I want to add to their population.

The apartment is wonderful…a converted monastery. That pleases me as I love monasteries as Mary knows. She won’t forget the trip down some foggy road with robed figures that seemed to glide in the fog. And then having to sit in some musty room to chant and stand up and sit down, stand and sit, stand and sit. Maybe that’s really why she didn’t come along this time to visit me…Anyway, I digress. The apartment has been done with lovely tile on the floor and bathroom. Clean, bright and attractive, with little details that make me happy.

The only thing is that those tiles, lovely as they are, have been lethal. An entire bottle of apricot juice lost its life and spread its glittering and splintered body, along with its yellow blood on the ochre floor. Half the paper towels disappeared in a few minutes.

The next victim was the beautiful glass door that separated the kitchen from the bedroom. One windy day, I left open the window at one end, and the door at the other. Before I could say Jack Sprat, the kitchen door slammed shut and the sickening sound of breaking glass echoed toward me.

So, it’s not surprising then, that I was asked at one point to not leave any lights on...nice old building and all….

Not a Gubbio girl

Today my new friend was going to play ping-pong with me and take me on a tour of Gubbio.

How long has it been since I’ve played? I’d like to blame it on my lack of practice but I know he’d have beaten me anyway. We bet pizza and beer and it fell to me to pick up the tab. I did manage to eek out one win….a salve for my many losses.

I learned he had a passionate involvement with a beautiful Italian red Ducati 916 and on our way into Gubbio, made one stop along the way to drop off the tires for his bike at the garage. This is where I learned that I don’t look like a Gubbio girl….and that I look like I’m in my 20’s. I think I like this town a lot.

Gubbio is lovely and of course, having someone give me some background and history made it all the more interesting. At a museum, he lied and told them that I was his girlfriend, so they allowed me in for free (Gubbioites don’t have to pay for a ticket). I was relieved to see that here, there were paintings with a different theme. At the Uffizi, I saw what seemed like a hundred Madonna and Child, The Annunciation, The Crucifixion. Not that they weren’t wonderful, but there were so many, and often right next to each other. There’s only so many that one can take. So seeing paintings of the resurrection or with the disciples was refreshing. Another point for Gubbio.

It was early, so we visited my friend's father to see his collection of paintings. I saw some beautiful 16th to 17th century paintings…and got a tour complete with history and meaning. The room was filled with such interesting furniture that I wondered if they EVER used it. I wouldn’t if it were mine just because they were so precious.

After dinner we took a quick drive to the monastery at the top of the hill to see the city lights. And let me say, it was quick…. His car took the corners like it was a freeway. And quick, because I was cold when we got there.

After a month of exploring alone, it was really nice to have company and someone to tell me exactly where things were without spending the time and being frustrated trying finding them.

There is a legend that going around the fountain will bring madness; so I went around the allotted three times….nothing like living dangerously. Once I was baptized with the fountain water……I was one of Gubbio’s crazy people.

The thing about towns like these is that there are still artisans. I had to take a photo of the men forging pieces for a piece of furniture….at least I think that is what it was. Nothing industrial…really hand made. Too bad I can’t bring any of it home….and then again…to what home right now?

Medici Villa - Poggia di Caiona

I decided to stay one night closer to Florence since I had a 10:15 appointment and I KNEW I’d never make it from Bagni di Lucca. Along the way was the Poggia di Caiona Medici Villa. I have heard about the Medici and their wealth and influence so it made sense to see firsthand what life was like for them.

The grounds didn’t give any idea of what it was like inside. The grey staircase leading to the upper story was unkempt and they looked old and grey and dilapidated. Nevertheless, the sculptures that were sitting just beyond them were an introduction to the masterpieces and beauty that were within. I don’t think the photos give it true credit.

I was fortunate to arrive just as a guide was beginning a tour to an Englishwoman – who spoke Italian. The tour was in Italian, but he spoke slowly so I could have a better chance of understanding. It was more interesting than if I walked though on my own. I learned about the love lives of the good, bad and the ugly – enough for me to want to learn more, so I picked up a book on the Medici and their rise and fall.

I think the guide took a liking to us, removing the barriers and letting us take photos on the furniture. Sometimes it really pays to be a girl.

At the end of the tour, Moremo, our guide, suggested that we have a coffee together. He told us of a bakery on the street that prepared a delicious Tuscan specialty, like no other. By the time we got there we thought it would be larger than life. Imagine our amusement when we found ourselves staring at a doughnut!

Enoteca Coquinarius - Florence

Here is a wonderful place to eat, recommended by my friend Jen, that was conveniently situated right next to the Paperback Exchange store that was organizing absentee ballot stuff. So I popped in and was seated for a nice meal.

Naturally I ordered a nice glass of wine to go with my meal. Somewhere near the end, the waiter walked by to take an empty plate…and winked at me. Oh joy, I swear that when I smiled back my eyes swam, but in different directions! I thought “Okay, so that was attractive.”

Then I started giggling and the more I tried to stop, the more uncontrollable it became.

One glass of wine!

Oct 10, 2006

Volterra, San Gimingnano, Buonconvento, Abby San Antimo, Abby Monte Oliveto Maggiore.

My little drive around took me all the way down to Volterra, a perfectly preserved medieval town that is not as visited as other towns. It is mostly known for the Balze cliffs, where it is eroding away, and one basilica with it. I came during a car show – naturally, the red sports car caught my eye, but the very tiny fiats were adorable as well.

San Gimingnano was a short drive away. I decided to stay the night here so I could see more of southern Tuscany. The monastery was the least expensive choice, but they didn’t answer either the door or the phone!!!! I must have caught them all during their moment of silence. I called a number I had for a room and was welcomed by a wonderful retired couple. (My Italian got a kick-start here as we sat around their table and talked for a short while. That gave me a boost of confidence.) They were only a short distance from the free parking I’d found. Amazing! I walked up to the walled entrance and the woman in front of me turned around and stared at me with a “how dare you” look as she backed away from me, and I wondered if looked dangerous or insane or like her dead mother.

Town was full of wonderful quaint shops and lots of gelato. One of those night photos is of one shop that was open and drawing customers – including me. There was a trio playing their music on one of the streets - classical chamber – perfect for those surroundings. I now have their CD. The church was amazing with frescoes of scenes from the bible. There was a woman giving a tour in English and I listened in on her lecture. One of the frescoes was of the wealthy donors to the church – who had themselves painted as the chosen going to heaven.

Next day, it rained…lovely. This means I’ll have to come back so I can see southern Tuscany with blue sky.

Buonconvento was my lunch stop. I had a delicious typical tuscan lunch – barley soup and venison. It’s different in the country than in the city where they bring you a glass of wine if that is what you ask for. I got an entire bottle! But I was reassured I only paid for what I drank. I felt like a native with that bottle sitting grandly in front of me. I’m usually done for after only one glass, so this looked good.

The Two abbeys. I like abbeys, probably more so that the grand churches. And I like the chanting…..very soothing. I was sorry that they vesper at the first abby – San Antimo was going to be too late for me to stay for. I was pleasantly surprised that they were in service when I arrived at the Monte O. Maggiore. This is supposed to be the grandest abbey still in existence.

I had a nice long drive back to Lucca, even with the freeway. They are tolled and although I’ve been through them before, I couldn’t find the slot for the ticket. The frustrated voice kept saying in English “Put it in the box” but the box seemed all wrong – too big for my little ticket. Finally, I dropped it in and since nothing happened I asked mysterious voice “what now?” No answer… The agent materialized out of nowhere and asked “What’s the problem” or was it really “What’s your problem?” before fixing it and sending me on my way.