whirlwind tour with Gpa and Gma, part 1 (of 2)

My head goes bonkers when I try to remember all the things we did, places we went, food we ate, statues we saw, domes we climbed, museums we visited, trains we caught... with grandpa and grandma during their two week visit (for a photo album of their stay---click here).

To be fair, we didn't go to each exhibit with them---some museums we have frequented; so we would drop them on the appropriate doorstep and leave them to their devices. Fortunately, our residence is only ever a few blocks from the nearest tourist attraction.

I already wrote a post on Certaldo and San Gimignano, Cortona and Greve in Chianti---4 cities we visited with grandpa and grandma near the beginning of their stay with us (no time for jet lag... time to go!). In addition to those cities, we scurried through Castellina in Chianta, watched Anthony play a [very foggy] soccer game in Chiusi, spent 4 days in Rome and soaked up impressive amounts of Florence.

They left two days ago. And for their sake and ours, I decided I better make a list of our/their feats of tourism:

In Florence:
  1. The Uffizi Gallery (they loved the Dutch painters, Michelangelo's tondo and I couldn't get enough Boticelli...)
  2. The Bargello (filled with famous sculptures)
  3. The Duomo
  4. The Duomo Museum (sometimes overlooked by tourists, but in my opinion one of the most impressive museums in town!)
  5. The Baptistry (worth the sore neck from looking up and looking up some more)
  6. Le Academia (houses Michelangelo's DAVID)
  7. Palazzo Vecchio aka Palazzo Signoria
  8. San Lorenzo Church
  9. Medici Chapel/Sacristy
  10. Ponte Vecchio (we walked over the bridge to have a lovely lunch in the Oltrarno; plus mom and I grabbed wine another afternoon---with a window view of this infamous bridge!)
  11. Favorite Street: SS Apostoli is one of my favorite streets. An afternoon walk included a visit to a fabulous olive oil store, and a peek inside Santi Apostoli Church (which has a Robbia ceramic often overlooked but worth the find!)
  12. Watching Caleb play soccer at his Firenze Club
  13. Santa Croce (mom went with her college roommate---an unexpected treat!)
  14. Food out: stand-up sandwich/wine lunch, trying ribollita, cerci cookies, gelato run with grandkids, regular espressi/capuccini/macchiati...
  15. Food in: sangria, Cinghiali ragu on soft polenta, foccacia, mushroom risotto, pork chops with peppers (Mario), devils chicken (Mario), tuna/bean arugula salad, pasta with sausage/cream sauce, 1-2-3 chicken, homemade pizza with basic tomato sauce, pancetta wrapped raddicchio, lots of cheese/proscuitto/vino/chocolate/sambuca... we ate in a lot!
Grandpa/grandma: am I missing anything?
    And then there was Rome... (next post!)


    Cortona, Greve in Chianti

    One of the things we love about the boys having soccer games around Tuscany, is that it forces us to rent cars and get better acquainted with Italy. Even while staying in Florence, there are times that we just feel like curling up and contributing to the concept of home-bodies. But alas games are scheduled and inevitably we rent a car, make plans and end up with more photos, stories and experiences. Even if it is cold and rainy and mishaps occur... we still never regret getting out and about.

    This Sunday Anthony had a game just outside of Montepulciano. (I say this simply, but in reality stating the location of a game involves renting a car, retrieving the car via bike, phone calls in Italian, meeting up with team, going to the wrong field, depending on GPS, forgetting umbrellas, secretly venerating REI for selling Smartwool socks and undergarments, finding nearby espresso... and watching good soccer).

    This past Sunday was bone-chilling cold, and impressively foggy. Which... keeps most wise tourists away. Actually, the cold and time of year means we often have tourist-laden cities to ourselves. Our visit to Cortona was nearly uncanny. It was so foggy, devoid people milling about, many shops were closed and parking was easy. We still got a great sense of the city, found soul-warming coffee and enjoyed a fabulous, cozy lunch. We visited one of the churches, found ceramic shops and walked up and down a number of streets. We saw about a third of the city, and hope to return again someday.

    Greve in Chianti is a treat. It is the icon city of the Chianti Classico region of Tuscany (Chianti has 8 different regions, and the Chianti Classico region is the best-known, not only because they have fabulously marketed their wines, but they are the only region allowed to boast that fabulous black rooster motif). And Greve is tourist-ready: full of impressive shops, piled with souvenirs of the Chianti region, a world-class butcher shop (macellaria) and a line-up of restaurants worthy of a visit. We arrived a bit late to the city, but had just enough time to poke into the butcher, peek into some wine and clothing shops and get a sense of the city.

    Oh, and did I mention we almost ran into a small group of wild boar? My favorite new animal to eat and adore are cinghiale. Our new family favorite animal is easily the infamous, Tuscan wild boar. They make the best salami, prosciutto, sausage, ragu, sauce... and entertainment. It was awesome to see 4 of them jet across the road in front of our little car.


    frolicking fridays, round 10

    We had guests for round 10 of frolicking: grandpa and grandma (Janelle's folks). They arrived a few days ago, are pushing through jet lag and already absorbing piles of art, Chianti countryside, tower-filled cities and multiple views of the Duomo.

    Friday promised snow but delivered sun---perfect for a car-delivered tour of nearby cities. Friday morning we made a quick stop at the boys' school, made another quick stop to snap some photos of the Duomo and drove on to the US Memorial (WW2). Dedicated to US soldiers, this breathtaking memorial is an eternal thank you to those Americans who gave their lives to help liberate Italy. There are stunning, inlaid maps of Italy, showcasing the battle and how Italy was finally recovered---with the concerted efforts of US and British troops.

    After spending some quality time at the Memorial, we drove to Certaldo. James and I had read about this little hill-topped town. We took the tram up the hill, to visit the original center of Certaldo. It was quaint, small and well-kept. This city claims Boccaccio as its own; the one main street is named for him, we parked by his statue---and in the church are his remains. Boccaccio was a famous scholar and poet.

    Although most shops and museums were closed when we were there, we happened upon a ceramic shop that was full of beautiful pieces (Ceramic Artesia). Although closed, there are two delightful cafes and an impressive Palazzo---original to the Ridolfi family. This city isn't normally trounced with tourists, because visitors tend to jettison toward nearby San Gimignano. (Certaldo is so pleasant and quaint---a worthy visit if you are in the neighborhood).

    And being the good tourists that we are, next we went to San Gimignano. And because it is January and just after the holidays, we practically had the place to ourselves. We toured the church and took in the vast frescoes (some by Ghirlandaio)---we were the only people in the whole church. We climbed stairs in the fortress to take in views of the towers, toured the many piazzas, enjoyed a sit-down panini lunch in the main square (with city-famed Vernaccia wine) and poked our heads into souvenir and wine shops.

    Friday afternoon, we drove on super curvy roads toward Castellina in Chianti and Greve in Chianti. It was too late to soak up the cities, so we vowed to return to Greve in a few days.

    We made it home---with a crate of oranges purchased from a roadside truck---ate dinner and played cards. All in all, a fabulous frolicking Friday!

    For more photos, visit our photo album on our familyfrolics facebook page.


    Top 5 Memories of December 2009

    During December we witnessed the transformation of Florence (and all the surrounding cities) in anticipation for Christmas. For the entire month, the city was awash in lights and festivals. It made for enchanting nights and splendid memories. Here are my Top 5 Memories from the month of December:

    5. A day trip to San Gimigniano and Volterra. Situated in the countryside outside Siena, San Gimigniano and Volterra represent all than an ideal Tuscan town has to offer: a walled city perched on a small hilltop, panoramic views, wineries and olive orchards dotting the surrounding hillsides, and artisanal foods and/or crafts (proudly displayed in city center). We loved both cities, enjoyed our walks through the cities, counting towers, envisioning medieval battles and defensive maneuvers, and exploring back alleys and less traveled streets. While more touristy than Volterra, San Gimigniano did offer the most astonishing views and city was particularly well maintained. Visiting in November was ideal, because there were only local Italians visiting the sites.

    4. A day trip to Lucca. We had anticipated our trip to Lucca for some time, having heard it was a fantastic destination – we were not disappointed. This was also our first excursion with my parents, who had flown over to Italy to celebrate Christmas with us. Lucca is a walled city; but, unlike other destinations, Lucca’s walls are surrounded entirely by a park (including the tops of the walls), giving it a truly unique flavor. The city offered a variety of attractions, churches, piazzas, a converted amphitheater (now a piazza), and fantastic corsos and shopping. We all loved the city; however, our big disappointment was the weather – snow and slush throughout Lucca soaked through our shoes (making it cold and wet) and made walking precarious at times. Nonetheless, all of us were enamored by Lucca and plan to return.

    3. The Santa Croce Christmas Festival. For all of Advent, Piazza di Santa Croce was host to a Christmas Festival featuring artisans from all over northern Europe (namely Germany). The festival was open every day and showcased Christmas wares, gifts and foods that captivated children and adults alike. Our boys, Anthony and Caleb, made daily visits to the festival (about 200 meters from our apartment), and became intimately familiar with many of its treasures (including the mineral store and sweets shop). Janelle and I became close with the stand offering hot, mulled wine (a welcome treat on a cold night). My parents were also fortunate to arrive in time to enjoy this event, and blessed our family with a beautiful Nativity set (hand-made in Germany) – it is an heirloom gift that we’ll treasure for years.

    2. Christmas Mass at the Duomo. It wouldn’t be Christmas without attending church, and what better place in Florence than the Duomo (Santa Maria della Fiori). The entire mass was in Italian (and comprehensible only by myself and my two sons); however, for all of us it was a treat to be celebrating in Christmas in Italy. The church was packed with people from all around the world, the celebration was magnified by a huge, reverberating organ, and great works of art and history surroundedus. Sitting in the midst of it all, I could see where a populace centuries ago (who were not literate) could be educated about the life of Jesus Christ simply by studying the paintings and stained glass. It was truly inspiring. My only wish is that we would have sung more Gloria’s together before mass was over. I love Christmas music.

    1. Weekend trip to Orvieto, Civita and Montalcino. Certainly the most memorable experience in December was an extended weekend trip to Northern Lazio (Civita), Southern Umbria (Orvieto), and Central Tuscany (Montalcino). We started with a drive to Civita di Bagnoregio, an Etruscan hilltown in Northern Lazio, where I had spent a summer as a college student; and later returned as a graduate assistant. Civita is an ancient Etruscan village built on a rock outcropping that is slowly eroding away, and accessible only by a foot bridge. It is a tranquil enclave, which offers a surreal glimpse into the past (unfortunately frequented by too many tourists!). I was happy to share my prior experiences living in Italy with my parents and family, who heard countless stories of my stays. After saying hello to several old friends from Civita, we made our way to Orvieto for the night. Our kids gave my parents a first-rate tour of the city, and we browsed several shops during the evening passegiata. The next day we had the pleasure of attending mass in the Orvieto cathedral, including the blessing of the nativity scene (presepe). Our boys managed to get their cheeks squeezed by an unknown grandmother (a sign of affection) - they laughed. After a picking up some last minute items in Orvieto (ceramics and rubber band guns), we made our way north through the Tuscan countryside. We got several “calendar-quality” pictures along the way of indescribable scenes, and stopped by quaint little towns (Radicofani, Bagno Vignoni), before making it to Montalcino for dinner. Set upon a hilltop surrounded by world-reknowned wineries, Montalcino is a magnificent hilltown. Appropriately, a great fortress sits upon the top of the hill next to a soccer field (offering splendid views and wine-tastings), but the main corso stretches diagonally downhill. As a result, Montalcino is not for the faint-hearted; the streets and stairways are steep, making it a work-out to traverse. However, we loved it and the wines were a worthwhile reward!

    Other honorable mentions for Top Memories from December 2009, include: a visit to the Palazzo Pitti Musuem with my parents (Rafael, Tiziano, and Allori were impressive), a day trip to Pisa (and walk up the leaning tower), snow days in Florence, a day trip to Fiesole with my parents, and, of course, lazy days that included playing cards (Nerts!), watching movies and simply enjoy the splendor of Florence during a casual stroll.

    Thanks again to my parents (Opa/Oma) for making the long trip to Italy and sharing these memories with us! We are looking forward to what 2010 has in store for our family!


    frolicking fridays, round 9

    Another Friday! Is it just me or do these frolicking Fridays sometimes begin with an errand? We don't mean for it to happen that way, but sometimes it does. This particular Friday involved a funny errand, but one worth mentioning. See, Anthony had an assignment over Christmas break, to paint two oil paintings---specifically copies of Van Gogh and Gauguin. They turned out beautifully---we are thrilled that Anthony and Caleb are painting more and more. Though, this was our first foray into oil paints.

    Which means open the door and welcome in turpentine for cleaning, lots of newspapers spread under artwork and ultimately a few near-misses with paint that takes days to dry. (In fact, Caleb painted a beautiful one of a tree, with a ground-cover thick with leaves that is still not dry---a week later). But Anthony's art was due on Friday morning, dry or not. Since bikes are far from ideal for transporting 2 still-wet oil paintings (esp. in the rain), it was up to James and I to deliver.

    So we did. We placed Anthony's paintings gingerly in emptied cereal boxes, into plastic bags and under quite-large umbrellas. We walked two miles in the rain and turned in Anthony's homework masterpieces.

    But we love to walk, so we weren't complaining. After handing in the paintings, we took our time strolling back home, visiting Piazza Niccolo, checking out dandy little cafes and shops and them aimed for a tour of Santo Spirito Church. We found a painting by Lippi, and enjoyed two more by Allori (one of my new favorite artists---his ability to capture the eyes is magnificent).

    We landed at a little cafe right across the Piazza, where we holed up for a cozy lunch. Freshly made pasta and soup, good Chianti and a dense slice of chocolate cake. You would think we are on holiday. We went home after lunch, to put in a few hours of work before the boys came home.

    Just so you don't feel like I am cheating you out of trip-relevant articles, if you want to check out what is going on in my Florentine kitchen, check out these recent posts on my Talk of Tomatoes blog:


    Gubbio, Perugia, Assisi

    Since the boys are on holiday (until January 7), we decided to take advantage of a few days free from school/soccer/life requirements. So we scooted south until we left Tuscany and entered Umbria. We squeezed in a visit to Gubbio, taking our time to walk the streets stairs. We found a gorgeous park and poked our heads into the baroque-heavy church.

    Next was Perugia, where the boys enjoyed the hotel pool before we headed up into the city. We walked the streets during the passegiata, getting a feel for the long descending stairs, finding the infamous 5k aqueduct (now a footpath) and selecting individual Perugia chocolates for tasting (Caleb found one with marshmallow, Anthony chose strawberry, James' was studded with hazelnuts and mine was filled with caramel).

    We cannot help the pull to buy souvenirs, Anthony has a rapidly growing collection of painted tiles (with city names---and now one with St. Francis' prayer) and Caleb seeks out the gems/mineral stores in each city. In Gubbio he purchased Bizno---a rock that grows with straight lines and is metallic/shimmery. I bought a tiny little ceramic creamer---I couldn't resist the tiny bird motif.

    On day two we woke up to snow and cold. Fortunately we had explored Perugia the night before, so we gathered out belongings and drove to Assisi. My only regret is that we didn't have more time in Assisi (had to return for soccer games that same night). Assisi is touristy for obvious reasons, but the city has embraced that fact and in many ways beautified their city (due to the time of year and the weather, we were lucky that the tourists had slowed to a mere trickle). They have an impressive parking garage, lovely cafes, numerous well-kept shops and quite a few art galleries.

    We fell in love with one artist's work, and would have loved to have purchased a piece. Perhaps one day we will order one; check out Massimo Cruciani.

    Anthony summarized it well: Assisi was special because of their unique churches. They have 'a church inside of a church,' and a 'church on top of a church.' Which is true! Assisi's original tiny little hamlet church resides inside a large cathedral (this is below/outside the city). It was surreal.

    San Francesco is the church in Assisi (it includes one church on top of another), where you can still go at midnight to experience the monks' cantor. The 'bottom' church is glorious, well-kept and beautifully frescoed. This original church, Caleb noticed, was in the shape of a Greek cross. It was built by the Franciscan brothers; the church on top is more traditional in shape and height, with frescoes depicting St. Francis' life. We bought little wooden crucifixes, postcards and snapped photos among the flitting snowflakes.


    Lucca, Civita, Orvieto, Montalcino

    Yes four cities! We are just now realizing how much we packed in when Oma and Opa were here. Besides soaking up the Christmas festivities, and fitting in some great museums (Bargello, Pitti Palace, the Duomo Museum) and seeing some glorious churches (Trinita, Duomo, San Ferdinando), we also managed to drive to a few cities. Here are the highlights:

    I confess, our memories of Lucca are influenced by walking around with very cold, very wet feet. It snowed! And it was very slushy and well, we don't have great shoes for snow. But despite the numb toes, we loved Lucca. Holiday lights adorned the city, a little ice rink was set up in the piazza, we popped our heads into 3 churches and generally followed our noses. I was taken with the 'cute' shops which means kitchen goods and ceramics... we ate a cozy mid afternoon meal, found a full-blown Christmas market (and bought sweaters for 10 euros each), window shopped during the passegiata and then warmed our toes by the car heater all the way home (while snacking on chocolate).

    Civita di Bagnoregio.
    Ugh, how do I even start? For James, this is one of the most nostalgic cities in all of Tuscany... Italy... the world. He spent two summers in this antiquated, raindrop-sized hill-top town (seriously---the only access is by a footbridge). The first, as an architecture student for University of Washington; the second, as a graduate assistant for the same program. This visit was my first, as well as a first for Anthony, Caleb and James' parents. It was small, quaint, surreal. It was easy to imagine his affection for this little hilltop town.

    We have visited Orvieto before, and loved it just as much the second time around. We revisited some favorite spots (Duomo, ceramic shops, streets); we stopped in too many ceramic shops, the boys bought rubber band guns, and went to mass at the Duomo.

    I have been craving a visit to this town: so far, it makes my favorite wines in all of Italy. We have tasted the gamut (not super-high end, but a variety per se) of wines from around Tuscany and I find this region's wines to be consistently sublime. The Brunellos are expensive and worth it. The Rosso's from Montalcino are more obtainable and still a safe bet for satisfying your palate. Wines aside, the town was lovely! We walked the wall on top of the tower, peered through streets, and found some lovely shops and a nice dinner.

    En route.
    I couldn't leave out our little side trips. En route from Orvieto to Montalcino, James was magnetized to a tower a top a hill: so we took a tiny detour in the name of discovery. Sadly, the last little gate to the tower was closed. But the tiny town was adorable, full of little nativity displays, adorable small streets and shops and wreaked of authenticity (what is a tourist?). We think Radicofani was a Medici strong-hold.

    We were enthralled with the Tuscan landscapes, stopping on more than one occasion to snap photos. We rolled down windows to oooh and ahhhh. There it was: the picture in your mind of Tuscan landscapes, with rolling green hills, cyprus trees lining the sky and a token villa standing on top of it all.

    Among the many detours and photo-ops, we also stopped [all too briefly] at BATHS. I will be honest, it is a goal of mine to visit 'baths.' There are token hot-springs, resorts-with-hot-springs, cities-boasting-hot-springs speckled across Tuscany. And I mean to visit at least one while here. And by visit I don't mean the 20 minute photo-op-drive-by-wistful-yearning-see-how-the-rich-live we achieved this time... It was beautiful, romantic, with paths strewn about for when you chose to stroll instead of bath. And beautiful cafes for when you decided to dine instead of bathe... Very nearly the definition of luxury; some day I will have to return to Bagno Vignoni for an overnight visit.

    Sometimes we are busy with school and career routines, writing, fretting, doing this or that. But despite real or imagined pressures on our lives (and trust me, there are both), we never regret a day trip, overnight trip, spontaneous diversion or even a simple 30 minute walk out our own door. And often that is reason enough to frolic.

    If you want to see more, peek at our photo albums:

    Orvieto, Civita, Montalcino


    Babbo Natale and La Befana

    We had a lovely Christmas, and filled up our tree with hand-crafted ornaments and our ceiling with paper-cut snowflakes. We ate panettone---the Italian Christmas cake---and visited our nearby Christmas festival many times over the course of 3 weeks (where we bought metal sculptures, slippers, bratwurst, minerals/gemstones, a hat, Dutch cheese, larger than life pretzels, bags of candy, mulled wine, German-made wooden nativities and apple strudel). 

    We exchanged names (6 people---our family of 4 plus James' parents---drew 2 names each), and set a 10 euro limit. Half the fun was being sneaky, then wrapping everything with paper, bags and string we had on hand. We went to mass at the Duomo on Christmas eve. And it wouldn't be Christmas without a visit from Santa Claus. Anthony and Caleb each found a stocking 'hung with care' on a nearby window. It was full of chocolate and fireworks (big deal here for New Years eve!), little soccer clocks, paints and brushes, and tiny little glass fish.

    But here in Italy, Santa Claus goes by Babbo Natale. And we are convinced he collaborated with La Befana (the "Christmas Witch" is pictured on the stockings). If you are a child in Italy, you may very well have visits from these two holiday icons. On Christmas Eve, Italian children hope for a visit from Babbo, and his female counterpart is likely to visit on January 6.

    Legend has it that La Befana (meaning: Giver of Gifts) was an old Italian grandma-type, happily cleaning her house, when three men showed up at her door. Yes, the three wise men. Myth says she took them in and fed them. As they left---to continue their journey to find the Christ child---they invited her to join them. She stayed, apparently to tidy up her home (think: broom).

    Not long after they left, she regretted that she had not joined them. So she left---broom in hand---to catch up with them. She ran so fast, looking and searching for them... eventually she was zooming on her broom. To this day, she leaves little gifts for girls and boys on January 5, the eve of the Epiphany.

    The name Befana is also rumored to be a mispronunciation of the Italian word epifania which stands for epiphany. La Befana fills childrens' stockings with candy or a lump of coal. It is also believed that she sweeps the floor before she leaves. Many households leave her a small glass of wine and a small plate of goodies.

    Thanks to La Befana, Babbo Natale, and an extended visit from James' parents (Oma and Opa), our Christmas was full of wine, plates of goodies, little gifts, stockings and I confess... a bit of sweeping.

    (P.S. if you want to peek at our Christmas Album, you can find it here).
    (P.P.S. please forgive this tecnorati code: PJ4MSZPANCRJ)


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