Category Archives: Italy

Drinking Brunello in Montalcino

Montalcino was a tiny walled city. Evidently, the rich folks from Sienna holed up there during various inter-city wars in the way-back. There is a fortress when you can pay a few Euros to climb up to the walls for an awesome view. The whole focus of the area is on wine — Brunello di Montalcino. Delicious and not cheap (though pretty reasonable there, at the source). They also make a cheaper, less aged Rosso di Montalcino which is quite good as well. We tasted a bunch of great stuff. There ia a wine bar in the fortress itself where you can do tastings. Unlike in the US, they don’t just pour some wine into glasses and say “This is the ’08.” They actually explain each wine — the type of oak used, traditional or modern methods, where the vineyard is on the map, which years were the best vintages and why. Very enjoyable.

Tasting Brunello in Montalcino

Tasting Brunello in Montalcino

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Pici cacio e pepe

On our recent trip to Italy, we drove from Florence to Montalcino. On the way, we passed through a town called Buonconvento. We were ready for a little break from driving so decided to stop when I saw a flea market set up near the side of the road. It took a while to find a place to park, as the market was evidently a popular one. The market was a typical collection of tents and mobile vendors selling everything from socks to housewares to delicious pecorino cheese made in Pienza. We wandered around there and then discovered, behind the market, the walled portion of the city of Buonconvento. Here, the annual harvest festival was taking place!
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Some food experiences in Italy

I hestitate to share my thoughts about the food we have had in Italy when I am “pescatarian,” and mostly vegetarian. Generally, Italy seems very veg-friendly with its pastas and pizzas. I found the choices more limited in Tuscany with its emphasis on wild boar and beef … and limited by my own long-standing aversion to mushrooms. This is mushroom and truffle season, and it seems many non-meat choices feature these fungi! If you like truffles and mushrooms, head to Tuscany in late September/early October.

Despite these limitations, I have eaten well!

Some highlights:

– Tiny sandwiches at Bar Refolo in Venice. Small, whole-grain-looking buns filled with cheese, eggplant, zucchini, and then pressed in the panino grill. Eaten with Prosecco or Campari spritz for lunch.

Tiny sandwiches at Bar Refolo, Venice

Tiny sandwiches at Bar Refolo, Venice

– Peppers stuffed with a savory bread crumb mixture with a slice of grilled scamorza cheese on the side at Da Gignone, Florence.

– Appetizer with anchovies, chickpeas and pesto crostini at Taverna del Grappolo Blu in Montalcino.

Anchovies and chickpeas

Anchovies and chickpeas

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St. Agnes in Agony, my mom, bad tourists, Rome 2006 and 2014

We came to Italy in October 2006, on our honeymoon. Is it actually called a honeymoon, though, if you take the trip before the actual wedding (which was in November)? In any case, Rome was where we started and ended that trip and it is where we ended our recent trip.

My first impression is that Rome seems a lot more crowded this time. Are more people travelling in general? Or are more people travelling to Rome? In any case, the streets seem much more crowded with tourists this time — lots of tour groups as well as individual travellers/families. The crowds on the narrow sidewalks tend to get to me, make me tense. And what is with people who can’t figure out how to walk single file on a narrow passage, instead forcing others (us!) into the street? Bad tourists!

One day, we walked up to the forum/colosseum area. In 2006, we went into the colloseum, and thus didn’t feel compelled to do so this time. Thank goodness, given the crowd. I was also shocked to see that Rome is excavating right next to the forum for a new Metro station. It seems to me like it will spoil the view of the ancient ruins. The ancient ruins, which are now no longer free to walk though, evidently. Everything fenced and ticketed. Perhaps how they are raising money for the new station? In 2006, we had a lovely leisurely (and free) walk through the ruins. No longer.

Still we enjoyed our day of walking. In 2006, the Bernini fountain in Piazza Navona was under renovation. I was excited to see it this time, and it did not disappoint. Beautiful! On that piazza, we went into the church of St. Agnes in Agony, where I observed all the tourists taking photos despite the large mulit-language NO PHOTO sign, and where I lit a candle and thought of my mother, Agnes…who, incidently was referred to as St. Agnes in our family. I miss her and think she would have loved Rome in the days when she was young enough to walk long distances. I can picture her, young, in a pencil skirt, smoking a cigarette with her coffee in the piazza, much like Audrey Hepburn in Roman Holiday. Though my mom would have been too timid to get onto a Vespa with a strange guy. At least I think she would have.





A few days in Florence

I don’t know that we had the typical Florence tourist experience, but we very much enjoyed our visit. We stayed in the Oltrarno area, across the river from the major tourist sites, near the Church of Santo Spirito. The neighborhood was much less touristy than the areas near the attractions. We drank our Prosecco and Campari spritzes standing on the sidewalk outside a local bar, watching folks go by, listening to but not understanding the conversations around us. For anyone planning a trip, Rooms Althea was a great place to stay.

The square at Santo Spirito has many restaurants and cafes. Mornings, there is a street market with produce, clothing, housewares. The church itself is quiet. There is a crucifix there, in a side room, made by Michelangelo, in his early days. It features a Jesus much skinnier than one usually sees in church art. According to some guidebooks, the square is home to drug dealers. We didn’t see any, but did see a few indigent folks, enough to make us feel at home.

The afternoon of our arrival, we saw that there was no line to climb the bell tower next to the Duomo so we went for it. Four hundred fourteen steps up to a fine view of Florence, the surrounding hills, and the Duomo itself. As far as other tourist activities, we did visit the Duomo (crowded!), the crypt below (remnants of several older churches that had once occupied the site), and the Bapistry. I enjoyed the colorful Bapistry ceiling, the painting of the devil and serpents and what happens when you are on the left hand of Jesus. It’s not good. Continue reading

A few days in Venice

We very much enjoyed Venice. I would highly recommend the Hotel Locanda Sant’Anna, run by a lovely couple. It is in a quiet, residential neighborhood near the Giardini. We had a room with a canal view (the small hotel is pictured in this post, but I don’t think my iPad blog skills are good enough to label the photo). Some folks might think they want to be closer to Piazza San Marco or Ponte Rialto, the big tourist areas. We timed ourselves and our hotel was a 20 minute walk to San Marco, which evidently is enough to keep the hordes of cruise ship tour groups and other tourists away from the area near our hotel. That was fine with us. I find the crowds maddening and I can see why the Venetians are not too keen on tourists. There are just way too many here, which, in a way, made me feel bad for being one. We try to be courteous tourists and good representatives of the USA — not clogging up space with lengthy photo-taking, walking single file to let locals go by, trying to speak Italian, saying “per favore” and “grazie,” not complaining about how things are different. After all, if you want everything the same, you should just stay home. And, honestly, different is often better.

We spent the majority of our time wandering around the quieter areas, just looking at the beauty of the architecture and enjoying the car-free atmosphere. Stopping for Prosecco or Campari spritzes at tiny bars was a pleasant way to enjoy the city. One night, we split the cost of a gondola ride (100 Euros) with friends from back home. We took the ride right at dusk and it was lovely, worth the money to get a different perspective on the city. And our gondalier pointed out to us the place where George Clooney is getting married this weekend. “Hey, is that George Clooney?! I see him on the bridge!” We were bummed that our invitation must have gotten lost in the mail. At Bar Refolo last night, a man who was allegedly the concierge at the hotel where the Clooney party is staying confirmed that he had indeed arrived in town. When I joking said he might stop by the bar for a drink, another (drunker) fellow said it could happen — just like in ancient times in Venice when the rich and famous mingled with the regular people.

Ah, the magic of Venezia! Ciao!