Thursday, October 29, 2009

Living in Passignano

By Claire
We really do have a sense of living in this village. Walking into town for groceries and other errands, like Chuck’s haircut. All he told her was “short”. She didn’t speak much English but clearly, she understood that.


The wash

The cut

The result—she cut off all his curls!

While all this was going on, I was fascinated to be in a small town hair salon listening to the Italian flying around as people came and went, including several men, watching the hairdressers work on their customers. I thought this set up with the hairdryers was really interesting. I’ve only seen them attached to a chair in a fixed position. These are far more flexible.

We stopped at the market and picked up a few things and ran into a woman who is originally from San Francisco. Excited conversation ensued ending with her inviting us over for wine tomorrow night followed by dinner at Luccio’s, whom she knows. We are looking forward to learning more about this area and getting to know her.

We came home and had another wonderful sandwich of cheese, this time a typical one of the area, Caciotta, along with the basil, tomato, and olive oil. We are getting hooked on this! We also enjoyed talking with Roger and Linda, next door, about traveling through Europe. They have generously shared lots of information about campgrounds and places to go in Italy and Greece and we told them about Camping Michelangelo in Florence. Oh to live in England and be able to easily cross over into Europe.

Now it was time for that bike ride. We took off on the bike path we had been told about.

Along the way, we saw a castle…

…and some graffiti, or as they say in Italian, graffiti—we have seen it all over Italy. The origin of the word is Italian from graffio, ‘a scratch’.

Plus more gorgeous colors

Heading home, we passed Roger and Linda on their bikes heading out for the same bike ride we had taken. Small world.

What a nice day. We relaxed in the sun once again with our books and a beer and acquired a campground cat.

I don't know, maybe this is the place we could live.....we will certainly be back.

Who travels widely needs his wits about him
The stupid should stay at home. ~ from the Norse Eddas shared with me by Tai Sines

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Hill Towns of Central Italy

By Claire
My dream has come true. I have always yearned to see this area but didn’t know where it actually was. I’ve seen it in movies and I’ve read about it. But where is that part of Tuscany you always see on the postcards? All of a sudden it hit me like a bolt of lightning. I had picked up a postcard for our granddaughter, Sarah, and it was the classic shot of a stand of Cypress trees lining the road up to a house. I looked at the back of the postcard and it said Val d’Orcia. That’s the place I had read about in the book War in Val d’Orcia: an Italian War Diary, 1943-44. I became determined to find it, once I found out it’s an area and not a house or a town. In fact, it is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and it’s filled with tiny, medievel hill towns. Driving through this gorgeous area, I tried to imagine it during the war.

We drove from Siena to our present location on the shore of Lago Trasimeno, 1 km from the town of Passignano. We have entered paradise. It is beautiful, warm, autumn weather and we were able to get a site right on the belvedere, overlooking the lake.

We spent the afternoon reading, dozing, napping and staring off into the distance. Camping Kursaal is located on the lovely grounds of a small hotel and is our favorite price of €15, thanks to ACSI. The owners, mother and son, greeted us so warmly with ready smiles.

Villa Kursaal

We’ve started rating campgrounds based on the bathrooms and this one is in the top ten. Siena’s was pretty fabulous with heated floors but they failed to have a separation between the shower and where you put your towel and clothes. We survived, but this place is far superior. Huge showers with the separate shelves behind a little wall and lots of hooks. Just what we like. Location is our other priority and this campsite is probably the nicest, so far.

But, back to the drive. I could tell Chuck wasn’t as enthusiastic as I was at the idea of driving tiny back roads on a “Sunday” drive. I wore him down with the promise of a four day vacation on a lake at the end of the drive. We did really well by programming the hill towns along the way into Susanna’s brain and she did all right. We didn’t want to actually drive into any of the towns, under small arches and up impossibly narrow alleys so 2 or 3 km before arrival Chuck would pull over and I’d give Susanna the next town along the route. It was kind of a seat-of-the-pants style of planning but it worked. The colors were fantastic and around every corner we found another Roman ruin or walled city. We saw a woman with a laundry basket, completely blasé to the fact that she was walking through an ancient arch. Along the way we passed Pienza, our favorite, and a possible place to stay for an extended period of time in the future and Montepulciano, another classic walled hill town. This is the Italy I was looking for and now here we are at this exquisite lake in Umbria with friendly owners and friendly British and Dutch and German neighbors and gorgeous sunsets that we all just watched in awe.

It is so still and quiet here except for the occasional church bells and the quack of ducks. This morning we woke to birds singing and chirping, enjoying an al fresco breakfast.


Our neighbors on one side decided to stay another day. It’s just too beautiful to leave. Meanwhile, Chuck and I walked into town to look around, and get a map of the area for biking and hiking. We also found the market and picked up a few things.

Walking, skipping, dancing into town--Passignano, a perfect place to visit


The grounds of our campsite

Lunch: ciabatta with olive oil, assiago cheese, fresh basil and tomatoes and Italian birra

We really feel lazy and relaxed here. Maybe tomorrow I’ll get up the motivation to leave my spot in the sun for a bike ride along the edge of the lake. Friday, we plan to explore the local castle.

I’ll stop gushing now.

A few more observations:
Both Chuck and I noticed 5 people between us that had bandages on their faces when we were in Florence. We finally figured out that they must have stumbled and fallen on the curbs and uneven stone streets that are sometimes so difficult to navigate.

The bread in Italy that is served in restaurants, and for which you are charged an average of €3, is completely tasteless. I believe they do not add salt. We look for Ciabatta in the stores and it’s wonderful.

Our only fear at the moment is sunburn. I look like one of those old men, asleep in a chair with a hat over my face.

We love having an Italian/English dictionary and wonder why we didn’t think of it in France. I found fare la pipi (go for a pee), especially useful.

Smoking is not an issue. We hardly notice it, but when we do, we realize how rarely we encounter it.

Sugar and high fructose and chocolate have all entered the packaged foods. We have trouble finding cereal without chocolate. When we do, it is referred to as “fitness cereale”.

It is becoming comical how often we see the polizia. Mostly just standing around or zipping around in their toy cars with their squeaky sirens.

Avrai tu l’universo,
Resti L’Italia a me
You may have the universe,
But let Italy remain mine
~ from Attila, music by Giuseppe Verdi, Libretto by Temistocle Solera

Monday, October 26, 2009


Florence – Day 1
By Chuck
As we drove by the Piazzale Michelangelo, driving Homer to Camping Michelangelo, I instantly fell in love with the view of Florence. I didn't mind the rain; I didn't mind the 34.50 Euros – the most expensive campsite yet. My only real complaint, so far, is that we cannot run electrical appliances: Every time we try to plug in our power strip to anything, we lose power to the refrigerator and the device plugged into the strip. We finally gave up on the extra electricity – we don't absolutely need it; but, we do need the frig. We simply changed power outlets each time we had an outage; inelegant, but it worked.

As soon as we settled into our campsite, we dressed in full rain gear and marched over to the Piazzale to get a better view on foot. We could see all the important points of the city from here: Ponte Vecchio, the Duomo, Santa Croce... We also had a close-up view of a full size copy of The David. Then we began the walking descent into the city.

The Ponte Vecchio bridge was impressive; I didn't even mind the expensive jewelry shops. Once we crossed it, we went immediately to the Uffizi Gallery to see what the chances were of an easy entry – we had not bought advance tickets, and Claire has already been here twice before. Even though this is the off season, the lines were long. We walked on to the Academia to see if the situation was better here; it was! I waited in line while Claire bought me a ticket. We agreed to meet at the Café Rivoire for hot chocolate at 3:30pm.

I waited less than one-half hour for admission; once inside, I appreciated the fact that they exercise crowd control, limiting the number who can be inside at any one time. The highlight of the Academia is the David statue by Michelangelo. It was almost constantly surrounded by crowds, many of them art students sketching the giant statue. I am currently reading Irving Stone's The Agony and the Ecstasy, an historical novel about Michelangelo. This is immensely helpful in guiding my understanding and appreciation of his work. This piece is simply awesome.

The tour groups, both within and outside the museum, were a bit of a challenge; they clustered in gaggles of tourists, of course; but, they had scant awareness of the rest of us; so, we were obliged to either wait for them to move on to the next article or to push through them. Group behavior has always frightened me – they have no fear, no sensitivity and no intelligence in this mode. I recall several examples from the Vietnam War days, on campus and at the March on the Pentagon, where herd mentality prevailed – sobering experiences. I have never subscribed to the hopeful claim, “It could never happen here.”

Umbrellas provided another source of inconvenience, today; they were everywhere. It was the rare person who realized the danger they posed and raised their umbrella to avoid hitting other pedestrians.

The hot chocolate with whipped cream at Café Rivoire was absolutely the best I ever had, even though it failed the “thick enough to hold a spoon upright” test. Very dark and very hot chocolate sipped while viewing a full scale model of the David, right across from the Signoria – former seat of the governing body and administrator of the Republic of Florence in days past.

For some reason, I thought Florence had a very small population. I was mistaken; while I am not sure of the actual numbers, it took us quite a while to drive through the city to get to the old town. The streets are wider than in Venice and there are many more street vendors – though the merchandise is repeatedly offered many, many times around the old town. The prices seem quite reasonable from them; but, the regular stores usually have tourist price tags for their items; they are lovely, but not a good value for my [cheap] taste. But, I would really love to get an inexpensive leather credit card holder.

Despite the outward similarities between Venice and Florence, the latter is my preference, even though Venice had the advantage of blue skies and no rain. I am not sure why, exactly, but the feeling is clear: It is much more than the absence of advertising on the buildings undergoing renovations.

Claire took the time to get me a ticket to the Uffizi, tomorrow; so, I know I will be going there. We have not determined our other sites to visit, but we are thinking the science and technology museum might be fun. And, I would like to at least walk by a number of sites – for example, Dante's casa and the former palace of Lorenzo Medici, The Magnificent. If I had a time machine, one of my first stops would be this remarkable city during the reign of Il Magnifico around 1500AD.

Saturday in Florence was even better than Friday. We found a faster way down the hill to the city and enjoyed the new views. We decided to visit the Museo di Storia della Scienza before we separated and I went to the Uffizi Gallery. There were a number of interesting technology and science instruments dating from before the Renaissance to the early 1900s; this included a device that contained Galileo's middle finger – I guess he was punished for flipping someone off?

To me, the most interesting gadget was a clock commissioned by Lorenzo Medici that not only kept time but also indicated the current sign of the zodiac and the relative position of the sun and the known planets at that time; my friend Roger would love to take that apart!

There was a case of brain surgery instruments dating from the 17th Century – beautifully made, but scary; there was a device that illustrated an optical illusion: a double-cone with an axle could be pushed slightly and seem to be going uphill in a V-shaped cradle; actually, it was on a level plane. There were numerous machines related to experimentation with electricity. Who knew? I thought Americans invented everything; isn't that what our high school history books told us?

Optical Illusion

I entered the Uffizi Gallery at 11:30 and tried to cover as much as possible on the second floor, focusing on artists who are named in The Agony and the Ecstasy: Giotto, Rafael, Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo and many more; for me, the highlight piece was Botticelli's The Birth of Venus. There was a Rembrandt that covered most of a wall in one of the salons; but, size isn't everything. I was especially impressed with the ceilings of the main hallways; they were covered with paintings and decorations; about one-third of the way around, I noticed a moveable platform that was being used to restore the ceiling of the hallways. Those sections on one side of the platform were far brighter than the rest.

As I exited the Uffizi, I received an ad for a nearby café that offered reasonable prices on pizza and beer; so, I located Claire and we stopped for a late lunch there, while being careful not to spoil our dinner. We each had a 5 Euro Margherita without basil – an oxymoron in the U.S., I believe; Claire had a 3 Euro piccolo birra.

The Duomo, the Baptistery, the Santa Maria del Fiore Cathedral and Giotto's Tower (Campanile) form a complex that is simply spectacular. The Cathedral was built without the Dome; apparently, Florentines had confidence that someone would figure out how to build it before long; I believe that Brunelleschi actually observed Roman domes to re-discover the dome-within-a-dome technique that was eventually employed. The other 3 buildings have lovely matching patterns of red, green and white marble facings. The doors of the Baptistery by Ghiberti were said by Michelangelo to be fit to be the doors to Paradise.

Speaking of doors, fans of Young Frankenstein may remember these famous lines: Gene Wilder eyes the Castle door and exclaims “What knockers!” Teri Garr responds “Why thank you, Doctor.” We saw some beauts around Florence. But, most did not date back to the Renaissance.

What Knockers!

About a block away from the Duomo, down an alley is the best Gelato we have discovered so far: Grom's – it's all organic. The caffé is our favorite; my second choice is the Chocolate Extraodonaire, closely followed by a vanilla with tiny chocolate chips – it might be called Straccianetta.

We did not want to walk (uphill) to the campground and back again for dinner, so we decided to see all we could while waiting for the restaurant to open. We cruised the Mercato Nuovo where they used to drop bankrupt merchants from the highest point; I recall reading an interview of author Paul Erdman 30 or so years ago where he explained his prison term for mismanagement: It is against the law to have your bank fail in Switzerland. I guess we are more lenient in the U.S. I passed on the opportunity to have the local favorite – tripe sandwich – as a pm snack.

We walked by the Orsonmichele Church. It has been there since the ninth century A.D. But, it was originally a market. Two Donatello works grace the outside. It uses internal iron bars to span the vaults in order to achieve the effect of external flying buttresses in French Gothic architecture.

We were standing acrosss from the Palazzo Medici-Riccardi when the gates opened to permit a limited view of the inside of this fortress. There was a lovely garden fronting a spacious mansion. We felt priviliged to have this brief glimpse into Lorenzo Medici's home, which passed on to the Riccardis in the 1700s.

I'll let Claire tell you about our fabulous dinner that night. Ciao!


Camping Michelangelo, €34.50
By Claire
Florence was such a relief after Venice. Less crowded, more space, just a better feel. We also planned for and received great weather. After holing up in Bologna for a few days, letting the rain do its thing, we lucked out and only had a little rain the first day and nothing but sun the second day. Chuck was able to get into the Accademia to see Michelangelo’s David, so I took off by myself and mostly wandered, having been there before, really enjoying myself. It was rainy but nothing that stopped us, geared up in our rain pants, jackets and hat. While Chuck was seeing Michelangelo’s David I was able to get him a reserved ticket to the Uffizi. This was after the on-line site said all the times were booked solid. We made a plan to meet at 3:30 in front of Caffè Rivoire to try their famously decadent hot chocolate. Basically a dark chocolate bar melted into a thick, molten drink topped with whipped cream. It was unbelievably good and worth the €7.50 each.

The stages of hot chocolate

We did a little shopping and I met a fun Florentine shop owner who was also a Bruce fan.

The next day we started out together, stopping at the Science Museum, but split up again with Chuck off to the Uffizi with a plan to meet at 2 pm if we were around and available. I had a great time by myself. Again, I pretty much wandered around taking in the people and what was going on around me.

At the Museo di Storia della Scienza

The cops are everywhere

Pink, green and white marble

Reflection in the street

Fingers digging into flesh, so real! Rape of the Sabine Women. Thanks for telling me about it Connie!

The day was gorgeous and warm and I was thinking about another haircut. Let’s just say I was open to one. If it happened, it happened. I walked by one shop and checked out the prices and the feel of it but it wasn’t right. Seemed like time for a gelato and wouldn’t you know it, there I was in front of Grom, a popular chain of fresh organic gelato. I felt it was my duty to do a tasting so I could decide whether or not it merited a visit by Chuck. Ahhhhh. The Caffeè (coffee) and Pistachio were the best I’ve ever tasted. The Caffè tasted like fresh brewed really strong but sweet coffee (not too sweet) and the Pistachio tasted like pureed pistachios. Really, this place is the best.

The odd thing is, their ice cream is not on display. It’s all hidden under metal covers so you don’t have the visual experience and clues to pick out the flavors. I found that strange and a little off putting. But, who cares. It’s so incredible.

Strolling along with my gelato piccolo (the tiniest size), €1.50, in a cup, I stumbled upon a hair place and something made me walk in. I was greeted by a cute Italian guy who spoke excellent English and that was it. He could take me right away, we agreed on a price and so we began. After he examined my hair, running his fingers through it for 5 minutes or so, he determined the direction it grew and that I had two cowlicks in the back. He’s the first one to notice. Off we went to get it washed and I relaxed and enjoyed a total head massage. His name was Sahascia (pronounced Sasha) and we just had the best time. We talked and talked about travel, about Italy, about America. I had so much fun. I told him to just go for it and do what he thought best.

I was completely unaware of time during this episode but managed to leave the store in time to meet Chuck at 2 pm. I was about to give up on him, and almost left when he showed up. Neither of us had had lunch so off we went for pizza and beer. All of a sudden he noticed my hair and asked if it had been raining since obviously my hood had flattened my hair. Then, "oh, you got your hair cut like Ceasar!" He’s got other good qualities.

At lunch

Naturally, I had to introduce him to Grom gelato. We enjoyed the day strolling along, taking in the sights.

Before we knew it, it was time for dinner at Palle d’Oro. This place was recommended to us by Mathew and Shannon. What a fun night we had. We thought about the local Bistecca, apparently the best beef in the world from special Italian cattle, but when we found that it was €40 quickly changed our minds. Instead we ordered a 3 course meal that was quite delicious.

Primo Piatto, Chuck. Penne pasta with meat and mushrooms.

Primo Piatto, Claire. Zuppa Digiorno, white bean and pasta.

Secondo Piatto, Roast Beef, both of us.

We also had a salad as a side dish. All was delicious and the service was great. However, we ordered a liter of red wine and that is a lot of wine. Stumbling home in the dark, up the hill to our campsite was a challenge, but we made it. Our total bill came to €34 including the wine and a tip.

We got up at 6am with plans to drive to two hill towns and then settle at Siena for a couple of days. At 7 I went up to reception to check out only to find out that it was really 6 am. Day light savings had hit and we missed it! The guy there was just on night duty and couldn’t help me. So, I killed time taking some sunrise shots of Florence from our campground. This is why they can charge €34.50.

The trouble with eating Italian food is that five or six days later you're hungry again. ~George Miller

Lucca—Ramparts for biking
By Claire
What a glorious day! I had always wanted to go to Lucca but with it being just a little out of our way, I wasn’t sure. Thanks, Nanci, for giving me a little push. We set out on Sunday, planning for no traffic and a quiet day to bike the 2-1/2 mile ramparts. The roads were quiet, the day was perfect, we found good parking, and then we rode our bikes into Lucca to find out a marathon was in progress. We couldn’t go up to the ramparts for an hour. So, we wandered around the medieval town, enjoyed watching the runners then made our way to the amazing 30 foot wide ramparts that are perfect for strolling, jogging or biking.

We really loved this untouristy town and would like to return when there isn’t a marathon going on. We were so lucky to have such a glorious day with sunshine and just the tiniest breeze to gently push us along the trail. The church bells all over town ringing like dueling musicians just added to the pleasure. I couldn’t get over the number of play areas for children along the way, as well as gardens, ponds, walking paths and trees galore, turning every color of autumn.

Back to Homer for lunch and then off to our next hill town.

Volterra—Buns and thighs of steel.

Again we found great parking, mostly due to Chuck and his ability to squeeze a beast into a spot, hanging over just a little but only into a walk way so we didn’t cheat out another driver from a parking place. We also lucked out that the parking payment machine was broken so we got free parking! Right across from the parking was the Roman Theatre. Wonderful ruins in an archeological dig. Sometimes it’s hard to take in that people live and work around these sites.

We met up with a nice couple from Prince Edward Island and walked up and up and up into the town. The people of Volterra must be in incredible shape. All lanes are up or down and very steep. I liked this place. It’s very real and just a work-a-day place that happens to be an Etruscan walled city. We walked around for a couple of hours, noticing several old ladies who had no problem with the hills of their hill town. We took off around 3 to make our way to Siena, our third hill town. We didn’t want to arrive after dark now that the days are much shorter. We set up then sat outside for awhile reading up on Siena and making plans for the next day. The campground restaurant served full course meals and pizza so we went for pizza and a bottle of wine. We are so lucky!

Camping Colleverde, €25

We loved Siena. It was uncrowded, peaceful and mostly quiet. We visited the Duomo and Cathedral, had a picnic on the steps in the sunshine and just soaked it all in. Our only challenge of the day was getting the correct bus home. But, we're pros now. We made it!

Morning on Il Campo

Bar Gelateria, La Costarella, via di Citta 31/33. I had dark, dark chocolate and apricot with little bits of the fruit. The best combo!

Il Campo

Campground bathroom--deluxe!