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Anghiari, Italy
5/26/2017 11:39:43 AM
As soon as we stepped out of the car in Anghiari, the breathtaking panoramic views of the Tiber Valley far below the parking lot gave us a glimpse of what lay ahead.  Crossing the town road we walked through a stone archway built centuries ago into the side of a fortress wall.  We found ourselves at the top of a few dozen wide stone steps that led down to an area of small shops.  On either side of the steps were quintessential Tuscany doorways dressed with pots of colorful flowers. I remember passing a large cat resting under a bed sheet drying in the breeze.

Other than us, there were not many tourists walking about, just an occasional local resident going about his or her daily business.  We stopped at a few of the shops along the way, and followed the old stone walkway down to a small, open courtyard.  There we had a lunch of pizza and wine on the outside terrace of a small restaurant.  The pizza was delicious, different from the hometown pizzas I am used to that are buried under melted cheese.  While the Anghiari pizza did have small circles of melted cheese, the flavors of fresh basil, garlic, peppers and onions were prominent too.

After lunch we left the courtyard and followed two from our party who had spent time in Anghiari previously.  We walked up a steep walkway until we reached the old fortress overlook that wound around the top of the town.
When I realized we were looking down at the Tiber Valley far below, images of Roman Legionaires marching in mile long formations immediately came to mind.  I remember seeing a cemetary in the distance, outlined by those iconic Tuscan cedar trees.  Like an arrow, a road ran straight across the valley, through small communities and onward until I couldn't distinquish it anymore.

As we slowly walked around the overlook, we came upon an area where actual homes were cut into the ancient stone at the top of the fortress, just across from where we stood on the overlook.  Some had small balconies, most had small potted gardens outside the front doors.  I so wanted to walk up and knock on those doors and ask if I could see inside.  I imagined the inside would be cold and dark, but also imagined they cost a small fortune and recognized they were most likely quite comfortable.

Eventually, we wandered into a green garden in the back of a pub where we found a table overlooking the Tiber Valley with a view that went on forever.  We ordered snacks and for some unknown reason a Baileys Irish Cream whiskey over ice came to mind, so I sat sipping my Irish whiskey while enjoying good company and the remarkable Italian countryside.

When dark clouds began to roll in and rain seemed imminent, we reluctantly collected our belongings and left that little piece of paradise heading back to our cars, now walking UP all those charming stone steps that greeted us when we arrived, another cardio challenge.

We went back to the villa where we spent a quiet night of conversation and maybe some wine.  Then off to bed with visions of the next day's trip to Cortona where the author of the book, "Under the Tuscan Sun," found her dream home.

To be continued ...

Monterchi Polenta Festival
5/25/2017 12:49:08 PM
When it was suggested that we go to the Polenta Festival in the nearby town of Monterchi on our first night in Tuscany, I wasn't sure what Polenta was, but even though I was tired, I didn't want to miss anything, so off I went with our small group prepared to be surprised.  Surprised I was.  First by the uphill hike to Monterchi Center where the festival was being held, and then by the food and good humor of the people there.

We pulled our cars into a parking lot at the foot of Monterchi Center, climbed out and looked up ... and up ... and up.  Looming overhead was what appeared to be an ancient stone foretress, lit up with a welcoming glow of lights, music drifted down toward us.  Crossing the street we had a choice of walking up a winding roadway or climbing up centuries old crumbling stone steps.  Since climbing the very steep steps would be quicker than following the winding road, we opted for the steps.  They definitely provided a good cardio workout before we stepped onto a stone roadway hugged on either side by connecting stone homes that had remarkable panoramic views of Tuscany at night.  One thing that struck me about the homes is that some had sliding glass doors cut into the old stone walls, the juxtaposition of such contemporary architectural detail forged out of ancient architecture made me stop and take notice.

We followed the road upward (there's a lot of upward in Tuscany) until we reached a landing in the road where tables displayed local crafts for sale.  Making a left hand turn, we continued up 40 or 50 more feet and finally arrived at Monterchi Center and the location of the festival.  The small center seemed more like a courtyard, surrounded by ancient buildings and what looked to me like a stone fortress, updated and used as a community center.  Small shops lined the courtyard on one side, and on the other long white open-sided tents were set in rows, inside of each tent were long family style tables, and sitting at each table were friendly groupings of people enjoying polenta dishes in white throw-away bowls.  Bottles of wine were set at strategic positions along the tabletops.

We stood in line and selected one of three polenta dishes offered and carried our warm bowls off to find a place to sit.  I had chosen a mushroom dish that proved to be outstanding.  Others chose the dish made with wild boar.  I've never eaten wild boar and didn't feel any real need to start then. The mushroom concoction was layered over large chunks of polenta, a form of bread that reminded me of cornbread and I ate every morsal, washing it all down with a few bottomless glasses of Prosecco.  Prosecco is a white, sweet, bubbly wine that it turns out goes with just about every food choice I made while in Italy.

The other people at our table were congenial and we all tried to communicate as best we could.  Each speaking more or less English and Italian.  A small band and a woman singer were set up on a corner of the courtyard and entertained the crowd.

Eventually it was time to leave and walk back down the ancient stone steps to our cars.  Without a doubt the walking down was much more comfortable than the walking up.

Back at the villa we said our good nights and each wandered off to their room, sleepy after a long day of travel and a quiet evening of good food and drink.  I was careful to pull my bed away from the villa wall and tuck my slippers under the covers at the foot of the bed having been told that scorpions like the warm stone of old villas and seeing small scorpions is not uncommon.  I am happy to report that of all the wonders I saw in Italy, a scorpion was not one of them.

In the morning we were off to the gorgeous Medieval city of Anghiari.

To be continued ...
A villa in Tuscany
5/16/2017 3:10:46 PM
The train ride from Venice to Florence offered an opportunity to relax.  Nowhere to go but short swaying trips to the food counter a few cars away for something to munch on between naps, then later a glass of wine.   Other than the town names printed in large letters above the ticket stands, the station stops along the way did not look much different than the stations back in the states, including lots of graffiti at the more urban stations.  The graffiti was interesting; opinions on love and politics, and occasionally a poem, all presented in six foot high scrolls of vivid colors.

That day we were only passing through Florence on our way to the villa, and there wasn't much of the city to see from the train station.  We waited outside for our van to arrive and take us to a small stop about an hour's drive away where our rental cars waited. I was struck by the presence of armed military personnel standing on guard outside the Florence train station, not far from where we were standing. Young men in camouflage uniforms and army boots, assault rifles slung over their shoulders, purposefully eyeing travelers as they passed by.  I had seen that type of military presence while traveling in Israel, but seeing it in Florence surprised me.

The transition from the van to the rental cars happened relatively quickly, then we were on our way to cover the final 50 miles of the trip from Venice to Tuscany.  We headed toward our villa on the outskirts of  Monterchi, which is located near the border between Tuscany and Umbria.  The scenery began to look more and more like the Tuscany I imagned.  Miles of hilly fields outlined by tall cypress trees, an occasional small village, populated by centuries old houses, fruit stands and a pub or two.  A travel companion who had been in the area many times before told the story of her and a few female friends stopping at a pub and being ushered out ... men only.

As we drove through Monterchi, fields of sunflowers that had bloomed a month before and were now being harvested for their seeds passed by the car windows.  Occasonally, a tall yellow face would beam at us in the now browning sunflower fields, the last of the late bloomers. We passed tobacco fields, and olive trees before taking a left turn over a small country bridge, then the cars climbed a hill on an extremely narrow road that slowly passed old stone homes and a small stone church that serviced the 80 or so people who lived nearby.  What I thought must certainly be a one lane road turned into two lanes when a friendly driver came down the hill right at us.  Turns out it was the owner of the villa, who we chatted with for a few minutes before he was on his way.

A few more feet up the hill and we pulled into a small grassy parking area on the left.  In front of us was an old stone wall entwined with bright green ivy and to our right, an old, but not quite as old as the stone wall, wood building that looked like a garage.  Turning around we saw our villa across the narrow road.  The late afternoon sun still warmed the air and washed over the villa, brightening the red flowers in terra cotta pots and outlining the stunning stone building.  It was as we imagned, a quintessential Tuscany villa made of large brown and biege stones and mortar, a heavy wood front door off the stone landing.  The villa was built on the hillside and once inside the beamed ceiling rooms, the views from the windows offered miles and miles of postcard perfect images of the Tuscan countryside. (See photo below)

Settling into my upstairs room, I pushed open the windows that overlooked wide stone steps that led up to a flat landing where an inground pool was surrounded on three sides by shrubs and plantings and a panoramic view of Tuscany on the fourth side.  The beamed ceiling parlor and dining room were large and welcoming and the kitchen was modern and well equipped, a window above the sink looked out onto the road and our parked cars.

After unpacking and settling in, we realized we were all hungry and because we were told Monterchi's Polenta Festival was that evening we hopped in the cars and drove the few miles to Monterchi's town center, an ancient town first mentioned in the history books in 1095, and built on a hillside approximately 1200 feet above sea level.  What a beautiful night it was.

To be continued ...

Venice - Part 3
5/12/2017 1:05:02 PM
By the time we left the apartment for our last dinner in Venice, I had showered and changed, no longer the drowned woman that appeared at the apartment door a few hours before.  The rain had stopped.  It was getting dark out. The streets were still busy with tourists and the warm yellow light spilling out of still-opened shops marked the coblestone streets ahead of us.  Again, we had vague directions on the location of the restaurant that had been suggested to us, but we could already tell by the volume of tourists that we passed that it would not be as private as the charming restaurant from the night before.

We enjoyed the leisurely stroll down streets lit by lamplight, and occasionally lingered at the storefront of a shop that catered to those much wealthier than me.  We retraced our steps a few times, but eventually found the old wood front door that led into a narrow, wood paneled bar area that led to a handsome maitre d' dressed in a sharp black suit and tie, the opposite of the apron clad gentlemen from the night before.  

Even though it had begun to drizzle again, we opted to sit at a beautifully appointed table under the side canopy that abutted the square.  My memory of that dinner is more of the fun and conversation than of the food.  As we lingered over wine I looked across the square and discovered someone was projecting a movie onto the side of a four story building, the images towering over the square.  I could vaguely hear the dialogue but it didn't matter.  The image of the square, the movie, the people walking by, the hint of fog under the lamplights will remain forever in my memory.  I do remember the bill being a bit shocking, but in the end, it was my last night in Venice, and worth every euro.

Wandering in the general direction of the apartment, we lingered a bit on the streets of Venice, but I was weary from my wet afternoon adventures, and knowing we had to be on the dock at 7 a.m. the following morning forced me to give in, return to my room, pack my luggage and climb into bed.  My travel companions advised me to turn on the air conditioner in the room as it would drown out the street noise.  I followed their advice and slept well, although when I saw the photos taken of me the next morning as we waited for the water taxi, I can't say I looked very well rested.  If you're wondering who carried my 40 lb piece of luggage down from the third floor that morning, it was a very gracious and strong gentleman, a fellow traveler.

At precisely 7 a.m. we climbed into our water taxi and made one last trip down the Canal. Almost as though it was a consolation gift for the regret I was feeling having to leave beautiful Venice so soon, a golden morning sun appeared from behind the buildings and its reflection on the water followed us until we reached the dock where we disembarked and headed to the train station.

As we waited for our train, the imagines of Venice were gone from sight, hidden on the other side of the station.  I consoled myself with the thought that the train would take us to Florence, where we would connect with our ride that would take us to our rental cars that would take us to our villa in Tuscany.  

To be continued ..

Venice - Part 2
5/11/2017 2:48:45 PM
We were exhausted when we finally climbed the stairs up to our rooms that first night in Venice.  It was difficult to give in to sleep in such a wonderful city with all the sights and sounds it had to offer, but we had been traveling since the evening before, a long flight from New York's JFK  to Milan, then a train from Milan to Venice, a quick stop in our rooms, and back out again to explore the streets of Venice and find that enchanting little restaurant.  

My travel companions planned to get up early and explore more of the city, but I felt a need to sleep in, and ultimately was glad I did.  It was warm that September night so I opened the bedroom window and lay there listening to the voices of the people passing by on the street below.  Eventually, I drifted off to sleep only to wake in the dark to what sounded like gunshots.  I lay there holding my breath while trying to make sense of what I was hearing.  The loud voices persisted as did an occasional "gunshot."  While I never did have the courage to get out of bed and look out the window, eventually I realized someone close by had a TV on and the volume was turned up.  It was two or three in morning, and I was wide awake.  As the morning dawned outside the window, the loud TV still blared away, and the morning sounds of delivery trucks and doors being opened and closed  joined the campaign to keep me awake.  That's when I finally fell asleep.

It was mid-morning and the sky was grey when I woke.  A half hour later my travel companions returned from their morning walk.  By the time I left the apartment it had begun to rain.  I stopped at the shop on the corner and stood at a small counter where I ate a freshly baked croussant and drank freshly squeezed orange juice and watched people traffic as it passed by the big picture window.  When breakfast was finished, it was time for the adventure to begin.

I popped open my umbrella and headed down the narrow street  toward St. Mark's Square, occasionally bobbing up and down as I walked to avoid poking passers-by or being poked by someone else's open umbrella.  Small leather shops, tiny restaurants, and a few footbridges later the narrow street opened into enormous St. Mark's Square.  Rather than "opened" into the square, maybe a better word would be "spilled" into St. Mark's Square.  By the time I arrived at the square it was pouring rain.

It was warm that day, which meant even as my summer dress began to soak up the rain, and my open sandals sank into the ankle deep water that had accumulated in spots around the square, I wasn't chilly at all.  I believe it was around that time that I decided to abandon my umbrella, give into the rain, and enjoy Venice.  As I stood in the square, the magnificant St. Mark's Basilica in front of me, I had an epiphany and decided to include my open, yet useless umbrella, in every picture I took that afternoon.

As a result, I created a complete and unique album of that afternoon in Venice.  My open umbrella in front of St. Mark's Bascillica, next to the ages old lion statue protecting the basilica, on a bench in front of the square's beautiful clock tower.  I left the square via a side street, and found myself standing on a footbridge. In the distance two more footbridges spanned the same canal and I recognized an imagne of the city I had seen before, but couldn't place where.  I placed my umbrella on the footbridge and stepped back to take a photo as a filled gondola rolled closer.  The wind picked up and moved the umbrella but luckily two young men were standing nearby and grabbed it before it went airborne and conked the gondolier on the head.

Moving on ... I turned the corner and there in front of me was the magnificant Grand Canal.  The water was choppy in the Canal, making the hundred gondolas and water taxis parked at the blocks-long landing bob up and down precariously.  Across the lagoon I could see the beauty of Venetian architecture on display.  It was pouring rain, my hair and dress were soaked through, but it truly was a stunning moment.  

Gradually, my umbrella and I made our way down the Grand Canal landing, crossing untold bridges, passing hotels and buildings from the 14th and 15th centuries, stopping near statues, at the water's edge, sometimes just stopping to drink it all in, always taking photos.  I had only a vague idea of where I was in relation to where I was staying, but it didn't matter.

Eventually, and quite reluctantly, I wandered down a side street that I thought would bring me back to my apartment and, with a few minor detours, much to my surprise, it did.  I climbed the stairs, and entered the apartment to find my travel companions, my completely dry travel companions, waiting for me.

To be continued ...
5/10/2017 3:08:03 PM
Close your eyes and imagine Venice, Italy.  What did you see?  

When I closed my eyes and imagined Venice before I visited there, I saw water, lots of water, and an ancient white city at the horizon. I saw gondolas, lots of gondolas, steered by men in stripped shirts as they slowly made their way down narrow canals surrounded by stone buildings with window boxes filled with geraniums (red, of course!). I saw those gondoliers duck as their small boats floated under carved stone foot bridges.

I wasn't sure I would like Venice, there were conflicting stories about the quality of the water in the canals, but  felt everyone should visit Venice at least once if the opportunity presented itself.  The reality of Venice was different than I had imagined it.  Venice is much more beautiful than I expected.

When I heard we were taking a water taxi to our rooms in Venice, my mind immediately went back to the image of crossing a wide sea with the ancient city on the horizon.  I was disappointed when our train pulled into the station in Venice and found no horizon, no sea to cross.  We pulled our luggage through a small building and out the otherside into a small park-like area.  The first glimpse of the Canal came just beyond the park where boats were moored.  

As we approached the docks and more of the Canal appeared, I began to understand the uniqueness of Venice, the beauty there. In order to climb onto our taxi without ending up in the Canal, I was forced to pull my eyes away, but as soon as the water taxi began to back up I leaned against the back railing and drank in the scenery.  There were moments when I couldn't really concentrate on what I was seeing because the amazing notion that I was actually in Venice, kept filling up my head. 

As the taxi followed the twists and turns of the wide Canal, so many images that I had never seen before, but were so familiar to me, passed by.  Bridges and terraced homes, old, old hotels with outside dining areas, ourageously expensive boats tied to wabblying docks, all below a blue gray sky.  It was five o'clock traffic on the Canal:  water taxis, bobbing gondolas filled with tourists, private boats, and utility boats, all barely missing crashing into each other, the drivers waving and greeting each other in words I did not understand, yet to my eyes, all so exotic and wonderful.

A very friendly young man met us as we left the taxi and escorted us to our rooms a block or two way from the canal.  The space was nicely appointed and generous enough to accommodate the four of us, but, much to my dismay, located on the third floor.  The young man carried my 40 lb. piece of luggage up the stairs as I wondered how I would ever bring it down again.  What followed was an unplanned and unexpected magical evening.

As you probably know, much of Venice is packed with tourists.  In an effort to get away from the crowd we took advice from our strong young man and left to find the out-of-the-way restaurant he described to us.  We wandered the back streets of Venice, the less traveled, quiet cobbled stoned streets that wind through neighborhoods with no water in sight, and are lit by doorway lanterns.  A few times we were willing to give up the quest for the illusive restaurant, but instead followed the lead of a fellow traveler who assured us she was closing in by using her phone's GPS system.  Then, finally ...

We walked down a cobble stoned alley, quiet in the night, turned a corner and entered a beautiful, large, square courtyard surrounded by old stone apartment buildings. There, in the farthest right hand corner of the dimly lit square we saw a canvass-covered dining area attached to a small restaurant.  Inside old men in white aprons tied around their waists smiled warmly and welcomed us in.  We settled into a long candle lit table under the canopy in the disserted courtyard under the stars, and ordered wine and more wine, and unknown dishes off the small menu.  Much later, our bodies warm and comfortable, we wandered through the quiet back streets of Venice until the streets became busier and we knew we were close to our rooms.

To be continued ...
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