Category Archives: Trip Report

White Roads…and wine!

We are just back from a fun quick trip to Montalcino in Toscana. This town/area is famous for the Brunello di Montalcino, a wine from just this small area of the world. And, of course, very famous and it draws many visitors. That said, the town of Montalcino was a nice hill-town. It had its share of tourists (mostly American) but seemed to have it’s own life and locals living their lives within the walls. I read a book called “Vanilla Beans and Brodo” about life in this town. Pretty good for Italy fans.

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We visited two wineries on the way. Little did we know almost all the wineries in this area are on White Roads. These are gravel roads that are not meant for a car like ours. We also should have called for appointments. The first one, Innocenti the person was not there until afternoon. But along this White Road I snapped some spectacular pictures. The day was just perfect. Look at that sky!
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We visited Sasso di Sole winery on the way back down the white road. Their wine was pretty good. We bought some. The nice woman there recommended a restaurant down the road a bit. It was in a spa, or hot spring town called Bagno Vingnoni. It was lovely. The main part of the little town surrounds the walled in spring which is where the main, hot spring surges up from underground. You can see the bubbles roiling the water. Surrounding this area are restaurants and spa buildings. We visited Il Loggiato and had a very tasty hamburger of Chianina beef, the famous white cattle of Tuscany. Perfect lunch outside under blue skies. Nice. I would never have known to go here! Very below the radar.

This is the penned up spring.
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Water really bubbles up from below.dsc06452

My burger. Unconventional bun with olive oil, But why not!?  dsc06454
After the spring bubbles up it flows underground and out into spillways where people sun bathe and soak for free.  dsc06459

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Finally flows into this river.
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Water running down the wall for probably centuries has built up quite a mineral deposit.
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We returned to Innocenti and this time we got to try their wines. Nice man. I was amused by the fact that he asked us after the wine tasting if we wanted to taste the olive oil. I said I preferred Umbrian oil so no thank you. Well after we had purchased some wine he brought out a bottle of the oil and gave it to me as a “gift”. Ha. I guess he was miffed at my comment and was going to try to get me to change my mind about my preference. Sweet.

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We arrived in Montalcino in late afternoon. We stayed in a hotel on the edge of town which advertised “free parking”. We drove the Porsche and when the proprietor saw it he said maybe we shouldn’t try to drive to his parking. Turns out the road had been badly washed out and a car like ours had a VERY hard time getting down it. We did but it was not pretty. We did drag the undercarriage a few times. The hotel was quite nice called Vecchia Oliviera. The proprietor was nice. Rooms very spacious with really pretty views. Not many people were staying there. We could easily walk to everything in town.

Misty morning view from our room.
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That evening we walked up into town to a restaurant called Drogheria Franci where we had a good meal which was not traditional Tuscan. A little more innovative than one would expect. The town of Montalcino is not very big but on a hill. At the top was the Fortress. We were near this.

Next day we were off on quests for more wine. We were off on yet another White Road! After 3 or 4 kilometers we finally got there. This one was called Fattoi. A nice young girl gave us a tasting (it was 10 am!). We bought some wine and headed out to find more. The countryside in this part of Tuscany is extremely diverse. It ranges from verdant wine areas to barren wasteland. I do not know why this is.

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We were unsuccessful in finding our next winery. It seemed to be on a White Road that was impassable without a 4 wheel drive. Resigned, we returned to Montalcino. We visited an enoteca which was also a restaurant. It filled up quickly and I only heard American voices. The lunch was quite good and the views were killer across the valley. Back to our room for a nap.

Lunch.
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That evening we had reservations at Osteria di Porta al Cassero. It was up near the Fortress. Food more traditional Tuscan. Very nice place.

All in all a nice getaway. I am a little tired of traveling and am looking forward to staying home for a couple of weeks.

My sisters visit and a trip report

I was so happy Cindy, my sister, and her husband Bill could come to visit for almost 2 weeks! We picked them up in Rome at the airport and they came back with us to Umbria for a few days. The weather was quite nice. Not too hot and sunny all the time.

The first day we visited Spoleto. Cindy and Bill had never been there. It is a lovely old place and is known for it’s jazz festival in the summer. It was nice that the city has a system of escalators that take you to different levels in the city to include the top where the fortress is. We visited the fortress and the aqueduct. Here are a couple of pictures.

The aqueduct. Due to the recent earthquake here in Umbria you couldn’t walk acrosss it anymore. They will assess it to decide if it is safe.
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Inside and outside of the fortress
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The second day we visited Todi. It is a beautiful hill town south of us. Very picturesque. This was good because my sis had gotten a new gigantic camera and lenses. She did a LOT of picture taking. We had a really nice lunch at Ristoranti Umbria, a very traditional Umbrian place. We have been there several times ourselves but not with Cindy and Bill. They have a beautiful outside terrace with major views.

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Just one of the dishes we had.
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Street scenes.
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We spent Wednesday enjoying the market and shopping. We had lunch with friends up in Montone.

The next day was a travel day for us all. We took the train from Foligno to Rome Termini and from there took the FrecciaRossa, the fast luxury train to Naples. Here was where it got interesting. We rented a car (!) and drove out of the city. I have to hand it to Luther, he was masterful. You have to be both careful and aggressive. There are no real traffic signals or signs anywhere. It is every man for himself. We exited the garage and immediately entered an enormous stream of cars probably 5 lanes across…not that there are actual lanes mind you. We had to get from the right side to the left across this mess. There were cars, vespas and buses. We clipped a bus with our mirror as it tried to cut us off. Luther swerved and jumped in front. Bravo! Cindy said she totally “got” why we didn’t want to drive our car down there. It took over an hour to get out of town! We finally managed it and headed for Positano, stopping on the way for supplies. Then for the second part of the driving adventure(?) – the Amalfi coastal drive. Downright terrifying. We managed to get to Positano and find the parking lot and meet up with the nice lady letting us in, and showing us around our rented apartment. It was up about 95 steps of varying heights and depths. All carrying our luggage and our groceries. Whew!

Well it was nice to get there and kick back for a bit. We were situated very high up and were across from another hillside. Positano is a town built up the three hills with ravines in between them. We also had a sea view if not as expansive as we had hoped. Here are a couple of pics from the terrace.
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dsc06212Sea view.

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Pretty magical at night.
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See that little restaurant right at the bottom? Every night they played jazz or schlocky Italian music. It wafted up to us. In fact the whole street scene on the other side was like being in Rear Windows. It was cool.
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The bad thing was that we took our landlady’s advice to walk to the restaurant on the beach. Since we had just gotten there we had no idea how far down it was. Well let me tell you, it was VERY FAR down!! And once there, neither the food, nor the service was good. One thing I’ll mention here. Every so often we run into a restaurant, mostly in a tourist area, that will tell us the service is not included. Of course they always know we are American so are scamming us since we are used to tipping. That said, the service charge is ALWAYS included. And the wait staff do not work for tips. They are paid a decent wage, unlike servers in the US. So DO NOT fall for this scam. If you really like the service then leave a small tip or round up the check. This restaurant told us this when we were seated. It always leaves a bad taste in my mouth…but the food wasn’t so good either! TripAdvisor heard from me on this one. The next bad thing is we had to get BACK to our apartment. We decided to count the steps. We stopped every 100 steps to catch our breaths. It was 522 steps(!) a LOT of steps. After this miss-adventure we always walked down the road. MUCH easier!

The first day there we went to Pompeii. We drove and it was OK. It was a zoo. So many people and tours. The tour guides talked over each other and you couldn’t hear. It was hot. Last time I was there 20 years ago it was totally empty. We practically had it to ourselves. What a difference. I am finding this to be the case at all tourist places here. It was not the best experience but Cindy an Bill got to see it. Just a couple of pictures of the many I took.

One of the mosaics in a villa.
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The forum.
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The hot baths. This where they heated water and steam was.
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Poignant dog. At Pompeii when they found a hollow area in the solidified dust they pumped in plaster to make casts of the bodies of people who had died and been buried. This was a dog who had been chained up. He died a ghastly death.
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We had a surprisingly good lunch at a Pizza place right outside the ruins. The pizza was from a wood fired oven and we sat in a pleasant outside terrace. The best part was they validated our parking!

The following day we had decided to take the boat to Capri. It was a lovely trip. Took 30 minutes. Pretty coastal views.

Positano cascading down the hill
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Positano
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The cliffs. Click on this picture and look closely…right in the center there is a tour bus parked up on the Amalfi Coast drive. This should give you an idea of the drive and how scary it is…especially when you come face to face with an enormous bus on a curve…yikes!
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Capri was, again, a madhouse. Jammed with day trippers (like us). From where the boats let you off you have a choice of taking the Funicular or a taxi. There was a total mob scene at the Funicular so we grabbed a taxi. TOTALLY worth it. And they are all convertibles! Nice! We wandered the streets, taking pictures, stopped at a cafe in the main square for a drink and people watching, and picked out a restaurant.

When we arrived in the port we were impressed with a five masted ship. One of the WindStar cruise fleet called the WindSurf. Beautiful!
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View of the harbor from Capri Town.
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A couple of the street scenes. Pretty.
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And it would not be complete without a couple of food pictures!
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The next day we decided to treat ourselves with a day spent in our town of Positano. I should mention the weather has been TERRIFIC! We wandered around town. Visited the two art museums. Walked along the beach. Stopped for a drink on the terrace of the Palazzo Murat. I should mention that Luther and I stayed here 20 years ago on our own trip to Positano. It was beautiful with it’s own lemon grove, which is, sadly, gone now. The place is much fancier that when we were here but it is the best location in town!

These next three are of the Palazzo Murat’s terrace.
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When you drink wine they bring a lovely tray of goodies.
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This is the view of the beach from our choice for lunch. It was a very nice place with good food. A bit pricey but it kept the crowds away!
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The food was so good I had to include the picture of my dish. The pasta was very obviously house made and perfectly al dente. The seafood was exquisite. May have been my favorite meal.
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This is the church dome from on the way back to our apartment.
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Next day we were off in the car to Paestum. Only bad thing it was about 2 1/2 hours south and it meant we had to drive the entire Amalfi coast drive. Cindy and Bill got to see it anyway. It was stressful on our driver. Paestum was a Greek settlement from around 600 BC. It is one of the best preserved examples of the temples they built, the town around them, etc.

First is the Temple of Ceres. Originally dedicated to Athena. It was built in the 6th century BC.
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We walked the length of the town and marveled at the road. Reminiscent of the roads in Pompeii.
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Arch into the amphitheater. Again, reminiscent of Pompeii. They built in a honey comb pattern and combined different materials. Here, stone and brick. Amazing after all these years.
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Next is the temple of Neptune dating from 450 BC. I was trying to capture the scale of these columns! They are massive!
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Same temple and the best preserved one with several sets of colonnades. Two would have been inside the temple, the others are the outside ones.
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Finally the Temple to goddess Hera. It is the oldest surviving monument dating from the middle of the 6th century BC. It has 9 columns across and 18 along the sides.
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Cindy wanted a picture of the final of the 95 steps leading up to our apartment. Every one was a different height and width.dsc06408

We left Positano the next day, heading for Rome and the airport. We stopped along the way at Herculaneum or Ercolano. This is another of the four towns destroyed during the eruption of Vesuvius in 79 AD. I had always wanted to see it. Happily it was not as crowded as Pompeii. It was destroyed by pyroclastic flows which preserved it perfectly even down to the carbonized wood. It was buried under 20 meters (60 feet) of ash. The pyroclastic surge formed by ash and hot gases and moving at 100 MPH buried the city. In Pompeii heat was the main cause of death. I took a lot of pictures. Here are a few.

View from ground level. See how deep it was buried? And see what is looming in the background? Yes, Vesuvius.
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Example of a balcony of wood. It is carbonized black but still standing.
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The town streets.
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Interior of the mens bath. This was a shelf where they could put their sandals and tunics before going into the baths.
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Also the baths with mosaic floor.
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This was a very wealthy seacoast town. Much richer than Pompeii. They lived very well. This is an atrium open to the sky with a rain water basin in the center. The mosaics were deformed by the seismic activity before the eruption.
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Throughout the town were fast food stores. The clay basins were kept warm with fires underneath and each had a different dish.
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It was thought until very recently that the town was evacuated because the actual eruption took place the day before and Herculaneum was not destroyed until the massive column of ash collapsed the next day. But now they have found 300 skeletons at what was once the sea shore. They had all fled there only to be buried. I felt a bit voyeuristic taking these photos.
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Sadly Cindy and Bill left the next day after we spent the night in Fiumicino and had a nice seafood dinner. Happy trails!

Portugal

Another trip report so skip if you are not interested.

Portugal. We arrived at about 7PM in Lisbon where we rented a tiny Fiat 500 and drove about 80 kilometers to the town of Obidos. We had rented a room in a B&B there. We arrived at about 9:15 and went right out to dinner as we were famished. Our innkeeper, Carlos, recommended a place very nearby called Restaurante O Caldeirao. We had their fresh fish which was OK. At least we weren’t hungry anymore and it was good that the Portuguese eat late. But not as late as in Spain.

The next morning we got on the road and drove the more than 200 km to the town of Tabuado. It was pretty hard to find. We had Google maps directions but the road that we turned on was unmarked. We turned right on the only road of any size we saw and found the Villa. It was called Quinta da Varzea de Cima. We met up with two Australian couples Jeff and Kaye and Steve and Shiromi. Both couples had visited us in Italy. We also met their friends Rhonda and Rob, also Australian. The villa had 6 bedrooms but we only used 4 of them. They were all comfortable and the villa itself was quite beautiful.

It had it’s own chapel.
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Our room was to the right at the top of the stairs.
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There were several outside tables and chairs.
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They had a spring.
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This was the amazing chimney. See all the holes at the top?
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Below was the old cooking area with three things, a hearth, and what looks like two different types of oven.
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If you look at the hill across from me you can see one of the many scorched areas from fires. Apparently it is normal. It was parched!
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Big barrel made into a bar.
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As soon as we arrived we all piled into the cars and went to the town of Amarante, which was about 30 minutes, by tortuous road, away. We had lunch in a beautiful restaurant on the Tamega river. Here are some views.
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On Wednesday we drove down to the Douro river. This is the main area where the port wines are grown. We were headed for the town of Peso da Regua. Due to operator error we ended up WAY up in the hills in the little villages all through the vineyards. It was a bit nerve wracking since we were two cars following each other and the roads were very narrow. But Shiromi and I were very happily lost as we got some stunning pictures we never would have gotten. Take a look!

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The town way down there is where we were trying to reach.
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Here we all were trying to figure out where the hell we were!
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Peso da Regua was a bustling town. Very hot and we had quite a bit of walking to do. I took a few pictures of the interesting doors and buildings. In Portugal you see tiles everywhere! This was a bar.
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Interesting door with tiles above.dsc06030

Derelict building with tiles.
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Pretty garden in town with beautiful tiles on the building.dsc06017

In this town we had trouble finding a place with room for 8 to have lunch. We finally did but it turned out to be a pretty amusing lunch. We were kind of late so they had run out of much food. The waitress was visibly annoyed when none of us wanted salad. Then when asked for things she said all gone. She pointed to what was left. It was very Monte Python-esque. We did finally get fed.

Thursday we spent just enjoying the villa and relaxing. Lunch was lovely cold cuts and cheese alla casa. We had what they call Mortadella but it would never past muster in Italy, the birthplace of mortadella bolognese. It had olives embedded in the meat and when sliced, there were slices of olives rather than the squares of fat mandated in Italy. Nice day.

Friday we headed back to Lisbon for three nights. The city was nice…I guess. Very crowded. We couldn’t get into many sights due to the crowds. Good food. Nice hotel in a very good location.

Traditional tile-covered building.
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In main square by the port.dsc06127

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A parade we happened upon.dsc06123

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The monastery. Very ornate.
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The city is built on two hills. The middle is flat. They have streetcars going up.dsc06104

A neighborhood near the castle.
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Castle
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The sidewalks and plazzas are intricately tiled. These make the plazza look like waves.
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Brilliant fountain in the sun.dsc06061

I got pick pocketed on our last night They are Good! Unzipped my purse as I walked and took my wallet. I realized it quickly and called the CC companies but they had already charged thousands. And all in Central America. Who knows how it all works. Do they sell the numbers? Anyway, the good thing at the time was that I had used the ATM earlier and had not replaced the card or cash in the wallet so he didn’t get that. I was not carrying our passports but my wallet had my codice fiscale, Permesso, health card and VA drivers license. Rats. Next day I filed a police report. Apparently this is common there. The best news is someone found my documents! The police brought them to my hotel just before we were leaving. The other good news is I needed a new wallet anyway. I guess I’d gotten complacent and my guard was down. Lessons learned…do not carry all my stuff with me and split the credit cards between us. Also hold the purse with my hand and keep it in front of me.

Oh I forgot to mention we got ripped off by a cab driver upon arrival.

We had a 7:30 PM flight which arrived in Rome at 11.:30PM.  So we got home at 3am. Ugh! I think I I’ll lobby not to arrive at midnight in Rome.

Final thoughts. We loved seeing Steve, Shiromi, Kay and Jeff. We enjoyed meeting the third couple, Rob and Rhonda. It was fun to cook together for dinners and tour around with them. So that part was nice. Lisbon…not so much. When we return we will stay in the Duoro valley which was green, vine filled and beautiful. It was incredibly hot everywhere we went. I think I’ll forgo summer travel to cities. Crowded and too hot. Portuguese is one weird language. Supposed to be a Romance language but they way it is pronounced makes it sound almost Russian. We could read quite a bit of it. Lots of accents and pronunciation a mystery to us.

Road Trip!!

This is another trip report so skip it if you are not interested.

We four, Luther, me, Susan and Gary, left Umbertide at around 9:30 on a Sunday headed for Ljubljana, Slovenia and ultimately Krakow, Poland. We brought a picnic but it’s darn near impossible to find a place with tables or seating. We finally stopped short of the border and sat on benches. It was very hot but we found some shade. We arrived at the Grand Hotel Union. It was in a great location just steps from the triple bridge across the Ljubljana river. It was very hot and we took a rest before venturing out to find dinner. It was Sunday so many places were closed. We found Gujzina, a Slovenian restaurant along a pedestrian street. We sat outside. Our server was super helpful with food descriptions and wine recommendations. Took lots of time with us. We had a superb bowl of cold cucumber soup. It was oh so refreshing on such a hot day, afterwards we had among the four of us: venison, trout, and pork cutlets. The food was not gourmet but fine for a casual dinner. My trout was over salted but I did not complain. We were treated to bowls of vanilla ice cream on the house. One speciality here was pumpkin oil. We had never heard of it. We had it first with the bread like when you get olive oil for dipping. It was very dark green, almost black. A bit off-putting but wow what a flavor. They toast the pumpkin seeds before making the oil. Then later the waiter drizzled it on our ice cream. Amazing sensational taste! I would never have thought. Anyway, each couple bought some to take home.

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The next day we had a great breakfast and walked to Tivoli park. We saw the US embassy in an odd looking building. We visited Pravoslavna cerkev, Saints Cyril and Methodius Church. Eastern Orthodox. It had five domes topped with crosses and was beautiful inside and out.

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We walked through the the market and visited the dragon bridge. And we found a nice little place for lunch in an alley with a much appreciated breeze. We again had cold cucumber soup and salads. Very refreshing. By now we were done for so retreated to our rooms to recover.

Dragon bridge.
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This night we had reservations in Valvas’or. We enjoyed a sparkling wine as we chose our food. The chef sent an amuse bouche of puréed essence of tomato with a bit of soft white cheese, nice. Our waiter was excellent in recommending wines. We are seasoned wine people but did not know Slovenian wines well. All choices were excellent and fairly priced. The food was all very good.

We decamped our nice stay in Ljubljana and headed north to Bratislava, Slovakia. It is situated on the Danube River and we stayed in the Marrol Hotel. We had stayed here last year and found it nice enough. We dined in the Houdini restaurant in the hotel our first night. Since we were last here this restaurant has been refurbished. It looks great and the food was very good. The servers are very nice and very knowledgeable and helpful. I started with a cool, sliced veal with arugula and anchovy mayonaise. Very tasty and just the right size. Then I chose the chicken breast. It was baked and served on a bed of roasted vegetables with quinoa. The chicken was not dry. Very moist. An interesting dish and quite healthy. Others in our group had tuna tartar to start. For entrees one had lamb on a purée of squash, one had baked baked salmon which he liked. A good choice.

Next day we did a walking tour of the town. Someone tried to get into my backpack but I could feel her pulling on the straps. Two youngish women pretended to be looking at a plate in the ground when I turned and found the zipper open. I didn’t say anything…should have. Slovakia has the EU presidency right now and there was a huge roped off area for dignitaries. We walked along the river and had refreshments outside.
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Then we went off to find lunch. We had our eye on a gastro pub called Mestianske Pivovary. They have inside and outside seating. Big building with pipes and open duct work. The beer was super fresh, naturally and the food was good enough. We were there for lunch so stuck with schnitzels and fries. They were tasty. Nice place.
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We had dinner in Zylinder. It is on the leafy green mall in the center of town. It was cool and raining so we couldn’t sit outside. There was a large table and we were afraid we’d have trouble getting served but all was perfect. Our waitress was great. We had Schnitzels, one had dumplings light as air. The wines were good and we had a lot of fun. Not fine dining but good for a basic meal.

Off to the farthest point in the trip, Kraków Poland. I was a little worried about this one as the rooms were apartments on a restricted street. I’ll have to hand it to Chloe, our GPS, she got us there. We had to drive right through the large and very crowded with people, horse carriages and cafes, main square. We found the apartments and got our luggage up two or three flights of stairs. The woman at the desk gave us directions to the parking. We missed it the first time but – after another harrowing trip through the square(!) we found it and – parked for the duration.

I should mention it was downright cold here. The first thing we did was buy some warm clothes. Also we had a lot of rain throughout the stay. Definitely not my idea of July. It was not common, there was an enormous front that came through while we were there.

The first night we visited Kawaleria for dinner and were pleased with our choice. They had a guitarist playing and it was a nice touch. The service was excellent. We had only one course each but they were pleasant. My quiche was a bit thin but the salad with it was good. One got the cold cucumber soup which was surprisingly spicy. One got the salmon perogies which he liked and finally the baked salmon fillet which he thought was only OK. We had wine and fun. Not the best place in the world but quite pleasant and reasonably priced.

The next day we had arranged a tour of Auschwitz/Birkenau. We were picked up by a bus and the ride was nearly two hours to the camps. We had a guide who was very good. It was a depressing experience but we had known it would be. So horrible what happened… 1.1 million Jews were exterminated there. We saw whole rooms of hair, eyeglasses, shoes, clothes. We looked at the pictures of the people who were strong enough to work. Yet they rarely lasted more than three months due to conditions in the camp, poor nutrition and hard manual labor. I looked into the eyes of the lost souls and was moved to tears. Each one looking straight into the camera and thus into my eyes. I learned that they took photos of people when they started to work and that in a month or two they were unrecognizable. This prompted the tattoos to identify them even when emaciated. We must never forget.

Arbeit Mach Frei – work makes you free – on the gate
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No words necessary
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The one bright spot. Gallows on which the former camp commandant was hung, within sight of the villa where he and his family lived.
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This is the platform where the arriving would get sorted. Thumb to right, gas chamber. Thumb to the left, work until you die.
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This train car is one of the originals. It was found and donated by a Jewish man whose father died in Auschwitz.
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When the Nazis knew they were going to lose they tried to destroy evidence of the exterminations. This is what is left of one of the crematoriums.
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The pit in the very back was the gas chamber.
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There were over 300 buildings. The wooden ones are gone with just the foundations and chimneys left.
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We visited Resto Illuminati for dinner this night. Our nice waitress spoke decent English and was very attentive. The menu was quite small. There were two soups, about four appetizers and four entrees but we had no problem finding things we liked. Susan ordered the cold beetroot soup. It arrived and it was a shocking, bright pink! But its taste was sublime. Others had the perogies and for entrees we tried the trout fillets with risotto, tagliatelle with chanterelles and rabbit. The pasta was perfectly al dente as was the risotto with a nice chewy bite. Good wine list. Zabaglione for dessert to share. A very very pleasant meal.

This day we walked to Warwel castle where the Princes of the kingdom lived. We toured the state rooms. It was pretty impressive. After that we decided to do the little golf cart tours they have here. There are four areas – Old town, Jewish quarter, Shindlers factory, the Jewish ghetto. We went for the first two. We had an interesting 20 year old driver from the Ukraine. He played a recorded tour for the places we visited but was very sweet and talkative. We all liked him. It was a good investment as we saw some things we wouldn’t have seen.

Dinner this evening was at Kogel Mogel. It is just off the main square in the Old Town. Very popular so reserve. We had a good waitress who gave us attentive service. All of my table mates enjoyed their food but I did not like the beef cheeks entree. Very thick, dark, unappealing sauce with strong flavors, none too tender beef.

Castle pictures.
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We all enjoyed Kraków and agreed another day would have been good.

Next day we headed back south homeward bound. We stopped in Durnstein Austria. It sits on the Danube River and is very pretty. We had rooms in the Richard Loewenhertz hotel. It is just next to where Richard the Lionhearted was held hostage for nearly 10 years. I had a soft spot for it from a trip 30 years ago…my first to Europe. We had lunch there. It is pretty old fashioned but I still liked it. We had a nice dinner the first evening in the hotel. It was still too cool for the terrace…too bad as it’s lovely. The food was nice. All four of us enjoyed our meal. The wines were local and very good and the service attentive.

The next day, not wanting to drive anywhere, we decided to take the boat trip up-River to Melk. The river is a fast flowing river so the trip upstream was about 2 1/2 hours. Coming back it was only 45 minutes. What a difference. It was nice and relaxing. Melk has an amazing church which we toured. We also had lunch there.

Views along the way.
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Melk monastery. They liked gold!
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Improbable location!
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Vineyards of the Wachau valley
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View of the iconic church in Durnstein.
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We dined In the Relais et Chateaux hotel, Schloss Durnstein. Lovely dining area on the terrace overlooking the river. We had major issues with the Maitre’d who was our server. He was inattentive, arrogant, and dismissive. We were moved to post some pretty bad ratings. There were three good things. Food was good, views were beautiful from the terrace, and the piano player was very good.

Excellent breakfast at Richard Loewenhertz and we were off winging our way south to our “children”. We all missed our pets.

We arrived in Bassano Del Grappa in the Veneto region of Italy after a long, nearly 7 hour drive. It has again gotten oppressively hot. We stayed in the Ca’Sette hotel. It has a good restaurant. I was not at all happy with our room. Not up to standards.

Dinners were excellent. We ate there both nights. We sat on the gorgeous patio overlooking the pretty grounds complete with fountains. The villa is pretty too. Other than the poor room I like this place.

Grounds.
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We also visited the town of Bassanno dell Grappa. It is cute, small and walkable. It has a pretty wooden bridge. It is the birthplace of grappa with a nice museum.

The town of Bassano del Grappa is lovely. Note the clock face has 24 hours!
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Grappa museum. The town is famous for this spirit.
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The Alpinisti bridge.
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All in all a good trip. We were happy to get back to our little Umbertide.

England – days 3 and 4

The third day we decided to take the walk from our cottage through the National Trust buildings in the tiny town of Buscot next to us. There are one or two buildings not owned by the Trust but most are. We left the cottage and were wished “good morning” by the raucous cawing of the rooks. It sprinkled rain on the walk but it wasn’t too bad. There is a beautiful church at the end of the village which has had a place of worship since the 1200s and maybe longer. It is a place that exudes a sense of peace. I sometimes wonder if places on this earth are preternaturally spiritual and that’s why places of worship naturally gravitate to them over the millennia.

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After our walk we drove into Lechlade, the next town from us, only a couple of miles. I wanted to explore the village. It is a lovely place as so many of these villages are but not so beautiful that it is overrun by tourists. Lots of little shops. A very pretty 12th century church essentially unchanged since it was built except for a new roof when the first one burned. This lets the church retain its symmetry which is not the norm in British churches. We ran into an eccentric man wearing a hat adorned with many pins and ornaments walking his little Jack Russel named Elsie. He was pleasantly plump and rumpled. I complemented him on his hat and he was very pleased. We petted Elsie who was dumped by some idiot and he rescued her. I enjoyed meeting him and even more, I enjoyed talking to him. I really miss that in Italy. I seldom can ask the questions in Italian that come to my mind when meeting people.

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Here is a stone roof being repaired. A lot of work. Each stone is removed, piled up and cleaned and then replaced.DSC05435

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We stopped into a shop called Cutler and Bayliss – Butcher and Greengrocer. We cursed ourselves for shopping at at Sainburys yesterday. This place had beautiful meats and poultry and also cheeses and veggies. Everything for a lovely dinner. We decided to go back Saturday for our last dinner ingredients. We also spied a cheese we’d heard much about called Stinking Bishop. My sister will recognize this and tell her husband Bill because it was in Wallace and Grommet that we heard of it and he’s a big fan. We bought a small slice and it certainly lives up to its name!

We next drove to Burford. This is another pretty village that HAS been discovered by tourists. It has a street of shops and we had lunch in a pub there. We drove back to Buscot and decided to relax for the afternoon. I took some photos of the nearby Thames. There is a walking path that goes to Oxford many miles away. There are lots of narrow boats that navigate the river and it is on a side spur where they negotiate the lock near our cottage.

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We had lunch here.
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Our fourth day was spent at Blenheim Palace north of Oxford.
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This is the birthplace of Winston Churchill and the seat of the Dukes of Marlborough since the 1700s. A magnificent place. Huge. Acres and acres of landscaped gardens, lakes and fields. We paid the princely sum of £40 for the two of us to go in. It was drizzling and quite cool with a stiff breeze. We walked the fairly long distance from the car park to the palace. Once inside your ticket gets you into the Churchill galleries, the gardens and access to the guided tour. We skipped the gardens because of the rain. Extra tours cost extra money, for example, the upstairs-downstairs tour which I thought would be interesting. The Churchill galleries showed the lineage of the Dukes and how Churchill fit into that. It gave a pretty detailed story of his birth and childhood and formative years. He was mostly raised by a nanny and his Grandmother as his parents were busy with their own lives not to include their children. The rooms went through the courtship of his wife, his military service, the onset of WWII and his becoming Prime Minister and the war years, and finally his death. It even had a gallery of his paintings, some of which I thought were quite good.

We joined the guided tour through the apartments, salons, library etc. Tons of significant art, tapestries depicting the first Dukes wars and subsequent Dukes and their wars. They are on their tenth Duke now I think. The family still has apartments in the Palace.
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At the end we were regaled by an old gentleman playing the magnificent pipe organ in the library. We finally ducked out on him. I think he could have talked for hours!

The organ.
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Detail on the organ.
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We tried to find some pubs that had been recommended by our friend but the first town was so jammed we couldn’t park. And the second town we could not find at all. So we headed back to Burford and the Lamb Inn. We sat in front of the crackling fire and had a nice lunch. We ate in for dinner and had a fire to warm the drizzly cold afternoon and evening.

Last days.

Merrie Olde England – trip report – days 1 and 2

Another long trip report. If you are not interested just skip this post.

We are just back from Merrie Olde England. Oxfordshire to be precise, just at the edge of the Cotswolds. We flew RyanAir from Perugia to Stanisted. It took about two hours to get to our National Trust Cottage in Buscot village. It is called Lock House and used to be the lock keepers house. It was built in 1790 and has meter-thick stone walls throughout. We’ve stayed in four of these cottages so far and I think this one is the least comfortable. It does not have wifi which, in the future will be a priority. I like to keep in touch with my cat sitter via email. It’s also quite loud outside as it sits just beside a waterfall that roars. I am not sure if this is seasonal as it has been quite wet here. That said, it is fine for our six night stay.

Lock Cottage.
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Rookery. Rooks, like big crows, live in neighborhoods called Rookeries and are raucous. Also, if you park under them your car is trashed. Our rental definitely was!DSC05458

Just outside our cottage this torrent rushed from the river into a wier and thence back into the river. Very loud.
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Path along the canal over to the river.
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The Thames river itself. There is a path the whole way to Oxford.
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Our first day we arrived at about six in the evening and were pretty tired. We drove the two miles up the road to the Trout Inn, a pub. Inside was kind of odd because it had two long tables and a few small round ones in front of a cheery fire. The barman was large, cheerful of face and friendly. The menu was on chalk boards above the fire. At the other end of the room a band was setting up. It was Tuesday so that was kind of a surprise. The gents in the Thames Valley Jazz band as well as all the people in the place were older than us by a good bit.

We ordered the trout (what else?) and it was fried with lemon and butter with two generous bowls of sides. One was veggies, assorted. The other was french fries. The trout was excellent. They farm it in this area.

Trout by the fire. Cozy.
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The band got going and were playing jazz from before and during WWII, which I enjoyed. There was a coronet, clarinet, stand up bass and a banjo. They were all pretty good. Too bad they couldn’t sing.

The second day was sunny and cool. We decided to take the train into Oxford. It is a lovely city. Britain’s oldest university is here. It was founded in 1290. It is made up of many individual colleges, I think about 40. Some of the more famous are Brasenose 1509 (named for the brass nose-shaped door knocker on their main door), Christ Church 1120, Exeter 1314 etc. we picked up a little guidebook and it lists a few of the famous people who attended the colleges. Christ Church had William Penn. Brasenose, Michael Palin. Exeter, J.R.R. Tolkien. Magdalen College, Cardinal Wolsey, Oscar Wilde, C.S. Lewis, Prince of Wales, Dudley Moore and 14 prime ministers. Anyone who is anyone went here! Oh and there is a HUGE rivalry between Cambridge and Oxford. The architecture spans the centuries and so is quite beautiful and remarkable. Just a few pictures of the many I took are below.

This is the pulpit in one of the college chapels.
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For Harry Potter fans. This statue in front of a college building was who Nearly Headless Nick was patterned after. Recognize him?
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Room where the students go to gown-up before graduation. It is a glorious room. These ceiling carvings are each made up of a college donors initials. You had to give 500,000 pounds to get up there.
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One of the beautiful windows in the same chapel.
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The whole room. This also was in the first and third Harry Potter movies. It was the hospital where Hermione was taken when she was hurt.
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Main cathedral.
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Some of the college buildings.
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We had lunch in the Turf Tavern, a 14th century pub. It is famous because it was the place that Bill Clinton said, “…but I didn’t inhale”. Pretty good pub food. We returned to our cottage in late afternoon after shopping for dinner provisions. A nice day.

Days three and four.

A day in Siena

On Sunday we took a day trip to Sienna. It was many years since our last trip on a long ago vacation. We are only 1 1/2 hours away by car on pretty good roads. We had thought last summer to go but decided to wait until there would be less people. We parked in one of the numerous lots and walked into the center. The Piazza is one of the largest I’ve ever seen and it is where they hold the Palio horse race two times a year. The city is divided into 17 contrade, or distinct neighborhoods each centered on a main street with a church. They each have a banner with animals or symbols to identify them and each contrada has its own long history and complicated set of heraldic and semi-mythological associations. The neighborhoods are fiercely competitive and each contrada has a horse running in the Palio. I am told if you marry outside of your contrada each member of the couple still must remain loyal to their own contrada and split up for the meetings and to cheer on your horse.

Enough of the history. There is tons more. This Sunday happened to be one of two weekends a year that they have a really big market in the Piazza. About half of the vendors were food sellers. The rest were selling clothes, scarves, hats, and trinkets. Here are a few photos of the market. This one shows the scope of this square and the market.

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Cheese.
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Prosciutto and meats.
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Beautiful rosemary encrusted cheese.
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These are not contrade flags. We thought they may have been the flag of the Hapsburgs who used to rule the city. They were pretty anyway so I took their picture.
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The Duomo is one of the prettiest in Italy in my opinion. It was hard to get a picture. The facade was so ornate.

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Inside the cathedral.

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Beautiful marble scenes embedded in the floor. Vibrantly colorful. They keep them covered mostly, and randomly uncover some for a while. You can’t walk on them.

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We also toured the building across from the Duomo. It was the first hospital not run by the church and was built for the common folks as well as the wealthy. They spared no expense on the frescoes inside! A civic hospital dedicated to caring for abandoned children, the poor, the sick, and pilgrims. It is the oldest surviving hospital in the world. According to legend, the Hospital was founded in 898 by a cobbler named Sorore. However, the first known document mentioning it is a “deed of gift” from March 29, 1090. Too bad we don’t care for our sick like the Sienese did way back then.

Frescoes in the hospital.

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And finally…lunch! We had an excellent lunch at PorriOne. Very upscale food. Very unusual combinations

Two appetizers.
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My secondi.
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I didn’t take a photo but they brought a scoop of gelato kind of as a free pre-dessert. It was sprinkled with coarse salt and drizzled with fruity olive oil. Amazing combination and it worked!

Bologna

We decided to do a quick overnight trip to one the cities we once visited for a day – Bologna. It is called Bologna la grassa, or Bologna the fat because it is said the best food in Italy can be found there.

We took the local train from Terontola to Florence and changed to the Frecciarossa or “Red Arrow” train. It took only half an hour to get from Florence to Bologna on the fast and super comfortable train. Complementary newspapers, snacks and drinks were served. It is very like business class on a plane. In fact there are three different classes to choose from – Business, Premium and Standard. Here is a photo from TrenItalia.

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The weather was surprisingly beautiful. Bright blue skies and moderate temperatures. Here are a few pictures I took.

Reflections.
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The Christmas decorations were still up. This mall was full of the very high-end shops. AND the January sales are on!
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Pretty wrought iron.
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Square with pretty architecture and trees.
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Shop where you can get totally hand made shoes. Old school…
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The city has some of the prettiest architecture. It was not bombed in the war so it is intact. One of the endearing features of this city are the 37 kilometers of covered arcades. Beautiful arches and columns allow you to shop and walk quasi indoors. Nice when it rains. So pretty to see. They are all different.
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Bologna has the oldest university in Europe, over 1,000 years old. The city is full of young people who bring their energy to the vibe. It also has a warren of tiny streets with nothing but food. Food of every sort. A feast for the eyes and the stomach. I am surprised the city is not more of a tourist draw given all that I’ve seen there.

Speaking of food… We just had the one night so we opted for Trattoria Serghie. It was written up in Gambero Rosso and Osterie e Locande d’Italia. We booked because it is a very small place. I counted space for 22 diners. Surprisingly they had no Antipasti, just primi, secundi and dolce. That was fine. We really enjoyed the food. the Stinco di maiale was the best we’ve tasted. I also had the tagliatelle with bolognese sauce…what else!

Trip to Abruzzo

This is another trip report so if you are not interested just skip this post.

We decided just last week to take a trip for two nights to the province of Abruzzo. We had long wanted to go to Ascoli Pecena in the Marche region too and it is just north of the Abruzzo border. This province is just south of the Marche on the Adriatic coast.

We left in a rainstorm which only got worse as we drove along. We headed east when we reached Spoleto and headed into the magnificent gorge through the Appinine mountains. In fact there is no way to get to any of the coastal towns on the Adriatic without braving some very rugged countryside. In this case the Corno river cut a deep gorge to Norcia, which is famous for it’s lentils, cured meats, and truffles. After we left Norcia and headed up into the next range of mountains the skies REALLY let loose and we could hardly see the road. We also were behind a truck. This all made for a very slow trip.

We finally came down out of the mountains and passes into a pretty valley in which Ascoli Pecena is situated. We bypassed the town this day and headed south into the foothills to find a recommended lunch place. Little did we know that this was a hill town and presently, we were in a cloud! We groped our way up and up with fog lights blazing and very short visibility until finally the GPS said we had arrived. We actually couldn’t see them but the city walls loomed just ahead. Later we found out you can see the Adriatic from there. There are lots of benches for viewing. Also there is a large fortress. Who knew!?

We walked around in the lightly sprinkling rain. It was a very pretty little town and is supposed to have the narrowest street in Europe.
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We found the restaurant in a hotel on one of the main squares. Zunica 1880 has been a family operation since 1880. The dining room was lovely and empty. We were well taken care of by a nice waiter who right away brought us the Nuovo Olio pressed just two days ago! It was bright green and grassy and very peppery in the throat. A treat.
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We had a lovely Montipulciano d’Abruzzo to accompany the fine meal.

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I was amused at the picture hanging on the wall. It was obviously a painting of the room we were sitting in. Notice the chandelier in both the room and the picture. And the walls, curtains and furniture were the same.
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After lunch we visited Iluminati winery. Everyone was very busy with the crush. This winery was bottling and labeling wine to go to Russia. It is a big operation as you can see from the pictures. They took time to let us taste and we bought a few bottles.

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We headed back to find our Agrigurismo, Emidio Pepe. It is an organic winery and normally serves dinner. For some reason they were not doing so on our visit. We were the only people there the first night and were joined by two other parties the second night. We had such a big lunch we had bought a picnic and had it in the common area where we watched TV and sat out on the porch. It was still raining and foggy so we would have to wait until the next day to see our surroundings. The next morning was rain-washed and partly sunny and I really loved the view. As you can see they haven’t brought in the red wine grapes yet. We snagged a bunch for our picnic and they were so Sweet!

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After breakfast we headed out towards Pescara. Luther wanted to visit more wineries and I had hoped to see Pescara which is on the coast. There is a good, fast, toll road all the way down the coast. We got off and fought our way through sprawling, ugly suburbs and lots of traffic. Ugh! finally got into the hills and started looking for some wineries. We tried the GPS. It was not much help. It could find the towns but not the street addresses which were generally outside of town.  It was beautiful countryside though and I snapped some very nice pictures of the olive trees.

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After much looking we homed in on one place called Torre dei Beati. We asked and got directions. We couldn’t find it. We stopped again. We went – no go. Again we stopped. This time I asked and what a surprise. We were at the end of a tiny road that dead-ended into a farmyard. The woman I approached to ask if she knew where it was asked me what language I spoke and I said Englese. Turns out she was from NYC and had a very thick NY accent. How strange and what a small world! She clued us in that there was bad blood between the two wineries on her road. We again looked and found a very big operation but that was all. We gave up and went to find lunch.

We stopped at a fish restaurant called Carmine. Loved the name. The food was excellent and we had the wine from the winery we had still not found. Yum.

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The seafood wasn’t bad either!
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After lunch we were still determined to find. That. Winery. Persistence wins the day and we did find it. It had no sign at all. They were heavily into the crush too but the wine owner and maker was super nice and spoke good english. We enjoyed tasting his wines and looking around his place. Of course we bought some wine!

This is a picture of the big crusher at the winery up the hill.
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Vines heavily laden with grapes.
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At Torre dei Beati they hand picked and sorted their grapes.
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The tasting room.
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Luther with the winemaker
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I am not sure if The Wine Guy will write about this place so the rest can wait.

Following another picnic dinner we left for home on Friday. I had wanted to go to Ascoli Piena so we first visited a winery (what else?) then the town. It was a lovely place, said to have the most beautiful piazza in italy.
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Colonnades around the square.
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We headed homeward planning to stop in Norcia for lunch. We went up through the passes and mountains, passing a place I really want to return to called Castelluccio. We had chosen Vespasia for a fine, last lunch.

We were the only people there. It is a hotel so has to stay open. Our captain named Andrea was super nice and had spent 15 years in Orlando, only returning to Italy last year. For love. He married and has a 2 month old son. Her family lives in the Montefalco area and has a winery with apartments that they run.

The lunch was spectacular with many “gifts”. I had the poached egg on potatoes and potato foam with black truffles. yum. Luther had the trout. We both had the special pasta. Here are some pictures. Sorry I took so many! Gift one, olive oil and crackers.

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Gift two, Pork belly.
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Rose and Montefalco roso.
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Luther’s trout.
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My potato, egg, truffle dish.
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Our pasta.
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Sorbet and truffles.
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Grappa for Luther.
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We had successfully completely filled every nook and cranny in the Porsche with wine and had just enough room for the luggage. A fun trip!

Sighişoara, Transylvania

Romania trip report index

Part Four

Sighişoara is a lovely town. Pronounced ziggyshwara. It is fairly large when you count all the outlying suburbs but the historic part is the Citadel. It started life as a Church on a Hill, which became a fortress. It floats above the modern, lower town. It was built after the Tartar invasion of 1241 which scared the bejesus out of everyone so they fortified. Now it has hotels, inns, restaurants and more souvenir shops than you’d ever need. One thing though, it is a living town, not just a tourist area, with school children laughing through the squares and small streets, church bells calling the faithful.

Streets and scenes of Sighişoara.
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We did the walking tour this morning. There are several gates and towers. Nearest our hotel is the Bootmakers Tower now housing the radio station. The main gate is the Clock Tower which is just next to the Monastery Church, now Protestant. There are also the furriers tower, the tailors tower, and the butchers tower. We hiked up the covered staircase, built in 1666 and has 175 wooden stairs. It carried the German school children to the school above. The school is just next to the Church on the Hill (Biserica din Deal), considered the most valuable historical monument in the town. It was built in the 13th century but stands on the site of a much older chapel.

Monastery Church
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Main gate.
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Mechanical clock in main gate clock tower.
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175 steps up a covered staircase brings you to the German School and the Church on the Hill.
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Door in the Church on the Hill.
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Murals dating from 1483 were destroyed by a fire in 1776. A recent restoration brought back fragments of the frescoes.
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Tombstones in the cemetery behind the church.
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View from town up to the Church on the Hill.
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I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that Sighişoara is the birthplace of Prince Vlad Dracul aka Vlad the Impaler. He lived his first 4 years in this house, now a restaurant.
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All the souvenir shops had T-shirts.
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We had lunch in T. Josef Restaurant and Winebar just down the hill in the lower city. It was a pretty, dark paneled room with a great old bar. It was situated in the Park Central Hotel. It had good food and we decided to have dinner tomorrow evening there.

My tomato soup.
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