Friday, July 30, 2010

Where to Next?

Do I go south to Greece through Albania? Maybe a few days on Korcula before heading up to Zagreb? Or maybe Montenegro and Bosnia?

And the winner is- Montenegro!

I caught an early morning bus to Kotor, Montenegro, another beautiful walled city.

Sure, maybe you only need a few hours here, but I was spending 3 days. Why? Good question.

Despite a total lack of anything to do, other than the 1300+ step climb to the top of their fortress, and the insane heat, I had a lovely time with my fellow travelers.

Like Croatia, Montenegro has a big cafe culture, so I finally joined the locals and basically sat at a cafe for two days. Andrew, the Australian everyone seemed to know, was my buddy for day one. We were delighted when we found a bar boasting 24 degrees! While there, our Serbian waiter told us that if we tasted the water from the fountain near the south gate we would never leave Kotor. As it happens, we had dinner right there, so when we ran out of beverages Andrew filled our glasses from the fountain-- it was really tasty and cold, but not sure the restaurant approved.

On the second day I met Terese from Sweden for some more cafe time (finally, something other than pizza) and a walk around the city which took all of 10 minutes.

After a few days of nothing, I had to get motivated for something other than the cafe, so it was the next laziest thing- the beach. Terese and I walked out of the old town a bit and found a lovely piece of concrete to hang on for the afternoon, followed by a couple drinks at the beach bar. The beach bar was AMAZING people watching--- basically Montenegrin teens in speedos dancing to techno music--- it was hilarious and so un-American. I also accidentally got to sample the drink that I said sounded disgusting the night before--- coke and red wine (not AS bad as it sounds).

Once the heat of the day died down (who were we kidding, it never died down), Terese, Michele (Sicilian who has been traveling for 20 months already) and I climbed the 1300 steps. It wasn't really all that hard, but we were all dripping with sweat since the Balkans appear to be super humid in addition to super hot.
After a few days of nothing, I had to motivate for something other than the cafe--- so it was the next laziest thing- the beach. Terese and I walked out of the old town a bit and found a lovely piece of concrete to hang on for the afternoon

We were back just in time to catch Montenegro's fashion week in the square outside our room- not sure when Montenegro became known for fashion?

After a late night out, it was an early bus to Zabljak, the highest town in Montenegro and the one closest to Durmitor National Park. While waiting for the connecting bus in Niksic I met an Australian couple, Jess and Nick, who were my comrades for the next few days.

The 3 hour bus ride from Niksic was an experience: 1) there was some standing involved in the mini van since it was oversold, 2) it was hours of switchbacks through the mountain (again, so thankful for motion sickness patches) and 3) the driver chain smoked right under the no smoking sign. Needless to say we were happy to finally arrive.

Since we had no lodging reservation, we wandered around a bit until a hotel hooked us up with rooms in someones house for 10 euro a night (as it turned out, it was HIS house)! Plus, the mom gave us this delicious cake/bread thing that I have no clue what it was, other than yummy.

Go figure, Zabljak is the polar opposite of Kotor in that it was freezing. Seriously, we went from 90's to 50's in a days bus ride. It was also a little foggy and rainy, so the beautiful hikes had more of a creepy feeling.

We made instant friends with the tourist information office (Montenegrins are really very helpful, and apparently very fit based on what they told us wasn't too hard). In no time we had booked our rafting excursion for the following day (the primary motivation for heading all the way up here) and were dining at our beloved Restaurant Durmitor, complete with its lovely waiter and "different kind of meat" which I ordered and quite enjoyed (I am sure it was some sort of pork, everything around here seems to be pork, maybe why we haven't seen one pig?).
Rafting was pretty hilarious, given it was about to rain, but we enjoyed it anyway. The guide/owner was really cool, showing us a good time that included a 6m cliff jump into icy water (it was so cold, not sure why we agreed to do it, but we had wetsuits so it wasn't that bad).

After a hamburger, which I am pretty sure was actually made from ham (again with the pork), we hiked around Black Lake which was nice in crappy weather, so must have been stunning in nice weather (you can imagine how many times we said that!).
I was thinking Angelo and Elena would like it here since we were able to buy home grown raspberries, wild blueberries and mini strawberries (they were like little bursts of yumminess) on the walk home.

Outside of Zabljak is a canyon larger than the Grand Canyon, so I have to go, right?

Despite temperatures that felt more like winter, I decided to venture out on the 8km bike ride to the canyon. The people at the tourist office claim it is easy, so what the hell.

Yeah, not so easy in the crap bike I rented for 1 euro an hour! The 8km is basically all UP hill. After taking a major detour on the way when I was wishing for flat road (but I did find the ski resort that had been eluding us), huffing in high altitude and fixing the chain that popped off, I eventually found my way through the totally deserted pine forest (it smelled like Christmas).
Minor problem- once I spotted the tiny sign there was a hike involved on a difficult to identify trail. Perhaps I was being an overly cautious American, but I wasn't quite sure 1) what to do with my bike, would it be there when I returned? and 2) how safe is it to go traipsing through the forest alone (I was already questioning how good of an idea it was biking through the pine forest alone, but at least then I would have a quick getaway ;-)

Needless to say, mission aborted. I decided to be responsible and bike back without seeing anything :-(
I know 8k doesn't sound bad, but the hills were really steep, which of course led to a fun and very speedy ride back to town (perhaps a helmet might not have been a bad idea?)

One final trip back to Restaurant Durmitor (this time I had him point out what on the menu wasn't pork) and my time in Montenegro was coming to an end.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

On to Croatia

Goodbye Italy. Goodbye pasta. Goodbye pizza (or so I thought).

After another delicious breakfast of salami and cheese (and the chocolate wafer cookies we smuggled out each day) we were on a train to Trieste, Italy connecting to a rather difficult to find bus to Rijeka, Croatia.
Since Hertz closes for siesta, we had time to kill in the rather industrial town of Rijeka eating pizza (wait, hadn't I said goodbye to pizza?) and sampling local beer. FYI, Tomislav is disgusting- like mud!
No wonder we had to wait for our car, it had to come from Zagreb (not close by) since they had no cars. We did ask the lovely Hertz guy why he had to come to work at a car rental agency that had no cars, but he said it is his job, hummmm? Funny enough, later I came across tour agencies that didn't run any tours- yes, odd!

Finally we were off to Opatija, the old resort town favored by the tubercular Viennese and the Austro-Hungarian Empire back in the day, complete with it's grand buildings. We didn't spend much time in Opatija, after Ed's brilliant maneuvering of the parking lot, if you could call it that, and our "light" meal of Istrian Turkey- an odd and delicious combo of turkey, spinach, ham (of course) covered in melted cheese.

After a good night sleep at the Astoria Hotel, where we became friendly with the snarky hotel manager (the Croats all seem very confident and snarky), we headed off for a day of wine tasting in Istria, the triangular peninsula that has been controlled by pretty much everyone at some point- the Romans, Venetians, Austrians, etc.

It was a bit of a challenge getting to the vineyards since the highway was randomly shut down, but amazingly we managed to find our way to Pazin and their tourist info center (they are my new favorite places!) via the winding country roads.

Wine tasting in Croatia is a different kind of affair. At the recommendation of the tourist office, we headed up to the beautiful hill town of Motovun (Mario Andretti was born here) for our first vineyard. Amazingly we found the tiny village outside of Motovun, but once there couldn't find the vineyard. Picture Ed and me roaming the village (during siesta, of course) looking for the winery. After trapsing through people's homes and gardens, an older man found someone that would give us a taste. Their wine was very good, but unfortunately you won't be trying any since it was confiscated at Heathrow :-(

After lunch, we stopped at a winery, which was basically someone's house where we sampled wine in their garage. On the plus side, they did let us try the wine pre bottling from the steel vats and dessert wine straight from the barrel.

That left Amman, where again we showed up at someone's house basically asking for wine. It was hard to decide which Amman to go to since there was another just next door- apparently the whole village has the same surname, but are NOT related. Go figure?

Time to head south to Pula, a town dating from 177 BC and featuring another well preserved Roman amphitheatre. Pula was also an important naval base during the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Besides an amphitheatre, they also have a fortress where we attended the Pula Film Festival-- sitting atop a fortress wall watching a pretty good French film.
Yet again, we woke to a hearty breakfast buffet, this time upping the ante from cookies to full blown sandwiches for later since we were heading to Plitvice Lakes National Park and then Split, a 400km drive.

The drive was pretty long, with lots of tunnels and even more bad radio stations- when is the last time you heard Midnight Oil??

The park was beautiful, and crowded, with waterfall after waterfall. We were a little competitive perhaps trying to make the leisurely stroll into a workout, but did finish WAY faster than they said it would take.

With all that time saved, we unhappily used it getting majorly lost in Split. Our apartment was in the old town (aka pedestrian zone), which we didn't exactly realize and our Time Out map didn't clearly indicate. Up a hill, down a hill, dead end, so much reversing in tiny alleys I thought Ed was going to kill me-- it was our bad Amazing Race moment we'd both like to forget.
The next morning we did successfully make it to the absolutely beautiful island of Hvar. In Hvar Town we ignored local advise and in midday walked the 500 steps to the Citadel, built by the Venetians in 1550's with the help of Spanish engineers. The views were spectacular and I can see why everyone loves Hvar (even if we did miss out on seeing the lavender that they claim covers the island- perhaps our seasonality was off?). After a quick swim on one of the rocky beaches we were back off to Split for a yummy, cheap meal at Fifa where we met two fun couples from Laguna Beach and Scottsdale.

The following day we really wanted to go to Vis, but the ferry schedule didn't cooperate. Sure, people like Brac, but the guidebook's description as "family friendly" turned us off. Instead we opted for the "step back in time," "untouristy" island of Solta. It isn't in the guidebook, so we had NO idea what we were doing, and it was obvious. Thank god the locals were so helpful, because the tourist office that opened at 13:00 wasn't so helpful at 10:00.

The next bus at 12:45 took us to Maslinica. The town was adorable. Granted we had to wait until 13:00 for the restaurant to start serving food-- I guess the people of Solta don't like to do things before 13:00-- but that still left enough time for another good swim in the pristine blue water.

That evening we attended the Split Summer Festival's opera of Othello outside in a courtyard. Apparently the people in the hotel bordering the square didn't realize you could see them just as well as they could see the opera...

Despite Ed's wishes, I didn't really see the point of the overnight ferry and instead campaigned for the bus to Dubrovnik-- as it turned out, the bus from hell! Thank god Ed can handle heat better because I was near panic attack on the over sold bus, with almost no AC, the sun beating down on me and hot air blowing at my feet. The man behind me lit a cigarette and then fell asleep. All in all, it was horrible-- another moment to forget.

But once we arrived in Dubrovnik, Villa Sandra, our apartment for the remaining days in Croatia, was a delight. Although no AC, we did have a lovely garden from where we relaxed, tried to figure where I was going next (which changed every few minutes), barbecued, made tacos (I have been craving Mexican) and drank some of the wine purchased in Istria (plus some 2 liter plastic bottles of local beer- so trashy!) My favorite part- there was an ashtray built into the bathroom wall- gotta love the Croats!

After a fair bit of laziness, it was time to hit the city walls of Dubrovnik, again during the hottest part of the day, followed by a dip in the mega salty Adriatic from our concrete beach (if you haven't guessed, there are very few sandy beaches in Croatia).

For some reason a 17km kayak seemed like a good idea. It was a good idea, for at least the first 7-10km, then we had about enough. Sure, there was some snorkeling in the cave and more pizza for lunch (so much pizza, it is ridiculous!), but at the end it was just powering through to get the hell out of that kayak.

No time to waste, we needed to get to the Giacometti exhibit before it closed at 8pm, except that when we arrived we realized we had no Kuna- oops! No worries, we'll just check the guidebook for a place to get dinner-- until I accidentally dropped it down the cliff- double oops!

The next morning Ed was headed back to NYC and I was again solo traveler.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

All This Yummy Food (Behind Locked Doors)

After leaving Siena, the food tour of Italy began (again, I thought I was going to lose weight on this trip???)

From Tuscany, I headed north into the foodie regions of Emilia-Romangna, Lombardy and Veneto.

Ah, I was so excited to sample all the local specialties, but my were they hard to get to between siestas that seem to last the entire day, Sundays (when no one works, as if they are working so hard the other six days) and summer vacations. Going from closed restaurant to restaurant got frustrating, but I still managed to find some delicious treats!

Bologna, birthplace of Bolognese sauce and close to the towns known for Parma ham, Parmesan cheese and balsamic vinegar (Modena). Bologna is also a college town, boasting the oldest university in Europe, and apparently the smallest bathroom at my hotel.

Bologna feels more like a small city than the other quaint medieval towns, complete with lots of churches, squares, alleys, etc. There was lots of good food to be had here, but sadly I only made it to one spot on my list since everything appeared to be closed (I guess the kids are out of school, so they shutter for the summer?). At least I found some good wine bars.

I was able to get the award winning gelato from La Sorbetteria Castiglione. OMG, it was the best gelato I have ever had, and I've had a lot recently.

(Oh, I was finally able to unload that olive oil at Mail Boxes Etc- yay!!!)

Next stop, Ravenna for their 8 UNESO World Heritage Sites, all early Christian and Byzantine mosaics.

The Basilica di San Vitale, consecrated in 547, was covered in vibrant mosaics of greens, golds and blues. It was definitely in the top 3 of the churches visited-- it also made me realize I like mosaics, but really have limited appreciation of frescoes.

The Basilica Di Sant'Apollinare Nuovo was also pretty amazing with the largest mosaics depicting 26 white robed monks (or virgins on the opposite wall). The mosaics are so old, but are in amazing condition.

The town was really charming and incredibly quiet. While there I met a gay couple from New York and a British man in town doing some sort of oil related work (apparently with much frustration due to the Italian work ethic).

Needless to say, lots of wine was consumed in Ravenna and the restaurant was delicious and friendly (some Gossip Girl talk and all!) Too bad it ate up all my savings from the cheap hotel as I stayed so long the buses stopped running and I had to take a taxi home ;-)

Mantua (or Mantova, as they say)
After a fairly long train journey from Ravenna where I had a 2 hour stop in the middle of nowhere, I arrived in Mantua. On the train I met a lovely, elderly Italian man (that actually spoke English) who was right out of central casting complete with straw hat, mustache and all (I ran into the next day as well, but didn't have time for a drink unfortunately because I had to get the local specialty, pumpkin tortellini, before catching the train).

Mantua lies on the shores of Lago Superiore, Lago di Mezzo and Lago Inferiore. There really isn't much in Mantua- Virgil was born here, Romeo bought his poison here and they have churches and palaces like everywhere else.

The Palazzo Ducale is their top attraction, with 3 squares, 15 courtyards, a park and 500+ rooms chock full of art. I paid the extra for the audio tour and must say it bored me to tears--- I am not THAT interested in Mantuan art I suppose.

I also visited many more churches and Casa Di Rigoletto, the building Verdi used as a model for the famous opera.

Running out of much to do and adopting a "when in Rome" philosophy, I rented a bike and cycled around the lakes and palaces. It was nice, even without any gears, and I didn't get run over (which was in doubt a few times).

The highlight of Mantua (and it wasn't my first trip to McDonald's in months- I was starving and NOTHING was open due to damned siesta!). My meal at Fragoletta Antica was amongst the best I've had, full of pork products. I started with prosciutto, followed with a pasta with pork cheek (I think) and finished with a panna cotta in Lambrusco wine (local product) and strawberries. It was SO good!

Verona, home of Romeo and Juliet (yes, I stood on Juliete's balcony, embarrassingly), is amongst the most beautiful towns in Italy. It is known as Piccolo Roma for it's importance in imperial days, mostly the 13th and 14th centuries.
But the real reason to come to Verona in the summer is for their opera festival, held in the Roman Arena dating from the 1st century AD!!! It is the third largest Roman amphitheater in existence, seating 30,000 people, and was actually in pretty good shape.
I guess back in the 1st century they didn't think of staging, so it was cool to walk around the outside of the amphitheater and see the giant sets from Madame Butterfly, Aida, etc.
I went to see Aida, which was quite a production in terms of cast and staging.
It was a really cool experience to sit on 2000 year old stone steps (I had a cushion, thanks to the B&B owner) watching the opera--- just lovely. As you might expect, people come from all over for the festival so I had a nice time chatting with my Greek and British neighbors for hours leading up to the start (general admission) and during the intermissions.
Of course Verona also had it's pretty squares and churches, but I won't bore you with more about them.
Two places of interest I did visit were the Castelvecchio, a 14th century fortress on the banks of the river Adige. Although it was badly damaged in WWII, today it is restored into an interesting museum with nice views from the top.
The other places was the Roman theater across the river, also from the 1st century. Although nothing was showing the nights I was in Verona, they do still use for theater.
Padua (or Padova)
Everywhere I've been in Italy, I have loved, but not as much as Padua!
It was a little challenging getting there due to the transit strike, but I made it via bus, so not so bad.
There really isn't anything in Padua, so it is strange I liked it SO much, but everything was just delightful!
Hotel Belludi 37 was amazing, so I was off to a great start. They showed me all the spots worth hitting.
Padua is the city of St. Anthony and home to Italy's second oldest university, where Galileo once taught.
St. Anthony's Basilica is chock full of stuff- including his tomb and a whole room dedicated to relics--- I do so love a relic! Oh, and there is some Donatello floating around too.
Like every other Italian city, there is also the main square with markets, in this case surrounding the pretty Palazzo della Ragione with its vast hall covered in frescoes and a giant wooden horse.
The Pratto della Valle was something different- it used to be a Roman theater, but is now basically a large green island divided by four avenues corresponding to four bridges, surrounded by a canal and 78 statues of famous men. Surrounding the green are beautiful old buildings-- a nice place to eat a gelato!
On the bus to Padua I met a lovely Brazilian woman who I joined for a glass of wine at the most adorable wine bar and dinner, when there we met a fun couple from San Francisco.
All in all, Padua was just delightful.

Final stop, Venice! And a friendly face to boot!
Ed Kim met me in Venice, so at last I could bum around with someone else.
I arrived a few hours earlier so walked around the city, saving St. Marks for when Ed arrived.
At the recommendation of our hotel (which I walked by 1000 times with my heavy backpack), I visited the Punta Della Dogana, a new contemporary art museum from the Francois Pinault Foundation. It is housed in the old Sea Customs Post and was really interested architecturally, plus the art too.
For the 20E entry fee, you also got to visit Palazzo Grassi, which was Pinault's mansion. It was hilarious. They had a piece called "Dancing Nazis" where the courtyard floor of this grand palace was covered with a blinking disco floor and the corresponding wall was full of pictures of famous Nazis--- it found it amusing anyway. There were a few other things that made me laugh- like captioning the window for the view outside.
I also popped by the Peggy Guggenheim gallery where one piece in the sculpture garden really spoke to me--- sure you can understand why (see right).
Once Ed arrived we ventured to St. Marks, which wasn't as crowded as we expected (we were kinda dreading it).
Despite my thinking I would hate it since it is SO touristy, it really is pretty great. It was crowded, but not so bad (I have to thank the recession for nothing being too packed).
The mosaics in the Basilica were lovely, the Palazzo Ducale looks even more beautiful in person and the whole thing was pretty great.
We did have an especially long photo session on the balcony of the Basilica (thanks Ed!), while we waited for the clock to strike 1pm, which somehow we missed anyway.
On a walk over the Rialto bridge towards St. Marks we happened upon a glass shop with beautiful water glasses. While there we got the rundown from the sales woman on non-touristy places to check out.
Okay- next thing we are off walking, walking and walking some more (did I mention it is HOT?), to the Arsenal area and beyond to Sant Elena and San Pietro- in other words, off map. I was really nice over that way, getting a glimpse into how real Venetians live.
She also sent us to St. Maria Gloriosa dei Frari to see the Titian altarpiece. We saw, but were also maybe a little poorly behaved sneaking pictures of what appeared to be a somewhat racist sculpture from back in the days.
Of course Ed went back and bought those pricey glasses, so we were able to report back on our day, but not before catching a glimpse of the best thing yet- spinning class on a ferry boat!!!! How ingenious (and hot)!
Our time in Venice ended with a steamy night at the pub watching the World Cup final with a bunch of very happy Spaniards. God how I wanted someone to score so we could go eat dinner, but extra time it was so my last Italian meal was a bad slice of pizza at midnight since again all the good food was locked behind bars.

Friday, July 9, 2010

Not Missing Another

After missing the annual Baby Gorilla Naming Ceremony in Rwanda, I wasn't going to let another once in a lifetime experience pass me by.

So, with a sore back and wrist, it wasn't too hard a decision to leave the vineyard a few days early for the Palio in Siena. For those of you that saw "Quantum of Solace," the Palio is the ancient horse race James Bond races through at the beginning of the film.

After a slightly confusing bus ride from Castel del Piano, where I had to transfer buses on the side of a highway, I arrived in beautiful Siena.

Although it should be obvious, I could not find a taxi from the bus terminal-- obviously it is in the next square over with a teeny tiny sign that I also couldn't find.
However, what I did find was a Post Office which I was delighted by since I was now lugging around a case of the most delicious olive oil from the vineyard. Sure, it would be "no problem" to mail the oil, until you actually try-- was given the excuses: it would be stolen inside the Italian postal system (nice!), they can't mail liquid or glass and it was too heavy.

Okay, I would deal with the oil dilemma later, for now I just wanted to get to Il Chiostro Del Carmine, the swanky ex-convent from the 13th century that I was staying at for the next two nights (well over budget).

It was lovely, once I got there, with breakfast served from the old wine cellar of the Carmelite monks and a lovely courtyard. Getting there was another matter- due to the Palio and no car traffic allowed in the historic part of the city the taxi driver told me "not possible." I was in complete denial that I had to walk to the other end of town with all my belongs, and this damn olive oil. Anyway, I got there, a little sweaty (well, a lot), but I got there.

After getting some yummy pasta to fill my tummy, I walked back to get a better look at the sites I powered past with my backpack. The city is charming, especially during the Palio with all the streets lined with the flags of each contrata (seventeen secular districts into which the town is divided with their own government, coat of arms, emblems and colours, festivities, patron Saints, etc.).

I first visited the Duomo, which is probably my favorite Italian cathedral now that I have seen a thousand.

The cathedral, completed in 1215, was nice inside and out. The exterior, made from white, green and red marble was really pretty. And the interior marble floors were also quite spectacular.
My favorite parts were the vividly colored Libreria Piccolomini, built to house the books of Pius II, and the faces stared down at you from near the domed ceiling.

Then off to the Piazza del Campo, the site of the main attraction and the square you think of when you think Siena.

The Palio is run to celebrate the apparition of the Virgin Mary near the old houses that belonged to Provenzano Salvani. The Palio was first run in 1701 in honour of the "Madonna dell'Assunta" the patroness and Advocate of Siena through all the tragic events, since she protected the Sienese militia at the famous battle of Monteaperti on September 4, 1260, against the Florentines (can you tell that is a cut and paste?).

They run 4 trials before the main race. I attended the final trial, the night before the Palio and had a great time. The different contratas are all in sections singing their fight song, which I hear translates to something like 'your street sucks, we are better and are gonna kick your ass.'
Before the race the Siena police rode around the square in formal attire, with swords drawn- it was cool. Then the trial, which apparently they don't really try to win, it is just to get a feel for the course. Some of the horses basically walked the three laps around the square. It was really fun, so I was super excited for the real event tomorrow.
After the final trial, each contrata hosts a huge dinner on the street- was quite a site since these street parties are basically ever other street since the city isn't so big.

In prep for the main event, I spent the morning trying to find a solution to my oil dilemma (which involved dragging it to Bologna, unfortunately) and looking for SPF for less than 20 Euro (I guess they don't worry about skin cancer here?).

That left some time to get some yummy cheese and cured meats from a little shop. I walked in and the first question was "red or white?" Hours later, I left the shop stuffed full of wine, cheese, meat, sweets and random Palio knowledge all for the low, low price of FREE. I love Italy!

My time at the shop also gave me a birds eye view of the Palio parade with each contrata marching through the streets with their horses, flags, men in armour and velvet (it was SO hot), etc. It was like stepping back in time.

But now there was no time to waste since you need to get inside the inner square hours early to get a good spot. I got there at 4pm for a race that started after 7pm- unlike the 4th trial, this was much less pleasant with people's sweaty skin pressed up against you- picture a smaller, hot Times Square New Year's Eve. Yuck!
For hours before each contrata parades through the square, which would have been cool if it wasn't so hot and I could see.

Finally, the Palio!!! You can kinda make out the starting line in the midst of the masses. It takes forever to get the horses lined up, since there aren't gates--- still unsure exactly what was going on here since there were announcements being made in Italian that I obviously didn't understand.

But then they were off! It doesn't take long, and the lead up is torture, but the actual race was amazing. You are basically turning in a circle along with thousands of other people that are REALLY into it. The contrata, Nicchio (the shell), rumored to have the best horse, led for the first half of the race, only to be overtaken by Selva (Forest), the green and orange team with a rhinoceros bearing a huge tree hung with hunting implements.

Selva went nuts, rushing the track (and almost trampling everyone in the process) to hug the jockey, horse or anyone around. People were literally in tears. I happened to be standing exactly where the horse slowed after the finish, so I had a great vantage point to the Selva celebrations.

It was like nothing I have ever been to before (or am likely to go to again).

Saturday, July 3, 2010

Glass Half Full?

Since there doesn't seem to be a pub open in Italy for me to watch my boy (Nadal) win another Wimbledon title (oh, my aching feet!), I'll update you on my time in Italy.

Upon leaving Denise in London, I hopped a flight to Tuscany. Yes, there was a LOT of time under the Tuscan sun (I am super tan)!

Since it is harder to get around Italy than Africa (and seemingly less English speakers), upon arrival on a Sunday I had to spend the night in Pisa. I've seen the Leaning Tower before, so I wasn't overly thrilled about the idea, but I stayed at a lovely spot with cool 300+ year-old stained glass windows and yummy pizza and lemoncello nearby.

I also oddly met a couple of girls from Temple at the guesthouse-- strange to meet someone from Bristol, PA in Pisa!

As you can imagine, it wasn't quite the same without Kerry here to take my picture holding up the Leaning Tower, but I tried to make the best of it ;-)

Since I'd already been to the limited sites of Pisa, I did spend some time watching Italy v. New Zealand with the locals in the square (and eating gelato, of course)--- if they knew what was to come they probably would have been more upset with that tie.

The next morning I was ready to make the trek to Castello di Potentino, the vineyard I would be working at for the next couple weeks.

The vineyard is outside of Seggiano, not exactly on the Tuscan tourist route since it required a train ride to Grosseto, a bus to Castel del Piano and a short drive to the vineyard. I didn't quite know about the drive part, so when I arrived during siesta and asked someone for a taxi they laughed and said the town had no taxis (oops!).

The hours of travel were certainly worth it once I arrived in the beautiful, unspoiled Tuscan countryside and Castello di Potentino.

Home for the next few weeks- a castle dating from 1042 where Saint Catherine of Siena was once a guest. Yes, me and Saint Catherine!

Castle living ain't so bad! The views from every window were amazing and it was SO quiet (except for our cabaret night). At night all I could hear from the bedroom was the sound of a waterfall from the nearby river.
There were all sorts of outdoor spaces to just sit and stare off into the distance at the tiny towns atop the hills (Seggiano being the one we would hike to for World Cup watching at Caffe 60 with the old Italian men) and the vines and olive trees all over the place.

Apparently the castle was in complete disrepair until a British family, the Greene's, purchased it in 1989. Restoration was complete in 2000 and they've been producing wine and olive oil ever since (they had made wine at their former property in Tuscany). It was fascinating to hear the stories from the ladies of the house-- Sally Greene and her daughter, Charlotte Horton.

Sally, who is married to Graham Greene (a successful British publisher and nephew of THE Graham Greene), grew up in the oldest house in England (1066, the Battle of Hastings!). I loved hearing her childhood stories about the governess, riding side saddle, etc.--- it all sounded like a Jane Austen novel.

Sally also spent time living in East Germany with her former husband who was the Reuters correspondent. She's led a fascinating life, from what she can remember, and is a lovely, charming woman.

We learned a lot about each other (Sally, Charlotte and the seven other volunteers, three of whom are from the Philly area as well-- all these Philly people in Tuscany?) over the long lunches and dinners we prepared as a group. I was mostly an assistant, but I did make polenta all by myself and it was yummy. The food was delish- it is incredible what you can do with fresh veggies/herbs and some olive oil.
Just a few ingredients made for the most scrumptious meals. In fact, one such ingredient was stinging nettles! Yes, they sting!!! I can't say I enjoyed our 2-hour foraging session in my impractical outfit (flip flops and dress), but the walk/wade back through the river when we got a little confused (aka lost) was pretty hilarious.
I did feel I needed to stick up for America at times with the Brits (you know how they can be a little superior at times) but all in all it was really very pleasant. One thing I did learn is that the Brits think "sure" is a very rude response when asked a question that could be answered with a "yes, please" or "no, thanks"--- I must say, when you think about it maybe it is a little rude?
Of course, to answer my own question--- yes, the glass was almost always full. We drank a lot of their Etruscan wine, which is made by foot (I so want to do that in the fall!). It was really nice, and since it has NOTHING (aka sulfites) in it, never was there a headache to follow :-)

Of course, we had to work to get all this great food and wine...

Each day we woke early to start work in the vineyard at 6am, before it got too hot. Perhaps obvious to most-- working in a vineyard for 7 hours a day is tough work (made a little easier by listenting to opera or singing full volume to cheesy music on my iPod). For a few days we trained the vines, which basically means tucking the stray wines between the wires so they grow straight. My arms were super achy from holding them up all day, but that was nothing compared to task 2!

For days upon days all we did was weed around the bases of hundred of rows of vines. After my calves hurt from crouching I leaned over, until my back hurt. Next position- bum, until that hurt from sitting on the rocky and weedy ground. Arms covered in scratches and the start of a nice glove tan, at the end of the day I was exhausted. Wine, please!

Mission accomplished- I have a much better appreciation for wine. I will never drink it again without my back hurting! ;-)