Wednesday, December 14, 2005

A German diversion


It’s a beautiful sunny, and rather warm Wednesday morning in Siena. Quite a change from the very cold and rather rainy weather we had in Germany on our quick trip up to Giessen (north of Frankfurt) to see Glen and Christina. Christina is Joyce and Carl’s oldest child and her husband Glen is a captain in the army presently stationed in Germany. They had originally planned to come and see us around Thanksgiving but had to cancel their trip at the last minute because of some military nonsense about missing equipment. Anyway we decided that since we were flexible right now and had the time we would fly up and see them.

So Saturday morning we took the train from Siena to Pisa airport, boarded a Ryanair flight (based in Ireland they are one of the big discount airlines in Europe right now) and flew to Frankfurt’s secondary airport, at Hahn which as it turns out is apparently somewhere in France. (Just kidding you ole Germans you.) Glen and Christina showed up just a few minutes after our flight arrived and we piled into their Chevy Equinox (rather Blazer-like I think) and headed off to Giessen.

It took us about an hour and a half to drive to the base. This post was at one time quite large but has since been broken up into smaller areas. What wasn’t sold off to the Germans (many of the old on-base housing for example are now apartments for the locals ) has been turned into “baselets”.

It was certainly a relief to know that the military has maintained its dedication and commitment to being one of the dumbest organizations in western civilization and the base at Giessen is an example in strength. What they did was create little pockets of fenced areas around the remaining pockets of existing military buildings so that the streets are themselves not even on the base but cut through all these pockets. For example, in order to walk from Glen and Christina’s apartment complex across the street to the mail box you have to leave one security checkpoint, enter another, leave that one and return to the first one, all the time being stopped and having “your papers checked”. The PX (post exchange) is also this way and even the little gas station requires you to check in through security! And of course since 9/11 they have placed all kinds of ridiculous cement block barriers at each entrance (in and out mind you), which adds to the marginal chaos.

And speaking of security. How secure is the base under such rigorous circumstances? Well there are no MPs (Army military police) and in fact the security has been outsourced to a huge security company, Pond Security, which employs mainly local Germans, Turks and the occasional American who has gotten out of the service and opted to remain in Germany for one reason or another. How secure is it when those guarding the base do so not out of honor or duty or commitment to their country but only for a buck? Moreover, how much respect can one have for a cop who is essentially no different that any rent-a-cop at Wal-Mart? It would be quite sad if it weren’t so frightening to know that our men and women are being protected by such dubious elements.

OK enough of that; let’s get back to the story.

So after we were checked in we drove to their apartment and relaxed before dinner – which was chicken in the crockpot with carrots and onions, accompanied by mashed potatoes. Afterwards we headed into downtown Giessen to check out the local Weinachtsmarkt (“Christmas market”). Things were pretty much closed up though by the time we got there but tomorrow we were going to head to Alsfeld (?) to see another of the many Weinachtsmarkts going on in Germany right now.

The next morning Glen went to a local “backerei” (bakery) to get some of the local breakfast treats and we had a leisurely morning before heading off to Alsfeld. The village is pretty cool – fairly typical I suppose of what much of the small pre-war villages must have looked like at one time or another and we enjoyed strolling with the holiday crowd, sampling bratwursts (twice for Glen and I), crepes (Glen) and the traditional “gluhwein” (which loosely translated means “glow-wine” I think)., which is essentially red or white wine warmed up with spices added. You pay a deposit down on a cute little ceramic mug and they keep the deposit if you keep the mug (we turned ours back in, sorry folks). Pretty tasty and given the cold air and even colder cobble stones of the old street it was almost a necessity.


And speaking of cold we were all very surprised at how many of the kids and even babies went around without gloves on – perhaps part of the “acclimate or die” strategy developed by such aboriginal peoples as the Yanamamo of South America.

We left Alsfeld and headed back to Giessen and on the way we stopped at a local castle, “schloss Schiffenberg”, which was originally constructed sometime in the late Dark Ages, and strolled about spending a little time in the art gallery there which featured some rather risqué erotic imagery in large scale. But it was good to get out of the cold and into the warmth for a bit at any rate. We also made a quick stop at the commissary where Susan was able to buy a couple of things that we can’t find in Siena – brown sugar and Puffs tissues.

We then headed back to the apartment where Glen and I sampled a delicious winter German beer and we all relaxed for the rest of the afternoon. We headed out to dinner at a local place “Alt Giessen” and settled in for a wonderful meal of schliebtrockenhaufengerlagenfuhrerndickelminersfuhrstuckenfahrengeliben accompanied byfahrstruckenglaubeschliefentrappengruppenfuhrer
Finished off with a bottle of stieffenhauptbaunhofergetrinken.

Seriously folks the food was outstanding even if the names were pretty goofy. In fact the German food we had on our short trip north was all pretty outstanding, from the “brats” at Alsfeld to baked goods from a Giessen bakery to the scrumptious meal at Alt Giessen. Thanks again to Glen and Christina for showing us such wonderful sights and great food! The singular issue we had with the German restaurants is, like London but worse it seemed, smoking is RAMPANT everywhere.


Monday morning Christina drove us to the Giessen RR station and we took the train into Frankfurt in order to get a shuttle bus out to Hahn airport later in the day. We spent a few hours strolling about downtown/old town Frankfurt and browsed through their huge Weinachtsmarkt. We also caught a glimpse of the Main river before heading back to the train station. Along the way we stopped for a bite of lunch and then caught the 4 pm bus out to Hahn airport.

After a rainy, foggy drive of a little less than 2 hours we were back at the airport terminal and then grabbed the shuttle to our hotel, which was close to the airport. In fact it was located on an old abandoned US air base – many of the barracks which had remained deserted for over 30 years were still standing and made for an eerie ambience on our walk to dinner. We checked in and then walked to a nearby restaurant – La Piazza – where we decided against their Italian dishes and opted for one last fling of German food.

The next morning we had breakfast at the hotel, got a shuttle back to the terminal and by a little after 1 pm were airborne and on our way to Pisa.

By the time we landed the weather in Pisa had turned quite nice, warm and sunny. We walked out of the terminal and a few minutes later walked right onto the train for Pisa Central. From there we took a train to Empoli and changed for Siena. We were back home a little before 6 pm, and it seemed as if we had just left. Which of course we had.

It was the first time I had spent any time in Germany and the first time in some 30 years that Susan had been in Germany so we appreciated the chance to go and the opportunity to go to see family.

Thanks again Glen and Christina!

Friday, December 09, 2005

Treno Natura, Nature Train

Lousy weather today. Actually even worse than lousy, it’s downright frustrating to be out: the cold rain driven by a wind which roars down some of the streets destroying umbrellas – the trash cans here are full of them this afternoon – makes one less apt to go out for any reason.


Yesterday though was nice, although cold and bit overcast in Siena. The day before (Wednesday) Patti Bechi sent me a text message giving us the particulars of whom we needed to call about the “nature train” which was scheduled to leave Friday morning. This is part of a series of special trains, which provide local tourists with access to particular festivals around southern Tuscany and at the same time providing transportation in vintage trains. Pretty cool we thought. So we called and put our name down on the reserved list and were told we needed to meet at the Siena train station no later than 9:50 am.

We got up had a bite of breakfast and headed off for the station. The first thing we noticed as we were walking to the station was that there was absolutely no traffic anywhere – and hardly any people. And it was after 9 am. Odd we thought. Did something happen and we weren’t told?

So we arrived at the station around 9:30 – it’s only a 30-minute walk from our apartment -- and we thought we would try and find out exactly where this train was or at least where we were supposed to be in order to get aboard.

After a few moments of confusion we actually did speak with a couple of people who appeared to be in charge (of something involved with our train at least). We learned it was coming from Florence and would pick up the Siena tourist group on it’s way south at a little bit before 10 am.

That’s right – you heard correctly – tour group.

And not just your run-of-the-mill group but a group of some 100 Italian tourists of all ages packed into a train made up of about 5 reproduction vintage carriages from the early 20th century, all heading down to southern Tuscany and to the Olive Oil festival in San Quirico d’Orcia.

Anyway, we had a leisurely ride aboard the “Treno Natura” down into southern Tuscany all the way to Monte Antico where we stopped in order to bring the locomotive around to the other end of the train so that we could head back north. We headed off northeast up through part of the Val d’Orcia – for those of you who have read any of Iris Origo’s work you will know that name well – and eventually stopped at Torrenieri, not far from Montcalcino. We then boarded a couple of busses, which shuttled us all into San Quirico. Located about midway between Montalcino and Pienza San Quirico is a beautiful typical Tuscan hill town with one long main street running the length of the town and tiny streets coming off of it here and there ending in spectacular views of the surrounding countryside. Unfortunately much of the surrounding countryside is becoming covered with the all-too-typical sprawl.


Shortly after arriving in town we “experienced” lunch rather than just eating it: it was held upstairs above one of the small tratorrie along the town’s main street and one would never have expected such an enormous room – which could easily accommodate 300 or more people – with a stage and enormous kitchen – in such a seemingly small location. Anyway it was a wonderful meal including typical Tuscan dishes with antipasti, zuppa, pasta, and a “secondi” of roasted, thinly sliced pork with veggies and salad. We both enjoyed the two hours or so it took to eat, all the while listening to a cacophony of Italian voices!


Afterwards we all strolled about the town spending quite a bit of time tasting a variety of different oils – the latest harvest of course was the rage and virtually all that we could see was unfiltered. What we sampled was delicious – but we discovered a little thing the Tuscans do with their bread and olive oil: they put salt on it. Some of the tasting booths were grilling or toasting their bread and rubbing garlic on it but also putting salt on it as well. Tuscan bread is notorious for being made without salt rendering it quite bland.

The Tuscans argue, however, that the bread should be a vehicle for the rest of the food, be it soup, pasta or whatever; the bread should take on the flavor(s) of the rest of the dish. Sort of the same idea at work in tofu? Anyway we found the same phenomenon later that night when we ate at Cantina in Piazza and Aimone offered us some of the new oil from Castellina in Chianti – which by the way was also very good and a bit peppery. He too suggested putting salt on it along with the bread.

As we were wandering about San Quirico we caught a bit of local flavor when some of the townsfolk came out dressed in a variety of clown-like costumes and performed a sort of street parade for a half hour or so, entertaining everyone with their goofiness and music.

A real find though was the Horti Leontini, a small garden just inside one of the town gates that had a sculptured set of hedges much like a small English garden but with truly fantastic terra cotta statues scattered throughout, mostly nudes but several relief works as well. It would be nice to come back and photograph this during a really sunny day and with the big Nikon.

At about 4:30 we found our way back to the meeting place to pick up the bus back to the train. The train got back to Siena at a little after 6 pm and we found it raining of course. But it was a light rain and we opted to walk home.

We dumped our stuff off at the apartment, grabbed the computer and headed off to the internet to check emails, etc. Afterwards we stopped at Cantina in Piazza for our evening meal. We had hoped to cook but many businesses normally open in the evening – like our fruit and vegetable stand – were in fact closed. It turned out that Thursday was indeed a major festa day: the festival of the Immaculate Conception. No matter we had a delicious meal and also got a chance to work on our Italian and spend some time with some nice folks in the bargain. Not a bad deal at all.

So Friday has been, as I say, lousy. Roberto had car trouble so we couldn’t do any exterior shooting today – with the bad weather it would have been a wash in any event. We did meet him at his cousin’s place, Peccati di Gola – where they make the absolutely best Ricciarelli in the city. I had decided that I wanted to put up a web page on his confections and pastries much like I did for Aimone and the Cantina and wine in Siena so we finally got a chance to see some Ricciarellis being made and I shot some video footage as well – why I have no idea but ya never know.

Oh and Susan tried her first batch of Ricciarelli the other day – they were delicious but different in texture, very much like an almond macaroon and not like the Senese Ricciarelli at all. I dubbed them Susanelli and I can’t wait for the next batch!

Tuesday, December 06, 2005

Holiday schedule of events in Siena

Selected schedule of events in Siena for the Christmas and New Year’s holiday season:

25 November-12 December - “Leggere e’ volare” (“To read is to fly”) – Market of children’s books, La Lizza gardens (by the fortezza).

25 November-5 March 2006 – “Siena e Roma” (Siena and Rome) – exhibition of the work of Raffaello and Caravaggio, Santa Maria della Scala – see www.sienaeroma.it

2-17 December – “Mercatina di Natale nel Tartugone” (Little Christmas Market in the Piazza Mercato, also known as the “Tartugone since the top of the pavilion looks like a tortoise shell); 16 December, a gospel choir will also perform here.

8 December-6 January 2006 – Mercatini di Natale (Christmas Market), Piazza Matteotti, Piazza Gramsci, Viale XXV April by the fortezza.

9 December – Music of Mozart, Bach, Brahms, Berg, at the Palazzo Chigi Saracini, Via Di Citta 89. See www.chigiana.it

12 December – Passage of the Olympic Torch through Siena; Piazza del Campo. See www.comune.siena.it.

13 December – Festival of Santa Lucia – crafts and local products for sale, Pian dei Mantellini.

16 December – Chigi Talent 2005 – Music of Beethoven, Debussy, Ravel et al. See www.chigiana.it.

17 December-14 January – Ice skating in the La Lizza gardens.

18 December – Music of Franci, Beethoven. Santa Maria della Scala, Piazza Duomo. See www.rinaldofranci.it.

18 December – Antiques market in the Piazza Mercato.

20-23 December – Market and exhibition of art from the Congo. Chiesa di Santa Maria delle Nevi, Via Montanini.

28-29 December – The Little Prince, performed at the Teatro dei Rozzi, Piazza Independenza. See www.comune.siena.it.

30 December – Marching Band of Nebraska, a procession from the Porta Camollia to the Piazza del Campo.

31 December – concert by Carmen Consoli and Goran Bregovic, Piazza del Campo

1 January – Gospel concert with Michael Marshall and the Alabama Chorale, performed at the Teatro dei Rozzi, Piazza Independenza. See www.comune.siena.it.

Holiday season in Siena

It’s been rather quiet here for the past few days. I suppose it’s probably been because of the lousy weather that we have stayed pretty much close to home. It’s been pretty much rain for the past few days with occasional breaks of sunshine. Aside from the daily passegiata, or Sunday stroll down to Peccati di Gola for caffe we have really spent most of our time working on projects.


Susan brought along several bears to work on and is presently completing a design all her own: a candy cane bear made from – you guessed it – red and white mohair strips pieced together. It is really cute of course. Too bad she can’t get plugged into the craft community here this Christmas!

Although I’m presently without the big digital camera I’m managing to take a few photos now and then with my (lousy) little Nikon S1. Yesterday (Sunday) there was a unique demonstration put on by the local fire department (“vigili del fuoco”) on the Piazza del Campo.


They showed off their skill in falling from heights onto a large air bag, rather like Hollywood stuntmen I suppose, and also demonstrated their teamwork setting up a ladder and climbing it just about anywhere. In this case in the middle of the piazza! I did take some video of that and hope to use it to continue my practice on Apple’s Final Cut Express video editing software.


So little else is new but that is changing. There is a little market (“mercatino”) set up in the old market place for the holidays, just behind the Piazza del Campo. Some of the vendors appear to be from northern Europe, selling local food items (Germany and Austria) and holiday trinkets (Poland). It’s really quite nice actually. There is even a family down from Germany (we think) who run a Thai restaurant there and who are serving Thai food! Delicious! (Actually they serve Thai at one end and German at the other.) This little market will be replaced on 18 December by a market selling little pieces of antiquarian objects.

Another, much larger holiday craft market kicks off this Thursday at the other end of the town, and will stretch along Piazzas Matteotti and Gramsci on into the fortezza. Naturally we’ll check this out and get back to you.

In fact there are quite a few things going on in Siena this time of year., music concerts throughout the city as well as markets selling a wide variety of local items for the holiday season. There will also be ice skating available at the La Lizza gardens from 17 December through 14 January. I plan to put online here on the blog as well as on my website a complete listing of what is exactly going in Siena this holiday season.

And the lights are on in the city and it makes for a wonderful late evening stroll down the quiet streets, water glistening off the stones and showing the reflections of the overhead lights. Anyway, it’s pretty cool to be here really, bad weather (“maltempo”) or no.

Speaking of Germany, this weekend we head off to Germany to visit Christina and Glen in Giessen, just north of Frankfurt. The plan is for us to take an early morning train to Pisa, fly Ryanair to Frankfurt’s Hahn airport (a smaller satellite airport I’m told) and they will pick us up. We’ll spend a couple of nights with them and then on the 12th head into Frankfurt proper where we will try and catch all of the world-famous “frankfurter” attractions and stroll a bit before taking a bus to Hahn airport and spend the night at a nearby hotel. We’ll be ready to go for our return flight back to Pisa on the 13th. Should be a blast – I’m already getting geared up plenty of schnitzel.

Today the sun is out in bits and pieces so thought we’d take off for Florence on the bus. We’ll leave midday and spend the afternoon and early evening there, window shopping and enjoying their lights. We will probably have a bite of lunch somewhere off the main tourist track and then take an early bus back home. It is really quite the way to go, particularly when traffic inside Florence is now strictly limited, parking can be a real headache and you just never know about the weather right now. So hey sit back, relax and leaving the driving to, well, somebody else.

We hope to catch the Nature Train (“treno natura”) on Thursday and do some videtaping of this old steam locomotive as it wends it way through southern Tuscany. Friday we link up with Roberto to do videotaping of some exteriors for our Tuscan Voices project. We also hope to meet with his cousin Antonio Betti who owns and operates Peccati di Gola. Susan’s goal is to see how all those wonderful sweet things are made. My goal is to do for his shop what I did for Cantina in Piazza on my website. In fact my eventual hope is to turn my Siena site into a highly personalized and specialized guidebook of our experiences in Siena: that is on our experiences in wine, food, sweets, and unique handcrafted items.

Wednesday, November 30, 2005

Rainy days still


Rainy pretty much all day Tuesday so it was a good day for us to stay in and work on projects. Sue is working on a new teddy bear design using fur cut into strips like a candy cane and promises to be really cute. In the meantime I’m working on my before and after photos for Aimone at the Cantina in Piazza as well as trying continuing the steep climb up the Final Cut Express learning curve. (FCE is a digital video editing software program from Apple.)

We had a break from rain on Monday and thought it was a good time to head back to Florence to pick up the additional documentation necessary for Sue’s visa application. Shortly after we returned from the US last week we contacted the school and explained our recent ordeal with the clerk at the Italian consulate in Boston. The response and probably an accurate one was “he doesn’t sound like he was a very happy man.” Yep just what we needed: An unhappy bureaucrat holding our lives in his clammy, cold, dirty little hands (sorry for the slip into Dickens but it just seemed so relevant here).

Anyway we took the bus to Florence, arriving a little after 10 and then went to school to meet with Valentina who provided Sue with the necessary (!) documentation for our December appointment at the consulate in Boston.


Since it was such a nice day we strolled around the city’s historical center. One of the places we wanted to visit was the Central Market (“Mercato centrale”) located not far from our apartment and we were pleasantly surprised by what we found. It will definitely be the place where we will buy our fresh foods: meats, grains, spices, vegetables and fruits from all over the world. The first floor is mainly fresh meat and fish and lots of fried fruits with the fresh produce on the second floor.

We then strolled over to the Arno and couldn’t help but notice all the holiday lights strung across the streets. In fact all along the Via dei Calzauoli between the Duomo and the Piazza Signoria the lights are hung rather like draperies. Beautiful – and they were all on too even though it was daylight. And down the side streets lights were hung like falling waters twinkling. Pretty cool. (By the way Siena too has recently strung lights through much of the historic center but they have as yet to be turned on at night.)

We started to cross the Arno on the Ponte Vecchio but about midway across the bridge we came upon the statue of Cellini. The small wrought iron fence surround the statue was covered in locks with names and dates on them. This seemed to be a favorite spot with the tourists and many were having their photos taken with the statue and locks around it. I thought maybe it had something to do with political prisoners somewhere. Sue seemed to think it looked a bit too much like the notes and gum all over the doors at “Juliet’s house” in Verona.


Sure enough we found out later that lovers are leaving these locks as tokens of their “eternal love” but the city of Florence has a somewhat different view of what exactly constitutes eternity and frequently orders the locks cut off. But they keep reappearing and so now the city is reportedly considering putting signs up (as many as 4 mind you) prohibiting the placing of locks. That should really deter love I’m sure.



What would Dante think?

Sunday, November 27, 2005

Rainy days


Rain today. It started out as a sunny morning and we decided to walk down to Antonio Betti’s caffe for well, caffe and dolci of course! We strolled back and about two hours later the grey clouds rolled in followed by the cold rain. Not quite the snow and freezing temps they are getting farther north here in Italy and of course Europe but still, it’s supposed to be sunny Italy! Anyway it’s a good day to relax and just hang out doing laundry and contemplating the future.

We’ve had a good week since our return to Siena Monday. We spent the first couple of days getting ourselves back to some state of normalcy; it just seemed we had lost our rhythm somewhere along the line. Thursday we met up with Anna Maria and Guy, both from New Jersey and who were traveling together in Italy. Some time back we had arranged to meet them for Thanksgiving and here we were the four of us together at last!

We met them at their hotel on Via Banchi di Sopra and strolled to Nannini’s for aperitivi. We then headed over to Cantina in Piazza for dinner at 8 where Aimone had prepared a wonderful dinner of antipasti of zucchini slices with balsamic vinegar, marinated onions, crostini, zuppa di ceci (chickpea soup), tripe in tomato sauce (very tasty but with an odd, off-putting texture for us), ossobucco and for dessert a selection of tortas. We also left it to Aimone to pair the food with wines and began with prosecco when we arrived, followed by sauvignon-chardonnay from Tuscany and a blended red also from Tuscany with the tripe and ossobucco. A wonderful meal and great company!

We walked Anna Maria and Guy back to their hotel and then strolled back to our apartment – something very spoiling about living inside the walls where everything is just a 15 minute walk from everything else.

Originally we had planned to see our niece Christina and her husband Glen on Friday and they were going to spend the night with us before heading back to Germany where he is stationed. But Friday morning Christina called and said some goofy thing had happened at the base where Glen is stationed – some missing equipment needed to be accounted for or something – and so they were all in lockdown on the base. As a result they had missed their flight so the trip was a wash. We hope to see them at some point before we leave here for Christmas and we might just make the trip north ourselves.

Friday morning turned rather nasty and it rained off and on all day so I suppose from that standpoint it was just as well our guests called and said they couldn’t make it. It also turns out that Frankfurt had some nasty weather and flights were cancelled there, as well as in other parts of Northern Europe.

Saturday morning we got up and began our prep work for the Thanksgiving Feast with the Bechis and their friends out in Asciano. Susan made a (gluten-free) pumpkin pie and I followed her in the kitchen by making a fennel-tomato dish roasted in the oven.

Patti had arranged for us to get a ride to Asciano with another couple living in Siena. Kate and Val, from New Orleans by way of California, met Patti online (like everyone else probably) and she had helped the two of them plan their trip to Italy for their 20th wedding anniversary. Anyway they were just finishing up a week staying in an apartment in Siena owned by a friend of Patti’s and so we would all ride together. Yeah! Val called and gave us directions to their apartment and so we met them at noon and the four of us headed off to Asciano.

It turned out we were going back to Bartolo’s farm – we had interviewed him this past spring, he raises chianina beef – and by luck we happened to remember the way since, well we had no directions! But Italy being great and the Italians even greater this tiny adventure was worth every minute of the drive through the spectacular “clay hills” south of Siena. Even the drab, overcast day could not dim their uniqueness one iota.

So we got to Bartolo’s farm and discovered no one else had arrived yet. At first we thought, naturally, that we were in the wrong place. But no we had been here before and a quick call to Patti confirmed this. Soon afterwards Roberto drove up with the turkey, wine, his daughter and various implements for the table and we were off and inside the huge old barn beneath the house which Bartolo and his wife had turned into a wonderful dining space. And there was a roaring fire in the huge fireplace, which determined where the tables were going to be for sure.

Not long afterwards Patti arrived and so did everyone else: Stephanie and Daniele and their kids, Ruth and her husband and their children, and eventually Donald and his two kids came from Florence.



We worked on getting the food out onto the serving table and everyone went at it – eating standing up, sitting, crouching or anyway that seemed appropriate for the moment. It was just like the many family reunion dinners I recall from my childhood. People talking about everything, kids running around and playing, all intermingled with eating. And the food was very good indeed. Patti’s turkey was roughly the size of a VW beetle and was obviously genetically modified to feed a platoon of marines for a week. We had beans, salads, potatoes (2 kinds), and even gravy! The one thing that made it unique to this place was the wine and the fact that half of the language used was in Italian.

We watched a video of Roberto and some of his friends from Asciano who had been on Italian TV recently – a program called Weekend in Italia, and afterward we cleaned up and headed home.

For a few photos click here!

Naturally we had leftover turkey for dinner later. It’s a tradition after all.

Wednesday, November 23, 2005

Latest news

Well it’s certainly been an interesting week. As many of you know Susan enrolled in a professional pastry program in Florence, Italy, beginning the end of January and running for two semesters. We subsequently arranged for an apartment as well, just about a five-minute walk from school and ideally located in the historic center of the city. But she had to apply for a student visa so we hopped on a flight back to the states, and utilized the time to do so more packing up at the house, get the car serviced, and have my permanent crown put on.

Everything went well until we got to the Italian consulate the day before we were scheduled to return to Italy. We had an appointment for 11 am Friday, 18 November, and were there in plenty of time, in fact we arrived early. Susan was informed, however, that her visa application materials were insufficient, and that she needed additional documentation from the school. Naturally this was a major let down since the whole point of this trip was to apply for the visa and pick it up upon our return in late December.

So back to Italy we went on Saturday, 19 November. But the misadventures were going to stay with us.

Friends of Susan’s brother Dick and his wife Dorothy were kind enough to drive us to get the shuttle bus to Boston’s Logan airport Saturday afternoon and we had a pleasant and uneventful flight to London. We landed at about 5;30 am in very heavy fog and soon afterwards our troubles began.

We were informed upon arrival in the terminal that some flights leaving Heathrow were cancelled, ours to Rome being one of them; curiously other flights were taking off and would continue to leave all morning. Upon checking in at the flight connection desk we were told that we could take an Alitalia flight to Rome leaving at 9:35 am but they could not guarantee our bags would be with us.

OK so when was the next BA flight to Rome?

There were no available seats until the 2:15 pm flight so we took that and spent the next 8 hours, tired and weary hanging out at Heathrow, having coffee and croissant, sitting and reading, walking around and window shopping (these terminals these days are like malls), napping as best we could, having lunch compliments of BA food vouchers, and finally getting on our flight to Rome.

The flight went smoothly, we napped en route, and had an uneventful landing in Rome. We reached the baggage carousel and waited, and waited, and waited, and waited some more - well, I think you see where I'm going with this. NO BAGS!!!! We had to go to passenger assistance and fill out forms for missing bags, and, at that time, no one seemed to know exactly where they were. Many passengers were in the same boat, including a group of Italian travelers who started clapping in unison and chanting "nostri bagagli, nostri bagagli" (“our bags”) and yelling and screaming at the poor passenger assistance fellow. Needless to say, the time involved in this meant that we weren't going to get a bus or train back to Siena that evening, so we debated our course.

We ended up calling the Hotel Alpi near the Termini train station in Rome (a place I had previously researched for another stay), and they gave us a wonderful room for only 100 Euros, which is pretty darned good for Rome. We took the express train in to Termini from the airport, found the Hotel Alpi without difficulty, checked in with a pretty friendly and funny desk clerk, then proceeded to a restaurant nearby for a delicious meal of pasta, carciofi (artichoke), scamorza cheese, and local red table wine. It was a true find, being a very busy, obviously very popular trattoria with homemade pastas on the menu. We were certainly ready for bed Sunday night and slept soundly, not waking until almost 10 am Monday morning.

Once we were up and around on Monday, I called the toll free number we had been given to check on the status of the baggage, but they still didn't know exactly where things were. We decided to head back to Siena and hope our bags would be delivered in the not too distant future. We took the train back to Siena and met a lovely Italian woman with whom we chatted during our ride from Termini to Chiusi where we then changed trains to Siena.

As an aside for those of you traveling by train through Rome’s Termini station if you use the machines to get your ticket remember to count your number of tickets. They will give you a receipt AND the actual ticket itself. In our case since we had to make a connection we were supposed to have gotten three separate ticket-looking pieces of paper when in fact we only got two – they came out of the machine slowly and we probably left the actual ticket in our machine. In any case the conductor on the train took pity on us and didn’t press the matter.

Once back in Siena we had to get groceries for the week, check emails, buy some wine at our favorite local cantina, and had a light supper of fresh green beans and roasted potatoes.

We slept well Monday night, waking about 9 am Tuesday. At 2 pm we received a call from the delivery person who arrived here around 4 pm with our bags! At 11:30 that night we received another call from someone at the Pisa airport and our other two bags had just arrived and would be delivered the following day. We cannot praise the efficiency and speed with which the Italians have handled this whole thing; clearly not the case with the British in London. In any even we can only hope that the other 2 dozen or so passengers on that same flight fare as well.

Friday, November 11, 2005

Urban trekking in Siena

I spoke the other day about the urban trekking series of walking maps the Siena tourist agency has put out and which are readily available in the bus station (beneath Piazza Gramsci), in the tourist office itself on Piazza del Campo and by the escalators at Porta Fontebranda.

You can see accompanying photos by clicking here.

At that time we had completed one of them and since have done the other two. There are three in the series, each corresponding (roughly) to one of the city’s terzi. The historic center (inside the walls) of Siena as many know is made up of 17 contrade, or “neighborhoods”, although they re certainly much more than that in both a physical and spiritual sense. The city is also divided into thirds, or ‘terzi” (the Italian word for third is terzo) and each “terzo comprises a certain number of contrade.

Whew. Anyway each little trek takes you through roughly one-third of the city inside the walls: the Alleys and Gardens in the shadow of the Torre trek follows much of the Terzo di San Martino, the Breathtaking Views trek takes you though the Terzo di Camollia and the Between Art and Nature trek leads you through the Terzo di Citta’.

Aside from one or two glitches in the maps and directions (see below) we can strongly recommend these little walking tours. The brochures are easy to read handy to carry and do help you find some largely unrevealed treasures (at least they were unrevealed to us).

For example, we discovered the views from the Villa Rubini on our first day in the Terzo di Camollia and walked beneath an absolutely fantastic grape arbor with the grapes still clinging to the vines.

In the Terzo di San Martino we walked or rather got lost walking through the grounds of the old psychiatric hospital but did eventually find out way down into one of the beautiful little valleys still inside the walls where an organization has created a typical medieval kitchen garden.

And in the Terzo di Citta we found our way to a largely unexplored old fonte (fountain), which was used by the nuns of a nearby convent and where you can still see how they got to the multi-tiered fonte to wash their clothes virtually completely underground. It was absolutely beautiful there and we had a truly unique view of the city walls – we also discovered a typical Tuscan rosemary bush at one of the entrances to one of Siena’s “hidden fountains”.

Wear sturdy shoes, carry some water and pack a light lunch. For example there is a beautiful spot on the Between Art and Nature Trek where there is a lovely little park just outside the walls of San Marco and you can sit and take in some of the spectacular views of the Tuscan countryside. There is also a nice sitting in front of the fountain On Viale Vittorio Veneto) next to the fortezza where you can have your lunch as well as a small park next to the church of San Francesco.

Problems with these tour maps are few but can be a bit exasperating. My only general complaint is that it would have been nice to include opening/closing times in the stop descriptions particularly of the churches they recommend you see.

Specifically, on the Breathtaking Views tour under stop no. 6, we could not find the Vicolo del Fontino let along the newly discovered fountain.

On the Between Art and Nature tour we thought the best stop on the walk was very difficult to find, the Fonte delle Monache: you actually have to leave Via delle Sperandie and walk through the gate of the provincial police barracks and then look hard for the footpath which takes you down to the fountain complex (none of which is mentioned in the description). Still the search is worth the effort we thought. Also on that same tour they misplaced stop no. 2; they have it on Via E. Bastianini and it should be back on Via del Fosso di S. Ansano. One wonders if they meant to number both of these stops since they have placed view symbols at each.

Finally on the Alleys and Gardens tours we found the walk fine until we got to the psychiatric hospital grounds, which is (and has been for some time) undergoing major renovations. As a result we got lost several times trying to find our way through the maze of old buildings, new buildings, buildings being built, well you get the point. Still it was a beautiful day for a walk and it’s not as if you’re going to be lost forever. And since both of us did attend university we eventually found our way out of the maze and back onto the tour. Note also on this walk that stop no. 7 is actually where stop 8 is listed and stop 8 should be just beyond where the little eye symbol is located.

We found these tours to be between 2 and 3 hours (tops) for us but then we have been down many of these streets although we thought suggesting all day for any of these tours is a bit much. Still when you add in potential stops – like for pranzo – and for just relaxing and seeing the city maybe spending a day on each one of these isn’t such a wild thought after all.

Buon viaggio e buon divertimento!

Wednesday, November 09, 2005

Unusual sights

Although we have walked many kilometers inside the walls over the past seven years we decided to take one of the “urban trekking” tours suggested by the local Tourist Office (Piazza del Campo 56).

These “urban trek” walking tours inside the historic city center are presented in a slick collection of handy brochures produced in a variety of languages (they are also available online for download as PDF files). Each “trek” consists of a walking plan with handy map and description of the major sights to see along the way.

We decided to start with the “Looking at Breathtaking Views” trek and headed out about 10:30 or so Tuesday morning. I won’t bore you with all the intricate details of a beautiful morning walk through parts of the city we have never seen before (yeah!) but I do want to mention probably the most unusual thing we saw.

Over the years since we’ve been coming to Siena we have seen some changes to be sure: reconstruction and renovation of course and more cars even inside the city walls. Still the city has lost none of its charm, at least for us. But what we saw yesterday was maybe a good change or maybe a bad one but it certainly is a strange one. So what were they?

Escalators.

OK, actually two escalators. Big deal you say? Well I’m talking ESCALATORS. They reminded us of the London tube station escalators. But these were or rather are designed to take one from the bottom (or top) of one of the three hills of Siena to the top (or bottom).

For those of you who have been to this city you know it is mainly an up-and-down thing here, with very little flat anywhere. So I suppose escalators would be a godsend if they were located in such a way as to make them valuable for people to use. Which is apparently not the case here.

The first group of escalators is located at the Porta Fontebranda where there is no parking although there is a new group of buildings designed we were told to be sort of an artisan’s set of workshops but little seemed to be going on when we were there. There is also a cooking school there as well. One positive note, there is a brand-new set of very modern bathrooms located just beneath the first set of escalators, which might make the trip worth the effort.

Anyway the six sets of escalators take you to very near the Duomo and just a short walk from the Piazza del Campo so it certainly has potential.

The second escalator system was on the other side of the city inside the walls at the church of San Francesco and next to a major complex for the University of Siena. We took the 5 sets down outside the walls to street level where we saw a cashier (“cassa”) for paying for parking – and people we paying for sure – but we couldn’t see where the parking was. But it had to be somewhere nearby although there was no signage or directions to an underground garage or anything else for that matter.

We have spoken with a couple of people who live here and they said both these escalators were and remain controversial particularly the newest one by Fontebranda which some seem to think serves no purpose. The eerie thing was virtually no one was using it when we were there.

The escalators are designed to speed a person or group of persons from one point to another quickly and easily. For the person living in Siena this may very well be important. But for the tourist, at least for this tourist, the whole idea about this city – indeed the whole point of these urban treks I should think – is to get you to explore the city’s backstreets, to get a sense of the medieval Siena. The escalators enclose you in a cocoon of concrete and steel and whisk you from your car (or bus I suppose) to the Duomo, the first of the BIG ATTRACTIONS, before moving on to the next BIG ATTRACTION. I’m not sure this is a good thing.

Anyway after we rode the escalator at San Francesco (the church was closed) down and back up we headed to the Piazza Provenzano where there is a wonderful little church dedicated to the Virgin Mary and to a set of miracles believed to have happened there in the 16th century. (The July Palio is held in honor of the Madonna of Provenzano.) And just across the piazza was a little pizza place called Il Cavaliere Errante where we had the best lunch of this trip so far. The house wine was delicious and the pizza made with a wafer thin cracker-like crust with a tasty topping of local sausage and salami and cheese and tomatoes. Man it makes me hungry again just thinking about it.

But along the way we also visited the main street in the Bruco contrada which won the July Palio (our contrada, torre won the August race).

So today (Wednesday) we are going to take on the next urban trek, called “Alleys and Gardens in the shadow of the Tower” (the tower being the great Torre del Mangia which watches over the Piazza del Campo).

This should be really fun.

It is in our own neighborhood but we will be walking in areas – like yesterday – which we have never seen before: such as the old dirt road to the Porta Giustizia (Gate of Justice) where the condemned were led to be hanged on a small hill just outside the walls. It will also take us through the grounds of the old psychiatric hospital which began as a 14th century convent and was turned into a hospital in the 19th century and was a veritable city with streets, workshops, kitchens, etc., all designed to provided occupational therapy for the patients. So this should be another great day for some more “unusual” sight!

Sunday, November 06, 2005

Rainy day for photos

Well it's a pretty dreary day here in central Italy. Sue just finished her herbal course DVDs this morning and is in the process of completing two teddy bear projects she brought along.

Good day to stay in and get caught up on stuff like . . . putting hotos online! You asked for 'em and we got'em.

For our photos of Luigi the cheese farmer in Pisa province click here.

For a random selection of images from Siena taken during the fall of 2005 click here.

Saturday, November 05, 2005

Just three weeks

Three weeks ago Friday evening we arrived tired and worn inside the walls of Siena -- Patti and Roberta and her father Mario met us at the Porta Romana and helped us get our things settled into this new and wonderful space we now have here in the Torre contrada. We have done much and seen much and cannot wait to see what the future days and weeks ahead hold for the two of us. So much is unknown but yet exciting to see it unfold. And it also makes us appreciate all the more those adventures each of you are embarking on: moving, changing, exploring and experiencing life.

Thanks for sticking with us so far. In the next day or two I plan to upload a large number of images to the Apple website and will post a link here so stay tuned!

"Have a happy life"

Thursday and Fridays were quiet days for us just going about the business of living in Siena and getting on with our lives.

Friday we strolled down to try the caffe and pasticcerie owned and operated by Roberto’s cousin, Antonio Betti. This place quickly won us over: the quality of the building materials as well as the imaginative design and layout not to mention what has to be the coolest and most fashionable bathroom in the entire province of Siena alone make this worth a stop. It is located just outside the Porta Romana – and parking is a bit of a problem here I’m afraid – and is only a 15 or 20-minute walk from our apartment or about 5 minutes by bus. The pastries, confections, Panforte (reportedly the best in Siena) are simply delicious as is the caffe (Hausbrandt I believe). I can attest to the fact that they have the best Ricciarelli (almond cookies, a specialty of Siena along with Panforte) – at least of those I have tried so far (some hundreds of thousands according to Susan which I believe to be an exaggeration). The texture and straightforward almond flavor will certainly win over even the most finicky of Dutch bakers!

Friday evening we returned to Boccon del Prete for our Don Soper Memorial Dinner. It was just a year ago today that my dad passed away and yet it so much has happened since then. I like to think he would have approved of what we are doing. After all his last words to me were “Have a happy life, Steve”. That’s what we are doing here right this very minute. Thanks Pop. I sure do miss him.

Sue and I also recalled that it was seven years ago that her father Tunis passed away. We would have loved to have seen the expression on his face when he saw the photo taken of Sue and I sitting at the edge of the very same fountain in Cerignola, Puglia in April of 2005 that he once sat on in 1944 when he was a navigator on a B-24 stationed at the US airbase at Stornara!

Wednesday, November 02, 2005

An apartment found

Wednesday.

Over the past week or so we had been in contact with four different rental agencies in Florence in our search for apartments for next year. Unlike in Siena where one deals either with a tourist agency and their exorbitant rental prices or with an Italian agency (and their nearly exorbitant rental prices) who is almost impossible to find online and in any case are unused to catering to foreigners. In Florence things are a bit different. Because of the sheer number of foreigners seeking long and short-term rentals in Florence there are presently several companies – at least online – providing just such services to the non-Italian. After looking at the properties available, at least those online, we contacted four of them and heard from two: YAIF (Your Agency in Florence) and Milligan & Milligan. We set up appointments for Wednesday morning at 11 with Luca at YAIF and at 1 pm with Francesca at M & M. As things turned out we were most fortunate in the way we had arranged our meetings.

At 11 am we met with Luca at the offices of YAIF located along the fashionably chic street of Via Nuova Vigna and after several minutes of Luca looking seriously at his computer monitor he found 5 places that would fit our budget. (It should be pointed out that in my original note sent out to all these agencies I had made it clear what we were looking for in an apartment and what we could afford. A waste of time as it turned out.)

Luca sent us off to look at apartments with a nice young American man who was working in the office – he had in fact attended Apicius, Susan’s school, for a semester. As we neared the first apartment the tenant stopped our guide in the street and said his refrigerator was “exploding” and he was on his way to the office to see what they could do. Apparently he was unable to contact anyone by phone. We turned into the apartment building nonetheless and walked up to the top floor – no lift – what seemed to be several thousand steps. Although clearly it was being lived in by a college male it was very nice, very modern and light and airy – sort of like an apartment the Jetson’s might have had. Anyway we headed off to the second apartment on the list where either the lock didn’t work or it was the wrong apartment, no one seemed sure. So it was off to no. 3. We knocked and nobody answered so in we went, or almost in as a young American girl came to the door and said “Hey we’re still sleeping here”. I mean hey it was still early! No evennoon yet! So that one was out.

After returning to street level I asked our guide to call the office and check to see if there was anyone in the next apartment before we walked there and barged in. He called and they told him, sorry but they didn’t have a phone number for that apartment. I said let’s just skip it and we headed to the last apartment, which was quite nice but had no oven! Once we learned that it was nope, thanks but not this one.

We returned to the office where Luca sat us down and began staring intently at his computer monitor. For all I know he was playing Quake. The problem was he said money (isn’t that always the case?) but if we were willing to bump up our budget and oh by the way “I’ve found a couple of places that you could see today! Yes today!” For only 1800 euros (our budget was 1200 mind you) for only 1800 euros we could have this place with a garden, etc., etc. Could we see it at 3:00 this afternoon? Since it was almost time for us to meet Francesca at M & M I said we really had to go now, but said sure we would look at the apartment and gave Luca my mobile number. “Call me to arrange where we can meet to see it.” He said he would call by 3.

We trotted over to meet Francesca at the offices of M & M on Via Degli Alfani and we walked right around the corner from their office to the apartment. I had found this particular unit online and thought then it had real potential. When we saw it we felt it was just right for us.

It is solid, well reconstructed and in a great location. The Duomo is two blocks one way and the Accademia is two blocks the other way and Susan’s school is maybe a 5-minute walk. One enters through enormous front doors up one of those cool little iron mesh lifts to the 3rd floor, through another door (locked) down a hallway of about four flats and lined with statues and subdued light, very nice feeling here as we walked to our door. Out comes another key (the 3rd one) quite long and after some jiggling we got into the apartment. Click here to see the apartment online.

It has everything we need for six or seven months, fits right into our budget and the people at the agency were also part of the selling points. They were nice, friendly and easy to deal with, comfortable in Italian or English.

So we returned to the office and they printed up the rental agreement and said just think about it and fax it back to us in a couple of days. We’ll hold the apartment. We left, walked around the block, and after talking for about 15 minutes concluded we really liked this apartment and asked ourselves are we going to find something better for less money? And after our experience with YAIF in the morning we said we didn’t want to do that sort of thing again – and anyway we really didn’t have time to keep returning to Florence day after day looking at places, so we said let’s just sign, put our deposit down and get on with it.

We returned to the office and they were a bit incredulous perhaps, saying that was a quick decision. So now we had ourselves a great little apartment in Florence.

And that‘s what I meant earlier when I said we were starting to see this place in a different light. Of course it’s not Siena. . .

Oh and Luca? Never heard from him.

Tuesday, November 01, 2005

New sights on a rainy day


Tuesday. All Saint’s Day and a national holiday in Italy

Well our doorbell rang at 8:45 and it was Patti and Roberto at our front door asking if we were ready! They had driven into the city to pick us up and we were in fact just about to leave to walk to the Porta Romana. So we were off into new territories for all four of us.

The weather was overcast and it was foggy in Siena – fairly typical of our recent weather patterns in fact – and by the time we got to our first destination, an organic cheese farmer in the Province of Pisa – it was starting to rain. But getting there was half the fun. We drove for what seemed like forever on the back roads of Siena province, crossing briefly into Florence province before entering to the province of Pisa, twisting and turning with sweeping vistas of Tuscany in the Fall. Most of the ground was covered with grapevines, white grapes by and large and the leaves were a beautiful yellow, golden color set off in nice contrast to the green of the surrounding hilly terrain. Very striking.

As we neared our first stop we had to stop and ask several locals where our Luigi, cheese farmer was located exactly – his directions on the mobile phone continued to remain vague and unclear – we found his place at last.

And what a place it was! His parents had bought this empty 17th century villa about 16 years ago after spending a life collecting art and antiques. The villa was enormous and came with its own chapel (which also served as the church for the little village which had once been located there as well) and he showed us the wooden grate near the top of one wall behind which the noble family sat to hear mass. We eventually saw the same little sitting box from the other side with a bench running along the base of the grate for the nobles to sit on. In the same room where the entry to their box was located was also a rap door, which led down into the sacristy of the church as well.

The villa defines in fact what a real villa was and not as it is generally used today in Italy which almost describes any freestanding house or home. This structure was enormous with five or six levels, although the structure itself is fairly shallow it was in fact quite long.

After our host showed us the cows which produced the milk for his cheeses – no pecorino here this is all cow’s milk based cheese as well as the cheese making facility which is all stainless steel and appeared very up-to-date. I had in fact tasted his cheese the Saturday before in Siena where he was part of an organic farmer’s market organized by Roberto in the La Lizza gardens next to the fortezza.

We viewed the chapel and then went into the house through the main entryway. I should point out that across from the main entryway was a large hillock which served as a park for the noble family and their guests and which was accessed by an elevated walkway from their floor and beneath which was a huge cave cut out of the rock for their wines. The main (ground floor) level of the building is furnished with furniture of a variety of periods but many of the pieces just seemed to fit in the particular space. We then explored upwards of three other levels (and I even went up one level to what appeared to be under the eaves yet the staircase continued up farther and I thought it best not to go any further). We stopped at the level on which the servants would have lived. Interestingly, they probably had the best views of all. Anyway, most of the rooms had little or no electricity or heating. Originally the important rooms would have been heated by wood. One can only wonder what it would be like in deep winter.

We ended in the basement level, which was also the kitchen, and indeed had been the original location for the kitchen as well. It was very warm and cozy particularly since their cook, one of the two Romanians, had been baking bread all morning. Our host surprised us by having a lunch ready for us, locally produced grape juice (not wine), cheeses of course, bread and wheat germ which had kneaded over and over again, mixed with parsley and olive oil, which was in fact quite tasty.

It continued to rain well into the afternoon as we head back south and to the west of Siena, to visit the ancient castle at Spannochia located near San Galgano abbey. The rain was pouring down very hard as we found the entrance to the castello and began the climb up a steep and twisty track of a road to where the castle sits.

At first I assumed we would be visiting another 9th century edifice to get a bit of the historical flavor of the surrounding area, another “sight” as it were. No, oh no, this was in fact much more.

The original castle and the keep, which is all that remains of that structure, were constructed in about the 9th century on an Etruscan site and it eventually became a monastery in the 13th century and by the 20th century a noble’s villa. And in the little chapel attached to the villa one can see the wooden grates in the walls behind which sat the nobles to hear mass, sitting apart from the common folk. They even had their own little window into the priest’s confessional in order to give confession. Today this site now houses a most unusual retreat of sorts. It does provide traditional hotel facilities – the ambience is absolutely charming, the rooms quite nice, and the prices are reasonable. While we didn’t taste the food or wine the menu look very well planned out as well. Indeed, much of the food on their table comes from their own gardens. For one other thing Spannochia does is to provide a place for young people, mostly Americans I think, to come and spend time working in the fields, in the kitchen, as staff to help offset costs and to also help promote the organic way of agriculture and at the same time enjoy a most unique experience. It should be noted that the staff rooms appeared to be in the old monastery rooms so they tended a bit to the more Spartan side of living.

After a wonderful afternoon of touring – leaving Patti and Roberto with new ideas and new adventures for their clients to discover for themselves, they dropped us off back into the city.

Not a bad holiday at all, I’d say. In fact every day we learn something new and fantastic, often about something we have never seen before but occasionally about ourselves and yes something new and different about a thing or place we thought we already new, like Florence.

Monday, October 31, 2005

Halloween

Saturday

As we had planned we went back to Castelvecchio for dinner Saturday evening. Although located not far from the more frequented areas such as the Duomo and the Campo this is in fact one of the oldest parts of the walled city of Siena and even its name attests to the fact that at one time a very old castle stood on this hill. The food was very good, wines delicious and all very reasonably priced. One that we recommended after having lunch here last March and can certainly recommend after having dinner now as well.

Sunday.

Another beautiful warm and sunny day in Siena, although Susan chose to stay in for much of it and work on her herbal DVD course while I went out to take pictures. The city is literally crawling with tourists right now – and most of them Italian. Monday is Halloween, a US festival that is starting to take some root here apparently although trick or treating I don’t think has caught on yet if it will at all. No it’s the costumes for the kids and the partying, which is the central attractive feature. And to top it all off Tuesday is All Saints’ Day, a major national holiday in Italy so it plans to be a rather quiet time for us I’m sure.

Monday.

Notwithstanding all the festivities we had arranged with the Patti and Roberto Bechi to take the train to Asciano Monday to have lunch. We took one of the new “mini-train” which look like some sort of bullet train but much smaller (they have a driver’s cab at either end) and the entire train is essentially one car with flexible joints, a variety of seating arrangements, very nice WCs and quiet as well. Pretty cool. Another cool thing was we could see the Bechi’s house from the train just as we were entering town. Originally we thought we might grab something in town but when we got to Asciano and Roberto picked us up he said why not just go to their place where we could also talk business. So we headed north out of town and met up with Patti who had prepared a tasty lunch of salad, chicken sandwiches, fruit cheese and wine. We then spent some time hammering out additional details on the video interview project. Now that the Italian interviews are in transcript form we can get a much better sense of the editing approach to take, specifically in what particular threads or themes we want to emphasize as we put this thing together.

As Roberto had to come into Siena he was kind enough to drop us off. Before we said arrivaderci he asked if we would like to join him and Patti on Tuesday in scouting out a couple of possible new locations for their tours. We said YEAH and later Patti sent us a text message saying they would pick us up at the Porta Romana gate (about a 10 minute walk for us) at 9 am.

Sunday, October 30, 2005

Big news at the end of week two




Monday.

We took the 12:20 train to Asciano where Patti Bechi met us and took us to their home about 7 kms outside of town in the beautiful “clay hills” (crete) and about 25 kms southeast of Siena. Patti had prepared lunch and we spent the afternoon talking about a number of things, although we focused most of our conversation on the ongoing video project.

We also spent some time going over a couple of the tape transcripts, which she is finalizing and we also discussed the possibility of adding several more interviews. Susan had brought along one of her teddy bears and spent the afternoon working on that. Meanwhile their youngest child Michele, who had worked very hard at playing after we arrived too a much needed rest and slept most of the afternoon.

At about half past 4 Patti and I headed into Asciano, leaving Susan to stitch and watch Michele. Patti had left her daughter Francesca at a friend’s house for the afternoon and picked her up and then after a couple of quick errand stops headed to the dentist. I was in first and out in probably four minutes ready to get back into the eating game. Impressively high tech equipment and just made me wonder how different are the dental practices in Italy than in the US. Anyway, Francesca then went in for her first meeting with the orthodontist and then Patti had her teeth cleaned so it was sort of a one-stop dentist day all around. We then headed back to their house to pick Susan up and by that time Roberto had come home. We said a quick hello to him and he took us both back into town so we could catch the train to Siena. We then took the bus from the station into town and went to the Cantina in Piazza where Aimone gave us each a plate of his wife’s pasta and homemade ragu, washed down with a glass of Montefeltro wine (barbera-syrah grapes). Sue and I then went to our gelato hangout where you can sit out on a balcony overlooking the Piazza del Campo.

We had a pretty good day all around, I’d say, although we’re still no nearer a decision about the future. So be it.

Wednesday.

Well today is a repeat of yesterday at least as far as the weather goes. We woke up to serious fog both mornings, and which did not burn off for most of the morning and even then we got very little in the way of blue sky.

We had an interesting meeting with a local real estate broker, Sr. Lucarelli. His office is located very close to where we are renting and he had some interesting properties for sale. Anyway he was very kind and helpful, of sorts. It is clear that living in the historic center of Siena, or even close for that matter, is out of the question. The prices are astronomical, running upwards to 5,000-10,000 euros per square meter. But it was good for us to talk with someone who could give us clear and down-to-earth information.

Last night we experienced one of the real disadvantages of living inside the city walls – and made us further realize our money is better spent on a more tranquil location. Not far from where we are staying is the Piazza Mercato, in fact it is located directly behind the Siena city hall, which fronts the Piazza del Campo. Well beginning about 9 or 10 last evening (Tuesday) there was a rock band playing there and the noise was most annoying to say the least. Odd we thought. Why not have this in the soccer stadium at the other end of the city but of course that would be too close to the larger hotels. Well I think you get the drift here.

But this is probably just another indicator of how the Italians spoil their young – indeed one cannot help but fell during the evening passegiata or anytime certainly after dark that the young, and we’re talking about teenagers here, are oblivious to anyone else or anything else but their own immediate need and gratification. Not unlike teenagers everywhere else I suppose, at least in the West.

Thursday was a very BIG DAY for us but for Susan in particular. It turned out to be a beautiful day after the fog burnt off and we took the bus to Florence where we revisited Apicius, the Culinary School of Florence and where Susan enrolled for the next semester's professional baking and pastry program. Now we have to make work of getting a student visa and looking for an apartment in Florence for next year. I will commute on the bus/train to Siena as needed next year to work on finishing the video project. In the meantime we are enjoying Siena immensely and do not look forward to the move north but the opportunities are there I’m afraid.

We then strolled over the Santa Croce to pay our respects to the tombs of Galileo, Michelangelo, Machiavelli and Rossini. Strolling through the Piazza della Signoria we came across a pretty interesting and oddly coincidental art display – statues of cows, which had been painted by various artists, much like what they have been doing in Vermont now for some years. Who knows who got the idea from whom but it was actually pretty cool.

Anyway Friday was another gorgeous sunny day with temps still in the 70s. Another night to cook at home – Thursday evening we ended up having soup and antipasti at Cantina in Piazza and had an impromptu tasting of locally produced digestive, most made from a variety of herbs. We hope to get out to Osteria Castelvecchio near where our old language school is located this Saturday. We had lunch there this past winter and it was very good so we thought we’d give it a try for dinner.

Monday, October 24, 2005

Week one

We’ve ended our first full week back in Siena and it seems as of we have been here for months. So much has happened or rather seems to have happened as we grapple with what we want to do with the rest of our lives.

I gave my first digital workshop on Sunday afternoon and then all day Monday and we spent most of the day traveling to a couple of my favorite photo locations: the “crete” (clay hills) southwest of Siena and then to the abandoned abbey at San Galgano southeast of the city. Although the weather cooperated both days we lost the sun on Monday. Still it was a good day of shooting all around. Meanwhile Sue spent much of her time walking, working on her two bear orders and continuing her herbal DVD course. So it was a pretty busy first part of the week for sure.

On Tuesday morning we got in the car – I had moved it to a parking space near the fortezza – and drove to Florence Vespucci airport to drop it off a day earlier than we planned since we no longer needed it and in fact it had become a liability with parking at such a premium in Siena.

We took the shuttle into downtown Florence since we wanted to check out the facilities of Apicius, the Culinary School in Florence. Before we left the US Susan had mentioned to me she was interested in finding a school in Italy that had a pastry program. I went online and discovered Apicius, which in fact has a year-long program just in pastry and baking (Click here to learn more about this particular program.)

Afteer we had a good (surprise) lunch near the Duomo we headed over to the school’s main office (it’s in two separate locations) and got a tour of the administrative and wine expertise program facilities. We then walked to the pastry and cooking facilities about ten minutes away. It was a gorgeous day and we had a very nice stroll through the backstreets of Florence. The school is impressive and the facilities certainly appeared up-to-date and serious indeed. The woman who we needed to speak with however was not available so we decided to return next week and meet with her. After we left the school and then took a late afternoon bus back to Siena, a trip of just about 75 minutes or about half the time the train would have taken.

During the week we also renewed our relationship with Aimone, owner of the Cantina in Piazza, a wine bar and enoteca just a few steps off the Piazza del Campo but a world away in many respects. The Cantina is one of the best places in the city to buy wine and to taste wine– the selection may be the largest outside of the official state-run enoteca in the fortezza, Aimone, who is in his 50s, along with his wife, son, daughter and staff Valentina and Alessandra are not only serious about wine but they are kind and generous as well. In fact, click here to read my lengthy review of the Cantina on my Siena website.

We have become fast friends with Aimone and Alessandra and so we have spent pretty much every evening having our aperitivi at the Cantina, talking and learning about Italian wine and food. This coming week Aimone has promised to show me how to prepare fresh porcini mushrooms – which are available right now – and Susan is angling for help on developing her baking skills in preparing Italian breads, cakes, etc. It should prove to be an interesting week indeed.

Speaking of food we have pretty much gotten back into our routine of fixing dinner at home – although we do have our antipasti at the Cantina. Anyway, with the fresh vegetables available, vegetables such as green beans and fennel and eggplant, it is simply too tempting to eat at home. And Sunday evening Sue fixed her very first dessert: poached pears in chocolate sauce, a Jacques Pepin recipe. And man oh man was that a delicious end to the meal! Bit by bit Sue is adding to her baking larder so that before long she will be ready to start baking big time.

Monday afternoon we will take the train out to Asciano (about a 24 minute trip) to meet with Patti Bechi, ostensibly to discuss our video interview project Roberto Bechi and I began last winter/spring but also so that I can go to her dentist and have a temporary crown re-cemented. Anyway Roberto is busy every day right now with tour groups so Patti and I will hammer out the details of how we want this project to evolve. I had called her Sunday morning to tell her I needed to see a dentist and she said wow her daughter had a dentist appointment the very next afternoon and could we take the train out to meet her and we could also talk about the project’s development? So things are working out well so far.

We have heard nothing on the pending home sale, which is good news, I suppose. And speaking of homes we are scheduled to meet with a real estate agent here in Siena Tuesday at noon to look at property. We need all the information we can get right now in order to help make any kind of intelligent decision about our future.

Right now our future is about as unclear as it has ever been. Each day we talk about where we want to go and what we want to do but no answers seem forthcoming. Wednesday we go back to Florence so that Sue can meet with one of the counselors at Apicius.

Who knows what will happen?

Sunday, October 16, 2005

Back home? Well, yes

Friday.

We were packed up by the time we had breakfast and left our B & B a bit before 9 am for the tube station. We took the Piccadilly line to Heathrow but got off at Hatton Cross station just short of the airport where we took a shuttle bus to Terminal 4 to pick up our two bags left there when we arrived in London. We then took the Heathrow Express train to Terminal 1 where we checked in for our flight to Rome. We zipped through security and had a leisurely wait of about an hour and a half before our flight. We boarded on time but had a bit of a delay waiting for a couple to get to the gate – during which time the airline staff was looking for their luggage and the captain said over the intercom that whichever came first the people or their luggage off would be the determining factor in our departure.

We arrived in Rome a few minutes late after a rather bumpy flight over Paris but a beautiful cruise over the French Alps – hey life is full of tradeoffs. Anyway we landed just fine (important in flying) and picked up our car at Thrifty (which of course it ISN’T) and headed north on the A12 to Siena. We soon realized we were not going to make our original scheduled meet of 7 pm so we called Roberta to let her know we were running late. (Roberta was acting on behalf of the apartment owner, her father, who spoke no English.) Anyway right after we spoke to her Patti Bechi called to see how we were doing and we brought her up to date. She was planning on meeting us along with Roberta and her father. We pulled into the Porta Romana about 8 pm and soon met up with Roberta, her father and Patti. We took two trips into the city in Marcello’s car and left our dog of a Nissan outside the walls.

We all met at last at our apartment and what a place! It has plenty of room and the kitchen is absolutely fantastic. We all talked for a bit and they showed us the specifics of the place. I mean after all a space is a space. But of course this space is a BIT different. It happens to be located over the stall (stables) for the winning horse of the 16 August Palio. That’s right. After 44 years the Torre contrada (where we are living) won the Palio and there have been parties nonstop every since, although they officially end the 16th of October Anyway it didn’t bother us in the least and in fact only adds to the fact that we are home at last.

OK it sounds strange but we cannot help but feel that as we went about our shopping chores on Saturday. And not just shopping but visiting our regular spots: like the Bar Quattro Cantoni (4 corners) where everyone still remembered us and where continue to have our regular morning coffee, just like we did when we were in school. And later in the day when we went to Cantina in Piazza and renwwed our friendship with Airone and Alessandra and talked wine pretty -- much all in Italian -- and where Alessandra remembered us the moment we walked in the door. (The wine we tasted and talked about was by Jermann: we discussed which was better their Sauvignon or their Chardonnay.

We made two trips to Conad for groceries during the early afternoon on Saturday and one trip to the in-town department store UPIM for some household items. We’re settled in quickly and then spent the afternoon renewing a few other old friendships: places we have loved to walk and in whose company we have found many pleasurable moments. After an early evening passegiata and aperitivi at Nannini’s (two negroni sbagliati thank you very much: Campairi, Vermouth and Prosecco sparking wine) we headed back home to fix our very first dinner in our new apartment. After dinner and cleanup it was back out to watch the Torre festivities – their big celebratory dinner was held just a block over from our apartment – and stroll around the city and of course indulged ourselves in some gelato near the Campo.

A little after midnight the grand finale fireworks went off for the Torre celebration. Quite important for these people and gives one pause to remember that sometimes the things most important in life are those right in front of us, those things that are always with us every day, day in, day out. I guess it’s up to each of us to figure out exactly what those things might be, and maybe that’s the hard part.

Friday, October 14, 2005

The London Leg

We left Boston on time Tuesday morning at 8:15. Susan’s brother Dick drove us to Logan airport and we zipped right through check-in and security. Well OK some of the TSA people just HAD to see my apple Powerbook and they spent a few minutes ohhing and ahhing and running their fingers ALL over it. But soon we were free to go. We had a cup of coffee while we waited to board. The flight was actually quite enjoyable. British Airways could teach our airlines a few lessons in what customer service is really all about. Anyway, we enjoyed our flight – which was not full by any means – and in fact had a row of seats to ourselves. The food was good (!) and the time went by quickly.

We arrived at Heathrow a bit early but by the time we picked up our bags and cleared customs it was about 8 pm when we actually walked into the lobby of Terminal 4. We took some cash out of the nearest ATM and dropped off our two largest bags at Left Luggage and then grabbed the Heathrow Express train to Terminal 1. (The train actually goes all the way to Paddington Station, a trip of about 15 minutes.) We met up with Richard who has offered to pick us up and drive us to our hotel in South Kensington. Richard and I were in the same teaching practice group during my course at International House in London just this past September and we had become fast friends. He and his wife Pauline kindly invited me to their house in West Hampstead for dinner twice during school and it was near the end of our course that Richard matter-of-factly said he would come to Heathrow and pick us up.

So after we checked into our hotel – B & B really, the Aster House on Sumner Place – the three of us walked to a nearby Indian restaurant, the Khyber Pass, for a late dinner. The food was delicious and the conversation charming. Richard walked us back to the Aster House and we said goodnight. The plan is that he will return in the morning and give us a bit of a driving tour of central London and then we will be on our own. We also hope to see another friend from International House,, Trevor, later on in the day.

Wednesday.

After a wonderful breakfast at our B & B – in a small conservatory on the first floor of the hotel – we met Richard out front and headed off for a quick personalized tour of the London highlights. We ended up on the southern side of the Thames and parked just east of tower Bridge and near the Greater London authority building where Richard had worked when he “retired”. This structure is one of the more interesting architectural points of interest in London. The building is only about 10 or 12 floors high but is rather circular and each floor appear to be sort of “stacked” on top of the one below it and slanted a bit away from the river, giving one the impression of a building that is going to fall backwards any minute but of course it doesn’t. It is one of those structures you either like or dislike immediately. I seemed to strike us as imaginative, interesting and rather nice to look at. Richard informed us that with few exceptions the interior is all open, no office walls, that sort of thing.

We ate an early lunch at Brown’s right on the waterfront – a popular eatery Richard informed us and if the number of tables were indicative of how many they served at any given time this certainly must be true. Indeed there are a great many places to eat along the waterfront of the Thames, serving some tourists I suppose but it appeared mainly workers from nearby offices.

After lunch Richard dropped us at our hotel and after a short rest we headed back out, this time to the South Kensington tube station where we picked up our 3-day travel cards and then got on the District Line for the Embankment. We were scheduled – so I thought – to meet Trevor at the Starbucks next to the Embankment station at 4 pm. We waited for a half hour and since he didn’t show up I began to conclude that I had gotten the time wrong or something had happened. The weather had since turned rather nasty and Sue and I grabbed our umbrella and went on to Covent Garden, which was rather close by. Originally I had hoped the three of us would have done a southern bank of the Thames walk much like Trevor and I had done my last day in London after I finished the course and before I returned to the States. But since it had been raining steadily pretty much all afternoon – or at least since we left Richard – we opted to keep our traveling by foot to a minimum.

After a stroll around Covent Garden we walked through Leicester Square and Piccadilly Circus and down Haymarket street to Miso’s a noodle bar I found during my school stay ion London. During dinner I happened to check the phone to see if there were any messages and sure enough Trevor had sent a text message – I turns out I had indeed gotten the time wrong and we had missed connecting. He suggested we try and meet up the next day and that too is our hope. Anyway he plans to call us in the morning to fix a time and place.

After dinner we head back to Piccadilly Circus and get on the Piccadilly line to South “Ken” station. That’s when we discover that almost right around the corner from our B & B is the Lamborghini car dealer. The first time I have ever seen a car dealer with a sign in the door saying admittance by appointment only and please ring the buzzer. But the cars are certainly beautiful to look at and probably fun to drive. Susan asked what was it about guys and cars like this. I said, “hey they go fast, really fast and they look good, and did I mention they go fast?” It is a pretty strange phenomenon after all.

Thursday.

We woke up to rain a condition, which remained with us for the entire day. After a leisurely breakfast we headed off for the tube station and went to Westminister Abbey where we saw some of world’s most famous people – dead of course but hey that’s a small glitch. Elizabeth 1. Mary queen of Scots, Henry Purcell, Edward Elgar, John Dryden, Keats, Shelley, D. H. Lawrence, Handel, Milton, Chaucer, a whole slew of Edwards but Edward 1 in particular (also known as Edward the confessor who built the Abbey) and Henrys. I don’t mean to sound flippant for surely we were awed by the fact that here were the resting place of some of the western world’s most well-known names, people who have had such an enormous impact on the smallest aspect of our lives though they have been dead and gone from this earth for hundreds of years. It was in fact truly awesome to be there.

Since there were very few places to eat near the Abbey we crossed the bridge to the south side of the Thames and found a wonderful Chinese restaurant in the Saatchi Gallery right next to the London eye (not a great day to be up there). After lunch we took the tube to the Tower of London where we spent the rest of the afternoon. Here was where modern London essentially began. William the Conqueror built the first structure here on Roman remains and of course the tower served as the strongpoint for the kings and queens of England for much of its early history. The place where Lady Jane Grey, Katharine Howard and Anne Boleyn all lost their heads is a place of solemn beauty; the site of the scaffold is next to the small chapel where their bodies were once hastily interred. During the reign of queen Victoria, in the middle of the 19th century, the bodies were removed from their original burial spot, some attempt was made to identify them (and were largely successful with Anne Boleyn) and they were reburied under the altar in the small chapel.

The chapel itself harbored more than 1500 bodies in its crypt. We inquired from one of the Yeoman Warders (the caretakers of the Tower, often referred to as Beefeaters) as to where Sir Thomas More was buried in the chapel – Henry VIII had him executed in I believe 1483 – we were informed that he was in the crypt which was off limits to the casual tourist. But the fellow asked if we would like to see his tomb and we said absolutely yes we would. He took us down just a few flights of stairs and there was a wonderful niche in the crypt wall with a large casket toped by a small bust of the author of Utopia. In front were a few chairs arranged in several rows clearly designed for special prayer services.

It was well after 5 when we left the Tower and took the tube back to our hotel. We left the Aster House about 7 pm to head for an Italian Restaurant, Bertorelli’s, in northeast London. Richard and his wife Pauline were coming down from near Manchester and were to meet us at the restaurant for dinner. Their train ran a bit late but we savored a glass of Prosecco while we waited for them. We had a wonderful dinner and enjoyed their company immensely, talking about the vagaries of our lives mostly but laughing pretty much at the whimsicalities of human nature. Unfortunately they had to catch the last train north back to Manchester so we had an early night and said good bye. We will not see them when we pass through London in January since they will be visiting family in New Zealand so we hope to get together in May. But so much will have happened before then, who can say? At this point in our trip – and certainly in our lives as well we can hardly plan for too much – but that’s OK right now.