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Tuesday, July 30, 2013

July 28, 29, and 30, 2013: Barga!


As I’m writing this post, I am on the train from Lucca to Firenze. I am realizing how lucky I have been on this vacation. I just spent two nights and almost three days with the Goodman family. They are just wonderful, generous, and kind people that I really loved to get to know over this trip. For those of you just tuning in, Mike and I met Bob about three weeks ago in Florence. We were going to be in Rome on the same weekend, and decided to meet up with Bob again, along with his wife Michele and daughter Hannah. We had two great dinners in Rome, and the Goodmans invited me to visit them at their second home in Barga later on during my trip (which was now!).

They welcomed me to their Barga home. It is up in the mountains, northwest of Lucca. The town is stunning, with mountain and river views almost everywhere you look. The first day I arrived, the whole family was at the train station waiting for me. They picked me up and brought me to their little town, where we ate at a great pizza restaurant called Capretz (Bob, correct me on any wrong spellings of restaurants!). We then toured the town a bit and hiked up to the stone duomo overlooking gorgeous Tuscan hills. After looking at some amazing artwork on display at the duomo museum, we decided that it was gelato-time, which is me and Hannah’s favorite time of the day.

Their house is incredible, and it was just as Bob described to Mike and I when we first met up. It’s a stone house, three stories, with beautiful rooms overlooking the mountains. Going to sleep in the guest room was like turning on one of those nature clocks with a babbling brook to try to get you to sleep, only the babbling brook was the river rolling right outside their yard. Because their river is drainage from the mountaintops, there was very little water due to us being there so late in the summer.

The next day, July 29th, was a great time. We started off by going into town for coffee and meeting up with some of their friends. Everyone in Barga knows each other, waves to each other as their driving by or walking by. They actually know their neighbors and everyone takes care of each other. Their friends (Ed and Anna) were a pleasure to meet and we all sat together and made good conversation. It was raining on this day, so we decided against going to the pool and just got in the car and explored a little neighboring town. Before getting to the town, we stopped at an amazing seafood restaurant along the highway and just ate ourselves silly. One of the most delicious lunches I’ve had in Italy, actually! Once we got to the town, we did some sightseeing, exploring, and had some fun photo shoots. They drove me over to “Devil’s Bridge,” which is this medieval stone bridge that boasts very distinct architecture. The story of the bridge is: in Medieval times, the town needed a bridge to be built so people could transverse the river. They had no money, so they asked the devil to come and build it for them. The devil agreed, but in return, said that the first soul to walk over the bridge would be his forever. The people agreed, and the devil built the bridge. Once he asked for his end of the bargain, the people sent a dog over the bridge first, so that was his first soul. It’s a cool story and an even cooler sight to see.

We had dinner at a wonderful restaurant (a favorite of Hannah’s) in town called L’Altana. We again ate so much delicious fresh food: fresh pasta with truffle sauce, chicken and vegetables, potatoes, green beans, vegetable soup, veal with ham and melted cheese, and of course delicious house red. We ended the night back at the same gelato place that we stopped at on the first day and treated ourselves to yet another delish ice cream.

Today (July 30) was a great day. We had a lazy morning and were treated to a great American breakfast by Michele. I was especially appreciative of that! Italians do not eat eggs and toast for breakfast here. It’s a sugary cakey pastry and an espresso (un caffe) and off they go. I can’t do the sugary mix in the morning, so this was wonderful! We got our bathing suits on and went to a local pool that overlooked the mountains.

I can’t say enough how happy I am that I met the Goodman family. They are from Chicago, so we are planning a fun weekend sometime in the Fall to all meet and go to a CSO concert together. These are friends that we will definitely keep in touch with for years to come, and how special is it that we met in Italy? Thanks to Bob, Michele, and the lovely Hannah for a fun-filled three days in Barga!

After I got back to Florence, I was hungry for a good dinner. Because (UGH) Roberto Benigni is still performing in Piazza Santa Croce, I had to walk all around the square to get home. I knew that I needed something really good, so I went to Baldovino. The waiter immediately recognized me from three weeks ago (when I first took Mike there). His name is Stefano, and he is adorable and really nice. We talked for a little bit about my long trip here, and he said that he was so jealous that I was going to Cinque Terre tomorrow. He brought over a complimentary glass of Prosecco, just because I was a returning customer. Moral of the story = Baldovino is amazing.

View from the pool today. Not bad, eh?

Picture of L'uomo morto. The mountain in the distance looks like a "dead" man. You can see his profile from his right side of the face, and his nose is pointing up. The bigger mountain on the right is supposedly his knees bent while he's sleeping. Cool!

Barga!

Umbrellas painted by Keane, a very well-known local artist.

The climb up to the Duomo.

Dead Man again.

View of Barga from the Duomo

Beautiful mountains

The Duomo, which was built at three different times. Notice the difference in the stones and construction?


Pulpit inside of the Duomo

Ceiling of the Duomo

Michele, Hannah, me...the girls!

Obligatory solo tourist pic!

Spaghetti di mare!

Devils Bridge

The Goodmans at Devils Bridge

All of us at Devils Bridge

Local restaurants capitalizing on the bridge landmark across the street

Descending the bridge

Tracks that my train traveled on to get me to Barga

Country

Cool, asymmetrical clock tower

Della Robbia statue of Mary Magdalene

Low river



Extremely old brick bridge




Baldovino

Monday, July 29, 2013

Barga Blog Post: Under Construction!

Dear Friends,

I am looking forward to writing my Barga blog, but I am saving that task for the 2 hour train ride home (after the pool!) tomorrow. Bob, Michele, and Hannah have been amazing hosts and I am so blessed to have met them. 

We are all missing our Mike, so if you're reading this, mi manchi!

A domani, baci baci,

Alley

Saturday, July 27, 2013

July 27, 2013: 100 Degrees in Firenze? Poolside for this ragazza.

It's getting wicked hot in Firenze. The days in the beginning of the trip were in the low 80's, with low humidity, making the weather enjoyable and the shade refreshing. Now, it's jumped almost 15 degrees since then, with no indication that it will drop. After yesterday's pool experience at the villa, I decided to beat the heat here in Firenze.

I looked up where to find public pools. I figured that there HAD to be some in a city like this. The one most recommended was called Parco Piscina Le Pavoniere at Cascine Park. It is in a beautiful park on the southeastern side of the city. It was nearly impossible to find, because the bus system here is quite confusing. I don't know about the Florentines. If a tourist in Boston needed help in finding directions about public transportation, I think that by the third person they talked to, they'd get a solid and friendly answer and know exactly what to do. I went to the TI (Tourist Information, that's right!) and got poor directions!

Anyway....I finally got there, and it was worth it. It cost 9 Euro to get in, which was reasonable. Somewhat crowded, but I had expected that because it was a Saturday. There was a big pool, and a small, kidney bean shaped pool for the bambini. The pool "house" looked like a villa, but inside were locker rooms, restaurants, and bar/pizzeria. Supposedly at night, the whole place transforms into a club-like vibe with a DJ. I spent about 5-6 hours at the pool, dipping in and out while reading. I was also checking out what everyone else was reading. Almost every book I saw was Dan Brown's "Inferno," his latest book which takes place in Florence. I was kicking myself for forgetting mine on the dresser in Boston. It's kind of cool, though. I think the author would like to know that Florentines are all into it.

Once the DJ showed up, I left. There's just something funny about feeling like I'm in a Forever 21 while I'm at a pool in Italy. All the DJ's play here is American pop music! All set.

After a lot of sun, swimming, and relaxing, I'm back at the apartment and ready to go walking around. Florence is really most beautiful at night, so it's a nice long stroll, window shopping, and of course a big gelato on this hot night.




Entrance to Cascine Park

Friday, July 26, 2013

July 26, 2013: Cooking in the Countryside

Today was, to say the least, a dream come to life. I had booked a "Tuscan Farmhouse Experience" tour with the company that we used for our Rome Tours (Walks of Italy), and could not have been more pleased with my afternoon.

I took the train from Firenze SMN to Chiusi-Chianciano, which is on the border of Tuscany and Umbria. This was about two hours away by regional train. The station in Chiusi is wicked tiny, so finding my "person" wasn't too difficult. Alina Pinelli, the daughter of the owner of the farmhouse, was there to pick me up and drive me to the villa. She warmly greeted me and before I knew it, we were zipping through the country to end up at the most beautiful farm I've ever seen. The name of the villa is Il Fontanaro, and it is in the town of Paciano. If you are looking for a villa to rent on a Tuscan vacation, you'd be crazy to go anywhere but here.

As it turned out, I was the only person signed up for the cooking portion of the tour, so I got a one-on-one lesson in organic Italian cooking! Not being a cook AT ALL (just ask anyone who has lived with me), this was an amazing experience and it actually took away a lot of the "fear" that I have of cooking. Lucia, the owner of the farm and villa, made me feel comfortable and at home right away. She introduced me to some of her other guests (very nice people from LA and Boston) and brought us to the olive oil and honey mill, where the farm actually makes their own products, bottles, and sells it. She was smiling the whole time, and so passionately talking about what she and her family do at the farm. She says that they work extremely hard, doing a LOT of manual labor, but enjoy every moment about it. They only put out the best product possible, even if it means losing a little bit of oil in the process. She showed us pictures of her family in the olive groves and beehives, smiling as they were working.

Then, it was me-time in the kitchen with Lucia. First, we made the traditional Italian fruitcake. She had picked about 10 fresh apricots from her farm, and told me how happy she was that I was there today because the apricots only last for about fifteen days of the whole entire season. I tried one, and it was better than any candy I've ever had. Sweet is not even the word for it. She pitted the apricots, splashed olive oil in the pan, and sprinkled brown sugar all over. We let it sit for later, because we had to make the batter for the top. Then, it was time to make the lunch. She was amazing- just picked a handful of fresh tomatoes, eggplant, onion, and basil for the fresh sauce. She had me chopping onions and sampling everything as we went through. We made ravioli from scratch, and filled them with fresh ricotta and mozzarella cheeses, along with fresh herbs. Lucia was extremely helpful and complimented my "work" very much as we cooked together. The smells, tastes, and good company were exactly what I needed today. She made an incredibly tasty filet on a bed of rosemary, thyme, bay leaves, and basil, and it came out bursting with flavor. We all sat down to lunch together and had a wonderful time. I felt like I had known them for years.

I had just enough time to go in the infinity pool for a while, where I spent some time soaking in the sun (without sweating through my clothes) and visiting with her other guests. I met someone who lives on the Back Bay/South End line, so it was totally awesome talking to him about Boston and our favorite haunts.

I finished my swim, and we ended our visit by eating our amazing apricot fruitcake with some vanilla gelato. I couldn't have been happier with my day, and for sure, this will be one of my favorite memories of this trip. Lucia is a lover of opera, and she may even give me some information as to how to see a performance or two. She even offered to pick me up from the train and go along with me. That, my friends, is true Italian hospitality.










For more information about Il Fontanaro, you can visit the following sites:

www.umbriatuscanyreview.com
letscookblog.com
pinterest.com/fontanaro
www.facebook.com/italyholiday

Thursday, July 25, 2013

July 25, 2013: The Sweetness of Doing Nothing

Today was...weird.

I woke up at 11am. Ate some fresh fruit for breakfast, and decided to shower and get ready for the day. I had no plans, and no real desire to do much of anything. It's strange to be on a "vacation" for five weeks, because if you go hard every day for five weeks, it's going to take a toll on your body for sure. So, I left the apartment, walked over to Oltrarno, and ate some pizza. And it was delicious!

Thanks to Caroline, I found Gusta Pizza, one of the more busy and yummy pizzerias in Florence. The city really isn't known for their pizza here. I ate an entire margherita pizza, read a few pages of my book, and then headed out around town. I suddenly became exhausted and just walked home for a nap. It was almost laughable. I did absolutely nothing today, but was completely wiped out.

In Boston, I'd have days like this where I wouldn't feel guilty about doing nothing. It's home there. For me to be in Florence and doing absolutely nothing is hard, but necessary. So, I have no pictures for you today, and no interesting adventures to read, and that's okay!

I simply ate a pizza, read a chapter, and napped.

Goodnight! :)

July 24, 2013: David...we meet again.

Madelyn of course had to visit the Accademia Gallery to see the David, and its prized collection of expensive and rare musical instruments. Because we purchased the Amici Degli Uffizi card, we were able to skip the wicked long line and get in after waiting about 20 minutes. Not bad!

We toured the gallery quickly and spent most of our time in the musical instruments room and Michelangelo's gallery of unfinished works, and of course, at his sculpture of David. I've seen it a few times by now, and it doesn't become less impressive ever. I was almost laughing at myself, thinking that I could just walk in here every day and see it for a few minutes, and then leave. I'm very lucky!

We spent our afternoon shopping San Lorenzo and some leather stores around the Duomo. I purchased some gifts for family and friends and some for myself as well. I think I'm done with the shopping, though! I'll have to buy another suitcase...

We had dinner at Osteria Santo Spirito (remember, the one with the bubbling gnocchi?). We each got decadent pasta dishes and drank some white wine, compliments of the restaurant for having us wait so long for a table. After dinner, we got gelato from my favorite place (Santa Trinita) and walked up the hill to Piazzale Michelangiolo. Seeing this view never gets old, either.

Tomorrow is a day for sleeping in, reading, and maybe taking the train to a neighboring town. Why not?