Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Siena is a color because the city is Siena

Ahhh. Siena. I loved staying in this medieval city. It had all of the charm of a smaller town, but with elegant shopping, dining and the most interesting cathedral (Duomo) I have seen thus far.
One of our major goals for Siena/Tuscany was to tour a Montalcino winery that makes Brunello wine.
My fellow adventurer S.M. spent at least a year and ALOT of money on wine school a few years ago, so she knew where we had to go.
The wine and olive sectors of this region have won prizes and nominations for over a century and their own museums/historical buildings have international importance.

There at our quaint little B&B just outside the official city walls, we spot a poster saying that on our one day to tour a winery, there is only one going to Chianti country.
Oh well. We are dissapointed but we will take it. The next day, we walk up our hill to the church next door and wait and wait.
We even call the tour co. wondering where our van is. I have paid $120.00 for this excursion. I am worried.
But alas, the luxury van arrives and out steps the most gorgeous young natural beauty, in an unspoiled Madonna kinda way...Julia. Our guide...
and a couple from Delaware.
Off we go...Julia says "We can't go to a Chianti winery today, we can only get into Montalcino.
The gods shine upon us. 40 minutes later we roll up. A handsome old man of 85 meets us. He is dressed to the nines, and from what I understand from Julia, (he speaks no english) this winery has always been in his family.
It is also a museum with rooms underground dating back to 990. No kidding. After the little tour, we taste about 4 wines with bread and cheese in between and that old man starts getting us to shoot grappa. That's distilled grape skin or something. It tastes strong, and it is. I can't remember much after that.

We had the B&B cat sneak into our room, continuing the cat theme. I bought a gorgeous leather suitcase and Christmas presents. We made a new italian friend at a bar/coffee shop and hung out there with him after hours drinking and going on and on about faith in his limited but impressive english. I didn't like leaving Siena, but Florence awaited.

Monday, November 27, 2006

Dessert, Wine and Cinque Terre

One more delightful thing I can say about Milan is regarding dessert shops. S.M. and I shared a chocolate souffle, and if that was not enough sweetness, I then decided to entertain this hot chocolate menu that I had seen in various coffee shops. The hot chocolate or drinking chocolate, as some here may call it, (thogh it has obviously never taken off) is more of a light pudding type drink that you can also just use a spoon to eat/drink. These drinks come in so many flavors...I would give anything to have tried them all, but only allowed my self to get as far as milk chocolate and hazelnut. The best one I had was in Milan.

(drinking TIP:A challenge I may face some day...Italians don't drink vodka. I was lucky to see more than a bottle of unknown vodka in any bar...I did try a new drink called the "Americano" at that Victorian bar in Milan...It had Martini, Campari and soda...tasted very grapefruit like. They use flavored liquors a lot with wine and soda.)

From Milan, we took several trains for several hours south east to the coastal villages of Cinque Terre...a nature and marine park tucked away in a series of little inlets at the very end of the Levante side of the Ligurian Riviera.The scene: Jagged cliffs along the silver sea, terraced slopes, mountains, forests that looked straight from "Lord of the Rings", and what they call "land architecture" used to cultivate the vines of olive and fruit. On our first day, we checked into our amazing little apartment on a cliff in the village of Riomaggiore. The view from our windows was like nothing I have ever seen before...and there was a cat that hung around our door wish the little groups of fisherman outside that they called "Boot". There was one quaint cafe open up the most steep main street where we ate breakfast (a croissant a day) and had coffee, small shots of expresso, etc. There is an internet cafe at the train station and the most english speaking tourists we came across. These were the fist people to look us in the eye and say hello in Italy. There were mostly college aged kids with backpacks everywhere. I am sure this place is really happening in the summer, but for me, I liked it sleepy. I'm an off season kind of girl.
We ended up buying groceries and wine at a little market for dinner in our own little kitchen those two nights in Cinque Terre and I believe that is where we ate best. We had some cheese that the shop owner recommended, local wine, proscuitto, pesto, bread and the most real, red sweet strawberries I have ever tasted.
We made the extreme hike through 4 of the 5 villages which took, possibly 6 hours on our second day? It gets dark at 5pm, so we had to stop at the 4th and take the train back. There was no one to be seen on our trails during the first leg, but we came across a lovely girl named Ashley from CA. who was trying to find her way and she hiked the whole day with us. Some spots were so dangerous and vaguely marked, that I would be concerned for anyone's safety walking alone. The views and scenes were so spectacular that we stopped often to take pictures. The hike was SO intense, that I realized when I got back, that I had melted the glue in my hiking boots all over my socks, which then had to be thrown away. These were hiking boots I have worn 100 times, by the way. I was sore from that hike for at least 5 days, but it was beyond glorious. The villages are still preserved as old Italy, and the best pesto, gelato, anchovies, olive oil and lemoncello can be bought throughout the area.
One strange and random tip...half way thru the hike between the little villages of Riomaggiore and Monterosso, in a clearing is an alter to cats. We saw about 20 cats just grouped together lounging in this one clearing. They were tame and friendly and behind their picnic table wasa stone-alter looking thing that had dishes and cat food cans stacked in it, like people pass this location on to one another so that people will always bring the cats what they need...it was magical and a delightfully freaky thing to stumble upon.
I have to thank my friend from AUSTINIST for suggesting this part of the trip. It was the most relaxing, even with the hike. The air was so clear and we had the windows open a lot listening to the waves crash...
I could spend a week in this place alone. Highly recommended.

VERY important tip: NEVER cut your spagetti into smaller bites in Italy. If there is some mysogynist Italian man nearby, he will humiliate you in public over it.

a few photos...I can post more on request, but please check out their website above.

Friday, November 24, 2006

Tips and background leading to Italy-Part one

The trip.

Nov. 9-11
A few thoughts from the layover in Paris.
It smells like expensive perfume everywhere and is the most gorgeously organic modern airport...the AirFrance flight attendants look like women from Lancome commercials and people really do eat french looking bread right out of bags.
My traveling partner, who I must refer to as S.M. and a nearby asian family saw a man running to his gate when his pants literally fell down. I caught the end of it and the repressed giggling. awesome.

Arriving in Rome.
Tip #1:This is the place you should stay and use as a resource for as many cities as possible that they can hook you up with.
"www.the-beehive.com" It's a safe haven kind of hostel community with a vegetarian cafe, yoga and a fat cat named Ingmar.
S.M. and I got in late on November 9th and just spent that first night in Rome, as we were determined to get to Milan nice and early the next day to try and purchase last minute tickets in person for the famous opera house at La Scala. The Beehive hostel/restaurant is very close to the train station but they rent out apartments with shared spaces all over the city...usually several blocks on the other side of the train station, which after a long day of travel and a heavy bag on uneven terrian can get hairy, but it is worth it...price wise and vibe wise. We checked in to our apartment, went across the street for some tourist-y Italian food served by some unenthused locals, and slept...I think. Walls are very thin and there is constant noise in the neighborhoods of Italy all night. Singing...cheering, lovers knocking incessantly on the doors of their suitors...
(extra tip:bring an ipod or noise cancelling headphone, and your favorite pillow)
On this first day of our adventure though, our alarm clock ( the only one we had in any room we stayed in the entire trip) went off at 7am, and it was opera on the radio that we woke up to, which I thought was sweet. It sort of defined the "I don't think we are in Kansas anymore" aspect....That and the lost art of hanging clothes to dry on lines outside. My mom did this growing up, and I wish we could do it in the USA still without getting in trouble from neighborhood associations.
Tip #2: Take an alarm clock and quick showers. Do not pull the lever on a pulley in the shower unless you fall and can't get up. It is actually some kind of an alarm. Also, I never saw a bathtub in Italy, although I hear there may be some in actual homes. The water is hard. My hair texture became un recognizable to me and my chi iron had actual smoke coming out of it before it fried out. I was not informed of the voltage issues in Europe either.
Tip #3: Take trains. You will probably meet at least one amazing character a day on the train who will help you lift your heavy luggage above, ask you poignant questions about your life, teach you Italian, help you with the mean ticket conductor dudes, and tell you about their life. It's also the best way to see so much more of Italy.
It's mountains,villas, car and marble businesses, eleborate graffiti and erratic weather changes, deteriorating castles, clay rooves,people harvesting, everything in frescoe shades of olive, salmon, cinnamon,mustard, and the green of the incredible vegetation. There are palm trees, pine trees, and cactus, olive groves, grape vines and these amazing trees that look like they came from a Dr. Suess Book.
It is so strange to fully absorb what is real, when in the US, you have been fed the Disneyworld chain Italian restaurant prop look that symbolizes what we interpret as italian inspiration.
The font of Italy is universally bold and often in capital letters. I found this consistency in advertising classy and proud.
Tip #4: Learn military time
Tip #5: When packing (light) take some fancier things with you, but still comfy clothes. Bring money to buy clothes in Florence. These people are so put together and confident, you'll be inspired to turn yourself into a stylish piece of art too. Unless you are in a natural sleepy seaside town like Cinque Terre, the only place we went that my hippie wear blended in.

On our first train ride from Rome to Milan, we met Karlolos Fix from Greece. His family had the only beer company in Greece-Fix Beer until the government put them out of business. He lives in Greece but has a house in Italy next to a convent. He invited us to the dining car for coffee. (Italy is coffee heaven) and shared his apples with us that were grown by the nuns next door. He was on his way up to Switzerland for some big business meeting.

Milan: We stayed at hotel London. It was strangely lit and was expensive...like everything in Milan. Dinner with protein will cost you at least $60.
We could have skipped this city because the folks working at the La Scala Operahouse were so rude we gave up on our mission of going. We did find a fabulous nightspot called Victorian Bar...with a fabulous bartender named Max who taught us new drinks and entertained us, We also made two new friends from England, who we accidentally stood up for lunch the next day because we had a marathon 14 hour sleep due to jetlag. I had nightmares. This first night and every night in Italy, though I went longer and longer each day without remembering my personal life sadness.
Milan is set up like a circle. You can't really get lost. People were not that friendly to outsiders. They were insanely fashionable. The look now is knee high boots, tights, skinny jeans and elaborately gorgeous coats.
High heels happen, regardless of cobblestone streets and dodging scooters. People do play accordians on the street.
The Duomo (big cathedral) there is incredible. I lit a candle to honor what I'd been thru lately with my man, I call Appleseed. There is also a castle just off the main strip you can walk to.
Tip #6: Set out later for dinner and take advantage of the happy hour food that the bars lay out. It's the best deal.
Tip #7: You have to take A LOT of money and prior restaurant recommendations, maybe have car/bike rented to have that true culinary experience... the wine tasting and dessert adventure is much easier...thanks to non stop bars, wineries and gelato cafes.
Tip #8 Bring a flimsy extra bag or backpack...or buy some gorgeous new leather luggage in Siena.

Milan overall, was a neccesary learning experience in the big city...but I woudn't go back again. Everything did improve from here.