Thursday, August 30, 2012

Our 20th Anniversary Adventure - Part I

Yep, you know when there's a part I in the title that I've got a story for you. :)

July 25th was our 20th wedding anniversary and the day we booked a Vespa tour through the Tuscan countryside. I was super excited and had in my mind that this would be my favorite day of the trip.

The fun faltered when Brian woke up feeling ill ... again. I know, I know, I should be a supportive spouse, but I was annoyed because my assessment was that he was eating too much rich food and drinking too much red wine and that's why his stomach was off. His version is that he caught some kind of bug (and he was probably right). To his credit, he didn't complain, pasted a smile on his face and we headed out for the Vespa tour.

When we finally arrived after a wait, some negotiating with the parking police in Florence, and more waiting for some ditzy girls tagging along to go horseback riding, we drove about 30 minutes outside of Florence into the Tuscan countryside. Here, we were given a sales pitch about extra insurance and issued helmets. Then, we got our lesson and about 15 minutes to get used to driving the Vespa. After some lectures about how we wouldn't be allowed to go if the instructors didn't think we could manage the bikes, we all passed and headed out. Here's Brian getting his lesson from our guide - not a bad place to learn to ride a Vespa, huh?

Unfortunately, the only time we could take pictures was when we were stopped. A shame because the scenery was breathtaking. You had to work hard to keep your eyes on the road and not start staring at the countryside. So, here are a few photos of the views as we stopped periodically along the route.

One stop was at a winery, which also sells olive oil. Actually, most of the vineyards make olive oil, but very few have the quantity to justify the expense of the equipment to press their own olives so there are olive pressing companies where the farmers bring their olives, then decide how they want them pressed and then wait 45 minutes to an hour for the process to complete, put it in their containers and take it back home. I'm thinking it's kind of like a feed mill back home where the farmers bring their corn and have it processed for them. The photo here is the olive jars this winery uses for their olive oil once the olives have been pressed. The fresh olive oil sits in these barrels so the sediment can settle.

Overlooking the sculpted garden at the villa/winery we visited. We had lunch here as well. It was billed as a "three course Tuscan lunch", but in reality meant 1) salad, 2) pasta, 3) another kind of pasta. :)

As I look at these now, I'm sad I couldn't take any photos while on the Vespa as these just don't do the trip justice. It was an amazing experience.

So, by now, you're probably wondering "where's the story?" There are two actually.

The day was going quite well until literally almost the last stretch of road before finishing our trip. There was a steep hill and a sharp curve and ... let's just say that the banged up knee of one of our party was an attempt to avoid another Vespa not in our group who didn't make the turn. An ice pack and compression bandage (and a Long Island Iced Tea at one of the cafes in Florence) and things were back on track.

Back in Florence, we did a little shopping and then headed back to the train station. The second adventure started when we arrived back in Rignano ...

... and Brian realized he didn't have his wallet.

(cue the suspense music)

He ran back onto the train, but couldn't look for more than a few seconds or the doors would have closed and he would have been off to the next stop. We looked around through his bag, my bag, but no wallet. Had it been stolen? Did he leave it on the train? Was it in his pocket the whole time?

You'll have to turn in for Part II to find out ...

Monday, August 27, 2012

Panzano and the Tuscan Countryside

Our friend, Susan, sent us an article about this famous butcher in Panzano. Rather than risk another tourist crowded day, we decided to stick closer to the villa and search out this butcher. Panzano is another cute little village in the heart of the Chianti wine region in Tuscany. The drive was gorgeous and the day, perfect. Here are some shots of the countryside.

 One of the lovely little alleys in Panzano.  We did find the butcher shop and it was pretty amazing. We had a unique lunch of gourmet burger, beef tartar (raw), pulled pork with a really unique flavor and served cold, cold meatloaf that was absolutely delicious and more. It was an Atkin's diet lover's dream.

After lunch, we drove around in search of wine tastings. Unfortunately, many of the places we tried were either closed or by appointment only. We only managed to visit two wineries and didn't buy at either. Still, it made for a relaxing afternoon and some really beautiful scenery.

Okay, I'll admit it, these last two photos are simply to show off our new camera. It has a foliage setting, which allowed me to get these cool bug pictures.

Saturday, August 25, 2012

Pisa and that Leaning Tower

We decided that our Tuscany adventure wouldn't be complete without a trip to Pisa to see the Leaning Tower we'd all heard so much about. Unfortunately, if we had it to do over, I think we would have skipped Pisa and maybe made the further trek out to Cinq Terre.

It was a 90 minute or so drive from our villa through beautiful countryside. The day was a bit overcast and rainy, but that suited us just fine. We arrived just before noon, parked and then walked to the walled area where the tower, a church and the baptistery are located in Pisa. The town of Pisa itself was nothing to look at and didn't seem to have a lot going for it - a bit run down.

When we entered the grounds, we could see the tower right away as well as the thousands of people - the place was packed! It felt a little like the Wisconsin Dells in the summertime. And every group trying to get that stupid picture of someone holding up the leaning tower. We wandered around a bit, but honestly, there just isn't much to do here once you've seen the tower. We had hoped to get tickets to go to the top of the tower, but they were sold out until 5:30pm (it was only about noon!) so we took our photos, walked around the square in the light rain and then decided to get out of there and away from the tourist crowd.

 Our lean friends, Brad & Sherry at the leaning tower!

This photo gives you a sense of the crowds. It was really awful and difficult to get a good photo of the tower without a mass of people in it. So, not our favorite city in Tuscany, but we were happy to have seen the tower.

We spent the rest of the afternoon in Lucca, a nearby town which has a wall around the outside and limits the number of cars that can enter. We eventually found a place to have lunch and did a little shopping. The weather cleared a bit and we had a nice afternoon wandering around the small streets and alleyways of Lucca.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Another Big Day - this time in Florence

Sincere apologies for the dry spell. We had a holiday this past week and as any good Airline employee, Brian & I jetted off somewhere exotic. This trip was to Kenya for 5 days on safari in the Masai Mara game reserve. Photos and stories to come ... just as soon as I finish up our trip to Italy!

Our next big Italian adventure took place in Florence. To get to Florence, we took the 45 minute train from our villa, which was in  Rignano. We were told it would be much easier than trying to find and pay for a place to park in Florence, and it was pretty easy and relatively clean and comfortable. We arrived at the train station and with the help of our cell phone GPS, we headed out to find the meeting spot for our Segway tour of the city.
Florence is a huge city with lots of churches and museums to visit. Our segway tour took us to most of the hot spots while our guide gave us some of the history of the city and the Medici family. First, though, we had to get used to driving the segways. If you've never tried one, we highly recommend it. They're a really fun way to tour a city and you get used to them fairly quickly.

 Here is a collection of photos from the tour. I wish I could tell you what each one is, but I've forgotten already! I've got to learn to start taking notes! :)

 The left, in the photo above, is one of the replicas of the Statue of David. We didn't end up seeing the original as it would have meant another trip to Florence and we decided to spend our time visiting a few other cities instead. So we were happy to see this one. On the right is Hercules.

The next photos are a couple of the beautiful sculptures in one of the squares. There are lots of squares and amazing sculpture all over Florence. Out in the air with little protection - it's incredible to think about how things must have been at the height of the Renaissance in Florence.

After a bit of a break and lunch, we headed to the Uffizi Gallery for the next adventure of the day. We had a guided tour through the Vasari Corridor and the Uffizi Gallery, which was interesting, but to be honest, a little long if you're not a well educated art enthusiast. We decided that we would have liked the "Art for Dummies" tour a bit better. :)

The Uffizi Gallery is a collection of art the Medici family amassed and is open to the public. The place was mad packed and stifling hot in some rooms, so not as enjoyable as it might have been. We did see some really amazing paintings, however, couldn't take any photos.

Then we had a tour of the Vasari Corridor, which is not open to the public and only accessible through a tour like the one we were on. The corridor was built so the family wouldn't have to walk on the streets of Florence to get to work each morning. As you'll see from the photos, it connects two buildings and offers some nice views of the river and the city. The corridor itself houses the largest collection of artist self-portraits in the world - interesting, but not enough for the two hours it took to walk through the place. Still, we got some nice photos of the city.

We ended the tour outside this grotto, which is near one of the entrances to the Bobbili Gardens.

We were then treated to some Proseco, flatbread and olives at a little cafe by our tour guide and then decided to skip dinner in the city and head back to Rignano and our villa. Another big day of Italian adventure.

Monday, August 13, 2012

Tuscany: Greve in Chianti

After a week in Lake Como, it was off to Tuscany for the second half of our trip. The hotel provided transport back to the Milan airport where we rented a car. Brian then drove us the 4 1/2 hours to our villa in Rignano, which is about 45 minutes from Florence (or Firenze as the Italians would say). It was a beautiful drive.

After a nice dinner at our villa and a not-so-great nights sleep (the aircon in our bedroom wasn't working properly) we headed out for the day to Greve in Chianti. Greve is this idyllic little town about 30 minutes south of Florence in the middle of the Chianti Classico wine region. It was recommended to us by a wine merchant we met here in Abu Dhabi who had visited recently and raved about the town and a wine shop that allows you to taste over 100 different wines. We went in search of that wine shop, but found a lot more in the town.

It was market day so there was a big flea market set up in the town square selling all kinds of stuff - clothes, gadgets, table linens, handbags ... This cute little place is a permanent shop along the perimeter of the square selling baskets.

Chianti Classico is a wine made with grapes only from this region. You know it is an authentic Chianti Classico if there is a black rooster on a pink label around the neck of the bottle. As a result, black roosters are found all over the region.

This is a tiny little roundabout as you come into Greve. The Italians also like to dress up their roundabouts with art!

The entry to the wine shop. And there were over 100 wines to try (don't worry, we didn't even come close to that many). You buy a card at the register, then put the card in the wine dispenser of your choice, choose the wine you want to sample and you get a small taste, the price of which is deducted from your card.

They provide a book with all the wine regions they have available. Here, Brian is diligently studying to determine what we'll taste next. We had a good time and came to the realization that none of us really like Chianti much!
Since the Italians, like most Europeans, eat late, we had some time to 'kill' before our dinner reservations. We decided to explore the surrounding countryside and visit a winery or two.

We stopped at the Villa Casalosta and tasted some wines - even bought a couple. We were welcomed by the winemaker's wife and got to hear the history of the vineyard and the stories behind the names of their wines.

When we arrived back in town, we found the square now filled with tiny cars. Not sure if they do this every Saturday or if it was some special occasion. They hung around the square for a while and then all went zooming off together.

Our last stop before dinner was to one of the butcher shops in town. This is the outside and a replica of the wild boar that is very common in this area.

The inside of the shop was amazing - I've never seen so much pork in my life! Hanging everywhere and every kind of cut you can imagine. They also  sold cheese and had a little cheese cave in the back of the store. Quite an experience.

Saturday, August 11, 2012

Villa Carlotta

Another day in Lake Como means another villa to visit. This day's adventure was the Villa Carlotta. Built in 1690, the villa covers 17 acres and has some gorgeous Italian gardens you can wander through. The villa itself is also stunning and now a museum. Like most places in Lake Como, we took the ferry from Bellagio and spent a couple of hours walking through the gardens and visiting the museum.

 A lovely view of the villa from the water.

Sitting outside the villa. The town on the other side is Bellagio where we stayed.

Can you find Brian in this picture? This is the fountain in front of the villa.

How about in this one? Another stop along our walk through the gardens. The day was sunny and warm - perfect!

This view is from inside the villa overlooking the courtyard and fountain in one of the earlier photos.

George Clooney sighting!!  Oh wait, just Brian in a dapper Italian hat. Unfortunately, I couldn't persuade him to buy it, but at least I snagged this photo.