Travel adventures in Italy and beyond

Hunting Wild Asparagus in Tuscany

Apricot TreeLast month we made a return visit to our favorite place in Italy, Podere Le Nonne in Montecello Amiata. We spent the weekend with the hospitable, entertaining and oh so talented duo, Martina and Tutilo, who make the best wine and olive oil we’ve ever tasted. On our first day, after a simple but delicious lunch of local cheeses, cured meats and home-made bread, we spent the afternoon hauling tree branches and vine clippings into a brush fire. Winter and spring in wine country are the seasons for burning off all the extra growth that was trimmed off in the fall and winter. In the hills in the distance we counted no less than six billowing columns of smoke rising from other farms and vineyards.

Wild AsparagusDinner that night included lots of new foods for us. First was an antipasto of sliced up cardi marinated in olive oil and red wine vinegar that Martina makes herself. Cardi (cardoons) looks kind of like a celery stalk but tastes like artichoke. Then we had white fish with Jerusalem Artichokes (which are neither from Jerusalem nor are they artichokes). They look kind of like small ginger bulbs, and they’re a real pain to peel and cut up because of all the small knobs, but the tangy, sweet taste is worth it. And finally for dessert, we had fichi d’india sorbet made from the cactus flowers that grow right outside Martina and Tutilo’s front door. We also got to sample two vintages of Gideone, the wine Tutilo makes. We got an early preview of the 2006 variety, which we helped bottle, and Tutilo is so happy with it that he’ll enter it in an international wine competition in London this month.

Asparagus HuntingThe next day we went hunting for asparagi selvatici, wild asparagus! After a quick lesson in how to identify we plant, to look for a long, thin strand of vine with wispy, green spikes, not to be confused with fennel stems which are more feathery, we set out through the trees and brush to find our lunch. About 2 hours later, after picking through a season’s worth of leaf covering on the forest floor, scaling steep hill sides, traversing old stream beds, and being attached by pricker bushes we came up with a grand total of about 10 asparagus stalks. Luckily, the far more skillful Martina and Tutilo vastly exceeded our catch and we ended the morning with plenty of asparagus to make an abundant dish for lunch.

Church in GrossetoAfter lunch we drove down the windy road from the hilly interior of Maremma province to the capital city of Grosseto near the coast. The old city is almost entirely enclosed by old city walls. One section with an old armory still open for visitors to explore. The historic city center is full of pedestrian-only streets lined with shops. The large main square is flanked by a pink and white marble cathedral, a brick façade town building, and a row of colorful buildings atop an arched walkway.

Le Cinque Terre & Siena

Cinque Terre

ManarolaI could not believe it was almost 5 years since my first visit to Cinque Terre and almost 2 years since my last visit. Le Cinque Terre are 5 small fishing villages located along the Italian coast just before La Spezia (if you are coming from Genova). Monterosso, Vernazza, Corniglia, Manarola, and Riomaggiore are connected by an often times beautiful footpath and by train if you don’t care for hikes ranging from 30 minutes to 2 hours plus lots of stairs and rocks to climb. We started our hike in Riomaggiore and walked until Vernazza, which is the same path we took 5 years ago when we first went to Cinque Terre.

Corniglia from the pathOne good part about doing this beautiful hike on a Friday in January is the lack of people. We could probably count the number of people we saw in the towns and on the path on two hands. Of course, there were more people eating in Corniglia at what was probably the only restaurant open in the whole region.

Kitty!We did the walk in about 5 hours including time for a long lunch, plenty of stops for pictures and to play with various cats we saw along the way. Most of the walk is easy enough, but walking to and from Corniglia is tough because of all the stairs getting up to the town and going down to Vernazza.

Siena

Il CampoOur next adventure was Siena. I had never been to Siena and Emily was briefly there while she was in college. I had the opportunity to study there while at UMass but chose Torino because I didn’t want to be confined within Siena’s medieval walls. I had seen pictures of Il Campo, which Beppe Severgnini calls “the belly-button of Italy”, we watched Il Palio last summer, and you know you’re going to have a nice trip everytime you travel to Tuscany.

An alley in SienaWalking around Siena almost feels like walking around the narrow alleys of Genova, except Siena’s are a little wider and cleaner. There’s also an anticipation about seeing Il Campo for the first time that is increased by the foot traffic in the streets, but what I didn’t know is that from many parts of the town you must go down a small staircase or ramp to get into Il Campo, which then presents itself to you in an amazing way. Pictures, no matter how big or well taken, cannot do Il Campo justice. You have to be there and see the people sitting at the cafes, walking their dogs around the outside of the scalloped ramp, and kids playing on the gently sliding square.

Now that’s the beauty of Italy that I know and love… here’s the flipside.

We arrived in Siena on a Saturday afternoon and were planning on staying until Sunday evening so we could have a full day of walking around the town. Upon arrival, I went to the ticket window at the train station to get the schedule of trains on Sunday. The woman’s response, “there are no trains tomorrow, there is a strike from 9pm tonight until 9pm tomorrow night.” Great! I then asked, “will there be any trains AFTER the strike to get me to Genova?” Her quick response, “who knows.” After checking into the hotel, we went to the bus station in the main square to see about any buses that could get us to Genova… nothing. So we figured we were screwed and almost booked another night. On Sunday I walked to the train station to see if anything had changed because almost always, there are a few trains running during strikes. The gentleman at the window informed me that there was one leaving in 10 minutes, but I don’t think Emily and her sister could hoof it to the station that quicky. Our next possibility was 4:41… which was later cancelled and the 5:41 became our target. The fun thing about strikes in Italy is the ticket windows will only sell you a ticket for your next destination, nothing after that, and you don’t even know if the train you’re planning to catch is even running. So having to change twice was quite difficult. We took our ticket to Empoli and arrived at 6:50, the next train to Pisa was at 8:14 getting us there at 8:59. I saw on the ticket office’s computer screen that there was a 9:02 train that could bring us to Genova, but we didn’t have a ticket and didn’t want to wait in Pisa for the 12:38 train to get us in at 3:38am. Once we arrived in Pisa, surprisingly on time, we ran to the correct train platform and begged the conductor to let us on without a ticket. He, again surprisingly, agreed to let us on and charged us the regular fair only because there was the strike, which was only in Tuscany. We made it home by 11:30, which is an hour before we would’ve even left Pisa.

Che casino!

Lucca

Church of San MicheleNot far from Florence, and even closer to Pisa, Lucca is a worthwhile stop during a visit to Tuscany. We went on a beautiful fall day with a clear blue sky and trees gently turning shades of yellow and orange. It would have been the perfect day to visit the historic city, if it wasn’t for the giant “gaming and comics” festival that took over the city that weekend.

After getting over the initial shock of seeing hoards of people, most of whom were dressed up as their favorite video game characters, and big white tents set up in the city squares obscuring full views of church facades, we managed to enjoy the beauty and character of Lucca.

 

One of the most unique features of Lucca is that it has a fully intact medieval wallSant'Agostino Byzantine tile surrounding the city. From the outside, a solid mass of brick and stone rises up some 20 feet in the air from grassy lawns below. Inside, a thick layer of earth backs up against the wall and leads down to a narrow moat. It must have been quite a formidable construction years ago. These days the wall is used purely for leisure as the top has been fashioned into a walkway lined with benches and trees where it’s possible to walk the entire perimeter of the city.

Inside the city walls there’s no shortage of churches, piazzas, buildings and architecture to enjoy. The main cathedral has three tiers of arches and columns accented with shapes and designs fitted together in different colored marble. Nearby, the Church of San Michele has an even more majestic façade with four tiers of arches and columns and topped by statues of angels. Another church, the Church of Sant’Agostino, has an enormous Byzantine mosaic occupying the upper half of one exterior wall. Piazza Antifeatro, lined by bright yellow buildings and filled with open-air cafes, is unique for its circular shape, which comes from its position on top of the site of the Ancient Roman Amphitheater.

View from Torre delle Ore

To get a bird’s eye view of the city, you can climb to the top of one of two towers in the city. Torre delle Ore (Tower of the Hours) is so named for the giant clock on its façade. The bells on the clock ring all day long, which becomes undeniably noticeable when standing below the bells on the viewing platform as the clock hits the hour mark. A short distance away Torre Guinigi is notable for the oak trees that grow up from the very top. From these towers, not only can you see all the tiny, curving city streets and red tiled roofs, but you can see to the Tuscan hills in the distance.

To see our pictures from Lucca, click here.

Alba Truffle Festival

Alba street sceneThe town of Alba is situated in southern Piemonte, a region known for strong red wines such as Barolo and Barbaresco. In this wine producing region Alba stands out for its food, and more specifically for two products: hazelnuts and white truffles. Alba’s hazelnuts are said to be the best in Italy and are used in Nutella and Ferrero Rocher chocolates. Truffles are a type of mushroom that come in black and white varieties, white being the much rarer species. They look more like dirty rocks than mushrooms and grow entirely underground, making them very difficult to find. This year, the weather in Northern Italy hasn’t been conducive to mushroom growth because it hasn’t been rainy enough. This means that the normally expensive price of white truffles has shot up even higher. One kilo costs somewhere between €4,000 and €6,000. That’s about $3,000 to $4,000 per pound! A sprinkling of white truffles on top of your pasta in a restaurant will run about €5 or €10 per shaving!

 

Fishing for wineEvery Fall Alba hosts the International White Truffle Festival. The town’s narrow streets are transformed back to medieval times with bales of hey lining the streets, festival workers wearing period dress, and piazzas filled with themed games like “fishing for wine” and “throw the dart at the salami.” My personal favorite was a game which involved placing a guinea pig in the center of a circle of hay bales, and guessing which numbered opening in the hay it would run into. The winner won a bottle of local wine.

 

White trufflesThe center piece of the festival is a truffle exhibition hall. As soon as you pass through the doors the rich, earthy scent of truffles wafts through your nose. Local producers of truffle-based products such as oils, butters, and creams man little stands alongside wine, cheese, and salami vendors. Free samples are encouraged, though this doesn’t apply to the truffles themselves. Hidden in an area towards the back the “truffle hunters” sit behind their display cases, which could just as easily display rare coins or stamps. The dirty looking clumps of culinary jewels are lined up in perfect little rows with price tags marking their value. Occasionally, a generous truffle hunter will reach into his case and pull out a sample for you to smell. The intoxicating aroma makes you momentarily forget that the walnut sized specimen drifting beneath your nose has a €163 price tag!

Pisa

 

Leaning tower of PisaPisa is a nice place to stop by if you’re traveling north to south along the western coast of Italy, which is exactly what we were doing on our way from Genova to Tuscany. Pisa is famous for its leaning tower, which is easy to access from the train station via a walk along the shop and restaurant lined streets through the city center.

BaptisteryThe leaning tower is part of a larger complex, which also contains a cathedral and baptistery. All are constructed of gleaming white marble that jumps out against the plush green lawns and bright blue sky.

The leaning tower is the bell tower for the cathedral, and its current lean is 5.5 degrees. For awhile visitors were not allowed to climb it because it was deemed too unstable, but engineers have been able to secure the building and now viTower and cathedralsitors are allowed back up.

We were content to roam around the outside of the buildings (scared off by long lines and steep admission prices) admiring the beautifully carved facades and watching people pose for pictures “holding up” the tower.

For more of our pictures from Pisa, click here.

Life and times in Italy

The falling dollar
The relentlessly plummeting dollar has fallen so low that I can no longer take out the standard amount I’ve been withdrawing because it puts me over the daily maximum allowed by my bank. There were some scary moments when the ATM informed me that my card was “out of funds,” until I figured out that it was just a reflection of the falling dollar.

Digital Divide
After living in Italy for a little while, you’ll notice that the country hasn’t quite integrated itself into the digital age. Today, for example, I was browsing for a card in the card store. I noticed the one I chose didn’t have one of the tiny hand-written price stickers on it like many others. I flipped the card over and saw a bar code, so I figured the price would come up when scanned. Not so. The most advanced technology this store has is an electric calculator. No barcode scanner in sight. After some agitated shuffling around by the store clerk the manager appeared and told her the price. I guess his brain is as good as the scanner.

Pigeon revenge!What's this pigeon up to?
Pigeons are a huge nuisance in any city. They’re dirty, annoying, and make messes all over everything like cars, buildings, and occasionally my head. In Italy the things pigeons make messes on also includes laundry. Indoor drying options don’t really exist here, so we have to hang our laundry outside. As we’re reminded every few weeks, pigeons seem to enjoy taking target practice on freshly laundered clothes. You can imagine why I enjoyed the pigeon revenge contraption in this video. I wonder if I can rig up something like this…