29 July 2010

Yet Another Stunning Hilltop Village

I DON'T WANT to suggest that all the incredible villages we have visited over the past few years begin to blend together and become, in some ways, indistinguishable, but...

No, that's not fair; I won't even go there. Instead I'll just put it this way: the number of medieval villages that sit high atop the hills in France and Italy is mind-boggling. Today we visited Montepulciano -- a gorgeous village in the hills of Tuscany, just south of Siena and about 40 minutes west of where are are living this summer. Montepulician is, of course, most widely known for it's wine and olive oil and those products were prominently on display in the village -- most local producers have a shop in town and most of those shops have vast underground cellars where the wine is being stored in various sized oak barrels. Just walking through these cellars is an incredible experience that seems to transport you into the 13th and 14th centuries.

The cheese in the cellars didn't smell particularly good.
In the cave with the aging wine.
One clever way to show off bottles of wine.

A little pizza for lunch.

Kids with grandparents.

Two kids with mom.

Three kids with me.

A great old little Fiat. Too bad those two guys wouldn't get out of the way.

28 July 2010

Two Nice Developments

TWO THINGS HAVE happened this week that we are finding quite enjoyable: 1) Kerri's parents arrived for a visit, and 2) the temperatures have dropped to an almost perfect level.

We didn't tell the kids when their grandparents were coming, but I woke up very early on Monday and drove to Rome to pick them up. Normally, this would be about a 2 hour trip -- and in fact the trip to Rome took about 2 hours. The trip home, however, took nearly 3 1/2, mainly because I missed one very critical turn and before we knew it we were driving around Rome. At one point Kerri's mom said she thought she saw a sign for the coliseum. I was certain that we we're that lost -- there was no way we were so far off track that we were in the center of Rome. About 30 seconds later were were driving along side of, you guessed it, the Coliseum.

Rome is an incredibly difficult city to drive in -- lots of one way streets, no real navigable grid of any kind, and very few signs. It literally took us a full hour to get out of the city and back on to the A1 heading North. As much as it was my fault, I tried my best to blame my in-laws for the missed exit (why were they talking to me so much when I was driving?)

But perhaps the best development of the week is the weather. For the past 2-3 days the high temperature hasn't reached 30 and it looks like this pattern is going to stay for at least a week to ten days. This is a nice change from the first week we were here, when the highs were consistently in the upper 30s, nearing 40! In a house with no air conditioning, that's getting a little hot.

Now it's time to explore the region a bit with Les and Joni. I'm sure we'll have updates.

25 July 2010

Beautiful Images

THE FOLKS WHO who work the Tour de France for the Versus Channel sure know how to put together a beautiful 2 minute video. I know every country has it's own beauty, but the Tour does an incredible job every year of reminding the world how beautiful France is:

24 July 2010

Amiamo Siena

HOW COULD YOU not fall in love with Siena? Many friends have told us how much they adore Siena, the medieval town right in the heart of Tuscany, but until today we could only imagine what the city was like. But know we can share in the adoration.

Today was an absolutely beautiful day in central Italy, a much needed reprieve from the heat that had settled into the area over the past couple of weeks. With a light breeze and temperatures only in the low 80s we decided to travel west along the Siena-Perugia highway for about an hour and visit Siena. The drive itself was worth it, with rolling hills covered in various shades of green and gold as far as the eye could see, interrupted every few kilometers by a small hilltop village with a church steeple pointing up toward the blue sky. But the real treat was Siena itself: the narrow streets, the wine shops, the outdoor cafes, the stunning duomo, and the brillant Piazza Il Campo -- one of the largest squares I've ever seen. We were with some friends from France and the nine of us enjoyed every minute (well, almost every minute -- the moment we realized that the 4 Sprites we bought the kids cost 4.50 Euros each might not fit into that category).

I could spend some time talking about the Siena Torture Museum (yes, we went) but that might get a bit gruesome. It is incredible to think about the way people lived only 200-300 years ago. Some of the methods that were used for torture are virtually unimaginable and to be honest, I think the kids were a bit freaked-out by some of the exhibits. Don't get me wrong, they like it. They loved it. But some of it was a bit much.

On the way home we stopped for a quick swim in Lake Trasimeno then our friends took us out to eat for a very nice, authentic Italian dinner. (That was very nice of you -- Jérome and Candide). So as you can see, there is little we could complain about today.

Hey, I got in a photo with Henry. Right in front of the main cathedral.

Julia at the Piazza Il Campo.

Hanging around.

Jérome is interested in the Duomo; the others don't appear to be.

Vic's Big Walk is Done

OVER THE PAST several months I have put up an occasional post about our friend Vic who was planning an epic walk from the South of France (his current home) to Blackpool, England. Why? He wanted to walk the 1900 km in 70 days and plan it so that he arrived at the home where is was born on his 70th birthday.

Well...he arrived in Blackpool yesterday!

That's 1900 km in 70 days, for those of you sitting on your butts at home like me.

Well done Vic and Gay!

20 July 2010

No Tour This Year

THIS IS OUR third full summer in Europe and it will be the first where we don't attend any of the Tour de France. One of the most enjoyable parts of previous summers has been going to Tour stages in various parts of the country. Whether it was the prologue in Monaco or a mountain stage in the Pyrenees, we've loved the pageantry the comes with the Tour de France.

But this summer we are in Italy so we have no choice but to simply watch on TV. That hasn't dampened Patrick's spirits, however. The other day he spent the better part of 2 hours creating and designing cycling jerseys for as many sponsors as he could think of -- including companies from France, Italy, the US, and Spain. He asked me which was my favorite, which is yours (based purely on visuals, since I obviously didn't get a high enough quality photo to read the team names)?

17 July 2010

Who Can Help Me Explain These...?

IN THE PAST few days I have seen a lot of women wearing shoes that look like the ones in this photo -- sort of sandal-boot hybrid. I understand the relationship between Italians and fashion, but I'm trying to understand this one. If it's nearly 100 degree outside why do you want six inches of leather or suede fastened to your lower calf?

I know I'm setting myself up to be ridiculed for now seeing how obviously fashionable this look is -- but that's a risk I'm willing to take.

Umbria Jazz Festival: Sights & Sounds

TONIGHT WE MADE our second trip to Perugia, partly because we wanted to take advantage of the last weekend of the Umbria Jazz Festival. It was such a great atmosphere, with bands playing every 50 meters or so and two large stages with bigger acts playing to huge crowds. A few photos of some of the groups (with perhaps a video to follow tomorrow):

These guys were sort of in the 'Swingers' genre -- down to the plaid shirts.

Not sure how to describe this duo: lots of jazzy versions of Simon & Garfunkel and James Taylor. Odd, but kinda good.

A little sidewalk art.
A great, great band from New Orleans. They paraded the streets for 45 minutes twice a day for 10 days. Crowds loved them.
My favorite street group -- just three guys with guitars playing jazz standards. They were so great!

Tonight's main attraction was Herbie Hancock and Tony Bennett. Tickets were sold out -- plus I'm not sure the kids would have lasted until the wee hours of the morning.

Central Italy - Week One

JUST A FEW photos from the first week in Italy:

Lake Trasimeno and the grand fortress in Castiglione del Lago

P & J in Castiglione del Lago

Walking through Castiglione

Our house in Macchie, Italy

Passagnano, Italy

15 July 2010

Scorpions and a Trash Can Full of Feathers

LET'S BE QUICK about this: until today, I'd never seen either. I'll start with the scorpion.

There is a large free-standing lamp in the corner of the main room in the house we are in this summer. When Kerri decided she wanted to move it a couple feet to the left (?) she obviously disturbed the scorpion that was living underneath the lamp stand. As it scurried across the room and up onto the stone wall, Kerri found the camera and called in the kids:

Hard to tell the size from the photo, but probably about 5-6cm.

After a few minutes on the internet deciding how dangerous it was, we (and by 'we' I mean everyone else in the family) decided that I should capture the scorpion and release it outside. With a plastic cup and a spatula (are those the absolute greatest things in the kitchen, or what?) I was able to trap the little guy and Henry and I took him to field across the street. Turns out this European variety of scorpion is quite common in this part of Italy and is usually not terribly dangerous, even if it stings you. Kerri vaguely remembers seeing scorpions at her grandparents house in North Carolina when she was quite young, but for me and the kids, this was a first.

[Quick sidenote. Is it wrong that Kerri and I have now used this scorpion as an illustration for the children as to why it is important not to leave clothes on the floor? From my point of view, why let this unbelievable opportunity go to waste. Sure, the kids are petrified any time they see a piece of their clothing on the floor -- but isn't that kind of the point? I believe someone quite famous once said: the ends justify the means! If the clothes are off the floor, I don't consider it exploiting the situation. Your thoughts?].

Now to the feathers in the bin. We share an outdoor trashcan with our neighbors -- a large Italian farming family. This morning when I took out our trash I opened the lid of the shared bin and dropped our bag to the bottom. Much to my surprise, this resulted in a face-full of what appeared to be chicken feathers. As I tried to pick up the feathers and put them back into the can it suddenly occurred to me that these feathers were probably from one of the many chickens our neighbors have on their farm -- and that the chicken was probably served for dinner the night before. Of course, it could be that it was from the local butcher (I believe you can buy chickens, pheasants, etc. with the feathers still attached) but the more I thought about it, the more I was going with my first inclination. The feathers were still 'fresh', if that makes any sense: light, fluffy, no odor at all.

I've read many Italian cookbooks and I know that killing the animal that you are about it eat is not only quite common -- especially in the countryside -- but is also an important part of the food experience as it is seen as an important aspect of the respect Italians have for the food they eat. Our area of Italy is very agricultural and every farmhouse has a large garden and several kinds of animals. I'm sure that 'living off the land' is much more than a saying in these parts.

But it was still a bit startling. I don't normally see feathers in my trashcans.

13 July 2010

Liking the Book. Hated the Movie.

YOU MAY REMEMBER a book published nearly 15 years ago called Under the Tuscan Sun that was hitting bestseller's lists all over the country. I'm a bit embarrassed to say that Kerri and I are reading it together right now. [Note: I'm embarrassed for several reasons. 1) Kerri is in essence reading it to me -- like I'm a child; 2) I generally don't care for books by Americans who go live overseas then tell everyone how great and perfect it is (blogs that do this in a somewhat lighthearted manner are...ahem.... fine with me); 3) I saw the film adapted from the book on a cross-country flight once and it was unwatchable -- a total pretentious chick flick if you ask this untrained critic.]


Me Likey The Book!

More on that later...but today we visited the village of Cortona, which is where the author purchased and refurbished an old villa -- then published the entire experience. On the right you can see a total stock photo of the village I found on the interet. This photo actually doesn't do it justice at all because the real soul of the village comes when you walk through the narrow streets and visit the shops.

Cortona is about 25km from where we are staying and it is a mountain village that overlooks some of the most gorgeous countryside you could imagine. While it is well documented that the village dates to the Etruscans, the origins of the village are lost in the fog of various myths and legends. Is Cartona 2500 years old? Older? Can it be believed that inhabitants were in the area as soon as 200 years after the great flood? In any case, 'modern' Cortona really flourished and it became a major center in the Lake Trasimeno region. We'll visit several more times while we are here (the kids thought that a weekly Sunday lunch there would be nice), so I'm sure there will be more to share. It seems clear after one visit that several more will be needed in order to really get to know the place.

Oh, and I may have to give that movie a second look.

11 July 2010

Sitting on Top of 20,000 Bottles of Wine

BECAUSE IT IS Sunday and Sundays tend to be a bit slow in Europe, we thought we'd just hang around the house in the morning and plan to eat out for lunch. After a few minutes on the internet we settled on Chiusi, the Etruscan village about 12 km from here and decided on a restaurant in the old village called Resorante Zaira. It turned out Zaira was both typical and atypical in terms the authenticity of the food: typical in the sense that the food was fresh and heavy on olive oil and herbs (Kerri's mixed legumes were incredible); atypical in that you couldn't order what our kids consider 'normal' pasta dishes like lasagne, fettuccine, or spagehtti-Os. But Patrick finally decided on an agnolotti with cheese and walnut sauce while Julia and Henry had the four-cheese and truffle ravioli -- minus the truffles (yeah, I know!). Kerri went with legumes and a salad and I chose a beef dish served with olive oil and peppercorns (which, by the way, I thought were capers and found out they weren't when I put about 8 of them in my mouth at the same time.)

But the best part of the lunch: the quick tour of the 'downstairs' afterwords. When we were finished the waitress asked if we wanted to see the caves (plural!) where they stored over 20,000 bottles of regional wine -- including Brunelo, Chianti, and Carmignano. (I think the waiter was even trying to show off a bit by telling us they had over 5,000 bottles of Brunelo di Montalcino). We eagerly said yes to the invitation and descended a set of stone stairs and entered a labaryth-like set of about 6 or 7 deep caves, all of which where stacked with bottles of wine, each one with a distinct coating of dust. Like a good tourist, I took photos:

Of course, with all that wine in the basement, we ordered two bottles...of cold water.

10 July 2010

Today's Goal: Find a Good Market

LAST NIGHT KERRI gave me some very clear instructions: find where all the local markets are and on what day they take place. My research found markets in Assisi on Mondays, Castiglione on Wednesdays, Magione or Montepulciano on Thursday, San Feliciano on Fridays, and Passignano- sur-Trasimeno on Saturdays. Perugia, of course, has several good markets every week, as does Siena.

But after our trip to the Passignano market today, we realized that what we are really looking for are Farmers' Markets -- the kind with stand after stand of fresh produce and local products. The Passignano market today was more along the lines of a flea market where lots of cheap clothes and other items are being sold out of the side of trucks. These are fun in their own way, but nothing beats getting a great deal on fresh fruits, vegetables, cheeses, and bread.

So after a fun day exploring and driving completely around Lake Trasimeno, I now have a new set of instructions, and I'm about to get started on those right now.

First Ride of the Summer

RETURNED FROM MY first bike ride of the 'summer' about 2 hours ago. First bit of cycling in Italy as well. The country is beautiful here and roads are, in general, in good shape. The exception, however, is the road we live on, which is unpaved -- meaning that for the first 400 meters or so of any ride I have to pretend I'm doing Paris-Roubaix (come on, who gets that reference?)

I spent about 1.5 hours out on the roads just soaking in the scenery. I don't think (actually, I know) that I have never seen so many olive trees in one area. Every hillside is covered with hundreds and hundreds of trees. Absolutely incredible.

About 1 hour into the ride I stopped for a water break in the hillside village of Paciano. From this photo taken just above the village you can see Lake Trasimeno and the little peninsula fortress of Castigliano del Lago in the distance. The reason I've included this photo is because the house we are staying in this summer is almost right smack in the middle of the picture -- about halfway between Paciano and the Lake. You can't actually see it -- but it's somewhere down there.

Late Update: after looking at this picture a little more closely I need adjust my description of the location of our house. If you go the middle of the photo, then go up about and inch and to the right about an inch -- that's about where we are. I think.

A Beautiful Sound

EACH MORNING AT about 7:00 I hear a distinct clipping sound outside the window. It is our neighbor trimming the vines of his small vineyard (I took a picture of it yesterday evening). In the few days we have been here we have noticed that many of the family farms in the area include a few rows of grapes. In our neighbor's case he has 5 rows of vines -- each row about 40 meters long. When I muster enough courage I'll go out and ask him what kind they are and what he plans to do with them after they are harvested. I wonder if he just sells them to a local producer or if he will actually get his own wine from his own grapes.

I hope the clipping continues.

09 July 2010

Italy Day One - Harvest Day

I'M GOING TO take these posts slowly and not try to describe everything all at once.

We have arrived in Italy and are settling into the house we have rented for the summer. After a few anxious moments (couldn't find the English news channels!!) it became clear that we were going to really like our place. It is an old renovated farmhouse surrounded by wheat fields and green, rolling hills. From the front of the house we look up to the mountaintop village of Panicale (right). The inside of the house is very modern, but with a really Italian-country feel. For example, there is no 'dining room' because the large square table for 8 people is located right in the middle of the kitchen. But the kitchen is big enough that the table doesn't come close to getting in the way.

Yesterday we explored a little bit of Castiglione del Lago, a popular medieval village on Lake Trasimeno which is about 10 minutes from the house. We ran around The main fortress in town was built by Emperor Frederick II in the 11th century and designed by a monk from the nearby town of Cortona.
Last night after dinner the kids and I went outside to watch the wheat harvest. A massive combine rolled right past our house and cut wheat right down to the stalk (do you say stalk?). Who knew that we would arrive on Harvest Day!! Reminded me of my youth, growing up in southeastern Washington State.

So far the interet access has been a bit spotty, but with some luck it will hold up.

05 July 2010

My New Very Favorite Hotel in the World

THIS EVENING I received a very nice email from Dominique -- the owner of the
Hotel les Arcades in Geneva. She was responding to an email I had sent thanking her and her hotel staff for their hospitality during my frequent trips to Geneva over the past several months.

When my classes in Geneva began last December, I searched the internet for a reasonable hotel in a centrally located area of Geneva. I settled on the Hotel les Arcades, purely by chance. Because I liked it so much (small, boutique-style, family owned) I inquired to Dominique about getting a special discounted rate if I promised to stay 25 to 30 nights over an 8 month period. She graciously offered a very good rate (especially by Geneva standards) which included room, internet, breakfast, bus card, etc. The fact that the hotel is right across the street from the train station on the Place Cornivan puts it in a perfect location. The only caveat was that from time to time I might be 'relegated' to one of the two rooms that had a bathroom that was across the hall rather than right in the room. Well, let me tell you that the bathroom issue was certainly not a problem for me. I don't mind crossing the hall when I have to pee in the middle of the night -- heck, I do it at home all the time.

In the end I stayed 28 nights at the Hotel les Arcades and every one of them was terrific. I recommend the place if you're ever in Geneva. It's right above the H&M store and just around the corner from Starbucks. Perfect, no?

02 July 2010

Last Day

TODAY IS THE official last day of school around France. For Patrick and Julia it means they are now finished with primary school and will begin collége next year. For Henry, it means he has completed his first year of school -- and he's pretty excited about that. His school celebrated this week with several parties and picnics.