Sunday, March 21, 2010

John and Beth visit Italy

We had an excellent weekend hosting John and Beth!  Here are the details of our adventure together.

They arrived late, late on Friday night.  Even though we were all tired, the excitement of their arrival kept us up and going. We opened up a bottle of wine and had a munchies spread of Parmesan cheese, olives, artichokes, bread, and a variety of salami including prosciutto, speck, and mortadella.  

On Saturday morning, we popped into a pasticceria so they could sample their first cappuccinos and pastries.  The cappuccino here is heavenly and must be tasted by all who visit.  Next, we ventured to Padova's market scene for some browsing and buying.  We did a lap through La Basilica di Sant'Antonio and gawked at the relic of St. Anthony's tongue!  (Beth didn't want to see the saint's tongue but we made her anyway!)  We found a small pizza place that featured the wood-fired type, our favorite! 

After lunch, we drove to the small town Soave.  As I've mentioned before, it's known for its white wine production and beautiful hilltop vineyards.  We tasted Valpolicella and Amarone at the cantina and of course couldn't leave without a hefty purchase.  We hiked to the ruined castle and by the rows and rows of grapes.  Soave is only about 10-15 minutes from Verona, so we ventured onward. 

In Verona, we paused for a much needed cafe in Piazza Bra with amazing views of the Arena.  We made the tourist trek down Via Mazzini to Juliet's statue and balcony.  Beth and John will now have outstanding luck for they both groped the left breast of Juliet.  We took them back through the beautiful Piazza Erbe and to one of the watering holes we always frequent while in Verona.  It was Saturday night during la passigata, the evening stroll, which meant that the Italians were out, dressed in their best, ready to see and be seen.  The weather was quite nice so we were able to drink our pre-dinner wine standing out on the street.  We love that about Italy- patrons of bars and cafes always spill out on to the streets to drink, socialize, and people-watch when the weather is lovely. 

For dinner, we went back home to cook.  We started with some pecorino cheese topped with Chianti jelly (picked up on our Toscana adventure).  For dinner, I made baked cherry tomatoes with spaghetti- a recipe from my newest Italian cookbook by Lidia Bastianich (a beautiful gift from my Mama).  It features fresh cherry tomatoes seasoned with pepperoncini (crushed red pepper), garlic, basil, and ricotta.  We opened a bottle of the Chianti Reserve that Michael and I also picked up while in San Gimignano.  

On Sunday, we made the required visit to Venice.  You can't come to northern Italy without seeing Venice's charming canals.  We took a vaporetto down the Grand Canal to Piazza San Marco.  It's our favorite way to show off the glorious facades of Venice's former palaces.  We had the panino lunch on sandwich row and then stood with all the other tourists, taking in the facade of the Basillica di San Marco.  Unfortunately, the interior of the church was closed and we were only able to visit the entry way.  We wandered the winding streets over to the Rialto, pausing at glass and art shops along the way.  John and Beth purchased a stunning glass plate for Chateau Papillon. 

For dinner, we headed back to Vicenza to take them to our local favorite - Vecchia Portega.   (We take everyone who comes to visit  because it is so very good.)

On Monday, we ended their visit with a walk through Vicenza.  We pointed out Teatro Olympico, Palladio's Basilica and Loggia, and Villa Valmarna.  Lastly, they were also able to check gelato off their must-taste list.

The weather was wonderful- bright and sunny, a sharp contrast to the earlier part of the week which featured snow.  The whole weekend was enjoyable.  We always love sharing with others what we love about Italy - food, wine, landscapes, and architecture.

A note about the absence of photos....
John is an amazing photographer.  He has top of the line gear including multiple cameras, lenses, flashes, and others gadgets I have no clue what they are or what they do.  He also has a good eye, and understands composition and lighting, and other advanced photography jargon.  I would love to have a learning session if he would teach it.  He has a website of his own and I am sure will feature his photography from this trip.
A true story...I took only one photo the entire weekend, and John's eyes were closed!  I hope to "steal" some of his.      

Friday, March 12, 2010

A Little Bit of News

It snowed this week.  I'm always thrown a little when there is snow in March.  I know the first day of spring is more than a week away, but for some reason I feel we should be having warmer, not colder, weather.  I think it's the little sneak peaks of spring- one or two days of nice weather, tricking you into thinking "Ah! It's here!" and then the next day it snows.  "Just kidding.  You better get that puffy coat and gloves back out.  You put them away too soon....again!" 

Other news, we're hosting this weekend!  Michael's cousin, John, and his wife, Beth, are in route as I type this.  We're planning to visit the markets, sample/taste some local wines, and head to Venice.  I'll tell you all about it next week.  Until then, hope you have a nice weekend!  If you drink some Italian wine or eat a pizza, think of me.  I'll be doing the same!   

Saturday, March 6, 2010

Toscana: San Gimignano

Rolling hills topped with Tuscan villas surrounded by vineyards and olive groves...

These are the words that come to mind for many when they think of Tuscany.  I can now say that's exactly what I think too... I can only imagine that it's even more beautiful in the spring or summer when everything is lush and blooming.

On our way back to Vicenza, we stopped in the hill town San Gimignano.  It's been described as picturesque but also a little touristy.  Luckily, we found it during the off season.  Surprisingly, it felt a little sleepy.  It's notorious for its remaining towers and great wine including Chiani and Vernacia di San Gimignano. 

We explored the cute streets and hiked up to a park surrounded by olive trees with an amazing overlook over the surrounding hills.


Michael even made friends with a sweet cat.

For lunch, we stopped at a lovely enotecca (wine bar), La Grotta Ghiotta.  We dined on a tasty bruschetta with pecorino cheese and olives along with some Chianti.  Afterwards, we had a lengthy tasting of San Gimignano's Chianti and Rosso di Montalcino.  We also tried some Chianti jelly smeared across slivers of pecorino.  Let me just say, it was divine!  We ended the meal with Vin Santo, a dessert wine with almond biscotti for dipping.  It was a fun experience and we drank some of the best wine we've ever tasted.  We came home with more than a few bottles...

We especially enjoyed our weekend exploring Toscana and hope we'll have the chance to visit one more time in the spring...

Friday, March 5, 2010

Toscana: Siena

We did it.  We went on another adventure!  The weather here this past weekend was wonderful- bright, sunny, and in the low 60's.  We've heard such great things about the beauty of Siena and the hill towns of Tuscany that we decided to take advantage of the early glimpse of spring and make a visit.

Saturday, we woke up super early and drove down to Siena.  We were there by lunch time and spent the afternoon wandering the medieval streets. 

I understand now why everyone raves about Siena.  The streets are small and winding, and also mostly limited to pedestrians. Everything is picturesque.   It's also unbelievably clean.  There was little to no trash or graffiti, creating very pleasant surroundings. 

The main piazza, Il Campo, is just magnificent.  The city hall and tower made me think of a gigantic medieval Lego set.  There is also a beautiful fountain.  The weather brought out many who were also lounging and socializing. We sipped glasses of Chianti and Vernaccia di San Gimignano while taking in the beautiful buildings and people.

While sipping, we gabbed about the Palio di Siena that happens twice each year in this exact square.  It was hard to imagine the square packed full of sweaty people in the heat and humidity of July and August to watch the world's most exciting horse race.  The outer ring is lined with dirt and mattresses are even put up on the walls.  There is a horse and jockey team with an animal mascot for each neighborhood.  The first horse to make it three times around the square wins.  I happened to catch some video footage from the 2005 Palio later at the hotel.  I was surprised at how emotional the people were.  It's a lively and exciting tradition that seems very personal to the people of Siena.

Later in the afternoon we visited the Duomo.  The exterior had a mix of Romanesque columns and arches and Gothic spires.  The inside and outside walls were lined with white and green striped marble.  

The she-wolf image with Romulus and Remus was present everywhere- both as sculptures and marble inlaid in the floor. Apparently, it is one of the symbols of Siena.  I found this unusual because I've always associated the she-wolf icon with Roma.

The dome in the center of the cathedral was painted with an optical illusion- it appeared 3-D and sculptured although it was simply a flat fresco.

The walls and ceiling of the Piccolomini Library (a side chapel off the main church) were beautifully frescoed. I was impressed by the 3-D effects created by the artist Pinturicchio.  The colors and gold of the paint were brightly illuminated by the natural sunlight coming in through the windows.  This room was radiant and warm and I thought there was a striking contrast between it and the darker, colder interior of the rest of the church. 

For dinner, we ventured away from Il Campo and found a wonderful osteria called Taverna di San Giuseppe.  I really loved the interior and ambiance.  It had a grotto feeling that was rustic but dressy with modern touches.  And the food- amazing!  For my primo, I had pasta with pumpkin, saffron, and leeks.  Michael had pasta with artichokes, leeks, and Gorgonzola. We even had enough courage to order a local Tuscan speciality for our secondo- wild boar!  Michael said it reminded him of slow roasted pork.  We ended the meal with the best tiramisu we've ever had.

We strolled hand in hand back through Il Campo to our hotel.  Ahhhhh.  We, too, now looooooove Siena.

Some additional photos...

The fountain in Il Campo

Duomo with Bell Tower and Dome

She-wolf sculpture plus beautiful ornate marble

A handsome tourist

Come back tomorrow for details of our visit to one of the hill towns.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

London Calling

This time last year hubby and I were returning from a trip to London.  We hopped on a cheap and very short flight (2 hours, yay!) and met Eddie for a long weekend.  It was our first adventure outside of Italy and we've been addicted to exploring Europe ever since. 

Some highlights...

Westminister Abbey
Massive and beautiful, with many neat tombs and tons of history.

Big Ben
Iconic and intricate.  I couldn't help but think of the scene in European Vacation when Clark Griswald is stuck in a traffic circle and keeps calling out "Big Ben, Houses of Parliament" over and over, every time they pass them.   "Big Ben, kids!"

Trafalgar Square
Very lively square with artists, street performers, and on-lookers.  There were tons of lion statues and tourists possing with them... 

National Gallery
Free.  Unheard of for my museum experience in Italy.  Incredible art including a large exhibit featuring Picasso.  It was lit up beautifully at night with projections of his work. 

The Eye
Gigantic ferris wheel that makes one revolution every half hour.  We rode at dusk and were treated to the sunset and amazing views of London from the top including Big Ben, Houses of Parliament, and the Thames.

The Tower of London
History and medieval architecture everywhere.  The crown jewels are on display here with guards posted outside.  They are elaborate and maybe a little excessive...

Tower Bridge
Another icon of London.  We did the ultimate but fun cliche - riding over it in a red double-decker bus.

The Underground
Mind the Gap.

Many, many pubs
Beer is expensive in Italy and not so good unless it is imported, say from.... Germany.  It was nice have to "cheaper" and beter beer options.  I noted that it was very smooth and easy to drink.  The wooden beams/paneling was a classic recurring pub theme and provided that homey feeling matching perfectly with good friends and good beer.