Tuesday, September 8, 2015

And that's where it ends?? Not quite!

I know, I know, it's been a just a while since we last posted. Now, we are back at home in Denver living our beautiful and busy lives on U.S. soil. Of course, our lack of posting was not for lack of new and exciting adventures abroad. We still had four days across the pond to revel in international fare and plan for our transition to normal life. Some families may take a year off and sail the world or retreat on a mission for two years, but our three weeks was just the right amount of time.

On our way out - to Venice we go!
-No joke, it was about 110 degrees crazy hot in this photo!-

Knowing we had very little time to see all the fine Italian cities during our week in Tuscany, we decided that Venice would be our final stop for a day trip en route to Milan where we would overnight and catch a plane to Iceland (via Copenhagen). If you want to count countries whose soil we touched, the Denmark flight stopover makes 8!

Venice, a place so close to the hearts of many and one of our favorites from our trip 8 years ago and Jordan's trip three years ago, was thankfully still standing. It still has not been sucked into the sea, and it's charming streets, secret passages, and canal thoroughfares provide endless opportunities to get lost without really being lost. You'll always find yourself somewhere in Venice. On the day we arrived, we disembarked from our train with all of our backpacks and belongings into a blistering crazy heat that immediately draws sweat from the tiniest of pores in your body. We found a local shop that also allowed you to rent space to leave your pack for a day, and took off to explore Venice. Not 300 feet later did we find our first and most marvelous stop, the Magnum Ice Cream Bar Shop.

Not only could you choose the inside of your bar, but you got to choose all the toppings. We spent at least 30 minutes deciding the favorite flavors and absorbing all the air conditioning. As far as Izzy was concerned, this could have been the last place we stopped in Venice and it would have been the greatest! 

Since ice cream melts if you don't eat it, our departure coincided with our full tummies and we headed out again to find favorite streets and piazzas that interlock the winding pathways. It is simply marvelous to be in a car-less world with everyone on foot or picking up a ride from the water taxi or gondolier. Of course, these are both expensive propositions for the tourists, and while you are probably better off if you find a Venetian with a boat he'll let you use for the day, it's still worth the euros to melt into the seat of a gondola for a 30 minute ride around town. We chose a departure point off the Grand Canal, admittedly the MOST touristy place in Venice and as all of Italy is on vacation in August, it is one of the few places with open restaurants. The ride on the gondola isn't really about seeing the sites-you are frankly several feet below street level and what you see are the bottoms of buildings until you get out to a framed view of the Grand Canal or the sea on the east. You also see, if you are looking closely, the small sunlit windowsills above you and the business transactions that happen at doorways because it all happens on the canals. 

-A sunlit afternoon on a second story in Venice-

I also like listening to the gondoliers talk to their compatriates in other boats, all the while avoiding the ancient stone walls with the slightest of oar and a foot to push the boat off from it's seemingly inevitable bruising.

Having wound our way through on foot and boat to the east coast of Venice, we took in St. Marks Square for music and another hydrating rest stop before braving the 200-person water taxi. These things are surely over their carrying limit, and while I would never compare our trip on the water to that of the millions who are risking their lives and loves to cross to Europe from Syria, this  was a hellish, hot and miserable ride between several stops before we got back to the train station. 
-Water taxis on the Grande Canal-

Another wait for an Italian train gave us a chance to stop and simply absorb the activity around the station, grab a drink and rest before our next jaunt to Milan.

I can still say that Venice is one of my favorite places but I am also equally happy to visit it during any other season BUT summer. :)

Friday, August 21, 2015

Italy's Cities and Towns: Impruneta

Impruneta is the town that served as our homebase for grocery shopping each evening and the departure point for the bus into Florence. Impruneta with a population of 15,000 was smaller in geography than my old college town of Mount Vernon, Iowa whose population at the time swelled to 3,000 with the college kids. Impruneta, like all other small towns, build density into its ancient walls with two-four story buildings lining all of the small streets that wind up, down and around the piazza where people eat, drink, pray, and sometimes just sit. We grew to know the local tobacco shop where we could buy bus tickets, the pharmacy, and the sometimes gelato-sometimes sandwich shop (depending on whether the freezer was operational). Impruneta also featured weekend farmers markets where you could buy everything from fresh swine and beef to Birkenstocks and children's underwear. Small town living.

-The church at the center of town in Impruneta - also apparently home to weekly exorcisms-

Impruneta serves the locals and the visitors in Tuscany, the well known Italian region saturated with hillside villas among grape vineyards, apple orchards, and olive groves. the road into and out of our villa was harrowing and extremely narrow, so vehicle trips into town were limited. For the able bodied who don't mind hills, it was actually easier to walk the mile into town, but the magic of Impruneta for us was the Coop (Co-op) grocery trips with the family. We owned that place after a week weighing our fresh produce, picking out cheese and reinforcing our supply of wine each day.

Italy's Big Cities and Small Towns: Florence

As one of our three weeks included our special family Tuscan holiday, we knew amidst the down time we would incorporate a few day trips to Italy's fine cities. While Jordan had been to Europe on a whirlwind tour with other students three years ago, Isabelle had never witnessed the beauty of ancient Rome, the canals of Venice or the art that is Florence. However, our public transportation options once deposited into the hillsides of Tuscany were fairly limited, so we learned to read the countryside bus schedule that would get us to Florence in order for us to get to the train station, or on one day rent a car to reach faraway towns off the limits of a train schedule. Beyond the beautiful quiet wine-filled villa, we decided to visit Florence, Parma, Cremona, Venice, and our departure point-Milan. Rome, for Izzy, will have to wait as that trip would take us too far south in the time we had.

August 8: Florence. 
Hot. Florence in the summertime is very very hot. Its honestly hard to enjoy the city amidst thousands of sweaty tourists (ourselves included). However, we knew this would be the condition as we exited our bus, and we steeled ourselves for the somewhat obligatory event of walking around the city in search of food, in search of 'special'. While I feel responsible for everyone enjoying themselves, I sometimes have to go to my own "quiet" place in my head to remember that we will each have our own experiences, and sometimes, we embark on these excursions to check it off the list. While my first visit to Florence eight years ago seems much more magical, this second visit was tempered by even hotter temperatures (yes, the globe has warmed since 2007) and a lack of advance reservations for the hot ticket Florence museums - Uffizi Gallery, Museo Gallileo, or Accademia Gallery in Florence where Michaelangelo's David stands in all his naked glory. I am sure David, at least, was the coolest individual in the sweltering heat. 

We did manage to seek shelter in the Museo degli Argenti, also known as Palazzo Pitti and the summer home of the influential Florentine Medici family. The home is also a display route for hundreds of original pieces of religious Florentine art, and at this time they were displaying the work of Carlo Dolci, a respected Florentine artist favored by the family, so the entire house looks like the Sistine Chapel.

The construction of Italy's cities strongly accounted for the context in which the cities were located-scale, color, and shapes helped create the lasting architecture of views and buildings that draw so many in the world to appreciate its gifts. Across the Arno River that runs west through Florence to the Tiberian Sea are several bridges-the oldest is the Ponte Vecchio and is the designated shopping street filled with tourists, a few street vendors, and lined with old shops selling leather, jewelry, glass sculpture, gelato, and tee shirts. My favorite aspect of Florence is the view from Ponte alla Carraia looking east toward the Vecchio that I only got on the bus coming into town, but the river shapes the city beautifully and the scale of architecture-both older Florentine as well as the new modern dialectic-is appealing to the eye. Shoppers come to shop here and whether they are conscious of it or not, they go to this place because it is beautiful, it is timeless, it is forever. 

Comparing Florence to modern cities like Vancouver or even my own Denver is probably not fair, as architecture of old is everlasting in Italy and preservation is par for the course, while younger cities struggle to ascertain the importance of their historic structures when shiny new objects and modern closet space trends hot among milennials. Density is accommodated primarily through midrise multifamily structures in all of the cities we visited, even the small towns. As is the case in Denver, the debate is downright vitriolic between those witnessing the rise of new architecture considered thoughtless and a violation of neighborhood scale, and those who make a living building new homes for the hoards of incomers who want to call Denver home. Florence and other Italian cities reinforce my appreciation for the science and art of dwellings and public spaces. It has been all but lost in today's quick buck environment, but at least in my profession over the past 22 years, I've seen professional planners, architects and builders inspired by places of old, and hope these inspirations are recognized in reality with the rise of new structures to accommodate our growing population. I do wonder, however, what all the villagers said when the duomo Santa Maria del Fiore was constructed...

-Cousins Kevin and Mary with Ivan and Isabelle at Santa Maria del Fiore

-Ponte Vecchio and it's tourists-

As we wandered through the beautiful streets (again, filtering out the crowds), we turned corners for other streets that appeared to head in the general direction we wanted to go - in all Italian cities, we found it doesn't really matter where you wander. These cities are set up to allow wandering in all directions, and there is always a piazza or public square to greet you at the other end of a street. The forted walls of these ancient cities contain the wandering souls for the most part, but an easy bus ride outside into the country provides context and opens horizons to the Tuscan hills beyond Florence.

Thursday, August 13, 2015

The Irish Raid Tuscany and Meals to Die For

First, get a villa and invite your family.:) our trip around Europe was simply a precursor to celebrate a much more important lifetime achievement - my mother's retirement (April 2014). Add to this a celebration of midlife for my mom and her husband (my stepdad) Tom, her sisters Susan and Sister Judy (really, she's a nun if you need a divine connection), Tom's sisters Debbie and Theresa, Judy's friend Sister Kathy (familia to us), mom's little brother Bob and his wife Linda (celebrating their 30th anniversary), my second cousins Cathy and Pinky and you've got a delightful soup of east coast Irish folk who cook Itlian food that's out of this world! Bob's son Kevin and his wife Mary (young in their 20s) also joined in the fun the week we arrived, so the kids had other lively youth to hang with when the old farts-and I mean Ivan and I:) were not adequate playmates. 

I specially added Aunt Susan in that list because although an illness prevented her passage across the pond, we Skyped her each night and included her in family dinner conversation. Our hearts were broken that she could not be with us but there will be another trip surely for Sue.

Meals Meals and More Meals! Over the course of two weeks there were 6-16 people around the table depending on cross arrivals and departures. The villa slept 20 so there was plenty of room-the kids even got their own apartment! While not a requirement to eat together every night, it became the part of our day most cherished by all for the time spent cooking, sharing new family stories about our travels ( each family was free to organize their own excursions or NOT), and sipping wine, beer and aperitifs with deserts chosen each night to share amongst the group. 
Feeding that many people required almost daily trips to the local coop with cheap fresh and beautiful fruits and veggies, fresh off the swino prosciutto, and other local specialities. It also required a minimum of 12 bottles of wine per day but usually more, and our recycling container regularly overflowed. The villa was prepared with an extra wine fridge...and mops for when the slightly intoxicated might loosen their grip on a wine glass or bottle. (We had the floor cleaning down to a science.)
-The Oss Family's Baked Porcetta Reggiano Penne-

Each family took turns cooking and cleaning up. Each meal was served with an antipasto plate, a salad course, and a second (main) dish. While the family is full of amazing cooks, cousin Cathy travels with her apron and by all accounts held the day on the most delicious preparations. She shared her NOW family secrets to creamy risotto, scaloppine, sausage and peppers, and even her own special secrets for Italian gravy. (To some, gravy comes in a jar by Ragu but in our familia it is always homemade.)

-Sister Kathy at the sink and Aunt Linda assisting-

Dessert was always gelato, Belgian chocolates we brought to share, Swiss chocolates Bob laid out and Italian cookies. Thank goodness for the miles and miles of walking and the high Italian temperatures. While we theoretically could have packed on the pounds I am sure the net result was lost weight through the blood (from broken wine glasses), the sweat (from existing in Tuscany in August), and tears (from having to say goodbye to these wonderful people I call my family.) Mi amore ma familia😍

Languages Across Europe

During the course of our travels, we have half-picked up semi-conversational pigeon versions of Islenska, Norwegian, Dutch, German, Belgique, French, and Italian. Throw in Jordan's surprisingly good grasp of conversational Spanish, Ivan's German, my less than stellar hook on greetings in Chinese and French, and Izzy's Italian musical knowledge, we were a hot mess of conversational ability.

I think we used all of them while dining out in restaurants; ordering in the native language based on menu items and saying please and thank you in other languages (because we'd forget which country we were in.) The kids still tell of a story that actually occurred stateside where we brought our Chinese exchange  student to a Chinese restaurant and I said por favor to order and she she (she'a she'a) to say thank you in Chinese. I was 50/50 on that dinner and the trend continued in Europe.

The similarities of Spanish and Italian and even the Latin or Germanic roots recognizable in almost all the written languages we encountered made it possible for us to read menus, generally figure out directions, and converse based on what we could read. If not full sentences at least we proved effort.

Sometimes our efforts were rewarded with pride by the natives - a smile to show they appreciated that Americans in their country thought enough to try out their native tongue. Other times it was a bizarre moment of silence, a quizzical look and then a response in English to let us off the hook...or put us to shame. I think our Italian local bus driver who we had at least twice en route or returning from Florence to Imprunetana was slightly entertained by our family of four boarding the bus and trying to pay. Sometimes he'd take our money, sometimes he'd simply wave us off to the back of the bus for our ride. I believe these were times when we had incorrect bus fare as its not advertised well on local stops and each day it was different.😐

We really provided entertainment as we boarded a packed bus back to Florence loaded with our packs and one extra bag-we hardly fit the aisles and the passengers had a good laugh at our expense. Of course, the beauty of laughter is that it is understood in every language and it always includes a smile.:)

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Arriving at Villa Oliveta Under the Tuscan Sun

So much fun! Think back to Thursday August 6th...We took five trains to traverse from Bern to Florence. With our First Class (this is worth it so do it) Eurail passes, the first two in Switzerland required no reservations, but for Trenitalia or any other Italian train you will be fined €50 for hopping a train without one. Thanks to the magic of a lovely Swiss train station agent, we booked all of our train reservations in Bern but had roughly 20 minutes between trains to haul our stuff from one track to another. Another strange phenomenon in Italy is that they never post the track for your desired train until exactly 1 minute prior to its departure, so everyone including rail employees stand anxiously in front of monitors that update each minute. Once you know your track you bolt as fast as you can-pack on back and family in tow.

Our last train to Florence we finally had access and time to enjoy the dining cart where we had good beer and wine and our first meal in the course of our 9 hours of travel. 

Upon arrival in Florence, we navigated to the bus stop for the one bus line that traverses the Tuscan hillsides south of Florence to the Impruneta region and the small town of Impruneta. This town became our grocer, farmers market, biglietti de l'autobus (bus ticket) shop, and pick up point for my parents to drop off and pick up family members en route or returning from Florence. We eventually figured out the bus route dropped off right at the top of our road. I am a transit nut in any city and apparently in Italian wine country, too.

-Tom picking us up in Impruneta and showing off his selfie stick (or as we called it the narcissistick).

Monday, August 10, 2015

Bern overnight

This post is days late, partly due to limited internet access and partly due to limited gumption to do anything but laze about. Switzerland was a must on our agenda, but we hadn't made any firm plan on what city to visit on our trip south to Italy. We finally picked Bern because the Bernese like to cool down on hot summer days by hiking upstream and then swimming back down the river, which winds through the heart of the city. That sounded like some good clean fun, but it was not to be. By the time we had arrived at our hotel and checked in, we needed to find food and put the swimming on hold and by the time we were done eating it was dusk and the river was empty of locals. The kids were good sports and didn't voice their disappointment when we decided not to swim in the dark, alone and unfamiliar.

Bern is the Swiss capital, terraced into the hills surrounding the Arne river, fed by the Alps which stand to the south. Old, austere and solid; dwellings, hotels and bridges stack together neatly, shaded by trees and interspersed with parks. In the angled light of evening, the scene was like a painters fantasy.

We easily found our way to the hotel and then set out in search of dinner which we found in a wide plaza next to the massive state house. We dined al fresco, on fondue, of course, which came with small potatoes and bread. We shared a pot rather than paying 25 euro's each for an even larger pot. It was delicious! We followed the cheese with Rosti (missing an umlout here). Rosti is baked in a cast iron dish, made of shredded potatoes and cheese and topped with a choice of items like bacon, eggs, macaroni and cheese, ham, etc... According to the menu, this is a quintessential Bernese dish but the portions were quite American. We couldn't finish our half orders.

By now it was truly night but the city was busy with people enjoying the cooler temperatures. We found a high terrace with a view and a pair of tiled chess boards with two foot high wooden pieces. Izzy and I challenged Jordan and Deirdre, and, to my surprise, prevailed. Jordan usually wins at chess. We headed back to the hotel and slept soundly, in spite of loud revelry outside that lasted well into the wee hours of the next morning.