Monthly Archives: June 2010

Venice is refreshed….

Venice is refreshed….

A balcomy overlooking the Rialto.

It is Wednesday in Venice and when I awoke at 7:30 I could hear the sprinkling of rain on the window.  The Hotel Monaco provides a continental breakfast like none in the US.  The tray was delivered with my selection of cappuccino,  a basket of breads, including fresh croissants, two type of muffins and small rolls, plus four different jellies,butter, and cappuccino in a white coffee cup with a lid to keep it warm accompanied by a pitcher with additional warm milk and froth. Am I dreaming?  I ate, showered and walked out into the narrow street with the umbrella provided by the hotel to browse the shops along the portico of St. Marks square.

It was raining too hard to walk across the square so I slowly made my way around the circumference which took about an hour.  I was searching for just a few more gifts for my list.  I wanted to get the best price and the best items.  After making the round once, I returned to the shops that had my favorite choices.  I made my purchases and decided to sit for a minute and listen to the violin, clarinet and accordion at the Florian Restaurant and Tea Room.
I had decided to find an appropriate gift for Tom.  In 26 years of marriage, I have rarely found a gift he truly loves. He does not like anyone to purchase clothing for him.  He likes work out clothes and some sports related items, but that is about it.  There is, however, one piece of jewelry that he likes. Not rings or bracelets, but he does love watches.  He has in then past either received the watches as awards, or has purchased the watch after much investigation.  I have been looking at watches throughout the trip and I think this is what I would like to do for him.
I enter several shops looking for a legitimate authorized dealer of brand name watches.  After several stops and much haggling, I decide on ” the one” and make my purchase.  It qualifies for duty free paperwork and I complete he appropriate papers and walk out of the store with a beautiful bag with a box and the information and catalog .  I am happy because I feel Tom will love my choice as much as I do.
One more tip about purchasing items in Europe.  If you exceed 150 euros, you are entitled to a refund of tax..duty free..that equates to around the amount of the exchange rate in American dollars.  So, it can mean from $25  up.  You must have the store complete the paperwork, you add your name, address and passport number signature and the original is given to you with a receipt.  When you are at the airport, you need to have the paperwork completed before you get on the plane.  The refund will be made in cash or as a credit on your card.  Very important for large purchases.
My dream vacation is about to come to an end.  The feeling is bittersweet as I miss my family and home, yet I truly love Italy and feel certain to return soon.  After discovering so many wonderful things, I want to share it all with those I love.
I return to my suite at the beautiful Hotel Monaco and repack my suitcase for the final journey home just as the afternoon sun peers through the sky and dries up the rain on the stone walks.  Venice is refreshed and soon the streets will be filled with people searching for a wonderful Venetian meal.

Fairy tale Venice…..

Fairy tale Venice…..

A page from my personal journal dated June 15, 2010 Tuesday noon..

As I write this I am sitting on the train from Roma to Venezia, Santa Lucia, which is a three and one half hour trip.  I am happy to return to Venice as it was my favorite city when Tom and I brought Lindsay and Louis in April 2004.  It will be interesting to see if my week in Toscana  has changed my view.

There was a slight problem with my Iphone that I was able to resolve while in the train station.  But, I really must admit I felt a bit cut off when I was without means of communication in my familiar ways for several hours this morning.  When I awoke this morning, there was a a message from ATT that my international plan had exceeded it’s data usage and to avoid interruption of service I must call them right away. By the time I was in an area with service, I had been locked out.  Alone in busy Rome train station, I purchased my first class reservation to Venice and searched for a public telephone.  The banks of phones were few and always seemed to be located right beneath the speakers announcing the arriving and departing trains. After searching for a phone in the quietest spot, I attempted to read the instructions.  It seems you must have a credit card to make a phone call these days. ( I later was told by a nice Venetian I met on the flight home, you must purchase a specific phone card for the orange phones AND you must pull one corner back before it will allow you to insert it….good tip)  Ok, pull out the visa and insert.  No matter how I tried, it told me in Italian, error of insertion, remove card.  After around four attempts, I finally got it to make a dial tone and dialed the number for international assistance listed in my iPhone message.  Well, the call was in Italian…..and very fast….That would not work, so I pulled out the card and attempted to dial it again from a different type of phone one with clear directions in English.  When I inserted my visa, it told me my card was frozen.  I assume the fraud department of the bank had frozen it.  Problem is, I only have two credit cards, Visa and American Express. I found out early on my trip American Express charges a higher fee therefore it is not readily accepted in Italy.  Now I am in a pickle.  I do have some cash but will need to pay for a hotel for two nights, so I am hoping to be able to use my Amex. Back to my original problem, my phone.  I finally got thru to the ATT international assist and after a twenty minute call, and an increase in my international plan from 20 mb to 100 mb,  I was up and running again. Whewwww!

It seems this trip I have learned more about megabytes, meters, and conversion rates than I really care to know. I have probably gained a few kilos with the wonderful food, and walked many kilometers. My megabytes had to be increased on my phone.  But, it is really very useful information.

This afternoon I am hoping to be able to fix my iPad problem.  I have not been able to send mail for three days, getting no service.  I am sure I have gone over my data usage, and I am locked out of that as well. So, if you are reading this email I have figured it all out.

Also, I have no reservation in Venice, so I will hope to be able to find a place to stay for the night.  For now, I am going to relax on the smooth train ride that should last for two more hours.

There was another interesting travel tip we learned from Paolo while on our walking tour. Scattered around the city you will find water fountains.  They look like just another beautiful marble fountain but, there is a pipe with a stream of water running out.  At the top of the pipe is a small hole.  If you place your finger over the water coming out of the pipe, the water will stream out of the smaller hole on top like a drinking fountain.  The water is cold and delicious.  It has no chemical taste and is very refreshing.  If you had purchased a water in a plastic bottle and you finish it, keep it to refill at the next fountain.  You are good for the day with fresh icy cold  water.

One of the palaces along the Grand Canal from my Vaporetta ride from the train station.

Well, with all of the stops, we arrived at the Venice train station at around 3:30 and I managed to lug my huge suitcase ( I will NEVER pack like this again) onto the vaporetta (water bus). The train ride was very relaxing for me and I was able to look at some hotels online and decided I wanted something on the Grand Canal with airport shuttle service.  I bought a ticket to San Marco and off I walked in the sprinkling  rain. We passed the Gritti Palace both old and new, where we stayed our last trip.

Honestly, even in the rain, I love this place.  I believe I am drawn to the water. Every place I have ever lived was on the water.  Much different from my sister who lives in the desert.

As we passed the beautiful palaces along the Grand Canal I was happy to be back.  When

I stepped off the vaporetta and walked just a few steps I happened upon the

My beautifully appointed room at the Hotel Monaco in Venice

Hotel Monaco. I had no reservation and the hotel looked pricey.  As I approached the reservation desk in the gorgeous lobby of the hotel the lady clerk greeted me.  She found a single room for me at 323 euro for the first night and 124 euro for the second night. Private water taxi was available for 100 euro.  Oh, and they took American Express. I happily turned over my passport and checked in.  My room has a

marble tub, bidet, mini bar and TV.  They offer breakfast room service and have an amazing dining room right downstairs.  It is quite modern by Venetian standard yet the building is over 500 years old. Oh, and the cushy terrycloth robe looked inviting.  I was in heaven. I unpacked and decided to rest before I freshened up for dinner somewhere on San Marco (St. Marks Square) then off to bed for a day in the labyrinth of streets that are Venice.

There are no cars in Venice only gondolas for transportation. They measure about 36 feet long and 4 feet wide and are all remarkably uniform. According to 16th century law, all are painted with seven layers of black lacquer and made of specific woods. Propelled by a single oarsman standing at the back of the boat, the shallow-draft vessels are the perfect shape and depth to penetrate even the narrowest and shallowest canals. Maybe I will take a ride tomorrow if the sun is shining when I awake.  Buene notte.

Back in the 18th century there were around 14,000 gondolas plying the canals. Today there are around 400 still in use.

Monday at the farmers market…

Monday at the farmers market…

This is a page from my personal journal dated Monday, June 14, 2010

This morning Kelly, Katie and I were the first to rise.  We showered and again took turns with the temperamental blow dryer.  Katie, Kelly and I rushed down to the piazza where the farmers market assembles each morning to buy fruit and bread for breakfast.  The square was filled with several produce, flower and spice venders.  The smells were amazing. The produce as fresh as possible.  The artichokes a beautiful green and purple, the peppers as large as I had ever seen.  The prices were very reasonable.  We selected bananas, some fruit cups for variety.  We found a pastry shop for croissants and added some filled pastries for fun.  We returned , cranked up the old stove top percolator and set the table for breakfast.

Oh, and, here is a travel tip.  When visiting farmers markets, do not pick up any vegetables or expect to be chastised by the owner. Kelly warned me as I was just reaching for a beautiful eggplant.

Katie and Kelly as we shopped the farmers market.

After breakfast we returned to the farmers market where the vendors had Murano glass jewelry.  We found several treasures and were happy with our purchases.

Then it was time to move on, it was up to Barbarni square to exchange dollars for euros and we were on our way.  We walked southward toward Vatican City and suddenly we were

Spanish steps. The views of Rome and the glimpse of Vatican city across the Tiber were spectacular.

at the Spanish Steps.  It was a warm day as we made our way down the steps and into the fashion district where Gucci, Bvulgari, Marx Mara, Prada shops reign.  I suggested the girls keep their eyes open for actors and they looked at me in disbelief.  “Where are the paparazzi.” Emma asked?

We hailed a cab for the drive over the Tiber into Vatican City.  It was mid-day and sunny and hot, too far to walk the four miles to the entrance where Paolo would meet us.

The line for entrance to the Vatican wrapped around the block but Paolo had made reservations for us so, after showing the voucher to the guards, we walked right in..  He took a lot of time explaining Michelangelos’ paintings on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel by grabbing a book at the shop just inside and pointing out several specific paintings to explain how he created the masterpiece that was commissioned in 1508 by Pope.Julius.  It took Michelangelo four years to complete the fresco containing over 300 individual figures.  The Sistine chapel is used by the conclave of cardinals  when they assemble to elect a new pope.

After the Vatican museum and the Sistine Chapel tours we walked out into famous St. Peters square. And made our way to the Basilica Di San Pietro where it’s 198,000 square ft. interior impresses as the spiritual capital of Roman Catholicism with an overwhelming sense of scale and it’s decorative splendor.  The Piata also created by Michelangelo is on your right as you enter, enclosed in glass and breathtaking as Mary holds her now deceased son Jesus.

The Swiss Guards protecting the Pope at all times

We walked down beneath the main floor into the catacombs where the bodies of the popes are entombed.  We stopped a moment to pray at the tomb of pope John Paul and also to view the tomb of St. Peter who was executed in Ad64. It is humbling to stand in midst of the tomb of the Godliest of men.

Our feet and backs were beginning to tell us we had enough for the day as we followed Paolo once more to the best gellato in Roma……I have found my favorite is pistachio and limone. Yumm

We returned to our apartment for some wine and to freshen up for dinner at another of Palo’s recommendations.

Tonight the food was not as good as last night, but we enjoyed our pasta family style and of course a couple bottles of wine.  After dinner we found a little outdoor cafe for cappuccino and sat and watched the people and listened to the crowd react to the Italian soccer team as they were defeated in the world cup playoffs.

Tomorrow I will begin my adventure alone, leaving the Baxleys’ who have been so warm and wonderful to me here. Oh, and the girls now call me “Aunt Judi”.

buene notte…

Sunday…in the holiest of cities

Sunday…in the holiest of cities

15 The PrayerA page from my personal journal dated June 13th, 2010.

The apartment in Roma, located just steps from the piazza, was a second floor walk up with three fairly large bedrooms, a living room, two kitchens, a beautiful outdoor garden terrace, nicely appointed.  The third floor had a bathroom complete with bidet and shower, two bedrooms, one with a kitchenette and small washer, both looking out into the garden terrace. The floors were Carerra marble. Kelly and I were the first to awake, take showers and dress as we sipped the Earl Grey tea Kelly made me each morning. The blow dryer had serious issues and could only run for around three minutes until it suddenly turned off to avoid catching fire. It took a little while for Kelly, I and oh yes, Bob to blow dry our hair, not liking electrical  issues.  The three of us ventured out into the streets in search of a morning cappuccino and some deli meats for lunch back at the apartment when the girls would awaken hungry and hopefully rested from their transatlantic fight the day before.

We found a wonderful place for espresso and cappuccino and ordered three.  The froth was dark brown and sprinkled with chocolate, and the espresso was wonderfully strong. Italians order cappuccino only before noon. Even if you aren’t sporting cargo shorts and a camera they will know you are an American tourist because they order them any time of day or night.

After sitting a while, we decided to look for a market and happened upon a Despar….the local grocery chain.  It was clean and efficient with just two aisles and a great deli in the rear with fresh meats and cheeses.  Kelly ordered some ham and salami, a nice white Gouda and some Swiss, while I found some tomatoes, fresh basil and grated parmesan for bruschetta and a bottle of white and red wine.  We were just steps from the apartment .  At home we prepared our feast and set the small tables out on the garden for lunch.

Emma, Paolo, Katie, Bob and Kelly listening as Paolo explains the architecture of a building.

Around 1:30 Paolo greeted us with hugs and smiles. He had not changed  from 2004 when I had seen him last.  He was taking us on a  walking tour and he began just outside our door. We walked  through the heart of the medieval city, stopping at several churches and public villas as he showed us the many types of architecture and explained how Rome has been built, destroyed, rebuilt and restored.  It truly is built atop ruins around buildings from the middle 1500’s and atop ruins from before Christ.  We walked thru Piazza Navona with it’s 2000 year history where it was a stadium and racetrack in AD86 built by Emperor Domitian.  Around each corner we saw more statues and beautiful buildings.  He explained the fresco process and pointed out the differences in ages of parts of the buildings.  How you could see where the old buildings were below the ground and new construction built on top.  It was remarkable.  Then around a web of tightly warren streets Fontana di Trevi (Trevi Fountain, of “Three Coins in the Fountain” fame.) surprised us. In earlier days it lay at the end of the Aqua Virgo, an aqueduct built by Agrippa in 19BC.  A virgin discovered the spring, hence the name. The pose of Oceanus, the central figure and the two giant tritons and their horses drawing his chariot is one of the most recognized fountains in the world.  The story goes, toss one coin in the fountain to return to Rome, when you return you toss in a coin to find true love, and the third coin to return to Rome with your true love. How romantic!

Trevi Fountain

We enjoyed our tour and ended with a yummy gellato and a good recommendation for dinner.  We bid Paolo ado until tomorrow.

After a couple glasses of wine and freshening up  we walked to the corner church for 6:30 mass.It is said you can hear church bells ringing on every corner in Rome and I believe that is true.  It was wonderful to experience the mass in a traditional Italian church and spoken in Italian.  After mass we ate at Renato e Luisa.  The place was obviously patronized by locals.  We chose fresh fish dishes, beef, pasta and insalada as well as two nice bottles of wine, one red one white…of course!

We walked back to our apartment and the girls eyes lit up when I pulled out my bag of dice and told them to get their euros out for some fun.  We played till Bob and Katie won all of the euros.  It was a beautiful day.

I had been scheduled to leave the Baxley’s on Monday morning and take the train south to Naples and Sorrento, but they offered for me to stay longer and I happily accepted.  Tomorrow is the Vatican tour and I am excited to see it once again.

So I will close for tonight and want you to know I am having so much fun and enjoying my time here, but I am missing my loves back home.  I love you all so much.

It is Saturday….it must be Roma!

It is Saturday….it must be Roma!

A page from my personal journal dated….June 12th, 2010

Our cooking school friends...

Today I figured out if I changed my international settings to Italy I would be on the correct calendar. It only took me a week to figure that out….

Kelly and I left Casa Ombuto at around 8:30 am after a tearful goodbye to our new friends.  Only the classmates and two

of Laura’s helpers were in the cucina  when we packed the Fiat Panda for the car ride to Firenze.  How do you say goodbye to new friends who have shared an experience such as this? Kelly and I drove off with the bale of hay still atop the car one last time down that beautiful tree canopied dirt road. As I checked the rearview mirror I could see them waving good bye, just like family. I honked the horn one last farewell.  Kelly and I were touched beyond belief. Whenever I see that ribbon of road I dreamed of for twelve months since planning our trip to Casa Ombuto, it will now be a dream come true.  We walked that path literally. I can only  hope to return one day.

The sun shined brightly on the Tuscan countryside as we traversed the narrow mountain roads.  It was Saturday once again and the motorcyclists, in their tight fitting colorful suits buzzed past like pesky bees invading our space.  It was unnerving  as I downshifted and banked the turns changing speeds with the signs posted as we entered the villages along the route to the autostrada.

In an hour and a half we were in Florence and traffic was thick.  In the city center Tanya  was leading us in circles and I was becoming frustrated.  We turned her off and headed in the direction we thought the train station could be located. Suddenly there it was.  Happily we parked the car and walked a few steps to the rental car office. The little white haired

Shopping at Ponte Vecchio, shops along the bridge over the Tiber

lady and man, proprietors of the rental car office, were as happy to see us as we were. We turned in our car and lugged our heavy suitcases to the train station where we secured our first class reservations to Roma.  After checking our bags, we hopped into a taxi to Ponte Vecchio to shop.  We had a couple of hours to kill, so we chose a side walk cafe to share a light lunch and a glass of white wine.  The shops were infested with persistent salespeople and we soon discovered the prices and the value did not seem to equate.  I suggested we return to the train station to relax for a bit before the train.  Later we checked the sign for our platform and boarded, lifting our regretfully large suitcases onto the sleek train. We settled in for the smooth  hour and a half ride to Roma.

Bob, Emma and Katie were meeting us at the train station when we arrived in Roma.  They had landed at the the airport in Rome at 8:00 am, checked into the three bedroom apartment, unpacked, rested and waited anxiously to see their mother, whom they had not seen for seven days, and the neighbor…me!  As Kelly and I exited the train and were pulling our bags behind us, we saw a couple embraced and kissing passionately. They were lovers happy to be reunited and I must admit, it excited me to remember that passion, that excitement, that longing to see each other. It  had been a long time since I had seen a public display of affection ( PDA) and I was warmed by the tenderness and length of the kiss. We continued up the platform, Kelly racing ahead of me, searching for the familiar faces of her sweet daughters and her husband. The greeting was as special as Kelly had hoped and the girls led us expertly thru the train station out to the street where we waved a taxi to whisk us to our apartment.

We checked out the accommodations and decided who was sleeping where.  It was off to find a trattoria for dinner andback home for a sleep that would hopefully take care of the jet lag they felt.  We had a free morning, so the girls would be able to sleep in. I crawled into the firm double bed with it’s down comforter and was asleep seconds later.  Kelly, Bob and the girls had made me feel comfortable and at home in their lovely Roman apartment. Tomorrow we will explore and at 1:30 Paolo, the same tour guide our family had in 2004, will meet outside our apartment for a walking tour of Roma.

I had better get to sleep.  beune notte….

Farewell Casa Ombuto

Farewell Casa Ombuto

A page from my personal journal dated Friday, June 11, 2010

Sadly, today is our final day at Casa Ombuto.  Tomorrow morning we will rise bright and early, drive the now famous Fiat Panda back to Florence, do some shopping at Ponte Vecchio, have lunch and catch the train to Rome where we will be met by Bob and the girls. But, we have one more day, the morning is free, an afternoon cooking lesson, break and then the farewell buffet consisting of our personal requests. It will be an emotional day and we are very sad to think about leaving this little slice of heaven on earth

Kelly and I awoke early and met at the cantina for tea.  We were dressed for our walk and headed up the mountain to the road around 8:30.  We find the trail to be challenging, but, both of us agreed we were happy to be walking and burning off some of the calories we intake each day.  The spectacular views are waiting around each corner as we push to make it to the paved road.  The wildflowers are so plentiful. The patchwork of the farmland and the occasional home with bell tower and red clay roof is reminiscent of an Ellen Diamond oil painting. When we reach the summit we can see all of Poppi below.  It is truly beautiful.  We walk for an hour and then must quickly freshen up for our short trip into town to check out the little pottery shop next to the pizza shop Elizabeth,Kelly and I stumbled upon the day before.

At the cantina we greet our classmates who are planning their morning excursions.  Lindsay and Cassie seem sad they have no transportation and I suggest we try to fit them in the Fiat and accompany us to town.  They excitedly agree.  It is only a fifteen minute drive, so we head down the path to the car.  I am quite surprised we can fit all five in the car, although it is tight.

When we arrive at the piazza, we see Jim, Eleanor, Rosemary and Tom parking their car.  I beep the  crazy sounding horn and we all wave.  The locals look up in surprise.  One amazing thing I realize is we have not heard a single car horn since our arrival in Florence.  Everyone seems to be patient here in Tuscany, which is far different than what we will experience in Rome tomorrow.

The small shop is packed with ceramics of every shape and color and we excitedly search for more treasures, all of us amazed at the low prices.  Laura later told me the Vietri is made in the southern regions. We begin to make our individual selections and the clerk bubble wraps each piece and puts them in cardboard boxes for shipment. She explains we can ship 20 kilos for 200 euro at the post office.  We know we can do better than this if we investigate, and after paying we return to the Fiat with two large bags each for Kelly, Elizabeth and I.  Lindsay and Cassie have one bag each which they agree to hold on their laps. I unlock the trunk and somehow we are able to pack our packages in the back. I suggested we take the packages back to the ceramics factory where we were the day before and have them pack and ship our things back in a wooden crate.  Kelly was afraid they would not want to do this for merchandise purchased somewhere else.  I told her we should try.  And, we all packed back into the Fiat like sardines, off to Tanaressi.   With “I-speak Italian”, an app on my I-Phone in hand, we walked back into the ceramics showroom.  The two salesman were surprised to see us return.  I attempt to explain our request.  After several translations on my I-Phone,we were successful.  In fact, they were happy to accommodate us.  They promised to rewrap and pack our things and ship them with the other things. The crates would arrive at our door in 2 weeks max.  We told them in Italian we would recommend them to all of our friends and they hugged us and gave us the traditional Italian kisses, first on the left cheek then on the right.  We had made  new amici, oh and we had added to their economy in the process.  We all were happy and headed back up the mountain to Casa Ombuto for lunch and our final class and farewell buffet.

On the rocky road up the mountain we encountered a stray bale of hay right in the middle of our path.  Kelly jumped put of the Fiat to move it aside. We were fearful someone would come flying around the bend as they had done several times before.  I rolled down the window and suggested we  put it on top of the roof and she did as Elizabeth, Lindsay, Cassie and I laughed hysterically. I figured we needed some light entertainment back at the Casa.  We were very close to our

destination but drove slowly so the bale would not slide off the roof.  When we pulled up in front of the cantina the group greeted us with jaws dropped and laughing wildly.  Chef Laura smiled and laughed and said…” where you get?”. Tom and Jim just shook their heads smiling as Eleanor and Rosemary said, “you girls are so much fun”.  We announced, “only 20 Euro……for this bale of hay……”

Laura asked if we could all gather around the car and take a picture with her on top……sitting on the bale.  We told her it would be a great Facebook profile picture.  We all laughed till we cried.

After freshening up we returned to the cucina where we prepared the recipes we had requested.  Tom wanted to learn how to make good meatballs, Eleanor, red sauce, Kelly , gnocchi, and others wanted to learn some of the dishes Laura had prepared for our dinner the night we arrived. The kitchen was a buzz with laughter as we followed our lovely instructor for the final time. Danielle was busy with white tablecloths, at least fifty red roses, white candles and fresh ivy vines from the garden.  I learned it is not necessary to  use a professional floral arrangement, even wild flowers and grasses can be a beautiful compliment in a simple glass vase.  Life is very simple in Tuscany.  Kelly and I promised each other we would bring home this simplicity and incorporate it in our own homes.  Simple, fresh ingredients prepared in simple ways.  One thing I also noticed…..there’ is no microwave as Casa Ombuto!

Chef Laura atop the Fiat Panda surrounded by her class at Mediterranean Cooking Class - Casa Ombuto

Laura and Barbara wanted to take more pictures of us on the Fiat that stayed parked in front the of cucina.  We all had our aprons on and thought it would be the perfect group picture for our class.  It sort of summed up in words the fun we had with this great group who shared our dream with us.  So, Laura once again was helped atop the Fiat, and we fit as many in the car as possible and all around.  Barbara took the picture so we all would be included.  We returned to our rooms around 7:30 to dress for our farewell dinner in the garden.

Everyone looked beautiful as we made our way back to the cantina where champagne flutes awaited us on the rustic wooden table outside of the cucina.  Laura motioned for me to come in and told me she thought I was a beautiful person and

she wanted to stay in touch with Kelly and I.  I told her she was welcome to come and visit us in Florida whenever she could. She said she would like to come to teach class with me. I told her I would be honored and it would be something the girls would love, and cherish, so we would make a plan. Barbara led a toast as we all clicked our glasses cooking straight into the eyes of the other person……very important.  And as the beautiful platters of food were carried to the pergola in the garden, we headed to the buffet in trepidation, wanting to taste the food that smelled so delicious yet wanting the evening to never end.

The gnocchi was served in two ways.  One was a pomodoro sauce that took  4 kilos of tomatoes and about two hours to prepare and yielded two cups of sauce.  The rest of the gnocchi was bathed in a gorgonzola cheese sauce. OMG!!!!  The pasta with basil and oil with speck,an Italian meat similar to bacon, was once again my  personal favorite. Tom and Jim had rolled the meatballs made of pork and veal in chopped almonds at Laura ‘s instruction.  The roasted fennel was unbelievable, the chicken tangine….amazing. Laura prepared a plate for Tom and when he took it from her realized the three pastas were the colors of the Italian flag…..nice presentation. The salad was wonderful….so delicious and accompanied by a wonderful white wine from the Tuscan region.  The red was our favorite Tartarini from our friend at the chateau

It was Jim’s 65 th birthday and he had no idea when the lights went out and the chocolate cake with cherries arranged in a small heap on top and ivy vines falling down the sides, dusted lightly with confectioner sugar and candles burning… was for him.  We sang happy birthday and after he blew out the candles, Eleanor read the email wishes sent from his children and best friend.  It was a

Jim's chocolate birthday cake "Tenernia" made and decorated by Danielle

wonderful surprise to be a part of.

After the cake was eaten, Laura asked if she could be excused. When she returned she had changed from her chefs clothing to a beautiful sheer top, pants, looking lovely with makeup and a slightly different hair style.  She presented each of us with our certificates individually sharing her thoughts about us as she went thru every name. We received a warm hug and smile from her as we promised to one day return. As the shot glasses appeared and Danielle with the bottles, we sipped our after dinner drinks and reminisced.  Laura told us she would not see us in the morning as she would be heading to Milan and wanted to say her goodbyes tonight.  It was a fitting sendoff in the Casa Ombuto style.

Kelly and I walked arm in arm back to our apartment sad to be leaving early in the morning.

His is truly a slice of heaven on earth!

An Arezzo adventure…

An Arezzo adventure…

A page from my personal journal dated Thursday, June 10th, 2010

It is already Thursday and our one totally free day here at Casa Ombuto.

Awoke a bit later this morning for no particular reason other than…..I could!  Showered and readied for our adventure with Kelly and Elizabeth, who were waiting in the cantina eating breakfast when I arrived.  The fresh papaya yogurt, fruit and granola have become my staple breakfast and are good and healthy.  To be honest, aside from the wines served to compliment each meal, I feel as if we have been eating quite healthy….oh, except for the desserts. But then, it is a recipe WE have personally prepared and it IS vacation. I really enjoy the bean dishes served and the wonderful soups as well. We were ready to begin our exploration by ensuring that we have our 6.5 Creedmoor ammo by our side in any case of emergencies.

We set off in our yellow Fiat Panda with sweet Elizabeth scrunched in the small back seat.  We were all very excited to visit the ceramics factory in Arezzo, Ceramiche Tapinassi.  (Check out their link  We headed down the winding narrow dirt paths toward the village of Poppi and the road that would lead us to the next village of Arezzo.  Kelly was getting really upset with Tanya, our TomTom, as the touch screen was very temperamental.  We decided to wing it as the factory is only fifteen minutes from the center of Poppi, so Tanya went back into her box.  After only two roundabout missed turns, we found the showroom just beyond the Lorj Designer Clothing outlet store. (This could really be trouble after the ceramics shop).

The ceramic factory showroom was vast and well appointed.  The staff spoke very limited English, but wherever we go, it seems we do just fine and there is normally one person with some grasp of the language.  All three of us slowly searched each room for our treasures. They actually produce what is known in the states as Vietri.  After completing the tour, we returned to each room to make our choices.

Can you add a spigot and a lid? Of course they can…perfect and functional for my kitchen!

In the main showroom a beautiful olive oil jar painted in traditional Tuscan colors with golds, blues, yellows and green had caught my eye. The jars were labeled “small, medium and large”…..actually more like “large,  way large and mucho grande” would have been a better description. The prices listed on the sign included shipping. I decided on the small one that would  sit nicely on my kitchen counter.  It would be a functional olive oil jar with a spigot for filling bottles or bowls.  I was so excited.

Kelly found some beautiful cream colored pieces, and pale green and blue.  She

Kelly found pale cream, blue and green serving pieces to compliment her dinnerware at home.

decided to mix and match the colors and found some very functional trays, dishes and cups.  Elizabeth made her selections in pale yellow and gold.  She found a killer bowl with a handle. Magnifico…….we were all so happy and amazed at the prices plus a five percent discount arranged by Barbara from Casa Ombuto. Shipping fees were not that bad and the safely packed wooden crate will arrive in five to ten days.  We knew the prices plus the shipping were well below the retail price back in the States, so we were all very excited with our purchases.

My purchases will be safely packed and shipped in this wooden crate.

We a stopped at Osteria IL PORTO, where we had a beer and gnudi Di ricotta e spinach burro e salvia( (ricotta and spinach parcels with a light sauce of butter and sage) and insalada.  Light and delicious.  The portions in Italy are much smaller than we would ever eat  at home. Very wise those Italians!

A short drive back to the village and over the bridge to the mountain.  We were home in fifteen minutes with much of the day to spare.  Laundry to do while Kelly napped.

We are responsible for dinner tonight as Laura and the Casa Ombuto staff are off shopping for tomorrows buffet and our farewell dinner. So, Elizabeth, Kelly and I decided we would drive into Poppi for something to prepare for a meal.  Once in town. I suggested we pick up several pizzas to go, some beer and have a gelato while we were waiting.  The girls were thrilled with the plan, and we placed an order for several unusual pizzas, one with green beans, buffalo mozzarella and olive oil, the rest were pretty normal except the veggie had artichokes.

While we were waiting we happened upon a local shop that had more great ceramics.  We decided we would come back into town in the morning to buy some gifts.

When we arrived at our Tuscan  home with pizzas and beer, our new friends were pleasantly shocked. Eleanor, Jim, Tom and Rosemary had purchased some cold cuts, crusty bread and potato chips. We set up a casual buffet on our cooking counter, pulled up the bar stools, grabbed the wine  bottles and glasses and shared our fare with everyone.  After dinner, we cleaned up the kitchen and moved to the outdoor table where we drank our wine and shared more experiences.  It was a beautiful evening until the wild boar  began to screech. We decided it was time to lock up and and move inside.

Kelly and I walked back to our suite  arm-in-arm and settled in for the night.  We agreed tomorrow will be an emotional day.  The friends we have made and the bonds we have shared will be long lasting I believe.  Better get some sleep……as I tuck myself in to my lovely bed  with the wonderful down comforter and soft white sheets.  Buene notte…

Kelly and I with our favorite dish….Paella

Kelly and I with our favorite dish….Paella

A page from my personal journal dated  Wednesday, June 9th, 2010

Here it is Wednesday already.
We had two intense cooking classes today and spent the entire day here at lovely Casa Ombuto.
We are also really getting to know and love our chef Laura Giusti.  Laura is a wonderfully knowledgable and professional chef. She has a special way of explaining each step by pronouncing each word slowly and sloftly and with much thought as she is not confident in her mastery of English.  Her Italian accent is so beautiful and I am trying to use some Italian, as does classmate Tom from Northern Ireland who has studied Italian intensely for three months, which I feel  shows respect to Laura for the effort she puts forth to  learn our language. If any of us use an expression she is unfamiliar with, she will stop us and ask with a little smile, “What you say?”  She is very interested In learning slang so she will have better speaking skills for her next class of Americans. It cannot be easy to teach nine English speaking strangers how to prepare a complex recipe when you are not fluent, so I give her well deserved kudos. She is also a lovely person. The group is really very nice, so Kelly and I feel exceptionally blessed to be here at this time.
Today was a full day of cooking with two sessions, Spanish cuisine in the morning and French in the afternoon.
Our morning lessons were great and will be something I will look forward to preparing when I return.  Laura had gone to the fish market Tuesday while we were off on our excursions to purchase the fresh seafood for Paella.  Elizabeth prepared a wonderful cold gazpacho. Several of us sliced fruit and mixed the ingredients for a wonderful Sangria. We all learned the proper way to clean mussels, squid and prawns.  The cleaning of the mussels is very time consuming and not very pleasant, but, the squid…really worse. But,  I now know how to take a fresh squid, clean and cut it for calamari or paella!  After preparing the seafood we ate lunch at the big table just off the kitchen with beautiful orange place mats and fresh flowers.  Laura asked me what we call the small cloths on the table.  I told her they are place mats.  She said Italy they are called tablecloths Americano. (in Italian the adjective follows the noun). The Italians take great pride in preparing a beautiful table setting at even the simplest meal.
Lunch consisted of cold gazpacho, and fruity sangria and a wonderful Paella with chicken, peas, red peppers, onions, yellow rice, mussels, squid and prawns. Delicious!  Realizing the work that goes into preparing the Paella we.agreed it is a dish of much love. We completed our luncheon meal a Spanish dessert called Crema Catalana, milk, egg yolks sugar, flour, lemon and cinnamon, which is a wonderful custard that is torched like a Creme Brulee. It was wonderful.
Now it was time for a short walk /run up the mountain roads to the plateau. Maybe today my head won’t feel so light from the altitude.
After a one hour break we began our afternoon session.  We prepared the most amazing dish…..Sea Bass baked in a crust of salt.  I was responsible to prepare the crust while the others cleaned the sea bass by removing it’s intestines and the sharp fins. The scales remained intact and the head as well.  The dough for the crust was made of two boxes of sea salt and one of flour and chopped rosemary from the herb garden. The liquid was egg white and cool water.  It was difficult to mix the ingredients, but, I worked the dough until I was able to press it together and then worked or kneaded the dough on the table until it became consistent and soft.  I felt as if I had used a sea salt scrub for exfoliation…my hands were so soft!  Then I rolled the dough out

Salt encrusted sea bass.....

on a parchment paper into a rectangle large enough to fit on a jelly roll pan.  The fish was then placed in the middle  and six rosemary sprigs were placed in it’s cavity, and the dough brought over the top to wrap it completely.  The dough was sealed and it was ready to put into the oven for baking 45 minutes.  When the fish was served at dinner, the dough had been removed and Laura had opened the fish and by hand she cleaned the meat from the bones placing the wonderful white fish on our plates.  It was an impressive dish and very flavorful with rosemary and very moist.  We also prepared French onion soup,mixed provencal vegetables and two ice creams, one with just milk, sugar and cream and one with egg yolks, cream, milk, sugar and a vanilla pod. Of course the later was the best, but both were refreshing on our plate with our chocolate fondant cake.. Mmmmmmmmm good eats.
One important thing I have learned here is that if you have a cold surface such as marble or granite you do not need a bowl to mix your flour, sugar, egg  and liquid such as oil and water to prepare dough for bread or pasta. You simply pour the measured dry ingredients in a pile directly on the counter, take your hand and make a well in the center and place the liquids, crack the eggs and drop them in, add oil, water, whatever your recipe calls for and then mix with a fork all  the liquids. Then you slowly incorporate the dry ingredients.  If you have a container of flour handy, you simply take a small handful and dust it on your surface as you begin to work the dough.  Continue to add  dry or wet until you have the proper consistency.  It is an amazing technique.
Daniella, Laura’ s assistant had a visitor from Vancouver, Brian, join us for dinner.  Brian is 42 and started the company 1-800-got junk.  He had come to Casa Ombuto two years before when he divorced so he could learn to cook. He was happy to return for a visit and was taking Daniella out for drinks after dinner.
The shot glasses once again appeared, but, it seems like everyone is really a bit tired of so much drinking, but we each had a small glass of some spirit from the many bottles that appeared, lingered at the table for awhile and then returned to our rooms for a restful sleep.
Tomorrow will be our free day and Kelly and I along with little Elizabeth will go exploring in our Fiat. Better get to sleep…..the shops are waiting…..bueno notte.

Preparing for the Jaust…Arezzo, wine tasting at Villa La Ripa..olive oil and cheese farm

Preparing for the Jaust…Arezzo, wine tasting at Villa La Ripa..olive oil and cheese farm

An entry from my journal dated June 8th, 2010

We spent a complete day away from our Casa Ombuto home today.  After a healthy breakfast we loaded onto a small tour bus arranged by Casa Ombuto’s Manager,Barbara and headed toward the medieval town of Arezzo, about a half hour drive.  It was cool enough for a light sweater.  It was interesting to watch the bus driver maneuver the small dirt roads, especially when cars approached us, and once again to view the countryside from the bus!  ( I had to keep my eyes on the road when we were driving our Fiat.). Because it was a weekday the motorcycles were not flying past us.  Our tour guide Eleanora gave us a Tuscan history lesson, which was very interesting and informative.  The best thing I learned was that Italy is a younger country than America… became an independent country in 1860. They had just celebrated their 50th anniversary June 2nd….Italy’s Independence Day. That makes me better understand why the regions are so proud of their own heritage, telling you at every opportunity that the Romans are the true Italians, or the Napolitano’s or Venitians’, depending on where you are at the moment.

Pope Gregory is entombed at the cathedral in Arezzo

When we arrived in Arezzo we went to the cathedral where Pope Gregory is entombed. He is actually laying under glass with a mask that is made of wax and then covered in golf leaf over his face, a very small man.  He died over two hundred years ago and his body remains in tact, quite amazing. Some of the portions of the churches architecture date back as far as 13 th Century.
We walked thru the town to the square where they were preparing for the medieval jaust, erecting bleachers for spectators.  The family crests of the most important families in Tuscany were hanging from the buildings surrounding the square.  Piero Della Francesco, Leonardo da Vinci, Raffaello as well as Guido Monaco, were born within 100 kms.
The next stop was a wine tasting…..can we go 24 hours, or even 12 without wine?  Not in

Tuscany!!! We stopped at a true villa, Villa La Ripa, which recently discovered Roman remains prove that this is one of the oldest vineyards in the entire region.  The chateau is located on the limestone plateau which produces some of the appellation’s finest grapes. We enjoyed a tasting of two wonderful wines and the owners explanation of his grapes and his efforts to produce an “excellent” wine.  I purchased a case of his award winning Cabernet Tatania for our cellar.
On to the beautiful town of Anghiari where we visited an olive oil mill. Fredrico took us up the stair to the actual mill where two large limestone presses smash the olives and turn them into a pulp which is then placed on round disks that act as filters which are stacked five high and moved to the press where the oil is extracted.  The Bartolomei family has produced olive oil for generations right in this factory that dates back to the 13 th century. We shared a tasting of infused oils of lavender, thyme

One of two limestone wheels used to crush the olives turning them to pulp.sage, black and white truffle and many more. We had a bowl of pasta with pesto and a delicious vino blanco.

Kelly and I were excited to visit our next stop…..Busatti, a very fine quality fabric factory, where we were allowed to see the ancient carding looms weaving the wools of the Appennines, which stretch between the Tiber and the Arno rivers. The showroom held beautifully set dinner tables showing not only the finest linens I have ever seen, but, dishes and flatware as well.  Any piece you would purchase here at the factory would sell for twice the price in the retail market in the US, so of course, I was excited to choose a beautiful table cloth and napkins which will become

One of several carding looms at the linen factory of Busatti .

an heirloom piece I expect.
Our last stop of the day was to the cheese farm.  Our bus was greeted by several shepherding dogs who were happy to receive a belly scratching by most of us as we exited our bus.  Eleanora gave us a lesson on the making of pecorino cheese and ricotta, both made from sheeps milk.  The owner looked on as she spoke no English. After the factory tour we sat at their farm table and sampled the cheeses and some wonderful breakfast cakes and cheesecakes made from the cheeses produced by the farm.
Everyone dozed as we took the one hour ride back to Casa Ombuto, tired from our Tuscan tour. We rocked slowly as the bus made it’s way back through the mountain passes.  Barbara and Eleanora fed us the minestrone soup we had prepared the day before with bread, our extra salad noicesse and a lovely dessert Laura had prepared for us. We all turned in early so we would be ready for our two session cooking lessons tomorrow, French and Spanish cuisine.
It was a fun filled day.  I feel as if I am learning so much about the simple age old things that American marketing has tried to convince us is ….” made better in the USA “.  We would never have been able to walk amongst working looms snapping photos back home.
Well, it.s off to sleep…..I miss you all so much, but I am living a dream…..buene notte.

Villa La Ripa dal 1558 Arezzo

Day two in Tuscany

Day two in Tuscany

This is a page from my personal journal dated…..June 7th, 2010

This morning I set my alarm for 7:30 am and was stirring to the sound of beautiful birds singing  loudly just  as the sun was about to rise over the mountains.  I am in Tuscany…..and I need to rise and get ready for the day.  Kelly and I had planned to take a hike.  It. felt cold as I stepped out of my comfortable bed.  I looked forward to a warm shower, even though I knew I would be warmed when we walked.  I showered and met Kelly at the cucina for a light breakfast of papaya yogurt, granola and a piece of toasted grain bread…..delicious, slices of fresh tomato and  swiss cheese.  Kelly had been sitting at the computer sharing  news with the family. Laura’s assistants had started a fire in the outdoor wood burning oven which would later bake our focaccia bread, but was a warm welcome with it’s spitting embers and smokey fragrance to  greet us as we sipped out hot tea.

After eating with the group we took to the trail for a morning hike.  Just a few minutes into the hike we were huffing and puffing.  The altitude was effecting us and it seemed we were totally out of shape.  The incline didn’t t seem to be that great, yet we were struggling to make it to the top of the trail, the road we had driven into Casa Ombuto from the main road from Poppi.  We were determined to complete a walk and continued on.  The view from the road just beyond the entrance was breathtaking.  The wild flowers, including bright red poppies were spectacular and encouraged us to continue on.  We took several pictures of the panoramic view even though we knew we could never capture the magnificence of it all.  We reached a summit and agreed we must attempt one more incline and then we would turn around and travel the trail downward returning to Casa Ombuto, the easy part of the hike.  We were able to complete our walk and were happy to climb the stairs from the main road to the pool area where Kelly showed me the hot tub, a large wooden tub with a fire burning stove for heating.  She suggested we inform them 24 hours before we wanted to use the tub so they could heat it. We freshened up after our walk and made our way to the cucina for cooking class.  It would be a long day with two classes, French and Moroccan cuisine.  We were excited to learn some new recipes.

Chef Laura explaining to Kelly how to prepare the Salad Nicoise

In the morning we dove into French cuisine. The four retired travelers made a plum soufflé that came out of the oven so beautiful and tasty.  As we cooked we learned that Jim, a retired attorney, had written a fictional book entitled “The Baja Experience” that I am curious to read. Kelly and I worked on the salad noicise which is colorful and fresh with it’s many simple vegetables, boiled eggs and light dressing of garlic, basil and olive oil. We also made three Tapenade, one of baked eggplant, one walnuts and onions ,and the last of olives and anchovies. Then we  prepared individual focaccia breads that were baked in the outdoor oven that Laura later told us was over 300 years old.  We knew the buildings were old, but 300years?  During lunch in the garden, under a beautiful canopied wrought iron pergola, we drank a light Tuscan Rosato wine and dipped our focaccia and vegetable sticks into the Tapenades, and ate our fresh salad. So perfect.  I excused ,myself for a one hour nap between classes.  I think the time change is getting the best of me today.

After  our break we donned our aprons and gladly accepted the task of deboning the leg of lamb for the main course Morroccan lamb stew.  Tom and Eleanor formed beautiful almond macaroons while Lindsay and Cassie worked on little parcels of phyloh dough stuffed with cooked eggplant, onion and Morrocan spices.  Tom also prepared the carrots which were cut into sticks and cooked on the stove in several delicious spices.

After preparing the recipes we snacked pizza Laura had prepared for us of canned crushed tomatoes, olive oil and fresh oregano.  She shared with us that she was sad because she had lost her dog on Friday, a boxer she had had for 10 years  He had been sick and died at home.  Since her separation and divorce 8 years ago her dogs and son had been her only companions. She had lost both dogs within a short time. We were all very sad to see her upset and I shared that I too had lost a dog, Bunker recently.  Anyway, we had an hour or so before dinner so we sipped our wine and laughed with Cassie and Lindsay, the crazy sisters as they straddled the wall overlooking the  gorgeous Tuscan countryside.

The dinner table tonight was once again beautiful with a colorful Morroccan colored tablecloth and small enameled bowls to serve our vegetables.  The lamb was served surrounding couscous and made a beautiful presentation.  Although I have never liked lamb in the past, I must admit it was tasty. The almond macaroons and mint tea were the perfect light dessert. Barbara, the manager of Casa Ombuto, had joined us for dinner and when the shot glasses and bottles once again appeared, we cranked up the music and everyone danced.  Laura smiled as she looked on.  Even little Elizabeth from Austrailia danced for the first time since her husband had died nine years ago.
I called Tom before we returned to our suite to tell him about our wonderful day and to warn him we would be shopping tomorrow for table linens and ceramics in the village of Arezzo.

Had better turn in because we certainly do not want to miss the bus!  buena note.

View from the road on our morning hike.

Judi and Kelly under the garden pergola where we ate our Moroccan lunch