Monday, May 18, 2009

Back to Life. Bak to Re-al-i-ty.

It's a relatively normal morning here in Orvieto. I almost can't believe what the past month has consisted of. What I really can't believe is that a whole month has passed without me even realizing it! We've been flying through a dream of long-awaited Italian tourism and we've woken up on the other side having seen and done more than we can even express.

We started with a visit from wonderful Connecticut friends. Toby and Erin's special travel fund brought them over to our side of The Pond and we had a blast showing them around. First we did a night in Rome consisting of wandering around our favorite area of the city (near the Pantheon), dinner at Maccheroni, of course, and gelato at Giolitti, of course. We saw an orchestra playing in the Pantheon piazza and rode in a cab driven aggressively by an Italian grandma! We met up the next morning at the train station to buy tickets for a day trip to Orvieto. We had some time to kill, so we wandered over to the Spanish Steps, which were covered in azaleas for the Italian Independence Day celebration. After pastries and cappuccino, we wandered back to Termini for a quick trip over to our town. Orvieto really is the most perfect retreat after a loud, busy stay in Rome. We gave them a tour of the monastery and then of the town. We did a very entertaining lunch at Da Carlo where we lost our waiter/chef/entertainment halfway through our meal because he sliced his thumb on the meat slicer. His mother made us our gnocchi instead and it was still fabulous. We finished up the tour and sent our friends on their way back to Rome. It was so nice to have our American life invade our Italian life...

Then, T-minus 16 hours later, I was sitting again in Roma Termini station waiting for Mom and Dad G to arrive! We had a bit of a hitch when the line to store luggage for the day was 10x longer than we all thought it would be. After some wandering to find a better option, Dad and I ended up waiting in line anyway, which didn't take nearly as long as we'd thought it would. Thank God! Then it was Roman Whirlwind Tour #3. Maccheroni, again, for lunch, Piazza Navona, the Pantheon, Giolitti, again, and most of the ancient stuff until we all felt like falling down. Perfect time for a retreat to Orvieto...again. After a wonderful Penn reunion, we did dinner at Locanda (our "cafeteria" and where they were staying), gelato by the duomo (#2 for that day...though the women abstained) and then early to bed!

The next day was my laundry day, so the Glendinnings wandered through Orvieto until lunch time when we brought them to Mezza Luna for Carbonara. We did the Medieval Quarter tour after that and gave them wobbly knees by the edges of the cliff. Then it was: checking on Carlo's finger (we found him in a sling and a bandage gabbing with his mother outside the restaurant where she berated him for talking to us about the bloody event), enjoying Piazza del Populo and some more duomo - this time in daylight. Then, in the blink of an eye, we had rented a car (thanks to Laura!) and were winding our way up the hill opposite Orvieto to see Lake Bolsena. We got the most beautiful view of our Snow Globe-of-a-town while on the switchbacks, getting higher and higher and further and further from the cliff. Check the Glendinnings' flickr page eventually, you'll see how incredible Orvieto looked from that vantage point. Unfortunately it was sprinkling in Bolsena, so the lake area was a little chilly. We decided to see it from the car some more and eventually found ourselves in another small hillside town called Montefiascone where we enjoyed some macchiati and a little slice of their local goings-on. We somehow made it back in time for our reservation at Palomba, and thank God we did. I'm counting down the days until Penn and I can go back and enjoy that place again. Mom had cinghale and the rest of us had various preparations of fillet (yay, beef!). Their salads were exceptionally fresh and their peccorino was wonderfully aged. We even got dessert because we didn't want the meal to end!

The next day I went on a day trip to Spoleto and Assisi with the Glendinnings while Penn had class and got some work done. We enjoyed the ride through the Italian countryside and took a little detour through Todi, a nearby little city that we've all been meaning to visit. We saw the major sights in both Spoleto and Assisi, particularly enjoying the ancient bridge in Spoleto and St. Francis's monastic retreat in Assisi. I mean, how many times in your life do you get to see the very same oak tree that St. Francis enjoyed centuries before? We got back to Orvieto a little later than we had planned, but still with plenty of time to relax a bit before dinner at Charlie's! We brought some friends along this time and enjoyed every bite as always. Thank God for Charlie's. What would we do without you???

Thursday morning I met up with the Glendinnings in town and brought them over to the Orvieto open air market that is essential in any visit to Orvieto. We bought some artichokes to bring to Cinque Terre and some flowers for Laura as a thank you for helping us get a car to get around Tuscany and Umbria for two days! We sent the parents off to Cinque Terre ahead of us and waited for our turn to head up to the shore! With kebabs in our bellies and full backpacks, Jana, Allyson, Penn and I were finally on a train for our weekend getaway.

A thousand woohoos to Mama G for finding and putting us up in the most perfect house in all of Cinque Terre. A graduation present beyond anything we could have hoped for. We all ran right up to the rooftop terrace to watch the sun finish setting over the sea and couldn't believe our luck. Some wine, olives, cheese and crackers made it all even better. We had a late dinner at a seafood place right on the water and eventually made ourselves go to bed so that we could wake up and enjoy the sun and some more towns of the five. Little did we know...

TRAIN STRIKE. Those were the words that greeted us when we went to buy our hiking passes the next morning. In fact, this little 8.5x11 piece of paper informed us that the train strike was happening at precisely the wrong time: 9pm Sat - 9pm Sun. Unfortunately, that meant that the students, who had a ton of a work ahead of them and were planning on leaving early Sunday-ish, had no choice but to go home a day early, before the start of the strike. Boo Hiss. Oh well, it was our fate that weekend, so we had to make the most of the time we had! We started with the easiest "hike", more like a walk, over to the first little town, Riomaggiore. The flowers were lush and bright and the beaches were stoney and smooth. I collected a set of rocks/ceramics that I will someday turn into the backsplash of my dream kitchen, but in the meantime they weighed down the duffel we sent home with the Glendinnings. We all got some sun and exercise - what could be better? Lunch was back at the house in Manarola and was a bit of a smorgasbord of meats and cheeses and olives and pesto and bread to give us energy for the second leg of the day. Penn wrote on the terrace (and made friends with a pollen-covered bumble bee) while Dad G painted on the rocks, Mom G went to find their ATM-eaten debit card and the girls and I hiked to Cornelia. We treated ourselves to frozen yogurt upon arrival (because after a long hike, you have to climb about 300 steps to get up to this highly-situated little town) and enjoyed even more abundant gardens and the biggest roses you'll ever see. We headed back to Manarola to do some grocery shopping for the homemade meal we were planning for that evening. Through the combined efforts of all those present, we enjoyed the following meal on the roof while the sun set that evening:

Bow-tie Pasta with oil & cheese topped by sauteed asparagus and mushrooms.
Roasted fresh link sausage from the local shop slathered with oil and rosemary.
Steamed Orvietan artichokes with a lemon, garlic, pesto and oil dipping sauce.

There's nothing like the sound of the ocean while eating a freshly prepared Italian meal.

Stinking of garlic and full to the brim, we took a quick train over to Vernazza, the 4th town of the 5 and had gelato while walking along their beach and boardwalk. We watched the night fishermen seeking their catch and the lovers holding hands in this romantic, colorful town. After a rousing reenactment of the entire second book in the Twilight series by none other than Miss Allyson Arendsee, we were home again to sleep to the sounds of the waves.

The next morning we did a hike up to Doppo, a smaller hill town above Manarola where, again, flowers were abundant and there was a great view of the town and the sea beyond. Mom G got to play her pipes in front of a little stone building on a vineyard while we rested in the vines. We headed down for lunch at a place that was recommended in the guest book at our house and I had me some deep friend seafood and really good french fries (which I haven't had since being here). Unfortunately, then we had to go back to the house to send off the three students before the train strike stranded them in Cinque Terre. Even more unfortunately, the "train station" in Manarola isn't actually a TrenItalia vendor and couldn't sell them a ticket to Orvieto. Basically, they had to hope that they would have a big enough layover in one of the train-swapping towns to buy a ticket for the rest of the journey. We were all a bit annoyed, to say the least, and I wasn't convinced that they would be able to do it (they did, in fact, make it all the way back to Orvieto. Although it was by pure luck that they made it onto all the trains they did and that they didn't get caught by a conductor on the legs where they weren't able to purchase tickets during the very short layovers. I believe there was one stop where the doors of the train literally shut right behind them. Some of the other traveling students weren't so lucky...some were stranded in Pisa for an extra night - not the worst fate in the world!). So, for the rest of the evening I went down and read on the rocks below the house. That night we had a reprise of the homemade dinner on the top deck and enjoyed some relaxation.

Sunday was a fabulous Mother's Day of hiking, hiking and more hiking. The three of us attended Mass at the ancient church on the hill in Manarola, accompanied by only a handful of elderly Manarolan ladies and more than a handful of altar children - the most I've ever seen! The priest was shepherding them around the altar and lovingly pushing them out of the way when they were in the wrong places. The rest of the day was spent conquering the two paths from Manarola to Cornelia and from Cornelia to Vernazza. I don't think any of us knew how long the trek would be, but we enjoyed every hour of it and were pleased as punch when we finally arrived in Vernazza. We rode the ferry back to Manarola, which was a bit swell-y, but very refreshing. We showered up for dinner and had a fabulous meal at another trattoria recommended in the guestbook and had fresh sea bass and sole filleted for us right at our table! They also started us with this olive/mayo/oil/garlic spread on rounds of bread that was divine. That meal was a perfect way to go out in Cinque Terre.

The next morning was spent packing up and not wanting to leave that lovely place. We retrieved another rental car in La Spezia and drove home, with a pit-stop in Siena on the way, another beautiful, ancient town in our area of Italy. Thanks, again, Glendinnings for a perfect weekend away!

Back in Orvieto the Glendinnings found another place to stay for a couple of night because Locanda didn't have any rooms. It ended up being a good thing because the monastery up the street had rooms overlooking the TWELVE-sided tower in the valley and impeccably clean accommodations. We had another lovely few days in our town with Penn's poetry class providing a Reading of some memorized poems and some original poems in the courtyard one evening, another dinner at Charlie's (this one with Jana's whole family and some more friends from the program) and a soccer game at the turf fields over by the monastery up the street. Right after the game, Penn's parents left to drive up to Milan and we were supposed to pack up and get ready to go to Venice. Unfortunately, when we went to grab our really late train, there was no one in the ticket office of our tiny train station, nor could we buy tickets with the self-service machines because they were only regional machines. So, backpack-clad we went back up to sleep instead and decided to leave in the morning instead. That was a good decision in the end because we were well-rested for our lovely weekend in Venice!

I was going to write about this later, but I really have nothing else to do right now except maybe nap. So, I'll just do it.

Venice, Venice, Venice. Lovely, lovely Venice. I was a giddy little school girl visiting this city because it really is everything it's cracked up to be. And, if you avoid St. Mark's square during all hours of light, it's quite calm, actually. Though, we heard more English there than we did Italian, unfortunately. So, when we arrived in the afternoon, we wandered through the small canals and walkways over to our hotel, which was on the non-St. Mark's side of the Grand Canal, looking over the Canal and at the Rialto Bridge. I really enjoyed our location and I was glad we chose to stay there. Now that we know Venice a little better, I would love to go and stay in the Cannareggio area, where things are slightly more authentic and definitely cheaper. Though, for my first time, I wouldn't have stayed anywhere else! So, we crashed for a bit and had tea and biscuits in our room before venturing out to find this little pizza place I had read about. We found it, il Refolo, and we shared a caprese salad to start (me drinking a mimosa and Penn drinking a mojito), then I had a gorgonzola, arugula and walnut pizza while Penn had a tomato, mozzarella and speck pizza. We were completely distracted the whole time because there were tourists everywhere. No one was Italian in this whole place and there was no way they all just stumbled upon it. It was like everyone read the exact same book I did. It was creepy, but delicious. Then was gelato at Alaska, this tiny gelato place that makes entirely organic gelato. All his flavors were really strange and very natural tasting. I had chocolate, peppermint and almond and Penn has something undefinable that reminded Penn of sweet wheat bread (it was called malto or something like that), peppermint and something else I can't remember. It was definitely a unique taste experience! We did some wandering the rest of the night, window shopping in the crazy-expensive stores, seeing St. Mark's at night with the various orchestras playing and the tuxedo-clad waiters. That was quite nice, actually.

The next morning we had a lovely breakfast in our breakfast room overlooking the canal. The spread was great and the little Italian hostess was very sweet. AND, we got American coffee! I know it sounds crazy to miss regular coffee when we're living on cappuccinos and macchiatos, but it was nice to just sip and sit and have a refill! Then, we got over to St. Mark's early so that I could go inside. It was gorgeous, but the walk-around only took us about 7 minutes, so that was that. Then, we bought our passes for the vaporetto (water bus) and sat at the famous Harry's Bar for some olives and bellinis. It was cool to go to a place that had been a regular hang out of Hemingway, Byron and Orson Welles, but it's definitely not for the tourist looking for a glamorous or sunshiney morning spritz. There's no outdoor seating and barely any windows to speak of - a perfect spot for a writer to be left alone. We enjoyed it. Then, we hopped on the boat and rode over to the Peggy Guggenheim Collection in Dorsoduro. That was nice and not too expensive either! Then we visited the haunted palazzo next door (just outside) and grabbed some food to eat by the water in Dorsoduro. Then we hopped back on the boat and rode and rode. We went all the rest of the way down the Grand Canal and then around the perimeter of Venice, back to St. Mark's. I love traveling by boat. What a life! We saw the slightly-disappointing Bridge of Sighs (entirely surrounded by a Sisley advertisement) and then battled through the tourist back to our place to freshen up for dinner. We settled on a place over in Cannareggio run by a fisherman named Lolo who sells his stuff at the Rialto Market, but keeps the freshest stuff for his restaurant. Sign me up. So, since we weren't doing a Gondola ride, we decided to take a Traghetto across the canal. These are little Gondola shuttles driven by Gondoliers in training. That was just perfect for me (especially because after the 45 second ride, I was still riding the boat for about 5 minutes on land, if you know what I mean). We walked around this lovely neighborhood and eventually found this tiny little restaurant in the back streets. MmmmMmmmMmmm. We started with freshly grilled scallops served in their gorgeous shells drizzled with olive oil. For main course I had sesame-encrusted tuna steak (med rare) and drizzled with 40-year-old balsamic vinegar. Penn had scallop and zuccini gnocchi, but wished he had the gorgeous mixed-grill plate we saw delivered to the table next to us! Oh well, we made up for that by ordering the best chocolate lava cake ever made (one for each of us) and due macchiati to pep us up a bit at the end of the meal. Oh, and the Prosecco! We had this deliciously acidic Prosecco that was also made organically and worked very well with the fish we were eating! We rode the boat home and then did some more night walking around our area.

The last morning we checked out after another lovely breakfast and did another long boat ride to see the canal again. It was so hot. We grabbed a massive bottle of Coke Zero and a salami panino and sulkily went back to grab our train. Ciao, Venezia.


  1. HOW do you REMEMBER all that??!! I can't vouch for the Venice part but the Chinka Tare part is exquisitely perfect. I KNOW! You're like Hansel and Gretel: Food helps you find your way.

  2. Exactly! If can remember the meal, I can usually put the rest of the day together.

  3. She's such a Menzies! We love reading all about your travels--Thanks, Gracie and Penn --and Charlie and Paula for making much of it happen!