Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Italian Adventure 2011 - Part IV

      As our guided tour of Tuscany continued, our group of ten met each morning for breakfast after resting comfortably in our spacious castle suites. I slept soundly surrounded by the thick stone walls that blocked out all sound and light. The experience was medieval and luxurious at the same time. Magic. After breakfast we regrouped and headed out to destinations such as Cortona, Montepulciano, Montelcino, San Gimignano, and Greve. Each town had it’s own charm and beauty.  At the end of the day we went to a local restaurant or returned to the castle for a gourmet Italian dinner. Wow!  

       Mid week we decided to have a down day to relax at the castle, or visit the nearby spa, and meet back at the castle in the afternoon for a cooking class with Salvatore and Antonio. I must say under the guidance of these exceptional cooks we prepared an amazing meal that we paired with great wine and lots of wonderful companionship.

On our last day we visited Pienza where we sampled the delicious Pecorino cheese, and Montecino, home of the renowned Brunello wine. To end the day Antonio had arranged a tour, wine tasting and dinner, at the home/winery of his friends. The setting was beautiful, the wine luscious and our hosts were friendly and welcoming. Their stunning hillside winery in the heart of the Brunello wine region was aptly named La Fortuna after it was won by the current owners grandfather in a card game. While we toured the winery with the father and son winemakers, their wives were inside preparing what was to be a delectable dinner. The evening could not have been more perfect for our last dinner as a group. Wonderful memories were made that night.

After seven incredible days we returned to Florence, said goodbye to our new friends and began to prepare for our long journey home. From Florence we took the train to Milan where we spent one night and caught a morning flight to San Diego via Atlanta.

Vacations are exciting, but there is no place like home. I missed all my familiar surroundings; kitchen, family room and of course my bed, where I snuggle-in and dream about Italy.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Italian Adventure 2011, Part III

On day 14 we arrived in Florence after another tense drive through Northern Tuscany in the pouring rain. At this point we were just here for one night and meeting up with three other couples and our tour guide in the morning. We planned to return to Florence for a couple of nights after our Tuscany tour as we had been there before and do love the city.

After several complications… dropping off our car, finding our room, not being able to get into our room, we finally arrived frazzled and tired. Mark wanted to get something to eat and retire for the night. I however, wanted to see the Duomo.

Mark was more agreeable after a nice dinner and a little wine, and we strolled down to Piazza Duomo. The streets of Florence are very narrow and the buildings are tall, blocking the sun and any views of the city’s sights. When we stepped into the square the enormity of the cathedral took our breath away. We had forgotten the majesty and shear size of this incredible structure. We circled the cathedral, baptistery, and bell tower awed and speechless until we realized it was cold and we had an early wake up call.

                                                                             We met our guide, the charming and entertaining Salvatore, and the other couples at the train station. To our great relief, it turned out to be a friendly and fun group of people from three different areas of the US and we immediately hit it off. Next stop, Castello Delle Serre, a centuries old castle in the heart of Tuscany. Salvatore had purchased the castle 14 years ago and has been restoring it ever since. We had stayed there three years ago and were excited to be returning for an entire week with Salvatore, a knowledgeable historian, and his son, Antonio, as our guides.

We settled into our elegant room, had a quick lunch, and headed into the Tuscan countryside. Mark and I have toured many areas of Italy, but as soon as we arrived, we agreed that Tuscany is our favorite. There is something unique about this part of the world. The way the sun illuminates the landscape, the vineyards covering the slopes, the historic hilltop towns with their winding narrow streets, all combine to take you away from the modern world into history itself. There is a feel to this place that is like nowhere else.

With local residence as our guides (from left, my husband Mark, Salvatore, and Antonio), we were able to enjoy local restaurants, private wineries, and even private homes. We ate some dinners at the castle prepared by Sal and his family, which were fabulous and memorable. On our first full day of touring we were welcomed at the Dei Family Winery and even into their home for lunch. The Dei family fortune derives from their travertine quarries, and more recently, their winery. I was delighted to find them welcoming and warm as we toured the gardens (pictured below) and interior of one of their country estates. The meal was amazing, the wine delicious, and the company unforgettable. Once again we were living among the locals, in this case, the wealthy locals. What an experience!

Next week, part 4.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Italian Adventure 2011, Part II

            I was feeling really sad about having to say good-bye to Giorgio and Patrizia and the 5 Chimneys B&B until I switched my focus to our next destination, Bellagio, at beautiful Lake Como. Giorgio drove us back to Milan where we picked up a rental car and headed north to the lake country. Once we navigated ourselves through the town of Como we found the narrow, windy road leading to Bellagio. After an hour of hugging the mountainside and dodging the aggressive Italian drivers we arrived at our B&B exhausted and grateful to have survived the drive.
            Bellagio is an elegant, timeless village, with old villas nestled in meticulously manicured gardens, with stunning views of Lake Como, and the Alps that surround the lake.  We walked and walked exploring the gardens and shops, climbing the many stairs that are the streets in this hillside town. After nightfall the lake glowed in the light of a full moon. Romantic Lake Como, I am glad I got to know you.
            After 2 nights it was time to get back in the car. Luckily we were leaving by a different route, which was much less traveled and less stressful. Next stop Verona, the city of love. Actually we were staying at another hilltop town above Verona, San Giorgio, which sits in the middle of the Valpolicella wine growing area. The view from our room of the endless vineyards, turning yellow and gold, and Lake Garda in the distance, was peaceful and inviting. Each of these areas grows different types of grapes and makes their own varieties of wine unique to the area. Valpolicella produces red, rosé, and white. The rosés are often sparkling, and oh so refreshing. I really enjoyed the wine here.
             Verona itself has many medieval structures very much intact including a massive coliseum older then the one in Rome. It is still in use today as a venue for concerts and plays. The main attraction though is Juliet’s home and the famous balcony that Romeo used to visit Juliet in secret. Love is definitely in the air in Verona.

            Day 12 of our trip finds us once again in the car, heading to Parma, the city of food. Parmesan cheese, prosciutto as well as other types of ham are produced, and consumed in Parma. The locals seem to live on these foods. Breakfast, lunch and dinner all start with ham and cheese. The quality and freshness of the cheeses I especially appreciated, being the cheese lover that I am. I was in cheese heaven the entire trip. We visited a family who produce Parmesan and watched the entire process and sampled the finished product. This cheese is like nothing I had ever tasted. Like I said, Italy is cheese heaven.
            Next stop Florence, where we will meet up with our tour group and head to Castello Delle Serre, a medieval castle in Tuscany, and the highlight of our trip. Check back for Part III.

Monday, November 7, 2011

Italian Adventure 2011, Part I

           As some of you know my laptop was stolen in the early days of my vacation to Italy. Consequently there have been no blog postings as I had planned. It was the trip of my life and looking back I realize there are no words to describe what we experienced in Italy, however, now that I am back at my computer I will try.
I had been planning this trip for nine months to celebrate my husband, Mark’s, 60th birthday. I like to get the most out of each of my vacation days, so I research travel websites, study maps, and plan every detail I possibly can in advance. When the day came to head to the airport, I was prepared and ready. There is no easy way for west coasters to get to Europe, so you grin and bare what ends up being a very long ordeal. We left home about 6 am, flew to Atlanta for a 2 hour layover, and arrived in Milan at midnight our time. There is a 9-hour time difference, so the local time was 9 am. That is the hard part. The good news is our host for the next 7 days was waiting to greet us with a warm smile and welcoming attitude.
I had gone out on a limb for this first week and booked us into the 5 Chimneys B&B in an off the beaten path area of Piedmont somewhere between Milan and Turin. The package included accommodations, breakfast and dinner prepared by Patrizia, our hostess, and private tours of the area by Giorgio, our host. With no car or any idea what was in store for us, we were totally in their hands. Giorgio was friendly and informative on the 50-minute drive to the villa and when we arrived Patrizia was at the gate to greet us.

 This charming, English speaking Italian couple welcomed us into their home, a 17th century villa that they have restored in its original style, in the tiny village of Pozzenga. The village is in the middle of the Monferrato wine growing area. Our room on the 2nd floor had views of the snow-capped Alps, vineyard covered hillsides, and the village below. Stunning! That afternoon Giorgio took us to the La Pavesa Winery, where he is part owner, and toured the vineyards with his partner, Franco, the winemaker. After the tour we tried all the amazing wines with local cheeses and meats, and we knew we had made a great choice in coming here. 

            We began each morning with Giorgio’s perfect cappuccinos and Patrizia’s delicious breakfast with something freshly baked each day. Then we headed off to explore Piedmont with Giorgio. We toured hilltop castles, the Barolo (wine of the kings) wine growing area, the historic city of Turin, and Lake Orta at the base of the Alps. The lack of tourists in this area is what made this such a memorable experience. We were able to live the actual lifestyle of the area, meet the locals and eat what they traditionally eat, everything fresh from the land. Wonderful!
            This area is known for black and the rare white truffles, so prized by chefs around the world. One morning we were picked up by a local truffle hunter and his highly trained dog and headed into the woods in search of the elusive truffle. I told you we were living the local lifestyle. The hunt was successful with 4 black truffles and 1 small white truffle. We turned them over to Patrizia who used them in sauces and on salads, which were out of this world. 

            On another afternoon our hosts invited us to join them at their church for the annual village concert. Of course we agreed and all walked up to the top of the hill. All the villagers were there and we met the local dignitaries including the priest and the mayor. We were not prepared when the sophisticated and accomplished musicians entered and took their seats. For such a small village we expected a more local experience. When the music began in this centuries old stone church with massive arched ceilings and amazing acoustics, we were hypnotized. We agreed later that we both felt like we had been transported back in time, or to another world. This was not a tourist attraction and we lost ourselves in the realness of it.

            The icing on the cake – the cake that was this week in Piedmont - was returning every evening to the B&B and being served a 5-star, gourmet, 4-course meal, prepared lovingly by Patrizia. She is an amazing cook using all fresh, local ingredients to make the traditional meals of the area. Giorgio chose the wine from his wine cellar, and we were wowed every night.
            As the week came to an end, we worried that the rest of our vacation would be a disappointment after the amazing week at 5 Chimneys. However nothing could be further from the truth. Check back in a few days for more about our Italian vacation.