San Gimignano

Next stop, San Gimignano. It takes its name from the Bishop of Modena, St. Gimignano. In 1348 San Gimignano’s population was drastically reduced by the Black Death Plague. The construction of their towers dates back to the 11th and 13th centuries. The architecture of the city was influenced by Pisa, Siena and Florence. Wikipedia has a very good summary.

The main drag is tourist trap central. It was packed but still quite impressive.

We really enjoyed the Piazza il Duomo.

And on the other side of the main church, there is a piazza where the original cistern was located (aptly named Piazza della Cisterna). As you can see, it is all about the towers (I wonder if Freud was Italian). There used to be over sixty towers, today only fourteen are left. Every powerful family had one. They used them to defend their position and attack others (think a local version of Montague and Capulet).

When we got back, we cleaned up and walked to the local (or at least we thought it was local) restaurant – Buzzanca. Mary had the Penne alla Buzzanca (penne with a meat ragu, cream and herbs) and I had Tagliatelle con Funghi (pasta, porcini, olive oil, parsley and of course the dreaded garlic). Both were great and the carbs fueled our 2+ km walk back up the hill (and I mean uphill) to the apartment.


Certaldo Alto

A friend told us we had to visit Certaldo Alto. I am glad we listened. It was a little hard to find. Actually it was easy to find sitting up on the hilltop. However, it was tricky to figure out how to get there.

Originally an Etruscan-Roman city, it was a fief of the Alberti Counts until conquered by the Florentines in 1184.The Palazzo Pretorio has a picturesque facade and court adorned with coats of arms, and in the interior are various frescoes dating from the I3th to the 16th century.

It is a bit touristy, but being tourists, we enjoyed it. This is a view down main street. As we approached we could hear (through a window in the building on the left) a grand piano being played, treating all of us to beautiful classical music.

And, I had to add another Tuscan door to my collection. I actually added quite a few, but I am only subjecting you to one two.


Tuscany

We got an early start Saturday morning and took off for Tuscany. The Autostrade out of Bologna quickly turned into more than just getting passed by big Mercedes and BMWs at high speed.

It became a game of tunnel, bridge, tunnel, bridge as we approached Firenze. The hills of Tuscany make building roads a lot more challenging. We got off of the highway on the outskirts of Firenze and headed south. Everything changed right away.

We spotted the castle of Poppiano as we negotiated the hairpins and single lane roads (they carry traffic in both directions but they are slightly wider than a driveway).

We pulled into the driveway of Le Torri at 11:00, quite a bit early. Check in isn’t until 3:00 but we wanted to know where our final destination was. We trucked into the local town (San Quirico in Collina) just to wander.

Town to town travel is interesting. Since the majority of these ancient towns were built on hilltops (you could see the approaching enemy better), there is no way to the neighboring town except down into the valley and back up again. I would suspect that you go through a lot of brakes and transmissions here.

Every town it seems has to have its own tower and they are often picturesque.

As you’ll see in coming posts, I’ve developed a liking for the cool doorways in Tuscany. It seems that 90% of the place can be in need of significant TLC but the doors are always perfect.

Finally after a nice lunch, some leisurely wandering and a stop at the local coop for groceries, we were ready to head back. The place (Le Torri) is great.

Our room/apartment is the second floor set of windows in the right side of this picture. We checked in, and decided to relax in the pool. Then the rest of the week’s travelers arrived. 12 mad Hungarians (including two ex-pats living in Toronto) and four of their Canadian friends. What a hoot. They certainly livened things up. There was an interesting mix of Hungarian, Italian, English (Hungitalish?) as the night progressed.To our new Hungarian friends – “mad Hungarians” is a term of endearment – you guys are great.We experienced the infamous buffet of local Tuscan cooking, prepared by the matriarch of the family (Maria Pia), and tried their family Chianti. It was quite nice. We bought a bottle but I am sure that it won’t survive the trip. She is cooking again Wednesday evening so we’ll give a run down of both at that time.


Bologna

Renting a car in Italy is a fun experience. You’d better be in a relaxed mood.

We decided not to have a car for our time in Milano (which was a good move). This morning when we checked out we headed directly for the central train station to pick up our car. We were originally scheduled for a 2:00 pm pickup but decided to get on the road early (or so we thought).

We got there at about 10:00am. After waiting in line an hour, I finally got to the agent and he told me he couldn’t find my reservation. I handed him the confirmation sheet. He saw 2:00pm and mumbled that I’d have to come back in an hour and it might be ready. We chilled for an hour, and came back at noon. The line was now 5 minutes long (not bad). When I got to the agent again, he said all was in order and they would drive my car up in 5-10-15 minutes. That should have been a clue. It was another hour waiting in the parking lot before the car made it from their off-site lot to the station. Mary grabbed this picture while I was waiting. Fortunately I was chilling Italian style or I’d have been in the back of this truck rather than just waiting by it.

We jumped in the car and headed for Bologna. Nice trip, pretty fast on the autostrade but quite windy. It felt like an amusement park ride where the car was pushed from side to side with trucks on one side going slower and the BMWs, Mercedes, et. al. on the other side passing us going at least 150 kph. I was certainly ready to arrive.

I like the car as you can tell.

Dinner tonight was great. We had dinner at the Hotel Savoia where we are staying – just outside of the city of Bologna. We had read that the in house restaurant, “Garganelli” was great so we tried it. It didn’t disappoint, and cost us almost half what we spent on our dinner in Milano. We split a mixed salad and Mary ordered the ravioli Garganelli (pink ravioli) stuffed with fresh Mozzarella di Bufala and Aubergine (eggplant), garnished with fresh San Marzano tomatoes and basil. I had the pork fillet wrapped in Prosciutto dolce di Parma (a special “ham”) and served with grilled green peppers and an aubergine puree. Both were molto bene (I know because of course we split them both)! We had a bottle of Erik Banti’s Carato, a blend of sangiovese, cabernet, merlot and syrah. Worth looking for at home, especially given its low price. Outstanding!

Night, night.


Milano

Well it was a planes, trains and automobiles day. Fortunately without most of the drama, or John Candy or Steve Martin. It was a long day. We left Mpls. at about 8:00, airport delays and all. We flew NWA/Delta on an Airbus 330 (one of them that didn’t drop into the Atlantic). We were in 1H and 1J. I haven’t flow international on an Airbus before. I really like their seats in business class – talk about tricked out. Two lumbar actuators, foot rest and a nice entertainment center (we watched the new Star Trek movie – at least it was new to us). An added benefit of the seats is that you really can sleep in them. At least for about three hours before they wake you up for landing.

One we landed in Milan’s Malpensa airport, we took the train to MIlano. It was about 50 km. Not a bad ride. It was then only a 10 minute cab ride to the Hotel Jolly President. We checked in at about 4:00, in but forgot to ask for the renovated section. Ah well, our room was small but reasonable. Fine for one night. Our first stop was the Duomo. Wow. I had seen it before but it is still breathtaking. Mary was expecting a dark, gothic structure and was stunned by the pink and tan marble exterior, over 157 spires and 2000 statures and gargoyles.

Fortunately we had time for Mary to audition at La Scala. We won’t know the results for a while but at least she enjoyed it. 🙂

We took a short trek through the Galleria Via Emmanuel, oohed and ahhed at the designer shops, then stopped for a Heineken to quench the thirst and it was back to the hotel to get cleaned up for dinner.

Dinner was at Peppino. Two blocks from the hotel. We shared a Caprese salad, Risotto ala Milanese and Linguini with Vongele. We figured Risotto Milanese was a must-have in Milan. We were not disappointed. The Vongele was also delicious. Rosso di Montalcino was our wine of choice.

I got up early to catch the early morning light. I was pleased not only with the light but how few people are crowding the Piazza at 5:30 AM.

We checked out this morning, and picked up our rental car. Now we are off to Bologna. More later.

Ciao.


Getting it all together

The Internet has certainly transformed travel.

You can visit your intended location with Google Maps and get a feel for the area with either the satellite or street view (e.g. I was really surprised how much of the Lake Como in Italy you can see from Google’s street view of the area).

TripAdvisor is a great tool for getting first hand reviews of cities you want to visit and hotels you want to stay at. They often have pictures of the views from the rooms or public areas that surround the property.

In most cases you can even book the services that you want. However it is not always as easy or as safe as one would like it to be. When we were trying to get reservations in Cinque Terre or Lake Como, we ran into problems (after six tries in Cinque Terre we gave up, we should have given up earlier). Properties that seemed to be available were booked. Finding places that weren’t listed on TripAdvisor were hard to find. In the end, the easy places were easy, it was the hard places, that made it very frustrating.

We called our friend Sandy Lovick at Travel Leaders. She was great. She helped with our rental car (I wanted something I knew I could fit in), and many of our hotel rooms (especially when we are planning to stay in a popular area). Hopefully the Internet made our suggestions to her more specific and as a result her job more efficient.

If you have travel needs we can certainly recommend Sandy and her team at Travel Leaders. Feel free to call her at 651.731.9706 or email her at sandy@tvlleaders.com


Our Itinerary

Well it is finally set. We fly into Malpensa airport A, take the train into Milan Central to stay near the Duomo for a couple of days. Then we drive to Bologna B (I wonder if anyone can sing the Oscar Meyer theme song like Jack?) for the night. We then will wind our way to Montespertoli C, our center of operations for a week. We’ll be staying at Le Torri (see the posts below). After a week of reeling (yes I meant reeling) through Tuscany, we head for Portovenere D. We wanted to stay in Cinque Terre proper but alas almost everything is full. We’ll spend two days in Cinque Terre (stretching from D to E), taking the ferry, the train and hiking the area. We then wind our way up to Lake Como F for our final two days before heading back to the airport A.

We are excited to say the least, it has been way to long since we’ve been to the area – and this time we’ll be able to explore so much more.


Le Torri (part deux or should I say part due)

From the top of the mountain

Unfortunately I did not take this picture. I say unfortunately because if I had, I’d be there. It won’t be long now. We leave September 2nd and we are psyched. Once we get an itinerary fixed, I’ll post it.


Le Torri

We are excited. We are going to Italy. It is our first two week vacation since I’ve been at VisionShare. We fly into Milan, meander our way down to San Quirico in Collina in Tuscany.This is a picture of the Villa that will be our home for about a week. We’re then planning on winding our way over to the Italian Mediterranean and wander our way north. We’re planning on a day or two in the Lake Como area and then back to the airport in Malpensa.    Villa Let Torri Montespertoli
Villa Le Torri Montespertoli

Egrets

I’ve been working hard to capture a nice shots of these beautiful birds. Here are a few…

This one was right down near our beach early one morning.

They really spook easily when you walk up to to say hello. Even when you walk, really really, slowly.

Venturing out in a canoe and drifting over their direction without so much as the blink of an eye. I might need to get some camouflage.