Italy’s Hilltops & Coastlines

by Bob Sparrow

Funicular

The dinner I had to rush off to after I posted on Thursday required us to walk about a mile and a half to the base of a funicular, which took us to the top of the mountain, via a nearly 40 degree climb, where sits the quaint little village of Montecatini Alto.  We had another perfect weather day so we could see for miles and miles – no foul weather gear needed here.  Just prior to sunset we walked the perimeter of the village taking in the spectacular views in every directions.  We then settled in at a bar (What a surprise!) on the town square and enjoyed a few cocktails before we moved next door where we had made dinner reservations.  We were seated on the patio on a beautiful evening, and while we were virtually alone at the restaurant at 7:30, when we left around 10:30 the place was packed.  We still haven’t adjusted to the late dining habits of the Italians.  With all the pasta I’d been eating for the last week, I decided to order a steak – it was delicious.

San Gimignano

Thursday morning we were back on the bus at 8:30, headed for the walled medieval town of San Gimignano.  Normally an hour and a half bus ride would not be very interesting, but Sergio did another ‘stand up’ routine about American TV shows, his comment about Murder She Wrote was something like, “If Angela Lansbury invites you to dinner, DON”T GO, someone is going to get murdered and it could be you!” He had us rolling in the aisles!  Before we hit this Tuscan city, we visited a cheese farm where we were given a tour by the owner, met the cows and goats and enjoyed some great cheeses.

Italian gelato

While wandering through town we found the award winning gelato shop that Sergio has directed us to  and got in line.  Great gelato!! We’re back on the bus (or Comedy Central as we now call it) and head back to our hotel to get ready for our ‘Farewell Dinner’ at another hilltop restaurant overlooking the Tuscany valley.  1st course: salami and other meats, 2nd course: bean soup (delicious!), 3rd course: pasta with cream sauce, 4th course: pasta with red sauce, 5th course: beef stew and potatoes, 6th course: desert (not sure what it was or how it tasted, my taste buds had checked out after the serving of the second pasta).  And, of course, the wine flowed freely.  We were all sad to leaving Sergio, but looking forward to the next stop on our own – Cinque Terre.

‘On-Off Boat’

These five towns built on the cliffs overlooking the Mediterranean are beautiful; we stayed in Monterosso, the largest of the villages and took an ‘on-off boat’ to visit the other four – actually only three as one village doesn’t have a port. It was another perfect weather day, as we strolled through each towns enjoying food, beverage and gelato.  We finished the day with a fabulous dinner, that lasted over three hours, at a seaside restaurant in our ‘home town’ of Monterosso.

Our trip home takes a few twists and turns which I will hopefully account with some of my own photos next time.

 

 

“Sorry, The Tower is Not Leaning Today”

by Bob Sparrow

(I’m still unable to download photos, but I’m using Google Images to come as close as I can)

View from hilltop Tuscan mansion

The dinner I was headed to before I had to sign off on Monday was FABULOUS.  It was at a Tuscany villa high on a hill overlooking the entire valley below.  It was a mansion that is rented out for special events.  The chef came to our outside dining area and showed us how he made the pasta he served us – interesting and delicious!  There was a DJ playing a variety of songs and the night had the potential of being a ‘sing off’ between guests from northern California, (insert photo of So. Call beating No. Cal singing ‘I Left My Heart in San Francisco’ and our southern California gang singing, ‘I Love L.A.’ – even though we really don’t like LA all that much.  But we all ‘played nicely with others’ as we both did a great job of singing ‘Sweet Caroline’.

It’s Monday morning and we are off to Pisa, about an hour bus ride away.  We had a local guide, Vincehenzo, and he is a proud Pisan (or whatever you call people from Pisa) who was so well-informed and so articulate – he brought everything to life.  The bell tower (the one that’s leaning), as you might suspect, is still leaning although someone had sprayed a sign on a wall on our way to the tower that read ‘Sorry, the tower is not leaning today’.  It was explained to us that there is current technology that could straighten the tower fairly easily, but it brings in millions of dollars each year to the town of Pisa, so I don’t think we’ll see any straightening of the tower anytime soon.  After taking all the requisite photos of people pushing the tower over, we visited the adjacent church, Santa Maria Cathedral.  I don’t know whether it was the church or whether it was the fact that Vincehenzo was so good, but he made every aspect of the history of this church come alive.  We went into the Baptistry where over 100 people had to remain perfectly silent while a single voice sang out and demonstrated the awesome acoustics in the building.  I can still hear that voice echoing in that chamber.  Once outside the baptistery, Vincehenzo explained the ancient rivalry between the cities of Florence and Pisa – it’s was the L.A. and San Francisco argument all over again.

Cathedral Santa Maria

We got back to the hotel for a brief period of time before we were off to a local farm to make our own pasta dinner.  It was about an hour’s drive and we were greeted with a glass of wine (of course!) and the chef’s staff who immediately put us to work kneading the pasta, chopping the mushrooms, slicing the tomatoes and basically putting our somewhat dubious cooking skills to work.  We also made tiramisu – that was a big mistake as I’ll be making that way too many times when I get home.

Tuesday we are off to Siena, about an hour and a half bus ride from our hotel.  It’s another beautiful walled city, with a unique event that pits district against district and takes place every year.  It is called the Palio di Siena, and it is run twice a year on July 2nd and August 16th, where horses run around the Piazza del Compo (city square) where there are some 50,000 people that cram into the area to witness the race that lasts about one minute. What’s really interesting is that it is not unusual that the jockey falls off their horse, but it doesn’t matter if the horse finishes the race with or without the jockey!

Palio di Siena

On our way back from Siena, we stopped at a small, family owned winery and enjoyed several samples of some great wine – both red and white, along with some great charcuterie (that’s meat and cheese and stuff for those non-winers).

Dinner back in our local plaza and crash.

Wednesday is a ‘free day’, so we get to relax and just explore our magnificent base city of Montecatini Terme.  This evening for dinner we’ll be taking a funicular up to Montecatini Alto, a small village that sits on a nearby hilltop – more on that next time.

I’m going to need a vacation from this vacation, but it’s been an amazing experience.

More next Monday.

Under the Tuscany Sun

by Bob Sparrow

Imagine if you will the beautiful countryside of the rolling hills of Tuscany.  The fact is you will have to imagine it as the bandwidth the Hotel Ercolini e Savi is so thin, it could run around in a shower and never get wet, which means I am unable to send photos, but promise to when cyberspace allow.

The trip over was long and uneventful except for the Russian spy on our flight from LAX to Paris (insert photo of Russian spy here); more than likely she was coming back from just playing golf with Trump at Trump National Golf Club in Palos Verdes.  But that’s a blog for another time.

From Paris we flew to Florence where we were met by our tour guide, Sergio (insert picture of Sergio), who is a jolly (meaning he’s a bit over-weight) man with a great attitude and smile.  He knows Italy backwards and forwards (he was born there) and could seriously do stand-up comedy.  As I mentioned in a previous blog, your tour guide either makes or breaks your trip.  I felt so relieved upon meeting Sergio – there was no question he is going to make it great!

Our hotel is in the town of Montecatini Terme in the middle of the Tuscan region and this town is fabulous – not too big, not too small.  Great atmosphere, great restaurants and bars, friendly people.  Travel tip: go there!  That evening (Friday) we had a welcome dinner for all of the people on the tour, which numbered 42, all but two from the U.S..  We were a group of 12, there was a group from northern California of 16; the rest were from various parts of the US with one couple from Wales.  These were the people who we were going to spend the next eight days with so we were anxious to get to know them.  After Sergio explained all the fun and the rules, we enjoyed a nice dinner at the hotel and decided to head into the town square for an after-dinner drink.  (insert group photo of sitting in outdoor bar off the square of Montecatini), we eventually found our way back to the hotel, but since there was a bar next door that looked fun, we stopped for ‘just one more’.  We did finally get to our rooms for some much-needed sleep.

I’d like to say I had the best night’s sleep I had in a long time, and I did, but since our watches and phones were still on California time, the alarms never went off and we woke up at 8:25, when we had implicit instructions to be on the bus by 8:30 and DON’T BE LATE!  Not a good start . . . obviously we were late and got a nice round of applause when we entered the bus red-faced!  We were headed for Florence to spend the day and a beautiful day it was, weather-wise and experience-wise.  Prior to getting into the city, we headed to a hilltop site that provided us an extraordinary view of the entire city including the famous Ponte Vecchio (insert photo of city view showing Ponte Vecchio) The highlight, of course, was a trip to see Michelangelo’s David, of which I got a rather unusual photo (insert photo of David’s ass).  We were guided through the city’s churches, civic buildings and various statues and fountains – very interesting.  Back to the hotel, a short nap and a great dinner at a local restaurant just off the plaza in town

While our first full day was Under a Tuscan Sun, Sunday (where we did make it to the bus on time by the way!) started with a heavy rain shower, but quickly gave way to sun, which not-too-quickly gave way to more rain, as we motored to the town of Lucca.  Another great Italian town, this one with a city wall all the way around it (insert photo of city wall) and the rain ceased while we toured the city with a local guide, rented bikes and rode all the way around the city on the wall (insert photo of our unfortunate bike crash – it’s not true what they said about never forgetting how to ride a bike), toured the home/museum of composer, Giacomo Puccini, who wrote the operas, Madame Butterfly, La Boheme, and Turandot (from which the song Nessun Dorma comes).  On our way home we passed ‘Devil’s Bridge’ (photo and story later, maybe) stopped at a WWII museum and walked through a real old Nazi bunker – spooky! (photo of spooky Nazi bunker).

The trip has been awesome so far!! (insert photo of how awesome trip is) A Tuscan dinner out tonight somewhere, but I’ll have to write about that next time – hopefully Thursday.

P.S.  In the event my photos never come through, just look this stuff up on Google.

Arrivederci (photo of me saying, “See you later”)

Summer’s Over . . . or Is It?

by Bob Sparrow

With Labor Day coming and going, summer is ‘unofficially’ over; a fact that you don’t have to tell most kids, who have been back in school for several weeks.  But I’m going to try and squeeze in one more ‘summer vacation’ before the season is ‘officially’ over.

This Thursday we’ll be heading to Italy with five other couples from the ‘hood: Mark & Kathy Johnson, Patrick & Pam Michael, Mike & Tanis Nelson, Bob & Jeanne Pacelli and Rob & Stefanie Warren.  Yes, I know I was just in Italy in July, but if you had a chance to go back, wouldn’t you?  And this group knows how to have fun.

Montecatini Terme

The first segment of our trip is a group tour called Spotlight on Tuscany, which lasts for nine days, with the town of Montecatini Terme, in the rolling hills of Tuscany, serving as our base from which we will visit a different area each day.  One day we’ll hit Florence, the cradle of the Italian Renaissance, and have a chance to see Michelangelo’s David; I last saw him in 1974 and I’m curious if, now as an older man, he’s still standing naked in the middle of the Academy Gallery.  We’ll also see the walled city of Lucca, which is advertised as Tuscany’s best kept secret, but I have a feeling that it’s not that much of a secret anymore – I’ll let you know.  We’ll have a guided walking tour through the charming town of Siena and then of course we’ll all take the requisite photo of us pushing over the leaning tower of Pisa in that coastal town.

Throughout the tour we’ll be tasting Italian wines, Italian olive oils, more Italian wines, Italian cheeses and some more Italian wines.

Cinque Terre

After our stay in Tuscany we’ll be hopping on a train and heading for the Mediterranean coast to the picturesque towns of Cinque Terre – a destination that has long-been on my travel bucket list.  We’re on our own here, so we’ll be hiking through the five villages, taking water taxis back and forth and probably drinking some Italian wine.

And yes, of course, you’re invited to come along vicariously and be spared the joys of airplane rides and airline rubber chicken.  You’ll also not have to pack any foul-weather gear, as rain is predicted for our first several days in Tuscany.  Trust me, it won’t dampen our spirits!

As always I’ll update you as we go along.