Monday
Nov152010

November 15, 2010

We have posted today some pictures of the various dishes we ate in France and Italy and gthe wines we drank, with brief descriptions.  If you are hungry, we recommend you eat before viewing the pictures.  The pictures are located at the bottom of the Europe Photos section.  Bon Appetit.



Sunday
Oct312010

October 30-31, 2010

October 30, 2010.

This morning here in Venice we awoke to sea gulls perched on a post just outside our window squawking in the new day. The island city is abuzz with water buses making their stops, private (outrageously expensive) taxis built of mahogany cruising the channel for clients and pedestrians hiking over the Academia Bridge. Gwen need to be pried from “her” perch gazing out our hotel window with continuous amazement at sights unique to this city. But, Dick pried her away from the room and we were off to the next stop, San Marco Square. Just a 10 minute water bus ride to the square, we were greeted by a myriad of international gaukers. We thought that late October would lead to fewer tourists here in Europe and we were right….except for Venice. This is a place unlike any other, so, perhaps the laws of travel don’t apply either. We quickly understood the source of this onslaught….many had cruise ship stickers on their lapels….yes, on a later circumvention of the City by water bus we saw at least a dozen cruise ships docked on the Adriatic side of the City!

San Marco Square is a gem. The Cathedral is perhaps the most ornate of any we’ve seen on this trip. Statues of every iteration perched proudly atop every available wall, spire and platform. Rumor has it that the Pigeons are contemplating a revolt since all their roosting space is occupied! It’s not true….they failed to get the votes to create a union. And, their nemesis, the Sea Gulls are busy keeping pigeon populations down. The sea gulls are very aggressive and are rumored to kill the peaceful pigeons with a single peck. You should have seen the pigeons pecking at a piece of bread cast to them by a boy….then, like Batman swooping down, a sea gull dropped from the sky, the horrified pigeons scattered and the gull swallowed the huge piece of bread in a single gulp!

After taking in the natural order of things in Venice, we walked through a labyrinth of little streets leading over narrow canals, under arches connecting the tightly packed buildings and around the maze of shops, restaurants and gelato creameries. Some of the wine bars were so small Dick’s feet were sticking out into the walkway! That’s still not as dramatic as the story told many times in Detroit back in the 70’s. You’ll remember a basketball player, a good one, named Bob Lanier who had a size 22 shoe. His teammates used to tease him the his feet arrived at practice 15 minutes before he did! Anyway, you get the drift.

One of the general themes of this trip has been stumbling. Yes, the most intriguing places we’ve visited were ones we stumbled upon. The wine bar we drank a vino blanco in was lined with beautiful hand carved wood and it was so small you couldn’t stumble in it only in front of it!

One last thing about Venice. For those who believe the rapidly melting glaciers  and those who don’t…one thing is certain, the Venetians are flooded with anxiety about it. They are awash with uncertainty when, at high tide, the entire San Marco Square is submerged!

October 31, 2010.

The night train from Venice to Paris was, as all of our night excursions, a less than roomy one. This one did not have a bathroom, so, with swelling bladders, there was even less room! We shared a toilet with the other couples in the car….really not so bad. And, the sleep, well, all we can say is it was more restive than restful. But, when the conductor rapped on the door in the morning to alert us of impending arrival, Dick didn’t hear it, so at least some REM periods were gotten.

We taxied out to Orly Airport where our plane departs tomorrow, registered in the hotel and headed back to Paris for a day of sight seeing. We bought a ticket on one of those buses that drops and picks up throughout the day. Frankly, though, we were a bit toured out, so to speak. We were amused to see that several restaurants across from Notre Dame Cathedral were called Quasimodo! We considered going into one of them for lunch, but since Dick’s back was a bit sore, we figured we wouldn’t get much sympathy there, so we got over the hump and went elsewhere. We stayed on the bus most of the time, saw all the great sights Paris has to offer, stopped for lunch, then we were accosted by a chocolate specialty store and hardly got away with our lives! If you never see us again, it’s because of diabetic coma.

Now, we have settled into our hotel, kicked back and plan to spend a leisurely evening before boarding our Open Skies flight to Dulles tomorrow at noon.

All told, we’d say this was a pretty darn good trip. Plenty of new experiences, plenty of old and new wine, plenty of laughs and plenty of rewarding encounters with our fellow human. The insights and observations, we hope, will make us a more interesting couple, expand our appreciation for different lifestyles, values and customs…..some we intend to adopt on a part time basis, until our friends stop laughing at us.

As for all our loved ones, friends and acquaintances who have joined us on this venture, we sure appreciate your good wishes, your comments and especially, your willingness to put up with some of our silly commentary. Most of it was a vain effort at comedy and others were sincere, deeply held but proudly composed nonsense. May we someday soon join again on another excursion to far off lands in search of a more complete understanding of our increasingly small world. Au revoir, Dick and Gwen reporting.

Saturday
Oct302010

October 29,2010

Here we sit, in our hotel room in Venice overlooking the Grand Canal. Water buses are passing by, lovers in Gondolas are tickling each other and just 10 meters away pedestrians are walking over the Academia Bridge. It appears to be a city of youth….we haven’t seen a gray hair since we looked in the mirror! But, seriously, this is a city with mesmerizing qualities. But, we get ahead of our selves. Our dinner at Erbolino last night was wonderful. Aside from our hosts, Ricardo and Anna Maria, we were joined by 3 of their friends from Sweden who spend the winters in Tuscany. It was a United Nations conversation covering all the great issues of the day. Then, this morning we awoke to another serene Tuscan sunrise. Ricardo and Anna Maria prepared a lovely breakfast and we said arrivederchi to the Tuscan countryside and its enchanting landscapes.

Our ever faithful Alice, the GPS unit, escorted us to Florence, but somehow misunderstood that we wanted to “go directly” to the Hertz rental place to return our car. Instead, she took us on a tour of  residential Florence, through the commercial section of town and finally, to the airport Hertz drop off. We survived, as always, and caught a taxi to the train station. There we were welcomed with an abrupt….”No reservation,” Trains are booked all day long!”  Forlorn, but not defeated, we checked out alternatives….No Buses to Venice, No options but the train! So, seeing that a 12:30  train was departing to Venice, we pushed our way up the ramp with luggage in tow and just got on the train….heck, only in the movies do they “throw you under the train,” so to speak. Just like clock work, the train left the station on time, that’s the good news, the bad news…no seats! Every reserved seat was occupied. So, we stood at the end of the car and said to each other….we’re going to Venice, standing all the way. Fortunately, the conductor allowed Dick to sit on the floor. Standing for 2 hours is not his cup of tea. Sure, it was undignified, sure Dick got looks only a Gypsy could appreciate, but, the train was speeding…and we mean speeding, it is one of those fast European trains, and we were on our way to Venice. There were several scheduled stops and on the second one seats became available and our dignity was restored.

We arrived in Venice at 2:30 PM and right outside the station are water buses at the ready. The number 2 water bus brought us right to the front door of our hotel. Sure, the hotel has seen its better days, best described as “faded elegance,“ but it still has a special charm (Murano glass chandeliers. Antiques and oriental rugs) and wow, our room is just 3 meters above the canal….heck, you could a do a one and a half gainer right into the canal! So, tonight, we dine at a restaurant suggested by our helpful hotel receptionist and tomorrow, we take a water taxi to the San Marco Piazza for some sightseeing.

Needless to say, we are used to being close to water…living on Smith Mountain Lake, you hear the lap, lap, lap of lake water splashing on the shore below, but this is different, if the buses ignore the “no wake” policy, water could be washed into our room! Tonight, we’ll put on our “floaties” and get a “Grand Canal” sleep.
Here we sit, in our hotel room in Venice overlooking the Grand Canal. Water buses are passing by, lovers in Gondolas are tickling each other and just 10 meters away pedestrians are walking over the Academia Bridge. It appears to be a city of youth….we haven’t seen a gray hair since we looked in the mirror! But, seriously, this is a city with mesmerizing qualities. But, we get ahead of our selves. Our dinner at Erbolino last night was wonderful. Aside from our hosts, Ricardo and Anna Maria, we were joined by 3 of their friends from Sweden who spend the winters in Tuscany. It was a United Nations conversation covering all the great issues of the day. Then, this morning we awoke to another serene Tuscan sunrise. Ricardo and Anna Maria prepared a lovely breakfast and we said arrivederchi to the Tuscan countryside and its enchanting landscapes.

Our ever faithful Alice, the GPS unit, escorted us to Florence, but somehow misunderstood that we wanted to “go directly” to the Hertz rental place to return our car. Instead, she took us on a tour of  residential Florence, through the commercial section of town and finally, to the airport Hertz drop off. We survived, as always, and caught a taxi to the train station. There we were welcomed with an abrupt….”No reservation,” Trains are booked all day long!”  Forlorn, but not defeated, we checked out alternatives….No Buses to Venice, No options but the train! So, seeing that a 12:30  train was departing to Venice, we pushed our way up the ramp with luggage in tow and just got on the train….heck, only in the movies do they “throw you under the train,” so to speak. Just like clock work, the train left the station on time, that’s the good news, the bad news…no seats! Every reserved seat was occupied. So, we stood at the end of the car and said to each other….we’re going to Venice, standing all the way. Fortunately, the conductor allowed Dick to sit on the floor. Standing for 2 hours is not his cup of tea. Sure, it was undignified, sure Dick got looks only a Gypsy could appreciate, but, the train was speeding…and we mean speeding, it is one of those fast European trains, and we were on our way to Venice. There were several scheduled stops and on the second one seats became available and our dignity was restored.

We arrived in Venice at 2:30 PM and right outside the station are water buses at the ready. The number 2 water bus brought us right to the front door of our hotel. Sure, the hotel has seen its better days, best described as “faded elegance,“ but it still has a special charm (Murano glass chandeliers. Antiques and oriental rugs) and wow, our room is just 3 meters above the canal….heck, you could a do a one and a half gainer right into the canal! So, tonight, we dine at a restaurant suggested by our helpful hotel receptionist and tomorrow, we take a water taxi to the San Marco Piazza for some sightseeing.

Needless to say, we are used to being close to water…living on Smith Mountain Lake, you hear the lap, lap, lap of lake water splashing on the shore below, but this is different, if the buses ignore the “no wake” policy, water could be washed into our room! Tonight, we’ll put on our “floaties” and get a “Grand Canal” sleep.

Friday
Oct292010

October 28, 2010

Today is Dick's mother's 92nd birthday.  Happy Birthday Mom.  We love you.

While some emotions justify a certain sadness when summer is at an end and the harvest moon has risen, we’re here to quiet your angst. Yes, the signs of nature indicating the Autumnal Equinox is near are many….the Sun’s angle shortens, the nights grow longer and chillier, the vistas turn from a deep green to rich colors of yellow, red, orange and eventually brown. All these laws of nature apply here in Tuscany….and there’s one more that needs be told. It’s the distinct smell of grapes fermenting. An untrained nose might turn away from the somewhat acrid scent, but for those of us who love wines, that scent is as welcome as the ringing bell is to a Pavlovian Dog.

Today, we awakened to a perfectly cloudless day. Yes, it was brisk outside….temps dropped into the mid 30’s, but our cozy Erbolino with it’s floors heated radiantly spared us the chill. After breakfast we headed to Radda in Chianti which is only 10 minutes down the winding road. There we picked up a detailed map of the area and headed North to a large vineyard named Castello d‘ Albola. We tasted some of their wines….Chardonnay, 2 Chianti Classicos, one with 100% Sangiovese and the other 95% Sangiovese and 5% Canaiolo, and a Super Tuscan. All were very good, with the 100% Sangiovese winning our personal taste test. Then, while discussing the wines, we discovered that the owner of this wine operation and it’s many hectares of vines, is also the owner of Barboursville vineyards in our own backyard…Charlottesville, Virginia! What an amazing coincidence.

While at the Castello….we met a couple from New York…the Hudson Valley. They are veteran Italy travelers and had many great suggestions, many that we’ll take on our inevitable next trip. Their name was Kurtz.

Which brings us to the next mysterious coincidence. After the wine tasting, we drove further North to Greve in Chianti, known as the heart of Chianti. Now, the coincidence….Greve in Chianti is the home town of Giovanni Verazzano. Yes, the same Verazzano as the New York Bridge name. Yup, he was the first European back in 1524 to visit New York Harbor and the lower Hudson River….in the Kurtz’s backyard. Well, enough superstition. We next drove to Volpaia, a tiny town, not as tiny as Vertine where we are staying that has a population of 21. But, just like the MacTavich’s Benano, Volpaia and Vertine are very special places with residents who work the fields and also possess bricklaying skills. After all, every building in the region is made of field stone and bricks.

Tonight, Ricardo and Anna Maria are preparing a Tuscan dinner for us. The wines we purchased earlier today are likely to disappear before night’s end. Until tomorrow, we are your friends, loved ones and US ambassadors to Italy.

Friday
Oct292010

October 27, 2010

We bid Volterra adieu this morning while a blustery wind reminded us of a whistling wind off the Chicago lakeside or bitter gusts that whip past city skyscrapers. No doubt, the high tech windmills we saw yesterday on our drive to the sea (sounds like a Moses story, but it isn’t!) are spinning green power like never before. The double cappuccinos, though, helped  take the chill away and once we traversed the chain of mountains to the East, the winds settled down, the sun brightened our spirits and we pulled into Radda in Chianti right on time. This is another medieval town set on top of a mountain. Small shops, restaurants, wine tasting spots….these towns are truly endearing.

We read about a little restaurant on the road to Panzano and decided that was our next stop. At first, the winding roads challenged our confidence in Alice the GPS unit. But, she came through again. The osteria as it is called is a very modest building, but, when we entered it was clear we came to the right place. A number of locals were seated, dining, drinking red wine and enjoying what appeared to be some sumptuous fare. Our first impressions were not wrong. The antipasti were great…..Gwen’s a number of hard Italian cheeses with 3 different sauces  -- a honey mixture, a fig sauce and a hot and sweet pepper sauce. Dick couldn’t resist the assortment of cold meats with the requisite drizzle of olive oil. Then Gwen had a cannelloni with spinach and Dick, true to his obsession, had raviolis stuffed with pears and pecorino cheese sautéed in butter! This is a dangerous world….some might say a heart surgeon’s dream! What do you think, Dr. Bob?

After finishing off the liter of house wine, Chianti, of course, we headed for Ricardo and Annamaria’s place called Erbolino. You’ll remember we visited here last week at the strong suggestion of Jan and Tom Hatch. After witnessing first hand the special spirit these folks have, we knew we’d return before the end of the Italian portion of our trip. So, here we are, enjoying the life of Tuscan kings and queens. We’ll relax tonight and in the morn, we’ll head for a vineyard where Chianti red will be our passion. Then, kindly, Ricardo and Annamaria are preparing a classic Tuscan dinner for us tomorrow night. Just what the doctor ordered! Good night and may your olives be ripe and your wine be plenty.

P.S.  We noticed as we drove along and particularly here at Erbolino, that there is a distinct difference in coloration between groups of vineyards as Fall approaches, some gold and some red.  We asked Anna Marie about it and she said the greenish-gold is the Sangiovese grape and the red is another grape but she couldn‘t remember which one,.  We think it is Merlot because Chianti, which is required to have at least 80% Sangiovese grapes, often contains Merlot grapes as well.