Tuesday, May 30, 2006
Our Honeymoon/First Anniversary
We left Phoenix at 9:00 am Friday morning, May 5, 2006, flew to Atlanta with a 3 hour layover and then flew into Rome which took 9 hours - it was a long day even though we flew first class on Delta. We arrived in Rome Saturday morning at about 9:30 am and of course we tried to sleep on the plane but we were still exhausted once we arrived. (Picture - Dennis at the hotel after 15 hours in airports/planes and 3 hours of driving to the hotel) The Rome airport was crazy, I thought for sure we were going in circles but somehow we did find the car rental to get the car and get out of there. The car had a GPS system but it was several days before I was able to get it to speak English and not try to take every exit off the Autostrada so getting out of the airport and on the Autostrada to Montalcino some how actually happened with only one U-turn. We found out that in Italy it's best to know the name of the next town on your route, not necessarily your destination or route number.
We finally arrived in Montalcino but we saw no signs for the hotel as indicated by the travel agent so we stopped at a wine shop or Enoteca to ask for directions. We were told we needed to go to Castelnuovo dell'Abate and from there to Castello di Velona http://www.castellodivelona.com, our hotel. We finally arrived, what a fabulous place, I would highly recommend this hotel to anyone going to Montalcino. The hotel is surrounded by vineyards and is located on a hilltop with great views of the Tuscan countryside. It was also very quiet. Although we were very excited about being in the Tuscan countryside, we needed to take a short nap. (Picture on the right of Castello di Velona)
(Picture on the left- view of Castelnuovo dell'Abate from our hotel room) The first town we visited of course was Montalcino because it was the closest, about 13 kilometers from the hotel. All the towns in the Tuscany area are located on top of hills with a wall around them. After driving around Montalcino we finally found a parking spot but really had no clue if the car would get towed or not. Now that we were finally in Italy and yes you guessed it, time for some wine. We were lucky in that we had picked the perfect town to start in, with over 230 wineries in the Montalcino region, the town of Montalcino has plenty of wine shops. We went to an Enoteca and had our first glass of wine in Italy, a Brunello di Montalcino, very good. The Brunello di Montalcino wine is the best wine coming out of Italy today and in the US you're lucky if you can find one for under $60. We paid about 20 Euro for a bottle, with the exchange rate, that's about $24.00 so we had our share of wine in Italy. That night we had dinner in a small restaurant located in an old home just outside of Montalcino.
Today we decided to explore the Tuscan countryside. We visited Pienza, Montepulciano, Castelnuovo dell'Abate Abbey, and Bagno Vignoni. Of course I have yet to figure out the GPS in the car so we were on our own. All of the towns have a round-about with a list of the towns going in the different directions, I told Dennis to keep going around until I saw the name of the next town we were headed to.
The first town we stopped in was Pienza which got remodeled in the 1400s by locally born Pope Pius II in the style of the Renaissance but the work ended in 1564 because of his death. Just about every shop in the town sells the town's specialty - pecorino cheese - a pungent sheep's cheese. This is also where we had our first Gelato (Italian ice cream - much richer and creamer than the ice cream in the US), I think we had a Gelato everyday after that so it was a good thing we were walking. Pienza was filled with small lanes and wonderful views of the rolling hills that surround it.
On to Montepulciano, home of the Vino Nobile de Montepulciano red wine, and yes we had to sample that as well. The town is located on a curving ridge and has steep lanes so we decided to start at the bottom and walk uphill first. We also figured out the parking by this time, if you parked in the blue lines you paid for parking, if they were white lines, it was free. The town is filled with medieval districts which compete in August in the Bravio delle Botti, where teams of men push large wine casks uphill, the winner getting bragging rights for the year. We decided to have lunch in Montepulciano so we stopped to have a pizza. They don't use the seasoning we use so the pizza was pretty bland, we went and got another glass of wine and Gelato instead.
So on to Bagno Vignoni, a feature of Bagno Vignoni, besides the thermal water, is the structure that remained unchanged in the time. In fact, the village square isn't as we can imagine in other places; on the contrary it is made of boiling water that gushes out at 52°C. In fact, the thermal water tub is the square center.
Now we're headed to the Abbey of Sant'Antimo in Castelnuovo dell'Abate. It is one of the most beautiful Romanesque churches in Italy, the Abbey of Sant'Antimo. According to legend, it is on the site of an ancient chapel built to the orders of Charlemagne in 781. In fact, the abbey, an extraordinary example of Romanesque architecture in French-Lombard style, was built in the 12th and 13th centuries. By the end of the day, we began to discover how long it was taking us to get around, even though the towns were not far apart, the roads were very winding, hair pin turns and up and down. The Italians pretty much drive all over the road so we would have to slow down around curves although I must say that Dennis was getting the hang of it after a couple of days driving, he was starting to drive like an Italian, scary. The objective is to pass every car in front of you. Although the drives between towns consumed a lot of time, they are worth it because of the views of the countryside and the wild flowers in bloom. The flowers was the primary reason we wanted to visit in May. We were told that the countryside is golden in the fall. The grapes are also harvested in the fall. Another reason to come back.
Monday, May 8, 2006
Today we woke up and it was raining. It was the only day it rained the entire too weeks but at least it was a light rain. After breakfast and several shots of espresso at the hotel we're off to visit a winery the hotel arranged, Poggio Antico at 11:30. We should have had them set the appointment either earlier or later because by the time we had the tour and lunch it was too late to do anything else, except drink wine, oh well. Anyway, Poggio Antico is the best Brunello di Montalcino coming out of Italy, as we found out after we got back to the US. The 1980 Brunello di Montalcino was the first wine in Italy to obtain the D.O.C.G. appellation (Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita - controlled and guaranteed from the origin). The D.O.C.G. is the most prestigious classification of wine in Italy. As a result, only specialized and authorized vineyards can produce Brunello di Montalcino and a series of rules regarding production must be observed. The Brunello has to be 100% Sangiovese grapes and remain in casks for a minimum of four years. We bought several bottles of wine, some to drink there and bring back. The hotel also arranged for us to have lunch at the restaurant located at the winery. It was very good. We met an couple sitting at the table across from us and they are building a second home in Sedona, AZ, small world. They were also telling us that they had to find their hotel in Cortona at 2:00 a.m. in the morning, she starting crying (not a lunch but after they got to their hotel). Thank goodness that either by design or accident we arrived at all of our hotel destinations during the day, it would not have been good if we had to find them at night. We finished lunch at about 3:00 and since it was so late that day, we decided to go back to the hotel, veg out by the pool with one of the bottles we just bought, well we were going to have just one glass but the wine over there is like Ruffles Potato Chips, you can't have just one.
We decided to go into Montalcino that night for dinner and we wanted to go to one of the restaurants the travel agent recommended. We get into town and her instructions to the location said that it was across from the city hall, well, knowing that we were not going to see the words "city hall" anywhere, I decided to try to ask someone at another restaurant where it was. He starts waving his hands, speaking Italian "Andate giù la destra di girata della collina a sinistra allora". Dennis said "You didn't understand a word he said", I said "Yeah, but I know exactly where the place is" and we went right to it. After looking at the menu, we decided to try another restaurant that was down a dark lane and some stairs, the Ristorante Boccon di Vin Montalcino. The food was very good, a Canada couple sat next to us and helped us with the description of some of the menu items, they were staying in the Tuscany area for a month. She told me that she saw us in the campo (square) earlier that day and knew we were Americans because of my hair cut. She said Americans always have great hair cuts.
Tuesday, May 9, 2006
This is our last day in the Tuscan region and the travel agent arranged for us to visit two wineries, Avignonesi and Banfi. In 1309 pope Clement V transferred the papal residence from Rome to Avignon, France. In 1377, when pope Gregory XI moved the papal residence back to Rome, some noble families of Avignon left France to follow him. It was at that time, in Italy, that one of those families became known as Avignonesi - probably to simplify an otherwise difficult, foreign name. Soon the Avignonesi family separated into three branches which settled in Rome, Siena and Montepulciano. Since this winery is located in the Montepulciano region, they produce the Nobile di Montepulciano versus the Brunello. This vineyard was very different from Poggio Antico. Poggio Antico was updated with modern, computerized equipment whereas Avignonesi still does everything the way its been done for hundreds of years, without computers. At Avignonesi they also make a Vin Santo, a dessert wine that stays in the small casks for 10 years. The tour was very educational and the vineyards were beautiful. And yes, you guessed it, we came away with several bottles of Avignonesi. Since we were so close we decided to drive into Cortona, popularized by Under the Tuscan Sun author Frances Mayes, however, it was getting late so we had to get back to the Montalcino area for the next wine tour.
Banfi - need I say more. This is an American-owned winery in Tuscany and it is just obnoxiously huge and is the largest winery in the Montalcino area. We did the tour and left, there is just no character to the place. We had to laugh though, once you meet up with the tour guide, you have to get in your cars and go back to the plant, which is up and down hills and around curves. Well, a tour bus was first and going slow and in between the gift shop/castle and the plant were some other buildings. Because he fell behind he lost the tour guide. He didn't know where she had turned. As a result we had about 10 cars and a tour bus driving around trying to find the guide. Of course she finally realized no one was behind her and came back for us. The laugh was worth the tour. The guide said it was the first time she had lost a group of guests.
Since it was our last night in the Montalcino area we decided in eat in Pienza at Corso Rossellino. We had eaten there earlier for lunch and it was so good we decided to back for dinner. We really didn't have a problem with most of the menus, they were translated into English although we would come across a meat item we did not recognize or have a clue as to the taste of it but I guess they were use to this and would try to explain. Also, if you go over you really need to have plenty of Euro on hand because you cannot put the tip on the credit card.
Wednesday, May 10, 2006
Today we change locations and go to Firenze (Florence) where we drop off the car, thank goodness because I'm not sure we would have survived driving in Florence or any Italian city for that matter, life or marriage. It's crazy, the only lane markings on the road is to separate the directional traffic and they don't really pay to much attention to that either. Cars, scooters and bicycles are all over the place. Amazingly though you hardly ever see a dented car and we never saw an accident, I think because everyone that drives there is Italian, they grew up driving like that. The main thing we had to get use to was walking across the road. If you were on the curb waiting to cross, the cars would not stop, you had to step out into traffic for them to stop and they did every time. Initially, I was telling Dennis, go with a crowd, but I think we finally got use to it. If you tried this in the UK, you would be dead.
We got to Florence via Siena which took longer getting there than we thought. Oh yeah, I finally figured out the GPS and it was working great and in English, even in a round-about it would tell you which turn to take, love that thing. Anyway, at the hotel they told us to follow the signs to Il Campo Parking in Siena to park and there was plenty of parking so we did and there was. The only problem we had in Siena is neither one of us really paid attention to where we left the car and we only had about an hour in Siena before we needed to get on the road again and drop off the car in Florence by 5:30 p.m. So again, here we go with the hand movements and Italian and somehow we finally get back to the car and on our way and arrive in Florence in time to drop of the car and have a taxi take us to the Hotel Pierre http://www.remarhotels.com/pierre/index_pierre.htm. Another great hotel our travel agent picked, but don't eat the eggs at breakfast, they're not eggs.
After the drive in and getting to the hotel and unpacking, we decided to take a nice stroll and have a glass of wine. Here we are at Rivoire. It's hard to see but "David" is behind us, over my head, of course not the real one, he's in the Accademia. The hotel was very centrally located, a five minute walk and we could be at the Duomo, David, Ponte Vecchio, the Uffizi, the Arno, shopping, etc. So walking we did.
Thursday, May 11, 2006
Today we decided to walk around Florence, see some of the sights and get our bearings. Of course being female the first thing I had to do was go to Ponte Vecchio, 54 jewelry shops, and just look. With the exchange rate these days, not many people were buying - 1 Euro = $1.20, it's less expense in the US to buy Italian. After seeing Ponte Vecchio we went to the Duomo, walking through the Piazza Signoria along the way. After visiting the Duomo, we walked over to Piazza Santa Croce, along small lanes, I say lanes because just when you thought there is no way a car could come down this road, here one came and boy was it small. Anyway, day one in Florence was a lot of walking until we spyed a "Hop On, Hop Off Bus Tour", we took it. They had two routes so we took both not because our feet were bone tired but because we wanted to learn more about Florence.
Friday May 12, 2006
Today is museum day, we're visiting the Uffizi Gallery and the Accademia. We had the hotel get us the tickets so we didn't have to stand in line, which was nice. The Uffizi has the greatest collection of Italian painting anywhere, painting by Giotto, Leonardo, Raphael, and Michelangelo to name a few. You go from room to room in awe, looking at these asterpieces, I just cannot even begin to describe everything the gallery contains. After the Uffizi, which took several hours we were off to the Accademia. This tour didn't take as long because we mainly wanted to see "David" since the Accademia didn't have the masterpieces like the Uffizi. After seeing "David", we started walking again. The one thing we missed was the tomb of Galileo at Santa Croce. We were galleried out and didn't want to go into another and not knowing that that was where Galileo was, we missed it, another reason to go back.
The best ristorante we ate at in Florence was Frescobaldi, just off the Piazza Signoria, the beef steak was so good we thought about ordering a second one and the wine was great as well, another Brunello di Montalcino.
Today we're taking the Eurostar to Venezia (Venice) which will take about 3 hours. Once we arrived in Venice we had to take a vaporetto (water taxi) and then walk about 5 blocks to our hotel, the Hotel Colombina http://www.hotelcolombina.com.
Before I go further, let me take a minute and explain their street system in Italy, there is no system. Roads are all over the place and every direction. Once you think you know where you are, you walk a block and the name changes. It is this way in every city and town we visited. There may be a road that's three blocks long, the name could change every block and not only that, the name is not always posted on each corner so if you plan to go to Italy, get a detailed map or a handheld GPS. We didn't always know the address of where we were going so I guess a GPS could get tricky as well.
Anyway, after a couple of wrong turns and asking directions again, we finally got to the hotel, unpacked and off we went exploring. Of course the first place we had to go is to Piazza San Marco where we had a Prosecco (Italian sparkling wine) at the Caffe Florian. Venice really didn't have any good local red wines so we drank a lot of white. Piazza San Marco is filled with shopping, music, pigeons and tourist. If you visit one of the cafes that have music, you charged a music fee, of course not knowing that when we sat down, so the wine ended up being pricey.
After visiting Piazza San Marco we made our way towards the famous Rialto Bridge which spans the Grand Canal and has shopping along the bridge and then we started exploring Venice walking through all the districts, along canals, up and down the bridges.
When we started planning this trip, Dennis said we were only taking carry-on, no checked baggage, I thought he was crazy, no way could I take just carry-on. After talking with Dennis' sister Gwen, she said that's how she always goes over to Europe, I decided I could do it and after we got to Venice, I'm glad it did. With all the stairs going over the canals, big luggage would not have been fun, we saw a lot of people carrying the big bags and they were having problems getting them over the canals. Gwen also gave us the tip about packing our clothes in 2-gallon ziplock bags and get the air out, I was able to get seven outfits in my carry-on.
Dennis is starting to have news withdrawal, the only English speaking TV was CNN International so it didn't give you to much detail about the US and all the papers, if you can find one, were USA Today International, again, not much news about the US.
Yes I'm getting to it, of course you cannot go all the way to Venice and not take a gondola ride so the hotel set it up for us. The gondola came to the hotel and in the lobby of the hotel is a door to get on. Dennis really didn't enjoy it that much, he felt cramped and the gondola felt like it was going to tip over just about the entire time so he stayed tense. After dinner we really didn't have a lot to do either and since we hadn't watched any TV, we opened a bottle of wine, sat on the daybed in the room and watched a movie on an Ipod, sad but true.
Monday, May 15, 2006
Today we're going to visit Murano, famous for its glass factories. We took the vaporette over, wondered around Murano and visited one of the glass factories where we got a 20-minute glassblowing demonstration by an artisan. We also visited the Glass Museum which displays over 700 years of Venetian glassmaking as well as exhibits on ancient and modern glass art. After visiting Murano we went back to Venice and continued to explore the area.
For lunch, Dennis saw a "hot dog" stand near the Rialto Bridge so we headed there for a Brat and Beer, it tasked pretty good, so we sat for a little while, enjoyed watching people walk by and rested before we go again.
We're headed to our final destination today, Rome. Again we took the Eurostar and from Venice to Rom,e it's a 6-hour ride. The Eurostar is similar to planes where you put your luggage in overhead bins or under your seat. We sat with a couple from Washington State who were getting off in Florence so it was nice to have a conversation with Americans again and it made the trip go fast. Once we got to Florence the couple got off and headed down the platform, if Dennis had not stood up at the time he did, we would be buying him new clothes in Italy. The couple accidentally took his luggage instead of their's so off he ran down the platform to try to find them. In his hurry, he didn't take their's with him so I'm looking out the window and here comes the guy running down the platform, past our car trying to find his luggage, I finally knocked on the window and he came in and got it, funny.
We get to Rome and take a taxi to the Hotel Borgognoni http://www.hotelborgognoni.it. The hotel again is very centrally located, in five minutes we were at the Trevi Fountain, the most photographed fountain in the world, just beautiful. Ten more minutes down the road was the Colosseum.
Wednesday, May 17, 2006
When we were at the Castel di Velona, a couple from Orlando gave us a name of a private tour guide, Luca, and we contacted him from Venice and decided to hire him for half a day to see the sights. That was definitely the best money we spent. He picked us up at the hotel at 9:00 in the morning and the first place we went was to the Roman Forum, the Arch of Constantine, the Colosseum and Capitol Hill. Next we made our way to the Circo Massimo which is where they held the chariot races and drove through a beautiful and expense neighborhood on our way to the Piazza Cavalieri of Malta (Society of Malta, which is a country within Rome like the Vatican). When we arrived there's a wall with a door and keyhole, when you look through the keyhole, you see Malta, Rome and St Peters Basilica, it's the only place in the world that you can see three countries looking through a keyhole.
From there we went to St. Paul's Basilica and the Catacombs of San Sebastiano where we took a tour and rode on the first street in Rome. Luca dropped us off for lunch for an hour and picked us up again for a tour of the Vatican with another couple. With over 1400 rooms, it was nice to have a tour guide bring us to the highlights of the museum as well as through the Sistine Chapel and St. Peter's Basilica. I'm not even going to go into everything we saw, we just thoroughly enjoyed it as well as all the information Luca gave us. After a full day of touring, Luca dropped us off at the hotel.
Our last day in Italy, we've had a wonderful time and have enjoyed every minute. Today we decided to just walk around Rome and see what we can see. We made our way to the Pantheon first, the dome of the Pantheon is 18-feet thick at the base and narrows to 3-feet thick at the top of the dome supported by 23-feet thick walls. The tombs of the first two kings of Rome are here. Next we make our way to Piazza Navona which contains the Four Rivers fountain by Bernini where we rested a little while and ran into a couple from Scottsdale, small world again. They live only a mile away from us. Next we walked to the Piazza del Popolo and then to the Spanish Steps and back to the hotel. We went down to the bar and asked for two glasses of wine, wanting another glass, we asked "how much is the bottle?", we took the bottle, went out on the courtyard they had and relaxed.
Friday May 19, 2006
We're headed home today, a sad day but we're ready to get back. The hotel got us a car to take us to the airport which was a good thing since there was a transportation strike that day. Okay, it's a lot easier to get into Italy then out of it. The travel agent said to arrive 3 hours before the flight, hotel was say 1.5 hours, you need 3 hours. Once we arrived at the airport, we had to stand in one queue to get our passports checked, I heard someone say they were looking for someone. Then we had to stand in a queue for another person to look at our passports and ask questions about our baggage then we got our boarding passes in another queue, thank goodness we were flying first class or we would have had to stand in another queue that was much longer and probably would have missed our flight. Finally, we got to stand in one more queue for our baggage to go to security and get our passports checked one more time, fun. The flight home obviously took longer because of the head wind so it took 11 hours to Atlanta with a 2 hour layover and then 4 hours to Phoenix. We did get a little nervous in Atlanta when we got off the plane and got in the queue for customs, it was a very long line but then we opened a new line for Americans only so we got through fairly quickly. We arrived back in Phoenix on Friday evening. What a wonderful honeymoon and vacation. We will never forget it.