Chianti!

Yesterday, I woke up with a smile on because my room did not smell like death in a garbage can, only to have it turn into a bit of a frown when I started to take a shower and had no hot water.  I seemed to be cursed with hotel issues on this trip, in general.  I think I will fire myself from ever picking another hotel room again – I seem to just suck at it (Ugh, two times being fired in one year – boooo!).  After getting dressed, I went out to my favorite café for a cappuccino and a ciambella (do you remember what those are?!), only to find they were closed, so I had to go to the crabby-lady-café instead.  I guess 1 out of 3 today isn’t bad, so I will press my luck a little farther this afternoon and go for a tour of the Chianti region of Toscana.

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It is supposed to rain the rest of the weekend, so I decided today may be my best bet.  The tour includes a wine tasting at Sant Appiano Vineyards at the end, so I decided that I would get some lunch and hydrate prior to the festivities.  I had a lovely Tortellini with Ragu and Porcini Mushrooms (which look an awful lot like ravioli, but it’s pasta, so does it really matter if it is tortellini, ravioli, or tagliatelle?  No, it is all homemade and I love it!).

As I got onto the bus, there was a woman from New York asking the guide for a detailed itinerary of the afternoon. He told her he would give her all of the information on the bus, so that he could tell everyone at the same time (a reasonable idea, I think). She was in a huff as she said, “I’m just making idle chit-chat.”  To which the guide replied, “I do not know what this means.”  Do you know why?!  Because Americans are the only ones who make “idle chit-chat” and New Yorkers seem to do it more often than most.  I have observed because they seem to be of the opinion that they know more, and have done more, than everyone else on the planet, and they feel the need to share it ad nauseam with the rest of us.  I opted to sit in the back of the bus, as far away from this woman as possible, since I was in no mood for the “idle chit-chat” she wanted to share with any sap who sat next to her, except for the people in her group (I think she had already worn her welcome out with them).

Chianti Classic is a region in Toscana between Siena and Firenza.  During the middle ages, it served as a buffer of land between the two cites as they were constantly at war with one another.  Today, the people from the two cites still don’t like each other much, unless Italy wins a soccer game and then all Italians are friends, but otherwise most of the people from one region do like the people from another region (much like Southerners can’t stand those damned Yankees, I suppose).  During the Renaissance, however, those Medicis set about uniting the Tuscan region.  The tour guide likened them as the Kennedys of the Middle Ages – “They have lunch with God and dinner with the Devil and everybody likes them.”  (So this explains why they enjoyed the arts, loved fashion and made money laundering legal!)

During the last war between Siena and Firenza, the Sienese built the Monteriggioni Fortress as a blockade from the Florentines.  Once the war was over (Florence and the Medicis won, by the way), the fortress sat empty for a number of years.  The government tried to encourage Sienese to move to the village, but Siena is just about the most perfect place on earth, so no one budged.  Then the government said whomever moved to the Monteriggioni Village would not pay taxes and, guess what happened?  Monteriggioni is now full of residents – fancy that!

We did not stay long in the Village as the sun was setting and our guide reminded us, “we have an appointment at 5pm to get drunk.”  Being the responsible one, who always follows all of the rules (pfffffftttttt!), I was the first one back on the bus ready to depart for Sant Appiano Vineyards.  They provided us with several different kinds of chianti to sample, which were all excellent.  As a small winery (as are most of the wineries in Italy), they typically only produce about 90,000 bottles of wine a year, average for a Tuscan vineyard.  All of the grapes are picked by hand, which is why most Italian wine cannot be mass produced.  Do you know what else this means?  If you are like me, you probably won’t be allergic to Italian wines. Why?  Because all of the stems, leaves and other crap that the machine pickers gather don’t get into the wine during the fermentation process!  (Okay, I have been in Italy too long, I am starting to explain things like an Italian!)  It is one of the first observations I made about the wine here (and I have drank enough to know by now), that it doesn’t make me sneeze or go into an asthmatic attack like crappy high-production wines do – furthering the point that I am indeed a frickin’ princess (insert eye roll and deep sigh here)

What better way to enjoy a glass of rich, full-bodied Chianti Classico, but with a Florentine Steak, grilled to medium-rare perfection, set atop a bed of fresh arugula and drizzled with a sweet balsamic and red wine reduction, served with a side of vegetable ratatouille? At least, I thought so as I dined at the Golden View Open Bar (“Golden View” because it overlooks the Ponte Vecchio – or the “gold bridge” as the locals call it).  Not only does this restaurant peer-pressure you into having a glass of champagne upon arrival (aka they dispense that shit for free…holla!), but they have live jazz every night of the week while you dine (Jazz, as in the real stuff, none of that contemporary, new-agey crap).  Thank goodness my hotel was a good distance away, so that I could time to walk off my meal while enjoying the warm November evening, and not be stuffed to the gills as I went fast asleep, not to wake up until 10:30am the next day!  Woo-hoo!

The only thing I find missing in this decadent mixture of good food, good wine, and good music was you, my good friends.  Salute!

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This is Medici’s House, beeeeyotch!

I think that the area of Tuscany should be renamed Medici – after all this is the family that pretty much owned the whole countryside up until the mid-18th century.  Originally a family who began in the textile trade and founded what is still the world’s oldest operating bank in 1472, the Medici’s rose from being common citizens to having exceptional political power.  They produces four popes (all of whom I saw entombed in a wonderfully opulent church in Siena) and two queens of France.  Not bad for a bunch of nobodies huh?  Here is the real kicker – because they were had so much money, power and influence (through money laundering) they made themselves Dukes of Tuscany, and who was going to challenge them really?  Those clients who they were doing a great service for illegally?  I think not – the Medici’s were not soldiers, so when confronted by their adversaries, they would typically bribe them with gold, rather than fight for territory – make money, not war.

For 300 years, this family rocked the house in Tuscany as huge proponents of the arts and music and big ass, fancy parties – they were in fact one of three families in Italy to initiate the Renaissance movement. ( I don’t know about you, but I am pretty sure that the texts I read sort of glazed over this information about Italy during my World History Class, actually, they eliminated it – and why?  Because the Dukes were not the rightful heirs to the region?  They were mere peasants before their Cinderella Story transpired.  Then, once they gained power in the region, they used it to help the poor, for art, science, music and, the worst of all, humanity – now why on earth would we not want to teach our children about an enlightened family who, after acquiring an enormous collection of artistic and scientific discovery, turned everything they owned over to the citizens of the city for their enjoyment because it wasn’t theirs to “own”?  (What a horrible message to send – oh, clutch the pearls!)  Grant it – they had a bit of a hiccup in the middle of the 16th century when some bastard (literally) child, Alessandro, got greedy and became a cruel and brutal leader.  After 5 years of that crap, the family off’d him and put a poet in his place (can the families of some of the world’s shittiest leaders clean up their own backyard today and save us all some misery, per fervore? )

Anyhoo, the family blood eventually died out in the mid-18th century, with no heirs to the duchy left, the torch was passed over to the Lorraine family of Austria who did an equally fine job with trying to preserve what the Medici’s set up as the cultural center of Italy.  The evidence of their influence, wealth, power, preserver of the arts and knowledge is evident not only in almost every church and museum I have toured in Firenze, but throughout the remainder of the Tuscan countryside that I have had a chance to see this week.  In Firenze alone – they had not one castle, but two (never mind the phat pads they set up in the other areas of Tuscany that they were fond of visiting): The Palazzo Vecchio was first, and, when they outgrew that one for entertaining artists, musicians and friends, they built the Palazzo Pitti to include a MASSIVE garden area behind the Palace that stretches for 10 square city blocks, the Giardino Boboli.  I spent an excellent afternoon in there, getting lost for hours, after I missed my effing bus to tour the Tuscan countryside Thursday morning.

After walking what I believe was the whole dang complex (no doubt I missed a few nooks and crannies) I sat down on a bench under a beautiful juniper pine to relax and imagine what it must have been like to attend a soiree at the Medici home in the 1600s – just decadent I suppose.  Quickly, I was joined by a Royal Kitty who lay on my lap like a princess and napped for an hour or so.  Unfortunately for both of us, the sun was beginning to set and my tummy was demanding more pasta, so I had to gently boot her off my lap before the gardens closed.  She was none too happy and hissed at me before she ran off to chase one of the 1,800 mosquitos that had bit the crap out of my legs while I was sitting there (oh, what we won’t do for some sweet young thing, huh?).

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I left the gardens and headed out for some dinner, and more sexual harassment from yet another Italian waiter, Toni, before getting back to my hotel, in order to get to bed early enough so that I didn’t miss the bus on Friday for the tour of Tuscany, which left at 8:30am for Siena.  Of course, Toni is forgiven for being annoying because he served me the most excellent black truffle cheese dipped in honey with a side of pears (How am I ever going to eat crappy manufactured and processed food in the States again?)

Established in the 13th century, and home of the Monte di Paschi di Siena bank, built in 1472 in the midst of the Gothic era for architecture, it is the World’s oldest bank still operating today.  A second building was added on during the Renaissance period and was finally expanded to include a third building during the Baroque age.  It was interesting to see the three buildings next to each other to compare the variances in the architecture.  Siena is still a center of the banking industry, so much of the city is well-preserved and clean!  It is clear that the bankers who lived here loved their city and spared no expense to show off their grandiose fortunes through the building of the City Hall (Palazzo Pubblico), and the Cathedrale di Santa Maria Assunta.  The marble floor took 200 years to complete by 40 different artists (including Donatello and Michelangelo – some of the Medici favs, I have gathered).  Normally, the floor is kept covered to preserve the marble, but in September and October, they uncover it and remove the pews to show off the beautiful craftsmanship.

Normally I think I would have skipped seeing another church, but they drew me in with a library full of books that recorded some of the original Gregorian chants.  The church had gone to great lengths to preserved quite nicely and much of the detailed drawings remain intact.  Since I am studying Music right now, it was yet another little hidden treasure of history that often gets overlooked.  After an hour, I had finally finished touring the complex and I was hungry.  So, I caught a bus to a local farm and family owned vineyard for lunch – Poggio Alloro. They served a delicious Penne with Beef Ragu, salad with their own olive oil, then antipasto and biscotti to finish (all food was fresh from their farm).<

Each course was complimented with a different type of wine (produced at the vineyard): a Vernaccia, Chianti, Cabernet and Sweet Dessert Wine (that is only delicious when you dip the biscotti in).  I decided I needed to walk off my afternoon tipsy and fully belly, so I caught a ride to San Gimignano – a town just 10 minutes away – known as the “Manhattan of Tuscany”.  Again, the bankers had money and wanted to show it off, so they built towers – the bigger the tower, the more money you had and the greater number of towers, the more money you had.  (At what point in history did we decide that money was the measurement of your importance as a human being? Ugh, I am such a hippy).

Originally, San Gimignano had 72 towers, but many were destroyed throughout the wars of time, so only 14 towers remain standing today.  The towers have now been replaced with Gelato places, which I think was a good trade.  So, I enjoyed some, then took a nap on a bench in the park overlooking the valleys of vineyards.  When I woke up, the seasons had changed and it was quite  windy, so I hurried to catch a bus to Pisa before going back to Firenze for the evening.

Here is what I have to say about Pisa…… I came. I saw. It Leans.  The End.

Celebrating a Month gone in Lucca!

I can’t believe I have been gone from the States for a month now.  Honestly, I didn’t think I would survive this excursion during those first few days in Madrid, and now here it is a month and I have to say that each day I enjoy more and more than the last (I know what you are thinking… ”Bitch, stop rubbing it in”, but since we all know the shit storm I went through the past couple of years, to feel the clouds clearing truly is a blessing that I welcome with immense gratitude).  To celebrate, I got up and had a big, juicy peach, a sugar covered ciambella (known as a donut in American, but this sounds so much more decadent doesn’t it?), and a nice helping of sweet cream latte, then jumped on a train to Lucca.  I am not really sure where Lucca is located exactly, but I think it is in the same direction as Pisa (at least I saw signs for Pisa when I arrived in Lucca, so that’s the story I am sticking with).  I read about it online briefly the other night, probably on Google, so I thought well why not – it is only an hour train ride that costs 5-euros (cheaper than going to another museum or church), so I struck out on a little adventure for the day.

The train-ride crossed gorgeous country sides plump with ruby and gold grapes, covered in powdered sugar so glittered just like Elizabeth Taylor sized jewelry in the sun, eager for harvest.  The air was fresh and full of the smell of leaves changing color in the fall.  It was so nice to leave the noise of a big city for a while and enjoy the quaint setting of a small town set inside one of some of the oldest city walls in Europe that are still intact.  As I got off the train, I set out on my traditional search of a map of the area, so that I could determine the sites that I wanted to visit.  After about 30 minutes, I finally located the tourist office, which happens to be the bike rental office as well and on a whim decided to rent a bike.  (Really, my ass has been walking up and down, back and forth for a month now and it is one of the few modes of transport that I have not yet utilized in Europe, so I was excited to give it a go in a city that I didn’t think I would die on a bike in).  The man warned me that they do not have any way of repairing the bikes, so I may have to try a couple before I found one that worked okay (again, I point out how lovely it is that Europeans do not try to coddle my adult ass).

I tried a few, and decided on the one that listed a bit to the left – the others had bigger issues, so I kept it simple and just leaned to the right as I rode along, barely missing a car and three pedestrians within the first 50-feet of my maiden voyage.  Not wanting to potentially maim anyone, I hopped off the bike and walked into the Puccini Museum.  I got conned out of another 7-euros to tour what was one his house, correction flat, but to listen to his Operas as I walked around and perused the original drafts of La Boheme, Tosca, and costume designs of Turandot while listening to his beautiful work was relaxing.  I then had a delicious lunch of penne and wine while I wrote.  Oddly, I had an Algerian woman try to persuade me into buying some of her jewelry, which I refused, and she showed me her little boy strapped to her back. (Lady – I don’t really do the whole kid thing, so that guilt trip just isn’t effective for me).  I went back to writing – and she handed me two bracelets, grabbed my wrist, and said “for the baby you lost”.  (Who was this Voodoo woman and how did she know about Jack?)  Of course, I lost my shit right there in the plaza and started bawling, so she went to sit down and yell at someone on her phone for the next hour while I collected myself.

When I couldn’t take listening to her yelling any longer (and I am not sure how her baby could sleep through it either), I decided to give the whole bike thing after a quart of wine a try and guess what – I didn’t kill anyone!  In fact, I rode much better after the wine than before – so I am now reassessing and thinking maybe I am part Italian, despite what my family tree claims.  I found my way to Cathedral di San Martino where “Il Volto Santo” (The Holy Face) is displayed.  The story goes that this sculpture of the sacrifice of Jesus was carved by Nicodemus and arrived in the 13th century to Lucca in an unmanned boat.  It also confirms the age old debate – Jesus was indeed a black man – can I get an Amen?!  (Can someone tell me why it this wouldn’t be logically true and if it is WTF cares anyway?  Jesus did some pretty cool shit while he was here, white, black or blue – he is a much better person than I will ever hope to be, so why get caught up in the details anyway?)

I left the church with a sense of contentment that I didn’t need to see any other historical sites during my visit to Lucca.  Instead, I decided to take the bike for a spin around the city walls (because they are big enough that they turned them into a bike path/pedestrian access only park area that Wash Park could never in its wildest dreams hope to be as awesome as).  I enjoyed every second of it like I did when I was 10, towards the end of summer break, and the sun was beginning to set, but I didn’t want to stop riding around the creek by my parents’ house, so I would stay out past my curfew and get my ass kicked when I got home.  I have learned a thing or two since I was 10 and opted to turn the bike in on time, since the office closed at 6:30.  In fact, I was early – I turned it in at 5:45 – mainly because I was motivated to grab a glass of wine before I got on a train back to Firenze.

The man I had rented the bike from was gone and a lovely little German woman was there instead.  I handed her my paperwork so that she could give me my rental total for the afternoon.  As she reviewed my paperwork, she said, “Oh you are American!” (“Oh Shit”, I thought) “I like Americans, they are my favorite people”, she went on to explain as I sighed a moment of relief and confusion (someone in Europe who likes Americans – you madam are an anomaly).  I then had the honor of hearing her story of how she and her family hid in America during World War II, after her father had escaped from prison. Even though they were living in West Germany, and her father had served in the first World War, because they were Jewish, they were considered Pond Scum.  Once he escaped, she and her family had to make their way from Germany to a boat leaving from France, then disguise themselves to look like Americans.  She said she has been to America three times since and is forever grateful and indebted to our country for saving her family during the war. I grabbed her hand in mine, kissed it, and thanked her for sharing her story as I wept.  Then, she started crying too and came out from behind the desk to give me a hug.

I really have no words to express the immense amount of gratitude I have for being a witness to just a peek into the trauma this woman has experienced in life and to see the beauty and humility that grew from it left me in awe.  I walked back to the train station glowing with a feeling I can only describe as grace – this is grace – and in this woman I saw what it truly, truly means to “get on with living, or get on with dying” (thank you Shawshank Redemption)

Like this beautiful woman who lit up my life today, I choose to get on with living.

Lucca, Italy | Photo by Laura Riggs
Lucca, Italy | Photo by Laura Riggs

Cinque Terre

After being a lazy sack of s**t yesterday, I got up early for a day trip to Cinque Terre – 7am to be exact.  This is the earliest I have had to be up since I arrived in Europe and it sucked arse!  I was grateful for the two-and-a-half hour bus ride there so that I could sleep some more before another day filled with some serious, actual mountain hiking (instead of city hill hiking).  The plan is to have the bus dump me into the second town, Manarola, then take a quick hike straight up 382 steps to Corniglia to have some lunch overlooking the stunning blue ocean, then hike an hour-and-a-half to Vernazza, ride a train to Montesarro (because my arse will be sore), swim (since it is closest to the ocean) and then take a boat ride back to the first town Riomaggiore before catching a train to La Spezia, then jumping back on the bus back to Firenza.  Cross yourself that this all works out, I am on a time table with trains, boats and busses here, people – no dinking around.

This is where I must give the Italians a shout out for running their shit on time so far, unlike the French – trains, boats, busses arrive and leave on time.  So, if you aren’t on the mode of transport – that is your own fault (time works the same here and it does everywhere else – get used to it or wear a watch (and I totally sounded like my grandfather just now….wow).  Anyhoo, I awoke just in time to catch the views just as the bus was dropping down into the middle of Manarola.  Cinque Terre is a World Heritage Site known for a special variety of white wine, olive oil and limoncino (different from limoncello, and 40% alcohol).  But all of the harvest is still very physical since much of the agriculture is grown on tiers of the mountainside, thus no machinery can fit.  Over the years, and with the arrival of train service into Cinque Terre, younger generations got the eff out of there, so the traditions of the harvest are dying.  In an effort to revive the industry, Italy is offering anyone a free 20-year lease on the terraces.  However, you still have to buy a house, and being a tourist destination, well – that can be quite pricey, so their plan isn’t exactly working out so well.

The 382 steps from Manarola were quite easy, after all of the walking I have been doing this past month, in fact I ran up them – mostly to get out of the crowds of people who were smoking and bitching about how hard it was to walk to up all of those stairs.  (Uuuuuhhhh….STOP SMOKING YOU DUMB ASSES!  Oops, outside voice again, scuzie….)  Once I arrived at the top and looked back over the vast expanse of vineyards, orchards and ocean it was just breathtaking.  I don’t think any of the pictures I try to share with you will do the place justice, so just add Cinque Terre to your bucket list, okay?  From the top of the first hill, it was a short jaunt down to the restaurant for lunch in Corniglia.  Oh, lunch….I am still dreaming about lunch at the adorable little restaurant by la mare….seafood salad, octopus potato salad, salmon mousse, fried crab puffs, and some fresh pesto a la bologna over pasta……bellissimo!  Just what a girl needs to prepare her for a hike up and over a huge mountain to the next town, Vernazza.

Vernazza CollageFortunately, I made friends at lunch with a couple of ladies, Joanna and Debbie, from Scotland (and now I have pictures of me that aren’t self-portraits – holla!), and we ended up doing the hike together to Vernazza.  Once we arrived in this town tucked into the crevice of two mountains joined at the sea, we celebrated with a beer.  It is the first beer I have had since I got here, but I was with the Scots, so I wasn’t about to be a pansy and drink wine!  I was ecstatic that they asked if I wanted to join them the rest of the afternoon – finally I had someone to talk to and they weren’t trying to get me drunk and take advantage of me!  Or were they???? Hmmmmm……

After our luscious beer – which was the Italian equivalent of a Coors Light – but tasted exquisite after being so hot and sweaty from the hike over, we jumped on the train to Monterosso.  Five minutes later, we got some gelato, shook off our shoes, and stuck our toes in the clear blue (and COLD) waters of the Mediterranean!  We were all enjoying the victory of the day, until we got booted from the private beach and had to scurry with our tails between our legs back to the trashy, ghetto, free beach.  The ghetto beach suited us better anyway.  We sat and enjoyed the conversation about how much yoga sucks (“because it is so competitive,” Debbie pointed out) until it was time to get on the boat to Riomaggiore.

Granted the boat ride was a total tourist trap, but it was so much fun to be on the water and get a different view of each village on the way back down the coast.  So like every other tourist, I was standing up to catch as many photos as I could of this special place to carry with me (and share with you) of my adventure.  Once in Riomaggiore, we departed the boat, and walked through the town, did a bit of shopping, then caught the train to La Spezia and ran to the bus to make the connection back to Firenze.  It was starting to get late, but we passed by Carrara just in time to see the beautiful sun shine upon the mountains where all of the world’s marble comes from – it gleamed like new snow in the dusk of the sunset.

La Spezia Harbor
La Spezia Harbor

After the bus dumped my tired butt back into the center of Firenze, I hobbled back to my hotel, took a shower, and barely made it into bed before falling fast asleep, dreaming of wine and olive oil and delicious fresh fish……