Monthly Archives: October 2019

FALL 2019: More of Tuscany

Friday-Sunday, October 11-13, 2019

CARRARA

Thanks to Traci’s reassarch (and feeling a wee bit guilty due to their not being able to fit this in) we visited the marble quarries begun by the Romans in the Apuan mountains.

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In order to reach the higest point in the quarries we needed to join a jeep tour. Our driver/guide appeared to enjoy his role–envision a mix of Arnold Schwarzenegger and Indiana Jones.

He entertained eight of us, including a young woman from Siberia who vaguely described her life as ‘moving around a lot’ (she had her own guide with her) and a Russian ballet dancer from the Kremlin and his wife, mother-in-law and 2-year-old son.

As our maniac driver cheerfully zoomed up the sketchy roads he told us families own individual plots and it was their equipment we saw on the different levels next to terraced cuts in the mountainsides. Yet, I later discovered online that the families weren’t the mom-and-pop variety but more like the Trumps and consortiums including foreign companies (such as the Bin Laden family).

We didn’t see any activity due to being after working hours, but our guide explained the process of carefully sawing and removing the slabs. No extracting going on allowed us to hear better as opposed to his shouting over the booming and drilling sounds of machinery. Although, I believe our guide would relish the challenge.

For over 2000 years men have worked these quarries, slicing into raw stone to deliver a range of marble, from white marble to a dark gray.

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If you’ve read Irving Stone’s THE AGONY AND THE ECSTASY about Michaelangeo you’ve probably identified this as the marble source for the sculptor’s ‘David’. As well as material used by Henry Moore. Hey, if it’s good enough for Mikey, it must be good enough for any sculptor.

However, this systematic clawing away at these magnificent mountains may be ending. Some local folk have started the Salviamo le Alpi Apuane (Save the Apuan Alps) in the past couple of years to protest the desctruction of this natural landscape and the resulting air and water pollution from marble dust and waste. In the past year they actually succeeded in closing down two quarries (positive news keeping mountains alive ).  A bit poetic in a mixed-up metaphorical way that ‘David’ originating from here has managed to fight this $333 million industry Goliath.

LUCCA

Like Pienza this Tuscan city had been added to our tour based on others’ recommendations. With its intact medieval wall and a historical center filled with stunning churches and stone streets it made for a delightful two-night stop.

We joined strollers, joggers and cyclists as we entered the old city and climbed to the top of its 2.6-mile wall. Once there I realized this felt as if I was on a lovely, tree-lined boulevard as opposed to on top of a defensive rock wall.

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With our limited time we explored one of the main attractions:  St. Martin’s Cathedral (or Duomo di Lucca). Like most churches in Europe this one’s history goes back centuries with the main building rebuilt in the 8th century to accommodate saintly relics with later enlargements and renovations occurring into the 15th century.

FYI:  For those, like moi, who aren’t on familiar terms with saints, Saint Martin is noted for severing his cloak to give to a shivering beggar. Two statues document this deed, one inside and one outside,

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although, I have to say it looks like he’s aiming to sever the begger’s neck, not the cloak.

The alternating light and dark marble creates a stunning visual bringing to mind a Moorish influence. And, not to be too cheeky but I loved the additional plaid pattern added to the scene thanks to someone’s unique BMW Mini.

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Whenever I enter a huge church my eyes immediately go skyward, which is exactly what occurred here.

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Yet, what brought them back to eye-level appeared in the left-hand side roughly half-way up the nave. There a screened-in gazebo held the Volto Santo (Holy Face) a sacred image (and money-maker), which drew thousands of pilgrims.

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Supposedly, and you’re more than welcome to believe this, Nicodemus, who helped Joseph of Arimathea remove Jesus’ body from the cross, carved this figure, but not trusting himself to render Christ’s face faithfully, he left the face unfinished and went to sleep. Yet, when he woke up he realized an angel had completed his work. Uh-huh.

But, this was a boon to those looking for an item to generate funds, I mean, to worship.

Thanks to two Bishops (one on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land and one in Italy) who dreamt where this sacred statue should be displayed, legend states it landed in Lucca in 782. Hence, the rebuilding in the 8th century mentioned above. And, you can tell they liked playing dress-up with their religious figures for in the museum associated with the cathedral we saw some gold and jewel-encrusted apparel for the Volto Santo:

Experts date this work to the 13th century yet say it could be a copy of an 11th-century statue, which could be a copy of an even earlier piece:  an 8th-century Syrian work. Whatever. It does look magnificent displayed in its glittery cage, and the cathedral is definitely worth a visit, including the side room housing the tomb of Ilaria del Carretto, (1379-1405), second wife of the powerful Luccan ruler, Paolo Guinigi (1372-1432).

You can climb the attached bell tower, and we set off to do so (with my muttering “I can do this” while trying not to look down through the metal steps to the floors below) and were rewarded with a bird’s-eye view of Lucca.

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Back outside we entered the smaller church sharing the square with the cathedral:  Church of Saints Giovanni and Reparata. This served as the original church that St. Martins replaced in 782.

Some murals caught my attention when walking up to the apse

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but below us is what we really found interesting. An archeology excavation delineated four time periods from the Romans’ habitation in the 1st century through to the second half of the seventh century. The most complete consctruction being the mosaic room of the church is S. Reparata.

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One other church, the Church of San Michele in Foro (‘in Foro’ because it sits in Lucc’as ancient forum)

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we visited touched on an MDT where we saw the desicated face and hands of St. Zita (d.1272), patroness of domestic servants, who lived and worked in Lucca. She’s also an incorruptible saint meaning her body hasn’t deteriorated. Which I find quite a generous description.

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The square on which this building stood also featured one of the coolest looking senior citizens I’ve seen, and one I wouldn’t mind emulating both in fashion and transportation styles.

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A walking tour later in the afternoon guaranteed us a fuller picture of this city. Joining a group of other tourists we learned why the word ‘liberty’ strikes a strong chord in the city’s inhabitants. From the 12th century to the early 1800s Lucca remained unconquered (although some of this freedom was bought by paying off potential occupiers). This meant fending off its enemies from Pisa and Florence, including repulsing that pesky Medici family.

The city’s republican status remained until 1805 when Napoleon made his sister Elisa Duchess of Lucca and Princess of Piombino. She  mandated a square be constructed mimicking a French one, which resulted in the only plaza in Lucca with trees.

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Lucca’s initial wealth came from the silk and brocade trade. In the 1400s the city held 8,000 people and 3,000 looms. Unfortunately, that trade petered out but in the mid-1900s Lucca fostered a less prestigious, but definitely lucrative industry:  making toilet paper. I guess that’s why some appears to be embossed with a brocade pattern…

Our guide pointed out out one of the many towers poking up from the medieval structures, one we had noticed earlier in the day had trees sprouting from it.

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She explained the wealthiest family planted them to ensure they owned the tallest tower in the city. Due to a law regarding height restriction the family added trees , thus they followed the letter of the law, just not the spirit.

Continuing our guided walk we landed at the site of one of Lucca’s most notable figures, Giacomo Puccini (1858-1924) whose full name, by the way, is Giacomo Antonio Domenico Michele Secondo Maria Puccini. With ancestors serving as St. Martin’s Cathedral musical directors for two centuries Puccini came by his talent naturally.

A statue in a square close to his childhood home pays homage to the creator of notable operas whose names even I recognize:  LA BOHÈME, TOSCA, AND MADAMA BUTTERFLY.

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Not knowing opera but relishing the dramatic voices singing in them, I read later that those who do know opera point to Puccini as ‘the greatest exponent of operatic realism’ (www.britannica.com). Which, I think, means he ensured the audience connected to the story playing out on the stage.

The tour ended in Piazza Anfiteatro,

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the former Roman amphitheater where we later returned for the locals’ refreshing apéritifs, one with campari and the other aperol.

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But, our last stop turned into another musical treat when we happened upon an orchestra and chorus practicing in St. Martin’s for that evening’s free concert.

Perfect way to end our stay in Lucca.

Sunday-Wednesday, October 13-16, 2019

FLORENCE

We returned our rental car to Florence and took the convenient tram into Piazza Madonna degli Aldobrandini the locale of our hotel facing the Basilica S. Lorenzo & Medici Chapel. Not that you needed to really know that but it helps with pic below.

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Once again we followed Ellen and Carter’s path by taking two excellent tours given by Artviva. Not only did our guide (we had Brenda for both) deliver informative facts in an engaging manner but she also shielded us from the feeling of being swamped and crushed by maurading tourists traveling solo, in pairs, and in packs of 20 or more. If we hadn’t availed ourselves of the company’s services I sincerely doubt we would have lasted more than an overnight in this city. Not that we also weren’t tourists adding to the claustophobic mass!

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We thought we might visit the Duomo, whose dome we could make out from our hotel.

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But, seeing the never-ending line we opted to simply admire its stunning exterior.

Florence offers such a gargantuum amount of splendid sites created by world reknown artists it’s overwhelming just to think of recounting the ones we saw. So, rather than flooding you with our memories I’ll just mention some that stood out from our tours with Brenda, one walking around the historical center and the other focused solely on the Uffizzi Gallery. [FYI:  for those uninterested in art, etc., you’re better off skipping this.]

To understand Florence’s power as a city-state just say ‘Medici’ over and over and over for that’s whose presence, including their coat of arms (whose symbolic use of five red and one blue balls remain a mystery to this day), you see cast in stone on many buildings,

dominates the city’s history. Add in this wealthy family’s patronage of the arts and it’s not surprising Florence and the Renaissance are inexorably linked.

Below are some excerpts from our tours around Florence:

…Donato di Niccolò di Betto Bardi, aka Donatello (1386-1466), apprentice of Lorenzo Ghiberti (1381-1455) (known for the brass doors of the Duomo’s Baptistery-seen below from earlier walk),

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shared the reputation with Michelangelo of being the best Renaissance sculptors.  Brenda showed us two key elements contributing to this sculptor’s reputation:  his use of perspective and the realistic wearing of garments. To explain she pointed out his St. Mark standing in a recess of the Orsanmichele Church, once the chapel for linen and craft guilds, now a museum.  

If viewed when the 7’9″ statue stands on the floor St. Mark appears out of proportion with short legs and long torso; yet, this changes into one of complete symmetry when looking up to the niche. And, the molding of the garments depicting an actual body underneath is a complete change from when clothes simply fell stiffly hiding any form underneath. Not being an art aficionado both are insights I never would have known.

But, Brenda went beyond the technical merits of a piece of art with a glimpse of the artist’s personality. She told us how the guild who commissioned this work initially-and saw it face-on in the sculptor’s studio-told Donatello it didn’t look right and needed corrections. The sculptor said let him work on it and then place it up high so they could see how it looked then. Well, he did nothing and when the time came to show them the revised sculpture, Donatello simply had it placed in the niche and when unveiled, the guild approved of the ‘changes’.

…Brenda led us to the Piazzo della Signoria (it’s the people-jammed square at beginning of this post). This is where Michelangelo’s original David used to stand before being moved inside to the Accademia Gallery and, gruesomely, the spot where Girolamo Savonarola, the fanatical Dominican monk, was hung and burned along with two associates. It’s also, where a large loggia holds a large group of statues. There Brenda mentioned one in particular, ‘The Abduction of a Sabine Woman’ by Giovanni da Bologna, aka Giambologna (1529-1608).

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By using a spiraling effect to depict the trio’s emotions this flemish artist created a dynamic situation as your eyes follow the twisting action flowing from one figure to the next. She also mentioned the metal wiring found in part of the bodies, which protects the work from lightening strikes.

As we followed her through streets and into plazas Brenda pointed out quirky building details, such as small windows with doors found hip level. She said these openings were wine doors where wine was sold to the public.

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The next day she guided us through the Uffizi, the awesome museum stuffed with European masterpieces from the Middle ages to the Modern period. Focusing on paintings Brenda selected key pieces epitomizing the Italian Renaissance. Furthermore, she managed to ensure we parked ourselves close enough to understand specific details of each work…

…how Leonardo’s angel (on the left) was considered better than his mentor’s (Andrea del Vercocchio) in The Baptism of Christ,

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…that Sandro Botticelli’s (1445-1510) muse (Simonetta Vespucci, 1453-1476) depicted in Birth of Venus has a rather thick neck for such a delicate-featured woman, which is most likely due to using a nude male model for the body . (I tried loading a good photo of her but program on iPhone isn’t cooperating, but check out the painting online. once you’ve been told that it’s hard not to notice her brawny neck.)

…and, the fact that Michelangelo Merisi, aka Caravaggio (1571-1610) rebelled against established art by painting subjects exactly as he saw them:  in Bacchus the young man has a ruddy face in contrast to his pale body and dirty fingers, features that are associated with a guy working in the fields as opposed to a lofty Roman god.

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The building itself is a work of art constructed between 1560 and 1580. But, what’s quite unique is the Vasari Corridor, named after its architect, connecting the Medicis’ Palazzo Pitti (across the river) to Palazzo Vecchio, the government’s headquarters. You can see the visible start of it on the right-hand side in photo below. Evidently, if your structure was in the way of the Medici’s private corridor, tough luck. Hmmm, sounds like a wall going up in our country.

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Unfortunately, this connector is closed to the public due to structural concerns, but we could see part of it running down the right side of the Arno River, then crossing over the shops on Ponte Vecchio. (Once across the river it becomes a tunnel.)

The Uffizi Originally served as bureaucrats’ offices (the literal translation of ‘uffizzi’) with the top floor used to show off the Medicis’ art stockpile. Eventually it became a museum in 1865 with one of the Medici heirs, Anna Maria Luisa de’ Medici (1667-1743), creating the Family Pact of 1737 ensuring the family’s collection would remain intact and in Florence. A gift that draws millions of people every year to this city.

Throughout both of our tours with Brenda her information brought this medieval city and its inhabitants to life. If anyone’s heading that way, we highly recommend signing up for Artviva tours.

Max and I returned to one of the sites we’d seen with Brenda, Bargello Museum, another wonderful museum where we found few tourists. Once a contains more famous Florentine and Italian art. One of these is Donatello’s David. It was the first free-standing bronze statue and the first male nude since those created by the Greeks over 2,000+ years ago.

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However, the biggest impression of my time in that studio is Max’s comment regarding this David. While I was gazing at other sculptures Max quietly steps up to me and whispers in my ear, ‘doesn’t his butt look a bit low slung?’. Intrigued I walked back to the David to scrutinize his posterior.

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I guess I can agree with him, yet, what it did is cause me to check out other Stoney or metallic behinds I happened to see, and probably not just here but in the future.

Another locale, The Basilica of Santa Croce, offered a chance to see the tombs of famous people, such as Galileo Galilei (1564-1642). Initially his remains weren’t allowed in the main part of the church due to a charge of heresy (disagreeing with the Catholic church’s dogma by saying the earth orbited the sun) In 1737 (during the Age of Enlightenment) he was reburied in a prominent part (left nave) less three fingers and a tooth.

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And, Micaelangelo’s tomb is there, too.

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Max later visited the Galileo Museum and saw that finger (a mini-MDT). (They say it’s his middle finger…)

We enjoyed several other Florentine views, both across the river:

a landscape reached by climbing a hill to land in the Piazzale Michelangelo,

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and, a foodscape taken in a bistecca restaurant where we chomped our way through a carnivorous meal.

Later we heard how Traci and Smokey also partook of a similar meal, only they actually saw their cut of meat pre-cooking :)

Just wish we could have shared a bistecca meal together

Well, since my computer died, iPad WP program crashed, and the phone keyboard is not my best typing platform i’ll stop writing.

But, there’s one more photo I know you’d love to see before I close …

ciao!

FALL 2019: Another Amazing Meet-up

TUSCANY

Saturday-Friday, October 5-11, 2019

Spannocchia

As Betsy trained it to Madrid for her return to Cincinnati we flew to Florence to meet two more pilgrims. However, this get-together involved a much more leisurely (and much less strenuous) pilgrimage than Betsy and Missie’s.

Having heard from our friends Traci and Smokey they’d be in Italy for a week, we arranged to rendez-vous in the middle of their travels.

Wanting a place in the countryside offering activities both on- and off-site the four of us decided on Spannocchia (https://www.spannocchia.com), a Tuscan farm owned and operated by the Cinelli family who purchased the estate in the early 1920s.

Located about 45 miles SW from Florence this estate has many ties to Maine, which is how we first learned of it via friends on Bailey Island who happen to be members. We later learned the Spannocchia Foundation’s headquarters is in Portland.

After a night near the Florence airport (so close we actually walked to our hotel, although I wouldn’t recommend it at night due to playing chicken with some highway traffic), we began heading towards Spannocchia with one stop along the way:  Leonardo di Vinci’s home town.

Born 1452 near Vinci in the village of Anchiano Leonardo lived in a house owned by his father, believed to be the restored farmhouse we visited.

Paying a minor entrance fee we strolled through several rooms open to the public,

watched a short video of his life, and scruntinized a digital analysis of ‘The Last Supper’ (the latter being well-worth the price of admission). Walking in the (supposedly) footsteps of this renaissance genuis seemed the perfect introduction to spending a week in Italy.

As we began our drive down the hillside towards Spannocchia I looked back. Not surprisingly the landscape could be a scene found in one of Leonardo’s paintings.

As interesting as it was to visit that landmark the real excitement centered on the arrival of Traci and Smokey at Spannocchia.

Warmlly welcomed by Benedetta, a member of the staff, we settled into our casa (one of the many on the estate), uncorked a bottle of the farm’s red wines, awaited our friends’ arrival,

and, the fun began!

But, before I regale you with our adventures I have to say the hospitality shown to us by the owners, staff, and the interns enrolled in Spannocchia’s farm and agritourism program made our stay all the more amazing. You truly felt immersed in the farm’s workings, be it spontaneous conversations with interns or scheduled activities–all added a richness to being in Tuscany.

We opted for sharing dinner our first evening, which introduced us to some of the eight interns here for their three-month program. Several came from Maine, including one living in Brunswick. At another night’s meal we met several of those accepted into the butcher apprenticeship. In speaking with them it quickly became apparent the dedication each of them brought to their work.

Our first day we explored the estate starting with the activity room where we met one of the owners, Randall Stratton, married to Francesca Cinelli. He ushered us into the building where a panoramic mural greeted us. Encircled by this illustrative timeline we heard how our friend from Bailey’s, Jame Almeida, had painstakedly created it over ten years.

We also learned her husband, Paul, a photographer, is responsible for many of the photos gracing the estate’s marketing materials.

Randall pointed out a specific image, which Jane painted in memory of Midge Vreeland, a beloved Spannocchia member .

If you live in the Portland area you may recognize Midge’s name as she and her husband along with his brother and wife started the ad agency Vreeland & Company, one where I worked in the mid-1990s.

We exited that room and climbed a few steps to enter the estate’s medieval tower. Originally constructed in the 12th century this building now serves as a useful drying station for both grapes…

and squash,

and a sighting platform for Traci’s photography from which I benefited for this post.

Wanting to see more of the actual workings of the farm we strolled down one of the roads leading to the famous heritage Cinta Senese pigs (so-called due to the black-and-white belt or cintura adorning their hides).

There we saw Eleanor, one of the interns we had met the night before,

who graciously explained how the pigs’ diet from foraging contributed to their good health and (close your eyes, vegetarians) quality of meat. These creatures have a good lifestyle, albeit a bit short (22-24 months) one but longer than other commercial piggies (under a year). After tasting some of Spannocchia’s award-winning salumi we realized those wild acorns definitely translate to tasty meat.

With half a day open for more exploring we hopped in the car to drive the 45 miles to the UNESCO World Heritage town of San Gimignano. Known for its towers, symbols of prosperity among the medieval residents. With15 out of the original 72 structures still in existance, this site translated into a merchant’s bonanza for it was packed. Busloads and carloads of tourists jammed the streets and main square causing us to rethink the timing of our visit.

But, we managed to find a place for lunch right on the Piazza della Cisterna and later treat ed ourselves to what some of the interns told us was the best gelato EVER at Gelateria Dondoli. Spotting the expanding line-up outside its door (see left-hand signage) we wondered if we should join it.

But it moved quickly enough in spite of the chaotic ordering scene experienced once inside; and, the four of us enjoyed a variety of flavors ranging from exotic combinations of grapefruit-and-champagne to sedate, but delectable, chocolate. I don’t think any of us sampled the gorgonzzola-and-waltnuts but some did a tomato mixture and declared it delicious.

Fully sated we made our way out of the crowds back to the car for our next town:  Volterra.

Here we breathed a sigh of relief for no masses of people interrupted our view of the sites, one being the recently installed ‘Boogey Man’, a startling sculpture by Daniele Basso.

A plaque under it proposes “We are as strong as our greatest fear” and, yet, (to paraphrase) the courage of knowledge can cause our fears to subside.  An interesting piece of work juxtaposed against the backdrop of a medieval square. And, timely, too, in light of the current state of the world.

Continuing our stroll into a park as twilight approached we discovered ruins from the early Estrucan settlers. Unfortunately, the exhibit was closed for the day but Traci and I managed to entertain ourselves with some other attractions…

Circling back to where we first entered the town we found evidence of those who followed the Etruscans as we gazed down upon an impressive Roman theater.

We all said we wish we had traveled here first as opposed to San Gimignano. If we had done so, we would have had more time to explore this less-touristy Tuscan town, especially with regards to its early history.

The next day Max and I roamed around the grounds of Spannochia, which are located within the Alto Merse Natural Reserve, Merse being the river flowing through it.  An easy hike up a dirt road led to Castiglion Baizaretti known as “The Castle known only by God” due to its isolated perch atop a hill with the sounds of mating deers echoing throughout the forest.

While we explored our home grounds Traci and Smokey visited Sienna and returned energized from that city’s magnificent architecture and history. (Although we would have enjoyed touring Siena with them we had been there for several days on a previous trip and opted for a more pastoral setting.)

Wednesday’s activities proved to be one of the several highlights of our time together. We had signed up for a cooking class to learn the art of making ravioli. Not really knowing what to expect we ended up totally floored by a most awesome experience.

A 9:00 a.m. garden tour given by Silvia educated us on the techniques Spannocchia employs to grow its organic produce. To say I could have listened to this joyful presence all day wouldn’t be an exaggeration. Her knowledge imparted both professionally and playfully gave us a sense of what was to follow. Which Traci captured in two wonderful photos :)

Which led directly to four hours of creating and consuming a feast worthy of Italian nobles.

Sylvia led us to the kitchen where we met our two instructors:  chef extradinaire Loredana, whom Smokey aptly named ‘chef Michaelangela’, with Daniela (who happens to be Sylvia’s mom), also an excellent cook, serving as translator.

Presented with our menu for lunch (shown below)

at each of our prepping stations

we discovered our ravioli served as only one of the courses we’d be preparing.

Loredana began our instruction with tiramisu, the dish requiring the most lead time prior to lunch. (photo from Traci :)

We proceeded to the orange pork loin and baked fennel,

took a break to make and enjoy our crostone al pomodoro

enjoyed with Randall and a bottle of prosecco,

then completed the course with the pezzo di resistenza (aka pièce de résistance) and food star of the show:  ravioli.

And, inbetween taking notes, videoing key steps, and actually making the recipes, we snapped shots of one another in full garb.

Miraculously we four felt we actually could recreate the meal back home, which means a redo is in our future :)

The grand finale ended with a feast, one none of us will ever forget thanks to our delightful instructors, the setting, and, of course, the food. All made immensely more enjoyable by sharing it with good friends.

Happily lethargic we stumbled back to our casa only to ready ourselves for an informative tour on Spannocchia’s history given by Randall. There we learned how the estate evolved from the feudal sharecropping system of mezzadria to the current offering of a Tuscan Farm experience. A tale definitely worth hearing.

After another shared dinner, our second of our stay, we fell into bed so we could leave early enough Thursday morning to explore two more Tuscan locales.

Several folks had raved about Pienza, one being Ellen who visited with her husband last year and another, Alan, who was just there with his wife. Armed with that advice we drove the 30+ minutes for a morning stroll in this Tuscan hill town .

Let me say Pienza did not disappoint.

The size of the old town makes for a leisurely exploration with one of the key sites being the Palazzo Piccolomini. We discovered that Franco Zeffirelli (1923-2019) filmed his movie ‘Romeo and Juliet’ here in 1967. We didn’t pay the admission fee but seeing the young star Olivia Hussey’s face promoting the film set brought back all the innocent beauty of that tragedy. Definitely on the list for a re-watch.

But, Pienza also featured the second of our joint ‘best moments’ of our trip (our cooking class being the first).

As we reached one end of the town some lovely notes drew us closer to a small courtyard. Nearing the backside of a building we all stood in silence marveling at the voice producing the operatic song.

Max decided to investigate by circling around to the front. The three of us followed and found ourselves in the entrance of the town’s library. An official young woman appeared out of a small office. Initially I thought she was asking us to leave but then she smiled and handed us leaflets giving us permission to follow Max who had darted upstairs.

There we joined a small group of listeners seated behind a row of 8 judges, one we later were told had been married to Pavarotti (1935-2007).

They were assessing and grading the contestants in the 10th annual Pienza international opera competition with a field comprised primarily of up and coming singers.  The competition ran for three days with the first day eliminating all but 25 and the second day whittling it further to 15. Contestants (a large number but it made for a more interesting night for attendees of the grand finale). All stages were free and open to the public. Those who win awards receive a small monetary prize with the more valuable rewards being entrées to influential conections in the world of opera.

We found the above out thanks to a retired Canadian PR agent whose clients had been involved in this field. She and her husband had retired here some years ago,and now she volunteered to assist in this event.

For an hour we listened to several of the 60 contestants,  a mix of male and female singing ranges from bass to soprano.

Every time we made a move to leave another singer captivated us pushing us right back onto our seats. But, we did manage to extract ourselves, although with difficulty.

Outside Traci and I posed next to the promotional poster

with Max joining in during our walk around town.

The town and day provided plenty of photo ops, from landscapes

to portraits… can you tell from our expressions how wonderful it felt to be there? :)

Increasing the magic of the day we later met one of the opera contestants, Mariangela Santoro, who was seated nearby.

The four of us had sat at the designated ‘Shared Table’ joining  two couples from Luxembourg.

Mariangela happened to see Max sharing a video of the contest with our table mates. She leaned over from her nearby table to introduce herself as one of the contestants.

We then told her how wonderful and special it was for us to hear such beautiful voices. And, before she left we got her autograph.

(FYI:  We later tracked her progress through the second and then the third day of competition only to discover she won! If you’d like to hear a sample of her singing, here’s her aria as one of the finalists in a 2018 competition.  And, in case you’re wondering, there’s no evidence of photoshopping in her PR photo–she IS that lovely :)

We left Pienza agreeing it was definitely our favorite small hill town after Siena.

So when we reached the more urban and larger Montepulciano this town had a high bar to reach compared to Pienza.

We tried some libations at a wine bar where you use a card to self-pour either a sample or a full glass, a great way to try different wines without purchasing a full bottle. We took our samples outside to enjoy the view and the warmth of the sun. But, we didn’t stay long. With a long ride in front of us and the driver (Max) only having an occasional sip we left to head back to the car, but first we posed (again :)

and walked by one site sure to attract my MDT seeker.

But, don’t think we missed an opportunity to indulge in some of this Montepulchiano wine. Earlier in the week Traci and Smokey had purchased a bottle along with a Chianti, which we all enjoyed back in our casa during our stay.

 

Friday morning arrived, which meant leaving Spannocchia, and our friends. Their destination was Florence for a few days prior to returning home via Rome. We were fortunate our schedules meshed with theirs these six days before we all headed back to the states.

We had a fabulous Tuscan tour, one not to be forgotten.

 

FALL 2019: Meeting Pilgrims

Saturday-Monday, September 28-30, 2019

SANTIAGO DE COMPOSTELA

We arrived in Santiago de Compostela around noon to await the appearance of two special pilgrims:  my sister Betsy and her friend Missie. They had begun their trek on the French Camino September 15 in Ponferrada, Spain.

From there they trekked over 135 miles–some a bit more strenuous than others…

to reach Saint James’ final resting place in the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela.

Max began identifiying the possible directions from which they’d appear. He then staked out a hidden position to alert me so I could document their final steps into the square.

Under a glorious blue sky and a perfect early Fall day these two tired, but exhilarated, pilgrims arrived!

After some celebratory beers with two rather dazed pilgrims

we drove them to their next destination, one that they were more accustomed to…

and one where I was fortunate to share some girly time with both.

The next morning found the three of us back at the Cathedral’s square in now rainy weather

where Betsy and Missie saw the true end of their camino (St. James’ tomb). Some candles were lit for special folk

before heading back to the hotel where these two pilgrims enjoyed a much deserved glass of vino

and well-earned good night’s rest, demonstrated by my sister sleeping like, well, like someone who’s walked 135+ miles.

FINISTERRE

On Monday Max picked us up for a pilgrimage (by car) to Finisterre. Max, our friend Robbie, and I had sailed by this ‘end of the earth’ point and anchored in the Ría de Corcobión earlier this summer; but, we hadn’t actually gone to the final site for those walking beyond Santiago.

In spite of the fog the four of us joined other visitors wandering around in the gray mist. If you happened to be a legitimate pilgrim who had walked to Santiago you could pay a euro to receive your final stamp.

As you can see from their booklets they acquired these badges of “I was here” along their camino but opted out of some due to the long lines at key locations.*  Can’t blame them. I’d do the same if it meant standing another three to four hours on tired peds.

*They described one city where busloads of people were dropped off in Sarria, exactly 100kms from Santiago. This distance qualified as an official camino. However, Betsy and Missie said the walk changed drastically from one filled generally with contemplative souls to a gaggle of chattering, wanna-be pilgrims, some disrupting the tranquility with boom boxes and FaceTiming. 

After receiving their stamps they told us it was the first time they had to pay for one, meaning he shouldn’t have charged. Their saying that made me wonder how many entrepreneurial souls were out there flashing some ‘official’ stamps and ink pads along with a collection purse?

After portraits

and some lunch in the nearby town of Corcobión, we returned Missie to the luxurious hotel where she’d begin her travels back to Cincinnati while Betsy accompanied us back to JUANONA for a short stay. And, I say short because she manages to time her boat visits based on the number of days between showers.* Fortunately, for her, during her time with us we managed to include a night in a hotel :)

And, just so you know, Missie walked an earlier part of the French Camino last year and may walk another one next year (!). That’s a heck of a lot of trekking.

*When we’d told her we showered every five days due to possible issues filling JUANONA’s water tanks north of the Arctic Circle she managed to fly in and out for exactly five days, i.e., the length she’d go showerless.

Tuesday-Saturday, October 1-5, 2019

SOUTHERN GALICIA

Since Betsy hadn’t seen this province of Spain we spun her around the southwest part of this Galicia.  We visited sites Max and I hadn’t seen before as well as some we had.

Here’s a quick description of our touring:

PARQUE NATURA MONTE ALOIA

Making our way up to Mount Aloia Natural Park we stopped in at the information desk where an avid young staff member eagerly greeted us. During his 15-minute introduction to the park he ensured we knew its history (a park as of December 1978), the distinction of it being a natural vs national park (not quite sure as both protect the environment), and the importance of conserving its flora and fauna.

I admire the passion some bring to their work but sometimes a little goes a long way, so we were thankful when a couple entered into his sphere and we could gracefully exit. Continuing up to the top we took a short stroll around snapping panoramic views at look-out points.

Our stop was a nice place to stretch our legs but not a ‘must-see’ destination unless you really plan to follow paths around the park, which we didn’t.

TUI

Sitting across the river Miño from Portugal the Galician city of Tui offers the perfect site for perusing a medieval city. Starting with the Romans Tui grew into a strategic fortress under the Spanish king Alfonso IX. And, proof of this is the Santa Mariade Tui Cathedral begun 1120, completed 1180, and consecrated 1225.

With a facade more akin to defending a town than worshipping in it, the cathedral stares down at the medieval streets ringing its exterior, all once enclosed by a wall.

Lunch at Ideas Peregrinas, a cafe offering vegan and other healthy options for transiting pilgrims,

reminded us we were at the first stop in Galicia for those on the Portuguese Camino. As did the universal camino arrow pointing the way.

Luckily our  own camino only required circling around the cathedral on lovely stone lanes.

Not only did we see remnants of Roman drainage systems

catch mesmerizing views across to Portugal,

but also watched Max re-enact an encounter Max, Robbie and I had with a disgruntled señora in  Camariñas.

Along our walk signage identified buildings associated with Tui’s Sephardic Jewish citizenry.

Once a vibrant segment of Spain’s culture, this changed with Spain’s 1492 Edict of Expulsion. The law required Jews to convert, depart, or die; and, some of those who did convert (Converso Jews) were later convicted of continuing to practice Judaism.

I was aware of the ugliness of the Spanish Inquisition formally established by King Ferdinand II (1452-1516) and Queen Isabella I (1451-1504) but had never heard of two items displayed in the cathedral’s museum:  sanbenitos. Later I read those accused of heresy but who had repented wore these yellow and red cloaks and a conical hat while being paraded through the streets (usually with no clothes on below the belt) in disgrace. The cloaks also served as banners in the church reminding parishioners of the dangers of heresey.

I guess, though, the wearers of these cloaks were the lucky ones. They returned home. The unrepentant heretics adorned with the black cloaks ended up at a human BBQ. Lovely.

An intriguing footnote to this 1492 edict is Spain’s vote on a law 522 years later offering citizenship to the descendants of those Sephardic Jews forced to flee. To read more here’s a recent article describing this endeavor a heck of a lot better than I could ever do: “Spain’s Attempt to Atone for a 500-Year-Old Sin“.

A GUARDA

We spent the night in A Guarda known for its cluster of hill-top castros of Santa Trega.

Here early settlers established a fort and village. Dating from over 2000 years and occupied into the 1st Century these granite ruins (along with a renovated unit)

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can be found throughout Galicia, yet this was the largest yet we’d visited.*

*In previous posts I’ve said these are Celtic settlements; however, some say a better description is Castro settlements to avoid defining these inhabitants definitely as Celtic (the Celtic-Galician connection has been disputed over the years). 

Built when people in the Iron Age began settling down, the locations changed through the centuries from defensive to more sheltered and close to crops and grazing lands. Either way they’re impressive.

The darkening sky provided dramatic lighting and an eerie atmosphere as we walked around the empty grounds. It was a relief to return to the car for a drive to the town and our hotel. And some Spanish vino :)

OIA

The next morning we followed the coastal road north stopping at the Santa María Monastery.

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The Cisterian monks (a branch of the Benedictines) established this site in the 12th century, the only Cisterian monastery built on the sea. Strategicially located, the monks here sometimes served as fighters, such as when they repelled Turkish pirates in 1624. This earned them the distinction “the artillery monks”.

Unfortunately, we couldn’t tour the monastery (now a private building) and the parish church was closed. But, we could still admire its uncompromising stance right on the edge of the sea. Which one of us had to see just how close.

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BAIONA

As we continued north we diverted from the coast to inland. Max, especially, had been looking forward to traveling through this area ever since he had read some friends’ cruising notes describing wild horses roaming the hillsides.

The moutain horses of Galicia evolved from the practice of the Catholic clergy being allowed to own the horses but not take care of them (a bit odd, don’t you think?). Yet, when we had asked about these horses at a tourist information center the staffer laughed, then kindly explained they aren’t exactly wild. They’ve been tagged and often vaccinated during the annual Rapa das Bestas (Capture of the Beasts). That still didn’t affect Max’s mission to discover these fierce and independent equines.

We avidly searched the countryside as we climbed into the countryside. Initially we saw roaming sheep and roaming cows, even ‘Watch Out For Horse’ signs,

but no roaming horses… until we reached a broad expanse where all three of us excitedly yelped, ‘Look! a horse!’.

We quickly began scouting out a possible turn-off so we could document our lucky find. Unsure of how the wild animal would react Max took full precautions…

because, as you can see, this horse was, indeed, a most dangerous stallion ready to charge:

I couldn’t resist snapping a shot of the intrepid photographer while my sister calmly rolled down her window and opened the door to look at the horsey. I can only imagine the thought bubbles the cartoonist Gary Larson would use to animate these two scenes.

After spotting our first one or two of these terrifying beasts plenty more came into our view as we headed down towards the coast and Baiona, JUANONA’s southernmost port of call this summer.

This lovely resort town sported an elegant marina, a replica of Christopher Columbus’ 1492 PINTA, and a parador, one of the government-run hotels showcasing Spain’s scenic/historical treasures. We toured Betsy around the marina then ended up eating a late lunch on one of the parador’s terraces overlooking the bay. The view was a bit better than the lunch, which appeared a little singed. And, yes, it’s suppose to have the window to the fried egg…

ALBARIÑO WINERIES

Fully sated we returned to our car for the our next destination:  Granbazán, one of the many wineries found in the Rias Baixas (Southern Rias) along the Ruto do Vino (Wine route). Both this bodega and Paco & Lola, a more recent and modern winery, had been recommended by a cruising friend whose notes have guided us to many favorite spots during our Galician cruising.

Granbazán

Named after a noble familly from the area, Granbazán began on a huge estate with the first wines produced in 1989. Located in Val do Salnés, the coldest and wettest of the five DO (denomination of origin designating a quality-controlled wine) Rias Baixas’ sub-regions, the vineyard uses the delicate albariño grapes to produce a light-bodied, citrusy white wine.

Catching the last possible tour an hour before closing time the guide initially appeared hurried; but, the more questions we asked, the more she relaxed into her role. We three, along with a German couple who joined us later, spent an information hour listening to our host.

She began with showing us how they grow their grapes:  trellised horizontally. By keeping the plants off the ground the grapes are less susceptible to issues from too much moisture.

She let us pick one of the green globes to sample. After doing so, it immediately became apparent these grapes had something special to offer winemakers. Not that I’m a connoisseur of grape-testing. They just tasted yummy.

Leading us into the production area, she pointed out three large metal drums stationed off the floor. Here the winemaking begins with cold soaking or maceration:  the grapes are placed in these refrigerated tanks for the initial collection of juice. The grapes slowly press down on themselves due to gravity. They then release their juices meshing with the skins, the latter adding extra flavor (and color) to the extract.

After draining the extract the juice is then fermented in stainless steel tanks standing in the opposite side of the room.

Strict rules regulating production of their albariño wine apply; yet, the authorities allowed Granbazán to introduce a watering system in 2017 due to the extreme lack of rain, a sign of the affects of a changing climate affects on Spain’s wine-making.

The vineyard also produces some red wine with grapes grown in northern Spain. Overall, Granbazán produces roughly 800,000 bottles. Some of them were headed to Texas with a shipping price of over $1,000, including a huge bottle that would be difficult to lift much less pour.

Paco & Lola

The second winery presented a completely different feel from the stately grandeur of Granbazán. Paco & Lola began in 2005 as a cooperative and quickly became known for its polka dots. The modern facility happily embraces its jaunty brand personality, and our guide cheerfully led us through production, shipping and merchandising areas.

When we asked how the wine came to be named she laughed and said it’s completely made up. There isn’t any ‘Paco’ or ‘Lola’ affiliated with the company. The winery just wanted two names that were easy to pronounce and recognizable, i.e., marketable. Increasing their visibility they decided to use the polka dots, which many predicted would stymie this vineyard’s wine sales.

The nay sayers obviously were proven wrong for the wine is definitely one of the more popular (and instantly identifiable) bottles. Plus, with such a large collection of independent coop members and their grape patches, Paco & Lola can produce over 2.5 million bottles a year. That’s a lot of wine being sold, and a lot of polka dots.

She brought out food with which we could sample several bottles. While Max gladly began munching on the sardines,

I kept to the bread and Betsy, after one gulp of a mussel,

did the same.

We liked both bodegas’ wines, purchasing some bottles from each for sipping aboard JUANONA. What we should have done, though, is ship some to Maine because we’ve heard from several different sources Spain keeps the good wine for themselves (!).

PADRÓN

In addition to the Paco & Lola winery our last day of touring included a stop in another town associated with St. James:  Padrón. Here legend has it that the boat carrying his body up to his tomb in Santiago landed here, tied the line to a stone, then began the trek inland to what is now Santiago.

And, where there’s an opportunity to connect with a saint, the residents of Padrón managed to find the exact stone and keep it safe for centuries.

Since Max and I had read about this during our summer in Galicia we felt obligated to see this symbol of Saint James. And, with Betsy, an official pilgrim, we felt even more compelled to stop here. So, the three of us squeezed into a parking space across the river, dodged cars and buses crossing a one-lane bridge, and entered a small church where we gazed upon this sacred item.

It wasn’t quite anticlimatic but I do reserve the right to doubt that this is THE rock. But, hey, maybe someone way back when captured the moment when this happened, put a fence around it, and announced that St. James ‘slept here’ or, at least, laid here (headless, I might add) for awhile.

SANTIAGO DE COMPOSTELA

Saturday, October 5, 2019

We returned to JUANONA for a night of wine tasting and packing up.

The next morning we came full circle, arriving back where we were a week previously when we met Betsy and Missie fresh off their pilgrimage. This time, though, we were saying good-bye. Always difficult but eased by knowing we’d be seeing her in a few months verus half a year.

So, our shared journey ended as she caught her train to Madrid and us, our plane out of Spain, all on to new adventures.

But, before I sign off, I want to post a pic of my sister that caught me up short when I was reviewing photos. Startled me only  because she looks like a blend of our mom and her sister, Lolly. Lucky her. And, them!