14 September 2016

2015 ITALY Varenna 38 - Go Como

Lake Como is shaped like an upside down Y. The town of Como is on the bottom of the left prong. Bellagio is at the juncture where all three prongs meet. Varenna is up the center prong a little north of Bellagio on the right side. Directly across the lake is the town of Menaggio.
The next morning Mike was all bright eyed and bushy tailed and rearin' to go. We had planned to take a ferry around the lake which goes from Varenna to Menaggio to Bellagio and back to Varrena, but the waters were quite rough and after yesterday's train ride we decided against it.

There are several sights to discover in Varenna--the San Giorgio basilica consecrated in 1313; the church of San Giovanni Battista (1151); an ornithology (bird) museum; the Castello di Vezio; and a few other things. But we were churched and touristed out. We just wanted to relax and walk and talk.

The walk along the pier runs into a path that continues north along the water quite a way to a small farmers market. The lake is on one side of the path and a natural stone wall with flowers and greenery are on the other side.

There were white swans and all manner of boats in the water. It was really beautiful. The fishermen seemed happy, too. Must have had a good catch today. 

Varenna is on a hill so many steep stairs to get from the lower path up to the main road. Little twists and turns and potted gardens.

We mosied here and there until we got hungry. We picked up sandwiches (caprese for me / ham and cheese for Mike) at the local deli. There was a roof top deck at our hotel and we ate there with our bottle of spumante from the inn keeper.

The day was sunny and we could see for miles--Bellagio to our left, across the blue-blue lake, the Alps nearly bare, the church steeples, just spectacular. We had a leisurely lunch because we were hypnotized by the view and had a hard time leaving.

Next we went shopping. There were lots of little stores with souvenirs as well as quality merchandise, like hand woven scarves and ceramics. Mike bought a new hand-crafted kitchen knife. I wanted to visit the Recordo Ceramic store, as I have a collection of about a half-dozen restaurant plates from them, but it was closed.

After a nap and clean-up, it was time for dinner. The restaurant was located down a little hidden alley way, so I was glad I had scoped it out earlier. Its name was La Vista (again recommended by Chef John). But it was late and it had started to rain, so outdoor dining was not an option and we couldn't really see any "vista" out the wide windows facing the lake.

No problem, the food and wine (house red was 100% Sangiovese, one of my faves) were wonderful. Forgot my camera, so sorry, no photos. Mike had a very tasty birthday dinner, even though it was a day late.
That night the rain poured and the wind howled. Shutters flapped--click, click, tap, tap. A little ghostly.

13 September 2016

2015 ITALY Varenna 37 - Today is Mike's Birthday, da da da da DA da

Well, most of the group was flying home today (except Lynn and Sandy who were spending an extra day in Florence). I did not want to fly home on Mike's birthday, so we were staying in Italy a few extra days to celebrate on our own.

We met our groupies and Chef in the lobby at 09:00 for goodbyes. Hugs and a few tears all around. Back in our room we finished packing and then headed to the train station for our trip to Lake Como.

The route took us to Milan for a short layover. The station was incredible with many shops and trattorias. There was a huge, well-stocked bookstore where we spent most of our waiting time.
Our final destination today was the quaint town of Varenna (not Verona, were the famous Romeo and Juliette balcony is located). We had originally booked to the town of Como, but Chef John said Varenna would be a more pleasant place to wind down. Apparently Como is quite industrious and not "romantic." Chef also recommended this hotel where he had stayed with his tour group last year.

Varenna was indeed quaint and romantic, just how we pictured a town on Lake Como. We took a cab from the small train station to the hotel where we were met my a nice young lady. She said the hotel had been kept open for an extra week in the season just for us and that we would be the only guests. The entrance is the unassuming arched door behind the tree.

We had the largest unit in the building. It consisted of a nice L-shaped kitchen, living, and dining room.
There were two balconies--one in the big room. It had just enough room for two to sit and gaze out onto the red tile roofed houses, town square, and the lake.
There other was in the bathroom(!!) with a sliver view of the lake. Not really usable.
The bedroom was large with a substantial armoire for clothes. Light and airy with a window that opened onto the piazza. It had a ceiling fan, but it never got warm enough to use. In the evening I did use the heater in the main room for a bit. 
One floor up was a community room with TV, bar, lounge, library, fruit bowl, and extra kitchen. Again, we had the facility all to ourselves, so we didn't really use it. Our room was quite big enough.

There was art hung throughout our room and the common area. This cute monkey was over our dining room table.
The kitchen was fully stock with all kinds of cool and colorful Italian kitchenware. Here is just one cabinet and drawer. There were more like this and a number of full-size appliances like coffee grinder. This was not a hotel because you could live here permanently, if needed, without buying a thing.

If anyone can tell us what this does, we would love to know.
Here's a view looking up onto our balcony, the left of the two.
Well, it was Mike's birthday today, but things did not work out the way we expected. The inn keepers had left a bottle of spumante (sparkling Italian wine) to help us celebrate. But Mike had become sick from the train ride. He sat on the balcony a bit trying to recover in the fresh air, but it was not happening. I think we were also just worn out by our rigorous travel schedule (although there is NOTHING we would have left out). So he climbed into bed and slept through the night.

So to keep things quiet, I went exploring. I got a cup of cappuccino and watched the people pass on the sidewalk and the boats pass out on the lake. Actually after 12:00 you are supposed to order espresso, but I really love the cappis and ordered it anyway. 

I ended up ordering a mushroom pizza as well to take back if Mike was hungry, but it was not so much to our taste (a bit soggy). He ate a half piece and went back to bed.

I went to the restaurant Chef recommended and set up a reservations for the following evening. We would delay Mike's birthday dinner til he felt better. I cruised the area a little bit, but it started to cool off and rain and many of the stores were closed. I hurried back to our little piece of heaven to warm up and read up on what was happening in Varenna.

2015 ITALY Florence 36 - On the Hunt for Bulgari

After that big meal, Mike wanted to rest. So he hopped into clean sheets and I hit the road. There were several things I needed to buy, especially Bulgari Noir (black), an Italian soap.

If you have read the Stephanie Plum books by Janet Evanovich, you know Ranger. He is the swarthy-suave guerrilla character that often appears out of nowhere to "save the day."

Anyway he used Bulgari Noir, so I bought a bar for Mike's Christmas stocking one year and we both loved it. I've looked for it often since then with little luck. I did find a similar soap in NYC a couple of years ago, but it was not Noir; it was Verde (green) and not as nice an aroma to our noses. Still good enough to try. I think we paid near $20 for one bar at that point.

It started to drizzle. Umbrellas popped up, although I did not have one. I plunged ahead. I was not going to melt!!

On the Piazza della Republicca's west side, I again viewed the triumphal arch with the engraved message: "The ancient center of the City restored from age-old squalor to new life." The year built was 1885!
There was also the fantastic carousel we saw the night before, a marionette show, and the ever present Apple store (no pix).
I came across the Centrale Market and browsed there a bit. So many products. Here is one of several pizzerias, a mushroom-truffle shop, "little" Eataly, and a chocolate truffle shop.

Along my wanderings I ran into the train station, which was good. We would be leaving there tomorrow for the continuation of our trip. I found it was too far to walk with our luggage on the uneven cobblestone streets, so we would cab it.

On other streets I found so many interesting shops, including a pen store, the gelateria that Chef John recommended, a cinema, and a lace shop. Too many more to list.


Finally, a bit wet but happy, I found the store that sells Bulgari, along with other luxury cosmetics and body products. Alas, no Noir. I was "reduced" to buying the Verde again (or a Red). OK, not perfect, but scored and at the "bargain" price of $45 for a three pack!!! I don't feel bad as that was my only purchase just for me. Check other Bulgari products at: http://www.bulgari.com/en-us/ , but I don't see ANY soaps there.

Now backtracking through alleys and squares to our warm and cozy room. Mike and I weren't much hungry, but finished the chocolate truffles from our first night's dinner up the hill at La Legendde Dei Frati. We were sorry to be leaving our friends the next day, but happy to slow done the pace at our next destination.

2015 ITALY Rufina 35 - Mike's Surprise

Out of Florence so far we had traveled southeast and southwest. Today we took the faster freeway route northeast to our destination of Rufina. Along the way we saw our first artichoke fields. I could live the rest of my life on an artichoke menu. Well maybe add a little ciabatta bread dipped in olive oil to go along with it.

When we got to the back roads we saw "watch for cows" signs. Another one pointed you toward a town named Beverly Hills!! Yet another exit led you to Marignolle. We really wanted to make that turn-off. At home in our kitchen we have this wall art with an early view of an olive orchard from that very town. We knew it was a real place, but never thought to visit there. Alas, it was not on our itinerary.
We arrived at the Colognole Winery about 11am. Our host in the tasting room was Mario Nunziante, a fifth generation producer (since the time of Italy's unification) along with his brother Cesare. We didn't tour the processing area, but in the tasting room we got a very informative lesson all about wine-making from start to finish--terroir, climate, balance of leave vs fruit, and much more. Even though we had heard much of this before, he was easy to understand and practical in his explanations. It really clarified some things for me.
This map illustrates just the wine "regions" of Tuscany. Wow!
After our lesson we tasted four lovely wines: a 2011 Chardonnay and a range of three chiantis from 2009. Here on the farm they also produce acacia and chestnut honey and olive oil for sale.
Here you will also find rooms, apartments, and houses to let if you are seeking a more pastoral place to lay your head at night. There is also a restaurant where we would eat our last meal of the culinary tour together. Here is brother Cesare with Chef Alberto Busetto holding his darling little pup Ugo (maybe Hugo in English?). I'm so sorry I don't remember the lady's name. Cesare look dapper in his Ferragamo suit and bright smile.
This was our most rustic meal and it was served family style. That was most appropriate as our group had become a "family" in many ways. Ten busy days together, lots of chat, miles covered, family and personal info revealed, and favors shared. Yes, a family!

Meat was the highlight here, yet they took good of me with my veggie lifestyle. The menu consisted of: 1) crostini of various meats including salami, prosciutto, capocolla, chicken liver pate, and fresh pecorino (sheep’s milk) cheese, plus a tomato bruschetta for me; 2) ‘little rags’ of egg pasta with sausage, wild fennel, and pecorino; 3) grilled strip steak served sliced with porcini mushrooms with oven roasted potatoes; 4) for me a variety platter of tasty veggie concoctions including broccoli soufflĂ©; and 5) profiterole dessert (pastry puffs with custard and chocolate) and espresso.

The big surprise though was a special ice cream sundae for Mike's birthday. His BD was actually the next day, but our group would go its separate ways before then. Mike blew out the candle and got a big applause from our friends and the chefs. One could not ask for a better celebration.
After that we wobbled through the little market. There were jams, honey, house OVOO, coffee beans, sweets, blood oranges, and more. The rustic homemade breads look especially good. But we were all too full to even think of buying more food.

We took a little walk down the roadway to survey the panoramic view one last time, and then reluctantly turned back toward Florence.
Back in Florence we said our good-byes to Giuseppe. He was returning home to Lucca now. Cabs would take us all to the airport in the morning, as we had different departure times. We will remember Giuseppe very fondly. Here he is (right) with Chef. xxooxx