Wednesday, October 28, 2009

ON A CLEAR DAY...

After a recent storm, the skies were so blue and you could see for miles – all the way to Perugia – and beyond…


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Tuesday, October 27, 2009

CRUISIN' AT LAST

Back in 1964, when the Beatles first took America by storm, I was a twelve year old girl, more than ready for my first crush and the world of rock 'n' roll.  Like so many other impressionable young girls, I also became immediately enamored of EVERYTHING British.  I loved the accents, the clothes, the music, the humor, the pageantry, and the history.  Unfortunately for me, being twelve years old meant that my dream of going to England would be a long time coming, and my marriage and children a few years later delayed that dream for even longer. 

Eventually I did get to England in 1985, and again in 1987, and 1989 - there was just never enough time, so I had to keep going back.  In order to maximize my time in England and the entire 'British' experience, my dream vacation was to fly to England on the Concorde - no way faster to get there! - and then to cruise back aboard the QE2 - the British ship would ease my transition back to the states, giving me six days to adjust to the fact that I wasn't in England any more.

And then in 2003 the Concorde stopped flying!  I was so sad to realize that my ultimate dream vacation would never be possible!  I would however still be able to complete the other part of my dream trip, aboard the QE2 - until in 2008 it too stopped cruising!  Well, there were still other ships doing transatlantic crossings, so I held out hope that one day I could sail the Atlantic.  I was never concerned about any Titanic-type dangers; I was more intrigued by the romance of AN AFFAIR TO REMEMBER
 
Over the years, especially since we've lived in Italy, Art and I have talked about taking a transatlantic cruise between Italy and the U.S., but it's just never worked out.  I even talked with a travel agent earlier this year when we were in Louisville, and discovered that most of the repositioning cruises for the winter were departing from Europe earlier than we wanted or needed to leave. 
 
I don't even know how the conversation got started the other day, but Art brought up the idea of cruising back to the states in December.  I reminded him of what I'd learned in the spring, but he decided to do an internet search anyway.  Of course he did find some ships making transatlantic cruises in November and December, but they were leaving from England or Spain - no place that was really easy for us to get to.  When Art left the room for a few minutes I did a search of my own, this time entering Rome as the departure port and voila!  there was indeed a cruise leaving on November 30th - a 13 night cruise that - even better- would arrive in Ft Lauderdale.  Arriving in Florida in mid-December has got to be nicer than arriving in New York!
 
We looked through the information about the cruise, checked out the stops, and then took a look at the price.  Gulp!  The ship was a brand new one, and with  CELEBRITY CRUISE LINES, a rather 'upscale' line, to boot.  Imagine our surprise when we saw that the cheapest cabin cost $699!  Yes, it's a small cabin, and yes it's an inside cabin, but how much time would we spend in the cabin anyway, and how useful would a balcony be in December on the Atlantic??? 
 
We contacted an agent, who promptly tried to get us to upgrade - not to a larger cabin, or even an outside cabin, but to a cabin that he could guarantee for us, one that we would know the location of before we left.  But of course that cost extra - $150 EACH to be exact.  Just as with airfare, the $699 fare didn't include taxes, so you have to add that ($120 each), plus the gratuities for the cabin steward, waiter, and bus boy.  PLUS all those shore excursions!  Even if you do-it-yourself, which we definitely plan to do, you're still spending money.  In the end we decided to take our chances with the $699 cabin. 
 
We'll forgo alcohol, and even soft drinks, because they cost extra.  We won't be scheduling any spa treatments or even dressing up for the three formal dinners.  This cruise will be budget all the way, but it will also be the fulfillment of a dream, and 13 glorious days - with stops at places we've never been to before! 
 
The good news is I'll be taking my computer with me.  I'll be able to download and edit photos daily, and write about what we've seen and done as I lounge around, all the while keeping one eye peeled for Cary Grant,or a reasonable facsimile.  The bad news is internet time looks to be rather costly, so I might just have to write some interim stuff to post automatically while we're at sea.  Don't worry, I'll let you know before we leave - how could I leave without using this excuse to say "Bon voyage!"?

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Friday, October 23, 2009

MENUS IN ITALY

Whether handwritten or printed, quickly scrawled on a blackboard or beautifully written, menus seem to be almost as interesting as the food itself.

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Thursday, October 22, 2009

HOTEL MEDICI - FLORENCE

I'd really like to keep this hotel a secret, but because they always do such a good job, I have to give them some public praise. We first discovered the
Medici Hotel_Florence 001HOTEL MEDICI about 9 years ago, when we made our first independent visit to Florence.  It was January, and we'd requested a room on the 6th floor with a view of the Duomo.  Although it was too cold on that visit to sit on the terrace and enjoy the view, just opening the shutters and seeing the Duomo  - Giotto's bell tower and Brunelleschi's dome! - right there - almost close enough to touch, was magical. 

Although we've checked around for other hotels in Florence, we always seem to end up at the MEDICI.  For our most recent trip , which was a very impulsive, last-minute trip, I'd emailed to request a room on the 6th floor, but one around the corner from the Duomo.  I did this because the weather was still mild, and I knew there'd be people outside on the terrace, probably later than we'd want to be awake.  There's just no way to know who'll be on the terrace, or how noisy they'll be, so I figured it would be better to be around the corner where it was quieter. 

When we arrived at the hotel, Gabriele greeted us as old friends, as is his style.  He looked so sheepish and said to me "Do you believe it?"  I was puzzled - believe what?  What was he talking about?  After a long pause he finally continued - "Can you believe that the one room you DIDN'T want is the only one available?"   Because we'd made our request only a few days earlier, how could I complain?  As it turned out, the room he had for us was the very room we'd stayed in on our very first visit, the one at the very end of the terrace, closest to the Duomo.
 
In the last few years the hotel has undergone a complete renovation.  I asked Gabriele if they had added any rooms, not knowing if they had used all the floors previously, but he told me no, they still have 40 something rooms, but now, after the renovation, all but three are ensuite. 

Medici Hotel Terrace_Florence 014We stopped by PEGNA on our way back to the hotel one afternoon, where they carry lots of British groceries.  I was hoping to find some cheddar cheese for a special treat, and I was in luck!  We bought a few slices of red wax cheddar, some goat cheese, crackers, and a bottle of red wine.  We hadn't brought a corkscrew with us, but the cashier at the checkout gladly opened our bottle for us!  They also have the smaller bottles of wine, as well as wine in a box. 

The HOTEL MEDICI includes a continental breakfast - coffee, tea or hot chocolate, juice, and rolls with butter and jam.  They also sell wine, water and soft drinks, and provide wine glasses, should you want to have a snack in your room or on the terrace. 

Like all hotels, the staff at the HOTEL MEDICI will be happy to make reservations for you at all the local museums, and to recommend restaurants.  They also speak several languages.  If you're every looking for a hotel in Florence with location, location, location, then the HOTEL MEDICI is the perfect choice.  When we stayed there in October our room, with ensuite bathroom and direct access to the terrace cost €80. 

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Wednesday, October 21, 2009

FOOD! FOOD! FOOD!

Okay, I'm a foodie. I love food. I love to cook food, to eat food, to read about food, even to look at food. Because of this, no trip to Florence is complete without a visit to the Mercato Centrale, Florence's large, permanent market with fresh fruits and vegetables, meats, fish, preapred and packaged foods and restaurants. It's a food lover's paradise!

Fruits and Vegetables_Florence_110The ground floor of the Mercato features the restaurants and permanent food sellers, while upstairs are the fresh fruit and vegetable stands. The upstairs is currently being renovated, so the fruits and veggies are temporarily located in a huge tent right outside the mercato. Needless to say, I enjoyed looking at the seasonal foods like the porcini mushrooms.

Judy Witts Francini and Gary Rhodes_117Inside the food hall I saw foods and fish and meats that I was unfamiliar with, but which were gorgeous and interesting to look at none-the-less. While wandering the aisles I did see one familiar site: our good friend Judy Witts Francini, aka DIVINA CUCINA! (You can keep up with Judy on her blog, OVER A TUSCAN STOVE.)  Judy was explaining all about porcini to English chef GARY RHODES.   Chef Rhodes is apparently filming the standard 'travel around Italy to sample all the regional foods' shows, and the focus of that day's filming was porcini. 
 
Porcini in Florence_123After buying a few porcini for ourselves we stopped by BARONI’S, where they always have something interesting - and delicious.  Rumor has it that they sometimes have cheddar cheese, but I didn't see any that day, and since we'd already treated ourselves to a few slices the previous evening from PEGNA's just down the street from our hotel, I didn't need the fix.
 
If I lived in Florence I think my days would go like this:  head out to the Mercato Centrale in the morning.  Buy something different, somthing new, talk to the vendor about what the food and how to prepare it, then go home and spend the rest of the day cooking and searching the internet to learn more about my new food/ingredient.  In the evening I could take a passiagiata, get something simple for dinner like a gelato- and bask in the fact that I lived in Florence.  

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Tuesday, October 20, 2009

ART IN TREVI

In Italy, and I guess throughout most of Europe, building hundreds, sometimes thousands, of years old are crumbling away due to years of neglect and now, air pollution. Car exhaust causes marble to soften and leaves an ugly black residue. For these reasons you'll often see buildings covered in scaffolding as they're being renovated and/or cleaned.

I know there's nothing more disappointing than rounding the corner, anxious for that first glimpse of a building you've only seen in pictures before - only to find it shrouded in scaffolding! When that happens, you have to tell yourself that the work-in-progress is necessary to ensure that these building will be around for generations to come.

Here in Umbria, in addition to the regular maintenance, there are still repairs being made from damage caused during the 1997 earthquake. If only I'd had the concession for scaffolding and cranes I could be living the high life by now!

Trevi views_134TREVI has been covered with scaffolding and over-shadowed by cranes for well over a year now - maybe two, and who knows how long these renovations will take? In an effort to distract from the plywood walls that separate and protect, Trevi has begun an artistic program where artists can decorate the walls with a variety of subjects.




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While in Trevi a few weekends ago we also noticed that many artists had their work on display.  One artist who caught our attention was ALFIO TABARRINI.  At first we were enchanted by his wood carvings of hilltowns, (Trevi, I assume), but he also had works of a completely different style on display.  I'm not usually a big fan of modern art, and maybe the subject matter has something to do with it, but these colorful renditions of Trevi were very, very interesting. 







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Monday, October 19, 2009

MAKE YOUR OWN CANDY CORN

Junk food isn't as common here in Italy as it is in the U.S. - unless of course you're talking about breakdfast foods, which all seem to have chocolate - not that it's a bad thing, just strange.  Anyway, there are times when the lack of junk food presents a problem.  What's Easter without Peeps?  And what's Halloween without candy corn? 
 
I have seen recipes for Peeps, they look like way too much trouble, and since Peeps can now be found at Halloween, Christmas, Valentines Day AND Easter, I can usually get my fix at some point when we're in the states.  Not so for candy corn!  But now, thanks to a guest posting by CakeSpy on Serious Eats, anyone can make their own candy corn using this simple candy corn recipe.
 
This recipe doesn't require a candy thermometer, but you do have to take care not to boil the sugar mixture any longer than stated in the recipe.  If you do your dough could be too dry to be workable.  I also found that I didn't need to wait for one hour for the mixture to cool  - I didn't even wait thirty minutes!  I divided up the dough into thirds while it was still warm and pliable, added the food coloring, then proceeded to roll - or rather to stretch and squeeze and manipulate the dough into long ropes. 

Unless you want your candy corn super-sized, you'll need a very long work surface - I ended up squeezing my tri-colored rope smaller and smaller as I cut off the pieces and the rope got shorter. 

This recipe doesn't make a lot of candy corn, but I'm hoping it's just enough to satisfy my craving without having to make another batch.  To help stretch the candy corn I mixed it with salted peanuts for a wonderful sweet/salty snack!




Home made candy corn

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Saturday, October 17, 2009

FLORENCE: SANTA CROCE AND THE CAPELLE MEDICI

On our recent visit to Florence we were trying to visit some places we'd never been to, or places we hadn't been to in a long time. Florence Santa Croce_045 Santa Croce falls into the second category, and just recently someone told us that the church had been completely renovated and we should be sure to visit it the next time we were in Florence. I wish I could remember who told us this, because either they have Santa Croce confused with some other church, or maybe they thought it would be years before we re-visited Florence. Can you guess where this is going?

Santa Croce Florence 080Things have changed since we were last at Santa Croce - now you have to pay an admission charge, and you enter thru a side door rather than the main door. LIttle did we know what else had changed.....
As we walked into the church I was expecting an "OH WOW!" moment, but what I got was an "oh dear..." moment. Scaffolding was EVERWHERE! the main altar was hidden somewhere under a wall of scaffolding, Florence Santa Croce_060
and a closer look revealed people on platforms within the scaffolding doing their restoration work.  Who knows how many years this restoration might take, but at least the work is being done!  Just in case you're wondering, yes, photos are allowed inside the church.

Of course there were still many beautiful things to see in the church, including Michelangelo's tomb, several side altars and assorted chapels, as well as the outdoor space and the museum. 

Our long-overdue visit to the Medici Chapel was also quite a let-down.  I hesitate to say that it was a disappointment, because we did get to see part of it's splendor, but the overall effect was certainly dulled by all the scaffolding within the chapel itself.  We had been warned about the restoration by a large sign outside the entry, but it really hadn't prepared us for the extent of the restoration works, or how that first step into the chapel would be such a let-down, especially when you could just glimpse the spendors hidden behind the scaffolding. 

No pictures were allowed inside the Medici Chapel, so you'll have to take your chances when or if you go to Florence, or perhaps there are some websites that might show everything as it was meant to be. 

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Monday, October 12, 2009

ANOTHER DAY IN DERUTA AND MORE CERAMIC GUITARS

DerutaTaverna del Gusto_023We visited Deruta again, this time with our friend Nedra.  Because it was Monday, the restaurant we liked on our last visit was closed, but as luck would have it, we discovered a restaurant up in the centro.  I don't know if we've never been in the centro at the right time, if I've just missed the sign, or if the restaurant and/or the sign are new!  Anyway, we took a look at the menu, decided that it looked interesting, and stayed for lunch!

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After a very enjoyable lunch, we wandered around the centro, stopping in various shops and looking down the quaint, narrow streets.  When we'd been in Deruta in August we were anxious to check out the ceramic guitar our friend Adam had told us about.  On our previous visit we found the shop with the guitar, but it was closed so all we got was a look through the window.  This time the shop was open, so we were able to look at several of the ceramic guitars.  I was surprised when I saw that the backs of the guitars were as elaborately decorated as the fronts!



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As an extra special treat the owner treated us with a sample of how the guitar sounds.  He told us that because it's hollow inside it's not as heavy as you would think.  He also told us that he has a patent pending for these ceramic guitars. 

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Sunday, October 11, 2009

A NEW LASAGNA RECIPE

It doesn't seem possible, but somehow I keep finding new recipes that sound too good not to try. Recently I read this recipe for Lasagna With Caramelized Radicchio, Onions & Crispy Pancetta on one of my new favorite blogs, Italian Food Forever.  Deborah, who shares many wonderful recipes on her blog, gave me just what I needed:  a recipe that would help use up some of the onions we'd bought last month in Canarra.  I wasn't planning on having a large crowd for dinner anytime soon, so I made this recipe and divided it into two pans - one larger than the other, but neither so large that we'd have too many leftovers. 
 
Lasagna_006The weather, which has been in the 70's, suddenly turned cooler, and the thought of having the oven on was quite appealing.  I grabbed the smaller of the two casseroles out of the freezer and baked it for lunch today.  Wow!  Both Art and I really, really enjoyed this dish.  The sweet onions, the slight bitterness of the radicchio, and of course what dish doesn't benefit from a bit of bacon (pancetta)?  It was creamy and luscious, definitely a comfort food, but a very luxurious comfort food.  If you're looking for something new, take a look at the recipe, and while you're at it, add Italian Food Forever to your list of food blogs - who knows what other wonderful new recipes Deborah might post?

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Thursday, October 08, 2009

COMPLIMENTI A SPIGARELLI CERAMICHE!!!

It's not often that the phrase "good customer service" and Italy are used in the same sentence, unless there are a few negative words in the sentence too.  Somehow Italians seem to accept poor service, delayed deliveries, broken promises and deceptive practices as normal.  It's not uncommon to call a company - a large company like SKY TV, or one of the phone companies - to register a complaint only to have the customer service representative hang up on you!  Seriously!  Yes, I know that customer service in the U.S. is often sadly unresponsive, but somehow bad - or nonexistant - customer service in Italy seems to be the norm rather than the exception.

Because we too have become used to the lack of concern for the customer, when we do run into a person or company who are really, truly interested in pleasing their customers we have to give them a special mention.  In the past I've written about friends who run various tourist services - agriturismi, cooking schools or tour guides who are genuinely interested in provided their customers with an unforgettable experience - and unforgettable in a GOOD way.  Last year I wrote about the appliace repair technician who went out of his way help us when our Bosch washer went kaput long before it should have. 
This year's customer service award goes to  Mauro Spigarelli, the owner of Spigarelli Ceramics, with a special mention to DonnaTerrito at Abbiamo Tutto, the American importers of Spigarelli's products.  When the olive oil urn we bought turned out to have a defective spout, we contacted Spigarelli through their website.  Because the site has both Italian and English, I wrote the email in English so I could explain in more detail about the defective spigot.  The reply we received was from Donna, who explained that no one at Spigarelli spoke English, so she would be our go between.  This was very generous on her part, since we hadn't bought the urn through her company.  
 
It was a long, slow process, but eventually I began corresponding with Sig. Spigarelli directly, in what I"m sure was terrible Italian, but we managed to communicate.  As time went by Sig. Spigarelli told us he wouldn't give up when he had difficulty finding a new spigot - they don't make that particular olive oil urn anymore. 
 And now, at long last, but just in time for the new olive oil, we have our urn back!  Sig. Spigarelli sent us an entirely new urn - I don't know if there was something wrong with the hole in the original urn, but he also returned that one, and we're using it for an umbrella stand! 

We were more than willing to pay Sig. Spigarelli for his time and trouble, but in the end he charged us nothing, asking us to accept the new urn as a sign of friendship.  For his efforts above and beyond the call of duty, we thank our new friend, Mauro Spigarelli.  If you're ever near Gualdo Tadino in northern Umbria, stop by the Spigarelli Ceramic Factory, or check out Donna's website, Abbiamo Tutto.

 

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Monday, October 05, 2009

SANDRI'S IN PERUGIA

Anyone who's been to Perugia has no doubt visited Sandri's the famous pasticceria, known as much for it's beautiful interior as for it's beautiful desserts. Also featured are "Torciglione" snake-shaped bread, based on snakes that supposedly live in Lake Tresimeno.

With EUROCHOCOLATE scheduled to begin on October 16th, the window at Sandri's won't be the only place you can drool over some sweet treets in Perugia! 




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Perugia - Sandri's - Torciglione

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Saturday, October 03, 2009

ASSISI

St Francis_008No visit to Umbria is complete without a visit to Assisi. No matter what your religious leanings, the words of peace and simplicity preached by St. Francis still inspire pilgrims today.

SM Angeli_ 001The first stop when visiting Assisi should be in Santa Maria degli Angeli, just below Assisi. It was here that St. Francis founded his order, and the tiny chapel he used in now housed within the larger SM degli Angeli church.  This is an impressive church in it's own right and probably gets overlooked.  If you get a chance, stop in sometime before you drive up into Assisi.  Assisi 009

Assisi is a charming town all on it's own, and the Basilica is just the icing on the cake!  There's the upper church, the lower chuch, and the crypt, where St Francis himself is buried.  There's nary a hint of the earthquake damage from 1997, and the richness of the frescoes is almost overwhelming. 

In addition to the basilca there are other churches worth visiting - Santa Clara, and San Ruffino, where Francis was baptized are two must sees. 

In the Basilica you can use headphones (available outside the church, €5 dontation) to hear all the details, and this, combined with the headsets now used by all the tour groups makes the church much quieter and peaceful. 

Assisi is another city I never get tired of visiting - there are always unexplored side streets and hidden treasures to be found. 

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Friday, October 02, 2009

PERUGIA AND PERUGINA

While out guest Annette was here we drove into Perugia to check out the new Perugia City Tour on an open-top bus.  We parked in the free lot and took the MINIMETRO up into the centro.  Orca Perugia_0043Since Annette's from Seattle we had to take her picture in front of the totem pole that was a gift from Perugia's sister city of Seattle. 

It was a cloudy day with a few drizzles, so there was a clear plastic covering over the bus. The weather did clear up, and we could have done without the cover, but I guess the driver decided better safe than sorry.  The tour, which begins at Piazza Italia, takes about an hour and covers pretty much all of the historical center of Perugia.  Because Perugia is so hilly, and because of the iffy weather, this was a great way to introduce Annette to Perugia without walking her to death.  We had some time before our tour began so we took a step back in time in the Rocca Paolina, just trying to imagine what life must have been like in those ancient streets. 

During the tour the driver stopped for about five minutes so that we could walk up to il Tempio



Perugia il Tempio 009


Perugia  Arch 007and the tour continued through the city, weaving in and out of the many ancient city gates.  After the bus tour was over we wandered down the Corso Vannucci and ended up at a great pizza place, Pizzeria Mediterrania, just around the corner from the Duomo.  Perugia pizza  035

By the time we'd finished lunch the sun was shining and the skies were blue again.  We took the MiniMetro back to the car and drove the short distance to the Perugina chocolate factory.  We were joining a tour group for a tour in English at 2:30.  Eugenia, the woman who took over for our friend Corinna as the head of the museum, led the tour and answered all our questions.  After touring the plant several times I have to say it's always interesting.  Chocolates were being prepared for the Christmas season, but the most fun to watch, at least in my opinion, is when they're making the huge hollow Easter eggs. 

After the tour we sampled some chocolate and I bought gifts for my daughter and daughter-in-law.  Although the birthday gifts aren't much of a surprise - I think now they've become almost a tradition! 

After eating chocolate, naturally we needed to try some great red wine, so we headed to Vini di Filippo for a mini-sampling. The only thing that could have made this better would have been to have the chocolate and the wine together!

It certainly won't be a surprise when I say that we were all too full for dinner, so we stopped at the grocery for some arugula to make a salad.  Annette is a foodie, so she enjoyed looking around the grocery and bought a few things to take home with her. 

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