Just another day in Paradise
July 19, 2008 SaturdayLakes Orta and Maggiore
Across the little lake the town of Pella greets us in the clear morning air.
One thing I (Anne) have wanted to do is just relax by the lakeside pool so this morning we pack up our things (we’ll head back to Stresa later today) and spend an hour plus just taking in the views – never boring, always changing.
A couple of kayakers (in the back- ground) go by, sending their “O Sole Mio” across the calm water.
Then we explore Orta San Giulio some more – each step prompting a photo. Up a steep cobbled street is the main church, golden yellow Maria Assunta.
The prettiest house in a town FULL of pretty houses is nicknamed House of the Dwarfs for its miniature windows on the top floor.
Lovely frescoes, such as this Annunciation, add to the home’s beauty. We compliment a lady at the front door on her lovely house and she tells us it’s not hers – she’s just a guest. Boy would I love to see the inside of this fairy-tale cottage!
A flowery garden beckons down another lane –
After lunch we take the short boat ride to tiny Isola San Giulio, most of which is filled with a basilica dating back to the first millennium. It was rebuilt for the first time in 1000! You can walk around the islet in about ten minutes. Wish we could stay in town through tonight – the Milan Chamber Orchestra is performing in the basilica this evening.
Driving back to Stresa, we round the western shore of the lake to the lively town of Pella – great views back to Orta San Giulio.
High above the town, atop a sheer cliff, the Santuario della Madonna del Sasso is visible from all over the southern lake.
On the northern tip of the lake, Omegna is the biggest town on the lake. Local industries include that of famous kitchenware and industrial designer Alessi.
A walking path and bridge hugs the Nigoglia, which is the only river in Italy flowing north towards the Alps.
A festival is in full swing – huge vats to fry lake fish in one corner, and multiple chess tables filled with players contemplating their next moves in another.
Friendly and helpful Andreis welcomes us back to Hotel La Fontana in Stresa, and we’re happy to find one more delicious Italian dinner - at La Botte - before flying back to Virginia on Sunday.
We’re already talking about when we can return to delightful Orta San Giulio – perhaps after our Art Cities of Northern Italy tour in late September?
Enchanting Lake Orta
July 18, 2008 Friday
Stresa – Orta San Giulio
After breakfast at La Fontana in Stresa, we left most of our luggage in the hotel and drove through Stresa up the face of its sheltering mountain. We could have taken the smooth semicircle along the coast to Orta San Giulio and avoided the 4,263 foot high Mottarone but we wanted to see the forest and the views back down over Lake Maggiore. So we climbed, following the signs to Mottarone and stopping for photos of the lake from ever higher points. When we passed the top it was all downhill the rest of the way. The road to Orta San Giulio was not as well marked as the road to Mottarone so we had to stop and ask for directions from a sorella (sister) and a couple of other hearty mountain walkers; and I think we may have driven through one mountain village’s pedestrian zone. On the way down to Orta we saw lots of older people walking for exercise. It appears people make their living in Milan, then retire up in these hill towns, joining the older generation that has lived up here their whole lives. We also crossed several torrents, on the east side of Mottarone speeding down the mountain into Lake Maggiore or on the west side into Lake Orta. These pure mountain torrents make the two lakes among the cleanest in Europe.
We reached the shoreline of Lake Orta then proceeded farther west on the little peninsula shared by the town of Orta San Giulio and a Franciscan monastery called Sacro Monte di Orto. We got to pass all the tourist parking lots because our destination, Hotel San Rocco, provides parking in the historic center. This is the town Anne and I have chosen to mark our 35th anniversary that was one month and two days ago (we were busy on June 16th flying home – separately - from Croatia so agreed to find someplace beautiful we’d never been to celebrate our anniversary.) So after we checked into our 3rd floor room overlooking the pool by the lake in the former monastery, we went in search of the perfect place for our anniversary dinner, eyes popping at the loveliness of this tiny gem of a town.
We settled on the Antico Agnello and asked to reserve the only outdoor table on a tiny balcony overlooking the main walking street through town.
It was already reserved but since we told the head waiter it was our 35th anniversary celebration, he reserved for us the table beside the door going out to the balcony.
Continuing to stroll, we peek down lake side stone ramps, curious as to what new views will delight us.
For lunch we disregarded the authenticity of the food and went for the upscale restaurant (Leon d’Oro) built out over the lake so we could watch the small ferries going back and forth to the nearby Isola San Giulio and speeding across the lake to the town of Pella.
Under their shady grape arbor, seated right on the water, we had terrific breads, a huge drum of superb tuna carpaccio with orange cream sauce, and a plate of prosciutto and melon.
The island, Isola San Giulio, about 200 meters from shore has an almost irresistible draw. It’s so close and even from our lunch table’s vantage point we can see its buildings and lanes just must be explored. The view from here is dreamily peaceful and unbelievably beautiful; we were torn between sitting here all
afternoon in bliss and going out to experience the town on foot. The waiters decided for us, so we went strolling alongside our new favorite of the Italian lakes. Though no movie star has a palazzo on this lake; and though there are no grand hotels lining its shores, and though we’d only barely heard of it before we went searching for a place we’d never been, we’re smitten with this town and its little lake.
In a village full of beautifully restored buildings, we notice a tumble-down ruin ripe for restoration – any one in the market??
A bit of rain drove us under the piazza’s center- piece, a frescoed loggia built in the
There’s a display under the arches highlighting the massive modern sculpture of Arnaldo Pomodoro, pointing out the several places in town where his work is on display.
We learned that he and his more famous brother (whose work is displayed in our Washington DC Hirschorn Sculpture Garden) produce similar works.
When it cleared up we walked some more, past more postcard- worthy frescoed and slate-roofed lovelies, then went back to the room at the Hotel San Rocco and enjoyed the view of the lake from there.
At the Antico Agnello it’s time for the big celebration to begin!
With a big smile, the head waiter takes us all the way out to the table for two on the balcony. Someone must have cancelled so he put us at the table we’d requested earlier. With the mostly quiet main pedestrian street below and thick wisteria overhead, we were glad we waited for just the right time and place for our anniversary dinner. Anne had a rabbit pate and penne with rosemary, garlic, tomato and pancetta and I had rare thin sliced duck breast on a bed of lettuce with chives, tagliatelli with duck ragu, and a whole perch from the lake with butter and crispy sage leaves.
We topped off the meal with panna cotta - similar to flan but richer - with plenty of dark caramelized sugar sauce. We’re really glad that after 35 years, we’re still able to spend extended 24-hour days together and love every minute. Thank God for giving Anne the grace to live with me!
July 17, 2008 Wednesday
Florence – Milan – Stresa
The four of us took a mid- morning taxi to the Florence train station and got on adjoining cars of the same train to Milan where we had pannini and Fanta Limon while standing up guarding the luggage. This cuisine is several giant steps down from what we’ve enjoyed at the hands of familiar and capable chefs from Amalfi to Florence over the last two weeks. But it satisfies our hunger before we hurry to see Heather and Jerry off on their train to Nice to meet Heather’s mother.
We find the station’s Europcar office, jump in a tiny Fiat, and head north to one of Italy’s beautiful lakes. In a couple of hours we drive up Hotel La Fontana’s driveway in Stresa on the shores of Lake Maggiore. Everybody’s strolling down the lakeside promenade and we fall in step with them to Stresa’s old town where we make dinner reservations at the Hotel Ristorante Fiorentina. After circling the main square, strolling by some lovely villas, stopping at an enoteca for a glass of Barbera d’ Asti, and wandering the narrow lanes of Stresa, we go back to the lake shore for another look.
The lake’s distant shore is much more developed with apartments and hotels than Lake Como but the attractive Borromeo islands are just off shore. There’s an artisanal crafts and foods fair going on down by the lake and every vendor, even those who are sitting down to makeshift dinners themselves offer us a taste of their wares. And though we don’t have a millimeter of room left in our luggage, we buy a small jar of awesome homemade pesto (just a taste and we were hooked), some cookies from a really nice nonna (grandma), and a bottle of wine from a small producer from the Piemonte region.
We sit on a low wall by the lake under a hydrangea bush and listened to a jazz trumpeter and his combo playing at a nearby restaurant.
Dinner was unremarkable. People were ordering home made cannelloni because it was advertised on a big sign in the front window but the waiters told them they were out of it. I heard “bait and switch” mentioned several times by the Americans behind us but nobody left without ordering something else. The long stroll back to La Fontana is beautiful with the lights of the shoreline towns twinkling in the distance.
Though Stresa is not a place to find a lot of tourists on their first trip to Italy; and though we didn’t hear much English spoken even in the cafes on the main square, Stresa didn’t grab us as some other places have. One swing around the town pretty much satisfied our curiosity and nothing about this place really makes us want to come back. Tomorrow we’ll head over the mountains to tiny Lake Orta.
July 16, 2008 Tuesday
Today we spent most of the morning in the mostly covered Mercato Centrale (central market). Just to the left of the stairs and doors on the San Lorenzo street market side, we stop for samples of cheese and thin slices of ham at a true gastronomia (gourmet food stand). We recognized the guys who run the counter; though I’m sure they don’t remember us. We could make a meal of these stops but after Heather and Jerry choose some excellent cold cuts and cheese for tomorrow’s dinner in Nice (after their train trip), we hurry on for a real cup of coffee.
Hotel breakfast coffee is a little iffy. They don’t make a business of providing good coffee, so we never know what might be served. This morning the coffee was below acceptable but at the Mercato Centrale, the food vendors demand the best from the coffee vendors and that’s good for us shoppers. We put our elbows up on one of the bars and ordered our regulars. And we gave them a solid score of 95. We’re a tough coffee client to please, having tasted a few coffees from Illy bars along the way.
Next we sought out Gracia and Stefano Conti and their son Manuel. They do a thorough balsamic vinegar tasting, in addition to an olive oil tasting. The traditional balsamic vinegar from Modena is an eye opener for those who experience it for the first time. And to actually taste the difference in olive oils from different areas of Italy could make a better cook out of anyone. We left there with a few bottles of vinegar and some other must-haves along with kisses and hugs from the Contis.
Out in the open air leather shops, the girls bought purses while the boys focused on my favorite knife stall on the Medici Chapel side of San Lorenzo Church.
We got in for line for lunch at Trattoria Mario on the north side of the Mercato Centrale parking lot. It’s a little frenetic but the experience is real Florentine. Everybody crowds around small tables fitting in wherever there’s a spot. Today’s offerings are written by hand on a sheet of brown paper posted on the wall and crossed through when they run out.
We are happy to sit right next to the kitchen where Romeo the son of Mario, who founded the trattoria in 1953, slams the 24 inch meat cleaver to the butcher block 4 or 5 times every time somebody orders their famous Bisteca Fiorentina. He was proud to pose with a prime example of his work. All the staff wear Mario T-shirts with the home futbol team’s purple fleur-de-lis. The head waiter has one tattooed on his calf but he’s more proud of his official team purple soccer shoes.
Anne had the best panzanella (bread and tomato salad - MUCH better than it sounds) of the trip with good day-old bread and lots of discernable onions, tomatoes, cucumbers.
While Jerry and I chilled at the B & B, Anne and Heather went for a walk through the Piazza Signorelli and across the Ponte Vecchio. When they returned we all went walking and Jerry found a man’s leather satchel. To make it interesting, the one he liked best didn’t have a shoulder strap, so the padrone had us follow him to his leather workshop where he attached the hardware necessary to attach a shoulder strap. And it really was interesting, Jerry told them in flawless Italian that he was a leather crafter himself so they knew they’d better make the alteration right. The whole involved thing took much longer than it should have with the padrone going back and forth from his shop to his workshop for parts, but we did experience a part of Florentine life that most tourists don’t.
Beaten down by the heat, we took a taxi from the east side of town to the west where we dined at Osteria di Giovanni on Via del Moro. We had an antipasto of tiny roasted zucchini, goat cheese, and egg plant. Then came fresh tortelli with asparagus and asparagus cream and ricotta. Our delightful hostess whose mother is from New York made sure the kitchen prepared a little plate of something whenever a course was delivered and one of us didn’t order that course. Neither Jerry nor Kirk finished their filet mignon or rabbit; there was just too much food. Even though we moaned, “NO,” they brought us a complimentary plate of biscotti and vin santo for all.
We had asked for a wine that is fuller-bodied than Brunello or Vino Nobile and the sommelier brought a 2004 Carmignano DOCG from Villa de Capezzana. If body is your thing, this one beats the better-known Tuscans.
Refreshed, we walked back to Piazza Republica for a carousel ride. On the way we heard a female opera singer and while in the Piazza we heard a Roma band playing some lively music. This is our last evening with Jerry and Heather before spending the weekend on Lake Maggiore and Lake Orta. We had the best time and enjoyed meeting and spending time with these two interesting people. I’m sure we’ll meet again and this won’t really be our “Last Supper.”
North to Florence
July 15, 2008 Tuesday
Pienza - Florence
Before driving north to Florence, Anne took Heather on a pecorino tasting tour down Pienza’s main street. Unlike Parmigiano Reggiano, after the basic Pecorino is made, it is then finished in a variety of different methods. It is sold fresh or aged (staggionato) in a cave for different lengths of time. It is also sold covered in a fine ash, wrapped in different leaves, or flavored with herbs. As many as ten small stores offer their own variety of presentations from their own favorite suppliers.
On the way up to Florence, another of those have-to-pull-over views (see above) made us stop to take some photos near Montefollonico. The Tuscan hills really are covered in neat rows of dusty green olive trees and deep green grapevines. Where there are no forests, brick farmhouses with a central tower shelter the growers of the ingredients that make this area’s food so memorable.
We discovered that even on a weekday, except for those on the tollroad, service stations operate on un-manned weekend mode during the mid day break. That means they only take local credit card or cash inserted into machines that don’t give change. That’s OK if you just need 20 euros worth but we need to fill up the tank in order to turn in the rental car. On our third attempt we found a station with an attendant who would give us change for our 50 euro bill.
Once in Florence, we followed a carefully drawn out circuit (that we’d found on the Slow Travel site) to avoid driving past a camera in the limited traffic zone. It’s a little tricky because the Europcar drop off office is in one of the zones. Anne made sure Europcar registered out license plate number with the carabineri so we won’t get a ticket in the mail months from now from the camera system. We took a taxi to our bed and breakfast near Santa Croce; then set out on foot to experience as much of Florence as we could before dinner. We did some leather and clothes shopping before stopping for our first gelati on our way to Santa Maria Novella – a 400 year old tradition of making scented creams and lotions for women. It’s a little heady with fragrance but it is cool inside and they have a couple of chairs where weary men wait patiently while women decide among the products.
We stopped to hear a solo classical guitarist in the little courtyard by Dante’s house. While resting in the shade by the ancient well, we marveled at how intimate this instrumental music is; and how it asks you to listen rather than insisting.
We freshened up for dinner at Teatro del Sale then at the door, signed up and paid the small charge to become members of the cultural association called Circo-lo Creativo D’Intrattenimento Culturale San Ambrogio. This will look good on my resume but really, it’s a kind of silly way to get an extra 5 euros per year out of every customer. They do, in addition to serving incredibly good food provide a venue for cultural events but artists perform without fee. I don’t really get it but I do carry my membership card with pride.
Fabio Picchi, the dashing driving force behind this latest incarnation of his dining dreams runs the kitchen and regularly belts out the name and description of the latest dish he’s adding to the common table for our consumption. He has the perfect voice for this but I can’t believe he has any voice at all after a few years. The dishes include skewers of oil and lemon basted pork, ribs, and sausage, a plate of braised fennel drizzled with olive oil, a bowl of pappa al pomodoro (thick tomato & bread soup), a mountain of mussels Sardinia-style, couscous, garbanzos, sliced herbed tomatoes in olive oil, roasted red peppers, and long dog- bone-shaped bread. For dessert Fabio announced lemon sorbet, then fresh stewed cherries. As people finished eating, waiters took away their tables and turned their chairs to face the stage.
Before tonight’s tango music concert and dance demonstration, Fabio in his chef shirt came on stage to say some words of greeting, talked a little about the process of gathering the ingredients for the dishes from small farmers who bring them to the market each morning, then introduced Tango Rubio. The contrabasso, bandoneon (concertina), and guitar trio played while a couple danced intricate tangos for several pieces. They would walk out on stage in different outfits for each dance – once a brilliant red dress and black suit, then a slinky black number and a white suit and black and white spats. Beautiful and intriguing…
We stopped at Procopio for more gelati. I asked the owner if the gelato was home made and he held up his hands saying he made it with these hands. Some flavors had interesting names and he delighted in telling us the stories behind the unique ones. They also make Sicilian-style graniti, slushy ice dipped from a refrigerated canister into a cup rather than dispensed from a spigot beneath a spiraling canister. A refreshing finish to a wonderful Florentine day.
A delicious birthday in Tuscany
July 14,2008 Monday
Pienza – Siena - Cetona
We’re too far from the French border to pop over for the birthday fireworks (France’s birthday, of course) so we enjoy a late breakfast on the terrace garden in Pienza before turning north for Siena. One roadside field is so sunflower-filled, we stopped for photos.
This must be peak week for sunflowers, which like pixels in a digital photograph combine with millions of others to make an overwhelming sight.
We parked as we’d planned at the Santa Caterina lot and went up the five interconnected Fontebranda escalators that end near the back door Baptistry of Siena’s duomo – the highest point in this hilltop town. It’s a good day for wandering around the Campo and shopping for an Italian futbol jersey for Jerry’s son, Adam, and a jazz CD Anne heard playing in Il Chiostro’s restaurant.
We found a shady street side café for lunch, strolled some more through Siena’s caverns and piazze then rode the escalators down to the car. We made it back to Pienza in time to jump in the pool and read birthday greetings on Kirk’s cell phone before dressing for dinner at Mondo X in Cetona, stopping on the way to snap a photo of our friend's favorite cypress trees - Beth, do you already have a summer photo of the clump??
We walked up the long driveway while two tuxedo-ed young men stood at the gate to welcome us into the cloister. We didn’t know it at the time but they were waiting for US. The one named Paolo asked if we’d like a tour of the monastery and we followed him to the little chapel where St.Francis started the monastery in 1212. A larger chapel built later is where a life-sized crucifix hangs. This crucifix is a favorite of Padre Eligio (the modern day founder of the community) - the Christ with no hair or beard reflects the suffering and indignity He experienced during the scourging. The façade of the pulpit is adorned with a sweet meter-square enameled ceramic nativity scene by Andrea dell Robbia. Paolo, formerly one of the desperate, addicted young people who came here several years ago to reconcile with life , stayed as a role model for others. As he explained how this exemplary concept works to help troubled people he walked us through two cloisters filled with fantastic potted plants – bonsai, topiaries, evergreen trees, and azaleas. He led us up and down narrow stone steps to a room with an open fireplace and stone benches. This floor had the most well-worn stones I’ve ever seen. In this, in ancient times the only heated room in the monastery, on stone benches now graced with cushions, the Franciscan monks sat to talk after their work.
This is only one of 25 sites operated by Eligio, himself a Franciscan monk, to provide a place of work and healing for young people who have given up on living. The environment of camaraderie and life lessons seem to effectively drive out the despair that caused the self destructive behavior and people do get better here. While Paolo was introducing us to the people preparing our dinner, the entire community of about 35 people passed quickly and quietly into their dining hall and shut the door. Paolo explained the members of the community typically stay here for three years, though there’s nothing to make them stay or go.
At last we reach the monastery’s terrace framed with knock-out red geraniums. We usually find these thirsty and covered in dead blossoms. There are only brilliant red blooms on these well tended plants. Paolo and the other tuxedo-ed attendant begin serving and describing each course. There’s risotto with mackerel (holy mackerel to be precise), French fried sweet onion rings from the garden; the grapes for the prosecco and the olives for the tapenade come from nearby Mondo X communities. Saffron for the risotto comes from their community in northern Italy near Brescia. Next comes breaded eggplant sticks and a tiny cup of gazpacho. They show us a large brown turtle shell-shaped clay cover under which the guinea fowl was cooked. After awhile, the lights go out and they bring out a fruit-topped peach and cream cake with a candle on it for my birthday. We sang, blew out the candles and dug in.
We certainly ended up in the right place at the right time so that the most wonderful and memorable meal of the tour happened to fall on my birthday – what a place to celebrate!
July 13, 2008 Sunday
Orvieto - Pienza
During breakfast a gentle rain forces us inside to finish the pears and goat camembert that Andrea has set out for us.
Afterward Sebastiano, one of the partners takes Anne and me around the property inspecting a few rooms including two cottage suites (complete with fireplace - would be super in the fall and winter!) in a separate poolside building. Everything is so thoughtfully designed and most rooms have one or two pieces of antique furniture that belongs to one of the partners’ families. We went up to the third floor rooms under the beams, to see the massive baths under skylights in the honeymoon suites. The modern restaurant now under construction features seating by an infinity pool that reflects the town of Orvieto in its surface. The jewel of this country house is the spa next to the bar. Fitted in under some overhanging rocks are pools and baths that appear to be in a cave. The décor is minimalist and the look is striking. Here massages and other treatments are offered to those who need a relaxing break from the grind.
Sebastiano shows us the wine cellar, telling us that Andrea has ordered a full complement of wines which will soon arrive. Inncasa truly has a treasure in Andrea, who will begin working here full time in the fall as director of food services. We'll miss our favorite waiter at Sette Consoli, but look forward to enjoying a meal here when the restaurant opens.
Before we left, Salvatore’s partner and his wife arrived from Rome for the weekend. They greeted us and we complimented them on the design and appearance of the entire property. This project has all the earmarks of a great success, and we certainly wished then the best. We anticipate a full color spread in a glossy high end travel magazine when the construction is completed.
After an hours’ drive we arrive in Pienza and a walk down the main street overwhelms us with the fragrance of pecorino (a pungent goat cheese).
The hotel, Il Chiostro, is built around two sides of a beautiful renaissance cloister of the church next to the papal palace built in honor of Picolomini (Pope Pius II). Its beautiful rooms overlook the Valley of the Orcia below.
Our rooms share a gorgeous sitting room with frescoed ceiling. Lunch is at a no name ristorante (actually it’s named Sperone Nudo) on the beautiful Piazza de Spagna by the big well in the center (see above). The food is served quickly on tables set up under umbrellas in the piazza.
We wandered down the Cliffside promenade and up the main street stopping for whiffs of pecorino at many different stages of maturity along the way. We enjoyed the afternoon at the poolside and in the lobby on our laptops before driving to remote, hilltop Trequanda for dinner at Conte Matto.
By a gate in Trequanda’s encircling wall, Conte Matto (crazy count) was highly recommended to us by our friends Ed and Sandy. Inside looks cozy but on this 80 degree night, sitting under the terrace’s trees was just perfect. We had duck liver pate with red onion confit, smoked duck breast on a bed of arugula under a tepee of toasts with yogurt sauce, spaghetti with black truffles, ribolitta, and tomato/potato gnocchi with gorgonzola sauce. On the table there were three plates of cingale (wild boar) in agrodolce sauce, an Italian version of Mexico’s mole made of chocolate and raisin ground together with pine nuts. The excellent Brunello di Montalcino blended agreeably with the boar; and for dessert we shared a crunchy almond parfait. When Anne mentioned to the owners that our friends Ed and Sandy told us about his place, his face beamed with recognition.
After a 30 minute drive to Pienza we were dipping biscotti in vin santo on Il Chiostro’s terrace when the midnight church bells reminded Anne that it was now Kirk’s birthday.