Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Facciamo i Ciceroni (Being Tour Guides)

The month of May was filled with important visitors to Arezzo, including our friends Vicki and Dana, Dennis and Lenita, Gabriella’s aunt, and the pope!  Yes the pope came to Arezzo! 

It was very cool to see him in his papamobile, and to witness the elaborately organized mass in the park outside the cathedral with over 10,000 people in attendance.  Unfortunately we were not able to arrange such a grand reception for our friends and family, but we think they enjoyed their visits nonetheless.

When Vicki and Dana arrived we spent three days with them in Rome where we rented an apartment that was ideally situated in the historical center of the city (well, EVERYTHING is historical in Rome).  Dana had the brilliant idea to use David Macaulay’s book Rome Antics as a basis for exploring the city.  The book is essentially a showcase for Macaulay’s masterful drawings, and the story he creates follows the path of a pigeon carrying an important message from a woman to the man she loves. 

Following the pigeon’s path turned simple sightseeing into an adventure – it was like a scavenger hunt, and it turned out to be a fantastic way to see the city.  As we have learned, everything is more meaningful when there is some purpose or goal connected to it. 

After our time in Rome we all made our way to Arezzo where we spent the next week introducing Vicki and Dana to our lives here, showing them other nearby towns, and then renting a car for a 3-day tour of Tuscany.

The first highlight was our visit to the small town of Lucignano.  Every May the people there celebrate Maggiolata, which is a spring festival that includes a parade of local dancers, musicians, and floats made of thousands of flowers.

We weren’t sure if the parade was going to happen this year because of pending rain.  The folks from Lucignano proved to be hardier than you can shake an umbrella at, because they carried on with the parade despite the cold and wet conditions.  However, the parade usually circles the town four times (it’s a small town) but because of the rain they only went around twice.

We took refuge under the awning of a restaurant where Vicki had spotted an open outdoor table.  This was a great move not only because we had a dry and comfortable perch from which to watch the parade, but also because we ended up sharing wine, stories, and caffé with the people at the adjoining table and the proprietors of the restaurant.  All of this made for an uplifting and unforgettable experience.

The next two days we spent in  Chianti where Vicki took some time to chill out on a splendidly sunny afternoon, while Dana used his paintbrush to demonstrate his wry assessment of this country: “Italy: even our sheds are beautiful!” 

Meanwhile the two of us went into the town of Greve to visit the museo del vino (wine museum) and to sample wine at a large cantina.  This place is one of a kind!

When you enter you purchase an electronic card (like a debit card) that you take around to the automatic wine and olive oil tasting stations set up around the cantina. You insert the card into the machine, select the wine you want to taste, and you receive a roughly 2 ounce taste of the wine.  The cost of the taste, from .60 to 6.00 euros, is deducted from your card.  It was fascinating.  We felt like kids in a candy store!!  Since there was so much to choose from we focused on the really expensive wines that we would never buy, like a €150 Brunello.  We would have tried even more but Henry was the designated driver and the road back to the agriturismo was narrow and windy with many hairpin turns.

After Vicki and Dana’s visit we had the pleasure of spending time with Gabriella’s aunt and our friends Dennis and Lenita.  We spent that time here in Arezzo, where we had our final opportunity to show off our beloved adopted home.  Now that our guests and the pope have returned to their respective homes, we are beginning to say our farewells in the few remaining weeks we have before we return to Seattle. 

Monday, June 4, 2012

Travels in the Countryside

Since we don’t have a car ourselves there are many parts of Tuscany that we haven’t been able to get to on our own.  However, by coincidence, it happened that in one week we went on three separate trips to see the Tuscan and Umbrian countryside with friends who have cars.

Our series of adventures began when we went to Perugia to visit Federica, our friend and former Italian teacher.  We took the train from Arezzo and met her at her apartment for lunch, which was a delicious combination of Ribollita made by Federica’s mother, a cake made by her mother-in-law, and a soufflé that she herself made.  When the meal was over she said,“Dove vorreste andare?” (“Where do you want to go?”). We were quite surprised.  We had expected she would be returning to work after the meal and that we would be making our way home.  Instead, Federica said she had the afternoon free to give us a tour of Umbria.  Presented with infinite options, we had a hard time choosing until Gabriella suggested we visit one of Federica’s favorite places, so we went to Lago Trasimeno, about 15 minutes away.  We stopped first at San Feliciano, a lovely little town that doesn’t feel at all touristy even though the whole area around the lake (which is about the size of Seattle’s Lake Washington) is a heavily touristed area.

After a nice walk along the lake and up into the old part of town, we went to Passignano, which definitely felt more touristy.  It also has a beautiful centro storico (historical center) and a nice park alongside the lake. We found a beautifully situated bar where we had a drink together before Federica took us to the train station.  We arrived back in Arezzo feeling contentedly full after an afternoon of delicious tastes and spontaneous experiences.

Three days later we took the train to Montevarchi where we met our friend Cristina.  She picked us up at the station and drove us to her house in Montegonzi, a tiny village of about 100 people.  After a short tour of the town we went back to her house for lunch, which included Ribollita made by Cristina’s mother (do you detect a theme here?  We’re becoming like the Italians who always talk about food!), ample cheese, wine, bread, and sausages (which Cristina got specifically for Henry - he was in Carnivore Heaven!).  To our amazement, Cristina cooked the bruschetta and meat over the coals in the fireplace.  

Afterwards we went on a drive through the countryside to Gaiole, one of the main towns in the Chianti region.  It poured with rain in the afternoon, but that didn’t stop us from enjoying the lush greenery of the countryside.

Our heads still swimming with images of Chianti and Lago Trasimeno, the next day we went with our friends Lauro and Angioletta to Pienza and Montalcino.  They had wisely organized the day so that we could eat lunch in Montalcino, which is the home of Brunello wines, reportedly Italy’s best (and most expensive).  We found a restaurant where when you order a glass of wine, instead of bringing you one full glass they bring you two half-full glasses of the same type of wine but from different vintages or wineries.  This way you get to sample more wine, and, presumably find it harder to resist the temptation to buy a bottle (or more).  As a result of this clever scheme we were able to taste 6 different wines and they were all delicious.  Believe it or not we didn’t actually buy any to take home!  After lunch we battled the wind and rain for a brief walk through the town, a stop at the Abbazia (Abbey) di Sant’Antimo and then headed back to Arezzo.

We feel very, very fortunate to have such wonderful and generous friends.  It is these great friendships that make it hard for us to contemplate our pending departure at the end of June.