A Trip of Splendor and Wonder in the Tuscan Hills of Italy, December 2016

Maggie has never been to Italy. I inform her that this must be corrected immediately. One has not lived, after all, until a trip to Italy has been made.

So on Thanksgiving day, we hop on a plane in Denver to fly to New York City, where her son lives.

I open up the Boulder newspaper as we ride the bus to Denver and am amused to see that my letter to the editor describing the “Growth Ponzi Scheme” has been published. I turn to Maggie, point out the letter, and tell her that this dangerous man must be stopped. He is infuriating us with his regularly published, wrong-headed opinions!

Once in Brooklyn, we celebrate Thanksgiving 2016 by visiting a Brooklyn brewpub offering an impressive array of craft beers. I opt for the usual: a stout and a porter. The three of us then go to the Fat Goose in Brooklyn for Thanksgiving dinner.

We spend the next day with Maggie’s son walking in Brooklyn and staying in a rooftop airBnB.

The next day, we board a TAP Portugal flight from Newark to Lisbon and then Rome. I had never flown this airline, but opted for it when I discovered their screaming deal airfare to Europe. Nice plane. AWFUL 2-hour wait in the customs line in Lisbon to show our passport.

Maggie and I discuss whether it would be worth it to again put up with that line in order to visit Portugal in the future.

We arrive late afternoon in Rome on the 26th. After unloading our stuff in our stunning pantheon-rome-italy-nov-27-2016-4BnB – inside our place are medieval walls and arches in the heart of Rome – we take a short walk to the Pantheon. Maggie is blown away by suddenly arriving at such an ancient, world-reknowned building.

We also visit the can’t-miss Trevi Fountain at night (I shoot photos not realizing my camera is accidentally set at a distortion view, which makes the fountain look like an LSD trip).

For the next day and a half, we visit the incredible sights in this world-class city: St Peter’s, the Roman Forum ruins, the Spanish Steps, Piazza Navona, breakfast at Campo dei Fiori, and the Colosseum. Maggie ends up calling the visit to see the Colosseum the highlight of what she saw in Rome.

Of courses, our time in Rome includes drinking much vino, sampling gelato, and enjoying much high-quality Roman food at various trattorias. One of our eating experiences in Rome was the fun Enoteca Cul De Sac gastropub.

Here are the photos I shot during our time in Rome.

I had expected the worst on this trip for weather, as Maggie’s work schedule did not give her enough time off for our Italy trip until late November, when the European weather tends to be chilly and foggy and drizzly. But good fortune was with us, as for almost our entire trip, the skies were clear blue and less chilly than I expected.

Midday we find ourselves on a train to Orvieto, a town very close to our much-anticipated visit to little-known but insanely charming Civita. Orvieto turns out to be lovely in its own right. Duomo di Orvieto – like nearly all duomos and chieasas and basilicas in Italy – is hard to believe it its ornamental splendor. We see such splendor so often in Italian basilicas on this trip that it almost becomes boringly ordinary. “Oh, this unbelievable, ornamental, solid gold room must be a tool shed!”

Here are the photos I shot while we were in Orvieto.

While waiting for a bus that will take us to Civita, we observe a busload of young schoolchildren getting off another bus. They are about 11 years old, and nearly all of them immediately light up a cigarette. It is emblematic of Europe, where it seems as if the entire population is chain-smoking. I jokingly ask Maggie if babies born in Italian hospitals are given a cigarette to smoke just after their butt is slapped and they take their first breath.

Civita in person is even more romantic and hard-to-believe splendid than I imagined. The civita-italy-nov-2016-43tiny town (current population of 10) sits on a chimney-shaped land form in the picturesque Italian landscape. An elevated walkway bridge leads pedestrians from Bagnoregio to Civita. We are told that the original walkway had been destroyed by retreating German soldiers in World War II. Unfortunately, the walkway was replaced by an unlovable modern walkway.

It is here that I conduct my first of three surveys of Italians: “What did you think of the American elections?” (we had just elected Donald Trump). For each of the three Italians I asked in three different cities, I was happy to hear that each was very happy and relieved that we had NOT elected Hillary Clinton. The reason each time was the same: “Hillary is a warmonger who promises to keep fighting endless wars.” Clearly, this little survey confirmed my belief that America is a warrior nation. Most all of us, shamefully, seem to think it is now normal and okay to have endless wars of death and destruction in the Middle East. For many in Europe, it seems, this is a terrible crime against humanity. Shame on us for out militarism in America.

Here are the photos I shot during our romantic walk in Civita.

We train from Orvieto to the hill town of Perugia. Perugia is a college town, and its spectacular medieval character is fantastic. We arrive in the early evening and stroll on its magical holiday-lit cobblestone streets. Our airBnB is just down the street from the lovely Piazza IV Novembre. The Corso Vannucci walking street is, as expected, quite nice. We dine at Osteria a Priori. We have wine at Civico 25 wine bar.

While lodging in Perugia, we opt for a day trip to Assisi. We were star-struck by Assisi! So assisi-italy-dec-1-2016-2much charm and romance in its medieval cobblestone streets! We loved the town so much that we talked about someday renting a villa there for several months. We visit Basilica Papale San Francesco D’Assisi, Duomo di San Rufino (containing a statue of the town rock star – St Francis), and Chiesa Nuovo.

We eat lunch at Caffe Duomo Assisi.

Here are the photos I shot while in Assisi. The pictures will allow you to feel as if you are walking in the town.

Our departure from Perugia gives us a delightful, serendipitous discovery: As we take the escalators down to the bus terminal, we pass through a wondrous, ancient brick tunnel system. We learn we are in the ancient Etruscan-built “Underground Perugia.” Anywhere else, when one goes down an escalator, one finds sterile, plastic or cinderblock walls. But in Perugia it is stupendous wonder in walkways once walked by ancient Romans.

We are stunned to learn at the bus terminal in Perugia that there are no buses scheduled to go to Siena until tomorrow, despite what we had found on the Internet. We scramble for a Plan B. Car-share (Italy’s version of Uber) does not work out. I go into the bus ticket office to ask about tickets to nearby towns that might have trains to Siena today. Stupidly (probably because I live in Boulder CO, where there is almost no theft and residents therefore tend to get lax about security), I leave my laptop bag outside. To my horror, when I glance back at it a few minutes later, I realize it had been stolen.

Surprisingly, I take the theft in stride and do not erupt in frantic rage. I realize that I had backed up all my files before the trip, so no files would be lost. I am now rushing to change all my most in-need-of-privacy site passwords (fortunately had my password list in a cloud!). I decide that it will be a relief not to have to lug the laptop around Italy and through airports now. And that this is an opportunity to replace my laptop with a better one. One has to look at the bright side, right? Maybe this is an example of my happy mood from being in Italy overcoming the normal fury of such an event?

These are the photos I shot while in Perugia.

For some odd reason, the Perugia bus terminal staff did not think of the solution we realized we had for the “lack of buses to Siena” problem we had that day. Take a train to a town outside of Perugia that has a train run to Siena later in the day! Problem solved!

In Siena, we soon find ourselves in the place Siena is most known for: Piazza del Campo. A public-market-at-piazza-del-campo-siena-italy-dec-2016-28grand, soaring space that is home to the proudly tall Torre del Mangia (which we climbed the 445 stairs of), the bi-annual horse race, the countless shops surrounding the piazza, and a festive, fun weekend farmers market (that does not close until 10 pm on weekends!). We had so much fun in the Siena farmers market sampling formaggio, pane, pizza, wine, fruits, and olives that we went back to it several times in our short Siena stay. As always, when we visited Siena Cathedral (the Duomo), we were stunned by its ornamental wonder and vastness.

We dine at Taverna di San Giuseppe. Superb! Maybe my best dinner ever.

Amusingly, on each night we go out to eat dinner during this 16-day trip in Italy, we go later than we normally do in America. We arrive at 7 or 8 pm. And almost always, we are the only ones in the trattoria. I feel sad that it seems as if the place must be going bankrupt. But by 9 or 10 pm, the place would fill up with customers. Turns out that we are just not used to the late dining habits of Italianos!

These are the photos I shot while in Siena.

The next day we bus from Siena to the never-disappointing San Gimignano, an ancient town of towers and cobblestone. Here, even the public RESTROOMS are from the time of Ancient Rome, with thick medieval stone walls and arches.

These are the photos I shot while in San Gimignano.

We then take a van tour trip from Siena to Montalcino. We spend a day tasting Brunello (100% sangiovese) wines in Montalcino and walking the town (we also got lost and nearly missed our van back to Siena!). Great wine towns such as this make excellent wines and are fiercely proud of their wines (Montalcino stoutly claims their wines are better than the world-famous wines made by neighboring Montepluciano). Our first Montalcino vino tasting is at Consorzio del Vino Brunello di Montalcino. We then go to visit a little winery (Abbadia Ardenga) in town proudly owned by a 90-year old winemaker. He shows us that for each year, he keeps an archive library of wines he has produced. His library goes back to 1945. He showed each of us his wine from each of our birth years. We enjoy a meat and cheese platter as we sample his vino matching our platter foods. Maggie buys a Rosso di Montalcino bottle of wine.

These are the photos I shot while in Montalcino.

From Siena, we train to Florence. Florence is the ultimate Renaissance town. Full of Renaissance paintings and sculpture. We first visit the incomparable David statue at the Accademia Gallery. We go to Piazza dellea Signoria, a spectacular piazza full of fantastic david-statue-at-accademia-gallery-florence-italy-dec-2016-7sculpture. We go to Duomo Cathedrale di Santa Maria del Fiore and climb the Campanile di Giotto tower and dome of the Duomo for spectacular views of Florence (and to kiss at the top!). We exhaust ourselves seeing the seemingly endless splendid art contained in the Uffizi Gallery (including the world famous Birth of Venus). We gawk at the mountains of solid gold and silver jewelry on the Ponte Vecchio. We enjoy the Santa Croce Basilica, which contains the tombs of Michelangelo, Dante, and Galileo.

In Florence, we thoroughly enjoy exploring the indoor Central Market. We find a pasta and sauce-making factory, which has a tiny glass-windowed room where two cooks are preparing fresh pasta and sauce selections for lunch. Of course, we opt for lunch here!

While here, we find ourselves locked in an art museum below Santa Croce! After several minutes of banging on doors and trying to exit through locked doors, we finally find an unlocked exit door. Whew! Almost had to spend a night with Renaissance art!

We have dinner with a good friend at Osteria Pepo, which serves us delicious local Tuscan fare, including pumpkin soup. We stroll at night to Piazzale Michelangelo for a wonderful view of the Florence skyline at night. Throughout or trip in Italy, we fell in love with the full-bodied, flavorful extra virgin olive oils we had with our breads in trattorias. We carry that love back to America, where we quickly proceed to buy several virgin olive oils, seeking to find that delicious taste.

As the gelato capital of Italy, we of course sample much gelato in Florence.

On our last day in Florence, we opt for lunch at my favorite trattoria in all of Florence: Trattoria Mario’s, which happens to be next door to Osteria Pepo, where we had dinner the night before. Like my visit in the past, Mario’s is packed with happy diners sitting at tiny tables. It is a bustling, loud, crowded, fun place where one can even view the happy cooks preparing orders.

Our last dinner in Florence is at 4 Leoni. Excellent.

These are the photos I shot while in Florence.

We are now on a bullet (high-speed) train from Florence to Bologna. First class! Maggie must try the train as she has never ridden high-speed rail. Unfortunately, nearly the entire route is in a tunnel. But we do get brief glimpses of landscape as we rocket at 450 mph through the Italian countryside.

We are going to Bologna mostly because this is the city we will fly out of to return to America. Rick Steves, who is nearly always quite reliable, suggests that Bologna be avoided. He observes, I believe, that the city is ugly, dirty, crowded, and boring. But he turns out to be very wrong, at least in our experience. Old quarter Bologna – especially the Piazza Maggiore area and Qudrilatero neighborhood – are bustling, fun, festive places crowded with happy people enjoying vino in the streets, cafes, trattorias, produce and seafood markets, wine bars, tightly human-scaled streets, holiday lighting, and walking streets. Bologna is also world famous for its seemingly countless portico arcades, which I could not stop taking photos of.

Yes, the newer, outlying areas of the city, like most cities in Italy and elsewhere, is unlovable and unworthy of visiting. But Maggie and I felt that the old center city of Bologna was our most pleasurable experience on the trip, and we would love to visit again. Next time, we intend to again visit the piazza containing a farmers market, where we saw a vendor cooking HUGE pans of delicious-looking paella.

via-indipendenza-bologna-italy-dec-2016-63On our first night in Bologna, we find ourselves on Via Independenza, which is a 6-lane walking street. Full of porticos. And on our second night, I see something I have not seen before: a 6-lane road that is so wall to wall walkers that it looks like a traffic jam!

In Bologna, we have vino at Roberto Bistrot wine bar. We dine at Zerocinquantello, where we sample an excellent example of Tuscan fare: a thin-sliced meat and cheese platter. When in Bologna, do as the Bolognese…

Here are the photos I shot while in Bologna.

While in Florence, we opt for a day trip to Ravenna. I had never heard of the town, but Rick Steves recommended it. The town is full of UNESCO World Heritage sites. We find it to be worthy of a great day trip.

Here are my photos from walking Ravenna.

On Saturday, December 10th, we fly from Bologna to New York City.

Overall, this trip to Italy was unforgettable splendor, wonder, and fun. We absolutely loved it. Maggie now knows that she has not lived until she has been to Italy.

 

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