God sometimes gives us unexpected gifts. Our gift has been a grandson who enlivens our lives and makes retirement very different than the one we anticipated. He is a special joy. And that's "Casey." In 2006 we fulfilled our dream of living in Italy for a year. It was every bit as wonderful as anticipated. This blog begins in 2005 as we prepared for that experience. Since then we have explored many places together. That's the "Travel." And finally, I am a person of opinions--spiritually, politically, on just about anything and that's the "Other Stuff." Welcome to my blog.

Friday, July 31, 2009

Mud Baths--Hot Stuff!

This week's points of interest...

If one were Casey, there wouldn't, couldn't have been a more idyllic week--nothing to do but swim, play, eat gelato, laugh and just be a kid out of school from morning until late, falling into dream land when the head hit the pillow--only to start up again in ten hours. What more can summer offer?

Now me---well, I played some along with other unique and mindless experiences. Since I am told that it is healthy to laugh at oneself and even more fun to have people laugh with you, I share a couple highlights.

1. I have lived many years and so it is difficult to find new experiences. But sometimes one descends uninvited and shockingly unexpectedly. This was true Sunday night when in a sound, surely dream filled, sleep...I levitated from the bed to the floor. On the way down--which must have taken at least a second or two as it was a long way--I hit my head twice on the marble corner of the night stand. Upon landing my body somehow contorted itself into a figure 8 pretzel. I'm not sure that I consciously awoke until meeting the floor. It all took place so quickly that it was almost over before it started. It took a while before I could minimally wrap my mind around what happened.

Now picture a body lying there--Me.
Of course, Ken woke up, thought a while about what the noise had been and why the room shook, realized that I was moaning on the floor and, after due deliberation about the proper response, asked if I needed help getting up. It seemed to me that I did--slowly and painfully. My head hurt and I was sure I had another cracked rib--the first one being when I splattered myself on the sidewalk in Whistler, Canada.

The rest of the night I slept restlessly wondering if I needed to go to the hospital for a head x-ray. Each time I woke up, my thought was "Oh, good, I'm here." Sunrise was a good sign. I still have the bumps and twitches, but am quite fine. Of course, I only sleep in the middle of the bed now--poor Ken.

The final event in this saga was the e-mail from my son, from whom I bizarrely expected sympathy. His message back was something to the effect that perhaps we should invest in the bungee cord market. Gotta love him.

2. Fortunately Tuesday brought another new experience that in quite timely fashion followed Sunday's fiasco. I had never been to an Italian spa and decided that this year would be a good time to try it. So, my friend Rita who lives in Chiocchio, right over the hill from Greve, and I decided to treat ourselves to a girl's day at the spa.

Rita had done this before so she made the arrangements and suggestions as to which treatments, beside the thermal pool, we should have. My job was to drive us about an hour or so away to the Grotta Giusti Spa in Monsummano Terme.

We had decided on a massage, of course, a mud bath treatment (I have always been curious about just what this was) and an inhalation treatment.

My body loves massages and so that was good; however, the most I can say about the mud bath is that I now know that once is enough. In my visions, you actually laid down in mud and settled in. I was pleased to find that really it is a bed of squishy, hot mud that is covered with a malleable piece of plastic so that the effect of being in mud is there but you stay clean! After I sank into this squish, the attendent covered my arms, legs and torso with heavy, mud-filled plastic oblong balloon type things. By this time, I was hot and wondering what I had gotten myself into. The mud is 47º (117º) and I was to be left there for 15 minutes.

After about 4 minutes, I began to melt and developed a frightening sense of claustrophobia in the little cubicle where I was imprisoned. After about 8 minutes, I began to think about Dante and hell and that the mud bath must be a forerunner to an eternity spent in the depths. Needless to say, it was a joyous moment when the attendant returned and freed me.

The next phase, though, wasn't a whole lot better--other than it was not hot. Given what looked like a white stiff heavy cotton version of a monk's robe and cowl, which was donned over the head, we waddled along until we found our way to the hydromassage area. Here we took the monk's outfit off, fortunately, we had bathing suits under them. A male attendant then took each of us (one by one) into a shower and while he stood behind a waist high wall, hosed us down with the equivalent of a fire hose--front and back, during which time we stood under a shower. This was very weird.

Finally, being hosed off, cleaned and bedraggled, we went to the inhalation room. There we spent 14 minutes with mouths wide open breathing in steam. If we didn't have our mouths wide enough, the stern matron would stride over and tell us to open wider. Following this was another 14 minutes with tubes up the nose, breathing through them was to help with nose, throat and ear obstructions or something like that. Sadly, we have no pictures of any of this---sorry!

At this point, both Rita and I were ready to return to the relaxation of the pool and spas and simply soak and relax before starting the journey home. We laughed and had a good time and I would do it all again with a friend. It is the companionship that makes it a day worth having--and, maybe, too, the massage. Thanks, Rita for going with me!

And.. there was more to the week. Lunch with Art and Barb and Judith in Deruta and more. But, this is too long now so will tell the rest another time.

Sunday Ken and I go to Piemonte for 5 days without child. It will be nice to be empty nesters for a few days--but, bet, we end up missing him!

Thursday, July 23, 2009

The More Things Change......

the more they stay the same.

Three years ago--minus 6 days--we began the adventure of calling Fattoria Viticcio in Greve-in-Chianti our home for a year. It was a quite glorious and wonderful year for all of us.

Casey met the challenge of attending the local elementary school and did well learning in a very different language. He loved the freedom of roaming and exploring the vineyards and hills; he loved playing in the piazza with friends as we finished our after dinner caffé; he loved Italy and began to think of himself as Italian. Above all, he formed an unbreakable bond with Camilla, the daughter of our landlord. These two children built memories usually found in story books--memories of idle summer days where there are no cares and the freedom just to be.

So, each year we return to the vineyard on the hill in lovely Tuscany. And each year I wonder what will happen when these two get together again--will there be an awkwardness stemming from new maturities or will they seamlessly begin where they left off the year before. And each year they prove that for them time collapses and yesterday was just the day before. It is a joy to watch such innocent friendship.

As far as Ken and I, we are doing what we do well--mostly not much. Yesterday mirrored so many of the days we had here--the days we treasure and enjoyed so much. We wandered roads with a destination in mind but soon forgotten when a different road beckoned to us. We found ourselves in Castelnovo Berendenga, which took just a short time to stroll through--not very much there to see or do. But, stopping in the tourist office, we found that San Felice vineyards and winery were quite close.

For many the highlight of visiting Tuscany is visiting wineries and tasting; however, for whatever reason, that just isn't us. But, liking San Felice wines and since it was time for lunch, we decided to go there, have lunch and then visit the enoteca and buy a couple bottles of wine. Which is just what we did.

The property is beautiful--an ancient borgo that has been transformed into a very elegant resort, and buying wines there is much less expensive than buying elsewhere. But, lunch was a major disappointment--costly and quite mediocre, unlike their wines. So, if you go, take time to explore the property, buy some wine and then eat elsewhere.

It is as beautiful as ever here--the views from each window have not changed, the skies are as blue and the clouds as white as always, the tree outside our door has donned its summer foliage and provides shade below, the sparrow nests are full and the rhythm of life continues as it was last year and the year before. It's nice to be here again.

Last night we went to dinner in the piazza--Alessandro, Nicoletta, Camilla and us. It was a good evening of conversation and laughter. As expected, the children finished before the adults and so left to roam the piazza while the "big" people finished up with caffe.

The day we arrived, Signora Franca, Alessandro's mother, made Casey's favorite dish--her lasagna and we ate outside by the pool. It was as if we were having a family reunion which, I guess, in some ways is just what it was. Gifts were exchanged with more rounds of hugs.

Now we have more days to laze and explore. Casey is going away to a camp in the mountains for 5 days with Camilla and Nicoletta and so Ken and I have an unexpected few days to do something by ourselves-kind of nice. After discarding Venice, Puglia and Rome, we decided to return to Piemonte. We have not had much time in that area of Italy and have always wanted to return. Fortunately, we were able to make reservations at a highly recommended Villa B and B--Villa Sampaguita. We are looking forward to leisurely drives, good food and visiting friends in Acqui Terme.

There is more planned--a spa day with friend Rita, lunch with friends in Umbria, a day in Florence with friends of ours and Casey's, meeting the parents of Casey's Italian tutor in San Diego, dinners with Valentina and Ricardo, Casey's tutor when we were here and other possibilities not yet confirmed. So...our few days here will be busy and full and August 15 is destined to come much too soon.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

At Home in Tuscany

We are in Montepulciano--at Sant' Antonio. We have been coming here since 2001--having missed just one year. This is a favorite place of ours for many reasons--first and foremost being Nico and his family. He has an infectious personality that draws in everyone he meets. He and his family have become like family to us. Casey and Sophia have been special to each other since they first met as little kids in 2003--Casey's first trip to Europe. I have shared this picture before but because it is so delightful--here it is again.

How can anyone resist the charm in this?

Of course, they are much more grown up now but I want to remember them like this. No shared language except that of children everywhere.

Because we have been here so many times, we now have the luxury of just kicking back and relaxing. We've been here since Saturday and have yet to hit the hill of Montepulciano. Tomorrow we will go as Ken needs a new wallet--to replace the one so expertly taken from his pocket in Nice. Maybe lunch at Aquachetta.

We have spent the bulk of our time sitting around the pool or other places on the property--soaking in the exquisite views of the Southern Tuscany landscape.

This is where we spend a lot of our time. Right outside the door to our apartment. It is quite heavenly.

Last night we went to a small little castle borgo--Monticchiello. We have always made a pilgrimage to a restaurant there called La Porta. It has very special memories for us. But, last night we decided to try Tarverna di Moranda which has been highly recommended by friends.

We were very pleased that we went there as the food was outstanding. I had carpaccio from the best beef in Italy--the white Chianina cattle--which is the best I have ever tasted. Following that I had grilled porcini mushrooms--so, so yummy.

Sadly we were the only clients there. As we talked with the owner, we learned that business is very, very down this year. We discovered that again today when we were in Montisi and in San Quirico where we had lunch yesterday at Ristorante Al Vecchi Forno

Ristorante Al Vechhio Forno

Business is in trouble all over Italy and Europe. The world wide economy is wrecking havoc on the small businesses--which is the norm here. Today we traveled to Montisi--maybe 20 minutes from Sant Antonio. A friend uses this little village as homebase for her tours so we wanted to explore it.

By the time we lazily made our way there, it was a ghost town as all was closed until later in the day. But, it is a charming village where one can really feel the Italia of the past--which wasn't always so charming as it is today.

We had lunch at a totally delightful taverna that I now truly recommend. da Roberto-Taverna Montisi. Roberto is a gentleman of the old order, fluent in English, loves what he does and takes great pride in the quality of what he offers. His guest book is rife with glowing testimonials both to the food and the man. Much of his food is grown right there on his property. Be sure to scroll down to the English version to read of Roberto's food philosophy. It will hook you.

We had a conversation with him about the current state of tourism and its affect on business. Simply stated--it is bad--down anywhere from 30 - 50%. Roberto predicts that many places will go out of business as they won't be able to survive until the world economy upturns. It is really concerning to both the local economy and people and to those of us who enjoy traveling.

Here's a quick slide presentation of Montisi and the Taverna.

There are many small villages such as Montisi here in Southern Tuscany--each offering delightful days spent in exploration and discovery.

Friday, July 10, 2009

Bella Italia

We are back in Italy after a short foray into another country called France. I have several friends who love France and return often, but it is not a country that makes me comfortable.

Although having been in several parts of the country over the years--crisscrossing from Normandy down to the Riviera, I always feel my role of stranger there. That is not to say I have not enjoyed time spent there; it's just that leaving is never difficult and longing to return doesn't happen.

As we crossed the border into Italy yesterday, there was a collective cheer and sense of arrival. Casey's boisterous shouts of "I'm home, I'm home" spoke for all of us. The scenery was so familiar as we drove the highway with 123 tunnels--more or less. Casey entertained himself by tallying them in a notebook. We ticked off the kilometers to our first stop, two nights in Bologna where I am now hurriedly writing this before we meet a friend for dinner tonight.

We arrived in the midst of a huge, torrential downpour--not what we expected in July. Looking out the window now, it looks as if it may start again. But that's OK--food is still good and gelato is weather proof.

This is sale month in Italy--a great time to be walking through the famous arcades of Bologna--so many tempting windows with shoes and purses and lovely clothes. I found myself wishing that I were 20 years younger and, more importantly, 20 pounds lighter.

I did spend time in a Furla store, hoping to find a purse that called out to me but that didn't happen. Then, there was a necklace that I really, really liked but, having decided to think about it, didn't get back that way--just as well, as it truly isn't needed. But, I think it is one that I will remember and wish I had not rushed on.

Importantly, we did have gelato twice today. I had a delicious tortellini in brodo for lunch--a nice light meal so that I could avoid guilt at the second gelato stop. The ristoranti was one we found when we visited Bologna a couple years ago. It was as good today as it was then.

We tried a different hotel this time--Hotel Porto San Mamalo. Several people on Slow Travel have recommended it and it is a good recommendation. The hotel is charming, the staff is exceptionally friendly and service oriented and the breakfast is surprisingly complete for an Italian breakfast. The only negative is that it is not as well-situated as the Hotel Roma where we stayed last time but then, it is less expensive. With that said, if we return to Bologna, I think we would select the Roma because of its fantastic location, right in the heart of centro storico.

The courtyard of the hotel.

Well--as predicted, the rain has arrived and shortly we need to walk to dinner which, fortunately, is just around the corner. We are joining Susan from Hawaii-our first real meeting as we know each other virtually from Slow Travel.

This may sound strange to some readers; however, over the years, we have met up with many such friends and have yet to meet with disappointment. The year we lived here, people from as far away as Australia, as well as the US and Canada, came to visit and each time it was special. Many of them we have had repeated opportunities to meet when back in the States. So, we look forward to tonight and meeting Susan.

Tomorrow we arrive in Tuscany and to our most favorite place, Sant Antonio in Montepulciano. Our friends Nico and Elena have welcomed us to their lovely, beautiful, delightful property every year since 2001. Casey and their daughter Sophia have grown up together.

We are there for a week and then onto a full month at our "home in Tuscany"--our apartment at Fattoria Viticcio in Greve in Chianti. There we will know that we have arrived.

Now I think I will wait to post this until after dinner so that I can post a picture of all of us.

And...we had a delightful dinner with Susan who made a big hit with Casey. We ate at a cute neighborhood restaurant by the hotel--Osteria 15. Good, simple food--the best kind.

Now, time for bed.

Sunday, July 05, 2009

Relaxing in the Luberon

A friend of mine, Kathy, her husband and daughter spent almost a year living in Provence--much as we did in Italy. Kelly went to the local French school just as Casey went to the Italian school. Both kids flourished and grew and are different from the people they would have been without their experiences.

Because of their time in the lovely Luberon area of Provence, they now offer personalized tours of the area--The Luberon Experience. It is from Kathy's writings and infatuation that we are here now--not on a tour but I feel that she is here with us as I see the area she loves so much.

We enjoyed Arles even though it was just for two nights. The location of our hotel, Hotel Le Caleandal, was perfect and was truly delightful and picturesque. Our room overlooked the Roman amphitheater while the ancient areana was steps away from the front door. Walking the town was simple and pleasant. After the Nice adventure, it was good to just be able to regroup and relax.

With amazing good fortune, we happened to be there the night of the annual Costume Festival. This is when the women of Arles, young and old, dress in traditional clothing during the day and participate in an hours long parade at night time. Some pushed antique baby buggies with real babies or dolls. Little girls skipped through the parade, holding hands. Different groups represented different elements of society--farmers, bakers, etc. And, not be be left out, there were plenty of men along in costume. The biggest surprise, though, were the horse riding festive groups from the local Spanish cultures. For much of the time we were able to watch directly from the perfectly positioned windows of our room--to which we retreated after a small but bothersome attack of the mosquitos.

Yesterday morning we left Arles and drove to the Luberon and the wonderful B and B Le Mas Perreal owned by virtual friend Kevin from Slow Travel. Everyone I knew who has been here has spoken in glowing terms about the inn, about Kevin and Elizabeth and about the copious and delicious breakfasts they present guests. And, I can report that it is all true.

Our room is delightful--or should I say rooms as Casey has his own room off of ours. The colors are the colors of Provence, the structure is a restored centuries old farmhouse, the pool is inviting and the 17 acres it sits on is covered with vineyards and foliage.

Casey's Room

Today is Casey's birthday--11 years old. At breakfast Kevin had brought from the local bakery a beautiful fruit torte birthday cake and the guests all sang to him. It was so really nice. Casey will tell more about it on his blog but here is a picture until then..

Elizabeth, Casey and Kevin

After breakfast we decided to drive a route Kevin showed us that led through the Colorado red rock formations of the Luberon, small villages and fields of lavender. No tourist spots today. Ken and Casey did some hiking in the spectacular red rock formations (I forgot to put on hiking shoes and my sandals were guaranteed to cause problems.) And then we drove and explored--a good day.

Tomorrow we will explore Kathy's Luberon some more. Our time here will give us only a taste of what there is to see and do. We will take with us lovely visual memories of a lovely part of France and Provence--maybe to return some day.

Thursday, July 02, 2009

When the Pick Pocket Strikes

We travel--have done so for years--I would say we're pretty accomplished and sophisticated travelers--kind of know what we are doing--know the do's and don'ts and how to handle ourselves. Or at least that is how we view ourselves.

So, sometimes a little humility creeps in and is good for the soul. A pain? Yes! Frustrating? Totally! A memory not to be forgotten? Hopefully so that it is not repeated. One only need to be humbled once.

We arrived in Nice 19 hours after buckling ourselves into the first leg of our flight--San Diego to San Francisco. It was 2:15 pm. It was so good to see our friends waving and waiting for us as we schlepped through what passes for customs in Nice. We hugged and smiled and talked and were so happy to be together again.

They dropped us at our hotel along the promenade. We could shower, rest and relax for a few hours before dinner and conversation at their lovely, all white apartment with the stylish Italian kitchen we remembered from our last visit. We decided that rather than Ben--Casey calls him Uncle Benny-- picking us up with his car, it would be an adventure to ride the new tram.

At 5 pm Ben was back and we were ready to begin the evening. It was hot, humid, sticky and the ocean was beautiful with parasails coloring the skies.

The tram was crowded-well, packed with bodies pressed tightly into each other as more and more people clamored aboard, anxious to get home from the day's work. I held my purse tightly to my chest, not needing to use hands to hang on as there was no where to fall. Ken held tightly to Casey who was scared and overwhelmed. We knew that this hadn't been such a good idea after all.

Fortunately we only had 3 stops to go before we were able to fall out the tram door, gasping for breaths of fresh air. A shower would have been nice. Maybe even a change of clothes.

Then!--I hear "I think my wallet is gone." And, Ken was right. It had been secreted deep within a pocket which was on the side, a little bit above the knee and seemingly fastened securely with velcro. But, the wallet was no longer there. No matter how many times he patted, searched or looked, it was definitely gone.

So began the marathon of repairing the damage. He had lost 3 credit cards, 2 ATM cards, his driver license and other things such as insurance cards, etc. Fortunately, not his passport.

He and Ben went to the police and reported the theft in the off chance that the wallet was thrown away with just the money taken. Of course, that has not been the case but we did learn the real advantage of making the report. The police had a form which Ken completed indicating the theft of his license; thus, he can drive without fear while we have 7 weeks in Europe.

Being with friends, at their house was a godsend in dealing with everything. We were able to use their phone which has unlimited international calling. Plus, having SKYPE is truly an advantage when contacting the United States from here. Yesterday when we arrived in Arles, I had reason to use SKYPE to follow up on a couple concerns we have.

What we learned from this--besides the need for constant vigilance:
  1. Know all your credit card numbers and where to call.
  2. It is good to have credit cards with different numbers. With AmEx, my number was different so it was still usable. The other two cards we had used the same number, so my cards were unusable.
  3. Without a valid credit card, you can not pick up your car rental. If I had not had AmEx, we would have had a major problem.
  4. It is important to have individual ATM cards with unique numbers. That is what we have so only his cards were canceled. Big time problem if we had no ATM card.
  5. Know that the card companies will overnight express new cards to you. The efficiency in this was quite remarkable. The new cards were waiting for us when we arrived at our hotel in Arles yesterday. As at home, you need to call to activate them. Having SKYPE installed and internet access makes this pretty painless and cheaply done.
  6. Always take the time to get an International Driver Permit before leaving the US. It has your picture, your US license number, etc. In the event of losing your license, the IDP is priceless--that along with the affidavit from the police will take you through. We had no problem picking up our rental car with the IDP.
  7. Having a computer with needed information available saved monumental amounts of frustration.
  8. Having a SKYPE account which allows direct dial at virtually no cost and clear connections allowed us to overcome what would have been much greater hair-pulling. We have just about every concern and contingency covered now--due to internet access and the ability to talk with people--sometimes at length, other times on long holds.
  9. Since an account can not be accessed once a card is reported stolen, it is important t0 know or have a record of recurring charges. Contacting those companies to provide new card numbers is important.
  10. Take deep breathes and tell yourself that this is not as serious as it sounds. Things will get solved, the trip will continue and good memories will follow.
Additional thoughts:
Credit cards that cover your insurance, only do so if that card is used for all charges related to that rental. We had charged the rental to a visa card but needed to use the AmEx card as a deposit against damage. That would have been an horrendous problem if we were to be in an accident. As soon as we had our replacement VISA card, we went to the local car rental office and had the contract rewritten so that we are covered.

I hope this little primer will come in handy for someone else as trips are planned and the unexpected occurs. Of course all of these things are what you would need do at home; however, being far from home, things become exponentially more difficult. This happened Tuesday night. By Thursday night it was basically over and now we are good to go. So don't panic, just cope and all will be well.

One more thought: As you read, I hope that there were some AHA moments about new things to think about as you prepare your journeys.

And........next time--I promise--a little about Provence.

This is our hotel here in Arles--don't you love the look? The two tall windows are our room from which I am now writing.