Because in my opinion, Italy is a place to which you can go over and over, and never feel done. Beautiful and varied landscapes; unique cities full of history; fantastic food; and warm, welcoming people. Just wonderful.
A goal on this trip was to include Venice (both boys were intrigued after watching “The Italian Job”–?). Jack wasn’t the only one who wanted to see the city that had ‘boats instead of cars’, and he was hoping for a ride in a gondola. Chris and I wanted to explore the Italian countryside and vineyards, perhaps the mountains as well. We considered the Dolomites, and also Tuscany. Then I remembered a recommendation from a woman I met last year who grew up in Italy…she said, “visit Umbria instead of Tuscany– it is just as beautiful, and not as crowded!” (maybe she knew our family is ‘anti-crowd’?) We ended up with an itinerary that included 2 days in Venice, 2 in Florence, and 3 on a farm in Paciano: a village of 1000 inhabitants in the Umbrian region.
We flew into Venice and arrived late Friday night. I had been cautioned about having to haul luggage up and over the canals, but I didn’t really plan ahead. In hindsight, it would have been smart to check the water taxi schedule to shorten the journey to our hotel. The canal bridges weren’t quite as picturesque at 11 pm……. ….and the boys were DONE with steps by the time we got to the hotel.
After a nice sleep in, we woke to gondoliers going by under our window– Some of them were playing accordions, serenading their passengers as they floated along.
We ventured out…. and after crossing a few more canals jammed with gondolas, ended up in the impressive St Mark’s Square– with its enormous basilica, Campanile, clock tower (complete with a winged lion), and Doge’s Palace.
Jack disapproved of the ‘no football’ rule in the square:
It didn’t take long for a representative offering free boat rides to Murano (the island infamous for glass-blowing) to approach us. Did we look that obvious? We had planned to go later that day, but when he claimed the factories weren’t open after 1 pm, we hopped on his company’s boat and headed across. The weather was perfect, and the view from the water was beautiful.
Our hostess in Rome last year told us that Italian people don’t own dryers, they let “nature do it”. I became a bit intrigued with clotheslines on this trip…. ….they go right along with the ‘vintage’ filter that Venice has– without a filter.
Murano Island had a small dock serving as a water taxi/boat stop, and a long string of shops that sold everything and anything you can imagine made out of glass. We didn’t explore too much, as our representative’s partner took us straight to the factory for our ‘exclusive’ tour and demonstration. Chris and I had seen glass blowing in Barcelona, but the boys hadn’t, and were impressed with the materials, the heat, and the method. The man first made a vase, and then a horse. We were then escorted up to the showroom and specialty store, where we were told about the authenticity of the pricey creations. I wasn’t supposed to, but I asked to take a picture. This photo doesn’t do justice to the pieces that were available. They were amazing, and truly works of art. There was a guitar made out of glass, and a 4 foot sculpture that was made by 5 people working together. Cooper secretly snapped this pic– –turtles are his favorite.
It was amusing to watch the boys eyes as we checked out the price tags…. Although we did end up taking home (and ordering) a few souvenirs, I’m not sure it was within the price range of what our ‘representative’ was hoping for…..oh well!
We took the vaporetto (water taxi) back across to Venice,
ate some pasta carbonara, and explored a bit more…
A friend recommended that our boys read The Thief Lord, by Cornelia Funke, before arriving in Venice. We decided to read it as a family during our trip. Things like the Rialto Market, The Bridge of Sighs, the islands off of Venice, and even the plethora of masks became more relevant…. …thanks Lynn!
We stopped to play cards and have a drink at a cafe near the Rialto Bridge. There were street musicians for entertainment, and we spotted two ladies playing badminton in an alleyway. More clotheslines on the way back to our hotel….
This time as we went through St. Mark’s Square, I decided to visit with the pigeons, which seemed to be a popular activity for tourists. For a few euros, there were gentlemen that provided seeds to hold so the birds would alight on your arms, shoulders, ….. and pretty much anywhere they pleased. I didn’t know that he would put the seed in my hair—this ended up being a little less comfortable….
The next morning as my men slept in, I went for a run along the Grand Canal. It was wonderful to see the city with a few less people milling about. Without my luggage to carry, I didn’t even mind all of the steps (!) I saw several older men fishing and talking with friends.
After breakfast, we contemplated visiting St. Mark’s, or taking the elevator to the top of the Campanile (bell tower); but since it was Sunday (and extremely crowded) this was difficult. So we just walked a bit more and did some shopping.
Here, Cooper, Jack and Chris discuss James Bond maneuvers…
…. jumping across two or three gondolas to reach the other side of the canal. These kinds of conversations occur regularly in my family…..-not yours?
Warm weather = slushies!!
I didn’t purchase a mask, but I was tempted. Some of them were outrageous.
My fellow consumer-in-crime bought a cool plastic watch with a unique LED display.
gondola selfies: (We saw A LOT of that!)
Heading out on the water taxi, we realized that there was a lot of the city we didn’t explore……maybe next time!
We picked up a rental car at the Marco Polo Airport (the boys loved that name) and drove to Florence, accompanied by our very amusing, and not always accurate, GPS guidance: “Now, go straight on this road– for a long time”. OK! I am happy to report we got to Florence, although we realized right away we didn’t want the car, (and were glad our AirBnB hosts had reserved a garage spot for us). Our apartment was very comfortable and in a great location. Views from the roof.
While the boys relaxed, Chris got recommendations from an Italian friend, Paolo, on where to eat. Dinner was at Trattoria 4 Leoni, and it was fantastic. Local recommendations continue to be very reliable. Despite a few pesky mosquitoes (yes, in October!?), we had a good night, and got up ready to explore the next day. Did I mention Chris drinks lattes? Did I mention that this makes traveling with him absolutely wonderful, because in the morning, HE is looking for a place to get coffee? Yeah!
With a football at the boys’ feet (it is always easier to walk a city this way), our first stop was Boboli Gardens– an expansive city garden with great views, and fascinating sculptures as well.
Poseidon, for the Lightning Thief fans….
The boys walk down “Cypress Lane”, lined with statues and very large cypresses.
On both sides of this wide path, there were smaller covered paths, that were also beautiful, but in a different way.All of us agreed that it would have made a great place for hide and seek. There wasn’t a lot of information available about the garden or the sculptures, but I plan to look on line.
We headed over the Ponte Vechhio Bridge, towards the center of Florence . Typical streets, shops, basilicas…. And a little bit of football as we go…. This time Chris chipped it over the enclosure into ‘illegal’ territory. No worries, Cooper is quick…
Lunch was another fantastic recommendation by Paolo: Gabbio 13. I loved all of the shutters, but it made finding things a bit difficult when the streets all look the same…. Chris said Gabbios’ lunch was his favorite meal of the trip: bruschetta, and three different pastas to share. It seemed more authentic (there were tourists, but lots of Italians there too– good sign).
On to the Duomo…. WOW. The detail on the outside of this structure was astounding. Perhaps because of the different colored stone? I have no idea, but from every angle, it was beautiful. The inside was amazing as well, –… You don’t ever stop wondering— how did they accomplish all of the artwork on the ceiling?
…and now gelato!
The historical significance of Florence can be overwhelming– and difficult to present to two boys that are more interested in sports (and gelato) than art or religious history. But I wanted to impress upon them that Florence is considered the ‘Birthplace of the Renaissance’ by many, so I decided we would make a stop at the Opera Santa Croce–another basilica, but this time containing the tombs of some very significant people.
The Gothic architecture and artwork was amazing (Giotto, Donatello — many more I hadn’t heard of before). We whispered with the boys about the tombs…. Galileo, Michelangelo, Machiavelli…..Scientists. Artists. Thinkers that changed history.
Back out in the sunshine we noticed it was later than we thought, and headed back home. Jack was impressed by the graffiti on this recycling containerand all of us were impressed with this small pitch, set up alongside the Arno River (with high netting so you don’t have to fetch the ball out of the water…)
Ponte Vechhio selfie…
Chris and I took a run the next morning along the river, and then we enjoyed a pastry and a latte (yes!) in the small piazza by our apartment: San Spirito. The cafe had a liberal policy regarding dogs
We checked out and began our drive through Tuscany towards Umbria. We were stopping in Montepulciano for a wine tasting. “Montepulciano”….I love the way it sounded—especially if you attempt an Italian accent, like I did growing up with Italians in Verona. Yup, Verona (New Jersey)–with last names that included Venezia, Damiano, Bevilacqua, and others that I saw written on trucks and buildings as we were driving. I love that about Italy–it brings me home a little.
Our GPS wasn’t really sure how to proceed in getting us to this very old, very hilly, very small town. It was fantastic. Exactly what I pictured when people talk about ‘authentic Italian villages’. Redi Winery had a long history which matched the look/feel of the town, and we heard about the legend of the hedgehog while sampling great wine, cheese and salami. Cooper wasn’t as miserable as he looks in this photo, he really liked the meat and cheese plate (he just doesn’t like all the picture-taking….)
After the tastings we went down in the cellar to check out the enormous casks. impressive, even for the boys. When we stopped at the car to put away our new bottles of wine, I took a few minutes to read a story about Cesare Mazzetti, an artisan that worked in this village. I had found his story on-line, and was interested in meeting this coppersmith, whose family had been working with metals since the end of the 19th century. I didn’t really know what to expect, but I am so glad we went.
He didn’t speak a word of English, yet we spent 45 minutes with him. He not only explained his craft, but made us three ‘Mazetti memories’ to take home…two bookmarks, and a family crest of sorts, where he hammered all kinds of dates and symbols into a copper circle that represented elements of our family. It was fantastic.
As we left, we pointed out to the boys that we had to ask him where we could purchase the things he made. He never tried to sell us anything. He never marketed that ‘his pots and pans were the finest’. He just shared his work, because he loved his work, end of story. Class act.
We walked the town and its square, visited the church, and people-watched.
Not too hard to spot the authentic Italians, versus the tourists:
The boys discovered that towers and viewpoints (where adults frequently force them to stop) lend themselves well to flying paper airplanes. They never got a chance to send one from the top of the Campanile in Venice, but they tried this gorgeous vista….. finding and retrieving the planes afterward is sometimes difficult….!
So, on to our home for the next few days in Paciano. The countryside was gorgeous as we drove, but I refrained from hopping out of the car every 5 minutes for photos, (like I did in Ireland….).
Our town home of Fontegirasole, (meaning ‘spring sunflower’) was part of the “Country Slow Living” establishment of Il Fontanaro: an organic and sustainable olive oil farm, that offers cooking classes and lodging. We didn’t stay on the farm, but we had olives growing in our yard.
We went out for dinner in town (there were two restaurants to choose from), and also picked up some groceries for the next morning. We played cards and watched The Gladiator, remembering our trip to Rome last year.
The next day we had a very lazy morning and then took a short trip to Castiglione del Lago, a town on Lake Trasimeno. Locally made products were the highlight– for lunch, and for sale on the sidewalks….. Cheeses and cured meats were everywhere, particularly wild boar (one of Jack’s favorites)
The weather was turning, so after we bought some cheese and wine, we headed for home. The sky was incredible as the wind blew in the storm….
We were glad we had no plans that night! Lots of wind ripping across the fields…
The next day was one I was eagerly anticipating: our cooking class with Lucina and Alina Pinelli at Il Fontanaro. We were cooking lunch, so we headed to the farm at 10.30. Before we started in the kitchen, we walked through the garden with Lucina. With our family and a young couple from Chicago that joined us, she discussed the benefits of seasonal cooking, and organic farming. This led to a description of the problems occurring this year with the olive crop in the Umbrian region, due to an insect that devastated the groves. (In fact Alina, her daughter, was discussing possible solutions with an Italian horticulture professor on the phone while we were making Tiramisu….) I appreciated that this part of the experience was genuine. The fact that they didn’t have a harvest in 2014 was a very real problem — these women were business owners and farmers– not just running ‘scrapbook filling’ cooking classes for tourists. I’m glad the boys heard a lot of the discussion around obstacles in organic farming, the politics of tourism boards, and other aspects of their endeavors in agrotoursim.
We made tiramisu first with Lucina. beating the egg whites, assembling the layers….
We tasted olive oil, picked out wine from their impressive cellar, and then got to making the pasta, while the two resident labs stood watch
Jack and Chris work on beating the egg carefully within the flour ‘volcano’….
Cooper works the dough with Alina. After a bit of time in the fridge, the pasta was ready to be rolled and cut…. While we were busy with making strips and filling ravioli, the zucchini sauce and the meat sauce (sugo) were started on the stove, (the smell was amazing!). More chatting and drinking wine while it all came together…. Jack enjoyed having Bacco around under his feet. He looked very mellow, but we heard stories about him eating live chickens. No poultry for this sustainable farm, I guess!
Enjoying the ‘fruits of our labor’ in the greenhouse. Delicious! I had to excuse myself right after dessert to grab a few more pictures. It was a beautiful place. A huge thank you to our fabulous hosts!
We headed home with very full stomachs to pack and get ready for the drive to Venice airport the next morning. After some ping pong, ….we enjoyed our last sunset in Italy….
The last one for a while anyway, because I am hopeful we’ll have a chance to get back to this beautiful country (that is quickly becoming one of my favorite places on the planet…..).
As always, thanks for sharing with us.