Outside the "rabbit hole"
Our last morning together in the Capre apartment, our “Rabbit Hole” as Anna Rita humorously calls it, was a bit bittersweet. We’d both felt an oncoming sense of not so much an easily described sadness, but more a poignant acceptance of the fact that Marty’s time in this paradise was drawing to a close, and that his return to Texas would be “da solo”. We awoke with a little bit of a gnawing sense of urgency to get things organized for his departure, as well as hit the road early enough for a cappuccino and leisurely travel north. We were rewarded with a predeparture visit by Anna Rita to bid Marty farewell (and have a quick tour of the upstairs “Karen” apartment I’d inhabited last year), and her kind words meant more than she knew. Hugs exchanged, we loaded up the little Punto and headed towards town for cappuccino and a light breakfast at the gas station with our new friend Simone. I presented him with a Texas magnet and a small package of flavored Texas coffee in reciprocation for his kind regalo, or gift. I do believe he was as delighted with them as I was with the coffee art calendar! We were able to enjoy our pleasures outside this day…it was finally a warm day full of bright Tuscan sun and the gentlest hint of a breeze. The view south/southwest was spectacular, and San Gimingnano rose up in the distance to salute the sky with her proud remaining towers.
Zipping from the whirl-a-gig Toscana roads onto the much straighter A1 strada, we began the journey north. The drive takes one through wondrous views of Tuscany that begin to fade into flatter lands towards Florence. Then, the mountains begin to build in size until tunnel in and outs become as common as the right-left-right-left gyrations of our now familiar country roads. After crossing the mountains, the land becomes dramatically flat as such familiar place names like Bologna, Modena, and Parma come into view. We stopped for a bite of lunch at a My Chef on the outskirts of Parma…similar to the AutoGrille but a notch or two less enticing…and found our way to the cafeteria style lunch selections. It’s always such fun to be a part of the hub-bub of the road tripping others, mostly Italian. Truck drivers, families, business men, and tourists all pile in for a quick meal, a bathroom break, maybe a snack or two, a hit of caffé as well as gassing up the car before departure. All the major roadways in Italy have exits for towns, then sporadically placed “Servicio” stops. Most all have at least a bar and quick food, and then all the way up to full scale self-serve dining. And the nice part is they are place precisely on the strada with easy off/easy on access. We enjoyed our little lunch, as well as the people watching.
The precious Caterina and her beautiful Mommy, Lucia
As we exited the Parma area and came closer to Cremona, we contacted our new friends-to-be, Lucia and Emanuele. Marty had met Lucia through Conversation Exchange, we all had said hello on Skype, and after one conversation, Lucia kindly invited us to visit if we were in their area. It worked out well to do so on our way to Milan on this day.
With the beloved help of the GPS, we found our way to their apartment style home in the newer neighborhoods of Cremona. We were surprised to find their building came into being in the 1960’s. It appeared much newer. We were warmly greeted by Lucia and Emanuele, as well as their absolutely precious 6 month old daughter, Catarina. As with any freshly launched friendship, the chat was at first superficial and edged with a tiny bit of unease; however, it wasn’t long before a wonderful level of comfort was found.
Lucia teaches English to high school age students and her command of the language is good. Not so by her standards, but we begged to differ. Emanuele apologized upfront for his lack of English, but again…we found it to be quite good; much better than our Italian, for sure!!
We were seated at their dining table and offered spumonti and a beautiful spread of antipasto that included several kinds of meats from the area, and two delicious cheeses..one being parmasean and the other pecorino, I believe. Having thought we’d communicated we would eat before our 2:30 arrival, we were somewhat surprised to be treated to this, but figured it was like an appetizer type snack to go with our drinks. That is….until the beautiful plates of pasta were served! Come to find out much later in the day when Marty brought it up, Lucia had misunderstood and thought we would arrive and have lunch together with them. We were all somewhat embarrassed, but found the humor in the miscommunication. Lucia told us they thought it rather strange we would eat lunch so late, but well, you know those Americans - ha! The pasta was wonderful, all cooked by Emanuele, and it was topped off with a wonderful fresh strawberry bowl and caffé. We managed to eat it all, and were- needless to say – stuffed! How kind and generous, though, of these busy young people to treat virtual strangers to such personal hospitality in their home. And need I mention that the addition of the company of the adorable little Catarina put things over the top!
Lunch dishes put away, we loaded up the car and headed towards the centro storico of Cremona, another ancient city possessing wonder upon wonder. We parked and walked a little ways together into the main piazza, a wonderful antique rectangular plaza surrounded by the most amazing medieval buildings, a beautiful duomo and baptistery, and a huge bell tower…the tallest in the world! As we headed towards the baptistery, Emanuele went ahead and spoke with an older man at the door. Next thing you know, we ushered in…no ticket needed…and find ourselves as the only guests there, marveling at the works of art, the sheer size and workmanship of the building, and the massively and beautiful brick dome. They even turned on the Gregorian chant music for us! We found out that this dome predated the one in Florence…truly a marvel then and now. It was a magnificent building.
As we exited and wandered towards the duomo, a long time friend of Emanuele’s met us and we exchanged warm greetings. He had heard about our visit, and was able to come join us. His expectant wife was resting at home, so we didn’t have that pleasure. I am embarrassed that I can’t remember this very friendly young man’s name! As we entered the duomo, impressive from the outside but not even beginning to belay the magnificent sight inside, it took a moment for our eyes to adjust to the sights. Massive and dark, the interior held a different persona that other duomos I’ve been in. All of the major cities’ have been incredibly impressive, but now and then one is hit with a different reaction, and I found this here. It wasn’t long before the phenomenon, and there is a word for it in Italian, of feeling an inner rush of emotion and awe that is non-definable with words, but with tears, swept over me. We marveled at huge masterpieces of painting, one being famous for its perspective of Christ, just removed from the cross and laying with his feet towards the viewer at an angle, being cradled by Mary and the others. As you move from one viewing point to another, Christ’s body appears to take on entirely different perspectives from laying almost side to side, to appearing to be draped over the edge of the area he is laying on, to being at a crossways angle. It is truly amazing. We enjoyed taking in all the beauty and workmanship of this duomo, and were so grateful for having it shared by those who’ve grown up in its shadow. And once again, having sweet Caterina along was such joy! She is so happy and content, and not once complained. I had such a time with her, and by mutual decree became her Texas Nonna. Yee haw!
We wandered from the duomo out into the piazza and found ourselves surrounded in a joyful, buzzing hub of pedestrians and bike riders, all ages and combinations out enjoying an incredibly beautiful and warm spring late afternoon. Cremona has a university, so there were many young people, along with the variety of citizens of every age. Many were out strolling and watching…participating in a beautiful tradition of passiagata. We stolled along slowly, immersed as a part of this delightful energy and commonality. I’m sure there were tourists here and there, but we never picked them out. What joy to feel assimilated into this! Friends would stop now and then and say hello and chat a moment, waves were exchanged from afar…a sweet part of the Italian culture that we felt so blessed to be allowed to share. Oh…and how these gorgeous Italian women manage to wear skirts or dresses, AND 4 inch heels while riding a bike is beyond me, but they do it with incredible ease and style!
Emanuele had to depart for an event in Milan, along with his friend, so Lucia,
Caterina, Marty and I walked a slow walk back to the apartment. It was another great treat to stroll through more streets and neighborhoods just taking in the life of Cremona. Back in the apartment, we chatted a bit more before realizing it was…yes….much later than we’d realized – 8:00! It’s that time warp at work again. Saying our warm thanks and goodbyes, and holding Caterina one last time, we closed the literal door to the newly opened figurative door of yet another sweet friendship in Italy. The invitation to all our Italian friends to visit us in Texas is always laid forth, and what a joy it would be to be able to return some of this incredibly hospitality.
Off to Milan, we wound our way with GPS at the helm. However, as technology is certainly not perfect, the little data brain got a little confused and lead us some 25 km past our intended destination. With it being dark and us being tired, we didn’t quite catch on to this little wild goose chase until a bit late, and after numerous “recalculating” and rebooting, plus one phone call to the hotel, we finally found ourselves checking in at about 10:30, tired and ready for a glass of wine. Unpack a few things, head downstairs – no one tending the little bar even though they were there when we came in and things looked opened. Okay….back upstairs, “Marty, maybe just splurge and call room service.” An affirmative response, but about a ten minute delay to try to get the internet to work…phone call made. They closed five minutes ago. The two little beers in the mini bar didn’t stand a chance as the dwarf size fridge door creaked open.
Today marks the long awaited cooking class with a delightful young lady named Guila Scarpaleggia, creator of Jul's Kitchen! GPS programmed for her country home, we set out with plenty of time to arrive, as well as make a stop at the gas station for an artistic cappuccino. This time, Simone the barista and latte artist, made one with a turkey and one with a bunny….awesome! He probably thinks I’m a little strange at my glee over this, but I also think he enjoys seeing his work appreciated. As I sat, he came over to the table and gave me a calendar that featured his creations, made for the gas station to give to customers, I presume. How thoughtful and sweet, and I will enjoy it so much! Note to self to take Simone something of our Texas gifts on the next visit.
Onward to the outer regions of Colle d’val Delsa where Guila’s family home is. At 31, she, like many young Italians, lives at home with her parents. Guilia obtained a degree in communications and marketing, found work unfulfilling and underpaid, and decided to turn her passion for cooking, writing, and photography into a food blog. This has opened incredible doors for her, and she is now conducting classes and even finding kitchenware sponsors. We choose to take one of her small classes…no more than 4 people, but just us 2 this day…at her family home in the countryside!
The drive was, what else…so very beautiful, and we were rewarded with views of poppy fields unlike any we’d seen thus far. The brilliant red-orange of these flowers seems almost surreal, as if they’ve been lit from within. Alone in expanse of red, or intermingled with the whites and yellows of other spring flowers, the sights were pure delight.
Following the GPS with somewhat less faith than normal – how could all these odd turns and little roads lead to where we were headed? – we decided to push onward, and alas…it was correct! We came upon a conglomeration of lovely buildings, some ancient, others not quite so, that were knitted together in community like only Italian villages can do. Probably no more than 25 individual dwelling places marked by numbers, we wound through the little street until we arrived at the last building on the right….a lovely two story home that is Guila’s family’s. We greeted each other warmly, took in the spectacular view over the valley behind the home, and commenced to talk.
Guila shared that this home was built by her great-grandfather in the 1920’s, I believe, and what is now the kitchen was the barn. Their little village was filled with city dwellers during WWII when many escaped to the countryside to avoid danger. She told us of how people hid in the upper rooms and areas of the home when the French and German troops came through, and of how her grandmother tells of remembering when the American soldiers came through. It was sobering to think of standing right there where this had occurred, and to remember how the war is so much more “real” to most Italians. It was on their soil, in the towns and cities, and not so long ago.
Cooking! Ahhh, yes! We had a wonderful time listening, learning, doing, tasting, experiencing as Guilia took us through the rotations of Tiramisu, made first so the flavors could meld, then fresh pasta – tagliatelle and tagliatellini, fresh antipasto of pecorino, truffle jam, fava beans and salt. Next, preparing a stuffed turkey breast using sliced sautéed little artichokes with onion in a reduced sauce, soon to be seared in olive oil and butter, then roasted on the stovetop. A fresh, lovely lemon sauce and a heartier porcini mushroom sauce where prepared as Marty and I rolled out the rested pasta dough and cranked out beautiful golden strips of pasta using Guilia’s grandmother’s pasta maker. It came out paper thin after having been pressed and pressed through the maker until almost transparent and ready to dry ever so briefly.
A warm salad of fresh fava beans, thinly sliced artichokes, lightly sautéed asparagus, grilled pecorino cheese, dressed lovingly with fine olive oil, salt, and pepper was our antipasto for the meal, and dare I say it’s presentation of colors, flavors, and textures was indeed a Tuscan masterpiece. We commenced to dine together after several hours work, enjoying incredible food, wonderful wine, and the company of a very special and talented young artist named Guilia.
The tiramisu, along with a taste of a local sweet wine made with honey and water, was the crown of the beautiful day we shared with Guilia in her family kitchen. The talk went on until we realized it was 4:30 (we arrived at 10:00), and we felt somewhat bad at taking up so much of the day that surely held other matters to be addressed. Guilia assured us it was not a problem, and that she had truly enjoyed the day, as well. We departed with a warm hug, the day’s recipes, two Jul’s Kitchen aprons, and a lovely hardbound book titled “Le Ricette di mia Nonna…My Grandmother’s Recipes”, Guilia’s first cookbook. Having now had a little time to peruse the book, we both found it to be not only a cookbook holding a wealth of marvelous authentic recipes, but also a beautifully written book of prose that carefully and lovingly paints a picture of the story behind each recipe. Guilia had a true gift for finding the words to convey her thoughts, her joys, her passions….and to share them with you. Her photography is exquisite, as well. What a tangible treasure to take away from our day.
Hurrying home, we arrived and began to prepare for yet another delight to this day….a TexMex meal with Lucio and Francesca! I brought along taco seasoning, freeze dried beans, and Spanish rice….oh, and tortillas!...to see if I could recreate such a meal under this Tuscan sun. Tortillas fried, hamburger cooked and seasoned, beans done, and rice ready…we all gathered at our little table, poured the Corona, and Lucio and Francesca were given their first lesson in constructing a tostado. Much good talk, laughter, eating, and enjoyment pursued as the night wore on. They brought a lovely prosecco and little pastries that look like mini cream puffs for dessert. It was perfect! As the congeniality persued, we again looked at the time in sheer amazement that it was already 11:30pm. There is no doubt that we have stepped into some sort of medieval time warp as the hours slide by like mere minutes.
Warm good byes and thanks exchanged, Lucio and Francesca headed out towards their home in Montesperutoli and we began the TexMex round up of dishes, feeling full, happy, and satisfied in only the way that food and friends can offer.
The view from Montelcino
Catch up for Wednesday’s brain fugue & the dying battery….
After our bodily fueling, the high on the hill town of Montelcino was our destination! The road straightens into a linear path once off the Autostrada at Buonconvento, and it’s not long before an intriguing looking cluster of ancient buildings hugging a steep hilltop announce themselves…terra cottas, ambers, goldenrod blending from afar stand out like a cache of Homer’s sirens. Excitement always mounts when I see “castle-ige” – anything castle looking sticking up -- , and Montelcino offers a nice dose of that with its impressive fortessa and several clock tower/church tower structures. I had visited Montelcino when I was traveling solo a year ago, so it was extra special to share my wee bit of familiarity with Main Man Marty. This town is also the home of the coveted and famous Brunello wine…a mere mention of the name will bring a swoon to the stance of most Italians I’ve met!
Car parked (finally), we entered the town walls (all these towns of any size have impressive walls around them…had to keep out the bad guys, or at least try!) and didn’t walk too far before we found our desired restaurant…a tiny little place secreted inside an ancient building and run by the couple Roberta and Antonio. She cooks, he waits the tables. We had to wait a bit, and barely slipped in before the 2:00 close. Grateful, we thanked Antonio and decided to go with the “Roberta’s Suggestion”, a full course meal featuring a lovely antipasto of typical Tuscan pleasures of uber thin prosciutto, pancetta, and salume, along with a sampling of crostini. One plate would’ve been enough for 3 people, and Antonio gave me a little grief over not finishing. I assured him it was wonderful, but was “abastansa” – enough – or I would never finish the rest of my meal! And before I forget, we absolutely had to add a small (pricey stuff!) bottle of Brunello to our table – very lovely, indeed! The primi was a delicately baked cheese and mushroom dish with pasta sheets thinner than the skin of the hautiest diva. It was exquisite. Didn’t think I could finish, but Antonio gave me “the eye”…so I happily found room! Our secundi was a butter-tender slice of beef cooked in a red wine sauce that I’m still trying to figure out. It was mouthwatering delicious…oh my. We were full to the brim, but still found space, of course, for the dessert offerings. We had a beautifully presented dish of panna cotta, an elegantly simple cream custard, all dolled up in a snazzy mixed berry sauce, and another of tiramisu, that lovely, iconic lady finger, espresso, and custard union. They were indeed as tasty as they were pretty to gaze upon. Roberta is a genius, and we asked Antonio to please share our bravas and gratitude with her. Oh, and this place was yet another delightful medieval space of two rooms entered through a tiny door, with a surprisingly large lower floor where the bathrooms were situated. We’re finding that all these spaces come fitted with the same lower level bathrooms (the architect in 1165 surely couldn’t have known to plan ahead for space upstairs)…and who knows – they may even connect under the streets just as the myriad of alleys and walkways so angularly and efficiently connect the world above them.
Full and satisfied, we set out and explored a bit more of Montelcino …and hopefully burned off a handful of those calories we so enjoyed by way of our climb up onto the ramparts of the fortessa. The views found there were expansive and grand. Clouds had formed a bit by afternoon, but this was a mere bonus as the shadows and lighting added such texture and interest to the vistas before us. As far as the eye can see, one is gifted with that ever changing, yet so constant Tuscan landscape. I truly hope some of Marty’s really-good-camera photos catch the essence of what the eye and soul view...to share it would be a joyful thing.
Finishing up Friday, May 4th ….
Ok…let’s see…when we last checked in on the two wandering Reynolds, they were having an exciting time at the lavanda (laundry mat)!! Actually, the day of no plans and hanging loose turned into a really fine one! We decided to load up and head out only with a vague idea of where to go. After a cardinal direction was decided upon, we steered towards the small town of Panzano. We’d been through there last October, but didn’t stop. My recollection of that almost-visit was of finding myself driving up a steep, veeery narrow cobbled street with an end that looked like we’d have to drive straight through the chiusa (church)! It was much more fun to wander up the same street on foot. We didn’t get far, however, before we entered conversation with the amusing, warm, and jovial Stefano, owner of the Academia del Buon Gusto, a whimsically decorated shop offering many local delicacies. A Bocelli song playing in the background is what made us take pause initially, and when Stefano noticed, he stepped out to say hello…with his wonderful medieval style hat and apron on, but more noticeable – his bright smile and twinkling eyes. After a bit of conversation…Stefano being very kind in helping us along in Italian…I commented on how beautiful his eyes were. They were a soft jade green…maybe a shade or two lighter than an olive leaf. He told us his mother was Croatian; thus, his eyes. Ah…va bene! After some fun chat and exchanging of contact info (Stefano told us he learned of the Terlingua chili cookoff and wanted to go some day…he has our number for when that day comes!) we had to quickly walk through the rest of the tiny center, or centro (“chin-tro”), and head towards our next unexpected pleasure of the day—meeting our newest Italian friends, Lucio and Francesca, in Greve in Chianti!
I "met" Lucio when Marty and I signed up on Conversation Exchange as a means to help/receive help with native Italian speakers either over Skype or just through email. Lucio and I traded periodic emails, and both being teachers, we agreed to “grade” the other's typing of mistakes. It worked well, and when this trip was planned, we decided we all needed to meet. It didn’t hurt, either, that their town is only about 15 miles as the crow flies from Castellina in Chianti.
We found our way to each other in Greve, and commenced to talk and get to know one another as we strolled the unusual triangular shaped main piazza in Greve. It was then decided we’d find some nice vino, and with the info gleaned on the street by Francesca, we found our way to an amazing tasting room a street or two off the centro. It operated via a card system; purchase a debit card of sorts, find the wine you’d like to taste (from literally thousands, I’d guess), pop the card in, push the button….salute! It was really quite fun as we got to taste some wines we’d never have done otherwise. The dessert was getting to sit and visit more with Lucio and Francesco – a truly warm and likeable couple.
What a beautiful couple!
They both are way (way!) ahead of us in language acquisition, but seemed to genuinely appreciate our attempts, as well as agree that Italian is a difficult language to master. I’ll just be glad when I’m a little past the stage of an 18 month old! We parted, but agreed to find an evening to have that TexMex meal I’d promised them via an email. How? Well, I packed some corn tortillas, those Taco Bell style freeze-dried frijoles, taco seasoning, and packaged Spanish rice. Add a little Italian beef, lettuce, and tomatoes, and I’m hoping we’ll produce some decent tostados – ole!
Home on the late side, we opted for a quick dinner in town (I really must start writing down these restaurant names!), gobbled it up, then came back to get ourselves to sleep at an hour conducive to an early rise…finally.
Paula A. Reynolds
Traveler or Tourist?
All photos used in this blog were taken by the author, the author's husband or friends, or found by way of images.google.com. Photo credit is given when possible.