September 30, 2012

The Long Road to the Amalfi Coast - Has Anyone Seen Tony?

We leave Assisi pretty early in the morning since today would be a long travel day for us as we leave Umbria and make our way to the Amalfi Coast. Conveniently located right off the highway are gas stations with snack bars, complete with espresso bars. Interestingly enough, they also feature full alcohol bar service. The only way to reach these pit stops is from the highway, so we're still trying to figure out why they feature full bar service. Aren't these people DRIVING? We stop at one to stretch our legs and partake in an espresso. It was 90 cents! And delicious!

We have a nice, uneventful drive to Orvieto, our last stop in beautiful Umbria. Founded by the Etruscans, Orvieto is situated on the flat summit of a large butte of volcanic tuff, rising dramatically from the bluffs.

Conveniently, they have a funicular that you can take from a FREE parking lot outside the walls of the city. On this Monday, the city was not as crowded with tourists as other cities we'd visited the previous few days. It was kind of a nice change of pace not to have to rub shoulders with tour groups.

From the funicular station, we took the shuttle bus up into the center to wander around a bit, visit the cathedral and eat lunch.

Like other Italian churches, the facade of the Orvieto cathedral is stunning. The cathedral was begun in 1290 and took almost three centuries to complete.


The inside of the church wasn't as dramatically decorated as some others we'd visited, but was still a marvel to view.

The chapel features large frescoes by Luca Signorelli depicting the Apocalypse and the Last Judgement. The scenes were almost disturbing to view.

After our visit to the cathedral, it was time for lunch. April had found a recommendation for Il Giglio d'Oro in the Fodor's Italy travel guide and it was conveniently located within the same piazza as the cathedral.

Our lunch proved to contain both a culinary journey to places I love to visit and some much needed humor. At first, we were a bit put off by the "snooty" attitude of both the female maitre'd and the male waiter, but we quickly observed after being seated that they were just sick of tourists treating their fine dining establishment as a snack bar.

The outdoor seating was limited, with only about 6 tables and we had a couple of good laughs as they shooed away many different parties of tourists whose intent was just to merely sit at their lovely terrace and enjoy a glass of water, or perhaps a glass of wine. "This is NOT a bar" we heard them bark at them. "You must eat! This is a RESTAURANT, not a snack bar!"

We on the other hand, ooed and awed over the menu and made it quite clear that our intent was to "dine" and quite leisurely. Our waiter was a cute Italian fellow (probably liked other cute Italian boys) and really enjoyed our praise of their menu and the excellent service. We were their model dining guests and we glowed under the special attention we received. We took great pleasure in the treatment of those less fortunate who thought to treat this sacred ground as a mere stopping point for their aching feet.

I don't remember exactly everything we ate, but one of the excellent starters we had was an eggplant terrine with truffles. And although simple, the insalata mista (mixed salad) was delicious! The olive oil was so full of flavor, I literally wanted to lick the plate. We enjoyed a nice bottle of local red wine that they had recommended, and it did not disappoint.

While we were still waiting for our dessert and espresso to arrive, a party of 6 arrived to dine. They were 3 couples, two from Texas, and one couple from Laguna Beach. After they sat down and were handed the menus, we struck up a conversation with them about Italy travel and the menu. We made several recommendations based on our own, quite delicious lunch. They all perused the menu, and when it was time for them to order, they all asked if they could just have "spaghetti, with a meat sauce." The waiter rolled his eyes, looked over at us and said "help me!" It was pretty funny!

I could tell that he really had to restrain himself from speaking his mind and instead, tried his best to point out dishes on the menu that would please both their palette and their pocket books. They were hoping for "fine dining" on a snack bar budget! After a delicious end with a dessert we all shared and espresso, it was time for one last look around Orvieto before we hit the road.

April and I both purchased some really beautiful local pottery. It was nice that they offered (if you spent enough!) free shipping to the U.S., so we didn't have to lug around anything heavy. Before we boarded the shuttle bus back to the funicular, there was a nice viewpoint out into the countryside.


We get back to the car and April plugs our final destination (Massa Lubrense) into the GPS. For some reason, our Garmin map cannot find the coastal town, so we plug in Sorrento, since we had directions from our villa owners from that point. According to the research I had done previously, the trip from Orvieto to Massa Lubrense should have taken us about 3-1/2 hours. Our estimated arrival time would be about 6:30 PM. Naturally, that didn't happen.

Most of our drive was on the 6-lane super highway. When we had scoped out the route, we new that our destination was southwest of Rome, but that we would bypass Rome and kind of go around it. Things started to get kind of messy at about the time we were supposed to be going "around" Rome. The GPS is directing us to exit onto another highway that April believes is now pointing us away from the coast. And she was right. Thankfully, we only drive about 20 KM out of our way, but still, this is taking up precious time. We also encounter some pretty awful traffic in the suburbs of Rome as we are hitting the city right around the end of the work day.

We correct our mistake and finally again, we're going highway speeds. The highway has a few "bumps" we encounter at pretty high speeds (130 KM per hour) and we hear a noise coming from our car that wasn't there before. We're driving a Fiat wagon, but my Dad is continually remind me that it's not a Fiat, it's a "Fix It Again Tony" car. The car is already kind of in disrepair; the front bumper looks like its been glued on at the corners after encountering some damage and the drive train is somewhat noisy and clunky sounding; kind of like the sound a car makes when you are driving on a flat tire (but our tires are fine). Anyway, we come to a toll booth and it's apparent we have an issue and need to find Tony. The car is dragging something. We drive to the right where there is thankfully a gas station with and large "auto supermarket" where they sell everything from food, souvenirs, groceries and alcohol.

I'm digging out the Hertz rental agreement, convinced that we're going to get stuck there for hours while I contact Hertz to inquire about a replacement vehicle. Meanwhile, Dad is under the the car, laying on the ground trying to diagnose. It wasn't hard to spot the problem: most of the plastic "air dam" was hanging off the car and who knows just how long it had been dragging. Half of the hard plastic was shredded. Dad could see that there still remained a couple of screws that connected this large plastic piece (about 3-1/2 feet long by 2 feet wide) to the underside of the engine. Naturally, we didn't have a screwdriver, but I started to walk away to see if I could find/buy one. Dad needed a phillips. Before I had even walked a few feet away, Dad had successfully pulled the entire piece off the car. So we stuck it into the back of the wagon, and off we went. Disaster avoided, thanks to my Dad, who I now may occasionally refer to as "Tony."

Our next major fork in the road is Naples. We decide to find a grocery store or market here since it was getting so late and we wanted to get some basic supplies for the apartment for the morning. We take our designated exit off the super highway to the more rural coastal road we would travel on to our final destination. Luckily, we spot a market. However, we almost became roadkill just getting through two intersections to park at said market.

Let's just say that Naples drivers are bat-shit crazy and don't obey any traffic laws or even common driving courtesies like you would normally encounter at 4-way stops. These drivers (cars, scooters and motorcycles) really don't consider stopping at all. Seriously, these were some frightening intersections! Basically, you just GO and pray. Don't stop, just force your way into the center of the intersection. You had no choice; you couldn't hesitate, you just had to go for it.

We make it through the cluster of vehicles and motorcycles and successfully navigate ourselves into a spot in front of the market. Dad and April go into the market for supplies while Joan and I sit in the car. We are front and center with a view of the crazy intersection. We see several near-misses. It's amazing there wasn't an accident every 5 minutes. Then some comic relief: a guy on a motorcycle zooms by us and plows through the intersection all while singing Opera at the top of his lungs. It was pretty funny!

Supplies safely stowed in the back, we push ourselves through again to return to the coastal road. I think I might have driven through the intersection with my eyes closed. We make it to Sorrento and see the sign for "Massa Lubrense." We're relieved. Our relief started to ebb away when we started climbing up steep cliffs and encountering hairpin turns, all the while encountering LOTS of scooters and motorcycles, tour buses and other vehicles seemingly dive-bombing straight for us in the opposite direction. They crazy drivers actually pass me (apparently I'm driving too slow) on blind corners (in the dark!). This was white-knuckle driving at its best. We were all just a little frightened. Originally, we were planning to navigate this treacherous road during daylight, but you know, the best intentions.

As we continue to dodge ongoing traffic and avoid going over cliffs, we never see another marker for Massa Lubrense. We have NO idea where we are. I'm not sure how we actually find the meeting point near the house, but we do. It's now almost 10:00 PM. We are tired and completely stressed out. It's with much relief that we actually connect with the villa owners in the tiny village of Massa Lubrense.

We arrive at the house, all of use exhausted. Dad doesn't miss this opportunity to mention he has to walk down 27 steps to the house. He will mention these steps pretty much on a daily basis, but hey, it's the sacrifice you make to be RIGHT on the ocean (the view is lovely). April and I lug our baggage down to the house and we all find our respective bedrooms and call it a night. We're looking forward to the morning so we can truly see WHERE we're at. And yes, it was stunning.

You can view my Orvieto pictures on Shutterfly.


Yet Another Beautiful Medieval Hill Town - Our Visit to Assisi

We left Siena at a reasonable hour, plugged Assisi, Italy into the GPS and off we went. We actually arrived at Assisi without too many problems; I think I may have only missed one roundabout turn. All in all, it was a pleasant and uneventful journey which took us about two hours. Along the way, we passed some beautiful scenery as we left Tuscany and entered the northern part of Umbria.

We passed a pretty large lake, Lake Trasimeno, which is the largest lake on the Italian peninsula, with a surface area of 128 KM, slightly less than Lake Como. No major river flows directly into or out of Lake Trasimeno and the water level fluctuates significantly according to rainfall levels and the seasonal demands from the towns, villages and farms near the shore. It was kind of cool to see the lake appear on the GPS -- almost the entire screen was blue and then it showed our car in the very left-hand side of the screen.

The view of the city from down the road was pretty spectacular.
Located in northern Umbria, Assisi was the birthplace of St. Francis, who founded the Franciscan religious order in the town in 1208. Assisi was hit by two devastating earthquakes in September 1997. Massive damage was caused to many of the historical sites,including the Basilica di San Francesco, which reopened less than 2 years after the earthquake. Although much of the damage done by the earthquake has been repaired, there's still some remaining damage.
Although it's a Sunday, Assisi is filled with bus loads of day tourists. Conveniently, there's a policeman at the entrance to the walled city and he provides us with a permit for us to drive into the center to drop off our baggage (and my passengers) at the hotel. Naturally, this being a "hill town" there's no such thing as "easy access" to the front door of the hotel, but I drove as close as I could. Poor April had to lug most of our luggage up about 20 very steep steps into the hotel. In very HOT and humid weather. I think it was probably 86 that day. But don't feel TOO sorry for April. Once again, as the designated river, I had to find parking, which was outside the walls of the city and hike back to the hotel. Also in said 86-degree heat. Let's just say that I wasn't haven't a very good hair day with all that humidity.
It was pretty much a vertical climb back to our hotel, so I would stop periodically and snap some photos. The entire time I was walking, I chanted inside my head "feel the burn." Seriously, my calves were ON FIRE! I just keep telling myself how GOOD this is for me and hopefully I'll lose some weight!

I finally make it back to the hotel and discover the rest of my traveling buddies sitting at a table enjoying some cold beverages. Apparently our rooms weren't yet ready, so naturally, I joined them. They had very limited beverage service, but I asked for some prosecco; the hotel employee then says "would you like a glass" in which I reply, "I'll take the WHOLE bottle," to which she laughed. I was seriously hot and seriously in need some something wet and cold. I know what you're thinking "Sherry isn't going to drink an entire bottle of prosecco" but I must confess is was a "mini-bottle" - but I'm pretty sure I could have drank an entire large bottle by myself.

While we enjoyed our beverages, our rooms became available, so we took a few minutes to settle in. Since we hadn't eaten anything since our continental breakfast earlier that day back in Siena, we decided to head out to find something for a late lunch. Our original intent was to find something "light" since I had made a reservation for dinner at 7:00. However, after the challenge for both Dad and Joan of walking pretty much uphill the entire walk, that didn't happen.

Luckily for us, we pretty stopped at the first restaurant we found and it was full of the local "after church" crowd. And the food was delicious! We ended up making this our main meal of the day; mostly because the food was so good and mostly because we knew that nobody would feel like returning up the hill later that night.

After our scumptious meal, we continued our walk uphill to explore Assisi, stopping frequently to browse in shops and allow us all to rest our aching calves. They had some delicious looking bakery windows, but we didn't try anything as we were all still too full from lunch.

I had to take a picture of this charming gelateria/pastry shop. I wonder if their gelato was any good? Again, still too full/hot to think about eating anything else.

We arrived at a piazza and find a bench for Dad and Joan. April and I wander off to snap a few pictures and browse some shops.

This structure dates from Roman times, but I'm unsure what it was originally.

After wandering around for a couple of hours, we decided to return to the hotel. We were all kind of tired and the thought of just relaxing in our hotel rooms was kind of inviting. April and I did wander out shortly before sunset so we could take some photos and find some snacks since we weren't really eating dinner that night. The views were pretty amazing.


We tried the "Sean" method of photography in this picture. Please note that my head isn't really THAT BIG.

And then this spectacular sunset:

The rest of the evening was pretty uneventful. I took advantage of good internet speeds to get some work done and we all went to bed fairly early since we had a busy day of driving ahead of us on Monday.
You can view the rest of my Assisi pictures on Shutterfly.

September 28, 2012

Big Healeys in Tuscany - Siena Day 2

After yesterday's fiasco driving in Siena, we decide to just leave the rental car at the hotel and use public transportation to get to the city center. Conveniently, there's a bus stop right in front of the hotel, so after a short wait, we're transported directly to the center.

Siena was first settled by the Etruscans in about 400 BC.

The Palio di Siena is a traditional medieval horse race run around the Piazza del Campo (picture above) twice each year, on 2 July and 16 August. Although the square is large, I can't imagine a horse race taking place here.

This elaborately decorated outdoor courtyard of this the 14th century Gothic Palazzo Chigi is now a music school.


While April and I took photos, Dad took this opportunity to rest.

We wandered the streets a bit more before finding the Cathedral. Yes, we're visiting another amazing church! The Siena Cathedral, begun in the 12th century, is one of the great examples of Italian Romanesque-Gothic architecture. Its main fa├žade was completed in 1380. It is unusual for a cathedral in that its axis runs north-south. This is because it was originally intended to be the largest cathedral in the world, with a north-south transept and an east-west nave, as is usual. After the completion of the transept and the building of the east wall, the money ran out and the rest of the cathedral was abandoned.

Unfortunately for us, our turn to enter the cathedral was behind several very large tour groups. It's a Saturday and Siena is definitely filled to capacity with tourists. I can't imagine what it would be like to live in Siena and dealing with this volume of crowds. I'd like to think we're the "nice tourists" and we've definitely seen examples of "not so nice tourists."

I loved the striped stone in this church. It adds such a nice contrast to the interior.

This pulpit, made of Carrara marble, was sculpted at the end of 1265 by Nicola Pisano (1266–1268) supported on lions, and the labyrinth inlaid in the flooring, traversed by penitents on their knees. This same artist is created the dome of the Pisa baptistery.

The inlaid marble mosaic floor is one of the most ornate of its kind in Italy, covering the whole floor of the cathedral and consists of 56 panels in different sizes. They mostly represent scenes from the Old Testament, allegories and virtues. Most are still in their original state. The uncovered floor can only be seen for a period of six to ten weeks each year, generally including the month of September (and we just happened to be there in September!). The rest of the year, they are covered and only a few are on display. They really are pretty spectacular.

The small Chigi Chapel is the last, most luxurious sculptural addition to the Duomo, and was commissioned in 1659 by the Sienese Chigi pope Alexander VII. The eight marble columns are originally from the Lateran Palace in Rome.


The organ was kind of interesting in that it had "horns" descending down from the pipes. I don't think I've ever seen pipes shaped that way.

My favorite room in the church was the  Piccolomini library, with illustrative choir books and frescoes. The library is very colourful and is quite stunning.
The frescoes tell the story of the life of Siena's favourite son, cardinal Enea Silvio Piccolomini, who eventually became Pope Pius II. He was the uncle of cardinal Francesco Todeschini Piccolomini (then archbishop of Siena and the future pope Pius III), who commissioned this library in 1492 as a repository of the books and the manuscript collection of his uncle.
The ceiling is covered with painted panels of mythological subjects. They were executed between 1502 and 1503.
In the middle of the library is the famous statue Three Graces, a Roman copy of a Greek original.

Pinturicchio painted this cycle of frescoes around the library between 1502 and 1507, representing Raphael and himself in several of them. This masterpiece is full of striking detail and vivacious colours. Each scene is explained in Latin by the text below. They depict ten remarkable events from the secular and religious career of pope Pius II, first as a high prelate, then bishop, a cardinal and ultimately pope.


After spending quite a bit of time in the cathedral, we decided to head back to the main square to find a bite (and a cold beverage) for lunch. The walk back to the square was full of stairs and hills, so we took our time. We were standing at the entrance to the square when Dad thought he saw a vintage car, but he wasn't sure. Then he said "that sounds like an engine from the 30's!" Sure enough, we saw a vintage car appear.

Let me just say that I have never seen my Dad move so fast! In no time at all, he had pushed his way through all of the tourists and was front and center among a whole bunch of vintage cars.

Turns out, we were smack dab in the middle of the GP Nuvolari vintage car race. Cars built between 1919 and 1969 are qualified to enter and there were approximately 280 cars entered. We probably stood there for two hours watching the cars come down the road. Some of them were tourists themselves and it was funny to see them snapping pictures with their cameras and iPads.

We saw a LOT of vintage Porsches, Fiats, Jaguars, Mercedes, some exotics I've not seen before and a few American cars too. Seeing an Austin Healey come around the corner was probably the highlight of Dad's entire trip to Italy! In total, there were 6 or 7 Healey's and a couple of Bugeye Sprites.

Dad took advantage of his captive audience and took this opportunity to hand out his business card to his fellow Healey owners.

I was standing directly in front of a church and we saw two different bridal parties come through there. One of the brides was having her photographer take pictures of the newly-married couple in front of some pretty sweet looking vintage rides!

For those of you who are interested, you can view all the information about the vintage car race here. The site includes information about the route, the participating cars and the race results. A 1957 BN4 came in 33rd and was the best showing for the Austin Healeys.

I've created a separate album on Shutterfly with all of the vintage car pictures. You can view those here.

We watched all of the cars come through the square, then found a nice cafe for lunch. After our lunch, we were heading back to the bus stop when we spotted THIS "Guy":

Turns out, Guy Fieri (Food Network star) was in town for a wedding and was kind enough to let us snap a picture with him.

We hop aboard the bus and here's where our should-be-just-10-minute-ride turned into TWO HOURS to return to our hotel. We wind down the hill towards the suburban part of Siena and come to a stop across the street from the hotel, but which is across a roundabout and some pretty crazy traffic. April asks the bus driver if he was looping around to the bus stop directly in front of the bus (where we first caught it) and he says "si." So we sit down and prepare to get off in a minute or so.

This did not happen. We were on the bus for two hours and didn't come back to any of the same bus stops we had been to before (or had driven by) but after about 90 minutes, we noticed that we were going the opposite direction, so we were hopeful that we were actually heading to the right location this time. We think the bus driver was new as he stopped several times to consult a map, change the bus number on the display and waste a BUNCH of our time. If we had known that we would remain on the bus this long, we would have gotten off during the first 10 minutes of the ride and would have been happy to play "dodge the traffic" in the roundabout to return to our hotel much sooner.

Let's just say that we had a leisurely tour through Siena. I think we entered/exited the walled in city of Siena 4 times. Funny thing is that we never returned again to the bus stop in the walled part of the city in which we first boarded the bus. I suspect our bus driver was just pretty clueless about where his route really was. I thin.k we were all humming the theme song to "Gilligan's Island" for most of the trip.

And that's a wrap for us in Siena. On Sunday, we head to Assisi. You can view my Siena pictures here on Shutterfly.