Tuscany for Five


Out for our first trip in Tuscany

The girls and I finally arrived in Tuscany two Saturday mornings ago at 10 am local time (4 am Ohio time) after an 11 hour flight from New York (we got delayed close to 2 hours on the runway and then poor Kathy had to sit in an Exit row weat because I had elected one not realizing the seats don’t recline back and we would be directly across from the lavatories!).  The plane trip only produced a bit of turbulence but I still popped a Sominex to pass out and avoid my fear of flying and my claustrophobia. 

We rocked it out after the flight – had no problem getting our bags and booking our rental car and within an hour or so we were out in the Italian sun.  Ericka, our travel agent (literally and figuratively), drove us out of the rental car agency with such style that the Italians driving past us had no clue that we were Americans (until a motorcycle rider zoomed past us and scared us all half to death) – Excellente!  We stopped at a restaurant on the way to the villa where a short, gregarious old Italian man greeted us and escorted us to a table cloaked with a white tablecloth and tiny vases of flowers and pictures of Italian countryside surrounding it.  He spoke Italian so quickly that we all took a step back and looked like deer in the headlights.  He then took a breath and said the all too famous Italian word “Vino?”  We understood that and ordered some red.  He brought it out to us and we quickly poured it into our glasses only realizing after the fact we had poured it into our water glasses.  We saw him chuckle on the side.  We drank our wine, ate our brushetta with the most amazing olive oil of all time, and enjoyed our chicken and grilled peppers and pasta.  We dragged ourselves from our chairs and back to the car for the final lag of our drive.

We got to the villa after two hours of winding roads and speedy drivers and it could not have been more worth it.  Absolutely amazing.  We got swept away upon stepping out of the car with the stone walls and the ivy and the grape vines and the potted herbs.  Jude and Richard, the Villa Cappella owners, came outside to greet us with their little pup, Luna.  They talked with us about the villa’s renovation from a pig sty and horse stables to this charming villa with a patio and portico and every type of tree: hazelnut, chestnut, fig, persimmon, and walnut.  They poured us our first (but not last) glass of Prosecco and offered us bread sticks.  We toasted to an exhilarating week in Italy.  And so it began…

A view of the fields outside of the villa

Jude showed us around the house and had to find joy in our gasping and cooing in each new room we saw.  The villa housed all sorts of African artifacts, Tuscan pottery and tiles, Canadian artwork, Roman statutes and fresh flowers.  The downstairs had a room with a king sized bed that Ericka took.  It also had a room with two twin beds that Jill got.  The upstairs had a room with two twins in it that Lisa and I shared and a room with a king that Kath got.  All of the rooms had fresh flowers and a window with a heavy wood door that, when opened, allowed the flood of Tuscan light to enter.  The smells could have been bottled up and sold back home for a pretty penny.

We got situated and relaxed in the kitchen with fresh grapes, bread sticks, juicy tomatoes, and cheese.  The next morning we took off for the Mediterranean sea – Lisa drove us and used the stick shift with sheer perfection.  We went to a beach off the beaten path in Tonga and felt right at home as we laid down our towels and bathed in the sun.  I found some killer rocks and shells in

The Sea

the glass-like sea.  The Mediterranean sand was black and smooth and the water was chilled but not freezing (a nice change from the Cancun rocky beach that Jon and I head to every year although I did miss the big Cancun waves).  I even got my girlfriends to do O-H-I-O for Ohio State (which is a feat for three Cincinnati girls who love X and UC).  After the beach, we hit Argenterio, a small marina town, for shrimp and rice and red wine.  We shopped around the town and I scored two big superballs – one with a skull and one multi-colored – perfect for my two munchballs!  I loved this town because it had superball machines rather than gumball machines everywhere you turned – it took me back to my childhood at IGA. 

Siena

On Monday we went to Siena to take in the magnificent Duomo and view the breath-taking scene from the top of the building.  We enjoyed wine and potato chips (yes, potato chips!) outside of the Duomo and stared at each other in awe of the fact that we were sitting in such a cafe sans kids, work and hubbies.  What a feat.  We started our ride back home rather late and by the time we hit the exit for our dinner spot it was dark and hard to find.  But, as we found throughout the trip, Obama’s presidential campaign quote fit us well – Yes We Can!  We found our restaurant and settled in for wine, bread, pork chops, vegetables dripping in olive oil and ricotta cheese and chocolate sauce for dessert.  We got home at 10:30 pm (Jude is still amazed that we stayed out past dark nearly every night) and downloaded lots of pictures. 

On Tuesday, we got up early (8 am is early on this vacation!) to head to the weekly fish market in town.  We ordered a cappuccino at the coffee “bar” and croissants and watched MTV videos on the tv.  We purchased our fish (salmon (which was not even for sale but the butcher must have known Americans liked salmon because she brought it out when we walked in), whitefish, and calamari).  We also bought some veggies (eggplant, zucchini, peppers and onions) and we headed back home with our dinner for the evening.  I went for a good run up the gravel road next to us.  It led to a bed and breakfast that had to house hunters as we heard their hunting dogs every night.   We left for Torre Alfina when I returned and Kath, Lisa and I hiked through a volcanic forest.  We got lost more times than we would have desired but we plugged our way through and made it out (Yes, We Can!).  There were a few times when we felt like we knew where we were and we’d take pictures and laugh and then ten minutes later we’d feel lost and it would grow silent again.   We treated ourselves to huge gelatos after the hike (choccolata and fragas for me) and rested at one of the best gelato shoppes in Tuscany.  Jill and E met up with us at the shoppe.  Gelato was our true addiction on this trip. 

The magical forest

After the hike, we headed back home to grill out our fish and veggies.  Jill did a kick-ass job cooking the fish and my other girls helped me cook the risotto and onions and tomatoes (I have a new-found desire to cook once back home)!  We ate on the patio with the flourescent moon shining down on us and the crickets serenading us.  After drinking glasses of wine and stuffing our bellies full of sea life, we topped the night off with the movie “Knocked Up” in our pjs on the couch. 

It felt like my head just hit the pillow when Jill came in at 6:15 am to wake us up for the train to Florence on Wednesday.  We dragged ourselves out of our comfy Tuscan beds and out the door to the car and to the train station in Orvieto.  Jill and I got a cappuccino (“Un cappuccino, gracie”) and a chocolate croissant (yum!) for the trip.  Two and a half hours later we arrived in Florence amidst a throng of tourists.  Of course, four days into our trip and having traveled throughout Tuscany and met many native Italians, we did not feel like tourists any longer so they were quite annoying to us.  A man from Utah approached us and asked if he could join our group – we ditched him after ten minutes.  A group of women from Denver asked us how to get to the Academy (we told them and they did not believe us –

Florence

too bad for them because we were right).  But we continued to stay in our small group of three traversing the streets easily locating magnificent and gorgeous sights (Neptune, Duomo, plazas, the statute of David, Bonacelli marble statutes).  We stopped at an outside cafe for pizza and pasta (pasta with white sauce and peas and mushrooms and pasta with red sauce and cheeses) that took us to another world – it was fabulous.  We ate on the piazza and watched all of the people pass by and commented on the statutes looking down at us.  Horse-drawn carriages passed by us.  We ended the day with gelato as we walked back to the train station.  You rarely see anyone sitting down eating their gelato – everyone walks through the streets with their cones, licking and looking at the sights, giving both their taste buds a wonderful experience as well as their eyes.

Views driving to Monticino

On Thursday, we all hopped in the car to Penzia to try out their world-famous pecorino cheese.  Can any food in this country be bad?  The cheese melted onto the bread and was like candy with blackberry jam on it.  We also enjoyed wild boar – we had to at least try it since we get to hear the barking dogs every morning and night. Surprisingly it was not bad (tasted like roast beef).  After lunch, we crossed the street to a wine shop and got a taste of Gappo – the Italian liquor that makes your mouth feel like it’s on fire (“Liquid Fire” as Lisa calls it).  It is horrible!  Two shots of that and I would be unable to function.  We had to take a breather after that drink but then we headed to Monticino for some wine tastings.  The tour of the first winery (Fanti) floored us because of the amount of care and time taken in producing the wine.  I kept thinking of Jon’s cousin Mario and his home-made wine.  I have a new-found appreciation for that process.  Monticino gave us a treasured gift at the end of our trip – the sunset.  We watched the sun go down from a stone wall at the top of the city.  It only lasted about three minutes but it was gorgeous.  We walked back to the car without a word to say – the experience could conjure up none.  We ate a “to-go” pizza that night (When Jude told us that no Italian pizzeria would give us pizza “to go” we had to find one!) and watched “Under the Tuscan Sun” since many of us had not seen it.

Mushroom Risotto

Friday was a bittersweet day for us because we knew it was our last day at the villa.  We walked through the market in Aquapendente and drove to Orvieto.  Orvieto is a quaint little hilltop town with classy shoppes and lots of narrow streets and pop-up views of Tuscan hills and trees.  We bought our obligatory souvenirs and enjoyed our never-ending gelato.  We hurried back home to meet our Italian cook who we had hired to make us a four-course Italian meal on our last night in Aquapendente.  We arrived to the sweet aromas of the Italian kitchen, and made our way up-stream to Jude’s house for a bon-voyage glass of wine and figs with walnuts and gorgonzola.  The figs tasted like nothing I have had before.  If politeness was not a barrier, I would have emptied the tray in my mouth all at once.  After Jude’s, it was back for more delicious food at our villa.  Arugula, parmesan and cured beef salad, risotto with mushrooms, chicken breast and grilled peppers, and chocolate mousse with cookie wafers.  What should have been a three-hour meal took us under an hour to consume!  We were starved and the food was way too good.  We laughed so hard at this fact – typical Americans gobbling their food up without taking any rest.  Ahh, c’est la vie.  We drank wine to extend the time out and then found ourselves on Faceb0ok looking up past friends from high school (“oh, look at her! “yikes, look at him!”). 

A quintessential Tuscan scene

On Saturday morning, we packed up the car and headed for Rome.  What a nightmare.  Actually, it could have been a much bigger nightmare if it wasn’t for Lisa’s spectacular driving through the chaotic Roman streets.  We missed a highway turn-off due to the complete lack of signs before the turn-off telling us where to go.  We have the luxury in the States of having signs that tell us when an exit is coming and where it will lead us.  Not so much in Rome.  However, because we are five intelligent and resourceful women, and we found our way back to where we needed to be and got to the airport with ten minutes to spare on the car rental (before we were charged another $140 euro). 

Rome felt like we had been thrown into a coliseum to fight for our life.  Ok, maybe I exaggerate a bit but it did feel overwhelming with the number of tourists pushing their way around and the high decibel levels compared to the countryside.  After years of hearing about the Vatican and the Pantheon and the fountains, it was an experience to see them in person.  But as amazing and ornate as the Vatican and the Basilica and the Pantheon were, I still gravitated to the small humble church at the top of the Spanish Steps.  It felt like home; if I had lived in the 15th century, I would have been a peasant rather than a royal.  We all got our picture at the Fountain of Trevi tossing a coin into the water and we all got our last gelato – extra big – at the corner gelato store.  And to think I had my reservations about going on this trip….  I was slammed with work, trying to sell my house, trying to renovate and move into a new house, and just tired.  But my girlfriends worked on this trip, nonetheless, and never gave me a bit of slack for not participating as much.  To the contrary, they called to check in on my mental well-being (thank god) and kept me up to speed on the latest about the trip.  This trip provided just what I needed before my 40th birthday – time to reconnect with my girlfriends and myself – to reflect on what I want in my fortieth decade – to appreciate all that I have in my life – and to laugh hysterically with my soul sisters. 

The girls

I wonder what 50 will bring?!

4 thoughts on “Tuscany for Five

  1. Patty says:

    Oh, Mary, I enjoyed your blog so much! It brought back lots of memories of Joe and my trip, so long ago! We also ate a lot of gelato. Driving in Rome is a challenge, I used the horn a lot like the natives do! I remember trying to get across the bridge to go to the Vatican, finally after going around a block several times, I just went the wrong way on a one-way street. The policeman just looked at me, smiled and threw his arms up in the air! I made it without incident or a ticket!

    You are so lucky that your childhood friends are still dear and close.

    It sounds like a beautiful experience. So glad you all were able to go.

    Love you, Patty

    • marymenkedick says:

      Patty – Your story is great and does not surprise me! I bet that policeman thought you were way too cute to do anything to! We are going to have to plan a trip over there with the Ionno crew – can you imagine?! Maybe we’ll shoot for a US trip first and then try for Italia! Love you!

  2. Kevin says:

    Sounds like a wonderful time. Italy’s an amazing country.

    Margie and I were married in Siena in a civil ceremony in the Torre del Mangia right on the Piazza del Campo where we bought wine after the ceremony for our paid witnesses, our wedding guide who helped us through the bureaucracy, and a Belgian couple we met the night before in a restaurant.

  3. marymenkedick says:

    That is too funny! What a magnificent location for a wedding. I loved Siena – it seemd that every side road had its own little charm be it a spectacular view to the hills or a quaint view of window sills with flower baskets, Where are you and Margie off to next? Maybe we should do a yearly swap where we get Dagmawit one year while you travel and you get M&M the next year while Jon and I travel!?

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