Casting off!

We are finally on our way from Barcelona. Won’t be able to post until St Marteen on 17 th of November. Talk to you all then!

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Tuscany.

I had always thought that those glorious views of Tuscany you see in travel magazines were all taken from only one or two spots. Well after our three days of driving to, through and from Tuscany, let me tell you the whole place looks likes those pictures (well except for a few industrial areas). It was just beautiful even though we were in and out of sprinkling rain for most of the time.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. We left Modena on Saturday morning (boy driving in a city in daylight and on a weekend is MUCH easier than at night at weekday rush hour!) headed for Lucca. The non toll routing provided by the car’s navigation system took us up and down and up and around some teeny tiny roads through the mountains. While beautiful, it was a hoot when we hit some tiny village and had to do a 12 point turn to make a right turn in the middle of the town. We stopped at one place along the way and bought some 40 month old Parmesan-omg, so good and only 7 bucks or so a pound. Wish we could fit a wheel in the suitcase!

At the top of the mountains we stopped at a ski resort for a break and a hot chocolate and saw snow!

In the drive down the other side we came across the medieval footbridge, Pont de Magdalena. I’m still trying to figure out what was being brought down the river from the mountains that needed such a high arch.

From there we arrived shortly in Lucca to find some sort of Comic-Con or Halloween festival going on. We drive around this walled city but the nearest parking was a mile away so we decided it wasn’t going to be possible to do a quick stop for lunch and elected to head on.

While being in Italy on a long holiday weekend had its advantages (chocolate festival!), it also impacted our trip. Places that typically wouldn’t have been crowded on a Thursday or Friday were (Sirmione) and I think the crowds were bigger at the villages in Tuscany over the weekend that they would have been otherwise.

We stopped for a quick sandwich in a suburb of Lucca and then continued to San Gimignano. This walled town is a wonderful memory from my time in graduate school in Genova. After spending a rushed two days in Florence trying to see everything an architectural student should see, our group of 9 spent a night in this village of towers in 1981. Rather than having to see things, we were able to just “be”. When we exited the only really nice Hotel we stayed in that semester on that Sunday morning, we walked onto the Piazza Cisterna (water well) to find a very blonde (Finnish?) brass quartet sitting around the well playing. Other than the four of them and the nine of us, it was like we had the whole town to ourselves. Over his objections, we all told our professor we weren’t leaving quite yet and pulled out our sketchbooks so he wouldn’t keep complaining and enjoyed an extra hour in what was then a magical place.

Unfortunately like all places, tourists are now all over town and we arrived to find a market taking place everywhere because of the holiday weekend. Needless to say it wasn’t peaceful but it was picturesque. We had a jarra (pitcher) of the local white wine and shared a cheese plate while people watching in the piazza before leaving for Staggia our home for the final two nights in Italy.

Our Airbnb in Staggia was in a renovated fortress and in addition to a wonderful loggia was at the ground floor so no toting of bags up stairs! Our only complaint was the bed was really really low-it was like they had taken the typical low IKEA bed we have had in a number of places and cut the legs off!

None of us were overly hungry so Mike and I ate the salad we had bought in Milan and been carrying around with us. After dinner Mike and I went exploring around our place and came across a bakery with the biggest croissants I’ve ever seen. We should have bought one to share for breakfast but didn’t so I can say whether it’s taste was as grand as it’s size.

On Saturday morning we headed to Sienna. It was a raining on and off so we elected to only do a quick walk through the Campo, Sienna’s major piazza and have a cup of coffee under an almost rainproof awning before heading back to the parking lot outside the walls (and down five escalators!).

This grand space is the location of the Palio horse race. While it would be incredible to see this 90 second race (3 times around) I don’t think I could deal with the claustrophobia of being one of the 50,000 spectators!

The square is dominated by the tower on the City Hall. Across from it, is the fountain where running water was first brought into the city. I was amazed that the drain at the bottom of the plaza wasn’t larger given how much water it must handle.

From Sienna we headed towards Montalcino, one of many wine villages. This walled town was the location today if some sort of scavenger hunt so there were lots and lots of runners climbing up and down the steps and hills getting their cards stamped. We enjoyed walking through the town and had a light lunch of a shared wine, meat and cheese tasting.

Afterwards we headed off to Montepulciano another wine town. It was the first town in days without a festival! Like the others the interior and exterior views were great. Mike and I agreed that next time we are in Tuscany, we want to spend two or three weeks in one of these small towns and really get to know them.

We returned to the apartment and finished up the two bottles of wine we had purchased in San Gimignano before heading half a block down the street for our final Italian dinner.

We had a great time with Roberto our host, waiter and son of the chef and chefess. We were the only non Italians in the 24 seat restaurant and were made to feel right at home. Before long the place was full and it was obvious that both the staff and the guests believed in having s good time.

Peggy had chicken liver pate with onions and anchovies as her starter along with her bottle of white wine. The pate was good even for this non liver lover.

Lowell had pici (a local pasta that is like a twisted spaghetti-each piece is made by hand – with tomato and LOTS of garlic. Very tasty!

Mike and I split a bowl of pappardelle in Mom’s meat sauce. Delicious!

For her dinner, Peggy had pici with anchovies and breadcrumbs. She loves her anchovies. It was great though we don’t have a picture.

Lowell, Mike and I split a Steak Florentine-1.3 kilos (46 ounces) of deliciousness.

Along with the steak we had a salad and a platter of the best potatoes ever. The were thinly (but obviously hand done) sliced and fried with garlic, sage and lots of salt. The picture below is after we had all eaten a handful. So so good!

Peggy is celebrating her 39th birthday (we don’t ask what anniversary of her 39th!) later in the cruise and after much wine (we were intrigued with how Roberto left the cork attached to the bottle) Lowell told Roberto about it and he brought out a birthday dessert and the whole restaurant sang Happy Birthday in Italian to Peggy.

As you can see in the picture above, guests sign the restaurant’s wall which we did and Lowell gave Roberto a $2 bill to paste on the wall with his.

Roberto brought us all grappa to end our dinner. None of us needed it and given we had to wake P&L up the next morning (they typically are very early risers) methinks they may have been overserved!

Our trip to Cittivechia the next day was uneventful and we boarded the ship by 1 pm.

Modena. (Or is there ever too much chocolate?)

not sure why (bad Spanish Internet? But all the pictures in this post aren’t loading. So sorry but here is the text.

We left Milan early in the morning and headed towards Modena our next resting spot. But first we had a hilltop town, two more lakes and a castle to see.

Our first stop was Bergamo. Mike and I had visited here last June so when we arrived and found parking near the upper city (Alta Citta) impossible, I dropped Mike, Lowell and Peggy (hereafter M,P&L) off at the upper gate and I drove to the lower gate of this walled city and sat in the car while M,P&L walked through town. They went into the Duomo but otherwise basically did a quick walk through.

From there we headed to Iseo ( on Lake Iseo) for a quick stop on our way to Lake Garda.

Peggy had selected Sirmione as our next stop. This town is on a peninsula that extends into Lake Garda. At the midpoint is the peninsula is Castello Scaligero which was built in the 14th century.

The medieval town and lake surrounding the castle are beautiful and could easily be used for a Disney movie.

We had a delicious lunch. Mike and I halfed and halfed lasagne and a local cod dish with polenta. While tasty I was disappointed that the polenta was grilled and not more liquid. Unfortunately we were both apparently too busy eating to take any pictures. sorry.

After lunch we continued onto Modena. Due to parking issues in Sirmione we needed up leaving later than planned which meant it was after dark when we got to Modena. We had difficulty locating our airbnb (the holiday festival and one way streets only raised my frustration level) but after a couple of phone calls to the host we finally found the right address and checked into our lovely home for the next two nights.

The apartment was located within the historic center which made driving difficult and after that stress of the previous night my passengers suggested and I readily agreed to trashing our plans to visit Verona and some other nearby towns and instead spend the next day in Modena.

Of course, after we discovered that there was a chocolate festival literally at our doorstep with vendors’ stalls for the next eight or ten blocks we knew we made the right decision! For dinner that night we basically had chocolate albeit not shoes or handcuffs!

The next morning we visited the Grande Plaza with the Duomo and the City Hall. We also went inside to the the “historic rooms” of the City Hall. Including a very old organ.

From the main square it was only half a block to the city market. As usual incredible sights, smells and tastes-including porcetta and prosciutto!

It had started sprinkling as we left the market so we headed towards the Ferrari Museum. Along the way we passed the Ducal Palace which was covered in scaffolding-but here it is as well a the view from it across its piazza towards Duomo.

Enzo Ferrari was born in Modena and started his empire in the building below which houses a display about his life and various engines.

The old garage is surrounded by a modern building which was inspired by the boot of a Ferrari.

The main display has cars from all eras. The space itself is very interesting-sloped floor from top to bottom in a curve and with a huge projection system where they show a film on Ferrari’s life and the history of the brand and team.

Of course there is a gift shop and Cafe which was in the curved part of the building looking out on the historic garage.

As always I love the juxtaposition of ancient and contemporary:

After a wet walk in the rain Back to the apartment we called it a day and ate our market purchases for supper.

I am posting this from the Barcelona cruise terminal after a beautiful day. I’ll do a full Barcelona post in the future but here is a teaser of the inside of Sagrada Famila. OMG it’s astounding. What a change from when we were here in the mid 1990s and it didn’t have a roof or windows or full height columns! (Oh, no filter used!)

They had the hole in the ship repaired when we got off this morning and were in the process of painting it but Mike just texted from onboard and the rumor is we may not be leaving until tomorrow. No biggie-what else do I have to do?

There’s a hole in our ship!

Two weeks or so ago we relieved an email from Norwegian Cruise Lines informing us of an itenerary change. Rather than arriving in Barcelona at 5 am on Wednesday and departing at 5 pm, we would arrive at 6 pm Tuesday night (today) and not leave until 8 pm. This change was required “in order to complete some technical repairs not impacting the safety of the ship”. No skin off our backs, extra time in Barcelona sounded fine by us. But wondered what was going to be repaired.

After we docked, Clay was sitting in the room at the desk with the balcony door open and was startled by the window washing apparatus going by with its driver who laughed and waved when Clay screamed like a girl. Turns out the apparatus was being moved to help out with this repair but we didn’t realize it until after dinner when we returned to the room to find the side of the ship bathed in work lights, two cranes and a hoard of hard hats lifting a crankshalf into a newly cut hole in the ship (above the waterline thank goodness) and two other hardhats grinding away on the removed hull portion presumably preparing it for reinstallation.

You can’t tell from the pictures but there a section of deck inside the hole has been removed so that the new crankshaft can be delicately maneuvered to the lower deck. Clay took the pictures below, some from our balcony but most from the pier. While ashore he got to talking to a retired nuclear plant engineer who had pictures of the old crankshaft sitting (in five pieces) on the pier in Civittivechia before he boarded. Apparently it had been cut into chunks aboard and then removed through already existing openings. According to this guy, the ship has five generators, three for the engine (need two for full speed), one to run the ship, and one spare. So I guess they were right when it said it wouldn’t affect safety.

Fingers crossed that they don’t drop the crankshalf before they get it fully aboard…or drop the hull portion overboard before they get it rewelded onto the ship!

But at the rate they are going-the crankshaft is now inside the ship (it is 11:10 pm) it looks like Norwegian had done great planning and logistics.Though I’m sure some folks will be complaining about that noise and lights. I hope the grinding is about done so I won’t be one of the complainers.

Views from the pier:

The view from our balcony:

Milano and Lake Como.

After our haircuts yesterday, Mike & I rode the train into Milano to meet P&L who were seeing the Last Supper, the Duomo, etc. all places we had visited last Spring. We arrived earlier than we had to and took the opportunity to visit the Sforza Castle seen at the top of this post. This castle built by Duke Sforza in the 15th century (on 14th century foundations) was enlarged in the 16th and 17th centuries to become one of Europe’s largest forts. Despite being heavily damaged during bombing in WWII it now serves as a museum and a great outdoor space. We arrived just as the exterior lighting was coming on which added to it’s impressiveness.

Our original plan had been to meet P&L and go to I navigl (Milan’s canal district) for apertivo as our supper. However, they both decided that they had “hit the wall” which given they had been going not stop (well except for a couple of hours of napping on their short flight from JFK) for 28 or more hours was not unreasonable. So we decided to pick up some salad and wine to go with the pasta and sauce Cinzia, our Airbnb host had left for us and eat dinner at home.

This morning we left the apartment about 8 and drove towards Lake Como for our circumnavigation of the lake (shown in red on the map). I had hoped we would avoid rush hour traffic but it appears that like all major cities, that’s not possible. We left the blue dot following the red line to Lecco. We made one stop quick there for the first siting of the lake and then continued on to Varenna.

After parking (easy peasy in the fall! We can only imagine what it’s like in the summer) we had coffee and hot chocolate to warm us up on this dreary and chilly day-thankfully no rain but we could see clouds and what we presumed was snow falling on the Alps in the Swiss distance. (And you know what snow becomes when it’s not in the mountains 😢 but I’m getting ahead of myself).

After our coffee we walked from the ferry station along a lakeside walkway to the real Varenna-fishing boats and restaurants and stairs of course. It is a lovely town and in our opinion just as picturesque as Bellagio and not as touristy.

From Varrena we confined north towards Switzerland but came short of it by 21 miles by road and less than 10 as a bird flies. We crossed over the River Mera which joins Lake Mezzola (off the top of the map above) and then started down the western side of Como.

We left the lake road at Gravedona and started climbing up incredible narrow and winding streets (mirrors at all the switchbacks) to reach a restaurant that I found on Trip Advisor.

On the way up Peggy said I sure hope this meal is worth you having to drive these streets. Thankfully on the way down she said it was…to which Mike replied, “wait till we get down with the car undamaged before you say that!”

We entered the restaurant as the only guests as they were decorating for their special Halloween dinner.

Halloween is relatively new in Italy and appears to mostly be about having a special dinner out or perhaps a small party. From what I can gather kids don’t Trick or Treat house to house. We did see a few shops and restaurants that had what appeared to be bags prepared and we saw a group of simply costumed kids going into one of the stores.

I had selected this restaurant because they serve Pizzocheri-the buckwheat pasta, potato, cabbage and cheese dish of this region.

Cinizia had made it for us in the Spring (she is from the mountains). Hers was better but I still enjoyed this.

In addition to this and numerous other pasta dishes, meat entrees and sides they also offered two set menus-one meat focused and the other based on fish. Peggy got tagliatelle with mushrooms (yummy!-probably the best dish of the day).

Mike and I halfed and halfed bresaola (dried beef-here served like capacio with Parmesan and arugula), insalda caprese, gnocchi with Gorgonzola and the pizzocheri pictures earlier.

Lowell ordered the set fish menu and had fried smelts, followed by trout with rice (really tasty) and then trout with butter and lemon and vegetables described as in pastry but in fact were the best fried veggies ever!

He ended up being so full after his first two courses (who knew they would all be so huge) that he took the last one home which along with Peggy’s leftover pasta became their dinner tonight-Mike and I didn’t have leftovers (no surprise there) so we had the pasta leftover from last night.

We all shared Lowell’s lemon sorbet dessert and then we were gifted with Lemoncello all around!

The views of the lake and the Alps from the restaurant in this little village were beautiful. It would be great to eat on their terrace.

After successfully making it back down to the lake (the route line changes from red to blue on the map above) we continued towards Como. The original plan had been for us to drop P&L at one of the villages and they take the ferry to a village further south where we would pick them up. This was mostly so Peggy could wave at the George, Amal and the twins. However, that Swiss snow we had seen earlier had become Italian rain and she decided she would have to live with seeing the gate on the road to Villa Oleandra rather than it’s beautiful side that faces the lake.

The drive along the lake was lovely but scary as hell. The road is waaay to narrow for opposing lanes of traffic. In several places they have stops lights to stop traffic in one direction so that the cars from the other direction can drive-sorta like a signal person on a road under construction. In some places the road is so narrow you can see scrape marks on the stone buildings on one side or the other Thank goodness for electrically retractable side mirrors! But we made it back unscathed except for our nerves.

We saw several beautiful villas and wonderful little towns-I wish the weather had of been conducive to exploring some of them. Oh well, next trip!

We had planned on apertivo in Como but without the ferry portion (nor the alternate visit to Villa Carlotta’s beautiful gardens due to the rain) we arrived there right at rush hour.

After a stressful drive around the edges of the pedestrian only historic center of Como (including the dreaded “Clay you are going up a wrong way street” from Mike) unsuccessfully looking for a place to park in the rain, we headed back towards home after Peggy said, ” I can see the Church’s dome-that’s good enough”.

The ride home wasn’t much better than the drive down towards Como. The car has onboard navigation but it apparently hasn’t been updated in a while, so it didn’t tell me to bear left so we ended up accidentally getting onto a new toll road (all electronic -no toll booths) so who knows what that is going to cost when the bill gets to Hertz (hey Gregor can you help a brother out? 😢). We realized it when suddenly on the GPS map we were driving across a field while the road was “over there”.

Anyway, after quickly exiting the toll road at the first availability, we continued on home through heavy traffic and a couple of more oops from the GPS system…”turn left back there”, go straight through the now concrete barricaded entry onto the highway, etc.

But made it back safe and sound and everyone is asleep except me (it’s 9:45 pm). Tomorrow we are headed to Modena (vinegar anyone?) via Bergamo, Lake Iseo and hopefully Gorgonzola!

They’re here!

Peggy and Lowell arrived (early!) in Milan after an awful day of delayed, canceled and changed connections (before they got to JFK). I met them at the airport, we picked up our rental minivan and went back to the hotel, picked up Mike and headed o our Airbnb in Paderno Dugnano.

This is our second time staying with Cinzia. It was great to see her smiling face again. After a short rest, we walked with Peggy & Lowell (hereafter P&L) to the train station (where the selfie above was taken) and they headed into downtown Milan for their Last Supper/Duomo/La Scala tour. We will meet them at 5:30 downtown for apertivo 🍷🍸🍹

Mike and I then had a delicious plate of carbonara and are now at our favorite Italian barber for a trim-Mike is getting head and beard, just beard for me, my head hair is almost long enough to tie back….finally!