Thursday, June 18, 2015

A medieval dinner

The following was the menu for our medieval dinner:
Antipasti: Skewers of cheese, salami, pork, bread and olives
First course:  Fava bean soup with mint and grilled crusts of bread
Main course: Pork shanks with salad
Desserts: Vin Santo and cookies

On the tables were pitchers of water and red wine. The tables were set. These Italians know how to party. The towns people were having as much fun as the visitors. What a great way to celebrate.

We found our spot.

And the meal began. First the antipasti arrived.

The skewers were stuck in large loaves of bread, which held them in place until there were served. Very clever.

We had entertainment between courses.  First the stilt people.

Not just on stilts but twirling flags.

Beautiful butterfly ladies on stilts were next.

Then the fava bean soup was delivered, pipping hot!

It was such a clever way to delier the food. Every 3 or four tables ahd their own pallet carrying the food for the next course. I can only imagine the behind the scenes staging area.

The next entertainment is a little difficult to explain. I THINK it was a battle between good (the girl in white) and evil (the girl in black). The whole thing was very surreal. 

They had wooden swords and sheilds, and the contraption that they were in moved down the street as they staged their battle.

The good girl.

The evil girl. It looks like they are doing some weird Pilates exercise, but they were indeed having a battle. How do they think of these things? On to the main course.

Remeber we only had a wooden spoon to eat with, so the salad was a bit messy but the meat was fun to pick up and gnaw away. It was as good as it looks.

I love the look on the blond's face. It is how we all felt when we saw the meat arrive.

The monks made sure we did not run out of wine.

More entertainment.

It was a spectacle.

Each chair had a plastic bag tied to it and we were given our bowls, plates, and cup to take home. That meant they had no dishes to wash and not as much trash! What a good idea. 

Certaldo in June. Remeber for next year!

Oh, we took Luca too. They are very dog friendsly.

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Boccacio and Certaldo

Giovanni Boccaccio, most noted for his writing of The Decameron, was born in Certaldo in Tuscany in 1313. Although he spent most of his adult life in and around Florence, he died in Certaldo in 1375. As a plot summary for the Decameron, it tells the story of 10 people (7 women and 3 men) who decide to leave Florence to escape the plague. They hang out in a villa in the countryside and in order to pass the time, each person agrees to tell one story each day for 10 days. Those math majors out there have calculated that we have 100 stories. Many of the stories have the same source material as Chaucer's Cantebury Tales, or so they say.

We went to Certaldo, not to revisit the tales of Boccaccio, but to eat, of course. Each year the town hosts a medieval dinner and show and we decided to attend with our dear friends Anna and John.  Certaldo is divided into two parts, the upper and lower part of town. The upper part, is the old section of town, and it is where the festival was held.

Certaldo is part of the province of Florence. It is actually about 22 miles southwest of Florence proper. It is roughly the same size as Umbertide with a population of about 14,000 people in both the upper and lower parts of the town.

This is the main street of town, before the festival was set up, called, what else Via Boccaccio.

There is a serernity in these medival towns that belie their often times violent history. As much as I try to imagine what life would have been like back then, I still find myself romanticizing about life in a small Tuscan town in the 1300's.
 At the other end of Via Boccaccio is the Palazzo Pretorio or Vicariale, the residence of the Florentine governors. It has recently been restored, and on its wall are ceramic coat of arms of influential families.

Around the corner was our hotel, the Osteria del Vicario. The building was formerly a monastery which has now been converted into an excellent restaurant and small hotel.

As evening approaches, the tables are set and the crowds started to gather. Through the entire length of the street, the tables were lined, and numbered. We had our tickets, which cost us 39E each and we wondered how in the world they were going to feed us all and get food to us? Any ideas?

This being Italy, we knew not to worry, but we were curious.

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Milan Expo

We were in Milano the weekend of June 6 and 7. We had tickets to attend Expo Sunday, June 7th. This was our first mistake. If you can help it, do not go to EXPO on a week end, particularly on a Sunday. The crowds will be massive, which is what we experienced.

The temperature in Milan was over 90 degrees and I HATE the heat. This was our second mistake. If you go to EXPO in the summer, I would suggest going at night. The fair opens at 10:00 AM and goes until 8:00pm. We got there as soon as it opened, shortly after 10:00 but by then it was already hot, hot, hot and crowded. My being overcome by the heat, undoubtedly colored my experience of EXPO. I was just too hot and cranky most of the time. Thank god they had shades covering the major walk way. I wouldn't have managed it otherwise.

Not that it was obvious to us, but the theme of this EXPO is "Feeding the Planet, Energy for Life" A very noble sounding cause. Each country was to examine its position regarding the theme and offer solutions regarding the major challenges of food.

EXPO is laid out in a design inspired by a Roman "castrum" shaped like a cross. There are two large perpendicular streets named Cardo and Decumano. The main square, Piazza Italia, is situated at the intersection of these two streets.  Ok...that is the official blurb.  We knew it was going to be about food and that we would see pavillions from different countries. So far, so good. The pavillions are not grouped by geography...all of the African pavillions together, or alphabetically. Instead they are grouped by 5 sub themes of : 1. The Story of Mankind the Story of Food. 2. Feast and Famine a Contemporary  paradox 3. The Future of Food 4. Sustainable Food= and equitable World 5. Taste is Knowledge.

OK...there was no way any of us got this. You know I love Italy and I love Italians but....I think the organization of EXPO became a little like the road signs at the end or a dead end road that put every possible little town on the sign. They way over complicated the message, and without a guide it just doesn't hang together, in my humble opinion.

As the Stoic One says they had way too much data not enough information. I'm just saying that the 4 of us had no idea how this thing was laid out. We kept looking at maps to find things. Nothing was intuitive.

Let's start at the beginning. As you come to the entrance of the fair, you are met by large statues of greeters. Like much of my experience at EXPO, I just kind of went huh?????  They're very big. I am unsure if they are supposed to relate to the 5 themes, the overall theme or are there because someone liked them.

Then down the broad street that houses the main pavillions.

Because this entry street was so wide, it did not appear that the fair was that crowded, was. Every pavillion we tried to get into was a 2 hour wait, so we started going into ones that were not on our Israel.

Ok. So Israel was a pavillion we could get into. It had an interesting multimedia show where a live person was talking to a person on the screen. Clever...then we learned that the Israelis invented the drip system and cherry tomatoes.  Ok.

Next we went to the Quatar pavilion. Why? Because we could get in! They had long tables that had virtual food on plates. You could use your finger and move the food from the grid on to your plate and then you got information about the food. Fun for kids. The problem was, there were still so many people, you couldn't take the time to read everything because people were pushing you along.

Might I add, there was nothing to eat at these pavilions..Eating was all congregated in specific area. We were too hot and cranky to eat.

The US did have a unique way to show how you could use vertical space to garden.

An interesting approach.

This was clever.

So we couldn't get into the Italian pavillion. By the time we made it all the way down to the end, the wait was 2 hours in line, in the sun. Not happening.

To summarize. It is finished! It is very easy to get to. Great public transport system. It is way too big to see in one day. Try to go during the week. We heard the Brazilian pavilion, the Japanese Pavilion and the Italian Pavilion are all fantastic. We wouldn't know.

To leave you on a high note. We all loved Milan. It was clean, people were friendly, happy to see tourists and the public transportation system in Milan is terrific. We also loved our hotel, Spadari al Duomo. Highly recommend it. Fantastic customer service.

We will go back to Milan if not to EXPO.

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Venice and Ravello

We are back. While other people have been holidaying here in Umbertide, we have been gone. We left May 25th with our dear friends from California, Ed and Lorraine.  We visited Venice, Florence the Amalfi Coast and Milano and just recently returned to Umbertide.

Venice was stunning as usual. The gang went to La Fenice to see the opera Madame Butterfly. The staging was modern and the performance was very good, although our musical expert Ed, thought the orchestra was stronger than the vocalists. If you have a chance to see a performance at this theater, we highly recommend it. The name, La Fenice means the Phoenix and indeed the theater has risen from its ashes several times, having been burned and then restored.

 If you have the time, I recommend taking a tour or buy tickets to see a performace.

Venice was crowded and we were happy we had made water taxi reservations on line.   If there are more than 2 of you, it is not as expensive as you might think and it beats being squished into the vaporetto with all of your luggage and you hanging off the side of the boat. We mainly walked around and tried to avoid the crowds.

Florence was a quick trip and then we were on to Ravello.

I have heard about the Amalfi coast for years, but we never made our way down there, thinking it would be too crowded, too touristy. Indeed it is both those things, but still is worth the trip. We took the Freccia Rossa (Fast red arrow) train from Florence to Naples and then arranged for someone to pick us up at the train station. Driving on those twisty, turny roads is not something the Stoic One or Edward wanted to do. It worked perfectly. We were picked up and then were dropped at our hotel about 30 minutes later. Ravello is not on the coast itself, but its placement allows for fantastic views.

We stayed at the Hotel Parsifal, a 3 star hotel with a view that went forever, and flawless customer service.

Ravello was founded in the 5th century. The town has an amazing number of villas worth visiting and has a history of rich patricians who came and stayed in this area. It is now called the City of Music because of its music festival that goes from June through September.

The 1953 film, Beat the Devil was shot in Ravello. It was often visited by Jackie Kennedy and Gore Vidal once had his home here. It is a very tranquil, peaceful place that we enjoyed very much.

There were many places to sit, have an aperativo and admire the view.

There are still the touristy stores here, but nothing like the craziness of Amalfi. Look at the lemons that are being sold at this market. They are in the top basket on the right hand side. They look like grapefruit but they are a variety of lemons called "cedro"!

A typical store in Ravello. I loved the ceramic dog who guarded the entrance.

This was a store that caused us all to pause and wonder about its wares.

We did not see Sophia Loren hanging around, but the men kept a look out.

We went to visit the Villa Cimbrone. This villa's history goes back 900 years. The gardens are definitely worth a stop. They were developed in the 20th century by Lord Grimthorpe...don't you love these English names?

Our St. Francis shows up everywhere in Italy.

The views of the moonlight on the sea were equally romantic. There is a softness about the colours and air that induces a sense of serenity.

We did venture down the mountain to visit Amalfi. The Duomo is definitely worth the time and effort to see.

The Cathedral of St. Andrew is up on a hill for protection. The coastline made this part of Italy easy pickings for any aggressors who came by sea. A way of protection was to have parts of the town built on top of the hills and then the streets were very narrow and windy. As the soldiers would climb the streets, they would be met by boiling olive oil poured down upon them.

The Cathedral was built in the 1200's. The remarkable thing about it is the crypt inside that holds the relics of St. Andrew.

The craftsmanship and artistry of this cathdral is a bit overwhelming. We all sat in one of the pews, and quietly reflected upon the life's work of these people from 800 years ago.

And then, of course, to lunch.

The water is so clear, and the fish, as expected was fresh and excellent.

We enjoyed Amalfi, but we were very happy to return to our quiet spot in Ravello.