A food day in Siena

Yesterday we went on a “Taste of Siena” walk and class offered by The Tuscan Wine School. It was great fun. We walked to some great shops tasting Pecorino cheese, various cured sausages, fantastic coffee, pastries, olive oil, chocolate and, of course, wine. We visited Bini Pasticeria operated by the same couple since 1944. Theirs is the only shop still making Paneforte, the gooey Sienese version of fruit cake, in the shop the old fashion way and only selling it there. After food, wine and coffee, the event was topped with Aqua Vitae and Lemoncino. I have no idea how we staggered home for a well earned nap.

October third, day before yesterday, was the twentieth anniversary of our first date. We celebrated last night at Traverna di San Giuseppe, rated number one in Siena according to Trip Advisor. Yet another peak culinary experience, of particular note was the traditional Sienese bread soup with black cabbage and cannelloni beans. We put away a bottle of great local red topping a day of Tuscan food.

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This morning we took a bus to Florence where we were to catch the high speed train south. With a few hours to kill we had hoped to see a couple of sights we missed when we were here 17 years ago. Alas the Museum of the Duomo was closed. We knew they were working on it but thought parts would be open including Lorenzo Ghilberti’s famous bronze doors to the Bapistry, the work that kicked off the renaissance. Still it was good to wander the streets in the shadow of the Duomo and see the Arno river – great memories.

We did manage to get into the Palazzo Medici-Ricardi, former home of the ruling Medici clan. A young Michelangelo lived and studied here. Leonardo would entertain on the viola de gamba and Donatello studied the classical sculptures in the garden. In the private chapel the frescos depict the coming of the Magi. But the scenery and clothing is all 15th c. Florentine complete with the Medici clan in the procession.

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After wearing ourselves out walking we are now on the aforementioned train. Tomorrow we go deep – Napoli!

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Siena’s biggies

After breakfast on il terrazzo at our hotel (with the aforementioned view) we headed for Il Campo and the 300 plus steps of the Torre del Mangia (tower of food). The immense medieval tower is so called because the keeper of old literally ate up all his wages. After climbing to the top I can understand why. But the view was worth the effort.

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We then hit the Museo Civico in the town hall. The highlight was the fresco by Lorenzetti titled The Effects of Good and Bad Government. The good side depicts a benevolent ruler overseeing happy citizens enjoying music and dance, conducting commerce and bringing in a bountiful harvest. On the bad government side we see a satanesque ruler, corrupt officials, crime and violence in the streets. Siena’s civic government was one of the first to emerge from the feudal chaos of medieval Europe. These frescos, in the halls of local government, sent a clear message.

Hunger stricken from our effort we hit a local deli and grocer for a picnic at our hotel.

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After a well earned siesta we visited the Duomo and accompanying museum. The Duomo is in my top ten in Europe. The style ranges from late romanesque to early gothic.

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Treasures abound, Donatello’s John the Baptist, the incredible floor mosaic of the Slaughter of the Innocents, Pisano’s 13th c. marble pulpit, Bernini’s Saint Jerome.

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But for me the pièce de résistance was Duccio’s Maestá in the museum. This altar piece of Mary enthroned with baby Jesus is one of the most sublime paintings I have ever seen. And I’ve seen a few. Unfortunately photos in the museum are verboten so you’ll have to goggle it to see for yourself.

Still in a state of grace, we trekked through the back lanes of medieval Siena to our hotel and a little break before a light dinner at some local trattoria.

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Sad to say goodbye

After a low key “day off” from our vacation yesterday, we had another epic meal, this time at A Cantina de Mananan in Corniglia. All I can say is I ate an octopus and like it, no, I loved it. The pasta con pesto was also top notch.

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This morning we had to say goodbye to our new found friends, the Barrani family. After breakfast Signora Elena gave us each a hearty handshake and a warm smile. When Angela translated to her that we were heading to Siena, Elena said what everyone says “ahhh Siena.” When she learned we were then on to Napoli she shook her hand at the wrist in an ay-ay-ay expression. It saddened us to leave. We will never forget them.

Four trains and four hours later we were in another world rolling through the hills of Tuscany. The afternoon found us sitting on one of the greatest medieval squares in Europe, Il Campo, Siena, sipping a cold beverage and munching antipasti.

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Our hotel, Albergo Bernini, has just ten old school rooms and one hell of a view. Tomorrow we hit the sights in Siena.

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One to remember

Every traveler hopes for a peak experience, some connection to the places we visit that goes beyond the museums, cathedrals and restaurants. If we are lucky we get at least one on each trip but it doesn’t always happen. This morning we had such an experience. It began last night after dinner. We have been sharing our B&B with a group of German travelers. We’ve gotten to know a couple of them and they are a fun loving bunch. Last night as we were leaving the dining room Kay mentioned that we were musicians and that I was a pretty good guitar player. One of the fellows jumped up and said “we have to find a guitar.” Within minutes he had quizzed the Barrani family and learned that the daughter in-law, Angela, was a guitarist and had one I could borrow. He arranged for her to bring it to breakfast the next day and I was to entertain them. This we did and it was great fun. But that wasn’t the magical moment. It happened after the Germans went on their way. Only Kay, Angela and I were left with Signora Barrani (Elena) in the kitchen across the hall. I asked Angela if she would play something. She had been reluctant to play in front of the larger group. She said “I only play for Paolo and the family, but we are family now.” She sat down and played three finger style tunes beautifully: a samba, a bossa nova version of Fly Me to the Moon and a wonderful version of Dust in the Wind, playing the melody as well as the finger style accompaniment. She was very good! At one point Signora Elena came in and sat next to me with a gentle smile and look of great pride in her daughter in-law. Angela was too shy to perform in front of strangers but we were no longer strangers.

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The rest of the day was wonderful by ordinary travel standards. We hiked an hour and a half to the next village, Vernazza. It was a great, moderately difficult hike with breathtaking views, cool olive groves, and many stone stairs.

Corniglia:

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It was market day and Vernazza was packed with locals and tourists alike. After Corniglia this town of 500, with an equal number of tourists, felt like the big city. We strolled the town and the waterfront then had a delightful lunch at Il Pirata delle Cinque Terre, run by twin brothers from Sicily – great bean and pesto soup, wonderful salad and the best bread we’ve had, including in France! We washed it all down with the local bianco and topped it off with great coffee. Ah Italia. One of the brothers berated a tourist who came in, used the rest room and left without as much as a by your leave. He wasn’t angry because the guy didn’t order anything. He was mad that the fellow hadn’t even bothered to say “Buon Giorno.” He was right!

Vernazza:

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Italia!

Yesterday, after a mind numbing, back breaking six and a half hours on trains, we landed in the Cinque Terre (five lands), five villages clinging to the cliffs over the Mediterranean just south of Genoa. The towns are connected by rail, boat and foot path. Along with the surrounding, terraced vineyards, low brush and cliffs they comprise a national park. As a result development is strictly controlled maintaining the old charm of the villages. The place is well discovered and pretty full of tourist. Nevertheless it feels real. The old timers still sit on the bench in the town square, begrudging the visitors, but no doubt glad for their money. The church bell still rings loudly every half hour through the night as if to say “this is still our town, you are just guests.”

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Corniglia, our home base, is the middle of the five and the only one without a harbor. As such it is slightly less touristed than the others but only slightly. We’re staying at Barrani Agritourismo, a B & B connected to the Barrani family farm. Signora Barrani is an acclaimed chef. Last night she cooked up an amazing feast for her guests. The antipasto was fresh anchovies in olive oil with bell pepper and olives – not the extreme, salty canned stuff we’re used to – these were mild and delicious. The secondi was penne with a sauce of tomato and eggplant that was melt in your mouth. Signora Barrani makes the pasta from scratch! I’d been craving pasta with a tomato sauce and this was perfect. The primi consisted of thinly sliced, lean, roast pork in a reduction with onion, pepper, carrot and zucchini. The pork was tender, the sauce was to die for. The meal was perfectly matched with a local vino bianco and topped with a small glass of sciacchetrà, a local desert wine. We were served alone on a third story balcony over looking the town’s tiny chapel and gardens of the upper town. Molto romantico.

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Today we took the train to the south most village, Riomaggiore. From there we took the ferry to the north most, Monterosso al Mare stopping briefly at Manarola and Vernazza, the other two towns with landings. The Mediterranean sparkled. Gulls hung on the updrafts against a clear blue sky. The towns clung like crystals of amber, red and peach to the blue-gray cliffs streaked with white, thrusting out of the sea. Between the towns and cliffs, ancient terraced vineyards cascaded towards the water.

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We lunched in Monterosso on shrimp and avacado salad and took the train home. Tonight another feast from Signora Barrani.

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A day in Nice

After a long uneventful travel day we are enjoying the Riviera in Nice. Blurry eyed tourist mix with rough locals, North Africans and beautiful people wannabes in this resort town with an edge. This morning we visited the Marc Chagall Museum. Chagall donated many of his greatest works and helped design the building. Kay and I are huge Chagall fans and the museum did not disappoint. Despite being loaded with people some of whom could not have cared less and some of whom were down right rude, the magnificent huge canvases of biblical themes took my breath away.

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This is the birth of Adam. Notice the image of Jesus on the cross in the upper right. Although Chagall was Jewish he repeatedly depicted the crucifixion which for him symbolized the sacrifice and suffering of the Jewish people.

After lunch and a little siesta we walked down the Promenade des Anglais, so named because it was built for English tourists on the grand tour in the late nineteenth century. A few of the great old hotels survive. One can imagine the upper crust of Northern Europe strolling the walk, covered in marble so they wouldn’t get there shoes dirty. The marble is gone but the tourist are still here.

We walked on into Vieux Nice, the old town, to Cours Saleya, a traffic free square where there is a daily flower market. As luck would have it there was a band playing traditional French dances and 50 or so people dancing – not a tourist show, just locals changing dance steps as the band leader called them out. The band featured three accordions, pretty scary!

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Here’s a example of the nineteenth century architecture.

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This building is across the street from our B&B. Tomorrow we leave France for Italy and the Cinque Terre!

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The Côtes du Rhône

Today, our last day exploring Provence, we drove a loop route around the Denetelles du Montmirails, the craggy peaks in the heart of the Côtes du Rhône region, famous for its wine. Our first stop was yet another impossibly picturesque medieval hill town, Le Crestet. Although they are beginning to run together the do each have they’re unique charm. We had hoped to have a nosh at Le Panoramique, which has an amazing view as one might imagine. But alas the place was closed despite the open sign outside. We compared notes and chewed the fat with a couple Canadians before returning to the road.

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At the top of 1500 foot Col de la Chaine (Pass of the Chain) we paused to take in the rugged Denetelles.

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Down from the pass the valley opened up into lush vineyards. The grapes are ripe and the harvest is just beginning.

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For lunch we pulled off on a short dirt road to Côte Vignes restaurant. We were a little early at this prototypical Provençal country kitchen. The staff and family were still having they’re meal before opening up. Madame cheerfully seated us and offered wine, which we declined, and water which we did not, while we waited. They were completely un phased by our presence. It was a wonderful scene watching a French family slowly enjoy there mid-day meal. We felt a little voyeuristic but they really didn’t seem to mind. After a time folks started arriving. Madame gave many the three cheek air kiss denoting family or close friends. Mostly working men, they ate and drank heartily before heading back to work. I must confess we over did it a little. I had a large salad with several thin pieces of toasted baguette each with a piece of warm goat cheese on top. Kay had artichoke hearts stuffed with lardon (Provençal bacon). And that was just the entrée. For la plat it was chicken brochettes with plenty of roast veggies for me and beef in a light brown cream sauce for Kay. How we ever managed to stand up and walked to the car is a mystery.

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The rest of our pleasant journey included coffee in Gigondas then back to Vaison La Romaine. Tomorrow we drop the car off in Avignon and leave Provence for the Côtes du Azur, better known to us Yanks as the French Riviera.

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Not more Roman ruins!?

Last night we were treated to another mind blowing gastronomical experience at O’Natur’elles. Run by two vivacious women ( note the play on words – elles is feminine they in French ), the cozy place features all “Bio” ( french for organic ) ingredients with vegetarian choices as well as meat.

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The food would be a huge hit in organo/locavore Portland. They even had an organic French whisky. This was too much for me. So despite the fact that we had already put away a half bottle of delicious rouge I tried it and it was memorable – gentle with a sweet finish, not so rough and smokey as my beloved Scottish malts but highly satisfying.

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I know, dear reader, you will find it hard to believe but we spent today looking at Roman ruins and walking through an old medieval town. The Roman stuff was great – cool little museum and a good bit of ancient Vasio excavated. All presented with a good audio guide.

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Across a Roman bridge was the fortified medieval village. It was drizzling a bit and that combined with stone lanes and buildings gave us the feeling of a kind of pilgrimage. Despite a good number of visitors it was peaceful, everyone speaking in hushed tones.

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On our way back to the hotel we picked up a loaf of pain au levain (sourdough) from a local boulanger much like the bread I make back home. Tonight we’re dining in on our remaining farmers market booty.

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A fond farewell

It was with some regret that we bid farewell to our gracious host and hostess at the Hôtel des Voyageurs. Before hitting the road we checked out the local farmers market right in front of the hotel and picked up some dried figs, apricots and prunes. The figs were particularly hummy.

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Driving north the terrain became rocky and the vegetation rough as we climbed up the Luberon plateau towards Mont Ventoux. We traversed steep canyons of white cliffs until finally emerging into a high valley filled with farmland. Our first stop was the cliffside town of Montbrun les Bains.

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We walked the steep lanes of the old village to the small Romanesque church and views of the valley and towns around.

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This part of France feels particularly untouristed. We did meet a few hearty souls but it feels a world away from big bus Provence. From Montbrun we turned west up the long valley in the far shadow of Mont Ventoux. The scenery was magnificent! Low brush gave way to pine forest. The valley floor filled with lavender fields, The gray-blue rocks of the mountain looming above.

For lunch we visited the tiny hamlet of Savoillans – one café, a church and a handful of ancient rock dwellings. We shared the café with some German travelers. Once walking the little allies and stone stairs of the town we were completely alone.

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Satisfied with our lunch of melon and ham for me and a quiche for Kay we returned to the road. After a few kilometers of beautiful country we found the town of Brantes clinging to the steep terrain.

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Children played in the school yard across from the dirt parking lot. Up we walked through the medieval gate to the old town. More tiny lanes and rock stairs. We wanted some coffee. It looked like the only café in town was closed. Just before we gave up I said “Let’s check out the church down these steps.” Beyond the chapel we found a small stone hut with a rock terrace serving as a café. The view was spectacular – the valley below, Mont Ventoux rising high beyond. The proprietor was a young dreadlocked fellow who spoke pretty good English. As we looked around we realized that he lived in a tiny loft in one corner of the place. I asked how he liked it here. He had spent most of his life in Lyon and Paris until moving to this remote corner of Provence six years ago. I don’t think he’ll be going back anytime soon.

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The remainder of our journey was lovely and uneventful. We landed in Vaison la Romaine and hit the TI where a charming woman behind the desk found us a room. After the villages of the last three days this town of 6000 felt like a big, crowded city. We had definitely experienced La Provence Profonde!

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The end of the road

Dinner last night at our hotel was fabulous, right up there with Le Criquet in Arles. We both had an entrée salad with some kind of meat (we think chicken), pâté, comfit, roasted cherrie tomatoes (like home grown) and greens. For la plat I had lamb and Kay had fish, all with a great local rosé. The rosés here aren’t the insipid pink stuff we get in the states. They’re more like Pinot Gris or Sauvignon Blanc and this one, picked for us by madame la hostess, was trés bon.

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This morning we drove east stopping for a short hike in the Colorado Provençal, an unusual formation of ochre cliffs nestled in low pine and oak forest. Of the fellow hikers we encountered we were the only foreigners. It was serene, and cool in the trees, a great little break from civilization.

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Driving on we paused for lunch in my favorite village so far, Viens. Situated on a ridge where the Luberon mountains to the south and the Plateau de Valcluse to the north come together, this windswept town feels very far indeed from the hubbub of Roussillon or Gordes. We walked the surprisingly large medieval village to it’s chateaux on the edge of the ridge and found a couple of picnic tables with a commanding view of a valley below. Blue stone cliffs of a deep canyon ran into the distant north and west. We lunched on artisan bread, cheese, sausage, fruit and olives from the Arles farmers market. A couple of guys who worked for the local park service wished us bon appetite and pulled up a near by table. There wasn’t another tourist for miles. As we drove out of the village by beautiful old houses with yards perfect for gardens Kay and I said “we could live here.”

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From there we turned west and south towards Saignon, our next stop and yet another stunning village perched on the end of a ridge. A few more visitors there but still very quiet and peaceful. We had coffee and sorbet on a shaded patio and then walked through the village. There was a guy trying to lift a manhole cover, apparently to repair something beneath, using a shovel and a mattock. He tried repeatedly to pry it up with the mattock and get the shovel under it by himself to no avail. An apparent friend looked on offering no help! So I walked up and offered my service. We got the thing off easily the only word spoken being “merci.”

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Our Final destination before heading back was the minute hamlet of Sivergues. After a very slow 10 km of twisty, one lane road the sign read “Le Fin De La Route” – the end of the road. A handful of ancient stone buildings where nestled in the oaks. If not for a few cars parked in private drives and some wash hanging to dry we would thought it deserted. It was so quiet we found ourselves whispering. I hoped we would run into someone and get a little story of the town but luck was not with us. So we simply enjoyed the timeless setting and quietude.

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On our way home we were detoured through the metropolis of Apt, population 11,500. It felt like the big city after our day in the villages. We took a wrong turn and pulled into a drive to turn around. Kay had been saying for a few hours that we should try to get a bottle of wine to go with the remainder of our groceries for dinner. I looked up and in the small vegetable stand before us sat a row of wine bottles. Mais bien sûr, any french grocer is going to have a few bottles for sale. Back at Hôtel des Voyageurs we sat on our patio, drank our wine and savored our last dinner in Saint Saturnin les Apt. Tomorrow it’s north to Côte du Rhône

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