Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Arrivederci no - Ciao si

"Signore, would you please answer a question?"


"Back in America I have been watching videos and listening to CDs on Italian language. Would you please explain the difference between 'arrivederci' and 'arriverderla'?"

"Arrivederci is good bye to many people, arrivederla is just one. But why not say, ciao?"

"I thought ciao was only for family and close friends?"

As my favorite waiter poured the last drops of wine, he said with a twinkle in his eye, "Si, signora".

Trip, vacation, holiday. Paraphrasing Curley from the movie City Slickers, "You city folk come out here all tied up in knots and try to unwind them in two weeks...". My 10 day Tuscan visit has drawn to a close. Thankfully the plane ride home and navigating Charles de Gaulle airport was rather uneventful. Eric from City Cab was waiting for us usual just after we cleared customs to whisk us back to Port Huron and our everyday lives. The limo was quiet as we rushed past the dark landscape and countless billboards(something I did not miss on the Autostrada). The past 18 hours were as blurred as the landscape, but as I stared out the window - the last 10 days were perfectly clear.

Greve en Chianti - I was slightly less freaked out than the last time David wound the rental van up the narrow mountain road. (David was enjoying a little game I'll call, 'Let's see if we can find that turn out where you opened your car door and almost fell down the mountain'). As we entered Greve we all waved at the 'stamp machine' from our previous visit(see blog entry 'How to humiliate yourself in multiple time zones'), on our way to Verrazzano winery. Several hours and several bottles of Chianti Classico later, I was much more relaxed as we wound our way back down the mountain to the villa.

Assisi - It was the singing that drew me in. My stomach had just loudly reminded me it was about lunch time and the rain was continuing to come down in sheets. Earlier in the morning we had entered the basiica through the Upper Church and had seen the lovely frescoes depicting the saint's life. We continued to the Lower Church and visited the crypt of St. Francis. I was crossing the courtyard to a waiting cafe across the street, when from the Upper Church's open doorway the music washed over me. My feet on their own changed directions back into the Upper Church. It lead me past the ornate altar and the Giotto frescoes to a small chapel in the back of the church. There I found the source of the singing. A Franciscan brother leading mass for about 50 Japanese tourists. It was easy to see he didn't speak Japanese and they didn't speak Italian. But through the ancient language of the church, Latin - they could share in worship. As the service ended, he bowed to them and they came forward to shake his hands. It literally gave me chills to watch.

Cortona - Land of Frances Mayes and Under the Tuscan Sun. Cortonna despite being a famous literary destination, maintains its gritty reality. Cortonnans (Cortanese?) were out in full force at the Saturday market. A very pleasant memory for me was conversing in my halting Italian with the produce vendor. It took a few minutes, some hand gestures and writing, but the fresh Sicilian oranges were worth it.

Florence - In a first for me, we visited Tuscany's capital on three seperate days. The first was Pitti Palace and the tumble down the stairs by a group member(see 'Il Popolo' entry). The second was spent in further investigation of the great Medici family (see 'I never met a Medici I didn't like' entry) The final day was spent in il Giardino Boboli - the Boboli Gardens. Boxwood knot gardens, statues of Roman gods, and a grotto - all floating on a cloud above the great city Firenze.

Figline Val D'Arno - the best for last. If you Google it, you won't find much. Maybe a couple of lines about the city church or how the University of Florence has a medical program at the local hospital. Or even about the local football team's winning year (but, don't try and buy a jersey. When I inquired from a Florentine football jersey vendor - he said "But Madam, Florence plays Madrid, Berlin, Rome it is an 'A' Figline, well there is 'B', 'C', 'D' 'E'....I don't know how far down they are - you need to buy a Florence jersey). You won't read about CD Cafe with it's black and white interior and genunine smiles from the owners. Or Pizza Antica - where you can buy (2)pizzas for 5 people for under $20 (not Euros - 20 dollars). Or even the magical Co-op Supermarket, where everything you would find in a drug store, Walmart, and grocery store, in a store the size of a Chuck E Cheese. You'll be able to find Villa Casagrande if you Google it. But with all the history and beauty you won't find the villa's real treasures: Lara, Francesca, Vivi, Stefano, Kirsten, the night manager who called the hospital, the night manager who happily gave us directions everywhere, the maintenance guy and maid who called Buon Giorno to us each day as we left on our adventures. No these are things you will have to discover for yourself.

So for me it is 'ciao' Figline Val D'Arno - never 'arriverderci'.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

I never met a Medici I didn't like

Il Duomo, check”, “La Academia, Ponte Vecchio, Uffizi Gallery - check, check, check.” Mr. Steves’ 2010 Tuscany, Eyewitness Top 10 Tuscany and Fodor’s Best of Tuscany joined us in bed a few weeks before departure. There were almost 30 hill towns we had yet to explore, we had already decide to venture out to Ligura’s Cinque Terre as well as the pride of Umbria, Assisi. But what about Tuscany’s own capital, Florence? We thought we had seen all there was on previous visits. So, it was a late night research session that lead us to La Palazzo Pitti - palace of the Medici family .

What I knew (well let’s be honest know) about the Medici’s wouldn’t fill a single shot espresso cup.

Medici facts according to Pam:
1.Ruled Florence with an iron fist for 500 years (it was actually almost 400 and the iron fist would depend on who you were talking to).
2.Italian royalty or nobility (Sort of. By making the family bank the bank of the papal Curia, they founded the Medici fortune. By managing the family fortune, political clout and personal image to become the de facto rulers of Florence).
3.“The ends justify the means” Machiavelli based The Prince on the Medici family. True, but that only scratches the surface.

“Madam, we have a problem - the Firenze Marathon it is today- we will get you a close as we can”, said the taxi captain outside Santa Maria Novella train station. Close were the banks of the Arno river - just south of the Ponte Vecchio. David took my hand and we did something totally new for us, we crossed the Arno. The brown directional signs directed us through the winding streets towards the Palazzo di Pitti. We emptied out onto the largest square I had seen in Florence. What was even more impressive, two entire sides were one massive building - the Pitti Palace, Florence‘s royal home from 1560 until the 1860s. Inside the former residences of the Medici Dukes, Napoleon’s brother and the Lorraine /Hapsburg dynasty the opulent room décor was completely overshadowed by the sheer volume of art. Raphael, Titian, Van Dyck, Caravaggio masterpieces were interspersed with minor pieces by unknown medieval, Renaissance, and 18th century artists. The only impression you can have upon leaving is, the Medicis knew how to live.

Our next stop was San Lorenzo, the parish church of the Medici family. San Lorenzo is the oldest church in Florence, since 938 A.D. a church has stood on this site. The church’s façade is only partially complete, still showing its medieval roots (the Pope of the time felt too much money was being spent on San Lorenzo and pulled the plug - cut backs my friends are nothing new). The Medicis filled the church with priceless paintings and sculptures. The interior is light and thanks to its baroque Medici funded overhaul in the late 1600s.

The light interior of San Lorenzo wasn’t the only thing that was different. Two minutes after entering a lovely young Italian woman came over and introduced herself as a docent. She told us she was here to answer any question we may have about the church, the church art or anything at all (my previous experiences with museum/ church staff was an occasional ’Silencio!’ when the noise level got too loud). We ended up getting a 20 minute lecture on the Old Sacristies, where the earliest Medicis were buried (right inside San Lorenzo church itself) and the New Sacristies, built in part by Michelangelo,contained the later grand duke Medici family. She explained the two Medici coat of arms. The earliest family crest was 8 red balls representing both the size of the family and 8 the symbol for eternity. The second crest represented the later family with 5 red balls and a 6th blue ball with the Fleur de Lis representing the sister who married into French royalty, the house of Aragon. We thanked her and continued on our stroll through the church.

On our way out we met another docent, this one an Italian man of about 24. Our discussion with him made the greatest impression of the Medicis. He explained many people think the crest’s red balls represent pills, implying the Medicis were doctors before their banking and real estate empire. He snorted, “Doctors?! They were wool merchants who sold their goods on the Silk Road to China!” The balls represent the weights of how they measured and sold their goods.” At this point, he leaned over as to tell us a secret. “You know what?” he exclaimed, “Medicis aren’t even from Florence, they are from Scarperia!” At that he laughed like it was the greatest joke ever. He then sobered to speak of the last Medici, Anna Maria Luisa. With no heirs, Anna Maria willed all her holdings to the Lorraine (later the Hapsburgs) of Austria, with the strict stipulation, nothing was ever to be removed from Florence. She was as good in life as she was in death he explained, founding schools, hospitals a great humanitarian. But it was the signing of Patto di Famiglia that ensured the Medici legacy would forever remain in Florence.

As I walked back to the train station I thought about all I had learned. This family who in my mind was a 15th century version of the mafia, wasn’t just around during the Renaissance, they caused it to happen. Just a few examples, Medici cousin commissioned Botticelli’s Venus Rising and Primavera as a wedding gift to his bride. Michelangelo, a personal friend of the family, decorated the family crypt (New Sacristies) with his masterpiece Dawn,Dusk,Day and Night. It was only through the influence of Cosimo Medici II that Gallieo's sentence was commuted from death to house arrest,at a Medici university teaching science. The family office in downtown Florence was as filled with art as their home, the building and its collection are better known as the Uffizi Gallery. As I returned back to Villa Casagrande, once home of the noble family Serristori, I smiled as I passed the Medici crest and plaque inlayed in the villa walls which said Medici son and friend of the family, Pope Leo X had once slept here, just like me! And did I mention they were gardeners? You should see the family gardens, a little place called Giardino di Boboli, the Boboli Gardens. I knew I liked those guys.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

En cucina con Paola (e Daniela)

As we enter the old breakfast room at Villa Casagrande and the sight of the kitchen class Danella and Paola greet each of us with open hearts and joy. It is like we are friends and I felt that way. Little bits of twisty bread lightly salted and Chanti red, a bit of small talk and we begin. From the outset of the class, it is the passion and the energy of the ladies that amazes me. They are everywhere in the kitchen and have a definite plan the mark of experienced cooks. Someone once told me that the difference between a chef and a cook even a really good cook is that the chef can take any atmosphere and transform it with food and their art. I believe it is safe to call Paola a chef in this regard. She has the basic skills to cook and the artistry to transform. One of these rare people who looks at the space and sees beyond.

The first course was many different types of crostini, a Tuscan and Italian staple. The Crostini Rossi, pomodoro (red sauce) and herbs, the Crostini Neri, chicken livers, red onion, parsley, garlic, salt, capers, anchovy fillets and butter, and Crostini Cannelini, cannelini beans and onions make my mouth water even as I write this blog. Next, we begin the three courses in one to be saute'd in a terra cotta pot. The meats are rabbit, minced beef, and chicken, which will cook in the pan with juices, herbs, and vegetables throughout the four hour cooking experience. The minced beef is standard fare but the other meats and their preparation require some explanation. First, the chicken begins with raw tenders pieces on a cutting board. On top, salt, sage, garlic, fresh mozarella, prosuitto. Then scramble two eggs with olive oil (of course) and salt and a little milk. Then place the eggs onto the chicken as well and sprinkle parmesean cheese. The roll the chiken around all the ingredients and tie with string and insert a sprig of rosemary on the outside under the tie. Then toss into the pan. Second, the rabbit is soaked in water for two hours.

The next course is the Ribollita, which is a kind of stew. This begins in a large stock pot with potatoes, beans, carrots, sevoy cabbage, beets, red onions, celery, zucchini, olive oil (of course), chili peppers (2), tomato pulp, parsley, leek, cannelini beans mashed. First, saute the onion and add all the other ingredients and then add pomodoro sauce for color then cook approximately three and one half hours. As I understand, Ribollita is a dish that is served all over Tuscany and can take many forms with many varying ingredients. In the end, the entire mixture is poured over day old baguette bread pieces and then the boiling continues until the bread is soft and mixes into the entire affair. The dish is a symbol in my mind of the underlying philosophy of what Tuscans live by in the daily lives, They use what is near and what they grow which means fresh. They make meals that are steeped in traditions and without frills. The flavor, the earth, the climate, the culture add the spices to make each dish burst with flavor.

In keeping with this philosophy, we make two pizzas as we have ingredients left from the cooking. Then we begin the cake. All during the night, stories of the village and of Italy show such love and passion for the culture and for gastronomy. The ladies cook like this all the time apparently and have been lucky to be a part of it twice now and I am looking for adoption so I can be a part of it all the time. the cake is made with chectnut flour, olive oil (of course), salt, rosemary (sauted with oil then added on top), walnuts, pine seeds, and raisins. The mixture is spread into a baking tin and the rosemary poured over top then baked for 18-20 minutes at 180 degrees.

Tuscans add fruit and fish into dishes as do cooks do all across the Mediterrean cultures. the experiences with Paola and Daniella will last a lifetime and will influence my future of cooking. They take such pride in the set up of the room and the ambience as well as the culture of the past of each dish. The ladies are wonderful people and we will treasure their invlovement in our lives. Life lessons and cooking lessons and a demonstration in the art of cooking is a valued experience.

Monday, November 30, 2009

Il popolo

Jet lagged but happy, we gathered at Antica Taverna Casagrande for our favorite Tuscan meal - bisteca alla fiorentina. But would our favorite waiter, the one we have privately called Yosemite Sam for 3 years in reference to his mustache/beard still be there? We needn't have worried, we opened the ristorante door to see his smiling face. He told us his name was Frank ( it's not, it actually is Stefano per Vivi the daytime waitress) and then he put on Sinatra in our honor. The wine flowed and kept on flowing. As patrons left their half filled bottles would mysteriously find their way to our table and glasses. "More gasolina" said YS.

As we wound up the hill towards lunch at Verrazzano winery (Getti en Chianti), lunch not a tour was on our mind. We didn't understand, lunch was only included with a tour. The words hung out in the air, just as two giant tour buses were heading to the large parking lot full of our countrymen. The guide who met us at the road said, "I am leading this group, I will speak to my colleague", When Felipo came around the corner, we all smiled. Felipo had toured us around the grounds on our last visit. He looks like an Italian Tom Cruise, hates French soccer teams, and has lived at Verrazzano his entire life. Felipo's father was the farm manager and today Felipo is assistant to the owner. He normally doesn't do tours and to get him twice was very unusual. He promised we would stay away from the crowds, just as a couple from CA whose GTS had lead them wrong would join us. Our group of seven had a personal and up close view of the winery. We joined the large group for a typical Tuscan meal of 5 courses. As we left David and I thanked Felipo again. David told him the last time we met in 2006, he bought a bottle of Verrazzano Chianti Classico. He had just started his doctoral degree at the time and he vowed to keep it unopened until he completed. He explained to Felipo that on December 18, 2008 he defended his paper via phone conference in our kitchen. The first thing he did after hanging up the phone was to uncork the Verrazzano Chianti to celebrate. Felipo thanked him for allowing their winery to be a part of such an important moment.

Full of culture and feeling empty of food, our group was leaving the Palantine Gallery at Pitti Palace when one of our members fell face first down two steps. Pitti staff translated as the EMT placed our friend on a back board and loaded her into an ambulance. Sunday was the Florence marathon and they did not know which hospital could take her. Many people pulled together to get us the hospital information and directions. Those of us left behind went to a cafe to regroup. When we asked our waiter for more driving directions, he got one of the bartenders who worked at the hospital to draw us a map and show which exit. When we realized our phone was not working, we asked if we could pay to make a call - they dialed the number and would not accept any payment. Upon leaving, they all wished us well and hoped our friend was ok. The night manager at Villa Casagrande is not as fluent in English as the rest of the staff. But, when we had not heard anything about our friend and were very worried, he called the hospital to find out she had been checked out and released.

After a morning spent practicing some retail therapy at both the local leather outlet and the wonderful Co-op(a grocery store with everything in the world), we returned to the villa to pick up our friend who had been resting all morning after her stressful day before. Our 2006 lunch at CD Cafe was part of the reason we decided to return to Figline Val D'Arno. Local Tuscan foods served in an unusal way and we returned for dinner that same evening, we were greeted as old friends and served champagne. We shook off our umbrellas and came in from the rain, it was comforting to see the decor was exactly the same. The delicious meal affirmed our decision. I explained to the owner about our decision to return to Figline was due in part to our wonderful lunch in 2006. He smiled and said thankyou. His beautiful wife chicly dressed in a wrap sweater, stilletto boots and a silk scarf had just come from the kitchen and he translated our compliments. We realized then our Penne with funghi and Ravioli con Chingahle had been prepared by this lovely creature. (I think Giada DeLaurentis and Nigella Lawson should watch their backs). After the meal, the owner and his wife walked us to the door, shook our hands and asked us to return again soon.

It is Europe's history, culture and cuisine that make me wax poetic. And I am sure in an upcoming post I will recount our days in Assisi, Cortonna, Greve and Florence so far. But, I wanted to share Tuscany's greatest resource, the force behind the Renaissance, the David, and Chianti wine - it's people.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

La Dolce Vita

"Bella Vista, no?" said the gray haired Italian gentleman. David and I were walking back to our carved out of a mountain parking spot in Cortona, and the Tuscan light made us pause. The valley, farms, olive trees, villas and churches were all bathed in a golden glow of pre sunset making the picturesque landscape breath taking. For a long moment the three of us were caught up in it's magic. And then he nodded his head and we turned towards the car saying 'Buono Sera".

"And then Lindsay, I went to the party and even though I wasn't looking forward to it - Oh my God it was so much fun!", said the two American college students walking behind me on the Ponte Vecchio in Florence. The jewel box shops filled with gold jewelery, the lone rower as he broke the surface of the Arno, all were lost on the young ladies.

As the high speed train returned us to Figline from Fierenze, I reflected on both encounters. The second was the familiar and easy. It could have be me and a friend. Happily discussing the previous evening's activities. Walking, talking and texting at the same time. Multi-tasking as we rush to our fast food and fast lives.

The second was less so. When we happened on the gentleman at the mountain overlook, he was quietly enjoying a view that it seemed he had seen many times before. And the thrill was the same - whether this was the first our 1001st time. Those of you who know and love me, realizes this is not standard operating procedure for Pam. How often in my garden have I focused on the single weed rather than the multitude of flowers? Or while seated on the front porch overlooking Lake Huron, did I run and get my computer so I could I check email one more time before going to bed? Or pick up a cell phone call and interupt a perfectly lovely conversation with someone I care about who was right in front of me.

La dolce vita. The sweet life. Mine is, but could it be sweeter, richer? Perhaps tomorrow's Tuscan sunset will remind of exactly that. The bella vista in my own dolce vita.

More to come....

Monday, November 16, 2009

Soon we'll be on our way!

Day 1 - Leave Detroit via Air France. Change planes CDG in Paris (only a one hour layover). Arrive in Florence at 3pm, pick up 7 person van and arrive at Villa Casagrande by 5pm. This time we have reserved apartment 'Type B' for our stay. That evening dinner at the villa ristorante - Bisteca alla Fiorentina for 5!

Day 2 - Our apartment has a full kitchen, so we'll get up early and hit the Co-op for Italian goodies. Salamis, cheeses, fresh bread, wine and olive oil. Later that day we're off to Greve en Chianti. We'll hit a couple of the local wineries - lunch at Castello di Verrazzano - . Later that evening, a tasting of Villa Casagrande wines.

Day 3 - We're off to Umbria and Assisi! I am so excited to see the monastery where St. Francis lived.

Day 4 - Today is Cortona the land of Frances Mays and Under the Tuscan Sun. Today is market day. We'll load up on fresh produce and cheeses.

Day 5 - Ah Fierenze, Florence! We'll shop at Mercarto di Percarillo near the Ponte Vecchio. Gelato near the Uffizi and our first visit to Pitti Palace.

Day 6 - We'll stay in town today (Figline Val D'Arno) since this evening David, Joan and Andrea will take a cooking class at the Villa. They have previously studied with Paola and her associate Daniela in 2006. They learned biscotti, gnocchi, pork loin boiled in milk, crostini and a Sparschu-Phillips family favorite, ragu! Paola is already determining their new class menu.

Day 7 - Lucca Garrapa from Hills and Roads will pick us up at dawn to visit the Cinque Terre. In 2006 we toured the Umbrian jewel, Orvieto with Lucca. We're all looking forward to spending the day with Lucca - we know he'll make the Italian Rivieria that much more fun.

Day 8 - San Gimignano is close and it will be a nice easy ride from the villa. The medieval town is known for its towers.

Day 9 - The serene walled city of Lucca or back to Florence? Both are favorites - we'll decide that morning.

Day 10 - We'll spend the day in lovely Figline Val D'Arno. Walking the city streets visiting the lovely cemetery and parish church. We'll dine at the villa tonight and bid our hosts sadly good bye.

Day 11 - Back to Detroit via Paris (hopefully there will be time to pick up some French wines at the Duty Free). We'll go to bed at 3am Figline time (9:00pm at home) to dream of Tuscany again.

Can't wait to tour the grounds of Villa Casagrande and mingle with our lovely hosts, ride the train to Florence and take in the Renaissance (using a validated ticket this time), and drive through the picturesque countryside of Tuscany. Impossibly fresh pasta, rich tasty wine, and great culture and people - who could go wrong.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Figline Val D'Arno qui veniamo - Figline on the Arno here we come!

In the end it was fairly easy to decide between Tuscany and the Amalfi Coast. Comparing apples to apples: the cost, hotel and activities were about the same. The double connection (Detroit to Frankfurt, Frankfurt to Milan, Milan to Naples) was the nail in coffin for the Amalfi Coast.
So, we're returning to the small village of Figline Val D'Arno and the lovely Villa Casagrande (This is our second visit to the villa).

Figline is a bedroom community of Florence, 20 minutes equally by train or car. It consists of one main square with a church on one end and shops/restaurants/banks on the other three. Figline like many Tuscan towns still recognizes siesta. From 1:00pm to about 5:00pm most of the businesses shut down. The shops reopen around 5 and remain open to 9:00pm. This schedule works well for us, since we like to eat dinner at 7pm, we never have to make a reservation.

Staying outside of Florence has its definite benefits, no traffic to speak of, prices for food and lodging are usually 1/3 to 1/2 less and the opportunity to really connect with the residents of your host country are so much greater. A great example would be when we dine in Figline. After we are seated, the staff tends to gather in a corner whispering and nodding or pointing towards us. The person who is the most fluent in English (or drew the short straw I suspect) timidly approaches our table and always begins with "Pardon me, but I have not had English since high school....". Of course their English is 1000% better than our Italian, so we are always bemused/ashamed at how carefully and correctly they explain their written in Italian, menu.

I had another 'up close and personal' experience at the village laundry mat. It was completely self serve. I had put my clothes, soap and money in the machine, but no matter what I did it wouldn't start. Two elderly gnomelike gentlemen were in a corner folding a quilt. My Italian quit after Boun Giorgno and I had to pantomime my problem. They walked over to my machine, stroked their chins, discussed my problem and then calmly closed the washing machine door all the way.

On another morning, I went to the local bank to exchange some currency. As I wait in the line to visit the teller I notice many persons talking quietly to one another as is the case in a small town a the local business. A few of the people glance my way as if to say, "who is this - definitely not from our town"? As I stood there I so wished I knew someone. However, to my surprise just then Danella from the last night's cooking class walked into the bank. I exclaimed, "Bonjourno Danella" and she came over to me with a hug. The bank line quieted and the people were now stunned as to how does this guy know someone? One of the morals of this story is to get to know the people in the town whenever possible an take part in the everyday life of the local citizens. The teller and even the bank manager came over once I came to the window to work in completing my transaction. What a great feeling to have known someone and to have had such a pleasant experience in conducting everyday business.

Figline Val D'Arno here we come!

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

It's Not as Random as it Looks - Part II

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

When discussing independent travel, I've sometimes been asked, "How did you get the idea to visit....?" Or "What made you want to go ......?" I am embarrassed to admit in the beginning it started as 'path of least resistance'. I had decided at the end of our Western Med/ Rome tour, I would like to test myself and try to plan a trip on my own. Based purely on no language barrier, I suggested London and England to the group for 2002. I booked the flights, hotels and excursions to Stonehenge and Bath. It's an awesome responsibility to make choices for a group - I was on pins and needles the entire time. We had a wonderful time. It gave me the courage to continue to act as 'Julie McCoy' for our annual vacations.Here is the inspiration for our other vacations.

2003 - Hawaii - George Bush had just invaded Iraq, we decided we wouldn't be very well received in the EU.

2004 - Rome and London- As much as I liked Hawaii, my heart was in Europe. I decided it was time to revisit my two favorite European cities on my own.

2005 - Ireland and Edinburgh - The Quiet Man and Going My Way. I bawl everytime Leo McCarey's 90 year old Irish mother toddles into screen, and Bing Crosby singing Irish Eyes, I'm a gonner. But, it's the scene out of the Quiet Man when Sean slams open the cottage door and the storm rages over Innispree that made me want to visit the Emerald Isle. Edinburgh? We were originally booked to visit London. The summer 2005 London subway bombings caused us to quickly punt and change our destination to Edinburgh.

2006 - Tuscany and Rome - World capital for foodies and wine aficionados.

2007 - Athens and Venice - We wanted to compare the Athens of our 2000 visit with the post 2004 Olympics Athens. Venice, pardon the pun, is an island onto itself. We hadn't been able to coordinate Venice with any other visit, so we added it to this trip.

2008 - Danube Cruise and Prague - We've vacationed the same week each year since 2004. No matter the country, Europe decks itself out for the holiday. In 2008, we decided we'd like to check out the beautiful Christmas markets of Bavaria and Bohemia.

Preparation for a trip and vacation is not as random as it looks either. First, some months out I make the pilgrimage to Barnes and Noble. It is at this Mecca of literature and such that I find the perfect tour book and map of the region. After a double espresso and some quality time in the cozy coffee house, I find the perfect book and map. In the electronic age, it only stands that cords must be organized and gadgets must be packed. A few weeks ahead of departure, I clear off all SD cards for cameras, collect new batteries and back-up batteries, collect movies, download Tivo'ed programs (we like to have recorded programs to view in the late evenings just in the background while we reflect on the day and plan for the new one ahead and it seems so much more relaxing then a steady diet of BBC World), find the power and sync cords for the PDA, download maps, test maps and establish push pins (I-Phone users reading this probably are laughing as they have the directional piece in their phones more easily), and stuff all the above into the "carry-on" luggage - my man purse.

Another aspect of the planning is the navigation piece of the vacation. Having been mildly interested all through my life in maps and directions I have to admit I did not often follow them and often found myself lost. I decided when we began to travel find ways of keeping directions and maps without looking so "touristy". To this end, enter the Dell PDA and handy Microsoft Pocket Streets software. The PDA has the illusion of a newer phone/planning device that so many people on European streets have their faces buried in as they walk. The Pocket Streets software allows me to download detailed maps of most European cities and plan our days one by one and turn by turn. However, the idea of turn by turn is much easier than actual turn by turn standing in the cities.

All in all the message in this entry, is that much planning goes into traveling. The truly experienced traveler makes it look easy and effortless. When you incorporate the many tips from experience the travel and memories become front and center and the details are less the star of the trip. With practice comes comfort and with comfort comes the ability to relax and embrace the moments.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

In the Beginning or Travel 101

I feel I need to preface this column with a quick economic discussion. Yes, David and I are planning on visiting Europe again this year. No, we don’t have a crystal ball that warns or informs us of what is coming down the pike for us or the country financially. What we do know is that after 4 years of post – graduate work, David Phillips has earned his doctorate. We think that auspicious accomplishment deserves some recognition, like visiting our favorite continent. One thing does differ this year from any other year, we do not live in a vacuum, we understand the reality of the global economy. The reality of the situation is, when planning this vacation budget needs to be at the top of our pre-planning requirements. It means we’ll not only need to stretch our travel dollars like never before, but we need to be conscious of the fact we are a desired part of the travel industry, potential customers. According to Rick Steves, online blogs and other resources, bargains await the intrepid traveler. So, if we are going to go ahead with this year’s vacation, we will need to gather as much information as possible prior to making any travel commitment.
The first time we went to Europe the one US Dollar was worth 8 French Francs, 3500 Greek Dracmas, 2000 Italian lire, and 7,000,000 Turkish pounds. Life was good, and all things travel if not cheap, were affordable. Then came along the Euro in 2004, the first year at par it lulled us into a false sense of security. As the Euro continued to surge against the dollar we changed our travel time from the peak season of summer to off peak November/December. During our 2007 trip to Athens and Venice at $1.57 US to 1 Euro (the Dollar had dropped $0.13 cents on the flight from Detroit to Amsterdam). With the economic downturn of 2008 we had to face facts our favorite travel destination was quickly becoming cost prohibitive.

Financial realities forefront in my mind, as soon as we returned from our 2008 vacation I hit the internet hard. I surfed the usual travel websites, read every travel article and scoured the forums at Trip Advisor dot com. My research indicated a cruise where our expenses could be locked in at the current US Dollars value would be our best bet. Here's where the wheels came off the apple cart. One of the Usual Suspects cannot join us for this years trip. So, now our usual group of 6 became an odd numbered 5, eliminating traditional tours or cruises.

Because I ignored my own advice, I was back at square one. I respect professionals. A dentist takes care of my teeth. Our local CPA does our taxes and usually I put my money, faith and time in the hands of a travel agent. A good travel agent, with their travel industry knowledge, agent exclusive computer software and contacts could have provided the same information in 5 minutes. Lesson learned, I've handed our travel planning over to D'Ann Schweihofer. D'Ann is the owner of St. Clair Travel and is an agent with 20 years experience.

After determining a budget, D'Ann helped us narrow our options down to: Paris, France, Tuscany and the Amalfi Coast, Italy. Paris was quickly eliminated when we realized to stay in budget we would only be able to stay for 7 days as opposed to 9 for the other locations. So now the field is narrowed down to Figline Val D'Arno, Tuscany or Sorrento, Amalfi, Italy. Olives or Lemons? Wine or Limoncello? Hillside Tuscan towns or the seaside villages of the Amalfi coast.

One of the most important ways we found to stretch our traveler dollars is to begin with the type of trip. In our case, we quickly realized in Italy we could rent a car easily and stay in a reasonably priced villa or hotel. There are five of us and one car (or private guide) can work to combine funds. Wine is inexpensive and a product of of the region. Breakfast is included at both venues we can and make lunch the "big" meal of the day and have local wines, cheeses and meats for dinner. We can choose day trips in a fuel-efficient car and conserve funds. We also buy local crafts and products of the towns and villages we visit rather than choosing the touristy t-shirts and trinkets. These are only a few of the tips we learned over the last few years of travel to Europe.

We'll announce our final decision in the next post.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Prague - Praha

In Prague, we found a jewel of a city. On the way in to the city, remains of the occupation behind the iron curtain greet our bus. The day matches to architecture, Communist Grey and foreboding. Our tour group departs at the Marriott Prague. The hotel is jammed and guests are invited to meet in a half hour to go over the procedures for using public transportation. We stand outside and wait for our ride as my brilliant wife has booked us at the Hilton. Bart informs those of us staying at the Hilton that we do not need to worry about using pubic transportation as we will be within walking distance of city center. We are quite encouraged and it just keeps getting better as the bus driver states that he will take us to the hotel and no need to wait for the cab. He delivers us to the grand entrance of the Hilton Prague. The vast conference center and hotel is impressive and it keeps getting better as we walk up to the counter and check in without waiting and move quickly through the check in process and up to the room, which is remarkable ans spacious with a view of the sprawling city outside.

Prague is an unexpected surprise in many ways. First, the food is wonderful and more varied than I thought it would be. I had heard of veal schnitzel and goulash and they certainly did not disappoint but the soups and breads along with delicacies such as harlusky were wonderful. Second, Czech beer is know then world over for its complexity and flavor but all the varieties we drank - St Norbert exclusively found in the pub on the grounds of the Strahov Monastery and Pilsner Urquell were special standouts.
Even to the non-beer drinkers I suggest and recommend all the beers to visitors. However, perhaps the most surprising part of our visit was the city, its architecture, people, and romance. Aside from Venice and perhaps even above Venice, Italy Prague was a romantic city. At every corner, another alley with new and hidden jewels. Entering every town square. new picturesque sights and grandeur. The city sneaks up on the traveler. Walking is so safe and hidden treasures for shopping and sights make the city a hidden romantic getaway.

I was so unprepared for Prague and the Czech Republic. My family is German and I've seen the Sound of Music more times than any person should admit, so I at least had some background for both. Up until we checked into the hotel, I kept thinking, I'm going to Czechoslovakia - no, I mean the Czech Republic (it's ok, it turns out. Georgi one of our tour guides summed it up - it was Bohemia for 1000 years, then Czechoslovakia and now Czech Republic, I say Bohemia). I could write hundreds of words about the lovely castle, great food and atmosphere, but it's the Czech people that to this day make me smile. My Spanish language background has always provided me a certain amount of pride/security when visiting the Romance language countries (Italy, Spain and France). I soon found out, the Czech language had letters I had never seen before, and certainly couldn't pronounce. And unlike, Greece where everyone under 40 speaks, English, most Czechs outside the tourist areas, do not. Ultimately, it didn't matter. A smile, a gesture, a glimpse, the Czech people made me feel like a most welcome guest.

I had arranged a private tour with Eva Travloka, a private guide I found on Trip Advisor dot com. As we wound our way down from Prague Castle and across the Charles Bridge, I experienced one of the most touching moments of our visit. Eva and I discovered were the same age, we were talking about our youth and college. That's when she spoke about growing up in a Communist country. She explained how her parents listened to Radio Free Europe at home, but they would always warn her not to tell anyone at school. People were arrested for less. She spoke about the Velvet Revolution, how in late 1989 she and her friends rattled their keys at the president's home telling him to leave it and their country. I was immediately proud and ashamed of my easy life here in the U.S. We looked at each other and the moment was broken when she laughed and said "Now we have a new ruler, money. Between the two of them, I'll take money".

Because we visited Prague in December, it will always mean Christmas to me. Prague Castle, The Imperial Cafe, the city streets and of course the Christmas markets were decorated in traditional Czech straw and dried fruits. We spent most of our time at the Old Town Square Market. David and Tim indulging in Mead. We all had grilled sausages on baguettes for lunch. I brought back the most elegantly decorated ginger bread cookies for our niece and nephew. An unexpected bonus, our last day in Prague, December 5, was Nickolas day. Young men dressed as St. Nicholas, his angels and the devils that travel with him, ask children if they've been good or naughty. We were swept along with the crowd, unnoticed as the Czechs celebrated their festival.

We were outsiders, but it was easy to feel the holiday spirit. The evening ended at the wonderful Cafe Imperial, restored to its Art Deco glory in 1999. We had dined earlier in the week at the Imperial. When we commented to our charming waitress how much we enjoyed our meal, she returned with the reservation book and said, "When will you return?". We laughed and said, "Thursday?", she replied "Thursday is no, good my day off". So, Friday after the St. Nicklaus festivities it was.