Lately: Baseball, architecture and how my garden grows

So what do you think there are more of, leaves on the trees or blades of grass?

That was my eight-year-old grandson’s intriguing question as we drove home from one of his ballgames this weekend. Since the answer would take lots of Google-ing and probably some math, I left that to his dad and Grandpa. But I think Jack unwittingly summed up June. It’s just so green, so lush, so full of promise.

Trip #1

Speaking of grandsons and baseball, Steve and I spent the weekend in Ohio carrying our folding chairs from game to game, following the five-year-old and his T-ball team and the eight-year-old and his coach pitch team (who seem like pro’s after watching T-ball).

These games have not changed in 30 years. Players wave to parents from the field, play in the dirt, forget where they’re at to watch a low-flying plane overhead and are happily surprised when they get a solid hit or make the play at first or second base. Forget marching bands and flag-waving patriots, this is America.

Trip #2

Before heading to Ohio, I joined a friend on a “field trip” into the city to take the Chicago Architecture Foundation Center cruise along the Chicago River. If you are a history or architecture fan (and even if you are not), the “Great Chicago Fire” led to a building renaissance in Chicago. And what started after the fire in 1871, continues today.

The Chicago skyline, looking west on the river.

The river cruises are led by volunteer docents from the Foundation. I know they have a common script that follows the boat route and they are well-trained to answer questions, but I believe you could do this cruise again and again and still learn something new, because each docent puts his or her own spin on the material. Maureen and I were part of a much larger group of Chicagoans, so this could have been a challenge to the volunteer. After all, we’ve all seen these buildings before and heard the stories behind them, and we have worked/shopped/visited them. Many of us had taken the tour before. But her passion for and knowledge of Chicago history and architecture was so palpable that she kept all of us totally engaged.

Separating history from architecture from the Chicago River is virtually impossible. Fort Dearborn, Chicago’s first settlement, was along the river. The engineers who worked with the architects solved the design issues, reversed the flow of the Chicago River, built more than a dozen movable bridges over the river so the city and industry could grow north and south. They replaced cast iron with steel and glass. The building and engineering continue to evolve. It’s a great story filled by the likes of Daniel Burnham, Louis Sullivan, and Mies van der Rohe and populated by buildings as diverse as the Tribune Tower and the Willis (Sears) Tower. You don’t need to love architecture or history to respect the vision, engineering and problem solving that goes into each structure.

My garden is a little different every day

If you follow me on Instagram (you can do that here), you know I am a little obsessed with my garden, what I can cut or cook from it, other gardens, and so on. One of the great pleasures of a garden is that it’s a living, breathing entity and as such changes a bit every day. Something new is in bloom, there’s a weed invasion where there was nothing two days ago, I’ve solved the problem of rabbits eating the hostas but they’ve moved on to tulips, the daylilies have totally overgrown their space, or, this week, the shasta daisies seem stunted.

I tour the flower and herb beds most mornings, thinking about what I should do next. I pester other gardeners about how they treat various plant emergencies. My husband’s tomato plants have doubled in the last week. The daylilies in the garden are a sea of buds waiting for one or two more days to open.

In this photo, right, is an all white bed I planted about four years ago. I wanted to try a theme. It’s all about texture; I plan to add some Lamb’s Ears and Artemesia near the bottom of this photo. Beyond this bed, daylilies and Russian Sage are getting close to blooming. My Limelight hydrangeas, behind them, bloom later.

To have a garden is to happily anticipate the next bud, bloom, or fruit.

I hope the sun is shining and the gardens are growing wherever you are! Thanks for stopping by. See you next time.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Advertisements

Highs, lows, and our Notre Dame story

This photo and the one below are from April, 2015. We had just enjoyed coffee and croissants at a cafe behind Notre Dame and were on our way Saint Chapelle.

This week has been a lesson in the highs and lows of the human heart. On Sunday morning in Chicago we awoke to mid-April snow. Not flurries, not a dusting, but inches of wet, sloppy, slushy white stuff. In November we would have found it fun. But in April, on Palm Sunday, I didn’t get the joke at all.

In fact, I wanted to pull the covers over my head.

Instead we drank coffee, read the papers, and my husband turned on the Masters Golf Tournament. We got caught up in the drama of the last hole and Tiger Woods’ amazing finish. If you saw this, you know what I mean: sheer joy in every fiber of his being. The crowds and his competitors were equally jubilant. This was a moment Woods was afraid would never come. But it did. A testament to the simplest work ethic: never, ever, ever give up.

What an emotional high. If you watched him hug his children and his mother without feeling tears come to your eyes, you might be missing a heart.

Monday’s punch

I was in the car on Monday when I heard that Notre Dame de Paris was on fire. How is this impossible? Architectural icons don’t burn; they weather revolutions, plagues, World Wars and Nazi occupations. But this was real. When I got home my husband had the news on, and he said, “This is awful. It’s like Katrina. You can’t stop watching.”

He was so right. We watched it off and on throughout the afternoon, waiting for the firemen to somehow get on top of the blaze, to get it under control, but instead the fire kept growing, and we watched the spire fall. The news commentators talked about the added tragedy of this happening during Holy Week. And we looked at each other and recalled a family story.

Our Notre Dame story

Another springtime shot, on the north side of the cathedral looking towards the bell towers.

Seventeen years ago Steve and I made our first trip to Paris together. It was a little earlier in the spring and we got back in time to celebrate Easter with my mom, her brother & his wife. (Our kids were away at school.) This was well before smart phones and selfies and so we took along a stack of printed photos (remember them?) from the trip to share over dinner. And as the five of us poured over the iconic sights from Paris — the Louvre, the Eiffel Tower, the Arc de Triumph — my uncle studied one of Notre Dame and remarked that he had been there for Easter in 1945.

What? How could he not have told any of us this story?

Bill was a Chicago kid in the Navy who spent WWII on a small boat escorting much larger ships back and forth across the Atlantic. He spent a lot of time in England and then in Le Harve, France. It was hazardous duty, and like so many WWII vets, he had never shared much about it. But back to Notre Dame…

When we found our voices, we asked what he was doing there. Well, he said, he and several shipmates had leave for Easter and they ended up in Paris. On Easter morning they headed for church. They didn’t know about Notre Dame or go looking for it, it was just the church they found (as if you could miss it, right?) The locals welcomed these young sailors warmly as “Yanks” and led them to seats right up front. I suppose they represented the liberators.

I can only imagine Bill’s blue eyes and his Evangelical and Reformed heart taking in the majesty of Notre Dame: its cavernous space, monumental pillars, stained glass, row after row after row of seats. How can you even take it all in?

Since hearing Bill’s story, I have been to Paris on a handful of additional visits. Notre Dame is simply part of the city, part of the skyline, we’ve walked by it a hundred times (often noting the crowds waiting to get in and said we’ve been here before and we’ll come back at a quieter time), we had breakfast with friends in a cafe just behind it, we’ve admired it up close and from across the river. We’ve picked it out of the skyline from the Musee d’Orsay and Sacre Coeur.

Notre Dame is Paris.

And clearly it will be repaired and rebuilt and continue to play its Parisian role. In the meantime, it hurts the heart to think of its blackened walls and collapsed roof. At the same time we’re heartened by its resilience. Icons can be fragile, it seems, and that should give us pause.

What about you? Do you have a Notre Dame story? I’d love to hear it!

Thanks for stopping by. See you next time.

Two from the road in France

Most days in France began in a local cafe. In some places, we had a favorites we went to daily, like this cafe in Beaune, where the waitress began to recognize us and our order!

If you follow me on Instagram, you know my husband and I are just back from a month in France. (I know, a long trip with the luxury of time, something one doesn’t often do. We are very lucky to have had this opportunity.)

Briefly, we flew into Paris, picked up a car, and headed to Giverney (Monet’s home and garden), the Normandy beaches (D-Day landings), Mont Sainte Michele (more history), Bordeaux (to taste wine), the Loire (for chateaus), Antibes (the Riviera, the Mediterranean and the art trail), Beaune (we love it) and finally Paris (always a good idea). In the weeks to come, I’m sure I’ll bore you with too many tales tales and too many pictures, but for now I want to share two “travel shorts” to give you a taste of our trip.

First, Normandy

If I had a bucket list, the D-Day beaches would be on it. This is a piece of the American experience that I wish everyone could share. We took a highly-recommended D-Day tour, which I’ll write more about later, but now I want to share just one stop. Angoville-au-Plain is one of the tiny towns beyond Utah beach where paratroopers landed during the night before the invasion. The military assignment was to control the nearby Cherbourg to Paris route important to German defenses. The terrible weather the night of the drop, however, meant hundreds of soldiers were dropped off course, totally missing their targets.

The church in Angoville-au-Plain, France, that housed a first aid station for Allied and German soldiers on D-Day. Some pews still bear the blood stains of injured soldiers. Two German soldiers hid in the bell tower for two days before surrendering to the medics.

Two of these paratroopers were young medics, 19 and 20 years old. Robert E. Wright and Kenneth J. Moore had been given two weeks of medical training. They jumped carrying packs of first aid supplies which they lost when they landed off course in swampy fields the Germans had flooded. Undeterred, they made their way to the 11th Century church at Angoville-au-Plain. Using medical supplies they had recovered along the way, they hung a Red Cross flag on the door and worked for 72 hours straight on 82 patients, Allied and German, and lost only two men. They had only one rule: weapons must be left outside the church.

We heard many amazing stories during that tour, but for whatever reason this one really touched me. I used to think of D-Day as a single, heroic, necessary event, but when you look closer (as so many professional and amateur historians do), it’s also thousands of acts of bravery, heroism, determination and ingenuity.

(Both Wright and Moore continued to serve throughout the war and have returned often to D-Day observances at Angoville-au-Plain, where the immediate community, and the wider D-Day community, has been generous in preserving and restoring the church.)

Behind the scenes at Versailles.

Versailles is the over-the-top palace used by a string of French kings who tired of life in Paris. It’s a 30-minute train ride from Paris, or you can take one of a variety of bus/van/private tours there. I visited 20-odd years before on my first trip to France with my teen-age son. We took a bus tour (which we both hated). It was a cold day, and Versailles was crowded. Frankly, it was nothing I wanted to repeat, so on subsequent trips, Steve and I always talked ourselves out of Versailles. However, we thought early October might be a better time and Steve found a “skip the line” tour of private rooms offered by the chateau for a mere 10 euros each.

This was the best investment we made on the trip!

What we thought would be a 45-minute tour of private rooms in the chateau was actually 2-1/2 hours with a Versailles curator. There were only about 15 of us in the group, making it easy to see the rooms and ask questions. The curator was a charming, knowledgeable historian committed to educating us about the fine points of 17th and 18th century court life. And we learned a lot!

The Versailles commode that found its way to a Rothschild collection, then to a German general, and now back to Versailles.

One of the private rooms we visited was the King’s library. It was, of course, grand and gold, but our guide brought it to life by pointing out this commode, made for the palace but sold off with all the other palace furnishings after the revolution (the new government was desperate for money). It was acquired by one of the Rothschilds. But then, during WWII when the Germans began confiscating the best of European art and antiques, it was acquired by Hermann Goring. It has only recently been returned to Versailles (“Thanks be to God,” as the curator said.)

Some of the King’s book collection is behind those glass doors next to the commode. Our guide pointed out that the volumes include Captain Cook’s diaries from his explorations of the new world. (I considered pressing my face closer to the glass to see better, but was afraid I would set off an alarm! On the other hand, Captain Cook!!!)

Can I just say that these are the travel moments I treasure, little vignettes that make history or culture come alive. Along with memories like the starchy French waiter who cracked a bawdy joke, the Brits we shared an al fresco lunch with in Ste. Emilion, and hands-on lessons in French cooking, they are the best souvenirs.

Thanks for stopping by. See you next time?

Hanging-out in Lucca

Looking through one of Lucca’s city gates. Can you see why we were charmed?

Have you missed me? We’ve had the flu!

Despite our best intentions, including excessive hand washing and flu shots, I picked up this year’s nasty bug and graciously passed it on to my husband. Fortunately we were both able to take the anti-viral medicine and that, along with our flu shots, seemed to lessen the worst of our symptoms. But the lethargy that follows is daunting. I hope you’ll hang in here with me!

Before the influenza assault, I was planning on sharing a side trip we made to Lucca during last fall’s trip to Italy. One of the benefits of traveling independently is the freedom to tinker a bit with the itinerary along the way. And the more we have traveled, the more comfortable we are tinkering.

We had planned to take a train from Florence to Lucca, spend a day, attend that evening’s Puccini concert, and then take three more trains the next morning to spend a day at the Cinque Terra (and then three more trains back to Lucca) to spend another night before moving on to Rome. Was this overly ambitious? Absolutely.

(In fact, seeing this plan in black and white, I have to ask what we were thinking.)

We arrived in Lucca by train, walked from the station and over Lucca’s legendary ramparts to our hotel and promptly fell in love with yet another Tuscan town. Lucca was blessedly quiet after the tourist bustle of Florence, and despite a light rain, the city is made for walking and wandering. We knew right away that this was the ideal place to catch our breath before going on to Rome. The Cinque Terra would have to wait for another trip.

A bit of background. Lucca was founded by the Etruscans and became a Roman colony in 180 BC.  One of its claims to historical fame is as the host to a secret conference in 56 BC, at which Julius Caesar, Pompey and Crassus reaffirmed their political alliance. Although it was conquered by Napoleon in 1805, it had been the second largest independent city state (after Venice) for centuries.

Today it offers stunning churches, cafes and piazzas perfect for people watching, and one winding street after another to explore.

 

Unlike many of its Tuscan counterparts, Lucca’s defensive ramparts have survived intact and today are a 2½-mile walking/running/cycling ribbon than encircles the city. We walked a significant portion of it the second morning we were there.

 

Locals clearly savor this space, including this group playing cards at one of the picnic areas along the former rampart. Several women were walking or running the path with strollers.  Can you imagine how wonderful living here would be?

 

San Giovanni Church hosts nightly concerts featuring the music of hometown opera composer Giacomo Puccini. Steve and I know absolutely nothing about opera, but thoroughly enjoyed a concert. Two opera singers, a man and a woman, alternately sang short selections from Puccini as well as a few other works.  Their pianist also played two wonderful solos. They also performed together, including a beautiful finale and encore. San Giovanni is a wonderfully intimate venue (below) and they were clearly having as much fun as the audience. I’m sure their energy and joy in the music, as well as our seats in the second row (!) added to our enjoyment. As it ended my husband said, “This is one of the highlights of our trip!”

 

 

We had lunch at one of the many cafes that circle the Piazza dell’Anfiteatro. In the second century, this was a Roman amphitheater. While we were there, a bride and groom arrived to take wedding photos. They were enthusiastically greeted and cheered by everyone and then serenaded by one group. How happy, I thought. This is Italy!

San Michele in Foro, dedicated to the Archangel Michael, is built over the ancient Roman Forum. This photo doesn’t begin to capture the beautiful detail on this church.

 

The Cathedral of Saint Martin, below, is the seat of Lucca’s Archbishop. Construction was begun here in 1063 and the apse with its columnar arcades and the companile are original.

 

 

The interior of this church is stunning, including a small octagonal temple or chapel shrine that contains the city’s most precious relic, cedar-wood crucifix and image of Christ or Sacred Countenance, reportedly carved by Nicodemis and remarkably transported to Lucca in 782. The chapel in which it rests was built in 1484 by Luccan sculptor Matteo Civitali.  (Can you tell I love relic stories?)

 

 

 

 

 

Most of all, Lucca is a series of charming, everyday scenes.

 

And a few more:

 

We learned a valuable travel lesson in Lucca: sometimes it’s more important to stop sightseeing and just enjoy the moment.

How about you? Have you come across a travel destination where you just had to sit back and savor the moment?

Thanks for stopping by. See you next time!

 

 

Uphill in Rome

The magic of Rome is that you can just round a corner and see the Coliseum or St. Peter’s or some other iconic image. I’m always amazed to fins myself in a situation like that.

Last fall as I was telling the multi-part story of our trip to Italy, life and “the holidays” got in the way, so here is my post about returning to Rome. I hope you enjoy it! (You can read about our earlier stops in Tuscany here and Florence here.)

Rome was our last stop in Italy. As with Florence, it was not our first visit. Last year we toured the Vatican Museums, the Borghese Gallery, and the Forum. It was fun going back with some of the tourist pressure off.

We took the highspeed  train from Florence to Rome and checked into the Residenza di Ripetta, where we stayed last year. We love this hotel; it’s elegant yet comfortable and ideally situated between Rome’s Piazza di Popolo and the Spanish Steps. It’s just a few short blocks from the Via Corso, perfect for enjoying the daily passeggiata before stopping for dinner in one of the small, local restaurants in the neighborhood.

Checking off another Papal Basilica

There are four Papal major basilicas in Rome: St. Peter’s in the Vatican; St. John Lateran, which predates St. Peter’s and which we visited last year; St. Paul Outside the Walls; and the Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore. We had seen St. Peter’s and St. John Lateran, so we decided to visit at least one more and Santa Maria Maggiore looked like it was within walking distance of our hotel.

In reality, the church was really only kind of in “walking distance.”

Rome is built on seven hills. What I have been trying to figure out, for two visits now, is why no matter where we are in Rome, we are always walking uphill. AND, if you are going downhill, you are probably navigating ancient, steep, stone stairs. It’s a puzzle.

 

We came upon Santa Maria di Maggiore from behind and there was no signage. We weren’t even sure we were in the right place. Then we walked around to the front and found the entrance and the requisite security screening.

Santa Maria Maggiore was built in the fifth century and served as the temporary Palace of the Popes after the the Avignon Papacy. Knowing this history I expected it to occupy a distinguished setting, but actually it just appears in an old Roman neighborhood, surrounded by cobblestones that set it apart from the surrounding street. Because Santa Maria Maggiore is a papal basilica, it is used by the Pope, especially on certain holy days.

Michelangelo’s Moses, intended to be part of a larger  monument to Pope Julius II, remains in this basilica as part of the Pope’s tomb.

From here we walked (mostly uphill and then up a remarkable set of stairs) to Saint Peter in Chains (San Pietro in Vincoli), built in the fifth century to house the relic of chains believed to have bound Saint Peter when he was imprisoned in Jerusalem. This minor basilica is home to Michelangelo’s statue of Moses, a massive work.

Taking a museum break

Rome is a lot more than churches.

Capitoline Museums on Capitoline Hill (another hill!) house an amazing assortment of secular art and artifacts that reflect Rome’s history. Once two palaces facing a piazza, the site was redesigned by Michelangelo in 1536. We loved seeing this side of Rome, especially after our previous “day of churches.” But for me, the real star of the day was the view of the Forum and other ruins from Capitoline Hill as we walked out of the buildings.

 

Looking down on the Forum from the top of Capitoline Hill. We toured the Forum last year, but seeing it from above made me appreciate the extent and sophistication of the ancient site even more. It’s much more extensive than our tour. Perhaps a reason to go back.
These ruins across from the Capitoline Museums, including the Forum of Augustus and Trajan’s Market and Trajan’s Forum, are currently fenced off but appear to be even more sophisticated in design.

The Vatican’s Mosaic Workshop

On our last day in Rome we went to the Vatican for a tour of St. Peter’s and the mosaic studios. (And you thought we were done with churches!) We had toured the Vatican museums and the Sistine Chapel, ending with St. Peter’s, last year. But that tour happened to fall on a national holiday and coincided with a special Papal audience. We were shoulder-to-shoulder with other visitors the entire time.

This year we were hoping for a better experience and, boy, did we get it.

Steve found a tour that included the Vatican Mosaic Studio online with Viator. We joined just one other couple and our very knowlegeable guide early that morning. Contrary to the tour’s description, the guide started our tour in the Mosaic Studio so we would better appreciate the art we would see in the basilica. He knew what he was doing; the studio director took over and led the four of us into what I can only describe as a true atelier or studio, this one devoted to the preservation of the precious (and priceless) Vatican mosaics as well as the creation of newly commissioned pieces.

The studio is discretely located in one of the buildings in the Vatican complex. We began in a room that for all practical purposes was part conference room with a center table for display and part gallery, with a variety of mosaic pieces arrayed around the periphery. Sadly, photos were not allowed. The pieces are ancient and modern, sacred and secular. I assumed that the studio’s purpose was to maintain and/or repair the hundreds of square meters of mosaics in the Vatican. While this is true, the studio also produces new works that the Pope often presents as gifts to distinguished visitors and accepts private commissions from around the world. For example, once we stepped beyond this small gallery into the actual workspace, we saw one artist working on mosaic reproduction of a Monet painting.

In order to perfectly repair the Vatican mosaics the space also accommodates a mosaic library of the stones and colors used in all its artworks. These archives are stunning in both their simplicity and their extent. We were also allowed into another work space housing a small kiln where artists can fire the exact color necessary to complete a new work. There is no part of the mosaic process that is not painstakingly created and/or cared for. And of course, care is evident in every piece the studio creates. I’m not an artist, but I do like to understand the process behind art and this was a remarkable lesson.

The guide was, of course, so right to show us the studio first, because when he took us into St. Peter’s the stunning mosaic art there came alive. St. Peter’s Basilica is Christendom’s largest church; its size and decoration are breath-taking and, as our guide pointed out to us, purposely so. It would be impossible for even a “casual believer” to not be moved by St. Peter’s.

 

Michelangelo’s Pieta. It leaves me speechless.

One of the options on this tour was a climb to the top of St. Peter’s Dome. I’m sure the view is stunning, but that’s not my kind of climb (or Steve’s either). So, the other couple left with another guide for that tour and we had a private tour of St. Peter’s. One of life’s better travel surprises.

Sure there were hundreds of others in the the basilica (in fact a group of seminarians was being ordained at the very front), but it felt like it was just us and our guide. Our guide walked us through several pieces, explaining the meaning and symbolism in each mosaic. We also visited the crypt to see where previous popes are buried. I must admit that although we are not catholic, it was amazing to see names recent and historic on tomb after tomb. (Many of the earliest tombs were destroyed long ago.)

We both think our guide made all of this come alive for us. He was more than just knowledgeable, perhaps trained for a religious vocation in an earlier career?  As we were leaving St. Peter’s he pointed out one final mosaic in the portico which purports to tell visitors there is more work to do for God as they leave the physical confines of St. Peter’s.

One of the mosaics as visitors leaves St. Peter’s, illustrating the work to be done beyond the basilica on behalf of the church.

We took this tour on our last day in Rome (our last day in Italy in fact), and we were overwhelmed with all we had seen. We stopped for a coffee then walked through some markets and found our way to Piazza Navona where we had a late lunch, before winding our way to the Spanish Steps and eventually back to our hotel. Here are some photos from that day.

Near the Vatican, Castel Sant’Angelo was initially built as a tomb for the emperor. Since no one could be buried within the city walls, Emperor Hadrian used this commanding space just outside the walls. Later it was used as a prison and as a last refuge in times of danger.

 

The Four Rivers Fountain in the center of Piazza Navona by Bernini demonstrates the four corners of the world using four river gods gathered around an Egyptian obelisk, a symbol especially favored by the Romans. This square, really an oval that was once athletic grounds, has played a role in Roman life since ancient times.

After three weeks in Italy, we were ready to head for home. But now, three months later, I could easily go back. It seems as if there are always new layers of Italy to peel back and examine, new museums, churches, vineyards and towns. I’m not tired of it yet!

Thanks for stopping by. See you again soon!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

We went to Tuscany!

Tuscany really does look like this. This is the view from the terrace at Borgo Argenina.

Last month we took a terrific, three-week trip  to Italy. And, yes, this was somewhat self-indulgent since we had been here just  fifteen months before, but the stars lined up and the opportunity was there, so we went.

Our first trip was pretty straightforward: Rome, Florence and Pisa. (You can read my posts about it here and here.) This time our itinerary included Sorrento and the Amalfi Coast, Tuscany, a four-night respite in Florence, a train to Lucca for a few days and, finally, another train to Rome before flying home. Our plan was to see a number of new sites and revisit Florence and Rome since they have so much to offer. Was this a lot to cover in three weeks? Probably.

It’s also too much for a single blog post.

I have been trying all week to write about it, but it just sounds like one of those long, boring slide shows your neighbor used to present about their 1964 trip to the Grand Canyon. I cannot do that to you. But I do want to share some fun bits and pieces, in separate posts. Consider this the first installment!

This is part of the remaining fortifications in Orvieto. Although it is actually in Umbria rather than Tuscany, Orvieto was on the road between Rome and Florence making it geographically and historicqlly important.

The heart of our trip was a stay in a rural B&B in Tuscany to explore the nearby hilltowns by car. Most Tuscan destinations are built on steep hilltops, the better to protect them from invading forces centuries ago. Part of the charm today is that they remain secluded, off the Autostrada, reachable by winding two-lane roads and/or a funicular. Tourist traffic is not allowed (and frankly, driving their tiny, twisting roads would be more than a little hazardous).

 

This was originally a stable on the first floor with living space above.

In Tuscany, we stayed at Borgo Argenina, a tiny hamlet of stone farm buildings dating to 998 and restored twenty years ago by owner/host Elena Nappa as a B&B. This was really an amazing destination itself, a little quirky, decidedly friendly, and a remarkable change from tourist-clogged sites.

Directions to Borgo Argenina instruct travelers to turn off the paved road onto the gravel one. Calling this gravel stretch a road requires a leap of faith. It’s a single lane, rutted and rocky, that passes first through some  trees and brush and then vineyards.   Eventually, the road dips down, then climbs up to the cluster of stone buildings that is Borgo Argenina.

Looking back down to the gravel driveway.

The vistas are stunning (Elena knew what she was doing when she found it) and her hospitality is all you could ask for. Her welcome includes a history of the property, an introduction to the area, and an invitation to join a cooking class tomorrow night. Since we are checking in at the same time as a mother and adult son (from Pennsylvania and California, respectively) and just after a couple from Connecticut, Elena has made reservations for the six of us to eat that night in town at Locanda Del Tartufaio, known locally as Giorgio’s. Elena assures us it is easy to find since it will be the only place in town with lights on at that hour.

And so our adventure begins.

Steve and I settled into a two-room suite on the second floor of the original stable. The rooms feature massive ceiling beams, stone walls and 15th Century hardware on the doors. The plumbing is modern and the bed is comfortable.

Giorgio’s is everything Elena promised. Giorgio is owner and chef. He is also a truffle hunter and his menu will feature those delicacies (a bit of a challenge for a few members of the group who are not truffle enthusiasts). We are the first to arrive and, briefly, the only restaurant guests. It’s a little weird since Giorgio speaks no English, though he does have a server who, though far from fluent, is able to communicate with us. Soon, our fellow travelers arrive, as well as other diners. (All the tables will be full before the evening is over.)

 

Georgio only serves one menu per night, so there was no need to ponder choices. We just applauded them as they arrived: a selection of bruschetta and cheeses, many of them topped with delicately chopped truffles, a primo course of white lasagna made with homemade pasta and topped with truffles, a secondi of roast beef and roast pork topped by chopped truffles and herbs and served with fresh, roasted vegetables. We finished with a delicate cake topped by whipped cream and fresh fruit. (No truffles!) All of this was accompanied by a seemingly endless supply of wine and conversation. Three-plus hours passed in a flash!

This is looking outside the walls of Assisi.

The next day Steve & I drove to Assisi, one of the destinations on our Tuscany list. It was farther away than we realized, but a fairly direct route on the Autostrada.

First, Assisi struck me as pristine. Other Tuscan towns had similar hilltop locations and were essentially all stone, but none of them were as bright and white in Frances Mayes’ famous Tuscan sun. Assisi is not only the birthplace of St. Francis; it is also the birthplace of St. Clare, founder of the Poor Sisters, later the Order of Poor Clares. Despite the crush of tourists we experienced elsewhere, Assisi was surprisingly quiet. I don’t know if we should attribute that to visiting on Sunday or if it is simply the temper of the town.

The cathedral honoring St. Francis.

The cathedral is stunningly simple, inside and out, honoring the beliefs of St. Francis. Unfortunately, no photos are allowed inside. Although I would have been happy to wander the lanes of Assisi for a few more hours, we really had to head back to the B&B for our cooking lesson with Elena and the rest of her guests.

Pasta making is messy but fun (kind of like Play Doh for adults) and like so much of cooking, I think it’s a technique that really requires practice.

Elena began her class by walking all eleven of her “students” out to her garden to harvest some herbs, taste some grapes and talk a little more about creating the garden out of the rubble that was there when she acquired the property. Once we were back in her kitchen, she set us to work, washing and trimming basil for pesto, stringing beans, and browning chicken. The real treat of course was learning to make fresh pasta, mixing flour and eggs by hand on her wooden pasta board, then kneading the dough before letting it rest under a damp towel.

As we cooked we shared our travels, drank wine, and took turns with the actual pasta-making. Here’s the finished meal, below, just before serving it around the massive farm table in Elena’s kitchen. It was as fun and festive as Giorgio’s, perhaps more so since there were more of us.

The finished meal, before we sat down to enjoy it.
Sitting rooms at the Borgo Argenina show off the original arched brick ceilings. Elena spent seven years renovating the property.

During our 2016 trip to Florence we took a day-trip that included a drive through the Clay Hills,  a tour of the Abbazia de Monte Oliveto Maggiore and lunch and wine-tasting in Tuscany. It was a perfect blend of history and culture. So we contacted Roberto Becchi of Tours by Roberto again. (Roberto is a guide recommended by Rick Steves; you may have seen him on one of Rick’s shows on Italy.) Roberto is passionate about history, Italian winemaking, and Siena’s superiority over Florence. (We also found Borgo Argenina via Roberto’s website.) He is fun, knows the best winemakers and the tiniest towns. His tours are limited to eight travelers. A day with Roberto is a personal tutorial rather than a tour.

Montepulciano’s Palazzo Communale is strikingly similar to the Palazzo Vecchio in Florence.

We started out in Montepulciano, with a short walk thru some of the town’s oldest streets. Although the earliest settlement here dates to Etruscan times, the town was essentially Medieval, then given a Renaissance facelift as evidenced by the more elegant facades added to the medieval structures. (Renovation is hardly a new concept!) Montepulciano was both an ally and a possession of Florence. (Before we checked into Borgo Argenina, we spent one night just outside Montepulciano. We had a delicious dinner at Restaurante Al Quattro Venti on the same square, right.)

 

This well in the Piazza Grande (home to the Palazzo Cumunale and Duomo) was fed by by rainwater from nearby palazzos. It’s topped by the Medici coat of arms flanked by lions (representing Florence) and smaller griffins (Montepulciano). And that is very much the history of Montepulciano. In the background is the former court house.
The Sanctuary of San Biaggio outside Montepulciano’s walls was a model for St. Peter’s in Vatican City.
The interior courtyard of a palazzo that is now a B&B. Those lovely arches and pillars are duplicated on a second story, above.

 

The vaults and barrels in the De Ricci cellers are legendary.

Montepulciano is home to the famous Nobile wines, made by individual vintners according to the parameters established by a consortium. While we were in town we visited the centuries-old caves (and tasted the wines) of the De’Ricci winery. The six-story building, whose oldest caves date to the Etruscans, is supported by a huge network of vaults and arches. This construction and the size of the barrels were all astonishing. Roberto pointed out this  is Renaissance construction on top of Medieval buildngs.

Next we traveled to the Tornesi winery in Montalcino. Tornesi has been in the same family since 1865. In 1967 Gino Tornesi registered his vines as Brunello, becoming one of the first members of that consortium as a producer. His son Maurizio started the production and business side in 1993 with his first Rosso di Montalcino and his first Brunello di Montalcino. Maurizio showed us around, his daughter led the tasting and we met his mother! This is truly a family business, and I was struck once again by the hard work and commitment to a quality product that the best wineries embody. Wineries are so much fun for us to visit, but some much work and commitment for the growers and winemakers.

Tornesi vineyards.

 

Tuscany takes time. It’s easy to start with a list of hilltowns, plot them on a map, and start driving. But if you rush thru the towns too fast, you run the risk of missing the essence of the Tuscan way of life and the people. We had several other towns on our “list” — San Gimignano, Volterra, and Pienza to name just a few,  but along the way, we tossed them aside in favor of enjoying where we were at the time.  For example, we skipped San Gimignano last year and wanted to get there this time, but then we turned the wrong way and ended up in Rada. It’s tiny and scenic and there were just a handful of other tourists there. We loved exploring its cobbled streets, window shopping, and had a wonderful lunch. In addition to the usual leather and cashmere shops, Rada is home to a handful of artisans whose galleries show and sell one-of-a-kind ceramics, sculptures and even clothing.

We left Tuscany assuming we will return to see more another time, which is pretty much our travel philosophy. After Tuscany, we made stops in Florence and Rome. (Look for future blog posts on those destinations.) We had visited both before, but really thought there was much more to see and we were so right! There’s a lot to be said for returning to a destination when you are even just a little familiar with it

Tanks for stopping by! See you next time.

More from my miscellaneous file

So, I have been thinking about the pictures of our life lately.

If you follow me on Instagram, this photo of the Chicago River is not new. I took it last week, walking down Madison Street from the train station to the Art Institute. This is workday Chicago, part of what the commuters see (or maybe don’t even see any more) on their daily travels to work or school. It’s not as glamorous as Michigan Avenue or the lake front, but it’s very much the city.

As I was flipping through a week’s worth of photos, I was thinking about how they capture life. We all get cameras (or phones!) out for the big moments: birthdays, anniversaries, graduations, etc. And then there are the vacation photos: the beach, the mountains or even the backyard. But lately I’m thinking about daily life, like this photo of construction at Madison St. and Wabash Ave. My challenge is to capture that.

Last week started on a tough note with the pictures from Charlottesville, Virginia, animated by a sound track my mother would describe as “ugly talk.” Yesterday the country was captivated by the power of Mother Nature and a total eclipse that stretched from coast to coast.

Resilience may be one of life’s most valuable assets.

When I took the shot of the Chicago River, my husband and I were headed to the Art Institute in Chicago to see a current show, “Gauguin: Artist as Alchemist.” (If you’re a regular reader, you know this is my idea of a great day and it seemed like a good antidote to the noise of Charlottesville.)

Most of us think of Paul Gauguin as the painter of vibrant and exotic scenes like “Tahitian Women on the Beach.” But this exhibition took a much closer look at his creative process, especially his ceramics and wood carvings. (I know, who knew he even worked in these mediums?)

 

Gauguin actually began his artistic expression as a wood carver, something he was easily able to do as a youthful sailor. Before he was a painter, before he was a businessman, before he was a husband and father, he was a commercial sailor and traveled the world more than once. The experience had a significant impact on his artistic expression. This single figure, right, is something a sailor would carve.

A number of the wood carvings in the exhibition  were flat, including some that were applied to pieces of furniture. We were impressed with the way Gauguin married the finished carving with the rough texture of the original wood.

 

 

I also think it’s interesting that this piece and the one below both feature figures similar to many of his south seas paintings, but in the carving, below, he has added color.

 

In addition to working with wood, Gauguin also created several pieces of pottery, though not all remain due to the fragile nature of the material. Doesn’t the design on this bowl reflect the colors and designs in his paintings?

 

 

This smaller vessel with added decoration and figures and all done in a free-form manner is representative of a number of ceramic pieces in the exhibition. The amount of color and detail he added is also reminiscent of many of his paintings.

 

 

Regrettably, I did not capture images of his printmaking. I really got caught up in the processes he used. Typically woodblock or woodcut prints are made to create identical copies of a single design. However, in Gauguin’s hands process was different. He purposely tweaked each print, with a wash of color, with different papers and inks.  In many cases the prints were displayed as progressions of a design, but not duplicates. Still searching for a better expression.

Steve and I were both struck by how much more Gauguin did than his paintings and about how much more there is to his artistic vision. He tested, experimented, and tried new mediums, always searching for a better way to express himself.

When you think about it, challenging ourselves to progress — in our work, our art, our life — is pretty essential. In this “back to class” season, what are you challenging yourself to do?

Thanks for stopping to read. See you next time!