Monthly Archives: July 2014

Tuscan Run

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All three of my boys are enveloped in synchronized siesta

So I lace up my shoes and go for a run.

I hit the gravelly road of Colle Montalbino and leave the familiarity of the farm behind.

There is a steady uphill climb to start, so I distract my resistant lungs with the view abroad.

 

Parallel bright green stripes of grapevines shoot off from the road

Guiding the eye to the Tuscan horizon.

A panorama of soft edges from the hills to the olive groves

To the slight curvature of the Tuscan pines

There are no sharp shapes to prompt memory

Of city skyscrapers or rectangular billboards.

Even the handful of scattered farmhouses are padded

With open seashells of terracotta tiles on the roofs

The geometry soothes, pushing my body along

As if gliding on a raft over waves of green.

 

There is no one else in sight until I happen upon an elderly man.

His gait is both relaxed and respectful

His shoulder grazing the row of twisted vines.

“Salve,” he smiles and nods.

I return the smile and nod but do not speak, stunned by my linguistic uncertainty.

It is nearing 4:00 p.m.  Is it too late for buon giorno, too early for buona cera?

I am six strides down the road before my mouth catches up with my brain.

 

The jog was brief, hardly a workout–but my calves still ache the next day

Reminders of the beautiful scalloped terrain.

I see these soft lines everywhere now–

Young oval olives like teardrops from silvery feather-shaped leaves,

Perfect globe grapes hanging in voluptuous clusters from the carport overhang.

Wispy pines tickling the cotton puffed clouds

And the red-streaked curved glass of wine glasses and carafes.

 

The land mimics the shape of a womb

Honoring its prolific soil, gray crumbles of earth

Just tousled by farmers’ boots

Not packed austerely flat by a machine.

Welcoming arcs abound

Like an inviting gesture of “Come on in.”

 

Update from the Olive Grove

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The Tuscan Pines

The Tuscan Pines

Ahhh, Tuscany.  It really is as beautiful as you imagine.  We are staying at this amazing agritourism farmhouse near a small village called Montespertoli and I seriously feel like I am walking around in a watercolor painting.  Our cottage is restored from an old farmhouse and is nestled smack dab in the middle of an olive grove.  Our patio vistas include rolling green hills striped with lush vineyards that undulate as far as the eye can see.  Tuscan pines add dramatic dimensions and shadows to the landscape, while the occasional stone bell tower from a village adds just the right amount of quaintness to the vast natural beauty that surrounds.

The Montalbino Agriturismo was made for families with young kids.  The playground and pool are strategically placed next to the gourmet family-run restaurant that includes outdoor seating next to wooden toy boxes full of amusements.  There are nature trails, farm animals, and an adorable little black and white puppy that roams the farm freely, which has become Louie’s most cherished Italian friend.  We take life at a slow pace here, spending the entire morning just letting Everett collect fallen olive branches in a bucket while we take in the scenery. We run in to other families staying at the farm, most seem to be visiting from Denmark and The Netherlands, based on the license plates on their cars and the lilt of their speech which sounds kind of Dutch to our ignorant ears.

The farm raises chickens, geese, roosters, cows, donkeys, rabbits, goats, ducks, and a special breed of regional pigs called Cinta Senese that is prized in Tuscan cooking.  The boys love to visit the animals every day, run their hands through the rosemary and lavender hedges that are twice their size, and get popsicles from the restaurant freezer case.

And I am having a love affair with the food and wine.  No surprises there.  I cooked a meal tonight that I am calling “Tuscan Delight,” which was a total concoction of the fresh ingredients I gathered at the Mercato Centrale during our day trip to Florence yesterday. The main dish was a stew of sorts made from carrots, celery, fennel, potatoes, white beans, basil, rosemary, and parsley simmered in a broth of olive oil, balsamic vinegar, sundried tomatoes, and wine. I slow-cooked chicken cuts called pollo boccalinni in the mix, which were these lean, meaty skinless balls of chicken with a single bone running through. The flavor from these birds obliterated the rubbery blandness of the standard boneless skinless flash frozen ice-crystallized chicken breasts I am used to. Served with the fresh bread that is delivered to our farm cottage door each morning and a simple salad of fresh herbs, fennel, and tomatoes lightly bathed in lemon juice and olive oil pressed just steps from our door…it was edible heaven. And the meal was savored even amidst whining tired boys, melting down at the 6:30 dinner hour (drastically pushed back from their standard 5:00), because they still haven’t acclimated to the Euro night rave culture. As I sit here typing this on our patio, there is a family with little ones across the way having dinner on their patio. It is 9:15…and that is totally normal here.

Cooking here is an inspired activity. While I consider cooking a hobby and something that I am at least half decent at, I rarely just throw things together without a recipe. The fresh, high-quality ingredients here don’t need to be precisely placed in order to produce harmonious flavor. I am popping little tomatoes in my mouth throughout the day and they are just like candy. I could drink the olive oil made on this farm…or just soak lots and lots of it up with crusty bread (which has become my guilty Tuscan pleasure). And of course the wine…they make a few varieties on this farm that are fantastic. We popped in to an old little castle turned winery this afternoon and wrangled our children during a tasting. We had four different tasty sips including the famous dessert wine in this region called Vin Santo. Even while literally wrestling with Everett (who did not nap today) and Louie as he cruised around the stone floor near our table because sitting in the high chair was out of the question… we still enjoyed the experience.

I am already feeling like time is going too fast this week, as we approach the one week mark until we board our plane back to St. Louis. I wish I could bottle the sights, sounds, smells, and tastes of this unique place. I will be bringing home at least one bottle of olive oil and wine…so I suppose that will have to due.

My little hiking buddy on the  nature trail at the farm

My little hiking buddy on the nature trail at the farm

Ev playing in the winery courtyard.

Ev playing in the winery courtyard.

Just outside our door.

Just outside our door.

sunset view from the playground

sunset view from the playground

Our Tuscan feast.

Our Tuscan feast.

 

The Boys’ Book of Days

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Creating New Rituals

In each area we have visited, we have stayed long enough for Everett and Louie to develop new little rituals that add a new flavor to the sense of “place” in each environment. It has been incredible to see how new experiences and environments ignite the imagination and expedite learning. When we return, Ben and I will likely narrate our epic vacation by summarizing the cities we strolled in, the beaches we played on, the historic sights we toured, and the new culinary delights we savored. However, this experience has been so different and so much richer through the eyes of our little boys, who find a sense of wonder in the unexpected and remind us that being young is a daily adventure no matter where you are.

As Ben and I sat on our Elba balcony this week, we sipped Espresso and recounted all of the little rituals that our boys have crafted that have added so much fun and whimsy to this trip, but that will likely be forgotten details when we look back at photographs and reminisce of this experience in years to come.

So this blog entry is dedicated to Everett and Louie’s “Top Ten” as we have just crossed over the midpoint of our time abroad. Obviously the list favors Everett’s curiosities, but Louie’s ever-developing outgoing personality makes a few appearances as well. This zoomed-in perspective may not capture the sweeping mountain, beach, and countryside vistas we are experiencing in this beautiful corner of the world, but it will offer a glimpse at what this journey has been like with a one-year old and three-year old in tow.

Everett & Louie’s Top Ten

  1. Food Lion

In Switzerland, Everett was intrigued by the wildflowers that grew abundantly across the mountain meadows. Within hours of being there, he became a collector and treasured a plastic grocery bag I found crumpled in the zippered pocket of the Ergo, strategically placed there months ago to assist in poop pick-up on a walk with Otis. The bag was labeled with “Food Lion,” meaning that it had to be leftover from a grocery trip in the Smoky Mountains that we took last October. Everett grabbed on to this and created a game of being a “Food Lion” on the mountain, filling the sack with sticks, rocks, fallen wildflowers, and any other remnant of nature that attracted his whimsy. Even on our dreariest of hikes through cold rain, desperately trekking towards the gondola that would deliver us to drier ground, Everett carried that water-weighted glob of white plastic with him, searching for his next natural treasure.

  1. Number Hunting

In Cannobio, Everett developed a fascination with the house numbers that denoted the individual residences that dotted the old narrow cobblestone street where we stayed. Every time we walked down the charming Via Castello, Everett would find great thrill in calling out the numbers that he recognized and asking us to identify the ones that he did not. The quest was always for “Number 50,” the placard outside of Tommaso’s apartment where we stayed. Louie would get in on the game too, excitedly pointing when we got close to the green shutters and tiled 50 that denoted our “lake house.” Everett had never really shown much interest in numbers before this trip; I find it fascinating and inspiring to see how new experiences can spark the hunger to learn.

  1. Coming Around the Mountain

On Elba, Everett has developed a love for the folk song “She’ll be Coming Around the Mountain.” I think I busted it out on one of our first days here in a desperate attempt to quell a double tantrum erupting from the backseat as we were all getting carsick, while Ben did his best to jolt the stick shift Fiat around the winding mountain roads. Now as we take the stone staircase down to our “beach house,” we have to enact a very specific musical number every time. I carry Louie to the bottom of the twenty stone stairs, while Everett waits at the top.   When we get to the bottom, Everett will not descend until I begin singing “He’ll be Coming Around the Mountain.” I sing, Louie bounces excitedly in my arms, and Everett makes his cautious way down the steps with the biggest grin imaginable. And this is our daily ritual here, every time we return from a day on the beach.

  1. Bell Towers

In both Cannobio and all over Elba Island, there are old stone bell towers, usually standing guard above churches. The bells sound every 15 minutes, and both my boys think this symphony is something quite grand. Everett has become an expert bell tower spotter, spying the brassy bells peeking out of the pines from the Elban mountain road. Each time we hear the bells ring, Everett shouts excitedly, “I hear the bells!” while Louie perks up and begins pointing in the sky until he locates the tower. Everett usually follows his regal declaration with the question, “What are the bells telling us?” prompting Ben and I to look at our watches and tell him the current time or in situations when we need a little transition help, we may respond with, “They are telling us that it’s time for dinner… that it’s time to go to the car…or that it’s time to get in the stroller.” While the other Italian kids are building castles in the sand, Everett is busy building churches and bell towers from the white shingle rocks and sand that blanket the Mediterranean coast.  He has also pocketed two keepsake rocks from the beach: one that looks like a small circular pizza with olives and one that looks like a wedge of Parmesan cheese. These stone snacks might be coming home with us.

  1. The Gondola

Despite the fact that we spent far too much of our first week here using the gondola to flee from the horrible weather in the Swiss Alps, the transportation experience has rooted itself deep in Everett’s imagination.   Even though it has been two weeks since we rode the gondola for the last time, Everett still beckons the mountain cable car scene to both our Italian lake house and island beach cottage. Several times a day, he is a “gondola worker,” focusing intently on pushing imaginary buttons and arranging kitchen chairs to ensure a smooth glide up the mountain to our “snow house.” He has constructed gondolas from the rocks on the beach, from our cell phone charger wire wrapped intricately around a table leg, and from a piece of dried smuggled seaweed draped from his car seat to the car door handle. Forget choo choos. Gondolas are way more preschool-chic.

  1. Gelato

It’s no surprise that this Italian delicacy has won our little guy’s heart.   Everett can spot a gelato stand from a mile away, usually by the garishly colorful trash cans perched outside every gelateria that are shaped like large ice cream cones. “I want to get gelato!” in a little sing-song voice has become a frequent chorus on our daily soundtrack and in most cases, we are happy to oblige. For two Euros, you get a “piccolo” cup of two flavors and Everett’s reliable favorite has been “mint and melon.” We keep encouraging him to branch out, but this combo has become his trademark treat.   And oddly enough, we can’t get Louie to eat gelato. He continues to ask for a taste each time we cozy up to a park bench with those colorful little spoons in hand, but the instant that cold creamy goodness touches his mouth, he cringes at the lip freeze and lets the delectable glob fall wayward. But don’t worry, he is definitely down with little Italian cookies from the pasticerrias—and again, we are happy to oblige.

  1. Italian Radio

Everett has developed a newfound fondness for music on this trip, specifically new sounds that he hears on the car radio. The day we drove out of Switzerland, he began “singing along” with a catchy tune sung in English by a female vocalist. When the deejay came on at the song’s end, I tried to decipher his German to catch the singer’s name and heard something to the effect of “Sophie Homan,” helped by the fact that the name “Sophie” showed up on car dash display. While Internet searches have not turned up this Swiss/Italian/Euro diva’s identity, Everett continues to ask for his “Sophie Homan” every time we get in the car.

And in the evenings, when we are making dinner, Ben has put Andrea Boccelli on the iPad, to construct a lovely stereotype of Italian kitchen artistry. Everett immediately stops what he is doing and just listens, transfixed by the melody and focused on mimicking the pitch and notes with his little voice. It’s pretty darn cute.

  1. What Do You See Next?

This popular vacation pastime is Everett’s version of “I Spy” and we play it constantly as we explore new places. In the car, on the balcony, while hiking, on the beach… Everett is constantly inquiring, “What do YOU see next?” Some favorite sights: bell towers (obviously), wildflowers, mountains, the ocean, the beach, motorcycles, bicycles, and Fiats (also paired with a new interest in types of cars).

  1. Potties

Even before our grand adventure, Everett was known for being a potty aficionado. Ever since he became potty-trained, he has had a fascination with public restrooms. He wants to see the potty in every establishment and then describe it with adjectives such as, “This is a tall potty; a nice, clean potty; a dirty potty; a potty with pink, vanilla soap, etc.”  So you can imagine the amusement that potty patrol has brought us here. The flushers are not handles, but large flat buttons that you press in to the wall. Some of the sinks in Elba restrooms are turned on by stepping on a pedal on the floor. We have experienced the stand-up-and-pee-in-the-hole-on-the-floor potties at Lake Orta (much easier for Everett than for me).   In Cannobio, Everett favored the “lake potty,” a public W.C. located in the center of the main promenade and his first experience with a urinal. (There is no using the regular toilet anymore if the urinal is an option). At our Cannobio “lake house,” Everett had his own potty to himself, outside his bedroom on the third floor. He would only go in “my upstairs potty” when he was in the apartment and has told us how much he misses this latrine now that we are in Elba.   The only downside to Everett’s potty hobby is that public restrooms seem to be an endangered species in Italy. I’m still trying to figure out where all these Italian tourists are peeing when they are out and about. Maybe I don’t want to know, given how much time Louie spends crawling on Italian soil.

10.  Island Walking

And this last one is for Louie, who is getting closer and closer to taking his first independent steps everyday.   Last night, he held Ben’s index finger and walked a long pedestrian mall stretch in Marino di Campo, shuffling his little bowed legs with controlled awkwardness and beaming with exhilaration at his newly realized freedom. Everett might be even more excited than Louie about this anticipated milestone. Every time Louie sets out to practice a micro-step or two, Everett will stand a few feet away, arms open wide and shout joyfully, “Walk to me, Louie. Walk to me!”  Each stumbling shuffle ends with the sweetest brother hug.

So years from now when I am scrolling through photographs of the majestic (albeit underwater) Alps of Riederalp, the paradise of Aquavivetta Beach, and the bustling charm of Cannobio, I hope that I can also recall these daily moments and little rituals that made traveling with two munchkins so unique.

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At the stunning beach of Aquavivetta. What you don’t see: Louie throwing a tantrum because I am not holding him. He is 100% mama-clingy this trip.

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Louie taking a guided stroll through Marino di Campo on Elba Island. Pretty much his first sustained handheld walk.

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“Walk to me, Louie!”

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Building a church and a bell tower with the rocks on the beach.

Elba

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From “snow house” to “lake house” to “beach house.” We have settled in to island life on the lovely Isola di Elba, part of the Tuscan Archipelago drifting in the Mediterranean Sea.

It was a whole day’s journey to get here. We left our “lake house” in Cannobio just after 6:00 a.m., drove about six and a half hours south through Autostrade tunnels stuffed with traffic like Italian sausages, and then navigated the bustling Piombino port until we found the Moby ferry. After driving our Fiat in to a large laned parking lot that opened right up to the sea, we drove right on to an enormous ferry boat into a leveled cavern in the ship’s underbelly where cars parked in tight lines like Hot Wheels in a shoe box. We squeezed the boys out of their car seats and shimmied through the dark, stuffy garage that indeed felt like the inner cavity of a large whale. We found the door to the stairs that took us up to the air-conditioned passenger compartment, equipped with espresso bar, restrooms, and a children’s play structure complete with ball pit. This shuffle through the sea took just under an hour when we loaded back in to our car and drove off the boat on to the island of Elba, historically known as Napolean’s exile roost and contemporarily favored as a vacation hotspot for Italians.

Our next quest was to locate our apartment, which took us through winding hairpin mountain roads that offered vast views of the coastline. Armed with landmark directions in an Email and our GPS, we found our “beach house” without too much trouble. We pulled in to the small parking lot for the villa community called Formiche where we were to look for Maurizio, “an Elban-born gentleman” who would give us our keys. Maurizio did not speak much English, but through gestures and fragmented exchanges, we got settled in to our abode for the week, a sparse but lovely cottage with peachy-yellow stone walls, a roof that looks like it was made from broken terracotta flower pots, and prickly-pear cacti adorning the entryway.

Elba could not be more different from the charming city of Cannobio that stole our hearts, and I think it took us about 36 hours to really recalibrate our brains to the sweeping tide change of both culture and landscape. Our beach house is perched up high in the mountains, divided from both the coast and village amenities by steep hills, winding roads, and thick vegetation and rocky landscape. There is no gelateria or pasticcerie outside our doorstep to quell our hankering for a sugar rush, no sidewalk café nestled in to cobblestone to get a sip of espresso or an Aperol Spritz, and no Enoteca with bottles of regional wine within spitting distance. Yet when we sit on our balcony at night with a view of the Mediterranean Sea and a banner of stars unfurled above us, we still breathe in the beauty of the Italian land and the stories of its people.

Our voyeuristic experience here is different from the strolling nightlife-seekers on the Cannobio promenade; the adobe-like cottages in this island community are stacked back-to-back on terraced land like large stepping stones notched in to the mountains. The condos are crawling with families on vacation, which certainly makes us feel a sense of belonging (although we have not run in to any other Americans on the island yet). As I retreat to our balcony after the kiddos are in bed, ready to bask in to the quiet of the night and inhale the ocean air, I am surprised to hear a crying baby just below our terrace. I peek over to see an exasperated mama cooing at a colicky infant as she paces back and forth. I empathize with this woman (for I have certainly been there), but am also slightly irritated at the alteration of my fantasy soundscape. As the days go on though, I have loved listening to this family’s interactions. Both the mother and father love to sing to their baby and two older children, so I sit and listen to playful choruses sung in the beautiful billowing tongue of Italian followed by giggles of delight from their children. Similar to Cannobio, these children are out and about, climbing, laughing, and playing hours upon hours after our children are tucked in to bed. While it’s not a romantic Italian fresco of just me and the crashing waves and the crickets, the buzz of 9:00 p.m. dinner hours makes me feel like I am glimpsing another natural wonder of Italy: family life.

The terrain of Elba is unlike any other place I have ever seen. While the breath-taking greens and blues of the Mediterranean Sea are 100 times more amazing than the photographs, the hills and mountains are blanketed with thick vegetation called “Mediterranean scrub,” which is this fascinating paradox of lush green desert vegetation. Prickly-pear cacti, aloe vera, and tangles of rosemary strangle boulders, while bright pink flowering bushes, lavender, and bamboo cover the ground. The island is covered with thick pines called “stone pines” or “Italian parasol pines.” Picture the symmetrical orb shape of a traditional deciduous tree with the branches covered in wisps of pine needles rather than leaves. They dot the mountaintops, creating a surreal silhouette that almost looks cartoon-like amidst the bright blue sky.

The beaches here are so diverse, making it feel like you are visiting five different islands in one day. Elba is not very big; it would likely take about two hours to drive the circumference of the island—yet the differences in the terrain would be akin to visiting each coastline of the United States. Just today, we spent the morning on Cavoli Beach, a picturesque crescent of fine white sand dotted with bright beach umbrellas, sunbathers, and the striped green/blue tapestry of the sea lapping the coast like a playful pup. In the afternoon, we drove about 15 kilometers west to Paresi, a coastline shadowed by towering jagged cliffs, the beach comprised of shingle and dinosaur egg boulders, and waves that charged in violently erupting miniature geysers with each retreat of the tide. I felt like I was in the Caribbean in the morning and on the coast of Oregon in the afternoon.

We have only been here for about 48 hours, so we don’t quite have a handle on this island yet—but we are enjoying the excavation of both culture and terrain. Last night I ate my first sardine and loved it, Everett tasted octopus, and Louie continues to strike up conversation with all the locals by waving excitedly each time we pass by another person. I think he is even saying something close to “Ciao” now. The boys miss the car seat-free and gelato-laden days and of Cannobio, but we give them a bucket and a shovel and the sand, and they are happy sun-seekers on week three of our grand adventure.

Lunch on our balcony at the "beach house"

Lunch on our balcony at the “beach house”

view from the mountain road in Elba

view from the mountain road in Elba

Play time at Cavoli Beach

Play time at Cavoli Beach

Backyard Orchards, Lizards, and Hazelnut Pesto

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Italy is teeming with life… in so many ways.  Yesterday, we hiked back into the Valle Cannobina, through the small villages that ripple outwards from Cannobio.  As we walked the winding roads back through the valleys and hills with the boys strapped to our backs, we got further and further from the bustling sidewalk cafes, beach play, and street performers that enliven Cannobio but encountered a different version of awe-inspiring growth and life in the form of backyard orchards, vegetable plots, and botanical gardens.  Every colorful stucco home with a tiled roof was nestled amidst the most amazing mini-farm; there were garden plots with small meadows of basil, tomato plants stretching towards the sky, zucchini, lettuces, and peppers; rosemary hedges lined the fences and hydrangeas of every color dropped bright orbs of cheer across the lush green backdrop of the village hills.  And the fruit trees that seductively peeked out from the stone walls surrounding the homes: we saw apples, pears, plums, peaches, figs, olives, apricots, walnuts, and trellises of grapes.  Our little mini-gardener, Everett, was of course infatuated with the bounty and Louie got a mid-morning nap in the carrier, hugging Ben like a koala bear.

After about an hour of walking the winding roads and ogling the backyard gardens, we reached a rocky plateau with a church and bridge dating back to the 12th century.  The area called Orrido di Sant’Anna offered a gallant view of the Cannobina River, surrounded by green-laden bluffs.  We took the stone stairs down to the river bed to discover a crisp, clear pool of water sheltered by a grotto: the ultimate swimming hole.  This beautiful spot was not a secret find; dozens of Italian families dotted the rocky river bank with their lounge chairs and inflatable rafts ready to float through the caverns.  Ben and Everett went “rock-climbing” and explored the mild rapids flanked by large boulders and a gentle waterfall.  Louie and I sat on the bank of the calm pool, putting pebbles in a plastic water bottle and waving hello to the mama and baby ducklings that glided by.  The rock stepping stones that line the pathway to the river bank also doubled as a lizards’ playground, so Everett was giddy searching for these abundant scaly friends.

At about 12:30, we climbed the stone staircase back to the road cursing the fact that we had not packed a couple PBJ’s for the boys and frantically digging in the back pack for a wayward granola bar to steady the impending fury.  About halfway down the mountain, we ducked into a hole-in-the-wall joint called Bar Centro in a village called Traffiume.  I walked in with a cranky Louie strapped across my body, desperately looking for something to shove in the increasingly whiny mouths that provided the soundtrack to our trek.  I think the bartender could tell I was frazzled when he said, “Ciao, Signora–Sambuca?”  I laughed and said, “No, acqua minerale” and began rummaging through the counter eyeing the processed foods that promised quick calories.  I soon realized that this place was mostly a watering hole serving up grappa and beer, and wished that I just said “Si” to the Sambuca as Louie and Everett’s hunger crazed antics escalated.  I found a refrigerator case with sandwiches and pizzas packaged in thick labeled plastic, reminiscent of vending machine meals that you might find in a hospital cafeteria after hours.  While the idea of processed meat laden with oodles of preservatives grossed me out, I desperately fished out a sandwich and a pizza and a few Euros in hopes of quickly stuffing food in Louie’s screeching mouth.  But no–the bartender took the food stuffs from my hands and motioned me to have a seat at the outdoor table.  After a long 15 minutes saved mostly by the packaged cake I was able to pull off the shelf, the bartender returned with the sandwich and pizza heated up and served on circular wooden cutting boards with the words “Bar Centro, Traffiume” burned in to the surface.  The Diavolo sandwich of spicy salami and mozzarella on Ciabatta was actually delicious, and while the boys’ pizza on Foccacia bread was not as impressive, it was bread and it was cheese and it saved us from the depths of meltdown central.

We’ve spent the last couple of days just hanging out in Cannobio and keeping the boys out of car seats, carriers, and strollers as much as possible.  We’ve spent a lot of time at the Lido, wading in the lake and filling buckets with rocks, and lots of time walking around the city, listening to the bells ring in the old church square.  Tonight we cooked a meal of fresh pasta and sauces that we purchased from a tiny shop in Old Town: there were three types of fresh noodles–egg, beet, and pomodoro tomato, and two different sauces–the most amazing pesto and one called Noci, a sinful blend of olive oil, garlic, Parmesan cheese, and hazelnuts.  Tomorrow is our last day here and we plan to do much of the same–frolic at the beach, eat gelato from the stand beneath our apartment, and spin on the merry-go-round at the playground (where I might just have to have one more Aperol Spritz!)  After our week in the dreary Swiss cloud, we are certainly feeling redeemed by this magical place and so fortunate to be together making memories.  Cannobio, I think it’s safe to say that you  have enchanted us and we so hope that we will we back!

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Overlooking the swimming hole at Orrido di Sant’Anna

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Thankfully, I was able to find a bucket and a shovel at one of the sidewalk shops in Cannobio.

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You can see the church bell tower and the grotto in the background.

One of the beautiful homes in the Valle Cannobina.

One of the beautiful homes in the Valle Cannobina.

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View on the hike back to Cannobio.

 

Market Day and Castles

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Yesterday was Market Day in Cannobio.  Given that food/cooking is one of our favorite hobbies, you can imagine how jazzed we were to wake up and hit the promenade.  As soon as Louie woke me up at the crack of dawn, I peeked out over our balcony and could already see the white tents lining the lakeshore.  The tents were stacked flush side-by-side mirroring the medieval stone row houses that they faced and the parade of kiosks went as far as the eye could see in both directions.  We made it out our door a little before 9:00 and throngs of people were already touring the wares.  The tents in the parking lot near the Lido (beach) overflowed with vegetables, fruit, meats, cheeses, pastries, and olives.  The stands that lined the promenade could be likened to a bazaar–with vendors hocking clothes, shoes, leather purses, belts, scarves, and various other sundries as random as umbrellas, underwear, and hand soap.

We spent most of our time in the edibles area, naturally.  What a feast for the senses!  The colors of the vegetables and fruit almost seem like they have been photo-shopped; I have never seen tomatoes so intensely red, plums so perfectly round, or bell peppers so naturally glossy.  I had the urge to whip out my Euros and purchase everything in sight just so that I could put every single thing to my lips.  And the “antipasti” stands were beautiful too–terra cotta bowls overflowing with olives of various sizes, shapes, and colors, artichokes, sun-dried tomatoes, Calabrian sweet peppers stuffed with cheese, marinated garlic, and porcini mushrooms.  Oh- this antipasti was the antichrist too… it was this stand that made us lose control, opening our wallets and ordering different brined gems, not having enough Italian phrases to stop the vendors from piling large quantities into boxes and not having a clear understanding of how much anything cost.  When Ben walked back to the boys and I with ridiculous quantities of sun-dried tomatoes and artichokes, and confessed the amount of money he was taken for, we both cringed a little and then spent the rest of the day giggling about how we accidentally dropped a small fortune at the antipasti stand.  The sun-dried tomatoes and marinated garlic made a phenomenal risotto that evening though, so if we consider the value of our home-cooked meal in comparison to dining out at a restaurant, I think we still came out ahead.

Everett tried about half a dozen different types of salami, Louie raided the cheese stands, and gregarious vendors popped sweet Italian pistachio puffs into their mouths as we strolled by, doting on them with affectionate “Ciao, Ciaos” while stroking their chubby cheeks and tousling their curls.  Everett has gotten pretty good at saying “Grazie” and Louie always charms with his shy grin and exuberant waving.  It’s magical to be in a culture of adoration; the Italians really just seem to savor all that’s good in life and I’m finding it inspiring.

I snuck back out in the afternoon sans kiddos to peruse the non-food wares and ended up taking a 10 Euro chance on this brightly colored conglomeration of fabric that I thought was a skirt.  After the eager sales clerk said “Bella, bella, no?,” I decided to just buy the skirt as my market souvenir despite the fact that I had no idea how it would fit.  When I got it home, it took me about thirty minutes to figure out how to wear it!  Turns out that the skirt was not actually a skirt at all… there are two tiny elastic bound leg holes buried in the billowing folds of multi-colored gauze.  Ok- they must just be wide legged M.C. Hammer pants, I thought.  These are in fact very popular here.  But after tugging the pant legs up and down, folding the waistline over and over, and awkwardly posing in the tiny bathroom mirror while standing on the three-legged rickety Ikea table, I just stood cracking up at my fashion foul and making plans to give the skirtpantthing to one of my crafty friends, so that the pretty fabric could be repurposed.  But then in one last stroke of modeling genius, I realized that the wide-banded elastic waist was actually a tube-top bodice.  Ah-ha!  It’s a romper!  Yep- once I hiked that clown suit up over my chest and tugged the fabric back to center, it all made sense.  And I’m still cracking up as I stand alone in the bathroom imagining myself striding down the lakeside promenade in this thing.  I just might do it too, because chances are good–I won’t be busting it out around town in Webster Groves!

Today we drove back to Switzerland (while holding our breath and waiting for Swiss Miss Mother Nature to swallow us whole in her darkest raincloud).  Luckily the northern border was just as sunny as Italy has been and welcomed us to the city of Bellizona, home to three magnificent castles that were constructed in the 14th century.  As we hiked up 20+ flights of stone stairs through a turret to reach Castelgrande, I was doubting our decision to tote a one and a three-year old through an ancient Swiss castle.  However, it turned out to be the perfect marriage of sightseeing and free play.  After hiking up through the stone fortress, the dark caverns opened up to copious fields of freshly manicured green lawns barricaded by high rock walls: the ultimate play pen.  We had our picnic in the middle of the castle courtyard, Everett had the time of his life playing in the pile of grass clippings with another German boy about his age, and Louie was in his element crawling along the long corridors of cushiony grass with no obstructions to slow his four-legged quest.  Afterwards, Everett experienced a treat of Orangina and Louie got a nice nap on our drive back to Cannobio.  And now, we sit on our balcony while our boys sleep soundly, drinking the most delicious Italian wine and snacking on hazelnut pralines from the market.

The days are not 100% Italian sunshine and rainbows.  I have decided that a 15-month old who is not yet walking might be one of the most challenging ages to travel with, given the number of tantrums that Louie has thrown because he is desperate to move independently and communicate clearly…but we are just taking deep breaths during those moments (or hours!) and riding the swells to calmer waters (which are usually found near Gelato stands).

 

 

 

The antipasti stand.

The antipasti stand.

Say Cheese.

Say Cheese.

Market Bounty.

Market Bounty.

Yes- another Aperol Spritz.  I like this apertif "hour" the italians have going on.

Yes- another Aperol Spritz. I like this apertivo “hour” the Italians have going on.

Another shot of the market goods and Ev eating his basil.

Another shot of the market goods and Ev eating his basil.

Castelgrande in Bellizona, Switzerland.

Castelgrande in Bellizona, Switzerland.

A PBJ in a Medieval castle courtyard.

A PBJ in a Medieval castle courtyard.

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The castle grass runways.

Castle vineyards.

Castle vineyards.

 

Content in Cannobio

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Well– the final score is Switzerland 1, Morrison’s 0.  Sadly, the oppressive rain cloud never left our mountain.  We tried so hard to remain positive and focus on the alternative adventures that seeking sunshine offered us, but after day 4 of miserable cold rain and shuffling blindly through the thick Alpine fog, we decided to bail.  We weren’t supposed to leave Riederalp for our next destination until Saturday the 12th, but when the extended forecast told us that the cloud was not going to leave the mountain until Tuesday of next week, we decided to say “Auf Wiedersehen” a day early and run for the Italian sun.  At risk of sounding spoiled and ungrateful, I have to admit that Ben and I spent about half a day feeling really bummed about how drastically the ill-fated skies changed our vacation this week.  When we designed our itinerary, our main goal was to stay rooted and enjoy a single place for a long period of time, rather than constantly being on-the-go and strapping the boys into their carseats, strollers, carriers, etc.  However, the miserable weather left us no option except for to pack up and leave our “home base” everyday, spending an hour getting down the mountain and then another hour and a half or so winding through the mountain roads until we crossed the border and were granted warmth and sunshine.  While we found some interesting places to explore, there was no room for free roaming, naps, scheduled meals, or any of the comforts that routine brings to small children and their parents.

Of course, the other major disappointment came from knowing what we were missing.  Thankfully, we did get to see those incredible mountains basked in sunlight, lingering in crisp air for about 24 hours.  Our first day there, we spent much of the afternoon sleeping off our jet lag and getting our bearings feeling assured that we still had six full days to take the gondola up to the glacier, hike the trail to the lake, picnic amidst our front yard vista, and frolic in the wildflower fields.  And yet even though all those plans were literally devoured by that monster cloud, the boys still remained astoundingly unfazed.  Isn’t that one of the incredible things about being a little kid?  While they were not happy about all the confined car and carrier time, they found joy in the mundane activities that Ben and I saw only as a means to an end.  Louie had the time of his life walking on his knees through the wet linoleum floor of the gondola station.  Everett became obsessed with the bungee cords attached to the luggage carts in the gondola station and spent long periods of time “putting on the brakes” by pulling and wrapping the cords around the cart in a methodical fashion.  While this week was not what we expected and offered us many stressful situations that tried our patience, we still recognized the beauty of being together in a foreign, interesting–albeit underwater–place.

And now we are in another version of paradise–Cannobio, Italy.  Nestled in the northern border of Italy and Switzerland, this village is absolutely idyllic.  With a stroke of good luck, we were able to e-mail Tomasso and get in to his lovely lakefront apartment a day early.  Our journey across the mountains were full of hope and whimsy this time.  We stopped for lunch at this little village right on the border called Iselle.  The only option at this roadside cafe was to order the menu turistica, a multi-course meal consisting of the chef’s daily craft.  We ordered clumsily and excitedly using our sparse smattering of Italian words and spent the next two hours enjoying a very leisurely and delightful meal.  First there was bread, then three types of fusilli pasta–bolognese, pomodoro, and one with a pancetta-laced cream sauce.  Next we were presented with pork tenderloin cutlets smothered in mushroom sauce, followed by sauteed zucchini and pommes frites.  Finally the meal ended with Italian espresso, our first good cup of coffee since boarding the airplane in St. Louis.  And all of this came from the cafe at the border, literally right on the autostrade, equivalent in form and function to the U.S. truck stop or fast food joint, yet showcasing the artisanal quality and atmosphere of a fine dining establishment.

After filling our bellies, we headed to Lake Orta, a beautiful medieval town built around a glistening lake.  We hunkered down at a playground there for a while for some much-needed grass wrestling with the boys and then meandered through the narrow cobblestone streets that zigzagged around the lake.  Note: umbrella strollers are not built for medieval thoroughfares.  After a few scoops of gelato (yes- we are treating ourselves at least once a day), we packed back into the Fiat and made our last trek to Cannobio where we were meeting Tomasso’s friend, Carola, to get our keys.  When we booked our “Italian Lakes” leg of this trip, we really had no idea which lake or which adorably quaint town we should stay in, so we ended up going with the place where we could find the best accommodations on Air BNB.  When we drove in to Cannobio, we had no idea what to expect and were hurriedly trying to find a public parking spot to dump our car, since it quickly became clear that we could not simply drive up to the doorstep of our apartment.  As we rushed on foot to the city center in search of Via Castello 50, we became entranced by the juxtaposition of quaint narrow village alleys mixed with an incredible bustling liveliness coming from the main promenade in front of the lake.

We had wrongly assumed that Cannobio would be a sleepy little village with one or two cafes and were pleasantly surprised to find a multi-block stretch of sidewalk bars filled with people of all ages sipping on apertifs and espresso.  White tents lined the lake’s edge filled with artisan crafts and gourmet licorice.  There were two live bands performing in different squares, one bellowing American cover songs from the 80s and 90s, and the other a jazz/pop/swing fusion sung in Italian.  There was a troop of clowns juggling in another area and many families with young kids and strollers spilling into the night.  After we finally got the kids wound down and in bed, I took a walk to take in the spectacle and seek out some take-home pizza.  It was nearly 10:30 at night and there were still throngs of people careening through the streets holding hands, eating gelato, sipping wine, and pushing strollers.  I admired these parents who were embracing the festivities fully without worrying about bedtime routines and cranky children.  Some babies were fast asleep in their strollers, while older kids just cruised on the incredible energy pulsing all around.  As I sat on a bench to wait for my grilled vegetable pizza and Caprese salad, I admired this culture’s capacity for truly enjoying life.  As Ben and I sat on our balcony and watched the scene unfold below us, listening to the cover of Lionel Richie’s “All Night Long” and savoring a delicious Italian wine, we laughed at how faraway our Switzerland swampland seemed.  Was this a festival or just a summer Friday night in Cannobio, we wondered.  Either way, we quickly became transfixed by the abundant amount of life teeming outside our new “lake house” (Everett’s new term for “home” replacing “the snow house”).

And this “lake house” is quite fantastic.  You enter a tiny pocket door off a narrow cobblestone street jammed with medieval row houses.  Once you step up the steep stone stairwell, you enter Tomasso’s apartment–an incredible fusion of old Italian structural charm updated with an Ikea kitchen and modern amenities.  Wood beams bisect the vaulted ceilings that span three separate levels: the first floor has a kitchen with wood-burning fireplace and small eating area; the second floor has a living area (with a second wood stove) and french doors opening to a balcony overlooking the lake and main promenade, a bedroom with balcony leaning over a green courtyard with a small grape trellis, apple tree, and a blow-up kiddie pool, and a small bathroom equipped with a washer (badly needed at this point in the trip!); the third staircase takes you up to a loft with a small sitting area, second bathroom and second bedroom with tiny stone square windows (think oversized peep holes) that Everett adores.  He gets the third floor for his own little clubhouse and was especially taken by the bathroom.  After using the potty, he immediately turned on the bidet next to the toilet and exclaimed, “Look–a little sink to wash my hands; it’s just my size!”  We are still working to break this habit. 🙂

We had a wonderful, slow-paced day in Cannobio today, starting with a continental breakfast in a cafe adjacent to our apartment and a picnic at the local playground.  The darling playground was hidden in the middle of residential buildings, surrounded by trees, and equipped with a sand box and traditional amusements like merry-go-rounds, metal slides, and a paved tricycle track circling the periphery.  And the best part–there is a snack bar seated right in the middle that serves popsicles, Nutella paninis, and espresso and apertifs for the mamas.  I decided to try this “apertivo” trend that I see everywhere here and ordered an Aperol spritzer, a beautiful orange concoction of bitters, seltzer, Aperol (some kind of liqueur, I think), and white wine.  It was served with potato chips.  What a brilliant playdate spot! The afternoon included beach play and then a gelato date with just Everett after Louie went to bed.  Week 2 of our grand vacation is off to a lovely start, and even though a fierce thunderstorm popped in this evening, we are feeling so much sunshine and warmth here in Italy.

An island in the gorgeous Lake Orta.

An island in the gorgeous Lake Orta.

Louie's checking out the balcony in our new "lake house".

Louie’s checking out the balcony in our new “lake house”.

View from our balcony.

View from our balcony.

Ben snapped this from the couch in our living room.

Ben snapped this from the couch in our living room.

Via Castello- our street in Cannobio.

Via Castello- our street in Cannobio.

Drinking my Aperol Spritz at the playground. Everett looks a little concerned, doesn't he?

Drinking my Aperol Spritz at the playground. Everett looks a little concerned, doesn’t he?

Louie taking down some fusilli at the border cafe in Iselle.

Louie taking down some fusilli at the border cafe in Iselle.

Goods and services in the border town of Iselle--only the essentials. :)

Goods and services in the border town of Iselle–only the essentials. 🙂