Category Archives: Travel

Poppies, Toros, & Churros

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Poppies, Toros, & Churros

It’s 5:30 p.m. in Madrid and it’s about time to wake up the boys from siesta.  While it’s crazy that they are napping in their beds from 4:00-6:00 p.m., it’s even crazier that we will keep them out exploring the city streets tonight until 10:00 or 11:00 p.m.  I just keep chanting mottos like “Live like the Locals!” and hoping that our nocturnal body clocks will make our jet lag recovery easier when we return home on Saturday.

For week 2 of our Spanish adventure, we have already run like bulls through the streets of Pamplona, hiked the foothills of the Pyrenees, and eaten our weight in churros and jamón in Madrid.  While we loved our week in San Sebastían, it has been thrilling to see other pockets of Spain.

On Sunday afternoon we loaded up and drove a couple hours east to a small village called Ardanaz where we rented an old rustic farmhouse with our friends, The Miller’s.  Rob and Laura moved from St. Louis to Italy last summer and have taken full advantage of traveling around Europe as much as possible, so they hopped an EasyJet to explore Spain with us for four nights.  Their two girls, Corwyn and Saelin, are pretty close in age to Everett and Louie, so the fun factor exponentially leapt once our boys had some cute girls to show off for.

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Eating gelato with Corwyn and Saelin

When we drove our jam-packed little European rental cars into the village of Ardanaz, we may have doubled its population.  The GPS led us to Calle San Vicente, but we struggled to find number 26 as we inched through narrow cobblestone roads lined with rustic stone houses, many of which were abandoned.  I spotted a woman sitting in her garden with her dog, so I got out and gave my limited Spanish a whirl.  Luckily, all I really needed to say was “la casa de Rakel” and she pointed me to the correct home where a middle-aged woman with a beaming smile emerged.  Rakel immediately pulled me in for the double-cheeked kissing ritual.  I never know if you are actually supposed to kiss the cheek or just brush cheeks and make the kissing noise.  It all happened so fast that I’m not even sure which reaction I went with, but it didn’t seem to matter as she greeted all eight of us with the same warm embrace.  Based on my communication with her from the AirBNB website, I could tell that Rakel spoke little English.  It turned out that she spoke no English at all, so I had to put my high school Spanish memory stores to serious work.  As she led me around the farmhouse, we had a few moments where we got stuck in translation purgatory–but I was surprised by how quickly and eagerly Spanish phrases and vocabulary leapt out from my long-term memory caves to play.  We ended our tour in the cave-like kitchen framed with rustic wooden beams and clay tile.  On the long table, she presented a gift of Rioja wine, local cheese and sausage, and freshly cracked walnuts.  Everett immediately grabbed the nutcracker and the wooden bowl of nuts and immersed himself into the mechanisms of opening walnuts and hazelnuts while the rest of us lugged in suitcases and prepared for our 48-hours in this lovely pueblo.

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Rakel’s farmhouse in Ardanaz

That first night, we drove a short 10 minutes in to the city of Pamplona to explore the streets where throngs of people gather for the famous running of the bulls during the San Fermin festival each July.  Thankfully the city is pretty calm on a Sunday evening at the end of May, so we enjoyed strolling through an outdoor book fair, having beer and burgers on the square, and chasing our children through the streets that make up the famed bull route.

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Pretending to run like bulls in the streets of Pamplona.

The next day we simply climbed the foothills behind our house to hike a beautiful trail through wildflower fields and undulating slopes of wheat.  When the wind blew, it was like an animated art show in the wheat fields.  The sun’s reflection paired up with the wind to create changing patterns across the countryside.  My favorite part of this day were the red poppies that dotted every vista and the vino blanco we enjoyed at our peak-side picnic.  The kids were overjoyed to get back to our farmhouse where they could play in the backyard. Even though the pool and hot tub were not yet up and running, they found random sticks of bamboo to build forts and played “school” under the swing’s awning.  Rakel’s yard also offered an outdoor cage with doves, a chicken coop, and a pond stocked with fish, turtles, and frogs.  There was clearly no reason to leave this little village, so we spent the rest of the evening grilling dinner on the patio and embracing this respite of simplicity in the middle of our hustle and bustle adventures.

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The poppy fields of Ardanaz.  My favorite.

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The backyard playscape at the farmhouse.

Yesterday we said goodbye to the sweet Miller family and loaded up our little white Skoda SpaceBack for one last jaunt through the autopistas of Spain.  After a few hours, we made it to the Madrid airport where we returned our keys and oh-s0-clutch GPS system to Hertz and loaded our boys and luggage into a taxi for our last destination: Madrid.  The boys had two things in their mind upon entering Madrid: bull fights and churros con chocolate.  We indulged them with the long piping hot donuts and cups of warm pudding-like chocolate laced with cinnamon.  However talking them out of the bull fights is a different beast as we pass tacky souvenir shops lined with bull kitsch and red capes. You see, I made the mistake of reading the boys the classic children’s story “Ferdinand the Bull” before we left for Spain as a little introduction to Spanish culture before we arrived. They were instantly intrigued and insistent that they should see a bull fight while we were here.  In fact they spent many afternoons leading up to this trip chasing our poor senile dog Otis through the backyard with a stick playing “matador.”  As you can imagine, Louie led the charge on that game.  Since “Ferdinand the Bull” is a very benign and far less violent rendition of the actual bull sport beloved in this country, it took some careful explanation of why a bull fight is not on our itinerary this trip.  Maybe they will settle for a bull T-shirt and a red cape.

Today we spent the day wandering in Retiro Park.  Everett peed his pants in a rowboat in the middle of a pond full of floating tourists, but other than that–it was a lovely day. And that’s why I hoof around these ancient cities with an REI daypack stuffed with extra clothes, right?  At least my preparedness is not futile.  We ate fresh shaved Jamón Iberíco from a paper cone, bocadillos de calamare, and ceviche.  And now as it approaches 7:30, we will head out for a night out in the busy streets on Madrid.  Paella is our quest tonight and there will probably be another round of churros con chocolate as well.  I’ve got the Ergo strapped around my waist, extra underwear and baby wipes cushioning my coin purse of Euros, and sunglasses perched on my head to ward off those rays that won’t dip below the horizon until well after 9:30 p.m.  Buenas Tardes, Madrid!

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Hanging with my small-bladdered son in Retiro Park.

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Three Boys in a Boat

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Churros con Chocolate!

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Puerta Del Sol with my stuffed daypack.

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Eating Jamón Ibérico out of a paper cone.

 

Basque Country Adventures

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Basque Country Adventures

While I vowed to blog on this vacation, I’m having trouble finding the time to sit with my fingers on the keyboard. This Spanish schedule is no joke. It’s 10:25 p.m. here on the north coast of Spain and the sky has finally mostly darkened.  It’s only late May, but there is still a summertime glow peeking through the dark clouds that hover over the Atlantic.  Consequently, our boys have just now finally succumbed to sleep.  We have really only been here for three full days, but we are trying to step in time to the Spanish daily itinerary.  It’s difficult to get a cup of coffee or a pastry before 8:00 a.m. or even 9:00 and most places close for siesta between 3:00-6:00 p.m.  Restaurants typically don’t begin dinner service until 8:00 p.m., which makes bedtime (even for kiddos) around 10:00 at the earliest.

Last night we pushed our boys into full Spanish mode and decided to hop pintxo bars in Old Town San Sebastian until 10:30 p.m.  “Bar-hopping with your kids?!”, you gasp. Trust me- it is commonplace here to see strollers strutting and toddlers roaming through the narrow cobblestone streets beneath the moon.  Pintxos are the Basque region’s version of tapas: small, bite-size delicacies usually served on a slice of bread like crostini.  Everett and Louie embraced the culinary adventure, sampling anchovies, spider crab, sea urchin, mussels, octopus, cod, tripe, and veal cheek.  Although they were definitely exhausted and undoubtedly slap-happy, I smiled proudly as they eagerly chomped down on these exotic bites and did silly jigs beneath the bar-tops.  Of course boy-wrangling through the streets of an ancient Spanish city is much easier with free-flowing sangria and tzacholi, a sparkling white wine that is ceremoniously poured from an extended arm-length’s height into the glass to add natural aeration and dramatic flair.  Just to be clear, these beverages were for me and Ben.  The boys were merely drunk on exhaustion.

We have spent our days enjoying the breathtaking natural splendor of Basque country.  Zurriola Beach is just steps from our apartment.  The boys love digging in the sand and watching the surfers do jumps and twists on the impressive waves.  Yesterday we took a hike up the hill from our apartment on part of the Camino de Santiago, the famous pilgrimage trail that stretches from France to the far west coast of Spain at Santiago de Compostela, the alleged burial site of the apostle St. James.  The side-by-side color contrasts of the turquoise sea and rolling green countrysides is stunning.  I’m just sad that our camera can’t adequately capture this living art.  We successfully hiked about 4.5 km–and without the aids of the Ergos wrapped around our waists in case of meltdowns!  The boys were motivated by hunting for the next trail guidepost: three horizontal painted lines of white, red, and green to symbolize the Basque flag.  Everett and Louie are a bit obsessed with practicing their limited Spanish vocabulary and soon took to shouting, “Blanco, Rojo, Verde!” each time they encountered a new marker.  Louie, who is undoubtedly our more outgoing child, would wave eagerly at the other hikers we passed with a cheerful “Hola!” or “Buenos Dias!”  His confidence sometimes takes my breath away.

Today, we took a short road trip about 20 minutes west to a town called Zumaia to hike an area called The Flysch.  Erosion from ocean winds have made these fascinating horizontal ridges in limestone cliffs to create a geometric landscape design that rivals any contemporary art.  The views of the coastline were incredible, and the undulating green pastures dotted with sheep and cows and Spanish-tiled farmhouses made me feel like I was walking through a pastoral painting.  We stopped in the fishing town of Getaria for a late afternoon sugar rush at a little pasteleria and then got the boys a 30-minute mini-siesta on the trip back home to San Sebastian for dinner.  Ben has cooked two meals so far in our humble little apartment here.  First was a pasta with Serrano ham and the celebrated white asparagus from Navarro.  Tonight, he made a risotto with the same asparagus delicacy, mushrooms, and seasoned with that sparkling white wine that the region heralds.  We are ending our night on our balcony that overlooks Zurriola Beach and is hugged by mountains on either side.  There’s an open bottle of Belmunt red wine from the Priorat region on our table.  It’s seriously delicious.  Ben has already checked to see if the winery ships to the U.S.  They do and we are taking note.  

These last four days have marked an incredible start to another worldly adventure for our family of four, but it has of course not been all breathtaking landscapes and ecstatic tastebuds.  There were disastrous moments during our first 24 hours here where we were all miserable from jet lag and travel fatigue.  On our drive to San Sebastián that first day, we had to pull off at a Spanish roadside rest area so Ben could sleep. The boys literally gathered weeds in the rest area grass patch while Ben clocked 20 minutes of deep sleep reclined in the driver’ seat. I do not hold the international driver’s license nor know how to drive a stick shift, so this was the only way to safely further our journey.

The boys are fighting and throwing tantrums just like all 3 and 5-year olds do when they are tired and out of their routines.  Louie has already broken a champagne glass in our apartment, spit on the floor of a sweet little fruit market, and screamed like a wild banshee in a coffee shop.  Everett continues to have to pee every 5 minutes. But, you know what?  These same daily moments of insanity happen at home.  So we figure–why not mix the daily chaos with a little culture too?  The headaches are the same, but the memories of new experiences and adventures will be what endures.

 

El Camino de Santiago!

El Camino de Santiago!


"Blanco, Rojo, Verde!"

“Blanco, Rojo, Verde!”


Zurriola Beach Play

Zurriola Beach Play


Everett in The Flysch

Everett in The Flysch


The top writing is the Basque language of Euskara, which might be the oldest European language still used.  So different than a Romance language!

The top writing is the Basque language of Euskara, which might be the oldest European language still used. So different than a Romance language!


Louie in the Flysch

Louie in the Flysch

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The Flysch Cliffs

The Flysch Cliffs

 

Re-entry

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I thought we had made it over the proverbial hump when we eased through customs in the Chicago airport.  We declared our sun-dried tomatoes and dried porcini mushrooms and even admitted that we had spent a week on a farm petting Italian pigs and donkeys.  After a 10-hour flight across the Atlantic during daytime hours (meaning each boy only slept a few winks), we were finally back on American soil.  Local time read 3:00 p.m., but our Italian clocks told our bodies that it was 10:00 p.m.  We had to retrieve our enormous mound of luggage, re-check it on our next flight, and go through security one last time before we could finally hunker down at our gate and wait for our plane to St. Louis….just an agonizing three hours away.

At first, our plan was to just let adrenalin take over.  We bought the boys a smoothie at Starbucks, let them lean on the windows and watch planes take off, and derailed their exhaustion with Garrett’s cheese popcorn, pure Chicago gold.  But after about two hours, the boys were totally bonkers.  Louie would crawl across the airport at a frenetic pace, while Everett emitted peals of high-pitched laughter and chased after him.  They were wild animals running blind and would not be muzzled.  The airport hummed with afternoon business travelers, giving us that look that says, “Why the hell can’t you control your children?”  I wanted to wear a sign that averted the gazes of disapproval.  “Hey- we’ve been traveling abroad for over a month, just got off a ten-hour flight, and it is about four hours past their bedtime…so please, just smile and look back at your laptop.”  We weren’t going to last another hour.  My watch, still set on Roman time, said midnight.  I scooped up Louie, much to his disapproval, forced him in to the Ergo and headed for a dark hallway near the elevator that was mostly unpopulated.  It was not a pretty fifteen minutes, but he eventually gave in to my sleeper hold.  When I got back to the gate, Everett was crumpled in to the umbrella stroller with the iPad, zoning out to a Sesame Street episode. Only 45 minutes until we board, a quick one-hour flight, and then we are finally home.

At last it was time to board.  We squeezed on to the tiny propellor jet, got the car seats installed, and attempted to get fastened for the short state line hop.  Everett folded right in to his seat and passed out.  Louie, on the other hand, would not have it.  Hysteria erupted.  I had no choice but to just keep him in my arms, shielding his eyes from the bright, artificial airplane light and trying my best to bounce and shush him back to sleep while the flight attendant prepared us for takeoff.  I finally got him back to a silent slumber on my chest when the flight attendant tiptoed back to our seats. “I’m so sorry,” she began and then proceeded to tell us that we had to move seats.  The new employee at the check-in counter had seated us in the row behind the emergency exit, a no-no for tiny travelers that can’t maneuver doors and levers.  Commence another fifteen minutes of semi-conscious psychotic screaming, back-arching, and wrestling.  Luckily, Ev transferred rows without a peep and went right back to sleep for the duration of the flight.  Louie woke up in hysterics and required intense mama-manhandling about four more times before we landed.  The flight was closer to 90 minutes due to thunderstorms in St. Louis, but we finally made it to Lambert at about 8:00 p.m. local time, 3:00 a.m. Italian time.

The next three days, we did the jet lag jig.  Louie had the hardest time, waking up at 2:00 a.m. demanding breakfast and play on the first morning, 3:15 a.m. the second morning, and 4:00 a.m. on the third.  The fourth day brought us a 5:45 wake-up with the sun, which was magical.  Today is our 6th morning home and both boys are still snoozing as I drink my coffee and type away.  It is 7:35… mama friends, you know what a rarity this is!!  I finally feel like we made it.  We are home, sweet beautiful home.

There are still boxes to be unpacked here, which is making it a little more difficult to soak in the “home” aura.  Ben hit the ground running with orientation on the two days after we got back and then day one of his new job yesterday.  It’s amazing how quickly the routines of real life can take hold.  I am already scrambling to knock things off the to-do list: doctor appointments, finding a dentist, hairdresser, veterinarian, getting new license plates, driver’s license, etc.  Ugh.   Instead, I decide to just clean out the garden bed.  A little rosemary, basil, and arugula in the ground and I am feeling our roots take hold.

The boys are awake…. time to wrap this up and start the day!  A dear friend of mine is bringing her girls over for a play date and we will likely hit up the park down the street.  Not a shabby agenda at all.  I am feeling so much gratitude for the adventures we had and also so much gratitude to have a place to call home.  More reflections to come on our “lessons learned” from traveling with tiny people, but for now–I’ll leave you with a couple action shots from our first few days back in MO.

 

Louie- eating breakfast and ready to play at 2:00 a.m. on our first morning home.

Louie- eating breakfast and ready to play at 2:00 a.m. on our first morning home.

Already loving playtime with our cousins!

Already loving playtime with our cousins!

 

When in Rome

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And the train stops here.  Literally.  We arrived to Rome via the bullet train from Florence on Saturday afternoon to spend the last four days of our grand excursion.  As expected, Saturday was the most harried travel day of our entire trip.  Ben dropped Louie and I off at the Florence train station where we camped out with all of our luggage, while he and Everett went to return the Fiat to EuropCar.  For a little over an hour, Louie used my arms as trapezes as I worked to convince him that crawling through the mobs traversing the dirty train station floor was not in his best interest. After circling Florence and finally entering a forbidden traffic route to get to the rental car return lot, Ben and Everett made it back to the station and we loaded up our ridiculous load of cargo and made our way to the platform.  Despite the fact that we waited for the platform sign to post (so we knew where to board), we just barely made it on the train with both boys and all of our stuff before it pulled out of the station.  Ben was still desperately searching for crannies to stuff all of our luggage in when the train began to move.  Whew.  We thought we were through the worst of it.

When we got to Rome, we crept through the station like the ghosts of Christmas past, dragging suitcases like heavy chains, pushing an unsteady umbrella stroller, and wearing toddlers on our backs.  We finally made it to the curb and looked for a taxi large enough to house our mule pack.  After turning a few small Fiat taxis away, we finally hailed a handicap-accessible van.  The wheelchair lift in back folded up to afford enough space for all of our stuff and the cab had space for two adults and two kids in car seats.  The boys fell asleep within minutes of being strapped in to their seats.  It was if they had been simultaneously tranquilized.  The taxi driver did not speak much English, but had a general idea of how to get us to the apartment address that we showed him on our iPhone screen.  After a short but chaotic drive through the people-packed narrow streets of Rome, the driver stopped and wedged himself in the middle of a mob of tourists and said, “Street closed,” and motioned that we had to get out.  He pointed to the street of our apartment on a map–six blocks away.  We pulled the boys from their slumber, unloaded the van, and began our urban trek through the blazing afternoon concrete heat.  I carried the sleeping dead weight of Louie in the Ergo across the front of my body, a stuffed backpack on my back, pushed a rickety umbrella stroller carrying Everett along rickety cobblestones, and then carried the travel crib with three of my fingers looped through the handle while trying to keep the plastic wheels of the stroller straight with the other two fingers.  Ben lugged an enormous duffle across his body, a backpack on his back, two car seats dangling from their seat belts in one hand and then dragged a huge roller duffle with a smaller duffle perched on top with his other hand.  There was construction on the main drag, so we shimmied through orange plastic netting, storefronts, and masses of sightseers until we finally found Via Laurina.  Whew.  We really did try to pack lightly in anticipation of these very moments of our trip, but with two small children and a four and a half week stay…we did the best we could.

Our pile of luggage in the Florence train station.

Our pile of luggage in the Florence train station guarded by the woman in the Italian ad.

This travel day was absolutely insane, but we made it to our small upstairs apartment perched in an old building in the heart of Rome’s bustling shopping district.  Wow–what a gear change: from the serenity of the Tuscan farmhouse to an urban plot lofted above storefronts like Gucci, Armani, and Dolce & Gabbana.  While we are certainly in a busy, tourist-laden district, we are actually in a pretty sweet spot.  We are conveniently planted right between the beautiful Piazza del Popolo and the Spanish Steps, two prominent Roman gathering places.  Cafes, gelaterias, and enotecas abound–and stunning architectural views of churches, statues, bell towers, fountains, and antique artisan storefronts are a constant.  The pace is a bit frenzied here in comparison to the rest of our journey, but I’m trying to just roll with the Roman tide for a few days.  When in Rome….  Here is what we have done in the first two days:

When in Rome…

Romp through the ruins.

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Ancient Rome was not built in a day, but we pretty much hammered out most of the major ruin exploration in a single day.  We wandered through the Roman Forum in the morning and then hit the Colosseum in the evening after the boys had a good siesta.  Everett was mostly interested in the wildflowers growing amidst the open squares of ruins at the Forum.  For some reason, Italian flowers are all “coconut flowers” or “vanilla flowers” to Ev and he is enchanted with gathering them at every corner.

Louie has still refused to take his first independent steps, despite wanting to scale every raised surface in sight.  I made the mistake of letting him walk while holding my hand through the Colosseum.  There are raised surfaces and staircases everywhere in the stadium, so he made a beeline for some climbing fun.  When I put the kibosh on that, there was a Colossal Colosseum tantrum.  This is what it looks like to tour ancient ruins with a one-year old and a three year-old.  Exhilarating and exhausting.

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A cute pose just before the tantrum.

 

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And there’s the Colossal Colosseum tantrum in full force.

Sample the local delicacies.

Today we tried porchetta at a tiny hole-in-the-wall joint acclaimed for this pig panacea.  The unassuming shotgun storefront of Er Buchetto has been roasting and slicing this pork candy since 1890.  The owner singlehandedly roasts, slices, and serves the pig to hungry locals and tourists alike that squeeze in the narrow doorway for a quick lunch. Porchetta is a whole roasted pig, deboned and stuffed with enough fat and spices to create a pure and non-pulverized “meatloaf” of sorts.  The bones are the only thing removed before cooking, slicing, and slathering on crusty bread, so it is best not to examine or think too closely about exactly what part of the pig you might be sampling before you bite.  The meat was tender and tasty and I tried to focus on that, rather than overanalyzing the different textures that erupted in my mouth.  It is served with house wine.  Ben had the rosso, while I tried to stave off the hot sun with a bianca.  It is poured from spigots that literally come out of the wall.  Basic but beautiful in its simplicity and perfect for a quick lunch with tired toddlers.

See the porchetta in the case, just hanging out in the storefront window.  I don't think it's refrigerated.  Again--not thinking too much about it.

See the porchetta in the case, just hanging out in the storefront window. I don’t think it’s refrigerated. Again–not thinking too much about it.

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House wine spigots.  I wonder if I can install one of these at home.

Live life by the Roman Numerals on the Clock.

We have finally fully succumbed to the European schedule on this last leg of our trip.  The boys have not gone to sleep before 9:30 p.m. on any of the nights since we’ve arrived.  We are going on full morning explorations, stopping for a few-hour afternoon nap, feeding them a “primi piatti” before leaving the house again, and then having a “secondi piatti” of PBJ’s while we are out on an evening stroll through city streets.  We are usually turning back up in our apartment as the sun is setting around 9, but given that the boys are sharing a room in our tiny Roman rental, they are giggling and squealing well into the 10:00 hour.  Will this make jet lag recovery easier or harder?  Only time will tell.  For now, we try to make the most of our whirlwind 4 days here, soaking up as much historical and gastronomic enlightenment as we can each day.  Ben and I have discovered some incredible fresh pasta joints that make for perfect takeaway late lunches while the boys are napping, a beautiful bakery serving cannoli bliss, and a few solid gelato stands.  Tonight we try the acclaimed Brunello di Montalcino wine and eat a porcini mushroom risotto that Ben cooked up for a 10:30 p.m. dinner.  Only two more days until we board the plane back home, a couple more days to Carpe Diem in the city of Caesar and toss our concepts of normalcy to the wind… “When in Rome!!” 

 

 

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Mementos

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I have been contemplating what I want to tote back as my souvenir from this adventure. While there will surely be bottles of olive oil and wine mummy-wrapped in dirty laundry in our suitcases, I wanted to bring back something enduring, something that would capture the essence of our experiences, without being hokey or trite.

I almost bought a bronze bell in Cannobio. Each morning the old man who worked the small shop would fasten his metal goods to wires strung along the stone wall outside his storefront that faced the lakeside promenade. Each day I walked along the cobblestone stretch, I eyed the bell and gently clanged it ever so softly as I leaned in closer to inspect the handiwork. I wondered if it was an antique, but the fact that it was only 20 Euros made me doubt any historical significance. It was not ornate, just a small bronze bell affixed to a black iron hanging post. Still, I developed an affinity for this bell. I have always wanted to have a dinner bell. A bit silly, I know, but I picture myself ringing it from the porch of our new house to call the boys in from play. Everett and Louie would roll their eyes in embarrassment when they heard the obnoxious clamor, which would secretly make me all the more amused. And ringing it would remind me of Cannobio with its bell towers that have been ringing every 15 minutes since the 12th century. Everett and Louie have both been enchanted by the bell towers of Italy, so on our last evening in Cannobio I had finally justified hefting the metal mass of the bell throughout the rest of our travels and back to St. Louis. But my indecisive nature had gotten the best of me… as we strolled back towards our apartment on our final night in Cannobio, there was no trace of the old man’s random assortment of bells and lawn ornaments on the promenade. While the cafes were still buzzing with people sipping apertivos and espresso, the proprietor of my bell shop had decided to turn in early tonight. Needless to say, I’m still thinking about this bell and am determined to find a different one on another adventure.

As we wrap up our week in Tuscany, I set my sights on another relic. The farmhouse restaurant is adorned with these beautiful paintings of Tuscan landscape. They are colorful and a bit impressionistic, capturing the inviting soft lines and shapes of our views here. I have never bought art before, so I am intimidated. It seems like such as “adult” purchase and an investment and to do it without the comfort of my mother tongue…hmmm- I almost just decide to bag it. But my regret at not having that bell stowed in my luggage urges me to take a risk. Ben actually deserves credit for a lot of the initial “tongue”work, broaching the subject with Anna, the owner of the farmhouse. It turns out that the creator of these beautiful paintings is her husband’s brother, Giacomo Tinacci. He has a studio in Montespertoli, the nearest village to the farm.

After a few phone calls, she arranges for us to meet him at his studio. She has to go in to town to the bank any way, so she leads the way. After a few twists and turns through rocky roads, we arrive at a quaint farmhouse with a matching studio in the back. Giacomo is in the driveway, waving and awaiting our arrival. Anna introduces us and promises to swing back by after her trip to the bank in case we need any translation assistance. Giacomo does not speak any English and as embarrassing as it is, after a month of being here, we can really only eke out the basic Italian greetings and a few gelato flavors. Despite this fact, we take turns speaking to each other in our respective languages, comfortably and with lots of gestures. He walks us through his life’s work, pointing to dates on paintings, explaining the progression of technique and style. His studio is lovely, more of an authentic working space than a gallery. There is a painting on an easel, half-finished—only the Tuscan pines and farmhouse rooftops pop in color while the bottom half of the canvas sits patiently, awaiting its day of adornment. The easel is perched in the loft facing an arced window, shutters open to actual views he refashions with his brush.

It’s lunchtime and naptime and the boys are squirmy. We don’t have much more time to peruse and gesture. Giacomo quells a near-tantrum by arming the boys with white paper and colored pencils. They create their own little landscapes that spill off the paper to his wooden floor, but he assures us that he does not mind. Meanwhile, we choose a favorite in a modest size that we think (hope, pray) we can both afford and get back to Missouri in one piece. He gives us a discount for paying in cash at the studio. Being virgin art-buyers, we have no idea if we are truly getting a deal, but we are confident that the colorful recreation of our Tuscan farmland experiences will make us smile for many years to come.

Everett was still talking about “Jack-a-mo, the painter man” at bedtime this evening. I smooth my hands over the painting wrapped in stiff cardboard and brown paper and look forward to unwrapping it like a present when we get home. Tomorrow, we say goodbye to our Tuscan farmhouse and head to Florence where we will catch a train to Rome. We anticipate that the process of returning the rental car, getting our obnoxious load of luggage, two boys, and car seats on the train, and then catching a taxi to our apartment in Rome will be our most stressful travel day yet. For now, I linger on the patio with my glass of Toscana, savoring the stars for a few more moments. I know it sounds cliché, but I feel a sense of connection to this place. The land features soothe, the night air cools your sun-drenched skin…or maybe this ardor is really just the wine getting to my head. Either way, I already long to return to Montalbino.

The view from Giacomo's studio.

The view from Giacomo’s studio.

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Everett coloring on the floor of Giacomo’s studio.

Everett making his own pizza at the farmhouse restaurant tonight.

Everett making his own pizza at the farmhouse restaurant tonight.

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.