Archive for December, 2007

Stardate, Saturday, December 29, 2007. We’re home :(

Saturday, December 29th, 2007

When we left off, I was sitting in the airport in Rome trying to find an internet connection. Imagine my dismay when they announced a gate change for our flight, and PJ was no where to be found having gone in search of a network cable. Well, it all worked out. Different gate, but same terminal, so it was just a short walk.

We boarded, and it was off to Zurich. By the way, no pictures, but the Swiss Alps are beautiful. We encountered the Italian Alps first, and they were impressive. Then off the other side of the plane, we saw the others. Wow, are they tall. It felt like we needed to go up higher in the plane for fear of skidding on the peak of one as we flew over.

It was foggy in Zurich, so we didn’t get to see anything. Oh yea, 45 minutes to change terminals for the connecting flight didn’t help either. Sorry, no new watch for Frank. We didn’t even get to see the Miss either, but there was plenty of chocolate on the plane. Kudos to our friend Christina Ferrara in Rignano as she was right about Swiss Air. The service was great and our luggage arrived with us. Dare to dream…….

Eight hours on the plane, and neither of us was able to sleep. Fortunately, a couple of complimentary cocktails at least relaxed us; the food was good; and there was plenty to do watch on TV with individual monitors at each seat. Check out the openning picture as we flew over Maine. Yes, they pointed out Rockland.

At that point, PJ suggested parachuting out of the plane to save us the three hour drive home from Boston, and we are used to arriving somewhere without our luggage. I guess I just need to let this go. Anyway, it was disturbing to learn that it’s only 25 minutes by 757 at 40,000 feet from Rockland to Boston. Oh well. Customs was a breeze in Boston, and we ended up waiting longer for the shuttle to parking. All in all, it was a textbook return. We walked in the cottage shortly after midnight.

PJ woke up at 6:30am. Yeah, I’m surprised too. I slept until 10am. PJ’s parents arrived around 12:30pm with “the boys”, Chance and Rascal. It’s great to be back in our house with the puppies. They are happy too although Chance is somewhat out of sorts because PJ subjected him to a bath. Lunch at the Black Bull Tavern, and it feels like home again. Dinner tonight at In Good Company in the good company of Lucy and Bill.

Our guests have checked in and seem nice. A trip to Hannaford for supplies, and I am ready for breakfast in the morning. Well, at least all the ingredients are here. My heart may still be in Italy. Ciao to all. Buon Anno Nuovo! Happy New Year.

Our last day….

Friday, December 28th, 2007

It’s Friday around 1pm, and we are VERY sad. I am sitting at the gate in the airport (PJ found a smoking lounge) in Rome, and we don’t want to go home. Adrianna packed us a wonderful lunch including Roman pizza and panini con prochiutto and fromaggio. I am sure they taste good, but will do nothing to cure the bittersweet sadness of leaving Italy.

Yesterday was great. We woke up early (for once) around 7am. Took breakfast downstairs and off to the train station for the hour commute to Rome. We could not come here and not go to Vatican City. After a short subway ride, we returned to the streets to find the entrance to the Vatican Museums.

What a surprise. A combination of tourists and Italian nationals, but the line was VERY long. The entrance opens at 10am, but people start lining up around 8:30am. Despite being long, we only waited for 1½ hours to enter . As always, check out the photos cuz they tell the story better than I can. We spent about 1½ hours in the museum finishing with the Sistine Chapel. Despite fear of arrest, PJ even managed to take a couple of photos in the Chapel without the flash. This relegates him only to purgatory for a few years, not directly to hell.

After departing, we walked back to Piazza San Pietro for a few more outside photos before heaving for Piazza Navona. There is a national Italian lottery drawing on January 6th that pays five million euros. Lucia told me the lucky tickets come from here, so we found a place and bought one. Of course, that means I have to come back in January to pick up my prize. Oh well.

We headed back to the main shopping area (Via del Corso) to pick up some regali (means presents – Italian word of the day). Lots of people, tourist and otherwise. Turns out that the day after Christmas is also considered part of the holiday, but the day after is like in America. People are out shopping for bargains and returning unwanted gifts. What a surprise.

After success, we headed back to Piazza del Popolo to the train station for the hour ride home. The train was crowded at first, but as we left Rome center, there were more seats. PJ slept (what a surprise). I called Lucia to let her know when to expect us. Of course, she was waiting at the station with the car. Not necessary for us to walk (well, actually, as fat as we are it would have been a good idea.

When we returned, it was more sleep for PJ and internet updates for me. We have had very good fortune with the weather here and for travel. After, I went down to the kitchen to hang out with Zio Mario. Like us, he was feeling sad and asked us to stay longer. It was very nice because he asked me to sit with him by the fire, and we talked about everything and nothing. What it was like to be a kid in Italy during WW II. It was tough for Italians because they started out (well, what we would say) on the wrong side.

He talked about encounters with the Italian and German soldiers, and finally the relief from the Americans. He called it Fromaggio giallo, but that means yellow cheese, or as we call it, American Cheese. Made me want a grilled cheese and tomato soup, my favorite as a kid.

Soon it was time for dinner. Romano, Lucia, Rodolfo, Chiara, Zia e Zio plus the cousins, Argante and Sylvia. We had a blast. We talked a lot. Drank a lot of good wine. Romano has quite a collection. And simply enjoyed eachothers company with a little Italian and English. At one point, PJ remembered that we had the DVD from “If Walls Could Talk”. So, we subjected them to 30 minutes of purgatory watching me and PJ on TV. We laughed, but soon it was time to head to bed. Our last night in Rignano.

We slept well, and I woke early to start packing. It was not necessary because everything fit easily. We didn’t buy too much or bring too much. Zia Laura came over to say good-bye while we were having breakfast. Then, it was time to bring the bags down and go.

Oops, I forgot to mention that Vincenzo and Christina came by last night and brought a present for us. A beautiful hand painted Italian plate full of candy. Yea, for us. They also brought their photocard, so we could show you pictures from pizza dinner last Saturday. Two meters of pizza on the table for 12 of us. YUM! They are great friends, and we hope they can come to Maine soon.

Lucia drove us to the airport; was nice enough to see us through check-in and a final cigarette for PJ; then we said good-bye as I do for now. Ciao Italia!

UPDATE: Ok, we just got home and it’s 12:19 rockland time and 6:19 the next day Rome time, we are very tired as neither of us slept on the plane. We will do one more post tomorrow!!

It keeps getting better…….. but tomorrow is our last day :(

Thursday, December 27th, 2007

Wow! We survived Natale. It’s hard to believe that it’s the day after. We slept until almost 10:30am. The big surprise when we arrived downstairs was Lucia and her family were still asleep. What a great night.

Wish we could say the same about the weather today. No complaints from me as their idea of rain and ours is substantially different. But I have to say, today was the first day I felt cold outside. The temperature barely made it into the 40’s, and with high humidity, you definitely felt a chill.

We hung out with Zia Adrianna and Zio Mario in the morning. Zia was nice enough to take us into town to see the square of Rignano and also see Zia Maria’s apartment. Zia Maria was Mario’s sister. She passed away in October. I told you about her last night.

Anyway, the apartment is cute and quite small. Living room, dining room and kitchen (all in one) along with a small bedroom and bath. Romano did a great job converting the space for her. He’s a great person.

When we returned, Lucia was awake and reported that Romano was at work; Rodolfo was out with friends; and Chiara was feeling sick. Ugh! We took some time to get caught up on emails and blogs and spent some time alone in our rooms. Before I knew it, it was time for lunch.

After lunch, Lucia graciously volunteered to be our tour guide on a trip to Vitterbo, the largest city in northern Lazio (the state where Rome and Rignano are located). It’s an awesome medieval town whose origins lie with the Etruscans (who the heck are they). I don’t have a clue, but apparently PJ studied them in Art History in college. Nice to know at least some of that tuition money went for good use.

Anyway, the oldest part of the town today is medieval (check out the pictures), but was built on Etruscan ruins that date back to Christ’s birth. They basically built caves or gallerias (Italian word of the day) in which to live and start a village. More on this later…….

I forgot to mention that before we arrived in town, Lucia drove us past an upscale resort that is built over natural hot springs (acqua caldo – a bonus word of the day). Not much to see unless you were willing to pay to go inside, but it was still interesting. She also pointed out a low lying area of water that was frequented by people who wanted the perceived benefits of the hot spring, but were unable/unwilling to pay the price. I thought that was quite funny, the idea of a bunch of strangers wrangling around in the mud. I digress……..

After we finished in Vitterbo, we returned to the car and headed home (or so we thought). She took us a different route, and I didn’t quite understand because it was already dark. There was really nothing to see, or was there…….

In fact, we found ourselves in a traffic snarl, and she pulled off and parked. I thought it was just traffic as this new road (like in the US) was smaller and brought us through every small town along the way. All of a sudden, we walked around the bend and found ourselves in Christmas paradise.

In this town called Sutri (I think), there is Presepio (a live nativity) like you have never seen in your life. I can only say the pictures don’t remotely come close to capturing the beauty. The candlelight; the vignettes, everything was awe inspiring. The place is another Etruscan settlement carved out of lava. It was discovered during an earlier excavation of a Roman amphitheater that was built on top.

Every vignette was set in a galleria and represented how the Etruscans might have lived culminating to the live nativity at the end. Of course the Italians take their religion very seriously, so the three wise men had not yet shown up. But while we were there, we found shepherds in adoration. Not too shabby. The beauty of this cannot be expressed in words (you understand this idea is impossible for me), but it’s true.

Another 30 minutes, we returned home in time for dinner. Leftovers, but nothing to complain about. The food was great the first time and the second time too. After, we started talking about stuff, and Zio Mario asked if we were fans of Hillary Clinton.

Nice to know she’s as much a joke here as she is at home (Sorry friends, Louie, and Uncle Frank, who are democrats). If it’s any consolation, I like Obama. Does that count? Well, I also like Rudi too. Do they cancel each other out? OK, no politics, only Italy. Tomorrow, it’s off to Vatican City and Rome to enjoy our last day here. Ugh, I’m very sad now. Time to go to bed.

Buon Natale Tutti! Merry Christmas Everyone! By the way, we got behind on posts, so check out the previous entries back to Saturday for everything.

Wednesday, December 26th, 2007

A Merry Christmas it was! We slept until 10am; had a light breakfast; and it was off to the villa on the farm. Romano, Lucia’s husband, is a home builder and has been working on this house for about 10 years. He’s done most of the work himself. As he put it, it’s been like therapy (well, not his word) for him. The land which has been in the family for a long, long, long, long time is beautiful (see photos). By the way, Chiara made the nativity scene with panatone and the people from marzipan. Neat, right?

The house is awesome too. Four bedrooms, five baths (at least five as we stopped counting) in a traditional style from Tuscany. There is this HUGE room downstairs complete with a separate kitchen (Yes, even in Italy they have them). It stays warm enough here that broccoli, cauliflower and lettuce are always fresh. The meat we ate, chicken, beef and pork, were all fresh off the farm, quite literally. Well, except for the prosciutto (sp) and dried sausage which Argante had made previously along with the strawberry wine. It was good too, and by the way, when does he find time to go to work? I don’t know.

We arrived around noon and the first round of eating commenced shortly after 1pm. The cast of characters extended to include Romano’s brother, Fabrizio and family, his sister, Natalina and his Mom, Nonna del Fina. We were 18 for early dinner and 24 for the later meal. That included the rest of Laura’s children Rosella and Frederico and there families, a long list of friends of Romano and Lucia.

Overall, it was a wonderful family day. We spoke to PJ’s parents and my family in GA. We miss this puppies, and I am afraid to say, a little home sick. It’s hard to be away for so long. Well, we have two full days left to go out and explore. We are going to make the most of it, so there’s more to come. Merry Christmas to everyone!

No fishheads, only fishes………

Wednesday, December 26th, 2007

Well, as you can imagine we are a little tired. In anticipation of the night of 1,000 fishes, we decided to lay low for the day. Adrianna was nice enough to bring us to Torrita Tiberina, the very small town where this branch of the family is from. Only 900 people, it’s small, and like Calcata, it sits like a fort on a hill top.

We stopped at a local market to pick up some flowers to visit the tomb of Zia Maria, Mario’s sister that passed away this fall. I called her, Mani Magico or magic hands (and two day’s worth of Italian words of the day) because she was always doing something. Sewing, knitting, whatever, she could not sit still. She was the quiet one who never married. She lived in the house that she grew up in. In fact, she was the success story of Mom’s reconnection to the family.

Sidebar: When Mom retired, she wanted to research our family tree. When you come from immigrant families, it’s not easy since the records are not local. She went to my grandmother’s old address book and wrote a letter. She made 9 copies and mailed them to the last addresses she had for my great grandmother’s, Lisetta, siblings. Eventually, all but one were returned undeliverable. The last one went to Otttavio, Maria and Mario’s father and Lisetta’s younger brother. Zia Maria still lived in the house and kept the letter even though her dad was dead. She brought it to Rignano on her next visit. That’s where Patricia, the American girl from Rochester, NY, came into play. She met a guy from Rignano; fell in love; and stayed in Rignano to marry and raise her family. She translated the first letter from Mom which led to the reunion in 1996 and our reconnection to family once lost.

After Torrita, we returned to Rignano to visit the tomb of Mazio, Adrianna’s brother who passed away from a heart attack shortly after Mom and I were here for the first time back in 1996. He was a good guy who was full a life. Funny thing, his oldest son, Argante looks just like him. Argante was one of the many we spent the holiday with this year.

That brings me to Christmas Eve dinner, and the night of 1,000 fishes. Well I exaggerate a little, but the Italian tradition is to eat only fish on Christmas Eve both as a sacrifice (the catholic part) and for good luck. Adrianna did not disappoint. There was enough to feed an army, and a small army we were. Our family plus Laura, Mazio’s widow, two of her children, Argante and Sylvia, Laura’s sister and her husband rounded out the number to 11 in Mario and Adrianna’s seemingly small apartment, but there was plenty of room. Good food, a friendly game or two of Bingo, then it was off to midnight mass for some, bed for others, and as it turned out, two hours more work for Adrianna, ugh. We went off to bed, so Santa or Babbo Natale could come.

What do Frank and Tom Cruise have in common??????

Wednesday, December 26th, 2007

How do you top a day returning to an era before Christ? You go to the village of Calcata about 20 minutes from Rignano. It’s medieval. Built on a mountain top, sheer cliffs surround ninety percent of the village. There is a castle like gate which serves as the only way in and out. Turns out that today, it’s an artists colony not unlike Monhegan Island near us on the coast of Maine.

Same idea too. The locals, artists, tolerate visitors and tourists because we bring the cash to buy the art. Turns out there are some very creative people who are also rather anti-social. After Calcata, it was off to Bacciano. By the way, our tour guide today is Virgilio. He’s Adrianna’s cousin who lived in Rochester, NY for a few years, so he has some English. Chiara and Lucia came along for the ride too.

There is a castle in Baccianno we toured. Check out the photos, it rocks! Literally, it’s made of rocks and sits on a bluff over looking a lake that’s a former volcano. Not too shabby. For those of you who appreciate the lighter side of the news like PJ, the castle’s recent claim to fame (if you can call it that) was hosting the wedding of Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes. Well, at least I can say they have some good taste.

This was a relatively long day as there was a late start and a long time in the car. Dinner was just Adrianna, Mario and us. Then it was off to bed.

A day in Rome……

Wednesday, December 26th, 2007

After letting the streets of Rome kick our ass in the car, we decided to return on foot to gain back some “street credibility”. It worked. With Chiara along with us, we headed out after breakfast. Lucia was nice enough to take us to a train station closer to Rome. Although commuters use the local train line during the week, the weekend schedule is infrequent.

Anyway, we arrived at Stazione Flaminia which is just outside Piazza del Popolo. Chiara had some last minute shopping to do. We were content to be tourists. We walked down Via del Corso to the Statue Vittorio Emmanule on a horse. It’s significance (other than being huge) relates to the liberation of Italy during the war. He is immortalized in a HUGE bronze statue. Big enough that during construction, the crew of workers used to sit in the open belly of the horse to eat lunch to escape the hot sun.

After many steps, we continued on the street through with the Roman Forum (ancient Rome) below us on either side. Our next adventure was at the end, the Coliseum. Have you seen the movie Gladiator? Even if you are not a Russell Crowe fan, it’s worth it to watch and see the Coliseum digitally recreated. It’s even more awesome in person. Check out the pictures.

If anyone doubts the social, political, scientific and artistic credibility of the Italian people, just send them to meet to be set straight (so to speak). Better yet, send them here for a few days. So many things relating to our daily life are part of the landscape (literally) of Rome.

After the Coliseum, we walked back through the ancient Roman Forum. Building after building in ruin but clearly recognizable. Not bad considering they are over 2,000 years old. There is even a newer church built over the ruins of an earlier structure. The only thing remaining was a series of columns which turned out to be so well built, the church was built inside the columns as the builders of the church were unable to destroy the columns. Again, check out the pictures.

So finally, it was off to the Trevi Fountain which is a must if you plan to return to Italy. A few coins over your shoulder in the fountain are supposed to bring you good fortune to return as if all the great stuff isn’t enough to bring you back. After, we moved on to the Piazza di Spagna home of the Spanish steps. These two are located within what is considered modern Rome. And by modern, we mean only about 500 years old.

Via Condoit intersects Via del Corso and runs to Piazza di Spagna and is considered the “Fifth Avenue” of Rome. From Fendi to Bulgari, all the designers are represented. In fact, most had long lines to enter as there was only two shopping days left until Christmas. At 4:30pm, we met up with Chiara; walked back to the station; and took the train back as we had dinner plans with Christina and Vicenzo Ferrara.

Christina’s mom is Adiranna’s best friend from childhood. PJ and I know Christina and Vincenzo because they lived in NYC for three years. Vincenzo works for the government, and often, work overseas is necessary. I guess there is a long term benefit for his career too. Anyway pizza for dinner, what could be better?

Turns out, nothing could be better. According to PJ (me too), this was the best ever! The place is located about 20 minutes north of Rignano. We had to take two cars to get there, but it was worth it. Thin, but chewy, crust covered with all different ingredients as far as the eye can see. I’m not kidding. Each pizza was one meter long. We ordered two, so that’s roughly 72 inches of delight, and we finished it all. Well, not just the two of us.

A short ride home and it’s off to bed. Buona Notte.

Ciao Ravenna. We returned to Rome.

Saturday, December 22nd, 2007

With much regret, we departed Ravenna on Friday around 1pm after visiting the mosaic studio of our friend Alessandra. Go to the previous blog and there is a link to work she did in a church in Orleans, MA. It took 10 years to make, ugh. We americans don’t have the patience to wait that long. So, we have one last cafe in a cafe with the sisters, and we headed for Rome.

I have to say I like Ravenna. Even without directions, I was able to find the right road to connect us to the Autostrada. Maybe I’m getting better in Italy (not really, I’ll tell you later. So we headed south along the A14 along the Adriatic Coast. Near Ravenna, it’s so flat we were not able to see the water. This was one of the reasons we chose this route, so we thought we would be dissappointed. Patience paid off.

About half way down the coast near, Ancona, the road and the land raised up giving us beautiful panoramic views of the sea. Wish I had one for you, but somebody (not me) forgot to take the camera out of the back of the car, and like my dad, I don’t stop for any reason, but gas and to pee (even that is discretionary). The rest of the trip was uneventful to Rome. About an hour south of Ancona we turned west in Pecara toward Rome using the A25.

It’s crazy what a difference a few miles make. Once inland, we started to see snow and it became much colder. Initially, the autostrada rides in a valley in the Appini mountains. Then, the tunnel (galleria – word of the day). It was 20 kilometers long! We got out the other side in a winter wonderland. Fortunately, only enough snow to be pretty, but not enough to be dangerous.

Fearing we would not make the rental return in time, I hauled ass averaging 130 kph. We made it to Rome in only two hours. Well, we made it near Rome in only two hours. It seems that I forgot that yesterday was the Friday before Christmas, and like Americans, Italians were trying to get out of town to return home. It took us an hour to get the last 10 kilometers. Worse, it took us an hour to find the rental return by the train station.

Even though we arrived before they closed, the sole clerk was nowhere to be found. What the hell do we do? The counter was in the train station. Needless to say, we couldn’t just leave the car on the street. Well, finally he returned after our third attempt to find a place to park (impossible in Rome). Basically, we ended up just dumping the car in the garage where Thrifty parks their cars. There were no spaces, so I left it in the aisle and the keys with the cashier. That’s what he said to do. I guess I will just dread this until the credit card bill comes.

So finally, Lucia and Chiara were waiting for us outside the garage. We loaded up and off we went to return to Rignano. With a couple of phone calls, dinner was literally waiting on the table for our return. Everything was better for us.

Now, its off to bed. More to come.

Reluctantly, we leave the palace…….

Thursday, December 20th, 2007

Yes, it’s time to leave for Ravenna, but I ask, why do we have to leave the palace…… Seriously, if it were possible we’d stay for ever. Wouldn’t you?

After some debate about our route with the palace staff (do we go on the autostrada or over the mountains), we left around 10:30am. By the way, turns out the morning desk clerk at the palace is from Boston. Don’t you think we should stay? OK, I just have to let it go. Anyway, we decided to use the autostrada because the more direct route (half the mileage) will probably take twice as long. Too many turns and small towns. A trip for another time, I guess.

So off we go. The trip is uneventful. By now, I am very comfortable driving on the autostrada. After Siena, I am comfortable driving anywhere. The views were nice, and we even stopped at AutoGrill to have lunch. For those familiar with the NJ Turnpike, AutoGrill is the equivalent of the Molly Pitcher service area with one difference. Even the highway food is awesome.

I had prosciutto sandwich on a crusty roll with just a little butter. PJ had a chicken cutlet panini. By the way, Coke has even taken over in Italy. For just 6.50 euro, you get sandwich, soda, dessert and a commemorative coke truck for the holidays. How beautiful. So we finished lunch and headed back to the car. Of course in Italy, they make you exit through a maze of items for sale. Kinda like Cracker Barrel, but instead of crap, there’s tons of more great food. We could have stayed all day.

But we didn’t and headed on to Ravenna. As you may have figured out by now, we are somewhat directionally challenged when it come to local streets, so I was not going to let Ravenna get the best of me. Before we left the palace (remember, it’s beautiful), I used mapquest for door to door directions to our hotel. I even elected for maps step by step. Afterward, I cut/paste the information into a Word document, so PJ could navigate once we exited the highway. Well, it worked, I am happy to report we easily made it to the hotel with only one mistake and no blood curdling arguments.

We arrived around 2pm, so there was plenty of time to visit the old sites of Ravenna. For those who don’t know (us included), Ravenna was once a capital of the Roman Empire before being nabbed by Venice. The town is famous for mosaics. Words cannot describe the beauty. You have to look at the pictures.

After touring, we returned to the hotel to rest for a few minutes. Then we went out again to explore the streets and shops. Turns out there is a new department store and grocery store right across the street from the hotel. I think we are the only people in the world that can window shop in a grocery store, but the food looked great. Again, we could have sampled all day and night.

But there was no reason, at 7pm Alessandra Caprara and her husband picked us up for dinner. We came to Ravenna, in part, because she and her sisters visited with us in October, and they wanted us to see their beautiful town. Also, she saw the article in Classis Country Life about Pizza Rustica and wanted us to try their regional dish called Pasticce da Macaroni. It’s a sweet pastry crust like Pizza Rustica, but filled with pasta, eggs, sauce and meat. Could there be anything better? Answer, simply no.

After Pasticce, there was another course with flatbread, cream cheese and carmelized figs along with a savory casserole, then, the usual dissert display of panatone, chocolates, coffee and dessert wine. It was a great night, and we were out until almost midnight which leads me to apologize for a late posting. After working on this for an hour last night, exhaustion or alcohol got the better of me and I lost my writing before I was able to post. So, I am re-writing this morning before we leave the hotel.

But before we leave the hotel, we go to see Alessandra in her studio. She is a very accomplished mosaic artist. See the link below. She just spent 10 YEARS working on a 1,000 square foot mosaic for the Transfiguration Church in Orleans, MA. That’s why they were visiting Maine. After she finished, the family joined her for a vacation. Check it out. By the way, the religion seems a little out there, but she said they were very nice and respectful of her.

OK, it’s time for a quick cup of coffee and we are off. By noon, we must depart to return to Rome, return SmartCar and reunite with Lucia and the gang. See you later.

Thousands of years of evolution….. Are we really better off?

Wednesday, December 19th, 2007

Hello again, it’s Wednesday. No, I don’t mean Prince Spaghetti Day in Boston’s Italian Northend. I mean it’s time to take SmartCar out of the garage. This time with no lasting memories from the palace (I’ll explain later) and head out. First stop was Pisa.

Back to SmartCar…. I was remiss in mentioning when we arrived at the Palace (Have I told you how beautiful it is…..). By chance, we called to let them know our approximate arrival, and I am glad we did. Turns out that the Palace doesn’t necessarily mean it’s on a big street. Ugh. The instructions were to pull over in front of the garage door to wait for staff to open it.

OK, the street is barely wide enough for two SmartCars to pass, so my parking on the side made lots of Italians very happy as you can imagine. Short story: SmartCar didn’t quite make the turn from roadside to garage opening without leaving a little sumthin from the garage openning on SmartCar. Remember, I’m driving a semi-automatic. Yes, I promise it’s different (more like a standard tranny (the car kind not the drag queen kind). Ask PJ if you don’t believe me. Hopefully, the car rental agency doesn’t notice either. The car has almost 100,000 kilometers anyway.

OK, back to the good stuff. After an hour or so drive (departing Florence was much easier than arriving), we exited the Autostrada (actually, it ends) at Pisa. It’s just a 20 minute ride from there. With all the toll money, you think someone could invest in a sign or two. Again, as much as we enjoy the towns, getting around by car can be a challenge.

Anyway, after following signs, we found some FREE public parking (at least I hope it was, we didn’t get a ticket). Then, it was off to the tower and grounds. Pictures tell it all. It’s beautiful. This time we were able to go up to the top. On my trip with Tim, we were not so fortunate. Afterward, we headed to the golden arches we passed after leaving the Autostrada. Even Italy is no longer sacred!

We each had Big Mac meals with Patatine or American French Fries (They also offer Patate Deluxe or Italian Potates). We were also intrigued by some value menu item called Penzoratti. They looked like tasty bacon and cheese empanadas. Turns out, they were dog food. I thought the Big Mac was OK. PJ still likes McD’s in the US better. It mostly tasted the same.

With all those calories, starch, fat and chemicals, we deviated from the Autostrada to go to Siena directly from Pisa. We used local roads, and it was a blast. There are some highways like interstates, but mostly two-lane country roads like Route 1 except lots of switchbacks cuz it’s in the montains. The single travel lane and lots of trucks means more like an hour and a half instead of 45 minutes.

That was the least of our problems……… Siena is also beautiful. Trust me, we saw most of it at least twice. Again with the signs. You get off the highway and expect to see the entrance to Walley World not a maze of unfamiliar streets with psychotic drivers ready to run you over which brings me to another interesting observation about this country. The people…. they are wonderful giving you the shirt off their back until you get them behind the wheel of a car. Then, there’s a whole Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde thing (chicks too). Turns out the shirt off their back gets bunched up under your head until the ambulence arrives. I don’t get it…………..

Don’t give up yet, the story gets much better…… So basically, ancient Siena is enfortressed in a wall with only a few entrances and exits. If it was good enough in medieval times, it’s good enough for today too. Turns out, it doesn’t always keep out the crazy American tourists armed with a SmartCar.

So basically, they GREATLY discourage vehicular traffic in the fort particularly in the evenings when there are so many pedestrians. Turns out the aerodynamics of SmartCar are also ergonomically correct for innocent pedestrians. NO, I didn’t hit anyone. It’s much funnier than that. We started up this hill, and I saw the sign that said permit access (If they really cared, they’d have someone checking, right?). I ignored the sign.

Turns out, the road (I use the term loosely) got smaller and smaller with more and more people. At first, I tried to turn around, but realized that was impossible. With no alternative, we moved on; got through the tight spot; and turned the corner. Even more people. My shorts were soiled (just kidding), but let’s just say we were EXTREMELY scared. As we moved along, we caught up to a DHL delivery truck. Nothing has ever looked better. PJ screamed, “Follow him!” Like it was necessary. Where the heck else was I going to go.

Anyway, we got a few yards only to have him stop to make a pick-up. As the truck moved over to stop, a policeman was revealed. OK, how do you say bail in Italian? Turns out the cop was great. He gave us directions out of the area to street parking. We got out and walked about for a ccouple of hours. Again, the pictures tell the story better than me.

Surprisingly, it was easy to find our way back to the highway for the hour drive back to Florence. I am happy to report that the trip and parking were uneventful. Once back in the Palace, it was my turn to decide on food (Cibo – official Italian word of the day) for dinner. Chinese, I decided. What else do you have in Tuscany? No really, we wanted to compare/contrast Chinese/American and Chinese/Italian cuisine. If the Chianti and spaghetti aren’t enough to throw you off, everything does taste different leaving me to wonder, “What does Chinese food really taste like?”

I guess that’s material for another vacation. It’s bedtime at the Palace. Talk to you later.