Friday, July 29, 2005

From a distance

Legoland Germany is an extended (and successful) riff on the “It’s a small world after all” ride at Disney. The centerpiece is a large area depicting many Europe’s great cities, all done with legos. Somehow they all look perfect there, as most human endeavors do when you can’t see the details. As the song says, “God is watching us…from a distance.”

Thursday, July 28, 2005

The most beautiful village in the world

Through some sort of semi-competitive process which was never completely disclosed, Lech won the right to call itself “the most beautiful village in the world.” This is only a slight exaggeration – the family voted this our favorite stop on our grand tour. Beautiful mountains, rushing streams, and friendly Austrians made it an easy place to stay.

One night we saw lights leading up a ski slope to a little lodge and thought we would pop up to take in the view. Thirty strenous minutes later we collapsed on the doorstep of an extraordinary restaurant called Rud Alpe. The restaurant looks like an ancient barn on the outside and a hip San Francisco restaurant on the inside, commands a stunning view of the entire Lech valley, and has a similarly stunning menu and wine list. Once we had found it, we contrived to eat as many meals as possible there during the rest of our stay.

Lech has also figured out that it takes a village to make a vacation fun and easy. Anybody staying at a local hotel gets a pass which gives you free rides on the busses, chairlifts and gondolas and entrance to the huge outdoor pool. You can put your children in an all-day program of hiking, rock climbing or soccer for 8 euros per child per day – Lech is the most kid friendly place we have been to in Europe.


Our favorite restaurant in Europe

Incredible view of Lech + wonderful Austrian food + big, big wine cellar = very satisfied diners


Wednesday, July 27, 2005

A view of least humble village in the world

With a view like this, can you blame them? Lech, Austria


Tuesday, July 26, 2005

A magic evening in Austria

Fleeing two bad hotel experiences in Switzerland, we passed into Austria and more or less collapsed in the astonishingly small town of Braz (a beautiful but tiny wide spot on the road between Feldkirch and Innsbruck). There we had a literally enchanted evening at the only hotel in town, Gasthaus Traube.

A nearby town was having a magic festival and several of the magicians came to the hotel to entertain us during dinner. After getting an enthusiastic response from the entire family, one of the magicians announced that we must not be British because we were much too demonstrative (and presumably more gullible as well).

Monday, July 25, 2005

Switzerland and Austria hotel reviews - serious price/value gap

We stayed in one beautiful and astronomically expensive hotel in Switzerland (reviewed) and two pretty expensive (220 euro per night) dumps masquerading as hotels. The short story is - save money, go to Austria.

Switzerland, Wengen, Near Interlocken, Hotel Caprice (
Location: near Interlocken, have to park car and take a train from Lauterbrunnen to get there, which is a bit of a pain, but well worth it for the views.
Room (2 adults, 2 children < 10): very nice sitting room and connected bedroom. Boys stayed in single beds in the sitting room and there was a door between it and bedroom. Deck with drop dead views of the alps.
Service: outstanding service
Internet: no
Food: breakfast was very good. Dinner was outstanding, with inventive meals created by French chefs.
Best feature: the view, the view, the view
Best food nearby: the restaurant in the hotel is outstanding
Price: over 600 swiss franks per night (July), with breakfast and dinner included. I made the mistake of not asking the price when I made the reservation and was blown away by the price. They may have cheaper rooms, but our impression was that prices in Switzerland were sky high and you can get equally nice accommodations for a fraction the price in Austria.
Overall family rating: good but pricey, 8 out of 10. As beautiful as it was, it was not nearly worth what we paid for it. Two nights later we were staying in an equally nice hotel with spectacular views in Lech, Austria for 150 euros a night with breakfast and dinner included.

Austria, Braz, Near Zurich, Hotel Gasthaus Traube (
Location: between Zurich and Innsbruck
Room (2 adults, 2 children < 10): great layout with a sitting room where the boys slept connected by a door to the bedroom. Beautifully decorated rooms and extremely quiet.
Service: very friendly
Internet: hotel has a computer you can use
Food: breakfast was outstanding, with fresh breads, wonderful air-dried meats and of course outstanding muesli and yoghurt.
Best feature: this was the nicest hotel we stayed in during our trip, with wonderful food and rooms, but not much to do in town other than sleep and eat.
Best food nearby: the restaurant in the hotel is terrific, we had two wonderful, typical Austrian meals with wiener schnitzel, deer
Price: 120 euros a night, includes breakfast (July).
Overall family rating: excellent, 9 of 10. This was our favorite hotel in Europe so far. The only negative is that it is located in a wide spot in the road without a lot to do. I would definitely stay here again if I were ever driving through Switzerland and Austria. If this hotel were located in Lech, we would check in and might just never check out.

Austria, Lech, Near Innsbruck, Hotel Omesberg (
Location: in the self-described “most beautiful village in the world,” which is only a slight exaggeration
Room (2 adults, 2 children < 10): we stayed in a very large room with two small beds for the boys and a large bed for us. Very quiet, and cool at night, a nice change after Italy. Room layout was not ideal as we would rather have a room where there is a door between the kids and us, mostly so they don’t wake us when they get up at 7am. The hotel does have connecting rooms so next time we stay here we will probably get two connecting rooms.
Service: very good, with famous Austrian friendliness (the owner pointed out that Arnold Schwartzenhegger comes from his province)
Internet: YES, the first hotel we have been in during our 8 weeks in Europe that actually had normal Ethernet connections in the hotel room. For this alone they should get a medal!
Food: breakfast was good, with fresh bread and well-prepared muesli. Dinners were good but a little heavy and after two nights we were ready for a meal out on the town.
Best feature: those beautiful mountains, those rushing streams, those friendly Austrians! Lech has a wonderful setup where you get a card from the hotel that gives you free rides on the bus, on the gondolas and entrance to the huge outdoor pool. You can put your children in an all-day program of hiking, rock climbing or soccer for 8 euros per child per day – Lech is the most kid friendly place we have been to in Europe!
Best food nearby: there is a great restaurant located somewhat inconveniently half way up the ski run right above the hotel called Restaurant Rud-Alpe. From the outside, looks like a big beautiful barn, from the inside, looks like a chic San Francisco restaurant. Serves traditional food like gulasch suppe and kaese spaetzle but done incredibly well and with a jaw-dropping view thrown in for free. A great wine list and very knowledgeable waiters makes for a sure-fire memorable meal.
Price: 150 euros a night, includes breakfast and dinner (July).
Overall family rating: excellent, 9 of 10. After traveling through Italy and Switzerland for 8 weeks, this was the place the kids (and the parents) found the most relaxing and had the most fun. We will definitely come here again, stay a week, and take in the beautiful scenery, all sorts of outdoor activities and good food.


Tuesday, July 19, 2005

For this I could have skipped Italy*

* quote from Yvonne on arriving in Wengen

Monday, July 18, 2005

Two types of travelers

Travelers divide into roughly two camps: those who travel to fill their heads and those who travel to fill their hearts. Head travelers are easy to spot – they are all maps, detailed itineraries and cameras. Heart travelers tend to be found in out of the way corners, staring dreamily at ancient walls or errant flowers.

With head travel, the itinerary is easy to create, but the end objective is unclear. With heart travel, there is no particular itinerary, but the objective is achieved with each new adventure. With one approach, you get pictures, and with the other, stories.

“The longer I’m here, the less I feel like I have to go see.” Yvonne

Sunday, July 17, 2005

Just about to break into a yodel

Saturday, July 16, 2005

Occupation memories

Our hosts in Basel were both children in Holland during World War II. Over our time there, they related stories from the German occupation of Holland that had eerie parallels to what we see daily on CNN.

The Germans wanted to be seen as friends and protectors of the Dutch, but were instead universally reviled. Most of the schools were closed, food was strictly rationed and basics like bread were unobtainable.

As an eight-year old girl, our hostess thrived playing dangerous tricks on German officers like pulling on water-covered branches to drench them as they walked under a tree. Older girls played far more dangerous games, flirting with the German troops while carrying weapons and supplies for the Dutch resistance in the saddlebags of their bicycles. “Every child understood, even without being told, that you should smile politely to the Germans while doing whatever you could to help the resistance.”

Their city was liberated by the Canadians who came in tanks and brought fresh bread. Her entire neighborhood ran to see their liberators, passing in their excitement through a well known minefield where miraculously nobody was hurt. “When the Canadians distributed white bread, that is the first time I can ever remember being hungry for food.”

After singing songs and dancing with the Canadian troops, people went home thinking that the war was over. What came next though was in some ways the most dangerous time of the war. “After the Canadians came, there were still German troops all over, and if they had a gun, they would kill people just because they could. They had been told that if they were defeated they would have nothing to live for, so they killed many people. For months after the liberation we had to be very careful and stay home.”

It seems in Iraq we are learning again the huge difference between liberation and peace and the long shadow cast by a totalitarian government and its fanatic adherents.

Friday, July 15, 2005

At home in Europe

After six weeks traveling through France and Italy, it took some old fashioned Dutch hospitality to make us feel at home in Europe. We stayed for several days in Basel with family friends who had not seen Yvonne for over 20 years, but who welcomed us as if we had known them all our lives.

Truth be told, we were homesick after so many weeks on the road and dying for a place where we wouldn’t feel like tourists just passing through. At the house of Hans and Henny Jansonius, we had a sense for the first time of being completely comfortable in Europe.

The Germans, with their endless inventory of human emotions, have two very good expressions for describing these kinds of feelings:
Gemutlichkeit – cozy ambiance, the comfort of a home kitchen
Sich wohl fuhlen – literally to feel well about yourself, the contentedness of feeling accepted

Days we played soccer in the park and picked local raspberries. Nights we sat outside for home-cooked meals and lively conversation. After four days we left with a new spring in our step, clean laundry and the warm glow of a new-found friendship.

Thursday, July 14, 2005

The locality of quality

Only a few kilometers over the Italian border into Switzerland, we stopped for the night in Lugano. There we found that a miraculous transformation had taken place – although everyone still spoke Italian, they had forgotten how to make coffee and discovered how to make watches.

Despite the drumbeat newspaper reports of universal globalization, the truth is that there is still an astounding and charming locality everywhere you go. Yes, McDonalds has its tentacles in a surprising number of locations, but what you can find within 100 meters of McDonalds varies delightfully from town to town.

When it comes to quality, everything matters – ingredients, skill in preparation, local tastes and even ambiance. The incredible almond sherbet (mandorla granite) that was universally available in Sicily was completely unobtainable anywhere else in Italy. Even within Sicily every café had its own mandorla recipe so it never tasted the same twice. Vive la difference!

Wednesday, July 13, 2005

Italy Hotel Reviews - the good, the bad, the mosquitoes

Italy, Amalfi, Hotel Bussola (
Location: On north side of town near marina, away from touristy grand hotel area
Room (2 adults, 2 children < 10): we had a lovely room with two double beds and a balcony overlooking the marina. This was also a wonderful vantage point to watch the entire town walk by on their evening promenade along the marina (with the downside that you do get some road noise at night through the shutters). No A/C, so can get pretty warm.
Service: service was quite good – it is an unpretentious hotel with a comfortable feel to it
Internet: hotel has a computer you can use for short periods or there is an internet café in town
Food: breakfast was included, but breakfast is not an Italian specialty, so on a scale of 1 to German fruhstuck it was a 4. Espresso is excellent, do not order the drip coffee. Muesli was decent dry cereal.
Best feature: the hotel has its own dock on the marina which is set up for swimming. Our kids spent the entire day swimming from the dock
Best food nearby: the restaurant at the end of the marina is excellent, great pizza for kids and great view for the adults. The local kids play in the park next to the restaurant so it has a great family feel
Price: around 180 euros a night (June).
Overall family rating: good 8 out of 10 – it is not fancy and you probably couldn’t stay longer than 3 days because Amalfi is really tiny, but a great place for a 2-3 day stop.

Italy, Rome, Spanish Steps Area, Hotel Dei Borgononi (
Location: near Spanish steps, a great location for walking around but it is next to impossible to drive to because the street directions are so confusing in Rome. We parked our car at airport and had a driver from the hotel pick us up there for 50 euros.
Room (2 adults, 2 children < 10): we had a very nice suite with a sitting room and a bedroom. The boys slept on the sofa and the floor in the sitting room (not ideal, but workable). The room was on an interior courtyard, very quiet and had A/C which is critical because it is too noisy outside to keep windows open at night
Service: service was outstanding throughout our stay – extremely helpful staff, particularly for planning trips to various sites in Rome
Internet: no wifi or wiring to room, hotel has a computer you can use
Food: a very good breakfast was included, with good coffee and baked goods.
Best feature: this is a wonderfully quite and calm oasis in a very bustling city – it was great to come here and get out of the crush of tourists.
Best food nearby: Noni is a great, traditional restaurant nearby, the hotel staff can direct you. Food and wine was great, waiters were terrific and wore the full white uniforms – very classy
Price: around 250 euros a night (June).
Overall family rating: excellent 9 out of 10. A very comfortable, classy hotel in a great location. I will definitely stay here again.

Italy, Sicily, Catania Area, Villa L’Edera (
Location: in a village on the slopes of Mt Etna. The villages are nice, but you are in the middle of nowhere and the beach is a good 30 minutes away. We arrived at night and had a very difficult time following the directions and getting to the house.
Room (2 adults, 2 children < 10): huge villa with room for many more than 4 people. The design is incredible; it was built by a French architect in the 1960s and had arched ceilings and a nice new pool. Old but nice kitchen. The property spreads over several acres and contains lovely gardens and many fruit trees. Minuses included: even though we were high up on the slopes of Mount Etna, there were no views. It had been rainy, and the villa smelled musty. Also, for whatever reason, the neighborhood contained a large number of barking dogs, so even though we were in the country, we were often woken by dogs barking.
Service: we had a great maid and the owner was very responsive
Internet: none. Sicily has not discovered the internet yet
Food: farmers were selling fresh fruit and vegetables all along the roads near the villa. We ate at home mostly and had incredible food – fresh apricots, tomatoes, beans, pecorino cheese with peppers
Best feature: incredible architecture, wonderful pool
Best food nearby: there is not much in the way of good restaurants nearby, but lots of great fresh food
Price: 420 euros a night for a full week rental (June).
Overall family rating: 6 out of 10. Beautiful but remote and expensive – I think you can do better in Sicily.

Italy, Tuscany, Orvieto Area, Agro Turismo Hotel Locanda Rosati (
Location: near Orvieto (most beautiful hill town in Tuscany), in the middle of the countryside. The grounds contain beautiful gardens, a raspberry patch and a beautiful pool.
Room (2 adults, 2 children < 10): we stayed in two different rooms, both very spacious and with separate beds for the kids. The rooms facing the road are less quiet than the rooms facing the pool. No A/C, so it can get hot at night.
Service: outstanding. Extremely friendly family runs the hotel – the brother in law cooks the meals and a cousin supplies the milk – the boys loved getting to go to the dairy to see the cows milked, not something they see every day in San Francisco
Internet: the hotel has a computer with internet access you can use
Food: we stayed here because a friend told us she ate her best meal in Italy at this hotel. The food really is spectacular and the family style seating is fun as well. Each meal has a number of courses served family style around a big table with nice wine to go along. The meals were memorable both for the food and for the lively conversation around the table
Best feature: there are a number of best features – tons of room for the kids to run around, trips to the local dairy to see them milking cows, picking raspberries in the garden, playing with other children at the hotel. The kitchen is open and I had a great time hanging out with Paolo and seeing how he prepared different dishes.
Best food nearby: there is no reason to eat anywhere else for dinner, but we had a nice lunch just up the road
Price: 270 euros a night (June).
Overall family rating: excellent 10 out of 10. A very comfortable, classy hotel in a great location. A family could easily stay up to a week here and do day trips to surrounding towns. I will definitely go here again.

Italy, Tuscany, Greve Area, Villa Marcellana (
Location: 20 km south of Florence and 15 km north of Greve, near San Casciano. The
Room (2 adults, 2 children < 10): two bedrooms, with the kids sleeping in the loft (got a bit hot at night) and we slept in a big master bedroom. Efficiency kitchen was a little tough to cook in but serviceable. This place could easily be the poster child for beautiful living in Tuscany, with drop dead views, extraordinary gardens, and an idyllic pool. Minuses included: electricity was a problem – the circuit blew any time two appliances were on at the same time. The grounds were unspeakably beautiful with a huge garden and pool, but the back of the house is right on the main road to Greve, so there was a good deal of road noise and of course there was no A/C so you had to keep the windows open at night and put on lots of mosquito repellent.
Service: good. We never saw the owners, who live downstairs, but the handyman was wonderful and incredibly responsive. The owners also had two yappy dogs who bit one of our kids, so that made them uncomfortable exploring the grounds on their own.
Internet: no
Food: we shopped at the markets in San Casciano and ate in most nights.
Best feature: drop dead views, extraordinary gardens, idyllic pool
Best food nearby: we had two terrific meals, one at Il Corno Tenuta (which is also an Agro Turismo), and one at Restaurant Il Cavaliere Di Gabbiano
Price: 220 euros a night for full week rental (June).
Overall family rating: mixed, 7 out of 10. Beautiful setting and beastly noise. I would go back but I would look hard first to see if I could duplicate the setting without the road noise and obnoxious dogs. It was so beautiful that I would be tempted to go back even with the drawbacks.

Italy, Venice, Castello Area, Hotel Ca Formenta (
Location: Castello area, 15 minute walk from Piazza San Marco. This is a wonderful location, because it is a fairly quiet area, but easily accessible to the main tourist attractions.
Room (2 adults, 2 children < 10): we had two connecting rooms overlooking a canal. They were brand new, very quiet, and nicely appointed with good A/C but very small showers.
Service: very friendly and helpful staff
Internet: no
Food: breakfast was a typical ok Italian breakfast. As with everywhere else in Italy, stick with espresso and don’t order the drip coffee.
Best feature: location in a quiet neighborhood but close to the bustling tourist areas
Best food nearby: Il Nuovo Galeon, just up the street on Via Garibaldi has wonderful seafood, outdoor dining and impressive pictures from when the queen of Belgium ate there a year ago
Price: around 260 euros per night (July).
Overall family rating: excellent, 9 out of 10. Friendly, quiet and comfortable hotel in an incredible city. I will definitely go here again.


Tuesday, July 12, 2005

Italy for kids – an amateur’s assessment

It is of course ridiculous to summarize a country after a few weeks of travel, but here are some thoughts after spending six weeks traveling through Sicily and Tuscany, going up through Rome, Amalfi, Florence and Venice, then heading north to Switzerland.

Overall, Italy is wonderful for kids. The Italians are naturally friendly, but particularly friendly to families and children. Not that many people spoke English, but we did alright with a few phrases from the back of our guide book, with lots of expressive gestures thrown in.

Our biggest single travel problem in Italy was dinners – our boys are 8 and 5 and usually go to bed by 8pm, but few Italian restaurants are open by then. We got around this by cooking many of our dinners at home (with incredibly fresh ingredients so it wasn’t like this was a hardship) and just having a number of days where the kids were crabby because they hadn’t gotten to bed early enough.

We found quickly that there was only so much big city sightseeing the kids could take. Over time, we developed the “two marvel rule”:

Two marvel rule: kids can handle about two marvels a day before they melted down due to a combination of crowds, optic overstimulation and heat. After that, they get hot, tired and cranky, and you start to wish you knew the name of a really good baby sitter in whatever city you are stuck in.

The countryside, on the other hand, is wonderful for kids. They are content anyplace they can run around, swim and stay put in. They considered gelato for breakfast maybe the best meal they had ever had (before you moralize, consider that there is not much else to eat for breakfast and they are already hyper enough without espresso).

Quick Impressions

  • Sicily – fruit and vegetables, ruined ruins, friendly people, narrow roads
  • Rome – shock and awe, ransacked ruins, impossible driving, swarms of vespas
  • Venice – joy and wonder, beautiful shops, best church interior in Italy (St Mark)
  • Florence – wealth and art, bad cafes, most Americans
  • Tuscany – gold and sunny, best church exterior in Italy (Orvieto)

Italian Countryside
Villas are great for people who don’t like other people, hotels are good for people who don’t like surprises, agro turismos (farm hotels) are in-between. It is hard to find a villa based on personal recommendations, so you are almost sure to get some surprises, things like mosquitos, no air conditioning and a major road right behind the house. Hotels at least have someone you can yell at when you discover a surprise.

  • Villas: both villas we rented were wonderful, expensive, and contained both good and not so good surprises. Renting a villa is a high risk, high reward venture. We had the best luck renting directly through owners at vacation rental by owner (VRBO)
  • Agroturismos: in Tuscany, we found a wonderful agroturismo near Orvieto is called Locanda Rosati. The owner is very friendly, it has a nice pool, a beautiful garden and spacious rooms. The cost was about 270 euros a night, which included a fabulous dinner.

Sites Kids Like To See

  • Sites for kids in Sicily: we were staying near Catania, loved the ruined fortifications and ampitheatre near Syracuse and walking around the old town of Syracuse with its windy streets. Taormina was nice but more touristy and the beaches rocky.
  • Sites for kids on the Amalfi coast: the city of Amalfi was good for 2-3 days of feverish inactivity. We stayed at the Hotel Bussoni near the marina and the kids swam off the hotel dock all day long and played with local kids at night.
  • Sites for kids in Tuscany: the best part of Tuscany is not the towns but the country between the towns. We liked Orvieto and Radda-in-Chianti but had the most fun in non-touristy towns like San Casciano. All the small towns seem to have constant festivals that are very kid-friendly.

Travelling With Kids In Rome and Venice
Big cities like Rome, Florence and Venice were hot, crowded and hard to get around in with kids. However, the sights are incredible and even if only a little bit of the experience stays with them, it at least gives them something to talk about in the cafeteria line after summer break.

In these places it was well worth it to pay for a nice, centrally located hotel with reliable air conditioning (life with kids who have gotten no sleep for two nights running in a hot noisy hotel is not really worth living).

  • Rome: Hotel Dei Borgognoni, near the Spanish steps, had a suite with small sitting room where children slept and great service, for something like 250 euros a night. Do not try to drive to this hotel – if you have a car, park it somewhere like the airport and take a cab into town. The boys loved the coliseum and St. Peter’s basilica – the rest was just a blur.
  • Venice: Hotel Ca Formenta, an easy walk to the Piazza San Marco, but far enough away to be out of the swarming tourist zone, for around 250 euros a night for two connecting rooms. We parked in the main parking garage and took the slow but beautiful vaporetto water bus to the hotel. The boys loved seeing all the weapons in the Doge’s palace and the golden ceiling of the St. Paul basilica. They were surprisingly tolerant of all the weird art at the biennale but would also have been perfectly content riding the vaporetto up and down the grand canal all day.


Monday, July 11, 2005

Love among the bridges

Sunday, July 10, 2005


The Venetian cityscape is powered by a completely alien infrastructure in which tires have been replaced by tillers. The garbage man, postman and policeman do the same things they always do, but their vehicles all float.

Seeing a radically different approach to supporting the life of a city is weird and fantastical, like discovering a deep sea thermal vent that supports hydrogen-based life forms. Who would have believed it possible to have a vibrant, modern city which has banished wheels?

Despite its oddities, Venice doesn’t feel like an anachronism. Yes, we rode the canals on an old-fashioned gondola ride, yet our gondolier took several calls on his cell phone while he shepherded us through the canals.

Out of its exotic environment, Venice harvests an amazing bounty of human creativity.
A city once dedicated to the sea is now dedicated to the senses. Streets are crammed with shops displaying handmade scarves, paper, glass and masks in bright colors.

Seeing Venice makes you wonder why more cities don’t make the effort to be interesting.

Saturday, July 09, 2005

Modern gondolier

Taking advantage of a break in the rowing to make a quick cellphone call.

Thursday, July 07, 2005

Ingredients for a perfect Tuscan evening

In Tuscany, we were joined by my mother, my sister and her two children. For our last dinner together, we drove a short distance into the hills to a vineyard restaurant where we ate outdoors on a terrace overlooking a valley.

The most important ingredient for a perfect dinner is people. Family are the best, because they connect you to your own past. They know more bad things about you than anyone else except your wife, and still they show up for the big events in your life.

Children are equally important because they connect you to the future. Their enthusiasm for each new discovery opens the beauty of the moment to everyone within their enchanted circle. Uncertain as to the friendliness of a large white dog, Alexander and I decided to pretend it was a clump of snow.

The ancient hills and valleys add yet another dimension. People have farmed these hills for thousands of years and yet they are in some essential way unchanged. Our Italian hosts charmed us as well with their relaxed pride in the beauty of their lands, the wine they make, the food they grow. Our attempt to do a scientific and restrained tasting of their wines was hampered by their insistence on pouring roughly a half bottle into each glass – after all, it’s for drinking, not just tasting isn’t it?

Finally, there is the food, most of it made with ingredients gathered within a kilometer of where we were sitting. Grilled vegetables, warm bread soup, bright green pesto, hand-made raviolis, quiet conversation, the shouts of excited children, the sun going down, each moment becoming more golden, more clear, until the light vanishes into the trees and the cool night breeze.

Wednesday, July 06, 2005

Under the Tuscan sun

Rested and well-fed in Panzano.

Monday, July 04, 2005

The hands of Florence

Florence is overrun with hordes of well-scrubbed and innocent-looking American teanagers, filing dutifully along behind their high school European history teachers who are universally holding umbrellas aloft as if to ward off rain. Between the heat, the crowds and the limited attention span of our children, we were only able to sample a tiny part of Florence. We did, however, make an extensive sampling of local gelato.

Our favorite spot was looking at the statues in Palazzo Vecchio. An extraordinary story is told by the hands of the heros assembled there – David, with the hands of the Creator, Hercules, with his killing hands, and Menelaus (the least heroic of the bunch), holding in his hands the dying Patroclus, which to him meant victory in the Trojan War, because he would use the corpse to lure Achilles back into the fight.

My dream is to come back to Florence on a rainy day in February sans kids when you can have the place to yourself.

Sunday, July 03, 2005

Taking in the fountains of Florence

Saturday, July 02, 2005

Slow food in Chianti

I walked into a tiny butcher shop in San Casciano, said my obligatory bon giorno to establish rapport and also exercise 30% of my total Italian vocabulary, and asked the butcher for spiedini, which is the Italian word for shish kabob. The tiny shop displayed a side of beef, a slab of pork, and a few gruesome chickens, so I expected my request to be immediately rejected.

Instead, I got a lesson in what a real butcher can do. He hand assembled 10 spiedini with big chunks of chicken and pork, interspersed with incredibly flavorful pancetta and fresh sprigs of sage. At one point he ran out of sage so he hailed a local passerby and sent her to a nearby market to get more sage. It took him 45 minutes to make me 10 spiedini, but they were the best shishkabobs we ever ate.

While he was working, we conversed in a combination of pantomime and pig-latin, which worked surprisingly well. The shop was his father’s, opened in 1950. He had been to San Francisco 20 years earlier on an Hawaii, LA and NY whirlwind tour. Most importantly, he loved making great food for someone he thought would enjoy it.

Friday, July 01, 2005

Why people go to Tuscany

Yes, it is beautiful, although it doesn't show the mosquitos, stiffling evening heat (no A/C) or road in the back along which they send convoys of dump trucks at all hours of the day and night.