Thursday, August 21, 2014

Riomaggiore


Ah, Cinque Terre.  Apparently it used to be a hidden treasure until it wasn't.  Some articles still call it a "hidden gem" on the Italian Riviera.  I'm not sure about that--  I can't even imagine what this place might be like without elbow to elbow crowds. Despite the mobs of tourists (of which I understand I am one), it's still one of the most magical places on earth....the waters are pure turquoise, and the colored homes make you feel like you are in a fairy land. 

I didn't hike the trails this time as I'd actually planned on spending a weekend in Cinque Terre later in the season.  Italy has a surprise (to me) national holiday on Aug 15 though so I took a quick day trip to spend the afternoon sitting by the water and reading a book.  Wow, even as I write that I can hardly believe I get to do things like that for awhile.   


Riomaggiore is the first town if you are coming from the south/east.  The sea was a little dramatic that day so there were no boats out, but it was a perfect "breeze" to cool down after what had been a hot, hot week under the Tuscan sun. Ha. 


I don't know anything about the history of Riomaggiore except that once upon a time, long ago, a great explorer named Rick Steves sailed the oceans blue and discovered it and Americans such as myself have been flocking to to it ever since.   It's also even more popular with the Italians themselves--they know what a national treasure they have here.






Yeah, this person just lives here on  this little cliff with beautiful swirling turquoise waters below him.     No big deal.


Riomaggiore has seafood galore--you can go schmance sit down, or pick up some seafood picked up in the morning catch and deep fried.  Have you ever had same day fresh caught calamari? Outstanding and yet I, the queen of taking random picture foods, neglected to capture its beauty on camera. 


I don't think seeing hanging laundry will ever lose its charm.  






So even with the stunning views and Italy all around me, I spent a good amount of time gushing over this one...obviously, since I felt it appropriate to photograph a stranger's dog.  This little Frenchie belonged to an American family that lives in Barcelona and  I really, really, really just wanted to sit there all day getting puppy kisses.  Love that smush face.

I guess I am missing my little peanut even more than I knew I would.  


Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Panzanella


Food has been an interesting journey here. While yes, there are restaurants galore with fantastic pastas and pizza so phenomenal it'll make you dance right there in the street, eating back at the house has had a few challenges around August market hours and traveling distance to market.

When I make panzanella or any meal back home, I very often purchase the ingredients specifically for that dish. Here I'm learning that a lot of my meals at home are more a result of what is in the kitchen. 

I'll introduce you to la bicicletta soon--she's become a dear friend to me in the past week.  I was a bit leery of  riding a bike here because it seems to be a little bit of a death wish to ride on these roads. As the days passed though, I grew tired of walking far distances all the time so la bicicletta and I are becoming good friends despite some very close calls.  Even with transportation becoming a bit faster with la bicicletta, every ingredient, every food item and every beverage requires a lengthy little trip to the market which as it turns out, can be closed without warning.  I thought half the stores in Lucca were perpetually closed but it's interesting to see ones that have had their doors closed suddenly open back up.  Yes, I know it's August, but it still surprises me that stores are just closed at various times.

Then there's the Sunday closure that's pretty different from my normal 24x7 world.  I arrived in Lucca on a Saturday so spent my very first day in scurry to stock up on some food before Sunday's closures, probably quite similar to the Hebrews collecting manna for the Sabbath.  I also have less than a square foot of refrigerator space.  To go from my big 'ole American gingantua fridge to less than a square foot requires new tactics and creativity. 

When you have to walk or ride anywhere to pick up more bread or veggies, you definitely think through using what you have in the kitchen.  I've gone from girl who could easily throw away 1/4 of what's in her fridge, to one who's thrown away practically nothing recently. Two day old bread, tomatoes and just some awesome ingredients like regional Lucchese olive oil, fleur de sel, crema di balsamico (balsamic reduction) a bit of garlic and onion and of course fresh basil equals panzanella.  I'm guessing day old bread is exactly how panzanella came to be in the first place. 

Italian bread is awesome on the first day.  On the second day it's okay and on the third, not so much.   Chopped up, it's ready to absorb all those yummy fresh tomato juices. 


Panzanella as many of you already know,  doesn't really require a recipe and has a zillion alterations.  I've added onions to mine but you can skip them.  I've also added capers and cukes in the past which are pretty fantastic.  Panzenella is really about choosing fresh produce and quality ingredients.  Lucca is known for their olive oil and we all know olive oil makes everything better. 


While panzanella uses up that bread you might otherwise toss out, I think it's presentation and flavors make it a main course star. 


Panzanella

2 c chopped day old bread
3 c chopped tomatoes
1 garlic clove minced
1/4 onion sliced thinly (optional)
1/4 c basil, torn into small pieces
1/4 cup olive oil
salt and pepper to taste
balsamic reduction or glaze for topping

  1. Place bread in large bowl.  
  2. Add tomatoes, onions, garlic and basil.  
  3. Drizzle with olive oil and add salt and pepper to taste. Toss well and let sit for 10 mins
  4. Serve topped with a drizzle of balsamic glaze. 

Monday, August 18, 2014

A Day in Barga


I've been taking the bus a bit more than I thought I would.  It originally started with someone telling me that I'd save myself quite a bit of walking with my luggage if I took the bus from Florence to Lucca instead of the train as the bus stop was closer to where I would be staying.  Since then I've been hopping on and off buses and even purchased a round trip ticket and found the correct bus stop using only Italian--miracle of miracles there. 

While trains are obviously the way to go for long distances, buses afford you the opportunity to ride through parts of the countryside you wouldn't otherwise see, kind of like a bus tour but without the cost or the guide.   The ones I've taken short distances have only added a few minutes to the journey and the buses I've been on have tended to be a bit more on time than the trains (which have been 30-45 mins late).   There's also the added benefit that it's more personal-- a lot of people seem to want to talk to and help the lost looking americana on the bus.  I've met quite a few people and been given tons of great advice by helpful people on the bus.  

Luckily I've taken a liking to buses because I'd heard of the small town of Barga just a 45 minute bus ride north of Lucca.  The bus ride itself took me through small sleepy villages I'd never have seen otherwise and I gained an elderly Italian protector along the way.  

Sweet Gino was on his way to see his wife who is in an Alzheimer's house and spent his time sitting right next to me on an otherwise empty bus to ensure this unmarried girl wouldn't get lost. He was quite concerned that I was traveling without a husband. He wrote down the last bus back to Lucca and asked for the bus driver's personal phone number in case we missed the last bus of the day back to Lucca.   What's astonished  me is that the bus driver actually gave it and offered to pick us up personally and drive either of us back to Lucca if we missed the last bus.  Gino sent me off with a sheet of paper filled with names and phone numbers and quizzed me three times in both italian and english on what time I would come back to the bus stop.  


Barga is a little mountain town that looks exactly like what you'd expect a mountain town to look like.  After a week of crazy heat and humidity, the cool mountain air was definitely welcome.

I had a brief elated moment where I thought Italian was finally clicking as I understood about 75% of what a gent was saying to me, of course until I realized he was speaking perfect native english.  In my defense, he was speaking with a thick Scottish accent.   As it turns out, Barga is an Italian town with a big Scottish connection and with quite a community of Scottish expats--it's actually called the most Scottish town in Italy.  Since I shockingly didn't learn Italian overnight as I'd thought for a brief moment, I went with the flow and spent the rest of the day meeting other Scots and listening to my favorite sound of all.  Italian is a beautiful language but let's be honest here--it's no match for that fine Scottish brogue.  Unfortunately that was nary a kilt in site.




While there are many Romanesque churches in Italy, you have to admit that this one tends to even look more Norman than others.





The rest of the town though was all beautiful, colorful Italy.  Italians are masters at gardening. 




Maybe there was a wee bit more of the British influence here. 

Barga was a direct bus from Lucca and easily a day trip--just be sure to check and double check the bus schedule to find the last bus back.  The stops can change and just when you think you can read a bus schedule, you'll learn maybe it changes a bit.  Take heart that most Italians I've seen getting on the bus ask if a bus stops at a certain point just to be sure.  

My friend Gino sighed with relief as this single girl returned to the bus stop right on time.


Saturday, August 16, 2014

Welcome to Lucca


One week in Lucca and I'm settling in.  I've unpacked my one little suitcase in my little space and spent the last week in Italian class coming to realize that being around people speaking Italian does not magically infuse you with the language.   Language osmosis is a big fallacy started by someone whose pants were on fire.  

A lot of people ask me how I came to choose Lucca of all places in Italy.  Truthfully, it was pretty much based on a single day spent here a few years ago.  It's small enough for small town feel, not too touristy (though it seems to be more touristy than I remember) and central enough to have pretty good access to public transportation.  Lucca's language school also gets excellent reviews and after just a week, I can see why.  The school itself really is total immersion--I've gone on two city tours/walks with the them outside of classroom hours in which they spoke Italian only.  I have no idea what they are saying about 80-85% of the time but I can hear the word differentiation in the sentences now.  That's the first step right?  

I've yet to visit an Italian city that is less than gorgeous so I'll let that go unsaid about Lucca.  While I've yet to really get to know the city, I'm already more in love with its charm.   

Lucca's center is completely encircled within its perfectly preserved 16th century walls.  Gotta love walled towns. 


And will cobblestone streets and Italian architecture ever get old?


Or piazza's where kids really do play soccer in the afternoons?



Lucca's Piazza dell'Anfiteatro's roots date back to b.c. and sits on the site of the original Roman amphitheater.  I'll stop with the history stuff soon--but seriously how cool is anything b.c.?  Julius Caesar visited Lucca.  Yeah, there's a pretty good chance I won't quit with the history all that soon--it still blows me away. 




I think I can spend a couple of very relaxed and comfortable months here in Lucca. 


Things I learned in my first week:

1.  Italian REALLY does have similarities to French and Spanish.  While there's a bit of confusion to overcome between pronunciation and spelling, it's encouraging to see how many words can be guessed at based on knowing the french or spanish equivalent.   
2. Lucca's fully intact Renaissance walls never needed to be used in warfare. 
3.  Italy is not quite ready for the musical genius of Pitbull.  Sad. 


Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Boboli Gardens


Boboli Gardens is pretty centrally located in Florence just a bit south of the Arno and just a few minutes walk if you cross at the Ponte Vecchio.  This was my first visit there and all I could think was how beautiful these trees must be in the fall.  While golden aspens are beautiful, this Denver girl really wants to see a colorful autumn again.     

I had my first Italian class in which I am for the 5th time in my life, learning an alphabet.  The early part of studying a language as many of you know, is quite humbling in that it's almost like being back in kindergarten--except that kindergarten was harder with all of its unattainable coloring page goals. 

Since I am hunkering down right now and trying to settle in and yes, learn numbers as well as the alphabet, I'll let the photos from Boboli Gardens speak for themselves.   Just two items here...

1. Go.  It's stunning.  
2. Ditch your cutie shoes and embrace the tourist comfortable shoe look.  I was improperly shod for a walk that was essentially lots of uphill walking on gravel.  The other chicas in open shoes seemed to a agree.  Pebbles in sandals are pretty awful.








What do you think the Medicis did all day in their grand palazzo?