San Gimignano and Siena. 12/28/18

We are packed up and ready to go when the taxi comes to take us to the airport so we can pick up our rental car. We have rented 7 passenger Ford Galaxy that we can all, plus our luggage, fit in (but barely.) Our first stop is San Gimignano, the famous “tower” city. Encircled by 13th-century walls, the town centers on a square lined with medieval houses. It has a skyline of medieval towers giving it the nickname as the Manhattan of Italy. The Collegiate church of  San Gimignano is a 12th-century church with frescoes by Ghirlandaio.

Medieval houses
Sarah in the square
Ryan and Jon and towers
Collegiate church of San Gimignano

From the moment you step on the portico of the church there are fabulous frescoes such as this Annunciation.

Annunciation in portico, by Sebastiano Mainardi and dated 1482.

Inside the church is resplendent with frescoes, some by Ghirlandaio and most from the 14th century.

Overview of church
Left wall
Right wall
Back wall – the Seven Deadly sins

There are three tiers of fresco stories on the side walls. The top lunettes are creation stories, the middle register has. Old Testament stories,  and the bottom tier is New Testament. I have pictures of everything but I will just put a couple in.

Lunette- Creation of Eve
The Last Supper

Speaking of the last supper, it is past time for lunch and we eat at Antica  Marcellaria.

I have a delicious plate of tagliatelle with truffles, Ryan has pici with tomatoes, and Jon orders papardelle with rabbit ragu
Sarah, every adventurous, orders rabbit cacciatore while John has osso buco

We all take a look at the museum of the church, then Sarah goes to get gelato, Jon and Ryan climb a tower and find an interesting museum, and John and I take a leisurely stroll and find an overlook to take a picture of the beautiful Tuscan countryside.

Tuscan countryside as seen from the hill town of San Gimignano

We proceed to the car park and make our way to the garage outside of Siena where we will shed ourselves of the car and be driven to the hotel by the garage attendant. There are few cars allowed in Siena old town and we are right in the midst of it as our hotel is right across the street from the Baptistry.

View of the Baptistry from our room

Later we head to Siena’s campo for drinks and snacks under the outdoor warming lamps

Ryan, Jon and Sarah at Bar Il Campo
Mary and John

The Funeral Crashers. 12/15/18

I am a planner. I think our vacations work out better if I have a plan and we try to accomplish the agenda. But sometimes unintended events happen.

Today we are visiting the Church of St. Andrew and the Church of St. Juvenal in the morning. We have saved St. Juvenal for our last church visit. It is the oldest church in Orvieto and covered in early frescoes.

It is really cold out this morning, in the low 30’s with a stiff wind. It has been years since we have experienced this much cold. Tears are actually streaming down my face. We are relieved as we step inside the Church of St. Andrew. St. Andrew was an apostle and the brother of St. Peter.

The Church was built in the 12th century and has an unusual 10-sided bell tower.

John and Sarah in front of the Church of St. Andrew, Orvieto

Inside you can see the stunning rose window featuring St. Andrew carrying his X-shaped cross or saltire. Traditionally it is said that St. Andrew requested an alternate cross to be martyred on since he was unworthy to die in the same manner as Jesus.

Rose window featuring St. Andrew

The church has a statue of St. Andrew and fragments of old frescoes.

St. Andrew with saltire
Damaged fresco of St. Julian explaining to his wife that he had accidentally killed his mother and father.   St. Julian, “See, somebody told me that my dad was sleeping with a harlot. So I rushed in and stabbed them both. My bad, it turns out it was my mom. But, no worries, I will become a Saint anyway!” Wife, “Okay then.”

Before I leave the subject of St. Andrew’s Church, here is one of the best ever pictures of Sarah in a church taken at St. Andrew’s,  April, 2016.  It is very Annunciation-ish.

Our final church visit is at Chiesa di San Giovenale or St. Juvenal. He was the first bishop of Narni in Umbria during the 4th century. There are conflicting reports of whether he was a martyr or merely a confessor. His legend suggests that he saved Narni from  invaders by calling down a divine thunderstorm. He was removed from the Catholic Calendar in 1969.

Even though St. Juvenal is no longer a major saint he has a pretty wonderful church in Orivieto.   It is said to have been built in 1004 on an Etruscan temple dedicated to Jupiter and we are eager to see it again. 

We barge in through a side door and an entire congregation turns and looks at us. Uh oh we think, there must be a mass going on. We quickly move to some seats. The service continues.  This is when we notice a casket. Oh no! We have crashed a funeral!

We cannot leave or look around at the art or take pictures. So we respectfully sit and stand with the rest of the group. We offer the sign of peace to our neighboring parishioners. Luckily there have been some other late arrivals to take the glares off of us. But we know they are thinking, who are those people? Where did our departed meet them? Boy, is he tall for an Italian!

When people start rustling around for communion we make a break for the back door under the icy stares of the undertakers whose open hearse is waiting right in front of the church.  I wish we had walked around and not used the side entrance.

Hearse at St. Juvenal’s

I can only tell you that the church looked lovely inside. We had not seen it with all the lights on. The 12th and 13th century frescoes were glowing. And to the mourners, we are truly sorry to have crashed your funeral and hope you forgive us.

We hurry away before anyone can accost us, retrieve our car, and make the drive to have lunch in the countryside near Todi at the Roccafiore resort and restaurant. So much of this trip so far has been a walk down memory lane.  In 2016 Sarah discovered this wine that she liked on a trip we took and she wanted to go to the winery.  We discovered that they had a restaurant and we had a great lunch there and now we are going again.  Lunch at the very un-rustic Roccafiore Restaurant – 

Bread service and amuse bouche
First courses – Mary, scallop with pumpkin cream and black ink tulles, Sarah- Salumi plate with lardo, John – Cacio e pepe scrambled pasta

Seconds, Mary – Octopus with mashed potatoes and pickled ginger (?), Sarah – underdone paccheri with shrimp, John – beef cheeks

So lunch was good but not as good as we remember the first time. We did get to buy two bottles of their Fiorfiore grecchetto which is pretty yummy. I wonder if there will be any left by the time Ryan and Jon get here next weekend.

We drive the hour back to the Hotel Duomo and it is definitely time for our coma-like siesta. We will meet again for dinner. 

Although the idea of bundling up and facing the frigid evening temperatures to go somewhere for a light dinner is challenging we decide to brave the elements and go in search of munchies.  Not too far away is Pippo’s run by the jolly Signor Pippo.  We cannot tell whether we are too early or too late because we are the only patrons. John cavalierly tells Signor Pippo to give us whatever he thinks is best on the antipasto menu.  Here is what a light dinner looked like.

Salumi, porchetta, and cheese platter with bread, tapenade, artichoke, and chopped liver bruschetti, and a jug of sangiovese

Needless to say, even with our best efforts we had a lot leftover. We pass up dessert.

Tomorrow we are off for five nights in Lucca. I am looking forward to unpacking, doing some laundry, and not budging for almost a week. Along with sightseeing in Lucca we will be visiting Prato, Pistoia, Pisa, and whatever else I come across while planning things to do.

Exploring Orvieto and its cathedral. 12/14/18

Orvieto is an excellent example of an Italian hill town being built on the flat top of a volcanic plug with almost vertical sides which are topped by defensive walls. People have lived here since Etruscan times and the name Orivieto comes from the Latin meaning “ancient city.” At the highest point is Orvieto Cathedral whose first stone was laid in 1290.

When you are in the town the cathedral is almost hidden to you as you walk along narrow, cobbled streets which makes its reveal even more spectacular. It is a gem set in a large piazza. Having taken a look from the outside last night, today we explore the interior.

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Looking towards the altar

Although most of the walls are stripped of their original frescoes there are some still at least partially saved. Here is a beautiful Madonna by Gentile da Fabriano who was active in the early 1400’s.

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Madonna and Child

You have to use your imagination to see this huge space covered with all these brightly colored frescoes. On the other side of the church another fresco erupts from the wall almost completely intact.

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St. Anthony the Abbot (with his little devil-pig at his feet) and St. James, the traveler

In fact at one time there were so many frescoes that the artists started laying one on top of the other!

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Mixed up media

Up at the altar the frescoes are basically intact and have a cohesive theme, the Life of the Virgin by Ugolino.

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Altar area

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Side frescoes depicting the life of Mary

The last chapel we visit is the New Chapel. It was frescoed by Fra Angelico and later by Luca Signorelli. There is a stark contrast between the two styles. Signorelli’s figures are full of movement and vigor plus they are mostly naked which is kind of strange in a church.

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Signorelli’s Hell on left and Redempton of the Bodies on the right

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The Prediction of the Anti-Christ (l.) and The Glorification of the Chosen (r.)

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The Deposition by L. Signorelli – This painting is made to fit in under the existing three brackets of the sarcophagus of Saint Pietro Parenzo

There is another chapel, the Corporal, dedicated to the Miracle of Bolsena and the reason this cathedral was built. It seems that a priest was carrying a consecrated host wrapped in a white cloth. As he was doing this he was having an inner struggle about the existence of God within the host. This doubting caused the host to weep blood and stain the cloth. The cloth is now displayed in a beautiful chapel in the cathedral. Last time we were here you could go in but now it is restricted to praying people and no pictures are allowed. Luckily I have saved a few from our first visit in 2016.

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Fresco of Pope St. Gregory holding venerated host

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The actual cloth with stains

Our combination ticket allows us access to the Museum of the Cathedral where older or less loved pieces of art are displayed for the few who want to see them. Today we are apparently the only people so inclined since they have forgotten to man the desk or turn on the lights. Sarah runs back to the main entrance to get someone to help us. The admissions lady comes up the long staircase and claps her hands sharply to make the lights come on. It is a surreal scene of infomercial meets ancient art!

We are left entirely alone in this museum. I am very good and manage to squelch my impulse to touch something really old. John manages to set off an alarm by leaning in too close but no one comes running. It is raining and cold and there is a giant outdoor staircase to climb to come and admonish us so they give us a pass. Here are some art pieces we enjoy.

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A primitive 14th century Madonna and a Chikd with Saints fresco done in the style of Orvieto

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15th century Annunciation

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Madonna and Child from the 1200’s

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A whimsical monkey in glasses drawn into a window alcove, 15th century

We have covered a lot of ground this morning. Time for lunch! We have lunch at La Pergola, a restaurant that was recommended to us the last time we were here. No other diners are here when we come in at 12:45. By 1:15 every table is full. This happened at lunch in Viterbo as well. I guess only tourist rubes do not realize that the proper time for lunch is at 1 PM. Duly noted.

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Clockwise from left ombrichelli in Amatriciana sauce, gnocchi with bacon, spinach and truffle sauce, and papardelle with wild boar sauce

By the end of lunch we can barely keep our eyes open.  Hello, jet lag! We decide to take a siesta and venture out again later in the afternoon. We all sleep deeply not even moving until alarms jangle us awake.

We visit the Church of St. Dominic which is a weird church older than the 13th century cathedral. In the mid 20th century the government wanted to build a girls’ school so they cut off the whole nave and left only the transept. Then they reoriented the direction of the church. The whole thing seems out of whack. We go outside and do a little exploring. You can see where the whole back of the church has been cut off and bricked over. The girls’ school has morphed into a museum of finance. It seems like a desecration.

The streets are pretty lively with shoppers and workmen putting up Christmas decorations. Don’t they know that Christmas officially starts the day after a Halloween!! It’s December 14th! All that hyped up retail activity missed! Sights along the streets –

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Fresh truffles for sale (no touching!)

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All things pork!

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A main shopping street in Orvieto, the bucket truck at the end is putting up Christmas decorations

We decide to try out a nearby wine bar for dinner and we end up having a wonderful meal.

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Bruschetti of newly pressed olive oil, tomatoes, and truffles

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Sarah and I have strezzopreti made from chestnut flour in a porcini and sausage sauce, John has beans and wine soaked sausages, and we add a chickpea side

This dinner of humble ingredients is so good that it is hard to not let out little “yums” as we eat. Amazing! Away from the big tourist centers there is so much fabulous food!

Well, here it is 4:30 AM and I have been up since 3AM. John has been up even longer. The third night is usually the worst from our experience and now sleep should start to improve. Damn you, jet lag!!!

 

Sonoma Wine Country. 11/30/18

Since my birthday is a week from tomorrow, we figure that it is a good time to start celebrating early. December will be a month of celebrating and travel so there will not be a whole lot of cooking. But I am happy to include in my posts some great experiences, interesting restaurant dishes and the occasional home cooked meal.

Our day started with a stop at Jacuzzi Winery, home of The Olive Press, where we always stop to sample the olive oils and get our bottles refilled. Today we get a new pressing of Arbequina olive oil. We use these better oils as finishing oils while we use a more generic EVOO for everyday cooking.

Here’s a picture of John next to Santa at the Jacuzzi Winery and The Olive Press.

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John and Wino Santa

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Mary being wind blown outside of Jacuzzi Winery

Next we stop at Imagery Winery to pick up our Wine Club allotment. For agreeing to a certain number of bottles per year you get a 20% discount. Also you get a free tasting of their recent offerings. So John and I try a few sips. It is fun as long as you do not enroll in too many wine clubs or have too many sips!

For a late lunch we try the recently opened Salt and Stone restaurant in Kenwood, CA. I think we make very reasonable choices.

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John orders roasted octopus and chickpeas

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I order grilled octopus, tomato, mango, and greens salad

After lunch we head for home trying not to get caught in rush hour traffic. Sonoma County wine country is beautiful even in late November and a nice break from the urban/suburban bustle.

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Leaves turning in the vineyards of Sonoma County