Thursday, May 14, 2015

Northern Italy: Part II of II

May 8-14, 2015

Monday May 11, 2015
Brooklyn is 31 weeks old today
This 7 month old is enjoying her 7th country: Italia!
We left off the last blog post of us leaving our Cinque Terre apartment for the Riomaggiore train station to make a train around 9am. This was just the beginning of our long journey of a day to our villa in Tuscany.
Our train departing from Riomaggiore to La Spezia Centrale was delayed almost 30 minutes. That would give us less than 10 minutes in La Spezia to get off with all our luggage and buy the remainder of our train ticket journey (we could not purchase it in full in Riomaggiore) and validate our tickets in the machine before boarding the train for Firenze (Florence). Joe and Emily rushed to try to figure out the train schedule and how to purchase tickets while Jason and Jackie attended to the kids and luggage. Needless to say we did not make the train. There weren’t any more direct trains to Florence that day so we would have to make a transfer in Pisa (unfortunately the transfer station was nowhere near the Leaning Tower). We had over an hour to kill waiting for the next train to depart from La Spezia. There wasn’t much near the station so we grabbed some quick lunch items from a convenience shop to eat on the next train ride.
Train #2 of the day from La Spezia Centrale to Pisa Centrale. Train #3 of the day from Pisa Centrale to Firenze (Florence). 
Jackie really wanted to see the Duomo and Ponte Vecchio in Florence since they were near the train station. The architect in her trumped the others desire to stop in Siena on our  drive south from Florence. They were interested in seeing St Catherine of Siena's severed mummified head on display. Her right thumb is also on display in the relic. We googled photos of this crazy sight and called it good.
We stored our luggage at the train station for the few hours we'd explore the main sights of Florence. 
It was a great deal warmer in Florence. It was probably in the 80s and extremely hot in the sun. 
Jackie navigated us down the medieval streets toward the Duomo. 
Sadly Jackie did not notice during all the moving that her camera had been switched to manual focus and off of auto focus. Sorry for the blurry photos.
Il Duomo di Firenze, Florence Cathedral, Cattedrale di Santa Maria del Fiore, Cathedral of Saint Mary of the Flower, Brunelleschi's dome

It is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It is one of Italy's largest churches and was the largest dome in the world until the development of modern structural materials of today (it is still the largest masonry dome in the world). 
This dome is always studied in architecture school. There was a structural design competition in 1418 for constructing the octagonal dome that was 171 feet above the floor and a 144 foot span.  Until this time most domes would have external flying buttresses to disperse the weight of the dome. It was the first in history to be built without a temporary wooden support frame. Even the Pantheon (built in 128) in Rome, a circular dome used support structures. This marked the beginning of Renaissance architecture, a shift from Gothic of the past few centuries. The design was a double shell and built out of brick. There were 4 internal horizontal stone and iron chains in hoops in the inner dome. There are vertical ribs on each of the corners of the octagon curving to the center point. 
The front of the basilica is excessively decorated and covered with colorful pink, green and white marble panels. The facade was not completed until 1887. 

The huge bronze doors are adorned with scenes from the life of the Madonna.
The octagonal shaped Florence Baptistry (Battistero di San Giovanni) or Baptistery of Saint John is also located in the Piazza del Duomo but its exterior was under renovation. 
Campanile di Giotto is a free-standing bell tower next to the Duomo.
The interior is very vast and feels very bare and austere. 

The dome is painted with a representation of The Last Judgement. It is over 38,000sf of painted surface, started in 1568 and finished 11 years later. 

Above the main door is a big clock with frescos of 4 prophets or Evangelists from 1443. It shows all 24 hours. It is one of the few clocks from this time that still exists and in working order.
There is a crypt beneath the church where the tomb of Brunelleschi resides, which proves how prestigious this architect was to be permitted such a burial place by the Florentines. 
Next we walked over to the Ponte Vecchio, which means old bridge in Italian. It is a medieval enclosed stone bridge over the Arno River in Florence with ships built along it. 
Ponte Vecchio from Ponte Santa Trinita
Jackie at the Ponte Vecchio in Florence
There is a central loggia opening in the middle of the bridge. 
Even though it was squelching hot, we went to walk further across the bridge.

Florence architecture along the Arno River 

Walking across the Ponte Vecchio
Everywhere in Florence, the architecture reeked of the Renaissance.
On our walk back to the train station, we passed the Basilica di Santa Maria Novella 
We retrieved our luggage from the train station storage point. We really felt like we were in Italian now. The desk guy was rude. He took our retrieval ticket, crumpled it up and walked away. No bags come back from behind the desk. We talk to another desk guy, they share some Italian words and lots of arm movement and then our bags come. No idea what that was all about, but weird. The next interaction was how to get to the airport from the train station: taxi or bus. We asked if we could get a large taxi for 4 people and 2 babies without carseats. The guy ushering tourists to taxi's says yes get in, the taxi driver sees us and says no. So we are in this go no go pattern trying to figure out if we should or even could take a taxi. We decide no this is ridiculous and off to the bus we go. The bus is extremely hot. Brooklyn was really fussy so on this hot bus surrounded by men, Jackie had to nurse her under a cover. Once we got to the airport, Emily and Jackie tended to the girls and stayed with the luggage while the guys went to pick up the rental minivan. The carseats they had for us were not quite what we wanted but it was all they had. Harper had to sit in a forward-facing toddler carseat with her head not even close to the upper head side cushions and Brooklyn was in a forward-facing carseat with buckles that didn't tighten completely to her body. We put Brooklyn's seat behind the driver so if there was an accident she couldn't fly out of the carseat and straight out the windshield. Joe is just gonna have to be a super safe driver during our stay in Tuscany.
It was a 2 hour drive south to our villa from the Florence airport. Gaia, the villa's owner contact met us in town (Castiglione D’Orcia (Si)) to show us how to get to the property. She and her 5 month old showed us around the house. Our Tuscany villa is a dream! We seriously needed to pinch ourselves to make sure we weren't dreaming. It was hard to hide our excitement about the place during the tour. With so many Tuscan villas posted on airbnb, it was easy to feel like the photographs on the website were photoshopped and not real like a real estate listing. This was not the case here. The pictures did not do it justice.
Our Tuscan villa is in original rustic style and accommodates 8 with 4 bedrooms, 5 baths, heated swimming pool, 40 hectares of olive groves, vineyards, orchards and vast meadows for horse and donkey grazing and patches of dense forest in the heart of the d’orcia valley. The villa was even better than we could have imagined. Here is a link to the property:
The guys drove back out to the grocery store to pick up items for us to have dinner while the girls put the little girls to bed. 
The view of the sun setting over the Tuscan hills from our very own villa was a dream. This is a view of the pool and owner's other home on the property.

Tuesday May 12, 2015
Our little slice of heaven this morning 
The view from our bedroom covered balcony
Brooklyn hanging out on her patio at our Tuscan villa
Breakfast on the patio 

Rick Steves, our go-to European travel guide guru has not steered us wrong yet. On the agenda for Tuscany was to leisurely tour around 3 hillside towns in the heart of Tuscany, to drink amazing local wine and to swim in the pool at our villa. We purposely made Tuscany our final destination on this trip to unwind and relax our remaining days after spending many on the go-go-go. 
The heart of Tuscany are the rolling fields near the valley of the Orcia River or Val d'Orcia. 
First town up, Pienza, a small Renaissance town from which a pope (Pope Pius II) came from in the 1400s. 
Following Emily, our tour guide from our parking spot to the old part of Pienza
Pienza gateway
A peek of the view of the Tuscan hillside from an alleyway atop Pienza 
We walked along Corso Rossellino in Pienza stopping in various touristy boutiques along the way. We went in a few cheese and salami shops with racks of pecorino cheese made from sheep's milk.

Selfie in Pienza, Italy 
Church of San Franscesco tranquil cloiser

Piazza Pio II surrounded by the Duomo and Palazzo Piccolomini 
Further down Corso Rossellino in Pienza 


We stopped for lunch at Baccus Losteria.
We shared four delicious dishes with some pici pasta with a bottle of Brunello. 
We continued to walk around Pienza, a real Renaissance architectural gem. 

Along Via delle Case Nuove are a series of rowhouses with staggered doorways. They were built by the pope to house the poor. 

We made a stop at Nicola's BuonGusto Gelateria for the best gelato EVER! 
Emily enjoying gelato in Pienza - the best ever! 
The best gelato of the entire trip! Nicola's BuonGusto Gelateria
More of Pienza Renaissance architecture

The Tuscan landscape from atop Pienza 

Selfie in Pienza, Italy 

Harper, Jason & Emily loving Pienza
Jackie and Joe in Pienza 
Jason and Harper in Pienza
The side steeple of the Duomo in Piazza Pio II 
Via Dell'Amore (street of love) 

Walking back down Corso Rossellino in Pienza 

Now that's a hunk of meat! 
The next hillside town of the day was Montepulciano, the bigger of the three medieval Renaissance towns with wine cellars that plunge deep down into the cliffs it sits upon.
We parked near the Fortezza on the south side of Montepulciano.
Tuscan landscape from atop Montepulciano 
Montepulciano family photo op 
Montepulciano family kiss 
Doorway in Montepulciano 
Palazzo Comunale (medieval town hall) in the Piazza Grande in Montepulciano 
The Duomo (unfinished due to the city running out of money for the facade) in the Piazza Grande in Montepulciano 
Palazzo Tarugi (Renaissance arcade) in the Piazza Grande in Montepulciano 
Palazzo Contucci (16th century Renaissance facade) in the Piazza Grande in Montepulciano 
The Contucci family still lives there since the 11th century and produces their own wine...
Adamo, the winemaker, was not there today to introduce us to Montepulciano's fine wines at the Contucci Cantina, but we had a lovely woman give us a tasting of 5 wines. 
They are known for their Vino Nobile.
We toured the cellars with its 13th century vaults and saw dozens of huge barrels of Croatian, Italian and French oak. Each hold 1,000-2,500 liters and ages for 2 years in the barrel for the wine to pick up the personality of the wood. 

Brooklyn is serving as a scale to show how massive the brunello wine barrels are. 
The window view of Tuscan as we sipped our wine at Cantina Contucci 
Looking back at Palazzo Comunale (medieval town hall) from down an alley street 
Next Emily, Harper, Jackie and Brooklyn walked down to Ramaio Cesare Copper Workshop while the guys tried to hunt down cigars. 

He is a third generation coppersmith carrying on his father and grandfather's trade. His English is limited, but he was a very sweet man. Rick Steves had just been in his shop a few days earlier. He must not have been too busy, so he created personalized mementoes for us. He showed us letters from 2 American couples that can on their honeymoon. He made them this copper emblem with the man and women's initials and wedding date. He telling you to sleep with it under your pillow and get "frisky". The couples wrote back how his fertility copper piece gave them multiple kids. He made our copper sheets and with our first babies initials and told us to go make more. 
Coppersmith in Montepulciano 

Each time he would pound out a letter engraving, he was say "coo coo" and it would make Harper laugh and laugh. 
We walked the small street toward Mazzati Copper Shop
Mazzatti Copper Shop is packed with hand-hammered premium kitchen items and decorative pieces. 
The boys stopped in Ramaio Cesare Copper Workshop to meet the man who told their wives to go get busy. Once he recognized our babies in their arms and saw us standing outside in the street, he warmed right up again to us. 

A few shots from our drive back to our villa in Tuscany 

Harper and Jason swimming in the pool before dinner 
Tonight we paid 50 euros a piece to have a cook come to the house and teach us how to make a typical Tuscan dinner.
Her name was Saba and she spoke only Italian. The home owner Gia with her 5 month old baby boy came to translate Saba's demonstration. Saba makes handmade pasta for a local restaurant. I can't even imagine the quantities of dough she has rolled out in her lifetime. 
Mixing the pasta dough 

Rolling out the dough 

Saba's hands after rolling out the pasta dough 
Semolina wheat flour

Making a sort of rue for the bechamel sauce 

Adding the 3 eggs in the zucchini 
Adding the bechamel sauce to the zucchini and eggs 
Saba rolling the pici pasta 

Hand-rolled pici pasta 
Jackie and Brooklyn enjoyed watching how the pici pasta is made. 
Brooklyn got hungry watching ;) 
Jason joined in watching after Harper went to bed 
Emily rolling pici pasta 
Joe rolling pici pasta 

Saba rolling out the remaining pici pasta because we were hungry and it would have taken us forever compared to the master 

Pici pasta in semolina flour 
All the rolled pici pasta 
Removing & draining the cooked pici pasta 

Saba mixing together the pici pasta and meat sauce 
Pici pasta in a ground beef sauce 
Saba at work 
mmm beautiful, now let's eat! 
Zucchini mold 
We broke open the brunello to have with dinner at sunset 
The neighboring villa on the site where to hosts were staying 
Tuscan sunset from our villa 

Wednesday May 13, 2015
Today is all about the wine of Montalcino: Brunello di Montalcino.
Our first stop was Ciacci Piccolomini d'Aragona near Montalcino and the Sant'Antimo Abbey
The Ciacci Piccolomini d'Aragona winery 

The Ciacci Piccolomini d'Aragona winery had beautiful vineyards and spectacular views. 

Enjoying the winery 
Baby & daddy at the Ciacci Piccolomini d'Aragona winery 
We enjoyed a casual tasting on the winery outdoor terrace. 

Brooklyn touching Jason's beard while the guys listen about the wines we are going to taste 
Harper and Brooklyn playing at Ciacci Piccolomini d'Aragona 
Family photo op at the Ciacci Piccolomini d'Aragona winery 
The Wrights in the heart of Tuscany 
Wright family photo op at the Ciacci Piccolomini d'Aragona winery 
Pure happiness 
Uh oh! Too much wine says Joe. 
She liked it! 
Such love 
Momma & baby girl 
The Tuscan landscape on the drive between wineries of neon-green rolling hills, cypress-lined driveways, and vine-draped scenery. 

Next stop was Santa Giulia on the outskirts of Torrenieri. It is a quintessential family-run winery with an emphasis on quality over quantity. Emily had made a reservation ahead of time but we arrived a little early. Jackie stayed in the minivan rental with napping Brooklyn while the others had a tour of the rustic working farm. On top of wine, they make their own olive oil and exceptional prosciutto and salami. 

They butcher their own pig in the winter and make their own charcuterie. 
The guys were in love with all the hanging cured meats 
Time to dig in on the plates of cured meat and cheese 
Brooklyn awoke just in time for her and Jackie to join in on tasting the good eats and wine 
Brooklyn trying a little taste of the food 
Mmmm I see more, give me more! 
mmm nom nom nom 
Happy happy man 
Emily enjoying her wine 
Baby closeup reaching for the  camera 
Such a great experience at Santa Guilia 
Before we left we had a taste of their Grappa 
We had a great farm-to-table personal experience at Santa Guilia, we had to have a group picture before we left! 
Grandma was back in the kitchen prepping the food. Dad was handling things around the farm and winery. Mom (Japanese) and big baby boy Ceasar sat and shared stories with us as we ate. Grandma was impressed with Joe's meat picking skills.
We stopped at a local butcher shop to pick up groceries for dinner. 
When we got back to the villa, it was time for both babies to take a dip in the pool before the sun completely set.  Butt-crack baby 

Daddy and baby time in the pool for Jason and Harper 
Emily and Harper 
Jason and Harper 
Daddy's first time swimming in the pool with Brooklyn 
Trying to get her to float on her back 
Momma and Brooklyn 

One Two Three 

Sorry not sorry 
Momma forgot to pack a swim diaper. Brooklyn had a pretty big booty by the end of the swim 
Living the dream 
The cut of meat the guys got for dinner 
Joe cooked the meat over the fireplace tonight for dinner. 
Dinner conversations are the best 
Grilling meat over the fireplace because the only thing missing from the villa were wine glasses (really?!) and a barbecue grill outside. 

On our final night we took a few photographs of the beautiful villa we rented in Tuscany. 
East side of the villa with stairs up to Wrights bedroom 

South side of the villa & entry into the main living space 

Simple yet elegant Tuscan detailing 
West side of the villa with patio access to Brooklyn's room 

Door hardware to the shutters on Brooklyn's patio doors 
North side of the villa with large terrace and communal gathering area 

Kitchen window and Wrights upper Juliet balcony 
Living room window 
Brooklyn's bedroom window and our upper bedroom window 
Roof edge & exterior lighting 
The view of the neighboring villa on the site where to hosts were staying 
The pool 
The villa terrace, neighboring villa and pool 
One final sunset from the Tuscan villa terrace 
Upstairs hallway to 3 bedrooms with exposed roof framing 
Now you can hopefully see and understand why it was so hard to leave Tuscany. It was a dream end to a great vacation!

Thursday May 14, 2015
We had an 11:20am KLM flight from Florence to Amsterdam Schiphol airport which meant another early departure in order to make it to the airport in enough time with rush hour traffic and with enough time to return the rental minivan. Joe whizzed his way around all the curvy roads of Tuscany. It was little too much for Harper. There was quite a mess to clean up by the time we reached the airport. It's a good thing they didn't take a look over on the interior during the rental return because I'm sure it smelled like a frat party happened in there. All went smoothly with arrival and checkin today. We grabbed a quick bite to eat. It was the worst pizza. Not the best note to leave Italy on. Once we picked up all of our luggage at Schiphol, we boarded the train home to Eindhoven. We had a relaxing final evening with the kids asleep. 

Friday May 15, 2015
The Wrights left bright and early to catch the train to Schiphol for their flight home. We can always count on having a great vacation with the Wrights. We had a great time the 3 times they came to visit us in Seattle during the 3 years we lived there. We can always count on them opening their doors to us when we are in Raleigh. We are truly blessed to have such great friends with the same mindset to live within reason and spend your money on experiences and adventures all across the world. 
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