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Trip Report Abruzzo 2.0 – 2nd Yr Italian Cooking School(+ Rome, Cinque Terre, Florence)

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I’m so happy to be writing this report because I can’t wait to share this amazing vacation with all of you! I warn in advance for the length. If you don’t like detailed reports, I suggest stopping here!

Some of you may have read my report from last year: Top Chef Abruzzo! - A Week in an Italian Cooking School (+ Rome) (now also called Abruzzo 1.0):

http://www.fodors.com/community/europe/top-chef-abruzzo-a-week-in-an-italian-cooking-school-rome.cfm

Well, that was the spectacular trip that I found on Groupon, and, according to Groupon, one of the most popular trips they’ve ever offered. Of course I was excited to return this year, but at the same time, part of me was nervous that another trip to the same place might not live up to my expectations, that I might end up being disappointed and might not be able to recreate the same joy or excitement as I had last year. “You can’t go back” as the saying goes. I’m so happy to say that not only was I worrying over nothing, but going back was 100 times even more amazing, something I could have never imagined after the perfection of last year.

Many of us on this cooking adventure last year had mentioned that we would love to return someday but would like a new itinerary. Last December, I received a message from Massimo, owner of Palazzo Tour d’Eau, asking for suggestions for a special trip designed for repeat guests. I am no expert on the Abruzzo region of Italy, but was certainly up to the challenge. I researched and gave him some suggestions for both cooking and excursions. He actually incorporated many of my ideas and Abruzzo 2.0 was born! In the end, a group of 11 signed up for this special week in September 2013 and off we all went for a second-round dream vacation.

Enough gushing…judge for yourselves!

We live in central PA, but when I found an airfare out of JFK for $800 instead of approximately $1300 from closer airports, I quickly snatched 2 seats for my husband and me. The only question was that they were on Air Berlin, an airline I had never heard of. I read what little info there was on Fodors (somewhat negative), but price won out.

AIR BERLIN – THE CONS: yes, as I had read, we were squeezed in like sardines on the overseas flight. It didn’t help that I have long legs and was crammed in one of the middle seats with little access to the armrests. It also felt like there was about ¼ inch of padding on the seat, a generous estimate.
AIR BERLIN – THE PROS: there were many actually! The individual TV screens were touchscreen. I’m sure many people have experienced these before, but I had not, and I am easily amused! I was even more amused when free wine was offered during the flight. I do remember (unfortunately) when alcohol was always free on overseas flights, but have not seen that in years. At lights out, bottles of water were given out. No more runs down the aisle to request yet another minuscule cup of water to stay hydrated. The little touches were something I appreciated. Everyone in the cattle section also received one of those little pouches with eye mask, socks, toothbrush, etc. Wow, in economy! Again, easily amused! And finally, when we disembarked, good sized chocolate hearts were given out. Wine and chocolate – almost made me forget the part of my anatomy which was aching! Would I fly them again? Absolutely!

We changed planes in Berlin ad arrived in Roma on time after 2 very smooth flights.

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    We had planned on walking to the train station to catch the Leonardo Express when I spotted a sign in the terminal that read 'Bus 2 mn'. The sign for the train was suspicious in that it had no time noted, although I had read that the walk would take 10 – 15 minutes. I had been wary of trying the bus because it was the one mode of transportation that I had not read much about, but the 2 minutes was beckoning, so we decided to give it a try.

    The T.A.M. bus kiosk was easy to find in the International Arrivals terminal and bonus – only 5 Euros to Rome. At the end of the terminal is what they call a bus station, in effect a few numbered parking spots for busses. We waited on the short line at Lane 2, loaded our bags in the lower compartments and boarded a beautiful, comfy coach. You don’t need to buy tickets in advance and the busses leave every half hour. As easy as the Leonardo Express train without the walk or price. The ride took about 45 minutes and we were dropped off just at the side of Termini. (Return trip is 4 Euros, you buy the tickets from an agent at the bus stop. Couldn’t be easier – we ended up using the bus 4 times this trip.) We also liked passing the old walls and gates of Rome as we entered the city.

    Once we arrived, the bus stop was only 2 blocks from our hotel, Hotel Morgana. We checked in and loved it immediately. I had found an online special of 30% off including free WiFi, free breakfast and free upgrade to the next room level. We actually got upgraded to a small suite which was an added bonus. This hotel had the skinniest elevator I ever saw, but it did fit both of us with our 2 suitcases.

    I had few preplanned ideas for Rome this time – we just wanted to walk, visit one specific church, sit in cafes, eat gelato and relax, although when we stumbled upon the Basilica Santa Maria Maggiore near Termini, it looked impressive enough to go in. The interior was massive with gorgeous floors and ceiling, mosaics, frescos, marble columns and archways. My favorite section was within a small curved stairwell up front. At the base of the stairs is a marble statue of Pope Pius IX kneeling in front of a display of Jesus’ first wooden crib. The detail of the lace cuffs on the statue was so delicate and the expression of his face so serene. The crib is encased in glass and surrounded by gold so I didn’t at first realize its significance. An unexpected stop in our wanderings.

    After our gelato, we made it to the Chiesa de S. Ignazio di Loyola near Piazzo Navona, the one planned stop. It contains huge twisted green marble columns and marble walls and supports of gorgeous stripes and swirls of most any color – reds, pinks, greens, blues, oranges. Striking! I’ve never seen so many marble patterns like that in a church. What I had gone to see though was the “fake dome”. I had read that the original plan was supposed to have a dome, but the money ran out. Instead, the ceiling was painted to look like a dome. Now, I had read that it was to the side of the alter, so I walked under another dome, which sort of stood out in that its interior was black instead of the light colors of the rest of the church, and approached the alter. I couldn’t find the fake dome. Finally I turned around and realized that the oddly colored dome was the fake one and I had missed it! It was painted so realistically that I had thought it was just a poor choice of color rather than an excellent faux painting. We looked at it from different angles and were amazed.

    We stopped for drinks and people-watching at a café facing the Pantheon, (it was funny watching a line of gladiators arriving after a hard day at the Colosseum, especially one whose skirt was caught in his shorts and who was talking on his cell phone) walked through Piazza Navona where a toga party was just breaking up, through the Campo di Fiori and on to Trastevere where we had dinner at Popi Popi.

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    kwren...

    Your first day sounds great and I was not aware about the buses from FCO to termini, this is very good to know and a great price!

    What was the restaurant Popi Popi like in Trastevere? I'm not familiar with it and always looking for interesting restaurants near the centro storico in Roma.

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    We were actually in Trastevere to find a different restaurant, La Gensola, but it turned out to be more of a big deal than we wanted for a jetlagged night before a week of solid eating, so we went to Popi Popi because we knew it was a low-keyed outdoor restaurant which last year had the best pasta dish I had ever tasted. (This item wasn't on the menu but we enjoyed it just the same). It was a fun place, but not gourmet food. Depends on what you are looking for. I'd love to try that other restaurant though - a few people on Fodors really recommended it highly. It's a bit hard to find - just around a corner from the square of its address. The back of it is mostly windows facing the square, it has a different name on that side and you have to go around to the other side to reach the door. Let me know if you go to either.

    Do you leave Saturday or are you going to spend a few days in Rome first?

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    kwren....

    I've been to La Gensola, twice! Had good experiences both times. I'll keep Popi Popi on my list in case we are in the area!

    We don't leave until a week from tomorrow. We arrive at FCO on Saturday, Oct. 12th & will stay at the Hilton at FCO (arrive at 4pm) that night. The next day we'll meet the group at FCO and go to Carunchio. At the end of the culinary vacation we'll spend a full week in Rome.

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    Hotel Morgana has a huge breakfast buffet. The meats, cheeses, eggs, breads and cakes didn't surprise us, but the beautifully garnished salads and tomatoes did. Now on to the exciting part (as if being in Rome wasn't exciting enough!) Next, the bus ride to the airport (take the bus!) and then the excitement of meeting up with 4 friends from last year, 2 with significant others who hadn't been with us last year but who we grandfathered in, and 3 from another group last year. Total 11. We all met up in front of the eatery Vacanze Romane and pulled tables together to catch up. More excitement when Ivan the bus driver from last year arrived with his ‘Cooking Vacations Abruzzo’ sign. He led us to the bus like a line of happy ducklings and off we went.

    To anyone taking this vacation, when you are waiting at the eatery, leave something indicating you are going to Palazzo Tour d’Eau out, look around for English speaking people, and you’ll probably get to know a lot of your group before Ivan even arrives.

    We had the same 4 hour ride as last year, the same stop at the rest stop about an hour out of Rome. How do you know you are in Italy? When each tiny rest stop table is completely covered with more than a dozen empty cappuccino cups instead of burger papers! They love their coffee! The ride continued but lacked the frantic, excited picture taking of last year. It was just good to sit and talk. It was especially fun to finally see Carunchio looming ahead, just like coming home!

    CARUNCHIO!

    As soon as we pulled up to the palazzo, Massimo was there to greet us. It was smiles all around and we were once again ushered into the courtyard for drinks and snacks. This year we had a couple of different mini pizzas and fresh fig and gorgonzola wrapped in prosciutto and all stuffed in a light pastry ball. I dislike Fig Newtons so initially this didn’t quite appeal to me, but I of course tried it. OMG! It was out of the world! Fresh figs are so different than that cookie! Anyone going, try everything!

    Massimo asked us if we had any room preferences and we claimed our room from last year, #3. Its view is of the street, and some mountains and wind turbines if you peek over the tile roofing across the street. There is not a lot of activity on the street, but just enough to keep it interesting. I especially liked watching Rosina, the little old lady across the street. She would clean the window of her door or sit and knit by the hour. Our room has one of the coveted turrets and this year a new bathroom. We went from the smallest shower in the palazzo to the largest. Other rooms have magnificent views but we felt at home in ours. There are some rooms on the first floor now. One has no window but it has a great arched brick ceiling. All the rooms are different and they are all lovely. Many have difficulty receiving WiFi signal, but it became routine to meet on the couch to check email and Facebook – a real bonding experience and one we write about now that we are back home!

    After a chance to settle in, it was time to LET THE EATING BEGIN! Our first dinner was the delicious dinner close to what we had last year. First their specialty…a popover filled with cheese and truffles on a pool of saffron sauce (yum) followed by a pasta in cream sauce, then wild boar wrapped in a light pastry in a red wine sauce. Finally, we had a light semifreddo with a puff pastry and a strawberry sauce. All this with the housemade wine and all delicious!

    A great start to our week here. :)

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    Hi Johnny!

    Glad to "see" you here! Yes, I've had email correspondence with Elizabeth and hope to see her while we are in Rome in a couple weeks! We should plan an Italy adventure at the same time and finally meet up! I'm considering Torino in October 2014 for the Salone de Gusto! ;-)

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    Hello, just be careful in Rome, we just got back on the 28th. The taxi guys there do their utmost to rip you off. I argued with one and told him to call the police as the meter said 9 Euros and he wanted 25. Once I offered to have the police called he backed right down! We traveled almost 15 thousand miles in 3 weeks and this was the only real issue we had. Have fun!

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    Bob - I am still hoping for the weekend and am still waiting for the word from my mother. She seems to be dragging her feet though so I'm not sure. I hate to pressure her since she just helped us out for the 2 weeks we were gone, but I will try my best tomorrow!

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    TRUFFLES!

    We started our day with an excursion to a church sanctuary and then truffle hunting! The church, Santa Maria de Canneto in the Molise region, was very simple with some pretty stained glass windows, but just next to it a dig was in progress. Large urns for wine and olive oil had been discovered, as had some intact tombs, mosaics, a wine press, mills and the remains of a villa. On the other side of the church was a massive open air sanctuary, under roof, and a row of outdoor confessionals.

    Next was the truffle hunt. We met the truffle hunter, Donatello, and his two dogs, Largo and Sara, at the edge of the woods and then the dogs took off running through the trees. They would run and sniff around, then get very excited and start frantically digging. Donatello would make them stop and then use a special spade to gently dig up the dirt until a beautiful truffle was produced. The dogs waited patiently for their treat and then they were off again. In the end, we found large handfuls of truffles, which of course the hunter kept. These were black summer truffles and the amount we found in about ½ hour was worth about $700. It takes several years to train a dog to hunt truffles and it is a very competitive and therefore secretive business. Hunters might park a car elsewhere and walk ½ hour to the perfect area for hunting. They wouldn’t want a competitor to see where they would be hunting. Rival truffle hunters have been known to poison good truffle dogs to decrease the competition so now dogs wear muzzles to prevent them from picking up any poisoned snacks. These are special muzzles though with an opening on the top. Each time the dogs found a truffle, Donatello would introduce a treat through that opening above the nose.

    For lunch, we visited the same butcher, Luciano, in Carunchio that we visited last year. Since we had 2 newbies with us, we were treated to the tour of this small facility again, from grinding and spicing to drying. We saw the process of making various sausages from start to finish and then gathered once again around the long table for lunch. We started with samples of many of the sausages produced there, some cheese, bread and wine (of course) and then moved on to the piece de resistance…spaghetti pomodoro with truffles. And the truffles just kept on coming. The spaghetti was served with them, Massimo brought a dish around and sprinkled more on liberally and finally, a whole truffle and slicer was produced for anyone who still wanted more. We were told that truffles may be freshly sliced in restaurants and for each slice, 10 Euros might be charged. With each slice, the server counts by 10’s: 10-20-30-40 until the patron says stop. Then that amount is added to the bill. Of course, since our trip was all-inclusive, we didn’t have to worry about this, which was a relief since those truffles were really flying! For dessert, a basket of fresh figs was passed around and we learned how to peel them. As I said, I am now a fan of this fruit, but moreso, a real truffle fan as well! We had the opportunity to purchase the special spices made there. I had bought the sweet last year and it was delicious. This year I treated myself to the spicy variety. Great day. Great lunch!

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    OLGA and PASQUAL – AND THE RAW HEAD IN THE SINK!

    Last year we met an old woman named Olga. She had dropped a stocking off her first floor railing, saw us walking by and gesticulated wildly for us to pick it up and do something, which, after debate, we interpreted to mean ‘open my door and bring it upstairs’. While we’ll never know if that’s what she really meant, we did go upstairs and had a pleasant, if quiet, visit with her. She didn’t speak any English. We didn’t speak any Italian. She insisted on offering us wine and cookies and did use the word for tomorrow, which we did know, over and over. I think she was lonely and wanted us to return, but we had a full day excursion and could not do so. However, for the past year, I could not get Olga off my mind. I knew I would try to find her again.

    This year I studied Rosetta Stone Italian for 7 months and DH used Michel Thomas to Italianize himself, so we thought we’d like to try it out on Olga. I had tried to use Google to find her street and felt reasonably sure I knew where to go. I also printed a picture of her with me that DH had taken last year that I could, as last resort, use to show people in the town. Surely, they would know her – Olga couldn’t be that common a name in Italy, let alone a tiny hill town!

    We took a walk during our 2 hour break and went to where I thought she might live. Luckily, there was a man across the street so I asked him if Olga lived there. He confirmed that yes, she did. There was, however, no doorbell so what could we do except stand on the sidewalk and yell up to the open balcony door, “Buongiorno Olga, buongiorno Olga!” After a few minutes of this we finally heard some shuffling noises and there she was, looking suspicious on her balcony. Imagine trying to explain who we were in Italian and why we were looking for her. Finally she smiled and indicated we should come up. We did. She disappeared once we got there, but a man came in. We determined that he was her husband Pasqual. Now, 7 months of Italian isn’t that much in the grand scheme of things, but it was enough to keep things moving. Pasqual got us some wine and wanted to link arms with DH to drink it. Awkward! Neither knew quite how to do it – certainly things didn’t flow as smoothly as at a wedding. The problem was that they should have each been using the left or right arm. Instead one used the left and the other the right. They were all tied up in knots until one of them finally achieved a sip. Whew! My husband was quite relieved! Next Olga showed up with a huge platter of hams, prosciutto and cheese. Quite the feast, but we were already so full! Of course we ate though, and “talked” and finally we needed to leave as it was time for our first cooking lesson. We had brought some chocolate from the US and gave that to them and excused ourselves. They were so happy.

    Being at the very bottom of the hill town, we figured we’d need ½ hour to get back up to the top and be in reasonably good shape to cook so we really needed to leave. But, NO! They would have none of that! It was time for a tour of the house. It was time to see family pictures. It was time to see all their religious paraphernalia, icons and pictures.

    It was time to see a pile of raw animal legs and ribs on the counter in the kitchen and the head of some animal in the sink(!). Well, it wasn’t really the entire head exactly. It was a fatty white, stripped of skin and/or meat. But it WAS complete with the eyes and draining blood. By that point, we were wondering what the heck we had just been eating!

    Time to go? Oh no – we still had to have the tour of the 3rd floor – an unfinished attic! What??!! Pasqual was actually just showing us another balcony and view. He was rightly quite proud of it – it was a beautiful view, but we now had only 15 minutes to get to the top of the hill…and that’s what it took to get down from the palazzo. They tried to show us more, they were being so sweet and obviously didn't want us to leave, but we did manage to get out of the house, and left to many waves from the balcony as we sped away. Very fun visit, but we didn’t want to be late for class as we knew they’d be wondering what happened to us. DH informed me that he was gong to take his time and I should feel free to go on up on my own if I was so inclined. Buon idea! I zipped up the 500+ steps (well, I didn’t really count but it WAS 20 minutes of steps and steep inclines) as fast as I could and in 20 minutes, there I was in the kitchen gasping for breath and gulping water, looking quite the sight. I couldn’t even talk. If you go to Carunchio, do yourself a favor and allow at least ½ hour to walk from the bottom to the top of the village! DH arrived 15 minutes later, looking much better than I must have looked.

    But time to cook!

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    kwren - they will probably be discussing your visit for years to come. how do you find that the Rosetta Stone [which i have never used] and the Michel Thomas methods compare? good for you for taking the opportunity to try out your new language skills, BTW.

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    Hi annhig

    Rosetta Stone really worked for me. There are 5 levels and I got to the end of #4. In the first 5 months or so, my pace was very relaxed and I found I could answer very well at the expected levels in the online lessons. I was comfortable and having fun and could converse at a basic level Every single morning when I woke up, the very first thing that popped into my mind was a new Italian word or phrase. It was amazing!

    The last two months, I realized the vacation was looming ahead and I hadn't moved as fast as maybe I should have. I started cramming more in each week as you can set your own pace. My chosen pace those two months was a bit too fast because I noticed that I was having a harder time in the lessons and I no longer had my Italian word in my mind each morning. My thinking though was that I wanted to be exposed to more. Other people might have stuck with the original pace.

    My husband did Michel Thomas. That method concentrated more on verbs, but not so much on vocab and speaking. (I listened to the CD's with him on long car rides so I have a basis of comparison) In fact, in Italy, he often couldn't follow my Italian at all and was pretty impressed. He wants to start Rosetta Stone now that he has seen how I did with it.

    Anyway, there is no explanation with Rosetta Stone so I supplemented with looking things up online and that really helped. You are not supposed to need to do that, but that is just me. It also helped that I have learned French and already understood a bit about verb tenses (well, what I could remember from school that is) I did find that different verb tenses would just pop out of my mouth in Italy and that surprised me.

    The best part of Rosetta Stone is the lessons. Our set came with 3 months of online small group lessons. You should definitely do those. I got hooked, as was the intent I'm sure, and bought more. I also bought private lessons at the end and used all 12 before the trip. It was amazing that most of them just turned into 25 minutes of pure conversation. What a confidence booster.

    It sounds like you might have tried Michel Thomas? It certainly would be a good supplement to Rosetta Stone.

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    RAVIOLI and MOZZARELLA BURGERS

    Oh my gosh this was fun! We each made our own ball of pasta dough and then the newbies rolled it out through the pasta machine (they had to pay their dues you know ;) ). The ravioli was stuffed with ricotta and spinach, pressed into shape and then hand cut into squares. We made a fresh tomato sauce to go with it – yum! The chefs did this course just for us. It took hours and was so delicious, but would be impossible with only 2 teachers and the normal group size of 24. Just the pasta alone is time-consuming! It was interesting when Dino showed his family’s 300 year old ravioli tools.

    We had made almond biscotti last year, but this year we made a new kind – biscotti rolled around a thickened wine reduction-jam filling.

    No meal in Italy is worth anything without an appetizer so we made Mozzarella burgers. Amazing to think of now, but each serving we made was comprised of an entire large ball of frech mozzarelle! It was cut in half and layered with a slice of tomato with fresh basil leaves, seasoned and put together just like a burger. We served it with pepperoncini and garlic pastes on the side.

    I’m going to try this appetizer at home but with the tiny fresh mozzarella balls and cherry tomatoes – sliders!

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    kwren - I am a big fan of M Thomas and was just interested in how they compared. I'm impressed by what you say about R/Stone and wonder to what level it goes; I've been studying Italian for about 5 years now and have outgrown M. Thomas, sadly.

    The cooking lessons sound such fun! when i went to Tuscany about 3 years ago to do a language course there was a cookery element to that too, but we only really got to watch [and eat!] not to do. There's nothing like doing it yourself to make the lessons stick.

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    annhig - I asked customer service a while ago what level Rosetta Stone could take you to and they said you could easily have conversations in Italy, but you would not be considered absolutely fluent, if that makes sense. If you started RS, you could do the review sessions at the end of each section until you got to the point of learning new material. Does your library have a RS set possibly?

    I'm trying to think if there was anything that we only watched without any hands-on aspect and can't come up with any. I've done some of the recipes at home and the hand-on really helped remember how to do them I agree.

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    thanks, kwren, I'll make enquiries at the library.

    i agree that hands -on is definitely best, though i was quite relieved that we weren't expected to make an octopus salad by ourselves.

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    Wow! Octopus salad! did you like it?>>

    sort of - it was sliced very thin so to be honest, you didn't get much taste of octopus. what was very funny was that the chef who was demonstrating to us assumed that we knew all about how to prepare an octopus from scratch, which of course none of us had a clue about. All i can remember now is that it seemed quite long-winded and complicated and not something I'd be likely to do at home, even should i have an octopus to hand.

    OTOH, later in the week we had dinner at a private house where one of the students was lodging, and our hostess there seemed to think that brits knew nothing at all about cooking, and was amazed that we knew how to make a stew!

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    ROCCA CALASCIO

    Today’s full day excursion took us north past the vineyards and olive groves of the Adriatic seacoast, and then high into the National Park of Gran Sasso in the Apennine mountains. We arrived via a series of hairpin curves to a tiny medieval village from which we trekked along a rugged, rocky path high above the plains of lentil fields, past the 17th century octagonal church, Oratorio di Santa Maria dell Pieta (this pretty church was built by shepherds in thanks to their victory over some nasty invaders years before), and finally up to the castle at the top, Rocca Calascio, the highest castle in Italy. The central fort was built in the 10th century and the corner towers and walls were added in the 13th. In ancient times it was used to protect the surrounding communities and to communicate with the castles of the coast through mirrors or torches. It was severely damaged in a 15th century earthquake, but parts have been restored. But, what a view! Part of the castle was in ruins and the cloudy day seemed the perfect setting.

    Trivia: This castle was the setting for parts of the movie ‘LadyHawke’ in the 1980’s with Michelle Pfeiffer and Matthew Broderick, and was also visible in some scenes of ‘The American’ with George Clooney.

    RIFUGIO DELLA ROCCA

    After the castle, it was time to eat. (When was it ever NOT time to eat!) We went back down to the village to the Rifugio della Rocca for lunch, a quaint little restaurant with stone walls and archways, twisting steps, beamed ceiling, and a very old fresco of ancient drawings they have preserved and highlighted on one wall.

    Massimo had arranged for us to thave the following delicious menu:
    Lentil soup – the specialty of this lentil-growing area
    Pappardelle pasta and wild-boar ragout
    Roast lamb
    Chocolate tart
    Wine (did I need to mention that at this point?)

    SAN STEFANO DI SESSANIO

    After lunch we toured the nearby 15th century medieval hill town of San Stefano de Sessanio. This village was mostly abandoned for years until a growth spurt resulted in it becoming a tourist hot spot with boutiques, galleries, cafes and foreigners buying, restoring and renovating properties for vacation retreats. At night there is a pretty pink glow around the village due to its continuing use of gas lamps. Unfortunately, in 2009, disaster struck. A terrible earthquake occurred with the epicenter nearby and many of the homes were destroyed or rendered unlivable due to structural damage. The tower of the town was completely destroyed, and is currently replaced with scaffolding outlining its shape. Work stopped when the money ran out but the outline remains. Very eerie. When we were there, there were many buildings and archways still shored up with supports or scaffolding, some areas were still unsafe and closed off, and only a few shops were operating. Such a sad recent history, but still so beautiful. We wandered the empty streets and visited the gelato shop, a cheese shop, a local ceramics shop, hoping to support the few residents, but it was a bittersweet trip.

    We returned to the palazzo some 3 hours later and were given a 'snack' of asparagus risotto; a plate of cheese, artichokes, and olives; and ice cream.

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    I woke up early the next morning to a pink sky, so went to the common room to watch the sunrise. It was gorgeous, tinting the palazzo and mountains pink. It was going to be a beautiful day - harvest day!

    GRAPE HARVEST AND STOMP!

    We drove to the palazzo’s vineyard, beautiful rows of vines in a perfect setting with a mountainous backdrop. The vines were heavy with hundreds of big juicy bunches of deep purple grapes. We were given clippers, a short lesson on harvesting and got to work. The 11 of us filled 5 crates, enough to make 70 liters of wine, had a grape fight, and went back to the palazzo to stomp them.

    We all took turns getting in the huge waist-high barrel to stomp those grapes. Massimo had bought boots of all sizes for those who desired, but many of the women went barefoot. Was it to see if our toenail polish coordinated with the juice? Could be! Some of the juice was drained out in order to boil it into grape must.

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    don't most people know how to prepare octopus, but haven't a clue about making stew??!! >>

    perhaps that's just how life is on the southern Tuscan coast, kwren.

    how long did it take to get the stain of the grape juice off your feet? did they provide a foot bath for before you got in with the grapes? what about the boots, were they washed first?

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    Both boots and feet were washed off each time before we got in. You should have heard all of us asking about that before starting!

    I expected purple feet too, but there was no staining of the skin despite the deep purple color of the juices. I did have a few grape skins stuck to my feet though!

    I hope you knew I was just joking with the octopus and stew comment. It sounds like they can do both in southern Tuscany, but thought Brits can only clean octopus!!! :)

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    EATING AND DRINKING LIKE PEASANTS

    While we had been stomping, the chefs were busy setting a long outdoor table for lunch and preparing what they called a ‘rustic lunch’ for us. We sat down with that gorgeous view of the mountains and the food just kept on coming:
    Frittata, veggie tart, prosciutto, breads, tomato salad with basil, fennel and cucumbers, bread, bruschetta, and of course, the ever-present carafes of wine.

    Someone had written on Facebook that we ate like peasants that afternoon. Massimo’s response? “You drank like peasants too!” OK – we liked the wine!

    VASTO and NOT BAKED ALSAKA

    The afternoon included a trip to Vasto to procure some olive oil from the place we had visited last year. We all happily stocked up and then continued on into the town for some free time to admire the beaches, take a stroll or shop. We headed back in time for a late dinner:
    Pomodoro ripieni con panzanella Abruzzo style – tomato stuffed with bread and cheese filling and baked
    Involtini de verza con salsiccia rosa – cabbage leaves stuffed with red sausage
    An individual “Baked Alaska” but with cake and a couple of different creams inside.
    All very yummy!

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    VERY MUSSCULAR

    Today’s cooking class was a treat!

    The tables were covered with all sorts of ingredients and then Dino brought out a huge bowl of fresh mussels. Today, everyone volunteered for a specific job to get the mussel dish going – chopping herbs and garlic, cubing fish, shredding bread into fresh crumbs, and cooking fresh chopped tomatoes. It all combined into stuffing for the mussels. Everyone pitched in to stuff those babies, closed them up and packed them in onto a bed of cooked tomatoes, tomato water and fresh herbs in 3 large baking pans. That was a lot of mussels!

    In the meantime, the left over pasta sheets from our ravioli was being cut into uneven shapes to make maletagliata ("badly cut") pasta. This would be our second course along with a broth, mussels and tomatoes.

    Melanzane Parmigiana: Next came the individual eggplant parmigiana molds. I had never seen a parm dish like this before! Lay “petals” of eggplant into the mold, hanging out the edges and add layers of tomato sauce with fish, grated Parmisan cheese, sliced mozzarella, fresh basil, and a slice of eggplant. Repeat the layers, top with the eggplant slice and fold the “petals” over it all. It would all be baked and unmolded to serve.

    Chocolate Boconotti: Lastly, we made a homemade pastry crust which we rolled out and pressed into small fluted tart pans. Interesting that we added powdered vanilla. I had never seen that before. A chocolate mixture was boiled and chopped nuts were added. This was spooned into the shells and baked. Once cooled, we made a chocolate glaze to top each one.

    My mouth is watering just writing this!

    Can you believe all this was just for lunch?!
    9 mussels artfully arranged like a flower topped with tomato sauce
    Maletagliata soup garnished with a mussel in the shell
    Eggplant parmigiana
    Boconotti tartlets

    Is it any wonder I gained weight this week?

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    I'm really enjoying this report, Kwren, and glad you had such a great return visit.

    I recently participated in a grape harvest here in PA! (alas, no stomping, though. They used a machine named "Lucy" to do the crushing). It was a lot of work, but I really enjoyed the 'reward' of sampling lots of good wine, so can't complain!

    Also, I've too have been studying Italian for 4 years or so, and can recommend the "Behind the Wheel" series of CDs to help practice, if you're looking for other resources. It's not as instructional as the Michel Thomas, but they pepper in lots of vocab and phrases that would be useful for travel. (I call my car the "language lab". I think I have every CD out there, and try to practice every day)

    Looking forward to more of your report!

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    Glad you're enjoying my report, jmct

    Where do you live in PA? I'm near Harrisburg. I didn't mention it, but we had a tiny 'Lucy' to press the grapes the day after crushing - a tiny contraption on legs that had to be hand cranked to get the remaining juice. Amazing that after all that stomping, there was still a huge percentage of unbroken grapes. They scooped them all out in batches and had DH crank. It was hard work. Was the one you saw in PA electric?

    My husband swears by the learn-in-your-car method which is perfect since he is in his car every day. He used the "Learn French in Your Car" CDs years ago and I was so impressed that he could have a conversation when we arrived. That's how he felt with my Italian this time.

    We are definitely interested in other resources, so I will look into this one too - thanks for the tip! We will return to Italy!

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    I'm in Bucks. The vineyard we went to is called Sand Castle Winery. They hold all sorts of events and it's a beautiful place overlooking the Delaware River, if you're ever looking for a day trip. It's especially lovely this time of year.

    Our Lucy was electric. It seemed like such a simple contraption, but yes, the amount of juice it extracted was amazing! we all sampled some as it was pressed, and it was the sweetest grape juice I ever tasted. It was a neat process to see!

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    I agree with you assessment of the juice - so good! Some of it with us was taken and boiled into grape must. We were each given a jar of it to bring home. They forgot to give us the suggestions on what to do with it - we all got too wrapped up in other things - so I have to write to ask.

    I'll keep the day trip in mind - it would be great in the fall! Thanks.

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    kwren...

    My mouth is watering at your meal and cooking class descriptions! Good thing I spent the last several weeks watching my weight and dropped a few pounds. I'm sure I'll gain them back next week during my visit to the Palazzo! ;-)

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    MOSAIC CLASS WITH ‘THE DAVID’

    Luckily, we were given a break before our next event, one that I was really looking forward to (but which, at the end of the trip, ended up in disaster! I’ll get to that part later.) Anyway, DH took a nap, I took a walk! Once again, I had to rush back up the hill because I am strangely drawn to the base of the town, but at least I had left myself 25 minutes instead of 20 so was in much better shape as far as the return went. (Yes, my recommendation of at least 30 minutes still stands!)

    This afternoon we had a group mosaic class scheduled. I arrived first as I couldn’t face even one more staircase, not even up to my room after the climb up Carunchio. The artist David (“The David” since we are in Italy after all) was busy pouring out thousands and thousands of tiny earthtone, black, white and green hand-cut cubes of natural stone tiles into neat piles on the long kitchen table. I think he cut all those tiles himself! David is a wild-looking guy who helped Massimo mosaic all the walls of the kitchen, and they are just breathtaking. A Tree of Life on one huge wall, Carunchio’s church complete with a piece of wood for the door on another, designs on other walls and the trademark tomato elsewhere. Oh yes, can’t forget the mosaic wine bottle! Each couple was to work together to make their own mosaic design on a 12 x 12 inch board. Since I was there alone before the class started, and since The David didn’t speak English, it seemed appropriate to try out my Italian skills. We actually had a decent conversation and when Massimo arrived, he was impressed that I told a joke (albeit a weak one) in Italian. (He liked it because it was about him!)

    Some of us started by sketching on the board before tiling, others just went directly to gluing them on, but it the end it didn’t matter. All 5 boards were vastly different and all were wonderful! One person is an artist and did an amazing rendering of Cinque Terre, but everyone was happy with their mosaic! It didn’t hurt that partway through, we were given some Prosecco to sip while working, and that we were having so much fun with the other people.

    The boards were left to dry overnight and were sprayed with a protective coating the next day, then were ready to go. DH’s backpack had a computer section which fit the mosaic perfectly and gave excellent protection. We knew we were set to travel so were very happy.

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    since The David didn’t speak English, it seemed appropriate to try out my Italian skills. We actually had a decent conversation and when Massimo arrived, he was impressed that I told a joke (albeit a weak one) in Italian. (He liked it because it was about him!>>

    I'm impressed too - telling jokes in a foreign language is very difficult. brava!

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    MI-MI-MI-MI-MI

    Next on the agenda was a repeat of last year’s opera concert, set in the foyer and courtyard of the palazzo. Massimo remembered how much we enjoyed listening to soprano Lili Stefanova last year, and invited her to give us a repeat performance. She is from Bulgaria and has performed at famous venues in the world before settling down in Vasto to raise a family.

    Listen to ‘O Sole Mio’ sung at the palazzo for yourselves (filmed last year by a different group) and pretend you are there!

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YZWK35XEgJw

    She also sang ‘Ave Maria’ and I have to admit that while I’ve never particularly enjoyed that song before, it brought tears to my eyes with her singing it. Just gorgeous.


    TIME TO DETOX, THEN RETOX

    Following the concert, we went to the dining room for a presentation of natural soaps and creams (I could have done without this, but it was short and no pressure to buy) and then to our “Detox dinner”. None of us really knew what this was all about, but after all the wine we had consumed all week, it did sound like a good idea!

    The menu:
    A healthy barley salad with vegetables and cheese
    Shepherd’s Purse on a creamy potato sauce
    Lemon cupcake with a lemon curd filling, a swirl of lemon topping, and chocolate mousse-like cream on the side.

    And we had wine…of course. Seems like a conflict of interest during a detox dinner to tempt us to tox again!

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    NO BEACH, JUST BEASTIES!

    We had scheduled a short trip to the beach this morning, but since it was raining, our plans changed to a trip to a small mall in Vasto. It was a typical mall – clothing, small department store (think Kmart-style), Game Stop, shoe stores, local products, etc., which were fun to see, but two things stood out. One was the Oasi foodstore. I headed directly for the baking aisle where I bought the powdered vanilla we had used in our cooking classes, then wandered around drooling over the cheese and sausage sections. The standout in this store was the fresh seafood section. There were the bags of mussels, whole squid, fresh whole fish, and the requisite Italian swordfish head, but also some scary-looking monstrosities! Some of the ‘fish’ for lack of better word, looked like prehistoric creatures, like trilobites! How do you even cook things like that, let alone find a recipe! No one bothered me while I took pictures, but later I heard that others in the group were stopped from using their cameras, that photography was not allowed. Well, happily, no one stopped me and it didn’t occur to me to ask. I got some great (well, interesting) shots!

    The next store which caught my interest was unexpected. I had wandered into a large pizza shop/cafeteria and took a few pictures of the cold line. The beautiful salads made my mouth water. I saw the chef watching me (now, to some people that might have meant that they should not take pictures, but remember no one had stopped me), so I smiled and indicated that I would like to take his picture too. He grabbed one of the women behind the counter and they both posed for me (wife?). He then proceeded to come over and ask if had seen the ‘pasta bowl’ (yea – chalk up another Italian conversation for me!!!) However, I didn’t really understand this so said no. He took me over to a beautiful large white sculpture of a bowl with fruit and flowers in it. It was amazing! He explained that he had made it entirely from pasta and it took 4 months to do so. So I did understand after all! We talked a bit more until departure time.

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    WHAT? OUR LAST DAY IN CARUNCHIO?!

    It was gradually sinking in on the way back to Carunchio that This. Was. Our. Last. Day! Where did the time go? We stopped along the way for a Kodak moment – I had just learned how to use the panoramic feature on my camera (thanks for showing me Mattias) and wanted to try a shot of Carunchio and the surrounding scenery – and hurried back for a lunch prepared by Cheryle and Dino. And of course it was delicious!

    A miniature pot pie with pesto sauce
    Roast lamb
    Crème brulée (I’m sure there is a better Italian name for it, but I just don’t remember it)
    Wine ;)

    In anticipation of the gourmet foods “market” set up the last night (we ended up buying truffle salt), a few of us needed some money. A quick trip to the local ATM was arranged, but DH and I decided to walk down the hill, meet everyone there and get a ride back up (why didn’t we think of that before!) Not wanting to miss Massimo’s ride back, we got to the ATM early so had a bit of time to talk to some young boys who were playing soccer and riding bikes. They were so proud to try out their English on us and it was pretty good.

    Back at the palazzo, the wine vat was being drained, but there were still plenty of whole grapes left despite the vigorous stomping of the previous day. A small grape press was assembled and the remaining grapes, skins and seeds were scooped out and pressed by some of the guests. We got 70 liters by the end. DH tried and said it was hard work. Wow – makes me appreciate all the wine of the week a whole lot more!

    We took a tour of the building next door – currently in a major state of disrepair, but destined to become a shining example of Italian renovation in the future (I have my room picked out when it becomes ready for guests) – and then begrudgingly went to our room to pack. Noooooo – the worst part of the week, but soon to be followed by one of the best!

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    PIZZA NIGHT IS UPON US – SAVED THE BEST FOR LAST!

    Of course, it was impossible to be sad for long – it was time for the famous Pizza Night! Since we had 2 newbies in our group, it only seemed fair to make them do all the hard work of making and kneading the pizza dough. ☺

    The pizza oven was fired up, the ingredients – cheeses, veggies, meat, sausages, garlic, herbs, oils - were prepared and waiting and all we needed were our imaginations, appetites (no problem there!) and of course, wine. They also added beer to the mix that night.

    Each person could stretch out their own dough (they don’t toss pizza in the air in Abruzzo) and make a pizza or sit and watch as they saw fit. I made a potato-prosciutto-2 cheese-onion-rosemary-with-a-touch-of-olive-oil pizza and it was deemed delicious by the masses. We shared each pizza with the group and family members of the staff and then were treated to a very amusing concert given by Dino and Mattias, the new employee who had been driving us, serving us and entertaining us all week. A very nice guy who was usually serious, but given the right situation could really cut loose!

    The last pizza of the night was an unusual combination of figs, honey, gorgonzola and chocolate – the Abruzzo dessert pizza! It was actually very good and as usual, we could barely climb the stairs at the end of the evening.


    ARRIVEDERCI ABRUZZO

    Since no one in the group had any tight time constraints on Saturday, we had a relaxed breakfast (with a little fruit carving escapade – what happens in Carunchio, stays in Carunchio) and left the palazzo in the bus at 9:30 instead of the usual 8:30. We had the requisite rest stop at our favorite Autostop and arrived in Roma about 2:00. Hard to say good-bye, but it was made much easier for us since we had another week in Italy to go.

    As I said, last year was perfect and we were amazed at how it could have been even more fun this year.

    Abruzzo 3.0 anyone?!

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    Good morning averyone! Nice to meet you!

    I'm an Italian girl, I live in Abruzzo. I read abaut and I wanted to post.
    If anyone wants to ask me something, I'm here!

    Ciaooo

    PS Sorry for my bad English... :(

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    Thanks, Texas, annhig and LCI...glad you could come along!

    LCI I don't need to tell you to have a good trip...YOU WILL !!! Now that you probably feel like you know Massimo, Dino, Cheryle and Mattias a bit, tell them I miss them all! You will probably see Antonio too. He was off our week, but is also a sweetheart. Please let me know how it goes! Now I'll be the one who can't wait to hear. Can I ask your first name?

    Thanks for chiming in Silvia. I guess you know now that I love Abruzzo! Where do you I've?

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    kwren...

    Not much longer now until I depart. 2 more days at work and it feels like the longest work week ever! After reading this trip report and re-reading your trip report from last year, you are right, I do feel like I know the "crew" at the Palazzo (and I feel like I know you too!) My first name is Marcy. :-)

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    Marcy - I remembered you're leaving Friday so I really worked hard to get this all in before then! I knew you were reading along!

    If you want a good laugh - tell Massimo he is "zesty"! He loves that word!
    Ask him what cut of the animal the meat comes from at the butcher's shop! (The LEG!)
    And finally, ask him if he ever drove backwards on a highway ramp!
    He'll know with that last one you know me!
    He'll never know what hit him, but he has a great sense of humor!

    Silvia - We havne't made any plans yet, but I certainly hope so!

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    CINQUE TERRE

    Before continuing, I'd like to thank the many people who posted CT information over the past years. I had wanted to go to CT for ages so every time I read info I thought might be helpful, I cut and pasted it onto my Cinque Terre page. By the time it was time to plan, most of the work was already done! You were all so helpful!



    After saying good-bye to our Abruzzo friends, we left FCO on the comfy T.A.M. bus from the international arrivals terminal to Rome Termini (only 5 Euros each and minimal walking at the airport), then spent a couple hours in Rome, mostly at the Tudini Restaurant around the corner from the station. This place had the most delicious fettucini with procuitto, peas and cream sauce that I have ever eaten. DH had the pesto and it was actually better than the pesto we had elsewhere this trip. The downside? One that we choose to try to forget. Using the restrooms after the meal lead us way downstairs where there was a cockroach reunion going on. I think the kitchen was upstairs, but it was still rather disconcerting to see all those bugs. Ugh! The food was good though.....

    

We took the Frecciabianca train out of Rome, a straight shot to Cinque Terre except for changing at La Spezia Centrale. Since there was a Trenitalia promotion for Saturdays until Oct. 26 – buy one ticket on anything other than Regionale trains, get one free… lucky us by chance traveling on a Saturday! – we opted for First Class seats. That was a great decision for us. I checked out second class: it was busy, noisy (even without the screaming child) and there was a huge dog wandering around. Nope, we much preferred our wider seats in the quiet section. Luggage storage was a snap – push the suitcases between the seats next to us – and we reserved the seats with the table. It was also empty most of the way (although at times huge mobs of kids would get on, travel a couple of stops then get off. I’m wondering if they use the trains as a type of after-school transportation instead of school busses) making it easy to jump across the aisle to take pictures. 



    We enjoyed the ride along the coast and across the varying landscapes: the outskirts of Rome with various domes peeking up over the skyline, factories and industrial areas, then the beautiful blue Mediterranean with 4 cruise ships docked end to end. We passed miles of greenhouses, fields of giant watermelons, farming communities and freshly tilled land. Finally, the rolling hills, olive groves, vineyards and dying fields of sunflowers of Tuscany. We passed small villages, hill towns, palm trees and fish hatcheries. Finally, a beautiful sunset over the water and train tracks. Really, a perfect ride.

    Tip #1 - We passed Pisa, but since it was dark, missed the leaning Tower. We did see it on the way back, so if you are training it north along this route, as soon as you leave the Pisa S. Rossore station, be on the lookout for the site on the right. It will only be a brief sighting, but it’s possible to find it if you are ready.



    Tip #2 – If you have to change tracks at La Spezia Centrale and have heavy luggage, look for the elevators!



    MANAROLA IN THE DARK



    First stop after La Spezia, Riomaggiore. Next stop Manorola. The train gently came to a stop in the dark (the ride itself was so gentle that at first I hadn't even realized that it had stopped!) so we waited for it to move into our station. Except that all of a sudden, we saw people walking past the door! We had arrived at the station but hadn't realized it and almost missed the stop. There were barely any lights and even off the train, we could hardly read the Manarola sign. Welcome to Cinque Terre!





    ARPAIU

    

I had read many reviews of places to stay in Manorola and the other CT towns, but had a very hard time finding a place to stay because I waited until ‘only’ 4 months before our trip to start researching. Most of the best places are very small – often only a few rooms – and book up way before that. My main criteria was a great view and that was the sticking point. That’s everyone’s main criteria! Websites and Tripadvisor reports included descriptions on how to reach many of the places: climb the hundreds of stairs… Ugh! No stairs? No view. It was because of the thought of the long trek with suitcases on all those stairs that made me do two things: Lose weight (if I had to carry excess weight up and down hills and stairs, it might as well have been in shopping bags, not on my hips!!!) and use a carry-on size suitcase. I succeeded on both counts! For the most part, plan on carrying your own luggage yourself, although I did find some places where someone would meet you at the station and help. Every one of those places was booked by the time I started my planning.

    

I found a wonderful place called Arpaiu. It was at the top of the cliff overlooking the sea just above (way above!) the small Manarola harbor and included the main building with 4 rooms with private bathrooms, and also a second building around the corner and two doors away with a simple studio apartment, the Ondine. We stayed in the apartment and were given a key to access the main building with it’s upstairs common room, coffee and tea station, and terrace facing the sea and coastline. Absolutely breathtaking no matter which building we were in!



    Booking this place was interesting. Never much other than an email saying OK it’s available. Now, this has happened before in Europe and it always makes me nervous not to have confirmation numbers and such, but it worked out fine. The owner wasn’t very friendly by email, but that may have just been a language issue. She was fine in person and there was no problem with the reservation. We had been told that since we were arriving late, no one would be there to meet us, but that the key would be above the door. Wow! We certainly weren't used to this, but there it was, just where we had been told it would be.

    Tip #3 - Relax! You don't need a confirmation number!

    

The apartment, one level up, had a new comfy bed, table and chairs, a beautiful red tiled bathroom with huge shower with great water pressure and lots of hot water, a small kitchenette with refrigerator, stovetop, and complete dishes and cooking equipment, and flat screen TV. It was perfect for us. Look at the main website page and you will see 3 small salmon colored buildings at the top of the cliff - the apartment was in the middle one - and the main building with the terrace on top was the pale yellow one to the left of the 3. If you look at the apartment pictures on the website, the apartment is now a bit different than pictured. It now has a permanent bed which sticks out from the left wall in the first picture instead of the futon-type bed picture along the side. Everything else looks the same. The best part was the two floor-to-ceiling windows which opened out over that spectacular view. I didn’t even have to get up for the view. Every morning I opened my eyes and there it was!

    

http://www.arpaiu.com/english.html

    

Bonus – no stairs to reach Arpaiu!!! Just smooth brick and stone pathways leading up to the top of the cliffs. It was about a 5-10 minute walk, depending on how much luggage you were rolling.

    
Tip #4 – the directions on the website to reach the apartment could be improved. Ask me if you go.




    THE TRAILS ARE CLOSED!

    There are 2 main trails from Manarola and they were both affected by the landslides of 2011. I just ran across a youtube clip of the mudslide in Vernazza and it’s more devastating than I had realized. It’s one thing to read about it, another to see a video, especially having just been there:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=405trx-Hdc0

    Horrible!

    Well, many areas were affected, including the easiest trail from Manarola to Riomaggiore, the Via del Amore (1km, according to an Internet site). It has been repaired, but not certified by the government. The Manarola resident who told us this said it might take longer to get it certified as safe than it did to repair it.

    The other trail which was closed was the trail the other way from Manarola to Corniglia (2 km). This has also been repaired and is waiting for certification. The good side? We avoided the 400 stairs at the end of that trail going up to Corniglia.

    We were going to hike both these trails our first day so we felt stuck in the middle between the two. We went to the tourist bureau at the train station (Tip #5 – don’t go right before or after a train is due if you can help it – long lines form at those times) and bought the 12 Euro pass to hike the trails with unlimited trains and bus included. There is a Cinque Terre National Park fee to hike the trails from Corniglia north. We probably ended up about breaking even with the pass by riding a bus, hiking one main trail and taking one train. (Tip #6 – you need to validate your pass at the train station before using it!)

    We caught the bus from Manarola (thank you Fodors for that tip!) to Volastra, a town higher up in the hills, so we could hike from there to Corniglia, the only village entirely up on a cliff top. (Find this little green bus up the hill to the right as you exit the tunnel from the Manarola train station. The tourist bureau can tell you the schedule.) Luckily, we got the last two seats. (Tip #7 – don’t cut it close to catch the bus – once every seat is taken that’s it, they don’t allow extras to squeeze on. There was quite a line of people all wanting to get on as we pulled away and I think it only runs about every 20 minutes or so) As we started off, we were met with hoards of tourists entering the town. The bus could barely move against this tide of hundreds of people, and had to also keep pulling onto a side driveway due to a run of little cars approaching. It was slow going through town. The never-ending flow of people must have been part of the myriad bus tours that descend upon Manarola about 10:30 am each day. We finally inched through the crowds and off we went zig-zagging up the hills around gorges until we reached the tiny town of Volastra. It was a much farther trip than we had thought, at least the way the bus went, and definitely worth the 2 Euros (if paying separately without the pass).

    The trail to Corniglia was just across the street along the left side of a church and started out quite easily. We had a leisurely walk through the vineyard terraces overlooking the water and the views just got better and better. The trails also got narrower and narrower, sometimes bordered on one side by a wall or vineyard fence and the other side by a sheer drop down. We encountered washouts a couple of times, but those were nothing dangerous. From time to time we looked down upon Corniglia and back at Manarola and they were beautiful from above. We passed though a couple of tiny villages, and once through someone’s beautifully manicured backyard, always following the well marked red and white hash marks.

    Soon the paths became less level and much rockier, and we started having to make our way over uneven steps of old hewn rocks. Some were a few inches tall and some up to a foot. The landscape changed and we walked down through woods…and then back up again. Finally, over the mountain and down what seemed like hundreds of uneven steps until we entered Corniglia through the back past the church. The Volastra to Corniglia walk took us 1 ½ hours at a leisurely pace, and it was never overly difficult, but we were ready for a drink!



    CORNIGLIA

    We wandered around Corniglia, admiring everything from the church to the jumble of brightly colored buildings to the sheets hung from the windows and billowing in the breeze. There were the cutest boutiques on some side streets, but we decided it was time for lunch. We found the Gastronomia Pizzeria/Food and Sea Restaurant down some stairs and sat on the terrace with a view between the vineyards to the sea. Delightful. Bruschetta, a sausage pizza, one panna cotta with chocolate sauce, water and Coke was 18 Euros. Everything was delicious except the sausage, but only because it was not what I was looking forward to – it was more like slices of hot dog. The pizza itself was wonderful. We sat and rested for a while until we decided it was time to continue on with our hike.

    Tip #8 – we ran into several public rest rooms which had no toilet tissue during our days in CT. Be prepared!



    HIKE!

    We followed the signs to the Sentierro No.2 (blue path #2) to Vernazza, our hiking destination (4 km), and the next town north. Before being allowed on this trail, we passed a kiosk where we had to show our passes (they did scrutinize them to see if they were validated) or pay the 6 Euro National Park fee. I loved the signs indicating that you should not wear high heels! (The last time we saw that sign was on the rocky top of the Schilthorn in Switzerland! Europe cracks me up!) This will become funnier soon.

    We passed a National Park sign giving the altitudes of this hike:
    Corniglia – 90 slm (meters above sea level?)
    Highest point of the hike – 207 slm
    Vernazza – 4 slm
    Hiking level - difficult

    The trail started again through the vineyards, through the woods, skirted the hillsides and rose up over a mountain. There was a tiny town, San Bernardino, way up high and DH said, I’m not doing this hike if we have to go through that town. I “assured” him that we didn’t need to do that from what I had read, but wouldn’t you know that we did actually get pretty close to it. By that time, it was too late to turn back so DH just sucked it up and didn’t say anything. We passed olive grove with nets beneath the trees (to catch olives I suppose), huge prickly pear cacti with abundant fruit growing at the tips (we bought a peeled fruit from someone at a turn in the trail. It tasted good, but had thousands of seeds), a little bar in the middle of nowhere, and sometimes there were even handrails! (Good for pulling yourself along!) We passed a for sale sign on a gate with basically ruins behind it. How the heck would anyone ever get building materials up there? No wonder it was still for sale. There were more stairs this trip and steeper paths. If you walk this direction, look back from time to time – Corniglia was beautiful from this side.

    So who hikes these trails beside the people with hiking boots or at least running shoes (like we had)? Well, one person asked us if we saw the guy in bare feet! We hadn’t seen him, but…Ouch!!! Soon after we saw two people in the cheap thin flip flops you see at the beach. Were they crazy?! Lastly, we met the guy in a leg and foot cast happily limping along. Speechless! Thank goodness there was that sign prohibiting high heels!



    VERNAZZA

    This hike took us 1 ¾ hours with plenty of photo-op stops. It wasn’t crowded at all, just a few people passing us now and then. Suddenly, we rounded a bend and there was Vernazza and its old pirate-scouting tower ahead of us, just the boost we needed for the last haul.

    We finally arrived via streets and streets of steps down and suddenly were in the midst of activity, noise, shops, crowds, color…I called it the Disneyland of Italy! Did I mention the crowds? People were everywhere! The harbor though was peaceful in spite of this street activity with lines of rowboats gently rocking and bobbing in front of the amazing rock formations of the harbor walls. We rewarded ourselves with some gelato and drinks and caught the train back to Manarola, a very quick ride.



    TRATTORIA DA BILLY

    This restaurant was highly recommended on Tripadvisor so I had made reservations in the morning before our hike. It was a good thing – we got the last outside table, a must for this sunset lover! We didn’t know it at the time, but we were seated on a terrace which belonged to a private owner and which was “loaned” to the restaurant for busy nights when there was an overflow of guests. There was one other couple on this terrace and a larger table was set in anticipation for the arrival of the owner and his family.

    We started with the recommended Antipasto Misto di Mare, a collection of 12 individual plates with two tiny seafood servings each. Sort of like an Italian tapas if you will. I can’t remember what each one was, but we decided that 4 were rather nondescript (not bad, just meh!), 4 were very very good and 4 were out of this world. The best ones I remember were fresh anchovies in lemon (nothing like the type found in the US for pizza), a seafood salad, a barley and shrimp dish, and a fresh tuna with sweet onions. It was fun and different and I would get it again.

    Next we ordered the lobster pasta, the special. It was beautiful with all the pieces of lobster still in the shell and was a very good serving size. Unfortunately, the pasta was extremely salty and we didn’t actually eat it. We did mention it to the server and he told us we could order something else, but it seemed like a sin to waste that lobster which had been presented to us live 20 minutes prior, so we just ate the lobster. Looking back, we should have at least asked for a different pasta. They would have been happy to do that for us. We ended with delicious chocolate and lemon tarts. At the end of the meal, we were offered bottles of grappa, limoncello and another bitter black liqueur we didn’t care for, with instructions to drink as much as we liked for free and “to make up for the meal” but we already knew that everyone received those after every meal anyway. That didn’t stop us from sitting there another hour drinking and enjoying the company of the owner and his guests at the next table. Trust me when I say that we made up for the pasta that way! With the 2 cover charges, a carafe of wine, water, 2 desserts and a coffee, the bill was 101 Euros.



    GRAPE HARVESTING - HOW DO THEY DO THAT?

    This morning we sat on the terrace of the main building and watched some men harvesting grapes on the terraced hillside. It was amazing. Each terrace must have been about 5 feet tall with 1-2 foot paths separating them and creating the terraces. The men would fill the crates and carry them on their shoulders down one level to the next. As if that wasn’t bad enough, when we walked down through the town to the main street, there were more men with more full crates on their shoulders walking up the steep long staircases up into the town. Backbreaking work!

    While walking through town, we noticed the hoards of people, one large group after another, were starting to stream into our town. Yup – it was 10:30. Tour time! You could see them coming in droves all the way up the main road as far as you could see. It was actually rather comical. They walked down the main street, scattered, checked out the covered boats lining the lower streets of Manarola, and met a short time afterwards. We were glad to be leaving them, but thought they would be gone fairly quickly.



    PORTOVENERE

    Today we decided to see the towns from the water. The ferries were still running (the schedule said they would continue until Sept 29) so we went down to the harbor to buy tickets. The man there recommended that we buy the 25 Euro ticket for unlimited ferry use for the day. This also included a ride around the 3 islands off of Portovenere. The path to the dock led through an opening between two enormous rocks. It’s nice how they left the natural landscaping in place and fit the dock (and buildings if you look at the towns) right in. That’s the charm of all these places – nature dictated how they should be built.

    The ferry arrived, the gangplank was rolled off the front to the cement dock and we boarded. The ride was beautiful, water sparkling. Manarola and Riomaggiore from the water were spectacular! I definitely recommend seeing the towns from the water if you visit Cinque Terre. The stretch between Riomaggiore and Portovenere was mostly wild land with a house or castle dotted here and there. There was a huge rock with a small cross on top on the way as well.

    We knew we were getting close to Portovenere when we spotted a large grey and white striped stone church and an enormous fort on some cliffs. We rounded the promontory and there was a cute harborside town – colorful, pastel, tall, thin buildings one after the other along the water.

    We disembarked and immediately got onto the ferry to the 3 islands. The ticket booth says Giro Delle Tre Isole, but all we needed to do was board the boat next to the booth and show our passes. Without passes, the price is 10 Euros. Unfortunately, the explanation was in Italian, but we enjoyed the views.

    We first passed a “field” of buoys, then a tiny island just big enough to hold a small fort/ castle, Torre Scuola. As we passed the first large island (Isola Palmaria), we noticed some military-type installations and what appeared to be bunkers. We did think we understood that they were talking about a World War so it all made sense.

    The next island (Isola del Tino) was smaller and was topped with a lighthouse. There was a pillar topped with a statue in the water near it. We understood that ‘she’ was there to offer protection to either the islands and/or Portovenere. We circled the last tiny island (Isola del Tinetto), basically all rock. And started back along the opposite side of the islands. The rocks were striated at a fairly severe angle in different colors and so were interesting. We also noted caves throughout. All of a sudden the boat slowed and crept into one of the water level caves. They were obviously being careful, giving the people up front a view inside then backed out. This happened with another cave then finally there was a huge cave and the front half of the boat was inside it. The people up front were taking pictures straight up inside this cave, but the rest of us had to be content with watching the excitement.

    Tip #9 – if you take this tour, either ride at the front on the boat’s main level, or start upstairs and when the boat starts back around the back side of the smallest island, leave your spot and get to the front. I don’t know what there was to look at in those caves, stalagtites?, but the people took a lot of pictures inside. I felt like I missed out on that third cave.

    Finally, the boat took us around to the little cove between that initial church and fort where we could see beautiful archways, the cemetery and other details.

    After this boat ride, we meandered along the waterfront and were drawn in to La Taverna di Venere Ristorante by a sign saying Oggi (today) Paella. I ordered that and DH ordered a whole fish with fries. My paella was amazing with more seafood than rice, especially mussels, and large crawfish. DH’s meal was excellent as well. Both these meals, wine and water came to 56 Euros.



    FERRY

    We hopped on the next ferry from Portovenere to go back because we wanted to pass Manarola and go at least as far as Vernazza to see it from the water. We couldn’t get all the way to Montorossa and return because the ferry connection didn’t work for us to get back. The other nice thing about this afternoon ride was that the sun in the west just lit up all the towns so I got better pictures than before.

    We got off at Vernazza after the beautiful approach from the water, did a little shopping and again I was struck by the crowds. This place is always hopping. As much as we enjoyed the activity, that’s not our style for a place to stay. We stopped at the recommended tiny Batti Batti Friggitoria on the main street and bought a paper cone of fried calamari, some of the most tender calamari I’ve ever eaten, and came back to the harbor. We then visited S. Margherita de Antiochia, the main church just next to the cove. We noticed a sign announcing the events of the International Music Festival of Cinque Terre and noted that there would be an organ concert that we might enjoy in Riomaggiore that night.

    We were able to take the last ferry back to Manarola (yea for the pass) and once there, decided that dinner that night would be from the take-out Pizzeria il Discovolo down near the harbor. A couple types of pizza slices, a slice of focaccia, 2 mini calzones, Torta di Riso (a sweet rice tart from the region – it was delicious) and a bottle of wine cost us 13.50 Euros. We gathered plates and wine glasses from the apartment and went to enjoy the sunset on the terrace of the main building. How beautiful! A private picnic with the perfect view of the water, setting sun and the coastline as the lights came on.



    RIOMAGGIORE

    We decided to go to Riomaggiore that night for the organ concert so we went to the train station and went as far as the first stop. We knew it would be a short ride so timed it this time…1 minute 29 seconds start to stop! This time we expected a dark station so once the train stopped, we were prepared. We quickly opened the doors and in fact we were still in the tunnel with a very narrow walkway running along the side of the train. Wow! Minimal light, no signs. As soon as we got off, the train started moving. Had we not been waiting at the door and watching for a green light to come on on the door, we would have missed our stop. We rescued some other people who hadn’t noticed that they were at the ‘station’ by opening the door for them. They were shocked that they could get off.

    Tip #10 – going to these small stations at night, stand by the train door just before it’s time to get off the train. When the train stops, a green button should light up on the door if you are actually at the stop. If you push it and the door opens, check to confirm that others are disembarking and be prepared for a narrow walkway if you are not at the main platform – it is in fact part of the station. The platform is so much shorter than some trains that the trains extend into the tunnel. It was nerve-wracking at first - who gets off in a tunnel??!! - but we did this several times and got more comfortable with it. I’m sure unsuspecting people miss their stops all the time because of this. We easily could have.



    MOSAIC TUNNEL

    The first amazing thing to see in Riomaggiore is the mosaic running the entire length of the 200 meter long pedestrian tunnel from the train station to the main street. Called the “Sequenza dell Memoria”, it’s a beautiful length of “Sequence of the Memory: Sea Levels and Sky Levels” created by local artist Silvio Benedetto between 2004 and 2007 to show images of the region. The materials used were varied: thousands of handcut colorful tiles (of course) and marble, interspersed with tiny bits of mirrors, 3-D stony outcroppings of pebbles or rocks or large stone slabs, and even large (cement-filled I imagine) seashells. I never saw such an original mosaic! You go from the abstract rocky and mountainous regional landscape, to the undersea world of bright blues of the water and brilliant colors of fish, coral, octopus, jellyfish, and the enormous signature starfish in the middle, then on to the muted colors of the moon, stars, planets, sun and sky and back to the drab grey stonework at the end.

    I found this quote of the artist online and it summed up my own experience:

    <<“Sometimes I make visible that what is secret in me, sometimes the things penetrate me to re-emerge, sometimes they watch me, other times I watch that what I have realised with detachment: it is a sequence of the memory” says Silvio Benedetto. A sequence that Silvio Benedetto defines: “A sensation that the passer-by has perceived and persists in him also when he is already gone away... the sensation to have seen something, like happens to us when we have the impression to see fantasy animals or faces and who knows what else in the variegations of the marble, in the shapes of the moving clouds, in the steep rocks: the see, a seagull, a boat, a storm, like in a magic story… Benedetto therefore speaks of a long dynamic composition and of spectators in movement, however he has searched and realised precise and determinated moments of rest where the spectator finds a declared subject: the moon, the sun, the stars, creatures from the bottom of the sea.>>

    I had all these sensations and recommend getting off at this station even if only to see this artwork. I wish I was this talented!



    ORGAN CONCERT

    Riomaggiore was almost silent once we arrived this evening. No one on the streets, restaurants not too busy, and it was only 9 pm. It’s not fair to judge this town based only on the nighttime walk from the station to the church so I’ll keep my thoughts on that to myself. Pictures that I’ve seen give an entirely different impression.

    We trudged up the long hill to the upper part of the village and found the San Giovanni Battista church glowing in the darkness. The interior walls were a simple white but the arches were grey and white striped and there were beams on the ceiling. Very pretty. There were the requisite beautiful marble statues throughout. The concert started and we mostly enjoyed the Baroque music played by Ignacio Ribas Talens until it was time to catch our train back. There was a little café next to the station where we had some drinks and watched a cat chase a mouse until our train arrived.



    PORTOFINO

    Today was our trip to Portofino, DH’s choice. He had always wanted to see it.

    We had been told that Manarola’s Ristorante Aristide across from the tunnel from the train station was the place to go for breakfast so we started our day here. I have agree – the pastries were fresh and DH said that coffee was outstanding.

    We had a little train mishap and were then on our way, albeit later than intended, and unfortunately cutting into our time for today. We had to go to Riomaggiore to catch a train for S.Margherita Ligure, unfortunately needing to change trains in Sestri Levante along the way. (You can get the faster direct train but that was not to be!) The bright side to this was that we had enough time to walk the 5 blocks to the tourist bureau in Sestri Levante and were able to obtain schedules and information about trains, busses and ferries for the rest of the day before continuing on to S.Margherita Ligure. Our train fiasco probably ended up saving us more time than we lost in the end.

    We arrived in S.Margherita Ligure, bought our bus tickets and had about 15 minutes to wander around. This looked like a beautiful little town, right on the water with a mountain backdrop. From there, we took the bus to Portofino. What a beautiful drive along the coast. Sun, sea, mountains, marinas, beaches, yachts, palm trees. Did I mention the yachts?! Also entertaining…every time we rounded a curve and met another car, there were just inches of leeway for us to pass each other, even less once we made it to Portofino.

    Tip #11- to take the bus from S. Margherita Ligura to Portofino, turn left out of the train station and buy your tickets at the little straight ahead café at the end of the station. The bus stop is at the other end of the station from the café and costs 1.50 Euros, one-way.

    Portofino’s outskirts were marked by a pretty yellow and grey striped church. Within minutes, we had unloaded from the bus and were passing everything from souvenir shops to stores such as Dior. What a mix! The waterfront was amazingly beautiful! The buildings were similar to those at Portovenere, but seemed so much more upscale, maybe because of the enormous luxury chartered yacht moored in the middle and dominating the landscape. (We looked it up online - 450,000 Euros, about $607,000, + expenses, to charter it for a week!!! :o Anyone interested?!)

    So we bought our ferry tickets for 8 Euros.



    LIGHTHOUSE (“FARO”) AND CASTELLO BROWN WALK

    I had heard that the walk to the Portofino lighthouse was worth doing so I left DH by the harbor and went through the path in the woods past Castello Brown to the lighthouse. It was a pleasant walk through the woods, by the castle and outbuildings, and along the castle walls and vineyards, but pretty steep and rugged. It turns out that there was a more gradual path leading off to the right just before reaching the water. Get off the bus and walk down between all the shops toward the water. The gradual path goes off to the right just before you get to all the cafes bordering the water – follow the small signs posted on a building set back a bit. We were just so blown away by everything once we arrived that we didn’t think to look for any signs. The other steeper rugged path leads up to the castle all the way at the end of the walkway past the docks and restaurants around the other side of the cove. It gets steep immediately.

    The lighthouse was nothing spectacular in itself, but I loved the walk. It took about 20 minutes and there were nice views of the water and coastline. Once there, I saw about half a dozen kayaks paddling along the coast. Now, that would have been fun! I took the more gradual path down and on the way stopped at the yellow church, San Giorgio. I loved the mosaics designs out front, but the view of Portofino from there was spectacular.

    Next it was time for the ferry, but first gelato! The place just across from the ferry dock had wonderful gelato. The melon tasted like the sweetest ripest cantaloupe you could ever eat. Delicious! The dark chocolate was excellent too.



    SAN FRUTTUOSO

    Instead of reversing our trip to go back to CT, we took the ferry to San Fruttuoso, and then to Camogli. There is a beautiful abbey at SF, tucked into the bank of a tiny cove, with a rock beach in front of it. My understanding is that the only way in is by boat or a 2 ½ hour hike. We did not hike! Our intention was to get off the first ferry, go to the other dock about 30 seconds away and catch another ferry which is timed to leave once the first arrived. Well, the first ferry got to SF 10 minutes late so we watched the other sail away without us. No big deal, they left fairly frequently. In the meantime, I noticed a pretty grey rock with a bright white stripe around it on the beach. I decided it would make a good souvenir. Then I saw another, then another. I quickly realized that the entire beach was covered with these small striped rocks and before I knew it, I had collected quite a few! (OK – I admit – they were all so pretty that I ended up with 4 ½ pounds. Shhhhhhh! Don’t tell DH!)

    We didn’t go into the abbey, but instead enjoyed watching the fishermen, the people on the beach and some chefs in an upstairs window of the abbey lowering down a bucket to retrieve supplies. There were a couple of places to get a snack on the beach, but we didn’t go over.

    The second ferry finally arrived and we boarded. Payment for this ferry is at a little table at the dock shortly before the departure, another 8 Euros to continue on to Camogli, a small fishing village, recommended by the ticket person in Manarola.

    Tip #12 – the Portofino ferry docks at a different dock than the San Fruttuoso ferry because they are run by different ferry lines. Even if you are not going to SF, go over to that dock to see a beautiful mosaic picture on the rock wall.

    Tip #13 – don’t sit on the beach chairs unless you plan to rent them.

    Tip #14 – don’t pick up 4 ½ pounds of rocks!



    CAMOGLI and BACK TO MANAROLA

    The trip to Camogli was relaxing. The coastline is rocky and rugged, with a dot of a castle or military bunker here and there. There was a stop on the way at a tiny hamlet – don’t get off there – where we saw dozens of fishing nets hanging to dry.

    We left there far off across the bay, spotted a city of colorful tall pastel buildings behind a huge rocky outcropping sporting a castle. I didn’t know what to expect of Camogli, but it wasn’t this. I felt a bit disappointed…until we sailed to the end, passed the castle and lighthouse and entered a tiny cove surrounded by more of the colorful buildings and lined with tiny fishing boats. Absolutely charming. The first thing I noticed was the way the afternoon light hit the buildings – it looked almost unreal! The story goes that the buildings were painted very colorfully to help fishermen find their way home easily.

    Camogli is a resort beach town, and also fishing village, but even more interesting were the building faces. They were all very detailed with stonework, balustrades, frames around the windows, marble streaking, shadows, architectural details. Nothing out of the ordinary, until you realize that all these details are actually tromp l’oeil – everything was expertly painted including the large blocks of stone at the bases of the buildings. I was constantly amazed! I never saw anything like this.

    We walked up and down the beach past an assortment of restaurants and shops, but unfortunately, due to our train fiasco we had arrived later in the day than we had planned. Most of the restaurants were closed and we were hungry! We finally found the Binji Bar overlooking the beach and water and settled in for…pina coladas! Who would have thought! We added some salads and sandwiches and just relaxed. Afterwards we shopped a bit, wandered around the town almost until sunset and made our way to the train station.

    Camogli is known for its annual Fish Festival in May. What makes this special is that is uses13-foot diameter 26 ton, frying pans which hold 1000 liters of oil to fry 3 tons of fish – I’ve read about fresh anchovies and blue fish. They supposedly serve about 3000 – 5000 people for free. That’s a lot of fish! One of the enormous iron pans, now retired, is displayed along one of Camolgi’s walks. Pretty amazing!

    We walked back to the train station, which was very pretty with palm trees growing in the platform, and returned to Manarola just in time for our reservation at Il Porticciolo along the main street down near the harbor.

    Dinner was trofie pasta, a short twisted pasta, in pesto, fresh whole orata fish with potatoes and olives, and a bottle of wine. A very nice dinner. Our plan had been to finish dinner, get back to the apartment to pack and leave for Florence early the next day, but our inner-Italian emerged so we abandoned that plan and just sat for hours talking and people watching.



    OUR LAST MORNING IN CINQUE TERRE

    I woke up early our last morning and while enjoying the view from the bed one last time, decided, why not enjoy it from outside! DH had had enough hiking and step-climbing by this time, so I went out on my own for a short walk on the paths on the other side of the harbor. I had been eyeing those walkways from our apartment ever since we arrived. First I took the direct route to the harbor down zillions of stairs then walked around to the coastal path toward Corniglia. This was the path which was closed, but it was still possible to walk around the promontory until the gate closed it off. There was a man in orange sitting and using his cell phone near the gate and in my fractured Italian, I asked him if it was his job to be sure that no one hopped the fence. He said no, there was no job like that, he was supposed to be cleaning. He jumped to his feet, grabbed his little broom and off he went. While walking back, there he was again. He pointed me towards some stairs and indicated I should go that way. I followed his advice, went up and came across a beautiful viewpoint of Manarola, and went onward past a little park to the hilltop cemetery. Row upon row of vaults with the most gorgeous view.

    I left the cemetery and took another route back down the hill. Instead of climbing those stairs from the harbor back up to our place, I decided to go up the main street, which sort of looked like the overflow parking area for dozens of small fishing boats, back to the gradual path we normally took.

    DH was up and about by that time so I joined him in packing. We had checked the train schedule and had decided to take a later and nicer train, one that only involved one change.

    The cleaning staff popped into our apartment about 10:30. Oops – we hadn’t realized that check-out was at 10! Luckily, we were ready to go and were out of there quickly. We were so glad the walk back to the main street was downhill without stairs.

    Since we had over an hour and a half until our train, we went to Aristide for breakfast and nabbed the perfect table on the covered patio out front. We had a birds eye view of the tour groups arriving (it WAS 10:30, after all!) but this time could also hear the instructions given by the tour guides. It went sort of like this:

    “Here we are in beautiful Manarola. Look around, go see the harbor, check out the shops but be back in 15 minutes! Don’t be late…we are taking the train and it won’t wait!” Some tourists scurried off like their life depended on it, some came into the café for a drink, others nervously stood there, probably afraid they’d get lost and miss the train. I know some tours in some countries might suit me, but definitely not this type! Yea for us having 4 nights in Manarola instead of a quick jaunt in with a group! If I only had a day to visit, I would come in by train early in the morning and use Fodors information to plan the perfect day! (maybe even my info ;) )

    We went to the train station with its long line at the ticket window (yes, I already warned you not to plan to buy tickets just before a train arrived), but we knew we could use the ticket machines to buy them. What we didn’t know was that the machines didn’t work! Dilemma! We had already waited extra time for this train which arrived in Florence late afternoon and since we only had the rest of that day and the next, we didn’t want to wait for another one. So…we hopped on and hoped for the best, figuring that the truth would set us free.

    We were nervous to do this…why? (Other than the obvious reason.) I had met a traveler a few days before who said she had to hand over 50 Euros on the spot for not validating her train ticket. The next day, I watched as a conductor asked for tickets, saw that a couple had not validated their tickets made that couple pay as well. These conductors are very serious and don’t put up with any excuses!

    Tip #15 - Remember to validate your train tickets before getting on the trains! (Except you don't have to validate tickets where you have a reservation.)

    Not only had we not validated our tickets, but we also hadn’t bought them! Yikes!

    Luck was with us – the conductor didn’t come around during our 11 minute ride to La Spezia where we changed for the direct train to Florence. We were happy to see the Leaning Tower on the left just before the first Pisa stop, and hadn’t realized that we would be a local train for lots of kids getting out of school. No matter – it was a very relaxing ride.


    NEXT - Florence!

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    FLORENCE GRANDUOMO

    We arrived at the SMN (Santa Maria Novella) station and easily followed the directions to our hotel, the Granduomo, a hotel in a 17th century Florentine residence. Actually, since our hotel was across the street from the Duomo, we just looked for the dome and walked that way. It was about a 10 minute walk.

    And then there it was…the Duomo! So beautiful and vibrant. We just kept staring at it…and walked right by our hotel!

    We walked by our hotel even though we had the address and continued on searching and searching until we found the Duomo Hotel. It didn’t look right, and name was certainly not exactly correct, but I walked in anyway. We were told lots of people walk right by ours and end up at the Duomo Hotel down the street so back we went. Once we found it, I could see why we missed it. The door had been obscured by a little newspaper stand on the sidewalk. There was also no hotel front to speak of…just an unassuming door with the name in small lettering. We entered a somewhat dark hallway and came to the tiny front desk in an area just big enough for that desk, the receptionist and us. As I said, it was dark and I was beginning to think I had made an error, especially since this hotel was the “big splurge” of the trip. How could a splurge start out like this?! Where were the sparkling chandeliers? Where were the doormen and bellhops? Did I make a huge (and expensive) mistake?

    The woman behind the desk was so nice though and took us up to our room…and what a room it was! 3 huge windows directly overlooking the side of the Duomo! It looked exactly like the website! (Minus the maid since someone would probably comment on that!)

    Here is the website…click on ‘Appartamenti’ along the top and the first room on that page was ours!

    http://granduomo.com

    If you look on the website’s home page, at the bottom is a “Skyview Locator”. Click on that for a really cool “view” of Florence. I only just discovered it today. Wish I had seen that before we went!

    Not only was the room perfection, but there were also two cute little fruit tarts waiting for us along with plates and cloth napkins with gold napkin rings. The other side of the room had a stocked refrigerator, snacks and a full ‘kitchen in a cupboard’. The bathroom was all in marble and the towels were neatly tied with a satin ribbon. We didn’t have a balcony, but when we looked out to the left, we had a clear view of the main dome and to the right, the Bapistry and Piazza. It was truly beautiful.

    We decided first to explore the hotel because we knew there was a library on the first floor and a lounge at the top. The library was beautiful with beautiful antique furniture, books and whatever we wanted for snacking: coffee/tea fixings, wine, amaretti cookies, cake, candy. Very nice after our hours of travel. We took some wine up to the glassed-in top lounge and were about eye-level with the dome. How beautiful. In a different direction, we gazed over the red tile roofs overlooking half of Florence. There were more drinks and snacks up there too. Wow! We didn’t want to leave we were so relaxed with our wine and those views.

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    I am just catching up with this report. Oh my goodness, what amazing eating. I'm not much of a cook, but I'd put up with the cooking lessons to be able to eat those meals! Version 3.0? Yes please.

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    Hi Nikki - I hope you are doing OK.

    My husband and a few others weren't much of a cook either, but no one in our group skipped the lessons. Luckily the lessons were geared to all levels and we could participate as much or as little as we wanted.

    We talk about 3.0 a lot!!!

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    ACADEMIA

    It was hard to tear ourselves away from the hotel, but I knew that today was probably our only chance to go to the Academia and see David. We didn’t have tickets or reservations but I had read that going at the end of the day gave a good chance of getting in. I guess we are risk takers! Once we arrived, it looked like there was a long line, but it seemed to be moving quickly. DH suggested coming back sometime the next day, but I stuck to my guns and said 'Fodors said this is the best time' so we stayed! Sure enough, we only waited on line for 10-15 minutes and had about an hour in the museum until closing. There were the usual people saying "No pictures!" over and over, and the usual number of people pretending to look at their cell phones and taking pictures. Really – what’s the big deal?! This comedy certainly didn’t detract from the beauty of David and it was wonderful to be there without massive crowds. We enjoyed the rest of the museum until closing and went back to the hotel.

    BUCA DELL’ORAFO

    At the hotel we told the receptionist that we wanted to have a Bistecca Fiorentina for dinner and asked for a suggestion. She recommended the Buca dell’Orafo, about a 5 minute walk away near the river. They weren’t ready at all for us (or for anyone else either for that matter) once we arrived at 9:00 and we got a much later than usual start…later than usual for what I've seen in Italy, but that was the price we paid for the last minute reservation. When we finally walked in, there was a fresh fig tart – things were looking promising with my newfound taste for fresh figs! The best part (even though we had trouble understanding it) was that there was no English on the menu and there was a lot of Italian being spoken in the restaurant. (We were next to an Australian couple but that was sort of nice.) The Australians and we waited a long time for service, but I did notice that the Italians who were also seated late were having a great time with things moving along at a normal pace.

    Our dinner was fried zucchini blossoms (Fiori di zucca fritti, listed under contorni/sides on the second page) – they were light and airy and not greasy in the least. By far the best we’ve ever had. Also had grilled eggplant (Melanzane grigliate) which was also very good and a bottle of wine. We skipped the pasta course and went straight to the steak (called Bistecca Chianina here) and it was delicious. A huge slab of beef on the bone served fairly rare and exactly what we were looking for. And OK I admit it, I picked up the bone and ate off of it. ;) The Australians asked to take their leftovers and they were scorned at, but their food was delivered back to them in foil.

    We were surprised that at the end of our main course, the check materialized immediately without our asking. I've never seen that before in Italy. We had been ready to order dessert, but that was not to be. I know it was late, but they had not given us menus or served us in a normal amount of time compared to the Italians there. I'm willing to bet that because we were tourists, they figured we wouldn't be back so didn't care that much.

    Tripadvisor: Food 5, Service 2

    Would I go back? Yes, the food was so good. I'd just be sure to reserve sooner and get an earlier start time. We don't mind long dinners in Italy!

    We enjoyed the walk back window shopping, buying chocolate, oohing and ahhing over beautiful stacks of hand made candies and marzipan fruits, and admiring the the freshly formed foot-high (literally) piles of colorful gelato in the shops, presumably in preparation for the next day's crowds. Finally, the Duomo, all lit up and serving as a beacon leading us home.

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    it's a shame kwren, that you were discriminated against and not allowed a pud, though i'm quite surprised, and impressed, that you had room for one! we had a lovely bistecca in Florence, but there wasn't room for much else afterwards.

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    OUR LAST FULL DAY IN ITALY


    FOOD MARKET

    We woke up to a bag of breads and pastries hanging on our door and combined that with the food in the refrigerator – juice, yogurt, salami, cheese (although it was a bit disappointing that it was a processed cheese instead of fresh). There was a lot of food. Funny that most of the pastries and rolls weren’t that great either, but we often seemed to end up with mediocre bread in Italy no matter where we were. Maybe we were just incredibly unlucky – I know there is excellent bread out there somewhere!

    The hotel recommended that we go to the Central Food Market, but on the way we stopped at a gourmet food store called Pegna. Now that was a cool store. Stop in if you are walking by. Check out the coffee section. They had an old contraption with pipes running up to the ceiling. The best I could make out was that the beans were up there and ran down the pipes to bags or grinders on the counter.

    On the way out, we noticed a tour group looking in a door across the street. We peeked in and were amazed that a normal looking building would hold a workshop of beautifully carved columns, statues and decorations. We think it was a workshop which copies, preserves or restores items from the Duomo or buildings in the piazza. Take something down, copy it, put the copy back, save the original. I would have taken any of those wonderful “copies”.

    Walking to the food market was also fun. We passed a shoe store which had narrow cabinetry and shelves on the outdoor wall displaying dozens of shoes. These cabinets could be folded back and locked overnight. We proceeded through an outdoor market selling leather (?) goods, scarves, souvenirs, etc. Each store would claim they had real leather products and that their competitors sold inferior items made in China. The prices? All the same!

    The food market was amazing! If you have been to the Central Market of Philadelphia, it reminded me of that. Rows and rows of food, produce, meats, etc. How was it different from Philadelphia? My impressions: huge wheels of cheese, fresh swordfish heads, bins of tripe, fresh pasta, octopus, dragon fruit, braided strings of garlic, fresh lychees, cute bouquets of red peppers, a pig’s head, huge scallops on the shell, stacks of bottles of Limoncello, biscotti, whole prosciutto legs, and entire lengths of beef labeled Fiorentina. (Hmmm – at 20 Euros a kg instead of the 58 at that restaurant! Oh well, still worth it.) I especially like the little old lady who was pushing a bicycle inside.

    Next on the agenda was just walking. We passed through the Piazza della Signoria and its many statues, to the Santa Croce church with its leather shops encircling the piazza, circled around for gelato and ended up at the Mercato Nuovo, a different leather market with rows and row of vendors. So which one is the “leather market”? The hotel said the first one, the second one looked more like a market to me. If anyone could tell me, I’d appreciate it. Was it the best leather at the Mercato Nuovo? I don’t know, but the prices were much higher than at the street market. I bought a multi colored bag there though and love it!

    Oh – while at the Mercato Nuovo, don’t forget to rub the nose of Porcellino to ensure a trip back to Florence!

    On the way back, we went into the Duomo. DH was tired, but I persuaded him to go in with me – it was, after all, just across the street. We went in and it was beautiful. Worth the quick trip. By the way, the dress code was in full force – if you don’t have your shoulders and/or upper legs covered, they have the lovely pale blue capes available for your strolling pleasure. The funniest part was the recording which would play periodically: “SHHHHHHHHHHHHHH! – Silenzio – SHHHHHHHHHHHHHHH! – Silence please.” The shushing was a riot and so unexpected!

    Once back at the hotel, we asked about another restaurant for dinner – this one recommended a few times on Fodors. Quattro Leoni. The hotel said, yes, it was very good and made us a reservation, so we crossed the Ponte Vecchio (at this time everything was closed, but a great band was drawing the crowds in the center) and found it easily.

    Quattro Leoni was really good. Funny that there there were more Australians there. I’ve never met Australians on a trip before and this trip we met them everywhere we went. Is it because we were traveling in September as opposed to the summer?

    Anyway, we were treated to Prosecco to start – a very nice touch. Out appetizer was a plate of prosciutto, fresh figs and gorgonzola. That still sounds strange to me, even though it was an absolutely scrumptious combination. I highly recommend it.

    Next, the pasta dish which the waiter highly recommended, and easily the best pasta dish I’ve ever eaten: Fiocchetti di pera in salsa de taleggio e asparagi - pasta with talegio cheese, marscopone and pear with a light cheese sauce with asparagus. O – M – G!!! Nothing else could ever compare with that!

    The rest of the meal went like this: gazpacho (8E), Scaloppina ai 4 leoni (like wiener schnitzel with a tomato bruschetta on top – I loved the veal, the bruschetta was tasty, but I didn’t much care for them together – great separately, 12 E), Lombatina di vitella (a thick grilled veal chop which the waiter recommended, it was juicy and well-seasoned but plain, 18 E). No dessert tonight. We were full again and not tempted by the dessert menu.

    This restaurant also had the Bistecca alla Fiorentina, cheaper than last night’s at 41 Euros/kg. The next table had it and it looked delicious.

    We walked back and on the way enjoyed looking in shop windows. Has anyone seen a store called Stickhouse? It sells gelato on a stick. These bars were all lined upright in a flat freezer and the colors were beautiful. Some were dipped in or drizzled with chocolate. Nothing like the Good Humor truck’s ice cream bars! We also enjoyed seeing some of the Florentine mannequins…one had a dog’s head on it, another a skull, and others were plain white with one false eyelash pointing downwards! Wink, wink! Continuing on, we bought some chocolate at my husband’s now favorite chocolate store and stopped to see the Bapistry doors.

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    kwren - another great market is the Sant'Ambrogio just north of santa Croce. the owner of the pensione I stayed at did a tour of it for us so we got to taste lots of the seasonal delicacies, [broad beans and ricotta for example] and then had lunch in the market cafe. First [and last] time I've had a salad of tripe but we had some nice things too - a salad of bread and tomatoes, a great riboletta, lovely cheese and prosciutto plus wine from a bottle on the table - they just charge for what they think you've drunk!

    <<We think it was a workshop which copies, preserves or restores items from the Duomo or buildings in the piazza. Take something down, copy it, put the copy back, save the original.>>

    I came across a similar place on the way out of the giardino Bardini in Oltrarno - they have an area which is stacked full of statues and monuments, all in various states of dis/repair. I'd loved to have been able to have tucked one under my arm and taken it home!

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    kwren - my trip report from when i went to Tuscany on an italian course has quite a lot about the area around Santa Croce and the other stuff I did, as I stayed near there after I'd finished my course and wanted a few days in Florence to practice what I'd learnt.

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    what sort of Italian course was it? Immersion?>>

    well, sometimes i did feel as if i was drowning, but no, not quite immersion, more walking out into the water til it's up to your navel!

    we did 4 hours of lessons every morning and then went on excursions in the afternoons/ evenings. I stayed in a hotel rather than with a family - a mistake i now think. I've now been on another week's italian course in Rome with the college where I learn italian, again staying in a hotel, and next year we're going to Sorrento, AND staying with families.

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    Hi kwren!

    I'm back from my trip and now caught up with your trip report! ;-)

    I returned on Saturday night and was back to work on Monday, but definitely feeling the effects of jet-lag! I hope to get a trip report of my own up in the next couple weeks! :-D

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    ONE MORE HOUR - CAN WE SQUEEZE IN SOME SHOPPING?

    Our last day of the trip: We had an early breakfast while watching the quiet piazza and a bride and groom being photographed. We packed and my husband got ready to relax when I had a brainstorm…let’s do some last minute shopping!!! How could I waste my last hour in Florence?! We took off on my new mission to buy scarves for Christmas gifts! All the booths in the street market were coming to life – gotta nab even the early tourists! This was an easy trip and I had fun bargaining. I bought half a dozen, found some mini cannolis, had a quick peek at the Basilica di Santa Maria Novella, and got back in time to watch the crowds pouring into the Piazza Duomo. It was nice to be sitting above observing.

    Not much time in Florence overall, but definitely quality time!

    Finally it was time to call for our taxi, which the hotel did for us, and we were on our way to Florence Airport.

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    good for you, kwren. I still have some of the very nice scarves I bought in Florence - the rest I gave to people as presents.

    personally i hate that dead time before you go to catch the plane - I'd much rather get up and go.

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    PROBLEMS COME IN THREES

    When we arrived at the airport, DH realized that he forgot to give the keys back to the hotel when we left. Luckily, the taxi driver offered to return them for us for an extra 10 Euros, a bit steep considering he was going back there anyway, but we were happy to be rid of them. I did write to the hotel to be sure they received the keys and they did that same day.

    Airport security – I got through no problem. Then *sigh* I hear, “Sir, do you have any liquids in your carry-on?” “Why, yes I do…olive oil”

    WHAT??!! #-O

    DH had packed 5 bottles of olive oil in his checked luggage, but for some unknown reason had left 3 bottles of orange olive oil in his backpack. DH was in the proverbial hot water. “OK sir, discard them in that bin over there.” “OH no”, I quickly said! “We’ll take them back out with us and I’ll figure something out.”

    “Sir, do you have a weapon in your luggage?”

    WHAT??!! :-o

    “No, I don’t”

    “Yes, I see a square mosaic tile which is very dangerous. The edges are sharp. It can be used as a weapon. We must confiscate it!”

    “OH no, we made that together. Look - it’s a heart. It has a beautiful border. It’s not dangerous!”

    We had packed the mosaic that we had made in the class in Abruzzo in the computer section of DH’s backpack because of the wonderful padding, but never imagined that it would give us a problem at security. This wasn’t an oversight like the olive oil was. I pleaded. I begged. I offered to cut off the corners. They just didn’t care. I wouldn’t give it up though. We took the offending olive oil and mosaic back out of security, not able to give them up.

    We went back to check-in, but our luggage was in the bowels of the airport and not accessible. Of course I knew that but had to ask, just in case. We then asked what it would cost to put them in a box and pay extra to send them as an extra piece of luggage. $200! The agent was as appalled as we were. As “valuable” as these were to us, they were just not worth that much money – it was more sentimental value. She suggested we go to the cargo area and ask them if they would help us, but no one spoke English there and my Rosetta Stone lessons hadn’t yet covered begging and bargaining to get contraband on a plane!

    Next, I left DH with the oils and mosaic and went through security alone to see what they might be selling in the duty-free store. There was some orange olive oil, but it looked really gross. Olive oil with dried up sunken brown peels. Nothing like the delectable oil we had bought in Abruzzo after our tasting. This was unfortunately not the solution.

    So I had a brainstorm. We’d get some tiny plastic bottles for the olive oil. I'd learned during 3 rounds of questioning of the security agents that each person can take up to 1000 ml of liquids in 100 ml bottles, that we could take the large bottles but they must be empty. They could not even have 100 ml of oil in them. The other half of the brainstorm was that we’d just knock off the tile cubes from the mosaic and reassemble it back home. Nothing could be easier, right?

    I happily went off in search of tiny bottles and finally found a set in the airport newsshop…$20 for 4 tiny bottles. I quickly decided that only 1 2/3 of the large bottles of the olive oil, 400 ml, would be making the journey so I went to find DH to tell him of my happy solution. When he heard that it would cost $20 for 4 tiny bottles, he started complaining. I cut him off with *THE*LOOK*OF*DEATH* so he wisely decided to agree. After all, this oil was for his mother-in-law!

    So we went outside on a mission.

    Now you must imagine 2 people outside the airport, one pouring olive oil into small bottles and the other banging a mosaic on a concrete pillar. Funny that no one even seemed to notice. I filled up the 4 small bottles and repacked them and two empty large bottles in the backpack.

    The mosaic didn’t fare as well. The banging only served to smash the tiny tile cubes so in the end, we took a picture and tossed it in the garbage. Very sad. Our broken heart. ((U)) It was no great work of art, but it was certainly something we already cherished.

    I now digress…I have to share a story about Massimo from the palazzo and what he planned to do with 5 pounds of salame he was bringing to the US last year. If he would have gotten stopped, he said he would have sat right down and eaten it all in front of the security agents. We had laughed at the time we heard that, but that story now came back to us. We decided to take a swig of olive oil right from the bottle in Massimo’s honor. It was the least we could do before tossing the remainder.

    So we now have pictures of us smashing the mosaic, pouring the olive oil and each of us taking a big gulp of it from the bottle. (I didn’t really drink it, but DH did!)

    The time until boarding sped by, and before we knew it we were back on Air Berlin (surprisingly comfortable this trip unlike the flight 2 weeks prior) to Dusseldorf, and on to JFK. The free rum and wine were appreciated. We had a beautiful approach to JFK - the sky was covered with a solid layer of clouds above which was a stunning sunset. The perfect ending to our wonderful vacation. The 400 ml of olive oil made it and we have a story about a mosaic which will go down in the history of interesting travel moments in our family.

    I wrote to Massimo when I got home and suggested that he tell all future guests to pack their mosaics in their checked luggage. He was shocked by my story and asked which airport had done this to us. When I told him it happened in Florence, his answer was, " No wonder, that's Tuscany for you!"

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    "So we now have pictures of us smashing the mosaic, pouring the olive oil and each of us taking a big gulp of it from the bottle."

    Hang them next to the picture of you stomping the grapes.

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    I'm sorry, I am laughing at the visual of you giving L the look of death. I guess you'll need to have a private mosaic class with the David when we go back for 3.0.

    Just had a thought, could you have bought a small piece of luggage at the airport and packed the mosaic in it and checked it? Something to keep in mind if it ever happens again.

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    Hi johnny

    Yes, that look of death basically said I dare you to tell me not to buy those bottles. I wish you could have been there to see it! I'm sure you can imagine L caving pretty quickly...you know how I felt about that olive oil!

    I don't recall seeing luggage at the airport - it was a small place - but the $200 was the cost of the extra checked piece so that wouldn't have worked. BUT I did have my extra duffle bag as the carry on, as you know, and that worked out well!

    Can you imagine how happy Massimo was to put Tuscany down! Abruzzo all the way for him!

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    Found this while looking for that little cheese shop in S. Stefano and it sounded so very familiar. Like I had been there in a previous life..or 2.0. I'm smiling the whole time I am reading it. Like a 'Merican I have been eating the grape must on ice cream!! But the more proper Italian use is on cheese. Reading about your reunion with Olga and Pasquale reminded me of the precious few times with Nonna Lena.

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    I just finished dinner and continued reading to your sad ending. When you work on the itinerary for 3.0 I have a few things to add. I have located a petting zoo up in the Dolomites. (I still thought that 2.0 included a trip to a petting zoo.) It looked like a bunch of goats but they were Italian goats and I have never petted Italian goats. Since 2.0 took so many things off my bucket list I need to add a few more so goats it is. Since it is not in Tuscany Max may not mind the road trip. I hate to break your heart but I brought my mosaic home right on top of my carry on bag and nobody even blinked. I didn't think I had room and didn't want the extra weight after raiding the antique shop in Vasto. But CP,LB, you or somebody convinced me that it needed to have a home in PA. I thought about giving it away but I didn't want everyone to fight over it. MT can be a nasty hair puller and girl fights are so ugly except to men. I'm glad you and L did not end up with it. An even uglier scene at the airport for the 'Mericans. I noticed you were still able to enjoy a pear at dinner in Firenze. Massimo said it used to be his favorite fruit. Also a fruit carving class would be a nice addition to next years trip. I will gladly teach the class. You "made my day" by reading about your trip. I definitely would have eaten the meat off the bone too. We need to shop for fresh figs and blood oranges at Wegmans. I got addicted to the red orange juice.

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    Hey Til - grape must and ice cream - yum! What else have you used it for? It's sitting here in its little jar wondering what to do in 'Merica! Let's get together!

    taconic - hope you enjoy it. Did you read 1.0? That was also a great trip, but amazingly, this one topped it!

    Kay - I'm so glad you just posted - it made me happy to think about that dish at 4 Leoni (now called 5 Leoni in our family because of my husband Leon being there) once again! Wasn't that the best?! Glad you enjoyed the report!

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