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Trip Report Oct 08 Trip Report: Bologna, Ravenna, Orvieto, Montepulciano-mangia, mosaico, magnifico!

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Italy Itinerary: Bologna (Ravenna), Orvieto (Citta di Bagnereggio and Bolsena), Montepulciano (Pienza, Montalcino, Sant' Antimo, Assisi), Como

I did not expect to return to Italy so soon after our 2005 trip (and a 2007 Great Britain trip), but I threw a coin in the Trevi Fountain and, dang, it worked!

Plus, we had enough frequent flyer miles for two people, so I figured before the airlines go belly up, another trip to Italy was in order for DH and me. I started planning with the idea of keeping it simple and cheap (fewer bases, train only), but then we felt guilty about leaving our older son behind, so we switched gears. DS is 21, is a high functioning individual on the autism spectrum, and has a zest for travel and new experiences. When he was younger, as is often the case with autistic children, he had a narrow range of foods he would eat: chicken nuggets, Kraft macaroni and cheese, and, for a vegetable, ketchup. Occupational therapists worked with him to expand his options, until one day, when he was about 12 he decided to try shark. After that, there was no stopping him as he moved on to the usual meats, plus alligator, rabbit, octopus and the highlight of our Great Britain trip, haggis. Knowing we would be doing some serious eating, we figured we would have to take him along.


Trip Highlights
The mosaics of Ravenna
The porticos of Bologna
The duomo in Orvieto with Luca Signorello's frescos
Our first glance of Pienza, coming up from the south on the SS2
The view from our apartment (Politian) in Montepulciano

Food Highlights
Pumpkin stuffed tortelloni with butter sage sauce at Trattoria Mariposa in Bologna
A salumi misto platter with lambrusco at Tamburini's
The ribolitta at Diva e Macao in Montepulciano
Dinner at I Sette Consoli in Orvieto
Pecorino+honey+walnuts=delicious (who'da thunk?)
An ice cream sundae with marrons glace at the Pasticceria Monti in Como

Wednesday, October 8
After a 4 hour drive to the Philadelphia airport, we depart on time and enjoy an uneventful flight. Worth mentioning because we are, after all, leaving from Philadelphia and flying on USAir'a potential double whammy. The plane is only about 2/3 full, which certainly helps with bathroom breaks, noise levels, and general comfort. We touch down in Milan shortly before 7:00 AM on Thursday morning.

Thursday, Oct 9
'We'll be staying at the hotel next to the sex shop'

After taking the train to the Milan Centrale, we park our suitcases at left luggage. We decide to walk to the Duomo to clear our heads and see what Milan has to offer. If you are wondering what they are wearing in Milan (and Bologna) the answer is skinny or boot cut jeans paired with a dark jacket (often black leather). Young, old, male, female.

We do not have a good map of Milan and are basically using the metro entrances as a guide. Before long, though, I realize that we are standing in front of La Scala, and over there is Galleria Victor Emmanuelle. We stop in the Galleria for our first cappuccino and cornetti and some people watching. Lots of Asian tour groups coming through.

We look around the interior of the duomo, which is somewhat interesting, but not to my taste (kind of dark and somewhat austere). The roof, though, is worth the trip. Lots of areas to wander about and we take many pictures of the statues of saints, gargoyles, and spires. It reminds me of sandcastles we used to make at the beach'the kind where you would drizzle wet sand to make tall, fanciful towers.

When we are back at street level, DH needs to use the restroom and points out the Rinasciente department store across the street. I take a step, not realizing there is a curb, and land awkwardly on my foot. Very painful. I am not sure if it is sprained or perhaps broken. I have heard that sprains are more painful, so I am leaning toward that; however, a bone density scan recently confirmed osteoporosis, so I am equally certain that I have broken a fragile bone. I hobble in pain into the store and up the escalators to the floor with the restroom. I can't begin to think of the hassles of trying to find a doctor and the thought of my vacation going up in smoke has me in despair, so I can barely check out the store. We take the subway back to Milan Centrale and I sit with my foot propped as DH and DS get our luggage and a bite to eat (I can't even think of food, I am so worried about my foot). I am kind of cool to Milan, but that might be the early hour and sore foot talking.

The train ride is uneventful and not particularly scenic. Our second-class seats are comfortable. My foot is still throbbing as I limp towards the hotel, but at least I can limp.

I chose the Zanhotel Il Canale (Via Bertiera 2, http://ilcanale.hotelsbologna.it/) because of positive reviews on trip advisor, price (115 E a triple) and the availability of a triple room. Also, because of curiosity about the sex shop next store, which reviews say is not really a bad seedy sex shop. (This is true'it is very benign.) Not that we go in there.

Our room (no. 24) is spacious and clean. The bathroom is a nice size; the shower itself is small by American standards but not bad by Italian hotel standards. I decide to put my foot up for a bit and read (nap) while DH and DS head off to explore the Due Torri, the two leaning towers of Bologna, apparently making it to the top of Asinelli, the taller tower.

When they return, we ask the desk clerk for a recommendation for dinner, and she directs us to Trattoria Dal Biassanot (via Piella, 14; Phone: +39051230644). This is a fine local restaurant with friendly service on a quiet side street. We start with salumi misto and vegetable misto platters. DH has the gnocchi verde e gorgonzola and DS has the veal Bolognese. I can't make up my mind and so go with a dish that offers 3 pastas: tortellini, lasagna and risotto. All good. The highlight is the gelato with Modena vinegar that my son orders. The vinegar is a thick, tangy syrup that contrasts nicely with the gelato. Near the restaurant, one can catch glimpses of the canals that still lie beneath Bologna and which were once used to help power silk and wheat industries. We peer through a window at the canal scene, although by crossing the street, you can get an unobstructed view of the same canal (I think).

We continue walking and head towards the University district, which is busy with tons of students. Bologna is really hopping in the evenings, and it is fun to stroll along all of the porticos and enjoy this lively city. The students especially seem to be everywhere. We live in a college town, so I am used to seeing lots of pretty young things. But Milan and Bologna seem to have an abundance of really beautiful young men and women. I mean heartstopping good looks. It's been a long day (actually a long 40 hours), so we head home to the hotel.

Friday, October 10, Tour Bologna
'The longest portico in the world'

We wake up slowly at around 10'for the first time in probably 30 years, I have slept 12 hours straight. Fortunately, my foot is feeling much better after a night's rest. We open the window to check the weather and hear what sounds like a parade. We peek down the street and see students marching. Later, we ask the desk clerk what the parade was about, and he shrugs and laughs as if to say 'Bologna'students'what do you expect?'

We have missed the hotel breakfast and so head out in search of a cappuccino and roll, and then we are onto the food markets. Touring the food markets in Bologna requires a great deal of restraint, since there are so many temptations. As I pass the fruit stands, I am looking for figs, remembering the ones I had in Campo di Fiori 3 years ago, which I swear were almost as big as my fist. We must be past fig season now, since not many figs are to be found, but I do eventually locate some tasty normal-size versions.

The fish markets are particularly intriguing, with items not normally seen at our home stores. Ditto the meat markets, with their displays of poultry, heads intact. We buy some mortadella and a Casciotta d' Urbino at a busy cheese market.

We head to the Piazza Maggiore and the Basilica de San Petronio. The church's façade is incomplete, so it is not particularly striking from the outside. I like the inside, though, because it is open and airy feeling. One of the interesting elements in the church is a sundial in the form of a meridian line inlaid in the floor. It dates to the 1600s and is the longest sundial in the world. There is an oculus (small opening) in the ceiling that lights the sundial.

Lunch is at one of the outdoor tables at Enoteco Tamburini. We order one of the mixed meat and cheese platters (Parmigiano classico), and, inspired by previous postings by Fodorites, a Nivola lambrusco. The meats and wine do go down well together. As we sit there, the usual newspaper and flower vendors pass by. I am fascinated, though, when a well-dressed Italian businessman at the next table offers the leftovers on his plate to one of the vendors. I watch as the businessman carefully puts together pieces of bread, layers slices of meat and cheese, checking the portions of each with the vendor. I think this is charming and very kind, especially since my own reaction tends to be to brush off these vendors immediately with a stern 'non, grazie.'

We had planned to tour San Stefano, but we arrive there during the hours it is closed (12-3:30). We decide instead to take a bus to via Saragozza to climb to Sanctuary of the Madonna di San Luca. We walk along the 666 arches of the longest portico in the world. The portico is a relatively new construction in Bologna'built in the 17-18th centuries!'and is almost four kilometers long. As we walk, we pass a large group of Eastern Europeans who stop intermittently to sing and pray. We, in turn, are passed by joggers heading to the top'showoffs! The long hike up ends with the church and a nice view, although today it is hazy. The church, which was built in the 1700s, has a lovely interior.

Dinner is at Trattoria Mariposa,Via Bertiera 12, a small restaurant just down the street from the hotel. The torteloni zuca con buerre e salvia (torteloni with pumpkin filling in a sage butter sauce) is magnificent, with a wonderfully light pasta dough. I follow it with an insalata misto. DH has the tortelini en brodo (very good) and a pork dish. DS has a mortadello appetizer and cavallo (horse) for his secondi. The prices are reasonable'it is my favorite meal in Bologna.

Saturday, October 11, Ravenna
'When planning your next palazzo, think mosaics instead of frescoes. They hold up so much better.'

We manage to make breakfast today. There is a nice selection of breads, yogurt, lunch meats, boiled eggs, fruit and juices, as well as a cappuccino machine. We fortify ourselves, then head to the train station for the ride to Ravenna. It is uneventful and not particularly scenic, but still pleasant.

Ravenna and the cathedral in Orvieto are the only 'must-sees' on this trip and I am really looking forward to seeing the mosaics. I realized after a humdrum experience at the Roman Forum without a guide, that sometimes it pays to spring for one to make what you are seeing come alive. (And so you don't have to keep your nose in the guidebooks but can listen and look.) I made reservations in advance for a Ravenna tour with the Associazione Culturale Guide Adarte (http://www.ad-arte.com/). We planned a 3-hour tour with our guide, Paola Golinelli, which includes San Vitale, Mausoleum of Galla Placidia, piazza del Popolo, Dante's tomb and the basilica of Sant'Apollinare Nuovo. We meet Paola at San Vitale and begin our tour. The mosaics are a wonder to look at, but the tour makes them even more enjoyable, as Paola points out the symbols to look for in each piece, such as those for each of the evangelists and St. Paul, and explains their meaning. San Vitale is a beautiful church that is as interesting for its architecture as it is for its mosaics. It is a central plan church, featuring a double-shelled octagon, with ambulatory and gallery. It is unique architecturally for Italy. Despite the popular mosaics (those of Emperor Justinian and his wife, Theodora), the church still imparts a sense of serenity. Beautiful.

Entering the Mausoleum of Galla Placidia is like being in a blue velvet-lined jewel box filled with glittering diamonds, rubies and emeralds. This had the 'wow' factor that for some reason escaped me when I saw 'David' and also the Sistine Chapel. (Crowds definitely get in the way of my enjoyment!) Certainly the most stunning piece of real estate I have ever seen.

It is interesting to learn that Ravenna is sinking and that the mosaics are now seen much closer than intended'this certainly helps with the viewing. We enjoy more mosaics at basilica of Sant'Apollinare Nuovo and make our way to Dante's tomb, stopping at a local shop to see some modern day mosaic making and view the tools of the trade. We say goodbye to Paola and decide to get a gelato as we head back to the train. We are about to stop by one spot when two older women pass by and say something. DH thinks they say, 'don't eat there because it is not good gelato,' but I think from the way they are tittering they are saying 'don't eat there because you need gelato like you need a hole in the head.' At any rate, we move to another gelateria.

We arrive back in Bologna and ask our hotel clerk to recommend a place for dinner. He directs us to Ristorante Diana, Via Indipendenza, 24 +39 51 23 1302) which is very close to the hotel. I am surprised when we are able to get a table outside on a Saturday night. The service is good, as is the food, although it reminds me of the Old Bookbinders in Philadelphia. That is to say, a nice restaurant that serves all the old staples nicely. I start with a prosciutto con melone e fiche. Next is the tagliatelle with truffles and the wonderful earthy smell precedes the platter. I finish it off with an insalata stagione. DH has a tasty pasta fagiole followed by bindo Diana, which is a tukey cutlet with prosciutto. My son has the pasta frutta di mare and chicken livers in Madeira. A very pleasant dinner.

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    Mama_mia (love that screen name!) :)

    I am really enjoying your trip report and look forward to more.

    Bologna is a place that has piqued my interest from reading trip reports here on Fodors...I think I need to include it in my "must go" list soon!

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    ekscrunchy
    Thanks for the note—your Bologna report had me salivating and anxious to check out the city and its restaurants.

    Holly uncasdewar
    The tour cost 120E (cash) for the three of us, plus the price of admission tickets (7.50E after 1E discount when accompanied by guide). It was easy to correspond with Paola in advance; she told us when some large cruise ship groups were coming through, so we arranged our tour for a different time to avoid the crowds. I had a hard time finding recommendations for Ravenna guides, so I looked on the internet and chose this group because they at least listed the credentials of their guides.

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    Sunday, October 12
    “An evening in Orvieto: sparkling duomo, lively passeggiata.”

    We take the aerobus to Aeroporto G. Marconi di Bologna to pick up our rental car. Service—between Centrale Railway Station in Bologna and the airport 6 kilometres away—runs every fifteen minutes and takes about twenty minutes. Tickets cost 4.5 euros and can be bought on the bus. Our rental car is through Kemwell and we pick up at Hertz. We had requested a Renault Megane but end up with a Fiat Croma, which works out well for our luggage needs (3 carry-ons and a small day pack). Price is $453.63 for one week and drop off at MXP. Note: they did not have a record of our rental, but fortunately, we had our contract with us, so there were no problems. Word to the wise—bring documentation of rentals.

    We drive to Orvieto and manage to find a free parking space at the car park off of Via Roma. We head into town and search for a place to have lunch. Wandering the streets, we come upon a packed restaurant, Trattoria del Moro (via S Leonardo 7, www.trattoriadelmoro.info), filled with locals chattering away. This seems like a good sign, so we wait a few minutes for an available table. Our Sunday lunch is delicious: bruschetta lardo, lasagna porcini e tartufo, tagliatelle a la ragu, pappardelle a la cinghiale, and insalat misto, all washed down with Montefalco Rosso. For dessert, tiramisu and expresso. We are off to a good start in Orvieto.

    Our accommodations in Orvieto are at Casa Flavia apartment (Via Angelo da Orvieto, 12, 05018 ORVIETO Tel. +39 0763 341821, email: bb.flavia@alice.it). After walking around town, we stop at the tourist office at the Piazza del Duomo and call our hosts. They explain they are at a festival but that Roberta’s father will meet us and let us in the apartment. We wait a few minutes in the Piazza and are hailed by a small but wiry, elderly man. He speaks little English, so I have the first test of my 3 years (off- and on-) of Italian lessons. We manage to communicate and are soon on our way to the apartment. It is on the second floor but Papa takes the stairs two at a time.

    The apartment is charming, with a small terrace off the bedroom. We decide to leave the car in the via Roma parking lot and head there to pick up our luggage, accompanied by Papa. We learn that he visits relatives in Patterson, NJ, regularly, he is 80 years old, and he is a former gym instructor and swim coach. He insists on carrying my bag and leads the way back to the apartment. I tell him that mia nonna e d’Italia. He asks me why I don’t speak Italian if my grandmother is from Italy, and I think I get out that it was important for my mother to speak English. As he leaves, he tells us that we have to eat lunch at a trattoria around the corner tomorrow at noon. We think he means meet him there; by this point, my brain has been hard pressed with trying to work through all the Italian. It sounds like it could be fun, but it will mean canceling our lunch reservations at I Setti Consoli.

    We unpack and head back to the Piazza del Duomo. The mosaics of the Duomo façade sparkle in the late afternoon sun and, as evening approaches, the passeggiata begins. It is very lively and seems to be mostly locals (i.e., look Italian, sound Italian and seem to know each other). It is fun to be a part of the crowd and stroll the streets, peeking in shops. We buy some groceries and return to the apartment to nibble on a platter of the meats and cheeses, flat bread and Orvieto. We turn on the TV to relax and are transfixed by a few detective shows, which we manage to follow despite the language barrier.

    Monday, October 13
    “I Sette Consoli – a dining experience”

    Roberta has stocked the apartment with a variety of breakfast items: coffee, milk, eggs, corn flakes, bread, cornetti, butter, and, best of all, a homemade torta. There is a small washing machine, so I am able to do a load of laundry and hang items out on the terrace.

    We head to the Piazza del Duomo and the sales office next to the TI and buy Carta Unica, which covers the Underground Orvieto tour, as well as admission to a number of other sites in Orvieto. The tour is informative and it is interesting to see the caves and hear how they have been used over the centuries. The Italians are very good at recycling!

    I cancel the lunch reservation at I Sette Consoli and rebook for dinner. Then we head for Locando del Lupo. No sign of papa, so we must have misunderstood his meaning. But lunch is good anyway (particularly my husband’s zuppo di ceci), so no complaints.

    In the afternoon, we tour the inside of the duomo and check out the frescos by Luca Signorelli. According to some of my guidebooks, Michelangelo studied these and used them for inspiration. If they are good enough for Michelangelo, they are good enough for me. There is an admission fee to the chapel and a guard limits the number of entrants. We arrive as a large tour group is departing, so we have the place to ourselves except for one other couple. We spend a good 20-30 minutes studying the amazing frescos that seem very much alive, and it is easy even for a non-art expert to see the thread that links Signorelli to Michelangelo.

    We walk over to the Pozzo di San Patrizio (St. Patrick's Well), which is truly an amazing engineering feat. Double staircases go up and down the well—so you can descend on one, cross the small pool of water, and come back up on a different staircase. It is 248 steps to the bottom, but we go all the way down because 1) DH hates retracing his steps and 2) another great dinner awaits us (gotta keep off those pounds). Since we are already at Piazza Cahen and have the comp ticket, we decide to ride the funicular down to Orvieto Scala, and promptly return because there is not much to see there.

    Dinner at I Sette Consoli—where to begin? Looking over the menu, I am stumped on what to order. I usually only order the primi piatti, but some of the secondi seem interesting, although nothing I would normally order. Since we are not sure which way to go, we opt for the price fixe (45E) dinner. (The entire table must order the same meal.) What an adventure! (http://www.isetteconsoli.it/)

    First, let me say, the overall experience at this restaurant is excellent. The service is attentive without being stuffy or intrusive. Although it feels like a special night out, it is not really formal. We were offered a glass of sparking Orvieto as we looked over the menu. When it came time to order the wine for the meal, we asked for a suggestion. When our waitress arrived with the wine (an Orivieto), we thought we better back track and ask how much, and she did not bat an eyelash. The wine was so good, we ordered a second bottle.

    I will stick with the English translation of the menu (which they provided to me when we left). The appetizer was cold roast peppers and eggplant terrine and sesame dressed pork meat balls. This was followed by potato ravioli, Valentano’s chick pea sauce, salt cod fish chips and celery. Next, an egg pasta chitarra style rabbit and summer vegetables, followed by braised veal cheek, potato puree and sauce. On to Orvieto pecorino cheese, walnuts and honey, ending with whipped cream millefuille and toasted almonds. (If you prefer something less adventurous, there might be baked lamb with fried potato or fresh fish with eggplant and tomato)

    We try to work off dinner by strolling through town and checking out the ceramics shops. As DH and I look around one store, my son enters and says that a cat fell and almost hit him in the head. This seems almost funny and a trend, since the eagle at Warwick Castle nearly clipped him, too, but then we venture outside and see the poor kitten, now in the arms of a passer-by and clearly not doing well. As the man strokes him gently, the kitten’s eyes are slowly closing. Very sad.

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    Your report is so interesting and it brought back some nice memories of our Italian trip in September. We also had the pecorino and honey but without walnuts ( in Montepulciano ). I absolutely loved Orvieto, especially that stunning duomo. Thanks so much.

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    Mamamia,

    It sounds like Orvieto is much the same as when I visited in 2000. I've been afraid it had become too touristed, but your description of the passagiata echos my own.

    Glad you liked Orvieto, it's one of my favorites (so far) and the great Orvieto Classico too!

    Enjoying your report, do continue

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    Tuesday, October 14
    Civita di Bagnoregio, Bolsena, Montepulciano
    “Politian Apartments – A Room with a View”

    In the morning, we awake to the aroma of fresh baked bread and so have to stop at the bakery next to the apartment for some rolls and dolci. We meet our host, Roberta, when we are preparing to leave Casa Flavia, and she is joined by papa. As we walk up the street, we see Roberta’s papa trotting off in his jogging suit. Ciao, papa!

    We decide to take the back roads to Montepulciano, stopping first at Civita di Bagnoregio. The view of the town from the bottom of the footbridge is awesome and the surrounding valley is equally stunning. We walk around, mainly taking pictures. We stop in at the small church, which is under renovation. We peek into a trattoria that has a fire going in the fireplace. The wood smoke we smell on this trip and the Italians dressed in their dark clothing and jackets say “fall.” It must be in the 70s or 80s, however, and we are in short sleeve polos and t-shirts, working up a sweat tackling the hills. We decide to eat at one of the outside tables at the trattoria, and have a nice light lunch composed of a shared meat and cheese platter with some wine. The town is a very pleasant side trip, but I would think in summer with many tourists, it would lose quite a bit of its charm.

    Our next stop, because it is on the way, is Bolsena, a town on Lago di Bolsena. We park in the upper medieval town and walk through it to the more modern town below and on the lake. I read somewhere that the lake level has dropped quite a few feet and I wonder if the old town was once at lake level. The new town has to me the pleasant “resort after the summer hordes have left” feel. It is sleepy and the lake itself is perfectly smooth with no boats. We stop at a gelateria by the water. If you have a spare moment with nothing on your touring schedule, a gelato stop fills the hole nicely.

    Then it is up the SS2 and then the SS146 to Montepulciano. It is a pleasant drive with wonderful scenery, but the highlight is the approach to Pienza. I took a picture but it does not begin the capture the “wow” factor.

    After some confusion in the homestretch, we make our way to Politian Apartments (http://www.politian.com/), our accommodations in Montepulciano. Giacomo, our host, shows us around the apartment, which is nicely furnished with everything you need for your stay. Except for a television--which you don’t need! The views from the living room and bedroom windows are fantastic and beat anything on the boob tube. And, for a change of pace, you can look out the kitchen window to the rear garden, which is also lovely. There is also a computer with internet access available. Even better, Giacomo has a great selection of jazz and classical CDs. It is wonderful coming back to the apartment in the evening and catching up on email, postcards or the next day’s itinerary while listening to wonderful music (I have the Louie Armstrong/Oscar Peterson CD on my Christmas list). The windows are open and you can look out at the valley with all of the twinkling lights, knowing you have another day to explore Italy. Heaven!

    I have been nursing a headache all day, possibly my sinuses or possibly the two bottles of wine at dinner last night, so I decide to relax in the room for a bit while DH and DS explore town. They report back that Montepulciano is pretty quiet at night, and, in truth, it is. We end up having dinner at Trattoria di Cagnano (via dell' Opio nel Corso, 30; Tele: 0578-758757). I have a decent pici ragu, but I think dinner is not up to the standards of the other restaurants we experience this trip. We walk around a bit, but most of the shops have closed. We stop in a small grocery for some breakfast items and head home to the apartment.

    Wednesday, October 15: Pienza, Montalcino, Sant’ Antimo
    “I am a needy person. If you show me the least scrap of kindness, I cannot refuse you anything. “

    We have a busy schedule today and begin with a morning stop in Pienza. It may be busy, but it is not ambitious, since our first stop is for a cappuccino in a small bar along the via Rosellino. Our other trip to Italy was all about gelato, but this time around, I cannot get enough cappuccinos and expressos.

    We then take the guided tour of Piccolomini Palace. This is a pleasant tour-- a few rooms but very informative and only 8 in our group. We only have time for a little more of Pienza because we want to hear the 12:45 chants at Sant’Antimo, so we decide to make a quick stop at a cheese shop. We say “buongiorno” to the sales clerk, who does not look up from his paper. We look around at the multitude of cheeses, not sure which way to go, and so I ask in my best (pathetic) Italian “Possiamo avere un giusto?” He grudgingly looks up and cuts a small sliver before returning to his paper. We decide to take our 41E across the street to da Marusca e Maria (Via Rossellino 15-17-19-21) where they are much more helpful and pleasant. We leave with a large round of Pecorino, and two smaller rounds, one in wine, as well as a Tuscan salami.

    We then head to Sant’Antimo for the 12:45 chants. There are only 4 monks chanting but they fill the small church with a lovely, peaceful sound. After wandering the grounds a bit, we stop near the abbey store for some pictures looking back at the abbey. I pop into the store and begin to look around, and then realize that I am holding back the clerk from closing up for the break. Although she says “no problem”, I feel guilty and buy a bar of vanilla soap.

    On to Montalcino. We wander the streets a bit, but our main destination is the Enoteca in the fortress, because my son never met a fortress he did not like. We sit outside and order salami and cheese platters again. We also say we would each like to try 3 brunellos and we ended up with 9 that we share and taste altogether. The waiter has lined them up from wood barrel aged to steel and oldest to youngest (I think this is how it works out), and as we make our way through them, we attempt to discern our favorites. DH and I try to savor and focus on each sip, but by the time we hit number 9, we find it is almost gone. My son has already made his way through them and is on his second round. Afterwards, we head into the store to find our favorites and check out the prices. My son may have a more sophisticated palate after all, since he has managed to pick the most expensive wine. Fortunately, DH and I agree on a less costly bottle and escape without too much of a dent in the pocketbook. We’re aware of the recent Brunello scandals, but being in Montalcino, we can’t resist splurging on a bottle. At home, I cruise the bargains at the state store and never go above $20!

    Dinner is at Osteria Acquacheta (Via del Teatro, 22 , Phone: 0578.758.443, www.acquacheta.eu). The restaurant is busy with both locals and tourists. DH goes with the pici al'Amatriciana and spezzatino di vitello e patate (veal stew with carrots and potatoes), which is very yummy. I have gnocchi with pesto and a salad. My son has the duck. The gnocchi are good, but I wish I had gone with the bistecca Florentine, because the owner brings a nice slab of beef to your table for inspection before cooking. Overall, very good meal.


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    bfrac
    I would have preferred more time in Orvieto. My original plan was to spend more time there, but I was torn between Orvieto and Montepulciano.

    I think 3-4 days would definitely be a nice amount of time in Orvieto. There were some other churches I would have liked to see and we did not get a chance to check out the Etruscan museum, as well as some other sites. There are many nice restaurants to choose from because of the slow food movement. After I returned I looked on line and found a few I wish we had checked out! I also missed out on the ceramics shops.

    As I said, I had considered Orvieto as a base for a week, thinking we could take the train into Rome, maybe drive (or take the bus to Todi). I had made some inquiries on Fodors and got some suggestions about other day trips from Orvieto, so you might look under my previous post.

    We really loved Orvieto. Of course, we also loved Montepulciano. I felt that Montepulciano catered more to tourists, though; it really died down at night. Orvieto I felt still belonged more to the residents.

    I am a big Orvieto cheerleader now--that and Bologna. (Montepulciano probably does not need cheerleaders.)

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    Thursday, October 16: Assisi
    “A little Italian is a dangerous thing.”

    We drive to Assisi and park in the underground garage at the top of the town. We begin our descent, stopping at the Basilica of St. Clare, then continue on our way passing the Roman Temple of Minerva. Rick Steve’s Italy guide points out a fresco on an archway across the street, and this makes for an interesting stop as we search for the turkeys.

    By the time we arrive at the Basilica di San Francesco, it is close to 1:00 PM. We get audioguides and head into the lower church, but have trouble following the information and wander around a bit. Then DH points out that the guide starts with the UPPER church, so we head up. And yes, the guides are in English!

    Fortunately, the lunch hour means we have the upper church almost to ourselves and it is interesting to follow the story of Frances. Then down to the lower basilica, with many more wonderful frescoes. It is a fantastic church with an unbelievable amount of art to absorb and well worth a trip. Allow a few hours.

    The walk down and up Assisi, plus all that great art, have made us hungry. We are past the regular lunch hour and so are in search of a quick bite. We decide to check out Il Farmer Shop “La Tavola dei Cavalieri” (via S Francesco 4a, Assisi). This is mainly a shop for products from a consortium of salami and artisan beer producers, but there are free samples and a counter where a young lady prepares sandwiches from a limited menu. Since there is a wonderful smelling slab of grilled pork, we decide on panini with pork and cheese. It is delicious: tender meat interspersed with small bits of pork crackling. After a free sample of the beer, we say yes to La Birra Monastica di San Biagio; it complements the sandwich well and is a nice change of pace from all the wine. All in all, a wonderful surprise.

    Back to Montepulciano. Since it is early for dinner, we walk around town and decide to buy more fruit. I head into the grocery that we visited the other night and ask the owner for pera (pear), something that comes out as maiale (pork) and ananas (pineapples). Fortunately, she understands that I really want mele (apples) and bananas (bananas). Honestly, I have been studying Italian for 3 years, more or less, but it just ain’t sticking.

    Diva e Maceo (via di Gracciano nel Corso, 90/92, Tel: 0578-716951). This, to me, is one of the best meals of the trip. DH and I order the ribollita, bean and bread soup in a thick broth, and here it is topped by cheese. Delicious—one of the highlights of the trip for me. I am a big bean lover and must have been Tuscan in a previous life. I also have the grilled lamb chops, which are nicely seasoned. DH has cinghiale for secondi. DS has pappardale al cinghiale and rabbit. We finish it off with a very nice tiramisu. The service is friendly and pleasant. We are entertained by two Italian families at two nearby tables: one with a boy of about 5 and the other with a girl around the same age. The kids make friends with each other, in the way kids that age can. At the end of the evening, as the little boy’s family is about to leave, he stands by the girl. After a few minutes, his mother explains that he wants to give her a kiss. After getting an okay, he plants a quick one. Amore!

    Returning to our apartment, we come across a religious celebration at one of the churches. A group of candle carrying worshippers, led by several monks, wends its way through the streets. They sing and chant softly, and against the backdrop of Montepulciano, it quite a sight.

    Friday, October 17

    We walk down to San Biagio, which is a lovely renaissance church in a beautiful setting. Again, we are fortunate to beat two busloads of tourists and have the church to ourselves for a bit. It definitely is beautiful, but my weakness is for Romanesque and Gothic churches, with their mystery.

    Lunch is at Caffe Poliziano (Via di Voltaia nel Corso, 27, Phone: 0578.758615 www.caffepoliziano.it) and we are able to get a table on the terrace. The views are great and we share a piatti formaggio, piatti salumi al cinghiale, and bruschetta platter with olive pate and funghi, all washed down with a Rosso di Montepulciano. Not a bad way to spend an afternoon.

    We had hoped to take an olive oil tour, but since there are no other participants, we are booked into a winery tour. Our driver picks us up and takes us to Bindella winery, which is about a 30-minute drive. It is a pleasant tour, but the highlight is really the drive, for the view but also for the experience of having a local navigate the streets of Montepulciano. Stop sign? Fuggetaboutit.

    The driver returns us to the piazza del duomo, and we take a last long walk through the streets of Montepulciano. If I lived in Montepulciano, I believe I would have an awesome butt, because the old gluteus maximus gets a workout going up and down all those hills. Fortunately, we walk on a regular basis at home so the hills are not too intimidating and the steep streets are definitely easier by the third day. As we walk through Montepulciano, the smell of great cooking drifts out of the windows, not just from the trattorie, but from the apartments above. I would love to be able to pop in one of these homes and see what is for dinner.

    Instead, we head to Ai Quattro Venti (Piazza Grande, Tel: 0578-717231), which is on the duomo square. Like most of the restaurants in Montepulciano, it seems to be filled with more locals than tourists. In our hometown, we enjoy hitting the restaurants come summer, when most of the students have left. It feels like we have our town back. So I can sympathize (event though I am on the student/tourist side of the coin here). DS has pork sausage lasagne and pig’s liver and finishes it off with tartuffo nero. I have cannelloni with a ricotta, zucchini and eggplant filling. DH has eggplant parmeggiano. Nice meal.

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    Bobthenavigator
    Thanks for the note. I have always found your posts on Tuscany helpful, and your support of Pienza had me waffling between Pienza and Montepulciano during our planning. (In the end, I stuck with M because we had the Politian apartment for the right dates.)

    Rosetravel
    Thanks, too. Your mention in a previous post of a tour of a balsamic vinegar producer had me trying to figure out a way to include Modena, but we could not fit it in. That's the problem with Fodor's sometimes--so many great suggestions, so little time.

    Side note: I tried to work out a tour with Parmagolosa (http://www.parmagolosa.it/. They will arrange tours of parmigiano cheese, parma ham and modena vinegar producers--either all three or some combo. You need a car, though, or they can arrange for one. The cost for all 3 was 150E (for a group of up to 4) plus 5E per person for a vinegar tasting. The tours get great reviews and they were very responsive to my inquiries, even helping to put us in contact with another couple to share the cost of the tour. But again, not enough time (plus we had no car at that point).

    Also looked into Bluone http://www.bluone.com/ because I was interested in their morning food market tour, followed by a cooking class and dinner. Marcello and Rafaella were very responsive to my inquiries and their tours and classes get great reviews, too. The cost would have been 150E for the full day for me, and 100E for tour and dinner (no class) for my husband and son. Again, the timing did not work.

    So, if you are planning a trip to Bologna, you might include these on your itinerary, do a trip report and make me sooooo jealous.

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    Saturday, October 18
    When I was planning the trip, I had difficulty finding a Malpensa area airport hotel with a room for 3 adults. Well, actually, there were a few plunked down in some industrial wasteland. I could not bear the thought of spending a couple hundred euros on an airport hotel—blecch! So we decided to stay in Como our last night.

    DS thought it would be cool to stop in Switzerland (for the sake of simply saying we had been to Switzerland), so we drive northward from Tuscany and head up the A9 towards the border. As we cross, we are waved over and told that there is a 30E charge to use the national highway. Oops. We are given some vague instructions and eventually make our way across through some alternative roads. We arrived in Chiasso, which did not meet my expectations of Switzerland and which I imagine is not typical of the rest of the country. (In fairness, we did not give it much of a chance since we parked as soon as possible and started to walk around for our short visit.)

    We get back on the road and approach Como from the Como Nord exit. We only get a short distance when traffic comes to a standstill. After a while we give up and decide to turn around and approach the hotel from Como Sud. Same problem. We have been in New York, LA and lived in Philly, and have never experienced such a traffic mess. Eventually, we get close enough to the hotel to park (illegally) and make our way to the office.

    We are staying at Il Riva a Lago (inrivaallago@inrivaallago.com, Via Crespi, 4 - 22100 Como, tel./fax : +39-031302333). It is more hostel than hotel but it is clean and close to the waterfront and the Centro Storico. (We have a room with a private bath, but two of the beds are bunks and the room itself is very austere.) However, it is only 85E and the desk clerk is very helpful to us. (He explains there has been a bike race in the morning that closed off many of the roads.)

    The clerk tells us he will direct us to a parking space near the hotel, so we head to the car. We are pointed in a direction headed out of town, and so have to drive on to find a point to turn around. Since that means we will only get back into a line of traffic that is at a standstill, we decide to keep driving up the shores of Como to another town. We stop in Torno, which seems like it would be charming in daylight. We walk around, but the restaurants are not open yet and the night is getting chilly. We buy some takeout pizza, then head back to Como.

    The traffic has calmed down by 7:00 PM, so we are able to park and then walk around town a bit. Como is pleasant, and I wish we had more time to explore. But I can understand why other lake towns are more heavily favored. We stop at the Pasticceria Monti near the waterfront and I get a delicious sundae with marrons glace. A nice exclamation point on the end of our food-heavy trip.

    The day was, overall, a disappointment compared to the rest of the trip but I look at it philosophically and think that, if it were truly outstanding, it would be hard to come home. On our trip to Great Britain last year, we experienced the heavy rains that caused the flooding in York and other areas. It did not dampen our enjoyment, and we loved visiting Edinburgh, London, Wales and the Lake District; fortunately, we had great weather for the times we planned hikes (the skies miraculously cleared). On the last day of our GB trip, we headed from the lakes to our Glasgow airport hotel, again in the rain. As we were driving along, after a sodden stop at Hadrian’s Wall, we heard “ow airport. A suspected terrorist attack.” That got our attention, but we were not sure if the announcer said “Glasgow” or “Heathrow,” and the second seemed more likely. We discovered at one of the roadside stops that a terrorist has indeed driven a SUV into the Glasgow airport terminal. We were not sure we would get to the hotel, since many roads near the airport were closed, but eventually we parked on the police perimeter, walked through the gauntlet of news vans, and made it to the hotel. It was wall-to-wall people, since many travelers had been evacuated there. We tried to figure the situation for flights out, and when we finally get through to USAir at about 10:00 PM, they said it would likely be a week before flights could leave Glasgow. Another week in GB with the then-current exchange rate of 1GBS =1.95 US would mean DS2 could not go to college. So we said “yes” to another flight--out of Heathrow at 11:00 AM the next morning. We caught 2 hours shut-eye, and then DH drove through the night to Heathrow. At that point, it felt very good to get on a plane headed back home. (And I know were lucky to only be on the fringe of this situation. I can only begin to imagine how terrible it is to be in the thick of such an event, or any similar catastrophe.)

    Sunday, October 19
    We arrive at MXP and go through the usual check-in routine. DH has packed our vacuum-sealed pecorino cheese in his carry on, and when we send the bag through the x-ray machine, the blobs catch the attention of the guards. I am very defensive after losing a sausage to customs on our last Italy trip, but after we explain that it is cheese, I am amused to hear the guard ask “where from?” (If you say the wrong town, do they confiscate it?)

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