Tuscan Towns

Tuscan Towns

The view from our villa overlooking Sansepolcro

Tuscany like much of Italy is dotted with small, old towns. Some date back to the times of the ancient Romans. In many you will find the Centro Storico, enclosed by stonewalls. Entering the portal of these areas will take you back in time. Museums hold artifacts and famous artwork. Little shops with local crafts can be found tucked into the stone everywhere. We found one such special piece in a shop under the road!

I wanted to visit Arezzo first, because it was the location for the Academy Award winning film “Life is Beautiful.” On the day of our visit, the town was having its monthly antique market. My son-in-law noticed a church across from the café where we were having lunch and was amazed by the frescos on display. As we ended the day, he once more encouraged me to come inside and take a look. Not being a student of art, it was several days before I realized that we had been viewing the famous Renaissance artist, Piero della Francesca’s the “Legend of the True Cross.” Under ordinary circumstances, we should have paid an admission fee and been part of a group of twenty-five. Obviously I am glad that I opened that door.

Antique market in Arezzo

We are staying near Sansepolcro, the birthplace of Piero della Francesca. The Museo Civico houses an additional set of his frescos, most notable, his Resurrection. Peiro’s Madonna del parto can be found in Monterchi a twenty-minute drive away. Viewing these paintings up close is well worth the effort. Piero is recognized for his ability to use light in his work to create form and perspective.

Historic Sansepolcro, birthplace of Piero della Francesca

Above Sansepolcro, is the mountain town of Anghiari. It is a small town but not as touristy as Cortona or Sienna. We found it quite beautiful and learned the history of the region, which includes a famous battle between the soldiers of Florence, backed by the Pope and the Duke of Milan’s more experienced troops. Several artists throughout history have recorded the outcome but the first sketches of the battle belonged to Leonardo da Vinci. He used a new technique for frescos adding wax to the paint but the results were a failure and Leonardo never finished the work. The surprising thing is that those painters who did complete the work used some of the same compositions as Leonardo’s sketches even though there was no way for the artists to have seen them!

Night at the bell tower in Anghiari

Cortona has been made famous through the book and movie of the same name, “Under the Tuscan Sun.” I was amazed that it took my husband all of five minutes to locate Mayes’ house, Bramisole on Google Maps, which led us easily to the property for photo opportunities. We also went to another (for me) movie inspired town, Lucignano. The film, “Certified Copy” used Lucignano for its setting. Unfortunately I could not get a feel for the movie even though there are posters for it in the visitor’s center. A local realtor explained that the sites used have been changed since the filming and some of it was shot in Cortona. Oh well, it is an elliptical shaped medieval town that was holding an open air market the day we came, so all was not lost.

If we had the money where we would be living!




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Upward to San Marino


Panoramic view from San Marino of Italy

Tucked atop a mountain in central eastern Italy is the tiny republic of San Marino. Considered to be the oldest republic in the world with a constitution dating back from 1243. The people of San Marino chose not to become part of unified Italy in 1861 and Giuseppe Garibaldi honored their wishes.

A winding road leads us to San Marino, a mere 25 miles or so away but taking an hour and half due to the climb and speed limits. Once there we parked for a fee, that only be paid with coins, and continue the upward climbs walking. We were guided safely  into the city by a uniformed guard. What I found most impressive were the panoramic views of Italy. You can see across the plains of the province of Emilia-Romagna all the way to the Adriatic Sea.

San Marino protected itself with the help of three towers. You will see these towers as a symbol of the country on seals, postcards, etc. The towers are still standing and 3 euros will allow you to visit one of them. Again it is the view rather than the tower that seems to make the money worth it. The travel books suggested eating a Torta Tre Monti or “Three Tower Cake.” After discovering that this could only be bought, packaged in a store, my dreams of towers of chocolate were dashed when I found a flat box on the shelf. It is a large, layered wafer cookie dipped in chocolate. Mike said it was a good cookie; my disappointment hasn’t allowed me to take a bite yet.

A view of Towers Two and Three from atop of Tower One

There are many shops and eateries. We found most of help staff to be unfriendly, not so with the numerous Italian places we have visited. One in particular was the lady who staffed the tourist office. You can go there to get your passport stamped after paying 5 euros. I gave her a twenty and she seemed most put out, asking if I had anything lower. I wanted to break the twenty because you need smaller bills or coins for parking machines, restrooms, tips, etc., so I told her no. She responded with a warning that I was getting all coins in return. I told her that was great. She then barked back that they would not have San Marino on them. I explained again, that it was fine. I was pleased with my stamp and she seemed pleased when I left.

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Under the Umbrian Sun

Lovely Umbria

Umbria is a very beautiful province adjacent to Tuscany. Its hilltop towns rival any in Italy. My favorite is Perugia. You can walk the perimeter of the old city and view the vast green and terra cotta vistas. Having previously toured Perugia, we stopped only for lunch on our way to Deruta.

A one-line excerpt from travel book headed us this direction. Deruta is known for its ceramics. We collect ceramic tiles in hopes of one day creating a back splash for the wall behind our kitchen sink. So off we went to see what could be found. In making such plans you must consider the Italian workday in non-tourist places. From 1:00 – 5:00 many work places are closed. Since we took time for lunch, such was the case for us. As soon as we left the highway, large warehouses of practically anything that could be imagined in ceramic, greeted us but all were closed. We decided to at least drive up to and see the “old town.”

Luckily there were several small shops open and we were able to see artisans at work and well as a large sampling of their crafts. Due to the fact that this is not “made in China” kind of pottery, prices were somewhat steep but quite lovely. Many of the places offered to ship pieces to the U.S. for very moderate fees.

A ceramic park bench

On our way back, we observed what seemed to be a small, old hilltop town. Wondering what it might hold, we wound our way up to the top, only to discover what would be the equivalent of a subdivision. No shops, no pizza parlors, just a neighborhood of quaint homes, two cats, and an elderly lady who was convinced that if she repeated herself enough we would eventually understand her Italian.

Our next trip to Umbria was to Assisi, an old town that honors the patron saint of Italy, St. Francis of Assisi. In his honor there is a large Basilica that contains many pieces of Renaissance Art. We decided to buy a guidebook and tour the holy place in that way. Despite several tour groups headed by monks of different backgrounds and languages, the pilgrims were respectful. There were no loud voices or people sneaking photographs. I mention this because every time I have visited the Sistine Chapel, I have been disappointed by the regular admonishment from the guards for “Silence,” and the Americans who think that rules don’t apply to them and use their children as photographers, as they block the path of chapel personnel. All this takes away from the spirit of the place.

The Basilica of San Francesco d'Assisi

We left the Basilica to wander the streets. If there is a modern part of Assisi, I never saw it. The entire town still holds the architecture of the 1400’s. There are numerous shops and with a little bit of know how, you can find authentic arts and crafts amidst the tourist plastic. We passed a pastry shop with what appeared to large mounds of a chocolate mousse type cake. When presented with a slice of it, the cake turned out to be fudge, quite good but very rich, surprising to me as the Italians prefer more subtle sweets.

We finished our day with a visit to a second Basilica that honors the lesser-known Saint Clare. Hers is a more simple dwelling but also displays numerous Renaissance frescos and paintings.

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Vacationing With Family

Villa Near Sansepolcro, Italy

After more than a half dozen trips to Italy, it was with great anticipation that I planned a family trip to Tuscany. Renting a three-bedroom villa, I imagined my son, daughter, their spouses, and my grandchild enjoying trekking through small mountainous towns and viewing the cultures that began in medieval times.

I learned a huge but important lesson; everyone perceives vacation in a different way and when you expect one thing but get another, you must adapt. My perceptions of what a vacation should be began with my childhood. A prolific reader, I learned of the history of Italia and became familiar with the particulars of its provinces. Frances Mayes of “Under the Tuscan Sun” fame helped to build numerous pictures in my mind. This kind of background information helped to have an appreciation for what I see.

The Coliseum is not just an old ruin; it is the site of Romans enjoying human combat as sport. As I troll down the steps of the ancient arena, I see the animals waiting below to come out and enjoy their prey, I hear the excited roar of the crowd, and can almost feel the vile pleasure that this place endured. Those feelings are a result of MY personal experiences.

But I forgot that vacation is about family. While all of our immediate family members live within five miles of each other, our busy lives prohibit long visits. Therefore dining al fresco with a view of the Tuscan Valley was one of my daughter’s favorite activities. We all pitched in, especially our chef son-in-law, to use the fresh produce of the area and a few spices to create some wonderful home made meals. My son reminded me that vacation means rest and some of us required long hours to sleep and rejuvenate for the work weeks to come. Again, as in many times since his birth in December, my grandson forced me to focus on the moment. I will remember his delight in seeing Nana first thing each morning. He was kind enough to allow us to take him for a car ride up the mountains, even becoming the center of attention for the owners of a local café. His beautiful blue eyes and inviting smile, encouraged the café owner to take him for a walk so that we could eat.

Vacations are not just sites to be visited; they are moments in a family’s journey. I forgot that and am truly sorry. My family forced me (in a kind way) to refocus and realize that I am indeed a very fortunate Mama/Nana!

P.S. The children left for home today but we are here for two more weeks. I am still looking forward to those mountainous Tuscany towns. 🙂

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The “Highlight” of the Trip According to My Mom

Puffins at Skelling Michael

Puffins at Skelling Michael

Skelling Michael is a large rock island off the coast of southern Ireland by County Kerry. It can only be reached by a boat that traverses very rough waters. If the weather is right you may be allowed to cross those waters and enjoy a two hour stay on the rock. Its most important features are an old monastery from the 7th Century and when in season it is the home to hundreds of puffins. It is the puffins and a suggestion from our host that prompted me to schedule this trip.

Our trip began on a mostly sunny day out of the pier at Caherdaniel. We boarded John O’Shea’s boat along with his four small dogs, a couple from the Czech Republic and their dog, an Irish couple from Scotland, and us. The two hour ride was a bit rough and the winds quite cool. Shivering we climbed out of the boat and began to look for puffins. It didn’t take long. They were perched everywhere and quite accommodating for pictures. A guide gave us a list of suggestions for how to get to the top of the rock by climbing an ancient path that would take us to the monastery. Allowing peer pressure to help me forget my fear of heights, Mike and I began the steep climb of 600 steps to the top. You feel like you are on the side of a mountain. Along the way we stopped many times for a breath, a view of the sea, and to look in puffin roosts for the colorful birds.

Encouragement from the tourists going down helped us to reach the top. There are several stone, domed shaped huts, with a small cemetery and a Celtic like statue. There were supposed to be guides to explain all this but we never saw or heard from them.

Six hundred steps up to the top to see a 6th Century monastery!

Six hundred steps up to the top to see a 6th Century monastery!

As we gazed across the Atlantic, a dark cloud was quickly approaching the area. We descended down and saw that the sea had become particularly choppy. Our boat arrived, John advised us where to sit so that we would not wet. Unfortunately due to the high winds, no place was safe from the water and we got drenched. Swells came and went like a roller coaster. My mother found a corner that allowed her to hold on to her place but it was prime for a good dousing of water so she was very pleased that her new waterproof jacket seemed to live up to its reputation. Mike and I sat across from her but had nothing to secure us down but our seat and at one point I tipped forward. Hands reached out and I only hurt my dignity. We tried to make light of it but when the boat finally reached harbor, we were wet, cold, stiff, and numb.

The couple from Scotland invited us to their lodgings for a cup of hot tea, some towels and a hair dryer to help thaw us out. We teased as to the efforts we were willing to go to, to see a puffin in its natural habitat but Mother declared it was the highlight of her trip, not necessarily the best thing she did but the highlight.

Mother going back to her "naval roots."

Mother going back to her "naval roots."

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Sharing the Emerald Isle With Sheep

The Wee Baby and Me!

The Wee Baby and Me!

I have learned that I better enjoy my travel if I get to live like the natives so for Ireland I booked a stone cottage in the Beara Peninsula. I could not have been more please. Eskadour Cottage is about a hundred years old overlooking a valley of purple rhododendrons, evergreens, rocky hills, and water. It is also a part of a working sheep farm. At any time we could be visited by sheep, rabbits, and deer.

Eskadour Cottage, Lauragh, Ireland

Eskadour Cottage, Lauragh, Ireland

Undoubtedly the most fun I have ever had traveling occurred on this part of the trip. I absolutely love animals and one of the worst parts of traveling is leaving Maggie and Audrey at home. I find myself craving the snuggle of a furry critter. As we were leaving out, the day after we arrived, the owner of the cottage and farm appeared with a mixture of warm milk and a bottle. He asked if we would like to see the lambs he was going to feed. I jumped out the car. Soon two cute as a button lambs appeared all playful and cuddly. They jumped all over us, allowed me to hug and kiss them, and then were filled with joy when I placed bottle in their mouthes. I could have done this all day.

Most of our first two days have been spent driving the rental car through one lane roads awaiting sheep or cows to cross the road. We found ourselves stopping every few miles to take pictures. The vistas are breath taking. This is one gorgeous country.

The research from our latest book, “T is for Titanic” inspired us to visit Cobh, Ireland. Known as Queenstown in 1912, this was the last stop for the Titanic before it sank in the northern Atlantic. There is a small memorial there and some really tacky souvenirs but we were glad we went. We had to ride a ferry to reach the town which is characterized by its multicolored houses that overlook the water. Cobh was also the last stop for most of the Irish immigrants who came through to Ellis Island.

Cobh, Ireland

Cobh, Ireland

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When Inexpensive Is Not Cheap

Next stop – Ireland and why not save some money and fly the well know inexpensive air travel from Ryan Air???? At 30 pounds a ticket what a bargain! Yea right!!!! We had to pay to check a bag and this should be done online but Ryan Air’s website would not accept my credit card so I had to pay at the airport. This meant that I paid double the cost. Mike’s and my mother’s carry on would not fit the Ryan Air’s standards so that I had to pay double price for that as well. Our 90 £ trip turned into an almost $600 trip. That is not cheap. 🙁 Next time I will use American Express. They find the best offers for air fare to your destination and you can use your accrued points to pay for it.

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Whiskey, Woolens, and Woods, Oh My!

St. Andrews Golf Course

St. Andrews Golf Course

The rest of our stay in Scotland was spent with the three “Ws” – whiskey, woolens, and woods. Much of Scotch Whiskey is made along the Speyside Trail in the highlands of Scotland. You could spend days exploring the distilleries but not being Scotch drinkers we limited ourselves to two – Craigamore and Glenfiddich. Craigamore is a small company but more hands on so that is the one we chose for a personally guided tour of the whisky making process. At Glenfiddich we spent our time in the shop buying their product and exploring the grounds. My only taste of Scotch resembled something like liquid barbecue pit so I was pleased to find out that Scotch, like wine, can have many different tastes.

North of the distilleries lies the town of Elgin, home to Johnston Woolens. We enjoyed an afternoon cup of tea and a scone and then spent the rest of the time carefully looking at the cashmere scarfs, sweaters, and socks. The prices of homegrown cashmere seemed to be cost prohibited so we felt the soft woolens rather than purchasing very much.

The next morning, our car headed south for two hours, to the home of golfing, St. Andrews. This renown golf course lies beside the sea and is quite beautiful even to non golfers. You can run out on a part of the 18th hole for a photo-op at a little bridge on the course. And of course we did.

While it rained part of each day we were in Scotland it did not take away from our enjoyment of this beautiful country. The people are quite friendly and helpful, the scenery wondrous, and the food delicious. We left much unexplored so will be back in the future.

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Ballater and Beyond

Balmoral Castle

Balmoral Castle

We are in the Scottish Highlands because we traded our timeshare at Walt Disney World for a week at Hotel Craigendarroch in Ballater. Our place is a two-bedroom chalet with many amenities (including a sauna room). Too bad I hate intense heat! We are immersed in forest full of birds and bunnies.

The town of Ballater is a small and quaint with everything you would need to be “on holiday.” We have enjoyed fresh strawberries and raspberries, strong cheddar cheese and wonderful hot tea. The weather has been quite good with only one day so far of rain.

We are seven miles from the royal family’s summer home, Balmoral so that became our first outing. Tourists are welcome only when the queen in not in residence usually from April until July. Balmoral tries to be self-sufficient so you can wander the royal gardens, see their ponies, and learn the history of this peaceful summer retreat. Queen Victoria had the home built to enjoy the beauty as well as the privacy of the area.

On day two we ventured to Aberdeen and visited a mall. I have as much fun acting like a native as visiting tourist attractions. Mike found the Starbucks to be relaxing as mother and I went and found a few goodies. I also learned that in addition to driving on the left side of the road, the people walk on the left side of a corridor so our motto has been, “to the left, to the left.”

One of the things I dreaded after enjoying the culinary delights of Germany and Italy was the food but it has been a delightful surprise. We have eaten in small pubs and private dining rooms but all of our meals have been yummy. Scottish food is mostly meat and vegetables but prepared with locally reared beef and fish as well as fresh grown vegetables. This makes all the difference in taste. A word to the wise – a pickle is some concoction that resembles baked beans without the beans. If you want a cucumber pickle, ask for a gherkin.

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A Bumpy Ride to Edinburgh

Getting Inspiration From J. K. Rowling

Getting Inspiration From J. K. Rowling

Most of our summer vacation this year is planned for the British Isles. It has been my mother’s dream to see Scotland, so she has accompanied us. First stop – Edinburgh.

Before we reached our destination, we had to get through the challenge that is modern air flights. Our original carrier was Continental into Newark and then a six hour flight into Edinburgh. I was really looking forward to a relatively short flight and find Continental to the most comfortable of the US airlines I have used. Unfortunately we could not get into Newark in time so Continental changed our itinerary to board Delta Airlines via Atlanta and London, an additional stop and six hours. The upside is that we were upgraded to first class for the transatlantic portion of the trip. We trustingly boarded the first Delta flight, moved to the last seats on the plane, (over the engines) and flew to Atlanta. At that point we were issued economy tickets because Delta would not recognize the upgrade from Continental. After spending an hour on hold, Mike got a supervisor from Continental to speak with Delta. The folks at Delta refused to speak, listen, or change the reservations. Continental advised us to accept the situation with a smile as Delta could label us a security risk. The London flight was over an hour late so at nearly midnight we boarded our plane. To assuage our disappointment, Delta allowed us to board with children in strollers. Yea us!

We arrived late to London with just the right amount of time to catch the flight to Edinburgh – which had been upgraded to business class. The only difference between business and economy on British Midland is a cup of tea and a biscuit. But they were quite nice.

Finally at around 6:00 in the evening, we arrived in Edinburgh – pronounced Edinburah (rolling Scottish burr at the end.) Our hotel, the Apex International, a local chain was very comfortable, We ate our first meal at a local pub. I don’t drink beer but have found that the pubs carry hard cider, which is very refreshing.

The next morning, we ate a typical Scottish breakfast and yes I tried the Haggis. While it sounds quite vile, I found that it tasted kind of like sausage and oatmeal. We then set off to find where J.K. Rowling wrote the first “Harry Potter” book. It is now a tea place, called “The Elephant House.” You can see Edinburgh Castle through its windows and understand how the world of Hogswart was inspired.

Our stay in this historic city was short. We were due in Ballater by 4:00 so Mike rented a car and learned very quickly how to drive on the left side of the road.

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