Sunday, November 11, 2012

Polenta at Marika's!

A few weeks ago, Cole's co-worker, Marika, invited us back to her home to experience a traditional Italian meal. Polenta and brasato are commonly served in Italy - especially when the weather starts to cool off. She and her husband, Massi, prepared a feast that we shared with some friends of theirs. Fortunately, almost everyone in the group spoke English and that helped us tremendously. We have been so blessed by Cole's co-workers. They have been extremely welcoming and kind to us, not to mention the fact that they are all patient with our slow progress learning Italian.

The visit to Marika's came at the perfect time for us because Cole's parents had recently returned to Kansas and we were both feeling a little homesick. For some reason, the season change was tough for us... fall is really reminding us of everything that we're missing back home.

This copper pot and electric mixer is used to heat and stir the polenta for 40 minutes or more!
Massi's beef dishes! YUM! (:
Such wonderful hosts! We had a great time!
So, polenta is kind of hard to explain if you have never had or seen it before. It's made from cornmeal, water and salt. (I think those are the only ingredients.) It needs to be stirred over low heat for 40 minutes - so there is a lot of preparation time involved. While it is typical to see polenta on a menu in Italy, it's also considered to be a "poor man's meal" because it's inexpensive to make and very filling. Marika's husband, Massimilion was responsible for the beef - he made two different dishes and both were delicious! After our meal we also had homemade tiramisu... mmmm! Cole has a new found love of tiramisu. As you can imagine, we were pretty stuffed by the end of the meal.

Eva and her new friends! Bea (pink) is Marika and Massi's adorable little girl.

As a group, we walked into the center of town to check out their annual fall festival. I'm pretty sure Cole was channeling memories from Gypsum's October Fest. The festival really reminded us how much we miss "belonging" to a community, a feeling that we didn't really anticipate having here... We had such a nice time meeting Marika's friends - and they were all welcoming and kind... I guess you could say that we felt like we sort of fit in and belonged. It was a really nice day!

Roasted chestnuts for sale!

Fresh peaches - still available in October!
Happy Fall Y'all! (: 

Friday, November 9, 2012

Tuscan Adventure, Part II

After leaving Pisa, we headed towards Siena for a two-night stay. Again, we detoured along the way to check out a small town that we read about in our guidebook... This time, our detour was for another medieval village called San Gimignano (pronounced: San-Jimmy-Nya-No). This town originally had over 70 towers dotted throughout its landscape. Each time a new family took power, they would build a tower taller than the last family's. The towers were used for protection and sometimes escape - they would use a rope ladder to climb to their ally-neighbor's nearby tower in case of emergencies. Only about fourteen are still standing today...

Again, this was a place that hasn't changed for many, many years. The city center was also surrounded by walls and there was only foot traffic throughout. They also had several ancient wells in the city center (see top picture). It was pretty incredible!

Also... world-champion gelato. YES! Supposedly people will wait 1 1/2 hours or more to order theirs. Lucky for us, the weather was a bit chilly and the line was short. (Of course, it's never too chilly for gelato.) Yum! So overall, our stop at San Gimignano was well worth it! And I'm not just saying that because of the gelato. Truly, it is an amazing little town!

We drove on to Siena and saw the famous town square, Piazza del Campo, as well as the Duomo (cathedral) after dark, so my pictures are pretty crummy. Siena is famous for their bareback horse races, the Palio, which take place in Piazza del Campo right in the center of town. The crazy race draws crowds of thousands who gather to watch and cheer on their favorite horses. There are basically no rules in the race - a horse can win without its rider, riders can whip each other and other horses, etc. It's an intense race - an obsession for the Sienese! Also an obsession: statues of Romulus and Remus, the twins who according to legend, were raised by a she-wolf. These secular statues are even found in front of the cathedral!

Saturday morning we set out with our guide/driver, Anna, headed for a private tour of the Chianti region, including a visit to an Etruscan tomb, a castle-turned winery, a stop in a still-living medieval town and stunning views on small backroads... We loved it. Hiring Anna was worth. every. penny. We were spoiled to have her all to ourselves, which was the result of lucky timing since no one else scheduled for the day. And she was wonderfully patient with Eva, which was a huge blessing. Interested in hiring Anna for yourself? She works alongside Roberto with Tours by Roberto: I am already heartbroken that our schedules won't match up for our upcoming trip to Florence...

Our first stop with Anna required driving on some dirt roads. We wound our way past groups of old men with shotguns on the lookout for wild boar. (Cole was beyond excited to see hunters. Anna was nervous to see them! Ha!) We walked through the woods to an Etruscan tomb and Anna explained so much to us in regards to the age, layout of the tomb, artifacts that would have been left inside, how the families used the tombs, etc. The Etruscans planted a Cyprus tree atop each tomb (which would have looked like a small dirt hill) because the tree worked as a perfect timepiece, creating a sundial on the mound, a sacred and symbolic gesture about the circle of life.

Next, we drove to an old castle that was renovated and is now used as a winery. Rocca di Castagnoli was fantastic! Neither of us had been to a wine tasting or visited a winery before, so we were excited to learn more. Anna personally led us on a tour through the winery/castle and also through our tasting session. She made us feel so comfortable, even though some of our questions probably sounded ridiculous to her... (She spent 3+ years working at a winery and giving tours, so is definitely an expert in the field and very knowledgeable about the wine-making process, from vine to glass.)

Not winning any mother-of-the-year awards for this one, but the kid was getting bored!
Wine barrels are appropriate jungle gyms for babies, right?!? (:
After the tour of the winery/castle, time for tasting! This was in the old "stable" area of the castle.
Probably our overall favorite - a Super Tuscan blend. Delicious!
We were excited to have some of the wine we tasted shipped home to Kansas! YAY! If our families are nice to us, we will share the love at Christmastime. If not, we will drink it all ourselves. Ha!

Ok, so this blog post is getting long. Hang in there... or just browse the pictures if I'm boring you to pieces! After the winery, we stopped for lunch and finished up our day at a real-live medieval town, Vertine. Today, there are about 20 residents, plus four cats and one dog in the town. They obviously knew Anna. Even the dog seemed to recognize her! There aren't many little villages like this remaining - with actual residents, since most have been converted into B&B's or resorts. The tall tower on the right still had a little hole where they would stand guard in medieval times and watch (your right side) to see if you were carrying your sword. This is also why we shake right hands today... it started as a sign of peace long ago and the tradition stuck. (Another little tidbit of knowledge from Anna!)

This little hilltop town had an incredible view! 
Nothing is straight! Years and years of additions and added supports result in buildings like this! (:
 Saturday evening we were exhausted after a long, eventful day! We made our way into Siena for dinner and ate at da Divo for dinner... I had done a little research and this restaurant had wonderful reviews. The interior is made up of Etruscan tombs - it was a pretty cool experience! We'd highly recommend it!

You can sort of see the rock walls in the back of the restaurant... 
You're probably wondering what Eva's favorite part of our trip was? Well, this is it... climbing on the headboard at our hotel! She was one happy baby when we unstrapped her from the stroller! Oh!! And she cut her first tooth on Saturday - and took it like a champ.

Thursday, November 8, 2012

The Leaning Tower & More...

Yes! There were trees growing atop this tower! Crazy!!!
Cole had two days off of work last week because All Saint's Day fell on a Thursday. In Italy, holidays that fall on Thursdays (or Tuesdays) are eagerly anticipated! They create a "bridge" and give Italians an extra day off of work. So... as they say in Italy, we took advantage of "the bridge" and planned a road trip.

We chose to drive this time (instead of taking the train) and spent a long weekend in Tuscany. We left Como Thursday morning, and stayed one night in Pisa before moving on to Siena for two nights. I feel like I say this every time we travel here, but it was probably one of our favorite trips so far! The drive was beautiful and we saw such unique and off-the-beaten-path sites. Tuscany wasn't exactly what we were picturing (think: grassy rolling hills, Cyprus trees and poppies everywhere). Instead the terrain was more mountainous, with steeper wooded hills, Cyprus trees and lots of olive groves and vineyards.  The scenery was definitely the most rural we have seen yet - just beautiful to a couple of kids from Kansas.

Everything we read about Pisa said that the leaning tower is basically it... The area surrounding the tower contains a few buildings that are historical and gorgeous, as well, but Pisa isn't a town where you'd want to spend an entire day. Bottom line: we didn't plan to dedicate a lot of our time to Pisa. We had been given several recommendations to see the small town of Lucca while in Italy and it was just a little ways off of the main autostrade (interstate) so we spent a few hours there before moving on to Pisa.

40-foot tall walls surrounding Lucca.

Lucca is a medieval town known for 40 feet-tall walls surrounding their city center. The walls were built in the 1500's to prevent attack and were so intimidating to would-be attackers, that there were never even any attempts to conquer Lucca! In the 1800's the walls also saved the town from a flood, blocking the oncoming water. So there's your little history lesson about this beautiful village. Walking the streets of Lucca, we truly felt like we had stepped back in time... except for the fact that there were oddly dressed characters everywhere. At first, we thought it was some kind of Halloween or All Saint's celebration. Then we saw the signs promoting a Comic Festival... as in comic books, so you can imagine the unique crowd. The town was busy! We spent a few hours walking around while there, and climbed to the top of one of their towers, which had trees growing on the top! The view was fantastic!

We moved on to Pisa and did the cheesy-holding-it-up pictures the next morning. The tower REALLY leans... pictures don't do it justice! Don't worry, we did our part to keep the tower upright. Even Eva helped. ;)

Hurry up mom... This thing is heavy! ;)

Monday, November 5, 2012

Only Eva!

This one's for the grandparents! :) Here are some photos from our little shoot the other day. Eva was definitely not wanting to sit still - or look at the camera, but we got a few pictures that I am so happy with. Here she is...almost 8 months old!