“Let them eat cake…”

“How can anyone govern a country which has two hundred and forty-six varieties of cheese?”                  Charles de Gaulle

 

The travails of intra-European mood-busting air travel are behind us. Our Easyjet flight from Budapest eases to the gate at Charles de Gaulle Airport, as I coin a slogan for the airline’s tedious journey: “We bring you down!”

Our taxi rolls up to 17 Rue de Sevres, a very French dwelling Lisa has conscientiously researched for us in the heart of Saint-Germain-des-Prés.

We enter an almost undetectable portico next to Hermes (…like I said, very Froonch). We are met by Mats, the debonair Finnish rental agent who escorts us through six security thresholds leading to our airy, cozy (central steam heat that’s always percolating), and well appointed (with the possible exception of having the WC located in the living room) rental flat – home base for the final “Parisian immersion” week of our EU trek.

Summer in Budapest has reverted to hiver en Paris – brisk weather propelling our vigorous strides along La Seine and classic boulevards delineating la Ville Lumière (Paris was one of the first cities to be lit electrically).

We quickly mobilize for domestic necessities – a grocery hunting excursion to Le Bon Marche, a temple to epicurean delights just down the street. Fromage from les alpes, les petits pains, some heavenly prune yogurt, fruit, tea.  Breakfast is secured in high fashion. Everything a visitor could require (a metro stop, lovely hidden park across the avenue, and other trendy stores) is footsteps away.

Food, of course, is a centerpiece of Parisian life.  We navigate this gastronomic galaxy with a reliable internal compass: simple food, well prepared. We eschew the fussy, the trendy, the dark and moody, for tried and true classics – the bistros and cafes where Modigliani, Hemingway, and Picasso, might have watered.

Dinner is at La Rotonde, a couple of clicks out in the Montparnasse. A long outbound march is rewarded by a heartening brasserie baptism: red velvet banquettes, white tablecloths, bustling black-suited waiters, trays of oysters on ice, crusty rolls served with varietal butter, olives and radishes, earnest local patrons seated cheek-to-jowl seriously attending their evening meal. Steak de boeuf avec des frites and Magret de canard sauce à l’orange, followed by a caramelized tarte tatin reassures us that our instincts are correct. The stroll back to the apartment through quiet tree-lined streets is the required digestif.

Early the next morning we are joined by my daughter, Rose, arriving for a week’s work. We are able to steal a couple of days together ambling along the river, over the bridges to Ile Saint-Louis where she would be staying, and throughout the Marais in the 4th arrondissement, one of our favorite neighborhoods that has clearly been “discovered” in the last 10 years.

Crowds abound, yet they cannot obscure the appeal of old and new attractively fused: specialty shops selling hip clothing, costume jewelry, perfume, a bibliothéque-like artisan teashop, lively sidewalk cafes catering Sunday lunch, art galleries, families strolling with les enfants, orthodox Jews inhabiting narrow lanes around the Rue des Rosiers, and of course, the Place des Vosges – a magnificently manicured renaissance commons, surrounded by noble structures, animated with the play of children, and infused with the exotic melodies of talented street musicians.

Aside from taking in the atmosphere, we have a more carnal determinant for our outing:  competing for a table with ravenous crowds at L’As du Falafel for the privilege of devouring colorful plates of Levantine falafel, shawarma, veggies, and pita, washed down with gulps of icy Coca-Light!

Rose generously invites us to a dinner the following night with some WordPress co-workers. We assemble with a truly cosmopolitan posse (Lithuania, Hungary, France, Canada, Vietnam, India, Peru, Spain, and Texas were represented) at La Rotisserie, a bistro fronting Rive Gauche. I enjoy watching one of the Eastern European guys down his first-ever plate of escargot. He had some interesting facial expressions as he encountered unexpected grit and a rubbery texture in the buttery garlic infusion. To his credit he completes the task. This talented, fun group is primed to party – apparently dinner was simply the early station in a long evening…

Eating isn’t our only activity here, yet you’ve noticed a persistent theme! Daily expeditions are designed to trace many of the postcard districts and timeless perspectives of this exhilarating Capital. We cover the rue Saint-Honoré, on the Right Bank, where many of fashion’s great houses convene. Running from the enormous royal grounds of the Louvre down to the portal of the Champs-Elysees, we discover this street is a bad place to hunger for a snack. The super-models, designers, and international shoppers traversing Hermes, Goyard, Chanel, and other ateliers apparently don’t eat! Nicotine, caffeine, and attitude can carry one a long way on this avenue.

We do find respite at Fauchon (“purveyor of luxury foods – tea to royalty, pastry to politicians, and caviar to movie stars”) across from the neo-classical church on the Place de la Madeleine, where fantasy treats are displayed for visual entertainment as well as consumption. “This is Paris, and we are famished… price be damned!” I proclaim.

Other days pass visiting art galleries, shopping at Lisa’s favorite boutique (enjoying a beautiful woman in a city of beauty), appreciating lazy mornings in our comfy quarters, and…how could I forget, a too-brief eternity sitting at our favorite café…

Café Bonaparte isn’t the most prominent, most storied, or photographed café in Paris – it is simply the best. Set back a half-block from busy Boulevard Saint-Germain with two heated rows of chairs facing the exquisite Benedictine Abbey of Saint-Germain-des-Prés (with one flawless tree in full fuchsia bloom), Café Bonaparte awaits the curious, the weary, the insouciant.

Installed at a tiny table, huddled with cups of steamy café crème as our sustenance, we regard this tableau of passing characters and perfect proportions with endless fascination. Streams of interesting people move across our purview, some stopping into the café, some moving through the routines of their day. We notice that many of the most flamboyant archetypes are entering a stately grey building just to the right of our café. We inquire as to the lure of this transparant attraction – inside the grave, austere interior we learn we have entered La Société, a restaurant with no sign or apparent outward identification. (“If you have to ask, you don’t belong here…” kind of thing). It seems alluring for a future meal, however we pass for more established sensibilities.

Waiters at Café Bonaparte and other restaurants we visited move with alacrity, are good-humored, and seem to anticipate what’s required even through our tiresome high-school French. Waiting is a profession here, not simply a job between acting auditions. It is a calling, and the best perform with a stylish dignity that is part of the overall appeal of lingering over a meal.

May Day, a Sunday feeling about town, signals our impeding departure in a few days from this year’s European adventure. Rather than imagined parades of workers singing L’Internationale, we saw Parisians, well… gathered at restaurants and cafes, smoking under striped awnings, and enjoying leisurely lunches.

No Grand Finale for us, no fireworks, no climb to top of the mountain’s impossible dream; just the simple, inexplicable pleasure of being together in Paris.

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East Side Story

The Austro-Hungarian Empire was one of the world’s great powers from 1861-1918, the second largest country in Europe. Today, Vienna and Budapest remain as bookends to the Habsburg legacy.

Arriving from the Danube’s tranquil banks in Durnstein, imposing Vienna evokes a formality in us that is hard to resist — Imperial grounds of the Habsburg palaces, well mannered carriage horses draying now affluent Asian tourists, magnificent opera, and cultural influence that extends its reach eastward.

Classic Spring weather invites us to open our windows allowing outdoor café laughter and tipsy bustle of Walfischgasse in the city’s Innere Stadt, just steps from the StatsOpera.

I ask our very proper host, Herr Michael Strafinger at Pension Suzanne, if there is an extra fee for the perfectly temperate sunshine and he pauses, momentarily perplexed by my question. He then “got it,” and uses the humorous reference with a reserved smile several times later during our stay. We are always pleased to add to the Viennese cultural canon.

Ok…how do we approach a “familiar” city, without being redundant, to enjoy the experiences that commanded our return? After an obligatory survey by foot of the Grand Landmarks and heavily trafficked promenades and squares, we settled in to encircle Wien’s essence.

Each night grand Opera was on. The only issue was securing tickets to the mostly sold out attractions. We scored box seats (well, limited visibility box seats) to our prime target, La Boheme, from a Middle Eastern scalper who loved his craft. No problem, he pointed out with a communicable smile. We must sit closer together to crane the stage with merged attention.

The performance itself, set in the majestic Wiener Staatsoper, and enacted with world-class musicians and singers, was stunning. We actually didn’t have to view all the stage’s back-story to swoon at the delicacy of the music, the harmonies, and the complete artistry:

“Hey, I just met you,

And this is crazy,

But here’s my number,

So call me, maybe?”

We would be in Paris in a week or so, and Rodolfo’s garret lingered in our imagination as an undeniable muse.

Other nights we were able to enjoy desired portions of dissimilar operas seated outside the theatre gazing at a vivid digital monitor huddled with appreciative music lovers. We would watch the pixilated presentation for an hour, go enjoy lovely Viennese food in the neighborhood, and return to the outdoor screen for the finale. We could even hear the repeated curtain calls from our room. Bravo!

A waiter at Huth, a favorite local grillhaus remembered us from a previous years’ visits – that, and comforting dishes like fresh water salmon and flawless warm apple strudel, extended the balmy welcome.

Music is everywhere here and discovering an afternoon organ recital of Bach and Handel at baroque St. Paul’s Church, provided a cool, calm retreat from the lively midday pace.

Lunch is an informal affair – we share a steamy cut-up cheese sausage with zesty mustard and a spicy Coke Zero from a street vendor on our secret bench at the Albertine Museum overlooking town center.

Each day we excitedly applied our pledge to “do something different”: morning rambles through the polyglot Naschmarkt beyond the Center Ring to ogle condiments, fish, vegetables, and spices gathered from exotic Eastern Europe; assembling at sunny cafés with locals over coffee and morning pastries; branching out into extended neighborhoods that outline residential life here; discovering one of the massive WW2 air defense fortresses that now houses a children’s Aquarium.

Three days waltzing through this flourishing and refined capital in brilliant springtime left us primed for our excursion via train further East to Budapest.

As if to signal the shift to more proletarian situations, we first had to accept the fact that, given the predictable broken elevator at the “temporary” Vienna train station, we were going to schlep our heavy luggage up the stairs to the platform (stay tuned for more luggage adventures later).

If Vienna, attractively preserved in Imperial splendor, could be compared to the “Upper East Side,” then Budapest serves our case as the “Lower East Side”.

This former twin Capital of the old Empire reserves a special place in our hearts. It is a city striving to overcome considerable disadvantages of its history. Funky, surprising, decrepit, youthful, relaxed, subtly menacing, mysterious, and so effortless to bond with – Budapest is a long lost relative, newly reclaimed.

As a visitor, there are touchstones that quickly reveal the pulse of the city: Hungarian State Opera, public baths, Terror Museum, Jewish district — all accessed by Andrássy út (Boulevard) that traverses Budapest with continental Europe’s oldest metro.

All these once faded treasures are brought to life for us by Albert Marton, who runs the top-rated Kapital Inn, housed in a formerly upper-class apartmant building just off Andrássy. Albert treats every guest with special care and the appropriate amount of guidance to ensure a memorable visit here.

Albert insisted on surprising us at the train station with a warm hug, heroically ushering our bags up six flights to his trendy top-floor flat, and honoring us with gorgeous flowers placed in our room. As if this welcome wasn’t enough, we were soon introduced to Toby, the miniature Bull Terrier, who may qualify as the sweetest, most energetic puppy this side of the Danube.

No mandatory tour of the major sites to get oriented – after our reunion with Albert we headed straight to the Szechenyi baths to soak five weeks of road weariness from our bodies and ease into the luminous warmth that we have always experienced here: instant summer – shorts, flip-flops, breakfast on the terrace enjoying Albert’s delicious cheese omelets, and dining al fresco in the unpretentious restaurants that offer earnest plates of fresh asparagus with hollandaise, fish, pastas, and goulashes.

Touring Italy and Austria, we were able to obtain basic restaurant and bathroom-finding literacy. Not in Hungary. The language is so foreign to our ear – all that is expected is a polite smile and gratitude for the English that most younger people speak.

We scored terrific and inexpensive tickets to the glittery State Opera whose ensemble company produces modest, yet skilled interpretations of the classics. We enjoyed the same production of Madame Butterfly as last year. Repetition did not dull the talent of cast and conductor, or the enthusiasm of the audience who called for bow after gracious bow.

Our most energetic day was spent discovering smart new businesses and youthful hangouts in the historic Jewish Quarter and former Ghetto. Budapest’s population was once 25% Jewish and that heritage is still very palpable. Aside from historic synagogues and century-old architecture, the District is active with hip businesses, funky cafes, “ruin bars” (Haight Ashbury style renewal, for you old hippies), homogenized with Hungarian blue-collar street life.

At the edge of this district, on Andrassy, is the powerful, yet haunting Terror museum, dedicated to the difficult memory of Nazi and Soviet occupations that gutted the soul of Hungary. It is impossible to really know Budapest without factoring the impact that five decades of oppression had on this once thriving and cultured city. Evidence of those dark shadows, as well as the will of youthful renewal, are everywhere.

One last challenge on the “too soon” morning of our departure: we are about to embark on a Euro-bargain flight to Paris via Easy Jet. The catch is that those massive suitcases (previously referenced) are now becoming albatrosses for us. The comic exercise of wearing layers of our thickest clothing, transferring the heaviest “stuff” to our busting backpacks, and Albert standing on a scale holding and weighing the bags for “before and after” comparisons to get under the weight limits, brought us all closer in the relaxed tempo of this most Eastern point of our journey.

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Seeking Privat Zimmer

I love Austrian food. There, I said it!

Not just sophisticated saddle of lamb, or pan-seared fresh trout. I am talking about wurst mit sauerkraut, fried and breaded chicken with potato and cucumber salad, and wienersnitchel or chicken “cordon blue” with boiled potatoes and mixed salad with slaw. Deep-fried, hot, crispy, and delicious. Screw the health concerns—these people look fine to me.

Well, perhaps a little context would be useful. We have traveled via train from the mountain town of Bolzano in the Italian Dolomites across the Alps to Salzburg. There is a great supermarket in the train station at Innsbruck for grabbing rolls, cheeses, and yogurt trinken to sustain us for the next leg of viewing brilliant vistas from our train window.

Given the transition to all things Germanic, we pick up our sleek Opel “station wagon,” a popular body configuration here, a la SUV’s in California. We now cruise with beefy Audis and sleek Bimmers over perfectly maintained Autobahns, and the familiar lanes leading to Moosstrasse 156c, Frau Steiner’s tidy Gasthaus, at the edge of “salt town”.

Arriving on Sunday, we eased behind a church-going carriage, drawn by two classic Haflingers, trotting up Moosstrasse to the traditional local church.

Frau Steiner’s neighborhood is on a flat greenbelt set at the base of a steep mountain that forms the border with Deutschland. We love sunrise walks in this rural, mixed-use, well-planned neighborhood: farms, houses, and light industry. Our favorite stroll starts across the road where Familie Walkner has an impressive domestic undertaking: Gasthof, stables, riding academy and a popular restaurant that overlooks the training ring, homey farm with lots of personal animals, and a tiny family chapel seating six.

We visit the stable grounds every day; is one of the very pregnant horses giving birth during our stay? A spirited black Friesian stallion trains daily for dressage, and a yearling shyly feels its way toward first tiny jumping steps. Tony Walkner, who runs the restaurant, picked up his American dialect working at Disneyworld. Along with nearby Laschenskyhof, these cheerful inns serve hardy Austrian dishes, that are, at first encounter, so hard to resist!

Next to our cozy room at Frau Steiner’s are four Hungarian migrant workers crammed in tight quarters who spend most of their free time smoking cheap cigarettes down to the nub outside our balcony. Part of the price we will pay to keep our door open and overlook fertile pastures and the mesmerizing local peak will probably be a nicotine patch!

Our road-hugging Opel carries us to nearby Sound of Music settings: Hallstatt, a cuckoo-clock of a town, literally plagiarized by the Chinese who built a replica in Guangdong; Berchtesgaden (yes, der Fuhrer’s Eagle’s nest); Lake Konigsee, just over the German border. During afternoon tours of wall-calendar mountains and lakes, we picnic in sylvan delight, and enjoy the surprisingly good music on Austrian FM radio in our Astra — played loud!

Did I say neat and orderly? Cut wood is stacked with surgical precision near every settlement. One unforgettable image on a forest road was the sight of a purpose built road-marker cleaner, working its way past our elfin lunch bench.

Salzburg itself, a fortress community overlooking the Salzach River, provides an afternoon visiting stunning outdoor art, imposing churches, and specialty shops featuring loden coats and lederhosen — common wear for the citizenry.

In the aftermath of the Boston bombing, we spot an abandoned backpack amidst an art installation of gigantic pickles. That sounds like the set up for a punch line. However, we keep our distance across the river, protected by a couple of hot lattes and a divine poppy seed strudel.

Cycling along the upper Danube among Gruner Veltliner vineyards and apricot blossoms (apricots are ever-present here in jams, aperitifs, stews, juices, and pastries) is a compelling memory that demanded a return to fabled Durnstein.

Our base is the Sanger Blondel Hotel, run by the Familie Schendl since 1730. Our accommodation, Room 21, looks out over an exquisite shaded garden in bloom where we delight in a perfect outdoor dinner of fresh trout with wild garlic dumplings, and sausages with spicy sauerkraut and heavenly potato pancakes. The family recipe for apricot Topfenstudel is worth locking in a stone fortress — it is the most delicate and understated pastry in the entire realm.

The adventures we encounter as we fan out from this fairy-tale village include: keeping pace for a couple of meters with a colorful cycling team from St. Polten (“where we make the best beer!”); stopping to smell the flowers left over from a Saturday wedding in a towering church along the route, climbing with unexpected vigor to the crumbling fortress which crowns the town, marveling at the foamy tops of fresh beers and steaming caffe lattes, and joining someone’s Mother for her 75th birthday fireworks celebration along the ramparts of town.

Most of the Austrians we engage are polite, helpful, and enjoy good humor. When Lisa asked for an additional seeded roll at breakfast, our always-correct waiter at the hotel ran out undetected to the Backerei, rather than disappoint a loyal guest. When we return to our room after fruhstruck the smiling, portly maid has lofted and neatly folded the goose-down duvets on our bed.

We return to Austria to travel in the full glory of Spring – Salzburg and Durnstein remind us why.

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… più bella?

Ah… how fickle we travelers can be, always making oaths as to the prettiest, most beautiful, most entrancing destination that captures our spirit. Only a fool would commend such an impression to others, acquired in the momentary embrace of some enchanting town.

This is the existential dilemma we face as we complete our final week in Northern Italy. Three charming sirens: Verona; Venice; Bolzano; seductively compete for our favor.

Here’s how the epic theme unfolded:

Our usually perilous viaggio (journey) over the mountains and through the tunnels was mercifully tame, thanks to Sunday traffic, a peppier power-train in our updated Panda, and us – driver and navigator schooled in Autostrade post-traumatic survival skills.

We coast to the hills surrounding Verona, and meet fellow guests all just arriving at Villa Beatrice, a vivacious B&B, where we had previously “soloed”. With relaxed expectations typical of small Italian lodgings, we introduce ourselves to one another while awaiting our host, Simone’s arrival with his lovely Romanian finance, Angelica. Guests from Chicago, Brazil, and Japan all convened here to attend VinItaly, the international exposition for Italy’s wine industry. Luckily we secured our cozy room and strategies for coveted restaurant tables since the town was jammed with cosmopolitan hipsters taking advantage of the flowing promotional wine.

At Da Ugo, a very old trattoria, we are greeted warmly by Manuel, who remembered us and our preferred table from previous visits. Horse and donkey meat is a house specialty here, however we steered to the more pedestrian – liver with onions and polenta, and pappardelle con wild asparagus. At Du de Cope, we split, in a very un-Italian fashion, a wonderful insalata di casa and a perfect pizza topped with fresh (not melted) burrata.

Each day as we walked the rural, gentrified hills overlooking Verona, and then drove to the edge of the walled city (see photo of secret parking spot) to glide by foot over smooth travertine stones that grace the sidewalks and squares, we were reminded of the delights of Shakespeare’s setting for Romeo e Giulietta.

Simone is an energetic host, who attends to his guests with multilingual advice and directions, emergency transport to the train, and exotic juices blended each morning to accompany his home baking. We now have his recipe for delicious torta di riso, which he made for us, knowing our love for it. Not in direct reciprocation, Lisa spent some time offering basic training tips to Simone and his adorable, wildly affectionate Border Collie puppy, Shanti.

After lunching two days at a favorite café on Piazza delle Erbe, and comparing this unforgettable setting with other known contenders (in Siena, Rome, Firenze) Lisa and I confirmed it as Italy’s most perfect town square.

With all of this we were tempted to award Verona as the most beautiful destination in all of Italy. Well, not just yet….

You may have noticed the umbrellas and gray skies (travel brochures say “dramatic”) in some of our dispatches. However our adventurous spirits were not dampened by the persistent inclemency.

More to the point, we traveled by train to Venice for a daylong side-trip into a brilliant blue sky and the city virtually to ourselves. Seems like everyone was back in Verona taking in the vino. Exceptions were a few travelers from the “mountains” of China, to whom we offered assistance on the train. They were so excited to reverse Marco Polo’s adventure, exclaiming as their telephoto lens came out to capture the island city, “the water looks so clean!”

As weeks of rain now cleared, and the usual hoards of tourists kept at bay, what was unconcealed was the simple appeal of Venice; tiny piazzas with hanging laundry and misplaced graffiti, the still canals conveying workmen and their goods, children and grandparents relaxing in the squares, and the subdued tone of this once great trading empire seen as someone’s neighborhood.

If Venice is a postcard of the preserved past, our next destination, Bolzano, in the Dolomite Mountains of Italy’s South Tyrol, may be a view of the future revealed.

While the advent of spring was noticeably retarded in Umbria and Tuscany due to the cold, damp weather, the pastel shades of a landscape in bloom were awakening in this region at the base of great snowy peaks. Lisa surmised that the shorter growing season in the North accelerated the flowering cycles of trees, orchards, and wildflowers. The sudden “weather balm” also brought the bi-cultural population out in full colorful display.

Bolzano (or Bozen, in German) has elements of a still relaxed Italian pace, however the constitution and workability of the town is decidedly Austrian. Ordered municipal byways, spotless Alpine farms and churches, stores open all day (no siesta hours), and a refined demeanor are apparent.

We billeted at the light and airy Hotel Hanny, which is perched on the side of a vineyard-stepped, and castle-dotted valley just beyond the manicured town. Thanks to our host family Riegler, we had access to bikes and footpaths for three active and relaxing days in which to intimately connect to the community. Some of the roads we trekked leading almost vertically to farms and Gasthofs are so steep they would be deemed “illegal” by our cautious standards.

We were able to bike to dinner in the center of town where German and Italian dishes compliment each other. White asparagus, fresh trout, risottos, delicious brown breads, frosty pilsner beers and white wines. Of course, fantastic high-fiber breakfast buffets braced us for days of brisk activity. Transitioning from the six phrases of Italian we know to the four words of German was tricky, yet pulled off with aplomb.

An active mountain sports culture is visible everywhere. We steered around grannies and triathletes on every configuration of bike, saw skis being ported to freshly snow-covered runs, rubbed shoulders with runners, hikers, and other outdoor enthusiasts. An array of extraordinary sports facilities and public spaces have been built along the river and promenade that covers the length of town. Someone is paying attention here in planning a city that works.

The paragon of this modern connection to nature and active life-style is the World HQ of Salewa, a mountaineering gear and apparel manufacturer. In 2011 they opened a multi-purpose structure (offices, retail shop, and futuristic climbing space that opens to outdoor mountain views.

We thrilled at the spectacle of expert climbers scaling 150-foot walls and overhangs, the reflection of white-peaked mountains against the stark black glass of this monolithic architecture, and how it all conformed to the contours of the glacial carved valley and an ancient fortress.

[Euro fashion bulletin: everything “puffy” in vivid colors. Vests, light weight coats, sports jackets, hoodies, all in high-tech fabrics.]

Bolzano has the feel of a cultured and workable environment that has addressed some of the challenges of contemporary life and would be easy to adjust to as a place to call home.

So you can see that we have enjoyed and sung the praises of these three bella sisters of Northern Italy. No need to compete or choose between their very different gifts.

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All in the Famiglia

“This is a crazie family” Davide, our hard working host, jokes as his tiny poodle runs amok barking like a windup toy on steroids.

Agriturismo Savernano is our comfortable base for day-tripping throughout Tuscany. We have returned again to this highly-praised working farm for our fifth season (reviewed here in previous blog posts).  At this point, we aren’t observing extended family life near rural Chianti, we are a part of it! Homey touches include Eva (mom and cook) doing homework with the kids around the fire in ‘jammies; TV tuned to political discussions during dinner, passionate laughter, yelling from the kitchen that food was ready, and the presence of both sets of grandparents who energetically contribute to the collective enterprise.

We settled into our ample, spotless Camera #5 with hand-hewn wood beam and brick tile ceiling, overlooking the vineyards and the hills south of Firenze. Our comforts on the road are measured in modest pleasures that are abundant here: lots of hot water, room to lay out our stuff, and time to spin some cycles at the local coin-op lavenderia.

Eva’s home style cooking and Davide’s 2009 Chianti de la Casa further encouraged us to chill amid a familiar routine. We chowed down on pastas with meat sauce, veal with mushrooms and cream, wild erbe di campo (field greens) gathered by Grandma.

Davide is at heart a relentless builder. This year he and his ever-cheerful father have taken on the ambitious projects of building an all-weather road twisting up to Savernano, and a major expansion of his underground wine storage facilities. We got to see the daily product of his fatto a mano labors, such as vaulted ceilings spanning the cantine. If you’ve ever wondered how cathedrals were made, those great and dedicated builders are running humble rural guest houses!

We set out each day to relish the familiar, and explore new Tuscan destinations:

Firenze (Florence): We dedicated 2 alternating days, commuting 25 minutes via treno to Stazione Santa Maria Novella in the heart of Firenze. Florence has everything we love about Italy condensed into a gracious and “walkable” city: living history and culture from Rome to Mussolini; art (Michelangelo’s David is here) and architecture (virtually every building is a photo op for me); grand churches and cathedrals (the central Duomo’s structural style continually reflects boundless grandeur, as light and weather shift); chic shop windows; value shopping at entertaining tented stalls; impressive formal gardens; and the Fiume Arno (river) that partitions the town with a shimmering green flow.

Our first destination from the train station is what we call the “Valley of the Stalls” – a breathtaking canyon of covered stands–that is, if you share our enthusiasm for good-natured interaction with the sellers, rewarding inexpensive discoveries, and a spirit for adventurous bargaining.

To our delight, we reunited with Ramon, Lisa’s personal scarf stylist supreme, who we encountered last year. Ramon is dedicated to selecting, modeling, instructing, complimenting and satisfying every taste in Italy’s de rigueur scarf culture (for men as well, reluctant readers). He presents each textile showcased as a veiled treasure – identified by design derivation, fabric, and most complementary to skin tone. Ramon also creatively fastens each fabric to frame the countenance and mood of the wearer. Half an hour at his open market salon is worth its weight in the dopamine rush that follows.

Lucca: Our first visit to this walled town, home of composer Giacomo Puccini, was, well… a touch operatic. As we entered the city, a mysterious “dirty rain” began to fall. We ducked in for caffe latte molto caldo and saw a man vigorously wiping down his mud splattered parka with a napkin. Then we noticed the streets were muddy, and all the cars were spackled with the same grime. We taxed our imagination — what was this Biblical plague? When we asked Davide that evening, he laughed and said that every 2 years or so sandstorms from North Africa mix with the wet weather patterns in Italy to produce this gritty phenomenon.

Amongst the wet slurry, Lucca also revealed a serious food community with mercati offering esoteric grains and legumes, baked goods, and vini; a hip musical concert scene; cafés and osteria arranged around the central piazzas named Turandot, La Boheme, and Madame Butterfly.

Siena and Greve-in-Chianti – We accessed the vineyards and hill communities west of Savernano via serpentine roads that present some of the most pastoral vistas we have seen in all of Italy. Sporting through these rustic lanes in our Panda, we pass colorful cyclists pedaling in the slick surfaced valleys, took “suicide” photos out the window as we spotted countless Kodachrome vignettes, and navigated our way to stylish Siena guided by enigmatic signposts with negligible damage to our wedded union.

I won’t burden you with an elaborate description of Siena, other than to say the clouds and drizzle in the empty centre plazas evoked the medieval disposition of this sophisticated town, and oh…it’s beautiful!

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A Walk with Tartufo

We call him Tartufo, an Italian word with a whimsical and nonsensical tone and, as our host Bruno at Agriturismo Preggio pointed out, his nose is black and shaped like the wild and elusive fungi that populate the Umbrian forests.

He is a far-ranging Maremma Shepherd dog, who had come to Preggio as a limping puppy seeking refuge from an abusive Sardinian shepherd who grazed flocks of sheep in the neighboring fields. Finding shelter in the community of other liberated Maremmas at Preggio, Tartufo enjoyed a blissful salvation.

Bruno, a former IT entrepreneur and his multi-skilled wife, Elena, nursed Tartufo’s broken hind leg and gave him the kind nurturing that is extended to all living things at this organic farm and vineyard.  Tartufo now only suffers the foolish excesses of canine youth, a very imposing-sized canine youth – roaming the countryside with an auspicious curiosity and a naïve, doggy self-confidence which allows him to approach any other feverishly barking cani with insouciance.

The daily walks, or passeggiate, that define our rhythm at Preggio had, in no small way, become the impetus for this year’s ”greatest hits” tour of Italy and Austria. This year our visit to this remote region of Umbria spanned Easter weekend, which meant we would celebrate with Elena’s home-made breads, pastas, farm-raised duck, braised trespassing wild boar, field-gathered greens (weeds, to a less discerning culture), and farm grown cheeses, jams, honey, and cakes.

We also enjoyed the lively company of 2 families, Australian and American, who are on vacation with their adorable children from their overseas assignments in London. The Aussie fellow, Jacob, was taking advantage of the hilly locale to prep for a bike race he has entered this summer that is routed from Geneva to Nice. (Walking these mountain roads was quite enough for us, Grazie.)

After a hearty breakfast of all the above-mentioned alimentary, Lisa and I set out on the winding climb to the hilltop village of Preggio, and attempted to dissuade our initial escort of 4 dogs from leaving the property. That discouragement worked on the more nap-prone elders of the pack, but Tartufo insisted on providing guidance and protection up the dirt road that climbs through the woods and country homes (a beautiful retreat is owned by Danes across the road) and past every barking hound and watchful eye that pave the approach to the tiny Commune. We could tell from Tartunfo’s calm authority and reckless exploration that he had covered this ground before.

At one point he slipped under the wire fence of an adjoining field and vanished before we could track or recall him. Ten minutes later he came trotting down the single lane towards us, stopping to deliciously lap up fresh water from a running rivulet, saying in body-postured dog-speak – “what’s been taking you so long…?”

At the crest of the hill is the hamlet of Preggio – not a rich tourist-preened regional cousin like Cortona (featured in “Under the Tuscan Sun”) or the rougher working class, Citta di Castello, where we saw the political underbelly of the scaled-down local economy.

The damp, cold church in Preggio is known in ecclesiastic circles as housing a thorn (!), reportedly culled from the crucifixion crown of Jesus (authenticity is currently in active discussion). We, along with Tartufo, witnessed preparations of the pageant that occurs annually the day after Easter Monday.

As we descended the hill returning to the farm via the twisting road, Tartufo, again lurched into the rough country. We called to him to return to our little protected fold to no avail. Thirty minutes later, as we arrived at the comforting sight of smoke drifting up from the farm house chimney, we saw Tartufo waiting for us at the gateway. His yawn and big stretch questioned why we had taken such a long a circuitous route, when a vertical beeline through the steep forest and vineyards, made all the sense in the world.

We hope that when our Italian memories stir us to return to Preggio, an older, wiser, but certainly as loving, Tartufo, is here to protect, guide, and delight us.

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Downton Abbazia

OK! We had our Downton Abbazia momento, returning after five years to the captivating Agriturismo La Ghirlanda (“the Garland”).

Umbria, slowly stirring from a wet, cold winter, was put in sharp relief by the welcome greeting of house manager, Claudia. She settled us into the warmth and charm of this stylish country villa, a former hunting lodge on a 22o hectare/480 acre estate, with humor and a sincere recollection of our previous visit.

We’ve become accustomed (spoiled?) to often being the solo guests at rural accommodations early in the season. However, residing as the living focus of attention in this gracious residence fulfilled an unexpected fantasy that we didn’t realize we harbored. We were suddenly solo recipients, responsible for accepting and appreciating the fruits of a Great House complete with family portraits, books, paintings, refined antiques, and an immense silence.

Claudia, and the staff of three Romanians (cook, kitchen assistant/maid, waiter/“footman”) attended to our every care and comfort.

Centerpiece of our stay was each evening’s five-course candlelit dinners by a glowing fireplace. The staff was encouraged by any appreciative signal from us that each specially prepared plate met our lofty standards: mussels in light curry sauce; spinach and ricotta ravioli with oil and truffles; saltimbocca with sage.

We were well mannered, generous with compliments, humor, and personal recognition to our earnest staff. We worked hard to ensure they knew we appreciated their efforts. It is hard work being pampered; damn it! We bore up to our responsibilities as “master of the manor” with all the civil, managerial acumen we could muster. I even assisted the waiter/footman in attending the fire, although I feared I was crossing some unmarked line.

The menu, recipes, and interior design of La Ghirlanda is the creative expression of Amelia, who along with her patrician husband, own the long-held family property with its extensive vineyards, farmland, orchards, cattle (we delighted in spotting a day-old Chianina calf with its mother and small herd led by a bell clanging matron cow), lakes, and various historic structures (a Saracin tower).

Our personal breakfast buffet was an equal embarrassment of riches. Home-made cakes and tortes, yogurt, honeys, jams; local artisan cheeses and hams, fresh-cut fruits, breads, and juices, competed for our delight. Obviously, we followed the example, gleaned from Lord Gratham and Her Ladyship, in exercising polite discretion in an attempt to govern the potential for boundless gluttony.

Our daily constitutional (hiking, if you prefer) surveying the estate and lands, a bike-ride (pedal down hills – walk up ‘em) through neighboring farms and hill towns (Saragano), and gear shifting excursions in our Panda to the regional stone communities of Bevagna, Todi, Spello, and Gualdo Cattaneo, all contributed a healthy feeling of moderation and balance. Noblesse oblige!

Highlight of our stay was a personal cooking class that Amelia designed for us on the stormy day of our departure. We spent 5 hours in her custom-designed culinary teaching-kitchen in an adjacent farm building digesting her signature style of Italian cooking with emphasis on practical preparation of pasta sauces (pesto, fresh tomato, beef, eggplant) and a dolce of tiramisu. The challenge for us was to keep up with “Ama,” as she danced around her stainless cucina, moving from ingredient, to saucepan, to story, to recipe, to lovingly scolding her champagne-colored toy poodle Jolie, who just wanted to know when the scraps were coming her way.

What was exceptional was to engage with this amiable, sophisticated and talented woman and discover elements of her life: her travels, her careers (actress, Asian art collector, chef, restaurateur, TV host, and interior designer) and enthusiasms for life.

What we appreciated about Amelia, her knowledgeable, hard working husband, and their staff, was their vitality and passionate invitation for all to enjoy the refinements of a family still noble in character.

Lisa and I departed our fantasy existence at La Ghirlanda, with a down-to-earth appreciation of the life we have, and the privilege of visiting the abundant palettes of experience that travels offer.

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Roamin’ Holiday

“Walking is also an ambulation of mind”  - Gretel Ehrlich

Italy, on one hand, is cradle of the Renaissance; muse to countless artists and artisans; house to the authority and magnificence of the Holy See. It also retains a shadow identity as a model for what I am calling ambient non-compliance: highly entertaining, and sometimes aggravating –  individual arbitration and public chaos.

As if I needed an example to illustrate the point – upon presenting our credentials and family lineage qualifying us to rent a car with Hertz at the Rome Termini, we were informed by the good-natured representative (who splayed a wet cough over my passport, credit card, and license) that the fuel level on our car was essentially on empty (“too busy to refuel the cars today”). But, we were told, it was OK, as we could return it in a similar operating state.

(This is not to diminish appreciation for our beloved, yet diminutive, Fiat Panda – one rental category up from a Vespa, …but I am getting ahead of myself.)

We have embarked on our fifth consecutive “sabbatical” (at this point let’s call it a compelling six-week diversion) to Italy, Austria, Budapest, and this year, Paris.

I make no apologies; we have returned to some of the most beautiful, comforting, and evocative settings in our travel experience.

Landing in Rome was an immediate immersion in urban style, earthy colors, Classical architectures, sublime coffee, fresh insalatas, roasted meats and marinated frutti di mare, and dramatic seasonal transitions (summer to winter overnight) ushered in with lightning, wind, and a Mediterranean downpour!

Of course we had to visit Vatican City via the Metro, still buzzing with popular approval of the new Papa. An hour absorbing the incomprehensible grandeur of St. Pietro goes a long way to satisfying cultural guilt pangs to spend time in museums.

Adding to our self-satisfaction basking in the arts was an evening concert of Brahms’ Requiem sung in serious German by an earnest flock of amateurs at “St. Paul’s Within the Walls”, the first non-Catholic church built in Rome.

However, most of our time was dedicated to endless hours strolling through now-familiar quarters of Rome reviewing the beauty, charm, and energy that animate this city. These ambitious exertions are punctuated by indolent pauses, sipping caffeinated drinks at stylish cafes.

This being “Holy Week,” the city is besieged by touring school kids from every corner of creation. Italian children in particular, seem to be schooled in the essentials of fervent gestures and coarse admonitions, as essential preparation for Roman civic life.

Our base is the Cernaia Suites, a humble pension, in a cosmopolitan section near embassies and ethnic restaurants. Renato, our host, oversees order in this tiny yet immaculate grouping of rooms in an apartment building.

His Filipino assistant, Giselle, wakes us every morning with tea and hot cornetto (Italian croissants) served in our room. We overlook an internal courtyard that connects other flats and enunciate the soul of the neighborhood – laundry drying in the sun and getting soaked in afternoon showers, the morning aroma of onions sautéing for someone’s evening soup, laughter and shouting into the night as hard partiers let off steam, and …above the concerns of the impassioned residents, the songs from unseen birds.

We ‘re off to Umbria today, cozy in our brand new, yet alarmingly un-fueled Panda, to bear witness to the verdant emergence of spring in the ancient countryside…

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Marlborough Country

Driving in New Zealand is quite civilized, once you get past the annoying reflex of entering traffic lanes from the right side (American vs. UK). A couple of oncoming tractor-trailers seemed to hasten my learning curve.

Our rental ride is a compact Holden – GM’s Australian franchise, sold in NZ – that has served us well in some challenging rain and gales. Distances between settlements on the South Island are impressive, even on Highway 1, the well paved main artery (2 narrow lanes) running North-South. It is routine not to see another vehicle for miles, and many of those are semis with double trailers that blow by close enough to re-focus my sensibilities on long-term survival.

One unforgettable stretch of highway spanning a river delta was a half-mile long, one-lane bridge. The concept in navigating this test of manhood is to evaluate if you have enough time to cover the distance across the bridge before oncoming traffic takes the initiative. Luckily, we sped across like wombats before encountering a cattle rig.

Our final destination on this trip is the beautiful Marlborough wine-producing region on the north end of the Island. It bares similarities to Napa-Sonoma, accommodating both boutique labels from homestead growers, as well as large industrial vintners.

Our hosts Jo and Steve pamper visitors at the #1 rated (TripAdvisor) B&B, Hillsfield House, central to dozens of wineries. Their pets, four alpaca, 3 miniature horses, and a black cat extend a rural character to their lovely Chateau-styled property.

I tried to make friends with one fuzzy alpaca by breathing, nose to nose, as instructed. With no foreshadowing, my reward was to be summarily spit upon. Imagine the powerful burst of compressed air you get at the optometrist to check out impending glaucoma. I took an oath in that moment to specify pure merino wool for my future knitwear requirements.

The bicycles they provide allowed us to tour the region for 3 days through light rain and shine, and gain a first hand feel for the territory just awakening to spring: perfectly manicured vines, newborn lambs and their mothers grazing in between the endless plantings, drop-ins to “cellar doors” (tasting rooms) for samplings of Sauvignon Blanc and spicy olive oil with brown bread, and comfy lunches served at some of the estates.

One image, not to be forgotten, was a reed thin rancher driving slowing down a side road in his pick-up truck corralling 150 newly shorn sheep back to their pasture. With his golden-haired toddler sleeping in the back seat, and his two shepherd dogs running alongside, he effortlessly whistled commands the dogs executed with gleeful precision – all this, while he and I chatted about the clearing weather and how our visit to the valley was going, as I trailed on my bike snapping photos. After the task was complete, the dogs happily wiggled on their backs in the cool wet grass, signifying pride in their craft.

Roaming the quiet rustic lanes allowed Lisa and I to drink in the scents, the symphony of birds, and the peace of the region – a perfect conclusion to invigorating discovery in New Zealand.

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Beneath the Southern Cross

“I see my light come shining, from the West unto the East,                                                                                                                any day now, any day now…I shall be released.”

100.3 FM in Kaikoura, is one of the best radio stations in the world. “DJ’ed by volunteers…less lip and more music, upsetting people and offering opportunities to experience radio out of the blue.”

Thus the soundtrack was established for our astonishing wanderings around Kaikoura as we tuned into the waves and wonders of this finger into the Pacific.

Waves on The Esplanade, an immaculate condo, was our unlikely quarters here on the wild Canterbury coast. (yes, those snowy mountains and crystal waters were our wake-up vista while enjoying toast, tea and jam).

We set off by foot and bike to costal tracks that trace the volcanic cliffs and velvet meadows of the peninsula. An immense colony of sleepy fur seals has designated the sunny trailhead as snooze central.

Low tide afforded us the thrill of walking out among the tide pools on slippery volcanic rocks to get personal with preening males who slithered ashore. The crashing surf, bracing breeze, and other-worldly backdrop of pure white peaks stirred Lisa to declare this place among the most beautiful that we’ve seen.

Just 15 km. north of town is one of the great hidden attractions of this majestic island. Accessed by an enchanting path set back about 400 yards from the ocean, roughly 60 seal pups frolic in chilly pools at the base of a fresh waterfall, This is the colony’s “daycare center” where mother seals leave the pups to socialize while hunting for food during the day.

One of God’s creatures that has worn out its welcome in this corner of paradise is the pesky possum (local variety). 30 million of the varmints (7 per person) have overrun the joint since being introduced in 1837 to start an ill-conceived fur industry. With no natural predators, they wreak havoc with regional ecosystems and ranchers are not shy about hanging ‘em out to dry.

The town of Kaikoura (pop. 2100) has the feel of a backwater surfer-backpacker refuge – touches of art-deco, faux Trader Vic’s, and a hint of the Isle of Skye leave room for everyone to commune with their respective Natures.

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