Monday, September 27, 2010

Bassano del Grappa, Italy

The train trip from Latina to Rome, Rome to Padua and Padua to Bassano was uneventful except for Scott being sick as a dog. He was not much of a conversationalist-he slept most of the day. So I wrote and read and watched the scenery pass by.

Bassano del Grappa is a picturesque town on the banks of the Brenta River. It sits at the base of the Dolomites, a majestic mountain range that themselves sit at the base of the Alps. I love this town. We traveled through Bassano on a motorcycle trip last year and vowed to return.
We checked in to Hotel Brennero, probably the most comfortable hotel we’ve had this whole trip with a spacious room and a shower AND bathtub.
 At 75 Euros a night (about $100) it was also one of the most reasonable-in comparison we paid 79 Euros a night in Milan for a cramped-albeit clean-hostel/hotel room in a part of town packed with sex shops and massage parlours! There was a big celebration going on in Bassano the Sunday afternoon we arrived. Actually, it was just winding down, but some folks were determined to party the night away…right under our 3rd floor window. Scott immersed himself in the bathtub while I unpacked a bit and then, amidst singing and hollering, we went to sleep. The next morning Scott was feeling much better and we set out to explore the town. Bassano is set up very logically with most of the concentration of shops and city offices in one area. It is very easy to get around on foot…indeed most of the locals seem to walk or ride bicycles around town.
 The town is known for its grappa-a spirit made from the skin of grapes. You’d think we’d had enough with all the alcohol in Latina, but we had already planned on touring the Poli Grappa Museum. It was fascinating, showing some types of very early distillers (stills) and, after tasting several varieties, we bought a few bottles to bring home. There were great food shops with porcini mushrooms-dried and fresh, several types of honey and burlap sacks full of beans, peas, lentils and rice. There were a few cartography shops-Bassano having one of the earliest printing companies in the area. The papers and cards were beautifully printed with centuries old designs. And the gelatarias were some of the best we’ve encountered. We had a pine nut gelato that rivaled any gelato we’ve ever eaten.
Bassano’s houses a UNESCO site with one of the Italian Military War Memorials atop Mt. Grappa (about 30 km away). We rode up Mt. Grappa last year (a gripping ride up the side of a very steep mountain which, to Scott’s chagrin, pretty much made me swear off motorcycles) and saw the Memorial from afar. The site entombs about 30,000 soldiers, with over 12,000 being unknown soldiers. The town itself has shrines and some will break your heart. Scott and I were walking down a beautiful tree lined boulevard overlooking the river when he pointed out flower pots planted with cyclamins at eye level on every tree. I looked closer and saw they were mini memorials. The flower pots were attached to ceramic plaques that encircled the tree trunks. On each plaque was the name of a fallen soldier. What was striking however, was a noose painted under each soldiers’ name. The men named were hung on this street 60 odd years ago. It was a sad reminder of the cost of war.
We spent 2 days and three nights in Bassano and it was not near enough. We walked all over town and shopped and ate some great meals.  Scott felt better every day and by our last day in Italy we realized it was not a hangover, but he was battling an upper respiratory infection. We stopped in a farmacia in the center of town and I told them my husband had a sore throat.  They brought out some propolis spray and a homeopathic remedy for sore throat/chest congestion. Although I felt we were a few days late for using these, I bought both and he took them on the spot. These shops are actual pharmacies and you can have a prescription filled here, but it's nice their first line of defense is homeopathic. We had to get up real early our last morning in Bassano to catch a 5:30 train to Cologne, Germany.  We were on trains for 12 hours that day. It gave me time to read a bit, relax, catch up on writing.  I know I've said it a hundred times, but I do so love the trains.
An empty train station at 5:30 a.m.
The ride from Bassano to Cologne was magnificent-first through the Dolomite Mountains and then through the Alps.  It was chilly outside and the train was cozy.  We passed thickly forested mountain tops and big lakes. Sweet alpine towns and industrial areas.  We took lots of pictures out the train window.
At 5:30 that evening we entered the Cologne Central Station.
We were here to spend 2 days with Lothar Esser and his family: his wife Renate and his two sons; Sebastian, 14 and Lukas, 12.

Latina Part Two

After leaving the beach, Nuncio drove to a house close by where a number of his friends were having a get together. We met his girlfriend Rita and many other folks and we were immediately drawn in and given seats at the large table. There was much talk and attempts to communicate. They were friendly and happy and brought us out plates with chocolate ice cream on them. Scott took a bite and told me, “Chocolate but something else…” I tried it and grinned, “Chocolate and chilis!” Everyone smiled and nodded their heads. We were soon back in the car heading towards Stella’s home. As we sped along, I kept seeing fennel growing by the side of the road-not the bulbous vegetable, but the herb. When we got back to the family compound, I walked down the street hoping to pick some. I had walked about a block when I saw Ramona behind me. I turned around to join her and we walked about a block the other way. She told me that during a 3 week vacation to see Claudio’s parents when Daniela was in kindergarten, the school in Houston was threatening a truancy charge, so Ramona enrolled Daniela in kindergarten in Latina for 3 weeks. School was from 8-12 and then 2-4 and Daniela would attend for only the morning hours. It was kindergarten so the language barrier was not much of a problem-play is play in any language. Daniela loved it. The Latina school signed a paper showing attendance and Houston was satisfied.
By the time we made it back to the house, it was time to head next door for dinner. It was dark by now and as we walked down the steps to the driveway separating the two houses, I could see the glow of the fire on the grill. An ingenious design, the grill was simply a masonry platform built up along the front edge only one brick high. The back was much higher and the fire was built along one side of the tall back wall and the hot coals were shoveled under the cooking surface-a metal grate that stood on legs about 6” high. The entire thing was waist high and from the other side just looked like a brick wall. As we arrived the chicken pieces and sausage were just being removed from the fire and mountains of steaks were ready to be grilled. We stood around the grill drinking red wine out of plastic cups.
Even though this pic is out of focus, I like it!
I had brought along a jar of my chipotle bar-b-que sauce to share and I carried it to the kitchen. Stella, Mariuccia and a beautiful, young pregnant woman were all standing in the kitchen talking. I was introduced to Sara, Umberto’s wife. Umberto is one of Claudio’s nephews. Soon the food from the grill entered the dining room on huge platters and crusty bread, bowls of green salad and marinated roasted peppers with capers were placed on the table. Wine bottles were set out and everyone claimed a seat. The meal was uproarious with many conversations going on at the same time and wine bottles being emptied and replaced.
Much laughter and teasing and I found it all achingly sweet to see this large, loving family together. I leaned over and whispered to Scott, “Isn’t this like dinner when all the kids are home?” “No,” he laughed, “the kids argue more!” The table was cleared and bowls of large grapes, plums and melon slices were set out. The Sardinian cookie tin from lunch was once again opened.
 Two bottles were brought to the table-one was labeled Passtino and the other Prungna. “Try?” Pietro asked, and of course I nodded yes. The amber colored passtino was a perfect after dinner drink; sweet, rich and syrupy. The flavor was familiar, reminding me of the Torcolato we bring home from Italy each year. I was told it was made from the grapes that are “passed over”, therefore a bit dried when finally picked and processed into wine. This accounts for a sweeter and I think more complex flavor. Really delicious! Next the Prungna, a prune alcohol that tasted quite a bit stronger and not near as sweet. They laughed when my eyes opened wide and I made motions as if breathing fire! I remember other bottles, a clear liquid that made my eyes water and then some limoncello, but by this time, I had lost count of what or how much we were drinking. And Scott was way beyond me.
 When my head hit my pillow that night, the room spun a bit before I fell into a deep sleep.
The next morning was rushed, with showers and getting our bags together to make an 8:00 train to Rome. I could tell Scott was hurting-he hunched over his espresso like his whole body ached although I suspected it was mostly his head. It was a bittersweet good-bye. I was so glad we got to meet this extraordinary family, yet I wished we could have stayed longer. Stella handed me a bag of plums off her tree to eat on the train and as I hugged her good-bye, she looked up at me and said, “Me lika you.” With tears in my eyes I told her, “Me lika you, too!”

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Our New Family in Latina Part One

18 Sept 2010 19:44

We left Milan at 8:15 a.m. on a fast train for Rome.  The plan had been to tour Rome for a few hours before catching the train for Latina and connecting with Claudio, our friend from Houston and his Italian family. But once in Rome, we were laden with luggage (and we have relatively little) and felt assaulted by a portly old woman outside the train station who kept lifting her skirt up to reveal her naked genitals. She would stand there with her skirt around her waist and yell and swish her buttocks back and forth. Not a pretty picture. We were sitting outside the station trying to eat lunch and finally put it all away and headed inside to catch a train an hour earlier than our original plan.  We found a train leaving in about 15 minutes and headed to the platform.  It was a regional train, meaning it was old and cramped and very full.  We kept passing car after car looking in the window for a car that had some empty seats.  We finally found one and stepped up into the train when we heard a very loud voice yell, "Hey!" We spun around and, lo and behold! there was Claudio! He and his wife Ramona had been on a Mediterranean  cruise and were going to spend a week in Latina where Claudio's family lives. Like us, they also took a train other than the one they had planned on taking! We were supposed to meet up in Latina, but by some stroke of luck we found each other in the Rome Terminal! We followed Claudio down to their train car and settled in with him and Ramona, thrilled that we were together. Once in Latina we were met by Claudio's neice Francesca and nephew Davida in 2 separate cars to hold 4 passengers and LOTS of luggage. After 5 minutes at Claudio's family's home, I think I now know the real way to see Italy-spend time in the home of an Italian family. When we stayed with the Piero and Luisa Laverda two years ago for a few days, we were guests. Here, in Claudio’s family home, surrounded by siblings, nieces, nephews and his wonderful mother we are family and living and breathing the Italian lifestyle. Claudio is home. He talks 90 miles a minute and I catch every 5th word, so I smile wide and nod my head a lot. His mother Stella is lovely, 81 years old, sharp and active. She has smiling eyes and a gentle smile. When I showed her the picture I took of her and Claudio, she dropped her chin to her chest and muttered, “Old, old…”
 I want to gather her up in my arms and hug her. I told her I was going to move in and that I would cook for her. I received a big smile in response. The homestead is really a compound. Claudio’s sister, Mariuccia and her husband, Pietro and two sons live next door. There is a large empty lot on the other side of Stella's house and, as we stood in the back yard I watched some gypsies wring the necks of about 8 chickens.  Stella said something had been killing them so they must have decided to finish them off themselves.
Gypsies with their now dead chickens piled on the table!
Stella's sweet dog, Yogi. (I am probably spelling this wrong)
We were soon herded next door for lunch. Walking through the yard, there were plum and pomegranate trees, an olive tree full of olives, fruiting cactus, an apricot tree and a lemon tree with lemons as big as my fist.
We were welcomed into the dining room and soon a robust red wine was served. Massive plates of spaghetti were set before us and crusty bread was put out. I watched as Mariuccia diced a small red pepper onto Claudio’s pile of spaghetti. She looked at me and I held my plate out. “Picante” she said tentatively and I smiled wide and nodded my head, “Yes, I’m from Texas…picante is good…” She diced the pepper over my pasta. I scarfed down my entire plate…it was so phenomenally good and reinforced my thinking about food in Italy-Simple is Best. Claudio’s wife Ramona was sitting next to me and related a story about their last visit to Latina. Claudio’s father asked Ramona and her daughter, Daniela if they’d like to accompany him to town because he was out of cheese. They ended up at a local goat farm where they picked up their cheese and Daniela was allowed to pet the goats. “That is the reason,” Ramona told me, “all the food here tastes so good! Everything is unbelievably fresh!” Pietro had risen from the table and was puttering in the kitchen. He returned carrying a tray of sausage, wafer thin slices of prosciutto and chunks of braeseola. On a cutting board was a wedge of pale yellow cheese. The tray and board were passed around and we all filled our plates again. More bread was torn from the loaves and we commenced to eat. As we emptied wine bottles, more were brought to the table. Our glasses were never empty. There was lots of conversation and a particular point would be made by waving a finger, a chunk of bread or a fork in the air. The laughter was infectious and although most of the time I couldn’t understand what was being said, I laughed along. Pietro once again left the table and returned with a plate filled with huge slices of yellow melon. It had a sweet, creamy flavor and after much discussion it was decided it would have been better in a day or two. I thought it was delicious…I couldn’t imagine what transformation it would go through had we waited to cut it. Pietro wouldn’t sit still and jumped from his chair again to grab some small cut glass cups and a large tin which he set in the middle of the table. He then went to the freezer and took out a bottle frosted from the cold. The liquid inside was syrupy and brilliant yellow…ahhh, limoncello! I have been so enthralled with this delicious liqueur from past visits to Italy, I actually made a batch last year as gifts. Pietro filled the tiny glasses and took the lid off the tin. “From Sardinia.” He told us. Two kinds of cookies filled the tin. He pointed to the puffy golden rounds -“Amaretti” and then to the heavily iced irregularly shaped wafers, “Especial from Sardinia!” The amaretti were sweet and almond flavored. They were delicious between sips of the icy Limoncello. The other cookies were biscuit like. I didn’t know which I liked better. Espresso finished the meal. I was stuffed. Ramona cocked her head in my direction and whispered, “It’s hard to believe we’ll eat again in six hours!” When we returned to Stella’s home, Claudio’s brother Nuncio was there. He and Claudio demonstrated how to pick the cactus fruit and then Nuncio proceeded to peel some for us to taste.
It was decided we would pay a visit to the beach for the afternoon. Latina sits south of Rome and consists of three small towns. Latina Scalo is the farthest East and is where the train station is located. Latina (Latina proper) is the main town and where Claudio’s family live. Latina Lido is the beach town. As we drove through the streets, it began to rain. Nuncio drove with one hand on the wheel and the other gesturing to Claudio in the back seat. It made for an exciting ride. We drove along the beach road with the rolling waves of the Mediterranean on one side and small shops and restaurants on the other. The rainstorm had already moved through here and it was mostly deserted. We stopped at a small cafĂ© that had a sign outside reading Gelato Artigianale. Really? After the meal we just had? Scott believes the major food groups in Italy are gelato, espresso, pasta and wine and he makes sure he indulges himself as often as is humanly possible. We ordered our scoops and Nuncio and Scott also ordered espresso. I had nocciola (hazelnut) gelato, my fall back flavor when yogurt or ginger or some other fairly exotic taste isn’t on the menu. We wandered to a table close to the street and ate and talked. I was itching to get to the water. Soon we crossed the street and walked down the sidewalk until we found a place to enter the beach. The sand was damp from the rain and I took off my shoes and walked to the waters edge. I stepped into the water and walked down the beach. Everyone else held back on the sand. The waves soaked the bottom of my pants and sand clung to the hem. I was in heaven. The waves rolled onto the beach. Claudio called after me, “You are such a hippie!” I wasn’t sure what that meant, but it was okay with me.
Nuncio, Claudio, Ramona and Scott

Friday, September 17, 2010


Not a lot of time to write (and I know that's a good thing, 'cuz I've been wordy) so here's a bunch of pictures.
A typical train.  I think this was from Holland to Southern Germany. They are very comfy.
Scott at the Muiderslot Castle in The Netherlands.
A falcon at the castle.
This big owl had deep yellow eyes.  The young man who ran the falconry told us that if an owl has black eyes, he can see (and therefore hunts) at night.  With yellow eyes, they see and hunt during the day. If they have orange eyes, they can see night AND day.  This guy was really beautiful!

The Neuschwanstein Castle built by King Ludwig II-often called the Cinderella Castle because this is what the castle in Cinderella is based upon. It was pretty magnificent and quite a hike to get to it!
A building partway up the mountain on the way to the Cinderella Castle.
This castle occupied an adjacent hill and was built by King Ludwig II for his mother-in-law. It was called the Swan Castle.
Scott and I on a bridge by the Castle.
Some cool hinges on a garage down the hill from the Cinderella Castle. I never found out what purpose all the rocks on the roof served.
A gift from Cynthia-hand knitted socks! Was I ever glad for these, because the castle viewing day trip was a chilly one!
The Schloss Linderhof Castle also built by Ludwig II.  He built many, many castles in a short period of time and then he died. There are different opinions on how he died...legend has it that he was murdered because all his castle building was bankrupting Bavaria! The inside of this one was totally much gold leaf that it made our eyes cross. Photographs were not allowed.
One of the beautiful flower beds at Schloss Linderhof.
The gazebo behind the castle.  It is actually a waterfall.
The walkway up to the gazebo.  We are going to build one of these walkways as soon as we get home. Yup, we're gonna' get right on it...
Dinner with Cynthia and Tom our last night at their house.
The "famous" Massimo Novelli, the man behind Motocicli Veloce in Milan. I am crazy about this guy!  He is so sweet and reminds me so much of my son-in-law Justin, who I am ALSO crazy about!! We had a great visit with Massimo and Scott got lots of parts from him.
The little garden outside Massimo's shop.  We want to recreate this at home also.  It might be more reasonable to do than the covered walkway at the castle!
Massimo treated us to lunch at one of his hang outs, a restaurant named Aldo's.  We called it the Che Cafe because of a wall of pictures of Che Guevara. This pasta dish was our first course, Pasta Arrabbiata. Spicy tomato and pepper sauce. Very tasty!
As a second course, Scott had the Coniglio Morto...which literally means Dead Rabbit. And it was.
A not very great photo of Emilio, Laurel's husband.  All the pics from our visit came out foggy/faded-don't know why.  We had a sweet visit with them both.  Laurel whipped up a great snack tray while they put Scott to making martinis.  Yum!
In the little blue bowl in the back of the tray Laurel had some tuna stuffed peppers...oh my...we bought more than half a kilo today to eat tomorrow on the train.  Somehow, and I swear I don't know HOW this happened, the package got opened this evening and we found ourselves snacking on them...HELP! we can't stop!
Laurel with her martini...gee, how many olives are in that glass? Thanks guys for the lively conversation!
Tomorrow we head for a quick trip (just overnight) to Latina, a town just southwest of Rome to visit our friends Claudio and Ramona.  They live in Houston, but are on a Med cruise and tomorrow they will go to Latina to spend a few weeks with Claudio's parents in Latina.  Claudio asked us to come down and meet his family.  We are really looking forward to it!  Ciao!