Tuesday, December 26, 2006

A Holiday Gift from Chanra

Chanra is a friend of ours who lives in Siem Reap, Cambodia. We met him during our trip to Cambodia and Vietnam in March 2006 when he was one of the local guides on our bicycle tour and a real help when Caren had her Vietnam visa problems.

We've stayed in touch by email, SMS, and internet phone calls (the wonders of modern technology bringing the world closer together).

We helped him out with financing his fleet of bicycles and support vehicles. He now has a thriving business renting the bicycles and support services to various tour companies (including Butterfield & Robinson). Another micro-lending success story.

The other day we received a great gift from Chanra - photos of the bicycles, truck, and Chanra himself. Check them out. Chanra's the fellow in the middle of the first picture and leading the pack of cyclists in the last picture.

We hope to visit him again in late 2007.

Monday, October 16, 2006

Our Final, Activity-Packed Day in Italy

On Tuesday morning, we fly home to LA. We still had a full day on Sunday to see more sights in Maremma.

We had heard that the regional park had some good hiking trails and admission tickets were included in our hotel package. So we put on our hiking shoes and headed off to Parco Regionale della Maremma. The park runs along the coastline where the local river estuary flows into the sea. They have half a dozen different hiking trails laid out thru the park, each trail marked with its level of difficulty.

We headed off on Le Torri (the tower) not knowing what we'd find. It's easy at first - a kilometer of paved road. Then we started to descend a VERY steep trail to the sea. We arrived at a broad beach and then climbed back uphill to an enormous 12th century watch tower. Quite a spectacular view.

Of course, after all the exercise, we needed a good Italian meal. So we were directed to the town of Rio Tinto, north of our hotel by about 30 minutes. Another hillside town with an unbelieveably good little trattoria. This restaurant was also run by a husband and wife team - it must be a good business for a family to run. This time the wife was the chef and the husband ran things out front. They were very nice and recommended a great bottle of Morellino di Scansano from Elizabetta Geppetti's winery (also recommended in W.S.). We're going to need to go back on an intensive exercise regimen after this trip. And stock up on wine from Maremma.

Sunday, October 15, 2006

Mortodella and "Wine Spectator"

I know that the words "mortodella" and "Wine Spectator" are rarely seen together in the same sentence, but yesterday we used the words in combination.

During the day, we drove about an hour to Siena. We've been there before, but it never ceases to be an amazingly photogenic (and tourist packed) walled city. After a few hours of walking, we needed a snack. So Caren drops into this small grocery and comes out with a huge sandwich of mortodella and provolone cheese. We then proceed to do what all smart tourists do - we sat on the steps of the Duomo and ate our lunch. Doesn't everyone eat their lunch on the steps of a church?

The weather was perfect. We climbed atop the observation balconies of the Duomo and got some great pictures of the square where they hold the famous Siena horse race every summer.

A few days before we came to Italy, Wine Spectator magazine published an article highlighting the wines, restaurants, and hotels of Maremma. I made a reservation at a teeny, tiny restaurant in Castiglione della Pescaia that was featured in the article. It was small alright - 5 tables inside and 6 outside. It is run by a husband and wife - the husband is the chef and the wife runs "out front." What a meal! And what great people they are. They had heard about the article in WS, but hadn't seen it. Jordan brought along his copy and we gave it to them. It was a nice gift for them, since we have no idea if Wine Spectator magazine ever makes it to Castiglione della Pescaia.

Saturday, October 14, 2006

A Winemaker AND a Golfer!

Erik Banti leads a life many of us dream of - he owns a winery in Scansano, he travels the world to promote his wines, and he's an avid golfer. This afternoon we spent a couple of hours sampling his wines and talking about travel and golf. He specializes in Morellino di Scansano - in the U.S., we call this wine Sangiovese. He produces about 50,000 cases a year (a midsize winery here in Italy), but not very much of it reaches the U.S.. He's negotiating to sign a new distributor in California, so maybe we can load up on his wine when we get home.

Scansano is another one of those "picture postcard" hillside towns in Tuscany. The views go on seemingly forever, the town square has all the little shops you need to survive, and the small trattorias offer wonderful snacks, wine, and meals. Call Al D'Amico. Where's the Keller Williams real estate agent? I want to look at villas for sale.

Burning off the calories before adding more

After a leisurely breakfast on the patio by the pool, we took a fun ride thru the L'Andana estate this morning. They have several mountain bikes that the guests can use. We rode thru the vineyards and orchards of the estate to burn off some of our food and wine intake. The scenery here is gorgeous and there is only a handful of tourists around the hotel.

This afternoon we're heading off into the hills to Scansano to visit a winery and see the local sights.

Friday, October 13, 2006

Italy's Wild West - Maremma

Today we arrived in Maremma - the southwestern region of Tuscany along the Mediterrranean coast. We are staying at a fabulous hotel, L'Andana, outside the seaside town of Castiglione della Pescaia.

Several months ago we purchased a four night stay on Luxury Link, knowing that we'd want to spend some time elsewhere in Italy after our bicycle trip. Check out the hotel's website to see details about this place - L'Andana. We figure this is the fifteenth travel package we have purchased at auction on Luxury Link in the past six years.

We have appointments to visit several of the local wineries. No bus tours stopping at the wineries here like they do on Highway 29 in Napa. Here it's by appointment only.

We also plan on spending a day in the nearby Natural Park of Maremma and renting bicycles to tour the countryside (we haven't had enough bicycling yet?). And of course, we plan on having some great Italian meals and sampling the local wine output.

On our way from Rome, we ventured off the main highway and drove up to the small town of Pitigliano. This is an amazing town - you read about places like this and doubt you'll ever see one in person. It was built in the 10th century atop tufa stone - volcanic rock. The street are unbelievably narrow.

Located in Pitigliano is one of the oldest synagogues in Italy - founded in 1598. It was destroyed during WW II and restored during the 1990s. There are no longer enough Jewish people in the area to sustain a congregation, so it's primarily used as a museum and meeting place. There's Jordan wearing a yamulke to take a picture of the sanctuary.

This is a picture of the congregation from 1936.

We ate lunch at a fantastic restaurant in this town - Il Tufo Allegro. The wild mushroom soup was to die for. And Caren had gnocchi made out of cheese, no pasta. A good meal in Italy is not cheap, but it can be a great gastronomic experience.

Now we can't wait to try out more small trattoria throughout the Maremma region.

Thursday, October 12, 2006

I Have an Urge to Pee

WE FOUND IT!!!!!! We actually found Villa d'Este and have proof. See the pic.

What a magnificent Renaissance villa it is. The gardens are beautiful and there are dozens of fountains. So much water! The guys that built this place really knew their engineering.

All the water kinda gives you the urge to go to the bathroom. Good thing the restrooms are easy to find - the universal symbol is always a relief when you spot it.

Tivoli is a compact city - we walked to Villa d'Este from our hotel. How come we couldn't find Villa d'Este five years ago? Because the train station is above and on the eastern edge of the city. Without a map or directions, you'd never know where to go.

Oh well, now we can say "been there, done that."

Now we're heading off to Villa Gregoriana which is next to our hotel.

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Will We Ever Find Villa d'Este?

We left the city of Bari in Puglia earlier today and drove several hours to the hills outside of Rome. Caren was really upset that we didn't stop to take pictures of Monte Cassino (site of the famous WW II battle). You can see it from the highway - it's obvious why the hill was such a strategic target - it overlooks everything for miles.

Driving on the autostrada takes a certain mentality. Stay in one of the right lanes unless you want to pass. If you dare hang out in a left lane, be prepared for impatient Italians or Germans flashing their lights and honking to pass. They come up on you in a flash - 200 km/hr (120 mph) is a typical cruising speed.

We are now in the town of Tivoli - famous for Hadrian's Villa and the Villa d'Este gardens. We're staying at the Hotel Sirene right in the center of town.

Driving here is not for the faint of heart - they haven't heard of two lane roads, stop lights, or parking lots. To drop off our luggage, we drove down a steep, one lane street, and then backed up the street to the main drag (Jordan's great with the manual transmission). No one pays any attention to parking signs - find an open spot anywhere and stick your car in it.

Our room looks out at the Temple of Vesta, a tiny, Corinthian-columned temple, and the Villa Gregoriana gardens. This hotel was originally built as a villa in 1865 - fortunately it has been updated quite a bit, including indoor plumbing and electricity. The view from our room is spectacular.

The last time we visited Tivoli was in 2001 when our son Bryan was spending a semester in Rome. Unfortunately, we didn't allocate enough time on our day trip to Tivoli and only visited Hadrian's Villa (we'll leave that excursion for another posting). We wandered around and couldn't find Villa d"Este. I doubt it exists. Maybe tomorrow we'll finally find it.
"I've Been to Rome, but Where is Tivoli?"

Good question..... Hundreds of thousands of tourists visit Rome each year, but not many venture out of the city. Tivoli is a small town in the hills east of Rome. (For you geography buffs, we're not talking about Tivoli Gardens in Copenhagen, Denmark.)

For hundreds of years, the rich, famous, politicians, and religious leaders have escaped to the hillside communities outside of Rome to avoid the summer heat. Tivoli is the home of Villa Adriano (Hadrian's Villa) and the Ville d'Este with its extensive gardens.

Click here to see a Map of Tivoli
Time to Dust Off My Italian Driving Skills

It was hard saying goodbye yesterday to all our new bicycling (and drinking) friends. But now it's off in our rental car (a Ford Focus small SUV with a peppy engine - this model is NOT sold in the U.S.) along the autostrada from Bari (on the Adriatic coast) to the eastern outskirts of Rome (on the west coast).

This is not a picture of our rental car (on the right) - but we liked the photo op.
The Masseria San Domenico was truly a ***** hotel. It must be where wealthy Italians from the north come to chill out. Swimming pool, tennis, golf, beach club, bicycling, spa, gourmet restaurant, great weather, and lots of quiet.
Now it's time to try out my driving skills on the Italian motorways - can I hit 180 km/hour and not get passed?

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

The Last Days of Puglia

Yesterday was our last full day in Puglia. It was a jam packed day (and night) of activities and the weather was absolutely gorgeous.

But the night before, we had a very special treat. During dinner, Lewis (one of our intrepid B&R tour leaders) sang a beautiful Italian ballad. It brought tears to everyone's eyes. Alright, maybe it only brought tears to Lewis' eyes , but we all gained a lot of respect for him and his effort.

The Masseria San Domenico was fabulous (and pricey). On a slope overlooking the Adriatic, it is part of a large estate. From the rooftop, you can make out the hills of Albania across the sea.

We bicycled thru the "Land of the Trulli" around Alberobello. Trulli are small houses built with conical stone roofs. There are thousands of them in the area and they are now protected as national landmarks. So much for doing a "gut job" and renovating a new vacation home in Puglia.

We also stopped in to a small family-run cheese factory. We never knew that you could carve little animals out of fresh mozzerella. Go figure. The cheese tasted great - no more packaged crap from the grocery store.

We met a lot of great people on this bicycle trip: PJ and Rick, Dave (helmet cam man) and Sharon, DeWitt and Glory, George and Donna, Jim and Deb, Franc and Nancy, Brad and Barbara, Hugh and Sally, Celeste, Janet, and Bill and Patti. A lot of fun to ride with, eat with, and of course, drink with.

Here are some photos from our last day in Puglia and the folk entertainment at our "goodbye" dinner:

Monday, October 09, 2006

We Meet A Nice Single (Rich) Italian Woman

The bus, the bus!!! We actually rode a bus yesterday from Lecce to Ostuni (don't worry, more bicycling later on). It was Sunday so everything was quiet and peaceful.

Ostuni is a walled, whitewashed, hillside town that looks down on the Adriatic. This place looks more like picture postcards of Greece or the medinas of Morocco than an Italian city.

Our guide for a walking tour of Ostuni was a lovely young woman, Paola. (A few surprises about her later on.) We visited a convent of cloistered nuns and Caren bought some holy medallions to send to Carol Hallock. I bet the nuns aren't watching the NFL on their big screen plasma TV today. Walking the cobblestone streets of Ostuni is for mountain goats, not Americans in their biking clothes.

We turned a corner and there they were - our trusty steeds all tuned up for another day of bicycling. We said goodbye to Paolo (or so we thought) and started our ride - straight uphill into the countryside. Caren decided to ride the van, but Jordan made it all the way to Villa Massari.

What a place! This is a huge family farm estate - and there is Paola! It has belonged to her family since the 12th century. We toured the grounds, including her father's extensive collection of antique carriages, and then had a bountiful picnic (with lots more wine). Everyone in our group with an unmarried son asks Paola for her phone number to try and play cupid. Fortunately, for Paola, she has a boy friend in Rome.

Then came the real excitement - Caren got LOST. We rode back down the hill towards Ostuni and then thru the coastal country towards Masseria San Domenico, our final hotel on the tour (more about it in another posting).

Jordan stopped to take a picture for Al D'Amico (see photo) to show him his Italian relatives' business empire, and Caren sped off with another woman, not to be seen for the next three hours. No cell phone, no trip notes, no money, no idea where they were..... Where they went wrong, no one knows. Finally, after Jordan's cell phone calls to our tour leaders and the support van retracing the bicycle route, there they were - only 15 kilometers from the hotel. SO what happens next - Francesco cleans off Caren's hands (because they were covered with grease when she had to fix her bicycle chain) and tells them to pedal on. I think she learned a lesson.