Monday, September 02, 2019

Packing For A Long Journey

This year's travels will be for 106 days, and include very hot weather, weather that might be cold and wet, and two weeks without a washing machine. Even though we've been doing this for a while, it's still a challenge to pack just enough without over-packing. Art's a bit more of a fashionista (o?) than I am, and I end up being the meanie who says “no, you can't take that shirt, you already have six”. Additionally I bring nothing that needs to be ironed. In the states it's easy because dryers are 'normal', and for most of our clothes a spin in the dryer will make clothes at least presentable, even if the creases aren't crisply ironed. While I'm not a slob, and I want to look nice, my basic attitude is that a) I'll never see most of the people I encounter on vacation again, and b) no one really cares if I wear the same 4 shirts over and over again.

I'm not going to bore you with a list of how many short-sleeved shirts, long-sleeved shirts, sweaters and pants I brought, but what I will tell you is that so far there are a few things I haven't even worn, and one thing I kind of wish I'd brought. (A pashima)

We knew our apartment didn't have a washing machine, but I also knew that most of our tee shirts are quick-dry, and that I could wash them out in the sink and hang them on the rack on our patio. What I didn't know was that the local laundromat (not that common in Italy, at least in our area until a few years ago) had machines that automatically add the detergent and fabric softener – no need to lug bottles of either every time we do laundry. Too bad I didn't find that out before I bought both on our first day of shopping!

Every other day I rinse out the tee shirts we walk in, my sports bra, and whatever else might need a quick refresh. Luckily for me I've always loved hanging clothes outside to dry, so I haven't been bothered by this at all. And although I hadn't planned to use the dryer at the laundromat, once I found out that fabric softener is added automatically is made sense to throw them in the dryer for a least one cycle - €1/9 minutes – and everything looks great! Art hasn't even used the iron once!

Once the weather turns cooler laundry might get more challenging, or at least the drying time might have to increase. The biggest challenge will be on our 2 week transatlantic cruise home, but if we arrive home with every single piece dirty, who cares? I usually throw everything into the washer once we're home anyway, just to be sure.

Last year we brought waaaay too many clothes, and I think we've been much more successful this year. If you see pictures of me wearing the same shirt, now you know the reason why.

Friday, August 30, 2019

The Kindness of Friends, Old and New


Since we moved back to the states in 2010 we've been able to spend several months in Italy every year, mostly due to the kindness of a dear friend. She had a 2 story, 3 bedroom, 2 bath house that she generously shared with us whenever we visited, and it became our Umbrian home. Last winter things changed for all of us when she moved to a smaller place, and so began our search for a suitable replacement for this year.

We always want to stay as long as possible, and for us that's 90 days. Because we'll be taking a transatlantic cruise back to the states with stops in several European ports, our time in Italy will be slightly less than 90 days – we'll be here for 11 weeks total.

I knew that finding something that met all our needs and our budget would be challenging, and as soon as the new year began I started my search. I sent out inquiries to everyone we've ever met who had a connection in Umbria. I did Google searches using every buzzword, both in Italian and English, that I could think of. I found an app that let me contact owners directly rather than going through third-party sites like VRBO and HomeAway.

Here's the challenge: We needed a vacation apartment, one that would have everything we needed, like dishes and towels and sheets. A vacation apartment is usually cheaper than just a room, and of course allows you the ability to cook if you want, or at least have a fridge and a place for snacks. Most vacation apartments rent by the week, and because we wanted to stay 11 weeks, the cost was still going to be staggering. If an owner can rent an apartment for $500 per week, they certainly have no reason to rent it out for less than $2000 per month, right?

When writing to owners I used an idea I've seen on HGTV – I wrote a personal letter, telling them our story, telling them that we'd lived in San Venanzo, that we loved the area, that we wanted to spend as much time there as possible, and that we were searching for an apartment for a 3 month stay at an affordable price.

We were more than happy to pay for the full three months, August, September and October, even though we wouldn't arrive until the middle of August. I spelled out our wishlist: one bedroom, fully equipped kitchen, washing machine and decent internet. I have to admit that I was shocked by how many places didn't even bother to respond, but I kept searching.

When I found L'Alberata, I loved the location and the price, but wasn't sure the 'internet in public spaces' would work for us. I knew Art would want to watch baseball, and that we'd sometimes want to stream a movie or a U.S. television show. Over the course of our email conversation, Elena said she'd try to find a solution, and she did! She added a router to our apartment which has worked perfectly, and that was that.

Although the apartment didn't have a washing machine, the owners would take care of the sheets and towels, so all we'd have to worry about were our own clothes. I knew I could wash some out in the sink, and there's a laundromat just down the street, and so far it's worked out well. Doing laundry on a Sunday at lunch time might be why.

We loved (and still love) the location of the apartment. The monthly rate is within our budget, even though we have to pay for our utilities separately. Air conditioning and heating are pretty straightforward - €1/hour. We've only used the AC for our first night here, and the charge was/is €4 – we can see the meter right here in the apartment.

For the electricity and water we're not sure yet. We've run the fan during the night, and often during the day if we're here. Obviously we're not using a lot of water since we don't have a washing machine, and since we're drinking water we buy from a local machine for 5 cents per 1.5 liters. Still, I'm curious to see how much the utilities will run.

It's shocking to realize that September is almost here! We'd sent our first month's rent to hold the apartment, but now it's time to pay the rent for September. I texted Elena to ask how she wanted to handle the payment. Should we bring it downstairs, or would she prepare a receipt, including the utilities?

Imagine my surprise when Elena told me that we wouldn't have to pay for the utilities for the 18 days we've been here in August since we'd paid rent for the full month! Additionally she offered to tell me what those charges would have been, just so I can get an idea for next month. She really does think of everything!

So, once again, the kindness of friends both old and new has allowed us to be here in Umbria, the place that feels more like home than anywhere else. Umbria is called the green heart of Italy. To us, it's OUR heart.

Sunday, December 23, 2018

IRELAND SUMMER 2018

We moved to Florida in 2015 to avoid the harsh winters in Kentucky. Now we have to figure out how to avoid the hot and humid summers here, and travel is always the answer. The summer of 2018 was one of our more ambitious vacations, due to the fact that we're only allowed to be in (European) Schengen countries for no longer than 90 out of 180 days. We'd never been to Ireland before, and because it's not part of the Schengen agreement, time there wouldn't shorten our stay in Italy.

For our stay in Ireland, we limited our vacation to the Republic of Ireland, and didn't venture into Northern Ireland (a part of Great Britain) at all. I started by using Rick Steves' recommendations, adjusting and generally adding days to his way-too-fast itinerary. I added an extra day onto our first stay, in Dublin, just to allow us to recover from jet lag.

Wanting to see a good chunk of Ireland in a limited amount of time does not lend itself to slow travel. This trip was definitely NOT slow travel, but because we thought this would be our one and only trip to Ireland, we decided to do it. It's much more tiring, and much more expensive than basing yourself in an apartment for a week, or two, or more. In Ireland, small as it is, things always take longer to get to than you'd think. Roads can be quite narrow, and no one was in a hurry to get anywhere. Our itinerary broke down to 4 nights in Dublin, 3 nights in Kilkenny, 2 nights each in Kinsale, Kenmare and Dingle, 4 nights in Galway and one final night at the Dublin Airport Holiday Inn.

We rented an apartment in Dublin, where accommodations are expensive. This was a relatively budget stay, and allowed us to eat breakfast at 'home', as well as keep cold water and ice in the frig– which turned out to be a real blessing. The location was perfect – one block off the main drag, just around the corner from the airport shuttle bus stop, and within easy walking distance of sights, shops and restaurants. The apartment was secure and quiet, but certainly nothing special. The rental agents were slow to respond to our calls/texts – we arrived during a heatwave and wanted a fan, but luckily we had no major issues. It was clean, and as long as you're not expecting something grand, I'd recommend it.

As you might imagine, most of our time in Dublin was spent walking, wandering and enjoying. We did take an organized tour to visit the Newgrange passage tomb and Hill of Tara, just north of Dublin, and a walking tour given by Trinity College. We saw the Book of Kells –  the page is turned every day, so it's just luck what you'll see.

On our last morning in Dublin we took the airport shuttle bus back to the airport where we picked up our rental car and headed south. We visited Glendalough, enjoying wandering through the ruins, learning about the round stone towers that are unique to Ireland, and taking the first of many, many pictures of Celtic cross headstones. We spent the first of three nights in Kilkenny, at Butler Court, probably our favorite town, and favorite accommodation. The owners, John and Yvonne, had truly thought of everything – after he unloaded our luggage, John even offered to park the car for us – an offer we were happy to accept.

One of the reasons I extended our stays in each of our five locations was because we used our drive time from place to place to stop and see sights along the way, so we usually didn't arrive where we'd spend the night until later in the afternoon. We didn't want to feel as if we were simply spending the night in a town, and in addition to seeing the 'must-see' sights, we also wanted time to wander and explore and to get a feel for each of the places. Kilkenny was large enough to have lots to see and do, yet was small enough to be walkable. It was someplace I think I could live, which is always the standard I use.

While staying in Kilkenny we took an organized walking tour, visited the castle, and drove to The Rock of Cashel. We'd been told to arrive at The Rock early, not just to beat the crowds, but also to avoid the high winds that are common. Because Ireland was experiencing a heatwave, arriving earlier rather than later was also a good idea for us, but certainly not the norm. We also visited Jerpoint Abbey from our base in Kilkenny.

On our way to our next stop in Kinsale we stopped by the Jameson Distillery, and were both surprised to discover that Irish whiskey is much more like bourbon than scotch, meaning that we both enjoyed the visit – and the tastings – much more than we expected. We did not visit the town of Waterford, but if you're interested in the town – or it's wares – this would be a nice day trip.

Kinsale itself was a charming seaside town with colorful buildings, a nice farmer's market, and a large abandoned fort outside of town. Our hosts at the B&B recommended a place where we could drop off our laundry and pick it up the next day. On our way out to the fort we dropped off our dirty laundry, hiked out to the the other side of the bay and had great views of Kinsale from Fort Charles.

We stopped at Timoleague Friary and Drombeg Stone Circle and the Beara Peninsula on our way to Kenmare. I'd wanted to stop in Cobh to see the Titanic Museum, but the information I found online regarding parking seemed more discouraging than inviting, so we skipped it. Kenmare was the one town we really didn't see – we spent all day driving and sightseeing, and we arrived late in the afternoon. We did walk into town for dinner, but the entire next day was spent on our big splurge – a personal, guided tour of the Ring of Kerry. This allowed Art to take a break from driving and to just enjoy the scenery. We both enjoyed it immensely – especially the running commentary from our guide, Patrick.

After Kenmare we headed to Dingle, stopping at Inch Beach along the way. The scenery was stunning along our drive, and we stopped quite frequently. At first glance I thought I wouldn't like Dingle, but I found it quite charming after wandering around. We spent an entire day exploring Slea Head Drive. Even though the skies were overcast we were glad we missed the fog that rolled in the day after our drive – we saw NOTHING on our way out of town as we headed towards Galway.

We took the Shannon Ferry to cut our drive time from Dingle to Galway, knowing we wanted to drive through The Burren, and also make a stop at Aillwee Caves. I love caves, but was very disappointed in this one. I guess when you come from the land of Mammoth Cave, smaller caves have to be something really special to compete, and this one wasn't anything special at all. If you have kids, or have never been to a cave, this might be worth a stop, but otherwise, don't bother.

We booked four nights in Galway knowing that it would be our northernmost stop, but also knowing that we wanted ta full day to explore Connemara. In the end, I could've stayed here another day. The drive back through the Burren on our way to the Cliffs of Moher took all of one day, another day we simply wandered the town, stopping along the way for something to eat or drink and we took a river cruise – nothing special to see, really, but it was pleasant and relaxing, and nice to be off our feet for a while. The one full day we'd plan for our drive to Connemara was not enough time. We didn't get to see anything more of Kylemore Abbey than the outside. It looks more castle than convent to me, so I'd love to see the inside, and it seems from the website that you could spend the whole day here. We left Galway and drove to Cong Abbey – where we were surprised to see a statue of John Wayne and Maureen O'Hara! - then we drove to Westport, but only walked around for a short bit. It was crammed with tourists and lots of cute little shops, but it seemed more Disney than charming. We based this day on a suggested drive in the Rick Steves guidebook. The drive was beautiful, and I can't imagine spending less time at any of our stops, so one full day just wasn't enough.

It's not a long drive from Galway to Dublin's airport, but I didn't want to have to get up super early on the day of our flight to England, so we spent our last night at the Dublin Airport Holiday Inn. On the way we stopped at the Irish Nation Stud – that's what they call it – for some reason they don't add “farm” to the title! We had a tour of the farm, where in contrast to what we're used to in Kentucky, thoroughbreds there are bred and trained in a variety of styles – jumpers, cross-country and race course. The young man who led the tour had just returned from a visit to Keeneland Racetrack in Lexington Kentucky, and he knew all the Derby winners and horses of note within the United States. I certainly know nothing about thoroughbred horses in other countries!

After leaving the National Stud it was a short drive to the Holiday Inn. We dropped off our luggage the returned our rental car, taking the hotel's shuttle back to our room. Our 19 nights in Ireland weren't long enough – if I could I think I'd add another day onto every stop but Dublin, which would be 24 nights in all. It's still a lot of moving, but there could also be a day where you simply took the day off, which was something we didn't feel we could do – too much to see, especially considering the beautiful weather we had. We didn't use our umbrellas once in Ireland, and other than a light sweater for me in the early morning/evening, we never needed our jackets. We know how rare beautiful weather, at least for an extended amount of time, is for Ireland, and we felt pretty lucky!

As always, our photos are on Flickr - Click on the link in the right hand column.

Monday, October 01, 2018

Oops, I Did It Again!

Back in the '70s and '80's, I had wall art that was probably like everyone else's - a beautiful landscape over the sofa, a nice floral on the wall, some pleasing, generic something-or-other's flanking the bed. You know what I mean - the sort of stuff they sell at BB&B, or Target, or Michaels. It's pretty, but it doesn't really mean anything, doesn't have a personal connection.

And then I started to travel. Back in the day when we still used film in cameras, I quickly learned to added a few hundred dollars to the budget for the developing and framing that followed every vacation. Sometimes I'd buy posters, or even postcards that I found interesting. Once, following in the footsteps of my son, I ripped a concert poster off a wall in Prague to bring home as a souvenir. I bought ceramic plates to hang on the wall rather than to eat from, and took every photo with the thought that this could be the one!

Now, every single thing that hangs on my walls or sits on my shelves, has a story, has meaning, and brings back memories of the place, the occasion, and the people. Anyone who's seen our house knows that the walls are pretty full, and I promised myself I wouldn't buy anymore art on this trip, but I've failed miserably.

At first I started small.  I bought postcards and greeting cards with beautiful scenes, thinking that I could frame them, or not - if I didn't, I hadn't spent a lot of money, but at least I had the option, and at least the picture was small. But then my collection grew. A couple of prints from Ireland. A few more from England. A tea towel from Sussex to hang on the kitchen door. A charming scene of Innsbruck, bought directly from the artist. And now, quite a few more from Italy.

I bought a print from the same man we bought an original from last year, 'just in case'. I found a charming scene, already framed!, from a local artist who'd set up a temporary exposition in a nearby town. And today, while visiting a tiny little village here in Umbria we walked past an exhibition of paintings that were absolutely breathtaking. The artist, a small man named Rolando, welcomed us into his studio. A speech impediment made conversation difficult, but what he's unable to express in words he's more than made up for with his artwork. (And later he'd gift me a book of poems he's written!) How could I NOT buy one of his pictures?

Deciding on just one, and a small one at that, was difficult, but in the end we choose one that depicts the town we were in, Ferentillo, and the two towers that watch over it. I really wanted the large one with the field of poppies in the foreground, and the one with sunflowers - and I LOVED the one with the simple vase of flowers, but unfortunately not only are my walls full, I also had to consider my suitcases for the trip home.

The best part about these purchases is that in the end, I don't feel guilty at all - I know once I get home I'll remember exactly where we were, exactly what the artist told me about his work, and I'll instantly be transported back to that moment in Ireland, England, Austria or Italy.


Ferentillo - If you see it, you'll love it.
















Rolando Lucidi











Saturday, September 15, 2018

Something Old is New For Us

Last year when we discovered Vincenzo Martini's delightful works in his shop in Assisi, we had no idea what, or even who, had inspired his work.  All we knew was that we loved his depiction of Umbrian hill towns, their terra-cotta colored roofs, and the playful Franciscan monks scattered throughout.  This year, after visiting Sig. Martini again, we learned more about his inspiration:  Norberto Proietti.

Commonly referred to by his first name only, Norberto was a local, born in Spello in 1927. Norberto was inspired by the frescoes of Giotto and Pinturicchio, and began expressing his artistic talents around 1951. He painted and sculpted, and his works show a variety of interests and styles.  My favorites are of course the Franciscan monks, especially when they're picking olives!

I was quite surprised to discover that Norberto was the creator of the statue that stands in front of the basilica in Assisi - a statue that seems sad and forlorn, and very touching, and one that I've photographed many times.

In Spello there is a gallery displaying many of Norberto's works, and it's well worth seeing.  Don't be fooled into thinking that the few works exhibited on the the ground floor are all there are - go downstairs where you'll discover many more works.I hope you'll be as charmed as we were.

Norberto died in 2008, and many artists continue to paint the playful scenes he was known for. Here are some pictures from the gallery in Spello:

Friday, August 31, 2018

AN UNEXPECTEDLY PERFECT DAY IN UMBRIA


You just never know how the day will turn out, do you? Yesterday had its ups and downs, but when you're surrounded by this much beauty it's pretty much guaranteed that something will happen to put a smile on your face. Today certainly proved that theory to be true.

We weren't sure what we were going to do today, but started off with our usual walk near Deruta. We could hear the drummers practicing in a nearby parking lot – there's a festa tonight in Deruta, complete with medieval costumes, and the drummers always add a touch of drama as they march through the city gates.

After our walk we decided to stop by Tassi, our favorite ceramics shop, just one block over from where we walk. We need to order a piece, and with so many choices of shapes, sizes, patterns and colors, we knew we needed to start early. We're here until the beginning of November, but that will be here before you know it.

Valeria and Sara were at their stations, painting away, and Marco was happy to show us various pieces and make suggestions on color changes and combinations. As we got ready to leave he asked: “What are you doing today for lunch?” Last week at the porchetta festa in Costano, he and Valeria had told us about Valeria's cousin, who supplies the porchetta for a place in Santa Maria degli Angeli, and had asked if we'd be interested in going with them for lunch one day. We had agreed, but hadn't set a date. We had no plans for today, so sure!, what time should we meet?

Marco then suggested we leave then (it was about 10:30), and have a walk through Assisi before lunch. Never ones to refuse a visit to the beauty of Assisi, we agreed, hesitantly, because we were still in our walking clothes. Marco said it was fine, he was just in shorts and a t-shirt as well, and we all agreed that we looked like the perfect group of tourists, so off we went.


On the way we discussed many things, including St. Francis. Marco asked if we'd ever been to the Eremo, the small cave up on the side of Mt. Subasio where Francis went to meditate and spend time alone, and we admitted we had not. This was the perfect time, so off we went, up the hill around Assisi, then off to the right, up a road we'd never taken before. And up. And up. And finally we arrived at a small parking lot filled with cars – obviously a popular place. As we walked into the complex – the small cave and chapel used by St. Francis have been added to over the years - signs warned us to be quiet, to respect our surroundings. The quiet was blissful, the only sound was the crunching of our feet as we walked down the gravel path. The air was much cooler and a nice breeze was blowing. Trails led off in every direction, either steeply up or steeply down. This walk in the woods is no walk in the woods – stamina and skill are necessary.

After wandering down the main path, enjoying the silence and the views, we headed back downhill to find the restaurant in the Bosco di San Francesco just below Assisi. A friend had just eaten at the restaurant a few days earlier, and we were happy for Marco to show us where it was.

And then it was off to Santa Maria degli Angeli, for lunch at Porcellino Divino. The porchetta is supplied by Valeria's cousin from Costano, which is famous for it's porchetta. The place is legally a butcher/wine shop, with a case for meats and cheeses, bottles of wine along the back wall, tables set up in two rooms, and a sign stating that table service is NOT available. The sign is only to maintain the illusion that this is not a restaurant, that it's 'just' a butcher shop. Luckily, the powers-that-be appparently realize the incredible food is worth bending the rules!

 We watched as the maestro expertly sliced the porchetta into paper thin, perfectly even, intact pieces. A generous serving of porchetta was placed on a sliced section of torta al testo, topped with some sundried tomatoes, then grilled. In addition to warming the sandwich, the torta now had a nice crunch to it, and the conversation slowed.  Occasionally one of us would say (again) “this is soooo good!”, but we mostly concentrated on eating and enjoying another simple, simply perfect meal. Art and Marco had a glass of red wine, but I stuck to water, afraid I'd nod off in the car - wine at lunch tends to do that to me!

 On the way back to Deruta we stopped in Passagio di Bettona, at one of our favorite gelaterias, Dulcinea. If Art and I had been by ourselves, we wouldn't have stopped because we were so full. Not uncomfortably full, but just nicely full, completely satisfied. But, when Marco pulled into the gelateria, neither one of said no! The dark chocolate gelato was about a rich and as decandent as you could ever wish for. There was no banana today, so I chose hazelnut, making my own creamy version of a Baci with gelato. Wow. This was certainly the perfect ending to an unexpectedly perfect day. Umbria's like that.


Post Script: On the way home we discussed what day we should meet for our next meal, at the next festa, the onion festa in Cannara. Stay tuned

Sunday, October 22, 2017

Buy Local, Maybe Make A New Friend!

No matter where you travel, or if you don't travel at all, buying local is one of the best things you can do.  It's good for the local economy, neighbor helping neighbor.  It's good for the environment, not paying transportation costs to have your food/clothing/whatever shipped hundreds or thousands of miles. It's also very satisfying, finding that cool shop hidden on a side street with someone creating jewelry or throwing pottery, discovery a local farm making unique cheeses.  You make a personal connection, talk with the artist/farmer/whoever, learn their story, help pay for their kids braces, maybe even make a friend.

We've had many such experiences here in Italy.  Our best friend in the world started off as our translator when we bought our house. The Testatonda family, who own La Locanda del Tramonto Infinito, have become our Italian family.  The sisters who own our favorite gelateria, Stefania's are like old friends.  Just this year we've become friends with Marco and Valeria who own Tassi, the ceramics shop in Deruta. Just taking the time to talk with the vendors at various festas helps us to understand how various products are made.  Artists are always excited to share their passions!

Last week we met an artist while wandering in Assisi.  I was looking for a gift for my sister, and stuck my head inside a shop to take a closer look.  Once inside I discovered an amazing array of artwork.  The scenes were Italian,  Umbrian hill towns, populated with Franciscan monks.  Some scenes were playful, others just everyday scenes, but all incredibly interesting and serene. The artist, Vincenzo Martini, was on hand, ready to share his passion with us. We told him our story about living in Italy and about our love for Umbria. We laughed and chatted and got to know each other, not as seller and buyer, but as people getting to know one another.

Honestly, I do NOT need more artwork - I really am running out of wall space! - but something in these works of art just spoke to me.  Sadly, the painting - plus framing  - just wasn't in my budget, so I thanked Mr. Martini, and we left.  No pressure, no guilt, but I have to admit I was disappointed.  And then, just a few days later, we returned to Assisi to spend the afternoon with my daughter and her friends.  I took Angela into the shop because I knew there was an item she'd want to buy for herself.  As she paid, I introduced her to Mr Martini and showed her the picture I'd fallen in love with.  Once again we left the shop, but this time I was a little more accepting of the fact that no, I really couldn't justify spending the money for a picture I didn't even have space for.

After a wonderful lunch with my daughter, Melanie, her friend-since-grade-school, and their significant others, Angela announced that we were going back to the shop because she was going to buy the painting for me!  Wow!  To say I was thrilled is an understatement!  And so now I have it, safely rolled in a tube to transport back home, signed by the artist, dedicated to me.  I'm thrilled to have an early Christmas/birthday present, a memory of Assisi and a wonderful day with my daughter, and a new friend.

Today after lunch with a friend we returned to the shop once again, to buy another gift, but also to snap a photo of us with the artist, our new friend, Vincenzo Martini.  If you're ever in Assisi, stop by and say hello.  You might even make a new friend.

Some photos below, and you can find Mr. Martini on Facebook and see his work on his website: Vincenzo Martini