Italia: Pisa and Perugia (and back to Florence!)

So, I suppose this shouldn’t be shocking.  I signed up for a Photography and Culinary tour of Tuscany because food and photography are two of my favorite things.  They’re not necessarily my two greatest talents.  Just as I’m sure my Chicken in Verde Sauce won’t hold a candle to Dianne’s, my photos aren’t close to being as spectacular as Maureen’s.  She started posting them on her blog recently, and I’m completely jealous.

Who are Dianne and Maureen, you might ask?  They’re two of the lovely ladies on my tour!  I guess I should get back to explaining…

Saturday, October 16

10:20am

After a steep and winding trip down the mountain, expertly navigated by our fantastic driver, Moreno, we arrive a few minutes early at Fattoria Il Poggio for the first cooking class of our tour.  Most everyone arrived just yesterday, and the photo bugs haven’t had a chance to stretch their wings yet.  We scurry around, taking random pictures of everything from olives to a “not very old” railroad bridge.  Photography instructor/all-around-cool-chick Cindy Taylor takes the opportunity for an impromptu lesson.  Under the railroad bridge, she finds the perfect example of soft portrait light.  As she stands in the shade, lit by the bright sun bouncing off the red brick, she gestures up and down, explaining the concept of sweet, sweet light.  I can’t help but think that she looks pretty sweet in that sweet light!

Cindy used to be a model.  This woman doesn't take a bad picture from either side of the lens!

Cindy used to be a model. This woman doesn't take a bad picture from either side of the lens!

10:30

Susanna, our tour guide, rushes us into the fattoria (farm, for you English speakers!) for the start of our cooking class. It’s only 10:30 in the morning, but this agriturismo has already set out glasses and bottles of wine for tastings. Welcome to Italia!

I had hoped this wine was for us.  It wasn't, but never fear.  We had plenty later.

I had hoped this wine was for us. It wasn't, but never fear. We had plenty later.

Incidentially, agriturismos are super cool inventions.  Our hostess explaines that in Italy, just as in the United States, it’s becoming harder and harder for small farms to survive.  As an agriturismo, this farm must bring in a certain percentage of its income from selling farm goods.  That income can be supplemented by hosting groups like ours for cooking classes and wine tastings.  The tourists buy goods from the farms (I left with a huge bag of olive oil, sundried tomatos, and balsamic vinegar), and the farms are able to avoid getting gobbled up by larger farms and land developments.  Seems like a pretty cool plan to me!

Orange tractor.  Magenta flowers.  My friend, Tina, would have loved to have them both at her wedding!

Orange tractor. Magenta flowers. My friend, Tina, would have loved to have them both at her wedding!

10:35

While we’re waiting for our class to begin, someone snaps a picture of a pink flower. As will be the case for the next week, we all line up for the same shot. My flower photo is only so-so, as these things go. But, I love Bob’s photo of me taking that photo.

Hmm...looks pretty much like every other flower close-up I've ever taken.  This one's not making the cut.

Hmm...looks pretty much like every other flower close-up I've ever taken. This one's not making the cut.

Where does the flower bush end and my jacket begin?  Way to go, Bob, for finding the real story!

Where does the flower bush end and my jacket begin? Way to go, Bob, for finding the real story!

For the next hour or so, our resident chef, Darren, demonstrates his cooking skills as we learn to make traditional Tuscan Ragu (though Susanna and our hostess have quite a debate over the “proper” ingredients) and some sort of pate. I try the pate, simply because I promised myself that I’d eat a little outside my comfort zone on this trip. No luck. Liver is liver, and no matter what continent I’m on, it’s just plain gross.

We have a great time learning to make pasta. Our hostess never had us wash our hands,so I’m relieved when our efforts are taken directly to the trash!

I was getting hungry and lazy, so I went for odd shapes with my pasta. I forget how to say this variety in Italian, but it translates to "cut wrong" in English!

After the cooking class, we head into the farm store for a leisurely (despite our need to hurry) wine tasting and lunch. We have more pasta with Ragu, pate (yuck!), and the most fantastic sundried tomates I have ever tasted in my life. Seriously, these things are so good, I buy a big bag of them to reconstitute when I get home.

I usually can resist foods dripping in oil, but these things are heaven. Just wait until I make some for you!

I usually can resist foods dripping in oil, but these things are heaven. Just wait until I make some for you!

14:18

My phone is still stuck on Boston time. It tells me that it’s only 8:18am back home, but I just finished an amazing cooking class/wine tasting/lunch and I’m happy as a clam! I tasted Vin Santo for the first time and I think I’m in love. It’s dessert wine for those who don’t like anything too sweet.  We’re told to dip our biscotti in it.  I’ve never been a fan of dessert wine or biscotti, but together these two items are absolute perfection.

I did not photograph the biscotti.  I apologize for that.

I did not photograph the biscotti. I apologize for that.

We pile onto the bus, apparently late for Pisa. But, really, who cares???

14:00-ish

We arrive at Pisa, super rushed for time.  We pile out of our bus and onto another bus, arranged by the town government to take tourists from the parking lot to the town center.  Pushy umbrella salesmen (probably-illegal immigrants from Africa) give us a hard time, but Wayne haggles for a Pisa umbrella for Susanna to hold up high so we can find her in the crowd.  We see another tour guide with a red rose, and we all agree that’s much cooler.  But, for now, a Pisa umbrella will have to do.

That tower..she does lean.

That tower..she does lean.

14:30

After a quick peek at the Leaning Tower, we all line up to hear the singing ticket taker in Pisa’s Bapistery. The story goes like this: When the Bapistery was built, the center of the roof was left open to allow rainwater to fill the baptismal font, the large vessel that looks a bit like a very fancy modern hot tub. At some point, the Catholic church realized that people were dying of diseases contracted during baptisms, so they did away with the immersion rule. So, the big hole in the roof was no longer necessary.

When the roof was filled in, people began noticing a beautiful acoustic anomaly. By singing just three notes in slow succession, a vocalist can harmonize with her own echo bouncing off the walls of the Baptistery. Every thirty minutes, the ticket taker does just that. The room gets pretty crowded for the “performance,” but the short demonstration is beautiful and serene.

If you ever make it to Pisa, definitely don't miss this.  She only sings for about 30 seconds, but you'll want to come back and hear it again.

If you ever make it to Pisa, definitely don't miss this. She only sings for about 30 seconds, but you'll want to come back and hear it again.

The Bapistery is on the opposite side of a field, called the Piazza dei Miracoli, from the Leaning Tower.  The Leaning Tower famously leans 15 feet to the south, but this whole area is unstable.  So, the Bapistry leans almost 6 feet to the north, making the Leaning Tower seem even more, well, lean-y.

Our local tour guide, Francesca, explains that the beautiful white marble buildings on the Piazza dei Miracoli were built to show off the opulence of Pisa and to celebrates the four stages of life for Pisa’s faithful: the Bapistery – for new life, the Cathedral – to celebrate new marriages, and the Camposanto – the cemetery. The Leaning Tower, or bell tower, was also meant to represent a stage of life, but to be perfectly honest, I got entranced by the lean and missed that part!

Look!  My lovely roommate, Franca, was entranced, too.  She's got the Leaning Tower in her eyes...

Look! My lovely roommate, Franca, was entranced, too. She's got the Leaning Tower in her eyes...

19:30

We had meant to be back in time for Darren’s first cooking class, but we didn’t want to feel too rushed in Pisa so we postponed that. Instead, Darren puts together a dizzying (and super satisfying) array of antipasto.

Beautiful, local ingredients prepared simply.  That's how they do things here in Tuscany!

Beautiful, local ingredients prepared simply. That's how they do things here in Tuscany!

It’s Pierre’s birthday, so of course, we nominate him to “liberate” a couple of extra bottles of wine from the hotel. One thing can be said of my new crazy Canadian friends…they like their wine!

Pierre's birthday cake.  It's a specialty of the region.  Lots of crispy, light layers of pastry with what tastes like whipped cream in between.  Lovely!

Pierre's birthday cake. It's a specialty of the region. Lots of crispy, light layers of pastry with what tastes like whipped cream in between. Lovely!

Cindy starts the group in a sort of Italian version of Operator. She whispers an Italian word into the ear of a person on one side of the room and we have to pass it along. Of course, we’re terrible at it. The word was “bambola” and apparently that’s what you call a sexy, hot woman in Italian. Naughty Cindy!

(NOTE:  My Rick Steve’s guidebook says “bambola” translates to “doll.”  That’s way less naughty, and pretty cool.)

Either this photo is a direct result of too much wine, or Judy and Theresa are super hungry tonight!

Either this photo is a direct result of too much wine, or Judy and Theresa are super hungry tonight!

Cindy also tries to teach Moreno to say, “Hold on, folks” for the bus ride down the mountain in the morning. She even writes it on a piece of paper for him to practice overnight.

Sunday, October 17

9:30am

Back on the bus and headed to Florence.  It’s already been a long day.  I met Cindy and some of the other photographers at sunrise this morning, but spent the entire time struggling with my cheap tripod.  (Don’t buy cheap, Karen!  Some things are worth the investment.)  Moreno says he’s been up all night practicing his phrase.  Before he puts the bus in motion, Susanna hands him the microphone.  It seems like his phrase has gotten a little jumbled, too, because instead of “Hold on, folks” it comes out more like, “High ho, f*cks!” It’s a good thing there are no minors on this trip!

9:37

Dreaming of that red leather saddlebag in the street vendor’s tent in Florence.  If it’s still there and I mangage a decent haggle, it will be mine!

10:30

As usual, we’re late…this time for our pizza making class.  I intend to write an entire post about making pizza, so you’ll just have to live with a preview for now…

Wow.  The pizza was even better than it looked, and it looked pretty darn good.  Seriously, the best pizza I've had in my life, and I made it myself!

Wow. The pizza was even better than it looked, and it looked pretty darn good. Seriously, the best pizza I've had in my life, and I made it myself!

13:30-ish

After another leisurely cooking class and meal, we’re running late to meet yet another local guide. Still, it takes a little while to get a group like ours moving. While I wait, the light on the wall of the pizza place catches my eye.

Before I even got out my camera, I knew this one was going to be special...

Before I even got out my camera, I knew this one was going to be special...

Sadly, when we meet up with our local guide, Anna, she seems to think that she’s leading a class for naughty elementary school students rather than a tour for paying adults. Every time we try to take a photo of something, she gets annoyed and tells us to “Look at me, please.” Then, she’ll claim to be walking “Slowly, slowly” as she rushes us past dozens of awesome sights. Still, a number of us manage to catch a passing “highlight” as Anna leads us down a small alley behind the Piazza della Signoria.

I swear...I was trying to take a picture of the light fixture!

I swear...I was trying to take a picture of the light fixture!

Our last stop on the tour with Anna is the Church of Santa Croce. I knew this was on the day’s itinerary, so I avoided it when I was in Florence on my own. Even though Anna is still annoying me, I love this place. Anna explains that the sides of the church are modest and simple, because that’s how the Franciscan monks who lived here wanted it. But, over the years some of Florence’s most important citizens were buried here (Galileo, Michelangelo, Dante, Machiavelli, and Rossini. Need I go on?) and the Catholic church insisted that the white marble facade be added to the exterior. The gleaming white marble is beautiful, but I think the church might have been even more stunning without it.

I'm a serious sucker for the juxtaposition of fancy and plain, old and new, art and junk.  Pretty much...the bigger disparity between the two, the cooler I think it is.

I'm a serious sucker for the juxtaposition of fancy and plain, old and new, art and junk. Pretty much...the bigger disparity between the two, the cooler I think it is.

Inside, most of the tombs are marked by very sad looking female sculptures. I wonder what it must have been like for the women who had to pose as permanent mourners for such accomplished men?

Well, at least it's a comfortable pose.  Though, you have to wonder if looking sad for hours on end got to her after a while?

Well, at least it's a comfortable pose. Though, you have to wonder if looking sad for hours on end got to her after a while?

16:15

We’re given 45 minutes to explore Florence on our own before meeting Moreno at the bus.  I consider rushing over to the street vendors in search of my beautiful red saddlebag purse, but I get distracted by the sweet, sweet light in the Piazza della Signoria instead.

Don't you love how the light is kissing the left side of this fountain sculpture?  So beautiful...

Don't you love how the light is kissing the left side of this fountain sculpture? So beautiful...

17:05

I’m sad as Moreno starts to drive away from Florence. Who knows when I’ll make it back?

17:17

I’m happy as we stop at Michelangelo Park for one last view of the city!  (And yet another David sculpture.  I didn’t want to wait in line to see the real one, but after seeing the copy in the Piazza della Signoria, the copper version in Michelangelo Park, and countless hundreds of cheap plastic/resin/ceramic versions in tourist shops…I’m all set!)

Pretty good timing..the light is so beautiful.

Pretty good timing..the light is so beautiful.

Maybe it's the pedestal, but this David seems skinnier than the others!

Maybe it's the pedestal, but this David seems skinnier than the others!

19:00

Darren found an amazing modern Tuscan restaurant for us to try tonight.  It’s called Ristorante Enoteca Della’Acqua and it’s amazing.  On the menu:  vegetable cakes (okay, not my favorite!), cheesy risotto, farro, beef with peppercorns, and some sort of custard covered with chocolate sauce.  Such yummy fun!

Look for me!  I'm on the right near the far end of the table.

Look for me! I'm on the right near the far end of the table.

Okay…now that I’ve posted a semi-coherent description of the evening, let me share what I wrote from the dinner table. (I’ll offer corrections in parenthesis.)

19:14

Smelt – not just a fish. Look it up. (I just looked it up.  Smelt is just a fish. I believe “spelt” was the word I was looking for!) Also called farrow (farro) or farrow (farro) root.  (Actually, according to the New York Times, spelt and farro are two different things!)  Ours is made with barley, pine nuts, garlic, mint, tomatos and olive oil.  Lots and lots of olive oil.  It’s the first course (actually the second course) of a four course meal and I’m already getting full!  (Well, at least I got that part right!)

Even my photo of the farro is ugly.  Clearly, I was not on my game...

Even my photo of the farro is ugly. Clearly, I was not on my game...

20:42

Vin Santo is my favorite thing ever!!!

Well, good to know I hadn't completely lost my mind.  I do love Vin Santo.

Well, good to know I hadn't completely lost my mind. I do love Vin Santo.

Monday, October 18

7:17am

We were supposed to leave for Perugia at 7 this morning, but no one got their wake-up calls.  We leave at the last possible moment to catch the train, even though Wayne and Melanie haven’t made it yet.  We catch the train to Florence and then fumble around for a while until we figure out how to buy tickets to Perugia.  The train is freezing and the bathroom is the most disgusting I’ve seen since Africa, but at least we’re headed towards chocolate!

Sorry about the blur.  On the train, Darren shows us a photo in the newspaper of the chocolate city. That's where we're headed!

Sorry about the blur. On the train, Darren shows us a photo in the newspaper of the chocolate city. That's where we're headed!

We arrive in Perugia and discover we need to take something called the “Mini Metro” to get to the center of town. I have never in my life seen a public transportation device nearly as cute as Perugia’s Mini Metro.

It's a metro!  And it's mini!  Sooooo cute!

It's a metro! And it's mini! Sooooo cute!

Incidentally, can you imagine the good folks at the T taking the time to warn you about dog leashes? They allow dogs on the T in Boston, just not during rush hour.  I wonder if there’s “rush hour” on the mini metro?

Gosh, I even think this sign is cute...

Gosh, I even think this sign is cute...

Not for nothing, but Perugia is an absolutely gorgeous place. I’m here for the chocolate, but can’t help but admire this stunning city built on a cliff…

This photo may or may not have been taken from the last stop on the mini metro.  I swear...this is the last thing I'm going to say about the mini metro..mini metro...mini metro.

This photo may or may not have been taken from the last stop on the mini metro. I swear...this is the last thing I'm going to say about the mini metro..mini metro...mini metro...

Darren’s like a kid in a chocolate shop, which is a ridiculous analogy given that 1) he’s an adult who OWNS a chocolate shop and 2) we ARE attending a chocolate festival. He rushes off to meet a friend, and we try to figure out what the heck we’re doing here.

Darren's one of those people who prefers not to smile in pictures, but believe me...he's one happy guy!

Darren's one of those people who prefers not to smile in pictures, but believe me...he's one happy guy!

I’ve got my camera. I’ve got my shades. I’m ready to photograph some chocolate sculptures, please!

Not for nothing, but the logo for this festival is just too darn cute.  Wouldn't you agree?

Not for nothing, but the logo for this festival is just too darn cute. Wouldn't you agree?

Dianne, Doug, Brad, Lynn, and I wander around for a bit. We really want to find that chocolate city made from chocolate sculptures, but we keep getting distracted by things we could have found back home. Like…

We stood in line to take our photo with the Lindt chocolate bear.  Seriously?  There's a Lindt store in every mall in the US!

We stood in line to take our photo with the Lindt chocolate bear. Seriously? There's a Lindt store in every mall in the US!

We’ve been promised a city made of chocolate, but we just can’t find it.  We do find…

A chocolate train!  (Or...more accurately, a train to take us to see more chocolate.)

A chocolate train! (Or...more accurately, a train to take us to see more chocolate.)

Chocolate paint!  (But, no actual children painting with chocolate.  I think they all inherently know that chocolate is for eating...not for painting.)

Chocolate paint! (But, no actual children painting with chocolate. I think they all inherently know that chocolate is for eating...not for painting.)

Wicked cool (non-chocolate) underground city!  Susanna told us to seek this place out.  The "modern" city was built on top of it, but the ruins have been excavated and you can walk right through...)

Wicked cool (non-chocolate) underground city! Susanna told us to seek this place out. The "modern" city was built on top of it, but the ruins have been excavated and you can walk right through...)

We never do find that chocolate city. Turns out it was dismantled (a.k.a. eaten) yesterday. We meet back up with Darren, do some frantic chocolate shopping, and take some chocolate chomping photos to put in our new chomped chocolate picture frames. Want to see mine?

I looked for some of Cindy's "sweet, sweet light."  This is the best I found...

I looked for some of Cindy's "sweet, sweet light." This is the best I found...

14:30

We have to hurry to catch our train back to the hotel. That means…

You guessed it…

We get to take another ride on the Mini Metro!

This thing is so cute...it even goes through cute tunnels.  ;-)

This thing is so cute...it even goes through cute tunnels. 😉

Next up? San Gimiganano, Cortona(ish) and Lucca. Yay!

Tags:

4 Responses to “Italia: Pisa and Perugia (and back to Florence!)”

  1. bravissima baci Susanna

  2. Thanks so much Karen for reminding me of all of the wonderful things that happened on our trip. I really appreciate someone who paid attention to the tour guides and now can fill me in. I was the one lagging behind taking pictures. I can hardly wait to read the rest.

    Tell me there is more.

    Maureen.

  3. this is a fabulous read!! loving it! cindy

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