Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Taste of Tuscany Part 1

For my third weekend I was dying to meet some fun English speaking people to hang out with. I chose to book a tour the day before, that just happened to have one spot left...for me! I was signed up to taste Tuscany the next day with Italy on a Budget tours, and I was psyched. The tour was to leave from Florence at 2pm on Saturday, so I took the hour and fifteen minute train ride in the morning and checked into my even more budget hotel. It was a speck of a room, but it did the trick. They even let me check in early. I used the two hours before the tour to explore Mercato Centrale, which I hadn't been to yet since it only stays open until early afternoon. I wandered around this piece, eyes wide, and wishing I could buy a million things to bring back to my dollhouse sized fridge in the hotel. It's two floors of colorful, vibrant marketplace with choices upon choices. 

Yum, biscotti! (Yes, I bought some)

Fruit so fresh you could slap it..

In light of my current "situation" with my stomach troubles, I was trying to heed my mother's warning and steer clear of cheese for a while. BUT IT WAS EVERYWHERE. Every corner I turned, every inviting stand I approached, there was loads of cheese. 

I wanted to literally stick my hand in one of these bowls and grab a big ball of fresh mozzarella to just walk around with and eat out of my hand.

But, I restrained myself. Until...

That's right. I not only ordered this beaut, (pizza a capri) but consumed the whole thing. Sorry Mom. I figure this was the lesser of the two evils. Delizioso.

It was time to meet the group at the tour office to head into the hills and taste Tuscany. Unfortunately it had started raining..

We piled into two vans, and headed off into the hills (and rain) towards our first stop, the town of Monteriggioni. The group was mostly couples, with the exception of myself and a group of two friends traveling together. Our guide driving the van we rode in was pretty funny, and kept us well informed with historic tales of many places we passed along the way. 

The town itself was preparing for some sort of medieval times reenactment. As much as I wanted to see that, I was glad to hear it didn't start til later in the day. At first when we were told that we were to regroup back at our meet-up spot in a half hour I thought, well that's not very long. But Monteriggioni is tiny. A baby medieval town if you will. 

It had stopped raining for a few, and it was beautiful. As I meandered my way into a few shops, I found one that I loved. It was a home shop with handmade pottery and such. I purchased a small cup,and wished I could buy more.. but thinking of how my already gigantic suitcase, and my arms would suffer, I stopped at that.

We departed Monteriggioni and headed to a local winery at a Tuscan villa. No big deal.

We toured the large wine barrels, I suggested a keg party with the barrels in the wine room, all normal. 

We tasted some fantastic wines and I got the chance to chat more with my fellow tasters of Tuscany. Almost everyone was Australian, and a good time. Unfortunately the rain started up again just as we were leaving and we raced to the vans..

The rain kept up even though it was time to explore Siena. 

I opted to grab a drink at a pub and keep the buzz going with an Australian couple and a few others that joined us halfway through. We all swapped travel stories and I gained some good ideas for planning my "after camp" adventure. We then went back to the trusty vans and headed to what would become my favorite part of the tour...

Sunday, July 27, 2014

second week wrap up

Forewarning: This post contains a lot of randomness and a moment of TMI.

My second week in Lucca, and working at the camp went by pretty quickly. Again with long days of trying to wrangle children without speaking their language, covered in dirt and battling mutant mosquitos. 

Some things I've learned this week:
-Riding a bike to and from work is great..until you have to ride in an all out thunderstorm and dodge streaks of lighting.
-Calling a mosquito an asshole does not, in fact, make it stop bothering you.
-Being talked about is not fun, especially when it's in another language, it's children doing it, and you have no idea what they're saying.
-Italians (and probably others) think that bbq-ing is the "American Identity card" according to the school gardener, Emilio.  
-Mostly everyone here thinks I speak Italian until they try to speak to me.
-Rat tails still exist: 
RAT TAIL- spotted on the streets of Lucca.

In other developments, I have a stalker.

Don't get too excited. It's a cat.

For the past week, everyday, the same cat is there when I come back to the apartment after work, and sometimes later at night too. He follows me around when I'm trying to lock up the bike, and looks like he's up to something. Anyone that knows me, knows that I'm not a huge fan of cats. They're sneaky, and like to hide and jump out and scare people. I told him to scram the first day, after I jumped about a mile when he appeared out of nowhere. The next day I ignored him. The day after that I said Ciao because he is an Italian cat after all. The day after that I figured I might as well name him Carlo. 
Carlo poses for a photo

Chef has been slipping, and the lunches this week were mostly rice, rice, and more rice. Virtually no veggies. Between traveling, the food, and stress, I haven't (apologizing ahead of time for TMI) gone to the bathroom in a week. It's so bad actually, that the school nurse/teacher actually asked me if I might be pregnant. No, no I said.. that would have to be some sort of miracle. It's just a food baby. I've had to take matters into my own hands and have added a new side dish to every meal:

I'd have to cool it with the bread and cheese for a while too.

But first, a sandwich. This was one of the best sandwiches ever. It was warm, the bread was crusty, and the ingredients fresh. I had read about this place, and ridden past many people eating the crusty goodness on the steps of the piazza St. Michele and decided it was time to try one myself. A tiny little place, La Tana del Boia was super cute. I ordered the "toscanoccia," butchering the name of the sandwich to the amusement of the guy taking orders. He smiled. It was kind of funny I suppose. I then took my little plastic cup of the house red wine outside on the steps to wait for my sandwich. The guy delivered my salami and soft goat's cheese sandwich to me and said, "I wish you a good appetite." Oh, that wouldn't be a problem.

One week left of camp, and the theme is America. I should have this one in the bag, you'd think. Here's some more moments from camp that I captured this past week in the garden:
having a rest in the tree

walking the line

playing in the mud

I also have one week left with this bike and have to find a dog to take a picture with in the basket before I leave Lucca. If not, I'll have to get my hands on a bike as well as a dog wherever I go next. In the words of my friends..I'm gonna have to be bold.

backstreet's back?

Every summer Lucca hosts a Summer Music Festival with various artists performing throughout the month of July. 

Since one of the things I needed to check off on THE LIST was "see live music," I figured this would be the perfect opportunity. First up was Stevie Wonder. Despite my college roommate's request to "sit on Mr. Wonder's lap," I had no intention of getting up close and personal with Mr. Wonder since tickets were 150 Euros each. Luckily, Maria told me that you can listen for free and see the giant screen in the adjacent piazza. It was packed! Clearly Wondermania had hit Lucca hard.

The next act was a few days later..

So I was obligated to join all the Italian teenie boppers (and believe me there were tons) and see if backstreet really could come back.

They can't.

The dance moves haven't changed, but the boys are older and look and sound even more ridiculous than ever. That didn't stop throngs of eleven year olds from screaming with delight though. I had a smirk on my face as they did "Everybody" and was transported back to my middle school days when I did a (badly) choreographed routine in the school talent show. Thanks for the memories guys..

Listen to live music..CHECK.

School garden

The second week of camp was no different except I was used to not being able to control the children. At least I had my trusty sidekick/assistant, M. M was the daughter of the director, and knew English the best out of all the kids. I often asked for her help to translate, etc. She was super helpful, and pretty funny too. One day while helping me fold the table cover for messy projects, she dropped her side three times. She declared, "My hands are like the butter!" I had to burst out laughing at that one.

This past week, the school gardener came to work with the children in the garden and it was a real treat. Emilio was fantastic with the kids and I got a whole tour of the garden while they picked ripe fruits and vegetables. With the exception of the strawberries that were now gone because of two little ones from the younger group that secretly ate them all!

picking peas

planting new sage plants
The best part? I was able to take home some of the fresh picks!

tuscan tomatoes
I made a delicious pasta dinner with fettuccine, chicken, eggplant, zucchini, tomatoes and pesto. And wine of course. 

Buon appetito!

Thursday, July 24, 2014

San Gimignano Part 2

Upon checking in at my hotel for the night in San Gimignano, I asked about transportation to horseback riding in the area since I had contacted a farm that did rides for relatively cheap. This isn't on THE LIST yet but I am definitely going to add it since I've been seeking out opportunities to ride off into the sunset on a horse since I'd arrived. Turns out it would cost more for a cab to and from than the actual horseback riding excursion. Oh well, maybe I could check this off somewhere else. 

I spent the afternoon in between the pool and the air conditioning (thank god!) and felt refreshed and ready to explore the town of San Gimignano. I showered, but I'm not sure why since within two minutes of stepping outside I was dripping in sweat again. Also, can we discuss this? hair dryer, or vacuum? As you can imagine it did not work very well!

The lovely woman at the front desk showed me a back way to walk up to the town center and said it had great views along the way. She wasn't kidding. It was a long walk, much of it hills and it was boiling out but the views made up for it! Passing a roadside wine stand at the start was surely a good sign. 

Walk past a vineyard

View of San Gimignano in the background

Just when I was nice and sweaty, my dress was sticking to my legs and I'm finishing up re-adjusting my bra, I look up to see a very hot Italian guy (presumably a local) walking down the gravel road towards me. And lucky for me he was missing his shirt. Now if this were a movie, it would be assumed that this is the guy I must have a one night stand with from THE LIST, and we proceed to roll around in the vineyards in broad daylight, right? 

Well this is real life and this is what really happened. We pass each other. He says, "Ciao." I avert my eyes as my voice has seemed to stop working at the sight of his body and a small croak escapes. We both keep walking. Sorry to disappoint.

I make it to town and I'm positively parched but San Gimignano is really amazing. It's like the Manhattan of medieval times. I found some great scenes as I explored.

I wandered around for a while until I finally got up the courage to eat dinner somewhere by myself. I've always hated the idea of eating at a restaurant alone, in fact I always get so sad that I tear up when I see someone eating by themselves at a restaurant. I was about to be one of the people I usually cried for. I had my kindle, and a glass of wine which helped, but I felt pretty lonely. Everyone here was on vacation with their significant other or family and friends. So naturally, I did what anyone else would do and got gelato after dinner. They claimed to be the "best gelato in the world" and since I was becoming somewhat of an expert, I'd be the judge of that. I have to say..though the scoops were larger, it didn't match up to the gelato I had twice already in Lucca! I took in some more beautiful views before heading to a bar tucked away on a narrow side street that I had read about. 

There was no one at this bar. Just me, the owner and two of his friends. But, there was wifi and the owner had a generous pour in my glass of wine. Pretty soon after arriving, a couple sits at the table next to me and I can't help but overhear them speaking in English. Glorious! The information I gather is that they've just arrived, had a horrendous time with parking, and don't know where their hotel is. I just happen to know where their hotel is as I walked by it earlier so I offer up walking directions and we start chatting. Turns out they need help planning the rest of their vacation too, and I'm just the person to assist. Before my trip last year I had researched Italy like no other. They declare this fate! They had come into this bar so they could find me! We end up having a few glasses of wine, and it's later than I thought. I walk with them in the direction of their hotel since it's on my way back, and they ask if I'll be okay getting back by myself since mine is not in the town center. I reply that yes, it's only a little under a mile and I've done much worse walks at 4am in New York City and I'm sure I'll be fine...

This now becomes the story of the night that I thought I really might die here in Italy. As I walk out of the town centre I have two choices. Take the road I came in on, which is a back, gravel road that looks incredibly dark..or follow the main road that I assume will have some lights. I choose the main road and wish that hot Italian guy would show up and walk me back. He doesn't, and I had assumed wrong about the lights on the main road. What there is a lot of cars and scooters. No shoulder. Darkness and more darkness. Oh, and I don't know if I should've gone to the street on the right or the left after the traffic circle.

I have to walk and stop every two seconds or so when I hear a car coming since I'm sure they can't see me, and there's barely room for the car on the road. Every time I hear a car coming I step into the brush with god knows what else. One of the times when I have to wait in knee high grass and weeds, and I'm battling with some branch scratching my arm, I hear an animal rustling around. Now I start to get a bit scared. Who knows what kind of animals come out in the Tuscan hills at night?! The road seems to stretch on forever and my hotel is no where in sight. I can't make much progress since I have to stop and hide in the bushes every few steps. I consider giving up and walking back to town. Perhaps I can find a stoop to sit on until morning. I'll just go around one more bend..and lo! Just up yonder is hallelujah, my hotel. Only took me about an hour.