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Category: Via Francigena

La Bella Vita

We were blogging on a group blog recently about locations: writing locations, settings in books, etc. As luck would have it I’d just returned from an amazing month away on a working vacation in Italy and Morocco. 

Below is my post about working vacations. Keep scrolling for some fun pictures of my work venues for that month, and even further down, squeee!!!, you get a first peek at my latest book cover for book 4 in my IT’S REIGNING MEN series, LOVE IS IN THE HEIR, available for pre-order and set to release in late September.

Oh! And book three, BAD TO THE THRONE, releases on June 29. It is my favorite so far in this series, complete with a Harry-esque bad boy prince who I think you’ll fall for…

 And lastly, don’t forget to sign up for my newsletter–which will be going out next week. There’ll be a little special something in there for your efforts ;-) .

I recently returned from a lovely working vacation in Italy and Morocco. And the hard part of a working vacation is the work part.

I departed for our trip with a deadline pending for the third book in my It’s Reigning Men series. I had a lot of fun writing this book–the hero in it is a rakish Prince Harry-esque black sheep, and I just loved his attitude. So I didn’t want to rush to end the book, plus I was scrambling to get ready to leave, so I left the final third of the book dangling…

Which meant I had a few days during my trip in which I had to just hunker down, abandon the idea of being a tourist, and focus on writing. Of course this was a bit of a bummer, because I would have far rather wandered the streets of ancient Italian cities and settled in for a leisurely lunch of pappardelle al sugo di anatra (fat strips of homemade pasta with amazingly delicious duck confit cooked in a red sauce) and a glass of Chianti. Which would have led to the need for a nap which would have meant no writing.

So instead, I savored my “rooms” with a view, and hunkered down to finish my novel with some of the most spectacular scenery going.

We writers are so blessed that we can do our work pretty much anywhere. And over the years I have, by default, done that: in pick-up line at the kids’ schools, on the sidelines at soccer practices, with ear plugs in while the kids watched the television that is mere feet from my “desk” which is in the kitchen and basically means hardly a quiet zone.

So my designated work stations while away this time were pretty much unbeatable: at our B&B with a spectacular view of the Duomo di Siena, which is a breathtaking work of architecture; while sitting on the ponte di Santa Trinita in Florence, with a view of the famed Ponte Vecchio in front of me and the world’s most amazing gelato just steps away (Gelateria Santa Trinita—if you’re in Florence, go there and try the sesamo nero, which sounds weird, black sesame seed gelato, but is incredible).

I wrote at an outdoor bar in the delightfully colorful Piazza Santo Spirito (full of great people-watching, which sort of causes problems when trying to focus on writing!), in the Oltrarno, the section of Florence across the Arno River that is more residential and relatively less touristy.

Not for the first time I enjoyed writing in the Giardino di Boboli, the spectacular gardens that are part of the imposing Palazzo Pitti (hoarding headquarters for the Medici family), with a splendid view of all of Florence.

I regretted missing a fascinating tour of the city of Matera in the Basilicata region of Italy, down by the boot heel. My husband got to take that tour while I hunkered down on the deadline-iest of deadline days: I absolutely had to get my book to my editor on that day or it would screw up my publication date, which would make me an enemy of Amazon ;-) . Far be it from me to get on the bad side of Amazon…

Anyhow, the “Sassi” in Matera are a United Nations World Heritage site—originally a prehistoric troglodyte settlement, considered to be among the first human settlements in what is now Italy. The Sassi are caves dug into the rocks, from which an ancient town sprung, one cave atop the other, until a warren of many thousands of caves piled atop and next to one another existed. Until the mid-20th century these caves were inhabited by the poorest of the poor, who were ultimately relocated to housing with plumbing and other modern comforts. Since then the area has been rebuilt to house apartments, hotels, restaurants and shops. It’s an amazing place, extraordinarily beautiful at night when lit up, too.

I feel incredibly fortunate to have had such an phenomenal opportunity to travel and experience the world and various cultures and incorporate it into my writing (and am grateful that my husband has afforded me these opportunities because trust me, writing isn’t paying these bills). On this trip also, we visited Morocco, and immersed ourselves in an entirely different culture there (and, um, learned the hard way that the closest place to the Sahara desert in which to find a tampon would be a rugged 10-hour drive through the High Atlas Mountains to Marrakech…)

Along the way I also worked on my book while waiting for a grocery store to open in Siena as I needed to buy laundry detergent and was in a hurry to get it done before we traveled to Florence.

I love to incorporate things I experience while traveling into my books, and have used quite a bit of my extensive Italian travels in my current series, the It’s Reigning Men series, especially with the third book of the series, Bad to the Throne, which is available for pre-order now here and will be released June 29.

I hope you can enjoy a little bit of my journeys as you read my books! And please, do enjoy the view!


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SO MAYBE I'M NOT THE IDEAL CANDIDATE TO STAY ALONE IN A CASTLE AFTER ALL…

I’m sorry I stopped blogging — after leaving Tuscany my internet was pretty unreliable, so I fell off the wagon. I’ll try to do a round-up now that I’m back home since a lot of folks wanted to hear about the rest of my trip!

I drove to Procena castle from Castiglione D’Orcia, wondering as I went if I ought to have stayed longer or if it was indeed time to move on. As much as I loved Tuscany, it felt lonely being all alone there. In a city you can be on your own and not feel so void of companionship, but Tuscany felt much more a place to share with others. I was my own fifth wheel, go figure. That said, there is something so magical about the mystical light of Tuscany — it renders even unglamorous concrete-like chunks of upturned dessicated earth into beautiful pastoral scenes. Field after field in Tuscany had been tilled for the season, and the muted earthtones on their own were unremarkable in color, but with the low-cast peach-colored late-day sun painting the fields of beige, tan and brown into a masterpiece of breathtaking beauty, well, it was hard to part with that. It didn’t help that the Sunday I left was overcast and threatening rain all day. Still, in Tuscany, angry storm clouds lurked with such stark beauty…It’s a rare landscape that can be highlighted with inclement weather.

The view from Procena Castle
The view from Procena Castle

As I left the Tuscan region and entered Lazio, I was less impressed with the natural beauty of the area. Roads were practically bombed out with potholes — having grown up in Pitsburgh, I’ve known my share of potholes over the years, and I was afraid a few of those were going to swallow up my little Panda Smartcar whole, or at least snap an axel. As the car crawled up the final hill toward Procena, I was still a bit apprehensive about what I’d gotten myself into.

I parked my car in the outside-the-town-wall car park and lugged my backpack up the road, following signs for Castello di Proceno. I knocked on the locked door and was eventually greeted by a man who was a dead ringer for Alfred Hitchcock. Given the sort of spooky nature of an imposing and very old castle, that might not have been the best first thing for me to encounter, particularly as it was an overcast and rainy day that never seemed to garner enough light to feel like daytime. Nevertheless Giovanni was a kind and lovely host and soon brought out his wife, Cecilia (aka Pucci, a childhood nickname that stuck). Now while Pucci was delightful and sweet, she reallllly fit the whole ancient castle décor, kind of dark, hollow eyes (but honestly she was SO sweet) and very petite and I mean I do have a vivid imagination, you guys know that. I think they had a certain chiarascuro thing going, that dark-in-the-shadows thing that gave me pause. Maybe it’s just so little windows in those old buildings means more shadows on people’s face…Whatever it was, I just kept imagining they were a family of vampires and at the stroke of midnight, well…

Being alone in a castle isn’t necessarily a great thing for me, I now realize. My room wasn’t in the castle proper, but in the ramparts, the buildings at the base of the castle tower surrounding and protecting the five-story castle. I had a bit of a hike uphill and through a winding alley to then climb several flights of steps, through a lovely garden. I was greeted by collection of mismatched cats who clearly ran the place — replete with missing legs, snipped ears, I think one had an absent eye (I later learned Pucci’s son brings home the injured critters).

All around the courtyard of the garden there were doors that hid things I felt a need to check out because, well, I was alone in a room in a potentially haunted castle. I was pleasantly surprised each one ended up being some sort of supply area, potting shed, etc, all in impeccable condition, void of clusters of spider webs, no squeaking mice, no bats flying out to attack me. Put my own grimy garage to shame. And my hosts were not spring chicks. While I couldn’t’ exactly put a finger on their ages it could have been early 70’s but could easily have been mid-80’s. And they had a LOT to maintain in this place. I was so impressed. Though when my WiFi kept failing and I trekked down the street to the office with Giovanni to figure out how to make it work, I was reminded of my fathers hoarder home, with piles of stuff surrounding his antique computer (and what other kind of computer would we expect in a castle?!) along with a dusty copy of Microsoft Office 97 for Dummies. Seriously. Big props for me, figuring if we unplugged that little black plug attached to the little flat thingy by the computer, maybe the wifi would start working in five minutes (yeah, my technological know-how was no better than Alfred Hitchcock’s!). Unfortunately what this meant is if I’d slept in the dusty decrepit office, my wifi would’ve worked reliably as I’d have kept on unplugging/replugging that thing, but since I was 3 stories up (and up the street), that wasn’t gonna happen. Oh well. My only problem is night time was my research time, figuring out directions, where I was going to go, etc. And Scott and I were wrapping up last-minute plans for me to meet up with him in Rome in just two days, so being in contact was fairly important. Oh well, so I just hung out and tried not to feel like the very old collection of things on display were never used to bludgeon to death people from another century. Yeah, that imagination can run wild.

And then, as a dark, wet, dusk settled in, so did an intimidating blanket of fog that made me feel right at home (as in scared to death) being alone at a castle. You can imagine my glee when I learned that an American couple, Jeannine and Lennie, who’d cooked with Pucci that day (one of the many services she does, this spunky wunderkind, is teach cooking classes) had offered for me to sit down to dinner with them to enjoy the bounties of their lesson. I was happy to take them up on that, as I’d been alone for so long anyhow, and feeling especially alone in the big scary castle in the fog and dark. Add to it I hadn’t spoken much English in a while, well, I’d have dined with pretty much anyone at that point. Dinnertime couldn’t come fast enough. And thank goodness they’d included me as there was no one else staying in the whole place, so it was just us.

Pucci invited us up to her kitchen as they finished off the food they’d prepared earlier in the day. I was grateful because this was not going to be a meal I’d order, but rather what I was served, and I knew one of the two pasta dishes was laden with anchovies, a deal-breaker for me. Luckily Jeannine and I realized in time that they’d forgotten to douse the dish with anchovies and so we begged them to hold back some untainted pasta for the two of us. Say what you will about “mouth feel” and “umami” and all those certain je ne sais pas ingredients, anchovies taste fishy, so I was glad I had something I’d eat that night.

We retreated to their enoteca, literally a cavernous grotto that had Etruscan caves in it. It was a combination of very cozy and a little creepy. I think if it had been full of conviviality, people lauging and drinking and eating, it would have felt more cozy, less creepy, but instead it was just us, and the rest of the place empty. Their lovely chef Luccia brought down food as it was finished off and I don’t know, I’m sure this sounds so rotten of me, but there was this thing in my head that kept harkening back to Bugs Bunny episode with that Jekyl/Hyde character who she reminded me of, so I guess I kept sort of putting all of these characters in the role of Elmer Fudd as the evil Mr. Hyde. I swear I was hoping for about ten deadbolts on my door that night to protect me from things that might go bump in the night. I’m such a weenie.

This is the view of the Castle Tower from  my porch
This is the view of the Castle Tower from my porch

At any rate, dinner was delightful. Pucci was the consummate hostess and regaled us with lovely stories from her past and the castle’s past.

I had a fireplace in my room but hadn’t thought about actually using it, but Jeannine and Lennie said they’d fired up theirs so I decided when I returned to my room to do so and was glad I did. It provided a certain level of psychological comfort to me as I fell asleep, like leaving the TV on while nodding off. Warding off the juju. Besides which it was awfully cozy. I forgot to mention my room was nice (though the décor was a bit weary)–very spacious, a large room with a bed (well, it was actually a cot but we’ll pretend we didn’t notice that), a few chairs, then another full kitchen then a whole patio overlooking the valley below, very pretty. When the entire area was swallowed up by fog until after 10 a.m.the next morning, I waited to see the view after the fog parted, and it was exceptional.

I then wandered the property, which was sprawling, and I wondered how this older couple could maintain it all. I assume they have help but I didn’t see anyone else working the place. They had a whole ‘nother restaurant down by the pool, where I sat down and wrote for a few hours, relishing the beautiful clear early autumn day. I even dozed off, very peaceful. Later in the afternoon, Pucci gave me a promised tour of the actual castle. Very cool. We entered through her home (all part of the ramparts), and first she showed me her living room, which featured a harpsichord that had been in the family since the mid-1700’s, as well as a harp and a mandolin from the era. And then I looked upward to see the walls near the ceiling lined with Etruscan pottery, all harvested from beneath the castle when it was first built, and remaining with the castle proper since then (construction started in the 9th century, and there are records in the Vatican of the bell tower operating in the 11th century). I asked if she dusted them and she said she was terrified she’d break one. Mine would be coated in dust, for sure (and only in part for fear of breakage, but sheesh, who wants to be tasked with dusting ancient pottery anyhow?!).

Just your average 2500 year old pottery decorating a home
Just your average 2500 year old pottery decorating a home

We then started climbing the castle, which was actually a very tall, narrow tower, which had tapered and very steep ladder-steps, some of which were practically a 90-degree angle (how did she do this? I was afraid I’d kill myself and I probably had 30 years on her! I swear Italian women are the spunkiest; those ladies have the most stamina ever). Each floor brought new surprises. The castle had been in her family’s hands since the mid-1600’s (can you imagine?!) and they had vestments from the church in display cases from that far back, clothes from the Napoleonic era, also in glass cases. And a framed note from some long-ago Pope (a distant relative). There were your run-of-the-mill castle things: the torch holders the you pull from the sconce in the wall and use to run out the Beast (oh, wait, that was in Beauty and the Beast), there were all sorts of weapons, it was just amazing, that this was all from her family over hundreds and hundreds of years. I think my family heirlooms date back to about 1975.

On the top floor of the castle
On the top floor of the castle

We finally got to the top, I got to cross the drawbridge (it was small and verrrrrryyyyy high up! I subsequently learned they’d been looking for a drawbridge repairman, but that was good I was unaware of that!). Atop the castle, leaning into the crenelated walls, I could see how that King would feel good surveying his terrain, smugly protected. I saw slits along a floorway and asked if that was where they poured the boiling oil. I was joking, but it turns out it was indeed for that purpose! And Pucci showed me the pockmarks in the walls from catapult ball attacks (remaining catapult balls can be found decorating the garden and even using almost as finials on garden walls. Funny).
Insert boiling oil here
Insert boiling oil here

Pucci talked about growing up in a castle — you can imagine what a cool place that would be to be a child. Her boy cousins of course picked up weapons to play with while she got to be the princess (no doubt with some historical accuracy from her family tree). I asked her how they were able to preserve their treasures during World War II, and she said that when it became apparent the war was ending badly for the Italians, her father buried their treasures behind a wall that got cemented in, so that it wasn’t pillaged. It was quite a treat to be able to tour this fabulous historical relic — so hard to imagine growing up in your run-of-the-mill suburbia the sense of history that so many Europeans maintain. (even that kids in Italy get to go on field trips to things like Pompeii, like how cool is that?). Also cool, her husband Giovanni’s family had the first printing press in Lazio, and they are on display in the entryway to their home.
Note catapult ball imprints
Note catapult ball imprints

the drawbridge
the drawbridge

markings on walls from 1500's
markings on walls from 1500’s

peering into castle from above
peering into castle from above

the keys to the castle, literally
the keys to the castle, literally

catapult balls decorate the garden
catapult balls decorate the garden

Surveying the territory below
Surveying the territory below

Castle bell from around the 10th century
Castle bell from around the 10th century

drawbridge chain--looks pretty rickety
drawbridge chain–looks pretty rickety

printing press from I think the 1600's
printing press from I think the 1600’s

what every castle needs--an ancient boar mounted on the wall
what every castle needs–an ancient boar mounted on the wall

peering into castle from above
peering into castle from above

I left well before dawn the next morning in order to get to Fiumichino airport in Rome to meet Scott. I didn’t get my quaint basket with homemade breads and jams as I did the first morning, pity. I did manage to get myself lost, which was probably because I was still spooked wandering the empty streets of Procena, a very dying village that once housed some 11,000 residents and has since whittled down to about 300. At 5 a.m. it was, yeah, the common theme here, foggy and spooky. One of the many village cats must’ve gotten into mischief ,as someone’s flower pots had been knocked over and dirt was strewn about the cobblestone road.

I got myself lost in the dark by forgetting to take a hard-to-forget sharp right turn while leaving the hilltop town, ten miles later got back on the right road, but my directions, loosely translated from Italian, weren’t quite enough to get me to my destination without wondering if I was making wrong turns. I stopped once on the highway to ask directions and the sweetest man who was driving a truck for a glass repair business, escorted me for about 50 KM to ensure I was on the right route. How nice was that? I met so many kind people on this trip who have helped me along the way. There are a lot of good people in the world.

Scott’s flight arrived on time, as did I, so we were able to hop a train to Salerno right away and get going. The plan was to take a ferry from Salerno to Positano, then take a bus up to our B&B in Nocelle, at the top of the ridge, about 30 minutes from Positano. We’d been warned that the ferries didn’t run in bad weather, so when we arrived to brilliant sunshine in Salerno, only to be told the ferries weren’t running (I asked the woman why and she pointed to the clear blue sky and shrugged), we had to figure quickly what to do, which turned out to be to quickly purchase tickets for the bus, set to arrive in a few minutes.

Evidently we weren’t the only ones needing a Plan B, as by the time the bus arrived, a throng of humans pushed their way to get onto the bus. Luckily Scott was trying to load our luggage into the belly of the vehicle, and luckily the driver had suddenly opened the back door of the bus, so he got on, and I was turned away, as the bus was belching out people. But I shouted out in Italian that my husband was on the bus and I simply had to get on, so he let me on (along with a few others) despite there being nowhere for us to be. At one point I thought I would ride the entire way with my face pressed up to the windshield, but then a really sweet Englishman traveling with his wife gave up his seat for me (she was fine sitting on the steps, apparently), so I was able to get a seat next to a very friendly Italian pastry chef on his way home from work. I feel sorry for the locals who must rely on the buses for their daily commute (this includes school kids) — our bus was filled with students trying to get home, plus all tourists who’d started the day traveling by ferry to another Amalfi Coast town but had to get back to their starting point via the lone remaining transportation option, the bus. The trip was about an hour, with poor Scott fighting off carsickness standing, jammed, way back in the back while I chatted pastries with my little Italian buddy up front. I’d never have been able to offer him my seat through the pressed flesh regardless, or I would have. He was a little green around the gills by the time we got to Amalfi, where we had to catch another bus, which we foolishly thought would be substantially more calm.

Alas, the bus that was leaving shortly after we arrived there was mobbed by throngs of tourists, so we had no chance. It was to be a 30 minute wait for another bus, but the problem was there was no system as to where to meet the next bus, nor where to line up. There was a cluster of bus drivers taking a classic Italian smoke break, but were unable or unwilling to provide a hint of information about transportation clues: imploring questions were met with ambivalent shrugs, a tight suck on a cigarette, and a return to important conversation with their stylishly dressed coworkers (sweaters tied around their necks, very chi-chi for bus drivers).

Finally we realized we had to divide and conquer if we were to get on a bus any time soon, so I served as scout searching for the next bus that might be arriving while Scott waited in line, hoping something would materialize on that end. After a while one of the bus drivers who’d not given up information about which bus might be Positano-bound then climbed aboard a nearby idle bus and several of us accosted him, demanding to know if it would become the Positano bus. He shrugged in a positive-ish way, leading us to guess that perhaps we would be on the right bus if we got on. So I rushed on with others in the front of the quasi line while Scott tried to load our bags onto the bus. But the driver wasn’t opening the baggage storage section, so finally we ended up with our pile of bags jammed on yet another bus for another 45 minutes on windy cliffside roads with hairpin turns and absolutely breathtaking views of the Mediterranean Sea, and about twice as many humans as should safely be on the thing.

When we arrived in Positano we had about ten minutes to spare before catching the next bus to Nocelle. We grabbed a gelato so I could use the restaurant’s bathroom (which I’d needed since Salerno, natch!) and smugly gloated that at least this time we could have comfortable seats on the bus. Ha! When the bus arrived, it was packed to the gills, only smaller than the previous buses. But our driver was nothing if not an optimist, and he just kept piling more riders on (our bags stacked up inside the bus yet again. I laughed at the small child who was perched atop a locked safe that was behind and above the drivers seat. He was like a bird in a nest peering down at the crowd. Lordie, another thirty minutes hoping we didn’t end up through the windshield. The bus drivers are amazingly gifted at avoiding collisions (I couldn’t help but wonder how often buses go over the cliffs, simply because of my macabre imagination), and at one point the entire overpacked bus applauded as our driver passed another vehicle with about 1-1/2 millimeter’s space before a huge sideswipe would’ve happened. Patience is quite an Italian virtue, and the locals must have it in spades, so it was a good lesson to remind us that this wasn’t a pain-in-the-ass-transportation-nightmare, but rather an exhilarating adventure that we’d laugh at for years to come.

When we reached the end of the line, and there were no more buses as options (the last few miles involved the bus waiting at the foot of a hairpin turn for 10 minutes while a truck made its way down the steep hill; no room for two vehicles on the road), though we knew we had more to go. Mind you, I’d been traveling with my backpack and nothing else for three weeks, and was quite used to it. But when I found out that Scott was going to meet me for the last week, I wisely suggested we FaceTime in my closet so I could give him a nice long list of things I sure wouldn’t mind finally having. Like clothes. Underwear. Perfume. I had packed three outfits for four weeks and I can’t tell you how sick I was of them. So Scott ended up with enough this and that I’d requested that he brought a whole extra suitcase for me (also with enough room to bring home some wine and olive oil and balsamic vinegar, necessities). Otherwise it would have been him with a small suitcase, and me with my easily manageable backpack. But hey, I wasy dying for some perfume and make-up by then…

my clothes for a month
my clothes for a month

So we were met at the bus stop by our B&B host, Nino, a genial, cheerful and surprisingly fit man I’d guess was in his late 60’s or early 70’s, who hoisted my (oversized) suitcase on his shoulders while Scott lugged his bag and I wore my pack for the next ten minutes of walking up and down many steps (an Amalfi Coast thing), dodging lots of dog poo (and what looked distinctly like horse dung but I couldn’t figure out how that got there!) until we finally reached our destination.

(That horse poo? Well, Two days later I would see a man escorting two horses down a very steep flight of steps en route toward the village parking area, by the bus stop. I had no idea horses were so fleet of foot! They were far more graceful than I was on those steep steps! And the dog poo? While I cursed the locals for not curbing their dogs, I soon realized there wasn’t anywhere else for dogs to go anyhow, with the treacherously steep and untamed terrain, and mostly they weren’t anyone’s dogs, but rather many stray dogs that make the circuit, mooching and living off the land, living the good life. Our Bridget would love it.

The view from our B&B in Nocelle
The view from our B&B in Nocelle

Okay, back to Nocelle. It’s a beautiful tiny village with the most breathtaking views imaginable. You can see for miles, the dramatic and rugged cliffs of the Amalfi and purest blue Mediterranean waters and you just cannot get enough of it. Sunsets? Forget it, they’re too beautiful to describe. You just feel so blessed to have an opportunity to partake in it.

We had a lovely dinner at a nearby restaurant that first night, and started off early the next morning with no particular plans but to wander around Positano. We hopped a (crowded) bus and headed down toward the town, and decided to get off midway down, knowing we could find stairs to continue our walk if need be. We wandered into a ceramics shop (the pottery in the Amalfi coast is very pretty) and happened upon a woman presenting a lecture of some sort about authentic Amalfi pottery to a rapt group of people. We soon realized this woman was Christine, an Aussie transplant about whom we’d read in Rick Steves’ guidebook, a lawyer who’d married a local and had become the unofficial town historian and gave great tours. We asked if we could tag along, and spent the next few hours touring Positano and getting great insight into the are. Along the way she regaled us with fun tales of life in Italy: how the first day of school had been the day before, and the mothers were up in arms because classes had been consolidated Montessori-style because there weren’t enough students to fill up a grade. The mothers were all clucking their displeasure and her husband decided he wasn’t going to stick around with that going on, so he bailed and left them behind. And so in true Italian fashion the moms decided they were going to go on strike, and on day two of school, there was no school because there were no students for the school.

Christine took us to her husband Vicenzo’s showroom — his family owns the butcher shop in town, and he’d become a sommelier in addition to being an expert on local charcuterie and cheeses, so we did a great tasting in his shop and she urged us to attend his wine tasting class that evening as well. Christine’s tour was delightful and turned what could feel simply like a large, albeit scenic tourist trap into a really interesting place to spend some time. Even the animals we encountered had stories. Apparently the local shops adopt the stray cats and dogs as their own and when open feed and house them by day, and various animals go by different names depending upon which shop they happen into at that time. One dog, I think he was named Arturo, actually hopped a bus from Praiano, a town about 20 minutes away by bus, each morning, even though dogs aren’t allowed on the bus. We saw him sunning himself in the piazza near the duomo, a very contented stray indeed.

Arturo, the bus-hopping dog
Arturo, the bus-hopping dog

Christine told us how she’d met her husband while taking time off as a lawyer in Sydney and backpacking through Europe. She arrived in Positano and unbeknownst to her, the boys in the town had a longstanding system of “tagging” pretty girls they wanted to end up with during the tourist season, and Vincenzo had tagged her with his buddies. The boys are known as “squallows” and are also called sharks, and they serve as wingmen for each other to facilitate their goals. Each spring the boys ditch their local girlfriends in favor of the new blood coming in to visit. So Christine was tagged by Vincenzo, and as she told him of her plans, that she was taking the bus in the morning to catch a boat to Capri, well, he told her the time to catch the bus, but he gave her the wrong time, so that when he showed up a few minutes later with his motor scooter and offered her a ride, how perfect that she had a way to get there. And when no boat materialized (he’d told his friend she’d hired not to show up), then he borrowed someone else’s boat so that he could take her on his own. She said this system is known enough now that girls show up in Positano with no place to stay, knowing that they’ll find housing and food one way or another. Though she said when they were dancing at the only nightclub in town, on the beach, on that first night, and he started getting a little too familiar, she slapped him across the face, and he knew then that he wasn’t dealing with the run-of-the-mill female he was used to dealing with. She finished her travels and his missed her so much he visited her in Australia, and the next thing they knew, they were married. I could only imagine how much the local girls must have hated her, as she was taking away one of the few locals from their options. And in this part of Italy, you don’t want to get on someone’s bad side, or you’ll end up with the malocchio, the evil eye, and they sell cornutos everywhere–those horn necklaces, to ward off the bad juju.
Love the teens making out on the beach below--very Italian...
Love the teens making out on the beach below–very Italian…

I’m going to stop writing now and post this, and will finish the rest of our trip in the next posting,which I hope to get up on my blog in the next day or so!!
Beautiful Positano
Beautiful Positano

Catching Up!

We’ll start first with a quiz. Anyone who can define from your memory the follow terms gets an A:

Polyspaston
Archimedean screw
Large armed lodestone
Astrolabe
Jovolabe
Thermometry
Condensation hygrometer

Yep, if you’re like me, you haven’t a clue. And still don’t. But that’s okay; I had fun trying to figure it out nevertheless.

Last week I decided for my first museum in Florence I’d go somewhere a little more off-the-beaten-path: I decided to get my science on (yes! those who know me will think I’ve lost my marbles!) and visit Il Museo Galileo, which was a most fascinating little museum that very few people go to. But for, uh, engineering types, I gathered. Because besides me the place had mostly engineering-type looking middle-aged guys there, most of them shaking their heads in marvel at the genius behind so much Renaissance science.

It is the largest collection of all things scientific in Italy, thanks to I think Lorenzo the Magnificent (or was it his son?) — one of those Medicis who wanted to preserve and consolidate scientific discoveries in one place.

I found the artistry of many of the designs to be the most interesting (maybe because I hadn’t a clue what the hell the things did!) and I loved the ancient globes and maps, of which there were a few. My morbid curiosity piqued, though, with the preserved remains of Galileo’s finger and tooth (of course I took a picture). And I was most amused as I go around with a pedometer attached that my friend Birgit gave me, and they had a very old-timey pedometer that was about the size of a bicycle — not very practical for every day useage.

I’ve lost track of my days but I think that was last Sunday. That evening I went to a restaurant in Piazza San Spirito which is a sort of funky area across the Arno (in the Oltrarno). We’d been there last year, I knew to order the half portions because their servings are so immense. So I ordered a half portion of homemade gnocchi in tomato sauce and as I awaited its arrival I was amused by a nearby accordian player who chose to play Hava Nagila, not exactly the most Italian of songs. Must be hired for a lot of Jewish weddings in town.

When my gnocchi arrived, I was surprised to see this scalding bubbling vat of gnocchi drenched in some horrid truffle cheese sauce which smelled so vile it churned my stomach. When I finally got the waitress’ attention, I asked her where my order was, reminded her this was not what I had asked for. She told me the gnocchi with tomato sauce wasn’t available in a half order so I got this instead. Uh, right. We call that the African “yes”, as when we traveled in Africa this often happened. Odd, though, in the heart of Florence. I think I could safely presume that my subsequent plate of spaghetti al pomodoro probably had some spit in it from the waitress’ ire…

I finally got to enjoy using a real live washer and dryer at the hostel. Was overpriced and exceedingly long: an hour for the washer, which I’d put in cold so as to not have all colors bleed together (they did anyhow), and the dryer TWO HOURS even though the temperature, I am convinced, was set to Scalding Pot of Boiling Oil setting. Even after two hours, my meager 8 things in the washer still hadn’t dried. Very strange. Makes me appreciate my aged 15-year old washer and dryer that make a lot of noise but get the job done (knock wood). But it was interesting that the washing machine automatically put soap in. Handy.

I’ve noticed a lot of people out there in the world are void of spatial awareness. Either that or they don’t give a care that you are walking right where they’ve decided they want to go. Which means you have two choices: divert on your path, or crash into them. Well, I’ve chosen choice three: I stand my ground and let them get out of the way. This is especially necessary when carrying a large backpack on your back, but I’ve taken to doing it on principal. I guess it is a pedestrian survival of the fittest thing. But it works: it doesn’t annoy anyone, but it keeps me from having to zig and zag all over the place while getting from one place to another.

On Monday since many things in Florence are closed, I took a bus up to Fiesole, a lovely hillside village overlooking Florence. I wandered around, climbed to the scenic top and wandered around a lovely monastery (it was St. Bernard’s, yet again he shows up on my trip — I’ve found so many times, in Siena, in Switzerland of course, St. Bernard had gotten around. This monastery had the cell in which he resided (creature comforts were definitely not his gig). I then sat in on I forget what it was called, not vespers, but it was noontime and five monks were in the small church chanting prayers. It was a little DaVinci Code-esque, these guys cloaked in brown robes, ropes knotted around their waists, hoods draping over their heads. Also a bit mesmerizing to listen to.

After that I got back down to Florence, tried Gelateria Caroze, supposedly the best in Firenze but didn’t hold a candle to my favorite one (my gelato tasted like cilantro, a deal-breaker for me), and decided to invest in a Firenze Card (all-you-can-tour pass, kind of like at Disney, and gets you to the front of the line everywhere) and started out at Palazzo Medici, a palace where the Medicis lived when they weren’t at one of their other palaces all over the place.

I spent the afternoon at the Palazzo Vecchio, yet another Medici art-fest. I climbed the campanile (the bell tower) for sunset and it was a spectacular one, with tufts of melon-colored clouds painting the landscape. I love that in Florence many people have terra cotta-colored satellite dishes, so that they blend in with the terrain and aren’t so obstrusive when people are looking down on the city. And I had divine tortelli rossa at Vini et Vecchi Sapori again. Yummm…

Tuesday I spent the morning with David at the Academia. It is really such a beautiful work to behold. I enjoyed just sitting with it for a while, and eavesdropping on tour guides. I was interested to hear one, who was an art history teacher with students, pointing out that David isn’t circumcized, even though he should have been — he said this was one of many subversive designs Michaelangelo included to stick it to the man (artists I guess have done that throughout history). He also mentioned that back in the day most statues were lacking that piece of male anatomy, as people stole them all the time. So dismembered statues were the norm. Go figure — people had a sense of humor back then even. I can see putting THAT on my mantle back home…

Another conversation I overheard at the Academia between to very expensively-dressed American women, one of who lamented that after all of her travels, she’s seen more artwork than she can care to mention. Her friend then said to her with a straight face, “So, are these the kinds Of things you put in your house now?” And I wanted to ask her, “You mean statues by Michelangelo?” Weird…

After David I checked out the Cappelle Medicee, I surmise several of the Medicis were entombed there but regardless upon their deaths they were enshrined there. It’s a humble little shack. I was amazed at the amount of reliquaries housed there (and elsewhere) — all sorts of gewgaws from saints throughout the ages, whether it was a body part (there was some martyr’s head at the Duomo museum in Siena, the whole gorgeous skull in a beautifully ornate silver box) to fingers to teeth to just things I guess they owned. I suppose the modern day version of this is having an autograph from Michael Jackson that you’d frame, now that he’s dead?!

I then wandered the San Lorenzo market, feeling not a need to buy a thing (and noticing the prices for similar things I’d seen in San Gimignano totally jacked up here), and inside at the large indoor food market. It would have been nice to buy things to cook but wow! I haven’t cooked in weeks! Not exactly the kitchen in which to prepare anything but ramen noodles at the hostel…

I saw a dog that was the spitting image of our dog Bridget, snapping away at a fly. I swear it must be in their DNA, those dingos…

I spent the afternoon at the Palazzo Pitti, which is an exhausting tour. Just gobs and gobs of priceless artwork, room after room of splendor and wretched excess, just fascinating to see and sort of sad you ultimately say “Meh, another fourteenth century masterpiece. Whatev!” I’m convinced that were the Medicis alive now, they’d star in their own Hoarders type reality show. Or have a documentary made about their greed and gluttony and desire to Have It All, Dammit. After a while I was just wondering when the palace would run out of rooms so I could go pass out from sheer exhaustion. Tuesday I ate at Trattoria (or Osteria?) Casalingha in the Oltrarno — was good food, mostly locals, which is always a good sign. But it poured rained starting around sunset Tuesday. I went out with a rain jacket in my backpack but should’ve packed an Arc. I’m lucky though as it’s mostly been the only rain I’ve had to contend with but for Switzerland on that first day.

Wednesday I toured the Museo dell’Opera dell Duomo (the museum in which the statues, famed doors of the Baptistery, etc are held in safekeeping and restored). Unfortunately much of it was closed off due to rennovations, but I’d seen some of the most famous statues last year when we went with Kendall’s art history class, so it was okay. I also toured the Baptistery and climbed the campanile and read a book at the top, waiting until the bell tolled (it wasn’t as loud as I’d expected).
I then returned to the Galleria Uffizi, again, lots of beautiful artwork. By then I was beat and hung out at the Piazza della Signoria and ran into a nice Aussie guy I’d slept with (haha! gotcha!) in one of my many hostel rooms (I had to change rooms almost every night because of the last-minute nature of my booking; I was lucky to get any room at all, and I am most grateful for Dennis, one of the managers, who took good care of me). I was in a 6-bed room with one bathroom in the hall, then a four bed room with one bathroom, then a deluxe four bed room in a more separate and private area (with a nice young couple from the UK) and private bathroom. The hallways here were weird as they had this eerie light that vibed from purple to pink to green all night long. And the passkey was magnetic, which was kinda cool. I then got bumped to a six-bed room for three nights with a two bathrooms shared by I’m pretty sure half of Florence. THAT was less than perfect, especially as invariably someone had an alarm (the classic iPhone ring) blaring at 5:15 a.m. so they could catch their train or flight. That got old fast.

Very young Wednesday night I ate at Trattoria Nella again, then wandered the streets. Saw a bride in a very frou-frou meringue dress greedily licking a cone of gelato as she promenaded by — she looked like a girl playing dress-up. When the sun goes down in Florence, the African immigrants show up with knock off purses galore, spreading sheets out on the Via dei Calzaiuoli. Funny, this whole subculture of immigrants selling schlock in Italy — lots of southeast asians selling little wooden linkable trains to spell children’s names, or gooey ooze that they’d continually slam against a wooden block on the ground, all day long, tempting someone to purchase it. And faux paintings of all sorts of scenes. It’s a gauntly of “non, grazie” to every vendor wherever you walk.

I then happened upon that Charlie Chaplin-esque street performer again — the one who drew the huge crowd. I was able to finagle my way in when people thought he was done and was passing a hat but then he chastised people for walking on his stage (!!! it’s the street!!) when he wasn’t done with his performance. While he passed the hat he’d kept his three “victims” (three people he pulled from the audience, one a now-shirtless Asian man with a beer gut who had had doing all sorts of embarrassing things). One was a little boy of about six, with that sweet as can be face that little boys have that just tug away at your heartstrings. Well, this performer sort of had the boy park it for a while while he brought others from the audience in, did a few kind of raunchy skits, and he’d put the music on and off occasionally, and the music was a bit sad sounding. I don’t know what prompted it but I looked over to the little boy and could see he was figting back tears, yet no one did anything about it. I assumed his family was nearby, but nothing, Finally the guy came back and sat next to him and that poor little boy couldn’t fight his tears anymore and just started crying, it was so heartbreaking. Meanwhile the performer ignored him! And FINALLY the kids parents came over and he ran off, so ashamed. But people rushed him, snapping away as he sobbed outright — it was so weird. Poor little thing. I’d regretted giving the guy any more for his performance after that. He was kind of aggressive and had an attitude (and said he’d been doing it for 27 years — maybe time to retire?!).

In florence I’ve had to constantly dodge people’s pictures, which can be futile as everywhere you turn someone is being photographed. I’ve also taken so many pictures of couples, families, you name it, together, I should hang up my shingle. I also turned into a total gelato snob and won’t eat it unless it’s amazing artisanal gelato. Probably not such a bad thing to cut back on…

A few references in various pieces of art I noticed, that made me laugh. In a famous Statue of Apollo somewhere, it referred to the “ecstatic look in his eyes”, which reinforced what an art oaf I am, because all I saw was a cold marble stare! (though in my defense I think the look in David’s eyes is so compelling: it’s sort of like “Yeah, okay, took care of that. Come on world, give it to me!”)

Another one said the artist Ghirlandaio was “in the grip of restless spirituality.” I’m picturing the guy speaking in tongues, taunting snakes at a backwoods revival meeting in Appalachia…

At the Uffizi & Palazzo Pitti — every surface, every nook & cranny is greedy for your undivided attention — I would forget to gaze up, where you’d be treated to even more extraordinary artwork. And every piece of art has so much going on in it, it’s impossible to give each piece the attention it deserves. The Italians are fortunate to have such an embarrassment of riches at their fingertips.

It made me think about the sort of legacy that will be left behind from our generation and it will likely be nothing more compelling than cat videos that we will bequeath to future generations of humanity. Only they won’t be able to play it because there will be some newer technology that took the place of whatever one we are using now…Ahhh…our lasting heritage…

I tried to find the original Dwarf Morgante statue (he’s the Bacchus-like figure astride a tortoise) but couldn’t figure out where it was. I think it was at the Museo de Bargello but never made it there. Oh well, I saw the fake one…

Oh, in restaurants one thing that sort of bugs me is they never come give you the bill, and it’s impossible to get anyone’s attention to ask for it. Especially when alone, after a while you just want to get going, but you wait and you wait and you try hard to catch someone’s eye…Meals go on for HOURS simply because the check hasn’t been delivered. At least my Italian has improved somewhat. Though I am lazy if someone speaks English, I defer to it for ease. I do get a little charge when I execute an Italian phrase properly (or at least without failing miserably). And I understand much more of it (and know if someone is saying something they don’t realize I can understand!).

Thursday I left Firenze, boo hoo. It was time to move on. On the way out I stopped at this fabulous sandwich shop, a little carryout called i Frattelini — the BEST sandwiches in town. I was catching a bus to the airport where I was renting a Radio Flyer with an engine (a Panda Smart Car).

Getting out of town was interesting. First off I had NO idea how to drive this car. It’s sort of a training bra for driving a stick shift — who knew? So it expected me to change gears and I was like, damn, this little thing sure does lack pick-up. I was like the Little Engine That Could just trying to get out of the parking lot. I finally figured out that, which helped. And finally figured out how to get onto the A1, which was interesting and only a few flubs to do that. Once on there I was fine, and found my way relatively easily to Poggio Istiano, a lovely farmhouse in Florence we’d stayed at before. On the road before arriving here, I happened upon two pilgrims who’d been walking the Via Francigena since leaving their home in France 2-1/2 months ago (!). A husband and wife. I gave them my power bars. It had been raining on them, and yes, they were slogging along the very busy Cassia (SS2), a two-lane road that is the road to Rome from here, the cars drive very fast and there is no allowance for errors. Absolutely no shoulders on the road, either. While some of the Via Francigena is off-road here. I’d say 50% of it is on the roads, which made me glad I’d abandoned my walk. I just wasn’t comfortable walking on roads like that all the time. It was funny that the VF quite literally goes through the farmland here where I’m staying, I think on the far side of their property line.

The farmhouse is gorgeous, the property spectacular, the views, amazing. The color of light here is so beautiful. There is only another couple staying here and they speak no English, so it’s a little quiet to be here alone. I laugh because the woman goes around tending to the flowers — dead-heading geraniums, pulling weeds. Such a paying guest!

Thursday night I went to “grab” a quick bite. I was told of a “nearby” restaurant, which turned out to be like 30 minutes away, me in the mini-mobile on very dark roads, no lights, windy hairpin turns up mountains and down. Needless to say I was mildly stressed. I kept going back and forth, certain I’d missed the place I was told to go to, as she’d said it was nearby! But I finally found a human being in a town and asked directions and it turns out had I gone 1 KM more than I had after having turned around, I’d have found it…Oh well. Was a tiny Osteria, all locals. The guy kept insisting I order more than the pasta I’d ordered (which they were out of, so I ordered another one, which they were out of, so I ordered yet another one). It was good but I was so beat by then, I would’ve been happy with cheese and crackers.

I spent a delightful day Friday in Montepulciano, such a lovely Tuscan hilltown. I followed Rick Steves’ directions and went to a Cantine (they have the cellars in the basement of the palazzo) at the top of the hill, owned by the same family for 1000 years (!) and this older gentleman named Adamo took a hankering to me (I think it’s the hair color) so I got preferential treatment over all the others who were touring. This guy was a hoot — a total schmoozer, and his daughter (I think she was his daughter) Antonietta, was delightful. I tried to find a vineyard (cantina) as I left town. Some Americans from California, for whom I took a picture (!) said they knew wine and it was the best around. They showed me from afar where it was, said you just go down this road and go left. Oy! Turns out the vineyard shares a name with a town, and when I failed to find the vineyard and asked directions, I got sent by THREE people to a town 30 minutes away. I was so damned determined to find it. So I googled mapped it that night and yesterday set out to find it. Stopped in Monticchiello (like home!) for lunch, then headed there, though directions from Google had me going on a “white road”, which is basically a non-road, from gravel to good-luck-hope-you-can-make-it. Google said it was for about 250 meters. It went on for 10 KM. I was four-wheeling in this damned Smart car, but by then I’d been lost enough I realized that eventually in Tuscany you end up at a crossroads and there just aren’t that many roads around, so you can’t get *too* list (she says, laughing).

Had a lovely dinner at Rocca D’Orcia last night — a fortified castle town atop a hill. The place was in front of an ancient cistern, and the restaurant was quaint, the food amazing, and the tiramisu the best I’ve ever had…Delish…

Yesterday evening the owners hosted a birthday party for 5-year old Matteo, grandson of the owners of the farm. His festa buon compleano
;-).

And this morning I laughed as an older German man who was staying here this weekend took out a hose and washed his car before departing. An odd thing to do on holiday, but such a good idea I hosed down the Panda, as it was covered in dust from my four-wheeling episode….

The only other guests of note shared a wall with my room last night. I’m guessing they were young. And yes, the very thick walls are oddly quite thin…

Today I head to Castello di Procena — a castle! I’m staying the night in a castle! I”ll be there till Tuesday morning when I have to figure out my way to the Rome airport and I pick up Scott! We then take the train (finally!) to the Amalfi Coast. Can’t wait! Will post more when I’ve got more to post!

Ciao!