Tuesday, September 21, 2010

A Few Asides

Italian drivers; they don’t like to limit themselves to one lane here, and on the interstate, they will drift from one lane to another willy nilly; no signal, no indicating, nothing.

Sometimes they change lanes, sometimes they don’t; often they just drive half in one lane, half in another, like it’s just too much effort to chose one lane and stay in it.

The siesta: no joke here. Every shop in these small towns except for the occasional café, is closed from 1pm to 3pm, in some towns until 4pm. Understandable for towns where in the summer it is baking hot in the afternoons. Hard to get used to for someone who is from a place where everything is open almost all the time. But it forces you to be quiet, to be still, to slow down.

Translations: Steve picked up a cycling brochure at the hotel which details different bike routes in the area. It is a wonderful document, since it was so clearly written in Italian and then fed directly into Google Translate or some other translation site.

Here are some of my favorite excerpts:

The title: “Lands of the Greeny Heart of Italy, by Bicycle. “ The mere fact that the whole brochure was, in fact, lovingly written by the bicycle itself just warms my greeny heart.

Useful suggestion: “…those, who go by bike only occasionally will avoid the routes more challenging, because choosing too hard routes for their preparation can lead to excessive stress, risk, and thus to transform a day of fun in a big and disagreeable fatigue.” Ain’t that the truth!

Clothing: “To address the easier routes not need a technical, but may be enough a pair of shorts and a t-shirt, which must be added to the helmet. However, especially for those who intend to stay several hours in the saddle, use cycling shorts is a good rule, since, the special back, in which they have made, make more convenient and more pleasant ride.” Good point.

What to Bring: “…those who rides for fun or making a holiday by bike, certainly prefers to stop at a bar, or in a tavern; the important thing, it is not to exaggerate, because then we still ride to return to the starting point.” You got that? Stop at a bar, or a tavern, just DO NOT exaggerate. Many a life has been lost that way.

I do love Italy.

Umbria Hill Towns

We have visited in the past few days, quite a few of these wonderful hill towns: Bevagna, Trevi, Perugia and Todi (photo left) so far.

They can begin to blend into each other after a while, but they all are similar in their imposing walls which protected them from invasion way back in the 13th Century (if not earlier); most of them perched high atop hills with amazing views of the land beneath. And inside the walls, light-colored stone buildings bleached by sun and time, all with one or more piazzas and of course, churches.

We got hopelessly lost in Perugia, whose maze of alleys and layers of one street on top of another defy maps and map-reading. We did however have some fantastic pizza with the most amazing dough. This dough was both crunchy and chewy, springy at the edges. Topped with a smattering of tomato sauce, cheese, anchovies, capers, olives and basil, it was a fragrant , chewy, briny delight.

I think my favorite hilltown so far though is Todi, in Southern Umbria. Where we are staying is in Northern Umbria, and the difference between the North and South is dramatic.

Whereas we are in a bit of a basin, with hills surrounding us, the south is all rolling, fertile farmland, overflowing with sunflowers, grapevines and olive trees.

The grape vines are wonderful to behold at this time of year when harvest is upon us. Many of the grapes have already been taken from the vines, but where they have not yet been picked, the deep purple grapes hang in lush clusters. I just wanted to grab a handful of grapes and eat them right there on the spot. Instead I contented myself with looking at them and photographing them.

Pasta, Baby!

We just happened to arrive in Montefalco the weekend of their wine-tasting event, so on Sunday we drove into Montefalco, and made our way to a large room in which tables for about 20 different Montefalco wineries were set up. I paid my 7 euros for a glass and unlimited tastings, and together Steve and I went through and sampled multiple Sagrantinos, trying to find our favorite one.

It was lots of fun tasting all those wines, but on an empty stomach, that acidic wine was a reflux nightmare, and after drinking our way to glory I was desperate for some food.

As we left the main wine tasting area we emerged into a courtyard around which tables were placed, along with a small menu of breads, meats and cheeses. At one nearby stall, however was this so very Italian looking man, and he had several pots simmering away, releasing the most incredible aromas.

When I looked in one pot I could see onions, some sort of ham, and lemon peel with a hefty dose of Rosemary. There was a crowd assembling, drawn by the heavenly smells, and he entertained all of us with Italian which I could not understand, and gestures which I could which made everybody laugh as he waited for the other pot of water to come to a boil.

At one point he saw me waiting with what was probably an idiotic look of joyful anticipation on my face and spoke to me in excited and animated Italian. Seeing my glazed look of total incomprehension, he immediately switched to English and told me that in 20 minutes the pasta would be ready.

Steve set his watch and we took a quick stroll around the town and returned to find that we had missed the first batch! I almost filed for divorce right then and there, because Steve should know at this point in our relationship, that he should NEVER allow ANYTHING to come between me and my pasta.

Luckily, our Italian friend was just draining another huge vat of freshly cooked pasta, to which he added mascarpone and black pepper. When he saw us standing there, he shouted to us in English: “You eat this pasta?!” to which we desperately cried “Yes!”, to which he shouted “You want this pasta right here??!!!” “Yes!!” we again replied, at which point he threw out his arms and yelled “Oh yeah, baby!!!” to huge laughs from the crowd.

He then gave us two heaping bowls of pasta and we ran to a table to enjoy our winnings. It was delicious, of course, and again, surprisingly simple, just the light coating of cheese and pepper on thick pasta tubes cooked, of course, to perfect al dente.

I could eat pasta all day, and this one in particular I could have just eaten and eaten. Steve insists that the guy gave me a much bigger bowl than he gave Steve, but I think I just ate mine slower! Or maybe it was my look of desperation that made him take pity on me and pile the food into my bowl.

Either way, delicious!!!


On Saturday we made the 6 ½ hour drive from Lake Como to Umbria, of course, in the pouring rain. I think there is actually now a universal rule in place that any day Steve has to do a long drive it must be pouring with rain.

In any event, Umbria feels like another world entirely. Gone is the shimmering water of Lake Como with its imposing villas, and in its place are rolling hills and farmland, partially baked by the summer sun.

We are staying at a place called Villa Zuccari (photo above), outside the very small walled town of Montefalco. It used to be a big family villa, but was turned into a hotel in 2005. It still has a family-feel to it, and every morning one of the owners and family members chats with the guests at breakfast.

The thing that became obvious to us with our first dinner at the hotel is that we are in another world here as far as food and wine are concerned. Whereas the food (apart from that one glorious risotto) in Lake Como was largely unimpressive, here even the simplest dishes have been delicious.

We are in the land of the truffle, and so our dinner that first night at the hotel consisted of Strangozzi (the local pasta which is kind of like spaghetti only with square edges instead of round) with truffle, olive oil, and black pepper for me and penne with sausage, cream and truffle for Steve. This was followed by chicken marsala topped with shaved truffle and almond biscuits with shaved truffle.

Ok, I’m kidding about the truffle in the cookies, but you can spot the theme here: the truffle is king. And not particularly expensive either. Last night we had toasted bread covered with olive oil and truffle for 5 euros. I can’t think of what that would cost in The States.

If the truffle is King, then the Sagrantino grape is queen. Here, the local wine is the Sagrantino di Montefalco, and it is a very special wine. With our first dinner here, we sampled an Antonelli 2005 Sagrantino di Montefalco.

Warm and lush, it has an amazing nose, different from any red varietal I have smelled to this point. Every time I stuck my schnoz in the glass, I got a whiff of something different: black and red cherry, smoked meat, black olive, black raspberry, mushroom, chocolate and an earthy mustiness. On the palate, that earthiness came through as dried leaves, tobacco and smoke alongside the dark fruit. It’s a tannic wine, though not pucker-your-face tannic, and it packs an acid punch without a doubt.

It’s a lovely wine, and apparently can age and age and age.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

George Clooney

Two days ago, we rented a motorboat from our pal Mino, from whom we are also renting the apartment here in Ossuccio.

I had never driven a motorboat before, but I think I handled it like a pro.

We spent the day on the lake, motoring down to Lake Como, looking for George Clooney's house along the way. We knew that he has a villa in the town of Laglio, but we had no idea what his actual house looks like, so we took pictures of basically every villa in Laglio along the way, saying "Look, George Clooney!!" after every one.

That night we went to dinner at a lovely hidden restaurant Mino told us about, La Tirlandana. It was right on the water with a beautiful view of the island Isola Comachina, and the rest of the lake. Torches burned on the dock leading from the water to the tables. It was idyllic.

For my starter, I had a lemon ravioli; thin rounds of al dente lemon-scented pasta filled with a delicate lemon cream. For my main, I had the grilled local fish, which was absolutely lovely: light, and delicate, sprinkled with fresh herbs and a few frizzles of bacon. There was no butter or sauce on it, so the freshness of the fish and smokiness of the bacon really came out.

In spite of the fact that I was having fish, I opted to try a bottle of red wine, and since Steve was having lamb chops with mint sauce, the choice wasn't totally out of left field.

I got a bottle of Barbera d'Asti "Mon Ross" 2008 from Fortete della Luja from the Piedmont region of Italy. This is a light red wine, but in which you can still taste the warmth of the sun with a bright acidity, as well as a lovely sour cherry, red and black cherry, plum skin, bramble, dried leaves, and that distinctly Italian light tang of iron on the finish.

It was a lovely meal, punctuated by a visit from the waiter's cat, who alternated between visiting us at the tables and jumping in and out of the boats. As you can see from this picture, Dr. Evil from Austin Powers would have loved this cat "with frickin laser beams".

Wednesday, September 15, 2010


Since my first visit to Varenna was on the quick side, two days ago I went back on my own while Steve went for a long bike ride.

I think Varenna may be my favorite town on the Lake so far. Its neighbor Bellagio is far more touristy and crowded. Varenna is sleepier and, in my view, even prettier, with some stunning views of Lake Como from the shore.

I spent some time wandering the gardens of the beautiful Villa Montasero (photo above), and then I decided to treat myself to a fabulous lunch at the neighboring Hotel Villa Cipressi. The views from the outside terrace were stunning, and I found them hypnotic, and so relaxing. I had brought my book with me, as I always do when I am going to be eating alone, but I didn't even open it. All I did was stare at the view and breathe in the beauty and tranquility.

(Photo left: the view from my table) I also ate a darn tasty meal. It started with smoked trout on a bed of fennel and carrot, followed by a spaghetti with a pumpkin puree and porcini mushrooms. The pasta especially was delicious; I am a great lover of the pumpkin sauce, and this one was especially delicious because it didn't seem to be burdened by cream, but rather had been thinned out with stock and wine.

Speaking of wine, I had a glass of this local wine, "Tzapel" 2009 from Aldo Rainoldi. This is a local Valtellina area winery, and the wine is a blend of Chiavennasca (Nebbiolo) and Sauvignon Blanc.

It was a lovely wine, light and fresh, with a light tropical nose of kiwi and green apple and lemongrass with a hint of some underlying spice like cinnamon. It went beautifully with the fish and pasta, and with the sunny day and amazing view. The only Nebbiolo wines I've previously had have been reds, so it was interesting to try the white vinification.

For dessert, I had an amazing panna cotta with a burnt caramel sauce and toffee bits on top. I can often find panna cotta too gelatinous, but this one was the perfect combo of light and rich, with a wonderful vanilla flavor which want beautifully with the caramel and toffee.

When I showed Steve the picture he was very sad that I had eaten that dessert without him, but I said, well, you can either be a super-fit bike rider, or you can be a lazy panna cotta eating wine-drinker, you can't be both (at least not at the same time!!).

Il Risottata

Last night, after spending the day in the lovely town of Varenna, Steve and I returned to Lenno, and as we started walking home, we happened upon an amazing local event, Il Risottata.

In the town square, many long table and benches were set up, and off to one side there was a tent set up, and under that tent was a gigantic cauldron of risotto. Lit underneath by a huge flame, nearby there was a large bubbling pot of chicken broth. Six men with long wood paddles stirred this vat of rice, and every once in a while someone would take a bucket of stock from the nearby pot and add it to the rice.

We decided to buy a ticket and get in the risotto line. Every few minutes, the chef in his tall white hat would taste the rice to see if it was ready. After about 15 minutes, he declared it ready to serve and applause rose from the waiting crowd.

We moved through the line and got a steaming bowl of risotto and two cups of wine, all for 7 euros! We found two spots at a table and sat down to eat. The rice was delicious; rustic and hearty; you could taste the broth and wine and the large bits of sausage which gave an amazing flavor.

I am pretty sure we were the only English-speaking people there. Everyone around us seemed to know each other. Nobody seemed to speak English but they were all so nice to us, smiling and laughing over the big bowls of rice, and insisting on taking a picture of me and Steve together. The man across from us had a lot of fun taking our picture, and kept making us pose with rice-filled forks halfway to our mouths.

I only wished that my Italian was better, because I would have loved to have talked with the people at our table. Though it was another lesson in how much can actually be communicated with gesture and facial expressions.

Either way it was a wonderful evening, and really felt like we had stumbled upon a local event that would never have been in a guidebook.

Vibrations of Love

In one of the bedrooms in the apartment is a whole collection of books in English by the author Barbara Cartland. Either a previous guest was a rabid fan, or the owners of the house bought this pile of books at a flea market for 50 cents.

Either way, these books have given me no end of delight. I have never read a Danielle Steele, but it seems that Barbara Cartland is her Britich counterpart. In the bio section of the book, it says that she has written over 200 of these books. It also says, in every single book, that Ms. Cartland, in 1978 sang An Album of Love Songs with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. This is clearly very important, because it is mentioned many times.

On the back of some of the books is an author photo; Always in an oval frame, the photo is fuzzy and almost candle-lit, with Barabara looking romantic and ethereal in all her Zsa Zsa Gabor, white-haired splendor.

The titles of these books are enough to keep me happy for days on end: “Magic from the Heart” “A Theatre of Love” “No Disguise for Love” “Never Laugh at Love” “Temptation for a Teacher” and my personal favorite “Vibrations of Love”.

The most puzzling title is “The Prince and the Pekingese” which brings up many questions about what kind of a love story this book will chronicle.

After reading Gorky Park, I decided I needed something completely different and decided to read “The River of Love”. This story centers around a rich duke, called The Dasher. He is, as you can imagine, dashing, and a lover and leaver of many women.

On a whim, he decides to take a trip along the Nile to Egypt. There among the ruins, he meets a woman who, it turns out, he knew and loved many lifetimes ago when she was the wife of Pharoh and he was in the Egyptian military. Luckily, now, in this lifetime, since she is not forced to marry a Pharoh, she is free to have a go with The Dasher himself.

What is so delightful about these books is their earnestness. There is nothing tongue in cheek about them, you really get the feeling that good old Barbara is hopelessly romantic and believes with all her heart that love conquers all and somewhere out there, men like The Dasher are waiting for us all.

The writing, of course, is not good, and she seems to not only be in love with love, but also in love with dashes and ellipses. She uses them—everywhere. Inexplicably, in the first half of the book she used dashes exclusively, and in the second half of the book she suddenly changed to ellipses.

It is the placement of these dashes that is a bit odd. She winds--- up breaking---up sentences in strange----ways. So our Egyptian princess will say things like: “I wouldn’t want—to eat--the---bagel with---out cream---cheese.” Or something romantic like that.. “Now---that we can---love each oth---er I want to make---sure Dash----er is my dash—ing--love foreve----rrrrr.”

Ah well, I can mock all I want but let’s face it, good old Barbara published 6,000 books and probably had more money than God so she was---laughing---all the---way to the--- bank.


We were warned about crazy Italian drivers, but I have to say that so far, the drivers haven’t been too bad; it’s the roads that are terrifying. They are very narrow with lots of blind curves, and stone walls on either side. They are very scary to drive along and even more terrifying to walk on.

As I mentioned, there are lots of blind curves and long stretches where there are no sidewalks, and the roads are so narrow, if two cars are passing each other there is no room for either car to move aside to make room for a pedestrian. There is very little parking here, and restaurants are often perched right on the edge of the road, and both the internet café and the little town of Lenno where there are restaurants and the ferry stop is a 15-20 minute walk from where we are staying.

Luckily, we figured out that you actually don’t need to walk along the roads at all. On both sides of the road, around and between the houses there is a whole network of wonderful narrow cobbled alleyways, and these are what pedestrians use. As I walk them in the daytime, all of the lizards who have been sunning themselves on the cobbles scurry out of the way, and since the alleys wind between the houses, you there is a wonderful sense of being right in the middle of Italian life.

The other day, as I walked through, there was a wide open door and several people standing around, talking. I of course walked by with this big smile on my face, until I realized as I walked by the open door, that these people were gathered for a wake. In the middle of this otherwise empty room was an elevated coffin. It was not the kind of big heavy coffin with lid that I am used to seeing; instead it was very small and thin, white, with no lid. Inside it was a very old woman, with a thin, gauzy white sheer draped over her. It is a terrible cliché, but I must say that she did look very peaceful.

Speaking Italian...Sort Of

Well, it’s happened, as everyone said it would. We have fallen in love with Italy.

I was a bit apprehensive at first, because before we came here, everybody kept telling us how wonderful Italy was and how much we were going to love it.

This made me nervous that the build-up and expectation would lead to disappointment. It’s like going to see a movie after everybody has told you it’s the best movie they’ve ever seen. It raises expectations to a level that can often be difficult to meet.

But I am happy to say that so far, Lake Como has been everything we’d hoped for. Once we got used to the bells, of course!

What I find so interesting is that it is difficult to put my finger on why it’s so wonderful here. Yes, the lake is beautiful, but so were the lakes in Norway. And certainly in France there were cute old towns with cobbled streets, but neither of those places have anywhere near the feel of Italy.

What has struck me so much about the Lake is the almost tropical lushness of the mountains surrounding it, and the dramatic steepness of those mountains. I mean, look at that picture above and tell me that this doesn’t remind you of Jurassic Park!

People here have been very kind as well. Willing to suffer through my terrible Italian, and either switch to English, or continue talking to me in Italian, but very slowly and with a lot of hand gestures! It’s like a non-stop game of charades!

I took a basic Italian class before I left, but I am limited to a few random words or very specific phrases. Still, I try to use what little I have whenever I get the chance.

I decided, when making a dinner reservation at another local restaurant, to try to do it in Italian. I looked up all the words carefully, and called. I got through my opening statement, asking if it was possible for me to make a resrvation for that evening, without a hitch. And the man who answered the phone was so kind as to even answer me in Italian.

And this is where the trouble began: I had absolutely no idea what he was saying to me. Not a clue. He might have said: "A reservation, what a wonderful idea!" Or he might have said: " The restaurant is closed." Or he might have said: "I have athlete’s foot and smell like cheese." It was all the same to me.

Undeterred, I decided to plow on, offering up the time of 8:30 for us to arrive. To this he said "Si". Si!!! I know what that means! Then he said something else. I have no idea what, but I decided that the best response would be to give him our name. To which he said "Si" again. Then there was a long pause, during which I felt a slight panic.

What do I say now?? I didn’t know how to say “See you tonight” I wasn’t even sure how Italians say good-bye over the telephone, especially since they say “Pronto” when they answer the phone, which I always thought meant quickly or hurry up. Maybe in that vein, the way to end a phone call was to say “giddy up” or “Hang up the phone!!!” or something. How was I to know?! So I waited, and finally I said “Grazie! Ciao!” which were the only other words I could think of at the moment.

Steve was very impressed with how it had sounded on my end, until I explained to him that I had no idea what the man had said to me, and that for all I knew I hadn’t even called the restaurant at all. It was very possible I had just made an appointment for a full body wax or a tooth extraction.

It was not until we arrived at the restaurant that I realized what the man had probably been saying, which was that we didn’t need a reservation, since, apart from one table of two we were the only people there.

The menu at this place was very similar to the other restaurant we went to in the area: a lot of fish and a couple of pastas and rice. Steve had a Bolognese and I decided to try their version of fish and rice. Food in this part of Italy definitely seems to be less about pizza, pasta and meat and all about fish and rice.

The food was nowhere near as good here as it was at the other restaurant, but the desserts were wonderful: a tiramisu with a kind of doughy, bready layer instead of ladyfingers, and a cold nougatty semmifreddo, which tasted kind of like a whipped and frosty marshmallow fluff with nuts. Yum…

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

I Have Seen the Light

On our second day here in Ossuccio, we went for lunch at an outside bar/café by the water in Lenno. And I can safely say that it was some of the worst Italian food I have ever eaten.

It was shockingly bad: my doughy, floury pasta with tasteless sauce and Steve’s pizza which was also thick and doughy with a couple slices of ham thrown haphazardly on top.

To say we were shocked was an understatement. This was the Italian food everyone we spoke to was raving about? I had had better Italian food from a frozen Lean Cuisine in the US. Well, we thought, maybe it was just this particular place in a more touristy area. Or maybe since the place we ate at was mostly a bar, it was a lesson that bar food the world over just isn’t very good.

What we needed, we decided, were some recommendations from someone local. As luck would have it, the man who owns the building we are renting in came by yesterday morning to see how we were doing. So we asked him for restaurant suggestions and he gave us a few.

Last night, we decided to try one out. The restaurant we chose was called Osteria de Giuanin, and it is located about ½ mile from where we are staying. Since it was pouring rain and since we didn’t really know where we were going, we drove part of the way, parked in a parking lot and walked down a cobbled alley between the houses until we arrived at a sign pointing us onward to the restaurant. Down some stairs we went, through another small alley between houses and then up some stairs until suddenly, there it was.

The interior was very plain: the walls decorated with framed front pages of old Italian newspapers; an unlit fireplace in one corner with wine bottles on the stone mantelpiece; a small bar in the corner, and a total of 7 or 8 tables. It felt a bit like wandering into someone’s home for a meal.

When we arrived, only two of the other tables were taken, both with Italian groups of friends chatting away. Both the chef and waitress spoke to us in English, which was life-saving, since there was no written menu.

We had an option of three starters (local fish selection; dried and salted fish or cured meats), three pastas (taglioline with mushrooms, gnocci with cheese and walnuts, and risotto with perch) fish (a fried fish or perch in sage and butter) and two different steaks.

We chose to try the fish sampler, the dried and salted fish, and then to share the risotto. Plus a half-liter carafe of Montepulciano d’Abruzzo table wine for 5 euros! There was no bottle, no vintage, no producer even!

The fish selection was very nice: small portions of smoked fish, small whole fish both in olive oil and brine, and thinly-sliced marinated zucchini. The salted and dried fish however, was absolutely delicious. The waitress said it was a local fish called Acone, which I have never heard of.

There were two of these fish (about the size of Kippers) on the plate, served whole, warm, and with two slices of what I think was fried polenta. The flesh of the fish was red in color, and it pulled away from easily from the little bones. The flavor of it was just lovely, salty and rich without being overpowering. Both of us picked it clean; it was so delicious, I was tempted to eat its head, eyeballs and all.

We were very pleased; finally, a good meal. And then, the risotto arrived, and the meal went from being good to being a revelation. Served in a portion for two on an oblong plate, the white risotto was ringed by a pool of light green olive oil and topped with thin slices of lightly fried perch.

My first bite was of the fish only, and it was delicious, delicate white fish surrounded by a lightly crisp coating. Then I ate the risotto, and that first bite elicited an “Oh. My. God.” And I think I said this after every subsequent bite.

This was the most extraordinary risotto I have ever eaten, and yet I am hard-pressed to say exactly why. It wasn’t heavily seasoned, and it didn’t have an overwhelming flavor of fish, or pumpkin, or mushroom the way risottos that I’ve had in The States always do. It wasn’t stringy with cheese, in fact I don’t think there was any in it at all.

But it was glorious: rich and creamy (for those of you who know how much I detest the words cream and creamy, the fact that I so willingly use it here should tell you how inspired I was by this food), with a delicate and simple flavor, which I assume came simply from some kind of stock and wine. And that creaminess, where does it come from? From the rice itself or from actual cream?

Eating the risotto at the same time as the fish brought a whole other level of delight as the two flavors and textures (the rich, chewy risotto with the delicate and crisp fish) combined perfectly to bring out the best in each other.

The best thing about it was how simple it all was. Even our wine, red, (in spite of the fact that we were having fish) was simple and fresh: slightly fizzy, very young and bright with flavors of cherry, black raspberry, and that very Italian earthy-iron finish.

For dessert we shared a small slice of a local cake, which she pronounced “Miasha”, which was made from bread, milk, pears, apples and nuts and was served with a small scoop of vanilla gelato. It was very much like a dry version of bread pudding, and was light and not too sweet. The gelato, of course, was delicious.

After that, we were stuffed. The tables around us, still talking animatedly, also had starters and pastas, but then followed those with plates of fish, dessert and then coffee. They were still sitting there when we left almost two hours after we had arrived.

So now I get it, the wonders of Italian food. It was exactly the kind of experience I was looking for in a meal, because I was able to say that while I have eaten risotto before, I have never eaten a risotto that tasted like That before. For me, experiencing a meal like that is one of the great joys of travel, indeed of life.

I meant to take photos of the meal, but I left the camera in the apartment, but don’t despair, I’m pretty certain we will be eating there again!

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Ossuccio and Villa del Balbianello

Greetings from Ossuccio, Italy, a tiny town on the western bank of Lake Como. The apartment is beautiful, and the views from our front balcony are stunning (photo at left), but the bells, my God, the bells. Never in my life have I experienced such an overabundance of bells. Why on earth, does one town need so many bells?

Of course, the problem is, in this area, there is one tiny town next to another, and they are extremely close together but still separate so that each town has its own church with its own bells, and these bells must all compete with one another and out-chime each other so that there is in fact a constant cacophony of bells.

And I am not kidding when I say these bells are constant. THEY ARE CONSTANT. Even now, as I write this, the 4:30 bells are chiming (but because it’s Italy, the 4:30 bells are actually chiming at 4:33). These bells are chiming out a tuneless song that now will last for at least 5 minutes.

Bells chime on the hour; they chime on the half hour; sometimes they even chime on the quarter-hour. Sometimes they chime out the time of day, but other times they just lazily ring and bing and bong for no apparent reason. They chime ALL NIGHT LONG, and at 12:30am and 7:30 am there is a particularly long and exuberant session that causes the dog out back to start howling, and ends just in time for the 7:45 bells to begin.

Never in my life have I heard so many bells, and I believe that some government somewhere will discover their usefulness as a form of torture. I’m telling you, if I had any secrets to tell I’d be spilling them now, just to get the bells to stop ringing. Please, I beg you, MAKE THEM STOP!!!!

Poor Steve is sleeping with ear plugs again, and both of us these last two mornings have woken up by 6am and have been unable to go back to sleep.

The bells are not the only issue, unfortunately. The house sits right on a very busy road, and so on top of the bells there is the added sound of cars, trucks and motorcycles rolling by day and night. The windows have pretty good sound proofing, but not enough to block it out completely, and with the beautiful view, it is a shame to not be able to enjoy the lake with the windows open.

Needless to say, it is not particularly peaceful. The street we lived on in Brooklyn was quieter than this, to give you some idea. In fact the car noise is not far off an NYC street, though without all the sirens.

There is a reason that the owners of this house ask for the money up front in cash! And it’s a real shame because the apartment is lovely and the view of the lake is extraordinary. It’s just a bit trickier to enjoy it than we would have liked. And when you’re so tired because you haven’t slept because of the street noise and the bells, it’s harder still.

I thought the bells in Alsace were bad; those at least stopped from midnight until, I think, 8 or 9 am. What I wouldn’t give for those bells now!

OK, enough complaining!!

On our first full day here, we walked over to Villa del Balbianello. For those of you who saw Casino Royale, the beautiful grounds of this villa were used as the site of James Bond’s (Daniel Craig) recovery after having his goolies smashed in by the evil Le Chiffre.

For those of you who saw that movie, I imagine you will agree with me that that scene was one of the most preposterous in Bond history. I mean, I know I’m not a man, but I was under the impression that if a guy got whacked very hard repeatedly in the old beanbags with a baseball-sized knot of rope, that man would, I don’t know….die.

Or at least pass out. Or vomit. Or both. Simultaneously. But not our James Bond. Nooooo. What does he do? He yells a bit, and then he laughs, and asks the man to do it again, because he has an itch.

Then, a few days later, he has sex. Repeatedly. Because it takes more than broken balls to keep James Bond from getting’ his groove on. I only wish they had shown Vesper's face when she got a look at Bond's manhood surrounded by eggplant-sized testicles, because, I'm sorry, those babies would swell.

Rain for the next few days, so I imagine things will be quiet: lots of sitting in cafes reading, or doing laundry, or watching Casino Royale on my computer.

Back soon, hopefully, with wine!!!

Friday, September 3, 2010


Hello from Munich!

We are staying in the Hilton Munich Park hotel, in a room for which we paid $80 on Priceline. You gotta love that Priceline.

We spent the evening in Hofbrauhaus, a gigantic beer hall which can seat 6,000 people. They serve gigantic vats of beer, large plates of sucking pig and goulash, and Bavarian pretzels the size of your head. Plus an Oompah Band-how can you not love it?!

Here is a photo of the goulash I had. The bread dumplings looked like brain meatballs, but tasted delightful.

We had a bit of an adventure today on our drive from Prague to Munich:

We had some Czech money left over, and at a certain point on the drive we decided to pull of at a rest stop/gas station to see if we could spend our last few Czech Crowns before we crossed into Germany.

As we pulled into the parking lot, we noticed a German car which had been pulled over by the police.

"Someone's in trouble", I brilliantly observed. As we drove by the police car, the officer gave me and our car a long look. When we got out of the car, the police officer approached us, and walked to the front of our car, looking with particular interest at the windshield. Turned out, we were in trouble, too.

He asked us something in Czech first before switching to English, and asking us where our Autobahn pass was. This was something we had had to buy in Switzerland at the border; it's a sticker that you buy if you are going to be driving on the interstate.

We explained that we had no idea we needed one in Czechoslovakia and that we were just driving through to Germany. He informed us that we could be looking at a fine of up to 5,000 Czech Crowns, but that he would only fine us 500. I showed him that I only had 300, and he said that was ok.

Of course, the first thing I thought was that that fine was actually the "Welcome to the Czech Republic, You Stupid American" fine otherwise known as the "Let me Relieve You of your Money" fine.

But he actually took the 300 Crowns and wrote us out an official receipt in case we got stopped again.

The kicker was that when we drove away we discovered that we were only one mile from the German border, and if we had only kept driving, we wouldn't have gotten stopped at all.

On the upside, it did accomplish our goal getting rid of our Czech money, and 300 Czech Crowns is only $15, so as fines go, it's not too bad.

Lake Como tomorrow.

Thursday, September 2, 2010


Greetings from Prague.

It has been raining a lot here, but we have still managed to take in the sights of Prague Castle, the Charles Bridge and an evening Vivaldi Four Seasons concert at St. George's Basilica.

We have also had some wonderful meals of goulash with potato dumplings.

For the most part, Prague is extremely inexpensive. Last night we had two beers, two Becherovka cocktails, two plates of goulash and an apple struedel for about $35.

Behold, some photos:


One of Prague's wonderful grand cafes.

Lost in Translation.....