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first stop: gelato!

my adventures in italy and beyond…

I arrived in Prague today, so no more gelato for now.  Ironically, besides one chinese place and obviously all of the traditional czech restaurants, the only other cuisine that I saw on my first walk around the city was Italian.  Italy is following me! I don’t think I’ll bother with the pizza here, though.

I’ve been to several different places since Rome, so I’m going to write this post in stages, like the long letters I used to write my pen pal when I was 12:

May 23 (Mantua):

Not much to say about Florence, since I was there only briefly.  I climbed the dome of the famous duomo and finito — done with Florence and on to lovely Lucca!  I jumped on a bike as soon as I arrived and rode along the walls of the old city before meeting up with a most hospitable last-minute couch surfer.  We wined and dined and talked politics.  Did you know that Berlusconi owns 3 of the 7  national TV stations??

on the duomo in florence

After Lucca, I went to the famous Cinque Terre, a series of quaint villages on the Ligurian coast, connected by national park trails.  I met a great crew of San Fransiscans at the hostel, which wasn’t really a hostel at all, but more like an apartment converted into a crash pad.  It was ‘intimate’ to say the least, especially the night when the owners overbooked and we had an extra guy (from Boston no less!) crash on the floor.  I’m really glad that I liked everyone.  We cooked together a bunch, which was a nice change of pace.   I made a dessert one night with biscotti, strawberries and sweet lemony ricotta which made me feel a little less jealous of anyone who’s eating strawberry shortcake right now.   As for 5 Terre itself, I did a whole lot of walking and hiking! That’s the thing to do there.  My calves got a workout on all the hills, but it was totally worth it.  The views are spectacular and the towns are impossibly cute.

pretty 5 terre

May 25 (Padua)

Yesterday, I took it pretty easy in Mantua.  I wasn’t feeling great, so I slept late, moved slowly and ate boring food.  I did make it out to Palazzo Te, one of the palaces of the ruling Gonzaga clan of Mantua from the 16th century.  And now I’m in the other city that ends in ‘ova’ or ‘ua’ depending on your language.  (Mantua/Mantova and Padua/Padova.)  I went to Piazza del Santo, the Santo being St. Anthony, where pilgrims flock to make their prayers and buy really expensive statues in the gift shop, and Scrovegni’s Chapel, which is famous for the Giotto frescoes that include an incredible inferno scene, complete with demons eating babies.

— ok, back to the present for a moment —

I’m not done catching you up, but I have reliable computer access here in Prague, so I’ll post again before leaving.  Mom’s coming tomorrow! But before I leave, here are some of the Casale photos I promised you:

  • eat the best pizza in the world
  • see a lot of old stuff
  • get sore feet

To be honest, I arrived in Rome with low expectations.  I had heard that it was a tough city, with a lasting imperial ego, and miserably thick swarms of tourists.  But, I was surprised — I loved it! I loved the hustle and bustle of the city, the old mixed with the new, and I was mostly able to weave my way through the tour groups with their matching caps and find a quiet(er) place to imagine bloody battles at the Colloseum, daily life at the Roman Forums, etc…

It also helped that I had two awesome couchsurfing hosts, both named Allesandro. The first was Alex from Naples who taught me about the Napoletanos’ intense love for the Argentinian soccer God, Maradona, who played for Napoli.  Here’s a great video of Napoletano soccer fans arriving in Rome for a match. Their chants loosely translate to mean ‘down with the roman bastards’.  The second Alex, or Ale, was proudly Roman.  He zoomed me around on the back of his scooter to show me the best pizza and the best tiramisu in Rome.  Both are lovely, lovely people and I thank them for sharing their world with me for a few days.  Couchsurfing is a wonderful thing…

I packed a lot into my days, hence the sore feet. If they could tolerate sweaty tourist feet, someone would really make a fortune with foot massage outposts around the city!  Day one was mostly ancient sites: the Colloseum, Emperors’ Palaces (Palatino) and Roman Forums.  Day two was a mix: Capitolini museums, the Pantheon, and several plazas and fountains.  Day three was the Vatican: the Sistine chapel, St. Peter’s Square and the post office where I mailed a few postcards from the smallest sovereign state in the world… neato.  I don’t know what Grandpa Robert thought of the Pope, but as a former postmaster, I think he’d be proud.

Like I said, I loved Rome, but I need to complain about a few things:

  • bathrooms with no toilet paper and/or toilet seat… in world famous museums!
  • I was in a church, admiring a series of three fabulous Carravagio paintings, when, all of a sudden, the lights went off.  I thought that someone had bumped up against the switch by accident.  But no, it turns out that you have to PAY to keep the lights on!!! The Pope lives in Rome and they can’t keep the lights on?!?  Also, this was the same church where an attendent screamed ‘SSSHHHHHHHH!’ into a microphone every 2 minutes.
  •  The mark-up on a shot of espresso from .70 cents to 4.50 € because it comes with a good view.  That’s roughly 6 dollars.  Most expensive espresso of my life!

So that was Rome, my first stop after leaving Casale.  I was ready to leave the farm and see new places, but it was still sad to say goodbye to the folks at Casale and to the daily heaps of fresh ricotta at breakfast.  If you have time to wwoof, DO IT! I met some wonderful people and had a great time.

I’m in Florence now, for a brief pitstop before continuing on to Lucca (yes, Shani!) and Cinque Terre. will try to write again soon.

lots of love.

major gelato update:  torrone nougat, fiordilatte, orange chocolate, hazelnut chocolate, ginger and cinnamon, vanilla bourbon, dark chocolate, and pastiere napoletane (ricotta with fruit and cookie)

I’m back!  I’m actually in Siena now, enjoying a some time off from the farm, but I wrote this post in my journal a couple of days ago:

I’ve been wwoffing on Podere Il Casale for the last week and a half.  So, what’s life like here? . . .

I wake up around 8am, eat a breakfast of fresh ricotta, jams and homemade bread, work for 4-5 hours, eat a big lunch, collapse with a food coma for a bit, work for another few hours, watch the sunset, and eat dinner around 9.  It’s a good life! 

I’ve done a variety of jobs on the farm.  I help in the kitchen and in the restaurant, putting my waitressing skills to use! The tourists are all fascinated by how an American like me ended up on a farm like this.  ‘ Have you heard of wwoofing?’ I say and they give me a funny look. ‘What??’ and then… ‘oh, neat. What a wonderful thing to do!’  Many of the visitors are school children who come to learn about farms and understand where their food comes from.  I work in the garden too.  Before putting anything in the ground, we first have to attack the soil with a hoe to remove the hard clumps of clay.  This area is famous for ‘le crete senese’ – Sienese Clay, and it’s a pain in the ass! I’ve planted beans from seed and transplanted chard and cabbage.  The season is about one month ahead of home.  The strawberries are already ready to pick!  Unfortunately, though, we only have a few plants, not a whole bed, so y’all better eat some strawberry shortcake on my behalf.    Today, I worked in the vineyard for the first time, sadly only for 20 minutes, though, because my colleague called in sick and maybe woofers cant work in the vineyards alone (?).  I hope to work there again.   The task at this point in the season is to prune the vines back so that each node on the fine has only two stems, so that more energy can go towards the grapes.  After leaving the vineyard, I spent a couple of hours sticking labels on spice packets, one of the many products made offsite with their crops.  I’d bring you some if I were headed straight home, but I can’t deal with the extra weight in my bag.  Sorry!

We eat well here — nothing fancy, but good, simple food.  We eat Casale pasta with every meal, often with fresh ricotta.  My favorite Casale pasta is the chestnut fetuccini — so good! We eat a lot of salad and vegetables — eggplant, zucchini, chard, artichoke and tomatoes — and occassionally meat — wild boar, rabbit, and a variety of sausages, pancetta and proscuitto.  And of course cheese! Cheese is their main product here, from the sheep and goat milk. 

The landscape is stunning.  I can’t post photos at the moment but a google image search of Val d’orcia gives you a sense of what I wake up to every morning.     It’s a 180 degree view from Casale, and I soak it in every day!

Like I said before, I’m in Siena right now, seeing the sights, learning about the crazy annual horse race and the various city wards with their funny animal mascots (snail, turtle, goose, eagle…) and eating well — last night’s dinner: bruschetta with pear, gorgonzola and honey and then tagliatelli with porcini.  And I’ll stop by a small town called Montalcino on my way back to the farm, where I’ll be until Sunday.  Then, to Rome!  Ciao for now.

Gelato update: salted caramel, strawberry.

just a quick post before I go to bed…

I had another excellent day! Highlights: climbing the tower in Bologna, May Day celebrations, and a wine festival in Dozza. Here are some photos:

I couldn’t get them to rotate, but you get the idea. Okay, off to bed! I head to Montepulciano in Tuscany tomorrow to start WWOOFing on the farm. I don’t know what kind of internet access I’ll have, so you might not hear from me much over the next couple fo weeks. ciao for now!   xoxo

gelato flavor update: pistacchio

Bologna is called ‘the fatty’ for the food, ‘the red’ for the politics and ‘the learned’ for having the oldest university in Europe.  I’m having a great time here! I’m couchsurfing with Flavia, an excellent hostess.  Yesterday, we went to her garden, drove around on her moped, climbed san luca, ate delicious tortellone (bologna is famous for its stuffed pasta, hence ‘la grassa’), and drank wine with her friends:

When it’s just me and Flavia, we speak English, but in the group, the friends all speak Italian, of course.  I can usually understand enough to at least follow the subject of the conversation. So then I either jump into the conversation in English and Flavia translates for me or, I sit quietly, looking back and forth between the people who are talking.  Spanish keeps popping into my head, espcially expressions and exclamations, like ‘que rico!’ for the food or ‘mucho gusto’ when I’ve met someone… cosas asi.  Many Italians speak spanish, and Ive met a couple of people who even lived in Chile — my hostess, Sara, in Milan, and the waiter at the place where I ate the tortellini yesterday — so, my spanish is definitely helpful.

Gelato flavor update: grapefruit, stracciatella (vanilla with chocolate bits), ricotta with fig sauce, and pine nut with caramel

I arrived safely in Milan and, in case you were curious about what kind of gelato I tried today, the answer is: pear and nocciola (hazelnut).  yum!

Sara, and her dog, Bilo, are excellent hosts. Today, we stayed close to her apartment — went to a park, cooked dinner, napped, etc.   Tomorrow, I’ll explore the center of Milan.  Right now, I’m exhausted. Goodnight!

I considered many different titles for the blog, including —

  • wwoofing it (thank you, Madelyn)
  • my semi-solo adventure
  • Leah Nomadsen does it again

But I finally settled on “First Stop, Gelato!” inspired by this amazing video created by the talented and lovely Shana Weaver and her fabulous film-student brother, David:

Thanks, you two.  This video makes me so happy.