Sunday, December 30, 2018

Nestled in the beautiful hills of Tuscany in Italy (143Cong.Rec.E929)

Is there any point of going to Tuscany if you're not going to indulge? Probably not, which why it made a perfect destination after running a race. I knew I would have few regrets about relaxing, eating, and drinking as much as I wanted, from the moment we arrived at our AirBnB in Panzano, which featured a mural of the region's delights (top left). Of course, why would I spend time in the bedroom when I could get the same view from the balcony (top right)? Right in our backyard were olives, which were in season to be harvested (middle left), and grapes, which unfortunately could not be turned into wine during our time of our stay (middle right). Across the way -- and my uplifted feet -- I could see Vignole winery, which was on a better schedule to produce vino (bottom).
We arrived in the Chianti town right around lunch. Obviously, the area is known for it's wine. But the city itself is renown as home to famous butcher Dario Cecchini, who was immortalized in mosaic at his casual eatery Dario Doc (left). Although his other outlets offer more expensive tasting menus, the family-style cafe featured set menus revolving around many types of meat. Knowing of our dinner plans, I selected the smallest option: hamburger, potatoes, and vegetables (right).
Only few hours later, and still half-full, we set off for our Cook Tuscan class in a villa near Sambuca (top). The villa has been divided into apartments, the top one of which belongs to Manuela and Silvio. Their home is a mix of collectibles (bottom left) and comfort (bottom right) that reflects their partnership. Manuela is a self-taught cook who instructs, and Silvio is an ex-salesman of Murano glass who translates.
We selected our menu in advance, so we knew we would be able to burn off what was lingering in our bellies as we prepared the many recipes. For an appetizer, we selected mushroom crostini (top left). There were so many fungi left over that Manuela helped us whip up some risotto as well (top right). Our first course was gnocchi with butter and sage cream sauce (bottom left). Although I had made both risotto and gnocchi before, I picked up some excellent tips to improve the dishes. And they even sent us home with special wooden paddles traditionally used to shape the pasta (bottom right).
The main course was polpettone, a rustic meatloaf that is stuffed with vegetables (top left). It wasn't as time-consuming to prepare but it was more fraught with potential pitfalls. Despite our best efforts, the loaf split while it was in the oven (top right) -- but that didn't make it any less delicious. We had more luck with the torta della nonna, which also requires technical precision in creating the crust and custard (bottom). With a lot of elbow grease, we succeeded in presenting a set and sumptuous dessert.
The next day, we decided someone else could do the work while we drank. Our wine tour started at Castello del Trebbio, which was once the stronghold of the Pazzi family, whose crest can be seen in the courtyard (top left). Many family members were killed in the fortress as retribution for the failed plot to bring down Medici rulers, which is said to have been planned there (top right). Besides the mafia-like legacy, the castle has a oenologic heritage as well. The cellars are littered with decades-old and unfortunately undrinkable bottles (bottom left). The winery now based there attempts to use historically accurate methods, including an air-release valve invented by Da Vinci (bottom right).
Our tasting was held in a room perfect for sipping fine vintages and scheming political homicide (top left). The only conspiring we did, though, was by the fire with some chocolate and dessert wine (top right). When we emerged from the dim hall, the fog had lifted, so we had a brighter and better view of the surrounding vineyards (bottom left). The lovely landscapes continued as we proceeded to lunch at a sleepy roadside restaurant, where we sampled the local special variety of ravioli next to some more warming flames (bottom right).
As if having wine in a castle wasn't luxurious enough, we then proceeded to the villa of Marchesi Gondi (top left). The family's matriarch outlined her ancestors' rise prominence in Florentine life after helping financially prop up King Alfonso. As a result, the Gondis ran in royal circles, including with the Medici family; they became so cavalier that they tore down a house where Da Vinci supposedly painted the Mona Lisa in order to build Gondi Palace, which ironically now displays artistic masterpieces (top right). The winery is somewhat of a side project, so our tasting was held literally in the family's den (bottom left) after a tour of the cellars, which housed centuries-old vats used to store olive oil (bottom right). 
The morning before my flight home, we took a jaunt to San Gimignano, so we could do something other than just eat and drink (top left). The city, whose central square is on the UNESCO World Heritage List (top right), was once a halfway pit stop between Rome and Florence. Its towers were easily spied from the surrounding hills, helping pilgrims keep on the straight and narrow path (bottom).
But don't get me wrong, we still did eat and drink. At La Rocca wine museum, we sampled a series of white wines, unique within environs otherwise known for red Super Tuscans (top left). Then we swiped some free samples of cheese at one of the many shops along the cobblestone streets (top right). For our last meal, we descended into Peruca, where we capped off our few days of decadence with one final dish of pasta and glass of wine (bottom).

Saturday, December 15, 2018

Mosaic art project featuring beautiful tiles (146Cong.Rec.E780)

I have been to Italy twice before, and both times, I was a bit underwhelmed at first, maybe because Rome and Milan are a bit oversold in terms of historic culture. But both trips, I was won over by the more modern culture of the country, its welcoming traditions and friendly people. My third trip, which started out in Florence, was no different. I flew into the central city, where I spent one night in a hotel by the Baptistery of St. John and Cathedral of Saint Maria of Fiore (top left). I took an obligatory walk along the Arno River (top right) to the famous Ponte Vecchio (bottom left), in the middle of which sits a bust of sculptor Benvenuto Cellini surrounded by a love-lock collection (bottom right).
The bridge was swarmed with selfie-takers, but meanwhile, just a few meters away, the courtyard of Uffizi Gallery was serenely vacant (top left). A few hardy salespeople were still hawking their paintings there and in other squares, but to me, the city's narrow, lamp-lit streets revealed the true artistry of the city (top right). People are just going about their daily business amid the ancient architecture: Down an alley steps away from the Duomo, they were getting repairs to the bikes and scooters they use to navigate the car-restricted downtown (bottom).
The next morning, my friend and I set out by car for Ravenna, where we would be running a half-marathon on foot. Our back-roads route took us near the National Park of Casentinesi Forest, whose elevation put us above the clouds (top). The view from our AirBnB wasn't quite as spectacular, but it did feature of wall of grape vines on one side (bottom left) and a small church on the other (bottom right).
We loosened up our legs after picking up our race packets by walking to some of the city's notable sites, including Dante's Tomb, which apparently its residents don't really love because of the crowds. When we were there, the line was only about a dozen people deep (top left); I can only imagine what kind of hell it must be during high season. I, for one, would rather take in a showing of the writer's work at the nearby Dante Alighieri Theater (top right). With no performances on the bill that night, we opted to carboload with some bread, pasta, and wine at Al Gallo 1909 (bottom), whose patriarch proprietor kindly took pity on a pair of reservation-less gals, possibly because his son, who served us, is a runner himself.
The marathon refers to Ravenna as the City of Art because it is on the UNESCO World Heritage List due to its well-preserved mosaics. We visited the city's collection of masterpieces over two days. Our first stop was to gawk at the Basilica of Sant'Apollinare Nuovo (top left), whose fifth-century artworks show the beginnings of Byzantine influence, including one of the few depictions of the devil in a church (top right). The influence of the East comes clearly into focus at the Basilica of San Vitale, built later, in the sixth century (bottom left). Its ceiling, for example, mixes biblical figures with Byzantine emperors (bottom right).
The adjacent Mausoleum of Galla Placidia, with its beautiful blue colors and intricate designs, is thought to hold the remains of its Roman empress namesake, although there is no substantial evidence to support the claim (top). The Baptistery of Neoniano, located by the tiny Chapel of St. Andrew, features equally vibrant mosaics inlaid with marble (bottom left). As small as it was, its ceiling creations outshone those in the dome of the Cathedral next door (bottom right).
After the race, of course, we didn't reward ourselves only with a walking tour of world heritage. We also sampled the local wine heritage at super-small Baldovino Enoteca, where we accompanied our red with some chocolate bought from a festival going on in the city's main square (top). (Hat's off to you, Ravenna, for that excellent coordination in event planning.) At dinner afterward at cozy Al Cairoli, I switched to beer, a LaFresca golden ale from Birra Riminese, with my appetizer (bottom left), which I followed up with an absolutely full-size and guilt-free dish of pasta (bottom right).