Italy e-Postcard #1

from Our Tour of Italy
May 4 to May 14, 2010

with the Muskegon Crew


Hi All --

Villa Il Castellaccio, Lucolena Italy

It started on a whim and was almost a year in the making. Last summer, our dinner/wine group thought it would be great to actually try Italian wines in Italy. One step further and the idea of our week at a Tuscan villa with a front end trip to Rome was born. After some personnel changes, we settled on four couples and divided up the planning duties. Choosing a villa was a challenge. It had to have at least four bedrooms with baths, a large kitchen and seating area, and look like those movies we had seen … large, old home surrounded by vineyards and olive groves, rolling green hills, winding narrow roads, all with the vivid colors under the Tuscan sun. And we found it….except for the sun.


Let me introduce you to the group, by couples:

Dan has a background in hotel/restaurant management and teaches business classes at Muskegon Community College--MCC. He is our resident wine expert (although he would claim not). Dan is also an excellent cook and graciously made us breakfasts several mornings and a dinner (described later) at the end of the week. Muskegon Crew, Grand Rapids Michigan Airport Jan is a school counselor, immently practical, a first class shopper, and is able to get her orientation in a new area in record time. This is their first time in Italy.

Duane teaches management classes at MCC and one of our two long-suffering, incredibly talented drivers. Susan is a retired kindergarten teacher who is always the first one to help clean up and helped to keep us on track. They had recently been in Tuscany and were great resources for planning our trips around the area.

Steve teaches accounting classes at MCC and was our other driver. He is of Sicilian descent and was thrilled to be near the land of his foreparents. Several times he would remark on similarities between what he saw and ate in Italy and what he had experienced as a child with his parents and grandparents. Linda is an obstetrics nurse and a tireless researcher. She also has an innate sense of direction and great memory for what we had seen (especially passing the same corner several times). This was their first time in Italy.

For those of you who may get this e-postcard second hand, Tim teaches psychology and CIS classes at MCC. Diane teaches math there. They had each visited Italy before, but not together.


After a long trip from Grand Rapids, we arrived tired and disheveled in the Rome airport. Fortunately, the Icelandic volcano held her breath for us. Unfortunately, our luggage decided to spend some extra time in Amsterdam. This was not totally unexpected as our layover there was so short that we had to have a personal guide from KLM lead us though the airport and express security. So we filled two taxis in Rome (not sure where they would have put the luggage even if we had it!) and headed for the Orange Hotel, just a few blocks from the Vatican. Sparse, clean and modern, the Orange was a perfect location for our jaunts throughout the next few days.

After pizza (thin crust, less cheese than at home), our first gelato (an intensely flavored cross between ice cream and sorbet), and a little R & R, we bought a 24-hour tour bus pass and took a ride around the city as night fell. Colosseum, Rome Italy Despite the constant threat of rain and the coolness of the air (unusual, we were told) some of the group braved the open upper deck to see the sights so familiar yet so new..the Colosseum, the Roman Forum, the Vatican. Back at the Orange, six of the eight folks found their luggage awaited them.

The next day, we hopped back on the bus and became traditional tourists. We had a guided tour of the Colosseum and the Roman Forum, then wandered about on our own as the seasonally unusual rain started and stopped. After lunch we walked to the Piazza Navona (a former chariot racetrack now a gathering place with a lovely fountain). The 2000 year old Pantheon was next. It is a huge room topped by a freestanding dome based on a perfect hemisphere. At the top of the dome is a circular opening to let in the light. The best place to stand is right below the opening...but as it had been raining (still, but very unusual), there was, instead, a rather large puddle. One would think after 2000 years, they could fix the drainage. In true Italian style, they just roped off the area and hoped it would eventually go away. Of course, we had to throw a coin in the Trevi Fountain (just like the movie “Three Coins in a Fountain”) to assure we would return to Rome. Or perhaps to assure that we could just find our way back to the bus stop through the winding roads. Or maybe to assure that the rest of the luggage arrived….in that case, it worked.


A word here about the plight of the poor camera widow. Three of us (Linda, Susan, and Diane) are married to men who are constantly seeking the perfect photograph. And since “it is only digital”, there is no hesitation on their parts to stop and take many photos of endless famous sites from all angles, in various focal lengths, in sun and shade, and maybe even in panoramic view. They took photos of cute children, cars, shop windows, empty alleyways, statues of people we’ve never heard of, rivers, mountains, marble floors, religious artifacts (church windows, basilica ceilings, frescoes, more statues, altars, paintings, icons), tables of food, restaurant entrances, beggars, women sweeping floors, old women hanging laundry, old men walking in streets, the back of the lens cap … you get the picture (no pun intended).

As camera widows, it was our responsibility to make sure the photographers didn’t get lost, run over by errant taxis or arrested, to hold the camera while they looked for their other lens, to sit in Steve and Linda, Tiber River, Rome Italy the aisle and let them have the train/bus/boat window seat, and to commiserate while waiting for the sun or the “*&@$# person” standing right in front of the perfect photo opportunity. These daily activities were followed by an evening ritual of the guys discussing and backing up their own and everyone else’s photos on a variety of technology. That meant the resulting 1,000s of photos (I am not exaggerating!) will take weeks to sort through. And after all the editing, there still will be lots of photos of statues of people we don’t know.

Dan, by the way, was happy enough to take a few photos and leave the rest to the other guys. They were happy to share with him. This left him free to wander into the numerous wine shops in search of the 3 euro bottle. And he was successful, keeping the group tasting numerous wines at record low prices. But his random disappearances into shops qualify Jan as a wine widow.


One of the highlights of the trip is the Scavi (excavation) tour Linda arranged for most of the group. The tour was restricted to 12 people and took us below the main altar in St. Peter’s Basilica. Although anyone can visit the crypts just below the basilica floor where many of the popes are buried, only select groups can travel way below where burials of first Christians and other Romans of the time took place as seen by inscriptions, tomb, and frescoes. We had all read a history of the Basilica that Jan & Dan found which described the decades-long search for St. Peter’s tomb. Sistine Chapel, Vatican City As we walked down though layer after layer of history, we eventually reached a small hole in the wall where a burial site was found that contained strong evidence it belonged to St. Peter. How fortunate we were to have been a part of this.

Later, we were able to gleefully walk past the very long lines directly into the Vatican Museum and, eventually, the Sistine Chapel as we had arranged to join a tour. Our guide was named Lila…how do I remember? She was constantly (and loudly) stating “follow Lila”, “come closer to Lila”, “meet Lila here”. I don’t think she ever used the word “I”. She was quite a talker and we learned more than anyone would want to know about tapestries, but she did point out a few of the more famous museum pieces before letting us loose in the Sistine Chapel. The Chapel is filled with incredible work, but (much to the guys’ dismay) photography was not allowed. A few furtive shots were taken while the rest of us ended up with neck aches from staring upward with our mouths open.

We ended our Roman holiday with a family style dinner at a local trattoria, a highly recommended gelato, and drinks by the Piazza Novara.


All was going smoothly until just before the train ride from Rome to Florence. While we were trying to decipher the confusing numbering system for train seat reservations, several young ladies challenged some of our group, claiming we were in the wrong seats. As we were checking tickets, etc, the girls opened the purses of three of our group, stealing two wallets. The girls, with an older man as a possible accomplice, then got off the train and were gone. The rest of the ride was spent commiserating, calling banks and credit card companies (thank goodness for cell phones) and trying to arrange credit card replacements. Needless to say we were all on the alert from then on. And, although the wallets were not recovered and some cash was lost, vulnerable accounts were shut down quickly.

A few days later, as half of the group travelled to Venice by train, they were approached by a nun and a man, claiming that our group was in the wrong seats. Dan, Jan, Steve, and Linda just laughed at the two would-be scammers, who scuttled away to sit elsewhere. Either another crime was foiled or there may be divine retribution for disbelieving a nun!


Villa Il Castellaccio, Lucolena Italy

As we drove the rental cars from Florence through the Tuscan countryside, we were all wondering what our villa would really be like. We picked it from a sparse description and a few photos. But the sight of it took our breath away. Originally built in the 11th century with renovations and expansions over the years, “Villa Il Castellaccio” was a rambling stone building housing our living area, a private office and another rental space. But it seemed like ours alone. There were several fireplaces in the house, a formal sitting room, and informal sitting room, a long dining table easily seating eight, a woodfire pizza oven out in the refurbished pig sty and furnished with an interesting mix of lovely period furniture and more modern stuff. The house was on a road once travelled by the Romans to get to the sea. It overlooked olive groves, a vineyard, hills, and the town of Lucolina.

The kitchen was huge with the usual appliances, a large marble work table, and interesting mixture of china dishes, lead crystal wineglasses, eggcups, fish side plates, a wild looking wine decanter, and a variety of unsharp knifes.


We certainly ate well here. You could divide our food experiences into three areas: what we prepared, what someone else prepared, and what someone taught us to prepare. As was mentioned, Dan made breakfast for all of us a few days and we were in constant need of nightly snacks. This necessitated visits to various butcher shops (for salami and cheese), wine shops, village open air vegetable/fruit markets, and the local grocery store. We devoured several types of pecorino (a local sheep’s milk cheese), local Chianti wines, bread dipped in olive oil, and sweets from the town pastry shop. Dan and wood fired pizza oven at villa In fact, one evening we just chowed down on these delights instead of dinner.

On our last evening at the villa, Dan fired up the wood burning oven and made pizzas. We don’t know if it was the wine or Dan gaining experience, but the pizzas just got better as the night progressed. Thanks, Dan!

One evening we dined at a restaurant in the nearby town of Dudda (pronounced doo-dah). We knew we were truly going local when we couldn’t translate the menu without the help of the waiter. As long as we could avoid the Italian delicacies of tripe (stomach lining) and pig’s cheeks (no kidding), we were game to try almost anything.

A typical Italian dinner starts after 8 p.m. It consists of an appetizer (antipasta), a pasta course (prima), a main course (secondo) of meat or fish, side dishes of vegetables or salads, dessert, and espresso. Plus all the bread you can beg from the waiter. And water and wine. They would have to roll us out if we tried to keep up with this tradition. Also, it is polite to put your elbows on the table and eat when you are served (even if no one else has food yet). That is because the food is served as it is prepared, not held until all of it is done.

During our stay Dan was able to arrange two cooking classes. The first took place at our villa. Six of us spent the afternoon making coccoli (fried bread you stuff with ham & cheese), bruchetta (bread with fresh tomato topping, taglatini (long handmade pasta) with sage/butter sauce, ravioli, and tiramisu…..all from scratch. Toscana Mia Cooking Class We chopped, rolled, and produced a wonderful meal in time for Steve and Linda to join us to eat (they went to Assisi for the day). We ate to capacity, washed it down with wine our teacher had brought and even had leftovers for the next day.

Three days later we were up to our elbows in pasta flour again. This time we met our cooking teacher’s sister (Simonetta) in town and drove to her favorite butcher. We were shown how they cut the famous bistecca alla fiorentina (a huge steak that is grilled – a Florence specialty). Then we saw a secret drying room for prosciutto (an air cured ham) where each hog leg is lovingly numbered and (we were assured) the hog raised under low levels of stress. Finally another butcher proudly showed us the prosciutto and salamis he had made and was aging. Then we travelled to her home and started our cooking lesson with Paola. Paola spoke wonderful English and taught us to make crostini alla salsicca (another toasted bread dish), gnocci (little pasta dumplings), tarchino (turkey breast in a milk/vinegar sauce – sounds iffy but tastes delicious), and latte dolce di ricotta (Italian cheese cake). Toscana Mia Cooking Class We had great fun learning to roll and launch (push) the little gnoccis off a special wooden paddle. Several of us later bought a gnocci launcher to take home. We shared the food and some wine with the sisters’ father and Paola’s husband….we had a glorious time.

Now just because we learned to cook all this stuff doesn’t mean you should invite one of us couples over your place to produce an Italian feast! Remember it took all eight of us to produce this meal, so you had better have space for all of us. And we have been known to launch a gnocci or two right onto the floor. So you may need to have your kitchen professionally cleaned afterward.


You take your life in your hands as a driver or pedestrian in Italy. The Italians tend to drive fast and, when seeing an oncoming car, traffic holdup or person walking across the street, the technique is to beep the horn several times and go faster. You can park anywhere (or at least they do). That means you can double or triple park, park sideways, block someone in, park on the side walk, or (my favorite) park directly under the no parking sign. The white stripes across a road (which in other countries mean pedestrian cross walks) here are battle of wills between you determined to cross and the vehicles determined to run you down. Tim looking over San Gimignano, Italy Lane markers and traffic lights seem to be only suggestions, strictly followed only by nervous tourists. This creates blocked traffic which results in more horn blowing and whizzing cars. Couple this with the narrow roads and hairpin turns of Tuscany and you can see why our drivers Duane and Steve deserved an extra glass of wine (or beer) at the end of the day.


Travelling with eight people meant two rental cars. Which also meant that one car had to lead on our road trips and the other had to get lost. Or one had to get lost and the other had to follow. Toscan Villa, Italy Despite a stack of maps, three GPS units (all with maps of Italy), text messaging, walkie-talkies and various backseat drivers, our group now holds the current tourist record for most U-turns, Y-turns, and backing up in a week.

We did manage to do a circle tour of Volterra and San Gimignano, two lovely towns with medieval town walls and towers, very old cathedrals, and numerous souvenir shops. The countryside was so beautiful, with mansions, villas, and old castles amid the lush greens of field and forests. The lushness must be due to the unusually rainy day we had. We also did a tour of Montepulciano, Pienza, and Montalcino. These old villages had been suggested Duane and Susan. The downside: more rain. The upside: shopping, different wines, and more gelato.


With two cars we were able to split up occasionally for some other day trips. Steve and Linda went to Assisi to find the grave and other sites related to St. Francis, Steve’s namesake. It was a long trip for them but a life goal for Steve. Johnny Depp in Venice, Italy The rest of the group went to Montfioalle, a walled city with one main street around the church. The town just happened to have a village-wide wine tasting so the six of us went from tasting table to tasting table trying regional wines. It was a good thing we ended up where we started as our arms were full of wine and (except for our driver) we had plenty “to taste”.

Dan, Jan, Steve and Linda headed off early one morning for a train trip to Venice. Despite meeting the lying nun, they did a whirlwind walk about the city, visited the important sites (like St. Mark’s Square) and got to see Johnny Depp working on a movie (and they have the photos to prove it). Duane, Susan, Tim and Di drove to a fort (Castel del Broilio), the hilltop town Castelina and nearby Etruscan tombs. Steve had asked us to take some photos of a villa he especially liked. It had been raining (for a change) when he was by it the first time. No problem there, we took photos on the way there, again when we got turned around (lost) and a third time on the way out not realizing it was the same spot each time. When Tim finally walked in the same mud twice, we knew we had been there before (several times).


Just about everything except the cold and rain (but that is unusual this time of year) and the traffic. The food and wine were excellent, the gelato superb, and we couldn’t have travelled with a better group of people. Everyone did their part in planning the trip and making it go so smoothly. After our Tuscan week, the couples went their separate ways. Dan & Jan went home after a night in Florence. Duane, Susan, Steve & Linda went north. Tim and Di headed down to Sorrento. More Tim & Di adventures to follow.

A big GRAZIE to all of group. Now let’s get together to remember and view all those photos.

-- Di & Tim

The Muskegon crew finishing pizza at the villa, Lucolena Italy

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