Monday, September 30, 2013

Know Your Saints

In spite of dire warnings from our GPS, Donna decided to take the Passe della Croce Arcana route to Pietrasanta our 3rd destination.    This turned out to be quite an adventure; Bernie was convinced we were on the wrong road since the dirt and rock were not much improved since the Longobards built it in 9th century.   At the top of the Pass, stunning views, there is a ski area in the winter (near Abetone) and great hiking in the summer.
Near the Top of the Pass with shrubs showing fall foliage

Pietrasanta is between the sea and the  incredibly steep mountains of the  Apuan Alps, next to Carrara and Saravezza where Michaelangelo got his marble.  Marble businesses and death defying quarries are everywhere.  There is so much marble here we even found a bridge made of it.

Fishing Pier at Forte dei Marme near Pietrasanta
Marble quarry near Seravezza/Carrara

 Talk about death defying… lets talk about the double black diamond path to our little cottage here.  Good news was that there was a lift for the luggage.  See picture attached.  So every day we go up and down this trail, about 50 Meters with an elevation gain of seems-like 200 meters.  And you don’t have to pay extra for this. 
The bad news was we forgot 2 deal breakers …no internet and no laundry in this rental.  Donna was in withdrawal until we could get to an internet point and check emails.  Today she stood out in the rain in front of the closed internet point typing into her IPHONE a Fibonacci sequence user ID and Password.  All this for only a few emails…come on guys, say hello or something.

On our first rainy day we spent a few hours at Sant’Anna.  A WWII resistance and memorial museum is located here at the site of the German massacre of about 500 Italian civilians mostly women and children.  The  museum in Parco Nazionale della Pace,  high above PietraSanta and  the sea on top of a super switched back road (are there any other kind in Italy?). It is a moving memorial to a horrific war crime.  In particular, the story of the resistance fighters in the area is poignantly shown in pictures and narrative and newspaper articles.  We used our Italian dictionary app to mostly translate words like “capture”, “torture”, “kill” and “victims”.  The English language interpretation of the narrative is in the works, but we understood that the Germans used whatever means to hold Versili which is the  area of Italy where we are staying. This was at great cost to the Italian partisans and civilians during 1943 and 1944.  The link to the web site is

Earlier that same rainy day, we spent at the Museo San Matteo in Pisa.  With lots of English narrative to provide context, we got a wonderful sense of Pisan religious art from the 12th through the 15th century.  Donna delights in looking at a tryptic and trying to name the saints…Bernie gets into it too.  We are batting 1000 on John the Baptist and St Catherine, so long as she has her wheel.  But even the curators can screw up….see photo of this tryptic of Madonna and Saints and see the manual correction in the credits.  How could you not know it was St Lorenzo, 2nd from Left?

 Perhaps we are losing our minds from too much wine, but we delight in looking at the face of Madonnas in the Annuniciations.  (this is when the Angel tells Mary she is going to have the Baby Jesus).  The expressions run the gamut of “are you kidding me”, “I am going to be famous one day”, “OMG”, and “ wow this is such an honor, I hope I can live up to this”.  In Pisa, we saw a room full of powerful/bigger than life wooden sculptures of the annuniciation duo.  Let us know what you think Mary was thinking in the following picture. 

Just so you know we aren’t missing anything…we loved our day in Pisa at the Leaning Tower, Duomo and Baptistry.  We also hiked the Cinque Terre but due to a landslide between 2 of the Lands  it was only the Tre Terre.

Also spent a day in the Garfagnana…aka the Alpuani Alpes.    We were blessed with beautiful weather for these sights.  This is an area of Italy we had never been to and we were not disappointed with its natural splendors.

And then there was the food....







Monday, September 23, 2013

Peak Bagging in Italy

Because of our curiosity about the 10th Mountain division in World War II, our 2nd stop was Vidiciatia, Italy.  Vidiciatica is in the valley below Riva Ridge and Mt Belevedere, 45 miles north of Florence.   For those who don’t know the story of the 10th: the executive summary.  The 10th trained for 3 years in the US, largely near Aspen.  In 1945, the 10th were finally given an opportunity to show their stuff when no other forces could breach the German Gothic/Winter Line near here.  It is an exciting story that started with a technical climb up Riva Ridge which the German’s thought the Allied incapable of climbing.   BIG SURPRISE.  After taking Riva they went on to take Mt Belvedere.  The Italians love the 10th mountain for obvious reasons.  For the rest of the story check out the internet or watch the video. 
Riva Ridge from Mt Belevedere

On the drive to Vidiciata, we made a rewarding stop in Pistoia and were delighted with Pisano’s pulpit and the famous 16 cent. sculpted silver altar in the Duomo which has exquisite new and old testament panels.  We were directed off the beaten path to a charming little Bistro where we split seafood spaghetti and a salad of pecorino and nuts.    Our waitress was the charming Frederika who studied for years in Boston, and spoke English like an American.  Sadly, she was bitter about the lack of opportunity in Italy, which she thought was worse in Italy than US.
Donna & Frederika

 Spaghetti In Pistoia

Pistoia was the location of one of the time trials in the World Championship (Mondo Ciclismo)  bike race.  The town was all in a buzz….sound like Aspen?  There was a charming exhibition of antique bicycles that were used by working men….the bikes were tricked out with everything from knife sharpeners to musical instruments to chestnut cookers. 
                                                    Chestnut bicycle cooker.
 Returning to the topic of peak bagging.  We were thrilled to get more history from Bruno our inn host who was a special forces Alpini  and a 10th mountain aficionado.  He was quite helpful telling us the best routes to reach our peaks.  Mt Belevedere was the easiest peak and the 10th mtn monument at the top was a familiar icon for us. Bruno was concerned that we could not make it up the strenuous but non-technical climb to Riva Ridge, but we assured him we are strong hikers.  Turns out it was like doing  Arbaney Kittle 2 times with no flat places, 1500 feet in about 2 miles.   A good climb, but if we had guns on our back and went the technical route, whew!  What a challenge, even worse if Germans were shooting at you!
10th Mountain Monument   

                                                               Bernie in a Bunker

By the way, the English are everywhere here doing walking tours all over this area, which has many great hikes.  They are a delightful bunch and lots of fun.  Our inn sounds like Downton Abbey.  Oh I hear the dressing gong…gotta go. 
Waterfalls and more hiking!!!

PS…we wish to thank Jane Kendall and Bill Shaffer for their recommendations of Vidiciatico.


Friday, September 20, 2013



On our 2nd day in Italy, we went to Parco Fauntistico, a nature preserve where red deer and bats roam.  (possibly Wolves)  Donna made her first Italian pun at dinner tonight calling the park “fauntastico” .  On the same day she asked the very confused waiter for the check, but actually asked for a side dish.  (conto not contorno).  Actually Donna is feeling like she is making progress.

Back to Day 1:  On the flight from Frankfurt to Rome, we passed over Isola Giula and thought/imagined we could make out the Costa Concordia just after it was hauled upright.  Great story, but we were a few days late. On our drive up the Tuscan coast we were able to stay awake, only to get lost in Orbetello, a geographically charming place that is on a sandbar between the mainland and the island of Monte Argentario.  We popped by Porto Ercole to see where Caravaggio died; the event was underwhelmingly commemorated by a wall plaque on a Renaissance church.  Great Primo Pranzo (lunch) in Orbetello..  No menu, just recommendations from the owner. We had risotto with porcini and chicory as the side.  Short stroll in the Maremma parco on the coast with gorgeous umbrella pine trees.  Saw many foxes…the Italian species are not as stealthy as they are in Colorado.
Foxy Bernie Umbrella Pines and his Fiat Cube Car


Maremma Fox
1st night in Arcidosso, a classic Tuscan hilltown in the valley of Monte Amiata, the tallest mountain/extinct volcano in Southern Tuscany.  Our inn requires a lot of uphill climbs which helped us to work off the great dinner at “Rosso Bastardo” (a nick name for the Chestnuts grown in abundance here). The Montecuccuo Sangiovese wines, super local, grown in volcanic soil are inexpensive and flavorful.

Day 2….Per usual, we had lots of confusion getting our Italian phone working, which needed a new battery and SIM card.  Made our way to charming St Fiora to see some famous  16th century Della Robbia glazed terracotta relief sculptures at a small church and then the  Peschiaria, a trout farm and pool. Miraculously we were able to arrive at the Pro Loco (tourist office) before it closed for siesta.  Timing your arrival in a new town when the tourist office is open is one of many challenges of our type of travel.   We made fast friends with Grazie….who spoke perfect Queen’s English…(duh, she was born in England of Italian parents).  Lunch was normal aka INCREDIBLE.  First taste of Pici, the Tuscan thick spaghetti, in YEARS.

Afternoon spent at Parco Fauntistico.  Lovely vistas, grand chestnut trees and some wildlife sightings…red deer and giant rabbits called lepre.  Enough to rev up our appetites for dinner.  Added treat of dinner was Bernie and an Austrian at the adjacent table having a great conversation in Italian.   
We realized at the end of Day 2 that we had lost our Italian phone.

Day 3 back to St Fiora to look for our phone.  Not there but we were able to chat again with Grazie.  That was nice.  Day of sightseeing capped by a hike up Monte Amiata (a ski area too). 

 There is a wonderful cross on top of mountain that was one of 20 crosses commissioned by the then Pope and built in late 19th and early 20th century on the highest 20 peaks in Italy.  This is the first one we have seen.  It was unnecessarily bombed by Germans in WWII and rebuilt.  (Just to be fair,  Americans probably unnecessarily bombed other places).     

Sunday, September 15, 2013

I think we will have some fresh wild mushrooms....

Bernie & I go to Italy almost every year since we moved to Colorado in 1997.  Bernie thinks the Italian food is not as good in China as it is in Italy.  I just feel at home there.  We both love the food, wine, art, landscape, architecture, people, and history.  Bernie also loves the language and has been studying it for years.  We love to share our knowledge of Italian travel and we thought that a blog would be a nice way to document our trip and share to those of you who have clicked on the Icon that was emailed to you by Blogspot. 

We decided to go to Italy for an entire month this year.  We haven’t been there this long since we became the parents of 2 longhaired dachshunds.  We are thrilled to finally find a 2nd family for them while we're travelling.

We've been planning this trip for almost a year.   We do not go on commercial tours.  We plan and devise these trips on our own:  when we get off the train in Parma we know where we are, what we are doing and what we are going to eat and drink!  We do that much research.   Italy can be a challenge for the uninitiated (or the initiated).  And we always have stories to tell.     Sometimes they are about us…but not always….e.g. there was the New Jersey group of a certain age that got off a tour bus in Erice, Sicily and they didn’t know what town they were in or why they were there, a World Heritage Site.  The tour bus guide had fled the bus in frustration and left them to their own devices. 

Grauer Italy Trip - Rome, Maremma, Monte Amiata, Vidiciatico, Pietrasanta, Parma, Ferrara, Rome
This trip starts at the Rome airport (see blue line on map), a drive up the Tuscan coast to the Maremma area for some sightseeing (jet lag will be an issue) and a walk in a coastal nature preserve and "First Lunch" (Primo Pranzo) near where Carravagio died. Then several days in the southern Tuscany in the area of Monte Amiata, an extinct volcano.  Here we will hike and explore and dine and drink. Wild mushrooms are in season and will be on all the Tuscan menus, can you say "luscious fresh porcinis?"
Next three days will take us further north in Tuscany to Vidiciatico, where in WWII the  American 10th Mountain Division ascended Riva Ridge and broke the German Winter Line.  We hope to see the WWII memorials, hike, see the country side. 

Then a week on the Tuscan Coast in Pietrasanta which is near Cararra where Michaelangelo quarried his white marble.  Best of all is that the Alpuani Alps will be at our backs (if we are looking at the coast).  We will be touring this area by car and foot and include a walk along the Cinque Terre path.  Again wild mushrooms, but lots of seafood too! 

We leave our car in Parma and will be in Emilia Romagna and even better food (is that possible?) for the next 10 days…staying in Parma and Ferrara…with many side trips for art, architecture, history, and nature.

We end our trip in Rome.   6 days of looking at Michaelangelo and Bernini and the best art in the Western World. Oh and of course the "Last Supper" (Ultima Cena) (the painting is in Milan, but the meal will be in Rome)  We will let you know when things are posted and picture worthy.  Hope you want to follow us.  Best, Donna & Bernie