Friday, July 26, 2013
We had one final breakfast at Castel Monastero and after saying goodbye to the great cappuccinos, we checked out of the hotel and started our drive to Florence. It took us just over an hour to get there and we had some fun trying to find a parking. We eventually found a parking garage at the Mercato Centrale, the city’s busiest food market. With the car safely parked, we wandered the streets of Florence looking for the Galleria dell’ Accademia so that we could see Michelangelo’s famous statue of David. We eventually found the gallery and scalped two tickets to get in ahead of the slow moving line-up. Once inside, we quickly found the statue and were both mesmerized by the size and quality of the piece of art we were looking at. It is the most impressive statue, and probably the best piece of art, we have ever seen. The detail was so perfect, the eyes so lifelike and Michelangelo captured David’s muscle movements perfectly. In the same viewing hall, we also saw Michelangelo’s Quattro Prigionieri – four sculpted prisoner figures trying to escape from stone. Very impressive.

As we were leaving the gallery to explore more of Florence, we were surprised to run into our good friends from Calgary – Brian and Linda Kostreba with their kids, Braedon and Sydney. We had a good chat with them and decided we should all go and have lunch together. We ended up at the Donatello Restaurant facing Florence’s Duomo and Baptistry. While the company and scenery was excellent, the food was not really that memorable.

We said our goodbyes to the Kostreba’s and had time for a one hour walk around Florence before it was time to get our car. We walked around the Duomo and Baptistry, and came across the Piazza della Signoria, where we saw a replica of the statue of David outside the Palazzo Vecchio – the “old palace” that serves as the town hall. We also saw the Loggia dei Lanzi with its various Roman statues including Perseus beheading Medusa. We made our way to the Arno River through the courtyard of the famous Uffizi, Italy’s greatest art gallery. We did not have time to go inside the gallery so we have a good excuse to come back to Florence again some day. We will, however, make sure our return trip is not at the height of tourist season! As we left the Uffizi courtyard, we came across the Ponte Vecchio, the oldest bridge in Florence, and then it was time to locate our car and get to the airport.

We found the car relatively easily and the airport was not too far from the city centre although the rental car return location could be a bit clearer marked. We checked in for the short flight to Rome and arrived at the Rome Airport Hilton at about 9.00 pm. We had a great final Italian meal of bruschetta, meat stuffed ravioli with a bacon and onion sauce, tiramisu and a glass of red wine from Montalcino before heading to bed for our flight to Montreal and Vancouver in the morning. We both agreed that we love Italy and we are really looking forward to our return visit.
Thursday, July 25, 2013
After eating breakfast at Castel Monastero and grabbing a slice of pizza from the local trattoria, we made our way to the Chianti wine region to sample some of the local wines. We stopped off at the Castello di Verrazzano winery and signed up for a tour and wine tasting session. The tour was interesting but a little too much history around how Verrazzano was robbed of his new world discoveries by Columbus! As we toured the cellars, we saw several barrels of Chianti Classico maturing in French oak barrels and we were quite impressed by the owner’s personal selection of wines, many of which were over fifty years old. After the cellar tour, we sampled three wines - a Rose, a Chianti Classico and a Chianto Classico Reserva - in the company of a nice couple on holiday from Belgium.

The wine tasting finished a little later than planned, but we still decided to make our way to visit the town of San Gimignano - another gorgeous fortified town on top of a hill overlooking the Chianti valleys. Our timing was perfect as most of the tourists were leaving for the day. We strolled the narrow, and often steep, side-streets looking at the various shops and bought a sunflower water colour painting from a local artist. We decided to stop for dinner and had the usual tomato bruschetta followed by mushroom bruschetta and fettuccine with a wild boar meat sauce. Very tasty. After dinner, we found a gelateria that claimed to have won world championships with its gelato. We tried the caramel and stracciatella gelatos. They were good but we still think the gelato we found in Taormina was better.

The drive back to Castel Monastero took about an hour and we got back in time to pack our bags to be ready to leave in the morning.
Wednesday, July 24, 2013
After a late start to the day, we drove to the local trattoria for a breakfast cappuccino, tea and a slice of pizza before making our way south of Siena to Pienza, a beautiful small town on a hill overlooking several Tuscan valleys. The dreamy views from here are spectacular. We were looking for a mezzaluna mincing knife that we can use at home to replicate some of the wonderful Tuscan dishes we have savoured here and were lucky enough to find one. Pienza is famous for its pecorino sheep cheese and there were many tiny little shops selling this delicacy along with salami and other cured meats. We also found a variety of truffle oils and sauces and couldn't resist buying two bottles of white and black minced truffle paste. 

After our visit to Pienza, we headed for Montalcino and its renowned brunello vineyards. We fell in love with this part of Tuscany. The rolling hills covered with vineyards, olive groves, tall cypress trees and magnificent stone buildings. We stopped at the Abbazia di Sant' Antimo, a thousand year old stone monastery where the local monks still practice the mystical Gregorian chants. There was so much peace and beauty in the building and surrounding countryside that we felt this was one of the most sacred places we have been to on our travels.

We made our way back to the town of Montalcino, another small and sleepy town on top of a hill with fabulous Tuscan vistas in all directions and lots of tiny, steep sidestreets lined with shops and homes. There were several wine shops selling wonderful Brunello de Montalcino wines but sadly we don't have room in our luggage to bring any home. So we did the next best thing and ordered a glass of brunello at an outside cafe accompanied by what may turn out to be the best bruschetta of our trip so far along with a plate of salami, cured meats and pecorino cheese. The setting was fantastic, the food was excellent and the wine was even better. We could have sat there for hours but it was getting dark so it was time to leave. On the way back to Castel Monastero, we tried several Italian gas stations in an attempt to fill up our car. Most of the gas stations are automated but they didn't like our credit cards and most of the payment machines didn't like our cash. Finally, we managed to get a few five euro bills into some of the machines and were able to get enough gas to get back to our hotel. 

Pisa and Lucca


Tuesday, July 23, 2013
Following a good breakfast with superb cappuccinos, we decided to spend the day in Pisa and Lucca. The drive to Pisa took us two hours and we were really glad we made the effort to visit the leaning tower. We were quite surprised at the severe angle of the lean, the bright whiteness of the outside and the height of the tower. We bought a ticket to walk up to the top of the tower but we had to come back at 6.00 pm to do this so we made our way to a restaurant nearby and had the usual bruschetta and pasta meal. At 6.00 pm, we returned to the tower and made our way inside. This was where the lean is most pronounced and it is actually quite difficult to walk inside with the sloping floor. It felt like we had had too much to drink at lunchtime.

We climbed the stairs to the top of the tower and were impressed with the views of Pisa and the surrounding countryside. We also got to see the tower bells up close. Once we were back on level ground, we went inside the adjacent cathedral. The size of the church interior and the artwork lining the walls was striking.

After our stop in Pisa, we made our way to Lucca, home of the world's finest olive oil and one of the best preserved walled towns in Italy with its maze of cobblestoned side streets. We sat down at an outside cafe for dinner - bread with delicious olive oil, bruschetta and leek and sausage pasta. We followed this up with some tasty stracciatella gelato. We picked up a bottle of olive oil to remember our visit when we get home and soon realized that home was closer than we thought. As we were leaving the town, we recognized Martin Jones, a teacher from Mulgrave, sitting at an outdoor cafe. We stopped to say a surprising small world hi before heading to our car for the long drive back to Siena. We got back at midnight and decided we would skip breakfast in the morning.

Cooking in Siena


Monday, July 22, 2103
We awoke to a beautiful sunny day in Tuscany. We had breakfast in the Castel Monastero courtyard which was delicious. Lots of freshly baked goodies, fresh juices and the best cappuccinos yet! Our plan for the day was to explore Siena and take part in a cooking class. Siena is a walled fortress town high up on a hill. We parked the car and took a series of escalators up to the town centre. The town has lots of steep, dark alleyways which add to the mystic ambience of the place. In the centre of the town, we visited the Piazza del Campo where the famous Palio horse races are held each year and we saw the Palazzo Pubblico with its high and imposing bell tower. We stopped for lunch at wonderful back street cafe where we had an excellent bruschetta that was made in front of us (tomatoes, olive oil, garlic and fresh basil). We followed this up with an excellent lasagna and penne pesto.

After lunch it was time for our cooking class and we headed down the hill to La Scuola di Cucina with Lella and Giulia. They were accompanied by Irena, who translated everything into English for us. We had two other couples join us for the class - they were from Boston and New York. We had a fantastic time learning how to cook various Tuscan style meals. We made fried sage leaves using flour and sparkling water which resulted in great little snacks. We then made typical Tuscan crostini. Even though the main ingredient was chicken liver, we still found it to be quite tasty! For the pasta dish, we made our own fresh pasta - Pici. This is very similar to spaghetti. We were amazed at how much time it takes to make the pasta dough and rolling it into long thin pieces is quite a work of art. For the pasta topping, we used fresh Italian sausage meat with mushrooms, garlic, olive oil, red wine and tomatoes. This was very tasty. The main course comprised sage stuffed pork loin with roasted potatoes. This was superb. Finally, we made fresh peach crostata for dessert. We learned how to make the pastry and a fresh peach filling - yummy! This was a fantastic experience and one of the highlights of our trip.

The cooking class lasted about five hours and after it was over, it was time to head back to our hotel in the country.
Sunday, July 21, 2013
We finally woke up in time to experience the breakfast buffet at our hotel! It was excellent. Too bad we missed it the previous three times! We really had a fantastic time in Taormina and loved our apartment and the hotel. The people here are so friendly and welcoming. We will miss Taormina a lot.

Our drive back to the Catania airport was so simple compared to our arrival experience. A few signs at the right places would have made our arrival so much easier! Anyway, upon reflection, we quite enjoyed the mayhem of our arrival a few days ago and wished we were arriving now instead of departing. We feel confident that if we can drive in Sicily, we can probably drive anywhere in Europe.

We returned the rental car to the Hotel California and made our way to the airport terminal. This was completely shambolic and we were glad we arrived with two hours to spare. We used up the first hour and change just checking in our bags. Although the check-in process seemed unnecessarily long, we breezed through security and we both commented that the security folks in North America could learn a lot from their European counterparts.

We grabbed an amazing salami, cheese and tomato panini for lunch and then boarded our flight to Florence. We were seated next to the most delightful Italian nun, who laughed constantly and was adamant that she needed to talk to us even though she knew we could not understand a word she said. Laughter truly is a universal language!

The Florence airport was tiny but very well organized compared to Catania. We picked up for our rental car and were soon on our way to our hotel near Siena. The scenery in Tuscany is incredible and we loved all the trees, rolling hills and vineyards. We drove through Chianti on our way to Siena and thought we were in great shape to find our hotel, when chaos struck again. Turns out our GPS led us to a dirt road miles from our destination. The only driving instructions we had from the hotel were from Siena, so we made our way to Siena to try and pick up the trail. All seemed to be on track until the heavens opened and we were caught in a torrential downpour. We could barely see in front of us, let alone see road signs and then a tree fell across the road right in front of us. That was the end of our driving instructions. We turned back towards Siena and guessed our way around the obstacle. After about 30 minutes, we found the right road again and made our way to our hotel - Castel Monastero. We managed to check in just before it got dark. We ate a meal in the hotel courtyard with an excellent bottle of Chianto Classico before caling it a day.

Gelato, Gelato!


Saturday, July 20, 2013
Once again, we woke up too late to try the breakfast at our hotel. We ventured out around lunchtime and decided we really needed to try something else other than lemon sugar crepes to start the day. We took a seat at an outside cafe and decided to give the cafe the bruschetta test. This particular establishment did not get a passing grade on our bruschetta quality scale. After our meal, we explored more of Taormina and found parts of the town we had not yet visited. More shops, even more restaurants, a couple of town squares, a church or two and best of all, the ultimate gelato shop - O'Sciality. For our first visit, we tried the vanilla with chocolate pieces stracciatella gelato - unbelievable!

With full bellies, we thought it would be appropriate to head down to one of the local beaches so we took the 1,000 step path down to Mazzaro Bay. The beach itself was very rocky and it was interesting to see so many people lying around on a pebbly beach. The water was surprisingly warm.

After exploring the beach, we decided the cable car back to the top was probably easier than the 1,000 step staircase. We caught a ride back to Taormina and went for dinner at an excellent side street cafe. Dinner comprised a passing grade bruschetta, lasagna, marsala scallopine and some red wine. Delicious! Dessert comprised another visit to the gelato shop, where we choose meringue gelato and stracciatella gelato once again. Best gelato ever!

We then made our way back to our apartment to pack up and get ready to leave in the morning.

Mount Etna


Friday, July 19, 2013
As typical creatures of habit, we couldn't resist the lemon and sugar crepes for breakfast, so we decided to pay another visit to Cafe Chico. We were not disappointed. After breakfast, it was time to see Mount Etna up close, one of the most active volcanoes in the world and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The volcano is almost always in a state of activity and we could see it smoking from our terrace.

Our drive took us through some interesting coastal towns before we made our way to the highway and successfully navigated the toll system this time round. The drive up to Mount Etna was interesting as the lush vegetation gradually gave way to the moonscape look of volcanic rock and ash. It was amazing to see how many craters have been formed over the years and we were able to walk up to the crater caused by the 2001 eruption. It was also interesting to experience the big drop in temperature from the heat of the coastal area.

We drove back to Taormina through some rural Sicilian towns in time to watch the sunset from our terrace accompanied by a few glasses of red wine. At dinnertime, we couldn't resist the temptation of another visit to the excellent restaurant in our hotel, where we surprised ourselves by ordering the usual bruschetta, vegetable canoli and tiramisu. It was fabulous.
Thursday, July 18, 2013
Given our crazy arrival the night before, we were happy to sleep in and wake up late. Daylight brought a very different picture. The view from our apartment was outstanding looking over the Mediterranean with Mount Etna in the background. We decided to walk into town for breakfast. Taormina is built on a hillside with winding streets and alleyways full of quaint shops and restaurants. We stopped to have lemon and sugar crepes that were delicious. 

After exploring the town a little more, we headed up the hill to visit the Ancient Greek theatre. This is a theatre that was built over two thousand years ago on the edge of a cliff overlooking the sea. The theatre is still in use today. The setting was idyllic.

We walked back to our apartment to soak up some sun on our terrace and get caught up on the British Open and the second Ashes Test! Well rested, we ventured out again in the early evening to explore more of the town and find a restaurant for dinner. There were so many restaurants to choose from so we narrowed down the selection process to only those that had bruschetta on the menu. We came across one establishment that met the criteria but decided not to stop there as there was an annoying Italian street band playing outside. We kept going and found the perfect restaurant just around the corner. Needless to say the bruschetta was fantastic and the pasta entrees did the trick. We followed this up with some caramel gelato from a gelato shop on the way back to our apartment before our lazy day came to an end.

Crazy Catania!


Wednesday, July 17, 2013
Following the buffet breakfast at the hotel, we rested until check-out time and then walked over the river to Trastevere in search of a light lunch. We ordered the obligatory bruschetta and a pasta dish and ate outside on the sidewalk patio. After lunch it was time to head out to the airport to catch our flight to Catania, Sicily.

We booked a flight to leave Rome at 5.15 pm arriving in Catania at 6.30 pm. The plan was to collect our luggage, pick up our rental car and then get to Taormina with plenty of time to spare before nightfall. Turns out our time calculations were hopelessly wrong.

Things started to get weird in the departure lounge at the Rome airport when the airline made us check our cabin baggage. We only had two pieces between us and they were well within regulation size. By the time, we emptied our valuables from one of the bags into a carry bag, the original bag was empty. Anyway, we had to check the empty bag. After this process, we noticed that virtually all the other travellers had larger cabin bags than ours and they were allowed to take them on the plane. To make matters worse, when we finally boarded the plane, most of the overhead bins around us were empty! What a waste of time. It goes without saying that when our bags were eventually delivered to the baggage carousel, our two late checked cabin bags came out long after we had already picked up our suitcases.

We followed the signs to the car rental agents until there were no more signs and no rental cars in sight. After some further exploration, we located the rental kiosks and made our way to the Avis desk. There was quite a long line up at the desk but because we have an Avis membership, a big sign told us that we should go straight to our rental car to finish the rental process. We went over the rental car lot, only to find out that the sign was telling lies and that we would have to join the queue back at the kiosk. We shouldn't have listened to the lying sign because now the queue was longer than when we first got there. After waiting in line longer than the flight from Rome, we eventually picked up our car and were ready to leave.

Turns out the Avis lot is pretty much like the Hotel California - you can check out but you can never leave! It seemed that every road we took to get away from the Avis lot, brought us all the way back. Guess this was a precursor for what was still to come. Eventually, we veered off on an unmarked side road and left the airport behind. We were headed in the direction of Messina and this was clearly marked at the first couple of intersections, then the signage dried up. As a result, we ended up in the traffic mayhem of Catania guessing which way we were supposed to go.

We learned real quick that driving in Sicily is not for the faint of heart. There are no rules of the road and no directions to anywhere! Scooters shoot past you on all sides, cars pull out right in front of you and speedsters come tearing up behind you honking and flashing their lights.

Eventually, we came across the highway we were looking for and got started on our drive to Taormina. All was going reasonably well for a tiny Fiat Panda struggling to do 90 km/h on a 130 km/h highway until we came across a toll booth. The automated booth was covered in graffiti so it was impossible to figure out what we were supposed to do and we couldn’t find anywhere to insert some money. So I just put my hand near the machine, dropped a Euro on the floor and drove off hoping that if someone was watching us by camera, we could hoodwink them into thinking we had paid the toll! Turns out the graffiti machine was actually a ticket dispenser and we just needed to find the button to get the toll ticket. Anyway, the lady at the toll booth when we left the highway at Taormina was very understanding and just charged us 1.70 Euro for the toll.

After climbing a series of steep switchbacks in the dark, we finally arrived at our hotel – the Hotel Villa Carlotta. The staff were very friendly and welcoming and we were glad to have finally arrived. We were also glad to see someone else drive our rental car off to be parked! At the hotel, we booked an apartment with a large sun deck and view of the Mediterranean but we will have to wait until morning to see what the view is like. Before calling it a day, we had our best meal of the trip so far. The hotel chef made us a fantastic bruschetta that was not on the menu followed by a delicious mushroom risotto, vegetable canoli and tiramisu. Having a backdrop of the night lights from mainland Italy reflecting on the Mediterranean in the distance certainly added to the wonderful meal.