Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Traveling to Moscow FAQs

Somerville, Mass - I have turned my attention to Moscow, where I am headed next month. Part of my preparations involve trying to convince my oldest and dearest friend, Rebecca, to come visit me while I am there.

I am not sure at all if this is a good idea. Rebecca has the worst travel karma of anybody I know. This is the girl who had to be rescued from a practically sinking sailboat when she went sailing around the Keys. And this is the same person who - while flying from Chicago to LA - bumped her head on the overhead luggage compartment door and ended up with a concussion!

Rebecca assures me that she has had many trouble-free travel adventures. In her defense, I don't remember anything going terribly wrong when I used to tag along on her family vacations to Bar Harbor, Maine, when we were 13. And here we are at Paradise Cove in Malibu - no problems there!

Anyway, last week Rebecca sent me a list of questions about her potential trip. I thought these Frequently Asked Questions might be useful for anyone thinking about traveling to Moscow:

  • If I do it - what would be the best time period to look at if I pick a week or 10 days... ??

Now, I think that Rebecca was asking specifically about jiving with my schedule. But for the sake of these FAQs, let me answer this question more generally. The best time of year to go to Moscow is late spring (May or June) or early fall (September or early October). Summer is not bad either, although summer in the city is hot and the theaters are closed. If you don't mind cold weather and dark days, Moscow is beautiful in January and February, when everything is covered in a layer of white snow. Avoid March and April, when the snow turns to slush and the city becomes a massive mudslide.

  • What kind of arrangements would I need to make, or would I just stay in whatever room/apt you are in?

Again, I invited Rebecca to stay with me in my apartment, but this does not necessarily apply to the rest of my readership (though it doesn't hurt to ask!). So yes, you are advised to make some kind of advance arrangements for accommodations, especially during the busy summer months. One useful resource is Hotels & Hostels, a part of the Lonely Planet website which posts hotel reviews (written by yours truly!).

Unfortunately, hotels are outrageously expensive in Moscow. There is a dearth of hotels that are decent but not decadent, functional but not fancy. This - more than anything else - is what makes Moscow the most expensive city in the world.

  • Is there a better airport I should fly into and a recommended airline?

No recommended airline - just take whatever is cheapest! These days, international flights go in and out of two airports: Sheremetyevo and Domodedovo. Sheremetyevo always had an international terminal. Although it is a pretty bleak place, it was always the nicest airport because it did service the foreigners. Then one day, somebody decided to privatize Domodedovo airport. Suddenly Domodedovo is servicing the likes of British Airways and American Airlines (as of June 2) and the place has undergone a massive rennovation. And suddenly Sheremetyevo seems to be even more of a ghetto.

Personally, I don't care too much about the aesthetics of an airport because I don't intend (key word intend) to spend too much time there. In my opinion, the most important question is: how do you get there? Domodedovo is farther away, but it has a speedy, direct train service that will wisk you there in 40 minutes (not counting travel time to the station, of course).

Sheremetyevo tried to institute a similar service. Unfortunately the train does not quite make it all the way there, so you still have to take a shuttle bus that final leg to Sheremetyevo, for a total travel time of one hour and fifteen minutes. Plus travel time to the station. Which turns into a very long trip indeed.

All this is a very long way of saying that there is no preferred airport; both are equally inconvenient. In either case, I usually end up taking a taxi! And frankly, taking a taxi is not so bad, as long as you make a reservation in advance. If you try to pick up a cab at the airport you'll probably consume your travel budget for a week!

  • How much Russian should I try to cram in, or does everyone speak English?

No, everyone does not speak English. People speak English in the modern hotels and the most popular museums, but your average Sasha or Sergei on the street does not. I always recommend that visitors should try to learn the Cyrillic alphabet before they come. (It's not that hard - 36 letters, most of which overlap with our Latin letters!). Then at least you can identify your metro stop or street name when you see it on the sign.

It also helps to learn a few key words and phrases, mainly because it makes people happy if you make a little bit of an effort. At the very least, learn to say "Good Day" (Dobry den). Say it - and smile sweetly - before asking questions of locals; they might respond in kind.

  • How do they feel about American girls, traveling alone?

Are you kidding? They love American girls traveling alone! Seriously though, Russia is a very safe place for women to travel. Back in the day, when foreigners in Russia were few and far between, I used to have to deal with unwanted attention. Sometimes it was a random stranger on the street, who would approach me and ask Mozhno poznokomitsa? ("May we be acquainted?") I learned that a polite but firm "Nyet" would usually finish that conversation pretty quickly. There was the occasional (usually drunk) guy that was more persistent, but that was a rarity. Anyway, it seems that now foreigners are less of a novelty and therefore less intriguing than they used to be. At least I attract a lot less attention than I used to. (Anyone who suggests that it has something to do with being 10-15 years older gets banned from this blog.)

  • Would I need to bring anything special/important in terms of adapters, papers outside of passport, etc... any medical prep to bring?

Yes to adapters (just like Europe). No to medical prep (no special shots or anything like that). As for papers, everybody needs a visa! This is a three-step process that adds a couple hundred bucks onto everyone's travel bill:

  1. First, you have to get a letter of invitation, which is issued by a Russian travel agency or other tourist organization. In Moscow, I like Visa House (http://www.visahouse.ru/). The price varies depending what kind of visa you get, but the minimum is about $75 for an invitation for a single-entry 30-day visa. In my case, I need a visa for more than 30 days, so I ended up paying $110 for an invitation for a single-entry, three-month "business" visa.
  2. 2. Send your passport, invitation and visa application to your nearest Russian consulate, which in my case is in New York (http://www.ruscon.org/). Don't forget to include a money order for $131 (or more if you need a fast turn-around time). Include a prepaid FedEx airway bill and they will send it to you in 6-10 business days.
  3. Once you arrive in Russia, you must get your visa registered within three days of arrival. If you are lucky, your hotel will do this for you for free. If you are like me, you are not staying in a hotel, in which case the original inviting agency should be able to do it (sometimes for a fee). One of the reasons I like Visa House is that they do not charge to register your visa once you arrive in Moscow. Technically, you are supposed to get registered in every city where you stay three days or more. But the rules are so murky and there is really no way to enforce this. My advice is to register when you first arrive - wherever you arrive - and to register in your city of departure.

Any more questions? Feel free to post them below and I will try to answer. Otherwise, I look forward to seeing you in Moscow!

Friday, May 23, 2008

Top Nine Things to Come Home To

Besides the obvious things like family and friends, of course.

#9 - Sushi. Apparently there is a sushi restaurant in Venice, but somehow it seemed sacreligious to eat Japanese food in Italy. Normally, I come home from a trip and I am craving pizza, but not this time. I got my fix at Seiyo in the super-trendy South End. In typical South End fashion, it can't just be a sushi place, but must also be a high-end wine boutique. Those things don't even go together! But I'm not complaining - we bypassed the wine and went straight for sushi and saki, which hit the spot.

#8 - Service with a smile. I can't deny it. As an American, I appreciate it when a waiter or checkout person smiles and pretends that they like me. I figure it's the least they can do as they are taking my money. Of course it does not happen all the time, but it is something we expect from our service sector in the United States. Not so in other countries. Certainly not in Venice, where service is usually polite, sometimes efficient but rarely friendly. Sounds like another place that I sometimes travel.

#7 - High-speed Internet. We did have wireless access in our apartment in Venice. But the receiver was two floors up, in the landlady's flat, which meant a sketchy connection for us. Not to mention that it only worked in the kitchen. Not to mention that it was sometimes shut off at random, for indeterminate periods of time. We comforted ourselves with the reminder that we were living in a 15th-century townhouse and, really, what did we expect? The internet probaby didn't work very well back then. Anyway, nice to be back in the pink house, where the internet conncection is strong in every room, as well as the backyard, where I happen to be working now.

#6 - Lilacs. What luck, I arrived home just in time to witness the lilacs bursting out in all their blossom-filled, aromatic glory. The downside, I learned, is that if the lilacs are blooming it means it's too late to put down pre-emergent crabgrass control. So... looks like we will have a crabby lawn again this year. Apparently I did not inherit the grassy green gene from my father. But I did inherit his appreciation for a sweet-smelling flower, which I am enjoying right now in the shade of the lilac tree.

#5 - Gardening. Speaking of my backyard, I spent my first week pulling up weeds, planting herbs and annuals, transplanting perennials. I came home just in time to catch the tale end of the tulips, and my azaleas were also ablaze. Now my bearded irises are emerging, as is the rhododendron. It never ceases to amaze me how much joy and satisfaction I get from my little private plot. The appearance of new buds makes my heart sing. Eating homegrown tomatoes makes my mouth water. And as an antidote to sitting in front of the computer, there is nothing better than going out in the sun and digging in the dirt.

#4 - Massage. After all that digging and weeding, my muscles were screaming. Lucky for me, my friend and massage therapist, Katrina, has moved back up to Boston.

#3 - Birds. There are no birds in Venice. I guess it's not surprising, as there are no trees in Venice. There are the pigeons, of course, whom I have nothing against. But that's about it. The pink house is also in an urban area, but we do have a few trees, which attract a surprising variety of birdlife. Of course there is the constant host of sparrows. But other more interesting species are also regular visitors at my feeder, including cardinals, grey mocking birds, house finch and downy woodpeckers. A few days ago, for the first time ever, I spotted a female ruby-throated hummingbird (I think) in the lilac bush. Looks like I might have to invest in one of those fancy hummingbird feeders to see if I can get her back.

#2 - Baseball. With all the drama surrounding the Celtics and Pats, I forgot that the Red Sox are still world champions. The Hometown Team has not forgotten, though. The boys are leading the AL-East (and the Yanks are bringing up the rear!). And Jon Lester pitched a no-hitter last week - that got everybody's attention.

#1 - Fritty. Fritty the Kitty was very well taken care of in our absence. But that doesn't mean that she didn't miss me. I can tell by the way that she spends the night sleeping on my chest and purring in my face.

By the way, Fritty turned 19 while we were in Venice. People often ask me what that really means. Is it true that one human year equals seven cat years, which would make her a remarkable 133 years old? Not exactly.

Experts estimate that a cat reaches sexual maturity after one year, so the first year of the animal's life is equivalent to about 15 years in human terms. Somehow, they determined that after the second year, the cat has a maturity level equivalent to a 25-year-old person. Again, I suppose we are talking about reproduction here, not getting a masters degree or holding down a job (although if Fritty was given the same opportunities as everyone else, I'm sure she could have done it when she was two). After that, the cat's aging process evens out to about four cat years for every one human year. So do the math: apparently Fritty is 93. And quite spry considering.

My apologies to those of you who thought this was a travel blog. I promise to return to our regularly scheduled programming in the next post. But after all, among the greatest joys of travel, who wouldn't include homecoming?

Monday, May 19, 2008

Top Ten Things I will Miss about Venice

#10 - The dog who sells newspapers. The woman who runs the newstand in Campo Santa Maria Formosa often brings her dog to work. If she has to run out to get some lunch or run an errand, the cute canine covers for her.

When we snapped this photo, the dog started barking. I think he was saying "No photo unless you buy!"

#9 - Speaking Italian. It's poetic. It's passionate. Butl let's face it: Italian is not the most practical language in the world. Unlike French or Spanish or even Russian, there is really only one place on the planet that my newfound Italian skills are going to come in handy.

I guess that means I'll have to come back to Italy, vero?

#8 - Torta Rustica. Imagine a pie crust that is so flaky that it crumbles to touch, so buttery that it melts in your mouth. Now fill it with fresh spinach and creamy ricotta cheese. Serve with a salad of Merinda tomatoes in balsamic vinagrette. To. Die. For.

That was my favorite lunch in Venice, which I ate at least once a week for about three and a half months. Back in the USA, I am alread going through withdrawal. Somebody send me a rustica recipe please!

#7 - Buying produce from Salvatore. This is the guy who runs the produce stand in the Campo Santa Maria Formosa. Besides being a notorious flirt ("You want sweet and ripe? I am sweet and ripe..."), he is also the most helpful person working in the entire Venetian service sector, offering me tips on the best eggplant for grilling and the best apples for crunching.

Also, everytime I bought produce from Salvatore, no matter what I bought, the price always came to just under five Euros. I think this is the first and only time that the incomprehensible Venetian pricing system seemed to work in my favor.

#6 - Buying wine straight from the barrel. I wish I had a photo of this but I don't. Basically, it works as follows. You bring your own bottle and they fill it straight from the barrel with the wine of your choice. Three Euros. If you buy more than one, the guy takes a magic marker and initials the cap. "C" for Cabernet or "F" for Friuli or whatever.

Don't get me wrong, I am aware that these are not the finest Italian wines. But for an everyday table wine to drink with dinner, you can't beat it.

#5 - Church bells. I never got tired of the bells ringing out from the Church of Santa Maria Formosa, even though I never figured out exactly what they meant. Sometimes the bells tolled at the top of the hour, sometimes at five minutes before. Or perhaps they started at five minutes before the hour, then continued to chime for five straight minutes.

The only time the church bells actually served a time-telling purpose, from what I could tell, was when they chimed exactly 15 minutes before the start of Mass. As it turns out, this was exactly the amount of time I needed to roll out of bed, put on some clothes and run across the campo, sliding into a pew just as the service began.

Although we found the endless ringing of church bells to be romantic, this point-of-view is apparently not universally held. One day we strolled home from the vaporetto with the left-leaning dean of the university. When the bells began to clamor, he scowled and stated: "The Church shouldn't be allowed to fill the air with this noise pollution!" Left-leaning indeed.

#4 - Spritz. The spritz is the quintessential Venetian drink: prosecco, fizzy water and bitters, with a lemon and an olive. Use Campari for a strong bitter flavor, or Aperol for a milder flavor. The flourescent orange color makes this cocktail unmistakeable, being sipped in cafes starting around 11am until sunset. (After dark, Venetians switch to wine.)

Going out for an early evening spritz became an integral part of our routine. Especially when we had guests in town, it was a very civilized (and affordable!) way to reconnect at the end of the day, sampling different bars in the neighborhood, hanging where the locals hang, drinking what the locals drink.

Full disclosure: at any given time, I am more likely to order a prosecco than a spritz. But I can drink prosecco anywhere; it is the spritz I am going to miss.

#3 - Commuting by boat. I am in no position to complain about my commute. Back home in Somerville, it takes exactly ten steps to get from my bed to my desk, and I have never ever been late for work. Not once. But that does not mean that I'm not going to miss my daily excursion on the #20 vaporetto to San Servolo: strolling across the campo and through the narrow alleyways; gazing across the lagoon to the monastery of San Giorgio Maggiore; motoring across the waterway while the grebes and cormorants fish in the wake.

Since the university is located on an island in the lagoon, everybody takes the #20 vaporetto to get there - faculty, students, everyone. So it is inevitable that you run into somebody you know on the boat. And it's not uncommon for students to show up for class late because they missed the vaporetto. No, this never happened to me. But I'll never forget the time that I glanced back at the dock as the vaporetto pulled away, and there was the dean, waving frantically at the departing boat. The driver did not turn the boat around, but all the students did wave back.

#2 - Funny faces in the architecture. Venice is full of surprises. The more you pay attention, the more you notice that every alley takes an unexpected twist or turn, every building has a back entrance. And every structure seems to have a mascot, a crazy-looking creature overlooking the entryway or a funny face peering out from the edifice.

I wonder what happened to the art of incorporating whimsical beasts into architecture...? I wonder what my neighbors on Parker Street will think when I have a demonic dragon carved into the foundation of our house...?

#1 - The Stipend. Who wouldn't miss a secret stash of cash in the underwear drawer? And none of the worthless green stuff. We're talking about real money: Euros.

Seriously though, you gotta love a system where the monthly stipend comes in the form of an envelope stuffed with small bills (reminiscent of some other countries where I sometimes travel). By the way, did I mention that I'm going to Moscow next month?

Friday, May 16, 2008


Venice, Italy - It's my last week in Venice. Funny how it sneaks up on you. Four months seems like such a long time - certainly enough to see just about everything this city has to offer - and then suddenly it's almost over and you've only done a fraction of the things you intended.

In my case it really did sneak up on me, as I decided in the beginning of May that I would leave earlier than expected. Back home, our housesitters had to return to California and Fritty the Kitty would be abandoned. Plus, I liked the idea of spending some time at home before I have to turn around and go back to Moscow this summer.

So suddenly, I had only two weeks left in Venice. The month of May had seemed practically infinite (especially since my Italian class was nearly finished so I would have no commitments other than sight-seeing). Then suddenly it seemed practically gone.

But I did my best to cram as much as possible into my remaining time: overnighting in Bologna; entertaining three sets of out-of-town visitors; hosting a party for the students (from both Jerry's classes and my class); doing a day-by-day tour of the art museums I had not seen yet; and visiting some of the other islands in the lagoon. Whew - that was exhausting!

My personal highlights from the last-minute cramming session:

Peggy Guggenheim Museum This turned out to be my favorite museum in Venice. It is housed in the Palazzo Venier dei Leoni, which is itself an oddity. Construction of the Venier palace was never completed, so unlike most of the edifices lining the Grand Canal, it is only one storey high. It is significantly smaller than any of the other palaces in Venice, but in my opinion, it is the perfect size for an art museum: you can see and appreciate it all in an afternoon without OD-ing on art. It has twelve or fifteen rooms filled with Ms Guggenheim's collection of 20th-century art, as well as a lovely, shaded sculpture garden.

Peggy Guggenheim was a curious bird. She dedicated her life to buying and selling art, especially embracing Cubism, Surrealism and Abstract Expressionism. According to one account, she vowed to "buy a picture a day" and it seems that - for a time - she met this quota. She was clearly enamored of the bohemian community that surrounded her, and she tapped into it for many love affairs, as well as business and artistic investments. The latter, at least, paid off.

In 1949, she bought the Palazzo Venier, where she lived. Two years later, she opened her home to the public to share her art collection with the world. She is now interred in the garden, alongside her beloved canines. The ecclectic collection features a slew of artists, but it's known especially for its pieces by Pablo Picasso, Max Ernst (her second husband), Jackson Pollack (of whom she was a particularly strong supporter) and Tancredi (one of many Italian futurists). My personal favorites were the Calder mobiles and sculptures.

Burano This is the island where they make lace and cookies, not to be confused with Murano, the island where they make glass. I had been to Murano with my parents and I have to admit that I was a little disappointed. Basically, it's filled with shops selling glass souvenirs. It's mildly interesting to see the glass being made, but nobody goes out of their way to teach you anything; they only go out of their way to sell you something.

But that was Murano. Burano is a different scene, with fewer tourists and fewer shops. It is possibly the most picturesque place in Venice, its quiet canals lined with houses painted in primary colors. I arrived late in the afternoon, so the soft light was gorgeous, highlighting the vibrant colors and casting reflections on the canals. There is not a lot to do on Burano, except walk around the snap photos, so that's exactly what I did.

Now the countdown is really on. My final days are slotted for shopping and packing. My next blog will be posted from the pink house in Somerville MA.

Sunday, May 11, 2008

Wedded to the Sea

Venice, Italy - Oh Lord, keep safe your faithful mariners from storms, sudden shipwreck and the perfidious machinations of wily enemies. With these words, the doge would cast a ring into the water, symbolizing Venice's marriage to the sea.

These days, the mayor performs the ceremonial task. But the vows are nonetheless renewed every year on the Feast of the Ascension, the second Sunday in May. Venice gained control of the Dalmatian Coast in 998, an accomplishment that was commemorated with much fanfare on Ascension Day. Now, over 1000 years later, the Catholic feast is still the day to celebrate the city's role as "Queen of the Adriatic".

We missed the ring toss, but we did take a tour of the old Arsenale, which is supposed to date back to 1104. For hundreds of years, this place was the world's most advanced shipbuilding center and most powerful naval base. Even Dante referred to it in the Divine Comedy (apparently it was a hellish place to work).

The Arsenale is open to the public only on special occasions like Ascension Day. Our visit confirmed that the fortress is not really protecting any military secrets. Rather, the place has an air of industrial ruin. I think they keep it closed because there is nothing to see inside.

Aside from the wedding, Ascension Day also hosts a more recent water-themed tradition: the Vogalonga. Now in its 34th year, the "long row" is a non-competitive, long-distance regatta. According to its organizers, "the Vogalonga is an act of love for Venice and its waters, for its lagoon and its islands, for rowing and its boats." Thousands of oarsmen power their boats along the 32km route, which winds around the islands and through the canals. It's a chance to see not only the traditional racing boat, the gondolina, but also the ceremonial disdotona and the recreational diesona. (For a great overview of all the traditional Venetian boats, see www.veniceboats.com).

In its first year, the regatta was described as "the revenge of oars over engines". The wave motion caused by boats is one of the most destructive elements in Venice. Speed limits are rarely respected by motorboats, and gigantic cruise ships and ferry boats displace massive amounts of water. This constant crashing of waves and wake eats away at the foundations of the palazzi and piazzi that line the lagoon and canals. The Vogalonga is a symbolic gesture by all the oarsmen - not only to honor their maritime roots, but also to stand in solidarity with their city and its heritage.


Friday, May 9, 2008

Baloney Sandwich

C'e una vecchia cartolina che dice che Bologna e la citta delle tre T: torri, tortellini e tette.

Bologna, Italy - An excerpt from a text that we read in Italian class: "There is an old postcard that says that Bologna is the city of the three Ts..."

Torri Back in the day, meaning the 12th century, anybody who was anybody erected a tall tower to prove it. All of the fanciest families built their own, for a total of 180 skyscraping structures, standing high above the rest of the city. These days, only about 15 of the towers remain. These famous "Two Towers" overlook the Piazza di Porta Ravegnana. The tall one, the Torre degli Asinelli, is nearly 100m high, and you can still climb the 500 or so steps to the top. Its next door neighbor originally rivalled its height. However, this leaning tower was trimmed by nearly half to prevent it from toppling over.

Tortellini Namesake of such specialties as Bolognese sauce and Bologna sausage, this city is serious about food. Amongst its many nicknames, it is known as La Grassa, or "the fat one". The pasta of coice is tortellini, which is supposed to have originated around here. These tiny shells are traditionally stuffed with parmesan, prosciutto and mortadella, served in broth or topped with a cream sauce. Alternatively, the larger tortelloni are often stuffed with ricotta and spinach or something more scintillating like walnuts or pumpkin. Of course, while in Bologna we also ate tagliatelle al ragu, which is a flat ribbon-like pasta topped with the traditional tomato-based meat sauce. The verdict: the hand-made pastas were delectable; but the ragu did not compare to my husband's scrumptious Bolognese sauce!

Tette When we learned about Bologna in Italian class, ths was the one "T" we didn't recognize. By way of explanation, our instructor cupped her hands underneath an imagined hefty bosom. "Tette," she said with emphasis. Apparently the women of Bologna are known to have big breasts. The instructor explained that this is related to the irresistable cuisine -- all that tortellini with cream sauce makes for curvaceous bodies. Honestly, I did not notice if this was the case when we were in Bologna. However, I did notice the majestic bronze statue that is the centerpiece of the Piazza Maggiore. Neptune is flanked by four seductive sirens, who are not shy about their tette.

Aside from the three Ts, Bologna is famous for its university, which is supposed to be the oldest in Europe. The streets are lined with arcades, which adds to the academic air. We stopped by the Palazzo del Archiginnasio, which housed the university from the 16th to the 18th centuries, and perused the coats of arms of the esteemed professors. The city is also known for its lefty politics, so you can imagine that some people in my family felt right at home.

Strolling the streets and seeing the sights in Bologna makes a person pretty hungry. We stopped by a well-stocked deli to put together a picnic. When I asked the signor behind the counter if he could make me two panini with mortadella and mozzerella, he looked like I asked him to sacrifice his only son. "Che orrore!" he exclaimed. He informed me that if I wanted a panino with mortadella, it should have only mortadella and nothing else. Much to his relief, I changed my order (and I was not disappointed). Like I said, this city is serious about food, even something as simple as a baloney sandwich.

Monday, May 5, 2008

The Tuscan Run

Tuscany, Italy - It's a holiday weekend and Tuscany is overrun with tourists. We are based in Siena, which is absolutely lovely first thing in the morning. But by 10am, the narrow streets are filled with groups of senior citizens with matching red scarves, following a lady who holds a big umbrella high overhead; the grand Piazza il Campo is carpeted with bodies soaking up the rays; and suddenly, we are feeling claustrophobic, as if all the tourists followed us from Venice.

We armed ourselves with a book of walking routes around Tuscany, and we hopped on the first bus that would take us out of Siena. That's how we found ourselves in Montalcino, a medieval town that sits high in the Tuscan hills, surrounded by vineyards producing the celebrated Brunello.

But even Montalcino was packed with people. So instead of looking at churches and fortresses, we followed a walking trail accross the hills, through the vineyards and olive groves, ending at abbey of Sant'Antimo, just outside the village of Castelnuovo dell'Abbate. This is what I imagined Tuscany to be - 12th-century churches in the middle of green and yellow hills under blue cloudless skies. I was thrilled to be outside, breathing the air, working my muscles, escaping the crowds and drinking in the countryside.

We missed the last bus out of Castelnuovo, so we hitched a ride back to Montalcino, where we had a couple of hours to sample the local reds and buy a few bottles to stock our future wine cellar. That is my house project this year: a wine cellar. And what a perfect excuse to "invest" in some of the local vini!

Our first walk met with such success that we decided to repeat it the next day. This time our route would start in the tiny town of Pienza and end in magnificent Montepalciano. Unfortunately, there was only one bus from Siena to either of these towns - in the early afternoon - so we got a late start. But afterall, we needed the morning to figure out how we would be able to get home. It required interviews with no less than four representatives from various public transportation institutions before we finally figured it out. (See my previous post about the importance of asking the right question when dealing with public transport.)

Pienza is another walled medieval town perched on a hilltop. Besides a Romanesque church and an old palazzo, there is not much to see. Nonetheless, the place was swarming with tourists (mostly Italians enjoying their holiday weekend). Pienza is the center for the production of pecorino cheese and that's what everybody seemed to be doing: buying and eating cheese. So we did the same; we got pecorino and salami sandwiches for our picnic lunch, as well as a chunk of cheese to take back to Venice. Then we slipped out the southeastern gate and hit the road.

Once again, the countryside was achingly beautiful - more cultivated than the previous days, but the same deep greens and blues. Entire hillsides were covered in yellow canola flowers, red poppies or pink sainfoin. Ocassionally we would pass pecorino farms (distinguishable by the grazing sheep), small olive groves and old stone houses that look like they have stood there for centuries.

We descended from Pienza, crossed a valley and came to the tiny town of Montechiello. We did not mean to actually go into town, but we missed our turn and found ourselves there. This misstep would prove to be crucial in the end; but at that time it was a nice place to take a break and eat our sandwiches.

From there, we descended into the next valley and climbed (straight up!) the other side, from where we could see three medieval towns, all of them perched on their respective mountaintops all across the landscape (Montecchiello, where we had come from; Montepulciano, where we were going to; and Montefollonico in the distance). At times the panorama was 270 or even 360 degrees of fertile valleys and blue skies. Our destination - Montepulciano - looked like the Emerald City, a fairytale castle at the top of a mountain, with gorgeous green vineyards and farmland tumbling down the mountainside all around.

Unfortunately, however spectacular, this walk was taking longer than we hoped. While we were not in danger of missing our bus, it didn't seem like we were going to have much time in Montepulciano. In fact, we bolted past the majestically sited San Bagio church, at the base of the mountain, stopping only briefly to ask the shortest route. Then we practically sprinted the last 20 minutes, straight uphill into town. We dutifully climbed up to the Piazza Grande, the highest point in town which is the center of activity. Alas, that is not where the buses come and go, so then we had to run back down the other side.

At least we got to see Montepulciano - and I even managed to snap some photos as we zipped through. (New concept for inclusion in the next guidebook: Running Tour!) No chance to buy a bottle of wine, though. We'll have to pick up a sample of the vino nobile back in Siena. We know where it came from originally.


Thursday, May 1, 2008

May Day, May Day

Siena, Italy - Italians take May Day seriously, especially the transportation sector. The receptionist at the hotel in Florence examined the bus schedule for a full five minutes, hemming and hawing as she tried to decipher it. She finally made a mysterious phone call, then hung up the phone and declared that there would be no buses running to Siena today. She offered to look up the train schedule, but I was not really impressed by her research methodology, not to mention her conclusion, so I declined.

As we approached the train station, I saw a bus parked in front of the entrance. It was the same company that is supposed to operate the route to Siena and other parts of Tuscany.

"Is this the bus to Siena?" I asked the driver in Italian.

"There are no buses to Siena today," he answered.


"None. You have to take the train."

I entered the train station, which was packed. The line at the ticket window seemed to be miles long, so I decided to have a go with the automatic ticket machine, which would at least show me the train schedule.

What luck! The machine informed me that a "train-line" bus would depart for Siena within a half-hour. And, for the first and only time in my personal Italian train history, I was actually able to use one of those machines to buy a ticket.

But now I was confused: the train ticket machine had sold me a bus ticket on a day when everybody agrees there are no buses!

I took my ticket back out to the front of the station, where the driver was still standing beside his bus. "Do you know where this departs from?" I asked, showing him my ticket.

He glanced briefly at my ticket. "It departs from here in half an hour."

"From here?" He nodded. "To Siena?" He nodded. "But why did you tell me there are no buses to Siena today?"

The driver shook his head. "But that's not really the bus," he insisted, pointing to my ticket. "That's really the train to Siena."

No engine, no conductor, no tracks. "But it's a bus."

"But it's the substitute for the train."

Maybe the bus driver was a little bitter about having to work on May Day. Or maybe - as is so often the case in Italy - I was just not asking the right question. Which in this case would have been "Is this bus the train to Siena?".

Anyway, I didn't care what you call it as long as it would get me to Siena. Which it did.

We couldn't help but wonder if the city of Siena has anything to do with the Crayola colors "burnt sienna" and "raw sienna". These shades of orangey-brown are found throughout the city, in the buildings that clamour up the hillsides and line the cobblestone streets. Did Crayola name their crayons after a Tuscan town?

I decided to investigate this question. I learned that sienna is a kind of clay that contains natural pigments in these brownish hues. Raw sienna is the unprocessed pigment. When it is treated with heat, it takes on a more reddish hue, or burnt sienna. Once used for cave paintings, the pigments are now used to produce oil paints (but probably not crayons). In centuries past, the region of Siena, Italy was a major source for this pigment.

A visit to Siena offers a journey back in time - not only to the 12th century, the heyday of the Sienese political prowess and architectural magnificence - but also to the 1970s, the heydey of my crayon creativity.

Aside from the Crayola-colored skyline, there is an over-the-top ornate duomo and a spectacular scallop-shaped piazza. Moreover, one can see some relics of St Catherine of Siena, patron saint of Italy. (In Rome, we had visited the church where the rest of her body is interred, but her withering head is on proud display over the alter of the Church of San Domenico, right here in Siena.)

Most importanly, Siena serves as a base from which we will explore Central Tuscany. Provided - of course - that I manage to ask the right questions!