We have numerous friends who have encouraged us to visit Italy, but for some reason, it never "made the list". Earlier this year, we decided to pick a location and find out why everyone raves about Italy when they return. We settled on the Tuscany/Umbria area and started the search for a place to stay. After looking at numerous properties on the web, we settled on Calboccia located just outside Umbertide. Our choice was primarily based on the web site (http://www.calboccia.com) and a couple of conversations with the owner, Jan Behrsin, who lives in California. It sounded like just what we wanted, so we booked our space. As with most things on the web, we could only hope that it would live up to expectations.

Once we have that settled, it's time to learn something about the area we plan to visit. That means a call to our friends Rich McFall and Kath Kremer who owned TravelDen in St. Louis. They put together a box of guide books, maps, a video, a language tape, etc. Everything we need to start planning.

It's the morning of the 10th, and we head to the airport. Our route is Charleston to Charlotte and then on to Philadelphia. We meet Nicci in Philadelphia and find a place for lunch. On to the gate and we leave for Rome about one hour late. What a great plane! We're on the new USAirways airbus and it's hard to believe we're in coach. Each seat has its personal screen and free access (including the head phones) to movies, tv shows, and music. And, warm towels before meals, choice of entrees, free wine and liquor. This is coach class???

We arrive in Rome about 8:30 AM and then the search begins. First, we need to find our luggage. Wow - police with Uzzis all over the airport. And drug sniffing dogs? Guess we're not in the U.S. anymore. We locate the luggage, get through customs and find the rental car office. Once we determine how to get the car into and out of reverse, we leave the garage and head to the highway. Fortunately, we have great directions and we're on our way to Calboccia. We find the autostrada and stop to call Sestilio Polimanti, the person who manages Calboccia for Jan. We make plans to meet him at 3 PM so that he can show us to the property and explain how everything there works.

The countryside is beautiful, but as we head north, we realize we are on the road with complete maniacs. Signal before cutting abruptly in front of someone? Why would you? There are certainly no rules here! We pull off at Perugia and try to find lunch. All we find is a traffic jam and the Golden Arches. Back on the road for a short hour and we find the exit to Umbertide, our destination. As we exit, we see a trattoria/bar and decide that this will be the place for lunch. We park, go inside where it's very chilly so we all sit down still wearing our coats. It immediately becomes obvious that we are the only non-locals in the room. While each of the groups that arrive after us immediately orders, the waitress takes one look at us and brings menus - in English yet! We carefully read through them and then point to our choices (our waitress does not speak any English and we're not up to trying any Italian). Despite the language barrier, we did well - everyone orders pasta. Nicci has pasta with mushrooms, Allen has tortellini with sausage and a creamy tomato sauce and I have gnocchi with ragu. During lunch, it became clear that this is a lunch spot for the locals. Everyone knew each other and the staff new what their customer's wanted to eat. And even though we stuck out like a sore thumb, everyone was very friendly and helpful.

Fed and happy at last, we ride through Umbertide and toward Niccone. Looking at the map, we realize that we're headed toward Calboccia. Even though it is only 2:00, we call Sestilio and he quickly arrives to meet us. We head up the road to Calboccia, and it is definitely at the end of the road. We travel on pavement through the countryside, then turn onto a dirt/gravel road. As we head up the hillside, we pass several farms and the road becomes one lane. Finally, we reach Calboccia. It is well worth the drive!

View from Calboccia View from Calboccia View from Calboccia

The space is beautiful, and exactly as pictured on the web site. Sestilio is very thorough and explains everything about the house, the utilities and how they work, etc. He also provides us with a detailed map of Umbertide on which he has noted ATM machines, gas stations, restaurants, grocery stores (along with times everything is open) - all the things a tourist will need.

The entrance to Calboccia The entrance to Calboccia

We quickly unpack and realize that we should drive back into Umbertide to visit the grocery store since it is closed on Sunday. Unfortunately, it is now about 5:00 PM on Saturday and no one has had any sleep since Friday morning, U.S. time. However, back in the car, back down the mountain, and onto the store. We have no idea what an event this simple task will be!

The first step, finding a parking space, took over 10 minutes. Evidently we managed choose the time of day when everyone in Umbertide shops for the weekend. We finally park and then the next challenge - the shopping carts? There are plenty of them outside, but you have to pay to unlock them. This would require coins of which we have none. Allen and I were a little taken aback at the thought of "purchasing" a shopping cart, but Nicci told us that it's quite common in Miami. Supposedly, your coin is returned when you put the cart back into the corral. Oh well, we decide that with three people and only a few items to pick up, we can do without a cart. Wrong, wrong, wrong - we'll never try that again. Not only do you need the cart to use as a buffer to keep from being run over by other shoppers, even with six hands, we have trouble carrying (after finding) the pastry for breakfast, bread, water, tp, paper towels, juice, napkins, wine, etc. We find an empty box that was left by someone shelving products and we grab it to use as a "cart".

We make it to the check out line and think we're doing well. Nicci spots a sign that says they take credit cards, so we won't even have to figure out what we owe. Looking better all the time. Suddenly, we realize we're getting "the look" from everyone behind us as we juggle all of our purchases. Trouble - we realize the bananas should have been weighed in produce. The checker slowly wanders off to weigh them and very slowly returns. By then the looks are getting rather hostile. We don't discover until later that not only did we commit the sin of not having our produce weighed, we helped ourselves to endless amounts of plastic grocery bags. How were we to know that they charge for each bag and no one charged us because we were so efficiently bagging our purchases while the clerk was weighing the bananas? Perhaps the "bag thing" should be highlighted in guide books?? We quickly head out the door and promise ourselves not to return at prime shopping time.

Back up the hill to Calboccia and we put things away - and, fix a much needed drink. Everyone showers and changes and we head to La Chiusa for dinner. We meet one of the owners, Claudio, who takes our orders. We had hoped to take cooking classes at La Chiusa while we were in the area, but alas, they are not available this week. It was interesting that when we first arrive at the restaurant, everyone having dinner was American. It was after 9:30 PM when a large group of Italians arrived. Obviously, we are all used to eating earlier and since we were still sleep deprived, we thought we would be lucky to get through dinner. We all have the squash soup with crostini and salads. Allen has stewed pork with mushrooms and a side of potatoes. Nicci and I try the "chickling" which we think is guinea hen. Loved the bread and we all pass on dessert.

Home to crash and die.

Sunday, November 12

After being up for 36 hours, we really sleep in. Nicci beats us up by almost two hours. We (this is a first) get up at 11:00 AM?? What an event! We have breakfast and take turns at mastering the hot water for showers - all with varied levels of success. This will be a continuing challenge. Sestilio explained in detail the operation of the water, but each day at least one of us gets it wrong. At least we don't waste a lot of time on lengthy showers since we frequently run out of hot water. But, finally we're off to tour.

Since half the day is gone, we opt for places that are close to "home". We visit Montone, a beautiful walled city not far from Umbertide. We walk the area and decide to look for a restaurant recommended by the owner of Calboccia. After several attempts, we give up and wander into a pizzeria (or so we thought). It was obvious, once again, that we were the lone foreigners. The owner/hostess is very gracious and brings menus. We spend considerable time choosing pizza only to find that pizza is an evening meal. We all recall reading this fact in various guide books, but no one remembered at the time. Back to the menus. Luckily, we have the food dictionary with us. We end up with an assortment of bruschetta, assorted cold meats (prosciutto, etc.), salads and for Allen, veal scallopine. It is all excellent and we finish every bite.

View from Montone

Streets in Montone Streets in Montone Streets in Montone Streets in Montone A View in Montone

We waddle out and get back in the car for a short trip to Citta di Castello. As we reach the town, we stop for gas and get our first shock - $25.00 for half a tank in a Fiat? Citta di Castello is another beautiful walled city with numerous people, most with families, all walking and visiting with each other. We tour and watch the crowds. We also stop to see the beautiful merry-go-round at the edge of town - lots of children are riding and obviously having a wonderful time.

A View in Montone

It is time to return to Calboccia before Angela arrives with dinner. We had made arrangements with Sestilio weeks prior to our arrival to have Angela bring dinner to us one evening. This is yet one more wonderful aspect of staying at Calboccia. We return to the house, turn up the heat (more on this later) and get out dishes for dinner. Allen tries to start a fire in the HUGE fireplace, but the wood is too wet to catch. At 6:30 PM, a little earlier than expected, Angela and her son arrive loaded down with food.

They set up shop in the kitchen and decline offers of assistance. Within 30 minutes, we are called to the table. What a meal!!!! There are two kinds of pasta - one with a ragu sauce and one fresh artichokes (we all fall in love with this one), chicken in a tomato sauce, the most incredible yellow peppers with onions, spedini, mashed potatoes and huge servings of tiramisu for dessert. Angela and her son depart and we sit down. Everything is wonderful and there is enough food for at least six people. We finish and refrigerate all the leftovers. We're so full that we share one of the pieces of tiramasu and quit for the evening.

We sit for awhile to talk and all agree that we'll get up earlier on Monday.

Monday, November 13

The alarm goes of at 7 AM. We turn up the heat and slowly get moving. No one slept well - probably a combination of jet lag and the gale force winds that were blowing all night. Showers (the water challenge again) and some breakfast before we head to Siena. In case you don't know, tiramasu with strong coffee makes a great breakfast according to Allen.

We drive over a noticeable mountain (and by an incredible castle) and then drop down by the train station in Terontola as we drive to Siena. Once we arrive in the area we face the first challenge of the day; exactly where is the town and where will we park? After a couple of hit-and-miss events, we find the center of town. And our luck gets even better - we find a great parking space that just seems too good to be true. It is. We inquire at a store across the street and find that parking inside the walls is for residents only. We move on to find a legitimate parking space and thankfully find one quickly. Next challenge - the parking is coin-only and we have one coin among the three of us. Allen and Nicci go off in search of coins and meanwhile a guy who is obviously in charge of parking (and making change - of course) arrives. He seems to understand that I am waiting for someone with change, but keeps watch on the car anyway. Once Nicci and Allen return with change, we're off to tour.

The Castle on the hill

We walk into the main area of Siena, which is beautiful, and wander around. We arrive in time to tour a couple of museums and churches before the noon closing.

A View in Siena A View in Siena

A View in Siena The Opera in Siena

We manage to stumble across a restaurant recommended in Bon Appetit and it is excellent. We share a plate of mixed bruschetta. The toppings are fresh tomato, cheese with anchovy, liver pate, and mushroom. We all have salad and then Nicci goes with the tagliatelli with porcini as her entrée. Allen and I have canolli (cannelloni to us) that is not in pasta tubes, as we expect, but in squares. It is very good and the sauce is excellent. Allen samples the mixed gelato/sorbet option for dessert - chocolate, vanilla, and lemon. We continue to tour until it begins raining and then we head to the car. We make the trip back across the mountain and we're home. Allen gets a beautiful fire started, but the fireplace doesn't seem to draw properly and soon we have to open the windows to get rid of the smoke. Oh, well ... a good try. There are so many leftovers from Angela's wonderful meal on Sunday that we have more than enough for dinner. Enjoy the evening, make some plans for Tuesday, and we head to bed.

Tuesday, November 14

It's cloudy today, but not really cold. We have some breakfast and head to Cortona. We're running a little behind, as usual, but we find it easily, as well as a place to park with a wonderful view of the valley. We walk into the center of town. What a beautiful place (my favorite so far) with spectacular views in all directions. As we walk higher and higher, up very steep hills we can't decide if the shins or calves will hurt the most tomorrow ...

The view from Cortona

We tour, and once again find we're in time for lunch. We stumble across a great place, La Saletta. What a terrific lunch! Allen and Nicci order different types of crostini and I decide on bruschetta. I assume the bruschetta will be small, so I order two different ones. When they arrive, I find that they are instead very large. One has melted aged mozzarella topped with raddichio - very good. The second is killer. Mild goat cheese topped with halved grape tomatoes and arugula - incredible. Nicci has taleggio and prosciutto with porcini, also excellent. Allen goes for the more unusual option - wild boar prosciutto, green olives and cheese topped with chopped lettuce. The wild boar prosciutto is truly awesome. All were winners and we hope to return. We did find it interesting to be sitting in a small Italian restaurant in Cortona and nearby is an Oriental woman reading a copy of the YaYa Sisterhood.

The entrance to Cortona Scenes in Cortona

One of the most interesting aspects of wandering through the neighborhoods is the assortment of doors. Front doors in Italy are not just the entrance to the house, they are an artistic statement!

The doors of Cortona The doors of Cortona The doors of Cortona

Since everything is closed for the next few hours, we decide to drive on to Montepulciano. As usual, we're not sure which road to take, so we wander around the edge of Cortona looking for road signs. We believe that we obviously need to head down the mountain, so when a road appears going that direction, we take it. Uh, oh... it's a dirt road. This is not a good sign. Even worse, it's barely one lane wide, with an elderly man walking exactly in the middle of the road who doesn't appear to hear the approaching car. We don't want to blow the horn and scare him, so we wait a bit and he finally notices us and steps aside. (We later assume he is laughing at the thought of crazy tourists headed down a road that is going nowhere.)

We see the entrance to a private residence and pull in to turn around. Now things really get exciting. The space is so small, and the drive so narrow that turning around seems impossible. The small stone wall behind us doesn't help matters. It rapidly becomes obvious that this is a multi-person operation. Allen gets out to assess the situation and directs as I creep back and forth a few inches at a time. After a number of these maneuvers, we're turned around; fortunately with no damage to the car. Not having driven a stick shift in several years probably didn't help the situation.

We slowly head up the road again, passing the elderly man (who is no doubt really laughing by now). We're almost to the top when another car heads our way. Close call, but we're up on the main road again. We wind our way down the hill and pass a cemetery (or mausoleum) that we saw from Cortona. We stop to take a look. It's huge, with photos of all the people buried there placed, with flowers, and frequently various types of flames, on each of the individual tombstones or crypts.

Scenes in Cortona

As we near Montepulciano, the weather worsens, so we grab our umbrellas and head up the hill into town. It is now very windy with intermittent rain. We walk to the top of town, and most things are just beginning to re-open. We find a great museum to wander through (and use the bathroom). That particular stop was a little more exciting than planned. Allen, thinking he was flushing the toilet, pulls the emergency call cord and a museum employee rushes up to see if there is a problem. She is very gracious about the mistake (it probably happens frequently). We stop for a glass of wine to recover from the excitment, and wander back to the car.

Back at Calboccia, we collapse, have a drink and make a decision about dinner. We drive into Umbertide for pizza at a place recommended by Sestilio. It's very nice and the waitress speaks excellent English. We order three pizzas, all with different toppings to share. The mixed salad was unusual - kernels of corn were part of it. Home again and in bed at midnight.

Wednesday, November 15

Today we've decided to stay around the Umbertide area. For breakfast, we have some of the biscotti we picked up while we were out yesterday, along with the killer coffee Allen has been making each morning. We drive into town to visit the Wednesday market. Lots of fruit, greens, meat, gorgeous artichokes, etc. We sample the highly recommended porchetta sandwich (perfectly cooked and flavored pork pulled from the pig). Everyone is right, it is excellent. We do some shopping and it begins to rain. We decide to lunch at a place recommended by the owner of Bussati's fabric store (where Nicci did some Christmas shopping). Nicci tries the ravioli with sage, Allen does chicken breast topped with mozzarella and tomato and I have pasta with mushrooms.

The Market

We run some errands - the most "interesting" one is a stop by the post office for stamps. Luckily, the woman waiting on us does a great job with sign language. We finally accomplish the purchase of some airmail stamps. Her impressions for postal services are an airplane vs the option of a swimming fish and this is the only reason we ended up with the right postage for airmail. We try to buy gelato at the highly recommended local spot, but we find it is closed for renovation.

On the way home, we stop in one of the fields to look at the olive trees. It appears to be harvest season, because several trees have netting around their base and in many of fields, people are climbing through the trees and shaking branches to make the olives fall. When the nets are full, the olives are gathered and placed into large bags.

The olive groves The olive groves The olive groves

Home to relax for a little while before heading back to town for dinner. The restaurant for the evening is Terra Marique. It is just inside town in the cellar of a building. When we go in, we find that we're the only people there, which is a little disconcerting. Eventually one other couple arrives, but that's it. The service and the food are excellent. We receive a complimentary glass of sparkling wine and read through the menu (with dictionary in hand). There is a little confusion about the order in which we expect the food to arrive, but it all works out eventually. Allen receives the bruschetta we are planning to share, as Nicci and I receive our entrees (steak for her and sea bass for me). Allen's mussels with pasta and sea bass make their appearance almost as the other dishes are to be cleared. We try a Brunello that we all enjoy. Back to Calboccia to plan the big trip to Florence. Nicci is leaving early due to a commitment at home, so we plan to tour Florence and then drop her at the train station for the trip to the airport in Rome. Plans are made, the alarm is set and we're in bed.

Thursday, November 16

We know this is going to be a busy day, so we're up at 6 AM. Nicci has her luggage ready to go, and we're off to Florence. I am the driver this morning - wow! 140 km in a Fiat is really travelling. Even then, people are honking horns and flashing lights for us to speed it up. We're on the outskirts of Florence by ~9:30 and then we look for the exit to the train station. That goes well and we find the parking garage. But finding a space is another story. All the spaces appear to be taken, and we don't understand how to move to other levels. At last (it's now 11 AM) we're parked and outside. We then get tickets and take a bus to the museum. Don't even ask why...

We start with the Gallerie Academe which alone is worth the trip. To see David is truly an experience. The Pieta is obviously very impressive, as is most everything on display. It is at this point we discover that Allen's camera - a 30 year old Nikon, has lost it's light meter. No photos for the rest of the trip. We stop for lunch before heading on to our next destination. Salads, ravioli, risotto, bruschetta - we all do quite well with our choices.

We walk over to the Uffizzi; the building alone is astounding. We tour a fair amount of the exhibits and decide we can fit in an hour of shopping before going back to the train station. Nicci is scheduled on the 7 PM train to Rome with a change to the airport train. She will spend the night near the airport (the bonus is a shower with consistent hot water) and catch the morning flight for Philadelphia.

We part company. Little do we know that Nicci probably has the easier trip in front of her. We leave Florence about 6 PM. We are hopelessly lost trying to find the A1 to Rome. Lots of wrong turns, etc. We're finally out of Florence by 7 PM, onto the A1 and we think we're doing well. None of the exits look familiar and suddenly we see the exit for Oriveto???? We know we're in trouble now. We get off the A1, pay the toll and ask the toll taker for directions to Cortona. We get our directions (in Italian) and we're back on the A1, now heading north. A couple of wrong turns, but by 10:30 we find Cortona. We park and pray that something will be open. It's been a long time since lunch... We're in luck. The place we had lunch at a couple of days ago is not only open, but very happy to fix dinner for us. We have a wonderful meal and decide that we can now find our way home again. So it's only 2:00 in the morning, it has been a nice day.

Friday, November 17

After our very late arrival, we sleep in until 9 AM. After breakfast and showers, we're able to make it to the photography exhibit in Umbertide before they close for lunch.

The sun is out, so we walk around town for a bit. We drive back to Montone and lunch again at the pizzeria. This time we have antipasto, bruschetta, salad and deep fried olives. All of it great and then it's time for another walk around town. We drive back to Calboccia and walk around the area there. It is truly beautiful and we're sorry to be leaving tomorrow.

Since we know it will be an early start to get back to the airport on Saturday, we start packing and have a drink. Sestilio arrives to check the meters, etc. Luckily, Angela arrives with dinner while Sestilio is still with us so we get a couple of recipes translated. Of course, the first thing we learn about the food is that not only does Angela make her own pasta, she presses her own olives for oil. Angela gets to work in the kitchen and the results are spectacular. We thought the first meal was impressive, but this one is just as awesome.

Tonight we have crepes with a mushroom cream filling, lasagna (homemade noodles that are more like crepes than pasta, pork cooked in milk with peas, small sausages with steamed greens and an incredible tart shell filled with chocolate. We will hate walking away from the leftovers, but Sestilio will arrange for someone to come by and pick them up.

Saturday, November 18

We're up at 5 AM for the trip to the airport. Fortunately, this drive is well marked and even we can't get lost. We make it back to the Hertz return and settle with them. Into the airport and stop for coffee to go with our biscotti then wander on to the gate. The flights back are on time and very pleasant. Great to get home again and see Max the Tibetan, who seems to be happy to see us again.

And now, we will start planning our return trip...

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