Quick Tip: Where to Stay and Eat in Siena, Italy

I totally forget who was asking for this information, but here is the skinny on Siena, Italy from my stay there:

This restaurant is one of my favorites in all of Italy, which is saying something:

Taverna San Giuseppe

I seem to remember an antipasto that we seriously considered ordering again and just canceling our main dishes. Luckily, we didn’t do that, because the rest of the meal was ecstasy.

And this hotel is AMAZING and not hella expensive:

Palazzo Ravizza

We stayed in an INSANE room there. INSANE. Ridiculously high beamed ceilings, winsome writing desk by the window, bathroom bigger than most kitchens and tiled within an inch of its life.


Greenways Italia: Nothing But Flowers

Don’t you just LOVE IT when a public works project actually benefits the people, and they also do it right when it comes to informing the people about it? I do. That’s why I want to discuss Greenways Italia.

That website has an adorable English language icon at the top corner, but apparently it’s just for show – so I’ll fill you in via this description from moleskinecity.com:

March 2 marked the first national day of the abandoned railways, a cultural initiative to recover the abandoned infrastructure, and promote more environmentally friendly tourism. There are more than 5000 kilometers of abandoned railroad, and many of them are being transformed into Greenways, bike paths, and hiking trails. This initiative aims to increase public awareness, and protect the cultural heritage of these forgotten railways. It highlights the importance of promoting tourism consistent with environmental standards and sustainable mobility.

Which is awesome. And there’s a great overall map on that moleskine link showing Greenways locations throughout Italy. But the thing I really love about Greenways is its website – specifically, the itineraries. The organization has chosen five distinct routes of varying lengths, and have given you pretty much all the information you’d ever want to know about them:

  • The technical stuff – distance, time on bike and by foot, type of surface, best times of year for the location, types of users (rollerbladers, bikes, etc.), suggested sites along the way.
  • Description – a delightful tour through the entire trail’s historic sites, flora and fauna, information about the abandoned stops along the way.
  • Map – by Google, of course, darlings.
  • “A little history” – telling the tale of the building, life, and ultimate demise of the route as a railway. Fascinating, poetic, better than Cats.
  • I just spent 20 minutes trying to find the old ad that phrase came from – “better than Cats” – if I am remembering correctly, it was a New York local ad for a musical, the kind they used to do where they’d interview people coming out of the theater. That’s where that phrase came from; the full one, I believe, is: “I loved it. It was better than Cats. I’d see it again and again.” Either that, or it was an SNL parody of those ads. God, those ads were always so awesomely lame. I miss my Dinkins-era New York!
  • Useful information – how to get to the beginning of the Greenways route by car or by train + bike.

It looks like they’re still updating the site with other routes, and I’ll keep checking back to the site and will let you know when it’s in English. But if you’re going to Italy and you’re interested in biking, blading or walking trails, Greenways Italia is definitely the site for you!

Group Therapy: Renting a Villa in Italy

When I’m feeling lonely for my friends back home, I get the urge to (first, become rich) and (then) rent a villa in Italy for an entire summer, and invite them all to stay with me. I imagine long days in golden sunlight, cooking experiments with fresh food, lazy afternoons chatting and cocktailing by the pool, and at least one crazy night out and about in the nearest major city.

I’m pretty lucky in this regard – no, I am not rich; but I must admit that of my closest friends, not one of them would be annoying during this imaginary summer of love. As for as my criteria go, they would be my ideal villa mates:

1. No picky eaters. We use real butter, we eat meat, and carbs are our friend. No one in my gang sits at the end of the table nursing a bowl of weeds.

2. No camp counselors. Everyone enjoys sleeping as little or as much as they want, and doing whatever they want in their waking hours. I will not be awakened and recruited into mandatory sunrise yoga.

3. No slobs. If someone thinks it’s alright to leave food on the floor and underwear on the couch, then they’re springing for the daily housekeeping service.

4. No cheapskates. If we’ve worked out a group budget, we’re sticking to it. No one is going to only drink one bottle of wine the whole week or complain that Katie ate all the cheese. United we stand, and all.

5. No whiners. We are all incredibly fortunate to have the time, the means and the motive to commit this crime of sybaritic luxury. There is no boredom in paradise.

In terms of the actual villa – I’d say these would be the most important criteria:

1. Bedrooms for everyone. You don’t want to have to tiptoe around bodies in the living room.

2. Lots of kitchen space. I personally have visions of a huge stone cook’s kitchen, but I’d settle for lots of counter space for food prep and bottles, and an open plan so whomever’s cooking isn’t stuck away from the fun.

3. Outdoor areas. A large table with plenty of chairs is key – as is that area being covered. You don’t want to be cooped up in the house, and you don’t want to have to run inside with all the plates and bottles if it it starts raining.

4. Check out the possibility for a cook and/or maid during your stay. Many villas offer it, and it’s worth it to work this into your group budget for at least half the time you’re there. You don’t want to experience the chores of a home just because you’re staying in one.

5. Your location. As I’ve said before, sea trumps all – but that’s just me. And the further south you go, the easier it will be to take advantage of their off-season rates while still having nice weather. Many people love the rolling hills of Tuscany, and it is lovely; but I get antsy if I’m not near water. Also, being near the sea can mean foregoing a pool within the villa grounds.

Now that the bitching is over, let’s take a look at this paradise of which I speak:

This gem of a place in Montepulciano has plenty of room for 10 people, a pool, and an open kitchen plan. And at $4758 per week, that’s $67 per person per day. Not bad!

I’m hyperventilating about this place on Ischia. For nine people, it works out to $82 per person per day in the off season. But, their high seasons are very narrow, so it’s entirely possible that this one is very doable.

Cinque Terre boasts this lovely perch, for six people only $70 per person per day. I’ll see you there on that magenta sofa, where I’ll be gazing at the sea.

I’ve actually stayed here. I had the poolside apartment to myself and had one of the ten best sleeps of my life. I don’t want to know how much it is, because I wasn’t paying for it – but here’s a picture to prove it!

The Slow Movement: You Move Too Fast

I’ve been on a kick recently where I make notes on topics I’d like to write about during the week, and then on Sunday I write them all, so I simply have to go online every day and post one.

However, yesterday Cal and I got off to a very lazy start and kind of eased off; we got a lot of movie watching and Internet surfing done, but none of my pieces got written.

And now I’m coming up on several deadlines, so it isn’t going to happen today, either. But! I shall not disappoint Miss Expatria’s fans! One of my topics for this week – and a favorite of mine for a while – is the slow movement. From the world’s informer, Wikipedia:

“The Slow Movement first began when a protest against the opening of a McDonald’s restaurant in Piazza di Spagna, Rome sparked the creation of the Slow Food organization, as well as developing into a subculture in various other areas, Slow Travel, Slow Shopping, and Slow Design, just to name a few.”

I love this idea. I love seeing it in action, as I have in several places here in Europe – some intentional, some having never changed because “slow living” has always just been called “living.”

So, for your perusal, take a Slow Monday to check out the following links on slow living – and then try to put some of it into action!

“Slow Food is a non-profit, eco-gastronomic member-supported organization that was founded in 1989 to counteract fast food and fast life, the disappearance of local food traditions and people’s dwindling interest in the food they eat, where it comes from, how it tastes and how our food choices affect the rest of the world.”

“The World Institute of Slowness was created entirely as a medium for those that wish to communicate with others together learning the slow way of life.”

This article talks about Italy’s well over 40 Slow Cities. Inspired by the Slow Food movement, Cittaslow‘s page on Wikipedia lists slow cities in several EU countries.

Slow Food USA! Go get ’em!

“In the tradition of such trailblazing books as No Logo and The Tipping Point, In Praise of Slow heralds a growing international movement of people dedicated to slowing down the pace of our contemporary times and enjoying a richer, fuller life as a result.” (There seems to be another version here, so check out both, I guess. No matter which version you choose, any book that starts with the sentence, “On a sun-bleached afternoon in the summer of 1985, my teenage tour of Europe grinds to a halt in a square on the outskirts of Rome” can’t be all bad.)

“Slow Cities must comply with a 54-point Charter that outlines the goals of the movement,” says this interesting article.

You can live the slow life, no matter where you are. Start today – pick up the freshest foods you can find, turn off the computer and the news and the TV, and make yourself a slow meal tonight with someone you love!

Craving Bagels: A Love Story

Bleeding Espresso is a blog I have come across, and I love love love reading it. Sognatrice is her name, Italy is her game, and she writes with a passion for that country that gives me goosebumps – like this recent one about Calabrianfolk music.

It was this post that took my breath away, as it reminded me so much of my own post on the same subject. And here I am, thinking I’m all by myself in this life!

However, it was her bagel recipe that ensured her a spot in my heart. You see, bagels are pretty much non-existent here, and when you do find them, they tend to be very expensive and not really like you want them to be. But, as she says, sometimes you really crave something to smear cream cheese on – especially in Italy, where one can find the worlds only real cream cheese.

Visiting friends from New York have known to not cross my threshold unless bearing at least six Ess-a-Bagels. I have taught my gay mafia about the joys of these plump little balls of doughy love, and they now crave them too. I am the devil.

My first experience with bagels on this side of the pond was in a coffee shop in London whose name I forget. I grabbed one before flying home to Montpel. It cost me more in sterling than my phone bill that month, but it was worth every chewy, doughy bite.

Next was The Bagel Shop in Barcelona. These are heavenly, and come with a variety of toppings. I eat a bagel every single morning I am in Barcelona, without fail. YUM.

Viola, the only girl I know in Italy and my former roommate, has a carrot cake obsession that has taken her to New York twice, and keeps her ever vigilant for this tasty treat. She breathlessly called me one day to report that not only had she found carrot cake – she had found bagels. In Rome. At the cleverly named Jospehine’s Bakery, in the fittingly named Piazza del Paradiso. Their bagels are teensy tinsy, hellatiously expensive, and absolutely perfect.

Then – like manna from heaven – came the news that our very own chichi patisserie here in Montpel – Louis, it’s called – was carrying bagels. I immediately ran over, and sure enough – there they were, a gleaming fresh stack of bagel sandwiches. I breathlessly asked if I could buy a half dozen of the bagels plain, not in sandwich form.

The girl looked at me like I had half a dozen heads. Then came the answer I have come to hear all too often in this ridiculous country: “C’est pas possible.” This is not possible.

I said I could come back in the morning, before they made them into sandwiches. “C’est pas possible.”

I suppose I could buy a sandwich, scrape the shit off it and rebuild it with my own treats. But it’s just not the same.

The Bureaucracy of Baby Names

Every Wednesday, several of us get together for what I call “Girls and Gays Night,” and what Fiona calls “Tapas Anonymous Meetings.” Whatever they are, no heterosexual men are allowed. We meet at our favorite wine bar, order plates of tapas and drink Tempranillo wine.

One of the weekly participants is Vik – she is a Liverpool scouser who has lived and worked all over the world – from a madame at a brothel in Australia to a waitress at a Tokyo hostess bar to the manager of a five-star ski resort in Switzerland. She is a living legend, and at the moment she is very, very pregnant. She goes out exactly once a week – to see us – and she has exactly one glass of wine. She treasures this one glass of wine like one would a diamond tiara, or a fleeting glimpse of a unicorn.

Inevitably, the subject arises of the fact that she and her husband have not yet chosen a name for son number two. And inevitably, among each week’s newest choices, up crop our favorites. Fiona has decided no matter what the baby is named, she will christen him Otto. I joke that with the first son being named Hugo, they sound like a German vaudeville act.

My suggestions are all jokes on her married surname – Capon. I’ve suggested Pan Fried, Honey Glazed, and Boneless. She laments that her husband’s surname is a delicious food, and insists she would have kept her maiden name if she had known beforehand. But, she says, she couldn’t name him a joke name even if she wanted – French law prohibits it. Her husband must go to city hall and ask for approval of their son’s name – and until 15 years ago, could be turned down if the name wasn’t French, let alone a cooking technique.

At this point our discussion dissolves into rants about the French, although it’s well-known that the law has benefited many children whose fathers, after several rounds of congratulatory pastis from their friends while on their way to City Hall, would have named them after famous footballers regardless of the sex of said child.

This morning, I saw this article about Italian authorities refusing to allow a baby christened Venerdi – Friday – to keep the name. Apparently, these bureaucrats are worried that the boy will have a life of misery because he’ll be unfavorably compared to a character by the same name in Robinson Crusoe.

I forwarded the article to Vik. She replied, “Well, at least they’re well read over there.”

Italian Pronunciation – Cities

Hello dear hearts. I’ve been getting a lot of queries lately about how to pronounce the names of Italian cities – so, without further ado, let’s pronounce them correctly!

As explained in previous pronunciation guides, my pronunciation spelling overcompensates for the American pronunciation of the letter “e.”

Rome = Roma = ROAM-ah

Milan = Milano = meal-AH-no

Venice = Venezia = vain-AITZ-ya

Padua = Padova = PAH-dove-ah

Naples = Napoli = NAH-pole-ee

Bologna = Bologna = bowl-OWN-ya

Florence = Firenze = fear-ENZ-ay

Sicily = Sicilia = see-TCHEEL-ya

Turin = Torino = tor-EEN-oh (Olympics flashbacks)

Assisi = Assisi = ahs-SEE-see

Capri = Capri = COP-ree (Yes. Really.)

Ischia = Ischia = EESS-kya

Cinque Terre = TCHEEN-quay TAIR-ay

And, as an added bonus, other places we know and love:

Paris = Parigi = Pahr-EE-gee

London = Londra = LOANED-rah

Nice = Nizza = rhymes with pizza

Barcelona = Barcelona = Bahr-tchail-OWN-ah

United States = gli Stati Uniti = let me just say something here about “gli.” It is the WORST SOUND EVER to try to pronounce if Italian is not your native language. The closest I can come to is this: make your tongue go into position like you’re going to say “yes.” Keep it in that position, but instead say, “lee.” I know. It sucks.

Anyway. Just say, “America” and you’ll be fine.