If one is going to visit the La Verna Sanctuary, might I recommend not doing it on a hot summers day? Instead, go in January. But only if it’s misty, mysterious, and if you have proper time to wander through the forest and around the buildings, wondering if the monks get the same eerie feeling that you do.
After all the excitement of the holidays, who wouldn’t want to escape to this Tuscan hillside? Especially after a doozy of a year like 2017 has been, going off-grid seems necessary. I may have to talk BV into an extra-long weekend here… we could both stand to unplug for a few days. In fact, that was part of our plan for this New Year’s, but sadly it wasn’t to be. Hopefully we can get back sometime soon though… I miss those rolling hills.
Here’s to a calmer 2018… and thanks again for reading along this year!
Tuscany doesn’t always look like the photos in the fancy travel magazines. Sure, there are lots of golden fields and buildings crumbling under the (Tuscan) sun, but sometimes it’s downright foggy. At least, that’s what we found on a walk around La Verna a few years ago.
To be honest, pretty much every time I open my laptop or turn on my phone these days, it makes me want to run off into the forest. Since
we I can’t do that, and since I can’t quite put so many of my thoughts on the world’s events into words quite yet, today’s picture is just going to have to suffice.
Some bloggers are kind enough to post regularly, and keep their readers up-to-date on all the goings-on in their lives. I…. am bad at it. December was chock-full of things to do at work, things to do at home, things to do out and about, and so here we are with more than a month between posts. How time flies when you’re having fun. Or doing mountains of paperwork… could go either way in my case. But luckily I’m nursing a massive hangover from a little too much New Year’s celebration last night, so post time!
Since 2013 is coming to a close, I thought I’d take a cue from every other blogger out there, and try to figure out what in the world I’ve been up to all year. So hop on into your time machines and let’s journey on back…
We rang in 2013 in Tuscany with hiking, sight-seeing, and eating more than anyone should probably ever eat. Thankfully we even saw the sun in Italy, because we supposedly had the darkest January on record back in Germany. It was looooong and dark.
I have nearly no recollection of February or March. I’m guessing the weather was still crappy and I protested it by watching too much bad TV. In good TV news though, my episode of House Hunters International finally aired, and Courtney and I didn’t seem like total spazzes, much to the relief of friends and family.
The clouds lifted and we celebrated with some weekend drives to the Franconian Switzerland.
Germany came out of hibernation, which meant it was time for my balcony to get prettified. I also found the cutest Gartenhaus in history.
We took another drive to the Franconian Switzerland, where I made a tiny friend.
Across the street from the horses, we visited the Felsengarten Sanspareil. Today it’s a forested park filled with huge rock formations, a natural theater (above), and wandering paths, but in the 1700s it was a pleasure garden.
Katie, my old Prague friend, visited from the States over BV’s birthday weekend. We took a big group beer hike, and Katie made friends with some locals.
May ended with us on a plane bound for San Francisco. We had a great time visiting my college friend Aaron, before we hopped another plane to spend a few days in Las Vegas with my friend Courtney. We wrapped up the trip with a week in Wisconsin. We did some hiking, visited German history at Old World Wisconsin (above), and I stood up in my friend Angie’s wedding. I even managed to not completely botch my Maid of Honor toast, thank goodness. At the end of June, my great-aunt and great-uncle stopped in Nürnberg on their European river cruise, and we gave them the local tour.
In July we visited my friends in the village and their ever-growing menagerie. The goats always provide some entertainment if the kids, rabbits, and cats are too boring for you. We took an accidentally long hike and found this crazy purple field, before we spent the evening at a local wine fest which could give Oktoberfest a run for its money in the crazy department.
Another weekend was spent hiking in the Allgäu, where I found one of my happy places. With marmots!
I turned 30 in August, and decided the only possible way to deal with that number was to run away from civilization for a few days. We drove to Berchtesgaden, spent a day at the Königsee, and then the next few days hiking up and down the Watzmann. We also hosted a small barbeque with friends to celebrate, lest anyone think I’m an anti-social weirdo.
Of course, September means Oktoberfest, and this year I even made it there on opening day with the ladies. It was such fun that I even went back a few days later when my buddy Karl was visiting us for a week. He charmed our table mates and pledged to come back as soon as possible. We might even get him to buy some Lederhosen before the next visit…
BV and I also celebrated our first anniversary, and prepared for moving in together. Somehow I seem to have acquired a lot of stuff for a person who moved abroad with two suitcases….
I officially moved out of my apartment in October, and in with BV. We also took a trip up to Gladbeck for a family party, I got to meet a bunch of his extended family, and learned that dance parties can go all night even if I can’t.
BV and I took an impromptu trip to Brussels and I absolutely loved the city! We will definitely be going back, because we didn’t get a chance to do all the museums and touristy things we had planned on.
One thing we did manage to do was drink a lot of tasty Belgian beer, including this one for the pretty price of €15 per bottle. Thankfully it was delicious, and got us bonus bar snacks. They were very necessary as the beer has an insane 10.2% alcohol content.
The reason for the Brussels trip was a concert, and it was great show! I’ve loved Jimmy Eat World for years, but never got a chance to see them live until now. It was well worth the drive to Belgium, so thanks guys for the excuse!
December was spent buried in a sea of paperwork, and hunting for additional work for 2014. I came up for air a few times though. My village friends visited Nürnberg for an afternoon at the Christmas market, and a week later I visited them (and goats) at their new place outside Regensburg, so we could do a little cookie-baking.
BV and I got our Christmas tree and the tree man even remembered us from last year.
Work finally ended and I got to spend some time enjoying the city. Christmastime in Nürnberg is really nice, but I’d advise against coming on the weekends….
BV and I spent our second Christmas together with three days of family celebrations. We hosted his dad and brother on the second day and I introduced them to some exotic American specialties… or, biscuits (thanks for the recipe Allie!).
We ended the year at our favorite Greek restaurant in the city, eating and drinking far too much. Clearly far too much, as I’ve spent most of today horizontal. Ouch.
Looking back at all this, 2013 was a pretty darn good year. Here’s hoping 2014 is the same… and best wishes to all of you reading!
Happy New Year…. any favorite moments from 2013 to share?
The original plan was to do a New Year’s Day hike, but unfortunately the weather was a bit gray and wet. Instead we postponed a few days and waited for the sun to come back out. The chosen destination was the Croce di Pratomagno, or the highest point of the Pratomagno mountain range, near Arezzo in Tuscany.
It’s an easy hike, along a gorgeous rolling ridge with views of the Tuscan hills giving way to the countryside below. We took a slightly easier route, driving most of the way up the mountain on a very windy road that only made me slightly carsick. I would also recommend having a lot of faith in your car to make it up that road in winter, as the last bit is unpaved, and there was a lot of water as well as snow/ice as we got up to the top. The climb from the parking area to the summit was the steepest part, and a bit rough straight out of the car. Needless to say, our legs were stretched pretty quickly. We didn’t have an exact plan for the hike, and just wandered along the ridge for about an hour and a half. Then we turned back, went back to the summit, and then wound our way along the side of the hill back to the car.
To the summit:
|Northern mountains in the distance: Photo courtesy BV|
|Photo courtesy BV|
|Crazy snow at the top: Photo Courtesy BV|
|Croce di Pratomagno: 1590 meters|
A long walk on a long path:
|Great light: Courtesy BV|
And on the way back to the car….
|Clouds rolling in: Courtesy BV|
|Friends far ahead…|
|And one BV behind.|
|Pictures of pictures: Courtesy BV|
|He took this one too. I’m in there somewhere.|
|I just think this is dramatic: Courtesy BV|
|Back down at the car park.|
As you can see from the pictures, it’s not a tremendously high or steep climb. I think you can walk for a pretty long way along the ridge, and the trails that join it as well. I got pretty whipped on the way back, but I think that was something to do with all the heavy food we’d been eating the last few days. Plus being that it was January, I hadn’t exactly been doing a lot of outdoorsy/physical stuff in the previous weeks. That was recipe for one tired Heather.
After the hike, we did a half-hearted search for an open restaurant, as one of our group members was ravenous and craving pasta carbonara. Unfortunately for all of us, it was mid-afternoon and if you’ve been to Italy you know that mid-afternoon is NOT the time to try and find real food. You’re better off grabbing some bread and hoping that holds you over until everything reopens for dinner. So be warned!
Since it’s not a super-hardcore hike, I wasn’t able to find a whole lot of information as far as directionals, but if you want some info on the Pratomagno, you can check this out.
We decided to make a few “city tours” on our trip, so three of the days were spent in some of the nearby Tuscan cities. Needless to say I have a lot of pictures, but I’m trying to cure myself of picture overload, so I’m going to give you three pictures from each place. Three cities, three pictures of each, hence, Tuscany in Threes. Let’s give it a shot!
First up was the city that most people hit when they head to Tuscany: Florence.
Everyone posts a picture of the famous bridge, the Ponte Vecchio (Old Bridge), when they go to Florence. But this is the view from the Ponte Vecchio. A nice day, wasn’t it? Truth be told, we were on and off the bridge very quickly because despite the grey skies and the January rain, it was still packed with tourists. In fact it was even more dangerous due to all the people wielding umbrellas. Add that to the amount of jewelry shops on the bridge and watch out! Danger around every corner.
Of course another Must-See in Florence is the Duomo, or, the Basilica di Santa Mario del Fiore. (Got all that?) If it had been a nicer day, it would have been great to climb a neighboring tower to get the view of the Duomo and the city roofs from above. But alas, grey and rain prevailed so we opted to stay on the ground. This was also another one of those churches where it’s impossible to get a good picture of the whole facade, so sorry about that. The exterior of this church is really just beyond words, and it certainly has earned its reputation as an artistic wonder.
One of our after-dinner stops was the old pharmacy in Church of Santa Maria Novella, which claims to be one of the oldest pharmacies in the world. Nowadays it sells lots of very expensive-looking perfumes and other such things, but there are still old pharmacy wares on display, and a really gorgeous interior to admire.
Something we didn’t get to do in Florence was visit the famous art museum, the Uffizi. We were hoping that in January the line wouldn’t be too bad, but when we got there and saw the line running the length of the (fairly long) building, we decided that our time was better spent visiting the city. We stopped for a coffee and decided to poke our heads into the Museo Galileo next door, and found ourselves occupied for the next couple of hours. If you have any interest in technology and the evolution thereof, and find yourself in Florence, go check it out! Disclaimer: I didn’t love the room full of cross-sectioned models of pregnancy. That kind of freaked me out. But other than that, there were some cool things… be sure to keep an eye out for Galileo’s freakishly long finger….
Next up on our city tour list was Siena:
We got to Siena in the early evening after a few hours at a natural thermal bath near the city. Unfortunately because of the time a lot of the shops were already closed, and we only had time to poke our heads into one church. But if I want to do some shopping in Tuscany, I will be coming back here. There were a ton of interesting looking little places, and who couldn’t love a window display with a stuffed boar, a snacking fox, and enough garlic to ward off an entire army of vampires?? Amazing.
We did find a few places open, which was lucky because we didn’t have a reserved breakfast at our apartment the next day and so we needed to stock up on some hams and cheeses. Everything in this shop looked incredibly delicious, and some of the packaged pastas looked like artwork!
To me, Siena was much more like my idea of a typical city in Tuscany. Even by night you could see all the brown stone that would look so warm in the sun. I was also a big fan of their Christmas lights they still had up. There were some truly impressive light displays in Italy, but most of them were so bright and flashing that they were almost seizure-inducing. Siena was just lovely.
I’m happy we went to Florence, and I’ve been assured that we didn’t even see most of it, but I liked Siena more. Just an evening of wandering the narrow cobbled streets was enough to make me want to come back. Admittedly we had lousy weather in Florence, but there were so many tourists there that it was difficult to appreciate the city. Especially while dodging umbrellas. I’m sure I’ll give it another shot, but Siena is without a doubt on my “to re-visit” list. We saw the Duomo from the outside, but it looks like it’s worth a trip inside so that’s on the list as well. You can never see enough churches, right? I also saw something rather amusing while there, but there will be another post to come on that matter…
The third city on the list was the closest to where we were staying, and that was Arezzo:
We purposely waited to visit Arezzo until Saturday which was our last full day in Italy. On the first weekend of every month in Arezzo they have one of the largest antiquities markets in all of Italy. This is NOT your average flea market. Think gorgeous antique wooden furniture, paintings, books, jewelry, and almost anything else you can image. I’m not normally a huge “flea market” person because I’m not a fan of digging through stuff. This was something else. If I ever have a house (you know, like a normal person), I’m coming straight back here to furnish it. And it’s not just a few stalls; this market literally fills the entire old city. Every time we thought we found the end, we turned a corner and it kept going. So much so that we had to take a lunch break in a restaurant that I didn’t feel fancy enough to be in. Which is maybe valid, given that it was recommended to us by a market vendor, who was setting up his outdoor lunch with take-out containers, but real glassware, dishes, and cloth napkins that the restaurant provided. That’s Italy. Take note, Olive Garden.
The market really deserves its own post, but in the event that I don’t get to that, you can see some of the wares in these photos. Spot anything odd in the second one?
Although I wasn’t in the market for an old scuba helmet, my friend and I were on a mission to scout out the jewelry. I did find an amazing antique cocktail ring that haunts my dreams. Leave it to me to find something I loved that was waaaaaay beyond my spending limit. Gah. I wasn’t alone though, because the ring that my friend really liked was even more. Ouch.
|Photo courtesy of BV. His are better than mine. 🙂|
After we were all antiqued-out, we headed away from the city center in search of an old Roman coliseum that was marked on our city map. When we got there we found a fence around the site, but an open door directed us to a visitor’s center. They’ve had to fence it off due to vandalism, but if you go inside and ask, someone will come out, open the gate, and just hang out and wait while you have a good wander around. So there we were, checking out the Roman construction techniques, figuring out where the ancient hot dog stand was from the smoke marks, and admiring the different kinds of stonework. We were the only ones inside, and I wouldn’t be surprised if we were the only ones there the whole day. When we left, we tried to give the woman a little money as a donation, but she wouldn’t even take it.
After the coliseum we went back towards the city, stopping a few food stands to buy some truffle products. Then we managed to find even more of the antique market that we hadn’t seen, so it was a long, slow, walk back to the car. There was another church that I’d like to go back to and see, as they had some fantastic-looking frescoes, but the exhibit was already closed for the day. Arezzo was much like Siena in that it was more my “idea” of a Tuscan city, and I think there was a lot more to see that we didn’t even get to because we were so busy treasure-hunting. If you can get there the first weekend of the month, it’s well worth a trip to this market. But if you can’t, Arezzo is well known for its antique and art shops, that are hopefully open the rest of the month.
|Not a bad view on a January morning.|
You already know that we ate some fantastic food over our New Year’s vacation, but today I’m going to give you a little peek into where we stayed. The accommodation was about as far from a typical hotel as you can get, but in this case it was not a bad thing. Some friends of BV operate a Ferienwohnung on the side of a hill in Tuscany, so that’s where we stayed.
|Dining area in our house|
A Ferienwohnung is a ‘holiday apartment,’ and they have three or four of them on the property. BV and I stayed in the largest one, which had a kitchen, bathroom, sleeping area for at least five people, and the biggest table. This meant that all of four of the shared meals were held in our house.
We traveled with some friends, and their apartment was a bit smaller, and would only sleep two comfortably. All the apartments are heated by wood stoves which have some major pros and cons. Pros: they smell good, they get very warm, and you can throw all paper garbage right into the oven. Cons: they smell a lot and so will your clothes, and as my friend said, “it’s like a test baby.” Meaning that you have to get up every two hours all night, or you will have a very cold wake up call. Tuscany in January is much warmer than Germany, but still pretty chilly at night. Brrrr.
All the houses were furnished in a mish-mosh of objects, from the dishes to the bedding. Even the tiles in the kitchens and bathrooms were a mix of “normal” tiles, to pieces of mirror or mosaic tiles. (I slacked… I forgot pictures. But the bathroom floor was fascinating). There was something interesting to see everywhere you looked in the houses. If you didn’t bring anything to read, there were tons of books from previous guests (as long as you didn’t mind reading in German), and even some board games that had been left behind. Schwabach Tycoon, what?? Who knew.
|Can you see me in the door decor?|
|Hand-painted accents were everywhere.|
But if you’re in Tuscany, you don’t want to hang out in the house, right? Well if you thought the inside of the flat was interesting, you were in for a treat outside. My old sculpture professor would have called it “found object art,” and that’s about all I can say.
|Lots of cairns. Loooots of cairns.|
|What vacation doesn’t need a swing?|
|That’s the front of our house in the background.|
|These jugs were all over as well.|
|Outdoor dining area as art (those glasses are glued down).|
|Enormous nativity scene|
|Tibetan flags featured heavily as well.|
|View back up towards our house. Two more are behind the trees.|
|Oh, I miss that sun.|
So that’s a glimpse into where we stayed. This kind of a place probably isn’t for everyone, but it’s an experience to be had. So if you are into Tuscan hillsides, wood stoves, found objects, good food, and don’t mind driving 15 minutes up a potholed dirt road, this might be your kind of place. German skills are encouraged though, just as a warning. There are a lot of stories at the top.
In that spirit, I only photographed the last meal we had in Italy. Four of the seven nights (including New Year’s Eve), we opted to eat dinner at the place where we stayed. Initially I was a bit nervous about committing so much time to the unknown cooking skills of two people I had never met, but BV assured me that it would be worth it. And oh, was it. With that, let me present our last meal...
Yes, that is a menu for a meal in Italy, but in German. Tricky.
First off: we have mixed crostini. There was pate, herring, sausage, tuna, tomato sauce, stuffed peppers, and home-made pesto. I passed off the herring to BV, but rumor was that it was very good. The first course always came with an aperitif as well, which you can see in the middle glass. This time it was a simple glass of aperol, but every day was something different.
Our last night was the only night when we didn’t have soup as the second course. All the soups were home-made and they were fantastic. Leek soup was probably not something I would ever order on my own (I’m slightly scarred from my mother’s forays into home-made soups when I was a kid), but it was delicious. But on our last night, sadly no soup was to be had. The ravioli was a great replacement though. A spinach and cheese-stuffed ravioli, topped with lightly cooked fresh sage, and some of the best fresh Parmesan cheese I have ever had. Mmmmmm…. We had a good hour-long sit after the second course and it still wasn’t enough. If we had stopped after this, I would have been okay. So. Much. Food.
An hour between courses is plenty of time for more wine though… here you can see the giant two-liter bottles that we could buy for ourselves. Wine was included in our NYE meal, but every other night, you were responsible for your own drinks. But the bottle was only 10€, so it was easy for BV and I to go through three in the week. I‘ve never been a huge red wine drinker, but I think this trip convinced me otherwise.
The main course was of course meat, and this night was beef and roasted vegetables. Simple and yet perfectly done. Again, I have an aversion to stuff like this thanks to my mom, but this beef was the furthest thing from dry. And the carrots? Perfect. I managed to finish my veggies, but could only get through two-thirds of the meat. So. Much. Food.
An hour later, it was time for dessert. As I said, I hadn’t managed all of my main course, but you better believe, I rallied for dessert. Dessert was a little taste of Germany, in the form of a sweet plum dumpling. And yes, it was absolutely drenched in butter and cinnamon. Other nights we had mascarpone, and a panna cotta that has basically ruined all other panna cottas for me. To the point when, at a restaurant, we saw panna cotta on the dessert menu and opted not to order it because we didn’t want to taint the memory of the one we had before. It was that serious.
Some of the other treats we enjoyed included: deer, wild boar, the aforementioned soups (leek, potato, and pea…. I think), salmon, rosemary roasted chicken, polenta, truffle pasta, truffle mashed potatoes, and lastly, biscotti dipped in Vin Santo (a sweet Italian dessert wine).
Honestly, it’s a miracle that I’m even hungry a week later. The only problem with this was that when we went to do other activities – namely, a hike – it would have been a lot easier to do the first day and not after three days of eating all this food. As my great-grandma would have said, “Uff da.”