A memorable lunch at Avignonesi

I submitted this post to the contest organized by the Great Wine Capitals Network and I was among the finalists!

– I think that this might be our exit but I’m not sure-, I said tentatively. I could never tell whether the signs indicated an exit or a service area. I’m not a very good navigator and Italian road signs got the better of me every time.

– What does the sign say?-, my husband Sean asked.

– Cortona. But it has a petrol pump next to the name so I don’t know if it’s a service area or an exit.

We drove past the sign, which turned out to be the exit we needed to take to get to Avignonesi winery in Montepulciano. The 138 kilometre drive south from our agriturismo in Montespertoli had not gone very smoothly; road works on the autostrada forced us to take many detours and our GPS did not work well, if at all. We had to rely on maps, unclear road signs and sheer good luck. Getting lost was an integral part of our trip. The beauty of the rolling Tuscan hills in early spring, however, didn’t do much to soothe our nerves. This was our honeymoon and, like many newlyweds, we bickered a bit. Except we’d been married for a while.

A spring storm rolling in on the valley
A spring storm rolling in on the valley

Naively, we thought that we could drive a bit farther, take an underpass and go back. That was not to be. We had to go on for at least another 25 kilometres and then take inner country roads all the way back to the Cortona exit. Only then did we find the winery.

We were 45 minutes late for the tour. A very sympathetic member of the winery’s staff said that even Italians got lost trying to get there too and that we were not to worry. She kindly offered to take us to the Vinsantaia, the Vin Santo cellar, where we could catch the tail end of the guided tour. We joined the tour party as they were walking into the cellar.

Vin Santo is a dessert wine typical of Tuscany made with Malvasia and Sangiovese grapes. We learned that at Le Capezzine estate, the grapes are carefully harvested, selected and laid out on reed mats. Then they are pressed and the fermented must is stored in 50 litre caratelli (Slavonian oak kegs.) Two litres of mother yeast are added to each caratello and left to age for ten years. This makes the Vin Santo sweet, dense and stable. The cellar smelled of oak, yeast and the love and devotion with which the wine is made.

A view of Le Capezzine estate at Montepulciano
A view of Le Capezzine estate at Montepulciano

Afterwards, we were shown to the Foresteria, the light and airy dining room with beautiful views of orchards and rows of vines down the valley. We sat by ourselves in a corner table, away from the slightly noisy German tour party. The waiters were very attentive and knowledgeable. I think they liked us: we got a second pour here and there. It could have been the fact that we were on our belated honeymoon eight years after our wedding that endeared us to them.

This memorable lunch started with un benvenuto dallo chef, the Chef’s welcome: a glass of Il Marzocco Chardonnay Cortona DOC 2013, which woke our taste buds and made them ready for what was to come. For primo, first course, I chose the gnocchi with fresh fava beans and cherry tomatoes. The gnocchi were light and airy and the fava beans provided the right amount of freshness and piquancy. Sean had the pasta with lamb and eggplant sauce. The flavours were simply perfect; the lamb ragú was flavoursome but not overpowering. We washed it all down with an opulent Vino Nobile di Montepulciano DOGC 2010 (Sangiovese) and a spicy Grifi Toscana IGT 2010 (Cabernet Sauvignon, Sangiovese).

Foresteria, a dining room with a view
Foresteria, a dining room with a view

The secondi were just as delicious and enjoyable as the primi: filet of beef, perfectly seared on the outside and rare on the inside, with a wine sauce and a silky chickpea mousse with pecorino cheese sauce. The wines paired with these delectable dishes were a 50&50 Toscana IGT 2006 (Merlot, Sangiovese) and a Riserva Grandi Annate Vino Nobile di Montepulciano DOCG 2007 (phew, that’s a mouthful!) I couldn’t say which wine I enjoyed more.

The star of the meal was the dessert wines, the Vin Santo and the Occhio di Pernice. Each of us chose a different wine so we could try both. The waiter poured a small amount of slightly chilled Vin Santo in a big snifter and tilted it. He told us to roll the glass gently and let the wine coat the sides while the legs formed on the crystal like golden tendrils. The Vin Santo was sweet and dense as it should be. Every small sip was a like a punch of flavor in the face. I had fresh strawberries with whipped mascarpone with it.

Occhio di Pernice and the Tentazione dessert sampler
Occhio di Pernice and the Tentazione dessert sampler

The Occhio di Pernice was an experience in itself. The waiter poured what seemed like a few drops that got lost in the snifter. Very slowly, it began to gather at the side of the tilted glass. If the Vin Santo was sweet and dense, the Occhio was even sweeter and denser, almost like molasses, with an intense depth of flavour. A couple of drops were enough to coat my mouth. It was cleverly paired with an assorted platter called Provocazione: fried sage leaves (unexpectedly delicious,) fresh goat cheese with poppy seeds, dried blood orange slices, dark chocolate with ginger, a spoonful of homemade blackberry gelato, a rosemary and walnut biscotto. Every flavor either contrasted or complemented the wine perfectly.

After this memorable experience, I was feeling lethargic and mesmerized by the spectacle of low storm clouds rolling in from above the valley. An espresso put an end to my wine and food induced stupor and gave me the energy I needed to continue exploring the Tuscan countryside. What a wonderful way to celebrate our marriage.
I am not affiliated with the company in any way whatsoever. This is an account of our experience.

Postcards from Pisa

I’m trying to figure out how to operate the parking meter but my Italian isn’t good enough to understand the instructions. A young African street vendor comes up to me to try and help. I instinctively raise my hand to stop him. It makes me nervous when a stranger offers unsolicited help; I can’t help but think they’re going to rob me. I feel guilty as soon as he turns his back. A middle aged woman tells me, in English, that I need to enter the number plate.

I want to win the war on prejudice but I sometimes lose battles.

pisa

We walk toward the Campo dei Miracoli, the Field of Miracles, to see the famous leaning tower. The neighbourhood is rather touristy, with hotels, restaurants and tourist tat. I’m not sure I like Pisa. It’s small and squat (the Leaning Tower can be seen from the autostrada and it’s only 17 feet tall.) The outskirts are definitely ugly. Ugly buildings, houses, shops, signs, streets. To my mind, the place lacks the gilded glamour La Dolce Vita.

The sun sets over the Campo, the brisk breeze blows away the last of the clouds. There are quite a lot of people around, walking, looking around, chatting, photo bombing.  A few have their photos taken trying to “prop up” the tower. I think I’ll pass, thank you very much.

pisa

We stay long enough to visit the Duomo and sit down for coffee and delicious orange cream cannoli. This is the Italy I came for!

You need a ticket to visit each of the historic places: the cathedral, the cemetery, the baptistery and the tower. For some unknown reason, admission is free today. I’m not going to complain. The Duomo is imposing; however, I find that the interior is not quite so awe-inspiring except for the altar and apse. They are beautiful.

pisa

Later, we buy stamps from a newsagents and mail postcards to our families. In this day and age when everything is virtual and electronic, it’s nice to go old school and send handwritten postcards. The older generation of my family certainly appreciates this and it’s good to show the young’uns how people used to communicate.

 

 Pisa trivia

  • Construction of the tower began in 1173. Due to sandy subsoil and shallow foundations, it started to lean as early as the third story was built. Nonetheless, it was finished in 1350. It is called il Campanile, Italian for belfry.
  • The cathedral is clad in Carrara marble (the quarries are close by) and has Moorish and Lombard decorative elements.
  • The guy at the ticket office was in a foul mood (sucks to be him nah nah nah nah) . Be prepared to be ill-treated.

Genoa, our gateway to Italy

My impressions of Genoa in pictures

My most vivid memory of Genoa is the mopeds. They are everywhere: in front of your car, behind your car, around your car. They are like swarms of bees on steroids.
My most vivid memory of Genoa is the mopeds. They are everywhere: in front of your car, behind your car, around your car. They are like swarms of bees on steroids.
breakdown
Our GPS had a hiccup and sent us straight into a traffic jam created by a broken-down bus. The temperature of the engine kept going up and we had no choice but to pop the bonnet open and wait for it to col down. Passers-by stopped to snap photos or ask about the car’s make and model and many did a double-take, like “What’s that yellow thing over there?”
I tried to communicate with a traffic warden in a mixture of Italian, English and hand gestures. We managed to convey our message: me, how long it would take for this mes to clear up, him, to wait. OK!
calle angosta
We drove round and round trying to find our hotel, located in the historic centre. The worst bit was getting caught in the hellish one-way system a few times. We missed our turning (OK, my fault) because it didn’t look so much like a street you could drive in but a space between buildings. And once we turned into that street, Via al Ponte Calvi, we had to negotiate our way round restaurant tables and pedestrian, who scowled at us. What were we supposed to do???
calle angosta genova
Most streets in the ancient quarter were narrow (and some, even narrower) and the buildings seemed to close in on us.
trattoria
We had an excellent dinner at this trattoria called Le Maschere: melt-in-your-mouth prosciutto, delicious salami, a simple but wonderful dish of spaghetti in tomato sauce and vitello tonnato (veal in tuna sauce). Via al Ponte Calvi, 2
via lomellini
Via Lomellini was declared UNESCO’s World Heritage for its 16th and 17th century palazzi
ss annunziata
The gold leaf and frescoed ceiling of the basilica of Santa Annunziata del Vastato made a huge impression on me, it was magnificent.
Some parts were painted white and I though it was unfinished. As it turns out, the church sustained heavy damage during WW II air raids and those bits had been restored.
genoa
Some buildings were very beautiful. However, most were in need of a lick of paint or were so grimy that sandblasting was the only option. There was graffiti everywhere. Such a pity.

Geneva, is not me, it’s you. Or is it?

Geneva taught me that prejudices and presumptions can ruin a travel experience. I had composed an idea of Geneva in my mind: of what it should look like and of what people should look like, of how sophisticated and elegant it should be. It was nothing like I imagined. It turned out to be a city like any other, with graffiti on the walls, beggars on the streets, unsmiling people and big traffic jams.

We avoided the big motorways and took alternative routes from Troyes to Geneva and we wanted to drive along the lake from Nyon. Unfortunately, the shore is so densely built that all we saw was the back of houses and buildings, with just a glimpse of the water here and there. When we arrived, we were greeted by the mother of all traffic jams. Rush hour in Geneva is no laughing matter.

We eventually found our hotel. The receptionist had abrupt manners and never smiled. Actually, no one smiled. The room fee included a card that could be used on any public means of transport. Since the room was rather expensive and it didn’t include breakfast, we might as well make use of the card and went out.  We walked a bit, had a couple of expensive beers and returned home.

A couple of doors down from the hotel was this hole-in-the-wall place with a sign that read “Caribbean tapas”.  We had pica pollo, a typical Dominican dish (fried chicken fried plantain and salad.) It was fresh and delicious. And service was friendly, which we didn’t expect.

There was one place on my list of must-visit places: the cemetery of Plainpalais. I find historic cemeteries fascinating, although the attraction for me was that Jorge Luis Borges, the most influential Argentine writer, and Alberto Ginastera, an Argentinean classical composer, are buried here alongside John Calvin. I paid my respects while Sean sat on a bench and enjoyed the peace and quiet of this lovely public garden. The only sounds were those made by birds and a lawnmower.

On my last attempt to get close to the lake, I failed miserably: roads, bridges, buildings, more roads and lots of traffic blocked my way and I gave up. I felt we couldn’t get out of Geneva fast enough. Genoa was waiting.  geneva geneva5 genecva

The French stage: Reims and Troyes

Once we crossed the Channel, it was smooth sailing to Reims although the scenery wasn’t very exciting. I chose to stop at Reims because I wanted to see the cathedral. Actually, I wanted to see the angels.

The present cathedral, a fine example of Gothic architecture, celebrated its 800th anniversary in 2011. It was where many French kings were crowned, including Charles VII in 1429, with Joan of Arc in the audience. Its 2,303 sculptures, together with its stained-glass windows, tell stories from the Bible for the benefit of those who couldn’t read or write.

Notre-Dame de Reims is the third temple to be built on this site. The previous churches had been built  in 401 and 852. 852
Notre-Dame de Reims is the third temple to be built on this site. The previous churches had been built in 401 and 852. 852

My favourite statues were the Archangel Gabriel with its impish smile, high cheekbones and wavy hair, and the Smiling Angel. His smile is somewhat mysterious, like that of the Mona Lisa. This sculpture was destroyed by a bomb in September, 1914 but thankfully was restored later.

Archangel Gabriel
Archangel Gabriel
The Smiling Angel
The Smiling Angel

Among the original medieval stained glass windows are those created by Marc Chagall. Installed in 1974, they depict scenes from the Bible. Chagall combined modern lines with traditional medieval colours.

The Chagall windows
The Chagall windows

Once I had my fix of medieval stuff, we set off for Troyes. Although it was easy to find the city, finding the hotel proved quite tricky. Out GPS sent us on a wild goose chase. We were looking for the Ibis Troyes hotel. We stopped outside an Ibis Budget to ask at reception, except there was no reception but an ATM-looking machine. And then the car wouldn’t start. Sean opened the bonnet and we settled to wait for it to cool down. I’m not sure how long it took because I took a nap.

We eventually managed to find the proper Ibis hotel. After checking in we went out in search for a nice place to eat. And find it we did in a 16th century house located in the historic centre. We had a wonderful meal that included duck breast and custard napoleon (millefeuille)

Lovely half-timbered houses in Troyes
Lovely half-timbered houses in Troyes

Troyes was a nice surprise. The lopsided half-timbered houses are beautiful, as is the cathedral, where Joan of Arc rallied the townspeople in support of their rightful king. I had a stroll around the historic centre, enjoying the marvelous medieval architecture, narrow cobbled streets and the sense of history. It amazes me to think that many on the houses and buildings were there before my side of the world (i.e. the Americas) was discovered by the Europeans (of course there were incredible civilizations already there who did not appreciate the intrusion, to say the least.)

A random corner in Troyes
A random corner in Troyes

Next stop: Geneva

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 Read the start of the journey here:

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  • The cathedral of Notre-Dame de Reims is open every day from 7.30 am to 7.30 pm and the admission is free.
  • Hotel Ibis: rue Camille Claudel – 10000 TROYES €73.20 a night including breakfast