Tuscany – A tour of Italy part 3

A tour of Italy part 3 – TUSCANY

Chicca in the olive trees

Since leaving the US and after traveling to numerous countries, islands and towns, we have loved each stop in its own way, but never felt “at home” in any of them. This is the first time in 19 months we felt immediately as though we could set up housekeeping and feel right at home.

At the beginning of the summer, I saw an Instagram post from my cousin who extolled the virtues of the Tuscany region and “Cooking In Tuscany” in particular. Herself an avid traveler, biker and free spirit, I knew that if she was recommending it, we would love it. I reached out to Chicca Maione, the co-owner and Chef extraordinaire and asked if she would be doing cooking classes over the summer when we hoped to be there. Unfortunately, Covid prevented my friend from the US, who was planning to accompany me, from arriving. Our family immigration issues coupled with rapidly changing weather in the Northern Med all threatened to prevent the meeting. After a bit of prodding from Alec however, knowing how much I enjoy cooking and was looking forward to a class in Tuscany, we decided to take a day from our packed tour of Italy schedule and drive to the cooking class.

Approximately 1 hour from Florence, we rented a car and enjoyed a stunning drive to Castagneto Carducci, just a few km from the Mediterranean coast.

The entire drive was something out of a coffee table book on Tuscany! Gorgeous!

Chicca and Arnaud live in an idealic 18th century farmhouse straight out of a picture book with about 20 olive trees separating them from the closest neighbor. When we first arrived, we were greeting by Freda, one of the house pets who, though a puppy, looked like a fully-grown Lab to us. She is the friendliest creature, and a perfect ambassador for the experience.
Given our rapidly growing kinship, it is a wonder we cooked anything on that first day, and if not for Chicca (pronounced Kee – ka), keeping us focused and on task, we could have just sat and talked the day away.

But we were there to cook so we quickly washed hands and set about making our first and most delicious tasting fettuccine any of us have ever eaten. We also made Gnocchi and the simplest of desserts, a ricotta fluff with fresh figs on top.

In the course of getting to know one another, Chicca told us that “her” Americans who help her with the olive harvest couldn’t make it due to Covid. Harvesting olives and witnessing the creation of the liquid gold we call olive oil has been a bucket list item for Alec for years. Learning that the harvest was to take place in 2 days, it was easy math for 2 retired people to cancel the flights home and add “olive picker” to the resume.

So, we raced back to Florence, crammed in several more sights and museums and raced back to COOKING WITH TUSCANY just in time for the olive harvest. Actually, the harvest got started at 8 and we arrived probably closer to 11 but we worked until sundown that day picking and carefully gathering the olives.

One of the gifts of this experience and a lesson very close to our hearts- is to connect ourselves, and more importantly, Jack, to the food we use to fuel our passions. Spending the day gathering olives from ancient trees, then watching the press, as this prized fruit is turned into nutrient rich, green- grassy, delicious oil, created for all of us, a deep connection and appreciation for this Italian delicacy. So much so, that we have hardly touched butter since arriving in Italy.

Talk about connecting with your food! It tastes better than it looks!

Once, at dinner in Portofino, Jack asked the server for some butter. That request was met with a 5 -minute lecture, from the server, on how healthy olive oil is for the body and how unhealthy butter is. The server eventually brought the butter but who could eat it after that! We had, of course, told Jack the same thing but hearing it from a complete stranger had a monumental effect. He has not really had or asked for butter ever since.

So, picking these gorgeous olives and then tasting and appreciating the fruits of the labor made this a very impactful, and memorable experience. We were compensated with 5 liters of the liquid gold for our efforts – well worth the hours outdoors enjoying the harvest.

Should you find yourself on a trip to Italy, Chicca and Arnaud have the loveliest apartments for rent. Don’t miss an opportunity to stay with Chicca and learn how to cook authentic Italian meals with the recipes from Chicca’s grandmother.

Adapting to the crazy Covid times in which we live, Chicca has begun teaching via Zoom, conducting cooking classes live from her kitchen. Together with friends from the US, Jack and I are continuing the fun and cooking now that we are back on board. There is something so surreal to me about learning to cook authentic meals and learning Italian all while living in Italy. Especially during these Covid times when we all need to be spending more time closer to home and away from crowds. Zoom is so fantastic for allowing these opportunities for enrichment right in the safety and security of our own home. Check out club@cookingintuscany.cc for more information

To find out more about the club or vacations – check out http://www.cookingintuscany.cc

Cooking club or vacations – check it out!!

There is more to this area than olives. The medieval village of Bolgheri, a hamlet of Castagneto Carducci in the province of Livorno is nearby. Touting a museum which explores the world of food and history of the area, foodies can’t miss it. Due to the micro-climate and characteristics of the soil, this area produces some of the most world renown Bordeaux origin wines known as “Super Tuscan” producers. For those who prefer the sea to the mountains, a short 20 minute drive is the gorgeous Mediterranean Sea with a very low key – non touristic vibe.

To be clear, there is truly something for everyone here. Less than a 2 hour drive from Rome, Florence, Siena, and world class food and wine, who could want for anything more?

Siracusa, Italy (Sicily)

What a month it has been! There is way too much to cover in one blog post so I’m going to break it up. While I’m tempted to begin at the end of the trip around Italy since the last week was EPIC, I’m going to begin at the beginning and get to last week eventually.

In our last post you learned about the month- long challenge to get our immigration woes worked out. We thankfully had the help of 3 wonderful professionals at Luise Yachting Agency, Viviana, Giorgio and Roberto, and we are now here hopefully for the winter.

Piazza Duomo Cattedrale metropolitana della Natività de Maria

Lucky for us, we “entered” legally in a city worthy of far more than just the few weeks we have given it. Siracusa, on the Eastern side of Sicily, dates back over 2800 years and evidence of this storied history follows cobblestoned streets, from one end to the next. Itself a UNESCO HERITAGE SITE, We are docked on the island of Ortigia, which is just a stone’s throw to Siracusa. Possibly best known as the birthplace of Archimedes (288 BC) for readers of the blog, this time last year we studied ancient Greece and we worked Archimedes into our Math and Science curriculum. One of the “dividends” Jack has recently paid us, he remembered most of what he learned and while touring the “amusement park” Jack was ready to explain what many of the devices were. One device we had not learned about though was the Parabolic Mirror which Archimedes is said to have used on ships attacking Syracuse. Additionally, Archimedes explains why ships float, and is the brilliance behind nearly every piece of machinery aboard. It was great fun to visit his birthplace and to relive some old lessons.

Jack trying out the Heat Ray to “make” Fire using parabolic reflectors

As embarrassing as it is to admit it, 2 of my favorite things about Europe are the Café’s and the “markets”. So nearly the first thing we do when we arrive is to find out when/where the market will be as they move from town to town. Not here though! The market is so fantastic and busy it is here 6 days a week from 8-1300. So, before we even got settled, we headed into the market to take a look. Fantastic. As are the café’s. One can only pray that our winter home in Ragusa is as wonderful.

We also like to take a city tour if we feel there is enough to see. Wow, there was enough to see for 5 city tours as Siracusa, as it is called by the Italians, was once one of the most important cities of its time. We saw the Catacombs of San Giovanni, (4AD-6AD), the Basilica of St. John the Evangelist, Archeological Park, the Roman Amphitheatre, and the Ear of Dionysis. We learned how papyrus was made and we have enjoyed gallons of a Sicilian delicacy, Granita. While most of Italy is famous for the Gelato, and believe me, it’s good, there is something especially wonderful about Sicilian Granita, particularly on a warm summer day. Granita could best be described as a type of Sorbet (they come in many flavors, but lemon is our favorite). People even eat the granita on bread for lunch. We prefer it right out of the glass. Delicious!! Another specialty of the area is Cannoli. The ricotta here makes the Cannoli taste like it is made of sweet cream rather than cheese. INSANE.

A large cruise ship port, we have seen ships come and go but there has only been 1 ship which had passengers aboard and only 600 rather than 2000. Our boat is docked nearby and below is a photo of our Gratitude with the cruise ship in the background. We are so sad for the businesses which are literally hemorrhaging during this crazy Covid time.

Note Gratitude at the marina

It soon became clear that while we were awaiting documentation from the States and watching carefully the storms brewing in the Med, we were watching the disintegration of our summer cruising plans. There was simply no way to make the multi-day passage to Genoa as we had planned, and then to slowly work our way south. Enter the brilliant and amazing ANGELS OF MERCY at Luise Yachting Agency. We mentioned in the earlier blog piece that they had worked magic with the Immigration issues but now that issue resolved, they came to the rescue again.

St. Peter’s Square in Rome

There is more than one way to see the world – and while we love seeing it in the comfort of our own home, sometimes taking a “vacation” from being on board is fun. I get to find a bathtub and we typically abdicate all jobs and chores while we are vacation. Enter Giorgio, Viviana and Roberto… AGAIN!

Viviana loves cats so she was the perfect candidate to baby sit our Pratt and Whitney (2 cats we travel with aboard Gratitude). Anyone who loves cats will tell you that contrary to their reputation, they are incredibly expressive and loving, and when they aren’t happy with you, they are wonderful at expressing it. No mistake about it. Typically, when we have left them, we know they have missed us by their behavior when we return. Both Pratt and Whitney acted as though we never left! They were loving, happy and sweet and clearly, they had been showered with attention in our absence.

Pratt and Whitney

The Gratitude was also cared for lovingly and n fact, during one storm an agent moved aboard and with the help of others in the vicinity, pulled Gratitude (180,000 pounds) off the dock to keep her safer until the storm passed. Talk about dedicated!

So we just returned from a 2 ½ week “road” trip around Northern and Central Italy. There is far too much to write about in this post so Ill close by saying that I’ll write about all of it in the coming weeks. But a taste of what is to come:

Rome, Portofino, Cinque Terre, Tuscany, Pisa, Florence, Siena, Castagneto Carducci, Bolgheri, and includes stories about History, FOOD, GLORIOUS FOOD, Olives, Hiking, Churches and more Monuments than Washington DC.

Thanks for reading!!

Gibraltar (the second time)

Gibraltar (the second time)

Several months ago, before Covid changed the world forever, Alec, Jack and I traveled to Gibraltar to do research for winter 2021, believing then that we would make our way into the Med for the following summer 2021. Even though that was only 6 months ago, everyone reading this can relate to how different our world looks, both individually and collectively now.

Still, having done the research months earlier, it made coming here easier in several ways in that we knew what to expect and we had made contacts for dockage as well. I had written a piece about Gib, as it is affectionately called by the locals, which I later sold to Ocean Navigator magazine, and for that reason, I never made a blog post about it then. Sometimes I write to get something that we experience on paper, wherever it ends up. Having done that, I find it difficult to write a different piece for a different audience on the same subject, but I am happy to have another opportunity to share our combined experiences of both trips here now.

Gratitude Med-Moored in Gibraltar

The great thing about coming to this lovely place twice and having one of those times before this Covid crisis was, we had the ability to sightsee in a way last time which was impossible this time due to the closure of many of the tourist attractions for the duration of our time here. We did manage to walk up the Rock of Gibraltar and visit the monkeys who seemed overly friendly in the wake of the drought of visitors of late. We had heard that they were “cheeky” little thieves and would welcome any chance to make off with hats, glasses or even back packs. On our first visit we saw none of this bold familiarity yet on our recent trip, with us the only visitors we saw in a full day of climbing up and down, cheeky was the perfect word to describe them. They grabbed at Jacks hat, desperate to abscond with it to who knows where. They grabbed my arms and tried to engage with me in a gentle sort of playful way. Given that I have had exactly 2 experiences with wild monkeys in my life, this was completely unnerving to me. Especially the males who appeared to be guarding the nursing females on our ascent up the rock. At nearly the top and after getting some “guff” from one such large ape like monkey, I felt it was time to turn tale and head back down – I had gotten close enough to the top to call it a victory.

On the previous trip and given that we only had 3 days not 3 weeks to explore, we took a taxi to the top and made the requisite stops at both the St. Michaels Caves and the Pillar of Hercules. So, a short history lesson here, The Rock of Gibraltar, only a 3 miles spit of land, (growing daily due to the high value of land and the attendant desire for reclamation) and completely surrounded by Spain on all land sides, has been home to inhabitants dating back to the Neanderthals. Travelers have been leaving their mark here since the Phoenicians and later, the Carthaginian’s who, traveling past believed that they were approaching the end of the earth, left gifts to the Gods in the caves in the years between roughly 800 BC and 200 BC. In 711 the Moors landed at the foot of the rock and so began the Muslim conquest of Iberia. Evidence of their occupation remains in the Moorish Baths located within the Gibraltar Museum. The British and Dutch forces captured the Rock in 1704 and under the Treaty of Ultrecht in 1717 ceded Gib to the British Crown in perpetuity. This would not be the last heard of the Spanish however and several more attempts were made on the rock the final and greatest being The Great Siege in 1779-1783. For Americans a point of significance is that date. The British had to endure a brutal siege by Spain for Gibraltar at the same time the Americans were fighting for their liberty. Dividing the British resources undoubtedly played a role in the success of the American and French in fighting the British for American sovereignty during those same years.

A quick glance at a map and one can easily see why this is so important a piece of land for the British. Given necessary trade with Asia and India the rights to the Straights of Gibraltar prevented Crown ships having to make the trip around the Cape of Good Hope in Africa and all the way back up again. Cutting through the Med especially after the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869 gave them access to a far shorter trade route. Today that same shortened route is required to get access to precious oil from the Middle East. From a strictly military point of view, it is a critical strong hold and remains encamped today to provide supplies to allied ships proving invaluable during WW2.

On our earlier visit our guide shared with us a story of the myth of twin pillars of Hercules. Homer claimed that Hercules broke the mountain joining Europe and Africa resulting in two pillars on either side of Straights of Gibraltar. The European “pillar” is the Rock of Gibraltar and the “pillar” on the African side is Mount Hacho.

We dropped by the museum, closed due to covid, and discovered that with prior arrangement a visit may be possible. I sent an email and was delighted that they would permit us a private visit during a designated time slot. It was a perfectly wonderful museum exploration – we were the only visitors there and we were free to meander and discover completely at our own pace. They had reconstructed a couple of Neanderthals from found bones and just that alone was worth the trip. There have been carvings and evidence of their habitation in Gib for over 100,000 years.

We are clearly moving into yet a new phase of our learning aboard Gratitude. So accustomed have we been to think of history in terms of the past 300 years in the US, upon reaching the UK we began thinking more in terms of the past 2000 years. Now we are beginning to look at History in terms of BC and AD as much of the Mediterranean history dates back well over 2000 years ago.

Jack turned 10 last week and we celebrated in a big way aboard Gratitude. Having experienced a bit of a Toy drought since we left -unable to just run to Target for something on which to spend his hard-earned money, the toy store abundance combined with his impending birthday made this the perfect place to be. Also, I lost a (dental) crown, which was repaired here, and Alec had some worrisome skin issues resolved.

Jack’s 10th birthday Coffee Cake practice for the main event later

Finally, if you have been following along you may be wondering why we are headed into the Med now when we were originally planning to be in the Baltic this summer. When the Covid thing hit and as we were waiting for Portugal to open and let us leave, we were simultaneously waiting for another country to open their border to let us in. We have the additional constraints of the shortened cruising season up North, in fact, as early as October the weather was changing quickly as far South as the Channel Islands. We certainly don’t wish to be in the North Sea that late in the year. Also, with our immigration concerns there seems to be a more lenient approach to allowing extensions in the Southern part of Europe as opposed to the Northern countries. And finally, Italy was the first country to open their doors and allow foreign visitors. So, armed with all of these constraints, we decided to move around some plans and hope that we may still make it to the Baltic in the summer of 2022 spending this summer and next in the Med. Of course, given so many variables up in the air, even now we aren’t certain where we will end up this winter, though we hope to be in Sicily. So, this is all just a wild guess.

What we do know now is that we are on our way to Cartegena, Spain and having the most gorgeous passage. Underway for about 25 hours thus, and with another 2 to go, the weather has been stunning and the views breathtaking. The Spanish coastline has made me wish we could stop at every little town we seem to pass.

One final note – many have asked us about the guidelines and requirements here in Europe in the wake of Covid. Mask usage is fairly consistent across the board anytime a 2-meter distance cannot be maintained. We just arrived in Spain where one can be fined 1,000 Euros on the spot for failure to comply and have with them a mask. As in Portugal, usage was mandatory in restaurants and cafes anytime not seated at the table and the tables and its occupants were required to be 2 meters apart. Nobody is complaining about this – nobody is even talking about it – it’s just become part of the program and without dispute, the Covid numbers are under control here. There have been a few tiny “brushfires” which have been quickly tamped down with contract tracing and immediate resolution but with mask usage – the asymptomatic carriers aren’t spreading it accidentally. When I read the US news I’m just so amazed that this is even an issue – using a mask saves lives – this is the undisputed fact of science. It has NOTHING to do with political affiliation or belief – it’s just science and across the board there is no dispute that wearing a mask prevents the spread – Just my 2 cents worth.

We hope wherever this finds you – you are enjoying your summer plans – upended though they most certainly are – and enjoying each other.

The Year in Review 2020

The year in review

The year in Review

Im a goal setter.  Its the thing that gets me out of bed and gets me going.  Its what keeps me on task and moving forward.  And its what helps me to the be the best version of myself that I can be.   But sometimes life – or Covid 19 happens – and the goals need to be tossed out the window.  In these times, I like to look at what moved on track this year and how getting derailed in the past has actually been the blessing in disguise that I have needed.  

We had planned to be in Portugal for 5 months – Knowing that we can’t really move the boat too much in the winter and knowing also that we don’t have the disposition to live in cold/overcast climates indefinitely, this was a planned stop.  It has really been fantastic in hindsight as it offered us so many of the conditions we were hoping for.  For one thing, cruising is challenging.  Moving the boat and your family -often times constantly -for a whole season (which can be 5-7 months depending on your area and tolerance for lousy weather) takes its toll.  It is not unusual for us to just take a mental health day during a particularly aggressive month of cruising to just stop and reset for a day (or few) before doing anything else.  While traveling to new cities we have never been before is fun and exciting, it also requires planning which can range from minimal to many days/nights of reading.  Getting the boat safely into a dock or harbor is, of course, step one.  Planning the route, the weather, the fuel and the tides are just a few of the considerations each of these trips involves.  In addition, planning the meals, the sights, the museums, the recreation, the schooling etc all the while making sure that we don’t miss the “must do” in any location and deciding what must wait until our next trip here  – is all work.   Don’t get me wrong – Im not complaining – its wonderful work and we are thrilled to be doing it but it is work.     We aren’t sitting around with umbrella drinks having our laundry and sheets cleaned by staff.     All of this is to say that the winter was to be a giant reset essentially giving all of us time to rest, catch up on school, fall into a routine of work/exercise and allow visitors a chance to come see us.  We were also excited to actually wake up in the morning and know where the best place to have coffee is or our favorite pizza place after a long day.   Lagos, Portugal – YOU DID IT!  Honestly  -given our hopes for this winter of rest, Lagos nailed it (thanks Marci and George).     

Can you spot Gratitude? (one of the few non-sail types:-)

But now we are SERIOUSLY ready to move.  This is that goal setter in me who looks at the plan and shrieks “We have to GO!”   I somehow feel like I am failing, Im falling short of my goals and dreams.  I know that Im not the only person in this situation surrounded by amazing good fortune for which I am so speechlessly grateful yet feels “I should be doing something more”.    So on the off chance that there is another person out there like me who feels that they are “missing out” or failing to meet their plan or goal, or just basically feeling like a slacker for spending the day doing nothing – playing cards or chess or watching netflix – this is for you – and it is for me.     Time for a recap of the year to put into prospective what a few weeks of doing the responsible thing of “hangin’ on the couch,  is really about.    I would really encourage you to do the same in your life – even mention it on the blog!  Its all the virtual friendship anyway!  Tell me and each other what we have achieved in the last year before this all happened.  

The recap

In 5 weeks time, we will have been living aboard Gratitude for a whole year.  In that time, we have traveled roughly 6,000 miles (at a basic walking pace), seen 10 countries and 4 islands visiting 20 cities.  We have managed to keep ourselves fed and watered and, thank God, afloat for all of it.  Alec continues to amazing and delight us with the impeccable manner in which he maintains Gratitude, fixing every issue big or small the moment it arises.  Jack has moved into 4th grade and is flying through his studies with a new momentum and commitment that impresses me beyond measure.  We have planned a very aggressive and thorough trip to the Baltic region this summer but it is very likely we will be examining a Plan B or even Plan C with this Corona Virus as our immigration concerns are mounting with our protracted stay in Portugal.  We crashed and burned on the Portuguese lessons.  After committing to lessons both online and in person, it became burdensome to the point of harming Jacks other studies.  Basically, we needed to do exactly what we are doing now – we examined the benefit/work ratio and decided that the work, while honorable, was not likely to pay off in any meaningful way.  Nearly everyone here speaks English so there was little chance to practice.  Really working on and practicing Portuguese would make sense if we had obtained residency here but that never worked out either.  Given that we may or may not be here next winter (immigration issues again) there was little point to committing the time necessary to learn this challenging language.  Sometimes you just gotta punt.   

We have made new friends and old friends have visited.  We have thoroughly and completely traveled and learned the Algarve as well as a few other well known Portuguese cities.  So even though the cruising goal may become sidelined for the time being, the goal of living overseas continues to thrive.  The blog is gaining momentum thanks to readers like you – so thank you – you make it enjoyable to write and to share our experiences with you.  I have submitted 2 pieces of work to magazines and I continue to work on and learn how to improve my writing.  We have all spent far more time reading this past year than ever before and we all continue to exercise and eat well.  So on balance – even though this isn’t exactly what I thought  or hoped we would be doing right now, Im going to take a deep breath, thank God for this opportunity to just “be” and send all of you love and calming energy.  

Thanks for reading!

xo

Laurie