What is it?? Round III – Official Results

Thanks to all who participated in this round of “What is it??”. We had a lot of good guesses, though none of them were perfect. We’re naming two winners for this round, who each honed in on two different aspects of this unique contraption:

Allison – she was the first to recognize the contraption as some sort of Karaoke device (and even we had to zoom in on the photo to appreciate her reference to garlic)

Dan’s Mom – she was the first to call it out as a dental chair.

Yes, this device was a combination dental chair / internet / karaoke machine in the basement of the wine bar. The owners were extremely proud. We thought they were nuts, but really want to go back anyway.

I should mention that we’ve posted both of the last two posts from the only free wi-fi we were able to find in Nice: an ultra-hip club / lounge / bar with loud techno music, an array of flat panel TVs, and spinning purple lights. The weird thing is… we’re the only patrons. This is a sign of our dedication to you, our loyal readers.

Hill Towns of Tuscany

See our gallery of photos tagged with “tuscany”.

I’m sure I’m not the only one who read Under the Tuscan Sun by Frances Mayes and decided that I must visit Tuscany one day. But I have clear memories of reading that book during my first or second year in DC and dreaming of sitting at a table in the hills of Tuscany with fresh tomatoes, olives and wine. Now, almost ten years later, I am lucky enough to find myself exploring the hill towns with Dan in our little rented Fiat. Although we didn’t make it to Cortona, the town that Frances Mayes made her home, we covered a lot of ground and got a great taste of the good life in Tuscany.

We picked up the rental car in Siena on Wednesday, along with a detailed road map, and we headed for the hills. The road map did not end up being necessary, however, thanks to Dan’s trusty Nokia N810, which he enabled with a one-week free trial of GPS-based navigational software right before we left Siena. The GPS proved to be hugely helpful in finding our way between the many small towns and helping to determine driving time, etc. We’d definitely recommend it. Our car was great also. It was a Fiat that handled really well and was shockingly fuel efficient. It took diesel gas and we only used three-quarters of a tank throughout three full days of driving.

Our first stop was San Gimignano, which is a very picturesque town that is dominated by its many medieval towers. It was fairly crowded here with other sightseers, but we thoroughly enjoyed our lunch in the main square, as well as some fabulous gelato from a place that won the 2006 World Gelato Championship (or something like that). On our way out of town, we drove up a gravel road that provided us with postcard-perfect views of San Gimignano — one of the many examples of why it is great to have your own wheels in this region. Next we headed for Volterra, which shares a name with one of our favorite restaurants in Seattle that was also the scene of our third date. Volterra would be our home for our first night in Tuscany and we quickly fell in love with its beautiful views and authentic charm. As with all of these towns, you drive uphill to get there and are rewarded with sweeping views of the surrounding countryside. One of the highlights of our stay in Volterra was a pre-dinner visit to a wine bar called La Vena di Vino, where we shared a wine tasting sampler that included Chianti, Brunello di Montalcino and a Super Tuscan. They were all great wines, but the experience was made more memorable by our very charismatic hosts Bruno and Lucio. They were extremely friendly and welcoming and Lucio — apparently famous in Volterra for his karaoke singing — treated us to an a capella rendition of Frank Sinatra’s ‘My Way.’ (This wine bar is also the proud home of the karaoke dentist chair featured in Round III of What Is It??)

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After one night in Volterra, we made our way to the town of Castelnuovo Berardenga. This town was not featured in any of our guidebooks, but it was close in proximity to a restaurant that we were targeting for Friday night, so we decided to visit for lunch and see if there were any rooms available. This place definitely felt a bit off of the beaten track, in a very welcome way. We had to use our limited Italian vocabulary to communicate and the population featured more locals than tourists. We ate some lunch in the main square and then walked down to a bed & breakfast that we had passed earlier. At Il Pozzo della Citerna, we met Rosa, a delightful elderly woman who spoke not a word of English. Although we couldn’t communicate with each other, she helped us call her daughter, who said that all of their rooms were full but she could help us find a room elsewhere if we would just call back a bit later in the afternoon. That was our first introduction to Sara, who would end up being a huge help to us and an inspirational example of the “kindness of strangers.”

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Following our visit to Castelnuovo, we drove south through a region called Crete-Senesi. This is a very hilly area that provides some striking views of Tuscany — the kind that look like what you see on postcards or calendars with a line of pointy cypress trees heading uphill to a lone farmhouse. This was a very beautiful area. Our destination that afternoon was Montalcino, where we would spend our second night in Tuscany. This is yet another lovely hill town that is surrounded by vineyards, with all of the stores offering its famous Brunello di Montalcino wines. We quickly found a place to stay in the main town that was situated above a bakery that smelled absolutely amazing. One thing that we loved about Montalcino was how authentic it felt and how easy it was for us to feel a part of the community. We went out for a walk in the evening and were impressed by how many locals were out strolling together. And they all said Buena Sera to us as we crossed paths. This is one thing that I love about Italy. You see these groups of older women or men walking together arm-in-arm or sitting on benches together in the evenings just chatting. We both love the feeling of community that this provides and wish that we had a bit more of this back in the States. Anyway, we had a simple (but delicious as always in Italy) pasta dinner, sat out in the main square to read the paper, and then went to bed pretty early.

On our final full day of driving, we headed for Pienza in the morning. This town is famous for its Pecorino cheese (which is one of Dan’s favorites) and all of the shops are chock full of wheels of different types of Pecorino. We bought “a taste” of Pecorino from one of the shops, which was quite delicious, before hopping back in the car to drive south to Civita di Bagnoregio. This is the place that Rick Steves calls “the ultimate” Tuscan hill town. Although it was a bit of a drive, we are so glad that we made the trek. Civita and Bagnoregio are two different towns that were historically connected by a land bridge. Now it is a man-made bridge that you use to traverse between the two towns. Civita is tiny and quite literally perched on top of a hill. Bagnoregio is larger and provides breath-taking views over to Civita. We did make the climb up into Civita, but both agreed that the highlight of the visit was viewing the town from Bagnoregio.

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We spent our final night back in Castelnuovo, where we had arranged to meet Sara at 5pm in front of her b&b. Now back to the inspirational “kindness of strangers” experience … It turns out that Sara had arranged for us to rent a room from her friend down the street who does not speak any English. So Sara instructs us to bring our car up to the corner, where she will be waiting on her bike, and then she will guide us over to her friend’s place. We can’t believe how nice she is to do this, but Sara does proceed to absolutely fly on her bike the one kilometer down the road to her friend’s place. Here we meet Amelia who does in fact have a very lovely room for us at a very lovely price. So this is where we stayed for our last night in Tuscany: a beautiful, quiet bedroom with doors that opened into a grove of olive trees. Seriously. With a free parking place that only required us to carry our packs about fifty feet. After thanking Sara profusely, she explained that she was happy to help because she would only hope that someone would do the same for her if she were in a place where she didn’t speak the language and was trying to get situated. We made sure to share our contact information so that we can return the favor if she ever finds herself in the U.S.

The town of Castelnuovo was only about 8km from the restaurant that our friends Ben & Elisa had visited a few years ago and for which they had given glowing recommendations. So after several nights of picnic lunches and cheap pasta dinners, this would be our splurge dinner in Italy. 30 Bottega is just off of a very small, quiet road that would have been very hard to find without the GPS. We arrived around 8pm for what proved to be a wonderful and highly memorable meal. We were seated in a covered room that opened onto a garden patio. Our meals were divine and I could write a full post just about what we ate. Since this is already getting really long, I’ll cover the highlights: figs stuffed with goat cheese and wrapped in pancetta, a big ravioli with an egg inside that broke only when you cut into the ravioli, delicious veal for me and three-hour-roasted duck for Dan. It was fantastic. And to complete the experience, right before we started our dessert, a rocking hailstorm came out of nowhere and produced these enormous pieces of hail that were ricocheting off of the metal tables on the veranda and into our covered room. We and all of the other diners had to huddle our tables together and the staff set up umbrellas facing outside to deflect all of the hail. It was quite the sight, but actually kind of fun. After finishing our dessert and waiting for the heavy rain to pass, we drove home with full bellies and quickly fell fast asleep.

http://www.flickr.com/apps/video/stewart.swf?v=59809

What is it?? Round III

We found this contraption in the cellar of a wine bar in Volterra, one of the beautiful hill towns in Tuscany. The owner was quite proud of it. What is it??

Following a day or two of guessing, this item will be further explained in our next posting on the hill towns of Tuscany.

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Best of luck!

Seeing Siena

See our gallery of photos tagged with “siena”.

On Monday morning, we headed to Termini station without any plan of how we were going to get to Siena. The ticket office had a long line, so we bought our tickets from a vending machine that sold a train + bus combo ticket, with a “short transfer time”. By buying these, we realized that we’d need to figure out how to get from the train station to the bus stop in only 10 minutes, in the town of Chiusi, which neither of us had ever heard of before. No problem though — we’re experts, right? Before we knew it, our train was was 30 minutes delayed and it seemed certain we’d miss the connection. Would we be stranded in Chiusi? Not sure how it all worked out, but they actually held the bus, and we got to Siena by early afternoon without any trouble. Phew. As a bonus, the bus ride gave us our first views of the sweeping landscapes of Tuscany.

Siena is a beautiful small city. The old town consists of winding red brick streets (actually “burnt sienna“, for anyone who grew up with Crayola). In the center are two big attractions, one of the nicest town squares we’ve seen (perfect for hanging out and relaxing), and the Duomo, a cathedral with a grand white marble façade. However, as wonderful as the sights were, Abby and I were most excited about the food, which was excellent.

On the first night, we had dinner at a wine bar called Enoteca I Terzi on a side street a few blocks off the main square. The food was incredible — by far the best meal we’ve had all trip. It started with an antipasti plate consisting of two types of cured ham, hard cheese, a spinach tart, a cheese souffle, sausage stuffed zucchini, and a fresh fig. Delizioso! We followed it with two plates of pasta: gnocchi in cream sauce with sauteed red peppers, and flat noodles with porcini mushrooms, and then finally a stewed beef secondo (main dish). The wine by the glass was amazing as well.

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Bella Chaos in Roma

See our gallery of photos tagged with “rome”.

We missed the train from the Rome airport into the city by literally one minute. This was after making two full 15-minute laps through the airport in search of Roma Transit Passes, which we ended up finding at the same spot where Lap One had ended. Need I mention that we were wearing our packs for the duration of this adventure? Or that this was at the end of a full day of traveling to Rome from Dubrovnik, which included one of the hottest bus rides that I’ve enjoyed in my life to date? Anyway… I finally secured the Roma Passes while Dan secured a calling card and went off to call our B&B in Rome to let them know that we would be arriving late. “We’re going to make the best of it,” Dan says upon returning from the phone. I’m thinking he means the fact that we just missed our train. “But we are not staying at that B&B,” he finishes. I don’t have anything to say in return. It turns out that they are experiencing “plumbing problems” so the B&B owner is going to meet us there and walk us over to his friend’s place, which he assures us is right down the road and actually 20 euro cheaper than his place. And so begins our unique experience of Rome’s bella chaos.

Although we contemplated cutting the tie and finding a place on our own, we decided to roll with the punches and see what we found at this replacement B&B. The owner of B&B #1 did indeed meet us outside his place and was actually quite nice in person. A bit suspicious about the whole situation, we innocently and casually asked what the plumbing problems were. He told us that a particularly rotund guest had sat on the bidet and somehow loosened it from its foundation and pipes. Hmm… perhaps. So he walked us over to B&B #2, which was a private apartment building on the main street of a great neighborhood. At this point, we are pretty sure that we are being directed to this guy’s friend’s apartment — not a proper B&B. Our fears were not allayed when we picked up on the fact that the owner of B&B #2 said something along the lines of “nice to meet you” to the owner of B&B #1. But the owner of B&B #2 showed us the room, which was very nice, with air-conditioning and fresh towels and a list of rules for guests posted to the back of the door. Those touches, along with the eating space for guests in the kitchen and his business cards, did a lot to convince us this place was worth a try. Those things plus the cost of 70 euros per night, which is basically unheard of in Rome — especially for a room with air-conditioning. So we decide to go for it and finally take off our packs after a full day of travel that included walking, bus, flight, train, tram, and more walking.

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We ended up getting a very positive and friendly vibe from the owner of B&B #2 and were starting to feel quite at ease — and even lucky to have found the better deal in price. We took showers and headed out for a great pasta dinner in the neighborhood where we were staying (Trastevere). It was a Friday night, so people were out in force and were still sitting down for dinner when we finished ours at 11:15. Fully exhausted, we got back to the apartment building to find a woman sitting outside of the main door. Long story short, she said the name of our B&B, expressed thanks to see us, and introduced herself as the owner’s girlfriend who had lost her keys and couldn’t reach him on the phone. So could we please let her upstairs to find him? Again, this felt weird, but she seemed very honest and not sketchy, so we did it and figured that we would make sure that he knew her, etc. He did seem to know her and was not upset, but the weird part was that she seemed very unsure about which bedroom door to enter in order to find him. So again, it just felt very non-standard and added to our feeling of this not being quite a legit set-up.

The next morning we had a great breakfast with the owner and a few other guests, so were again feeling fine about the whole situation. We headed out that day for a *major* day of sight-seeing that included the Colosseum, Forum, and Pantheon. It was a long, hot, exhausting day, but introduced me (my first visit to Rome, Dan’s second) to the grandiosity of Rome. The words that I kept returning to were “impressive” and “huge” for just about everything that we saw. After covering all of those sights, we again returned home exhausted and hot. This time, we returned to our room having an unlocked door and a missing A/C controller. The owner explained that he had just emptied the trash and then recovered the controller from another room down the hall. But during this whole explanation he was distracted by phone calls and someone else who was in the apartment. We never did quite understand the explanation for why the controller was gone, but were again feeling quite sketched out by this situation. We decided to look his place up online and see if there were any reviews. We found an internet cafe and were very relieved to find a site with reviews dating back over a year that were both good and bad (thereby proving that they were not all written by friends). Basically, it’s a budget B&B with a very personable, friendly owner, but not the cleanest bathroom and not the utmost in privacy. We couldn’t argue with any of those points. This discovery did legitimize the place for us, so we decided not to worry about it any more and headed out for another great dinner near the Colosseum (thanks, Jen & Susan!!!), some fabulous gelato, and then walked back home. When we got home that night, the owner was next door and he called us into that apartment. It turns out that he is in the midst of a major renovation project to expand his B&B into the adjoining flat. There were missing doors, windowframes and unfinished bathrooms. Yet he had a group of girls from California arriving on Wednesday for a stay of two months. This explained so much! He is stressed out about this major expansion to his business and had been working on related improvements during our entire stay. He has a lot on his mind, might be a bit flaky, but was completely honest and driven with regard to his business.

We felt the need to share this whole story because it really was a major part of our stay in Rome. The owner of our B&B (and his girlfriend) were incredibly friendly (though stressed out) individuals who showed us an inside view of life in Rome. The great part about staying at places that are run out of someone’s home (like this B&B, the Budapest apartment, and all of the soba in Croatia) is that you really get a feel for what life is like in a given place. You are not sheltered in a hotel room, but rather see the intricacies, hear the noises and meet the people that make it all real. Despite all of our worries about the Rome B&B, it ended up being a very comfortable place that we would recommend highly to anyone who is looking for budget accommodation in a very expensive city — and who doesn’t mind a less than pristine bathroom and a lack of anonymity. If anyone is planning a trip to Rome, let us know! Our learning on the job is your gain in peace of mind.

Aside from that whole experience, we had a wonderful but exhausting three nights in Rome. We covered a tremendous number of miles on foot, saw as many of the major sights that we could see in two days, ate some wonderful food, and just enjoyed all of the people-watching. But I have to admit that I was ready to leave Rome and return to a quieter town. We are now in Siena and are very happy to be away from all of the hubbub. More on Siena to come soon…

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What is it?? Round II – Official Results

Thank you to all who participated in Round II of What is it?? While there were many creative guesses, only one of our participants got the answer correct. Once again, we recognize Allison Beller as the What is it?? winner. Congratulations, Allison!

To recap, the correct answer is Julius Caesar’s grave. This mound of dirt is located in the Temple of Julius Caesar — a freestanding building within the Roman Forum. Before our team of graphic artists (originally employed by the TV show “Cops” in the ’90s) did their magic on this photo, the pixelated words read: “AVE CESARE!”.

What is it?? Round II

Here’s another installment of everybody’s favorite game – “What is it??” Just like before, here’s how it works – we post a picture, and you have to guess what it is. This week’s picture comes all the way from Rome, Italy. Please post your guesses in the blog comments. Good luck!

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