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Postcards from Travel Near and Far by Jia-Rui


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Montepulciano, 53045

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View from Montepulciano

Dear ——–,

We spent the morning in the elegant Renaissance town of Pienza, where the smell of local pecorino wafted out from shop after shop. For lunch, we went to an organic farm called Il Casale, where we had plates of prosciutto, salami, zucchini, cabbage, pasta in tomato sauce and a spelt salad. They make their own cheese — so there was ricotta, feta, chevre and several kinds of pecorino including a fresh variety and ones aged in hay and grape leaves. Stella got to meet her first pony on this farm (very interested) and her first goats (less interested). In the afternoon, we went to Montepulciano, where we took a look at the Contucci cellars and tasted their vino nobile di Montelpulciano. The reserva from 2007 was so velvety, we had to take one home. The host, Adamo, asked, “Am I famous in America?” and showed a picture of himself with Rick Steves. Well, that was how we got there.

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Montalcino, 53024

Three glasses of Brunello di Montalcino

Dear ——–,

We had thought we had made a wine-tasting appointment at Poggiarellino, a brunello di Montalcino producer recommended by Leah, but the owners Lodovico and Anna somehow seemed surprised that we showed up. Anna was apologetic — she couldn’t set up the wine tasting because the wine needed to breathe. How about she just gives us a bottle of brunello 2007 to take home and try on our own? We just had to promise to leave it open for three hours before drinking. Well, okay. But what kindness and hospitality! Still thirsty for an immediate wine tasting, we headed to the town of Montalcino, where we sat down at Enoteca Osticchio. A three-flight brunello tasting gave us a 2007 (like fog on the tongue), a 2004 (a fine, almost sugar-coated finish) and a reserve from 2006 (somehow less memorable than the first two). It was a nice way to end the day and Stella was even waiting patiently for us in her stroller. We finished the day at Why Not gelateria with a mix of creme caramel, extra dark chocolate and blood orange — easily one of the best cones I’ve ever had. A fitting end to an epicurean day!


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Siena, 53100

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View from the City Tower

Dear ——–,

We skipped the dirt roads today for the efficiency of the motorway and made our way to Siena. The color “burnt siena” is apparently named for the place and practically all the buildings have that same warm brick color because that’s the color of the earth here. We climbed the 400 steps up the city tower — Stella rode up on Bryan’s back in the Ergo carrier — where we could see the whole city and surrounding patchwork of green and yellow fields. On Cara’s recommendation, we checked out Osteria La Logge, just off Piazza del Campo. The burrata was so creamy it almost tasted like butter. The fresh egg tagliatelle with Tuscan ragu was gone in 5 minutes. The Duomo was our last stop in town — an impressively bold mix of patterns and colors, with figures etched into the marble on the floor. (Was there an Egyptian influence in the black and white striping?) It reminded us that Siena was once a very powerful city.

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Siena City Hall and Tower

 

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Torrita di Siena, 53049

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Dear ——–,

We reached Tuscany just as the sun was setting over orderly rows of vines and olive trees. The directions to our bed and breakfast Follonico were a bit vague — “Around a curve to the left, after 1.4km there is an intersection on the right that is not very obvious…” But we came to appreciate that this is just how directions around Tuscany’s roads are. Those directions were better than relying on Google Maps, which uses some kind of road numbering system that is not apparent on any signs on the ground. After recuperating, we spent the next day winding up and down local roads lined with poppies on a route recommended by our host Fabio. We stopped by the hermitage where they filmed the English Patient, a tiny, well-preserved medieval town that is inhabited now by only three families and an abbey from the 14th century. We somehow managed to take the longest route back to the hotel because we missed several turns. But we did make it back. Maybe exploring Tuscany means getting lost.


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Civita di Bagnoregio, 01022

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Hilltop town of Civita di Bagnoregio

Dear ——–,

Driving the rental car out of Rome was a hairy experience we’ll never want to do again. (Rules, what rules?) We could feel a tangible release as we drove deeper and deeper into the country. On our way to Tuscany, we stopped at Civita di Bagnoregio, a town perched above layered sandstone canyons. It was pretty obvious that any enemy was going to have a hard time attacking this place … though I’d guess getting foodstuffs there might be just as difficult. After pushing the stroller up the steep pedestrian bridge, we stopped for some bruschetta and watched the waitress slice pieces of prosciutto off the leg of a pig with a knife. (The prosciutto here is so much deeper and richer than stuff in America, which now seems watery by comparison.) Stella made friends with the waitress, whose family has lived in the town for generations. The waitress’ mother came by and practically gobbled up her fat little thighs. It was nice to rest a spell with this amazing view and think about the Etruscans who first carved out this city and its route to civilization. Not a lot of people live in the town permanently now — but I guess that’s why it’s well preserved.


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Roma, 00186

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The one and only Colosseum

Dear ——–,

We had intended to start the day early with a long walk starting from Campo di Fiore. Only our internal clocks — and our usual alarm clock, little Stella — were way off. We didn’t get out of bed until 10:45 a.m.! So the first thing we did was meet our friend Brian for lunch in the Monti area. He took us to La Cicala e La Formica (the Grasshopper and the Ant), which had a fantastic-tasting pasta for 5 Euros. We had intended to go to a place called L’Asino d’Oro, but it was closed. Apparently Italians like to take Monday off. (Other things closed on Monday: Gelateria Fatamorgana, Villa Borghese and several museums we wanted to go to.) So our planning today wasn’t exactly great, but we did get to the Vatican Museum by about 3:15 p.m. for our 3:00 p.m. entry time! (Part of the reason we ran late was that we at least wanted to see the Colosseum, which was tantalizingly close to our lunch place, before heading back to the Vatican area.) We hustled our way through most of the galleries, stopping for a little extra time in the hallway painted with maps and the Rafael rooms. Then, after carrying Stella up and down what seemed like hundreds of staircases, we stood still for a spell in the Sistine Chapel, where we were cheek and jowl with hundreds of our best tourist friends. Then, we walked over to St. Peter’s Basilica to see the most impressive church we’d ever seen. We felt like little ants in a cathedral built for giants — the scale was unbelievable. The late afternoon mass was underway and we were bathed in the sound of hymns.

 

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Ceiling in the Vatican Museum

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The Swiss Guards

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Entrance to the Vatican Museum

 

 


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Roma, 00153

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In front of the Church of Santa Maria in Trastevere

Dear ——–,

We’ve arrived in Rome! The flight was grueling, especially since little S wouldn’t sleep more than 2 hours at a stretch. But we had enough pep after we checked into our room that we even figured out how to get Trastevere by bus … with a baby! That earns us a few bonus points, right? We spent the afternoon making our way through the stone streets of the Jewish Ghetto and Trastevere. (We got gelato at Fior di Luna before going back to our apartment and getting pizza at Pizzarium.) I forgot that one of the things I like best about Rome is that as long as you have a general sense of where you’re going, there’s a million ways to get there. There is an unexpected delight in happening to finding a romantic little side street that suddenly opens into a hidden piazza or church. Now, if we can only just get some sleep tonight …