Around Greece on a Vespa

Our next adventure will be in Greece

November 22, 2010 by B Ruml

We’ve started planning for summer 2011! The major trip will be from the villa to Greece, by Vespa, with the intention of traveling to all the major sights from Kalamata to Mt. Athos.

We’ve started looking into Greek language programs, including one which starts November 30th! We figure we’ll need about 300 Greek words not counting numbers, days-of-the-week, and the like.

Greek lessons

May 2, 2011 by Debra Dawson

B suggested that we take basic lessons in modern Greek last fall in preparation for our trip to Greece this summer. He persuaded me by suggesting that we might run into an 80-year old grandmother in some remote village who doesn’t speak English. After talking with our friends Niki and George, we learned that the Greek Institute (that Greek Revival house on Massachusetts Avenue that we’ve walked by hundreds of times) offered lessons in the evening—so we signed up. We now know a little more than the average American (the ability to read a menu and street signs will be very useful).

A rough itinerary for the first half

May 2, 2011 by B Ruml

Our route during May and June before going to Turkey to join Helmut and Gisela’s tour in Kusadasi. We arrive on the ferry from Ancona (Italy) to Patras, take a few days out to visit the resort island of Zakynthos, detour to see Delphi and return to the Peloponnese to hit all the remaining highlights.

Here’s a link to our list-of-dates itinerary.

Past Time to Report In

May 24, 2011 by B Ruml

Tuesday, May 24; Camigliano. We’re more than a little embarrassed that so much time has passed since we arrived in Lucca without a post. In part, that’s because we were exhausted from our labors. The first task on arrival is to open up the villa, cleaning out the nine months of mouse droppings (and worse, if a bird has made its way down a chimney) and accumulated dirt. Given the centuries-old, uneven stone floors, this means vacuuming and mopping every room we plan to use — and a path to the rear bath where the shower is located. That takes about three days if we don’t want to kill ourselves (which we don’t!).

We can hardly complain about the weather, however. We left Cambridge after a week of cloudy, rainy weather in the 50s and stepped into a full week of sunny, 85 degree splendor.

But let’s back up! We left Boston on Swiss International at 9:40p with perhaps the smoothest trip yet. Thanks to Deb’s quick thinking, we realized that we had bought our tickets before they changed their baggage policy to one 50lb bag per person; so we were able to bring four in all and we really didn’t take full advantage of it. Nonetheless, we had a great deal more than last year:

The only disadvantage of Swiss Int is that one changes in Zurich where the prices are breathtaking, as we discovered two years ago when visiting. This time we paid what is without a doubt the record-breaking price for a cappuncino at the airport: 5.85 euros (that’s $8.50). Good thing we’d packed some deviled eggs for breakfast!

Once at the villa, we unpacked the kitchen and washed the dishes! Note the wonderful old stone sink (placed about knee-high for Americans but just right for turn-of-the-century Italian widows) with the clever dish pan arrangement.

Our tradition is to have our first meal at our favorite local restaurant, Corallo in Porcari, twenty-years ago an overnight stop for long-haul truck drivers, but now rather more spiffy.

Always good food, including our favorites: spaghetti alle vongole:

and pizza con mascarpone, speck e rucola.

We had a couple of nice visits with our wonderful friend and helpmate, Beate, a German woman of extraordinary language skills who has spent the past 26 years in Lucca, lately as a primary person at the local tourist office. We joined her for a quick meal in Lucca (Piccolo Mondo self-service):

and enjoyed a lovely dinner with her at the villa when she recounted the fabulous long trip she took through the US in 1964.

We went on Thursday to the Lucca Vespa dealer and picked out our scooter for our travels: a 300cc “Super” with every available luggage rack. (photos when we pick it up!) Deb was particularly pleased to have a new helmet since our old ones had seen better days.

On Sunday, we agonized over whether to return to our favorite “serious” restaurant, Cecco in Pescia, founded in 1906 and since then the go-to place for your wedding reception or other serious occasion. Highly professional waiters and very good food but we’d had a disastrous experience there last year with the proprietor’s unruly children screaming at the next table. In the end, we did go and had a lovely meal: asparagus risotto:

capeletti in brodo:

and our favorite pollo al mattone (their specialty):

If that chicken doesn’t look like much you need to imagine a crisp skin (quite evident) with meltingly soft and juicy interior, well marinated and quickly cooked in a very hot iron frying pan under a heavy brick. (We’ve tried to duplicate this at home but American chickens are too thick to make it work; perhaps we should try guinea hens.)

We had several trips into Lucca where we enjoyed our favorite stand-up pizza slice joint, Felice’s (can you find us in this picture?):


They make a Tuscan specialty, cecina, a chickpea flatbread:

as well as the most delicious generic pizza you’ve ever tasted; how they can raise something so ordinary to such a superior level is for me a real mystery.

More very soon! (We’re off with Antonio to pick up the Vespa; since non-residents can’t own motor vehicles in Italy, he has to be the formal owner!)

Well, the perfect result!

May 24, 2011 by B Ruml

Tuesday, May 24; Camigliano. We had many, many doubts about whether we would succeed in getting a Vespa which was suitable for our trip. The major problem was that I, as a non-resident of Italy, could not be the owner of the Vespa. We arranged to have a friend of Beate become the owner in the event that we would not be able to enlist Antonio for the job. Happily, with Beate’s help, Antonio was agreeable and he went beyond the call of duty in dealing with the astoundingly incompetent Vespa salesman we wound up dealing with. (Apparently, if you’re Italian, this is all very ordinary and not a cause of angst, but for me the number of times the salesman promised to do something and obviously could have cared less about following through was a serious cause of heartburn.) Well, in the end it all worked out superbly and here’s the photo of us with Antonio and the new Vespa:

I can report as a result of driving it home from Lucca that it’s a completely different experience from the Vespas I’ve driven in the past — all used and all of very modest power but certainly perfectly suitable for the kind of running around the neighborhood (i.e., going for coffee at the local bar about 2 km away) that we’ve done with our current 6-year-old ET4 (150cc). The new Vespa is fully powered (the speedometer goes to 160kph!) and is very quiet at all speeds. We’ll have no trouble keeping up with traffic on the national roads in Italy and Greece. Whoopie!

[And yes, Niki, it's fire engine red!]

Checking whether the fantasies can be realized

May 25, 2011 by B Ruml

Wednesday, May 25; Camigliano. We started the day with Deb driving the car into Lucca (I followed on the Vespa) to turn it in at Avis. Look Ma, no car:

For those not familiar with Lucca, it’s got intact defensive walls from the 16th century (in order to avoid conquest by that aggressive neighbor Pisa). They are the most typical aspect of the city:

We had a typical lunch in the park beside the villa. Here’s the best photo I’ve ever been able to take of the mountains just behind (the villa’s in the foothills of the mountains on the north side of the Arno valley as to flows from Florence to Pisa) — there’s usually too much dust in the air to get a clear view of the mountains.

including prosciutto and melon (a variety we don’t get in the US; much sweeter and just the right complement for the prosciutto):

and mozzarella di bufala, straight from Campagna (although we can now get it flown in to Boston, the shelf life is short), here with basil and oregano. By carefully watching the producer and sell-by date we can get something wonderfully fresh and creamy at the local Carrefour.

We were delighted to see that the villa mascot, Harry, was still alive and kicking. He’s been puttering around the park for at least a decade.

Our big task for the day was to see whether we could actually fit the few things we intend to take with us into the small bags we can carry on the Vespa. Everything on the bed goes and anything else stays!

As you can see, we managed! The backpack on Deb’s back has everything she’ll wear for two months and the one on the floorboard (between my feet) has my clothing. The bag on the front turns out to be marginally too big but it’s the only feasible candidate (out of perhaps a half-dozen) so we’re going to try to tough it out. It contains all the hard things like toiletries and shoes. The laptop and picnic kit go in the top box with the iPad2 in a shoulder bag which I’ll carry. (Full final details when we’ve been on the road for a few days.)

Tomorrow we take our test drive to Pisa and Viareggio!

You can ignore this post!

May 25, 2011 by B Ruml

Sorry to interrupt the story with administrative details but I wanted to get the papers for the Vespa online so they could be accessed in all events. Whether the relevant policeman/customs agent will be satisfied many be another story.


Tax receipt:

Insurance certificate:

Vespa roadside assistance info:

Getting ready: done! Going: tomorrow!

May 26, 2011 by B Ruml

Thursday, May 26; Camigliano. We’ve just returned from our test drive to Pisa, Viareggio and back. We left at 11:45a (not exactly pushing the envelope) and were back at 4:30p; 120km in 4:45 with perhaps 1:20 in rest stops. So, not at all as fast an average speed as I was estimating: perhaps 35km/hour. The good news, however, is that we were going as fast as all the cars around us and, had we been in a car, we would have made the same average speed. The bad news is that our first day, tomorrow, to Arezzo (140km) will take a full 4 hours on the road. We then have shorter hops to Urbino and Ancona to catch the Sunday ferry leaving at 1:30p.

Last night, for our last dinner out before leaving we were again at Corallo. Deb wanted the quattro formaggi pizza, which is certainly fine, just not as special as my favorite.

We could not have a meal at Corallo without eating the spaghetti alle vongole — even in top-drawer restaurants, we’ve never encountered such a great version. Since you’ve already seen the dish as served, here’s a look at the detritus, to me just as appetizing as the dish itself.

We are now starting each day with a stop at the local baker who makes the most fabulous raised sugar doughnuts I’ve ever had, light as air with enormous grains of sugar all over:

Then on to our favorite bar, Dolcidea.

On the test drive, our first stop was in Pisa, at the Torre Pendente of course. We persuaded a nice fellow tourist to snap our picture.

Then on to Viareggio, the premiere (if no longer the most fashionable) beach resort in Tuscany. We stopped to admire the 1922 Hotel Principe di Piemonte. After walking through the swank public rooms and seeing the dining room set up for afternoon buffet, we decided that someday we should spend a few nights there. The hotel’s private beach club across the street is almost as large as the main building. (You’ll notice a certain scooter that will become very familiar as the summer wears on.)

Before leaving we stopped at a fancy cafe for local gelato (a chocolate fondente which was in fact the equal of my favorite in Lucca) and granita di limone: very refreshing!

Apollo willing, we’ll report tomorrow evening from Arezzo.

Exceptional first day out

May 28, 2011 by B Ruml

Friday, May 27; Arezzo. A most successful first day out! We learned a few things about the iPad map application: if you don’t want to travel on the autostrade, then you set the mode to “walking” and you get the shortest distance not on toll roads, BUT you are occasionally directed to public ways which have not yet been paved! So it takes a little trial and error. Which added about 25 km to our expected distance. But the weather was perfect, the roads were much, much better than those around and west of Lucca (our trial run) and so our time was considerably better than expected: we left at 10:50a and arrived in Arezzo at 3:50p with perhaps 1:20 of map consultations, rest stops, and lunch. So, all told, average running speed of 45km/hour.

As we left the villa, Antonio was kind enough to snap our picture:

We had decided to take the better local roads and started out going the familiar way to Altopascio, then toward Empoli which we reached in 50 minutes. Coffee! We then found ourselves in central Tuscany skirting Florence to the south. The road was very winding and hilly with absolutely gorgeous views on either side. It reminded us of why we were on a scooter instead of inside a car. Had we been in a car we would have been frustrated at being able to go only 35mph; on the Vespa, this was just right and we could absorb everything we were seeing.

When we got to Arezzo, we searched for the tourist office (very obscure) and were given great help in selecting a B&B in town — they even had a tiny garage for the Vespa! Our room:

We spent a couple of hours walking around finding the places we remembered from our last time in Arezzo. When we returned to our B&B we noticed that the market on the corner had “Oggi, porchetta”!

We bought some and consumed most of it with our two large bottles of beer.

We then showered and decided to try the very local, very old (1890) trattoria recommended by our host. Oops, we’re the only ones here at 8:30p! Nonetheless, very fine local cooking including the local enormous spaghetti (called pici) with wild boar sauce:

and tagliatelle with lepre (hare):

We were vastly amused to see the extremely lively Friday night scene in the local piazza. In particular, a wine bar with glasses of French and Italian wines for 3.50 and 4 euros; a hundred patrons!

Day two: over the mountains to the Adriatic

May 28, 2011 by B Ruml

Saturday, May 28; Pesaro (Fenile). You might think that after the wonderful experience we had yesterday, today would have been a bit of a letdown — I was a bit worried about that. But, no. We started with a superior breakfast (warm croissants):

and left town at 10:50a headed east. The unknown was whether it would be difficult (and cold) going over the Apennines to the coast but, in fact, it was warm (although cooler than on the plain) and a fun kind of challenge to make all those hairpin turns. Occasionally I could glance at the spectacular views but Deb certainly had her fill. About 2pm we pulled into Urbino which was originally going to be our stop for the night. On the way, we remembered that the last time we were in Urbino we’d had the most marvelous truffled pasta, with the proprietor displaying his mason jar of truffles for us to admire. So we drove into the center of the walled city (no cars allowed) and parked in the main square. Alongside was an upscale restaurant doing a land-office business on its open-air terrace but with most customers ready to leave. We checked the menu and, sure enough, tagliatelle al tartuffo.

We also had a very nice bresaola with parmiggiano:

Thus fortified, we decided to go for Pesaro, a coastal resort town that Deb’s friends had raved about. We pulled in at 3:30p and went to the tourist office. Less luck this time. The place listed at 27 euros a night for a double was being renovated (into a higher bracket, no doubt) and other candidates were booked. We finally settled on a rural inn/restaurant at 60€. It was attractive, in part, because it was right next to a town having its annual food festival. Of course, we went — and watched a pasta-making contest for youngsters:

and ate (more) tagliatelle, this time with fava beans:

and a very good mixed grill — the fanciest yet with sausage, rib, chicken and pork.

The B&B was way overpriced but very quiet with friendly hosts.

[60; 27.50; XXX]

OK, now for the “Around Greece” part

May 30, 2011 by B Ruml

Monday, May 30; Paleokastritsa. We’ve got lots to tell but need to be brief here because we’re on a local restaurant’s WiFi. Great (!) ferry trip arriving at 5:30a in Igoumenitsa, stop at a bakery for breakfast, and further 7:30a ferry to Corfu. A quick trip out to Paleokastritsa on the west coast (20km) where we’re ensconced in a delightful cottage. Looks easily nice enough for serveral days of relaxation. We’ll be back with pix and details as soon as we find a phone store that can sell us SIMs for the iPad and laptop 3G key; remarkably we circled Corfu Town twice looking and could not find one. [28 ferry; 35; 28; 20]

Onto the best ferry ever!

June 1, 2011 by B Ruml

Sunday, May 29; At sea. [written Wed] We awoke in our shabby room outside Pesaro looking forward to breakfast at the inn/restaurant we were staying in — we’d made arrangements the night before to eat at 7:30a. No one around and our table was set with two tiny bottles of juice and cellophane wrapped pastries. No way! We headed out to the local bar and had our cappuccini. We packed up and got out as fast as possible.

A pleasant drive on empty roads to Ancona where we pulled up to a nearly empty terminal at 10:30a and bought our tickets.

We went into Ancona center, inspected the Sunday flea market (stunningly awful old china and bric-a-brac), and had some more cappuccino. With nothing more to divert us, we headed to the port and went to the head of the line with six touring motorcycles.

A very long wait while the ferry pulled in and unloaded. We couldn’t believe the number of tractor-trailers that emerged (almost all of them very high-end in showroom condition — clearly the elite of long-haul truckers); we understood once we got inside the ferry ourselves: there were two full decks each with six lanes across.

As you can see, we were on the SuperFast line. We’ve had a fair amount of experience with Greek ferries and none of it caused us to look forward to this voyage. But this ferry was amazing: perhaps three years old it beat the QE2 by a long shot. I should have taken more pictures to demonstrate but here’s a view of the table-service dining room awaiting its patrons.


When the time came (an hour earlier than expected so we guessed that we were headed for a new time zone), we repaired to the self-service cafeteria for an enormous serving of “pork tenderloin” and a Greek salad.

We’d decided that, with our 5:30a debarkation, it didn’t make sense to spend the large sum for a cabin, so we plugged in the iPad and read New Yorkers until midnight. Then we went to our “airplane seats” in an inboard room containing about 30 of them (our ticket was an electronic key to the room) and dozed off. [610km; ferry: 105; 0; 24; 21]