This photo was taken by a couple from the UK (on the BMW to the right) whom we met at a cafe.

Across the Pyrenees (2017)

Our last day on the road! We awoke in our ferry cabin at 6am which would be the normal time to evacuate for housekeeping but since we were an hour and a half late leaving, nothing was happening. We inquired and learned that we would make it into Bastia just before 8:30a when our connecting ferry was due to depart. And indeed as we drove off the ferry, there it was, just pulling away!

The next ferry was at 2pm so Deb arranged for the new tickets and we retired to a very pleasant café/bakery in the middle of town. For four hours! It eventually passed and we were delighted when our new ferry headed off to Livorno.

A perfectly boring trip (which is good!). After disembarking, we headed home immediately, about an hour and a half. Just before Altopascio, we stopped at our favorite “we’re almost home” bar and had an Aperol spritz to celebrate.

Home just before 8pm; nothing to eat at home so we made the best of a bad situation by going to the just-barely adequate local pizzeria. I was pleased that they would make me my favorite off-menu pizza: mascarpone, speck and rucola.

The Vespa’s odometer was 20,166 when we left; it’s now 23,045; that’s 2,879km or 1789 miles: roughly Boston to Chicago and back to Springfield. What makes that distance meaningful is that the average speed was between 30 and 35mph. Touring on a Vespa avoids the car touring sense of being in a container (one’s right out there) and the mistake of going too fast; and it avoids the downside of cycling: too tired to appreciate what’s out there. We think it’s ideal

To sleep! And in our own bed!

B and Deb

Since we’re spending our time settling in and getting set up, there are only a few highlights to report. Deb’s iPhone was restored to service for outgoing calls, we had a visit and estimate from Antonio’s recommended carpenter for the restoration and painting of the wooden doors throughout the villa, and we were amused by the series of 100 degree plus days which caused great gnashing of Italian teeth — at the villa we were high enough to be several degrees cooler and to have a constant breeze; inside the thick walls of the villa, it was even cooler and the heat wave passed without discomfort.

We celebrated our return by going to Buca di Sant-Antonio (Lucca’s very esteemed destination restaurant) for lunch on Sunday. We had a poached rabbit roll (the red smear remained a mystery!),

mousse of Baccala,

and repeated from last time the wonderful tagliatelle with truffles (highlight of the meal):

We’ve been eating lightly at lunch, often panini, but Deb has come up with a terrific cold tuna pasta salad made with “pipe”, a snail-shell-like shape:

And the caprese salad is always a winner.

Can’t fail to mention the killer lemonade Deb turned out; I’ve been begging for more. Cocktail hour has meant mostly negronis with the occasional Aperol spritz.

Perhaps something truly exciting will happen next week!

B and Deb

Well, it’s been three weeks since we reported the memorable things which have occurred. That means that not much happens when you’re at home working away on your projects!

But there are a few things we want to remember. Perhaps most of all, we received a CARE package from Antonio from his garden, something that’s always a pleasure and sometimes a challenge when we get something unfamiliar. In this case, Antonio told us not to eat the flower!

Being at home means we can cook our favorite things such as this leg of lamb:

the leftovers from which go into a Jean-Georges lamb sandwich with roasted peppers, arugula, and basil mayo:

We thought that Italy would be a good place to try Mario’s pork tenderloin recipe which is in regular rotation in Cambridge. But, it turns out that the tenderloin is not a standard cut here — it’s kept on the bone and cut as a T-bone pork chop. But we were able to order one from the butcher at our local supermarket and it worked out fine. The leftovers went into a pork sandwich bearing a distinct resemblance to the lamb sandwich:

Another great favorite, beef carpaccio, is made simple by the fact that the beef is sold already sliced thin at the supermarket (at right). Spread it on a plate, add EVOO and lemon juice, shave parmigiano over it, and cover with arugula. Quick and delicious!

And a very successful homemade fettuccine with gorgonzola sauce and walnuts:

I did finally convince Deb to make her chocolate cake so I wouldn’t have to make chocolate chip cookies!

We also instituted a bedtime dessert consisting of the chocolate gelato from a Gelateria in Lucca which is famous for it. You can compare the size of the containers to gauge the demand.

Of course, we took advantage of trips to Lucca to eat again at Buca di Sant’Antonio with their unbeatable tagliolini with truffles:

And a grilled baby goat secondo:

We always have a bottle of Le Volte, a second-growth Ornellaia super tuscan wine from the Maremma (25 euros; 19 at the wine store). All in all, it would be impossible to get this meal for this price in the US.

We had hoped to have spaghetti alle vongole at Buca but the waiter said they never serve it (“We’re a Tuscan restaurant!”). We asked where to go for it and he recommended Celide, a hotel all-seafood restaurant that I had never heard of (but Deb says she’s seen for years as we drive by) on the circumferential road outside the walls. So, of course we went at lunch and were delighted to find a very serious restaurant with an 18 euro prix fixe lunchtime menu including wine and coffee. [Deb here: The posted menu does not offer vongole, so we were very happy with the lunch specials. I decided to inquire about whether they ever have vongole as I was paying the bill and learned that “of course, we serve it at dinner” and that “we could ask for it during lunch service” so next time!] No contest with Buca at an exit price of 36 euros! Here’s their fried baccala primo:

And their flash-fried tuna log; so similar to Jean-Georges’s crispy rice cracker tuna log that we wondered who had been the originator; maybe they’re both riffing off someone else. Jean-Georges is the winner with his spicy citrus sauce!

Finally, in the center of Lucca (steps from Buca) a new fish-only fast-casual restaurant unusually serving crudo has opened. We tried to persuade them that they should be serving Hawaiian poke and Peruvian ceviche and provoked only mild interest. I did try their tuna tartare three ways while Deb shopped; the best was the one with a quail egg on top:

To wrap up this food-heavy report, I’ll just say that we look forward to cocktail hour with its negronis and aperol spritzes.

We’re off to Rome tomorrow on the Vespa so should have some adventures to report!

B and Deb

[Sorry to say, we’ve gotten way behind on our final reports. This one was written contemporaneously but the two final reports (to follow) are retrospective.]

We’re on the road again! We took a leisurely amount of time to pack up and left for Rome about 11am. By 1:30pm we were in our favorite little nuclear-powered town in the mountains, Castelnuova Val di Cecina, at our favorite hotel, Il Melograno, sitting on the terrace having beer, Aperol spritzes (the daughter makes a particularly good one), and coffee along with the chicken salad Deb made for our lunch (except she forgot to continue after adding the mayo to the chicken!). A delightful pause which gave us the courage to press on all the way to Capalbio, an hour south of Grossetto.

In three minutes on near Grossetto, we had a room at an “Agrialbergo”, new construction and nicely furnished. We pulled in about 6pm (long day), unloaded, and Deb started researching dinner. She found a place on the shore 2km away which served spaghetti alle vongole, which she’d been missing, so made the reservation. When we arrived we found a very high end seafood restaurant packed with people, many of them on the veranda where we had asked to sit. We had a very decent dinner (at way over budget) including a Tuscan Vermentino (first time; it had more flavor than Ligurian or Sardinian) and a grilled Orata. To bed late.

Up promptly this morning for our breakfast but were delayed by the need to send some emails. Off to Rome at 11am, in Santa Servera at a favorite bar at 12:30p and in Rome by 1:30pm. For some strange reason, driving into Rome causes me to salivate even though I know I won’t be eating anything for a while. We unpacked at the hotel (as last year, the four-star Hotel Rezedenza Farnese, just at the rear of the Palazzo; for some unknown reason very cheap).

By 2pm we were at Volpetti Piu, our favorite lunch spot (previously a tavola calda but now up-scaled into a Taverna, meaning table service). We didn’t know what to expect but it was excellent, with portion sizes at least twice a normal large one. Here’s the burrata and grilled peppers for antipasto.

Deb liked the caccio e Pepe (which we’ve been focusing on perfecting) but I thought there was much too much Pecorino. This is half the portion size divided for our convenience.

The beef carpaccio was not the Harry’s Bar standard but with cheese crumbles and real balsamic along with a few hairy sprouts. Much better with some olive oil and lemon.

We were so stuffed that when we found out that the fabric store which was our next stop was on vacation (until tomorrow), we headed home and went to sleep.

Until we needed to show up at Baffetto at 6:20p for their 6:30p opening so we could get our favorite table (we didn’t but close). The pizzaiolo who’s been there on each of my visits over the last 35 years was, for the first time, absent but that meant we could ask his stand-in what his name is: Gregorio. The same old, same old: capriccios extra oregano and pizza bianca with fiori di zucca and anchovies.

Then for the obligatory tartuffo from Tre Scalini in Piazza Navonna.


[Written retrospectively.]

We spent the morning looking for white damask linen tablecloth fabric for special occasions around the round dining table. We found a very nice (and expensive) fabric at Deb’s favorite fabric store just north of the Campo dei Fiore. And then a second at the place which had had the best linen selection in past years. So we’re all set for special occasions!

At lunchtime we wanted to return to the restaurant which had so impressed us with their fried foods, especially artichokes. Pancrazio was quite deserted a bit before noon when we arrived.

But the artichokes were terrific! First, carciofi alla giudia (Jewish-style):

and then carciofi alla romana (Roman-style):

and some stuffed fiori di zucca (Deb’s favorite) for good measure.

We went to our favorite kitchen store / restaurant, ‘Gusto, for cocktail hour and spent a good hour looking around before settling down to classic Margarita and Aperol Spritz. Since they had (the usual) extensive assortment of free hors d’oeuvres, I think we skipped dinner completely.

We’ve had our timed tickets for the Galleria Borghese for weeks putting us among the first group of the day. We were pleased at the relatively small crowds and that, finally, after all these years (20 or so), they’ve finally given up on trying to prevent photography. Since I suspect this may be my last visit, I came home with a whole camera full. Bernini’s Pluto and Persephone:

Bernini’s unparalleled masterpiece, Apollo and Daphne:

and, finally, his David, so strikingly different from Michelangelo’s:

On the way back downtown, we stopped (as we always do) to see Bernini’s Ecstasy of Saint Teresa. If you haven’t seen Simon Schama’s “Power of Art” episode on Bernini, which focuses on St Teresa, I highly recommend it.

We had lunch at ‘Gusto, in part so we could finish our detailed examination of everything for sale (bought some lovely brioche pan shaped ceramics). Which meant more vongole and some ricotta and fresh tomato ravioli.

Neapolitan pizza at ‘Gusto for dinner. The best we’ve had outside of Naples.

Winding up our stay meant Volpetti for lunch and Baffetto for dinner. But we went to the Palazzo Barberini after ignoring it for many years and were very happy we did. Beyond a famous Raphael, they have five Caravaggios and three terrific Bernini papal busts. Also, lots of junk but that can be overlooked.

We also went for the first time to the Palazzo Spada, two blocks from the hotel, to see Borromini’s famous false perspective gallery:

Only one food picture! The cod carpaccio at lunchtime at Volpetti Taverna (note the sliced caperberries!):

Just to give you a sense for why we’re so enthusiastic about having our Vesta in Rome, here’s a picture showing where we parked while in the hotel (viz., ten feet from the door).

Multiply this convenience for every destination in the city and it becomes overwhelming. I think that by now we’re so spoiled that we probably can’t enjoy Rome any other way.

I’d always wondered each time we passed by this stretch of coast on our way to or from Rome what the numerous vacation villages one can see from the highway were like. Over Deb’s lack of enthusiasm, this year we found out. Although I had pictured a campsite with all manner of shelter, in fact each camp had its own permanent housing of high quality.

We had a couple of delightful hours on the beach with the remainder of the crowd (most people were through with the beach by 4pm), we joined everyone in the mess hall for dinner which was actually served at table. We found the food more than satisfactory as it probably had to be for people who were for practical purposes prisoners for a week. Here’s the pasta primo:

[I’d be remiss not to mention briefly our experience late in the morning after leaving Rome. We’re always amazed at how little inconvenience arises from the fact that we won’t ride the Vespa in the rain. Getting caught in a downpour occurs at most once a summer. In any event this was our time (the weather reports had predicted it days before) to be bopping along when the skies open. We immediately turned off the main road into what we hoped would be the way into some small town or other. After several kilometers, it became clear that there would be no little town ahead, and also clear that we were in for a humdinger of a rainfall. Then like magic we came across, all by itself in the middle of nowhere, a small makeshift restaurant run by some Arabs getting ready to serve lunch. We spent the next 90 minutes there watching the rain fall and eating their excellent food. The only disappointment was that the meat turning on the spit over the fire would not be cooked until dinnertime.]

Breakfast at the vacation village was ample and we got off early enough to be in Castelnuovo for an early lunch. I was surprised by the appearance on the menu of a duck rag on bucatini; it was fine but inferior to the ragu we make according to the recipe from Lupa in NYC.

Home in plenty of time for cocktail hour. To bed. Our last week starts tomorrow.


[Written retrospectively.]

Our last week was spent enjoying the terrific weather and trying to soak up the experience of being at the villa.

For the first time in 20 years, some maintenance is being done: all of the wooden exterior doors are being refinished by a local carpenter. The first set of doors came back on Wednesday and they’re beautiful. The carpenter and his brother hauled away the second set of doors (to the former billiard room, presently the Vespa garage).

Since we were several times in Lucca at lunchtime, we took advantage of our discovery of a serious seafood restaurant with an 18 euro prix fixe lunch (discovered by asking our waiter at Buca where we should go for spaghetti alle vongole, which Buca doesn’t offer). We were delighted by the vongole

and by the expert frying (zucchini blossoms, shrimp, fish).

It was only this week that our local baker came back from vacation and we could once again pick up our standing order of two doughnuts to have with coffee in the late morning. These are the best yeast doughnuts ever!

One of our last meals while cleaning out the refrigerator was particularly successful: veal scraps with mushrooms in cream.

And, finally, I need to memorialize the Vespa’s odometer as we left: 24,478 kilometers in seven summers. That’s a bit over 15,000 miles with the important qualification that they were done at an average speed of 35mph.

As this is our last report, it might be a good place to record what I consider to be the lessons we’ve learned about “how to travel.”

The number one lesson is most certainly: “bring your own amenities.” Many Americans consider a vacation as a time to live in circumstances superior to those that govern their ordinary lives. And they happily pay through the nose for those little niceties that make life more fun. We’ve discovered that it’s much safer (not to say *much* cheaper) to just pack those amenities so you’ll always have them.

For us perhaps the iconic amenity is Heinz ketchup for our pommes frites or patate fritti. It’s something we think dramatically improves the consumption of superior fries. But the chances of finding it on the table (or otherwise available by request) is approximately 6.8%. If you can simply pull a container of Heinz out of your bag, as we do, the issue just never arises.

It all started with a pepper mill. We could expect to find a pepper mill on the table or available by request when we’re in France about 70% of the time. But then we noticed that the peppercorns in the mill were typically seriously substandard. So we started packing a peppermill with the same premium Tellicherry peppercorns we use at home. Then we realized that it would be zero additional effort to carry some fleur de sel as well; while one can always find perfectly fine table salt, on those occasions where a finishing salt would send a dish to a higher plane, one really appreciates being able to pull out one’s own fleur de sel. We remember perhaps eight years ago at Cafe Boulud in NYC when we’d ask the waiter for some fleur de sel: half the time he’d assert that he had no such thing. Finally, you realize it’s just much easier to do it yourself.

So we travel with a fine bath towel, extension cords (especially an American power strip which can be plugged into the wall with a singe adapter while making a home for eight American plugs), and iDevices galore. Our latest addition to the “ketchup bag” is piment d’Espelette, the mildly spicy pepper from Espelette in the Basque country of France.

The next most important lesson has to do with finding a good restaurant in an unfamiliar place: you want to find the restaurant with the line out the door so you can go stand in it! We were once driving in rural Spain when we encountered in the middle of nowhere a restaurant for which four cars had lined up to turn left to access it. Of course, we lined up too and it was a wonderful experience. Many of the best restaurants are “destination” restaurants, ones that are not in town and that require a car to reach. You can usually spot them by the combination of remoteness and a full parking lot. One of our all-time favorites outside Aix-en-Provence was discovered in just this way. A favorite in Rome near the catacombs of St Sebastian was found just by happy accident.

One habit we have which enriches our trips is to buy some grapefruit juice in the late afternoon each day so I can have it on waking up. This gets us into the local markets every day where we can easily survey and buy the local specialties which are also on sale.

We really enjoy the process of coming into a new town in mid-afternoon and finding the best place to spend the night. Unfortunately, we’re always tempted to shortcut this process by going to, in part because we’ve found some extraordinary places there which we wouldn’t have found otherwise.

Finally, I should say that 93% of our enjoyment could be had traveling by car rather than by Vespa. We toured around France in 2010 by car but it was important that we carried with us in the back seat a table and chairs so that we could picnic at the side of a picturesque road or even in a field (Deb was concerned that the farmer would be angry but in the middle of our lunch he drove by in the distance on his tractor and waved happily at us!)

And just for the record, here are the annual portraits we took.

B and Deb