Pulpology: Mark & Sonia's Intercontinental Absurdities!

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30 September 2009
LOCKED UP ABROAD: Piobbico Edition

Oh my, friends and neighbors, what a day.

It was one of those episodes you might read about in travel-gone-wrong books like "There's No Toilet Paper on the Road Less Traveled" or "No Touch Monkey." Or, in another reality, we might have been featured on that terrifying NatGeo series "Locked Up Abroad."

close call!

Fortunately, things worked out well enough that we're able to laugh about the whole incident. But it was a close call.

Part One: lunchtime FAIL
Taverna della RoccaThe day started out with a second attempt to get our grilled-slabs-of-meat fix at Taverna della Rocca. Though we'd been unsuccessful the prior evening, we'd noticed a sign stating that the restaurant would be closed "for holidays" the entire month of October. This is a pretty common thing in Italy, where merchants will often close up shop for weeks or months at a time, seemingly on a whim. We counted our blessings that we had one last day left in September, and carefully made sure that the Taverna would be serving lunch on September 30. One last chance to avenge our salumi mistake from the night before!

We drove to Frontone at breakneck speed, because we'd learned the hard way that lunch is rarely served beyond 2pm, and we didn't want to miss the narrow window. Arriving at the top of the mountain, we tore up the street only to find Taverna della Rocca completely closed up. No evidence it had been open at all that day. Ehm, excuse me? What gives??? Nothing. Not a salsiccia to spare.

(We learned later that the proprietors had decided to shut down a day early. I guess anyone who would close their restaurant for an entire month isn't too concerned with precision. Typical!)

Part Two: in and out of tight spaces
this is where the car almost got wedgedBorghettoAfter a brief stop in the scenic town of Cagli, we continued on to Piobbico to check out Castello Brancaleoni. This 13th century castle was another spot that had peaked our interest after we'd read about it in the Tavola Marche blog. In an attempt to get as close to the castello entrance as possible, however, we found ourselves driving around Borghetto, the tiny medieval village that surrounds the castle grounds. Gradually the streets got narrower and narrower, until finally we reached a tight corner that it just didn't seem possible to fit the car through. Well, now what? Go for it, and risk getting completely wedged in? Or try to drive in reverse, uphill, with about two inches of clearance on either side of the car? The latter seemed the lesser of two evils. So, under the watchful gaze of two alley cats, and with Mark doing his best air traffic controller impression, I sl-l-l-l-o-w-w-w-w-ly backed the car out of the pinched lane, managing to neither knock down the several nearby motorcycles nor scrape any paint off the car.

Crisis averted. But the best was yet to come.

Part Three: (almost) locked up abroad
this was almost our room for the nightWe finally made it to Castello Brancaleoni, perched on a hilltop overlooking Piobbico and Monte Nerone. It was no surprise that the castle museum was closed, it being the slow season. But the sign out front said the castle grounds were open until 6:15. So we wandered in, poked around a bit, admired the views, horsed around. I was in the middle of snapping scenic shot #3042, when Mark paused and said "I think they're closing up. We should get out of here." We both heard a clanging sound, like a heavy gate closing. Hm, guess it's time to leave.

Castello Brancaleoni's main gateAt that point it seemed wisest to haul ass towards the main gate, which was now closed and locked with a huge iron padlock. Merda!!! Fortunately I noticed someone on the other side of the gate, just about to drive off. Mark and I both waggled our arms frantically through the bars, now in a mild panic, trying to get the attention of the person who'd just locked us in the castle for the night. How could she not know there were still visitors inside??? The place is not that big, and we'd been behaving like our typical rambunctious American selves. It didn't add up, but we had little time to ponder this and life's other mysteries, as our entire energy was spent flagging down the keymaster before she drove off.

the keymaster returns!Thankfully this woman spied our deranged wiggling appendages, and, looking somewhat surprised and just a tad chagrined, she came back up the hill and opened the gate. "Oh," says she, "I didn't know you were in there." Really. You don't say. Apparently there's some kind of motion-sensor alarm system in the castle, so we probably wouldn't have had to spend the entire night on the chilly stone floor. But how much fun would it have NOT been for the cops show up to bail out the stupid American turistas who got themselves stuck in Castello Brancaleoni?

So, in the end, we made it out alive and mostly unscathed. As you can see from the photos, it wasn't even 6pm yet. Which is a laughably rational and American thing to say, given that (a) who even knows if that clock has the right time on it? and (b) just because the sign says something is open until 6:15 has absolutely no basis in Italian reality. They open and close whenever they feel like it!

After that series of heart-pounding experiences, we decided to cut our losses and head back to the farmhouse for a nice mellow meal in our apartment. Yikes. All's well that ends well, but this was more excitement than even *we* had bargained for.

* all Piobbico pics
* all Frontone pics
* Can you smell what the Rocca's cooking?

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29 September 2009
Can you smell what the Rocca's cooking?
Castello di Frontone & Taverna della Rocca

On recommendation from the LTM blog we decided to drive to nearby Frontone to check out the castle. It looked like an excellent place to check out the sunset, and indeed it was!

Castello di FrontoneThe castle itself is not open in low season (September-May), except for weekends. So we weren't able to climb to the very tippy-top of the mountain, but we got pretty close. Frontone is located in the Cesano Valley, less than an hour's drive from LTM. I couldn't say whether or not there's anything worth seeing in the town proper, because we headed straight for the castle, which is perched atop a singular hill and surrounded by an ancient medieval hamlet. Coolness!

Mark on Frontone's main dragWe wandered around a bit, admiring the back alleys and as much of the castle as we could see. The astounding views were nearly 360°, with Umbria just off to the southwest, and the hills & villages of Le Marche in all other directions. And then the sun began to set. It was one of those jaw-dropping sunsets where the light just keeps getting more and more gorgeous. Where you can't decide whether to sit and drool, or take *one more* beautiful picture. (So, of course, we did some of both.) We enjoyed a front-row seat to nature's spectacular lightshow at Ristorante Amabile, over limoncellos and a plate of formaggio misto. Very civilized, indeed.

golden hour in the Cesano Valley I kept promising to put my camera down, but couldn't! going... going... one last blaze of glory

those griller ladies move fast!Dinner was just up the "street" at Taverna della Rocca, former stables carved into the side of the mountain. What a show! The dining room centered around an enormous wood-burning grill, with ladies in white uniforms tossing huge logs into the fire and jostling beds of coals on which they grilled sausages and other meaty goodness. We couldn't tell under the long sleeves, but guessed these gals must've had huge guns from endless hours of cooking. The smells coming from the grill were tantalizing to the max.

sadly, not the mixed grill (awesome piadine tho)We started off with a lovely plate of ravioli with duck ragu, plus some house wine, of course. But then, for the next course, we made a fatal blunder. We saw cinghale (wild boar) on the menu and were immediately intrigued, but mixed up salsicce (sausage) with salumi (thin-sliced cured salami) and wound up with something more akin to an antipasto plate. Rookie mistake! In our defense, this particular item was mixed in with the main courses, on a totally different page from the antipasti. But it was still a crushing defeat after sitting next to the grill all evening and watching plate after plate of meat go by. In retrospect, we could probably have asked for just one or two sausages, but instead we opted for a decadent dessert of profiteroles. And vowed to come back the next day, perhaps for lunch, to avenge our error.

Ristorante Amabile
Via Leopardi, 2
61040 Frontone (PU)
+39 0721 790710

Taverna della Rocca
Via Leopardi, 22
61040 Frontone (PU)
+39 0721 786109

* La Tavola Marche blog - Frontone
* all Frontone pics


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27 September 2009
Get down get funghi
Festa di Fungo in San Sisto

piles and piles of fabulous funghi
piles and piles of fabulous funghi

It was worth it just for the scenery alone: a mountainous drive to the hilltop town of San Sisto for the annual Mushroom Festival. Great funghi, and lots of awesome pecorino cheese to sample. Turbo-yum! We bought a bag of mushrooms and some cheese to bring back to the farmhouse for dinner.

local pecorino cheeses
local pecorino cheeses

superfriendly cheese merchant
superfriendly cheese merchants

dig the views
dig the views en route to the fest

Related links:
* all pics from San Sisto

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26 September 2009
A Le Marche Fairytale

Once upon a time, a brown-eyed girl who worked for a hospitality company, and a blue-eyed boy who loved to cook visited Italy for a month. They had such a gorgeous time that almost immediately upon returning home they began to scheme of how to move back to Italy for good. Perhaps they'd combine their passion for travel with their love of slow food and wine, and show other travelers how best to enjoy all the bounties that Italy has to offer...?

Ashley & JasonWell, as it turns out, the girl in this story is named Ashley, and the boy's name is Jason, and they are our most-gracious hosts here at La Tavola Marche. But the similarities to a certain other pair of intrepid travelers *are* striking, are they not?

The FarmhouseAs predicted, these are our people. We have very much been enjoying getting to know Ashley & Jason and the rest of the guests at this lovely agriturismo, housed in a 300-year-old farmhouse in the rolling hills of the Le Marche region. Our first few minutes here, after driving several hours from Treviso, involved launching headfirst into a sumptuous multi-course meal, populated with local treats and loot from the LTM garden out back. We hadn't even seen our room yet, but Ashley made sure we finished off the meal with a cherry liqueur she made by hand alongside the mayor's mother. They surely do have their priorities straight in these parts!

LTM garden
La Tavola Marche garden

We look forward to more philosophical chats with A&J, hearing the story of how such a young couple made such a successful transition to this lifestyle, and exploring the local delicacies of the region. (Supposedly there's a mushroom festival in a nearby town. Rock on!) We're here for a short two weeks and I suspect we'll not want to leave. This place already feels like "happily ever after."

Related links:
* all photos of La Tavola Marche
* La Tavola Marche site | blog

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25 September 2009
Photo Friday: Treviso spritz

spritz, oktapodi, and penne al salmone at Piola in Treviso
spritz, oktapodi, and penne rosate at Piola in Treviso

due spritz at Due Piano in Treviso
due spritz at Due Piano in Treviso

A spritz -- made with prosecco, soda water, and aperol (which gives it that ethereal orange color) -- is a uniquely Venetian drink. We enjoyed several during our time in Treviso, a Venice suburb where we couchsurfed for a few days before heading to Le Marche. Molto delicioso!

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23 September 2009
Pic of the day: yarrrr, squiddy

On a wonderful tip from the Journeywoman site, we had dinner at Trattoria alla Madonna, just off the Ponte Rialto. Couldn't recommend this place more highly! To say the waiters are friendly is a vast understatement. (Ours was like an Italian version of Kramer from Seinfeld.) And I absolutely had to try the spaghetti con nero di seppie -- squid ink! -- which is definitely not for the faint of heart. But I loved it! My one recommendation, if you're going to try this dish, is to be sure to wear black, as it is a messy mofo.

I conquered the squid ink pasta, bambini!

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22 September 2009
Pic of the day: bella Venezia

Ah, Venice! So many adventures, so little time. More to come, but in the meantime here's a quick pic showing just one of many fabulous Venetian views. Everywhere you look, it's a picture-postcard view. We <3 Venezia, big time!

on the Grand Canal in Venice

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19 September 2009
Triple-zen day in Firenze

Supposedly 9/9/09 was the most auspcious day this year, but for us it was all about 9/19/09. It was one of those picture-perfect days that started out great and kept getting better.

Thanks to @italylogue's fantastic tip, we found the last-minute ticket window to get our Uffizi tickets. True to the article's description, it was a bit tricky to find, and so nondescript that the uninformed would likely pass right by. But we had the inside scoop! It's located on the busy Via dei Calzaiuoli, embedded in the Orsanmichele church. We got same-day tickets to the Uffizi, no waiting in line, no fuss. It is cash-only, though, so be prepared for that. And there's a €4 fee. Totally worth it!

view of Firenze from the Duomo Campanile

We had plenty of time before our 3:30 museum reservations to check out the Duomo complex. The outside of the church is spectacular, although the inside wasn't all that impressive. We debated whether to climb to the top of the dome or the belltower. At €6,50 each, not to mention all those stairs, it was an either/or scenario. Both afford awesome views, but if you go up the Campanile di Giotto, you also get the iconic dome in your pics. So that's what we did. The reward for hoofing it up all those steps, in increasingly tighter spaces, is a stunning view of Florence's red tile rooftops, Tuscan hills in the distance, and an impossibly blue sky with fluffy white clouds. Che bella!

Mark on the Uffizi patio

After a few scoops of gelato to undo any good we'd just done by climbing all those stairs, we headed to the Uffizi. Neither of us is really a museum person, but we spent almost three hours viewing a staggering array of art (and dodging huge Asian tour groups). We finished up on the outdoor patio with yet more gorgeous views of the Palazzo and Duomo.

busy corner outside the Uffizi

Our first real Moment of Zen that day came when we bought the Italian version of Two-buck Chuck at a tiny snack stand outside the Uffizi. I LOVE this country! We sat on the edge of the Loggia, sipped our €2,20 bottle of wine, ate some snacks, and watched the world go by. Students sketched the marble statues, a nearby busker performed on guitar, and tourists streamed past this historic corner en route to or from the Piazza della Signoria. Life did not suck.

Il Santino treats Il Santino cheese dude
Moment of Zen #2 happened shortly thereafter, as we strolled across the Ponte Vecchio into the Oltrarno neighborhood and found the most perfect wine bar. Il Santino Gastronomia, which is next door to Il Santino Ristorante, is a tiny little shop with gorgeous lighting and exposed brick. The cheese dude behind the counter sliced up paper-thin strips of lardo on crostini to start us off, while an adorable waitress brought a fabulous bottle of wine (which was only slightly pricier than the last one, at a whopping €9) and delectable piatto di formaggio. The whole scene was so magical that we got another round, and sat mulling over plans to open up a place like this in DC. It was perfection. And they invited us to come back the next night for their anniversary celebration. Sold!

nostra bagagli!

Moment of Zen #3: just when the day couldn't get any more fabulous, we got back to our locanda to find that our bags had arrived! And we didn't even have to schlep to the airport to get them; someone had delivered them right to our room. It was a poetic ending to a perfect day. We may never come home.

Related links:
* all photos from Florence
* Il Santino on the map

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18 September 2009
Photo Friday: Ponte Vecchio at night

shops closed up for the night

Ponte Vecchio and River Arno

oktapodi si piace il Ponte Vecchio

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17 September 2009
Arrival in Italy: settling the score

So far, the count is Mark & Sonia 2, airlines 1.

You may recall that back in June I scored an amazing fare from DC - Rome. It required a quick stop in JFK, which seemed totally worth it at the time.

The commuter flight left Dulles on time, and even arrived in New York a bit early. Then we got to our departure gate at JFK and found that the Rome segment had been totally oversold. They were looking for volunteers to give up their seat in exchange for a $600 voucher. Sweet! I'd always wanted to do that. And the voucher was worth $200 more than we'd paid for the original flight. They would re-route us through Venice to Rome, and we'd only arrive 2 hours later, coming away with $1200 to use for our next trip. Seemed like a win-win situation.

Well, we all know there's no such thing as a free lunch. Or a free flight.

Getting to Rome was a breeze, but when we arrived and asked for the Delta baggage counter (since our bags had come over on the original flight), they told us to go to Terminal C. And of course when we got there, no bags. And they told us we had to go back to Terminal A to file a claim with Alitalia, the SkyTeam partner airline that had flown us from Venice to Rome. So we trooped back to the original terminal, irrationally hoping that perhaps our bags were sitting over there somewhere and we'd be able to go on our merry way. Foolish mortals.

The Alitalia lady was quite pleasant, but since at least two systems were down she had no way of telling us where our bags had ended up. Lovely. We filed a claim and continued to Florence as planned, since we'd already booked our stay there and there was no way to know when our stuff would show up.

Here's where things really got interesting. There's a small railway station in the airport that connects you to the main Rome Termini, the departure point for trains heading all over the country. You can buy your tickets at a kiosk or at a window. We decided to avoid the throngs of Japanese tour groups at the window and use the machine. Fatal flaw! While it happily spit out our two tickets (one to Rome Termini, one to Florence) and charged about the amount I'd been expecting based on advice from my tweeps, it said the next train would be leaving in about half an hour. Turns out that was the departure for the train from Rome Termini to Florence! But we didn't realize that at the time, and hopped the Leonardo Express to head downtown. The train was incredibly hot, and the jetlag was catching up, so we dozed a bit. Groggily stepping off the train in Rome Termini about an hour later, everything came crashing down. The "Express" had spit us out at the far end of the station, so just getting to the main area with all the connecting train info had a bit of a Spinal Tap feel to it. When we finally found an information booth, the grumpy little man told us we'd missed our train, and we'd need to find a Trenitalia office to exchange the tickets. This turned into about an hourlong ordeal, as we managed to find every OTHER kiosk where you could buy tickets, but not the official Trenitalia counter which is literally on the farmost opposite end of the station from where we started. (It's right inside the door if you're coming in from the street though.) Long story short, we exchanged our tix, found the track for the departing train, and quite exhaustedly flopped aboard.

And reminded ourselves that even the most irritating day of travel is better than a day at work.

Piazza de Santa Maria Novella

After a gorgeous 90-minute train ride through breathtaking Tuscan landscape (we'll see you later, hill towns and wineries!) we arrived in Florence and easily found our hostel. Soggiorno Prestipino is a five-minute walk from the Santa Maria Novella train station, so the location can't be beat. It's small but clean, well-priced (especially for Florence), and the management are a friendly bunch. Highly recommended!

Pappa al Pomodoro, the ultimate Tuscan comfort food

We scraped off some of the road grime and wandered out for a late meal. With plenty of options to choose from, we tried to find something on a small side street that didn't look too touristy or too expensive (these are actually one and the same in Italy). We picked a charming little trattoria and had the first of no doubt many fabulous meals: a steaming bowl of Pappa al Pomodoro, glistening with fresh olive oil, and some house wine that utterly hit the spot. Topped off with a tiramisu so good it brings tears of gratitude to your eyes. Ahhhhh, yes! That's the stuff!

Tiramisu to make you weep

With any luck they'll track down our bags soon, and settle the final score at 3-1 in our favor. But in the meantime it's not going to stop us from enjoying the best that Italy has to offer!

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07 September 2009
Chicago 2009: maximum consumption and maximum family

Kathy & Dad at Fulton's on the RiverWe managed to survive another infamous Zamborsky wedding celebration, barely emerging with our livers intact, as usual. Dad & Kathy had actually gotten married in Rome earlier this summer, and this was the second of two celebrations to commemorate the occasion and give the two families a chance to meet. I'm not gonna lie; the whole thing was a little surreal and somewhat bittersweet. That aside, we had a lovely time overeating and overdrinking and meeting lots and lots of Owens family members. They are a clan after our own hearts: raucous, numerous, and they know how to knock back a few.

BeanscapeBetween all the overindulgence, it was a great time to wander around Chicago. Awesome weather. Jazz Fest in Grant Park. Oprahpalooza shutting down Michigan Ave. And to make things even more festive, the Marriott was overrun with partying Ugandans. (Check out a snippet from Sonia's Ugandan dance lesson.) It was quite a weekend.

We have only a short time to detox from all these festivities before heading to Italy, but it was worth it. Any opportunity to gather the fam together in one place = good times!

the Zamborsky clan, minus Kathy

Related links:
Photo + Video Friday: Chicago is our kind of town
* all Chicago pics

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06 September 2009
Pic of the day: riverside dinner

family dinnr at Fulton's on the River
family dinner at Fulton's on the River

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05 September 2009
Pic of the day: Millennium Park

Millennium Park's Lurie Gardens
critters and native prairie plants in Millennium Park's Lurie Gardens

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04 September 2009
Photo + Video Friday: Chicago is our kind of town

Chicago is oktapodi's kind of town
Chicago is oktapodi's kind of town!

Sonia's Ugandan dance lesson

We're in Chicago for a weekend of family stuff, and here are two highlights from our first day. Apparently there's some Ugandan cultural event happening at the Chicago Downtown Marriott, and we hadn't even gotten to our room yet before getting accosted by some exceedingly friendly folks from the Ugandan Ministry of Tourism. Not only did they regale us with facts about their country, but I got a free dance lesson. Never a dull moment!

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