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01 October 2010
PhotoFriday Flashback: one year ago in Piobbico
Castello Brancaleoni | Piobbico, Le Marche, Italy

To give you a little break from all the Burning Man bits (and, be assured, there's lots more coming!), here's a quick snapshot from our adventures in Italy. One year ago today, we were nearly locked into Piobbico's Castello Brancaleoni for the night. No Touch Monkey!

whew, that was a close one!
whew, that was a close one!

Castello Brancaleone
Castello Brancaleoni

thank god the keymaster came back!
thank god the keymaster came back!

Borghetto, the medieval hamlet behind the castle
Borghetto, the medieval hamlet behind the castle

Check out more fabulous travel photos at Delicious Baby's Photo Friday.


RELATED LINKS:
* Read the original story: LOCKED UP ABROAD: Piobbico Edition

* Browse all Piobbico pics
* Browse all Le Marche pics
* Read all blog entries from Le Marche


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Posted by sonia at 12:00 AM | Link | 0 comments


03 February 2010
WanderFood Wednesday: a few of my favorite things, part four
small-town sustenance

mmm, ravioli with duck ragu
mmm, ravioli with duck ragu (Taverna della Rocca, Frontone)

This is the fourth and final installment in a four-part series of my favorite Italian food porn from our recent trip. The other three parts are linked below.

Part four: small-town restaurants
One could argue whether or not some of these sites are actually small towns... it's all relative once you start traveling through the Italian countryside. All of these sites were reached via daytrip from our agriturismo in Le Marche, and each had its own distinct charm. In contrast with our culinary adventures in Florence and Venice, visiting these smaller cities was much more about slow food and slow travel, sampling the local fare, and taking a deep-deep-deep breath to soak it all in. In some cases, we had a recommendation for a specific restaurant. More often than not, we followed our nose and found a place that suited our needs in the moment. Regardless, each of these towns had their own stories to tell; links and recommendations are provided below.

cantucci e vinsanto
cantucci e vinsanto (Vineria PerBacco, Anghiari) 

heart attack on a plate, om nom nom
heart attack on a plate, om nom nom (Agriturismo Olivetano, Perugia) 

panini-licious
panini-licious (Caffe Duomo, Assisi)

Zuppa della Luna
Zuppa della Luna (Osteria Della Luna, Gradara) 

sadly, not the mixed grill… awesome piadine tho
sadly, not the mixed grill… awesome piadine tho (Taverna della Rocca, Frontone)


Hop on over to Wanderlust & Lipstick's WanderFood Wednesday for more mouth-watering pics.


RECOMMENDED:
Vineria PerBacco
Galleria girolamo magi
52031 - Anghiari (AR)
+39 0575 788893

Agriturismo Olivetano
Strada dei Cappuccinelli, 18
S. Lucia - Perugia
+39 075 44235

Caffe Duomo
Piazza San Rufino, 5
06081 Assisi
+39 075 81 55 209

Osteria Della Luna Di Ercoles E Cimarelli
Via Umberto Primo
61012 Gradara (PU)
+39 0541 969838

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


RELATED LINKS:
* A few of my favorite things, part one: big-city restaurants
* A few of my favorite things, part two: festival snacky-treats
* A few of my favorite things, part three: handmade with love

* Anghiari: Tuscan daytrip
* Perugia: full of surprises
* Assisi: saints and sinners
* Frontone: can you smell what the Rocca's cooking?
* Gradara photos

* browse photos by region: Le Marche | Umbria


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Posted by sonia at 12:00 AM | Link | 1 comment


27 January 2010
WanderFood Wednesday: a few of my favorite things, part three
handmade with love

first dinner, with fresh veggies from the garden
our first Le Marche dinner, with fresh veggies from the garden
 

This is the third installment in a four-part series of my favorite Italian food porn from our recent trip. The first two parts are linked below.

Part three: handmade with love
We did a lot of self-catering during our time in Le Marche. This was easy to do, given the well-appointed in-room kitchens at La Tavola Marche, not to mention the abundance of fresh produce in the garden out back. We also managed to pick up some fun local ingredients at nearby festivals and markets. And we took a half-day cooking class with Chef Jason, which was truly a wonderful way to learn how to prepare simple, delicious cucina povera.

Here are some of the dishes we learned to make in our cooking class:

pumpkin ravioli
pumpkin ravioli

sardine & sage antipasto
sardine & sage antipasto

grilled polenta, a big slice of heaven
grilled polenta, a big slice of heaven

lasagna made from scratch
lasagna made from scratch
(another guest actually made this, but it was too beautiful NOT to photograph!)


One of the best things about cooking in Italy is the freshness of local ingredients. Not sure how well it comes through in these photographs, but the handmade pasta is actually an orange-y color because the eggs are bursting with Omega-3s and come from happy chickens. The pale sad yellow yolks sold in grocery stores around here just can't compare.


now *that's* what I call a happy ending!
now *that's* what I call a happy ending!
quite possibly the best seafood risotto ever, and other local goodies


Coming up next week: Part four: small-town restaurants!

Hop on over to Wanderlust & Lipstick's WanderFood Wednesday for more mouth-watering pics.


RELATED LINKS:
* A few of my favorite things, part one: big-city restaurants
* A few of my favorite things, part two: festival snacky-treats
* browse all Le Marche pics
* cooking class blog post: These guys can even make fish guts fun!
* browse all market photos


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Posted by sonia at 12:00 AM | Link | 0 comments


20 January 2010
WanderFood Wednesday: a few of my favorite things, part two
festival snacky-treats

local pecorino aged in hay
local pecorino aged in hay


As promised, here's the second in a four-part series of my favorite Italian food porn from our recent trip.

Part two: open-air snacks at fabulous festivals
There's no doubt that festivals are *the* place to get the best treats, regardless of where you are in the world. We were fortunate to visit Italy during the fall, which is prime festival season. Two of our favorite fests were fairly close to our home base at La Tavola Marche: the San Sisto Mushroom Festival, and the Apecchio Truffle Festival. They afforded us not only a plethora of tasty snacks, but also a window into small-town life.

get down, get funghi
get down, get funghi

and don't forget the salumi!
and don't forget the salumi!

polenta with ragu and vino della casa
fries, polenta with ragu, and vino della casa

tartufi!
tartufi!

piadine con tartufi
piadine con salsa di tartufi


Missed part one last week?
Coming up next week: Part three: handmade with love!

Hop on over to Wanderlust & Lipstick's WanderFood Wednesday for more mouth-watering pics.


RELATED LINKS:
* A few of my favorite things, part one: big-city restaurants
* San Sisto mushroom festival: story | pics
* Apecchio truffle festival: story | pics
* browse all Le Marche pics
* other blog entries in the "festival" category


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Posted by sonia at 12:00 AM | Link | 2 comments
23 December 2009
WanderFood Wednesday: Fano market

fresher than fresh
fresher than fresh

In this season of snow and ice, it's tantalizing to daydream of greener days when fresh produce wasn't so challenging to find. In honor of WanderFood Wednesday, here are some pics from our October visit to the Fano market, just an hour's drive from our agriturismo. The market cranks into action each Saturday morning, and is sandwiched between medieval churches and ancient Roman gates in Fano's narrow streets.

the hungry crowd wants fresh produce!
the hungry crowd wants fresh produce!

The array of produce, cheeses, breads, and assorted other items for sale is just staggering. And the vendors are just as colorful.

The Egg Guy doesn't mess around
The Egg Guy doesn't mess around

piadine lady servin' up some goodness
piadine lady servin' up some porchetta goodness

phenomenal pepper cheese
phenomenal pepper cheese

This post is part of Wanderlust & Lipstick's mouth-watering WanderFood Wednesdays.


RELATED LINKS:
* browse all pics from our trip to the Fano market
* visit W&L for more great foodie photos


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Posted by sonia at 12:00 AM | Link | 0 comments
06 November 2009
Photo Friday: Furlo Gorge
nature and nunneries and nipples, oh my!

Furlo Gorge

Furlo Gorge is a natural marvel just off the Via Flaminia, the original Roman Road that connects Rome with the Adriatic Coast. It's a resplendent drive through narrow canyons of towering limestone cliffs on either side, the Candigliano River softly meandering by below. Popular spot for bike rides, too. At one point you pass through a one-lane tunnel carved through the rock, which in its day was the height of Roman civil engineering. Furlo Gorge has a sense of timelessness and tranquility that merits a pause for contemplation.

things that make ya go hmmmmmm
things that make ya go hmmmmmm

oktapodi penses, too
even oktapodi is pensive

To get there from our agriturismo we drove past the Abbey of San Vincenzo. It's a fairly nondescript little white chapel from the outside, and we might not otherwise have bothered except Ashley recommended a look inside. Worth it! Creepy! It's one of the oldest Benedictine monasteries in the region, but one can almost picture more primitive goings-on in its shadowy underbelly.

Abbey of San Vincenzo, shadowy underbelly
Abbey of San Vincenzo... creepy!

There are several preternatural restored paintings on the walls, including one of the Virgin Mary breastfeeding what appears to be about a three-year-old Jesus. Nipple clearly visible. Well now, that's something you don't see everyday.

Santa Maria!
Holy Nipple, Batman!

These photos hold an even more special place in my heart, as they are part of the batch that was successfully restored after our catastrophic hard drive failure. Woot!

For more great travel photos, be sure to check out Delicious Baby's Photo Friday.

 

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Posted by sonia at 12:00 AM | Link | 0 comments
04 November 2009
Catching up

It feels like it's taking forever, but poco a poco I'm getting caught up with blog entries and photos from our month in Italy. If you're signed up to get email notifications when a new entry is posted, or have subscribed to our RSS feed, you're probably catching these new pieces as they get added. But for the rest of ya, here's a rundown of what's been posted lately...

Photo collections:
Florence
Venice
Murano
Treviso
La Tavola Marche
San Sisto Mushroom Festival
Frontone Castle

Keep an eye on the main Pics page to see other collections as they get filled in.


Here are some stories I've added recently:

Frontone CastleCan you smell what the Rocca's cooking?
Castello di Frontone & Taverna della Rocca




Cooking class at LTMThese guys can even make fish guts fun!
cooking class at La Tavola Marche




San Sisto Mushroom FestivalGet down get funghi
Festa di Fungo in San Sisto



A Le Marche FairytaleA Le Marche fairytale



all blog entries from Italy

 

Posted by sonia at 12:00 AM | Link | 0 comments
23 October 2009
Photo Friday: magical San Marino

a San Marino pre-Halloween moment
a San Marino pre-Halloween moment

While I continue to organize photos and fill in blog entries, I wanted to put out a few teaser pics from our magical evening in San Marino. And what better occasion than Photo Friday? These photos don't even begin to capture the beautiful scenery and gorgeous sunset we encountered in this independent republic ensconced within Le Marche. More to come...

golden hour at the top of the world
golden hour at the top of the world

don't look down!
don't look down!

a billion steps up and down
a billion steps up and down

another gorgeous Italian sunset!
another gorgeous Italian sunset!

For more great Photo Friday pics, check out Delicious Baby!

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Posted by sonia at 12:00 AM | Link | 2 comments
11 October 2009
Perugia: full of surprises!

[Hey, check it out! This post was written mostly by Mark.]

Even before we'd made any concrete plans to travel to Italy, Mark's uncle, Rob, had been extolling the virtues of Umbria and Perugia, who had been there many times himself to visit his wife Sanda’s family. He encouraged us to visit some distant relatives and all but guaranteed an amazing time. Not that Umbria is much of a hard sell, and we're always big fans of visiting with locals, no matter where we go. He put us in touch with someone named Paolo, although the relationship seemed rather distant. I’d contacted him a few times by email and Skype, and each time the answer was something to the effect of "sure, let's meet if you make it to Italy." Which was a reasonable response, since those conversations took place while the trip itinerary was still very speculative.

ahhhhhh, Umbria!
ahhhhhh, Umbria!

So the day finally arrived. And, honestly, we had almost no idea what to expect. We had plans to get together on a Sunday morning for brunch, but weren't sure how much the language barrier might limit our interactions. Perugia, by all accounts, was a great town to visit. Failing all else, we could certainly find our way around to see some sights, perhaps take in a festival or two if our timing was right, or else find a nice little osteria to nosh at.

Paolo's mom's houseWith the help of a borrowed GPS, we arrived at Paolo's house at the appointed time, still somewhat uncertain how the day would unfold. We rang the buzzer at the gate and we let in by a kindly older woman who turned out to be Paolo's mama and who spoke surprisingly good English. She led us into the house, up a spiral staircase reminiscent of those we’d recently climbed in various castles, and on into a parlor filled with fine Italian furniture. We realized that this was her house. She sat us down, served coffee, explained how we were all distantly related (Paolo's father being my Aunt Sanda's uncle) and even showed us an photo of Uncle Rob from one of his visits to the house in what must have been the '70s. Fun stuff! But, ehm, where's Paolo?

Francesca, queen of the realm (and Luna the pooch)After some conversation, a firecracker of a five-year-old sparked into the room. We were introduced to Francesca, Paolo's adorable daughter. She immediately began babbling to us excitedly in Italian, arms flying (despite one limb in a cast), hair flipping. A Sophia Loren in training, to be sure. When we tried explaining to her, apologetically, that we only speak a little Italian, she rolled her eyes theatrically, waved away our ignorance with a gesture, and continued her brisk monologue unfazed. She showed us her school books, a drawing of her dog “Luna,” and a neon pink Barbie-like electronic toy. Good times! But where's Paolo?

Eventually a somewhat harried-looking Paolo showed up, sat down and briefly explained that he only knew a little bit of English, before he was distracted away by some Francesca-fueled commotion on another floor of the house. So we sat in the parlor getting to know Paolo's mother a little better with a combination of our first grade Italian and her more skillful English. Sonia & I were becoming vaguely anxious about whether this might be bad timing or if either the language barrier or the distance as relative might prove to be too wide to bridge, and had a growing sense moreover that Paolo might be too busy to hang with us that day. We considered making a polite exit…

Before we acted on that instinct, Paolo returned. We learned that we would be going out for lunch shortly and meeting up with his wife, Rita, who had to work that day in her flower shop being that it was a busy time of year in Italy -- All Saints Day. We were explaining our visit to Frontone and attempting to describe where it was when Paolo suggested looking at a map online, so up the spiral stairs we ascended into Paolo’s room. It was there that I spied a contraption that looked like a prop from a 1950s science fiction movie. “Are those a pair of mono vacuum tube-powered HiFi amps I see on the floor over there?” I asked tentatively. “YES!!!” came Paolo’s knowing reply, and with the realization of this shared rarified interest in exotic stereo equipment, Paolo's English seemed to improve!

Paolo shows off his homemade stereo
Paolo shows off his homemade stereo

We compared favorite musical genres and performers and the commonality seemed to deepen. Paolo demonstrated to us his fiendishly complex, Unix-based file cataloguing system, which contained tens of thousands of music files played through a handmade stereo and fantastic Sonus Faber speakers. A meeting of the minds -- music lovers (and techno-geeks) rule!

lunch with Paolo's familyheart attack on a plate, om nom nomBut this would have to wait, for now. We were off to a nearby agriturismo for a wonderful lunch. It was one of those experiences that’s largely out of reach to typical tourists; a privilege reserved for those lucky enough to have the benefit of a knowing a hospitable guide. Paolo discussed each course with the waiter and ensured that we were served the best wines and the finest beef. Plate after heaping plate of family-style dishes kept issuing forth from the kitchen... spinach gnocchi, tagliatelle, two kinds of prime steak, three desserts. It was, once again, a sumptuous (and copious) Italian feast, and we loved every minute of it!

Mark and Paolo at the Piazza IV NovembrePerugian undergroundAfter lunch we walked off some of the calories as we were led on whirlwind tour of central Perugia, which, like most medieval cities, is entirely uphill. We rode the funky little Mini Metro up to the city center, and sampled several historic sites while “nonna” patiently waited down below. Perugia is a beautiful place, and now that we’d had a taste of it we regretted not having more time to explore it, especially as the denizens were preparing for the annual chocolate festival. We did breeze through the Palazzo dei Priori, saw a Ferarri, took some pictures at Fontana Maggiore, peeked in and out of the Cathedral of San Lorenzo, and then delved into the ancient medieval underground. (Who knew there was an entire city, perfectly preserved underneath modern Perugia? Extraordinary!) If we'd been on our own, we’d definitely have spent more time exploring, but we were very grateful to Paolo for having given us the “best of” tour. He clearly has a lot of pride in his town and understandably so.

Part of the reason for returning to the house was to meet up with two of Paolo's friends, who had stopped by to test drive a new handmade stereo component. Most of what ensued for the next hour or two was erudite discourse on vacuum tube components, custom made speaker wiring, and detailed comparisons of magnificently intricate pieces of classical and jazz music. We spent the evening sitting in the dark swaddled in beautifully crystalline sound, an homage to contemplative listening parties of yesteryear wherein the participants would listen reverently to an LP played in its entirety. It was pleasantly surprising, in an “I-never-expected-to-be-here-doing-this” kind of way.

But as it began to get later and later, the pleasure of being treated to such a pure musical appreciation was beginning to be undermined by the looming reality of a long and somewhat arduous drive back to Le Marche, threading between and over the mountains in the pitch-black night. It seemed to us that it was probably time to go, but it soon became apparent that we’d forgotten we were in a Mediterranean country that has different sense of time than the US.

her royal highness
her royal highness

After several hours of immersive listening and with it being after 10:00 pm, we spiraled downstairs to say our goodbyes to the women of the house, only to find them preparing to serve dinner. We offered our heartfelt thanks for a wonderful day, thinking it would be the polite thing to do to not wear out our welcome but rather leave them to enjoy their family dinner and make our way back. But the look of disappointment on nonna's face made me instantly realize that this dinner was in fact intended for the guests of the house, and to leave now would be the height of rudeness. Drive be damned! We hung our coats back up and stayed to enjoy yet another privileged experience of travelers with friends “on the inside” -- a homemade dinner with a local family complete with a full array of digestivi afterwards. Again, this is the kind of encounter you're not going to find in a guidebook, and is one of the reasons we find travel so compelling. Connecting with local folks, getting to see a slice of real Italian life, being invited into someone's home; that's what we call “travel gold.” It had turned out to be a very full day, and despite a somewhat bleary midnight ride back to LTM, we thoroughly enjoyed our serendipitous day with our newfound Italian relatives who epitomized the generosity of Italian hospitality.

RELATED LINKS:
* browse all Perugia pics
* browse all Umbria pics
* A greener way to travel to Umbria's capital

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Posted by Mark & Sonia at 12:00 AM | Link | 0 comments
09 October 2009
Up to the challenge
wine-tasting in Jesi

my new happy place
my new happy place

We got off to a bit of a rough start for our winery tour, still not grasping the concept that EVERYTHING in Italy closes from 1-4pm. (We're slow learners.) We arrived at the first winery at about 12:30, but just missed getting in before they closed for lunch. Dagger! So we killed a few hours wandering around the nearby town of Jesi, trying to find internet access. As usual, easier said than done. We did eventually find a cafe in the main square with free access, but not before traipsing through a really creepy deserted rundown part of town. Here's a tip: if you find yourself in Jesi, maintain the high ground and don't explore downhill.

if I completely empty my suitcase, this just might fit...Attempt #2 at visiting the Montecappone vineyard was substantially more enjoyable. Not only do they have gas pumps dispensing wine by the gallon (schweeeeet!), but there are a ton of wines to taste. The woman in the tasting room asked us which of their wines we'd like to try. Not knowing any better, we answered "Tutti!" So she poured us very generous tastes of about a dozen wines. Boof! I tried to explain that I was driving and only needed a very small taste. No dice. We often complain about the "Virginia pour" which might as well be dispensed with an eyedropper. After visiting wineries in Napa, Sonoma, and Monterey, we thought that a "California pour" was the way to go. But this day we learned that an "Italian pour" is the ultimate! At Montecappone they gave us almost a third of a glass of each wine to taste. I wound up either pouring most of mine out -- the horror! -- or giving it to Mark. Who drank a LOT of wine before the day was through. He suffers for his art.

ahhhhh, that's the stuff!Next stop was the nearest winery according to the map, although each item on said map was displayed with a gigantic circle, so it was a little tricky to discern exactly where everything was located. Where there's a will, however, there's a way! And thus we found our way to Tenuta di Tavignano, a beautiful winery located on a hilltop overlooking the Esino Valley. The winemaker there didn't speak a word of English, but he was so passionate about describing his product that we all seemed to be fluent in the language of wine. Or maybe that was just the result of all those generous pours...

Valentina Bonci: look, we have the same face!Rather than continuing on to the next closest winery, we asked the winemaker for his opinion of which he thought we should visit. He pointed to one on our map that wasn't particularly close, and required a bit of a wild goose chase up and down some windy mountain roads, but was ultimately worth the effort. Bonci produces award-winning Verdicchio wines, the region's most famous varietal. We were somewhat familiar with this crisp white, but got to taste the full range of flavors the Verdicchio grape has to offer, including some stunningly rich 10-year-old bottles. Yum! Plus oktapodi made a new friend in Valentina Bonci, who volunteered to pose for a picture and declared, "Look, we have the same face!"

We made it back to La Tavola Marche with almost a case of wine from these three producers. Which gave us quite a goal to accomplish, as we were due to return home in just a few days! Fortunately, we like a challenge. (Unlike another pair of LTM guests, who returned empty-handed the next day, unable to find a single winery on the map! Amateurs.) We even managed to spirit one bottle of Verdicchio home to DC, where it sits in the fridge awaiting just the right occasion. Cin-cin!


RECOMMENDED:
Montecappone s.r.l
Via Colle Olivo 2
60035 Jesi (Ancona)
+39 0731-205-761
info@montecappone.com

Tenuta di Tavignano
Azienda Agricola Lucangeli Aymerich di Laconi
Località Tavignano
62011 Cingoli (Macerata) 
+39 0733-617-303
info@tenutaditavignano.it

Azienda Agricola Vallerosa Bonci
Via Torre, 15/17
60034 Cupramontana (Ancona)
+39 0731 789129
info@vallerosa-bonci.com


RELATED LINKS:
* all Jesi-area winery pics
* Going Sideways in Oregon wine country
* Look Ma, I'm a Wine Whore!


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Posted by sonia at 12:00 AM | Link | 0 comments
07 October 2009
These guys can even make fish guts fun!
cooking class at La Tavola Marche
What better way to bide the time waiting for the arrival of our new laptop than take a half-day cooking class at La Tavola Marche? We'll fill in the details soon... sardine guts and hand-cranked pasta and grilled polenta, oh my! But in the meantime here are a few pics to tantalize and tempt and hopefully capture what a truly delightful day we had. First in the kitchen with Jason and then at the table with both Jason & Ashley (and also their hilariously crusty neighbor). Couldn't think of a more splendid way to spend a sunny Wednesday!

la bella cucina
la bella cucina

Sardine antipasto in progress
sardine antipasto in progress

grilled polenta, awwwwww yeah!
grilled polenta, awwwwwww yeah!

lookin' stylish in our LTM aprons
lookin' stylish in our LTM aprons

il Dottore stops by to bust balls
il Dottore stops by to bust balls

Jason is *so* pretty when he serves the coffee
Jason is *so* pretty when he serves the coffee

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06 October 2009
The pros and cons of going off the beaten path
expect the unexpected

golden hour in Mondavio
golden hour in Mondavio

Part one: Fossombrone
It started out harmlessly enough.

One of our many maps helpfully pointed out all the castles in the area. We'd seen the remains of a castle high atop a hill each time we passed by the town of Fossombrone. So it seemed a reasonable enough quest to try to get to the top of the hill and check out the castle, right?

But, let's face it, one doesn't seek out the offbeat in Italy in an attempt to be reasonable.

Here's how it actually went down: We drove to Fossombrone, less than half an hour from our agriturismo in Piobbico. We stopped for a quick bite, figuring we had a bit of a climb ahead of us, and poked around town for some signage to indicate which way to the castle. None to be found. So we headed up the first staircase we could find. Which took us to yet another set of steep stairs. Which led to, as best we could fathom, someone's front yard. Still no signage, and no visual indication that we were heading in anything remotely resembling the right direction. So what else was there to do but keep going up?

the uphill journey begins   …and continues   …and may never end   ok, we're at the top of the hill, now what???

It was at this point in the program that I miiiiiiiiight have gotten a little cranky, perhaps a tad petulant, maybe even just the slightest bit whiny.

Now, faithful readers, you all know how much I like going off the beaten path, yes? But I'm not a big fan of trudging around with no payoff. And this was threatening to be a deadend, with an excellent Stairmaster workout thrown in to boot. We stopped to ask a denizen of Fossombrone, in our broken Italian, where's the castle? She paused from her stair-sweeping for a moment, considered the request, and pointed skyward. Right. Keep going up.

the goats are just as surprised to see usLong story short, we did eventually reach something vaguely resembling a castle, but only after climbing about a trillion stairs and crossing through a yard with goats in it. Yes, goats. I was sure we were about two steps away from encountering an angry farmer with a shotgun, but no other human creatures appeared on the hilltop. Apparently we were the only ones silly enough to be up there. And it soon became obvious why, as the "castle" turned out to be a private residence constructed among the ruins of some former castle-type structure. Bummer! There were some lovely views of Le Marche atop the hill, and a delicious breeze. But other than the satisfaction of completing what we started, the Great Fossombrone Castle Caper turned out to be a bit of a bust.

there's the, ehm, castle
there's the, ehm, castle

It did set the tone for the rest of the day, though: expect the unexpected.

 

Part two: Cartoceto & Mombaroccio
right. closed in the afternoons. we get it.noooooooooo informationOur next stop was Cartoceto. One of the items on our short list was a visit to an olive grove, to see how Italian olive oil is made. And according to Ashley, Cartoceto is one of the premier producers of olive oil in the region. So we set off there next, and arrived in town in the early afternoon. After stopping for a couple of ridiculously overpriced sodas (ouch! you expect that in a place like Venice, but not in this nondescript town in the middle of nowhere!) we poked around looking for the tourist information office. Which turned out to be closed. Of course. Foolish mortals, it's the afternoon! Why would anything actually be OPEN? There was nobody else around town, save for the overpriced soda vendor who could only shrug and tell us it wasn't olive season. So once again we took a moment to gaze at the scenic hillside, olive groves gleaming just out of reach in the sun, and got back in the car.

Cartoceto olive groves
Cartoceto olive groves

There was another town along the way called Mombaroccio that had seemed promising. The map promised another castle, as did the roadside signs. And indeed it was a cute little walled city, but there was nothing else to see and nothing going on in town. Another strikeout!


Part three: at long last, Mondavio!
Just as things were looking bleak, we found ourselves in Mondavio, a town known for its gigantic medieval trebuchets. Our only prior experience with trebuchets had been the kind that fling flaming upright pianos at Burning Man, so we were intrigued.

wonder if you could fling a flaming piano w/this…?Mondavio's Rocca Roveresca and trebuchetsAnd, for the first time all day, we were NOT disappointed! Mondavio's trebuchet collection stands in a courtyard under the watchful eye of the Rocca Roveresca. The trebuchets themselves are fun to check out, and pretty unique even in a country that's chock-full of cool medieval/renaissance sites. But the Rocca Roveresca was an unexpected treat. We were prepared for it to be closed for the day or for the season, but the helpful lady at this tourist info office whipped out a set of keys and let us in. Schweet!


oktapodi guards the Roccamedieval dumbwaiterIt was worth every bit of the eight-euro admission price for two tickets. A masterpiece of the Tuscan architect Francesco Giorgio di Martini, Mondavio's Rocca Roveresca houses a collection of weaponry and armor, sports fabulous views of the Metauro Valley, and has lots of fun passageways to explore. OK, some of the wax dummy scenes were a little cheesy, but there's nothing wrong with a little cheese from time to time.

stellar views of the Metauro ValleyWe practically had the place to ourselves, so we took our time wandering the halls, checking out the refurbished dining rooms and creepy torture chamber. From the windows at the very top, we got some magnificent vistas of the surrounding countryside. And one last glance at those kickass trebuchets in the courtyard below.

To top it off, as we were heading out, another splendiferous sunset was about to begin. We were treated to a golden departure from Mondavio, and a dazzling drive home, as the sun painted the hills impossible shades of purple and red. Ahhhhhhh, that's the stuff! Sometimes going off the path is rewarded, after all.


dazzling drive home
dazzling drive home


RECOMMENDED:
Rocca Roveresca, Mondavio

Ufficio Turistico Pro Loco IAT Mondavio
turismo@mondavioproloco.it
+39 0721 97 102


RELATED LINKS:
* flaming piano tossed by trebuchet (video)
* browse all Fossombrone/Cartoceto/Mombaroccio pics
* browse all Mondavio pics


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05 October 2009
Laptop FAIL

The past week in Le Marche has been awesome, and I was looking forward to regaling you with tales of castles, adorable hill towns, and nonstop pigging out on local delicacies and wines. However, we returned back to La Tavola Marche on Friday night, after a most excellent day in Assisi, to find that our laptop hard drive had completely crapped out. Crap, indeed! This presents many challenges, from the mundane (borrowing a computer at the local internet cafe) to the discouraging (several hundred pics not yet backed up to CD) to the downright critical (Mark's work and some big deadlines). Thanks to some scrambling, and assistance from my brother, we hope to have a replacement shortly. Fingers crossed!

In the meantime, lest you think we're letting this crisis get us down (as if!) here are a few pics from our delightful daytrip to Assisi. More soon, hopefully.

atop Rocca Maggiore
atop Rocca Maggiore

Basilica di San Francesco
Basilica di San Francesco

Assisi by the light of the moon
Assisi by the light of the moon

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04 October 2009
Tartufi!
deliciousness at the Apecchio Truffle Festival

piadine con tartufi
piadine con tartufi

We'd been looking forward to the Apecchio Festa di Tartufi all week. Located in the next town over from our agriturismo, the it promised to be a celebration of Italy's earthiest treat: truffles!

polenta with ragu
polenta with ragu and vino della casa

We sampled truffle spreads, truffle-infused oils, truffle cheese, truffle salumi. And of course there were plenty of other wonderful local dishes, like polenta smothered in ragu and the most fabulous buttery green olives I've ever tasted. Abbondanza, indeed!

Club dei Brutti
Club dei Brutti play a festival tune


best seat in the houseThe festival also provided an amusing window into small-town Le Marche life. It seemed like the entire region came out for this delightful Sunday afternoon celebration. The people-watching was exquisite. And as an extra treat, the famous Club dei Brutti ("Ugly Club") strolled down the main drag to play an impromptu concert in medieval costumes. True to form, the tune was a bit ragged. But what they lacked in musical chops they more than made up for in spirit, and soon the entire town was dancing and clapping along. Add in a generous splash (or ten) of vino rosso della casa, served out of recycled plastic water bottles, and you have one festive day!

Be sure to check out more delicious foodie travel tales at Wanderlust and Lipstick's WanderFood Wednesday!

 

RELATED LINKS:
* browse all Apecchio pics
* Get down get funghi (San Sisto mushroom festival)
* La Tavola Marche blog: Introducing the newest members of the Ugly Club
* WanderFood Wednesday

 

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02 October 2009
Saints and sinners in Assisi

We were a little unsure about visiting Assisi, hometown of Saint Francis and focal point for religious tourism. Would they even let us in? What would two heathens do all day in this super-Catholic town? Bolstered by A&J's recommendation and some other positive reports, we decided to make a go of it.

Assisi is a drive-able daytrip from Piobbico, over the mountains and into Umbria's Spoleto Valley. This was our first real experience with the Italian Autostrada, the national highway system. I gotta say, after winding our way back and forth on tiny mountain passes, it was pretty nice to open up and haul ass on some nice straight roads. Everything you've heard about Italians driving maniacally is true. We had to speed up to keep up.

approaching Assisi

We knew we'd made the right choice the first moment we spotted Assisi from the road. Carved into the Umbrian hillside, this fabulous medieval city does have its fair share of churchy sights, but it's also got cool castles with lots of nooks and crannies to explore. As with many Italian hilltowns, it's a little tricky to get your bearings, and it took us a while to find what we were looking for. But everyone knows that getting lost and wandering around is half the fun!

Rocca Maggiore: impenetrable fortressRocca Maggiore and Assisi's historic centerOur first stop was the Rocca Maggiore, the enormous 13th century fortress perched high atop the city. This place spoiled us for all future castle exploration! There is an entrance fee, but it's worth every penny. There are not one but TWO towers to climb, affording magnificent views of Umbria in all directions. The main fortress building has some marvelous displays of weapons, armor, and even a room re-enacting a famous medieval painting. (OK, I'll admit, those faceless mannequins were a little creepy.) Everything is well-labeled in English and several other languages. There's a really cool tunnel joining the fortress with the keep, which you can walk through and peek out the tiny windows, pretending you're a knight defending the castle from invading forces. Just watch your head; they were a lot shorter in those days! We also enjoyed the displays and photos from Calendimaggiore, a huge festival that takes place in May and looks like a cross between a Renaissance Faire and Burning Man. We just might have to come back for that!

Franciscan monk on an errand
Franciscan monk on an errand

The remainder of our Assisi explorations included wandering around the piazza in front of the Basilica di Santa Chiara, a peek inside the Duomo di San Rufino (with a somewhat surreal exhibit of JP2-inspired Pope-art), the Temple of Minerva, and of course a visit to the Basilica di San Francesco. As it happened, our visit coincided with the Feast of Saint Francis, so the catacombs beneath the lower church were packed with people streaming in to pay their respects to Assisi's patron saint. The air was thick with incense as pilgrims of all shapes and sizes lined up in hushed tones to circle the crypt containing the remains of Saint Francis. It was yet another occasion for some excellent people-watching. Tiny Italian nuns knelt and wept with outstretched hands. Familes with matching rosaries reverently touched a cornerstone and made the sign of the cross. An entire football team got their picture taken in front of the crypt. And somehow Mark and I made it out of there without being hit by lightning, which to my mind seemed the real miracle.

awesome Assisi sunset
awesome Assisi sunset

We emerged to find a stupendous sunset, followed by an enormous full moon rising over Assisi. Gorgeous. Who knew we'd have such a great time in this sacred city?

Alas, apparently we'd pushed our heathen luck a bit too far. As most of you already know, we returned to the agriturismo that night to find that our laptop had inexplicably died. I would've preferred a lightning hit! No matter, not even this technological catastrophe could marr an otherwise delightful day exploring Assisi. We highly recommend this town to anyone visiting Umbria, saints and sinners alike.


RELATED LINKS:
* all Assisi pics
* La Tavola Marche: Assisi, A Day Trip in Umbria
* Laptop FAIL

 

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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.

RELATED LINKS:
* 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.

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

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


RELATED LINKS:
* 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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