Once a year, Danna and I attend the Homestep auction.  Homestep makes real progress with the homelessness.  Almost as important as their work is the wonderful trips that always come up at auction time.  After sufficient wine-induced lubrication, Danna and I are always excited to see what trip is on the auction block that night.

Last year, it was a trip to a small town in Italy called Cortona. The auction included a week stay at an Italian villa in the center of town.  The villa slept eight, and after some sloshy head-nods from the rest of the table we all went for it.

Fast forward a year and it was time to make good on the trip. We partnered with our good friends Norman, Jen and Eric, and were introduced to some new friends named Shawn and Susan.  I’m sure we’d get along juuust fine.

The Arrival

We only had enough frequent flyer miles to travel via coach, but the flight to Italy didn’t take too long.  As is the case every time we fly through JFK in New York, however, our flight was late leaving the gate.  We arrived in Rome’s Fiumicino airport about an hour late.  It’s a half hour train ride to Roma Termini, which is where we needed to be to catch a two and a half hour train to Cortona.  We had just missed the train to Roma Termini and would need to wait half an hour for the next one.

This put us in a bit of a bind.  Our schedule was pretty tight.  We really needed to catch our scheduled train to Cortona or else we would be stuck waiting for the next one, which leaves three hours later.  We had previously made taxi arrangements at Cortona, so missing the train meant more transportation juggling than we would like.

We arrived at Roma Termini with ten minutes to go before the Cortona train departed.  A quick set of guesses at the Italian signboard showed that our Cortona train was at the other end of the station.  We ran, half guessing we were going the right way.  Rome’s train terminal has trains as well as the metro system, and we were unsure if all the platform numbers were unique.  But, we got lucky, and sprinted onto the train just as the conductor was blowing her whistle.

Once on board and calm, we came to the realization that we had no tickets.  We didn’t have time to purchase them.  Not knowing what the fine is for riding without a ticket we sat quietly hoping the conductor wouldn’t come by.  Two and half hours later we waited by the exit as our Terontola stop came into view.  We lucked out:  the conductor never checked tickets.  As soon as the train stopped we bolted for the exit.  Freedom at last.

As a side note our tickets were checked on every other train ride we took, so we really did just get lucky on this one.

As we walked into the Terontola station our travel agent Denyse was waiting for us.  After a few minutes wait, we hopped into a prearranged cab and were whisked up the hillside to our house in Cortona.

Casa San Marco

Casa San Marco is on 12 San Marco street and was built in 1598.  It has been retrofitted with modern plumbing, electricity and high speed internet but is still a large stone house with stone floors and big wood beams.  It’s beautiful, but the house is nothing compared to the view of Cortona and the surrounding valley from the patio.  It is also only three blocks from the city’s Piazza, which is where we headed as soon as we dropped off our bags.

Enoteca Molesini

Centrally located in the piazza is the Molesini wine shop run by Marco Molesini.  Like everyone we met in Cortona, Marco is more than happy to help you out.  At this point, however, we were not interested in a nice wine tasting.  No, we were interested in quantity.  Danna and I thought it would only be sporting to buy a large communal bottle of wine for the rest of our party to enjoy when they arrived.  The bigger the better – we had to set the proper tone for the week.  We settled on aMethuselah of Chianti and Danna had a great time watching me drag it up the hill to our house.

That's a big bottle of wine.

That's a big bottle of wine.

Italian Coffee Doesn’t Suck

The Perfect Cappuccino

I live in Seattle and we love our coffee.  But our coffee tastes nothing like what they make in Italy.  For one euro, Caffe Delgi Artisti will pour you a perfect cappuccino and even offer some cookies to go with it.  There is a “tip jar” on the counter and it is full of American money.  It’s a joke – you don’t tip in Italy but Americans feel compelled to still do so.

Men only drink coffee with milk in the morning.  After that, your manliness is questioned.  Luckily all the coffee is great all the time.  We also enjoyed some sugared iced coffee from the local Illy shop – the only chain we visited on our trip.  It was so cold and creamy it looked for all the world like a fresh draught pour of Guinness, complete with cascading foam.

It’s a Hitchcock Movie

One thing I never got used to in Cortona was all the birds.  Look up, and there are swarms of little birds flying around, chirping and making a general racket.  There were more birds in Cortona than I’ve ever seen in one place before, and it was unnerving.  I only got pooped on once, though, so luckily they tend to keep mostly to themselves.

Chef Ivan

We only scheduled two organized events.  The first was “Chef Ivan”, who came into our kitchen with a bag of groceries and produced magic.  We watched in awe (and enjoyed some nice wine) while Ivan made focaccia with caramelized onions and rosemary.  He made an appetizer of deep fried vegetables that was so tasty I could go vegetarian.  Ivan made pasta from scratch too, and all of us were enlisted to roll out the pasta by hand.  This creates a rather fat and hearty noodle.  Around this noodle Ivan made a simple sauce of garlic, pine nuts, tomatoes and olive oil.  All very simple, but all very good.

The main course was simple as well.  Chicken, rubbed with garlic and salt and baked.  This is something I’ve come to appreciate about Italian cooking:  simple is best.  Nothing Ivan made contained more than about four ingredients.  Nothing came from a can or bottle, though, and the flavors blended wonderfully.

Speaking of wonderful, for dessert Ivan made tiramisu – also from scratch.  Italian tiramisu has no liquor in it like in the states, but the coffee is stronger and makes up for it.

None of us had any complaints about Chef Ivan.  Except, of course, that he was only to cook for us for one night!  Ivan turned out to be good inspiration for Norman, however, so we still continued to dine well on the other nights when Norman wanted to cook.

Churches and our Failures with them

Cortona has three thousand people and twenty three churches.  Every morning we were awakened by church bells.  With all this churchin’ going on right on our back yard, we needed to visit some.  There were three that we wanted to see.  We walked past Chiesa di San Francesco every day on our way to the piazza, so it was the first.  This church as a lot of art.  There are great frescos on the walls, and they keep finding more.  As one fresco went out of style politically and religiously, it was walled over and a new fresco painted on top of it.  This continued for hundreds of years, and now they are excavating several layers of frescos in the church.  It was interesting to see the different styles of art in the different layers, from angular Roman noses in the early frescos to more Rubanesque roundness in the later frescos.  Photography was prohibited in this church, so you’ll have to take my word for it.

Next for us was Chiesa di Santa Margherita.  This church has the body of St. Margherita entombed in glass on the alter.  St. Margherita is the patron saint of Cortona, and died in 1297. 

It’s a hell of a hike up to the church.  It’s at nearly the top of the town.  The church itself is beautiful and enormous.  We peeked into every nook and cranny, soaking up the serenity.  Then a nun came over to us and jingled her keys.  She pointed to her watch and then to a door around back.  “Cool, a tour”, I thought.  We followed her through the door and she locked it behind us.  Wait a minute.  Yup, were were thrown out.  We were around the back of the church on a gravel path.  Not only were we thrown out, but we were thrown out the back door. The front door must have been too embarrassing.

Our resident Catholic expert Jen listed some of the things we did wrong, starting with walking on the altar to see St. Margherita.  Geez, if they didn’t want you on the altar they shouldn’t put a dead woman in a glass box on it.

Try as I may, every time I thought of St. Margherita laying there in her glass box, I couldn’t get this quote from Shrek out of my head:

“All right, dead girl, off the table”

I’m going straight to hell.

Our final church experience was early one morning.  There is a church near our house where the nuns sing the entire mass and we wanted to hear them sing.  We started bright and early.  But, did I already say there were twenty three churches in Cortona?  We weren’t sure which was the right church and they all had bells ringing.  By the time we discovered the right church mass had already begun.  We peeked inside and, besides rows and rows of nuns, there were three other people.  They take their churchin’ seriously in this town and we were late to the party.  I’m not about to walk into that kind of a firefight.  We dragged our heathen selves down the hill for a coffee instead.

Montepulciano

Wednesday we were up bright and early to visit some wineries in the nearby town of Montepulciano.  We had a large car waiting for us.  Our first stop was at Gatto Vecchi.  Their aging room is built from an old Etruscan tomb that dates back to 400BC.  They make Vino Nobile here, which is highly regulated by the government.  You need certain casks of a certain size (they’re about 12’ in diameter).

While here we learned about the different qualifications for wine in Italy, and learned what to look for when searching for a quality bottle.  Then, we put our new skills to the test at a nice table setup with cheeses and several wines.  Yummy.

Our next stop was at Contucci winery.  The Contucci family has been in the business a long long time.  There is a bronze relief on the wall celebrating a thousand years of wine from 1008-2008.  They age their wine in the basement of their house, which sounds quaint until you realize their “house” is a palace at the top of Montepulciano that dates back to the 1400’s.  The business has been handed down for generations.

Grapes here are not picked by machine. Machines can gather all sorts of stuff in with the grapes including stems and spiders. Grapes are all hand picked.  Time consuming, for sure, but it yields better wine.

Our final stop was out in rural farmland to Tana Gatta winery, owned by the Allegro family.  Also family owned, this winery is much younger but also made outstanding wine.  Some of it should show up on our doorstep in a few days.

Wine Pairing Dinner

Marco Molesini probably did not think much about us when we rushed into his shop looking for really big bottles of wine.  That’s not the way into a wine connoisseur's heart.  But, we kept going back to Enoteca Molesini and soon Marco realized we really did have a love of wine.  He highly recommended a five course wine pairing dinner he was sponsoring.  Our calendar was open, what with us being on vacation and all, so we took him up on the offer.  It turned out to be one of the best dinners of the week.  Five courses, all paired with wine.  Each course was a different kind of game animal.  We started with pheasant, moved onto hare, then wild boar and finally venison.  It sounds heavy, but portions were small and the food was very light.  We were placed family style at a table with several other people who also spoke English, and we were surprised to find that one couple was from Seattle and had retired to Cortona.  We were also surprised to find that the man to Danna’s right was a Jesuit priest in disguise.  After our failures at various churches, and an embarrassing moment involving a rather large rosary at our house, we were sure he had been sent to kill us.  But, as it turned out, he was just a really fun guy who loved wine and telling stories.  Hooray for us.

Preludio:  The Last Supper

For our last night in ‘Cortona, we dined at a posh place called Preludio.  As usual, the food and wine were both wonderful.  We were in a fairly early seating because it was the only opening they had. But, by the time we left it was almost 9:00 and still the place was hardly full.  I know people dine later in Europe, but I suspect they decided to keep the Americans isolated.  This turned out to be a good thing because, while I have no recollection of this, I have photographic evidence of Norman sitting at the table with his shirt unbuttoned.

The Return Home

On the way home, we managed to buy all the right train tickets.  This made travel much less stressful.  Everything went great all the way home, in fact, until we hit that dreaded JFK airport in New York.  Man, what a pit.  Huge security lines, a random re-route to some mini security checkpoint, and delays both in landing and taking off.  I could live the rest of my life and never have to fly into JFK again. 

It was good to see The Boy™ again.  He was thoroughly spoiled by grandma and grandpa, as expected. Cheers to a job well done.