Saturday, April 27, 2013

Tuscany Vintage Car Hill Climb

Admittedly our Italian is almost non-existent, but we think that this was the 27th annual Camucia to Cortona Vintage Car Hill Climb. 

Every April a gathering of vintage race car owners compete in a variety of classes in a race up the winding hill to the finish line at Piazza Garibaldi in Cortona.  The two day event includes time trials on Saturday afternoon and a race on Sunday morning. We couldn't pass up the chance to see it, especially since the starting line was a five minute walk from the house we're sitting.

We began with a walk through the staging area smelling the rich fuel mixture and watching the mechanics testing the engines, working from semi trucks fully outfitted as portable shops.  We estimated that over a hundred cars would be in the event with none being newer than about the early 1970's.  Alfa Romeo, Porsche, BMW, Lotus, Fiat, Ferrari, Lancia and many custom Formula 1 cars were being prepared - there wasn't a single American or Asian vehicle in the bunch.

After checking out all the cars we walked about a half mile up the hill and found a relatively safe vantage point along the course.  The time trials kicked off the event with the slower cars coming up the course first followed by the big boys - the F1's.  It was a site to see as the cars sped past us, some sliding around the switchback corners, engines roaring.  The drivers who qualified would race the next day.

The weather report predicted rain but Sunday morning was beautiful and there were more people watching than the day before.  Everyone stood along the sides of the road and it was a thrill to be so close as the cars raced by.  We'd like to tell you who won the race but honestly we couldn't understand a word that the commentator said so we haven't a clue!  Not that it mattered to us.  We had a great time, enjoyed the race, and took lots of photos to share with you.

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

....we were sitting in the airport in San Jose, California waiting for a flight to Mexico.  We were about to start our adventure traveling the world as full time house sitters.  House sitting seemed to offer a cure for our wanderlust and fit into our travel budget.  We'd put our belongings in storage, leased out our house, and agreed we'd reevaluate our new lifestyle in a year.

Amazingly, a year has flown by and we're no where near ending this adventure.  House sitting has taken us to the most wonderful places, introduced us to interesting people that we never would have met otherwise, and brought pets into our lives to love and enjoy.

We're currently caring for two kitties and a house in Italy.  We have another week here before we head off to do a little traveling and exploring on our own.  In mid summer we'll begin another house sit in Scotland before heading back to the states to house sit in San Francisco. 

We want to say a big "thank you" to the homeowners who've given us the opportunity to travel our way around the world one house at a time.  We also would not have been able to do this without the support of our family and friends, especially Colleen's mom Dee who takes care of so many of our "real life" details.  Lastly, we hope that we've encouraged you, our readers, to give house sitting a try.  If you haven't yet, we hope our continuing adventure will inspire you to soon! 

In celebration of our one year anniversary, we're having a very special cake tonight and we'd like to share its story with you:

"Born in the mind and the heart of Luciano Vannelli, the Cortona Cake is the great specialty of the Vanelli Pasticceria.  A base of soft and elaborated sponge cake, filled with blackberry cream and dark chocolate, enchantingly mixed lightly with "vinasanto".  The flower and the fruit scents of the Cortona countryside and the musk of the mountains that the icing of the cake releases are a well guarded secret.  The decoration on the cake is a daisy, in honour of our saint and the yellow, green and brown pattern is typlical of the "cocci Cortonesi" (cortonese ceramics).  The old picture on the wrapping represents the tower bell of St. Agostino's church and the staircase of the St. Benedetto church, one of the most picturesque corners of the historical center.  It is there where the Pasticceria Vanelli was born with its first workshop.  The Cortona Cake was conceived to spread the flavours and colours of this town of the Tuscany around the world". 

Tuesday, April 23, 2013


What a change a week can make.  The daytime temperature has gone up about 15 degrees, the dark clouds and rain have disappeared, and people are wearing short sleeved shirts.

The spring time rituals aren't much different here in Tuscany then they are at home.  Maybe different crops or different flowers, but farmers still have to till the soil, trees need pruned and city crews are busy mowing and cleaning out the gutters along the roads.  One thing that is different is the smoke that fills the sky from burning all the branches pruned from the olive trees.  It's a rare day when you can burn in California.  

All around Camucia there are fields of mustard in bloom - great swaths of bright yellow cover the landscape.  We've noticed that fruit trees are flowering and vineyard grapes are just starting to bud out.  

Something new that we've never seen before are caterpillars crawling down the trail nose to toes...really...see for yourself.  Maybe they're just playing follow the leader!


Sunday, April 21, 2013

Eataly, aaah the Food!

Pecorino from Pienza

Everyone asks us about Italian food.  How is it, what have we tried, how's the wine, can you understand the menu?  We're doing our best to become informed (it's our duty to you right?) and trying as many dishes as we can.  We've found the food to be wonderful, the wine to be great, and the menus in Italian.  Fortunately, we have a fancy little translator that helps us out.  For the most part, we've received what we thought we'd ordered...although the pizza with the tuna on top was a surprise!  (It sounds odd, but it was really tasty.)

Wild boar is used to make a variety of salumi and salsiccia products.

Italian cuisine is very regional.  Here in Tuscany they have their own way of making a particular dish.  Then we can drive to the Umbria region just a few miles to the east and the same dish will be prepared differently.  Head north to the Emilia-Romanga region and the food is prepared in an even different manner. With over twenty regions in Italy we can't even imagine the variety of dishes awaiting our discovery. Our mouths are watering and our waistbands are expanding just thinking about it!

The little kitchen in our house is getting a bit of use as well.  We've bought a variety of fresh, local pastas and cheeses.  Shopping at the Camucia farmer's market on Thursday is a treat - we find fresh vegetables, fruits, locally made salumi (prosciutto and preserved ham) and salsiccia (sausages and other pork products like salami).  We watch the local ladies pick through the produce looking for just the right tomatoes or onions - these are serious decisions to be made.  

Everything looks so good that it inspires us to try new recipes.  Last week it was the dark and purple and shiny.  Never having made eggplant parmigiana before, we decided to try it and found a recipe online by Mario Batali that looked good.  It turned out wonderfully, especially since the eggplant is baked and not fried, and it was very easy to make. We liked it so much, we're passing it along to you.  

Mario Batali's Eggplant Parmigiana

Slice the eggplant into 1" thick discs, lightly salt and pepper them and place on an oiled cookie sheet.  Bake at 400 degrees (F) for about 15 minutes, until they just start to brown. Remove from the oven and transfer pieces to a casserole dish.  On each slice of eggplant spread your favorite pasta sauce, sprinkle with chopped basil, and add a thin slice of mozzarella cheese topped with a teaspoon of grated parmigiana.  Layer the eggplant and continue until all slices are used.  Top with toasted bread crumbs and bake at 350 degrees until the cheese melts. Serve immediately with a little salad and vino rosso.

Buon Appetito!

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Le Celle

The monastery and sanctuary of Le Celle

St. Francis

In the year 1211 Le Celle was but a few small buildings and most likely being used as a mill. That is the scene that would have greeted St. Francis of Assisi as he approached this remote location seeking a place of solitude.  He found it here in the wilderness surrounding Cortona and stayed long enough to set in motion the creation of a monastic settlement. Today, although Le Celle appears a Franciscan monastery of somewhat grand proportion, it remains a sanctuary used for the purpose of contemplation and its modest interior a reflection of the Franciscan belief in austerity. 

The Oratory

The cell of St. Francis

Madonna and Child

Something to the effect of following your heart
through St. Francis, the voice of the Lord.

A simple and rustic aesthetic.

The waterway was what made this location perfect for its original use as a mill.

Grounds surrounding Le Celle.

Monday, April 15, 2013

Living and Learning in Camucia

Thursday morning market in Camucia

We've been in Italy for more than two weeks now and the Italian way of doing things is starting to feel a little more comfortable to us.  We left the big city of Rome behind and are now house sitting in the small town of Camucia.  Life is at a different pace here and we've had to make some adjustments.  For instance, we must remember that the shops close about noon on Saturday and all day on Sunday.   We can walk through town on Sunday afternoon and rarely encounter anyone.  Even during the week advance planning is necessary as most businesses are closed from about 1:00 - 4:00 every afternoon for the common Mediterranean lunch break.   It seems simple enough, but invariably we'll be out and about and want to make a quick stop somewhere to pick up something but the timing just isn't right.

We've all heard about driving in Italy - and it is absolutely true, be careful!  Understanding the rules is a challenge.  For example, where and under what circumstances it is okay to park seems like it should be straight forward.  A posted sign with a red circle and a red slash through it is supposed to mean no parking.  Well, maybe.  We're not sure because everyone parks everywhere.  But we just know if we park there we'll get a ticket!  Speed limits are only obeyed if the police are present and tail gating is a common way of driving (that's not so unlike California!).  Also, pedestrian cross walks are's like you have to make eye contact, stare down the driver, and step off the curb or else they will just keep coming.  

Another difference for us is doing laundry.  Most homes here have washing machines but owning a dryer is quite rare. Laundry is done on sunny days and hung out to dry. (We wonder what you do during a rainy spell?) We're fortunate that our house here has a dryer but we know our future accommodations in Italy will not. Let's hope for sunshine!

Guys take note, shopping seems to be pretty much done by the woman of the house.  The routine, as we've come to understand it, is that the men go shopping with their wives at the weekly market downtown, but that's where the shopping part ends for the guys.  The women do the shopping and the men gather together at the front of the market and talk, have a cigarette, and talk some more. Shopping is a major social event in Camucia as we suspect it is in other small towns across Italy.  Italians are friendly people and seem to know everyone else they encounter.  We think most of Thursday morning is devoted to this outing.  It makes us wish we spoke Italian.  

Speaking of speaking Italian, we have yet to get the buon giorno (good morning) and buono sera (good evening) thing down.  It seems that no one uses good afternoon, they just jump from the morning greeting to the evening greeting at some point in the afternoon only known to themselves. Whatever we say, it never seems to be correct for the moment.  We guess it's like the have to be born here to understand and appreciate all its nuances. Fortunately, saying "ciao" is simple and always appropriate.  We think...

Friday, April 12, 2013


Cortona sits atop Mount Sant' Egidio at an elevation of about 1700 feet.

"...Cortona, a well preserved exemplar of countless hill towns on the Italian peninsula.  Its architecture, complex but manageable, provides a means of rummaging through nearly 30 centuries of history to bring Cortona and adjoining Umbrian and Tuscan areas into sharper focus.  Italy has not a single history, but dozens.  Each fiercely independent city-state, isolated in its Apennine geography, waged its own wars within and without its walls, experienced its own triumphs and defeats, formed its own contracts with overlords and allies.  Only successive invasions of each endured..."
                                                                       Excerpt from Cortona in Context by Pilancy N. Holder

First the Umbrians, then the Etruscans, then the Romans and so it went. Invader after invader and generation after generation building atop the other ultimately creating the Cortona of today.  Fortunately, the only present day invaders are tourists!  

The walls surrounding Cortona
Historians generally agree that the City was founded somewhere between the 10th and 6th century B.C.  Ancient peoples built upon hilltops as a form of defense and Cortona was no exception.  Overlooking a vast valley (and former swampy flood plain until 200 years ago) it provided a perfect vantage point - they could see their enemies coming. Today Cortona's hilltop location provides a sweeping view of the Val de Chiana's rich agricultural lands, groves of olive trees, small villages and the charming stone homes that dot the countryside.  

Looking at the Val de Chiana from Cortona with Lake Trasimeno in the background.

Our house sit is in the town of Camucia, just below Cortona.

Cortona's Piazza della Republica has been the center of town for centuries.

Medieval passageways invite exploration...
...and give a good workout at the same time!

While the focus may be on the ancient there are plenty of modern day shops and restaurants within the walls. 

Enotecas sell local wines - the most famous being those from nearby Montepulciano.

Many people come to Cortona because they're familiar with Under the Tuscan Sun,
 Francis Mayes story about remodeling an old villa and her take on life in the Italian countryside.
They come and make their pilgrimage to her home Bramisole.
But another group of people make their pilgrimage here because this was the home of Saint Margherita
and her remains and relics are located here in the Church of Santa Margherita.

Cathedral of Santa Maria Assunta (Cortona's Duomo) is located within
the city walls.  Many of the churches in these old hilltop towns have
beautifully adorned interiors and original paintings to view.

Interior of Cortona's Duomo

Each commissioner sent by Florence to oversea Cortona installed their family crest
as an expression of their authority. 

Some architectural details.

The soft colors of age.