In the third and final installment of “Thanksgivings Abroad” we took our longest road trip to date. Leaving Tuesday morning after some early morning meetings, we loaded up the car to head south. Ryan selflessly agreed to drive so I could work for the duration of the relatively uneventful trip that took us 7 hours through France and Switzerland and finally into Italy. We enjoyed the snow capped peaks of the Alps as we neared our hotel for the first night on Lake Como.
After some dicey turns on tiny roads up the steep hills surrounding Lake Como, we were parked and checking into Hotel Asnigo. With no plans but relaxing, we headed up to our room and stepped out onto a balcony with a view well worth the 7 hour drive. We spent the next 2 hours watching the sun set and enjoying the pleasant weather (relative to Germany) before heading down to the hotel restaurant for a 7:00 dinner.
It was noticeably off-season and no, there were no George and Amal Clooney sightings. In our hotel restaurant, there was one other couple and then 45 empty tables. We settled in with a view out over the water for one of the best meals of the trip. We started with a bottle of Tuscan wine (what else!) and then enjoyed some pumpkin cream soup, a creamy risotto with truffle and hazelnuts, grilled rack of lamb and ended with an apple dessert with pistachio ice cream. We still had a glass of wine left so our waiter returned to the table with some orange-flavored chocolate to end our meal.
We woke up the next morning to less of a stunning view. I was going to take a meeting outside on the balcony but the rain kept me inside instead. After knocking out a little work, we had a quick breakfast downstairs then got back in the car to keep heading south. Our next 3 hours were spent driving through pouring rain, trying to see more than 20 feet to right or left and wondering what we would do when we got to our next stop in the rain.
3 hours later, we met our host at the entrance to Riomaggiore, parked outside the car-less city and walked down to our hotel, Alla Marina Affittacamere, directly on the harbor of the first of the Cinque Terre cities. We set out our things and, lo and behold, the rain that had been falling steadily since 6 AM cleared up. We could scrap all of our inside plans and headed out to explore the tiny city.
We had the chance to talk to our host, Andreas, a third generation Riomaggioran, about living in the city. He told us that there are 800 residents in the high season but, when the tourist crowds head out, the city dwindles to 300 residents. Andreas had greeted 5 or 6 people as we walked through the city, reassuring us that he really knew everyone who lived there. As we walked through the slowly-drying city, it was hard to believe there were even 300 people in the clifftop town. Everything was peaceful and quiet except the sound of the wind from the harbor.
We started our walk by heading up the hill to see the view from the church that overlooks the city. We slowly wound our way down the hill, walking beneath lemon and orange trees, along stone-lined paths, and enjoyed the drastic views of the cliffs and the blue sea. We worked our way down to the train station, through the tunnel under the city, out to the harbor on the other side, up the other cliff and to a dramatic overlook. The sun was starting to sink down at this point so we worked our way back to the harbor to share the view with 20 other tourists. We took 30 minutes to watch it slowly sink before walking the 15 steps back to our hotel for the night.
Our restaurant didn’t open for another 2 hours so we took some time to relax after our two long drives. We watched some Rick Steves (still a favorite) about the places we had yet to go on our trip. After getting progressively hungrier, we were ready to head down to the Ristorante dau Cila (we liked the name, of course) directly under our hotel.
We were one of the first ones inside and we settled in for a tour of traditional Ligurian cuisine. Starting with some oysters and local white wine, we then moved into a platter of mixed anchovies (salted, stuffed, with peppers and butter, with onions and pine nuts and fried), then tucked into some sea bass and a plate full of pesto pasta in the region it originated from. We moved onto a glass of red local wine with the main courses and then enjoyed that with a pistachio cream and a glass of Sciacchetrà with biscotti for dessert.
The restaurant was full of Americans on their Thanksgiving holidays. It was hard to miss the holiday makers enjoying their time in Italy. After almost 3 years living in and exploring European countries with their differing atmospheres and traditions, it was a reminder for us of the importance of matching the tone of the places you go. It’s not a requirement, of course, but you run the risk of drowning out all other conversations in the restaurant to talk loudly about the six kids you plan to have with your MBA or engineer (as-of-yet-imaginary) husband. Even with the unexpected revelations, we had a delicious meal before heading just up the stairs to sleep.
The next morning started with a bit of rain again. We had a cup of tea down by the harbor, watching the surging waves crash against the breakwater, until the rain drove us inside. We packed up quickly, headed to our car, and took the scenic route, driving along the coast to admire the rest of the 5 cities. We parked with a view over the coast and had a quick breakfast in the car, watching the waves crash from afar. Then we got back on our way.
An hour later we pulled into a giant parking lot in Pisa for a quick afternoon of quirky views. We figured we were too close to miss a visit to the Field of Miracles. We had read a bit about the construction and history of the different architectural gems in Pisa but nothing could prepare us for the actual lean of the tower. We stood in the crowded field and did our best “holding up the tower” pictures. Some of us were more into that than others…. After 2 nearly-empty cities we were surprised to see how crowded Pisa was. We were far from alone in our cheesy picture taking excursion. After a few snapshots, we got our tickets to enter the Duomo then walked around the tower, marveling at how unstable it appeared. We got into the cathedral at 1:45 and walked through the gorgeous interior with only a few of the fellow tourists. Most seemed deterred by the time-stamped tickets but that was fine with us.
After our exploring, we decided it was time for lunch. We walked through the little town, we found an out-of-the-way pizzeria where we had a mouthwatering lunch of a quattro formaggi and a prosciutto pizza with focaccia bread. We took a slow walk back through the town before heading to our final hotel for the trip in the heart of Tuscany.
The sun was starting to go down when we pulled into our home for the next three days, Agriturismo Biologico Diacceroni, a sprawling farm outside the hilltop town of Volterra. Agriturismos are a unique lodging option in Italy. They must be working farms that are subsidized by the government if they allow some lodgers to stay on their property. The idea, meant to help boost the small farms against the power of large, corporate farms, also offer a tourists a glimpse into a day in the life of a Tuscan farmer. It took us a few tries to find how to find someone to check us in but after stopping by the restaurant, we were guided up to the reception and shown to our room. We dropped our bags and looked around the area, complete with a large semi-private terrace, a kitchen area, and easy access to the small shop of our agriturismo’s products downstairs.
After unpacking a bit for the next 3 days, we grabbed a bottle of wine from the store. As is common in all trusting European countries, we just wrote a note of what we bought to be paid for later. Then we headed down to overlook the rolling Tuscan hills. Unfortunately, the rain was back so we ducked inside and enjoyed the wine from our little kitchen area while we checked in with our families before dinner.
At 7:00, we headed back down to the restaurant and tucked in for our Thanksgiving meal. It was only us and one other family staying in the agriturismo for the night. While we enjoyed our meal, they had a feast of all the pasta they had made in their Tuscan cooking class which just got us excited for ours scheduled for Saturday. In the meantime we feasted on gnudi (see below), ravioli, and a chickpea burger. The chef, Francesca, came out of the kitchen to explain the gnudi. “It’s ravioli without the dress” she explained “there/s the ravioli, then take off the noodle and oh, gnudi!” In other words, it was ricotta cheese and spinach covered in a butter and sage sauce. This was all paired with the agriturismo’s own Chianti Reserva. After the main courses we ended the meal with a chocolate and salted caramel cake and tiramisu, followed by a shot of limoncello.
Throughout the meal we chatted with the other family staying there. The parents live in Florida and they were visiting their daughter who has been living in Rome for almost 4 years getting her masters in art history. We peppered her with questions about living in Rome and also tips about heading to Florence, which was our plan for Friday. She gave us her best recommendations (a bit art-related, as to be expected) before we said good night and headed up to bed.
We got a bit of a later start on Friday. I had another meeting to start the day and, after signing off, we got ready to head down to breakfast. The shower, which had been freezing the night before, unfortunately wasn’t magically warmer in the morning. We searched for some way to turn on the hot water but, not finding any, had to settle for freezing showers. The highlight of the day for me was hearing Ryan say “I’m a strong independent man who don’t need not hot water,” followed very quickly by “yes I do!”
Somehow, we both got ready and made it down for some breakfast (cheese and prosciutto Omelettes and strong Italian coffee) before getting back in the car for the hour and a half drive to Florence (or Firenze in Italian). We (meaning Ryan) had to quickly adjust to driving in a city again. Finding parking and dodging pedestrians was not something we missed. We parked successfully though and soon were on our way into the city.
Our first stop was the massive Duomo. With one of the most impressive exteriors I’ve seen in Europe, the Florentine Duomo and its matching baptistery with stunning copper doors were the catalyst for the Renaissance in Europe. While the views of the cathedral were inspiring, what I found more exciting was the number of buildings that this dome had inspired (St. Peters and the US Capitol, to name a few). After waiting in line and doing a quick stroll through the interior (actually quite simple compared to the cathedral we had seen the day before), we headed back outside to finish a Rick Steves approved Renaissance walk.
We headed down the main pedestrian street until we came to the Medici palace. We admired the replica of Michelangelo’s David outside the imposing fortress. We did a quick walk through the painted courtyard and then took a quick skip to the Uffizi gallery. We made a spur of the minute decision to duck in there for some 15th, 16th, and 17th century paintings and sculptures. It wasn’t necessarily our favorite kind of art so our tour was a bit faster than some art lovers probably would have preferred. We did get to see the big ticket exhibits though before heading back outside.
The end of our Florentine adventure was a trip across Ponte Vecchio then retracing our steps towards the Mercado Centrale. On the way we stopped in a few shops and, after almost a year of looking, Ryan got some new shoes (yay!) By this time we were more than hungry so we hurried back to the central market and got a less-than-traditional meal of bean soup, a fresh juice, and some dumplings. We wanted to avoid driving on the pothole-filled roads at night so we headed back towards home, dodging more pedestrians as we left the city and looking forward to getting back to the less-frequented roads.
Something about the day didn’t agree with me so the rest of the night was much more enjoyable for Ryan than for me. While I looked on miserably, Ryan enjoyed a full Tuscan dinner for the two of us. He started the agriturismo’s fresh olive oil (picked and pressed 2 weeks ago) on bread and a glass of their Prosecco, followed by tomato soup. He then moved on to pasta with pork ragu and finally beef tenderloin from the agriturismo’s own cows. I wasn’t the best conversationalist that night so Ryan took the opportunity to ask more about our agriturismo and its history. He found out that the current owner, Massimo, was the second generation owner. The slow season we saw was a welcome respite from the busy season. If you want to stay at Diacceroni in August 2020, you’re out of luck as all 65 rooms across all their properties are already booked!
Ryan chatted with the waiter and enjoyed his food as I headed up to bed early. Somehow he was still able to end on two homemade truffles to pair with his glass of house wine. He came in with a groan after eating twice as much as we normally eat in a day. At that point I think we were both ready for bed!
Luckily, Saturday’s plans were just relaxing and enjoying the best of Tuscany. We both woke up early enough to watch the sun rise from our terrace. We had a cup of tea and enjoyed the peace of the Tuscan hills. We had some breakfast then made our way back up to our terrace. After a week of dodging rain, Saturday was the best weather we could imagine. The sun was shining, there was no wind, and the countryside was still and peaceful. We napped in the sun before taking a long walk along the road. We saw the other properties that the family owns and enjoyed the sunshine. We stopped by and pet all of the horses on the property, too! We stocked up on Tuscan wine and Prosecco in the small shop before another walk and a long nap before our evening event.
At 3:00 pm we headed down to the restaurant to meet Francesca for our Tuscan cooking class. We were joined by another family – parents and their three young children. We got to know each other quickly – they worked at the Israeli embassy in Rome and have been living in Italy for 3 years – before we got started.
Part 1 was making fresh pasta. We learned the difference between fresh and dry pasta (spaghetti is never fresh pasta) and the different noodle shapes and types that you can make with fresh pasta. We learned the rules about what sauce goes on what noodles. There are a lot of those rules but basically big noodes = meaty sauce and small noodles = meatless sauce. If your ravioli filling has a strong flavor, it should go with a simple sauce and vice versa! then we learned how to shape each. We also learned that we don’t eat nearly enough pasta for Italian standards -Francesca’s family eats pasta at least once a day, if not twice. After that, we were off making our own. We mixed the dough, stretched it to make the gluten gate, and let it rest while Francesca did a demonstration. We cut some large strips to make lasagna, we rolled tortellini (Francesca was not impressed with mine!), made ravioli and cut tagliatelle. It was quite a work out!
We learned how to make a Béchamel sauce for our lasagna and how to layer it. A correct lasagna has a layer of Béchamel, then noodles, layer of Béchamel with bolognese sauce, more noodles, and repeat for up to 4 layers. Top with a little Parmesan cheese before baking, never after. After that, we finished making our pasta and were on to learning how to make a schiacciata fiorentina a traditional Florentine cake that was first made in the 1500’s. We grated and juiced oranges, mixed the dough, and soon were making three giant cakes.
After our cooking class, we headed back to our room to wash up, happily still donning our chef’s hats and aprons. An hour later we were headed back down to the restaurant to enjoy the fruits of our labors. We sat with the family from Israel and spent the next two hours tasting our creation and chatting with the family. We asked all about Israel and their experiences in Italy.
The kids were the same age as I was living in Singapore so I got to ask them what their favorite things were. Like all kids, they talked about malls, gelato, and, to my surprise, Dunkin Donuts. “They’re American kids,” their dad joked. They had been going to an American school in Rome and all three of them told us how much they wanted to go to the US. I guess it just goes to show that the grass is always greener and life always seems more exotic when it’s somewhere different but at the end of the day, all kids love gelato and doughnuts.
We did our best to stuff down the 6 servings of pasta per person we had made. We had the ravioli in a butter and sage sauce, the tagliatelle with a simple red sauce, and a hunk of lasagna. It was all paired with a bottle of Sangiovese and finished with our fresh made cake, topped with a dollop of fresh cream. We very nearly rolled out of the restaurant and up the hill. Don’t worry about our leftovers though! The agriturismo has 35 pigs that they keep very happy with the leftovers from cooking classes.
With heavy stomachs and heavy hearts, we settled our bill at the hotel. We had a very early start the next day so we could cover the 12 hour drive home before it got too late. After a too-short night of sleep, We said good bye to the agriturismo, the horses, and the peaceful rolling hills. Then we started the long, mostly uneventful trip home. We did see a small avalanche (from a safe distance) so it wasn’t completely without excitement. It was a relief to get home but we did our best to enjoy the rest of our fleeting time in Europe as we zipped through Italy, Switzerland, France, and Germany all in a day. The last international Thanksgiving left us even more grateful for the amazing experiences we’ve been lucky enough to have.