Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Last Day - Saturday - 5/9/15

I had so much anxiety about waking up to drive to the airport that I probably slept a total of 2 hours. How terrible. I was up around 6am getting myself together. I looked outside and was shocked to see fog everywhere. I couldn’t see a thing in the distance, and started to worry about the visibility on the roads.

Eric arose from his slumber by 6:30am and told me to stop worrying about nothing. He’s right. My parents raised me to be a worry freak, and I just can’t help myself!

We got dressed for our extremely long day of travel and headed to breakfast, which opened at 7am. We weren’t the only ones there first thing. That mother/daughter duo I had mentioned in an earlier post made an entrance shortly after us. The daughter (in her 40’s) immediately let the waiter know they had a flight and had to hurry. She had an absolutely miserable look on her face. The mother, obviously older in her 70’s, looked like a puppy dog as her mean daughter completely ignored her. They were sitting right next to us and I quietly observed them.

They were so fortunate to be together on this mother/daughter trip at such a beautiful place. I WISH my mom could be here. Yet, the daughter spent the entire breakfast with her face down and didn’t even look ONCE at her mother. I saw the mother glance nervously at her angry daughter. They didn’t speak a word throughout the entire meal.

I know I shouldn’t stereotype, but the daughter looked like a wealthy woman who likely doesn’t work and does nothing all day but spend her husband’s money. What does she have to be so miserable about? I obviously don’t know anything about these people except they seem to prove yet again that money doesn’t buy happiness.

After breakfast, it was time to say good bye to our beloved Tuscan countryside. We closed up our suitcases and checked out. The drive to the airport was very smooth without a single issue - no traffic or any random problems! We stopped at a rest stop once to use the bathroom. Eric had read all these horror stories online about people breaking into cars at rest stops, so one of us stayed outside and watched the car while the other went in.

I didn’t know what to expect from an Italian rest stop, but it was very nice. The bathrooms were clean like in the US and the store had everything, including fresh loaves of Italian bread.

During the 3 hour drive, Eric and I discussed how much we love wine country and can’t wait to go back. Even though I am not a fan of travelling to Europe, I would love to visit some wine regions in France.

Before we knew it, we were pulling into the Rome airport. We kept following the signs for the rental car return which promptly disappeared in front of a large parking garage with no signs. Immediately we were confused. Is the rental car return inside the garage? Why did we need a ticket to enter the garage if it’s a rental car return? There was a sign next to the booth that listed parking prices. This must not be right.

Luckily there weren’t any cars behind us so we were able to back up to the entrance and then just sat there dumbfounded. What do we do? Where is Budget? Why would we need a parking ticket to drop off our car? I’ve rented cars a million times before and have never had to do this.

Eventually we decided that entering the garage had to be right and we had no idea where else to go. We drove forward, took a ticket, and followed signs for Budget in the garage. Thankfully this turned out to be a good move!

We dropped the car off and headed into the airport. There were multiple terminals but there weren't any signs specifying which airlines flew out of which terminals. After contemplating, we made a lucky guess.

The terminal was a bit musty and not heavily air-conditioned like in the US. I was already starting to feel gross and we weren’t even close to getting home. We approached the Alitalia desk and searched for our flight on the board.

Wait a second, this can’t be right…! Does it really say we are delayed 3 HOURS?! Are you kidding me?! We waved down an employee who explained that there was a large fire at the international terminal the day before, so all flights were re-routed to the domestic terminal, thus causing a major delay.

Wow, what luck... Fire at a major airport, in the international terminal, at the airport we are flying from... what are the odds!!!! Oh well, at least we had each other for support and entertainment. This certainly wasn’t my first airport delay and I’m confident it won’t be my last.

They compensated by giving us vouchers for food. We went through security and the guy was checking every bag. Give me a break!

Upon entering the terminal I immediately noticed a SMOKERS LOUNGE. Gross, just looking at it made me want to vomit.

The terminal was packed to the max because all of the flights for two terminals were consolidated into one. On a positive note, there were tons of places to eat and great stores for shopping. It was like a mall in there. We headed straight to eat because I was starving. Our voucher allowed us free food at a particular restaurant. We found it near our gate, and it turned out to be small food court where all the Alitalia employees were eating. Hmm…weird. The food looked okay though.

Of course, it was packed so I had to wait forever to get my food. Once I sat down, I watched the bags while Eric got his plate. Overall, the food was OKAY. BLAH would be the best description. At least it was free and my pie was tasty.

We then walked around to explore the terminal. I got tired quickly because it was so packed, and we already had such a long day. I just needed to sit. We found a few open seats and connected to the free, yet extremely slow and unreliable, internet.

Eventually we made our way to the gate and took a seat nearby. The toilets at the airport were atrocious. I’ll just leave it at that.

Neric at the FCO airport desperately wanting to get home

FINALLY – time to board our flight. Everyone was anxiously crowding the gate. The agents were busy doing whatever agents do, and we all stared blankly at them. After 20 minutes, I noticed something on the board.


Everyone started to look a little frantic. I saw one of the gate agents look up at the board in shock. Clearly, they had no idea this was coming.

To say a frenzy ensued would be an understatement. People who know me, also know that my family is very loud, emotional, and riled up at all times. Well, everyone in Italy is the same way. The Italians went berserk! I almost thought they were going to trample the desk. They were standing in a group, yelling and screaming, and pumping their fists.

It was amazing.

The agents responded with extreme patience and composure. You could tell they were used to this behavior. In America, you can’t even look at a gate agent the wrong way or they’ll allow security to tackle you.

An announcement for the additional delay was never made. Any announcements that were made throughout this entire debacle were incomprehensible anyway.

Proof that were delayed

There was a study abroad student who was turning 21 at midnight and had plans to go out in Boston. Looks like she’ll be celebrating on the plane!

We had no choice but to sulk back to whatever empty seats we could find. I was brain dead and exhausted, and only had energy to people watch. That’s when I spotted this:

Listen, I’m not trying to make fun. I’m just trying to understand why any sane person (who’s not a celebrity about to be photographed) would wear a tight mini skirt and 5 inch heels to the airport. She must not be sane.

The most practical airport outfit I've ever seen

After several more hours, it was time to board again. Everyone gathered around the gate only to find out that before boarding, every single ticket needed to be reissued. Basically, they moved our flight onto a different plane, and then re-assigned everyone to a new seat. Some people had the same seat, and some people were moved. Therefore, they told us that every single person had to get in line and have their ticket re-printed by a gate agent. There were hundreds of people, and 2 gate agents. 

As you can imagine, this was absolutely ridiculous.... we just sat around for a 5 hour delay and they decide to notify everyone at the last minute. A total mob scene formed and everyone in line was extremely confused. 30 minutes passed and they had only checked 5 tickets! Eric was ready to jump up and help manage the situation. There wasn't even an orderly line!

Basically, we had to go through hell to get on this plane.

It took several more hours to complete this painful process. Total nightmare! The only good news is that the flight wasn’t cancelled. THANK GOD.

While we were on the shuttle to our plane, there was an Italian couple who said they were flying into Boston and going to straight to Nantucket. Another person asked where they were going to stay, since we’d land around 2am and there aren’t any boats going to Nantucket until many hours later. They nonchalantly replied that they would sleep in the airport, as if it were no big deal (are you kidding me?). It’s so funny to me that I live in Boston and haven’t been to Nantucket. Yet these people are flying 9 hours from another continent to go there.

Anyway, we made it home safely and I literally slept the entire flight. I wanted to kiss the ground when we got off the plane. Eric only slept 1-2 hours and he was in rough shape when we landed. Total travel time was around 24 hours from the time we left the hotel until the time we arrived at our condo.

I would say the biggest lesson I learned on this trip is that I am so thankful to be an American!

Until next time, Ciao!

Friday, May 8, 2015

Tuscany - Friday - 5/8/15

It’s the ever so sacred last full day of our two week European adventure. So depressing! It’s yet another beautiful morning. We have been so lucky with the weather on this trip. 

We woke up feeling good and went straight to breakfast. We chose a seat by the window, ordered our usual caffeinated beverages, along with a vegetable frittata and bacon, and then headed to the buffet. The bacon was perfection. I could eat this every day! The frittata was even better than the last one we ordered. 

As we ate, we braced ourselves for the aggressive service. The manager who greeted us every morning was friendly beyond words, and offered very prompt service. However, the bussers took their responsibilities to a new level, and literally watched our every move until we cleared our plates. The second we took our last bite, the busser rushed over and grabbed the plates off the table in a millisecond. As I was swallowing my food and placing my utensil on the table, the plate was being removed. Talk about anxiety!

This type of service infuriates me. I later gave the hotel management a scathing review about this when they sent my customer satisfaction survey. I guess I should just be happy that this was BY FAR my largest complaint while staying at this dream of a boutique hotel. 

Across the way, there was middle aged couple who sat next to each other on the booth side of the table. They were canoodling and sharing a plate of food. On the outside, they looked stylish and probably European. The fact that they were sharing a plate of food (when everything was free) was intriguing enough, but then they started making out. Were they on their honeymoon? I think PDA that involves saliva exchange is just unsanitary in a restaurant. How goofy to behave this way in public at such an early hour. At least they were age appropriate and not some gross old man and much younger woman which is what we often witnessed at the Four Seasons in Bora Bora. 

After our entire morning routine was complete, we headed into Chianti wine country. I was trying to savor every second of scenery knowing the end of our stay was nearing. The drive to our first winery took an hour, but it flew by because I was so enthralled by my surroundings. 

Scenery on the way to the first winery

I think these are olive trees. Cool clouds!

We found the winery and pulled into what looked like a tasting room. I was confused though because where were the vineyards?

Where we first pulled in

The rooster means the wine is from the Chianti region

Turns out this was a shop where you could have a tasting and purchase wine, without driving all the up to the vineyard. The guy inside told us to turn right and go up about two miles and we'd be there.

We drove up the long path into Castello Di Verrazzano and had to pull over on the way to photograph the property. It looked like a castle. 

We stopped in the middle of the road so I could run out and photograph Castello Di Verrazano from a distance

Beautiful Castello Di Verrazzano

After pulling in and parking, we didn’t know what to expect, but it appeared to be a reputable establishment. I started snapping away!

View from the parking lot

Immediately I could tell we made a good decision by choosing to visit this winery. We were greeted by a young guy with a British accent and really lucked out because the next tour began in 20 minutes. Perfect! There was a group of people who made a reservation for the noon tour, but they would let us join even though we didn't reserve a spot. 

The Chianti Classico, which Eric and I have bought at home many times before

The winery had 2 restaurants. This one was so pretty!

The group was having an organized lunch after the tour at the restaurant on the winery’s property. We asked to skip the lunch and do a tasting instead, and they agreed that was fine for 16 euro/person. Our tour guide was an Italian man that could seriously be in a movie. He was patient, animated, knowledgeable, and cool as a cucumber. He had a light complexion, like me, but a pretty thick accent. He had been working at this winery for just under a year but had spent a decade working at another large winery about an hour away. Can you imagine spending your adult life working in Tuscan wineries? What a drastic difference from our American business culture back home. I wonder how much money he makes…

Anyway, this property was impressive. On the outside of the cellar there were these lush gardens that we toured first. There was a large pond, sculptures, manicured landscape, fountains, lemon trees, etc. How unique! I have never been to or heard of a winery with gardens. 

Pond and fountain in the gardens


Patio with lemon trees that leads to the cellar

Lemon trees

There was a ledge at the end of the gardens, and our guide told us to look over and see if we could spot wild boar. This winery raises their own wild boar, 15 total, because of economic advantages. Now that is interesting! They use it to make all their meats. Unfortunately the boars were hiding. I started to visualize the process of slaughtering a wild boar to produce the slice of salami I was going to enjoy with my tasting, and then quickly stopped myself. 

Wild boar (my salami) hanging to dry

We continued past the gardens to a large terrace that of course, had stellar views!

View from the Terrace

The guide said this winery in the distance is their "friendly" competition.  The two hill top estates have been fighting for hundreds of years!

Our group consisted of people who seemed like they were there strictly for the lunch portion of the tour. Eric and I were the only people who asked questions. There were couples of all age ranges. One younger couple were probably on their honeymoon. There was an older couple, and the man was wearing a sweatshirt even though the sun was scorching down on us. There was another couple that really entertained me. He carried the camera, she would pose next to something, and he obediently snapped a photo. She posed next to pretty much everything we walked by. It was hilarious. 

Large property. This is their only vineyard

This was our tour guide. He was awesome! They hang grapes on these. See next picture...

Grapes hanging - I have never seen this before

We really enjoyed the tour. Our guide was super patient with everyone and their photography and wasn’t annoyed with any of our numerous questions. 

They stored many of their vintage bottles in this room

They hold on to the vintage bottles for novelty purposes, but you can't drink these old bottles

Enormous oak barrels

This winery practices organic farming, which is a huge selling point for me. However, I was confused as to why the bottles didn’t have the organic label. The guide explained that they practice organic farming but can’t afford the organic certification. Makes sense. 

He emphasized how Italians do everything “straight” in regards to food and wine. They take pride in their farming and practice natural methods. 

Eric in front of the vintage wines

Beautiful oak barrel

Having a great time!

He talked about how the grapes naturally add sugar to the wine during the fermentation process. I asked if they add more sugar and he said that they don’t, but the wineries in France need to add sugar due to the cooler climate. In warmer climates, the grapes produce more natural sugars which produce a higher alcohol content. In France, the temperatures are cooler and they need to add sugar to reach the same levels. Interesting! The interior of the cellar was fascinating. All the wine is stored in oak barrels, just like Antinori (winery we went to yesterday). 

We viewed the room where they age their homemade vinegar for ten years. Yes, that’s right, TEN YEARS. We later sampled the vinegar during our tasting and it was phenomenal.  I didn’t even know it was possible for vinegar to be phenomenal. As soon as I get home I will immediately throw out the crap vinegar I have (which I thought was good quality) and invest in something good. Wow, what a difference! It was delicious and I could eat it every day on a salad with some salt, pepper, and olive oil. 

One interesting fact is that this winery is affiliated with Whole Foods. Representatives from Whole Foods came out to their winery and created a video showcasing their farming techniques and support for their products. I was surprised the guide didn’t mention this in the tour! Unfortunately Whole Foods doesn’t carry the vinegar because their production is too small. 

After the tour we headed towards the restaurant, which had a rustic Tuscan d├ęcor. The atmosphere was very lively. There were many long tables filled with people feasting, talking and laughing. 

Very lively atmosphere! The table to the right was our tour group

We both kind of wished we had signed up for the lunch because the smells coming from the kitchen were tantalizing. Next time!  

The tantalizing smells were coming from this large wood burning oven

We watched as our group sat down together at a long table. I wonder what the conversation was like, haha. We had the small bar to ourselves, and the young guy with the British accent came over to lead us through our tasting. 

View from the bar where we had our tasting

Different vintages of their Chianti Classico

There were 3 pours, but since our guide liked us, he added a 4th pour of their best Super Tuscan wine. 

The 3 main pours

Our tasting - I wish I could do this every day!

mmmm fresh salami with our tasting! lol

The young guy taught us how to properly taste wine. First, you tilt your glass to ensure you can see through the liquid. The point of this is to make sure there are no particles. Then you swirl it so the aroma rises through the glass. Sniff sniff. If you smell your wine before swirling and after, there is supposed to be a big difference. I tried it and have to admit I didn’t notice a difference but it’s probably because my tasting skills aren’t advanced enough. Next, you make sure you hold your glass at the base of the stem so the smells from your hand don’t taint the aroma from the wine. Then you sip, but don’t swallow! Not yet at least. Fold the wine under your tongue and swoosh it around your cheeks. This is where you’ll notice whether or not it’s smooth. Then swallow, or you can spit in a bucket (yea right!).   

After paying for our tour, we left without purchasing any bottles. However, we absolutely plan to track these down back at home and purchase at least a case.

Since it was our last day, we wanted to hit the road and explore a few more wineries. We got in the car, drove all the way down the hill, turned right, and drove a few miles on the famous route 222 wine trail until we came across Terreno vineyards.  There were many signs that said "wine-tasting" so we thought, "why not, let's try it."

We pulled in and start driving up the long hill to the winery. 

Terreno Vineyards

We noticed a large tour bus in the parking lot and a huge group of people milling around. We walked inside and were greeted by a very sweet blonde girl.

Inside the tasting room at the Terreno vineyards

We were shocked to find out this winery was Swedish owned, and caters exclusively to Swedish tourists (how random!). The entire tour group we saw outside were Swedish, and they choose to visit this winery because the tour is in Swedish only. They carry the majority of their wines in Sweden, and nowhere else. Wow, definitely wasn't expecting to hear all this...

Some of the Terrano Wines

The blonde said we could do a wine tasting so we went ahead and did one. It was very informal. She poured a small glass of each wine for us to share. Ummm...okay? This isn't the type of tasting I had in mind. First off, I thought we would sit down. Second, I expected to have each wine tasting presented to us in a more professional manner. I also couldn't believe we had only one glass to share. 

Our tiny tasting to share

The girl was Swedish, of course, and this was her summer job. The wines were good. If we lived nearby, we would have purchased a bottle. The tasting was free, but if it wasn't, I would have refused to pay. At the end of our "tasting" she put the pressure on, and tried to force us to buy a bottle. We explained we had no room in our suitcase, which was the truth. She suggested we buy a bottle and drink it tonight with friends. LOL. I love that she assumed we made friends during our short stay in Tuscany. 

I suddenly had to urge to leave, and we bolted. I don't respond well to pressure sales tactics, and didn't feel guilty at all for not purchasing anything. In fact, because of this experience, I'll never buy their wine for the rest of my life. 

We got in the car and decided we wanted to try at least one more winery. There was a ton of signs for Fattoria Casaloste, so we decided that would be our next stop. It took about 15-20 minutes to get there.

View from Fattoria Casaloste

Another view

There was one other family up there, who looked like they just arrived as well. We all went inside to check it out.

Walking into the tasting room at Fattoria Casaloste

There was a kind middle-aged lady inside who turned out to be the co-owner, along with her husband who was not present.  The tasting was much better than the last, but still quite informal. We all stood next to a long table, and she spoke about each wine. At least we each had our own glass!

The wines we tasted

Her wines were great. Definitely high quality. I really liked how the entire place was run by just her and her husband. She had many interesting stories about her wine, and how each bottle related to her family in some way. 

Eric favored the Chianti Classico Riserva, and I liked the Super Tuscan best. We would definitely buy these wines back at home. She said right now they are sold in New York, but not Massachusetts.  Eric is going to buy a few bottles online. 

The other family (they were from Norway) purchased a few bottles before leaving, but we didn't... The tasting was free, but like the last place, she seemed desperate for us to buy a bottle. Luckily, she was distracted with the other family, and we were able to exit without making excuses. 

Gosh, this is certainly NOT what I had in mind for wine tasting in Tuscany. It's all about selling and making money. When we were in Santa Barbara, the focus was on the wine tasting experience because they understand people came from all over to taste at multiple wineries. You can't expect people to buy from every single winery they visit! We never felt pressured in Santa Barbara. 

I guess next time I would stick to touring the larger, more reputable wineries and avoid the family shops, unless I planned to purchase bottles of wine.

At this point, we were ready to go back. Believe it or not, we weren't even buzzed. The tastings were small, and probably equated to maybe 2 glasses each over many hours. 

The views on the way home to our hotel:

We got back and I began to dread traveling back home. We were in good shape as far as packing, so we relaxed and tried to figure out where to eat. It was around 5pm and nothing was open! We wanted to go back to the pizzeria but we'd have to wait two more hours and I didn't want to eat late the night before traveling home. 

We decided on the restaurant at our hotel. We were the only ones in there eating at that hour, but it was fine.  

My mind was focused on packing for home, so there are no food pics from our last dinner. But in case you care to know, we ate chicken salad, chicken milanese and tortellini with cream sauce. 

After our early dinner, we spent the rest of the night milling around the property, hanging out, and getting organized. We also had to be prepared for our drive to the Rome airport the next morning. Eric worked on reviewing the directions.

The drive to the airport would take at least 3 hours, and our flight was at 3:30pm. We decided to leave the hotel by 8am, because in Italy, you better leave extra time for the unexpected. You never know what could happen here! I wouldn't be surprised if the freeway randomly closed and we had to take back roads the whole way. Nothing would shock me in this country.

All in all, Tuscany was one of the best experiences of my life. I absolutely loved it and like I said before, truly wished we spent the entire two weeks there. One day I'm sure we'll return...but who knows when.