Saturday, January 26, 2013

Some Travel Tips

  Over the last decade or so, Johnny & I have made many trips to Italy and Paris. Are we "World" travelers? No way, but we have some pretty good experience with the places we do visit.
  Often friends, or friends of friends will stop into the gallery to pick my little pea brain, and I'm always happy to help with any travel questions I can answer. Hells bells, I'll do anything to talk about Italy for ten minutes.....
  So with this in mind, I thought I'd hand over some of my best tips. Besides, as we are getting ready to take off again, I'm neck deep in doing some of this stuff now, and I'm in the "very excited to go" mode.

  Traveling off season is great in many ways...rates for lodging are much less, and can be negotiated sometimes. Airfares are better, too. There are little to no lines at the "biggie" tourist sites, and hardly anyone around at the smaller sites. In late February 2011, when we went to St. Peters in Rome, it was maybe a 15 minute line, same with the Colosseum. There was just no one around. Downside is that the weather can be "iffy". I'll say it right here and right now...If I'm going to be dealing with cold, rain, or snow, I'll be happy to deal with it in Italy. Or Paris.
  Off season these days means winter-early spring, for the most part. Fall is still busy, but things crank down in November-March, to mid April.
  On the subject of weather...pack a few key pieces, and plan to layer. If you have a good, warm coat, wear it onto the plane and stow it in the overhead. It takes up no room in your luggage this way. Worse case, you may need to pick up a sweater or something in Italy. We check out the farmers markets, where there always seems to be several tables of used clothes. I've gotten some awesome cashmere sweaters, and Johnny bought a great corduroy coat for just a few euros at these "thrift stores" on wheels...

The 2 euro table..clothes are clean, and start out folded......just look carefully.

  You never know what you will find. I have bought a coat at the farmers market, worn it for the entire trip, still in good shape, I leave it behind in the "Red Cross" type box that most larger towns have. It's good all around. But we find things we want to bring home too, of course. And we sometimes buy new stuff. It's Italy, for gods sake. Land-O-Fashion......
  We try to pack as light as possible, but always bring too much. This year will be different! (riiiight....)
Because we are staying in one place, it's easy to overpack..we know we won't be huffing the bags all over the country. Still, I want and need to travel with less. Pack or wear one pair of really comfortable walking shoes; this is a must, fashion be damned.

  Airfares are my favorite game. Many of you have credit card "miles" available to use, but we don't, except every few years when we have added up enough to get 2 roundtrip tickets. So, I spend a few minutes every week, mid-week mostly, checking prices. I like Orbitz. I like Lufthansa/United. I like as few stops as possible, which means one my price range. I may not book the very cheapest flight, but I book the best one for us. 
  This is huge....if you book a flight that leaves before March 31st, you stay in the golden zone of cheaper rates. So, you can still totally enjoy "April In Paris", you'll just get there a day or 2 early. Also, plan to fly out and return on a Tuesday or Wednesday. The flights are always less. 
  I start cruising Orbitz months before a trip, everyday sometimes, just to get a good idea of the going rate. Then some awesome "lowest price ever" will pop up, and I'll grab it. I've learned the hard way that these super prices may be up for only a day, or an hour...Be ready to make the commitment, because these most often don't have refund possibilities.
  I usually book the flight, and then look for the place to stay, but not always. It all seems to work out, if you plan ahead.

  For Panicale, we like to fly into and out of Rome or Florence. Upon arrival, we take a taxi to the train station and hop on for Chiusi, which has a small but mighty station. The car renatl place isn't far, and it works out great. Chiusi is perfect for Southeastern Tuscany and the Lago Trasimeno area of Umbria.
  I like to use Kemwel for our long term car rental. Again, the longer you stay off season, the better rate you can get. (all available websites for these tips will be at the end of this post)
  We always get international drivers licences before we go. You can get them at AAA, where they will take the photo and everything. Good for 1 year, they are nice to have, especially in Italy. I never drive, but get one in case of an emergency. The extra insurance for a second driver keeps us with just Johnny behind the wheel. Fine with me, but this may be the year I give it a try. If I do decide to drive some, I can add the insurance at the rental pick-up spot. Figure an extra 8-10 bucks a day, with a maximum of 150 euro/month.
  We pick up the car in Chiusi because we are both weenies and don't want to deal with driving in and out of the cities we fly into. There you have it. It's an easy train ride to the small town, and a 15 minute drive to Panicale after that. Sweet.
  We always ask for the small car option, but sometimes they give us a big one anyway, for the same price. Last trip:

What we asked for, and eventually got.


What they gave us, and took back.

  It worked out, because we switched to the smaller "Cinque Cento" after it became available, about 3 weeks into the trip. Perfect, as we had guests that first part of the trip and we had plenty of room for 4.

  Driving around the area we stay in is not bad. Fun, really. Mostly small country roads, with easy to read signage. We even hop onto the A1 Autostrada for long trips. Once you figure out where you need to hop off, and how to pay the "usage"tolls, it's great. And you can get to places really fast.
  I love the Slow Travel website(see below) for their easy to understand tips on driving in Italy. You can get a bunch of good info on this site. Photos, too, of situations you may run into on the road. I have a couple of shots of typical signs below. The first is the type you will come across all over the countryside, just giving the town name and distances. The second photo shows several different types of signs. You soon learn which you can ignore and which you should not.

Typical blue signs showing the way and the kilometers to 4 towns, plus the way(in green) to the Autostrada.

Here, we have the blue sign for a teeny town, 2 black signs showing places that grow and/or sell
olive oil, a brown sign for an agriturismo (family farm turned B&B) that offers lots of things to do,
and the white sign for a fantastic place to eat, "Il Casale" that also has a room or 2 to stay in.

These red & white beauties are signs to mark registered hiking trails. 

  As for lodging, and the always asked "How did you find your place?", I like VRBO. Vacation Rental By Owner. It's how we found Panicale, and all the wonderful people in Panicale. 
  This being said, if you are going to Panicale in particular, there are websites below that are Panicale local run. The rentals we stay at are found on these websites, as well as VRBO, but we love our Panicale friends, and want to promote them. 
  I've used VRBO for Rome, Paris, Venice...and never been disappointed. It's a good place to start for anywhere in Europe or the US, or anywhere, really.
  We like to rent apartments close to or in the town walls. We like to walk and be a part of the community on a day to day basis. Sometimes we won't drive for days.
  We like a place that has a washing machine. Dryer not important. Most Italians dry on racks, or outside lines. Energy is super expensive, so live like the locals and air dry when you can. Turn out lights, and put on an extra sweater if you are cold. Which is why we like having a fireplace, when possible. 
  A TV is fun, because it's a kick to watch Italian reality shows and we love the 24 hour fashion stations that show all the "catwalks" of whatever season it is. Oh, and we watch the news, of course. And really bad sic-fi/monster movies. What can I say. 
  Wi-Fi has become important, as we are doing business from home while we travel. We bring a laptop. Last year I rented a thing called a "Mi-Fi", which gave us a wi-fi hotspot in a house where there wasn't one. This year we have a place with wi-fi, so that's great. I set up video chat for my parents, and love it. The 9 hour time difference means while we pop open the wine for happy hour, they are having a morning cup of coffee. Awesome.
  I found the "mi-fi" on the same site that I found my Italian phone. I bought a cell phone that is only for Italy. I have my own Italian phone number, so I can call locally, or with an international calling card for calling the States. Plus, anyone from the states can call me, if they need to. You can rent one of these, but since we go every year, it's nice to own one. Plus, did I mention I have my own Italian phone number?
 Just sounds so good.

  Let's see....oh! We only bring an emergency credit card. For emergencies. We save like crazy all year, so everything is paid for as we go. Nothing goes on the card that doesn't get immediately paid off. And that's just the big stuff, like airfare, so I can get the miles. 
  I put an amount that I think we will need for living, plus a little extra, into our local Credit Union accounts that we can draw from with our ATM cards. Best exchange rates, and you will find ATM's everywhere these days. Grab some euros in the first European airport you stop in, to get yourself started.  Make certain that you let your bank card holders know where and when you are going, and for how long. They can put a stop on your account, if they think someone is using your card in a foreign country. This is super important. They will "flag" the accounts, so there should be no problems.
  We always come back with some euros to start the next years trip with.

  I always make 3 copies of:

  Reservations Hotel/Air/Airport Shuttle, Etc.
  Vouchers/Car, GPS, etc
  Drivers Licences
  Medical Cards

  I like to write down the numbers from the backs of our credit and debit cards, with the numbers of the cards case of loss, etc. Once we did need to unlock our cards, and having these numbers made it all very easy. I keep one with me, and stash the other one.

  I make 3 packets with all the other stuff I've copied. One goes into each carry on, and one stays right in my magazine/purse bag.

  I love to print out our boarding passes the night before our flight. I can't imagine why more people don't take advantage of this massive time saving opportunity. You get to skip the big lines....just drop off your luggage in the special drop off line (just for people who pre-printed the boarding pass), and go straight to security. You can do this starting 24 hours before take-off. After the first time you do this, you will never go back to the old way. The kiosks for self check- in are easy, too. Be brave, and go for it. There is always an official person to help, near by.

  We like to plan to spend the last night or 2 in the city we fly out of. It's a good way to get ready for reality, and also less stressful with the "getting to the airport on time" situation. Let the hotel desk know you will need a taxi, if they don't have a shuttle service. On either end, we are happy to be early at the airport. There is always great people watching, and you can grab a cappuccino. We can always amuse ourselves for an extra hour, or even 2. It's all part of the adventure.

  I know there are lots of things I'm forgetting, but these are just a few things I've picked up along the way. Hopefully, there is a helpful tip or two in here for you.

 Here are websites I like to use:



MORE PANICALE RENTALS:                                                                       





Sunday, January 6, 2013

Taking A Little Breather

   Whew. We have had a crazy few weeks recently, like everyone, I assume.
  The holidays tend to freak me out...I wrote about it last December here.  It's been so busy, I haven't had time to post anything much lately...
  I was all prepared for the usual emotional stress test this year, and was pleasantly surprised to be pretty mellow about it all. This had everything to do with the fact that all we planned to do was visit my folks and brother, cook, eat, drink and play dominoes.
  Easy-peasy-lemon-squeezy, as they say.
  Sitting here at my desk, I was scrolling through some photos, and sort of forgot that I had taken a few shots while cooking the day before Christmas. We were lucky to spend a few days with the parents, and Mom and I had planned to do the majority of prep early. I knew we wanted to have some  quality time with my brother on Christmas day, so it all worked out great. We chose recipes that could be made a day ahead.

  I wanted to try a new recipe that I had seen in a recent Martha Stewart magazine. It's a fontina and spinach "strata", which doesn't mean much until you describe it...layers of good bread, spinach, and fontina cheese all soaked up in an eggy custard.

  Here, allow me to show you....

  I sliced and put down the first layer of brioche into my buttered casserole.

The recipe calls for brioche. I think I will use a more rustic, ciabatta type bread ,
next time.

  After sautéing up my greens, in this case spinach, baby kale, and baby chard, with diced onion and a pinch of fresh nutmeg...I let it cool and did the big ol' squeeze on it.

Use your little muscles....

2 lbs of greens cooks down to nuttin', man.

  I had already grated up a bunch of good fontina and parmesan... and because I am the way I am, I divided it up in neat little rows, ready to layer.

One little row was put aside to add on the next day, before baking.

  Pretty easy from here...layer bread, spinach, cheese...

  ...until you end up with bread at the top, and the last batch of cheese on the side for later.

I think there was one more layer of spinach and bread, to bring it to the top..

  So then I whisked up eggys and milk, poured it very carefully over the top, and put this parchment paper on. This helps as you gently push down, to make sure the custard soaks up and over the top layer. Then you wait.  We chose to wait over night, finishing off the next day..Christmas.

All the custard soaking into the bread, etc...making for some special goodness.

  We had a few things ready, waiting for the next day, so we did what we do best. We relaxed with a bit of wine, some tasty treats, and a game of dominoes. Why not?

It starts out so innocent...just tiles on the table.

Someone makes the first move, and then the no holes barred competition begins!

Johnny lines his tiles up

I choose to make double rows.

  It's always a blast, and we really don't mind who wins (right...tell that to Johnny), it's all for fun. Let me see...who won that game? Oh, right...I did. Heheheheheh... Came from waaay behind, too. Just saying.

Half way through my winning game.


Ok, back to the strata.

  24 or so hours later...
  We added a bit more custardy mix and the last layer of cheese, before popping it into the oven, and..Presto! What do you know? 
  It was a beautiful thing to behold:

Oh, yumminess. Hot, cheesy, yumminess. Sadly, I took so long grabbing the camera,
I missed it at it's highest puffed up-ness. Just starting to fall here...


  The recipe is an easy one, for sure. But when I do it again, I'll use a different bread, like I said. Either a sour dough something, or at least a more rustic something. I would have liked the "tartness" of a sour dough based bread. And the "sturdiness" of something more rustic.
  Also, I used too deep a casserole dish. I will use a shallower vessel next time. I would like it more, um, crispier? Denser? Just not so creamy on the inside, if you know what I mean. I had meant to bring up my 14" Le Crueset baking dish, which would be perfect. Too bad I forgot it.
  All in all, it was great and a wonderful addition to our all vegetarian Christmas dinner. The leftovers were awesome, too!
  So, I guess after 50+ years, I'm finally starting to learn to enjoy the things that are best about the holiday season. Just getting in some extra quality time with my family. Life is getting too damn short to stress out in December. Bring it on, I think I've figured out how to cope.

 Here is the recipe, with a photo in a shallower casserole, so you can see what I mean..
  (Thanks, Martha...hope you don't mind me sharing....)