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Roman Art Through The Eyes Of A Four Year Old

A few years ago I took my four year old daughter to the Seattle Art Museum where they were having a fantastic display of Roman art and sculpture as well as a chance to see Ghiberti’s Golden Doors before they were to be sent back to Florence forever. It was a great chance to expose her to art and history before our big trip to Italy! We had spent so much time talking about travel, looking through pictures and magazines and even learning Italian together. I even had a section in my travel office with a little desk and supplies so that she could do “business” with me.  This exhibit was going to be the first time I could expose her directly to what we had been talking about.

Beyond excited for her adventure, she descended from her room and down our stairs like the Queen of Sheba.  Decked out from head to toe in sparkly Barbie party accessories complemented by a blue sundress and magic wand, she was ready to hits the rainy streets of Seattle. We spent the ride into town deciding which exhibit we would see first and finally settled on the statues.

Once in the museum, I was beside myself surrounded with an amazing collection on tour from the Louvre. Wanting to share this excitement and teach her how to appreciate what she was seeing, I went into full art historian mode. I’ve always prided myself in my ability to explain art in a simple way that anyone can understand and more importantly remember. While we walked around the room I talked about everything from mosaics to marble while she listened and commented appropriately.

I could not help but swell with pride as I noticed she was the only child in the museum, not to mention I was the exceptional mother who brought her there.  Don’t think I didn’t notice the admiring glances from other patrons.  The many passing conversations in my mind went something like this:

Why thank you, I do my best

Yes, she is an exceptional child

Quite brilliant, I know

I was practically throwing my shoulder out patting myself on the back when my incredibly  and outrageously clever child stopped dead in her tracts and made an announcement to the entire room.

“Mom, this really isn’t my favorite part of the museum.”

Always trying to encourage open communication, I asked her what made her feel that way.

“There are too many penises here.”

Now that she mentions it....

...she does have a point.

Silence.

Averted eyes.

Was that a stifled giggle?

A pause for thoughtful reflection.

Indeed there were quite a few, and from her perspective (and more imortantly eye-level) they must look even more pronounced.  Always one to make each experience a positive learning opportunity, I decided to switch gears.

I would later regret this snap decision when traveling in Italy.

To keep her interested and to allow me to finishing viewing the exhibit, we spent the rest of the day counting the “yucky, squishy penises.”

Joining up once again with the fabulous writers at yeah write. Click the button below to read some truly wonderful writers and don’t forget to return on Thursday to vote for your five favorite posts.

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Copyright 2012   Andi Brown,  Once in a Lifetime Travel

Top Ten | Travel Memories With My Dad In Italy

My dad is my great friend and to the disbelief of my old high school self, I have come to realize we are actually quite alike in personality.

Except at some crucial moments when we are traveling.

Over the last few years I have taught my dad the beauty and art of savoring the moment and throwing schedules to the wind.  My dad has reminded me that patience with family and a perfect packing job make for a better vacation.  Here is my list of favorite travel moments with him.  Some good, some bad and some utterly embarrassing.  Hey dad, this is pay back for grilling my boyfriends in the living room before they could date me.

10.  My parents met me in Rome after a cruise.  This was their first time ever in my favorite city on the planet and I couldn’t wait to make the introductions.  One of the first things I taught my dad was how to cross the busy streets; walk out with confidence while maintaining eye contact and never hesitating.  At his first lesson, I told him to stay close and do what I did.  When we got to the other side of the street he turned to my mom and said, “Our daughter has balls of steel!”

9.  I have driven a stick shift most of my life and usually have no problem, but on one particular day I was trying to get up a steep gravel road in our excessively weighted down sardine box of a rental.  I stalled half way up and couldn’t get the momentum back.  My dad saved the day, maneuvering that sorry car up the hill with gravel flying and smoke trailing behind us.  I am sure our hosts were wondering what they had gotten into watching our approach from above.

8.  Speaking of that cracker jack box of a rental, I had accidentally reserved an economy sized car instead of a compact.  Doesn’t sound too bad, right?  Not unless you want to take your luggage with you.  I stood in front of the car and fought back tears.  There was no way we were going to fit four adults, one child with her car seat and our luggage.  Then my dad started putting stuff together like a real-life game of Tetris.  The ride wasn’t the most luxurious but we didn’t have to leave anyone behind.  I know for a fact I could not have done that without him.

Well, hello again

7.  My dad has an uncanny sense of direction, maybe it was all the Boy Scout trips of his youth.  You can blind fold him, drop him in the middle of nowhere and before you can say Bear Grylls he will have found his way home.  Except in Italy.  For some reason his internal compass goes awry and I’m not sure if he would be able to find his head if it wasn’t attached.  Of course, we didn’t discover this until one fateful night in Rome when my dad was leading the charge toward the Spanish Steps.  Instead, we found ourselves repeatedly visiting the Column of Marcus Aurelius.  My dad commented that he didn’t realize Rome had so many relief style columns; I commented that I didn’t realize my dad knew how to read a map upside down.  Not the best night for the two of us.

6.  The issues with directions didn’t end there.  Originally, my dad was to be my co-pilot and right hand man in the car.  Nothing was farther from the truth and the tension came to a breaking point near Milan as I was demanding to know which exit to take for Lake Como.  He was utterly frozen and I was less than kind.  My mom decided to chirp in from the back seat (where her sole job was to entertain my daughter) and ‘help’ which only infuriated both of us more.  My dad balled up the map and threw it in her face, telling her where she could put it.  Mind you, this all happen in front of my four year old and the version found here is toned down for the sake of my readers.  The event made a lasting impression on my daughter, and to this day she will ask me to reenact the day Papa threw that map at Nana.

5.  For the most part though, travel with my dad has been bonding.  One of my favorite things to do with him is go for a morning cappuccino and then spend the rest of the day popping in and out of little cafes for our espresso fixes when my mom isn’t looking.

4.  Another great memory is cooking together with my dad after shopping in the morning markets.  Sometimes we would make nothing more than cheese and meat platters, other times we would go all out.  Once my dad made us steaks cooked over a centuries old hearth in a little villa in Tuscany while I put together a simple Carbonara.  Perfection.

3.  On that first trip to Rome, I took my dad into the Roman Forum.  I can’t explain how touching it was to look over and see him bent down on one knee and weeping over the site of Caesar’s cremation.  I knew then he wasn’t the average tourist.

2.  His love for Italy and travel in general started on that first trip and then blossomed even further when he returned two years later.  Watching him grow to appreciate and love the people and lifestyle of Italy was amazing.

Pants removal not required.

1.  I made sure my parents both traveled with their money belts containing everything of value safely tucked beneath the pants and safe from the fingers of pick-pockets.  They were instructed on the importance of use and what they should keep stowed inside.  What I forgot to mention, because the thought never ever even occurred to me, is that you do not need to remove your pants to access your money belt.  Yes, that’s right.  I happened to walk into the lobby of our hotel and found my dad in the corner with his pants around his thighs trying to pull a credit card out of his money belt.

Sorry dad, but this one was too good not to share.


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Copyright 2012   Andi Brown,  Once in a Lifetime Travel

Featured Photo Friday | Wine Cellar in Tuscany

wine cellar

In the cellar during a wine tour

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Copyright 2012   Andi Brown,  Once in a Lifetime Travel

Understanding Italian Culture | Dining, Tips, Gelato and Coffee

DINING

In Italy, the food is an experience.  Lunches and dinners last at least two hours; you linger over your meal.  When you sit at a table, it is considered yours for the night.  A restaurant would be considered awful if it tried to turn tables like we do in the states.  The waiters are all ‘slow’ by American standards and they do not rush for anything (except keeping wine on the table for the locals).  Your waiter will only bring the bill when you ask for it, to do so before is considered rude.  When you are ready to leave, simply catch their eye and say ‘Il conto’ for the bill or make a motion of writing something out on your palm.  Many restaurants have a ‘pane e coperto’ charge (bread and cover) of a few euros per person and/or ‘servizio incluso’ (tips) built into the bill.  You will find both of these on the bill with the ‘servizio incluso’ usually on the bottom.  If that is not included in your bill, round up by a few euros (or less than half of what you would do at home).  I know it feels wrong not to leave a big tip for a great meal, we Americans are notorious for over tipping while some Italians never do.  Rarely I have run into annoyed waiters who were expecting me to tip like a typical tourist, but that reaction is not at all normal.  Another time I tipped an excessive amount because I had drank an excessive amount , and the owners made sure I left with a bottle of wine on the house.   An example for a meal that cost 37.50 would be to round up to 40.  Try to always leave a cash tip on the table, even if you are paying with credit, otherwise your server may never see the money.

Dinner service usually begins around 7:00pm and lasts well into the night.  If you want to dine with tourists, be there when they open.  Linger until around 8:30 and you will dine with the Italians.  Food is served in courses, but you are not expected to order one of each.  For example, I often order my own pasta (primi) but share an anitpasti (appetizer) and secondi (meat or fish dish) with my friend.  Just remember that the food will be brought out in order and if you skipped a course you will spend that time watching others eat.  I find I never go wrong with the house wine but if you want to try a bottle, ask the waiter what would pair well with your meal.  While you can’t always trust the bill you can trust them with their food and wine recommendations!  I personally find that you can never go wrong with the daily specials.  Italians eat with the seasons and chefs pride themselves in finding the best and freshest ingredients.  I will often go with their suggestions as well.  Europeans love fizzy water, so if you don’t want bubbles you must ask for ‘acua naturale.’

A few dining tips to make you look more like a local:

Don’t use a spoon to twirl your pasta and NEVER cut the noodles with a knife.

If cheese or other toppings didn’t come with your dish then it was not meant to go with it.  It is considered insulting to add anything to a dish that the chef prepared as they pride themselves in knowing exactly what ingredients pare with each dish.

By all means, use your bread to sop up the extra sauce.  This is considered a great compliment to the chef.

End your meal with an espresso (you can request a decaf).

Take your time to enjoy the meal, each one is an adventure in itself!

I caution everyone to pace themselves or you will find yourself groaning in bed with an overfilled stomach.

COFFEE

It’s the only place on earth that is more crazy about coffee than Seattle.  For about one euro, you can get a teeny cup of pure heaven.  It’s probably the easiest thing to do in Italy.  Head right into any bar and ask for un caffe.  You might be asked to clarify that you want an espresso and not an American cup of coffee.  Just use your fingers to show a tiny cup and they will understand.  Watch the locals.  They pour in about as much sugar as coffee and sit stirring it for some magical amount of time, then sling back the liquid in one sip and out the door they go.  This is not a Starbucks society where you savor your espresso or even take it to go.  I also love my morning cappuccino (which I do take my time with) but only tourists drink them after 10am.  Some bars have you pay first and then take your slip to the counter while others do the opposite.  If you are unsure just watch how everyone else is doing it and copy.  It is a courtesy to leave a small coin to ‘hold the paper down’ for the server.  You will also pay more for your coffee if you sit down to drink it, about twice as much as the same cup enjoyed at the bar.  The cost can be well worth it if you’ve found a cozy little spot for people watching.  The bars usually have quick and easy snacks as well; panini’s are a favorite type of sandwich and great for on the go.

GELATO

Italian ice cream is another national addiction, and a personal one.  I challenge anyone to beat my consumption record:  6 double scoops in one day!  Just remember that not all gelato is created the same and if you aren’t careful you could end up disappointed.  Follow my advice below and you are sure to never go wrong.

There are a few important things to look for when choosing a gelateria.  Only places that make their gelato fresh each day on the premise are legally allowed to display the sign ‘fatta in casa.’  This is a good start but that is not all you want to watch for.  A long line is one of the best signs of great gelato.  If you see more Italians than tourists, even better.  Italians tend to avoid tourists at all costs but will stand shoulder to shoulder with them for a good scoop and you know that your gelato will be worth the wait.  If all looks well, step inside and make sure that the gelato is in metal containers and not plastic ones, this will confirm that the ice cream was made in smaller batches and of a better quality.  The final check is in the gelato itself.  If you notice tons of bright unnatural colors run away.  Banana will be your gold standard.  If it is gray you have found the perfect spot, if it is any shade of yellow don’t waste another second there.  Gelato should be made from fresh ingredients with the primary concern being taste not color.  Be wary of any shop that has a big area with table and chairs.  While we are used to this set up, in Italy gelato is meant to be consumed on the go and a gelateria trying to encourage you to stay is focused on tourists.

No day is complete without gelato and there is no reason to feel guilty.  Gelato’s fat content is at least a third less than our ice cream because it is made from milk and not fresh cream or butterfat.  Ordering gelato is similar to getting your coffee.  Most places have you buy your gelato ahead of time and the cashier will give you a ticket to take to the counter.  Take your time looking around while you decide, but for the server’s sanity make sure that you are ready with your order when it is your turn.  You will be ignored if you do not have a ticket.  If you are having trouble getting his attention just hold your ticket like a torch and push your way to the front.  Be exotic and try different combinations; everything is good.

GROCERIES AND MARKETS

You will be able to find little grocery shops in every town and even some larger more modern ones in the cities.  In the produce section there are a few different ways to handle the vegetables.  Sometimes the checker (or another employee) will select the produce for you, bag it and weigh it on the spot.  All you do is point to what you want.  More commonly, you will bag it yourself and then put your selection on a scale.  There will be about 100 different buttons with pictures of fruits and veggies.  Find yours and simply push, the weight and cost in Euros will be printed on a sticker you attach to the bag (make sure you aren’t LEANING on the scale when you push!).  Don’t forgot to wear the disposable plastic gloves, otherwise you will draw many disgusted looks from the local shoppers.

Every city, town and village has a market on a certain day and some are daily.  Go early to get the best choices and have the most fun with the pushy old ladies.  Markets aren’t limited to just produce; usually you will find trucks full of cheese and meats.  If you see someone selling Porchetta sandwiches get one!

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Copyright 2012   Andi Brown,  Once in a Lifetime Travel

Understanding Italian Culture | Toilet Basics

TOILETS

I could probably dedicate a whole book to my adventures with Italian bathrooms.  It could almost become a game of ‘How do you flush this toilet?’  I have listed the most common types you will find, but always be prepared for anything.

Chain Pull:  usually from the tank hanging just above the toilet, but can be off to the side

The One Button:  located on the top or one of the sides, comes in various sizes

The Double Button:  found on the wall next to the toilet, the small one is for little jobs and the big is for…well you get the idea

Foot Pedal Flush:  found anywhere on the floor, this can also be how you turn the sink water on

The Push Up:  a little lever hanging from the bottom of the overhanging tank

Bottomless Pit:  just stand over the hole and aim, no flushing required and thigh workout included

Take aim

Full Service:  a self cleaning and flushing toilet that takes care of everything once you’ve left

The Bucket:  a full bucket of water poured into the toilet, used for emergencies when the toilet paper tips are not followed

Don't count on finding one of these anywhere.

Public restrooms can be hard to find in Italy.  Most are pay toilets, usually under 1 euro.  Sometimes you will be giving your money to an actual person, other times inserting it into a machine.  I find it is easier to march into a local bar acting like I own the place and go directly to the bathroom, usually located in the back or downstairs.  If you feel guilty, just order an espresso and use the bathroom afterwards.  Always take advantage of the restroom while dining.

TOILET PAPER

Italians are skimpy in this department for a few reasons.  The toilets and sewer systems simply can’t handle too much.  They also think it is silly and wasteful the way most Americans (my family included) use a mitt of TP each time.  Until my daughter was restrained, I had to use the above mentioned emergency flush to unplug several toilets.  Flush twice to avoid embarrassing situations.  The toilet paper itself leaves a bit to be desired, so don’t expect triple ply Charmin!  If you are near the end of the supply you may have to ask for more from your host.  I always carry a bit with me at all times in case the supply isn’t restocked right away and never use a public restroom without back up.  They seem to be out most of the time.

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Copyright 2012   Andi Brown,  Once in a Lifetime Travel

Understanding Italian Culture | Manners, Bella Figura, Siesta and Passeggiata

Part of enjoying Italy comes from understanding and embracing the differences in our culture.  I have tried to put together my impressions from an outsider’s perspective to help you really enjoy your experience.

I find that Italians are one of the most welcoming group of people around and they will try their hardest to help you and communicate with you.  Following my living locally guide will make you stand out from the demanding and draining tourists and open up so many doors for you.  I have been personally escorted to a restaurant more than once, given extra scoops of gelato to make sure that I didn’t miss out on the ‘perfect combination’ and even had mini impromptu historical lessons.  As a general rule, the people are very intense and very dramatic.  You will see heated conversations end in warm embraces.  They live life in the moment and with zest.  I always get swept up in living and loving life when I’m there.

THE BELLA FIGURA

Italians believe in presenting themselves well; taking care of the way you look is a priority for them.  This concept is called the Bella Figura, but it goes even deeper than just how you look.  For example, an Italian would rather miss the bus and be late to an engagement than become disorderly and sweaty by rushing madly to try to make it on time.  Once at the beach, I noticed I was the only mom playing in the sand and getting just as dirty as their child.  All around me, Italian women lay pristinely on their clean blankets.  You will notice that even the most simple of Italians will have at least one nice suit which they take pride in wearing each day.

The women.  What can I say here?  Now matter how good I think I might look, I pale in comparison to them.  They just exude sexy.  You will be hard pressed to find any one of them ever in sweats, even if they are just running to the store.  I try to bring one sassy outfit with me and play it up with a necklace or scarf as my feeble attempt to keep up.

MANNERS

Even the street performers are formally dressed.

Italians remain very formal.  Even in their language they have two separate tenses, one for those that are close friends and the other for everyone else.  While they would never expect you to be able to speak in the proper tense, I find that addressing the person initially with a Signore or Signora goes a long way.  I also always begin my requests and questions with a simple Per Favore (please).  Italians think that Americans are too brash because we tend to cut right to the chase without taking any time for small talk.  This is a great example of our fundamental differences.  We tend to operate on ‘time is money’ while Italians live completely in the present.  Just remember that you can never say please or thank you too much.

TIME

Again, a big difference between us is the concept of time.  It is considered completely acceptable to be late for an appointment.  I’m not talking 5-10 minutes late either.  This can be frustrating if their tardiness is affecting your trip, for example one time I spent 40 minutes waiting for the car rental office to open after lunch.  While I admit I was not excited, I spent that time enjoying not one but two gelati.  When you find yourself frustrated because you have to wait for someone, try to take a deep breath and find some sort of distraction.  Everything always ends up working out in Italy, just in its own time.

SIESTA

Wouldn’t you love to be able to stop your work day to head home or to the local trattoria for a nice meal or reviving nap?  While many business have begun to adopt a more formal 9-3pm work schedule, the mid day siesta is still going strong.  This is the time during the middle of the day from about 1-4pm where everything shuts down.  I mean everything, villages look like ghost towns.  Take advantage of this routine and use the time to refresh and recharge yourself.  I will often grab goodies at the market earlier in the day and spend this time in a quiet spot with a view.  The most important thing to remember is to prepare ahead so you aren’t stranded.  Make sure you have already bought any necessities earlier that day and in small towns that your car has fuel.  Caffeine addicts need not worry; there is always a bar somewhere open for a shot of espresso.

PASSEGGIATA

Every evening before dinner, everywhere in Italy people turn out just to stroll around, check each other out and catch up on the latest news.  This is the Italian version of cruising.  You will find people of all ages out, from the littlest of tots to old ladies linked arm in arm.  I love this time of the day.  It’s when the tourist buses have left and the real Italy comes out.   So grab a gelato and enjoy!

Everyone out and about in Rome

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Copyright 2012   Andi Brown,  Once in a Lifetime Travel

Featured Photo Friday | Chasing Pigeons in Florence

Save Vernazza Posts Travel Advisor | What will be open after the flood clean up

Taken from Save Vernazza’s site.  Please visit here and donate to their efforts!!

The list of restaurant’s did not copy well, I will be cleaning it up later next week but for now…..

This page reflects the current state of affairs regarding Vernazza’s commercial activities, to best prepare the Vernazza bound traveler.

Information will be updated as received so please keep checking back.

The people of Vernazza are looking forward to welcoming visitors this year and ask for your patience and understanding as we work to rebuild this exceptional village.  Vernazza will one day shine again as the crown jewel of the Cinque Terre, but we are still on the long and costly road to recovery.

Thank you for your continued support in the efforts to Save Vernazza!

Restaurants, Pizzerias, Bars
Name             Ananasso Bar             Bati Bati No. 1             Bati Bati No. 2             Blue Marlin Bar             Burgus Bar             Antica Osteria Il Baretto             Il Pirata delle Cinque Terre             Pizzeria Ercole             Pizzeria Fratelli Basso             Pizzeria Baia Saracena             Ristorante Belforte             Ristorante Gambero Rosso             Trattoria Gianni Franzi             Ristorante Al Castello             Ristorante La Torre             Ristorante Incadase da Piva             Ristorante Pizzeria Vulnetia             Trattoria Taverna del Capitano             Trattoria da Sandro Opening Date uncertain             May uncertain             mid-late May             end of March             May uncertain             early April             late May, early June             mid March OPEN             April uncertain             early April             April             April             early April             early March uncertain
Save Vernazza Travel Advisor
Markets & Gelaterias
Name             Coop Market             Gelateria Il Porticciolo             Gelateria Stalin             Il Forno (Bakery)             Porto Dody Gelateria Artiginale             Pino & Sonia’s Alimentari (Market) Opening Date will not reopen this season uncertain             May             June             June             April
Save Vernazza Travel Advisor
Accommodations
Name A Ca’ Da Nonna             Affittacamere Ingrid & Antonio Albergo Barbara B&B Ettore & Irene Camere Elisabetta Camere Fontanavecchia             Camere Giuliano Basso Camere Manuela Moggia Camere Nicolina Camere Rosa Vitali Camere Vittoria Casa Vacanze Emanuela Eva’s Rooms Francamaria Rooms Il Pirata Rooms Ivo Camere La Mala La Marina Rooms Maria Capellini Rooms Memo Rooms Rooms Martina Callo Taverna del Capitano Rooms Tonino Basso Affittacamere Trattoria Gianni Franzi Vernazza Rooms Opening Date             May 1 will not reopen this season             March 1             May 1             May 1 uncertain, contact late March/early April unable to reopen this season             May 1             April 6             June 1             June 1 uncertain, contact late March/early April             May 1             April 20 uncertain, contact late March/early April             June 1             May 1             May 1             May 1 uncertain, contact late March/early April             May 1             May 1 uncertain, contact late March/early April             June 1             April 1
Save Vernazza Travel Advisor

The table above reflects information as it has been communicated to Save Vernazza by the room owners. Reservations are being taken now for dates referenced and onward. For example, “Camere XYZ: May 1″ signifies that, as of today, Camere XYZ will be responding to inquiries and confirming reservations for May 1 and beyond.

Many room owners could be opening prior to their listed date, pending work completion. If you would like to inquire about a reservation prior to the listed date please send your inquiry to the room owner the last week in March or the first week in April.

The publishing of this list does not infer Save Vernazza’s endorsement of any particular business nor acceptance of responsibility for any travel plans made as a result of the information within.

Red Velvet Biscotti Recipe

I made these for Valentines Day for the family.  They are delicious, best with a bowl of ice cream or a glass of dessert wine.  Definitely not something you will find on your trip to Italy.

Ingredients:

  • 2 1/2 – 3 cups all purpose flour
  • 2 cups sugar
  • 1 cup unsweetened cocoa
  • 1 jar of red food coloring (you will need 2 bottles if using the liquid kind you find at the grocery store)
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • 5 large eggs
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla
  • 1 cup white chocolate chips

*Don’t freak out, there is no butter in this recipe*

Directions:

1. Heat the oven to 350°.

2. Mix flour, sugar, cocoa, food coloring, baking powder and salt.

3. Lightly beat eggs in a separate bowl, then add to flour mixture and mix until combined. I found this recipe was very crumbly, so I would not add the full 3 cups of flour unless it is really doughy.

4.  Fold in white chocolate chips.

5. Divide the dough in half. On a lightly floured surface, form each half into a log that is 3½ inches by 9 inches. Place the logs on a heavy-duty baking sheet.  Bake for 30 minutes or until the tops are set.

6. Reduce the oven to 300°. Let the logs cool (this is a crumbly recipe so the longer you let the logs cool the better and easier it will be to cut without breaking), then slice into 1/2-inch thick slices.  With this recipe it is very important to let them cool otherwise it will crumble when cutting.  Arrange the slices on baking sheet and bake for 10 minutes. Remove from the oven, carefully turn the slices over, and bake for another 8 minutes.

7. Cool on a wire rack.  Store in an airtight container or freeze.

Copyright 2012   Andi Brown,  Once in a Lifetime Travel

Driving Tips for Your Italy Trip

Don’t let the Italians intimidate you.  It doesn’t matter how fast or slow you are going, someone is going to be riding your butt.  I get braver as the trip goes on, but I never go faster than I feel comfortable.  Sometimes I pull over if they are making me nervous, but usually they have found a way to pass me before that happens.   I have only seen one accident in my travels.  Italians seem crazy, but they are great drivers and despite what I am doing they always manage to avoid me.

Get a good map before you go.  I always use a Michelin map, purchased at most tour stores (ie AAA, Barnes & Noble…).  GPS is becoming more popular and more readily available, although has its short comings in the smaller more rustic areas.  Even when using GPS, make sure you know where you are headed and don’t follow it blindly.  ViaMichelin is a good site for planning before you go and you can print out routes you create on-line.  See my resources page here.

DIRECTIONS

You have to throw away everything you know about directions when driving in Italy.

Entering the Autostrada. Know which direction you are going and towards which major city.

There are no exit numbers and things are not marked logically (for the typical American).  When traveling, you begin by going in the direction of the largest city.  You will need to navigate by knowing the names of the towns along the road you need to travel on.  Also, look your map and find the three largest cities near or past your destination because many signs post the major city that road is traveling toward and wait to post the smaller cities until you are almost there.  As you travel, keep your eyes open for these towns.  Eventually, as you get closer to your destination your small town will appear.  For example:  when traveling to Baschi from Rome, you will head towards Florence first while looking for the exit to Orvieto.  After taking that exit you will begin to look for signs for Baschi.  You will not see any sign for Baschi until the exit.  You must also know the Italian names for all the cities.

Typical signs found at a round about.

Signs are posted everywhere and when you come to a round about, you may need to go around more than once just to make sure you’ve found what you are looking for.  It can be more than a little overwhelming!  Cities are marked with a blue sign, the arrow is pointing to the road you must take.  B&B’s and agriturismos are usually white, historical sites are marked with brown signs, autostradas and major freeways have a green sign.   Just remember that keeping up with the flow on the round about is key and don’t be intimidated.

ROADS AND TOLLS

Entering the toll booth.

There are several different kinds of roads.  The easier, bigger and fastest are the autostradas which are marked by a green sign and an A.  The most important thing to remember here is to STAY TO THE RIGHT at all times until you are just ready to pass.  While on the autostrada, you will notice small signs in the median marking the distance to major cities and the city of the next exit.  This will help you anticipate when you need to exit.  These are also pay roads and you will be charged by the distance traveled.  Each time before you enter these, you will stop at a booth and take a ticket by pushing a red button or grabbing an existing ticket already waiting for you.  When you exit the autostrada, you will get in a line marked ‘Biglietto’ (ticket) to pay your fee.  Above each lane is a photo depicting the method available, some will have a picture of a credit card as well as money/change.  You can pay with your card in these lanes if you don’t have enough cash.  Anyway you choose, the total owed is displayed on a screen for you.  Just make sure you DO NOT get into the line for the commuters who have prepaid cards.  These are usually the shorter lines and are the blue lanes marked TELEPASS.  I always keep my change handy.  Some lines have a person who will handle the transaction, other lines require you to insert your ticket and then you pay the machine.  The system is similar to the toll bridges in San Francisco.

Push the button, grab our ticket and go.

There are larger but less direct roads that are free and then your typical two lane country roads.  Traveling through Tuscany, these will be what you use the most.  For those with a weak stomach be warned, it is very easy to get car sick wandering around in the country.

PARKING AND OTHER DETAILS

When parking, most lots have a pay machine that gives vouchers for the amount of time you will be there.  Again, I keep lots of change handy.  If you are parking somewhere that doesn’t have the spaces clearly marked, make sure you have a way out no matter how the next person decides to park.  I have seen some very creative arrangements.

Getting gas is similar to the states, just make sure your tank is full before Sunday or any major holiday as the stations do tend to close at these times.  Gas in Italy is expensive; it will make you look forward to coming home and filling up here.  The trade off is that distances are shorter.

Before driving away from the office with your rental car you will want to verify whether the car uses diesel or regular fuel and make sure they show you how to open your gas tank.  Also, have them actually show you how to open the trunk, release the parking brake, start the car and put it into reverse.  You may feel silly at the time, be it’s better than struggling with it while a bar full of men look on.  I learned the hard way that the stick shift often needs to be pushed down  for reverse.  Most  brakes are very touchy, after your first day driving you will know why.  Once on your way, toss  a local Italian paper in the back window and keep all belongings out of site when not in the car.

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