I Have Become a Biker Babe!

The first time I saw A ROMAN HOLIDAY with Audrey Hepburn and Gregory Peck, I fell in love with the idea of riding a Vespa through the cobbled streets in Italy. Because my recent trip to Florence fell on my birthday, I decided it was an excellent time for such whimsy. Walkabout Florence Tours put the whole experience over the top.

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After determining our ability to ride the adorable bikes, Angle, our guide (on right, below), escorted us in a Vintage Fiat out of Florence and into the nearby hills where the views were postcard perfect. I enjoyed immensely sharing my birthday and the tour with three American sorority sisters. We thought we should have secret agent code names. Riding a scooter is a hoot! After multiple photo stops, we were ready for our included lunch at a beautiful facility set on the side of a hill. A little wine,  penne pasta in tomato sauce, and a desert of unparalleled perfection made me exclaim “This is my wish!” when they asked me to blow out my candle.

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I loved this tour so much, I considered doing it again the next day. I was off to Siena, however, and still had to navigate the Italian bus system. Most people believe that travelling by train is best. However, the train station is at the bottom of a hill, stops along the way, may include changing trains, and takes longer. The bus trip from Florence to Siena is about 50 minutes and the station is centrally located.

I stayed in Siena at Hotel Italia on Viale Cavour, which is a short walk to the historic center. After getting my bearings and finding my spot, Al Peccatore on Via Camollia, where I enjoyed both fresh and aged pecorino cheese served with honey for drizzling, as it should be, rustic bread and a glass of red, I prepared to enjoy my five days in Siena. I was still thrilled by my Vespa tour in Florence so enlisted the aid of the exceptionally friendly and accommodating staff at Hotel Italia to book another Vespa tour.

Though not vintage, this Vespa was bright red. I joined a group of folks from Ohio, and one couple from Mexico, who all drove Fiats. In spite of a good drenching and fog, the ride was thrilling. For the first few miles, I needed wind shield wipers on my glasses. After we stopped in an ancient village and then enjoyed lunch and a little wine at Poggio Amorelli, a small winery, the rain gave way to sunshine and puffy clouds. We toured the Monteriggioni castle and thus ended my second Vespa tour.

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My Cincinnati Fix

For the last three years, celebrating Thanksgiving for me has meant flying to Cincinnati, Ohio, to visit my niece, a textile conservator at the Cincinnati Museum. Cincy, as the locals affectionately call her, reclines casually out from the Ohio River across history toward America’s Rhineland. Cincinnati may appear elegant and sophisticated but she is not without a little edgy drama. Interested people are taking back Cincy’s sketchy parts, one neighborhood at a time.

One such neighborhood referred to as “Over-the-Rhine” (OTR) due to the extensive German immigrant population is a damned cool place to enjoy some food and wine. Begin with a simple address: 1215 Vine Street. 1215 Wine Bar & Coffee Lab tucked into a deep narrow chunk of Cincinnati’s historical downtown, sports a back bar of abundant wine soaring to the mysterious depths of the ceiling. A casual, trendy, romantic, full bar offering the usual fair is perfect for after work cocktails or before dinner wine. Our restaurant texted us just as we finished our cheese plate.

Directly across the street at A Tavola (at table), 1220 Vine Street, the casual atmosphere perfectly complements the handmade, wood-fired Neapolitan pizzas, wines, craft beers and cocktails. Carnivores will appreciate the wild boar or Cinghiale meatballs in the house red sauce over rice with artichoke and greens salad with one of the best house balsamic vinaigrettes anywhere. The meatballs were savory, juicy delicousness the size of a pool cue.

A Tavola's Cinghiale meatballs and salad.
A Tavola’s Cinghiale meatballs and salad.

Vegetarians will love the asparagus and mushroom pizza with piles of cheese. Our meal was not super expensive either. Three of us enjoyed wine and dinner for less than seventy bucks before tip.

Also in the OTR near Cincinnati’s impressive collection of breweries, Ohio’s oldest continuously operated public market provides a bright, festive display and year round gastronomical choices from the humble potato to the sweetest honey. Located at 1801 Race St., Findlay Market hosts farmers’ markets and other outdoor vendors, street performers, and special events from March to December. We indulged our sweet teeth with sumptuous pumpkin spice fudge that alone would make me go back!

With Cincinnati’s abundant and varied dinning and drinking experiences, we upped our interest a notch by throwing art into the mix. The 21c Museum Hotel on Walnut is a combination contemporary art museum and boutique hotel, at once intimate and universal. With a glass of wine from the ever-rotating selection of world wines in the bar, we wandered through the exhibits throughout the first two floors. The Metropole restaurant inside the hotel fulfils elegant expectations by retaining the historical mosaic tile floors and arched windows, but adds a layer of casual comfort and warmth in a sublime balance. The Metropole features an “old world fireplace” on which the region’s sustainable farm products are prepared. Our starters – three for $16 – were the seven-hour egg, hot olives, and the Hudson flower, a sheep cheese. While my palette failed to discern the difference between the seven-hour egg and one boiled in the usual fashion, I will never eat a cold olive again! Every variety of olive ever grown seemed to be on display: an amazing array of sizes and colors from deepest purple to pale chartreuse. Chef Michael Paley’s menu at the time included burnt carrot salad featuring watercress, feta, red onions, and grilled shallots all topped with flavorful vinaigrette, for $9, and yellow fin tuna with quinoa fritters, and yellow beets. A savory and rich entrée of smoked woodland farm pork with Kentucky grits, roasted autumn crisp grapes and Brussels sprouts paired well with a side of charred sweet potatoes with pistachios and pomegranate. We also enjoyed a lemon tart created by Pastry Chef Suzanne Church.

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It had just the right touch of cardamom and lemon in a buttery delicious shell with nuts. The presentation was so superior we hesitated before mauling it with our forks. We also enjoyed a moderately priced 2009 Serra Barbaresco from Italy. Their current Executive Chef is Jared Bennett. Check out their site at www.21cmuseumhotels.com for a full menu, or better yet, think of an excuse to go experience it yourself. If you are into art and urban awesomeness, Cincinnati’s 21c Museum Hotel is the place.

Visiting Cincinnati is like getting a big old American hug from your favorite Aunt, the cool and hip Aunt. It is a lovely town, a beautiful city, in picturesque and historical surroundings. So I will return because Cincinnati is a city to soothe the rough edges of any rural existence or brighten an everyday routine with some big city glam.

EIGHTEEN DAYS AND COUNTING

A funny thing happens the minute I walk into an airport. I become someone else. There is something … magical after four or six or eight or more hours on an airplane. It’s like re-booting a computer. I become someone — not different — but more. I become a better version of myself. Suddenly I’m more confident and witty and capable and worldly. Some people love to gamble. They like to believe that some strategy or skill or bit of good luck allows them to beat the system. Well, that’s how I feel about travel. Most people consider travel just a means to an end: that fabulous vacation spot perhaps. I might be weird, but I like the actual travel itself.

From the moment I walk in, the game begins. I compare every airport and their personnel. Print my boarding pass from my computer before I leave home? You bet. Check in curbside or at a kiosk? Yup. Buy a better bag so I’m hands free going through boarding or in the bathroom? Done. Read every article about how to make your flight go better? Yes, indeed. To travel comfortably you have to suspend your sense of control over what happens next. It’s going to be what it’s going to be and you have to learn to roll with it. My niece calls that “getting your Zen on”. I just like being released from having to be in charge. I’m kind of a control freak, but I also think I’m pretty smart. I embrace the slip on shoes, wireless bra, no belt, three ounce liquids in a clear plastic bag and carry-on size rules. I’m glad those people are serious about airport security even if they feel around on my body. I take my own blanket in the form of a wrap and have the best damned travel pillow ever. I’ve got the apps and the frequent flyer program. I drink the Airborne laced water, I use the disinfectant wipes on my seat and tray. I even clean up in the bathroom and brag about it to the flight attendants. I judge every person I come in contact with from the TSA agents to the waitresses in the bars. I have favorite airports and ones I’d rather never have to be in again. Often it’s the bathroom attendant or the grumpy looking customs agent who will make my day better. I’m at the ready with a smile and friendly greeting. And even though I like to pretend I know things about travel that no one else does, I know it’s basically playing the odds. Do it often enough and not only will you enjoy the vouchers and the discount prices and the occasional free upgrade, but you’ll also get your share of crap. It’s always the people who make the experience better and once I’m calm and friendly they will be too. You get what you give in an airport and mastery over one’s frustration is the best start — because there will most assuredly one day be frustration.

Now I haven’t been everywhere I’d like to be, but I’ve been a few places. My next adventure is taking me back to Italy. I’ve been to the Amalfi coast and enjoyed the sweet little sea side town of Sorrento, a fabulous trip that will be recounted on another blog entry one day. Yes, I’m headed back to Italy, in eighteen days. I’m going alone and leaving on my 54th birthday to Florence and then to Sienna and if I can successfully navigate, I’ll be visiting the tiny little town of Montepulciano — a name you may recognize from a wine bottle or two. This Corkscrew Adventure is taking me to the heart of Tuscany, people!

I’ve been studying Italian through Rosetta Stone so I might be able to order a salad (insalata) rather than soup (minestra) and talk to the locals about vintages and various dishes (pietanze). I know from past excursions in foreign languages that the most important phrase you can use is, “Please speak slowly” (parle lentemente per favore). I also think it’s respectful to be able to say “please” and “thank you” (grazie) in the native language. If you follow along with me here, I’ll let you know how it goes.

Obviously, before you can go on a trip, you’ve got to PLAN a trip and this is where your inner control freak can rule! I’ve studied maps and researched train tickets and museum passes and booked my Delta flight and my rooms. But this is when my first stupid travel stunt occurred. I used Booking.com but I did it late at night after a hard work week and got sloppy. I booked everything at once because, as you know if you’ve ever been on one of those sites, all the rooms are “filling up fast … one left at this price”, without making sure I was getting refundable rooms. Most of them you can cancel and change right up until the day before, but you have to be careful and book a refundable room. When I went back to research a little more I found a more reasonably priced room, but I had purchased one nonrefundable one. I could have saved myself a couple hundred dollars. Lesson learned! Don’t panic.

I’m increasing my language lessons and restraining my excitement, but I’ll be making regular entries for this trip and I hope you’ll join me. Perhaps next we’ll explore a little history. So, ciao, la mia amiche, I’ll be in touch.