Monday, March 14, 2016

Europe 2015 – Acone (Tuscany) and Venice: Kings and paupers

Long before our trip, we decided to stop somewhere in Tuscany to cut our eight-hour drive from Positano to Venice. We’d been to Florence before, and since we’d only be spending a night, we wanted something low key. As it turned out, Deniz found the perfect place.

Years ago, my submarine pulled into La Spezia on the northwestern coast of Italy. As it was customary, several tours were offered to us, including one billed “agriturismo.” Submariners love to purposely butcher other languages for their own amusement, so agriturismo – in our dialect – became “aggravated tourist.” Portugal’s former currency escudos became “Scoobies.” And so on.

Anyway, about the only aggravating thing about agriturismo was deciding what to eat from the bountiful spread laid out before the pack of salivating, unruly sailors. Agriturismo or agritourism broadly defines visiting a farm or ranch and participating in various activities, including picking fruit, milking cows, and eating fresh food. All I remember was arriving at dusk and partaking in a gastronomical bacchanal. We guzzled wine from porcelain pitchers and devoured anything within reach. Apparently, fighting for freedom, whets the appetite, as does months of haze-gray-underway Navy chow.

After a somewhat hushed culinary experience, we looked to Agriturismo Il Giardino for redemption. Deniz found this bed and breakfast in the tiny town of Acone, an hour northeast of Florence. We drove 20 miles off the highway through roads that became increasingly rural: windier, tighter, bumpier. We took it slow, honking around tight curves, just in case.

But as soon as we got there, we were hooked. Hills and valleys, forming a quilt of squares and rectangles in hues of green, surrounded us. Our hostess Laura showed us around. The young proprietor Gabriel, maybe in his late 30s, upgraded us to the spacious, rustic country house with exposed wooden beams, cast iron accents, and a cavernous brick oven. The house’s mustard yellow exterior with its dark wood shutters and terracotta shingles contrasted against the vineyards, pencil Cypress trees, and rows of olive trees. We were in storybook Tuscany.

A big draw for us was the petting zoo for Aylin and Emilio. With the sun descending behind the hilly horizon and beginning to watercolor the sky orange, purple and gray, we walked down to the stables. The kids were immediately smitten by the geese, goats, sheep, and a single, pregnant donkey.

Emilio talked a big game, but when it came time to mount Marcelina, a honey-colored palomino with a blond mane, he cordially passed and scurried off with his “kind” – the chickens. He also found solidarity with the pigs, pleading to see them. “Cochinitos,” he yelled to me. “Domuzlar,” he yelled to Deniz.

Fearless Aylin saddled the gentle mare without hesitation. She took a lap while Laura kept the horse on her best behavior with the help of an annoyingly handsome farmhand named Fabio – of course that was his name. Apart from ensuring Aylin’s safety, I forgave Fabio and his damn pearly whites and surfer-tousled mop for pulling me off the hot seat with Deniz and helping me show her that I can be an equal opportunity gawker. You see, a week earlier I sought validation from Deniz on the beauty of a woman sitting near us in a café in Positano. I commented the way you might, a piece of artwork, and thought nothing of it. Alas, the scenario played out much better in my head.

We enjoyed a couple of glasses of local Chianti while the kids took their last turns on the nearby playground. When twilight settled, accompanied by the cool mountain air, we retrieved back to our quarters until dinner.

We lost count of how many courses, but they brought us just about everything the farm had to offer and then some: prosciutto, cheese, ravioli in a rich bolognese sauce, fritada (fried pork chunks), and house wine. For dessert, cognac and biscotti for us, ice cream for the children.

Apart from gluttony, our only other sin was staying so short. The next morning it rained, so the kids couldn’t say their arrivedercis to the farm animals. We were all bummed, but onto Venice.

Although Deniz and I had been there 13 years earlier, we couldn’t deny the kids seeing the striped-shirt gondoliers oaring under the Bridge of Sighs or riding the vaporetto (water bus) past the candy-striped piles on the Canalasso or Grand Canal. When it comes to entertainment, the bambinos are low maintenance. It doesn’t take much to please them, so a stop in fair Venezia was a given.

But we had to get there first.

We knew hauling kids and bags on boats would be challenging, so Deniz did extensive research beforehand. Even so, the trek to our flat seemed daunting. We paid a little more to leave our car at the Tronchetto parking garage, located across from the vaporetto stop. Other than our AirBnB host’s friend bitching about waiting an extra 15 minutes for us, we made it to our immaculate flat much easier than anticipated. Located a short, five-minute walk from the iconic Rialto Bridge, our accommodations were perfect for us.

If in Acone, we enjoyed a feast fit for kings, in Venice, we ate scraps barely fit for paupers. In most places we visited on our trip, we found good eating alternatives for a family on a tight budget. Not so in Italy, and especially in Venice. Not variety anyway. There’s only so much pasta and pizza anyone can take. Fortunately, Acone held us over until our next stops in Salzburg and Prague, where fantastically cheap and delicious – our two favorite culinary words – entrees awaited us.

But we made the best of it. I found a Chinese food place near our flat to mix it up a little. Deniz read about a whole-in-the-wall place called Peter Pan, specializing in Turkish döner – thinly sliced lamb wraps. We took a few wrong turns, but on our last night, we found it. We bought three wraps to go, walked over to nearby Piazza San Marco, and hunkered down on steps inside the arcade of the Procuratie’s Napoleonic wing – one of the three buildings enclosing the plaza. With the San Marco Basilica lit up in front of us, we wolfed down our three euro-döner, washing them down with white wine in plastic bottles. You know, to be discreet.

As if on cue, a nearby strings quintet serenaded us with “Con Te Partiró,” Deniz’s processional song at our wedding. We favored this Andrea Bocelli-sung gem over Wagner’s more traditional “Bridal Chorus” from “Lohengrin.” We toasted our crumpled-up bottles.

Apart from looking like a disheveled pack of vagabonds and despite sensing the eyes of pity searing through our hunched over backs, we fit right in there. We also felt good about paying nine euros for a decent meal for four, while folks nearby paid the same for a cup of cappuccino – I shit you not. Same view. Same music. Same experience.

Evidently, sitting in a chair comes at a premium most will gladly pay, as we were the only ones on the floor. It helps to be a little shameless and confident in your own skin. But it’s also the humbling realization that those small sacrifices leave enough pocket change to splurge on the luxury of time. It’s a trade off we will always accept: a mile of gravel in Death Chucks over 10 yards of red carpet in designer shoes.

Here are photo of our Acone and Venice stops (click on this link or on the photo below to view all of our photos):
Europe 2015 - Acone and Venice

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