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PROLOGUE: Over the Thanksgiving Weekend of 2018, we started to plan an adventure to Tuscany in Italy. Our original plan was to rent a villa for four weeks in the spring of 2020. We selected a villa in the village of Poppi and paid the deposit then recruited friends to share the villa with us. Unfortunately, in March of 2020 the world shut down to accommodate the Covid 19 pandemic. So we postponed the trip for a year and changed our flight reservations for the following year, 2021. The mass vaccinations had just started to be available but not in time for us to go to Italy, so we postponed for another year. Finally in April of 2022, the travel restrictions eased and the percent of fully vaccinated and boosted reached a level to where we felt safe to travel back to Europe. This is our account of our experience at the villa, La Vecchia Quercia.

Thursday – Friday April 21&23, 2022 Fredericksburg, Texas to Florence, Italy.

After a two year delay, the adventure begins. We met John and Carol Batterton at their home at 7:30 and drove to the Austin airport. Our Itinerary took us from Austin to Washington Dulles, Munich Germany and finally to Florence. The flights were all on time and fully booked as the travelling public seemed anxious to return to the air. Only 5 days earlier, the US had been forced to drop the mask mandated for domestic air travel. We were allowed to enjoy the leg of the trip to Dulles sans mask, however international travel was governed by the arrival nation which still required the senseless requirement to wear a mask on an airplane. We arrived in Florence on time and found our luggage and then took a taxi to the Hilton Metropole Hotel. My first objective was to find a hardware store where I could buy some screws to repair the handle on one of the tandem bicycle cases. We found what we needed within a 10 minute walk of the hotel and returned to nap and recover from the 24 hour trip to Italy. We had the rest of the afternoon to go into Florence with enough time to see the Ponte Vecchio and the Duomo and the main piazza. Florence is uber crowded with tourist and unlike our previous visit in 1980, every venue requires a reservation and an fee to enter. All we could do was stroll around the main attractions but we didn't have the time or energy to wait in long lines to enter any of the famous structures. Later we met John and Carol, Richard and DeAnn Johnson and Kenneth and Loes Williams at the hotel bar for happy hour and later dinner. We discussed plans for the next day to visit a grocery store and see the Mercato Centrale of Florence.

Saturday April 24, 2022, Florence to Poppi

We opened the breakfast room at the Hilton Hotel at 7:30 in the morning. The buffet spread was typical for 4-star European hotel; loaded with fruits, breads, yoghurts eggs and meats. Once breakfast was completed, we joined Kenneth and Loes for the 10-minute walk to the Esselunga grocery store; this was a huge and very modern store which uses advanced technology for self-checkout. We purchased essential snack and happy hour ingredients and returned to the hotel in time to meet our transportation to La Vecchia Quercia in Poppi. Robin and Steve and Paul and Linda had arrived at the airport and met us at the hotel for the hour and a half trip to Poppi. Richard had arranged for the transportation which was on time and very comfortable. The drive through Tuscany was filled with beautiful views of the countryside. We arrived in Poppi and requested a stop to but wine and beer as well as stop at an ATM machine. We arrived at our home for the next four weeks and were greeted by our Hostess Francesca. She is a delightful young lady who has created an amazing holiday villa for us to enjoy. Each couple found their bedroom and moved in. After a quick exploration of the property, the first of many happy hours began. Francesca offered to order dinner for us from the restaurant and have her father delivered it to the villa. He arrived at 8:00 with a sack full of salad, ravioli, and steak. There was enough for at least two meals and maybe more. After dinner we started the first of many card games but soon everyone started to fade from jet lag and retired for the evening.

Sunday, April 24, 2022, La Vecchia Quercia, Poppi Tuscany:

Francesca offered to serve us breakfast at 8:30 this morning. This villa has a commercial kitchen and lovely dining area with open views of the valley and mountains. Her breakfast was as good as any we had ever seen. It was served as a buffet with selections of every possible food that one would want for breakfast. The table service lasted over an hour; everyone was pleased with this surprise breakfast and was now ready to start exploring the old town of Poppi. The old town sits on top of the tallest hill in the valley and is crowned with an 11-century castle. The castle was designed by the same architect who designed the Palacio Vecchio in Florence. It took about 20 minutes to walk to the castle; we bought entrance tickets and went inside to tour. Much to my surprise the castle was beautifully restored; there rooms with frescos dating to the 12 century and a library with 25000 volumes including original books by Dante. After the tour we started to walk back to the villa, we somehow managed to miss the short old road back and ended up on the main road as the rain started. The road was a little longer, but in the rain, we weren’t walking on a muddy path. We had arranged with Francesca for a group dinner for Sunday evening. The villa has a commercial kitchen where Francesca (who is a trained chef) and her staff prepared a gourmet meal starting with appetizer followed by the pasta and main course and finally with dessert. The meal included unlimited red wine. Needless to say it was a memorable dining experience and a great opportunity for the group bond. By now the evening ritual of golf card game was well underway and continued until we had played nine holes (9 hands) before everyone was ready to turn in for the evening.

Monday, April 25, 2022, La Vecchia Quercia, Poppi Tuscany

My plan for the day was to assemble our tandem bicycle and take a test ride. I did manage to put the bike together but with only one problem. The electric assist motor would not turn on. I checked every connection and could find nothing out of order, still the motor would not function. I called Ric back in Houston and followed all his instructions without any success. Our last chance to get the bike to operated is to take it to a shop in Poppi and hope that they and solve the mystery. Monday was the National Liberation Day so much of Poppi was closed for the holiday and the weather on Monday was cloudy, gray and misty for most of the day. We did walk to the golf course which is about a 10 minute walk from the villa. The golfers in the group (Ken and Paul) wanted to check out the course and we were looking for a lunch spot. The course looks very hilly but well groomed and should be challenging for the players. The restaurant was full, but the coffee shop was open for light snacks and drinks. Back at the villa we relaxed until happy hour and then enjoyed leftovers from the Saturday night delivery. Following dinner, we started the card game and played until everyone was ready to go to bed.

Tuesday, April 26, 2022, La Vecchia Quercia, Poppi Tuscany:

Tuesday is always market day in Poppi. Several of the ladies wanted to go to the market and see what is available. Francesca had volunteered to take them to the market as well as pick the up at the supermarket. We decided to walk into the new town along with Steve and Robin. It’s about an hour walk but mostly downhill. We found the small market immediately across the Arno River bridge. There were more dry good stalls than produce and meats, but it was still interesting to stroll through vendors. Next we wanted to find a replacement coffee maker and find a bike shop hoping that they could find a fix to the electrical problem. We found a coffee make but decided not to purchase. The first bike shop we found could not help us, but they gave us directions to the shop which could help. On the way to the bike store we passed in front of a wine shop and decided to check it out. There was a great selection of wine but also an area to buy bulk wine. There were four reds and two whites which we tasted; the price ranged from 2 Euros to 4 Euros for a liter. We made arrangement to return after we found the bike store because we didn’t want to carry wine to the bike store. On the way to the bike shop Steve and Robin stopped at a corner gelateria while we continued on another quarter mile and found to bike shop. We spoke with the owner mechanic who said he would take a look at our problem and hopefully find a solution. On the way back to meet Robin and Steve, I stopped at the supermarket to buy beer and water. Fortunately John and Carol were in the market and offered to carry my purchase back to the villa. Meanwhile Becky had joined Robin and Steve at the coffee shop to rest from the morning walk. I had found a pizzeria where they sold pizza by the slice. The pizza was good, especially the crust; it was a perfect snack for a lunch break. We then returned to the wine store and purchased 4 liters of a bulk red blend. We called a car service to take us back to the villa. By the time we returned we had walked over 14000 steps. The girls had purchased ingredients for us to make dinner in the evening. So the remainder of the afternoon, we learned how to make risotto. The menu for the evening was grilled chicken breast with risotto and green salad. I had started to marinate the chicken breast and prepared the grill for the fire. Francesca stopped by to advise us on the proper way to prepare to cook risotto. I started the fire and started to grill the chicken breast about 6:30; everything came together for dinner and the feast began. Dinner around a big table is always a fun time and full laughter and conversation. After dinner and cleanup (which is Kenneth’s specialty) the card game commenced and continued until everyone was ready to retire for the evening.

Wednesday, April 27, 2022, La Vecchia Quercia, Poppi Tuscany:

Our goal today was to hire a rent car. We found an agency in Rassina which is about 8 miles from Poppi who would rent us a car. The place is actually a dealership and repair shop, but he was willing to rent us the car he normally used as a loaner to repair customers. He made us a bargain deal of 25 Euros a day and we were set for the next three. We next wanted to find a mobile telephone store where I could get a SIM card for my phone. Google maps directed us to the shop; we installed the SIM card and tested it before we left. At last I had good communications for the remainder of the trip. Next we stopped at the Coop supermarket to pick up a few needed items and then we returned to the villa in time for our 4:00 cooking school. Francesca had completed her hospitality and culinary train in London; she was the instructor for our class. Our first instruction was to chop onions, carrots and celery for the Bolognaise sauce. These were sautéed together while the ground beef and pork were slowly added to prevent a heat loss to the mixture. After the meat was cooked, the tomato sauce was added and some tomato paste for color and finally the red wine. The seasoning were salt, paprika and nutmeg. This was left to simmer for 1 ½ hours while we started to make the pasta. The pasta ingredients were fine milled flour and an egg…the proportion is one egg to 100 grams of flour. These are carefully mixed with a pinch of salt and a few drops of olive oil. After carefully mixing and kneading, we rolled the dough into a ball and covered it in plastic wrap to prevent drying. Next we moved back into the kitchen to make the tiramisu which is too complicated to verbalize. After assembling individual portions of the dessert, we returned to our pasta to roll out each dough ball and then run it through a roller which turned it into a fine sheet. These sheets were fed through the cutting attachment fitted on the roller which sliced the sheet into perfect flat noodles or tagliatelle. Francesca served everyone prosecco and dismissed us to return to our den area. She later cooked the pasta and added it to bolognaise and delivered it to our kitchen where we had prepared salad to go with the meal. We then dined on pasta bolognaise and salad followed by a tiramisu for dessert. After dinner the evening card game started to cap off the day.

Thursday, April 28, 2022, La Vecchia Quercia, Poppi Tuscany:

My goal for the day was to take the bicycle to the shop for a computer diagnosis of the problem. We had determined that if we lowered the back seats in the rent car and removed the rear wheel on the bicycle, we could then transport the bike to town. The bike shop opened at 9:00 and we were there to deliver the bike. The owner said he would take a look at the problem and let us know what could be done. We returned to the villa and walked to the golf course where Kenneth and Loes and Paul and Linda had teed off for a 9 hole round of golf. We set in the gallery for a while thinking they would be finished in time for lunch at the golf course restaurant, but the course was more challenging than anticipated which meant they would not finish until about 2:00. We decided to eat leftovers for lunch and then drove to Arezzo to check out the town. We didn’t have a lot of time but enough to find the cathedral and drive through the historic old town. We had to be back at the villa in time to meet our drivers for the 2 hour drive to the Andruecci Winery for our 7 course wine paring dinner. Flavio and Lara were away on business so his nephew was our host for the evening. We started with a glass of prosecco and the appetizer which was a zucchini squash blossom and sage leaf battered and fried. Next was the chardonnay with an asparagus soup, followed by a chianti with thick pasta. Next was Borolo paired with a lasagna. The main course was a slow cooked beef and a side of spinach and a premium red. This course was followed with chocolates and another red and finally ended with tiramisu and the last red of the evening. By the end of the 3-hour 7-course evening we had accumulated 84 glasses on the table. Full and happy we loaded back into the vans for the ride back to the villa.

Friday, April 29, 2022, La Vecchia Quercia, Poppi Tuscany:

As we were driving to Andruecci the previous evening, the owner of the bike shop phoned me to explain the diagnosis of our bike problem which was fatal and could not be repaired. We returned to the shop where the owner showed us a broken connect which he said could only be repaired by replacing the motor. We thanked him for his service and paid his labor charge and then packed the bike back into the car for the return to the villa. Back at the villa we learned that Richard and DeAnn had walked to Poppi to get their Covid test for the return to Fredericksburg. We walked up the hill and met them at an outdoor bistro for a cheeseburger lunch. After lunch we strolled back to the villa for an afternoon of visiting in the sunshine. Francesca met us a 4:00 to guide us on a short walk to a neighboring farm where the made cheese and sausages and prosciutto. The owners did not speak English so all we could do was observe and have a tasting of their products. We visited the animal barns and then walked back to the villa. We had planned to have pizza for dinner, Francesca helped us with the order and advised us that they would be delivered at 7:40. Right on time we got the call that the pizza had arrived. Paul and Linda had visited a winery in Chianti earlier in the week and supplied two bottles of wine to go with the meal. We enjoyed a great pizza party with lots of joviality. Of course, the card game picked right up after dinner followed by a few hands of bridge with Paul and Linda.

Saturday, April 30, 2022, La Vecchia Quercia, Poppi Tuscany:

Today we had planned for an all day e-bike tour through the National Park. We had arrangements to be picked up at 9:20 in the morning for the 20 minute ride to the Romena Church where we met our guide, Massimo. The bikes were German made; extremely sturdy and powered by a Bosch system. After a quick check out ride in the parking lot and final adjustments, we set out down a steep incline and off into the forest. We had beautiful weather for the ride with clear skies and temps in the mid to upper 60’s. Massimo advised that we would ride a total of 40 kilometers with a lot of climbing. The first planned stop was 10 kilometers into the ride at a farm where they made fresh cheese from sheep milk. This was a very informative stop where we learned the entire cheese making process and had a tasting of the cheeses that were made there. From the fattoria we continued uphill over the roughest, rockiest road I have ever ridden a bicycle over. But the bikes were sturdy and had enough power to pull us up the hill to a monastery. We finally exited the rough road into the national forest but continued to climb up to 3500 feet. We stopped for a brief tour of the church and monastery where there are still nine monks in residence. From here the ride was mostly downhill; in 3 short kilometers we arrived at a restaurant for a lunch break before continuing downhill hill to the bike path along the Arno river and finally for the final assent up the Romena church where Robin and Steve were waiting to drive us back to the villa. There wasn’t enough room in our small rent car all of us so Massimo volunteered to take us in his van back. Back at the villa we were anxious to clean up and relax. George and Brenda Lumpkin had arrived while we were on the bike ride and they joined us for the happy hour as we recounted the adventures of our bike trek. By 6:30 John and Marienne Edge arrived to complete the 12 guest for the week. We had plenty of leftover food for everyone plus the fresh rotisserie chicken from the morning grocery run. After dinner there were more card games and lots of catching up from the activities of the day.

Sunday, May 01, 2022, La Vecchia Quercia, Poppi Tuscany:

Today is Labor Day in Italy and much was closed except essential tourist friendly shops and restaurants. We started the morning with a scrambled egg breakfast for everyone and later we walked up to the castle in Poppi to introduce our new guest to the major attractions. George and Brenda and John and Marienne visited the castle while we sat in the outdoor café and leisurely enjoyed a cup of coffee. They finished their tour of the castle and joined us for coffee. We started the return walk to the villa when John and Marienne discovered a shop that featured woolen coats, jacket and sweater which were locally made from local sheep. The found and purchased a jacket for each and then we continued our walk back to the villa. The rest of the day was spent in leisure activities around the villa including learning some new card games and happy hour until 7:00pm when it was time for Francesca to serve the feast in the dining room. The dinner started with a bruschetta appetizer followed with steak and potatoes. Just a note to future visitors to Italy, the chances are extremely small that you will find beef that is as good as that served in Texas. Her dessert was a torte made with chestnut flour…it was very dense and not very sweet, but it was Tuscan and that’s what we had asked for. We played a little bridge and then retired for the evening.

Monday, May 02, 2022, , Poppi – Lucca- Cinque Terra, Italy:

Today was scheduled to be a traves and discovery day. Our Fiat van was delivered to the villa at 8:00 Monday morning and we piled in for the 2 hour drive to Lucca. Robin and Steve had arranged for a guide to give us a three hour walking tour of the old town. We arrived at the appointed meeting point in front of the train station and met our guide, Wanda. She was a perky lady who had a superior knowledge of history and enthusiastically guided us through this beautifully preserved city. Lucca is surrounded by a completely intact wall that has remained for 5 centuries. It is massive 36 feet high and 90 feet thick. The wall was never breached although Napoleon did enter the city walls without a fight because the residents knew they would starve from a siege. The tour was only to see the outside of the building and to learn the history. If we wanted to go inside that was an optional extra. At the end of the tour Wanda introduced us to a small café where we enjoyed a light lunch. We were concerned about the possibility of a looming thunder thunderstorm, but it passed over without a drop of rain. We managed our way back to the van and continued the drive to Monterosso in the Cinque Terra. The final 20 kilometers was over the most windy, curvy switchback steep and treacherous drive I had ever seen. We did arrive safely at the hotel but not without some anxiety. Once checked into the hotel we stopped at the first bar for a beer and then strolled to the old town for a quick look around and survey of the area. Back at the hotel we had time to share a bottle of Chianti from Andruecci which Steve and Robin wanted to share with us. We were ready for dinner at 7:00 and found the recommended Taverna. This was a venue known mostly to the locals so was not crowded although the hotel desk had called in a reservation for us. We tried the local seafood specialties which was a pleasant diversion from the menus of the previous week.

Monday, May 02, 2022, , Poppi – Lucca- Cinque Terra, Italy:

The Cinque Terra lies on the central west coast of Italy; it is a very hilly region which hosts 5 (cinque) small, picturesque town that cling to the cliffs above the sea. It is one of the more popular tourist destinations in all of Italy and for good reason. The major activities are hiking, lying on the beach, eating and drinking plus maybe a little shopping. Paul had arranged for hotel reservation at the Hotel 5 Terra in Monterosso. The morning started with a nice breakfast in the dining room and then we started out for the walk (?) to the nearest town of Vernazza. The trail is rugged, steep and very challenging. Although the distance was only 2 miles we needed almost 2 hours to complete the trek. This is a very popular activity because the trail had plenty of international foot traffic. We stopped several times to take pictures as well as catch our breath. We arrived in Vernazza right at noon and our first stop was to enjoy a beer in the main square. Once we had sufficiently recovered from the walk, we moved to a nearby restaurant for lunch. Paul ordered a bottle of local white wine which was a perfect addition to the lunch. Our trekking for the day was complete but not the adventure. We had purchased an all day pass for the ferry which runs hourly between the five towns. We boarded the 2:00 boat and found places in the sun on the upper deck. Now we had almost an hour to relax as we cruised by the other town perched on the cliffs above. The last stop was at Porto Venere where we stopped for a 50 minute walking tour of this quaint and colorful town. This area of Italy is known for its pesto, so we had to buy a couple of jars to take back to villa in Poppi. We then returned to the pier for the 4:40 ferry for the return to Monterosso. It was a pleasant cruise with great view of the towns which had made the area so famous. We arrived back at Monterosso about 5:30 and as we were walking back to our hotel, we met Steve and Brenda Martens who had arrived just a few minutes earlier. They would be joining us for dinner and later for a week at the villa. We had made reservations earlier for dinner at l’osteria which was certainly necessary because the place was packed. We ordered the locally specialties and thoroughly the evening of dining and drinking. After dinner we returned to our hotel, exhausted and ready to rest. We had walked over 7 miles with 18,000 steps and 1000 feet of climbing.

Wednesday, May 04, 2022, Cinque Terra—San Gimignano—Poppi, Italy:

We met in the breakfast room at the hotel; in Monterosso to discuss our route and sites to see on the return to villa in Poppi. Paul had suggested that we stop in San Gimlgnano on the return. As we were in Lucca two days earlier, our guide had mentioned San Gimignano because of historical significance due to the prominence of towers. We checked the maps and discovered that we could include a visit there without a major departure from the direct route back to the villa. The ascent out of Monterosso was a challenging of circuit of switchbacks and hairpin turns while constantly climbing from sea level. San Gimignano was about a 2 hour drive, some of the distance over toll expressways and the rest over country roads. We arrived around noon, found a parking lot for the van and started a very quick tour of the historic town. This is a popular tourist venue so there were plenty of shops, kiosks and eateries. We found the major attractions and piazzas while searching for the best gelato in Italy at least according to guide books which explained that the maker of this gelato had recently won the world cup for his recipes. While the girls stood in line to buy gelato, Steve and I found a “pizza by the slice” shop and purchased a slice and then sat on the steps of the Duomo to enjoy our snack. Soon the rest of our group emerged with cups overflowing with gelato. Our next stop was at a wine shop to sample and purchase a bottle of the local wine. We returned to the van for the final hour and a half drive back to the villa. The rest of the day was for laundry, dinner and continuous card game.

Thursday, May 05, 2022, Poppi, Italy:

Today would be a rest and recovery from the trip to the Cinque Terra. The only thing planned was the cooking class in the afternoon. The weather was wet and cool so we elected to just chill for the day and do laundry that had accumulated during the trip. John and Carol and George and Brenda had the car for their trip to Assissi and they would not be back until the afternoon in time for the cooking class. Francesca had planned to teach how to make ravioli and biscotti. The students started by making the pasta, but instead of individual batches of pasta for everyone, only those who had not made pasta the previous week, had to mix their own dough. Meanwhile Francesca demonstrated the filling which was ricotta cheese, spinach, parmesan, and herbs. {She later confessed that she forgot to add an egg to the mixture} She had made a large batch prior to the class so we could quickly start with the process of rolling the dough into sheets. Once the correct thickness and size had been achieved, we were ready to assemble the ravioli. First the dough sheets were laid out on a board and small dabs of the cheese mixture were positioned on the dough. Next a top layer of dough was laid over the filling and the individual pieces were formed with fingers and a roller cutter. Each was then evenly placed on a cookie sheet for cooking later in the evening. Next Francesca taught us how to make biscotti. The dough was flour, egg, and sugar. She folded in a measure of almonds and formed the dough into four loaves. These went onto baking sheets and into the oven. 30 minutes later the loaves were sliced into the bite size portions. Francesca taught us to dip the cookie into a shot glass of a dessert wine which enhanced the experience. Later in the evening, we boiled the ravioli for our dinner which we supplemented salad and wine. The dinner was a success, and we all were proud of our first attempt at making ravioli.

Friday, May 06, 2022, Poppi, Italy:

We had arranged with Francesca for breakfast Friday morning. At 9:00 she served a fabulous buffet with more food that one could consume in a week. The weather continued to be cool, cloudy and wet. John Edge invited us to go to La Verna with them. We accepted their offer and drove about a half hour to arrive at the place where St Francis of Assissi was marked with the stigmata of Jesus’ crucifixion. We walked around the church and chapel and then to the grotto sanctuary where St Francis would spend time in prayer and meditation. Next John led us on a three mile hike up to La Penna and back. The weather was drizzle and cold; the trail was slick in some areas, but we managed the hike and enjoyed the chance to be outside and active. We arrived back at the villa in time for happy hour and a bridge game. George wanted to fix dinner for the group and volunteered to make a bean soup. He spent much of the afternoon preparing the meal. We had bread which we had taken from the breakfast buffet and salad and some left over ravioli and a few pieces of biscotti. After dinner we played our last game of card golf for the week and then retired for the evening.

Saturday, May 07, 2022, Poppi, Italy:

Saturday is always turnover day at the villa. Two couples who had spent the first two weeks had to return home; John and Carol and Paul and Linda had arranged to get their covid test at the local pharmacy in the morning. While they were waiting for the transportation to arrive, the villa’s cleaning crew began to prepare for the next set of guest who would be arriving later in the afternoon. By now I realized that we could not make a temporary fix for our bicycle, so we spent the morning packing the bike into the suitcases for the return trip to Texas. We needed to restock the kitchen with consumables as well as get groceries to grill for dinner, so Becky and I made a run to the Coop in Bibiena. Later in the afternoon we thought it would be different to take a short ride in the car around Poppi to see some of the neighboring villages. As we were leaving the villa, we met George and Brenda on the road as they were walking back from Poppi. We invited them to join us for the ride to Soci which they eagerly accepted as a slight rain was starting. Soci isn’t far from the villa; just about 15 minutes. There really wasn’t much of interest to see, but we did find a gelateria and enjoyed an afternoon pause for the popular Italian treat. Back at the villa, the next set of guests arrived for our third week. Brenda and Steve Martens from Nashville drove in. Later in the evening, John and Marianne drove to Arezzo to meet Steve and Pam Allard at the train station. We started to make preparation for the evening dinner which was grilled chicken breast with asparagus and risotto and salad. We enjoyed the dinner time together which gave us a chance for the new guests to meet and bond with the group. After dinner we played some cards while John fixed mints julips to commemorate the Kentucky derby. No one won the derby pot because the winning horse was a late substitution for a horse that scratched so its number was not included in the pool.

Sunday, May 08, 2022, Poppi - Cortona, Italy:

We had planned to drive to Cortona which is about an hour and 20 minutes away from the villa. George and Brenda joined us for the day excursion. We were underway before 10:00 and arrived at the parking lot which is located outside the city wall. Cortona is located at the top of the tallest hill in the area. The roads are very steep and narrow and only a resident would attempt to drive in the town. Cortona has a very rich history dating back to 500 BC. Ancient civilizations (Etruscans) had settled in the area and archeologists had discovered their tombs. There is a museum in Cortona which houses the artifacts from the tombs; it is an excellent museum which covers not only the Etruscan period but also Roman and succeeding civilization that have inhabited Cortona. Our first stop in town was at the theater restaurant for lunch and then we walked next door to the museum where we spent the next hour learning about the history of Cortona. After our visit to the museum, we walked up to the Basilica of Santa Margherita. The basilica is located at the highest point of the town and the walk to get there is very strenuous. We made a brief visit inside the basilica and saw the incorrupt body of St. Margherita. However the most interesting thing for me was not the basilica but the Porsche car rally that was in the parking lot. There were over twenty Porsches ranging from vintage to current production models; all were spotless and accessible to see. We don’t know anything about the rally, but still enjoyed seeing the cars. Next we walked back down the hill and browsed through a few shops on the way back to the car. We had a few minutes to relax before going to the dining room where Francesca had prepared our Sunday evening feast. We had requested lasagna for this Sunday. She started with a salad and then served a huge portion of the best lasagna we have ever tasted. This was followed by a dessert with fresh strawberries and custard. Of course, there was all of the wine you might want. After dinner we played a quick card game and then called it a very full day.

Monday, May 09, 2022, Poppi, Italy:

We had not planned to make any trips for today but rather take a hike in the neighboring National Forest. Also this would our day to do grocery shopping for the villa. Most of our group was away from the villa for the day so it was pretty quiet after breakfast. Becky had some postcards she wanted to mail back to the states, so we went to the post office in Poppi to buy stamps. Each stamp for a picture post card was 2.60 euros. No wonder everyone uses email and WhatsApp! We had selected a trail from the All Trails app which was not too far away and looked like it would give us a chance to see some of the local nature. We drove to the trail head and after a short search we found the trail and stared our hike. The ”trail” was actually the road although the road wasn’t much bigger that a one-way track. At one point the trail left the road and entered the forest. On occasions we could see to the valley through the trees but for much of the hike there wasn’t much of a view. Our goal was to hike at least 3 miles which may not seem like a lot but the incline of the roads and trails added all the challenge we wanted. After we returned to the car, we drove to the Coop in Bibiena. First we wanted to get a sandwich before we started the grocery shopping. We found all the items on the list except sliced bread. We later discovered that Italians prefer to purchase a whole loaf and slice pieces at home because the bread does not have preservatives and therefore would go stale if presliced. We did drove over to the Lidl store and found sliced bread which we wanted to make sandwiches. We drove back to Poppi but arrived about 40 minutes before the wine shop open at 4:00. The best way to kill time is to stop for a gelato and relax in an outdoor café. I should mention that for the first time of this trip, the weather was warm and clear enough that we could wear shorts and t-shirts. We refilled our wine jug from the bulk tanks and returned to the villa. Our dinner menu for the evening was a chicken pesto penne pasta and green salad. George did most of the cooking while I did all of the chopping and cleaning. After dinner we played a few cards and the called it a day.

Tuesday, May 10, 2022, Poppi, Italy:

We woke up to a cloudless bright morning for the first time in weeks. Our plan for the day was to walk to the market to shop for tablecloths. There is a market every Tuesday morning; Carol had found tablecloths the first week which DeAnn had wanted us to find if we could to take back to Fredericksburg. The market is located in the New Town at the bridge over the Arno River. We could walk there in about 40 minutes. Our plan was to have breakfast in town, then buy the tablecloths and walk back to the villa. We did enjoy coffee and pastries at the market, but never found the tablecloths that had been there the previous week. We would have other opportunities but for the day we were unlucky. We met Steve and Brenda Martens at the market and visited the food section where we bought cheese, meat and apples. The meat was a cured eye of pork round, but the vendor could not slice it. We thought it would be perfect for sandwiches but only if sliced. We solved the problem back at the villa where Francesca has a deli slicing machine and she willing to slice it for us. For lunch we made sandwiches with cured pork loin, cheese and sliced tomatoes. We thought we would visit Arezzo in the afternoon, but the weather was too nice which provided our first opportunity to relax by the swimming pool. John and Marianne had purchased vegetables and meat to prepare for dinner. The menu was ratatouille, polenta and grilled pork tenderloin. Marianne and Brenda Martens were in the kitchen much of the afternoon chopping and cooking. Meanwhile the guys started a fire in the grill hoping to have the meat ready at the precise time that Marianne had forecast for her dishes to be ready. This was a delicate dance which required a lot of coaxing to the fire but in the end both the meat and remaining dishes were ready at the same time for a marvelous feast! After dinner we enjoy a toast of limoncello and laughed the evening away with funny pet stories.

Wedesday, May 11, 2022, Poppi - Siena, Italy:

We had been watching the weather forecast to determine which would be the best day to visit Siena. Wednesday turned out to be perfect with a cloudless sky and temps in the 70’s. George and Brenda joined us at 9:30 for the 2 hour drive to Siena. We found the parking garage and started to follow the GPS to the Il Campo piazza. The Piazza was crowded as predicted; we tried to find a café on the square, but they were all crowded and service was slow. We did walk a couple blocks off the square and found a cafe for a snack and coffee. From there we walked a block to the Duomo and bought tickets for visiting the cathedral and promenade. We spent an hour inside with the free audio guide trying to see all of the significant feature of this 12th century masterpiece. In the meantime George and Brenda found the roof promenade and took in the view from above. We met for lunch and found a nice outdoor café on the way back to Il Campo. We walked around the square taking in all of the sights and sounds of this famous landmark. This is the place where the Palio horse race takes place every year. Many of the shops on the perimeter had pictures of the race and crowds from previous races. We decided we had seen all of the major sites and walked back to the garage and started the return to the Vecchia Quercia. We arrived back in time for happy hour and decided to visit a local Taverna for dinner. I phoned in a table reservation for 7:30. The table was ready for us as we arrived; the menu featured several regional items including wild boar stew. Both food and service were excellent and we promised to return before our visit to Poppi was over. After dinner, everyone was exhausted from the events of the day which meant a quiet evening at the villa.

Thursday, May 12, 2022, Poppi, Italy:

Thursday morning is market day in Bibiena; we were still in search of the table clothes that Carol had found our 1st week here. We found the market just outside of old town Bibiena but couldn’t find a parking spot and accidently ended up in the old town with extremely narrow and steep one way streets. After a couple of unsuccessful trips through the maze we found a parking spot and walked back to the market. Most of the same vendors who visit Poppi on Tuesday were in Bibiena. We found the lady who sells table cloths and purchased one for DeAnn. We are still in search of a couple for us to take back. Marianne wanted to buy some strawberries and cherries; we were surprised at the cost of the cherries but purchased a pound anyway. Now the challenge was to find our way out of the old town which was even more complicated due to a couple of streets being blocked because of the market. Eventually we found an exit and headed back to Poppi. We invited George and Brenda to ride with us to the Camaldoli Monastery for a visit and to see the ancient pharmacy. The drive up to the monastery was over some of the same roads we had ridden by bicycle the previous week. After touring the baroque church at the monastery, we continued to the pharmacy and arrived only 2 minutes before it closed at 12:30. We only had enough time to make a quick walk through and take some photos. Next we walked to a café for lunch and ordered some of the local specialties except I ordered a hamburger and French fries. The bun was about the size of a pita which was at least an inch greater in diameter than the burger. Still it was a nice change. We could enjoy a leisurely lunch because the only remaining item on the Thursday agenda was cooking class at 4:00. We had requested Francesca to demonstrate caponeta and pizza. We started making the quick rise pizza dough so it would have a little time to rise before we stretched it into pizza size and shape. Meanwhile we started chopping pepper, eggplant, zucchini, and onions which were all individually sauteed in olive oil and finally mixed together to form this Sicilian side dish. Now it was time to roll out the dough and build our pizza. We used the slow rise version of the pizza dough which Francesca had prepared the day before. This was the most challenging part of the class because we were not allowed to use a rolling pin but had to stretch the dough with our hands into the desired size. None were round but all were of various shapes and sizes. Earlier in the afternoon, Francesca had started a fire in the wood burning pizza over because it took several hours to achieve the desired 600 degree temperature. First the dough went into the over for a few minutes to cook and then we added the tomato sauce, cheese and toppings. The pizza then went back into the oven for another 5 minutes and was ready to slice and serve. We ate the pizza immediately out of the oven and complimented it with glasses of Italian vino bianco. After we had our fill of pizza and cleaned up the place, we retired to the common room for a game of cards and then to bed.

Friday, May 13, 2022, Poppi, Italy:

We had asked Francesca to help us arrange a winery tour for this day. There are two local cantinas where she made reservations for us. Wine tasting in Italy is quite different from Fredericksburg. One has to have a reservation and food always accompanies the wine. The first tour was at 11:00 at the Ornina winery which is in the hills above Rassina. The drive was of course very steep, narrow and curvy. We managed to find the place with the help of Google maps. We were greeted by our hostess, Greta who gave us a brief history of their very young enterprise. The setting and views were amazing. They currently have six varieties of wine which each has its own unique style. This was my first time to see concrete fermentation vessels which they use for the white wines. The reds are all fermented in stainless steel. After a visit to the barrel room, we were invited to an outside table and given the option of which wine we wanted to taste. The price of the tasting depended on the wines we selected. We chose the “simple” tasting which had a white, a rose and a red. She described each wine as she poured the taste. She also set out bread dipped in olive oil, some cold cuts and cheese. The white was good with a pleasant unique characteristic. Next came the rose followed by the red. Of the three we tasted, our favorite was the red. We bought a bottle to take back to the villa to share during happy hour. The second tasting was scheduled for 4:00 in the afternoon so we had a couple of hours to lounge around the pool before charging to the final winery. The Fregnan vineyard was in our neighborhood less than 2 kilometers from our villa. We could have walked but it would have been a difficult trek back after a wine tasting. This winery is very new started in 2017; they make only one sparkling wine and unlike Prosecco or Spumante, this sparkling is made in the classic methode champenoise. It is naturally carbonated in the bottle and aged for 2 years. Then each bottle is mechanically riddled and inverted neck down so the settlement falls into the neck. The neck is frozen and the ice plug is forced out removing all of the settlement. Fresh wine replaces the volume that was lost during degorgement and the cork inserted. After the tour we were invited to a table outside where we got a small taste of the 2019 vintage sparkling wine. A meat and cheese tray accompanied the wine; when no one stood up to leave, our host took the hint and poured another taste of his sparkling wine. We drove back to the villa where George prepared a pasta dish using left over ratatouille. It was quite good and quickly devoured. The evening ended with one final card game and then to bed.

Saturday, May 14, 2022, Poppi-Bibiena, Italy:

Today was turnover day at the villa. We said goodbye to John and Marianne, Steve and Brenda, Steve and Pam. The cleaning crew started to prepare the villa for the next guests who would be arriving later in the afternoon. Becky and I had arranged to join an e-bike tour which started in Bibiena. Robin and Steve drove us to the start at 10:00 and we were fitted to our mountain bike for the ride. The ride started out on nice paved roads but quickly we found ourselves on rough rocky rutty tracks that we were not prepared for. Our first stop was at a castle ruin high above the valley we had to walk the last 100 meter to reach the top. From there we continued down but it was a struggle for Becky to handle the rough rocky track. I asked our guide if we could change the course to paved roads to which he agreed, but by this time it was too late for Becky who was exhausted fighting the bike and the track. We eventually got to a bike path along the Arno River but Becky was too exhausted to control the bike and crashed into a guard rail. This was the end for us, we said no more and Stefano, our guide, agreed to get a vehicle and take us back to the start point. Becky started to complain about pain in her hand and arm. We somehow managed to get the bikes back to a road where Stefano could meet us with his car. By now her hand had started swell; we were sure if it was jammed of broken, but we knew it wasn’t good. Robin and Steve picked us up and drove back to the villa. I got some ice for the hand and asked Francesca for some first aid. She took a look at the hand and said we had to go to the emergency room for x-rays. The hospital is located in Bibiena only 15 minutes from the villa. I parked outside the door of the ER and called on the intercom that we had a patient outside. They looked at her hand and took her back into the treatment area. I was not allowed to go back with her due to Covid protocols. About 2 hours later the doctor came to get me and explained that Becky had three fractured in her hand and would require a visit to an orthopedic specialist next Tuesday. They cleaned and bandaged her scrapes and made a temporary splint and sling. Fortunately, she did not have a lot of pain and we were discharged with instructions and a list of pain meds if required. We returned to the villa to depressurize and meet our newly arrived guests: Alan and Jimmy Lynn and Kevin and Peggy. These are friends of Steve and Robin whom we did not know. Robin was busy in the kitchen fixing some hearty soup for dinner while we broke out the happy hour supplies. After dinner our challenge was to bath Becky, while keeping her wounds dry. There is one tub in the villa which is located in an unoccupied bedroom. It was perfect for our purpose and soon Becky was cleaned and shampooed and ready for bed.

Sunday, May 15, 2022, Poppi, Italy:

The usual routine on Sunday morning for the new arrivals is to walk up to the castle in old Poppi and take a tour. Then they visit the woolen shop next to the castle and shop for the locally made coats and sweaters. While Robin was acting as tour guide, Steve went with Becky and me to the café next to the old bridge a sandwich and gelato. We returned to the villa for a quiet afternoon of relaxing by the pool as we anticipated the feast that Francesca was preparing for our final group dinner at the villa. We gathered at 7:00 in the event dining room. The starter was melon, bruschetta, fromaggio, eggplant and prosciutto. Next she served the 1st plate of cacio e pepe (Cacio e pepe is a pasta dish from the cuisine of the city of Rome. Cacio e pepe means "cheese and pepper" in several central Italian dialects. As the name suggests, the ingredients of the dish are: black pepper, grated Pecorino Romano cheese, and spaghetti, or traditionally tonnarelli). We requested to have this dish as the subject of our final cooking class on Wednesday. The 2nd plate was caramelized onions with either pork tenderloin or the vegetarian entrée. We have also asked Francesca to demonstrate the caramelized onions at cooking class this week. Finally, the dessert was crème caramel. Of course, she served her house blend red wine. It was a fantastic meal which we will certainly miss when we return to Fredericksburg. There wasn’t any late night activity as everyone was tired and full and ready for bed.

Monday, May 16, 2022, Poppi and Eremo de Camaldilo, Italy:

Usually I am the first one to the kitchen to make a pot of coffee, however this week the next guest were already stirring up a mess. Someone managed to crack the carafe of our new coffee pot, but no one would confess to having done so. We were able to cobble together some spare parts from an old coffee maker but this was only a very temporary fix. Our mission after breakfast was to drive into Bibbiena to find a replacement. We searched a couple of locations but could not find what we were looking for, so we gave up and returned to the villa. Our plan for the day was to drive to the Eremo (Hermitage) of Camaldilo to show Steve and Robin this monastery that we had seen on our 1st bicycle tour. After touring the church and a quick walk into the forest, we drove down the mountain to visit the antique apothecary. The first time we were there we arrived just as they were closing for the afternoon break. We had plenty of time to tour the place and learn about this 14th century building where the monks had formulated their herbal potions. The café next door was our final stop for lunch of the regional specialties. Becky ordered soup and I got the wild boar stew. Both were interesting but not remarkable. After we returned to Poppi for gasoline, we drove another 9 kilometers to a small village named Quota. The is a sleepy village which clings to the side of a mountain. The streets and walkways are very steep and narrow. We were hoping to find a coffee shop for gelato, but this little place had zero commerce and the one pub in Quota was closed on Mondays. We were determined to get gelato, so we drove back across the Ponte Vecchio to our favorite coffee shop and gelateria for our afternoon snack. Once back at the villa we had plenty of time to relax by the pool before happy hour and dinner. We had decided that this would be our last time to fix dinner for us and the guests. Its becoming too much of a challenge to satisfy the unusual dietary preferences of our guests so we have decided to visit the local restaurants for the remainder of our visit. Robin did prepare a nice pasta pesto and there was some green salad for the side dish.

Tuesday, May 17, 2022, Poppi and Bibiena, Italy:

We had an appointment at 10:30 to see the Orthopedic Specialist at the hospital in Bibbiena. Francesca had offered to take us to the appointment and help with any translation. We arrived at the hospital on time and presented our papers at the check-in desk; even though I had my vaccination certificate, I was not allowed inside because I did not have the European digital green pass. (I continue to be surprised how Europe has surpassed the States with it’s use of digital technology} The visit with the doctor was quick but the result was not what we had hoped for. Her break could not be properly set without surgery, so we have scheduled and appointment with a hand specialist in Fredericksburg for the day after we arrive home. Back at the villa we relaxed by the pool and researched the hand specialists in our area. We had recommendations from friends and colleagues which have been very helpful. We had saved one bottle of Andruecci Chianti and decided to share it with Robin and Steve for our afternoon happy hour. Robin fixed a charcuterie plate for us to enjoy with the wine. We had planned to dine at the local taverna in Poppi, but unfortunately it is closed on Tuesdays. Becky, Steve and I walked up to Poppi while Robin drove the rent car so we would not have to walk be in the dark. We thought there was an alternate taverna which was listed in Yelp and google, but this place did not was permanently closed. The last option in Poppi was the restaurant in the hotel by the castle. They would open at 7:30 and could accommodate our party of eight. The menu was extensive with a large variety of Tuscan and regional dishes. Everyone found a dish they wanted which was no small task given the diversity of our group. Following dinner, we returned to the villa and called it a day.

Wednesday, May 18, 2022, Poppi and Arezzo, Italy:

We had planned to visit Arezzo today and have lunch there. Robin and Steve had toured Arezzo previously and had hired a local tour guide, to they would be our guide for the day. Google Maps directed us of a convenient parking garage just at the entrance to the historic old city. Arezzo is an ancient town where evidence of the Etruscan civilization has been uncovered. As we were walking up the main pedestrian street, we stopped in Sugar to see the Roman mosaics. These were discovered during a building restoration and were visible under a glass floor which had been installed a few feet above. From the Sugar display, we continued walking stopping at church of Santa Maria di Pieve for a brief look around. Our next stop was at the Piazza Grande where the contratas compete with medieval jousting during the annual festival in June. We continued to the old fortress; it is a marvelous restauration which shows the construction and creativity of the early settlers in Arezzo. By now it was time for lunch; we found a like place under the veranda overlooking the Piazza Grande. Our waiter seemed to enjoy the opportunity to speak English with us. We each ordered off of the lunch menu instead of the extensive dinner menu. I ordered gnocchi and Becky ordered a salad. After lunch it was time to return to the car and drive back to the villa in time for our last cooking class. We had requested for Francesca to demonstrate Ceci e Pepe and caramelized onions. She had served these at our Sunday night dinner and we wanted to learn how to prepare them. First lined a roasting pan with parchment paper and then she took the cleaned cipollini onions and drizzled a little olive oil in the bottom of the pan and over the onions. Next, she sprinkled a little sugar and salt and then added white wine vinegar and balsamic vinegar then into the 350 degree oven. She did turn the onions once halfway through the cooking. While the onions were baking, we started to make the pasta. This was the same recipe we had learned earlier, but we would use a guitar to cut the flat pasta into thick spaghetti. We kneaded the dough until ready to be wrapped in plastic and set aside for 30 minutes to rest. There was a surprise third item on the class; she would demonstrate the tarte she had served at an earlier breakfast. This dough was very different using cake flour, six egg yolks, sugar, and butter. We worked up the dough to the correct consistency which then went into the refrigerator to harden the butter. By now the pasta dough was ready to work. With a rolling pin we flattened the pasta to the correct thickness and placed it on the wire strings of the guitar. Next with the rolling pin, we force the dough through the strings to cut it into the thick spaghetti shape. Meanwhile Francesca made the sauce of grated parmesan cheese, cream and white wine. This was cooked in a pan until the cheese was melted and the mixture blended into the right consistency. Back to the tarte, the dough was patted into a round pizza pie pan and the filling added; for our tarte she used a jar of strawberry preserves and a jar of pear preserves. With some of the dough she rolled strings to form the lacing over the top of the tart. The remaining dough she cut into cookies and bake for a treat. She also baked the tart which we had the next morning for breakfast. She finished adding the sauce to the cooked pasta which was served with the onions for dinner.

Thursday, May 19, 2022, Montepulciano, Italy:

One of the recommended places to visit was Montepulciano in the famous wine region. From Poppi, the drive would be less than two hours. The first half of the drive was over familiar roads, but a short distance passed Arezzo, the terrain flattened and the agriculture changed from grapes and olives to grains and fruit trees. However as we approached Montepulciano, we drove back into the hills and started a major climb up through the vineyards to the pinnacle of the region. We had email instructions where to find parking near the main square of town adjacent to the fortress. We actually found a parking place and started to explore the town. We were only a couple of blocks to the piazza grande where we used Rick Steves guide to learn about the buildings surrounding the square. We stepped inside the Duomo which has an unfinished exterior, but the interior was complete. There was a QR code at every point of interest which enabled us to read about the features including the Della Robbia statuary. From the Duomo we went into the cellar of the Contucci Palace / winery. We toured the barrel room and marveled how could these huge barrels ever be moved into such a cramped space. We learned that the barrel are delivered in pieces and assembled like a puzzle in place. The wine is pumped into the barrel from the production area located elsewhere in the cellar. These barrels had an airlock on each one which had a small amount of wine. The purpose was to maintain a completely full level of wine while preventing air from entering the barrel. We declined the complimentary tasting because there would be a obligation to purchase a bottle. We still had plenty of wine at the villa and because we only had one more day in Italy, we didn’t want to buy addition wine. Instead, we went into the palace where we could purchase a glass and have a small snack. We each chose a different wine so we could get a taste of the different wines. The wines were all primarily sangiovese but from different vineyards and different aging periods. As we were enjoying the wine, we started to discuss ideas of a gift we could buy for Francesca. After checking for gift shops in the area we discovered that there was a copper artist who made copper cookware. We visited his shop and discovered the largest display of copper pots and pans one could imagine. We learned about the various qualities of each including the thickness and whether the lining was silver or steel. After looking at every pot in the store, we chose one which we thought would be the perfect one for Francesca. We asked the merchant to hold it while we went to visit the fortress and have lunch. The fortress has been turned into a branch of the Kennesaw University, some offices and a wine store. We had to pass through the wine store to get to the views of the Montepulciano region. We took a few pictures and then went lunch at a nearby café. As we returned to collect our gift, we stopped at a souvenir store to get a card to present with it. With everything in hand, we returned to the car and navigated the steep and narrow streets to exit the citadel and start the drive back to Poppi. Back at the villa, we relaxed for a while before having dinner of leftovers from the cooking class of the previous day.

Friday, May 20, 2022, Poppi, Italy:

Today would be our last full day at the villa. Our agenda was light with no plans to go anywhere. We had arranged with Francesca to go truffle hunting in the morning. We met her and her dog Dolly at nine. The truffle field is adjacent to the villa; it had been planted with oaks and hazel nuts trees which tend to encourage the growth of truffles. Her brother had mowed the field the day before so we could easily follow Dolly as she sniffed out the precious black delicacy. Soon she signaled that she had found one and started to scratch the dirt to indicate the location. Francesca took a small shovel to uncover the truffle and then rewarded Dolly with a handful of treats. After getting her treats, Dolly seemed to lose interest in finding more truffles; she must have had all the treats she wanted. With our one truffle in hand, we returned to the villa. Next, we presented Francesca with her copper cookware and tried to express our sincere appreciation for her help and hospitality. She appeared to like the gift and gave us some watercolor prints of the villa in return. During the previous three weeks, we had only visited one gelato shop. Francesca advised us that there was another place called “Paradice” which was her favorite gelato. We decided this could be our last chance to enjoy gelato in Poppi, so we drove to paradice and each of us tried a flavorful cup of this Italian specialty. The final item on the agenda for today was to return the rent car to Chianucci in Rassina. Their website indicated that they would reopen in the afternoon at 2:30; our plan was to drop of the car and have a driver meet us for the return to the villa. As we arrived at Chianucci, we discovered the website was wrong and that the shop would not reopen until 3:30. I tried to call to learn what I should do as our driver arrived. He explained on the phone that we were there with the car. The shop owner said to just leave the car in the lot with the keys in the ignition. That is as simple has it could be! We returned to the villa in time to see Robin and Steve off for Florence at 4:00. We started to pack up for our departure on Saturday. We had dinner reservations at the Golf Club for 7:00. Peggy and Kevin joined us for the short walk to the clubhouse. We had a table waiting for us on the outside veranda with a great view of Casentino valley. After dinner we walked by to the villa for our last night in Poppi.