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Cortona: Expect the Unexpected

31 Aug

Teatro Signorelli, built in 1854, is an imposing and beautiful theatre gracing the upper part of Piazza Signorelli. Over the years, it has been home to many cultural and theatrical events. Today, in addition to these events, one can see a movie or attend a conference.

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The Teatro’s grand portico also serves several functions, from a place for coffee, lunch or dinner to hosting a wedding reception. Last night it was host to us, a large gathering of friends coming together for dinner. And while the group size was a bit larger than normal last night, these gatherings are a familiar and wonderful way of life in Cortona.

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And while we expected the evening would invariably be fun, little did we know there would be a DJ in  the piazza. As we sat for dinner, the DJ began with some Italian classical music, including Andrea Bocelli singing Nessus Dorma.

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After our first course, however, the tempo changed to disco and we were out of our seats dancing to such classics as I Will Survive, sung by Gloria Gaynor. 

After our second course, many in our group formed a human chain and invaded the piazza below to join others near the DJ.

Even the canines were enjoying the entertainment.

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My favorite moment of the evening was our rendition of Village People’s Y.M.C.A. Every local Italian I know is familiar with the arm moves – Y-M-C-A– and we didn’t miss a beat. Unfortunately, I was too involved myself to get a photo – che pecato!

I did, however, manage to get a great group photo. 

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Thanks to our “organizers” and Caffe del Teatro Signorelli for such a fun and memorable evening filled with good friends, good food, and some unexpected and much appreciated good music!

Ciao,
Judy

 

How Does My Orto (Garden) Grow?

26 Aug

Many have asked me that question, especially due to the unrelenting heat wave and lack of rain in Tuscany. In Italian, the saying goes, “non c’è male” or not bad, and that’s my answer. Not great, and not poorly, simply not bad, especially compared to what I’ve seen.

Usually in late summer, sunflowers look like this…

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This year, they look like this.

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As for the orto, since it is small, it has been watered and has some shade. While not nearly producing the quantity of last year,

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it’s not barren either.

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And although small, the tomatoes still taste delicious.

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So while I enjoy them,

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I’ll dream of sunflowers and hope they return healthier than ever next year.

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Ciao,
Judy

 

 

Reconnecting

23 Aug

Ever since we arrived in Cortona, lyrics of Andrew Lloyd Webber keep playing in my head:

Yes, everything’s as if we never said goodbye

When people ask how long we are on vacation, we reply that Cortona is truly our second home.

I know my way around here
The cardboard trees, the painted scenes, the sound here
Yes a world to rediscover
But I’m not in any hurry  (I know my way around here)

But first our trip.

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We departed Chicago on a new 777-200 at 5 p.m. The pilot said we’d make great time – less than 9 hours non-stop. But around two hours into the flight, he advised us that a light was on, our plane was unable to fly across the ocean, and we’d be landing in NY to change planes. It was 5 hours before we took off again. If there was any good news, it was that we were upgraded and actually slept a few hours before landing in Rome. 

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Three hours later we were home in Cortona.

Although the tourists change, the wonderful sights, sounds, and smells remain familiar and constant. And best of all, so do the people. We are quickly immersed in this wonderful town, greeted with genuine smiles, warm embraces and greetings of ben tornato  – welcome back!

With deference to Mr Weber, I’d like to modify a few of his words in parens:

The lively (whispered)  conversations in overcrowded piazzas (hallways)
The atmosphere as thrilling here as always
Feel the early morning happiness (madness)
Feel the magic in the making
Why everything’s as if we never said goodbye

It took just two nights to be back in a familiar Italian setting – a large dinner with some friends.

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And while most things remain the same, the weather has taken a toll. From a 0° freeze last April to scorching summer heat with no rain, all vegetation has been severely affected.

When we left in June, our views of the hills were lush and a deep verdant green.

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Today, sadly, they are scorched.

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How much this will affect the grapes is not clear, but the olive oil harvest will definitely suffer. Many people we know will not be picking olives this year.

But neither rain nor sun will deter the Cortonese, who pack much into the summer months.

Cortona on the Move International Photography Festival is in full swing, occupying 8 historic buildings, some rarely open, as well as a photo exhibit in the parterre (park). More on these as we visit the exhibits. 

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The Cortonantiquaria, a national antiques exhibition market, is in the lovely 18th century Palazzo Vagnotti.

Various food festivals, called sagra, are held weekends through the summer. The Porcini Sagra was last weekend in Cortona’s parterre.

So much more to come, but for me, Cortona is always about the people, both local and international friends, who make this wonderful town home. 

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With gratitude to Andrew Lloyd Weber for helping me share what’s in my heart:

Yes, everything’s as if we never said goodbye

Ciao,
Judy

The Rest of a Good Story…

11 Aug

In my last post, I described the unexpected but fun and interesting day we spent in Fiumicino when our return flight to the U.S. was cancelled.

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When I spoke to American Airlines about rescheduling our return, I was told to keep the expense receipts related to the delay and apply for compensation after our return.

And so I did. On their website is a place to enter compliments or complaints, and a pull down menu offers information for cancelled or delayed flights. I sent an email asking where to submit my expenses and the response was quite a surprise:

As you may know, (I didn’t!) European Union Regulation (EC) No. 261/2004 of the European Parliament and Council has established common rules on compensation and assistance to passengers in the event of cancellations or long delays of flights. Under this regulation, passengers are entitled to established levels of compensation, depending on the length of delay.

Our records indicate flight 111 was canceled which resulted in arrival 4+ hours later than planned. Therefore, we offer you one of the following forms of compensation.

A. Monetary payment of 600EUR – or –

B. Transportation voucher in the amount of 800USD which may be used to purchase travel on American Airlines for you, a friend, or relative.

Len and I chose the €600, completed a few forms, and each received a check converted to U.S. currency. In addition, a small paragraph at the bottom of the letter told me they would be happy to review our unexpected expenses in Rome. Only the bottle of wine was not covered.

So now you know the rest of the story – a good thing to tuck away just in case you have a delay!

And a very Happy Birthday to my soul mate Len, may our lives together continue to be filled with adventure and unexpected surprises! 

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Ciao,
Judy

For more specifics related to the Regulation, see

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Flight_Compensation_Regulation_261/2004

 

 

 

Do You Really Know FCO?

25 Jun

Looking back over the years, since my junior year of college in Rome, I’ve probably landed or taken off from FCO more than 40 times. The formal name of Rome’s largest airport is the Leonardo da Vinci International Airport, but to many, the Rome Fiumicino Airport is simply known as FCO, short for Fiumicino.

Like most travelers, the less time spent at an airport the better, so at the end of each Cortona stay, we would leave in the wee hours of the morning to catch a late morning flight home. But last year, when the traffic stress got to be too much, we joined the ranks of those spending the night before departure near FCO.

Not wanting to stay at the airport, we did some research and much to our surprise, we discovered that Fiumicino is much more than an airport. Fiumicino is a town/comune in Metropolitan Rome, with a population over 77,000. And based on its location, the northern side of the mouth of the Tiber river, it’s also an important source of fresh fish for Rome.  Best of all for us, it offers travelers a place to walk, relax, and eat well prior to an international flight.

A stroll along the Tiber is filled with colorful fishing boats,

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fishing nets,

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fishermen,

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fisher “birds”,

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and fishing apparatus of every kind.

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The long walk, adjacent to the river, is also filled with a variety of shops, tabacchi, restaurants, bars, gelato shops, etc.

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This June was our third stay in Fiumicino, and our custom is to take a long walk to the end of the pier and enjoy the incredible sunset before stopping for dinner.

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Wanting to eat light, we discovered this gem last year – Uniti nel Gusto (United in Taste).

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This year, upon returning, we got to know the owners who, by the way, are not nearly as stern as the photo suggests. Trust me, it’s an Italian thing.

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We chose a wonderful array of appetizers to go with the best bread we have ever had in Italy –

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really, the BEST!

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On the way back to the hotel, I mentioned to Len that it would be interesting to spend a day here, seeing the fishing boats head out to sea and return with their hauls. Besides, we had so many questions about it all.

The next morning, we awoke to emails telling us our flight was delayed, then rebooked, then ultimately cancelled. Hmm. I guess we get that day in Fiumicino after all.

After a long walk including other parts of town, we put aside some slight concerns we had about eating fish before a flight and headed to the end of the “pier” to Al Molo Bastianelle for lunch. Our waiter assured us that the fish had just arrived, so why not try?

We began with insalata di mare, a freshly made seafood salad,

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followed by sautéed sole and roasted potatoes.

Both the setting and the food turned out to be great choices!

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After lunch, the boats began to return.

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Fortunately, we stopped to talk to the one person who could easily answer our questions.

Massimo was born in Sicily, raised in Gloucester, MA, and now worked in Fiumicino on a large fishing boat. When I approached him with my best Italian, he turned and said with a Boston accent and his best smile, “Do you speak English?” …He had us at Hello.

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Massimo explained that they prepare the boats each afternoon and head out to sea at 11:30 pm. They sweep, or drop the nets, usually three times, then return home the following day at 3:30 in the afternoon. When they return, they stop at the end of the pier to unload the day’s catch. The fish is weighed and immediately taken to auction. Len had some other fishing questions, including how often. “Five days a week.” Obviously, fishing is not a hobby here.

Before saying our goodbyes, Massimo said, “Follow the sign and you’ll find the auction.”

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Follow we did and came across this serious and immaculate setting, which we were not allowed to enter. Seeing how clean it was made us feel even better about what we had just eaten.

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On the right side behind the railing, the buyers are bidding as the auction takes place. If I understand correctly, there is even a doctor on site monitoring the quality. Fish auctioned here remains in Rome.

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Massimo also explained that undersized fish cannot be sold at the auction, hence the vendors on the pier.

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Satisfied that our questions were answered, we walked more, until the sun set once again.

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Eventually, we ended the evening back with our new friends at Uniti Nel Gusto.

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As it turned out, exploring Fiumicino was the perfect way to spend a flight delay. And now you know FCO – so very much more than an airport!

Ciao,
Judy

A Beautiful Birthday!

23 May

Many, many thanks to all for the thoughtful birthday wishes, calls, emails, FB posts, etc., I’ve received. Since the most common theme was “Hope you have a great day!”, I wanted to share my day with you.

Some dear friends treated me to a grand lunch at Fischio del Merlo (whistle of the Merlo bird) in Passignano, another new restaurant for me.

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The setting, overlooking Lake Trasimeno, is so peaceful, especially on a Monday afternoon.

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The idea to come here was Loreno’s, as the restaurant is owned and operated by his sister Lorena. She started with a pizzeria on the lake, then built this entire place over the last 20 years.

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As Fischio del Merlo is so much more than a restaurant, a tour of the grounds was our first line of business.

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There are so many places to eat, whether around the glistening pool;

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under one of the sun drenched canopies filled with hand painted ceramic tables from Deruta;

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inside one of the many inviting and interesting rooms;

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or surrounded by a wonderful wine collection in the cantina.

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The attention to detail is amazing as Lorena is a collector of many things, including antique cars and this vespa.

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Len and I gave our best version of Roman Holiday…

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Then it was time for lunch. Our al fresco table was ready and so were we. And since the large weekend crowds were gone, Lorena could spend time with us.

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We asked Lorena to choose the meal, and in traditional Italian style, the plates kept coming and coming, in between many toasts with delicious wines.

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We asked to see the chef and gave him a hearty applause! Lorena hired him 20 years ago and taught him well…I know, he hardly even looks 20. And that’s Bruno in the back.

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When I thought we couldn’t eat another thing, out came this delicious light white cake covered in chocolate, fresh raspberries, rose petals, mint, and a flower made from melon – served with one’s choice of digestivo.

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Following a chorus of Tanti Auguri, it was time for me to make a wish, blow out the candle, and thank my wonderful hosts.

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To Len, …”like birds of a feather we stick together… “(My Guy)

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and to our dear friends and fellow orto planters, (L-R) Carlo, Bruna, Loreno, and Fernanda,

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thank you so very much for a beautiful birthday filled with wonderful food, laughter and smiles, and best of all, your friendship.

Ai nostri cari amici e colleghi di orto, vi ringrazio molto per un bel compleanno pieno di cibo meraviglioso, risate e sorrisi, e, soprattutto, la vostra amicizia!

And a final note, you can have a simple meal here as well, and if seafood isn’t your thing, no problem. The restaurant is located just off the Passignano est exit, or just a short drive after you pass through the town.

So, did I have a great day? INDEED I DID!   Will I be back? Indeed I will!

Ciao,
Judy

S. Margherita Festival Cortona

21 May

This weekend, the people of Cortona celebrated the feast of S. Margherita, Cortona’s patron saint, and kicked off the two weeks of the Medieval Giostra dell’Archidado.

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Events began Friday night with the Colata dei ceri, or the casting of the candles, a religious practice that dates back to 1325. At the time, wax was collected and used by churches for candle making and also sold as a source of income.

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Locals dressed in traditional costumes of the time and processed into Piazza Repubblica accompanied by drummers and flag bearers.

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S. Margherita was eventually led into the piazza

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and a few events from her life were reenacted.

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If you look closely in the pink part of the photo, you will see a headsman or executioner. After Margherita was willing to sacrifice her life in place a convicted criminal, her followers cried out, “She is a saint!” and the criminal’s life was spared.

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Saturday was the Offerta dei ceri or the offering of the candles. Large candles were carried into the piazza and blessed by the bishop.

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Each quartiere or neighborhood of Cortona was represented in a procession that portrayed nobility, religious and workers of the time.

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Following the blessings, the flag bearers delighted the crowds with their skills.

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Then the candles were taken to the Basilica of Santa Margherita.

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On Sunday morning, several masses were held at the Basilica. We walked up Via Santa Croce…

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where beautiful mosaics of the stations of the cross are built into the wall.

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S. Margherita died in 1297 in a room behind the old church where she had lived the last years of her life. Over the years, the beautiful Basilica of Santa Margherita was rebuilt in her honor.

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Her body is preserved in a silver casket on the altar. She was canonized by Pope Benedict XIII on 16 May 1728.

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On my way out of the Basilica, I turned once again to admire its beauty, said one more quick prayer, and as I headed toward the door, a gust of wind blew it open. Really.

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Such a wonderful weekend and such an interesting way to understand and celebrate this important part of Cortona’s history.

Ciao,
Judy

San Feliciano Umbria

18 May

After many years in Cortona, I thought we had visited most towns and villages that surround Lake Trasimeno, but not surprisingly, there is always another gem to discover. Knowing we love fresh fish, some friends suggested we head to Ristorante Da Massimo in San Feliciano, Umbria. The restaurant is nestled on a quiet hill overlooking the lake.

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Meet Massimo, chef and proprietor of this over 25 year-old restaurant.

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We began with appetizers, and they were so good, we jumped right in and I didn’t get photos. Len and I shared an enormous plate of spaghetti con vongole (clams), one of the best we have eaten in Italy, while our friends shared a mixed seafood appetizer – first cold seafood then hot.

While this is not what we ate, I was able to get a photo of this spaghetti with mixed seafood.

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For our second course, Len and I shared grilled spigola, or sea bass, and it was delicious!

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Our friends ordered the oven roasted version with potatoes and olives.

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To accompany our meal, we drank a light sparkling white wine, perfect with seafood.

After coffee, we decided to take a walk in the town. From Cortona, the winding scenic ride along the lake eventually brings you to this small fishing village, perhaps “on the map” as it is one of the places you can catch a ferry to Isola Polvese in the lake. San Feliciano is about 35-45 kilometers from Cortona, depending on your route.

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Being that it was a weekday, and not quite summer, the town was quiet and we had much of it to ourselves. Not sure how busy it gets in summer, but there are campgrounds nearby, so our timing was perfect. In addition, in late July each year, the town hosts the annual Festa del Giacchio, a festival that pays tribute to an old fishing technique dating back to Etruscan times. Although the technique is no longer used on the lake, during the festival there are demonstrations, competitions, and opportunities to participate in all kinds of events.

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Len has long wanted to rent a small boat and fish in Lake Trasimeno, and San Feliciano seems to fit the bill perfectly. Perhaps the best part for me is that Len can throw back whatever he catches, and after a relaxing day, we can all eat well at Ristorante Da Massimo, no fish cleaning or cooking required.

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Ristorante Da Massimo and San Feliciano, two great additions to our list of favorite places!

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Ciao,
Judy

2017 Orto Planting

6 May

Finally, finally, our plants are in the orto, or vegetable garden. We waited two weeks later than last year due to cold weather and are so happy we did. We have some friends who planted in April and now need to replant due to frost and a recent 0° night. In fact, we know several people whose fruit trees suffered a lot of damage and now won’t produce fruits like figs, apricots, cherries, etc. this year.

It’s hard to believe this small bunch of plants will populate Fernanda’s orto…
12 tomatoes (4 varieties); 12 red onions; 4 zucchini.

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As you might recall, four of us, all novices, planted a vegetable garden last spring at our friend’s home in the country. And here’s a reminder of last year’s success!

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Having set the bar pretty high, and wanting similar results, some advice was sought (“offered”) from more skilled neighbors. It’s a funny thing about “orto rules”…there seem to be as many as there are vegetable gardeners. In addition, Italians who live in the country are known to have superstitions about doing things on certain days of the week – but we didn’t let that bother us.

First step was for Len and Loreno to count off the space needed for the tomato plants.

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Once measured, building of the cane structure commenced. There was some “debate” this year about teepee style (last year’s) vs. box style, but after much consideration, box style won.

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Looks like a tying lesson is going on here.

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Tomato plants were added, water troughs dug, and once completed, the perfectly aligned tomatoes looked like this.

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Then the onions and zucchini were planted in the rear of the garden where there are also garlic and artichoke plants, hardier plants which had been planted earlier in the season.

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After a very productive afternoon, Fernanda treated us to a delicious dinner and the day treated us to a beautiful sunset.

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When your daily view looks like this…

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how can you not want to plant your own orto?

Here’s to our orto trio, our hard-working contadini (farmers)…can’t wait to enjoy the fruits of your labor!

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Ciao,
Judy

Remembering Ted

25 Apr

Sometimes, people land in a place by chance, yet leave a lasting imprint. Such was the case with Ted Walker.

In late 2013, Ted discovered Cortona. Like so many others, after reading or seeing Under the Tuscan Sun, he found a rental online, booked it, and set his course – never imagining the impact on his life or others.

Over the next several years, Ted became a familiar face to many, and even an important extended family member to some. He also learned to speak Italian quite well.

Ted had hoped to put several health problems behind him and return to Cortona this spring, but it was not to be. His absence has left quite a void in the hearts of his Cortona “family” and friends, who placed a tribute in the local paper L’ETRURIA, dated April 15:

Gli Amici di Cortona ti Salutano

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With apologies for a non-exact translation, it reads in part:

“To our great friend Ted, who arrived in Cortona like many, filled with curiosity to discover what brings people here from all over the world.  

“We are convinced he discovered it right away because he never got away from us until the last moment when his watch stopped.”

The article pays tribute to Ted for reminding locals of what a privilege it is to live in a place like Cortona, and describes him as a generous and kind man. It ends with this wonderful thought:

“If there is life after death, we will meet again to laugh and joke like we started here in this world you loved so much.”

The following are of some of my favorite memories shared with Ted in Cortona.

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Rest in peace, Ted. Riposare in Pace.

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And yes, we raise a Prosecco to you!

Ciao,
Judy

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