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2018 in Review

31 Dec

A great way to look back at 2018 is through my photos. For me, they paint a picture of wonderful times spent with family and friends. Each picture brings a smile to my face and each memory reminds me of how lucky I am to have these people in my life.

A look back at 2018…

Florida in winter

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Summer in Chicago

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Thanksgiving

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Key West Destination Wedding

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Christmastime

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Cortona and all around Italy

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As we end another year, many thanks to family and friends, pictured here and not, who continue to enrich our lives as we create the future together.

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From Chicago to Cortona, from our hearts to yours,
our very best wishes
for a healthy and happy 2019!

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Happy New Year! Buon Anno!!

Ciao,
Judy

Our Montalbano Tour

18 Dec

Although many people visit Taormina to get close to Mount Etna, Len and I had a different plan. Our goal was to visit many of the shooting locations of one of our favorite Italian detective stories, Il Commissario Montalbano. The episodes are based on novels by author Andrea Camilleri. They are set in the imaginary town of Vigàta but many shooting locations are in the province of Ragusa. Montalbano is played by the Italian actor Luca Zingaretti.

We got hooked on watching Italian shows many years ago as part of our never-ending quest to speak and understand Italian better, and also to learn about parts of Italy we had yet to visit.

Taormina is certainly not the best base to begin this excursion as the sites are hours away, but that didn’t deter us. I found an excellent driver, Alessio Patanè, (info@sicilygrandtour.com), who met us at 8 AM in Taormina.

Our first stop, and the opening shots of the episodes, are overlooking Modica. We were stumped on the significance of this view – the open center being the shooting location for Livia’s bus stop.

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We did, however, recognize the Cathedral of San Giorgio, aka the Church of Vigàta.

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Next stop, (not Montalbano related), the oldest chocolate factory in Sicily. Need you ask if I bought some?

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From there on to Scicli, aka Vigàta.

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The show’s police headquarters and commissioner’s office are both housed in the local town hall.

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Filming for the episodes happens on location during many months of the year, but the office set ups are often broken down and moved to Cinecittà, a large film studio in Rome. We were fortunate as they had recently been shooting scenes, so the offices were completely in tact when we visited.

Stepping inside, one immediately recognizes the staircase Montalbano climbs to visit his boss, the commissioner,

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as well as the commissioner’s office.

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After hearing about the some of the artifacts in the office, we headed downstairs to Montalbano’s office.

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Immediately on the right is Catarella’s office.

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then Fazio’s office leading to Montalbano’s.

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Enrico, our wonderful tour guide, was so knowledgeable and entertaining.

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He was also eager to show us a filming stunt. Below is the familiar door to Mimi’s office, which is actually not an office at all but a wall. Mimi’s only office exists in the studios in Rome.

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One highlight not visible in the series is the incredible ceilings in the eighteenth century building.

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After thanking Enrico, we walked the familiar streets of Vigàta before heading to lunch.

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Then time for Len’s one request – to eat along the sea at the place Montalbano frequents, and so we did. Picture perfect.

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After lunch, we walked along the beach in Punta Secca (aka Marinella)

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until we came upon this sign…

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and then the very familiar home of Montalbano.

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It was easy to see why this house was selected as Montalbano’s home and equally funny to see a pizzeria a few doors away – oh what fame can due to a town!

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In reality, it doesn’t appear that fame has spoiled this quiet beach town at all. No one was even home when I knocked.

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From here, on to our final stop, the incredible vistas of Ragusa and Ragusa Ibla, which we learned about from episodes. As Camilleri once said:

….there is a literary Vigàta, which is based on my hometown, and then a Vigàta used as the set for the TV series, which is based on beautiful places such as Scicli, Modica and so on. Now that happens to me when I’m writing a new Montalbano story: I’m influenced not so much by the Montalbano TV character but the scenery seen on television..   Andrea Camilleri

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Whether or not you are a fan of the Montalbano books/tv series, these sights in many remote parts of Sicily are enticing and beautiful. At first we had wondered why so many widely dispersed and remote filming locations were used, but seeing them made it all so clear. Camilleri truly wanted to share lesser known parts of Sicily with his audience, and indeed he did. Clearly, his intention is what brought us to areas we might never have known, and given us another great adventure on a road less travelled.

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Ciao,
Judy

 

 

 

Taormina Sicily

12 Dec

Our first visit to Sicily was in the spring of 2016. Len and I had planned a month stay, from west to east coasts. However, as we learned, March is not the ideal month as the winter winds nearly knocked us over.

Fast forward to last October. We met Benita and her friend Christina in Rome, flew to Catania, and headed to Taormina, a resort town Len and I had skipped on our last trip.

We arrived on a Sunday night to views from our room that were painted by the sunset.

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After a bit of unpacking, our first stop was one of Benita’s favorites: Pasticceria D’Amore, or pastry of love.

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On the menu – fresh to order cannoli, “filled at the moment”

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and then dipped in freshly ground pistachios. They certainly lived up to their reputation!

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Taormina is a hilltop town on the east coast of Sicily, flanked by Mt. Etna, an active volcano with trails leading to the summit. The town is a heavily visited tourist location, but fortunately the monster cruise ships seem to depart late afternoon, leaving plenty of space to stroll leisurely and visit attractions.

The streets are filled with restaurants, bars and lovely stores of every kind;

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and the piazzas are filled with artists and musicians.

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Perhaps the best known attraction, and truly my favorite, is the Teatro Antico di Taormina. This ancient Greco-­Roman theater, built in the 3rd century BC and modified by the Romans, is still used today for concerts and live performances. (Click on any photo to enlarge.)

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Near the theater, cliffs drop to the sea forming coves with sandy beaches and always providing spectacular views.

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Checking online, we were able to find the less crowded times to visit the theater, and it seemed as thought we nearly had it to ourselves.

Another lovely and peaceful attraction, away from the crowded streets, is The Public Gardens of Taormina. The vast property was originally settled by Lady Florence Trevelyan, an English noblewoman and animal and nature lover, who married the Italian mayor, Salvatore Cacciola, and settled forever in Taormina.

The park and its views are peaceful and beautiful and provide welcome space away from the often crowded streets.

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Late one morning, we took the tram from the main town to the beach to visit Isola Bella,  also owned by Lady Florence Trevelya until 1990, and now a nature preserve.

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As it was very hot, we concluded our walking tour in a short time and returned to main town for lunch and gelato.

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As for food, Sicilian pistachio is king. You can get pistachio on, in, or over just about anything you can eat or drink…steak, pasta, cheese, seafood, coffee, liquors, etc.,  and we loved trying almost anything that included pistachios.

Pistachio liquor, creme, and spreads

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Pistacchio Gelato (their spelling!)

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Pasta with Pistachio Sauce

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Another favorite of ours was the homemade caponata, an eggplant dish, made a bit differently at each location, but always good.

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Our last night, we decided on dinner at a restaurant named Ferrara, that being my mother’s maiden name. No relation, of course, but the dinner and service were both great and a fun place to take a final photo of our time in Taormina.

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Ciao,
Judy

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Part 3: Verona

2 Oct

The last two days of our trip north were spent in Verona, a main tourist destination due to its location on the Adige River and its heritage. The city has been declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO because of its urban structure and architecture.

One of the first sights that greeted us was the Castelvecchio, or Old Castle. Established in 1353, it is considered the most important military construction of the Scaliger dynasty that ruled the city in the Middle Ages.

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The castle is described as powerful and compact in size, with very little decoration, built of red bricks. It is considered one of the most prominent examples of Gothic architecture of the age,

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with imposing M-shaped merlons running along the castle and bridge walls.

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It seemed like such a natural place for a selfie.

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Once we crossed the bridge, the look back was stunning. The Ponte Pietra, or Stone Bridge, was originally completed in 100 BC and is the oldest bridge in Verona.

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One of the arches was rebuilt in 1298. Centuries later, toward the end of WWII, four arches of the bridge were blown up by retreating German troops. Fortunately, the bridge was rebuilt in 1957 using original materials.

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Once we crossed the bridge, we took the tram to the top of the city. One could walk, of course, but the day was very hot and humid, so we happily opted for the tram. (Photo taken at mid-point.)

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I had not expected Verona to be such a large city, and the high vantage point provided views of how various parts of the city are divided by the river.

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It also highlighted intricacies of the architectural weaving of buildings.

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After our walk, we decided to lunch along the river, enjoying good food and great views.

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Nighttime in Verona takes on a different vibe. As we headed to the famed amphitheater, we walked through Piazza Bra, the largest piazza in Verona and, some claim, the largest in Italy. (Piazza Unita in Trieste is considered the largest piazza on the waterfront.) Bra, as it is known, is lined with restaurants and cafés, as well as several notable monuments.

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The most noted monument is the Arena, a Roman amphitheater completed around 30 AD and the third largest in Italy after Rome’s Colosseum and the Arena at Capua. (It is thought that the arena in Capua was probably the model used for Rome’s Colosseum.) When first built, the Verona Arena could seat some 25,000 spectators in its 44 tiers of marble seats. Shows and gladiator games once drew spectators from far beyond the city.

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The round façade of the building was originally composed of white and pink limestone from Valpolicella, but a major earthquake in 1117 almost completely destroyed the structure’s outer ring. The current two-story facade is actually the internal support for the tiers; only a fragment of the original outer perimeter wall exists, with three stories remaining.

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The interior is virtually intact, and has remained in use for public events, fairs, theatre and open-aired opera during warm summer nights. (Seating is now limited to 15,000 for security reasons.)

Our final “tourist attraction” was related to Shakespeare as two of his plays were set in the city of Verona, The Two Gentlemen of Verona and Romeo and Juliet. Obviously forgetting my high school literature classes, and not having seen many Romeo and Juliet modern movies, I had forgotten that the tale was based on some true events. But such forgetfulness was definitely not the case for the throngs of people lined up to enter Juliet’s house, step on the famous balcony where supposedly the young lovers met, and plaster hand-written notes all over the entrance walls to the property. (Throngs are not our thing.)

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For those interested, however, here is a bit of interesting history from the Museum and House of Juliet.

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Afterward, we walked around the city a bit longer, taking in a large market and several other monuments and sites. Having had enough touring, Len and Carlo thought of making a quick get away, but quickly agreed to aperitivo instead.

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Although our trip to Fruily-Venezia Giulia was coming to an end, the six days had provided us with new sites, sounds, tastes, and an abundance of history about this northeast Italian region bordering Austria, Slovenia and the Adriatic Sea.

We could think of no better way to spend our last night than to sip regional white wine, enjoy local cheeses and charcuterie, and witness the illumination teeter-totter as the sun went down and the lights came up over the ancient and beautiful Castelvecchio of Verona.

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Ciao,
Judy

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Part 2: Udine, Cividale and Venzone

27 Sep

After leaving Trieste, we took a train to Udine, which would be our base for the next two days. While we didn’t spend too much time in the city center, one of the most impressive sights is Piazza Libertà, the oldest square in the city and considered one of the most beautiful.

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Created in Venetian style, the piazza includes columns, statues and, if you’ve been to Venice, several recognizable symbols of Venetian power.

Next stop was Cividale, founded as a Roman city by Julius Caesar around 50 BC.

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The small town, although no longer an important regional power, still attracts tourists due to its historical medieval center and lovely location on the Natisone River.

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The Devil’s Bridge, (Ponte del Diabolo), which attaches two parts of the town, is accompanied by legend.

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According to Cividale.com, “The popular fantasy has connected the construction of the bridge to the supernatural…, according to which the devil would have facilitated the construction of the bridge overnight in exchange for the soul of the first person passing through… But the inhabitants of Cividale mocked the devil, sending through the new passage  an animal, (dog or cat), according to the versions.”

The most interesting place we visited, however, was the Lombard Temple of Santa Maria in Valle. After touring the monastery, we arrived at the Oratorio, the most important and celebrated monument of the era. In 2011, the Monastery of Santa Maria in Valle and the Longobard Temple were declared World Heritage Sites [Italia Longobardorum. Places of The Power {568 – 774 AD}].

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What made this especially fascinating was our ability to see the restoration effort occurring in real-time in a nearby church. Piece by piece, the restorers are working to recreate what once existed.

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This man, I was told, is the head of the project.

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Before leaving, we lingered a bit longer to soak in a view only nature can provide.

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Our final stop of the day was Venzone, a town hit by a major earthquake in 1976. Per the pictures below, you can see that almost all of the historic center was destroyed.

What is of great interest is how, over a seven year period, the town was rebuilt. After the quake, stones of collapsed buildings were carefully catalogued and stored, providing the foundation needed to rebuild what once existed.

In 2017, Venzone was chosen as one of Italy’s most beautiful villages. Borghi Belli judges said one of the reasons was because it was “one of the most extraordinary examples of architectural and artistic post-earthquake recovery”. Bravo Venzone!

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The next day, we would take the train to Verona, the last stop of our northern adventure. It was time, however, to bid arrivederci to Carlo’s wonderful cousins, who not only shared so much of their time with us, but also served as excellent tour guides for the area they call home. Grazie tantissimi!

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Ciao,
Judy

 

BOCCE Cortona

24 Aug

When we lived in Austin, we actually had a bocce set. As I recall, non of us knew the rules, so we made them up depending on who and how many were playing. And that held true until yesterday, when we learned to play bocce at the hand of a champion!

Many years ago, we are told, Cortona had a bocce court in/near Porta Colonna, before it became a parking lot. Today, however, bocce is played just outside of Cortona in Tavernelle.

There we found  BOCCIODROMO Communal, or the community bocce dome. Not just any dome mind you, but a semi professional one that held the special olympics some years ago. And according to the Special Olympics website: Next to soccer and golf, bocce is the third most participated sport in the world.

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Inside are three bocce lanes made of cement and covered with a special resin. Championship banners and trophies of all sizes adorn the walls.

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We were graciously met by Lidio, a local champion, who proceeded to demonstrate several methods of tossing the bocce.

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We divided ourselves into two teams and learned basic rules as we played. First team to 12 points would win.

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I must admit, I was hooked. Although the basic principle of the sport is to roll a bocce ball closest to the pallina or target ball, there are so many styles and strategies as well as a great deal of competitiveness at play.

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And the more we learned, the more competitive we became.

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Lidio even helped with measuring who was closest to the pallina.

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Unfortunately, I was not on the winning team, but it was such great fun for all that these two characters decided to play one more time while Lidio gave some of us more advanced instruction.

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Many thanks to Lidio for his time, instruction, and most of all, patience,

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from his new BOCCE fans!

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Ciao,
Judy

How Does our Orto (Garden) Grow?

17 Aug

With warm sunny days, sufficient rainfall, and tender loving care, “our” garden grew from this at the end of April…

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to this in August!

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After giving a thumbs up to the garden’s success, Len decided to take in some sun and enjoy a Toscano, a small Italian cigar (that actually doesn’t smell bad),

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while Fernanda and I were ready to pick, baskets in hand.

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We filled our baskets with three of the four varieties we had planted…

Ciliegino (Cherry)

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San Marzano

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Camone

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and the not quite ready, Cuore di Bue (Beef Steak)

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We also picked susine (plums) from the brimming trees that not only keep the orto from scorching in the summer sun,

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but also provide fruit for delicious marmellata.

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Then it was time for our “casual” county lunch ~

Our Al Fresco Menu included:
freshly cut prosciutto and sliced melon;
hand-picked tomatoes, fresh mozzarella and garden basil;
just cooked porchetta from the market;
cannelloni beans sautéed in fresh tomatoes;
Toscana Rosso di Montalcino

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Talk about farm to table –  and so much more rewarding since we are the planters, pickers and very fortunate eaters!

After lunch, it was time for some serious relaxation.

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Little did we know two years ago how incredibly rewarding this small garden would be. How does our garden grow? Well, we may not be experts, and the local farmers still offer much advice, but for us, everything about the orto is perfectly wonderful, perfectly delicious, and so proudly our own doing. We just can’t help but smile!

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Ciao,
Judy

 

 

A Grand Slam Night!

9 Jun

Last month on my birthday, while still in Cortona, Benita called with birthday wishes and a surprise gift – she bought us tickets for a CUBS game on June 6. So off we went last Wednesday.

As is always the case, whenever I get near Wrigley Field, I love seeing the iconic marquee above the entrance, one that has welcome fans for the last 80 years!

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What was new for me was all the renovation across the field on Clark Street. I knew that a hotel and many restaurants had opened, but this was my first time seeing them.

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Should you not have a ticket to the game, every restaurant has open seating with large TV screens. And while you can’t literally see inside the ball park from there, you can certainly partake in the cheering!

Benita had chosen Dutch and Docs for our dinner, opened just 2 weeks ago, and named in honor of players who had carried one of these two nicknames over the years.

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We started with the cauliflower toast – delicious!

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Len and Benita followed with fried entrees while I opted for a salad. We put off dessert till later, walked around a bit, then headed for our seats. Our view from behind home plate was terrific!

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At game time, the sun was shining, the skies were blue, the wind was still and the temp was 70° – a perfect evening! Benita posted this on Instagram:

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As for the game… for about half of the game, CUBS led 3-0, until the Phillies scored two runs in the top of the 9th inning. Damn.

It was about 10 PM, bottom of the 9th, and after two CUBS were on base, Len wondered aloud how many extra innings this game might go. Suddenly the bases were loaded and Jason Hayward was facing the pitcher.

With two outs and two strikes, he let one go deep into right field. And that, my friends, was a walk off grand slam!

The over 41,000 fans erupted! CUBS WIN 7-5! CUBS WIN!

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Oh, what a night, what a very fun and memorable night…

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And what a very perfect birthday celebration for me.

Thanks, Benita, you sure know how to pick ‘em!

Ciao,
Judy

 

 

Celebrating with Friends

23 May


My most heartfelt thanks for all the birthday wishes I received yesterday via hugs, phone and video calls, emails, messages and social media. The best part for me was seeing the names of special people in my life –  family members, relatives, dear friends I’ve known forever and new friends I’ve made along the way.

One of my brothers-in-law suggested that whatever I do, I should share the day in photos, so here are some of the wonderful highlights.

Breakfast at Tuscher:

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Hair Cut at AF:

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Lunch with a few friends (they brought the party items!) at Cafe Braceria Chianina:

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The chef, server and the piping hot grill:

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Shared antipasto:

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Various menu items ordered –  Pasta with fresh tomatoes and basil,

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Filet topped with bacon,

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Stuffed rolled turkey breast,

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and my favorite – grilled chicken breast!

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Dessert was self-select, and I managed to only get a photo of the tiramisu.

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After a most leisurely lunch, we headed to Fernanda’s for caffè and sambuca,

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and then Len engaged in his new favorite pastime – small Tuscan cigaros!

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Later in the evening, with no one hungry, we had an impromptu toast or “brindisi” at Tuscher.

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What a perfectly wonderful way to spend my birthday, being utterly relaxed, showered with gifts and loving wishes, including an upcoming CUBS night game from Benita, and sharing it all with dear friends in Cortona. Len said he wishes my next birthday could come sooner, but I’m quite happy to wait another year!

Till then, many many thanks to all who helped make my day so very special, and most especially, this guy.

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Ciao,
Judy

 

Mille Miglia Cortona 2018

17 May

Cortona was ready…the Mille Miglia was passing through the town for the first time ever and the spectators eagerly awaited their arrival. Although the main viewing area was Piazza Repubblica, where each car was announced as it arrived,

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each car first had to pass through the adjacent Piazza Signorelli, my first vantage point. I was in place as the first car arrived in this three-day Italy event from Brescia – Roma – Brescia.

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Other cars soon followed. Given that I took nearly 200 photos today, I leaned on Len to help choose a good sampling.

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As the cars passed from one piazza to the next, the delighted crowds cheered and waved flags. I love that some drivers seemed as taken with Cortona as the spectators were with them (see driver in the red sweater!).

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And then the parade continued, sometimes in single file 

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and sometimes in clusters.

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Stopping isn’t as easy as one might think – these cars have mechanical, not power brakes.

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An exception, of course, is this Ferrari pace car which Len said was too beautiful to leave out. Ok, ok.

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I decided to head toward the area where the cars were entering Cortona. On the way, I passed this vintage car on Via Dardano.

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Entering Porta Colonia is a rather tight turn, and I was interested in seeing how the drivers were maneuvering. This driver made it look pretty easy as these cars also have no power steering. 

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However, when I passed through Porta Colonia to Piazza Mazzini, I discovered the answer. The usual parking lot had been turned into a wide turning radius, greatly minimizing not only the tight turn but also the chance for scratches and scrapes.

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And then the cars kept coming and coming and coming. Whatever the final count, the original estimate was around 600 – with such an impressive array of makes, styles, colors, and sizes. 

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Not quite sure I could spend three days/1000 miles in this!

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Kudos to Cortona for making its debut in the 2018 Mille Miglia circuit and for a job well done! 

Arrivederci, Mille Miglia, hopefully we meet again.

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Ciao,
Judy

 

 

 

 

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