Costumes, parties and musical chairs

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The Big Party

It has almost been a year since we set foot in Italy for the second time as a family and as my regular readers will know, we have had a lot of experiences; one of those being kids birthday parties and I have to say up front- I’m not a fan.

Our first invitation to an Italian birthday party was in the very beginning of our stay here. We were driven up to a magical villa in the rolling Tuscan hills: prosecco was flowing, local cheese for the tasting and kids were running wild in the forest-like-yard, it felt like a movie set. Fast forward to present day and I now know through suffering a few parties that in fact our first birthday party was not the ‘norm’ and I can honestly say I much prefer the Australian system of dropping the kids off and picking them up at a set time instead of all the suffering you go through standing in small community halls with little ventilation, listening to inappropriate English music blaring at full volume, kids shouting, running, screaming, laughing and crying for up to 4 hours straight: my idea of hell.

My friend Sue emailed me a few weeks ago telling us it was her son’s birthday and he would love it if we all came, oh and by the way it was a costume party!

Hang on, I thought, this is new? I also must explain Sue is a mad, funny English woman who has been living in Italy for the past 30+ years and has keep a lot of her English sensibility, not to mention her passion for a good party with no community hall in sight. We were going!

The theme for the party was History which got the boys excited. It was planned that the boys and I would go over for a sleepover the weekend before (also happened to fit in with our book club boozy meeting), then we would pop out to Emmaus and see what we could find in the way of costumes. When we arrived at Sue’s that weekend she had already whipped up Matteo’s Roman solider costume and it was brilliant to say the least. I knew then that I wasn’t leaving until we figured out and made the boys costumes with her. I know my weaknesses and costume design is one of them.

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Alex’s costume basics

Emmaus was as fabulous as ever, the boys fell in love with the place and then proceeded to tell me it was the best place for movie props (they would have spent a fortune if they were on their own…a fortune being 50 euro and that would buy LOTS!). Anyway, Alex wanted to be a Greek solider and Max Caesar or someone in a toga. It took Max all of two seconds to find a white sheet (beautifully pressed) some red ribbon, a ring and presto he was done for the grand total of 2 euro! Alex on the other hand wanted the costume to be as authentic as possible… twenty minutes later, lots of discussion, disagreements, excitement and jumping he was sorted for the grand total of 18 euro.

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Middle of costume making with Sue

It was back to Sue’s place for gold spray-painting, cutting, designing and heated discussions between Alex and Sue while I meekly tied Max’s toga, pinned on some ribbon and then proceeded to sew (again took me about 5 minutes, minus the sewing).

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Max’s quick costume design

I know Sue is a good friend because she put up with Alex’s pedantic ways and after making two soldier costumes she was still looking forward to the party. I, on the other hand, was exhausted!

The following Sunday I bravely borrowed Shelly’s car while she was off working in NY and drove us up to Pistoia. Just another experience to add to my list and one I don’t want to do very often as driving in Florence is a little freaky, especially when you’re not use to driving on the left-hand side of the road and in a manual. I kept on yelling out “Am I on the right side of the road??” 

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Let the fun begin

The party was a huge success all due to Sue’s fantastic organisation and constant supply of party games (something Italians do not do). Musical chairs is now know to all that attended the party as a very scary and dangerous game due to the misfortune of a poor girl attending. She was having so much fun when the music stopped she slipped and missed the chair and by some crazy bad luck, managed to fall and splinter her ankle bone! The poor girl ended up in hospital waiting to get a screw put in her leg. I will never play musical chairs again without thinking of this day and feeling weak in the legs.

You know it has been a great day when the boys pile back into the car at dusk, fall asleep in the back seat (even when mum is looking a bit freaked out behind the wheel) and say they don’t need any dinner because they ate too much cake. I think it was the perfect way to end our birthday-party experiences in Italy. Happy 11th Birthday Matteo!

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The burn off

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Burn offs all over the countryside

The olive harvest is well and truly over, just about all the farmers have finished trimming the olive trees, getting them ready for the next season. Scattered around the open fields of Tuscany you will see stacks of sticks, twigs, branches and anything else that will burn. Burn off is an Italian tradition around this time of year which I personally love to hate (especially when I have just hung laundry on the line!) For the past few months there have been small smoke fires burning off all over the countryside and a week or so ago Roberto, our landlord finally got around to burning the massive pile of olive twigs and branches he has been collecting over the past few months…Alex was ecstatic!

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The end of the olive tree cycle

 

In the beginning there was smoke…a lot of smoke, so Roberto went and did what any sane farmer would do and tipped a bottle of kerosene on top to really get the juices flowing, which of course did the trick to Alex’s delight.

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Farmer Alex

When all the action was at it’s peak, Roberto’s wife came out with celebratory beverages. To salute the flames perhaps? I am not sure, but I wasn’t saying no to home-made crema di lemoncello that’s for sure…even if it was only 10-am.

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Refreshments

I know they got rid of burn offs in Australia in the mid 80’s (something of a relief for my mum if I remember correctly) however, they are still going strong here today. While it is a pain with the washing and the air is polluted with smoke fumes, I can’t help but love a good bonfire. Alex and I might have to befriend an Australian olive grower just to experience it all over again.

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Beautiful bonfire

 

 

 

Asparagus foraging

Wild asparagus

Wild asparagus

I’m back! Our plane got in yesterday from New York and I am still on a high from the trip; however, a couple of days before we left for our US adventure Shelly and I went wild asparagus foraging. It was so much fun, so I want to tell you about it before I get carried away with NY.

Has anyone else foraged for wild asparagus? The season isn’t very long and you know when it has started because a lot of the older folk start walking up into the hills, carrying plastic bags and walking around the fields with their hands behind their backs, bending over inspecting the ground. Shelly and I weren’t exactly sure what we were looking for, or where to find it, however, the day before we went forging my landlady pointed out that we had two wild asparagus growing in our garden: perfect!

I didn’t know where to find it, however, Shelly had asked an elderly Italian guy what to look for when foraging asparagus and he pointed out a spiky bush and mumbled something about ‘look out for this stuff,’ and then hurried back into the fields (I think the locals would rather we didn’t know about it…makes sense really).

With the minimal information gathered (but  plastic bags forgotten), we set out on a beautiful Thursday morning walk with the sun beating down on our bodies and hope in our hearts. We were wandering around one of our old haunts talking about what we should be looking for, when all of a sudden we stopped, scanned the nearest area and, lo and behold, I spotted one lone asparagus! I’m not going to lie, we were excited. Shelly couldn’t yet see them, however, when I spotted another and another she soon caught on and we were off with our hands behind our backs and our eyes glued to the ground.

wild asparagus foraging

wild asparagus foraging

At first we just grabbed all that we could see not really looking at quality. It wasn’t until we came across a few brown-red ones with a very crisp ‘snap’ that we decided some of the ones we were picking might be a little old and gone to seed. However, that didn’t stop us from looting more from a farmers field! As you can see in the photo above they are very easy to miss and shoot up on their own around the small prickly green bush that Shelly is holding back.

A big batch under an olive tree

A big batch under an olive tree

We were wandering around in this field for about an hour happily picking away when we heard a dog barking. Our first thought was to ignore it, that was until the barking came closer and closer. For a few minutes Shelly and I thought it might of been the farmer coming to shoo us off the property, fortunately, it was just an elderly gentleman walking his dog up our road.

He knew right away what we were doing and complimented us on our forage. We had a small chat with him and then he started breaking into words Shelly and I didn’t recognise, we had a feeling he was giving us a recipe for the asparagus but that was for the ‘too hard basket’, so we gently said goodbye and took our stash further up the hill.

Of course we were buzzing with excitement and dying to try the wild asparagus, so I offered to cook it for lunch. After finishing our walk in the hills I popped a pot of water on for some poached eggs. Once the asparagus was washed and trimmed I simply melted butter on a low heat, added sliced garlic, asparagus, salt and pepper and gently sauteed until cooked.

Sauteing wild asparagus with butter and garlic

Sauteing wild asparagus with butter and garlic

The smells were fantastic and the asparagus darkened to a very deep green as the stalks became tender. Once they were cooked, I poached a couple of eggs, added a generous sprinkling of truffle salt and finished it with slices of pecorino cheese. The end result was fantastic!

Poached eggs with wild asparagus

Poached eggs with wild asparagus

The truffle hit your nose as soon as you sat down and cutting into the egg letting the yolk run through the asparagus was pure heaven. Not much talking was done while we still had food on our plates. The flavours all infused beautifully and enhanced the asparagus. To say we loved it would be an understatement. No wonder the Italians didn’t want us knowing the secret places to forage, it really is a wonderful spring treat if your lucky enough to lay your hands on some.

Finished with slices of pecoreno cheese

Finished with slices of pecorino cheese

 

Gladiator School, Rome

We are back from a fantastic weekend in the beautiful city of Roma! We left on Friday morning which just happened to be Max’s 12th birthday and figured the boys wouldn’t mind an extra day off school. After singing “Happy Birthday” to Max we caught an early, high-speed train down to Rome with our dear friends, E, Ross and the girls. Not a bad way to celebrate a birthday if you ask me: good friends, Roman food and lots of fun. I’m not sure we will be able to top this year!

Happy 12th Birthday Maxi

Happy 12th Birthday Maxi

It was glorious, the sun stayed high in the sky all weekend and we were strolling the streets in t-shirts and jeans, we couldn’t have planned for better weather. It goes without saying we walked a lot, ate a lot and laughed a lot; however, what I really want to tell you about is the  Gladiator school.

I watched a video of it on the internet a few months back and it looked pretty cool, however, it seemed expensive. In hindsight I was completely wrong and it was really worth every euro! The boys and their friends were very hyped-up about their Saturday morning class (you really need to book in advance as it sells out) and feeling a little nervous as we headed out to the school to see what they were in for. I was blown away by the two-hour class. OMG! The gladiator teaching the kids was a scary looking guy with muscles as big as my head and thighs that could crush you in one sitting, not to mention the chest on this guy! We were all a bit stunned when we first saw him and the kids a little more nervous.

Alex feeling what it is like to be a Roman soilder

Alex feeling what it is like to be a Roman solider

It wasn’t until he opened his mouth and started talking that we all began to relax and enjoy the show. From start to finish he was an entertainer, inviting the kids to join in, listen, learn and experience all things Roman and gladiatorial. It started with a tour around the museum room where he explained all the military equipment used back in Roman times (the kids loved this). He then moved on to explain the history of the equipment used by gladiators, who became gladiators and the levels of different gladiators…I didn’t realise women were gladiators, however, we were told only the ugly ones! We were mesmerised by his knowledge, appearance and general enthusiastic approach to the class.

When it was time to go outside for the ‘practical’ lesson things only got better. In fact the boys had so much fun Alex came home saying “That was probably the best day of my life”. They were glowing from this experience and Max actually made a trailer of their time at Gladiator School which is better than me rambling on, check it out…

If you are heading to Rome anytime in the near future I urge you to check this place out. Gladiator School is for all age groups: I wished that I had booked a spot for myself when I saw how much fun the kids were having!

Anna Maria Luisa de’ Medici parade, Firenze

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Yesterday was the anniversary of the death of Anna Maria Luisa de’ Medici in 1743. She was the last direct descendant of the ruling branch of the Medici family, whose will bequeathed the art collection now housed in the Uffizi to the city and stipulated that it could never be removed from Florence. Having found out this information from my lovely husband, I thought it quite fitting that there was a parade in her honour.

Max did ask me yesterday if he could take the day off school to see it, which I blew off as his attempt at skiving off. However, when I met up with mum and dad in the centre of Florence yesterday and stood amongst the beautifully bright costumes of the paraders I had a pang of guilt. Here I was enjoying the festivities, costumes and atmosphere while my kids were at school ‘learning’. I had to ask myself, wouldn’t this be a learning experience for them as well? After all it isn’t everyday you get to enjoy a Renaissance pageant re-enactment in a city that draws your eye and heart back to the days that had been. I was sorry for my abrupt answer and will actually think about the question next time before being so dismissive.

Thanks to dad’s handy work, I have these beautiful photos to share. Something that stung a little when showing Max.

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Drummers

The streets of tourists and locals alike paused in their pursuits to take in the beautiful colours and arrangement of this 40-strong parade slowly marching down the streets of Florence. It was a sight to behold and even better when you had no idea what was on the horizon, all you could here was the beat of the drums and the slow roll of the march.

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Guys with very cool guns in leather…my boys are drooling

It was my guess the participants costumes were handed down among the families for generations and showing enormous pride in the occasion. I also had the feeling that my dad would have loved to be a part of the procession too! (In fact the guy with the moustache in the photo below looks a bit like dad.)

I loved this guy with the moustache

I loved this guy with the moustache

Peggy Guggenheim Museum – Venice

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Days have run away from me since my last post. I brought the wonderful gift of a head cold back with me from Venice and it has slowed me down somewhat. Mix that with mum and dad’s arrival in Florence and more washing than you can poke a stick at and voilà, this was my week! I am happy to report the sun is actually shining and warmish (words cannot describe how happy this makes me), the head cold is almost gone and I spent a wonderful day with my mum and dad cruising downtown Florence, which is something I haven’t done in quite a while. However, I need to put my Venice weekend to bed but I just had to mention our last stop in Venice because I would have to say it was one of the highlights of our trip.

Firstly, the art work Peggy Guggenheim acquired over her lifetime is jaw dropping and viewing it in what was once her private home; in rooms she frenquented daily, looking at old black and white photographs of her ‘living’ in the house with Picasso, Pollock and Miro surrounding her is just staggering. It’s like peeking into a life you could only dream of (if you dreamt really big!).

The house itself is perched right on the edge of the Grand Canal with breathtaking views, while on the other side there is a magnificent garden to roam and wander through at your leisure, full of sculptures and some you could interact with.

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Peggy Guggenheim Museum gardens

We all loved playing around with the above sculpture. You will have to take a visit for yourself and tantalise your senses with this staggering collection of art.

I have a photo of my younger self standing in front of the Guggenheim museum in Bilbao, Spain about twenty or so years ago, so I am quite chuffed I have another Guggenheim I can add to the collection. Here’s hoping I’ll get to the one in New York next month too!

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Peggy Guggenheim Museum 2014, Venice

And just to show you what a wonderful area our Airbnb apartment was situated in, this was our street/canal. We were a few more steps down on the right while the Peggy Guggenheim museum was directly across the canal- Perfetto!

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Monday Fun-day

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Santuario di Monte Senario

Mondays are my longest time without the kids. They go to school at 8.30am and I don’t have to pick them up until 4.30pm. Normally I use my time pottering around the house: doing the housework, shopping, reading etc.  Nothing really exciting or out of the ordinary. I know I should go and discover the surrounds but to be honest I have more fun doing it with friends so I usually wait until someone has a few hours to spare and meet up with them. Mondays are house days…until today.

After the kids were dropped off at school and I’d chatted to my parents in Australia, I was just getting ready to put some tunes on and pull out the mop when my friend Ross texted and asked if I was up for a hiking expedition- hell yes! It was arranged that I would meet him in 10 minutes and we would take off on a trail and see what we could find. The housework could wait another day. As I ran down our path to meet him (it’s about 100m) I noticed he was in his car, hmmm. ‘Let’s have an adventure’ were his words as he handed me his trail guide book, all written in Italian. Ross’s Italian is much better than mine, however, both our partners are fellows at I Tatti and do most of the talking/reading when out in public; so whatever we were going to do was sure to be an adventure whether we liked it or not!

We decided to go somewhere we had never been and see more of the Tuscan countryside that was laid before us. Our direction was toward a little village called Bivigliano. Woohoo, let the fun begin!

Bivigliano is about a 15-20 minute drive from Fiesole (or 18km from Florence) along winding, narrow roads that give you a staggering view of the Tuscan landscape. It was a magnificent day to be out in the woods, quite a turn around from the weekend of torrential rain. Arriving in Bivigliano is like arriving at many Italian villages, blink and you could miss it; therefore, our plan was to park the car and take a walk up to Santuario di Monte Senario. In classic Ross and Camilla style, we didn’t actually have a map. However, we pulled up in a clearing, saw a red and white marker, decided it was in the general direction of Monte Senario and decided to take it and see what happened.

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Ross on track 65

Ross was sporting the ‘trendy hiker’ look, while I was going for more of a runner/hiker don’t-have-a-shower-or-brush-your-hair kind of look. The track was muddy and slippery and we loved every minute of it. After a few good uphill climbs we came across a track and had to decided which direction we would take. I was more inclined to trust Ross’s sense-of-direction as I have not a clue and would have walked for hours in circles!

Upon finding more red and white markers and hoping they led to our destination, we were in luck as we came to a road that looked like it was leading up to something a little bit fabulous.

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As the mist creeps in

After following it for a few hundred metres we fell upon the beautiful sight of Monte Senario!

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The beautiful steps of Monte Senario

This place was amazing! The sky opened up and pushed the clouds away for us to see the most spectacular views around and the best part was, we were the only people there!

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Breathtaking views of Tuscany

This is just a small glimpse of the 360 degree view, and here is a little more…

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A sight you can never get sick of looking at

Just to make sure we were definitely there, we did the only thing you can do…a selfie!

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The glamping selfie

After wandering around the Monastery and their lush grounds (looking for the grotto to no avail), we decided it was time to head back in the direction we came and see if we could, in fact, find the car!! 

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Trail 65…we are back on track

Not only did we find Trail 65 but we also (well, Ross spotted it first) found a natural spring running under our trail. Adventurous hikers that we are, decided to go down and take a better look. You forget how beautiful the sound of birds, stillness and running water can sound without the hum of traffic and city noise in the background.

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Fresh water spring just off our trail

Now, if I was out hiking by myself I would have finished my hike and gone back home, had a shower and made myself a sandwich for lunch. However, I forgot who I was hiking, or should I say ‘glamping,’ with (note my reference to his trendy hiking gear and my throw-together, dirty look in the beginning!).

“Let’s get some lunch” was the comment Ross dropped as we approached the car. At this point I was hungry, dirty, muddy and on a high from our adventure so I agreed that was a great idea. However, I thought we were going on a regular hike so I didn’t bring anything with me except my house keys. This didn’t matter to Ross, after all he looked like he could be seen in public!

It was decided we would venture over to a town called Pratolino. Ross was looking at this village the day before from a friend’s house across the valley and wanted to know what it was like (fair enough). It took us about 10 minutes to arrive and another 5 minutes to find a restaurant and park the car. 

Zocchi was our restaurant of choice, because of the fantastic panoramic views that were before us. Not expecting anything amazing we were pleasantly surprised with our lunch. We started with a delicious vegetarian crostini (forgot to take a photo…too hungry) that had a tomato bruschetta and a porcini bruschetta and also a fried polenta chip doused with more porcini mushrooms in olive oil and garlic…delicious!

Ross ended up having the homemade spinach ravioli with gorgonzola and walnut sauce

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Ravioli with gorgonzola and walnut sauce

While I was very excited to have homemade tagliatelle tossed with butter and shaved truffles…

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Shaved truffle butter pasta

 

The meal was fantastic and just what a couple of hikers needed after a morning in the woods of Tuscany.

I couldn’t have asked for a better day and to top it off with a delicious lunch of shaved truffle pasta and tiramisu (did I forget to mention that?), well it doesn’t get much better. Ross and I decided we should try to persuade our academic partners to perhaps take a morning off and have a Monday fun-day with us the next time we go for a hike. However, I will remember it’s more of a glamour hike when Ross is involved and will dress appropriately…with cash in my pockets!

 

Per favore, un più?

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Our local

Our favourite/local pasticceria, Cesare is a little ways down the road, a good twenty-minute walk from our place when you’re walking with kids. When I really want to have a break from being in the house I usually try and coax the boys into coming for a walk with me. As you can imagine getting your kids to come on a 40-minute walk (sometimes in the rain) isn’t exactly easy when all they want to do is play. I used to try out all sorts of tricks to get them to come along and then, not too long ago, the pièce-de-résistance came into play.

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It is winter and raining, why are we going for a walk?

I had seen the signs in the pasticceria when we first arrived but thought nothing of them as I had no clue as to what they meant: “bombolini caldi 16:00“. A few months had passed and I started reading a few more words, working out how to say more words and actively looking for words to read.

Guess what bombolini are???

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Bombolini con crema

That’s right- DONUTS!!!!!

And not just any donuts, HOT-out-of-the-fryer-and-into-your-mouth donuts.

Donuts filled with crema AND chocolate

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jam donuts…

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and plain donuts, that are the size of your head!

IMG_0977Not only do these bombolini taste and look superb but they are also chock-a-block full of whatever flavouring you choose and only cost ONE EURO each!!!

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As you bite into the bomboline you instantly feel the warmth of the marmalata, cioccolato or crema oozing into your mouth and down your chin. Children and adults alike all sit at the tables of Cesare with piles of serviettes at the ready because you just can’t help but get excited when 4pm rolls around and you happen to be in the vicinity of this pasticceria.

I know lots of other places serve bombolini and that is fantastic, however, for me this is the place I know and trust when it comes to bombolini freschi and I also know I have a 20-minute walk up hill to get home which means they come GUILT FREE!