Urban Birdwatching

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1424717752392Every few days there’s a raucous squawking outside our window and we see these green parakeets picking berries or bursting open pomegranates on the trees outside. It still takes me by surprise as seeing parrots in the wild is something I associate more with India or Africa than with Rome. I first saw parrots here on the Via Appia Antica where there’s a flock of them close to the Catacombs. I assumed that someone had once let loose pet parrots and that they had survived and multiplied. I’ve heard that one can also see them in the gardens of the Villa Pamphili and the Villa Borghese but to see them so close to buildings is surprising. I’m not sure if there’s a shortage of food or if they’ve just adapted to urban life and are spreading.

1424718755673There are lots of birds in Rome. We see swallows swooping down in the mornings which is a real pleasure when its warm enough to have breakfast on the balcony. Starlings cover the trees near Termini Station in the Fall filling the air with their chirping at dusk (and leaving a helluva mess below for the city to clean up!). It’s very pleasant hearing birdsong and seeing birds flying about but the seagulls have become a problem. No longer do you have to go to the seaside to see gulls skimming for fish along a lonely coastline. They’ve all come into the city. Rome has a communal garbage system and I guess they have easy pickings in the large bins on every street. You see them atop the statues and monuments making a mess and quite unafraid of people walking by.

1424716409097Every year, towards the end of January, the Pope would release a couple of doves in Piazza San Pietro as a sign of peace. Last year, no sooner had two white doves been released when a seagull attacked one and a crow set upon the other. People watched with horrified fascination as the poor doves were viciously attacked. Animal Rights activists pleaded for the practice to be stopped so it didn’t happen this year. However, it’s not only gentle, peaceful doves who get brutalized. Last week we were in front of the Palazzo Montecittorio (Parliament building) when all of a sudden we heard a party of American schoolgirls screaming and shrieking. We went over to see what had happened and saw two seagulls viciously tearing a pigeon apart and fighting for the choicest pieces. Luckily, it was well dead and mostly consumed by the time we saw it as it was not a pretty sight. Interesting that we should have come upon this outside the Parliament building and perhaps an apt metaphor for what must go on inside!

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A Festive Weekend

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Chinese New Year Performance, Piazza del Popolo

Chinese New Year Performance, Piazza del Popolo

Not only was it Valentine’s day on Saturday, but there were also celebrations for the Chinese New Year. Valentine’s day is not a big deal here except that the flower shops hang a few red hearts outside and some restaurants have started offering Valentine’s Day dinners.

1424008218178It was a beautiful day with sunshine and blue skies so we went to Ostia on the coast for lunch where seafood was the order of the day.  We haven’t been eating desserts since Christmas but being Valentine’s day, we made an exception and indulged.

 

 

Piazza del Popolo

Piazza del Popolo

Back in the city, there was a Chinese festival at the Piazza del Popolo. The name of the Piazza translates as the ‘People’s Piazza’ but in actual fact it takes its name from the church of Santa Maria del Popolo which was built on top of the tomb of the Roman emperor Nero  over which grew a poplar tree. Or so the legend goes anyway. It was the site of public executions until 1826 but is now a pleasant spot for public celebrations and gatherings. A huge stage had been set up and we were entertained by various types of Chinese performances from music and dance to gymnasts.

1424105198729Carnival celebrations were going on all over the city and the streets are littered with coriandoli (what in English we call confetti) which is being sold in little packets by street vendors and newsagents. Children dressed in costume were running around throwing it on each other. There were a few adults in costume as well and for us, it was a bit reminiscent of the Halloween weekend.  Of course, all celebrating stops after Martedi Grasso or ‘Fat Tuesday’ but more about that when it actually happens.

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Habemus Presidente

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1423491020468With the appointment of our new President Sergio Materella, the weeks of political speculation have ended. He was inaugurated a week ago following the resignation of Giorgio Napoletano in mid-January.

1423513091044It was strange to see the Presidential Palace (Palazzo del Quirinale) only flying the flags of Italy and the EU during the time that there was no President. Normally, the Presidential Flag flanks the Italian flag at the Quirinale. Hopefully, we will not see the flag staff bare again for some time. The President mostly plays a ceremonial role, meeting visiting dignitaries and such, but he can play a vital role in time of political crisis which seems to be the norm in Italian politics for the past few years. He is responsible for guaranteeing that Italian politics complies with the constitution and he appoints the Prime Minister.

www.quirinale.it

www.quirinale.it

Sergio Matarella is a Sicilian constitutional court judge closely associated with the fight against organized crime. He entered politics after his elder brother, who was the President of the region of Sicily, was murdered by the Mafia in 1980. Favoured by the Prime Minister, Matteo Renzi, his appointment will hopefully help to bring about the political reforms that Italy so badly needs.

1423506656202Giorgio Napolitano resigned at the age of 89, claiming fatigue. He looks remarkably fit as you can see in the photo above but its no wonder that he’s tired. He tried to leave after his first term of office which lasted from 2006 to 2013 but no agreement could be reached on electing his successor, so he reluctantly agreed to continue for a second term. Last week, we were at a concert at Rome’s concert hall built by Renzo Piano. All of a sudden, spontaneous applause broke out on the main floor. We craned our necks to see what was happening and saw Napolitano walking down the central aisle to take his seat. Word must have spread because when the conductor Antonio Pappano came to the stage, he made a short impromptu speech thanking Napolitano for supporting the Arts during his term of office. It was very sweet and a nice way for Napolitano to start enjoying his well-earned retirement.

 

 

 

 

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Beyond the Walls

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Vatican State (Partial View)

Vatican State (Partial View)

The Vatican State encompasses a huge area (about 110 acres) just east of the Tiber in the city of Rome. It is completely surrounded by walls over 30 ft high, except for the part in front of St Peter’s Basilica. I walked around it once and it took me an hour at a fast pace.

Vatican Walls

Vatican Walls

Since we live close by, anytime we want to get to the neighbourhood north of it, we have to make a huge detour as one can’t go across it. I’ve always wondered what its like inside the walls so when a friend who is a nun and who has access to the Vatican Farmacia asked me if I wanted to join her on an excursion to the Farmacia, I jumped at the chance.

 The Vatican State is all that remains of the once extensive Papal States which were secularized during the unification of Italy between 1860 to 1870.  So called because the land on which it sits used to be called Ager Vaticanus, it was created in 1929 through the Lateran Treaty between Pope Pius XI and King Vittorio Emmanuele III of the Kingdom of Italy. It was actually Mussolini who signed the treaty on behalf of the King.

communiostblogs.org

communiostblogs.org

It is an independent entity which can issue its own passports, stamps and currency. Its currency is the Euro even though it is not part of the EU. With a population of about 850, it has its own newspaper, Post Office, bank, radio station and even a railway station. Most countries including Canada have two embassies in Rome, one for Italy and one for the Vatican. The embassies to the Vatican are not situated within the walls.

There are three gates into the Vatican which are normally accessible from the city of Rome, all manned by Swiss Guards.

Porta Sant'Anna

Porta Sant’Anna

We entered through Porta Sant’Anna which is the busiest gate and allows access to cars as well as pedestrians. Interestingly, the Guards posted here don’t wear the typical colourful robes of the Swiss Guards but a blue uniform (covered with a cape during winter). The pink building you see just inside the gate to the left are the quarters of the Swiss Guards. Once inside, we made our way to the Farmacia past a supermarket and the Post Office.

Farmacia

Farmacia

There is no tax payable within the Vatican which is why people who have access to the Farmacia prefer to buy their medicines there. I was expecting a sort of basic dispensary but to my surprise, it was like any other pharmacy in the city. Larger and better stocked if anything and to my amazement, with a fine collection of perfumes and cosmetics by Gucci, Dior, Chanel etc. I didn’t need anything but I did buy a tube of toothpaste which was indeed cheaper than in our local cut-price supermarket.

Vatican Bank

Vatican Bank

To my disappointment, it was not possible to freely wander about as there are more walls inside and lots of buildings with high locked gates. The gardens occupy a large part of the land but these are kept locked and are only accessible to the public if you pre-book a guided tour. The bank is within a fortress-like tower. When the Lateran Treaty was signed, the Vatican received a financial settlement from the Italian State for the loss of the Papal States. This consisted of 750 million lire in cash and 1 billion lire in the form of government bonds. This was used as seed money for Vatican investments and the less said about the Vatican’s present assets, its property empire and financial scandals the better! Incidentally, the Lateran Pact stipulates a 5 year prison sentence for an Italian citizen who makes a public joke against the Pope ‘whether by means of speeches, acts or writings’. No wonder the media don’t make jokes about the Pope.

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Peeping Through a Keyhole

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View Through Keyhole

View Through Keyhole

Yes I peeped through a keyhole!  Just in case you’re wondering if this is a confession of  voyeurism, I must tell you that I don’t do this on a regular basis.

Villa del Priorato del Malta

Villa del Priorato del Malta

It all started one day when we went to the Aventine Hill for a walk and I saw a line of people in front of a locked gate. They stood at the gate, peered through the keyhole and moved on. It was the entrance to the villa owned by the Cavallieri di Malta (Knights of Malta). The Knights of Malta once called the Knights Hospitaller, were founded in Jerusalem around 1050 to provide care for the poor and sick pilgrims who came to the Holy Land. After the conquest of Jerusalem in 1099 during the First Crusade, they declared themselves a military order and became a significant fighting force. The subsequent loss of Christian territories in the Holy Land, forced them to move first to Cyprus, then to Rhodes and then to Malta which was given to them by the Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V as their sovereign state. Napoleon took over Malta in 1798 and the Order was ejected. In 1834, they established their headquarters in Rome and were  allowed to maintain their sovereign status which they do to this day under international law. Their extraterritorial status in Italy allows them to issue their own passports and stamps.

Portone of Villa del Priorato di Malta

Portone of Villa del Priorato di Malta

Anyhow, to go back to peering through the keyhole. When I saw the line of people waiting to look through the keyhole,  I of course, wanted to see what they were looking at but the queue was long and slow, and I didn’t have the patience to wait. A few weeks ago, just after Christmas, we were on the Aventine Hill and there was no line-up, just a young couple peering through. Finally, I had my chance! And what I saw was the scene above, a beautifully framed view of St Peter’s Basilica. It must be the only place in the world where you can see three independent states through a keyhole, the sovereignity of the Knights of Malta, Italy and the Vatican State.

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Grotesque

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1421245717440Grotesque is a word that I might have used to describe the chairs shown above which I saw in a furniture store window a few days ago. However, last Saturday, I visited the Domus Aurea (Golden House) and found out how the word actually originated.

Domus Aurea

Domus Aurea

The Domus Aurea was an immense villa complex built by the emperor Nero after the Great Fire in AD 64. Reputed to be between 100 to 300 acres, it was extensively landscaped and included an artificial lake. The lake is now the site of the Colosseum. The villa was built as a place for entertainment and was decorated with gold leaf and precious stones. The walls and ceilings were completely covered with frescoes done in the decorative Roman style which includes winding floral motifs and unusual hybrid figures, sometimes half human and half animal. A few years after it was completed, Nero comitted sucide and the emperor Traiano had a platform constructed over it so that he could have his bath complex, the Terme di Traiano, built. The Terme themselves fell into ruin and consequently, the Domus Aurea became completely buried underground. Excavations are still in progress and one can visit parts of it only by taking a guided tour. Sadly, early excavations exposed the frescoes to air and humidity and little is left of them. In ongoing excavations, the frescoes are being carefully taken down so that they can be preserved.

Odeo Cornaro, Padova, 1524

Odeo Cornaro, Padova, 1524

Anyway, to continue with the story of ‘grotesque’, in the 1500s, a young Roman apparently fell down a hole into what he thought was a cave (la grotta). In fact it was the Domus Aurea where the frescoes were still preserved in all their splendour. Renaissance artists like Michaelangelo, Raphael and Pinturicchio crawled through holes to see ‘le grotte’ and introduced this style of decorative Roman art into Renaissance painting. It came to be called ‘grottesche’ (from a cave) and the word spread across France and Germany often also in reference to the bizzare and incongruous since the hybrid figures were so unusual. Over time, the word grotesque also came to mean ugly, distorted, disgusting or inappropriate to a shocking degree (which brings me back to the chairs!).

1421246142943The sad incidents in Paris last week might also be described as grotesque. There is fear in Rome and other Italian cities that terrorist attacks might occur here and rumour has it that the Vatican is a possible target. How it would be possible to screen the hundreds of tourists who line up to enter St. Peter’s basilica and the Vatican museums is beyond imagining. Meanwhile, the ‘je suis Charlie’ slogan is spreading even here. A balcony on our street has this banner across its railings. Walking home in the dark yesterday we thought it read ‘Jesus Charlie’ which would not be far from the cover of Hebdo magazine this week which depicts a cartoon of a weeping Prophet Mohammed saying ‘je suis Charlie’. Let’s hope that the horror ends and that there is no further backlash by jihadists, or towards peaceful Moslems just trying to get on with their lives.

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2015 Started With a Band

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La Banda di Faleria

La Banda di Faleria

Happy New Year to all my readers or as they say here, ‘Auguri di Buon Anno’. Auguri is a great word and covers good wishes for many occasions including birthdays, as well as wishing people luck for exams and such.

1420399090320We had a cold spell between Christmas and New Year with temperatures below 5C in Rome and a cold wind. I’ve never seen so many people so bundled up on the streets and we ourselves had to dig out our ‘Toronto’ clothing i.e. hats, gloves and scarves. The olive growers must have been happy as the warm temperatures of last winter allowed the pests on olive trees to survive and resulted in an extremely poor harvest.

Shree Muktajeevan Pipe Band

Shree Muktajeevan Pipe Band

We had a jolly start to the New Year with a fun party on New Years Eve (Capodanno) and a display of marching bands from various countries including the US on New Years Day. We had decided to take a little stroll and when we got to Piazza del Popolo, we saw a number of bands all assembled and ready to start marching down the Via del Corso. I came upon a Scottish bagpipe band from the back and was surprised when one of them turned around and I thought he looked Indian. Imagine my astonishment when I saw them from the front and they were all Indian, the Shree Muktajeevan Pipe Band from London. Apparently, they belong to a temple in London and when their guru came to visit in the 1970s, there was a procession to Trafalgar Square in his honour which featured a Scottish Pipe Band. He was so taken with them that he encouraged his devotees to start a pipe band which they did. I believe, they also play Indian music but we were only regaled with Scottish music.

Antoniazzo Romano

Antoniazzo Romano

Bands might play and there is no feeling of gloom walking around the city but things are worrisome. On New Year’s Eve, when there were major outdoor concerts at Circo Massimo and other places and there was a need for a police presence, 80% of police officers called in sick and did not show up for work. The subway actually had to close down early because train drivers did the same and there weren’t enough drivers to man the trains. I don’t know what’s going on with the Post Office but I did not receive a single Christmas card and I know that people sent them. Neither did anyone receive the cards I sent. The Prime Minister, Matteo Renzi is planning a number of reforms in 2015 which might bring some improvements if he manages to get them through.  That in itself will require a miracle. We can only hope and pray.

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Our Roman Christmas

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Zampogna Player

Zampogna Player

Christmas feasts in Italy begin on Christmas Eve (La Vigilia) with a dinner of fish. The Trionfale market in Prati which is not far from us, is one of the best markets in Rome for fresh produce so we went there on Christmas Eve morning to stock up for the Christmas meals.

Trionfale Market

Trionfale Market

All the vendors who normally sell prosciutto and cheese had arrays of various kinds of pickled fish and seafood. We bought rolled eel which Fidz remembered his mother making when he was a child. The fresh fish stalls were packed as we expected and there were lots of varieties of fish and seafood on offer. We bought black ink squid and gamberi rossi (red shrimp) from Sicilia. Back in our own small local market, only vendors selling food were open and the sound of bagpipes filled the air. The bagpipe, called a zampogna, is made from a cured goat or sheep hide turned inside out. It is tied off just behind the legs and the reeds are inserted into the neck, as you can see in the picture above. It is traditionally played at Christmas especially in southern Italy. One of the vendors had shut up shop and was following the tradition.

Our dinner that evening consisisted of the rolled eel finely sliced for appetizer.

Rolled Eel Appetizer

Rolled Eel Appetizer

Our first course was black ink squid risotto.

Black Ink Squid

Black Ink Squid

 

 

 

 

 

Cleaned Squid

Cleaned Squid

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Our second course was the shrimp sauteed in butter and garlic with a dash of brandy and white wine.

Gamberi Rossi

Gamberi Rossi

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

1419849350925For dessert, we had panforte which is a dense Tuscan sweet filled with nuts and dried fruits and a Roman sweet called pangiallo which is a bit like a fruit cake.

Pangiallo and Panforte

Pangiallo and Panforte

Every thing was delicious.

 Suitably fortified, we set off for Piazza San Pietro. Of course, we couldn’t get into the basilica as you need to reserve months in advance. However, there are TV screens in the Piazza on which you can watch what’s going on inside. All the Cardinals were in full regalia and the choirs and musicians were in fine form. We got to see close ups of the Pope which would not have been possible had we actually been inside.

Piazza San Pietro

Piazza San Pietro

Papa Francesco

Papa Francesco

At the end, Papa Francesco carried the baby Jesus down the long central aisle. I was hoping he might come out and lay it in the Presepio outside but he placed it in another one just inside the basilica. The previous Pope, Benedict, was not up to waiting until midnight to say Mass and started having it at 9.30 pm which Papa Francesco has continued doing. All was finished by 11.30 pm but the streets were busy as we were coming home with lots of people going to various churches for midnight Mass.

 On Christmas day, Santa managed to find us even in Rome and after examining his offerings we went for a long walk on the Aventine hill. There are three interesting churches here and it was nice to see their Presepi. After this we were ready for Christmas dinner. We had pasatelli in broth to start. Pasatelli is a traditional Roman pasta made with breadcrumbs, egg, grated parmesan, lemon and nutmeg. It is made just at the last moment and squeezed through a form straight into boiling broth.

Pasatelli

Pasatelli

This was followed by guinea fowl (faraona) with a stuffing of chestnuts, walnuts, breadcrumbs and sage. I even managed to get Brussels sprouts from a vendor in our local market who grows a few on his farm. You generally don’t see a lot of them in the markets.

Roast Guinea Fowl

Roast Guinea Fowl

The only thing we missed was family and friends to share in our celebration. I hope you all enjoyed your Christmas celebrations and if any of you want any of the above recipes, let me know.

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Merry Christmas From Rome

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Piazza Venezia

Merry Christmas to all my readers or as they say here in Rome, Buon Natale.

This is our second Christmas in Rome and like rituals in all cities, many things are the same such as the Christmas trees in the major Piazzas. One of my favourites is this smaller one in Piazza Lucina just off the Via del Corso where there a lovely atmosphere, with people out taking their dogs for a walk or sitting in cafes.

 

Piazza Lucina

Piazza Lucina

Walking across St. Peter’s Square (which I do often since we live in the area) is breathtaking with the 83 ft tall Christmas tree and St. Peter’s Basilica lit up behind it.

Piazza San Pietro

Piazza San Pietro

The only large Piazza which does not have a Christmas tree is Piazza Barberini. Instead, there is a giant Menorah to celebrate Hanukkah. For such a catholic country, its nice to see homage being paid to the Jewish community which has been here since Roman times.

Piazza Barberini

Piazza Barberini

All the churches have a Presepio or Nativity scene but the baby Jesus is not placed in the manger until midnight Mass on Christmas Eve. The Presepio in front of St. Peter’s is actually out in the Piazza and is very large. This is just a detail of the actual manger.

 

Presepio, San Pietro

Presepio, San Pietro

The whole month of December was filled with Christmas concerts in various churches. Classical or sacred music for the most part with choirs, quartets and organ. The choir that I sing with gave its recital last Sunday. Weeks of practice and about 40 minutes or less of singing but I enjoyed the process.

 

Choro Diapason 440

Choro Diapason 440

Christmas markets have been in full swing for a couple of weeks now and though the stalls are all selling the same stuff, scarves, bags, jewellery and such, I like this one in Prati which is festive at night.

Piazza Risorgimento

Piazza Risorgimento

One market I like going past is the flower section of Campo de’ Fiori. At this time of year, the predominant colour is red including berries, rose hips and bunches of deep crimson chillies which must be sold for decoration as the vegetable vendors also have bunches of red chillies.

Campo de' Fiori

Campo de’ Fiori

The shopping streets are crammed with people. You would never know that there is an economic depression. The lights on Via del Corso represented flags of all the countries. A great concept but it didn’t really work as the lights don’t quite succeed in representing the details of the more complicated flags.

 

Via del Corso

Via del Corso

Largo Goldoni which marks the junction at Via del Corso and Via Condotti, is home to the Fendi store. This year, the front was decorated in a rather tacky way with the signature Christmas tree made up of bags outside as usual.

 

Largo Goldoni

Largo Goldoni

For those who have money to burn, the store featured this peach coloured mink coat for Eur 18,000! Rather appalling I thought given that people can’t get jobs and this represents half of some people’s salaries.

 

Fendi Fur Coat

Fendi Fur Coat

Luckily, most can afford the traditional after dinner Christmas sweet: Panetone, a very light sweet bread with raisins and citrus peel or Pandora which is more like a very light sponge cake. Both are eaten after dinner with a white wine or Prosecco. Tomorrow, Christmas Eve is called La Vigilia and traditionally, people eat fish. On Christmas day, different regions have different traditional fare. In Rome, it is often lamb. We are staying with the stuffed bird tradition.

 

Panetone Anyone?

Panetone Anyone?

For those who enjoy Christmas, I hope it is all you wish for. For those who don’t, it will all be over very soon!

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Pre-Christmas Tuscan Trip

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Orvieto, Perugia

Orvieto, Umbria

Fidz had been wanting to see an exhibition of contemporary art at a gallery in San Gimigniano, Tuscany for a long time so since the weather is still fairly warm and sunny, we decided to take a short trip.

Glass Deer Heads, Janet Mullarney

Glass Deer Heads, Janet Mullarney

We are lucky to know an Irish artist, Janet Mullarney, who has a studio in Tuscany. We were able to stay with her which was an added bonus as we were able to see some of her pieces as well. Given that we are close to Christmas, I’m featuring her glass deer masks which were the first things that caught my eye when I walked into her living room. I find masks fascinating as they alter the perceptions of both the wearer and the viewer and if the mask is glass, what are the perceptions then?

Cortona, Toscana

Cortona, Toscana

Anyhow, driving from Rome to Tuscany is a lovely journey. One goes through the provinces of Lazio and Umbria and the landscape changes as you go along. If you take minor roads as opposed to the Autostrada, there are spectacular views of towns such as Orvieto along the way. We stopped in Castiglione del Lago in Umbria and Cortona in Tuscany, which are normally full of tourists but which were strangely deserted this time. One doesn’t see a lot of Christmas decorations but most towns have a Christmas tree and lights in the main Piazza.

Ribollita Soup

Ribollita Soup

The exhibition in San Gimigniano didn’t disappoint. We also enjoyed a fine lunch there which included ribollita, a hearty Tuscan soup made with bread, canellini beans and vegetables.

San Gimigniano, Toscana

San Gimignano, Toscana

The last time we were in San Gimignano in the spring, the town was packed with tourists. This time, there was hardly anyone there. Clearly, the week before Christmas is not tourist season in these Tuscan towns.

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