Home Cooking vs. Eating Out

Being in Rome, we have been tempted to eat out. Restaurants are ubiquitous, and pizza features prominently in many restaurant windows. Roman style pizza is ultra thin crust and simple in its toppings. The crust simply cannot support the weight of any but the thinnest sliced toppings. The problem with eating out, of course, is two-fold: price and health. Restaurant food is salty and does not offer enough vegetables. Yesterday, we had a constant day of light rain. We did not go out and spent the day as a school day. This also

What food staples would decide are necessary for cooking? We have our own portable pantry.

What food staples would you decide are necessary for cooking while traveling? Remember, you have to carry it!

meant that our pantry was low as we did not want to walk to the market,  and we had no food for dinner. We wanted to go to a pizza restaurant called Da Remo, considered on several blogs have the best roman-style pizza. However, it was far away, and with the rain we just didn’t want to be outside for long. We ended up at a fish restaurant on the other side of the Piazza Barberini, we walked under the piazza using the metro corridors and stayed out of the rain. Gigi had salmon, and I had a John Dory, split down the middle and grilled. It was delicious and we were happy with the meal. However, it cost 130 euros, which can buy almost 5 days of groceries for us. The price of eating out whammy.

Today, we went to the Campo di Fiori where there is a daily morning outdoor market. The sun was back out and it was a beautiful blue-sky day. Considering that it is the end of IMG_2825January, we were impressed with the fresh quality and variety of fruits and veggies for sale. We bought 2 purple hued artichokes (they must be in season, restaurants are displaying them) and a chopped vegetable medley ready for minestrone soup. Justin got a large fruit cup, and surprisingly his favorite item was a chunk of fresh coconut. The Campo is lined with restaurants. We patronized Forno Campo de’ Fiori for slices of thin pizza rossa that we ate outside sitting on the fountain. Mine was topped with zucchini flowers and anchovies! This was great, and cheap, street food to snack on to fortify us for our wander through city.

Tonight, we cooked in and had another great meal, healthier and for a fraction of the cost of last night’s meal. And with local ingredients, we felt we were eating Italian. For the antipasti, I used the chopped veggies and made a vegetable soup with chicken bullion IMG_2400stock and tomato paste. For the primo, we had fresh linguine pasta from the store that we dressed with truffle infused olive oil (Justin’s choice) or pesto (Jordan’s choice). Both the soup and pasta were topped with fresh grated parmesano reggiano. Secondo was scaloppini-style slice chicken breast sautéed in olive oil, garlic, salt and lemon with steamed green beans and the artichokes, steamed with a clove of garlic stuffed in them and drizzled with olive oil. When we can eat in like this using open-air market ingredients, we are totally happy with our meals and feel we really are eating the local food. We are also eating healthier.

Buon Appetito!


We woke up Friday morning to blue skies on Friday and decided to go into Siena for the day. We really had not done any research about Siena or the surrounding countryside. I knew that Chianti wine came from somewhere around here, and we saw a Rick Steve’s program featuring San Gimignano. We also knew about the Piazza del Campo and the summer horse races, so that would be our first destination for the day.

Finding parking was our first challenge, as you must park outside of the town center and walk in. We did pretty well, finding parking at the top near the Futbol stadium and thus not having to climb up a hill into the town.IMG_2164

We found the Piazza del Campo easily by just walking down the most crowded streets, as we had left our city map in the car. The Piazza was bathed in the weak winter sunlight, or at least half of it was. Only the cafes, restaurants and gelateria on the northeast side of the square were open. The food establishments on the south and west sides were mostly closed because in that side of the Piazza was in the winter shade and thus cold. We ate lunch outside in our jackets enjoying what solar warmth the low, winter sun had to offer. Justin disappeared regularly into the Piazza to commune with the pigeons. There were a large number of young Americans, most likely university exchange students, wandering the Piazza in groups and calling out to each other. This was the most American English we had heard in the last 6 months. The only dish from lunch worth mentioning was the ribollita soup, a Tuscan vegetable, bean and bread soup that was delicious. I would love the chance to order that one again. As the sun was just about to dip below the buildings and deprive the Piazza of its warmth, we moved on to visit the Duomo. Jordan and Justin both IMG_2179got gelatos in spite of the cold; I guess in Italy gelato stores never close, no matter how cold it gets.

Once out of the sun and walking through the shady wintertime streets, we were all freezing. We found the entrance to the Duomo was free, but all the side rooms charged entry. One room, the Piccolomini Library, had a special exhibit of illuminated songbooks from the 15th century. For some geekish reason I love looking at these medieval handmade books, so we paid for a visit to this room.  The Duomo was spectacular. Gigi commented that it might have been the most beautiful church she had ever seen.                    The IMG_2196IMG_2211illuminated manuscripts were also beautiful, and the upper walls and ceiling of the Piccolomini were elaborately painted with medieval and Greek mythological scenes. I love the fact that you can see a picture of a satyr with a long, engorged penis ogling a naked woman under the roof of a Christian cathedral.


Saturday was a homebound, constant fire in the fireplace day. We woke up to snow again that stuck on the ground for a while, but by the afternoon had turned to rain. No way we were going out. It was cold! We did a lot of schooling with the boys and watched movies in the evening. We have discovered that with a VPN account, we could sign up for Netflix and get all the streaming movies and TV shows we want, no matter what country we are in. This is a new twist for us on this trip. In Grimaud, we had Sky TV with all its English language programming. We have also been using iTunes for movies, Once Upon a Time, Vampire Diaries, and the Daily Show. Netflix is much cheaper than using iTunes.

Checking the weather online that day, it looked as if our entire stay in Tuscany was going to be overcast with daily rain. This was a turn for the worse as just a few days earlier the forecasts had shown at least a few dry days.

IMG_2247On Sunday we took a day trip to Monteriggioni and San Gimignano. The skies were overcast and we had sporadic rain all day, but in spite of this we were pretty much dry for all our sightseeing. We had seen the turreted walls of Monteriggioni from the SR2 road when we first came into Siena. This medieval walled hamlet (pop. 42, I read), 20 minutes from our house, has only two entrance gates wide enough for one car lane and a large central square. You are supposed to be able to walk the battlement of the walls, but unfortunately this tourist option was closed from January 14th until February 14th.  Justin IMG_2252and Jordan hopped the locked gate to get up there for a quick look around. The place was pretty dead and no one noticed. There were only a handful of tourists walking around. Monteriggioni was very quaint and old, only one restaurant was lively with lunchtime patrons, and after maybe 30 minutes we were done with this place.

San Gimignano was about a 30-minute drive from Monteriggioni, and once we got into view of the town, the countryside changed. I would say the area we are staying in to the west of Siena looks a bit scruffy and wild with weedy fields that haven’t been tilled yet for the summer crop planting. Around San Gimignano, on the other hand, the olive orchards, vineyards and farmhouses are orderly and really look like money has being poured into them. Tidy and clean. San Gimignano was a beautifully preserved medieval town.

IMG_2294It is set up as a major tourist town with large parking lots outside of the city walls. Again, with this being the lowest possible tourist time, we parked in the closest lot to one of the gates with no problem. The boys and I climbed the stairs of the Torre Grossa for a panoramic view of the town and countryside. We also popped into the Civic museum to look at the religious artwork from the 14th and 15th centuries. Justin commented that one of the Jesus crucifixion pictures was ‘creepy’, and indeed it was as Jesus had unnaturally long, skinny arms and legs with extra bloody nails. It did provide a good art lesson, as the paintings spanned the time from medieval to renaissance art. It was easy for the boys to see the difference in the ways the painters from these eras were able to represent human forms and move from flat representations to depth of a scene. We spent time in a café drinking hot drinks and playing Uno and Bananas. On the way out, I bought bottles of local red Chianti wine and white Vernaccia wine. Chianti is well known, but I had never heard of Vernaccia and read it is special to this area and was mentioned in Dante’s Inferno, which gives it some fame.

IMG_2321Monday was another hill town outing, this time south to Montepulciano and Pienza, with a stop on the return to the monastery of Monte Olivieto Maggiore. We were very lucky with the weather these past two days of exploration. Both nights it poured rain, but during our times outside we stayed dry. We even got some nice sunshine on Sunday, but it was quite chilly. These two towns did not impress us as much as yesterdays’.IMG_2332 In Montepulciano, ALL the stores were closed, the town was fairly deserted, and it was cold. Our main goal was to eat lunch in this town, and as we walked the town looking for a restaurant, with running comments from the boys of, “I’m hungry, this one looks fine, the last one looked fine, where are we going,” we ended up at the very first restaurant we saw just inside the town gate. We had a good lunch; the boys ordered pici pasta, IMG_2359 the special Tuscan style of pasta. I got another chance to have a bowl of ribollita soup. This meal was so filling that Gigi and I skipped dinner that night. I have no idea how Italians order an antipasti, primero, secondi, dolce, and then actually eat it all.




After lunch, I popped into an enoteca to try the local wine called Vino Nobile di Montepulciano. The bottles of wine sold for the princely sum of 15 euros.I was told they are aged in oak barrels for 3 years. Good stuff, but when I can get great Chianti Classico for 7 euros, I skipped buying any bottles.

Our visit to Pienza was very short, maybe and hour. We arrived fairly late in the afternoon and still wanted to visit the monastery. The town was tiny, but very picturesque. Also again empty and cold. A pope came from Pienza, and he commissioned some palaces around the tiny town square that are famed to be classic examples of Renaissance architecture. IMG_2387Pienza is also famous for producing the best pecorino cheese, and we found a cheese store open. It had like 15 types of pecorino in various stages of ageing and flavoring. We only know the dry, aged pecorino in the US. We bought a chunk each of ‘fresca’ and the aged type that is familiar in the US. The guy behind the counter was the worst salesman; he kept his nose in his paper and gave us cheese to taste with minimal exertion and no explanations.  Out of Pienza, Gigi had me stopping every 3 minutes to take a landscape photo.IMG_2454

We wanted to visit the Monastery of Monte Olivetto Maggiori because they do mass and vespers in Gregorian chant. They also have a monastic library that can be visited. This place made me think of the novel The Name of the Rose, because they have a Latin translation copy of The Divine Comedy. Unfortunately, this visit was IMG_2488a bust.

We arrived after closing, in winter the monastery closes one hour earlier than in summer. The place was completely locked up with no one in sight to ask about the vespers service, and although we waited outside the church, when the time for vespers came, we could hear no sound, no music.

Tuesday was a school day out on the farm, and a run into Siena to the only self-service Laundromat in the city. We had to walk our bags of dirty clothes into the old town near the Campo, again passing twenty-something American girls in the streets. There were 3 of them in the Laundromat. Is it every American college girl’s dream to study a semester abroad in Italy? Gigi and I struck up a conversation with an American couple that was at the end of a 5-week stay in Tuscany. Like us, they had loved Lucca.

IMG_2529 IMG_2508 IMG_2509 IMG_2510Wednesday was our final day in Tuscany. We took the hour drive back up to Florence with one goal: visit the Uffizi gallery. We parked at the Piazzale Michelangelo, which has free parking and the best view across the Arno River and over the city. We had our picnic lunch up there. A 20-minute walk brought us to the Uffizi Museum.


We walked right in, no lines, and no advanced ticket sale. The boys, for the most part, did an excellent job staying engaged and interested. I had prepped them with the Uffizi’s website’s short list of ‘must see’ paintings, which became our treasure hunt. We rented audioguides. The boys brought their iPads to do sketches using the app Paper. For Justin, this ended up being mostly using the color pad to try to match the colors he was seeing in the painting. When we were done with the Uffizi, we headed back over the Arno on the Ponte Vecchio, grabbed a gelato, and headed back to Siena. Tomorrow we were heading to Rome.

My Ski Trip to Austria – By Jordan

IMG_2279Last week me and my family took a (little) Ten hour road trip from Grimaud, France to Obertauern, Austria. We arrived in the afternoon around 2:00 pm and settled into our apartment. Its a nice place with two beds and a bathroom. (our bed, of course, was the pull out couch…). The floor was heated and it had a cosy feel to the place. The man at the counter told us where we could rent some skis and a snow board for Justin. They were very helpful and gave us their time to find the right size of boots for each of us. Dad’s german helped things a little for the lady spoke only a little english. We brought our skis back to the apartment (they have their own separate ski room) and when we were all settled in and dinner was made, I was readyto rest after two long days on the road.IMG_2074

Obertauern is in the Austrian Alps. Driving through the tall white mountains only made me more excited to ski there. The first day out of the apartment was great! We were literally at the base of the mountain and a 100 meters from the first lift. I was kind of nervous because i had not gone skiing in over a year.

IMG_2273Let me tell you, the quality of snow was amazing. Even if the skiing hadn’t been so good, the views at the top of the mountain took your breath away. With the sun shining, each mountain was its own spectacle. After a day of snowing the slope had a nice fresh layer of white powder. that made the snow light and easy to ride.  Because I had a whole week to ski, by the end of the week, my skiing had improved to the point of whizzing down the mountain ahead of the others ;). I was like the wind blowing down the mountain without stop! I really felt this going down the slalom course where speed is your friend. The ride down the slope was fun even if you were a pro or just beginning. They were nice and wide allowing you to go at your own pace; it didn’t matter if you started a the top at the mountain or below, everyone ended up at the same place. When I look back on last week, I remember having a great time spent with my family and recommend Obertauern to anyone looking for a great ski trip you’ll enjoy.

Drive From Obertauern, Austria to Siena, Italy

We had a long drive this day. A cold storm started yesterday and was continuing today. drive south from obert.For this reason, we decided to head south a far as possible to get away from the snow and colder weather. We originally thought of visiting over the next three days Salzburg, only an hour from Obertauern, Verona, and the Ferrari museum/factory outside of Modena before heading to Siena. These places would have to wait for our return trip north to Germany. We did not need chains for our drive out, but for the first 20 km or so I pretty much stayed in second gear. It was normal driving once we made it to the autobahn. We drove out the same way we had come into Austria. A week earlier we were won

drive south overt.

dering when we would get into the snow. Now, we were wondering where the snow would stop. The mountains were covered all the way into Italy, and out on the plains to the south we even saw a sprinkling of snow in the fields. To the north we could see the Alps for several hours. On the way to Austria we had not seen the Alps because of fog and darkness. In the afternoon around Bologna we even got snow again – thick, fat, wet flakes. There was snow crossing the Appenines. Only when we got down by Florence did it seem we were done with snow

drive south obert.

We ate dinner at a McDonalds in Siena (only our second time this trip), and when we came out…snow. It was not sticking, but it was snowing in Siena. We woke the next morning to bright blue skies, cold but not freezing. We were in Tuscany for our second visit.

drive south overt.

1/10 – 17 Obertauern, Austria: Skiing and Snowboarding in the Alps

Throughout the fall we had been on the fence about whether we would spend time skiing skiing austriain the Alps. Cost was the main factor for hesitation: resort accommodation prices are high, ski rentals and lift prices while cheaper than California still add up, and we had to obtain all the necessary clothing. The second factor for hesitation was that Gigi and I just are notenthusiastic about skiing. The boys, however, love skiing (Jordan) and snowboarding (Justin). Upon reflection, and the fact that this week has been fantastic, it seems silly that we ever waffled on the idea of skiing in the Alps. This trip is supposed to be about adventure (and we just found out we will be spending a week in Sri Lanka in March, stay tuned) and having once-in-a-lifetime experiences. A week of skiing in the Alps fits that bill, as all of our Sierra Nevada skiing friends would agree.

skiing austria

Once we decided we would go skiing, we had to find a resort, and there are 5 countries to choose from: France, Switzerland, Italy, Austria, Germany, and Slovenia (Slovenia had the top rated ‘budget’ ski resort in a Guardian newspaper review). Switzerland was out for the high cost of the country and that the country requires snow tires for all cars during the winter months. We were not buying winter tires for one week’s worth of travel. We looked at the French resorts as they were closest, but we were interested in seeing a different country.

skiing austria

By chance when I was googling ‘family ski resort with indoor pool’ (we ended up dropping the ‘indoor pool’ requirement in our search) I found out about the resort of Obertauern in Austria. We had never heard of it, and once there the people told us that the resort’s clientele was 70% German and Austrian and that it was so well known in these countries that they did

IMG_2040                                                          not do much marketing. Obertauern had these things going for it: high elevation for guaranteed snow, lots of intermediate runs, big ski school for kids, it is a small town, and I speak German. The week we are here is considered low season, so prices are better and there were plenty of vacancies. We found the Aparthotel Steinadler, which has vacation apartments with complete kitchens.

I am writing this blog on our last day in Obertauern, and I can definitely say that from a skiing standpoint the week has been outstanding. Temperatures have been in the low 20’s Fahrenheit, and we have had fairly consistent light snow for 5 of the 6 ski days with 1 ½ days of blue skies. The area has gotten about 100 cm of fresh snow in the past 10 days.

skiing austria

With the light snowfall we have skied on fresh packed powder every day. The runs are long and wide, the vistas are expansive, and lift lines are short to non-existent.   There are 24 lifts in the valley, and you can ski around the whole resort clockwise or counterclockwise in a little over one hour. They call this the ‘Tauernrunde.’ We put Justin in two group lessons over two afternoons to help him with his snowboarding. Due to low season, he got a 1:1 lesson the first day, and a 1:2 lesson the second day. Now, he has mastered getting off the ski lifts and can snowboard any run I can ski on, although I have to stay behind him and stop often. That is fine with me. Jordan, on the other hand, has become fearless and fast in his downhill decent. On any run, he completes 3 runs to my two runs. By the time I get to the lip of a steep part of the run, I see Jordan’s blue jacket at the bottom, the boy keeps his skis pointed downhill. We thought about putting Jordan in ski school, too, for a few days, but I found I was enjoying skiing myself and skied everyday as his partner instead.


It snowed fairly hard this last day, but the wind was calm. The boys discovered off-piste skiing. They skied/snowboarded through knee-high powder, tumbling and laughing as they fumbled their way down the hill to meet me back on the groomed piste.  They don’t know how to ski in powder yet, but they sure enjoyed trying.

skiing austria

1/9 -10 Drive from Grimaud to Obertauern via Udine

Today we said ‘au revoir’ to the farmhouse in Grimaud. We had spent 3 months there, and it was time to move on. As always, all our stuff fit into the car, but it was much tighter. We have accumulated ‘stuff’ – more clothes for cold weather, art supplies, books and notebooks, food staples for cooking, and we also have our winter gear for skiing in Austria. In December, Gigi travelled home with a suitcase full of Christmas gifts and returned to France with a full suitcase of our ski clothes. We also bought snow boots here for everyone. We were set to spend a week in the Alps.

Justin had his last group tennis lesson in the morning, and we picked him up and left straight from the courts. We had one other quick stop to say goodbye to the only friends we made in Grimaud, Anita and her two kids, and we were off.

The A8 eastbound has become very familiar to us and in a few hours we were in Italy on the Autostrada Fiori towards Genoa. This was the way we had taken to Lucca in October for our first trip to Italy. At Genoa, we turned east towards Venice. After less than an hour we were across the mountains and into the Po river valley. After driving through the Cote d’Azur and Liguria, the absolute flatness of the river plain was quite astonishing. The freeway also straightened out and became mostly 3 lanes with a constant 130 km/hr, which made driving much easier. When we crossed the Po River, we were all surprised that such a small river had created this expansive floodplain/valley. I wonder how big the Po was in times past, before the demands of agriculture and cities pumped away its water. When we passed through Verona, Jordan made the comment that ‘it looked like California.’ He was commenting on the 6-lane freeway, the concrete overpasses and modern office buildings flanking us. Funny, we are going to visit Verona later because it is a well-preserved historical city, but here we were seeing the modern Italy.

We ended the day’s journey in the city of Udine, which placed us about a 3-hour drive from Obertauern the next day. We stayed in a Best Western hotel outside the town center for easy freeway access and gated parking since our car was packed with all our stuff. For dinner the clerk recommended a pizza restaurant 2 blocks away next to a VW dealership. The neighborhood was definitely drab, and we doubted the restaurant would be any good. How wrong we were. The place had a modern interior and was packed on a Wednesday night, of course only with locals. It was called ‘Anconadue.’ We had the best wood fired pizza! Justin still claimed that Speederia pizza was better. He always does. Apparently, to him the fresh Italian ricotta cheese on this pizza did not match the flavor of the ricotta on Spederia’s Whitestone pizza. Jordan and I disagreed, this pizza was exceptional.

The next morning we headed north through a fog. It felt like driving on HWY 80 in the winter with the Tule fog. The land was still completely flat. Justin kept asking where the Alps were. Maybe 20 minutes out of Udine, with the land still flat, we could discern mountains through the fog. The southern front guard of the Alps jutted like teeth from the gums of the plain. They were steely grey, as the mountainsides were steep to the point of being cliff-like, and there was very little soil on them for trees to grow. We entered a river valley with a wide, gravelly floodplain. The river water was a milky aquamarine. This alpine landscape was all so sudden; there was absolutely no prelude of rolling hills, and with the fog we were in there was no chance to see it from a distance. The freeway was beautiful and looked almost new. We travelled through several tunnels, and until we reached Villach, we had the northbound lanes all to ourselves. At Spittle an der Drau, there was still no snow on the ground, and we were only 40 minutes away from Obertauern. We could see snow on the mountain peaks, but at the moment I was wondering what kind of snow conditions we would find in Obertauern. What a difference we found in a short time. We climbed 1000 meters (3200 feet) from Spittal to Obertauern and found ourselves in a winter wonderland. We checked in at the Aparthotel Steinadler before dark and got our ski rentals squared away for the next day. Two gondola lifts are 150 meters from our apartment. We were going to ski – and snowboard (Justin) – in the Austrian Alps tomorrow.