Monday, 29 October 2012

The Scottish Tour Itinerary

KnitTraders is proud to be sponsoring our third European Knitting Tour, this time to Scotland in May 2013.

Our customers and previous travelers have been clamouring for this tour and we're thrilled to have the details available to you now. But don't delay: the tour is restricted to 30 participants and it's sure to sell out.

Link here to get the full Itinerary, then contact Pam Franklin asap to get your deposit down to join in the fun.

Monday, 15 October 2012

Back to Roma

I love this picture. In the lobby of the Hotel President there is a sculpture in a solid log. The artist obviously wanted to let us know that it was a log as the bottom and parts of the top of sculpture have been left in their natural state. The sculptured area is a rich depiction of the characters in the story of Christmas. In the lower left, we see 2 of the 3 magi with their gifts. On the right, you see the reflection of the back of the sculpture on a mirrored glass wall. I think I see a couple of angels and a shepherd or two, and probably the third wise man.

It was an interesting piece for such a secular location as the lobby of a hotel, but what struck me was that although we had spent our first night of the tour at this same hotel many of your party had not noticed the rather impressive work, despite its prominent location. Perhaps we were just too tired when we first got in.

It's warm and reassuring to return to a place you've been before after 10 days of everything being new. There were landmarks that popped up and even the flow of midday traffic up the street in front of the hotel felt familiar.

Most of the group took the opportunity of this free afternoon to head up to the Vatican to see the sights as this location was not going to be part of the full day tour on Tuesday. I decided that I needed some rest and to catch up on some computer work. But I got a lovely surprise at check-in: Flavia, a knitter from Rome whom I'd contacted through Ravelry had left me a message that she would meet me at the hotel at 3:30. I was thrilled that I'd get a chance to meet her and so glad that I'd not made other plans.

I went for a walk through the city and took this picture to show everyone the value of owning a SmartCar in Italy. Parking is a crazy proposition here. We were told that generally Italians don't so much park their cars as abandon them for the time they need to be elsewhere.

I met up with Flavia and her friend, (FrostFlower from Ravelry - I can't believe that I never got her real name) and we had a wonderful afternoon knitting and drinking capuccino on the sidewalk in Rome.

They were both fountains of information about life in the city, in Italy and in the whole European Union. I was amazed at the quality of their English and they explained that many people learned their English from watching American television on the internet. They also shared that although the economic situation is  still quite difficult and uncertain in their country, the worst seems to have passed and that the government is making good and sensible decisions, so there is much hope.

One of my favourite discussions that I took from the conversation was with regards to driving in Italy. The bus driver for our tour, Luigi, is from Naples where, according to our tour leader, Alessandra, they are reputed to have the craziest drivers in the world. My Roman friends agreed with that assesment and explained it this way: "Traffic lights in Milan are considered to be the law. In Rome they are but a mere suggestion, in Naples they are Christmas decorations."

The next day was to be a full day walking tour of the city. We were saved from this exhausting fate by virtue of the rain that was forecasted for the morning. We actually had the best of both worlds in that we got a bus tour in the morning so we got to see much more of the city from the comfort of the coach, and neither did it rain.

So here is a picture of the Coliseum, one of the many places that our lovely guide, Cecilia, introduced to us. It would appear that its official name was something completely different and more complicated but that there was a colossal sculpture on the grounds outside and people just began referring to it as the building near the colossal - the Coliseum.
We stopped for lunch at a Trattoria near the Pantheon and the Trevi Fountain. I'll just let you imagine the music and smell the capuccino. (The lead guitarist on the left was obviously a big fan of Eric Clapton. They were wonderful if not exactly traditional.)
Our Farewell Dinner was exquisite. The traditonal 4 courses of Appetizer (complete with gluten-free wonderful bread - there were 5 out of the 16 of us on the trip who were sensitive to wheat! We survived with great relish everywhere, and thrived in those places who could accomodate our specific diets) first pasta course (shown here with magnificently simple gluten free penne and light tomato sauce), second grilled meat course and dessert (which I don't actually remember.)
But the real treat was the opera singers and their accordion accompanist who strolled from table to table treating us to the most wonderful renditions of the standards of Italian Opera and a few others.  A few of our group were very interested in classical music and voice and one called over the lovely soprano. We asked her where she had studied, and in her broken English she was able to communicate that she did her undergraduate studies in Korea then came to Italy for futher training and has remained for 17 years. When asked if she performs in an opera company, she became quite flustered and turned to Alessandra for language help to get her answer across to us; she waved her hands in a nervous way and smiled anxiously as she left saying: "Troppo vecchio." (too old)  It was a very poignant moment and we were touched that she would share it with us.
We packed, had a leisurely breakfast thanks to the 1pm boarding time for the flight home. By the time we made it back to Kingston we had been awake for 24 hours and recognized the value of an earlier flight when available. Another detail to check when we get future itineraries... one coming up in the next few weeks with the details of the Scottish trip next May.
Arrivederci Italia!

Saturday, 13 October 2012

Wine and Cheese

What a day!

We begin by visiting the lovely village of San Gimignano, where these crocusses could make the argument that it`s spring all year round. There was an exquisite Sunday morning Crafters market`, and a hat shop, and too many other places for us to browse for me to remember them all. But I did find one quite interesting establishment that I've put on my Must See list for my next visit.
I don't think that you need to speak much Italian to get the gist of what this museum offers.

A bit of a bus ride and we arrive at Tenuta Trociano, the winery where we will be having lunch.

You will notice that this gorgeous appetizer plate is set down in front of a set of wine glasses. After a lesson in how to swirl the wine properly to smell its bouquet most effectively, we tried 7 different wines. We were advised that if we didn't want to finish all 4 oz that were poured of each of the wines that we could pour the unwanted portion into a jar on the table placed there for that purpose. It was enough to make us weep, the thought of  `wasting` all of that magnificent wine, but really, it was only 1 o`clock in the afternoon.

Here at the right, we see Lorna, of our group, receiving instructions on dipping the cantucino, or small biscotti into the dessert wine. It was my opinion that all the bakers in Italy could just retire as there was no need for any other sweet beyond this pairing.

Things I learned about the wines of the region:
-Super Tuscan is made of  a blend of 5 red grapes and is aged for 5 years in the barrel before being bottled.
-1997 was the best year in recent history for Italian wine quality, and 2002 was the worst.
-The best Sauvignon Blanc comes from New Zealand.
-San Giovese from the Chianti region of Tuscany is the best red wine in Italy.

So some of us ordered our wine to be shipped home, and others opted to bring their vino and bottles of the most perfect olive oil and-or 30 year old balsamic vinegar that was as thick as molasses along with them on the bus.

We slept most of the way to our next destination of Fattoria Pianporcino in Pienza, to a family run farm that has been making  Pecorino cheese for generations. I am not a cheese connoisseur but I was a little embarassed that, as a friend of sheep and most of their by-products, I didn`t realize that pecorino is a cheese made from sheep`s milk.
This is what the Sardinian sheep look like. Nothing particularly noteworthy in their appearance, BUT they are to the pecorino world what Jersey cows are in their own field of milk production. Bountiful!

Another lesson in the fine points of agricultural food production in Tuscany and we learn that the cheeses are aged by allowing the mould to grow around the cakes and they are layered between an assortment of different materials to give them distinctive flavours.

The one on the far left is the youngest of these cheeses, having been rubbed with tomato paste. The others are several weeks older and have been layered between bay leaves and grape leaves respectively. Needless to say, we are spoiled once again with a delightful selection of breads, wines and cheeses of different ages and textures, including the ricotta cheese that is traditionally eaten spread on  a piece of excellent Italian bread and sprinkled with sugar.

We then returned to a bit of an afternoon shopping spree to the town of Pienza where many of us chose to hang out at a cafe and drink espresso, eat Panne Forte (pictured here, it`s a rich cake of energy bar consistency made of honey, dried fruit and nuts, and sold by the slice), and stroll along the walkway behind the town`s church that had the most wonderful vistas that we saw in the whole trip.

Needless to say, we didn`t spend too much time socializing back at the Villa when we returned that night! We were all very tired little teddy bears - to quote one of my favourite songs.

Friday, 12 October 2012

Borgo San Luigi

Welcome to our weekend in heaven, tucked within the Tuscan Hills:  Borgo San Luigi.

This is the laneway bordered with the most impressive cypress trees. If you look very closely, in the middle of the picture on the right hand row of trees, you will see a branch that is bent over at a 90 degree angle, a sign of the difficult winter that they suffered last year, where most of the region was buried under snow for over a week.

This courtyard where we sat out one evening with a lovely bottle of Chianti, the great ambassador of this region. My window can be seen at the top left.

And this a picture of one of the rooms. The entire place just bellows: "Destination wedding!" I am not exagerating when I say that a few of us were moved to tears by the beauty of it all.
I love to walk in the morning. On Saturday, I got up early and went down the lane and walked along the road. I discovered that this region is also part of the famed Via Francigena, the route of pilgrims from Canterbury in England, through France, Switzerland and Italy, all the way to Rome. I got to walk probably less than .01% of the trail, but it was enough for me to be smitten for life. I passed mist covered fields, a little vegetable garden where the only plants that I recognized were tomatoes, olive trees overhanging the road, I tried to sneek what I thought was a golden/red apple only to realize that it was a persimmon. I heard bird calls of strange tones and smelled blossoms or unrecognized flowers. It was one again, magic.

All in all, there was no down side to our stay at San Luigi, the excellent food, the made to order cappucinos each morning, the snacks they served with afternoon drinks that were so plentiful you didn't need dinner, the quiet of the seating areas surrounded by breathtaking scenes, and the exceptional attention and good humour of the staff made this a much higher experience for each of us than the 4 stars that the Inn advertises.

(By the way, while driving through Rome near the end of the trip, we drove past a 7 star hotel. It is reputed that the staff knows what you want before you do.)

Thursday, 11 October 2012

Cooking in Siena

Our first day in the Siena area was what most of us were really looking forward to: a very hands-on class in authentic Tuscan Cooking. We began Saturday morning with an exquisite breakfast buffet at our Villa (more about that in another post), then bussed to the hotels sister site where we were met by Chef Aldo.
The group was divided into 4 teams, 1 to prepare the appetizer (a crustless quiche called Vegetables Pudding according to the recipes that they gave us as a souvenir). The next team worked on what is considered the first or pasta course: Pici Senesi with Duck Ragout. (Those are the ducks lined up behind the celery...heads tucked delicately underneath so that one of that team nearly fainted when she picked up the fowl and his neck and head rolled out. )

This is Deborah of the 2nd course or meat dish team, wielding a knife in preparation for the seperation of the pork's loin from its ribs. And below is Ron, our one and only guy on the trip who is stirring the duck ragout that included an entire bottle of red wine.

The dessert team prepared a magnificent set of Cantucci Biscuits, which are smaller versions of the biscotti that we are used to. These were served with Mascarpone Cream that was to die for.
And here we are after all the work, relaxing with a local traditional apperitif and waiting to be served. I don't know if the kitchen staff usually gets so well treated at the end of their labours. I think that Chef Aldo wanted us out of the way so that he and the real cooks could put the final and professional touches on each of the dishes.
After lunch, we went into the beautiful city of Sienna to shop at this, one of its 2 yarn stores, and watch some of the local spectacle. We visited the Cathedral  of Saint Catherine of Sienna, and were told of the 17 neighbourhood/family groups that make up the city.
Here is one of the groups in a feast day parade: dozens of gorgeous girls dressed in the saffron coloured dresses of the region, followed by some dapper looking young men, who in turn were followed by everyone else. All were singing in time to the drums that led the parade.
This picture also shows how narrow the streets are in the medieval towns. Needless to say, there isn't much vehicular traffic, although we did manage to get a bus ride from the top of the city to the location of our own bus on the outskirts at the end of the day. Harry Potter fans will relate to the experience when I say that it was much like when Harry was picked up by the midnight Express Bus: Fast, crazy and hair raising.

Stia to Siena


On any tour, 4 nights in the same hotel is a luxury. But now we leave our hotel in Florence and make our way to Stia, home of the Museum of the Art of Wool Making.
Because of our background in working with wool, many of us had a certain knowledge of the information on display, but in a way it was a lovely experience to be able to reaffirm the bond that connects fibre crafters and artists from different cultures and languages.

This wonderful picture shows the hands of experience caressing the woolen fleece into strands using a drop spindle, the most ancient technology for spinning fibres. The museum opened to the public just 2 years ago and isobviously a work of of great passion for the ladies who work there, sharing their ancient traditions of working with wool and fibre. I got toincrease my minute Italian vocabulary and learned that ago is a needle, and even more specifically a felting needle as we sell back home, and feltro is the felted fabric that it creates.

I finally got to see real silk cocoons. Like oval shaped ping pong balls, hard and hollow.

The actual Woolen Mill in Stia, closed due to the downturn in demand for its product, was famous for Casentino Wool Coats, made of a particular brilliantly coloured wool fabric that is brushed after weaving to create an uneven surface that repels rain. It came to the attention of the rest of the world when Audrey Hepburn wore a coat of this fabric in Breakfast at Tiffany's.

We all got to try our hand at weaving, but we were more interested in watching the practiced hand of June, pictured far left, the weaving guru of our group, when she got on the loom to demonstrate some of her beautiful patterns and techniques. Also in the picture, seated at the loom, is Angelica, our weaving instructor, who along with Sophia, our guide, was so generous with time and knowledge.

Later we had lunch in a Trattoria in the centre square of the town. This is a picture of one of the two waitresses who must have felt that they had been hit by a tidal wave of customers as the outdoor patio was filled to capacity. I took this picture to show her lovely earrings, wound with wool and felted, as if she were a walking advertisement for many facets of the beauty of wool in her region.The food was lovely but as we walked around the square there was an eerie feeling of abandonment. It was the midday siesta time that the locals were enjoying and consequently the square was deserted by all but us tourists.

And here we are, in that deserted square. It really was the perfect time and place for a group shot.

After lunch we traveled on to the Siena region, to Borgo San Luigi. This picture only begins to hint as the beauty of the villa where we stayed. More about that later.


This is the church in Sansepolcro, which is celebrating 1000 years since the beginning of its construction. It really does feel like something right out of Pillars of the Earth. It is so hard for us, as North Americans, to fathom. the continual existence of anything for 1000 years. This picture was taken from the town square, which used to be called the Clock Square until the clock tower was destroyed in WWII. All over Italy we have seen ruins left by the ravages of time, weather, geographic events and wars both ancient and recent. There is a beauty and dignity to these remains that stand tall despite their incompleteness.

Many of these small medieval towns develop an attraction of some sort to encourage the outside world to visit. The village of Sansepolcro every 2 years hosts a magnificent competition of lace from around the world. Below is one of the pieces that drew me in. I've included a close up of the fine work of the tree from the middle left side.

The technique used is called bobbin lace which involves crossing and moving many small spools of fine threads over and under each other to follow the predetermined pattern, with a background of sewn lace making the lattice work behind the tree. None of us on the tour has ever made lace but there is no question that our knowledge of handwork made us more appreciative of the skills involved.

Being a smaller than average tour group we've had the privilege of squeezing into local restaurants where large tours of 30 to 50 people would have to eat in shifts if they could be accommodated at all. In Sansepolcro, we ate in a cafe that held about 20 people, of which we were 14. The owner served us, and it was our impression that his wife was in the back doing all the cooking. The food was authentic and wholesome. This was the ensalata mista that I ordered. The tomatoes were as sweet as fruit and the tuna and cheese made it a dream.
This relatively healthy choice however did not hold a candle to the stinco (pronounced just like stinko - our guide and bus driver could not figure out why we were laughing at the name.) Stinco is the braised/roasted calf and shin of pork. Tender, juicy, no spices, very little seasoning, just good honest meat. One of the group pronounced it to be "almost orgasmic". I'm not sure if I would agree to that extent but the panacotta for dessert would come close to falling into that category.
It appears that we took our tour leader to villages that do not cater so much to tourists, yet each had an exquisite assortment of shops offering beautiful style and quality. In this fashionable clothing store there was a shrug that might become the inspiration for the next pattern that we design for the KnitTraders Pattern site and store. I just love it. We'll see.

Pisa and back to Florence

The first time I saw the leaning Tower of Pisa was through a ViewMaster as a kid. Remember those, with the circle of little slide pictures that we would move ahead by pressing down on the side button. I'm here to tell you that it really is as impressive as it was in those slides. But of course, we are so used to seeing he classic pictures of the lean that EVERYONE has to try and put some kind of creative spin on their own picture. Here we have a cypress tree and the tower holding each other up, like a pair of drunken buddies after a night on the town.
It is lovely, but much like Niagara Falls, overrun by tourists and all that they require, including a McDonalds franchise directly across the way within the old city walls. One wonders if THAT was really necessary.
Returning to Florence, we went to the Uffizi Gallery, home to Michelangelo's magnificent Holy Family, Tondo. Unfortunately what you don't see through this link is the stunning frame around the circular painting, which is said to have been designed by the painter himself. It's worth doing some research to see if you can find an image of the complete work of art.
This fountain, with the little bearded angel in the centre, provides a nice bath for one of the many pigeons on the terrace where we paid 5 euros (about $7) for a cup of tea. It's a good thing that it came in a nice pot.
Across from our hotel in Florence was a wonderful Italian restaurant called Tito that was ALWAYS busy. When we left after our dinner, there were patrons waiting outside for their seats to be ready. Some had ordered wine and were drinking it right there on the street while they waited in the "queue", and the staff brought out appetizers to keep them happy. Not a common occurrence in Canada.

These musicians, pictured above, were amazing. They made their way, along with a guitar player, through the restaurants on the street, playing an array of tunes from "Roll Out The Barrel" to "O Sol O Mio" for tips.
I remember on July 20th, 1969, my mother said that she felt like the film and pictures from the moon were actually shot in some studio somewhere with a bad camera. Well that is not the case here. This is moi, taken from the Michelangelo Lookout above Florence where you will get the best view of the city. Our guide, Alessandra, was kind enough to take everyone's picture in turn with our own camera.

A Day in Florence

I love this picture taken in front of Firenze's (Florence's) City Hall. This was the original location of Michelangelo's famous sculpture of David which has been moved inside to one of the museums in order to protect it from acid rain. There are about a dozen other magnificent original sculptures still out in the square for the public to enjoy.
You will notice The little red butterfly thing on the top right of the picture: that is our guide, Chiara's wand with which she guided us through the vast multitudes of tourists in these squares.
And here he is, the outdoor copy of the big boy himself. If you look carefully, you will see a sparrow perched on David's sumptuous curls. There is no such thing as reverence in the animal kingdom.

I thought that this was an interesting view of the Duomo, the Cathedral whose dome I can see from my hotel window. The white, dark green and pink marble on the facade is something like I've never seen before. We are used to seeing marble in church but not along the whole outside of the structure.
Ron, the only guy in our group, climbed the stairs of the bell tower to get some shots -- quite a feat as there are A LOT of stairs and he only had 10 minutes to make it to the top and back before they closed.
Another interesting fact about this neighbourhood is that the next street over, behind the Duomo, houses Roberto Campolmi Filati, the largest yarn store in Italy. We have generally been a bit disappointed with yarn shopping so far (but not, I must stress, with shopping in general, which is magnificent) as it appears that, as I was told back in Canada, that the vast majority of fine Italian yarns are exported and arrive on North American shores without making much of a wave in their home country.
Bikes and scooters are EVERYWHERE in urban Italy. I included this picture, not so much to show a typical bicycle from Florence, but to show the creativity of some Italian wannabe biker dude.
Finally, these are some of the lovely ladies that we met for an international Knit and Chat at Essere, a designer clothing boutique run by Alaria, who welcomed us along with Mirella, Linda and Donna, with whom we connected via Ravelry before leaving Canada, and ex-pat American sisters, Anne and Mary (shown here). It was all great fun and we so appreciated being invited to join in their regular Tuesday evening group.
Pisa on Wednesday.