Twice, years ago, we had the good fortune to have lovely Italian girls come to live with us for a year at a time. They will always be our daughters.

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PANICALE, TORINO, PADOVA–I like saying “Our Italian daughters.” It just fills me with happy memories. Twice, years ago, we had the good fortune to have lovely Italian girls come to live with us for a year at a time.

Roberta from Torino came first, and a few months after she left Alexia di Padova arrived. We have visited both of them at their homes in Italy and know their families, and we keep in touch by email and see each other as often as we can when we are in Italy. It is an easy four or five hour drive to either of their home towns from Panicale. This trip they both came to see us! The same day almost. alexia arrives in panicale from padova
And both came bearing serious boyfriends we hadn’t met yet. Both girls looked great, were happy with their jobs, their lives and we loved their guys. What are the odds of all that? Maybe it is me. I know I was a terrible territorial you-bums-aren’t-good-enough-for-these-girls dad when they lived with us in Maine. But I’m so much more mellow now? Dunno. Something is different.

Alexia was renting a villa with 10 friends to have a week-long birthday party so we were really glad she would leave her posse and squeeze in a leisurely lunch and a lazy afternoon with us. We relished catching up over Porcinis and panacottas at Masolinos and some later some Proseccos like her dad taught us to drink, in the cafés of the Venato in another galaxy, far, far away.


Our friend Steve from San Francisco arrived that evening. To bridge the gap between Alexia’s leaving and Roberta’s arrival. Just in time for Labor Day. Yes, it has only been FIVE days since the last national holiday. But hey, who’s counting? Other than me. So we went right back to Masolino’s. That is just what people do when they want to connect or re-connect with Mother Panicale. A good place to start is a place at her table. A place with your name on it. I’ve figured out that if Andrea even hears we might be arriving in town, he puts a gold Reservato sign on a table because he knows. It’s a heart-melter to feel that warm welcome even before the hot, out of the oven, comfort food hits the table with a grin and a flourish.tractors in the piazza for labor day in panicale in umbria, italy
The next day, killing time was killing me, waiting for the next wave of buddies to party with so, post-coffee, we were glad to be well distracted by tractors in the piazza? I have not seen that before. Shades of Iowa in Umbria. The ancient 14th century fountain in the middle of the piazza surrounded by modern, noisy, house-sized pieces of farm equipment and angry rise-up-oppressed-workers speeches. Which segued abruptly to happy, almost cartoon-y music, wine in paper cups and the ever popular porchetta sandwiches in the piazza.

And then, enough stalling around, Roberta was here! Baci, baci, and was unloading a huge azeala for our garden and introducing us to her Stefano. And before you knew it we were in the garden admiring her pink azeala over some of Paul’s pink rose’. Salute Azaela, salute amici. from torino to panicale umbria. its roberta
We grabbed a lunchtime snack in the sun outside Aldo’s and rushed off to Castiglione del Lago to check out ferry schedules for a day of island hopping later in the week. What crowds. The parks around the ferry stop below the fortress were almost shoulder to shoulder full this happy holiday. The ferry and its dock were mobbed too. Especially for a Thursday. Sure, it’s a holiday, you might say. But it is partially because of the bridge.

golden glow of umbrian sunsetWhat bridge? That last holiday a few days ago, it was OK. But being on a Friday the best you can hope for there is a three day weekend. But Labor Day this year! That is on a Thursday. Italians shrug and say “ponte” making a small bridge shaped arch with their thumb and pointing finger. With an optional wrist rotation. Usually accompanied by a “Not MY fault they put that holiday on a Thursday” look. They put on a look that says they are serious/sad, concerned at how this all turned out. Like there was nothing further from their mind than ditching work Friday. Until you put that annoying Thursday holiday on the calendar. And forced their hand.

Up in the town, above the dock we strangely found a parking spot and not so strangely found the first gelati we could wrap our soon-to-be sticky fingers around. And then we took a nice hot, mad dogs and Englishmen sort of tramp around the vertigo-inducing parapets of the fortress.

And then back to Panicale. No moss growing on us. This is a movable feast and we took the next bite up on Steve’s top floor balcony. The sun was setting, the prosecco popping, swallows doing boomerang cartwheels around us. You could feel the breeze they made going by us. Hey, we all look like we were poured out of molten gold, is this lighting great? How do they do that? Glasses clink. Now drink up me hearties, because it’s time to Sagra.

But that is another story. Stay tuned to the next edition of . . .

See you in Italy, The Blog

Stew Vreeland

What to do what to do?

Friends dropping into our garden, painters painting the house, Paul Turina’s wine, flag throwing in Cortona, the great Lombard/Umbrian sausage cook-off

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PANICALE, Umbria–What is there to do on a typical Italian weekend? People will once in a great while say to us, “Oh, I could not imagine having a vacation home in the same place all the time. I’d get so bored, Don’t you run out of things to do?” Maybe if we were in Old Overshoe, Nebraska, but not in the middle of Umbria. It’s consistently crazybusyfun here.

We must be in better shape than I thought. We’ve been partying from dusk to dawn. Well ok, not so much on the dawn part, unless the sun is coming up around ten AM in Italy. Could that be? Regardless we are sleeping like pashas and keeping up with the prevailing party attitude here. And in the last couple days we had done what almost constitutes “heavy lifting” – for tourist’s anyway. Because it is all going by in such a blur, I had to check my hurriedly scribbled notes. Calendars and watches are just annoying distractions to tourists on holiday. Because we had done so much, in so little time, on this sunny Sunday siestatime we were sitting back and basking in all our accomplishments. Lets see, we’d been to a town-wide wedding in Panicale, and seen costumed flag throwers in Cortona, and an airshow in Castiglione del Lago. cortona italy in full costumeAnd a motorcycle show in the piazza yesterday. Don’t forget that. And half of what we’d done had been unplanned and extra wonderful for falling into our hands just for being here. Almost as much fun to look back on as it was when it was happening in real time.
prosecco kind of afternoon in Panicale Umbria


What is that I hear? It sounds like Midge talking to someone in the garden and the voices getting nearer and nearer. Houses and society are so open here in Italy, sound travels in strange and new ways. Our windows, sans screens, are usually thrown wide open. Where are the bugs? I really don’t know. Once in a great while a harmless bug will fly in but its not enough to make us shut the windows. And even when it’s too bright out we close shut the wooden shutters but still leave the windows open to let in the fresh air. And the sounds of Italian life passing by on streets on both sides of our house. Amazing what snatches of conversation you can pick up in the time it takes for a conversation to fade in and fade out as it passes by.

Because this conversation, with Midge in it, is almost upon me, I hit “save” and poke my head out into the garden where Midge is opening the door to the garden for some new English friends. He’s a veterinarian back in the UK and thanks to our web site and its match making powers, they have bought a home on some lovely private acres outside the city walls and just past some other friends’ home. So, they are going to be our neighbors in Panicale!

Perfect excuse to pop the cork on another of Paul Turina’s pretty in pink sparkling rose. Hey, it is almost five. Somewhere. And wait, what is that on the horizon of the garden? Buildings block the lake view through most of the town, so the spot on the street above our garden it is the first high place where you can actually see the lake. Which is why people so often stop right there to pose for pictures of themselves or to snap shots of Lago Trasimeno. It’s rarer to have someone setting up a canvas on an easel.
bills painting on the street in Panicale, umbria


Oh, it’s Bill the painter, another New Englander, who’s earning the money for a several month long stay by painting up a storm of paintings on commissions from all his friends back in the states. Clever boy. Friends give him an agreed upon amount each, he then owes all of them a certain number of paintings and when he gets back to the states, he throws a party and by lottery his patrons chose their paintings. He says it works swell and everyone is as tickled as he is. Note: you have to be a good painter to get away with this. And he is. We’ve seen his work around town and his lucky friends are getting lovely things. “HEY, Bill!” I yell with a wave toward the house “Come get some bubbly” But he’s trying to work so he declines. So, fine. I point the bottle up at him and pop it and darn near wing him. He’s a marvelously fast and efficient painter and he did his work and still caught the end of the bottle. We were inside toasting his new work when I heard Bruno calling me from the calling spot above the garden. Did I understand, he wants to know, that we were invited to the special town dinner tonight? Whu? Missed that memo. Wasn’t the entire town eating together at the wedding feast, last night? He says invite all those people too, pointing at our guests. But, I’m not at all sure what we’re getting into here so I’m leary of that. Should have. Bad, timid Nordic anglo Stew. Loosen up already. It’s Italy and food, how bad can it be?


A few hours later, we were still stuffed as Christmas geese, from the feast the night before. But yet, here we were headed for another food oriented event. Traipsing down the coliseum-like steps of the amphitheater to the town’s canvas-sided and canvas roofed Party Barn “sotto la pizza” as Bruno describes it. This is a tall town and a lot of things, like the party barn, are under and over other things. Houses are piled high like a wobbly stack kids’ building blocks. The houses are almost on top of each other other but because of the steepness of the hill so many people have so many great views. Our skinny house, for example, has five levels. Our lower street, Via Grossi level where our cantina is. That level leads up to the garden by one set of stairs, the first set of stairs in the garden leads up the level of our kitchen and living room and then the next set of garden steps takes you up to the Via del Filatoio level. At that level we have bedrooms and bath and entryway and then, through a door that can be locked or not, usually not, you come to the entry hall for our friend Kiki’s apartment. And on wards upwards, always upwards you follow her wide, curved scala nobile to her lofty perch with its fifteen foot tall ceilings. Whew. From her lakeside windows it is a dramatic five stories down but, from her windows on the uphill side of her apt you are looking at Klaus’s garden. And his place goes up another five stories from there.
italian campers from lombard dueling sausages with umbrias in panicale,
Where were we? Oh, yes, “under the piazza” at the party barn. We could smell and hear the sizzling sausages before we rounded the corner and saw them on the industrial sized community grill. There’s Bruno’s wife Linda, Aldo and Daniela too. Shouldn’t the Gallos be in a coma somewhere after hosting 500 of their closest friends last night at that epic wedding party? Nope, nope they area fresh as a pair of Margherita daisies and ready to party and be social again. Turns out this is a cross-cultural dinner for the throng of Lombards campers parked next door to the Party Barn their RVs lined up soaking in the view in Panicale’s award wining and way user-friendly Camper Park.

This is to be a Lombard vs Umbrian Food Fest. Dueling Sausages etc. Some of the Lombards’sausages are almost pitch black and are simply called Nero. We’d call them blood sausages? We’re sitting between Aldo and the new lady mayor. She’s one of the few people in town I can honestly say I don’t think I’ve ever laid eyes on and she will talk to me, but only sort of, warily. I’m sure she’s wondering who the heck I am. Aldo tries to tell her but she is distracted, thinking of her welcoming speech which, after taping on a glass, she gets up and gives to us and the Lombards. They respond with applause and toasts of their own and thank her for hosting “this bunch of gypsies.”


The speeches stopped, the plates of food start coming and about that time Midge said “I give up. WHAT is going on? Who IS that lady beside you and who ARE all these people? And why are the sausages black?” You have to know Midge is a much better listener than I am. In any language. No one needs to translate for her when we’re in Italy and though she usually lets Gabby Stew do most of the talking, she is great at that too. When I’m not around. I find her in stores and piazzas in Italy and she’s always right in the middle of a fine conversation. But tonight, with all new food, new people, their accents etc. she’s really washed up on a foreign shore. In her home town no less. So, she and the mayor were pretty much both wondering What are we doing here?
lorena serving proper cappucchino in Panicale, umbria, italy
The food, in general, wasn’t wildly different that the Lombards brought. Rice instead of pasta was the most obvious difference and it is actually a difference that you notice. When I think of Italian food I think of porcinis and panacotta sure, but it is pasta I think of first. But they started off with a rice, bean and cheese combo that was very good. About half way through the list of every dish ever cooked, the Sainted Aldo excused himself saying he needed to get up to Bar Gallo to spell “the kids.” After their big, long, late night, wedding celebration, they had opened the bar at six or seven in the morning and been on their feet for another fourteen hours slinging coffee. With a smile on their face, no less! What vitamin supplements are they taking and can I have some, please? I’m in awe of their social/work ethic but not going to make any attempt to mimic them. Not in THAT good a shape.

See you in Italy,

Stew Vreeland

And a very ‘Ape New Year to you, too

Adopting a little Italian Ape (three wheeled mini-pickup based on a Vespa.) We went all the way to the far side of Ontario, Canada to get our motorized memory of all things Italian.

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CASOLE VAL D’ELSA–Ape means bee in italian and you probably know it is pronounced ahh-pay. Other wise the headline here is really hanging by a thread. Wouldn’t be the first time, you say? If you saw the earlier blogs about Adopting a little Italian Ape (three wheeled mini-pickup based on a Vespa) you know we went all the way to the far side of Ontario, Canada to get our motorized memory of all things Italian. Just the sound of it takes me there and I’m tickled and surprised to see it every time I go to the barn. But Bad Monkey that it is, as soon as we got it home to Maine it immediately decided to test our love for it by pitching some kind of mechanical fit. So, it had to go to the time-out corner of Peter Brown’s Cumberland Avenue Garage and get totally taken apart, and then put back together. If you’d like to see and hear that distinctive buzz, check out Our Ape Road Test Video on You Tube. Its film debut/road testing/second home coming. First trip was 22 miles with snow in the air. We made it!
italian ape made by vespa
The photo here was just taken a few days ago in Casole Val d’Elsa by our friends at Avis Studio in Portsmouth, NH. Paul and Jane just got back from several weeks at Spannocchia the thousand acre, sustainable agri-cultural estate. It is in the heart of Tuscany, just outside Siena and we write about it often here. Can’t wait to hear all their stories.

OK, see you in Italy,

Stew Vreeland

Too much fun. And good intentions too

independence day in italy, natural fireworks, cooking stuffed eggplant, pannini, Easter, Cheese rolling, gelati, chocolate, oh my.

When we were in Italy in the summer I wrote up a note book full of stories but didn’t match them up with photos and post them. At the time I said, euphemistically, that I was “researching heavily” and I kept right on partying and not posting. And to further dig myself into a hole I said “but as soon as I got back I’d churn those stories right into print and make them visible to the naked eye.” And then we went to Montana, and then to Ontario to get a 1983 Italian Ape. And Nashville for the CMA’s and Iowa for Turkey Day, later, that same year . . . flat out of lame excuses I’m back.

And you know, in the depths of winter is anything more fun than a fond look back at those palmy summer days we take so for granted at the time? So, let’s step back and put ourselves into that warm place called Sunny Italy. And really appreciate it this time!

umbrian rain on a parade
PANICALE, UMBRIA– on Independence Day. BLAMM! CRACK! BOOMMMMM! What fireworks this year. Except. Fireworks on Independence Day is an American thing. They don’t do that here. These firewords are just Mean old Mother Nature saying Enough Festivalling put it away for another year. The shake-the-house-down drumbeat of thunder and the eye splitting lightning put a wild end to a lovely pastoral day. It was blue skies minutes ago and now I’m running down the cobble stones toward home, and getting soaked.

The day started quietly. With coffee at the bar. Breakfast snacking at home later, we mindlessly wrote friends and sorted photos for a couple hours. We all have our little things that make us happy. Things we do that whisper We’re Off Duty. We’re hanging out, far from home and adult responsibilities. I remember a story in a magazine about this very concept. The writer spent the whole story talking about how much he enjoyed cleaning his expresso maker. the ritual of it all was soothing for him and as much fun as making and drinking the coffee.

Even though we weren’t cleaning a coffee maker we were relishing every lazy second of the day. And any day really worth its salt should have some gardening in it, so I did that for a couple hours. Dig, dig. Weed, weed. Look out at the lake, listening, eavesdropping sometimes I’ll admit, to the chatter of the people walking by on the street above the garden. And since I’ve been multi-tasking, the clothes in the washing machine are ready to hang out in the blazing sun and Midge has lunch laid out in the newly cleaned up garden. She is giving The Chefs of Italy a run for their money this trip.

Last night it was a stuffed eggplant to die for. Fresh ricotta like we can only dream while we are trudging down the isles of the ShopNSave here in Maine. And today’s highlight is paninni with the miracle melt in your mouth Spannocchia salumi. Ok, now. Dust those crumbs off you and head to the other end of town to see the start of this year’s Ruzzolone. The various squadra teams were right ready for action on this very delayed game day. This competitive cheese rolling event is usually the day after Easter. Little Easter equals Pasquetta. But that day was cancelled due to insane rain. Today is fine for rolling cheeses around a course, sun is hot, but in the shadows light as a feather breezes cooled the giocciatori. We tramped up and down the course just outside the city walls cheering lusty “complimentis” when the cheese cooperated and curved round the corners. And made sympatheric groan noises when the cheese dived off the road and into the olive groves ten or twelve feet below road level.
the big cheese rolls on and on in panicale umbria
The wheel of cheese has a healthy rind all over it and is pretty resilient, whacking walls and posts and even making a healthy scar on one tree – slashing it a glancing blow as it buzz-sawed its way down the street. Waves of friends washing by us like the tide as we all tracked the progress of the careening wobbling cheese back and forth like foxes following a round and possibly very tasty gingerbread man.

It wasn’t too long ago one friend told us that there was another version of this as well. The “addizione” was the classic wheel made of wood. Adriano said with a sigh “the streets to the bottom of the hill would be lined the whole way with spectators not like today” Pre-tv and maybe pre cocktails in the piazza I can imagine. Looked like plenty of crowd to me. And I’d rather get hit by a wheel of cheese than a wheel of solid wood anyday.

At a certain point we decided we’d had exactly the right amount of following the bouncing cheeseball and felt we heard a gelato calling our names. Peach Pineapple was the combo speaking to me. Outside the café a local man I know on sight but not by name is hitting a lick on the accordian. Our Swiss neighbor Klaus is a music composer and professor of same. He was loving it and effusive in his enthusiasm for the stance the music was taking. Toes they were atapping. Sandwiches of porchetta were stacked chest high on folding tables. The meat dealt out on slabs of Easter cheese bread on a paper napkin. Wine was poured into plastic cups and then for a food finale, they broke into the 22 pound, tall-as-you-are chocolate Easter Egg. They were handing out chunks of chocolate as fast as they could with glances up at the heavens because its getting very dark very fast.
chocolate easter eggs in panicale, umbria
Hands full of the chocolate that Bruno pushed on me, I was headed up the cobblestones towards home with a bit of urgency in my step, when Andrea waved me into his restaurant and out onto his balcony overlooking the lake. “We’re really going to get it” he said and he was right. Above the lake we can almost always watch weather from on high, seeing it start at the lake and just walk itself up the mountain. “You can see it coming” we nodded sagely to each other, “but you can’t do anything about it.”