Wednesday, July 31, 2013


DAY 17, JULY 24, 2013

This day's entry could easily have been broken up into three entries. They say good or bad luck comes in threes. Bear with me on the telling of this tale.
If you've been following along you've already heard about Bagno Vignoni and its therapeutic springs. Once there we knew we'd be returning to really test the waters. Rick did his research on the spa located at the source of the rejuvenating waters.
The Hotel Adler Thermae is to pampering the way ice is to cream, gin is to tonic, or Brad is to Angelina. This was our treat, our special splurge of the vacation.
It was totally decadent and I hold no regrets for this indulgence. We arrived at noon Rick and I having previously chosen two treatments from the list of available options from the Man Spa.
There are so many ways they could have chosen to label this category but Man Spa had the perfect ring. Men could do this and still feel like real men. The whole ring of Man Spa had that same man cave cadence. There was a certain machismo to using two simple one-syllable words. It made going to the Man Spa seem like something you could bring up Sunday afternoon while watching the Packers beat the Vikings and not feel embarrassed. I began my session with a full massage.
I met Elaina at the front desk, an average sized woman with short dark hair and a stress free smile. She gave me directions to the towel and robe room where I was issued a deep pile terrycloth robe, I had to return when I left, flip-flops I was told I could keep and a little package about the size of a wheat thin with what I was told I should put on under the robe. In the changing room I got undressed and opened the tiny package to what I first thought was a mistake, a black see-through garment with strings I immediately miss identified as some sort of strange bra. I was about to go out to exchange it when I finally turned it sidewise from the way I had been holding it to discover it was actually a thong.
Next mistake, which I didn't discover until I met up with Rick after our treatments had been completed, was this sling-shot had a thinner end and a wider end. I assumed that the wider end was meant to cover my backside since that would be the largest piece of my anatomy this was supposed conceal. My concern was how this little strip of cheesecloth at the other end was going to cover my package. Fortunately or unfortunately I was able to squeeze all I had into what they had given me. It wasn't until meeting Rick I discovered I had it on backwards. Once in the massage room Elaine asked me to disrobe and get up on the massage table belly down while she left the room. I couldn't see that stress free smile when she came back into the room but I imagine it was there when she saw the backward thong covering my two better cheeks. She was also probably projecting to the mid-point of my massage when she was going to have to ask me roll over onto my back hoping everything wasn't going to spill out and roll around the table.
Turned out average sized Elaina had the hands of a steel c-clamp and the fortitude of a well oiled machine. I let her have her way with me and I was so glad I did. The only draw back was all her digging and kneading in my mid-secion started those tiny little farts to form, the ones you can sort of hold back with some sphincter clenching. With a massage your goal is to release tension not create it. I think I might have let a few slide out. At the end of my session Elaine did give me an organic supplement for gas. After the massage Elaina didn't miss a beat going right into the second part of my treatment regime. Rick and I both chose the Flat Tum Treatment (well maybe not so macho). For fifty more minutes Elaina kneaded my mid-section and gas with aromatic oils and then applied a preparatory peeling and mask with vegetable melatonin purported to melt away my centrally located fat pads leaving me with a firm and flat tummy. Maybe if they used gut instead of tummy I would have felt a little more secure in my manhood. Clearly this treatment had to be administered tummy up which meant Elaina got a full view of everything God gave me. I've never been very modest so if someone got a little peep show at my expense I wasn't going to get upset.
After the treatments and the embarrassment of my wrong thong wardrobe calamity we still had several hours to enjoy the rest of the spa. We could have called it quits and just sat in one of the relaxation rooms and read a book or napped but we decided to have one more look at the brochure. There we saw the Grotto Salina, an underground thermal pool infused with salt from the Dead Sea. It was only accessible through a locked door. Once you were in no one else could enter. Two bronze lions spouted streams of warm water while underground jets circulated massaging whirlpools around your body. The salt water held you up so without any effort you floated around the pool as if you were suspended on an air mattress.
Since we were the only ones in there bathing costumes or those ridiculous thongs were not required. I always have my camera/iPhone at the ready so we decided to take a couple of pictures, only g-rated allowed, but it made me realize how photo censorship from your local insta-print shop was no longer an issue. IPhones have allowed us to take whatever picture we want.
After a half hour of floating the novelty wore off. We ended our stay with some herbal tea stretched out on chaises wrapped in the comfort of our terry robes and six-pack flat abs.

Completely relaxed, skin supple and glowing, our tummies flat as pancakes we set off for La Foce, the gardens Rick had been dreaming of visiting ever since we started planning this trip. If you google search the most stunning gardens of the world, La Foce will always appear on the list. We now knew how to get there from our thermal rejuvenation at the Adler Spa since we had done a dry run two days before. Dinner had been set for eight so we choose to join the last tour of the day at six.
A cloud cover had begun to consume the sky and distant thunder began to bang away as we headed to La Foce. A thought of abandoning the pilgrimage was beginning to settle in on the backs of both our minds. Would they even conduct a tour in the rain? We had no back up plan for coming on another day. They only did the tours on Wednesday afternoons and we had now run out of them on our holiday. We had two umbrellas packed in the back of the car; we forged ahead.
We got there a few minutes into the five o'clock tour. The man selling tickets told us we could catch up with that tour if we wanted. We had told Wim and Maryam we would meet them for the six o'clock tour. The skies were still grey.
We decided we'd wait. By the time our tour was ready to begin a sizable crowd had gathered for the last chance of the day. A distant thunder was still clanging away. I held our umbrellas close.
All tours are conducted in English since so many of the visitors are from countries other than Italy.
Our guide was a woman with a good deal of knowledge of the garden's history and a clear love of their beauty. She began by telling us how the main building was built as a way station on the Via Francigena in the late fifteenth century. People making the pilgrimage from northern Europe to Rome followed this path. Since the journey was made on foot these osterias where built about every twenty miles, the length of one day's journey on foot.
The meeting place, as that is what La Foce means was abandoned until the Origo family purchased it in 1924 in a humanitarian effort for the Italian people. WWI had devastated the area. It was their goal to reclaim it. They hired the architect, Cecil Pinsent, to do the renovations of the old inn and to build on to the original building including the design of the gardens. The concept for the gardens was Iris's, the design for the gardens was Cecil's.
With that she lead us into the gardens. About five minutes later the sun broke through. I still clung to the umbrellas as a talisman against the rain and what we were rewarded with was a spectacular journey through one of the most beautiful gardens I've ever seen.
The Origo family continues ownership of La Foce having changed it back to a hotel and working farm, but only opening the gardens every Wednesday from three to seven

The way back from La Foce was through San Quirico. It has become a tradition with us; every visit to the farm must include a group dinner at the Trattoria al Vecchio Forno. The storm we had dodged at La Foce had struck Armena full force. It rained so hard there that the power was out and water had gushed in everywhere. Stefania and Alessandro had to beg off but the rest of us all managed to gather under the ivy-covered gardens of the outdoor restaurant.
The kids had had the day all to themselves having been shuttled off to the beach by Jacapo, the Saraceni's oldest son. Once again Italian service or their infinite patience with the dining experience made the meal drag on way beyond our tolerance level and need for bed. It never ceases to amaze us how at eleven in the evening diners are still arriving for their evening meal. We couldn't get a reservation until after 7:30, the first seating of the evening.
If this were Wisconsin the dinner bell would have begun to ring around four, the dishes would be piled away and the wait staff would be turning the chairs upside-down before any Italian even started to hear his first hunger pangs.
I'm only focusing on my meal here. I started out with a soufflé of ricotta cheese, pears and saffron with a drizzle of local honey.
For my main course which was only a primero course on their menu I had puccheri della Val d'Orcia, a locally made paste of wide tubes cut into short sections and tossed with fresh leeks, chives, pistachios and what they called a crunchy prosciutto. It was by far the best dish of the evening. We finished off the meal with desserts and local aperitifs that our water brought to our table and served in shot glasses. In Italy even to the kids are included in this ritual. Most refused. We were talking alcohol powerful enough to make your hair stand on end. Once I pulled Rick's head up off the table (from sleep deprivation not the alcohol) it was back to Armena and the comfort of our beds.

Tuesday, July 30, 2013


DAY 16, JULY 23, 2013
I woke this morning to the to the gurgling of the pool cleaning system, a motorized little vacuum cleaner that automatically travels the bottom of the pool eating all the bacteria. It’s become a white noise that gently wakes me as the sun begins it cresting from the far side of apartment bedroom. We sleep with the windows open but the screens shut. This morning the hand of a godly painter had once again begun brushing the sky above the distant hills with strokes of pink and lavender. Twenty-three has always been a superstitiously scared talisman for me, a good luck charm in numbers. Even if I glance at a clock and the digital numbers come up twenty-three it can turn a bad day into a better one. Today I was glad to give all that good luck to Emmy. It was her day today.
There’s an American tradition that high school seniors now participate in lovingly called, “Senior Pictures”. I fully meant to capitalize “Senior Pictures”, it holds that much importance to Emmy. A High School yearbook for me meant a single picture taken by the local portrait photographer who held a contract with the school so everyone’s picture looked pretty much the same, a black and white image shot against a gray background with little more than a pasted smile or a blank stare differentiating the photos.
Now the senior picture is an entire portfolio worthy of an Elite model. It can require hair and make-up, several locations and a professional photographer. We some how promised Emmy she could do hers in Tuscany. So this is what consumed our day.
We had compiled a list of photos she wanted to take. She had to have a minimum of six. We had informed Stefania of this a month before we were to arrive. She, of course, knew someone in the village who was a professional photographer up to the task. Diego spoke no English so Stefania acted as our go between, translator and negotiator. Through this chain of telephone we worked out a price for photography, hair and make-up. Stefania kept on repeating how excited Diego was to do this job. He hadn’t done anything like it before. These were not encouraging words.
We had settled on a starting time of three in the afternoon. Diego wanted to capture the best light of the day. I wanted to make sure he could capture six shots before the sun went down. I figured it was going to be touch and go given that in the heat of Italy nothing really happens on time and even though the Papacy resides nearby I don’t think they had the power to extend the number of light hours in a day.
They arrived promptly at 3:30. That meant we were starting out with thirty-minutes of lost time and light. As each member of the team walked in the door we offered our hand and our name. This worked with Diego and the make-up artist but the hairstylist didn’t take the hint. We never did find out what her name was. Make-up went first. We managed to have Stefania translate that we wanted a fresh look, not too heavy and definitely not too hoochie coochie. Make-up did a commendable job.
When it was our unnamed hairstylist’s turn we asked for some soft waves. Emmy even had a picture of what she wanted. The girl kept on saying, “Si, si” and then proceeded to crimp the back of Emmy’s head, burning a piece of her scalp, and making sausage curls instead of soft waves.
She left the whole thing in rollers until we got to our first site, the narrow streets of Buoconvento, before she began to undo the Farah Fawcett meets eighties pop star end result. By then it was too late to turn around so Emmy held her chin high and went on with the shoot.
The look was real Toddlers and Tiaras but if anyone could pull it off it was going to be Emmy and Diego and they did. I bit my tongue with my displeasure with her hair until we got back in the car heading to our second location, a sunflower field just outside town.
Emmy and I explained that this look wasn’t her and it wasn’t. She is not beauty queen material; she’s more elegant than that. Our hairstylist relented and for the sunflowers we pulled her hair back to simpler more tamed look.
With the new hairdo break we were racing the clock now to get all her pictures in before the light was completely gone. With each passing minute the sun was sinking lower and lower in the western sky. It was full speed back to Armena. Emmy sat in the back seat frantically pulling pins out of her cement-like hair-sprayed do. Once back it was a quick wash and blow dry returning Emmy’s hair back to its original silky straight look. Our problem now was really the light. I had been nervous about the starting time given the list of photos we were trying to accomplish but our Italians were all sure we could get all of our shots in before we ended up doing the last half of our list with a candle and a prayer.
Never and I mean never consider doing a shoot with animals without giving yourself at least an extra hour of fudge time. Our horse was beautiful but despite assurances that he was calm as bath water he reared and skittered every time one of the kids jumped in the pool or splashed too loudly.
We desperately tried to get in a couple more shots poolside and by the entry to our apartment. We semi succeeded but the last two shots relied more on the beauty of the sunset and artificial lighting than the natural light that had made the first part of the shoot so beautiful. We needed Diego’s talent to get us through to the end.
Diego said we would have a disc by the end of the week. Diego kept turning the camera to Emmy so she could see the results as we went along, the advantages of digital photography. She was very pleased.

Monday, July 29, 2013


DAY 15, JULY 22, 2013
Rick's one request had been to go to La Foce, a garden near where we were staying. Online it looked majestic but other than a reference to it being in the Siena are it was hidden on any maps we found. Even when we spoke to Stefania about it she said she had heard of it but had never been there. She thought she knew where it was but following her directions got us only partially there. By that I meant we could only remember half her directions not that we did do the journey without some of our limbs and various body parts present for the trip. We were to take the road to San Quirco and then head toward Bagno Vingnoni. Before we reached Bagno Vingnoni we were to take a road to our left to another city we could only half guess at and then somewhere along that road would be a restaurant with the Villa La Foce across the street.
We drove straight into Bagno Vingnoni missing our turn because we really didn't have any idea of what the turn was called. When we got to Bagno Vignoni both Rick and Emmy were ready to give up and just head back to the pool. I had to persevere. I decided my best bet was to pretend I was a guest at Bagno Vignoni's grandest hotel and tell them I was taking a day trip to La Foce. The first person behind the desk spoke no English. He pointed me to a woman also behind the desk who was currently on the phone. I waited till she had finished and began my query. "We want to take a trip to the gardens at La Foce. Can you give me directions?"
"We hava no gartins, we hava pool"
"No, I'm not looking for gardens here but at La Foce"
" I tella you we have no gartins"
"I mean I'm looking for L-A-F-O-C-E"
In typical tourist speak I thought if I said it louder she'd understand my request, "THE GARDENS AT LA FOCE"
Nothing. Then the man who spoke no English turned his head and said, "Oh La Foce!"
All of sudden they had postcards and maps that they drew lines on as directions. We were back on track even though the track was still a little iffy.
We reached La Foce about twenty minutes later. We found the reception area and a very nice lady that told us the gardens are only open on Wednesdays from three to six. All wasn't lost. A dry run to a place this hard to find would only make our trip on Wednesday that much smoother with the possibility that we might actually get there in time for a proper visit.
It was back to Bagno Vignoni for an early lunch. We keep forgetting that the Italians eat every meal late and it was only 11:30.
We had to settle for a café and a snack-like meal. Bagno Vignoni is a tiny little town with one industry: their thermal baths. The crowd seemed decidedly older walking at half speed through the village streets but we did make reservations for the following Thursday. Can't wait.
The afternoon was spent at the pool out of the heat of the day. That night I took the kids back to Why Not for a quick gelato.
We had barely begun our descent down the steep narrow dirt road when out of nowhere a wild boar leapt out from the side of the road and ran across in front of our car. I don't know if the boars are so stupid they'd wait for an oncoming car before trying to cross the road or if they're confrontational in that barbarian kind of way daring you to run them over or a forest bully out looking for a fight.

Sunday, July 28, 2013


DAY 14, JULY 21, 2013
It felt almost too cold to get up this morning. The temperature can range from sweltering to a notch or two above frigid. We keep the windows wide open to let in the fresh air but by morning we were huddled under a big wool blanket my nose and forehead barely peeking out. If it hadn't been for the sound of the cicadas I might not have pulled the wool blanket down and seen the full moon still standing in the morning sky before it vanished behind the low lying cloud cover and the distant hills
Around ten I made my way down to the coop to pick up some milk for our coffee and we had run out of prosciutto. When I drove into Buonconvento they were busy setting up for an annual dinner they hold every year in the parking lot just outside the city wall. Two lines of craft vendors had set up shop on one side of the tent where the dinner would be held. A bunch of large agricultural equipment had been set up on the other side presumably for some sort of demonstration later in the day.
Now that Roger had arrived, the third sibling in the Vermeer clan, the kids spent most of the day in the pool, playing ping pong and some sort of board game involving a world map and military equipment. I couldn't wrap my head around that one.
While Emily, the sweetest little Danish girl, spent the day chasing Maggie round the grounds.
I got bored and took off on a sightseeing adventure of my own. I hadn't really taken any pictures of the continuous fields of sunflowers. On other trips here we seemed to have come later in the year, closer to August. By that time most of the sunflowers had been harvested and the fields had been turned over into piles of gray soil. This time we were given the gift of golden beauty from field after field of bright yellow blooms.
I meandered a little along the SR2 between Buonconvento and San Quirco d'Orcia, back to the grove of cypress trees so popular with any photographer trying to capture the quintessential image of Tuscany.
I waited for a half hour before the cloud cover moved on and the sun gave me a hint of light producing those long shadows of late afternoon.