Val d’Orcia – Blame it on Her Juice

IMG_0943One of the joys of road tripping in Italy’s countryside for us is listening to the local radio.  While we try to catch some Italian tunes that match the mood, we often find catchy American songs that we either never get at our local stations for some reason, or  they sound a little different (ie explicit to us).  It started years ago when we discovered that Bruno Mars actually wanted to be a Billionaire “So fuckin bad”.  Who knew?

And so during each trip there’s a point where a particular song emerges as the theme song of the trip.  Unlike the previous clear winner (LP – Lost on You) in Sicily, this one required some growing.  But by the time we got to our last leg in Umbria, we were all going “Gotta blame it on the Goose (the Grey kind), Gotta blame it on my juice, baby”, until we almost ran into a ditch when I (driver) got carried away a little.

Driving the Val d’Orcia in Tuscany can be dangerous.  Its shockingly beautiful.  The colors change seasonally, but the gentle rolling hills are fixed and unlike anywhere else in the world.  Driving between Pienza and San Quirico especially feels like a National Park, Cypress-Land if you will.  Baby Fiats stopping in the middle of the road, wedding shoots, drones flying everywhere.  For the landscape freaks, there’s plenty of “Juice”.  Pictures below taken with iphone, shaking hands, and deteriorating eyesight.  Heck, you can see the difference from 6 years ago.  I just dont feel like carrying the big boy camera with me anymore.  Click on any of the pictures to enlarge





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Top 10 Things We Ate in Tuscany

Il Pozzo RavioliI’m off to the Island I like to call Providenciales in Turks and Caicos, but meanwhile here is something to chew on…

Pollo al Burro in Sostanza (Florence) – Call it chicken with butter, butter with Chicken, doenst really matter.  Two generous breasts are cooked over coal before pan fried with eggs and one stick of butter.  Thats still 2 sticks less than the similarly celebrated BBQ Shrimp at Mr B’s in New Orleans, but rich nonetheless.  The result is tender and addictive goodness.  With the massive Sostanza Bistecca Fiorentina side by side, for the first time ever my fork was reaching for the bird over a well cooked medium rare steak.  Long live pollo!Sostanza Chicken

Pappa al Pomodoro at Da Ruggero (Florence).  Love on first bite.  My first Pappa al Pomodoro of the trip might as well have been my last.  The waiter reassure me that this is one of best Pappas in town, so who am I to argue.  Who knew tomatoes and stale bread can taste so good.  And I could have easily included some of Ruggero’s killer pastas (with a nice kick) here as well.

Da Ruggero

Cecina at Da Felice (Lucca).  Oldest Pizza in town, and the most popular with locals.  We sampled some great pizzas, one with salami, and another one with prosciutto that blended oh so nicely with the rest of the ingredients.  But I came for the Cecina, thin pancake like or crepe if you will, made of chickpea flour.  Delicious!  Add a little bit of seasoning, Delicious-er!

Lucca - Cecina

Charcuterie Board at L’Incontro (Volterra).  Holy smokes this was good.  Leave it to local Annie Adair from Tuscan Tours to take us to this treasured local bar.  A feast for all senses that included great Salami, Prosciutto and all sorts of Pecorino cheeses (not seen below).  But the highlight was a first-rate Porchetta they just happened to have prepared that day.  Highly recommend having lunch here when in town.

Charcuterie Board at L'Incontro

Pecorino at Podere Il Casale (Near Pienza).  Like eating cheese for the first time.  The views did not hurt, but the smells and flavors from the Sheep’s milk cheese like the grape aged or walnut leaves age was nothing like we ever had.  And did I mention the views?  Oh yes, looks like I did

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Ricotta and Spinach Ravioli at Il Pozzo (San Angelo in Colle). (Top Picture).  Magical dish in another magical setting in stunning San Angelo in Colle.  Watch the monks sing nearby at Sant’Antimo abbey before having this beauty with butter and sage.  This is a typical Tuscan dish you can have anywhere, but it was especially memorable here, as was the marvelous Pici.  Or Pinci as they call it in nearby Montalcino, a town too proud (of their Brunello) to simply call it like everyone else. 😉

Bruschetta at Gattavecchi (Montepulciano).  Carnival in my belly!  Fantastic Salsa Verde with melted cheese, savory liver pâté (best of the trip – Lilian the Brazilian cook makes it with wine and fruit), all kinds of great concoctions in a cup including potatoes-onion-bell pepper thingy (foodie technical term), and my fave, white beans spread with bread and veggies – ribolita.  Heavenly stuff at this heavenly city.

Gattavecchi - Bruschetta

Insalata Lagumi at Da Roberto (Montisi).  Simple, beautiful, and highly palatable.  One man show Roberto lets the ingredients do the talking.  5 different beans with pecorino, tomatoes, sunflower seeds, carrots, stem of garlic, olive oil.  All work together like a beautiful symphony, showcasing Roberto’s true passion.  The wrong place to ask “Whats good here” in this Slow Food Ambassador’s place.

Da Roberto - Insalata lagumi

Polenta with Porcini at La Tellina (Siena).  On a Porcini filled trip this was most memorable.  Grilled to perfection Polenta with these delicate, great textured Porcini, a nice app before the great seafood arrives.  All prepared with a lot of love from the family that runs this picture perfect trattoria.

La Tellina - Poricini

Ravioli with pigeon from Guastini (Valiano).  This was a tough pick since everything in this meal of the trip was so good.  I could have easily inserted the glorious fennel crusted duck, or the divine Tagliata, or the sinful fried rabbit I suppose.  But these pigeon stuffed Ravioli with 2 succulent pieces did the trick and more.  No wonder this place was full with locals

Guastini - Ravioli

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Lazy Post – Postcard Perfect Tuscany

No idea where this is

No idea where this is

For the photographers out there looking for those perfect Tuscan shots, here are some important tips on where to find them.  Grab a pen and pencil (in case… you know… the pencil breaks)

1)  Drive all over Tuscany, especially the Val d’Orcia area

Hmmm, I swear I thought I had more tips, but I’m drawing a blank.  I think this might be it – just drive around with your eyes open.  Surely it would be challenging to drive with your eyes closed, but I’ve seen it done in Florida (and got the metal plate in my leg to prove it).  But the truth is the entire Tuscany region is one giant postcard, and Val d’Orcia is perhaps as picture perfect as it comes.  Simply going from point A to point B anywhere in that area will produce more unique landscapes, quite different than the drive you took to get to point A.

From Florence to Lucca to seeing Volterra through the eyes of Annie Adair, to Siena, Pienza and the rest of the gems in the South, here are some of the best shots we took

Florence - Santa Croce

Florence – Santa Croce

Podere Il Casale

Podere Il Casale near Pienza



From Avignonesi to Valiano

From Avignonesi to Valiano

Near Monticchiello

Near Monticchiello

La Foce

La Foce

Siena to Asciano

Siena to Asciano

lucca san michele in foro

lucca san michele in foro

Villa Grazianella

Villa Grazianella



Pienza to Montepulciano

San Quirico to Pienza (very close to San Quirico)



San Quirico

San Quirico

Near San Quirico

Near San Quirico


From Montepulciano


From Montalcino

La Vitaleta (famous chapel by San Quirico)

La Vitaleta (famous chapel by San Quirico)

From Avignonesi to Valiano

From Avignonesi to Valiano

From Abbey of Sant’Antimo

From Abbey of Sant’Antimo

Bagno Vignoni

Bagno Vignoni

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Florence – City of Eugene

Today the plan was to write one of those “lazy posts” on the Italian City of David.  Its where I spend some time picking the best pictures of some place I visited recently and just throw them in here with minimal word content.  But it just feels weird to do that today due to some circumstances.

When people mention the subject of Trip Advisor, the immediate thing that comes to mind to most people is Reviews.  Mainly reviews of Restaurants, Hotels,  and Attractions.  But very few know about Trip Advisor’s other powerful arm, the Forum.  You can spend a month in some city or country’s TA forum and gain a wealth of information.  Information that is absent from your guidebook.  The forum to me is internet’s best travel tool.  All this, thanks to regular forum participants that spend their spare time helping tourists with the various questions they have.  They are some of their city’s greatest ambassadors.  One of those ambassadors was Eugene Martinez who tragically passed away a few days ago.  I never actually met Eugene but we came very close when I was there in June.  Eugene was a tremendous help in making our Florence stay as memorable as it was.  From my interactions with him and from what I heard he was kind, caring, funny, and passionate about the city of Florence and Tuscany.  He will be sorely missed.

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Podere Il Casale – So This is What Cheese Tastes Like!

Italy - 2013 9743 months later I’m starting to forget details about the trip.  But I’m not forgetting feelings.  I remember having that “How can I prolong this moment, I don’t want to leave, I’m such an idiot for scheduling more things than I should” feeling more than once, all in Tuscany.  And while sitting outside in Podere Il Casale on that perfect day, trying to decide whether I prefer the grape aged Pecorino or the one aged with walnut leaves, only to be interrupted by that stunning view, that feeling took over again.

Nestled smack in the middle between Pienza and Monticchiello, Podere Il Casale, an organic farm producing sheep’s (pecorino) and goat cheese that was unlike anything we ever tasted.  It was like eating cheese for the very first time.  Sandra and Ulisse run the farm since 1991.  Sandra gave us an overview of the place (much bigger than it seems at first) and cheese making process, while showing us the facilities and Ricotta making in action.  The 5 minute old Ricotta was easily the most satisfying ever.  But I couldn’t get enough of that Pecorino, especially the aged stuff.

Podere Il Casale is more than just a cheese producer.  Its a full service Agriturismo, attracting lodgers, campers, farm students and volunteers.  2 meals a day including a wood oven pizza expert hanging around in the premises (how can I get a pizza expert hang around my premises, all I have is a crazy neighbor and her dog), cooking classes, and various educational programs are offered.  They also produce wine, olive oil, pasta, honey, and even some prosciutto. All that in an absolute jaw dropping setting, making other pigs and sheep extremely jealous.  The cliché “Pictures don’t do this Justice” has probably been invented in South Tuscany, somewhere near here

Sandra and Ulisse also recently received a grant by the Italian government that allows them to open operations oversees.  As long as they sell and promote Tuscan based products, the gov’t will help sponsor the operations.  First stop, NYC, slated to open in a few months.  I will post details here as soon as I get them

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La Tellina in Siena – All in the Family

Italy - 2013 1449I don’t know why it took me so long to write about La Tellina.  Its not like I was busy writing about more important things.  But the truth is this was a memorable and fun lunch.  Picking this particular one I remember wasn’t easy, as I wasn’t able to find many bloggers or Chowhounders out there talking about Siena.  But as much as I prefer not to follow TripAdvisor forum recommendations, I’ve decided in this case to trust the Siena expert with a pizza avatar from Alaska.  Forum helpers with food, wine glass or Borat icons usually know their food.  Do not trust those with cute animals or pictures of their babies.

If you look at the dictionary for classic family trattoria, you may see a picture of La Tellina, inside and out.  Husband cooks, wife serves, and sister and mistress are in the act as well, if I understood correctly, not really sure.  La Tellina specializes in seafood and cuisine from the south (cook from Naples) which was completely fine with us after a Pici filled 4 days in Tuscany.

We started with a fine and refreshing Caprese salad. Absolutely fantastic fresh mussels with “I’m not washing my hands anytime soon” addictive sauce.  I was dipping everything in there including fingers and car keys.  Grilled polenta with some of the best tasting porcini of the trip was spot on.

Homemade meatballs were as solid as traditional meatballs can get.  I live in the meatball capital of the world and these were some great melt in your mouth balls. Spaghetti with fresh mussels and clams – garlicky, packed with flavor. Simply grilled whole sea bass was perfectly cooked.  We love to grill whole branzinos at home and this one was better than we ever did.

La Tellina - Caprese La Tellina  -Mussels La Tellina - Poricini La Tellina  -meatballs La Tellina Spaghetti La Tellina Staff La Tellina

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Lazy Post – Siena in Pictures

Italy - 2013 1477Top 5 reasons for a lazy post today…

5)  Last minute kids dentist appointment.  Meaning, I remembered in the last minute that I have to take the kids to the dentist

4)  I had to take out the dishes from the dishwasher.  Note:  I’m only allowed to take them out, not put them in.  Mrs Ziggy doesnt like the method I use to put them in.

3)  I had to help the kids with their homework.  By help I mean take their new phones away from them

2)  I would like to watch the MLB playoffs, please, for a change

1)  I’m lazy

The 2 scenic shots below are from the stunning drive from Siena to Asciano.  Enjoy!

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Piccola Trattoria Guastini – Meal Of The Year

Guastini - CapreseThe “Saving the best for last” cliché doesn’t quite make sense to me in this context.  How do you know its the best if you haven’t done it yet.  Surely it can turn out merely “pretty good”, or perhaps one of the earlier meals rises to the occasion.  With that said, I cant help but anticipate and suspect whether I’m leaving the best for last sometimes.  Piccola Trattoria Guastini, our last meal in Tuscany was not only the best meal in Tuscany, it was the best meal of the entire 12 day trip which included about 20 pretty good ones.

GuastiniEmanuela and Davide Guastini run this popular spot in the tiny village of Valiano not too far from Montepulciano.  Sunflower galore on the way there from the Cortona direction. Gorgeous terrace overlooking the area I can only describe as “the other side of A1” which doesn’t sound as sexy as the real name I keep forgetting (Val di Chiana).  Everything was working that night – the sublime food, the wine, the mood, the comfort, the gracious hosts, and the one ingredient missing from just about every other place we visited, locals.  Guastini - Crostini

Started with, what else, more amazing crostini this time with chicken liver and caramelized onions – sweet and savory.  Followed that with an ultra fresh Caprese salad.  Cant get much better than this.  Tortelli with ricotta were topped with fresh tomatoes and basil, almost resulted in a family feud (I won simply by staring).  One particular stunner was the ravioli stuffed with pigeon with 2 succulent pieces to boot.  Our first pigeon of the trip resulted in a messy moment of silence.Guastini - Ravioli Guastini - Tortelli

More deliciousness followed in the form of fried rabbit which we couldnt get enough of.  Glorious duck encrusted with fennel, one of those dishes you know will be good as soon as it arrives.  My nose and sense of smell were working overtime that night.

Guastini - rabbit Guastini - Duck

I had a long talk with Davide about food and after voicing my slight disappointment with the Bisteccas in Florence and the region, he comes back minutes later with a full plate of Tagliata, sliced Chianina beef perfectly cooked with olive oil.  This was absolutely delicious.  Who knew that the best steak of the trip would be the free one.  Great desserts here as well.  Panna Cotta with chocolate sauce, ricotta mousse with honey and hazelnuts (seems like a specialty here in the region) and a fine tiramisu. Guastini - Chianina

It was packed with locals which was not surprising considering the restaurant was suggested by a restaurant owner in Montepulciano.  Reservations are a must.  If you want a quick meal, this is certainty not the place.  Like Da Roberto and many of the other places we visited, Guastini oozes Slow Food freshness.  A meal you need to experience at least once on vacation.  Guastini is why I come to ItalyGuastini - Pana Cotta

Guastini patio

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Parking in Tuscany – The Survival Guide


After reading the helpful tips below, click here to view the parking maps.

So you decided to rent a car in Tuscany?  Mazal Tov!  Here’s what you need to do first…

1)  Get up and dim the lights

2)  Open that bottle of Prosecco you were saving for that special occasion.  The special occasion is here.

3)  Open your laptop and pump up this baby in the background

4)  Go to Google Maps and start “Google Driving” all over Tuscany.  Thats it.  Rinse and repeat the next day

What is Google Driving you ask?  Its driving using Google’s “Street View” feature.  If you haven’t been using it to prepare for a trip somewhere, you need to start now.

While you are at it, you need to get familiar with ZTL

And now, everything you always wanted to know about parking in Tuscany (But were too afraid to ask).  Thats one of the most common questions on the boards and I spent more than my fair share looking for the most convenient lots while avoiding the dreaded ZTL signs.  Your GPS doesnt care about ZTL zones.  But Ziggy does!

So here’s what you need to know.  Click on each map to enlarge and save the locations to your maps as needed.  Disregard the “A” flags on the map and focus on where the little guy is

Note: I had to move the map to this page


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24 Hours in Lucca

Lucca - San Michele in ForoWe started our Lucca adventure with a missed turn and ended with something we feared will happen eventually but not in a foreign country.  Lets start with the missed turn

Looking at the map roughly 8,754 times prior to the trip did not stop me from missing the most important turn leading to the Alla Dimora Lucense hotel.  We circled for a little bit trying to get back to the hotel but to no avail, so I just had no choice but park on the street 200 meters away from our hotel.

Ester, our fantastic host:  “Oh no you cant leave your car there.  You will get fined since you are not a local”

Me:  “Ok, so how do I get to your garage”

Ester: “Oh its very easy.  I’ll show you”

Me thinking: Oh thank goodness.  I thought the only way is something drastic like completely leave the old city

Easter: “You need to leave the old city” pointing on the map how easily it can be done

LuccaOh well, out of the gates and back to the same gate we came from and this time I knew exactly where to turn.  After showing Ester how an American backs into an Italian garage with minimum sweat, off we go with some major eating, I’m talking about 5 meals sight seeing.

I just took a moment to think about how to best describe Lucca and I’m having a hard time.  Its either indescribable or the show I’m currently watching (chopped) is interfering with my writing.  (Mrs Ziggy if you reading: I think its time for me to get an office now that my blogging career is taking off.  I highly doubt Katie Parla is writing posts from a noisy living room.  And we are out of Halva).  But Lucca is unique, and being in Lucca just felt different to me in ways I cant quite explain.

First stop:  Palazzo Pfanner and its lovely garden right by our hotel.  We really enjoyed this place and spent a bit too much time here, mostly taking roughly 100 pictures of ourselves jumping from a bench.  I would show you my shots but its NSFW.Lucca - Palazzo Pfanner

Instead of having the customary 2 meals in Lucca I chose to snack around during the day.  We wound up going to 2 particular places 4 times (2 each).

Da Felice is the oldest Pizza in town, and the the most popular with locals.  We sampled some delicious pizza with salami, and another one with prosciutto that blended nicely with the rest of the ingredients.  But to be honest, I wasnt there for the pizza.  I came for the Cecina, thin  pancake like or crepe if you will made of chickpea flour.  But since they were down to the last few slices I opted to come back later for a fresh batch.Giusti

And around the corner is another local favorite, Forno Giusti.  The smells alone in this bakery worth going in.  People love candle scents, perfume, etc, while I feel at home inside a bakery like this.  We sampled some focaccia (plain and with cheese) and Buccellato, a simple sweet sticky cake with raisins.  But everything else including the fine looking focaccia sandwiches looked amazing.  By the end of the trip “Forno” became my new favorite Italian word.  Surpassing Tartufo and Finocchiona.Lucca -Forno Lucca - Giusti

Turn the corner again and you are staring at one of the most stunning church exteriors in all of Tuscany, in my opinion at least, San Michele in Foro (top picture) or San Michele near “Forno” as I call it.  Built on top of a Roman Forum (hence “Foro”), this Romanesque beauty and its ornate facade is not to be missed.  Same goes for their Duomo, Cathedral of San Martino and to a lesser degree the peaceful Basilica of San Frediano.  The good news is that you will not find a more walkable city, so seeing all three and all the sites in Lucca is fairly simple.  Although we biked to the DuomoLucca - San Martino Lucca - Basilica of San Frediano

Right near San Michele is a little square that is all about Lucca’s claim to fame, Puccini.  The composer’s house which is now a small museum, and a statue dominate the square.

We then proceeded with a little bit of shopping.  By shopping I mean the girls went inside a large store while I waited outside with other annoyed husbands.  They were inside long enough for me to get invited to a Bat Mitsvah in Israel.

“My name is Lucca and I live on the second floor” couldnt get the song out of my head.  Especially after numerous stops at our hotel where we stayed on the second floor.  Italian 2nd floor, like American 3rd floor.  In Lucca you have to stay inside the walls to maximize convenience and Alla Dimora Lucense really did the trick with its clean and spacious accommodation for the 4 of us.  Breakfast by Ester not too shabby either.  More on what we left behind soon

Lucca - lawnsInternet connection issues limited my ability to explain to the family some of the sites.  I was relying on some websites I had saved but couldn’t open them.  So in order to make it interesting for the kids I had to invent things.

Me: “And here you have what looks like a statue of Lenin” (some statue that sort of reminded me of Lenin)”

kid 1: “John Lenin?”

Me:  “Ahhm Yes, John Lenin.  Liberator of Lucca”

Kid 2: “I’m hungry”

Lucca bikingMe: “But we just…never mind”  It suddenly hit me that all the numerous “but we just ate” arguments never really went anywhere

After a short rest it was time to take advantage of Lucca’s main attraction.  The one of a kind Lucca walls, a 4 km park encircling around the old town.  We picked up the bikes in Piazza Santa Maria but there are bike rentals all over town.  Some of them I pointed on the map below.  We simply had a blast biking all the way around.  And to truly appreciate this scenic town biking around it is the way to go.  Dont forget to look outside of the walls for more views, and to go down occasionally to visit other areas of the old town and some gelato of course.

Lucca Walls

Time for Cecina.  Delicios!  Add a little bit of seasoning, Delicious-er!  And since we are already in the neighborhood, more yumminess from the Forno where we enjoyed mini flat pizzas.  Basically I just went in to get another whiff and wound up buying more food

Lucca - Cecina Lucca Giusti Pizza

Lucca - De FeliceAfter another short break we went on to climb Guinigi Tower, one of numerous towers all over Tuscany built by wealthy families to either symbolize wealth or for protection (the towers of San Gimignano).  Again, I have to use the word unique here as on the top of the tower you find shade in 2 oak trees, with plenty of breathtaking views to go around.  No wonder John Lenin found refuge here as a small child.Lucca anfiteatro

Lucca Guinigi TowerAt this point most of the tourists are gone and walking around is a little more pleasant, although you dont mind the tourists here so much.  I couldnt help but notice the Lucca dogs dont stop to poop but do it while walking.  Possibly foreign dogs walking around marveling at the architecture while their owners desperately trying to clean their mess.  I almost felt like grabbing a few napkins to help this poor woman.  Almost!

On the way to dinner we bumped into a lovely couple I met on Trip Advisor.  They drive to Lucca every year from England and stay for a while.  It was very cool meeting them.

Lucca - Piazza AntfiteatroOne benefit of staying in Lucca overnight is visiting Piazza Anfiteatro during the day and night.  The site of a former Amphitheater holding 10,000 spectators.  And of course the site of John Lenin’s eventual execution for giving away Chianina secrets to the Florentines, as I explained to the family.

For dinner I chose a place called Baralla and was very pleased with the meal overall.  A fantastic antipasti including a very different Sopressata, farro with sundried tomatoes, bread soaked with vinegar and onion and basil which tasted much better than it sounds.  I got spoiled with all the Tuscan spoiled bread specialties.Lucca - Baralla Starters

Loved the pastas here. Seeing truffles on the menu finally was like seeing David.  These were black truffles from San Miniato shaved on tagliolini and although summer black truffles arent the best quality every little piece counted big time especially now that the entire family is into them.  And of course I had to try the Tortelli Luchese which reminded me of Russian Siberian pilmeni stuffed with mystery meat with a meat ragu on top. Really enjoyed this one.Lucca - Baralla Truffles Lucca - Baralla tortelli Lucchese

The Bistecca Di Chianina was surprisingly a little overcooked (more like medium) which I didnt think was possible in Italy.  The rabbit cacciatora was more like it.  Tender and flavorful.  Good tiramisu and a fantastic parfait with pistachios and dark chocolate capped a fine meal overall.Lucca - Baralla Chianina Lucca - Baralla Rabbit Lucca - Baralla

As we were saying our goodbyes to Lucca it was time to say our hellos to… Lucca.  We expected this moment to happen as we’ve seen it happen to all our friends numerous times, sometimes even digging through the trash cans outside with gloves.  But we never expected it to happen in a foreign country.  My oldest forgot her retainer inside a napkin over breakfast and so we had come back.  Basically just delaying my next anxious moment:  Taking pictures of people trying to straighten the tower of Pisa.Pisa

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