Enchanting Bruges

Romantic Bruges at night

Romantic Bruges at night

To those who are hopeless romantics like me, there’s one city that never disappoints… Medieval Bruges in Belgium certainly has all the elements of a perfect romantic setting. A stroll through its narrow streets make you step back in time, its many canals are perfect for the moonlight boat ride with the melodies of Moonriver gently playing in the background.

I visited this city for the first time way back in 1997 and it is still a favorite after many trips thereafter. A week before Christmas, we were back again for the Christmas market and a much needed me-time after very busy months both on the home and work fronts.

Because Bruges is a very popular tourist destination, the weekend before Christmas is always very busy. Scouring the internet for hotel deals was quite a pain as even very small 2 or 3 star hotels were just too pricey at around the Eur 200+ price range. We found another option which turned out to be a great alternative — airbnb.com. We stayed for two nights at a renovated old house just a few yards away from the city centre. Weather was unusually warm (close to 10 degrees Celsius) so we enjoyed our evening walks without freezing.

Bruges by all accounts, has many things to offer — Chocolates and pralines, hand-woven laces, amazing choices of beers, etc.

The Mr. and me in Bruges

The Mr. and me in Bruges

Canals at night

Canals at night

Bruges at night

Bruges at night

Bruges at night

Bruges at night

Bruges at night

Bruges at night

Bruges at night

Bruges at night

Bruges

Bruges

Bruges

Bruges

Romantic canals and bridges

Romantic canals and bridges

Bruges

Bruges

Centuries-old buildings

Centuries-old buildings

One can explore the city on horse-driven carriage

One can explore the city on horse-driven carriage

Centuries-old buildings

Centuries-old buildings

Canals

Canals

A favorite bridge

A favorite bridge

Boat rides

Boat rides

Us

Us

Signage at the entrance of the Begijnhof

Signage at the entrance of the Begijnhof

The Begijnhof was the place where women and children stayed while the men went on to fight in the Holy Land during the Crusades.  Today, nuns are its residents.

The Begijnhof was the place where women and children stayed while the men went on to fight in the Holy Land during the Crusades. Today, nuns are its residents.

Inside the church in the Begijnhof

Inside the church in the Begijnhof

The market square

The market square

One of the many streets leading to the market square

One of the many streets leading to the market square

Chocolates and pralines for which the Belgians are known for the world over

Chocolates and pralines for which the Belgians are known for the world over

A few of the hundreds of beer choices

A few of the hundreds of beer choices

Belgian beer

Belgian beer

Belgian beers

Belgian beers

Beer flavored cheese

Beer flavored cheese

Beer-flavored eggnog

Beer-flavored eggnog

Belgian pralines

Belgian pralines

Cupcakes

Cupcakes

Horse-drawn carriages near the Begijnhof

Horse-drawn carriages near the Begijnhof

Bruges

Bruges

Hand-woven Bruges laces

Hand-woven Bruges laces

One of the many churches in the city

One of the many churches in the city

Us

Us

Wines and macaroons in Saint-Emilion

Saint-Emilion

Saint-Emilion

France is simply one country which has everything for any traveler. To those who love the water, there is the cold Atlantic coast on the west side and the balmy Mediterranean in the south. Height lovers can go for either the Alps or the Pyrenees, those who love the cosmopolitan life had choices of Paris or the Riviera and those who love the tranquil life in the countryside had plenty of choices too. Vineyards, orchards, gardens, lavender fields, flower fields are endless and so are the chateaus and manors.

On this post, let me take you to the lovely town of Saint-Emilion. Listed on UNESCO’s World Heritage List, Saint-Emilion’s history goes back to prehistoric times with fascinating Romanesque churches and ruins. About 32 kilometers northeast of Bordeaux, it is a very popular tourist destination because aside from having that step back in time, it is also famous for its red wines and macaroons.

The drive to Saint-Emilion was a very pleasant experience, passing through gentle hills of vineyards and bewitching sunflower fields. Parking was quite a challenge in this small town but despite a bit of a walk from the parking to the town centre, we enjoyed the stroll through its narrow streets that seemed as old as time.

We did not have a fix agenda of things to do so we had a leisurely lunch at a restaurant on the foot of the hill leading to the King’s Castle Keep. Nothing fancy, we had the “plat du jour” on offer which consisted of a salad, main course and dessert. French meal never disappoint for even in their simplest, they are still top notch.

After lunch, we were off to do the sightseeing bit with hubby and daughter opting to climb the King’s Castle Keep which with its 118 steps was quite something for the little girl. She was so proud of this accomplishment.

Before leaving town, I made sure to get myself a dozen of various flavored macaroons. While Laduree is being extolled in Paris as the mecca for macaroons, Saint-Emilion is said to be the birth place of this simple almond biscuit when they were first made in 1620 by Les Ursulines, a small community of nuns who resided in the village.

Saint-Emilion

Saint-Emilion

One of the many wine cellars

One of the many wine cellars

The road leading to "The King's Castle's Keep"

The road leading to “The King’s Castle’s Keep”

Father and daughter climbed this well-preserved 13th century keep.

Father and daughter climbed this well-preserved 13th century keep.

Father and daughter climbing the King's Castle Keep

Father and daughter climbing the King’s Castle Keep

Our family

Our family

Sunflower fields along the way

Sunflower fields along the way

Vineyards

Vineyards

Me and my little girl

Me and my little girl

Salad

Salad

Entrecote steak with fries

Entrecote steak with fries

Main course of the plat du jour

Main course of the plat du jour

Warm chocolate cake with summer fruit compote

Warm chocolate cake with summer fruit compote

Ice cream dessert

Ice cream dessert

Father and daughter

Father and daughter

Saint-Emilion

Saint-Emilion

Father and daughter

Father and daughter

The Bell Tower of the Monolithic Church

The Bell Tower of the Monolithic Church

Church interior

Church interior

Taking a peak of the church courtyard

Taking a peak of the church courtyard

The Mr. always finds interesting the geological history of the stone blocks used for this church

The Mr. always finds interesting the geological history of the stone blocks used for this church

Narrow street

Narrow street

Saint-Emilion

Saint-Emilion

Museum

Museum

My little girl

My little girl

Me and my little girl

Me and my little girl

Raspberry macaroons

Raspberry macaroons

Passion fruit macaroons

Passion fruit macaroons

Rose macaroons

Rose macaroons

Monet’s home and garden in Giverny

Monet's home in Giverny

Monet’s home in Giverny

Monet entered my consciousness as a college freshman taking up the elective subject of Humanities.  His paintings of water lilies from his garden in Giverny were special favorites.

Fast forward to over two decades later I would be in Giverny, admiring his amazing gardens and being inside his home which gave me a glimpse of his life way back then.  Unfortunately, taking pictures inside his home was forbidden so I could only commit to memory the lovely and cozy atmosphere of his family home.

Giverny is a short distance from Paris and a one day side trip is what many visitors to the City of Lights do. Pretty popular, it is advisable to go there a bit early in the morning to avoid the big crowd of tourists who come in huge touring buses. We took a lazy approach to our sightseeing, staying two nights at a lovely bed and breakfast in a village that’s about 10 minutes drive from Giverny.

Water lilies at Monet's garden in Giverny

Water lilies at Monet’s garden in Giverny

Bridge over a pond of water lilies

Bridge over a pond of water lilies

Water lilies - inspiration for his many paintings

Water lilies – inspiration for his many paintings

Yellow water lilies

Yellow water lilies

Our family

Our family

Well tended garden with flowers carefully organized to bloom from spring to fall

Well tended garden with flowers carefully organized to bloom from spring to fall

Monet's garden is paradise to butterflies

Monet’s garden is paradise to butterflies

My little girl

My little girl

Pink blooms

Pink blooms

zinnia

zinnia

Roses

Roses

One of the many summer blooms

One of the many summer blooms

Monet's home from his garden

Monet’s home from his garden

Flowers everywhere

Flowers everywhere

Water lilies

Water lilies

Pink zinnia

Pink zinnia

Dahlias

Dahlias

Monet's home from the garden

Monet’s home from the garden

My little girl

My little girl

The Mr. outside Monet's home

The Mr. outside Monet’s home

Moi

Moi

Water lilies pond

Water lilies pond

Monet's garden

Monet’s garden

Yellow blooms

Yellow blooms

Monet's garden

Monet’s garden

Bamboos

Bamboos

Monet's garden in Giverny

Monet’s garden in Giverny

Fishery Day Observance in Spakenburg

Spakenburg wooden boats and fish catch ready for smoking

Don’t we oftentimes look far beyond the horizon for many exciting things to see and miss what is right under our noses?

This would seem the case with me for having been to other places to witness interesting cultural phenomena and overlooked what was simply amazing in a place that is even just cycling distance from home.

On this post, let me take you to Spakenburg, a fishing village which to this day still clings to age-old traditions and way of life. Many of its older generation of women for instance, still go about their daily lives wearing traditional costumes. Sundays are still strictly observed as day of obligation to the Lord so apart from going to church three times, all establishments are closed for business and typical Sunday activities like football games are forbidden.

Considering that we’ve lived here in Amersfoort for almost seven years, I was never aware of the Fishery Day observance in nearby Spakenburg. Thanks to a tip from our friend Tammy, we were finally able to witness this wonderful spectacle last 1st of September (Fishery Day is every first Saturday of September so we learned).  Wooden fishing boats had the sails on their masts raised and the local men, women and children were dressed in traditional costumes. (Normally only the older Spakenburg women wear the traditional costume on daily basis.) Every aspect of the traditional way of life here was out in the open and it was amazing to see how this village is able to keep the traditions alive and well to this very day.

Raised sails on the wooden masts

The mayor and the women of Spakenburg

Laundry-drying

Thick woolen socks that go well with the wooden clogs “klompen”

The dry dock at the harbor

Spakenburg women

Francesca and me with the Spakenburg ladies

Spakenburg children

Spakenburg girl

Fish auction house

Father and daughter with smoked mackerel bought at the auction

Smoking of fish is a traditional way of preserving them in the old days but is still very much in practice to this day

My little girl playing with the fish net

Spankenburg ladies and Spakenburg textiles

The traditional way of cleaning raw herring – head is removed as well as the bones then eaten with chopped onions and pickles

Spakenburg ladies

Spakenburg

Discovering the Atlantic

First glimpse of the Atlantic Ocean

I grew up in a country bounded on one side by the Pacific and the other side by the South China Sea. Imagine turquoise blue waters and coconut-tree lined beaches with powdery white sand… yes, the classic definition of paradise.

The Atlantic on the other hand, paints a totally different picture. Forget the coconut trees (this place is too cold for that) but there is certainly lots of charm in its beaches whose sheer breadth is astounding, its golden sand that’s an amazing contrast to its turquoise blue waters and the dunes dotted with amazing flora.

We had a lovely time discovering this piece of paradise on earth. No busy structures along the beach, no ships or boats in the horizon and save for a few others soaking in the sun, this place was totally our own.

Wide beach and hilly dunes

The road leading to the ocean – tough on the calves but the sheer beauty of this place was worth the hard walk

The Atlantic Ocean from the dunes

The dunes with its amazing flora and the blue waters of the Atlantic

One of the many interesting floras in the dunes

The beach, the dunes and the immense sky

The ocean, beach and dunes underneath the immense sky

The beach, the ocean and the immense sky

Golden sand, turquoise water and blue skies

The dunes and the Atlantic Ocean

Father and daughter heading to the beach

Footprints in the sand

Despite the absence of coconut trees, the Atlantic has other charms like this dune teeming with amazing flora

The Atlantic and its dunes

Shells…

Father and daughter all poised to test the water

The little girl attempting to surf (inspired by a Barbie film she’d seen)

The little girl with her Dora floater

Our shelter from the sun and wind in this very empty beach

Our family

Our family

Fun in the sand

Sheer delight for the little girl

Father and daughter

Papa’s girl

Papa’s girl

Father and daughter enjoying the water

Camping life

Dinner time – our simple dinner fare consisted of rice, fried mackerel and salad

 

From the chateau to the tent — that’s many notches downgrade to our accommodation but we truly love going to the basics.  To our little girl, the tent is more fun than the chateau and she can do a trade-in anytime.  She was actually least happy at the chateau because the other guests were all senior people so aside from the dogs, she had no one to play with.  At the camp, she was in her best element having made friends easily with the other kids, notwithstanding the language barrier.

 

Dinner preparation — rice and fried mackerel

Fried mackerel

Fresh salad

Card game and warm drinks while waiting for the fresh bread that will be available at 8:30 am.

Sampling the croissant

Our little camper

At the camp playground with other children

Lots of fun between these two girls though one speaks Dutch and the other one is French

A friendship is born despite the language barrier

Two girls enjoying a beautiful friendship

These two girls tried table tennis but …. most times were busy picking the ball from the ground

Very determined table tennis players

French pride on their local products

I envy the French on their pride for everything French and it is no wonder that the local industry is alive and well. Local markets and shops selling traditional French products are everywhere and I am always drawn to them. There are times that I need to remind myself that my eyes seem bigger than my tummy at those mouthwatering goodies of theirs.

Every region takes pride of their local products which also show what are endemic in the area.  Wines, pates, cheeses, sweets, sausages, honey, hand-painted chinas, baskets, etc. are just among the many things that can be found in these shops.

Here are some snapshots of the local goods on one of the local shops beside a petrol station along the French peage.

I could have taken more pictures but I was later told that it was actually forbidden to take pictures inside the shop. ;-)

French wines

French wines and spirits

Various types of honey

Various sorts of caramels

Caramels

Cookies and sweets

French hand-painted chinas

Hand-painted ceramics

Hand-painted ceramics

Various shop merchandise

Our first foray exploring the area around Arcachon Bay

The little princess gathering oyster shells on the shores of Arcachon Bay (Cap Ferret)

Heading to the west coast of France further down Brittany proved to be a pleasant surprise. For one, it was not as busy as what we had experienced the previous year in the South of France. Even at the height of the summer season, there was enough room to move around.

Our camping place in Lege, Cap Ferret was a location where we had the best of two worlds — the mighty Atlantic Ocean with its wide empty beaches on one side and the Arcachon Bay on the other which is ringed by many quaint oyster fishing villages.

On our first foray to explore the area around Arcachon Bay, we wanted to see the lighthouse in Cap Ferret but Francesca was more excited to check out the beach. She immediately headed to the water and before soon, was taking her clothes off to be able to swim. Unfortunately, it was low tide and still a bit chilly and we were not prepared with towels and all that so we promised her that that was something that we will do another time.

We then embarked on a search for a restaurant to have lunch but got a bit sidetracked by the wet market that we passed by which as always, charmed me to bits. I could have stayed there forever ogling the fresh produce especially the seafoods that I normally don’t get to see in Holland. My mind was already churning with ideas as to how I would prepare those crabs, lobsters and shrimps which I really miss from my life in the Philippines. Unfortunately, my two bosses were getting so impatient and hungry that we have to stick back to the plan of finding a restaurant for lunch. I thought that we would return to the market before we head back to our camp.

We found a simple restaurant with seafood as its specialty in the town centre. For starter, we shared the pate which was great with the fresh bread. For the main course, the Mr. had mussels and fries while I settled for the lovely sauteed squid served with rice and fennel. Our little girl who’s very picky only had bread and fries as well as her fave chocolate ice cream with lots of whipped cream. The Mr. and I again shared the dessert of tiramisu.

We went back to the wet market after lunch but unfortunately, it was already closing. I was very disappointed especially as I already had dinner figured out in my head. We then dropped by the supermarket and had to make do with the seafood display they had. I settled for a kilo of sardines which for dinner I fried and served with boiled rice and salad.

Arcachon Bay on a cloudy day which would later clear up

The little princess with her haul of oyster shells

Giving her haul of oyster shells to her father for safekeeping

Excitedly rushing to the water

Time to go swimming

A little stop at the playground near the beach

Waiting for our order at the restaurant

Fresh bread

Very yummy “Pate de maison”

Mussels and fries

Sauteed squid served with rice and fennel

Tiramisu

Chocolate ice cream with whipped cream

Savoring her ice cream

She charmed the waiter at the restaurant so she got this foldable hat as a present

She got sidetracked by this picture

Father and daughter

Flower of passion fruit

Dill flowers

Peach colored oleanders

One of the many blooms common in the area

Supermarket scene — langostines

Supermarket scene – snails

Supermarket scene – lobsters

Supermarket scene – crabs

Supermarket scene – lobsters

Supermarket scene – lobsters

Supermarket scene – sardines

Supermarket scene – crabs

Supermarket scene – shrimps

Supermarket scene – oysters

Supermarket scene – squid

Supermarket scene – snails

Supermarket scene – mackerels

Supermarket scene – fish

Supermarket scene – 1-kilo steak cuts

Supermarket scene – dried sausages

A lovely stay in a French chateau

The Chateau de Sarceaux as viewed from the little lake in its sprawling grounds

I must have been a royal in previous life to have this extreme fascination for castles and palaces and anything royal and regal. Looking for a place to spend overnight somewhere in France, midway to our camping destination came easy with the many choices available through Booking.com. My husband outright told me that we should choose for something outside town because of parking consideration — our car is full with stuffs and we cannot take them out except for the overnight bag.

The chateau we’ve chosen was pretty secluded, with a good amount of wooded area and meadows to be traversed before we could reach it. Not a huge chateau but pretty cozy, we learned from its owners (a marquis and marquise) that they are already the 6th generation of inhabitants to this chateau. We were led to our reserved room which was really charming especially given the fact that the furnishings were still all original. It felt like a step back in time for us. The only seemingly modern feature in the room was the bathroom which was updated to modern times and had plenty of warm water, something uncharacteristic of typically spartan chateaus.

The marquis asked if we would like to have dinner at the chateau so we immediately said, “Oui”. Who wouldn’t want to dine in such a setting? Dinner was at 7:45pm but we first assembled in the living room where together with the other guests, were served aperitif and little snacks. It was nice to meet the other guests — an English couple who live near Cambridge and two old ladies (one Dutch and her English friend who was married to a Dutch man).

It was a lovely evening with lively conversation flowing over drinks and food. Dinner was served in the stately dining room which Francesca found wonderful especially with her faux jewels, feeling every inch the princess of the chateau. ;-)

If you want to know more about this chateau, here’s link to some information: http://www.france-hotel-guide.com/en/14878-chateau-de-sarceaux-valframbert-en.php?langue=en

Another angle of the chateau

Father and daughter

Me and the chateau in the background

Our little princess

She became friends with this lovely dog

Lots of open spaces and new friends to make ;-)

Good boy!

Chase me Mam!

I love the simplicity of this chateau

Very old rose vines and the roses with the most amazing scent I’ve ever smelled

The living room where we assembled for aperitif and small bites later

The small room for Francesca which was connected to our bedroom

The fireplace in our bedroom — not in use anymore because the room in updated with modern heating system

Our bedroom

The bathroom

Simple and cozy feature of the bathroom

The scent from these fresh roses filled the room

The hallway at the first floor

Ground floor hallway

Another living room in the chateau

Small bites

Original pieces of period furniture

Father and daughter playing cards at the living room before dinner

The little princess at the dining room, feeling pretty much at home ;-)

The dinner guests

Salad of greens, avocado and shrimps

Dinner of veal stewed in white wine with chervil served with baked potatoes, tomatoes and mushrooms

Dessert of green apple sorbet drizzled with Calvados

The marquis serving the cheese platter

After dinner entertainment — we all went back to the living room for a bit of singing while the marquise played the music on the piano

The very enthusiastic marquise also led us into acapella singing of “Auld lang syne”

At the breakfast table with the other guests the next morning

French breakfast fare

Father and daughter

The chateau just before we left

Bitter sweet parting

Holiday afterthoughts

Chateau de Sarceaux from the distance

My sincere apologies for the long absence on this space. First, both work and home fronts went haywire in the weeks preceding our holiday and then our holiday for almost 3 weeks in France kicked off but internet connection then became a precious commodity.

Lots of stories to tell — which would take me a while to do together with the pictures that I also enjoyed taking along the way. Just when I thought I’ve seen it all from the many travels I’ve done in the past, this recent holiday brought in new and amazing surprises.

I will take you along to a French chateau where we spent one lovely evening wining and dining with the marquis and the marquise and to our camping experience in Cap Ferret where we had the best of both the Arcachon Bay and the Atlantic Coast as well as some of the amazing vineyards which produce some of the best French wines. Then we will move on to the Dordogne Valley which at first I thought was some backwaters of France but whose charm would hook me forever from its many amazing surprises that run from its many feudal castles to spectacular gardens, sunflower fields, Medieval villages, lively markets and so much more. Capping our holiday was a side trip to Monet’s garden in Giverny complemented by a lovely stay in a very cozy bed and breakfast where we felt very much at home.

Francesca became friends with the family dog right away

Our bedroom with original period furnishings — felt like a step back in time.

The little princess at the dining room

The Atlantic coast

Father and daughter are such water lovers — this place is paradise for them.

Our family

One of the many games to enjoy in the almost empty beach front along the Atlantic coast

Oyster stalls in Gujan Mestras along the Arcachon Bay

Father and daughter with the Medieval city of Saint Emilion in the background

The little girl in Saint Emilion

Our family in Saint Emilion

Saw lots of macarons in Saint Emilion and had to buy a dozen of different flavors.

Wine chateaux abound in Saint Emilion and this is just one of the many that we saw along the way. The little girl is showing off her tumbling skills here.

Wild flower fields we passed by in the Medoc area

Vineyards in the Medoc area oftentimes stretching to as far as the eyes can see

Sunflower fields

Sunflowers

Our family in a field of wild blooms

The little girl with her haul of dead crabs in Gujan Mestras

The Dordogne river in the afternoon

Netting young trouts in the Dordogne

Opa and Oma flew in through Bergerac for a few days, much to our delight. They stayed at a very cozy hotel in nearby Le Coux et Bigaroux.

We celebrated Dad’s birthday with lunch in Sarlat and dinner in Audrix.

Together we visited the Chateau de Hautefort and were very impressed by its gardens

Our family in Chateau de Hautefort

Monet’s home in Giverny

Monet’s pond of lillies

Lillies in Giverny

Holiday at last

20120709-180025.jpg

After leaving a very wet Holland, we arrived in Normandy for an overnight stay in this lovely chateau just outside Alencon. Wonderful experience!

Nature-tripping at Pelagaccio

Busy bee in action

Apologies for the long absence on my blog. Busy times on both the home and work fronts leave me with hardly any time to sit in front of the pc these days. My husband have to work a great deal of time these days in Belgium so I had to cope with many shared parenting duties single-handedly.

I bring you back to Tuscany which I still remember with so much fondness. The days when we were not out sightseeing were spent lazily by the pool or in my case, indulging in nature-tripping. I love observing the many butterflies and bees out there which are busy hopping among the lavender blooms. The various flowers and ripening fruits also find their way into my camera as well as the simple sight of the Tuscan landscape.

I miss those days under the warm Tuscan sun and the simple pleasures of lunch with bruschettas downed with chilled Italian white wine to the dinner of grilled chicken and beef. The little girl misses the long days of playing under the sun and into the night together with her new friends.

Pale yellow Tuscan roses

Red Tuscan roses

Tangerine Tuscan rose

Butterfly on lavender blooms

Busy bee

Busy bee

Another sort of nectar sucker

A dragonfly

Butterfly on lavender blooms

Butterfly with wings wide open

Busy bee

Bare Tuscan hills after the wheat harvest

Bare Tuscan hills after the wheat harvest

Yellow blooms against the blue sky

Ripening fruits

Ripening fruits

Ripening fruits

Bruschettas

Bruschetta topping – chopped ripe tomatoes with olive oil, salt, pepper and parsley

Chilled white wine to down the lovely bruschettas = perfect lunch

The Grill Master

Grilling T-bone steak marinated in finely chopped garlic and rosemary together with salt, pepper and olive oil

Grilled chicken and T-bone steak

Fun on the swing

Fun with friends

Pentecost weekend camping and castle hunting

The Nijenhuis Castle

I take a bit of a break from my Tuscany series and bring back a bit of Dutch flavor to my post.

Two weekends ago, we had this long weekend due to the observance of Pentecost. The Dutch may not be that religious but there are a few Church holidays where an extra day of holiday is observed the following day such as Christmas (Second Christmas Day), Easter (Second Easter Day) and Pentecost (Second Pentecost Day).

The Pentecost weekend had the best weather we ever saw this year with summery temperature that hit beyond 30 degrees Celsius. After the wet, grey and chilly spring, we were just so glad to finally be able to get rid of our coats and wear light clothing and to be able to enjoy sunshine to our hearts’ content. We opted to go camping and put to test the new tent which we were pretty curious to check out. Our old tent suffered irreparable from the mistral last year when we camped in the South of France.

We camped in Heidepark, Lemelerveld which was about an hour’s drive from our place. No special reason to choosing this camping place except that it was a good distance away from home and that there was also a pool which the little girl was so excited about.

I love combining such an adventure with castle hunting and in this country, it is not impossible to find a castle that is within easy reach. The Nijenhuis Castle proved to be a good choice because it had a wonderful sculpture garden and amazing collection of contemporary Dutch art as well. The sculpture garden was a big hit with the little girl who found it a wonderful place to explore and simply perfect for hide-and-seek.

Father and daughter outside our tent

Improvised skipping rope game

Playground at the camping site

This rabbit from another tent charmed her straight away

The rabbit and the little girl

This little girl braved the chilly waters of this unheated pool

Father and daughter at the pool

Father and daughter at the pool

Cold…brrrr….

The Nijenhuis Castle

Another angle of the castle

The Nijenhuis Castle

The Nijenhuis Castle

The little girl enjoyed picking the little white daisies to make little bouquets

The little girl and the castle

The sculpture garden… the little girl and me were fascinated by the strange guy with the long moustache which was groomed in a very peculiar way

Father and daughter

Me behind the camera

Me and my little girl

Our family

Artwork at the sculpture garden turned plaything for the little girl

Perfect for climbing

The sculpture garden with the well-known piece of Queen Wilhelmina (grandmother of Queen Beatrix) in the distance

Our family

Our family

The little girl spent so much time coming up with leis made from flowers and twigs

Perfect place for running around and hide-and-seek

Rhododendrons in full bloom at the castle grounds

Pink rhododendron

Pink rhododendron

Pink rhododendrons

Inside the castle

Inside the castle

Inside the castle

Inside the castle

Inside the castle

Inside the castle

Inside the castle

Inside the castle

Lunch of tomato soup

and freshly baked breads

The Leaning Tower of Pisa

The Duomo and the leaning tower of Pisa

After a lazy day yesterday of just being at the pool and not having anything else on the itinerary, we decided to do some sightseeing in Pisa, a place whose claim to fame is its leaning tower. It’s a case of “been there, done that” kind of thing that we can cross off our lists of what to see in Tuscany.

Pisa was about an hour’s drive from Pelagaccio (40+ kilometers with about 20 kilometers on secondary road and the rest was through the highway). The trip took us a bit longer because I got distracted by the sight of sunflower fields with the perfect backdrop and wanted to take some pictures. Unfortunately, the fields that I saw were not accessible, being barricaded by road blocks. Another time I’ll be lucky!

When we reached Pisa, the temperature was hitting the 40’s (Celsius) so it was not so pleasant to go around exploring an unfamiliar place with a very young child. My father-in-law Dad couldn’t stand crowds and busy places, my mom-in-law couldn’t stand the heat and was prone to hyperventilation.

We found a parking area which was pretty close, about 2 blocks away from the Torre Pendente (the Leaning Tower). I had mixed emotions in seeing the tower with my own eyes for the first time. It was like stepping into a dream because I never thought that I would even see this place for real. What came to mind was a story in my high school science class of Galileo conducting an experiment of dropping two objects of different mass from the top of the Leaning Tower of Pisa to test his theory of gravity.

The tower was not as high as those other towers where I´ve been but the leaning was very obvious. What was striking about the place itself was the amazing contrast of all the elements – the tower and the duomo were all built from white marble that glistened against the blue sky creating an amazing picture.

Pisa was extremely busy with many people all wanting to execute poses of either holding off the tower from leaning further or of holding the tower from top to bottom in their hands. I tried to do the same but wasn´t very good at it as you can see from my pictures. My father-in-law won´t do that pose either but my mom-in-law did her own version.

After the photoshoot with the tower in the background, we decided to see the interior of the duomo. Unfortunately, we needed to first get entry tickets which were being sold at the museum about 100 meters away. Hubby went to get the tickets while we waited in the shade at the church entrance.

The interior of the duomo was impressive with those frescoes, paintings and murals that really told much of its history. Francesca loved it being inside the duomo although she also did naughty stuffs — jumping, talking too loud, pointing at things she found interesting and climbing the pews. It was very strict there when it came to the dress code – visitors who were deemed inappropriately dressed such as women in sleeveless blouses and plunging necklines were asked to put on the light blue blouses that can cover their naked arms and cleavages.

After the church visit, it was time for lunch. We found a restaurant nearby where we can rest our tired feet and chill out after the exasperating heat outside. The menu was simple and the prices were reasonable considering that the restaurant location was a typical tourist trap. Hubby and his mom opted for pizza, Dad for tuna sandwich, the little girl had her fries with fried eggs sunny side up and I settled for the grilled shrimps and squid on a bed of salad. I truly enjoyed my meal especially as I can dissect and suck the shrimp heads Pinoy style with gusto. Lunch was capped with some cappuccino and of course, tiramisu which was really yummy. The bottom was an ice cream, again a different version from the tiramisu that I´ve eaten before.

Then it was time to head back to Pelagaccio as the little girl needed her afternoon nap for we had an invite for the pasta party at Diacceroni in the afternoon.

The Baptistry, the Duomo and the Leaning Tower of Pisa

The Duomo and the Leaning Tower

My parents-in-law

My family minus me

Holding off the tower but missed! ;-)

Father and daughter

Our family

Holding off the tower from further leaning…

The leaning tower

Top of the tower

Details of the main door of the Duomo

Duomo interior

Duomo interior

Duomo interior

Duomo interior

Duomo interior

Duomo interior

Taking a break…

Intricate craftmanship

The confessional

Church ceiling

One of the altars — Madonna and child

The altar

Oma and Francesca

Couldn’t resist being a child inside the Duomo…

The little girl and her tricks…

Horsey encounter… ;-)

The little girl and the Baptistry behind

Part of the wall surrounding the Duomo

Detail of the wall inside the restaurant

Grilled seafood on a bed of salad

Pizza

Souvenir items

Fake designer bags being peddled by African immigrants — they almost took my camera because they don’t want this picture taken

Father and daughter making a purchase…

…wiggly spiky ball

Funny aprons ;-)

Funny aprons… ;-)

Trying a hat…

Laid-back life under the Tuscan sun

Misty morning

After a busy day in Florence and staying late for the pizza party and the subsequent football match, we took it easy the following day, just stayed at Pelagaccio, went for a dip at the pool and simply enjoyed the laid-back Tuscan life away from the pressures of work and the rigors of daily life.

I oftentimes had to be reminded to take it easy once in a while and as we were here for two weeks, there was plenty of time still for sightseeing. Francesca’s needs should also be given top consideration. Hers were different from our own and the trips to busy places were not her thing. She just loves it here choosing among several alternatives at her disposal – swimming at the pool, playing at the playground, cycling on her trike or assembling her lego blocks and puzzles.

It was again a very misty morning and I’ve been meaning since a few days ago to take some pictures of this phenomenon. It was always misty in the morning due to the temperature drop during the night and it was amazing to observe how the mist eventually disappeared as the fierce Tuscan sun made its way.

What a lovely sight to see when the hills were all covered in mist, even Pelagaccio was hardly visible from the pool which was but a few yards away. I found myself taking pictures not just of the landscape around me but of the flowers which after the routine morning watering looked like they had just been kissed by the rain.

After breakfast, it was time for a dip in the pool. I joined for a short while but did not linger because my left foot which has blister from previous day’s hike over the hills (I did not wear proper shoes in that hike) was irritated by the lightly salted pool water. I don’t know why but the pool water here was a bit salty. Francesca as usual, had a grand time especially when opa and oma later came and joined in on the fun.

I volunteered to instead prepare lunch, inspired by the meal I had in Florence the day before. We still had left over bread from which I could make the bruschetta. From the grocery this morning, I got some parsley and tomatoes. Wow, lunch turned out to be a great success!

To make the bruschetta, I sliced the bread to about half an inch thickness and sprinkled that with extra virgin olive oil and added a small amount of finely chopped garlic. In essence, bruschetta is garlic bread. I fried/roasted the bread in a flat-bellied Teflon pan till it was brown and crispy. For the toppings, I chopped some tomatoes, added some finely chopped garlic and parsley, extra virgin olive oil and seasoned that with salt and pepper. With some chilled white wine to down the bruschetta al pomodori with, we all had a great fill and then it was time for the afternoon siesta.

At about 5pm, hubby and Francesca were again back at the pool for that before dinner swim to create some appetite especially for the little girl who has all the time for playing but no time for food. She reminded me of my own childhood where when the opportunity to play arises, eating and other considerations would surely take a back seat. Oh well, we had to make the most of this opportunity which is not an every day thing. Having a pool at our disposal, a playground and to top it all, the time to unwind and forget the rigors of daily life are rare pleasures for which we should spare time to savor.

Dinner that night was hubby’s turf – pasta. He made used of penne and prepared a very yummy red sauce made from sautéing garlic, onions, tinned peeled tomatoes and some leftover salami. He got some dried mushrooms from the grocery this morning but did not use that because it required 20 minutes soaking in cold water for which he had no time. There was also no basil leaves from that small shop so he made use of parsley which was just as nice. On the side was the mozzarella cheese with fresh tomatoes sprinkled with olive oil, salt and pepper and topped with more chopped parsley. I made some more garlic bread from the leftovers. A bottle of chilled white wine proved to be an excellent companion to our splendid dinner under the trees.

Visibility of just a few meters — the mist shrouds the hills farther

Misty morning

The sun peering through the mist

Misty morning … hills in the distance not visible

View of the Tuscan countryside once the mist was gone

pink blooms

Pale yellow Tuscan rose

Pink Tuscan rose

Pink oleander

Courgette bloom

Orange daisy

Pale yellow Tuscan rose

Unripe grapes

Rosebud

Drops

A spider in its web

A yellow butterfly perched on lavender blooms

A white butterfly

White butterfly in transit

Busy bee

Busy bee

Father and daughter at the pool

Little girl and oma

Little girl and oma

Pool fun with the grandparents

Hubby on the inflatable dolphin

The dolphin flipped over ;-)

The little girl has more expertise on handling the dolphin than her father

Francesca with opa and oma

Bruschetta made from leftover bread

Hubby’s version of salade caprese

Penne with tomato sauce and salami

Pizza party at Diacceroni

Simple pizza with courgette toppings

City trip to Florence under the scorching heat was exhausting. It was great to escape and be back to the laid back countryside atmosphere at Pelagaccio and Diacceroni. We arrived at Pelagaccio after 4pm, just in time to freshen up for the 5pm pizza party at Diacceroni.

The pleasant surprise we had in staying here are the 3x per week free meals for all the guests with different themes. Saturday is for all sorts of Italian dishes – pasta, pizza, bread, tempura of aubergine, courgette and courgette blooms, bruschettas with toppings of tomatoes with olive oil and finely chopped parsley or anchovies with finely chopped garlic and mashed aubergine. As usual, we only have to pay for the drinks – beer for the guys and white wine for the ladies. Their white wine chilled to perfection is amazingly good that my mom-in-law and I always forget it has alcohol content. Cost about €6, I was early on our stay already contemplating if I would bring a couple of bottles back home. A great drink, I can taste the fruity and flowery elements in it.

The pizza party was a great experience. Everyone was there. The tables were all assembled in one long line between the olive trees forming like one continuous banquet table. We were seated at the end of the line which was perfect because we were also closest to the playground and therefore had an excellent oversight of Francesca. The little girl was in her element being among other children and at the playground. One thing that she loved about the playground here at Diacceroni was the “spring kussen” as it is called in Dutch or literally “jumping pillow” but which the Scots call “jumping castle”. She could jump to her heart’s content.

The pizzas were prepared in a special pizza hut on the grounds of Diacceroni. The hut has a wood-fired oven and the pizza was fed into it and the cooking process just took a few minutes. It was amazing how they prepare the pizza and was completely different from the way pizza has been conceptualized outside Italy. The “mamas” made the dough and just flattened them to the right thickness and then place them in rectangular trays. Toppings varied from just plain extra virgin olive oil then salt and pepper to thin slices of courgette, aubergine or red onions which were later drizzled with olive oil, salt and pepper. Other toppings were that of tomato sauce and capers with some bits of mozzarella cheese. Oh, I can tell you that the pizzas were the best even with just the plain dough which was airy and crispy.

One of the Italian “mamas” gave the children pieces of the pizza dough to fashion their own creations and later bake them as well in the oven. Great idea! Some kids created heart-shaped pizzas engraved with their initials. We had a great time from this pizza experience. Not being a big pizza fan, I had my initial misgivings that a pizza party can be fun. I was utterly and completely wrong!

Time flies when we are having so much fun. Soon it was time to head back to Pelagaccio as Francesca needed to go to bed. Oh well, we were in a huge dilemma to stay a bit longer because at 8.30pm, the semi-final World Cup game between Holland and Uruguay will be shown. There was no TV or internet connection at Pelagaccio.

The voice of reason prevailed so we headed back to Pelagaccio for Francesca. Opa and Oma were happy to bring her to bed (she has been sleeping with them since the start of our holiday and won’t sleep with us) so hubby and I returned to Diacceroni for the football match – on foot and with a flashlight, a must as there was no moonlight to lighten up our path nor light posts. Oh, so rural that I kept on being reminded of those early years of my childhood when there was no electricity yet and the night light came only from moonlight or those Molotov cocktails that people used then when there was a need to travel at night on foot or with the carabao-pulled carts.

To reach Diacceroni from Pelagaccio on foot was to traverse two hills and was actually a pleasant experience because we had such a splendid view of our own place silhouetted in the sunset complemented by the chirping of the crickets and the humming of the birds as they prepare to call it a day in their nests or favorite branches in the trees.

We arrived at 8.45pm, just in time for Holland’s first goal and those already there watching the games were cheering for Holland and jumping off their seats. The TV and the channel receiver were set up in the garden so it was a novel experience to watch football under the stars. I could not helped but get consumed by the raging orange fever just like everyone there of other nationalities who rooted for Holland too. At the first half of the match, it was time for more drinks. Hubby had another glass of beer while I settled for water having had half a bottle of wine already earlier.

Holland’s win over Uruguay was a great culmination to a wonderful day. Everyone had happy expression on their faces. Time to head back to Pelagaccio. Night has fallen and only the stars were there to guide us on our way back.

Pippo, the sweet dog which befriended Francesca and everyone at our place decided to come with us on our way back. He also patiently stayed with me the other day when I took a short walk to take sunset pictures of Pelagaccio. Very loyal and sweet dog on whom I’ve fallen in love too, just as Francesca and everyone have.

Walking back under the stars reminded me of one short story in my Philippine literature class, that of Manuel Arguilla’s “How my brother Leon brought home a wife”. It has been a long time since hubby and I had taken a walk together under the stars reminiscent of those days when we’ve just met each other on the beaches of El Nido in Palawan. Too romantic!

Life in the west as we call it has been about haste and expediency. It was nice to go back to the basics once in a while, to be away from the conveniences of modern life like the TV and internet, to do away with the car and instead take a hike through the hills. Without all these distractions, it was amazing to appreciate nature and life in all its simplicity – from the stars to the fireflies, to the music created by crickets, frogs and birds, the only sound that can be heard in the stillness of the night.

The hut with the wood-fired oven for baking the pizza

Francesca making her personalized pizza

Freshly-baked pizza taken out of the oven

Pizza with tomato sauce and capers

Pizzas

Trays of pizza waiting for their turn in the wood-fired oven

The pizza party guests

The little ones having fun at the “spring kussen”

The little ones at the mini-swing

The little one with oma

The little one lording it over at the slide

Hibiscus at Diacceroni

Pomegranate blooms which the kids love to pluck from the tree

A very young pomegranate fruit

Sunset at Pelagaccio

Pelagaccio as viewed from the next hill

We hiked through these hills at sunset and back late in the night

Sunset and Pelagaccio in the distance

Sunset

Tuscan sunset

Stopping for a bit of rest through our hike over the hills

Stopping for a bit of rest through our hike over the hills

Renaissance Florence

Florence

The nice thing about going on holiday together with my parents-in-law was that hubby and I could have our twosome day out especially to a busy city like Florence which would have been miserable to our little girl who has no interest yet in history.

A very busy city which was a far departure from the tranquil countryside that we’ve gotten so used to, we opted to take it easy as the sweltering heat of 40°C was not that pleasant for a very thorough sightseeing. Our exploration of the city started with an unplanned side trip to a market where I found an accessible toilet. We lingered a bit at the market as I was fascinated by the many things that can be found there. It was a pretty interesting exploration as the Italian just like the Spanish and Philippine markets also sell stuffs which can be very offensive to the Dutch sensibility – cow’s stomach lining (oftentimes used for dishes like callos), tongue (lengua stofado), intestine (“dinuguan” or bloody Mary), etc. There were also nice stuffs like those huge Italian cheeses, sausages, wines, pasta, dried mushrooms, and much more.

Florence, the birthplace of the Renaissance has always fascinated me since high school when I had my world history subject. Never in my wildest dreams did I ever thought that one day I would be here. I would have loved to go inside the Duomo, visit the museums and really take my time to explore the city but the sweltering heat was just too much. Florence would be perfect for a pure city trip another time.

On the drive to Florence, I already told the hubby that I wanted to eat the famous “bistecca ala Florentina” which is a T-bone steak and is known to be the best in the country. Good choice but it was a huge piece of about half a kilo which he and I eventually shared. The resto where we had lunch was just in front of the Piazza de la Signorina so there was a bit of “highway robbery” for unsuspecting tourists like us.

At the very start, hubby was served a huge glass of about half a liter beer and looking at the other diners, I cannot help but wonder why every one was getting huge servings of drinks. Even children were getting big colas of half liters. Later it turned out that the beer cost almost €10, cappuccino at €5.80, etc….Well, a simple lunch for 2 can easily cost €100 if one is not conscious of the prices and why the servings are on the big/max side. Anyway, dessert was perfect – chocolate cake with layers of dark chocolates in between that melt in the mouth.

By the time that we were done with lunch, the sky has already darkened and there was the threatening downpour. We decided to just have a bit of a walk towards the Arno river which is a special feature of Florence. I’ve been charmed by the postcards and pictures I’ve seen of Florence with its enchanting bridges. Too bad that we could not linger a bit longer as we had to be back for the pizza party at Diacceroni at 5pm. It must be so enchanting to see Florence at sunset and at night time when the city basked in the evening lights. Another time, another season…then I’ll also explore the Duomo, the museums, the Medici villas and gardens.

Time to head back to the garage where we parked the car. Car parking was quite pricey at €5 an hour. It was valet parking so we have to leave the key with the garage owner. Again, something new and uncommon for us.

I loved the drive back to Pelagaccio. Who won’t be charmed by the beckoning sunflower fields?

Dried mushrooms — just soak it in cold water for 20 minutes and then it is a perfect meat replacement for pasta dishes

Dried sausages or “salamis”

Italian cheeses

Italian wines and spirits

Beef tripes used for stew dishes like “callos”

Leather bags everywhere

Busy open market scene

One of the many stalls for Italian souvenirs

Italian artworks

Medici Chapel

The Duomo behind me

The Duomo

The Mr. and me with the Duomo and Baptistry of St. John behind

A stall selling postcards and other souvenirs outside the Duomo

The Duomo which showcases intricate Gothic style was begun in 1296 and completed structurally in 1436. Amazing to see how it has stood the test of time to this day.

Horse-drawn carriages at the Piazza del Duomo

Piazza della Signorina and Palazzo Vecchio

Piazza della Signorina and Palazzo Vecchio

A replica of Michaelangelo’s David

Every tourist wants to touch this beast but I did not feel like queuing for it.

bruschetta al pomodoro — after having this in Florence, it became our staple at Pelagaccio.
Easy to make: For the bread, just slice leftover bread to about 2 cm. of thickness, sprinkle it generously with extra virgin olive oil then fry in a flat-bellied pan until brown and crispy. For the toppings, chop the tomatoes coarsely then season it with salt, pepper, extra virgin olive oil and finely chopped parsley.

Bistecca a la Florentina

Chef’s salad consisting of tomatoes, mozarella, ham and olives. Pretty bland actually. I prefer the caprese salad.

The cappuccino that can almost break the bank at Eur 5.80

Melts in the mount chocolate cake

Intricate interior of a building at the Piazza

Terrace restaurants in Florence

Arno river running through Florence

Me with Ponte Vecchio (old bridge) behind. This bridge was built in 1345 and was Florence’s first bridge across the Arno River and is the only surviving bridge from medieval days.

Love locks

`The Mr. and Arno River

Me and the Arno River

Curious of what are housed on the covered Ponte Vecchio, it is lined with shops selling gold and silver jewelry.

The Mr. and me at Ponte Vecchio

Florence

Roadside scenery on the way back to our agriturismo – sunflower fields and quaint Italian farm houses

A royal encounter – up close and personal with Crown Princess Maxima

That’s me with the big grin a step behind Crown Princess Maxima

Let me take a break from my Tuscany series of posts and tell you of my royal encounter yesterday with our lovely crown princess. I was lucky to get an invite from my alma mater, the International Institute of Social Studies (ISS) to attend the inaugural lecture of Professor Stella Luz A. Quimbo from the University of the Philippines School of Economics following her appointment to the Prince Claus Chair in Development and Equity.

The Prince Claus Chair which is chaired by Princess Maxima was established by Utrecht University and the International Institute of Social Studies in early 2003 in honour of Prince Claus of the Netherlands (1926-2002) who has been deeply committed in promoting development and equity throughout the world.

This was actually my second time to attend this event and the second time to see the crown princess in person. It was just amazing to finally shake hands with her and introduced myself as being from the Philippines. Something to tell grandchildren in my old days that I had this real meeting with the princess (she’ll be queen by then) and finally documented with this one picture. ;-)

These pictures were taken by Piet Gispen, the official ISS photographer and lifted from the ISS Flickr site.

Princess Maxima

Professor Stella Quimbo

Professor Quimbo with the Rector Magnificus of Erasmus University and Rector of ISS

Professor Quimbo with Princess Maxima, the rectors and the ISS faculty

Professor Quimbo with Princess Maxima, the Mayor of The Hague and the rectors

Princess Maxima in conversation with the ISS students

Tuscan sunset at Pelagaccio

Tuscan sunset

The nice thing about staying in an agriturismo was that it was possible to escape the madness of crowded places like the earlier part of the day we spent in Volterra and retreat to the tranquil of Pelagaccio. There was the pool for a dip to tame the scorching heat and then the simple beauty of the countryside to take us back to another place and time.

The little girl was just so happy to be back to Pelagaccio playing with Pippo (the sweet dog belonging to the agriturismo) and then with 2 other kids at the playground. Who won’t have fun in such a place, a playground with so much space?

Tuscan sunset never fails to amaze. That crimson ball in the horizon which would eventually disappear through the Tuscan hills and leaves behind a sky of various shades from purple, red, pink, and gold, eventually giving way to darkness and a night sky of millions of stars.

Before dinner, I just found myself taking a short walk on the dirt road leading to and from Pelagaccio and took more pictures. I wanted to take pictures of Pelagaccio from a distance and at sunset with the fading light giving it a different charm and glow. It was amazing to also take pictures of the village of Fabbricca close to nightfall as the many pictures I took of this village was at the height of the day. There was a different kind of wonder and amazement to see the silhouette of Tuscan hills in the fading light, to hear the birds and crickets even under pain of being bitten by some nasty flies.

On this little excursion, Pippo proved his loyalty by providing me excellent company which was very reassuring in such a very unfamiliar terrain.

Tuscan sunset

Tuscan vineyard at sunset

Tuscan sunset

Pelagaccio from the distance

Agriturismo Pelagaccio from the distance

Tuscan hills in late afternoon

Small vineyard close to the entrance of Pelagaccio

Vineyard and the village of Fabbricca up the hill

Agriturismo Pelagaccio at sunset

Francesca

Father and daughter

Children’s playground

Kids playing with Pippo

Sweet Pippo

Francesca and Pippo

The little girl and her favorite dog

Fun at the swing

Fun at the table football

Fun at the slide

Fun at the slide

Luscious fruits ripening under the the Tuscan sun

Unripe grapes

Yellow blooms

Red blooms

Tuscan roses

Little girl at sunset

Little girl and Pippo

Volterra

Volterra

After a relaxing day spent at the pool and not doing much after that, we were off to some sightseeing. Volterra is one town that we can see from the distance, perched on top of a hill. The strange thing about driving in Italy is that while we can see Volterra from our place and seems so nearby, to get there through those circuitous roads through the hills takes a lot longer. In a straight line, I guess Volterra is just about 7 kilometers.

Volterra is an Etruscan town and many artifacts from that period had survived to this day. The town was very nice but we took it easy because of Francesca. It was just fun to look at the shops and see Italian goodies. One thing that Volterra is known for is its alabaster so a lot of shops sell souvenir items made of it. I bought some small stuffs (a jewelry box and a pendant in the form of a lady bug for Francesca) and Mam Sil got for herself a small ash tray.

We went inside the Cathedral of Santa Maria Assunta which was pretty cool, a great respite from the sweltering Tuscan heat. Francesca wanted to linger there but the caretaker of the church has asked everyone to leave – the church was closing for the day. Francesca was furious!

It was then time for lunch. We found an Italian version of the Pinoy “turo-turo” where there was an incredible choice of Italian specialties. Me and my mom-in-law Mam opted for something vegetarian which turned out to be so yummy that I ended up asking for the recipe to give it a try back home. Aubergine and courgette hallowed and filled with carrots, peas, potatoes sautéed in olive oil, garlic, ginger and a bit of basil leaves topped with parmesan cheese and egg then baked in the oven. With bread on the side, the dish was just perfect.

My husband opted for the simple spaghetti with fresh tomato sauce and basil leaves. So simple yet very delish! For Francesca we ordered a pasta with white sauce (she doesn’t like the red sauce) but she did not have the appetite for it, spoiled by the Italian gelato which she had earlier. My father-in-law had his fried quartered potatoes and sautéed string beans to be on the safe side (no garlic please!) yet there was plenty of finely chopped garlic in those beans! It tasted so well that he finished it nonetheless. We were so hungry though that I forgot to take pictures of those lovely dishes. ;-)

For dessert, we went to a small patisserie and had the typical Italian tiramisu and some cake.

Volterra

Facade of an old church

Town square of Volterra

Palazzo dei Priori

Palazzo dei Priori

A closer look at the walls of the Palazzo show these emblems

Palazzo dei Priori

Old buildings

A street name that gives men the creeps ;-)

Souvenir shops

Outside a souvenir shop

Inside a souvenir shop

Home-made soaps

Inside the souvenir shop

Italian delis – wine, olive oil, bread, pasta, etc.

Italian delis

Open air restaurants

Amazing choices of gelato at a typical Gelateria or “ice cream parlor”

The little girl enjoying her strawberry gelato

Inside the Cathedral of Santa Maria Assunta

Lighted candles inside the cathedral

An altar inside the Cathedral of Santa Maria Assunta

A gallery selling Tuscan landscape paintings

Torture museum ;-)

Museum

Narrow medieval street

Old door

Green door

The way to the Palazzo

A small chapel

Volterra

Italian tiramisu

Piece of cake

Relaxing under the Tuscan sun and skies

Tuscan countryside early in the morning

While sitting under the tree and enjoying the cool breeze blowing off the 40°C heat, I can’t help but wonder why we’ve never gone to Tuscany before. Our next door neighbor in Holland has been going to Tuscany year after year, staying in the same place over the last 10 years and I used to wonder why they never go elsewhere when there are simply hundreds if not thousands of amazing destination in Europe.

The place is simply stunning and now I can understand why there has always been so much buzz about Tuscany and life under the Tuscan sun, why the place has been gloriously immortalized and romanticized in many books and movies (the recent and pretty popular one being “Under the Tuscan Sun” by Frances Mayes and its movie version starred Diane Lane).

At 360° around me and under clear blue skies, my vista consisted of rolling hills lined with cypress trees, blooms of various kind (geraniums, oleanders, roses, lavender, jasmines, etc.), which charm butterflies of incredible colors, bees and other flies, quaint old villages on which time seemed to have stood still, vineyards, olive groves and wheat fields gone gold.

We’re pretty far from the highway, the only sound that can be heard of are the birds and crickets, occasional cars in the dirt road and the churning of the combined harvesters harvesting the wheat.

Is this life under the Tuscan sun? Pretty laid back and the only thing we can do is sit down and relax, dip in the pool to cool down the Tuscan heat and let time pass by over glasses of chilled prosecco with those delish Italian cheeses on the side.

The place we are staying is an apartment in Agriturismo Pelagaccio. It is a typical Tuscan farmhouse with a small annex building divided into a total of 8 apartments on a 200-hectare property. There is enough privacy just as there is enough company, a perfect balance. (I remember staying on a Centre Parcs holiday home in Germany which I found to be extremely busy and on an isolated holiday home in Normandy which at Francesca’s age now, she would have found too lonesome as she loves the company of other kids).

The place is just ideal with a playground that meets Francesca’s approval and the perfectly situated swimming pool that I’ve ever seen – on top of a hill with a 360° panorama of the Tuscan landscape.

Everyone except me had already tried the pool this morning. I just had fun taking snapshots of everyone and everything – from Francesca, Siefko, Opa and Oma to the Tuscan landscape and those amazing butterflies which cast their spell on me and my cam.

After swimming, Siefko and I headed to Volterra for the groceries (Italian supermarkets are open on Sunday from 8-13 hrs) plus we needed to gas up because our car was running short on petrol. Good that in another village before Volterra (La Sperza) there was a petrol station where we can gas up but it was self-service and the machine would only accept small Euro bills and not bank or credit cards.

We reached the Coop supermarket in Volterra just in the nick of time. It was kind of weird to shop in another country given the language barrier. Doing the self-service thing on those veggies (weighing but the names are in Italian and most times there are no pictures on the weighing scale for the stuff) is like solving a riddle.

Dinner was such a very anticipated affair as the idea of barbeque became a foregone conclusion – grilled pork Pinoy style (in short, “inihaw na baboy” which were thick slices of pork belly marinated in garlic, vinegar, salt, pepper and a bit of soy sauce), grilled aubergine and paprika which I seasoned with olive oil, salt and pepper, fresh salad of lettuce, tomatoes and cucumber with the simple dressing of olive oil, balsamic vinegar, salt and pepper — served with steamed rice, beer for the guys and ice-cold white wine for the ladies. That was at almost 10pm as we forgot the passing of time under the Tuscan skies.

Tuscan countryside — view from the pool

View of Pelagaccio from the pool

Tuscan countryside

Tuscan countryside

Tuscan countryside

The medieval village of Fabbricca as viewed from the pool — we go there each morning for bread and other supplies

Cypress trees

Tuscan countryside

The path leading to the swimming pool

Location-wise, no pool can be far better than this…on top of a hill with an unobstructed view of the Tuscan countryside

Perfect place to cool down the 40-degree Celsius heat

Fun in the pool for everyone

Father and daughter

Oma joined in the fun

Opa, Papa and the little girl

Enjoying the cool waters

Father and daughter

Father and daughter

The family

Finally I joined in the pool party

Tuscan roses

Tuscan rose

Fiery red roses

Yellow blooms

Pink oleanders

Tuscan roses

Butterfly

Butterfly

White butterfly among the lavenders

Butterfly

Butterfly

Butterfly

Butterfly

Unripe grapes

Tuscan horses

Pelagaccio

The barbeque man

Grilled pork belly

Tuscany

Tuscan countryside

Time to think of warm sunny days especially as the dismal Dutch spring this year is already making not just me but a lot of people edgy. Spring is already mid-way but the nice days we had so far can be counted on my fingers with the single best one being last 30 April when we celebrated Queen’s Day.

On this blog and the few more to come, I will take you to Tuscany, to those warm days that me and my family enjoyed under the Tuscan sun charmed by its amazing countryside and picturesque medieval towns and cities.

It was almost two years ago (early July 2010) when went to Tuscany for a two-week holiday. We stayed at an agriturismo (these are actually farmhouses converted into apartments). Staying in these farmhouses is the best way to experience Tuscany because we really had a good feel of the Tuscan/Italian way of life.

We made the trip from Holland to Italy in two days because my husband did all the driving (1,400 kms) and Francesca being still very young then needed more frequent stops for diaper change, feeding and drinks. My parents-in-law also joined us on this holiday which was also great — we had so much fun on the road. We spent the night in Lucerne, Switzerland staying in a Hilton Express Hotel not so far from the highway.

Weather was unbelievably warm so I really enjoyed the drive through and short stay in Switzerland. Hubby and I holidayed in Switzerland in the past and really loved it there except for the unpredictable weather which can simply dampen the country’s charm. To see this picturesque country under blue skies and with the alps glimmering in the distance was just amazing.

We finally arrived in Tuscany at around 5pm, with some confusion at finding our agriturismo because we realized then that even with the recently upgraded navigation system information, it was hard to find the place because the dirt road leading to it was not on the map (holiday makers staying at agriturismos in Italy can always be recognized through their dusty cars compared to those staying in hotels). There were 3 agriturismo locations that belong to the chain that we booked and the reception/registration was at Diacceroni (we were booked at Pelagaccio). We had to wait for about an hour to get our registration sorted out, the caretaker of Pelagaccio took some time to come over and lead us to our apartment.

I was happy to take some pictures while waiting. The vista around me was amazing — Tuscan hills carpeted with wheat turned gold and ready to be harvested, vineyards, olive groves, distant hilltop villages from Medieval times, cypress trees lining up dirt roads leading to Tuscan hamlets.

Francesca found an instant playmate in an English boy whom she was able to convince that stone-throwing was a fun game.

We were told that there was a free Italian party that night at 7pm for all the guests. We only have to pay for the drinks. What a great surprise! We followed the caretaker to Pelagaccio and the drive took about 15 minutes. We took out our stuffs from the car and headed back again to Diacceroni. There was a very festive atmosphere and guests of various nationalities (Europeans as I was the only exotic-looking creature there) were engaged in friendly getting-to-know chitchat.

Food was great consisting of Italian dishes which were surprisingly vegetarian — pasta in tomato sauce, breads, bruschettas with toppings of fresh tomatoes, anchovies with mushroom and garlic, omelets with vegetables, and tempuras of aubergine, courgette and courgette blooms.

Tables were scattered at Diacceroni grounds planted with olive trees, hibiscus, pomegranates, lavenders, oleanders, cypress, figs, etc.

The kids had a great time running around and playing at the playground. Francesca’s fave was the “spring kussen” or the jumping castle as the Scots’ acquaintance of ours call them.

Diaccerroni agriturismo

Tuscan countryside

Tuscan countryside – view from Diacceroni

Tuscan countryside

artichoke

Pink oleanders

Peach colored oleanders

Red oleanders

White gardenias

Pink Tuscan rose

Pink hibiscus

Pomegranate bloom

Francesca and a new friend

Stone-throwing game

Adventurous girl looking out at the pigs down the hill

A black bird in the olive tree

Dinner under the Tuscan sky

Tuscan food

Courgette (zuccini) omelet

thinly sliced bread topped with fresh tomatoes mashed with olive oil, salt and pepper

Potato omelet

thinly sliced bread topped with anchovies, olives, basil leaves

Courgette tempura

Eggplant omelet

freshly made pasta with tomato sauce and basil leaves

thinly sliced bread with olive oil, salt and pepper

Tuscan sunset

More on the Dutch tulip fields

Our little queen among dandelions with the tulip fields in the distance

I know that my posts lately have been more on the Dutch flower fields but seeing that much beauty makes it impossible to not be carried away and have that overwhelming desire to share them.

On this particular day that we celebrated Queen’s Day (30th April) we were simply super lucky with the weather of warm temperature and blue skies as the days after were again chilly, wet and grey.  That day was a one-off and I am glad that we had these pictures as reminder of that one seemingly rare warm spring day.

Our family

Our family

A field of dandelions

Our family

Queen’s Day at the tulip fields

Our little queen on Queen’s Day at the tulip fields

“Never let an opportunity pass by without giving it due consideration.” Weather-wise, this is my standing motto these days because in the whole month of April, we’ve hardly seen the sun and the temperature has been for the most part, chilly.

In yesterday’s Queen’s Day celebration, the weather did an unusual turn-around. Less than 24 hours before, I was still in my winter coat and then it was off to temperature soaring to as high as 28 degrees Celsius during the day. The party mode was on fever-pitch for the Dutch.

Not wanting to waste such a lovely day, I managed to persuade the Mr. to also do a side trip to the flower fields in nearby Flevo polder where we saw the tulips already in full bloom when driving through last weekend. We normally go to the Noordoost polder for our annual foray into the flower fields and our original plan to do that is still next weekend but seeing the blue skies, I just can’t wait for almost a week for that. Besides, there is no guarantee about a nice weather either and who knows, most tulips would already be gone by then when the farmer cuts the flowers to enable the bulbs to grow further. These fields are just a short drive of 20 minutes from our place so I see no reason why we can’t spare some time on this day.

Under sweltering heat at the height of the day, we were at the tulips fields in the polder. My little girl changed outfit to something close to the Dutch royal color and reigned over the fields in her faux jewelry ensemble which were hard won from throwing balls to a stack of tin cans from a distance in the fancy fair we went to the other weekend.

Year after year, I remain amazed by this staggering vista of tulips in various colors and varieties. I try not to give this sight a miss and why not, it is all for free, gratis et amore.

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Our family

Our family

Queen’s Day celebration

A turn around in the weather spelled the big difference and great fun in this year’s traditional Queen’s Day celebration. The day before, we were still in our thick winter coat but on this day, we could go out in summer outfit, my husband even in his shorts.

The 30th of April has been celebrated as Queen’s Day during the reign of Queen Juliana (mother of Queen Beatrix, the reigning monarch) because that was her birthday and the gates of Soestdijk Palace opened up to the Dutch people who would come to bring her presents. She would be with the royal family in full force to meet the people in her very own down-to-earth manner. This has of course endeared her to her subjects. Queen Beatrix’s birthday is in January but the April 30 celebration has been retained because weather-wise, this is the best time for the Dutch to party. Holland on this day explodes in orange as the Dutch family belongs to the House of Orange-Nassau (Oranje-Nassau). The manner of celebration has also taken a different route. On this day, Queen Beatrix and the members of the royal family visit two towns/cities and participate in the many organized activities. The younger royals literally let their hair loose by joining in the many fun games, much to the amusement of the people who normally don’t get the chance to see them up close and personal and in such a very relaxed and playful manner.

This celebration has seen rough times in recent years. Three years ago, at the celebration in Apeldoorn which is also a royal stronghold, a drama unfolded right before the very eyes of the Dutch royals. A black Suzuki swift driven by a man suffering from depression drove through the crowd in full view of the royal family who were in an open bus. Eight people died from this incident which has always been viewed as a fun and safe activity.

This year, the royal family visited the towns of Veenendaal and Rhenen. The mood was sober especially when the queen addressed the crowd that unfortunately the royal family was not complete. Tragedy struck the royal family when the queen’s son Prince Johan Friso was buried in an avalanche while the family were on a skiing holiday in Austria last February. He is in coma and in long-term care at a specialized hospital in London and to which the doctors have already declared that he’ll never wake up again save for a miracle. He is the smartest of the queen’s three sons and father to two very young daughters who will never get to live normal lives again.

Apart from the festive mood, Holland is also one big flea market on this day. Anyone with second hand stuffs to sell is out to make a few bucks. It is a case of one’s junk can be another person’s treasure. Old clothes, shoes, toys, music records, DVDs, delicate chinas, books, etc. which have been segregated for disposal after spring cleaning can maybe still earn a few bucks. To my little girl, the big attraction was the merry go round and the chance to eat her favorite “olliebollen” which is normally something that is on sale around Christmas and New year. Some enterprising young girls were offering nail polish for 50 cents with several designs to choose from. My little girl showed her patriotic side asking for the colors of the Dutch flag.

After the walk through the busy Langestraat, we had enough of this Orange madness and decided to already go home. I suggested to the hubby that it is not a bad idea to head to the tulip fields in Zeewolde for our annual photo session since the weather is just fantastic for that.

Orange is the color of the day

Other people's junk can be another person's treasure

Everyone wants to earn a few bucks...this boy with his violin for a few cents

Selling old records

Old DVDs

Old toys and game boards

Old chinas, etc.

Old shoes

Old toys

A manicure of preferred design from enterprising girls for Eur 50 cents

The colors of the Dutch flag in her nails... a very satisfied customer

Merry-go-round always spells "F-U-N" to the little girl

A balloon is also a must-have...pricey at Eur 6.00

And "olliebollen" which has become rare at this time of the year is a treat to the little girl

Ogling the many sorts of sweets

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