December 28th 2014 - Orvieto, Italy - Day 133

We left Montalcino today after a wonderful two weeks.  We have a 6:30 AM flight tomorrow from Rome to Krakow, Poland, so we needed to head from Montalcino to Rome in order to stay close to the airport.  Stacie and I went for a good walk in the morning and then we started packing up.  Around 1:00 we hit the road and decided to stop in Orvieto on the way to Rome in order to break up the trip.  We visited Orvieto the last time we were in Italy and really liked it, so we thought we would show the kids again.  

We arrived in Orvieto around 3:00 and quickly found a place to park.  The wind was whipping and it was cool, so we quickly found a place for a coffee and a cup of hot chocolate - both were great.  Orvieto is a really quaint town and it was nicely decorated for the holidays.  In addition the town was hosting an international jazz festival so it was really busy.  

We wandered around the town for a while taking pictures and looking through the Christmas stalls before deciding that it was time to hit the road.  On the way out of town the light on the Cathedral was amazing so I stopped and took some shots before hustling to the car and cranking up the heat.  

We arrived in Rome later in the evening and found the Sheraton without too many problems.  I went to return the rental car while the rest of the family took a much needed break.   Once I get to the rental car return  found out I could actually return the car the following morning without any problems, even though the location would be closed.  This information was not the same I had received when renting the car in Rome, however, in this case it was good news so I hightailed it back to the hotel so we could eat.  

A quick hotel meal and we were off to an early bed time because of a 3:45 AM wake up call.  Unfortunately the person above us had different ideas.  They walked around all night in high heels moving furniture.  I am not sure what in the hell was going on, but I barely slept and 3:45 came awfully early for all of us.

December 27th 2014 - Montalcino, Italy - Day 132

Today we needed a down day.  With all of the activities of the holidays and Lea's birthday we thought a day where we took it pretty easy would be a good idea.  We really only had one thing on the agenda and that was to hike to the Abbey of Sant'Antimo.  

The Abby is still functioning and has year round monks who live there.  The hike is about 6 miles one way, which was more than we wanted to tackle, so we drove about half way and then walked the rest.  When we arrived it was only a few minutes before the next prayer, which meant if we hung around for a short time we would be able to hear the monks chant.  

We took shelter from the biting wind inside the abby and within 10 minutes the monks filtered in and began their prayer.  It was peaceful to hear and we all enjoyed the moment, but were ready to go after a couple of prayers.

As we walked back a light rain started to fall so we picked up the pace a little.  We made it back to the car about two hours after we left cold and ready for a relaxing evening.  We had a good meal and went to bed pretty early.  A very simple last day in Montalcino.  

December 26th 2014, Montalcino, Italy - Lea's Birthday - Day 131

We had agreed early in the trip that we would not do gifts on any of our birthdays.  Since we all had a birthday while on the trip we would all be in the same boat and the trip itself was intended to be the present.  This had worked well for everyone and we tried to make the day great without presents.  Stacie visited some gardens, Peter had a great day on safari and I went to Montepulciano and Pienza - for Lea we decided to surprise her with a visit to a natural hot spring about a half hour away.

First when she woke up we tried to recreate the morning she loves so much when we are at the cabin for her birthday.  We decorated the tree with balloons, put some paper hats on top and on the stairs and tried to make the place festive.  We typically head out to the Pancake House in McCall, Idaho and she gets pigs in a blanket.  We could not find all we needed, but we did produce a really good french toast with pancetta lardons - both Peter and Lea loved it.  

After breakfast we got ready and headed out to Fosso Bianco, a natural hot spring near the tiny town of Bagni San Fillipo.  It was an easy 30 min drive, and a nice sunny day, but it was cold and a little windy.  We parked and then headed down about a short trail to the hot springs.  T

hese are completely undeveloped and there are really no rules, so we found Italians all over the trail trying to find the right spot.  There was not a lot of really hot water so you kind of has to work to find a good area.  Our first was under a hot waterfall, which was nice but the beating you took got old after about 15 to 20 mins.  

After that we wandered back up stream and found the best spot on the creek empty and waiting for us.  WE jumped in and had a great soak in the mineral water.  

We stayed there for about 30 mins and then decided to head home.  The walk back was cold and we were frozen by the time we made it to the car, but we still had fun getting there.

Once back at the ranch we has a little down time and then Stacie and I started preparing Lea's birthday dinner.  We made meatballs the night before in anticipation of a busy day, so all we had to do was to make some mashed potatoes and some pasta to complete the meal.  Spaghetti and meatballs with mashed potatoes is a little bit of a strange combination, but they are Lea's favorites and on your birthday you get your favorites, especially when you are this far away from home.  

While we were waiting for dinner we gave Lea her cards.  Peter, Stacie and I had written notes on one, which prompted Lea to give out hugs, even one to her brother, which is rare, but I got it on film!

Then Stacie gave Lea the best present she could have - a card from all of her friends.  Thinking ahead is not my strong suit, but thank heaven I have an amazing wife who does think ahead.  A week prior Stacie had emailed the mothers of all of Lea's closest friends asking them to send back a note from each girl with birthday wishes for Lea.  She collected all of them and then transcribed them on to a card from her friends.  It was so sweet and meant everything to Lea, leading to a very long and special hug.  

After the cards and a wonderful dinner came the best part of the meal.  Stacie had made a cheesecake, (again Lea's favorite) for desert.  We were not sure how it would turn out because she had to make it all from scratch, including the crust, but I can safely say it was the best cheesecake I have ever eaten - and everyone agreed.

All in all a very special day for a very special teenager!  Happy 13th buggy.

December 25th 2014 - Montalcino, Italy - Day 130

Christmas day in Italy was a largely fantastic.  I say largely because the holidays certainly made all of us a little more homesick than normal.  We did a few things to offset the homesickness, like trying to stick to our traditions and we even bought a Christmas tree, but the holidays are usually a time for family and friends and being far away certainly made this Christmas different.  we all agreed to try to make it special so we could look back on our holiday in Italy with fond memories.

The day started with hot chocolate and monkey bread for the kids and hot coffee for the adults.  

We then ran up and started a fire and opened our "stockings".  In this case these were are real stockings - or socks as we call them.  

We all got great stocking stuffers and then we agreed to wait on the actual gifts until after breakfast.  

We  decided about two weeks before to use a secret santa system since we could not do many gifts (no room in the backpacks), but the secret part only lasted a couple of days.  Because we used secrect santa, each of us only had one or two gifts and we wanted to drag the day out a bit.

After a wonderful breakfast we scurried back upstairs to open the gifts.  The idea that we only got one or two gifts and each person had a firm budget actually made the buying and giving much more meaningful and enjoyable.  We all tried really hard and the gifts were fantastic.  


After the gifts we decided it was movie time so we cranked up Fred Claus, and had a good laugh.  

We lounged around for the rest of the afternoon and then in the evening went out to try to find the Panatone Games.  Apparently this involves throwing a cake at a table to see who can get the cake closest to the edge.  Unfortunately we could not find the games, but we did find an amazing sunset and a lovely town we were lucky enough to spend the holiday in.  

When we got home we had our own Panatone cake, which was delicious, and then played some charades before bed.  My personal opinion is this will be a christmas we will always remember.

December 24th 2014 - Siena, Italy - Day 129

Christmas Eve brought us back to Siena for one last shopping push.  While Stacie and I were here on the 22nd she decided to get Lea a phone case with a picture of her friends on the back as a Christmas gift.  We ordered it on the 22nd, but they could not complete it the same day so we had to go back to pick it up.  Stacie had completed all her shopping the last time we were here, but Peter, Lea and I all had more to do. 

We went for a long hike in the morning and then got ready quickly and were out the door by 11:45.  Most shops in Italy close between 1 and 4, so by the time we arrived in Siena, parked and walked into the shopping district we only had about 45 minutes left.  Lea and I took off on a mission and within 45 mins we had most of our work done.  We headed back to our arranged meeting spot (a little restaurant we wanted to try) and met Stacie and Peter along the way.  

They had some success, but Peter still had more to do (as did I).  We went in to the restaurant and had a wonderful lunch.  I had Pinci pasta with a meat sauce which was phenomenal.  Pinci is a really fat spaghetti which is a speciality here in Tuscany and we have all fallen for it.   

Enjoying our Christmas Eve lunch

After lunch we decided the remainder of the shopping could be done in Montalcino, so we headed home.  Peter and I both went out for a while and the girls got ready for the evening.  When we returned all of us were set for gifts and we started Christmas Eve in earnest.  

The town was having a Christmas Eve celebration in their main square and we wanted to go see what was happening.  We wandered up the street and found lots of kids and parents mulling around chatting along with free hot chocolate.  

Piazza de Popolo on Christmas Eve

The kids went and got some and were enjoying it when the guy who was serving it walked up to Stacie and I and handed us our cups, which was very kind.  The hot chocolate here is literally thick hot chocolate, its incredibly rich, but you can't drink too much.  

Chicolata Calda

On the way back home we found carolers singing White Christmas in Italian in front of the town nativity scene - it was the kind of magical experience you always hope for.  

I'm dreaming of a white Christmas - in Italian

We had decided to have Lasagna on Christmas Eve, so Stacie and I worked on that while the kids hung out in the kitchen with us and enjoyed a Christmas Eve tradition - the Grinch Drink.  We did not have all the ingredients so we had to improvise, but the kids loved it.

The Grinch Drink

 Once the lasagna was in the oven we decided it was time for a new Christmas tradition - the white elephant gift.  The process was fun and the gifts were great, we had plato, a multicolor pen, a fan keychain and a Pinoccho yoyo and top.

Once the white elephant was over we had dinner (which was incredible) and then went upstairs for another Gombert Christmas tradition, watching Elf on Christmas Eve.  

The day was long, but we accomplished all that we wanted to and were all feeling very much in the Christmas spirit as we nestled into our beds.

December 23rd 2014, Florence, Italy - Day 128

Today we headed to Florence for the day.  We left the house around 8:30 with a two hour ride in front of us.  The travel was easy and we found our parking spot with no major issues.  Stacie found a walking tour of the city that started at 11:00 and we made it to the meeting point in front of the Basilica of Santa Maria Novella.  Our guide was great and we spent the next two hours strolling the streets of the city learning about Florence in the Medieval and Renaissance times.  

After the tour we were all starving so we headed to the lunch spot Stacie had found.  Peter, Lea and I all had sausage calzone's which were amazing.  Stacie had a bowl of Ribollta, tuscan bean soup, which was also great.  

After lunch it was off to the Acadamia to see the David.  We had to wait in line for a while, but nothing like in summer.  The Acadamia is great if you are not much for museums.  You get to see an incredible piece of art, and then leave without feeling too guilty for a hit and run museum visit.  It is really small and there are not a ton of other pieces of art worth spending a lot of time, so after the David, we followed the route out and were back on the street 10 mins later.  

  After our cultural enlightenment we strolled the streets of Florence looking for some Christmas gifts and just taking in the wonder of a city like Florence all dressed up for the holidays.  

Once we made it all the way across the Ponte Vecchio we were spent and still had a two hour drive home.

We walked back to the car and dropped a sticker along the way.  The drive home was just as easy and we were safe and sound in our quiet town of Montalcino by 9:00.  A great quick trip to Florence.  

DECEMBER 21st 2014 - Montalcino, Italy - Day 126

Today was a pretty slow day on the tour.  We hung around Montalcino all day and night in order to get caught up on schoolwork and other various chores.  Stacie and I discovered a good hike just out our back door that will give us a pretty decent work out.  Montalcino is a hilltop down, so you are always either walking up or down no matter where you are going.  

Abandoned church we found on a hike

Very late in the evening (for us anyway) we headed out to see some gospel singers in the main church.  The Chicago High Spirits we singing and we thought it might be fun to go see them, even though they did not start until 9:30.

The Chicago High Spirits

It seemed like the entire town turned out for the event and it was wonderful to everyone greeting one another and catching up.  The culture here is very warm and friendly and you can tell how much people love to see their friends and family.  

We did not stay long at the gospel show because its not really our thing, but it was fun to go out for an event while on the road.  

December 20th 2014 - Montepulciano / Pienza, Italy - Day 125

The birthday boy with my monkeys

Today was my birthday, and I was thrilled to spend it here in Tuscany.  We had a nice slow morning capped with a long hike and then after lunch we headed out to Montepulciano.  We were excited to head make it over to Montepulciano because they are one of the few towns that has a Christmas market every day during December.  

Montepulciano Christmas Market

However, once we made it there we were a little disappointed in the market and in the town.  We walked around the Piazza Grande and wandered through the quaint village streets, but after about 20 minutes we were all wondering where the rest of the town was.  So we headed back up to the Christmas Market and the kids got some WAY overpriced hot chocolate (which Peter lathered all over his face)

and then we headed back to the car - defeated.  

Donkey ride anyone?

However, on the way back to the car Stacie and I were talking and remembered we felt the same way about this town when we visited in 2007.  We also remembered how much we loved Pienza and we decided to stop there on the way home.  

View from Pienza

Pienza was fantastic and we were so happy to wander down it's main streets ducking into and out of their beautiful shops.  We stopped and bought some aged Pecorino (amazing), some dinner supplies, and took a bunch of pictures before heading back to Montalcino.  

Pienza is the home of Pecorino - the whole town smells amazing 

Pienza is the home of Pecorino - the whole town smells amazing 

We prepared our simple pasta dinner and enjoyed the Brunello we had opened before we left.  When the dinner was almost done, Lea and Peter told us they needed to go run an errand and so they hurried out the door into the streets of Montalcino.  They were back just as we were putting the plates on the table.  As we finished dinner they scurried upstairs to "go to the bathroom" and came back downstairs with a wonderful birthday cake from the bakery just around the corner.  They had even managed to find 4 and 3 candles to decorate the top.  It was the perfect end to a wonderful birthday.  

Beautiful Pienza

December 19th - Montalcino, Italy - Day 124

Today was market day in Montalcino.  The day began with one of the most magical sunrises I have ever seen.  The picture above does it no justice whatsoever.  On market day this sleepy little village comes to life and about 100 vendors set up in the winding streets selling everything from dish soap and underwear to Christmas lights and Pecorino cheese.  

We decided to have a slow morning of studying and working and then head out for a stroll around town around 10:00.   We split up with Lea and I heading out on our own while Peter and Stacie went their own way.  We strolled up and down the streets, just browsing to see if we might stumble upon a Christmas gift (no luck) and then wandered into a cafe for a chicolate calda and a cappuccino.  Nearing the end of my cap I made a bad move and spilled the last 1/4 of my drink right into my lap.  Lea got a big kick out of that and as we were laughing about it Peter and Stacie walked up.

The kids needed to study so they went back to the apartment and Stacie and I headed back to the market to gather some supplies for diner and to buy our Christmas tree.  Once we were back I headed out again to gather up some more ingredients and decorations while Stacie went back to paint nails with Lea.  Lea has become quite the nail artist on the trip and their Christmas theme was my favorite yet. 

When I got back we trimmed the tree and then I started cooking bruschetta as a starter and chicken and mushroom risotto for our main.  I had never made risotto before, so I was a little nervous, but it turned out great.

All in all a pretty typical day on the trip, nothing amazing happened, just a simple day in Tuscany.

December 18th 2014 - Siena, Italy - Day 123

Piazza del Campo - Siena

Today we spent the morning in our normal routines with the kids studying (Stacie helping them) and I was writing and updating the site.  Then after lunch (and a short nap) we headed over to Siena for the evening.  We typically do our sightseeing in the mornings so it felt a little strange to be heading out around 3:00, but we wanted to see Siena at night with all of their Christmas decorations up.  

We arrived easily (only one wrong turn) and found our parking place near the Duomo quickly and easily.  Our first order of business was to find the PhotoSmart so Lea could print some pictures of her friends for a frame she has been carrying with her for a few weeks.  We walked all through town and finally found the PhotoSmart, submitted our order and were told to come back around 5:30 to pick them up.  Since we had some time to burn we wandered around the streets of Siena - it was beautiful as you can see below.  

Once we made it back to the PhotoSmart at 5:30 we learned we had not followed the instructions completely (which was not a big surprise) and had missed the step where you had to pay before they would print.  So we paid our 1.50 euro and then received a new time of 6:15 to pick up the pictures.  

Piazza del Campo glowing after dark

With another 45 mins to burn we decided to find our restaurant so we would not have to hunt it down later.  On our way we found a street vendor selling chestnuts roasting on an open fire and could not resist - so we purchased a bag.  I wish I could say they were wonderful, they were not, but they were good and the experience was great.  

Holiday decorations everywhere around town

We wandered all the way back across town and found the restaurant Stacie had identified through TripAdvisor.  We made a quick reservation and then headed back to the PhotoSmart where the pictures were finally done.

Our major goal complete we slowly walked back to our restaurant and had a wonderful meal to cap off a wonderful evening in Siena.  This is a magical town when it is all dressed up for Christmas, I would highly recommend a visit.   

The view just outside our resturant

December 17th 2014 - Montalcino, Italy - Day 122

The view from the terrace of our apartment in the morning

Yesterday was a nice mix of activity and relaxation.  We had a pretty slow morning with everyone doing their own thing.  Stacie and I ran up to the co-op for some groceries and then after lunch we decided to go on a two hour hike right from our apartment.  In 2007 we came to Montalcino for our 10th anniversary and stayed in a farmhouse just outside the city down a REALLY steep hill.  We decided to hike down to the house to see if we could find it and show the kids since they were 7 and 5 and do not remember much.  We made the trek down and found the farmhouse, but could not get that close since it is private property.  We hiked around a bit and then started the steep climb back into town.  It was a nice hike on a beautiful winter day (about 50 degrees and sunny) here in Tuscany.  

When we got back Stacie and Lea started studying again, Peter worked on school and I started cooking some Stuffed Peppers for dinner.  We had a nice evening which included some dancing to Christmas music in the kitchen and a great discussion at dinner about the things we are all struggling with while being on the road.  

After dinner we decided to start watching a new series (to us) because we finally finished Downton Abby.  We decided on Newsroom with Jeff Daniels (without Lea's approval) and all enjoyed the first episode.  

Another nice mellow day on the road.  

December 16th 2014 - Montalcino, Italy - Day 121

Peter captured this long exposure of the fire that warmed us all day.

Peter captured this long exposure of the fire that warmed us all day.

Yesterday was a recovery day for all of us.  After 28 hours of travel and arriving to an apartment with no heat we all needed a down day.  The fact that we had no heat actually made it a little bit fun to bundle up in the living room with a fire and take it easy.  In the morning we all just hung out and then in the afternoon Stacie worked with Lea on her upcoming Science Final while Peter did school and I read the end of All The Light We Cannot See and worked with Mauro to get the heat up and running again. 

Late in the afternoon Peter and I went for a walk around town just to get a feel for where we were.  The town is absolutely charming and it feels like we have it all to ourselves.  There are no signs of tourists, just the locals getting ready for the holidays.  

Our afternoon walk through a very quiet town.

Our afternoon walk through a very quiet town.

In the evening we headed out for dinner around 6:00.  We arrived at Re di Macchia, a recommended local favorite, after a short ten minute walk, unfortunately they did not open until 7:00.  We called an audible and went and grabbed a bottle of Rosso di Montalcino and went back to the apartment for an appetizer.  After 45 minutes or so we headed back to the restaurant.  It is a casual little place where the husband is the waiter and the wife is the cook.  Our food was fantastic, especially the Bruschetta and the Zuppa di Faggoli.   The dinner was also our first sip of Brunello since we arrived.  This is my favorite wine in the world, so I was in heaven.  

After dinner we were all very tired and although the kids wanted to watch a movie we decided bed and some reading was a better option.  All in all a great recovery day - and the heat got fixed so we are warm and toasty this morning!

The view from our appartment

The view from our appartment


We didn't ALL decide that going to bed would be a better option, you guys decided that you guys wanted to go to bed and read, and we of course had to do the same :).