Monday, April 25, 2011

Under the Tuscan Sun

Buongiorno! from Mercatale di Cortona in beautiful Tuscany. Hey, you have ever read the book "Under the Tuscan Sun" by Frances Mayes, or seen the movie version starring Diane Lane? Well I am in the very spot where that story unfolded. And with no disrespect to Ms. Mayes, no written description could truly capture the beauty of this place. In fact, the same could be said for Diane Lane, but that is a topic for another entry. This week it is medieval villages, spectacular rolling countryside views, olive groves, chianti, and food, food, food.

Italians - Tuscans in particular - are passionate about their food and drink, to say the least. Take, for example, the pasta. Each village has their own variety which they claim to be "the best in Tuscany" and host elaborate festivals to celebrate the virtues of their homegrown favorite. So one night you can head to the Mercatale di Cortona Festa to feast on tagliatelle, and learn why it is the best in Tuscany. Then head over to neighboring Lisciano Niccone (in Umbria) for the Sagra dei Bringoli, to learn that brignoli is - you guessed it - the best in Tuscany. But don't take their word for it. Try them all: from the fat spaghetti-like pici to the wide eggy pappardelle, and everything in between. There is even one variety which includes cocoa powder in the dough. That's right, chocolate pasta. God I love these people.

Tuscany is also at the heart of the agritourismo industry. Agritourismo is a portmanteau (pardon my French) of the Italian words for agriculture and tourism. You see, farming and food production have been the backbone of Tuscan and other rural Italian economies for centuries. But by the 1950s, small-scale farming was in a steep decline and many Italians abandoned their farms to look for work in the larger towns and cities. By the 1970s, the Tuscan countryside was dotted with vacant buildings and barns. By the mid-1980s it was clear that something very precious - a heritage - was at risk of being lost forever, in addition to placing intense pressure on the job markets of Italian towns. So some very cleaver, and forward-looking people got together and came up with a solution to both problems. In 1985, a law was passed creating a hybrid agriculture/tourism destination concept. Farmers, and their knowledge of regional foods, were brought back to the land with the ability to lodge and feed guests right there on the farm. And while the farming itself is still a losing proposition, lodging, feeding, and educating vacationers is quite profitable, helping to remake Tuscany into one of the top vacation destinations in Europe. And I am all the fatter for it.

A stay at an agritourismo can be as hands-on or off as you like. If you simply want to take in the sites from your beautiful countryside accommodations, they've got you covered. But if you'd like to participate in some of the duties and activities on the farm, a pricing arrangement is available for that too. So, for example, you could collect the eggs for your breakfast right from the chicken houses, and later help forage for mushrooms to be used in that night's pasta sauce. Not only are these meals super fresh, but there is something very satisfying about knowing where your food is coming from, and the hard work and dedication that went into preparing it. Whereas if you eat a lot of fast food, I'd say it is best just not to think about it too much. Imagine a bucolic farm scene in your head, and leave it at that.

Of course, as the Timeshare Ambassador, I saw it as my duty to check out Borgo di Vagli, which is not an agritourismo. Instead, it is an entire Tuscan village which has been restored to its 14th century splendor and sold as timeshares. So while there are working farms in the immediate area, and you will get all of the same authentic meals, you get the added luxury and amenities you normally associate with timeshare resorts. My timeshare rental is a 1-bedroom/1-bathroom unit with a garden view and access to the beautiful outdoor swimming pool. It's no wonder members rate this place 5-stars.

Well I am off to the town of Bibbona for the annual Festa del Cedro, or Citron Festival (and I am not talking about that awful lemon-flavored vodka by Absolut; I use that stuff to clean my grill). No, the citron or "cedro" is one of the oldest citrus fruits known to Europeans. Unlike its juicy counterparts like lemons and limes, the citron is very thick skinned, and has little pulp or juice. The thick white pith is where citronella, the mosquito repellant, is derived. Sounds yummy, eh? But don't underestimate Tuscan ingenuity or their ability to make a tasty treat out of just about anything. Cedros are traditional easter presents in Tuscany you see, and in the week following the sacred event, a candied version of the lemony rind is offered at this festival. It's sweet and tart at the same time, and simply melts on your tongue. They also add them to wines, soups, and yes - pasta. Did I mention how much I love these people?

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

I'm the Tax Man

So did you get your taxes in on time yesterday? I did, but with nary a minute to spare. My filing was much more complicated now that I list "timeshare ambassador" as my occupation. That one had me on the line with TurboTax customer support for quite a while. And boy-oh-boy did I log some business expenses trekking here and there in my duties. Al Gore's got nothing on my carbon footprint.

But it's all good now, and I've decided to hit Bean Town to commemorate tax day. In case you have forgotten, the original Tea Party happened right here in 1773, which put the concept of "no taxation without representation" to the test. As good British subjects, the colonist drank lots of tea and it was regularly delivered in bulk shipments by the East India Tea Company. But the Tea Act - passed by British Parliament in 1773 - basically cemented East India as a monopoly and added a tax on the tea not imposed by the locally elected colonial representatives. This - and the Massacre three years earlier - rubbed Bostonians the wrong way, you might say. Now Boston was not the first colony to take action on the tea tax. Other colonies simply returned the tea. But it was here that a band of colonists famously threw it overboard and refused to pay for it. And those my friends, are fightin' words. Of course the Brits didn't take it lying down, things escalated, and you know what happened next. And I suppose that is why Americans still drink way more coffee than tea. I for one am grateful for that. What would I be without my half-calf, triple shot, no foam, extra hot, mocha-machino?

Anyway, I didn't get a chance to file my report yesterday, because they were having a little foot race here when I arrived. Maybe you've heard of the Boston Marathon? It's the longest continually running marathon in the world, and is always held on the third Monday in April, a.k.a "Patriot's Day". Starting in 1897 with just 18 runners, it now boasts over 25,000 participants, and draws over 500,000 spectators. It's already "wicked ha'd to pa'k ya ca' in Baston," but on Patriot's Day, you can forget about it. I think it took me longer to get from the airport to my timeshare rental than it did for the winner to finish the race. A fellow named Geoffrey Mutai from Kenya ran the 26.2 miles in 2 hours, 3 minutes, and 2 seconds. Are you kidding me?! That's the fastest marathon time ever recorded, by the way. And the first woman to finish was not far behind. Caroline Kilel, also from Kenya, did it in just over 2 hours and 22 minutes. She nudged out Desiree Davila of the U.S.A. by 2 seconds. Can you imagine running over 26 miles and losing by 2 seconds? I think I'd rather come in last. Well, I know I'd come in last, but you know what I mean.

Fortunately, these professional and amateur athletes are better sports than I, and a great time was had by all. Well, except maybe that kid from nearby Babson College. The local business school is right along the marathon route, and he and some friends decided to take to the roof for a better view. According to the police, he slipped and "fell into a skylight and through the middle of the building, hitting stairway railings and other objects on his way down" the 4-story fall. One can only imagine what the "other objects were", but he somehow remained conscious throughout the ordeal. By no small miracle he did not suffer life-threatening injuries, and may even go home from the hospital as soon as today. Let's hope he spends next Patriot's Day at ground level in quiet contemplation. Or maybe just studying.

I am spending the rest of the week at Marriott's Custom House on the waterfront of Boston Harbor. This resort is in the building that was the first skyscraper in Boston, and is in walking distance to everything. In fact, if you use your own two feet and the Metro system, you really don't need your car at all. Combine that with the open-air, 360-degree observation deck, and I can see why members rate it 4.5 stars. I know I'm loving it.

Well I am off to check out the site of the Great Molasses Flood of 1919. Do you know about this? Yeah, it seems a 2.2 million gallon, cast-iron tank burst on January 15, 1919, sending a wave of molasses down Commercial St. at a speed of 35 mph! And it took everything in its path with it, from homes and businesses, to a section of the elevated train line. Tragically, 21 people, a dozen horses, and at least one cat lost their lives as they succumbed to the viscous tidal wave. Prior to hearing this tale I had thought that drowning in sugar might be a nice way to go, but I've since reconsidered. I'm thinking the 4-story fall through a skylight, hitting stairway railings and other objects on the way down, is the way to go.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

April Showers

The first part of that old expression about April showers bringing May flowers is arriving right on time in 2011. Just about everywhere you look on the U.S. weather map is showing some sort of precipitation. Some of it is even the frozen kind. But that expression is as much about patience and taking the good with the bad, as it is a fact of nature. Sure the soaking rains of April can put a damper on certain activities, but oh those flowers of May. It's a good lesson to keep in mind when vacationing too, especially during springtime in the U.S. Sure that hike on the Appalachian trail - gazing at wildflowers and songbirds - sounded great when you planned it back in January. But what to do when it starts pouring down rain?

Well just about any place worth visiting has indoor attractions to help occupy your time. Museums and galleries usually top my list. Rain or shine, Washington D.C. is the museum and gallery capital of the U.S., in addition to being - well - the capital of the U.S. There are literally hundreds to choose from. Heck the Smithsonian alone has 19 separate museums and is thought to have at least 137 million objects in its collection. This is an estimated number because by the time they finished counting it, they had acquired a few hundred thousand more things. Sounds a little like my basement.

When it rains, of course, you are going to have a lot of company indoors. So maybe consider one of the more "off beat" museums, like the National Museum of Health and Medicine. Established during the Civil War as the Army Medical Museum by Surgeon General William Hammond, its mission is to collect "specimens of morbid anatomy... together with projectiles and foreign bodies removed." Now if that sounds a bit morbid, that's because it is. We're talking gruesome here, folks. They've got the bullet that killed President Lincoln, the head and shoulders of a girl preserved with an arsenic-laced embalming formula, and the amputated leg of Major General Daniel E. Sickles. Get this, he had his leg blasted by a cannonball at Gettysburg, and after its amputation sent it to the museum in a tiny coffin with a note reading "With the compliments of Major General D.E.S." Can you imagine having to sign for that delivery? And his story doesn't end there. No, he healed and returned to fight until the war's end. And for many years thereafter, he would visit his leg at the museum on the anniversary of its loss. Are you kidding me?! If that is all a little too gross for your tastes, consider The International Spy Museum, dedicated to the decades of spookery between the CIA, KGB, and the rest of the world's espionage communities who have had operatives in D.C. over the years. I'd tell you where it is located, but I'd have to kill you afterwards. Maybe try Googling it instead. You can rent a timeshare at Wyndham Old Town Alexandria and use the Metro to get everywhere.

Let's say you find yourself in San Francisco when the weather turns south. Fear not, the City by the Bay has you covered (pun intended). If you grew up in the stone age like I did, then you probably spent much of your youth reading comics. And even if you didn't, the Cartoon Art Museum in San Francisco's Mission District is a must-see. "From editorial cartoons to comic books, graphic novels to anime, Sunday funnies to Saturday morning cartoons, the Cartoon Art Museum has something for everyone," is how their website describes it, and I couldn't say it any better. Also plan to stop by Fisherman's Wharf to see Ripley's Believe-It-or-Not Museum. 10,000 square feet of the strange, unusual, and at times, down-right gross. Whatever you do, don't miss the Marvelous Mirror Maze. It's worth the extra $10 bucks.

Assuming you will fly in or out of San Fran, plan a ten minute detour south of the airport to the Burlingame Museum of PEZ Memorabilia. That's right, an entire museum dedicated to all things PEZ. From vintage to the latest releases, this is the largest collection of PEZ dispensers around. Hey did you know that PEZ is an abbreviation for the German word for peppermint? Yeah, they originally came in only PfeffErminZ flavor and were intended to help smokers kick the habit. And they were sold in simple metal boxes, just like Altoids are today. Rent a San Francisco timeshare, and learn how they came to take on the form you know today.

I guess the best defense against wet weather is to plan on it in the first place. Head to Seattle in April (my neck o' the woods) and you are almost guaranteed to get rained on. Pack a poncho and an umbrella, and set out onto the wet streets of the Emerald City to take in sites such as Pike Place Market, the Space Needle, Experience Music Project, Point Defiance Zoo & Aquarium, and much more. You can rent a timeshare at The Camlin (WorldMark Seattle) and use it as your base for exploring this lovely, albeit soggy, Pacific Northwest city. Go ahead and get wet, you won't melt. You might wrinkle and shrivel a bit, but trust me, that's going to happen eventually anyway.

Monday, April 4, 2011

A Day at the Park

Hey, are you looking for a great way to save money on a spring getaway this year? I'll give you two: rent a timeshare, and visit a U.S. National Park. If you're a follower of my blog - you are following my blog, aren't you? - you know all about saving money by renting timeshares instead of staying at typical hotels. But you may not be aware that April 16 - 24 is National Parks Week and admission to all 394 national parks is free. As in zero dollars. That's right, 84 million acres of the world's most spectacular scenery, historic landmarks, and cultural treasures, absolutely without charge.

Now when you think of the national parks, you probably think of millions of acres of wilderness like Yellowstone or the Grand Canyon, and you'd pretty much need the whole week to properly visit these places. But did you know that the White House, Independence Hall, The Liberty Bell, The Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island are all managed by the U.S. National Parks Service? Yeah, the list of sites managed by the NPS includes national monuments and landmarks - as well as parks - some of which are right in the heart of the most populated areas of the country. Take Castle Clinton in New York City, for example. Never heard of it? It lies at the southern tip of Manhattan island in an area known as the Battery. Named after Governor Clinton (no not Bubba) it was built to protect NYC during the War of 1812. Since then it has seen time as an opera house, a station for processing immigrants, an aquarium, and its present configuration as a source of education and entertainment for visitors to lower Manhattan. Ironically, a site that was originally built to keep people out is now the most visited national monument in the country, accepting visitors from all over the planet. Its numbers may be a bit inflated since Castle Clinton is the starting point for the journey to both Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty, but it certainly holds its own as a NYC travel destination. Check out the Manhattan Club or The Hilton Club New York for timeshare rentals.

But you may want to get away from the hustle and bustle of the big cities for spring break, and that is understandable. If rolling mountains, crisp air, and long hikes among springtime flora and fauna are more your speed, the NPS has you covered again. In fact, the most visited park in the entire NPS system is famous for all of these attributes. Do you know which park it is? If you guessed Great Smoky Mountains National Park (without the assistance of Google), give yourself a gold star. Located on the border of Tennessee and North Carolina, the park lies right in the heart of Appalachia. It boasts over 800 miles of hiking trails, camping, wildlife, and a window back in time to southern mountain culture. And according to the NPS website, the park is home to the greatest level of biodiversity to be found anywhere in the world's temperate zones. It's no wonder that over 9 million visitors stop by each year.

You can base yourself out of Gatlinburg, TN, where plenty of timeshare rentals can be found, and visit Pigeon Forge and Dollywood too. That's right, Dolly Parton's got her own theme park in the town of her birth. So if you want a break from the natural splendor of the Smokeys and you've got a hankerin' for some good old country music, spandex, and rhinestones, head on over. You won't be disappointed.

If you want to get even further away from it all, I cannot think of a place more remote and beautiful as Dry Tortugas National Park. It's located 70 miles off the cost of Key West at the edge of the main shipping channel between the Gulf of Mexico, the western Caribbean, and the Atlantic Ocean. The Tortugas (turtles in Spanish) are seven small islands or keys, among a scattering of hundreds of smaller rocky outcroppings and coral reefs. This helped make this area an extremely hazardous - but much coveted - trade route for early European colonists. So it should come as no surprise that there are over 100 shipwrecks in the immediate area of the Tortugas. Combined with crystal-clear water, coral reefs, and thousands of species of fish and marine life, you've got yourself a snorkeling paradise. But there is more than just natural splendor on display here. There is also Fort Jefferson, whose construction was begun by the U.S. in the mid 19th century to protect this valuable trade route. Although never actually completed, it later did time as a military prison and today is an extremely rare example of early American masonry coastal forts. It's most infamous inmate was Dr. Samuel Mudd, noted for setting the broken leg of John Wilkes Booth in the hours after killing President Lincoln, and aiding in his near getaway. He was eventually pardoned by President Johnson, but not before serving nearly four years in Fort Jefferson. In an ironic twist, the man convicted of conspiring to kill the Great Emancipator served out his punishment at a prison managed by the 82nd United States Colored Infantry, a unit comprised almost entirely of freed slaves.

Now you won't find any timeshares, or development of any type on Dry Tortugas. The only way to get here is by seaplane or ferry from Key West, which is fortunately loaded with fantastic timeshare rental options. So plan a trip over to Dry Tortugas and leave some time for exploring Key West's rich history, including the Winter White House and the homes of both Tennessee Williams and Ernest "Papa" Hemingway. If you visit the Hemingway House, keep an eye out for the Hemingway polydactyl cats. Do you know about these critters? Polydactyl cats are noted for having six or seven seven toes on each paw, and all of these cats are said to be descendants of Papa's six-toed pet "Snowball". I wonder if they pay extra to get those buggers declawed?