September 26th to October 3rd, 1999 (continued from Rome)
Saturday morning brought packing (ugh), a cab ride to the Eurocar Rental (near the Embassy … and area we know well!), a LONG wait for the processing (small counter and huge line at 9 AM), then the hairy drive until we found our way to the Autostrada. Filling the tank cost $30.00 US. We stopped in Orvietta for a snack, but decided not to go into town and leave the rental car in a carpark with all of our worldly possessions.
The average speed on the Autostrada was ~ 80 MPH – then we headed toward Sienna and Volterra, with roads becoming narrower and steeper until we reached our destination: Podere Fraggina – at the bottom of a steep, narrow (single lane) road lined with Cypress trees. The house and apartments are prettier than the pictures, and the view from our private terrace is amazing.
Our hosts, Massimo and Inger, and their two little boys Lorenzo (3) and Cosimo (1) are friendly and wonderful. They are understandably proud of the incredible restoration – a seven year project – just completed last year. They told us that we were the first to book an apartment from their web site – but happily they have been full for most of the season.
After a relaxing afternoon kicking back and drinking wine on the terrace, we drove to the supermarket to stock our little fridge. Along with wine, coffee and bottled water, we bought vegetables (mushrooms, yellow pepper, tomatoes, basil, garlic, etc.), grapes and bananas, sausage, 4 kinds of cheese (fresh mozzarella, fontina, gorgonzola, and pecorino pepparino – with red peppers), pasta, and bread and snacks…. For dinner we made bruschetta and pasta with vegetables… then this morning had an omelet with mushrooms and tomato, sausage, bread and coffee! Now we’re heading to Volterre to tour our closest town…. More later!
(9-26-99 continued) Spent most of the morning in Volterra – a pleasant and interesting medieval town, with influences from the earlier Etruscan and Roman periods – and later additions during the Renaissance. Volterra is situated high one a hill, so the ol’ knees hade plenty of exercise. The long, steep, winding narrow streets were spotlessly clean, with flower boxes everywhere. We toured the Museo Guarnacci – famous throughout Italy for the well-preserved Etruscan-Roman exhibits, but were too late to see the Cathedral, which closed at 12:30 (another day!….). The fortress overlooking the town was imposing – but not open to the public, as it’s now a penal institution. Anyway, it was a good start for our Tuscany tour.
Came back to our "home away from home" to relax with some wine and lunch on "leftovers" – last night’s pasta turned into a cold salad, and more bruschetta with fresh mozzarella, basil and tomato – yum! Tonight we’re going OUT to eat at a local place recommended by our "hostess" Inger. Tomorrow we plan to go to San Gimignano – famous for its 15 towers (of the original 72!). Then we’ll meet Paul’s business partner from Genoa (a 3-4 hour drive) who’s coming to join us for dinner and spend the night in a nearby hotel. Paul’s having his siesta ….. now I’ll tackle a bunch of postcards and perhaps take a walk down the hillside property to pick figs… yum!
(9-27-99) Returned to nearby Volterra last night and chose one of the recommended spots for dinner: Ristorrante Ombra Della Sera – had a wonderful meal! Creamy risotto with procini mushrooms – followed by duck with truffles for me – and Paul had tagliatelle pasta with smoked swordfish – followed by a lighter risotto with mussels. The light Pinot Grigio was delicious.
We were awakened by two serious rainstorms during the night – much needed in this drought-infested area – but awoke to sunshine and another beautiful day! After a light breakfast, we headed to the nearby town of San Gimignano. The many kilometers of winding road were "fun" for Paul, aka Mario Andretti Provance – but we arrived without incident.
San Gimignano was as pretty as the pictures, but we were not prepared for the hoards of tourists – with countless souvenirs shops lining every entrance to this medieval walled town. The piazza was quite beautiful, however, and the view from the old castle (Rocca) tower on the far west side of town was spectacular. We had a wonderful lunch at ristorante recommended in the guide book: Ristorante Stella, where I feasted on peppardella (wide, thin, flat noodles) with wild boar in an "aromatic" sauce (delicious!), followed by a mixed fungi (mushroom) salad. Paul had sweet and sour peppers (roasted red and yellow in a marinade) followed by gnocchi. We enjoyed a bottle of the famous local Vernaccia white wine – wonderful, with more character than Pinot Grigio – but probably not exported to the States…
Stopped at our local grocery store on the way "home" to pick up antipasti goodies (olives, artichokes, etc.), more bread, TP, OJ, candles, etc. … We’re becoming real "locals!" Now, after wine and cigars, Paul takes his daily Italian siesta… and I write postcards and the daily journal entry!…. More later….
(9-28-99)Had a lovely evening last night with Mateo – Paul’s business friend from Genoa. We relaxed here on the terrace for several hours, drinking wine and eating Italian munchies – then headed into Volterra for a wonderful dinner. We shared a plate of unusual cold meats – then I had a delicious risotto with pheasant sauce, Paul had gnocchi, and Mateo had grilled mushrooms. He informed us that Italians rarely eat the "typical" 7-course meal anymore (thank goodness!), and kept us entertained (in perfect English) with stories about the competition between northern Italians, Romans, and southern Italians. ("Those in the north do all of the work, the Romans don’t work, and in southern Italy there isn’t any work!")… and wine – e.g. Brunello de Montalcino – a controlled name- is grossly overpriced (We had just plain ol’ Montalcino for dinner – delicious) – but generally Italian wines are cheaper than French "because the Italians are 20 years behind in their marketing!" Grappa, a strong distilled wine, has 1000 variations. We had one on Sunday that could have been moonshine (I couldn’t drink it!) – but last night’s version was tasty, though I just took a sip of Paul's…
We awoke this morning to heavy rain – but it cleared up in several hours. We had French toast with a fruit topping of bananas, figs, OJ and vino Santo – then headed to Sienna for another day of touring the hill towns of Tuscany – and a "must see" in the guide books.
Sienna is best known for its huge piazza – Il Campo – with the impressive City Hall and tower at one end. Not surprisingly, tourists were everywhere – and there was a fairly long line at the other major attraction, the Duomo (cathedral) – so we found a spot for lunch in an outdoor café: Ristorante El Campagne – sharing an antipasti of braesola (a kind of "ham"?) with truffles and mushrooms on greens (but the "truffles" tasted suspiciously like shaved Parmesan cheese!). Anyway, it was good. Paul had pappordelli pasta with sausage and pecorino cheese, and I had the traditional Tuscan bean soup (ribolitta) – a thick, but tasty stick-to-your ribs concoction. After a brief walk, we headed back to the Duomo. The cathedral was very impressive and as described in detail in all the guide books. I was very disappointed, though, that one of the highlights – the Bernini "Capella delle Madonna del Voto" was walled off – for some sort of restoration, I guess! Anyway, we enjoyed our 4-hour stay in this lovely city – and the one hour drive back to Volterra was beautiful – greener by the day thanks to the nightly rains. Now it’s time to relax, have a cocktail, and think about what to have for dinner.
(9-29-99)Last night was quiet and relaxing – we "stayed home!" Dinner was simple: salad caprese (tomatoes, fresh mozzarella and basil), the rest of the spiral pasta with chicken & mushrooms in a light gorgonzola sauce, and bread (the regional unsalted type of baguette) – to dip in olive oil, of course! We spent the rest of the evening playing gin rummy and Paul beat me soundly – due in part to his strange new "rules" – and, I think, because I had too much Sambuca! Slept like a LOG!
Awakened to overcast skies, which cleared quickly to give us a glorious day of weather for our much-anticipated trip to part of the Chianti valley, about an hour east of Volterra. Paul is now navigating the narrow winding roads like a native – and loving it! We decided to do the "southern" tour from Sienna to the Chianti Hills, as recommended by our host. The scenery was absolutely gorgeous – but more wooded than we expected as we traversed the countless hills on very winding roads. Though narrow and full of hairpin turns, the roads in Italy are in excellent shape and well marked.
We had a chance to explore several small towns/villages – notably Castellina in Chianti – with its vaulted Via delle Volte and the restored 15th century Rocca (castle), and neighboring Radda in Chianti, a medieval walled town that was clean, quaint, and with only a handful of tourists – mainly the savvy Germans. After making a wrong turn and heading north instead of South on S408, we arrived at another 3-star stop: The Castle Brolio – with a long entrance walk lined by ancient cypress trees and a fantastic view of the vineyards, olive groves, and valley. Since the castle was closed 12-3, we had a picnic lunch on the grounds – Chianti Classico (of course), "rustica" bread, olives, fontina cheese & prosciutto – all together, the Italian version of a ham and cheese sandwich! We were too full for the fruit and dessert, so we’ll save it for another day.
We tried to visit a vineyard, but they didn’t reopen until 4:00 and Paul was longing for a siesta – so we headed back to Volterra. Tonight we’re taking Inger and Massimo to dinner – then tomorrow a brief (obligatory) peek at Firenze (Florence) and maybe a taste of northern Val di Chianti.
Since I have plenty of time before dinner, and Paul is snoozing away (!), I think I’ll just jot down some general impressions of this fascinating country and its people.
First of all, I have been pleasantly surprised. Outside of the big cities and "tourist traps", the people are gentle, kind, and very patient and orderly. Everything is very clean – no littler (even in Rome!) – and only occasional graffiti. We have never felt rushed in shops – or especially in restaurants. In Tuscany life is simple – the pace is slow – the beauty savored. It is truly a place to "get away from it all", and I fully understand why this has become such a popular destination for people from all over the world. But it would take many months to see it all – longer to really enjoy it. Anyway – I hope to return some day to experience more… hopefully before the tourists completely ruin the special "little places" we’ve discovered – and many which are still to be discovered!
It’s hard to believe that we have been in Italy just over a week! It’s even more difficult to realize that we have just 3 days and 4 nights left in this adventure… As I sit here on our terrace, the quiet is shattered by occasional gunfire (hunting the wild boar in nearby fields!) and dogs barking – but the view of the sunset over the valley is just stupendous – and I feel serene, safe, and "re-charged" – quite thankful to have such an experience to remember always…..
The kindness of our Italian hosts and friends has given our vacation and touring a very special dimension. Their advice, guidance and historical anecdotes from a native’s perspective is better than any tour guide or guidebook. They’ve encouraged us to not just see the sights – but "experience the area" – a truly wonderful sensory overload. The food, wine, scenery and people have been more interesting and pleasant than I could have imagined. A big disappointment is the video camera deciding to go "on the fritz" since Rome, denying us the ability to share the hairy drivers and wonderful sights with our friends in a more entertaining way. But the still photos and stories will have to suffice – until the next time.
(9-30-99) We treated Inger and Massimo to dinner last night and they chose Ombre della Sera – where we ate Sunday evening! The place was packed when we arrived at ~8:30, so we took a nighttime walking tour of Volterra with Massimo (who grew up here) as our guide – fascinating!
Dinner was again interesting and delicious. We started with a simple spaghetti with porcini mushrooms – followed by wild boar (2 plates – 1 cooked "traditional style" and 1 in the "new style" – with chocolate sauce!), a chicken dish, Tuscan beans, and another vegetable medley – all deliciously different. We polished off 2 bottles of local red wine during dinner – then after espresso – closed the restaurant at about 11:30! It was great, but sleep came pronto!
Today we headed for Florence – a "must see" city at about 9:15 – and though it only took about an hour+ to get to the outskirts, it was 11:00 by the time we found the (free) parking lot at Piazza del Michelangelo – with a fantastic view overlooking the city at the Arno River. We bought local bus tickets and experienced a noisy, smelly bus ride into town. The pollution and congestion are horrible – but Paul (ready to leave when we arrived!) humored me in my desire to have a taste of the great Renaissance city. We walked among the masses and eventually found our way to the Galleria Accademica, where we waited in line > 30 minutes to see the famous statue of Michaelangelo’s David. It was worth it! After touring the art on display, we headed to the Duomo (cathedral) to gaze at the famous dome, then continued down the pedestrian mall – Via de Calzaioli – licking yummy gelato while gazing at the sights on our walk to the river. We crossed the Ponte Vecchio (a mass of jewelry shops!) and re-traced the river on the other side before climbing about a million steps up Fort Belvedere to return to our car! Whew! We then had a snack in a nearby "cafeteria" and headed out of town after a brief, but enjoyable look at famous, fumey Florence.
We took the long route "home" through another quite beautiful section of the Chianti valley south of Florence…. But the stressful driving has begun to get to Paul, I think. While he takes a late siesta, I need to plan on a creative way to use up our "leftovers" because Inger and Massimo have graciously invited us to have dinner in their home tomorrow – our last night in Tuscany.
(10-1-99) Dinner last night turned out to be a sort of "Mulligan stew" of assorted leftovers – with the ever present bruschetta, olives, etc. Had another lively round of gin rummy and I managed to narrow the margin of victory a little!
Had a wonderful, lazy day today – slept late, did some hand washing, ate a big breakfast, toured some more of Volterra – including Palazzo Viti and a wonderful art gallery – but the cathedral was closed – again! Relaxed in the sunshine drinking vernaccia in the piazza – then splurged on a pair of elongated iron Etruscan reproductions of nude statues as a souvenir of our trip! Since most of the shops were closed for siesta, we had espresso and the local paneforte dessert, then headed back to Podere Fraggina (from the underground parking garage, with its wild 2-way spiral ramp!)…
Shared some wine and a pleasant visit with our next-door-neighbors – the Brails from Toronto. He graduated from Penn as a social worker (hails from Vancouver) – but after working as a consultant, now has a retail kitchen renovation business. She’s an OT, so we had fun comparing healthcare systems and headaches.
Now it’s time to begin the dreaded chore of packing. Tomorrow we leave for a drive down the coast and the adventure of finding a hotel somewhere north of Rome – so we can more easily drop off the car at the airport Sunday morning!
(10-2-99) Had a lovely evening in the beautiful home of our hosts last night. They live in the original farmhouse which later became an alabaster workshop (!) – connected to the four apartments (3 on the side, and 1 – our, the Capanna – on the rear of the building). We arrived early, as promised, so I could help prepare the meal, but Inger and her mother had everything under control. Massimo graciously poured us some wine (they, like most Italians, never have wine or snacks before dinner and only occasionally have a cocktail) and showed us a video of the old house & grounds (with 70 dogs!) right after they bought it in 1992 – a real "junkyard" – and some of the early restoration work.
What they’ve accomplished is positively amazing. Apparently the laws/rules for renovation in Italy are very strict. They are not permitted to increase the square footage and must do all work according to code. It took seven years for them to finish the project – hard labor and considerable expense – and they’re justifiably proud. Their first year (Aug ’98 – Aug ’99) was a good one, with most of the guests from Holland (thanks to Inger’s marketing) – but others came from Japan, USA, Canada, Germany, Switzerland, Britain, and, of course, Italy. An American family of 12 will be renting the whole place for Christmas week this year – what fun!
We only saw part of the main house – but the huge eat-in kitchen with a little sitting room and the equally mammoth living room were fantastic – high beamed ceilings, a marble countertop with beautiful appliances, a massive farmhouse table that could easily seat 10, a striking fireplace, interesting art, and floor-to-ceiling bookshelves. The bathroom was also huge and modern with bathtub and stall shower.
Dinner was terrific and Inger’s mother Nina joined us (She’s visiting from Holland for 2 weeks – on holiday from her job as a librarian). We had an unusual cup-shaped pasta with delicious mushroom sauce, tender slices of roast beef, roasted potatoes, salad and bread – all with LOTS of red wine – and rich chocolate gelato for dessert. We ate and laughed for hours – SO grateful to have met these kind and interesting people!
Sleep came easily, but woke up at 5:00 with the ol’ brain whizzing about the packing still to be done. We had more French toast – this time with a syrup of fresh peaches and bananas – and were on the road by 9:00 after good byes and hugs all around. We drove west to the coastal town of Cecina, then headed south through a varied landscape of farming, mining and seaside resorts – some congested and ugly – others, like Punta Ala, with a classy marina and a view of Elba Island – worth (to me, NOT Paul) the detour.
Italian roads and drivers can certainly test a marriage, since the speed is less than comfortable for the passenger (!) and the roads – even the "Superstrada" – become very narrow almost without warning. To complicate the situation, one needs to dodge bicyclists, scooters, and pedestrians – while hoping not to get crushed by one of the many huge trucks or tour buses – often wider than the lane! With deep drainage ditches alongside the roads, there’s little room for error! Oh well, at least we weren’t dealing with the mountains today! :=)
As we approached our target town of Civitavecchia, we both became extremely discouraged and frustrated – what we saw was a huge cruise ship and ferry port, traffic and confusion. We didn’t see anything that looked like a welcoming hotel – but as we were heading out of town we discovered the beautiful 4-star Sunbay Park Hotel – located right on the water next to a beautiful marina. The "$130. price tag was well worth this elegant oasis, with classy staff, a beautiful room complete with king-sized bed, TV, phone, minibar, AC, hairdryer, and balcony with table and chairs right on the water. The main restaurant (with wraparound windows and a glorious view) was occupied with a wedding reception – but we had a nice late pasta lunch in the smaller inside restaurant before crashing for a much-needed nap. Now it’s almost 6 PM – about time for a sunset stroll before changing for dinner and enjoying our last night in Italy… :=( Never thought we'd spend it on the water, listening to the waves and eating local seafood. Molto Belle! Tomorrow it’ll be up early for the last short leg -- about 60 km – to the airport where I’ll finish this travel log.
(10-3-99) We’re about 30 minutes from touchdown at Phila. International – 10 hours is a LONG flight (left at 11 AM, -- gain 6 hours – arrive 3 PM) !
Last night we relaxed with wine on our balcony – too much, I think – because we fell asleep until 9:45! We missed dinner at the hotel, but found a nice restaurant down the road for a simple, wonderful meal of homemade raviolini (Paul) and risotto with mushrooms, asparagus and truffles (me). With a bottle of white wine, rolls, etc. the bill was only $35.!
This morning we were up at 6:00 and on the road to the airport by 7:15 after a continental breakfast. The drive took less than an hour on the Autostrada and even the rental car check-in went smoothly. We had a LONG walk from the ticket counter to another terminal – then after the passport check-in were "trapped" behind the security enclosure for Gates 5-10 (International). To my dismay, once in, you couldn’t get out again – thus limiting my plan to do some shopping to the Duty Free Stores, which were lousy. Oh well, I’ll just have to fix everyone some dynamite Italian dinners this winter as we share the adventures and memories of a wonderful vacation,
Next year?….. Possibly Provence!!