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Weeks 53-54: Five Weeks in Tuscany - Places and People

Our Leisurely Life

Other than our six-and-a-half months in Provence, our time in Tuscany is the longest stay of our trip. We haven’t settled down as residents in quite the same way we did in Provence, but we’ve been able to explore Tuscany in a much more leisurely fashion. We’ve enjoyed being able to take the days more slowly, relaxing from the aggressive sightseeing schedule of the previous six weeks.

Tuscany covers an extensive geographical area in central Italy, and our base in Chiusure enabled us to reach much of the region. We’ve gotten to know many of the neighboring towns and villages of Southern Tuscany well: the wine towns Montalcino and Montepulciano, Pienza known for its sheep cheese, the old walled town Buonconvento where we do our grocery shopping, the smaller villages Montisi and Monticchiello. One afternoon we visited Sant’Antimo, a beautiful 12th century church set in a peaceful valley below Montalcino, and watched the age-old ritual of the monks’ Gregorian chants.

Kelly and I especially like Bagno Vignoni with its beautiful views and hot springs. We’ve spent a couple of lazy days at the Hotel Posta-Marucci, occasionally dipping into the two pools (one hot and the other even hotter) while Charley reads a book in the shade. The whole environment feels like something from another era… older men and women in big white bathrobes stepping into the hot bath to take some kind of cure, everyone (men and women) wearing the mandatory bathing caps.

With the advantage of a full month, we’ve also been able to make several longer day trips… to Siena (twice), Pisa and Lucca, Volterra, San Gimignano, Chianti (twice), and Cortona. We visited San Gimignano late one afternoon, arriving in this town of 14 towers after most of the tour buses had left for the day. Chianti is one of our favorite areas, the lush green countryside and manicured vineyards such a contrast to our base in the barren clay pits of the Crete. Outside of Castellina in Chianti we visited a large Etruscan burial mound that dates back to the 4th century BC…. now sitting unattended (and fortunately empty) off the main road.

Kelly really wanted to see the Leaning Tower of Pisa, and so off we went early one morning, a drive of more than two hours … almost all the way to the Mediterranean Sea. The “Torre Pendente” shares a grassy plaza called the Campo dei Miracoli (Field of Miracles) with the Duomo and Baptistery. The impression of these three structures—one right next to the other—is quite amazing and the tower made it worth the long drive, but unfortunately the whole area is a tourist mess… surrounded by shops selling Leaning Tower trinkets, swarms of street sellers, pricey eating places, picture-snapping day-trippers like us We had planned to go up in the tower, but we were shocked to find that it cost 15 euro per person. We didn’t want to go that badly… Charley and I were happy just to take photos and say we saw it. Kelly was terribly disappointed though, so we decided she could go by herself. When she and Charley went to buy her ticket, they found out that the tickets were time-specific and she would have to wait over two hours for her turn. She decided she wasn’t that interested… at least it was her decision.

We even went back to Florence for a day to see a few important places we missed during our four-day stay at the beginning of our time in Tuscany. We made the mistake of driving up… we should have spent more money and taken the train. Charley definitely would have enjoyed his day more. It took us an hour and a half to get to Florence, but then an hour to figure out the parking. Charley really didn’t like driving around the motorcycles that darted in and around the slow-moving cars. He didn’t like the crowds, the noise, the heat… he really didn’t like Florence at all that day. We had tickets to the Accademia Gallery to see Michelangelo’s “David,” the most famous statue in the world. (I didn’t plan ahead early enough to get tickets to the Uffizi.) We also finally timed it right to visit the inside of the Duomo, not near as impressive as its white, green and pink marble exterior. Kelly and I climbed 414 stairs to the top of the adjacent Campanile (bell tower) with beautiful views of the city and a close-up view of Brunelleschi’s dome. We also visited the Paperback Exchange bookshop again… one of our favorite places in Florence. We traded in a bag of books and left with a load of used books that hopefully will last for the rest of our trip.

Most of our days in Tuscany have followed a standard pattern. We drive through the Tuscan countryside to an old and beautiful town, wander around the narrow streets looking at old churches and buildings, browse in interesting shops (restraining ourselves from buying much), have a leisurely lunch, maybe stop in an internet café, wander around the town some more, drive home on another scenic route, and have dinner at home or at the local pizzeria.

We had planned to do a lot of hiking in Tuscany in preparation for our upcoming 100-mile walk in the Swiss Alps, but it’s just been too hot for us. We hiked three times and finally decided not to go again. Our last hike was in Chianti, a three-hour circular hike out of the village of Radda-in-Chianti. We didn’t take enough water with us and I can’t remember ever being quite so thirsty… like someone stranded in the desert. I drank a whole liter of cold water once we finally reached a café on the main road. Kelly found some porcupine quills on the path, so she enjoyed at least one aspect of this walk.

We do enjoy the Tuscan lunches, especially when we can eat on an outdoor terrace. When we eat lunch out, we make this our big meal of the day. Charley and I often share an antipasto of bruschetta or a caprese salad of tomatoes, mozzarella, olive oil and fresh basil. Then we each have a pasta course or maybe some type of grilled meat with vegetables. I like gnocchi—little potato dumplings… especially good with a gorgonzola cheese sauce. I also like the thick Tuscan spaghetti called pici and homemade ravioli. Kelly’s favorite dishes are spicy—a pizza diavola with spicy salami or a pasta arrabbiata. She’s still cautious though… sometimes she’ll order just “pasta con burro”—pasta with butter. Charley is more adventurous and has ordered cinghiale (wild boar) a couple of times. None of us care for the Tuscan bread, made without salt and very bland. Breakfast isn’t a big meal here at all. We miss the wonderful bread of France.

New Friends in Tuscany

We’ve met up with several people from the Slow Travel message board whose vacations have coincided with our time in Tuscany. After six weeks on our own, we’ve really enjoyed being with friends again. I’ve liked meeting the “real people” I’ve gotten to know on the internet. People seem interested in what our family has done: quitting our jobs, taking our daughter out of school, and spending 14 months in Europe. I suspect they’re curious to see what we’re really like too.

We first met Libbie in Florence, when we spent the day together in our cooking class. We had hoped to see Libbie again and meet her husband George, and we were able to get together with them twice. The day after we arrived in Chiusure we drove up to Siena (about 40 minutes north) and met Libbie and George on the steps of the Duomo. They had been to Siena before and were excellent guides for our afternoon. Siena is a walled town of about 50,000 people with a beautiful cathedral and a famous fan-shaped square in the middle of town called the Piazza del Campo. Twice a year there is a famous bareback horse race on Il Campo called the Palio, a competition between Siena’s 17 neighborhoods or contrade. We invited Libbie and George to come to our little house in Chiusure for dinner the next night before they left for Milan and returned home to the USA.

A few days after we arrived in Tuscany, we had a leisurely lunch with Kim and Chris from New Jersey and Krista and Steve from California. We met at a little restaurant called La Porta, built into the walls of the village of Monticchiello, not far from the larger town of Pienza. Outside the village a beautiful cypress-lined road twists up the hillside, one of the most famous postcard scenes in Tuscany. Both couples have vacationed in this area several times and had good suggestions for our time here. Kim and Chris have daughters about Kelly’s age, and brought Kelly several Judy Blume books. Earlier this year they had helped us get postcards of the Statue of Liberty for Kelly’s goodbye present for her class at the village school in Provence.

We drove down to Lake Bolsena in Northern Lazio to meet Wendy and Richard Ashworth, Slow Travel friends who live near London. We first met Wendy and Richard in Cornwall, back on the third week of our trip. Now a year later we were in Italy at the same time. Wendy had several books for Kelly too—wonderful classics like Little Women, Jane Eyre and Rebecca. After lunch in Bolsena, Wendy suggested we go together to a nearby village called Civita di Bagnoregio. The tiny ancient village is perched high on a rocky point surrounded by valleys, connected to the “mainland” only by a high narrow bridge… kind of a Mont St. Michel without any water. This was one of the most unique places we have visited on our trip, and it was fun to share the experience with these two friends.

We went back to Siena for a large get-together—nine adults, two teenagers, six small children, and Kelly—at a park just inside the town walls, looking south across the countryside. Four of the adults were expatriates. Christina has lived near Siena for several years, married to an Italian with two small children. She runs a website for expatriates called Expats in Italy. Joanna recently left New York City and bought a house in the village of Castiglione d’Orcia. We found out that she had lived in our apartment in Chiusure while she was in transition. Michael and Alex are filmmakers with two small children who’ve also come to Europe from the San Francisco area. They’re living for a while in Siena, but probably won’t stay long-term. The other three adults were American travelers like us. Julie was visiting her husband’s relatives in Bologna with her two young children. Jan was in Siena to take Italian lessons for a few weeks, accompanied by her teenage daughter, her friend Kris, and Kris’ daughter. Kelly’s love of reading—and desperation for books—is well-known on Slow Travel. Jan was so thoughtful and brought several books for her too.

We especially enjoyed our time with Gail and John Hecko from Atlanta. They have a unique travel business called “Chick Trips.” Every spring and fall they rent a big farmhouse just outside the village of Montisi for a couple of weeks… just 15 minutes from our house in Chiusure. Each week they host a group of either 10 women or 5 couples, introducing them to life in Tuscany. They have an interesting approach to group travel… not a typical guided tour. There’s a relaxed communal lifestyle at the large, comfortable farmhouse… a peaceful spot with a swimming pool and views across the countryside. Each week includes a few structured activities (a visit to several Tuscan towns, art lessons, some group meals, and special end-of-week party), but most of the days are open for people to pursue their own interests.

Gail and John invited our family to participate in several of their group events over two different weeks, and we enjoyed getting to know the American women in these two groups: several pairs and small groups of friends; two sisters in their 70’s; two sisters in their 40’s; three young women in their 20’s and one of their moms; three middle-aged sisters and their 83-year old mother. Some of the women went on a variety of day trips during their week in Tuscany, while others enjoyed a more leisurely time at the farmhouse and in the local village.

Charley and I had a long visit with John and Gail over coffee one day, interested to learn more about their travel business. We joined one of their groups for an open house at a local winery. Kelly was thrilled to participate in the art lessons two weeks in a row, and produced a beautiful black and white watercolor of an olive tree that we’ll frame and display in our living room at home. One day Charley and John even had their own “guys day out” and visited some of the local wine towns. But we especially enjoyed the two parties we attended—including a delicious buffet dinner and after-dinner music. Their tour guide—an Italian man from Cortona named Pino Teresi—is also a very talented guitarist and singer with an extensive repertoire, including many American songs. And their artist friend—a British woman named Liz Cochrane—surprised us all with her great cabaret-style singing. So there we were… under the Tuscan moon… singing “Country Roads Take Me Home” and “That’s Amore” with a group of other Americans…

We went back to the La Porta restaurant in Montichiello to meet a family from Atlanta: Leslie, her husband Brent, and their eight-year old daughter Riley. They were spending a week near Montepulciano. Leslie suggested that we meet in the small playground just outside the Montichiello village walls. Riley was the first child Kelly had been with since Provence two months before, and they quickly became friends on the playground. Charley and I liked Leslie and Brent a lot too, and we enjoyed talking about travel, careers and children. Before we all went over to the restaurant for lunch, we chatted with a British woman setting up a picnic lunch for a walking tour group in the park. After lunch our two girls went back out to the playground and helped her pack up the remains of her picnic. She came into the restaurant to have a cup of coffee with us, and then—much to our surprise—invited us all to her family’s home near Cortona the next evening for drinks. We were delighted to have the opportunity to see Leslie, Brent and Riley again, to spend more time in the Cortona area, and—best to all—to visit with a local family in their home.

Cas and Pino Nobile (she’s British and he’s originally from Sicily) live with their three children in a beautifully-restored 17th century farmhouse and flour mill, right on the border of Tuscany and Umbria. I really liked the English-style flower garden by the swimming pool. Their company is called Caspin Journeys, and they lead walking tours in Italy and England. They also have a three rental apartments on the property. I would enjoy staying here, especially with Cas and Pino as hosts.

We arrived at the Nobiles’ home about 6:30 pm and stayed until after 10:30. They had also invited another vacationing American couple and a couple from Belgium who are regular renters of one of their apartments. The children playing together in the spacious yard and big family room while the adults enjoyed drinks, snacks and conversation outside. A massive thunderstorm arrived just as the sun went down. We moved the tables and chairs under a covered patio, watched the rain, and drank more wine.

Our neighbors Zak and Gary were also very friendly and helpful. Zak is from Finland and Gary is from Australia. They run TuscanHouse, an agency that specializes in rental properties in the Siena and Lucca provinces. I had communicated with both Zak and Gary over the past year about the arrangements for our house, and was pleased to find out we’d actually be neighbors in Chiusure. Zak must have spent an hour with us when we arrived, showing us the house and even walking us around the village.

Our house had several large stacks of magazines that we enjoyed reading. One sunny morning I was leafing through an old Town and Country magazine and came across an article titled “To Live in Tuscany.” It was a wonderful article about the writer’s purchase of a home in a small Tuscan village, a village that suddenly sounded very much like our village of Chiusure. I looked down at the writer’s name and realized that not only was the village Chiusure, the writer was our neighbor Gary. Charley later asked him if we could have the magazine and if he would autograph it for us. This is a special keepsake of our stay in Chiusure.

Although the most positive aspect of our trip has been the extended time together, it’s also been the most challenging factor. Since we left Provence in mid-April, the three of us have been together 24 hours a day and 7 days a week, living in much smaller places than we’re used to, without other relationships or much independence. Sometimes all this togetherness is stressful and confining. Here in Tuscany our circle expanded again to include other people and it was good for us. We’ve liked having friends again.

Arrivederci Tuscany

Kelly’s favorite restaurant in Tuscany was the little pizzeria in our village called “Le Crete.” She says this is the best pizza she’s had in all of Italy. The restaurant was definitely convenient (a few minutes down the hill from our house) and relatively inexpensive. We ended up eating there five or six times.

The first time we tried to eat there—for lunch on a Sunday—several large groups arrived at exactly the same time. We waited 20 minutes at a table and never even got a menu. We decided to leave, and I’m sure our departure—like our arrival—was not even noticed. We’ve never seen a crowd like this at the pizzeria again… maybe it was just a Sunday afternoon phenomenon. Sometimes the restaurant had several tables of diners and once—strangely on a Friday evening, we thought—we were the only people there.

The place is run by a husband and wife who seem to do it all, regardless of the number of diners. Between the two of them they take orders, serve drinks, cook the food, arrange the plates, serve the meals, add up the tab, and collect the money. They take only cash. One night when it was fairly busy, a woman who was eating with two friends at the table next to us got up a few times to help the couple serve and clear away plates. We couldn’t quite figure out her role.

The man and woman are both friendly, though in a frazzled almost dazed way. The wife seems especially drained by the demands of the restaurant. In the course of our eating there, we got to know this couple fairly well, though we never did exchange names. Our communication was interesting, since they spoke no English and our Italian is extremely limited. We communicated a lot through hand signals and expressions. We did learn that they live in a nearby hamlet called Bollano and that they have a son who lives in America. They were both very kind to Kelly, and the woman especially thought it was very funny that Kelly and Charley always ordered the very same thing every time—Pizza with salame piccante, a spicy sliced sausage. I wasn’t quite so predictable, though I tended to favor pizza Quattro Stagioni—artichokes, ham, mushrooms and olives, each on one-fourth of the pizza.

On Monday of our last week, we arrived for dinner at the opening time of 7:30 pm. We ordered our normal pizzas to the woman’s amusement. She brought us our drinks and then brought us an antipasti… three pieces of really good bruschetta… with mozzarella cheese and salame piccante. She told us it was a gift. We had our pizzas and were ready to ask for “il conto” when she brought us three huge pieces of juicy watermelon… also complementary. Our bill that night was 30 euro… an inexpensive meal in Tuscany.

Kelly wanted to eat at Le Crete for our last dinner in Tuscany, and so we stopped by on Thursday afternoon to make sure they would be open the next evening. We sat outside on the side terrace. The only other table that night was an older monk eating with a family with a few small children, an interesting combination.

When we arrived, we somehow managed to communicate that we were leaving the next morning and that this was our last time there. The woman knew what Kelly and Charley would order… they didn’t even need to say it. I decided to surprise her and deviate from pizza. I tried to order the tortellini. The woman shook her head vehemently. No, no, no. The tortellini wasn’t any good… it was frozen. I should get the ravioli instead, which she made herself. I certainly wasn’t going to order anything the owner of the restaurant didn’t recommend, so I quickly switched to the ravioli.

We also ordered the bruschetta with the spicy salami, what had been a gift last time. When the woman arrived at our table with the bruschetta, she told us it was a gift again. Then our pizzas came and my homemade ravioli, which was just wonderful. She brought another plate of ravioli for Charley and Kelly to try… another gift. After our main courses, we ordered watermelon for Kelly, but she brought three pieces and they were all gifts. Then the husband came out to the table, with a bottle of wine wrapped in a bag. He made a little speech and presented us with the wine—yet another gift for our family. We shook his hand and thanked him, and then as we left, we kissed and hugged the wife goodbye. Our bill for our dinner was 29 euro, somehow less than the previous night even though we had ordered a full liter of wine.

We had made a connection with these people in this simple little pizzeria. We left with a memory far greater than any gourmet meal in a far finer place… a special ending to our five weeks in Tuscany.

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This page contains a single entry from the blog posted on July 19, 2005 1:53 PM.

The previous post in this blog was Weeks 51-52 - Five Weeks in Tuscany (On our Tuscan Hilltop).

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