Sunny and warm (cool in the evening - needed a jacket or sweater)
Have I mentioned how much I hate those route planning web sites? Last year I printed out driving directions from Mappy and they were useless. This year I printed out driving directions from Maporama and they were more than useless, they were also misleading. Two hours from Levanto to Castellina - or so they said. More like three and a half.
We were up early and in the breakfast room before they opened. Turns out it opens at 8:30 - so me complaining about the noise in our apartment from the breakfast room seems pretty lame now.
A few days before, I had heard Federico tell a guest he could loan them a hair blower. Last night, I asked his father (who is at the hotel in the evenings) for the hair blower. He could not find it. He asked me to come up later when Federico was there (Federico is there later at night). I came and Federico said they were all in use, but if I came up in the morning he would have one. I tried to say that it really wasn't important, that I don't always use one and really didn't need it, but they were not going to let me out of this one.
This is the first trip ever where I brought a blow dryer. Usually I wear my hair very short and in Santa Fe everything drys in two minutes, so you don't need a blow drying. The last few years I have been wearing my hair a little longer and it gets pretty frizzy in Italy, so I thought a blow dryer would be good. I tried to use it our first week in Levanto and I blew a fuse or something - probably burnt out the dryer. It is supposed to be good for the US and Europe (it is one of those little travel ones and says right on it 110 - 220). But, I turned it on and the lights went out and there was a burning smell from it. Steve flipped the switch for all the electric in the apartment (rebooted the apartment) and it was all fine, but I was not going to try that dryer again.
I went to breakfast with wet hair and asked if he had the blow dryer. Federico said he didn't but he was going into town now. I said not to bother, I really didn't need it. He said he was going into town anyway and would be five minutes. After a quick breakfast, we went back to the apartment. Federico came with a blow dryer. I have a feeling that he went and bought one because it was still in a box and packaged up. I dryed my hair and it really did look good - and this was important because we were having lunch with 26 people. Long story and I don't quite know why I am writing this.
We said our goodbyes to Federico and I was feeling kind of teary and gave him a big hug which shocked him I think (Federico is not that out going). We really did not get that much work done on his web site because this is his busy time of year and he did not have much time to spend on it, but we planned out what we would do on the site this winter.
We left Levanto at 9:05. I was hoping to be on the road by 8:30, but there was the late breakfast room opening and the blow dryer which slowed us down. We needed to be at the Siena train station by 11:00 to pick up Stephanie and Cesare who took the bus (the "pullman") up from Rome. We got there at 12:15. Here are the real driving times:
9:05 - Leaving Levanto
9:20 - Entering the A12 autostrada
10:05 - Exiting the A12 near Lucca and getting on the autostrada to Florence (5,30 Euro toll)
10:16 - A11 autostrada entrance near Lucca
Very quick stop at the Autogrill near Pistoia for coffee and restrooms. We wanted to get gas and pulled up to a pump with a guy there but were ignored by everyone. Other cars pulled up to other pumps and were served. We saw no sign saying this was self-service - but we must have screwed up somehow. We admitted defeat and left - figured it would be shorter to find a new station and try again. I always think in these situations that if you have been waiting a long time, they just don't see you anymore. This is why we always start looking for gas and ½ tank. If we had been served, it would have been 1,249 Euro/liter.
By now I am realizing that there is not a chance of making it to the Siena train station by 11. I phone Cristina, hoping to convince her to go pick up Stephanie and Cesare, only to find out that she is very sick and both her girls are sick and her husband is at work and her friend who looks after the children for her just had a baby - so there is no way Cristina can come to the lunch she has organized, let alone go pickup Stephanie and Cesare. I called Stephanie and told them how late we would be. Their bus was 45 minutes late.
11:04 - Traffic started slowing near Prato. I had forgotten how the A1 near Florence can grind to a halt. It did not slow for long, but on the other side there was a big accident and traffic was at a standstill for miles.
11:30 - Exited the A1 for the SI-FI Raccordo (Siena - Firenze). 5,70 Euro toll.. I think we had another 2 Euro toll in there on the stretch between the A12 and the A11. 130kph speed limit on the autostrada, but 90 kph on the SI-FI Raccordo. Cristina says they patrol this road and have cameras that catch you speeding. We found the autostrada much easier to drive on this trip. I think people are obeying the speed limits! You can move into the passing lane to pass a slower car, without having a BMW appear on your tail with his lights flashing. On previous trips that happened all the time. It has not happened once on this trip - people are driving slower.
12:15 - Took the Siena Nord exit and entered what I like to call the Chianti Bermuda Triangle. But we have driven through it many times (sometimes three times while circling endlessly) - and now I actually know these roads - so we drove straight to the train station and put Stephanie and Cesare in our back seat with one of our big suitcases. We had planned to visit Cristina first, but this was no longer possible. I called her and then we drove to the restaurant on the edge of Castellina and arrived at 12:40. Others were arriving too.
I think there were 25 people. Afterwards I realized that most of them are expats living in Italy (and Cesare, our one "real" Italian). The only travelers were me and Steve, Charity and Bill from Santa Barbara and Gail Hecko and her husband John. Everyone else lived in Italy - Judy (DivinaCucina), Ann (TuscanTraveler), Chandi and her husband (RedRedWine), Bill and Patty Sutherland (TuscanWomenCook), Gaynor and Terese (LaBellaToscana), Margaret and John (Casa dei Sogni), Barb and Art (who moved to Umbria two days earlier), Rebecca (Brigolante), Stephanie and Cesare (Webfabbrica) - or was planning to move to Italy - Joanna. Joanna's cousin Stefy was also there. I think I am missing some people from this list - it will come to me later. Carmel from Rome was supposed to come, but had to cancel because she had to be in Rome that day to get some paperwork done for her Visa. She sent presents for every person at the GTG (envelops of wonderful spices)!!
The lunch was wonderful. We sat at two long tables outside under awnings. The menu had been decided and course after course arrived. We ate and talked and took photos and changed places and talked and ate from 12:45 until 4:30. At the start each person stood up and introduced themselves - which was a great idea because we all got to know who was who.
It seemed like we all talked nonstop for the whole time - or was that just me? As promised, Rebecca was shy and not the great wit we were all expecting … for the first 15 minutes. Then she warmed up to all of us and was talkative and funny. Judy made Steve's day by telling him she loved his L'Eridita blog entry (about that Italian TV show) and that she watches that show too. Charity then further made his day by showing him how she had printed out all his language lessons and carried them around with her on the trip.
Many of the expats are in the travel-tourist business. Judy does cooking classes and tours, so do the Sutherlands. Ann is a tour guide in Florence. Chiandi organizes weddings in Italy. Rebecca runs her Brigolante vacation rentals. Stephanies builds web sites for many travel related businesses in Italy. Gaynor and Terese run La Bella Toscana, a vacation rental agency (a SlowTrav favorite).
At the end of the lunch, just as people were starting to leave, Dario (the author of 2 Much Tuscan Son - which I intentionally spell wrong so the search engines won't pick it up) called Judy and said he was going to come and say hi. This was pretty strange because I really did not like his book and had all kinds of things that I wanted to say, but didn't. Also, on the mboard, he recently admitted to posting under another name to shamelessly promote his book. I had suspected that this other name was really him and had emailed him about it a year ago, but he had denied it. This is a little too weird for me. Anyway we all talked with Dario for a few minutes, but it was strange. I wonder if he noticed my big American feet? Probably.
As we were leaving, the chef was trying to talk us into grappa and limoncello. We declined. I took photos of him and his wife in the restaurant and will post them with our group photos.
When we arrived, he had something for me - a card from Doru!!! I had been thinking of Doru, because he had been in Castellina a few days before the lunch, but was not there for the lunch. He left a card for us knowing we would all be there after him.
Me, Steve, Stephanie, Cesare, Barb, and Art drove to Vagliagli to meet Cristina. She stood outside her house and we talked for 30 minutes or so. She was sick and her girls in the house were even sicker. It was such bad timing, because Cristina organized the whole lunch and would have had a great time at it. People had brought presents for her, so I hope that made up for it somewhat.
We didn't leave Cristina's until 6:30. We took Stephanie and Cesare to the train station, but the next bus was not until 8:20 - so they had some time to kill. Meanwhile it is getting later and we had another hour to drive to our hotel in San Quirico. Note to self: Never, ever do a GTG on a travel day. What was I thinking? We should have booked two nights in Castellina and had the GTG on the full day we were there. We ended up doing too much driving.
And talking. I have now been talking for two days straight, because we had another GTG today (Saturday).
Driving on the white (dirt) road from Castellina to Vagliagli was the first "hairball" driving of the trip (well, from the A12 into Levanto is a bit hairball). Narrow road, lots of curves. Driving on the paved road from Vagliagli to Siena was busier than anything we had been driving before (and extraordinarily beautiful as we looked out over olive groves, vineyards and villas). And the driving around the Siena train station was very busy and somewhat chaotic. But we survived it all.
We got gas in Siena, made our way to the Siena Nord entrance to the Raccordo, and continued south to the SS2 and to San Quirico d'Orcia. That road is always a bit difficult, with lots of trucks that you have to pass. There is a piece of road about half way, where you leave the road and enter an "Autostrada" type of road for about two miles, then they have a real exit sign (Uscita) as if you had the choice of going straight or exiting, when really, you have to exit and then you are back on the one lane in each direction SS2 road that you were on before. I guess they have plans to make this a highway the whole way, but only built this one little bit. It has been like this for years.
We pulled into San Quirco around 8pm in total darkness. First, the town is about five times as large as I remember. Second, I have not got a clue where we should park or how to get to the hotel. I figured we would be arriving about two hours earlier and would park and walk into town, find the hotel and find out where to park. Which is what we did - but in complete darkness. We found an area I thought I recognized and we parked, but we could not find the way into the historic center. An Italian couple were carrying some paintings and things into town, so we talked to them and followed them (and carried some things). They took us into the center, I saw the linen store I shopped at last year and I knew where we were.
The town was full of people - and it was not all tourists (maybe some Italian tourists). People walking and talking, sitting in the square. There were way more shops than I remembered too. Really fun and lively!
We found the hotel, they gave us a map and showed us where to park, we went back to the car, drove in through an arch that is maybe two inches wider than the car, down a very narrow lane, stopped in front of the hotel, unloaded three bags (left some in the car), Steve drove into the square, turned the car and then backed it into a garage door that is about two feet wider than the car and takes about five back and forths to angle in correctly.
We drag our bags to the third floor (American third) and collapse. The room is lovely - canopied bed, high ceilings, very old building but a brand new renovation, fabulous lighting fixtures and furniture, fabulous tiled bathroom. No tub (but an enormous shower) - I as hoping to collapse into a hot bath.
Instead we had a very simple dinner (riboletta - vegetable soup, and two contorni - vegetable side dishes), then went to bed. Steve is exhausted from the drive. I am just exhausted. We took some vitamins - maybe we can fight off this cold.
This is the phase of the trip where I miss my cats and I want to be home. I don't want to go to all the effort of driving into Rome, returning the car, unloading all the luggage into a cab, dragging it into a hotel, then doing it all again to go to the airport. I just want to go home. But, I always feel like that and then we get to Rome and we LOVE it. I won't want to leave.