Essays about life in Italy, traveling in Italy, and more
Spring 2000 - England and Italy
One Month in Italy
The travel day from England to Italy was difficult. Up very early in Painswick. Martin, the taxi driver, picked us up at 7am. Richard, Lydia, Lydia's aunt (just arrived from the US), and Filbert the cat all came to say goodbye. Because of the holiday weekend, the airport was a zoo. The flight was full and late leaving. We flew direct from London to Rome (2 1/2 hours). Rome airport was its usual insanity.
It took us half and hour to get our luggage. The first Italian that you see is the Carabinieri with his machine gun slung across his chest. It took us another half and hour to find the car rental booths (they are on the walkways that go from the airport to the parking garage).
It took another hour to wait in line at Europecar. Then they wanted to "upgrade" us to a mini-van. A mini-van on the narrow roads in Tuscany! We said no. They said, okay we have a nice station wagon for you. We said no and mentioned how many time we have rented from them and how one time we had a station wagon and it was just too big for the narrow roads in the small towns. They said, okay we have a brand new Alfa Romeo 146 (the car we had actually booked). The car is great! Not a zippy as one might have thought for an Alfa, but quite nice. About the size of a Volkswagen Golf.
Steve took to the driving like a fish to water; like a bird to the sky; like someone who has driven in Italy before. We hit the Autostrada and left the slow moving cars in our dust. By now we were very late. We stopped at the first Autogrill and pumped ourselves up with espresso and called the vacation rental office, drove on the Autostrada to Chiusi, shopped very quickly at the supermarket (stores are closed Sunday, so if you want anything you have to get it before 8pm on Saturday), drove the country roads to Celle sul Rigo. We just made it to the vacation rental office as they were giving up on waiting for us and leaving (8:30pm). We filled out some papers, they gave us the keys and drew us a map.
Let me tell you now - the house is fabulous. The location is fabulous. Celle sul Rigo is fabulous. It is wonderful being in Italy. It is bright and sunny here!
Friday, June 9
We have been here two weeks - we leave tomorrow for Liguria (on the Mediterranean coast). The weather has been great. Up until the last few days it has been sunny and hot, but not too hot, every day. Very little humidity (it can get humid here). A welcome change after England. In the last few days we have had hot, sunny mornings and then clouds and thunderstorms in the late afternoon for just a few hours.
The house we have rented, Podere Bellevista, is on a little dirt road, just 50 yards from the walls of the village Celle sul Rigo. We can walk in to get fresh bread in the morning or to get a coffee, or in the evening for dinner. This is a nice change for us - we usually stay out in the country and have to drive to the nearest town. The house was just renovated last year. We met the owner today when we were in the agency office. Before that it had been falling down and abandoned for many years. It is clean and nicely, if somewhat sparsely, furnished. It has a nice large living room/dining room and a small kitchen (very small, but useable) and bathroom downstairs. Upstairs two bedrooms and a bathroom. The house is made of stone with thick walls and all the floors are that nice reddish tile (cotto), so it is cool in the hot days. Also it gets a nice breeze.
From the front porch you look out over a small yard to the most incredible view of the valley that stretches from Monte Cetona in the east to the hill town of Radicofani directly in front of you to Monte Amiata in the west. In a corner of the yard, there is a swimming pool that we have used many times.
This is the first time that I have had a dishwasher in Italy! And it is probably the most comfortable furniture we have ever had. The house is so well lighted that you can read in the evening. This is a first for us in Italy. Usually houses have very few lights and they are a very low wattage. This house has bright wall lights in the living room, so you can read in the evening. It even has a TV for amusement (not satellite, only Italian-language channels). And there are good lights beside the bed for reading too. We always travel with a portable CD-player and several talking books for those long, poorly lighted evenings. We didn't need them here.
Our big adventure was a bat in the bedroom. We had turned out the lights and opened both windows wide, to get the cross breeze, when the dog next door started barking wildly, probably to warn us about the bat, which then flew into the room. As usually happens when living creatures are brought into our bedroom (usually by one of the cats), I go under the covers and Steve deals with it. He tried to tell me it was a bird, not a bat, so I would be less freaked. He got it out of the room finally, but I made us sleep in the other room just to be sure. Just that day I had been thinking how stupid I am to complain about the non-existence of screens on windows in most Italian houses. I thought how much sense it makes to be able to open the window wide and get all that fresh air; how screens really block air flow. Well, they block bat flow too. When we met the owner, she told us she is planning to put screens on the windows (and that was before we told her about the bat).
Enough about our domestic arrangements. The weekend we arrived was a major festival in our town, Celle sul Rigo (the Rigo is the river in the valley below and Celle means cellars - they had carved cellars into the hillside under the town). On Sunday afternoon, we walked down the long, narrow main street of the old part of town to the piazza where the band was playing "Now and Forever". The street was almost empty, but when you got to the piazza it was packed full of people eating, drinking, talking, sitting, walking around, admiring babies, admiring each other. A group of local girls were dressed up in those cute little band-type costumes and twirling batons and pom-poms (but isn't that an American thing?). The band was great and played for hours. They did lots of the music from Steve's favorite movie "The Good, The Bad and The Ugly". Then a rock band took over in the evening and everyone was dancing and singing along to the Stone's "Satisfaction". Surreal for us! At least we knew the words.
We spent a couple of days exploring the small towns near us. Our village is pretty, but is very small: one store, one caffe, two restaurants. Another good restaurant just on the edge of town.
Cetona is about a 15 minute drive away and is a great town; lots of nice food shops, a few cafes, at least two restaurants. The narrow streets and old stone buildings are beautiful and you can see that many of the old buildings are being redone.
San Casciano dei Bagni, just 5 km from us, is also a great town. It has a beautiful old part and a nice modern part. It is always lively with lots of people in the caffes and shops. It is the town where we spent the most time. We would go in for coffee and pastry in the morning or for a drink in the early evening. They have two cafes, both with gelato, one with lots of magazines and English-language papers, several food stores, a good bakery, a very good restaurant. There are over 40 hot springs in the area right around this town and a new spa has just been built south of town. It opened on June 1 and we planned to have a day there but never got around to it. Instead we hunted out hot springs in the countryside where you could soak in a natural pool or river. On our next visit we will go to the spa!
Just below the old part of San Casciano dei Bagni there is a hot spring that flows into open stone baths. We went there one day and soaked in the water. Another day we drove up to Bagno Vignoni a went for a short, but hot, hike, then soaked our feet in the hot springs that run through town. I read about this town in Frances Mayes book "Bella Tuscany". And another day we went to Bagni San Fillipo and sat in a mineral river with both hot and cold water areas. This was described very briefly in my Cadogan guide book. By now we were hunting out hot springs. I have a few pictures of the springs on the photos page.
We have had a few nice days out and about, exploring the area. We drove north to Montalcino and to the Abbey at Sant' Antimo and heard the monks chanting. We were there on the last trip, but didn't know the times of the chanting and missed it. This time we were ready with the chanting schedule from this web page. We made it for the 12:45 chanting; they start exactly on time and the chanting lasts about 12 minutes. Then we dashed off for lunch in the town beside the abbey and just made it back for the 2:45 chanting. Lunch in under two hours only because we didn't order the "secondi" course!
We drove south and west to Saturnia for lunch. This was the restaurant that we really loved last year. It was great again this year. On the way we drove through some of the incredible hill towns from that area.
We have been to Pienza a few times. We also did a nice drive through the Val d'Orcia which starts just north of us. One day we drove west to Monte Amiata and explored the towns around the mountain (beautiful) and went for a hike on the mountain. Another day we hiked in a sort of national park just south of here.
It doesn't sound like we have done that much in the two weeks when I sit here and write about it. We spent many afternoons by the pool or sitting in the shade reading. We also spent most of our time exploring the towns and areas close by. I think this is always the best way to travel; explore what is near you, don't spend all day driving.
Speaking of driving - this is the breakthrough trip for me! I am driving!!! This is our fourth trip to Italy (each for at least a month) and Steve always does all the driving. First, I am not used to a manual car and that is all you can rent here. Second, the driving has always seemed too crazy for me. It is strange, because in the US I usually do all the driving (because I love to drive). On the last trip, I drove a bit on the country lanes (white roads) just to get the hang of the gearshift. Only once did I drive on a normal road. On this trip, on the day after we arrived, after a nice Sunday lunch with wine, I just said "Give me the keys. I am driving." And I did! Sunday afternoon is the perfect time to start out. No traffic. We drove for an hour or more on the country roads, letting me get used to the car. Now I am doing half the driving. This makes it easier on Steve (driving all the time is tiring) and I feel more like I can function in Italy (now I just have to learn to speak).
On the first drive, Steve thought I was driving too close to the edge on the passenger side! The very thing that I as a passenger always complain about!
But, I do have this theory about the driving. This corner of Tuscany is very peaceful. The roads are usually empty. The drivers are not crazy. It is very different from the rest of Tuscany. Perhaps the perfect place for me to start driving. Perhaps the only place in Italy where I can drive. Next week in Liguria all will be revealed.
The driving is fun here - you can drive really fast.
Tomorrow we leave this lovely house and drive north to Liguria. We are staying in a house in an old hill town, near the coast. If we have a phone, maybe I can upload these new pages to the web site! We are still planning on coming home at the end of June. Steve wants to spend July in Switzerland, but I am feeling like I want to get home.
Sunday, June 11
We are in Liguria! And we can connect to the Internet.
We are staying in this little, old village (Trebiano), perched on the top of a hill, on the peninsula between the white mountains of Carrara (where they mine marble) and the Mediterranean. It is very different here from where we were in Tuscany. It is lush and very green. The area is all steep hills with steeply terraced olive groves and gardens. It is much more crowded - towns, cars, people everywhere. Our village house looks out onto the Magra valley and, at night, there are lights everywhere. We can even hear the distant buzz of the Autostrada that runs through the valley. At our last place you could see only a few villages off in the distance and, at night, all you heard were church bells and the dogs in the neighborhood.
The house we have rented is very nice. The village streets are only a few feet wide and closed off to cars. We park outside the village and walk in. The houses are very old and are all attached. We have a beautiful balcony with views of the valley below.
The seaside is so beautiful, that I cried this morning when we drove to Lerici and saw it for the first time on this trip. Steve cried too, but I think it had more to do with the traffic. Today we spent a couple of hours wandering around Lerici (by foot) and then driving the little roads to several nearby towns. I haven't driven yet - we need me for navigating. And those cars come a lot closer and faster here. But, I am going to drive, just to prove that I can do it (and survive - we hope).
Here we are on the Mediterranean, close to several excellent beaches, ready with our bathing suits - - - and it has been overcast and raining since we arrived yesterday. Oh well. If the weather doesn't get better, there is lots to do here other than swim. However, next week we are staying at a place where the only thing to do is swim, so I would like the sunshine back by then!
I put some photos on the web site from the last two weeks. Bye!
Monday, June 19
Well, it is almost over. Last week in Liguria was wonderful. (I put most of my description of it on the photos page.) I drove in Liguria! Down the two mile narrow, winding road from our village to the busy main road and into the even busier Lerici and down the very narrow, winding road along to coast to Fiascherino. What a rush! I even enjoy it! And I drove a few times on the Autostrada. We try to not go over 120 kph (what is that in mph?) because the car isn't that good, but occasionally I took it up to 140 kph to pass someone. You do not stay in the passing lane longer than necessary because it is full of Mercedes that go at about 200 kph and flash their lights at you if you are in their way.
In the end, we really enjoyed our week in Liguria. It was different from the first two weeks because the area is much busier and more dense. But it was fun. We did the Cinque Terre walk (see the photos page for a long description and some pictures). We went swimming a few times. We visited some of the nearby hill towns. We went to Luni, an excavated Roman settlement from 200BC.
On Saturday, our travel day, we got caught in heavy weekend traffic on the Autostrada. Everyone was heading to the coast (as were we). We stopped in Massa Maritima, a beautiful town in western Tuscany that we had never been to before. We had a very mediocre lunch (!!) but loved the cathedral. It was covered in fading frescoes inside and beautiful carvings outside (all from the 1300-1400's).
This last week didn't start off so well, but is going better now. Our apartment on Monte Argentario, on the coast of southern Tuscany, is kind of nice but kind of disgusting. I don't think anyone has stayed here since last November. It was like arriving at a cottage that has been closed all winter. The apartment was really musty, the floors and patios were dusty and dirty, the electricity was shut off, the fridge was shut off, the stove didn't work because it was out of propane, the towels were hidden in a locked closet. Nothing was ready for us. But after a few phone calls and much sweeping and dusting, we got things somewhat straightened out. The washing machine is permanently broken, but we found a laundry in town, and if you turn the key in the front door twice instead of once, you can no longer get into the apartment (the caretaker kicked it in for us after we did this), so we don't lock the door anymore. Such a contrast to the first place we stayed where everything was nice and clean and worked well. The second place was in between.
The thing that is wonderful is that we are in a small holiday village complex, down a steep road, and perched on the edge of a cliff over the Mediterranean. Our large patio looks right out to the sea. And we just walk down the road and go swimming in a beautiful cove. You climb into the water from ladders on the rocks and the water is immediately very deep (and very salty and very cold). It feels like an ocean because of the salt, but because it is smaller, there are no big waves like in Hawaii. (Penny, you would love swimming here!) The water is calm.
We have stayed in this area three other times, so we know our way around. Porto Santo Stefano is a lively beach town with lots of good pizza places. Unfortunately for me the restaurants specialize in fish to the extent that almost every dish contains fish (maybe even the desserts), so there is nothing for me. The other town on the island, Porto Ercole, has better restaurants that have the usual vegetarian pasta dishes, so we go there for a dinner out. But, the pizza in Porto Santo Stefano is great.
We don't have big plans for the week - just lots of swimming. The weather is sunny and hot. We may do some hiking in the area. And, we are only an hour from Saturnia, so we may go back there to our favorite restaurant.
This is most likely the last update while we are away. On Saturday we leave for Rome - that should be a whirlwind! Then a week tomorrow, next Tuesday, we fly home. I will put the final installment on when we get home. Then I get back to work on the web page, adding new information for Italy and England and then registering with the search engines to see if we can find other people who stay in vacation rentals and will write reviews of them for the page.
The last part of the trip
Well, we have been home for a week now and are just starting to get settled back into things. We had to adjust to the time change (8 hours), to the weather change (from humid to dry) and to just stopping traveling. Even though we travel slow, there is a high level of excitement on any trip. Every day new places to explore and things to do. When you get back home there is a let down. The energy just drains from you.
That last week on Monte Argentario was the worst week of our trip (but wasn't all bad). I thought the worst thing was how rundown and dirty the apartment was, but in the end it was the mosquitoes. There were no screens on the doors or windows (this is common in Italy) and the apartment filled with mosquitoes in the night. I cannot sleep without a fresh breeze, so we have to keep windows open. We slept under a mosquito net and this more or less worked, but you didn't get that much fresh air through the net.
We went swimming several times and that was nice. We had some very pleasant evenings having dinner out in Porto Santo Stefano or Porto Ercole, the two towns on Monte Argentario. We explored the nearby town of Orbetello.
One day we went to a big park just north of Monte Argentario, on the coast. It is supposed to have lots of hiking trails. I knew that they restricted the number of people into the park, so we went on a Thursday in the morning to avoid the weekend crowds. But the park was closed; it is only open Wednesday, Saturday and Sunday! This was not mentioned in any of the tourist information about this park. This would be like driving to Yellowstone to find it is closed that day! So we decided to drive to Saturnia, the town with one of our favorite restaurants, where we had a great lunch in week 2 of the trip. We had another great lunch.
Saturnia is a wonderful town. It is small, but there are several restaurants other than the one we love so much that look very good. There are Roman and Etruscan ruins scattered around the town. After lunch and a walk around town, we drove to the natural hot springs just down the road and spent some time sitting in the hot water. There were lots of other people there even in the afternoon in the middle of the week. On the way back we were driving around looking for an organic olive oil farm that I had read about, when we stumbled upon the beautiful hill town of Capalbio. I had never heard of this town or read anything about it. It is just inland from Monte Argentario, almost on the border with Lazio. A perfectly preserved medieval town with lots of people out and about, lots of tourists walking around, lots of caffes and restaurants.
You sometimes wonder how people hear of these places. I can understand the small town of Volterra with lots of tourists exploring around because it is listed in all the guide books, but who has ever heard of Capalbio? And yet, there we were along with lots of Germans and other tourists. There must be a lot of people like us who have traveled so much in Tuscany that we are now exploring all the remote corners. We tourists have boundless energy! Anyway, this town was beautiful and had lots of good looking restaurants, but after our big lunch we didn't think we would ever eat again, so we just had a coffee and walked around the town. Never did find that organic farm.
On our last day in Monte Argentario, Friday, we had planned to hang around and swim, but the weather had turned very humid and the mosquitoes were out in full force by 10am. I must mention that most people would just take out a can of insect spray or light one of the mosquito coils that are common in Italy or cover themselves in insect repellant. We believe those things are harmful to human health and ultimately to the environment, so we don't use them (but by Friday I would have voted in favor of bombing the area with DDT like they did several decades ago). So we drove inland to escape the mosquitoes. We drove south into the Lazio region to the ancient Etruscan town of Tarquinia. This is the town that is famous for its Etruscan museum (incredible) and Etruscan painted tombs (also incredible). The Etruscans lived here in about 300 BC and buried their dead in underground tombs that were decorated with frescos. There are about twenty of them that have been found in this field just outside of town. Ten were open for viewing when we were there. It was a bright, hot, sunny day. You walk up to a doorway in a small shed-like structure, then walk down some steep, dark stairs to a glass doorway leading to the tomb. You press a switch and a light comes on and you can look in at the tomb. Because you are underground it was nice and cool, but for each tomb it took my eyes several minutes to adjust to the lack of light. It was amazing to look at the frescos that were painted over 2000 years ago. The religious frescos we go to see in the churches were painted only 500-800 years ago.
On the Saturday we drove to the Rome airport and returned the car. I made some detailed notes about the Rome airport (because it is very confusing to find your way around) that I will eventually include in my Italy notes section. We took at taxi into Rome and checked into our hotel across from the Pantheon. The Pantheon is an beautiful building, built by the Romans in around 200 AD. The hotel was lovely. It was really nice to be somewhere clean after that wretched apartment. On the Saturday afternoon we went to the Capitoline Museum. It was closed when we were in Rome last September. It has lots of statues from ancient Rome - room after room of them. In a courtyard they have pieces of what must have been huge statues. A couple of big feet, a big hand and a big head. The museum was great. We walked and walked until we were ready to drop.
The restaurant that we had loved so much on our last visit was closed the whole time we were there (always have a backup plan in Italy), but we did have a few nice meals out. We went to that great pizza place which we had loved last October, but this time the pizza wasn't as good and it was so crowded and noisy that by the end of the meal we were desperate to leave. Maybe it is more crowded in Rome in late June than in early October. Maybe we just were there on a bad night. Rome is very crowded and busy and sometimes it gets overwhelming. That is why I think it is good to be in a nice hotel or apartment in a central location, so you can get to it easily for a rest during the day.
On the Sunday we walked for hours around the Roman Forum. This is the area that was the heart of ancient Rome. You walk on the same roads they walked on, there are parts of buildings left over, pieces of ancient Rome just scattered about. They removed what used to be the main entrance, but didn't remove all the signs pointing to it and didn't put up new signs pointing to the new entrance, so we had to walk an extra mile or so to get in, but it wasn't that crowded when we were there.
On the Monday we went to the Vatican. Now, on the trip last year we promised ourselves that we would not go to Rome in the year 2000 because of the big Guibileo 2000 celebration. This is a celebration that is held every 100 years in Rome to celebrate the Catholic church. The pope decreed that you get time off in Purgatory for every church you visit in Italy during the year 2000. If the trip through Purgatory and into Heaven is like our frequent flyer clubs here on earth, I figure Steve and I have Platinum status for all the churches we went into this year. We won't be spending much time in Purgatory at all! They expected, and are receiving, about 3 times the usual amounts of visitors in Italy this year. But most of the increase is organized tours from churches and they are just visiting the main religious sites. We avoided Assisi because of this.
So, even though we had decided to not go to Italy this year, there we were. We promised ourselves we would only visit the countryside, we would not go into Rome because it would be too busy. But our flight left from Rome so it would be easiest to stay there for a few days and we found a hotel room. But we would not, by any means, go to the Vatican. And, if we went to the Vatican just out of curiosity, we would not enter St. Peters church; it was bound to be horribly crowded. But, if we got to the Vatican and it didn't look too crowded in the piazza and we went into St. Peters, we would not consider going to the Vatican Museums to see the Sistine chapel. Needless to say, we went into St. Peters and it was crowded (lots of groups following their tour leaders through the church) and we walked over to the museums (the entrance is about a mile from St. Peters even though the museums are beside St. Peters) just to see how horrendous the line was and it was way shorter than when we were last in it in 1996, so we ended up spending a few wonderful hours in the museums and then in the Sistine Chapel.
On Tuesday we flew home and that is the end of the trip. The trip was great and we can't let the wonderful time we had in Italy make us forget what a wonderful time we also had in England.
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