Essays about life in Italy, traveling in Italy, and more
Three Weeks in Tuscany - Part 1
We left Sorrento a couple of days early and drove up to Todi. We stopped in the Monster Park in Bomarzo, Lazio on the way up - a place I had long wanted to see. It was pretty interesting and a perfect place to take a break from driving.
Two Nights in Todi
We booked a hotel in Todi from Sorrento and spent a couple of nights there before going on to Pienza. Todi is a lovely town. We had a nice day exploring the town. Our hotel was just off the main piazza - perfect location.
Arriving in Tuscany
We arrived at La Fornacina on Saturday evening. The house is fabulous - the garden is even better. The kitchen is the best we have ever had and we have had dinner in the house every night so far. Simple dinners of pasta and vegetables, with pane toscana and the wine that Helga left for us.
Sunday, September 23
Saturday was warm and sunny, but it rained heavily Saturday night and we woke to an overcast, rainy day on Sunday. We had planned a nice outdoor lunch near Montalcino for Sunday lunch with Mare and Bruce (from this message board), but this wouldn't work in the rain, so we cancelled and ended up meeting at Ristorante Daniela in San Casciano dei Bagni, a restaurant we feature in the Food section of the website.
Had a very nice lunch and lots of fun talking to Mare and Bruce. Steve and I had a first course of vegetable soup - Riboleta. Then a second course of grilled fresh porcini mushrooms. Wonderful. We shared some vegetables. A dessert of panna cotta to finish.
Then we drove back to Mare and Bruce's agriturismo place just north of Cetona. They had a nice, simple apartment on a farm in a beautiful location. Spent the rest of the afternoon with them talking about everything. They are from Seattle and we lived there for a couple of years in the mid 90s and we learned that we had a friend in common. Small world. Mare just joined our message board when we switched over to the new one at the end of June.
The time raced by and it was getting dark, so we drove home. It was a good hour drive back - those roads around Cetona, Montepulciano, Pienza can be very slow - very winding roads. Steve is driving fast on this trip, passing two cars at once sometimes, so it wasn't his driving slowing us down. It just takes a long time to get around. On the way home, on the country road we take to get to the house, we hit and killed a porcupine (or a hedgehog - we don't know what it was, but it was like a big dog and had long quills). We both felt horrible. The next day we pulled quills out of our bumper.
Monday, September 24
Monday and Tuesday were days off for us. We were exhausted. We were both worn out when we started the trip and had hoped to really relax in Sorrento, but the 9/11 attacks happened our second day in Sorrento, so we were on edge from that and our apartment there was not that comfortable, so we didn't spend much time just hanging around. We did some big activity every day. Then we had done a lot of driving from Sorrento to Todi then to Pienza. The result was that we needed to rest.
This house is perfect for just hanging around. The garden is beautiful with a big table for eating and chairs for lounging. The inside is very comfortable too. On Monday we did nothing except finally go out in the late afternoon to explore Montisi, the town we look at from the house. Got some groceries, had a coffee. The town is just another wonderful old town. We walked around the historic center and got lost - ended up doing three loops around the town before we realized that was what we were doing. We passed the same church three times before we realized it. If anyone asks, we were doing laps!!
A nice dinner at home and some time on the message board - it is great to have internet access and a nice table to set up the computers on. No TV here, but a shortwave radio and a cassette/CD player. The strangest bunch of CDs I have ever seen - lots of Frank Sinatra, Harry Belfonte - that kind of stuff - some really old Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young and Bob Marley. Huh?
Tuesday, September 25
On Tuesday we were supposed to meet Jane from CA and her husband Ken in Montefalco. Jane and I have been in touch through email since last fall. They are doing a big 6 week trip - almost the same dates as us and as Mare and Bruce. But Mare and Bruce were in Montefalco a few days before and said the whole town was under construction and the church, with the frescoes we wanted to see, was closed. This combined with our level of exhaustion - Montefalco would be a good 1 hours drive - made us cancel our plans. Jane and Ken had been doing a lot of driving too and I could not convince them to come over to our area.
So we spent the day hanging out again. Started by going into Pienza for breakfast - we like the caffe right on the main piazza across from the church. One thing we have to say about Sorrento was that the coffee there was fantastic. Really strong and really small - two sips and an espresso was gone. The coffee in Pienza was good too. Picked up some of that pizza by the square stuff you get at bakeries and took it home for lunch. In the late afternoon we explored our immediate area - drove to all the close by towns.
Wednesday, September 26
Today, Wednesday, was a fabulous day. Woke up to sunshine and had a lazy morning sitting outside. Headed out around 11 to drive to Bagno Vignoni for a hike. We had done part of this hike last year, but it was such a hot day that we had to turn back. Today was sunny and warm - jeans and short sleeved t-shirts, but would have been more comfortable in shorts. But the weather changed a bit during the day. We never got rain, but it clouded over a few times. Loaded up our backpacks with raincoats and our polartec vests just in case the weather changed, and headed off. Great hike! It took us 4 hours but should have been less - we got horribly lost a mile or two after the start but found our way back to the trail and had some nice extra walking. Good views of Rocca d'Orcia. We had picked up sandwiches at the nice sandwich shop in Bagno Vignoni and we had them sitting on rocks near the River Orcia. Then a huge uphill climb for an hour (the book said this was an easy hike with only a 650 foot climb - WRONG). Took a short detour to see Ripa d'Orcia with a wonderful view down into the gorge - where we had just walked up from. The second half of the hike was all on white roads (as Italian hikes tend to be), but these roads were good with only a couple of cars. More climbing, views of Montalcino, then back to Bagno Vignoni.
It was 4:30pm by now and we had well deserved beers at a caffe. Then we headed to the natural hot springs that flows through town and into carved channels at the edge of town before falling over a cliff to make pools below. Lots of people bathing their feet. We found a nice spot - you sit at the edge of the little channel and put your feet in the water - and had a good soak. An American group walked by and one woman said "I feel so healthy now." The little girl said "All you needed was a foot bath." She replied "That's what we all need."
We went back to the sandwich place for a bruschetta snack, then drove to Pienza for gelato. We have not had much gelato on this trip - twice at a great place in Sorrento and once in Todi. The Pienza gelato place is very good. Headed home for a nice dinner.
Tomorrow we are up early and driving to Viterbo in Lazio where we are meeting Mary Jane Cryan, who has just published a book about Lazio. She is going to show us around Viterbo, then we are going to her town for lunch.
We both feel much more relaxed now that we are in Tuscany. Sorrento was noise and exhaust and movement all the time. Our house here is in the most perfect countryside imaginable - idyllic. Today was a perfect day. And, this house has a dishwasher - does it get any better?
Thursday, September 27
On Thursday we were up early and having breakfast at an Autogrill on the Autostrada on our way to Viterbo in Lazio. The house is 20 minutes from the Val di Chiana entrance to the A1 (where the Siena-Perugia highway crosses the A1). It is shorter to drive north and get on the Autostrada there, even if heading south, than to drive through Pienza and Montepulciano and get on at the next entrance to the south (Chiusi). I timed it. Also the roads to the north from this house are empty and easy driving.
So we hurtled down the Autostrada to Viterbo. Only took 1 hours, but we added an extra half hour in the black hole of the Autogrill experience. I am coming to LOVE the Autogrill. Park, walk in, go to the cashier and pay for two coffees and two pastries, walk over to the counter, push Steve in amongst all the men hogging the space at the counter and he slaps down the receipt with a 500 lire coin on top. He has an espresso, I have a caffe machiato. I go to the pastry area, take paper napkins and grab a cornetto con marmellata for each of us. Then we stand there eating the cornetto with the powdered sugar on our faces and the flakes of pastry falling over our clothes and drink our coffees in two gulps. Steve always wants to get another coffee, saying he won't be able to drive on such little coffee, but I drag him out of there and then relent a few miles down the Autostrada where we stop and do it all again (this time no cornetto).
We were to meet Mary Jane Cryan at 11:00 in the central parking area in Viterbo. We drove in through the city walls, freaked at the traffic and the lack of direction signs and grabbed the first parking spot we found. We called her on the cell phone and she walked over from where she was supposed to meet us. This parking lot had these kind of scratch off coupons that you bought for each hour of parking. You had to look around the piazza to see the store where you bought them, buy them, then scratch off the day/month/year/hour/minutes. You did this for each hour. So we scratched off one for 11am, one for noon, and one for 1pm (just in case). I took a photo of the sign that told you this was how you paid and will add it to my parking page.
So Mary Jane took us around Viterbo - a fabulous town. Great historic center, full of life and interesting buildings. I think it would be lots of fun to spend some time here - no tour buses! Then we drove down to her town, Vetralla. She has part of an old building on the main street - not the main driving street, but the main street in the historical part. The lower level is her office and on the first floor is a big, beautiful apartment. Twenty foot ceilings, huge rooms, wonderful antiques, a balcony with a view of the Lazio countryside. Some of her friends joined us (included a couple who run an Architecture Tour Group) and we went to the local trattoria for a very nice lunch.
There were six of us and I thought this would be my chance to see real Italians eat, but everyone except for one had only antipasti and a primi!! Mary Jane then led the whole group and a walk through the village. We saw grapes being unloaded from a truck onto a conveyor belt at the local wine factory. We met a Sardinian who makes Pecorino cheese. He wasn't making it that day, but we got to buy some from his cave-like building. No sign - everyone just knows this is where you get the cheese. He gave us a gift of some Sardinian flat bread (called Music Paper) that he had just brought back from a recent trip. I am going to put it out at our lunches. He had these great cork boards that he uses to make the cheese. Apparently they come from Sardinia and you can only get them there. I want one!
Then we met Mary Jane's teenage daughter who had a famous web site in Italian for the TV show "Friends". She had a message board and lots of information explaining the jokes that they don't translate well into Italian. She and I had a lot to talk about (the joys and sorrows of running a web site)!
We left Vetralla at 6pm and had a long drive back. Dinner at the Autogrill restaurant. Not many people were there and we sat among the empty tables and watched the cars go beneath us on the Autostrada. This restaurant was above the Autostrada so it could be reached from people traveling in either direction - Roma or Firenze.
Friday, September 28
On Friday we got up intending to do a short exploring drive close by, so I put in a load of laundry. It takes two hours for the laundry to be done (most European washers have a very long washing cycle like this) and I figured when we got back I could put it on the line. At the last minute we decided to spend the day in Siena because we had not been there yet and the laundry ended up going on the line in the evening. Coordinating laundry is as difficult here as figuring out when to buy your groceries!
We drove into Siena from the south following the excellent directions for parking on the Slow Travelers web site (thanks to Bob from FL for parking directions for the south of Siena). Things are much better organized for parking now. There are big signs as you approach the city telling you where the parking lot is and if it is full (completo for full, libero for parking available). The one we were aiming for at Il Campo was full, so we continued to the next one at Porta San Marco. This is where we used to park when we stayed near Sovicille in 1996. I got a good map with the locations of all the parking lots. Basically you can just keep driving around Siena from Porta to Porta until you find a lot with parking available.
Siena was packed! I thought everyone had cancelled their trips. We hunted down a small natural foods store I remembered from last year and got a few things we cannot get at the local stores (unscented laundry soap which I usually bring, but forgot this time, brown rice, extra unscented face soap and extra toothpaste). Then we walked to Il Campo to see it again (we thought of David and Liz in the crowds for the Palio) and checked out a few restaurants for lunch. We wanted to go to our favorite, Osteria Le Logge, but the menu is very different each day and that day there was hardly any vegetarian things. So we tried David's recommendation, Il Torre.
There was no menu - the owner just comes and asks what type of noodles you want. We both had noodles with porcini - wonderful. Then he decided I had to have an omelet because I would not take meat or fish, and Steve had a fish. Steve's was very good, but that omelet was just too much for me. I shouldn't have eaten the whole thing but I did and it just sat heavy for the next two days putting me "off my feed", as Steve likes to say. Still a nice, small, friendly restaurant. I would imagine their meat dishes are good. The noodles were very good.
Then we saw the frescoes in the old hospital - Santa something of something - can't remember. In all our trips to Siena we had never seen these (and we love frescoes). The museum was empty and we spent ages looking at them. They are all about the hospital and cover the upper walls and ceilings of a very large room. Strange to see frescoes from the 15th and 16th century that are not religious.
We did some shopping at our favorite bookstore, wandered a bit more, then made our way home. We took the back roads through the Crete area and had a beautiful drive. That night we went out for pizza at a local place with Zak and Gary from TuscanHouse (we booked this house from them). It was my dream to walk into a restaurant with locals and be greeted by everyone and this is exactly what happened. Zak and Gary are wonderful guys and we all chattered away all evening - vacation rental stories! Unfortunately, that omelet was still lying heavy in my stomach and I ordered bean soup as a starter before the pizza (what was I thinking??). I could barely eat a third of the pizza - which was excellent.
Saturday, September 29
Today was lunch at Boccondivino outside of Montalcino with Marilyn and Bruce. Gary from TuscanHouse told me the main chef had left in August - she took a cooking job in Toronto, Canada. All lunches are now a tasting menu. The food was good, but a bit too "gourmet" for us. The owner was wonderful - very friendly. We had a nice time with Marilyn and Bruce, took lots of photos of the food and each other, and we all loved the view. I seem to have recovered from yesterday's overeating!
After lunch, we were heading to Monte Oliveto to see the Sodoma frescoes which we love but have not seen yet on this trip, but we took a wrong turn in Buonconvento and ended up on a white road heading to our place, so we just continued on. Our house was being cleaned, so we went to Pienza and walked about for awhile. Pienza is definitely more tourist town than real town, but there are a couple of good food stores and a couple of nice caffes. The bookstore on the main piazza outside the town walls has English language books and guidebooks and picture books and papers.
Saturday was the end of our first week in the house and the cleaner did a big cleaning. Frequently when we rent for more than a week, we don't even get a cleaning in between - which always seems unfair to me. They would have to clean if a new person was coming. When we came back to the house you could see that the cleaner was doing a detailed job.
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