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Report 124: Tuscany (Pistoia, Chianti) and Verona

By David (Moderator) from NY, Summer 2001

Trip Description: David and Bruce enjoying food, wine and music in Tuscany.

Destinations: Countries - Italy; Regions/Cities - Tuscany, Veneto

Categories: Hotels/B&Bs; Vacation Rentals; Attended GTG; Foodie Trip; Shopping; Sightseeing; Wine Trip; Independent Travel; 2 People

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Page 1 of 3: Arrival and week 1 near Pistoia

This was my fifth trip to Italy and our second Slow vacation in Tuscany, the first being two years ago in 1999. In early August 2001 Bruce and I arrived in Bologna and were met by our friend Paul, with whom we would spend the next two weeks. Paul had already been in Europe for a couple of weeks himself and had picked up a rental car the week before. The drive to our first vacation rental house north of Pistoia took us on a local road through the Appenines. (Since it was the first Saturday of August, the traditional day for all of Italy to be traveling to their vacation destinations, the autostrade were packed.). The drive was nice. My first feelings, actually, were ones of disappointment! I wasn’t feeling excited. What was wrong with me? I had that "been there, done that" feeling. Deep down what I really wanted were some new adventures. The countryside wasn’t exactly familiar – the last time I was in the area was in 1992 – but the whole feeling of "we’re on vacation in Italy" was quite familiar. It was an interesting way to start out the vacation. I suppose that one’s expectations are always proven to be inaccurate. Don’t worry, the story gets better……

We stopped for lunch in Porretta Terme, a spa town, were aped at by lots of Italian pensioners taking the cure there – clearly American tourists hardly stopped there and we were a novelty. The lunch was good but unremarkable – good basic food however some unexplainably dry prosciutto – actually I can’t remember many of the details not the least the name of the restaurant. Oh well.

After lunch we made our way down to Pistoia. We had some time to kill before we were able to check into our rental house so we decided to see what there was to see in Pistoia. This is one of the least touristed towns in Tuscany. This particular Saturday in August, it seemed quite sleepy – not at all a bad thing, IMO. However it did seem that most of the businesses, restaurants etc., were chiuso per ferie. Nonetheless, the churches were open and we all but had them to ourselves – filled with some excellent pieces – particularly in the Duomo, Sant’Andrea and San Giovanni Fuorcivitas. Best of all was the terra cotta frieze on the outside wall of the Ospedale del Ceppo – fantastic work done by Giovanni della Robbia and his school. Quite memorable.

After seeing what there was to see in Pistoia, we went to the local Coop to load up on groceries and then up to the house we were renting, Ciricea, just outside of the little village of Piteccio and were greeted by the owners, the Querci family. Ciricea is a lovely little house with a babbling brook next to it. As we had been basically on the go all day since getting off of the plane, we were glad to finally be able to unpack and settle in. No restaurant adventure that night. We ate a simple meal at home and went to bed.

The next day we slept in a bit (establishing a pattern for most of the trip) and then, being self-named "fast slow travelers", we got on the road. It was time to start seeing things of interest. After getting thoroughly confused by road signs signaling a closure of part of the autostrada (which ended up being only a stretch of a highway which lead to the autostrada and not the autostrada itself), going around and around in Pistoia traffic, finally taking a local road as far as Montecatini Terme and finally getting on the autostrada (this was the first of those frustrating Italian driving experiences where the maps weren’t sufficient to answer our questions – we had yet to get the TCI Atlante Stradale!!), we finally made it to Lucca. The frustration was well worth it. I had been wanting to visit Lucca for a while and was glad to finally see the city. It’s a terrific place – an easy little city to walk around with a lot going for it. Highlights included the Duomo and churches of San Frediano and San Michele, just relaxing and becoming part of the passeggiata on "le mure". Very good dinner at La Mora in Ponte a Moriano and then the drive home.

The next day the conspiracy of the town of Pistoia not to let us out continued. It was "Medici Villa" day and we were on our way southeast to Poggia a Caiano but had a damned time finding our way around Pistoia and out the other side. And I thought that the "Bermuda triangle" was outside of Siena! Well, Pistoia’s got its own version. Finally found our way to SS 66 and the villa. We arrived, paid our entry fee, saw on the door to the house that there were guided tours given every ˝ hour and strolled around the parched gardens until the appointed time when we were let in. When I asked the 3 attending workers there which one of them was the tour guide, they told us that the sign on the door was incorrect, that there was a self-guided tour, the pamphlet for which the guy at the gatehouse where we paid our admission should have given to us but didn’t, and that we had the house to ourselves to explore. We decided just to have a look around without running back to get the pamphlet, asked the security guard a few questions which he answered as if he were a trained tour guide (!), picked up the pamphlet on the way out, and left. Next stop Carmignano.

The home to one of Tuscany’s 7 DOCG wine regions, the town of Carmignano is just a little town. Unfortunately the little wine museum was closed but fortunately San Michele was open. In this little parish church is one of the most moving paintings I’ve ever seen, Pontormo’s 1528 Visitazione, showing Elizabeth, the mother of John the Baptist, visiting a pregnant Mary along with 2 onlookers. We spent quite some time with this painting, translating the florid Italian description in a small pamphlet. This was the first and most moving experience of finding a little church in an out-of-the way place that housed just one MAJOR work of art that made it totally worth the trip.

From Carmignano we took a beautiful drive up to another Medici villa in Artiminio which was closed but from which we enjoyed the view. This is a lovely area to drive thru. After getting our fill of the landscape we went back to Pistoia. During another stop at the Coop, we wrestled with those shopping carts that aren’t engineered with the same expertise that corresponding carts in American supermarkets are – everyone in the store trying to guide their wayward carts against their stubborn wheels’ inclinations – a novelty for me. It’s those kind of cultural things that I enjoy the most, I think. Dinner that night was at home where we prepared our own multi-course Italian meal including bietola accompanied by a bottle of Carmignano, keeping with the thčme du jour.

After some morning problems with the washing machine (e.g. un piccolo flood) we finally get it together and decide that if it’s Tuesday it must be……. Pisa!! On the way, I feel like we’re getting a grip on navigating through Pistoia’s Bermuda Triangle. On this trip after a fruitless stop at the nearest Autogrill at which they were sold out of the Centro edition of the TCI Atlante Stradale, we decided to navigate to Pisa the back way, over Monte Serra with a stop at the Certosa di Pisa before going to the city itself. This was a good choice. This Certosa is a fascinating, huge Cistercian monastery. The Cistercian monks historically were from very rich families and when they "took the veil", as it were, they were treated as such – lavish quarters for each monk – it seemed as if each had his own condominium with garden attached. We had a terrific guided tour (in Italian – just the 3 of us) given by a very sweet cross-eyed lady who wore some very unappealing perfume but who was very interested in and compelling about her topic! When I tried to give her a tip at the end because we had enjoyed her company so much, she politely refused – I think that she was a volunteer docent and could not have been more sweet and generous.

After that, we descended the hill into Pisa, navigated to the Campo dei Miracoli, parked successfully and enjoyed the amazingly situated Duomo, Baptistery, Torre Pendente (!) and Camposanto. We even enjoyed some of the kitschy tchotchka shops that relentlessly line the area. Ignoring the rest of the city – which shouldn’t necessarily be ignored – we had just made the decision to do so – we drove back eastward to a very good dinner at the Trattoria di Montemagno – thank you Carla Capalbo!

Without a gameplan for Wednesday, we decided on the spur of the moment to drive into Florence. No, not that! Actually, driving in couldn’t have been smoother – from the west, we drove past the airport followed signs to the stazione, parked beneath it and took it from there. We took our time, stopping in Santa Maria Novella, the Cappella Medicee and San Lorenzo before paying tribute to the Duomo, Baptistery and the Piazza della Signoria. The Cappella Medicee was particularly memorable – Michelangelo designed it to the Medici’s garish, overblown specifications and it’s quite something – all in dark marbles with semi- and precious stones. Also I’d never seen the Donatello pulpits in San Lorenzo – fantastic. Another unexpected find in Florence was the TCI Atlante Stradale – I knew that there was a reason why we had come into the city that day! Otherwise, I was a bit in a quandry, not having planned to go to Florence and not having any restaurant recommendations with me. So lunch was at a restaurant we just happened to find near the stazione called Trattoria della Croce di Trebbe. And dinner was likewise at a place that we knew little about, Da Ganino off of the via Dante. More about those in my restaurant reviews [link to come].

Thursday’s weather looked possibly threatening but we decided to take a long drive up into the Garfagnana region anyway. I’m glad we did. It cleared up and we had a great time, starting out following Mare’s advice to drive through San Marcello Pistoiese, Bagni di Lucca, stopping at the Ponte del Diavolo and then continuing up the Serchio valley up to Castelnuovo di Garfagnana where we had a picnic. From there we headed northeast up to Castiglione di Garfagnana, backtracked and reascended the high road up past San Pellegrino in Alpe, had a little hike at what seemed the top of the world, continued up and around to Abetone and finally stopped for one of the best dinners I’ve ever had at "Silvio – La Storia a Tavola" in the little town of Pianosinatico. Thank you again , Carla Capalbo!

On Friday we had our next adventure when Bruce needed to see a dentist because a temporary filling had come out and he was in pain. Signora Querci was kind enough to find a dentist (Dott. Feroci – trans.: "ferocious"!!) who, although he was on vacation, had another emergency patient to see that evening and was able to squeeze Bruce in. Before the dentist appointment though, we had the whole day to ourselves, so we got in the car and drove to Torre del Lago, missed a tour of the Puccini house (oh well), and ended up in Viareggio for lunch at Romano (thanks, Karen) – one of the most expensive meals we had. Romano is a seafood restaurant that’s quite elegant. As it turns out we were the only patrons there for lunch save another man dining alone. Excellent food and curiously incongruous Motown tape playing in the background ("R-E-S-P-E-C-T, find out what it means to me……." Go Aretha!) Later, pulling out of the driveway in order to go to the dentist, I managed to bash in the rearview mirror beyond recognition…….. Decided to deal with it later. I couldn’t handle too much at once! Dottore Feroci was anything but ferocious (!) and fixed Bruce’s filling without a hitch. Imagine being in a dentist’s chair and speaking and trying to understand Italian from a man who’s speaking to you from beneath a surgical mask! Needless to say, a good time was had by both patient and doctor! After the dentist scene we decided to stay home and have a nice, quiet dinner.

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