Having just returned from a week-long stay in charming, delightful Tuscany, I am reflecting on seven near perfect days.
That is, minus travel misadventures. These involve late flights, missed connections, inconvenient airline reschedulings and much more. I learned two lessons: (1) when traveling internationally, schedule at least three hours between flights (2) If you want to travel, you have to put up with a lot of —-.
Oh yes. Keep an extra set of underwear and extra medication with you to allow for your luggage’s late arrival more than two days late!
That aside, let the vacation commence. We had made the decision that we would not drive because neither my traveling companion or I felt comfortable navigating hilly, narrow, two-way traffic European roads where markers usually point to at least eight possible destinations. We would get around using taxis and arrange an English-speaking driver for touring.
Since we had not made arrangements for tours before arriving, the resort arranged a taxi to our first destination, Volterra, a charming city (as they all are) high up in the Tuscany hills, overlooking the beautiful Cecina Valley. It even has accommodations in a medieval hotel. Volterra is the alabaster capital of the world, and it was a delight to see the many and varied items that might be made from this material. Think of something and it probably exists in alabaster. Etruscans were the inhabitants of Italy before the Romans, and this is an Etruscan city. Actually, Volterra is believed to have been inhabited continuously since the end of the eighth century, BCE. In the middle ages, it was under the control of the Medici family.
Our second day took us to San Gimignano This is a small walled village famous for its medieval architecture, towers and the Duomo San Gimignano. Within are store after store of varied, striking, colorful ceramics.
From the grounds of our resort, we were able to see the nearest small village of Peccioli, a town of some two thousand five hundred. Each Tuesday, a local guide conducts a tour. Maximo took our group on a walk along its lanes and squares, with a detailed explanation of local art, history and customs. This included a trip to the Etruscan museum with a detailed explanation of what we were seeing. Peccioli is a remarkable town because they have built a waste treatment facility which supplies heat to neighboring communities. With the funds from this plant, they have constructed a three hundred car garage with an elevator to the old medieval town. It also contains a restaurant that has delicious food and is furnished in medieval style.
On our fourth day, we met David, the English-speaking driver who would be with us for three days. David is employed by a company called “I Drive,” and he added so much to our trip. Totally conversant in English, we were able to talk for all the car hours on a wide-ranging variety of subjects. We found him to be both interested in what we had to say and interesting to speak with because he is worldly, well-traveled and knowledgeable. I would recommend this way of traveling to anyone. I do not think it is actually much more expensive than renting a car and, oh, so much more convenient and comfortable. We were able to go where we were going without the hassle of getting there. Besides, David knows in which towns he can park and where to park. Wonderful way to travel! If you plan on going to Tuscany, visit the company website, http://idriveItaly.it/
Our first stop was Pisa. The Leaning Tower is actually a complex of monuments and buildings including one for baptism and a cemetery. Pisa does not lack for churches, because there are twenty others in the town.The University of Pisa is world-famous, dating back to the twelfth century. Our guide took us to the first Leaning Tower, built about one hundred years before the current one. Nobody was there because its existence seems to be a well kept secret.
That afternoon, we traveled to Lucca, a town of upscale shops, justly famous for its intact Renaissance era city wall. As with most Tuscany towns, it contains a bell tower with stairs. In this case, we are talking about two hundred seven of them. If you climb the stairs, you are rewarded with magnificent panoramic views. We had climbed one hundred the day before in Peccioli, and that was more than enough climbing for us. We passed. We walked right by the amphitheatre because we expected to see the remains of benches. Instead, it has an empty center, ringed by restaurants and tourist shops. It is the birthplace of many famous people, including Puccini, composer of the opera La Boheme.
The following day we traveled to Siena, declared by UNESCO to be a world heritage site. It is famous for its cuisine, art, museums, medieval cityscape and the Palio, a world-famous horse race, held twice yearly. It is a labyrinthine city, the fairly wide streets twisting every which way. The founder of Siena was Senius.the twin of Romulus, who founded Rome. This accounts for the many statues of the she-wolf suckling the brothers. The Duomo is world-famous and was originally intended to be the largest cathedral in the world.
On Thursday, we made a detour to Monteriggioni, a picturesque medieval walled town on a hill in the province of Siena. This town was referenced in Dante’s Divine Comedy. It has circular walls, following the contour of the hills, with two gates. One faces Florence and the other Rome.
We drove through the region of Chianti which extends through the provinces of Florence and Siena. It is a lovely region of gentle green hills and vineyards.
On our very last day, we went to the province of Cinque Terre, a rugged portion of the coast of the Italian Riviera. The province is a UNESCO world heritage site, containing five very small villages. Torrential rains and an avalanche caused roads to be impassable. They are currently under repair, and we toured the villages by boat.
On our way home, we made a detour to the vineyard of Poggio Alloro just outside San Gimignano for a wine tasting. How do you describe perfection? The view from the table as we sat drinking our wine and munching on bread, cheese and meats, was absolutely breathtaking. I will see it in my dreams.
We also went to a wine tasting at Fattoria Fabbiano, a vineyard about five minutes away from our resort. The wines were wonderful, and they make a white wine that is about the best I have ever tasted. Unfortunately, I was unable to buy any because the shipping costs of seventy dollars for six bottles makes the cost prohibitive.
Food and wine in Tuscany deserve their reputation for excellence. My friend and I tried just about everything (dietary restrictions be hanged). I even sampled the wild boar stew, a local delicacy featured on many restaurant menus. I know, I know, but it actually is better than it sounds.
Now, I would like to make a few random observations.
First on my list, taxis in Italy. If we wanted to go even one mile, the minimum charge was fifty Euros. At a conversion rate of approximately $1.40 for the Euro to $1.00 American,that is a charge of $70.50, plus tip. The reason for this wildly exorbitant expense is that a taxi license is difficult to obtain in Italy and is the kind of thing that is passed from father to son. I guess it is a kind of union, or monopoly. In his halting English, the driver explained that he has to charge that much money because he comes a long distance. Really? We had to worry about where he started? Anyway, that is what we were stuck with.
We were amazed when we stopped for lunch at a Siena café to have a charge posted on our bills that was almost half of what I ordered. When they were questioned, the waitress said that they had charged us for “setting up.” We asked what that meant. Well, we were using their chairs, and they had placed a tablecloth on the table, and didn’t they serve you food?. Talk about nickel and diming. Then they want a tip besides? Our driver assured us that this type of charge is perfectly proper in Italy, and that it is not seen on most menus because they have already figured it into the price. I certainly like calculating it in the price better.
One positive random observation is that restaurants never seem eager to give you the check. Sometimes in America, the servers will plunk the bill down before you are even finished eating. Italian restaurants do want the money, but there is no pressure to leave. Sometimes, we practically had to plead for the check, and then they were in no hurry. Eating is a leisurely experience, down to the leaving part.
There you have it. Seven near perfect days in a very special environment.