I knew this was going to be a long, tiring day. Besides our first travel day (which included our flight into Rome, a train to Chiusi and driving to Cosona--our first agriturismo in Tuscany) this south-bound leg of the Voyage would be tough. First of all, we had already stayed up late the night before to pack, so we were missing a bit of sleep.
Secondly, we would have to get on the road by 7am to get to the Hertz office in Florence to return our Fiat 500L (we fell in love with that car). Florence was just over an hour's drive from San Gimignano where we were staying. Judging by our first experience with car renting in Italy, I knew that dropping off the car and paying could easily take an hour. Our train would depart for Naples just after 10am--I'd rather wait a bit for the train than miss it. The Hertz office was on Borgo Ognissanti, only a few blocks walk from the Santa Maria Novella train station, but we were walking under burden--six bags total, two bags each.
Checking out the day before...
We planned on checking out from the pseudo-chic Mormoraia agriturismo because their useless staff were rarely in the office, and I wouldn't take a chance on them being in as early as we had to leave. As it turned out, when I did try to check out we had all sorts of hassles. I asked for a discount since the apartment we rented wasn't fully equipped for cooking as advertised (missing cutting board, knives, pots, and no basic staples, like olive oil, sugar, spices or salt--even though they grew and produced their own olive oil and had spice gardens in their gardens) and neither the TV or WIFI worked. I asked them to at least take off the extra charge for the overpriced breakfast we were forced to have in the little cafe on the property.
"Impossible" they said. I asked to speak to the manager... and found that the texting, short-skirted, out-of-work photo model was in fact the "manager". So I asked to speak to the owner. "He is never here". This made sense because the place had all of the pristine, big money out-of-country developer smell devoid of any authentic history. I also told her that their expensive bottle of swill wasn't worth the 30 Euros we paid. We were already getting fantastic bottles of wine from local alimentari for under 6 Euros. One more complaint we had was the laundry facilities advertised were small, household machines in the cellar of another building which the housecleaning staff used to clean all the sheets and towels of all of the 10 or so B&B rooms and apartments! Disgusting. Besides, we had to wait our turn to use the washer... and then discovered that the dryer didn't work. We were given a rickety drying rack to place on the landing of our apartment's entrance.
I then asked for her to call to get the discount approved, or I might challenge the entire charge with my credit card company. She did call him. We waited. And waited. About 20 minutes later, we spoke to the most insulting, unprofessional person ever. He actually suggested I was lying and told his "manager" to go back to the apartment with me and have me show her everything that was broken or missing. He even suggested that perhaps I stole their knives, cutting board, sugar and spices. He said that since we rented an apartment and not a "B&B room", breakfast wasn't included so he didn't want to remove the charge for breakfast, even though we would have cooked our own breakfast IF we actually had all the tools to make it.
In the end, after almost half an hour debating over the phone, he finally took off the breakfast charge. Madonna mia, what a jerk. Just to illustrate the difference... At our previous lodging (Agriturismo Cosona) they supplied us with everything we needed to make breakfast. We had a completely equipped kitchen, pantry with basic staples (olive oil, coffee, tea, spices, sugar, salt, etc.), pretty good WIFI, a TV with many stations and as assortment of bread, pastries and jams.
We were happy to see the dust of Mormoraia in the rear view mirrors of our Fiat as we started out for Florence...
As it turned out, the drive to Florence was smooth and uneventful. I think it took about an hour and 10 minutes. We drove over the Ponte all Carraia and took the first left toward the Hertz office--a garage building in the middle of a block with several car rental outfits on it. We pulled into a garage bay and got the paperwork done in about 10 minutes. Fantastico! Ahead of schedule!
While we were there, Lucas and I had to use the men's room and found this...
Lucas hadn't ever seen such a sight. I actually had seen many when I lived in France years ago. In fact, I had one that I shared with an old lady across the hall from my Paris studio apartment (she emptied her chamber pot into it), but that's back when my knees were fully functioning! In the U.S. these "Turkish toilets" wouldn't pass the Americans with Disabilities Act and would be outlawed. But, after all, this is Italy where handicapped people have few building codes to help them.
Riding the Italian Rails
After struggling with our rolling luggage over the cobblestone streets for about 10 minutes, we arrived at the very busy Stazione Santa Maria Novella and waiting against a side wall with our luggage bound together with these great cable locks which prevent a thief from snatching and running off with one bag. I could easily imagine a lot of distracted, tired tourists get ripped off in this station. It was loud and chaotic.
I went off to find some drinks and snacks for us while we waited--my first experience with a busy commuter coffee shop in Italy. It took me a couple of minutes to figure out the routine of looking for what you wanted to order first, and ordering everything with the cassiere (cashier) before collecting your drinks and snacks. The cassiere gives you a receipt which you then give to a person behind the counter who gets your espresso or pastries. Once this person fills the order, he puts a tear in the receipt and hands it back to you (so you can't use it again).
It's a bit confusing, especially since I didn't know what I wanted to order until I walked down the entire display counter, trying to see what was on sale in between all the other people crowding there. In any event, I got some gassata (sparkling water) for the Voyage, some cioccolata calda for Lucas and an espresso for Lisa, and a few cornette. Lisa and Lucas were happy for the refreshments.
Within an hour, the Frecciarossa pulled into the station...
We were delighted when we settled in on the Frecciarossa--a beautifully designed train. Very comfortable, wide seats with a table in between. There were luggage racks above the seats and another area for larger pieces. There was even a video display that showed our progress on a map and the current speed. Of course, Lucas just had to double-check the speed with his speedometer app on his smart phone. What we all loved was the incredibly clean and high-tech gabinetto (bathroom) at the end of the car with a futuristic sliding door.
The video below shows what it looks like going 158 MPH!
The ride on the train toward Naples was interesting. Many business types on board. Not too many kids. Good scenery--Central Italy has many mountains. In about 2-1/2 hours, we arrived at Napoli Centrale station--about 300 miles. If we were to drive, it would have taken us about 5 hours (Autoroute), not counting any rest or lunch stops, and besides, I don't enjoy long highway driving. I would want to take smaller roads and explore... making this type of car trip take the better part of a day.
A Close Call with Naples
OK, now to navigate this busy station. I've heard that pickpockets are all over this place, so we put our antennas up, with all my important documents and credit cards nestled safely in my leg wallet strapped around my thigh. This station had been recently renovated, so it looked very modern and fairly clean, but it took us a minute or two to get oriented enough to find the exit we needed. The cleanliness ended at the exit. Like most big city train stations, surly types were hanging around the exits. We had to cross a four lane avenue (Corso Arnaldo Lucci) to get to the tiny Hertz office one block away. In reality, the Italian drivers made it into six lanes.
Believe it or not, crossing the street was a tough task. You see, the Corso is where the A3 Autoroute dumps all of the traffic coming into this part of Naples... yes, right in front of the train station. More so than the average Italian driver, Neopolitan drivers pay no attention at all to crosswalks, stop lights, stop signs, traffic lanes or pedestrians with a kid and lots of luggage trying to cross the street. We actually backtracked a bit away from the Hertz office to another crosswalk that had a stoplight--not that it really stopped any traffic, however.
When we reached the other side of the street, we were hit with the chaos that defines Naples. It reminded me of New York City back in the early '70s when it was a dangerous and filthy city. A mix of languages, mixed sounds, mixed smells, mixed classes... and some seedy types in the mix as well. There was a working class, suited female exec rushing past the street peddler selling hats and knock-off handbags, blue collar workers bumping into a mom with a stroller dragging a toddler, cellphone hugging businessmen and backpacking students, street vendors hawking street food and tourist kitsch. There were smells of diesel fumes mixed with fried something or other blending with the odor of 20 or more trash dumpsters lining the curbside... and a few weary Voyagers (us) trying to make our way through the cacophony toward the Hertz "office". I mean, I'm a former New Yorker, but this is a bit of a madhouse.
This Really Hertz!
I put "office" in quotes because of the look of the place. In Italy they merely rent the Hertz name and don't really embrace the whole corporate identity, look or feel, as they do in the States. They offered the option of two locations to pick up my rental car--one at the airport and this hole in the wall.
In typical Italian fashion, we had to wait for the Hertz staff to come back from their riposa... thankfully, in this big city, it was a short one--from 12 - 2pm, not 12 - 3:30 or later like smaller towns. Mind you, there was a staff of four at this "office", ALL of them were out to lunch at the same time! We then had to wait another 20 minutes while they took care of another couple that were waiting at the locked door when we arrived. When the paperwork was completed, we asked if there was a driver to get the car (look at the photo above... we knew there were no cars here waiting for us). We were then told that we would have to cross the Corso yet again, and given a map with directions to the "parking lot" where our Fiat 500L would be ready to go. I asked, "Quanto lontano?" (How far?) He said, "Solo 30 metri". We were off.
This time, we crossed the street at a roundabout, feeling a bit intimidated when we stood in the middle of it waiting for a break in the cars zooming past. OK... andiamo! We made it to the curb and started walking... past the foul graffiti... past the urine smells... past the tired looking social security office... past the beggars looking for a handout... past a couple of hookers... past the stench of even more dumpsters... past the Ramada Hotel (Wow, this must be a great place to stay) --still no sight of a "parking lot". When we reached the corner of this very long block, I was looking around for a "lot", but just then Lucas looked down the side street and noticed a tiny, two foot long Hertz sign on a garage building halfway down the street. What eyes on this kid! Oh, and it was more like 350 meters--not 30. I measured.
Great... we could get our second Fiat 500L in no time and be on the road toward our Amalfi villa and the southern leg of our Voyage. No such luck.
First of all, this was a parking garage. The Hertz thing seemed like an afterthought. I suppose the local guy who owns the rights to Hertz has a bunch of cars that he moves around through different brokers (often, rental brokers partner up). When I asked if they had my Fiat 500L with automatic transmission (I wanted that to help deal with the Amalfi Coast Road) they seemed surprised and said "No". I had reserved the car rentals three months before, and had confirmed both rentals within two weeks of our departure! I was assured by the international Hertz helpline that my reservations were solid.
He said not to worry, that he would upgrade us to a Volvo SUV (they pronounce it "suv"). He then asked another man to bring it down... I was shocked how big and wide this car was. It had a standard shift and was diesel (read: noisy, low power and stinky). The final insult was that it was filthy!
When I asked if they had anything smaller, he said they didn't. This was the only car they had. Really? So much for picking car types through Hertz Italian bookings! Never again, Hertz! As a small appeasement, he offered to have the car cleaned... but it would take over an hour--he would have to send it somewhere else. In Italy, when someone says "one hour", they mean "when I get to it... sometime later". We had a two hour window to meet the manager of our rental villa, so we took the Volvo as is.
The drive out of Naples on the A3 was interesting. I'm used to commuters on our local highways being lane jockeys, but these Italian drivers move their cars so damned close as they try to do what motorcycles do back home--lane cutting. They sort of do a slow drift into your lane--and not necessarily at the front of your car, but at the side or rear! I had to use my peripheral vision to anticipate when someone was trying to make a brand new lane in between my lane and the next. What were two lanes turned into three... when there were three lanes, it often became four! I had been on Autoroutes in the North which were a pleasure to drive on. Here? Not so much.
The Road to Villa Le Cicale
As we drove up into the mass of the Amalfi peninsula into the hills, we felt refreshed. The air smelled of the sea and lemons. There is a notch in the mountain just past Castellammare di Stabia that wove us through village after village toward le Cicale (the Cicadas), a villa hanging onto the cliffs far above Furore's lovely bridge over its small fiord. We stopped at an alimentari to pick up supplies in Pianillo and had a wonderful experience. The older couple who ran the place were so helpful and friendly, helping to choose the best cheeses, sausage and even a couple of bottles of vino (at 4 Euros each). We stocked up on gassata (gassy water) and Fanta (in Italy it's simply seltzer and orange juice!). Bread, snacks, some fruit and tomatoes--both fresh and passata for making sauce--topped off our list. We were ready for le Cicele, making dinner and taking in the sunset over the Adriatic...
I had checked out la Cicale on Google Earth so I thought I knew where their parking was for our Villa, one of several in this hillside complex. I pulled in and downhill and looked around but could not locate our villa or the owner's manager--Stefania. I walked back up the driveway, then downhill for about 159 yards alongside of the road (no sidewalk, cars buzzing by) until I got to the locked entrance gate to our Villa. I buzzed--nothing. So I made a phone call and a few minutes later, Stefania emerged from the next door neighbor's house. She immediately told me that we were parked in the wrong place with badly pronounced English and as Lucas noticed, her "hairy armpits". She had a rough dimeaner, like many Neopolitans I suppose. My Mom had that edge, too. She told me to park in the small upper parking area--the one I thought I'd never be able to turn into.
So first, I parked along the roadside (no shoulder) and quickly unloaded all the luggage. Then I went back uphill and attempted to pull into the small upper parking area. As you can see from the photos above, this was a real task. The driveway opening was about 1 foot wider than the width of the damned Volvo SUC. (I called it that instead of SUV). It was impossible to enter the driveway and make a right turn when coming downhill. I always had to make the attempt from downhill. But even when I was able to make the turn in between the steel posts (with cars buzzing by, or actually passing me), I came within an inch or two of hitting the concrete planter just inside the driveway. On top of this, this little lot was full of six cars. I would be the seventh--and biggest! The only spot left was on the left side at the edge of the cliff. Trust me... I didn't enjoy coming or going from this tiny parking area. But believe it or not, although the collision sensor went flat-line every time I pulled in or out, I didn't put one scratch on the beast of a Volvo--and this was with a stick shift, too!
After parking and joining Lisa and Lucas in our apartment, I wanted to de-stress immediately. But Stefania was still there. She felt the need to walk around every room, in every corner and teach us how to use the oven, the range, the toaster, the Moka pot, the fan, the light switches, the toilet, ad nauseum. After about 45 minutes of this, I guided her to the door telling her firmly in Italian, "Grazie mille. Ma dai ... siamo stanchi e dobbiamo nutrire nostro figlio!" (Thanks so much. But come on ... we're tired and we have to feed our son!)
With Stefania gone and the door locked behind her... the place was amazing. Our front door was down one flight of tiled steps from the road, opening onto a gorgeous veranda with the most amazing views of the Adriatic you can imagine. I could see the Furore bridge over a thousand feet below. There was an old man tending his vegetable garden just below our balconies. The rooms were big and cooled with cross breezes from a series of shuttered balconies and windows. All the floors were wall to wall tile, as is the Amalfi style. This was going to be a great hub to explore Pompeii and the Amalfi Coast.
First things first... We all fell on one of the beds for a little riposa of our own. Then dinner and those views. Night fell and made it that much more magical. We're on the Amalfi Coast! I'll believe it when I see it... domani.
It really has been a long, long travel day...
When we were first planning our Voyage, we had a hard time figuring out where we would go first, next, and after that, etc. Although Italy isn't such a large country, it is very long... over 700 miles from one end to the other. We traveled a bit over 1000 miles by train and car just to get from one booking to the next, the one after that, and so on. And if we include our day trips by car, the total traveled would come to over 1800 miles.
It was difficult to come up with a travel agenda that satisfied myself, my wife Lisa and son Lucas. Lisa originally had Venice on her list at the northern end of the country and my southernmost "must do" was to visit Molfetta in Puglia where my Dad was born. Early on we realized the logistics of adding a Venice leg to the Voyage was a bit too ambitious for a three week journey.
Florence, Pisa, Vinci and San Gimignano were on our list for Tuscany. All of us wanted to see the rugged Amalfi Coast, so we included it. But then we had to figure what path to take to get us over to Molfetta. In my roaming around on Google Earth, including a lot of zooming into its Street View, I discovered the rugged peaks of Castelmezzano and Pietrapertosa for an overnight stopover. Then I learned about the cave homes (and hotels) of Matera, the city of Sassi. OK, so we'd book a stay in a cave. Then of course, it was natural to include a stay in a pointy roofed trullo just outside of Alberobello. That would bring us pretty close to Molfetta. We would leave Rome for last, returning to Rome by train and spending another several days without rental car exploring the ancient city.
So, it was fly into Rome, jump on a train to Chiusi in south-east Tuscany, where we'd pick up our first rental car, then drive to our first agriturismo just outside of Pienza in southern Tuscany. Next, drive to our next agriturismo in the countryside with a view of San Gimignano's towers. A few days later, drop off the car in Florence and take a train to Naples to pick up another car. The rest of our Voyage was driving... until dropping the car in Bari and taking a train back to Rome.
It was a complex plan that took many months to finesse, with changes and last minute glitches that had to be solved. We had to book the flight, arrange for car service, reserve seats on 3 different trains and had two different car rentals. We reserved a private tour of the Vatican Museum. We booked eight different accommodations: 2 agriturismo B&Bs, 2 villas, 2 hotels and 2 apartments.
It was tough, but we did it... and now the Voyage is part of who we are as a family.
As it turned out, driving in Italy was fairly straightforward--they drive on the same side of the road as in the States, but one has to be wary of the ubiquitous Italian driver, who pays little attention to speed limits, lines in the middle of roads, stop lights or stop signs. Florence, Pisa and Naples were the worst, and the Amalfi Coast Road was tense not just because of the pazzo drivers, but because of the narrowness of the road itself. I still consider myself a New Yorker, having lived and worked in Manhattan for many years, and I can shift into "NY Taxi Driver Mode" in a second, but there's nothing like the chaos and anarchy of Italian drivers. And although I wanted to drive a standard shift, the curvy roads and tight streets and occasional bumper to bumper traffic made me appreciate having an automatic transmission for the southern leg of our Voyage, although the Volvo SUV was far to wide for Amalfi.
One more note about Italian roads... For some reason, the "roundabouts" in Italy function perfectly and are used more than other types of intersections. Everyone seems to flow smoothly around these perfectly engineered traffic circles.
As far as train travel goes--it's fantastic. It can be a bit stressful if you arrive too close to departure times (as happened to us once), but it's relaxing, comfortable, amazingly fast on the high speed trains, and even comfortable and efficient on the regional lines, although the cars are showing their age (the toilet emptied directly onto the tracks below). The 158 mph Frecciarossa we took from Florence to Naples was an especially beautiful, high-tech train but we were also very comfy on the slower Frecciargento from Bari back to Rome. Aside from the waiting (often for several hours) for our departures, I'd highly recommend train travel in Italy as long as you aren't traveling outside of the larger cities.
How about our next trip? Well, we now know that we don't like the highly trafficked tourist sites, so we would stay longer in hub locations and spend time living like the locals--going to the market town in the mornings, heading to uncluttered sandy beaches, drinking local wine, maybe taking a few cooking classes, all the while soaking in the local lifestyle... doing our best to simply "be Italian". We also loved the South much more than the North, so the next time we might spend a week or so relaxing and exploring Puglia (with a day trip to Abruzzo) and perhaps another week in Sicily while searching out Lisa's family roots in Corleone. Meanwhile, we keep living the Italian life...
This was a very full day. We were supposed to go ballooning this morning but it was canceled--too windy.
A quick change in plan and we headed to Vinci, the birthplace of Leonardo da Vinci... about 15 miles west of Florence. We enjoyed hilltop views along with models of Leonardo's inventions: a life size replica of his human powered flying machine, various military weapons, tanks and bridges, hydrometer, cranes, a bicycle and even his design for a wind-up car. A high point for me (besides actually being up on a very high point) was the ringing of the huge bells in the church tower during Sunday mass. I shot a video of them but recorded it at double speed without sound (duh). Those bells looked like they would shake the tower apart as they swung in and out of the tower... no, wait. This would be impossible because Leonardo invented and installed a device that neutralized the swinging effect of these bells. We saw it in the museum. Leonardo--what a brain. Imagine him walking onto the set of Shark Tank trying to get them to invest in one of his inventions... Would they bite?
All in all, it was one of the better museum experiences so far. After that a stroll to a tiny piazza for some gelato. .
The Renaissance town of Lucca was our next stop...
We drove under the arched Porta Elisa and through the fortress walls and found parking right away... but as long as I use my handicapped placard I don't have to pay for parking. Very nice of Italians to do this. Lucca is a beautiful city surrounded by very thick fortress walls. There is even a moat... dry nowadays.
A stroll up Via Elisa (I told Lisa I picked this street just for her) revealed a friendly renaissance feel... Juliet and Romeo could have been better off here. Villa after villa, balconies, a huge tree topped tower, secret gardens and very narrow passages gave us opportunities for lots of pics. Lucas loved the mailboxes mortared through the front walls and the giant Nutella bottle in a snack bar. There was the sound of water running through their canal and many beautiful fountains--all with potable drinking water. I liked the door knockers... we even found a shop selling nothing but brass knockers, mail boxes and other decorative hardware.
We saw a tiny, little pizzeria (about 4 feet wide by 8 feet deep) and bought some pizza a taglio (slices) and sat on marble church steps snacking watching all sorts of people walking by: priests, starlet wannabees, nuns in full habits, grubby-tight-pants regazze trying to look the part of successful playboys, babies with huge Bugs Bunny balloons and dogs of all sorts--fat, underfed, happy, or way to old to be walking. There is some great people-watching in this town.
This is a very touristy town (mostly Italians from what we witnessed) but it still had a relaxed pace. Everyone was in their strolling mode--their passeggiatta. We finally made it to the Piazza dell' Anfiteatro in the center of town.. an oval piazza built over the top of an ancient amphitheater (it's still under there). Although pretty, because of the curved buildings surrounding the perimeter, the place was tourist-kitchy with tourist menu cafes. We walked the long walk back to the car with my knees and feet complaining the whole way. Still, this is Italy and I've just walked back in time through the Renaissance, had a fantastic slice of pizza, took loads of pictures ... and I just discovered my new favorite town.
After driving out of town I drove to something I knew would impress Lucas and Lisa.... a huge, miles long Roman aqueduct. Heck, I Was impressed. The thing was massive, beautiful and went on for miles.
Next we drove through lots of traffic toward Pisa. The traffic was wicked, stop and and do, and made me wish I had an automatic transmission. Yikes.
The first impression was how big a city Pisa is... and how popular a tourist spot it is. The streets surrounding the Piazza Miracola were packed with cars, people and vendors hawking all sorts of tourist junk. We found parking a block away in a city pay lot... luckily the handicap rules made me save 40 Euros (about 50 bucks... For only an hour and a half!) I smell tourist trap!
We were all impressed by the amount of tilt of the Tower... it really is a lot! If you stand at the base of the side that's leaning, the top of the tower leans almost 13 feet out over your head!
We were also blow away by the Baptistry and Duomo because of the decorative sculptures on their facades. Most entertaining was watching people go into all sorts of contortions with hands, arms, legs and backs while taking the typical "I'm holding up the tower" photos. I even took one of Lucas holding the tower up.
Ok, so we hit the road, wanting to head back early because lo and behold, our hot air balloon ride was rescheduled for the next morning--at 7am! Nasty traffic from weekenders driving back from the beaches to their homes around Florence caused us to get back to Mormoraia at 10:30pm! We aren't going to get enough sleep and we have to get up at 5am to get to the take-off field in time. I was a bit nervous about arranging to send my little family up thousands of feet in a balloon basket, but the guy I booked is one of the best in the world who has trained many other balloon pilots.
This has been one long, wonderful day...
Well, we did it! My Kindle's alarm got us up at 5am and we got ready as quick as possible to get on the road for our hot air balloon flight over Tuscany.
I had programmed the location in my GPS before we left the States, and as we drove to the location, I spied their storage building that I had seen on Google Earth's ground view. We were actually a little early for our flight and the balloon crew hadn't arrived yet. A phone call and a few minutes later, Gianna pulled up to the side of us in her BallooninTuscany.com shrink-wrapped Range Rover and waved for us to follow her car to the launch field about a quarter mile away...
We pulled off the road and parked our Fiat 500L under a tree in a small spot under some trees and unloaded our still-tired bodies. Gianna's bright, outdoorsy smile greeted us and said (in wonderful English) to jump in her car for the drive to the launch site. We went on a tumbling roller coaster of a ride through the woods, spilling out into their hidden field. That's where we finally met Gianna's husband, Stefano, the burly, smiling Maestro of Ballooning, having just arrived with his balloon trailer in tow.
He made us feel confident right off... his cigarette and smile seemed to go with each other. His generous frame spoke of loving life and pasta. He spoke English charmingly well, having had lived and worked as a photographer in New York City back in the early Eighties. Having my studio in Manhattan for over 25 years, I was surprised we never ran into one another. In another age you could picture him as the aging flying ace putting all the younger pilots though their paces. In reality, it is Stefano who has trained most of the current crop of competing balloonists that you might hire in Italy. Personally, I was happy to be flying with their Maestro--although Lisa had been ballooning before, for Lucas and myself, this was our first flight.
Stefano, Gianna and a young assistant-pilot, Roberto (he prefers Robert) Trandafir, set up the balloon methodically... first the basket, then pull and stretch the balloon along the ground, straighten out the lines and cables, then the burners, fire them up, test the flame, begin inflation... The first test blast of the burners spooked all of us. The thing sounds like a jet. The whole process took about 25 minutes.
We then climbed aboard--Lisa did a great job getting her aching knee on board, Lucas climbed right over, and Babbo climbed up and slid in. Before we knew what was happening, Stefano had us up and away within seconds. In a minute we had already risen higher than any trees and were enjoying a misty Tuscan sunrise.
I can't describe the peacefulness of it... the gentlest motion you can imagine... the occasional sound of dog barking or a hunter's shots far below.... the far off layers of high mountains in northern Tuscany with the white marble mountains of Carrara looking like snow... the Towers of San Gimignano off in the distance... the textures and geometry of vineyards and olive groves... the hovering and drifting wisps of smoke as farmers all around were burning their olive tree prunings. You could smell the smoke even from up high. We were looking down on chic villas and peasant farmhouses... A real bucket list item checked off. What a wonderful experience--I'm glad we could give this to Lucas.
While in flight, we had interesting discussions with Stefano... finding out he was a photographer in Manhattan for a short time in the 1980s; discussing the Italian concept of being "furbo" and cheating the system (which he disagrees with); hunters in Italy--we passed over 3 hunters in their large treetop blind, with their pigeons sitting on a rail, waiting calmly to be released in flight--only to have these so-called "hunters" shoot them. Stefano said it's the reason song birds and most other small game are becoming scarce. "They shoot anything for this sport of killing. They will even kill hawks." He told of times when he was young when there were many more birds, rabbits and foxes in the fields. Stefano exudes a zest for life, confidence in his craft, and a strong connection to the land and customs of Italy and a desire to share it with Voyagers like us
A real show of a balloonist's choreography. After about 1-1/2 hours, Stefano hunted for a landing site... he aimed toward a field and we saw Roberto down below with the chase car & trailer driving through three fields trying to get to us as we descended. Interestingly, we also saw a farmer's car come racing into the field, jump out and confronting Roberto. We heard the yelling from 500 feet up. Stefano told us that this is one of the problem farmers that doesn't like any balloonists landing on his fields--always claiming damage to his crops and looking for money. Traditionally, balloonists will offer the farmer Prosecco or a round of cheese and all is well. In fact, this landing field was bare--already harvested--no damage would be possible. Roberto talked him into letting us land in peace. He drove off just as we were coming in for the landing.
Then Stefano did something that amazed us... He took note of where Roberto would enter the field, then skimmed the tall grasses to slow the balloon down, then up a bit, then skim again... seemingly timing the chase car's arrival. He then proved his skills by not only putting the balloon down in exactly the field he wanted, but by actually landing the basket right behind the balloon's trailer (so Lisa could climb out easier right onto the trailer's bed!) It was a balloonist's well thought-out choreography. Obviously, Stefano knows his stuff--and cares about people. Bravo Maestro!
The other reason I chose Stefano and Gianna as our balloon hosts was because, unlike the folding tables in the landing field with cheap wine, cheese and fruit, we were driven back to their 600 year old country home for a brunch with a quality Prosecco. Sausage, prosciutto, cheese, fruit, amazingly thick millefiori honey (tasted like jam), a Tuscan raisin bread, a rustic Tuscan loaf of pane, focaccia, orange juice, and more...
All this, plus great conversation, 4 little dogs for Lucas to play with, and a tour back in time--of their house... with the most amazingly authentic Tuscan kitchen!
Overall, this was one of the best experiences of my life. There wasn't much wind, so we didn't travel all that far, but we went to an elevation of nearly 2700 feet and had amazing views. Lucas and Lisa feel the same. Mille grazie, Gianna and Stefano!
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Copyright 2014-2017, Jerry Finzi/Grand Voyage Italy - All Rights Reserved
Today we got up early and ate breakfast at Mormoraia's little cafe. An anemically flat egg frittata, some pastries including chocolate cornetti (basically, a crunchy croissant), cioccolato caldo (hot chocolate) for Lucas, cappuccino for Mom and blood orange juice for Babbo. Not a terrible breakfast, but not worth the high extra charge they added onto our bill.
Our original plan for this day was to go early to Fiesole, a beautiful hilltop village that overlooks Florence. As we got off the autostrada, we slowly got into the streets of Florence, noticing what an interesting, beautiful, but very crowded city it was. Driving along the streets on the south side of the Arno, we found ourselves at a very crowded and buzzing Piazzelle Michaelangelo, a broad piazza with parking and a replica of the David. I planned heading up there anyway, so we stopped for our first look at Firenze.
As I pull toward a parking spot, this shifty looking guy starts directing me toward the parking spot. I had read about guys like this in both Rome and Florence. They act as if they are an official parking attendant and shake you down for directing you into a space. Some will even ask for cash payment for parking. As I got out, sure enough he confronts me jingling some loose Euro coins in his hand, looking for a tip. I asked him where the ticket machine was (usually there is a kiosk to get your parking ticked for your dashboard.) He said the parking was free but still outstretched hand looking for a payout. I told him he was crazy (in Italian) and gave a stern look and he magically disappeared. Not too bad. Just use that old Manhattan street attitude with some Italian expressions and you can't go wrong!
Lucas was the one who first noticed the sign saying that parking was indeed free. So, the city gives tourists this one and only lot to enjoy a great view overlooking Florence and the low-lifes come out of the woodwork to scam us.
Anyway, we took our first pics of the broad view of the River Arno and the huge terracotta done on the Duomo... pretty breathtaking. The piazza is also home to many kitschy caravan vendors selling their useless nonsense to tourists. We bought a cook's apron with the genitalia of The David in correct anatomical position for a friend of ours. He'll love it.
We then drove up toward Fiesole after a ride through the absolutely insane Florentine traffic. People literally go through red lights and stop signs here... and slowly but steadily force their way into or through traffic. It's the responsibility of the OTHER driver NOT to hit them. It took me a while to get into the flow of this way of city driving. I've driven all my life in Manhattan and even in Paris, but I've never seen drivers this crazy!
When we got to the very narrow one lane curvy road heading up to Fiesole's heights, we were met head-on with car after car racing down around every bend! Parts were so narrow I was forced to back up until it was barely wide enough for the oncoming car to squeeze past us... literally with inches between us and the wall on one side and our cars on the other. Now I know why Italians are in the habit of parking or even driving with their mirrors pulled in! After one guy passing shouted something to me I realized their is some sort of odd pecking order on who has to back up and who gets to stand his ground. God! (Note the photo below... the arrows show who has the right of way). In hindsight, Tommy took us us the wrong road. It turned out there was a much wider road going up to Fiesole that would have been a lot easier on my blood pressure.
We made it up to Fiesole, but first had to park the car in a handicapped spot... I have my U.S. handicapped tag with me which is recognized by European countries by international treaty. Lisa was nervous about this working so (sigh) I reluctantly changed to another pay spot on the same block--a very tight squeeze, on a hill, with a stick shift!
After asking a poliziotto if my handicapped placard was OK, I went back to the hilly spot where I was wedged between two cars on a street so narrow the mirror had to be tucked in... and waited and waited for no cars on the street so I could handbrake and first gear out of the spot and immediately put it in reverse to get back into the handicapped spot that I was parked in originally! Thanks, Sweetie! (Is the sarcasm coming through?)
Applause and deserved respect from Lucas and Lisa on my stick-shifting prowess and we were finally off to see the Roman and Etruscan ruins below one side of town...
Roman baths, temples, alters and a huge amphitheater. Fiesole is alive with history: It was an Etruscan settlement in the 8th century BC; The Romans built over the Etruscan remains; The town once was a rival of Florence itself until being conquered by them; Leonardo da Vinci experimented with flight from its steep hillside; in the 14th century, wealthy Florentines built some of the best examples of Renaissance villas on its hillsides overlooking Florence. Their Etruscan museum was wonderful. We had a great experience time-traveling down there.
Afterwards we had lunch in a ten seat little trattoria...Vinandro. Wild Boar Stew stew for me (amazing!), Pumpkin Soup for Lisa and a classic Saffron Risotto for Lucas. He got in a little trouble by saying it was better than Dad's risotto. This was the best meal so far in Italy. (A Later Note: Looking back at the end of our Voyage, this lunch at Vinandro turned out to be the BEST meal in all of Italy, in my opinion).
Then we trekked up a very steep hill that challenges my poor knees to see the belvedere overlooking Florence. We were all so breathless and hot from the effort that the view was anti-climatic. The villas and gardens up in this section were obviously for the wealthiest citizens of town. Amazing. Residents of Fiesole are pretty well-off, I must say.
A big change to our plans after a family meeting: Believe it or not, we decided not to go into Florence afterwards. Here's the reasons... We heard from a family at lunch that Florence was "shoulder to shoulder" thick with tourists; the lines for seeing Michelangelo's David were one to two hours long (we weren't able to book tickets ahead--I tried); parking on the outskirts and then taking a bus to the historic center was going to be a real hassle (and the word was out about pickpockets); we didn't want to torture Lucas (or my knees) with long lines, heat (it's been pretty hot here) and hours stuck in stuffy museums.
Besides, we've been having a great time off the tourist path in the smaller hilltowns. OK, so I don't fulfill a life long dream of seeing "The" David, but my sweet boy will be happier and having more fun today if we don't drag him around in that Florentine tourist soup.
Besides, I've studied the David statue and many other great works of life in detail during my life. I've already seen the Pieta in person... and the Mona Lisa... and Monet's lilies, and Winged Victory... and the Birth of Venus... and The Thinker... and so many other thousands of the Masters' works. It's like this: I don't need to actually meet Paul Simon or James Taylor (wait, bad example... we did meet James) to appreciate their music. Art can be appreciated from afar in thousands of photographs. (Check out the David HERE). I'm not really into putting our little family in great discomfort for the sake of a hard and fast "must-see" list for Italy. I'm trying to be flexible so we come out of this Grand Voyage happy, fulfilled and without regrets...
What's next, I wonder?
More photos to come...
This morning was great... beautiful weather and a quick breakfast at Cosona apartment, packing up the Fiat Large, and then crossing the road to the main villa to say goodby to our hostess--a very interesting experience. They live in the huge 400 year old villa... we were staying in the converted, old olive pressing building. The villa has a huge courtyard, statues, well head, masonry dog house and even a tower. She led us past room after room in this vast place with 16 foot tall ceilings... overall the look was chic but lots of deferred maintenance. Amazingly, her "office" was a teeny phonebooth-size closet with laptop, phone and credit card machine. Huh? What a waste of what we would call a castle. I would want an office fit for a Duke if that were my villa.
After leaving Cosona, we drove further north in Tuscany toward Agriturismo Mormoraia a former convent (thus the name meaning The Whispers) turned into a B&B agriturismo complex with their own vineyards, winery, olive oil, tasting room (the cafe below our apartment) and pool. We selected this apartment because the rooms have million dollar views of San Gimignano's raised towers and the vineyards.
So, I punched in the pre-programmed favorite on Tommy (our Tom Tom unit with Italian maps) and off we went. (I had programmed Tommy full of everyplace we were staying or needed to go along with dozens of points of interest). As we drove through the Tuscan landscape we passed more hills, valleys, gorges, bridges, hilltowns and then vineyards galore as got further north. We got there... passing by San Gimignano's towers... we thought we were there... but no. The place was deserted. It sort of looked right... pool, view. But, no. This isn't it... no matter how Tommy insisted in his robot voice.
We pulled over and checked the emails... the confirmations. We tried texting. I phoned but got an Italian robo-voice telling me that it was not working. We asked a carabiniere for directions... she was wrong. Lisa suggested using the GPS to find the last road in the written directions. We found it--a narrow gravel hill that sloped down into a valley--and started to drive down into it, about half a mile. When I came upon deep tractor ruts molded into the hard clay soil, I decided to back out. Our little Fiat didn't have enough ground clearance. With nowhere to turn around, I shifted the Italian-made transmission into reverse (lots rougher than the stick-shift in the one we test drove in the States), and started backing out. At this point, Lucas and Lisa were both melting down and the stress level in the Fiat was thicker than the bolognese I had last night! Babbo (Italian for Daddy) screwed up. Impossible! Sorry guys.
We actually went back to San Gimignano to go through the step by step directions one by one... and finally found it! As it turns out, their lat/long coordinates were off by 1-1/2 kilometers. And when I mentioned their staff later on, they didn't seem to care and were barely apologetic.
In typical Italian fashion, the reception office was closed for lunch until 3pm! Great. It was only 2 pm. I had a stressed out Mom and a melted-down, grumpy, hot, tired, hungry kid on my hands. I got out the remains of our last fridge's contents from our cooler and slapped together a fool's lunch: two kinds of cheese, sliced tomatoes (happy that I brought my French Laguiole Picnic Knife in the carry-on), some cookies and bottled orange sparkling water. We sat under this beautiful shady arbor on the grounds and refueled.
In short order we all were back to normal. We checked in and saw the amazing view out our windows. The WiFi stinks, the TV is not working, but is has clean beds, kitchen, a laundry across the courtyard (more on the laundry later). The place is pretty fancy to be honest... tailored--not really our taste but catering more to pseudo wine snobs. As it turned out, there was a considerable extra fee if we wanted a tour of the winery, the vineyards or to see how they made olive oil. In reality, the bottle Lisa bought from Mormoraia (what? No free samples?) was terrible and acidic.
Interesting that although they make their own wine and olive oil, we were given no samples... and the kitchen didn't even have any olive oil and was missing pantry essentials. No cutting board? No chef's knife? Cosona was much more accommodating--in typical B&B fashion, they supplied us with all kitchen essentials, coffee, sugar, salt, spices, olive oil, etc. This place feels more like a hotel looking to make money at every turn. Restored and designed for la touristi. We discovered later that the owner lived in a large city in the north and only spoke to his staff by phone.
Anyway, I hope the WiFi sticks around long enough to post this... then off to San Gimignano to see the towers close-up and to have dinner. But still, Mormoraia is centrally located to head out to discover the Tuscan countryside, Pisa, Florence and more...
We rested up for a few hours in our new apartment... well needed after today's ordeal of finding the place. After photographing the view from our window as the setting sun changed its look every few minutes, we headed out to San Gimignano for dinner.
The ride to town is short--only about 8 miles--but pretty hairy with lots of curves and hills. And the Italians like to race around every blind curve crossing over the line (if there is one) or hug my tail as I (pardon my safe driving) downshift through a downhill hairpin turn. These people (men & women alike) imagine themselves as race drivers in the grand prix. Today we saw an example of what must happen to some of these speed demons... a huge upside down 18 wheeler on the downhill side of a mountain road. It looked as if they just left it there many months ago. Weird.
We parked in a pay lot under the walled side of the village... there was an elevator up to the historic center. Cool... and a nice break for my knees. A slow stroll took us slowly up toward the center... where we found an adequate restaurant with a table next to tall windows framing a wide view of the valley below. As we dined, the lights twinkled in the valley far below us. We then walked up to Piazza della Cisterna with half a dozen of the towers on all sides. Imagine that there used to be almost 100 towers but only 14 remain standing.
An amazing gelataria called out our names. I had mezzo ciocolatto, mezzo coco (half chocolate, half coconut). Lucas had chocolate and orange. Lisa had chocolate caramel. We enjoyed the cool air and gelato. Italians think it's winter... to us it's a refreshing night.
We sat on the steps of the gorgeous marble wellhead in the center of the piazza... a guitarist played soft music in front of us. A wonderful finish to a long day.
Today's word of the day is
Buongusto (one word, BWONE-goose-tow) means good taste or tasteful.
Cattivo Gusto (cat-TEEV-oh GOOSE-tow) means bad taste.