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...
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?
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.
Visiting Bagno Vignoni--an ancient village within the commune of San Quirico d'Orcia in the provence of Siena--was an incredible look back into history. Picture a huge shallow swimming pool built around a bubbling hot spring. The bathing pool (100 wide and 160 feet long) was built in the 14th century with both Renaissance and Roman architecture surrounding the bubbling, watery piazza. On cool mornings steam will rise from the pool creating an even more magical ambiance.
I thought Bagno Vignoni was on flat land, but to get there we had to drive up winding switchback roads with breathtaking views of the Val d'Orcia far below. There were amazing views from our car park just at the edge of the Bagno Vignoni hamlet. So many hilltowns! (Will we actually get tired of this the way I got tired of castle after castle years ago in the Loire valley in France?)
A short walk downhill from Bagno Vignoni's formal pool is a more ancient and natural hot springs area with wonderfully cared for paths, picnic areas and even a nice cafe. People have been getting the therapeutic benefits of these hot mineral springs for thousands of years. Unlike other Tuscan hot springs (like Bagno san Filippo), this one isn't warm enough for soaking in the winter but is still a popular place for locals to have a free swim in summer with temperatures as high as 125 F degrees. There are mineral lined troughs and canals that carry the waters along and a large bathing pool at the bottom. There is also a paid resort in the village with all the options and comforts of a chic spa. One interesting historical note: During the middle ages, the thermal springs' water jets were harnessed to provide power to grain mills in the grinding of flour. The year-round regularity of these pressurized water jets gave a unique opportunity to operate mills all year long.
Some thoughts about this southern Tuscan region...
There is so much to see here that I fear we won't have enough time... which leaves a question in my mind about where to go next. By design, our Voyage is part planned, part free-form (follow our noses). There is the nearby town of San Quirico d'Orcia with a castle keep on its Rocca (rocky prominence); Nearby Montalcino offers wine tasting with its famous Brunello; you can meditate with the Greogorian chants at the Sant'Antimo abbey; the legendary Sword in the Stone at the roofless cathedral and Abbey of San Galgano; enjoy the mountain air and views of the 5600 foot tall Monte Amiata; the natural park of the Maremma hills and coastline are to the east; and even Lake Bolsena, a large volcanic lake between the southern border of Tuscany and Umbria. Many Voyagers opt to head toward Florence, Pisa and the northern parts of Tuscany, but we are falling in love with the richness, history and nature of the Crete Sinese and the southern parts--the Off the Tourist Path places. So, when planning a visit to Italy, be flexible... just about everywhere you might go there is beauty, history and many things that will feed your soul. --JF
We walked around a bit, took photos, pondered both the ancient Romans and Popes enjoying their communal baths here--and then we were hungry for dinner...
There were some nice restaurants surrounding the baths, but in typical "we don't need your business" style, dinner wasn't served until 7:30! It was around six. So, they close for at few hours at lunch (so THEY can go home and have THEIR lunch and snuggle with THEIR wife) exactly during the time most tourists want to eat. As my Dad used to say... they are real Lu-Lus! Will we ever get used to the Italian way of doing things? Many restaurants are closed for 3 hours during what Americans consider a peak lunch time period, and many don't open again until 7:30 or 8:00pm, well past Americans' dinner time!
Anyway, onward to find dinner. The sun was getting low in the Tuscan sky. Lucas wanted us to go "home" and cook but we'd have to shop first--a difficult thing to do when not all hilltowns have a supermarket or alimentari that happens to be open when you need something.
(Another mystery: While even most small villages will have an alimentari (grocery stores) and perhaps a butcher, bread baker and other specialty food shops, it's nearly impossible to find out when they open for business. I can't tell you how many times I came across alimentari closed up tight with their metal garage type doors at all times of the day.
So, even if you find a small grocery or food shop with its hours posted, that won't help if you're just passing through a town. My suggestion is to take advantage of such shops when you see them open, buying supplies like bottled water, cheese, bread, snacks, etc. ahead of time. Don't wait until you need them. A small foam cooler in your trunk will help keep things fresh while on the road.)
We pointed Tommy to take us to a medieval walled town--Buonconvento--I had already entered as a favorite destination. Within a half hour or so we were parking outside the old town walls.... appetites ready to go.
Today's word of the day is...
When I first got to Italy, I kept seeing signs with this word on it. It slowly became obvious that they were Exit signs. When I learned how to say it, I thought it sounded really funny... OOO SHEET AHH. Like when you say, "Where's the bathroom? I have to go OOO... SHEET-AH!"
Another post will come up soon!
Pienza is a medieval town in southern Tuscany in the Val d'Orcia, surrounded by the Crete Sinese--clay hills. The texture of these hills and valleys is hard to describe. It's big sky country with vistas wide and far. The clouds come and go ever-changing the light on the hills. One minute this hill is illuminated... the next minute another one, and then the light moves on again. Dappled light from passing clouds enhances the undulating hills. The sharp angle of the morning sun enhances the mottled soft texture of the hills.
We were staying at Agriturismo Cosona, a small B&B in a 500 year old villa complex 12 minutes drive outside of the village. We had wonderful view of Pienza from our windows. This is a fantastic, relaxing area filled with beautiful views of the Crete Sinese. Being here in the autumn, after many crops have been harvested, the terracotta colors and plowed textures of the plowed fields offered a subtle beauty. Driving the back roads in search of the unexpected, our little Fiat 500L got dusted with their fine clay powder. Like most First Loves, Pienza was destined to become our favorite town in all of Tuscany--a Love that will remain with us our whole lives...
What I found refreshing about this town is that even though it's a hilltown, the village itself is fairly flat and easy to walk. The main street through the heart of the village, Corso il Rossolino, is where most of the action is... shops, ristorante, and the main attractions. Pope Pius II was born here and developed the town as a perfect, ideal example of Renaissance town planning. Half-way down the Corso il Rossolino you come to the Piazza Piu II, which holds the most treasures... the Cathedral of Santa Maria Assunta, Palazzo Piccolmini (commissioned by Pope Pius II), Palazzo Vescovile (built to house the Pope's bishops), and the Palazzo Comunale. In the corner of the Piazza is La Terrazza Del Chiostro, a fine dining experience within an historic cloisters, with dining rooms in vaulted chambers and outdoor dining in their formal garden overlooking the Val d'Ochia.
But above all, one of the best feature of Pienza is its terrace promenade along the south side of the historic center. If you want to calm your soul with the best panoramic view of a Tuscan valley, this is the place to be. The view is wide and the lighting is wonderful, no matter what time of day you visit. The gently rolling valley is lit from the left at sunrise, the sun is from slightly the rear when the sun is high, and the sun sets toward the right... all day long the light playing with the colors and textures of the landscape. And on a day with puffy clouds (as we had), the shadows and light dance magically across your view. The views from this wonderful belvedere stretch for 15 miles to Monte Amiata.
We found a fantastic cheese shop specializing in formaggio di pecora (sheep cheese) and picked up a ball of caciocavallo and a bottle of aged, syrupy sweet balsamic after tasting and falling in love with both. For refreshments, we had panini for lunch with wine and aqua gassata (very sparkling water) in an outdoor trattoria. We quickly discovered the thing to do to save on drinks is simply order a liter bottle of water for the table when dining. Our son, Lucas picked up on this habit right away and rarely wanted soda after that. Amazing ciocolatto and pistacchio gelato followed. We then took a leisurely stroll and took photos along the promenade to top off our Pienza visit.
Pienza immediately became a favorite village that would be hard to beat on the rest of our Voyage. We all vowed that we'd like to return here and spend more time.
For our first Tuscan village... not bad at all...
As soon as I parked the car along the steep roadside, Lucas said,
"What's that stink?!"
The rotten egg smell helped Lisa guess... natural hot springs. The Bagno San Filippo have been there for eons... Roman Caesars and popes have bathed in their sulfur hot waters. Since we parked our car right above the first 100 foot tall stalagmite-like snow white formation (streaked with colors of other minerals), the steamy stench made Lucas pull up the neck of his shirt over his suffering nose. It really smelled like rotten eggs. He decided maybe this was a good cover for his farts. I couldn't tell.
The best thing about this site is that it's free!
We hiked down into the Fosso Bianco gorge and found this formation... and a much larger one beyond--two tiered and stepped. Picture white cream puff mountain steaming. Streaks of colors here and there. We didn't go in ourselves but the water was like a warm bath--some areas are much hotter than others. Many local Italians bathe here for curative effects.
The area is pretty big, and the first pools you find along the path near the road are shallow and tend to be a bit cooler than ones further downstream. The first formation is massive--Il Ghiacciaio (the Glacier). If you follow the path further on, you reach the immense formation called Balena Bianca (White Whale). The water tends to have a milky, bluish color in places. The area has many pools to sit in, but what I heard is you'd better wear old bathing suits because you will never lose that stink. It won't wash out.
We talked to an Italian couple who were bathing there and they said it the waters weren't as hot as a few months ago in summer. There is also a proper spa in town that gets the waters piped in directly from these springs.
Remember, this is little town also has Spa Terme San Filippo, the main attraction with a hotel, restaurant, pool, spa and wellness center, but if you're inclined to "take the waters", do as the locals do, and just take a walk down into the free park area.
Italy is a volcanic land. This was a fantastic off the beaten path sight to see. This country is full of natural wonders. The geology of the place staggers me.
Next... later in the day, a castle tower on a mountaintop...
Here are some photos I took in an Italian supermarket--supermercato.
Coop is the name of a very popular one. The layouts are much different than in the U.S.... much more fresh food, a huge cheese selection, the deli selections are amazing, milk in boxes and even a fine wine section! You have to wear gloves when selecting your fruit and veggies, too. And if you want a shopping cart, you need to use a 1 Euro coin to unlock one. Return the cart and you get your coin back. Checking out is different... they charge a few pennies for plastic bags, so most people bring their own reusable bags. And customers do their own bagging. No baggers!
Airport security is a joke. They X-rayed, but the people they have working at protecting our flights look like they couldn't handle a real emergency. For the most part they are all slow-moving and paying attention to their looks (hair, nails) than the passengers. And after all the hassle of measuring our carry on bags and finding models that fit, I saw a lot of older large bags going on board. I didn't see a single bag being checked for size, even though they had the carry0on size checker right at the boarding gate. The overhead was large enough to hold the older style carry-on sizes. So, all that panic about getting the correct size for the just-changed regulations for nothing!
The flight was 8 hours long, uncomfortable and tiring. The seats were tight, but with three of us sitting together we could raise the seat arms for a bit more breathing room. When Lucas gets older and bigger, it'll be much tighter. Leg room was OK, though it's hard to stretch out. The legs in front of my seat were close together, so I often stuck one leg out into the aisle to stretch. A very tall person must hate these new seat spaces, and God forbid the person in front from leaning his seat all the way back.
None of us got any sleep. I tried with my ear plugs and inflatable pillow but the best I had was what I call "hospital sleep". You know, the restless sleep you get when you are in a hospital with lights on and nurses coming in at all hours. Planes are God-awful noisy things, too. I tried getting Lucas comfy enough for sleep, but nothing worked. This poor kid is going to collapse somewhere tomorrow.
We arrived at Fiumicino Airport in Rome, tired, achy and on heightened alert for where we had to go next. So far, about 14 hours into traveling.
We then had to deal long lines and no air conditioning at Italian customs and retrieving our one checked bag (Lisa just had to have more space!) The place was modern yet tired looking at the same time. The workers looked bored and there were few smiles. I was amazed at how hot and stuffy it was. They either don't have proper air conditioning, have it turned off to save money, or have the thermostats set to around 80. Fiumicino Airport is a huge, confusing place.
Over an hour or more later, we walked out the customs doors and found our driver, Adele, holding up a card with our name. She spoke broken English... I spoke fractured Italian. We still managed a decent conversation on the way to the rail station. She played obnoxious Italian pop music on the radio--some with pretty inappropriate lyrics (I knew enough Italian curse words to catch this). Her driving was like any big city taxi driver--aggressive and confident.
As a surprise for Lucas, I had arranged for the driver to take us on a short tour through Rome and past the Colosseum before leaving for Tuscany. I wanted him to have a real taste of Rome to establish that we really were in Italy! She drove us around the Colosseum before dropping us at Tiburtina station, which turned out to be a lot cleaner and safer than expected. But we had to camp out for three hours in a modern cafe waiting for our train to come. We had some decent pastries, drinks, coffee for Lisa and my first Italian soda--Fanta (in Italy it tastes like fresh oranges mixed with seltzer... very different from the chemical tasting Fanta we have in the States.) Lucas finally collapsed into a deep 30 minute power nap leaning on the table and on his cushy fleece jacket. Poor sweet boy.
It's time! Let's get to the track! Because Lisa kept insisting the train coming in was not our train, this confusion almost made us miss it. The conductor helped and assured me it was ours... but we had to race to the first car to get on. Tickets have seat and car numbers on them and you never know if your car number is going to be at the beginning, middle or end of the train. A thumbs up from me once we got aboard and the conductor gave the go-ahead for the train to move. Whew! Close call!
We had a first class cabin on this second class train... it was older, but that's what gave it the charm. This was a regional train... no high speed here. Squeaky brakes, lights that didn't work, and a toilet that dumped right onto the rushing tracks below! Lots of tunnels on this route. Everything looked Italian! The further toward Tuscany we got, the more beautiful... hills, mountains, vineyards, hilltowns. We napped a bit. Took some bad blurry pictures out the window and enjoyed the fun of a new kind of train travel. I haven't been on European style trains like this since the Seventies when traveling in France.
When we got to Chiusi, we had another couple hours to kill before the Hertz office came back from their 2-1/2 hour lunch! These were the types of timing problems I came up against when coordinating flights and timetables for trains. From about 12 noon until 3-4pm in the afternoon, Italians take their reposo (similar to a siesta). Shops close down and workers go home for lunch and a nap. Even restaurants close down (except in large tourist towns).
Luckily, we had lunch in a little trattoria I had discovered while looking around this little town on Google Earth. We ordered some pasta carbonara and tortellini with proscuitto. Lucas awakened and his face lit up with the first bite. This was some of the best pasta we ever had... and for six bucks each! Our only complaint: The place didn't have air conditioning and it was hot.
After lunch, we picked up our little Fiat 500L... The tiny Hertz office was across the street and a half block from the station and manned by two very young ragazzi. When I saw TWO workers come back from their 3-1/2 hour lunch, I thought to myself how ridiculous this system is. Can't they just stagger their lunch hours and keep the office open, the way we do it in the States? Of course not. È l'Italia! Just as we were finished in their office (over a hour with only one couple ahead of us), we learned that we had to walk six blocks to where our car was parked. They don't drive your to you... you have to get it. And get this... It just started to rain again--a real downpour! OK, We got out an umbrella, put up the hoods on our windbreakers and trudged down there in the rain dragging all our luggage along. What is this... our 19 hours or so into our first day of traveling? Fatigue is setting in... but I now have to drive winding, hilly roads in a rainstorm.
They call the Fiat 500L the "Large" here--pronounced "Large". Perfect fit for us. Small car. Narrow for tight roads. Lots of storage in a covered trunk, and raised theater seating for the back seat so Lucas can have a good view. Another thing I liked--the glove box was a cooler. Cool drinks on the road! SO, we got to the car--charcoal grey--and were about to leave when I noticed a few bad gashes on the bumper that weren't called out on the rental sheet. We drive back to the office in a rush (believe it or not, they were about to close up for the day after only being open again for an hour) and have them note this damage in the rental paperwork. I've heard nightmarish stories of rental companies in Italy charging people thousands of dollars for such things. Even though the name is Hertz, all these rental shops are owned by locals, each one with their own way of doing things.
At last... On the Road! This one is a standard shift so Lisa panicked each time my shifting was a little rough or abrupt... hard not to do with Italian drivers cutting us off (stop signs and red lights mean nothing here), tons of curvy mountain roads, having to take off from dead stops on steep slopes, and the sudden torrential thunder storm we had to drive through.
Before getting to our first rental, we needed to pick up supplies. We made a stop in an Italian chain supermarket in Montepulciano--a Conad. Lucas will fill you in on that... oddly different. We bought cheese, milk, eggs, drinks, jam, bread, tomatoes and a few snacks.
I was the first to wake up... going straight to the window to see the view of the nearby hilltown, Pienza--still lit up in the darkness.
As we woke up refreshed, we all explored Cosona--the apartment, the grounds, gardens, the views. Lucas got a kick out of watching the lizards climbing up the walls and scurrying around the rocks--way too fast to catch one. We found a ping-pong table in one stone building, so Lisa and Lucas had a sloppy game--neither a winner. As for myself and Lisa, we loved the beamed ceilings, the tile floors, the stone walls, the olive trees, the songbirds and bees buzzing, the smell of the spices and flowers in the garden, the lichen covered clay tile roof... perfetto. This is just wonderful.