The alarm went off on the Tom-Tom to alerted us of speed cameras as we entered the town limits of Buonconvento. Good boy, Tommy. You see, many towns have speed cameras or sensors as you come into them, and as you leave. If you get through the Zona Limite di Velocità too fast, you'll be ticketed. The camera gets your tag number. It's automatic. You will not have a traffic policeman pulling you over. Even if you have a rental car, the summons will find its way to you in the States. So, immediately when I heard Tommy's speed zone alarm go off, I slowed down. A local road hog was having none of this. He drove inches from our rear bumper. I pulled down a side street just to get rid of the nut. Mind you, all this happened within the speed zone!
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.
I was up before sunrise and woke Lisa to watch it with me out our window overlooking the wide valley. Hill layered after hill, each swimming in the morning mists as the sun came up. The light was dim and blue. Every few minutes the light changed the colors and textures. The bats fluttering by reminded us of how we used to get a lot of bats flying over our Bucks County home (a fungal infection has nearly wiped them all out). As the day got brighter the bats were replaced by swallows. Then there were the songbirds... I didn't recognize any of their songs. All this was right outside our window. It was like a painting coming alive. We can hardly believe we are really here.
We showered and got ready for the day. Lucas loved having his own bathroom and bedroom. The TV only had a couple of channels but Lucas got to see some silly Italian cartoons and Italian shopping channel selling some sort of cooker. Breakfast was an assortment of the goodies left by Cosona's owner and from our shopping trip the night before. It was nice having a cozy, rustic place to call home.
After our breakfast, we strolled the grounds and took pictures... this place is so perfect I wish we were staying more than two days. Lucas and Mom even played a quick game of ping-pong set up in a stone pavilion.
We then packed up and headed out on the road for our first tour of Pienza, our nearby hilltown.
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...
Driving up to Castiglione d'Orcia had lots of switchback curves to conquer, but I made it. Driving these Italian roads is challenging but loads of fun for someone like me who loves driving. The wide vistas were breathtaking, at every hairpin turn a new elevation and new views. This "Rocca" (castle keep) set on a high precipice was amazing. There is a fortress (the Fortezza Aldobrandesca) on one mountaintop and a tower (Rocca di Tintinnano) on its close neighbor. It looked like something out of King Arthur or the Lord of the Rings... pretty fitting since this has been a settlement since the eighth century AD. You can really imagine the fortress defending this little duchy from invaders making their way up from the valley far below.
When we got to the top there was a very naturalized looking area with parking, a cafe and walking paths. The little cafe gave us great views, ice cream pops, sodas and a surprise-- spotty Wifi! We took a walk along the brick path along the edge of the cliff--pretty scary at times with poorly maintained shaky wooden handrails and uneven brick path. There were spots that had slid away entirely down the cliff, so we decided not to go further.
Yet another hilltown under our belts...
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.
That's my boy.. living it up on airport cheese, crackers, and iced tea in the VIP lounge at Newark airport, and playing his new Minecraft app. He loves to build things... What is he building in Minecraft? An airport? The Colosseum? Saint Peter's dome? Nope. He's building a supermarket. Anyway, he's happy waiting for our flight!
At this point, the crackers and cheese are welcome. The Wifi is so-so. The stress levels are much lower than in the last few days. Lisa seems happy that we're finally on the move with one large bag checked and on the plane and each of us with a carry-on. We changed my original "carry-on only" plan--she had too many clothes of her own, and she even packed that damned hair dryer!
I'm happy that I found a work-around for that darned outdoor electrical problem, so my security lights will be working while we're away. The house and garden are buttoned up tight, the alarm company notified who to call "in case", my best friend learned how to do our alarm and keys and will check on the house each day. Most of my tomato plants have late-blight, so there's not much harvesting anyway right now... Did I turn off the furnace and the water? Oh... yes. I did.
Ok, all set! Mind clear!
The flight leaves in an hour or so.
Buckle your seat belts and come along with us...
Italia, qui veniamo!