Visiting Bagno Vignoni was an incredible look back into history. Picture a huge shallow swimming pool built around a bubbling hot spring. Beautiful roman architecture all around... like a bubbling, watery piazza. I thought this was on flat land, but there were amazing view from our car park.... yet again. 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?) We walked around a bit, took photos, pondered Romans taking communal baths here--and some Popes too, we had read about--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 the wife) and they close during the time most tourists want to eat. As my Dad used to say... they are real Lu-Lus!
So, onward to find dinner. 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 supermarkets or an amilentari that happens to be open when you need something. So we programmed a "walled town" (Buonconvento) I had already entered in my handy Tom-Tom and hunted for dinner. Within a half hour or so we pulled into Buonconvento, appetites ready to go...
Shifting Plans, Shifty Florence
Today we got up early and ate breakfast at the agriturismo's little cafe. A flat egg fritatta, some pastries including chocolate cornettos (picture a crunchy croissant), cioccolatta caldo (hot chocolate) for Lucas, cappuccino for Mom and blood orange juice for Babbo.
The plan was to go early to Fiesole, a beautiful hillltop village that over looks Florence. On the way trough Florence we found ourselves at 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 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 a parking attendant and shake you down for helping. 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 and gave a stern look and he magically disappeared.
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 Duomo dome... pretty breathtaking. The piazza is also home to many kitchy caravan vendors selling their useless nonsense to tourists.
We then drove up toward Fiesole after a ride through insane Florentine traffic. 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 the town 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. After asking a policia 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!
Applause and respect from Lucas and Lisa on my stick-shifting prowess and we were finally off to see the Roman and Etruscan ruins on the side of town... Roman baths, temples, alters and a huge amphitheater. Afterwards we had lunch in a ten seat little trattoria... beef stew for me, pumpkin soup for Lisa and 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.
Then we trekked up a very steep hill that challenges my poor knees to see the promenade overlooking Florence. We were all so winded 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.
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 elbow to elbow thick with tourists; the lines for seeing Michaelangelo's David were an hour or more long (we weren't able to book tickets ahead); parking and bus to the historic center was going to be a real hassle; we didn't want to torture Lucas with long lines, heat (it's been pretty warm here) and hours stuck in museums.
Besides, we've been having a great time off the tourist beaten path in the smaller hilltowns. So I don't fulfill a life long dream of seeing David, but my sweet boy will be happier and having fun....
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 in 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.
We parked in a pay lot under the walled side of the village... there was an elevator up to the citta streets. 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 a grand piazza with half a dozen of the towers on all sides. A great gelataria called out our names. I had mezzo (half) chocolate, mezzo 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 well in the center of the piazza... a guitarist played soft music in front of us. A great night finished this day.
The Day In Pienza And More...
Sheep in the darkness and Mom walking though a uscita.
Ok, so the morning was fine. Quick breakfast at Cosona apartment, saying good-by to our hostess was interesting... they live in the huge 400 year old villa... we were staying in the old olive pressing building. The villa has a huge courtyard, statues, wellhead, and even a tower. She led us past room after room in this vast place with 16 foot tall ceilings... but overall the look was chic but lots of delayed maintenance. Her "office" amazingly was a teeny phonebooth-size closet. Laptop, phone and credit card machine. Huh? What a waste of what we would call a castle.
Then onto Mormoraia (the Whispers) a working agritourismo with their own vineyards, winery, tasting room 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 and off we went. More hills, valleys, gorges, bridges, hilltowns and then vineyards galore as got further north Florence province. We got 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. When I saw the ruts in the road ahead I decided to back out... nowhere to turn around... more than a quarter mile. By 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) screws up again. 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 this to them 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. A stressed Mom and a melted, 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 they 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. 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 to cook with. The last place was more rustic... more authentic. This place feels more like a hotel looking to make money at every turn.
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.
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 Fillipo 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 stalegmite-like snow white formation, 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.
We hiked down into the 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. All I know is what I read... wear old bathing suits because you will never lose that stink. We talked to an Italian couple who were bathing there and they said it wasn't as hot as a few months ago. There is a proper spa in town that gets the waters piped in directly from these springs.
Italy is a volcanic land after all... 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... same day, a castle tower on mountaintop...
Pienza: The Perfect Tuscan Village
Pienza is a medieval town in southern Tuscany... surrounded by the crete sinese--clay hills. The texture of these hills and valleys is hard to describe. It's big sky country... vistas are 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. 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 Cosona, a small agriturismo about 12 minute drive from town. We had a view of Pienza from our windows. This area is a fantastic, relaxing area yet filled with beautiful views of the Crete Sinese (clay hills). If you drive the back roads (and you should to find surprising things) your car will get dusted with the fine clay.
We parked at a convenient pay lot on the side of town... our first time with the Italian parking kiosks. Not too hard. Put in a couple of coins, get receipt, put in on your dashboard, and you are good for couple of hours. (Later Note: I could have parked in any handicapped spot for free). We walked through the village, bought cheese and balsamic from a friendly old cheese monger, then took pictures... lots of them. Lucas and Mom are becoming good photographers. They make me proud.
Then it was paninis for lunch with wine and aqua gassata very sparkling water... burp). Amazing ciociolatta and pistashio gelato followed. We had a passagiata (a stroll) and took pics along the stone walkway that runs on the cliff side of town. Thirty mile views of mountains, hilltowns and villas.
Pienza immediately became a favorite village that would be hard to beat.
Then I drove on to a secret surprise for Lucas and Mom...
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 more to their looks 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. The overhead was large enough to hold the older style carry-on sizes.
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 bigger, it'll be much tighter.) Leg room was OK, though it's hard to stretch out. A very tall person must hate these new seat spaces.
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 kid's going to collapse somewhere tomorrow.
We then had to deal long lines and no air conditioning getting through Italian customs and getting 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.
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--agressive and confident.
She drove us around the Colosseum before dropping us at Tiburtina station, which turned out to be a lot cleaner and safer than expected. 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 (Which tastes like fresh oranges mixed with seltzer... very different from the chemical tasting Fanta we have in the States.) Lucas finally had a deep 20 minute power nap leaning on the table and on his cushy fleece jacket. Poor sweet boy.
Because Lisa kept insisting the train coming in was not out 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. Squeaky brakes, lights that didn't work, and a toilet that flushed 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 we got to Chiusi, we had another couple hours to kill before the Hertz office came back from their 2-1/2 hour lunch! (All Italy does this and they wonder why they can't get ahead.) We had lunch in a little trattoria I had discovered on Google Earth. We ordered some pasta carbonara and tortellini with proscuitto. Lucas face woke up and lit up with his 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.
We picked up our little Fiat 500L... they call it "the large" here. Perfect fit for us. This one is a standard shift so Lisa paniced each time my shifting was a little rough or abrupt... hard not to do with Italian drivers cutting us off, tons of curvy mountain roads, havint to take off from dead stops on steep slopes, and the sudden thunder storm we had to drive through. In fact, to get the car, we had to walk several blocks in the pouring rain. More on that Hertz experience in other posts.
We made a stop in an Italian chain supermarket--Conad. Lucas will fill you in on that... oddly different.
Another half hour or so and we arrived at Cosona, our first agriturismo (a farm B&B). The stone buildings were half a millennium old with high beamed ceilings, tile floors and amazing views. A real dream come true... vistas of hilltowns and rolling hills and mountains for 20 miles.
Then... sleep. Lucas fell first, then Lisa... then me, but only after working for over 20 minutes on this blog only to lose the post because of the slow satellite Internet connection. Arrgh! Then sleep came fast after about 18 hours of traveling...
Now it's morning, we had our first little jam, bread and fruit breakfast, I did this post (hope it doesn't crash this time) and we are out on our first Tuscan exploration. Miss you already, everyone.
First we will explore the southern part of Tuscany, staying in an agriturismo just outside of Pienza. Next we will explore the northern part of Tuscany, including Florence and Pisa. Our home base will be another agriturismo within view of the little Italian "Manhattan"--San Gimignano with its ancient towers.