Under the Tuscan Sun -- mostly
Trip Start Apr 15, 2003
136Trip End Sep 01, 2011
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We had originally planned to take a 3 week driving vacation around Italy back in May. Unfortunately, the demands of Melanie's job got in the way so we ended up splitting the vacation into 10 days in Central Europe (see July 31 entry) and 1 week in Florence and Tuscany. We chose Italy in December because Amsterdam doesn't get much sun in the wintertime, which can be depressing. Italy is close enough to drive and generally sunny -- the perfect December vacation.
We decided to leave early on Saturday morning instead of Friday night in order to make faster time and avoid Friday night traffic. So, we got up at 3:45 a.m. on Saturday (yes, Chris really was up at that hour!) and hit the road. There wasn't much traffic, but there was a LOT of fog. It was still probably faster than leaving on Friday, but the fog made it slow going and, combined with the pouring rain we encountered in Italy, turned our 14 hour drive into a 16 hour drive. What a long day!
We had been worried about hitting bad weather going through the Alps in Switzerland, but discovered that we were rarely driving out in the open. There are lots of tunnels, one of which is very long, so that the drive is literally through the Alps, not over them. Coming out of the long tunnel we were greeted with the first sunshine we'd seen all day and SNOW! The roads were fine, but the snow was still on the trees, so it couldn't have been there too long. Beautiful!
In Italy, it was pouring rain. Also, the roads are very narrow and there seemed to be a lot of diversions from straight with arrows pointing every which way so it was never really clear what was coming up. It was impossible to tell where the lane lines were and it often looked as though there were three lanes demarcated where there was only room for 2 cars. Also, the Italians really do drive per their reputation. For comparison's sake:
Netherlands: Slow speed limits, mostly obeyed; generally stay in the right lane except to pass; mostly use turn signals.
Germany: No speed limit; you BETTER stay in the right lane or a BMW will be up your rear in 30 seconds; always use turn signals - especially just before cutting off whoever is in the right lane.
Switzerland: Speed limits change at every curve, tunnel, or other change in road condition -- and are followed EXACTLY; not so much worry about lanes since everybody minds the speed limits.
Italy: There's a speed limit? There are lanes? Why? Nobody uses them - what's wrong with drifting from one lane to the next - or straddling both? What's a turn signal?
Despite bad weather, bad drivers, and a long travel day, it was totally worth it. When we got to Siena we had a warm bed waiting (thanks to Melanie calling ahead from the road), found a restaurant close by (after an hour of being lost in our car in the "pedestrian only" historical district and deciphering the signs to find free parking!), enjoyed a small wine bar for our first Chianti and dolci (dessert), then settled in for a good night's sleep.
The next day it was still pouring rain. So much for Tuscan sun. Nevertheless, we had a marvelous time wandering down the narrow, winding and very hilly medieval streets (much easier on foot than by car!) and visiting one of the highlights of Siena: the Duomo. The Duomo is a huge domed church made completely from marble of different colors. We had a view of it from the bathroom window of our first B&B and from the small balcony of the 2nd place we stayed, but it's even more impressive up close. The building is striped green and white marble. Inside and out the floors are completely multi-colored marble mosaics telling complicated stories with beautiful marble illustrations. The columns inside are also green and white striped marble. It was begun in 1215 and completed in 1263. As we learned at the Duomo museum, the town of Siena had intended to build an even bigger, fancier church, (to compete with the one in Florence) using the existing one as the transept. With the outbreak of Black Plague of 1348, which killed a large portion of the town's population, the city decided maybe they didn't need a bigger church. Parts of the construction still remain though - including a tower that can be climbed for great views of the city.
Aside from the Duomo, the main site in Siena is the town itself. It has a huge fan shaped, gently sloping piazza (plaza) that is so magnificent that our guidebooks listed it as "the best piazza in all of Italy" and #7 in the Top 10 of all of Tuscany! Twice a year, there are horse races held around the perimeter of the piazza, with the town's people cheering from the piazza - sort of like being on the field at the Kentucky Derby. This is really hard to imagine because even though the piazza is large, for a town plaza, it's no race track! There are a couple of very sharp (almost 90 degree) turns where padding has to be put up in case some horses and riders don't quite make the turn.
Most of the rest of the day was spent wandering the town in the pouring rain. One funny thing that we noticed when we arrived Saturday night was that a lot of people had their laundry hanging out to dry - despite all the rain. On Sunday, when it was still raining, the laundry was still hanging out. Guess it was ready to really dry when the sun came out on Monday!
We had marvelous cappuccinos and pastry for breakfast. The best was at Nannini's, a fancy pastry/chocolate shop/restaurant that we thought would be an expensive splurge. Turned out that, at least when eating while standing at the counter (common in Italy), the prices were the same as the other places we had had cappuccinos and pastry. But, at Nannini's the cappuccinos came with artwork in the foam - Chris' had a leaf while Melanie's had a heart.
A word about our accommodations in Siena: As usual, we didn't make reservations ahead. We were lucky to call 2 hours before arrival and get a room for one night at a private home. We had a view of the Duomo from our bathroom and a shower that was basically a shower head in the wall next to the toilet with a curtain to pull around. After taking a shower, the whole bathroom was wet! The 2nd night we moved to an inn run by a convent. It was very clean and functional and had a small balcony, also overlooking the Duomo. There was an 11:30 curfew at night, but we were so tired from driving and walking that we were happy to be back in bed by then. Here is the view:
Ringing church bells woke us at 7:30 on Monday morning in Siena. We couldn't help but wonder whether this was a call to worship or the alarm clock for the town. Although it was still overcast, at least there wasn't any rain. After breakfast and a little strolling we drove to San Gimignamo.
This was the first day we could see the hills of Tuscany and, guess what?, they look just like the pictures! Really beautiful rolling countryside with olives groves and vineyards on every hill. San Gimignamo, perched atop a hill, is only a 30 min drive from Siena. At one time, in the 14th century, there were 72 tall towers built by the town's nobility who sought prestige by building as high as possible. Today 13 of these remain, making a distinctive outline in the sky when seen from a distance. There's not much to the town other than a street full of shops and the towers.
The shops included lots of silversmiths, many of whom were making their wares right in the shops, and local ceramics, wine and wild boar products.
We climbed up some ruins to the top of a hill for a great view of city. Although construction cranes prevented taking good pictures of the towers, we did have the pleasure of watching olives being harvested from the terrace of a wine museum there. An old man climbed the trees and shook the olives onto nets while others shook the olives from the lower branches.
Also at the top of the hill there was a wine museum where we could taste the local white Chianti and new olive oils (pressed only two weeks earlier). Unfortunately the wines and oils are not sold at the museum. Instead they gave us a map so that we could drive into the countryside to the olive farm or vineyard itself to buy their wares. We decided to do this the next day, but everyplace we went to was closed. Nevertheless we enjoyed the pretty countryside along the way.
After our nice countryside drive, we headed to Florence, arriving just after noon. Traffic in Florence is AWFUL - we definitely would not recommend driving there - and we didn't have a city map and so we had no idea of where we were. Nevertheless we somehow managed to find good parking and our way downtown.
After a very quick (and very good!) foccacia lunch, we wandered through the flea market, had what was probably the ONLY BAD gelato in Italy, wandered around the Ponto Vechio then spent 3 hours at the Uffizi Museum. Thanks to our guide book, we had made reservations and were VERY glad we did. There was a huge line, which did not appear to be moving at all, for the people without reservations. The Uffizi contains loads of famous Italian paintings. Some can be seen (in miniature) on their website:
Click here to jump to more info on the Uffizi
After the Uffizi we wandered the streets looking for lodging close to our car so that we wouldn't have to carry our bags too far. After seeing several decidedly not nice places, we found a magnificent hotel with free Internet access, free parking, a beautiful room and huge terrace. The terrace was bigger than some of the rooms we've stayed in! We liked it so much that we decided to stay a 2nd night.
The next day was spent seeing more artwork.
Florence is so full of art that it is really difficult to see it all. We had art overload and ended up not seeing as much as we had time for. However, we did see Michaelangelo's David. He's beautiful! 14 feet tall made from a single slab of marble and absolutely perfect in every detail. After viewing more Michaelangelo sculptures we walked to the center (stopping for GOOD gelato along the way!) to the Bargello Museum where there were more statues from various important Italian artists - including different versions of David. Florence's Duomo and the neighboring Baptistry, one of Florence's oldest buildings, were also visited. The Baptistry has famous gilded brass doors. One set was commissioned in 1401 and dubbed the 'Gates of Paradise' to mark Florence's deliverance from the plague. The other: The Gates of Hell.
Lunch was at a funny place run by monks. It's basically a hole in the wall where you can buy cheap sandwiches and Chianti for about $5 and eat it while standing on the sidewalk or street. The wine is served in glass wine glasses, so it's not like true take-away, but it was really good and really crowded. Florence also has a large flea market that reminded us of flea markets in New York. On the other side of town we wandered into a Christmas market like those found in Germany. After taking a walk in the neighborhood on the other side of the river, we had a magnificent dinner at a riverside restaurant overlooking the Ponto Vecchio.
Ponto Vecchio is interesting because it is a bridge that is lined on both sides with jewelry stores. It has been a jewelers bridge since medieval times and therefore has a lot of character and feels very old. At night, when the stores are closed, the windows are covered in very old thick wooden shutters. Midway along the bridge, at a statue of Cellini, young couples come to declare their love. They do this by putting a padlock on the railing and throwing the key into the river.
Pisa is not very far from Florence, so we just HAD see the leaning tower. Our guidebook had indicated that it was a worthless tourist trap, but since it was the first week of December we found it very enjoyable. We can imagine that in the summer, the whole area around the leaning tower must be overrun with tourists. We still saw the tackiest souvenirs of the trip here, but the square was relatively empty and actually quite pleasant. Although it is possible to climb the leaning tower, it costs $20 per person to do so and there's not much to see at the top, so we skipped that and drove on to Lucca.
Lucca is a beautiful walled city that was given by Napolean to his sister as a gift. The sister turned the top of the wall into a beautiful park that now has running paths and is lined with trees and grass. Wow, what a great place to stroll! Lucca was probably our favorite town of the whole trip. Very quiet and yet there were lots to see.
There are many churches in Lucca which are built in the same style. One curiosity that we noticed is that the columns are often all different from each other.
One of the churches has the shrunken, mummified body of Saint Zita on display. Saint Zita is the Patron Saint of: domestic workers and maids.
Zita came from a poor, but deeply devotional family. The lack of social standing is probably the reason Zita's last name has not been recorded in history. To help support the family, she became a maid of a wealthy family, Fatinelli, in Lucca, serving them loyally for 48 years.
From an early age, Zita expressed concern for the poor and helpless of Lucca. As her reputation spread, the needy began to seek her out. This did not sit well with the Fatinelli family. They thought time spent with the poor was not time spent in her maid servant duties. As the story goes, the Lord intervened as necessary. On one such event, Zita left her chore of baking bread to tend to someone in need. Some of the other servants made sure the Fatinelli family was aware of what happened. When they went to investigate, they found angels in the Fatinelli kitchen, picking up Zita's slack. From that point on, the Fatinelli family and even the other servants were a little more understanding toward her mission! On another event, Zita had given away the family's supply of beans to the townsfolk during a severe famine. Upon suspecting this, the Fatinelli family went to the cupboard to find it full - the beans had been miracuously replaced. Another recorded event was as dramatic, if not more so. On Christmas Eve, Zita had given away a prized and treasured family cloak to a shivering man at the doorway of St. Fredaino, the local church. This was the straw that broke the camel's back. While the elder Fatinelli was in the midst of a fit of fury, an elderly man came to the door and returned the heirloom. When townsfolk heard of the event, they decided that the man must have been an angel. From that point on, the doorway of the St. Fredaino church in Lucca has been called the "Angel Portal".
Besides being the patron saint for domestic workers and maids, she's the one to ask to help find lost keys. She is definitely a Saint that can help Chris in the area of keys! Hmmm....we wondered if she helped some of the people that put the locks on the Ponte Vecchio bridge and later wish they could unlock them. Anyway, Zita is well preserved in Lucca, especially given she died on April 27, 1278, and available for viewing:
To make up for not climbing the Leaning Tower of Pisa, we climbed Guinigi Tower in Lucca. It's unique because it has a garden and trees on top. From there we had a beautiful view of the town and the surrounding hillside. Lucca is relatively big (bigger than Siena) and has lots of great shops (many very high end) and inexpensive restaurants with wonderful food.
On Friday we had beautiful weather - lots of Tuscan sun - but, alas, it was time to head home. So, after a morning of wandering the town and walking the ramparts we headed for the coast for what we hoped would be a scenic drive home.
THE LONG ROAD HOME
Having driven 16 hours straight on the way to Italy, we decided to divide up the drive back. We were so close to the Mediterranean coastline that we decided to drive there as far as Genoa and then head north. We took back roads thinking that they would be more scenic, but for some reason we had trouble finding gas stations with attendants. There are lots of self-service gas stations that are totally without any human supervision. There is one strange kiosk in the middle of all of the pumps which takes your money or credit card, but we couldn't figure out how to work it and how it knew which pump you were at. We almost ran out of gas until we figured out how to use cash by watching somebody else (all the previous stations had even been void of other customers).
Having averted the out of gas catastrophe we made our way to the coastline, had pizza dinner at a beach-side restaurant at sunset, stuck our fingers in the cold water and drove until midnight, stopping in Lucerne, Switzerland.
The next day we spent the morning wandering around Lucerne -- a cute little Swiss village with 2 covered bridges, beautiful frescos on the buildings, and a nice crafts market and farmer's market. We drove along the edge of the Black Forest in Germany, but didn't have time to really explore - although we did stop for a local flea market (very bad) along the way.
We arrived back in Amsterdam safe and sound at about 10:30 Saturday night. This gave us Sunday to recuperate and begin preparations for our trip home to the U.S. the next week.
We definitely had a fantastic trip to Italy and expect to go back for more exploring this year. Anybody considering going to this area - GO! It has been one of our favorites so far.
Happy travels all!
Melanie and Chris
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