Tuscany and Umbria - Part I

Trip Start Apr 06, 2003
Trip End Ongoing

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Tuesday, August 10, 2004


Hello everyone.

The summer has finally arrived in A'dam. It has been beautiful, borderline ridiculously hot. Since AC is nonexistent here, we have all the windows open and the fans cranking. My bike ride home from work is through a packed Vondel Park and I am no longer wearing my suit jacket while I ride as it is just way too hot!

I have also started washing and ironing my own dress shirts since EUR 3 a shirt is beginning to be a bit too ridiculous. It's actually really easy to do but my ironing skills are still really lacking! But I'm learning.

We have also been busy on the weekends with normal stuff. This past weekend was the Gay Pride Parade. It wasn't as fun as last year's but it was still cool. We also went to see Bo Diddley at the Paradiso, the small venue we like. He was cool, but not the best. He started the show by announcing that KLM had lost his luggage so he would be performing in his street clothes. He also had a keyboardist that looked like some woman my mom would've met at a Hadassah conference. To say the least, she did not look the typical blues keyboardist. We also went to see Fahrenheit 9/11. It was very good, although I am still not a big fan of Michael Moore. But that's a very long story.

In general, things are going well in A'dam. So here is our t-pod from our trip to Italy. It is a bit long...I had to write it in 2 parts. But here it is. And in case you can't get enough of my words, here is some stuff about our very busy next few weeks and update you as to the past few weeks...

I am happy to report that I will be moving to a new group in mid-September. I have spoken to some people back in Chicago and also some people here in A'dam about the new group and it all sounds very positive. The manager and my future coworkers all sound really great. To say the least, I am very excited. I will still be working within Risk Management for the Telecom Media and Technology Desk. This basically means that all large customers of the bank within these three industries will come to my group and will be analyzed prior to approval. I'm sure it will be good to get a fresh start.

Julie is now finished working with Oliver. I think she is thrilled to be done with him as she didn't seem to really enjoy working with him or his mother. But she did a great job at the British School and was asked to come back next year. This time, she will work directly for the school instead of for the parents. This means we will be stuck with taking vacations over school holidays but it is a good opportunity for her and she seems to be pretty excited about it. She will work with 2 2nd-graders, a boy and a girl, every day until lunch. But for now, she is done with school. So what do all kids do on summer break? Exactly what Julie is doing on her...

Julie has spent the summer in camp. She goes swimming in the pool, went to the zoo the other day with her friend Rosy and her 1+-year old daughter Faith, and has been going to the gym. Tomorrow she'll be making lanyards and has a sleepover with the boys group =) Yesterday we went to...

It was a lot of fun but I have many many questions about the beach-going experience. Namely, many of the woman are topless. And it's not just the grandma's but teenagers as well. I don't know, are the Dutch so asexual that the teenage girls can go topless without worrying about their male friends. Let's just say this, if the girls in high school were spending days at Zuma Beach topless, I would've been the tannest guy in the world! And are the Dutch woman not self-conscience of their bodies? These are 16, 17, and 18 year old. It was a very weird experience.

A few interesting things from the Jewish arena. Our friend Janet is getting married to a Dutch guy named Dirk. We had mentioned before that the Jewish community here is very inactive and disconnected. As it turns out, Janet and Dirk were at his parents house one day when they began talking about his background. He found out, for the first time, that two of his grandparents were Jewish, including his maternal g-ma. Technically, that makes Dirk Jewish. Pretty strange that he never even knew. But religion is just not something discussed here. And I'm sure that following the war, many Jews just assimilated into secular life.

Also, our friend Tiffany is marrying a Dutch guy named Karel. Karel's dad is Jewish but his mom is not, however he was raised Jewish. His grandparents are Holocaust survivors. Tiffany is Jewish and they want a Jewish wedding. And you guessed it, the rabbis won't allow it because technically Karel is not Jewish. In a community that is dying, why won't they allow Karel and Tiffany to participate in a community they want to become a part of. Typical.

The last story comes from an English newspaper that Julie read. A man was looking for a rabbi to perform a circumcision on his newborn son. The lady on the other end of the phone told the man that the rabbi wouldn't perform the bris because his wife was not Jewish. When he told the lady that he wanted his son to have a bris, she told him that he should've thought about that before he married a non-Jew. Horrible! These people are just pushing interested people away. It's very unfortunate.



We woke up very early, at 4 AM, heading to the airport with our usual walk to Central Station. This time, however, the sun was already up. That's so crazy, it's light out at 4 in the morn! Summer is coming! Woooo-hoooo! As we walked to the train station, we passed a bunch of people who were just heading home for the night. Man, we are so old!

We got situated on the train when we saw something that epitomizes the Dutch...a woman was looking through her purse for her train ticket when the train conductor closed the door right in her face, leaving the girl right there on the platform. It was so rude but they are true sticklers for rules. The train employee would not let her onboard with her girl friend. The girl on the train didn't seem to be too upset, just took out her phone and called her friend she had just left behind. I suppose they figured out some sort of plan.

Anyways, we made it to the airport, checked in and headed inside to look for a quick bite to eat. En route, we saw our friends Tim and Yukari who were flying to Nice for their last trip before moving back to Chicago for Tim's new assignment with the bank. Small world.

After wishing Tim and Yukari a nice trip and easy reintegration back to life in Chicago, I grabbed a tomato and mozzarella panini and Julie had a ham and cheese sandwich (EUR 17). It was surprisingly good for airport food.

We next boarded the plane, I put on my Paolo Conte CD - an Italian singer Julie and I saw in concert at the Chicago Symphony a few years ago that her parents got us as a gift - to get myself in the mood for our upcoming trip, and the next thing I knew, Julie was waking me up to see the gorgeous green hills of Italy from above.

We disembarked and grabbed our luggage, all the time I practiced (and annoyed Julie with) all my Italian words with a phony accent - pa-niii-ni, motz-er-eeeella, spa-geeeet-ti, etc. We left the terminal and our first stop was to try to sort out sleeping arrangements for our last night in town. This might seem a bit backwards but since our flight would be at 6 AM on Monday morning, we wanted to stay at a hotel near the airport the night before. So we found a girl at the tourist office who was extremely helpful. Her English was very good and she even offered to leave her booth to call a nearby B&B from the public phone for us. She was able to find a reasonable place and even negotiated the price down for us. All the time, however, I got a strange feeling that there was a miscommunication and that she was making the arrangements for today. As she hung up the phone, the fear was confirmed. We asked her to call back and clear up the mix-up and at the same time, see if they would honor the reservation for the following week. They said they would accept the reservation but wouldn't reduce the price since they had no clue what their availability would be. I can certainly understand that but she suggested that we just book something at the hotel reservation counter in the airport the following week when we were back to drop off the car. This seemed like a good idea, but we did really appreciate her help.

So I thanked her one last time with a 'graaat-seee' and headed to the car rental counter to grab our wheels. After a full morning in airports, we were finally in our Joey-mobile, a little blue Daewoo, by 11:00.

I had been told that the Italians are crazy drivers. Some people even commented how brave they thought I was for driving in Rome. Luckily, we were not going into Rome as I remember how difficult it was just to walk across the street from my visit as a backpacker. I definitely did not want to drive into town but since the airport is about 20 minutes outside of town and we were heading by highway north, I knew we would be OK. But actually, I must admit I was a bit nervous when I saw some crazy Italian speeding up the tight corner of the parking garage as I was heading down.

We made it out of the garage without incident and found our way to the highway. Driving on the highway was full of all sorts of interesting drivers - we were passed while driving well above the speed limit by a funeral procession, hurse and all. I was shocked. We also had to hit the brakes pretty hard when we came upon a car barely creeping along. As we passed them, Julie and I laughed as we looking into the car and saw two old nuns driving. It was like the set-up of a joke! It also was a perfect intro to Italy, a true dichotomy or people, where the average citizen is consumed with everyday life (ie. drive fast) and at the same time, religion plays a major role in the background, often times representing the conflicting attitude (ie. drive slow). That's your bit of philosophy for this t-pod.

Anyways, as we moved our way north and out of suburban Rome, we started to get a glimpse of the beautiful rolling hills, from deep green to lighter shades, that we would be surrounded by during our trip. One thing I saw on the ride that I thought was funny was on the shoulder of the highway, in the emergency lane, as the lane comes to an end at the huge steel gray barriers that line the side of the highway, in big white letters reads S T O P. I wonder what must've happened that created the need for the highway safety commission of Italy to think that those pulling off the highway to the emergency lanes needed to be told to stop. Were those steel barriers and a huge drop-off into a ravine beyond not enough to cause Italian drivers to stop?

We continued moving along when we came to a toll. This is when Julie demonstrated, yet again, why she is not driving. As I pulled up, Julie wondered aloud where I should put the money. There was no attendant in the booth, no coin basket like on the Kennedy in Chicago, and only thin narrow slits. She figured I must need to squeeze the money in the small openings. It wasn't until I pushed a button summoning a ticket that she figured it out. She's real cute but sometimes...

Finally, after about 2 hours on the Italian highway (and 210 KMs), we pulled into the toll station where we paid an EUR 8 fee and exited the highway for the Tuscany country roads. After another 45 minutes (50 KMs) on a 2-lane road, weaving up and down and left and right like a roller coaster ride, we made our way through the countryside and to Siena, the town we would be spending our first 2 nights.

Siena is a town of 60,000 people, the largest town we would be sleeping in over the next week+. Siena was a wealthy trading city in the 13th century and as Florence, just 70 KMs north, was its biggest rival, many wars between the 2 towns occurred, with the Siena losing most of them. However, the rivalry remains as many people visit Siena from Florence as a daytrip. We decided that having visited Florence as students, plus knowing that Florence requires a good amount of time in itself to see, we would pass on Florence and instead concentrate on Siena and get to experience Siena at it's best, at night after the daytrippers had all returned back to Florence.

So we drove up the hill to the town gates, as we would do many times since virtually every town is atop a hill and within fortified walls that date back to the time when they were invaded by enemy armies and not tour buses. Having no clue where we were going, we drove into town. We soon realized that our best bet would be to ditch the car, and quick, and head into town on foot. So we found a medieval parking garage and left our Joey-ride.

Having left the bags in the car, we first went to the tourist office to find a hotel. Following our Spain trip last year, we decided we would try a trip without hotel reservations and instead, just go where we go. However, at the tourist office we got quite a scare when the lady helping us told us that there were no hotel rooms available in the entire town for less than EUR 150 a night. This would be a huge blow to our travel budget (which we would blow later anyways). After talking with her for a bit, she recommended the Villa Fiorita B&B (EUR 65 per night) just outside the city walls. We decided to take this as it was still within a 10-minute walk to the center of town and the price was fair. However, we did want to stay in town at some point so she also booked us into a private apartment for the following night (EUR 65 per night). One thing we noted about the tourist office in Siena that we found to be very smart was they had a list of every available bed in town so they were able to tell you exactly what the options were without having to call a million occupied places. Very smart. We paid a deposit for our B&B and grabbed our first Italian meal.

We tried one of Rick Steve's suggestions since it was already beginning to get late in the afternoon and we didn't want to walk all over town looking for something. We went to a restaurant that he said was good but has very slow service (Hosteria il Carroccio). It was a nice small restaurants with about 10 tables, all filled with locals and other Rick Steve's readers. Apparently, the restaurant staff is also a Rick Steves reader because the service was very quick, almost American-like. We started with a really good eggplant parmesan but our entrees were not very good - Julie had fusilli with artichoke, which did not look or taste like artichoke, and I had mushroom risotto, which was more like rice than risotto (EUR 23).

We next headed to the streets and started to just walk around town. We had no destination, we just walked around aimlessly. We did a bit of window-shopping before Julie spotted a ceramics shop which caught her eye. Tuscany has beautiful pottery and ceramics and we figured this would be a nice time to do a bit of souvenir shopping - we hadn't even seen anything yet! But Julie pointed out a really pretty purple oval serving platter with a fish design - EUR 100+. Moments later, we left the shop with a bag in hand.

We continued weaving in and out of the small Siena streets until we stumbled upon an unimpressive church called Chiesa di San Domenico. The sparten interior had one draw which interested us - the church has on display both the pinky finger and the head of some 15th-century chick from Siena, St. Catherine. It was awesome!

We continued walking around town and even poked into St. Catherine's home. After picking up a few things from a grocery store - bread and really good soft cheese - we headed back to the car and checked into the B&B.

Although we had trouble finding it at first, the B&B was really nice. The room was nothing special but the place had a cool, wide, regal-looking staircase. Having settled into our place, we found that the early morning and hours on the road had caught up to us so we took a 90-minute power nap.

Following our nap, we strolled around town for a bit before finding a really nice restaurant (Osteria il Tamburino) where we shared bruschetta (yummy!) and Julie had penne with sausage and mushrooms while I had mushroom ravioli (EUR 25). The meal was really good. We were also amazed when we noticed that a carafe of house wine (basically 4 glasses) only cost EUR 3. That's cheaper than water! I usually don't like wine and red wine often gives me heartburn but this stuff was really good. We basically had house wine with every meal from then on.

After dinner, we walked around town a bit more, enjoying the relative quiet of the empty streets and the beautiful glow coming from the lit buildings. We walked back to the main square of town, the Piazza del Campo, where we sat with some gelato and watched the young people of town who had also come to the piazza to relax and socialize.

After we finished our gelato, we walked back to the B&B, getting lost a bit, but enjoying the scenery, weather, and gorgeous stars overhead.

Day 2 began with us checking out of the B&B, loading up the car with our luggage, and heading out of town. We decided that since we had a place to stay already back in Siena, we would take a short 30 KM drive to San Gimignano, a town of 7,000 people and known for its 14 impressive towers. At one time, there were 72 towers, each representing the power and wealth of the town's medieval families.

So first we stopped into a gas station to power-up. Being Sunday, it was closed and there seemed to be quite some confusion as a group of Italians tried to figure out how the automated pump worked. Not having anything to add to the conversation, I got back in the car and headed onto the next gas station. So we passed a few other cool-looking towns, each of which had its own city walls and towers, until we made it to another gas station. This one was staffed by a young-ish woman who did not look like the type who would be working at a gas station. Needless to say, as all the stations in Italy are full-service, she grabbed the pump and gassed us up.

This might also be a good time to tell you all to quit crying about the rising price of gas in the US...gas costs roughly $2.30 per gallon in the US right now. By comparison, gas costs roughly EUR 1.15 per liter here. There are just over 3.785 liters per gallon and the EUR is roughly $1.20. Looking back at high school math, we find the following...

.....EUR 1.15...X...3.785 Liters...X...$1.20...=...$5.22 per gallon

So, since we in Europe pay roughly $5.22 a gallon, $2.30 a gallon in the US is not so bad.

Anyways, the drive to SanG was really nice. As we made our way towards town, we could see the magnificent towers in the distance - it was easy to see why Lonely Planet referred to SanG as a 'medieval Manhattan'. So we drove around for a while looking for parking as it was apparent that we were not the only ones who decided to visit this particular morning.

We walked through the city walls and encountered a really cute town. Immediately we discovered that the town was overrun with Germans though. They were everywhere. In Siena, everyone seemed to be American. We heard English spoken everywhere. But in SanG, the Germans were all around.

Despite this, SanG was really nice. First, we stopped into the Torre Grossa, the tallest of the town's towers. With the echo of German in the distance, Julie and I climbed the 54-meter tower built in 1311. Atop the tower, we enjoyed the tremendous views of the town below and gorgeous surrounding countryside.

Following our climb, we returned to the base of the building, formerly a wealthy man's home and now a museum. The building was originally built between 1289 and 1298 and is decorated with many interesting frescos including one of two men in a wooden bathtub...maybe this is the ancient version of the photograph of siblings in the bath as children that all of our parents took of us.

After this, we walked around outside for a bit before sitting down at the 13th-century well that is the namesake of the Piazza della Cisterna. We snacked on the bread and cheese that we had bought the prior day in Siena and enjoyed the view of the magnificent square.

Following lunch, we decided that we would head out of town on foot and follow a hike that was recommended in a 'hikes of Italy' guidebook we had bought. The only problem was, we somehow got completely turned around and despite the town only having one real street, we could not figure out where to go. We were trying to find the busstop to take 1 of only 3 daily buses out of town so that we could hike back into town, but since we couldn't find the busstop which was just beyond the city walls, we missed the bus. While this was extremely frustrating, we get a chance to see some cool homes. Once we finally got our bearings and realized that the next bus wouldn't come for a few hours, we decided we would just start walking away from town and see what we see.

This ended up being a wonderful idea since the hilltop town is surrounded by countryside. We found a small dirt road which lead away from town and towards farms and hills in the distance. We walked along the dirt road, passing bales of hay and perfectly laid out rows of grapes. It was a very pretty walk, both peaceful and challenging. With occasional glances behind at SanG, we continued on into the countryside.

As we began to run low on water, we stopped at a small building that had a sign that advertised that they had rooms for rent. Figuring that they might also have a small café, we walked around the house when a young woman came outside to see if she could help us. I asked her if we could buy a bottle of water. She said that they were not a store but emerged a few moments later with a liter of water. We thanked her and offered to pay her for the bottle. We offered about 3 or 4 times but each time, she refused. It was really a very nice gesture, but in the end, she wouldn't take the money.

So we continued walking. We were eventually approached by a car. The car pulled up and began speaking to us in German - see, I told you the place was overrun by the Germans. When we told the man that we only spoke English, he switched to English and told us that the hike that is on many of the maps, the one he assumed we were taking, was no longer open. Little did he know that we were unable of finding a simple busstop, we certainly couldn't find and follow a hike. Anyways, he told us that the hike was closed but recommended another nice walk with a beautiful view, just through the green door at the end of the road. He gave us some parting advice - stay off of the vineyards.

We followed his direction and finally made it to the end. We reached a really cool little house, probably similar to the one the Maestro rented, with what sounded like some very scary dogs which we did not want to meet. So as I took a few last pics of the view of SanG and enjoyed the moment, Julie ran away from the barking.

On our way back towards town, we joked that the man who stopped to tell us where we should hike instead of the closed hiking path, probably told us to 'trespass' on his neighbors land instead of his since it appeared that we were on a dirt road that lead to only 2 homes. Pretty funny. We also discovered that while it was really nice that the lady gave us a bottle of water. It was water with gas, not exactly the most thirst-quenching stuff.

Anyways, we made it back to town, 90 minutes later and completely sweat-soaked. We walked along the main street of town, peaking into some nice stores occasionally. We then grabbed a couple slices of pizza and enjoyed the sun.

It was now late afternoon. We decided to reclaim the car from the parking lot and head back to Siena. On the way home, we decided to pull off and see if we could find a vineyard offering tours.

About 10 minutes out of SanG, we pulled off the road at one of the many brown road signs that direct traffic to the vineyards. As we pulled off, we saw a lady sitting in a small hut that looked like a bar. We asked her if there was a tour available. She directed us to drive up the dirt hill, where we found a few old buildings and a handful of tables. There were about 10 people sitting at the tables. We were invited to join one of the tables. A man came over to us, offered us tasty bread with olive oil and salt drizzled on top, followed shortly by a glass of red wine for both of us.

They continued to serve us glass after glass, 7 or 8 different kinds of wines in total. They even brought out a dessert port wine with some cheese and another very sweet apple dessert wine with biscotti. It was a very nice atmosphere and the scenery was beautiful. This was completely free, but since we really enjoyed the wine and we're suckers, Julie went inside to buy a few bottles for our A'dam enjoyment (3 bottles for EUR 16).

We got back in the car - don't worry mom, I only tasted the wine, drank a lot of water, and ate a lot of bread so that the tasting wouldn't affect my driving - and headed back to Siena. On the way home, a crazy Italian driver weaved in and out of traffic as if he apparently needed to hurry home before he had an accident in his pants. It was pretty amazing, even more so when we realized that despite all his crazy moves, he was never that far in front of us due to the traffic lights. One time, though, he actually stopped his car so that he could lean across to the passenger seat and yell at some other driver which he felt cut him off. It was crazy.

Anyways, we made it back to Siena without any altercations with this psycho driver. We found the apartment where we would be spending the night very easily. I dropped Julie with the luggage and went to park the car. Since the apartment was in the center of town and I had dropped her off in front of the apartment, I was pretty deep into a generally confusing town full of narrow one-way streets and many pedestrian-only roads. After weaving in and out, finding myself in every direction, I miraculously made my way outside of the city walls.

Now that I was outside of the city walls, I next had to find a place to leave the car. The street parking that I was told to leave the car at was completely full. I found a spot that seemed to be an available spot, grabbed the remaining bags from the car, and walked about 10 minutes uphill to the apartment.

I buzzed the doorbell and a few moments later, an old man opened the door. He did not speak any English and looked at me like he had no clue who I was. I said to him "la senora" and put my hand out below my shoulders, indicating that I was with the short girl. He knew exactly what I was talking about.

He brought me through the garage - which was pretty impressive in its own right - up a flight of steps to a door. Julie opened the door and brought me inside. The man filled out some paperwork while I looked around this awesome apartment filled with tons of cool antiques, highlighted by a beautiful wood chest.

When the man finished filling out the paperwork, he tried to tell us some things but since we know more Italian than he knows English, we didn't get too far. I paid him (EUR 65) but since he didn't have change, he asked me to come up to his apartment. We walked up 4 or 5 floors in this awesome building which I think he owned completely. When I got into his apartment, I was even more impressed as I realized that as awesome as the chest was in our apartment, he had 4 more in his apartment that were even more amazing. As I left his apartment, I told him his apartment was 'bell-lisiiiimo.'

Julie and I decided that we would head out to walk around town for a bit before dinner. As we emerged from the apartment onto the street, we were swept away by a current of Italians. We decided we would swim midstream and follow the group as every single person on the street was going the same way. While we walked with the locals, I realized that practically everyone was Julie-sized. It was pretty interesting, I was like a monster there.

Anyways, the group continued walking along the street until we emerged in the center of the Piazza del Campo. The place was packed. It seemed like the entire 60,000 population that make up the town of Siena were in this plaza. It was quite the scene.

Earlier we had learned that we were in Siena for one of the 15 weekends when the neighborhoods - known as contradas - parade through town. Each neighborhood has a saint and the 'parade' goes throughout town, visiting each of the neighborhoods' churches. The 'parade' finishes in the Piazza del Campo.

But this was not the normal 'parade'. The Piazza del Campo was jam-packed to see the selection of the il Palio. The il Palio is the biggest event of the year in Siena, a barebacked, anything goes horse race each July and August that pits 10 of the 15 contradas against one another. The contrada that wins the race maintains town bragging rights for a year. The race is run around the Piazza del Campo with the townspeople filling the center of the square. Check out the pics at http://www.initaly.com/ads/palio/palio.htm

Anyways, this huge event is very important. And for some reason, only 10 of the 15 contradas are allowed to race. So this is actually the first contest of il Palio, being invited into il Palio...it's sort of like Selection Sunday. If you are from a contrada that gets invited (ie. University of Wisconsin), you are excited at the opportunity to compete. But if not included (ie. Indiana University), you are a loser.

So we were at the plaza, as was the whole town, awaiting the selection of which contradas would be included in the July and August races. As a contrada was selected, one by one, their flag would be hung from a pole on the main town hall above the square. A flag would be hung and a section of the square would erupt with cheering and celebrating as they were assured a 1 in 10 chance of winning the big race. Just then, another flag would be hung and another area of the square would celebrate.

This particular Sunday, the dragon contrada was 'parading' through town. So all over town, there were red and green flags with Evan-like dragons. In the Piazza del Campo, those that make up the dragon contrada wore traditional costumes that will be worn again during the il Palio. They looked very hot but all ages of men were wearing the costumes, and they seemed to be proud to be wearing them. Those who participated in the 'parade' were playing drums and brass instruments while others twirled the neighborhood dragon flags in rhythm. It seemed very feminine, but it is a real honor to be chosen as a flag-twirler. Those who were not in the 'parade', wore red and green handkerchiefs. It was a pretty cool event to see.

Following the selection of the il Palio racers, we walked around for a bit, doing some more window-shopping and taking in the atmosphere. Julie, having been inspired by our trip, stopped into a bookshop to buy "Under the Tuscan Sun" - what a loser, huh?

We also stopped into a small café (Café A. Nannini) that was packed with young people. Julie picked up a few sweets while I tried the shop's specialty, a champaign and grapefruit juice mix. It was good.

We were now ready for some dinner. We found a small restaurant near our apartment (Trattoria da Gano). This was a great meal. I had pici, a local pasta which I had never heard of before that is like a mix between gnocchi and spaghetti, covered with cheese and pepper. Julie had fusilli ragu, which is not the jar of spaghetti sauce but a red sauce with sausage and meat. She said hers was good and mine was awesome. We also had a few glasses of local wine and a spinach quiche. It was one of our best meals in Italy (EUR 23).

Something funny from dinner, there was a table of 4 or 5 Italian guys. One of them got a call on his cell so he left the table for a moment. While he was away from the table, his friends' uncontrollable urge to see how their friend's dinner was overcome them as they sampled his meal. They also took a look inside his wallet and 'borrowed' EUR 50 from him. We didn't stay at the restaurant long enough to see him discover his missing cash but we were there when he noticed his food had been tasted. It was pretty funny. It reminded me of hanging with my friends at home.

After dinner, we went back to check on the car to see if there was a better parking spot now that the big celebration in town was over. Luckily, the car was still there, which was the primary reason for checking on the car to begin with. There were better spots so we reparked the car. We finished our night with a quick gelato stop - this night nutella and vanilla/chocolate.

We woke up and headed for an unwelcoming cold shower. So far we had been in Italy for 3 full days and we had yet to get a warm shower. We checked out with the nice old man and dropped off our bags at the car. We were thrilled to see that the car was still there and had not been towed. We drove the car to another parking lot closer to the last attraction we wanted to see before leaving Siena, the Duomo.

Once we parked the car and got to the Duomo, it was quieter than we had expected. The guidebook said that it had opened an hour ago but the sign in front of the church and the man guarding the door said that it would not open for another 2 hours. Bummer! I really wanted to see it, especially since the guidebooks said that this was THE sight of Siena. But we didn't want to wait 2 hours so we left Siena without really seeing anything. Strangely, it didn't matter that we didn't see any of the sights as I really think the quaintness of Siena is what you get from walking the streets. We spent a lot of time walking around the small neighborhoods so I felt like we had seen the best Siena had to offer.

So satisfied and pleased with our 2 wonderful days in Siena, we left. On our way back to the car we stopped into some of the few stores that were open to gather some things for the car ride to our next destination. We picked up some water, juice boxes, and bread from one shop and cheese from another. The place we bought the cheese from was not really a cheese shop or a market but looked more like a sandwich shop/restaurant. As soon as I asked him if we could buy cheese, I could tell he didn't typically sell it. But he agreed to do so. He ended up ripping us off by a few EUR but since we got what we wanted and there weren't too many options, it was OK. I also realized that while nobody likes getting ripped off, it was our vacation and we would be spending a bit of money so those EUR 3 wasn't that big a deal. Besides, we were just supporting their local economy!

The Rick Steves guidebook recommended a beautiful road from Siena. We drove in circles looking for it before we finally decided to give it a rest and just drive. Besides, how would it be possible that his road be any prettier than the gorgeous scenery we were driving through. It was spectacular! Rolling green hills. Red wildflowers. Tiny villages in the distance. This was definitely the way to see Italy!

As our little car struggled to crawl its way up and down the hills, I was shocked to see how many people were making the same journey by bike.

We continued this way for a few hours until we finally made it to our stop-over destination, Montalcino, where we would spend a few hours before continuing on to the place we would sleep for the next few nights. Montalcino is a town known for its red wine and gorgeous surroundings, high atop a hill and overlooking vineyards and valleys below.

We parked the car and began walking around. We went first to the Enoteca La Fortezza, a picturesque winetasting spot inside of the 14th-century fort. We picked up 3 glasses of wine - '01 Mello Pane, '98 Rosso Lacaduta, and '99 Tallenti - for EUR 10. They were really good and it was nice to just sit and relax with some wine. I felt very grown up and sophisticated. We bought a glass as a souvenir, even though I should've just pocketed one. We also bought 2 bottles of cheap wine. We almost felt foolish at the store because the place has all these amazing wines that people come from all over the world to buy and when asked what we wanted we simply said "I don't know, how about 2 of those EUR 4 bottles (the cheap stuff)". We don't care, I'm sure it's really good stuff and far better wine than we've ever had before. We were buying them as a 'souvenir' of sorts and besides, we can't the difference between that and the good stuff anyways.

While we were at the wine shop, I watched as the store clerk helped an American tourist with a bottle. He picked out an expensive wine. She corked the bottle, poured it into one of those glass decanters with the very narrow and long necks but flat and fat bottoms. He used a special metal funnel to make sure the wine flowed down the side of the decanter rather than poured down and hit the collecting bowl. He then swirled the wine around for a bit, smelled the wine, determined that it was a good bottle, and funneled it back into the wine bottle and recorked it. It was quite a production. I had no clue that the decanted was just a holding place where the wine would be swished and then put back into the bottle. I always thought the decanters were supposed to be used to hold the wine but I guess not. Wine is way too complicated for me. I'll stick to beer!

After this education, we continued walking around Montalcino. It was a very pretty town. We found a really cute restaurant (Taverna Il Grappolo Blu) where we found a seat next to the window. It was empty and smelled delicious. Moments after ordering, the place was invaded by a large group of American tourists. There was about 30 of them and they were obviously a part of a bus tour. They weren't terribly loud but 30 people changed the atmosphere of our quaint little restaurant. Oh well, luckily the food was delicious. I ordered gnocchi pomodori and Julie had pici (that local noodle/gnocchi stuff) with ragu and mushroom sauce. I also had warm fava beans in oil with a little salt and pepper - yummy, I've never had fava beans before but I certainly enjoyed them...and mimicking Hannibal Lecter while saying fava beans was fun (EUR 27). We also noticed that this restaurant, like almost all of the places we ate at, had special ceramic plates that were made especially for them. We thought about stealing these too but that would've been tough! I'm a long way from my days of sticking pool sticks in my pants so that I could steal them from college bars...ah, the good ol' days.

After a bit more walking around town, we got back in the car and continued toward Umbria. We continued to drive along small country roads, up and down hills, in and out of small villages, passing bikers and wildflowers. After about 90 minutes of this country driving, it started to get old. Where the fuck was the highway? We finally made it to the highway and we were home free. We thought. We weren't exactly sure where we were but we knew we didn't want to go back to Siena where we started our day so we went the other direction. The problem was it wasn't until we were only 50 KMs or so from Florence that we realized that we were going the wrong way. Basically, while driving through the country roads, we had somehow worked our way north of Siena so when we found the highway, we thought we were still south of Siena (where Montalcino is) so we continued south and away from Siena. But in reality, we were north of Siena and continued north. Oooops. So we got off the highway before going all the way to Florence and reversed direction. After about 20 minutes, we passed Siena. There we were, starting all over again. Curses! At least we weren't too far north.

After an hour or so, we made it out of Tuscany and into Umbria. Umbria is known as the 'green heart' of Italy. It is basically Tuscany but less expensive and less touristy. We decided after spending a few nights in the 'city' of Siena, we would spend some time in the country. So we found an agriturismo, Italy's version of a B&B. Agriturismos are family-owned apartments on working farms. We would be staying at one outside of Perugia.

So after a long day of driving in circles, we made it to our exit. We were almost there when we came upon a police check. It was like something from a movie. We passed the test and finished up at Le Torri di Bagnara agriturismo (http://www.letorridibagnara.it/).

We pulled into the farm's property and stopped at the office just off the side road. We were in the middle of nowhere and I began to realize that the town we were staying in consisted of the agriturismo and that was it. There was a sign on the door of the office instructing its guests to call a number if they needed someone from the agriturismo. Since we didn't have a cell phone, we headed up the very steep dirt road through the thick overgrown trees past the pool and a couple old stone buildings to a covered car park. There was another old stone building which looked like where we would be sleeping for the next few days. Looking into the distance, there was beautiful farm and hills surrounding us.

We looked around a bit, hoping to find someone who could check us in. There was nobody to be found. We walked down to the pool to take a look and while the water was inviting, we continued to the building nearby where there was a handful of men doing work on one of the buildings. I asked them for help but it was clear they didn't speak English. One of them got his mobile phone and called somebody.

A few moments later a woman appeared and opened our room for us. Julie went into the room and unpacked while I got in the car with the woman and went back downhill to the office to check in.

While making small-talk, the woman told me that June 2 would be Liberation Day, a national holiday commemorating the day the US liberated Italy. The lady told me that the US was loved by Italians, despite the current situation in Iraq, and will always be remembered as the country that rebuilt it following WWII. It was also interesting that she made comments about Italy being occupied when I was pretty sure I remember from my history classes that Mussolini was Hitler's pal. Anyways, I was interested to see how we would be treated on Liberation Day.

The woman also told me a bit about the history of the agriturismo. Her grandfather had bought all of the property in the area in 1901. Included in the purchase was the tower from the 13th-century, an 11th-century church, and a small building which is now the office. The farm and the 'hotel' was being run by her parents and now that they are older, they asked her to leave her life as a consultant in Milan to run the property. Her bros ran a few other properties that the family owned in Italy. It sounded pretty cool.

I got a ride back uphill to the 1-bedroom apartment that we would be staying in (EUR 85 night) and changed into my bathing suit. Julie decided to stay back in the room and rest...but that didn't last long - she was sitting at the pool with my soon.

We sat at the pool, listening to the song of birds chirping and leaves blowing in the slight wind, looking out into the distance at the various shades of green that made up the gorgeous rolling hills, offset by the clear blue of the pool that ran into the sky above. It was heaven!

We sat at the pool for a bit and then decided to get freshened up before dinner. But yet again, there was no hot water in the shower. This was not good! We drove downhill for dinner and luckily the lady who runs the agriturismo was still in the office. We told her the news about the shower and apparently, the last people to stay in the apartment turned the water heater off. So I drove back uphill with the handyman and we fixed it. Thank god, finally a hot shower.

We drove around a bit to look for a nice local place to eat. We couldn't find anything so we went to the only place that seemed to be in the area, a truckstop named Gitana. It was a typical Italian restaurant with a handful of Spanish dishes as well. It was a very strange place. The parking lot was literally packed with semis and the restaurant was full of tables with 1 man sitting at each facing the TV. It was not exactly the most amazing restaurant I've eaten at. We settled for mozerella marinara, ravioli with tomato and cream sauce, and pizza with mozerella and basil (EUR 16).

Following this forgettable dinner, we headed back to the agriturismo where we looked around a bit at the gorgeous night sky before getting to bed by 9:00. We had driven 280 KMs this day so we deserved a good night sleep.
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