Trip Start May 22, 2007
Trip End Jun 04, 2007

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Sunday, June 3, 2007

Blog Entry June 2 in Montalcino
We have arrived in Montalcino.  What an extraordinary couple of days we have had.  As I mentioned in the last post, we made only a quick visit to Florence.  I had been there briefly before and remembered it as packed with tourists.  I wanted to see one of the museums and chose the Uffizi.  The museum is nice, but when you visit, you way seriously beyond hope of recovery OVERDOSE on renaissance art before you finish that collection.  After I got past the Botticellis, everything began to look the same.  As I remembered, Florence itself is packed with tourists.  It is a total madhouse, hard to navigate and every step is a 'scuzi' or 'con permesso' as I bumped into people.  The mile or so that we had to walk each way from the station to the museum was difficult to the point of making it no fun.  If Florence is important to you, arrange your calendar to go in the off season.  The summer is a disaster waiting to happen.  When I visited in July 1996, I took the night train in from Geneva, arriving about 6 am.  There were hundreds of people sleeping on the sidewalks around the train station.  The tourist office had a sign, in English, that there were no rooms available.  I found a locker, stashed my gear and took off into town with my camera.  I found my way to the Palazzo Vecchio and the Uffizi where I found a line with several hundred people in it.  I snapped a few photos, had a cup of tea at a café and wandered back to the station and hopped a train to Munich.  June 2007 was not as bad as that, but I had no desire to stay again.
Now for Pisa:  What can one say about Pisa?  "Skip it."  Pisa has a serious problem.  They have not put in place any system to regulate commerce around the Piazza dei Duomo.  The Duomo and the Leaning Tower are cool.  But, they are not worth battling the African hucksters for.  If you have ever been to New York and experienced the guys selling fake Rolexes to the people in line for the ferry to Liberty Island, you get an idea.  These guys are 100 times worse.  They are organized.  They are aggressive.  They are obnoxious.  They are out in force.  I began to count and I found one for every 20 feet of sidewalk in the ENTIRE area in and around the Piazza for several blocks.  They are constantly in your face with fake Rolexes and fake Mont Blanc pens.  If you are reading this and you are going to Pisa, PLEASE DO NOT BUY FROM THEM.  If no one buys from them, they will move on.  Between the Africans with their watches, the sunglass sellers and the Gypsies with their accordions, we were approached and harassed every 60 to 90 seconds including the entire hour that we spent eating lunch.  The waiters have given up shooing them out of the restaurants and they will harass you while you eat.  In addition to that, there is a massive line of "regulated" vendors along one whole side of  the Piazza.  The whole thing is so obnoxious and disgusting that there is no reason to visit the Leaning Tower until Pisa decides to reclaim its public space.  I can not imagine that one could successfully carry out a religious pilgrimage to that site.
We picked up a rental car at the Pisa airport and drove into Tuscany.  We had fun using Dad's TomTom GPS to navigate.  We had to override it several times when the map or road signs disagreed, but we made it to Montalcino.  Montalcino is a classic medieval Tuscan hill town.  It became famous just in the last generation as its local wine began to gain notoriety.  There are dozens of producers of the signature "Brunello di Montalcino" here and one of them snagged the Wine Spectator magazine's "Wine of the Year" this past year for the 2001 vintage.  More on the Brunello in a moment.  First, Montalcino.  The drive down from Pisa is not too bad.  I was nervous about driving in Italy, but I have driven in the Yucatan, so I figured that I might be able to handle it.  The roads are great.  The drivers are pushy and aggressive.  The signage is irregular but effective.  All in all, when we left the city, we felt better.  I calmed down almost immediately when I got behind the wheel.  For the first time in 10 days, I felt like I was in control.  My advice, do not try to drive in Rome, Florence, or especially Naples.  However, the countryside is a very different story.  The funny incident occurred at the rental lot.  They had the cars parked within about a foot of each other.  We could not get in.  I finally managed to squeeze through the rear passenger door and crawl over-in a Nissan subcompact.  My Dad got a picture and a huge laugh out of that.
Montalcino is right on top of the tallest hill around about 40km south of Siena.  We must be +500 feet above the valley.  It is the middle ages all the way through.  Narrow paved streets.  Steep hills.  A medieval castle.  The heyday for Montalcino came in the 13th and 14th centuries.  Most of the buildings appear to date from that era.  It is also a town that is very proud of itself.  It is clean, with no graffiti.  All of the buildings are well cared for and renovated.  The people are relaxed and friendly.  Parking is nearly impossible, but we found people who could help us.  When we found a space, we were totally lost.  I parked across from a laundry and an ancient church.  I stepped into the laundry and found that they spoke English, knew the town backwards and forwards, had a map to give me and could explain the parking so that I knew when to pay and when not to.  A quick, very steep walk up the hill and we found our room.  We are staying in an 'affitacamera' or rented room.  It is owned by a family that has a wine shop and pastry shop across from each other.  We are above the pastry shop and almost every breath includes a hint of chocolate.
Now for the Brunello.  Sell everything.  Tell the kids I'm sorry.  I'll be here.  I went for a stroll tonight to find more gifts/bribes for the family since I have been gone so long.  After shopping --- BTW Montalcino has some great stores, including some great fabrics that I did not see in Florence--  I stopped into a cantina.  I ordered a glass of the less expensive Rosso and settled in.  The proprietress asked how I liked it and I tried to ask her the difference between Rosso and Brunello.  She spoke no English but suggested Spanish and we were off.  Thank you Mr. Hosty!  All that Spanish from 9th-12th grade finally came in handy.  We chatted for about 20 minutes and she poured me a taste of the Brunello.  There is nothing like it.  I had read that it was a big wine with strong flavor and long finish.  I expected it to hit me hard and overload the palate.  I found it to be delicate, clear, dry and fruity at the same time.  They are doing something magical here.  It was wonderful with food, but could also stand on its own.  That is amazing for a 'big' red.  If you have ever priced it at home, you would weep openly when you saw the prices here.
Dad and I went to dinner and found a restaurant called Il Giglio which also has a hotel.  They have a cool website which I will update this post with later.  We had a wonderful meal that included Florentine steak on a bed of fresh greens and roast potatoes.  I also had a pate of beans and chile peppers, which was surprisingly sweet.  I had the Brunello with my meal and found pure bliss.  Now, hang on to your hat!  Things only got better.  At the end of the meal, we had the very best coffee that I have ever tasted.  That's it.  Bar none.  It was 'make the world stop' good.
I'll be up early to photograph Montalcino before it gets busy.  Breakfast should come from that wonderful aroma downstairs.
Tomorrow, it is on to Rome again to begin our exit.  I sure hope we see Buck in Ostia Antica as planned.  I'll try and wrap up my thoughts on the whole trip with a future posting.
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Patti Powell on

Just finished Isabella Dusi's 2nd book about Montacino Bel Vino, loved reading about your trip as well.

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