We have fallen in love with this sun-dusted part of Italy. I don’t remember ever watching such a series of glorious sunsets every night for two weeks; the palette is a little different each night. The temperature has been perfectly warming every day, and increasingly refreshing overnight. Only a tiny breeze to break the stillness, and the sound of tractors pulling ploughs all day as the autumn farm routines roll on as they have for hundreds of years. The vines are slowly turning russet while the olives keep their colour, and their fruit is ripening.
Seasonality is very calming. Hard working people in tune with God’s earth. It’s a while since I was content to sit and gaze at the scenery without thoughts of what I need to do! It has been so good for my busy mind and soul.
Tuscany is famous for its wine and people come from all over the world to try it. All the little towns have more enoteca (wine tasting shops) and wine bars than anything else, with the hero wines being Brunello and Rosso. We are not huge wine drinkers; I drink almost none and Peter was driving! But as Marco, our host’s husband, did wine tasting tours as well as looking after an olive farm, we thought we would give it a go. Adventures are the order of the day.
A beautiful morning drive in the mist took us to Citille di Sopra di Innocenti Fabio, where we were joined by a young couple from London who obviously took wine seriously. It was a fascinating experience! Late grapes had just been harvested and we saw them being poured into the skip and stripped of stems and leaves, ready for the juicing process. The cellars were huge and impressive, and we now understand why Rosso is cheaper than Brunello, as the latter takes five years of ageing between giant oak barrels and steel vats. Mara and Marco’s grapes go to make Brunello, and so cannot be mixed with other kinds.
To my surprise, I quite enjoyed both wines, but preferred the younger, fruitier Rosso to the more robust, oakier Brunello. Am I sounding like a wine buff? A lovely experience set amongst classic Tuscan scenery. It’s good to do new things at our age!
Searching for food is a daily challenge, of course. Our accommodation includes Italian breakfast, but that means dry toast squares, packed croissants and biscuits so we carry cereal and milk and have lots of cheese. Peter has figured out how to make good coffee with whatever is available!
The local specialties are various forms of pinci, which is hand rolled pasta, with tomato, vegetables, ragu or fungi. That is the second course in a full Italian meal and followed by a meat course, but is mostly enough for us on its own. Along with tough bread, a salad, grated cheese, mineral water and wine, of course.
Wild boar stew is aften on the local menu and comes with beans and polenta. We see many Italians having a cheese and meat board for lunch, along with the apero sparkling drink. Vegemite and cheese sandwiches are usually our back up!
A second visit to our nearest hill town, Montalcino, was in order, as we didn’t really know what we were doing on the first trip there. Now dedicated sunset hunters, we headed up the winding road to the top of the hill in the evening, and were surprised that it was still verycrowded. We were going to give the thirteenth century fortezza (fort) a miss, but as we ended up parking next to it, decided to take a look.
It was massive and tall, and to Peter’s joy, steps led up to the top of the tower and demanded to be climbed, which he did. I tried to imagine the locals racing to get inside the fort walls when attacks came, which was often. The mellow sun was catching all the stones and the low clouds on the horizon promised a spectacular sunset. After a wander, we took up our position in the perfect viewing spot and watched the golden-orange orb slide behind the layered, hazy hills, knowing that the best show comes after that. A blaze of colours in the clouds extended the joy as the outline of the town and pencil pines gradually disappeared in the twilight. Just magic.
Then it was time to find a table in a lane for some more pinci, and an interesting chat with a Canadian couple – he was an ice hockey coach who got fired and has a year left on full pay. Nice gig!
Google underestimated the width of our car and tried to take us home in the dark, down a lane so narrow that we simply couldn’t have fitted! So, after a tricky reverse back up the lane, with parked cars and sheer drops of steps on one side, we somehow got out of the hill town maze and headed home.
We wanted to explore a different direction, so the next outing was to the west, almost to the coast. That area has Etruscan remains, and as I now have learnt more about ancient history (from my personal guide who studied it), I know that it goes Etruscan, Greek, Romans, Byzantine, Renaissance and many, many in between!
The Roselle archeological site was a huge surprise. Well set out with facilities and explanations, not crowded and very accessible, the remains of the Roman settlement built over an Etruscan area were fascinating. The area was open for us to walk on and through, which gave a sense of immediate connection with those who walked, lived, played and bathed in the structures over 2600 years ago. Under a vivid blue sky, it was not hard to imagine habitation so long ago, and marvel at the house that had four bathing rooms with water at different temperatures!
Peter followed the circuit of the three kilometre long wall remains, while I concentrated on getting safely down the track I had climbed up to the top. I need heart strength to go up and knee strength to go down, and have been tremendously grateful for both on this trip.
As we were so close to the city of Grosetto, we found our way with difficulty to a museum that looked interesting, only to find it closed (wrong this time, Google). Good excuse for a gelato – we are easily tempted.
We then discovered that none of our four devices wanted to give us voice and map directions to get home – our offline maps had gone on strike. With scant info we somehow made it out of Grosseto and the one way roads and followed the signs to the Siena road until our maps repented and took us home.
The ancient city of Siena was only forty minutes away; we were keen to see it again although we visited it twenty-five years ago, so that was our next outing. You have to park and pay outside the walls and, looking up at the sheer drops from the town above, my heart sank. Then we saw the sign and I remembered reading – there are escalators to take us up! Six long flights of automated steps later, we were there. Someone had foresight and the money to install those travellators. Even so, it was a haul uphill to the duomo and baptistery. We can’t remember why we did not go inside it in 1998, but this was our chance to see what we had missed.
Just stunning! Massive striped columns of black and white marble, every wall and ceiling a work of art. Started in 1196, its style is a mix of Italian Gothic, Romanesque and classical. Work on a massive expansion, which would have more than doubled its size, was abandoned after the Black Death of 1348, which reduced Siena’s population from 100,000 to 30,000. But the floor was the winner for me – the entire floor has incredibly beautiful inlaid marble pictures and mosaics.
The elaborate carved pulpit was built by the elder Pisano, and I remarked to Peter that, in contrast, he was sometimes lucky to get an old music stand as a lectern for his sermons!
The Panorama museum was next door (housed in the incomplete part of the duomo) and after we bought our combined tickets it became apparent that it was on four floors with double sets of marble steps between each and no lift! But it was worth the effort (I made it to three levels) and Peter went to the top. The highlight was the room with Giovanni Pisano sculptures – wonderful figures, well ahead of their time.
We stayed closer to home for the final days on the Tuscan farm. Relaxing, reading, walking and catching every sunset. On our last day, we had an important job to do: we had to post our vote in the Voice referendum in Australia.
Miraculously, our postal votes had reached us on the dirt road on a Tuscan farm on a hill. We filled them out and made declarations that we could not find Australians on the electoral roll as witnesses, and headed into tiny Torrenieri to post them. I knew from paying our parking fine that the man at the Poste Italia did not have a word of English, so I had a couple of sentences ready and he nodded sagely as if he understood, muttering, ‘Australia, Australia’ as he flipped pages, weighed them, looked up his computer and said something that may have been asking if wanted to register them.
Si, we did, so $25 later, they were stamped and we have little tickets to show for it. We hope they arrive safely, and yes, we said YES. (Edit: sadly, it was a no outcome, well before our expensive votes got there 😟 Further edit: our votes and postcards to the grandkids arrived in Austrlaia after we got home!)
Packing up our apartment was sad; we fall in love with every place and don’t want to leave. The more we looked at the map and predicted driving times, the more nervous we became about getting the car back to Florence by the agreed time. So we left lots of leeway, we thought, and were ready to drive out early, but Mara, our host, did not arrive to sign us out! So we left later than we planned and the delay probably cost us, as it turned out. It was a two kiss and hug farewell – we were one of her longer staying guests, and she was wonderfully hospitable.
Our last drive to Florence was going well, when suddenly we screeched to a halt on the autostrada and could see the traffic was backed up a long way. And then the sirens – fire engines, police and ambulance all trying to squeeze between two lines of traffic with no room to move over. After a long wait, cars began doubling back and we realised that we also had to detour.
To our relief, Google was having a good day and rerouted and took us on a delightful scenic route through Chianti country which eventually rejoined the freeway. Driving like an Italian on our last trip, Peter managed to fill up and get us back to the drop-off office in the grace period. Quite a finale to our Italian stay!
Twenty-five years ago we ventured to Europe on our first big trip – kids had finished school, long service leave accumulated, pre mobile phones and internet, pre tourist traps and cruise ships. It was heady and wonderful, and we spent a whole week in Florence. Clutching our Lonely Planet guides, we did and saw everything and called it our twenty-fifth wedding anniversary trip.
As arrived in Florence again, we felt very nostalgic. How is it possible that we have now been married for fifty years? I am deeply grateful to God and take nothing for granted. We had just one day and night to celebrate our return to this incredible city.
I think of Florence as an elegant lady, dressed up stylishly for her wedding, with the Duomo and baptistery as the wedding cake. Our accommodation was wonderfully situated in Via Roma 1, a few steps from the central cathedral piazza (which as we discovered that night, is pretty noisy most of the night). Having liberated ourselves of both car and luggage, we decided just to wander and enjoy.
The duomo (1396), built to take 30,000 people and with its Brunelleschi dome and tower, is spectacular. While I can’t say that these incredible buildings inspire much of a sense of worship for me, they are unimaginably intricate and impressive. We walked right around the outside and saw the variations of patterns and shapes, held together visually by the white, black, green and pink marble. I don’ know how someone envisages such a building and makes it happen.
In 1998, the were fewer crowds; now, even after the high season, there are throngs of thousands everywhere, most of them holding up mobile phones. Sadly, Florence is now one of the worst cities for pickpocketing.
We just walked and looked, not feeling as though we needed to see the big attractions again, (the queues were daunting anyway) and glad we have the earlier experience in our memory banks. There are certainly more high-end shops for fashion and leather. Sadly, there were many homeless people sleeping on the streets outside these expensive shops.
Having survived the day on stale sandwiches and Italian biscuits (again), we decided to go to the nearest place open for dinner – Hard Rock Cafe! To the accompaniment of very bad music, which jarred after the peace of Tuscany the night before, we consumed some insanely good chicken wings and steak salad, followed by New York cheesecake. We had refuelled for the next stage.
We had to creep around in the morning getting our self-serve breakfast – I never want to see a packaged Italian biscuit or cake again – and walked to the station, very reflective as we knew we were leaving Bella Italia after in unforgettable six weeks.
And what an amazing stay! I felt in the last week that I was just breaking through to be able to speak and understand some Italian, but I’m not sure how motivated I will be to keep up my 283 days’ streak on DuoLingo! I know it has been good for my brain.
We had the usual sweaty departure as we waited for the platform number at the busy station to come up and then rush to get on in both Florence and Milano, but relaxed with seven hours of train travel back to Germany. The train climbed higher and higher, curling beside lakes and pushing through the valleys with sensational views of the Swiss alps as we went north. Italian villas gave way to Swiss toy town wooden houses with fat cows in the autumn pastures and red geraniums (yes, all the same) hanging from balconies.
Time to change grazie to dankeshonn and buongiorno to guter tag, and piazza to platz. We both still accidentally throw in random Indonesian words and my brain goes on a search through half a dozen languages. It doesn’t matter – no one knows what we are trying to say anyway.
Freiburg and the Black Forest (and probably more cake) await us – the last leg.