12 July 2009

Italian Encore, Parte Una

My first trip to Europe was in 1991 when Tom and I visited Italy. He was skeptical of coming to Italy, having already visited Amsterdam, London, and more. But I wanted to come to Italy. He conceded. And he's never regretted it. We threw 3 coins in the proverbial Trevi Fountain, and eighteen years later, we're on our way back!

This trip is different, though. First, we are older now and have different travel priorities and objectives. Second, we have many new friends now and have shared travel stories and experiences with them over the years. And third, and probably most changed, we no longer want to cram as much into a trip as we used to; our preference now is to travel at a pleasurable pace, enjoy the journey, and learn more about the locality and the locals.

And so begins our return to Europe: The Italian Encore...

God love a GPS

A few months before our departure, I found someone on eBay who was selling a memory card with maps of western Europe for my now aging Garmin GPS. We and several friends rented a villa near Siena. The directions provided by the owners in advance of our trip seemed logical enough: left on via della blah blah, right on via di yada yada... So much for logical directions; the GPS paid for itself pronto.

We arrived at the villa after a couple of missed turns (even today's technology has trouble with these medieval routes), settled into our room, and thanks to the Richeys, had a lovely dinner of insalata , fennel w/ olive oil, prepared meats, crackers w/ pate, olives, and pasta. It was a great start to a great stay.

Siena Savvy

Siena is the closest city of size to the villa. Like most Italian medieval towns, it was built on a hill and was surrounded by walls with just a few gates that allowed access. That helped the locals ward off the evil intruders. (Remember, Italy was not unified as a single nation until the mid-1800's. Prior to that, all these "city states" operated somewhat independently. I'm an American tourist, not an Italian scolar, so I'm WAY simplifying this.)

And like many of these old cities, the city center is closed to most traffic. (In fact, Siena was the first city in modern Europe to do so.) So you park outside the ancient walls and walk a long way to the heart of it all.

It was Sunday afternoon, so most of the shops were closed. Nonetheless, we walked the streets, working our way from the remote parking to il Campo, the heart of the city center. It was around 2:00 PM, so we settled in to a restaurant for lunch. Our waitress was not having a good day; she called it "Black Sunday". The wine and beer had not been delivered; the produce and meat had not been restocked; and the women's toilet was clogged. Two hours later, stomachs full on whatever foodstuffs the kitchen had available, we continued our tour of the town.

For Sunday evening, Julie had arranged for a catered dinner at the villa. We returned from Siena and the caterers were hard at work. They prepared a wonderful four-course dinner of risotto, veal in cream, pasta, roasted chicken, salad, and chocolate-and-strawberry parfaits. Two courses into it, you say "I cannot possibly eat any more", and you repeat that phrase after each of the remaining courses. We all slept well this night.

Clutch Day

I mentioned that many of these Italian towns are built on hills. Today was going to be "hill day" -- tours of San Gimignano and Volterra, two very dramatic hill towns. San Gimignano is known as the city of towers because the rich folks that used to live there built tall towers adjacent to their houses to hide their riches from the invaders. (Remember, these towns fought with each other until unification.) After Florence overtook San Gimignano and the gates and walls were no longer necessary, the residents used their towers to hide their riches from each other. (Had this been in the U.S., these folks would have had this stuff proudly displayed for all to see and envy.)

As mentioned earlier, most Italian towns have wisely closed their historic centers to traffic, making for fantastic Fiat-free footing. Because of that, parking was impossible; the town was crammed with cars like sardines. (I can say that because I'm closer to Sandinia than you right now!) We decided to abandon San Gimignano and return either later this day or another day.

Thus began "clutch day". Since there were eight of us, we were in two cars -- Julie driving the Lancia they rented and Sonny driving the Fiat they rented. (We'll get to the Hyundai we rented later...) Both had manual transimssions. In our efforts to get out of the traffic-tangled town, we wound up somehow in the restricted traffic area of the historic city center. Oops. Let the clutching begin. The GPS was not much help here, because she (Claire named my GPS "Eliza".) was not well versed in which streets were now pedestrian-only and which were open to vehicular traffic. We ran into several dead-ends, up one steep hill, down another. The clutches were burning. (Literally, we could smell them.) Finally, we encountered a local policeman who pointed us in the direction out of town.

On to Volterra, about 15 curvy kilometers away...

As we headed down San Gimignano hill, we breathed a collective sigh of relief. Julie's and Sonny's clutch legs were getting a well-deserved rest, and the others of us were enjoying Tuscany's expanse of color and texture. In the distance around several bends in the road appeared Volterra, high atop another hill a few kilometers away. Most of us reacted favorably to the natural and medieval awe; Julie's reaction was, "Oh, [expletive]! Don't tell me that's Volterra on *that* hill!" It was clutch time again. Clutch reingaged, we ascended to Volterra and quickly found public parking at the base of the city walls.

We entered the town through one of the gates and found a pleasant, breezy, uncluttered village of cobblestone streets and brick storefronts. The place was not uncrowded, but it also was not pedestrian packed as we figured San Gimignano must have been.

As it was now approaching mid-afternoon and our appetites had been aroused by the adventure up and down San Gimignano hill and up Volterra hill. We stopped at a sidwealk restaurante for lunch, as it was now approaching mid-afternoon. Touristy, yes; but tasty, too. We continued our walkabout the town. The vistas from Volterra are beyond words, so I'll just throw in a few pictures...

We returned to the villa and prepared the ideal meal -- a variety of cold and warmed-up items from meals gone by. (We had a bounty of fabulous food left after Sunday's catered feast.)

Tomorow, we are off to see Siena in earnest (hoping that Black Sunday is over).

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