25 July 2009

La Dulce Vita

At Home in Colle Ciupi

While the villa is officially in Monteriggioni, it is just a kilometer from a family hamlet called Colle Ciupi. "Colle" is Italian for hill, and Ciupi is apparently a family name, as we saw several mailboxes labeled "Ciupi". We made the quick commute from the villa and found a tiny collection of homes built around an even tinier church. This place obviously doesn't get much tourist traffic; we were greeted by a pair of locals with machetes attached to their belts. They were surprisingly not unfriendly in their buongiornos, and were not aggressive or offensive at all. The machetes never left the belts.

We walked around the village, admired their church and gardens, snapped some photos, and then headed to the Coop in town (Monteriggioni) for dinner provisions. We're firin' up the grill again tonight!

A bit about the Coop... Coop is a chain of markets (note the lack of "super" prefix) scattered throughout Tuscany (and maybe elsewhere; we've only been in Tuscany). They are small, but are packed with a plethora of produce, meats, cheeses, exotic [for us Americans] soft drinks, liquor, wine, and fantastic Tuscan treats -- fresh olives and marinated artichokes. There are only four aisles, but every square centimeter of space is used for maximum marketing. One of the final items from which to choose is a grocery bag. If you didn't bring your own sacks, you can select however many you need before you get to the cash register -- .10 Euro. No pity for the unfortunate tourist who doesn't pack canvas bags. (Julie did!) I *love* this kind of market -- easy in, easy out, easy going, easy on the planet.

Dinner included pork sausage (casings still connecting the links), seasoned turkey breast filets, grilled zucchini slices (these zuccs were spherical, about the size of oranges), green beans, and a few other sides.

La Dulce Vita

Today is our last full day at the villa. We decided to do a scenic drive through Chianti and visit Chianti Sculpture Park near Pievasciata. (Google it.) I programmed Eliza for the town, and we were off. At one point however, when she, in her programmed English accent, told us to turn left, we jumped the gun by about 20 meters and ended up at a former monastery which is now part of the University of Siena. What a fortunate fumble! The formerly sacred site was surrounded by vineyards and olive groves, and the place was the definition of bucolic. (I have never written that word, so you know it must be a special place.) Inside the former monastic walls, the grounds were impeccably planted and pruned, with infinite floral and vegetable gardens. There was some sort of US [not "of America"] faculty conference convened, and they were apparently taking a smoke break. I trust that those cigarettes were sacred. (Isn't it interesting that to get from sacred to scared, you just swap 2 letters?) We consulted with Eliza, made the quick trip to the sculpture park, and began the art tour.

If you are ever in Chianti, don't miss this place. It is far enough off the beaten path so that tour buses don't bother. It is secluded, serene, and sensational. As you arrive at the private park, you are greeted by the first sculpture -- a queue of plaster people waiting to buy tickets at a box office. Our collective initial reaction was "Whoa! Where did they come from?", which was followed by laughter and a sigh of relief when we realized what the artist had done to us. We completed the loop of sculptures, many of which were interactive, and left the park with two carloads with smiles.

We had passed through the tiny town of Pievasciata on our way to the park and noticed the "My Way" wine bar and art gallery, so we returned there for a delightful light lunch of cheeses, melon, cured pig meats, beef carpaccio, olives, bread, and wine. *This* is la dulce vita.

After returning to the villa, we sat on the patio discussing our travels. Several questions arose about various aspects of our adventures, and nobody could come up with good answers for many of them. Finally, Sonny summed things up: "This is Italy; there's no time for practicality."

Tomorrow, we're headed to Rome...

21 July 2009

Successfully Seeing Siena

Our first day in Siena had been not completely successful; remember "Black Sunday"? We returned on this morning to a much calmer and better-stocked city. We found fairly easy public parking at Il Stadio (the city's football [soccer for us Americans] stadium), which is conveniently located near all of the city sites.

We started our revisit with a quick tour of the Cathedral of San Domenico and Santa Catarina (St. Catherine). The outside is a kind of drab beige brick, and the inside is not up to the French or Italian Gothic standard, but it's bland material structure is way more than made up for in the story of St. Catherine. I can't recount it all here, but in a nutshell, she's the one who convinced the Pope to move the Catholic Church from France back to Italy. Rick Steves' book has a great down-to-earth recounting of her story.

From there, it was time for lunch. (Imagine that. More food.) We settled into a small trattoria where we enjoyed more Tuscan fare. After lunch, we split into two missionary camps: the shoppers and the Internetters. (Guess into which camp I fell.) We reconvened at the drain of Il Campo (a work of art in itself), had some gelato, and decided to return to the villa for what was to be one of our best and most memorable meals.

On the return to the villa, we needed to get some fuel for the fleet. We drove into the Siena Esso station to find it closed. It turns out that they were out of petrol. Hmmm...

For dinner we decided on bistecca alla Fiorentina (steak Florentine). We visited the local Coop Market and had the butcher hack us off three T-bone slabs. We got some accompanying veggies, and then headed back to the villa to fire up the grill and get things cookin'. After a feast of steak, chicken, zucchini, and more, we relaxed on the patio before heading to bed. Tomorrow was to be a big, big day in Florence...


The plan was to get up early and leave the villa by 8:00 for the scenic drive to Florence, about 50km away. We were on our way to the autostrada by 8:15, but had to stop for petrol (see above) on the way. We pulled into the Total station in Montereggiano to find the "chiuso" (closed) signs posted. Julie inquired and learned that there was a strike of some sort, so fuel was not being transported for two days. Luckily, we had planned tomorrow as a do-nothing day at the villa, but how were we to get to Florence today?

Enter TrenItalia. Instead of driving the trek to Florence, we decided to go to Siena and take the train. (The drive from the villa to Siena and back is just 1/8 tank of gas.) We got to the station, easily parked in their lot, and were off to Florence via rail. While many European trains travel industrial routes (which is why the industry is there in the first place), there is not much industry in Tuscany so the rail routes are surprisingly scenic. We past vinyards, villas, vegetable gardens, and a variety of other pretty places. And because Florence's Santa Maria Novella (SMN) station is in the heart of the historic city, we didn't have to futz with finding refuge for the unfueled Fiat (and Lancia).

Florence in a Flourish: Chasing Julie

We arrived at SMN at 12:30 PM, about 3 hours later than planned because of the strike, just in time for lunch. Julie has spent much time in Florence, so she knew of a great little (REALLY little) restaurant close to the station. It was so small, in fact, that four of us had to sit outside and four sat in.

After a great lunch, we were off to the races; we had a lot of ground to cover in our condensed schedule. Piazza della Signoria. Ponte Vecchio. Santa Croce. Accedemia. (We had a reservation to see Michelangelo's David at 16:00 thanks to Julie's planning.) Bar. Whew. Finally a rest. We had beer, water, water, and water, and rested for a good 45 minutes. Some of us shopped at a nearby stationery store while others of us continued our rest and cool-down.

We headed to the outdoor market and strolled the endless stalls of stuff. Our sole purchase was a prized possession for a dear friend. It was now around 18:00 and we were ready to head home to the villa. We headed back to SMN and made the 19:10 direct train to Siena.

We had yet another great Tuscan dinner in Siena, played a game of "What's your most embarrassing momemt?", and made the short drive back to the villa. Another full day in Tuscany accomplished.

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).