Archive for January, 2012
Instead of using a tour operator, we’d decided to rent a car and go where we pleased – a great idea. We did do a lot of driving though – and It’s true what they say about Italian drivers. For the most part they seemed in control of their vehicles – not necessarily talking on the phone like Americans; but they drove with abandon. I imagine that a typical Italian driver thinks something fatalistic like “If I’m going to die, I’ll die; but if my number hasn’t come up, I’ll be fine.” This is true of drivers and pedestrians. And somehow, because everyone is in tiny little cars, zooming around feels almost cute, like we were all driving clown cars.
Anyway, although we did use trains to get to Florence, we drove everywhere else. This was great not only because we made our own schedule, but because we got to see the true face of Tuscany – not just the tourist places, but the good, the bad, and the ugly. I liked it.
Leaving our base at Monticatini Terme, we drove northeast and spent a day exploring the northern mountains a little. Then we drove south, passed through San Miniato, stayed in Siena, and continued to points south and east: San Gimignano, Volterra, Montalcino, and some other places we passed through but I can’t remember. The place is lousy with mountaintop walled towns that look like something out of “Lord of the Rings.” In between is beautiful agricultural land, small chunks of forest, and occasionally, an unremarkable ordinary town that for one reason or the other, has modernized completely.
Here’s Rachel at Montalcino, where we did some great wine tasting. I promise that’s not just a backdrop!
It’s hard to believe that the US fought the Nazis here. In San Miniato, where we went to find truffle-laden food, we learned that the Germans had blown up the large old tower of the town because of its usefulness as an artillery direction position. The people of San Miniato have rebuilt it and it looks perfect.
San Miniato is the site of an annual truffle festival. We were a week early, but figured that there had to be some truffles there anyway. We arrived late, maybe 9, but dinner was just getting started. It is a tiny place and there were only two restaurants. We looked at the menu; some have English but this did not. For some reason I thought I’d know the word for truffle when I saw it, but that was not the case. Instead, the thing was full of Tartufo dishes. Tartufo this, tartufo that. No truffles though. We walked away. Then it occurred to me… Rachel looked it up in her book: of course, tartufo = truffle (duh!). We went back and had a memorable meal. I had tartufo brasceola di cavallo (horse salami with truffles, new olive oil, and really nasty parmesian). It was fantastic in a pungent way. Truffles impart a fungal overtone, but they make up for it with a wonderful buttery, subtle base of flavor that cannot be described; it is partially nasal in experience. Rachel had something sublime, but I cannot recall what it was. The house wine was excellent (that was always the case in Tuscany).
So – back to Montalcino, famous for its Brunello and Rosso wine varieties. We went to two places and tried probably 25 wines. In one high-tech place, the bottles were held in machines which dispensed a couple of tablespoons after receiving your credit card. You simply carried a glass around with you from machine to machine while chatting with one of the wine shop workers. The one we spoke with was in his early 20s but had lived there all his life, and had a sophistication (about wines) like that of the most seasoned sommelier in Manhattan, yet because he had grown into it, there wasn’t an air of snobbery; it was just the way he was. In most cases, he knew the people who made the wine, and what made one year’s crop different from another’s, in an intimate and detailed way. Here is the view from that place:
Here’s what I learned about Brunello and Rosso wine: I don’t like it. But I did like finding that out in this way!
Montalcino is another one of those places with a castle (well, really a fortezza, to be technical) at the end of the street.
We ate at this restaurant, lie most, tucked away in an unassuming alley. The food and house wine was fantastic; I had boar in risotto and Rachel had, I believe, some sort of gnocchi. When the waiter came to pour our wine, he used a beautiful glass aerator, which looks like a piece of laboratory glassware, perhaps a condenser of some sort. A cluster of 20 Japanese women sitting nearby exclaied “ooooooooh!” in unison, and began taking pictures; we were immortalized.
Here I am looking spiffy in the leather jacket mentioned in an earlier post.
Ah, Tuscany in the fall… most of the gold and red colors in those fields is due to grape vines turning.
Volterra was one of the most beautiful and interesting towns; not too touristy, and it hads a little but of everything. It has the same kind of medieval feel that Siena does, and it also has a truly ancient Estruscan archway that pre-dates the Romans. There are 3 heads on this arch but they have been completely eroded away (I wonder if that happened recently, because of acid rain, or if it was vandalized in the last 2000 years).
This spectacular castle is now a prison – a modern prison. No boring cinder block camp for Tuscans; it’s “into the dungeon with him!” You can really be locked up in a tower here. It seems like there was a certain utilitarian lack of imagination involved in taking this beautiful castle and making it into a prison, but what do I know? There’s something to be said for continuity of purpose. Like everything else here, even the prison is beautiful. You could hold weddings here!
The gate on the other end of the street with the Etruscan arch. I think this one is merely from 1200.
Roman ruins just outside that gate – an amphitheater and bath complex.
Here’s San Gimignano from a couple of miles away. In bewteen the farm fire and the town is… a prison. The density of prisons seems pretty high here!
As you enter the gate you see the famous towers. During the middle ages, towers were prestigious and every family wanted to have the largest. The contest is comical, like the barber chair scene in Chaplain’s “The great dictator.”
From these tower’s tops, the 360-degree view is astonishing. The architecture frames the countryside, glowing with fall colors on the vines and trees.
When I die, please inter me in something like this:
OK, OK, I understand, money might be tight, and perhaps we’d need to lose the virgins of truth and justice, or whatever they are, flanking the idealized figure of what was probably in reality a debauched old man. How about one like this?
Can’t you just picture me there with my family crest, totally absorbed in a book…
…archly staring down anyone who would dare to interrupt my Olympian greatness? Regardless, I’m going to set to work immediately, building myself a platform like that to read on, complete with Greek arch in the background.
Yeah, I’m sure the guy looked just like that.
OK, that one’s still kind of pricey, and you might not happen to have a good photograph of me lying around in a toga reading a book to give to the sculptor. How about this one? It looks a lot cheaper. I think the least I deserve is a weeping virgin burning a torch for me. ‘Cause when the G-man shuffles off this mortal coil, you know that virgins everywhere are gonna be devastated.
Oh, all right. I get it. It’s going to be a budget funeral for me. Let me rot a while, then dig up my bones and put them in pretty boxes (Ossuary is the word for a bone box, in case you wanted to know).
I will even agree to share a cabinet with the others.
All of these images were collected in Pisa at the Camposanto.1 comment
Arriving in Florence at night by train, we took a taxi to the B&B Il Bargello, a fantastic place tucked away in a little alley near its namesake museum. Here is the view from its rooftop veranda.
Being yet early, and totally stimulated with the fact of being in Florence, we went out for a walk. The B&B is only 5 minutes from the Uffizi and just about everything else that you try to see when you’re only in Florence for 48 hours, and Italians don’t even begin to eat dinner until 7 or 8 PM anyway. The Palazzo della Signoria museum was open until midnight. Here is a view of the famous tower from the courtyard inside.
Looking for a particular restaurant, we went over the famous Ponte Vecchio. Google had mislead us; we wandered in confusion for a long time before stumbling across the place after giving up on it. It turned out to be a non-touristy little hole in the basement with fantastic food.
Here’s the same bridge in the daytime, from the south end of the Uffizi:
Walking around in a small alley, I’d occasionally see things like this, seemingly stuck in a wall with no introduction or explanation:
The door to our B&B. Italian doorknobs tend to be in the middle of the door, and massive, impressive doors like this are completely ordinary. Looking at the doors and windows, it seems as if Italians are prepared to fend off not just thieves, but perhaps paramilitary groups with battering rams. I guess this is left over from the preceding troubled centuries (including the 20th); why change now?
We were delivered by taxi from the train station, a ride I will never forget. Our driver careened around corners, scattering pedestrians, and coming within perhaps 6 inches of crushing a woman with a baby carriage. Neither the driver or the woman seemed to notice. There are no real sidewalks and everyone walks where they want. There are no stoplights either; it’s simmering chaos and everybody looks out for himself! The crosses, beads, and deodorizers hanging from the taxi’s mirror formed an inclinometer that spent much of its time at the extreme positions. Later, speaking to the Canadian woman who runs the B&B, I asked if the skills of Florentine drivers were commensurately greater in order to compensate for the conditions. I was told that no, there are a lot of accidents, specially in the rain.
The alley of our B&B was so small that you could probably jump to the other side.
The tower of the Palazzo della Signoria looms over the north porch of the Uffizi.
All over Tuscany I noted the torch holders (and horse tethers?) that are still preserved on walls.
One evening we decided to walk up to the Piazzale Michelangelo, accessible from downtown via a beautiful long stairway. The climb is worth the view, and along the way you pass through the old medieval walls of the city. It was a great place to watch the sun set.
We enjoyed a little time in a wine bar, where we were first served lardo – which is just what it sounds like – on toasted bread with fresh olive oil. It sounds horrifying, but it was good, as was the wine. Wine bars, or Enoteca, are everywhere in Tuscany, and you can usually get snacks to go with the wine. A good night consists or roaming around the city, selecting a nice enoteca and spending some time there waiting for it to get late enough to eat dinner – maybe around 8 – finding a good place to eat, and leaving your chosen restaurant after 11.
One of the market stalls in the big market, where everything imaginable is sold.
I didn’t bargain for food, but for everything else, it is expected. I bought a really nice leather jacket here after an extended bargaining session. The price tag on the jacket was almost 700 euros.
Me: “How much for the jacket?”
Arab Salesman: “Let me tell you what, my friend, business is slow – for you, only 600 euros.”
Me:”I’ve seen this same kind of jacket in other stalls for only 15o euros.”
Arab Salesman: “My friend, they look the same, but the quality is different! You look like a man of taste, my friend, who understands quality. Feel this skin, my friend. You see? It is buttery soft. For you, today,my friend, only 500 euros.”
Me:”Well, I like your store, and because you’re such a reputable businessman, I’m willing to pay more than the other place, but not this much. 175 Euros.”
Arab Salesman:”You drive a hard bargain! I tell you what (looking around, conspiratorially)… don’t tell my boss, I give eet to you for only 300. My friend, you not find better bargain in all Florence.”
Me:”Look, I’ve got 200 here (I take it out and show it to him). I’ll give this to you, I walk out with the jacket.”
Arab Salesman: “We’re in business here… what kind of man would I be if i didn’t bring home enough money to feed my children? 250.”
Me:”OK, I guess I’ll take a walk and think about it.”
Arab Salesman”My friend, my friend, no! wait, I get my boss.” He scampered away and returned with a scary, humorless man who was a tougher bargainer.
… and so it went. I held out and got it for 200, which I think was a good – perhaps not a great – price, but far less than what I’d pay for Italian leather in the USA. The theater of the bargain was worth a few euros just for the entertainment alone!
Later, more art: here’s the most famed statue in Italy. I could write a huge blog post about the museums we saw, but that’s been done by other bloggers and authors. Suffice it to say that the Uffizi and the Accademia are all they’re cracked up to be, and that one per day was as much as my feet and my mind could handle. I could have spent a week at each museum, and wanted to see many others that we just couldn’t fit in – including the Bargello next door to the B&B. Not trying to do more was a good decision; there will always be a reason to return; I’ll remember more of what I did see, and I didn’t spend all of my time in museums and cathedrals. It is impossible to quantify the importance of walking and driving around not only the special districts, but the more prosaic ones that gave me a feel for what it’s really like in Tuscany.
Florence’s main cathedral. On this trip, we made a decision to not go into every cathedral, no matter how enticing, because of a lack of time. So we only saw the outside of this one.
This stone plaque memorializing an important patron of the arts in Renaissance Florence is now overshadowed by the McDonald’s in the first floor (it is just above and to the right of the McDonald’s sign). Everything in downtown Florence is so historical and special that prosaic life goes on in the midst of it.
Here’s a bunch of images that give a flavor of the surroundings in Tuscan towns. A couple of observations: These people know how to make serious doors and windows, they like bright paint, and they like masonry. It works.
One of the things I like most about so many of these images is that you can see how many times the walls/doors/windows have been modified over the centuries. The buildings are changing constantly through time, with new generations building on top of the works of the past. It reminds me of a coral reef.
Another element of these places is the ubiquitous inviting, mysterious passageway, often a tunnel, sometimes just an alley, with an enticing scrap of a view of the fantastic something that lies beyond:
Here are some fantastic archways and doors. Nothing unusual for the region; even small alleys have dozens of doors that look like stage props from an opera.
Finally, Here are some catch-all images that are the kinds of things you see about every 100 feet while walking around. Here’s a courtyard from the 1400s. These kinds of things are everywhere, usually uncelebrated and if there is signage at all, it is understated; they’re a dime a dozen.
Below is an Etruscan arch that’s over 2000 years old. But it’s not important enough to have a sign or anything. If there were signs on everything noteworthy, the place would be encrusted with signs hiding the actual objects of interest.
Many average streets have a castle at the end:
A building like this one is perfectly ordinary (I think it’s a high school):
An up-scale, but not unusual specialty grocery:
Fall-colored vines creep up medieval houses still lived in by citizens of the town.
Comparatively modern (17th century) houses with beautiful gardens:
And finally, that most ubiquitous thing, the cigarette: eveybody’s doin’ it, as if cancer doesn’t happen in Italy. It’s the one thing I suspect most Americans won’t like when visiting, although at least they also do it only outside.
“Nicolas Steno, celebrated by Google on his 374th birthday, was the first to propose that older rocks lie deeper in the ground than younger ones.”
Let me put it this way: he was the first guy to formally recognize the difference between his ass and a hole in the ground. Which, honestly, was not easy, or obvious to many at the time (I probably wouldn’t have known it either). Other achievements of his:
“that the heart is a muscle that pumps blood, that tears are formed in the eye, that fossils are the remains of living organisms from previous geologic eras”No comments
After setting up in Montecatini, where we had a hotel, we stopped for the day in Lucca, a beautifully preserved city not far from Pisa where we had one of our most memorable meals – which is really saying something, since we were in Tuscany. Spectacular meals were literally a daily experience. As we were there in the harvest season, all kinds of special foods at their ripest and most desirable state: white truffles, cheeses, sausages, vegetables, and of course, wines. Our lunch was at Osteria Via San Giorgio, a family restaurant- as are most restaurants and businesses in Italy.
The lack of overwhelming corporate presence was something I really enjoyed throughout our stay. According to recent statistics, 70% of Italy’s GDP comes from small businesses, which is supposed to be part of their current financial difficulty; small businesses don’t grow fast enough to fuel the kind of economic engine that turns on economists. This makes me wonder about debate in our country, in which I continually hear about how small businesses are so important to our economy and that we need to encourage them. Something doesn’t match up here.
Anyway, on to the pictures of Lucca! The old city is completely surrounded by unbelievably massive 17th-century fortress walls covered with large old hardwood trees and a path as broad as a large highway, really a promenade. The fortifications are complex and fascinating. Walking around up there, I tried to imagine how it would have felt to be completely surrounded by an enemy while everyone in your family – perhaps everyone you knew – and everything you owned, was inside and under threat. Anyone trying to attack this place would be in serious trouble, not only from the impressive defenses but also from determined local soldiers who had the ultimate incentive.
The city itself is charming, well-preserved antiquity teeming with people going about their lives in cobbled streets worn with the patterns of hundreds of years of traffic.
Doors like this are very common.
Check out this lime juice I bought. I bought it years ago but held on to the label, intending to blog my astonishment.
It’s named after an area of Italy, but the limes were grown in Peru, bottled in Switzerland, imported via New Jersey and consumed in Arizona. I’m a little envious of these well-traveled limes. They’ve had an impressive journey!
To this I have to say: Really? I live hours from some of the best Citrus farms, and this is the best way to get something as simple as lime juice?! I just went shopping again and bought some slightly more local Mexican limes, which still had an impressive journey, but at least they didn’t cross the Atlantic twice (and I suspect a little of the Pacific as well, ’til the Panama canal).