TRAVEL with pat and lew

* Tuscany – Oct 2007

Posted by Lew Weinstein on October 29, 2007

Mon, Oct 15 to Sat, Oct 20

Leaving Florence was easy. We taxied to the Florence airport to get our rental car from Avis. There was some problem because Budget (Avis acts as the Budget agent in many locations, having purchased the company) listed the wrong car on the reservation. However, this was resolved by the Avis manager, and we were able to make two changes, drop off at Pisa airport instead of returning to Florence, and an extra day. This was much better than our original plan to drop the car at the Florence airport, cab to the Florence train station, train to Lucca, train to Pisa train station, cab to Pisa airport. What were we thinking?

OBSERVATIONS ABOUT RENTING CARS IN EUROPE:  Budget, which is never a problem in the US, seems always to be a problem for us in Europe. Hertz, which is often the most expensive choice in the US, is sometimes the least expensive choice in Europe. Avis personnel are extremely accommodating, and will work with you to resolve problems.

Finding our Tuscany villa, Borgo Argenina, was not so easy. For one thing, there was no street address, so we couldn’t put the location into the GPS. Then the map provided by the host was far from precise. It turns out there are kilometer markers every 0.1 km on Italian highways, but none of these was indicated on the map provided.

Once there, however, Borgo Argenina was marvelous. It’s an old villa, purchased 10 years ago by our hostess Elena, a woman from Naples, who renovated the house, brought in electricity and plumbing, built the dirt road from the highway, and opened a B&B five years ago. We have a large room with a large bathroom, and a tub! The view from the rear patio of the villa is spectacular – vineyards, mountains, a few buildings in the distance.

By the time we’re settled, it’s after 3:00 pm, and we haven’t had lunch. We’re not going to get lunch, either, since all restaurants are now closed until dinner at 7:00 pm. Our hostess’ daughter called the closest place, ascertained that the grocery store adjacent to the simple restaurant was open, and gave us direction. So we’re off to the tiny village of San Sano, a few km back along the road we had taken and high into the hills from there.

At the tiny grocery store, we purchased cheese sandwiches on baguettes, soda, and chips. The delightful older man scurries into the adjacent house to get the mayonnaise. We eat outside on a small table, watching the family putter in their lawn. Just as we finish eating, another couple arrives, American, followed by two more couples, also American, and we spend a delightful half hour sipping wine (sold by the glass from the grocery store) and talking. Eventually, the conversation gets around to my novels and for a few minutes it seems like a book club meeting.

We decide against dinner, and instead purchase more cheese, crackers, and a bottle of wine to take back to our room.

Siena is a beautiful medieval town, smaller than Florence, but on a par with its buildings, art and shopping. Elena has provided perfect directions for entering the city and finding the closest parking lot and escalator up five flights to the ancient center within the city walls. It’s still an upward hike from the top of the escalator through the narrow winding streets.

The famous town square, site of the Palio horse races, is huge, dominated by the government palace with its high tower. The Duomo is even more impressive than its counterpart in Florence. We have a substantial lunch in Siena and once again pass dinner.

The next day, we head for San Gamignano, having loaded both our destination and our departure point, where the dirt road meets the highway, into the GPS. The rest of the traveling world is familiar with GPS, but this is our first real use of it, so we still have the enthusiasm of novices. The GPS leads us through 50 kilometers of turns, obscure roads and roundabouts, a trip that would have been longer and stressful without it.

San Gamignano is famous for its 5-6 high medieval towers, built for defense and prestige by competing families. Of course there’s a government palace and a cathedral, every wall covered with great frescoes, one side from the Old Testament, the other from the New. The town is utterly charming. We meet a couple from California, who now live in Bucks County, and have a nice chat. This time, we limit our lunch, determined to go to at least one Tuscan restaurant for dinner before we leave. The GPS takes us home without incident or stress.

On the way home, we find Vecchia Osteria, one of the restaurants suggested by Elena, just enough off the road to miss it the first three times we pass. We try to call for dinner reservations, but the phones aren’t working. Elena explains that someone has “stolen” her number. We don’t really understand what she means, but she uses her separate fax line to make the reservation for us.

Later, when we’re leaving the villa, another couple (Don and Jan) is going to the same restaurant and they come with us. Two other couples are also eating at the same restaurant, and the eight of us are the entire business for Vecchia Osteria that night. The dining room is cozy, and the meals are ok but not spectacular. During dinner, we talk about a name for our GPS lady, and Don comes up with Gypsy (GyPSy). He has never used a GPS and is fascinated on the ride home in the dark at the way ever twist and hairpin turn is precisely shown on the screen.

On our third day, we explore the hilly countryside of the Chianti region. We go first to the charming village of San Guzme, and choose a restaurant for dinner. Then it’s up and up and up on winding narrow roads, until we drive next to a communications tower on the highest spot in the region. We must then come down, after which we have lunch at a monastery/winery. A tree behind the monastery walls has turned a spectacular yellow.

La Porta del Chianti in San Guzme is a great choice. The wine presentation was something to behold. We had each ordered a glass of the local Chianti Classico, from the vineyard next to the restaurant. The waiter rolls up a small table, on which he places three glasses and one open bottle. There is a ritual from glass to glass, swirling, and he tastes. When he is satisfied, he pours a small amount for me to taste. the whole thing is theatre and the wine is excellent. So are the meals.

Our second visit to Siena is just one of those perfect days. Veterans now, we find the parking and escalator and enter the medieval city. We wander a bit, find the synagogue which is closed, enjoy the long view from the medieval market square behind the government building.

Then we go to an unusual site described in the National Geographic guidebook, the Siena Archives Office. Here are stored the official records of Siena from the 13th century on, in cardboard folders on shelves. But … each year’s record book was decorated with a wooden cover on each of which is a colorful, detailed painting. There are hundreds of them and we wander, enthralled.

There are also documents available for view. One is a letter signed by Boccaccio. Another is an original page of the Inferno handwritten by Dante. No photos are allowed inside, but I ask if I can take pictures from the window overlooking the Campo square. The guard, a woman who has proudly shown us the Boccaccio and Dante, now takes us to a tiny, somewhat precarious balcony overlooking the square, a spectacular vantage point that would no doubt cost a fortune during the Palio, the twice annual replication of the medieval horse race for which Siena is famous. We stand open-mouthed at our good fortune and I take many photos in a short period of time. Later, we learn that another couple at Borgo Argenina saw us on the balcony and wondered how we got there.

We luxuriate with a light lunch in the sunny square, then go to the Museo del Duomo. Again the art is spectacular, especially a large round stained glass window, brilliantly colored. The difference is that we view it straight on, instead of the usual 100 feet above us in a church wall, so we can see all of the details.

On our last night at Borgo Argenina, Elena cooks dinner for 14 of her guests and serves it around the heavy wood table in her authentic Italian kitchen (where the modern appliances are cleverly hidden behind doors or curtains). Salad, pasta with red sauce, beef, pork sausage, wine, crème pudding. She presents a special non-meat platter for Pat, having learned earlier of her preferences. Everything is cooked and served in the traditional Tuscan manner. Elena is the perfect hostess, serving and eating with us, explaining each dish. It’s also a chance for lively conversation with the other guests, all of whom are American. 

We drive to Lucca (about 2 hours), park, and enter the medieval town via a narrow double passage through the town walls. The town is a delight, the old buildings, narrow streets, sudden squares, many shops and restaurants. We find an excellent place for lunch.

The drive to Pisa takes another hour and we have plenty of time to see the Leaning Tower. Except we can’t find it. There is one sign, but no followup. We enter something in the GPS and it takes us to one way streets we can’t enter, the only time Gypsy has failed us. We spend a frustrated half hour, laugh at the story we have to tell (knowing how others will laugh when they hear it), and drive to the airport.

“Did the tower fall down today?” we ask.

“No, it’s there,” the Avis attendant says.

We fly Ryanair to Girona, arriving too late to get to Collioure, and spend the night in the excellent Novotel. The next morning, we train to Collioure.

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