We drove out of Florence and headed to Tuscany, with a stop at Pisa on the way. Pisa was pretty neat and I’m glad we made a stop there to see it. Although I’m sure readers that you, like me, have seen it a million times in pictures and cartoons, it really is something to see up close on your own. I couldn’t help but wonder how in the world it can be stable as it is, leaning to one side. Of course, we saw many people taking the classic shot of them holding up or pushing down the tower, and even some who got creative and had two people having a battle of strength!
What I didn’t know was that Pisa was a walled city and quite a bit of the original Roman wall remains. There is also another duomo and a baptistery next to the tower as well, and all three make up the Campo dei Miracoli. The tower itself was meant to be a bell tower, a straight one at that, but started to lean during the 200 years it took to fully construct (wars created many delays to it being completed). Interestingly enough, the Germans used it as an observation post in WWII and a decision had to be made by the Allies to destroy it or not. The artillery strike was never called, and the tower still stands – err, leans – today.
We had lunch at a little cafe here and walked around the walled section of town for a bit after admiring the three architectural pieces in the main square. Then we were off to where we would be staying in the Tuscan region of the country, not too far from Florence. It was just outside of San Casciano, at a place called Villa il Poggiale.
The drive was lovely, full of exquisite houses on green hills, farmland, cypress trees, and the occasional old farm house. With the navigation system and cross directions from my mom, we made it to the hotel without a problem. I say hotel, but Villa il Poggiale was a beautiful chateau, or villa (is there a difference?). It has been around since the 1400’s, and the family that owns it now has had it for a few generations. The villa is very charming and it was neat to see the library, the study, the old decorations, as well as eat in the same dining room. The room was quaint, with a couch bed set up for myself, and very comfortable.
Because the night we got there the normal dining area would be taken by a conference group, they were doing a special 7 course meal for the guests. So we opted to stick around for dinner rather than try and find a place out in the countryside at night. As we settled into our room, my mom and I shared some chamomile tea in the room before we decided to go for a walk to kill the time.
Tuscany is, in a word, stunning. The hills were varying shades of green, with patches of tall, dark trees here and there, rows of olive trees, flowers, and other crops. You could just stand there and gaze out at the world for hours. In fact, I could easily imagine an artist or writer sitting at one of the little tables in the courtyard, gazing to the horizon for inspiration. We followed a dirt road down the hill past the chateau, turning around when we reached private property. We took our time admiring and examining different plants on the way back up, finding something that smelled like rosemary, yet looked different than the plant we are used to seeing.
Dinner was a nice affair, and boy were we stuffed (my dad somehow still claimed hunger at the end – but I’m not sure I believe him) by the end! As it was a rather unusual dinner for the place that night, the staff was serving each dish and we were started with a plate of appetizers. Different bruschetta, a roasted pepper with sardine and cheese, and others were presented to us on some lovely blue and white china (the room’s theme was nautical). Next was the salad, which along with a plate of cheese that was over at the side of the room, was the only part of dinner which you served yourself.
Then came a delicious potato and leek soup, followed by a piece of one of the best lasagnas we have ever had. Unlike most U.S. recipes, this lasagna had thin, fresh pasta lined with just a little bit of tomato sauce, olive oil, and cheese. The thinness made it lighter, more delicate, and absolutely amazing. After the pasta came the meat, the “main” course. A plate of lemon chicken with green beans in a tomato-garlic sauce was placed before us. The meat was so thin and tender, in a lemon, butter, and basil sauce. This, too, was amazing. The green beans were good, but a little too garlicky for my tastes.
Finally, it was time for dessert; small glasses filled with panacotta with raspberry jam on top – yum! My mom and I stopped there, having more than enough with six courses, while my dad made it to the seventh by taking advantage of the cheese platter; very impressive if I say so myself. We agreed it was an excellent decision to eat in, as we had a wonderful experience dining that night!
The next day would see us driving to San Gimignano, a Medieval walled town first settled by the Etruscans and known for its high towers. Wealthy neighbors tried to outdo each other, which is why there are so many towers of varying length. Now, all that food the night before must have contributed to our sleeping in and getting a late start. So we had a late breakfast at this awesome bakery in San Gimignano – it had 5 or 6 cases lining from the door to the inside of the shop, all filled with cakes and other pastries.
My parents each had a cappuccino, I decided to try a hot chocolate (I believe I’m finally starting to like the stuff!), and then we got three Cornetti de Crema which are custard or cream filled horn pastries. Two were chocolate filled, and I went for the vanilla filled, which was so good. And the hot chocolate? Decadent. It was basically pure, melted chocolate with a little bit of milk! I thought it was a great way to start our exploration of the town.
We then got a recommendation for a place near us for dinner by the owner of a little tea towel shop where we stopped in a bought a couple towels. He was extremely nice and turns out that he has family in the States. We also saw a snake in the grass below us in one area, when a girl nearby spotted it and pointed it out. It was turning out to be a great day! The flowers growing on the walls, the olive tress and little vegetable gardens in the backs of houses, and the view from near the highest point of the town of the surrounding countryside made for a very nice, very scenic stop.
Following San Gimignano, we drove to the walled city of Siena. It, too, was cool, but in my opinion, not as pretty as San Gimignano. And parking – what an adventure that was! However there is still some neat history to the town as, like San Gimignano and other Tuscan towns, Siena has been around since a few hundred years B.C. When the Romans came, the town’s symbol became that of Remus, Romulus, and the she-wolf. You can see statues of the infant twins suckling the wolf not only throughout Siena, but much of Italy.
We stopped at a little restaurant that was part of a small hotel for lunch. My mom and I split a really good pear and Gorgonzola pizza while my dad had the Gorgonzola gnocchi. As we wondered around walking off our lunch (I was pretty much in a constant “full” state this entire Italy trip…) we made our way to one of the most well-known and regarded Medieval squares, the Piazza del Campo. Here we saw the outside of the Torre del Mangia (so named for the tower’s first guardian’s penchant for spending all his money on food) and the Palazzo Pubblico (town hall).
When you are standing in the square, you can see how an oval track runs around the square. It’s easy to picture the twice a year horse race, Palio di Siena, being held here; to see a massive crowd filled with cheering onlookers rather than tourist stands as jockeys ride bareback around the track three times. This has been a tradition since at least the mid 17th century, though different forms of it probably existed even beforehand.
Yet another Duomo can be found in Siena, and the cathedral was the last thing we stopped at out before heading back to the car. We decided not to go in, but the cathedral is still pretty stunning on the outside. Mostly white with bands of dark green, the detail of the entrance side is worth a minute’s pause to admire and contemplate. Off we went, then, to successfully pull out of the parking spot without being hit and head back to Il Poggiale.
The windy road through and around the hills of Tuscany started to get to me after a while, I admit. It was good, then, that in the late afternoon we stopped at a winery in the countryside for a glass of wine and plate of meats, cheese, and bread that came with a tomato relish. It was sweet, and had the tiniest bite to it. Now I’m not a spicy person, but I thought it was awesome!
When we got back, my dad taught me the basics of driving a standard car (as most cars in Italy are to save on gas). I’ve wanted to learn how to drive with a stick shift, and since there was a tiny dirt road here, I was given my chance! Well, going straight and shifting gears was pretty simple, as was starting the car. Turning around in a three point turn and pulling up the tiniest bit more to park, after I fist parked it, proved beyond my capabilities this time – but one day!
We had an hour or two before dinner to get directions for this place that had been recommended to us for dinner. (This iPad has proved very handy for traveling thus far). Dinner that night would not end up being at the recommended restaurant, as they were full, yet ended up being the best dinner we would have in Italy. It was such an affair that it will be getting its own post, even!
So that was basically our time spent in Tuscany. The next morning we would get breakfast and head back to Florence to catch a train to Rome. Finding a gas station that wasn’t self service proved a bit difficult, but things went smoothly beyond that! Tuscany was definitely one of my favorite parts of the trip, however hard to choose that is, and it was nice to be out of cities and in the quiet and beautiful countryside. My dad, ever thinking ahead (he already has a fancy old folks home picked out by the ocean back home), has decided he will retire here – or maybe it was somehow get a summer home here. At any rate, we all loved this part of Italy and I would very much recommend spending time there if you are planning a visit to Italy.
As I couldn’t post this yesterday due to Internet issues, I will try to get another post up today – so be on the lookout for more! Thanks for reading, cheers! Until then…