We had to disembark our charter yacht in Trogir by 9am and had time to kill, with a flight out of Croatia to Rome leaving at 3:50pm. Toni at the charter office allowed us to store our luggage so at least we were free to wander around Trogir, find a coffee, eat more snacks than we should have and generally sit to watch the world pass by. Helen still has a bit of trouble with too much walking so we left Helen and Mario to get some steps in to burn a few of the many calories our bodies had in reserve. The day past quickly enough and by 12:30 we hunted down a maxi taxi to take the four of us and our luggage to the airport (called Split Airport but in reality it is far closer to Trogir). Then there was the long wait to get on the Vueling flight. The flight across the Adriatic is ridiculously short and we didn’t make the mistake of ordering a drink. It is a case of fasten seat belts, go up, then go down. The poor attendants are on the run the entire time.
The luggage took an age to come and we eyed the clock nervously, knowing that every minute meant more night time driving on the 317km trip north to Poppiano in Chianti. The Avis car rental people were efficient enough and finally we were off, with Mario driving and me on the GPS to negotiate our way onto the Autostrada and join all the other cars doing speeds well in excess of 130km/hr. Mario handled things extremely well and managed to avoid driving on the wrong side of the road (except once when I gave him bad instructions) and the long drive was accomplished surprisingly quickly. Even after the Autostrada was behind us and we began the twisting and winding drive through the hills of Chianti Mario was up to the job and we arrived safely at our Air BnB by 9:15pm. Our host, Suzanne, arrived shortly afterward and we explored the enchanting apartment, one of three in an old stone building complete with the genuine hand milled cypress beams and terracotta floor tiles. We were in Tuscan heaven.
For our first day in Tuscany, the forecast rain arrived, just a little bit early on and light enough to suggest that a driving experience was called for. We picked out a couple of spots on the map and decided to let the GPS do its thing and simply explore. The countryside was even better than the countless published pictures suggest, with gorgeous rolling hills, pockets of verdant forest and cute olive groves. Having experienced the far less populated hills of Piedmont before, I was surprised at how heavily populated the region is for a rural area. Clusters of buildings are dotted everywhere and hilltop castles abound and appear somewhat newer than those in Piedmont. We passed through village after village, almost without sighting any other people, apart from those practising their racing car skills on the narrow winding roads. Our local castle was all quiet, the next couple we tried to visit had no public access and any attempt to find a wine tasting or cute little cafe seemed fruitless. Sunday is rest day (as is Monday it seems).
The forecast of heavy rain with damaging winds and large hail proved to be over the top but the rain did come and driving and navigating through the hilly Chianti district soon became very difficult. Mario was up to the task but it wasn’t much fun. We found a couple of towns but they weren’t all that exciting, probably because the rain made stopping and exploring too hard. We stopped in one place at one of the few bar/cafes we saw open and were served a local red wine. However, it was poured from an already open bottle and was more on the vinegar side than fine wine and none of us could actually drink it. The owner was embarrassed and refused payment.
Our second day was partly a repeat of the first, with very heavy rain making travel impossible. We did manage to get in a good session at San Gimignano with only light rain falling, before the heavens opened in earnest. With navigated our way to Volterra but couldn’t even get out of the car. Most roads had rivers running down the sides. Thankfully, the temperature is perfect, in the low 20s each day and the cloud at least protects us from the sting of the sun.
Key Places We Visited:
San Gimignano – this spectacular 13th Century walled town once boasted 72 stone towers although today only 14 still remain. They created a wonderful skyline as we approached. The towers were largely a status symbol among the patrician families, the higher the tower the higher the status. The town is full of produce shops, displaying the wares of the district, wines, cheeses, sauces etc along with some beautiful arts and crafts. Wandering the cobbled streets and window shopping, or stopping for a snack is an excellent way to spend some time, even in the rain. The crowds would not want to be any greater with the streets and piazzas busy but not impossible to move through. We lunched on panini in a bakery that had the most amazing array of sweets and chocolates.
Florence (Firenze) – We have been told by others that Florence is THE place to visit in Italy so we had very high expectations. We were actually disappointed, not with the grandeur of the D’Uomo or the Church of San Maria Novella, but rather with the general town itself. The buildings seem to be quite a jumbled mix of old and ugly 20th Century, with a crazy road and pedestrian system adding to the chaos and confusion. The streets were crowded and seeking the safety of a piazza seemed to be the thing to do but even there we were not safe from cars, trucks and motorbikes that came across any paved area at high speed. To save ourselves problems with parking, we drove to Villa Constanza in Sandicci outside of the city and caught the relatively new tram into the city centre. After a few fights with parking tickets and the tram ticket machine we made our way in, crossing the Arno River and alighting at the central rail station. From there it was a short walk to the Church of San Maria Novella, a huge 13th Century church situated in a large piazza. The facade was unlike any church I have seen before and is distinctly Tuscan in design.
From there, we made our way to the amazing D’Uomo, with its huge dome that dominates the skyline of Florence. The main facade is absolutely beyond description. The whole building is clad with white, black, green and rose coloured marble and the carvings and statues are so numerous and intricate that we spent a long time simply standing in the one spot and finding new wonders to admire. We gave no thought to going inside because the lines extended several hundred metres and did not really seem to be moving. The nearby Baptistery dates from the 5th Century and is said to be the beginning of the distinctive Florentine architectural style. Strangely, the style did not spread to other parts of Italy and so remains a symbol of Florence.
After a wonderful lunch of wood fired pizza, we made our way on to the Palazzo Vecchio (now a museum) and the Piazza della Signoria, which is a huge open air art gallery of renaissance statues. Marble naked bodies, cherubs and Roman soldiers were in abundance.
Further on, we found the river and crossed the famous Ponte Vecchio, a shop covered bridge almost completely filled with jewellery shops. Each shop had huge heavy wooden shutters to close up with, reflecting the value of what lay within.
All the walking had taken its toll and we were unanimous in our decision to make our way back to the tram, Florence by no means beaten but we had done enough. We did not get to see the Michelangelo’s Statue of David but the thought of paying $A33 to see the real thing held little appeal anyway. Mario was very tempted by some soccer shorts decorated with the lower part of David’s anatomy. I’m not sure where one could wear them.
Fattoria Corzano e Paterno – We followed up on our host’s recommendation and visited this wonderful family owned winery for a tasting session. It was beautifully situated down the end of a long unsealed track and had breath taking views of the vine clad slopes. A charming young girl led us through each of four wines, three reds and one white, plus four of their own cheeses, each made from sheep’s cheese. The cheeses were matched with the wines perfectly, becoming stronger with each wine and each one delicious, except for the gorgonzola, which only Mario managed to appreciate. We learnt about the Chianti controlled wine production, with a wine designated as Chianti requiring not only location but at least 80% Sangiovese grapes with the rest being made up with Cabernet Sauvignon and/or Merlot. We had noticed that the vines throughout the region only had a few bunches of fruit hanging from the bottom of the vines. This is deliberate through pruning to keep the fruiting small and therefore of high quality and to keep too much sun off the grapes as they ripened. The Sangiovese grapes are among the finest grapes we have ever tasted but their small size and large seeds makes them unsuitable for the table. We left the winery, contented and far more knowledgeable. A wonderful experience.
Volterra – We had two attempts to visit Volterra. The first time, was after our trip to San Gimignano and by the time we arrived, the rain was torrential. Huge rivers ran down the sides of the steep climb up to the walled city and we decided to give it up and return another day. We were so glad we did return because the town is absolutely beautiful, certainly the equal if not better than San Gimignano. As with most of the walled cities, it dates from the 13th and 14th Centuries but underneath all the medieval stonework lies not only a 3rd Century BC Roman city but also an earlier Etruscan city. It seemed a little less tourist dominated than San Gimignano and many local people still live and work within the walls. We wandered and stuck our heads down cute little alleyways, photographed vistas over the farmlands spread below and tried to imagine what life was like here 600 years ago. The remains of a Roman Theatre and Baths are laid out below the walls of the city and present a spectacular sight.
The Etruscan ruins are less obvious, set in a large parkland but being more represented by a series of foundations rather than actual buildings. The excavations recouped a big treasure of Etruscan artifacts and the culture seems to have influenced the design of much of the local jewellery on offer for sale. After an hour of wandering, we settled in to a beautiful restaurant where Christine and I had a beer and Mario and Helen had a local pasta with amazing fresh mushrooms freshly plucked from the fields. We started out not feeling hungry but their food certainly looked good.
Volterra is a must visit place.
Pisa – What trip to Italy could be complete without visiting the famous Leaning Tower yet, amazingly, we had missed it on two previous visits. Helen and Mario had seen the tower on a quick tour from a cruise ship but had not really toured Pisa before. As with Florence,we elected to avoid parking issues and caught a regional train from Cascina, about 5kms out. Once in Pisa, we located the offices of “Smile and Ride”, a bike hire company to pick up bikes for the day. Pisa is very flat (rare in Tuscany) and the streets are wider than many places, making riding comfortable. Our bikes came with a self guiding tour app for the smart phones so navigating around was also quite easy. The good thing about self guided tours is we could ignore some of the detail about artists and architects and also wander off the marked path when the whim took us.
Pisa is a pretty place, with pleasant vistas and interesting streetscapes, especially along the river banks. We came across a few lovely parks, rode alongside the ancient city walls, gazed upon the usual array of medieval church fronts (it’s amazing how quickly one becomes blasé about inspirational architecture) and bought a few bits and pieces from tourist stalls.
We parked up and securely locked the bikes (this is Italy) and walked the short distance to the “Square of Miracles”, which houses the famous Leaning Tower, the massive D’Oumo and the Baptistery. The cathedral would command respect in its own right but the nearby tower gets all the attention. It looks for all the world as if collapse is only a day away. The building itself is magnificent, even if it was upright, and the quality of the marble cladding all the structures in the square is outstanding. Most of the crowds was just standing or sitting in the one place, staring at the sight and taking it all in. Sometimes, one of the “bucket list” items proves to be a disappointment but this one fulfills expectations.
Siena – Siena is the most southerly of the major Tusan attractions and the change in both countryside and architecture showed. The hills around were generally less populated than further north. The town looked quite different to San Gimignano or Volterra in that brick seemed to predominate over the stone. The builders showed incredible skill in extracting almost as much flair as they do with stone.
The biggest attraction in Siena is probably the Piazza del Campo, or Horse Plaza, an enormous brick clad piazza that is really unusual in that the central part is gradually recessed to form a kind of inverted amphitheatre. Twice a year, in July and August, a horse race called the Palio is run around the perimeter of the square. Each horse represents one of the provinces of Siena. It is a mad scramble and accidents are common. The square is jam-packed with spectators on these occasions. We sat and had a beer on the edge of the square and looked at pictures of the event on our phones to try and draw up the experience. Siena is a beautiful place to wander around in, especially if one is after higher class shops. Fashion, jewellery and leather shops were common and business looked brisk.
Ristorante da Buzzanca – We discovered an absolute gem of a restaurant on 2kms away from our accommodation in nearby San Quirico. The restaurant is in a large farm complex that dates back over a thousand years. The family bought it 40 years ago and run a wonderful establishment. The building is full of ambience and the menu is amazing. They have an incredible ravioli with pistachio pesto that is the best ravioli I have tasted. Helen and Mario each had osso bucco that was melt in the mouth while Christine had a duck linguine. On the way out, the waiter (part of the family) took us down into the ancient cellar, where dust encrusted wine bottles were stored and water poured down through a rocky culvert. It was a view into times long past. We went back for a final Sunday lunch and discovered the joy of baked cod with an amazing tomato sauce. Mario and Helen tried a mixed grill and were presented with two big platters of grilled meat from every animal that graces a farmyard. They worked for over an hour to demolish the lot and showed no signs of joining the popular vegan movement.
A week and a bit in Tuscany is highly recommended. Vistas of rolling hills, scattered castles, vine and olive covered slopes and the always present cypress trees are everywhere one looks and all is surprisingly green at the end of a summer. The grapes ready for harvest add to the attraction. The narrow winding roads and crazy-mad drivers are not so wonderful and the habit of closing up and staying closed can get trying at times. Most restaurants around us did not open Monday to Wednesday and often not until 7:30 or 8pm. Oh well, when in Rome….
Mario handled the arduous job of driving very well, rapidly adapting to the conditions. Navigation was not so smooth at times, with the GPS letting us down on more than one occasion but mostly, we managed. For us, it marks “Italy complete” and although one could never truly say that, we have now done enough to move on to fresh fields.
The drive back to Rome was completed with now issues, except for one slight hiccup at the airport where we had to complete a bog lap of “Arrivals” to correct a wrong turn. The car was handed back with no dings or scrapes and we settled in to the arduous process of check-in, immigration, security etc.