We arrived in Florence from London via Munich and made our way to the convent where we were staying – very calming and relaxing sort of place (maybe not so much if you’re a nun, which there were some of, behind private doors). We had a lovely room with shutters that opened wide and a garden.
Off a piazza – restaurants, small streets with intriguing shops. That are all closed between 1:30 and 5 pm (as almost everywhere we went, except for some of the tourist ghettos) so everyone can take a siesta in the heat. We did too.
We knew about what Florence was famous for – gelato. We sorted out quickly we could probably manage two a day if we had one before lunch and one late in the afternoon. TST scored the best one of all: ricotta cheese and pear. I got stuck on hazelnut and chocolate and found it hard to spread my gelato-sticky wings.
It’s hard being in a place where you don’t speak the language. I was quickly aware of the fact that I need to be able to communicate nuances and for that, gesticulating with the odd badly pronounced Italian word thrown in just doesn’t do it. The phrase book was useful for basic understanding, but I don’t think I’m a good tourist. I want to move in, get a job, and learn Italian. Like one of the women working at the convent did.
We ate well everywhere we went in Italy, but just as happily in small out-of-the way places as in more formal restaurants. In Firenze, we visited The Basilica di Santa Maria del Fiore (the Duomo), walked over the bridges mesmerized by the spectacular sky light,
went to the Sinagoga di Firenze e Museo ebraico (after all, we needed a balance, what with all those churches) and stopped by a little Jewish kosher restaurant for lunch beside the synagogue. Armed guards at the synagogue door were more than a bit disconcerting as all the churches were wide open and many of them free.
The next day we went to the Uffizi Gallery (having ascertained that we didn’t actually have to line up for hours if we went and bought tickets somewhere nearby). I had already started to become fascinated by the fact that many of the large paintings in the churches and museums have multiple stories to tell – I found myself starting to watch what was happening on the outside corners – townspeople gossiping, children playing — and focusing less on Mary and Jesus et al. Made it all much more interesting — graphic stories have a long history. Research for the PovNet book, although of course the outside corners are most of what our stories are about.
In the afternoon we went to the famous market – Firenze is renowned for its leather as well as its gelato. TST went off to the food market and found wonderful things for us to take with us to the agriturismo, where we were heading the next day.
IN THE COUNTRY
Agriturismos are an interesting way to subsidize local farming while at the same time providing tourist stops that are not as expensive as in the major cities. TST had done much research into finding us the perfect place to stay. We hopped on a bus (or two) with a rather nerve wracking wait in between in Colle val D’elsa, where no-one was very sure that there was a bus to Volterra at all (we subsequently became rather fond of the piazza in Colle val D’elsa, once we’d figured out a bit better how the buses worked and where to buy tickets).
We did eventually find the bus to Volterra, and made our way there, the closest town to our destination. Our hosts picked us up, told us that they had booked us in to the dining room for dinner (much to our relief, in spite of the delicious bread and cheese TST had bought at the market) and left us to unpack in our little stone apartment (the agriturismo was a very very old church – the dining room was a chapel, and apparently the owners had to get permission from the Vatican before making any structural changes to it).
TST had told our hosts that we didn’t have a car and that we couldn’t drive, and we had been assured that they would be able to get us into Volterra whenever we wanted. It turned out to be not quite as easy as all that (there aren’t that many buses a day, and none of them are direct). But we made friends with a couple over dinner and they drove us to San Gimignano one day. And another day we were rescued by a garage owner, who didn’t quite understand that these two tired and dusty English tourists wanted him to call us a taxi (or he already knew what we were learning, which was that there really weren’t very many) and gave us a ride back to the agriturismo on his way home from work.
San Gimignano is famous for its towers and one of the more interesting sites was a public art piece(s) (part of an exhibit called Vessel by Antony Gormley) – we bumped into his iron statues of naked men several times.
Powerful and deliberately shocking, and funny too. We found the gallery where the show was housed – one of several contemporary art galleries in Italy that we visited, thanks to TST’s persistence.
We ran into some friends of TST and their parents, and went to a local bar to drink Campari until the football game started, at which point we were tactfully, but pointedly evicted from our prime seats in front of the wide screen TV.
The Etruscan arches welcomed us into Volterra, which became our “local hangout.” Saturday we went to the mercato (the street market), and discovered many clothing stalls where we could try things on in the back of vans.
And then the food market – TST expertly managed her way around the Italian-only speaking food vendors with the help of the phrase book and bought wonderful things that she cooked us for dinner (we had a galley kitchen in our stone apartment). Mushrooms with picci; bruschetta with delicious fresh tomatoes, fennel. Volterra also offered us a web and wine organic restaurant as well as other eateries (my first taste of il cinghiale (wild boar’s meat – delicious), the Duomo, and many piazzas.
At some point we discovered that we were two days too early for the official wine tasting tours in Tuscany. No matter, our hosts organized a personal visit to another agriturismo and one of the staff became our chauffeur for the morning. A young woman who was a year into her sommelier training and who was coming into the family business treated us to an extremely interesting couple of hours. I am not a wine aficionado, but her passion hooked me in. And we were offered her father’s home made salami and prosciutto to cleanse our palates between tastings.
We decided when we got back to our own agriturismo, that we TST had chosen well. Our “home” had shade and a natural pool – we spent a lot of time swimming with the frogs. The olives were not being harvested until October, but we left with bottles of local olive oil, pressed last year and lavender and olive oil soap.
Another convent – this one had air conditioning, which was a huge relief. And a tiny balcony outside our room. And a lift. There is nothing flat in Siena; it is all steps and hills. Very beautiful ones, mind you.
We were more tourists in Siena (or perhaps it just felt like it after being out in the country for five days). Looking for little presents to bring back to family and friends. Admiring beautiful ceramics and exotic olive oils. Exploring alleys and drinking coffee.
The Duomo in Siena was spectacular from the outside — we didn’t really need to go in. We kept finding ourselves on its piazza. We went to galleries, to the Jewish Synagogue (much smaller than the one in Florence), to churches.
And on my birthday, we had wine on a tiny balcony overlooking the city.