Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Tuesday, September 21, through Friday, October 15, 2010: The Italian Adventure:
Tuesday was spent killing time until our plane left for Rome. We spent some time at the Manassas battlefield (also known as Bull Run), from the Civil War, which was about a half mile from our hotel.

The visitor center had a very interesting movie describing and reenacting the first battle. (There were two). We headed for the airport (Washington Dulles International Airport) via Super Shuttle, which got us there a full three hours before scheduled takeoff. Our plane left the gate right on time (5:50 pm) and spent the next hour sitting on the ground. The reason, which was discovered, not volunteered, was that, due to earlier wind problems, the airport had been closed for some time and we were 16th in line to take off. There were another 16 planes in line right behind us.

The flight was uneventful except that Becky fell asleep with some unfinished wine (red, incidentally) on her tray which spilled all over both of us when we hit some turbulence. We picked up 45 minutes of the lost time, and arrived in Rome at 9:15 am, and started the longest day ever.

We needed to get to Siena to pick up our rental car. After waiting for our luggage at the wrong carousel for a half hour (Thank you, United Airlines) and waiting 45 minutes for the bus to leave, having been told it would leave in 15 minutes,

the trip from the airport to the train station took an incredible two hours, We were ten minutes too late to catch the train we had planned to take, and had to reschedule. The next train left 1½ hours later and required a change (with a 7 minute gap) in a town called Grosetto. The train station in Rome is an absolute madhouse. Mobs of people are everywhere, and it costs more than a dollar to take a leak. The latter is quite an insult to us older folks.

We had been warned to be on the lookout for pickpockets, and the warning was rewarded. While getting on the train, we were interfered with by some people who tried to cram in ahead of us, then stood around not going anywhere. One of them was an attractive young mother openly breastfeeding her baby. I was too busy with my bags to notice, but I am informed that it was quite distracting. Moments later, a train person told us it was a team of pickpockets we had seen. Fortunately, they got nothing from us.

True to form for the day, our train was 8 minutes late getting to Grosetto, but the conductor held the next train for us. Thank you, Signor!. That train arrived in time for us to pick up our rental car, but it turned out that the rental office was miles away from the train station.. While Becky and Barbara (Coad, who had joined us at Dulles) went to get the car by taxi, Pat, Bill, and I cooled our heels across the street from the station (to avoid the cigarette smoke in the station, in which smoking was prohibited, of course). Luckily, I was able to find a nearby store that was willing to sell me some wine for later. We stuffed the Opel with all of our luggage (and my newly-acquired wine), leaving just enough room for us to breathe, and headed for our villa outside the village of Poggibonsi, in lovely Tuscany. Niccolo, the property manager, had emailed us instructions on how to get to the place. They were almost understandable. Amazingly, we actually got there,

and he was there. Ostensibly, he was waiting for us, but actually, he was just getting into his car to leave, because he had no idea where we were, since we were so late, and we had no way of reaching him.

The place is wonderful, and we were excited to have finally reached our destination. It quickly became apparent, though, that we were hungry and we had to go elsewhere for dinner. With some difficulty, we found nearby San Gimignano and had a nice meal at Bar Piazzetto, eating outside in a delightful ancient hillside location. The challenge was getting back to our remote villa---on dirt roads with no signs, in the dark. After a few missteps, we actually got there, much to our surprise. We celebrated with a few glasses of wine, and hit the sack. The next morning, Becky and I watched the sunrise from our balcony. It was lovely.

This truly is a beautiful part of the world. All of us were still very tired, though. Becky and I went back to bed after watching the sunrise. Bill slept until 11:30 am.

The next day was spent shopping for food---and a cell phone so we could communicate with, mostly, Francesco. Exhausting, but fun. We barbecued some chicken and, while the girls made plans for the next few days, Bill and I did crossword and sudoku puzzles, respectively. We also took a bit of a look at Poggibonsi, which, among other things, is responsible for 90% of the domestic RV production in Italy.

The focus of Friday was Siena. Our destination was the old, historic part of town. Thinking we were near there, we parked in a structure at the railroad station. Big mistake. We had to walk about a mile to get to the area we wanted to visit. The old part of the town is lovely and we had a nice tour and lunch.

There are some beautiful doors in Siena,

and magnificent churches, as well.

The new part of the town is just like every other city in Italy---crowded and noisy. It seems that late September is a popular time for people to visit Italy. There are a zillion people everywhere. Maybe there are always a zillion people in Italy. We got back about 4:00 and, while Becky and Pat walked to a nearby vineyard to filch a few grapes,

Barbie, Bill, and I settled in for a nap. At 6:00, it was time for some wine and cheese. We have a very tough life.

On Saturday, we went to three places: Volterra (the home of Italian alabaster), Monteriggioni (said to be the most photographed town---from the air---in Italy),

and Vagliagli. All three are interesting medieval hill towns, meaning you have to climb steep streets to get anywhere in town. We had lunch in Monteriggioni at Ristorante Da Remo, a nice but overpriced bistro, where Bill and I had very good spaghetti and the girls all had ribolitta (a stew you can eat with a fork).

The last town (which we call Vaginitis, for convenience) is in the nearby Chianti region, and had a grape festival going.

That means I paid 20 Euro for tasting several Chianti wines---which were quite yummy. Included in the price was a thing to hang around my neck that held my wine glass. I wore it proudly.

The real fun was getting from Vagliagli to anywhere else. We ended up on a dirt road for more than 20 kilometers, heading back home to Poggibonsi.

Sunday was our day to finally meet with Francesco, the reason for the trip (and with Silvia Rutigliano, a long-time---though young---family friend of the Gigantis). We met in Bologna since Francesco is still living in Milano for more classes in radiology, his expected specialty. He drove there with a friend (girlfriend?) and fellow doctor (Laura Lorioli, a pediatrician) and Silvia took the train there from her home in Florence. We met at the piazza across the street from a big park (Giardino Della Montagnola) near the train station, which took us nearly an hour to find.

We had a great reunion with Francesco and Silvia, and walked around the town for a looooong time. Bologna is famous for its loggias; it has the most in all of Italy.

It also has one remaining canal; all the rest have been paved over.

Finally we had lunch at Pane, Vino & San Daniele, a family-type restaurant where we ate ourselves into oblivion---paid for by Francesco and Silvia. (Grazie! Grazie!)

On Monday, Bill and I vegged out while the girls met with Silvia in Siena (on Mondays, Silvia works in an insurance office at the train station there) and took care of some administrative details about our trip. Silvia realized how helpless we were and volunteered her GPS for the rest of our trip. What a godsend. It was a relaxing day for us, if not for the girls. It rained enough that we never even went out the door of the villa. After the girls returned, Niccolo delivered our DVD machine so we could watch something on TV and understand it. Of course, we had no DVDs.

Tuesday was a three-site day, wherein we visited Montalciano, Buonconvento, and the abbey at Sant’ Antimo. Montalciano is centered in an old fortress in the center of a region where they grow what we were told were brunello grapes and, consequently, where they make brunello wine. It’s the only place in the world brunello wine is made. (I was later informed by a wine merchant that the brunello grapes are really just very fine sangiovese grapes.) In any event, the brunello wine is very expensive (or at least more expensive than we are used to paying). Barbara and I paid for a tasting, and ended up buying two bottles of the least expensive brunellos, one of which we drank that night. It was yummy.

Buonconvento was a surprise stop. We noticed an interesting wall near the road and decided to take a look. It turned out that it was one side of a large, charming, nearly hidden area of shops and apartments that was fascinating to walk through. There we met some bicycle riders from the U.S. It turned out that they were from the area in New York we had stayed in recently. Small world.

The last stop was a ninth-century abbey (Sant’ Antimo) where we arrived just in time for the regular hour of Gregorian chanting by the monks who live there. Quite a pleasant surprise.

After a long drive home, I discovered that I was missing one of my credit cards. The ensuing panic involved two long phone conversations with the issuing bank in the U.S. With the bank’s help, we verified that our last purchase with the card was at a nearby supermarket we had visited three days earlier, and, hurrah, we were able to retrieve the card there.

Wednesday was supposed to be a day off for the boys and a day of walking for the girls. They headed for San Gimignano while Bill and I read. After a couple of hours, Bill and I decided to take a walk of our own. We headed for a gas station on the way to “downtown” Poggibonsi, looking for cigars for Bill. It became apparent halfway there that we were walking downhill all the way. That portended a nasty climb back up. When we arrived at the gas station we discovered that it was just that and nothing more. No cigars, no snacks. We were hungry by that time and looked for a place to eat. After a few missteps, we were informed that the nearest food was about another kilometer further. We decided to turn around and head back up the hill. It turned out that the girls beat us home. They had given up on getting to San Gimignano once they realized it was much farther than they thought. We had walked four miles and they had walked twice as far. We were all tired. But we drove to San Gimignano anyway, since there was shopping to do. We had been there the first night, in the dark, and were not prepared for just how beautiful an old hill town it is. Just delightful.

Thursday was the day to visit Assisi. It was a long day because Assisi is more than two hours away. But it was well worth it. Assisi is beautiful and very well preserved. The references to St. Frances are everywhere, of course, There is also a lot of attention paid to Chiara (“Clara“ in English-speaking countries), a young lady who became an acolyte of his---and later a saint---and of whom I‘d never previously heard. (It turns out that the city of Santa Clara, California, and its namesake Catholic university, are named after her.)

Assisi is another hill town (only 1/5 of its current residents live within its walls) but has a slightly different look from the others we have seen. I finally realized that the difference was in the stones used in building its walls, roads, and all other structures. They were lighter in color than in the other towns, mostly rose and white, instead of dark gray.

It was altogether a lovely place to visit.

Friday (October 1) was a shopping day for the girls and a relaxing day for the boys. I don’t know what triggered it, but we went through four bottles of wine Friday night. Ouch!

Saturday was our day in Firenze (“Florence” in the English-speaking world). We arrived at noon, and walked around a bit before the girls attacked the local cathedral, Il Duomo, for the 463-step climb to the top of the dome.

While they climbed, Bill and I had a nice, calm, pasta lunch at a restaurant just across the piazza. The ladies returned at 2:00 and we walked around some more. We were scheduled to meet Francesco and Laura at 3:00 at the John the Baptist building---also across the piazza from Il Duomo. They arrived right on time and we walked some more, running into Francesco’s pretty 19-year old cousin, Giulia, at the Ponte Vecchio. Her joining us had been pre-arranged, but we didn’t know it at the time.

After yet some more walking, Barbie found a store that had a charm bracelet she wanted, and, after she bought the bracelet, we walked to the parking garage, got in our cars, and headed up the hill to the Piazza Michelangelo, a fabulous place from which to view Firenze.

After the ladies took a zillion pictures, we headed for a nearby bar and some refreshment. It was after sundown that we finally left---for dinner at Francesco’s parents’ apartment. We only got lost once trying to follow Francesco to the apartment. He came and got us (thank goodness, we now had a cell phone), and we followed him (much more closely) the rest of the way. We arrived at 8:00.

Seeing Antonietta and Bernardo again was a real treat. Francesco’s sister, Chiara, and his aunt and uncle (Giulia’s parents) Mira and Mario, were also there---making a small crowd of 13 for dinner. We had a delightful reunion with everyone, all of whom we had met three years ago on our last visit to Firenze.

There were many gifts exchanged and we had a terrific meal cooked by Antonietta and Mira. We also watched a video of Francesco on a recent class 5 whitewater rafting trip on the Nile River in Uganda. Very scary! We didn’t leave for the 1 hour return trip to Poggibonsi until 11:30 Becky, being the only person authorized to drive the rental car, was quite a trouper. What a long but wonderful day.

Sunday was a day of rest (again) for the boys while the girls headed for Arezzo and more sightseeing. Becky and I visited it three years ago with Francesco and Silvia, and I saw no reason to return. Parts of the movie “Life Is Beautiful” (for which Roberto Benini won a “Best Actor” Oscar) were filmed in Arezzo, and pictures representing a number of scenes are posted around the town. Otherwise, it is not a particularly scenic or historic place.

Monday (October 4) was a sightseeing day in Poggibonsi for Becky, Barbara, and me. (Bill wasn’t feeling well and Pat stayed with him.) We wandered around, looking for the “old” section. There are old buildings sprinkled throughout the city, but no old “section“ as such. Apparently, Poggibonsi was bombed fairly hard in the war since it was a manufacturing center, and there are still pockets of destruction along with a lot of “new” construction. At 6:00, the three of us went to a winery a few minutes from our villa, run by a local family (the Medan family). Daniele, a (handsome young) great-grandson of the founder, took us on a tour of the facility and treated us to a tasting of their wines. Excellent! We bought several bottles and enjoyed some of them that night. Tuesday was another day for the girls to explore (Poggibonsi’s street market, mostly) while Bill and I relaxed. The weather was beautiful, as usual, and we sat outside, next to the pool, reading.

Wednesday was our day to start exploring the Chianti region. Thoroughly enjoyable, including eating lunch in a famous (to tourists) hilltop restaurant (Osteria Alla Piazza) near Rodda. Thursday and Friday were more exploration days---Greve In Chianti, Castellini In Chianti, Badia A Coltibuono, etc., with a time out for a visit to the street market in San Gimignano.

The five of us left for Cinque Terre on Saturday (October 10). On the way, we stopped in Lucca, a walled city that is, rarely, not on a hill. It is a very nice place, well preserved, and very busy.

The part of the city located outside the wall is very modern, and, therefore, not very interesting.

Cinque Terre is a five-village area located along the water on the west coast of Italy---on the Ligurian Sea (the northern leg of the Mediterranean Sea). Much of it is a national park. It was not very far from Lucca, but it took a long time to get there partly because the roads near the coast are narrow and curvy and we had to ascend and descend several hills. The last five kilometers took about an hour. We stayed for two days in the Hotel Cinque Terre (a very nice place) on Via IV Novembre in the village of Monterosso al Mare, the northernmost of the villages. We wandered the streets of the village when we got there. It was a beautiful day and the beaches were full. Tourists, mostly, of course. Since they don’t celebrate Labor Day in Italy, they don’t realize that summer vacations are supposed to end in early September and everyone is supposed to stay home. The big event was the girls’ hiking the 7 miles from Monterosso al Mare to Riomaggiore, the fifth, and southernmost, village in the chain, on Sunday morning. It was apparently a brutal hike, since it required, among other things, ascending and descending a 2,000 foot high hill in the middle of the trek. They took the 16 minute train back to Monterosso al Mare. That night, we had a wonderful dinner (I had mussels!) at L’Alta Marea in the old section of town. I had been assigned the task of finding a restaurant, and my choice was widely praised.  We had fun talking with some tourists from western Canada sitting next to us. The restaurant was a 15-minute walk from our hotel, along the beach. We scarfed down gelato on the way back to our hotel. That was not unusual for us.

The next day, Monday, half way back to Poggibonsi, I realized that I had failed to turn in my room key when we left the hotel. (It was one of those heavy brass goodies that weigh a pound or more.) Oops! I called the hotel and they assured me it was OK, but I still felt badly. On the way home we stopped in Carrara, mostly to take pictures of the hillsides with their vast marble quarries. We also made the obligatory stop at Pisa, so everyone could finally see the leaning tower. As usual, the place was mobbed with tourists. It was still fun, though.

Tuesday afternoon (October 13) we met Niccolo at one of the other properties he manages. It is a completely refurbished and modernized former (small) castle only five minutes away from our villa but technically located in San Gimignano. It is absolutely magnificent, and expensive. It has only twelve “apartments” for rent. It also has an on-site restaurant, an infinity swimming pool, and an absolutely magnificent view of the Tuscan countryside. That night we went to a restaurant Niccolo recommended (in nearby Barberino Val d’ Elsa) to celebrate the end of our Tuscany experience. Becky and I shared a delicious and hideously expensive T-bone steak that was at least four inches thick. Wow! What a sendoff.

We said goodbye to Tuscany before dawn Wednesday morning, driving to Siena to drop off the car and take the train to Rome. The trains we took (another transfer in Grosetto was required) were commuter trains, so there was no space to store our luggage. No problem; we’d just put it on some of the many empty seats. But, uh oh: A zillion commuters got on at an early stop (Civitavecchia) after our transfer in Grosetto and we had to make alternative plans for the luggage. It was a bit of an uncomfortable ride from then on, but our new seatmates were Swedes on a cruise and we had a nice talk with them.

Our hotel in Rome (Il Terni) was only three blocks from the station, but we had to schlep our luggage the whole way. (There was no appetite for taking two taxis that short a distance.) Not the most fun, appearing to be real yokels. On the way to the hotel, the axle on my big suitcase broke, and I thought I would have to drag the bag the rest of the way. Fortunately, the wheels continued to turn, but with the wheels canted crazily toward each other the bag looked like a John Deere tractor.

The hotel was one of those small, old ones, with a steel cage elevator crammed into the stairway and two separate hotels on the same floor, both hotels confusingly operated by the same front desk. Not a posh setup by any means (e.g., the shower took up, and included, the entire bathroom), but we knew we could survive for the one night we would be there. And, because we were going to take the train to the airport the next morning, the location was perfect.

After a typical pizza lunch (plus a terrific bottle of beer) at a nearby small trattoria (I‘ve been informed that the difference between a “trattoria“ and a “ristorante“ is, as a practical matter, nothing more than spelling), everyone else went for an brief sightseeing trip to the Colosseum, and I went to the post office and mailed the room key back to our hotel in Cinque Terre. It was quite an experience; the postal worker spoke not a word of English and I spoke not a useful word of Italian. Somehow, though, it worked. The postal worker was very helpful. Grazie, Signor!

After the gang returned, we went on an expedition to visit the Trevi Fountain. Of course, we got lost (even though the map was in English) and walked about three miles to get six blocks away. When we finally got there, the fountain was surrounded by the thousands of like-minded tourists, and it was barely visible due to the throng.

Then it started to rain as we headed back to our hotel. We gave up and took a taxi.

That night, Becky and I had one of our typical picnic dinners in our room (lunch had become our most important meal of the day), consuming our last two really nice bottles of Italian wine as a sort of going-away celebration---while we watched the amazing rescue of the 33 Chilean miners on TV (CNN International, not Italian TV). What a wonderful story that was. And the best part was that Obama could not claim any credit for the heartwarming result. It must have killed him.  While channel surfing, we also stumbled across a presentation of the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra from the Walt Disney Hall.  The conductor was the one who had just recently taken over the orchestra, Gustavo Dudamel (originally from Venezuela).  He was very exciting to watch. 

The next morning, we hopped on the express train to the airport (we were not about to repeat the two-hour bus fiasco),

and went through the usual mechanics of getting to the gate. The entire exercise was totally without incident, except that our plane pulled away from the gate a half hour late, did not make up even a minute of the lost time, and the sound on our entertainment goody was marginal. It didn’t matter; we were so tired the entertainment was unnecessary. (It included a little-known Marisa Tomei movie (“Cyrus”) though, and she’s adorable. But, we could barely hear the dialogue. Too bad.))

We arrived at Dulles, sped through immigration, waited forever for our bags, waved at the customs folks, got in a Super Shuttle van, and headed for our hotel in Manassas---the same one we stayed in before we left. That night, I wandered into the bar/restaurant in our hotel and had an unnecessary dinner of fish and chips (and two necessary bottles of Budweiser) while listening to a loud country music band. It was fun.

The next morning, after a quick trip to a local GMC dealer to find out that the “check engine” light on the truck dashboard was for a glow plug relay problem that: (i) the dealer could not fix and (ii) did not seem to be important, anyway, we headed for Pennsylvania, back to the RV park (“Gettysburg Farm”) and retrieved our rigs from the storage lot. Pat and Bill immediately left for their home in Michigan (they are expecting their first great-grandchild in a couple of weeks; we‘ll meet up with them in southern California in December) and we moved our trailer from the storage lot to a regular site for two days.

Our Italian adventure was officially over.

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