Friday, 4 July 2014
I woke up with mixed feelings. We were booked on a tour of Tuscany for the day, and I was very excited, but at the same time I realised that our time in Italy was drawing to an end. We have had such a fantastic time and I really did not want to go home. But we were also feeling quite tired and my ankle, which I sprained quite badly in March, was playing up.
I got the girls out of bed, and after some Moka coffee, yoghurt, fruit and ham and cheese sandwiches, we were on our way to Stazioni di Firenze Santa Maria Novella, where we were to meet up with our tour group, under the ‘black clock on top of the main building’.
Once again, it was the meeting point for quite a few bus tours, but we eventually tracked down our group, managed to sign in and got onto the bus.
Our first stop was Pisa, which was more than an hour drive out of Florence so I settled in, caught up on some emails (work was starting again the next week) and just enjoyed driving through the Tuscan countryside.
We arrived in Pisa and walked to the Piazza dei Miracoli, which is actually a piazza situated almost outside the town, with the Pisa Cathedral, Pisa Baptistry and of course, the town’s main attraction, the Leaning Tower of Pisa. It really is quite a sight. Unfortunately, entrance tickets to the cathedral were sold out, but we took loads of pictures, including the obligatory pictures trying to ‘hold up’ the tower.
As we were walking back towards the bus, it started drizzling. We had such fantastic weather all week, that I didn’t mind too much, but as we were dressed for a summer’s day, we were keen to get back on the bus.
The drizzle didn’t last too long, and by the time we arrived at our next stop, Vinci, the skies were clear and blue and we were back in action.
Vinci, close to the birthplace of Leonardo da Vinci, is a beautiful little village surrounded by Florentine plains, mountains and stunning views. As you walk past the beautiful turreted castle of the Conti Guidi, there is a wooden representation of the Vitruvian Man, based on the drawing by Leonardo da Vinci. We visited the Leonardo Museum, a small museum filled with many of Leonardo’s drawings and with working models of his equipment and machinery, including building-site machinery, textile weaving equipment, mechanical clocks and flying equipment. Fascinating!
After the museum, we grabbed something small from one of the little cafe’s as we were told that we were going to have a late lunch, and just admired the views and town. I could easily imagine myself sitting down at one of the little open area tables, soaking up the sun, with a cappuccino or glass of prosecco!
But we were off to the birthplace of Leonardo da Vinci, just 3kms outside Vinci in the foothills of Montalbano, in the village of Anchiano. The girls were fascinated by the life-size hologram of Da Vinci retelling his life story. I was more interested in getting outside and taking in the sweeping views of the Tuscan countryside. It really is picture pretty, with vineyards as far as the eye can see and olive groves aplenty.
Soon, we were on our way again, this time en route to San Gimignano, where we were going to have lunch and a wine tasting.
We were booked for lunch at the Tenuta Torciano Winery, just about 9kms outside San Gimignano. The tour guide started telling us about the food that was going to be served on the bus, and we were definitely getting hungry!
Starters were Tuscan salame, finochionna (a fennel seed flavoured salami), pecorino cheese and bruschetta, of course drizzled with their own olive oil. Starters were served with a delightful Vernaccia di San Gimignano. The winemaker was very entertaining and showed everyone how to taste the wine ‘properly’, right from how to transfer the glass from the left to the right hand and how to hold the stem of the glass between three fingers, swirling the glass and inserting most of your nose into the glass to smell the wine, before tasting.
The Vernaccia was followed by a Chianti (of course) and even a taste of their Chianti Classico. There were also a Bartolomeo Gold Medal, a Baldassare and a Cavaliere “Super Tuscan” and several other wines for tasting. The main course was a pasta with fresh tomato sauce, drizzled by their own special olio al tartufo. We also got to taste their balsamic vinegar (which was sweet and pungent) and Tuscan biscuit dipped in a sweet dessert wine to finish off with. We were given the opportunity to purchase some produce, and I bought truffle oil and a bottle of the Chianti Classico.
Our next stop was San Gimignano, and of course it was time for our daily gelato! San Gimignano is a small medieval town, also known as the Town of Fine Towers, because of its many medieval towers. You genuinely feel like you have been transported into another century as you enter the town. It is definitely one of the places that I have put on my list of ‘places to see again’. We got our gelato and strolled through the historical centre in awe. The little shops everywhere were very inviting and Pinocchio was to be found everywhere. Apparently the creator of Pinocchio hailed from Tuscany, a little bit of useless information that we found when we googled it, after seeing so many Pinocchio’s!
Our next, and final stop for the day, was Siena. Our visit was the week after the Palio di Siena (or Il Palio), the famous horse race in the Piazza del Campo, and the town was decorated by flags of the different contrade or wards in the city. The Piazza del Campo has been cleared but there were pictures depicting the scenes during the horse race and it didn’t take much to imagine the square filled with people, horses and flags, only the weekend before!
We had a small walking tour with a local guide through the streets of Siena, which ended at the unfinished Siena Cathedral, which was originally intended to be the largest cathedral in the world. But in the mid fourteenth century, the town was hit by the Black Death which claimed almost 50% of its citizens, and the construction of the Cathedral was abandoned. The west facade, which was completed, is breathtaking, with its polychrome marble inlays everywhere, and gives a flavour of what was intended for the construction of the full cathedral.
We were also fascinated by the many statues of Romulus and Remus, the twin brothers who were raised by a she-wolf. Legend has it that Siena was established by Senius, the son of Remus, after Romulus found Rome. The she-wolf suckling the twins is widely regarded as the symbol of Siena.
Some people on the tour were staying in Siena for a light dinner, but we were on our way back to Florence. I also found out from my travel insurance that I would need to go and report the theft of my wallet, if I wanted to put a claim in for the stolen cash.
This proved an experience on its own, as despite the presence of the polizia everywhere in Florence, the Polizia di Stato was a good 3.5kms from the train station in a district definitely NOT regarded as touristy. It was dark as we walked the streets of Florence in search of the police station and once again, I was very grateful for the help of Google maps, else I am not sure if we would have ever found it! After reporting the crime (which meant filling a manual form in duplicate and having it stamped by the attending officer), we tracked down the closest bus and took another circular bus route to the area where our apartment was located.
By now it was quite late already and we decided that we were going to have dinner at the Osteria De’Benci in the street below our apartment. I tried the Pappa al Pomodoro, a bread soup. The girls had Spaghetti Carbonara (of course). The restaurant is famous for its meat, SERVED BLOODY (this is written in capital letters on the menu…), but we were not really feeling like lots of (BLOODY) meat after the long day. A glass of Chianti for me did go off well, though. I am not sure about the bread soup though, I would have preferred more tomatoes and less bread, but it was good trying out something different.
It was time to go to bed again. Our last sleep in Florence, and I was feeling a bit nostalgic and ended up googling the prices of long term rentals in Florence. Maybe one day…
Saturday, 5 July 2014
Our last day in Florence was set aside for some shopping and a last bit of sightseeing in the historical city centre. However, we were having some problems with suitcases and started off our day buying 3 new suitcases and ‘disposing’ of our own. After a hearty breakfast of leftover carbonara, we packed our bags and left it at the entrance of the apartment and hit the streets.
We packed in a good dose of shopping until lunchtime and fell into the nearest and closest Trattoria for lunch. By now, it was time to top up Bianca’s savings account again, so I whipped out my iPad to transfer cash, but alas it wasn’t working. We quickly worked out that without a transfer we would not be able to pay for lunch at this place, so we left as inconspicuous as possible and I started phoning around to try and found out what was wrong. Eventually I was told that FNB online banking was down and that they did not know how long it was going to last. We were a bit stuck, as we worked out that we had about €35 in total left in Bianca’s account and we still had to get a taxi to the station, and last with what we had until the evening as our flight was only at 11:30pm.
We managed to withdraw €20 and had some change left over after the taxi. Lunch was sandwiches from a supermarket and we could even squeeze in a couple of key rings as gifts for people we simply could not go home to empty handed. But that, alas, was the end of our shopping.
Thankfully, our transfer from the train station in Rome to the airport was booked and we had no other expenses, so we settled in for the long trip home, via stations and airports (we flew via Addis Ababa on Ethiopean Airlines).
We were sad to leave Italy, and I am definitely planning on going back at some stage for a longer visit, but I don’t know if I will ever have the opportunity to visit Italy again with my girls, and in my heart I knew that despite the exhaustion that descended on us, that we would be able to look back on this trip and treasure the memories forever.
So, it is definitely goodbye and not farewell.
Who knows, maybe one day I will do my own ‘Eat, Pray, Love’ journey.