July 11, 2010
Having had around 3 hours sleep, we checked out of the hotel and caught the bus to the station. Even though it was a Sunday, we were glad to find a regular bus service which ran on time! From the station, we caught another bus to the airport and easily found the hire car desks. We had ordered a compact car and we really got what we ordered – it was a Ford Ka and there was barely enough room in it for 2 people and 2 suitcases! I had to take the back seats down just to make enough room!
I was a bit nervous about driving the car. It was a manual, it was on the wrong side of the car and we didn’t have a very good map of where we were supposed to be going. Thankfully, the map we did have was adequate and we were soon leaving Pisa in the direction on Florence before heading south into the Chianti region.
Our first stop was a town called San Gimignano and it was really quaint. The fortified area of the city was really cool and we quickly found a wine shop and bought some supplies! Not only did we buy a big bottle of Chianti, we also got a bottle of Vernaccia, a local speciality. We also stopped here for lunch although that was a bit of a miss, especially given some of the great, reasonably cheap food we’ve had so far in Italy. We wanted to sit down but everything in this café cost almost twice as much when eating in so a couple of sandwiches and a bottle of water cost us the equivalent of $13.
From San G, we headed towards our hotel and we got a little lost. We found the nearby village of Cavriglia easily enough but the directions on the hotel website were completely useless. After a few wrongs turns, a few missed turns and a conversation with a policeman who told us it was easy, we eventually found the Hotel del Lago. The hotel was a lovely old building overlooking a beautiful lake and our room had a view across it. It was so hot and stifling though, with no breeze (and, of course, no air-con) and we spent the next couple of hours just lazing around trying to keep cool! We also tried some of our Chianti and it was pretty good!
In the evening it cooled off a little when the sun went down and we headed out to dinner. There is only one place nearby and as I didn’t want to drive too far we headed there. Elizabeth ordered spaghetti in a tomato sauce and I got a four cheese pizza. Elizabeth had almost finished her pasta by the time my pizza turned up but it meant I got to have some of her pasta while I waited and she got to have some of my pizza, too! Both were really good but the pizza was probably the best I’ve had so far – the combination of cheeses was lovely with just enough gorgonzola to give it some bite. It’s make my mouth water just typing about it!
Back at the hotel we watched the World Cup final. We were glad it was Spain and Holland as they are two of the teams we saw in South Africa. We both wanted Holland to win though and, whilst I wasn’t too bothered, Elizabeth got increasingly agitated by the Spanish play-acting, rolling around and diving and all the while asking the ref to book the Dutch players. Given the ref was English it was no surprise he performed badly, either and summed up the World Cup for English representation. We were both disappointed Spain won but it was no surprise given the game and their tactics, both fair and foul.
Thankfully the room cooled down in the evening and I was able to get some sleep after a couple of nights of not very much. I think it could’ve been an oven and I’d still have slept like a baby!
July 12, 2010
After a nice little breakfast at our hotel, we headed out in the car this morning to see some more of the Tuscan countryside, hoping to take in some Chianti tasting along the way. We drove back the way we had come yesterday and at Radda turned north towards Greve in Chianti. The drive didn’t take too long, making us realise just how many circles we’d driven yesterday trying to find our hotel!
Within the main square in Greve we found a little tourist information office and tried getting some information there about one of the local castles which is now a winery. We were hoping to do a tour there and the lady at the tourist info made out that tours left whenever there were people there. We left Greve and drove only about 3 or 4 km and found the entry to the winery. Here we were met by a very abrupt woman who told us that the tour we wanted to do was at 10am (which we’d missed) or at 3pm, which we weren’t likely to hang around for given her attitude! Thankfully, we’d made note of another similar place down the road so after driving to the castle and getting some quick snaps, we headed to the next place.
This was called Castello Vicchio Maggio and here we found what we would expect from a winery – a nice little shop and a friendly, pleasant and knowledgeable person serving wine tastings for a reasonable cost. We’d have preferred “free” but after trying four of their wines we decided to buy two bottles and the tasting fee was deducted anyway! Obviously, we saw this as a saving!
From there we drove back into the centre of Greve to get some lunch. We stopped first at a place called La Cantine. This is a large wine shop where you buy a wine card for anywhere between 10 and 25 Euros and you go around and try whatever wines you want to. Each win is obviously a different tasting price but with some as low as 60 cents and decent servings, Elizabeth and I both had fun going around trying lots of wines! I actually felt a bit drunk after about 5 Euros of our 10 Euro card so left Elizabeth to spend the last bit on some grappa and a slightly pricier wine – just to see how the other half live. I had a sniff of the grappa and it almost made me sick. It was so disgusting and I was happy to let Elizabeth drink it all to herself. The concept here was really good and had I not been driving we could quite easily have spent an entire afternoon here!
We found a small café for lunch although we were a bit unsure about it. It looked very much like a canteen inside but given we’d spent most of our food budget for the day on wine we were left with little option! We both chose the lasagna and it was excellent. We were both really surprised how good it was and I was almost tempted to go back for seconds! We decided to buy food at the supermarket for dinner so that we could enjoy our wine and the lovely lakeside setting at our hotel. We bought some tasty bread, salami, cheese and some sun-dried tomatoes and pickled pepperoncini.
The drive back didn’t take too long and we were soon back at the hotel. The room was like a sauna and there was no breeze around the lake at all. With the windows and blinds open, the sun shone into the room and warmed it up. With the blinds shut, the room felt stuffy and enclosed and just help the heat. Oh air-con, where are you?
We went and sat down by the lake in the evening and ate our food accompanied by a lovely bottle of Chianti before retiring to our room and watching a film on the laptop. It was my choice so I made Elizabeth sit through one of the old Bond films!
July 13, 2010
Today was quite a frustrating day at the beginning, kept on being frustrating but eventually improved! After another filling breakfast, we decided to drive to the town of Siena. This is about 45km from our hotel and we should’ve been able to drive it in about an hour, using just two roads. However, we got about 7 or 8 km along the way and one of the roads was closed off, with no diversion signs or alternative routes or anything. We tried a number of different roads and after about 30 minutes we were driving back past our hotel, heading north, in a vain attempt to bypass the roadworks. There must have been an easier way but we just couldn’t find it!
The new route took us high up into the hills before coming back down the other side and, thankfully, joining the main road that we recognised and knew and also having signs to Siena! After that, we got into Siena in about half an hour but all told we had driven for nearly 2 hours to get here. The frustration didn’t end there though. We had hoped to be in Siena by about 10am but it was gone 11 when we arrived and by that time, of course, everyone else had bloody arrived too! Tour buses, day trippers and every man and their dog had got there before us. We then spent another half an hour driving around looking for a parking spot. Every free spot we saw had a sign saying “residents only” and even the policeman we asked just said to park anywhere on the streets. Given the number of signs threatening clamping and towing we weren’t prepared to risk that but we were lucky when we eventually found a spot. We asked a local if we could park there and he was very helpful, even providing us with directions and a bit of paper with the street name in case we couldn’t find the road when coming back!
It was actually a pretty good parking spot as it turned out to be closer to the centre than we had thought and after about 5 minutes walking we were at the fortified walls which surrounded the centre and right at one of the car parks we’d driven around for 10 minutes looking for a space – there still weren’t any!
Another 10 minutes or so walk and we were at our first stop. This stop was one of the churches in the town and inside it was the head of a saint! The church itself was pretty plain inside but on the far side was an area used as a shrine for St. Catherine. As is the tradition, apparently, the heads of saints are often returned to their home towns and this was the case here. First of all, we saw a display case containing a whip belonging to St. Catherine as well as her thumb. If that wasn’t weird enough, the main area did indeed contain her head. It looked almost unreal and sort of had a plastic look to it. It had been here in this church since the 14th Century so I imagine the chemicals and embalming treatments used have caused this effect. Even so, whilst it was weird knowing what it was, it didn’t actually seem half as weird as seeing her thumb in a jar!
We proceeded to walk around the town of Siena, a UNESCO World Heritage site, and we were amazed by how beautiful everything was and how well kept all the old buildings were. The tiny, quiet side streets sloped away from the main thoroughfare we were on and contained so many old buildings. We were soon faced with the main cathedral of the town and, like the one in Milan, it was very imposing. We could see parts of it from all over the town but only when we were close up could we see the real scale of it. Unlike the one in Milan however, this one was pretty gaudy in its design, mixing the lovely white marble exterior with stripes of black rock all over it. It just looked really weird and once we got inside, we were amazed to see the interior decorated exactly the same. We had to pay to go inside but we had wanted to go and see the marble designs on the floor. In total, there are 56 scenes covering the floor of the cathedral depicting biblical and historical scenes although many of them are covered at any one time to allow people to walk between those that are visible. I’m not sure what Elizabeth got from walking through the cathedral but quite honestly I was struggling to concentrate on the floor with the black and white walls in front of me! Also, around the top of the arches were a lot of busts, all of them depicting previous Popes. It was difficult to tell how recent any of them were but I didn’t see anything saying John-Paul II so I guess they aren’t too current!
Back outside the cathedral, we stepped back and took a good look at the front of the building. It was the first time we had really noticed it but as well as the black and white there was also a significant amount of pink around the window frames and this really looked horrendous. The shape and style of the building’s architecture was so amazing yet it had been ruined by an awful colour scheme!
We carried on walking around the town and soon found another of the town’s main sites, the Piazza del Campo. This square contains one building, with a massive tower, which is seen for miles around and is also seen on pretty much ever postcard of Siena. The building with it is quite plain but the tower is impressive.
Around the square were lots of nice-looking, horribly over-priced restaurants so despite our hunger, thirst and sweatiness, we continued back into the little alleyways to look for some food. We found a little café and had a quick bite to eat before heading back towards the car. We had seen temperatures on some thermometers and it was peaking at well over 100F so we were happy that, firstly, we found the car; secondly, it hadn’t been clamped; and, thirdly, the air-con was icy cold!
The drive back started with a little detour as I wasn’t entirely sure where we were in the city and where we needed to be heading but I soon noticed a sign for the road number we needed and followed it, despite not being entirely sure it was going where we wanted. I needn’t have worried as it soon had us heading north and all we had to do was figure a way around the roadworks that didn’t involve a 45 minute trek off into the countryside. Taking a wild guess, I drove past the town we usually turn off at and headed for the next one, hoping to bypass just about everything. We ended up in a town called San Giovanno and after a few wrong turns and a dead end or two, we eventually found a road we recognised and we soon got back to our hotel and a nice cold shower.
We’d had a little drive around the nearby town looking for dinner options but these seemed to be particularly lacking so we decided to head back to the nearby restaurant by the lake and this time we both ordered pizza so I didn’t have to wait and watch Elizabeth eat! This time the food was just as good and I am starting to wonder when I will begin to look like a pizza.
Back at the room we decided we couldn’t be bothered packing our stuff tonight and decided to have some more of our wine and watch a film – Elizabeth’s choice was Iron Man although I was asleep before the end. Despite the lack of air-con in our room, it is actually quite pleasant once the sun goes down and until about 9am!
And a note about today - recently we've had our two year anniversary of being married (June 14), our one year anniversary of being unemployed (June 30) and today is exactly one year since we left Bermuda and our travelling began with flights to NY, Dublin and then London. Looking at it that way, we've not got very far - only from London to Italy! :)