1 April 2017
The track assignment for the train finally posted, and we navigated to the platform. We were stopped by a guy who asked if we were boarding the overnight train. Well, I think that is what he asked because he asked in French. I said, "Je ne parle pas francais." In English, he said, "What language do you prefer, English?" And I said, "Yes"
He was an Italian student, studying medieval history in school in Paris. He had missed the train in Paris, caught a ride on a high-speed train to Dijon, and hoped he had made it in time to board for the rest of his trip home to Padua, which is our destination to connect with a train to Florence. He speaks Italian [natively], French, and English, and he said a little bit of German. Dianne and I always feel so inadequate when we meet folks like this guy. He gave us some suggestions of local dishes to try in the Veneto, and then the train pulled in at 2235, about 45 minutes late, and then we sat in the station until nearly 2315. I started to be concerned about making our connection in Padua.
We said goodbye, then we boarded the Othello overnight train from Paris to Venice, although we are joining in Dijon and disembarking in Padua. Our cabin is easy to find, though the passage was a bit tight with backpacks and roller bags. The cabin itself was also a bit snug, but we did just fine. Dianne even placed all of the bags up on the luggage rack all by herself because the bags plus the two of us would not fit at the same time! Changed into comfy pants, and Dianne asked me to take the top bunk. I think she was a little skeptical of the ladder [it rested on a very thin rail, not locked in place] and I think she wanted to look out the window for a bit. I laid down, and was asleep very shortly after we pulled out of Dijon. I slept well, though I woke up several times, mainly when we stopped in a station, but I always went right back to sleep.
We got to Padua just a few minutes past our scheduled arrival, so we obviously made up some time coming across the Alps. While our feet never touched the ground, we did pass through Switzerland. In that sense, we followed the British guys advice from Chambord: "Don't spend too much time in Switzerland." Hour and half plus wait for the next train to Florence, and then we were on our way.
We both fell asleep on this 1.5 hour ride; I knew I was sleepy, so I set an alarm on my phone to be sure we did not sleep through the stop at Firenze Santa Maria Novella [SMN on all the signs]. Gathered up our bags, left the train station, and walked to the Budget office, about 1.2 km away. There was some sort of protest going on the piazza just around the corner from the stazione, and there was a heavy police presence. We made it to the address that Budget lists as their office, and true to form with a car rental agency not at the airport, it was not correct. Used Google Maps on Dianne's phone with a 'Budget' search, and it was about 300 meters on down the same street. It was lunch time, and there was only one person working the counter. And she was dealing with a couple of knuckleheads from Atlanta that took forever to sort out. There was one other group in front of us, Belgians, and they took not quite as long. Just as she was finishing with them, her coworker returned, and assisted us.
Even with a reservation and all of our information provided at booking, it is amazing how long it takes to rent a car. The nav system in this car, a Volvo V40 wagon, is much much less good than what the Renault offered. The view is a very small scale of a very large area, so the detail about the road and turns and lanes is lacking. We both know there is a way to change the scale, but we messed with every option we could find in the different menus to no avail. We again had to use Dianne's phone and Google Maps to make our escape from the crazy that is Florence. Once we were out of the city, the drive went back to being the beautiful Tuscan peacefulness that we knew last year.
GPS took us straight to Terra Rossa in Siena. Wow. This place was beautiful. It was more than we could have hoped. Terra Rossa is a farm; they have 21 hectares total area. On that, they have over 600 olive trees. They work with the local cooperative to make their olive oil, and as a welcome gift, we had a little bottle of that plus a bottle of their wine that they make here. It is for personal consumption, not part of the commercial operations of this farm, but it was a very generous and unexpected gift.
The road into the farm looks like the driveway at home. Except that it is a public road with two-way traffic. I am not exactly sure how we pass another vehicle, but so far, it has not been an issue because we have not met any other cars. We know they go in and out because there are cars here, but the timing of in and out has not coincided with ours.
The front door into our flat is a beautiful arched door with wide sidelights. I estimated the total opening at 5m and the height at the center to be 3m. It is all glass with just the minimum amount of wood framing to hold it together. It is a really grand entrance into what was once the barn; Martina called it the 'farm house' but we understood it housed livestock.
Martina called a local restaurant to help us make a reservation for the evening. When she first called, they said they could not because their credit card machine was not working. Just a few minutes later, they called her back and said the repairman had been there, fixed it, and they could accept appointments. She came back to the flat to tell us that we had a 1930 reservation for dinner.
We washed clothes for the first time on this trip. It was a beautiful sight to see the washer in the flat. We were both out of clean clothes, and because we pack light, the shirts were beginning to lose their freshness. We washed two loads on Saturday, and then we left for our dinner reservation. We left in plenty of time, and we arrived just a few minutes after 1900. We wondered about the property for a few minutes, taking in the nice view of the Sienese sky line, then waited in the car. Like the French, Italians eat dinner later, and 1930 was the earliest time for a reservation.
We met Arianna, and she was a fabulous server. Our meal was a grand experience. We placed our order based on her descriptions and recommendations, and then I ordered a bottle of Vernaccia, the only white wine in Tuscany with DOC certification. She said, "NO!" And she had our attention. She said, "The Vernaccia is ok, but what you find in restaurants is not the good wine; it is for tourists. Try something else, try something you do not know." So we asked her for her favorite: It was a bottle of Monteucco from Tenuta l'Impostino. The wine was 80% Sangiovese with Cabernet Franc, Merlot, and Petit Verdot making up the other 20%. And it was good. She also brought us a glass of the rosé that she had recommended as an alternative, but I did not get the details on it. It was a delicious rosé and paired beautifully with the cauliflower purée and vegetable dish starter that Dianne had. The purée reminded us both of the cauliflower soup that Corey made for the Valentine's dinner. I had a lamb carapaccio that wasn't really carappaccio but lamb cooked rare, sliced very thin, and served cold. It was good too.
For the pasta course, Dianne had linguine with pepperoncini and a cream sauce, and I had a green apple and mushroom risotto. Both were good, but the linguine was incredible. For the main course, Dianne had the fish and I had ossobucco. Like the pasta, both were good, but this time, I think the winning dish was mine. We were very full by this time, but we still ordered a dessert to share, a dark chocolate mousse. Arianna brought a sample of the cheesecake [not NY cheesecake], and it was delicious. She also brought us a glass of Prosecco to finish the meal.
Arianna was really interesting. She is Albanian, but she has lived in Italy for the past 10 years. She is the server at this restaurant, but she also makes all of the desserts. She also speaks Albanian, Italian, English, and "a little French". She is studying here in Siena, though we did not get what it is that she is studying. Likely she said and we just missed it or forgot. The meal was so good, Dianne suggested that we go ahead and make a reservation for Sunday night too; it was a good call, and that is what we did.
Back to the flat, hung the second load of laundry to dry, wrote a bit in the travel journals, and off to bed.
2 April 2017
Cool and overcast is how this day started. We looked at driving back up to Florence to visit the Medici Pratolino park. Dianne really wanted to see the Colossus-like sculpture there, and we had thought about doing it yesterday. I am really glad we looked, because the book we have says the park is open Friday to Sunday. Which is true, beginning 16-17 April for this season. Driving in Florence sucks, it is only marginally less crazy than Rome, and if we had driven up there, fought the traffic, and found the park closed, I would likely have been very unhappy. Forget about the 2.5 hour round trip; being in the mad house would have made me less than happy.
Instead, we took a drive up to the ruins of a 12th century abbey, L'Abbazia di San Galgano. It is only 30km or so from our flat, but it was still an hour or so drive. The drive takes you through an Italian national forest, so for the most part, the typical Tuscan views are hidden, but you do get glimpses.
On the drive, we stopped at a bar in one of the villages along the way. I do not remember the name of the place, but this was such a fun experience! We were both really hungry, and we [rightly] figured there would not be food at the abbey. We walked in, one guy working the counter, friendly fellow who did not speak a single word of English. I did my best to work through my limited Italian with Dianne helping out too. It helped that he had a couple of panini already made and in his display case, and we got a couple of the delicious panini, a couple of bottles of acqua naturale, and feasted.
The abbey was fascinating in a weird sort of way. The ability to build something so tall in that period is impressive. The abbey is believed to be the first Gothic structure built in Tuscany.
It had a really hard history, almost from the very beginning. The Cistercian monks built the abbey as they acquired more and more land in the area, and they needed a bigger place to house all of the brothers. The remains of that building were begun in 1218 and completed in 1288. The original settlement was by a knight who lived out the end of his life as a hermit. He would later become a saint, San Galgano. He supposedly drove his sword into a stone to show his commitment to living in peace after so many years of war. That sword and stone are the centerpiece in the old chapel.
The abbey itself faced famine in 1329 and then Black Death in 1348. After that, it found itself the target of mauraders on and off for the next 100 years, and at the end of the 15th century, the monks moved to Siena. In 1786, the bell tower was struck by lightning, and it collapsed into the roof of the abbey, taking the roof down with it.
It is still an impressive place, and the fact that the walls are stil standing is testament to the engineering ability of that century and the integrity of masonry construction. The flying buttresses, the load bearing columns, and the gothic arches are impressive.
But one can only spend so much time looking at ruins, and so we headed back to the flat for a short nap. Well, one of us napped while I washed another load of clothes, had a brief FaceTime with E&M, and then spent some time writing a review on TripAdvisor.
We had made reservations at L'Orto & Un Quarto again for tonight at 1930. We loaded up in the car at 1915, and we were there at 1925. Arianna greeted us in the garden as we walked in. She was collecting sage from the garden and having a smoke break. She makes an aperitif from dry Prosecco, white pepper, and a sage leaf, all over ice. It is a nice aperitif. The astringency and herbaceous notes from the sage, a very little bit of heat from the white pepper, and the fruit-forward nature and bubbles of the Prosecco come together nicely.
For dinner on this night, I had a repeat of Dianne's appetizer and first course from the previous evening, finishing with ossobucco again tonight. Dianne had the poached egg appetizer, lasagna with potatoes instead of ricotta, and finished with a soybean curry dish for secondi. She said it was good, but less satisfying than the fish last night.
For dessert, she had a dark chocolate dish, served with vanilla gelato. Gelato is not ice cream, but something much, much better. The texture is richer, and the favors seem deeper. Arianna brought us a glass of Prosecco to have with the dessert. Dianne finished with what might be the best espresso I have ever tasted. The meal as a whole was another successful evening.
Back to the flat where we wrote in our travel journals, got ready, and hit the bed. We are going to Volterra tomorrow!
3 April 2017
We started the day with a visit to CONAD, a supermarket not too far from our place, and very near to where we will meet Donatella with Wine Tour in Tuscany on Wednesday. It seemed simple enough, we knew the rough location and how to get to it. We could see the building and the parking lot. And we circled the three round-abouts that face the place three times.
The first round-about has the entry to the lot, the second has the exit, and the third is where people who miss the entry u-turn. First pass: Drove right by it, thinking the entry was at the second traffic circle. OK, understandable mistake for people who are unfamiliar with the road. Second pass: Turned in the entry, and then left to what appeared to be the access to the set of buildings, but was, in fact, just the bloody exit. Back around for the third and final time, and we successfully entered the parking lot. We did not successfully find a parking spot, so Dianne parked along the curb near the exit [round about #2, in case you were wondering] and I stayed with the car. I was so proud of her; she parked just like a true Italian!
She grabbed a loaf of Italian bread, a package of salami and a package of prosciutto, a package of sliced cheese, a bag of CONAD 'Ruffles' crisps, two doughnuts, two muffins, four cups of strawberry yogurt, and two five-piece boxes of Tronky. Note to self: no grocery shopping for Dianne when she is already hungry.
Back to the flat, Dianne sliced the bread, toasted it, opened our olive oil gift, and made us an Italian sandwich that rivaled the one we had at the bar on our drive on the day before. We ate a cup of yogurt and our sandwiches, then we shared one of the doughnuts. And then we were off to Volterra.
Volterra is about an hour drive from our flat, something like 35km. And everytime I see or write 35km and then an hour, I wonder what, exactly, takes so long. It is because the roads are a bit more narrow, and even though the Italians mostly ignore it, the speed limits through the little villages are SLOW. 30kph at times, which is 18-ish mph. So when you are traveling at 25-ish mph [I mean, really 18?], it takes a long time to go anywhere.
We really liked Volterra in 2016, but parking there, like many places, is a bit challenging. Some of the pay lots use tickets and guard arms for entry and payment, based on the time you spend. The other lots that require payment want you to pay in advance, and you have to estimate how much time you are going to spend. And that is a pain in the butt, because who knows how long it will take? So I am always estimating way too low because who wants to waste money on parking you don't use?
Anyway, bought the maximum amount of time the machine would let me buy, or at least I think I did. The machines are not exactly intuitive, and the instructions are in Italian. They have some English too, but they are limited instructions. I think the Italians just assume you know how the kiosk works. They happen to be grossly overestimating my ability.
Parking pass in the window, doors locked, and up the hill we went. We entered the town through a different path. It is a graffiti-lined pedestrian tunnel that enters the old village on the main road. Up the hill we went, and while Volterra is not nearly as steep to climb as Montepulciano or Siena, it is called a hill town for a reason. Up to the top we went, and we were planning to stop at the Tourist office. They were closed for lunch, so we walked through the alabaster retail store on the main piazza. There are some really lovely pieces, including a chess set that I thought would make a really nice gift. It was E106, which was probably a decent price for the set, but between being a little heavy and outside of our budget, it stayed where it was.
Tourist office opened back up post-lunch, and we stepped over to it. Dianne spoke with the ladies there, and they talked about the palazzo that has some rooms open for a tour, and the two alabaster workshops that accept visitors. One is Rossi, the place Dianne visited last year while we were here, but did not get to see any work being done as the artist was taking his lunch break while she was there... and I had headed back to the car because remember the parking-is-a-guessing-game? We were running out of time, and the last thing I wanted was a parking ticket.
We walked down to the palazzo, and they were closed until 1430, about 45 minutes away. We walked back up to the main piazza, and down the other side to the Etruscan gate. It is the only port into Volterra that remains from the original Etruscan wall, and the Nazis nearly destroyed it to slow advancing Allied troops. The townspeople convinced the Nazi command not to destroy the port; they removed the stone pavers from the streets and blocked the entrance with those stones. It is an amazing story to me.
Back up the hill again [remember, this is a hill town], and across the piazza, down a different street to see something different, and we did see something: The gelateria. This was day #3 in Italy, and up to this point, we still had not had gelato. We corrected that mistake straight away, and it was a delicious limone e fragola cuppa for me! Dianne had the nocciola, or hazelnut.
We continued our stroll back to the palazzo, and we toured the rooms that are open. This is a private residence, and they have about a dozen rooms open to the public, with an admission of course. It is a really pretty place, that gives the appearance of something much grander. Much of the trim is paint made to look like high-end trim work; it is called trom b'lois [phonetic spelling because I haven't the foggiest]. It is done in a 3D style to create the appearance of depth. It is really well done.
From the palazzo, we made our way to Rossi, where the master was hard at work at his lathe. There is a good bit of dust, and with my cough, I did not want to aggravate it further. Dianne went inside while I waited on a bench outside the workshop. She finally caught his eye; she was very deliberate not to startle him while he had a turning tool in his hand. He had a sponge when she spoke to him.
She stood there and watched as he turned a small vase, and cut it from the bigger piece of stone from which he was working. She asked if she could touch it, he said yes, she picked it up, and immediately asked, "Quanto costo?" He turned a sign around that said E15, she left a 20 on the table and took her treasure that she had watched him create. I think it is safe to say that he sells many just like that and for the same reason; there was no inventory of these small vases sitting on the work bench.
Back to the car, and we headed back to the flat to drop Dianne's new treasure and relax in the sun for a short bit before going to Monteriggioni for dinner. It was a highlight for us in 2016, and we wanted to both relive it and verify that it really was as fantastical as we remembered.
We had dinner at Antico Travaglio, the same place we ate last year, partly because we enjoyed the meal there, partly because it was the only restaurant open with patio seating.
We were seated outside, but it was already cooling quickly. We were invited to come inside the 'garden area' which we first declined, but requested a few minutes later if it was still available. It was, and it was warmer. In fact, it might have been just a touch too warm, but I prefer that to shivering through the meal.
We started with a first course. For Dianne, she had a cheese and spinach gnocchi dish that she loved, and I had parpadelle con ragu al cinghiale [wild boar]. It was delicious. For our main course, we both had the veal dish, and it, too, was really good. For dessert, Dianne had her first tiramisu of the trip, and I had a little more gelato.
We walked back to the car, took a few pictures of the fortress walls along the way, and drove back to the flat for the evening.