Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Italy, Part 3 - Pisa & Tuscany

After our stay in the Cinque Terre, it was time to rent a car and head to the Tuscany region... with a quick 2 hour stop in Pisa. Renting the car was easy enough (through AutoEurope), however getting said car was a bit more difficult.

To get from Vernazza to the Hertz rental car agency, we first had to get to La Spezia via train, then take the city bus to the Hertz office. At this point we had mastered the trains quite well, so that was easy. However, once we arrived in La Spezia things got interesting. I had a vague idea that we needed to take the L or S bus from the train station toward Lerici, but I had no idea which direction that was. As we were checking out the bus signs on our side of the street, the L bus came, so we quickly hopped on in a frenzy before the bus took off again. There is no time to decide if you want to get on, it stops for about 20 seconds. We tried to explain to the driver in English that we needed to buy a ticket, and he kept saying something in Italian about a ticket, but after a short period of confusion between both of us, he just threw his hands up like "whatever," and speed away.

So we're driving along, not sure at all where the hell we are, but hoping that we will eventually arrive somewhere that looks like something on the map I was holding. About 5 minutes into the journey it was time for the bus driver to take his smoke break. At this point everyone had gotten off the bus except us and the driver was just chillin outside. Hum.. what now. Fortunately at this point, the driver saw us looking at our map and between some combination of hand gestures, broken English, and no Italian, we managed to show him where we wanted to go and he said "I will take you." Perfect, he will take us!

So we sat on the bus, and watched more people get on, and it get more and more crowded. We also watched as we came back around to the front of the train station again, only this time going the opposite direction. Okay, so now we were definitely going the right way, only problem was, we were now squished between lots of people and could barely even see the driver. What if he forgot about us? Well after getting off the bus a few stops too early, and getting yelled at by the driver to get back on the bus, we finally made it to the rental car office. Renting a car in La Spezia sure is an interesting adventure.

Once we had the car we headed to Pisa. Since we were only staying in Pisa for a few hours, I had booked our tower tickets in advance. I'm glad I did, since there was a 4 hour wait for tickets when we got there. I had also read that it is best to park just outside downtown and take the bus into the city, getting off at the Field of Miracles stop. Of course this involved another bus adventure, similar to the one described above, so I'll spare you the details. Just know, if you do this, pay attention to your surroundings so you know when to get off.

Pisa was interesting. I hadn't realized that the field of miracles was just that, a football sized field of green grass with three white buildings on it, surrounded by a wall on one side and a ton of souvenir tents on the other. We didn't go into the other two buildings, the duomo or the baptistery, but we did climb the tower. It was pretty neat to see how the steps have worn down so much on one side depending where you are in the tower. And you can definitely feel the lean of the tower everywhere you are. Since it was a bright sunny day, we got a good view of Pisa from the top. We also took the obligatory pisa pictures "pushing" the tower straight again.

After Pisa we headed to Tuscany. For two nights we stayed at this little farm house called Poggio Asciutto in the region known as the Chianti Classico Region. The owners were the sweetest people, the room was nice, and the view was amazing. We also had dinner with them the first night at the house. It was great, and probably the only time we had the "full Italian meal" : bread, appetizer, pasta, meat, dessert, wine. During our stay in the Chianti region we visited two wineries, Casaloste & Castello di Verrazzano. I would highly recommend visiting Castello di Verrazzano and scheduling a tour with them. It was very informative, fun, and tasty. Besides the wine cellar, we got to see the place where they make their own prosciutto, balsamic vinegar, and olive oil. Casaloste was also nice, but much smaller, and I didn't care for their wines quite as much.

We also spent time visiting San Galgano, Volopia, and Greve in Chianti. San Galgano was interesting; it is the place of the legendary sword in the stone. The story is that Galgano Guidotti was a knight born to rich parents in 1148. He wanted to renounce the material would and the arts of war, so as a sign to renounce violence, Galgano thrust the sword into the stone, adoring it as the Cross. You can walk up to the abby and see the hilt of the sword in the stone, now protected by glass. Volopia was a cute little town with a few restaurants and a wine tasting room... we bought two bottles. Greve is the town closest to where we stayed, so we decided to head there for dinner one night. Turns out it was the same day as the annual festival celebrated by the town. Each section of town dresses up, chooses a theme, and performs a skit. It was fairly amusing.

After Chianti we headed down to Montalcino. Montalcino is home to the very expensive Brunello wine. As soon as we got there we headed for Enoteca la Foretzza. It's a small enoteca in the downstairs of the fortress at the edge of town. Of course we did a wine tasting, and we also sampled some of the local honey and had this amazing caprese salad. We also climbed the tower and walked around the top of the fortress for a while. The views were quite nice. We spent the rest of the day and part of the next walking around the town and enjoying a little more down time. The funny story from this city came around dinner time.

We had read that there were a bunch of great restaurants in Montalcino, so we took time to check them all out. We finally decided on eating at our hotel Il Giglio. Well as soon as we walked in, we could tell that we didn't really "fit in." First, everything was decorated like a grandmothers house. And after a little while we realized that not only was everything really expensive, but the portions were very small as well. So we ordered our pasta, at the 4 ravioli that came with the dish (at least I can say they were delicious), paid our bill, and then headed to another restaurant. I needed some more food, cause those four little bites just weren't going to cut it. So we found this outdoor cafe and sat down. I ironically the ravioli plate that I got there was almost just as good, and was way bigger. I could barely finish it. For a drink I decided I was going to order this orange cocktail that I had seen people drinking for the last few days. I didn't know the name of it, but I asked the waitress what was the name of the orange drink that was popular. She pointed to the menu, so I said "I'll have that." Yea, turns out what she thought I wanted was orange juice, and that's what she brought me. haha.

After Jeremy explained to me that orange juice would not go well with my ravioli in rabbit sauce, I decided to try again. This time I went to the bar to ask the bartender. Much to my luck there was one sitting there. Perfect. Yea, apparently it's called a "spritz," and lets just say that it's super bitter and not very good. I preferred the orange juice. Oh well, live and learn.

Before leaving for Sorrento the next morning, we stopped by the Sant’Antimo Abbey to hear the monks chant. I highly recommend you do this if you are in the area. There is a schedule of the hours that they chant and when you can go into the church to hear them. It was very moving and a nice 15 minute pause in our otherwise busy day.

Next, off to Sorrento with a stop first in Spoleto.

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