Visiting the Lukas Family in Grado

Off and on before the trip, I kicked around the idea of meeting up with Aaron and his family somewhere in Italy. Aaron and family are currently living in Austria, and so a few days before (and after kicking around a totally unworkable plan of meeting in Venice), we made plans to meet in the resort town of Grado, at the northern end of the Adriatic Sea, and spend part of the day together.

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I hadn’t factored in just how far back in the Garfagnana mountains we would be when we started this journey. I also hadn’t counted on the fact that the autostrada could just come to a complete halt and stay that way for a half-hour or more. It took us driving over two mountain passes and three hours to even get to the autostrada from our apartment in Petrognano, and we still had to cross most of northern Italy, both ways, in a single day. Somehow, Kath and I did it, and being able to catch up with Aaron, Carrie, and the kids was worth it.

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The day was a bit stormy and cloudy, but the company was enjoyable. We really enjoyed our time with the Lukas family, and I hope to see them again soon at some point.

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Going to Garfagnana and Northern Tuscany

After leaving Montepulciano and heading north, we crossed through central Tuscany, scooting below Siena and Florence and taking in a few sights in San Gimignano and Vinci before ending up at Petrognano, deep in the Garfagnano region, where we had a room booked for the next three nights.

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San Gimignano caught our eye in the guidebook due to the large number of towers in the town. Apparently, towers were a way during medieval times for merchants and others with money and power to show it off and provide a better defensive position for their household. This kind of tower building happened throughout Italy and in other places, but what makes San Gimignano unique is the sheer number that were built and the number that survived until today. While Florence probably had more than 100 of these towers, San Gimignano, a much smaller town, had 76. Most town during that time had only 1 or 2. While these towers were taken down (or fell down) throughout the region over the years – in San Gimignano, towers were occasionally purposefully torn down by order of the commune if a family became too powerful or if punishment warranted it – San Gimignano is the only town in the area that still provides a view of the towers grouped close enough together to give a decent perspective for how things used to look 800 years ago.

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Vinci is the birthplace of the genius Leonardo di Vinci, and while he didn’t spend a lot of time in the town after growing up there as the illegitimate son of a notary (and we didn’t either), the town has thought enough of him to reconstruct his birth site to what it approximately looked like when he was born. We ate lunch up there, above the town, in a parched olive grove, hanging out with a couple of unicyclists. Seriously. They rode up the hill and down. The sad thing about unicycles is that you can’t coast. The good thing about them is, if you are good, you can just have a chair that roll you around with little effort. Anyway, if you end up visiting Vinci, definitely skip the Leonardo museum in the town, which must be one of the worst museums I’ve ever seen. The exhibits are childish, and the emphasis on the pop culture interest in Leonardo is over the top.

To get up to Petrognano, we headed on the backroads through Pistoia, though the mountains, which ended up being beautiful but requiring much more time that I had expected. (However, randomly, we did come around a corner and happen upon preparations being made for a big party for the Communist Party of Italy.)

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We didn’t get to Petrognano until dusk, and we couldn’t find where we were supposed to stay. Thankfully, when we did locate the apartment and couldn’t find the woman that rented it to us, the kind elderly couple downstairs took us in and even called the woman’s cell phone to let her know that we were here. It was here that I started to realize that we were in a very different place than in southern Tuscany. It wasn’t the kindness of the older couple – almost everyone had been kind to us since we landed in Rome. Rather, no one here spoke any English. At all, really. Even the woman who we rented the apartment, someone who supposedly meets quite a few foreigners, couldn’t speak much English. (But, obviously, she spoke more English than we did Italian.)

We were starting to realize what a special place the whole Garfagnana region is for travelers like us, folks that like seeing more of the country and meeting people outside of the larger “tourist industry,” which is endemic through most of Italy. In Garfagnana, nobody really gave us a second look or tried to sell us anything, you could drive 30 minutes on a back road before seeing another car, and some restaurants didn’t even have menus (you ate what they were cooking). It was a great introduction to the third very different area we had experienced in Italy. However, before we could really dive in a see the sites, we had an appointment to see some friends.

See all of our photos of traveling to northern Tuscany

Florence is Hot

OK, fast-forward a month. We are back from Italy now, and the remainder of the trip was a pleasant blur filled with new taste and sight sensations. After our last post, we never regained access to Internet access long enough to post or upload many photos, so we gave up the blogging experiment and focused on enjoying our trip.

Even as a tourist, I agreed with this...

I’ll post more on the trip over the coming months. I would like to review the places we stayed and pass along some tips on places to go and things to see that fall outside most guidebooks. So, stay tuned. And, to continue where my previous post left off…

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“Florence is hot.” That’s all we could really get out of Isolina, the lovely woman that was taking care us while we were staying at Casale a Poggiano, near Montepulciano. This came out at another of the wonderful breakfasts Isolina prepared for us before we wandered off in our Fiat Panda to explore another fragrant vineyard or hill-top town. That day, we were pretty adamant about heading for Florence, which was about two hours away by autostrada (fast toll road), and spending the day looking around. In addition, some friends from Memphis, who had been in Florence a few weeks before, had cached a surprise for us in the old part of town and sent some cryptic instructions about how to find it, so we were eager to locate it and find out what it was.

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After we got to Florence, we really found out what Isolina was talking about. Florence was hot. Very hot this time of year. We had arrived in the middle of a little heat wave, and temps in Florence were above 41 Celsius, with Rome hitting 44. The stillness of the countryside, which I had really enjoyed, translated into a lack of a breeze in Florence, which made walking around an exercise of staying in the shade as much as possible.

The heat notwithstanding, Florence is, of course, lovely. We parked at one of the monster underground car parks located in the ring around the old city and hoofed it toward the Uffizi (probably the top gallery) and the Ponte Vecchio, near to where our surprise was cached. The line at the Uffizi was way too long to handle, so we moved on over the bridge to find the cached surprise. Unfortunately, someone had found it before we got there (it was a little bottle of grappa tied up with wire behind a street sign that backed up to a wall), but we consoled ourselves (and cooled off) at a wine tasting place nearby. There, we discovered the pleasures of Brunello de Montalcino, plus gourmet vinegar and all of the different things you can mix with it. The whole place was a yummy meat, cheese, wine, and vinegar treat, and we brought a few things from that store home with us.

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We spent the rest of the day roaming around Florence, eating, checking out the sites, trying to stay cool, eating sorbetto, and trying to figure out where we parked the car. Dinner that night was in Montepulciano, and we should have gone to Pienza again, but seeing Montepulciano after the tourists are (mostly) gone was worth it.

The next day was spent traveling the back roads up past San Gimignano, skirting Florence and Siena, and heading toward our next stop in northern Tuscany, deep in the Garfagnana region, inside a tiny village named Petrognano, beside a rushing mountain river, and beyond that, a trip to see friends half-way across the country.

Click here to view all of our photos of Florence

Tuscany, Wandering

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Yesterday, after a wonderful breakfast outside, overlooking endless rows of grapes, we left our base of the farmhouse near Montepulciano and headed into the countryside, letting the Fiat Panda point us to where it wanted to go. We wandered north, close to Siena, stopping along the way to buy groceries at a local market and eating a picnic lunch in a park in the tiny hamlet (far off the tourist path and with a name I have to look up when I get back to the States). Walking through the town, we happened into a tiny, empty 13th-century church containing exquisite art – and no tourists in sight.

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After that, we tasted (and bought) some wine at a local estate and moved on to Montalcino, where we ate sorbetto and walked the town, taking in the views of the valleys below in the changing colors of the afternoon light. Next, it was over the mountains and down to Pienza for a late dinner (gnocchi with pesto for Kath and lamb for me).

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Today, we made a beeline for Siena to experience a larger town. With any town containing more than 2000 or more people, a particular pattern occurs: You park your car outside the city walls and walk up, up, up into the city, and then when you have seen what you have come to see, you try to remember where you parked your car so you can go out the right city gate. The larger the city, the harder this is, as the car parking areas are more crammed with cars, you have to park further away from the city walls, you have to walk further uphill once you get into the city to get to the central square, or piazza, and it can be more confusing to get out.

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We saw many interesting things in Siena, including the Duomo (they started a major expansion in the 14th century, but the plague stopped them and they had to later incorporate their work in the surrounding buildings) and the St. Katherine Church. After spending the day in Siena, we drove down to Montepulciano for dinner. The walk from the car park up to the Piazza was exhausting, though, and we couldn’t really enjoy a lot of the excellent architecture for being so tired of walking up and down the very vertical town.

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Tomorrow, Florence!

See all of our photos of southern Tuscany

From the Amalfi Coast to Montepulciano

The Amalfi Coast left us wanting more. From tiny towns stitched into the steep, rocky hillsides that plunged into the blue sea, to the island of Capri erupting from the water like a dagger toward the sky, to roads hugging the mountains curving around crevasses and dropping into terraces of green, we took away indelible scenes that we will remember.

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We spent our first full day here looking around Positano. We had to take the bus over from where we were staying, up on a hill in Priano (the next town over), and we strolled the V-shaped Positano, taking it all in. Unless you are on the main road, everything along the Amalfi Coast is vertical, which means a lot of walking up and down, moving from stairs to moderate hills, and then back to stairs again, with every step down meaning another step up. You begin to quickly estimate the exhaustion level of every destination as soon as you spy it. On the good side, there is an incredible view waiting for you in almost every place you would stop to catch your breath.

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The next day, we headed to Positano early to catch the ferry to Capri. The ferry ride over was calm along the coast, but as soon as you rounded the corner to the Bay of Naples, the water become very choppy, even with almost no wind and clear skies. Once in the harbor, we took the funiculare up to Capri Town and found a supermarket. Gathering enough for a picnic lunch, we sauntered up the hill, looking for a shady place to eat, one with a view. Two exhausting hours later, we found ourselves above the town, looking down on the harbor and the distant mainland. We should have take the bus, or at least brought a map with us, but the view was stunning as we ate on the stairs in the shadow of a mountain, under the gaze of Mary, built into a grotto near the location of a late-1800s sighting. We wandered around Anacapri for a couple of hours and then took the bus back down to Capri and then walked down the hill to the harbor for the trip back to Positano.

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Our 12th anniversary was the following day, so we took it easy. We explored a beach in Priano and ate dinner in a very nice place, located just down the hill from our hotel (Casa Columba).

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On the drive to Tuscany, we made a stop south of Naples to check out Herculanium, a Roman town buried in scalding mud when Vesuvius exploded in 79 AD. Herculanium is more preserved than the more famous Pompeii, so there is more to see. It is also a smaller site, something you can see in a couple of hours, which is all the time we had to spend.

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Many of the frescos were still visible. Some of them looked touched up, but others had to be original to the period. Perhaps most amazing was the charred 2000 year old wood, visible throughout the town, like in old staircases and in beams stuck in walls. Some of these ancient charred timbers were still holding up doorways. They let you wander all over the site, pretty much, and you can get amazing close to some very old things.

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We made it to our Tuscan farmhouse, on a hill several kilometers from Montepulciano, before sunset and then headed to a nearby town for dinner. We are the only guests here, and it feels like we have a manor, surrounded by vineyards and gleaming towns on the rims of hills across the surrounding valleys, all to ourselves. I hope our fortune holds, as we head into surrounding country around to explore and discover.

See all of our photos of the Amalfi Coast, Capri, and Herculanium

A Sight Beyond Words, While Stuffed with Pizza

I’m writing this from the comfortable confines of a small hotel on the Almalfi Coast, in central Italy, located in the tiny town of Praiano, roughly in this location. It took us about 24 hours, door-to-door, including a few hours in Montecassino so I could check out the terrain of the WWII battle there that I’ve been fascinated with since reading the excellent book, The Day of Battle by Rick Atkinson.

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We are in an exquisitely beautiful spot, and I’m enjoying a free wifi signal from a nearby house under a perfect blanket of stars, dimmed only by the light from my laptop screen.

I’ll post some photos soon, as we pass the next few days exploring the area. For now, we are just exhausted from the trip and looking to get our strength back tomorrow.