Monthly Archives: April 2013

Lucca, Pisa, and mysterious European auto difficulties

We were hoping to visit the cities of Lucca and Pisa, but were a little skeptical when we saw them on the map.  As the crow flies, they are much further from the villa than “close” Siena, and no one wanted a repeat of that drive.  However, when we found that most of the distance would be on the highway, we decided to brave the trip.  We even managed to get a semi-early start, which was immediately derailed by the Brookses’ mysterious European car problems (see Bob’s entry below) and our combined dithering about what to do about them.

Without a GPS or detailed city maps, Bob and I have been relying on signs pointing to “Centro” to get us where we want to go.  This had worked fairly well but was not a great success in either Lucca or Pisa.  In Lucca the “Centro” signs abandoned us and the parking lots we passed were all full, so we eventually pulled into the first street spot we saw within sight of the famous huge wall that rings the old city.  (It turned out to be in kind of a residential district and I had to go a long way to find a bathroom and a place to buy bread for our lunch.)
That’s the top of the tower with trees on top

Still, it was very cool eating our picnic lunch on top of the wall, surrounded by many bikers and joggers.  We ended up just making it around the 2-mile circumference in time to get back to our car before our parking expired.  Unfortunately we didn’t have time to actually locate and walk into the city center, which is supposed to be lovely.  We did see the city’s most famous tower in the distance, which has large oak trees growing on top of it.

Next up was Pisa, which should have been easy but turned out to be a driving challenge in many respects.  We finally managed to find a spot on the street, but had no idea how far we were from where we wanted to be.  Luckily we were able to get directions from a gelato shop and were only a 15-minute walk away, so we could thankfully leave the car behind.  We’re much better on foot, even if we have to carry Lanie.  I’ve been repeatedly apologizing to Bob for trying to save money by not adding myself as a driver on our rental car (though being the passenger/navigator is no picnic either).  Did I mention the rental car company gave us a brand new car?  I’m sure they thought they were doing us a favor and all, but it just makes us more nervous.

The city walls in Lucca

The Piazza dei Miracoli (“Square of Miracles”) contains the tower, cathedral, and a few other buildings, as well as huge green open lawns (and tacky T-shirt shops).  In addition to the famous lean, the tower in Pisa (as well as the other buildings) is absolutely beautiful.  We cheaped out a bit here, as our group of 12 quailed at the 18 euro (about $24!) per person fee to climb the tower.  (Bob lucks out again!)  Instead we sat on the lawn and enjoyed the sunshine, and went into the gorgeous (and free) cathedral.  To wrap things up, the girls parted with some of their euros at the tacky T-shirt shops.
Result of tacky T-shirt shop expedition

This was our final night in Tuscany, so we celebrated with dinner at a local pizzeria.  We thought our 7:30 reservation would leave us with plenty of time, but alas, we had once again forgotten the rule that it takes twice as long as you think to get anywhere in this region.  Luckily we proved to be almost the only ones there at the early hour of 8pm.

From Bob:
There are so many ups and downs here, even beyond the pitch of the road to Greve in Chianti.  Today as we took what we thought would be a leisurely drive to Lucca and Pisa, we got derailed even before we hit the Autostrada.  An indicator in the car Chris and Wendy are borrowing from our landlords suggested that the car was about to run out of something.  But what? 
                The man at the gas station we stopped at in Figline said it was something that they sold at another filling station four kilometers away.  That was about all the information the language divide would let us have, save for the fact that when they got to the other station four kilometers away whatever it was would have to be put in the car through a small nozzle right next to the main gas tank hole.  Chris’ smart phone didn’t help with any translation advice and there was nothing we could think of that would explain this. 

               We left them in Figline and went on to Lucca.  The Brookses eventually found the local Fiat dealer, and although he had none of the special missing stuff to insert into the tiny nozzle, he was able to explain the situation.  It turns out that Chris and Wendy are borrowing a dual-fuel car.  The car was telling them they were running low on Liquid Natural Gas.  That was the missing stuff.  But all they had to do was press a button and the car would run on their full tank of gasoline (here it’s called benzene).  Who can figure out such devices? 

                They drove off to Pisa and eventually met us there.
Nadia is stealing Lanie’s dessert again.  Nadia ordered
something that turned out to be some kind of whipped
yogurt creation and I don’t think it was quite what she was
expecting.  Lanie’s tiramisu was apparently preferable.

                But not before we enjoyed Lucca, which, as I explained to the kids today, is the opposite of New York City.  New York City has a park that is surrounded by the city.  Lucca is a city surrounded by a park – the medieval battlements have been converted into an elevated greenway with a running/cycling track around the whole old city.  We had enough time to circumnavigate the old city (two miles around), plus eat a picnic lunch and have some gelato, all while the Brookses were getting a lesson on alternative energy. 

                Well, actually, not all the Brookses.  Merideth has been riding with us.  There’s only so much room in a Fiat Punto.  In the states the Brookses travel around in a Suburban.  So we have two cars filled past capacity.  Four kids in each back seat.  It’s not something we would do back home, but, then again, neither is eating for dinner what we ate for dinner last night.  Or saying mille grazie all the time. 
                Speaking of dinner, we followed our landlords’ suggestions to what some consider the best pizza place in the region tonight.  It was a fun place, but I think we’ve had better pizza here.  

Zoe’s take on Lucca and Pisa

standing outside of Lucca’s walls
                              Today we hoped to get an early start to drive to Pisa and Lucca but we ended up leaving back seat. It was Nadia, Lanie , Meredith Brooks, my mom , my dad and I in one car and the rest of the Brookses in the other. Not far into our drive, the Brookses’ car began having problems. They ended up having to skip Lucca and meet us at Pisa.    
                            Lucca was really fun. The original city is enclosed by high, wide walls with newer additions to the city outside. The walls were originally built to keep out the city’s
eating our picnic lunch

enemy, Florence and are so wide that they have parks on top of them. We climbed on top of the walls , walked the two miles all the way back to our car and had a picnic lunch on top of the wall. Riding bikes on top of the walls seems to be a popular activity here.

we sat on the highest part of the wall

                           We met up with the Brookses in a grassy field near the leaning tower. There are many tourist attractions near the leaning tower but we only went into one of them, the cathedral which is amazingly beautiful. The cathedral is the only one of the attractions that is free, although they have a strange rule that you have to go up to the desk and get a ticket to go in and they will only give each person two tickets. Unfortunately, Nadia and Meredith were both wearing tank tops so, along with some of the boys who were wearing shorts, they were not allowed to go in due to the knees and shoulders covered rule. Nadia, Meredith, Lanie and I bought tee shirts on the way out. 


Thoughts on wine and chicken(?)

Silvio’s welcoming committee
Our strategy this week, as alert readers may have noticed, has been to alternate a “day trip” day with a “down time” day at the villa.  Today was downtime, and so we were all there in the morning when Silvio the dog mysteriously reappeared in his pen, where he hadn’t been first thing in the morning.  There was much speculation as to how he achieved this feat until we noticed that Stefano had also returned.  He doesn’t speak much English and wasn’t able to clearly convey where he found Silvio, but we were all glad to see him again.

Today we decided to enjoy a little adult time, and took turns going into Greve in Chianti.  There’s a huge wine cellar there, where you can put money on a card and then choose to taste any of 140+ wines from the area.  All the bottles are in glass cases with electronic prices above them, and you insert your card then start pressing buttons for what you want to try.  Bob and I enjoyed trying the least and most expensive wines in various categories to see if we could tell the difference.  (Verdict: Usually yes, but we didn’t always prefer the expensive one.  Those who have had wine at our house know we have cheap tastes.)
The food — a bread, cheese, and meat platter — was
really good too.
One thing you notice here is that almost everything is more expensive, with one notable exception – wine.  Most restaurants, even those in the most touristy areas of Rome, were selling table wine for around 8 euros per liter (~$10 for more than a bottle’s worth).  For our dinners at home at the villa, we bought three bottles of a blended Tuscan red for 10 euros.  Granted, it’s also possible to spend much, much more on wine.  But even the cheap stuff here is usually pretty good.
Tonight we finally tried the wood-fired grill on the terrace, and ate overlooking the Tuscan hills.  (It’s finally warmed up enough that late evenings outside are comfortable.)  And then Chris, in a burst of nostalgia for some old fashioned American food, make chocolate chip cookies.  Given that we didn’t have any measuring cups or spoons, and apparently baking soda doesn’t exist in Italy, they came out quite good.
From Bob:
What I want to say about tonight’s dinner is that when Jen and I were at the super-modern, very Western grocery story in Figline yesterday we fully intended to be buying chicken.  We picked out several different packages that had different cuts of meat, but we thought it was all chicken meat, I swear.  It was all from the same cooler bank.  It all looked somewhat like chicken, though it wasn’t cut up quite like we Americans would expect it to be.  Some parts were clearly half-chickens with a leg and a wing and some white meat apiece.  Others looked like bone in breasts, but they were cut parallel to the ribs, if you can imagine that, so every piece had some ribs and spine in it. 

This is what Wendy and I were doing during the cooking,
which is why I just found out about the mystery meat issue
while reading Bob’s blog entry.
                I know we’re getting out of our comfort zone talking about this, but attitude toward meat is another one of those cultural differences it’s fun to pick up on – as long as you’re not the one eating the mystery meat.  A good portion of the butcher section of the Coop grocery store – and it was a big butcher section, bigger than our bedroom at the villa, and that’s saying something – was dedicated to cuts that we have never seen on a table in New Hampshire.  The yellow looking things, like haggis, or the bulbous looking things like tongue, or the kidney shaped things like kidney. 
                And we say good for the Italians for wasting less of what’s available to them, even though I won’t go so far afield as to eat any one of those things I just mentioned.  I won’t even veal, or liver, or a whole bunch of other things that my father’s generation loved.  I only use a select part of my meal animals, or as they are sometimes referred to here, “adulto bovino.” 

                But as Chris was grilling the fine, specially marinated pieces of meat over the wood fire that Jen and Stefano built this evening, something wasn’t right.  The bones in some of the pieces were just too skinny and the shapes were a little off.  Oh, I’m sure they tasted like chicken, but if I Google translated “conio,” which is what I think I now may  remember was written on at least one of the packages, I bet I would get something other than chicken as a translation.  Who knows, maybe adulto bovino doesn’t mean what it seems, either, but last night’s chili sure went quickly.
                And nobody complained tonight, either.  Grampa Gene’s special marinade was very tasty, as were the roasted potatoes and asparagus.  We’ve been good at estimating our quantities, and rarely have any leftovers.  We got to eat on the veranda with the sun setting over Lucolena and the smoke of the grill fire still in the air.

                Even big ol’ Silvio, back in his pen since Stefano brought him home this morning, must have contently crunched his kibble and sniffed the air as we sat down to dinner.  He probably knew what we were eating, even if we didn’t.  And as long as we never enter ”conio” into Google translate, we’ll all be able to look back on this evening fondly. 
Travel Catan!  Thanks, Aunt Kathryn.

More adventures on the road in rural Tuscany

Piazza de Campo in Siena
That tower is the one we climbed.
Most of us climbed, I should say.

Fortified by a low-key day yesterday, today we hustled most of the troops into the car for a trip to nearby Siena.  (When I say “hustled”, I mean we got on the road by 10:45.  When I say “nearby”, I mean over an hour on winding, hilly roads.  Our two cars full of greenish travelers could not understand how the locals manage to travel around here on a regular basis.  I think I’m becoming more, rather than less, susceptible to carsickness.  Or maybe Bob’s just becoming more comfortable and driving faster on these roads.)

Picnic in the piazza
Siena is one of the most famous towns in Tuscany.  It has a huge piazza that is used for an annual horse race competition between its different neighborhoods, and many ancient and picturesque buildings.  We wandered the winding, cobblestone streets and had a picnic in the piazza.  (Peanut butter returns again!  It’s surprisingly hard to find in Italy, though Nutella is everywhere.)
Looking up at all that climbing left to be done
Full of peanut butter energy, Zoe, Nadia, and I climbed the 503 steps to the top of the Torre del Mangia (“Tower of the Eater”), Siena’s tower that dates from the 1300s.  The extremely narrow rock passages were interesting and the views from the top were amazing.  (Bob has apparently decided he doesn’t have to prove anything to anybody, so he chose to skip this trip.)

                                                                                                                                                                   Perhaps even more impressive than Siena, in its own way, was our next stop in the medieval village of Monteriggione.  The castle walls that surround the city were built starting in 1213 to repel invaders from nearby Florence, and are still remarkably intact.  Within the walls is a small village housing shops and restaurants, still inhabiting the original ancient buildings.  Our hostess Silvia described this place as “like a fairy tale,” and she was right.  (Also, there was gelato.  We’ve been eating a lot of gelato and it’s pretty much the focus of the kids’ day.  It’s always quite an endeavor because there are so many mysterious flavors and you get to choose two.  Sometimes the English translations are even more confusing than the Italian (“milk flower”?)  Yesterday, out of sheer curiosity, I got one called zuppa inglese (“English soup”), which turned out to taste like eggnog.)

View from the tower
We seem to have drifted effortlessly into the Italian timetable.  No matter what we do, we never seem to manage dinner before 8:00 or so.  (Granted, cooking a dinner for 12 takes some doing.)  But we don’t have anywhere to be in the morning, so we let schedules go on vacation as well.
From Bob:
On the day we visit Siena, the namesake of our beloved Getaway Van, let’s talk about driving in Italy. I’ve figured a few things out about it.  One thing I’m convinced of:  They do their best to make driving as inconvenient as possible here.  There many ways they do this, and probably many reasons for wanting to make it inconvenient, and for the most part they are very successful.
Today’s driving fell mostly into the “country” category.  This is the kind of driving that is rather preferable to me, the driver, but it often makes the passengers sick.  I don’t think it’s anything that I do wrong that makes them sick.  The roads do all that.
            In Italy, at least this part of Italy, the beautiful rolling countryside is fine to look at, but it has a predictable effect on the roads.  They have to be steep and windy to get through and around all those hills. Today there was a sign that mentioned a 15% grade.  This is double what we encountered on our road trip across the US.  Let’s not forget that we drove through the Rockies.
In Monteriggione.  You could climb up to the top of the city walls and
look out over the village on one side and the Tuscan countryside on the other.

            The roads of Rocky Mountain National Park are a good foil for the roads of rural Tuscany.  Avid readers of this blog will remember that we took a quite horrifying drive across RMNP on the highest continually paved road in the US.  This, it turns out, was good training for driving here.  Turns and grades are common, guard rails and wide shoulders are not.  The Tuscan roads are very reminiscent of all the National Park roads we traveled last year in that they are all very narrow – two small lanes and absolutely nothing on the side to give any wiggle room.  In both places the philosophy must be: We will mar the landscape with as little pavement as necessary. 

         So driving here is like driving in a National Park.  On the positive side, our nice, little Audi A4 station wagon is nimble, has plenty of power and is not overloaded with all our possessions.  It’s also brand new;  it had 18 km on it when we picked it up in Rome.  Therefore, unlike in RMNP, I do not feel that the brakes are going to give out at any second. 

            On the other hand (and this may be because I have such confidence in my brakes) every single other driver (except, perhaps, Chris Brooks in the landlords’ Fiat) on the road wants to pass me. This was fine on the autostrada – the A1 highway – where there are two comfortable lanes going each way.  Here, it means I have to pull over four or five times a trip to let people by.
            We’re used to this by now, and there’s some evidence that the passengers among us are starting to get their sea legs.  I don’t think anyone got terribly ill on the trip back for Montereggione today. Just about all of the chili we made for dinner got eaten, suggesting a minimum of nausea.

            We’re also getting used to countryside navigation, our experiences with which have taught us not to think too far ahead.  We basically travel from town to town and don’t take much regard for the name of the road we’re on.  We’ve also realized by now that there is no flat, straight route home.  Any way from here to there or from there to here is curvy and hilly.  That’s the way it is.  Get over it.
            So that leaves city and town driving, which is more unpleasant in a highly stressful, fraught with uncountable dangers sort of way.  In urban settings, particularly the big ones like Rome and Siena, most people drive these tiny little cars.  I would say that a SmartCar is about average.  There are multipe makes and models that are smaller than a SmartCar.  Our A4 is the size of a small station wagon, and I would say it’s in the top 25th percentile in terms of size or cars in the city, especially if you discount commercial vehicles.  This means when it comes time to park, there’s little room for error.  Everything is done to scale.  The cars are smaller, the roads are narrower, the parking spaces are claustrophobic.
A much better way to travel than car.
Although a car is likely to roar around the
corner and crush them at any moment.
We were in a parking garage today and Chris realized how glad he was not to have the minivan he had planned to rent.  It would have been impossible to get around the tight corners, up the ramps and into position to park, and you would not have been able to open the van doors even if you managed to fit it into the spot.
Sorry, Getaway Van, you’ll never see Siena. 
The up side to city driving here is that they’re enamored with traffic circles, and they follow the Portsmouth model as opposed to the Auburn, ME, model.  If you live in Auburn, ME, and want to explore Rome, take the bus.  You can’t do your either lane can exit the circle shenanigans here.  In fact, Mr. Auburn, take the bus when you’re in Portsmouth, too.  You’re aggravating. 
The last part about driving here is really more about walking. Just about any paved or cobblestone pathway seems to be fair game for cars and for pedestrians.  It was a great walk from our parking garage to the main square in Siena, five people could walk abreast along the cobblestone way with shops on either side…until a car comes crawling up and everyone has to retreat to the edges to let it pass.  Nobody seems to mind this, but it must be intensely frustrating for the drivers to get through this mess of people.
Even in Montereggione, an ancient setting if I’ve ever been to one, cars were driving around in the medieval square.  Don’t get your hopes up, Getaway Van.  We’re not taking you there either.

Who let the dogs out?

Lanie did, as a matter of fact.
Dinner on the terrace
This morning started with a bang.  Everyone was puttering around in various areas of the house, when Lanie and Ganya apparently decided to go play with the dogs.  Except that they were no match for 100+ pound Silvio and his friend Joya, who bowled them over as soon as they unlatched the gate.  Lanie came racing into the house in tears, yelling that the dogs were out.  Quickly the whole house was roused (in many cases still in pajamas) and combing the copious trails of the hillside in every direction, frantically calling for the dogs.  Eventually Joya was located and safely returned to her pen.  However, there was no sign of Silvio.

This is where we get to sleep.  Tough life.
Silvia and Stefano were away for a few days, while Silvia traveled to Romania to be with her mother during surgery.  Now, I should emphasize here just how wonderful the owners of the villa have been to us.  Not only did they ensure we had every convenience, not only did Silvia actually make an impromptu dinner for twelve on the night of our arrival, not only did Stefano and his friend push heavy bikes up a steep hillside for multiple kilometers – in addition to all that, they actually LEFT US THEIR CAR, thus saving the Brookses the inconvenience and expense of going to Florence to rent a car for the week.  So suffice it to say that no one was looking forward to informing them that we had managed to lose their dog.  But after a couple of hours of traipsing through the woods in all directions, we had to concede defeat.
Fortunately Silvia and Stefano were wonderful about this as well.  They told us that Silvio has tags and a chip and is known to all the neighbors (this was not his first escape) and they didn’t seem overly concerned.  We’re hoping for his speedy return.
In Radda in Chianti

This evening we left Sam in charge of the kids and went out for a grown-up dinner in the neighboring town of Radda in Chianti.  It was quaint and beautiful like most of the other towns around here, with old stone buildings lining winding streets.  We had a long, relaxed dinner where Wendy, Chris, and Bob sampled the Fionentino, a huge, thick steak that requires at least two people to consume.  It was all delicious, from the fried bread they gave us before our meal to the homemade limoncello that they brought over afterward.  And on the way home, while keeping their eyes peeled for Silvio, Bob and Chris saw a wild boar on the side of the road. 
Wherefore art thou, Silvio?  Your disappearance has really shaken us up.   Especially before we heard back from Silvia and were unsure how your owners would take the news of your flight.  I had visions of poor Stefano breaking down into tears in Nadia’s arms as they consoled each other – all the kids really took this hard.

            Cultural differences are tough to track, and an Italian’s attitude toward his canino is not something I have studied.  Are pets held in as high esteem here?  Are you guys friends or servants?  They did tell us you and Joya were just brought on here to scare away the wild boars and the deer. 
            To be honest, Silvio, we suspected that your owners wouldn’t be that surprised that you had snuck out.  You’ve been ramming your nose into that gate opening from the moment we got here.  It’s not that they don’t care about you, though, buddy.  You’ve got the microchip and all.  They clearly want you back. Go ahead, have your fun, but come back soon, d’accordo?
            It’s bad luck that I won’t have a special treat for you when you get here. The outdoor market in Figline was not especially pet-centered.  In fact, if Jen and I had not found the inconspicuous side street that led to the fruit and vegetable stands, we would have left thinking that the market was generally meant for women shopping for clothing.  Any chance you’d come back for a nice pair of jeans, old buddy?  I didn’t think so.

Then there was the huge bone

left over from tonight’s massive steak dinner.  That would have been enough to get you running all the way from Greve in Chianti.  At the restaurant, the waiter fiddled around with it for a minute and made like he thought I was going to gnaw on it.  I asked him if we could take it home, but he must not have realized what I was asking. 

 It’s another cultural difference that we’re just going to have to live with, big guy.  No doggy bags in Italy.

Ring of Tuscan goodness

This is the official Chianti chicken.  Bob is ignoring the dignified history of this symbol and doing the chicken dance
from Arrested Development.

A 7:30 wake up suggests that were getting acclimated.   An 11:30 departure for the golden ring of Tuscan goodness suggests that we’re all a little distracted.  For many of the kids, today’s distraction was catching tadpoles from the small water garden by the driveway turnaround.  This involved washing and soaking the labels off empty jam and olive jars, then dunking the jars into the water to grab some of the little wigglers.  A good dunk usually netted three or four tadpoles, and how many people can say they have caught Italian tadpoles?  Ok, how many can say that who weren’t Italian kids?

Chris even got into the act by procuring a hammer and nail and poking some holes into the metal tops of the jars so that the tadpoles could breathe.  It was decided that lettuce was an appropriate tadpole food (perhaps radicchio would have been better for Italian tadpoles), but since we have 12 mouths to feed we were stingy with our store-bought lettuce and we did not feel it appropriate to sacrifice Silvia’s container garden lettuce.  So Zoe tore up some dandelion leaves (they have dandelions in Italy, too!) and tossed those in. 
Hiking from Greve to Montefiroralle

               There were other distractions, too.  The dogs had to be stimulated.  Blogs had to be written.  Eggs had to be fried.  I think Sam Brooks is making a feature film.   Before we hit the road to find all the fine places Silvia had laid out for us within a close driving distance, we took one final trip to the bathroom, put the tadpole jars in a shady spot and took a good look at the map.  We weren’t going to get lost, if we could help it.

                And…we didn’t get lost!  That is the story of the day.  We pretty much knew where we were all day long.  This was a nice feeling.
That’s not to say that everything went exactly as planned.  We were a bit time challenged.  Well, to be more clear, time challenged us.  That is to say, Italian time challenged us.  We went to the first stop on the Ring of Tuscan Goodness, Greve in Chianti, which you might remember from us asking advice there the other day.  We parked, we found the medieval square, the whole time we knew where we were and where we wanted to go.  Jen and I went to the tourist information center off the square  (Chris and Wendy did not want to go in because two days ago they went and asked the lady’s advice and took none of it, even though she gave a full half-hour of advice) looking for directions to a short hike that Silvia recommended to us.  We even found out where there was a public toilet. 

 Ok, a minor hiccup after that.  There are two banks on the square and I turned off at the wrong one on our first attempt to start the hike.  However, after that we went up the hill to a medieval Borgo, which is like a village, and it was all very nice.  Although the lady suggested a nice loop that would have brought us to a few more villages and extended our trek a kilometer or two, it was very possible that she knew we were with the Brookses and wanted to stick it to us.  So we hiked back down the mountain looking for lunch. 

Here is where Italian time challenged us.  Our tradition is to source various lunch components and have a picnic somewhere.    Every shop we wanted to get stuff from — the forno, the fromaggeria, even the take-away pizzeria– were closed up.  The daily pause.  Italy’s siesta.  Not much happens between 1 pm and 4:30.  At least not much bread and cheese are sold. 

This was problematic because we were all very hungry.  Luckily, we found a restaurant that was not pausing and was able to seat 12. It was a good meal, but we still like our picnics. 
After this scare, we decided that we should skip most of the rest of the Ring of Goodness.  It was mostly old Italian stuff, anyway.  The one other stop on the tour we did make was at an old castle town – Castellina – which boasted what was described to us as the best gelato in the world.  Reviews were very favorable. 

Thus sustained, we were able to withstand the rest of the ride and a substantial wait until our dinner – home-made lasagna with fresh lasagna noodles – was ready.   
In the medieval city of Montefioralle

Under the Tuscan sun

This is more like it.  Our hosts gave us a quick and dense set of directions for the house and descriptions of nearby attractions, and then they were off for a few days.  We explored the villa, talked and played – the latter occurred like this: Lanie and Africawit were constant companions, from their in-bed story telling In the morning to their seating (or for Lanie, napping) places at dinner; similar for

Nadia and Meredith, who spent much of their time looking after the villa’s resident canines, Joya and Silvio; the rest of the kids floated around reading, playing games, trying out the very cold swimming pool and even working out on the workout room.  Just about all the kids got into a spa day, using the tub and sauna in the master bedroom.  Jen and Wendy explored the woods; Chris and I played a game of bocce, which, in fact, does feel more authentic in Italy.  (This also may be because I won.)

                Chris and I also ventured into Figline, the nearest town with a decent supermarket.  In fact it has at least three supermarkets and we went to two of them.  The largest and newest, the COOP, was our actual destination because Silvia (our host, not to be confused with the larger of the villa’s dogs, Silvio) said it was the cheapest one around.  Sadly, despite what Silvia calls its “Communist” leanings, COOP observes the Sabbath.  We found another supermarket quickly and got most of what we wanted, but the only bread we could find was soft, sliced “Wonderbread”-style stuff.  Imagine, coming to Italy and eating that kind of bread.  So we found the third one and got some crusty bread, corn nuts, blood oranges and cookies. These were just the things to top off our provisions.
This was an exciting moment.  Wendy
and Chris are staying in a little outbuilding,
and the keys got locked in.  Chris managed
to retrieve them using a set of grabbers
and duct tape.

                Checking out was not too bad, except the first place would not accept MasterCard, and the Pavliks are running low on Euro.  At the second place, which does accept MasterCard, by the way, the lady in front of us at the checkout had a bit of a conundrum.  From what we could gather, she didn’t have quite enough money to pay for what the checkout lady had scanned (they have checkout ladies and scanners here, just like at home).  Slowly she started to alternately give items back to the teller and pull more loose change from her purse.  She gave back her two bottles of Coke, her eggs, one of her sausages, and some kind of soft cheese or sour cream (I was really paying attention).

Every time she handed something back, the checkout lady would look at me and Chris, the next people in lline, rather intently.  Did she want us to pay?  Was this some sort of Italian tradition?  On Tuscan Sundays everyone pays for the person before them?  Cultures are so difficult to figure out, and, moreover, anyone who knows me knows that I pride myself on my impeccable supermarket etiquette.  I was getting to feel uncomfortable.
Happily, the checkout lady was merely trying to mentally subtract returned items for the desperate lady’s total.  Apparently, the Italian scanners can’t scan backwards. 

                 In actuality, the lady wasn’t really that desperate.  It was all very cordial and calm, unlike, I suspect, how something similar might go down at home.  I watched and waited for the point where the lady would succumb and give back one of her several bottles and boxes of wine.  She did not touch any of them.   Eventually she managed to pull out enough Euros and Euro cents from her purse, and she handed back a package of cheese slices, so she could cover what she had left in her basket.
                A Tuscan supermarket story with a happy ending – what could be better?  We ate crusty bread, Romano cheese, prosciutto from a block that Jen carved up nicely, olive oil and garlic, sundried tomatoes, olives, pesto, balsamic vinegar, and probably some other stuff that seems to fit into our picture of a rustic Italian meal.  We liked it a lot.  


From Jen:
This place is pretty amazing, inside and out.  As I was wandering around on that first morning, I wondered where the kids were.  It turned out they were all in the GYM, of all places, working diligently on the various machines.  Apparently this is great fun for them.  (None of the adults have ventured into the gym at all.)  You’d have thought the Brooks kids, at least, would have had enough exercise for this lifetime.
Lanie nodded off before the pizza
arrived, but luckily she came back
to life once it was in front of her.

We have this hillside to ourselves, and eventually the kids availed themselves of some of its other diversions: a small pond where you could catch tadpoles, a little playground, a soccer field, a badminton set.  The pool, even though the weather is distinctly chilly.  The dogs, which the owners had tentatively asked us to feed in the evening for the next two days, thinking we were doing them a big favor, when in reality this was a major highlight for the kids.  And all of it set against a breathtaking background of Tuscan countryside.  We’re staying in the middle of the Chianti region, and there are grape vines and olive trees everywhere.

We spent most of the day around the villa, no one feeling like going anywhere.  For dinner we decided to head into the nearest village, Lucolena in Chianti, to a pizzeria that Silvia had highly recommended.  Chris managed to successfully convey to them over the phone that a group of 12 of us would be arriving.  The pizza and pasta were delicious, like everywhere else we’ve eaten here.  It’s amazing to me that you can stop into any random restaurant in any tiny town you come across and expect a wonderful meal.

Zoe’s take on our day on the road

The baths were amazing, though at some points I was afraid that Lanie  (or I ) would be carried away by the current. At another hot spring in Yellowstone National Park , Wyoming, Nadia and I actually took advantage of the current, riding it down the river but in these baths we would be scraped  on sharp rocks. Speaking of Yellowstone, the baths reminded me very much of the Travertine terraces. The sulphurous smell was very familiar.             
             At the end of our hot spring excursion, Lanie said that she felt sick, though she seemed okay later. None of us felt great due to the long, twisty mountain road. I was despairing in the back of the car as we drove aimlessly through the countryside (Editors’ note: It only seemed aimless, but it was a much longer drive than we promised.). Near the end of our drive, it was made even worse for me by Lanie pointing at every random house we passed and yelling “maybe that’s our villa!”  .
Finally, we reached our villa. I was very relieved to be out of the car. It was a long , hard day but Silvia’s delicious pasta and  tiramisu was a great way to end it.
Silvia’s tiramisu


         It was very fun to see the Brookses again after being away from them since last summer.  I feel bad for them having to bike on the mountains around the villa.  They’re not complaining a lot about it, though.  I know we’re going to have a lot of fun. 
 Also at the villa they have two big dogs and even though they are very nice we were scared of them at first because we just saw them barking over the fence and jumping up and down on their hind legs.  The people who owned the villa gave us a very nice tour.  We got to see all the parts of the beautiful house, such as a cool balcony that you get to from the room that I sleep in.  It was fairly easy to sleep that night after I stopped talking with Meredith and Nadia.  It was very late at night, past 10 o’clock.  For the people at home, though, it was only 4 p.m.  If I was in Durham we wouldn’t have even had dinner yet.    

Our kingdom for a GPS

Remember the three rules of The Princess Bride, like “Never get involved in a land war in Asia”?  We have a fourth one to add: “Never attempt to drive anywhere in Tuscany without a superb GPS and a firm grasp of Italian.”  Also, Dramamine.
We were so naïve this morning, optimistically setting out with Google directions and insufficiently detailed maps.  The villa in Tuscany where we’ll be spending the next week was supposedly about 3.5 hours from Rome, and by going a bit out of our way, we could also hit a very cool-sounding attraction on the way: a thermal spring area with warm turquoise waters cascading down over a series of waterfalls.  This area is known for the healing powers of its waters, and has been used for thousands of years.  It’s also, we discovered, quite a bit off the beaten path.
We quickly discovered our Google directions were useless, since they said things like “Turn onto Provincial Route 105”.  In Italy, provincial routes do not appear to be labeled by number.  Instead, they’re labeled by the next (too small to appear on the map) village that they lead to.  Also, in rural Tuscany no one seems to speak English.
It took hours to get to the Terme di Saturnia.  Luckily it was a very cool place – beautiful and free and totally unspoiled, despite the substantial number of people there.  It was fortunate that the waters were warm, because the day was quite chilly.  It was unfortunate that we had no towels, but we managed none the less.

Then came more hours attempting to get back to the highway.  We were winding through an absolutely beautiful landscape, but no one was much in the mood to appreciate it.  We all chose to focus instead on not throwing up in our new rental car.  Bob and I summoned up our Pimsleur-language-CD Italian skills and managed to ask for directions, but the flaw in this plan quickly became evident: we would be answered in a torrent of Italian of which we understood not a word.  People were very friendly and helpful – one elderly man talked nonstop for five minutes, gesturing all the while – but we pretty much just had to rely on going the way they pointed then stopping to ask the next person along the road.  (Bob and I later theorized that maybe they were saying things like, “Whatever you do, don’t go that way.  That would be the WORST possible way to go.”)
We thought our troubles were over when we finally found the highway again, but we soon discovered that the directions to our villa were less than stellar.  The first clue was when the exit we were supposed to be taking from the highway (again, not numbered) did not exist.  There followed several more increasingly desperate hours of travel, particularly when we discovered our directions ended at a random point and there was no indication of where to go from there.

I think the low point was when we stopped at a random roadside house and I had a long conversation with an elderly deaf woman and her daughter, who tried valiantly to assist me.  (At one point we even attempted to speak in French.)  Eventually she pulled me to the window, and pointed across the steep valley to a distant house on the opposite hillside.  “Ma dove es LA VIA?,” <”but where is THE ROAD?”, I think> I cried in despair, and there she couldn’t help me.

Now before you feel all sorry for us, let’s turn to the tale of our friends, the Brookses, who were BIKING to the villa from Florence.  We passed them on the road at one point when we were all under the impression that we were a couple of kilometers away.  This was a very mistaken impression.  We were about 14 kilometers away, over very steep hills, and it was getting dark.  Bob had been planning to go back for them but this didn’t quite work out when we couldn’t find the villa ourselves.
Asking directions in Greve in Chianti
Eventually, thankfully, we made it, thanks to a helpful resident of the tiny village of La Pescina, who was willing to walk with me and actually point out the (small, dirt) road we needed to take.  Upon arrival our hostess Silvia came running out with a camera.  Her husband Stefano and his friends had gone off to rescue the Brookses, and he’d called her and said, “You have to bring out your camera for this.”  It was now fully dark; one of the friends drove home a few of the Brooks kids while the others walked the bikes up the final steep hill.  The saintly Silvia made us a big pot of pasta since no one could conceive of getting back in a car (and it was now 8:30 at night).  And she’d left an amazing tiramisu in the fridge.  And the villa is amazing enough to make up for everything.
At this point Wendy cheerfully thinks she only has
2 km left to go.
From Bob:
We won’t talk too much about today, save to say that a few rules applied above and beyond Murphy’s Law.  One is that the longer the road is, the better the meal at the end.  Another is that anything is better with the Brookses involved.
                We will get the added pleasure of seeing them observe the surrounding countryside for the first time tomorrow morning.  Most of them arrived after dark and were only able to take in the building itself, which is plenty, really, to bite off in one sitting.  Like the Coliseum, it loves up to our elevated expectations.  Give it high marks for remoteness.
                While we’re at it, we’ll give Europecar a thumbs up for convenience and for giving decent driving directions out of Rome.  Driving there was something I’d been dreading.  Thankfully, Jen  planned for us to be leaving on a Saturday morning and traffic was light.  Signage was not great, though, and we had one snag before we hit the A1.  It would not be the last.
                The girls also deserve much applause for rolling with the highs and lows of a marathon driving day.  Zoe’s singing lessons carried them all through the worst of it.
That’s Stefano and Silvia in the background.  Their four-year-old son, Andreas, took this photo.  This room dates
from the 11th century!  You can’t really tell but the whole thing slants to the right because it was starting to fall
over until a previous owner reinforced it.

Markets and gladiators and tired feet

At the Campo de’Fiori

Our hotel is noisy.  For such a dinky street outside our window, there’s a lot of traffic.  Of course, this did not stop us from sleeping for 14 hours last night.  Although the windows don’t seem to close well enough to keep out the street noise, the shutters and blinds really do well to keep out the light.  I remember waking up a few times over night and thinking how strange it was that they were doing street construction in the middle of the night. 
To add insult to injury, at the end of our
long walk, we had to climb these steps.
                It wasn’t the middle of the night.  It was probably 8 am.  We didn’t really rouse ourselves until almost 10!  This was ok.  We’re half-acclimated to Italy time. 

                Missing the hotel breakfast was a little sad, but we hit the streets again, looking for more adventure.  Our directional sense seems to have improved.  We got around well enough to make it to the Campo di Fiori market by brunch time.  And we were able to get the food we bought to the park next to the Forum square in the middle of lunch hour.  Somehow we managed to find a quiet, shady park bench amid the throngs of people milling around the forum and Coliseum.
View from the top of those steps.
                Our big tip of the day: Go to the Forum first.  You get a combo ticket, see?  (No discount for children originating outside the EU.)  And the line to buy them at the Forum was 12 people deep.  The line to buy tickets at the Coliseum when we finally got over there was 1,200 people deep.  That was a good line to miss.  The Coliseum was a good thing not to miss.  Unlike many marquee tourist locations, this one held up to high expectations.  Archeological exhibits inside the upper ring showed items from the everyday lives of the average Coliseum attendees — bone sewing needles, chicken bones from in-game snacks, glass beads from a bracelet, stylus pens – that were retrieved from the drains after they were swept there by workers a thousand years ago.  There was much evidence of betting, ancient graffiti, and even game boards scratched into the benches to occupy people’s time while the games were at a lull.
The Roman Forum

               The structure itself was solidly impressive, and larger than I expected.  It was also so familiar that little description was necessary as we walked along the inner terraces. Crowds were large, but unobtrusive, except for when you were trying to take a picture or trying to avoid being in someone else picture.  The gift shop was small and hidden way off to the side.  That’s not to say there weren’t dozens of people milling about outside trying to sell us stuff, but the expectation has become that the whole tour would dump you into an elaborate gift store extravaganza finale.  This was missing and probably will be until Disney takes over.

Orange tree

               That left the walk home, which, after we ruled out a trip on the Metro, was not that bad.  The area around the Coliseum, Forum and Piazza di Venizia were very crowded, but the people were genial.  We may escape Rome without having our pockets picked.  From there we had our bearings and it was not a long stroll at all home, with a detour for dinner for good measure.

                A note on Roman dining: Those outdoor streetside cafes are inviting, especially on days like today, when the temperature was mild and you could sit outside in the evening without a jacket.  The appeal of the quiet, narrow side streets is very strong; however, the streets are not always as quiet as they appear.  They’re plenty narrow, alright.  A few cars came surprisingly close to Jen, who occupied the end seat of our table.
Almost getting run over while
eating dinner

From Jen:
It was another gorgeous, sunny day today – an important factor given that everything we’ve been doing is outside.  On the other hand, this may have encouraged us to become a little overambitious in the amount of walking we took on.  In our defense, there was a transit strike today, so we didn’t have the option of taking a bus or metro anyway (though given our propensity to take wrong turns, we’re more comfortable on foot where the consequences aren’t as dramatic).
2/3 of the kids were beat by the time we got to the Roman Forum.  Bob and I took turns exploring with Zoe while the other two rested (and Lanie actually fell asleep at one point).  We all made it up Palatine Hill, which was my favorite part in any case – you could walk amongst the ruins and through beautiful gardens, with fragrant magnolias and orange trees, with a beautiful view of the Forum and Rome laid out beneath you.  (Once we got done with this portion of the walking, Zoe joined the ranks of the exhausted.)
The kids rallied for the Colosseum, though.  (This was mostly because we told them there would be gelato afterwards.  This is a powerful motivator.  And then we noticed that it was after 6:00 by the time we left the Colosseum, so we pulled a bait and switch and made them eat dinner first.)