Category Archives: Italy

A treatise on Italian road signs

8:30am (2:30 am NH time) and ready for the road!

We’ve made in home successfully, after a 17-hour day involving a vaporetto, two planes, two buses, and a car.  And a LOT of TV.  This time we were on Delta rather than Alitalia, which meant a substantial downgrade in the quality of the food and coffee, but a large improvement in the amount of English-language programming available.  The girls watched approximately a year’s worth of TV on the trip home.

Now that we’re back, and our traumatic driving experiences are beginning to fade into memory, I want to revisit an earlier portion of our trip.  During our many hours of driving in the Tuscan countryside, closely scanning the surrounding landscape for clues as to where we were or bystanders from whom we could ask directions, we had the opportunity to observe a lot of road signs.  The Italians seem to really like signs (though not signs that tell you useful things like “Rt 55 North”).  Here are some of my favorites.


This set of five signs, depicting various road hazards, appeared approximately every 50 feet in Tuscany.  If the Italian government could just tell everyone, “Look, anywhere in Tuscany, at any time you’re likely to encounter sharp turns, skidding cars, rain, snow, gracefully prancing animals, and falling rocks,” they could save themselves a lot of time and trouble.  The “winding roads” one is particularly comical to anyone who’s every driven in Tuscany.

Also, fleeing tourists!  No, wait.  We eventually figured
out that this sign was for a school bus stop.

Below is another one I liked.  You’ll see that the version on the left says “frana,” which presumably gives Italian speakers some clue as to what they’re meant to be excited about.  But we saw those like the one on the right multiple times, too — just a random exclamation point on the side of the road.  “Be vaguely alarmed!  About some unspecified danger!”

Also, what’s that up and down arrow
thing on the bottom supposed to mean?
Speed limit is 30, more or less?
These are the girls’ “alarmed” faces.

This one I never figured out.  We saw it a lot.  Sometimes there was one lump, sometimes two.

And I’ve saved the best for last.  We came across this one in Florence.  I have absolutely no idea what it’s supposed to represent, but I’ll offer an award for the best guess.  (Without the strange blue man and the hearts, it would be a standard “do not enter” sign in Italy.)  Anyone?

And lest you should think that cars have all the fun, here’s the type of warning sign that you’ll see in car-free Venice.  There was actually a fair-sized series of signs where a winged lion was stopping tourists from doing something stupid.  At least it’s not just the Americans that they think are stupid.  That’s not even our flag!  It’s the BRITISH people who are stupid.

P.S.  And when we got home, this is who was waiting for us at our neighbor’s house.  4 out of our 6  new additions have been named in honor of our Italy trip: Siena, Lucolena (for the village nearest our villa), Joya (for the villa dog), and Pulcina (“chick” in Italian).

One last visit to St. Mark’s Square

Courtyard of the Doge’s Palace

Lunch in the square
Our final day of Venice and of Italy.  We’d thought of getting an early start to beat the crowds, but we awoke to pouring rain — so we stayed in and did some family reading instead.  Luckily the rain stopped around 10 am, and since it was the only substantial rain of the whole trip, we weren’t complaining.
Today’s agenda was to return to Piazza San Marco (a book we listened to with the girls that was set in Venice, The Thief Lord, says that everyone in Venice visits St. Mark’s Square at least once a day) and see some of the sights.  Foremost on the list was the Doge’s Palace.  (This, along with some of the other landmarks on the square, is referenced in ANOTHER book set in Venice, The Magic Treehouse: Carnival at Candlelight.  Lanie is obsessed with The Magic Treehouse so this made things considerably more interesting for her.) 

As with the Colosseum in Romewe were able to beat the ticket line by buying our combination ticket at the rather less popular Correr Museum.  And the museum was pretty cool!  We all loved the exhibit of crazy carnivale dresses, and I was impressed by the exhibit that had every coin ever minted in Venice, starting in the year 820.
While waiting in the LONG line for St. Mark’s Basilica (we couldn’t avoid that one) we got to watch the hour strike twelve, which is marked by two statues repeatedly striking a bell.  The same clock tower also contains the world’s first “digital” clock, which flips over every five minutes.  (See a photo plus Lanie’s rendition here.)  
The Doge’s Palace was a great stop and an amazing study in contrasts.  First we walked through the very sumptuous and ornate state rooms, with their impressive art and architecture.  Then we turned into a stone passageway and were suddenly plunged across the “Bridge of Sighs” and into the grimmness of the prisons.  We were able to explore the many levels of prisons and see the graffiti that had been left there by generations of prisoners.  (I think the kids liked the prison better than the palace.)

Optical illusion floor in the Doge’s Palace

From Bob:
            Venice is a walking around theme park interspersed with a boat ride or two.   Each street, bridge and side alley calls out to be explored.   Even the smallest passages have the potential to lead somewhere interesting.  On the other hand, some streets seem like major walkways, but then they just wind up in a dead end.  
            I suppose it’s easy to get lost, but we’re sticking to pretty well-traveled territory.  Our apartment is a short walk from the Rialto Bridge, which is right in the center of the town.   To get back and forth from there to Piazza San Marco, we follow signs painted on the sides of buildings.  Sometimes the arrows on the signs point two different ways.  You can get to Saint Mark’s this way or that way.  Take your pick.  Don’t bother with street names – our apartment is on the Corte della Ca’ Amadi, but I doubt anyone would know where that is.  Just follow the arrows on the wall back that say “per Rialto.”  They’ll lead us home. 

View from the palace

           Although there was a fair amount of foot traffic as we searched for a restaurant tonight, things have calmed down from our first night, which was a Saturday.  There were lots of people singing in the streets that night.  And drinking.       

            Tonight we followed some interesting side streets and found the first of the three things we were looking for: a place for cicchetti, which are Italian bar snacks.  Most are fried things , like peppers and zucchini.  There were also some meatballs and ricetta balls, but can’t honestly say I’m wholly sure exactly what I ordered. It all tasted good eaten off a barrel in the street outside the bar, though.
            We were not quite as successful with quest number two.  For our dinner restaurant we kind of succumbed to a high pressure waiter who popped into the street while we were reading the menu.  What we really should have done was peek inside to see if anyone was already in there.  They weren’t .
Last look at Venice from the Bridge of Sighs
            To be fair, the food wasn’t bad.  It was just a little uncomfortable being the only ones in the restaurant.  We had tried to avoid this. We waited until 7 pm before shopping around for a place to eat – we weren’t going to be those pitiful tourists who showed up for dinner at 5:30. Eventually people trickled in and the place was half filled by the time we left.   It wasn’t the enchanting Italian dining experience that we had hoped for, but I enjoyed my sole, and at the next table was a German (or maybe British) fellow who looked just like Larry Bird.  That was pretty cool.  German Larry Bird was having a fine time, too.   GLB’s happiness was contagious.  I was in a pretty good mood when we left.
            So then we kicked about for our third goal of the night, a gelato bar.  If you’re in Italy, you’re never too far from one of those.   From there, it was just a matter of following the “per Rialto” signs until we saw the pink church.  That’s all you need to know about navigating in Venice.  Also, pick a different restaurant then the one we picked.   Unless German Larry Bird tells you differently.
St. Mark’s Basilica


By land and by sea

“Main Street” in Murano
Venice is beautiful, magical – and crowded.  Except for early mornings and late evenings, the larger streets near our apartment are thronged with people.  But today we found that it’s very easy to get off the beaten path.  We were making our way to a place called “Fondamente Nove” to catch the vaporetto to Murano, the neighboring island famous for its glass.  Since we had no particular timetable, we just started wandering in the general direction we wanted to go.  There were many twists and turns, narrow alleys and low-clearance tunnels.  We had no idea where we were, but since Venice is a pretty small island we figured we couldn’t go too far wrong.  Eventually, we came out right where we needed to be.  Being lost on foot is much more pleasant than being lost in a car.
Crowds of Venice
The boat’s first stop was at Isola di San Michele, which is a walled cemetery island very close to Venice.  We decided to hop out for a quick look, and like everything in Venice it was beautiful and fascinating.  Burials are tough here, so people are buried for 10 years or so and then dug up so the graves can be reused.  But the whole place was immaculately maintained and cared for. 
Then, on to Murano.  Murano’s “main street” (a canal) is lined with glass shops and some glass factories.  There were many, many negotiations with all the girls about what types of things would be practical, affordable, and (most importantly) possible to get home in one piece.  Eventually, exhausted by discussions in front of every glass shop, I just told them to buy what they wanted.  They all spent much or all of their remaining trip money, and then we could move on with our day. 

We spent the remainder of the afternoon exploring Venice by foot and boat, taking the slow boat all the way down the Grand Canal and reading about all the buildings we were passing.  We checked out the Piazza San Marco, which is huge and beautiful and very, very popular.  (There were some wooden bench-type things piled up in a few places, and our guidebook says that when rains are heavy the square floods, and the benches are laid out to make pathways for those crossing the square to walk on.  Given the level of the crowds, I cannot even imagine how this is possible.)
During afternoon rest time I actually managed to find my way to a market and procure ingredients for dinner, then find my way back to the apartment again.  (This is no mean feat.  The first time we left our apartment, I realized we didn’t have any paperwork on us that had its address.  So, Bob and I actually videotaped the route, including street signs, on our camera, just in case.  I was imagining us wandering around the Rialto Bridge in the middle of the night, desperately trying to find someone who could help us locate an unspecified apartment in an unknown location – not good.)
Piazza San Marco
The best part of the day was the evening.  We had the kids rest in the afternoon so we could stay out a little late and see the city by night.  We rode the vaporetto, much less crowded now, to Piazza San Marco.  The kids were dragging so we considered just riding straight back rather than taking the short walk to the square, but we decided to power on and were so glad we did.  By night the crowds were thinned and the square was magical, with the beautiful surroundings and these little blue lights shooting up in the sky everywhere (which turned out to be cheap helicopter toys being sold by the ubiquitous street vendors, but they were still pretty — and best of all, the girls had spent all their money and couldn’t buy them).  Orchestras were playing and the crowd was having a great time.  And we all slept well that night.
From Bob:
                Sorry if I complained too much yesterday about how expensive this trip has been.  I really was very ignorant.  This trip did not begin to get expensive until we hit Murano, which is an island only a short vaporetto ride from here.  Murano is famous for its glass factories.  You can get anything you want here made out of glass.

                And the girls wanted everything they saw.  There were all types of little animals and decorations and who knows what else made out of glass.  Most of it was hand-blown; however, during a glass blowing demonstration at one of the factories we learned that some of the items being sold as Murano glass in Venice, and even there on Murano, were actually cheap imitations from China.  This gets the glass makers very angry, and, of course, it ensured that none of our family would settle for cheap imitations.  
                When you see the girls, ask them what they bought.  It’s a slightly bizarre menagerie, but at least it was funded by gifts from grandparents.  Our main concern now is finding a way to cart these things home. 
                We spent a good deal of time on boats today, which was very pleasant.  The water appears to be a nice green, healthy color, though it’s probably very dirty, given all the people and boats around here.  It smells like the sea, but not like high tide.  There are waves, but not so much that we got seasick.
                We rode down the Grand Canal, too.  Twice, even – once in the day with Jen reading from a guidebook (that’s an indication of how calm the ride was, she was able to read and not get motion sick) and once at night.  The guide book recommended going at night so you could look in the windows of the grand palaces at the grand chandeliers made of Murano glass.  I can only imagine what one of those things costs.

                We also had a nice rest time in the middle of the day.  I have been in Italy long enough that I feel like I deserve a pause, too.  I napped well, and so did Lanie.
                We ate in and then took our evening cruise.  At St. Mark’s square we found the dueling bands that our guidebook told us about.  At three places along the square there were six-piece bands playing on small stages.  The square is big enough that all three could be playing at once and not interfere with one another, but it seemed that tonight only two were playing at a time.  Jen and I even got in a little dancing on the square.  That might have been my favorite part of the day, and not even because it didn’t cost anything.

Arrivederci, Toscana

Farewell to the villa
Today was the day to say farewell to our villa and the Tuscan hills.  And I have to say that it was quite impressive that all twelve of us made it out of the house, with all our possessions (as far as I know), well before 10 am.  I’d told all three girls the night before that they should get dressed and packed up as soon as they woke up, since they’re prone to morning lounging.  Nevertheless I was surprised to awaken at 7 am to Nadia standing by the side of my bed, to tell me that she was dressed and packed and could she go out and play with the dogs?  This is not the way that school mornings go at home.  I think she’s been sneaking some of Chris’s high-test Italian coffee. 

The Brookses somehow mustered up the will to get back on their bikes and headed off down the very steep driveway, while we and Stefano took plenty of pictures.  When we headed out in our car a little while later, we were surprised at how far they’d gotten.  (Though they were already taking a coffee break.)
Our plan was to spend a few hours in Florence en route to Venice, and things went well initially.  We found signs for the (free) parking area we were looking for, and actually made it there with little difficulty.  Unfortunately, it was overrun with people and cars and our chances of finding a spot seemed slim to none.  With no Plan B, we had to revert to our “follow the Centro signs” strategy, which definitely failed us.  (I had several maps, but all of them were completely unhelpful for one reason or another.)  Also, Florence has a “restricted zone” that we were afraid of inadvertently blundering into, and very confusing parking rules.  At one point we found a spot on the street (whether near the center or not, we had no idea) with no signs indicating we couldn’t park there.  But the lack of meters and the fact that every other car had some kind of permit displayed made us suspicious.  Eventually I found some information on one of the pamphlets Wendy gave me that indicated only residents are allowed to park in spaces marked with white paint.  Tourists spaces are in blue.  How they expect people to know this is beyond me, but we were happy that we’d avoided a repeat of ourDC experience.
Ponte Vecchio in Florence
By the time we’d found a legal place to park, and walked the substantial distance from there to the center, we didn’t have a whole lot of time to do anything.  We strolled around, looked at the famous Ponte Vecchio and the outsides of a few buildings, had a quick lunch (and of course, gelato) and then it was time for the long walk back to the car.  So, we’ll have to come back to Florence again someday.

It really, really appeared that the trip to Venice would be smooth.  Almost the whole route was on the autostrada.  We didn’t take any wrong turns despite a couple of near misses.  We actually GOT TO VENICE, within a couple of blocks of where we had to drop off our rental car.
And then we were foiled by gas stations.

I will not bore you with the details of our quest for gas, but suffice it to say that gas stations are one area in which THE U.S. KICKS ITALY’S BUTT.  That’s right, Italy.  You may win on food, history, art, community, driving skills, and gelato, but WE WIN ON GAS STATIONS.  For example, you would not usually find the following in the U.S.:
 – Gas stations closed indefinitely for “change of staff” (with no staff evident)
 – Gas stations closed indefinitely for “the pause” (afternoon siesta) or for no apparent reason
 – Gas stations whose only payment option is feeding bills into a machine that does not give change, so if you happen to need to fill your car you need to keep putting 20 euro notes in and seeing how far you get
  – Gas stations where the only exit option is to take a right turn which will take you off the island you’re on and back to the mainland several kilometers away.
But eventually arriving in Venice, leaving the car behind, and hopping on the vaporetto (water bus) into the city proper was magical.  Our apartment is right in the middle of things, but in a quiet alley so street noise doesn’t keep us up.  We took a stroll around the city, found a produce market and a bread seller, and made ourselves a very nice pasta dinner with lemon garlic sauce.  It was Saturday night, and the city was hopping.  Bob and I threw open all the windows and listened to laughter and accordion music drifting up from the streets below before going to bed.
From Bob:
Grandma has commented to us that people are going to think we’re millionaires because of our Italian trip.  We are doing several things to make things not so expensive – our accommodations, while awesome, are not particularly dear.  Split between two families, the villa was very reasonable, particularly since this is the off season.  In a few months, it would have cost twice as much as it did. 
Dinner prep was a group effort.  Except for Bob who
fell asleep.  But he did have the heaviest bags to carry
up to the third floor.
Our place in Venice is really nice.  It has a kitchen, a bedroom, a loft and a pull-out couch.  It’s about as expensive as a hotel room would be, but we’re not all squished up on top of one another.  Also, the kitchen lets us cook some of our meals, which probably saves us some money.  Jen should share in this blog how she came across this place so other people can do the same.  I wouldn’t be surprised if it has something to do with the Internet.  This is a great place to stay – just the right size, and it’s right in the middle of things. 
That being said, this is still an expensive trip.  The prices seem reasonable, and maybe they are, but we have to mentally tack 25 percent on everything because it’s in Euros and not dollars. Also, they keep sticking us with hidden fees – restaurants charge a seating fee (though we’ve stopped tipping, so that evens out a little); there’s a three-percent surcharge on credit card purchases; and who knows how much the banks are charging for ATM withdrawals.  It’s really tough on us tightwads.  Today we found that the car rental company wanted us to leave our car in a parking garage and that we have to pay the night’s parking because they won’t come get the car until tomorrow. 
The shop windows in Venice were VERY enticing.  On our
second day I gave in to temptation and bought us a
selection of desserts from the bakery above.

Then again, the car was pretty good.  I got my Charles Reid vibe going while driving around the A4.  Plus it was a diesel.  We started with 18 kilometers on the odometer and put on more than 1,000 km over our travels from Rome to Venice.  Many were tough miles, too, up and down the twisty roads of Tuscany.  I still can believe we returned it without a scratch.  It even rained today during the drive, washing off all the dust from the villa’s driveway.  And yet there was no appreciative Europcar official to hand the keys off to.  That was a little disappointing.  I’ll just have to imagine them appreciating my diving tomorrow morning.
But, yeah, this place is pretty expensive – particularly Rome and Venice — and, Grandma has a point.  Even though I’m saving the family lots of money by not ordering my own gelato and simply sampling everyone else’s   Seriously.  We get gelato a lot, and at two to four Euro a pop, it starts to add up.)  The thought is that we won’t be coming back to Italy any time soon, so the expense is more like a novelty than a lifestyle direction. 
If we were to come back, though, I wouldn’t mind coming here to Venice.  The combination of car-less streets and viable public transportation over water give this city an otherworldly feel.  The varied, mostly-ancient and slightly decaying architecture helps this, but it’s the car-lessness that really does it.  Grammy and Grampy are in Hilton Head this week and they like to talk about car-free streets down there, but everyone drives around on golf carts, which is hardly any better.  Half the cars in Rome are smaller than a golf cart, and still they make a commotion when they turn down one of the small side streets where people are walking.  No golf carts here.  No Segways.  The Brookses couldn’t even bring their bikes into Venice.  They had to stay on Lido, which is an entirely different island. 

Most of the commercial transportation here takes place by boat.  Jen says if we look closely we may see brown and yellow UPS boats zipping around.  Already I’ve seen water ambulances and fire boats.  On the streets, large boxes are hauled by hand dolly.  Men wheel them around calling out “Attenti!” to get pedestrians to move out of the way.  It’s odd to think that every trinket and every expensive watch and every suit and every piece of women’s underwear on display in all the stores here had to be carried in by hand.   Not to mention all the pizza.

Lanie’s contribution to the blog

Lanie’s artwork of Venice.

The winged lion and book
The clock (with ringer statues) in the
Piazza San Marco
…and here’s the photo version.

And of course the gelato stand.  She can tell you what each of these
flavors are.

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.