October 22, 2003
I am sitting here in Pisa, after what has seemed like a very long time away from Cornwall. It has only been five days, but because of all the driving I’ve been doing, over 750 miles worth, it has been particularly long and tiring.
As I think back on all the places I’ve been this trip, several of them stand out. In no particular order, they include Sienna, Perugia, Orvieto, Todi, Poppi and Lucca. I didn’t have a chance to spend any time in Todi, Poppi or Orvieto, I only had time to drive through each of them, but they seem worth a return visit. Sienna was more beautiful than I’d imagined, and Perugia more lively and interesting than the tour books would have you believe. And Lucca, which I have visited four times now, seems like it might be the most livable of all.
Which leads me back to the issue of why I’m here in Italy. After our year is up in Cornwall we would like to live somewhere on the European continent. We want to learn a new language, or brush up on one we know (I speak some Spanish, and Rachel speaks passable French); we want to expose the boys to new places and languages; and we want to have some new adventures as well as make new friends. Our choices of countries are currently Italy, France and Spain – and this trip was to take a longer look at Italy.
We were here in June, spending time along the Italian Riviera, which extends from the French border, east past Genova, to La Spezia. We decided after that trip that the Italian Riviera wasn’t a place we wanted to live, so I’ve come back to take a look at Tuscany and Umbria.
One of the places we’ve been concentrating on is around Lake Trasimeno, which is quite close to Perugia. During our June trip we contacted the folks running the See You In Italy web site, and spent two days visiting houses near Pozzuolo with Giancarlo. We found the perfect house, but it was a little out of our budget, so we’ve been concentrating instead on buying a fixer-upper (my specialty), possibly taking a year or so to fix it up, and then turning it into a retreat center (something Rachel’s keen to do as a way to create our own built-in community while we’re away from our family and friends).
But something happened this trip that has made me less positive about living in Italy. I don’t know if it was the traveling alone, or driving so far, or the fact that I speak hardly a word of Italian and didn’t talk with anyone for five days. But I’m wondering whether it makes sense to move the four of us, along with a dog and cat, to some place we don’t even speak the language. And fix up a house at the same time? Some of our friends have wondered whether we’re a little bit crazy, and I might be beginning to see that they mean.
I’m flying back to London tomorrow morning, then taking the train back to down to Cornwall. I can’t wait to get back and see them all – Rachel, Nathaniel and Sebastian. And run along the coast. And have some time to stop and feel, rather than just think all the time.
There are three things wrong with Italy – traffic, concrete, and zoning. Let’s start with concrete. The Italians seem to be having a love affair with concrete. It’s hard to find anything new that isn’t being built with concrete. Not only is most of it ugly, but there seems to be a general inability to finish anything. All I could think yesterday while driving through the outskirts of Florence was thank God for the Renaissance, because without it Italy would be a concrete wasteland.
Which brings up the zoning issue. There are some places, like Lucca, that seem to have their zoning act together. But I tried to drive from Florence to Lucca yesterday, without using the Autostrada, and it was essentially impossible. I literally couldn’t get through the sprawl of Florence to find Pistoia. This was primarily because many signs are missing because of all the construction going on (need I mention that it’s mostly ugly concrete construction?). I can be an incredibly tenacious driver, but after 30 minutes of going round and round I gave up and took the Autostrada to Montecatini Terme.
The other big problem with zoning is that the Italians seem to think that industrial zones should be attached to most every town, even towns that are far from any major city, and where the roads are narrow and winding. The road from Lucca to Bagna de Lucca for example, is narrow, winding, and passes in several places through long rows of narrowly planted trees. It travels through dozens of small towns, several of which are so narrow that they require a traffic light so the traffic can move through town one direction at a time. All the way up, and all the way down I was passed by hundreds of huge trucks full of things like cement, concrete and steel, being delivered to and from one of the many industrial parks along this road. No doubt local employment is important, but it’s hard to imagine what it must be like living in any of these towns, where all the houses are right on the road, and these huge trucks are thundering by day and night.
But enough about what’s wrong, let’s talk about what’s right. And at the top of the list is food. Every lunch and dinner I have made a point of stopping for a meal. Last night I was in Florence, and had the most amazing funghi (mushrooms). Two of them, cooked quickly in hot oil, served hot and tender, so tender in fact that they literally melted in my mouth. And the other night in Perugia I had spaghetti tartufo (with truffles), which was earthy and subtle. If you’ve never had truffles, try them, I promise they will taste like nothing you’ve ever had before.
But the best meal I’ve had so far was this afternoon, on the outskirts of Lucca. I was driving the vino strada (wine route), and stopped at a tratorria in the middle of nowhere. It was full of locals, not another tourist in sight, which as any traveler will tell you is the equivalent of a hole in one. I had minestra fagioli (bean soup), spaghetti alla oilo e perperocini, followed by a tarte miele (apple tart) and a capuccino. Fantastico!
Aside from food, the other thing the Italians do right is use their cities both day and night. Every city I’ve been in has people out in force until at least 11pm. They promenade. They eat gelato. They talk. They ride scooters. They hang out in bars. They live life in a way that neither Americans nor British seem to know how to do (even in San Francisco).
Maybe it has to do with the fact that the cities are made for walking – the narrow alleys, the twists and turns, and never knowing when you’re going to come across another incredible shop, or gallery, or trattoria, or gelatoria, or church, or museum. Or maybe it has to do with the Italian lifestyle – centered around family, and affected by living in such close quarters.
Whatever it is, it’s been lovely to be around, if only for a little while.
October 20, 2003
I picked up a rental car at Pisa airport yesterday morning, Sunday, and headed south. The purpose of yesterday and today is to make a wider tour of the area to the south of Florence. After that I’ll spend a couple of days visiting towns on the train lines in and out of Florence.
I headed east and then south through Certaldo on the way to Sienna. Beautiful Tuscan hills, brown and recently tilled, but with few vineyards. Upon arriving in Sienna, it became obvious why some towns are more well known than others, and Sienna deserves all the praise it gets.
I took the obligatory walk up to the Duomo, and then looked for lunch. I went into three or four places right next to the Duomo, but they had no room for a single. What was most interesting though was that every place I went in to was full of locals, not tourists. Large family groups enjoying big communal plates of pastas and salads. To have restaurants so close to the major tourist attractions full of locals is, I think, a very positive indicator for the kind of place that we might want to live. I found a small place away from the Duomo area and enjoyed another very nice plate of pasta with fungi, a salad, wine and a coffee.
From Sienna I drove south to Lago di Bolsena, then east to Orvieto, followed by Todi and Spoleto. I didn’t stop in any of these towns, but drove through the city centers to get a feel for the places. By the time I hit Spoleto it was getting dark, so I skirted the edge of the city, and headed north to Perugia.
When I arrived at Perugia it took four trips around the city before I realized that I still had no clue how the city was laid out. I looked at the map in hand, and the streets and nothing matched. Part of the problem was that upon arriving there were literally thousands of people streaming out of the city center and down the streets. There were policemen everywhere directing traffic and it took half an hour of driving before I could even find a way into the central area. I stopped at one of the train stations, and had to ask where I was on the map. Oops, nowhere near where I was going to stay. So back in the car, and after three more trips around the upper streets, saw a one way street with what looked like a space. I quickly backed the car down the street, and squeezed the car into a half space.
Having no clue where I was, I walked upwards. I finally came upon the central plaza and saw why all those people had been coming down the hill – they had been attending the final day of the eight day Festival of Chocolate. In the main street they’d been having a chocolate carving contest, and there were eight tents each with a slab of chocolate three feet on a side, that had been carved into various shapes.
It took a while, but I finally found my hotel, Hotel Anna, and then headed out for another plate of spaghetti (as they say, when in Rome…). This time I had the house specialty, spaghetti di tartufo (truffles), and it was as good as the waiter promised.
After dinner I went looking for the car, and after only three wrong turns found it. Across the street another car was leaving, so I moved the car to a full sized space, and then looked carefully at the signs to see when I might get towed. What I found was that one needs to pay only between 1:30pm and 8:00pm. How civilized.
It was raining this morning, and the temperature has dropped. There are several Universities here, and the streets are full of students. I’ve found an internet cafe, where I am right now, but it’s after 11am now, and so it’s time to get back on the road.
Ciao until tomorrow.
October 18, 2003
I left Bodmin Parkway Station at 9:25am this morning, and after two trains, two buses and one plane, landed in Pisa at 9:50pm courtesy of a £13 flight on Ryan Air.
One of the things that jumps right out at you here is the No War, Yankee Go Home slogan spray painted on buildings around the city. Not that I blame them – one of the reasons we left the States was the increasingly bullying attitude that America is taking towards the rest of the world. But that’s a topic for another entry…
I bought a copy of Let’s Go before I left, and after we landed I made several calls before I found a room at the Hotel Helvetia.
The airport is no more than five minutes from central Pisa, and the hotel turned out to be a mere two blocks from the Duomo and Leaning Tower. I walked around the corner from the hotel and had a plate of spaggheti alla frutta di mare with a quadro litro of vino bianco, macedonia and a capuccino. Very nice meal for under 20 euros.
After dinner I walked to the Leaning Tower and reminisced about a trip I’d made here exactly 20 years ago this summer. I had taken six months off between leaving Intel and going to graduate school at U.C. Davis, and in that time I took a six month trip around the world. I spent a month each in India, Nepal, Greece and Yugoslavia (or what was then Yugoslavia), and then wound my way slowly through parts of southern Europe. I found myself in Florence for about a week – I had intended to stay for just two nights, but I’d met a great group of fellow travelers at dinner one night, and two nights just didn’t seem long enough.
One afternoon I went to Pisa with one of the Aussie gals I was staying with. We got off the train and wandered the back streets to the Tower. On the way we bought a bottle of Chianti and some bread sticks as a snack. We climbed the tower, and I remember looking down and thinking “Wow, I could slip right through this railing.” This was before they’d fixed the lean, and the railing was such that anyone under 400 pounds could slip underneath it without so much as by your leave. (I didn’t climb the Tower this time, but I did notice that they’d beefed up the railing.)
On the way back to the train station we were a bit drunk and quite hungry. We pooled our remaining money and came up with a total of 6,000 lira, which at the time was the equivalent of $4.00. Too tipsy to worry too much, we ducked into a little trattoria that looked like it had been built into a part of the old wall and asked the proprietress if she could feed us for our 6,000 lira. She looked at us, looked at her husband, then waved us to a table. Bread, salad, and spaghetti soon appeared, and with the remaining wine we had a meal to remember.
After dinner tonight I wondered the narrow streets down to the river. I stood in the middle of one of the bridges and watched the stream of people, primarily between 18 and 30 years old, promenading back and forth across the bridge. It was after 11pm at this point, and still the city was alive and vibrant. This feeling of easy city life is one of the things that is drawing us to Italy. It will be interesting to see if the rest of the week is as comfortable as tonight has been.
I haven’t been writing much lately, and it’s driving me crazy. I have about ten stories ready and waiting in my head, but just haven’t had any time to get them down on paper.
The first six weeks here were quite tense and I was a bit on edge all of the time, what with everything being new and different, and I did a lot of my writing from 9pm to 1am. But the adrenaline is wearing off, and I’ve started getting to bed a little earlier, and Sebastian has been sick, and Nathaniel goes to school from 1pm to 3pm every day which really breaks up the afternoon, and I’ve started working on the house a bit, and Rachel’s mother was here for a week, and we’re getting ready for three straight weeks of visitors. Hmmm, no wonder I haven’t had any time to write.
On Saturday (today) I’m flying to Florence for five days, and will be driving and training around, looking for a town that we might want to live in after our year is up here in Cornwall. If you know of the perfect place, within 45 minutes by train of Florence, nice central piazza with at least three of four nice (but not expensive) restaurants, a couple of good cafes, with a little bit of night life, let me know. We’re interested in starting a tourist related business, and want to be close to, but not in, Florence. We know the usual suspects (Pisa, Fiesole, Lucca, etc.), and are looking for something a little less obvious, and a little more unspoilt.
Which reminds me of the joke that Rachel tells of the English couple who went to Italy for the first time (best told with a thick English accent). The couple is home after their vacation and the wife is telling one her friends about the trip. “Marjorie, we had the best time” says Jayne. “But the strangest thing happened – we never did find Florence, but we did find a lovely little city named Fir-en-say.”