Of grape and grain

Posted: August 16, 2010 in Uncategorized

[Considering it’s approaching a year since I left for Europe, I think I really should finish up writing about it.]


Oct 19th, 2009

I was completely making it up as I went along at this point. Most of my original plans for traveling through Europe, few though they were, had long since been crumpled up and thrown in the gutter. At this stage, I only knew I had to be at the airport in Rome on the 24th, just under a week away. And yet, rather than panicking in the face of time grinding down the last days of my trip, this lack of schedule completely freed me to follow my whims until the clock finally ran down.

I had however picked up a traveling companion; Abby, the one other American in the Cinque Terra apartment, had roughly the same plan for the next week in Italy, all the way to my final stop in Rome. It seemed only natural, polite really, to pair up for the journey. Never mind that Abby was of course female and quite well put together, endowed in a way that makes most men drift off mid-sentence and dare each other to do stupid things. Her passing mention of a boyfriend was brushed aside as a marginal detail.

Pisa was, as everyone had warned, just a blip on the schedule. A town blatantly unaesthetic after the wistfully romantic overtures of Venice and Cinque Terra, we made the trek from the train station to the leaning tower, took the necessary photos, and retreated to catch the next train to Florence. The tower itself was noteworthy, but beyond being an improbable achievement of physics overlooking incompetence, it simply didn’t capture the attention.

The hostel in Florence Luke had recommended us to did not disappoint, despite all the promises that came with it. Parked in a dark alley square in the middle of the city, it was like a trendy New York loft had exploded inside an ancient abandoned storehouse. We checked in, found dinner at an unassuming but staggeringly good restaurant, and passed out. The following day found us trying earnestly to be interested in the museums that had opened in every second building, but after standing in line for half an hour to see Michaelangelo’s David, it just wasn’t in us. We strolled the back streets, crossed the Ponte Vecchio, admired the chessboard-checked Duomo, and finally decided what we could really go for was some serious peace and quiet for a while. Thankfully the hostel accounted for this, and we whiled the evening away with free wine and bruschetta, then were again escorted by our host to a quiet restaurant with yet more excellent food and wine which may or may not have been discounted, if anyone had been sober enough to do any math.

The following day I broke a personal rule and joined part of the group from dinner the night before on a guided bus tour through Tuscany, one of those tours led by a sunny woman with a practiced accent herding around a gaping horde and cheerily drawing attention to dirty flagstones people had died on. It seemed to be the only way I would get to see the countryside, plus it came with more free food and wine, this time at an actual vineyard. I reasoned between the wine and opportunity to get away from the train line for a change, I could deal with the rest.

One thing I couldn’t deny, guided tours are incredibly informative. Starting with a stop in Sienna, I realized as our guide pointed out just about everything we passed that I had in fact heard of this city for one specific reason: the annual no-holds-barred horse racing. Every year the city holds a horse race, in the city streets mind you, where the only rule is whichever horse finishes first, wins. Key to that is the fact that the rider is not necessary to win, and is really just there to bludgeon opponents who get too close. I was thrilled to find myself in this town I’d only heard rumored of, but also to find that it actually was an interesting city for far more reasons than just Thunderdome-style horse races.

Next stop was lunch, and the surprise here was that this was a legitimate, original winery and farm, rather than a warehouse-style factory. The small, renovated rustic house perched on a hillside looking over the dusty grey-green of the Tuscan landscape, the main room converted into a large dining room with an unobstructed view through patio doors opened wide to the fading warmth of oncoming autumn. The lunch itself was nothing mind-bending, but the wine was endless, to the point that there were enough bottles on the table for some, myself included, to start drunkenly coveting several without anyone actually noticing. Staggering back out to the bus in wine-soaked jubilance, many loaded with bottles from the craftily-placed gift shop by the exit, we filed back on board and headed for San Gimignano on the horizon.

While San Gimignano is a remarkably beautiful, living medieval city, I have to imagine living there would be a bit frustrating in the summer if only due to the masses of tourists loudly trying to pronounce its name. It does however boast as being home to the Gelato World Champion, a small shop that really does serve the best gelato I’ve ever had, and probably will ever have. The hallmark feature of San Gimignano however is the many towers dominating the city, remarkably tall and improbably old, made taller still by the fact that the city is perched on top of a steep hill. The effect of this has given it the nickname “the Manhattan of Italy”, however it thankfully doesn’t come with that special Manhattan smell. Climbing to the top of the hill, we stood in silence for a while as a harp player strummed quietly, taking in scenery that inspired entire art movements, countless weddings, and even more divorces.

The remainder of the afternoon passed in a sleepy drone, though unfortunately the drone of a bus engine rather than an orchard full of cicadas as we wound our way back through the countryside. To wrap up the trip we found ourselves once again in Pisa, this time to catch the sun setting dramatically on the shining white, iconically awkward tower. Everyone had already been here, so our small band from the hostel chatted and wandered along the hawkers trying to sell cheap bags and belt buckles, watching tourists pretend to hold up the tower. Every fifteen minutes or so a man with a whistle would come out and chase everyone off the grass, turn around and march back inside, at which point everyone would go right back where they were, as if they’d briefly avoided a wasp flying through their picnic that had now left to bother someone else. The last bit of sun lit up the aging skyline of domes and towers in orange and purple, then gave way to that short-lived twilight that disappears almost immediately to remind you that summer is ending. For the last time we filed back to the bus and dozed in our seats as we sped on the freeway back to Florence, expectant of the dinner and yet more wine to be found down half-lit streets.

Tomorrow Abby and I would leave for Sorrento.

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