Italy:: Tuscany

Girls

Photo credit: Marylou

As I was sorting through and selecting my pictures for this part, and as I walked back memory lane (lined with pencil trees), I realized that Tuscany may be my favorite part of the trip. And I’m fully prepared to feel that when I get to Venice as well, oh, and the Dolomites for sure! See, we just really had a wonderful trip and I find myself still thanking God for allowing me to experience all these wonderful places.

So it’s harder to describe Tuscany because Tuscany is a region and not one particular place with a zip code. There are many different aspects to tell about and so many little towns to describe and I’m not sure I can describe such a big, classic area in one little post, but I’ll try.

One of my objectives for our trip in general was to experience and enjoy Italy organically, and not just for the touristy photo-ops and places, beautiful though they were. Tuscany fulfilled that wish. Tuscany is famous for its olive and wine production and for those stunning vistas with pencil trees (forgive me, that’s what we called them 🙂 and stone villas.

But let me back up. We left the Cinque Terre on a fast train and arrived in Florence on Wednesday evening. I regret (just a smidgen) that the only part of Florence that we experienced was the rather sketchy train station, but we were still struggling with PTSD from the crowds of Rome and the option of more crowded museums and places was rather low on our priority list by this point. We hired a rather (read VERY) self assured, dashing young Italian taxi driver to take us to the car rental place outside Florence proper. This was our first experience in a car driven by an Italian and it did not disappoint. We careened rather wildly around corners and between cars and I was pretty much leaning away from the window, willing him not to hit the car inches from me. He parked with everything but  a smirk and we were just thankful to have gotten there alive. We picked up our big, spacious van, which we named Peppy, here and we had it for most of the rest of our trip.

We definitely recommend using the efficient and inexpensive train and metro systems in the bigger cities, and getting from place to place, but then renting a vehicle for easy access to little towns and villages off the beaten path.

We spent the biggest part of our trip in Tuscany (Toscana in Italian). This was day 7 of our trip and some of us were struggling with colds and so a more relaxed itinerary was lovely at this point. We stayed in a little village in the Chianti area called Ponte Agli Stolli. Our farm house had an old Tuscan feel and it was most amazing.

The view out the front of our house, and the view from the back. This was a typical road through a village, with buildings just feet from the side and mirrors mounted off the buildings to show oncoming traffic around corners.

Tuscany-55

Photo credit: Marylou

We were rather desperate for fresh fruits and veggies by this point, as the Italian diet consists of many carbs, so we drove to Aldi for groceries and enjoyed many a wonderful, homemade meal in the wonderfully furnished kitchen. Grocery shopping quickly became a highlight and we enjoyed seeing all the local foods and the ridiculously cheap, fresh pasta.

Italy was unified from a number of different states into current Italy as recently as the late 1800s. Prior to that, regions were ruled by kings, and the castle towns exist to this day, giving a peak into town life, surrounded by walls and guarded by castle towers. We day-tripped into many of these towns, which are now popular tourist spots, and saw many beautiful, old buildings.

IMG_2821IMG_2808IMG_2807We loved stumbling upon little villages that weren’t teeming with tourists, and Pienza, (photo above) was another favorite place from our trip. IMG_2792You quickly see differences in architecture design and style. This particular Basilica in Siena had a more elaborate, Byzantine feel, distinctly different from the Roman and Greek styles we saw back in Rome and even the Cinque Terre.

It was in St. Catherine’s Basilica in Siena that we saw her (Catherine’s) very dead but preserved thumb. Apparently, if you can acquire a saint’s body part or parts, you can name the basilica after them. You have to take their word for it, but it is rather startling to see a black thumb in a case 🙂IMG_2788IMG_2783IMG_2896Some of the towns we drove through and enjoyed: Siena, Pienza, Greve and Radda in Chianti, Montepulciono, San Gimignano. I could write more about each place but we didn’t adequately explore nearly all of them and so they remain decorative little memories of a very beautiful region.

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These are the classic views of terraced, Tuscan hillsides and vineyards. It took us a long time to go anywhere because we kept stopping for pictures. My pictures don’t do justice to the beauty, as they were taken with my iPhone, but if you want to see the real deal, go check out Marylou’s website where she is also blogging about our trip.

A few personal Tuscany highlights:

MONTE OLIVETO MAGGIORE MONASTERY in Asciano

Because one of my favorite books remains The Hawk and the Dove Trilogy, (I reviewed it here), it was important to me to see a working monastery. This particular Benedictine monastery (built in the 14th century) is set on the top of a beautiful mountain, with breath taking views all around. We got there at sunset, and in time for Vespers (the evening service) and got to hear their Gregorian chant. I suppose I mentally compared it to the one in the book, and this one was much more elaborate, with art being highly celebrated and displayed here. There was the beautiful quietness and serenity that I expected, and the monks were dressed appropriately in long, white robes, so it all checked out well 🙂 The picture of the medicine above, available for purchase in their gift shop) is in honor of Brother John in the book and his loving, healing hands that loved the aged and infirm right on home to their God.

TRADITIONAL ITALIAN MEAL INVOLVING FLORENTINE STEAK

Marylou was gifted some travel money and she generously offered to put it towards a classic, traditional meal for all of us to enjoy. Italians eat late at night, usually after 8:00 and it can take up to 2 hours to enjoy all the courses. You have to understand that Italians eat in courses, and they never eat their meat and pasta together. Being budget travelers, we usually chose one course as our meal which meant we usually ended up with a pile of pasta and not much else. In retrospect, we should have ordered more courses between us and then shared for a more rounded out meal. However, for this special meal we chose a few antipasti (the appetizer course including things like olives, smoked meats, some vegetables, etc) and a few pasta dishes including one infused with truffle oil. Truffles are expensive fungus that grow underground and are found by trained dogs or pigs. We then ordered the famous Florentine steak, which are from the local and world famous Chianani cows. When we put our order in for the T-bone steak, the waiter repeated it to make sure he understood correctly. The owner then came out to verify and others were looking at us kind of strangely. It was brought out, seared on the outside, but rare in the middle, which is the only way they will cook this steak. We pretty much devoured it down to the bone, much to the waiter’s amusement. Soon, kitchen staff  started peeking their heads around the corner and the owner came back out and made enough of a to-do about it that we finally asked if we were missing something. Turns out, Italian women don’t usually eat steak, and to see a group of 5 women scarf it down in record time was rather note-worthy to them and we won their approval 🙂 The waiter indicated that his wife eats food more along the lines of, and his English wasn’t perfect, so he made delicate, ladylike motions with his pinky finger in the air. 🙂 🙂 Dessert ended up being an assortment of marvels such as creme brulee, chocolate molten cake, tiramisu and panna cotta.

IMG_2948We finally finished our meal around 11:00, and the locals were still going strong, drinking their espressos and everything!

Overall, Tuscany was lovely and just what we needed for the middle part of our trip. It gave us the space and time to go out and explore during the days, and then come back to our house when we needed some down-time and time to just absorb and savor all that we were experiencing. Like I mentioned, renting a vehicle allowed us to do this, and we found the highways and road systems to be well marked and easy to follow. The little towns and villages were the most difficult, with roads that would narrow down to one lane, and no clear visibility around upcoming corners. We definitely worked together to check for traffic, and with Lois’ confident, expert driving and Marylou’s capable navigating, we got around just fine.

I mentioned in my first post about enjoying a culture and place without always comparing it to your home culture or mentally trying to make it conform to your experience, but it was here in Tuscany that I did make some interesting comparisons.

There is virtually no individuality in certain aspects of life in Italy, anywhere. Coming from a culture that values self-expression and celebrates individuality, it was quite interesting to visit one that values history and tradition. You want a Cape Cod style house in Tuscany? Well for starters, you probably shouldn’t even be wanting it, but you for sure won’t get it. What makes all the idyllic scenes possible anywhere you go, is the template of life handed down from generation to generation. There is a continuity that you see regardless of which town you drive through. The houses are the same, the colors are the same, the landscaping is the same, the terrace designs are the same. Traditions are important to the preservation of this ancient culture.

Our Australian tour guide in Pompeii told of a birthday party her friend was hosting, where she decided to stretch her Roman friends’ food borders by serving an entree of chicken and pasta together. The friends arrived, took one look at the entree, asked what the chicken was doing with the pasta, and refused to eat it.

Okay, so my America is all about listening and not just accepting, but celebrating new ideas and ways of doing life, and this new mindset was rather startling 🙂

Italians aren’t as concerned about new ideas or others feelings, which means you could take it personally that they don’t do more to make you feel welcome. We encountered some fairly rude and unhelpful people on our trip, and I think it might be part of their proud, traditional culture. We also enjoyed many warm,  and wonderfully inviting people, and they were usually the ones from whom we rented our houses or did business with  in general.

I guess I found the culture kind of refreshing in certain ways and while I think I’d find it stifling living in a culture that regulates creativity and individuality, I do think there is a certain structure and stability that I could appreciate.

And if you’ve made it this far, bravo! The next stop is magical Venice, which is also my favorite location from the trip 🙂

Ciao!

 

4 thoughts on “Italy:: Tuscany

  1. That’s a GREAT story about the steak. Who knew Italian women don’t eat it?!

    I’m really enjoying these posts about Italy. It makes me want to visit so bad!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I appreciate reading about your adventure! Interesting, and very well written. I look forward to the next post. 🙂 Thank you!

    Like

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