Italia, the Palio, the big Ciao

I never intended to write a travel blog, so I always have a hard time writing when we get back from a trip.  I mean, I have all these great photos to share, and I can spin out the narrative without a second thought.  But… but, but, but… that whole travelogue/home movie thing?  I’m wary.  The heart of the problem suffered by bores is that they don’t know when they are being bores, right?

Nonetheless, life has landed us where it has landed us.  Travel is one of the compensations for all the other things we miss about being home in the U.S.– like big family barbecues, and fireworks on the 4th of July.  So I guess that’s what I write about now.

We were in Italy last week.  Visiting an old friend, actually.  Someone you might know, but we haven’t seen here in England for a long time.  It was great to hang out all week with that friend my kids used to call “Mister Golden Sun.”  I can almost cry at the memory of that warmth soaking into my bones for the first time in months.  This as I sit shivering in my kitchen with the patio door open to another breezy, damp and overcast London day.  I’ve been keeping the door open so that if it stops raining and the sun peeks out from behind the clouds, I can quickly dash out and park myself in a chair to get a quick dose.

Stand clear!

But I digress (everyone in London these days finds themselves talking incessantly about the weather).  Back to Italy.  We started off hopelessly lost in Pisa after leaving the airport near midnight in our rental car.  Never trust a GPS if it can’t pronounce the local street names (and even you can tell).  Also, don’t assume the hotel address printed on your hotel reservation represents the actual location of the hotel.  We stowed the Garmin in the glovebox, went with the native-speaking, in-dash GPS, and never got lost again!.  Plus, we learned directional Italian in the bargain (a destra– turn right, a sinistra– turn left!)  Next day we saw the tower (yes, it really does lean) and the under-represented duomo church and the baptristry both next to the tower.  We took a walk through the city, and ate (what else?) pizza.  Then we left the tourist-trappy feeling behind for a drive into the Tuscan hills– our sense of wonder growing by the kilometer.  Tuscany is a gorgeous place, for sure.

Tuscany from the dining room window.

The villa we found is associated with a small, upscale hotel out in the Chianti countryside.  My thinking was that this offered us some insurance– if it was associated with a reputable hotel, it had to be ok, right?  Anyway, I’m choosing to remember it as charming– which will be easier to do as the mosquito bites fade, along with the memories of stifling hot nights with open windows, no screens, and neighboring dogs barking at all hours.  Everything else about the place was pretty lovely, from the amazing views, to the terra cotta tile rooftops, to the bougainvillea growing outside the dining room window.

Nighttime wildlife aside, we were in the perfect location.  We spent our mornings by the pool, which looked out over the gorgeous landscape.  Lunch was either in the breezy pavilion at the hotel, or back at our villa with melon and prosciutto and tomatoes and mozzarella.  Then, afternoons we went exploring the medieval villages and towns dotted all over the map.  Yes, yes… I AM about to launch into telling you all about them.  But you know how to skim, right?

Precarious person in San Gimignano.

First there was San Gimignano, with its 14 remaining towers– the skyscrapers of the middle ages (from an original 72, which kind of explains why they called it the medieval Manhattan).  We climbed to the top of the tallest tower (imagining what the climb was like before safety handrails) and looked out, and down across the endless landscape. On the way up, I was startled by the view of a figure atop one of the neighboring towers– holy don’t-lose-your-balance-in-a-stiff-breeze (don’t worry, it’s a statue)!  Then we went to a cafe in the piazza and had cold white Vernaccia wine and bruschetta, as one of Clay’s Italian colleagues had instructed us to do.  Perfect.

Italia fans gathered for the Eurocup final.

Not ready to be done that day, we climbed the winding roads to Volterra in our litte Ford Kuga, just as all the other tourists were coming down for the day.  We found a little osteria someone had recommended, and we had a beautiful, inexpensive dinner with waitstaff who didn’t treat us like tourists.  We strolled the cobbled hills with gelato, leaving town just as the locals massed in front of big screens at their favorites bars and cafes to see Italia take on Spain in the Eurocup football (soccer) finals.  We listened on the car radio– in Italian, of course!  Even with a vocabulary pretty much limited to what the nav system had taught us, it was clear from the commentary that Italy was not going to pull it off.  We watched the end of the game with other tourists back at the hotel– just as well… it would have felt weirdly voyeuristic to watch the dejection of the flag-draped folks back in the villages.

Another afternoon we visited a walled, hilltop village called Montereggiano (sound familiar, Laura?)  It was like being inside a medieval fortress town.  Oh.  Wait.  It was exactly like being inside a fortress because that’s what it was– a strategic stronghold of either the Florentian or Sienese city-states.

Standing above Florence.

Then Florence.  Oh my.  Just standing above the city first thing in the morning, looking out at that famous red dome.  Goodness.  But to tell the truth, even art-lover that I am, I didn’t get too wound up about the Uffizi art collection.  Not that it wasn’t stunning, but tours and tour groups and pushy crowds… it all just detracts from the Botticelli/Michaelangelo experience, capice?  

Lunch, shopping, wandering the streets in search of gelato and/or cappucino?  The crowds did not detract from that!  There’s so much more to say about Florence– a fabulous lunch at another place recommended by Clay’s friend, a trip to Ferragamo, the Duomo, the old Ponte Vecchio bridge (crazily covered with jewelry shops built on and over it).

The Abbey at Badia a Passignano– wine cellars within.

Another afternoon we went for a wine tour ending with lunch and a tasting at the vineyard’s Michelin-starred restaurant.  What a highlight!  Tavarnelle in Val de Pesa was home to a thousand-year-old Abbey still owned and run by the Vatican.  The Badia a Passignano winery rents their cellar space within the Abbey, so we got to enter the grounds and walk through on our private tour.  So amazing– even had a sundial made by Gallileo (broken in WWII).  Then the lunch was to die for, and we tasted great wines.  The kids really enjoyed that they got to taste olive oils, too.  Though our tour guide told us Italian children sometimes drink acqua vita at family occasions– wine mixed with water– we didn’t give them that option…

Siena, looking all Siena-ish!

Finally, Siena.  The first week in July is one of the biggest weeks of the year for this little city.  They run the Palio— a bareback horse race right around the central piazza, called Il Campo.  The race participants are from rival neighborhoods in Siena– all with historical symbols and meanings beyond my quick study– and they attach great importance to this contest.  We looked into renting a window on the piazza to watch the race (way too crowded and dangerous to take the kids into the interior of the piazza to watch).  But as it was upwards of a thousand euros for a small window, we decided to give it a miss this year.  Our trip to the famous town came a few days after the Palio– and just happened to coincide with a triumphal procession around the city by the winning team, beating drums, waving flags, and singing.  This just happened to unfold as we were dining al fresco in the piazza, so it was really fun for us to see.

The Palio winner’s procession emerging into Il Campo.

Il Campo at twilight

Apart from that, the little city is really beautiful.  We took more pictures there than anywhere else, I think, as every little street angling up from Il Campo held its own surprises and vistas.  We finished with gelato in the enormous piazza– the best gelato yet– as dusk fell and the signature Siena tower began to glow under night spotlights.  Of all the highlights on a wonderful trip, the afternoon and evening in Siena were the best for me.  It had been relatively quiet in the city’s public spaces, as most of the tourists were clearing out when we arrived.  And as we left, young people dressed for partying were beginning to stream into the old part of town.  We were the twilight people, and it suited us.

As we said ciao to Italy, a bigger goodbye was weighing on this mama’s mind:  Chloe would leave a week later for the US– not to return to London until Christmas break, or perhaps even later.  But that is a blog for another time… or maybe I’ll just let this picture tell the story of The Big Ciao…

14 thoughts on “Italia, the Palio, the big Ciao

  1. I just gobbled up every word. No skimming or lack of patience on my part. The sites and sounds (and tastes!) came alive for me. Thank you for sharing your narrative gift with me o I may share in a taste of all the wonderful things you experienced. And my heart goes out to you and your “big ciao”.

  2. Loved hearing about your trip to Italy. Glad you decided to share it with us. Despite having 2 kids recently visit most of those cities, I think you blog was more informative than they were. I never could get much out of them. Well, except the gelato. Alyssa told me all about that.

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