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Italy #3: Florence & Tuscany #1, posted November 20, 2007 at 10:48 PM

I arrived in Figline Valdarno. Wow--what a beautiful view:

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Heh. I was to meet the Busches at 2:26pm. As their train arrived and parked between myself and the platform where passengers were departing, I thought of the scene in Fellini's 8-1/2 where Marcello Mastroianni goes to meet his mistress at the station, and with the train blocking his view he thinks she hasn't come. Then the train pulls away and there she is. Well when the train from Rome pulled away, there were no Busches on the platform. Turns out they made a slight detour. To Canada. We learned later they'd been diverted for a sick passenger, and would be 4 hours late.

So I did what should always be done in this situation: I had a biquiere di vino at the bar and ate the pastries I'd bought for them. Sorry, Bob.

I called my folks and they were on the road as scheduled--only half an hour or so from the train station. All the Zazas had arrived safely and on time. The Fortebraccia too! There were parking lots on either side of the train station, so as the family's arrival became more imminent I went back and forth between the two sides. Suddenly, deep in the underground walkway I heard Adrienne's voice echoing out: "Ciao, Zaza!" Music to my ears....

Well, do I need to say that from that moment on the hilarity ensued and didn't give an inch until we all split up the next week to take various side trips? Oh my goodness did we laugh a lot. First of all, the instructions to get to the house were to follow the signs to a town where we were not staying, then turn up a road with some pine tress (pine, Joe, not spruce) then "find the church." We were to call the caretaker from the church and she'd come get us. As ridiculously vague--and, well--Italian as this sounds, it worked out fine. The caretaker met us, and our three cars followed hers farther up the mountain to the house.

Saturday / Tuscany: Pian di Sco'
Our first turn was into the private drive that served 5 or 6 houses, including ours. Um, it was a treacherous, hole-strewn, part gravel part dirt pathway on the edge of a cliff. And it went on forever. We were howling with laughter. I looked back to the car behind ours--Zack was driving and Dad was next to him laughing hard and holding his head. It was truly insane, and as far as I'm concerned, a great part of the adventure of taking this trip.

The house was great. A big sprawling farmhouse, a maze of rooms and staircases. There were two working fireplaces--and the one on the main level was as large as most New York apartments. The outdoor spaces were also terrific--tables and chairs around the (unheated) pool, grassy knolls, quiet side yards, mysterious gates. There were bugs, of course, as we were perched on the side of a hill completely surrounded by nature. (Personally, I must have had a bit of the devil lodged in my soul because I could not shake a swarm of flies that followed my sorry ass around for two weeks! Creepy!). We quickly assigned bedrooms and even more quickly began devouring the small amount of food I had brought from Bologna. I had also brought a single bottle of wine. That was pretty much gone in a matter of minutes.

Stephanie and I drove back into town to retrieve the Busches from the stazione, and the four of us hit the grocery store for a few things we needed for the house (i.e. 12 bottles of wine!). When we returned to the house the cooks we hired had arrived to make us dinner. This is the life! They brought with them a jug of wine so large it took almost all 12 of us to lift it. We drank every drop before the night was through. Roberto and Genny the cooks prepared a flat bread with cheese for us to snack on as they worked. Then at the table they served salami and olives and bread, followed by two pastas--spaghetti alla carbonara and broccoli & macaroni (too funny!). Then they prepared pork loin right in that huge upstairs fireplace! Onto the wood fire they threw laurel leaves and fresh rosemary, then placed the meat, which had been rubbed down with garlic, salt, and pepper right onto the grate. The flavor of the pork was pungent and succulent. Truly delicious. It was served with whipped potatoes and cauliflower au gratin. For dessert they made a very authentic tiramisu. We drank gallons of wine, then espresso, and then more wine. And then more wine.

Zack, Stephanie, Adrienne, and I played pool after dinner, which was ridiculous since the table's pockets were too small for the billiard balls. The Zazas won. Ha ha.

Sunday / Tuscany: Pian di Sco' & Reggello
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NOTE: The complete final edit of my Florence/Tuscany pix is posted here. Be patient for the page to load before you proceed to looking at individual pix....there's a lot there...


We spent Sunday around the house and driving around the local areas. We drove into town, parked the cars, and walked around. It was a very quiet place, especially on a Sunday. We drove down to Figline Valdarno. Supermarket--closed. Every restaurant--closed. Everything closed. Finally, we found a gelato and some coffee and sandwiches at a restaurant within a campground. The views from there were great but the atmosphere sucked. We made a reservation for dinner, figuring it the only place open.

Back at the house I tried to relax with a drink by the pool, but instead spilled red wine all over myself when a bee the size of a terradactyl flew in my face. I'm telling you, the flying insects were out to get me.

Stephanie and Joe went for an exploratory hike higher up in the hills, and the rest of us prepared the tortellini and broth I had brought from Bologna for a late lunch/early dinner. It was great and everyone loved it. Though we ran out of broth so when Steph and Joe returned they reheated theirs with some butter. Just as good!

After naps, unpacking, and general hanging out we all decided we did not want to return to that campground for dinner. While hiking, Stephanie had scoped out a little place in the town of Reggello that was actually open on a Sunday and was still serving. So a bunch of us drove up there for coffee and dessert. We were charmed by the lovely proprietors--an older couple who greeted everyone warmly. We strolled around the town aimlessly. I saw odd fly-posters announcing deaths and funeral plans. Professionally printed and pasted onto public announcement boards--kind of a newspaper death notice for those without newspapers:

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We again rounded out the night with billiards and stories and wine and fireplaces and laughter. Heaven.

Monday / Florence
This was our first day in Florence. We took the train, got into Firenze SMN station around 11am. Our first stop was a little pasticceria right near the train station. I had a yummy chocolate croissant.

We entered the church of Santa Maria Novella and a sense of awe came over the whole group. The Ghirlandaio frescoes are terrific. And the Masaccio Trinity. But the killer here is the Giotto crucifix. It's amazingly huge and hung right in the middle of the church. We went to the little museum next door, which had a nice chapel but it wasn't all that interesting. Zack won the quote of the day, replying to my question of whether he wanted to come with us to the museum, which cost an extra 4: "I didn't fly 3000 miles to not go. I want to do everything." Yay, Zackary.

We needed lunch and headed to the--wait for it--Trattoria Za-Za, in Mercato Centrale. We sat outside, at two tables of six. I had a cheeseplate, and the pappardelle with wild boar. The cheeses were great, but the pasta was cold (though tasty). It was somewhat of a tourist destination, but with that name what could we do? It was good fun and we took lots of pictures.

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The church of San Lorenzo is great, especially the two Donatello pulpits--elevated bronze reliefs with beautifully rendered figures. And the Lippi Annunciation was absolutely perfect. The Biblioteca designed by Michelangelo was closed, but I vowed to return to see it. On to the Duomo!

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The exterior of the Duomo is intricate and insane. It's stunning when you turn the corner and are face-to-face with one of the most recognizable facades in the world. The interior is vast, if somewhat less immediately impressive than the Santa Maria Novella. The dome is great though, and even better up close. We took the 500 steps up to the top--and looking at the painted dome from up inside it is disorienting and scary. But the walk up from there to the cupola is even scarier--and even more so than in St. Peter's in Rome or St. Paul's in London. The steps were treacherous and we laughed all the way up. The views, of course, were thrilling. Florence looked bigger than I expected. A lovely orange city--with steeples and towers and sloping roofs. Mom and Corinne came up to the dome before turning back, but Aunt Joyce came all the way up! We took tons of great pictures up there. Dad, Bob, and Uncle Jerry stayed in a cafe and drank while we climbed. Here's Aunt Joyce emerging at the top, and a great view with the shadow of the dome:

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When we came down and cooled off, we sent the older group home to do the grocery shopping while the six cousins continued to tour the city (well, youth has its advantages, even in middle age!). First we headed to the Museo dell'Opera del Duomo. The museum is nicely laid out, and it was great to see the art and artifacts from the church's history.

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But most of all it was wonderful to see the unfinished Pieta that Michelangelo had intended for his own tomb. (Unfinished because he smashed it with a hammer upon discovering a flaw in the marble--paging Uncle Jerry! P.S. Can someone please convince my father to write down and post all the stories he told on this trip?!). The body of Christ is so beautifully, so movingly rendered, and it's especially interesting in contrast with the unfinished parts of the work. You can actually get a sense of the process of carving this thing. The bulging flesh where Nicodermus is holding Christ under his left arm is insanely real. After dodging three tour groups who seemed to be aiming for us, the six of us spent a good amount of time taking in this amazing work.

From there we went to find a TIM store, to resolve further mobile phone issues. On the way, a helicopter flew into my eye--okay, it was just a bug, but it was as big as a helicopter! My sister had to perform surgery to remove it--okay, she scraped it off my eyeball with her fingernail, but it was huge and black and it was embedded in my eye. What the hell?!? Am I possessed by these damned things???

We headed toward the Ponte Vecchio and poked our heads into a few shops. The river is picturesque, but I thought the bridge was kind of a bust. Maybe I was just tired....but all those jewelry stores? I don't know. We wandered for a while through some rather fancy shopping areas, and we stopped for a drink at the cafe outside Roberto Cavalli. We had expensive wine and spritzes and two scrumptious little plates of goodies that came with the drinks. Marijane had actually recommended this place, we discovered later. It was a perfect place to rest.

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Having seen all the art we could, fixed the phones, and rested, we now sought out an internet cafe. As Adge, Zack, and Amanda sat down at computers, Joe and Stephanie and I scoped the neighborhood for dinner. We found a lovely little place with checkered tablecloths on the Via Giglio. Trattoria La Madia served up good wine and tasty food without breaking the bank. I had caprese and the steak Florentine, which I shared with Stephanie and Adrienne. We ordered it medium rare, but it came practically raw. It was perfect. And it was so nice to share this time with just the cousins.

Tuesday / Tuscany: Lamole, Greve, Panzano
This day was the embodiment of what I thought a Tuscan vacation would be. Driving up into Chianti, eating an outdoor meal while looking at the view, and wandering ancient towns, stopping only for wine and gelato! We got off to a fairly late start, but booked lunch at a place called Ristoro di Lamole. It took us about an hour to drive there--up up up into the hills. At last we arrived at the most charming restaurant, with the most gracious staff. We sat on a side porch admiring the view of the hills and valley below and drank fine wine and ate fine food.

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I had a red onion and truffle warm pudding, followed by rabbit. The pudding was amazing--the best appetizer I've had anywhere in a long long time. The rabbit was very flavorful--even more so than the rabbit I ate at Cesarina in Bologna, though it was tougher (wild perhaps?). For an intermezzo between those, Stephanie and I shared basil gnocchi in a pecorino cheese sauce--yum! For dessert I had an amazing cheesecake with wild berries all over it, along with a doppio espresso. I LOVED IT! I also loved one of the waiters, whose wild curls and scruffy young face made him look like he was from the Island of Misfit Strokes. Our main waiter--all teeth and chest hair--was cute too, but in a more take-home-to-Mama way. But he was very ebullient and gregarious. It was a magical lunch, and at less than 50 each (at first we misread the bill as over 900 instead of over 400, eek!) it was priced just right as well. We spent about two-and-a-half hours there, and it was very relaxing, a perfect meal.

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Our drive down the mountain carried us to the town of Greve, which has a triangular piazza at its center, with porticoed arcades on all sides. We broke into small groups or wandered around solo. Zack and I shared a half hour or so drinking at an outdoor enoteca. Eventually I meandered off alone in search of gelato, which I found out on the main road. I ate pistachio in a cone and was the envy of the family.


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A half-hour away was little Panzano, a fortified village with a late 18th-century church at its peak. There were cute little wine stores, a trattoria with an unbelievable view, Italian teens acting as silly and sullen as teens everywhere, and a sliver of moon hanging over the valleys below. It was very picturesque (see above picture, with the little sliver of moon!).

With car problems and the setting sun, it was decided that dinner would be carried-in pizzas from a shop in Pian di Sco'. We did that, arriving home around 9pm. We were all happy to have spent such a lovely day exploring Tuscany. The weather was perfect--cool air, warm sun, spotless sky. And there was so much more ahead of us--why the very next morning we were headed back to Florence--to see the David!....

NOTE: The complete final edit of my Florence/Tuscany pix is posted here. Be patient for the page to load before you proceed to looking at individual pix....there's a lot there...


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