PART 3: TUSCANY AND UMBRIA
DRIVING TOUR – DAY 1:
For the next 8 days, we would be driving a car through parts of Tuscany and Umbria, as well as use it while we toured the Amalfi Coast. I purchased an Italy road map for our Garmin GPS device and brought it along for the trip. We rented a Fiat Chroma wagon from Hertz through the third-party consolidator, Kemwel for $352.02, including full-coverage insurance, with a zero-deductible. It was the perfect size for our travel party of 4 adults and luggage. I was the designated driver and my sister was the designator “navigator.” Not entirely trusting our GPS device, we decided also to purchase an actual road map, which we found at a bookstore in Florence, as a tool for “reality checks.” This proved to be a good strategy. We did encounter a few GPS hiccups along the way, but it all worked out OK in the end.
Our first destination once we left Florence was San Gimignano. It was a bit exhilarating to be back in a car where we could decide when and where to stop, instead of relying on public transportation. It took us about an hour and fifteen minutes to reach this beautiful walled medieval hill town. I think I only went through the same roundabout twice on the way! Known as the Town of Fine Towers, San Gimignano is famous for its medieval architecture, unique in the preservation of about a dozen of its tower houses, which, with its hilltop setting and encircling walls form "an unforgettable skyline". The town also is known for the white wine, Vernaccia di San Gimignano, produced from the ancient variety of Vernaccia grape which is grown on the sandstone hillsides of the area. We had some of this wine with our lunch and I really liked it. I found it refreshing and not too sweet.
Like many other walled hill towns (as we find out later), you can't just drive into them and park. As the designated driver of our vehicle, my passengers get red-carpet service to the entry of these historic places and I have to go find parking. There are several parking lots surrounding San Gimignano, however, they are all full of other tourists wanting to take pictures and eat gelato. I finally find a space in the last parking lot near the village. I'm pretty sure I parked in Germany and I had to walk over the Swiss Alps to finally meet up with the rest of my entourage. I seriously earned my gelato that day!
After walking for about 30 minutes, I finally find my sister and parents in the center square (with the added help of a phone call) and we wander around a bit before sitting at a cafe for a very mediocre lunch (the wine was good!). We let my Dad pick the spot for lunch and he chose the place closest to his feet! Oh well, not all the meals can be fine dining, right?
During our lunch, we spot this gelato place that had a steady stream of people lined up outside and boasted they were the “Gelato World Champion in 2006-07/2008-09”. Surely their credentials speak for themselves. I had the blackberry lavender gelato and we're all in agreement that this so far was the BEST gelato we had in Italy. Oh so creamy. It was amazing!
We did a little more sightseeing and it was time to head back to the car. Thankfully, we had discovered that they have a shuttle bus that takes you to all the various parking lots around the village, so we didn't have to walk back to Germany to get back into the car. After our short visit to San Gimignano, we settle back into the car to continue our drive to Siena, a reasonable 50 KM away, where we will spend the next two nights.
We stayed at La Colonna, for a rate of 98 € per night (double room), including breakfast. The hotel was located outside the city walls of Siena, but near public transportation. The rooms were adequate and they had a nice outdoor patio with a pool. They also had free on-site parking.
SIENA DAY 1:
The drive proved to be pretty uneventful, which is always a good thing. Easy roads, easy drive. I like it!
Our GPS leads us right to the hotel, which is pretty sweet. We unload our bags and get checked-in. I inquire about where the parking is and the hotel desk clerk gets out a map. His English is limited and we all know just how limited my Italiano is, so together, we come to an agreement on where I need to park the car. Turns out, I have to park the car in Switzerland. So far, being the designated driver and valet parking lot attendant isn't exactly working out for me. While the rest of my fellow travelers settle into their rooms, I'm off on another adventure with the car.
I find the car park pretty easily, but it's definitely far from the hotel; probably about 1-1/2 miles away. The road in which I must walk back on to the hotel has NO sidewalks nor really any shoulder at all, so I'm pretty much playing a game of avoidance with the steady, oncoming traffic. I need a drink!
I arrive at the hotel all hot and sweaty and spot a small bottega right next door to our hotel, so I pop in to purchase a cold beverage. I have definitely earned it! And voila! they have a nice cold Corona in their cold case. Sold!
The hotel has a nice outdoor patio (with a pool!) so we all convene outside to enjoy "cocktail hour". In addition to my Corona, we have some cold white wine (another bottle of the Vernaccia from San Gimignano). My Dad is a happy camper that they have ice (for his cocktail of choice) and they give him his very own bucket of it! (My Dad has not stopped talking about how our apartment in Venice featured a countertop ice maker).
As we're sitting on the patio, we notice some other hotel guests arriving and they're parking THEIR car in a lot right behind the pool! WHAT? Why did I have to park in Switzerland? I decide to go inquire as to how I can become a member of this special parking club. Turns out, that was exactly where I was supposed to park and the lot next door to Switzerland was where we would park if we wanted to take the outdoor escalator up to the center of Siena. Think of it as their version of "park and ride". So now I understand and I have to now make the trek to retrieve the car and park it where it should be (for free). Somehow I missed this part of his parking explanation earlier that involved a nearby parking lot for hotel parking, and the faraway parking lot for city excursions.
So I return with the car, once again all hot and sweaty. Soon it was time to pile into the car and set out for our dinner reservation at 7:00 PM. We plug the restaurant information into the GPS and according to the GPS, it should take us about 7 minutes to get to the restaurant.
Did I mention that Siena is a walled city and that our hotel is outside the city walls? Did I also mention that I had limited knowledge of Italian and that I did absolutely NO research on Italian road signs, etc. before the trip in which I would be driving a car in Italy and seeing NOTHING but foreign road signage?
It is now dark and I'm trying to follow the GPS map to our restaurant. We make a few wrong "exits" in roundabouts and through a series of errors, finally get ourselves headed in the correct direction. I feel like Chevy Chase in "European Vacation" where it takes them hours to exit out of a roundabout in Paris.
We are finally "inside" the walls of Siena and continue to follow a windy path designated by the GPS. It looks somewhat like a bowl of spaghetti, the road is so twisty and wind-y (and steep and narrow). This road is taking us UP and DOWN very narrow, cobblestone "roads" that aren't much wider than my hallway at home. We are also dodging pedestrians, scooters and other vehicles. We are also doing hairpin turns where one side is a wall and the other side of the "road" is the cliff. This was not a relaxing drive and we had NO idea when Mr. Toad's Wild Ride would come to a stop.
At one point during our drive, we come to a "T" in the road where a policeman is standing and he directs us to stop. He comes up to my window and says "Buona sera, or something like that" and says "road is closed" - luckily for us, our GPS was directing us to turn right, in the opposite direction of the closed road, so we continue on. It might have been kind of him to point out at this exact time that we were actually driving in Siena somewhat illegally. In my attempt to keep a close eye on the GPS turns in the road, I hadn't noticed that we were actually driving in a "Zone Limited Traffic" and that you had to have a permit to enter this zone (for residents only) and that it was patrolled by cameras and that I was most likely going to receive at least one (if not multiple) tickets at some point in the future for a steep price of 100 Euros each (I'm not sure exactly how many times we entered/exited the ZTL).
Through some miracle, we actually find the restaurant; I ask my sister to go inside and inquire about parking and this is when we learn that we're actually NOT supposed to be arriving by private vehicle (the maitre'd has a look of horror on her face when my sister inquired about parking and then tells her about the cameras). She also told her there was NO parking ANYWHERE. So I leave them all at the restaurant (My Dad wanted to go somewhere else and I yell "NO, WE ARE EATING HERE!".) I told them I would return. Now that I have found the restaurant, avoided cliffs and collisions, I WASN'T LEAVING! So I drive up the street and remember seeing several blue "P" signs for parcheggios and set out to find one.
So far on this trip, I have made several restaurant reservations based on endless hours of research and recommendations from various travel and food blogger boards that I read. And so far we have eaten at NONE of them (with the exception of the restaurant in Venice, in which we had canceled the dinner reservation, but then ate lunch there somewhat by coincidence).
Typically, we have canceled our dinner reservations because someone-who-will-remain-nameless in our travel party is usually too tired to want to leave the apartment again for a meal, especially when said travel party includes someone who doesn't mind cooking.
But I digress. The point here is that I AM NOT LEAVING UNTIL I HAVE EATEN AT THIS DAMN RESTAURANT! I DON'T CARE IF I GET ARRESTED, I AM EATING HERE.
So I find a parking garage and by some small miracle it's actually fairly close to the restaurant and I find my way back. We are escorted to our table and we have one of the most delicious meals of our trip at La Taverna di San Giuseppe. By the way, this restaurant is rated #1 for Siena restaurants on Trip Advisor. After a lovely dinner, our trip back to the hotel was pretty uneventful and I was very relieved once it was parked safely at the hotel and I was no longer driving.
SIENA DAY 2:
After yesterday's fiasco driving in Siena, we decide to just leave the rental car at the hotel and use public transportation to get to the city center. Conveniently, there's a bus stop right in front of the hotel, so after a short wait, we're transported directly to the center.
We wander the cobblestone streets and admire the shops a bit before heading up to the cathedral for a visit. Unfortunately for us, our turn to enter the cathedral was behind several very large tour groups. It's a Saturday and Siena is definitely filled to capacity with tourists. I can't imagine what it would be like to live in Siena and dealing with this volume of crowds. I'd like to think we're the "nice tourists" and we've definitely seen examples of "not so nice tourists." The cathedral is stunning and I particularly loved the contrast of the two-colored stone used throughout. The inlaid marble mosaic floor is one of the most ornate of its kind in Italy, covering the whole floor of the cathedral and consists of 56 panels in different sizes. They mostly represent scenes from the Old Testament, allegories and virtues. Most are still in their original state. The uncovered floor can only be seen for a period of six to ten weeks each year, generally including the month of September (and we just happened to be there in September!). The rest of the year, they are covered and only a few are on display. They really are pretty spectacular.
After spending quite a bit of time in the cathedral, we head back to the main square to find a bite (and a cold beverage) for lunch. The walk back to the square was full of stairs and hills, so we took our time. We were standing at the entrance to the square when my Dad thought he saw a vintage car, but he wasn't sure. Then he said "that sounds like an engine from the 30's!" Sure enough, we saw a vintage car appear.
Let me just say that I have never seen my Dad move so fast! In no time at all, he had pushed his way through all of the tourists and was front and center among a whole bunch of vintage cars. Turns out, we were smack dab in the middle of the GP Nuvolari vintage car race. Cars built between 1919 and 1969 are qualified to enter and there were approximately 280 cars entered. We probably stood there for two hours watching the cars come down the road. Some of them were tourists themselves and it was funny to see them snapping pictures with their cameras and iPads.
We saw a LOT of vintage Porsches, Fiats, Jaguars, Mercedes, some exotics I've not seen before and a few American cars too. My Dad said that some of the cars in the race were worth millions. Seeing an Austin Healey come around the corner was probably the highlight of Dad's entire trip to Italy! In total, there were 6 or 7 Healey's and a couple of Bugeye Sprites. My Dad restores Austin Healeys and has been an avid collector (and lover) of these British cars for most of his adult life. My Dad took advantage of his captive audience and took this opportunity to hand out his business card to his fellow Healey owners.
We watched all of the cars come through the square, then found a nice cafe for lunch. After our lunch, we were heading back to the bus stop when we spotted THIS "Guy", Food Network’s Guy Fieri, who was also a tourist in Siena that day. Apparently he was in town to attend a wedding. He graciously allowed my sister and I to pose with him for a photo op.
We hop aboard the bus and here's where our should-be-just-10-minute-ride turned into TWO HOURS to return to our hotel. We wind down the hill towards the suburban part of Siena and come to a stop across the street from the hotel, but which is across a roundabout and busy two-lane road with some pretty crazy traffic. April asks the bus driver if he was looping around to the bus stop directly in front of the hotel (where we first caught it) and he says "si." So we sit down and prepare to get off in a minute or so.
This did not happen. We were on the bus for two hours and didn't come back to any of the same bus stops we had been to before (or had driven by) but after about 90 minutes, we noticed that we were going the opposite direction, so we were hopeful that we were actually heading to the right location this time. We think the bus driver was new as he stopped several times to consult a map, change the bus number on the display and waste a BUNCH of our time. If we had known that we would remain on the bus this long, we would have gotten off during the first 10 minutes of the ride and would have been happy to play "dodge the traffic" in the roundabout to return to our hotel much sooner.
Let's just say that we had a leisurely tour through Siena. I think we entered/exited the walled in city of Siena 4 times. Funny thing is that we never returned again to the bus stop in the walled part of the city in which we first boarded the bus. I suspect our bus driver was just pretty clueless about where his route really was. I think we were all humming the theme song to "Gilligan's Island" for most of the trip.
And that's a wrap for us in Siena. Next stop, Assisi.
Hotel JFI Hermitage, 69€ for a double room. This small boutique hotel was well located within the city walls. The rooms were small, but adequate. Our only complaint was that the air conditioning didn’t work very well in the rooms and it was almost 90 degrees the day we arrived. They also have very limited breakfast service (only pastries and coffee).
We left Assisi pretty early in the morning since we would have a long travel day as we leave Umbria and make our way to the Amalfi Coast. Conveniently located right off the highway are gas stations with snack bars, complete with espresso bars. Interestingly enough, they also feature full alcohol bar service. The only way to reach these pit stops is from the highway, so we're still trying to figure out why they feature full bar service. Aren't these people DRIVING? We stop at one to stretch our legs and partake in an espresso. It was 90 cents! And delicious!
We have a nice, uneventful drive to Orvieto, our last stop in beautiful Umbria. Conveniently, they have a funicular that you can take from a FREE parking lot outside the walls of the city. On this Monday, the city was not as crowded with tourists as other cities we'd visited the previous few days. It was kind of a nice change of pace not to have to rub shoulders with tour groups.
From the funicular station, we took the shuttle bus up into the center to wander around a bit, visit the cathedral and eat lunch. After our visit to the cathedral, it was time for lunch. My sister had found a recommendation for Il Giglio d'Oro in the Fodor's Italy travel guide and it was conveniently located within the same piazza as the cathedral.
Our lunch proved to contain both a culinary journey to places I love to visit and some much needed humor. At first, we were a bit put off by the "snooty" attitude of both the female maitre'd and the male waiter, but we quickly observed after being seated that they were just sick of tourists treating their fine dining establishment as a snack bar. The outdoor seating was limited, with only about 6 tables and we had a couple of good laughs as they shooed away many different parties of tourists whose intent was just to merely sit at their lovely terrace and enjoy a glass of water, or perhaps a glass of wine. "This is NOT a bar" we heard them bark at them. "You must eat! This is a RESTAURANT, not a snack bar!"
We on the other hand, ooed and awed over the menu and made it quite clear that our intent was to "dine" and quite leisurely. Our waiter was a cute Italian fellow and really enjoyed our praise of their menu and the excellent service. We were their model dining guests and we glowed under the special attention we received. We took great pleasure in the treatment of those less fortunate who thought to treat this sacred ground as a mere stopping point for their aching feet. I don't remember exactly everything we ate, but one of the excellent starters we had was an eggplant terrine with truffles. We enjoyed a nice bottle of local red wine that they had recommended, and it did not disappoint.
While we were still waiting for our dessert and espresso to arrive, a party of 6 arrived to dine. They were 3 couples, two from Texas, and one couple from Laguna Beach. After they sat down and were handed the menus, we struck up a conversation with them about Italy travel and the menu. We made several recommendations based on our own, quite delicious lunch. They all perused the menu, and when it was time for them to order, they all asked if they could just have "spaghetti, with a meat sauce." The waiter rolled his eyes, looked over at us and said "help me!" It was pretty funny!
I could tell that he really had to restrain himself from speaking his mind and instead, tried his best to point out dishes on the menu that would please both their palette and their pocket books. They were hoping for "fine dining" on a snack bar budget! After a delicious end with a dessert we all shared and espresso, it was time for one last look around Orvieto before we hit the road.
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PART 3: TUSCANY AND UMBRIA