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I Shouldn't Be Alive: Spain & Italy...in August...in a wheelchair!

I Shouldn't Be Alive: Spain & Italy...in August...in a wheelchair!

Old Oct 2nd, 2011, 04:54 PM
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Thanks TexasAggie and HappyCheesehead!
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Old Oct 3rd, 2011, 10:26 AM
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Really wonderful trip report (wouldn't expect anything less from a Longhorn). I just love your traveling spirit.

We too got hopelessly lost trying to find the Flamenco Museum in Seville. Must be a rite of passage. And I'm headed to Barcelona in two weeks, so I will keep an eye out for your feline friend!
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Old Oct 4th, 2011, 05:00 PM
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Day 10 - Tuscany

We wake up early and head downstairs to arrange a taxi to the airport and checkout. Our car arrives and we're quickly on our way. We're flying to Pisa via Vueling, so we check in and wait for one of the disability assistants to come usher us to our gate. As usual, we float through security without a glance and easily find our way. The assistant tells us that he will be back before the flight boards, leaving us with a little over an hour to find something to eat.

We go searching for something light like we had in the airport in Seville. We decide to just get a couple of pastries, but as we get closer we see that they are just sitting out and literally covered in flies! I wonder again why no one thinks to cover the food. We end up getting two packaged muffins and some orange juice instead, hopefully enough to keep Michael from getting sick on the plane. We eat and then make our way back to the gate. When we arrive we see that our flight has been delayed an hour. No one seems to know why, but really its not a big deal to us since we don't have any connections.

The hour passes quickly and we find out that the plane is late because it got delayed in Moscow. Two assistants come to help me onto the flight and we board without a problem. Its only 1.5 hours to Pisa and we spend the time talking about the upcoming days of our trip. As many summers as I've spent in Milan with my aunt, I've still never been to Tuscany. My cousin used to take me to the coast whenever I visited, but I've always wanted to see the countryside. Luckily my grandmother and father have only ever spoken to me in Italian, so I'm thoroughly conversational and getting around is easy.

Our landing is uneventful and everyone piles off the plane. Two Italian men come to get me and seem impressed when I don't need any help transferring. There isn't a jet bridge here so a lift is brought to take me from the plane to the ground. As soon as we're outside we automatically feel the heat of the sun - it feels SO much hotter here than in Barcelona. We go inside and the airport is much smaller than I imagined. There isn't a customs check and we just collect our bags and head toward the rental car area. The signs direct us to a shuttle, which will take us to Hertz. The shuttle is packed and there is no way we are going to fit. I also notice that it doesn't appear to be wheelchair accessible. Before I know it the shuttle driver is staring at me through the windshield. He jumps out of his seat and asks me if we need to go to the rental cars. I say "yes" and he instantly starts throwing people off of the shuttle. He grabs a colleague and together they pick me and my chair up and put me right on. It all happened so fast that Michael is standing on the curb with a shocked look on his face. Already there is a noticeable difference in how they have dealt with my chair situation as opposed to how things were done in Spain. I feel bad for the people that got "thrown off" the shuttle and they all look rather peeved. We could have easily waited for the next one, but the driver didn't give us a chance to say anything before putting me on.

The ride is less than 5 minutes and we're helped off by the driver and some other tourists. It is ridiculously hot in the rental office and we have to wait about 35 minutes in line. We finally make it to the front, I get the extra insurance and we're given our keys. We walk through the parking lot and find our car, an Opel that is actually pretty big. There is plenty of space for our bags and my chair, plus the car looks brand new. I only have nerve damage in my left leg, so still I'm still able to drive an automatic. However, I'm far too intimidated of driving in another country so Michael will be taking the wheel for the next five days.

We are staying at a bed & breakfast in Montefollonico, a small town about 2.5 hours away. We brought our Garmin GPS and we hold our breath that it will work. We get to the highway and the GPS seems to be working fine. Mike gets the hang of driving in about 10 seconds and I flip through the radio stations until I find something we like. Michael is loving the high speeds and looks thrilled. He turns to me and says, "See, all those college years of playing racing video games have paid off." I laugh and roll my eyes.

About an hour in we are starving. I see a sign for an Auto Grill and take the exit. The building is up on a hill and there are stairs to go in. I tell Mike to just go get us something, but he insists that there must be a way for me to get in. He walks around the side and finds a small elevator. We go in, but we can't figure out how to use it. I push all of the buttons, but nothing happens. It looks really old and run down, so I assume its just out of order and I start to roll out. Just then a little French woman runs over and helps us - apparently there is a certain way you have to push the buttons. We thank her and take a short ride to the top.

Inside we are surprised to see that it is so much nicer than most rest stops in the US. There are lots of paninis that look delicious and we both decide to go with some of those. I order two prosciutto and cheese paninis and one order of bambolini (kind of similar to doughnut holes). There isn't anywhere to sit and its way too hot outside, so we just eat in the car. I'm still skeptical, because looks can be deceiving and in the end its still gas station food. We both take a bite and we're pleasantly surprised, the sandwiches were warmed for us and they're actually very good - a perfect, light lunch.

We get back on the autostrada. The drive to Montefollonico really isn't pretty at all, just another highway covered in strip malls and gas stations. Mike is still having fun driving, maxing out at 164 kms (102mph) - much faster than he'd ever dare to drive back home. His stomach is full and he smiles and looks at me, "yeah...I could be Italian." I think to myself that if he likes this, just wait until we actually get to the good part.

We come to our exit and enter Montefollonico. Our B&B is not really within town, but just outside of it within the hills. We are staying at Follonico (www.follonico.com) a small, 4-suite B&B that was converted from an old farmhouse. When I first read about this place online I fell in love with the idea. I was so worried that it wouldn't be accessible though, so I was nervous to read the response to the inquiry I had sent. Fabio, the owner of Follonico, e-mailed me back and assured me that he and his wife, Suzanne, would be able to accommodate me. To reassure me Fabio even took pictures of every step and doorway and sent them to me. Needless to say I was ecstatic and booked right away.

Fabio also sent us some pictures of where to turn once we reach Montefollonico. The B&B doesn't register on a GPS and the road we have to take is winding and narrow. We finally get to see our first glimpse of beautiful Tuscany and Mike and I both say, "wow". The road seems to go on forever and we have to drive slowly since its so curvy. We see a little stone house in the hills and I get excited, hoping with all of my might that that is our place.

We pull up to the house and I see a sign that says Follonico. It is literally surrounded on all sides by vineyards and we see sheep in the distance being herded by a jeep. We pull up and I see a woman with a little boy on her hip. She waves to us and has a huge smile, she must be Suzanne. The lady approaches us and introduces herself - indeed it is Suzanne and her two-year-old son Timothy. Fabio sees us and walks over and introduces himself as well. They are so welcoming and friendly, exactly how I imagined them to be. Fabio says that although I had said that one step wouldn't be a problem he went out of his way to buy some wood to make a ramp just in case. Wow!

He shows us to our room, the Alba Chiara suite, which is accessed from the garden. This is the most wheelchair friendly suite, with only one small step. We go in and its even better than we had expected. Its huge! A spacious bedroom, a large living area and a generous size bathroom. Its rustic and quaint, yet modern. The design reminds me a lot of an Anthropologie store, with mismatched furniture that still seems to go perfectly together to create an utterly cozy, Tuscan setting. In the living area a small part of the wall is decorated with a shrine of Sophia Loren pictures - perfect. The bathroom has a rain shower and Fabio tells us that he bought me a plastic chair to use for it (again, wow!). Our windows and door overlook the vineyard and the tiny town of Pienza is perched on a nearby hill.

Fabio says that he hopes we don't mind, but that he has reserved us a table at the best restaurant in Montefollonico for tonight. There are only two tables that don't require you to go down a few steps, so he wanted to make sure we got one of them. Michael and I are overwhelmed, both by the beauty of the house and our suite, as well as by how accommodating and hospitable Fabio and his wife are.

They ask if we are comfortable with large dogs, because they do have a family dog - Priscilla. Apparently she is huge and one of the guests last week actually went running in the house screaming that a black bear was walking through the vineyard - when it was just Priscilla. We're wondering what kind of dog this is that she was mistaken for a bear, but just as we're about to ask another group of guests arrive.

We fetch our bags from the car and take them to our suite. I spend the next 30 minutes looking at all the small details of the rooms that have collectively created this perfect getaway. We go outside and explore the grounds. The garden has ripe tomatoes growing on their vines and other newly growing vegetables. There are fresh linens hanging on the clothe's
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Old Oct 4th, 2011, 05:02 PM
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Ugh! One of my dogs just stepped on my keyboard and submitted that portion of the report before I was finished! Oh well I'll add the rest soon...
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Old Oct 4th, 2011, 06:38 PM
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Yay for those Italians!! Do your dogs think they're cats, hopping onto your keyboard?
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Old Oct 5th, 2011, 05:21 AM
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Yvonne- they must! One is only 5 lbs and she thinks she owns the place. Whenever my laptop is on my lap she wants to lay there because its warm.
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Old Oct 5th, 2011, 06:41 AM
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Wow, that place in Tuscany sounds fantastic!
You have discovered the joys of the Auto Grill. Some of them have full cafeterias and grocery stores in them and the food is usually really good. I've always thought that if we had places like that here in the US, there would be a lot less road rage out there.
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Old Oct 5th, 2011, 09:23 AM
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bookmarking
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Old Oct 5th, 2011, 11:37 AM
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I like the look of your B&B and it sounds like the hosts are wonderful. I especially like that they offer a 1 day rental of a vintage Fiat 500 (1966 or 1975). Now, that would be a fun way to cruise the countryside! I may have to give it a try.

Thank you for taking the time to write this report. I am looking forward to enjoying more!
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Old Oct 5th, 2011, 11:54 AM
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The Tuscany place sounds amazing!
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Old Oct 5th, 2011, 12:05 PM
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From a web site:

Speed Limits

Speed limits, September 2003

In 2003, new speed limits were brought in. This photo shows a recent sign. The limits are: 130 kilometers per hour on the Autostrada, 110 on main highways, 90 outside of towns, 50 in towns. Other signs are posted indicating lower limits in effect for bad weather conditions.

Drive With Lights On

In 2002 a new law was passed to require that you have your headlights on at all times when driving on the Autostrada. You will see the sign "In Autostrada Anabbaglianti Sempre Accesi", meaning "On the Autostrada keep your running lights on."

Do not be surprised if you receive multiple billings for speeding tickets in a few months.
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Old Oct 5th, 2011, 03:30 PM
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Follonico was definitely an amazing place to stay and I can't imagine better hosts. I almost wanted to keep it a secret, but Suzanne & Fabio were so wonderful that I think they deserve the review. Its amazing to think that they only remodeled the farmhouse and opened the b&b two years ago.

Zoecat - the fiat does sound really fun and glamorous, I wouldn't mind trying it myself next time.

Michael - we know that there were speed limits, but we were still being passed by most vehicles so we didn't feel like we were being unreasonable. I know that "keeping up with the flow of traffic" is never a valid excuse, but perhaps it'll keep us from any tickets this time. If not, I guess everyone driving on the autostrada that day will be receiving some unwelcome mail

I actually knew about the headlight law long ago. When my dad taught me to drive he always insisted I keep my lights on, even in the day. I always thought he was crazy and being overly paranoid, but it was just because he was used to having to do it in Italy. I still refuse to do it when driving at home though
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Old Oct 5th, 2011, 06:50 PM
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Now where was I before Gabby so rudely interrupted me...

There are fresh linens hanging on the clothesline and each clothespin is a different color, so cute! We decide to get something to drink and sit outside. The kitchen is open and there are a variety of waters, sodas and wines that we're welcome to take - the honor system is used and we'll pay for what we take when we checkout.

There are chairs and benches all around the property, so we pick a set next to one of the vineyards and facing toward Pienza. Its so quiet and we enjoy just sitting and taking in our surroundings. This is the perfect break between the hustle and bustle of Barcelona and Rome. Mike fell in love with this place as soon as we pulled up and I can tell that its going to be one of his favorite stops - he's originally from Iowa and loves the countryside, though he's never seen anything quite like this.

After a while we go inside and start to unpack. We put our clothes into an old chest and empty our toiletries into the bathroom. I notice the towels, which have an unusual texture (in a good way) and pick one up. The tag says that they're made in Tuscany and I make a mental note to ask Suzanne where exactly they're from. We shower and put ourselves together for dinner. By 7:30 we're starving and ask Fabio for directions to the restaurant. I ask him if he has any recommendations and he says, "Do you like pasta?" We of course say, "yes," to which he responds, "then just listen to whatever they tell you to order and tell me tomorrow morning how you liked it."

We head back to Montefollonico and search for somewhere to park. Its a very small town, with very limited parking. I have my handicap tag from home, which I've been told will work in Italian handicap spots. There is only one handicap spot in the whole town and its full, so we search for anything that's open. We end up in a spot which we aren't positive is actually a spot at all. There is really no where else to park though so we cross our fingers that we don't come back to a ticket.

We walk toward where we think the restaurant is and find it right away. Its called 13 Gobbi and is a relatively small place that is decorated simply, but very cozy. There is one large step to go in, but as soon as we approach it a man runs up to us and asks us if we want to eat. We say yes and he yells for another guy to come over. We're told that there is another entrance with no step, but not to worry about that since we're already here. He and the other guy pick my chair and I up effortlessly and leads us to a small table in the corner. The man who initially greeted us looks to be the owner and he brings us some menus. He highly recommends the tagliatelle with cacio e pepe then leaves us to glance over our options.

We order a bottle of water and a bottle of Regale, a local red wine which we're told is the best on the menu (recall that Michael doesn't drink so this will be all mine). We also have the misto di bruschette to share. We're first each brought bruschetta drizzled with some of the most delicious olive oil I've ever had. Its so fresh and we gobble it up right away - this was not part of the misto and was just complimentary.

Our bruschette arrives and there are 4 slices of thick-cut bread, each covered with different toppings. One has some sort of mushroom paste, one a traditional tomato, one with a sausage topping, and the last is a vegetable paste. They're all delicious, but I'm glad that we ordered one plate to share or I'd already be getting full.

We both took the advice of the owner and ordered the Cacio e Pepe for our first plate. We watch as the man comes to our table with a hollowed-out pecorino cheese wheel, though we're not exactly sure why. A few minutes later he returns with a pot of freshly cooked pasta, which he pours into the cheese wheel. He mixes it around and scrapes the wheel so that chunks of cheese fall into the warm pasta. Now we understand why this dish is so special. Our two bowls are filled with the steaming pasta and fresh pepper is poured over the top. Seriously one of the best things we've ever eaten. We both clean our plates and could have easily finished a second helping of it. If you go to this restaurant do not even consider getting something other than this pasta!

We watch as the restaurant starts to fill up and people are eventually turned away. It seems as though all the locals know about the cacio e pepe and we watch as it is made over and over for everyone else in the restaurant. The owner looks frantic and is running, literally running, back and forth. After he goes back and forth like this 10 times it kind of starts to get entertaining. He does this the entire night and I don't know how he isn't exhausted. Everyone can hear him coming as his shoes clack on the ground and we look up to see him scampering around like a crazy man.

It takes a while for our second course, but we're happy that we have the time to digest and make space. I have the grilled steak and Mike has the wild boar stew with mushrooms & tomatoes. My steak is HUGE, but its cooked perfectly and melts in my mouth. Michael's boar is AMAZING and we're both thoroughly happy with our choices. We both agree that we would order everything again, until Michael gets to his last bite of boar. He has to spit it out and as soon as he does we instantly know why... There is a tiny piece that is covered in coarse, black hairs! Talk about ruining your appetite! At least it came in the last bite though and not early on.

Even though we're stuffed we order chocolate cake and panna cotta for dessert. The cake is very dense and has a strong cocoa taste, but its delicious. The panna cotta is very good too, but I'm so stuffed that I only pick at it. Despite my size I finish almost all of the wine and a generous glass of limoncello and I'm still conscious (hah!). Its about 1:30 when we decide to pay our bill (96 euros) and head back to Follonico.

I am disgustingly full and can't even imagine eating breakfast in the morning. Mike laughs and says, "Well I'm full, but miss breakfast? Lets not be ridiculous ." Our drive "home" takes a while, as we have to drive so slow on the ultra-curvy road. Being the future nagging wife I of course tell him he's still going way too fast on this unfamiliar road, but he just brushes me off. I can't imagine driving on this in the winter, though the idea of filling my stomach with that cacio & pepe before going back to a stone cottage with a fireplace and cocoa sounds like a perfect winter day.

We make it back and park in a small part of the yard that Fabio designated for us (the driveway is gravel and was a little difficult for my chair when we first arrived). Its cloudy so we can't see any stars, but its so quiet and the only thing we hear are crickets. We climb in bed for a peaceful night's sleep before our first full day of Tuscan exploration tomorrow.
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Old Oct 5th, 2011, 07:18 PM
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Oh my lands, that cacio e pepe sounds incredible. Incredible.
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Old Oct 6th, 2011, 09:17 AM
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Just want to say how much I'm enjoying your trip report - your powers of description are amazing. I have never heard of the pasta you describe and wonder if it's widely available or something unique to that particular restaurant? We'll be in Lucca next year so shall have to keep an eye open!
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Old Oct 6th, 2011, 10:18 AM
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Janeog - thanks so much . I've had cacio & pepe many times in Italy, I think its moreso the way it was made with mixing it in the cheesewheel that is unique to this restaurant.
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Old Oct 6th, 2011, 10:38 AM
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That cacio e pepe sounds out of this world!
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Old Oct 6th, 2011, 05:06 PM
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There are two Italian restaurants (owned by the same people) in my Manhattan neighborhood that prepare cacio e pepe exactly as you describe. One of the restaurants is called "Cacio e Pepe."
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Old Oct 6th, 2011, 05:45 PM
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(sorry for the threadjack about to take place )

ellenem - I'm assuming it's this one? Would you recommend it beyond the novelty? I've been craving cacio e pepe since I got back from Italy, and I'll be in Manhattan next weekend...

cacioepepe.com
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Old Oct 6th, 2011, 06:24 PM
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I would highly recommend both Cacio e Pepe (I live half a block away) and its sibling a few blocks south, Cacio e Vino. Go to Cacio e Vino if you are craving pizza the way they make them in Italy--they have a wood burning pizza oven and use more of the traditional topping choices than famous Motorino around the corner.
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