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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 15th, 2011, 07:42 PM
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This is one of the best trip reports I've read on this forum!
Can't wait for the next installment.
You have a great way with words and a fantastic attitude!
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Old Oct 15th, 2011, 10:03 PM
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I haven't read the report yet, I just busted a gut laughing at the title. Okay, now to read...
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Old Oct 16th, 2011, 07:23 PM
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Day 12 - Tuscany

We wake up around 7:30 and I'm overjoyed that the sun is out. We get ourselves together and head out to breakfast, sitting with Dan and Sarah again. We talk about the previous day and what everyone liked most. Sarah tells me that she was awakened this morning by the sound of lots of tiny bells. She went outside and it was a flock of sheep on the side of a nearby hill, each of them with a little bell around their neck. I'm hoping that we'll get to experience this ourselves one morning.

The new guests come out and join us for breakfast as well. The man seems like he is kind of in a bad mood, but his wife and her sister are lovely. They are visiting from Australia and are on a 2.5 month trip through Europe. We ask what their plans are for the day and he man proceeds to go through a detailed itinerary covering the next two months - never spending more than 3 days in any one place. Mike and I are exhausted just hearing about it and can't imagine spending two months rushing around that way.

Today our breakfast consists of the same type of options as yesterday. Fresh cheeses and meats, but also some different breads, pastries, and fruits. Mike and I have tea and fill up on the variety of delicious foods. Dan and Sarah are leaving today for Venice, so we say our goodbyes and wish them well with the rest of their trip and their baby.

We head to the car and toward our first stop: Montepulciano. The drive is gorgeous and the sun highlights the land amazingly. I take an endless amount of pictures along the way, as Mike drives and follows the GPS' instructions. I had been warned several times that this town is filled with steep slopes and that the town itself sits atop a very steep hill. Nonetheless I feel like there is no way we could visit this region of Italy without visiting this town, so we are taking our chances and adventuring out anyway.

We come to Montepulciano and hunt down a parking spot. We find one (at the bottom of the hill, of course) and start making our way toward town. People weren't lying when they said that the hill to get into the city walls is steep! Mike gets his first workout of the day pushing me up, something that would have been impossible on my own. Residents turn to watch me, all with the same expressions on their face - wondering what on earth I'm doing here. We're determined not to let this hill beat us and a few minutes later we make it to the top. There are a good amount of people here, but not as many as there were at the festival in Pienza. We begin to stroll down some roads, most of which are gradual hills that are difficult, but not impossible. Every now and then we come to one that is too hard for me to do on my own and Mike has to pitch in. We see an empty handicap spot in the middle of the town, which is irritating to both of us. This happens in most of the towns we visit in Tuscany, but to be honest we're too afraid to drive through the towns in search of a handicap spot because we don't want to get a ticket for driving through a pedestrian only area. Oh well, at least we worked off our breakfast

There are cute little artisan shops everywhere, most of which only have one step to enter. I give into temptation and go into a leather store, which has rich leather boots, bags, and jackets. Just my kind of place I see a couple of pairs of beautiful shoes, but we don't have the space for them. If I had it my way I'd be leaving Italy with a lot of wearable souvenirs, much like my cousin does when he visits me in the states - years ago he once left with 7 pairs of Nike Jordans! But I resist temptation and we continue down the street.

We come to some seriously fantastic views and we are in awe of our surroundings. The views alone are worth the visit to Montepulciano and we spend at least 25 minutes just taking it all in. Although I understand why people were apprehensive about me visiting Montepulciano, I am so happy that we were able to conquer the hills and explore this Tuscan gem. We walk around for about another 40 minutes before heading back to the car.

We decide to make Monticchiello our next stop. I put it into the GPS and we're on our way. We're led to a TINY, dirt road which is barely wide enough for one car. After driving down for 10 minutes I start to wonder if this GPS is on the fritz and taking us the wrong way. Our car is surrounded by a thin cloud of dust (good thing we don't have a convertible!) and there are no signs or other cars in sight. The views of the valley below are so fantastic though that we decide to continue on and see where the road takes us. We drive along for what seems like forever, but its the best scenery we've experienced so far and neither of us is protesting to turn around. Even if we never make it to Monticchiello I think that we would consider this to be one of the best moments of the trip.

We continue on the winding road and eventually see a sign that says Monticchiello, ensuring us that we're on the right track. We drive a little longer until we spot a little town up ahead. Breathtaking views surround it! As amazing as the views from Pienza and Montepulciano were, I think this takes the cake. We drive up the hill and find a parking spot easily. There really isn't anyone here except for a small group of tourists doing a wine and cheese tasting. We walk into the deserted town - not only lacking tourists, but locals as well. This is a very tiny town and we walk throughout the entire thing in less than 30 minutes, the whole time only seeing an elderly woman sweeping around her house. Its peaceful and quiet, void of anything remotely cheesy or touristy. We are both getting hungry, but we only see one restaurant the entire time and there are too many steps to enter. My stomach is still uneasy and giving me problems, so its probably better that we wait to eat anyway.

Before getting back into the car we enjoy the views a little longer. Olive groves and vineyards surround us, with cypress trees dancing many of the nearby hills. There really isn't a lot to do in this town, to us it was all about the drive, which in itself was totally worth it. It is very flat and in terms of accessibility (except for the restaurant) its pretty easy to get around in a chair.

Back on the road we're headed to Montalcino. At this point I've had a bottle and a half of water and I'm really hoping that we'll be able to find an accessible public bathroom. In Pienza there was actually a pretty large bathroom with a wheelchair accessible stall in one of the public parking lots.

By the time we get to Montalcino its already 1:40pm. I don't want to risk missing the Gregorian chants at Sant'Antimo (at 2:45), so rather than visit the town we decide to go straight to the abbey - my bladder will just have to wait. The abbey sits alone in a valley and is so picturesque I almost can't believe it. As soon as we get our first glimpse we're both ecstatic and I'm crossing my fingers that I'll be able to go in. There is a small parking lot with only a handful of cars and we easily find a spot. We get out of the car and study the abbey from the outside for a few minutes. I've seen tons of pictures and I'm happy to say that its even more beautiful in person. You know how you see a picture of something gorgeous, then you finally visit it only to find that its surrounded by touristy shops, graffiti-covered walls or God forbid a McDonalds? Yeah, that's definitely not the case here. The building is surrounded by rolling hills covered in olive groves and vineyards, with bales of hay that are so perfectly placed that I almost wonder if they were staged.

We walk toward the entrance, where I find lots and LOTS of gravel, ugh. Its a few layers deep so it is pretty troublesome and I have to keep doing wheelies so that my front tires don't just go deeper and deeper. My wheels are covered in white dust from the rocks and its starting to cover my hands, but I'm determined to go in this building. We come to the door and my heart sinks as I see a total of 4 steps to get in - 2 steps up to the door, then 2 steps down into the actual building. Usually we don't deal with the trouble of this or Mike would be picking me up all day, but Mike refuses to let me miss it and scoops me right up. He takes me in and sets me on a pew, then goes back for my chair. I'm so happy! I get in my chair and walk around the abbey, which is mainly empty except for a handful of people. While most churches are peaceful, I feel an unusual overwhelming feeling of calm here. Its almost like you can feel that there is nothing around you, even if you didn't look outside to know it.

More people begin to filter in, but they only stay for a few minutes before leaving. At this point I feel awful, my bladder is about to bust and I'm starting to feel nauseous again. For a second I consider turning to Mike and telling him that we have to leave, but a monk enters the room and begins to prepare for the prayers. Right on the dot monks begin to file in at 2:45. The chanting begins and its so soothing, I'm so glad I didn't suggest that we leave. It annoys me to see someone videotaping the monks since there are multiple signs that say "no photos or video," but I really don't know why I'm surprised.

The echos of the chants are beautiful and the 15 minutes flies by. At the end the monks file out as quickly as they came, leaving no evidence that they had even been there at all. We waste no time and go right to the car, driving back toward the town of Montalcino. We quickly find a parking spot and begin our search for a public bathroom. We walk around the town, not paying attention to anything, just looking for a restroom for me. Why I drank so much on a "road trip" I have no idea, I guess that I forgot that finding an accessible bathroom here isn't an easy feat. I get so frustrated and go in to a random store to ask if they happen to know of a public restroom. The lady I ask repeats my question and the expression on her face doesn't make me happy. She doesn't think that there is one, but says that we might have some luck in the fortress.

Mike and I head that way, where we meet a GIANT slope to enter the fortress. I see people struggling to get strollers up the slope, and Mike quickly starts to push me up. Its dangerously steep, and if I I weren't so desperate for a bathroom I think that we would have skipped the fortezza altogether. We get to the top, only to be disappointed. I'm annoyed that we can't find a bathroom, but also that we can't enjoy Montalcino. We go back down the slope and back to our car. At this point we're both really irritated - no bathroom and we haven't eaten lunch either.

Mike speeds off in hopes that we'll find somewhere that might have a restroom, but the problem is that it can't just have a restroom, wherever we stop has to have an accessible bathroom. I'm starting to think that we might have to drive all the way back to Follonico, which is over an hour away! About 15 minutes later Mike pulls into a gas station, which has a handicap symbol on their sign. I'm not sure if this symbol means an accessible bathroom, or simply that the building itself is accessible. Nonetheless I go in and am thrilled when the attendant tells me that I can indeed use the restroom! I never would have guessed that gas stations in Italy would have wheelchair accessible bathrooms!

I come out to find that Michael has purchased some snacks and drinks, since we're starving and its far too late to eat lunch now. Although we could turn back around to explore Montalcino, we're both tired and decide to leave that for our next trip. We enjoy the peaceful drive back to Follonico and again appreciate the wonderful weather.

We arrive and decide to relax a little bit in our room. I sit and write in my journal, while Mike looks through our pictures and listens to his ipod. The doors to our place are open and I look up to see Priscilla in the doorway. She is looking at me and as soon as I acknowledge her she invites herself in to greet us. She walks around our room, looking happy that we are glad to see her. After exploring for a few minutes she goes back outside, but comes back to see us periodically. It starts to make us miss our girls (a Yorkie-Shih Tzu mix and a Chihuahua) and I can't imagine how we'd feel if we left actual children behind, hah.

Around 8 o'clock we head back to Pienza, we're starving and the town is ridiculously convenient to our location. I'm still feeling pretty crappy so we decide to go for something light and end up at a little pizzeria just outside of the city walls. As soon as we walk in two women run to make sure that I have plenty of room to fit between tables. We're seated and given menus - nothing fancy, just pizza and simple pasta dishes. I order the four cheese pizza and Michael has the gnocchi. The restaurant is pretty full, mainly with what look to be locals and our food comes out relatively quickly. Mike's gnocchi are good, but not great. My pizza is very good, but my stomach can't handle much and I don't finish it. I order lemon sorbet for dessert and Mike has the chocolate cake, which actually turns out to be 4 mini chocolate tarts. Both are good, but by the time we're finished I'm definitely ready to go back "home" and relax. I cross my fingers that tomorrow this "bug" will be gone and that I'll feel better...
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Old Oct 16th, 2011, 07:33 PM
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Jamikins & Annhig - ahh, I see. I didn't realize the UK had quite the same problems with options in regard to road trip food as we do in the states. I guess we're all in the same boat

Kwren - I'm not quite sure if they were actually cheese wheels being used in the game or not. To be honest I never really considered that it was cheese, but it does make sense doesn't it!

Tdudette - I have no doubt that whenever you're able make it to Follonico that you will wholeheartedly enjoy it. Don't forget the requisite visit to 13 Gobbi!

Muskoka, Raincitygirl, & Sheri_Ip - thanks so much, I'm really glad you guys are enjoying it
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Old Oct 16th, 2011, 08:28 PM
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Great installment!!!
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Old Oct 17th, 2011, 09:52 AM
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Thanks a lot TexasAggie
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Old Oct 22nd, 2011, 03:24 PM
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ttt, hoping Alexandra is able to fit in another installment this weekend
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Old Oct 22nd, 2011, 09:31 PM
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Day 13 - Tuscany

I wake up early, hoping that I'll get to hear the little bells of the sheep on one of the nearby hills. No luck, but its another beautiful day. We head to breakfast, and while I'm feeling better I still go light and just have some bread and jam.

We're sitting in the dining room when the Australians join us. We talk about our day yesterday and the husband asks us if we had visited Pienza yet. I say yes and that we love it! He responds by telling us that they visited the town yesterday and didn't like it at all (how is that possible?!). In fact, they aren't impressed with Tuscany in general! He asks us where we're going next and I say Rome. Guess what, they just came from there and didn't like that city either! He goes on to say that before Rome they had been in the UK, and that it wasn't appealing to them in the least. Ooookkk.... Mike and I really don't even know what to say and just sit for an awkward moment. They go on to ask where we're from and when we say Baltimore the man sneers and says, "I wasn't impressed with the east coast of the states, the west is much better." Alrighty then, big surprise. But really I would never tell someone that I really don't like the area that they're from, I just think that's so rude!

I change the subject and ask them where in Australia they're from, saying that I'd love to visit there sometime. It turns out that they live about an hour outside of Melbourne. The man goes on to say that he hates both Sydney and Melbourne - is there any place in the world that he likes?! His wife & sister-in-law chime in to say that they both disagree with him and they go on to give us tips on places we might like if we ever do make it to Australia. I'm pleasantly surprised with their positive response, as opposed to the negative conversation we've been having with this man for the last 15 minutes. That's when it happens...I ask the wrong question, although I really still don't understand why he reacted in such a way... I say, "so I just watched a show on the discovery channel a few weeks ago about spiders in Australia. Is that something you have to worry about on a daily basis? The show kind of made it seem like you constantly have to be on the lookout..." He looks at me, smirks and says, "The gun policies in America are much scarier than any spiders." Wow, really?! I was seriously just asking a question about spiders, not insinuating anything negative about Australia just because they happen to inhabit the continent. He is giving us the dirtiest look and I'm half-expecting him to start blaming us for being personally responsible for the state of the world's economy too. This turn in the conversation is our cue to leave, so we wish them well on the rest of their trip (they're leaving today for Cinque Terre - which I'm sure they'll hate - and we won't miss them, hah ) and make our way to the car.

Our day is pretty open for the most part. We decide to go to Volterra, which initially I wasn't sure whether I wanted to visit or not. I know this is the city in one of the Twilight books/movies, but I am not a "Twilighter" by any means. I had read that the city actually offers Twilight tours now and images of a really cheesy, touristy city filled with Twilight t-shirts pops into my head. Despite this we decide to give it a chance since we're going to San Gimignano today and Volterra is not far from it.

We start our 1.5 hour drive, happy to explore a part of Tuscany that we haven't seen yet. We drive, switching back and forth between different radio stations and enjoying the beautiful scenery - seriously, how could someone not think this is gorgeous? It isn't long before we come to a traffic jam, the first we've encountered on the trip. Its a really curvy road and at first we can't see whats going on. We sit still most of the time, moving at a glacial pace when we move at all. We finally see that a man on a Vespa has been hit and is laying on the ground, looking to have a broken arm. Other than that everyone looks to be okay and the police have already arrived. We slowly make it past the scene and are back en route to Volterra.

Our GPS has been wonderful so far and to be honest I think it works better here than back at home! The only problem we have is when we reach some construction, where rather than follow the signs (oh Michael...) we follow the GPS instructions, which leads us in circles around a tiny town. Despite everyone saying that their GPS has worked great in Europe, I was still hesitant about depending on it for this trip. But Mike has been determined to prove to me that his GPS would be flawless, which is why he decided to follow it rather than taking what was obviously the right way. We're definitely lost, because the GPS is taking us to roads that don't even exist! I insist that we just backtrack and follow the sign that says "Volterra." He admits defeat and turns around, where eventually our GPS corrects and shows that we are indeed going the right way.

There are some breathtaking views on the way up to Volterra, but it is definitely quite a drive. We finally make it and find a parking garage right when we come to the town. We enter the garage, which is PACKED. Cars are crammed together and unless these people are stick figures I really have no idea how some of them will get back into their vehicles. We go down each level, only to find that it is full. I'm beginning to wonder if the ticket machine at the entrance was correct in knowing if there are any spots left, but we finally find one and somehow squeeze in to it - still leaving enough room for my chair to fit between the cars. We get out and I'm instantly wondering if there is an elevator, because if not its going to be quite a workout to get back to ground level. Luckily there is one and we make our way up and out of the garage. It is hot today and we instantly feel the intensity of the sun as we walk toward the town. I see the fortress, but it definitely doesn't look accessible - people are making their way up steps to get to different parts of it.

When we get to the town I instantly make my way to a little ceramic shop, which has some really beautiful pieces. I fall in love with a lamp that I would love to have for our future home, but its huge and so is the price tag. We do end up buying a set of oil & vinegar cruets that are hand-painted and made in Volterra - not my lamp, but I still love them . We walk further into town and its not what I expected at all! Its actually very quaint. There are tourists, but despite what we expected after seeing the garage there really aren't a ton of people. Plus there is no Twilight merchandise or costumes in sight! Its very easy to maneuver through with my chair, not too hilly and I'm able to get around without any of Mike's help. There are lots of shops and restaurants and overall the town seems very alive. We're both so happy that we decided to ignore our initial judgments and to come here anyway. We stop at a small restaurant for lunch, where we both have pizza that is sold by the slice. Its pretty good for "fast food" and we finish up and continue to explore the town. There aren't a lot of real sights to see here (or maybe we just missed them?) but I really like it and would definitely recommend a visit. While I'm not a Twilighter, Mike's sister is and I end up buying her some pretty soap that is shaped like lemons and attached to vine-like greenery (yes, I know lemons grow on trees, not vines ) - making sure that the tag says Made in Volterra, which she'll probably think is cooler than the gift itself.

We find a stationary store and I'm in heaven. I LOVE stationary of all kinds and would be equally as happy receiving a nice pen for Christmas as I would with getting a new ipod. There are tons of leather journals, ballpoint pens, and fountain pens (my fave!) among other things. I browse over everything, trying to come up with a reason or excuse of why I really, definitely need a wax seal - surely there is someone that I could write to via snail-mail that would appreciate this unique touch without thinking that I'm some kind of nut, right? Hmm, maybe not. Michael is amused, as he often is with me, and sadly I leave empty handed.

After a few hours we decide that we better leave and head to San Gimignano. On our walk back to the parking garage what do we see...a store full of Twilight shirts! Of course! But it makes us laugh and isn't as much of a downer as I had expected it to be. We pay our parking garage ticket (4 euros) and go down to find our car. Different people have since parked next to us and there is no way that I can squeeze in. Mike can't even get into the driver's side and has to climb through the passenger door, cursing the whole time of course, haha. He backs up so I can get in the car and then we're off to San Gimi.

About 30 minutes later we come to the town. It looks busy and crowded, with no street parking spots available. We opt for another paid garage, rather than wasting time trying to find a city spot. At first the machine says that the lot is full, so we wait about 3 minutes before pushing the button again to find that room is now available. We go in and there are actually a lot of empty spots, so we find one easily and make our way out. There are restrooms in this garage, including a handicap accessible room - though before you even reach the bathrooms you can smell the urine reeking from that direction and I would suggest you wait if you're able to, they're not in good condition.

We head out of the garage and I can see the towers of the town. Its quite a walk from where we're parked to the city center, and VERY hilly. I had been warned about this, but you know me . Some of the hills are quite steep though and anyone in a chair will definitely need assistance on these. We walk for a long time, at a slow pace. The sun, the drive and the walking is getting to us. We finally make it to the main square and we're exhausted. We decide to stop for ice cream and end up at a place that boasts about the contests it has won for being the best gelateria in the world. There is a long line and people are ruthless! Pushing and shoving, as if there won't be enough for everyone and they're desperate to get to the front of the shop. Mike yells our orders out - I have hazelnut and strachitella, while he has panna cotta and pistachio. We get our ice cream and fight our way toward the exit, where people just stare at me and don't move to the side to let me by. Really? Do they expect me to teleport myself to the other side? Despite no reaction to me saying "excuse me" in 4 different languages, as well as tapping them to get their attention (although they were already staring!), none of them move. I eventually squeeze my way by and we find a place to sit outside to enjoy our sweet treat and the view. The gelato is phenomenal and I can see why they've won awards.

I'm sad to say that after this we walk around for maybe 45 minutes before deciding to head home. I wish we had had more energy to explore this town and I chalk it up to not planning our day out well. I don't think we expected to like Volterra so much and had expected to only be there for less than an hour. Oh well, it was a good day anyway and I don't regret it. We deal with the crazy hills again to get back to the garage, which take the last bit of energy we have left.

Our drive home is long, but relaxing. I make sure to call and confirm our balloon ride for tomorrow morning, which is still scheduled to take off on time. Tomorrow we'll have to be in Siena by 6 am, so when we get back to our area we decide to just go straight to dinner, and where would that be? You guessed it! Pienza, of course. Its a good thing we like this town! We park in our usual area and walk around, looking for anything that catches our eye. We walk down a tiny alleyway and find La Buca di Enea, which is a VERY small restaurant of 7 tables with two seats each. Its only 7 o'clock, but two tables are already full so we go right in (there is one medium step). The restaurant is owned by a husband and wife and the walls are covered in photos of their family and of their travels around the world. We're seated at one of the tiny tables and given menus. We order bruschetta with pecorino, olive oil and chives, as well as water and a glass of white wine. The bruschetta is only one piece of bread, but its huge and quite enough for the both of us - delicious! The place fills up quick and its not long before people are being turned away. For our meal I have the ravioli with spinach & ricotta in a butter sauce, while Mike has the lasagna. No second courses tonight - we're going light. Everything is very good and the service is great. We bypass dessert tonight, but we do enjoy some sweet wine that the owner brings to our table. Its about 9 o'clock and rather than hang around, we decide to open our table up for one of the many couples that are continuously being turned away.

We drive back to Follonico and crash almost right away. Super early morning tomorrow!
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Old Oct 23rd, 2011, 03:52 AM
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We drive back to Follonico and crash almost right away. Super early morning tomorrow!>>

for a moment I misunderstood and thought that you'd had a crash - so glad you didn't!

we had problems with our GPS in Germany - it also put us onto non-existent roads and ignored obvious roads like the autobahn.

loved your description of the conversation with the aussies - sadly there ARE people who never like where they are and always want to be somewhere else.

looking forward to your early morning start!
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Old Oct 23rd, 2011, 06:20 AM
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Up, up and away!
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Old Oct 23rd, 2011, 09:05 AM
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Day 14 - Tuscany

We wake up at 4:30am and quickly get dressed. As soon as we go outside we both gasp -its been cloudy every night so far, so this is the first time we've seen the sky clear while its dark. The stars are so bright and it feels like we're in a planetarium. You don't realize the effect of light pollution, until you see a sky without any. We carefully make our way to the car, making sure not to make too much noise to wake up Prischilla. Its so early that I guess we'll miss the sheep again, oh well.

We're off to Siena and end up making really good time - arriving at 5:30. By now the sky is lightening and I'm starting to get worried because its pretty cloudy in this area. We drive to the meeting point, where we find Gianna (one of the owners). She is so friendly and asks us all about our trip and our morning drive. I get out of the car and she leads us over to her SUV, which we get in to drive to the launch site. If you're unable to transfer to an SUV you can still drive your own car to this area. We drive to a nearby field where we see two balloons being prepared for flight. I've always wanted to go on a hot-air balloon ride, but never had the opportunity. Initially we had planned on maybe doing one in Vermont in the fall, but when I found one in Tuscany there was no question on which to choose. As soon as we pull up to the balloon we are greeted by Stefano, Gianna's wife. He is a happy, boisterous man and meets every stereotype of an Italian. There are other people running around preparing the balloons, while Stefano directs and supervises.

We are riding with the company Balloon in Tuscany. I had initially contacted others, some of which that launch closer to where we're staying in Montefollonico, but due to insurance purposes none of the other companies would allow me on their balloons with my chair. I didn't give up though and I was surprised by the response of Balloon in Tuscany when they told me that they actually have a specific balloon for wheelchair users! Here is a link if you're interested in the details of how it works...http://www.flyballoon.it/video.php

We watch as both balloons begin to be inflated. The entire process is lengthy and a lot more work than either of us expected. The couple for the other balloon are late and Stefano is obviously annoyed. When they finally show up he yells, "Good Morning!" When the lady doesn't respond Stefano looks even more annoyed and yells, "Its a good morning, no?!" She smiles and Stefano turns to me and says, "I'm a bastard." Funny.

Once the balloon basket is pushed upright and mostly filled I roll over. The basket really only has 3 sides - the 4th is made of plexiglass and swings open like a door. A small ramp comes out and I roll right in. My chair is tied down, the same way that it is secured in buses. It doesn't stop there though, a harness is wrapped around me - attaching me to both my chair and the balloon. I wish that they would have allowed me to stand up periodically in the balloon, but I guess I'm lucky to be able to ride one at all. I'm strapped in so tightly and it looks like I'm about to go skydiving. Mike climbs in and we're ready to go. Stefano is our captain and stands in a separate, designated area of the basket. Its cold, but the heat from the gas warms us up in no time. Stefano ensures us that the clouds will not be a problem, its just humidity that occurs every morning and that it will clear.

We watch the other couple's balloon inflate, they take off first and we follow. We smoothly lift off the ground and begin to float away. We're surprised by just how smooth it is -it barely feels like we're moving at all. We go higher and higher until we are above Siena. The sun is shining directly on it and the town looks like its glowing. The views are spectacular - Stefano was right, the sky is clearing and everything below us looks amazing! Stefano looks so proud of himself and I ask him how often he uses this special balloon. He says not often, but that it gives him such pleasure to be able to give the opportunity to disabled people. He goes on to tell us how he acquired this balloon to begin with. Apparently the renown physicist Stephen Hawking had wanted to go on a balloon ride over Tuscany, but no one was able to accommodate him. When he contacted Balloon in Tuscany Stefano had the balloon specially designed and built just for him! I think its so cool that I'm sitting in the same spot where one of the most famous and brilliant scientists in the world once was!

Stefano takes the balloon higher and we literally go above the clouds. Its amazing and surreal all at the same time. Its so quiet and its just a thick, white blanket as far out as we can see. We see the shadow of our balloon projected on the cloud and its seriously one of the coolest things I've ever seen. We float here for a while and at one point there is actually a rainbow perfectly formed around the shadow of our balloon. Even though we can't see any of the ground - only the clouds and sky, it is gorgeous. Seeing this alone is totally worth going on the ride. We are thoroughly enjoying every minute and we begin to drift down to a point where we are completely immersed in the clouds. All we can see is our basket, each other and the thick fog surrounding us. We feel the cool, dampness of the clouds and I can see how it would be really easy to become disoriented here. We slowly begin to be able to see the ground again. Since I can only look out of the side with the plexiglass, Stefano turns the balloon so that I can see other angles. We float around for an hour before finally landing in an empty field. Stefano calls Gianna to tell her where we are so that she can come and meet us with the car. In the meantime we get out of the balloon and Stefano prepares to pack it up.

Ten minutes later we see two SUVs pull up, one with Gianna and part of the balloon crew and the other SUV with the other balloon couple. Gianna brings out a cooler and pours us all a glass of champagne. The other couple are Jeanine and Chris from Long Island. They are celebrating their 50th birthdays and staying just outside of Siena. We talk about our rides, their kids and our engagement. They are both lovely and we enjoy spending our morning together. Gianna sets up breakfast, which consists of a variety of paninis, sweet bread and some grape cake (very much like a blueberry muffin). We make mimosas with the orange juice and eat breakfast together. Stefano joins in as well. When he hears that Chris and Jeanine are from New York his eyes light up - apparently he lived in New York city for 5 years and misses it desperately. He never had intended on moving back to Italy, but his mother called him one day and said, "I'm dying! Come home!" So Stefano came back - its been over 10 years and his mother is still alive and well. Stefano turns to me and says, "Remember this - if you have to have a mother, don't have an Italian one!" We all laugh, his story reminds me of my nonna, who has been saying, "I'm dying!" for the past 15 years.

Stefano asks if we're finished with the champagne and we all say yes. He picks it up and starts taking swigs straight from the bottle. Gianna yells at him and again he turns to me and says, "I'm a real bastard." I tell him that I don't believe him and he smiles. He gives Jeanine and I each a bouquet of roses before we get back in the SUVs. Its been a wonderful morning and we loved every aspect of it - from the balloon itself, to breakfast and Stefano. We're driven back to our cars and say our goodbyes. Stefano kisses my hand and leans down to whisper, "be well." He is the sweetest man and I couldn't have asked for a better captain this morning.

Something really neat is that Stefano has an app on his iphone that charted our flight. He sends me the flight report via e-mail, which I am able to open in Google Earth and see everything we saw on our flight through satellite aerial pictures! A cool way to share the flight with our friends & family.

By now its 10:30 and we head off to explore our last hill town - Siena. I can't believe that it is our last day in Tuscany and that tomorrow we'll be beginning our last leg of the trip. We park in a garage and its already busy and quite full. We walk down some very steep hills, following the tower to the main square. We reach the square and its beautiful - just like I imagined. Its pretty flat and easy to get around, so we walk the perimeter and explore the tower building. We don't go up, because theres a long line and to be honest I doubt that its accessible (but I guess you never know...). We go back out to the square and walk around some more. My mother is extremely hard to buy for, so when I see a scarf in her favorite shade of green I don't waste any time in snatching it up. We decide to visit the cathedral, which is up a ridiculously steep hill - this might be the steepest hill of the trip, even more so than the hill to the fortress in Montalcino. This was nearly impossible, even with Michael's help. Its so steep that there is barely any traction on my wheels and I'm quite nervous about it. We make it up and follow the crowds to the church. It is beautiful and designed with an interesting striped pattern. Unfortunately, it is not accessible so we don't go in. We walk around a bit, before having to deal with the steep hill again - going down is even scarier and I give a sigh of relief when we get to the bottom.

Siena is very hilly - I know there is a lot to do here, but we are so tired of hills its crazy. We decide to stop for lunch and rather than searching for something decent, we deal with sitting at one of the touristy restaurants right on the square - at least we have a nice view. I order a crepe with tomato and cheese (basically a pizza with a crepe as the crust) and Mike has the spaghetti with tomato sauce and chili, which turns out to be too spicy for him so he drowns it with Parmesan. The food wasn't great, but its basically what we expected. We're stuffed and after paying our bill we go and sit on the ground of the square. We people watch for able an hour, the square is so pretty and its nice to just sit and take everything in. Mike goes to get us some ice cream, coming back with vanilla and strawberry for me and pistachio and panna cotta for himself (his new favorite combo). We sit and eat, enjoying our last day in Tuscany.

Afterward we decide to head back to Follonico. Needless to say we have a lot of places to revisit on our next trip to this region. We get back around 4 and I begin packing for Rome tomorrow. Afterward we go back outside to sit in "our spot" and I write in my journal while Mike listens to music. We've had such a perfect time here and I will genuinely miss Follonico. We watch as a new couple arrives and they're greeted by Susanne. I'm happy to see that the new guests love Prischilla, they even say that they'd love for her to accompany them on evening walks around the area.

Around 6 we head to Pienza for our last dinner. By this point in the trip we're feeling like we've each gained 10 pounds, so we want to keep it light. We opt for pizza again, sharing one with cheese, onions and bacon. After dinner we take our last stroll around our beloved little town - sad to leave, but excited for Rome. I have no doubt that we will be back one day, so we leave knowing that we'll see it all again. We take our route from Pienza to Follonico for the last time. I know I'll miss this daily drive, even if I still think that Mike takes the curves too fast, hah. Its dark, so when Mike screeches to a halt I get startled and worried. I ask what he's doing and he backs the car up a little bit and repositions it so that the headlights are shining over a little field. I'm still confused, but he says, "shh...listen" and points. We roll both windows all the way down and I hear it... the little bells! I stretch to look out the windshield and I see all of the sheep standing there. I have no idea how Mike spotted them in the dark, especially going at our speed, but I'm so happy he did. I feel like these bells have been a phantom ever since I heard Sarah and Dan tell me about them. I think that sitting in our car, pulled off on the side of this dark country road, while we listen to the little bells with light Italian music playing in the background will probably end up being one of my all-time favorite memories. Good night, Tuscany.
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Old Oct 23rd, 2011, 11:57 AM
  #132  
 
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ahhh - sheep bells at last.

what fantastic balloon trip - should i decide to do a balloon trip in Tuscany one day I'll certainly try to use the same company.

roll on Rome!
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Old Oct 23rd, 2011, 12:19 PM
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Really wonderful!
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Old Oct 23rd, 2011, 01:25 PM
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Two WONDERFUL installments! I am getting so excited about our upcoming trip to Tuscany in May after reading about your amazing experiences .
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Old Oct 26th, 2011, 10:39 AM
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What a special day! I am bothered by heights, so I will probably never experience this adventure, but I admire those who can. I also understand that it must be an amazing sight.
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Old Oct 26th, 2011, 08:11 PM
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Great report & amazing descriptions - I'm visiting a lot of the same places in 2 weeks and can't wait to read more!
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Old Oct 28th, 2011, 10:49 AM
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Hurry back and finish your report, please! It's wonderful reading, and I'm eager for the next part.
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Old Nov 3rd, 2011, 07:35 PM
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Day 15 - Tuscany/Rome
We wake up around 8:45 and take our things to the car. We then head to breakfast for one last time, which is bittersweet. As usual we have fresh, delicious options and we chat with a new couple from Canada. After breakfast we meet with Suzanne to check out and say our goodbyes. I will genuinely miss her and Fabio, but we have full intentions on returning one day so I try to keep that in mind. We talk to Suzanne for a while and she tells us about how she ended up in Italy instead of staying in her homeand of Holland. We agree to stay in touch on Facebook and head to the car. We're dropping the rental off in Orvieto and taking the train from there to Rome. I'm hoping to see the cathedral in Orvieto, but we aren't sure whether the funicular will be accessible or not (this is something I inquired about on the forums, but no one had a difinitive answer).
The drive to Orvieto is pretty quick and in no time we're driving through the town. We find the Hertz office, which is across from the trainstation, and drop off our car. Its only noon, but it seems that we will have to skip the cathedral this time - one of our bags is broken and Michael is annoyed and struggling to figure out how to manage it. I had read that there is a hotel in the area that allows tourists to stow their bags for 5 euros while they explore the town, but I can't remember exactly which hotel it is. Instead we head straight to the trainstation.
I had e-mailed Trenitalia AND called to confirm that this particular train station and the train are wheelchair accessible. I had some trouble with a train in Nice, France a few years ago so I wanted to ensure we wouldn't have any problems in Orvieto. We go in and I buy our tickets to Rome - 29 euros for two tickets. No one in this office (at least at the time that we were there) seems to speak English, so knowing some Italian is valuable. I ask how to get to the train and the man points us toward an elevator with a large wheelchair accessible sign next to it. I thank him and we head toward the store area. The next train is full, so we have to wait until 3:15 and we're starved. We have pizza, which turns out not to be great and very similar to cafeteria pizza in the US.
We have about two hours until our train leaves, but I figure we should go to our platform to wait. We're scheduled to leave from platform 2, which is on the other side of the tracks than where we are now. We go to the elevator, which takes us downstairs. From here you're under the tracks, so you can walk to the other side and go back up to arrive at the platforms on the opposite side. Here we encounter a problem...there was the elevator to take us down here, but there is no elevator to go back up to the other platforms! I look at Mike and say, "no...there must be a way. Why would there be a wheelchair accessible sign to go down here if there is no place to go once you come down?" But there is nothing, just a very long flight of stairs to go to platform 2 & 3. Really? I seriously want to know who posted that sign, because they must think that wheelchair users and handicap people must just want to go down there to hang out and not really go anywhere. We take the original elevator back up to the ticket office, I'm convinced that there must be another way and that we are just confused. Why wouldn't the seller have mentioned this to me to begin with? I go back to the seller and ask him what we should do. He looks at his colleague and they both look unsure. The man makes a call, then turns back to me to say, "there is no way to do it. Your husband and I will have to carry you across the train tracks. Its very dangerous, but its the only way. Come back to find me 10 minutes before your train is set to arrive." What?! I'm still confused and shocked so I just agree and go tell Michael the news.
Mike isn't happy and neither am I. I really don't want to be carried across train tracks! Instantly the train scene of "Fried Green Tomatoes" comes to mind and I'm nervous. I tell Mike that I don't want to do it, so what are our options?
A. Take a taxi all the way to Rome, costing us a fortune
B. Get our rental car back and drive to Rome
C. Stay in Orvieto for the rest of our trip and worry about getting to the airport later
D. Stay in Orvieto for the rest of our lives and never worry about it again
Hmm... none of these are particularly attractive, so we just sit and think for a minute. I turn to Mike and say, "well.. that staircase isn't THAT long. What if we go back downstairs and I just sit on the steps and make my way up, while you carry my chair?" He says no way, that he will carry me. Its way too many steps though and I insist that he just carry my chair and let me do the rest. He doesn't like the idea, but agrees. I go back to the ticket seller and tell him that Michael will help me with the stairs, but I ask him how much time we'll have to get on the train once it arrives - I'm told 1 minute. Great! He says to still come and get him before the train arrives and that we will help us get on quickly. I agree and Michael and I go back downstairs. We get to the staircase and I pull out two plastic sheet protectors that I had from our itinerary paperwork. I set one down on the stairs and I transfer and sit on it. I take the second sheet protector and place it on the next step up, pushing myself up to it. I keep up this pattern, making my way up while at the same time making sure my clothes don't get dirty. It is kind of humiliating when people walk by and stare, but oh well. I make it to the top and Mike sets my chair down and helps me onto it. He goes back down for the bags and I'm thrilled that I won't have to deal with being carried over the tracks.
Now that we're where we need to be I start to worry about getting on the train in 1 minute or less. We watch as other trains arrive. Some of their doors seem to stay open for maybe 30 seconds max. I start to get a sick feeling in my stomach. Is it really possible for Michael to get me, my chair, our bags and himself on the train in less than a minute? I'm starting to feel nauseous as I go over the possibilities in my head:
A. Mike gets me on, but my chair & our bags get left behind
B. Mike gets me, my chair & our bags on but HE gets left behind
C. Mike gets me, my chair and one of our bags on, but the others are left behind
All of these scenarios would be a disaster, but the worst would be Mike or my chair being left behind. If either were to happen I wouldn't be able to get off the train in Rome. Of course Michael's cell phone is dead so we wouldn't even be able to call each other to arrange him getting to Rome - plus he speaks not an ounce of Italian!

We watch as another train comes and Mike studies the stairs - the first step is HUGE and is definitely going to be a challenge to carry me up. Then once we're on he will have to get me to a seat and still go back for everything. We both know that it isn't going to work and I start to panic again. One year when I was in Italy I had passed through Milan to visit my family. I was headed to Rome from Milan, and although the platform & train were accessible my cousin carried me and my chair on to make things easier (rather than request the ramp). Well before he had a chance to get back off the train started to depart! In the end he ended up riding to Bologna with us, before getting off and going back home. This time though we can't afford for something like that to happen. I decide to try to get our rental car back. I call the number to the office but there is no answer - of course, I remember that the office has irregular hours. I'm an American Express holder so I call the travel concierge service to see if they can help me. The agent checks all the rental offices in the area and unfortunately there are no automatic cars available until tomorrow. Michael can kind of manage a manual, but driving in Rome probably isn't the best place to brush up on your skills. I hang up, discouraged and stressed. I'm scared to death and the train will be here in 20 minutes. Michael walks back to the ticket office to find the ticket seller that said he would help us. I wait on the platform, since I'm certainly not going to go through the staircase process again. When Mike gets back he looks frustrated and I don't see the man with him. I ask what happened and he says that the man is gone! He must have forgotten his offer to help us and went to lunch or got off for the day. Wonderful! I look around for someone else that I could possibly ask to help us. There are a few elderly people, but that's pretty much it - everyone else got on earlier trains to other destinations. Mike turns to me and says, "okay, I'm just going to throw you on, throw the bags on and grab your chair." I know that there is nothing else we can do, aside from staying in Orvieto or taking a cab, so I reluctantly agree.

At 3:15 the train arrives. As soon as it comes to a stop people start to pile off - eating up our precious seconds. I get annoyed and want to just yell, "move, get out of the way! hurry up!" But I don't, I just wait, feeling absolutely sick. When the last person gets off Mike scoops me up. The next thing I know I'm hitting the floor of the train, just inside the door. At first I'm confused - did Mike fall? Did he drop me? What happened?! But I look up and meet Michael's eyes and we both laugh - he did literally throw me on! I sit on the floor awkwardly, as he throws the bags beside me and grabs my chair. An elderly man is standing behind Mike with wide eyes - I can only imagine what he must have thought when Mike threw me! I'm still sitting on the floor, pressed against the wall to allow everyone else to pass. When everyone is on I get in my chair and get to a seat. I can't believe we made it!! I'm so relieved and happy that we're on. At this moment I tell myself that I will never again take another train in a foreign country - except the Eurostar, which I have had wonderful experiences with. Considering I had both called and e-mailed, I don't know what other preparation I could have done to inquire about the accessibility.

We begin our short ride to Rome, happy to start the last leg of our trip...

We arrive to Roma Termini and make our way to the door. Although I'm pretty sure we have more than a minute to get off, I'm not positive so we don't take our time. Mike throws the luggage off, grabs me and sets me on top of it, then goes back for my chair. Everyone stares, but you've gotta do what you've gotta do. We make our way to the taxis and quickly find one. Now I see why I originally didn't want to drive to Rome. Outside of the train station there don't seem to be any distinct lanes and its a free-for-all. Cars are criss-crossing all over the road, honking, drivers flipping each other off and yelling. Its crazy! It seems to be a blessing in disguise that we weren't able to find a rental car.

We're staying at Hotel Ponte Sisto, which is located right by the Ponte Sisto bridge. We check-in and are told that breakfast (which is included) is from 7-10am and that Wi-Fi is free. Our room is simple, but very nice. A king sized bed, large closet and huge bathroom. Lots of free goodies all throughout the room, plus a view of the inner courtyard. The bedroom is a little tight and would be difficult if my chair were any bigger. This is our splurge for the trip in terms of hotels - expensive, at least to us, but we're mainly paying for the location. Last time I was in Rome I stayed ALL the way over by the Termini! That walk to the sights everyday was ridiculous, so I was determined to stay in a more ideal location this time around. We relax and unpack for about an hour before heading out to explore.

Our first stop is Piazza Navona, which turns out to be a 5 minute walk, I love this location! I'm so excited because last time I was here both fountains were under restoration, but now they are unveiled and beautiful. Everything else is just as I remember - street performers, artists, cafes & restaurants around the perimeter. We stop to watch some performers that are doing tricks and acrobatics with some little kids. Giant bubbles are being formed by another performer and they're gliding all over the Piazza. A small band composed of an accordion, saxophone and cello is playing and the music adds to the perfection of the moment. We drift over to the art section and browse for a while. Eventually we make our way over to the Pantheon. We go around a corner and there it is, as amazing as always. Its so grand that its almost like you expect music to start playing as soon as you see it. Mike says, "Wow!" and I know he's excited. We go in - there is only one step, but there is also a small metal ramp in place. The interior does not disappoint and is gorgeous. I know we'll be visiting multiple times during this trip, so I don't feel rushed to take it all in right now. We walk around for a while before making out way back outside. Its 7 o'clock and we're starving. I look at my list for anything that is nearby. We decide on Il Duello, which is only a short walk away

We find the restaurant easily - less than 10 minutes from the Pantheon, but in a deserted alley. When we first turned down the street Mike looked at me and said, "umm are you sure this is the way?" But we kept going until we saw the sign. There is one step, and when the host sees us she runs over to help me in. I instantly love the atmosphere - its contemporary, but cozy all at the same time. The host takes us to a table, she is friendly and seems thrilled that we're here. There is only one other couple in the place, but its still early. Our waitress brings us water and bread with homemade olive oil. The bread is fresh and delicious, I especially love the crunchy bread sticks, which are also homemade. The host comes back and introduces herself, she is actually the owner (along with her husband, and sister - who is our waitress). She tells us the specials and shows us a platter of their fish - she seems very proud of the fresh fish and makes sure to go over them all and describe how they would be prepared. We order the buffalo mozzarella as our appetizer to share. For our first dish I have the cacio & pepe and Mike orders the carbonara. I also order a glass of wine that the host helps me pick out. The mozzarella comes out and is divine. There is a small salad on the side with what might be the best balsamic vinegar I've ever had. We clean the plate and watch as other diners start to come through the door.

Our pastas come out and are amazing. The cacio & pepe is delicious, different than in Montefollonico, but still perfect in its own way. But Michael's carbonara...literally the best carbonara I've ever tasted, EVER. Our host tells us that its her husband's specialty and that she often has him make it for her at home. Mike is in heaven and I feel so lucky that we found this place. We learn that the restaurant has only been open for a year and a half, but in that short time its already made its way to #11 on Trip Advisor! Both the host and her sister are so lovely and the service is impeccable. For our second courses I have the one of the fresh fish that the host had described to us when we arrived (I can't recall which one it was...) and Michael has the sea bass in cheese sauce. A few minutes later the host wheels a cart over with my fish, we watch as she takes the bones out and plates it up, along with crispy roasted potatoes. Mike's fish then comes out, covered in cheese sauce and served with eggplant and zucchini. Everything is fantastic! The potatoes are so good that I could make a meal of them alone. My fish is fresh and flaky, cooked perfectly. Mike's is delicious, the idea of cheese sauce and fish sounds kind of weird, but it isn't too cheesy and actually compliments the sea bass really well. We eat until we're stuffed and then sit and relax for a while. Eventually we decide to order dessert and opt to share a nutella and pistachio crepe. I also have a small glass of limoncello. The crepe is out of this world - I've had nutella crepes before, but nothing like this. Its warm and creamy, covered in chopped pistachios. We're so full but its too good not to finish. By the end we've spent 3 hours eating some of the best food of our lives. We make a reservation to come back on our last night in Rome, which makes the hostess and our waitress so happy. We pay our bill, but before we get up the hostess brings us another plate! She says, "Don't worry, I promise this is all. These biscotti are a recipe of my husband's grandmother." They're very good and a really nice touch. I still can't get over how excellent the service has been, as well as the fabulous food! We're beyond full and exhausted from the stressful day, but I am so happy we made it to Rome! We call it an "early" night and walk straight back to our hotel. We have a full day at the Vatican tomorrow!
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Old Nov 4th, 2011, 11:40 AM
  #139  
 
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well, thank goodness you made it!

I'd like to say that I'm surprised that they would have a lift to take you down, but none to bring you back up, but honestly I'm not. even where they have ramps and lifts, they don't advertise them. on my trip to Tuscany earlier this year, I struggled with my luggage up and down stairs at every single Station. no sign of a lift or ramp anywhere, and all around me people were doing the same.

on the way back, I was a bit more savvy, and managed to find all the lifts and ramps, though strangely ! there isn't one to get onto the airport train at Pisa Centrale, where it would be most obvious to have one.

of course i didn't think about the problems of someone in your situation; it was bad enough by myself struggling with a smallish case. it sounds as if you coped admirably, in the circumstances.

out of interest i googled "trenitalia for disabled" and came up with this list of stations where assistance for disabled people can be provided:
http://www.rfi.it/cms/v/index.jspvgn...916f90aRCRD#18

it looks as if they may finally be waking up to the needs of their disabled passengers, but only at certain stations - and Orvieto is not one of them.
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Old Nov 5th, 2011, 04:39 AM
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having visited these places I am amazed how well you managed. Sure the research you did helped a great deal,although so many places are not well adapted to one with disabilities.
Thanks for writing such an informative report. I am so happy that you were able to make this trip.
Keep traveling and writing about your adventures.
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