Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Daryl Grout: Two Weeks in Tuscany


The town of Portovenere, in Cinque Terre, is a stopover on this self-drive itinerary, which begins and ends in Florence.
By Daryl Grout

Susan and I land in Florence on Saturday morning, October 9, two days after celebrating our 32nd anniversary. Arriving at the Hotel Monna Lisa on the narrow Borgo Pinti, the first thing we notice is the immaculate streetscape—new paving blocks designed to match seamlessly with the water-worn stone of medieval times. After checking into our palatial room in the Renaissance-era mansion, we are soon wandering in a light rain the glistening streets of this magnificent UNESCO World Heritage city center.
    We are immediately drawn to the dominant Cattedrale di Santa Maria del Fiore with its iconic Brunelleschi Duomo. Guidebook photographs have only hinted at the splendor of this structure (reinforcing the maxim that travel is a necessary). After circling the neo-gothic exterior, we merge with the tourist flow and find ourselves at the symbolic center of the medieval Italian Renaissance—Piazza della Signoria and the adjacent Loggia dei Lanzi, Palazzo Vecchio, and Galleria degli Uffizi.
Sabinae Raptae by Giambologna, Loggia dei Lanzi.
    Following the path of Lucy from Forster’s A Room With a View, we cross the Arno River on the Ponte Vecchio with its famous Corridoio Vasariano (where Medici would travel unseen between Palazzo Vecchio and their Palazzo Pitti residences). Turning right on Borgo San Jacopo, we stumble upon delightful Ristorante Mamma Gina for the first of many delicious meals featuring fresh pasta and the colorful cuisine of Tuscany.
    Sunday dawns sunny, prompting us to avoid weekend museum crowds and hike into the hills above town. We arrive first at the Giardino delle Rose, then climb higher to take in the views at San Miniato al Monte with its statuary-filled hilltop cemetery. After strolling a surreal cypress glade, we fall in with an American student out on a day-hike. She persuades us to keep walking past the Torre del Gallo, where we find another amazing meal and spectacular views at Trattoria Omero. Feet aching, we meander along villa-lined lanes to the Forte di Belvedere entrance to vast Giardino di Boboli before stumbling home to an early dinner and a jet-lagged bedtime.
    Tuesday is Chianti day. We splurge on a driver, leaving early in a black Mercedes for UNESCO-favorite San Gimignano, famous for its 14 surviving medieval towers. Our driver, Francesco, smartly dressed in tie and Euro-cut jacket, is worth every penny, correcting our pronunciation and filling our heads with information at every stop.
    We stop in Castelinna for lunch at the subterranean Via delle Volte, then move on to scenic Radda with wine tastings at Volpaia and Castelvecchi. Dinner at Antinori’s Badia di Passignano is a mindfulness moment, best meal of our lives, each course accompanied by amazing Tuscan wine culminating with a sublime Solaia 2012.
    Our final day in Florence begins with early reservations at Galleria dell’Accademia to view Michelangelo’s David. Afterward, I run excitedly over to Paolo Sacchi Libreria Antiquaria to pick up souvenir books: an 1869 edition of Dante’s Divina Commedia—Inferno, Purgatorio, Paradiso. While Susan attends a cooking class, I tour the Uffizi Gallery enjoying the classics—Michelangelo’s Doni Tondo, Botticelli’s Birth of Venus, and Titian’s seductive and daring (in 1538) Venus of Urbino.
   
A Walking Tour of Florence
No trip to a famous city is complete without some flânerie. Here’s a walk through the heart of the city that avoids motor traffic and pesky tourist bottlenecks:
    Borgo Pinti south to a right at the piazza onto Borgo della Albizi. Street names will change but stay straight through the massive arch at Piazza della Repubblica until the charming square at Via de’ Tornabuoni. Take a slight left onto Via della Vigna Nuova past the Paolo Sacchi bookshop (Dante) to a left onto (so appropriate) Via del Purgatorio. At the dark intersection of (lol) Via dell'Inferno, pass through the archway, then left into paradiso at the magnificent Piazza Santa Trinita.
    Enjoy the piazza, then look to the left of the Roman Colonna della Guistizia for Borgo Santi Apostoli, a classic stretch of shops, restaurants, and medieval alleyways, emerging finally on Via Lambertesca at the Uffizi. At the northern center of the now familiar Piazza della Signoria, find the narrow alley to Via dei Cerchi to a right onto Via del Corso and home.

The village of Barga in the province of Lucca.
Cinque Terre
Day 6–9. On Thursday, we say good-bye to Florence and rent a diesel Audi for the remainder of our exploration. First stop is Lucca, known for its preserved Renaissance fortifications encircling the old town. With ramparts converted to bike paths and parkland (Florence tore down their walls to make a ring road), I’m surprised that Lucca is still waiting on the UNESCO tentative list.
    North of Lucca begin the Apuan Alps, our next destination. We pass the famous Ponte della Maddalena on our way to the lovely (and pleasantly deserted) village of Barga. Running late, we don’t stop in gritty Garfagnana but opt to navigate the winding Parco Alpi Apuane route to the coast in daylight.
    Our final destination today is Grand Hotel Portovenere in the Cinque Terre region, and we manage to score Room 214 (terrace with harbor view) for Susan's 55th birthday weekend. Remnants of Hurricane Joaquin are hitting Europe this week, and high winds cancel Friday water taxis to the Cinque Terre villages. Instead we relax and spend the day eating fresh seafood and exploring the cliffside village of Portovenere.
    Water taxis resume on Saturday to northernmost Monterosso. We manage to backtrack on a crowded train for a spectacular lunch atop wave-battered cliffs at Vernazza, but by afternoon Cinque Terre transit systems have been overwhelmed by an influx of pushy cruise-ship passengers seemingly determined to selfie all five villages in under four hours.
    Unfortunately, the worst is yet to come. The next morning we arrive early in Pisa, parking in a massive bus lot pockmarked with grimy facilities. Unfriendly trolley drivers herd us toward the UNESCO sites. At the far corner of the Field of Miracles a large crowd has gathered, nearly everyone jockeying to get illusion-photo selfies holding up the leaning tower. A clever group has assembled on the opposite corner to push over the leaning tower. Needless to say, we can't flee Pisa fast enough!
    Thank the Etruscan gods for Volterra, our next stop. A quiet and carefully preserved mountaintop village, the town might want to reconsider its UNESCO petition (or perhaps the UNESCO committee should rethink Pisa’s designation). Regardless, we enjoy the Porto dell’Arco, Etruscan museum, and Roman amphitheatre, leaving us in a much better mood for our upcoming week in Tuscany’s Val d’Orcia.

Etruscan tombstones, Montepulciano.
Val d’Orcia
Week 2. Arriving in the rural town of Pienza, we’re a bit nervous about what we’ll find at the Agriturismo il Macchione, but our fears are unfounded. We’re given a huge suite on the upper floor of a restored farmhouse amidst some of the most spectacular scenery on the planet. Francesco, the young proprietor, runs an olive oil business just down the road, and Susan is thrilled to get a tour and some fresh-pressed Fattoria Fregoli 2015 harvest.
    Agriturismo is the perfect word to describe Pienza’s appeal—the old town is a fifteenth-century UNESCO gem, but tourists can still find farm-town politeness while shopping for groceries or filling up with diesel. Residents’ biggest concern is that a movie starring Dustin Hoffman filming this week in the Pallazzo Piccolomini will spotlight the town for more bus tours next year.
    Our first day-trip takes us just down the road to San Quirico d’Orcia, a via Francigena pilgrimage town with hilltop gardens hidden behind well-preserved ramparts. Next stop is Montalcino, an Etruscan hilltop town best known for Brunello di Montalcino wine. We love this town! Or should I say, We love Brunello (brownish, smallish Sangiovese grape). After tasting several Brunellos at Drogheria e Locanda Franci, Susan orders a case on the spot. Later we have great fun climbing the fortress ramparts enjoying the best views and prettiest town of our entire trip. Or has the wine influenced our opinion? We must revisit soon to clarify!
The view from Castello Vicchiomaggio, in Chianti.
    We next visit Montepulciano (of Vino Nobile wine fame) and Siena, but both towns disappoint; they feel surprisingly gritty and jaded by tourism. We do the necessary tower climbs and take some pictures, then add the towns (alongside Pisa) to the been-there-done-that list.
    Our final day in Val d’Orcia takes us south to where Dickens wrote about a lovely road between the towns of Sarteano and Cetona. Our driver, Francesco, has also recommended a “Slow Food” restaurant in Sarteano. Well, the views do not disappoint, the hilltop towns are charming, and our lunch at Osteria da Gagliano becomes a keepsake memory of traditional decor and cuisine.
    With some daylight remaining, we opt for one last guidebook town and head out for Radicofani at the base of Monte Amiata, climbing to the windswept Fortezza di Radicofani. The drive home along tree-lined SP53 to enter Pienza from the south completes our loop with possibly the most classic of Val d’Orcia scenic routes.
     Friday finds us closer to Florence (for an early Saturday flight) in Greve, after stopping again in Radda for gifts and travel-wall souvenirs. Our hotel, the hilltop Castello Vicchiomaggio, has a Shangri-La quality about it, leaving us with one final magic moment before returning home.

Daryl Grout and his wife, Susan, grew up in Randolph, Vermont. They are now grandparents and live in Brooklyn.
             


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