Friday, April 18, 2008

Under the Tuscan Sun









There are times in your life, when everything goes very smoothly during a holiday. Our recent 10-day Italian extravaganza journey set a new standard for our future vacations.


Dreams of sunshine warming our white Holland faces were put on hold upon our arrival to our first destination, an agriturismo (old farmhouse converted to a guesthouse), located just south of the city of Siena. The rain fell like sheets from the sky, forcing us to spend our first day (Thursday) exploring the region by car. The beautiful hillside towns, most covered with the vines that Tuscan winemakers have made so famous, were beautifully washed in a deep green of Springtime.


Friday dawned beautifully, and Stacey thoroughly enjoyed her morning run down winding roads that see almost no auto traffic. We headed for Siena later in the morning, a small city that is very special for Stacey since she lived there for over 3 months when she was in college.



We sat in the wonderful city piazza, staring up at the huge clock tower that stands as the city’s most recognizable landmark. Of course, the kids were very excited to climb the tower, see the bell(s), and take in the bi

rd’s eye view of Tuscany. Naturally, the kids subsisted on a steady diet of gelato (Italian ice cream), which can be found in as many flavors as you can imagine. 


For the curious, Dad liked the cantaloupe flavor, Mom loved banana or hazelnut, while Maya settled on a mixture of “cream” and strawberry. Cole insisted on the (horrific) flavor train-wreck of chocolate and lemon. When we let the kids add a 3rd flavor, they both chose mint chocolate chip, which we cannot get in Holland. Whatever rocks your boat!


Saturday found us in the wonderful little town of Volterra, where we walked most of the day, enjoying gelato several times, trying a number of pieces of pizza, and drinking more wine than good judgment might advise.


A culinary note: We were as excited to eat great food and drink great wine as the kids were to eat gelato. And typically, we were not disappointed one bit in either. Space here is far too short to list each of the culinary delights we discovered or to log the numerous bottles of wine that fell in service to Mr. & Mrs. Pressler. Suffice to say that our taste buds were very well catered to throughout the journey!


On Sunday, we drove south to Rome, opting for the car instead of the train so we could enjoy some of the sights along the way. We chose the scenic coastal route and stopped for lunch in the town of Porto Santo Stefano (nothing too special, in our opinion), and then stopped 30 minutes outside of Rome and grabbed a local train the rest of the way to avoid Rome’s parking nightmare.


Sunday afternoon and a very full Monday were spent in the magnificent (if dusty) city of Rome. On Sunday, we explored many of Rome’s great fountains (hubs of activity), including the Trevisi Fountain made famous by the movie “Roman Holiday.” We waited until the nighttime, so we could see it gorgeously illuminated by lights. To insure our return to Rome, we all pitched in coins over our shoulder. Maya and Cole were fascinated as they watched a street artist create landscapes with spray paint, the tourists lined up waiting for a chance to buy one.The Spanish Steps were also included in our Sunday tour.

Monday morning, we headed to Vatican City, taking in the incredible architecture and church history. St. Peter’s Basilica is astounding. We took the lift half way to the top of the dome, but climbed the winding and curved stairs to the viewing platforms on the peak to enjoy the stunning views of Rome. The adjoining Sistine Chapel is beyond words, and the magnitude of the Vatican is one that is very difficult to properly describe.


Later in the day, we explored the incredible Colosseum, where Cole in particular was kept interested with tales of battles and fighting. Both kids were kept interested with gelato bribes along the way, and amazed us with how much fun they had.


On Tuesday, we bid ciao to Rome and headed back north to Tuscany. On the way to our agriturismo west of Florence, we took a detour off the highway to the wine lover’s paradise of Montepulciano. The town itself is very sleepy and not at all overrun by tourists, which appealed to us greatly. Wine shops dot every street, and we took the opportunity to pick up a few bottles that we would carefully tote back with us to Amsterdam.


Our arrival near Empoli at the guesthouse that would be our home for the next 4 nights took a little bit of expert navigational skills, but once we found it...it was like stepping into another world, nestled into hills whose beauty defy description. Stacey and I enjoyed the most amazing runs through the hills each morning, every vista more beautiful than the last. It was surreal--we just couldn’t believe we were enjoying a run in Tuscany...simply magical.


The “neighbor’s place” (Fattoria di Piazzano) was a wonderful vineyard, accessed via a 10 minute walk down a gravel road, onto a grass path that wove through vines, up a dirt driveway, and finally terminating at a showroom around the back of the wine processing building. Mrs. Bettarini gladly poured a glass of wine for tasting, which was exceptional. One of the Sangiovese varietals produced at this vineyard is called Ventoso (“wind”), due to the strong winter winds that blow from the Mediterranean coast. One fall a few years ago after a particularly good storm, the winemaker discovered sea salt deposits on the grape leaves, despite the fact that Empoli sits 71 kilometers (44 miles) inland! Unfortunately, we were unable to taste or purchase any of the olive oil produced on the farms due to a poor harvest of olives the previous season.


The iconic image of the Leaning Tower of Pisa is familiar to everyone, but on Wednesday, we were to get an up-close-and-personal look at the marble tower whose construction--and leaning--began in 1173. 


Over the next 820 years, visitors have been captivated by this architectural oddity, including us. At the foot of the tower is the most impressive and largest manicured “lawn” that I’ve seen in all

 of Europe.


Here's a short video of the kids having a blast in Pisa: video

After leaving Pisa (and buying the obligatory small tower statues for the kids), we continued west to the coastal town of Viareggio, which in the summer is overrun with Italians vacationers. There wasn’t much happening during our visit, but the kids did enjoy the sand and small seaside carnival rides.


The granddaddy of all art cities in the world must certainly by Florence, Italy, which was our destination for Thursday. The day began with sunshine and temperatures that were as high as we had experienced on the entire trip. We arrived via a train from Empoli and eagerly boarded a double-decker bus for our tour of the magnificent city. Almost immediately upon departing, black clouds moved into the city, blocking the sun and foreshadowing heavy rain that followed soon after. The cloudbursts held off long enough for us to see many of the major sights including the beautiful Ponte Vecchio covered bridge, the Uffizi gallery’s exterior, and the enormous Florence Duomo. Then...the rains came with a vengeance, putting a challenging end to our day in “art central.” 


Since we had the common sense not to drag the kids into any art galleries, we didn’t fall prey to the affliction known as Stendhal syndrome. More info HERE. Scary stuff! ;-)



Fortunately for our moods, Friday was a gorgeous day, and we headed out to the beautiful town of Lucca, which certainly knows how to treat its visitors well but isn’t overrun by tourists and spoiled by endless boutique stores. The town is encircled by huge ancient city walls that effectively protected its citizens for centuries from every attack. Today, these walls make for a perfect family bike tour, which we all enjoyed in the warm sunshine, followed by a delicious lunch at a tiny trattoria in the city center.


Back on the road, we stopped at Pinocchio Park in the town where the story was written, but decided not to pay the obscene entry charges for that tourist trap.  Instead we detoured through the town of Montecatini Terme, well-known in the region for its high mineral content waters and healing spas. After the long vacation, we all could have used a bit of a warm soak. Fortunately, we found an inexpensive mineral pool facility that welcomed families with children. The hour-long soak felt fine, indeed.

All good things must come to an end, including our incredible vacation. Tuscany, drenched in sunshine, bathed in verdant green, and lifted up into the clouds by the interminable spirit of her people, will occupy a special place in our memories and hearts forever.


Check out ALL of the photos from our Tuscan holiday HERE.