I blame it on author Frances Mayes. Her dreamy, flowery, prosaic descriptions of Tuscany won me over from the first time I saw the movie (based on her book) Under the Tuscan Sun. Once I’d made the decision to vacation in Italy, her books on life in Tuscany were all I could think about, so I grabbed copies from our local library and voraciously devoured her version of a Tuscan life (she lives there with her husband eight months of the year), including her mouth-watering cookbook (Recipes From Our Italian Kitchen: The Tuscan Sun Cookbook) based on the local cuisine of Cortona and the surrounding region of Arezzo. My idea of Italy was more of an ideal, it turns out. Then again, I didn’t get to visit Cortona or the Arezzo region (inclement weather kept me in Siena) so it’s hard to compare. Life in the Tuscan countryside, I’m sure, is a step up from life in the city – any city.
Since I was flying into Rome, I decided to stay a few days and check it out. Yes, it has an ancient history famous around the globe and it smacks you in the face wherever you go. In other words, Rome is still ancient in many ways: stone buildings, stone streets, stone sidewalks (need seriously good shoes for walking them). Nothing but stone. But plenty of places to eat: on every block, there are ristorantes, osterias, trattorias, and gelaterias. You can’t go three feet without coming up on another place to eat. Lots of goodies to choose from but after a while I noticed the menus were awfully similar. Not a lot of variety in Roman cuisine. I did manage to score some good meals at small, local restaurants and their house wines were some of the best I’ve had (and the cheapest). Even the coffee was smoother and tastier and there isn’t a Starbucks anywhere (I doubt it would be welcome anyway since Italians are as fanatic about their coffee as they are about fresh cheese/meat).
I did the touristy tours of the Colosseum, the Vatican, and the famous Borghese Gallery museum (think Bernini’s statues). They were gorgeous sites (the Colosseum was my personal favorite in spite of the freezing weather and pouring rain) but what struck me about Rome is how dirty it is. Trash lines the streets (loose and bagged); cigarette butts pepper every block, every inch of curb, and the stench of cigarette smoke is everywhere – Italians, it turns out, are big smokers. Nausea was my constant companion and a real appetite-buster.
Most folks were friendly and had at least a basic grasp of English; I have a basic grasp of Italian, so I found my way around just fine. The food was fresh; cheeses and meats weren’t salty and had a flavor I’ve not tasted before and would like to again. None of the food was salty; they tend not to use it in their cooking, so at first food tasted a bit bland until you get used to all the fresh flavors in the dish.
At this point, the only sunny day I’d had was my last day in Rome so I took advantage and climbed to the observation deck of Castel Santangelo (the same deck Julia Roberts climbed in Eat Pray Love) for a full circular view of Rome and beyond. A most delightful experience, to see the Seven Hills of Rome, the Appenines (mountain range), and much more.
Next stop was Siena, about ninety minutes west of Cortona and south of the Chianti region. It’s a small hilltop village, also lined with stone streets and sidewalks. The tall buildings and narrow streets, while charming, made it difficult to see any sun unless you walked to Il Campo, located at the north end of the city, where a wide piazza invites visitors and residents to open air and multiple eateries. It continued to rain and the temperature dropped so I decided to go shopping. With some Black Week sales (they stretch out Black Friday to increase sales during a slower tourist season), I scored a nice pair of leather boots and cashmere-lined leather gloves, both at 50% off. Who can say no to Italian leather?
I topped off the trip in Florence, where I stayed the longest. Once again, rain and cold weather followed me. Once in Florence, I settled into my new room (they were all A+ in service and style) and planned my adventures. Florence is home to Michelangelo’s David, of course, so that was the main event, the main reason for a visit to Florence. I’m not much of a church person; one gothic church looks like another to me so I skipped the Duomo and other famous churches. I perused my travel guide and chose other sites to visit. Luckily, all were within walking distance of my centrally-located hotel.
In a previous blog, I wrote about needing to marvel at something…and David is certainly something to marvel at, a colossus. I spent an hour with him, among other marvelers, unable to leave the room. He is a sight to behold. Nothing else I saw in Florence matched up, not even close.
Exploring Florence was an adventure; since I didn’t have an international package for my phone, I had to rely on my map reading skills to find my way around. It took a bit of adjusting; it was a strange feeling to rely on my gray cells instead of Google Maps but old habits settled back in and I wandered without getting lost. I loved the food here more than Rome or Siena. My favorite item, one that Frances Mayes got me excited about in her books, was cinghiale, or wild boar. It’s hunting season so restaurants get fresh meat from locals who hunt the boar. It’s basically wild pork, but with a much better texture and flavor. One of the ways it’s served in Florence is with roasted potatoes in a robust tomato (pomodoro) sauce. Scrumptious. It was one of the best meals I had on my whole trip.
Then I discovered a little local place, La Capennina, up the block from the famous Mercato Centrale – a food market to end all other food markets – and ate there more than once. I stayed away from tourist traps because the prices were too high for lower quality food and service. Once again, the house wines were beyond compare; if we order the cheapest wine on the menu here in the states, we get something we need to spit out.
I ventured into wine country on a day trip/excursion with a group; we headed to the northern part of the Chianti region. Vineyards and olive farms dotted the lush fall landscape and we sampled (wine, oil) our way through the day, ending with a most delicious three-course meal at a vineyard/B&B that also included drinking some very fine Chianti wines. We learned about stone-pressed olive oil versus the more modern style that uses a centrifuge. I bought some of both for myself and for gifts, eager to crack open a bottle once I arrived home (I wasn’t disappointed).
All in all, I enjoyed the trip. Honestly, one of my favorite and most surprising aspects was how quiet it was at night; sleep came easily. No booming car stereos, no loud residents drunkenly cavorting by my window late at night, no sounds of street traffic. A very different way of life there, for sure. Will I go again? If I do, it will be to the countryside, to the place where Frances Mayes has made a home (or something like it). Cities are a nice place to visit but the countryside is where I’ll find more to marvel at: the friendships, the food, the community of residents, the landscape; this is what draws one in and makes one stay.
Post Script: I mustn’t forget to mention Da Vinci, my personal favorite. Plenty of his work in Florence as well. He inspires me to be more: curious, thinker, creator, writer, etc.