Siena, San Gimignano, Lucca, and Harry Potter!
26.04.2016 - 29.04.2016 18 °C
My Roman holiday was over and it was time to move back up to Tuscany! My train was headed for Siena, a beautiful little town outside of Florence, and after taking some wrong stairs, more stairs, up the stairs, across and down more stairs, with my gargantuan bags which seemed to grow larger and heavier with each moment, I was on my way!
The train from Rome to Siena was a beautiful, scenic ride of 3 hours which flew by in no time. Disembarking around lunchtime in Siena, I thought a quick taxi ride to pick up my hire car would be opportune before my arvo nap (these are becoming commonplace!). But alas, douche-bags are international, and il wanker-extraordinaire refused to provide me with my car until after 3:30pm because they were ‘closed’, despite 4 or 5 of them standing around doing nothing in the office, so back in the taxi to the hotel first instead.
The B&B, La Chicca, was absolutely amazing, and I was greeted by my hosts very warmly. The room was delightful, with high ceilings, ornate antique furniture, a modern well-equipped bathroom, and flowing lace curtains over an arched high window. It was a short stroll to some beautiful narrow cobbled roads, which I explored for lunch and dinner. Meat and cheese has been my fantasy lunch in Tuscany since planning this trip, and Siena did not disappoint, with a small deli providing the most amazing assortment of prosciutto, finocchiona, tomatoes, mozzarella, pecorino, and salamis I could have imagined, with local red wine and a backdrop of cool jazz.
After lunch it was back to the car rental place with a lift from my host Dario. I’d been packing it, thinking about driving in Italy, but despite the service at Avis being atrocious, the driving itself was pretty easy! I acclimatised to the wrong side of the road and wrong side of the car quite quickly, and was confident I could get through the next 5 days of Italian driving (although driving into the Cinque Terre still had a big question mark over it logistically!)
Dinner was spectacular at a restaurant called ‘Zest’ in a steep cobbled street of Siena. Beautiful Chianti vino rosso, toasted bread with roasted pepper dip and a mashed bean and roasted garlic and truffle dip (divine). Chicken breast wrapped in prosciutto, cooked to perfection, and amaretto white chocolate mousse and a shot of limoncello for dessert. La dolce vita! Bed was calling…
I had the most amazing sleep, in my beautiful big bed, in my beautiful Siena villa, and slept in till 9:00am just for fun. My delightful hosts, Dario and Seiko, put on a delicious breakfast of espresso, fresh made baguette, cheese and meats, and freshly made cafes. Siena had been a delightful break to recuperate, so I didn’t get much of a chance, by choice I guess, to explore Siena. It is somewhere I may have to visit again one day…
I jumped in my car and started what I thought might be a scary and dangerous drive from Siena to San Gimignano, only 45 minutes away. The streets were windy, narrow, and seemingly without a speed limit, but it was amazing how quickly you acclimatise to left hand driving on the right side of the road. After 15 minutes or so I didn’t need to continue my audible mantra of “you’re driving on the right, and it’s ok!” “Stay on the right, stay on the right!” In fact.
Driving through Tuscany is simply fun, and visually stunning. Every scene as you turn another corner is like that from a postcard, and every little house looks like it’s from a movie. Certainly more to see road-tripping than on the train, so I’m glad I made the decision to hire a car at this point. I would later regret hiring a car, but we’ll get to that.
My first stop was San Gimignano, a quaint little town on the top of a hill, where for many years people would build tall towers to ‘out-man’ each other, and for a time I believe there were 72 in the seemingly small region! Now there are only a handful remaining after the years took their toll. I strolled through a maze of cobbled streets, and stopped to try some local Chianti Classico wine at a tasting store. Annelise was my host, and I sampled the olive oil and bread, Chianti Classico (which to be branded as such, must be from one of the 9 small regions in the Chianti area south of Florence, and must have a minimum 80% Sangiovese grapes, after which it gets a little sticker of a black rooster). It was delicious! So I walked out with a bottle for a quiet night in the hotel tonight, and some olive oil and truffle-infused olive oil as well. It didn’t take long to accumulate a few more gifts; two leather handbags, and some porcini mushroom and truffle tapenade.
I was adamant I was going to eat something other than meat and cheese, and hence for lunch decided to try something as Tuscan as I could find! I selected a little café and ordered the mixed bruschetta. Out came four toasted slices of crunchy bread, each topped with something different. The first, which was delicious but very rich, was Tuscan liver. Next, a porcini mushroom, a green olive tapenade, and ‘seasoned lard’! Wow, they aren’t beating around the bush here. It was tasty, but a very strange texture, so in the end, Tuscan-eating box ticked, I left the majority behind and headed on my merry way to Lucca.
Lucca was another 1h45m drive away, but again, relaxing, relatively easy driving through some of the most lush green scenery I’ve ever experienced. The streets were winding up and down hills, and for a time it seemed like every glance at the GPS revealed I still had an hour and a half to go…time was standing still. Not a bad place for that to happen though.
Arriving into Lucca, relying solely on good ol’ Google Maps, was one of the most stressful few minutes of my trip so far. I had put the address of my accommodation into the GPS, with no knowledge that it was near-impossible to drive into the centre of Lucca unless you had a special permit, and one of those teeny tiny tri-wheel cart-car things (which I’ve seen quite a few of around). So, after blindly driving into narrower and narrower streets, I stopped at a dead-end only to be told by a kind guy on a motorbike that without a permit the city cameras would pick up my rego and fine me! He repeated it three times, so clearly it was a big deal. So I begged for assistance getting out, and ended up following him out, with nary a scratch on the rental car! That’s a win!
I eventually found parking outside the cute walled town centre, walked back to my accommodation, which was perfect (essentially a one-bedroom apartment, very comfortable and modern, in the centre of town), and drew myself a bath. Another night of relaxation lay ahead, with a picnic of cheese and meats in bed, and perhaps a movie to relax.
Lucca is such a quintessentially ancient Italian city. It’s full of windy cobbled streets, a few churches and bell towers, and lovely cafes in sunny piazzas to wile away the hours. It’s also a very quiet town at this time of year, I’ve discovered, and so I have continued with Tuscan relaxation.
Waking up the next morning, breakfast was served in the B&B and was delicious; freshly baked pastries, ham and cheese, fruit, and cappuccino. Perfectly fulfilling before going for a wander. This morning I made my way to the best of the two towers in Lucca, one which has four trees living on top, and climbed hundreds of stairs to get the glorious view of town. It’s an ancient walled city, and this is apparent from the summit. I am staying just off the circular piazza, which adds a bit of difference to the scene.
After wandering the streets for a couple of hours, I decided to relax and spend the afternoon with my pillow fortress, napping, and watching Harry Potter. Not very ‘Italian’ of me, although Ciara did suggest I watch it with Italian subtitles, but I have had to remind myself the last couple of days that in addition to exploring Europe, this trip is also the culmination of a very long year and a half of work, study, and general life, and time to relax is well-deserved (or so I’m telling myself). Other than a brief sojourn out to find the best pizza in Lucca, as recommended by Trip Advisor, and some tiramisu and a café for dessert, there is not much else to report.
I woke up on my final morning in Lucca, slow and steady, and got ready to leave for my next stop – Monterosso in the Cinque Terre. I was keen to get back in the car and enjoy what I’ve found to be quite enjoyable driving and spectacular scenery. This was also my first time on the Autostrada, with unknown speed limits, and mystery toll-booths!
I made my way to the booth, and collected a ticket – couldn’t read a word of it, there were no signs in English which I could make out in the short moment I was there, but I couldn’t stick around so headed onto the Autostrada.
Only a moment in, and someone passed me on the left (because the slow drivers stick to the outer right lane), at what I reckon was about 160km/hr! Now I can tell you, I have never known fear, and have never gripped a steering wheel so tightly with sweaty palms, as when I was being tailgated a mere two or three feet behind me going 130km/hr on the Autostrada! Thankfully, everyone except me was no doubt quite experienced at this sort of driving, and after safely passing whatever slow truck I was attempting to get around, I was safely back in the slow lane. However, it was quite a rush, and I think at my peak I clocked 140km/hr for a very short moment (with no other cars around me), and having had my thrills, sat comfortably around 120 for the rest of the 1.5 hour trip.
Finally off the Autostrada, I was on the final leg of the drive to Monterosso, on incredibly windy roads through lush….bush? Forest? Greenery? And coming round a certain turn, I started seeing the tiny little colonies on precarious ledges spotting the scenery, with the blue ocean in the distance. On arriving, I parked my car up the hill, grabbed my downsized overnight travel bag, and headed for another gorgeous B&B which I would call home for the next two nights. A lovely stroll around town to the water (unfortunately there were diggers fixing up the beach, so no sunbaking on this occasion), some of the best gelato I’ve had (creamy Monterosso lemon…apparently it’s a big lemon town!), and back for a snooze.
As part of my accommodation, I get a cheeky little snack of pesto pasta each afternoon at the restaurant next door, and it was glorious! Flavourful, soft delicious pasta, divine! Later in the evening I strolled to a nice restaurant to fulfil the seafood craving which has taken over since being close to the ocean, and it didn't disappoint. Mussels in white wine and lemon broth, followed by seafood ravioli with scampi, finished off with a lemon and basil torte (and of course the now customary house vine Rossi and a starter of Spitz!).
I’ve got a massage booked tomorrow after a planned hike through the five little towns to work off that meal!
Delightful Tuscan towns visited – 3
Phenomenal Tuscan lunches and dinners – 6
Cobbled streets visited – 24
Lazy afternoon hours of napping – 10
Life-threatening tailgating experiences – several!
Km/hr clocked – 140!
Overusing the phrase “…in Tuscany”…..priceless!