Wednesday 29th May
The alarm was set for 04:30. Airline schedules are not made for the convenience of passengers. On previous Jet2 flights (I believe the correct form is jet2.com — that “.com” is so 1990s — and I assume somebody beat them to the jet.com domain, and they couldn’t think of anything else. Oh, “jet to”? I see.) Anyway, on previous flights, in spite of being “checked in” and having a boarding pass, I’d had to join a long queue to deposit my luggage. I was anticipating the same nonsense this time, but either they’ve worked it out or I was just lucky, because there was no wait worth speaking of.
Security was a breeze too. And the flight passed uneventfully, although, as usual, I had the opportunity to observe how gormless are the travelling public. Get a clue, guys.
In Pisa, I collected the rental car. I’d booked it via Jet2’s website, which had actually been hirecars.com, which is really Carhire3000. Companies with a good reputation don’t hide their identity. They’re brokers anyway, not an actual hire company, but you get a better deal than booking direct, the downside being that you don’t know which company the car will be from until you book it.
In this case, it was Goldcar, a Spanish company newly expanding into elsewhere in Europe. I’d heard that their organizational performance was poor when they opened up in Pisa, but I had no problems. Other than the fact that they gave me a Fiat Panda, and claimed to have to other cars in that class to switch for me.
I had several hours to fill before they wanted me in Chianni, and what I’d decided to do was park in Pisa and explore the city again. I had researched a big, free car park and stored it in my TomTom navigator. (Which is ancient, has no battery and is showing signs of mental decay.) I got directly to the car park and strolled the 10-minute walk to the “Field of Miracles” with the leaning whatsit and so on.
It was sunny, with some broken cloud, but there was a very cold wind. I took some photographs, using my trademark policy of having the tower upright and the cathedral leaning, and walked on to see more of the town. On my last visit, the piazza at the Palazzo di Cavaliere had been closed off for a major re-paving. The works aren’t fully finished yet, but it’s looking much better.
I had a pizza and a beer for lunch, and walked back towards the tower to return to the car park. Unfortunately, after that, I mistook an underpass under the railway and walked a long way in the wrong direction before I realised. I had to retrace my steps and take the proper turning.
Back in the Panda, I set the TomTom to take me to the Co-op in Ponsacco, on the way to Chianni. But I got confused by its instructions and the traffic and took a wrong turning for the second time that day. It meant I had to do a long detour, but I got back on the right road in the end. I stocked up on a few basic groceries (like wine) in the Co-op and carried on to Chianni, where the family welcomed me. Roberta, the daughter, probably in her 40s, manages the rentals. She does not speak English, but is fluent in French. My Italian being limited, French proved a useful supplement.
I was given a small bottle of local olive oil, an unlabelled bottle of Chianti, and a little bottle of vin santo, made, if I understood correctly, by Franco, Roberta’s father. They left me to unpack, after I declined offer to take me to the pizzeria for dinner. I was tired after the early start, although not so tired I couldn’t cook my own dinner.
Thursday 30th May
I could have done with more sleep, but a huge thunderstorm raged for several hours during the night. I got up quite late and pottered around for a while. Before lunch, I took a short walk to see some of the village. The weather was cool, with a mix of sunshine and cloud.
After lunch, the door buzzer went (loud and raucous). Apparently, Franco hadn’t seen me up and about all day and they wanted to see if I was all right. While talking French-Italian to Roberta, I mentioned that I wanted a SIM for my internet dongle, and she directed me to Mercatone Uno, a big home and appliance store in Capannoli, about a 20-minute drive away.
A little later, off I went and found the place, pretty much by chance, but they had no data SIMs, just a SIM+dongle package for €100. They did suggest I try the mobile phone shop in the town centre, which I found, pretty much by chance, and bought a SIM with 2Gb credit for €22.
I came home and spent a couple of hours trying to get it to work, using various arcane practices. Eventually, I put it in my Android phone instead of the dongle, and was able to get on the internet on the phone. But the phone’s wifi hotspot technology wasn’t letting the computer share the connection, which was a big restriction.
Friday 31st May
It occurred to me that I hadn’t done the simplest thing with the dongle and SIM, just plugging it in to the computer and manually dialling *99# (the magic internet code). That worked straight away, giving me internet access on the laptop, which I used to plan a route to Volterra for the afternoon.
In the morning, I was taking a stroll and met Franco, who took me into Anna’s Bar and bought me a coffee. Anna speaks German and English, and Franco got her to translate his apology for the weather, although I don’t think it was really his fault.
The route to Volterra includes sections tightly hairpinning up the sides of steep slopes. There were two emergency single-track sections of road. One was a landslide which had engulfed the side of the road, while the other was where the downhill side had collapsed into the valley. Both looked recent, so I assumed they were from the thunderstorm on Wednesday night.
The weather was still intermittently cloudy and quite cool. I got to Volterra, but hadn’t thought to research parking beforehand. I had to drive around a bit and found a rather unofficial spot. Volterra was more tourist-oriented than I expected, but not in a bad way. Lots of restaurants and souvenir shops selling alabaster, Volterra’s “thing”.
Volterra was one of the 12 city states of the Etruscan confederation prior to conquest by Rome, but few archaeological remains from that period are visible. The presumed Etruscan acropolis has some random foundations above ground, and one of the town gates is mostly of Etruscan date, the vertical sides anyway, which are made of huge, carefully-cut blocks. The arch above must have been rebuilt at a later date with smaller stones, perhaps Roman times. Also dating to Roman Volterra is a good theatre, with the shape of the tiered seats still clear, and the various porticoes and columns giving an idea of what it must have been like.
I returned home late in the afternoon, having obtained a tourist map showing town car parks, useful for the next visit. I had decided to have dinner in Chianni’s most upmarket restaurant, Le Vecchie Cantine (“The Ancient Vaults”) and arrived at a carefully-calculated time: not so early as to seem unsophisticated, but not too late in case it got busy. As it was, the place was about half-full, the bulk of patrons Germans, including one large group. My dinner was excellent, if not cheap. When they bring you a “free” glass of prosecco with the menus, you can be sure they’ll sting you with the price.
Saturday 1st June
I realised that I needed more food, given that I couldn’t afford to eat in Le Veccie Cantine every day. When I’d been to Capannoli I’d checked out the Conad supermarket next to the electricals warehouse, and decided it would do fine. Closer than the Ponsacco Co-op.
In fact, I didn’t really have anything suitable for lunch in the house, so I had an apple and a Mars bar and drove to Capannoli, where I bought a good range of stuff. It’s the odds and ends that make the difference: garlic, butter and mayo.
In the afternoon, I walked South out of the village, and found the restaurant I hand’t yet seen, and the town park, “Il Boschetto”, not yet open for the Summer.
Sunday 2nd June
It was sunny enough in the morning to sit out on the balcony, and later to take a walk in shirtsleeves. When I was on the balcony, Franco called up to me waving a plastic bag, which turned out to contain a fresh bottle of Chianti, straight from the barrel, and a larger bottle of the vin santo (as it happened, I’d finished the little one the night before). In the afternoon, I departed town in a random direction (just trying the lay of the land) and had a very scenic drive on steep twisting roads through woods and flower meadows, almost the Tuscan stereotype. I saw only one or two other cars. Carrying on in that direction would eventually have got me to the coast — Franco says there’s a great beach after Castellina Marittima — but I had decided to turn around and go to Volterra again.
On one nice, straight piece of road, an oncoming truck driver flashed his lights at me, and I slowed down, as you do. Sure enough, when the corner did come up, the Carabinieri — two squad cars — had a checkpoint, although they had already stopped and were dealing with a very small, very shiny, very red car. Ater I passed, I flashed the headlights at any car coming in the opposite direction. As you do.
When I’d been in Volterra before, I’d noticed that they were having a festival — the “Palio del Cero” — in the medieval style, something very common in central Italy. In this case, it was basically a tug-of-war contest, with the additional feature of a little wooden castle being between the two teams, and a large fake candle (il cero) on top of it.
It was fine and sunny all afternoon, and I took a couple of breaks from watching the action by going out to a panoramic viewpoint and sitting in the sun for a while, but I was getting rather tired by seven o’clock, just before the bottom decider and top final pair (odds on finalists Villamagna, since they’d won 9 out of the 13 years since it started) and was thinking about leaving. A bird (perhaps a pigeon) decided to help me make my mind up by shitting substantially on my leg from a great height. I cleaned it off with a hankie, which I had to discard in a bin, but it left a stain. I watched the two bottom teams fight it out — Santo Stefano came last — and hit the road for home.
I changed my trousers and was out filling the car’s windscreen washer when Franco came up and pointed out that you can actually see Volterra from Chianni — it’s about 30km away — and then showed me “my” garden, which he has been setting up for Summer: grass cut, chairs and a parasol. With luck the weather will be suitable to use it.
Monday 3rd June
I was trying to space out my travels and not tire myself charging off in all directions, and I resolved to stay at home. When I checked the local weather forecast, it promised thunderstorms in the afternoon. I suppose I could have got in the car and gone off to see a museum or something else indoors, but I just lazed around. I watched an old episode of ‘Don Matteo’.
Tuesday 4th June
After a day’s rest, I felt happy to go off on another tour, but when I checked the forecast for some of the big names, such as Lucca, they showed a possibility of thunderstorms. The lowest risk seemed to be on the coast, which decided me. I was getting into the car when Franco came out, and when I showed him my map, he suggested the seaside town of Vada. Good choice.
The drive is direct on the map, more or less: take away all the twisty hairpins, but in three dimensions it goes way up a mountain range and back down again towards the sea. It’s very scenic. The engineer who designed the “range” display in the Fiat must be thesame guy who did the Windows file copy progress bar. It told me I had enough fuel for anything from 265km to 455km, I think depending on whether I was going up or down a hill. Plenty to get to Vada and back anyway.
I had the bad luck that the route had also been picked by some large cycle outing. I’m sure there were a hundred or more on bikes, struggling up the steep and twisty roads in bunches riding abreast. I don’t know why cyclists do that. Maybe if they strung out singly some motorists would try to pass when it was’t safe. Maybe they’re just being annoying. I approve of cycling, but in this circumstance they were a definite road hazard, and I had to concentrate hard the whole time.
In Vada I found an on-street parking spot near the town centre, but my luck was not as lucky as I thought, because I saw later that there is loads of parking, all around town, and all of it very sparsely used. I can only assume that it’s needed in the high season (which would be August in Italy), in which case the town must be totally bonkers then.
However, it was quiet on my visit. There is a nice church with a grandiose portico facing on to Garibaldi square, and there’s a statue of the man, to which someone has added a red scarf. I’m not sure if he was a socialist, although he definitely was a republican, even though he fought for a monarchy. (The unification of Italy came about by the relatively constitutional kingdom of Piedmont swallowing up all the rest.)
A few hundred metres behind the church I found the beach. However, just at that spot, a bulldozer and big yellow excavator were being used to re-landscape the sand in some way (ready for Summer, presumably). But there was plenty more beach to go round, much of it “free”, in the sense that it’s not allocated to any sunbed and umbrella concession. If you go to any of the major resorts in Italy, say Viareggio, almost all the beach is covered by row upon row of matching beach furniture. I don’t like it.
So in Vada, there was ample space to bring your own umbrella. That’s not my thing though. I like looking at the sea, but I don’t go in for suntanning or swimming. I contented myself with alternately sitting in the shade and walking along the water’s edge, even making the concession of taking my shoes and socks off, and rolling up my trouser legs. A little.
I walked quite a long way up the beach. Pinewoods with picnic tables. A few sunbed concessions, but mostly free beach. It was after one o’clock and I was thinking about lunch, although when I turned on the GPS on my phone to see where I was (I don’t leave it on all the time because it quickly drains the battery) I realised that I had about a three kilometre walk back to town. I was hungry when I got back to Piazza Garibaldi, and spotted a pizzeria. It seemed ideal: I realised that I was harbouring a craving for pizza. Imagine my disappointment to be told that pizzas were only served in the evening. For lunch, I could only have primi or secondi dishes. I had a tasty tagliatelli, but was sorry I could not have had the pizza.
I returned to the beach and took some photos, including some of a parachute-kite-surf-artist (I don’t know what you call them). I got the iconic “flying through the air” shot.
It was getting into late afternoon, but I wasn’t ready to go home. After a quick trip to the Co-op (I’d run out of breakfast croissants) I set course for Castiglioncello, up the coast. There’s a very large marina with some of the architypical floating gin palaces, but oddly, the town itsef doesn’t seem very upmarket. Rather scruffy, if anything. Unlike Vada, where the sand is nearly white, Castiglioncello’s beaches are dark grey, stony and not so appealing. The nice thing about it though was that it seemed to be a family type of place, where everyday people go to the seaside.
As I was inspecting the massed rows of luxury water transport, I noticed a shabby little cruiser, “Pretty”, with the registration on the back as “Fort Lauderdale, FL”. If someone really sailed THAT across the Atlantic and all the way up the Med, I’m really impressed. Actually, if I was rich enough to buy a huge yacht, I did find the ideal one. Needed some work, but it was a beautiful, old-style, wooden vessel. Quality trumps bling.
I didn’t want to take the same route back home in case I had to get past all the cyclists again on their way back. I managed to plot out an alternate on the paper map, although towards the end when it seemed to get complicated, I chickened out and turned on the TomTom. I didn’t see a single cyclist.
Wednesday 5th June
Driving yesterday, so car out of limits today. I didn’t do much in the morning, but after lunch I thought I’d walk up to Chianni’s higher satellite vilage, Rivalto. The sky got rather grey for a while, but by the time I was ready to go out it was clearing. In fact, ideally, the sun stayed hazy for the uphill part and it was cool. I did hear distant rumbles of thunder, but after I’d had a quick tour and was ready to walk back down, the sun came out properly.
Rivalto is smaller, quainter and more scrubbed than Chianni. It looks as though many of the houses have been restored recently, and I’m sure some of them must be holiday homes. But I wouldn’t hold that against the village. I like clean and quaint.
When I came back into Chianni, I passed the pizzeria. I hadn’t forgotten my pizza craving from the day before. The thing about Italy though is that establishments all close one day a week, and knowing my luck, Wednesday would be it for “Regina Margherita” (owned by a genuine Neopolitan, apparently). I didn’t see any signs on the place saying which was their day off. It was definitely closed then, but you’d expect that in the afternoon.
When I got back home, I tried an internet search, and the concensus was that yes indeed, it was closed on Wednesday. I had plenty of food if I wanted to cook my own dinner, but I thought I might treat myself to make up for the repeated pizza disappointment. One of the other two restaurants then. But the one I’d tried and very much enjoyed before? Or risk the unknown one?
Well, since it was a treat, I went for the known one, particularly their deep-fried vegetables, which are divine. One disadvantage of the place is that they’ll only sell you wine by the glass or by the bottle; no half-litre carafes. Though their house Chianti is only €8. But the extra 50%, plus the free prosecco on arrival, had an effect on me and I was fairly staggering home (400 metres walk/stagger).
In the morning, I checked out “my” private garden. Since I arrived, Franco had cut the grass, tidied up and put up a wooden rail across the end. Beyond the rail, the land drops quite steeply, (their little olive grove), and there’s a superb panorama of the valley, the Val d’Era (or just Valdera).
The trip was about an hour, fairly easy driving, and thankfully mainly free of cyclists. I was following the main road into town from the North, assuming that I’d have to use one of the pay car parks, but I noticed a small, free one with a space available. About ten minutes’ walk into town, which is nothing.
I walked towards the centre and came into Piazza del Duomo at its bottom end. Actually, the church isn’t officially a cathedral, “uno duomo”, having been demoted at some time in the past. Santa Fina’s body is still in it though. Remember the film “Tea With Mussolini” when Judi Dench and her ladies were defending Santa Fina? I saw it being filmed.
The town was quite busy with tourists. At both the famous gelaterie in Piazza della Cistera, there were queues out the door. Likewise the public toilet off the square. English/American, German, French and Dutch could be heard everywhere. I wasn’t particularly purturbed by the crowds — I’ve seen worse, especially in Florence — and I was happy to explore and see if anything had changed in the nine years since I’d been in San Gimignano. (Seventeen years since I first visited.)
By five o’clock though, a definite change had occurred, compared with earlier in the afternoon. The majority of the visitors had left on their tour buses, leaving only those staying in town or having their own transport, like me. Oh, and a sprinking of residents.
I walked up to the castle, “la Fortezza”, and found the little square by the gate ringed with small tables, each belonging to a local winery. All were offering their wines, mainly white Vernaccia and red Chianti, but quite a range of other, modern styles; and even some vin santo. There were also some heavenly cheeses, and a table with cured meats and salami.
I don’t know how many samples I had, but then I’m very much an amateur wine drinker. Others were taking it much more seriously. The flags and drums of Santa Fina marched up for a demonstration to distract us for a while, but by around seven-thirty or seven-forty-five, I decided I’d better stop drinking alcohol if I was to drive home. I could have stayed for dinner, but I had some food I need to use up, and anyway, it doesn’t feel like holidays if you can’t have wine with it. I got home at nine and knocked up a quick grill.
Friday 7th June
I went down into the garden and took my airport copy of Scientific American and read about dark matter and hypernovae. (The photons in a very massive star can get so energetic that they spontaneously convert into electron-positron pairs. The energy is then locked up and can’t take its role in resisting the pressure of the collapsing core, which implodes. Big time. Foom.)
Franco appeared with ANOTHER bottle of the Chianti, and also showed me the little room he’s making off the garden, nice for evenings. “Molto lavoro”, I told him, “much work”. “Piano, piano”, he replied. “Softly, softly”, it means, but the implication is “take it gently”. WIse advice for life too.
After lunch I took a stroll around town and found that the little park “Il Boschetto” (“The Copse”) was accessible, but not officially open until the next evening, with a poster promising live music from “Ringo Fox”, apparently a group, I guessed from the poster, and not a combination of Ringo Starr and Samantha Fox.
Back into town and I tried the bank’s cash machine. When I’d tried before it wouldn’t give me money and said “link failure”. Same again. I carried on around town and had a beer at Anna’s Bar. Trying to blend in, you see. Become a local.
I went back to the garden and sat until it became quite cool. I had some food in the fridge to make dinner, but I realised I’d have to go shopping the next day in order to have any lunch. And tomorrow evening, of course, Ringo Fox.
Saturday 8th June
But I thought I’d go to the Co-op in Ponsacco I’d been in on the first day, but maybe see the town as well. Ponsacco being the nearest biggish town. But having navigated to a car park near the centre (and the Co-op) I had a walk around, and, honestly, there’s not much to be said for Ponsacco. Plenty of shops of all kinds, and cafes and so on, but rather dull otherwise.
I stocked up in the Co-op, including some pasta for lunch. I came home and ate it, noticing how the weather was changing to cloudy. I stayed home until dinner. I walked down to the pizzeria, hoping I wasn’t ridiculously early, but there was a table of eight English in full flow, plus pairs of other nationalities. Pizza and a carafe of wine was 12 euros, in contrast with the resaurant up the road. They also do pasta dishes, with no fixed menu. I was interested. Come back soon.
As I walked home, I met Franco. Actually, as I told him, I wasn’t going home, I was going to the opening of Il Boschetto. “Via, via”, he said, uging me on. By that time it was after nine thirty. I saw the members of Ringo Fox looking ready to go. It’s a kind of universal muso thing: get some water, check the mics. At ten sharp, they went on. It was awful. Bad Italian pop I could have lived with. But this was the most cheesily synthetic cheese-flavoured cheese: the kind of stuff that the first Casio keyboards had stored for demo tunes, except with synthetic accordion more prominent.
The music was really bad, but I’d bought a beer by then, and you know, the community atmosphere was pleasant. A couple of couples got up to dance, and later split into line dancing: all in sync — they clearly knew what they were doing. I counted 7 line-dance participants at most.
The funny thing was that almost all the locals were in the 20s and 30s age groups, not oldies as I had expected. There were even some younger folks on the periphery: shake some action, I don’t think so. I stuck 50 minutes of it and walked the 5 minutes home.
Sunday 9th June
I got up quite late to find the sky grey and the streets wet. The forecast had said “showers”, but it rained fairly constantly throughout the day. I didn’t go out at all, although I was feeling a little stir-crazy by evening time.
Monday 10th June
It was showery in the morning again, with even a loud crack of thunder, but I was hopeful that the sky was showing signs of improvement. By early afternoon, sure enough, it was intermittently sunny and rain looked unlikely. I went out for a walk. In contrast to my previous hike up the hill to Rivalto, this time I went down the hill to the little church of Madonna del Carmine, which can be seen from the garden.
(I tried the ATM again on the way past. Still no money.)
The church has a seventeenth-century style of facade, but looks as though it was restored somewhat later. The body of the building is of indeterminate age, although there are big round windows punched through which look contemporary with the front. There was a long explanatory sign, but too wordy for me to bother translating the whole thing.
I walked around the church and spotted that there was a break in the hedge, and across a patch of rough ground I came to a paved road. Happy enough that I couldn’t get lost with Chianni sitting up on the hill behind me, I carried on and eventually recognised that it was the road to the municipal swimming pool. I hadn’t seen it — no interest in swimming — but I could see folded parasols over the hedge. There was grass- or brush-cutting going on, leading me to suspect that it was still being tarted up for the season.
I went on past and came out lower down on the same road by which I’d reached the church originally. I wasn’t inclined to go any further into the countryside, and turned back. I could always have another look at the church, or find a patch of shade to sit down in. A car passed, slowed and stopped: it was Franco. We waved, said “ciao” and he drove on.
Then a couple of minutes later, as I was going up the neatly-cut lawn that slopes up to the church, Franco’s car came back. He had decided that he just had to tell me that he had had his first communion in that church at the end of the war. He said that it had seemed to him that they had prayed and the war was over. I didn’t fully grasp everything he said, but I got the gist of it. Of course we couldn’t look inside, because the door was locked. I’ve been calling it a church, but it’s not used for regular mass, so probably it’s technically something else, like a chapel or oratory or something. Franco said I should go and look in the main parish church up in the town as well. It was open for mass every morning at eight…
He left me and I sat in the warm sunshine for a while before walking back; a slightly different route to get to know my way around more. I got home and sat in the garden for a while. When I came out, Franco was in conversation with a younger woman, whom he introduced as a Russian. Olga, she confirmed. From Saint Petersburg. I explained my origins too, and Franco asked her if she spoke English. No, four languages, but not English. Her Italian was pretty good. I think she was after Roberta to talk about the business of holiday house renting or something.
Before I went up to make dinner, Franco insisted on showing me the progress of his works on the garden belonging to the rental apartment, “my” garden. He’d been cleaning and fitting out a little cellar room, accessible from the garden, and had just put a table and chairs in. “Come down in the evening, have something to drink,” he suggested. Maybe, although why not just sit in the garden? Actually, it would make a great, snug place to work or read in BAD weather, with great views over the valley. Of course, we weren’t going to have bad weather.
Tuesday 11th June
I’d thought of hoing to Lucca, about an hour’s drive, but hadn’t made my mind up whether to go in the morning or wait until after lunch. When I got up, it was very grey and dull, even though the forecast had been for sun. I guessed that the cloud would burn off during the morning and leave the rest of the day brighter, making it seem like a better decision to wait until afternoon to go out.
One thing that was slightly on my mind was that I knew I’d need to put petrol in the car before going far. I’d seen the local filling station, and it had one of the automatic cash and card machines for paying. I’d had varying luck with those in the past. I particularly remembered one in a small village in Umbria, where I couldn’t work it out at all, even when a couple of local teenage boys tried to help. You’d think that if anyone could work a petrol pump it would be teenagers.
I knew I had enough to get to, say, Ponsacco this time, where I could probably find a station with an attendant, but that felt like a cop-out. I’d have at least to have a go in Chianni.
Actually, come to think about it, once you install one of those machines, your petrol station practically runs itself, with very little work. There was no-one there at all when I arrived. The machine was really very simple, and even had an option to change language to English, but the credit card bit wasn’t working. I only had a twenty, so that would have to do. It worked. I had easily enough petrol to get to Lucca and back.
I followed my sat-nav’s instructions to get to Lucca, via Ponsacco and Pontedera, but as I got closer I assumed I’d gone wrong somewhere and the device was having to re-route me via minor roads instead of the main one linking Lucca to Pontedera. It was only on the way home, following the same road, that I could see all the roadsigns pointing me back to Pontedera, proving that it really was the main road.
I’d spent time in the morning looking for free parking in Lucca. There’s lots of parking space near the old city, even some inside the walls, but it’s all a euro per hour. Even if I was only there for up to four hours, well, for that I could buy a carafe of wine to go with my pizza back in Chianni. I located a free car park at the bottom right-hand corner, at the fruit and vegetable market. There was another one diagonally across the city, but it wasn’t near my point of arrival.
On arrival, it took me about fifteen minutes to actually find the car park, and it was full. I was surprised, given that the fruit and veg market wouldn’t be operating in the afternoon, even if it was open every day. I drove around a bit and still couldn’t find a space, getting further and further away. In the end I went back to the original car park and found an unofficial space wedged next to some apartments. Fits a Panda.
I memorised a couple of landmarks and street names so that I wouldn’t forget where the car was (happened to me in Siena once on my first venture there). Entry to the city was by Porta Elisa, in about the four o’clock position. I wandered across the city, reminding myself of the features, and taking a few phtographs, until I came to the gate on the opposite side, Porta San Donato. To be honest, that was driven partly by the urge to use the public toilet in the tourist information office at Piazzale Verdi. Ok, if it had got urgent I could have turned into a bar or cafe.
I had spent three weeks in Lucca in 2010, meaning that I had already seen everything there was to see. This trip was just to revisit and remind. I took to the walls near San Frediano and looked over into the classical gardens of Palazzo Pfanner. I walked Via Fillungo, the classy shopping street. I went into the circle of Piazza Antifeatro and tried to use the “panorama” feature on my phone.
By late afternoon, I had a decision to make. Dinner in Lucca, or drive home and have quite a late one? I decided to drive, based on the notion that I had a spare four euros to spend on a carafe of wine. I certainly wasn’t going to drink wine in Lucca and drive home. Probably, if I hadn’t been on my own I would have decided differently, sacrificing wine for my partner’s new experience of dinner in Lucca.
I walked back to the car, passing the Irish Pub I’d enjoyed on my original stay in Lucca. It was just too early for it to be open for the evening, but I didn’t mind. On my last visit, it hadn’t been as much fun at all.
I drove home, as mentioned, on a road that had pretensions above its station. I got in, washed my face and went straight out to the village pizzeria. In the room with the view over the valley was a big group of children, I suppose eight years old (I’m not very good with children’s ages, but definitely primary school — the four adults supervising looked like schoolteachers). They were very, very noisy, but they had definitely finished their pizzas, so I assumed it would not be long until they left.
In fact, I had almost finished my pizza (and wine) by the time everything was ended, and the children charged out in all directions to create chaos outside. At that point, a group of women who seemed to be the mothers appeared from another room, presumably where they had enjoyed a quiet dinner. And you know what? They were every bit as noisy as the children, and were still going strong as I left.
Wednesday 12th June
Following the rule of no driving far on successive days, I stayed at home. In the morning, I went to the garden and finished my Scientific American. Franco appeared, and the garden room acquired a bottle of Chianti, a smaller one of vin santo, and a packet of cantuccini (for dunking in the vin santo). I decided I’d have to use it some night to show appreciation.
In the afternoon, I was initially thinking of just walking down the short distance into the village, and maybe having a beer, but then I thought of the sanctuary of the Madonna at Rivalto. I had seen the signs to it when I walked up to Rivalto on a previous day, but hadn’t bothered to look for it. But after my trip downhill to the other one, Sanctuario della Carmine, I’d looked it up on the internet, and found photos of the Rivalto one too, and it looked like a quaint, pretty building in a woodland clearing.
It was quite warm, but I knew Rivalto was an easy walk, about half an hour, although all up hill. It turned out that the church was almost as far again up the hill, making my outing more strenuous than I had intended. Still, it was worth it to see the place.
I was quite dripping when I got home though, so had a shower before dinner. How civilized.
Thursday 13th June
I thought I’d go and look at something local. Casciano Terme, for example. It’s only about ten kilometres from Chianni, and I’d gone past several times, but never looked in. I’d seen a handy car park in passing too: I parked the car, even though there was, allegedly, a one hour limit. The sign showed one of those clock things which you get in Italian cars to show your arrival time. Well, I didn’t have one, but neither did the car beside me, and anyway, with the car park mostly empty, I didn’t think enforcement was likely.
I struck off on foot into town. It was around four o’clock, and very quiet. They really do take the siesta idea seriously in this part of Italy. From one until five, shops are closed, and no citizens are abroad. I found a park bench in the shade and played with my phone’s GPS for a while; took a photo or two. Casciano’s main piazza is quite handsome.
When I got bored, I took a circuit of the adjacent ‘Terme’ part, because I saw from a map on a signpost that there was a bit of greenery attached. I actually walked right round it, a bit shy of going in because there wasn’t a park gate: you had to go via a building. But then I was the whole way round, and I decided “What the hell” and went in to the main entrance. Walking as if I knew where I was going, I passed through an entire hospital-like complex, quickly spotting the signs for the outdoor swimming pool. Thermal springs are very much quack medicalised in Italy. The people I passed in Reception were probably queueing up for”cures:.
I was also shy of lingering near the pool, being fully-dressed and carrying a camera, I feared being taken for a dirty old man. (I know that, technically, that’s correct). But I carried on into the park part and had a pleasant interlude under the trees near a fountain. Then some teens came in and bathed and sported in the fountain (it was quite hot, mid twenties) until an employee came out and chastised them, and they resorted, dripping, to lying on the lawn.
I went back to the car, finding the car park mostly full, but no consequences of my violation, and set off for my next target. The community of Lari has two parts, one the modern settlement along the main road, which I’d already passed through a couple of times, and one up on the hill. The road signs showed the latter as Lari with a pictogram of a castle, and I’d checked on the internet and found that it was a stonking big one.
I followed the signs, along a single-track road, and came to the extraordinary town itself. The castle sits on the peak, being the most recent remaining structure from a series of fortifications that go back to primordial times. The current one is mostly of Medici design and construction. The town that grew up around the castle has some striking pallazzi, too grand for such a small place, and winding medieval streets.
Up until the 1990s, the castle itself had been colonised by locals who had illegally turned corridors, rooms and dungeons into houses for themselves. Then the “improving” faction took over, transforming it eventually into a tourist attraction, although I can’t believe that the throughput of tourists is particularly large. The town does seem to be thriving though, considering how cut-off it is.
When I departed, I took a wider road out, which wasn’t directly back home. In fact, when I checked, Ponsacco was quite close, which made it reasonable to call in to the Co-op for some additional supplies.
Friday 14th June
The “Ferie delle Messi” is an annual celebration in medieval stylie in San Gimignano, the central event being a vigorous kind of joust or tourney, where pairs of horsemen (or women) race in opposite directions in a tight, rectangular course. On the final straight they are galloping towards one another, and the winner is the one who knocks a steel helm over with a baton so that it ends up pointing in his direction. It’s called the Giostra del Bastoni, the Game of Batons. With the field being smaller than a tennis court, and the spectators pushing in close, it’s a struggle for the horses to get round the corners, but each heat is over in just a few seconds.
The actual festival runs over three days, with the joust and the presentation of the Golden Sword being on the third day, the Sunday. The rest of the time is taken up with medieval music, dance, flag-juggling, and the consumption of bread, wine and pig bought from medieval stalls.
Things were to kick off at six, (that’s Italian six, i.e. seven) and after a relaxing day doing nothing much, I hit the road at around five. It’s just about an hour’s drive from Chianni. Small roads, not busy. I probably had enough petrol for the return drive, but I’m a worrier, so I found the station I remembered and bought twenty euros woth as insurance, before finding the free car park I’d used a couple of days before. About ten minutes’ walk into the town centre: not bad.
After sitting in the Piazza del Duomo for a while to take in the atmosphere, I walked up to the fortress on the hill, where the festivities were to start. It was after six, and nothing much was happening, but I was able to sit in the shade with a cup of wine and a porchetta roll, quite happy. As I was buying them, I was called on to help two English, non-Italian-speaking students, one of whom was vegetarian. The event isn’t set up to deal with vegetarians at all, so the poor chap could only have bread, which at least they gave him for nothing.
The first part of the actual celebrations was the arrival of the town’s flag troupe, accompanied by a German medieval band of trumpets and drums. San Gimignano is twinned with Meersburg, and they exchange medieval re-enactors. The capitano of the flag-wavers had developed a juggling routine with four of the large flags. He was very good. Then there was some medieval dancing by the comely ladies of San Gimignano, very pleasant to watch. One of the tunes they danced to was the morris-dance one by Mike Oldfield of Tubular Bells fame, which I think is not strictly medieval.
I had another wine and pig (my only dinner that evening) and watched the next event, some sword fighting by re-enactors. Then the band played again. With horns and drums all you can play is fanfares and marching music, and it did begin to sound all the same after a while.
When they had all done their thing it must have been after nine o’clock, and they marched off down into town. The spectators and I followed, and for a moment it was magical to be walking down the twisting streets following ladies in medieval dresses.
There was to be more goings-on in the piazza from ten. By about ten-thirty, I realised it was going to be rather similar to the earlier stuff in the castle, so I bid San Gimignano farewell. I would have liked to see the ladies dance once more though.
On the drive back, there was one driver ahead of me for quite a while, slowing me down just slightly. At the roadworks, he stopped on the red light; I didn’t and just drove around him and on. It was moderately safe, since I could see almost to the far end of the contraflow, and it seemed like the Italian thing to do.
Saturday 15th June
I went down to the garden in the morning, and, excitingly, saw a snake. I heard the rustling sound and looked round, but the snake, clearly embarrassed by the attention, first froze and then retraced his path into a drain beneath the patio. I think he was a rat snake, about a metre long.
According to a tourist leaflet, Chianni’s market day is Saturday. And so it was, there was one (admittedly fairly large) fruit and veg stall. I didn’t buy anything, but went over to the bank and again, it refused to give me any money. I mentioned this when I met Franco on the way back to the house, and he wanted to lend me some money to tide me over. No, thank you, I replied. I have a twenty, and I can go over to one of the neighbouring villages later and use a machine there. He was insistent, but I still politely refused. He did say he’d left me up some lettuce and rocket by the door, so I thanked him for that.
About fifteen minutes later, as I was thinking about having some lunch. Franco came to the door with a fifty-euro note and we had practically an argument in broken Italian as he insisted I take it. I eventually gave in. I was a bit cross, but what can you do?
In the later afternoon, I drove over to Terriciola, about ten kilometres, having first checked with Google Street View to make sure they really did have a bank and ATM. Two, in fact. The first one I tried gave me money. Then I walked around the village and found that they were having a little craft fair on an ecological theme, including a dinner later that night with “food from kilometre zero” only. Local produce, that is.
I didn’t stay for dinner. Later, that evening, I walked up to the restaurant I hadn’t yet tried. All the way up the road, blue and white balloons had been tied to lamposts, and I could hear music from the garden of a big house. When I came parallel with it I saw that there were more balloons on the gate and also a big baby-blue rosette with the familiar cartoon image of the stork delivering. Obviously they were having a party for a new baby boy.
At the Locando del Gallo, I could see through the window that every table was set, inclding bottles of wine. When I asked if the restaurant was open, the answer was yes, but we’re totally full, sorry. I guess the guests at the party just across the road were coming for dinner too.
I walked back into town, deciding on the way that I’d go to the Vecchie Cantine rather than the much cheaper Regina Margherita pizzeria. I had a nice dinner, splashed out on a bottle of the Santa Cristina, which turned out to be a 13.5% alc wine, and walked unsteadily up to La Boschetta for the Saturday evening hoedown. It was awful again, with Teorema Band, Rocky and Lisa that is, doing the synthetic Italian dancing music. I had a couple of beers to pass the time and went home.
Sunday 16th June
I woke with a hangover, unsurprisingly, and had to attack it with two paracetamol and two ibuprofen. (I don’t actually know if the two drugs’ action is cumulative. I should look that up.) I was planning a return trip to San Gimignano to see the end of the Ferie, getting there early afternoon.
For some reason, I didn’t really feel like having lunch, and set off without. San Gimignano was pretty busy with tourists, but not opressively so. The majority were probably Italian, and probably from not too far away, but of course you heard the usual English, German, French and Dutch being spoken.
There were a good many costumed participants around as well. Somehow, it amuses me when someone in medieval dress does something anachronistic, like smoking, or using a mobile, or riding a scooter. There were stalls in Piazza della Cisterna, and up the side of the Cathedral (technically, it isn’t) in Piazza delle Erbe, and the usual wine, bread and pig stall under the arches in Piazza del Duomo. I was feeling peckish by that time, but I thought I’d go up to the stall in the Fortezza.
Unfortunately, it wasn’t in operation on the Sunday. But a shady grove beside the castle was where they’d parked the horses, and I got to see the fine-looking beasts for the first time. I don’t know much about horses, but I think they have two types, fancy big war horses with feathery feet for show, and smaller, wiry ones for the competition.
I walked back in to town and bought a nice big cheese salad sandwich with salty foccacia bread from a shop off the main piazza. Looking for a shady place to sit down and eat it, I went into the big arched vault which faces the church. It was being used as an ad-hoc rest stop and changing room for the re-enactors, and I was almost the only one not in costume. (The soundman was in civvies too.) I was surrounded by the dancers, which was nice.
Out in the piazza, under the full heat of the sun, the combat display was taking place. I didn’t envy the troops, in heavy helmets and chain mail, walloping one another with their swords and big shields — it was a very physical activity. At the end a couple came in, panting, to where I was sitting, and I saw that they were men of about my own age, although obviously a lot fitter.
The next event was the girls dancing, and I went up the church steps (packed with people) to watch. I like it because of the romantic, faux-medieval atmosphere, I’m not just ogling girls. Although I like that too. According to the timetable, there was a break then, before the big parade departed from one of the city gates to do a tour trough the town and up to the castle. It was scheduled for five, but these things never run to time, especially in Italy. I went to near the start line and loitered anyway.
To my surprise, it was only ten minutes after five when the parade began. The flag-juggling team, the German band, the horses, lords, ladies and clergy, all filing past. But the most impressive were the two white oxen pulling the flower-decorated cart for the May Queen, Lady Flora, and her assistants. Now I’m moderately tall, and the animals humped shoulder line was higher than my head. You may think that that’s a lot of bull, but I assure you it’s true. The cattle were huge but placid. Some of the horses were very frightened though, (presumably not used to crowds of people) and had to be constantly controlled by their riders.
The cortege went from one end of town, through Piazza Duomo, to the other end, then back to the piazza and up to the fortress and the tiltyard. I didn’t follow the whole way, just waiting in the piazza and giving them time to get up and get ready for the event. That turned out to be a mistake, because all the best places were taken when I did arrive to see the joust, and between the still-fierce heat of the sun and trees in the way, I didn’t get a good view of the action. I didn’t really mind, having seen it in previous years, (and not caring who won anyway).
In fact, I thought I’d leave the field early and find a pizzeria to have dinner before hitting the road for home. This I did, although the establishment descibed itself as a pizzeria-enoteca, or in translation, the wine was pretentious but the food wasn’t. It did mean that I missed the final ceremony of presenting the Golden Sword to the winner, and as I discovered when I went back to the main piazza before leaving for home, I missed some kind of extraordinary snowball fight with soft cloth balls. The piazza was full of them.
The golden light of the setting sun was painting the towers again as I walked back to the car. The drive home was uneventful. I stopped obediently at the roadworks and five cars came through in the opposite direction.
Monday 17th June
A day with no plans, other than to buy some groceries. I made a list. It was pretty hot by the time I got up, but I took the computer down to Franco’s garden room, which, being semi-subterranean, was pleasantly cool. I loaded up the previous day’s photos and so on.
Pretty late in the afternoon, but not noticeably cooler, I filled up the water in the car’s windscreen wash — you tend to use it up, what with dusty roads and flat insects. The inside of the car was pretty hot, because although the guests’ parking space has some shade, the sun gets through for part of the day. When I buy a house in Italy, I thought, I’ll be sure to have a covered space for the car.
Air conditioning is an essential in a car in the European Summer, if not so much for the British and Irish one, but I’m reluctant to use it more than is necessary. I’d rather drive with the windows down. I remember that the Mythbusters programme did an investigation of the fuel economy implications of both approaches, but I forget if there was a definite conclusion. In the little Fiat Panda I had rented this time around, when you put the aircon on you could feel it sucking power, so much so that the car could barely climb steep hills, even in first gear.
I left the car with the windows down for half an hour so that it could reach ambient temperature and set off for the supermarket at Cappanoli. Well, I say I set off for it, but when I turned on the TomTom sat nav, it claimed that it was impossible to get there. It took me a few minutes’ thought to work out that I had stored the location while sitting in the car park, and the device was too stupid to work out how to make the final five metres from the road into the car park, since its map showed no access point.
I pulled over and selected a modified destination — on the road — which the machine was happy to direct me towards. I could have got there unaided, of course, but it’s good to have backup. This Summer, the sat nav was showing its age though, with gaps in its knowledge about a lot of the roundabouts and new roads around Pontedera and Ponsacco. To say nothing of the fact that its battery charging circuit had burned out long ago, meaning that it would only work when plugged in, and it had to do a cold reboot every time you started the car. A new one for next year, I thought.
I came home with a surprisingly heavy bag of shopping, plus a smaller one that clinked, and put all the stuff away and made dinner. For the first time, I went to bed with all of the windows open, including the bedroom. All were screened, so mosquitoes were not an issue.
Tuesday 18th June
With the bedroom window wide open, the dawn chorus woke me around five, and then the local inhabitants set to before seven, with noisy vehicles and bikes driving past, and someone cutting undergrowth with a brushcutter. You can’t blame people getting their work done early when it’s cool. It’s my schedule that doesn’t fit the climate, not theirs.
When I did get up, I could see that the sun was blasting the earth, and even with the windows open, there was no through breeze to keep the house cool. I had thought of going to Siena, which would be the longest drive of this holiday, but was having doubts. Siena is beautiful, but I’d been several times, and I had no clear idea if driving two hours each way would be worth it.
Sloth won. I stayed indoors in the cool until after lunch, and then into the garden to do some reading. The garden room was cooler than the garden itself.
Wednesday 19th June
The weather had become hotter still, sapping my get-up-and-go. Nevertheless, in the later afternoon I decided to get up and go somewhere. Not too far. I had seen photos of Montecatini, near Volterra, and it looked interesting. (This is Montecatini val de Cecina. There is another town in Tuscany, Montecatini Terme, popular for budget holidays because of its many hotels.)
The road there followed the route towards Volterra until there was a turning that took me up the opposite side of the valley. It was steep and narrow, and picturesque, taking me up over five hundred metres to the village. Naturally, I’d made an on-line reconnaissance to check on parking and verified the existence of a big car park at the top of the town. I checked it out on arrival, but it was very exposed to the sun. I turned around and found a space for the car in a little place off the main street.
Montecatini’s claim to fame is its long history of mining, and its major tourist attraction is the mining museum. I’m not particularly fond of plodding round museums while on holiday — I’d rather be out absorbing the atmosphere of a place — and a mining museum sounds particularly dull. Sorry, Montecatini.
But I was happy enough to explore the village itself, which has much evidence of its medieval past. I think the mining became uneconomic hundreds of years ago, although it clung on, and after a period of boom, there was nothing much happening in the town and the major buildings were never updated or replaced.
From a vantage point on the walls, I could see both the moonscape of grassed-over spoil heaps on the valley bottom, and Volterra lurking on its hilltop on the oposite side. Since I’d seen everything there was to see in Montecatini by about six (apart from the mining museum), I thought I might as well carry on to Volterra for a last visit. My fuel warning light was on, but I was sure I’d find a place to fill up in or around Volterra, and so I did. Or at least I got the man to put a frugal €20-worth in, since his prices were so high.
I parked by the Roman theatre in Volterra, and for the first time climbed the long flight of steps directly up to the city (I’d gone down them once before, which is a lot easier). I caught up on a mature couple of tourists in walking sandals at the top who moved off in guilty fashion when I arrived. I guessed that they were embarrassed to have had to take a breather, wheezing, after the climb. I took a breather, wheezing.
I only spent a couple of hours, and didn’t do much. But it’s a pleasantly atmospheric Tuscan hill town. I noticed some largish hotels on the outskirts, which made me think that it’s common to base a holiday in Volterra. I’d go for San Gimignano myself. (In fact, I have, twice.)
It was under an hour to drive back home, just in time for dinner. After dinner, I filled the watering can to water the many pots of flowers on the balcony, (Roberta had seen me do it one afternoon, and had rather grumpily asked me to leave it until after sundown), and found that they’d all be done. Clearly, someone had been in during the day.
Thursday 20th June
I didn’t go out in the morning, instead doing some internet reseach for a visit to Florence. I was planning to go for the San Giovanni celebrations on the 24th (not the 23rd, as I’d misremembered until then). Giovanni is their patron saint, and there are parades and so on, and the “Calcio Storico” or medieval football in Piazza Santa Croce. In the early days when I’d visited Florence, it had been possible to sneak a peek round the fences to see what was happening, but nowadays it’s very commercial and the screens are very efficient. I wouldn’t be interested in seeing a full match, and the tickets were sold out anyway.
My first thought had been to drive to the railway station in Pontedera, cutting the journey into road and rail halves of under an hour each. I spent some time with the online maps looking for free parking, because I knew it would be difficult to find a place in a busy industrial town. I didn’t see anything promising.
Then I thought of looking at a smaller town on the railway line, and settled on San Romano. The train timetable was the same, since there is no express from Pontedera to Firenze anyway: just stop-every-station ones. It looked like a good option on the screen, but I wondered about making a reconnaissance in person. And then I decided, well, why not an evening trip to Florence this very day?
I left around four, expecting to be in Florence by six, although I had no clear plan about what I’d do when I got there. Have a pizza, maybe.
Somehow, I got it into my head that I was going to San Romeo (perhaps that’s how it appears some map I’d seen) but it’s definitely San Romano. In fact, San Romano – Montopoli – Santa Croce because the station is supposed to serve the three towns. There’s quite a lot of Pontedera’s industrial overspill on the way into the town, but on arrival it seemed like a quaint little place. I found a parking space quite easily, on a steep street facing the station.
The station was small and shabby, but there was a new automatic ticket machine which I used to buy a return to Firenze, all stations, for €5.10 each way, second class. If I’d looked more carefully at my tickets I’d have seen the alternate version of the town name, but I just put them in my wallet (after “convalidating” the outward one in the platform device).
The train was on time, and the carriage, although old and worn, had fully operational air conditioning. It was still very warm outside by the time we reached Florence Santa Maria Novella station, or “Firenze SMN” in official railway terms. It’s a big station, not unpleasant, with trains to and from all points in Europe. I couldn’t be bothered perusing the departures list to find my return train, so I departed the station and left it to luck. I knew there would be one.
Immediately outside the station (itself a creation of the Fascist period of architecture) isn’t the prettiest part of Florence, but if you walk down the side of the large church, SMN itself, you quickly come out in the piazza facing its façade.
I moved slowly toward the river Arno, stopping to say hello to “Il Porcellino”, the Piglet, the local’s ironic name for the full-scale bronze of a magnificent wild boar at the Mercato Nuevo. (It’s an old tradition, or a charter, or something.) I went half-way across the Ponte Vecchio to take some photos. I’d have gone across to tour the Oltrarno if I’d have time. I had a holiday apartment near Santo Spirito one year.
Turning downstream, I came to the point where the Uffizi meets the river, the place where Helena Bonham-Carter’s postcards got chucked in the river, and walked through the valley between the building’s two wings to the centre point of Florence, the Pizza della Signoria. At the corner of the Loggia dei Lanzi, a busker was playing classical guitar, adding a sense of occasion.
I went and sat in the Loggia for a while. There are officials who supervise the tourists, and ensure that no eating, drinking or unseemly behaviour goes on under the arches. You have to go out into the piazza for that. I could still hear the guitarist, as he lanched, surprisingly, into “Hotel California”. You can check out any time you like, but you can never leave.
I did leave. It had occurred to me that if I was going to come back on San Giovanni’s day, access to Santa Croce would be cut off, and I’d miss the opportunity to say hello to Galileo and his clever daughter Suor Maria Celeste, plus Marconi, Fermi and other Italian greats. I walked down familiar streets to Santa Croce, to discover that it’s only open to tourists until five-thirty, and it was around seven by then.
To compensate for my disappointment, I was able to clamber in to the arena which filled the whole of the piazza in front of the church. On San Giovanni the entire area would be closed to those with no ticket, but I was able to have a look at all of it. There was even a team doing some training on the sanded surface. (Not the actual competitors. They are unmistakable: hard men who play a brutal sport.)
I finally walked up to the Duomo and Baptistery, and made a circuit, deciding that it would be a good time to have that pizza. I remembered that Piazza della Reppublica was known for its restaurants, but when I got there and took at look kat them, I realised I probably couldn’t afford to eat there. I took to the back streets and found a perfectly acceptable place with modest prices.
At about nine, I walked back to the station, and had to work out how I was getting home. I couldn’t spot a likely-lookng train on the departures board, and went to an automatic ticket machine. They have all the schedules, so all I had to do was start the ticket-buying process and it would tell me all the options. That was when I discovered that the name I remembered, San Romeo, does not exist anywhere on Italian railways. After a moment of panic, I checked my ticket and discovered the name change. Autocomplete for “San Ro…” still didn’t give anything, but then I found that some need to be entered as “S. R…” (and some not).
I asked the machine for a ticket to S. Romano then, and it showed me two trains, one departing well after midnight, and another still later. The latter involved a long wait at a connecting station, and an arrival time after seven in the morning. This did not seem good. But then the intermediate station didn’t seem to make sense, and I went back a few steps to discover that “S. Romano” and “S. Romano – Montopoli” are two completely different stations. When I selected the correct one, I found that my next train was leaving at 21:57.
The train left on time, with a scheduled arrival in San Romano – Montopoli of 22:45, but there was an unexplained delay in Empoli and it was very nearly eleven when I arrived and walked the short distance to the car. My TomTom predicted a drive time of 45 minutes, which would have been accurate if the Carabinieri hadn’t stopped me at a random (?) checkpoint about five kilometres outside Chianni. I could see the officer regretting his decision in flagging me down when he realised he’d have to transcribe my details off a foreign driving licence.
I got home just before midnight and went straight to bed.
Friday 21st June
I got up at a leisurely hour and took the computer out to the garden house to back up the previous day’s photos and the like. It wasn’t quite as hot as I expected, and at one point the wind blew some unexpected blasts of cold air so strong that they lifted the garden parasol up out of its socket, making it into a parachute. Fortunately, Franco had cleverly tied it to immovable objects with three long strings and it levitated, bobbing in the air, before cash landing on the table.
After fifteen minutes or so the strong wind abated, but it still was relatively cool. There was even some cloud cover. Frankly, it was a pleasant change. At about 12:35 I felt the ground shift sideways — pretty sure it was a minor earthquake, or “terremoto”. I checked the time so that I could look it up afterwads to check if I was right.
After lunch, the sky was mainly blue again, with just a few puffs of cloud, but there was still a cool breeze. I reckoned that a walk was in order. I went up towards “Il Boschetto” park, and onwards into what I’d been thinking of as “upper” Chianni. I’d only driven through previously, and had the impression that it was the outcome of modern growth of the village.
Though as I walked through the area I realised that there were old, original houses of the seventeenth century or earlier, some in poor repair. These seemed to be mostly along the main street, Via Castellinese, the continuation of Via Roma which is the core of the “lower” town. (In fact, my house was where the street changes its name.) In past times, the village must have straggled up the hill for quite a way, and then gradually some of the spaces have been filled in.
There were even some rather un-Italian modern developments, little cul-de-sacs of suburban houses and apartments. There were a couple of village grocery shops, including one which advertised, in Italian and English, that it opened on Sunday mornings. The tourist office should publish that, for visitors who arrive late on a Saturday, as is common.
Walking on up the hill (it was all up hill) I passed the “Welcome to Chianni” sign, marking my departure from the town. There were spectacular views over the valley, although not any better than I could have got from my own balcony. A little further on and there was a picnic spot, and I decided to make that my turning point.
I strolled down into the village, a slightly different route to the one I’d taken outward, and arrived directly home.
Saturday 22nd June
It was intermittently cloudy and cool, which I have to admit was a relief, even for someone who craves the warmth of the sun. I was conscious of only having a few days left in Italy, which made me feel a little morose.
I decided to drive the short distance to Casciana to visit the park next to the thermal facility. On the way, I stopped to investigate a feature not far from home which I’d glimpsed while driving past several times before. It was a bare valley of pale, almost white rock. I couldn’t decide if it was natural, or the remains of a quarry.
There was a flat verge, fit for one car, and next to it a little shrine to the memory of three young men killed in a landslide in 1955 as they worked to load a truck in the quarry. That clarified the nature of the site then. One of the men had been Mario Tarrini, 25 at the time, or four years older than my landlord, Franco Tarrini. I wouldn’t ask if they were related.
I climbed down into the valley, only noticing then that the road above crossed a large bridge. When passing on the road, the only sign is a low parapet on each side, and it’s not obvious that you are crossing a bridge. The way down was well-wooded, but the bottom was a stark scar where a river had cut through rock. There was little if any water running on the upstream side, just a large pool with fish and tadpoles. There seemed to have been an artifical barrier across, made of stones in a wire cage, perhaps to make a swimming hole. But some time in the recent past the torrent had blasted a hole through it, metres wide. Further down, an entire tree had wedged between the rock walls and now formed a bridge for athletic squirrels.
Downstream of the proper bridge, the river, although hardly a torrent, was flowing quite nicely. Since the water wasn’t coming from the upstream half, I can only assume that there was a spring somewhere which I couldn’t see. There was a spooky atmosphere in the deep valley. A few ribbons were tied to tree branches, and discarded bottles suggested drinking parties in the woods.
I happened to notice some rubbish, which on investigation turned out to be little plastic jewellery boxes, the ones you get with cheap items. A shop-robber’s discards, was my first thought. One box even bore the gold lettering of “Niccola, Chianni”. Then I saw something glinting, and pulled out a cheap gold broach. Applying my detective skills, I ascertained that the pin was bendy from use, proving that the item was not new. Not stolen from a shop then, but no other conclusions were warranted.
When I got to Casciana, there weren’t many people in the park half, but the pool was quite busy, even though the weather was much cooler than normal. The pool and park belong to the organisation which runs the “hospital” which peddles acqua cures from the thermal springs. Presumably they do such good business that making the swimming pool open to the public is not a significant cost to them.
I needed a final few essential food items, such as wine, and thought I’d go on from Casciana to Lari, where I’d passed a large, smart Conad supermarket. I like to mix my supermarkets, even when at home because I’d get bored shopping in the same place every time. And in a foreign country, if you’re nervous about your language skills, a supermarket is a stress-free way to shop, since you can just pick up everything you need.
I brought my stash back home and got ready to go out. It would be my third and final visit to the village pizzeria. It was quieter this time, and I overheard the male half of a young English couple helping an English family to order their food (they speak no English in the pizzeria). I heard him mention that they had been living in the mountains near Verona for three years, hence the good Italian.
The pizzeria seemed to be a family business, and they may well be from Naples, as they claim their pizzas to be authentically Neopolitan. The lady of the house is very dark-skinned. Short and wide, with black hair piled high and artifical eybrows. She reminded me a little of Divine.
After my porcini topping pizza, at a mere €6.50 and €4 for wine, I walked up to the other end of the village to witness this week’s village hop. I’d passed the poster the other day and had seen that the artistes for the night were “Honda Durto”, an Italian pun on “onda d’urto”, or “shock wave”. Any hopes raised by the prospect of a shock wave were dashed when they started up. It was a guy with a programmed synth and a girl with a microphone. Exactly like the two previous weeks.
Still, it is popular with the locals. It seemed to be an older cross-section this time, and seemed to be couples out for dancing. I counted eleven pairs on the floor during one of the more popular numbers. (Which all sounded much the same to me.) On my previous nights I’d passed the time by having a couple of beers, but this time the dreadful music drove me away after one.
Sunday 23rd June
In the morning, Franco came up with another bottle of wine, and a bag of cherries from the garden. It was still overcast and not particularly warm.
In the afternoon, I went out on a walk. I’d seen the “strada bianca” which ran down the right side of the valley. If you’ve not been to Italy, the “white roads” are ubiquitous: unpaved, but founded on the marble chips that give them their white colour. I’ve stayed more than once in premises which have a kilometre or more of white road as their only connection to civilization, some well-maintained, some less so.
This one was reasonable, identified on the local map as “Strada Vicinale Del Poggio”. It meandered down one side of the valley directly overlooked by my balcony at home. Over on the other side, I could see the Oratory of Santa Maria del Carmine, Franco’s first mass chapel, and I used it as a fixed point. As long as I knew where it was, I could orient myself. I thought I could probably go down the valley, acoss a flatter bit, and the back home via the church.
And so it proved to be. At one point a friendly mutt pounced on me with welcoming excitement, but I saw no humans. There were some houses, both modern retreats and old, decrepit farmhouses. There were cars parked outside some, but nothng stirred. It was coming up on four o’clock, but perhaps still too early for post-siesta activity.
By taking the correct turning towards the church each time, I eventually came out onto a public, paved road, and then the actual road I was familiar with, straight out of Chianni. I spent a while in the vicinity of the church, resting, since it was all up hill by then, and eventually walked through the village back home.
Monday 24th June
I had a specific plan for the day. It was the Feast of John the Baptist, San Giovanni, and he’s the patron saint of Florence. There are celebrations every year, including the “Calcio Storico”, or “Calcio in Costume”, costumed, historical football. (The “costume” is stripy billowing pantaloons, socks and trainers. They play bare-chested.) Teams of 27 fight it out in the Piazza Santa Croce, which is temporarily fitted out with a sand pitch, and these days, metal terracing and seats. I do mean “fight it out”. I’m not sure if there are rules — probably similar to Aussie rules football: no knifing, no shooting.
In less commercial times, a decade ago, you could peek around the stands and get a glimpse of the action, but now the whole area is out of bounds to non-ticket-holders. In fact, the best view I’ve had was on television where I watched the first few minutes. You can tackle anyone, regardless of where the ball is, so on the starting whistle the lines instantly dissolved into squirming couples, wrestling around on the ground. Whatever floats your boat.
But my own preferences lie in colourful parades, and noisy drums. Unlike San Gimignano, where the theme is medieval, Florence’s festival looks back to the city’s glory days of the Renaissance. There are feathered plumes, and codpieces, and gowns of velvet, and much slashing to show contrasting colours.
I hadn’t seen a timetable, but I thought that if I arrived in the early afternoon, I’d be bound to catch something. I did know that the fireworks display was at ten, and I’d made sure (this time) to write down the return train times, right up to midnight. The journey out was straightforward, (apart from the ticket-collector pointing out that I’d punched the return ticket instead of the outward one), and I arrived to a moderately cool Florence with some patchy cloud in the sky.
After the obligatory visit to the cloister at San Lorenzo, an oasis of peace in the city; and photographic self-portrait therein; I crossed the river to see some of the Oltrarno, which I hadn’t had time to re-visit the previous time. I’d stayed near Santo Spirito for a couple of week’s holiday once. The Oltrarno is shabbier and smellier than the other side, but it has its charms. In Piazza Santo Spirito, an art class was painting views of the church. The was not much else going on.
The other thing I like to do in Florence is to climb up to the vantage point of Piazzale Michelangelo to take in the iconic view over the city, but the Piazzale is where they launch the fireworks, and I found the way up blocked off, and mannned by police. I could probably have found a way around, perhaps going up to San Miniato instead, but I’d been walking quite a lot already, and was hungry, and decided to return to the sweeter-smelling side of the city and have a sit down and a sandwich.
I’d had my sandwich and was having a look round the lobby of the Palazzo Vecchio (the lower floor is open without a ticket, the upper part is a museum and still, the town hall) when I heard music. I went out to the front of the building and found costumed ladies dancing in courtly fashion. That was the sort of thing I’d come for.
After the ladies were done, they waited, arranged on the steps of the building, and eventually I heard a drum beat. The parade was coming. It’s a very long parade, everyone in renaissance costume, and takes about half an hour to pass on the way to the historical football. I couldn’t get a very good view in Piazza Signoria because of the crowds, so I left and headed them off at the pass on the way to Santa Croce, where just a few spectators lined the streets.
The players themselves are hard-looking bastards, much tattooed, with hair shaved or cut into patterns. That contrasts with the rest of the cortege. Even supposed bands of warriors are more in it for the dressing up. I wondered if some of them grew renaissance beards speciialy for the occasion, or whether they looked like that in everyday life.
After they had all passed, it had become overcast, and I even felt a few spots of rain. Thunderstorms had been forecast, and I thought it was worth getting a place to sit in the Loggia before rain started. Good move. The rain, when it came, wasn’t exceptionally heavy, but steady enough. People crowded under the shelter until there was standing room only. People sitting around the steps allowed others to squeeze in, in unfamiliar familiarity.
Peddlars appeared, African and Asian mainly, with miraculous supplies of inadequate little umbrellas and plastic ponchos. Deals were done. For myself, I was already prepared, having placed a compact poncho in my jacket pocket. It was a freebie from Easyjet (I think I filled in a questionnaire or something) and I’d never previously used it.
For two hours, I sat there. People went “ooh” when there was a particularly impressive lightning bolt in the sky. I was counting the seconds until the thunder arrived, of course. The speed of sound is around 330 kilometres per second, so a count of three means the strike was a kilometre away, and so on. The storm didn’t seem to be moving away at all.
Watching the rain wash the piazza, I saw a line of wet footballers slouching dispiritedly across the square between the umbrella’d and poncho’d tourists. I thought it was too early for the match to be over, and guessed they must have abandoned it.
I decided I’d wait until seven thirty, then brave the rains and find a pizzeria. Actually, I had to wait a little after, because some people sat down beside me exactly at that time. You can’t just get up and leave immediately, or they might be offended.
I got up and opened up my sealed poncho for the first time ever. It was thinner plastic than the ones which had been bought around me, but the Easyjet logo wasn’t too embarrassing. I put it on without putting my arms out the arm holes, and walked up to Borgo San Lorenzo, off the cathedral piazza, where I knew there were some economical pizzerias. Dining on pizza, even in Florence or Rome, is good value. This time, the pizza cost the same as in my village place, but the wine was twice as expensive.
When I’d finished the meal it was still raining. I had wanted to stay for the fireworks, but wasn’t prepared to tolerate the weather any more. I walked up to the station and caught the next train home.
Tuesday 25th June
I checked the news when I got up and confirmed that the Calcio Storico had indeed been abandoned, a replay planned. The article I found said that the pitch had become a “carpet of mud”, “un tappeta di fango”.
Last day. I started to pack. I kept expecting one of the family to turn up and say goodbye, or check the state of the premises, or ask what time I was leaving, but nobody approached me.
I took a walk through the village in the afternoon. Since I had arrived, workmen had been renovating an old woodland park in the deep ravine between the main village and the road up to Rivalto (the road does a tight hairpin around the ravine, and the pizzeria sits on the far side from the main village). The focus of the park is an old, ruined mill, now tidied up and safety-fied (although not in the extreme way it would be done in Britain).
There seemed to be no work going on and nobody present, giving me the chance to take an illicit survey by climbing over a drooping section of the red plastic safety barrier. From the first mill, there was a walk down the side of the valley to another, which I hadn’t been able to see from up above. Both must have used water power. At the upper one, there were remaining stone structures where the mill mechanism would have turned. These were discs of stone with drainage channels. I had had a flour mill in mind, but these were clearly for liquid purposes, presumably olive oil. (After all, wine is trampled.)
After dinner, when I used up most of my remaining food and wine, I took out a bag of empty bottles to the recycling bin down the village, and the carried on for one final look. It was dark by then, and very quiet, with only a few diners outside Le Vecchie Cantine, and only a few people at the two bars.
I came back and went down into Franco’s garden and looked out at the lights across the valley. It was beautiful, warm and windless. Fireflies flickered through Franco’s olive grove. A romantic and sentimental last night in Tuscany.
Wednesday 26th June
I’d worked out that I would have to leave at nine in order to get to the airport with acceptable contingency. In fact, I didn’t sleep well, and got up before the alarm. I took out the trash and did a final brush up to make sure the place was presentable. Of course, the owners will most likely never see me again — I could have left the place looking like a bomb scene — but that’s not my style. Presbyterian ethic.
I took the case out to the car, looking out for Franco to say goodbye, but there was no sign of him, and none of the house’s doors or windows were open. Eventually I rung the bell, and Mrs Franco, Anna, eventually appeared on the balcony. I hadn’t really talked to her since I arrived. I said I had to leave. She asked why. I said it was for my flight. She said she thought I was staying until Friday. That explained why there had been no interest in me the day before.
Franco was out, but I handed Mrs Franco the key and drove away forever.
The car rental company, Goldcar (of España) have a scam where they require you to pay for a tankful of fuel on hiring the car, and return it empty. It used to be the opposite arrangement with hire cars: you returned the car re-filled and thus didn’t have to pay them for the fuel. But some accountant probably worked out that cars would be coming back with enough residual fuel to make it a nice little earner.
In addition, they’d charged me 90 euros for the fuel, with no indication of how many litres that got me, and from the number of kilometres I’d done before the first warning light, I suspect it was a good bit more expensive than the garage prices.
All in all then, I was determined not to leave a generous amount of petrol when I returned the car. In fact, when I’d brought it home on the Monday, the warning light was on, and the “Range” reading was 55km. The airport was 48km away, and I thought I’d make it. The Fiat “Range” calculation is too volatile to be relied on, but the display still showed 55km when I set off.
However, less than ten minutes later, a chime sounded, and the car’s display showed an urgent low-fuel alarm. The Range reading changed immediately to “—“. I chickened out. Casciana was a short distance ahead, with several petrol stations, and I pulled in to the first one.
Most of the stations I came across in Italy have converted to automatic payment. There’s a machine next to the pumps which takes cash or plastic. When I stopped next to pump 3, there was a man at the machine, presumably the owner of the car ahead of me at pumps 1 & 2. He was using a credit card and looked a little uncertain, but he left the machine and went toward the pumps. I assumed he’d finished and went to take the turn.
The machine’s screen was saying “Select pump to be used” (in English) so I pressed “3”. It then said “Pump activated. Fill fuel as required.” That was when I realised that the confused gentleman had not completed his interaction with the machine, and that I had in effect hijacked his purchase to my pump. Since he’d been working the machine in English, I explained to him what had happened, and suggested that I quickly put in the ten euros that I needed, give him it in cash, and he could then start the process again, older but wiser. His English was perfect, but he had a slight accent. I think he may have been Dutch.
A rural idiot had pulled in his Ape right behind, sandwiching me between the two vehicles, but with some manoeuvering, I got the car between the two pump islands and out. I hadn’t lost too much time. The car was claiming its range was now 250 kilometres. Ten euros should only have got me less than 200. It was obviously a liar. However, it got me to the airport with no further distractions, and the Goldcar man quickly checked to see that I hadn’t wrecked his car and signed the sheet.
I walked to the terminal rather than use the shuttle bus, given that it’s only 450 metres. They’ve marked out the distances on the walkway so that you know how well you’re doing. Check-in was already open, but there was no queue, allowing me to dump my suitcase and head for the departure gate. The airport has a separate section of gates for non-Schengen departures (UK, Albania, Russia, and similar dodgy places) with a more spartan finish and no shops. Verona airport was like that too.
I decided that I was thirsty and that I’d buy a Coke, even though it was €2.50 from the machine. I put in my money and selected the number. The €2.50 credit flashed to zero, and the mechanism pushed out the bottle, which fell down and got wedged in another outlet further down. I kicked and shook the machine, but it was stuck. The place where it was wedged held bottles of mineral water, at €1.20 each. If I bought a bottle of water, the mechanism would cause both the Coke and the water to come out, I was pretty certain. At least I wouldn’t be down on the transaction, even though I’d be buying bottled water that I didn’t need.
But when I was about to put in more money, I saw that the credit figure had gone back to €2.50. The machine knew that it had failed to deliver my Coke! I put in the code for the mineral water, and both bottles came thudding down into the delivery tray. Then the machine clinked out €1.30 change. A win!
That, really was the highlight of the day. Air travel is tedious, and air travellers are the biggest herd of gormless cretins that you can meet. Seeing as this one was going to Belfast, it was worse than usual. Also, the “Summer” weather at the home end was very poor. My holiday was definitely over.