DAY 12 SAT The day had arrived which we had been both looking forward to and dreading; the day we were to leave Roma and collect our car. We caught the train to the airport and, after dragging our luggage here, there and everywhere, we eventually found the information office where we were to meet the Peugot representative.
The young man brought us our car and explained in great detail how we were to drive fifteen kilometres down the road, take the third turn on the left, drive to a service station, fill up the tank, then drive another fifteen kilometres to the Florence turnoff on the A1. He impressed upon us the absolute necessity of filling up the tank as soon as possible as the car came with only a few litres of diesel. I asked him what we should do if we ran out of petrol in Italy and he shrugged, threw his arms about in that charming Italian way (as if to suggest than only an imbecilio would run out of petrol) and suggested that running out of petrol would be most unwise.
It almost goes without saying that as soon as we drove out of the airport we became totally lost. Margaret directed me to take the first turn on the left and I, obedient driver that I am, complied. Fifteen then twenty kilometres passed without any sign of a petrol station. I became extremely tense as I watched the needle creep into the red while at the same time trying to heed Margaret’s frantic exhortations to keep to the right!! After some time we found that our wide road had degenerated into a narrow country lane leading into rather desolate countryside. I knew then that we weren’t going to find petrol, that we would roll to a halt miles from any habitation and be stuck in the wild with no idea at all of what to do. I should have had more faith. Margaret’s little wooden lucky cross came through again for as we crested a hill there appeared in the valley below an enormous petrol station. The relief was so overwhelming that I almost converted to Christianity on the spot.
The service station attendant was extremely helpful and produced three different maps so that he could guide us to the autostrada. That he was able to do so while speaking not a word of English was quite amazing. We drove off with renewed confidence and found the turnoff to Florence without any difficulty. You may believe this or not as you please, but when I looked over my shoulder at the top of the hill the petrol station and its attendant had vanished!
The 230 kilometres to San Piero a Sieve were hair-raising. I found it quite difficult to get used to the gear stick, which was on my right, and kept turning on the windscreen wipers instead of the indicators. We drove in the very, very slow lane at a snail-like 120kph behind pushbikes and large trucks and were amazed at the speed of the vehicles in the faster lanes. Every so often I would gather my courage and overtake a particularly slow truck. Margaret would become almost hysterical with fear and, on one occasion when I was overtaking a convoy of lorries, actually broke down in tears. From that point on she would close her eyes and pray for the suffering people in Kosovo.
Thanks to Margaret’s navigational abilities we found the turnoff to our Tuscan “villa” without too much trouble. The two kilometres of dirt road to the Trebbio Estate were very narrow and winding for much of its length and I was forced to change gears up and down constantly. I eventually learned that the best way to reach our cottage was to drive as quickly as possible so that I could stay in third gear. This meant fishtailing around blind corners and hoping like mad that there was no one coming the other way. I became quite comfortable with this manner of driving and even came to feel just a little Italian. Italians, I should explain, drive like this all the time.
Pergoletta, our “villa”, was a self-contained cottage on a hill with its own verandah overlooking the Sieve valley. Below us stretched rolling hills carpeted with green and brown fields. Nestled in a valley far away we could just make out the town of Borgo San Lorenzo.
As I write: Margaret is cooking pasta with materials bought during our visit to the little town of San Piero a Sieve. Home cooked pasta was to be our staple diet for the next few days
An aside: although people drive extremely fast on the autostrada they are generally very tolerant of those who do not. In Rome we saw that, while the traffic was chaotic and anarchic and contemptuous of the traffic laws (if there are any!), we were never in any danger of being run over. The key to survival on the road, whether a pedestrian or a motorist, is to be assertive. Luckily this is one of my most pronounced characteristics.
We ate our pasta in front of a roaring fire (more gently glowing than roaring, if the truth were told). The manageress of the estate had told us that we could use the fireplace as much as we liked though it would cost us an extra 18,000 lire. After our first night we preferred to wear warm clothing and save money.
DAY 13 SUN Today we decided to drive to Pisa because it didn’t appear to be all that far away and we felt that we deserved an easy day after our long drive from Rome. How naive! After a few minor difficulties we managed to get onto the autostrada and into the geriatric lane. Even though I reached 120kph at one stage we were never fast enough to move into the very fast lane, let alone the fast lane. We were both very tense. The speed limit was 130kph and in Australia we would have been cursing those timid souls who didn’t drive at the maximum. Italians are much more laid back and simply flash their lights and overtake you at twice the speed limit.
I had always considered Margaret to be a navigator without peer, however as we approached Pisa she insisted that we take the turnoff to Central Pisa instead of Pisa Nord as we had planned. Central Pisa was nowhere near the Leaning Tower, so we parked in a convenient spot on Via Amerigo Vespuggi and caught the bus to Pisa Nord.
I was overawed by the Leaning Tower of Pisas; the smallest ones cost 3,000 lire whilst the most impressive, at 20,000 lire, came in the form of a lamp. Margaret would only let me buy a little one. Of added interest was the famed tower itself, which I predicted would fall over on the stroke of midnight on either 31/12/99 or 31/12/00. The leaning tower, duomo (or should that be Duomo?) and various other historical buildings were gathered together in a fenced-off square, almost as though the town fathers had decided to create a theme park so that they could sell various combinations of tickets to various combinations of buildings.
We didn’t buy any tickets and simply wandered around taking the obligatory snaps. After half an hour we returned to the bus stop where we found that we could not buy biglietti as all the tobacconists were shut for the Sabbath. With increasing desperation we walked around and around the tourist stalls trying unsuccessfully to find a ticket seller. Finally I made a decision. We would catch the bus without a ticket! There was a bus standing at the bus stop, destination Livorno. Although it was not a number 3 or 9 bus, I assumed that Livorno was a suburb of Pisa and made another decision. We hurried on board, Margaret muttering her misgivings while I tried to maintain my rapidly crumbling facade of decisiveness. It didn’t take long for us to realise that we were not heading towards our car but rather out of town and into the countryside.
Some distance from Pisa the bus stopped for the first time to allow a group of gipsies to disembark. They were a particularly wild and grubby lot and the wildest and grubbiest vagabond paused on the steps and launched into a fierce and mainly incomprehensible diatribe against the NATO action in Kosovo. I could only make out bits of his harangue, which included references to Cleenton and English peegs (apparently directed towards the passengers at the back of the bus who were obviously English tourists from Liverpool or St Albans). He was standing right in front of me and I feared that at any moment he would hawk a gob of spittle in my face. Fortunately he terminated his speech with a violent and obscene Italian gesture and leapt from the bus. As the bus pulled back on the road the people at the back, who had been dead silent, erupted into outraged chatter. “Well I never!” “Did you hear that!” “What a cheek!”
We drove on through the countryside and didn’t stop again until, more than half an hour later, we reached the outskirts of Livorno. Livorno, we soon discovered, was a very large town on the western coast of Italy. It was not the sort of place we would have considered visiting voluntarily as it appeared to boast no attractions whatsoever and, furthermore, was just plain ugly. We found the bus terminus and bought tickets back to Pisa. A helpful and loquacious expatriate African-American told us which bus we should catch for the quickest journey (we would have taken the one which drove to Pisa via the coast and took ninety minutes longer). The bus was very stuffy and hot so Margaret opened a window. After a few minutes the mustachioed woman in front of us closed it and proceeded to turn up the collar of her coat and shiver theatrically.
On the way back I realised to my horror that my driver’s licence was still packed away in my suitcase. Not only had I travelled without a bus ticket, I had driven without my licence! Margaret was disappointingly unenthusiastic when she learned that she was going to have to drive from Pisa to our villa . I was rather excited. Instead of trying to learn to drive safely and correctly by following her many tips I would be able to see how a competent driver actually drove! Although she later claimed to have been frozen with terror for the entire trip she turned out to be a natural right-side-of-the-road driver and elicited only a very few screams from her passenger. The only time she showed any panic was when she had to make a turn at short notice and slammed on the windscreen wipers instead of the indicators.
We arrived back at the villa without a dent and before dark even though my poor navigating skills had led us to drive aimlessly around Pisa before we were able to find the autostrada. It took beer, wine, coffee, beer and wine to loosen the iron bands around our heads. A short walk up the lane surrounded by the beautiful Tuscan countryside calmed us down somewhat and a chat with the equine parents of a young foal returned us to our normal state of tranquillity.
As I write: From our balcony we can hear the call of a cuckoo in the distance. A large green lizard is basking on the rocks nearby and the tiny birds in the trees below our villa are beginning their nightly twitter.
DAY 14 MON After the stress of driving to Pisa yesterday we decided to catch the bus to Florence. We parked the car in what we hoped was a free parking spot in the main street of San Piero a Sieve and caught a very comfortable coach from a nearby bus stop. It goes without saying that we had learned our lesson and bought four tickets to cover our return journey.
We felt much more relaxed now that we were relieved of the stress of driving, though our tension levels rose again when we stopped at a roadblock and were boarded by an armoured, machine gun-toting carabinieri. If he had asked to see our passports it would have been curtains for us as I had left them back at the villa.
Once in Florence we headed straight for the Duomo. The great domed church, with its black and white striped marble walls and spires, was an imposing, magnificent edifice. Inside I found the church to be fairly plain and the usual assortment of old paintings and stuff was hard to see in the perpetual gloom. I stood in a long queue for half an hour in the hope of ascending to the dome but lost patience and climbed to the top of the nearby bell tower instead. Reaching the top of the tower almost killed me, though the view of Florence and the ant-like tourists in the piazza far below made the suffering worthwhile. Getting to the top of the Leaning Tower of Pisa was a lot easier, though quite illegal.
Margaret had wisely waited for me on the steps of the Duomo and supported me as I staggered from the piazza. Once amongst the stalls of the local markets I was on my own again as she fluttered from one leather goods stall to another. Much to her delight she found a woollen scarf (shawl?) of the type she had been looking for since 1982. It was even better than the one she had bought in Pisa the day before. I, on the other hand, had only managed to purchase an antique oil lamp of doubtful authenticity and a small but charming statue of the Leaning Tower (possibly by Bernini). We ate a very satisfying lunch of pasta and beer at a trattoria where we were waited upon by a young lady from Elizabeth Bay. The museum housing the famous statue of Tim David was unaccountably closed for the day so we decided to return on the morrow and visit both the museum and the Ponte Vecchio.
I had always prided myself on my instinctive ability to find my way around strange towns but on this day my gift had deserted me. Despite Margaret’s scepticism I insisted that we trudge down an endless street which, according to the map, would take us back to the station. I was trying to be assertive and to demonstrate the power of my internal compass and overrode Margaret’s fear that we were heading away from our destination. I was wrong. Margaret was right. I was 52 years old and losing my faculties.
We had taken the bus to avoid getting lost but once we had collected the car in San Piero a Sieve we got lost. This is a slight exaggeration, we just couldn’t find the right turnoff on the roundabout. Eventually we found our villa and spent the remainder of the day sipping beers. In the early evening I decided that I simply had to walk down through the field at the end of the lane to the creek at the bottom of the valley. This entailed struggling through waist high grass and maneating thorny bushes as well as avoiding (unsuccessfully) concealed creeks and marshes. When I reached the bottom it was all ..... not worth it.
DAY 15 TUE This was to prove our least stressful day since leaving Rome. We caught the bus to Florence then walked through the narrow streets to the Ponte Vecchio where we spent five or six hours looking at overpriced jewellery. The Ponte Vecchio is an ancient bridge across the Arno which looks very picturesque from a distance, being one of only a few surviving bridges to be lined with shops. Centuries ago the shops were inhabited by butchers who would throw their offal into the river. The city fathers of long ago decided that this was unhygienic and replaced the butchers with jewellers, a bad decision as far as I was concerned. Margaret tried very hard to find something to buy but failed, whereas I was able to purchase a keyring celebrating the hundredth anniversary of Mussolini’s birth. The stallholder, probably a communist, was shocked that I would desire such an object and grilled me mercilessly to determine my motivation. “Whatta fora you buya this thingorino?”
A short walk took us to the Academy of Very Interesting Statues where we saw the Very Famous Statue of David. What a strapping lad! Margaret reckoned he was the perfect man, however I thought his manly attributes were not particularly remarkable. He had disproportionably large hands which disproved the old saying “big hands, big .....”. I took a picture of his bum which was firm and gently rounded though cold to the touch.
After a couple of beers at a nearby trattoria we walked back to the bus station. Following the previous day’s fiasco Margaret led the way and, to my mortification, led us straight to our destination. We still had trouble finding the correct bus stop as each bus company had its stop in a different place. Though we had arrived on the CAP bus we were catching the SITA bus home and it took us quite a while to find the SITA terminal, located as it was on the far side of the huge piazza.
At 5.30pm we were taken on a guided tour of our local castle. Our guide was Lorenzo, the current owner of the Trebbio Estate. There was something just a little bizarre about Lorenzo. He was obviously rich, sophisticated and upper class but had no eyebrows and wore a smart blue blazer marked by dribble stains. We sat down in the garden with our fellow guests to hear Lorenzo give a detailed history of Trebbio Castle and its builder, Catherine de Medici. At question time I embarrassed Margaret by asking if the holes in the castle walls were primitive toilets. I reckon they were but Lorenzo, who obviously hadn’t given them any thought, claimed they were merely drainage holes. We only got to see the courtyard inside the castle itself before being led into the medieval kitchen and offered biscuits and Lorenzo’s own famous red wine. We couldn’t help but notice that while we were sipping the tourist plonk Lorenzo was quaffing from a much more impressive bottle.
After our tour Margaret phoned several hotels in Padua to book our stay in that fair city. All were full.
As I write: I can’t wait to read the next few pages of this diary to learn whether we found a hotel or were forced to sleep in the car
DAY 16 WED Our experiences driving to Pisa led us to book a day tour to San Gimignano and Sienna from Florence. This proved to be a wise decision. The coach trip was very relaxing and our young female guide a mine of information. Our fellow passengers were the usual mix of nationalities with a preponderance of Spaniards. Fortunately, or perhaps unfortunately, our guide was multilingual and gave her commentary first in English and then in Spanish. Unlike our bus tour to Sorrento we formed no short-term friendships and had no intercourse, social or otherwise, with the other people on the bus.
Our first sight of San Gimignano perched in medieval splendour on top of a hill was one of the most exciting experiences of our trip so far. The old town boasts thirteen towers, each erected by a prominent family centuries ago to advertise their importance. There had been many more towers at one time but most had fallen or been pulled down. The bus dropped us at the town gate and left us with half an hour to explore the narrow streets. Motor traffic was banned within the town walls which created a medieval ambience spoiled only by the rows of souvenir shops and gelato bars. We strolled around together for a while before I left Margaret to her own devices and walked up a steep street to the old fort with its sweeping views of the Tuscan hills and the overwhelmingly brown rooftops of the town.
Onward to Sienna. At this point I will drop the English spelling and use the original Italian which, according to my t-shirt, is Siena. Siena was even more beautiful than San Gimignano. This was how we had pictured Italy back in the sunburnt country. Our bus guide left us to our own devices in the large square in the middle of town. Il Campo is a very large shell-shaped piazza surrounded by old shops, old apartment buildings and even older government buildings. In August each year hundreds of Tuscany’s wealthier citizens rent the balconies of the apartment houses and thousands of less wealthy people congregate in the middle of the square to experience the famous horse race of Siena.
We strolled around the piazza examining the souvenir stalls then explored the cobbled streets before pausing at a fast food restaurant for a surprisingly good pizza. A second guide, this one even more animated than her predecessor, met us at Il Campo and led us around the city pointing out significant buildings and expounding on the colourful history of Siena, Florence and Tuscany in general. It seems that Florence and Siena were archrivals during the fourteenth century and that rivalry continues in a much-diluted form to this day. Marriage between a young man from Florence and a young girl from Siena is still considered to be not quite the done thing, and marriage between a young woman from Florence and a young man from Siena is seen as just as bad.
Siena, not unexpectedly, boasted a famous duomo which was larger than the average house of God. Apparently it had originally been planned that the church would be even bigger than St Peter’s in Rome, however God’s representatives in the Vatican were not pleased and God himself expressed his displeasure by introducing the Black Plague to the area and killing most of the artisans. The black and white striped marble duomo which was eventually built is an impressive edifice nonetheless and contains a room covered with frescoes which look like they were painted yesterday.
The Church of St Domenico was plain both inside and out but made up for its lack of aesthetic appeal by boasting a bejewelled tabernacle housing the slowly decomposing head of St Catherine of Siena. A midnight visit by the formalin injectors was obviously called for if the miraculously preserved relic was to continue to lure the tourists.
We arrived back in Florence just ten minutes before our bus to San Piero a Sieve was due to leave. This had been the first day since leaving Rome that we hadn’t got lost or had to spend valuable time finding a bus stop. I wanted to stay for the communist uprising which was being held opposite the railway station (lots of placard-waving reds and scores of riot police) but we couldn’t afford to miss the bus.
Back in San Piero we walked down every street in town looking for a place to buy bread and cheese, only to learn that all San Piero’s shops were closed on Wednesdays. Margaret booked us accommodation in the youth hostel in Padua but reconsidered on learning that we would be sleeping in segregated dormitories. Her attempt to book a room in the hostel at Montagnana were frustrated by the inability of the manager to speak English. As Margaret’s Italian was even worse than mine (!) we were forced to ask Marzia from the Trebbio Estate to do the booking for us.
DAY 17 THU Today was to have been the day we visited Assisi but we decided that it wasn’t worth driving almost back to Rome just to visit the hometown of my favourite saint. Instead we drove to Borgo San Lorenzo, the nearest large town to San Piero. We didn’t see a single tourist while exploring the streets in search of bread, cheese and wine and felt almost like real Italians visiting real Italian shops and consorting with real Italian shoppers. Shop service is often rather slow in Italy. As we waited in the bread shop we saw a collision between two cars just outside the shop, and, long before it was our turn at the counter, the arrival and departure of an ambulance.
Having bought our provisions we walked in ever-increasing circles looking for the Post Office so that we could consult a Verona phone book. In most countries we have visited the Post Office is in the centre of the city. In Tuscany this is not the case, and we eventually found it at the end of a dirt road on the edge of town. We had wasted our time as we couldn’t find a phonebook for Borgo San Lorenzo itself, let alone Verona.
At the beginning of the two kilometre rough dirt road to our villa we were hailed by some well-dressed people who asked us to drive them up to the castle. As we wound our way up the narrow road we passed another dozen well-dressed people sweating their way up the hill in the oppressive heat. They had apparently been dropped off at the entrance to the estate by their tour bus, which could not possibly have navigated the hairpin bends. Our passengers jeered their less fortunate companions as we passed but were quickly reduced to fearful whimpers as I took the first bend at high speed, a manoeuvre necessitated by the wide space between second and third gears.
After a quick cup of coffee in our villa we drove further up the gravel road and into the countryside beyond the castle. The “road” was only wide enough for one car and we were lucky to encounter only one, a Land Cruiser, before we reached the highway. The procedure when meeting a car coming the other way on a one-lane road is fairly simple. Both cars accelerate on sight and, at the last possible moment, veer off into the undergrowth. In Australia horns would be hammered and oaths uttered. In America gunfire would be exchanged. In Italy the drivers wave, smile and swerve back onto the road.
We were anxious to find a picturesque and romantic spot to picnic and were thrilled to find San Giovanni in Petroio, an eleventh century church perched on a hill overlooking a beautiful valley. Unfortunately it was locked up and there was nowhere to spread our blanket and we were forced to continue down the road. A little further on we came to a short section of road overlooking a spectacular panorama of the Tuscan countryside far below. There was still no place to lay our blanket down so we drove to the end of the gravel road and back to the villa via a very modern but totally deserted highway.
After all that country driving we ended up sitting in a grove of trees under the imposing bulk of our castle, lying on a blanket in the grass sipping the local wine and eating our lunch while watching two pregnant mares and their foals grazing in the paddock below.
As I write: I can hear the sound of thunder from the direction of Florence. A white haze is drifting slowly towards us from Borgo San Lorenzo. The gardener has just finished whipper-snippering every blade of grass on the estate and silence has descended once again. Almost. In the field at the bottom of the valley a tractor labours back and forth across the brown Tuscan earth, its engine a muted roar.
DAY 18 FRI Our excursion to Fiesole started with the usual hiccup. I had planned to take the scenic route, which started, on the other side of Borgo San Lorenzo but, after driving all the way through town (no mean feat in itself) we were unable to find the road. While I filled the car with diesel Margaret asked directions of the attendant who, not surprisingly, didn’t speak a word of English. Another customer suggested we follow him as he was on his way to Florence. The route he took was one we had taken several times before and we could have done without his services, though we appreciated his willingness to help.
Our guide was very considerate, maintaining a speed on the narrow road which for him must have been painfully slow. For us it was like driving down Bulli Pass at ninety kilometres per hour. When we came to a lay-by he pulled over and told us with much gesticulation that we should take the next turn on the left. We shook hands and he sped off at a vastly increased speed.
Fiesole was a small town on a hill overlooking the vast spread of Florence. There were comparatively few tourists around (we had beaten the busses) and we had no trouble finding a parking spot. A long and arduous trek up a steep lane took us to the highest point of town where we visited the church and museum of St Francis (San Francesco). On the way down the hill we paused in the Park of the Rinenbraza to marvel at the 180o panoramic view of Florence and the rolling Tuscan Hills.
The duomo, a plain but very large building, was covered in scaffolding and closed to the public, so we made our way to the Municipal Museum to see its famous collection of Etruscan, Roman and medieval broken crockery. Just outside the museum was the Zona Archeologico (Roman theatre and baths as well as a number of ruins, which were completely unidentifiable). Our ticket also included entry to the art gallery which was so small that we were in and out within five minutes.
A short visit to the pre-tenth century be-frescoed Church of S. Maria Primerana pretty well exhausted the attractions of Fiesole (Fee-ess-o-lee) and, after a beer and snack, we returned to the car.
Despite Margaret’s navigational gifts we somehow missed the narrow street which would have taken us back to San Piero and found ourselves, horror of horrors, being drawn inexorably into the centre of Florence. We both became extremely tense, but with an amazing burst of Columbus-like navigating Margaret found a tiny street which led us in the right direction. Ironically we found ourselves on the very scenic route for which we had been searching at the beginning of the day. The road was a ribbon of grey across the pine-treed hills, the moon was a ghostly galleon, tossed upon cloudy shore, and the Cullises came driving, driving up to the villa door.
I may have mentioned earlier that we found Italians in general to be maniacs on the road. I may have also mentioned that we found them to be very polite and tolerant behind the wheel. Today we encountered our first rude Italian driver, a woman who maintained her road rage for many kilometres. It all started on the outskirts of Florence when we were trying to find our way out. Apparently I was driving too slowly for the lady behind who tooted her horn repeatedly and shouted what were probably obscenities. Once out of the city she roared past us then abruptly slowed down to 40kph, waving both hands wildly and swearing soundlessly into her rear vision mirror.
Once safely back at La Pergoletta I set about washing our car. Each drive down the unpaved Trebbio lane added another coat of dust and I thought it would be nice to leave Tuscany in a shiny blue car rather than a filthy yellow one. The water pressure from the hose was no more than a trickle and my “chamois” was a tiny dishcloth. It was rather like trimming the lawn with nail scissors.
I had known of the existence of the communal swimming pool since we arrived, but only on this, our last day, did I become obsessed with taking a dip. How could I live with myself back in Sydney if I hadn’t swum in the castle pool? I trekked along a rudimentary track across the field below the castle, disturbing a family of quail which fluttered without much urgency from my path. The pool was warm, and after surreptitiously scanning the houses nearby for oglers, I dived in. Heaven! Even the dead lizard on the bottom could not detract from my pleasure. Why had I left it till the last day?