Under the Tuscan sun

Never lose your childish enthusiasm and things will come your way’ Een van my fav quotes uit die movie. Julle leef nou “in many directions’ – Laurette on ‘Under the Tuscan Sun

The kids had a mid-term break last week and we decided to head south, all the way south to the stunning idyllic and warm Tuscany in central Italy. Due to some work commitments, we had to drive via Munich, which added kilometers to the already packed itinerary, but to the bright side also added to the places to see. To get to Italy from Germany driving you have to go over/through and many kilometers under the Alps, with it’s majestic ‘chocolate box’ picturesque scenery of mountains, lakes, farmhouses and villages spread on the mountain slopes. Though the Austria scenery is well known to most people it’s well worth to note that the dolomites of the Italian side are in a certain sense more ‘stunning’. It’s rougher, more rugged by nature and scattered with vertical cliffs and rock face, as opposed to the green green grass slopes of the north face.

Since there was a long weekend in the week that we planned, I did book us accommodation for three nights, which meant we had options open for Tuesday, to find a suitable stopover. I’m never sure whether we are really lucky in stumbling upon these gems of destinations, or whether we are still just in awe with the variety and beauty of Europe, but once again I found a gem, the stunning little Riva del Garda on Lago di Garda (lake Garda for the language ‘slow’ readers). Riva is on the northern shore of the lake and reminded me very much of the Margate or Mosselbay type setup back home. Large caravan parks packed to the brim with campers, caravans or motorhomes while the rest of the town is scattered with holiday apartments, small hotels and trattorias, bars and coffeeshops.

A trattoria is less formal than a ristorante, but more formal than an osteria.

We popped in to the nearest trattoria enjoying the perfect weather under the clear skies (with daylight well after 21:00), as well as the very funny continuous conversation of an elderly Italian gentleman at the table next to ours, babbling along in Italian. He’s obviously been sitting there for a while, appreciating the ‘vino blanco’ and large heap of prawns, but hungry for conversation. It was a pity that we speak no Italian whatsoever, and he no English, nor Afrikaans. However, we chatted away and he made sure that the waitress looked after us. So beautiful was the evening that we strolled along the shore of the lake after dinner, had another glass of wine outside at another establishment as well as more coffee.

Coffee! Its probably worthwhile to spend a minute on the topic of coffee. In Europe coffee is generally good and you’ll never be disappointed with a brew. However, you need to know what you want when you order and where as most Saffas will frown when you order a coffee in Italy and you get half an espresso you will never be disappointed with the flavor.

The look of a great Italian brew
The tower provides all kinds of creative poses

While you’re in the vicinity of something great, you must use the opportunity and see it. This is why I decided to take a stunning scenic long road traversing the Apennine mountain range between Parma (yes, of the ham fame) and La Spezia on the Mediterranean and then tilt south to stop and lean over for a few photos and late lunch at the Tower of Pisa. Some things and places are just so well known that it’s difficult to say creative things about them, and that’s why I normally try not to state the obvious. However, some of these clichéd tourist destinations are so magnificent in grandeur and laced with history, that it would be a sin to brush them aside.Take the (obviously leaning) Tower of Pisa, for instance. Construction started on 8 August 1173! That’s 839 years ago! The tower was built in three stages over 177 years, and already began to sink and thus tilt during phase one of construction in 1178. This was due to a foundation of only three meters deep and soft soil underneath. I know a couple of civil engineers, and I hope you guys take note of this flaw; as the Bible also tells us, build on rock, not on sand! Fortunately war broke out, and the construction was stopped for nearly 100 years, which gave the soil time to settle before construction was continued. The slant today is 3.97° or 3.9 meters from the vertical. That is huge and clearly visible, and that exact fact is why, if you are in the vicinity, you simply have to tick this destination from your ‘to do’ list.

The tower to the Cathedral

The accommodation in Tuscany I found was through the Italian farm accommodation system ( www.agriturismo.net) in a restored farmhouse a few kilometers outside the small town of Panzano in Chianti called Agritur San Clemente.

Agritur San Clemente, our accommodation near Panzano for three nights

It’s a stunning huge house and we had it to ourselves! Arriving there after 22:00 proved a bit of a problem though, as the owner had our arrival for a month later, and thus the place was locked up and dead quite. I found his mobile number (cellphone for the guys back home) but this old Italian ‘omie’, though very nice and extremely helpful, does not speak one word of English (again nor Afrikaans!). I took comfort from his ‘pronto, pronto’ though and waited. He was there in an Italian efficient ‘pronto’ (not everything happens quickly in Italy, but when they drive, it does happen in a flash) and we could get into our accommodation. Communication from thereon was via his computer and Google translate though I did understand his question of ‘café?’ in the mornings.

Tuscany is not just beautiful yellow grain or purple lavender fields and stone farmhouses. Tuscany actually has stunning large areas of naturel forest and small mountain roads crisscrossing the entire province. The farmhouses are all architectural masterpieces in their own right and mostly built of rock. (Marita, you must come here and enjoy their inspiration, and we’ll join you!) The result of the forest being so well preserved is that there is also abundant wildlife left in Tuscany and driving at night is just as dangerous as in the bushveld of South Africa with especially wild boar (those wild boar Obelix are so fond of) being a major threat. After midnight, we heard a crash and looking out of the window saw that a car actually struck and killed a boar outside our house. The car sounded in pretty bad shape when the guy drove off and the dead boar was left next to the road. Not 15 minutes later three small cars pulled in and with the girls giggling after a night of partying they loaded the ‘road kill’ and drove off, some 130 kg of fresh ‘cinghiale’ for all those lovely Italian dishes.

The next day we explored some stunning little towns, including Volterra, which has a well preserved, walled old town and which is an important location in Stephenie Meyer‘s Twilight series. In the books, Volterra is home to the Volturi, a coven of powerful and ancient vampires. Fortunately we didn’t come across any of the Volturi! Maybe now I must try to watch one of these Twilight stories.

Strolling the streets of Volterra
Volterra street

We ventured all the way to the coast at Bibbona where my family even had a swim in the Mediterranean while I leisured on the beach.

And then there was Firenze. Firenze (Florence sounds so English for such a magnificent Italian city) is where the Duomo (third largest cathedral in the world) and the Ponte Vecchio (bridge) are the largest attractions, but the city in its entirety is something special. Due to its artistic and architectural heritage, it has been ranked as one of the most beautiful cities in the world and the city is noted for its history, culture, Renaissance art, architecture and monuments. The Palazzo Vecchio (or city hall) overlooks the Piazza della Signora and it’s in the entrance of the Palazza Vecchio where Michelangelo’s David stood from its completion in 1504 to 1873, when it was moved to the Accademia Gallery. We unfortunately we missed out to enter the Accademia Gallery due to the long queues. Some things I should definitely plan better in the future.

Ponte Vecchio, the old bridge arching over the Arno river in Firenze. Great pic Heleen

We did not miss out on the stunning views of Firenze from the Piazzale Michelangiolo on a small hill just outside the city though.

The Duomo in Firenze.
‘Dance me to the end of love’
While a few couples dance the night away, we enjoyed the stunning view of Firenze and Heleen really did good work with the photography

Heleen and I have been in Firenze together in 1994 and experienced one of those magical ‘wow’ winter Sunday afternoons then. After long hours of train travel in 1994, we headed out to this hill to just catch our breath. It was winter, cold and we have been backpacking through a very cold Europe for a few weeks already when we sat down on the steps, just enjoying the sunset over the stunning Firenze skyline with the Duomo standing out majestically from the rest of the city when a young guy started fiddling on his guitar and lazily singing along. Ever since that Sunday afternoon, Firenze has been a special memory for Heleen and me and I was a bit hesitant to spoil that with our visit now, in summer, with a family and driving up there in a car. It seemed so different. But the view was the same, the steps are the same and there were two guys producing acoustic music suited to the occasion as well. The steps filled up with people sitting around, sipping wine and listening, and my kids appreciated and enjoyed the moment just as much as we did, thus completing another memorable visit to Firenze.

Music on the steps

It was time to start heading home, but not before we enjoyed the tiny little town square (rather town corner) of our host town Panzano

Tuscan scenery of Panzano

and a stroll through the markets of Greve in Chianti. Chianti is the main wine producing area of Italy and though the general drinking wine in the day to day drinking price range from Italy is, in my taste, inferior to the Cape wines, when you fork out a few euros more, you do get the good stuff. I suppose it’s to be expected that they will have quality too, as they have hundreds of years more history and experience in this time consuming art of wine making. One of the other delicacies and products is the olives and it’s oils, and judging from the many many olive orchards on the hills, you can really tuck into into these, as they will not run out of stock any time soon.

A Panzano farmhouse

It was a long drive home and we broke it with a last treat of a sleepover in the little town Beckenreid on the Lake of Luzerne in Switzerland, which provide further stunning views of the Swiss lake and Alps amongst greenery and rain clouds.

It was a 3020 km trip safely completed in a five days. Just to put it in perspective, it’s the same distance as travelling to Cape Town and back from Pretoria. This, however, is through four different countries and enabled us to see highlights such as the Alps on the Swiss/Austrian side as well as the dolomite side of Italy, the stunning Lago di Garda, crossing the Apennines, venturing through much of Tuscany including Pisa, Firenze and smaller towns as well as the rural splendor of Tuscany and driving through many tunnels of which the longest was the 19.9km Gotthard tunnel.

We came to Europe to travel and see things. This was a great few days.