The Italian Job 2 : ‘Veni, vidi, procedo’ (sic)

From the previous post;

And once we’ve accomplished that satisfactory happiness, slowly and hesitantly we turned our back on the beautiful ‘five towns’ (Cinque Terra) and the natural beauty linking them and headed for the famous leaning tower, the captivating Florence and the awe inspiring, history rich and fine cuisine of Tuscany and Amalfi.

The leaning Tower of Pisa
The leaning Tower of Pisa


One of the great joys of traveling through Italy is discovering firsthand that it is, indeed, a dream destination. – Debra Lavinson


To have the privilege to sleep in a country guest house, rather than in a hotel room, (or two-man tent for that matter), to eat and be pampered through a five course dinner specially prepared for your little group, and all this in the stunning, idyllic, sought after, much talked about, written about, and filmed about Tuscan countryside, remains in my mind one of the highlights of my now already three year long European sojourn.

And this pampering I furthermore had the privilege to share with my family on my son’s 16th birthday and very very good friends from South Africa. That was good.

Andrea, the owner and restaurateur par excellance of Tenuta Il Verone near Florence, Tuscany with the competent help of Nilce, his Argentinian girl friend is busy establishing a commendable guest house 30 kilometers outside of Florence with a beautiful view over the surrounding countryside. They do, however specifically excel when they cater and serve. Starting with the traditional ‘Prosciutto crudo’ and melon platter, I soon realized I must keep my glass full of chianti’s finest red, go slow on each course of the meal as to enable myself to really get the best of the best of what this evening is promising to become. Not just the quantity promised to intimidate us, but the quality, the tastes, flavours and textures too was going to educate us tonight; ‘keep calm De Wet and go slow!’

After the platter of exquisite prosciutto we were presented with Andrea’s striking…… PENNE pasta dish followed by a exquisite chicken and vegetable dish. The wine was good and flowing, the food excellent and in abundance and I was getting really relaxed when Andrea entered with the most intimidating T-bone steak I have seen for quite a while. Note that I am South African; we are not easily intimidated by good steak, and I have had the best of the best Argentina and Uruguay could offer in terms of their famous ‘bifo de chouriso’, but this one was right up there with those world renowned ones. By the time that plate of steak was empty, I can vaguely recall that there was dessert and good Italian strong small coffee, but I could not remember the detail as the meat, yes the meat! Dimmed all further taste-bud senses. I do however remember that we still had the most interesting and friendly after dinner chat with Andre and Nilce. Thanx again you two, the stay at Tenuta Il Verone was one of the highlights. But, as is often the case with traveling, the real highlight is that we made some great new friends, in the heart of Tuscany, even through we communicate in a haphazard way, mostly through my daughter’s Spanish to Andrea’s Italian and Nilce’s Portuguese. That is one of the things that make traveling so fantastic!

Tenuta Il Verone is a gem in the Tuscan countryside worth discovering. Book dinner!
Tenuta Il Verone is a gem in the Tuscan countryside worth discovering. Book dinner!
Classic Tuscany
Classic Tuscany
Deep thinkers
Deep thinkers

And then came Praiano, in the heart of the Amalfi coast.

A week of bliss, scenic splendor and relaxation heaven, complete with dinners on cliff edges, swimming of the side of boats in the Mediterranean, canoeing into caves and early morning coffee and stuff with good conversation spanning from Koos du Plessis through to ‘what’s for dinner tonight!’

The Amalfi coast truly is one of the ‘must some day visit’ destinations of the world. The more famous Positano lies 18km further up the road from Praiano and yes, obviously we did visit Positano, walked the little streets and enjoyed the beach and sun. I will never ever say you can skip Positano, as it’s a must see in the same vane as is the Eiffel Tower, the leaning Tower of Pisa or even the Spanish Steps. But I do love finding the lesser-traveled roads and that slightly off the beaten track destinations which is not the mainstream, obvious tourist traps where you hear more English than Italian, for example. And though Praiano is still a very touristy and busy little town (just try to find casual parking!), it is slightly less crowded and more authentic than Positano. Think Fouriesburg over Clarence, think Bacharach over Rudesheim and think Hautvillers over Epernay and you’ll get my drift. That is exactly what Heleen found when she found and booked our stunning accommodation in Praiano, complete with ‘stoep’ (veranda) high on the mountain cliffs with its magnificent view over the Mediterranean, morning, noon and night, nogal! I mean, its here, in Praiano where I visited my first real Italian barber, complete with cutthroat old-fashioned razor and shaving cream (watch my short video). I can admit now that I was probably carefully scared, since I have seen many movies where these visits to the cutthroat barber turn out bloody, but I was okay, maybe because in the small-talk kick-off it came out that I was South African, and Senor Tomasso was a huge Gerrie ‘seer handjies’ Coetzee fan. Gerrie Coetzee was a successful South African heavy weight boxer in the early eighties.

The most beautiful Italian drive
The most beautiful Italian drive

One the must do’s on the Amalfi coast is to rent a boat for a day and visit the Isle of Capri! Yes, the island of the infamous student song ‘it was the Isle of Capri where I met here, ….’ and the non-repeatable rest. What this day on the boat offers is just simply a blissful and relaxing day in the sun, with friendly chatter, every now and then a dive and swim in the blue blue water and a visit to the Grotta Azzura or Blue Caves. A casual lunch in Marina Grande and then more casual sailing back with stops and swimming to wake up your appetite for the evening’s social ‘kuiers’ around the dinner table. I think these type of relaxing holidays are made better by the company you have and mine was just perfect.

Scenic splendour
Scenic splendour

And then there’s the drive! I can proudly say that I have driven the Amalfi coast in high season’.

National Geographic’s travel site introduces this drive as ‘The Costiera Amalfitana, or Amalfi Coast, is widely considered Italy’s most scenic stretch of coastline, a landscape of towering bluffs, pastel-hued villages terraced into hillsides, precipitous corniche roads, luxuriant gardens, and expansive vistas over turquoise waters and green-swathed mountains. Deemed by UNESCO “an outstanding example of a Mediterranean landscape, with exceptional cultural and natural scenic values,” the coast was awarded a coveted spot on the World Heritage list in 1997.’ They then go further to summarise with the description ‘The roads along the Amalfi Coast are famously winding, narrow, and challenging to drive. Add in drop-dead views and daring Italian drivers, known for their behind-the-wheel bravado, and this road trip offers one of the more exciting driving experiences in Europe.’ I think ‘daring’ is a soft word for the Italian drivers, especially the ones on their world-renowned scooters. Suicidal is probably a more accurate word, but it does add to the sheer enjoyment of driving while trying to catch a glimpse of the glorious scenery and in the same time keeping an eye out for the scooters and large busses that will simply push you off the road. On busy weekend days, they actually have road assistants who will try to guide the traffic (though the adherence of the motorists are very very low) and even help to adjust your vehicle’s side mirrors so that the vehicles can pass each other.

I say again, I have driven the Amalfi coast, in high season!

As wonderful as was the superb Cinque Terra, Tuscany and Amalfi, so disappointing was Rome. Make no mistake, Rome is a wonderful city, with so many awe inspiring historical sites and stories to get lost into. But it still was extremely disappointing to be exploited by the hospitality industry where its deemed standard practice to charge a 17% service fee, or when you order a beer and just want a beer, you are presented with a liter of beer at 18 € each. At 17% service fee, you pay more for that than what the average person’s meal and drink costs. And this service fee is not even the tip to the waiter, which creates that little ethical dilemma of true service versus fixed restaurant added cost before paying the service fee. They are very friendly in luring you into their osterias but once you’ve had your meal, you’re in for the surprise. The service fee is a fixed percentage added to the bill and which is payable to the restaurant (not the waiter), because you ate there. We had good waiters every time, and who added to the whole dinner or lunch experience with their jokes, mockeries and good service and who deserved their tip, which just means that dining out end on an exorbitantly expensive sour note every time. Watch out in Rome, someone who looks friendly, will eventually stab you in the back!

But for the rest of Italy, it is ‘magnifico, superbo, maestoso e grandioso!’ Go and travel the coasts and Tuscan rural areas at leisure and stop often, to grab a macchiato!

Stop often, find a spot with a view, sit down and chat and think
Stop often, find a spot with a view, sit down and chat and think

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 ( 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.